Tarrin Kael

Pyrosian Chronicles

Book One

Axe of the Dwarven King©

by James Galloway (aka Fel)

 

 

 

 

Table of contents

 

Title    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    10    11    12    13    14    15    16

End of Axe of the Dwarven King

 


To:       Title                EoF    

Chapter 1

 

      It was, quite simply, the most wonderful present he had ever received.

      The house was absolutely everything he had ever wanted in a house.  It was a four story affair, comfortably large but not outrageously spacious, with the top and bottom floors being an open attic and a compartmented cellar.  That left two floors for living space, but that was more than enough.  The house faced east, faced Aldreth, and it let those on the porch enjoy a sunrise, as those inside could look through the large windows that faced west and watch the sunset.  The ground floor was dominated by a large living room that ran from the front of the house to the back, complete with large windows on the rear wall and a glass-paned door that opened to a large deck built on the back of the house, even larger than the deck-like porch that was built at its front.  This large living space was divided into a parlor-like area on the north side and a large dining table on the south, a table that could easily seat fifteen people, a table that took up almost all the floor space on that side of the house.  There was a fireplace on either side of the large windows and door that led outside, and the stairs leading up to the second floor were just off the entry foyer, running up towards the north side of the house.  A passage leading from the dining room held a single small door on its right side that opened into a small privy-like chamber that held nothing but a device called a toilet.  It worked just as a privy did, but instead of waste dropping into a midden, letting the smell waft up the same way, this device used water to flush waste into a pipe that led out of the house.  Running water refilled the tank that served as a resevoir for the water, creating a way for the house's inhabitants to relieve themselves without having to go out to an outhouse, that also wouldn't stink up the house.  The large room that occupied the north side of the house, under the stairs going up, and just down a very wide, short passage, was the kitchen, a very large kitchen complete with shelves and cabinets and two--two--Tellurian stoves that could burn either wood or coal, which made cooking much easier.  And just in case he wanted to cook over an open fire, there was also a large fireplace with fixtures for kettles or spits in the hearth, as well as a bread oven just under the mantle, for baking bread or keeping items warm after cooking.  The stairs down to the cellar were in the kitchen, just beside a small pantry closet, and there was a larger pantry on the other side of the entrance to the kitchen for storing foodstuffs or cooking utensils.  The most fascinating part of the kitchen, however, was the sink, complete with running water that poured from a strange brass spigot-like device called a faucet.  There were two knobs for that thing, one that caused cold water to pour out, and one that caused steaming hot water to pour out.

      The other side of the ground floor, also separated from the living area by a passage, was the largest bedroom in the house, which was the domain of the master of the house.  It was just as large as the kitchen, dominated by a bed so large and long that it looked about large enough to fit a Troll, and it was probably one of the most comfortable beds that ever existed.  Leaving no comfort overlooked, the bed's headboard was filled with small shelves for holding small items that the user of the bed may want near, but not want to have to reach out of the bed to a nightstand to retrieve.  That massive four-poster bed, built on a poster bed's frame but without the posters and curtains, sat squarely in the center of the floor against the south wall, and all the other furniture in the bedroom was arranged around this dominating centerpiece.  To each side of it was a small night stand, and a a large brass-bound chest sat at its foot.  On the west wall, just to the left of a large bay window, was a huge writing desk, complete with a small brass lamp-like device that glowed with soft magical light whenever it was touched, a place for someone who had a great deal of correspondence to have a good place to conduct business.  The large cherrywood desk had numerous drawers both under the surface and on a shelf of sorts that was built on the back of the desk, where the drawers and shelves were much smaller, meant for tiny things that one wouldn't want to put in a big drawer and risk them getting lost.  On the other side of that bay window was another desk-like table, but this one had a mirror on the back of the desk.  It was called a vanity, a piece of furniture that was rather unnecessary, but then again, the giver of the house and all the furniture within was a woman, and a woman would consider such a thing an critical element to any properly furnished bedroom.  There was a large window on the east side of the house as well, but it was not a bay window, but it too served to separate furniture.  To the left of that window was a large bureau, a standing closet of sorts with drawers underneath a large open space where things could be hung off small wooden hangers.  To the right was a very large piece of furniture that was nothing but drawers, a thing called a dresser.  Quite an odd name.  It was made of cherrywood, as everything in the room was, and its many drawers were designed to hold clothes that wouldn't be damaged if they were folded up and stuck inside them.  Underneath it all was a massive soft blue carpet, that took up the entirety of the floor, from wall to wall.  Blue was the motiff of the room, aside from the reddish furniture, and those two colors seemed to meld in a curiously pleasing fashion.  There were paintings to each side of the bed, the one on the left of a fox-Wikuni woman with a wry, almost amused expression on her face, and the other of a ethereal, breathtakingly beautiful Selani woman dressed in her desert garb.  Over the bed's headboard was a third painting, that of a handsome woman with a blond braid as thick as a man's wrist and an attractive aging man with a bit of gray in his short-cropped dark hair, both of them with a hand on the younger figure before them.  That figure was of  a young dark-haired girl with a pretty face and an expression of wisdom beyond her years.  There was a tapestry on the wall just to the side of the door leading in of a huge blue dragon, and a pedestal to the other side held a small black metal cat statue atop it, as if it were being kept in a prominent place of honor to display its beauty.  Behind and above that pedestal was another painting, one of an exceedingly handsome woman with an expressionless mask, who had strange cat-like ears poking out of a head of tawny hair.  Though it was only a painting, it seemed to radiate strength, as if the strength of the woman's image who was captured on canvas was so powerful that even her likeness radiated it.  On the wall with the door, to each side of those impressive pieces of art, were two other doors.  One led to a very large closet of sorts with room to hang enough clothes for ten people.  The other door led to what had to be the most luxurious feature in the house, a bathing room.

      It was just like what he remembered from Wikuna.  A large room decorated with colored tiles, which formed a shaeram on the far wall when one walked in.  Against the left wall was a toilet like the one in the small privy-like room that stood off from the passage leading to the kitchen.  It operated using running water just like the other one, flushing waste down a pipe and out of the house.  There was a large sink just past it, a sink that also had hot and cold running water running from a faucet that looked almost silver, it was so shiny.  There was a large mirror over the sink.  Behind the sink, taking up the entire back wall, was the bathtub.  It was a monstrous affair, easily capable of holding three people, oval in shape and deep enough to drown a small child if it was filled with water.  It too had running water, running from a huge faucet that rose in an elegant arch over the bathtub's rim to pour down inside it.  There was a drain in the bottom that one could close off by flipping a small lever just under the faucet, a clever mechanical addition to make things much easier.  On the right wall was a small bureau of sorts for holding bathing supplies, such as soap or towels.

      The upstairs was divided into eight rooms separated by a passageway that ran up the center of the the floor.  Each room was equally large, separated by its partner by a closet.  Each room had its own closet.  Each room was decorated slightly differently, but all of them held a large bed, nightstands, a dresser, a chest at the foot of the bed, a writing desk, and a large bureau.  The furniture in each room was of a different wood, and the carpets and decorations in the rooms were different colors, following different styles.  At the far end of the hallway was a split, each side passage only a pace or two long.  The left branch led to a single door, and the right split ran up into a very steep set of stairs leading to the attic.  That single door led to another bathroom, though it was not nearly as spacious or luxurious as the one in the master bedroom.  It had a toilet, sink, and bathtub in it just like the one on the first floor, but they were much more tightly grouped in the smaller chamber, one of white tiled sterility.  It had a very small pantry-like closet for holding towels and bathing supplies opposite the toilet.

      The attic was an open expanse that ran the length and breadth of the house, its ceiling the roof of the house, with the edges much shorter than the middle as the roof sloped down.  The cellar was divided into four rooms, each designed to hold different things.  One room was intensely cold, below freezing, to store perishable goods like meats and vegetables.  One room was dry and cool, for storing grains and fruits, and the other two were meant to hold old junk and other such things that would certainly accrue over the years.

      The house was more than simply wonderfully furnished or beautiful or spacious.  It was decidedly magical, and the visible evidence of that magic was all over the house.  The most obvious source of magic was the light.  Light was present in each room of the house, emanating from small globes that hovered near the ceiling and emitted soft yet bright light that illuminated the entire room.  Those globes of light would move if someone commanded them to do so, and would dim or brighten, even go out, at vocal command.  The second obvious indication of the house's magical nature was the air.  It was fresh and clean, no room ever seemed stuffy, and it was comfortably warm.  The air stayed at a comfortable temperature at all times, regardless of how cold or hot it was outside, and the temperature in each room could easily be changed by whoever was in it.  All they had to do was ask that it be a little warmer or colder, and the air changed to suit.  Even the air's humidity could be changed like that.  That magical sphere of control extended outside the house, nearly fifty spans in every direction, leading up to the border of its control.  That border was dramatic when one crossed it if the temperature differences were extreme, and it formed a solid boundary for certain insects and other pests.  They were kept out of the house and out of its yard by the magic, but still allowed other certain insects or animals to pass through.  Flies, wasps, biting insects, termites, weevils, aphids, and ants were stopped by the barrier, but everything else could enter.  But there was another barrier that started at the house, which no insect or rodent could cross, to keep such things out of the house.  At the edge of the meadow was another magical creation, an arch that only certain people could see, which would transport one to a sister arch that stood at the edge of a farmstead about a day or so to the west if one stepped through it, a farmstead closely linked with the house and its owner.

      Although it wasn't obvious, there was a pervasive magic within the house that had driven the owner of it crazy for the first few days of his ownership.  Simply put, the house's internal rooms were too big to fit within the outside frame that enclosed it.  Careful measuring and pacing off proved that; each room inside the house was larger than what was normal, and when all of them were added together, they formed a structure nearly twice as large as its outside dimensions.  The builder of the house was quite an exceptional individual, however, and doing such a thing was well within her capabilities.  Just why she decided to do it that way eluded him, but there had to be a reason.  Perhaps she wanted the house to appear modest on the outside, but be much larger and more grand on the inside.  That was as good a reason as any.  He'd stopped trying to figure her out a long time ago.

      There was also another kind of magic at work in the house, the magic that dealt with the running water.  The water simply appeared within tanks under the basement floor, the hot water was magically heated, and then it moved through the house in pipes that were built into the walls and floors, the pressure used to make it move was also supplied by the magic that governed its operation.  When the water was sent down the drainage pipes, those pipes gathered into one main outlet pipe that simply stopped, and that water simply disappeared just as it appeared within the tanks.

      Some objects in the rooms of the house also had magical capabilities.  All the fireplaces had logs in them, and they would burst into flame at command.  The wood never burned down, though the fire was very real, as if it were trying to consume wood that regenerated itself as fast as the fire burned it.  There were never any ashes, and in reality, the fires weren't really need.  Fire provided light and heat, and both were already supplied by the house's other magical qualities.  But sometimes it was nice to sit by a fire, so they were there to provide that comfort.  The two stoves in the kitchen were similar to the fireplaces.  They would heat up simply by turning a little dial on the front of the stove, a mechanical indicator governing a magical operation--yet another clever little trick.  The cook could utterly control the temperature of the stoves, allowing for a slow simmer or a searing blackening of food being cooked atop it or within the ovens.

      The house itself was a wonder, but where it sat was nearly as perfect.  It stood in a small meadow surrounded by lush, virgin forest, forest untrod by the steps of man for a thousand years.  It was utterly isolated, nearly a day away from the nearest human settlement, a place of uncrowded serenity.  The meadow had a little stream that flowed along its south side, a curving brook that had any number of fat fish drifting in the pools that stood on either edge of the meadow, separated by a rocky, twisting flow that looked much like a miniature river's rapids.  The stream had worn itself down a span or so into the ground, eating out its bed, a miniature gulley of sorts carved out of the flat meadow, one of the rare areas of perfectly flat ground in the gentle foothills of the Skydancer Mountains, some two days or so of travel to the north, mountains that could be seen from either porch of the house on a clear day.

      All in all, it was a fantastic house, one that would quickly and thoroughly spoil anyone who stayed in it for any amount of time.

      The owner of that house was a young Were-cat named Tarrin Kael, who had earned it as a gift from his Goddess by doing nothing less than saving the world.  He had crossed half the world in pursuit of his mission, and that mission was to find and secure an ancient artifact known as the Firestaff, a device with the power to turn a mortal into a god, a device that half the world wanted for itself.  He had been successful in that mission, but it had changed him a great deal.  He had left home as a human, but had become a Were-cat.  He had begun a modest, thoughtful, compassionate young man, but had been subjected to torment after torment that had turned him hard and grim and almost savage, extensions of the animal instincts that had become a part of him after his transformation.  He had become one of the most powerful users of magic in all of Sennadar, a force so tremendous that entire armies could not stand against his might.  And at the end, he had become a god, having used the Firestaff in a last-ditch effort to protect his daughter and destroy the endless threat that had been Val.

      He had been a god for all of about ten minutes, if that, however.  The reason his Goddess wanted him to find it was because anyone who used it and became a god would incite a war with the other gods, as they stepped in to destroy the interloper.  A god created using the Firestaff wouldn't be a part of the organized structure that the gods used, would be outside the pantheon, and would be a direct threat to the Balance that the gods strove to maintain.  Tarrin knew when he did it that he would have to destroy himself along with Val in order to avert a battle between him and the Elder Gods from coming to pass, a battle that, had he fought it, would have sent civilization back to the stone age.  The Elder Gods had contained Tarrin and Val in their own battle, and they had managed to sink the land into the magma below and form a gaping wound in the earth that still existed to this day, a hellish inferno of open lava pits and toxic gases that not even the Elder Gods could heal.  The damage they had wrought was immense, and had the gods not contained them, it would have extended for thousands of spans in every direction.

      To avoid doing any more damage, Tarrin destroyed both Val and himself in a suicidal release of all his godly might.  The only reason he was still alive was because he had had the foresight to understand what had to be done, and he had taken steps.  He had prepared a device called a Soultrap that would capture his soul at the instant of his destruction, hold it within itself and protect it until the Goddess could decide what to do about it.  He had left his braid with Kimmie, and the Goddess had used that to create a new body for his soul.  Because of his forward thinking, he had survived the destruction of his godly form, but Val had not.  With nowhere for his soul to go, it was caught up in the destruction of his form, and he was utterly destroyed.  Tarrin had no memory of his time as a god, and he preferred it that way.  He understood that it was best when one had no inkling of what it was like to be something other than what he was meant to be.  His experience adjusting to his Were nature proved that to him beyond any doubt.

      All he had ever wanted was exactly what he had now.  A house out in the middle of nowhere, where he could just live.  That was all he wanted.  A place to raise his children, a place that was all his own, and time that wasn't spent in the pursuit of some mad quest.  To him, it was the best gift his Goddess could have ever bestowed upon him.  She had given him a house, but much more than that, she had given him his freedom.  He was no longer bound to her will, no longer acting as her agent in the quest to find the Firestaff.  For him, for any Were-cat, being free was the most important thing that there was.  It defined their existence, and it was the driving force behind most of their behavior.  The fastest way to set off a Were-cat and send it into a blind, flying rage was to deny the Were-cat freedom.  Were-cats were capable of shocking brutality whenever they felt in danger of being captured or imprisoned, even the mildest and most gentle of them.  Now, he could do whatever he wanted to do.  His time was his own, and he answered to no one.

      For the first few days after coming to this place, coming home, he hadn't done much of anything.  But the shock of everything that had happened was still fresh in his mind, and he was still trying to adjust to the finality of it all, the fact that it was over.  He wasn't alone, however.  He had been surrounded by other Were-cats, friends, lovers, mothers and children, which formed the core of his immediate family among the Were-cats.  Firstly there was Jesmind, his mate and the mother of his oldest child, Jasana.  Then there was Mist, the feral Were-cat who was the mother of his son, Eron.  Then there was Kimmie, a former mate who was the mother of his twin daughters, Tara and Rina.  The last of the females in the house was Jula, his bond-daughter, a human that had been turned like him, who he had taken in to raise as his own after finding her.  He had hated her at first, because she had betrayed him when she was human, but he couldn't ignore her desperate need when he found her as a Were-cat.  That hatred had died away, and now there was nothing but genuine friendship and his sense of parental responsibility towards her.  Even though she was an adult now, cut free of his control, he thought of her as a daughter, and always would.  And that meant that she had a place within his house.  She lived with him willingly, for she felt comfortable with him, and there were things that he could teach her about Sorcery that she could learn nowhere else.  The last member of his little family was Triana, his bond-mother, the Were-cat who was so much like his mother to him that he may as well be her natural son.  He had two mothers; Elke Kael, the human who had born him, and Triana, who had become every bit as much a mother to him as Elke still was.  She didn't stay with him for very long after they arrived, only long enough to see him settle in, then she was off to take care of some other business, promising to return.  She was like that; she was the oldest of the Were-cats and one of the strongest Druids, so she was usually a pretty busy woman.  They were quite an unusual group, a group that hadn't meant to stay together for very long.  Mist and Kimmie had meant to take their children back to their own den at first, but after they had seen the house and come to enjoy it, they kept putting off their departure more and more, until they finally decided to just stay.  Tarrin's current mate, Jesmind, hadn't been all that happy about that, since she saw Kimmie and Mist as potential rivals over Tarrin, but all it had taken was one storm of weeping from Jasana over losing Eron as a playmate to crush her reservations and hostility about the idea.  Despite everything that had happened, even her abduction and imprisonment by their enemies, Jasana still had a manipulative streak in her about ten longspans wide, and she could play her mother like a lute when she wanted to do so.

      They had settled in quite well, truth be told.  Tarrin had immediately laid claim to the master bedroom, and since Jesmind was his current mate, she ended up in there with him.  Every adult had her own room upstairs, and Jasana and Eron shared a bedroom between them, having become such close friends.  The other four bedrooms were unoccupied, but ready for any visitor that would certainly come calling.  Tarrin had a great many friends, strange and powerful friends, any one of which more than had the capability of dropping in at almost any time, regardless of his home's remote location.

      There were quite a few of them.  Tarrin knew a great many unusual people, since he was so unusual himself.  His sisters were perfect examples of that.  They were the two non-human females that had been in the Tower at the same time as him, and the three of them had formed powerful bonds of love and friendship that had carried Tarrin through a great many trials.  They were as different from one another as they were from him, but their diversity had made them a very powerful force to be reckoned with.  The only thing they had in common was Sorcery, for all three were capable of using that ancient form of magic.  Allia had to be his closest friend, even closer than his mates or parents.  She was a Selani, a tall, lithe, slender, and deadly woman whose abilities in the fighting arts her people called the Dance were without equal.  She was one of the very few living things Tarrin would fear if he was forced to fight her; that was how dangerous she was.  She was quiet and reserved most of the time, for her sense of honor wouldn't permit her to carry on while in public.  But in private, she was a warm, caring, compassionate woman with a wicked sense of humor and a tremendous capacity to give.  His other sister was Keritanima-Chan Eram, the current queen of Wikuna.  She was a Wikuni, one of the animal-people from across the sea, bipedal humanoid beings that resembled common animals.  Keritanima resembled a fox, and her personality was much like the animal she resembled.  She was clever, insightful, intelligent, and very cunning.  Keritanima could play the game of politics better than a vast majority of the other monarchs and rulers with which she dealt, and she could put her formidable mind to work against almost any problem and find a solution.   She was an acerbic, surprisingly funny woman, possessing both a towering ego and a remarkable ability to laugh at herself.  She noticed absolutely everything that went on around her, and her mind was a remarkable thing.  Keritanima had to be the smartest woman Tarrin had ever known.

      They were just two examples of the unusual people that were Tarrin's friends.  He had travelled with many of them during his quest, strange and unusual individuals that were only unremarkable when grouped with the others around him.  The most unremarkable ones of them all had to be Dolanna and Dar, but they were only unremarkable in appearance.  Both of them were incredibly unique people.  Dolanna was a small, petite, very little woman whose ability in Sorcery was formidable, but was only eclipsed by her powerful force of will and her loyalty.  She was the closest friend Tarrin had outside of his circle of family, and he regarded almost as a mother figure.  He would obey Dolanna instantly and without question, to this day.  She was a quiet, wise, and incredibly experienced Sorceress who had ranged over most of the world doing the will of the Goddess.  Whenever Dolanna was with him, he always felt amazingly secure.  Dolanna would know what to do, she always did.  He hadn't been the only one in their group to rely on Dolanna's leadership, either.  Dar was a very young Arkisian, just fledged into a man, who was an absolute natural when it came to Illusions.  What made him unusual was his charisma.  Simply put, everyone liked Dar.  There was just something about him, a sense, an aire, that made it absolutely impossible for someone to dislike him.  He was a generous and warm individual, always kind in word and cognizant of others, and that only reinforced his unusual charismatic aura.  His personality didn't repel people once his magnetic quality drew them in.  Even Tarrin, a grim, mistrustful fellow, had been affected by Dar.  The members of Tarrin's woodland society had said much the same thing.  Even the most dour Centaur would find himself strangely drawn to the kind-hearted Arkisian.

      The rest of his group of friends were a bit more unusual in appearance than them.  Many of them were human, but they were striking humans, so unusual that they seemed different.  Azakar was probably the most striking example.  He was a Mahuut, a race of dark-skinned humans from Valkar, and he was a muscled, handsome fellow who was now a Knight.  But he was almost nine spans tall, towering head and shoulders over other men, an absolute monster of a man whose strength was unrivalled among humans.  Azakar had been a slave in the empire of Yar Arak, and though it made him quiet and withdrawn, the experience hadn't darkened his soul.  He was a Knight of Karas, a member of an order of highly trained warriors who served the Sorcerers as bodyguards when the church of Karas had no active missions for them.  Camara Tal was an Amazon, a very rare race of humans from the islands off the continent of Arathorn.  She was copper-skinned and raven-haired, and was both handsome and beautiful at the same time.  But what set her apart was the fact that she was taller than virtually all mainlander men, as she called them, and had a body that almost any woman would sell her soul to possess.  She was both muscled and remarkable well curved at the same time, a Priestess of the Amazon goddess that had been a warrior before putting that aside to answer the call of her goddess and enter her order.  She was a very willful woman, stubborn and pushy, but she always had what she considered to be one's best interests in heart when she bossed them around.  Once one got past her pushy nature, they found her to be a very generous woman, always giving of herself and seeking to nurture and protect, as were the tenets of her faith.  To be strong as steel, but as caring as a mother when necessary.  Phandebrass the Unusual was a Tellurian Wizard, a man whose age Tarrin still could not determine.  He had white hair like an old man, but had a narrow, young face, complete with a pointy nose and a new affectation, a goatee.  His eyes seemed ageless, blue eyes that looked aged and wizened, but still had a youthful sparkle in them.  Phandebrass was a phenomenally smart fellow, with a mind that could grasp things that most people could never comprehend, and his lifelong quest was always to attain more knowledge.  He was an exceptionally powerful Wizard, capable of many magicks that other Wizards would never be able to understand.  But all his learning and experience made him a little...distracted.  That was as good an explanation as any.  He was a bit absent-minded and tended to repeat himself, and often things that didn't seem all that important to him got neglected, even while he was doing them.  The problem was that what Phandebrass deemed important was much different than what most other people would.  He would often lose his focus in the middle of a dangerous operation as his mind pondered weightier matters.  That made him a little accident prone, but at least life with Phandebrass around was never boring.  People often couldn't see past his scattered nature to see how brilliant the man was, and when he put his mind to solving a problem, it got solved.  No mystery could hide from the addled Wizard once it piqued his curiosity.  He was relentless once he decided to solve a mystery.

      He had other friends who weren't human.  Sarraya had to be the closest of them.  She was a Faerie, and they had travelled a long way together.  She was flighty, capricious, scathing, and combative most of the time, and for a Faerie, she was remarkably disciplined...but that was for a Faerie.  Actually, she had very little self control, succumbing to her impulses most of the time, and those usually got her in trouble.  But she was still one of Tarrin's best friends, and her irreverence and light manner had often cheered him up.  He had spent the most time with Sarraya, but he had the chance to make friends with several others.  Ariana was an Aeradalla, a race of human-looking people with large feathered wings, and though he hadn't seen her but a few times, he considered her to be a very good friend.  She was quite smart, a trader and merchant by profession, though now she was a queen and no longer pursued trade as an occupation.  Her help had proved invaluable to Tarrin and his friends more than once in the past, and he made a point to contact her about once every ride or so and see how things were going.  His other close friends from the desert were Var and Denai, two Selani who had travelled with Tarrin as he crossed the desert, and had had a hand in showing him both the darkness deep within himself and the strength that would control it.  Var was a Selani to the roots of his hair, sober, serious, and intense in everything he did.  Denai, his wife, was probably the most un-Selani Selani he'd ever seen.  She was whimsical, a little erratic, daring and impulsive, unusual traits in a Selani.  But she had manners, and those manners were probably what kept her out of trouble.

      They were slightly unusual people, but they were nothing compared to three others of Tarrin's acquaintance.  The first was Spyder.  She was the Spyder, a figure out of the oldest myths and legends of Sennadar, a ten thousand year old Urzani, the forefathers of the modern Sha'Kar, who had stood vigil at the gates leading into the world of Sennadar, defending their world from incursion from the forces and creatures that lurked outside their dimension.  She was the most powerful mortal on all of Sennadar, a being whose powers of Sorcery rivalled the entire Tower, both in raw power and experience.  She was a blunt, direct, silent woman whose very demeanor was one of complete mystery.  Nobody knew Spyder, even those who were acquainted with her.  She was almost as complicated and mysterious as a god.  For that matter, she was nearly a god on her own.  No living thing on Sennadar could stand against her, and she knew it, but she never acted in arrogance or condescension.  It was as if that were simple fact, as simple as the fact that she might be wearing leather boots.

      The second was one that Tarrin knew, but didn't really call a friend.  She was a Demon, a Succubus, and currently was the Empress of Yar Arak, the largest kingdom on all of Sennadar.  The only reason she was allowed to remain on Sennadar was because she had struck a deal with the Elder Gods, to perform certain missions and tasks for them that regular mortals could not accomplish, but Spyder could not perform because of her other duties.  They looked the other way when she did some of the things she did, tolerating her in exchange for the invaluable service she could provide.  She was named Shiika, or at least that was what she called herself.  She was a thoroughly dangerous creature, cunning and manipulative, and Tarrin didn't trust her one whit.  But she had proved in the past many times that when her goals were the same as his, they could be powerful allies, and in a very odd kind of way, he sort of liked her.  She was a Demoness who had turned her back on the nature of her own kind, preferring to dwell in the mortal dimension.  But she was by no means a sweet and innocent maiden.  She was a Demon, with a dark soul and something of a evil streak in her, but nothing compared to the evil of other Demons.  As Demons went, she was almost...nice.  But that was only in comparison to other Demons.  She had five female daughters, half-breed Demons called Alus, and one of them was almost an acquaintance on her own, the blond-haired Anayi.

      The third was very much his friend, a very beloved and close friend, literally a member of his family.  She also just happened to be a blue dragon.  He had thought her to be nothing but a drake when he found her, and in a way, that was all that she had been.  She was actually a dragon, though, who had retreated into the body and mind of a drake to survive the Breaking.  After the Weave was restored, Sapphire and all the other dragons shed their drake forms and reverted to their true power, a power that no living thing on Sennadar, not even Shiika or Spyder, would take lightly.  Dragons were immensely powerful creatures, both physically formidable and magically adept.  A single dragon could wipe out the entire army of a kingdom.  Sapphire had started as his pet, but when she had regained her mind after the Weave was restored, their relationship evolved into one of deep friendship.  Sapphire saw him as one of her broodlings, a child, but she loved him and had tremendous respect for him, and he had similar love and respect for her.  She was vastly intelligent and tremendously wise, but she was also highly protective of him, a protectiveness that had both been crucial to his mission and a serious impediment.  Two days after he had come to his new house, Sapphire had showed up on the doorstep in her magically-granted human form, the result of a magic spell, and toured the place to make sure it was good enough for him.  It took nearly five hours, and she decided that it was "barely adequate."  That put Sapphire on the hot list for his Goddess, who had put quite a bit of thought and work into the house's design.  Just how she had known of the house or where to find him still aggravated Tarrin whenever he stopped to think about it, but that was Sapphire.  She had abilities and sources of information he would probably never understand.

      But the companion that still had the most impact on his life was the one who was no longer with him.  His name had been Faalken, and he had been a Knight like Azakar.  He had died in battle with the Doomwalker Jegojah, sacrficing himself to protect Dolanna and Dar just long enough to save their lives.  Faalken's death had been crushing for Tarrin, for the jovial Knight had been with him a very long time, had known him, and was one of the very few people that could make him laugh.  He had been irreverent, almost immature, someone that Sarraya would have loved to know, but when the cards were on the table, he was all business.  And he could back up that business with his broadsword.  Faalken's amazing mixture of childish delight and mature seriousness seemed a paradox, but he always knew when to be serious and when it was alright to let his curly hair down and have a little fun.  There were few men as solid and dependable as Faalken had been, and even now, not a day went by that he didn't think about his old friend with great sadness.  Faalken's death had had a very powerful effect on him because Tarrin knew that he was directly responsible for Faalken's death, and the combination of his death and the knowledge that he had been its cause had turned him truly feral.  It had been a very long road to recover the ground he lost when that happened.  He'd blamed himself, and when not torturing himself over it, he was defending his remaining friends with a savage brutality that mirrored the feral nature that had overwhelmed him.  For a time after Faalken's death, Tarrin was more of a monster than the ones who had sent Jegojah to kill him, utterly consumed by grief, rage, hatred, and fury.  He had been evil, completely evil, during those dark times, and it was still something for which he was not sorry.  Ferality in Were-cats was a constant through the breed, with only the degree of ferality in question.  Even the mildest Were-cats, like Kimmie, had a touch of feral nature in them.  But Tarrin had represented the other extreme, a cold-blooded monster who would kill with as much moral consideration as a housewife would have over slicing bread.  But he had recovered from that, and at the end, Faalken himself had a hand in changing Tarrin, easing his feral nature, by being there the last time he fought Jegojah, bringing Tarrin a sense over closure of the Knight's death and allowing him to finally put Faalken's body and soul to rest.  To this day, Faalken's crypt stood in the ruins of the ancient Dwarven city of Mala Myrr, a place that Tarrin visited in his mind at least once a day to pay his respects to his fallen but never forgotten friend.

      Having such unusual friends made life exciting, but it was nothing like a day in the Kael household.  Tarrin was a lone male Were-cat surrounded by four females and four children, and though they all liked each other, Were-cat mentality being what it was, it did cause some friction.  The biggest friction, predictably, was Jesmind and Mist.  The two elder Were-cat females each had their own ideas of the way things should be in the house, who should do what, and they butted heads and exchanged heated shouts at least once a day.  At the very least.  Mist was a very short Were-cat, but she was powerful and very nasty, and Jesmind knew that she had to be very careful around her.  Mist had once been as feral as Tarrin had been, savage and unpredictable, and though she too had recovered much ground from that low, she was still short-tempered and not above smacking Jesmind when she felt it necessary.  Mist was much smaller than Jesmind, but Jesmind knew that Mist could thrash her, so more often than not things were done Mist's way in the house.

      Were-cat society generally boiled down to that one simple concept.  Power.  Were-cats possessed human intelligence, but they were still dominated by the cat instincts that were a part of them.  The pecking order in the house was decided by who was physically the strongest, and gender made no difference in it.  If Tarrin was not bigger and stronger than the females around him, one of them would challenge him for his place as the top rung of the ladder.  Below him, the females decided their order simply by who could beat the others into submission.  The differences between Jesmind and Mist were very slight, and that was what caused so much friction between them.  Jesmind's status as Tarrin's mate made up for the fact that Mist could physically overpower her, so that put them on even ground, struggling against one another for total control underneath him.  It was a purely cosmetic thing for everyone else, for everyone in the house knew what needed done, and they simply did it.  Beneath them was something of a harmonious co-existence between Jula and Kimmie.  They had become fast friends when they met in the Tower, two turned females, and they were as inseperable as two siblings, always together, always talking, always gossiping or laughing.  Even if they weren't such good friends and truly didn't care about status, there would still be no friction between them.  Kimmie was so mild-natured that she honestly didn't care about status, more than happy to occupy the bottom rung.  Jula was only recently released as an adult, and was too insecure about herself to even think of trying to assert herself in any way.  Both of them always did whatever Mist or Jesmind told them to do, knowing that it was the easiest way to avoid any hint of conceived challenge.

      Those differences were quite profound to Tarrin as he observed them. The two Were-cat females who were born Were were very much different from the two who were turned. Tarrin was turned himself, but he had so utterly embraced his instincts and his Were nature that it was as if he'd been born Were himself.  Every Were-cat that knew him agreed about that one fact, as if he'd been born a Were-cat in a human body, and Jesmind's bite had only caused him to become what he was always meant to be.  Jesmind and Mist were combative and competitive, while Kimmie and Jula were capable of harmonious coexistence.

      Of course, all that went completely out the window when Triana arrived.  Triana was the oldest living Were-cat, the matriarch of their entire society, and her power was absolute.  Tarrin wouldn't even dream of trying to challenge his bond-mother over that highest rung, and when she was in the house, she ruled it.  Nobody would gainsay Triana, not over anything, not for any reason.  Triana was the ultimate example of Were-cat society, a Were-cat who stood above all others, and fully expected her every command to be obeyed immediately and without question.  Nobody--nobody, not even humans or other members of Fae-da'Nar--could look Triana in the eye and defy her.  Except for Tarrin, and only the defiant Tarrin who had not yet learned about his bond-mother.  After she had trained him when he was wounded by the Wikuni, he had learned how utterly foolish he had been to ever think that he could match wills with Triana.  He did sometimes chafe under her peremptory commands, but he knew that she would never tell him to do something she felt was beneath his dignity.  Triana loved him very much, as much as he loved her, and she was neither outrageous nor overbearing in her rulership of Tarrin's house when she was there.  It was just Triana doing what Triana did wherever she was, totally dominate everyone and everything around her and assume absolute mastery of whatever domain in which she currently stood.  She did it without even thinking about it, so powerful was the sense of her, an aura of absolute power that seemed to surround her at all times, a sense that anyone who disagreed with her must be absolutely crazy to think that she was wrong.  That was her way, making someone feel foolish for disagreeing with her, as if they weren't good enough to be right, and doing it all with a certain look and a set of her body that communicated her towering disregard for one's faulty opinion.

      The relationships among the children were virtually similar, but instead of strength, the fulcrum tilted around age.  Jasana was the oldest, and though she and Eron were the same size, Jasana was the dominant because she was older.  She was also dominant because she was a sneaky little manipulator, capable of talking Eron into doing almost anything she wanted him to do, and convincing him that he'd wanted to do it himself by the time she was done.  Jasana ruled Eron like a little queen, tricking him into doing all the dirty work so that she reaped the rewards, but any punishments would be exacted against him should they come down.  At least she tried.  Tarrin and Jesmind both were wise to their daughter's cunning, and though she could easily talk her way out of trouble with Mist, Jula, and Kimmie, she had no chance against her parents.  The fact that Tarrin could force her to tell the truth killed her little games more often than not, for neither of his children could look him in the eyes and lie, not when he gave them the stare.  No matter how many times Jasana tried to lie, she just could not do it.

      In many ways, Were-cat society was shocked by the scandalous cub of Tarrin and Jesmind.  Never in the entire history of the Were-cats had there been a cub quite like her.  There was no such thing as a deceptive, lying, conniving Were-cat, and her personality and demeanor had utterly shocked several of the Were-cats who had come to visit them.  Lying was an alien concept among the Were-cats, who always took the word of others at its face.  The fact that Jasana was so outrageously deceitful was a heavy black mark against her in the eyes of the other Were-cats.  What they all missed was the fact that Jasana only lied when she couldn't weasel out of something any other way.  She was remarkably loose with the truth when she needed to be, capable of tying truth into a knot and making it look like something it was not without ever actually lying.  And they also didn't understand that she only resorted to such things when she couldn't get what she wanted.  When she was content, she was as honest and forthright as any other Were-cat.  It was just when she was on one of her crusades to gain something she wanted that she turned sly.  Fortunately for everyone involved, Tarrin and Jesmind had learned the signs of a Jasana on the warpath, subtle shifts in her body language, tempo and timbre of voice, and most tellingly in her scent that warned them that their cub was up to no good.  Jasana hadn't quite figured out what was giving her away quite yet, but her parents weren't about to show their hands.

      Jesmind and Tarrin, and then the other adult females in the house, all worked very hard to break her of it.  Tarrin and Jesmind had been trying for as long as they'd been together, but no matter how hard they tried, Jasana simply fell back into the habit of doing whatever it took to get whatever she wanted.  Not even the disaster of Jasana turning Tarrin Were had broken her of her unsavory habits.  All those things ever did was subdue her cunning nature for a while, until the mentality of the Cat, which tended to forget and ignore the past, made her revert back to her former mannerisms.

      And it certainly didn't help that Keritanima had been giving Jasana "sneaking lessons."  True to her word, Keritanima was doing her best to spoil Jasana, and she'd been teaching her all her underhanded tricks, like picking locks and stealing things, as well as refining her ability to lie.  Tarrin was furious with his sister for doing that, but that was nothing compared to Jesmind's reaction.  Keritanima was forced to project to the house for nearly a month after that.  If Jesmind would have been able to get her claws into the fox Wikuni, she probably would have killed her.

      The most remarkable personality Tarrin had witnessed in the house had to be Jula's.  They had started as enemies, and then they were connected by bonds of duty, but now they were the best of friends.  Jula's earning of her adulthood had made her much more confident in herself, and though she was nowhere near as aggressive or pushy as Jesmind and Mist, she was starting to show the same traits she had had back when she was human.  Tarrin and Jula would stay up late into the night just talking, about anything and everything.  Tarrin learned to value his bond-daughter's experience and insight into things, for she had been a very well-travelled and experienced woman, and she brought that seasoned outlook to her bond-father in their long conversations.  And he was quite honestly impressed with her mind.  Jula was very intelligent, calm, unruffled, and now that she was an adult and had had time to adjust to being a Were-cat, confident.  Neither Jesmind nor Mist liked the friendship that had formed between Tarrin and Jula, but Jesmind and Mist could never think with anything north of their waists.  They didn't understand the simple fact that a male and a female could have a strong and involved relationship that didn't involve sex.  Jula was Tarrin's daughter, and only Kimmie could understand the position that that made her hold in his mind.  Tarrin would be repulsed by the very idea of taking Jula for mate, as much as he would at the thought of taking one of his own daughters.

      Life was good for Tarrin after his ordeal, after he settled in.  The first thing that happened were visits from Sapphire, Jenna, and Keritanima, after which his two sisters got a solid sense of his home so they could Teleport there whenever they wished.  After that, Tarrin spent his days relaxing or talking with old friends using his magic, and occasionally entertaining visitors.  His parents were the most frequent visitors, dropping by at least once a day to see him and their grandchildren.  He spoke to his old friends at least once a day, but Keritanima had a habit of Teleporting in every two or three days to spend some time with him.  She often brought Rallix, and Tarrin had gotten to know the thin badger, and respect him.  Rallix was perfect for Keritanima.  He was observant, smart, and unruffled sort of fellow that never seemed to be surprised by anything.  And Keritanima had learned quickly that her authority over him meant as much to him as dust in his bowler hat.  She couldn't dominate her husband, and that strength made for both some pretty heated arguments, as well as just the kind of man she needed to complement her.  Sarraya dropped in about once a ride or so, just to see how things were going, as well as to keep Tarrin abreast of what was going on out in Fae-da'Nar.  Sarraya was a Hierarch, one of the strongest Druids, and he had learned that the Council of Hierarchs had elevated him to that status as well.  They had never so much as spoken to him, but they made sure to pass along information the Hierarchs felt that all the other Hierarchs should know through Sarraya.  Tarrin felt that perhaps his history wouldn't make it very good for the Woodkin to know that Tarrin was considered to be among them, for they were the group that made the laws of Fae-da'Nar, and Tarrin was very well known as a Were-cat who would toss the rulebook out the window whenever it suited him.  Sapphire's visits were clockwork; every seven days, precisely at noon, she showed up on the front doorstep for what she called kirsa, or what Jesmind coined the "invasion."  Sapphire's visits were only enjoyable for Tarrin and his children.  The other Were-cats didn't appreciate the dragon coming in and telling them everything she felt they were doing wrong in the house, or what they should fix, or how they could arrange things to make her more comfortable when she visited.  They put up with it because Sapphire was a dragon, and not even a Were-cat was insane enough to cross one of those most powerful of creatures.  Every once in a while, he got a projected visit from Ianelle or ghostly voice visits from Auli, two Sha'Kar, mother and daughter, with whom he had become quite fond while at the Tower.  Auli talked to him quite a bit just to talk, for he and her had been fast friends back in the Tower, after the protective spell surrounding the Firestaff stripped him of both his memory and his Were nature.  Ianelle called on him almost as frequently, but she was more business.  His visits with Jenna were purely social, so Ianelle kept him abreast of what was going on in the world.  He was no longer involved in the world, but it was nice to know what was going on out there, far from his isolated homestead.  When she wasn't filling him in on what king was doing what to whom, they often shared warm, friendly conversation.  Tarrin liked Ianelle a great deal, and what was more, he trusted her.  She was Jenna's right-hand woman, universally understood to be second in command in the Tower, and she advised Tarrin's sister on various aspects of rulership.  Ianelle was a steady, methodical woman, deeply rooted in her Sha'Kar heritage and society, and Jenna could not have a better advisor than the dependable Sha'Kar Sorceress.

      It was everything he had hoped for.  It was quiet, peaceful, and serene.  Winter gave way to spring, and spring to summer without anything earth-shattering happening in his life in the least.  In those six months he had witnessed the miracle of Were-cat children growing up, for Were-cats aged at twice the speed of humans when they were children, both in body and mind.  Jasana, the oldest, grew almost half a span in those five months, going from resembling a five year old to resembling an eight year old, and the first signs of maturity were starting to show in her features.  She was going to look so much like Jesmind that it wasn't funny.  The maturation of her body was kept pace by the maturation of her mind, as the bubbly child that had shown tremendous affection for her parents slowly evolved into an intensely curious child that was starting to mimic her grandmother in many ways, adopting a very sober and serious posture while still remaining a carefree and fun-loving cub.  Jasana really was more mature than other Were-cats her age, a result of her unique experiences and her abilities, and the ordeal of being kidnapped and held hostage had not affected her personality very much at all.  She did tend to hover near her parents most of the time and didn't like to go out alone, but those things faded over time until she was as she had been before.  For those six months, Tarrin had started teaching both Jasana and Jula about the aspects of Weavespinner magic, starting to train them in a magical art form not practiced since the Breaking, but one that had suddenly become resurgent with the appearance of the Sha'Kar and the crossing over of more and more of the Sorcerers in both Towers.  There were a few deaths, but Ianelle had told him that even in the times of the Ancients, sometimes Sorcerers didn't survive the ordeal.  Jula proved to be an apt pupil, but Jasana had an unreasoning fear of the concept of joining to the Weave and sending her spirit out into it, probably spawned by a traumatic episode when she'd stumbled across Tarrin as he was doing so and thinking he was dead.  Ever since then, she'd been afraid of it, both of seeing others do it, and now of doing it herself.

      When not working with his daughters with Sorcery and not talking to any number of his friends or relatives scattered all over the world, Tarrin spent time with his children as both a father and teacher, teaching Jasana and Eron how to hunt and fish, teaching them the ways of the forest as they were taught to him by his own father, a Sulasian Ranger named Eron, and joining that education to his Were abilities to turn both of his little pupils into top-notched hunters and trackers.  Eron especially seemed to be quite adept at the idea of hunting, stalking, and tracking, for he had a very sensitive nose--even compared to other Were-cats--and he loved chasing things.  Mist had told him that ever since he was a baby, he'd loved to chase things, and that was all hunting and tracking really was, chasing something.  But unlike an adult, the chase was what was fun for Eron, not the kill.  That didn't mean that he was squeamish, but he saw catching his prey as a let-down, an end to his game.  For Eron, the perfect prey was the one that could never be caught, for it would provide him with endless entertainment.

      Eron was developing into quite an interesting child.  He had a fast mind...perhaps too fast.  He tended to talk fast and move fast whenever he got excited, which unfortunately was fairly often, but these traits didn't detract from his ability to sit down, be quiet, and learn, when he was being taught something that he wanted to learn.  He didn't show it as much as Jasana, but Eron was actually quite an intelligent little cub, probably as smart as his sister.  It was just that his intellect was not as refiined as his sister's, who had received more education than him.  He was usually a rather well-behaved cub, at least when Jasana hadn't talked him into stealing something for her, but he had that eternal youthful exuberance in him that made him quite dangerous to the house's furnishings and decorations.  He tended to break things, crash around the house, and never, ever seemed to get tired.  He was alot like any energetic human boy, but his Were-cat strength gave him the ability to do more than break plates.  Getting him to go to sleep was like battling an army of Demons, and getting him to sit still if he was bored often required chaining him to his chair.  Handling Eron required at least two adults, because he could break almost anything within ten seconds of coming into proximity to it.  Despite his exuberance, he was a little darling.  He was very affectionate and lovable, and it was in those rare moments when he was at peace that he was the most beautiful and treasured.

      Tarrin watched Tara and Rina grow at an astonishing rate over those six months.  They had gone from tiny little things that could fit in the palm of his paw to ambulatory little darlings, tiny little replicas of Kimmie, but with Tarrin's fur.  But while they looked alike, it was apparent that their personalities were not.  Tara was the elder, and she was highly aggressive, but not mean-spirited.  She never pushed her twin sister around, but she was quite pushy with Jasana and Eron, who were not impressed by the Were-cat toddler's bravado.  She had a baleful glare already, those flashing blue eyes blazing whenever she felt she wasn't getting the attention or the objects that she desired.  She was willful, stubborn, loud, brash, and could be quite grating on the ears when she didn't get her way, and she gave Kimmie fits.  She was extremely mischievious, getting into absolutely everything, much as Eron had done at that age.  Rina was much different from Tara.  She was gentle, sweet, quiet, and quite observant.  She had been a very mild-tempered little baby, rarely crying and always staring at everyone with those lucent blue eyes of hers.  Her growth had done little to change her personality, for she was still quiet and observant, like a student in a classroom, and she was both gentle in nature and generous.  She willingly shared what Tara would selfishly keep for herself.  Everyone who had seen the two girls grow over the months agreed that Tara was every bit Tarrin's daughter, while Rina was every bit Kimmie's.  It was as if the personalities of their parents had been ingrained to them, but instead of mixing together equally between them, each had inherited all the traits of one parent.  They were very much identical in appearance, but not in demeanor.  These personality extremes seemed to be softening, however, now that they were learning how to talk and rationalize things without resorting to instinct.  Both of them were intelligent, but where Rina seemed very curious about the world and what her parents had to teach, Tara preferred to learn by doing instead of being told.  It didn't make Tara any less intelligent than Rina, but Tarrin could see that Tara would probably never be one with the patience to sit down and read a book, where Rina would be more than happy to do so.

      It had been quite a wonderful six months.  Ianelle kept him up to speed on the happenings out in the world, which were pleasantly dull.  The only real news going on out there was the endless war of diplomacy that Keritanima fought with Shiika.  His Wikuni sister and the Demoness that ruled Yar Arak were evenly matched, and their fencing had provided all the other monarchs whose kingdoms bordered the Sea of Storms and Sea of Glass with endless amusement.  Tarrin had never thought that a personal war could erupt between two monarchs who sent letters and treaties back and forth couched in the most flowery and flattering language, but he had never admitted to understanding either the mind of a woman or the motives of a diplomat.  He had no real inkling of how this war worked, or how one would manage to claim victory, but he was certain that someone would explain it all to him.  Probably after it was all over.  Tarrin was certain that Shiika was really getting under his sister's fur, for she often complained about the Demoness to him when they spoke or when she visited, and more than once had tried to cajole him into using his strange influence over the Demoness to make her do what Keritanima wanted.  He only laughed and bowed out, knowing that coming between those two would only get him coccooned like an errant fly that wandered too close to a spider's web.

      What made him laugh about the whole thing was when Shiika paid him a personal visit about five months after he'd settled in, to get a look at things, meet his children, and then she tried to convince him to tell Keritanima to do a few things that Shiika wanted her to do.  It seemed that Keritanima was getting to Shiika as much as Shiika was getting to Keritanima.

      The only thing he was certain about was that the two of them were having more fun than they'd ever had in their lives.  Both were thoroughly enjoying their little war, and he had the feeling that they were dragging it out purely for the entertainment it provided.  Both had found a worthy opponent in the other, and they were now trying to decide who was the better between them.

      From a political standpoint, that was the only thing really going on.  There had been civil wars in Daltochan and Draconia after the power vacuum caused by the destruction of the ki'zadun, but those had been settled in a matter of months.  There had been a border incursion between Draconia and Ungardt, but the Ungardt marched over the border with two clans and laid waste to a few Draconian towns, convincing the Draconians that if they had any strange ideas about expanding their borders, they'd better look in some other direction.

      What had troubled Ianelle was the curious lack of civil discord in certain kingdoms in the world, like Zakkar.  Zakkar and Stygia had long been bastions of the ki'zadun, but neither had so much had suffered a single riot with the destruction of Val and the loss of virtually the entire upper echelons of the shadowy organization he controlled.  Ianelle thought that at the very least there would have been a power struggle within the kingdoms, but there had not.  The Witch-King of Zakkar and the Mage Queen of Stygia had managed to retain control of their kingdoms despite the loss of the support of the ki'zadun, or as Ianelle worried, perhaps they had simply taken over their operations.  The ki'zadun was a huge organization that stretched across the entire world, and they all agreed that not even Val's death and the loss of the network's leaders had probably destroyed the organization as a whole.  It was still out there, and Ianelle felt that it was possible that they had shifted their focus from resurrecting Val to simply gaining and holding power for themselves, reflected by a change of rulership at its highest level.  No matter who had managed to take control of the ki'zadun, most of the political leaders in the world agreed that it would be a good idea to find out who was now controlling it, and possibly doing what they could to destroy it.  That was what a good many spies in the West and on the continents of Arathorn and Valkar were doing, and Keritanima had told him that it may take them a couple of years before they found out who was now leading the ki'zadun.  That was why there had been such a lull in things.  Everyone was busy trying to ferret out the new leader of that shadow organization, who still had designs to rule the world, and had quite a few assets at their disposal.  Nobody wanted another period of chaos like the one the ki'zadun had caused in the West.  They had taken over two kingdoms and set almost the whole of the West at war against one another.  Nobody relished seeing something like that happen on Godan-Nyr, Arathorn, or Valkar, where the relations between kingdoms, nations, and empires were much more volatile.  The West, as a region, was probably one of the most stable in the world, for all the kingdoms more or less got along with one another, and wars were very rare.  When they did happen, they rarely lasted for very long, and then the combatants shook hands and returned to their own sides of the border.  There were some tensions in the West, like between the cities of the Free Duchies and between Tykarthia and Draconia, but they were very minor compared to the millenia of seething hatred between Yar Arak and Godan, or Stygia and every kingdom that abutted its borders, including Sharadar, or Shen Lung and Newan, or Zakkar and virtually every other kingdom on the planet.

      There had been a few unusual things, though.  The Goddess had said that it would take his mind and soul time to adust to his new body, a body the Goddess had created to house his soul after the Soultrap had saved him from utter annihilation.  And for the first month or so, he could feel that.  At first, the Weave felt distant and fuzzy, but as time passed, it grew more and more clear, until it felt as it had always felt to him.  That meant that his powers of Sorcery had been completely restored to him, just as strong as they had been before.  In fact, everything felt as it had before, and he figured that he was fully healed.  But, much to his surprise, things didn't end there.  As the next month passed, he started feeling very odd sensations, and the vast majority of the time, they happened in the kitchen, in the common room, or when he was over visiting his parents' house.  He couldn't quite pin down what the sensation was or why it seemed to be stronger at only certain times, but he didn't have much time to explore it, however.  About a month after he started noticing it, the first of the many distractions that interrupted him, prevented him from exploring the origins of these strange feelings and sensations, came along.

      As things go, it wasn't a very large distraction, but it did kind of evolve into a major one, one that would uproot him from his life of peace and comfort for a little while.  It all started during one of his almost daily talks with Allia through the amulets, and when he asked how things were going, she sighed and went on what was to him to be an almost uncharacteristic venting spree.  She was having serious trouble with her father, and it was all over her pet.  Allia had a pet inu, which was a desert reptile-looking animal that was about as tall as a man, was bipedal, had a sharply angular head filled with sharp teeth and long, wicked claws, and was one of the desert's most efficient and formidable hunters.  Inu preyed on just about anything they could catch, and they hunted in packs.  The problem was, the herd animals upon which the Selani depended were deathly afraid of Allia's little pet, which she had named Kedaira, which meant loyal in Selani.  Kedaira was very well trained, and would not attack the domesticated herds.  But the herds still had an instinctive fear of inu, and every time Allia and Kedaira moved through the camp, they caused a stampede.  Her father had had about enough, and had ordered the inu out of the camp.  Allia had thrown, what was for her, an absolute fit, which probably meant that she argued in public with her father over her pet inu. Allia was very attached to her pet, and for that matter, Kedaira absolutely adored Allia.

      Allia's request seemed a rather simple one.  She asked that Tarrin take Kedaira for a few days until she could hammer out a compromise with her father.  That didn't seem too outrageous, for he'd had experience with the inu, and knew that she was very smart and would obey him.  So he agreed.  He Teleported out to Mala Myrr two days later and met them and Allyn, who was now officially Allia's husband.  They spent all day together talking and catching up, and Tarrin saw that Allyn looked to be adjusting to life as a Selani better than he'd expected.  He was still a bit short compared to Selani males, but he'd toughened up considerably, all wiry muscle now.  He'd also been training Allia in Sorcery, and Allia's abilities in that regard were even stronger now.  She was now more skilled and had more raw power than the average Sorcerers in the Tower.  Their relationship had truly evolved into a symbiotic harmony.  They were opposites; everything Allia lacked, Allyn possessed, and everything Allyn lacked, Allia possessed.  That was the best kind of union, for they joined to become a whole greater than the sum of its two parts.

      Tarrin had thoroughly enjoyed his day with Allia and Allyn, but as the sun went down, he knew it was time to go.  So he took Kedaira with him when he Teleported back to the house.

      And that's where the trouble started.

      Kedaira never intentionally caused trouble.  That fact had need to be made clear from the onset.  She had impeccable manners inside the house--he let her inside, much to Mist's vociferous objections--and the children all became absolutely entranced by the sleek predator.  She was gentle and affectionate with Tarrin and the children, and she never broke anything.  It was when she was let outside that she became a problem.  Kedaira was an inu, a sleek, highly evolved predator, and when she was outside, she acted like one.  The problem was, almost immediately, she found the gateway that led to his parents' house, and she passed through it.  Later that night, a furious mother and father paid Tarrin a little visit and tersely told him that Allia's pet had eaten two of the sheep on their farm.  It took Tarrin nearly an hour to track her down and take her to task for that, warning her that she couldn't eat the domesticated animals here either.  Since he was a Druid, he was more than capable of talking to her.  And as in all things, she would obey the commands of a Druid. No animal would disobey a Druid when he spoke with that kind of authority.

      Because she was a curious animal, he found her on the other side of the gate almost every time he took his eyes off of her.  It only took a day for her to run out of interesting things to see in the forest, and it didn't take her long to find the cart track from his parents' farm to the village itself.  Almost every day, he had to go to Aldreth and collect up Kedaira, who caused an absolute panic almost every time she showed up.  She didn't break things, she didn't kill domesticated animals, and she didn't chase the villagers.  But she was a strange-looking animal, big and intimidating, and the villagers were very afraid of her.  Time and again he had to use Sorcery to get to the village quickly after his parents appeared telling him Kedaira was loose again, and he went over there and picked her up.  No matter how many times he told the villagers that Kedaira was completely harmless and would not hurt anyone, it always seemed to fall on deaf ears.  He even went so far as to talk to Garyth the mayor and had him meet Kedaira, and he'd been impressed with how calm and almost affectionate she was.  But not even his assurances that the inu wasn't a danger was enough.  In fact, his telling the people that the inu was safe was what caused the big row the next day.

      It all started when Olin Sharpsword ignored his parents when Kedaira showed up on the Green and approached the inu.  Olin had heard the mayor tell everyone that the inu wouldn't hurt them, so he wanted to look at the animal up close.  Kedaira would never have attacked the six year old boy, but the village men didn't understand that.  By the time Tarrin got there, Kedaira had put six village men down and had put herself the boy and the villagers, defending the crying child from what she thought were attackers.  Kedaira's teeth and the claws on her forearms were formidable, but it was the scythe-like oversized middle claw on each of her feet which were her real weapons.  They rested in a vertical position, and when she snapped them down to attack, they carried the force of a sword swung by a powerful warrior, capable of slicing flesh, sinew, and even bone.  She'd used those on the village men who were attacking her with farm tools, tearing up the six she'd gotten so far pretty thoroughly.  It took Tarrin almost five minutes to calm Kedaira down, but it took him even longer to calm down the villagers to the point where they would put down their makeshift weapons.  After he managed that, he healed the village men who had been injured, then turned and berated them for acting so foolishly, reminding them time and again that the village had consistent and cordial contacts with the Woodkin, then chiding them for acting so judgemental when the village was renowned in the Frontier as one of the most open-minded and accepting villages along the Heartwood's borders.  He bored into them with example after example of how the village had accepted visits from Centaurs and Giants, Druids and Were-kin, yet they could not accept the presence of the inu, an animal he had personally vouched for as to her behavior.  They all seemed a bit defiant until he mentioned in passing that perhaps Aldreth wasn't such a good place for the Woodkin to come and trade.  The gold and pelts and other valuable forest commodities that the Woodkin brought to trade for good leathers or steel tools or good shoes or any number of other goods the villagers supplied to them was one of the reasons that the village was so prosperous, and that had been the threat that they couldn't ignore.  After that, the villagers backed off.

      Sometimes children surprised Tarrin.  After calming down a bit following the short battle in the arms of his mother, Olin again approached the inu, who was standing by herself in the spot Tarrin told her from which not to move.  Tarrin and the villagers were too engaged with shouting at each other to notice the boy, and by the time Olin's mother did notice, it was a bit too late.  Tarrin turned to see that Kedaira had hunkered down to let the boy touch the small crest on the top of her head, then he giggled as she snuffled at his shirt to learn his scent  Tarrin used Sorcery to block Olin's mother and any other villager who tried from running over there and starting another fight, making them watch as Kedaira and Olin got to know each other.  Tarrin pointed out more than once as they watched how gentle and cautious the inu was being to make sure she didn't accidentally hurt the boy.  He then reminded them yet another time that the inu would obey him utterly, and he had specifically told her not to hurt villagers or kill their livestock or pets.  Olin's mother countered with Kedaira's injuring of the men who attacked her, but then Tarrin told her that no animal would allow itself to be injured, just as no man would stand there and let another hit him with a stick.  He had to explain to them that because he was a Druid, the inu would obey him utterly.  Attitudes began to waver when he proved it, ordering Kedaira to do several tricks to prove that to them.

      It took a while, but Tarrin eventually convinced the villagers that Kedaira would do no harm.  He had healed the injuries from the brief tussle, proved that the animal was no threat, and eventually dragged a promise out of the villagers not to harass the inu when she showed up in the village, but in return he had to agree to come get her whenever someone complained about her, no matter what the reason.  All in all, Tarrin was content with the compromise.  He didn't want to banish Kedaira from the village, because he wanted her to get more and more experience operating in a civilized area with the rules that usually accompanied it, like not attacking people or domesticated animals.  This way, Kedaira would get experience wandering around a place where she had restrictions on her, just as she would have to do at the Selani camp.

      After that, Kedaira wasn't a problem anymore.  Tarrin had her for another ride and a half, until Allia finally told him that she'd struck a deal with her father.  Unfortunately, the deal required Tarrin to come to the desert and have a little talk with the flock of sukk that her tribe owned and instruct them that that particular inu was no threat to them.  Surprisingly enough, Tarrin wasn't sure about that.  He'd wanted to see Allia's tribe and meet her father, but coming under such circumstances, when father and daughter weren't on the best of terms, didn't seem like quite a good idea.  He told Allia as much, but she just laughed and told him that half the reason her father had made that stipulation was because he wanted to meet Tarrin.  There were Druids in the desert, and they could have easily tracked one of them down and asked for his assistance.  But they both wanted Tarrin to do it.  Allia wanted him to do it because she missed him and wanted to spend some real time with him, not just talk to him through the amulet or while he was projecting.  Jenna was supposed to make an item that would let Allia Teleport to Tarrin's house, but she hadn't finished it yet.  They had seen one another at least once every day because Tarrin could project out to visit with her, but Allia wanted him there in person, where they could touch.  Not just a visit from "half of him," as Allia put it.

      There was nothing he could deny to Allia.  They were too close for him to ever say no.  He agreed to do it, despite his misgivings.  That made her happy, and they agreed to meet at the ruins of Mala Myrr, the only place in the desert to which Tarrin could Teleport, in five days.

      What Tarrin hadn't counted on was the backlash he got from home.  Jesmind was not happy that he was leaving, and neither was Mist.  Jesmind shouted at him that he'd done enough, and he didn't have to go rushing off to help anyone else do anything.  Mist was angry with him because when she asked to go with him, he refused.  Mist didn't understand the complexities involved with the Selani.  He couldn't take anyone they'd consider an outsider, or he'd be violating their laws.  Being a branded member of Selani society, he simply couldn't do that.  Jesmind got even more furious when he told her no for the same reason.  The only ones he could take would be his children, because they were blood relation to him.  Not even his mate Jesmind qualified as a spouse, because they hadn't been married under the vows of Selani custom.  Until that happened, she was nothing in the eyes of Selani culture.

      Of course, when Jasana and Eron heard that, they went wild with anticipation, and they asked to go.  Tarrin refused, and then the very short war began.  They were going to go to the Desert of Swirling Sands, and they weren't about to take no for an answer.  Eron by himself was no threat, but Jasana was more than enough threat for all four children.  She was still a cunning and manipulative little schemer, despite everything that had happened, and it didn't take her long to formulate a plan to wear her father's objections away and defeat him with utter determination.  She knew that no amount of cajoling, pleading, wheedling, or screaming would ever sway her father.  When it came to him, it required relentless, endless, utterly focused and intense pestering to get anything out of him, but pestering carried out very carefully, so as not to raise their father's rather formidable temper.  Jasana knew that by herself, she didn't have the endurance to overcome her father and get her own way...but with Eron to help her, the one child in the house with boundless energy, she knew she had enough gunpowder to set off the cannon.

      What they didn't understand was that Tarrin wasn't forbidding them to go simply out of spite or a hasty decision.  The desert was a dangerous place, and he wasn't about to take two over-curious cubs to a place where curiosity could get them killed.  Selani children were thoroughly educated about the dangers of their homeland before they were so much as let outside of arm's reach of a parent.  He knew that the instant his back was turned, Eron was going to stick his paw into a zubu burrow.  He'd bet money on it.  Keeping an eye on his two cubs would keep him too preoccupied to watch for the other dangers the desert posed.  Fara'nae may like him, but she wasn't going to intercede because of his own bad judgement.  She was a caring and devoted goddess, but she didn't reward blatant stupidity.

      The war started the day they decided they were going to the desert with him, and Jasana started it.  She asked to go, and he said no.  Then she kept asking, and kept asking, and kept asking.  Tarrin's mood and his patience with his daughter deteriorated rapidly over the course of the day, and when Jasana sensed that she was about to get heavily punished for her refusal to obey her father, she backed off.  Then Eron started in on his father.  Eron was a much more effective pest than Jasana, because he talked fast when he was excited and couldn't stand still, which forced Tarrin to constantly shift his gaze to keep his eyes on his son and forced him to pay more attention in order to make out what Eron was saying.  He couldn't simply tune Eron out as he could Jasana.  Over and over, again and again, Eron asked to go to the desert, and Tarrin was forced to stop what he was doing--currently putting a new string on the bow he'd had since he was a kid, a bow he'd treated with magic to be able to use in his Were-cat form--and tell him no again and again.  After nearly an hour of constant badgering, Tarrin fixed a baleful gaze on Jasana, who was trying to act innocent over at the table with her mother as Jesmind taught her how to sew leather into clothing.  It didn't take him long to figure out that Jasana had enlisted Eron in her mission to get to go to the desert.  Tarrin stood up and flatly told both of them that they weren't going, and if either of them asked again, he'd cut off their tails and hang them from the ceiling by the ears until he came back.  Both of them had the sense not to press any further after that.  That final salvo ended the war, with Tarrin the victor.

      Realizing that she overplayed her hand and erred in giving Eron instructions on how to pester their father, Jasana changed tactics.  Tarrin had absolutely no idea how she did it, but the next day, when Tarrin talked to Allia, she asked him if he'd bring the children.  He knew that Jasana had somehow gotten word to Allia that she wanted to go to the desert, but he couldn't figure out how in the world she managed it.  He asked Allia the next day, and she told him that Jasana projected out to see her and ask her personally if she could come, conveniently leaving out the fact that her father had already told her no.

      Though he was furious with Jasana that she would do something like that, try to go over his head as it were and seek permission from Allia personally, he was silently thrilled at how she had done it.  Jasana was terrified of joining to the Weave and projecting.  It was a phobia for her, and he'd been trying to break her of it for months.  Obviously, she was so intent on going to the desert that she was willing to overcome her fear of joining the Weave and project out to see Allia.  It proved to him that, if she was properly motivated, Jasana was capable of overcoming her phobia.

      This bit of news was welcome, but Tarrin's resistance to taking Jasana to the desert began to wane as he realized that this would be a perfect opportunity to refresh his scheming little cub about the dangers of getting her own way.  If she wanted to go to the desert, that was fine with him.  He would make sure that it would be quite an educational experience.  So, the next day, Tarrin proposed to her a challenge.  He was going to Teleport somewhere and wait ten minutes.  If she could find him and project out to him, he would let her and Eron go to the desert with him.  He saw the fear creep into her eyes almost immediately, but he saw an equal determination appear in them as well.  He Teleported to Dala Yar Arak on a whim, in the same grass field where the circus had put their tents, and waited.

      And as surely as clockwork, Jasana's projected image appeared about five minutes later.  She was trembling and looked decidedly uncomfortable, but she was doing exactly what she was afraid to do.  Again, she had overcome her fear in pursuit of something she wanted.  It showed how determined Jasana could be to get what she wanted.  For the first time, he had used that trait in her for her own good.

      His elation at this breakthrough was muted a bit when he realized just to where he had Teleported.  He was literally in Shiika's front yard, and his presence invoked a response from the Demoness, in the form of one of her Alu children, Anayi.  Tarrin's relationship with the Demoness and her five daughters were both complicated and not very good, but Anayi had helped him in the past, and in a way she was the only one of them he would even come close to calling a friend.  That was probably why Shiika had sent her.  Anayi was there to find out what Tarrin wanted, but after he told her he was just there for a few minutes, they glossed over the complex niceties that were usually exchanged between Tarrin and any of the Demons of Yar Arak that prevented misunderstandings and graphic violence, and they had a rather nice little chat.

      He learned alot in that little chat.  All was not well in the house of Shiika.  Anayi was the wild one among the cambisi, possessed of more will and independence than the others.  She was also a great deal smarter than her sisters.  That made her good for Shiika to use in independent missions where she couldn't be there to watch over her, but lately it had become a raw point between them.  Anayi wanted to learn Wizard magic.  She was smart enough for it, and Shiika herself was a very accomplished Wizard.  But her mother had absolutely refused to teach Anayi any Wizard magic.  This infuriated Anayi, who had always done everything she was told to do, done it well, and had never failed her mother in any way or in any mission.  She felt it was her right to reap the rewards of her faithful service, and she wanted that reward to be instruction in Wizard magic.  Tarrin himself couldn't quite fathom why Shiika wouldn't train her, but she obviously had to have some kind of reason. Odds were, it was a very abstract one, given that she was a Demon and Demons didn't think in a manner that was understandable to most mortals.  Either way, it was nothing in which he was about to stick his nose.  He knew better than that.  Getting between Shiika and Anayi would be about the same as strapping slabs of meat to himself and marching into a den of ravenous wolverines.

      That meant that it was about time to go.  He bid his farewells to Anayi and returned home, fully intent to hold fast to his promise.  He would take Jasana and Eron with him when he went to the Desert of Swirling Sands to return Kedaira to Allia.  And he would make sure that Jasana would have a holiday she would never forget.


To:       Title                EoF    

Chapter 2

 

      When Tarrin and his children appeared in the center of the destroyed arena at Mala Myrr, not far from the marble tomb of Faalken, he fully expected to feel the desert's heat, maybe be in the middle of a storm, and he expected to see Allia waiting for him somewhere very close by.  Much to his surprise, she had yet to arrive.  That was unlike his Selani sister; when she said she would be somewhere at a certain time, she was there.

      "Stop!" Tarrin said sharply almost immediately, without even having to look.  Eron froze in his tracks almost in mid-run, starting to dash off towards something that got his attention.  "This isn't home, cub.  Everything here has a hidden danger, and you never go rushing off into things you don't understand," he told him in a measured, almost stately pace.  "If you don't behave, I'll send you home.  Remember that."

      "Yes, Papa," Eron said quickly.  Both of his children had been thoroughly warned that if they didn't behave, if they caused absolutely any trouble whatsoever, and the very first time either of them disobeyed him, he would send them home.  It wasn't an easy thing to make them appreciate the danger of the desert, because children never saw danger in much of anything, but he finally drilled it into them by giving them that ultimatum.  Eron padded back over to his father and grabbed the end of his tail, a gesture of obedience.

      Tarrin looked around as Kedaira hunkered down patiently, then he put his paw on his amulet.  "Allia, where are you?" he asked.

      "I'm about an hour from the outskirts of the city," she replied immediately.  "We were delayed by a sandstorm, brother.  Do you want to meet me halfway, or shall one of us wait for the other?"

      "I'll meet you halfway, deshaida," he answered.  "Who's with you?"

      "Only Allyn," she answered.

      Tarrin chuckled.  "No wonder you're so late," he teased.

      "He heard that, brother," Allia laughed.  "He said he's going to get you for that."

      "He can certainly try."

      "Who are you talking to, Papa?" Eron asked.

      "He's talking to Aunt Allia, you nit!  Who else would he be talking to?" Jasana chided sharply, smacking him on the shoulder.  Eron smacked her back, and they were suddenly wrestling around on the ground.

      "Cubs!" Tarrin said sharply, causing both of them to freeze, then he sent pulses of his awareness out into the Weave.  They quickly locked onto Allia's power, and he knew which direction to go and how far away she was.  Given that it would take them nearly an hour to get free of the ruins, they'd meet right on the outskirts.

      "I have you, brother.  We're on the way."

      "Alright, looks like we'll meet in about an hour."

      "See you then."

      Tarrin broke the connection and looked towards the southeast, the direction in which Allia was.  He'd never really gone that way before.  He'd come through the western and eastern parts of the city, but hadn't really fanned out into the northern and southern sections of it before.  Mala Myrr was a huge ruin, probably one of the largest of the ancient cities of the Dwarves, and there was quite a bit of it that he hadn't seen.  Certainly not for wanting to see it.  The Dwarves were a favorite topic of his, for he had a great deal of respect for a race so willing to stand in the face of evil, even when it meant their total destruction.  In the six months since the destruction of Val, he'd made a couple of trips to the library in the Tower and gotten some books about the Dwarves.  They hadn't said very much, since the race was destroyed over five thousand years ago, but there were quite a few illustrations of ancient Dwarven artifacts and descriptions of some of the ruins thought to have been their cities.  Most of which, to his surprise, were underground; Mala Myrr was one of the very few Dwarven cities that was built above ground.  In fact, he still had one of those books, a book that tried without much success to decipher the written language of the Dwarves, what the author had dubbed Duthak, which was the Dwarven word for their own kind.  Actually, the book was more of a written account of the author's attempts to decipher the language and his study of the extinct race more than anything else.  He had made some interesting observations about the Dwarves, but Tarrin wasn't sure if they were right or not.

      Once again, Tarrin remembered the Dwarven art that the Goddess had removed from Mala Myrr.  He realized that she still hadn't told him where it was.  Alright, Mother, where did you put it? Tarrin finally asked directly, within the vaults of his own mind.

      There came a silvery laugh.  It currently decorates my palace in the dimension where I truly exist, she replied.  And you can't have it back.  I've grown quite fond of it.

      "That's alright, Mother.  I'm certain I can find a few interesting pieces here before we go home."

      Eron looked at him strangely, but Jasana had an understanding look about her.  Sometimes he wondered if Jasana could hear it when he spoke to the Goddess, since she was so strong as a Sorcerer.

      "Oooh, Papa, is that Faalken's tomb over there?" Eron asked excitedly, pointing to a pristine marble building in the middle of the arena floor, shaped like a hammer.

      "Yes, cub," Tarrin answered quietly, looking at it and remembering his old friend, and marvelling at how much of an impact Faalken had had on his life, both during his own life and after his death.  Even now, so long after it had happened, even after the mission to protect the Firestaff was over, he still couldn't think of his old friend without a wistful smile and a pang of guilt.

      "Can we go look at it?" he asked impatiently.

      "Alright, but you will not touch.  Do you understand?"

      "I won't!" Eron promised immediately, then let go of his father's tail and bolted towards the marble mausoleum.

      Tarrin guessed that since he was there, he may as well pay his respects.  He padded towards the building at a much slower pace than his son, with Kedaira and Jasana following him closely.  There was alot of history bound up in this place, the floor of the ruined arena where he and Jegojah had had their last fight.  Over there on that toppled wall was where he'd suffered such a fit of outrage that he had unleashed the power of High Sorcery on the unsuspecting Jegojah, after the Doomwalker had called on Faalken's rotted body for assistance.  That was when he'd discovered what they'd done to his old friend.  They were hoping that the shock of it would make him drop his guard long enough for either Jegojah or Faalken to finish him off, but it had a completely different effect.  The gouge in the earth was still there from where Jegojah tried to sink into the earth to escape, but Tarrin had ripped him out of it as if he was a long-rooted weed.  It was filled with sand now, a patch of beige on the reddish brown floor of the arena, with its hard-packed surface of earth and soft clay.  Tarrin glanced over and saw the hole in the skyline from where the buildings that they had toppled had once stood.  The battle between Tarrin and Jegojah had ranged out of the arena, and they'd done some damage to the city in the course of it.  That was why Tarrin had removed all the Dwarven art and artifacts from all the buildings surrounding the arena, because he didn't want any of the priceless artifacts to be damaged.  Even now, over a year after the battle, Tarrin could remember every stone, every pit and scratch on every one of those stones, and the place had such a feel of famliarity to him, like his own home, that he felt perfectly at ease here.  He had spent days studying and memorizing the layout of the arena and the city surrounding it to give him every possible advantage over Jegojah, and in the end it had paid off.

      It was a violent past, but in many ways, it had been the beginning of modern history.  It was here that Tarrin and Jegojah made peace between them, after Tarrin freed the Doomwalker's soul from the Soultrap.  Jegojah later became a key element of the battle of Suld, killing Kravon before he could use that evil artifact he had to raise another wave of undead to battle, slaying him with that evil sword that caused anyone who was struck by it to bleed uncontrollably and suffer excruciating pain.

      That evil weapon was now sitting in Tarrin's bedroom, because he didn't want anything like that laying around where someone could find it in one of the Tower's many storerooms, and besides, it had been Jegojah's, and it was the one material possession he had that served as a reminder and memorial of the long dead Shacèan general.  Tarrin didn't have that one sitting out where someone may pick it up and cut him or herself by accident.  Jegojah's sword was in the trunk at the foot of his bed, the one thing in the house that absolutely everyone in the house knew, even Jesmind, that the were not to open.  Tarrin held his most personal effects in that trunk, as well as some objects which were exceedingly dangerous.  Jegojah's sword was the most dangerous of them all.

      Because of what happened here, history was written in the way Tarrin would have preferred.  It was here that Jegojah became an ally, it was here where he finally came to terms with Faalken's death and put both him and the darkness of the memory that he had caused his friend's death to final peace, and it was here where he had looked inside the workings of a Soultrap, which had allowed him to duplicate the magic of it and prepare the vessel by which his life was saved after he destroyed both Val and himself.  There was alot of history here, as well as the site where so much history had been made.  Both personal and historical.

      While Eron rushed around the tomb to look at it from every angle, Tarrin stood silently before it, his eyes half-closed and a wan, distant expression on his face.  Sometimes he thought he'd never completely put Faalken's death behind him.  Even now, he couldn't think of the Knight without a pang of guilt over having played a part in his death.  He doubted that the cherubic Knight would appreciate him pining like that, but sometimes one just couldn't help but do such things.  Memories of him floated through Tarrin's memory, and those made him smile.  His favorite memory was the time he cut all the hair off one side of Azakar's head.  To this day, he couldn't figure out how he managed to get in there and shave half of Azakar's head without waking the Mahuut up.  He was a very capable and dependable man, but he was never one that got so caught up in himself or his work that he couldn't have a little fun.  Him and Sarraya would have gotten along absolutely famously, had they ever have had the chance to meet.

      But he was not there to visit.  He had to meet Allia, and they had a ways to go.  He didn't want to have them have to come into the city.

      "Alright, cubs, come with me," he said.  "I'll tell you right now, don't touch anything if you don't know exactly what it is, don't come within the length of your tail to any animals you may see, even insects, and don't ever leave sight of me.  Do you understand?"

      "Yes, Papa," they said in unison.

      "Kedaira, keep an eye on the cubs and make sure they don't stray," he told the inu in the Druid's manner, which was simply willing that the animal understand him.  The mottled predator growled shortly in reply, stalking up to the two cubs and hovering right behind them.  She would make sure that both of them remembered that promise.

      Using his lock on Allia, Tarrin guided them steadily southwest, even as he felt the sense of his sister grow nearer.  She was travelling towards him as he travelled towards her, but where she travelled over the rocky expanses on the edges of the city, Tarrin moved along a sandy broad avenue that seemed to run all the way to the edge of the city.  It was flanked by progressively smaller stone buildings, most of which were still standing despite some five thousand years of exposure to the winds and scouring sands of the desert.  This section of the city had been buried in sand the last time he was there, and he figured that the large number of standing buildings meant that this part of the city was buried more often than not...or so he thought.  Or maybe most of the buildings were still standing because it hadn't been buried most of the time.  Tarrin regarded them as they walked, with the cubs close behind him and Kedaira following behind, trying to imagine what the city looked like when there were Dwarves here.  It wouldn't have been a desert, that was for sure.  The desert was created after the Blood War, a scar of that terrible war, during climatic changes that were brought about because of the raw power that the Demons and the denizens of Sennadar hurled at each other, enough power to change the climate.  The entire region in the center of the desert had been burned to ash, and the shift in the climate didn't allow anything to grow back, creating the desert that had more than tripled in size since those days.  Mala Myrr supposedly had been situated on a grassy plain back then, in a lush area much like the bread basket that the Free Duchies were now.  Tarrin tried to envision an entire city full of Dwarves, who the histories said were short, stocky, widely built beings that were broad-featured and physically powerful.  All of them wore beards, even the women, which surprised him when he saw a picture of a female dwarf with her beard divided up into three braids that hung off her chin like dark icicles.  He'd never seen a female with a beard before, but then again, the ancient Dwarves probably would have thought it strange that females of other species were bare-faced.  The histories said they were about five spans tall on the average, which meant that one of them would top out right about at his belt.  They also said that they were warriors without peer, as well as the best stonemasons, miners, and builders that the ancient world had ever seen.  Their building skills were displayed here in this city, where their buildings were still standing strong after five thousand years.

      Such a terrible waste.  Tarrin had always had something of a fascination with the ancient Dwarves, because he, like many others, could find nothing but towering respect for a race willing to die to the last man, woman, and child to defend the world from the Demons.  The Dwarves, the Hobbits, and the Gnomes all died out in the Blood War--or at least everyone thought that the Gnomes had; since becoming a Were-cat, he'd learned that there were a few Gnomes still alive, but they never came into contact with humans.  The Dwarves had fought to the last man, the Hobbits had been exterminated during the Blood War by the Demons, because their homeland was what was now Nyr, and had been in the direct path of the Demons as they advanced out of northern Arathorn, and the Gnomes, which had always been very few in number, had their only two cities overrun and destroyed by the Demons as they crossed over what was now the Sandshield Mountains that separated the desert from Arkis.  There were only a handful of Gnomes left, a couple of hundred at the most, and Triana expected that their race would finally succumb and die out within a thousand years, the final casualty of the Blood War.

      The Blood War had wiped out three races, but it had created two others in its stead and radically changed a third.  It had caused a rift among the Sha'Kar, and those rifts were what created the Selani and the Wikuni, and the Sha'Kar that remained tried to come to terms with the great violence and carnage that they had perpetrated during the war.  Some Sha'Kar fled to avoid facing what had happened, and they had become the Selani.  Some had left the Known World for lands that hadn't been devastated, and they became the Wikuni.  Those that remained underwent a cultural revolution, becoming a race of pacifistic beings who abhorred violence, but trained and prepared for the day when they may have to protect the world from Demons once again.  They had become the katzh-dashi, or more to the point, they had founded the order, and most of the traditions and rituals that existed among the katzh-dashi could be traced directly back to the Sha'Kar who had created them.

      Tarrin mused about that, and about his own personal history in this place, and realized that even the worst events could sometimes have positive effects, if one looked far enough into the future.  The Blood War had been a grievous and absolutely devastating thing, but there had been some good to come of it.  But that good could not balance the destruction that was wrought in the wake of the rampaging Demons.

      For the first time, Tarrin wondered why it was called the Blood War.  Usually a war had a name that in some way explained what the war was about, or where it had been fought.  The War of the Morning over in Wikuna was a good example of that, the one-day battle between Keritanima and Damon Eram over the Sun Throne of Wikuna.  But what kind of name was the Blood War?  It had to have some kind of significance or meaning, probably one lost over the thousands of years since it had happened.

      They continued down the avenue until it opened into what looked to be some kind of square or open area, maybe a place for open-air markets.  It was an empty space devoid of rubble, but there were tiny little bumps and occasional depressions in the sandy ground, ground that was not paved like most of the other streets.  About a quarter or a third of the square was covered in a very shallow sand drift, from where sand had been blown in during a sandstorm and collected up on the leeward side of buildings and obstacles.  The sand had built up on the lee side of a low wall and long three story building on the east side of the square, which covered the eastern quarter of the square.  What was more, there was something about the place that was tickling at Tarrin's awareness, like there was something here that was unusual.  Tarrin slowed down as he looked around, then he knelt by one of the little mound-like bumps in the sandy ground.  It was dirt, not sand, hard-packed, but it had a patch of sand on its leeward side from where it broke the wind and gave the blowing sand a place to fall without being carried away by the wind.  There was a bit of metallic glint at the top of it, and when he reached down and touched the mound, the realized that it contained the skeletal remains of a Dwarf, still clad in his pristine, uncorroded armor.  He had found one such skeleton the first time he was here, buried in a sand drift, and he wondered what it was about the desert that prevented the bones from decaying into dust.

      "Bones," Eron said, brushing some hard-packed dirt away from the mound and exposing a metal gauntlet with two arm bones protruding from it.

      "It looks like they had a battle here," Tarrin said, looking around.  "I think they tried to slow the Demons down so the others could escape."

      "Who, Papa?"

      "The Dwarves, Jasana," he answere, shooing Eron away from the mound to keep him from tearing it up in his curiosity.  "This city was built by the Dwarves."

      "Who are they, Papa?" Eron asked.

      "Cub, do you ever listen to me?" Tarrin asked in more than a little exasperation.  "What do you think those big books I've been reading were about?"

      "I dunno, Papa.  You always seem to have a big book in your lap."

      Tarrin snorted and gave his son a sharp-eyed look.  "The Dwarves were a race of short, stocky people that all died in the Blood War.  I'm sure your mother has told you stories of that."

      "Yeah, but they always sounded like they were just stories."

      "They're true enough, cub," he said, standing up.  "The Dwarves died fighting the Demons."

      "All of them?" Jasana asked.

      "All of them," Tarrin replied.

      "That doesn't seem fair," Jasana fussed.

      "Life isn't fair, Jasana," he told her calmly as Kedaira snuffled around the mound without much curiosity.  "Come on, Allia's waiting for us.  Just don't walk on the mounds, cubs.  They're the graves of the Dwarves, and it's not very nice if you walk on them."

      They picked their way across the open area carefully, so as not to disturb the mounds, but Tarrin's sense of presence seemed to intensify as he crossed the square.  He realized that he was sensing magic, but it was a very old magic, so old that the sense of it had seeped into the area surrounding it.  Tarrin could sense it more clearly for every step he took, until he could tell exactly where it was.

      "What's that strange feeling, Papa?" Jasana asked.

      "It's magic, cub," he said, turning towards one of the larger mounds, his curiosity piqued.  "Probably some magical object that's been laying here since these Dwarves died.  Strange that it survived the Breaking.  I haven't sensed any other magic in the city, and I've explored a good part of it."

      "Why would that be strange?"

      "Most of the old magic was destroyed in the Breaking, cub," he answered her.  "Only a handful of objects survived, and most of them completely by accident.  Something here survived the Breaking, but it's so old, I'm not sure what it is."

      Whatever it was, it was indeed at the largest of the little mounds.  Tarrin knelt by it and brushed sand off its top.  It too was covered in hard-packed dirt, dirt that had somehow not been scoured down by the sandstorms that blew through the region.  Curious to find out what was there but reluctant to disturb the grave, Tarrin turned to Sorcery.  He sent weaves of Earth and Divine down into the mound to determine what was inside it, and found that it was entombing a large Dwarf wearing a heavy suit of that same armor.  The magical sense was emanating from that armor, he realized, or more to the point, the magic was surrounding the skeleton within the armor.  It had to be the armor.  This Dwarf had magically augmented armor, but even that had not been enough to save him from the Demons.

      "Oooh, Papa, look!" Eron said excitedly, pulling something out of the ground a few spans from the mound.

      Tarrin looked up and saw Eron holding a dirt-crusted object.  The young Were-cat shook off the excess, and Tarrin realized that his son was holding an axe.  It was a battle axe, a weapon of war, with a gleaming silvery double-headed axe head with a thrusting spike between the two crescents.  It was affixed to a haft of what looked to have been leather-wrapped metal; no, now that he looked at it, the entire weapon looked to be made of one piece of metal.  There were duthak runes etched into the axe head, as well as a strange symbol that looked like an angular mountain or pyramid with three lines running horizontally in its center.

      "Give it here, cub," Tarrin ordered, and the Were-cat boy surrendered his find to his father.  Tarrin felt its considerable weight as soon as it was put in his paw; it had taken Eron both arms to hold it up.  Someone like Dolanna wouldn't even be able to pick it up off the ground.  It was an impressively heavy weapon, but it had a different kind of metal at the base of its long haft that was heavier than the other metal of which it was constructed, to serve to balance the weapon when wielded.  It was apparent almost immediately that this was a weapon of truly exquisite craftsmanship, a weapon that had served its owner well through many battles, judging from the many faint scratches, nicks, and scars on the axe's heads, imperfections that had been buffed or polished out over the years.  Tarrin used his claws to dig the dirt out of the etched runes, seeing again the angular writing of the Dwarves that was all straight lines and sharp corners.  The Dwarves didn't seem to like a curved line, for there was not a single one in their writing.  He couldn't read it, and he had never seen that mountain symbol before, so the axe presented to Tarrin several interesting mysteries.  Its proximity to this large mound hinted that the Dwarf with the magical armor had been the one that had wielded this weapon, a weapon that was not itself magical, but Tarrin could sense that at one time in the past it had held an enchantment.  The magic within the axe had faded long ago, and it was lucky for the axe that the magic faded before the Breaking, or it would have been destroyed when the magic contained within it was disrupted by the tearing of the Weave.

      Again, Tarrin's eyes drifted back to that strange symbol.  It looked like a pyramid with its top corner chopped off to form a small flat plateau, or a steeply sloped mountain with no peak.  The bottom of the pyramid or mountain was not enclosed; the lines that turned towards one another to form its base did not meet, ending just inside the top edges of the small plateau at the top, forming an open-bottomed device.  Inside it were three horizontal lines, their lengths differing from one another, with the shortest on the top and the longest on the bottom.  Tarrin wiped more dirt away from that symbol, and then used his clawtip to dig the dirt out of the etchings, but found no other symbols or features concerning that unusual glyph.  What made it strange was that it was ten times larger than the duthak writing which surrounded it.  This symbol had some significant importance.  It could be that the weapon itself was special in some way, or it had been made for someone of high military or social rank.  The craftsmanship of the weapon itself hinted that it was made for someone who could afford to have it made, so that wasn't an outrageous conclusion.

      "What is it, Papa?" Eron asked excitedly.

      "It's an axe, you nit!" Jasana told him irritably.  "You've seen Gramma's!"

      "But it has to be a special axe!" Eron retorted.  "I mean, I found it right here where all the Dwarf bones are, and Papa's looking at it real careful, and--"

      "It's a very, very old axe, cub," Tarrin cut him off in a quiet, distracted tone.  "It was probably used by one of these Dwarves."

      "Oooh, can I keep it?  Please?" Eron begged.

      "No, cub, this isn't something for you," Tarrin told him calmly.  "This is not a toy."  Tarrin looked at his son's crestfallen look, and he felt a little guilty for usurping it.  "But I tell you what.  Before we leave, we'll go into one of the buildings that's still standing and see if we can't find some little souvenirs, so you can take something back home with you.  Is that alright?"

      "I can't wait!" Eron said excitedly, completely forgetting about the axe.  Eron was easy to distract that way.  "I want to try that one!" he said, pointing at the largest building he could see, then he started running towards it.

      "Stop!" Tarrin barked.  "I didn't say now," he told his impulsive son as the Were-cat boy started shuffling back towards where Tarrin and Jasana were.

      "Can you read any of it, Papa?" Jasana asked, staring at the axe curiously.

      "No, cub.  I haven't found any books that translate the Dwarven language yet."

      "Papa," she said in a chiding tone.  "Just borrow the Book of Ages from Aunt Jenna.  I'm sure it has what you're looking for."

      Tarrin gave his daughter a surprised look, then he felt a little embarassed.  He hadn't thought of that.  And she was entirely right.  There would be a key in the Book of Ages for translating Dwarven, just as there was one within it for translating Sha'Kar.  In fact, there would be quite a bit of extra information in the Book of Ages about the Dwarves, like where their cities had been, what gods they worshipped, and most of their written history.  There wouldn't be detailed history within, such as the histories of cities or individuals, but there would be a great deal of information within about the Dwarven race as a whole, and the impact they had on the world before the Blood War.  If he dug, he could probably find more information about them in the Sha'Kar books, as well as the older Urzani tomes.  The Dwarves had been conquered right along with the humans, Hobbits, Goblinoids and Gnomes when the Urzani conquered the majority of the Known World.  Their Imperial histories would have some information in them about the Dwarves under Imperial domination.

      He realized that he'd only been playing at learning about the Dwarves before.  If he really wanted to learn, there were any number of places where he could look to find what he was looking for.

      "You're right, cub," Tarrin chuckled.  "I never thought of asking Jenna to borrow it."

      Kedaira made a series of hissing sounds, and then hunkered down and glared towards the large building towards which Eron had been running.  "What's the matter, Kedaira?" Tarrin asked as the inu suddenly turned wary and nervous.

      There was the tiniest of small tremors that shuddered underneath Tarrin's feet.  Tarrin put his paw down on the ground and felt another one, and when he was certain at what he was feeling, his ears suddenly laid back.  "Eron, come here right now," Tarrin said in a voice that would brook no disobedience.

      "What is it, Papa?" Jasana asked as Kedaira hissed threateningly, taking a step back.

      "There's a kajat close by," he answered in a quiet tone.  "Kedaira, come to me," he called.  "I'll keep the kajat off you."

      "Aren't those those really big ones that look something like Kedaira?" Eron asked in a hushed yet excited tone as the inu backed up until she was standing literally on top of the kneeling Tarrin.  Tarrin pushed the predator off of him and stood up, his eyes scanning the buildings facing him.  He knew he'd never smell the kajat, for they had a scent that was so much like sand and rock that it was impossible to detect unless he was right on top of it.  And if he was that close, then he was too close.

      "That's right, cub," Tarrin answered.

      "Ooooh, can I see it?"

      "Eron," Tarrin snapped in a low tone, "if you're close enough to see a kajat, then you're too close.  If you want to see what a kajat looks like, I'll show you an Illusion of one later.  But right now, the last thing I want to see is a kajat."

      "Just magic it, Papa," Eron said dismissively.

      "I'd rather not do that unless I don't have any other choice," he answered.  "I don't want to do any damage to the city, and I don't want it knocking down buildings trying to get past my magic to eat us."

      "Just talk to it," Jasana reasoned.

      "That's not easy when you're trying to talk a hungry predator out of eating you," he told her.  "When they're like that, sometimes they don't listen.  I'm not about to take the chance."  He felt another tremor, and realized the kajat was trying to circle around behind them so it would have a chance to get close enough to run one of them down before they spotted it.  They were massive animals, but they could move with blazing speed for short distances.  They were ambush hunters, not predators that ran down prey over a distance like lions or wolves, but they would try to run down a meal if they felt that they could get close enough.

      Tarrin weighed his options.  The kajat wasn't going to give up, not now.  It knew they were there, and that meant that a confrontation was inevitable.  Tarrin didn't want to deal with the animal here, because it may damage the ruins, and Tarrin didn't want that to happen.  He wouldn't fight, and he didn't feel like trying to slip away from the animal, so that left the third option; using magic.  But instead of trying to deal with the kajat, he would use it to get out of its reach.

      "Move in close, cubs," he ordered.  "I'll have an Elemental carry us out of here."

      "Oh, boy!" Eron said in excitement.  "I love flying!"

      Putting his will against the Weave, Tarrin wove a spell of Air and Divine, and then felt it reach inward, breaching the barriers between his dimension and another.  Once it did that, he felt it call out on the other side, and when a reply came, he used the spell to build a construct of Air and Divine flows, forming a shell of sorts.  He felt the awareness that had answered his call on the other side of the dimensional barrier flow through the hole he had opened, then fill the magical construct he had woven for it.  The force occupied the provided host and then grounded itself into it, and then two pools of light appeared within the invisible shell as the force fully animated his magic.  He felt the mental link between him and the magical construct form, which informed him that the spell was complete and it had been successful.

      It was an Air Elemental; or more to the point, it was his Air Elemental.  The same Elemental being answered a Sorcerer's call every time a Sorcerer used the magic to summon Elementals, forming a symbiotic relationship where the Elemental performed services for the Sorcerer, and fed off the magic that the Sorcerer supplied to allow it to come into this dimension in form of payment.  The Sorcerer benefitted from the Elemental's aid, and the Elemental gained power from the service as payment.  A mutually benefitting relationship, the best kind to have.  Tarrin and his Air Elemental weren't just partners, they happened to be friends.  Tarrin made a habit of summoning all four of his Elementals at least once every ten days, even if he had no need for them.  Elementals gained power from being summoned, and since it was the same Elemental every time he Conjured it, he wanted his Elementals to be strong as well as prove to them that choosing to answer Tarrin's call the first time he tried to summon them had not been a mistake.  He made sure his four Elemental partners were well rewarded for their decision to serve Tarrin, and they repaid his attention to their needs and willingness to help them by always performing to the best of their abilities.  The Elementals that served Sorcerers were probably the most loyal of all Elementals that the orders of magic could summon or conjure, because of the special relationship involved.

      "I need a favor, old friend," Tarrin addressed the Elemental as soon as it was fully formed and cognizant of the material world.  Tarrin never ordered his Elementals, he always requested their help.  He was ever aware of the fact that an Elemental Conjured by a Sorcerer was not forced to answer the call.  If he infuriated his Elemental, it may not come when he truly needed it.  So he was always careful to be polite and not seem overbearing.  "There's a kajat stalking around out there, and I'd rather not get into a fight.  Could you pick us up and move us to the southwest edge of this ruin?"

      The Elemental agreed in a rather jovial manner, and Tarrin felt the Air Elemental move forward to envelop them.  Tarrin hastily told Kedaira that they were going to be picked up off the ground and carried somewhere safe.  He didn't have to worry about his children, for they had had contact with his Elementals before, and had even ridden along with the Air Elemental a few times.  A strong wind blew over them, and then it swirled and converged around them, creating a small dusty vortex with them at its core.  Kedaira hissed in surprise when the wind gently picked them up off the ground and up into the air, but the inu didn't panic, trusting in the word of a Druid.  They were lifted over the buildings, and Tarrin got a good view of the ruins from above.  The northern sections of the city were buried in sand, but not enough to hide the buildings that were still standing.  Last time he was here, it was the southern sections of the city that were buried.  A testament to the shifting nature of the desert.  The city sat inside an interconnection between two very shallow and very wide valleys, forming a giant X when seen from high in the air, and the city filled its valley from one side to the other.  The hills on either side were not large, gentle, sloping hills that had been eroded by the howling winds of the desert, marking the natural borders in which the city was contained.  Those hills also allowed sand to pile up in the city, protected from being swept away by the winds.  Those winds were why the vast majority of the sand in the desert was piled up on the eastern and southern reaches of it, the natural depositing zone for the storms that weakened as they raged across the desert.  But some places, like the city, provided natural shelters from the wind, and as such were repositories for a great deal of sand, dust, and dirt.

      For a moment, Tarrin forgot everything and just revelled in the sensation of flying.  It was something he loved very much, a sense of freedom and liberty that couldn't quite be matched by anything one could feel on the ground.  When he was in the air, no matter how he was doing it, he always felt a thrill and a feel of exhileration.  Tarrin loved to fly, and though he was more than capable of doing it by any number of magical means, he almost never did.  Even he didn't quite understand why, since he enjoyed it so much.  Almost as if he wouldn't indulge in something for its own sake, wouldn't use his magic to fly unless he had a good reason to do so.  Tarrin was like that, and he knew it.  He didn't show off using his magic, or use it for no reason.  Unless he could do something no other way, he almost never used magic.  It was something he'd been trying, without much success, to teach Jasana.  Jasana found her powers to be a bit too convenient for Tarrin's tastes.

      "I love doing this!" Eron laughed, holding out his arms as if they were wings as the Elemental carried them higher up, so it could survey the land below and decide just where southwest was, and find a suitable place to set down its passengers.

      "When can I conjure an Elemental, Papa?" Jasana asked plaintively.

      "When I've decided that you're mature enough not to abuse them," he answered bluntly.  "Elementals are not servants or pets, Jasana.  They're sentient beings, and you have to treat them with respect.  When you can prove to me that you're mature enough to handle the responsibility, I'll allow you to conjure your own."

      There wasn't much she could say to that.  Despite her incredible power, she was still a child, and she was positive that her father didn't think she was ready for an Elemental.

      "Don't forget, you promised we could look for souvenirs!" Eron said as the Elemental got closer and closer to the edge of the city.

      "I haven't forgotten," he assured him, then he addressed the Elemental.  "Don't set us down too far from the city, old friend.  Something on the edge will do just fine."

      The Elemental assured him it had a good landing area in its sight, and it began to descend.  Jasana and Eron both laughed when their stomachs seemed to rise up, but Kedaira hissed in surprise and started to writhe a bit.  Tarrin concentrated on keeping the inu calm, but it wasn't easy.  Despite the fact that she was a smart animal, she was still an animal, and she was dominated by her instincts.  She was experiencing something she neither had instincts to help her nor memory to assure her, so it was understandable that she wouldn't find it to be very pleasurable.

      The Elemental set them down on a wide avenue that ran right out to where the city wall had once stood, which had fallen down to form a ring of rubble that bordered the old city.  Tarrin hadn't crossed a city wall when he entered the city from the west the first time he was here, but it was possible that there had not been a wall there when the city was abandoned.  There were quite a few buildings still standing, more than enough for Jasana and Eron to have the opportunity to find something small that they could take home with them.  Tarrin thanked the Elemental for its service and allowed it to return to the dimension in which it resided, then he spent a few minutes calming Kedaira down the rest of the way as his children all but jumped up and down waiting for the chance to find something.  "In a minute," he told them as they clamored for the chance to explore, then he realized quite suddenly that he still had the axe in his paw.  He'd meant to put it back where Eron had found it, but he'd forgotten when the kajat had started stalking in on them.  He shrugged and sent it into the elsewhere; it was too far to go back, and besides, he could take it home and study it.  He tested the air with his nose to make sure that there were no animals lurking nearby.  There were some scents of umuni and the ever-present zubu, but they weren't very strong.  It seemed safe enough...perhaps this section of the city had only been unearthed recently, and the desert wildlife hadn't had time to move in with great numbers.

      "Alright, cubs, before we start looking around, I want you to understand what to do," he said, kneeling down so he could get closer to his children.  "When we go into the buildings, I want you to stay away from the corners.  You also can't put your paws into any small spaces, into jars or drawers or chests, or down inside holes.  There are small lizards called siktu and little brown snakes called zassu and big spiders called zubu that love those places, and they're very poisonous.  They may bite you."

      "But I wouldn't hurt them!" Eron protested.

      "They don't bite because they're angry, cub," Tarrin told him.  "They bite because when you go and stick your paw in like that, you surprise them.  A zubu or zassu won't bother you if it knows you're there.  As long as you leave it alone, it will leave you alone.  Siktu are another matter.  If you see any small lizard, no matter what color it is, stay away from it.  They're very aggressive.  If you hear it hiss, or hear any hissing at all, and if you hear something that sounds like a rattle, step backwards quickly and pull your paws and tail away from the ground.  Do you understand?"

      "Yes, Papa," they said in unison, Jasana putting her paws behind her back demurely.

      "If I find any, I'll show them to you so you can see them and know what they smell like.  And they're not the only dangerous animals here, cubs.  Treat absolutely every animal you find, even the smallest bug, like it was dangerous.  Because it is.  I don't think there's a single animal in the desert smaller than Kedaira that isn't poisonous."

      After getting vigorous nods of understanding, and after Tarrin told Kedaira to wait for them, they chose a building and went inside.  It had been filled with sand, and about a span of sand was still on the floor.  The rooms were small enough as it was; a span of sand on top of it forced Tarrin to literally crawl around within the building.  The sand covered everything but the tops of the furniture, which made finding anything require digging through the loose sand.  The upstairs wasn't covered in sand, and there they fared much better.  It looked that the building had been a residence, for the upstairs had what looked to be the stone frame of a bed in one room, whose mattress and covers had long decayed away to dust.  The empty frame shared the floor with a single empty chest and a small stand, but there was nothing else in the room.  Searches of the other two rooms yielded little more than dust and cobwebs, but the attic, which was so small that Tarrin was forced into cat form simply to gain entry, had two chests inside among piles of debris that were unrecognizable.

      "Carefully, there may be some nasty surprises inside," Tarrin warned in the manner of the Cat as Jasana moved to open one of the chests.

      "I don't smell anything that could be an animal, or a bug," Eron told her.

      "I'll be careful, Papa," Jasana said in a sober kind of voice that seemed unusual for her.  She often pretended to act like her grandmother, all grim and serious, but this was one of those rare instances when she really was being serious.  Tarrin watched as her small paws--at least small to him--flipped open the two latches, and she slowly pulled the chest's lid up.  It squealed loudly in protest, startling Eron a little, and the brass hinges broke when Jasana pushed the lid over and back down, toppling the chest lid to the floor behind it.

      Inside was alot of sand.  Tarrin wasn't sure how the sand had managed to get inside, but it had, somehow.  Jasana was too cautious to user her paws to fish around in it, instead she set her will against the Weave and used a weave of Earth and Air to pull all the sand out of the chest.  She did so slowly and carefully to prevent anything else that may have been in the chest from coming out with it, depositing it on the far side of the attic, well out of the way.

      Under the sand were several items.  One was a small pouch that looked to be made of some kind of very fine metal mail, as well as several small stone plaques of some kind that had duthak runes etched into them.   there were several very small figurines of some kind made of metal laying loose in the bottom of the chest, tiny figures holding a variety of axes, hammers, and swords, all of them looking to have the same build and shape as the Dwarves he'd seen in paintings and tapestries.  The little figurines were very, very detailed, even with what looked like individual hairs in the beards.  There were a few small stone balls that looked to have been painted different colors, as well as the unfinished head of what looked to be an axe, like it was taken from the blacksmith before he had a chance to finish.  There were several small rings made of some kind of gold-colored metal but weren't gold, for they didn't smell like gold.  There were four weird looking sticks of ivory cut into long rectangular shapes, about as long as Tarrin's smallest finger, and they had duthak runes etched into them.  There were different runes on each side.  The last thing they found in it was something that they could all identify, two pairs of ivory dice, yellow from great age, with small dots etched into their faces.

      "I wonder what these are," Eron mused, holding up one of the small stone plaques and looking at it.

      "They're only engraved on one side," Jasana told him as she picked up the mail pouch and carefully opened it.  She looked in, then snorted slightly and poured what looked to be small marbles into her palm.  "I think we found a Dwarf child's toybox, father," she told him.  "Dice, marbles, little balls, toy soldier men, they're all toys.  These plaques and those little sticks have to have something to do with children too."

      "I think you're right," he agreed as he put his front paws on the edge of the box and looked in.  "Alright, each of you can have something out of this box."

      "I want the soldiers!" Eron said immediately, reaching in to scoop them all up.

      "Why not just take all of it?" Jasana asked.

      "We're here to find souvenirs, not to loot, cub," Tarrin told her.  "Taking one or two things is alright.  Taking everything isn't."

      "Why not?" Jasana asked.  "There's nobody here, Papa.  Who's going to care?"

      "I am," he said, giving his cub a flinty look.

      "Alright, alright," she said quickly.  "If I can only have one thing, I'll take the bag of marbles."

      "Conjure your brother a bag so he can carry his toy soldiers, then come back down.  And don't touch anything else!" Tarrin ordered as he padded back towards the steep stairs leading back down to the second floor.  Jasana's Druidic powers were untrained and raw, but she did know how to Conjure.  He rarely allowed her to do so, and she respected that boundary.  Jasana understood completely how dangerous her Druidic magic was, because her grandmother had scared the life out of her explaining what would happen to her if she made a mistake.  Every once in a while Tarrin would allow her to perform a very minor Druidic spell, if only so she could gain more familiarity with those abilities.  Conjuring a small pouch for Eron was within her allowed boundaries.

      After they came back down, they left the sand-choked house and moved towards the edge of town, Jasana holding onto the mail bag full of marbles, and Eron had two of the small metal figurines out, one in each paw, studying them in wide-eyed interest with a large leather satchel much like the one Miranda carried around slung over his shoulder, obviously holding the rest of them.  He had them put their new possessions away and got them moving, out towards the edge of town, but he was moving relatively slowly, and he paused often to let his children rest, staring into the haze before them as he felt Allia come closer and closer.  That haze reminded Tarrin how hot it was in the desert, but all he had to do was look at his sweating son.  Jasana was immune to heat the same as he was, leaving Eron to be the only one not all that comfortable in the desert's midday heat.  But the boy was a Were-cat, and that meant that his system would adapt quickly to the heat, and his regenerative powers would protect him from any illness or injury caused by the heat or the sun.  In two days, the heat would be little more than an annoyance to him.  His skin was already starting to turn decidedly brown.

      "Is it always this hot out here?" Eron asked, panting a little.

      "In the summer, it's hotter," Tarrin told him in reply, motioning for them to stop and rest.  Tarrin Conjured water into the waterskin he'd Conjured earlier and handed it to his son, who drained the thing in a matter of seconds.

      "I wish heat didn't bother me like it doesn't you two," he complained, using the back of his paw to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

      Tarrin smiled and Conjured a piece of cloth, then tied it around his son's head.  His blond hair did well to reflect away the sun's heat, but it would do much better with something covering it over.  "It's going to make me hotter," he complained as he pulled at the head covering.

      "It'll keep the sun off your hair," he told him.  "This isn't home with its wet heat, cub.  Here, the sun is all the heat, and if you can keep the sun off you, you can keep cooler.  That's why the Selani cover themselves all up in those baggy clothes.  Here, the more you were, the cooler you stay."

      "That doesn't sound like it makes much sense."

      "The world doesn't make much sense, cub.  Just live with it."  He patted Eron on the shoulder, and then he glanced at Jasana, who was standing near the ruins of some old statue that had been sitting in the middle of the street.  It had toppled over, blocking half of the wide avenue, and five thousand years of scouring wind had worn the features off of the remains.  Tarrin could only just make out that the feet and some of the legs were still standing, and the rest of the vaguely humanoid figure was broken in several pieces laying across the street.

      "I wonder what it looked like," Jasana mused as Tarrin left Eron another skin of water and approached her.  Kedaira shuffled over and nuzzled him for water, and he gave her some water out of his own skin.  The tips of Jasana's ears were at the same level as his mid-thighs; the fact that she was a child and he was so tall was never so apparent as it was when he stood beside her.

      "We can find out," he told her as he knelt and touched the stone of the statue with his paw.  "There's a Druidic spell that lets someone see what something originally looked like."

      "I thought only Sorcerers can make Illusions."

      "That's right.  The image you see is within your own mind.  I can make an Illusion of it so you can see."  Tarrin reached within, through the Cat, and touched the endless, boundless power of the All.  The All looked into his mind and saw his intent, sensed his will, and then it responded by sending power back through the connection, through his paw, and into the stone.  Tarrin saw within his mind's eye how the statue looked when it was just made, and he in turn set his will against the Weave and spun out a spell of Illusion that resembled what the All was showing him.  The Illusion manifested before him, but it was only the size of Jasana herself.  It was a Dwarf, a rather stocky Dwarf wearing what looked to be leather smock, holding a hammer in one hand and a pair of heavy metal tongs in the other, the tongs gripping an axe head which were held against an anvil that was part of the statue's base.

      "That doesn't make any sense," Jasana fussed.

      "It's a blacksmith, cub," he told her in reply.  "This statue is of a blacksmith making an axe."

      "Why make a statue of a blacksmith?"

      "Because Dwarves loved to make things," he answered.  "From what I've read, they were builders and metalsmiths without equal when they were alive.  Most of the metal objects that were made back before the Blood War were made by the Dwarves.  I think this statue is a testament to one of the race's most renowned abilities."

      "I thought they were famous for building things, Papa.  Why not make a statue honoring that?"

      "I'd guess that there was another statue around here somewhere that showed that, cub," he surmised.  "Maybe several of them scattered around the city, all showing a different aspect of Dwarven life."

      "It doesn't make much sense for them to build those things," she pressed, motioning towards the Illusion.  "It's like they're bragging."

      "All races think they're better than every other race, cub," Tarrin chuckled.  "Even Were-cats."

      "But we are better than other races," Jasana said pointedly.

      Tarrin looked right into his daughter's eyes.  "Cub, if you really believe that, then you have alot more to learn than I thought."

      Tarrin walked away from his daughter, motioning for his cubs and the inu to follow.  It seemed that Jasana had alot to learn.   But the desert could be quite a teacher of things one needed to know.  Tarrin had intimate knowledge of that.

      It didn't take very long for them to reach the edge of the city, which formed a boundary of the fallen outer wall.  Tarrin pondered shortly why there was a wall here but there hadn't been a wall where he had entered the city the first time he had been here.  Maybe the city had grown past the wall on that side of town, and they hadn't had the chance to build a new one before the Blood War forced them to abandon the city.  Tarrin helped his cubs and Kedaira climb up the debris, and when they reached the top, Tarrin saw two figures in the haze moving towards them.  He'd had a lock on Allia the whole time, so he knew that it was her.  The smaller figure beside her was Allyn, her husband, and to his surprise, Allyn was keeping pace with his wife as she ran across the desert.  Tarrin felt a sudden happiness and lightness when he saw his sister.  Though he talked to her every single day and saw her almost as often, it just didn't seem the same as being near her in person.  Tarrin was a creature grounded in his senses, and unless a person registered to all his senses, sight and sound and smell and touch, they just didn't seem to actually be there.  Seeing Allia through a projection was like talking to nothing more than a shadow, an illusion of Allia's true self.

      Tarrin smiled as he shaded his eyes, remembering all at once that maybe he should have conjured up some visors for all of them.  He'd seen Allyn many times when he projected out to see Allia, but it still amused him a little to see the Sha'Kar doing Selani things. Sha'Kar were not very physical people, dependent upon their magic, but Allyn had come to a place where using magic to do his work would be seen as dishonorable.  The Selani only used magic when no other option was available.  Allia had formidable powers in Sorcery, but she would rarely use them, adhering to her customs even when not in the desert.  That was why few Sorcerers had ever seen Allia use Sorcery, and even fewer knew just how strong she was.  Even Allia didn't realize how powerful she was, for she had been eclipsed by Tarrin and Keritanima the whole time she had been aware of her powers.  True, compared to her two siblings, Allia's powers were very weak, but compared to other Sorcerers, her powers were comparable.  Perhaps maybe even a little stronger.  And with the training she had received from Dolanna, her siblings, and now Allyn, Tarrin didn't doubt that Allia was a formidable opponent in a magical battle.

      "What is is, Papa?" Eron asked.

      "Allia," he answered.

      "Auntie Allia is here!" Eron said in glee, racing down the rubble's slope and then racing off in her general direction.  Eron didn't realize that if he kept moving that way, he'd be some fifty spans to her left.  But Allia changed direction to intercept Tarrin's impulsive cub.

      "He's such a baby sometimes," Jasana fussed, crossing her arms.

      "And you're better," Tarrin said calmly.  "Since Eron's not here to hear it, I have something to tell you, cub."

      "What is it, Papa?"

      "While you're around the Selani, you will not use your Sorcery," he ordered.  "Not unless your life depends on it.  Do you understand me?"

      "Why?" she demanded with sudden heat.

      "The Selani see the indiscriminate use of magic to be dishonorable," he told her calmly.  "While you are on Selani land, you will obey their rules.  And the rule is no magic unless I specifically say you can, or you're in immediate, life-threatening danger."

      "That's not fair!"

      "Life isn't fair," Tarrin shrugged, then he put a deliberate gaze on her.  "And you will obey me, cub.  If I catch you using magic, you're going home.  And while we're on the subject, you won't argue with me or backtalk me or fuss when I tell you to do something, Jasana.  How you act is going to reflect on me.  If you disobey me in front of the Selani, or if you cause a scene or argue with me, both me and Allia will be embarassed.  Me because you're my child, and her because I'm her brother.  And that's the last thing you want to have happen.  Do you understand me?"

      "But--"

      "I said do you understand me?" Tarrin cut her off in a tone that would brook nothing other than immediate and uncontested submission.

      Jasana knew better than to push when her father spoke like that.  She was a cunning little sneak, but she was also intelligent, and she knew where the line was.

      "Yes, Papa," she sighed in a defeated tone.

      "Good.  If you embarass me in front of Allia's tribe, you'll be regretting it for the next ten years.  Remember that."

      "I will."

      "Good.  Now let's go greet your aunt Allia."

      Tarrin helped Kedaira clamber down the uneven slope, then they moved towards Allia as she picked up Eron and moved towards him.  Tarrin felt the months slide away effortlessly every step he took towards his sister, like old times come again, until they were standing before one another.  She reached her hands out and he took them, swallowing them up in his huge paws, and he took in her spicy, coppery scent as he gazed down into her eyes with a sober expression that conveyed more than words ever could.  The bond between him and Allia was a powerful one, as they were entwined together with bonds of love and friendship and understanding that defied rational explanation.  That single touch made it as if they had never been separated, and things were again as they were meant to be.

      She smiled up at him and then embraced him, and he returned it warmly.  "It's so good to see you!" she said happily, squeezing him.

      "It's good to see you too.  For real, anyway," he returned.

      "And I see my little girl followed you here," she said with a smile, reaching down and picking up Jasana, who giggled when Allia hugged her.  Kedaira stalked over and pushed at Allia for attention, and she laughed and put a hand on her inu's head fondly, stroking her scales.

      "You're looking thin, Allyn," Tarrin noted as Jasana and Eron both started jabbering at Allia, competing for her attention.

      "Desert life isn't easy," he chuckled.  "You're looking well, Tarrin."

      "As well as can be expected," he answered.  "How was the run?"

      "Not too bad," he replied.  "We only came across one kajat.  They've been getting pretty thick lately."

      "They're migrating south, love," Allia answered.  "The storms are fiercest to the north.  That's why the northern clans move south."

      Tarrin realized something.  "Isn't Gathering next month?" he asked, trying to count off the months.

      "Two months," she answered.  "During the midwinter lull in the storm season."

      "What are you saying, Papa?" Eron asked.

      "You haven't taught them Selani?" Allia asked in a shocked voice.

      "I've had some other things come up, Allia," he said a bit sheepishly.  "With everything else they've had to learn, there just hasn't been time to teach them Selani."

      "Tarrin!  How are they going to meet my family?" she demanded.

      "I'll cheat," he promised.  "They're Were-cats, so I can use a spell Spyder taught me to implant the language in them.  It won't hold long, but it should stick to them long enough to meet your clan."

      "As long as they can understand what's going on while they're here, that's all that matters," Allia nodded.

      "I see you didn't take long to learn Selani, Allyn," Tarrin noted.

      "Allia taught me a spell that aids memory," he replied.  "It let me learn it in about two rides."

      "Allia taught you a spell?" Tarrin asked.

      "We were cut off from the Goddess, Tarrin," he replied calmly.  "Those Priest tricks the katzh-dashi use were denied to us, and since our parents couldn't use them either, they never taught them to us."

      "Ah, I see," he nodded.  "Have you heard from Auli or Iselde lately?"

      "Iselde's at the Tower in Suld, and she's doing fine.  Auli's about two steps from getting thrown out of the Tower in Sharadar," Allyn said with an amused smile.  "I've been meaning to ask.  Whatever happened to those two human girls you took from the island, Tarrin?"

      "They're being trained by Druids," he answered.  "I haven't seen them since leaving Sha'Kari, but my mother keeps me up to date on how they're doing."

      Tarrin focused his attention on Allia, who was listening with gentle attentiveness as Eron showed off his leather pouch full of little metal figurines.  "The whole bottom floor was filled with sand, but we found chests up in the attic that was so small Papa had to shapeshift to get inside.  There were little balls and dice and marbles and all sorts of things in the chest!" he was relating to Allia in a fast, almost continuous stream of words.  "Papa let me keep these little metal men.  Aren't they neat?  Jasana kept a little metal bag full of marbles, and Papa made us leave the rest of it behind.  And we found a bunch of Dwarf skeletons and Papa took an axe I found from me cause he doesn't think I'm old enough to have something like that and--"

      "We'll have plenty of time to catch up later, cub," Tarrin told him, cutting him off.  "How far do we have to go, sister?"

      "The camp was five days south, but they are moving this way," she answered in Sulasian.  "We should reach them in three days."

      "Why are they moving north?"

      "We saw some good grazing while we were on the way, and I signalled them."

      Allia was a Scout, one of the Selani that ranged far from the tribe in search of grazing and to keep an eye out for wandering predators.  They were the eyes of the tribe, locating danger and searching out the food that their flocks of sukk needed to survive.  All of them had that gift of keen eyesight; Allia could read a book from five hundred paces away.  In fact, that was what made them Scouts.  Var was also a Scout, and he too shared Allia's gift of incredible eyesight.

      "Any trouble with Sandmen?"

      She shook her head.  "Allyn can drive them away with Sorcery.  He taught me how to do it."

      Tarrin looked to Allyn, who only shrugged.  "It's rather simple, actually.  I'll teach it to you tonight."

      "I'll be interested to learn it," he said honestly.

      "Can I learn too?" Jasana asked brightly.

      "It would be an honor to teach you, little one," Allyn smiled.

      "Do you want to camp here and await the dawn, or set out now?" Allia asked.

      "I'm not going to waste half a day sitting around, sister," he answered.  "I can take care of teaching the cubs Selani when we camp.  It won't take very long."

      "Very well then," she smiled, pushing her visor a bit more snugly onto her nose.  "I think the cubs need some proper desert garb, brother.  A visor, at the very least.  We'll be running into the wind."

      "I was meaning to take care of that," he nodded.

      "Running?  We have to run?" Jasana asked in surprise.

      Tarrin looked at her.  "Did you think I was going to carry you, girl?" he asked bluntly.

      "Papa, your Elemental could--"

      "That is not our way, young one," Allia told her pointedly.  "Here, we do for ourselves, and in our desert, you will do as we do.  Magic is a tool, not a crutch, and all tools have times when they are used and times when they are not.  There is nothing wrong with your legs, so you will run."

      "What are you all mad for, you big baby?" Eron taunted.  "I think it'll be fun!"

      Jasana glared death at Eron, but her brother just stuck his tongue out at her.

      "It will be harder for Eron than it will for you, since you will not be affected by the heat," Allia told her with steady eyes.

      Jasana looked pointedly annoyed, but said nothing.  The stern warning Tarrin had laid down on her was probably still fresh in her mind.

      "I think he needs a better shirt than that, brother," Allia said as she gave Eron a critical eye.  "And that head cover will never do."

      "I'll take care of it, sister," he assured her.

      A few moments later, Eron was marvelling over his new clothes.  He looked like a little Selani, with a loose-fitting shirt and head covering complete with a veil.  His leather trousers were good enough without having to be replaced, so he did look a little unusual with his mismatched clothes.  He fussed a little with the visor, complaining that it felt weird how it rested on the small ridges of bone where his human ears would have been, but it didn't dampen his excitement.  Jasana had gone from annoyed to sullen as Tarrin handed her a Conjured visor, and she shoved it over her eyes aggressively.  Tarrin could tell that this trip had already not gone at all to Jasana's satisfaction.  Tarrin was sure it'd get worse for her before it was all over.  Tarrin put his own visor over his eyes, and the bright desert sun's brilliance was soothingly dulled by it, as the world was cast over in shades of violet and purple.

      "You know, I'm finally going to see how your people make these visors, Allia," Tarrin mused.

      "You'll be disappointed, brother," Allia smiled as she tucked her veil in under the neck of her shirt.  "Are you ready, little nephew?" she asked Eron in Sulasian.

      "I'm ready!" he said excitedly, mimicking Allia's action of tucking in the veil under his shirt.

      "Can they keep up, brother?" Allia asked in Selani.

      "They should," he answered.  "But are we in a hurry?"

      "No, not at all," she answered as Kedaira started nipping at Allyn, but not in an aggressive manner.

      "What's wrong with you, Kedaira?" Tarrin asked her.

      "She does that all the time," Allyn answered as he stroked the inu's mottled scales.  "Whenever she thinks we're ignoring her."

      They started out moving to the southeast at a very leisurely pace by Allia's standards, little more than a jog.  Tarrin could tell that she was going slow to see how well the children were going to be able to run, but she should have known better.  They may have been children, but they were Were-cats, and that gave them an endurance that outmatched any Selani child.  Their little legs couldn't let them go very fast, but their regenerative natures would allow them to run all day.  They ran along the wide valley that eventually fed into the city of Mala Myrr, then up and down very gentle hills that were filled with the small, tough, springy scrub bushes on which the sukk and many other desert herbivores fed.  The growth was relatively new, probably as the yearly cycle brought the ground water that was under the desert closer to the surface in this area.  There was little water in the desert unless one knew where to look.  The Selani had lived here for some five thousand years, and they knew exactly when and where the ground water was risen, high enough to where a pit dug in the ground would yield seepage.  Their migration was as much following the water as it was finding the scrub for their herds, for the scrub grew where the water table was raised.

      They moved freely and easily through the afternoon, as Jasana's face looked more and more sullen with every step she took.  Allia would point out interesting things to the cubs as they passed them, such as what looked like a big rock but was actually a kajat balled up and waiting to ambush anything that got too close to it.  She stopped once to show them an umuni, the large quadrapedal lizards that were both highly venemous and somewhat tasty to the Selani.  She showed them a seed mouse and a snapper lizard, which fed off of desert insects, and when they stopped for a short rest and to give Kedaira water, about an hour before sunset, they found a zubu sitting on a rock watching a marcher centipede, which was in turn trying to sneak up on a scrub locust that was eating a leaf from a scrub bush that had fallen to the sandy ground.

      "I didn't know there were so many animals here!" Eron said in wonder as they watched the locust jump away, but the centipede, so intent on the locust, did not see the zubu until the large spider jumped from its rock.  It tried to scramble away, but the spider landed right on it and delivered its fatal bite before the centipede could get clear.

      "Our lands are not a barren wasteland, nephew," Allia told him with a smile.  "In the desert, there are many, many things, but nothing here is obvious or apparent.  In this place, everything has a secret."

      "I thought those spiders were slow," Jasana said.

      "They move slowly most of the time, but they are capable of short bursts of speed," Allia told her.  "They also jump on prey, as you just saw."

      "Are they poisonous?"

      "My dear niece, almost everything in the desert is poisonous," Allia chuckled.  "It is a good rule to consider anything smaller than an inu to have either a poisonous bite, sting, or claws."

      "At least it's not so hot now," Eron sighed as he put his wrapped head cover back on.

      Tarrin looked towards the setting sun, and realized that it was a little cooler.  The wind was blowing a little more strongly now, and it had a dusty smell to it.  That meant that there was a sandstorm coming.  Allia looked as well, shading her eyes and standing stone still for a moment.  "The air is cooler because there is a sandstorm coming," she told him.

      "How long?" Tarrin asked.

      "About an hour," she replied in Selani.  "It's a pretty strong one.  We'll need to find shelter."

      "We passed a notch in a spire right back there," he said, looking back the way they came, to a solitary rock spire that was visible some two or three longspans behind them.  "It might have a cave in it."

      "Or we can make a cave," Allyn added.  "I think the rock spire is our best option, love."

      "What are you saying, Papa?" Eron asked curiously.

      "There's a sandstorm coming, cub," Tarrin told him.  "We're deciding the best place to go to wait it out."

      "What are sandstorms like?"

      "In about an hour, you're going to find out for yourself," he answered his son absently.

      "What's going to happen to all the animals?" Eron asked.

      "They'll be safe, cub," Tarrin told him.  "They've been through them before.  They know what to do."

      "Don't they know it's coming?"

      "They know, but they also know they have time before they have to seek shelter," Allia answered for him.  "We should move, brother.  If we have to do any digging, it is best if we have plenty of time for it."

      They returned to the solitary rock spire, reddish-brown in color and about fifty spans tall.  It was a very narrow one, and a single paw on it told Tarrin that it would be much too brittle and delicate to attempt to dig a cave into it.  There was a depression on its southwest side, and though it wasn't enough to provide cover from a sandstorm, it would serve as an anchor point for the four Sorcerers to do something with it.  Tarrin did the honors, weaving a powerful Ward that would keep out sand and dust, and would also prevent fast-moving air from penetrating it.  Tarrin was rather proud of his creation, for it would allow air to pass through it, but only air that wasn't a powerful wind.  In that way, Wards were one of the most versatile things a Sorcerer could make, for what they could stop was sheerly up to the Sorcerer that made it.  Tarrin had set it so that it would last for nearly three days.

      Protection against the sandstorm was only half of what they needed.  Allia pulled her pack off and started digging a shallow firepit, her firebuilding materials within her pack.  If they would be held immobile by the sandstorm through the rest of the day, they would need the fire to repel the dangerous Sandmen that roamed the desert at night.  No Scout left their camp without a pack full of the dried dung and wiry branches of scrub brush that served as fuel for the fire.  The dung burned fast, usually just long enough to ignite the slow-burning, hard to ignite scrub wood.  Tarrin told the cubs to help her, and they lined the shallow pit with stones they found in the area.

      Things stopped quickly when Eron returned holding what looked like a small branch in his paw.  "Look what I found under a rock!" he announced happily, holding up his prize.  Tarrin looked at it, and his heart seized momentarily when he realized that Eron was holding a sandsnake, probably the most poisonous and lethal animal in the desert.  They had the most deadly venom of all, but they were actually rather mild-tempered creatures, not prone to biting without considerable provocation.  Eron's picking up of the snake had not been enough to irritate it, and it wrapped itself around Eron's arm quite sedately.

      "Cub, what did I tell you about putting your paw under rocks!" Tarrin snapped at him.

      "Cub, do not squeeze that snake," Allia said with deceptive calm.  "Do not let go of it either.  Give it no reason to get angry.  Brother, talk to it."

      "I'll take care of it," Tarrin said with a glare at his son.

      "What?" Eron asked innocently.

      "That is a sandsnake, cubling," Allia told him in a calm yet careful voice.  "There is nothing in the desert more lethal."

      "Really?" Eron asked, not in fear, but in curiosity.  He held up the little yellow snake, the color of sand, his eyes curious.  The snake looked back at him calmly, its tongue flicking out to taste the air.  "It didn't hiss at me or anything, and it let me pick it up.  I thought it was being friendly."

      "Sandsnakes are very mild-natured, Eron," Allia told him.  "They will not bite unless you step on them."

      Tarrin knelt by his cub and centered himself for the task of speaking to an animal.  "I'm going to take you from the small one," he told the snake.  "I'm not trying to hurt you.  Do you understand?"

      It looked at him lazily, and Tarrin knew that to be a signal of comprehension.  It uncoiled itself from Eron's arm, and Tarrin collected up the snake with careful gentleness.  Eron still showed no fear of the animal, his eyes intensely curious as Tarrin took the snake and held it in a very gentle paw.  The snake wrapped its small body around Tarrin's wrist, or at least it tried, for its body wasn't long enough to wrap itself completely around.

      "Wow, it's just like the diamond head snakes at home.  It'll let you hold it and everything."

      "Eron, do you have any idea how dangerous it is to handle those things?" Tarrin asked waspishly as he turned and took a few steps towards the rock spire, which formed an anchoring wall for the Ward.  "I'm going to set you down, little one," Tarrin told the snake.  "Do you have any preference about where you'd like to be put?"

      Tarrin hadn't used the Druid spell to allow him to understand the snake, but he understood well enough when he put his paw down, but the snake didn't uncoil itself.  Tarrin moved his paw close to a large rock, and then the snake uncoiled itself and slithered off his paw.  It disappeared under the rock quickly, and Tarrin realized that it was within the Ward.  But that wasn't too much of a danger, for the animal was not an aggressive one.  "I'll keep the young ones from bothering you," he told the snake.

      Tarrin's glare at his son was enough to make him flinch.  "You try my patience, cub," he warned.  "I told you not to bother the animals here.  They're all very dangerous.  Do you want to go home?"

      "Actually, Papa, you told us not to get within the length of our tails to any animals or insects," Jasana said clinically.  "Since Eron didn't know it was there, it wasn't his fault."

      Tarrin fixed an ugly stare at Jasana, who averted her eyes.  "I can do without you playing the lawyer, cub," he told her in a dangerous tone.

      "Oh, Papa, it wasn't going to hurt me," Eron told his father dismissively.

      "And how do you know that?" Tarrin asked.

      "Because it didn't smell like it."

      Tarrin was aware that Eron's sense of smell was considered acute, even among Were-cats.  That meant that to a human, his sense of smell would be beyond rational concepts.  "That's no excuse, cub," Tarrin growled.  "You don't know these animals, so you can't trust your nose."

      "But--"

      "Do you want to argue with me, cub?" Tarrin asked in a dangerous tone.

      "Uh, no," Eron said submissively, averting his eyes.

      "Wise," Allyn murmured under his breath.

      "I think you should have Kedaira keep an eye on them, brother," Allia told him in Selani.  "She'd be a good nursemaid."

      "I think you're right," he answered, glancing at the inu, which was hunkered down near the firepit.  "I'll have a talk with her.  She can keep the cubs out of trouble."

      The sandstorm gathered on the western horizon as they continued setting camp,and it looked to be a big one.  It hit just at sunset, and Eron and Jasana were amazed and a little frightened by its power.  They could see the sand and dust, and even small stones, being driven before a howling wind, a wind so loud that it made all their ears hurt until Tarrin adjusted the Ward to muffle the deafening sound.  The fury of the desert awed the two children, to the point where all they could do was sit by the fire and stare at the raging sandstorm just on the other side of Tarrin's Ward.

      "Wow, these happen all the time?" Eron asked in wonder as a particularly big rock struck the Ward.

      "This is a strong one, but yes, storms like this happen frequently, cubling," Allia answered him.

      "How do the plants and animals keep from getting swept away?" Jasana asked.

      "The plants have very deep roots," she replied.  "And the animals know to take shelter.  The small ones hide under rocks.  Animals like sukk and chisa and inu and draka take shelter behind rock spires or large boulders, and some animals are so large that they can't be picked up by the wind, like kajat and kusuk."

      Tarrin had never seen a kusuk before, but he'd heard descriptions of them.  They were monstrous armored animals, the size of kajat, that looked like gigantic armadillos, with tough armored hides and knobs of heavy bone growing at the end of a surprisingly long tail, which the animal wielded like a club to defend itself.  They were indiginous to the southeastern tracts of the desert, the section of the desert Tarrin had never visited.  They also had draka down there, another animal he'd never seen, which was supposedly a large ant-like insectoid creature about the size of a pony which had been tamed by the southern clans to use as sentries.

      "How long will it last?" Jasana asked.

      "We will know when it is over, cubling," Allia replied.  "It is extremely hard to predict."  She looked to Tarrin.  "I think this is a good time to start their education.  I tire of having to speak to family using such a rude tongue."

      "You're insulting my native language, sister," Tarrin smiled.

      "Some things require insult," she said with a sly smile in reply.

      "I've been wondering something, Tarrin," Allyn mused as Tarrin beckoned for his children to come to hi with a paw.  "Allia said you're good at languages.  Just how many do you speak?"

      Tarrin sat down by the fire.  "I dunno," he replied, starting to count them on his fingers.  "Seven," he said.

      "Seven?" Allyn asked in surprise.  "And you're only twenty?"

      "It's a knack," he shrugged.  "Besides, I used magic to learn two of them, so they really don't count."

      "Which ones?" he asked curiously.

      "Wikuni and Sharadi," he replied.

      "How did you learn the others?"

      "Why are you so curious?"

      "I don't mean to pry," Allyn said quickly.  "It's just that it's not exactly normal for someone so young to have such a broad array of language skills."

      "Well," he said, mollified a bit by Allyn's explanation, "I learned Sulasian and Ungardt while I was growing up.  Karn taught me Arakite when I filled in at his forge when his apprentice broke his arm.  Allia taught me Selani while I was at the Tower, and we all learned Sha'Kar together while we were there.  Dolanna taught me Sharadi, and Keritanima and Miranda taught me Wikuni."

      "You learned a language while working in a blacksmith's forge?" Allyn asked.  "How long did it take?"

      "A few months," he shrugged.

      "A few months?  It took me a year to learn Sulasian!"

      "My brother has something of a gift concerning language, my heart," Allia told him.  "It is proof that he is not as dumb as he looks."

      "I love you too, Allia," Tarrin drawled dryly, which made her laugh.

      It didn't take long to handle the language barrier with the cubs.  Tarrin had several options available to him, since they were both Were-cats and that meant that he could use Mind weaves on them, but Triana's Druidic spell was much more appropriate in this situation.  They wouldn't like its effects very much, but the Druidic approach was to transplant the entirety of the language in one shot and very quickly, where it would take time with Sorcery.  And it would be much more seated in their minds if he used the Druidic approach.  Tarrin could only implant a language he knew and they would have the same command of the language as he did, but luckily for them, Tarrin's grasp of Selani was as profound as it was for Allia, who had taught him.  But while he had the opportunity, he realized that this would be a good opportunity to teach them another language that they may need to function around some of his friends and acquaintances, Sha'Kar.  He wasn't worried about teaching them more than one language at once, for he knew that the spell would allow it.  It would just make the dizziness which was a side effect of the spell last longer.  He performed it on Eron first, warning him that the spell would leave him dizzy for a while afterward, then having his son lay down by the fire while he repeated it with Jasana.

      While the cubs were recovering, Tarrin Conjured something for them all to eat, a large rack of venison, which was cut into strips and set to roasting over the small fire in short order.  "How many languages do your children speak?" Allyn asked.

      "Three now," he answered.  "I just taught them Selani and Sha'Kar.  Nobody in our house speaks anything other than Sulasian most of the time, though Kimmie is going out of her way to teach her daughters Torian."

      "Are you learning it?"

      "Not officially," he answered.  "I've overheard most of her instruction, though.  It's not all that different from Sulasian.  I've been working on Dwarven lately, so I haven't really had time to have Kimmie teach me.  Besides, if I really wanted to learn it, I'd learn it from her the same way I taught Selani and Sha'Kar to the cubs."

      "You're learning Dwarven?" Allyn asked curiously.  "It's a dead language.  Who can possibly teach it to you?"

      "I haven't been really learning it," he replied.  "I've been trying to learn it.  I haven't had much luck finding the right books.  But I forgot about the Book of Ages," he admitted.  "When I get back home, I'll ask Jenna if I can borrow it.  It'll have the Dwarven language in it, the same as it had Sha'Kar."

      "Why Dwarven?  Why not a language you may need, like Amazon?"

      Tarrin smiled slightly.  They all kept that particular appointment firmly in mind.  "I'm curious about the Dwarves, Allyn," he answered.  "The best way to learn more about them is to learn their language, so I can read what they left behind.  It also gives me something of a window into the way the Dwarves think, because language isn't much more than an organized way of thinking."

      "My parents had a book about Dwarves in our library somewhere," Allyn mused.  "And I think Ianelle knows some of it.  She used to study ancient history."

      "Ianelle is ancient history," Tarrin chuckled.  "She's, what, fifteen hundred years old?"

      "About that," Allyn agreed.  "If you count the thousand years she was trapped on Sha'Kari."

      Jasana tried to sit up, but she swayed dangerously before flopping back down.  "Why won't the gound stop spinning around?" she complained.

      "It's going to last a while, cub," Tarrin told her patiently.  "You're dizzy because your mind is trying to organize all the information I put in it.  It's going to be a couple of hours."

      "Maybe we should have fed them before you did that," Allia noted.

      "It won't make them sick to their stomachs," he told her calmly.  "We'll have to bring the food to them, but they'll be alright."

      "Can they understand Selani now?" Allia asked.

      "They should."

      "Good," she said in Selani.  "I don't understand how your people ever manage to communicate with each other, Tarrin.  Sulasian is such an ugly and restricting language."

      "You don't understand the soul of it, sister," Tarrin smiled.  "Languages are the mindset of the races that created them.  If you understand the people, you understand their language a little better, because to be truly fluent in a language, you have to be able to think in it, and that means you're thinking like the people who speak it."

      "I never thought of it that way," Allyn said with respect in his eyes.

      "Allia has trouble with Sulasian because she doesn't like to think like anything other than a Selani," Tarrin said with a smile.  "You can't really do that if you want to express yourself in another language."

      "I am what the Holy Mother made of me, brother," Allia laughed.  "To be anything other than Selani would be impossible for me."

      "Dolanna has similar trouble," Tarrin told Allyn.  "She's so wrapped up in her Sharadi mindset that she has trouble expressing herself in Sulasian."

      "She speaks Sha'Kar easily enough."

      "She speaks formal Sha'Kar easily enough," Tarrin pointed out.  "Think about it, Allyn.  Have you ever heard her speak in informal or low Sha'Kar?"

      Allyn's eyes raised as he thought about it.  "Now that you mention it, no," he admitted.  "I've heard her speak semi-formal Sha'Kar, but even in the house back in Sha'Kari, she always spoke in one of the formal forms."

      "Sharadi is an extremely rigid language," Tarrin told him.  "It's an ancient language, but unlike most others, it has very few shortcuts or contractions, so even when used in the most informal way, it still sounds very formal.  She has no trouble speaking formally in other languages, but she can't easily express herself informally.  That's why she always sounds so stiff when she speaks any language.  The concept of formality in language is too deeply ingrained in her."

      "It almost feels like we're gossiping about our friends," Allia laughed.  "Maybe we should stop."

      "I need to feed the cubs, or they're going to be a little surly," Tarrin said, looking towards his children.  "You're awfully quiet over there, Eron," he called.  "You alright?"

      "I'm just waiting for the world to slow down, Papa," he answered.  "I feel like I'm sitting on a top."

      "That's a pretty fair description of it," Tarrin chuckled as he got up.

      After feeding the cubs, they both decided to simply sleep out the night.  Tarrin, Allia, and Allyn sat around the fire and simply talked, as he heard about their journey to Mala Myrr, then he told them about what happened while he was taking care of Kedaira.  The inu raised her head and looked at them every time one of them spoke her name, but she eventually settled down and got some sleep, hunkered down between the two Were-cat children.

      After that, Tarrin listened as Allia told him all about her family for about the fiftienth time.  Her father was named Kallan, and he was tall as a walking cactus, thin as brambleweed stems, and as tough as stone.  He was the paramount Selani and the ultimate clan chief, chief of the entire clan rather than just the tribe, stern, unbending, and authoratative, yet also fair and benevolent in his rule.  Her mother, Kaila, was a very tall and graceful woman, a Scout like Allia, but a bad run-in with a pack of inu had left her with one eye, a missing left hand, and a stiff right leg.  Despite that, she was still a vibrant, active woman, and though she couldn't Scout anymore, she more than made up for that by becoming a weaver, weaving the tough plant fiber the Selani used into the rugged cloth that made their clothes.  She had no brothers or sisters, but her aunt lived with them, a woman named Dulai, who was very young and already widowed.  She had a son, who was now nine years old, a tall boy named Zakra who showed considerable promise at being a blacksmith or craftsman.  Allia told him that next Gathering, they were going to look into having the boy apprenticed to a smith.  Allia's clan had two smiths, but neither were experienced enough yet to be good teachers.  They were good smiths, but Selani only apprenticed to masters, and neither had achieved that status as of yet.  Zakra was just at the age where apprenticing was done, if the child was going to enter into a trade.

      Every three months, they journeyed to the permanent settlement the clan possessed--every clan had one permanent village--which was a very small place of about twenty buildings nestled inside a narrow gorge along the eastern edge of the Sandshield.  The village was where all the things were done that the clan needed to do but could not while moving, such as growing what scant vegetables they ate or the fiber for their clothes, and where their smiths, fletchers, and craftsmen plied their trades.  While there, Kallan dealt with the business of the clan, settling disputes, surveying herds of sukk, chisa, goats, and draka, and addressing any needs that individual tribes may have.  During those small clan gatherings, tribes exchanged needed goods, marriages were performed, the ceremony of branding was performed, apprentices were taken, and information was passed through the clan.  They also discussed events dealing with other clans.  Clans never openly fought one another, but there were some pretty strong rivalries between the clans, and border raids where livestock and other goods were stolen were not uncommon.  Stealing was an accepted thing among the Selani under certain circumstances, so long as one wasn't caught.  If a raiding party was discovered or captured, the initiating clan lost honor.  Like in all things, the Selani competed among themselves in almost all things.  The border raids were little more than yet another way the clans competed between themselves.  If such a raid was successful, but it left the victim tribe in dire straits, the clan that perpetrated the theft would often return what was taken.  The object wasn't keeping the goods, it was the act of theft itself.  The goods were merely a convenient way to keep score.

      Tarrin listened to Allia go on and on about her tribe and her friends, most of them about her age, his eyes lost in the flickering flames of the fire.  Again he felt that strange sensation, that little twinge, and it seemed to rise and fall with the flames themselves, as if the sensation was tied to the movement of the flames.  He was too distracted listening to Allia describe her best friend in the tribe to pay it much attention, another female Scout named Suilla, whom she had met only since returning to the clan from their journeys.  Suilla was from another clan, having married into it, and she and Allia had taken an immediate liking to one another.

      Once again, something distracted him away from that sensation, and by the time Allia was done, he forgot completely about it.


To:       Title                EoF    

Chapter 3

 

      Though it was furious and powerful, it was also brief.  The sandstorm blew itself out just before dawn, leaving a pall of light dust hanging in the frosty morning air like a haze, causing the very air itself to almost glow as the red rays of the rising sun reflected off the tiny motes.  It was a glorious morning, as far as Tarrin was concerned, for it was a day filled to overflowing with possibilities.  He'd forgotten what that had felt like, waking up in the morning and having an entire world full of things laid out before him, not knowing where he was going or what was going to happen, a day ripe with chances for discovery and excitement.  Perhaps that strange feeling was why Were-cats were so nomadic, rarely staying in their chosen territory for very long, always out and about and wandering the land.  He hadn't felt this way since he was out hunting the Firestaff, waking up every day uncertain what was to come, but in a very strange way, enjoying it for its diversity and excitement.  Back home, he woke up and did the same thing more or less, just about every day.  But today...today was new, it was unknown, it was different.  And he found himself almost pacing waiting for the others to get ready to move.  He wanted to go see what would cross his path this day, what new challenges and new discoveries were waiting for him just over the horizon.

      Despite everything that had happened, Tarrin still had something of an adventurous spirit, a throwback to his youth, before he was turned Were.  A youth spent aimlessly wandering in places he wasn't supposed to be, doing things he wasn't supposed to do, and living a life of exploration and discovery.  Perhaps that part of him would never disappear...and Tarrin hoped fervently that it never would.

      The cubs were up and finishing breakfast, something that Allia had ventured out and killed as the sandstorm died off.  Eron had found the idea of eating something he couldn't even name to be quite fun, but Jasana didn't seem to have her brother's enthusiasm.  Tarrin could tell by looking at her that she was already feeling like this trip wasn't going as she envisioned it, and he knew why.  Tarrin forbidding her from using magic had already begun to wear on her.  Back home, Jasana went out of her way to use magic to do almost everything, from her daily chores to fetching a cup from a counter.  She almost relied on it the same way the Sha'Kar did, and already he could feel her fingers itching to use Sorcery to perform the most mundane tasks.  Jasana had always been fascinated by Sorcery, almost obsessed with it, ever since Jenna had started training her.  Tarrin didn't mind her learning--he wanted her to learn--but he shared Jesmind's reservations that perhaps she used Sorcery maybe a little too much.  Bringing her out here, where she was forbidden to use magic, was a very dramatic and blunt manner of showing her that.  Several times since she'd awakened, he felt her very nearly use Sorcery, but a withering stare from her father reminded her that doing so would bring swift and unwanted punishment.  He knew his daughter, and he knew that as soon as she felt that coming to the desert had exhausted all possibilities for her, she would intentionally disobey him, specifically to be sent home, a punishment that would in itself be her salvation from an unwanted situation.  He had quite a surprise for her when she did, because she wasn't going.

      Tarrin worried about his daughter, because, to put it quite bluntly and fully blaming himself, she was spoiled.  She wasn't doted upon, nor was she given all that she desired, her kind of spoiling was the kind of a child that would stoop to any means necessary to get her own way.  That was just as bad as a doting parent lavishing a child with gifts, but it was alot harder to break, because of Jasana's very powerful will.  A year or more of concentrated effort from both parents had done very little to break their cub of her conceited mannerisms, an outlook where what she wanted was more important than absolutely everything else in the world.  Tarrin blamed himself because he still had yet to change her.  Even now, she was just as conniving, cunning, underhanded, and ruthless as she had been when he'd first met her.  Her tactics had changed somewhat, but that was only because things recently hadn't required anything absolutely drastic in order to secure her own desires.  He had little doubt that if she was continually refused her wishes, she would resort to drastic acts to secure her desired outcome.  Tarrin was dealing with a child that had intentionally put herself in danger by tapping into her magical power to force her father to remain with her, then intentionally turned him against his will because she wanted him to be Were.  This was a child capable of almost anything if she wasn't getting what she wanted, and given her power and her magical gifts, that was a combination that had disastrous possibilities.  She had to learn responsibility, responisiblity for her actions and a responsibility in using her magical gifts.  And the desert was an excellent teacher of responsibility.

      Tarrin knew Jasana very well, probably better than she knew herself.  He knew all the signs of when her mind was at work, and if he knew what she wanted, he could usually predict what she was going to do.  That insight into his daughter's complicated little mind, an insight that, admittedly, was partially granted to him because of his experience with Keritanima, was his one true weapon in his war to change her.

      Perhaps he should have known that it was going to be much harder.  The Were-cat mind itself made it very difficult to force change from outside, because of the tendency to ignore the past.  A Were-cat lived now, and what happened in the past, though remembered, carried very little weight or impact to them.  It could be said with great certainty that Were-cats were doomed to endlessly repeat the mistakes they made in the past, because the learning experience from those mistakes didn't impact them as much as it did most other sentient beings.  Since it was in the past, it really didn't matter.  That attitude allowed them to forget fights and other things that could be forgotten, but it also made it harder for them to learn from their mistakes.  Tarrin himself suffered from that phenomenon to some degree, but not nearly as bad as some other Were-cats, like Jesmind.  Tarrin tended to overlook things in the past that didn't have such an impact that they stood out in his mind, meaning that only things that killed someone really made him sit up and take notice of them.

      That wasn't to say that Jasana hadn't had some traumatic work done on her.  The punishment she'd received after turning Tarrin Were was brutal, almost merciless, but unlike an adult, who would mark those consequences and strive to avoid having it happen in the future, Jasana hadn't shown the same wisdom.  She was only a child, no matter how mature she seemed from time to time.  Jasana's child mind had buried that wicked punishment, ignored it, tried to forget it, and once the consequences were taken off the table in her mind, that left her free to pursue the acts that brought about the punishment in the first place.  In a way, he was sure that before she embarked on her crusades of connivery, she did consider the consequences, if only for a moment.  But unless the punishment was something so ghastly that it wasn't worth it, she would make the attempt.  Jasana was a very subtle little girl sometimes, and all of her manipulation wasn't always evident, even to him.

      The question he always asked himself was what it would take.  If not even turning her father, a crime punishable by death in the laws of Fae-da'Nar, had been enough to dissuade her, then what would?  What would it take to finally open Jasana's eyes to the simple fact that life wasn't about getting her own way all the time?  Punishing her didn't seem to do it, because the nature of the Were-cat mind would make her give the consequences less and less weight in her mind.  He knew that he had to make her want to change, that was the only way that it was going to happen.  No Were-cat could be forced to do something they didn't want to do.  It was a simple truth.  And maybe Tarrin and Jesmind pushing on Jasana was making her resistant to it, just the same as her parents.  Both of them were incredibly stubborn, and they would often dig in their heels and resist something with all their might, even if they were wrong or if it needed to be done.  That kind of pig-headed contrariness wasn't something he was proud of, but he had to admit that he was like that.  So was Jesmind.  That was something that he hadn't really considered before, but it certainly seemed possible.  Maybe the key to changing Jasana's behavior was not to try.

      Yes.  Now he understood.  And coming to the desert would probably give him the opportunity to do to Jasana what she'd been doing to them ever since she was born...manipulate someone to gain his own way.  In fact, now that he looked at the idea and the possibilities the desert presented, he realized that he'd have any number of chances here.

      Tarrin glanced at his daughter, who was chewing on what looked like the leg of some reptillian animal without too much enthusiasm, her face screwed up in a mask of distaste.  He was absolutely certain now that she wouldn't like the desert at all.

      Allyn joined him as Allia finished packing her things, getting ready to move.  "You're quiet," he noted as he looked out towards the southeast.

      "Just organizing some things," he answered.  "So, now that I have you where Allia can't overhear, how is it?"

      Allyn understood what he meant.  "Alot harder than I thought, but not as hard as I feared," he answered.  "But I'll persevere.  She's worth it in my eyes."

      "She's worth anything, Allyn," Tarrin told her sincerely.

      "I knew you'd understand how I feel," the Sha'Kar laughed quietly.

      "How is her clan handling it?"

      "Not well," he frowned.  "Her father doesn't like me, and most of her tribe thinks I have no right being here.  I think they're alot harder on me because they want me to fail, to have a reason to exile me from the clan."

      "Then that will make the success all the sweeter," Tarrin told him.

      "I know," he answered.  "Now, I endure just to see the looks on their faces when they're finally proven wrong.  When I earn the brands, I fully intend to get all the revenge I'll ever want."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "That Sha'Kar pettiness is showing."

      "Better honest pettiness than dishonest friendship," he said bluntly.  "Some of the Selani pretend to be my friend, and they're trying to give me advice that's going to make me fail.  Allia's already had several squabbles with Selani that used to be her friends because of it, and that worries me, Tarrin," he sighed.  "I love her, but I don't want her to be a pariah in her own tribe.  Her father's unhappy with her, and her tribe resents her bringing me here.  Even if I prove myself and earn the brands, I don't think they'll ever accept me."

      "Allia's resilient, Allyn," he said confidently.   "And you don't understand Selani very well.  If you do earn the brands, then you'll cease being a Sha'Kar and become a Selani.  At that point, all the hostility you've seen from her tribe and clan will disappear like it never happened.  Those brands come from Fara'Nae, not the clan.  And the clan won't even dare to presume that they know more about someone than the Holy Mother."

      "Is that how they see you?"

      "I have no idea how they see me," he answered.  "Allia broke the rules when she branded me, and I'm sure I'll get a little hostility from the Selani because of it.  But they won't be openly hostile.  The fact that I did get the brands means that Fara'Nae allowed Allia to carry it out, and that means that I'm accepted by the Holy Mother.  That's an awfully powerful argument on my side."

      "What do you mean, get the brands?"

      "They don't use a branding iron, Allyn," he told him.  "The power that brands you comes from Fara'Nae. The Selani really have nothing to do with it, outside of a little ceremony beforehand.  If she doesn't think you're ready, you're not branded.  If she thinks you're ready, but you flinch, you take a bad brand, and that's a colossal social blunder.  Selani who take bad brands leave the clans and usually die alone in the desert.  A Selani has two chances to take a brand.  Two chances to see if Fara'Nae thinks he's ready for the responsibilities of adulthood.  If the Holy Mother won't brand you the second time, it's just like taking a bad brand.  It means that the Holy Mother doesn't think you're responsible enough to be an adult, and it's social death for the Selani in question."

      "Allia never told me that," Allyn mused.

      "She won't.  The tribe's Priest is responsible for teaching you about the customs involving the Holy Mother.  No lay Selani would dare speak to you about them, because they would never presume to speak for the Holy Mother.  Has the tribe's Priest talked to you yet?  Aren't you sitting in with the other children when she teaches them about those things?"

      "She's one of the ones most adamant about seeing me fail," he said glumly.  "She won't let me anywhere near her."

      "Now that's wrong," Tarrin frowned.  "She'd better be real careful, or Fara'Nae's going to get very mad at her.  Does Allia know about this?"

      Allyn shook his head.  "I don't put those things on her, Tarrin.  I don't want her feeling any more unhappy than she is now.  I feel guilty enough about it as it is."  He looked up at Tarrin curiously.  "Aren't you worried about speaking for Fara'Nae, Tarrin?" he asked with a slight smile.

      "Gods don't scare me, Allyn," he said offhandedly.  "You can blame Mother for my rather cavalier attitude concerning them."

      From out of nowhere, a very hot wind passed over them, conveying some measure of indignance, but also some measure of amusement.

      "See?" Tarrin said, holding out a paw.  "That was Fara'Nae.  She thinks my attitude is funny, but she can't help but be a little offended.  I guess even gods have preconceptions."

      Allyn laughed. "I think I'd better step clear of you before a lightning bolt comes out of the blue and fries you where you stand," he teased.

      "I'm sure they're standing in line for the opportunity," he said dryly.  "I'll bet they've been drawing lots or something."

      Allyn laughed again, putting his hand on Tarrin's shoulder, having to reach up a considerable amount to do so.  "Well, I see when Allia said that travelling with you would be entertaining, she wasn't lying."

      They were ready to go quickly after that, and after Allia fed Kedaira, they were on the move.  Tarrin begged off at first, telling them they'd catch up, and watched them run towards the southeast.  Eron and Jasana had no trouble keeping up, but he could see the petulant gait of his daughter, broadcasting her displeasure with having to run.  He had the feeling that someone wanted him to wait a moment, and he had an idea who that was.  "I take it you had something to say?" he asked aloud.

      I am not that petty, kitten, the voice of Fara'Nae touched him, tinged with amusement.

      "All gods are petty, Holy Mother," he retorted with a sly smile.  "This is about Allyn, I take it?" he asked absently, watching them move away from him.  "Do you want me to do something to the tribe's Priest?"

      I am more than capable of dealing with her, kitten, she answered.  And no, it's not about Allyn.  It's about you.  I know what you have in mind, and I agree with what you're doing.  Do you need my help?

      He hadn't considered that before.  "Actually, I think you could put a beneficial hand in here and there.  Since you know what I'm doing, I think you'll know best how to help, the same as you did with me.  I bow to your wisdom in the matter, Holy Mother."

      I already have an idea or two in mind, she answered.  I had a talk with Niami, and she's agreed to allow me to deal with Jasana, just as she let me deal with you.

      "You'd better be careful, Holy Mother, or you're going to become the repository for dealing with problem Were-cats."

      She laughed.  I have a quota, my child.  Jasana fills it for the century.  After this, the next problem Were-cat is some other god's handful, not mine.

      "Well, I'm glad it was you this century.  I feel confident putting my daughter in your hands, Holy Mother."

      I appreciate your trust, my kitten, she told him.

      "I hope you got some serious concessions out of Mother, Fara'Nae," he told her.  "If Mother keeps dumping her problem children on you, anyway."

      Tarrin!  You behave! the voice of the Goddess touched him, a rather tart and authoritative one.

      "Yes, Mother," he said mockingly.

      Do you see what I have to deal with, sister? the voice of the Goddess echoed plaintively in his mind, obviously using him as a conduit through which to communicate with Fara'Nae.  Now do you understand why I have gray hair?

      It's your own fault, old friend, Fara'Nae laughed.  You're the one that gives him such leeway.  Don't be surprised when it rears up and bites you on the butt.

      "You're the one that's always told me to be honest, Mother," he said with a light smile.  "Besides, I'm talking to the Holy Mother, not Ayise or another Elder God, someone who knows my mind.  She knows I'm not being serious.  She knows how highly I regard you, and she also knows that it's alright for loved ones to occasionally tease one another."

      Well, he can fast-talk almost as well as Jasana, that much is apparent, Fara'Nae chuckled.

      Where do you think she got it from? the Goddess replied.

      I think you'd better catch up with the others, before your Mother spanks you, Tarrin, Fara'Nae's voice touched him, rich with amusement.  It's not going to be easy on her, but I think I can do something about your cub.  You know what I have in mind?

      Tarrin nodded.  "She's not going to sleep very well for a while, is she?"

      It worked on you, I think it will work on her, she affirmed.

      Tarrin sighed.  "I'm not going to like watching her go through that, but I guess it's necessary."

      Necessity overcomes parental compassion all the time, my child.  I'm certain she'll be furious with you when she finds out you had a hand in it.

      "I can deal with that, Holy Mother."

      Then let me deal with her.  You can continue your own plans, but please scale them back.  You know how it will go on her.

      "I have an idea.  If I push too hard, let me know, Holy Mother.  I'll back off."

      I will keep you advised, kitten.

      If only you were so conciliatory for me, the voice of the Goddess intruded, which made Tarrin laugh.  He knew it for the bald-faced lie that it was.

      "Just for that, I'm going to be extra-unmanagable, Mother," he teased.

      You mean you can be even more stubborn than you are now? the Goddess retorted with open amusement.

      "I think I could, if I really put my mind to it," he answered her, which made both goddesses laugh.  That pleased him to no end, that he could do that.

      You have to catch up to them, kitten, so off with you, Fara'Nae commanded.  I don't like repeating myself.

      "As you command, Holy Mother," he said.  He glanced up at the morning sky, then he put on his visor and stretched out into a ground-eating lope that would allow him to catch up with the slower moving figures ahead very quickly.

 

      Tarrin found out that Jasana didn't like a whole lot of physical activity that day.

      What started out as sullen silence became petulant whining by lunchtime, as Jasana complained about running and kept at her father to have her carry them to where they were going.  This mystified Tarrin, since she was a Were-cat, and that meant that physical exertion was something that would be nothing to her.  It wasn't like she was getting tired or anything, and the desert's blistering heat didn't affect her.  And she was rather active back home, staying out with Eron all day and playing in the forest, easily being more active than she was being now.  Allia had set a ridiculously slow pace just for the children, barely more than a jog, because she didn't want to overheat Eron as he got acclimated to the brutal desert climate.  He realized that she wasn't complaining because of the exertion, she was complaining because she simply didn't want to run.  She wanted to be there now, and running wouldn't get them there now.  Again, it was Jasana trying to get what Jasana wanted, despite the fact that she would be breaking Selani tradition and law, and none of the others wanted to do what she wanted to do.  Tarrin ignored her complaints during lunch, as they waited out the hottest part of the day in the shade of an overhang looming over them from a rather large rock spire.

      When they started again, Jasana's whining turned into incessant compaints and unflattering observations about the desert.  She got more and more acidic as the day progressed, as she voiced her displeasure by being as disagreeable as she could possibly be.  She even tried Allia's patience, and Allia had incredible patience when dealing with her beloved niece.  But when she said that it was stupid that the Selani ran everywhere, insulting Allia's customs, she crossed the line.  Tarrin stopped them and chastised his daughter on the spot, and he was not gentle in his spanking of her.  A Were-cat as big as him had some formidable power in his arms, and he unleashed it on his daughter's bare backside without mercy.  Then he told her in no uncertain terms that she was going to run because he told her she was going to run, and no amount of whining or complaining was going to change it, so she'd better just shut up and do what she was told, or he'd really get angry.  Jasana had seen her father angry before, and even she knew that that was the one thing she did not want to happen.

      For his part, Tarrin was flabbergasted.  He'd never seen her act like this before, and he was privately very worried.  He had no idea what was causing such terrible behavior, and he'd never heard of any Were-cat cub that acted like that before.  At least in one thing he was grateful, though, and that was that the Holy Mother would start on her as soon as she went to sleep.  Fara'Nae's assistance in showing his daughter the danger of her behavior was a very welcome thing.

      When they stopped for the night, camping against a low cliff that ran for several hundred spans, they got the fire going and enjoyed a dinner of wild sukk.  Tarrin rather liked sukk, for it was richer and more flavorful than any other bird he'd eaten, kind of like a spicy texture within the dense, somewhat tough meat.  Eron ate enough for three of him, and even Jasana, who had complained all day, had to admit that she liked it as well.  She didn't do it very graciously, making it sound like sukk meat was the only good thing in the entire desert, but it was a concession that not everything in the desert was bad.  After dinner, Tarrin sent both cubs to bed, and spent time talking with Allia and Allyn around the fire.  He kept a close eye on the tent holding Eron and Jasana, for he knew what was coming.  It may take some time for Fara'Nae to get into her dreams, but it would happen.

      Well after Allia and Allyn retired to their tent, Tarrin stayed by the fire, not really noticing its heat as he stared out into the darkness.  He could hear the plaintive moaning of at least two Sandmen out there, the strange creatures that roamed the desert at night.  Legend said that they were the souls of those who had died due to the desert's harsh environment, and now roamed the desert seeking out sentient beings on which to release their wrath.  They would ignore animals, only attacking sentients like Selani or humans, enveloping them in their insubstantial bodies and trying to smother them with the sand trapped in the swirling air that made up their corporeal forms.  Tarrin had never seen one, only having had them described to him, and he wasn't entirely curious about seeing one, either.  Some things were best left a mystery.  Kedaira padded over closer to the fire, beside Tarrin, and hunkered down sedately.  Tarrin put his paw on her head and stroked it absently as he listened to the empty moaning of the Sandmen, using their sounds to determine that they were well away from the fire, well away from the light which repelled them, and they were no threat.

      His ears swivelled when he heard Jasana's strangled gasp, and a few seconds later she erupted from the tent quickly.  Her eyes locked on him, and the most profound look of relief he had ever seen washed over her face.  She padded to him quickly and climbed into his lap.

      "What's the matter with you, cub?" he asked gently, knowing the answer.

      "I had a bad dream," she said in a little-girl voice, a voice he didn't hear very often anymore.  Lately, Jasana had been trying to act more mature, like an adult, using Triana as her model.  But the voice he heard from her now was one of total vulnerability, very much the child needing comfort.  Tarrin wrapped his arm around her and let her snuggle in against him, and he felt how she clutched at him with her little paws, even digging her claws in, felt how fast her heart was beating as it hammered against him, through her chest.  That had to be some nightmare, he realized.  Fara'Nae always did know the most cutting way into one's soul.

      It pained him to see her so upset, but he knew that it had to be done.  Of course, the logical part of him had a hard time convincing the nurturing parent in him that it was necessary, not when he had his child in his arms, trying to soothe her after her nightmare.  Tarrin had learned long ago that Jasana didn't require coddling or cooing when she was upset.  All she wanted was an open lap, warm arms to enfold her, and just the calming presence of one of her parents.  For her, that was enough.  So Tarrin didn't baby-talk her or stroke her hair--at least not that much--just letting her feel him holding her, letting her fill her nose with his scent, letting her take comfort in his nearness to allow her to calm down.

      He looked down at her while she calmed down, her heart slowed, her grip on him eased.  Such a unique little child.  He still found it hard to believe that she was one of the most powerful magicians on Sennadar, but all he had to do was look at her to see that.  The Weave pulled towards her just as it did for him, pulled towards her as all the excess magical energy in the local strands pooled around her, as if getting as close to her as it could in case she had need to call upon it.  She attracted magical energy just like he did, and when they were so close together, their combined effect on the Weave was almost enough to pull flows out of the strands without any intent from them.  Maybe it was a good thing that she was so obsessed with Sorcery, since it taught her how to control her immense power.  But then again, he was more worried about how she would use that power, not how well she could control it.  She had to learn the responsbility of her power, not just the power itself, or she could be a problem.

      Problem or not, she was still his daughter, and come what may, he would love her.  He felt her totally relax against him, felt her breathing change as she fell asleep, and how much of a terror she was when she was awake was totally forgotten.  When they weren't causing trouble, children were absolute delights.  The problem was, all children seemed to have an instinctual need to cause trouble.

      It was the parents' curse, he mused with a silent chuckle.  He couldn't count the times he'd heard his parents tell him "when you have children, I hope they're as much trouble as you are!"  A powerful curse, that one.  And totally effective.

      Tarrin held her like that for quite a while, letting her sleep, until Allia awoke and took over sentry duty from him.  The look she gave him when he told her Jasana had had a nightmare was direct and profound; he had the feeling that Allia had an idea what was happening.  How she knew, he had no idea, but he thought that she did.  Then again, there was quite a bit more to Allia than met the eye, even surprising him sometimes.  Tarrin didn't feel very sleepy, so he put Jasana back into her bedroll and sat up with Allia, and they took the opportunity to talk without others there to hear them, catching up on things and telling each other all those secrets they'd been saving up for when they were face to face, renewing the powerful bond that made them so close.

      Jasana had no other nightmares that night, but she looked sandy-eyed and a bit haunted when she woke up in the morning.  Tarrin didn't make any kind of show out of it, and he was surprised that it had left her so subdued.  She didn't complain at all during breakfast, and she ran with them without any snide comments or acidic observations about the desert.  He could smell her inner turmoil whenever he got close to her, and Eron could too; in fact, Eron could sense more about it than Tarrin could, for his son had an exceptionally acute sense of smell, even for a Were-cat.  Where Tarrin could smell emotions and smell it when people lied, Eron could smell changes in very subtle moods, and he could tell just from scent exactly how strong an emotion was in someone.  Tarrin couldn't do that.  Jasana's being upset had an effect on Eron, as he went out of his way to try to be accommodating for her, and trying to cheer her up.  But he didn't ask her what the problem was, and that made Tarrin a little curious.  He asked his son when they stopped for the midday heat, taking shade behind a rock spire.  "I know she had a nightmare, Papa," he told him.  "She woke me up when she got out of the tent, and I never smelled so much fear on her.  I think the nightmare scared her more than just any old nightmare.  Scary things like that aren't easy to forget."

      That surprised Tarrin.  Not that his son had noticed Jasana's nightmare, but that he seemed to understand what kind of an effect one could have on someone.  Very little scared Eron or put him off, which both made him an amusing cub and made him a handful when trying to keep his paws out of danger, but Tarrin saw that Eron had an understanding of it, even if it didn't really affect him.  It also told him that Fara'Nae's technique was already at work.  Tarrin remembered how the nightmares had affected him, had quite nearly drove him mad.  Even to this day, the eyeless face sent chills through him and made him cringe inwardly.  Fara'Nae was quite adept at finding what would work most effectively and unleashing it on her subject.  He pitied his daughter, but knew that it was necessary.

      For three days and nights, it was the same.  Jasana grew withdrawn and morose by day, and every night she stumbled from the tent and sought refuge in her father's arms after another nightmare.  She trembled more and more every night, and it took her longer and longer to calm down afterwards, to the point where Tarrin was starting to get worried and very nearly asked Fara'Nae to stop.  But that was the concern of a parent who hated seeing his child in pain, and he knew it.  The other part of him knew that it had to continue, or else Jasana would do something to cause more pain to others or herself than this.

      On the fourth night, Tarrin felt that it was time to try to do something about it.  After Jasana had come out to seek comfort from him after another nightmare, well after she had calmed down but before she fell asleep, Tarrin finally broached the subject.  "Sometimes it helps to talk about it, cub," he said gently.  "This is four nights in a row.  Sometimes how we feel makes us have bad dreams, so if we can find out what's making the bad dreams, we can try to fix it.  So, what's on your mind?"

      "I-It's nothing, Papa."

      "What are the dreams about, cub?  Maybe that will help.  Tell me about it."

      "I don't remember," she lied, not even sounding half convincing about it.

      "Well, when you're ready to talk about it, I'll be here, Jasana."

      She was silent a considerable time.  "Papa?"

      "What is it, cub?"

      "I'm sorry."

      "What about?"

      "About putting the blood in the potion.  I just wanted you back, like you're supposed to be."

      Tarrin smiled gently, though she couldn't see it.  So, that's how she went about it.  "It's alright, cub.  Everything worked out, and you paid for it.  Boy, did you ever pay for it," he chuckled humorlessly.

      "I never told you I was sorry.  Well, not when I meant it," she said in a vulnerable voice.

      "You weren't sorry, Jasana," he said in a gentle yet firm voice.  "I still don't think you're sorry.  But I'll accept your apology anyway, regardless of how fake I think it is."

      Despite everything, that provoked a short giggle from her.  She put her claws into him just a little and hugged him.  "I love you, Papa."

      "And I love you, you terrible little pain in the neck," he said with a gentle smile, putting his arm around her.

      As if the confession had lifted a burden from her, Jasana was more cheerful the next day.  She didn't speak much, but her expression lacked the somber quality it had had the last few days.  Allyn mentioned it to Tarrin as they ran that morning, and Tarrin explained that Jasana was having something of a conscious attack about her past misdeeds.  Allyn accepted it as the half-truth it was, glancing meaningfully at the little girl as she jogged along beside Eron behind them, with Kedaira bringing up the rear.

      They stopped for a break in the late morning in a wide flat plain filled with green scrub bushes and large rocks scattered among them.  There was a very small flock of wild sukk on the far side of the scrub meadow, which was considerably large, almost a square longspan of it, new growth from where the water table under the ground had shifted and rose, supplying more water to the deep roots of the plants above.  They rested a bit as Allia got her bearings, then she called happily and pointed to the wavering horizon.  "Dust!" she called.  "The tribe is moving north, and we'll intercept them in a few hours!"  She scanned the terrain.  "There's a Scout over there, and I think he sees us.  Yes, he does, he's signalling."  She lifted both arms and waved them back and forth, then dropped one and held the other over her head, then brought it parallel with the ground.  Some kind of pre-arranged signal of sorts.  She put her hands over her visor and shielded her eyes from the sun to watch the other Scout.  "It's Feri.  He says the way is clear up to where he is."

      "How far is he?" Allyn asked.

      "About six longspans."

      Tarrin looked in that direction, but all he saw was hazy desert, the heat radiating from the ground distorting the distance to his eyes.  How Allia could see through that and see the other Scout when he was six longspans away boggled his mind.

      "Papa, what's that smell?" Eron asked.  Tarrin turned to see his son on all fours, sniffing at the ground. "It smells like living rock.  I've never smelled it before."

      Tarrin joined his cub, and was joined by Jasana, as the three of them tried to find the scent that Eron was talking about.  Allyn chuckled and mentioned something about how silly they all looked on all fours snuffling at the ground, but the Were-cats ignored him as the not understanding underprivileged fellow he was.  Tarrin eventually found the scent, an extremely faint and old scent, that did indeed smell like stone in a way, but it was actually an animal.  Tarrin knew that scent, and looked at his son in wonder and pride.  "That's a kajat, cub," he said.  "That nose of yours, I should have figured you'd pick up that scent long before any of us."

      "A kajat?" Allia asked.  "Where?"

      "It's old, Aunt Allia," Eron told her.  "Real old.  I don't think it's around here anymore.  It smells like a youngster."

      "I don't smell anything," Jasana complained.

      "I've smelled it before, cub, I know what to look for," Tarrin told her.  "Let me bring the scent up for you."  He put his will against the Weave and wove a quick spell that isolated the kajat and made it stronger.  Jasana closed her eyes and took in the scent.

      "Oh, I smell it now.  It does smell like rock, doesn't it?"

      "I think it's sand that gets wedged into their scales that gives them that smell," Tarrin surmised.  "They roll around in dirt and sand to camaflauge themselves, and probably to hide their smells."

      "Why do that?" Eron asked.

      "Kajat are primarily ambush hunters, cubling," Allia told him.  "They like hiding and pouncing on prey from surprise."

      "How can something so big hide?" Jasana asked.

      "Practice," Tarrin told her.

      "Cub, I saw a kajat hiding out in the middle of the open desert," Allyn told her.  "Allia pointed it out to me.  The thing looked like a big rock.  If she hadn't have pointed it out, I'd have never imagined that it was a living thing."

      "I once jumped on one because I thought it was a rock," Tarrin admitted.  "Trust me, cub, you'd never tell until you're right on top of it.  They're very good at it."

      "They curl up in such a way that they look like boulders, cubling," Allia told her.  "Since their prey can't see them for what they are and can't smell them, they wander right up to them."

      "They sound like really smart animals," Eron mused.

      "Kajat have learned very well," Allia nodded with a smile.  "We respect them a great deal, and try to avoid them whenever we can."

      "If they're so dangerous, why not kill them?" Jasana asked.

      "Because in the desert, everything has a place and a use," Allia told her seriously.  "Kajat are dangerous, but they keep the populations of the sukk and chisa in check, so they don't become so numerous they strip the desert bare of vegetation.  They also prey on inu, so they also keep the inu in managable numbers.  Without the kajat, there wouldn't be any other desert animals, and we need them.  We depend on them, even if they are a danger to us."

      "Oh.  That makes sense."

      "Eron!  Get your paw out of that hole!" Tarrin snapped without even looking.

      "It's alright, Papa, I saw what went in it," the child responded.  "It was one of those purple scorpions!"

      "Didn't I tell you not to go sticking your paws in holes?"

      "You said don't do it because I wouldn't know what's inside," he said quickly, his arm inside the hole up to his shoulder as he fished for the scorpion.  "I know what's in this one!"

      Baring one fang in a bit of half snarl, Tarrin whirled and grabbed his cub by the back of his pants and hauled him off the ground.  He had the scorpion in the paw that came out of the hole, holding it by the tail.  "Drop it!" he commanded, and Eron did so immediately.  The startled arachnid hit the ground with a dusty fwump and immediately scuttled back towards its hole.  "Don't mince words with me, cub," Tarrin warned, holding his cub up to his eye level by his trousers.  "Don't stick your paw down holes means don't stick your paw down holes.  Do I make myself clear?"

      "Yes, Papa," he said meekly.

      "You're starting to be as bad as Jasana," he huffed as he abruptly lowered Eron and then dropped him, letting him fall about a span to the ground.  "Is that Scout saying anything else, deshaida?" Tarrin asked.

      Allia, who had kept her eyes on the other Selani Scout the whole time, nodded.  "He says the tribe hasn't stopped yet.  If we really move, we just might catch up to them while they're resting out the day's heat."

      "You said that the tribe is moving towards grazing?" Tarrin asked.

      "Yes."

      "Don't you think there's grazing galore right here?"

      Allia glanced at him, then looked around.  Then she laughed.  "I do believe that there is," she agreed, then she started making those wide-armed signals to the other Scout.  They waited in silence, though Eron eyed the hole into which the scorpion had fled with undisguised longing.  "Feri is relaying it back to the tribe," she announced after a few moments.  "My father will have to decide whether to come here or not."

      "Relay?" Eron asked.

      "The Scouts are staggered in their distance from the main tribe, cubling," she told him.  "Feri is the Scout that's farthest out.  He's going to signal the Scout behind him, and that one will signal the Scout behind him, and so on and so on until the message gets back to the tribe.  Then the Scout with the tribe will send my father's reply back."

      "It sounds pretty complicated."

      "I think it's clever," Jasana said.

      "It works, cubs," she told them.  "That's all that matters.  It'll take Feri some time to get the Scout's attention, so it may take a while before we have an answer.  Either way, just waiting here is the best thing."

      "What about the Scouts that range out, sister?" Tarrin asked.

      "They're not part of what Feri is doing, deshida," she answered.  "They're hunters.  Feri and the Scouts not searching for grazing are searching for threats to the tribe while it's on the move."

      "But they weren't moving this way," Eron noted.

      "No, but threats have a way of being drawn to the tribe on the move," she answered him.  "Feri is looking for inu and kajat.  Sometimes they try to set themselves in the path of the tribe while it's moving and ambush us, trying to take some of our sukk and run away before we can catch them.  He's making sure none sneak in from the flanks."

      "Oh, I get it," Eron nodded.  "How do the sukk keep up?" he asked impulsively.  "I've seen you run, Aunt Allia.  I don't think they could keep up with you."

      "Sukk run very fast, cubling," she laughed.  "They have no trouble keeping up."

      "Enough questions, Eron," Tarrin told him.  "To keep you out of trouble, let's go see if we can't catch one of those wild sukk over there, alright?"

      "Oooh, can I come?" Jasana asked excitedly.

      "The more we have, the better chance we'll catch something," he told her.  "Come on, Kedaira, let's hunt."

      The inu hissed slightly and lifted its head, then gave a throaty growl and quickly moved to join the three Were-cats as they started towards the distant birds.

      "I'll stay here with Allia," Allyn called after them.  "So she can watch for a reply without worrying."

      Hunting sukk was something that Eron and Jasana had never done before, so Tarrin made sure to teach them basics as they sidled in that general direction.  The air was still, which meant that their scents wouldn't give them away for a while, and the fifteen birds were happily grazing on the tough springy scrub bushes that were so common in the desert.  "They're very fast, cubs," he explained as they moved towards them.  "They move fast, they run fast, and they have fast reflexes.  They don't see very well, but they have sharp ears, so you have to be quiet when you hunt them.  When we do chase them down, you have to be careful, because sometimes they'll turn and attack.  Their beaks are very sharp, but it's the feet you have to watch.  They have really big talons and their legs are very, very strong.  A kick from a sukk could take your head right off."

      "I saw the claws on that one Allia killed," Eron said, nodding in comprehension.

      "Then I hope you appreciate that they're not easy kills," Tarrin told his son.  "If they turn on you and attack, run away.  Let me or Kedaira deal with them if they chase you."

      "I've never hunted something bigger than me before," Jasana said in excitement.

      "Because of that, I hope you understand when I tell you that I want you to let me or Kedaira make the kill," he told her.  "You're half the size of a sukk, cub.  It won't be very afraid of you."

      "What do you want us to do?"

      "Sukk startle easily," Tarrin told her.  "I want you and Eron to wait while me and Kedaira circle around behind them.  When we get in position, I want you two to jump up and rush them, yelling and screaming.  That'll drive them right to me and Kedaira, since we're going to be waiting for them."

      "Smart idea," Eron nodded.

      "It's how the inu do it, and I've noticed that they seem to know the best technique for hunting anything in the desert," Tarrin told him.

      "Inu really are smart, aren't they, Papa?" Jasana noted.

      "They're very smart, cub," Tarrin said absently, watching the distant figures.  "Alright, we're going to separate here.  Now, you two sneak up on them slowly and give me and Kedaira time to circle them.  I'll Whisper to you when I'm ready, Jasana.  Don't rush them until I signal you, and when you do rush them, don't chase them after they start running.  I just want you to startle them into bolting, and they'll do that if you make enough noise and bluster enough.  If you chase them, they'll realize you're half their size, and they'll probably turn around and attack you.  Do you understand?"

      "I understand, Papa," they said in unison, Eron flexing his claws in anticipation.  Tarrin had hunted with them, but never anything dangerous.  For them, this was a new, exciting idea, and their very first hunt with the adults when they hunted something that could fight back.  Tarrin had little fear for them, because as impulsive and uncontrollable as they could be most of the time, the instinct to hunt was in both of them, and they'd do very well.  They'd obey him because they knew that was what it was going to take to have a successful hunt.  And they wouldn't be in much danger so long as they obeyed his instructions.

      "Good.  Now remember, slow, steady, and low.  When you're about fifty spans from them, stop and wait."

      "We got it, Papa," Jasana said as she hunkered down, partially behind a scrub bush, then crept up to another, staying low.  Eron copied her, and Tarrin nodded in satisfaction.  He glanced at Kedaira and started loping off parallel to the sukk, a move Kedaira instantly understood.  They would be circling the prey, using a hunting tactic that she knew very, very well.

      It took Tarrin and Kedaira about ten minutes to get into position, circling very wide of the sukk, beyond their ability to see, moving quietly and smoothly.  When they were on the opposite side, they stalked up on the flock, Tarrin literally moving on all fours to keep most of his body below the level of the scrub, as Kedaira did more or less the same thing, her belly almost scraping the rocky ground as she hunkered down and waddled towards the sukk.  They moved with practiced ease, sliding up into a position about fifty spans from the flock, which had not registered either them or the cubs, still grazing contentedly on the scrub.  Tarrin's predatory instincts were ruling him, and he watched the huge birds with intensity, his ears fully forward to catch any sound they made, his eyes unblinking as he studied his prey.  He remembered the cubs and absently raised up his consciousness partially into the Weave, and Whispered out to his daughter.  "Alright, cub, we're in position.  Are you ready?"

      There was a brief pause.  "We're ready, Papa."

      "Anytime you want, then."

      A few seconds later, he heard both of his cubs suddenly start screaming at the top of their lungs.  Tarrin raised his eyes over the scrub enough to look past the birds, and he saw them charging the sukk, flailing their arms and raising a big racket.  Doing exactly what he wanted them to do.  The sukk all flinched from that sudden eruption of sound, then they turned and bolted away from it in a harmonious motion.  Tarrin and Kedaira stayed hunkered down as the fifteen nine-span tall birds scrambled towards them, until the lead was so close that Tarrin could almost reach out and grab it.  Both he and the inu leaped from their concealment right in the face of the running flock, so quickly that the lead bird didn't even see Tarrin until his huge clawed paw caught it right on the side of its head, a vicious sideswipe that ripped out its eye and broke its neck, sending it tumbling into the scrub in a cloud of dust and dislodged feathers.  Kedaira jumped into the air at the next closest with a high-pitched roar, the oversized claws on her hind legs extended forward and ready.  She impacted the sukk as it tried to turn away, her forepaws latching onto its flank as she brought her formidable weapons to bear.  Those huge claws sank into the bird's side, penetrating so deeply that the bird gave out a single squeal of pain and immediately dropped lifeless to the ground.  The inu grabbed the bird's neck in her powerful jaws and thrashed it back and forth to make sure of her kill.  The remaining flock scattered while still moving in the same general direction in which they had originally fled, going around the Were-cat and the inu and fleeing for safety.

      Eron and Jasana ran up to them with broad smiles on their faces.  "You got one, Papa!" Eron said happily.

      "See, cub?  When you do it right, hunting can be easy," Tarrin told him, reaching down and grabbing the leg of the sukk he killed.  Kedaira had already started tearing into the bird she killed, enjoying the spoils of her labor.  "Let's leave Kedaira here so she can eat and we'll take this back to Allia and have some lunch."

      "I can't wait til I'm big enough to be on the other side!" Eron said breathlessly, looking at the sukk from every angle while Tarrin dragged it behind him as he moved back towards Allia.

      "It would have been easier to use Sorcery," Jasana noted, but then she smiled at her father.  "But not as much fun."

      "That's the spirit, cub," Tarrin smiled in reply.

      By the time they returned with their meal, Allia had a response.  "Father's going to come here," she told him with bright eyes.  "Feri just got the message back to me.  He wants us to scout out the best place for the camp and start preparing for them."

      "I thought we were going to eat!" Eron protested.  "I'm hungry!"

      "It won't take long, cubling," Allia smiled.  "In fact, I know exactly where to start."

      "What do we have to do to prepare?" Jasana asked.

      "Whatever we can to make it fast and easy for the tribe to set up camp," Allia answered.  "The first thing we have to do is make sure there aren't any inu or kajat lurking nearby.  After we're sure of that, we could dig firepits, or clear rocks out of openings between scrub bushes for tents, or gather up rollbrush for firewood, or look for zubu burrows and other holes and mark them so nobody steps in one by accident."

      "Why do we have to do all the work?" Jasana complained.

      "Because we are here," Allia answered.  "We're making sure the tribe can set up camp and rest as quickly as possible, cubling.  We're doing what we can for them.  Wouldn't you do what you can for your family?"

      "Well, I guess," she admitted with a slightly annoyed look at the Selani.

      "We won't be along long, Jasana," Allia told her.  "Feri and the other Scouts are moving towards us.  As they arrive, they'll start helping us too."

      "Oh, that's alright, then," she proclaimed.  "Where do we start?"

      They started with the well.  It was the first thing that Selani did when setting a camp outside of searching for predators.    Tarrin and Allia started digging after Allia surveyed the scrub plain, finding the place where the water would be closest to the surface.  It took her about ten minutes before she had decided on a spot, and then they started digging with tools Tarrin Conjured.  The hole was excavated quickly with Tarrin's immense strength, and he was surprised at what he found.  They only had to dig down about four spans before water started seeping through the sandy soil, and another span down was where they struck ground water.  It took a very long time for the deep hole to fill with water, little more than a trickle, but it showed him how clever the Selani were.  They got their water from wells, which was how they could travel such distances between known oases.  Now that he thought of it, he understood why he found so many old half-filled holes in the desert floor, and why he often saw sukk digging into the ground with their powerful feet and legs.  They weren't digging for roots, as he first thought, they were digging for water.

      Amusing, he thought.  A vast desert, one of the dryest places in the world, and one only had to go about five spans in order to find water.  Five spans down.

      At least here, he realized.  The Selani--and the desert animals--had to move where the seasonal forces brought the water closest to the surface, places marked by sudden growth of the scrubby brush and vegetation of the desert.  He was certain that in other parts of the desert right now, the water was so far down that digging for it would be fruitless.  It explained how such big animals could survive in such a hostile environment, for as big as kajat were, he knew that they had to drink vast amounts of water in order to survive.  They just dug for it and patiently lapped up all the water they needed as it slowly filled the hole.

      And the sandstorms filled up those holes with dirt, sand, and dust as they passed, concealing the evidence of how the desert dwellers found their water.  Clever.

      Then again, there was the gold.  Tarrin had to toss a few impressive nuggets aside while digging.  Gold was like rocks out in the desert, as common as stone and literally littering the ground in some places.  Almost anywhere in the Desert of Swirling Sands, one could find a few tiny nuggets of gold with a little patient sifting of the soil.  He wondered what caused gold to be so abundant there--

      --and he suddenly understood Mala Myrr.  The only Dwarven city above ground, in a place where a Dwarf would not like to be.  But Dwarves were avaricious, most books agreed, always seeking out precious metals and gems, and this place had to be some kind of heaven for them.  An area so stuffed with gold that one could find it laying on the ground.  They had built their city out in the low foothills, in those intersecting valleys, so they could mine the gold just under the hillsides.  The gold perfectly explained the presence of the Dwarves, who preferred rugged mountains, places like Daltochan, the mountains around Petal Lakes, or the Sandshield, rather than the low foothills near the Sandshield.

      While Tarrin and Allia dug for water, Allyn showed the children what to do.  They went out into the plain to locate any possible dangers to the sukk that would pasture there, starting with predators, but then searching for things like holes or umuni, the lethally venemous lizards of the desert.  Tarrin didn't pay much attention to them until Eron came back carrying a juvenile umuni by the neck, being careful not to hurt it.  Tarrin wondered absently just what it was about venemous animals that so attracted his son's attention.  He just couldn't leave them alone.  A bit annoyed, Tarrin told the umuni that they'd do it no harm and not to get upset, and had his son let it go on the edge of the area Allia said the Selani would occupy while they were there.  Allia wanted to eat it, but he wouldn't allow it.  Once Tarrin spoke to an animal, it was the same as him acknowledging the animal, and he would not hurt it.  Druids didn't do that.  He had a responsibility to the reputation of the Druids as well as the trust the animal put in him after he made contact with it.  He wouldn't abuse either.

      Besides, they had a fresh sukk carcass waiting for them, already attracting attention from vultures.

      After the sweep was done, Allyn had the children clearing open spaces of rocks and debris for tents while he started digging a firepit with a short-handled shovel he'd been carrying in his pack.  Tarrin mused at the Sha'Kar while he worked, marvelling that a Sha'Kar could act so much like a Selani.  He wondered how Allyn was handling the task of learning the Dance, of having to do physical violence, which was against everything for which the Sha'Kar stood.  But then again, he really wasn't a Sha'Kar anymore, he was a Selani in training, and that meant embracing a radically different culture.  Tarrin saw the strength in Allyn then, not just his physical endurance but his fierce will, and knew that he would make it.

      Not long after the well was finished, as Tarrin and Allia covered it with a blanket Allia kept rolled up in her pack to keep the desert sun from evaporating the water, the first of the Selani Scouts arrived, the male Feri.  Feri was rather short for a Selani, which meant that he was still rather tall for a human, a few fingers taller than Allyn.  He was thin as a reed, so obvious that it was easy to tell even through his baggy clothes, but Tarrin could see just by how he moved that he was a sleek, fast adversary, and would be quite a handful in a fight.  He had a tail of blond hair peeking out from under his loose head covering, flowing down his back.  Feri didn't make any kind of greeting or show of his arrival, he simply dropped his pack and grabbed a corner of the blanket, holding it while Allia tied off her end to a short stick she'd picked up off the ground.  "Feri," Allia greeted absently.

      "Allia," he returned in a slightly gravelly voice.  "I see you weren't kidding.  He is tall."

      "Would I lie to you, old friend?" she asked with a winsome smile.  "Who's behind you?"

      "Zumar," he answered.  "Targi and Melila are just behind him."

      "The clan?"

      "About an hour," he answered.  "More than enough time."

      "Feri, may I present Tarrin, my deshida.  Tarrin, this is Feri, a fellow Scout and a friend."

      "May the Holy Mother shade your steps and give you sweet water," Feri said formally.

      "I'm not that stuffy, Feri," Tarrin told him without looking as he put his corner under a heavy nugget of gold he'd excavated from the ground earlier.  "A simple hello will suffice."

      Feri laughed.  "Sorry, but someone as big as you gets a formal greeting from me every time."

      Tarrin glanced at him and almost smiled.  "At least he's not stupid, sister," Tarrin noted.

      "No, Feri is a shrewd one," Allia said with a sly look at her friend.

      "You took good brands.  Surprising in an outlander."

      "I'm full of surprises, Feri," Tarrin told him.  "Eron!"

      "I didn't do anything!" Eron protested, hiding the oversized, highly venemous wasp in his paw behind his back.

      Tarrin affixed his son with an ugly stare, who immediately let the insect go.  It wobbled a bit in the air before buzzing off to safety.

      Tarrin didn't have much of a chance to talk to or observe Feri before the next Scout arrived, a much taller, more stocky Selani named Zumar.  Zumar had white hair, not far from Allia's silver-white, and actually had red eyes, the color of a rose.  Tarrin had never seen a Selani with rose-colored irises before.  Zumar was a very tight-lipped fellow, not even speaking when greeted by the other two Scouts, immediately kneeling and starting to pull out materials to build a fire, whose smoke would guide the moving tribe to them.  The other two Feri mentioned, Targi and Melila, arrived but moments later.  They were both female, shorter than Allia, but they moved much like her.  One had sand-colored hair, the other was a redhead, something of a rarity among Selani.  Unlike Zumar, they introduced themselves with open smiles, and both of them seemed quite talkative.  They started on Tarrin almost as soon as they were introduced, asking about him and the wetlands and his children.  Allyn was still herding the cubs, trying to keep them together and near the center of the activity, but that didn't last long.  Eron was running around, talking very fast to the four newcomer Selani, sometimes so quickly that he forgot what he was talking about and raced off to talk to another.  Jasana abandoned Allyn and took refuge with her father, reverting to the curiously quiet and shy girl she often became when in the presence of strangers, watching the Selani with uncertain eyes.  She even grabbed the end of his tail and held onto it, much as she had done when she was younger.  Both Selani females looked at her and tried to talk to her, but she simply hid behind her father's legs.  It reminded Tarrin how wide-ranging his daughter's personality was, bluffing maturity in one moment and showing how much of a child she was the next.

      Jasana followed her father around as they tried to set things up for the approaching clan, clearing space for the tents as the two female Selani dug firepits in strategic areas, defense against the Sandmen that infested the desert during the cold night, a ring of protection around the projected border of the encampment.  Zumar seemed content with staying to himself, but Feri tried to engage Tarrin in conversation.  It wasn't the chattiness the females had exhibited, it was a more enlightened series of questions about Tarrin's home, family, and home region that he guessed was meant to give the Selani an idea of what kind of person Tarrin was.

      For his part, Tarrin was just a little wary and anxious about all this.  He'd heard quite a bit about Allia's family and her clan--tribe, as the case may be, since the Selani word for both was the same, its meaning made clear by a context that was often deliberately left vague--and what Allyn had had to say didn't bolster him very much.  He had no doubt that he could pass muster with Allia's very demanding father, but he was more worried about the overall effect he may have on Allia's reputation given that she was already in hot water over Allyn.  She had come home with an outlander for a fianceè and another outlander branded by Selani custom without the approval of the clan king.  That was two major infractions of rule and custom, and violating the rules was dishonorable.  He knew for a fact that Allia's honor had been damaged by her behavior, at least in the eyes of the Selani, and she was on very unstable ground.  If Allyn failed to prove himself, she would be in even more trouble, maybe enough to bring her position as princess under examination.  She had to have much greater honor than the average Selani, because she was next in line for her father's position.  She could be an honorable Selani, but not have the honor necessary to garner the clan's respect.  That would disqualify her for the position, and that would be a serious stain on her honor, almost to the point where she would choose to exile herself from the clan rather than continue to live among those who felt that she wasn't fit enough to command them.

      At least Allyn understood Allia's precarious position, and was working with all of his energy and will towards proving himself.  If he took good brands, then all of this would die away.  The fact that Tarrin had brands was a powerful weight on his side of the balance, since he'd already been accepted by the Holy Mother, had proved his worth.  If the Holy Mother made it clear through the tribe's Priest that he was in her favor, they would not say a word to him, and would in fact welcome him into the clan.  Why Fara'Nae had to go through a Priest was beyond him, since she had a habit of directly answering the prayers of her children.  Why couldn't she tell them how she felt without using a Priest?  But then again, to every god his or her own, he guessed.  It wasn't his place to tell Fara'Nae how to run her own organization.

      Tarrin was so caught up in his worry and concerns for his sister that he honestly didn't realize that so much time had passed.  He looked up and saw the Selani, Allyn, and Eron all looking towards the west, and he realized that the clan had arrived.  In their lead had to be Kallan, Allia's father, a very tall, imposing figure loping along at the head of a disorganized column of Selani all wearing those sand-colored desert outfits, heads covered by the loosely wrapped cloths and with visors and veils protecting their faces from the harshness of the desert wind, and the majority of them carrying spears or bows.  He could see the sukk flocks in the middle of the Selani host, running with their handlers with very little effort involved, though they were moving faster and becoming a little hard to keep grouped now that they could see the green of the desert scrub plain laid out before them.  Tarrin saw several chisa in the host, loaded with the heavy gear that the Selani couldn't easily carry and run, such as tents and large bales and bundles of wood, and a few of them had Selani riding on them.  They were mainly the very, very young, but there was one Selani that was not young riding on the back of one of those large reptillian quadrapeds.  That had to be Kaila, Allia's mother, who had a bad leg as a result from injuries suffered from an attack from a pack of inu.  Since she was injured, it was not dishonorable for her to ride a beast of burden, something no healthy Selani would ever think of doing.  Tarrin saw that the older children ran with their parents, though most of them were at the rear of the host, and the group was followed by some fifteen Selani carrying long spears.  He had to dredge his memory to remember who they were.  The al'bai, the Defenders, Selani who specialized in defending the flanks and rear of a moving Selani clan, as the Scouts defended its front and ferreted out possible dangers.  They used their long spears to defend against inu and kajat, engaging the beasts to give the host time to get away from them.  They were highly respected for their almost suicidal bravery and tenacity when defending the clan against threat,and their skill in battling against their reptillian animal foes was exceptional.  They made a habit of knowing everything there was to know about the inu and kajat, so that they could battle them more effectively should they threaten the clan.  That didn't mean that they were pushovers when facing humanoids, either.  The al'bai were some of the strongest and most skilled fighters the Selani had.

      Kedaira padded up to Tarrin's side, issuing a very low growl from her throat.  "Easy," he told her.  "I'm here to fix that, remember?"

      She looked up at him, her reptillian eyes calm, and she shivered her head noncommitally.

      Despite knowing that they were Allia's clan, something in Tarrin just couldn't help but feel a little...uneasy.  Even though it had been many, many months since placed in a position like he was in now, the time had done very little to ease his lingering ferality.  He didn't feel comfortable surrounded by strangers, and he simply could not help but feel a little defensive.  Without thought, as the All seemed to respond to his unease and concern, Tarrin Summoned the Cat's Claws from their resting place in the trunk at the foot of his bed.  They appeared around his wrists and forearms, and Tarrin was a little surprised to see them there, as he had no honest memory of Summoning them.  But he had to admit, feeling their comforting weight on his arms, sensing their powerful magic, lovingly woven into them by his dear sister, he felt much more secure.  The invisible, phantom armor they provided was comfort enough, but knowing that they were also lethal weapons which could be employed by speed of thought made him feel much more confident about facing unknown strangers.

      Even after everything that had happened and all the peace he had enjoyed, Tarrin was still feral, and always would be.  Its impact on him may change, but it would never be completely purged from him.

      Adjusting them a bit to keep them from snarling in the fetlocks on the outsides of his wrists, Tarrin regarded the advancing Selani with a calm, almost calculating eye.  "What's the matter, Papa?" Jasana asked.  "Are they bad people?"

      "No, cub," he answered her.  "But you know how I feel about strangers."

      "I know," she sighed.

      Tarrin decided that now, since the Selani were in sight, it would be a good time to remind his cubs of a few things.  "Eron!" Tarrin barked, "come here!"

      Tarrin knelt as his son ran up from where he'd been following Zumar around, pestering him with endless questions and observations.  He made both of them stand before him, looking down at them with stern eyes.  "Alright then, I want both of you to remember what we talked about earlier," he told them.  "How you behave is going to reflect on me and your Aunt Allia.  You have to be very, very good, or you're going to get us in trouble with Allia's father.  Do you understand?"

      "I understand, Papa," Jasana said seriously.

      "You told us that already, Papa!" Eron compained.

      "I'm making sure you understood it, cub," Tarrin told him with a steely look.  "This isn't a game where you can just take something back.  If you embarass me or Allia, we're stuck with it, and it might make Allia's father send us home.  How would you like to be kicked out of the desert because you couldn't behave yourself?  How do you think your mother is going to react when she finds out why we came home early?"

      Few things could cow Eron like mentioning his mother and the possibility of punishment.  Mist wasn't cruel to him, but she knew how to punish him.  Usually she put him in a small room with absolutely nothing within to catch his interest and made him stew for a while.  The boredom drove the slightly hyper Were-cat cub absolutely crazy.  "I'll be good, Papa," he promised.

      "I also wanted to remind you two to be gentle if any of the Selani children play with you," he told them.  "You know how the other races are, cubs.  They're very weak and very fragile.  You have to be very gentle with them, or you'll hurt them.  It's alright to play with them, but don't forget that.  We don't want anyone getting hurt by accident, alright?"

      "I can be gentle, Papa," Eron proclaimed immediately.  "It's like playing with one of the dogs on Gramma and Grandpa's farm.  I won't hurt anyone."

      "That's all I need to hear.  You can go play now," he told them gently, reaching out and tapping Eron on the tip of his nose with a huge finger.  Eron flinched and giggled, then immediately ran off to go back to pestering Zumar once again.

      "Do you really think that Allia's father will be that mean to us?" Jasana asked.

      "I'm not sure, cub," he said seriously.  Jasana was much more mature of mind than Eron, and that meant that he would occassionally talk to her about such things.  "He's not very happy with Allia at the moment, and remember, I'm another one of those things that he's probably mad at her about.  I don't want to give him any reason to think any worse of us or her than he already does.  We're here to try to help Allia with her father, not make things worse."

      "I understand," she said with a single nod.

      "I thought you might, cub," he said.  "It's hard to remember that you're as young as you are sometimes."  He gave her a gentle smile.  "And sometimes, it's as obvious as the day is long."

      Jasana flushed a little, but said nothing.  "Shouldn't you go meet him?" she asked.

      "No.  I'm not going to run over there like a fawning bootlicker, cub.  I have my pride, and I think it's important that gets put on the table at the outset.  When Allia's father wants to see me, he'll send for me.  Until then, he's of no concern of mine."

      "Won't he think you're being stuck up?"

      "You don't know the Selani very well, cub," he told her.  "Trust me.  I'm doing exactly what I need to do to make the proper first impression."

      "What do we do until he calls us?"

      "What we were doing before, cub," he told her.  "Allyn is over there helping that Scout dig a firepit.  Let's give them a hand."

      Kedaira stayed close to Tarrin for some reason, but he gave it no mind as he and Jasana went over and helped Allyn and the female Selani Scout, Melila, dig a wide, shallow firepit to be used to ward off Sandmen at night.  They had already prepared enough of them to form a perimeter on the eastern edge of the planned campsite, and Tarrin realized that they would encircle the camp with them to protect against Sandmen.  Tarrin looked back to the arriving clan and realized that they didn't have enough firewood to set that many fires and make them last all night.  But then again, they had to have some kind of a plan, so Tarrin didn't worry about it too much.

      The clan arrived moments later, and immediately flowed into the projected campsite and started work.  Tarrin watched a moment with Jasana as Selani guided chisa into the camp and started unloading them, looking like families handled their own tents and possessions themselves.  They moved with a casual certainty about them, an absent efficiency that came with performing an action repeatedly over many years.  They had set up camps almost every day of their lives since they could walk, so they were quite good at it.  Before the last Selani filed into the campsite, the first of the tents were already erected.  They used surprisingly large, low-ceilinged pyramid-like tents that smelled like they were made out of the plant fiber from which their clothing was constructed.  A single tent occupied a great deal of ground area, but was little more than ten spans high at its center, and when they were erected, their sides were pulled surprisingly taut.  Tarrin realized that they were made that way to help deflect the wind, being low to the ground and with very long sides, letting the wind flow over them without catching on the tent and tearing it away.

      The Selani couldn't help but stare at him, and Tarrin noticed that the very first place they looked was at his shoulders.  They were looking at his brands.  Tarrin looked back calmly at the smaller, lithe Selani, who had taken off their veils but continued to wear their visors, trying to get their tents up so they could duck inside and get out of the midday heat.  Many of them looked at Jasana as well, and he wasn't sure if their expressions were disapproving or simply disinterested.  Tarrin was about to go back to helping Allyn when Allia's shrill, loud whistle caught his attention.  She was standing with her parents and another Selani, and she beckoned to him with her hand when he looked in her direction, literally looking over the heads of all the Selani around him.

      "Looks like it's time, cub," Tarrin said absently.  "Do me a favor and go corral Eron and bring him to us."

      "Alright, Papa," Jasana acknowledged, letting go of his tail and scurrying off in the direction of the careening Were-cat.

      Tarrin stalked through the swarming Selani as they labored to set up their camp, looking over and seeing that the sukk were being led out into the scrub to graze, loosely circled by Selani holding spears and bows with arrows nocked.  They had about a hundred of them, quite a large flock, along with about fifteen or so chisa.  The larger reptillians were easy to pick out amond the sukk.  Tarrin advanced on Allia's position with a blank face, that same emotionless mask that he had seen on Triana's face so many times, an expression that he had learned was most effective when dealing with unknown people.  He stalked up on the four of them, Kallan, Kaila, probably Allia's aunt Dulai, and Allia herself, scrutinizing each of them in turn.  Kallan was a very tall Selani, thin as a whip but absolutely exuding authority.  He had that same sense as Triana, an aura of unshakable will and power that affected everyone around him, though Kallan's sense of presence was absolutely nothing compared to Triana's.  He was a handsome Selani, with thin, high features and a faint scar over his right eyebrow.  Kallan's hair was a kind of light beige, the color of pampas grass, not quite white yet not quite anything but white.  His large eyes were blue, just like Allia's.  His face and hands were all of him that Tarrin could see, but it was enough to tell that Kallan was strong and tough as an old thistle.

      Kaila's injuries were more apparent when one got close to her, for she had a hideous scar that ran from the left side of her face, running out from her blond hair and under a band of ragged leather serving as an eye patch that most likely covered an empty eye socket, and then down her cheek to her jaw, a deep, jagged scar made by an animal with very long, very sharp claws, marring what had been a very lovely face before her injury.  Her left hand and half of her forearm was missing, and her right leg moved as if it did not have a knee.  But despite that, there was a kind of vibrancy about the woman that seemed to jump out at him, a woman with a powerful will to live but also enjoying the life that she had.  He could tell immediately that she did not mourn the loss of her hand, eye, and mobility.  She had put it behind her, and continued to live life to its fullest.  This was a very strong woman.

      The third woman, probably Dulai, looked much like Kallan did, which marked her as Kallan's sister.  She was very tall for a Selani, nearly as tall as Allia, which meant that Allia's height came from her father's side of the family.  She had wide, almost cherubic cheekbones that reminded him of Faalken for an irrational moment, but had dark blue, brooding eyes that seemed cold and cunning.  She did have white hair, just like Allia, draping out from under her turban in a very long tail that nearly dragged the ground behind her.  She seemed...uptight.  That wasn't a good description of the sense he got from her, but there was something about her that was very unrelaxed.  That seemed as good an explanation as any.  When he got close enough to scent her, his sense of that was reinforced.  Dulai was a worrier, or neurotic, or something along those lines.

      Tarrin reached them and came to a stop, looking down at them with slightly narrowed eyes, as the old sense of trepidation rose up in him at facing strangers.  It was much easier to control now, allowing him to crush it under a thought that these were Allia's family, and as such should not be treated as most other strangers.  He let them look up at him, and what was more important, he let them realize that he had absolutely no fear of any of them.  His gaze was predatory, penetrating, and it was a gaze that Dulai could not hold for more than a moment before looking away.  Kallan stared back at him with equal intensity, neither speaking nor moving, until Kaila laughed and broke both of their stares with her distraction.

      "By the Holy Mother's grace, daughter," she chuckled, looking up at him.  "You said he was tall, but I didn't expect him to be tall."

      "Father, may I present Tarrin Kael, my deshida," Allia said in very formal tones.

      Kallan's first look at Tarrin--anywhere but his eyes, anyway--was at his shoulders.  When he saw the brands there, one of his eyebrows rose in a curious, almost quizzical manner.  "My daughter speaks very highly of you, Tarrin Kael," he said in a calm voice.  "She gives you much honor.  It is my intent to discover if you are worth it."

      "You don't trust your daughter's judgement, kirza?" Tarrin asked, using the Selani term for king, which was exactly what Kallan was.

      "Given that she brings a soft near-cousin of our people home with her to marry, brings home an inu as a pet, and broke some of our oldest and most sacred laws when she did what she did with you, let us say that I think it is possible her ability to judge wisely was damaged while she was among the wetlanders," he countered.

      "Time will tell," Tarrin told him calmly, almost cooly.

      "Yes, it will," Kallan agreed.

      "Well, let me say that I've been looking forward to meeting you, Tarrin Kael," Kaira said with a light, genuine smile, extending her hand.  Tarrin took it, swallowing it up in his paw.  "Kallan and Allia may fight about her behavior, but I don't think even my husband can deny the love our daughter has for you."

      "I'm glad you feel that way," he told her, feeling her light touch on his pads.  Touching her, he couldn't help but send a short weave through her, assessing the extent of her injuries.  They had all healed, but he sensed from his probing weave that they had done no damage to any of her organs or bones, only the obvious damage she displayed.  The problem with her knee was that the the bite that inflicted the wound had partially damaged or totally severed all the tendons and ligaments in her knee, and she had lost most of the tissue surrounding it.  The inu had literally stripped her knee area to the bone.  Scar tissue completely consumed the joint now, making it immovable, and the damaged ligaments and tendons wouldn't allow the muscles to move the joint anyway.  The scar tissue actually served to aid her, stiffening the damaged joint and keeping it from buckling every time she put weight on it.

      Forgetting himself in the moment, he reached up and pulled the eyepatch away, inspecting the wound to her face.  The eye socket was still intact; that was a good sign.  The claw had snagged her eye and literally pulled it out, instead of ripping apart the bone and musculature that held it in place.  Kaila didn't seem to object, but he missed Kallan's infuriated look as he gently turned the woman's head to the side, checking the scar.  That would be easy enough to repair.

      "Remove your hands from my wife!" Kallan hissed in an offended tone.

      "Tarrin is not harming her, father," Allia said quickly.  "His powers of magic also include healing.  I think he is assessing whether or not he can do anything for mother.  He means no disrespect."

      "It would be prudent to warn someone, you know," Kaila told him with a light smile.

      "I apologize," he said sincerely, letting go.  "I tend to ignore the wishes of others from time to time.  Call it a peculiarity of my race."

      "That's a peculiarity of almost any race," Kaila told him with a wink of her remaining eye.

      Tarrin immediately started to like Allia's mother.

      "Well, what can you do for me, Tarrin?" she asked with a light smile and an almost mischevious look in her single eye.  Her banter seemed to defuse Kallan, who took a less stiff posture.

      "What do you want done?" he asked in reply.  "I can fix all of this.  I can even give you back your hand."

      "I'm sure you could," she smiled, reaching up and pushing his paw down.  "But so could the Holy Mother's voice here in the clan, our Priestess.  The Holy Mother has not deigned to heal my wounds yet.  Perhaps she feels that there is something more I need to learn before she allows it to be done, and as in all things, I will bow to her will.  When the Holy Mother feels it is time for me to be healed, I will be healed.  But until then, I will continue on as I am now."

      Tarrin blinked, removing his paw, surprised by her response.  And in a way, he couldn't refute her.  If she had that much faith in Fara'Nae, it was not his place to try to usurp it by healing her before she felt that Fara'Nae felt she was ready.  But Tarrin did file that little bit of information away in the back of his mind, fully intending to confront her over it the next time they talked.  If Kaila wasn't ready to be healed, then nobody was.  She was so strong, so full of life, not even her injuries could slow her down.  She deserved to be healed.

      "I would hope that you'd have known Selani custom better, and known that to do what you have just done is not considered honorable," Kallan told him stiffly.

      "Oh come now, Kallan, he did no harm," Kaila told him.  "And he is an outlander.  He has his own customs, and nobody can fault him for accidentally reverting to them.  Touching me like that was some kind of custom, wasn't it?" she asked him.

      "In a way," Tarrin answered.  "It would be hard to explain."

      "Besides, he was doing what he did out of a desire to do good.  Doesn't that count for something?"

      Kallan said nothing, but Kaila's argument obviously hit a nerve.  Tarrin could tell that Kallan was extremely defensive about his wife, so he made a note to be delicate about that subject from then on.

      In a moment of clarity, Tarrin understood why Kaila wasn't healed.  It wasn't because of her, it was because of her husband.  There was something going on here, some kind of subtle interaction between them that was enough to prevent Fara'Nae's hand.  The lesson to be learned wouldn't be learned by Kaila, it would be learned by Kallan.  When he discovered that truth, Fara'Nae would relent.  It seemed wrong to force Kaila to continue to be impaired in this lesson, but he realized that her faith and her liveliness wouldn't allow her to get depressed or self-pitying.  She was happy to go on living, no matter how it was that she lived.

      Quite a few people could learn something from Allia's surprising mother.

      Tarrin put that out of his mind and looked at Kallan.  So far, Tarrin hadn't done much to impress the Selani clan king, but he could tell that Kallan hadn't quite made up his mind about Tarrin yet.  Kaila's defense of Tarrin had defused that somewhat, enough to where Kallan was again speculative instead of hostile.

      "Are you ready to perform the task I have asked you to perform?" Kallan asked him.

      "I can take care of that at your earliest convenience, kirza," he answered.  "It may take me a couple of days, because I have to talk to each of your animals one at a time.  I didn't realize you had quite this many."

      "You can tend to that later.  For right now, I want to see what my daughter has taught you," he said, looking right into Tarrin's eyes.  "When the camp is fully set up, I will see what you know."

      Tarrin had no doubt that Kallan meant to test his fighting ability, to test his mettle and see what kind of a man he was in a fight.  Tarrin had fully expected that, and in a way, he welcomed it.  He'd been curious for a long time to see if Kallan was of equal measure to his daughter.

      Tarrin reached within, through the Cat, and made contact with the boundless energy of the All.  The image and intent in his mind were clear, and the All responded to them quickly and effortlessly.  Two foul-smelling gloves appeared in his paw, the Trollskin gloves that Allia and others had used in order to spar against him.  "Here," he said, offering them to the Selani leader.

      "What are these?" he asked, taking them.

      "They're magical artifacts that will give you the strength of a Troll," he answered as Allia gave him a narrow-eyed yet highly approving look.  "They'll make it a fair fight."

      "You think I cannot best you without help?" Kallan asked with sudden heat.

      "Yes, I do," he answered with brutal honesty.  "I think Allia's described me to you, kirza.  Did you think she was exaggerating?  I really am that strong.  I'd only have to hit you once, and the match would be over."

      Kallan gave him a hot look.

      "If you don't want to use the gloves, that's your decision," Tarrin told him.  "But when I beat you, I wouldn't consider it to be a fair test.  I'd feel there was no honor in it.  I want to fight you on equal ground, kirza, where I can test my skill against yours when I have no outrageous advantage over you.  Unless you wear those gloves, it won't be a contest on an equal level.  I want it to be an honorable contest."

      Tarrin knew Selani, and he knew he'd just smoothed over Kallan's anger and earned a few points besides.  It would sound arrogant to anyone but a Selani about his confidence in being able to take Kallan without the gloves, but that was only simple truth.  And Tarrin explained it as such.  Without those gloves, he really would only have to hit Kallan once, and the fight was over.  With the gloves, Tarrin would have no strength advantage, and it would truly be skill against skill, a contest between equals.  That that was what Tarrin was seeking was a testament to his honor.  He knew Kallan would wear the gloves because he could not deny Tarrin's logic, use them to test Tarrin's skill in battle.  But he also knew that as soon as Kallan got a feel for Tarrin in the match, after he had assessed Tarrin's ability, he would put the gloves aside and try to defeat Tarrin without them.  Defeating an enemy with an overwhelming advantage brought a warrior a tremendous amount of honor.  Kallan would not resist the temptation of trying.  And even if he lost, he would gain honor, for simply taking up the challenge of battling a stronger opponent was an honorable undertaking.

      Tarrin could respect that, and he really wanted to fight Kallan on equal ground.  He wanted to see if Kallan was a match for Allia, one of the very few living beings that Tarrin respected enough to fear having to fight.  If Kallan was half of Allia, he would be a formidable opponent.

      "I can accept your argument, Tarrin," Kallan announced in a much smoother, almost appreciative tone.  "My daughter has described your unique advantages in the past, and it would be more of a test if we stood on level ground.  I will wear the gloves.  But when the test is done, I will test myself against you without them, to test my ability.  And I expect you to give me everything you have, whether I wear them or not," he ordered.

      "I would never hold back, kirza," Tarrin said calmly.

      Jasana brought Eron up to them, and Tarrin looked down to see them.  "Kirza, these are my children, Jasana and Eron," he said.

      "Why would you bring your children here?" Kallan asked.

      "To teach them about the homeland of their aunt Allia," he answered.  "So far, they've done very well, though my son Eron keeps trying to catch just about anything poisonous."

      Kallan actually chuckled, kneeling down.  "Well now, that Allia's deshida would bring his children to be taught our ways speaks highly of his devotion to the clan," he admitted, putting a slender hand on Jasana's shoulder.  Kallan reached for Eron, who tried to take his hand.

      "Gently!" Tarrin warned when Eron grabbed hold of Kallan's hand.

      Kallan winced.  "He has quite a grip."

      "You wouldn't want to experience the full grip, kirza, believe me," Tarrin told him bluntly.  "Say hello, cubs."

      "Hullo," Jasana said shyly.

      "Are you Aunt Allia's Papa?" Eron asked excitedly.

      "I am," Kallan replied.

      "We were told we had to be extra-good while we're with you, or Papa will be really mad at us," Eron announced.

      "Well, I appreciate that," Kallan said with a sly smile at Tarrin.

      "Papa said Aunt Allia has a nephew.  Where is he?"

      "Zakra is with the other children," the woman Dulai finally spoke.  "He'll be along as soon as they're ready.

      "Ooh, can I go play with the Selani, Papa?" Eron asked hastily.

      "They won't be able to play for a bit yet," Kallan warned.  "They have duties to perform before they can play.  But maybe you'd like to go with them?  It would let you see what our children do when the camp is set up."

      "I would!" Eron said quickly.

      "May I stay with Papa?" Jasana asked politely, grabbing hold of the end of his tail.

      "If you wish, youngling," Kallan told her, standing up.  "We all have duties to see to," he announced.  "Go with Allia, Tarrin.  When the camp is set up, you and I will test ourselves against one another in the Dance."

      "I'm looking forward to it, kirza," Tarrin said with a slight smile.


To:       Title                EoF    

Chapter 4

 

      Much to his own surprise, this was the closest that Tarrin had ever come to seeing the Selani live.

      Certainly, he had been around Selani a great deal in the last few years, mainly Allia, and had ever come through the desert once before, but he realized that he had never seen the Selani set camp before.  The two times he had seen Selani clans, they had already been camped.  The first was Denai's clan, when he briefly--very briefly--met with their chief, Denai's father.  The second time was at Gathering, when he had travelled through their many, many camps on his way to the Cloud Spire.  He had experienced much of the Selani at play when he'd travelled through Gathering, but hadn't seen the Selani labor as he saw them labor while they set up camp.  He'd seen a tribe up in arms the first time he'd seen a Selani group, and then seen them at play at Gathering.  Both were extraordinary times, but now he had the chance to see Selani that weren't watching him like a hawk, or weren't celebrating their annual festival of coming together.

      Tarrin moved among them as they tried to ignore him, tried to take no notice of him, watching them as they set up tents or drew water from the well, as they started setting out chores they could do during the hottest part of the day.  Chores such as sewing, caring for weapons, tending the flocks of sukk as they disbersed around the campsite to graze on the small, tough leaves of the scrub bushes that were flourishing on the plain.  Chores such as preparing the lunch commonly eated during the hottest part of the day, a lunch consisting customarily of grain cakes, dried meat or vegetables, or whatever could be easily hunted down and eaten raw.  Selani didn't waste precious firewood unless it was dark, meaning that anything eaten during daylight was not cooked.  Tarrin had found out that the firewood came from the southeastern corner of the desert, where stands of trees called atha grew, trees which were carefully harvested by the Selani to provide firewood without destroying the groves that grew in foothills along the coast, where mist from the sea would provide the trees with the water they needed to thrive.  They traded for the rest of the firewood they used, part of what they traded with the Wikuni or the merchants of Saranam.  The Selani didn't trade at the moment with Arkis, for the clans abutting Arkis were angry with the Arkisians over their lax attitude concerning restraining the gold hunters that crossed the Sandshield and invaded their lands, and the Arkisians were furious with the Selani over the deaths of quite a few merchants.  Merchants were permitted into the desert, but they rarely came in far, since few merchants could get more than a day into the desert without being spotted by a Scout.  But the problem was, the newest wave of gold hunters were posing as merchants, coming in as far as they dared, buying and selling with the Selani, then trying to pick up as much gold as they could when they thought the Selani weren't watching.  There had been a good number of what the Arkisians called atrocities of Selani killing merchants, but those were merchants that broke the rules.  The true merchants that came into the desert knew better than to so much as look hard at any gold they may find.  They took what payment the Selani gave them and wouldn't dare take a fleck of gold.  The merchants who'd been killed were ones that broke the rules.

      Tarrin watched them as they set up, talking with one another, casting furtive glances his way.  Some of those glances were speculative, some were hostile, and some were unconcerned.  That was more or less what he was expecting.  He didn't expect that all the Selani would reject him, nor did he think all would accept him.  Selani were a curious people sometimes, for though they all seemed similar on the surface, in reality they were as different from one another as humans were.  What made them seem to act similar were the codes of honor that they obeyed, customs and practices that all Selani performed, as well as universal attitudes concerning those who were outlanders.  But Tarrin had a much different viewpoint from which to observe them, for he understood the Selani culture very well, and wasn't quite an outsider.  He was by no means an accepted part of the clan yet, but he was also not an outsider.  He occupied a rather unusual niche at the moment, and it was his uncertain standing among them that caused most of the looks that came his way.  The individual Selani were trying to make up their minds about him concerning their first impressions, and no impression was taken until they looked at his brands.  Some were inclined towards him because he took good brands, but some were inclined against him even more that an outsider would be allowed to be branded.  Some were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because he was Allia's brother, and he had no doubt that they knew that he had been educated in Selani custom and culture, but some were hardened against him that an outsider would be permitted to learn of their intimate, private ways.  Every Selani had a different view of him, a different impression, as varied as they were themselves.

      He knew that all of them, even those inclined towards him, would not be satisfied with him unless he proved himself.  That wasn't outrageous given Selani mentality, people who were intensely competitive and also intensely interdependent, striving to be the best they could be as well as depending very much on every other member of the clan.  That "we" mentality that was pervasive through the Selani made them highly suspicious of new people or strange things.  They were alot like Tarrin that way, suspicious and mistrustful of those who had not proven themselves, because unproven people were a danger to everyone in the clan as well as themselves.  That was where some of the hostility he would encounter would come from, he understood, the fact that brands or no brands, he was still an outsider.  He would have to prove himself to them before he would be accepted.

      That was the trouble that Allyn was having.  Tarrin looked at him, struggling in the blistering heat to raise a tent pole with a few other Selani as they raised the largest tent in camp, the tent of the Priestess who was the voice of the Goddess.  Kallan's tent wasn't the central aspect of the camp or the Selani, it was the Priestess, what they called shaman, she who spoke with the voice of the Holy Mother.  Kallan was the tribal chief and also the clan's leader, the kirza, clan-king, but that one Priestess had more social weight than a whole tent full of kirza.  The Selani had such tremendous respect and honor for their goddess that they put all things, and all things associated with her, above all other things.  That was why the Selani would not touch the gold that absolutely littered their desert, because it was considered holy to Fara'Nae.  Had they found gold nuggets on the plain where they set camp, they would have set their tents around the gold, would not touch it, not even to clear space.  Gold found while digging firepits was left alone, and the firepit was filled back in and a new one dug elsewhere.  They were just as respectful for the tribe's shaman, and she spoke with more weight than Kallan.  Custom forbade the Priestess from interfering in Kallan's duties, but the Selani would obey her before they would obey him.  Perhaps that was why Allyn was having so much trouble in the tribe.  He said that the tribe's Priestess really didn't like him...if that was common knowledge, it would polarize most of the other Selani in the camp against him.  But then again, she wasn't playing fair, he understood.  She was so set on seeing him fail, he felt that she was taking unfair steps to make sure it came about.  Not teaching Allyn what he needed to know to fit in with the Selani was just one example of that.  If she actively spoke against him to other Selani, that would harden them against him even more.  She wasn't being fair, and in a way, he felt that she was being dishonorable.  It wasn't her place to decide whether Allyn was fit to be accepted into the clan or not.  That decision was Fara'Nae's, not hers.  Despite her warning for him to stay out of it, Tarrin had quite a compulsion to put in his paw in the matter.

      Of course, the simplest way to do that would be to even the playing field.  Yes, that would be quite satisfactory.  The Selani wouldn't dare talk about what the Priestess would teach Allyn, for it was taboo to even presume--to even pretend--to know the mind of the Holy Mother.  That honor was left to the shaman alone.  All Selani prayed to the Holy Mother, and many were answered, but they felt that it was only for the one who spoke with the Holy Mother's voice to teach the young about the Holy Mother's customs and ceremonies.  Well, Tarrin knew all those things, and he wasn't Selani.  He could teach them to Allyn.  And if he was lucky, Allyn would show him an Illusion of his memory of the look on that Priestess' face when Allyn didn't embarass himself among the tribe with his lack of knowledge.

      Tarrin's unusual indoctrination had all sorts of advantages.  Allia, in wanting him to be accepted into the clan, had broken all sorts of rules and customs to teach him, even teaching him that which only shaman was supposed to teach.  But then again, given the circumstances, she had no choice.  She was the only one who could teach him, so perhaps she felt that it made it acceptable.

      She could have saved herself all sorts of trouble by just teaching Allyn as she had taught him, rather than bring him home and let him learn like the other Selani.  But then again, hindsight was always perfect.

      Yes, that would work very well.  If the shaman wouldn't teach Allyn, then Tarrin would.  And if that made her angry, so much the better.  Tarrin was not like the Selani in that he had absolutely no fear of the Selani Priestess, didn't particularly respect her any more than any other Selani, and he wasn't afraid of Fara'Nae.  If she had a problem with what he was doing, she could bloody well tell him herself.

      Maybe it was a little crazy to think that way about gods, but then again, Tarrin wasn't quite a normal, run-of-the-mill mortal.  His many talks with the Goddess gave him an insight and understanding of gods that went quite beyond most mortals.  And in honesty, he wasn't exactly a mortal anymore.  They called him a demigod, a mortal with the faintest traces of something that could be called divine, something even the gods didn't quite understand.  But even without that, he'd have the same attitude towards the gods.  To him, they weren't awe-inspiring divinities.  To him, they were exceptionally powerful beings who had emotions and weaknesses just like mortals, "mortal" weaknesses that actually endeared them to him more for their shortcomings than it did their divine qualities.  There was something quite comforting in knowing that his Goddess and Fara'Nae and all the Elder and Younger Gods had at least one thing that allowed them to identify with the mortals over whom they watched.

      They were almost done now.  The tent of the shaman was the last one to be erected, as she stood near to it with two robed acolytes, her apprentices, who used large fan-like fronds to shade her.  The shaman didn't wear desert garb as other Selani did, they wore white robes with hoods and wide sleeves, and they were the only Selani that could be seen wearing gold.  They wore beaten gold belts and wore an amulet made of gold that bore the holy symbol of the Holy Mother Fara'Nae, the amulets worn over their robes proudly to display them to the clan.  Tarrin stared at the shaman a moment before moving on, an unusually tall woman with dirty blond hair, pattern blue eyes, and a narrow, sharp face that seemed more stern than beautiful, as if she would not let down her guard at any time.  He saw how deferential the other Selani were around her and with her, how they would all bow to her whenever they addressed her.  She looked right at him, her blue eyes dark and stormy and her expression very tight, but Tarrin didn't pay her very much attention.  No matter who she thought she was, she was just the same as everyone else in his mind.

      Weaker.

      It wasn't easy to suppress that in him, to think of those around him as anything other than weaker.  Tarrin's Were-cat mentality classified every Selani around him as a potential threat--they were Selani, after all--but not enough to challenge his superiority.  After all, he was thoroughly familiar with Selani, where they had no idea what he was capable of doing.  That gave him a decided advantage, and that made them below him.  He would treat Kallan and Kaila with honor because they were Allia's parents, but the rest of the Selani wouldn't receive the same preferential treatment.  That wouldn't be too much of a problem, however, because Selani custom wouldn't let them do anything that Tarrin could take as challenging.  If they wanted to fight with him, they'd ask him, quite politely.  In other things, he'd be just some other person.  He wouldn't be bossing them around, and they wouldn't be bossing him around.  Bossing around was the honor of the kirza and the shaman.  No other Selani would try, and because of that, Tarrin wouldn't have any trouble with them challenging his authority.  All he had to do was remember not to try to boss them around, and everyone would be perfectly content with the situation.

      The chores that the children had to accomplish were varied depending on age.  The youngest of them were kept close to parents, but those that looked about six or so had the chore of collecting water.  At first he saw elders drawing water from the deep well that he and Allia had dug, but now it was a line of children in loose-fitting shirts and trousers, the color of Selani garb but not quite the same fit.  They were standing patiently in a line, waiting as those before collected up the seepage from the ground at the bottom of the hole in wide, relatively flat buckets.  An exercise in patience, keeping the children out of trouble and out from underfoot while the adults finished setting up camp.  The older children, looking about nine or ten, were helping to tend the flocks of sukk.  This wasn't much of a chore, as the large birds generally tended to themselves, and knew better than to wander.  They were there as much to watch for threats to the flocks more than they were there to prevent the flocks from wandering too far from the camp.  That required a little responsibility, but since there were also adult eyes watching the land around the camp, it wasn't something that the children were solely responsible for handling.  The adolescents were performing the same tasks as the adults, some with help and some without, being trained in the tasks required to set up a camp.  Being trained for when they were adults themselves, and would be responsible for the things they were being taught.

      Tarrin noticed more than one stern look at both him and his children.  Eron was careening around in his typical overly energetic fashion, stopping Selani and asking them breathless questions before racing off to look at something that caught his interest.  Eron was a hyper child, and this kind of behavior wasn't unusual for him.  Jasana remained steadfastly at her father's side, seeming to want to hide behind him as she held onto his tail, which for her was a normal reaction to the situation.  Jasana was always shy around strangers.  What seemed to irritate the Selani, he figured, was the fact that his cubs weren't doing what the Selani children were doing.  For their size, that would mean that they would be waiting to gather water.  Tarrin understood that, but since he had no use for the water, he saw no reason to send them off to get some.  Besides, they weren't here to learn how to be Selani children.  Jasana was here to learn a lesson, and Eron was here if only to give his mother a few days of peace and quiet.

      "They don't seem to like us, Papa," Jasana noted to him in a hushed tone.  Despite her youth, Jasana was a very observant and smart child.  That was part of the problem, for she used those gifts in her quests to get her own way.

      "They're not quite sure about us yet, cub," he answered.  "I expected it."

      "Why were you so nice to Allia's papa?"

      "How do you mean?"

      "Well, first he got mean with you when you gave him the gloves.   I thought you'd just smack him down when you fight him because of that."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "You have to understand the Selani, cub.  He'll respect me because I want a fair fight, and that I understand his intentions clearly.  He just wants to test me, and he can't do that if he never stands a chance, can he?"

      "Wouldn't that mean that you passed the test?  If you just smack him down right off the mark, I mean."

      "It would mean that I relied on my advantages," he answered.  "He wants to see what Allia taught me, not whether or not I can knock him down in a fight.  There's a difference."

      "Oh.  I understand.  Did you notice that they're all mean to Allyn?"

      "I noticed, cub," he told her seriously.

      "I like Allyn.  I think it's wrong that they're doing it."

      "So do I, but Allyn doesn't want me to interfere.  He wants to prove to them all by himself that they're wrong about him.  I can respect that."

      "I don't see why he doesn't want help."

      "Because the Selani will respect him much more if he proves himself alone," he answered.  "Remember what I've told you about the Selani, cub?  Think about it."

      She was silent a moment, her strawberry blond brows knitting for a moment as she pondered it.  "I, I think I understand," she answered.  "They want to make sure he won't put anyone in danger.  I guess that's something he'd have to prove all by himself, because if anyone helped, the others would always have doubts."

      Tarrin nodded, impressed anew with his daughter's intellect, when she so chose to utilize it to its full potential.  Jasana was one smart little girl.

      "That's why I won't interfere, and why you shouldn't either," he warned.  "If either of us tries, we'll only make it worse for him."

      "I understand that, but I still think it's wrong."

      "So do I, but in this case, the best thing we can do is leave things alone.  I think we can trust Allyn to make all his nay-sayers eat their words.  I think he'll do fine.  He's a pretty determined fellow, cub."

      Jasana giggled.  "He's as lovestruck as you and Mama," she observed.

      "I don't think we're quite that bad, cub," Tarrin said with a slight smile.

      "You're not," Jasana said impishly.  "Mama is."

      "I guess I can't argue with that," Tarrin conceded.

      It didn't take too long for the camp to be fully erected, and Tarrin saw that they would be staying there until it was necessary for them to move again, because they were making themselves at home.  Families were digging individual firepits for cooking and light, and oil for lamps and charcoal for braziers was being set out for light and heat within the tents during the cold desert nights.  The Selani retreated into their tents as the noontime sun hammered down on them, to wait out the heat in the comparative coolness of their tents.  Only the guards and the shepards of the flocks remained out, as well as Tarrin and Jasana.  He'd knew that Kallan wouldn't challenge him until the midday heat waned later in the afternoon.  Tarrin had a decided advantage if they fought in the full heat of the day, for he was immune to the heat's detrimental effects.  He had also told Kallan to put on the gloves and get used to the way they affected him, so he wouldn't have to go through that during their match.  They had asked him to come to their tent and talk, but Tarrin begged off, being quite honest when he told them that he wanted to look around the camp without too many of the others staring at him.  Jasana enjoyed similar immunity to heat, and Eron had had five days to acclimate to the heat, so they were in no danger during the hottest part of the day.  He took his children out and wandered the camp, then let Eron go look at the sukk as he explained to Jasana what he was going to do with the sukk, the core reason that they had come to the desert in the first place.  Tarrin had to warn his son to go carefully with the birds, as they didn't know him and wouldn't be sure if he was an enemy, but it turned out that Eron at least had respect for the big flightless birds.  Not that he'd been showing any respect for the desert's poisonous creatures, but at least he showed it to them.  Maybe it was size, that Eron wouldn't be afraid of anything smaller than himself, no matter how lethally poisonous it was.  Were-cat regeneration was proof against many things, but it couldn't purge poison quite as easily as it did other things.  The most lethal poisons couldn't really kill a Were-cat, but they would make one as sick as a dog until the body's regeneration burned out the poison.

      There were few Selani out now, only those tending the flocks, and some sitting under flaps over the entrances to the tents, shaded porch-like places where they tended to sedate pursuits such as sewing, playing instruments, carving small pieces of ivory or bone, checking and adjusting weapons, or in one Selani male's case, making them.  The fellow had several wooden poles laying by his feet, and he was carefully and meticulously affixing spearpoints to them.  Selani used spears, javelins, and bows as missle weapons, and they were very good with them.  Allia had a personal distaste for using spears, but that made sense considering she could put a dagger between an umuni's eyeballs from fifty paces.  Allia's accuracy with thrown daggers was astounding, but among her people, it was merely considered somewhat above average.  The Selani were a very graceful, agile, supple race, and the physical control necessary for being a good dagger thrower would be child's play to them.

      Tarrin sat down by the edge of the sukk herd on a low, flat rock that was jutting out of the sany dirt, and Jasana sat down on his lap, fidgeting with the end of her tail as they watched Eron move carefully from sukk to sukk, as if to see if they were different from one another.  Tarrin and Jasana talked about sukk, as Tarrin explained to her the mechanics of speaking to animals, something that she could probably do and do safely, for it required very little real power in order to use.  It was more of a determination of the mind than it was an exercise of Druidic power.  He explained that she'd have to use a Druidic spell to hear what they said in reply, but if she just wanted to say something to them or give them an order, that that trick would work.  He was excruciatingly careful to explain the strict rules of morality that went along with doing it, which meant that any animal that was addressed in such a manner was receiving the Druid's trust.  That meant that she would never, never speak to any animal she intended to kill.  Along with that was the strict rule that when a Druid spoke to an animal, they also didn't give it orders that would be highly dangerous to its life.  She could ask a stag for help fighting a pack of Goblinoids, for example, but not to ask it to do battle with the entire pack of them by itself.  The rules concerning Druidic etiquette weren't that complicated, boiling down to the simple concept that once a Druid spoke to an animal, he was extending an offer of friendship, and that that trust must never be broken.  It wouldn't be that complicated for a human Druid, but since they were Were-cats, carnivores and hunters, it meant that they had to exercise care when using the ability.

      Jasana may have been self-centered and conniving, but she also understood the absolutes involved with Druidic magic.  She was fully aware that in the world of Druidic magic, one never, NEVER broke a rule.  Breaking a rule in Druidic magic was fatal, no matter how silly or ridiculous it seemed.  That made him confident that even though the rules about talking to animals weren't rules of life or death, Jasana would use the same meticulous care to obey them as other rules of Druidic magic.  When it came to Druidic magic, one never even so much as relaxed the strict discipline and regimented rules surrounding the skill.  It was total truth that a second's distraction could kill a Druid, so the practice of rigid self-discipline was an absolute necessity at all times.

      Eron got bored with the sukk and joined them, listening without much interest as he competed with Jasana for space in their father's lap, pushing at one another absently as Tarrin continued to educate Jasana about speaking to animals.  Tarrin honestly had no idea how much time passed until the Selani began emerging from their tents, the noontime rest coming to an end as the sun started to lower towards the horizon and the temperatures dropped back down to what would be comfortable levels for Selani.  It also didn't take Kallan very long to come seek Tarrin out.  Tarrin heard his voice and Allia's as they approached, as Allia spoke quickly to her father.  "Remember, father, you have to stop if I give you warning," she was saying to him.

      "I understand, daughter," Kallan's voice replied calmly.  "I'll heed your call if it comes, but I'm not sure I can get the full measure of him with such a restriction."

      "So long as you pull back if I call out a warning, I'll have no reservations, father, but it's only a precaution.  Tarrin knows that this is nothing but spar.  Even if you goad him, he shouldn't lose control of himself.  From what I know of you and him, I dare say that you'll get him quite angry before he finally puts you on your butt."

      "I'll take that wager, daughter," Kaila chuckled.

      "Name your stakes, mother.  I have every confidence in my brother."

      "Just as much as I have in your father," she replied lightly.

      "Then the stakes should be quite high," Allia said in a slightly challenging tone.

      "The confidence of youth," she teased.

      "No, it's the confidence of knowing the competitors," she shot back.  "I'll put any wager on Tarrin you wish to back."

      "Now you have my attention," Kaila said as Tarrin hurried the cubs off his lap and moved to stand.  He got his first look at them, and saw all of Kallan's family following him.  Kallan had his shirt off, bare to the waist, and was carrying a spear and two longswords in a harness in his hands, a harness that looked to usually be on his back.  Kallan was an impressive male, Tarrin saw.  He was thin, but his entire torso and both arms absolutely rippled every time he moved, and there couldn't be a smidge of fat anywhere on him.  He looked to be both very strong and extremely limber, the perfect combination for a Selani warrior.  "I've been eyeing that rug you have, daughter.  I'll take that as a wager."

      "And I want your silver lamp."

      "Done, then," Kaila said with a smile.

      "Are you going to beat up Aunt Allia's papa now?" Eron asked in anticipation, loud enough for most of the gathering Selani to clearly hear him.  Since he spoke in Selani, there was no doubt as to what he was saying.

      "I'm sure it'll take a while, but that's the general idea of it, cub," Tarrin answered him calmly, sizing up Kallan as the Selani clan-chief approached with his daughter, son-in-law, wife, sister, and nephew in tow.  "Allia's father looks plenty tough to me.  It won't be easy."

      "Aww, Papa, you give that skinny man too much credit," Jasana scoffed.  "He's way smaller than you, and not half as strong.  I think you could break him over your knee."

      "Size and strength aren't everything, Jasana," he answered cooly.  "Sometimes, they're a liability more than an advantage."

      "Your children don't seem to have much faith in my husband," Kaila noted to him with a dazzling smile as they reached him.

      "Nor do they seem to have much tact," Dulai noted sharply.

      "Were-cats are a blunt species, Dulai," Tarrin said in reply.  "If one speaks a truth, why hide it or dance around it?  After all, it's truth."

      "It's not established that you can beat me yet, Tarrin," Kallan said with a half-smile.

      "Yes it is," Jasana and Eron said in perfect unison.

      "Oh?  And just how did you come to know this?" Kallan asked the two in amusement.

      "Our Papa can beat anyone!" Eron said with bravado.  "He even beat up a god once!"

      "Papa can beat humans and Wikuni and he's beat Selani before, and he's beat Demons and even gods!  You don't stand a chance!" Jasana added with surprising ferocity.  "Once Papa gets ahold of you, he'll rip you into little pieces!"

      "My, they really don't know anything about tact," Kaila laughed, which broke a sudden sense of hostility among the Selani gathering around the combatants.

      "They're Were-cats, all right," Allia laughed in agreement.

      "Then I'll just have to make sure he doesn't get a hold of me," Kallan told them with a patronizing smile.

      "Never happen," they again said in unison, which made Kaila laugh even louder.

      "I think you've bragged about me enough, cubs," Tarrin told them in a distracted manner, as all his attention was focused on Kallan, his gaze hawkish and his tail slowing to a stop behind him.  "Go over and wait with Allia.  And be nice.  No rubbing it in, cubs."

      "Aww, you take all the fun out of it, Papa," Jasana complained as they passed Kallan and moved to stand with Allia and Allyn.

      Kallan handed his sword harness to his wife, then advanced with his spear.  Tarrin remembered that Var had first started the fight they'd had with a spear, but Tarrin had disarmed him of it within three seconds of the start of the battle, and Allia didn't use spears, so he wasn't sure about how good Selani were with them.  Well, now he was going to find out.  Kallan grounded the butt of his spear on the sandy ground and gave Tarrin a knowing half-smile, almost a smirk.  "Choose your weapon, and it will be provided to you," he announced.

      "I have my own," he said, reaching out with his paw and clasping it around empty air.  His Ironwood staff appeared in it, brought out of the elsewhere, and he then spread his feet, relaxed his knees, and brought the staff up into the end-grip guard stance.  Tarrin sized up Kallan, and noted that the gloves would give him strength close to Tarrin's own, and his agility and speed were comparable, if not superior, to his own.  But Kallan's weapons may not be up to the challenge.  When beings of Tarrin's strength fought with weapons, those weapons were subjected to tremendous physical forces.  That was why Tarrin was always careful to use weapons that were virtually unbreakable, so he could fully utilize all his strength.  But Kallan's spear and swords probably weren't nearly as sturdy as Tarrin's Ironwood staff or his other-worldly unbreakable sword, or even the Cat's Claws.  Tarrin could break Kallan's spear at his leisure, and could probably snap his swords as well.  But that would be him taking advantage of the situation, and he wouldn't do that.  Reaching within, Tarrin came into contact with the boundless energy of the All.  It read his intent, saw him image, and responded.  Its power flowed through him effortlessly and entered Kallan's spear, fusing its power into it and reinforcing the fiber of its wood, making it all but unbreakable.  Kallan would probably never know, but it only mattered that Tarrin knew.

      He also knew that this had to be a fair fight.  The Cat's Claws on his arms were more than weapons, they were powerful defensive items as well, surrounding him in a kind of phantom suit of armor.  Tarrin knew that that if Kallan found his blows turned aside by some invisible magic, he would lose respect for Tarrin.  So the defensive nature of the magical items had to be suspended for a time.  Jenna had never set a trigger that turned those off, so Tarrin dealt with it by temporarily cutting the bracers off from the Weave, then setting it so it would last some ten or so minutes after he stopped concentrating on it.  That wouldn't destroy their magical enchantment, but it would prevent them from affecting him.  It also would deter him from the temptation of suddenly extending the blades of the Cat's Claws and carving Kallan into dog food if the Selani made him angry.

      Kallan raised his spear in an end grip, something of a standard grip for a spear, but Kallan held it much closer to the center than a human-trained spear wielder would do so, and his hands were rather far apart.  Tarrin realized that it would let him lever the weapon, to use the shaft as much as the point to block, strike, or parry.  It was like a modified center grip, just held closer to one end.  Interesting grip, and Tarrin could make out the advantages it would give him.

      When Tarrin's tail suddenly stopped, and his ears laid back so they would be protected from injury during the fight, Kallan's eyes narrowed.  He had little doubt that Allia had described him in detail to her, and those were the things Tarrin did before engaging in combat.  Kallan was waiting for Tarrin to make the first move.

      He didn't disappoint.  In an absolute explosion, so quickly that it raised a cloud of dust behind him, Tarrin surged forward with all the speed of a raging sandstorm, staff levered to the side as it seemed that he floated just above the ground in his forward momentum.  Kallan took a single step back and raised his spear as Tarrin hurtled towards him, then Tarrin's long, long staff split the air as the Were-cat brought it around his body, first high, then suddenly shifting its trajectory and going low, the tip of it seeking the Selani's ankles.  The staff moved with such speed that it whistled shrilly as it cut the air, a singular arc of color that painted the air to the Were-cat's side, but Selani eyes could track the weapon even at such speeds.  Kallan deftly jumped over the staff's end, the wind of the weapon's passage pulling at the laces on the Selani clan-chief's boots, as he thrust out with the butt end of his spear to slam it into the Were-cat's face as he raced past.  But as quickly as he erupted forward, Tarrin absolutely stopped, as if he were rooted to the spot, and contemptuously smacked the weapon's shaft aside before it could reach his head.  Kallan's feet were in the air, he had no base, no leverage, and as such all his magically endowed strength meant nothing without something for him to push against.  Kallan was knocked askew in the air, but he deftly twisted and got his feet down on the ground first, a startled look on his face but a gleam of excitement in his eye.

      Tarrin could see it in his eyes as the cloud of dust Tarrin kicked up from his charge billowed past both combatants.  Kallan understood that Tarrin was intimately familiar with the advantages that inhuman strength could provide, such as the ability to move with blinding speed, and to stop just as quickly as powerful muscles absorbed such a radical shift in momentum.  It was a lesson for the clan-chief that he was capable of much more than the limits of which he knew, an upper realm of capability opened to him, if he only had the imagination to see it.

      The opening lesson was done, and Kallan decided to open in earnest with a more traditional approach.  He sparred very lightly, very tentatively with the Were-cat, a customary feeling-out that experienced warriors wisely underwent when facing an unknown foe.  The light jabs and cuts with his spear were testing Tarrin's reflexes, his speed, his agility, and most importantly, his training.  He saw that Tarrin shifted his staff expertly, wasting not a drop of energy to parry and block the Selani's spear, moving not a finger more than necessary.  His movements were crisp, sharp, exacting, and perfect, time and time again, as Tarrin too learned much of Kallan.  He saw the precision in his movements, but they were just a bit jerky, as he adjusted to using the gloves, and his spear overextended by very slight degrees from time to time.  Tarrin saw several opportunities to strike at the Selani in those oversteps, but passed them by.  If he was anything like the other Selani had fought, Kallan had to be a wily opponent, and he very well may have been trying to bait Tarrin.  Against an opponent with Kallan's skill, if Allia's raving was any indication, it was probably a trick.

      The clack-clack of wood on wood echoed across the camp as Kallan continued to test Tarrin, pushed his skill as his spear's pointed head and shaft sought to bypass the Ironwood staff and strike soft flesh behind.  Feet and hands struck at the Were-cat as often as steel spearpoint or wooden shaft, as the Selani used the unarmed techniques for which his race was famous to try to come at the Were-cat with more weapons than he could block.  Tarrin read into his movements and saw the Selani fighting system deeply ingrained into them.  He recognized those forms intimately, and saw Allia's footprint in them.  But Kallan performed them much differently than his daughter, more flowingly, with less speed and more fluid grace.  Allia's primary asset was inhuman, unbelievable speed, and her form's style showed it.  But Kallan's movements didn't seem as fast, and what was more, the way he performed the forms seemed to have a slower style, more sweeping, more graceful.  Allia had grace, but her movements were often blurringly fast and very short, giving her a kind of staccato rhythym that never failed to bedazzle an opponent.  In fact, she used it as a means to confuse her enemies.  But Kallan's movements were wider, broader, flowing like water from one to the next, hinting at speed comparable to Var's but hiding something more, as if he were only moving as fast as he wanted Tarrin to see.  But the forms were there.  He saw them in his moves, the exact same movements and forms that Allia used, had taught to Tarrin.  And when he saw the beginning of a form, he could predict exactly what was coming next.  Allia often changed up her forms when fighting Tarrin, shifting in mid-move to surprise him because he was so familiar with her.  Had Kallan learned enough about Tarrin from his daughter to understand the danger of using movements that the Were-cat could easily predict?

      There was one way to find out.  Tarrin gave ground to the Selani male, swiping at his spear to keep it away from him, weaving and shifting his body to evade the occasional foot or hand that came at him, batting aside spear or evading feet and hands as he guessed out what the Selani was intending to do next.  When he saw him shift his weight in a specific manner, he knew what was coming.  Sliding his feet apart, Tarrin suddenly hunkered down, almost impossibly far, his chin but fingers from the ground as Kallan lifted a foot and tried to kick his shinbone into Tarrin's hip.  His foot whizzed harmlessly over Tarrin's body, and the Were-cat flowed up from that compact crouch with the open palm of his paw leading.  But where he expected to catch Kallan under his arm and carry him up into the air, the Selani twisted almost unnaturally just before his palm made contact, and it slipped by its target.  Flexing his legs, Tarrin suddenly vaulted into the air as Kallan's foot suddenly reversed direction and came sizzling back towards him, heel leading.  But it too found nothing but empty air.  Kallan looked up in time to see the nine span tall Were-cat drop from the air directly over him.  He was out of position from reversing his kick, and could not set his feet on the ground and evade in time.  Tarrin's feet landed perfectly on Kallan's shoulders, and as soon as he felt them make contact, Tarrin hunched over and put all his weight down on the Selani's unbalanced body.  He leaned over just enough to see Kallan look up at him, his expression shocked in that instant before Tarrin's weight unbalanced him and sent him toppling, but the Were-cat only smiled evilly before his face disappeared.  He pushed off the Selani, extending his body out in a layout position as he used all his weight and all of his strength to drive the Selani forward, pushing his heels against the Selani and forcing him out from underneath him with more force that even the gloves would permit the Selani to resist.

      Tarrin rotated lazily in the air and landed on all fours almost exactly where Kallan had been standing when he tried to kick Tarrin, but Kallan was staggering forward at high speed, trying mightily not to topple and fall flat on his face, windmilling his arms wildly for a second before somehow managing to ground the tip of his spear into the sandy ground.  The spear made him lever off the ground like a pole vault, and he used that sudden release from the ground that tried to trip him to right himself and land on his feet facing Tarrin.  He slid backwards almost two spans, putting a hand down to steady himself, and then came to a stop.

      Tarrin rose up again as Kallan picked up his spear, a curiously excited look on his face, then the Were-cat again lifted his staff into the end-grip and awaited the Selani's return to the match.  Tarrin had just had his question answered.  Kallan could and did shift forms to try to catch him off guard, but he had just proven that he was just as capable of unconventional tactics.

      Kallan rushed back into the fray confidently, and Tarrin could tell that the testing was over.  His spear's haft and point was seeking out Tarrin's shoulders with almost single-minded determination, and he was moving much faster and striking with much more strength than before, enough strength that Tarrin actually felt his arms recoil with every blow.  It had been a long time since he'd battled a foe of equal strength, and he'd forgotten how it felt to have his body punished in the act of defending against blows.  The Selani's attacks forced Tarrin to block high and keep his weapon up, and he understood the danger into which it put him.  Kallan was using Tarrin's height against him, making him open up his middle and legs to sudden attack from his smaller opponent, but Kallan didn't take Tarrin's staff into consideration.  It was just as long as Tarrin was tall, and it was capable of defending low in the end-grip with a deft flick of the wrists.  Tarrin tried to use his longer weapon to push the Selani out a bit, as he was trying to crowd and get inside the arc of his staff, but Kallan slid underneath it and roared forward in sudden attack, trying to get inside before Tarrin could withdraw his staff.  The Were-cat's arms flexed and the staff blurred as he snapped it around and down, turned and raised a foot in a pirouette of sorts that complemented the weapon's downward rotation, and it caught the haft of the spear just behind the head as that head was lancing in towards his unprotected middle, knocking it aside just enough to keep it from sticking him.  But the edge of the spear did make contact, slicing a hot line of pain across his stomach as the corner of the triangular spearpoint cut Tarrin's skin.  The cut healed over as quickly as it was made, but the pain of it surprised the Were-cat, as much as the realization that if he had not blocked that, Kallan would have stabbed him through the midsection.

      He wasn't playing!

      Had Allia described his regenerative advantages to her father?  Perhaps that was it.  He was willing to strike at Tarrin for true because he knew that he couldn't do him any true harm.  Allia did the same thing.  But even with that understanding, the attack still managed to irk the Were-cat.

      His eyes narrowing with sudden anger and newfound focus, Tarrin took a paw off the staff, put his foot down and bent his arm, then tried to slam the corner of his elbow down on his smaller foe as his momentum carried him within the Were-cat's reach.  But Kallan simply flowed around that attack as well, changing direction in mid-lunge and sliding back outside, then changing again to bring him to a halt, turning as if to bring his spear to bear.  Too late he identified that particular movement, as the sole of Kallan's boot came screaming around the side of his body in a rising arc.  Tarrin's head snapped to the side as the Selani's foot impacted the side of his head, actually staggering him back a step as little lights popped before his eyes.  Tarrin hadn't been hit that hard in a very long time.  Before he could right himself, the butt of the spear slammed into his jaw, knocking him even further to the side and lowering his head, then came hot blood in his mouth when Kallan's open palm struck him just under the chin in a sharp upward angle, causing him to bite off the tip of his own tongue as his head snapped back.

      Tarrin fought off the dizzying effect of three consecutive blows to his head by a foe with enough strength to make him feel it, shaking the cobwebs out just in time to see the point of Kallan's spear driving towards his left shoulder.  With sudden angry focus, Tarrin's paw snapped out and intercepted the spearpoint.  It plunged into his palm, the tip erupting from the back of his paw, but the Were-cat, eyes igniting from within with the unholy greenish aura that visibly marked his anger, pushed it out and away from him as his fingers closed over the metal spearpoint.  Kallan blanched when Tarrin, with a snarl of both pain and anger, twisted his wrist as he pushed the weapon out away from him, using the very fact that the spear's point was embedded in his palm to bend it.  The tip of the spear's head, still sticking out of the top of Tarrin's paw, remained vertical as the rest of the spear turned more and more sideways, as the metal tip bent at the point where it entered Tarrin's paw.  The Were-cat then ripped his paw free of the weapon, sending an arc of flying blood through the air as the Selani quickly withdrew his weapon.  Kallan looked at the tip of his spear and saw that it was bent heavily to the right, as well as seeing that it was covered in blood.

      Tarrin shook his paw a couple of times to get the sting out and shake off the excess blood, which would make his grip on his weapon slippery, but Kallan was looking at him with shock and surprise.  That shock became a frenzied defense as the Were-cat lashed out at him, coming at him with all his power and all his speed, trying to do nothing less than beat the Selani senseless for trying to stab him with his spear.  Tarrin's staff jabbed and slashed, came in from high and low, feinted, twisted and shivered in bizarre, almost impossible ways as the Were-cat, now righteously angry and fully devoted to beating down his foe, demonstrated a skill with a pole weapon that the Selani had never seen before.  He changed grips in mid-attack, from end grip to center grip, used both ends of the staff to strike at Kallan's hastily raised spear in rapid succession, tried to break Kallan's feet and ankles as often as he tried to smack his head right off his body.  Kallan gritted his teeth and gave ground to the incensed Were-cat, trying to ride out the frenzied assault, trying to keep up with the weaving, bobbing ends of Tarrin's staff as they tried to snake past his spear and punch deep into the Selani's body.  Kallan had no chance to do anything other than defend himself from the outraged Were-cat, whose long staff had seemingly become a pliable, bendable thing, for no other explanation could explain how both ends of the staff could seem to strike at him from different angles at the exact same time.  The Selani's speed was the only thing that kept him from getting swarmed under by the Were-cat's answering attack, a speed that was not quite Allia's, but also not far from it.  That speed let him duck under the staff, then slip to the side, then avoid the clenched paw that nearly broke his nose, then avoid the staff jabbed at him like a spear, then hop over the Were-cat's lashing tail, then give him the time to raise up his spear to catch the staff's center as the Were-cat pushed its entire length at him.  Spear caught staff and Kallan's feet dug into the ground as he pushed back with all the strength he could muster, and for a moment the two were locked together, pushing against one another with all their might.  Kallan could see the glowing, angered eyes of his taller foe, pushing down on him from his greater height, saw the formidable fangs usually hidden under pale lips.  The Were-cat had seemed a gentle and agreeable fellow before, if a little blustery in nature, but seeing him like that, Kallan had no doubt that he would strike terror into the heart of any but a Selani.

      Kallan realized his mistake almost as soon as he locked up with the Were-cat.  All of Kallan's limbs were engaged in resisting the Were-cat, but Tarrin had an extra limb available.  Tarrin's tail whipped up between his legs and struck the Selani right between his own, causing the Selani to double over in intense pain.  Tarrin shifted his weight and swept his smaller foe out from before him with a mighty twist of his body, sending him sprawling to the ground, tumbling over and over and losing his spear before coming to a halt on one knee, already starting to shrug off the pain of being struck in the one place that no male would want to be struck with any kind of force.

      The repreive lasted but seconds, testament to the legendary fighting ability of the Selani, which included the ability to ignore, block out, or endure pain.  Without a word, Kallan picked up his spear, set the bent tip on the ground, and then stomped on it to at least partially straighten it out.  Tarrin returned to the guard stance, staff in the end-grip, and he hissed threatening at the Selani as he slowly advanced back towards him.  But Kallan's approach was much more guarded now, more wary.  He had tasted Tarrin's ability when he was focused utterly on the fight, and it was an ability that demanded respect.  Tarrin's tail slashed behind him a few times before becoming still, his glowing eyes narrowed to two evil slits, and then he hissed once again, baring his formidable fangs, as he hunched down into a slouching posture, to shift his upper body closer to his foe and subsequently put more distance between Kallan's spear and his lower torso and legs.

      "You're gonna get it now!" Jasana shouted.  "You made Papa mad!"

      Despite his anger, Tarrin was clearly focused and aware that this was not an enemy to underestimate.  He was all of Allia in a fight, and though he wasn't as fast as her, he had much more experience.

      Staff met spear as the two danced around one another for long moments.  They had surprised one another and managed to score hits, but now both were cautious, content to pit skill against skill to determine who would make the first mistake.  This played right into Tarrin's paws, as he had been trained to frustrate an opponent and make him mess up, then punish him for it.  But Kallan proved to be a disciplined, patient adversary, content to meet the Were-cat on those terms, trying to goad him into making a rash mistake.  Again and again he teased Tarrin by leaving the slightest of openings, daring him to try to take advantage of it, to gamble on whether or not the Selani clan-chief had the speed to recover and defend in time.  Tarrin had seen Kallan react, so he could see them for the invitations for disaster that they were.  He knew this foe would make no unforced error.  If he wanted an opening, he was going to have to make one.

      The center grip was the key, he realized.  Kallan was familiar with the moves that were possible in an end grip, but the Selani's modified grip on his spear wasn't a true center grip.  It left one end of the weapon shorter than the other, forcing the Selani to continue to use the spear's point as the main part of the weapon's attack strategy.  Kallan had struggled when Tarrin shifted into the center grip before, for it was an unknown style to him that was mightily confusing.  After parrying aside a fast series of lightning-fast jabs of the spearpoint, the Were-cat took a step back and shifted the staff into the center grip.  He parried another jab with one end of the staff, then a second instants after the first with the other end of the staff.  He spun the weapon in his paws blurringly fast, smacking aside jab after jab as the two ends of the staff seemed to come out of nowhere to strike the spear's point and deflect it harmlessly aside.  Kallan suddenly reversed his grip on the spear and turned into it, then tried to jam Tarrin in the side with the spear's butt, a move a staff fighter would perform, but Tarrin slithered aside and lashed his tail out and down, striking Kallan across the back of both heels.  He hadn't had enough to sweep the Selani's feet, but the blow did cause him to teeter just a tiny moment before regaining himself.  Tarrin lunged in, then had to spin aside as the unbalanced teeter suddenly turned into a powerful straight kick.  Tarrin swept his staff in with him, but Kallan recovered and parried the blow with his spear, knocking the weapon back inside Tarrin's stance as the Were-cat put both feet under him.  He gave that ground back up as Kallan launched a flurry of jabs and attempts to strike with the butt of his spear, with kicks liberally peppered into them just to keep Tarrin honest.  Tarrin reverted to Allia's training then by instinct, becoming as a reed in the wind, swaying and bending, always within reach but unable to be touched, a shadow with form but no substance.  He gave back all the won ground and more as he studied Kallan's technique, which was admittedly exceptionally executed.  He watched closely, looking for any tiny hint or clue that would warn him of what was coming next, carefully studying Kallan's movements, the set of his feet, the shifting of his weight, analyzing it for any warning of what might be coming next.

      He found what he was looking for.  He continued to evade, to be smoke dancing in the breeze as Kallan continued his assault, until he saw that slight opening of the feet and shifting of weight just slightly towards the left, a move so subtle that few would even notice it.  Kallan's left foot set and his right came slightly off the ground as he lunged in with his spear point first, thrusting it out almost to arm's length, just shy of locking his elbows.  Tarrin parried the blow with an upward rotation of his staff, then instantly changed the weapon's momentum and turned away from Kallan as he retracted from his extending lunge.  Tarrin slid the staff through his paws as soon as his back was to the Selani, sliding it down into the end-grip and using his body as a shield to hide that face from his opponent.  He knew that Kallan would expect the staff to come at him as Tarrin completed his turn, possibly turn it into a sliding thrust, both of which Kallan had the agility to avoid despite recovering from a move.  Tarrin wanted to see him evade this.

      When the staff appeared as Tarrin came around, it was not where Kallan expected it to be.  He expected anything but the Were-cat holding it by its very end, with the entire length of the staff shrilly whistling through the air as it swept around the turning Were-cat.  Kallan backpedalled furiously to give him enough distance to either jump over or slip under the weapon as it swung towards him, but Tarrin twisted his torso and suddenly pulled in the staff, then thrust it out before him as the Selani was intent on backing up, his paws absolutely blurring as they walked down the length of the staff to put all of it between him and the Selani.  The staff turned a little and then rotated as Tarrin levered the end using his other paw as a fulcrum, making the tip turn a sudden wide, arcing circle that started at Kallan's middle and then suddenly dropped towards the ground in an expanding arc, dipping under the length of his partially presented spear.  The triple-feint succeeded in confusing the Selani, who didn't know whether to jump, dodge, duck, block, parry, or sidestep.  The staff's end cracked into his ankle with a highly satsifying thock, and the power behind the circular motion of the staff was more than enough to sweep the Selani's feet out from under him.  Kallan landed heavily on his side, grunting as the air was knocked out of him, but he instantly rolled away from Tarrin and all but bounced back up to his feet.  Tarrin saw immediately that Kallan was favoring the ankle that got whacked by his staff.  Though the gloves gave Kallan a strength close to Tarrin's, they didn't give him the same resistance to injury.  The increased strength did help him partially absorb the impact of blows by tensing up magically augmented muscles, but it still wasn't enough to escape injury when the blow was delivered by someone with Tarrin's strength.

      "Do you yield?" Tarrin asked, grounding his staff.

      "Over this?  You must be joking," Kallan said, flexing his ankle several times before putting his full weight back on it.  "You're much better with your staff than I am with my spear," he admitted.  "So I think it's time to level the field.  Kaila," he called, tossing the spear aside absently.  Kaila threw him his leather harness, and he caught it easily.  He pulled his two longswords free of it and tossed it aside as well, then squared off against Tarrin using new weapons.

      Tarrin knew from experience with Allia that using a single weapon against those longswords would be insane.  Kallan was probably even better with them than Allia was with her shortswords, and that meant that he could use each one independently of the other, attacking with them in ways that would make it impossible for him to deal with both weapons at the same time with just his staff.  He would not be put into a position where he would have to decide which sword to block, which would do him the lesser injury.  Tarrin knew that this was not a situation that favored his staff.  It wasn't a situation that favored any weapon at all.  If Kallan was going to fight using two weapons, Tarrin would need to counter them with two weapons of his own.

      Drawing himself up, Tarrin absently tossed his staff aside, then settled the Cat's Claws a little on his wrists so they were in proper position to block, drawing Kallan's attention to them.  Then he extended his claws and hunched down into his unarmed fighting stance, feet spread, paws wide, and back hunched, a slouch that looked deceptively vulnerable to most trained warriors.

      That stance caused Kallan to advance on him uncertainly, but the first experimental thrust with his left sword showed him immediately that he was correct in assuming that it gave Tarrin an advantage.  Tarrin smacked the sword aside using the bloodstained flat of his paw, striking the flat of the blade, and Kallan saw that the Were-cat favored the stance because it put his paws low, more at a level where an enemy would attack.  The Selani made a tentative thrust with his right sword, and it was again smacked aside contemptuously by the Were-cat's open paw.  Then, without expression, Kallan exploded into furious motion, his two longswords weaving, twisting, lancing in with dizzying speed.  Tarrin was not surprised by this sudden engagement, for the Selani already had a measure of him from fighting with his staff.  Tarin had also almost immediately recognized the system of attacks that Kallan was using, for Allia performed a similar routine of pre-arranged movements with her own swords.   He guarded against a changing of that routine, but still managed to turn aside every shallow stab and quick, light slash that the Selani had sent against him.  Chimes, like the ringing of bells, and the occasional flash of a spark emphasized the blinding speed of the attack, as well as the Were-cat's ability to catch those weapons on his bracers, the Cat's Claws, where their otherworldly metal turned aside the swords' edges.  Of all beings on Sennadar, Tarrin probably had the most experience in using forearms as shields to parry, having learned the technique when the heavy manacles had been locked around his wrists.  They had served as more than eternal reminders of the price of trust, they had also served as effective shields, giving the Were-cat a means to defend himself against weapons without having one of his own.  At first, Kallan seemed surprised that his complicated series of attacks were turned aside.  Those two metal bracers proved a powerful defense against Kallan's initial blitz.

      In the blink of an eye, Kallan's technique changed, shifting into a series of complex slashes that assaulted Tarrin's left side, working the two swords almost like knitter's needles, concentrating all his attacks on a very small area.  This was something that Tarrin had never seen before, and he was forced to rely on speed and reflexes to defend against it.  The small area allowed him to deflect the swords, but he was constantly on guard against a sudden shift in attack, never sure if the next sword slash or stab was in earnest or only a feint.  Tarrin's left bracer parried five stabs with both swords in the span of a heartbeat, and when it moved to intercept a sixth, the sword suddenly pulled wide and turned into a swipe aimed at Tarrin's face.  The Were-cat didn't even flinch when he simply pulled his head back just enough to let it whiz by, though the very tip of the sword did just barely manage to break the skin of his nose.  The other sword then knifed in at a low angle, moving upward, an attack meant to capitalize on a flinching foe and give the Selani a virtually uncontested strike, coming in on the side that would be blind when the victim of the tactic flinched away from the first weapon.  Both Tarrin's arms were out of position to deal with this threat, but as Kallan had already learned, Tarrin had more than just two arms and two legs to work with.  His tail slashed out from behind him and struck the Selani's wrist forcefully, jarring him just enough that the sword slice harmlessly before him.  The tail wrapped around the Selani's arm with the speed of a striking viper and pulled him in the direction of his momentum, trying to yank him off balance, carrying the sword's length along Tarrin's body until the sword's tip was almost touching his shoulder, the Selani's back to him.  He expected the other sword to come in and strike from the far side, maybe even above or below Kallan's body, but he never expected the Selani to jump, leave the ground and let Tarrin's tail suddenly pull him along.  Kallan twisted while in the air as Tarrin's tail released his wrist and the Were-cat tried to back away, sensing that a sword or foot could come flying at him from almost any angle if the Selani no longer held a vertical base, and his innate reaction was more than justified.  Kallan rotated his body, throwing his arms out, then his foot exploded from around his body, the instep of his boot screaming at Tarrin's head.  He only just managed to avoid it, feeling the wind it made as it flew by his head, smelling the leather and sand and dirt of it as it went by.  Tarrin retreated several steps, confused, shocked, and utterly amazed that that had happened.  He had no idea how Kallan had managed to twist around like that in the air.  It seemed an impossibility for someone not a Were-cat.  Kallan landed on one foot and one elbow, then quickly regained his feet as Tarrin tried to figure out just how Kallan had moved like that.  He had turned one way, but his legs seemed to have turned the other, and he had let Tarrin's own pull on him carry him up into the air, get his foot in position to where it could hit the much taller Were-cat in the head.

      Kallan did not let up.  He was on his feet and again attacking Tarrin with blinding speed in a heartbeat, but now his swords attacked the Were-cat anywhere and everywhere.  In a stunning display of swordsmanship, the Selani backed the Were-cat up with astoundingly complex routines, his swords almost seeming to tie themselves in a knot before the Selani as he unleashed them at the Were-cat.  Each sword feinted and attacked almost at the same time, using complicated cascading sequences that made it impossible for Tarrin to tell which was a feint and which was not.  Each blow in itself was a setup for the blow afterwards, attempting to quickly and systematically draw the Were-cat out of a defensive position by using a series of attacks that would batter him out of a defensive posture.  Every blow on the bracers of the Cat's Claws knocked his arms out wider and wider, setting him up for an inevitable stab at his middle.  Tarrin hadn't faced a foe of his strength in a very long time, and the magically augmented power behind Kallan's weapons was more than his arms could absorb without moving.  Tarrin knew it was coming, but could do very little about it as he dealt with the dizzying complexity of Kallan's assault, barely managing to discern the feints from the true attacks in time to parry them, and then getting knocked further and further out of position with every blow.

      The inevitable thrust came, just as Tarrin's right arm was knocked wide and his left was engaged in what he thought was another attack from that direction.  But it was a feint, as the weapon suddenly shifted and turned into an arcing thrust directed at Tarrin's midsection.  Tarrin twisted aside even as his left arm moved to knock the sword away from his direction of movement, but the sword suddenly changed direction again and slashed right across the direction of Tarrin's evading twist, causing the blade to bite very deeply into his upper left arm, deep enough to nearly mark the bone.  Kallan had used Tarrin's expectations against him, tricked him into trying to evade and then simply intercepted him in the middle of it.  A trick within a feint.  Very clever.

      It taught him much.  Kallan was good, but he was also smart.  He was using his familiarity with Allia against him, tricking him into making assumptions and then making him pay for them.  Kallan proved with that trick that he wasn't just a measure of Allia.  He was better.  Allia had the edge in raw speed, but Kallan would absolutely own his daughter if they ever fought.

      Kallan tried to press the advantage by shifting his attack to Tarrin's left side, but the Were-cat simply backed up to give his arm the second it needed to heal, and then he stepped up and fearlessly engaged the Selani once again.  But now it was Tarrin who was doing the pressing, using the momentary confusion Kallan suffered at Tarrin's arm not being slowed by the injury to put the Selani on the defensive.  Tarrin's claws sought him out, but the Selani weaved and dodged them with all the skill and ability as Allia had, making himself all but untouchable even when he was within reach of Tarrin's paws.  The Selani tried to counter-attack with his swords, trying to cut the paws reaching for him, which made Tarrin cautious about trying to reach in and get his claws into the Selani.  Attempts to rake him turned into quick defensive moves to block a sword with his bracers, but Tarrin did not back down, would not relenquish his advantage.  He feigned an outside rake of his claws, then quickly halted his motion and lunged forward.  Kallan's other sword cut him lightly across the upper thigh to deter the advance, and Tarrin buckled slightly under the injured leg.  But when Kallan moved to take advantage of that, he suddenly had the breath knocked out of him as Tarrin's first paw, which had shifted position with Tarrin's buckle, lashed out and between Kallan's two swords and hit him squarely in the chest, knocking him off his feet and flat on his back, his breath wheezing in his lungs.  The collapse around the injured leg had been nothing more than a trick, a feint, for Kallan's weapon would have to completely sever his quadriceps to cause it to collapse under his weight.  Tarrin pounced on his downed enemy, but Kallan quickly got his legs up, catching the Were-cat on his boots and sending him flying over the Selani with a strong double kick.  Tarrin twisted easily in the air, for he always knew exactly how he was oriented in the air and where he was in relation to the ground, landing lightly on his feet as Kallan rolled through his kick-off and gracefully flowed back up onto his feet.

      The Selani shivered his torso in a curious manner, as if to shake off the strike, then gave Tarrin a strangely excited look.  "You're holding back," he declared simply, sliding his right foot back slightly and bowing a little in his stance.

      He wasn't sure how Kallan knew that, but Tarrin was holding back a little.  Kallan was very fragile compared to him, and he didn't want to do the man any real damage.  "I don't want to hurt you," Tarrin replied.

      "Have no care for that," Kallan told him.  "Nothing you do to me can't be healed afterwards.  You should have understood that," he said, holding up his bloodstained sword.

      "I figured Allia told you about that," Tarrin shrugged.

      "About what?"

      "Your swords can't hurt me," he answered.  "They can cut me, but they won't do any actual damage.  Only magic and silver leaves a wound I can't immediately heal."

      "I do nothing with you I didn't do to Allia when I trained her," Kallan told him.  "This is all that makes you hold back?  You can't be injured?  Why would that make you hold back?"

      "You don't understand what it means."

      "Then show me."

      "Fine.  But let it be said that I warned you."

      With a burst of speed, Tarrin lanced in towards the Selani clan-chief with his claws out and leading, as Kallan raised his swords in defense.  Tarrin crashed right into him, completely ignoring the swords, his claws seeking out the Selani's face and throat, which caused Kallan to start in shock and quickly retreat, working his weapons to try to discourage the Were-cat from advancing.  The Selani had seen Tarrin literally catch his spear in his open paw, and he now knew that it did him no real harm.  But Kallan, like many creatures, found it very hard to rationalize just what being invulnerable to non-magical weapons really meant.  What he did not understand, what he had no experience with, was the fact that Tarrin had no fear of pain, no fear of being wounded.  The bites of Kallan's swords were only a minor inconvenience, a momentary sting that would abate the instant the weapon was removed from the wound.  Abandoning fencing and evasion, the Were-cat suddenly inexorably pressed the Selani with a savage roar, claws out as the Were-cat continued to press the smaller enemy.  Regathering himself, Kallan smoothly slipped a sword under the Were-cat's arm and stabbed him shallowly in the flank, ignoring the fact that he could have stabbed him through the heart or throat, inflicting a non-fatal wound--this was only spar, after all.  To his shock, the Were-cat didn't even register that as his claws swiped at the Selani in a massive arc, almost taking off his head.  Kallan ducked feverishly under that blow, but still came up with a pair of bloody lines running low from his cheek and rising up towards the middle of his face.  One went right over his nose, which had been cut more deeply and was bleeding profusely, and the other went up into his hair just over his right eye.  Kallan worked with tight-lipped concentration to keep the Were-cat a good distance away, cutting and stabbing the Were-cat multiple times to get him to back off, but Tarrin completely ignored the wounds, completely ignored the swords, concentrating on getting his paws on the Selani and, as Jasana had said, ripping him into little pieces.  Not even a slash right across the face, which took out his left eye, dissuaded the Were-cat, as Kallan resorted to more and more extreme measures, attempted to dish out progressively more serious wounds in order to convince the Were-cat to back off.  But for every wound Kallan inflicted on him, Tarrin returned it by striping Kallan with his claws.  Tarrin shredded the skin on Kallan's upper body with his claws, sending blood flying with every slash of his clawed paws, as the Selani continued to try to get him to back away, abandoning rules of spar and driving his weapons towards Tarrin's middle and chest.  His left sword plunged directly into Tarrin's midsection, the tip sliding out of his back, but the Were-cat didn't even register the impalement as he finally managed to get his claws into Kallan, digging them into the arm holding the sword that had just stabbed him, dragging him into the Were-cat's deadly embrace.  Kallan twisted the sword in Tarrin's belly out of desperation, real fear showing in his eyes at seeing the Were-cat absorb such punishment, but Tarrin was completely unmoved by the act.  He grabbed the blade of the other sword with his free paw, cutting off his smallest finger as he wrenched the sword out of Kallan's hand and flinging it aside, then he grabbed the Selani clan-chief with both paws--

      --and then put him out to arm's length and set him back on the ground lightly.  "You are dead," Tarrin told him, grabbing the sword sticking out of his gut and pulling it out.  It made a rasping, scraping sound as the blade scraped against his spine, which made a few Selani cringe a bit.  It stung quite a bit, but the pain subsided the instant the weapon was removed.  He handed it back to Kallan.  "Once I get my claws on someone, that's it.  There's nothing they can do to get away from me.  I could have ripped you apart or crushed you like a bug long before you would have figured a way to get free of me."

      "Quite an effective strategy there," Kallan said in shocked respect, looking at the blood all but covering the Were-cat's long body.

      "When I know my opponent can't really hurt me, I don't have to fight," he said bluntly.  "As long as I'm willing to take a few blows, I can overwhelm almost anyone.  All I have to do is get my claws on them.  Once I have a grip on them, they're dead.  I usually don't do that, though.  I treat every enemy like he can hurt me."

      Kallan chuckled.  "You are wise to understand your advantages, and even wiser not to rely on them," he stated, going over and picking up his other sword.  "You use a defense as a weapon.  A commendable tactic.  You could have done that any time," he realized.  "And you used my expectations against me!" he added with a laugh.  "When I cut your leg, you just feigned it affecting you!  You lured me in, baiting me with my own assumption!"

      Tarrin nodded.  "You wanted to test me.  Having me overwhelm you like that wouldn't have proved anything other than I'm alot harder to kill than you expected."  He flexed his paw a little as the buzzing tingle of the newly grown finger began to subside.

      Stabbing the points of his swords into the ground, Kallan released them and slowly started pulling off the Trollskin gloves.  "I think I'm ready to test myself against you without these helping me," he announced.

      "It'll be different," Tarrin stated simply.  "I fight alot differently against someone weaker than I am."

      "I can guess at how it will change your strategy," he replied with a calm look.

      "Let's give it a minute," Tarrin told him.  "It's going to take you a few moments to adjust to taking off the gloves, and give you a minute to try to stop the bleeding.  I don't want any of that affecting you while we fight.  It's unfair to you."

      "Considerate," Kallan smiled.

      "No, I just don't want you suffering any more of a disadvantage than you already have," Tarrin replied.

      Kaila laughed from the side.  "I think you're overconfident, Tarrin!" she called.

      "Posh," Allia said.  "Father doesn't stand a chance now."

      "You don't have my lamp yet, daughter," Kaila said with slyly narrow eyes.

      "You should give it up now," Jasana told her imperiously.  "Nobody can beat my Papa."  She glanced at Allia.  "Well, except maybe Aunt Allia."

      "And what gives you such confidence, kitling?" Kaila asked.

      "Papa only has to hit him once now," she stated bluntly.  "That's all it's gonna take.  Aunt Allia's papa is good at fighting, but he'll never beat my Papa without getting hit, and it's only gonna to take one hit."

      "Posh," Kaila returned.  "Kallan knows that.  He'll make sure he won't be hit."

      "Never happen," the two Were-cat children said in unison.

      Tarrin waited patiently as Kallan paced back and forth, swinging his swords rhythmically to get used to not wearing the gloves, as his bleeding began to subside.  He'd noticed that from Allia; she never bled for very long.  Perhaps living out in the desert had caused the Selani's bodies to stop bleeding quickly to avoid losing too much water.  That, or perhaps the exceptionally dry air evaporated the water out of the blood so quickly that it caused any injury to scab over much faster.  Or perhaps both.

      After a few moments, Kallan set his swords down on the ground and approached Tarrin, obviously meaning to fight unarmed.  In a way, Tarrin understood what he was doing; by giving up his weapons, he was hoping to make his attacks that much faster.  Besides, the swords meant absolutely nothing to Tarrin, so in a battle without the gloves the swords were more of a liability than an advantage.  Kallan was sacrificing the weapons to gain speed, speed in his attacks with his hands, for they wouldn't be encumbered by weapons.  Tarrin hopped up and down in place slightly to work out a bit of stiffness in his ankle, then spread his feet and assumed his wide-pawed, slouching guard stance.

      "Remember, no holding back," Kallan said with eagerness.  "I want to face you at your best."

      "As long as the tribe won't hold it against me if I accidentally kill you," Tarrin returned, "I have no problem with that."

      "They won't."

      "Fine," Tarrin shrugged.

      Tarrin knew that he was going to be facing the Dance at its evasive best when Kallan stepped up and engaged him, using a series of light jabbing punches with his hands to get things moving, coming inside Tarrin's reach.  He knew that if he tried to just swarm Kallan like he did before, the Selani would counter it, would see it coming, so he knew that he had to bide his time, wait for Kallan to make a mistake or for him to get tired, use his superior strength to knock the Selani off balance, or simply outfight him.  Tarrin doubted that he could outfight the Selani clan-chief.  Knocking Kallan off balance seemed the best approach to opening a hole in his defense.  The light jabbing punches came so fast that Tarrin had little time to block them, and every time he tried to grab one of those hands, it darted away before he could close his paw over it.  Kallan seemed to understand that he absolutely could not allow himself to get grabbed, which was only smart for him.  Tarrin didn't respond to those attacks quite yet, watching Kallan's blurring hands to get an idea of his hand speed without holding swords, and get a feel for his fighting technique.  All warriors fell into two very broad categories, depending on their personalities and how they were trained.  A warrior was either offensive, defensive, or a trickster by general nature.  An offensive fighter would attack more than defend, a defensive fighter would defend more than attack.  All warriors used both styles when they fought, but their basic mentality would always fall into one of those three categories.  Allia was an offensive fighter.  Tarrin was a defensive fighter.  Allia had been trained to be highly agressive, to bring down the opponent as fast as possible and avoid protracted combat, though she was brilliantly capable of evasion and defense.  Tarrin had been taught to outlast an opponent, to fluster him into making a mistake, though he was capable of stunningly aggressive offensive flurries when he was angry.  Kallan was also by nature an offensive fighter, as most Selani were, since the basic tenet of the Dance was to use superior speed to down a foe as quickly as possible.  But like Allia, Kallan knew when a defensive strategy would be more prudent.

      That worked in Tarrin's favor.  The easiest way he saw to win this contest was to simply outlast Kallan, irk him into being more aggressive, and then punish him for it.  By their very natures, defensive-minded warriors were much more patient than their offensive-minded counterparts.  He knew that Kallan would be very wary and careful, and would be able to evade Tarrin if he simply charged in and tried to swarm him under.

      Tarrin was sorely mistaken.  Kallan went to light jabs to a powerful straight kick in the blink of an eye, aiming it at Tarrin's chest.  The Were-cat twisted aside to avoid the blow and reached out for the Selani's leg, but Kallan pulled it back and then kicked the inside forearm of the arm reaching towards him.  His eyes registered surprise when the arm did not flinch in the slightest from the blow, for the Selani just didn't have the strength to jar the Were-cat's inhumanly powerful body without the gloves.  He pulled his leg back and sidestepped Tarrin's reaching paw, then spun in a fast, tight circle and dropped, whipping his foot at the Were-cat's ankles in a sweep maneuver.  Tarrin saw it coming and simply dug his claws into the ground and locked the muscles in his legs.  Kallan's foot hit Tarrin's ankle with enough force to make the Were-cat's foot go a little numb, but all the Selani managed to do was have his foot ricochet off the Were-cat's ankle, like it had struck a rooted tree instead of a leg.  The Selani quickly rolled out of reach, his eyes a little surprised, but then he grinned as he regained his feet and came right back at Tarrin as if that were nothing.

      Of course.  Selani were absolutely fearless, and the stronger the opponent, the more they enjoyed the fight.  Kallan was testing himself against a superior opponent, trying to better himself by finding a true challenge.

      Tarrin shifted from defensive blocking to attacking the Selani in order to keep him from getting his wits about him.  Kallan proved he was just as slippery as Allia in unarmed combat, being everywhere but where Tarrin's paws or feet happened to be at that moment.  Tarrin kept on him, kept him from organizing himself by making him literally scramble around for his very life, as lightning-fast sweeps of his clawed paws, feet, and strikes with his sinuous, deceptively long tail prevented the Selani from regaining an attack footing, kept him back on his heels and devoting all his concentration to keep from getting struck.  They both knew that if Tarrin hit him once, it would be over, so Kallan made absolutely certain that that did not happen, not even allowing the most glancing of blows.  Tarrin absolutely could not touch the wiry Selani clan-chief as they whirled about, Tarrin's clawed paws and feet and tail working with great concentration to score a hit on the Selani, while the Selani worked with equal concentration to avoid it.

      As Tarrin made another attempt to swipe Kallan with his paws, the Selani finally managed to figure out how to go about attacking Tarrin.  The clan-chief ducked down, and then rose up with both hands leading, striking Tarrin in the lower stomach and continuing onward.  Kallan had finally realized that Tarrin could only utilize his strength as a defensive tool so long as he had the leverage to do it, and that meant that by striking upwards, preventing the Were-cat from anchoring himself to the ground, it eliminated his strength advantage.  Kallan actually managed to pick the Were-cat up off his feet, a testament to his wiry strength, but Tarrin simply landed back on his feet a couple of spans distant.

      The momentum changed again.  Kallan rushed back in confidently, and it was his turn to press the Were-cat.  Tarrin knew better than to let Kallan hit him in the head, but luckily for him only Kallan's fists could reach that high.  Tarrin slithered around the suddenly offensive Selani just as effectively as Kallan had evaded him, trying to work himself into a position where he could grab one of those flicking arms or legs.  He made several attempts, and each time he tried, he nearly got himself smacked in the head from one of Kallan's other limbs.  Kallan was actively watching for it, and knew that every time Tarrin tried it, he was lowering his defenses by moving out of position in order to attempt to grab the limb that had just struck at him.  Each time he had to frantically evade a punch or kick levelled at his head.  Tarrin realized that Kallan was specifically going for the head, either by accident or design coming to understand that it was his only chance of achieving victory.

      Tarrin had first-hand experience as to just how hard a Selani could hit.  Allia was more than capable of stunning him momentarily with a foot or hand, if she struck him in the head.  His regenerative abilities did not protect him from the stunning effects of a blow to the head, whether the instrument delivering the impact could hurt him or not.  Kallan had adopted a similar strategy, which was probably the only thing he could have done in order to give himself a chance.

      As they continued to dance around each other, it was Tarrin who was getting irritated.  Kallan had proved to be a wily, untouchable opponent, somehow managing to attack Tarrin with feet and hands without allowing the Were-cat to grab the attacking limb before it could withdraw.  He was watchful and very fast to react, for each time Tarrin moved to block or parry a punch or kick with an open paw, so as to instantly close his fist on the wrist or ankle behind the foot or hand attacking him, the Selani instantly pulled back the attack, not allowing the Were-cat even the opportunity to try.  Kallan continued with light, lightning-fast jabs and flicks of his feet, blurringly fast attacks meant more to draw the Were-cat out of position or out of sorts than to inflict damage.  Kallan came on so quickly that Tarrin actually had to take a step back to give him some room, to try to figure out Kallan's technique and find that flaw that would grant him a swift victory.  Tarrin tried again and again to grab his smaller foe, but found himself grabbing nothing but empty air.  He became more and more aggressive about it, until Kallan slipped under his arm and delivered a rocking uppercut with his other hand, catching Tarrin under his jaw and snapping his head back.  The ringing in his ears was replaced by a wheeze when Kallan punched him for all he was worth in the chest, trying to knock the air out of his lungs and strike before the Were-cat had the presence of mind to tense his muscles and use his inhuman strength as a defensive barrier.  The blow had enough behind it to stagger the taller Were-cat back, and he recovered in time to duck under an impossibly high jumping kick the Selani delivered, his entire body spinning in the air, which caused his foot come come screaming around his body so fast that it was nothing but a blur.  Tarrin felt the wind ruffle his bangs and the fur on his ears, fully aware that a blow delivered to his head with that much force very well may have won Kallan the match.  His feet touched the ground and he instantly turned and started pressing the unbalanced Were-cat again, scoring a staccato series of heavy blows on Tarrin's face, almost breaking his nose and jarring a tooth loose.  The blows only succeeded in making Tarrin angry, who suddenly put his ears back when Kallan jumped in the air again to attempt to deliver another jumping spin kick.  This time, however, the Were-cat stood his ground, and swiped the foot aside contemptuously when it came flying towards him.  That knocked Kallan off kilter in the air, and he had to twist around like a knotweed in order to get his feet underneath him before he hit the ground.  Kallan didn't relinquish his advantage, coming right back after the angry Were-cat, who still had the presence of mind to defend his head against that blizzard of lightning-fast attacks.

      But Tarrin had forgotten Kallan's devious fighting nature.  Tarrin evaded or blocked several more blows to his head, and when he saw Kallan lift a foot in a hip-swinging manner that told him it was going to be a high blow, he raised his arm in preparation to block it.  But the Selani lashed out in a downward motion, catching Tarrin so off guard that he didn't have time to anchor himself to the ground.  Kallan's instep struck Tarrin squarely in the ankle, and there was enough force behind it to sweep Tarrin's foot out from under him.  He threw out his arm and tilted dangerously to the side, and to his shock, Kallan grabbed him by the wrist as he darted forward and got behind the Were-cat, then grabbed his wrist with both hands and whipped him over his shoulder.  He was just as shocked that the wiry, slender Selani had the strength to pick up Tarrin's very tall body, as he felt his back slide over Kallan's own.

      It was a clever move, to try to knock the air out of Tarrin's lungs when he hit the ground, and getting behind Tarrin so he couldn't grab hold of him with his free paw, but it was a critical miscalculation.  Tarrin's tail whipped down and around and managed to hook both of Kallan's feet as he threw the Were-cat over his shoulder, and as Tarrin was catapulted over, his tail ran out of slack and pulled taut against Kallan's feet.  Tarrin's own momentum added to the strength of his tail, and it whipped Kallan's feet out from under him and in an upwards arc so fast that his head literally was swept under his own body as he was somersaulted.  The shock of it caused the Selani to let go of Tarrin's paw, and they separated in the air.  Kallan landed on his shoulders and back on the ground, almost exactly where he had been standing, as Tarrin simply got control of himself and landed with both feet solidly on the ground a few spans away, using his free paw as a third limb to steady himself.  He lunged forward the instant his two feet and paw hit the ground, taking advantage of the hard landing Kallan suffered, and was on him before the Selani could roll away.  Tarrin straddled him and held him down with one huge paw over his chest as the other rose up with all five claws extended.  "Do you yield?" Tarrin asked quickly.

      Kallan laughed wheezingly, and put his head on the ground.  "I yield," he announced.

      There was a round of cheers and clapping from the observing Selani, but it was Allia's laughter that Tarrin heard the most.  "They always forget the tail," she chided lightly.  "Tarrin has won more fights with that tail of his than with anything else."

      "Maybe we should pray to the Holy Mother that we have tails," Kaila said with a chuckle.

      "I think it would look a bit silly on us, mother," Allia answered, then she looked at her slyly as she crossed her arms beneath her breasts.  "I seem to recall a certain wager."

      "I really wanted that rug," Kaira said sourly.

      "Ha!" Jasana said triumphantly.  "I told you Papa would win!"

      "Nobody can beat our Papa!" Eron agreed boisterously.

      Tarrin got up and offered his paw to Kallan, who took it with an amused expression.  "That was very clever."

      "You forgot about the tail," he said with a slight smile, waggling the tip of it to draw the Selani's attention.

      "So I did," he admitted, then he smiled slightly.  "By the sands, that was a good fight!  You honor me, Tarrin.  Maybe later, we can fight again.  I might even beat you next time."

      "Kirza, I think you might," he agreed honestly.  "You're good enough to beat me.  You're better than I am.  It's just that I have certain advantages that even the playing field between us, that's all."

      "Well now, I've had my measure of you, and I see that my daughter didn't dishonor the clan when she taught you the Dance.  You are a worthy opponent."

      "Thank you, kirza," he said mildly in reply.  "Allia's honor is important to me.  I'd never do anything to damage it."

      "Well then, let's get cleaned up, and tonight, we feast.  You and I will talk, and we'll see if my daughter taught you the lessons of the Selani as well as the Dance.  If you show me you know our culture, I'd be inclined to accept you into my family."

      "You honor me, kirza," Tarrin told him.

      "The honor will be mutual, if you prove your worth," he said.  "Come, let's go get cleaned up."

 

      After cleaning up all the blood, Tarrin spent a little time in the tent of Kallan and Kaira.  It was a spartan affair, with but a few packs and satchels scattered through the low-ceilinged tent, the largest items being weapons and the rugs and pillows strewn about the floor of the tent.  Tarrin had to almost crawl in to fit, and couldn't stand even in a stoop inside the tent.  Even the Selani had to duck when not in the center of the tent.  He saw with them with his children and talked to them, as Kallan and his wife lightly grilled him about what Allia had taught him, and for stories of their adventures together.  Tarrin enjoyed that time a great deal, for both of them were intelligent and engaging, and somewhat charismatic.  And like Allia, the sense they projected changed when they were in private surroundings.  Kallan was stern and unyielding when in the eye of his tribe, but in private, he was much more open and personable.  When out in public, the honor of the clan-chief rode on everything he said and did, but in the tent, with nothing but family, he was free to be much more informal.  And Tarrin found that he rather liked him.  Kaira was a very open and friendly person all the time, whether in public or not, and the Selani seemed to accept that as her nature.  She still acted in an honorable fashion at all times, it was just that she wasn't as formal as her husband and daughter.  Dulai, Kallan's sister, acted very stiff in public, and from what he'd seen of her, she acted just as stiffly in private.

      Kallan's light demeanor vanished, however, when Tarrin brought up Allyn.  Tarrin could sense that Kallan disapproved of the Sha'Kar, but he wasn't sure if that disapproval was because he was Sha'Kar, or because Allia loved him.  Fathers were strange that way, wanting only the absolute best for their daughters.  At least in humans.  Tarrin suspected that a Selani suitor would have received a certain amount of disapproval from Kallan, but not as much.  Tarrin figured that as soon as Allyn proved himself, than Kallan would relent somewhat.

      Somewhat being the operative word.  Allyn was a Sha'Kar, and that meant that he had been ingrained with certain cultural traits that no amount of grinding would ever take off of him.  He had the feeling that Allyn would learn the Dance, and perhaps be quite good at it, but he would never, ever use it against another.  Allyn rejected physical violence outright, being the cornerstone of the Sha'Kar society, and it was probably the one issue on which he would not budge.  They may someday be able to get him to hunt, but he'd never fight, even though he was more than capable.  That was a cultural paradox for a Selani, whose harsh environment had instilled in them a legenday fighting ability that was the cornerstone of their culture.  He realized that that was probably why the Selani Priestess of the tribe disapproved of him so strongly, because he'd never truly be one of them.  At least not in the eyes of the Selani.  They were all convinced that he would never earn the brands, and as such, they had every right to do whatever it took to get rid of him as quickly as possible.

      Of course, that would change the instant Allyn took a good brand.  If he could get the brands, it would change everything.  It would mean that Fara'Nae would accept him, and even if he wasn't like the Selani, they would have no choice in the matter.  No Selani would dare presume to think that they knew better than the Holy Mother.  The very idea of it was heresy of the highest order.  Even to think it would bring intense shame to the Selani, so intense that they very well may abandon the clan, feeling that they had lost all honor and therefore were no longer worthy to remain in the clan.

      Well, not all of them.  Tarrin didn't much mind presuming things, but then again, his position and relationship to Fara'Nae was much different than the Selani.

      It all showed him that the more different races were, the more similar they really were when one bothered to look a little deeper.

      Begging off any more conversation, actually just feeling a little claustrophobic in their small tent, Tarrin went outside with his cubs and decided to begin the task which was the reason he was brought to the desert.  It didn't take him long to organize things, for all he needed as Kedaira, the sukk, and a small pail of mud.  Jasan and Eron watched as Tarrin ordered the adolescents tending the sukk to bring them to him one at a time, bringing a new one when he sent the one before him away.  After that, he simply sat down on a big rock near the edge of the camp and began.  The sheperds brought the first sukk, herding it with long, thin sticks which they used to gently prod the beast whenever it went off course, and when it got close enough to hear him, Tarrin called it over after reassuring it that it was in no danger.  It would then advance, and Tarrin would explain to it that this particular inu was no danger to it, the flock, or its brood.  He was very careful to stress that, that other inu were a danger, but this particular one was part of the flock, and as such was not a danger.  That actually wasn't that hard to explain, for the flock mentality of the sukk allowed them to accept the idea of it, and they had very acute senses of sight and smell that would allow them to discern Kedaira from other inu.  After he explained it, he told the sukk to pass that on to their chicks whenever they had them, and then marked the bird with a bit of mud on the sides of its heavy hooked beak.  That was the way the herders could tell educated sukk from ones who had yet had it explained to them.  Once that was done, Tarrin told the bird to be on its way, and the young Selani would bring him another so he could repeat the process again.

      It went much faster than he thought.  He had thought sukk to be rather dim-witted birds, and as such he figured it would take quite a while to explain things to them.  But the sukk were smarter than he thought, and their instincts and natures allowed them to accept what Tarrin had to tell them more easily than he expected.  He found out that sukk considered the Selani to simply be a part of the flock.  It was not hard to convince them to extend that same consideration to the lone inu, especially since the binding word of a Druid backed his statements.

      In the few hours between starting and sunset, the time he intended to stop, he counted and realized that he had already talked to most of the flock.  He decided to simply finish up with the last few, and then gave the same speech to the chisa.  That was both easier and harder.  They had a harder time accepting the idea of an inu as a harmless animal, but on the other hand, chisa didn't fear inu as much as sukk did.  Chisa weren't much bigger than inu, but they were very powerful animals, able to kill with a single lash of their whip-like tails, and also had a highly venemous bite.  Inu only attacked chisa in packs, so the big quadrapedal reptiles had little fear of a solitary inu.  So instead of convincing them that Kedaira was a member of the flock, he instead assured the chisa that Kedaira wouldn't attack them.  That, they could accept, and as such would not show open hostility towards her.

      About an hour after sunset, he was done.  All the tribe's animals were educated about Kedaira, and he saw that it had taken immediate hold on them.  Kedaira padded through the flock effortlessly when Tarrin prompted her to do so, and the sukk did not react to her.  In fact, they were somewhat amicable towards her.  They didn't even get defensive when she got close to some of the youngest chicks, who were carried by their parents when the flock was on the move.

      "Does that mean they like her now?" Eron asked as they watched Kedaira wander through the flock, which was illuminated by the many fires the Selani had lit to ward off the Sandmen which lurked in the desert at night.

      "Yes, cub," he nodded.  "I explained it all to them, remember?  They listened to me because I'm a Druid."

      "I wish I could talk to the animals," Eron complained.

      "I can," Jasana said smugly.

      "Just give it time, Eron," Tarrin told him.  "Druidic talent usually doesn't show up in Were-cats until after you're grown.  Jasana's just a little different, that's all."

      "You mean weird," Eron teased.

      "I am not weird!" she flared.  "You're the one that's weird!"

      "Are too weird!" Eron countered.  "Jaweirda!  Jaweirda!" he taunted, getting up and doing a little dance with each repitition of Jasana's creatively altered name.

      "You take that back!" Jasana snapped furiously and in but seconds, they were wrestling on the ground, shouting at one another even while they fought.

      Blowing out his breath, Tarrin reached down and grabbed a tail in each paw, and then yanked.  That separated them instantly.  He picked them up by their tails, which wasn't entirely pleasant, but neither was stupid enough to complain.  "What did I tell you yesterday?" he asked sharply.

      "No fighting," Jasana said with a hot look at Eron, pointing at him with a one of her little claws.  "But he started it!"

      "If you want to fight, then I suggest you save it for when we get home.  Because if you do fight, or if either of you disobey me one more time, you'll be home.  Do I make myself clear?"

      "Yes, Papa," they said in unison.

      Tarrin set them down, then turned when Allia called his name.  He saw that most of the Selani were gathering around the central fire, the largest of the fires that had been lit in the center of the camp.  Tarrin herded his children forward, having to shove Jasana bit more forcefully because of her glowering at her brother.

      Because he was behind her, he missed the calculating look in his daughter's eyes, the look that always meant that her complicated little mind was starting to formulate a plan.

      Tarrin and his children joined the Selani around the central fire, where several carcasses of various animals were roasting over large spits or poles over the flames.  They were the animals that the hunters had killed in their forays after the midday heat.  There were umuni and sukk, including the carcass that Tarrin and the cubs had downed, which had been forgotten in the bustle following the arrival of the clan.  There was a wild chisa roasting in pieces, and several smaller lizards, a couple of desert sand-rabbits, and even a jackal, which weren't very common in the northern stretches of the desert.  Tarrin found the idea of eating a jackal to be a rather unpalatable one.  Complementing the meat were kettles of boiling vegetables, and what looked like small red potatos spitted on sticks and roasting over the fire.  Allia called those things bloodroots, for they had a thick, staining red juice inside looked like blood.  He'd never eaten one before, but they smelled rather tasty.  They had long green leafy vegetables laying in wicker baskets that had been gathered around the fire, which the Selani were eating raw.  A Selani child offered him one, and he sniffed at it, finding that it had a strange mint smell to it.  He bit off a small piece, and was surprised that it was both sweet and very minty, like snowmint leaves, but less sharp and sweeter.  They were also eating small de-needled cactus plants, another plant not too common in the northern reaches because of the severity of the northern storms.  The scrub brush prevelant in this region was one of the few plants hardy enough to withstand them.  Further south they had a wider variety of plants and animals, because the storms weren't as intense as they were north.  There were some cacti somewhat common in that region, but they were small, broad-leafed cactus with very formidable beige spines bristling from them like an angry hedgehog.

      Kedaira padded over to where Tarrin and Allia were sitting with Allyn and the cubs, somewhat separate from most of the others, and she hunkered down with them.  Allia stroked her on her head fondly, and then started feeding her umuni meat that she pulled from a spit near the fire.

      "I saw the beast wandering the flocks without causing a stampede," Kallan called loudly to him in a voice emanating his power and honor as clan-chief.  "I take it you have done as you promised?"

      Tarrin nodded.  "I explained it to the sukk.  They consider Kedaira to be a member of the flock, but they will still consider inu to be enemies.  They can easily tell Kedaira from other inu, so there shouldn't be any trouble with the situation."

      "I'm glad you were careful enough to make that distinction," Kallan nodded in agreement of his solution.

      "I didn't want them thinking that other inu would be as friendly as Kedaira," Tarrin replied.

      "It must be quite interesting to be able to talk to animals," Kaila said with a smile.

      "It's not bad, but just like any skill, it loses its wonder after a while," he admitted, reaching out and patting Kedaira's side.  "I don't use it very often.  I'm just glad I could come here and use it constructively.  I'm not in the habit of talking to animals."

      "Whyever not?"

      "I'm a Druid, but I'm also a Were-cat, Kaila," he explained.  "It's considered very bad form to talk to one's food."  Kaila laughed delightedly, and some of the other Selani smiled or chuckled.  "Once I speak to an animal, I'm giving it my word and bond that I will do it no harm.  That's the credo of the Druid, and that's why animals trust us.  They know we won't harm them."

      "Then doesn't that mean that you can't ever hunt?"

      He shook his head.  "I just can't talk to any animal I intend to eat.  And if I speak to an animal, I can never hunt that particular animal.  So, that's why I'm not in the habit of talking to animals.  You never know if the animal I might talk to today is going to end up on my dinner table tomorrow."

      "I never knew that about the Watchers," Kallan admitted.  There were Druids in the desert, whom the Selani called Watchers.  They afforded much respect to the Druids, and though they didn't actively socialize them them, they were known to trade with them or render aid if a Druid asked for it.  "I knew that there was good reason to give them the respect the Holy Mother demands we give them."

      "There's good reason in everything the Holy Mother says," Tarrin said absently.

      "Spoken like a true child of the Holy Mother," the Priestess said, finally speaking.

      "I serve another goddess, shaman," Tarrin told her bluntly, pointing to his amulet.  "I'm a shaman to her.  But I do honor the Holy Mother, very much so, and I love her.  She helped me through a very difficult time, and because of that I'll always hold her in the highest respect, second only to my own goddess.  My Goddess allows me to afford love and respect to gods other than herself, because she knows she is always first in my heart.  She's quite progressive that way."

      Perhaps it wasn't best to say that, but he would not demean his powerful devotion to the Goddess.  Not in any way or manner, even if meant offending the Selani.

      "The Holy Mother should never be second to anything," the Priestess said stiffly.

      "For you," Tarrin said calmly.  "And I agree with your statement, because it shows your devotion to the Holy Mother, and that is honorable.  Can't you afford me the same respect when I say that my Goddess should never be second to anything as well?  Does it make me any less honorable that I have the same devotion as you, just given to a different god?"

      "The Holy Mother teaches that her way is the path of truth," the shaman said in a poweful voice.  "But she also teaches that her way is not the way of all.  We pity those who can't walk the path of truth, but we must not hate them for their inadequacy.  Only the chosen may walk the path of truth."

      "I'm so glad you can find theological ground not to get into an argument with me," he said dryly.

      The Priestess almost smiled.  "Truth is never a topic of debate.  It is the end of debate in and of itself."

      "Now that, we can agree on," Tarrin told her with a steady look.

      "I think we can leave the debate for another time," Kallan said, standing. "The meat is done, so it is time to feast.  Let us all give thanks to the Holy Mother for watching over us and seeing us through another day, and then we'll enjoy the bounty of the lands she provides us."

      With that, all the Selani stood.  Tarrin did as well, urging his cubs to stand, and then a sound which Tarrin would never forget graced his ears.  It was song.  The Selani sang their prayers to the Holy Mother Fara'Nae, one of only three situations in which they sang.  Selani would also sing when content and happy, like a cat purring, and would also sing of history, turning a tale of the past into an opera, for honoring the memory of the past was another way to honor Fara'Nae.  When Allia described her travels with Tarrin to her tribe, she had put it into song.  Tarrin had always been mesmerized by the incredible beauty of Allia's singing, but to hear her entire tribe singing in such complex and beautiful harmony, where every voice was itself distinct and different, yet all converged into a choral whole that made it much more than the sum of its individual parts, it was almost a religious experience, so powerful was the emotion it provoked in him.  Within the song was the great love and respect they had for their goddess, praising her for her love and attention to them, worshipping her dutifully, and giving thanks for seeing them through another day and providing for their needs.  There was such elegant simplicity in the song, a song of simple thanks, but it moved Tarrin, but the complicated harmony in which the tribe sung as a whole was astounding, would have brought any minstrel or bard to tears and probably discouraged them from ever singing again.  After hearing such wondrous perfection, any other song would be like the cawing of a raven, brutish and rude.  The song of the Selani prayer conveyed more emotion than anything Tarrin had ever heard, conveying to their Holy Mother their love for her and their gratitude in her providing for them.  It was a song of love and respect and worship, a song of devotion from mortal followers to their god, a song of thanksgiving.

      To think that such hard, dangerous people could have such gentle, beautiful voices.  Sometimes things in life made little sense.

      After the last echoes of the gorgeous Selani song died away, the tribe seated themselves and began to eat.  Tarrin had to push the cubs back down, for they were still quite overwhelmed by what they heard.

      "I don't think I'll ever get used to that," Allyn admitted to Tarrin in a hushed voice, speaking Sha'Kar.  "I have to fight back tears every time I hear it."

      "It was very pretty," Jasana said in agreement.

      "It just shows you that there's alot more to the Selani than what you see," Tarrin told him.  "Careful, cub, don't burn yourself," Tarrin warned Eron as he reached for a spit holding a large chunk of pale white meat.

      "I'm alright, Papa," Eron said.  "It's not that hot.  You want some?  I think it's meat from one of those big lizards."

      "Ick," Jasana said, screwing up her face.  "Where's the sukk meat?"

      "Wimp," Eron teased.

      "Are you that dense, boy?" Tarrin warned.  "What did I just tell you not a few moments ago?"

      Eron gave his father an apologetic look and fell silent, but he did glare at Jasana when she stuck her tongue out at him.  Tarrin smacked her lightly across the back of her head, and she flushed guiltily when she realized she'd been caught.

      "I see they're being themselves tonight," Allia laughed.

      "That's the problem," Tarrin grunted.

      Allia handed Jasana a spit holding sukk meat, and they fell to enjoying the feast.  Tarrin watched the Selani around them, and listened to their banter.  They spoke of things that would interest Selani, hunting, the weather, tending the flocks, checking for new eggs, things like that.  He saw how comfortable they were with one another, but also how they spoke respectfully and with familiarity to other Selani.  It was an aspect of how the Selani always tried to behave properly in public, when they could behave quite differently in a private setting.  He had little doubt that almost all Selani were like Allia to some degree, very prim and proper in public so as to not dishonor herself or her family, but acting much differently, more intimate and relaxed, when they were in their own tents and surrounded by family and close friends.  There were exceptions, however, like Kaila, and Denai.  They were Selani that didn't seem to be as worried about how their behavior might be taken as not wholly honorable...and in a way, that made them honorable in itself.  They had the courage to act as they pleased, not as they perceived how others thought they should act.  Tarrin could respect that quite a bit.  It seemed odd to see that behavior in the wife of a clan-king, whose honor and social standing had to be above reproach...but then again, that was business between Kallan and Kaira.  It was none of his.  He also saw that they rarely engaged Allia in their conversations, and for her part, Allia didn't seem to care very much.  She and Allyn and the Were-cats talked almost exclusively, as Tarrin heard all about the new tent that Allia had had made the last time the tribe had visited the clan village, how roomy it was and capable of holding all her possessions--including a brand new lamp--as well as Allyn's own.  She talked of the bow she was having made for Allyn, and how he was coming along very well in learning the Dance and learning the customs of the Selani.  She heaped quite a bit of praise on him, doing so in public to reinforce her confidence and support of him.  Allyn wisely kept his mouth shut, for boasting was considered boorish by Selani custom.  What Tarrin did wasn't exactly boasting, for boasting was making claims one couldn't back up.  Tarrin was fully capable of backing up any claim he made, so for him and other Selani, it was merely the statement of fact.  Until Allyn could back up any claim he made, the other Selani wouldn't take him seriously, and they would find his self-aggrandizement to be rather offensive.

      Tarrin found the entire evening to be rather pleasant.  He had a good time talking with Allia and Allyn, and got to observe the Selani in somewhat relaxed surroundings, though none of them had actively approached him yet.  Kallan hadn't come right out and said he accepted Tarrin yet, so until then, none of them were going to get too close to him.  They'd talk to him, but they wouldn't be overly friendly.  They didn't want to become friends with someone that might get exiled from the clan, and Tarrin could understand that, so he didn't hold that against them.  He knew that it probably hurt the tribe to exile one of its own as much as it hurt the one exiled, since tribes were so close.  After dinner, he went with Allia's parents back to their tent, with Dulai, Zakra, Allia and Allyn along with them, and talked some more.  Dulai spoke very little, doing her best to keep Zakra away from Eron and Jasana, but Kallan and Kaila had quite a bit to say.  They continued grilling Tarrin about what Allia had taught him, and then more about the long adventure they had undertaken together.  Tarrin was honest--brutally honest--with them, not mincing words at some of his past deeds, nor did he make excuses for himself.  He explained things in a rational manner as to why he acted the way he acted at times and left it to them to decide how it would affect their opinion of him.

      After quite a long conversation that went on well into the night, Kallan yawned and politely told everyone that it was time to go back to their tents.  Tarrin had already been invited to stay with Allia and Allyn, so he herded his sleepy cubs back to Allia's tent and put them to bed.  Allia's tent was large, but it still wasn't large enough to accommodate a nine span tall Were-cat, so he shapeshifted into his cat form and curled up on a pillow in the corner and promptly went to sleep.

 

      Tarrin!  Wake up!

      Tarrin stirred from his sleep and looked up.  It was still dark outside, and he could feel the desert's cold through the fabric of the tent which was just behind him.  Allia and Allyn were curled up on their sleeping mat near the very small fire in the center of the tent, and--

      Jasana and Eron were gone.

      Tarrin, go get them!  It was Fara'Nae's voice, and she sounded a little upset.  They need you right now!

      "Where are they?" he asked in the manner of the Cat, jumping up and running across the tent, then slipping through the opening.  He shapeshifted back into his humanoid form and immediately cast his senses about, searching for Jasana's effect on the Weave.  He found her almost immediately, and with some shock realized that she was nearly five hundred spans away from the edge of the camp!  They were beyond the range of the light of the fires, and that meant they were where the Sandmen could reach them!

      Since he was searching through the Weave, Tarrin distinctly felt Jasana touch on its power.  She was using High Sorcery, and the act of her touching it was like a beacon that would lead him right to her.  She wouldn't use High Sorcery unless she was in real danger!

      Breaking into an instant sprint, Tarrin raced past startled Selani sentries tending the fires and watching for trouble, racing off into the night as his heart began to seize in his chest.  What in the Nine Hells were they doing outside the fire's light!?  Didn't they have any sense at all?  He'd specifically warned them about the dangers of wandering the desert at night!  It was insanity!  While running at full speed, Tarrin himself drew in the power of High Sorcery and wove a fast spell of Air and Divine.  He snapped it down and released it, causing the energy of an extra-dimensional entity to enter his world and occupy the spell he had woven.  The creature, Tarrin's Air Elemental, became fully aware of the material world and his link with it solidified in his mind.  "Find Jasana and Eron and defend them!" he ordered quickly.  "They're being attacked by Sandmen!"

      The Elemental quickly and soberly informed him it would be done, and then it raced off at a speed that Tarrin could not match.  The Elemental would get there first and use its power of wind to do battle with any Sandmen threatening his children.

      Redoubling his efforts, Tarrin sprinted with full speed towards his sense of his daughter.  He felt her use her power again, then again, short, sharp draws on the Weave and used in ways that could only be attacks.  Attack spells were always fast and as simple as possible, so they could be used quickly in a fight.  Tarrin bowled through scrub as he raced towards his children, then up a very low rise.  When he crested it, he saw his Elemental and Jasana attacking a swirling ball of thick, sand-choked air, and held within it was Eron.  Tarrin's heart nearly stopped when he saw that, but he saw that Eron was still moving, trying to swipe at the blowing sand with his little claws, but that would do no good.  The Sandman had enveloped him, and it was trying to suffocate him.  Jasana tried another spell, a weave of Earth and Divine, and that one actually did some good.  She attacked the sand within the Sandman's discorporated form, trying to suck it out of the spherical vortex which formed the Sandman's insubstantial body.  It was a clever idea, but the Sandman simply drew up the sand and dust from the desert floor as fast as Jasana pulled it out.  The Air Elemental was having better luck, using its own wind to disrupt the air of the Sandman, preventing it from organizing itself and surrounding Tarrin's son with enough sand to choke him.

      Touching the Weave, his paws limning over with the ghostly radiance of Magelight, Tarrin wove a very fast spell of all seven Spheres, a fairly complicated one.  But Tarrin's experience allowed him to weave it with exceptional speed, even while running towards the scene of the struggle.  He snapped it down and released it, and the tendrils of the spell instantly closed the distance to Eron, surrounding him and infusing him, and then he disappeared from within the Sandman's sandy body.  He appeared in Tarrin's paws while he still ran towards the Sandman, coughing and choking, but still quite lively and seeming to be relatively unharmed.  Sudden icy fury overwhelming him, Tarrin ordered his Elemental to back off and started on another spell, one just as complicated.  "Back!" Tarrin shouted at Jasana as he snapped it down and released it, causing a ball of utter, incomprehensible blackness to appear in his paw, a black sphere with tiny arcs of electricity swarming around it.  Not even a Sandman could withstand this spell.  Jasana saw the ball, realized what it was, and turned and fled at an angle away from both of them as the Elemental got behind Tarrin, safely away from the deadly spell.  Tarrin threw it at the Sandman, which had begun to moan its chilling moan, moving towards Tarrin mindlessly.  The ball struck the swirling sands which made up the Sandman's body, and in that touch, it sealed the thing's doom.  The sand and air that made up its form was suddenly sucked down into the incomprehensible depths of the spell's effect, a place, a thing even Tarrin did not completely comprehend, sucking it down into utter annihilation.  The moaning of the Sandman turned into a sudden fearful wail, and then that too seemed to dwindle, as if the sound itself was drawn into the black sphere to be utterly consumed.

      Its purpose fulfilled, the black ball collapsed in upon itself and winked out of existence.  And with the Sandman gone, Tarrin breathed a tremendous sigh of relief.  He came to a stop as he absently wove a spell to illuminate the area and deter any other Sandmen in the area, then knelt and hugged his son fiercely before holding him out at arm's length and getting a good look at him.  He had dust caked in his hair and ears, his eyes were a bit crusted, and he was still coughing and almost choking, but he seemed unharmed.  The utter relief he felt at seeing Eron was alright was quickly replaced by sudden anger.  "You fool cub!" Tarrin raged at him.  "What in the world are you doing out here!?!  ANSWER ME!" he thundered when Eron didn't immediately respond.

      "J-Jasana dared me to come out here and see if I could see a Sandman," he answered in a very fearful voice.  "I never saw it, Papa, didn't even smell it!  One second I was looking around, then the next there was sand and dust all around me!"  Eron began to cry hysterically as the shock of nearly being killed finally hit him, and Tarrin gathered him up into another fierce embrace.

      Jasana ran up to them, and stopped in her tracks when she saw her father's infuriated look.  "I tried to stop him, Papa," she said quickly, fearfully, trying to meet his gaze but unable to do so.  "I-I mean, I didn't think he'd actually do it!"

      She tricked him into coming out here, intending to tell you he disobeyed and have him sent home, Fara'Nae's voice touched him.  She did it to get even with him for him calling her names.

      That succeeded in making Tarrin absolutely furious.  "You nearly got your brother killed because you wanted to get even with him?" Tarrin raged.  "I don't believe you, cub!  How could you be so cruel?" he said in disbelief.

      Jasana looked up at her father in shock, and she started trembling.

      "Look what you've done, Jasana!" Tarrin shouted at her, patting a still hysterical Eron on the back gently.  "Does this make you happy?  How does it feel that you nearly killed your own brother just because you wanted to get your own way?  How does it feel?  Answer me!"

      Jasana's eyes filled with tears, and then she erupted into uncontrollable sobs, dropping to her knees and covering her face with her paws.  Tarrin did not comfort her.  He just knelt there and tried to console Eron and let Jasana face the awful truth about what had happened, and what she had done.

      "Now do you understand?" he asked her in a sharp tone.  "Now do you understand what I've been trying to tell you, Jasana?  Did it take nearly getting your brother killed to make you understand?"

      Gently, my son.  She is only a child, Fara'Nae's voice touched him.  Don't be too hard on her.  Let the lesson be a lesson in itself.

      Tarrin blew out his breath.  "Get up," he ordered in a voice that would brook absolutely no disobedience.  "Get up and go back to the tent.  I'll deal with you when I get back.  Go with her," he commanded the Elemental.  "Make sure nothing harms her, and make sure she obeys me."

      The Elemental grimly acknowledged him.  It was as much a part of Tarrin's family as his children were, in its own way, and it was starting to understand the gravity of the situation.  Elementals were sentient beings and possessed of emotions, after all.

      Still crying, Jasana got up and ran towards the camp, stumbling awkardly.  The Elemental trailed behind her, not helping her, but making sure that nothing interfered with her as she obeyed.  Tarrin remained, trying to calm Eron down, holding him close and taking in his scent, just glad that he was unharmed.  That was all that mattered.  No matter how it had come about, the fact that Eron wasn't hurt was all that mattered.  He couldn't help but to hold his son tightly, just thankful that he was alright, feeling a relief and joy that only a parent could feel over his child's well being.  For very long moments he tried to comfort Eron and silently thanked Fara'Nae over and over again for warning him in time, thanking her for her son's well being.

      After quite a while, Eron finally calmed down.  He hiccupped slightly as he held onto his father, his breathing slowly becoming steady and regular.  "Don't be mad at Jassy," he finally said, in a very meek voice.  "I know she didn't mean it, Papa."

      "It doesn't matter if she meant it, cub," Tarrin told him quietly, standing up with him securely in his arms.  "The fact that it happened is what matters."

      "Are you going to kill her?" he asked fearfully.  That was not a stupid question, not among Were-cats.

      "You don't learn your lesson if you're dead," Tarrin snorted.  "Besides, if I killed her, Jesmind would kill me.  I'm in no mood to deal with that particular female.  I'm not that crazy."

      Eron actually giggled, which lightened Tarrin's mood considerably.  He started back towards the camp, cuddling his precious son to him.  "Don't worry, cub.  Jasana's going to get hers."

      "Just don't be too hard on her, Papa.  She tried to save me when the Sandman attacked me.  She didn't want me to get hurt."

      "She's the reason she had to save you, Eron.  That argument doesn't hold any water with me."

      Tarrin padded back towards the camp, a thousand different punishments dancing around in his head about how to deal with his treacherous daughter.  And in the mood he was in, he found the idea of using all of them to be quite satisfactory.


To:       Title                EoF    

Chapter 5

 

      Tarrin found out that any kind of punishment or retribution against Jasana for what she did shouldn't be done when he was angry.  That didn't come about because of his own desire, for he had every intention of going into that tent and thrashing his daughter to within an inch of her life, but Fara'Nae had pulled rank on him when he reached the tent, informing him in no short terms that he wasn't to go in there while he was angry.  So instead, he dropped Eron off there at the tent and had him go inside, where Allia and Allyn could watch over him, and was relegated to stalking around the camp in an icy fury.

      He shouldn't have been too surprised.  Jasana was cunning and manipulative, and if Eron made her mad, she'd forego fighting him and instead find a way to make him pay that was much worse.  The idea that she had tried to trick Eron into doing something that got him sent home wasn't surprising, it was the method she used to do it that infuriated Tarrin so much.  She had put Eron in very real danger when she tricked him into sneaking out of the camp, then put herself in danger when she went after him.  How could she have been so foolish, so blind?  Tarrin had set down that rule for a reason.  Did she think that he did it just to keep the cubs in camp?  That was silly.  At home, they had free reign to go wherever they wanted, because there was nothing around the house that could really threaten them.  But he'd shown them the dangers of the desert, as had Allia, and they were both fully warned about how deadly the Sandmen were.  If Tarrin himself respected them enough to steer clear of them, that certainly should have been reason enough for the cubs to fear them.

      He stalked around almost all night, pacing circles around the camp as the nervous sentries watched him.  He occasionally broke out into strings of potent cursing and swearing, punctuated with waves or stabs of his arms...and the occasional detonating bush or blast of hot wind, or slight tremor of earth or strange lights that sparkled around the Were-cat.  Tarrin was so angry that the All had been attracted to him, and despite his attempts to control, it was starting to leak out just a little bit here and there, whenever his pondering caused his temper to rise close to his snapping point.  Tarrin was a very dangerous individual when he was angry, even more so because his control of his formidable magical powers began to waver and break down when he was in such a state.  One particular rant, as the Were-cat cursed in every language he knew, vile, terrible curses and swearwords, the most potent to be found in each language, particularly frightened the Selani sentries because thin lances of hard rock erupted from the ground behind the Were-cat, driving up from the ground wherever the Were-cat's feet had touched the ground.  He left behind him a row of jagged, randomly leaning pillars of rock, irregular in form but all ending in very sharp points, reaching up about twice the height of the Were-cat but in actuality more than half again as long as that, for they all leaned this way or that, interweaving with one another.  If that wasn't bad enough, the Were-cat turned and made a slashing motion with his arm, which caused a hundred span long line of rock lances to suddenly shatter, sending dusty debris flying in all directions.

      Eventually, however, even Tarrin's anger began to work itself out.  He gave up ranting and swearing and pacing to sit on the ground well away from the camp, out in the darkness, and even the Sandmen seemed to sense the Were-cat's dangerous temper and decided to avoid him.  He wanted to go back there and administer some sorely needed chastisement on Jasana, but Fara'Nae had ordered him to stay away from her until he got his temper back under control, and he would not disobey.  So instead of pacing around, he sat there, arms and legs crossed, tail wrapped around his legs, trying to regain his temper.  But without much success.  Every time he thought about what happened, every time he remembered seeing Eron trapped by the enveloping Sandman, it got him angry all over again.  He tried to do the mental exercises that Allia and Triana had taught him, and had gotten enough of a handle on himself to stop throwing around wild Druidic magic, but every replay of events of his mind set him seething again.

      Close to dawn, he finally got annoyed enough to find out why he'd been warned off.  "Alright, answer me," he said pugnaciously, knowing that Fara'Nae knew precisely what he was asking.

      You agreed to let me deal with her, she answered.  I'm dealing with her.  I didn't need you going in there and distracting her from what I'm doing by spanking her with a scourge.

      A little chagrined, he blew out his breath.  "I'm sorry.  I didn't realize that."

      You were angry, kitten, she said gently.  I know how you are when you're angry.

      "Did it work?"

      Only time will tell, but I will say that her mind is in turmoil, she answered.  She is sick with herself that Eron was attacked, and she feels rightful guilt.  I think that that is what she needed, kitten.  I didn't plan it, but this little episode was exactly what needed to happen to show her that there are consequences for her actions, and they can be dire.

      Tarrin narrowed his eyes.  "That's why you didn't warn me the instant they left the camp," he accused.  "You were going to see what happened, didn't you?  You were hoping something happened!"

      Guilty, she admitted.  But I wouldn't allow Eron to be harmed, kitten.  Had you not arrived, I would have come myself and dealt with the matter.  It would have been quite traumatic for Allia's tribe, but that would be a paltry matter compared to the idea of your son being harmed.

      Tarrin tried to find a reason to be angry over that, he really tried, but in the end, he couldn't argue her point.  If a god said she was going to make sure that things wouldn't get out of hand, then he'd bloody well better accept it at face value and move on.  He blew out his breath and put his paws on his knees.  "I'm sorry."

      I can understand your position, she told him calmly.

      Tarrin groaned and flopped down on his back on the sandy ground, looking up at the sky, at the Skybands.  "How did I end up with a child so stubborn it takes a god to set her straight?" he complained.

      It's the mother's curse, kitten, Fara'Nae said lightly.  In your case, I'd say it was quite powerful.

      "What curse?"

      Don't you remember your mother telling you in a fit of anger that she hoped that your children were as troublesome as you are?

      Tarrin blinked, and then he laughed ruefully.  "Between Triana and my mother, I guess that would be a powerful curse," he admitted.

      And just think, kitten, she added.  You have three other children.

      Tarrin gave out a growling snort, then picked up a small stone from the ground and hurled it aimlessly into the air, a gesture of irritation at the Holy Mother.  He heard her cascading laughter, which only annoyed him more.  "You really know how to put me in a good mood," he accused.

      At least they'll be grown and gone in ten years rather than twenty, she added impishly.  Just hang in there, kitten.

      Tarrin laid there for a while and considered things.  It would probably be best to take Jasana and Eron home now.  He'd done what he came to do, and he had no real reason to remain.  He didn't want to leave so soon, he wanted to stay and visit with Allia and Allyn more, wanted to get to know her tribe, but he wasn't sure if his heart would be in it.  And he wasn't sure if Jasana's heart was going to be in it either.  There was no telling how she was going to act, how she was going to feel after a night of Fara'Nae baring the wounds of her soul and forcing her to look at them.  It may be best to take her home, take her back to comfortable, familiar surroundings, back to her mother.  Who, after hearing about this, would probably give her a thrashing the likes of which she hadn't seen since she turned Tarrin Were.  He'd have to wait and see, though.  Besides, he wouldn't take her home until Fara'Nae told him that he could.  She may not be done with her yet, and she couldn't do anything unless Jasana was in the desert.

      So, he guessed it was just another waiting game.  He wouldn't take Jasana home until Fara'Nae told him it was alright, but he had the feeling that that wouldn't take very long.  In a way, he was glad of it.  He wanted a little more time with Allia, and wanted to make sure that Allyn was going to be alright.  He wouldn't mind getting to know Kallan and Kaila a little better as well, and figure out why Fara'Nae wouldn't allow the Priestess to heal her.  He knew it had something to do with Kallan.  Kallan had to learn something, to discover some truth, either about Kaila or about himself.  He was curious to find out what it was, and see if he couldn't help it along.  Seeing Kaila like that offended his healer's spirit, that gentle side of him that so few people saw.  Every time he saw her, his fingers literally itched to do something about it.

      The landscape around him began to illuminate as the sun creeped up towards the horizon, but it was a sudden movement at the edge of the low rise upon which he was standing was what caught his attention.  It was approaching, and when the figure appeared over the ridge enough, he realized with some surprise that it was Triana.  Then again, that shouldn't have been too much of a surprise.  She had probably sensed his anger, and come out here to see what was going on.  She had a habit of doing that.  She padded up to him confidently, and when she reached him, she didn't greet him.  She simply sat down beside him and remained silent a moment, studying his features.  "What happened this time?" she finally asked.

      Without much emotion, Tarrin explained what had happened last night, including telling her about Fara'Nae's campaign to straighten Jasana out.  "She wouldn't let me thrash Jasana and vent," he surmised for her.  "So I've been stomping around out here trying to calm down."

      "I thought that cub learned her lesson the last time," she said in an ugly tone, flexing her claws.  "I guess she needs more education."

      "I think Fara'Nae believes that will interfere with what she's doing," he answered.  "I trust her, mother.  She's the reason I shed some of my feral nature.  She's doing the same thing to Jasana she did to me, just for a different reason and with a different goal."

      If it surprised his aged bond-mother, she didn't show it.  "Well, it's not like you can argue," she snorted.  "You don't argue with gods.  It doesn't get you very far."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "I've noticed," he agreed.  "What have you been up to?"

      "This and that," she answered.  "I dropped in on Camara to see how things were going, after I tied up some more loose ends of the Hierarchs.  I'm trying to get all that business done as quickly as I can."

      "Why?"

      "You," she answered.  "When I train you, I want no distractions."

      "I thought you'd forgotten about that," he chuckled.

      "Don't even think I'll forget," she said with a flat stare.  "I'm just setting things up so we won't be interrupted."

      "So, when is this going to start?"

      "After Camara has her baby," she answered.  "We'd have to stop for that anyway.  We both promised to be there."

      "So did all the others," Tarrin said.  "It'll be good to see them again.  At least all in the same place at the same time.  I miss them."

      "They're your friends, cub," she said simply.  "Of course you'll miss them."

      "I need to talk to Dar," Tarrin frowned.  "I haven't talked to him in almost a month.  I'll bet he thinks I've forgotten about him."

      "I doubt that," she said with a scoff.

      "He'd better have Tiella pregnant," he said.  "He's had enough time for it."

      "Where are they living?"

      "Dar took Tiella back to Arkis two months ago, so she could meet his parents," he answered.  "The last time I talked to him, he was fuming over it.  His parents want him to marry a rich Arkisian noble, not a Sulasian backwoods villager.  For that matter, they hate the fact that he's katzh-dashi.  They're trying to make him give it up and enter the family's trading business."

      "That'll never happen," Triana said with mild amusement.  "Aren't they already married?"

      Tarrin nodded.  "By the Goddess.  But Dar wants another ceremony in Arkis, so it's legal there.  Arkis doesn't legally recognize any marriage not performed by a priest of Mikaras."  Mikaras was the patron god of Arkis, who was the Younger God of travelling, roads, and also of merchants and those who travelled for a living.  "His parents are fighting it with everything they have.  They're about to make Dar disown them."

      "Then it's their own fault," she stated bluntly.  "You have to let cubs find their own happiness.  You can't shove your idea of happiness down their throats."

      "That sounds hypocritical coming from you, mother," Tarrin said with a sly smile.

      "I don't make you do what makes me happy," she told him.  "I make you do what you need to do.  There's a difference."

      "I'm so glad you think so."

      "Watch it, cub," she said in an ugly tone.  "You're not too old to spank."

      Coming from Triana, that was no idle threat.  Tarrin chuckled and leaned back on his paws, looking towards the rising sun.  "I don't think you should hang around too long, mother.  I may have trouble explaining you to the Selani."

      "I have other things to do, and you were on the way," she answered.  "I was on my way back from Amazar.  It wasn't much of a detour to come find out what had you all ruffled."

      "You're going to have to teach me how you do that."

      "I intend to," she answered.

      "Sarraya's obsessed with learning it now," he warned.

      "I know.  She keeps pestering me to teach her."

      "Think she can do it?"

      "I know she can, but I don't like the idea of unleashing a Faerie that can dimension travel on the world," she said with a little trepidation.  "As it is now, the havoc she can wreak is confined to a certain area."

      Tarrin laughed.  "She's not that bad," he objected.

      "Oh yes she is," Triana said adamantly.  "She behaves when she's around you, cub.  Even now, she's afraid of getting too outrageous around you.  If I taught her how to dimension travel, you'd have to babysit her."

      Tarrin snorted.  "Just how do you do it, mother?"

      "It's hard to explain.  Let's just say that I kind of step between dimensions, into a place that's connected to the real world but isn't quite it, a place where time and physical laws work differently.  When you're there, a single step sends you a few hundred spans.  You can travel about three hundred leagues in an hour.  If you make a day of it, you can travel almost three thousand leagues."

      "I'd hate to run into something," he winced.

      "You can't.  Everything looks just like it does in reality, but it's all insubstantial when you're like that.  You can't touch anything."

      "Then how can you walk?"

      "Because your mind creates a point of reference that your body uses to determine what you're doing," she answered.  "There's no such thing as gravity in there.  It's all in how you decide it should be.  When you decide you're standing on solid ground, you are.  If you decide there's no such thing, then you just kind of float there.  How I do it is I decide on a path from where I am to where I'm going, then I run along it.  I know I'm drifting off course when I suddenly can't find anything under my feet."

      "Clever.  How long did it take you to figure that out?"

      "About fifty years," she replied.  "The trick of it is getting in and getting out.  You don't have to hold yourself in there.  The spell comes only to breach the barrier to get into or out of that place."

      "Odd."

      "It can be at first, especially when you get used to not breathing."

      "What?"

      "I told you, time works differently in there," she answered.  "You don't breathe, you don't eat, and you don't drink.  You don't even get tired.  It's like you're suspended in time."

      "That's a scary thought."

      "It's a little unnerving at first, but you get used to it."  She glanced behind them.  "I think I'd better go.  The Selani are starting to get curious about us, and I have to attend to a few other matters."

      "I'll see you when I get home, then."

      "Maybe not.  When are you going back, anyway?" she asked as she stood.

      "I'm not sure," he replied as he got up with her.  "I've done everything I had to do here, but that doesn't matter because I can't take Jasana until I'm told by her that it's alright.  I'd like to stay a couple of days longer no matter what.  I need to make sure of a couple of things before I'll feel comfortable leaving."

      "Have you talked to Jesmind?"

      "Not in a few days," he answered.  "I don't want to tell her what's going on with Jasana just yet.  I don't want to hear her screaming at me."

      "Why would she scream?"

      "It's Jesmind, mother.  She'll find a reason."

      Triana laughed quietly.  "Sometimes I think that girl argues with people for the fun of it," she confided.  "Alright, cub.  I'll see you when you get home, or whenever."

      "Have a safe trip."

      "Always," she said with a slight snort as she put her paw on his shoulder, a touch that reinforced the intimate closeness between them.  She didn't bear him, but Triana was as much to him his mother as his birth mother was.  That touch conveyed all the complex emotions that they had for one another.  Her touch lingered, even as she started turning away from him, and she kept her eyes on him until her paw slid from his shoulder.  Though she didn't show it or act it, Tarrin knew just how strongly she felt about him.  She was his son, as far as she was concerned, and probably her favorite son at that.

      He sat back down as she stalked away.  He knew better than to try to follow her, and he knew she was putting distance between them so he couldn't sense what she did when she did whatever she did to get into that other place.  It wasn't that she was guarding her secret, it was that she was keeping any temptation at all away from him.  If he tried it and messed it up, it very well may kill him, or send him hurtling into some other dimension, or something even worse.  Druidic magic was amazingly unpredictable when it went wild.  It was good to see Triana, but it was just a little disconcerting to hear that she had his training on her schedule.  But then again, he'd been somewhat bored the last month or so, so perhaps a little side project was just what he needed.  He was curious about Druidic magic, and Triana's claim that it would make him forget all about Sorcery--which he seriously doubted--did pique his interest a bit.  He'd give her the chance to try, that was for certain.

      Triana's visit drifting out of his mind, he went over what he wanted to accomplish before he left, and most of it surrounded Allyn.  He was going to teach him what the Priestess wouldn't, and if he could get away with it, he was going to educate her about not wavering in her duties and taking her to task for being so objectionable and quick to judge.  He did want to talk with Kallan and Kaira and figure out what it was going on there, and maybe find out why Dulai seemed so stuck up.  The woman had barely said a word to him since he arrived, and her attempts to try to keep Jasana and Eron from playing with her son Zakra seemed very strange.

      He was in the desert.  If he didn't at least make an attempt to talk to Sapphire, she might get offended.  There was no telling with dragons, but he knew Sapphire well enough to know that she'd really let him have it if she found out he was this close to her, and didn't at least contact her and see if she wanted to fly over and see him.  He talked to her every few days or so, so he doubted that she'd drop everything and fly over to see him.  And if she did, he'd have to wait for her to arive.  But that may not be a bad thing; it could give him a very viable excuse to kind of hang around a few days.  And it would certainly shock Allia's tribe when Sapphire arrived.  Tarrin had to suppress an evil chuckle at that thought.

      He did have some information to pass to her, however.  She told him that she wanted to know when Triana was going to train him.  He wasn't sure why she wanted to know, but she did.  Sapphire was mightily impressed with Triana's Druidic ability, and considering Sapphire was a dragon, that was a tremendous complement.  Sapphire had talked about the two of them getting together and trading knowledge for a while now, so perhaps she was going to use Tarrin's education as the perfect excuse.

      No time like the present.  Besides, he wanted to get all the little business out of the way so he'd be able to focus his full attention on the matters at hand.  Raising a paw to his amulet, he sighed and called out her name.

      "Little friend, you just saved yourself from a serious chastisement," her voice emanated from his amulet, a bit tinny and higher-pitched than normal.  Considering Sapphire's exceptionally deep bass voice, an effect from having a throat larger than Jasana, it made her voice seem almost feminine.  "And why did it take you this long to contact me?  You've been in the desert for six days!"

      How Sapphire knew that was beyond him, but he learned long ago that Sapphire had ways of finding things out that he'd never understand.  "I've had some pretty serious things going on here, Sapphire," he said quickly.  "I've only just managed to sort things out to the point where I can start taking time out to catch up on things.  I wasn't going to come and go and never talk to you, my friend.  I'm not that stupid."

      "I should say so," she said huffily.  "So, is this purely a saving your butt call, or did you have something of substance to talk about?" she asked with a little amusement.

      "A little of both, actually.  Putting the pleasantries aside, Triana's set a date for my training."

      "It's about time.  When?"

      "Right after we get back from going to Amazar for the birth of Camara Tal's baby," he answered.  "She's been busy organizing things so she can train me without any distractions.  That's why it's taken her so long to get started."

      There was a short pause.  "She is a rather busy woman.  I can understand why it took her that long," she said, mainly to herself, he figured.  "That does work for me."

      "Why?  Are you going to sit in?"

      "I'm going to do more than that," she answered.  "I'm going to teach as well as learn.  I'm not sure if you're strong enough to do what I'm going to teach Triana, but I'm rather certain that she is."

      "You should know better than to teach me things I can't use, Sapphire," Tarrin chuckled.  "Are you begging for me to get into trouble?"

      There was a pause, then Sapphire laughed.  "You can get into trouble without any help from me, little friend," she teased.  "Besides, I think you can do some of it.  You are a Hierarch, by power if not by title.  They've never called you before them, have they?"

      "The Hierarchs?  No."

      "I thought not.  Given who you are and what kind of record you have, I doubted they'd give you the official title.  I'd be surprised if they ever officially dealt with you, since that'd bring your past indiscretions out in the open.  You'd be hard to explain being given the title of Hierarch when they go after other Were-kin for breaking the rules.  I don't think you've ever met a rule you didn't break."

      "It's a part of my roguish charm, Sapphire," he said dryly.

      "I know," she said winsomely.  "So long as they never speak your name and do their best to ignore you when you're moving around, they can pretend that you don't exist.  It works better for them that way."

      "Me too, for that matter.  I don't think I'd like to be a Hierarch.  I don't want any responsibilities."

      "You can't avoid them forever, my little one," she said in a motherly voice.

      "I'll take your advice to heart, Sapphire.  So, want to come see me and Allia now, or wait until we all gather in Amazar?"

      "I'll be there by sunset," she replied, a smirk resounding in her voice.  "I was in the neighborhood, dealing with a territory dispute between two blues in my domain.  You're only a day's detour away."

      "You're going to shock the Selani," Tarrin chuckled.

      "Good.  They know the dragons are here.  Maybe it's best we had a meeting."

      "How did the dispute turn out?" he asked curiously.

      "The land they're disputing is barely a longspan long and not even five hundred spans wide," she said with disdain dripping from her voice.  "I swear, both dragons have territories in the hundreds of square longspans, yet they spat over what amounts to a high ridge that's a good spot to bask, which is more than large enough to accommodate five dragons.  I spanked both of them for being silly and declared the disputed territory common ground.  They both share it."

      "Not a bad solution," he said appreciatively.

      "Thank you.  I'm so glad my decisions meet with your approval," she teased.

      "Maybe I'll try to take over your job, Sapphire," he said tauntingly.

      "You?  The Were-cat who hates responsibility, wants my job?  Tell you what, little friend, I'll give it to you.  I'd like to see how well you handle it."

      "No thanks," he laughed.  "When you've had the world set squarely on your shoulders, you tend to shy away from anything that even remotely resembles duty," he told her.

      "I can imagine.  I'll be there right around sunset, little friend.  Oh, do me a favor and don't tell the Selani I'm coming.  I want to see what they do."

      Tarrin laughed.  "Alright, I won't, at least all of them except Allia and Allyn.  They can keep a secret.  It should be interesting, that's for sure."

      "It probably will be.  I'll see you then, alright?"

      "Alright.  Good journey.  See you when you get here."

      "Watch for me."

      She broke contact, and Tarrin had to grin a little.  Sapphire's appearance at the camp was going to be very interesting.  Nothing else she said was a real surprise, but her coming here was rather interesting news.  Tarrin suddenly couldn't wait for her to arrive.  If the Selani thought he was bad, they just needed to wait until they met some of Allia's other, more interesting friends.

      The sun started peeking over the eastern horizon, to Tarrin's back, and he leaned on his paws again and pondered on the possibilities for the day, debating how to best approach the Selani Priestess and get his point across without getting into trouble with Fara'Nae, how he was going to find out what was going on between Allia's parents, and what he was going to do about Jasana.  But that would have to wait until he saw her.  How she acted was going to heavily affect how he dealt with her.  The Holy Mother had said she was dealing with it, and he'd need her advice and guidance before taking a paw in the matter himself.  He was still rather angry with her, but a night to vent had done much to cool his temper, and the knowledge that Fara'Nae was making sure that Jasana couldn't just convince herself to forget it like she did the last time was very comforting to him.  He was actually quite optomistic that maybe this time, Jasana had learned a valuable lesson, a lesson she just couldn't ignore.

      He had personal experience about how effective Fara'Nae's lessons could be.

      As if thinking about her would make her appear, her scent touched his nose as the morning wind suddenly kicked up, going in the wrong direction, which wasn't an unusual phenomenon early in the morning.  He sat up but didn't turn around, waiting to see what she did, and besides, her scent touched off a new spat of anger in him, an anger he quickly moved to suppress.  He didn't want to have a conniption out in the open where the Selani could see it.  He waited for a long moment, until he sensed her standing right beside him.  He looked over at her--even seated, his head was above hers--and was sincerely surprised at how she looked.  Her eyes were red and sunken, as if she'd been crying for quite a long while, and her face was sallow and her expression both terrified and haunted.  She stood there wringing her paws to her chest, her tail drooping almost limply behind her, dragging the ground, looking at him with such a desperately fearful and pained look that it almost made him sick at himself.  He looked into her eyes cooly, aloofly, trying to gauge what he was seeing, whether she was just faking it, but then her jaw started trembling, and she suddenly burst into fits of wailful sobbing.  She stumbled forward and literally fell into his arms, and he gathered her up as she clung to him tightly, desperately, as if seeking both solace and forgiveness within his embrace.

      Despite everything, she was still his daughter, and he found his anger at her melt away as he heard her cry.  There was no way she could engineer that; Jasana was good at stretching the truth and acting to make others do what she wanted, but this kind of feigned emotional response was beyond her capability.  It seemed that Fara'Nae's lesson was harsh, poignant, and highly effective.  Tarrin put a paw on her back, covering almost her entire back, and it reminded him extremely small his children were compared to him, how small and young and vulnerable.  A strong wave of fatherly protectiveness welled up in him, parental duty, and he comforted his child without words, in subtle, gentle, intimate ways that only his children would sense and understand.  It was never their father's way to be overt about showing tender emotion, at least in public.  Jasana seemed to sense his forgiveness in his touch and manner, and it caused the majority of her wracking sobs to ease.  She settled down quite a bit, but still clung to him tightly, burying her face in his shoulder and chest, wrapping her tail around his arm as his paw continued to rest lightly, lovingly over her back, surrounding her with the sense and scent of him.

      It was quite a while, well after sunrise, before her grip on him eased, as her needle-like little claws finally extracted themselves from his skin.  Her fit of weeping had ended some time before, and she had wanted nothing more than to be held and comforted.  "I was stupid," she said in a near-whisper.  "I can't believe I did that, Papa."

      "You did," he said pointedly.

      "I'm sorry," she said with utter and complete sincerity.  "I never wanted to hurt Eron."

      "But it happened, cub," he told her with gentle focus.  "Every time you start thinking about ways to get around the rules or make things the way you want them, you should remember what happened to Eron, and ask yourself if it's worth it.  There are some things, cub, that you can never live with.  Trust me.  I know."

      "I always trust you, Papa," she said with innocent confidence.

      "Then start listening to me.  I'm not telling you things just to irritate you, cub.  I'm speaking from experience.  I don't want you to have to learn these lessons the same way I did.  I don't want to see you saddled with that kind of pain, see it change you like it did me and Mist.  You don't have to look far to see it, Jasana.  Just look into Mist's eyes the next time you forget what it can be like to live with such pain."

      She was silent a long moment, her tiny little claws kneading against his skin rhythmically.  "I will," she finally said.

      Perfectly played, my child, Fara'Nae's voice touched him.  Perfectly played.

      Tarrin didn't respond to that.  He wasn't trying to manipulate his daughter, he was trying to help make her see the truth Fara'Nae had laid out before her.

      But her commendation did bring him some hope in one regard; it told him that finally, Jasana was starting to understand the danger she posed because of her behavior.  The episode with turning him Were hadn't worked because nothing negative came about because of it, at least to her.  This time, this time something very bad happened, but something that could have been much worse.

      As Fara'Nae said, it was the object lesson Jasana needed to learn from her mistakes.

      He doubted it was going to radically change her.  Jasana was too stubborn for that.  But he hoped that it would teach her that there was such a thing as going too far.  He could endure her scheming nature so long as she realized that there was a place that she'd better not go.

      Tarrin held her for a little while longer, time passed in silence, and then he patted her on her back.  "Come on, cub.  Allia's probably wondering what happened to you, and it's time for breakfast."

      Sniffling a little bit, Jasana pulled away from him, frantically scrubbing at her face with the backs of her white-furred paws.  "I am a little hungry," she admitted.  "I just hope they don't have any more of that disgusting lizard meat."

      "I think there's some sukk left over from last night," he assured her.

      He carried her back to the camp, not quite willing to let go of her yet.  She'd had her punishment, and now it was time to remind her that she was indeed loved.  He wondered absently what Fara'Nae had done, what she had showed her, but in another way, he was glad he didn't know.  He knew it had to have been rather severe.  He remembered his own education in that regard, and it still made him shiver from time to time in the dark of night.

      Allia and Allyn showed constraint when they returned to their tent, and Tarrin hugged his son briefly before they ate breakfast.  Allia gave them a breakfast of sukk eggs and the oddly tasty flatbread that the Selani made out of a grain that grew wild in certain parts of the desert, a bread that had a slightly nutty taste.  The only milk-giving animals the Selani kept were goats, and Allia's tribe didn't have any, so there was no milk, cheese, or butter.  Why they didn't have any was a mystery to Tarrin, but they didn't.  So where most races used bread and cheese as a staple, the Selani used bread and meat.  There was anything if not an abundance of meat roaming around on the blistering plains of the Desert of Swirling Sands.

      Surprising that what most considered a barren wasteland was actually a teeming ecosystem with a surprising abundance of life.  The only thing thats made life harsh were the temperatures and the fact that one had to dig for water.  And the predators, but that was a different issue, for they had nothing to do with the environment.  It was strange also to think that this entire area used to be a lush grassland, much like the fertile plains where the Free Duchies had their city-states.  But the Blood War had changed that.

      If anything was a good indication of the almost apocolyptic nature of the Blood War, that was it.  It was a war that not only wiped out entire races, it laid waste to the very land itself, leaving behind gaping wounds that would never heal.

      "I know that you're done with the sukk, brother," Allia told him.  "What do you intend to do now?"

      "I'm stuck here at least until tomorrow," he told her.  "There's somebody coming to see us."

      "Who?"

      He looked around at them.  "This can't leave this tent," he warned.  "But Sapphire is on her way here."

      Allyn's eyes widened, and Allia laughed lightly.  "We should warn my father," she said.

      He shook his head.  "She told me not to," he warned.  "I think she wants to see how the Selani are going to react."  He looked to Allia.  "Have the Selani seen any dragons?"

      She nodded.  "Not our tribe, but two other tribes of our clan have.  They're from our legends, so legend tells us not to bother them.  We avoid them when we see them."

      "Well, they're about to get a legend right in their faces," he said bluntly.

      "Sapphire is coming!" Eron said with excitement.  They knew she was a dragon, and they also knew that she liked to dote on Tarrin's children, and both of his older children were very fond of her.  She would even perform magic for them, to both educate and entertain, starting them on the path of the magic-user by piquing their curiosity about it.

      "Not a word, cub," Tarrin told him quickly and firmly, thrusting a clawed finger in his face.  "If I find out you told someone, I'll take you home and let Mist tan your hide."

      "I won't tell a soul, Papa!" he said quickly.

      Jasana yawned broadly, her ears laying back reflexively as she showed off her impressive fangs.  "I think I'm going to go to sleep," she said wearily, leaning up against her father.

      --She didn't sleep at all last night,-- Allia informed him, using the Selani hand code.  --All she did was cry.--

      "That's fine," he told her mildly, while giving a knowing nod to Allia.  "Are you still hungry?"

      "No," she replied in a little-girl voice.  "I just want to go to sleep, that's all."

      "Then off with you, cub," he told her.  "We'll clear out so nobody bothers you."  Tarrin tucked his daughter in quite tenderly on one of the soft mats, and she fell asleep almost instantly.  The adults all looked at each other briefly, then they slipped out of the tent with a stealth that only Were-cats and Selani could achieve.

      Allyn had to bow out from them as soon as they left the tent, as he had certain duties to accomplish, which generally entailed working with Selani to come to understand how things worked around the camp.  It looked like he was going to be working with the shepards for a while, probably to be educated about the behavior and activity of the sukk.  That was something that he had to know, for everyone took their turn watching the flocks, even Kallan.  Tarrin only managed to reign in Eron for about ten minutes before he could simply no longer contain himself, and went careening around the camp, asking everyone questions.  Tarrin and Allia walked aimlessly about the camp, and they talked.  Tarrin listened as Allia told him, in some detail, everything that had happened since they'd come back to the desert, about the resistance that Allyn had encountered from the camp, and the general disapproval she had received from her father over Allyn and Kedaira.  Allia hadn't had a very easy time of it, but he knew his sister, and her resolve was absolute.  She loved Allyn, and she wasn't about to give him up for anything.  The other members of the tribe probably didn't understand how much she loved the Sha'Kar, because she was much more reserved out in public than she was in private.  She was much more open here with the Selani, he'd seen, but she was still somewhat reserved because she had the honor of her father to maintain.  That meant that she had to be a proper and respectable daughter.  That, probably, was the core of the problem, he mused.  Since Allia was next in line for her father's position, they didn't want a future leader to be married to an outlander, even if he was related by blood to the Selani.  He wasn't a brother, he was more like a cousin.  Then again, if Allyn wasn't so radically different from the Selani, they may have accepted him a bit better.  A pacifist who relied on his magical powers and was openly soft was an anathema to the Selani.

      Perhaps not just that, he pondered.  Maybe it was the entire situation.  Allia wasn't so, wild, before she left for the Tower.  Maybe they felt that Allia had changed too much while she was out among the outlanders, probably the first Selani to spend so much continuous time away from the desert.  Maybe they were worried that she had changed, and their resistance to her husband and pet were just the first signs of it.  They would probably say something about Tarrin as well, but Tarrin had brands, and that made him untouchable in their eyes.  They were a symbol of acceptance from Fara'Nae, not the Selani, and since he was favored in the eyes of their goddess, they wouldn't dare doubt her wisdom in accepting him.  As he thought before, it all came down to getting brands on Allyn.  Once he had good brands, all this flap would vanish.  Allia's doubtful judgement at accepting him would become mysterious wisdom in seeing his potential, and her taking of Kedaira of a pet would be forgotten, since Tarrin had straightened all of that out.  Once Allyn was branded and she'd been home a few years, things would return to something approaching normal.

      That didn't concern Tarrin too much.  Allyn was utterly smitten with Allia, and he would walk through fire if that was what it took to stay with her.  That was what made them such a good match.  They were very different from one another, but they shared an intense love that would conquer all of their other little problems.  With a little prodding here and there from certain involved parties, if it became necessary, but it probably woudn't be so.  Allyn would not give up, and the Selani, no matter how much they hated him, would respect him for that tenacity.  Allyn would show them a tremendous amount of fortitude and determination, and those would help them accept the Sha'Kar as he became more and more educated about the Selani and his place among them.  He'd only been with them six months, and it was a nod to his intelligence that he had come that far in such a short time.  He was trying to learn an entire culture, and a very complicated one at that.  The Selani only seemed simple and direct people.  Their culture was based on one concept, honor, but things got very complicated after looking past that singular concept and one delved into the operation of Selani society.  Much like the Sha'Kar language had multiple levels and forms, the Selani were similarly layered, where personality and motivation and ambition interacted with the need for honor in amazingly subtle ways.  Status was everything to the Selani, just as it was to the Wikuni and Sha'Kar, their blood-relatives, and what went on concerning one's status was one of the things that made things tricky.  Honor had to be given in the eyes of others, though one could easily lose honor by one's own feelings about the subject.  Many Selani took honor from themselves for mistakes made when they were the only witnesses.  So, the need for community approval made Selani society remarkably complex.  For within the community, one had to remember that every member of it was him or herself an individual.

      He'd learned that lesson from Var and Denai.  They were both Selani, and were strictly faithful to its society.  But that common interest was just about the only thing they shared.  Var was cautious, careful, sensible, and very logical.  Denai was a wild girl, given to rash, impulsive decisions and possessing of a fiery nature that seemed quite un-Selani.  But her belief in the Selani culture made her just as Selani as Var, and to an outsider, they would seem to be quite similar to one another.

      After a little while, they were joined by Kallan and Kaira.  Tarrin and Allia slowed down a bit to allow Allia's mother to keep up, and he was reminded again at the wide variations in Selani.  Kaira was another of those strange Selani that didn't seem very Selani, but was in fact Selani to the roots of her hair and the tips of her fingers and toes.  She was a delightfully upbeat woman, always quick to smile or laugh, which were both unusual given that Selani saw it to be unseemly to smile or laugh in the face of those not close friends, but her infectiously positive nature seemed to override Selani custom.  That, or her extroverted personality made everyone seem to be a friend to her, in which case her public displays of smiles and laughing wouldn't be seen as insulting.  It seemed that Kaira was an exception to that rule, much as Denai was an exception to the rule that Selani weren't crazy.  Her husband Kallan, on the other hand, was the absolute picture of a proper clan-king.  He was almost stiffly proper at all times, haughty in his own way, and he wore an expression of grave alertness, a kind of grim watchfulness one might expect from a ruler always looking for problems or trouble that would inconvenience his people.  From what he'd seen, Kallan was an outstanding clan-king, intensely loyal to his people and doing whatever it took to resolve disputes and move his clan towards prosperity.  He took personal responsibility for the welfare of everyone under him, and that made him quite approachable by the rest of the clan.

      They walked and talked of little things, as Allia's parents continued in quietly grilling him about his own family and getting his point of view of things that their daughter had told them, as well as delicately not asking about what had happened last night.  Tarrin saw that their questions were keenly to the point, displaying their intelligence at seeing to the heart of the matter and asking him only questions that really mattered.  He didn't choose his words when he answered those questions, he gave them the full, blunt truth, even when it hurt his position in their eyes, and let them draw their own conclusions.

      They reciprocated, up to a point, describing the daily life of the tribe from a mundane point of view, which Tarrin rather enjoyed.  He knew a great deal about that from his many talks with Allia, but hearing them again from a different point of view put a new perspective on things.  It also showed him that Kallan treated Kaila with a great deal of deference, obviously impressed by her quick mind and willing to listen to her advice.

      It went beyond that, he saw as they walked along.  Kallan was...protective of her.  He watched him, watched how he acted around her, and realized that it was so.  And that answered his question.  The Holy Mother had yet to heal Kaila because she wanted to teach Kallan a lesson about independence.  Kaila was injured, but she was still more than capable of handling herself.  Kallan didn't seem to want to think that she was capable of living without his attention and aid.  The only thing she needed help with was keeping up with the tribe while it was on the move.  For everything else, she was probably just as capable as any other Selani, even if she only had one eye and one hand.  But Kallan could not see that, or maybe he didn't want to see it.  He hovered over her, trying to coddle her, doing things for her that she was more than capable of doing herself.  Kaila seemed a little exasperated with her husband for his behavior, but didn't actively stop him or chide him for it.  She probably didn't want to bring any dishonor to him by calling him down, even in private.  So she simply endured it and waited for him to see what others had probably known all along.

      Well, there was a way to deal with that.  It wasn't exactly interfering, so he didn't feel that he shouldn't put his paw in.

      "I'm afraid I have some things to do," Kallan sighed, looking at them.  "Let me help you, my wife," he said, offering his arm to her.

      "I think I'll borrow Kaila for a while, kirza," Tarrin said, putting a paw on her shoulder.  "If that's alright with you."

      "What did you have in mind, Tarrin?" she asked, looking up at him with her single eye.

      "Well, I have some more questions, and Allia and Kallan are going to be busy," he shrugged.  "Besides, I'd like to get to know my deshaida's parents better."

      "Well, you have my consent, but do be careful," he said sternly.  "In her condition--"

      Tarrin snorted in a manner that no human or Selani could, giving Kallan an absent, almost irreverent glance.  "Her only condition is having too much patience," he retorted, then he gave a short swear.  "I knew I should have put a leash on that cub!" he announced, looking to where Eron had his entire arm, up to the shoulder, down a hole just on the edge of the camp.  There was no telling what kind of poisonous beastie he was trying to fish out of that hole.

      "Eron!" Tarrin barked, rushing over towards his cub.  "Let go of it right now!"

      He missed the sudden hot look Kallan gave his back, as well as Kaila's speculative pursed lips and Allia's slight, knowing smile.

      By the time he got to the hole, Eron had already pulled out his paw, and it wasn't holding a poisonous critter, as he had feared.  Instead, it was holding a very, very small, very very thin and bedraggled mammal of some sort.  It had the same markings as a jackal, but had a much narrower muzzle and larger, triangular ears.  It was obviously only a baby, but it was shaking and jerking about in a manner that hinted that it was ill.

      "What is it, Papa?" Eron asked breathlessly, holding up the weak little animal.  Tarrin looked at it more closely, and saw that it wasn't a jackal.  It didn't smell like a canine...its scent was more vulpine than canine.  It was some breed of fox, one he'd never seen before.

      "It's a desert fox," Kaila said as she managed to reach them.  "Looks like a kit.  Probably abandoned."

      "Why would its mama abandon it?"

      "She may have been killed, child," she said simply.  "Or forced away.  Or the kit could be sick.  Fox mothers won't raise a kit if they think it's got a disease."

      Eron frowned, looking at the palsied baby with strange intensity.  Its head shook awkwardly, as it seemed to try to yip at Eron, its paws wobbling as it tried to struggle in his grasp.  Tarrin looked closer and saw that it did have fox-like markings, but where a forest fox would be silver or red, this was had a tawny kind of mottled coat, camoflauge in the desert, similar to a jackal, complete with dark stripes down each of its flanks.  Its underbelly was white, and the tips of its tufted, large ears and its bushy tail were black, just like a red fox.  Tarrin looked at it and realized that it was terrified at being in the clutches of what it considered to be a large predator, but he also saw that its palsied shaking was not natural.

      "It's sick," Tarrin concluded, looking at it.  "You'd better put it back in the hole, cub."

      "No!" he said with sudden intensity.  "If it's sick, then you should heal it, Papa!"

      "I can't do that, cub," he sighed.  "I can't heal sickness.  Only a Priest can do that.  It's beyond my power, as both a Sorcerer and a Druid.  Only Priests can cure sickness."

      "Then let's take it to the Priestess," he declared.

      "She wouldn't heal it, cubling," Kaila said gently.  "It's against the course of nature.  It's not our place to interfere with what the Holy Mother has decreed should come to pass."

      "Then she's mean!" he declared vehemently.

      "Eron, calm down," Tarrin said soothingly.  "Don't get worked up.  You've been taught about things like this, cub.  It's best for everyone involved if you just put the animal back where you found it.  There's nothing we can do for it."

      "There is!" he shouted.  "I know you can heal it, Papa!  You can do anything!"

      Tarrin was a bit at a loss here.  "Eron, I'm not that powerful," he said with a bit of irritation.  "Sorcery can't cure diseases, and neither can Druidic magic.  It's just beyond us."

      "You haven't even tried!" he accused, holding the shaking fox kit towards Tarrin aggressively.

      Giving his cub a stern look, he pushed on Eron's arm until the cub was forced to put the infant fox on the ground.  It really was a pathetic-looking thing, all bedraggled and dirty, nothing but skin and bones and trying to get up, but its uncontrollable shaking made that quite impossible.  Tarrin couldn't see why Eron would get so worked up over it.  Eron was a Were-cat, and he understood that sometimes, they just had to let nature do what nature did.  The baby fox was obviously very sick, and it would be best for everyone involved if it were simply allowed to pass away.  It would be impossible for it to live like it was, and it would be better for it to die in peace rather than slowly starve to death, as it had obviously been doing.

      Curious, though, that no matter how obviously sick the little animal was, it was still trying to get up.  It was a spunky little thing, Tarrin had to give it that.

      Tarrin looked at his cub, and saw a steely determination there that he had never seen before.  What had gotten up Eron's shirt about this little fox?  For the first time, Tarrin saw something of Mist in their son.  Mist shared that dogged, iron-willed determination he could see in Eron's eyes.  He knew that no amount of arguing, persuading, or even ordering was going to change Eron's mind about this.

      "Alright, cub, I'll try," he acceded.  "But we both agree right here and now that if I can't do anything for it, you don't protest when I put it back."  Where he could silently and painlessly put the little animal out of its misery, where Eron wouldn't see it.  He didn't want the little baby fox to suffer any more than it obviously had.  It would be more humane to kill it, and least if he did it, it would be quick, painless, and the fox would be at peace.

      "That's fine, Papa, because I know you can heal it.  You can do anything," he stated quite confidently, sitting down cross-legged and wrapping his little black tail around his legs.

      Tarrin knelt and put his paw over the fox kit, who gave a discordant yipping cry and tried to struggle out from under his paw, but simply couldn't overcome its shaking.  Tarrin had seen palsy before, but never as aggravated or as severe as he'd seen it in this little animal.  "Stop it," he said irritably, which startled the fox kit so much it actualy subsided, as Tarrin had addressed it in a manner it could understand.  It still wobbled and convulsed uncontrollably, but it wasn't as aggravated as it had been before.  Obviously, if the kit was trying to move, its palsy was amplified by the attempt.

      Setting his will against the Weave, he spun out a weave of healing, a spell that sent fingers of probing flows into the fox kit and assessed its physical condition.  The poor thing was starved, cannibalizing its own muscle tissue in order to provide the energy to keep itself alive, and severely dehydrated.  If Eron hadn't found it, it would have been dead by sundown.  Tarrin looked beyond its physical state, searching deep into it in order to try to figure out what had caused its shaking sickness, so he'd know whether or not he could do anything about it.

      Deeper and deeper he delved into the little fox's body, until he was in tune with the very way its brain and nervous system operated...and that was where the problem was.  The commands the kit's brain were trying to send to its muscles were getting messed up along the way, somehow.  Tarrin looked through its nervous system again, saw that the brain seemed to be working the right way, but what was getting out of its spine was a garbled mess.  He backtracked, observing the problem, going up its spinal cord, until he found himself again in the little fox's brain.  Something about its brain was causing the instructions to become garbled, even though the commands were being created properly.  He searched again, and again, then one more time, a little annoyed that he couldn't find the problem.  But one thing was for sure, it wasn't being caused by a disease.  This was some kind of defect or disorder, something that he actually could fix.  Sorcery couldn't cure diseases, but this wasn't exactly a disease.  It was a condition, and if he could find what was causing it, he could correct the problem.

      He concentrated his attention to where the spinal cord connected to the brain, then worked backwards.  He moved carefully and slowly, observing everything that was going on, doing his best to exclude autonomic operations such as breathing.  That was a clue, he realized.  The animal's autonomic functions were working properly, it was just motor control that was being affected.

      It took him almost ten minutes before he found the problem, a mass of malformed brain matter that was standing between the fox's motor control area of the brain and the brain stem, a very small area in a very small animal.  He'd simply overlooked it the last three times he looked, because it was so small.  Those impulses had to pass through this defective brain mass, and that was where the signals were getting garbled.  A tumor of some kind, but not a malignant one.

      Easily corrected.

      Weaving flows of Earth, Water, and Divine, the flows of healing, Tarrin snapped them down and released them into the fox's body, right into its brain.  The weave was one of exceeding precision, and it performed its assigned task with the careful precision of a blacksmith etching designs onto a masterpiece.  The rest of the fox's brain wasn't even touched by the weave as it did its work, attacking the malformed brain matter and breaking it down, the reassembling it to resemble the healthy tissue surrounding it.

      The fox seemed to shudder as the spell did its work, then its palsied shaking stopped.  Tarrin carefully looked over the work of his spell, making sure that the healed area was indeed healthy and operating as it should, and he was satisfied with the result.  The abnormality was corrected, and it should stop the palsy from which the fox kit was suffering.

      Tarrin blinked, and then calmly pulled his paw away.  The fox kit was laying there, perfectly still, panting a bit.  It wasn't shaking.  It then started moving, putting its paws under it, then started slinking towards the hole, giving yip-like growls in the direction of the two Were-cats and the Selani, trying to bluff its way to the safety of its hole.

      "You did it, Papa!" Eron announced happily, reaching down and snatching up the little fox kit, which growled threateningly and tried to bite Eron, which the cub completely ignored.  "I knew you could do it!"

      "I thought you said you couldn't cure diseases," Kaila mused, giving him a slight smile.

      "I can't.  It wasn't a sickness, it was a defect in the fox's brain," he answered.  "That, I can do something about."

      Eron was hugging the little fox kit, not even feeling its needle-like teeth as the fox bit him on the paw.  He held it out to arm's reach and grinned up at it.  "Can I keep him, Papa?" he asked breathlessly.  "His mama abandoned him, and he needs someone to take care of him!"

      "Her," he corrected absently.

      "Please?" he begged.  "You said last month we could get a cat!  Why can't I have this instead of a cat?"

      Tarrin looked at his cub, and saw that same look of determination.  Eron wasn't about to take no for an answer, and to be honest, Tarrin wasn't entirely opposed to the idea.  He could simply tell the fox what it needed to know, so controlling it wouldn't be a problem.  Besides, Tarrin admired the little animal's spunk.  And in a way, he really couldn't say no to Eron.  His son rarely asked him for anything, content with what he got and never complaining about the extra attention that was always afforded to Jasana because of who and what she was.  If Eron wanted to keep the fox, if it made him happy, then he saw no reason against it.

      "So I did," he admitted.  "And the fox is just as good as a cat, as far as I'm concerned.  I'll have to ask the fox, though.  If it doesn't want to go with you, then that's that, cub."

      "Alright," he said, hastily handing the fox kit over to Tarrin.  He took it in his paw, ignoring its little teeth as it tried to bite through the thick skin of his pad, and then opened it.  Tarrin's paw was so huge that the entire kit fit easily on the pad on his palm, standing there trying to tear a chunk of the thick black pad away with its little teeth.  It was certainly a fearless little fox, Tarrin mused with a half smile.  He centered himself on the animal, forming an image and an intent in his mind, then reached out and made a connection to the endless energy of the All.  It read his intent and saw his image, and then formed a bridge of awareness between him and the fox.

      It wasn't easy.  The fox was a baby, an infant, and she had very little grasp of the concepts of communication.  Tarrin had to communicate with her at a primal level, but it seemed to work.  He simply told the fox that her mother was gone, and she was free to come and live with Eron if that was alright with her, that Eron would feed her and care for her and protect her from predators.  The fox absorbed that with her infant comprehension and replied that if her mother really was gone, then she wouldn't mind.

      There shouldn't be too many problems, he reasoned.  The fox was just a baby, but it was very close to weaning, and after asking her, he found out that her mother had been introducing her to meat.  That meant that it wouldn't be any trouble to switch her over.  All it would take would be instructions about where she could relieve herself, and she'd be no problem at all.  And in a way, he sort of liked the idea of having an animal around the house that everyone couldn't talk to.  It would seem more like a pet that way.

      Tarrin took a moment to explain some things to the kit.  Things like them not being enemies, the kit was safe and would be cared for, and they'd be moving to a place much less hot than this, where game was abundant.  The fox didn't mind, in fact she seemed rather enthusiastic about the idea.  Tarrin had an image of a miniature Kedaira, a powerful, super-efficient predator wreaking havoc on the ecosystem around his house, but he discounted that quickly.  Even if the fox got big, the only thing she'd really threaten would be rodents, rabbits, and perhaps birds.  And the Goddess only knew, there were more than enough of them around his house.  Besides, she hadn't really been taught to hunt yet, which was what her mother would have done.  Eron would probably end up being the one to teach her that, and that meant that she'd be more or less as good as Eron was, who admittedly was quite a good hunter even at his tender age.

      "She's alright with it, cub," he told his son calmly, handing the kit back, who was no longer trying to tear chunks out of Tarrin's paw.  The Were-cat child took the little kit gently, and she gave a short yipping sound, not quite a bark but not quite a whine, then licked him on the face.

      "A new pet, eh?" Kaila smiled.  "That's not going to cause a problem?"

      Tarrin shook his head.  "I've been meaning to get one anyway," he admitted.  "I was thinking more along the lines of a cat, but the fox will do."

      "Rodent problems?"

      He shook his head again.  "Mice can't get into my house.  It's a magic thing," he explained.  "I've just wanted a pet.  My last one turned out to be a dragon, and I kind of miss having one around.  A pet, not a dragon," he corrected quickly.

      "A dragon?" Kaila asked in surprise.  "However did you manage that?"

      "It's a long story," he told her.  "I'll explain it to you during the midday rest."

      Eron decided to name the fox kit Sandy.  This in itself didn't seem to Tarrin to be a very imaginative name, but then again, the one who named it was only two years old, so he guessed he shouldn't have expected anything poetic or clever.  Even though he was very much grounded in his Were-cat nature, even he tended to overlook and forget certain aspects of their kind, such as the true ages of his children.  It was easy to forget that they were so very, very young.  Even though they had the physical maturity and the mental ability of children around seven or eight, they still only had two years of experience, and he'd noticed that that definitely made a difference.  Both of his cubs would seem very immature to human children their own size.  It would only take ten years for them to grow up, where it was more like seventeen or eighteen for humans, and for them, every day had the possibility to create a significant impact on them.

      Jasana had learned that.

      "I noticed that you noticed my husband's attitude," she remarked lightly.

      "You should step on him, Kaila," he told her.  "I'd strangle Jesmind if she tried to treat me that way."

      "He means well, Tarrin," she said dismissively.  "I've been trying to educate him, but he's rather stubborn."

      "Just like his daughter," Tarrin said absently.

      "It's love, Tarrin," she chuckled.  "He loves me, and he worries about me.  I think if he'd married me when I was like this, he wouldn't treat me so, so--"

      "Like you're an invalid?"

      She nodded.  "He'll come around, shida."

      "He'd better.  I'm not leaving until you're whole, and I plan on leaving tomorrow."

      Kaila laughed.  "What are you going to do, hit him over the head?"

      "If that's what it takes," he said grimly, which only made her laugh harder.  Then he pused his lips slightly.  "Actually, I might be able to provoke it out of him today.  How would you like a few fighting lessons?" he asked.

      "I'm trained in the Dance, shida."

      "That may be, but Kallan's never seen you fight like this, has he?"

      She was about to say something, then she laughed.  "Very clever!" she commended.  "Nobody else in the clan will spar with me, because my keshida has forbade it."  Keshida was the Selani term for husband.  "But you've never heard that, have you?"

      "I still haven't," he said pointedly.  "My father had a stiff leg just like yours, and he was still more than handful for six men in a fight.  You'd be amazed how fast someone with a stiff knee can move, if he's had practice with it.  I remember watching him move, and we'll make a show out of showing it to you later.  Kallan should run out in a tizzy--"

      Kaila laughed.  "That's a fair description."

      Tarrin smiled slightly.  "But it won't be his business.  If tries to use his authority, I'll just smack the notion out of him.  He'll learn very fast that I don't take orders from anyone."

      "Our daughter has described Were-cat society to us," she nodded.  "That's your way, isn't it?"

      He nodded.  "Nobody here can make me obey them, so in my mind, it means I rule all of you.  Because I can definitely make you do what I say.  Well, everyone but Allia, but that'd be a coin toss as to which of us would win."

      "A very odd society, if my observation doesn't dishonor you," she said quickly

      "No offense taken Kaila.  It's the way we are.  We don't get offended if people think it's strange, because to others, it is strange.  They don't have our instincts, so they just can't understand it the way we do."

      "Why do it later?" she asked.  "It's still some hours until it gets hot.  We can do it now."

      Tarrin glanced at Eron, who was scratching his new pet behind the ears with doe-eyed wonder.  Jasana was asleep, and Kallan was off attending to clan business, meaning that he couldn't get in their hair until they'd gotten off to a good start.

      "You have a good point," he agreed.  "Eron."

      "Yes, Papa?"

      "You can wander around, but stay inside the camp's perimeter, and don't get under anyone's feet."

      "Alright.  I just want to play with Sandy anyway."

      "Well, move off a bit, cub.  Me and Kaira here are going to need a little room."

      "Alright."

      After Eron moved to a safe distance and sat down near a scrub bush, attracting Kedaira's attention, who ambled over and inspected the fox kit with a few prods of her snout, Tarrin and Kaira stood side by side.  At first, he was just going to talk to her a while to make it look like he was teaching her something, but Kaira wouldn't have that.  She made him actually teach her what he was talking about, and he ended up describing how his father had learned how to move on his stiff leg, how he kept it bent and kind of shuffled along in a rolling gait that let him cover some impressive distance.  It had never failed to cause his father pain when he did it, but it was very effective, allowing him to fight using his sword more than long enough to dispatch his adversary.  A pensioned Sulasian Ranger was a nightmare in a fight, with some twenty-odd years of experience under his belt.  He even copied his shuffling stance for Kaira, slithering along in the dusty soil and demonstrating how quickly he had learned to move, even on a partially lamed leg.

      "Since your stiff leg is on the same side as your missing hand, that would be a good leading side," Tarrin noted.  "That puts your good leg where it can give you the most maneuverability.  That also puts your power on your good side."

      "You were well trained," she said appreciatively.  "A proper analysis."

      "Allia didn't play around when she taught me, Kaira."

      "Obviously."

      "How much mobility do you have in your knee?"

      "I can bend it about halfway," she replied.

      "That's more than enough, as long as you're careful not to get into a position where you have to duck or squat.  At least where you can't do it from the waist, that is."

      She nodded and backed up a few paces, then practiced with the shuffling style of moving a little bit.  She picked it up quite easily, probably because Tarrin figured she had thought about it herself.  "Alright, come at me," she said with a teasing smile.  "I think I can take you."

      "Famous last words," Tarrin said with a narrow-eyed smile, spreading his feet and hunkering down into his wide-pawed, back-arched fighting stance, a form that caused his dangerous paws to lean forward over his middle and legs, which was where most enemies would attack someone of his size.

      Just because she didn't have a left hand didn't mean that she couldn't use her left arm.  Tarrin noticed that immediately, as she actually lightly jabbed at him with it as she shuffled in and out, proving she had quite a bit of mobility.  But her injury still slowed her, and her missing hand made her left arm shorter than her right, meaning that there would be very little force behind any blow coming from her left.  Tarrin let her practice, slapping away her left arm and right hand consistently, backing up or sliding forward to simulate a retreating or advancing foe, even retaliated with a few slowed swipes of his massive paws, giving her a feel for defending.  He hunkered down even more, retracted his claws, and tried to imitate a Selani, using the same forms and trying to move with the same speed, putting his arms more at a level of a much smaller Selani, at least trying to give her something familiar with which to practice.

      At least, it was practice until she kicked him.  He never saw it coming, never even considered it a possibility, until she locked her stiff knee and rotated into one of those spinning kicks of which the Selani were so fond.  He was so surprised by it that he didn't even think to try to dodge, and the sole of her boot smacked him smartly in the side of the head.  Despite the fact that she was nowhere near as strong as him, she hit him in the head, and the raw impact of the blow was enough to make him see stars.  She had managed to come around with some considerable momentum, and that gave her foot some respectable power when it struck him.  Tarrin staggered back and shook his head to clear the cobwebs, getting the ringing out of his ears just in time to swat her foot aside as she tried to kick him again.  A little irritated that she struck him, his Were-cat pride stung by being injured by a partially disabled enemy, Tarrin got a little bit more aggressive than he intended.  He turned on her with a flat-eyed snarl and rose up to his full height, then darted in to smack her to the ground and reassert his dominance over her.  But Kaila turned out to be a surprisingly slippery foe, slithering away from him with a grace and mobility that was impressive given that she had a lamed leg.  He got a little more aggravated when he failed to land a blow against her, but then his anger dimmed and his warrior's analytical mind took back over.  He was impressed by her, that even with her injury, she could manage to avoid him when he meant to hit her.  She was much slower than other Selani, for she was lamed, but she was well trained and was aware of her lack of speed, compensating for it as best she could.  She had the advantage of having seen Tarrin fight once before, so she was familiar with how fast and powerful he was, where Tarrin could be nothing but surprised with whatever Kaila showed him.

      Tarrin discovered very quickly that Kaila's legs were much more dangerous than her arms.  She could kick with either foot, and despite having a stiff knee, she was more than capable of launching her feet at him from almost any angle.  She was as limber as any Selani, meaning she could form a straight line with her legs and kick absolutely straight up, giving her the flexibility required to keep him guessing, and her long, long legs eliminated Tarrin's advantage in reach.  Her legs were as long as his arms, meaning that he couldn't keep her outside her own reach but within his own.  To get close enough to hit her, he had to put himself in harm's way.  Kaila's feet became her primary weapons, forcing the Were-cat to evade or block a rapid series of lightning-fast kicks at his head, sides, chest, legs, and ankles.  She ranged her feet up and down, far and wide, using her feet and shins to block as well as attack, kicking aside Tarrin's paws as they reached for her--which he allowed, not wanting to take advantage of his overwhelming strength advantage, behaving like he had normal strength--then reversing her momentum with impressive speed and turning a block into a counterattack.

      Tarrin got over his short peeve and started taking Kaila seriously.  She may be injured, but she was definitely a capable opponent in a fight.  Were it not for his strength advantage, he'd have to really work to beat her, lame leg, missing hand, and missing eye notwithstanding.  It was obvious to him that Kaila had worked after her injury to come to terms with the limitations of her injuries, and had adjusted her fighting style to eliminate them as best she could and turn a disadvantage into an advantage.

      A very impressive woman.

      "Stop at once!" Kallan's voice roared over the dusty plain, and both of them paused to glance at him, sprinting towards them with all speed, Allia rushing up from behind.  "What do you think you're doing, Tarrin!?" he demanded as he reached them.

      "At the moment, I'm losing," he said with a slight frown.  "I can't get past her legs."

      "Are you insane?  How dare you spar with my wife when she's in this condition?" he raged, his hands drifting towards the longswords strapped to his back.

      "Well, seeing as how I haven't even touched her yet, but she's marked me a few times," he said, rubbing his jaw, "I'd say my condition is worse than hers."

      Kallan glared at him, sputtering a few times.  "She's not--"

      "Not what?" Tarrin asked, his eyes boring into the smaller Selani.  "Not capable?  If you think that, then sit down and watch.  She's almost as good as you, even with her condition," he said sharply.  "The only problem she has is the fact that you think she's made of glass.  I can assure you, kirza, your wife has more steel in her than glass."

      "I forbid it!" he shouted.

      Without batting an eye, Tarrin backpawed Kallan, sending him flying.  He landed on his back in the sandy soil, sliding a few spans before coming to a stop.  "I think you have something to learn, Kallan.  And if I have to beat you senseless to make you understand, then that's fine with me," Tarrin told him calmly as Kallan sat up, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand, giving Tarrin a dangerous glare.  "Your wife may be injured, but she's by no means disabled.  Just sit there and watch.  If you try to interfere, I think both of us will sit you back down.  The hard way."

      Kallan's eyes flashed furiously, but he never had the chance to do anything about it.  Tarrin simply raised a paw and pointed a finger at Kallan.  He reached within, through the Cat, touching the All.  It read his image and intent, and responded effortlessly.  Roots, vines, and barked tendrils suddenly erupted from the ground and quickly ensnared the Selani clan-king, thoroughly tying him up.  Tarrin asked the vines to hold onto him until he told them to let go, and they responded by getting a good grip on their victim, but not doing any injury.

      Better, Tarrin thought, to remind him that Tarrin wasn't just a Selani-trained warrior.

      "Now sit there and keep out of trouble," Tarrin told him with almost insulting dismissiveness, turning back to Allia's mother.  "Ready?"

      Kaila had a mischievious glint in her eye, sliding her feet apart again.

      With Kallan literally tied up, he had no choice but to watch as Tarrin and Kaila sparred.  Kaila continued to use her feet as her primary weapons, striking with the speed of a viper, striking at Tarrin's legs, sides, chest, and head faster than any human could punch.  Tarrin continued to defend as he tried to get used to it;  Allia kicked all the time, but she didn't use it as her sole means of attack.  This was new, different, and not a little disconcerting, forcing Tarrin to take in a form of fighting he'd never seen before and learn how to counter it.  Kaila's stiff knee seemed to have vanished as a disadvantage as she slid under his reaching paw and lifted her lamed leg up and over his arm, then slammed the sole of her boot into his cheek as he tried to knock her leg high with his arm rather than get out of the way.  To his shock, she grabbed his paw with her good hand and pulled him taut, using her grip on his arm as leverage to press her foot against his head, seeking to make him yield before she broke his neck.  Tarrin had used this very same tactic against Jegojah once, and he knew how effective it could be so long as Kaila kept her balance.  Tarrin knew the counter for this rather unconventional tactic; digging his claws into the earth beneath him and pushing against her foot with his entire body, pressing into her attack.  He had to lock the muscles in his neck to keep her from twisting his head around, but his inexorable forward movement managed to push her past her center of balance, making her either let go or risk falling down.  She let go and pushed off from his head with her foot, rolling on the ground and coming back up easily.  Tarrin shook his head once, sharply, which caused his neck to pop with a loud, rather chilling crack, then he squared off against the Selani once again, feeling he had enough familiarity with her to deal with her now.

      With more confidence, Tarrin batted aside or blocked Kaila's kicks, and saw that fighting with her would play into her strength.  Her weakness was a missing hand and a lamed leg, as well as a blind side, so he knew he had to come at her using those.  The sum of those traits dictated using grappling moves, Ungardt locks, holds, and throws, bringing her disadvantages to their most negative impacts on her ability.  A missing hand would make grabbing at him harder, and a lamed leg meant that she couldn't apply leverage against him as effectively as she could if she were whole.  The missing eye was the means by which he would get inside her dangerous feet and get within grappling range of her.

      To Kaila's shock, the Were-cat took a quick step back, the dropped down onto all fours.  Tarrin was completely comfortable thusly, and the Selani learned very fast that a Were-cat was by no means ungainly when operating on four limbs when two were much longer than the others, as she made several tentative attempts to kick him in his suddenly vulnerable head.  Tarrin slinked aside each time, moving effortlessly on his paws and feet, looking more like a cat in movement than a humanoid while he did so.  The sudden radical shift from a vertical base to a horizontal one eliminated much of Kaila's opportunity to kick at him, since now everything she could kick was at her waist level or lower.  Kaila stared at him in confusion, trying to puzzle him out, then she laughed.  "Alright, then," she declared, advancing on him.

      Kaila wasn't dumb.  She tried to get around his front, to his flank, but at the same time Tarrin tried to circle around to her blind side.  She was too smart to let that happen, so the two of them circled crazily around one another even as Kaila tried to kick his sides and head or stomp on his paws, and Tarrin tried to grab hold of her legs or whip her feet out from under her with his tail.  Both proved to be too fast for it, and both knew it was coming, so they took steps to avoid it.  Kaila knew she couldn't allow herself to be grabbed, and it was blatant after mere seconds what Tarrin was trying to do.  Their unusual dance continued for several long moments, as Kaila couldn't land any real good kicks, and Tarrin couldn't get a grip on her or get into her blind side.

      To her credit, Kaila never made a mistake, but Tarrin was just too fast for her.  He slipped under several fast kicks at his head and shoulder, then suddenly reversed momentum and literally slid on his side on the ground as Kaila tried to pull her foot back in for another strike.  He slid into her blind spot, then whipped out a clawed paw and managed to plant it right on the Selani's backside as he literally slid right under her.  Claws got an instant grip on her loose breeches, and Kaila gave a short yowl when they dug into skin as well, then he pulled her down and back as his other arm swept her feet out from under her.  She landed heavily on her side, then found herself getting pulled into the Were-cat's clutches literally by his clawed grip on her butt.  He let go and quickly got over her, replanting that paw on her upper chest as his tail lashed out and wrapped both of Kaila's very dangerous legs by the ankles.  He raised his other paw over his head and smiled down at her.  "Do you yield?"

      She laughed helplessly.  "That was a dirty trick, hooking your claws in my butt!" she accused, then she laughed again.  "I yield, you sneak!"

      "It was guaranteed that you wouldn't try to pull free if I grabbed you there," he told her with a slight, sly smile as he stood up, then helped her to her feet.

      Kaila laughed again, rubbing her posterior gingerly with her single hand.  "That hurt," she complained.  "But it was alot of fun.  I haven't had a good spar in--" she started, but then seemed to remember that Kallan was there, and fell silent.

      Tarrin looked to Allia's father.  He still looked mad, but there was a look of surprise in his eyes, as well as a hint of uncertainty on his face.

      That would do.  Tarrin planted the seeds by forcing him to watch as Kaila quite capably fought against him.  Now it was up to Kallan to make them bloom.

      With a single gesture of his paw, Tarrin caused the vegetation restricting Kallan to return to the earth, ending his spell, and Allia helped him stand up.  "You should go see the shaman, Kaila," he told her.  "I think I punched a few holes in you."

      "I'm sure I'll have trouble explaining things, given where they are," she chuckled.  "You'll spend midday with us?"

      "If you'll have me," he answered calmly, glancing at Eron to make sure he wasn't getting into trouble, which he wasn't.  The fox was hopping around Eron's legs, trying to catch the Were-cat's tail as Eron laughed and kept it away from her.  If that fox was good for anything, at least it was keeping his hyper cub's attention grounded in one place, keeping him from trying to fish anything exceedingly venemous out of small holes.  Kedaira was standing close to them, watching the game with intent eyes.  He wasn't sure if the inu thought the fox kit was a meal, but he rather doubted it.  She wouldn't attack any animal that Eron was playing with, and she had standing orders not to attack any animal within the boundaries of the camp.

      "Of course we will," she said with a wave of her handless arm.  "Excuse me while I go have my butt healed before I end up staining my breeches," she said with yet another chuckle, then limped off in the direction of the center of camp.

      Tarrin crossed his arms and looked over at Kallan, who still looked both angry and surprised.  "Well?"

      Kallan glared at him for a moment, a reflexive reaction over getting so completely overwhelmed, then he sighed.  "I, I think I understand what you were trying to say," he admitted, a bit ruefully.  "Her only problem is me, isn't it?"

      "Not completely, kirza, but she's not as fragile as you think she is.  She does need a little help, but she doesn't need you to hold her hand and keep her out of danger she's more than capable of handling herself."

      "Your wisdom surprises me, Tarrin," he admitted.  "When I look at you, I see--"

      "I know," he shrugged.  "Few people think I have half a brain, and even fewer think I do after they see how I act.  I don't know what it is about this that makes them think that," he said, holding up his paws.

      "I meant no dishonor," he said quickly.

      "There's no dishonor in truth, Kallan," he said sagely.  "No man can be offended by the truth, unless he's of weak character."

      "Truly," he agreed.

      "I've told you, father, my deshida is much more than he appears," Allia said with a smile at Tarrin.

      "I won't discount you again, daughter," he said calmly.  "I'm going to go ensure your mother wasn't seriously wounded, then go on a round of the flocks."

      "I'll see you at midday, then," Allia said.  "I'm going to stay with Tarrin."

      He nodded, then gave Tarrin a grave, respectful look.  Then he turned to follow his wife's steps towards the shaman's tent.

      "Did you plan that?" Allia asked after her father was out of hearing.

      "Of course we did," he said with a slight smile.

      Allia gave him a look, then laughed delightedly.

 

      All in all, it was quite a good day, so much so that it seemed only a moment passed between his short spar with Kaila and sunset.  But it had been rather eventful.

      After making sure Kaila was alright, Kallan got very quiet and pensive.  They saw him walking along the edges of the flocks, not really paying much attention to them, as it was apparent that he was deeply in thought.  Tarrin felt that that was a good sign, so much so that he'd be willing to leave without healing Kaila.  He was rather sure she'd be whole by the end of the ride.  Tarrin spent that time with Allia, telling her about what he'd been noticing here and there in the clan about Allyn, and telling her that she'd better teach him what the Priestess was supposed to be teaching him if she wanted him to learn any of it.  She was a bit surprised to learn that instead of teaching Allyn, the shaman was doing nothing but making him perform heavy labor during the time that he was with her.  That made her a bit mad, but he knew his sister.  She wouldn't gainsay the shaman, but then again, she wasn't going to depend on her either.  She'd spent too much time with Tarrin to be mystified or overwhelmed by the sense of magical power the shaman used to keep the tribe in awe of her.  Allia would teach Allyn what he needed to know herself.  Since she was the daughter of a clan-king, she knew all of it just as well as the shaman did.

      After the midday heat came down with its full force and made the Selani retreat to their tents, Tarrin spent a productive few hours with Allia's family.  Jasana had awakened by then, and she was just as quiet and pensive as Kallan had been, sitting on his lap with a look of moody thought on her face, so much so that she didn't even say much about Eron's new pet.  Kallan was still trying to come to terms with what he'd learned, so he wasn't very active in the conversation.  Dulai again remained stiffly formal and very standoffish, and continued to keep her son Zakra away from Eron, which was even harder now because of the Selani child's interest in Eron's pet fox.  But Allyn, Kaila, and Allia were very involved, and they spent a midday talking about the coming Gathering, the prospects for the harvest at the village, and the growing tensions with the neighboring clan, Clan Kishenin.  There had been reports of border raids, which meant that warriors from Clan Kishenin were sneaking into Faedellin territory and trying to steal livestock.  That was the extent of clan frictions between the Selani, since Fara'Nae forbade them from fighting one another.  It was yet another aspect of the Selani's deep-seated need for competition.  Luckily for the tribes who had been attacked, they had thwarted all four attempts, a matter of honor for Faedellin.  Kallan had already given permission for the attacked tribes to retaliate, and they would be sneaking off into Kishenin lands over the next few nights to try to steal some of their livestock.  If it escalated, which it probably would, one clan would challenge the other, but it would be nothing more than a series of formalized challenges where Selani would battle in the Dance, and all results would be non-lethal in nature.  Selani didn't have war, but they did like to fight, so they made up excuses to do so, and made sure that none of their ideas caused Selani to fight another Selani to the death on a clan level.  Personal challenges of honor were acceptable, which often ended up being fatal, but clans could not battle clans.  Such challenges were often quite a reason to celebrate, as rival clans gathered and traded information, stories, and goods, even as their warriors challenged one another.  That was the formal and noticable activity.  Behind the scenes, the clans' thieves secretly tried to steal the other clan blind.  Such a challenge could turn into quite a chaotic situation, given with all the activity, both obvious and underhanded, that went on during one.

      Tarrin found this aspect of Selani society both amusing and clever.  Selani were warriors, but they only had each other to fight.  But they couldn't do that, as it was against the will of their goddess, so they engineered activities that allowed them to satisfy their love of fighting while still obeying the will of their goddess.

      Allyn recanted what he'd done that day with the flocks, and explained what he'd learned about sukk.  He mentioned that the shaman had yet to call him in for the day's lesson, but Allia's silvery eyebrows furrowed and she told him tersely that when she summoned him, to let her know.   Tarrin sensed an impending brawl there, but it wasn't his business, so he was going to stay out of it.  Now that Allia was aware of Allyn's troubles with the tribe's shaman, he was more than confident that his sister would deal with it without requiring his intercession in the matter.  Allyn was in very good hands.

      All in all, a very refreshing and entertaining conversation.  He had finally even managed to get Dulai to talk, when he asked her what she specialized in doing for the tribe.  Dulai was the tribe's obe, much to his surprise, translator and advisor for her brother, and he asked her quite a few questions about the role of obe he'd never had the chance to ask Denai.  His interest in her job caused her to warm up to him somewhat, even to the point where she finally stopped calling Zakra back when he inched closer and closer to Eron.  Tarrin found out that Dulai was quite an intelligent woman, and though she still seemed somewhat reluctant to be friendly, at least she was willing to talk to him.

      After the heat of the midday waned and the Selani were again able to move around, Kallan and Kaira walked off towards the edge of camp together.  Tarrin was confident that certain truths were going to be exchanged there, and he was content with it.  Kallan wasn't a fool, he was just being blinded by his love for his wife.  Now that he'd had his eyes opened, his opinion of his wife's condition could not help but change.

      Tarrin spent the afternoon with his children.  Kedaira followed them around like a puppy as they wandered the camp, talking to Selani from time to time, and Tarrin had a serious talk with his daughter.  Jasana was still upset over what happened last night, but she was upset with herself, not with him or with Eron.  That was a good thing, he knew.  Jasana had seen in herself what others had seen, what she was incapable of seeing in herself, and she had been surprised by it.  Tarrin had had a few of those epiphanies in his day, when he looked in the mirror and found what stared back at him to be terrifying.  What Jasana saw in her mirror scared her to death, because it had almost cost her her brother's life.  He didn't like seeing her go through it, but it was better for her to suffer a little now than to really suffer later after she did finally do something that got someone killed.  It was a positive sign, and though it wouldn't be as forceful in her mind as it was now later on, after time and Were-cat mentality dulled the edge of the memory, it would still be there.  Jasana's personality would revert back to her usual scheming self, but he hoped that she'd finally be able to recognize the line that she dared not cross.

      "Why is Dulai so aloof?" he asked Allia as the sun began to set, as he and Jasana and Eron walked with her and Allyn along the edge of the sukk flock.

      "She's always been like that," she answered.  "Our family has been ruling the clan for nearly three hundred years now, and I think she takes a little offense at you and Allyn being brought into it without her approval."

      "She's snippy because she doesn't approve of us?" Allyn asked.

      "No, she's snippy because she never had the chance to approve of you before you became part of the family," Allia elaborated.  "Dulai's always been very proud of the family's honor.  Maybe too proud," she frowned.  "I think she's afraid that you or Allyn were going to damage the family honor."

      "Not a bloody chance!" Allyn said hotly.

      "That's my Allyn," Allia said with a smile, patting him fondly on the backside.

      "I guess she decided that I couldn't be all that bad, after thrashing Kallan."

      "I think she was a little mad at you for that," she laughed in reply.  "You may be part of the family by clan law, but remember, Dulai probably still thinks of you as an outsider.  In her eyes, her brother got thrashed by an outlander, not a member of the family."

      "I didn't think of it that way," he admitted.  "I don't--"

      Tarrin stopped as the sukk all started giving out frightful, keening squawks, flapping their useless wings and starting to scatter in every direction.  Tarrin glanced a huge shadow race by, blocking the sun for an instant, and he realized that the birds had seen Sapphire, and were on the verge of panic.  Tarrin turned and shouted in a booming voice "STOP!" as he waved his arms to get their attention.

      It hung there a moment.  Instinctual fear battled with the birds' instinctual trust of a Druid, and then they all started to settle down a little.  "Settle down!" Tarrin barked at them, intending for them to understand him.  "What you just saw won't attack you!"

      "What happened?" Allyn asked.

      "Auntie Sapphire just flew over us!" Eron said in excitement, pointing.  Allyn followed his clawed finger, as did Tarrin, and they saw the majestic blue dragon banking several miles away from them, turning and descending as she prepared to come in for a landing.

      "We'd better go calm down the clan before they start throwing javelins at her," Tarrin grunted.

      "They wouldn't attack her.  They're not that crazy," Allia told him.

      "Papa, Aunt Sapphire said not to say anything," Jasana reminded him.  "I think that means we can't tell them what's going on. That would be saying something."

      "She has a point," Allyn acceded after a moment.  "I wouldn't dare mince words with a dragon."

      "Neither would I," Tarrin agreed with a nod.  "At least we could kind of drift over in that direction, so we're the first things she comes across.  Odds are the tribe might come as close as Selani get to panicking when they realize she's coming right for them."

      They cut through camp, a camp that was very quiet and very tense.  They'd seen the dragon turn and descend, and now the monstrous form had dropped out of sight, behind the low ridge that stretched across the western desert.  Warriors were ducking into tents and coming out with weapons, as the youngers were sent off to tighten up the flocks in case a hasty retreat was ordered.  The Were-cats, Allia, and Allyn moved quicky through the camp and started towards the rise, with the setting sun in their eyes, as Sapphire's titanic footsteps started quivering the ground under them.  If there was any indication how huge and massive the dragon was, that was it.  She was so big that her every footstep was felt by anything within a longspan.  Kedaira started following them curiously, and Tarrin took a moment to warn both her and the fox that they were about to see something that they'd be terrified of, but in this case it wasn't a threat to them.

      By the time they reached the base of the low ridge, Sapphire came into view.  Just her head, a head that had to be a hundred spans over them.  Her head and neck ambled into view as she crested the rise, and then she looked down at them with those yellow eyes of hers, eyes that reminded him briefly of Keritanima in a strange way.  Though he wasn't afraid of her, he couldn't help but feel....intimidated by her immensity.

      If he was intimidated, the Selani were downright terrified.  He heard a Selani scream in fear for the first time in his entire life, and there wasn't just one scream.  Bedlam erupted in the camp behind them as Selani scrambled around, unsure as to whether to form up and attack the gigantic monstrosity that had ambled up to their camp, or turn and flee in panic.  Fleeing in panic was highly dishonorable, and Tarrin felt that their honor was the only thing keeping them from doing just that.  Sapphire watched them with intent eyes, then she looked down at Tarrin again as Kallan, the shaman, and Dulai started moving towards the dragon at a wary rate of speed.  She took a few more ground-eating strides forward, until most of her body was visible, and then she sedately sat on the top of the rise, craning her neck down it to bring her head within twenty spans of those standing at its base.

      "Tarrin," she said amiably, in Sha'Kar.  "How are you, my little one?"

      "I'm doing quite well, Sapphire," he replied with a nod, then she brought her head all the way down until her snout was just before them.  Eron and Jasana broke out into choruses of "Auntie Sapphire!  Auntie Sapphire!" and hugged the gigantic dragon's nose, which for them meant that they pressed up against it with their arms outstretched.  Sapphire nuzzled the two Were-cat cubs, only knocking them down twice, then reared back a little to look at them without having to cross her eyes.  "Allia, you're looking very well," she noted.  "Glad to be home?"

      "Home is the best place to be, Sapphire," she smiled.  "How was it for you?"

      "Ugh," she said, making a sour face.  "The brood destroyed the cave and scattered our hoard all over the desert floor!  They wanted to heat it up so it would keep the cave warmer at night!  It took me almost a month to get everything back to where it was supposed to be!"

      Allia laughed as Kallan, Dulai, and the shaman finally reached them.  "Children do tend to turn everything upside-down."

      "Daughter!" Kallan said in surprise.  "You know this beast?"

      "Of course I do, father," she said absently.  "This is Sapphire."

      "Do you speak Selani, Sapphire?" Tarrin asked her quickly, since Kallan and Allia were speaking it.

      "I caught a Selani a few days ago and lifted it off of him,"she answered in flawless Selani.  "He seemed a bit terrified of me, but it didn't last long.  After I explained what I needed, he calmed down and allowed me to do it.  Then afterward, he wanted to fight me.  He was quite respectful about it, but he was very insistent.  What foolishness!"

      "You'd be the ultimate challenge to a Selani warrior," Tarrin told her with a sly smile.  "The more dangerous the enemy is, the better."

      "If he could defeat you in fair combat, his honor would have no equal," Allia laughed.

      "As if he'd ever have a chance," she said primly.  "You are Allia's father?" she asked Kallan directly.

      Kallan swallowed visibly, then stepped forward.  "I am," he replied in a surprisingly steady voice.  "How do you know my daughter?"

      "I travelled with her and Tarrin for some time," she answered.  "She's a very good friend of mine."  She glanced at Allyn.  "Keritanima asked Kimmie to ask me to tell you that Iselde wants to know how you're doing," she related to him.  "She wants to talk to you, but you told her not to contact you.  Well, she's getting worried about you."

      "That sounds rather roundabout," Allyn said with a slightly nervous smile.  Tarrin could smell the fear all around him.  Allyn was very nervous, and Kallan, Dulai, and the shaman were absolutely petrified.  It was saying a great deal about Kallan that he could manage to speak so evenly to Sapphire.  Tarrin didn't often notice the effect Sapphire had on those not familiar with her, since he was so familiar with her.

      "That Wikuni knows better than to ask anything of me.  Every question from her mouth sounds more like a command," the dragon said with a snort, the wind it caused racing over them.  "She asked Kimmie to do it because she knew Kimmie wouldn't mind asking."  She glanced at Allyn.  "Well?"

      "Uh, I'll contact Iselde tonight," he promised.

      "You should never ignore family, Sha'Kar," she chided him.  "Family is all we have, and all that we are."

      "I will be guided by you, great dragon," he said quickly.

      "Naturally," she drawled, looking to Kallan again.  "Have your warriors put away their swords, Selani.  If I had come to fight, you'd be dead already."

      Those words would have incited immediate response from Kallan, had they come from anything other than the five hundred span long behemoth looming over him like a mountain ready to fall on top of him.

      "Wh-What does bring you here, honored one?" he asked hesitantly.

      "They do," she said, nodding towards Tarrin.  "I don't get to see my little one very often, so I'm here to see him before he goes home.  That I get the chance to see Allia as well is just a welcome bonus."  She looked to Tarrin.  "I will be staying for dinner," she stated.  "And we'll catch up on the goings on I've missed."

      Kallan blanched, but he wasn't crazy enough to object.  Nobody told a dragon what they couldn't do. "A--A--As you wish, honored guest," he stammered, taken aback by this bit of news.

      Sapphire reared her head back, and then she closed her eyes, muttering under her breath in the language of the Wizards' magic.  Her massive form then wavered, and then it seemed to disappear.  Kallan gasped and Dulai took a step back, then they stared slack-jawed at the tall, shapely woman with dark hair and a blue dress that exactly matched the color of Sapphire's scales appeared over the rise and started down towards them.  Tarrin recognized her immediately as Sapphire's human appearance when she used magic to change her shape.  She strode down the rise effortlessly, then imperiously held out her hand to Tarrin when she reached them.  Jasana and Eron clamored around her, as Eron held up his new pet fox for her to inspect, which was writhing wildly to get away from the human-bound dragon, as Jasana begged her to show her magic.  She silenced both of them with a tut and a wave of her hand, and both immediately fell silent.  They always obeyed Sapphire without question, because they had already tasted her temper once before.  That was a lesson that neither of them ever wanted repeated.  Tarrin took her hand with a gentle smile, swallowing her smaller hand up in his huge paw, and then she gave Kallan a regal look.  "Now then, take me to your tent," she told him.  "I'd like to rest a while before dining.  And it had better be good," she warned in a dangerous voice, glancing at Kallan, as if she would eat him if the meal served wasn't to her liking.

      "A--As you command, honored guest," he repeated.  It seemed to be all he could say as he experienced the full force of both Sapphire's intimidating size and her forceful personality.

      "Now then, let's not stand here like sukk," she prompted.  "Take me to the camp."

      "Of course, my friend," Tarrin told her, moving to do exactly that.


To:       Title                EoF    

Chapter 6

 

      All in all, it had been a most satisfactory trip to the desert.

      The night of Sapphire's visit, she absolutely dominated the entire evening.  That in itself wasn't that unusual, given who she was, but she overwhelmed Kallan and Allia's tribe with more than her physical presence.  Like everyone who dealt with the dragon to any degree, the fear and awe of her majestic size was quickly overshadowed by absolute amazement at both her incredible presence and her formidable mind.  Sapphire easily invoked awe and terror on any who looked upon her, but those who talked to her found themselves in awe of her because of her intelligence and her commanding personality.  Triana was the feeblest of shadows of what Sapphire was, one who utterly dominated everyone and everything around herself with the merest raising of an eyebrow.  Kallan had to shake off the initial terror that almost anyone felt at coming face to face with a dragon, but his awe and fear of the dragon didn't wane over the night.  It simply shifted its focus.  Kallan learned very fast that Sapphire was vastly intelligent, as well as being exceptionally wise.  The tribe's shaman tried to meet the dragon on philosophical ground, but was sent packing, literally, in little under three minutes.  Dulai actually lasted a little longer, since as an obe she had a much more open mind than a Priest, who was taught one doctrine and way above all others.

      Sapphire came to know Allia's tribe, and Allia's tribe came to be as much in awe of Allia and Allyn as they were of Sapphire.  That they would actually converse with her, and she acknowledged them as if they actually existed, seated itself heavily in their minds.  She was peremptory with all other Selani, except perhaps Kallan, but she dealt with him more or less because he was the leader.  But Allia talked to her, even made her laugh once, and the dragon asked personal questions concerning Allia's adjustment back into her old life.  A few of her questions went right to the matter of Allyn, and that terrified many of Allia's tribe.  Allia and Allyn would not lie to her--they weren't that crazy--and their answers made one of those dark eyebrows raise, and a malevolent, soul-chilling gaze swept over the large gathering around a bonfire in the center of the encampment which never failed to make the Selani cringe.  She never said a word, but every Selani in the camp instantly understood that Allia and Allyn's well being was very much a personal interest for her, and nobody had better get on her bad side.

      Sapphire confused the Selani a little, since they saw two aspects of her that few saw.  They saw her in her full terrible majesty and came face to face with the full power of her arrogant personality, but they also saw her playing with Tarrin's children, talking to the adult Were-cat with compassion and care in her voice, touching him and treating him as a favored son, showing a much different side of herself.  Of course, that gentler aspect of her evaporated the instant she dealt with one of the Selani, but it did show them that the dragon was much more than she seemed.  The Selani seemed to understand that only the privileged few were beneficiaries of her gentler demeanor, and that the rest of them had better stay on their toes around her.

      The Selani got used to Sapphire, in a way, by the end of the feast.  Numb was a better term for it, as the power of Sapphire's presence among them had started to numb the Selani to her, to where if they couldn't accept her, at least they didn't gawk like mice watching the owl swoop down on them.  They started at least talking a little with one another, and food that was either blackened from being forgotten in the fire or cold from being forgotten after it was pulled from the fire was finally eaten, but only a handful of the Selani there could even remember eating that night.  The dragon dominated every thought and memory in the entire tribe from the instant she was spotted until nearly a month after she was gone. But by the end of the night, when Sapphire announced that she was tired and was ready to withdraw, at least the Selani could bow to her without nearly falling over.

      It was an educational experience for Tarrin, and once again a powerful reminder of the unusual circumstances of his life.  To him, Sapphire was just Sapphire.  He knew he had to be very respectful towards her, and he knew that she was a dragon, but she just didn't have that kind of an effect on him.  It was like that with several other unusual people in his life, he realized.  He didn't consider having friends like Triana or Shiika or Sathon or Lord General Darvon to be too outrageous, but it had been so long since he'd had a normal life that they did seem normal to him.  That sense of inclusion seemed to infect all of them, for his friends had little trouble dealing with Sapphire, up to a point anyway, and the highly unusual mix of beings that formed the core of Tarrin's life had evolved to the point where their rarity or unusual natures seemed to be forgotten.  Seeing outsiders dealing with them, with Sapphire or Sarraya or Darvon or Dar, that was when the unusual bonds of friendship that existed among their most diverse group seemed to be most noticable.  Even the most common of them, Dolanna and Dar, were now so different, so unique, so unusual, that they too were held with some strange regard by others, something that really annoyed Dar.  His association with Tarrin, being a member of the group that had retrieved the Firestaff and destroyed Val, made him larger than life.  Dar was now just as famous as Tarrin was, a fame spread like wildfire from the walls of Suld to circle half the world.

      Strange that the sense of inclusion that existed among them wasn't noticable until he saw others trying to deal with them.  What Tarrin could easily accept, considered normal, was so radically abnormal for others that they simply couldn't deal with it.

      Sapphire's visit was both welcome and educational.  By morning she was again in dragon form and preparing to fly away, saying her farewells and promising to come and visit him at home soon.  Her visit had reinforced several lessons in his mind about his friends and family, and it had all but terrorized the Selani into accepting Allyn...or else.  That or else seemed to be frozen in their minds, and as Tarrin bid goodbye to her that morning, several Selani had already begun to make tentative overtures to Allia and Allyn, offers to take Allyn hunting or show him how to weave cloth, and the shaman had visited before sunrise that morning and informed Allyn that he would take lessons with her during the midday heat.  What Tarrin probably would have had to ram down the throats of the Selani with several messy object lessons, Sapphire accomplished with the raising of a single brow and a withering glare cast about a camp that promised unspeakable punishment for any who defied her will.

      Because Allia and Allyn's place in the tribe was more or less secure now, Tarrin was ready to leave right after Sapphire.  The other reason he was ready to leave was Kaila.  Though she wasn't healed yet, he had every confidence that she'd be whole again within two days.  Kallan still had a slightly contrite look on his face after the moral lesson his wife and Tarrin had taught him the day before, and Tarrin knew that Kallan had learned what Fara'Nae had wanted him to learn.  That was the only thing standing in the way of Kaila's healing.

      And so, some hour after Sapphire took to the air and disappeared over the eastern horizon, Tarrin gathered up his children, spent long moments in emotional farewell with his sister and her betrothed, shared a firm, knowing handshake with Kallan, and then he too departed.  He heard the clan-king announce to the tribe that Tarrin was a true child of the Holy Mother, and that he was welcome in Selani lands whenever he so desired to visit them.  Kallan officially made Tarrin a member of the clan, which Tarrin accepted rather absently, since the clan wasn't half as important to him as Allia.  He said his curt farewell, gave Allia one final hug, clapped Allyn on the shoulder, patted Kedaira on the snout, and then Teleported home.

      What chaos awaited him there was enough to make him want to go back to Allia.

      There weren't any overt signs of the carnage awaiting him.  The house was as he remembered it, as he had Teleported into the yard to prevent any chance that someone might possibly be standing in the space he would have chosen to appear--a fatal stroke of ill fortune for both parties involved when it happened--and started towards the door.  The fact that neither Kimmie nor Jesmind had tried to talk to him since they'd left for the desert hadn't really registered to him, since he'd been so busy with Allia and Jasana and trying to keep Eron from picking up anything that could kill with a single bite or sting.  It was a misty morning, though the air around the house was as comfortably warm and dry as it always was, thanks to the magic spell the Goddess had woven around it.  The house looked inviting and welcoming to him, a respite from the days in the desert and a return to the normalcy of home.

      One look through the open door dispelled all thoughts that he was returning to a quiet, happy home.

      The entire parlor looked like it had been ransacked.  Furniture, clothes, dishes, and even pieces of walls, ceiling, and floor were torn up, laying in dishevelled jumbled piles scattered randomly across the floor.  The smell of blood was heavy in the air, as was the smell of old, drying meat, withering vegetables, and clay jars of spices shattered, their contents scattered all over the entire house.

      Eron gaped, Jasana gasped, the fox sneezed, and Tarrin simply stared.

      "Papa!" Jasana gaped.  "What happened to our house?!"

      That was a good question, and it was a question that had no quick answer.  The blood he smelled was Were-cat blood, exclusively so, and a quick look around showed him that everything that was destroyed had been torn apart by a Were-cat's claws.  Tarrin took a couple of steps in and knelt by what had once been his favorite chair, its wooden skeleton shattered and puffy stuffing ripped out of the upholstery covering and flung around the room.  The chair was a good ten spans from where it usually sat, by the fireplace, and it had been both clawed up and physically thrown.  There was a dried bloodstain on the chair, what part of it Tarrin could not identify, and it was Were-cat blood by scent.  He leaned a little closer, and found that it was Jesmind's blood.

      "Papa, I smell Mama's blood," Eron told him.  "And Aunt Jesmind's."

      "Anyone else's?" he asked, trusting to Eron's incredibly sensitive nose to immediately detect what Tarrin would have to search to discover.

      "No, Papa.  Well, I smell Aunt Jula's blood a little, but not much, and it smells old."

      "Whatever happened involved them, then," he said, not sure whether or not to feel any fear.  After all, what could possibly harm them when they were inside the house?  The house itself would defend them if it came down to a fight, and besides, nothing would come anywhere near the house that would want to harm them.  Few even knew where the house was.  So what happened?

      The answer came flying down the stairs by the kitchen.  It was Jula.  She had a torn shirt on and her leather breeches were ripped from the left thigh down, and she looked totally exhausted.  "Father!" she said breathlessly, jumping over the gouged, clawed, partially broken bannister, landing lightly, and then charging right into him.   Tarrin felt significant relief at seeing his bond-daughter alive, well, and looking to be unharmed.  He gave her a harried squeeze and then pushed her out to arm's length, looking down at her.  "What in the blazes happened here?" he demanded.

      "Jesmind and Mist had a fight!" she said quickly.  "A real fight, father!  It's a miracle they didn't kill each other!"

      "A fight?  Are they alright?" he asked as Jasana and Eron gasped, then gave each other wary looks.  "Where are Kimmie and the twins?"

      "They're with your parents," she answered.  "I sent Kimmie out of here with the cubs to get them out of harm's way, while I stayed and tried to pull them apart.  It was a nightmare!" she said with a frenzied look.

      "Why didn't you just use Sorcery?" he demanded.

      "I tried, father!" she shouted.  "Jesmind's Druidic powers seem to have manifested, or maybe Mist's, or maybe both of them.  Every time I tried to use Sorcery to stop them, something killed my spell!  And I wasn't about to wade in between those two and try to pull them apart with my bare paws!"  She gave him an anguished look.  "Everything I tried failed, father, and they destroyed the house!  I couldn't stop them, and I really tried!"

      "Calm down, kitten," he said quickly but gently, putting his paws on her shoulders.  "I'm not blaming you.  If you say you tried your hardest, then you did just what you said you did."

      Jula's look of relief was overwhelming, as she gazed up at him with those vulnerable green eyes.  "Umm, Papa?  Where's Mama?" Eron asked in a small voice.

      "I finally managed to pull them apart, after they were about half dead," Jula told him quickly.  "I guess whoever was stopping my magic got too tired to keep it up, and I took them both firmly in hand.  I've got them trapped in cells of Air in rooms upstairs.  I have them on opposite sides of the house, and I have magic working so they can't even scent each other.  They're both still totally keyed up, father.  Every time you open the door, they go berzerk.  Whatever caused this, it hasn't even started to work itself out of them yet."

      Tarrin frowned.  Fights between Were-cats weren't uncommon, even fights with this kind of evident ferocity.  Whatever happened, it had caused them to both go totally insane with rage.  Tarrin looked around, at his precious house, and knew that all things being equal, they got lucky to stop them while the house was still standing.  Jesmind and Mist alone were very powerful, formidable Were-cats.  Them fighting one another was like a natural disaster.  And his house certainly looked like a tornado had raged through it, then turned around and came back to rage some more.

      A glance up told him how far it had went.  A soft paper playing card had been driven through the ceiling.  It was stuck up there, the King of Swords, with half of its soft length sticking out of the ceiling.  Just what it took to drive that card through the ceiling made Tarrin cringe.

      "Is Mama alright?" Jasana asked fearfully.

      "They're both fine, cubs," Jula said, looking down at them.  "They're fully healed.  The only reason I'm using magic on them is because they're both still trying to get into another fight with each other."

      Eron was quiet a moment.  "Who won?" he asked.

      "Eron!" Jula said in surprise, gaping at him.

      "Save it," Tarrin told her, patting her arm lightly.  "Who did win?" he asked curiously.

      "Not you too, father!" Jula said with a surprised look, then she laughed ruefully.  "Am I the only one here who doesn't care?"

      "Bet you my Mama whooped your Mama," Eron said immediately to Jasana.

      "Never happen," she retorted.  "My Mama can kick your Mama's butt."

      "Their butts were equally kicked," Jula said tartly.  "Because I did the kicking, at least after Sorcery started working again."

      Tarrin looked around.  Given what he knew of Mist and Jesmind, Jesmind was damn lucky she got out of it alive.  Mist wasn't very tall, but she was awesomely powerful, even for a Were-cat, insanely fast, highly experienced, and she had a mean streak in her that Jesmind would never be able to match.  Stone for stone, Mist was the most ferocious and dangerous Were-cat there was, even over him.  No other Were-cat, not even Tarrin, ever wanted to get into a fight with her.  If Jesmind fought Mist to a draw, then his opinion of his mate would increase significantly.

      Odds were, it was a simple fight over dominance.  Mist was physically superior to Jesmind, and they both knew it.  But Jesmind was Tarrin's mate, and that social boost put them more or less on even ground as far as the pecking order was concerned.  But when Tarrin left and the calming influence of Eron was removed from her, it destabilized the delicate balance that existed in the house, and Mist probably reverted very quickly into her old habits.  And the first time Jesmind said or did something that Mist felt was a threat to her superiority, she would attack.  Which was probably exactly what happened.  Mist was either simply seeking to put Jesmind down and assert her dominance, or perhaps she was fighting to take Jesmind's place, seeking to drive her away and take her place as Tarrin's mate, and Jesmind was fighting to retain her position.  If that were true, then that was probably the only reason Jesmind had managed to fight Mist to a draw.  Where Tarrin was concerned, Jesmind was capable of some incredible feats.  Like standing toe to toe with the most ferocious Were-cat alive, and giving back as good as she got.

      But did they have to do it in the house?

      "You don't seem too surprised!" Jula said accusingly.

      "Were-cats fight sometimes, cub," Tarrin shrugged.  "You know that.  If they're both alright, then that's all that matters.  I do want to find out what set this off, though," he frowned.

      "Mist attacked Jesmind," Jula said with a somewhat disapproving look at her bond-father.  "Ever since you and the cubs left, Mist has been getting more and more unsettled.  She was getting more and more cranky and out of sorts, and her temper was getting shorter and shorter.  Jesmind said something to her that she didn't like yesterday, I have no idea what, and it was like lighting the fuse of a cannon.  Mist hit Jesmind, Jesmind snapped, Mist snapped, and they had at it for nearly an hour.  They tore up every room in the house!"

      "An hour?" Tarrin said in surprised.  Then again, the house certainly looked like they'd been at it for an entire hour.  More like ten.  "They trashed everything?" he said quickly, a sick feeling growing in his stomach at the thought of all his precious possessions in his room had been destroyed.

      "Well, they couldn't get into your room, because Kimmie blocked it with magic," she said.  "She also blocked off the room holding her magical laboratory, since if they'd have gotten in there, they would have blown up the house.  At least me and Kimmie got alot of stuff out of the house before they could tear it up, so most of our things are safe.  What those two destroyed was mainly furniture and stuff we didn't have time to get out of the house."

      "Well, that's something, at least," he said, blowing out his breath.  What a mess!  It was going to take them a month to clean it all up!

      But what had set Mist off?  That was a good place to start, he guessed.  At least after he got them calm enough to talk.  If Jula was right, they were both still raging.

      Where was Triana?  He needed her to help him sort this out!  She said she was coming back here!

      "Has Triana got here yet?" he asked.

      "She came and went," Jula answered.  "She got another summons from the Hierarchs."

      Tarrin frowned again, looking down.  Of course.  That would snap Mist out of her rage faster than anything.  "Jula, take Eron up to his mother," he said.  "Cub, give me Sandy.  You don't want to take her up there with you.  Mist can see her later, once she calms down."

      "Alright.  Is she alright, Aunt Jula?"

      "She's fine, cub, she's just being held behind a wall of solid air, so she can't get loose and try to attack Jesmind again, that's all," she answered.  "I think father has a good idea.  She always calms down when you're with her.  She should calm right down as soon as she sees you."

      "Come right back down," he told Jula as she took Eron's paw and led him towards the stairs.  Tarrin cradled Sandy a little bit in his arm and looked down at Jasana, who had a strange expression on her face.  "What?" he asked her.

      "I'm just glad I'm not in trouble over this," she answered.  "Are you gonna punish Mama and Aunt Mist like you did Mama when she tore up your room, when you were human?"

      Tarrin looked at her, then smiled ruefully.  "No," he told her.  "But they won't like what I have to say about it."

      Jula came back down as Tarrin and Jasana were trying to identify a mangled piece of metal and shattered wood.  Tarrin thought it was the panrack from the kitchen, but Jasana thought it was the poker set from the fireplace--which was literally just there for show--twisted up with the remains of the china cabinet.  Eventually Jasana just used Sorcery on it, then declared with some smugness that it was the poker set.  At least what was left of it.  "How is she?" Tarrin asked.

      "Calmer," Jula answered.  "She seemed to calm right down the instant she saw Eron, but I still have her shut up in the cell I made.  I just let Eron into it."

      "Alright.  Do me a favor and contact Jenna," he told her.  "Have her come here.  I'm going to need her help straightening this place out.  I'm taking Jasana up to see Jesmind."

      "Alright."

      When he got upstairs, he found Jesmind in the furthest room from where he could tell Mist was being kept.  She was trapped behind a wall of solid air, a construction of Sorcery, pacing in tight circles.  She was wearing a very old pair of leather breeches--Tarrin's own--and one of his old shirts, neither of which fit her very well.  The leather breeches looked like they were threatening to slide off of her hips at any moment, her tail was the only thing keeping them up.  "Tarrin, cub!" she said in relief, rushing over and putting her paws against the boundary of her cell.  "Thank the trees you're back!  Now let me out of here!" she screamed at the top of her lungs, smashing a fist against the magical wall of her prison.

      "That's a fine welcome home," Tarrin told her with cool amusement, looking down at her.  "What happened?"

      "How should I know?" she said acidly.  "One moment I was telling Mist that it was her turn to cook, and the next she was trying to kill me!"  She banged her paw against the invisible wall.  "Now let me out!"

      "To do what?"

      "To pay that bitch back for what she did to me!" she said vehemently.

      "No, I'd like to have a house," he said calmly.  "Cub, stay with your mother.  I'm going to go find out what happened from Mist."

      "Alright, Papa."

      "And don't let her out, not unless I say you can," he warned.

      "Don't you order my cub around!" Jesmind said hotly.  "That's my cub, Tarrin!  You have no business telling her what to do!"

      "Only because you're going to tell her to let you out," he said bluntly.  "I mean it, cub.  If you let her out, you and me are going to have words."

      "That's not fair," she sulked.  "Mama's going to get mad if I don't let her out, and you're going to get mad if I do.  Are you still punishing me for what happened in the desert?"

      "No."

      "But I'm going to get punished, no matter what I do!" she objected.

      "Then you'd better ask yourself whose punishment you fear more," he told her with steady eyes.  "Hers, or mine."

      Jasana looked at him, then at an incensed Jesmind, then she swallowed visibly.  "You're being totally unfair," she complained, crossing her arms and stamping a foot.

      "Welcome to maturity," he said absently as he turned his back on her and stalked out of the room.

      Tarrin left as Jesmind promised all sorts of ugly punishments for Jasana if she didn't let her out of the cell right now to march across the second floor and into the room holding Mist.  She was wearing one of Kimmie's bathrobes, and had Eron gathered up in her arms, welcoming him home after several days absence.  "Mist," he called as he came into the room.

      "Tarrin," she said with a nod, much more calmly than Jesmind, nuzzling her son.  "How was the desert?"

      "Hot," he answered.  "Care to explain what happened?"

      "Jesmind's been ordering me around since the moment you left.  I got sick of it and showed her how much I disapprove," she said with remarkable nonchalance.  "Is that Sandy?"

      Tarrin glanced down at the desert fox, still in his arm, and chuckled ruefully.  "It is," he said.  "Did you have to do it in the house?" he complained.  "The downstairs is an absolute disaster."

      "Blame Jesmind," she said in an icy tone.  "Let Eron out, Tarrin.  He has to pack his room."

      "Pack?"

      "I'm not staying in this house with Jesmind another second," she said flatly.  "The instant you let me out of here, I'll just go kill her.  I know how much you'd disapprove, so I'm going back to my own house."

      "Are you sure?  It won't be the same without you and Eron," he said.

      "Trust me, Tarrin.  If you want to keep Jesmind alive, you won't argue," she said in a tightly controlled voice, her eyes glowing with cold fury.

      Tarrin sighed, and nodded.  She was right.  If Mist was that mad, and Jesmind was that mad, then nothing short of time apart was going to cool their tempers.  They had been together too long, and just like Were-cat mates, they had had enough of one another.  Mist's Were-cat mentality was much stronger than the other females, and it was first to reassert its need for isolation.  Simply put, Mist had had enough of company.  If it wouldn't have been Jesmind, it would have been Kimmie, or Jula, or even Tarrin.  Mist needed to get away from other Were-cats for a while.

      "I'm sorry to see you go, Mist," he told her honestly.

      "I'm not sorry to leave," she said bluntly.  "You can come visit, Tarrin," she added.  "But don't come anytime soon."

      "I'll keep that in mind."

      Tarrin used Sorcery to let Eron out of Mist's cell, then he knelt before him and handed him Sandy.  "Go gather up your things, cub.  If you can find them," he added.  "Your mother's taking you back to the house where you lived before you went to the Tower."

      "Aww, I want to stay!" he complained.

      "That's too bad," Mist hissed at him.  "Now go!  If you're not ready in five minutes, you lose everything you leave behind!"

      Tarrin went with him, and explained things to Eron as they gathered up what wasn't destroyed in his room.  "It won't be forever, cub," he assured him.  "Your mother just needs to spend some time away from the rest of us.  It's something all Were-cats need to do from time to time.  As soon as she feels up to it, you'll be back."

      "I hope so," he said in a sulky tone, stuffing some clothes into a small backpack Tarrin gave him last month.

      "Don't worry at it too much, Eron," he told him, handing him the toy soldiers he had found in Mala Myrr.  "Your mother's going to need your company for a while, so do me a favor and be extra good for her.  She needs your attention, not your troublemaking."

      Tarrin helped Eron pack up what he wanted to take with him, then returned to where Mist was being held and let her out.  She stalked up to him tightly, her muscles twitching, as he could tell she was fighting not to rush across the house and try to get at Jesmind again.  Eron stepped up to her and offered her his paw, his little pack slung over his shoulder and Sandy the desert fox cradled in his other arm.  "I hope you'll be back soon," he told her.

      "I don't know," she told him stiffly.  "You will come visit?" she asked.

      "Just let me know when you're ready," he said, tapping the amulet she wore around her neck.

      "I will," she nodded.  "Come on, cub.  We have to go."

      "Aww," he sighed.  "Bye, Papa," he said, hugging Tarrin's legs.

      "I'll be over the moment you tell me to come," he promised both of them, putting a huge paw on Eron's back, having to bend over to do so, then leaning down and kissing Mist on the cheek.  "You need any help?"

      "Please," she said with a roll of her eyes, then she almost dragged Eron after her as she moved towards the door.

      Tarrin watched her go, amused at her parting remark and a bit wistful at seeing her go.  But it was for the best.  And besides, she wasn't very far away.  Nobody ever was for him.  So it wasn't a goodbye, it was just until tomorrow.

 

      It took almost ten days for life to return to something approaching normalcy in the Kael household.

      The first thing that happened was that Jesmind was released from her cell and immediately thrashed Jasana for not letting her out.  The cub endured this unfair bit of retaliation nobly, and afterwards Jesmind was a bit contrite at having done it.  But Jesmind's contrite mood didn't last long, when she heard about what had happened with Eron out in the desert, and Jasana ended up going through another round of thrashing, which she did not suffer quite so nobly as the first.  After that, they summoned Kimmie back from his parents' house, who was accompanied by Tarrin's parents, and Jenna arrived from Suld with Ianelle in tow.  Tarrin explained what had happened to them all, then told them that Mist had left, needing time by herself.  They all understood her need for it, and it was accepted with very little regret.  Except for Jasana, anyway, who had just lost her playmate and the victim of all her conniving little schemes.  They knew that as soon as Mist recovered her composure and had some time away from everyone else, she'd be ready to come back.  The only thing they didn't really know was how long it would take.

      After that bit of sobering news, the cleanup began.  Ianelle tried to take command of the cleanup efforts, but as soon as she realized that Tarrin and Jenna knew spells that would reassemble destroyed objects, she went from commandant to willing pupil.  The requirement for the spell was that a majority of the pieces of the object be at hand.  This at first seemed a bit daunting, as pieces of one object could quite literally be scattered throughout five rooms on three floors, except for the fact that Tarrin and Jenna also knew a spell that caused all the remaining pieces of a broken object to gather around the one used as the focus of the spell, conveniently gathering up all the pieces of an object, no matter how widely scattered they were across the house.  Tarrin found Ianelle's almost instinctive need to order people around to be slightly amusing, but it was definitely a part of her personality.  She was a very domineering woman, which explained why Auli rebelled against her so much.

      The reconstruction of the house took four days, because of the sheer number of objects that Jenna, Tarrin, and later Ianelle, after she learned the spells, had to rebuild.  They had managed to recover everything that was destroyed, and it took another day for them to finish putting everything back where it belonged.

      When it was done, they all stood in the parlor and looked around.  They were all tired, dirty, sweaty, and very, very glad it was over.  Ianelle took in the room and blew out her breath.  "And I thought Auli had temper tantrums," she related, which caused all the others to collapse into helpless laughter.

      After the recovery of the house, they all had to get used to the fact that Mist was no longer there.  Kimmie usually had Jula helping her with her twins, so there was little loss in that regard.  Kimmie and Jula were the very best of best friends, like two sisters themselves, and Jula had all but become a second mother to Tara and Rina.  Mist rarely cooked, so there was little loss there.  The biggest loss to Tarrin just seemed to be her presence.  Mist was a very quiet, withdrawn, moody Were-cat who rarely spoke, but always seemed to be around.  He found that he missed looking up and seeing her sitting on her favorite sofa over nearer to the big dining table by the kitchen, usually keeping an eye on Eron as she attended to other things or practiced reading Sha'Kar.  She didn't like anyone who came to visit except Auli, for some odd reason--Auli was the reason she had learned Sha'Kar--and the house was actually quite a bit calmer and quieter without her and Eron's crashing around.  But he still missed her, and missed his son.  They belonged in the house, and their absence struck at the very sense of his concept of home.  Without Mist's endless arguing with Jesmind and Eron's careening around, it seemed less like home and more like...just a house.  Tarrin could accept why she had to leave, but he still felt a little empty that they were gone.

      Tarrin distracted himself by immersing himself back in his favorite thing to do, and that was study.  His current realm of study, as it usually was, was the Dwarves, but now he had something new to examine.  He still had the axe he'd taken from Mala Myrr, and that became his object of study.  He had Kimmie give him a blank book and he started writing things down that he noticed about his studies or conclusions he made and the axe started it out.  It was made of a metal Tarrin had never seen before, but a metal that did exist naturally within the world.  Tarrin had been forced to ask Sapphire to identify it for him, for she was the only one old enough which he felt comfortable contacting on the spur of the moment.  It was made of a metal called Mythril, a metal that, he discovered from Sapphire, only existed in the deepest bowels of the earth, so deep that only the Dwarves and their advanced mining techniques could reach it.  It was a metal of unparalelled hardness and resilience, and only the Dwarves had known the secrets of smelting, refining, and shaping the metal into weapons and armor.  It was such a rare and strong metal that the Dwarves never used it for anything other than weapons or armor.  It was very rare and dreadfully expensive, even when the Dwarves were at the pinnacle of their civilization, and only the richest or most powerful Dwarves had weapons or armor made of it.  Sapphire said that the histories she read remarked that most of the other metals and gems the Dwarves found were just happenstance as they searched for the ultra-rare prize of Mythril.  A single bar of Mythril was worth a thousand times its weight in gold, but in a kind of twisted logic, it really only had worth to the Dwarves, since they were the only ones who could do anything with it.

      Tarrin studied the weapon for five days, and didn't get very far.  It had Duthak runes on both sides of its double axehead, engraved vertically along the central spine of the axe's two heads, and encroaching into the widening head blades in a triangular manner.  The dominant rune was that same odd symbol that was so much larger than all other other writing engrave into the axe, that of the pyramid-like symbol with its top cut off and its bottom open, with the three horizontal lines within it.  That rune was on both sides of the axe's heads, right in the center of symmetry, where the haft extended from the bottom of the axehead, and exactly in the center between the thrusting spike and the haft.  The axe was surprisingly light, as this Mythril metal was lighter than steel, and its Mythril haft was surprisingly long for a race as squat in stature as Dwarves.  Perhaps the Dwarf whose body from whom Tarrin had take the axe had used it as a two-handed weapon.  The haft was even long enough for him to use, if somewhat awkwardly, since his entire paw would take up the haft of the weapon, putting his thumb right under the axehead.  The average Dwarf's head would just barely come up to his hips, judging by the skeletons he'd examined and the information he'd read in the books on Dwarves he'd managed to gather up.  Given that his paws were oversized for his frame, and that made the size difference in the weapon between how a Dwarf would use it and how he used it an extreme one.

      Though the axe kept its secrets, Tarrin did manage to figure out a few things.  Since Tarrin suspected that that Dwarf had also had Mythril armor--at least he thought it was, since the magical enchantment in it had survived the Breaking...perhaps Mythril was so tough it could even survive that--he had to have been either very rich or very powerful, or perhaps both.  A king, or some kind of Dwarven noble.  The craftsmanship of the weapon was what originally made him think that, but now that he knew that it was Mythril, he was sure of it.  A nobleman of some kind, using his precious axe and armor to defend his people to the very end.  He had been in a large group of other dead Dwarves, hinting that they had made a stand there, possibly delaying the Demons while others escaped, or giving allies a chance to get into position to attack.

      Again Tarrin was swept up in his admiration for the long-dead race, who had sacrficed themselves to the very last man, woman, and child in order to save the world from the Demonic invasion.  In his eyes, that was courage.  Total, raw, unmitigated,and unmatched courage.

      But there was only so much he could learn from the axe before it became more an object of aggravation than it was an object of interest.  He put it aside, a little annoyed that he couldn't read duthak, half-expecting to see Eron come crashing out of the kitchen or see Jesmind and Mist coming downstairs, engaged in yet another argument, and he sighed.  He missed Mist, and he definitely didn't like being separated from his son.  Mist hadn't contacted him yet to tell him it was alright to visit, and he was getting a little worried about her.  Her house had to be in disrepair, and he didn't like the idea of her and Eron doing all that work.  And there was the fact that they were alone, but that thought didn't last long.  There was nothing in the entire Heartwood that was any kind of danger to Mist.  She was the queen of the mountain, and no one in Fae-da'Nar would dare interfere with her.

      Mist's absence had affected everyone else as well.  Kimmie looked a little depressed, and Jasana sulked almost all the time, moping around the house and sighing quite a bit.  Tara and Rina were too young to understand what was going on, but even they seemed to sense that there was something missing from the house.  Rina didn't smile as much as usual, and Tara's constant tempestuous outbursts lacked their usual keening edge.  Jesmind was still rather embarassed about the whole thing, enduring spiteful glares from her daughter for both punishing her for doing what her father told her to do and being the reason she had lost her playmate.  Jula was the only one that seemed unmoved by Mist's departure, but then again, she was always too busy either with lessons from Tarrin or helping Kimmie take care of the twins to show much emotion about it.

      Eron's departure left Tarrin as the only male in the house.  That fact didn't really impact him very much until he sat at the breakfast table and mused over his friends...and discovered that more of them were female than male.  That, he decided, was a bit unusual, given that many of them weren't Were-cats.  He remembered a time when he had plaintively wondered how all these unusual women kept finding him.  Dolanna wasn't that unusual, but she was about the only one.  His mate, Mist, Kimmie, Jula, Triana, Camara Tal, Keritanima, Allia, Sarraya, Ariana, and Sapphire definitely were unusual.  The Goddess had teased him that it was his fault, and in a way, he guessed that it was.  His sisters were his sisters, and his closeness with Triana and his females needed no real explanation.  Camara Tal was sent because Tarrin identified more with his mother than his father, and it meant that the Goddess needed a protector that came close to his concept of his mother, so as to give her a fighting chance when dealing with his unpredictable, violent, feral nature.  Females that reminded him of Elke Kael had a much better chance of avoiding injury or death should Tarrin get angry with them.  That was the sole reason that Camara Tal had been sent to help him, because she had personality traits that were very similar to his mother, and that would afford her an extra level of protection from him should he turn violent on her.  Over time, he couldn't help but like her, and come to discover that she was really much different from Elke Kael than he first thought.  Other females, like Sarraya or Auli, were just bad luck, he guessed.  They just grew on him, the way Jeri did, ingratiating themselves on him until he just couldn't help but like them.

      Tarrin made a mental note to himself to never let those two meet.  Either by herself was a potential disaster, but together they would be a catastrophe of monumental proportions.

      That wasn't to say that he didn't have male friends.  He liked Thean tremendously, and he also had been close friends with Faalken before he died.  He was still very close friends with Dar and Azakar, and was still friends with Sevren.  He had to admit that he liked Jeri, the youngling Were-cat male who had fought with him at Suld, and Phandebrass was a devoted friend as well as a source of trepidation, amusement, and a good dose of healthy fear.  Phandebrass the Unusual, as he was now known in Suld, was a dead-on description of him, and the stories flew every day of what he'd blown up last ride or what magical terror he'd conjured up from the darkest pits of the Nine Hells.  Tarrin's idea of a good male friend was much different from a female, and their personalities were a great deal wider in scope.  From the fatherly Thean to the totally unhinged Phandebrass, Tarrin's male friends were as different from one another as they were from him.  He hadn't really heard anything about Walten in a while--he needed to ask Jenna what was going on with him.  Last he heard, Walten was still in the Initiate, which wasn't a bad mark against him.  Tiella had had more magical aptitude than Walten, and that meant that he was having a slightly harder time of it than Tiella had.  Then again, Tiella probably got all sorts of private instruction from Dar, at least between kisses traded in dark corners.

      Another male acquaintance he'd thought about a few times was Haley.  He really wasn't sure why, since he'd only met him once, but Haley had been instrumental in swaying Fae-da'Nar in aiding in the battle at Suld.  He'd just wondered how he'd been doing.  Since he'd been such a help, it was unseemly to Tarrin to not at least think about him from time to time, and though he hadn't exactly liked Haley when he met him, he'd respected him.  Given that Tarrin had been very feral when he met Haley, it was no surprise that he hadn't liked him then.

      But they didn't belong in the house the way Eron and Mist did, and every day they were gone made him notice their absence more and more, which irritated Jesmind to no end.  She suspected that he was pining over Mist, when actually he was more keenly feeling the absence of his son than Mist's departure.  He certainly missed her, but Tarrin was very attached to his children, and not having one of them in the house seemed....unnatural to him.

      After ten days of feeling the emptiness of his missing child and friend, he felt the need to go visit the one person that never failed to put in him a sense of contentment, and that was his little mother.  He visited Janette every time he went to Suld to see Jenna, which was about once every ten days or so.  When he visited her, he always did so without the other Were-cats.  Jasana had visited once, but when she offered to bite Janette when she wondered aloud what it would like to be a Were-cat, Tarrin, Jesmind, Tomas, and Janine all agreed unanimously that Tarrin's dangerous little daughter shouldn't be visiting.  At least not until she was a little more mature.  The fact that, back then, Tarrin wouldn't trust his daughter alone with Janette was all that had to be said.  Jesmind harbored a deep resentment of Janette, an aspect of the very un-Were-cat jealousy she had over him, so Tarrin didn't really like her visiting with him either.  To Jesmind, Janette's affection was just as much a threat to her hold on him as Mist or Kimmie was, which was utterly silly, since Janette was an eleven year old human girl.  But irrational jealousy was just that, irrational.  She was a very poor guest, so Tarrin wouldn't let her come along.  Eron was too hyper to stay in their house more than two minutes without breaking something, and Mist was too hostile to outsiders.  Jula and Kimmie were probably the only Were-cats he'd take with him to visit, but Kimmie wasn't ready to travel with her daughters being so young, and Jula stayed with her to help her take care of them.

      He usually did, however, bring his parents.  Eron and Elke Kael were very, very good friends with Tomas and Janine, and they would spend all day talking and catching up while Tarrin and Janette visited, which never failed to become a game of Tarrin chasing around that battered old wooden doll around the house as Janette dragged it on a string behind her.  Any time he was feeling depressed or out of sorts, a good visit with Janette never failed to brighten his mood considerably, and a little snuggle therapy with his adored little mother was exactly what he needed to adjust to his son and friend not being around anymore.

      But Janette wasn't the darling little girl that he'd first met so long ago.  She was thirteen now, just starting to fill out, and her interest in her lessons had increased significantly now that she'd started noticing boys.  Those lessons made boys notice her when she played the lute or sang or spoke in other languages, showing them how educated and cultured and interesting she was, so now she attacked her lessons with great eagerness each day, which pleased Janine like a crow with an entire melon field to itself.

      His little mother was growing up.  Soon she would be married and have children of her own.  It reminded him about the marching of the years, and the rather poignant reminder that while time would affect those around him, it wouldn't affect him.  Janette would grow up, have children, grow old, and then she would die, while Tarrin remained.  Thinking about that made him truly understand the pain that Triana had gone through after a thousand years, to have friends, good friends, and be forced to watch time take them away.  It was quite sobering, and it put him in a pensive mood for almost the entire day after realizing it.

      No wonder the katzh-dashi had a reputation of being standoffish.  They weren't being anti-social, they were just associating with people who were like them, who wouldn't die on them thirty or forty years down the road.  They were an order of all but immortals, people who would not die until something killed them, and that would give them exceptionally long life spans.  Ianelle was nearly fifteen hundred years old, and she was at a point where it would take something truly exceptional to kill her, since she was such a powerful Sorceress.

      But the idea of looking so far into the future couldn't hold itself in his mind for long, a mind more attuned to the present instead of the past or future.  The day after his epiphany, he told the females he was going to see Jenna, collected up his parents, and Teleported to Suld.  They avoided everyone at the Tower and went straight to Tomas' house.  Nanna the maid was quite surprised to see them, letting them in quickly and calling Tomas and Janine in from the study, where she was helping Tomas go over some accounting figures.  All other plans went right out the window when they realized that the Kaels were visiting, and it became a day off for everyone in the house except poor Deris, the family's cook.

      While Tarrin's parents caught up with Janette's parents, Tarrin and Janette caught up.  He listened attentively as she told him all about her new lessons with the harpsichord, a strange instrument from Telluria that had keys that caused little hammers to strike taut wires inside it, which produced surprisingly melodious and pleasant sound.  He found out all about one of Janette's new friends, a Tykarthian girl who moved in up the street named Shelly, and how much she was noticing the boys up and down the street and at parties her parents took her to were starting to smile at her and talk to her, and how much she liked the attention.  He found out that she had mastered the flute and didn't take lessons in that anymore, but she still hated the flute, but had started learning the math that her father used to do the books in its place until her mother found something else for her to learn.  She'd just started taking interest in her father's business, for Tomas was a successful merchant.  Tarrin mused that this might cause a problem, for Janine was grooming Janette to be a wife, not a merchant.  He sensed a showdown looming on the horizon, if the light in Janette's eyes didn't dim a little whenever she talked about the family business.

      Mostly it was the self-important events of a thirteen year old girl, but he did find out one bit of rather important news during his visit.  He found out that Janette was going to enter the Novitiate at the end of the year, not for Sorcery, but for the high-quality education that the Tower would provide.  Girls and boys educated through the Novitiate, the Tower's school, had quite a jump on everyone else.  Though the Noviate was used primarily to find children with the potential to be Sorcerers, they still had highly qualified teachers and had a school curriculum that rivalled even Wikuna in its bredth and scope.  Students of the Novitiate learned history and mathematics, and could also take courses in science, architecture, smithing, foreign languages (as far as Sulasia was concerned, since many students arrived that spoke Sulasian as a second language), etiquette, politics, public speaking, courses about the customs of other peoples and other races, and training opportunities in the basics of merchantcraft that would make them good speakers, excellent negotiators, accomplished accountants, wily politicians, and learned conversationalists.  Those were traits that many noble houses prized in their younger generation.  Most nobles sent their children to the Tower for five years of education, and when they came out, they were intellectually ready for to take up their places in their noble houses.  Arren himself was a product of the Novitiate, as was almost every Sulasian king or queen for nearly three thousand years.

      Since Janette was Sulasian, it meant that her parents would get a break on the cost of sending Janette to school.  On the other hand, since this was Janette, it meant that she'd get the education for free.  When one was personal friends with the Keeper, one got certain boons of preferential treatment.  The cost reduction for natives was what allowed so many craftsmen to send their children to the Novitiate, so they could be educated and become an asset to the kingdom.  Sulasia's population was probably the best educated in all of the West because of the Tower.  Almost everyone could read and do simple math, skills that weren't quite as prevalent in Shacè, Ungardt, Tykarthia, Draconia, Daltochan, Arkis, the Stormhavens, or the Free Duchies.  Not all of them were taught at the Tower, but most had an aunt or grandfather or some relative who did, and the knowledge of reading and simple math were often taught to the rest of the family.  Over the centuries, the Tower had caused the proliferation of literacy in Sulasia, until teaching children how to read and do numbers were basic skills taught long before they reached adolescence.

      Tarrin saw what was coming.  He hoped Janine would be content with Janette being both a wife and a merchant.  Janine had to know what the Tower was going to teach her daughter, so it made him wonder if she really would be opposed to the idea of Janette going into the family business.  After all, if she found a good husband, he'd be in the business too.

      But, as they always did, their visits turned into a simple game of chase.  Tarrin spent almost two hours chasing that battered wooden doll around the house, and despite the fact that she was growing up, Janette still delighted in the game.  He knew that they wouldn't be able to act like children much longer, but then again, he found the idea of that to be rather promising.  The little girl would be replaced by an intelligent young woman, and he'd enjoy conversation with her then as much as he enjoyed playing games with her now.

      The visit did everything Tarrin wanted it to do.  It put him in a much better mood, and by afternoon, after a delicious meal and engaging conversation, Tarrin and his parents bid them farewell and took the opportunity to go see Jenna.  Jenna was well and happy to see them, and Tarrin caught up a little with Ianelle while they were there, getting the latest updated reports about what was going on in the world and finding out what was happening with Auli.  She was still in the Tower in Sharadar, and still getting into trouble almost every other day.  He found out from Jenna that Dar was about ready to murder his parents and come home, because his mother was contesting his attempts to be married in Arkis.  Dar's mother had gone from disapproval of Tiella to abject hatred of Tiella, and was beseeching the High Priest of Mikaras himself to deny Dar the right to marry, as well as trying to have Tiella ejected from Arkis as an illegal settler; Arkis had strict laws about outlanders entering the kingdom and taking up residence.  Only those who married Arkisians could legally live in Arkis.  Jenna had fired off a rather terse letter to High Priest Rasham that if he rejected Dar's marriage application, the Tower was going to have very unpleasant things to say about it.  And she went on to say that if Tiella, a fully recognized member of the katzh-dashi, was thrown out of Arkis, then there would be an ugly international incident.  She all but ordered him to put a hand into the seething cesspool of the Arkisian governmental bureaucracy and put a stop to the nonsense of having Tiella ejected from Arkis.  Or else.

      Jenna certainly didn't help by stirring up that hornet's nest, as Dar's mother would have a conniption when she found out that Jenna was interfering, but he understood her irritation.  Dar and Tiella were in love, and they were already married.  It would be silly for Rasham to refuse to allow them to marry, because the ceremony was only a technical formality to establish legal marriage under Arkisian law.  For Rasham to deny Dar permission was just like saying he wasn't married, and any children he and Tiella had would be illegitimate in Arkisian law.  Dar's mother couldn't do anything about that, so she was doing everything she could to make Dar and Tiella as miserable as possible, to force them to split up.  That really angered Jenna.  So Jenna, being Jenna, hung several very nasty rocks over Rasham's head as dire warning of the trouble that would befall him and Arkis if he didn't do what Jenna wanted him to do.

      That never ceased to amuse Tarrin.  His little sister, sweet little Jenna, who had the capacity to be an absolute tyrant when things didn't go her way.  The knowledge Spyder had bestowed upon Jenna had truly changed her, but he had to admit that they were not bad changes.  She was assertive, authoritative, decisive, and she was also compassionate and honestly concerned for the katzh-dashi.  She was a very good ruler, and the katzh-dashi and just about everyone in Suld absolutely adored her.

      Tarrin wasn't too worried.  Rasham and Arkis didn't want to irritate Jenna.  That was a very bad idea.  Jenna's power may not extend too far beyond the boundaries of Sulasia, but what Jenna lacked in official power, she more than made up for in friends.  She was related by blood to the Ungardt and Fae-da'Nar, was a sister to the Wikuni Queen, was very close, personal friends with the Queen of Sharadar, had strong ties with the Amazons, was well liked by the Wizards, and happened to be friends with the Empress of Yar Arak--sort of.  She didn't have the official authority to back many of her demands, but the society that was the rulers of the kingdoms of the Known World knew that Jenna didn't need official power when she had so many friends around who would be more than happy to lend her a hand.  There were many kinds of power, and the power of Jenna's friendships more than made up for her lack of political or military power.

      They talked well into the night, until Jenna's head was nodding off, and then they sent her to bed and Tarrin and his parents returned home.

 

      The short vacation did wonders for Tarrin's mood, but the simple fact that Mist and Eron were gone still bothered him every time he looked around the house.  He managed to distract himself with his studies and his teaching of Jasana and Jula and the presence of his other three children, but a thousand friends and family couldn't cover the hole left by the departure of only two.

      The only thing that brought him out of it was when Mist finally contacted him and told him he could visit.  He did so immediately, leaving in the middle of teaching Jasana and Jula a weave that transmuted water into acid.  Mist had returned to the house she'd built for herself after getting pregnant, a small cabin on top of a very gentle rise that was contained in a shallow valley not far from the mountains.  It was crude by Tarrin's standards, but then again, he'd become totally spoiled by the amenities of his wonderful house.  But like Tarrin had in the desert, Mist quickly reverted to living without the luxuries his house provided, and actually seemed a little more comfortable in her little three room cabin, being again on her own and in the wild, mistress of her domain rather than being a guest of another.  She was much calmer, much more open than she had been in the house, and actually seemed happier.  Tarrin felt a little guilty when he realized that Mist hadn't really been happy in his house, that the only reason she had stayed there was to keep Tarrin close to his son, and to keep Eron close to Jasana.  He was the reason Mist had been unhappy.

      It reminded him of the powerful bond that existed between him and the diminutive, feral female.  Mist would do anything if she thought it would make Tarrin happy, even if she hated doing it.  Triana was probably the only adult Were-cat that could force Mist to act against her will, but Tarrin was the only adult that could make Mist act against her own wishes of her own volition.  The trust and loyalty that she had in him was unbelievable, and he suddenly felt a massive responsiblity towards her, much as he had for Kimmie when he found out how she felt about him.  Mist didn't love him like Kimmie did, but she was very, very fond of him, and she considered him her truest friend.  That meant that he had to honor that, as well as understand that he had to make sure that Mist did things that she did for herself, and not just to make him happy.  Mist had done a great deal because she had thought it would make him happy, despite the fact that it put her in a perpetual bad mood, and got his house trashed when she finally couldn't take it anymore.

      Tarrin spent the rest of the day with Mist and Eron, seeing Mist come out of the shell she had kept around herself in the house, seeing her actually smile for a change, and he knew that Mist's leaving the house was best for everyone involved.  And she and Eron weren't more than a thought away for him.

      After grounding himself in her home so he could Teleport back there whenever he pleased, he left early the next morning.  When he got back, Jesmind had a fit that he'd spent the night with Mist, but he brushed her off in that manner that never failed to drive his mate absolutely wild.  Jesmind was being silly, being too jealous, and he made sure she knew exactly how he felt.  This kind of behavior annoyed Tarrin, but he knew that to get the good out of his mate, sometimes he had to deal with her bad side.  Those times when Jesmind was happy and affectionate more than made up for these stormy fits.  His mate was very moody and temperamental...in other words, a typical Were-cat.  But Jesmind had a very hot temper, one of the hottest among them, so Tarrin knew that he was never going to go a full ride without setting her off one way or another.  So he'd simply learned how to ride out those explosions of ire.  When one lived with someone with such an explosive temper, one had to learn how to live in the eye of the hurricane, to not to stray too far from the calm center, else be lashed by the winds of howling fury that lurked just away from that calm eye.

      Tarrin retreated to the sanctity of his private study, where he kept his books and the little bits of Dwarven art and artifacts that he liked to study, one place Jesmind knew that she was not welcome when she was in a bad mood.  He returned to studying the axe, but it wasn't long before he was in a bad mood, since he really couldn't get any further with it.  He again pored through his books, trying to find some clues to the duthak writing on the axehead, but again came up empty.

      Jasana opened his door and peeked in.  "Mama's looking for you," she told him.  "She's really zonkers today."

      "I visited Mist and Eron yesterday."

      "I know.  Why did you stay all night?"

      "I had to ground myself so I can Teleport there."

      "Oh.  Why didn't you tell Mama?  She thinks you and Mist were--"

      "Because she's being silly," he said abruptly, cutting her off.  He didn't really like hearing Jasana use the kind of language that he knew was coming, but she was a Were-cat, and his say in her upbringing only went so far.  Were-cats were educated in ways that would make humans think they were all depraved, but it was a simple difference of culture, nothing more.  Were-cats didn't hide their children from those kinds of things, since they'd be partaking of them when they grew up.  Despite that, the human-raised Tarrin still didn't really like knowing that his daughter was not only perfectly allowed to use that kind of language, but she knew what it all meant.  It was one of the few areas where Tarrin was still more human than Were.  Kimmie had been totally subjugated to the Were ideal, because she'd been turned for more than a hundred years, but at least Jula shared his shock at some of the things that Mist and Jesmind taught their cubs.  Like him, Jula totally embraced her Were nature, but still had strong remnants of her human mentality lurking in her personality.  More so than him, probably because she'd been human much longer than Tarrin or Kimmie had been before they were turned.

      "No need to snap at me," Jasana huffed.

      "Sorry, cub, I guess I'm getting annoyed again," he said, tossing the book on the table moodily.

      "I told you, Papa," she said chidingly, "just use the Book of Ages.  It's got to have Dwarven writing in it.  It can teach it to you easy, just like you learned Sha'Kar."

      Tarrin looked at his daughter, about to rebuke her, then he laughed ruefully.  "I totally forgot about that," he admitted, scrubbing the back of his head with his paw.

      "Again," she teased.  "You're too easily distracted, Papa."

      "Don't push it, cub," he told her with insincere parental authority, waggling a finger at her.

      "I'll tell Mama the real reason you were there," she told him.  "Since you're afraid to."

      Jasana laughed and shut the door when Tarrin threw a small paperweight at the door half-heartedly, then chuckled and leaned back in the chair.  Jasana's behavior had improved since returning to the desert.  She had been very well-behaved, still stinging from the poignant lesson Fara'Nae taught to her, and he had hope that she finally would get reigned in somewhat.  He was glad that she had learned where the line was without it affecting her base personality, which was optomistic, bubbly, fun-loving, adorably mischievious, and quite charming.  His daughter was a total charmer, but always before they were always too wary of her charm, fearing that ulterior motives lurked in her charismatic behavior.

      But in this instance she was more than right.  The Book of Ages would end his fruitless searching through musty old books for information that would certainly be in that book.  It would teach him Duthak, as well as the Dwarven language, though it would do nothing to help him with pronunciation.  More than that, the history of the Dwarves would be in that book, an accounting he wouldn't find in any other tome of history, which would give him a background no other scholar could match.

      The good part was that the Book of Ages wouldn't teach him everything.  It would certainly be very thorough, but as he'd learned reading through it before, its lore dealt mainly with major events and generalities, not things like customs, daily life, and so on.  The Book of Ages would tell him where and when cities were built, it would teach him their language, show him exhaustive geneology trees showing the roots of the Dwarven kings, and would teach him about the basics of Dwarven culture as it pertained to history, but that was it.  The book was vague about culture, customs, and the simple day-to-day activities which interested Tarrin much more than a history of their race.  It dealt in hard facts, not the minutia of small details that would turn the book into a vast compilation so endlessly huge that it would take a massive library to hold it all.  Even the Book of Ages had limits, and that limit was space.  So the book would quickly teach him the basics, the core education that would allow him to learn about the Dwarves the way in which he wanted to, which was to understand their culture and society as much as know how they had risen and fallen with the sands of time.

      Tarrin wanted to learn, but he didn't want to learn it all from the Book of Ages.  It would make his victory in that regard seem cheaply gained.  Tarrin still believed that one had to work for goals that one would prize and treasure, and getting to his goal simply by cheating using the Book of Ages would make it a hollow victory.  Tarrin wanted to learn more than just the history of the Dwarves, he wanted to learn what made them tick, wanted to understand their society, their culture, and their customs.  He wanted to see through the eyes of one of the ancient Dwarves and understand what motivated him, and what a typical day in his life might be like.  And he wouldn't learn that from the Book of Ages.

      And that suited him just fine.

      Getting the book was a matter of simplicity.  Tarrin had once owned it, and that allowed him to Summon it to him.   That was done without any thought in the matter, though he was suprised at how much energy the spell had taken for it to work.  He wondered at that for a moment as he ran the pad of his forefinger along the book's elaborately designed front cover, his mind drifting back to the savage battle with the glabrezu to obtain it, and the many adventures and experiences he had had while carrying it back to Suld.  He wondered if those adventures had managed to find a way into the book; the book wrote itself, new pages appearing in the very back of it as events of modern history significant enough to capture its attention were recorded into it, to be saved for posterity.  The book was very large, even for Tarrin's oversized body, and he knew from experience that though it looked like it only had about a thousand pages, it actually had tens of thousands of pages.  Each page was made of a strange, very thin paper, but was still remarkably tough, and they seemed to magically compress into the binding so they would all fit.  The book itself was an item of great magical power, and the magic that allowed a ream of paper to fit into the bindings of a single book was but one aspect of its magical ability.

      With a start, he realized that it had taken so much energy to retrieve because Jenna had placed magical safeguards around it to keep it from being stolen.  It also occured to him that he never asked Jenna to borrow the book, he just took it.  Jenna would be furious if she found out, but having it right there in his paws was enough to keep him from sending it back and asking her.  It also wouldn't be a good idea to ask her if he could borrow it after he took it.  Jenna was very serene and sedate, but she was half Ungardt, and that gave her a very nasty temper.  It was also something of a pet peeve of hers when people bothered her things without asking, a trait that Tarrin had probably instilled in her when they were children, teasing her by taking her dolls and other possessions and hiding them around the house and farm.  It just took quite a bit to set her off.  Tarrin had seen one of Jenna's fits, and he had no desire to endure one of those.  When she was really mad, she could give Jesmind a run for her money.

      Tarrin decided on a rather simple solution that should hold up until he was done with the book.  He Created an exact duplicate of the Book of Ages, that looked absolutely convincing so long as someone didn't open it and look inside, and sent it back to occupy the space from which he had taken the Book of Ages.  He put his name on the inside cover, so if Jenna did open it, she'd know who had it, and thus hopefully deflect some of her anger.  When he was done with the book for tonight, he would trade the real for the fake, and swap them again whenever he needed the book.  That way he could use the book whenever he needed to do so, and he wouldn't have to bother Jenna every time he needed it.

      It seemed to work.  For a good ten days, Tarrin borrowed the Book of Ages without incident, and used it.  It took him the first day just to find where the Dwarven language appeared in the book, and after he located it, he began the process of trying to learn it.  It taught Dwarven from Sha'Kar, since the majority of the book was written in Sha'Kar--it didn't switch over to a human language, Sulasian, until after the Breaking, when the Sha'Kar were thought to be extinct--and that proved to make it rather tricky.  He did use the memory enhancing spell to accelerate his learning, but it didn't help as much as learning Sha'Kar had.  Dwarven wasn't a complicated language, but he had already known how to speak Sha'Kar, when he had no idea how to speak Dwarven.  The Book of Ages did not teach how to speak Dwarven, it simply provided the key to learning how to write in Dwarven, and it also provided a Dwarven dictionary of words in another section, which took him about seven hours to find.  It was up to him to take that base of knowledge, the key of the Dwarven writing system, and a dictionary of Dwarven words, and decipher Duthak into the spoken language.  The dictionary did teach proper pronunciation of the Duthak words, so it would allow him to get the pronunciation right when he unlocked the mystery of the Dwarven tongue.

      Learning Duthak took about an hour.  After that, Tarrin had to use the Book of Ages' sections that were written in Dwarven and the dictionary, which he used Sorcery to transcribe into a blank book so he wouldn't have to constantly turn back to it, and he started the lengthy process of deciphering the spoken and written language using the tools he had provided.  Remembering the book that Keritanima had Miranda make when they were learning Sha'Kar, he used Sorcery to keep a written record of what he did, so that whoever read the book after him would have the ability to learn Dwarven from his book, instead of having to do what he was doing.

      During this time, he pulled away from the others, closing himself off in the study he kept on the second floor in one of the spare bedrooms, which had been reconstructed after Jesmind and Mist's battle, the only place he could go in the house to study where he didn't have to worry about being interrupted.  After ten days of constant work, he had managed to master Duthak and begin work on the words and rules of grammar of the Dwarven tongue.  Its pronunciation was harsh, growling in a way, with lots of consonants, probably an insight into the Dwarven personality.  Sha'Kar was lilting, musical, with plenty of vowels, and it was a good indication of the gentle natures of the Sha'Kar people.  A language was quite often an insight into the cultural personality of the peoples who had created it.

      It was precisely ten days after he started that he got in trouble.  Someone knocked on his door with enough force to break the lock, and he whirled in his chair to see a furious Jenna standing in the doorway.  "Tarrin!" she shouted vociferously.  "Do you have my book?"

      She looked like a rabid wolverine.  Tarrin leaned back in his chair and quickly fell back on habits that had allowed him to deal with Demons, monsters, and gods, for at that moment, Jenna looked almost as intimidating.  "Where else would it be?" he asked in a mild tone, tapping it with a claw.

      "Do you have any idea how hard I've been looking for that book?" she shouted at him, stomping into his room.  "I thought one of the Zakkites stole it!"

      "As if they could ever pull that off," he snorted, doing his best to seem mild and unassuming.  "I figured you'd know I had it, since my name was on the inside cover of the replica."  He looked at her.  "I put it there so you'd know I had it."  He stared at her, an eyebrow raising mildly.  "You never opened it, did you?"

      Her eyes blazed for a moment, her shoulders heaving as she panted in fury, and he was momentarily worried that she was going to use Sorcery against him.  But then she pointed a finger at him.  "Why didn't you ask to borrow it?" she raged at him.

      "Because you're busy," he told her in the most complacent manner he could manage, trying to sound both considerate and logical at the same time.  "I've been studying from it for about a ride now, and I didn't want to bother you with asking for it and sending it back to you every day."

      She made several strangled noises, interrupted by "You--I--Why--That--" and then she slammed her hands down at her sides, clenched into fists, and managed some kind of sound that sounded like "Rrrrraooaahhh!!!" before whirling and stomping out of his study.

      Tarrin blew out his breath, relief flowing through him.  At least she wasn't going to throw things.  He jumped up and followed after her, with the intent of trying to calm her down before she went back to Suld, or even worse, jumped over to their parent's house and told them.

      Tarrin had to work for nearly an hour to calm Jenna down, but all in all, he knew he'd gotten off relatively easily in the scope of things.  She'd probably had her fit at the Tower when she realized it was gone.  But that was Ianelle's problem, not his.

 

      It was not half as easy as Keritanima had made it seem.

      For well over two months, Tarrin labored exhaustively in order to learn the Dwarven language.  At first, he thought it would take little more than two rides, but he had been sorely mistaken.  What made it different was that before, when they learned Sha'Kar from those scrolls, they were learning it from writing that was specifically designed to do so.  But Tarrin was doing it from scratch, armed with little more than a dictionary and a key for knowing the letters of the Dwarven writing system, Duthak.  What that meant was that Tarrin could make out the spelling of the words he saw in his old books and on his Dwarven art, but they did not in any way help him sort out the grammar or rules of language that existed in the Dwarven language.  Those, he had to puzzle out for himself.

      He could learn easily enough, given that he used the memory spell liberally, but what it didn't take into account was that he often had to compile enough examples of grammar from many different pieces of Dwarven writing, and cross-reference them with word definitions, that it made it very slow going in understanding the language.  None of the languages he knew was in any way similar to Dwarven, so that wasn't any help.  In Selani and Sha'Kar, the verb was always at the end of the sentence or clause.  In the human languages he knew, the verb was followed by the predicate.  But Dwarven was totally backwards.  The verb often came first, the predicate next, and then the subject, usually but not always followed by a linking verb that connected it to the action of the remainder of the clause or sentence.  So what would be I went down to the inn for a tankard of ale in Sulasian ended up being went down to the inn for a tankard of ale, I did.  That seemed quite odd to him, but Tarrin had a gift for languages, so he was able to wrap his mind around it much quicker than most others would have, even with the use of the memory spell.

      The need to research was what slowed him down so greatly.  Had he had all the information he needed laid out for him as it had been in the Sha'Kar scrolls, he would have been done in twenty days.  But for every hour of actual learning he accomplished, it was accompanied by about three hours of careful research.  And what made matters worse, he needed many different examples of Duthak to find similar words, phrases, and clauses that would allow him to identify and understand Dwarven grammar, as well as idioms and sayings that often made no sense to a neophyte speaker without a base of context grounded in the society that created the language, idioms that had a habit of creeping into any language that was even moderately old.  Dwarves were miners and builders, so much of their idioms revolved around the earth, tools, mining, and smithing.  The word aroga, Dwarven for hammer, seemed to show up in almost every phrase, as if they had some religious obligation to say aroga fifty times a minute.  That made it maddening to try to figure out just which context in which the saying was being used, whether it was an idiom or a saying, or they really just discussed hammers that often.

      During that time, Tarrin became quite a common sight in both Suld and Dala Yar Arak.  He had need of extensive libraries holding ancient tomes, and those were two of the three best places to find them.  He scoured the library in the Tower like a maid obsessed with cleanliness, going through virtually any book that had examples or passages of Duthak inscribed within them.  The Tower's librarian, a weedy little Sorcerer with thin brown hair and spectacles named Erlo, got quite upset with the Were-cat as he would simply appear within the library, scoop up dozens of books at a time and root through them.  He left a terrible mess behind him every time he visited, and he simply took books out of the library without telling anyone he was taking them.  The high-strung little man had quite a fit every time Tarrin appeared in the doorway, waggling an accusatory finger in the direction of his face and trying to be as inconvenient as possible whenever Tarrin needed questions answered.  The Were-cat endured the treatment for all of two days before he simply hung Erlo in midair in the center of the library and spun him like a top whenever the man didn't immediately and thoroughly answer any question he asked.  The Initiates in the library at that moment thought that to be quite funny until Erlo vomited from the severe spinning, spraying the contents of his stomach all over the library, including all over them.  After that bit of abuse, the Tower's head librarian promptly vanished whenever Tarrin appeared in the library.

      After wringing the Tower's library dry, he turned to the Imperial Library of Dala Yar Arak.  They were quite shocked to see him there, and even more shocked to discover that the flat-eyed Were-cat wasn't about to listen to them when they told him that only nobles, permitted scholars, and staff were allowed entry into the library.  It took them nearly four hours to find and get down the thirty librarians who had tried to get in the Were-cat's way, for he had scattered them all over the library in various states of indisposition when they made the mistake of putting their hands on him.  One unfortunate young woman got hung by her ankles off the ceiling, her feet sunk into the polished marble by Sorcery.  Nobles and scholars gathered under her and gaped, staring the thirty spans up at the hysterical woman who struggled to keep her robe from falling over her hips between very loud screams for help.

      Tarrin was fully intent on leaving that woman up there until they found some way to get her feet out of the stone, but Shiika had arrived personally when word of his visit reached her in her palace.  The guards who were shadowing the resolute Were-cat bowed and melted away when the Empress of Yar Arak, resplendent in a glowing gold robe and her crown, today gracing the public with her alluringly beautiful human appearance (everyone in the entire Empire knew she was a Demon, but they rightly didn't care, for she was running the Empire better than any human Emperor had for almost two hundred years), her long hair done in loosely tumbled curls that billowed out over her shoulders and down her shapely back.

      He never looked up when he caught her foul, inhuman scent, a scent that, over the years and with repeated exposure, he had built up something of a resistance to it.  "What do you want, Shiika?" he asked without looking back at her, taking down another book that had Duthak writing on its spine in the Nonhuman Studies section of the vast library, then turning and seating himself at the table which was between them.

      "I think that's what I'm supposed to ask you," she asked with a winsome chuckle, coming up to the table and sitting on the edge of it, facing him.  He glanced up at her and saw her as he remembered first seeing her, as a breathtakingly lovely woman with red hair.  He knew that she didn't look that way to everyone; one of the aspects of her power as a Succubus was that she always appeared as whatever the onlooker considered to be most attractive.  Tarrin considered red hair to be the most lovely shade of hair on a woman, and so she appeared to his eyes to have red hair.  "Do you mind telling me what was so important that you had to waylay my librarians?"

      "They got in my way."

      She laughed.  "That's no reason to hang them off the ceiling," she said, pointing.  Tarrin glanced up, and saw the thin Arakite woman up there, having lost the battle to keep her robe up because all the blood ran to her head.  She'd been so adamant about keeping her robe down--or up, given her attitude towards the ground--because she hadn't had anything on underneath it.

      "Sorry," he said, absently weaving a spell of Earth.  The rock let go of her feet abruptly, and she screamed quite loudly as she dropped towards the floor.  She was caught by a weave of Air just before she hit the polished granite, and fainted dead away before realizing she was safely down and unharmed.

      "You know, all you had to do was ask to be allowed in," she said, putting a hand on the table and leaning on it.

      "Since when do I ask for anything, Shiika?" he told her, ignoring her and her horrific scent as he turned the page of the book holding Dwarven writing before him, as it had been copied from a wall in a ruin found in the mountains of eastern Yar Arak.

      "That's certainly true enough," she said with a slight frown.  "What's got you so interested, anyway?" she asked, looking at the book.  "Dwarven?  By the pit, Tarrin, why didn't you say something?  I speak Dwarven.  I can teach it to you."

      He looked up at her.  "No thanks," he said bluntly.  "I know better than to accept any kind of assistance from a Demon, Shiika.  I know where that road leads."

      "Oh, come now, Tarrin," she said sharply.  "You know I wouldn't do that."

      He gave her a flat stare.

      She chuckled ruefully.  "Okay, okay, so maybe I would," she admitted.  "But I'd never get you, and we'd both have fun for me trying."

      He gave her another flat look, then snorted and looked at the book again.

      "Since I do have you here, Tarrin, you're going to do something," she said, quite sternly.

      "Says you," he countered without looking up.

      "I'm quite serious about it," she said with sudden heat, putting her finger under her chin and raising his head so he was looking at her.  "You owe me, Tarrin, and I always collect on my debts!"

      "What debt would that be?"

      "Saving your ass!" she said hotly.  "Those Legions that happen to still be in Suld didn't come from the gratefulness of my heart!  I sent them there for my own reasons, I'll grant you that, but a Succubus never does anything for free!  Now then, since I can't seem to get satisfaction out of that miserable little stone wall of a sister of yours, I guess I'll have to take payment from you!"

      Tarrin was about to say something, but the Goddess interrupted in the recesses of him mind, very deeply, probably to keep the telepathic Demon from sensing her communication.  Drop it, she warned.  I know what she wants, and it's not an unreasonable request.  Give in.

      But--

      That was not a request! she snapped at him.  We're going to have a little talk about this impertinence of yours, kitten.  I gave you an order, now carry it out!

      Feeling quite abashed and contrite, his ears drooped a little before he caught himself and looked up at the suddenly hot-eyed Demoness.  "What were you trying to get out of Jenna?" he asked.

      "Someone, I don't care who, is going to fix my Palace!" she screamed at him.

      "Fix?  What's wrong with it?"

      "You are!" she shouted even louder, throwing a finger in his face.  "When you borrowed a certain object from me, Were-cat, you made my entire Palace magic-dead!  I'm sick and tired of not being able to use magic in my own house, so you're going to fix it, and you're going to fix it now!"

      She was actually panting.  Obviously, this was something quite serious to her, serious enough to get majorly worked up.  "Oh?  and just what, may I ask, will I get out of it?"

      She gave him a surprised look, and seemed to be completely at a loss for words.  Her mouth worked a few times with no sound coming from it, then she finally managed to find her voice.  "How dare you demand anything in return for fixing what you broke, and after you're already so far in debt to me!" she screamed emotionally.  For some odd reason, he was enjoying seeing the always-cool Shiika suddenly get all bent out of shape.  He'd never seen her mad before, and he found it to be strangely funny.

      Tarrin put his elbow on the table and put his chin in his palm, looking over at her.  "Do tell," he said mildly, his tail slashing behind him, betraying his mirth.  "Explain to me why I'm so indebted to you, and maybe we'll talk about it."

      She glared at him, then suddenly exploded into laughter.  "You're playing with me!" she realized, putting a delicate hand to her upper chest as she laughed.  "So you'll do it?  You'll fix it?"

      "Agree that it wipes the slate clean, and it's a deal," he countered.

      "Here now, it's not worth that," she suddenly flared.  "Your sister is in quite deeply to me."

      "It's entirely up to you, Shiika," he told her, "but I'm not budging.  Call it even-up, or continue to go outside to practice your magic."

      "Don't bargain with me, Tarrin," she said in a dangerously eager voice.  "You won't like what you get out of it."

      She's too right there, kitten.  Just say you'll do it, and do not say it like it's the completion of some kind of bargain.  Tell you you'll do what she asked as a favor, no more, no less.  You don't know what you're about to get into if you try to bargain with her.  That's how she works, and I worked too hard on you to lose you to her.

      Tarrin didn't reply, only gave Shiika a steady look and nodded.  "As a favor to you, I'll do what you ask," he said quickly and carefully.

      She gave him a sudden look, then frowned.  "I know you're around here somewhere, Niami!" she called towards the ceiling, smacking her palms on the table .  "He wouldn't have got out of that so neatly if you hadn't have had a hand in there somewhere!"

      I do so love it when she gets mad, the Goddess said with ultimate satisfaction.

      "I heard that!" Shiika shouted in an ugly tone.

      The Goddess' silvery laughter retreated from his mind as she withdrew from him, and Shiika gave Tarrin a dangerous look when she saw his narrow-eyed amusement.  "I hate it when she cheats!" she complained.  "She does that with Jenna all the time!"

      "She's just keeping us safe from you, Shiika," Tarrin told her.

      "You'd have more fun with me than with her, that's for sure," she told him, regaining her composure and standing up.

      "That's a matter of opinion," he answered.  "Let's go get this overwith.  I have things to do."

      Fixing the Palace was actually alot easier than he thought it might be, when he first surveyed the problem.  Tarrin had pulled the strands away from the Palace, and had never set them right.  He remembered doing that, doing it to rob the glabrezu of its magical powers, which levelled the battlefield between them.  It seemed a bit challenging at first, because of the number of strands he'd have to move around to get them all where they were supposed to be, but his powers as a sui'kun were more than up to the task.  It only took a couple of moments, as he quickly and expertly put every strand back where it belonged, being able to sense how they were orginally arrayed though some kind of innate understanding, probably tied up with his power.

      "There," he said absently, motioning towards the vast Palace.  "Can I go now?"

      "Yes!" she said happily, clapping her hands.  "In fact, I'll tell the librarians you're to be allowed access to the library!  Thank you!" she said with a great deal of actual sincerity as she rushed towards her monstrous home, laughing like a little girl chasing a puppy.

      Tarrin watched her go, her guards chasing after her in confusion, and blew out his breath.  Demons were weird.

      Having legal access to the Imperial Library helped him along quite a bit, at least after the librarians all lost their fear of him.  That took a few days.  But once they were willing to help him, they proved to be indispensible, finding the books he needed and arraying them before him.  He had asked for books holding the old Duthak language, and they had responded quite admirably, even going into their precious stores of truly ancient books and bringing him actual Dwarven books, all of them at least five thousand years old, written in Duthak.  They were very brittle and fragile, and the librarians apologized endlessly when they explained that he simply couldn't take them out of the library, that they were just too delicate to be carried around or banged about.  Usually he completely ignored it when people told him he couldn't do something, but one look at those books told him that in this case, they were more than right.  He wouldn't destroy those books, not when he needed what they held...and taking them out of the library would destroy them.  He thought they were going to kiss him whem he Conjured a few empty books and then used Sorcery to transcribe the entirety of one book into the new book.  It was the spell that Keritanima had invented, that copied the entirety of a book into a new book with such perfect precision that even the ink blots and stains were transcribed, creating a totally faithful reproduction.  He got mobbed by the librarians as they asked him to do that for some of their most ancient tomes, books so old that they feared to even move them, because they were all deathly afraid they would disintegrate and that what they held would be forever lost to posterity.  He could see the sincerity in their eyes when they begged for his help, but he simply didn't have time to do that for them, and it took him a while to explain that.  But he did promise to see if there wasn't something he could do.  After all, they had all been quite helpful to him, even though they didn't have to be, and he felt that a little reciprocation would only be fair.

      Tarrin's solution was a simple one.  The next day, when he arrived at the library at around noon, he had someone else with him.  It was Sevren, one of the few katzh-dashi from the Tower that Tarrin both liked and trusted, and the spectacled Sorcerer had already been briefed as to what Tarrin wanted him to do.  Sevren was more than happy to oblige, and he went with the librarians down into the basement, looking as if they would carry him if he asked it of them, as Tarrin returned to copy more books of Duthak for his personal use.  Tarrin had trained Sevren in the use of the spell, and he proved to be quite adept at it, being capable of casting it many, many times over the day without it exhausting him.

      For seven days, Sevren came with Tarrin every day when he visited the library, and he dutifully copied the library's most ancient tomes into new books for them while Tarrin gleaned what he wanted from the library.  They had to furnish blank books, often having to search quite a bit to find one large enough or big enough to accommodate the copying--the reproductions were totally faithful, even down to the length and width of the writing on the pages, so they had to have books with both enough pages and pages wide and long enough to accept the reproduction.  Sevren struck up a few close friendships with the librarians, the librarians acted as if they worshipped the ground he and Tarrin walked upon, and Tarrin got exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it, and how much of it he wanted every time he visited the library after that.

      Tarrin's burgeoning library quickly overflowed his study, leaving him with something of a dilemma.  He needed all his books, yet he had nowhere to put them, not without knocking out walls to increase the size of his study.  The Goddess engineered a solution, offering to build him a truly vast study and library under the basement, where he would have almost unlimited room to expand.  He agreed immediately, and the next morning, a new staircase was sitting inside the large closet in his room, that led down under the cellar and into a cavernous chamber lined with dark stone blocks, that was perfectly dry, cool, and illuminated with glowglobes that hovered near the twenty span-high ceiling.  There were several tables near stack after stack of bookshelves, both lining the walls and standing free in orderly rows behind the open floorspace.  A large basalt desk stood beyond the tables, with a bookshelf behind it giving it the sense of sitting at the back of a room, tables and a desk that were all created to suit someone of his size.  The oversized furniture and empty bookshelves--enough for ten thousand books--definitely gave the place the feeling that it was his space, his library, for the chairs were so large that most humans wouldn't be able to sit in it with both their legs dangling and their backs resting against the back of the chair.

      Most of his family and friends never seemed to notice how uncomfortable Tarrin was sitting on small furniture, mainly because he was so flexible and so sleek, capable of scrunching himself up enough to sit down on a human-sized chair, and not so bulky that he took up much more room than a human did.  He was able to sit in human-sized furniture, but it was never easy, and it never failed to seriously kink his tail.  These chairs and tables were sized for him, as was the bed and a chair in his room and the chair and table in his study.

      Almost immediately, Tarrin fell in love with the place.  It was perfect.

      Keritanima seemed quite impressed with it when she visited--in person--later that morning.  She nosed around critically, then nodded.  "Nice," she said.  "But the chairs are too big."

      "Too big for you," he pointed out.

      "Alright, too big for me, but you could use a few more for those of us of a normal size," she winked.

      "Fine.  I'll make them booster seats, so you can see the top of the table."

      She flared slightly, then laughed.  "I could see the top of the table in a normal chair.  It would just be at my chest," she corrected him.

      "Then grow some."

      She stuck her tongue out at him.

      "How's Rallix?" he asked, ignoring her childish response.

      "He's fine," she said brightly.  "He had to do a little stomping on a few noble houses yesterday, but it wasn't anything he couldn't handle."

      "I thought he left the stomping to you."

      "Usually he does, but I was busy with another round of trade negotiations with that woman," she said, bristling.

      That woman was Shiika.  "I saw her last ride," he mentioned.

      "She told me.  What were you doing in Dala Yar Arak?"

      "I needed some books, because I hit a dead end at the library in the Tower," he told her.  "I need to bring them down here," he said absently.  A rather high-energy Summoning later, his books were occupying the shelves nearest his desk, and his Dwarven art and artifacts were laid out neatly on tables and in the larger bookshelves that would hold them.

      "You stole books from the Imperial Library?" she asked in sudden surprise, then she laughed delightedly.

      "I copied them," he corrected.

      "Still studying Duthak?" she asked, walking over and picking up one of the books.  "Nevermind, see you are," she added.  "How's it going?"

      "Slowly," he answered.  "I've had to do most of the work to decipher the language myself.  It's taken alot more studying than I expected."

      "It can't be that hard a writing system."

      "I finished Duthak last month.  I'm working on Dwarven now, not just Duthak."

      "Oh, now that I can understand," she nodded.  "I wonder how it got the name Duthak."

      "Because that's what the Dwarves called themselves.  The Duthakar, or Duthak in the singular.  What we call Duthak simply meant Dwarven in their language."

      "They didn't call themselves Dwarves?" Keritanima asked in surprise.

      "What's the Wikuni word for Wikuni?" he asked pointedly.  "Does it sound like Wikuni?"

      She gave him a look, then laughed.  "Alright, you got me there.  So what they called themselves isn't the same as what others called them."

      "It's just a translation," he shrugged, sitting behind the desk, running a paw along its top and feeling its cool, silky smooth perfection.  "I like this desk," he announced in a purring voice.

      "Black is certainly your color," she grinned toothily.  "Oh, Allia told me that Jenna told her she'd have her Teleport device tomorrow.  Expect her to visit sometime tomorrow."

      "She's going to kill you for ruining the surprise," he told her with a slight smile.

      "So what can she do about it?"

      "I think tomorrow, she'll be more than capable of doing something about it," he said pointedly.

      Keritanima glanced at him, then she frowned.  "Uh oh," she said uncertainly.  "I think I just messed up."

      "I think so."

      "Uh, Tarrin?  Brother?  Could you please pretend to be surprised if Allia shows up here tomorrow?" she asked in her most pleading, cajoling voice.

      "If you make it worth my while," he replied with narrow-eyed amusement, looking at her.

      She stepped up to his desk, leaned way over it, then smacked him on the shoulder.

      As promised, Allia did show up at his doorstep the next afternoon, with Allyn and Kedaira in tow.  Jasana immediately commandeered the inu to play with her, and Tarrin had a nice long visit with his sister and Allyn, at least after she dragged the truth of why he wasn't surprised to see her out of him.  The device that Jenna had finally managed to create was a simple metal circlet that she wore on her head, over her eyes, that was set so that it could Teleport itself to the Tower, to Tarrin's house, to Keritanima's palace, or back to where it had originated from when Allia wanted to go home.  It was also programmed to be able to Teleport to Mala Myrr.  That way, she could always Teleport back to a set point in the desert if she didn't want to Teleport back to the place from which she came.  Jenna had designed that into it to give Allia the option of using the device as a last-ditch escape from a lethal situation, and wouldn't force her to Teleport back to that same place, where a danger may still pose a threat, if she wanted to return to the desert.

      Allia too was impressed by both his home and his library, and she left the next day after a visit that made both of them feel as if it were old times again.  They weren't separated by distance anymore, and were truly only a touch away again.

 

      Time to a Were-cat was a misty thing, but as the days marched, Tarrin realized he was working under a schedule.  The birth of Camara Tal's child was growing ever closer, and in the visits Tarrin had with Jenna and Keritanima, he was aware that a schedule of departure had been drawn up.  They would have to Teleport to Abrodar, the mystical, famed capital of Sharadar, and travel from there to Amazar.  Alexis Firehair assured them that they could reach Amazar within five days of arriving in Abrodar, if they used Sorcery to do so.  By horse and ship, it was a trip of at least a month.  That five day travel window, coupled to Camara Tal's own prediction of the day she would give birth, only gave Tarrin about fifteen days to complete his Duthak project.

      As if Jesmind wasn't annoyed enough with his constant pattering in what she now called his dungeon, his determination to finish before the trip to Amazar sidetracked him made him decidedly missing from the house above for several days.  The only daylight he saw was his walk from the Imperial Palace to the Imperial Library on days when he visited to get more books to study, and visits with Mist and Eron when she allowed him to come over.  Anyone that wanted to see him had to go down into his library, and they found him to be a short, almost churlish host, impatient to get them on their way and get back to business.  When not actively studying, he was distracted, even when playing with his children or eating meals or spending quality time with his mate, and often dreamed of sitting in his library decyphering Duthak, which made his actual work there seem creepily like his dreams had run over into reality, giving it a bizarre feel when he stopped to think about it.

      Even Triana got that treatment when she finally showed up from whatever it was that she'd been doing.  He greeted her shortly, didn't listen to her when she was talking, since he was trying to translate a passage out of one of the books the Dwarves wrote that he copied from the Imperial Library, and only vaguely responded whenever he heard her speak his name.  He forgot the fact that Triana did not like to be ignored.

      "Cub, you're about two seconds from getting thrashed," she said in an ugly tone, swatting the book in his paws down onto the desk firmly.

      "I'm sorry, mother, but I don't have much more time before we go to Amazar, and I really want to finish this.  After all, you said you were going to train me after we got back, and I don't want any open projects distracting me from your teaching."

      "What are you studying, anyway?" she asked, picking up one of the books.  "What is this?"

      "Duthak, Dwarven writing," he answered.  "I'm learning Dwarven."

      "Is that all?  Cub, I can teach this to you in about three seconds," she told him absently.  "All I need is a book or piece of parchment penned by a Dwarf."

      "Then you can't do it," he told her.  "All this is just copies.  I don't have anything like that."

      "Phaugh," she snorted, pointing to one of the stone tablets he had that had Duthak engraved upon it.  "That's by a Dwarven hand."

      "Well, despite that, given that I've put so much into this already, I'd kind of like to finish it myself," he said in a frosty tone.  "You weren't around when I started, so now you have to let me finish.  Where were you, anyway?" he asked.

      "Business," she answered.  "That, and staying out of here for a while.  I figured that someone would have figured things out by now, and been a little testy."

      "Figured what out?"

      She gave him an incredulous look.  "You mean you don't know?" she asked in surprise.

      "Know what?"

      She looked unhappy.  "Cub, I'm disappointed in you," she told him.  "Didn't you have the least interest in just who defeated Jula's attempts to stop Jesmind and Mist from fighting?"

      "We figured it was one of them, finally showing some Druidic talent," he shrugged.  "You yourself said that Jesmind has potential, she just never uses it."

      "Not that much," she said in a slightly dangerous tone.

      It didn't take him but a second to gather her meaning.  "You did it?"

      "Of course I did," she said with a sweep of her paw.  "It wasn't healthy for Jesmind and Mist to be crammed in here together, so I made sure nature ran its course.  It also makes sure that when you finally chase out the females, you're not sick of all three of them.  You'll get tired of Kimmie and Jula just as much as Jesmind, even though neither is your mate.  Just their proximity will be enough to make you want distance from them, just like Mist."

      "Well then, know I know where to send the bill," he said frostily.

      "What bill?"

      "The bill for all our work cleaning up the house!" he shouted.  "Really, mother, couldn't you have made them do that outside?"

      "You got it cleaned up, didn't you?" she countered.  "Think of it as healthy work that kept you out of trouble.  The trees know, you get into enough any time you don't have busy work occupying idle paws."

      "You're unbelievable!" he accused.  "And this from the woman who said she never interferes in our lives when it suits her!"

      "I didn't suit me to watch Jesmind and Mist tear each other up, cub," she answered in a brutal tone.  "It was something that had to be done.  No more, no less."  He gave her a slightly hostile stare, but she brushed him off as if his disapproval was nothing more than dust in the wind.  "I see we'll have to work on your observation, cub.  You should have figured out it was me two months ago."

      "I didn't care, mother," he answered bluntly.  "I was too busy trying to put the house back together!"

      She drew herself up in her most regal manner, all but blazing her aura of power and control, then glared down at him like he was a disrespectful child.  "Don't shout at me, cub," she warned in an ugly tone.

      "That doesn't work on me anymore, mother," he told her flatly.  "I've had shouting matches with gods, so  I think I can handle you."

      She glared at him, then she actually laughed!  "My cub is growing teeth," she said in a loving, almost doting manner, leaning over the desk and putting her paw on his shoulder.  "Good!  You need some backbone if I'm going to train you in Druidic magic, and if you can work up the nerve to sass me, then you obviously have more than enough to deal with the All.  I think you're more than ready.  It's a pity I can't start now."

      She left not long after that, leaving Tarrin with only a mild curiosity about her behavior.  He understood why she'd allowed Jesmind and Mist to fight, now that he'd seen how happy Mist was at being in her own house.  But it was apparent that she had some other motivation, some kind of master plan.  He wondered what it was for all of about two minutes before his need to finish before leaving for Amazar overwhelmed his attention.

      Tarrin tripled his efforts, and found his efforts rewarded.  The day before they were to leave for Abrodar, he put down the last book, made a few final notes in his last reference book, and proclaimed silently to himself that he was fluent in Duthak.  He had unravelled its grammar, and had memorized every word which he had translated from his now large library of Dwarven writings.  He could take any book, open it, and read anything he found on any page, and what was more, completely understand it.  What was most important was that he now could understand the runes on the axe, and knew what that large, important-looking symbol was.  It was a holy symbol, the symbol of a god that had been called Duthan, the Dwarven god of mining, smithing, father of the Dwarven race, and the patriarch of the Dwarven pantheon.  They had had their own pantheon of nine gods, representing the earth, labor, fertility and family, darkness, greed, secrets, inspiration, and war.  They were all gone now, ceasing to exist as divine beings when the last Dwarf died, finding the end that eventually awaited all of the Younger Gods.

      The other runes on the axe confirmed several of his suspicions.  They were runes that named the axe, an ancient weapon--even by the standards of five thousand years ago--that had been passed down through the Duthular family for three thousand years.  It was named Stonecleaver, and it was the ancestral weapon of the kings of the largest group of Dwarves that had lived on Senndar.  It was a king's weapon, and that mound where Eron had found it were the remains of one Gulthenor Duthular, King of Mala Myrr and the Blackstone clan of Hill Dwarves.

      A royal weapon, now relegated to being the centerpiece of a curious Were-cat's collection of artifacts produced by an extinct race.

      In any event, Tarrin leaned back with a sigh and looked at a Tellurian pendulum clock he had had Jula get for him from Suld when she visited last ride, so he could at least tell time down in his library.  It wasn't even noon yet.  He still had virtually all day before he had to pack and get ready for the trip to Amazar in the morning.  It would probably take that much time to apologize to Jesmind for being so surly.

      Tarrin stared at the clock and sighed.  After going to Amazar, the next couple of years would be taken up by Triana and her lessons in Druidic magic.  His large library of Duthak writing--which he could now read--was going to have to wait until he had time for it again.

      It looked like his continued research on the Dwarves was going to have to be shelved for a little while.  But it would be there waiting for him when he had the time and opportunity to take it up once again.


To:       Title                EoF    

Chapter 7

 

      The typical norm for a family about to embark on a journey would be chaos.  Parents would be running around in a vain attempt to lacate everything that was intended to be taken, while the children conveniently moved the very things the parents searched for, with the youthful idea that they were "helping."  The children would further complicate things by interrupting the parents during their searches for needed items with whining requests and petulant demands to take things that the child would both not need and not have room for in his or her pack.  The more useless the object, the more adamant the child would become about taking it along.  The family would adhere to the great ancient rules of preparation for a journey, and those were that the earlier they started preparing, the later they would manage to get going; the less they were taking, the harder it would be to find it all; and no matter how many times the packs and gear that were being taken were checked to ensure that everything was there, something important would manage to escape the packs and hide somewhere in the house, usually--and suspiciously--replaced with something totally trivial belonging to a child that had been told could not be taken with them.

      Those were the normal rules, but the Kaels were not a family that really bothered to follow the rules.  They really didn't even know what the rules were,and even if they did, they would arrogantly conclude that such stupid rules did not apply to them.  Unlike thousands of households the world over, the day of the Kael departure was one marked with calm serenity and remarkable nonchalance.  Unlike most families, the Kaels had an overwhelming advantage in Tarrin and Jasana, and that was the ability to Conjure.  They didn't have to pack, simply because the father and daughter could instantly summon forth anything the family owned on demand.  Because of that, there really wasn't any preparation involved at all for their trip.  They didn't have to worry about packs, they didn't have to worry about horses, they didn't have to worry about the weather.  It was going to be a trip of complete ease and comfort for them, for they were going to travel through the power of Tarrin's magic.

      The only thing that came close to preparation was Kimmie.  For the first time, Kimmie was ready to take her twin blue-eyed daughters out of the house and introduce them to some of the others in Tarrin's world that had yet to come and visit at the house.  Besides, she was very good friends with Camara Tal, and had promised to bring the twins to Amazar and introduce them to the others.  They were now about nine months old, and they were fully ambulatory.  Both could walk, though they weren't very good at it yet, and both had started talking much the way that Tarrin had remembered Thel Dalton's young son down in the village when he was about fourteen.  Thel's son, Berton, spoke in a kind of mish-mash that was hard to understand for one who had no experience with it, but if one had enough patience, one could make out the words that were being spoken.  Tara had a vocabulary of about two hundred words, but Rina seemed to have a much more broad base of language skills.  She couldn't say as many words as she could understand, but she could speak nearly four hundred, half in Sulasian and half in Torian.  It wasn't that Tara was dumb, Kimmie supposed that Rina had inherited her father's unusual gift for languages.

      More and more, the twins were defining themselves.  Tara was more brooding and aggressive, kind of like Tarrin, but Rina was sweet and gentle and lovable, just like her mother.  But Rina showed traits from Tarrin, like the language gift, and Tara showed traits from her mother when she was content and happy, showing peeks of the gentleness that so defined Kimmie when she seemed to have nothing to complain about, hinting that her aggressiveness was more bluster and show than it was seated personality.  The fact that they could walk now meant that they had to be watched absolutely every second, because both had a penchant for getting into anything that they shouldn't be fooling with.  They truly weren't infants anymore.  They were toddlers now, very precocious toddlers that were a real handful.  If it wasn't for Jula, poor Kimmie would probably have been driven crazy by them months ago.

      The only time they ever seemed to behave was when Tarrin or Triana were in the room.  Jula jokingly concluded that it was that strange aura of unshakable power that surrounded the two of them, that radiance of absolute authority that quelled the mischievious bent in the toddlers, but seemed to have little effect on Eron or Jasana.  When both Kimmie and Jula were at wit's end with them, they dropped them in Tarrin's lap and went to have a cup of nerve-soothing tea and let their father deal with them.

      Tara and Rina were the only Were-cat twins in the world, and seeing how Were-cat children were, Tarrin reasoned that things were that way because any more than one would drive the mother to irrational, desperate actions to control them.  Were-cats were too wild to have to deal with any more than one child at any given time.

      They woke up around sunrise and while Tarrin and Jesmind cooked breakfast, Jasana helped Jula and Kimmie get the twins ready for the journey.  Not that it would be much of a journey.  They would Teleport to Suld, pick up Allia and Allyn, Keritanima and Rallix, Miranda and the Vendari, Dar and Tiella, Phandebrass and Sarraya, Triana, and Jenna and Ianelle, along with a handful of Knights that would escort the Keeper and Ianelle, most prominent among them being Azakar.  Ianelle had been to the Tower in Sharadar before, so she and Jenna would Circle, and Ianelle would transport them there.  Once there, he was told, Alexis Firehair, Queen of Sharadar and Keeper of the Tower there, had some kind of mysterious surprise in store for them regarding the remaining journey to Amazar.  The fact that Jenna had found out that Alexis had been in communication with Phandebrass for some month or so now made all of them more than a little nervous.  Alexis Firehair was something of an unpredictable woman, he had come to learn.  She was smart and cautious in politics, but she had a flair for the dramatic and a tendency to come up with some pretty unusual ideas.  The fact that she consulted Phandebrass, probably the most unconventional human being on the face of the planet, did not bode well.  With their luck, they'd be riding winged slugs that left a glittering trail of slime that hovered in the sky as they made their way the thousand or so leagues north-northwest between Sharadar and the islands of Amazar.  Alexis would find such a thing to be wildly funny and more than appropriate.

      Where Phandebrass was involved, anything was possible.

      But that was nothing that a few hundred stone-weight of Conjured salt wouldn't fix.

      After a hearty breakfast, Kimmie fought to get Tara into some new clothes, or more to the point, battled her daughter over wearing a dress.  Kimmie had an almost instinctive need to dress her little girls in the most frilly, lacy, ridiculously overdecorated dresses she could make.  Rina had taken to dresses immediately, thinking them to be quite pretty, but Tara would have absolutely nothing to do with it, tearing them off of herself whenever Kimmie managed to ram one down over her head.  Tarrin had seen this played out before, and knew that Tara was going to win this fight, as she always did.  She simply ripped the dress apart, and when Kimmie ran out of dresses, she would be resigned to let Tara wear her favorite buckskin breeches and a sleeveless half-shirt.  Kimmie would always glare murderously at Tarrin after these battles over raiment and tersely inform him that his daughter was absolutely incorrigible.

      That behavior never failed to amuse Tarrin, and make him wonder a little bit.  Jula, who had been human much longer than both Tarrin and Kimmie, did not wear dresses.  In fact, she avoided them whenever possible, and in a way, he knew why she did it.  They were reminders of a past that was no longer hers, a poignant memory of what had been that she had to distance herself from.  She would look at Kimmie's dresses with undisguised longing when she thought nobody was looking at her, but she was afraid to wear one, fearing that it would start her back down the slippery slope that led to madness.  She had been forced to abandon most of what she loved and take up entirely different habits, but it was how she kept her balance, so Tarrin didn't interfere with it.  It was easy to forget that Jula was still very new to her Were-cat condition, and that newness required her to be very careful in certain regards else she would threaten to destabilize her tentative mental balance.  In time, however, she would mellow out, and probably would be more than comfortable in a dress once again.  All she needed was a little time.

      He was impressed with his bond-daughter.  She had adapted, and adapted rather well.  She had found something of a niche in his family, and had even found acceptance with Jesmind and Mist, which was surprising.  Mist actually liked Jula, and that was saying something.  But behind it all was still the same human woman he knew from the Tower, just without some of her more backbiting habits.  Her human personality had managed to survive, quite strongly, in fact, and her intelligent mind and the fact that she was da'shar always gave him someone in the house to talk to that would understand many of the things he talked about.  She was a very good student, having learned nearly half of what he intended to teach her, and more than that, she was a very good friend.  She understood him because she saw things the same way he did--up to a point, since Tarrin was so totally grounded in his Were nature that it was like he was a natural-born Were-cat--and was a part of the world of Sorcery, which gave him both someone to teach and someone to debate with.  Jula had been a very good Sorcerer in her day, before becoming Were, and now that she had Druidic talent as well, it augmented and amplified her Sorcery by an impressive amount.  The fact that she had crossed over and become da'shar made her that much stronger.

      At the breakfast table, Jasana yawned, showing off her impressive little fangs, and watched as Kimmie continued to try to get Tara into a dress, trying to muster up all the parental authority she possessed, which Tara absolutely ignored.  "Why does she bother?" Jasana asked idly, taking another bite of her venison stew.  "She knows she's not going to win.  She never does."

      "I guess it pleases her, somehow," Tarrin shrugged.  "Don't ask me why."  He looked down, and saw a tick attached to the back of her ear.  "Been hunting again?" he asked, reaching down and using his claws to pinch the tiny parasite and pluck it from her.

      "Where do you think this came from, Papa?" she asked with a sly smile.

      "Getting in the way was more like it," Jesmind said calmly as she sat down beside him with a bowl.  "Kimmie, just let her dress herself and get something to eat!  We have to leave in a little bit!" she called.

      "Not this time!" Kimmie said combatively.  "It's about time you learn who's in charge here, little miss!" she said sternly to her daughter.

      "I'd say Tara," Jasana said with a little giggle.

      "Cub, be nice," Tarrin chided.

      As everyone at the table knew, Kimmie lost that little skirmish, but vowed that the war would be hers.  She finally relented to let Tara wear whatever she wanted, then got the two of them to the breakfast table along with Jula.  "Did you finish what you were studying, father?" Jula asked him.  He hadn't seen her since yesterday morning, as she'd went to Suld in the morning, then had spent the afternoon over in the village doing something for Garyth, the mayor.  Probably adjusting or changing the Ward that still laid over the village.  Jenna had been forced to bring it down after the war, but Garyth had asked if the Ward could be restored in order for it to repel insects.  That was more than possible, and Tarrin had raised a new one in its stead that repelled insects.  But they had found out that some insects were vital to their gardens, and many times either Tarrin or Jula had had to go down to the village and adjust the Ward to allow this or that insect into the village, until they finally gave up on figuring out what it would let in and changed it so it blocked only those insects it was designed to repel.  That worked much better, and over the months, they had had to go down and adjust it to repel this or that insect, or go help with problems with blight or irrigation, just generally doing what they could with their Sorcery to help the village along as they could without having them come to depend on magic.  Whenever the villagers asked for something outrageous, the Were-cats would flatly refuse.  Tarrin didn't want to see the villages become like the Sha'Kar, weak and indulgent and totally dependent on their magical power.  He tremendously respected the Sha'Kar for their abilities and culture, and was very good friends with several of them, but he still had trouble with that part of their society, as it went against everything he was taught about self-reliance and everything he believed in as a Were-cat.

      He nodded to her absently.  "Just finished yesterday morning.  What did you do yesterday?"

      "I went to Suld and picked up some things for Karn, then helped Garyth with what he thought were oversized gophers."

      "Gophers?"

      "He thought they were gophers at first, given all the holes in the fields.  Turns out they were voraxes."

      Tarrin frowned.  Voraxes were small quadrupedal badger-like animals that weren't indiginous to the forest.  They lived in the foothills just under the Skydancers, but had been migrating south for some reason.  Voraxes looked like small badgers, about the size of a small dog, and they were extremely dangerous little animals.  They had finger-long claws on their paws, nearly as big as their paws themselves, and they had an exceedingly hostile disposition.  Voraxes were very much feared by the Dals because they were utterly fearless, they would attack anything in their territory no matter how big it was, and once they locked their jaws on something, they absolutely would not let go.  Even if they were killed, they seemed to go into instant rigormortis, locking all their muscles, requiring the jaws to literally be cut apart in order to make it let go.  Though their size made them easy to deal with--they could easily be stepped on by the average human--their dangerously aggressive disposition made dealing with them a very touchy undertaking.  If one missed, the vorax would attack, and if it managed to get its jaws on its victim, that was it.  Only cutting it off it would make it let go.

      "What did you do?" Tarrin asked.

      "Relocated them," she said with a slightly dangerous smile.

      "Where?"

      "Oh, let's just say that Shiika got an early birthday present," she said with an impish smile.

      "Jula, you didn't!  The Imperial Palace?"

      "Well, I thought they'd like them over there," she said girlishly.  "You know, similar mentalities.  Voraxes would be Shiika's kind of pet."

      Tarrin tried to give her a hot look, but the image of seeing Shiika and her Alu daughters dealing with a horde of mindlessly aggressive little wolverine-related creatures, their little jaws clamped onto various portions of the Succubus' ample anatomy, was just overwhelmingly funny.  He laughed helplessly, then blew out his breath and scrubbed the back of his head with his claws.  "If she finds out you did it, she's going to have your hide, cub," he warned.

      "She'll never catch me," she winked.

      "Girl, you've been hanging around Sarraya too much," he accused.

      "We all have to play sometimes," she said with a wicked little smirk.  "I just play mean games, that's all."

      "I knew I had a reason to like you, big sister," Jasana laughed.

      "Do you think you can teach me Duthak, father?" Jula asked politely.

      "I made a book of what I did," he said absently.  "I'll lend it to you."

      "I was hoping you'd do it the other way," she said urgingly.

      He glanced up at her.  "No," he told her.  "If you want it, work for it, cub.  No free rides.  Not after what I had to go through to learn it."

      "You're so cruel to your daughters," she said with total insincerity.

      "Deal with it."

      After the meal, Tarrin and Kimmie cleaned up the kitchen as Jula and Jesmind went around and made sure the house was ready to stand empty for a few days.  Tarrin's parents were going to come over every day or so and make sure everything was alright for them, so there wasn't all that much to do.  The magic of the house would repel any kind of hostile invader or vermin, as the direct hand of Niami, the Goddess of Magic, was laid protectively over the little meadow that held Tarrin's precious home.  Add to that that the meadow was considered holy ground to Fae-da'Nar, as it was the chosen ground of a Druid, and that made it almost inviolate.  Tarrin had to nudge a toddler out from underfoot every once in a while, but that stopped the instant Tara tried to climb up the back of his trousers.  Her little claws weren't that long, but they had no trouble digging painfully into the skin on the backs of his legs.  A few scolding words chased both cubs away from their parents, back out into the common room, letting them finish cleaning up.

      After that was done, there really was nothing holding them back anymore, outside of the early hour.  It was not long after sunrise there at the house, but the sun was just rising at the Tower, and it was the middle of the night in Wikuna.  Conversely, it was approaching midday over in the desert, so organizing a schedule hadn't been that easy.  It agreed that they would meet at two hours before the midday bell, which was a generally decent hour for everyone involved.  It wasn't terribly late for Allia, wasn't ridiculously early for Keritanima, and was just about right for everyone in the West.  That meant that they had a few hours to go, but then again, that time would easily be spent at the Tower, catching up with Dar and Azakar.  Dar had returned to the Tower yesterday, so Jula told him, hopping mad and about ready to kill his mother.  Azakar had never left the Tower, staying with the Knights.

      "Well, everything's ready," Jesmind announced as she and Jula came downstairs.

      "Fine, let's go," he said, picking up Tara absently before she could start climbing up his leg again.

      Before they could leave, they all used the magical gateway arch to travel to the farm of his parents, the place where Tarrin grew up.  He never failed to feel a little nostalgic any time he came to the farm, seeing the old barn and the brewhouse and the old farmhouse.  He and Jenna had grown up quite happily on this secluded farmstead, and it always felt like a home to him, even now.  Strange, he mused, that the likes of him and Jenna would have their beginnings here, on this most isolated of isolated holdings, outside of the most remote village in all of Sulasia, maybe even all of the West.

      Or perhaps, he thought seriously, where better a place to hide them from potential enemies than the absolute fringe of civilization, a place so remote that those few that actually knew it was here wouldn't be able to find it even if they were given directions?

      After a brief farewell with his parents, and a promise to bring back some interesting recipes from Amazar for his mother to try out (and a promise to procure an Amazon's haltar for his father, a promise that earned both of them a slap on the back of the head from his mother), they gathered by the sheep pen, and Tarrin Teleported them to Suld.

      As he always did, Tarrin chose to appear in the courtyard.  That had nothing to do with a need to visit the place or gaze lovingly at the icon of the Goddess, it was grounded in good old fashioned caution.  If there was a person or a thing occupying the space into which Tarrin tried to Teleport, it would kill them both, so Tarrin made sure to Teleport to the one place on the Tower grounds he knew beyond any shadow of a doubt was not occupied.  That rule didn't seem to make much sense to Tarrin, as he knew that Teleportation wasn't moving into that space over there, it was an exchange of spaces between the origin and the destination.  Logic declared, at least to him, that the poor bugger in the destination space should be picked up and moved to the origin, literally changing positions with him when the spaces were exchanged.  But despite that bout of logic, it didn't work that way.  Tarrin had never asked the Goddess just why that was so, mainly because he doubted that he'd understand her explanation.  He remembered rather ruefully back to his initial training, when Dolanna had told him that magic adhered to its own rules, and those rules weren't entirely logical.

      Given that the deity controlling magic was female, the fact that it wasn't a logical force was in its own manner a logical observation.

      Oh, you're going to get it for that, kitten, the Goddess warned playfully in the recesses of his mind.

      After a moment to adjust to the fact that the sun was much closer to the horizon over here, still hidden behind the shrub walls of the maze, Tarrin looked around and saw that everything was exactly where it should be.  "I hope Jenna's up," Tarrin mused as they started towards the exit.

      "Come on, my mate," Jesmind scoffed.  "You think she'd oversleep today?  She's been looking forward to this for months."

      "She's not the only one," Jasana said eagerly.  "I just wish Eron could come."

      "When Mist says no, she means no," Kimmie grunted.  "I just wish she hadn't thrown that meat cleaver.  It put a new part in my hair."

      "If there's one thing about Mist, it's that life is never boring with her around," Jula noted sagely.

      "Too right," Jesmind growled.

      Jenna was indeed up, taking breakfast in the parlor of her apartment with Dar and Tiella.  Dar looked a little taller, Tiella looked absolutely radiant, and Jenna looked a little sleepy.  Tarrin could tell from one look and one whiff of Dar's scent that the young man was seething over something that had happened, and though he greeted Tarrin with sincere affection and exuberance, taking Tarrin's paw and shaking it with a big smile on his face, but that festering anger did not disappear.  "Good grief, are these the same babies I saw just a few months ago?" Dar asked in surprise after hugging Jasana, looking at Tara and Rina, the blue-eyed twins who were holding onto each of Kimmie's paws.  "What are you feeding them, Kimmie?"

      Kimmie laughed and swatted him lightly with her tail, since both paws were full.  "Do you remember Dar, cubs?" Kimmie asked them.  "He's one of your uncles."

      Tara gave Dar a somewhat flat look that made the young man a bit nervous to approach, but Rina giggled and held out her paw palm up, then pivoted it back and forth like a pendulum.

      "She remembers!" Dar said in surprise, then he laughed.  "Uh, which one is she again?"

      "This is Tara, and this is Rina," Kimmie said, holding up a paw slightly with the recitation with each name.

      "You must be losing your touch, Dar," Jasana told him with a wicked grin.  "You could tell them apart when they were babies."

      "That was before Kimmie fed them fertilizer," Dar said off-handedly.

      Tarrin hugged his sister fondly, and saw the beaming grin on her face.  "What's got you so ecstatic, sis?" he asked.

      "I finished the book," she told him with a dazzling smile.

      "Well, it's about time," he teased.  "You've been at it for what, a year now?"

      "You know how much I had to write down, you ingrate?" she flared, then she laughed.  "So, you want to read it now, or later?"

      "I'll just steal it when you're not looking," he said with a sly half-smile.  "That makes it more fun."

      "You!" she said, slapping him on the arm.  "Are you hungry?  There's room at the table for more."

      "We already ate, Jenna," Tarrin told her.  "Tiella, how are you?" he asked, reaching past Jenna and taking his friend's hand.  He knew that Tiella was a little intimidated by Jesmind and the other Were-cats.  Though she had been inducted into the inner circle by virtue of marriage to Dar, she hadn't gotten used to it yet.  It was quite a change in someone's life, given the kind of people who shared that inner circle with her.

      "I've been doing alright, Tarrin," she answered, a bit shyly.  "How have things been in Aldreth?"

      "That never changes," he chuckled.  "Has Dar killed his mother yet?"

      Tiella laughed, showing some of her usual personality for a brief moment.  "Not yet, but he's not the one that's been out for her head.  He's had to hold me back a few times."

      "I can imagine," Tarrin chuckled, turning a chair around and sitting on it so the back of it was in front of him.  He put his forearms on the back of it and leaned against them.  "What did she do this time?  I can smell some serious anger on Dar."

      "Dar's father is very distantly related to the Emperor," she answered.  "She used those family contacts to get a letter of request in front of him, asking that I be exiled from Arkis and declared an outlaw."

      "An outlaw?  What law did you break?" he asked with a smile.

      "I guess taking her little baby away from her," she said with a sour frown.  "Dar's mother is a total shrew, Tarrin.  She's been after him since we went to Arkis to give up the katzh-dashi, dump me, and marry this horse-ugly woman from a family across town.  I swear, old friend, the woman looks like a crossbreed between a horse and a Dargu.  Dar hates her and his mother knows it, but she's decided that that's what's best for him, so she won't listen to reason."

      "Where's his father in all this?"

      "Staying neutral," she replied.  "Remember, he has to live with that spiteful old hag, so he's being careful not to stir the pot."

      "Hmph," Jesmind snorted.  "Dar should just kill her."

      "He's getting close to it, Mistress Jesmind," Tiella said carefully, and not a little nervously, given that Jesmind had directly addressed her.  "This business with trying to bring the Emperor into it was the last straw for him.  He disowned his parents just before we came back to Suld."

      "I didn't think a child could disown parents," Tarrin chuckled.

      "Well, Dar did," she said proudly to him.  "Then we got married in this nice little chapel in a small village by the sea, a place called Calm Waters.  It was a lovely little place."

      "I thought the Priests of Mikaras wouldn't marry you."

      "When Dar disowned his parents, they couldn't raise any legal objections," she answered.  "That parental consent had been what was standing in the way."

      "But Dar's a grown man!" Tarrin said in surprise.

      "Things work differently in Arkis, my friend," she reminded him.  "There, anyone of nobility has to have official parental consent to marry, no matter how old they are.  Dar's father is only a baronet, the lowest rung of the ladder, but Dar still had to have his parents' approval."

      "Well, I'm happy to hear that you got everything sorted out, but why is Dar still angry?" he asked.

      "Now his mother is trying to have Dar's disowning invalidated," she answered.  "She had an absolute tizzy fit when she found out we got married.  She's not going to give up until either I leave him or she's dead, and I'm not about to leave my husband anytime soon," she flared with sudden heat.

      "Don't worry about that, Tiella," Jenna said absently as she poured more tea.  "I'll take care of it."

      "But Keeper, it's not right that--"

      "Stuff it, Tiella," she cut her off.  "You're from my home village and a good friend, Dar is like a brother to me, and that makes you my sister.  I don't ignore family.  When I'm done with Dar's mother, she's going to wish she never turned her back on you."

      Tiella looked at her, then giggled.  "Well, if it's going to cause that old bat to have another tizzy, then I'm not going to say a word."

      "She'll be clawing the walls and chewing on the furniture.  I guarantee it."

      "You have to watch Jenna, Tiella.  She can be a spiteful witch when she wants to be," Tarrin told her.

      "How are things back at the farm?" Dar asked curiously.

      Tarrin told him about Mist's departure, and their trip to the desert, as well as his mission to learn Duthak.  "I just finished it up yesterday," he concluded.  "I made of a book of it, just in case someone wanted to learn it."

      "Don't tell Phandebrass," Dar grinned.

      "That reminds me, exactly what has he been telling Alexis?" Tarrin asked Jenna.

      "I don't know, he won't tell me," she said, cringing a bit.  "And that worries me."

      Dar laughed.  "It's sure to be exciting, whatever it is."

      "I think I can live without that kind of excitement," Tarrin said wearily.

      "I guess the first thing Camara'll do when we get to Amazar is start in on Phandebrass," Dar said with a grin.  "I think she misses it."

      "He probably does too," Tarrin grunted.  "Have either of you talked to her lately?"

      Jenna nodded.  "I keep in touch with Koran, to make sure Camara doesn't brainwash him into not coming back.  He says that she says she'll be due in about six days."

      "How does she know?" Dar protested.

      "She's a Priestess, Dar," Jenna answered.  "I'm sure she cheated."

      "I hope we get there before she delivers," Dar said with a smile.  "I want to see her fat and ungainly."

      "I wouldn't say that to her, Dar," Jenna warned.  "Because when she's not fat and ungainly anymore, she may come looking for some payback."

      There was a knock at the door, and then it opened immediately afterward.  The first thing Tarrin saw were two little red blurs that seemed to whirl around and around the room, and then both of them landed on his shoulders.  They were Chopstick and Turnkey, Phandebrass' pet drakes.  Tarrin's relationship with them started off hostile, but over time they grew on him to the point where he considered them good friends.  But wherever the drakes were, their master wouldn't be far away, and his scent, permeated with the materials and spices and compounds that he had to use in his magic, wafted to Tarrin's nose.  He looked up to see him, still wearing that same frayed gray robe with stains here and there on it, caused by only the Goddess knew what, and that same utterly ridiculous brimless conical hat that slendered to a sharp point well over a span over his head.  The man within the garment was a thin, bony man with pale skin and white hair, but his face and manner deceived one as to his real age.  Phandebrass looked old at first glance, but as one studied his narrow face, with its high, prominent cheekbones and narrow, slightly long and pointed nose, one realized that he was actually much younger than his skinny body and white hair let on.  Tarrin didn't know exactly how old the doddering Wizard was, and it was hard to tell from his personality as much as his appearance.  Phandebrass was utterly obsessed with learning.  It was all he did, it was all he wanted to do, and it was what he had devoted his life to pursuing.  Phandebrass was well suited for his self-appointed mission, for he was very intelligent and was also quite quick to remember, but he didn't seem to have a single lick of common sense, and sometimes it seemed that he was too smart for his own good.  Most often, his mind was so lost in the vast stores of knowledge it had accumulated over the years that he had a very dim idea of what was going on around him.  He would often repeat himself or ask the same question over and over, and look for things that were either right in front of his face or literally in his hand.  It wasn't that he was senile or slow, it wasn't that he was dumb or addled or mad, it was just that his mind was so cluttered with everything that was in it that he seemed to have trouble sometimes looking through it all to focus on what was going on around him.  He also had a slightly skewed idea of the world, behaving in manners that seemed outrageous or unbelievable to those that didn't know him.  During the battle at Suld, the Wizard had the unmitigated nerve--or perhaps the utter lack of sense--to stop right in the middle of the battle and start asking one of the enemy Demons questions.  Phandebrass' concept of reality seemed to be just a little bit different from everyone else's, for he saw nothing at all wrong with what he had done.  He had wanted to know, and in his mind, that made it more than proper to ask someone he thought had the answer.  The fact that it was an enemy that just seconds before had been trying to kill him didn't really factor into the equation that summed up the Wizard's view of the world.

      That was occasionally the problem.  Phandebrass had this very unnerving habit of ignoring the possible dangers of what he was working on, or the dangers things he was studying may pose.  A perfect example was what was now known in the Tower as the Carnivorous Clock Incident.  Phandebrass had received permission from Jenna to go through the lower cellars, where all manner of junk accumulated over five thousand or more years of the Tower's existence had been stored.  There were storerooms and passages--and even floors--that most of the modern katzh-dashi had no idea were even there.  Some had simply been forgotten over the years, and some had been actively sealed off and covered over to hide the fact that there had once been a door or stairwell there.  Phandebrass found just one such storeroom about two months after Tarrin left for Aldreth, and very happily emptied it and brought up several crates of dusty, moldy stuff into the library, where the Wizard did most of his work that didn't involve the occasional explosions his chemicals and other alchemy materials randomly produced.  The fact that he was moving things that the Ancients not only didn't use, but actively hid, never occurred to him.  The idea that some of it may be dangerous also never dawned on him.  He took it all up to the library and set it on the main tables without a care in the world, then just opened the crates and started rummaging through them.

      Then, Phandebrass being Phandebrass, he got distracted.  Sevren had come in and asked him for help finding a very obscure book on the ancient Sha'Kar, and they got involved in a debate about ancient history.  Phandebrass turned a blind eye to those crates, at least until the screaming began.  One Initiate, who had just arrived to study, got curious about what was in the crates sitting on the table where he usually studied, and had started going through them himself.  His howling brought Phandebrass back to the real world, when the young man jerked his hand out of a crate with a small pendulum clock clamped onto his forearm using jaws that had been hidden behind the clock face, and two angry little eyes, complete with wooden brows, over them to complete the face of the clock.  Instead of immediately trying to get the clock off the Initiate, Phandebrass instead asked the boy if it hurt, and if his arm felt icy or numb, which were indications of possible venom.  He even pulled out a book and wrote down the Initiate's frenzied screams for help as if they were the answers to his questions!  When the clock let go of the boy's arm, leaving a rather serious bite wound, its pendulum divided into four little legs and it dropped to the floor, then proceeded to chase Initiates and katzh-dashi around the library with shocking speed, biting anyone it could chase down.  The thing was strangely resistant to Sorcery, and it seemed to ignore Phandebrass completely, only trying to chase down and bite Sorcerers.  Phandebrass decided that it was more interesting to study the thing instead of using his Wizard magic to contain or subdue the ancient magical device.  As it ran around the library, chasing any Sorcerer that moved, Phandebrass ran behind it with his book in one hand and a quill in the other, scribbling hastily and trying to get the clock's attention to see if it was intelligent.  Only after most of the library had been cleared, as the clock jumped around and pawed at a bookshelf, upon whose top were perched four terrified Initiates, a Novice, and even two startled katzh-dashi, did Phandebrass finally conceive of the idea of capturing the device with magic.  Not to keep it from climbing up the bookshelf to bite those atop it, but to get a better look at it when it wasn't running away from him.

      It wasn't entirely Phandebrass' fault.  The Initiate should have known better than to stick his hand in the chest, but Phandebrass had several opportunities to trap the clock while it ran around biting people.  Instead of that, he tried to study it instead, totally oblivious to the simple idea of what might have happened if that clock had turned around and attacked him.

      Jenna had had a conniption, of course, and ordered the boxes back into the cellar, to be sealed up once again where their contents couldn't cause any more trouble.  However, the clock disappeared during the journey to the cellars, and Initiates now spread rumors that it was stalking the halls of the Tower, seeking to catch a Novice or Initiate off guard and eat them.  In actuality, it was hanging on the wall in Phandebrass' laboratory, one reason why no Sorcerer really wanted to go visit the Wizard in his laboratory.  Every time a Sorcerer came close to it, its eyes opened, it opened its mouth and showed off its impressive rows of sharp triangular teeth, and then struggled mightily to free itself from the peg to which it had been securely affixed.  Phandebrass fed it dead mice or scraps from the kitchens from time to time, which kept its clockworks running smoothly as if it were an animal who needed food to survive, and it seemed perfectly content with its meals and its official job as timepiece for a Wizard who often forgot what month it was.  Phandebrass dubbed it the Carnivorous Clock, but for some odd reason, he named it Percy.  It seemed to like the name, and would even answer to it.  Phandebrass was quite proud to own it, as well as quite happy to study it from time to time to figure out who had made it and how it was done.

      That was one of the few absolute ultimatums under which Phandebrass had to operate in the Tower.  He was absolutely forbidden from making another one of those contraptions, or even trying.

      Sometimes Phandebrass' scattered nature was as much a danger to them as it was to the enemy, but Tarrin had always respected the addled Wizard's mind for one simple reason.  When he was focused, when his curiosity was piqued and something had his full attention, there was no solution that could hide from him.  When he was serious about something, he could unravel almost any mystery, research almost any solution, and find the answer to almost any question.  During those times, the repeating, absent-minded, slightly befuddled Wizard seemed to evaporate, leaving a clear-minded, concise, driven, energetic, and very, very intelligent fellow in his stead.  Tarrin had often thought that Keritanima had to be the smartest person he had ever known, but when Phandebrass was focused on finding the solution to a problem, he could give his Wikuni sister a serious run for her money.

      Clearly, Phandebrass was in one of his more scattered phases, for he stood in the doorway for almost a full minute before thinking to come in.  But when he did come in, he moved like a large animal was pushing at him from behind, charging into the room and almost jumping into one of the chairs, slapping a book down onto the table with a loud smack of leather meeting wood.  His movements made Tiella flinch a little, but Tarrin and Dar didn't pay this much mind, as they'd seen it before.  "Phandebrass," Tarrin said in greeting, waiting for the delayed response.

      It came about ten seconds later.  "Tarrin!" he said brightly.  "I didn't see you there, I didn't!  I say, how have things been?"

      "Things have been just fine," he answered, stroking Chopstick on the head fondly.  Jasana had lured Turnkey off his other shoulder, and was holding the drake with a practiced gentleness that told of her education about the natures of the little animals.  Tarrin had owned a drake--at least what he thought was a drake--and had enjoyed it tremendously.  Drakes were smart, affectionate, very sociable animals, easy to train and always happy to be whatever was needed of them at the moment.  They took a little maintenance and had some rather peculiar habits, but all in all they were wonderful pets.  Chopstick nuzzled his fingers happily, then hiccupped.

      Smoke came out of his mouth.

      Tarrin gave the drake a steady look, then looked to Phandebrass.  "Has Chopstick been drinking out of the beakers in your lab?" he asked curiously.

      "I say, the smoke?  No, lad, no.  Didn't I tell you?"

      "Tell me what?"

      "I must not have.  How thoughtless of me," he said absently, starting to pad the pockets of his robe and the little pouches in his belt over and over.  "I say, I put it here somewhere."

      "Tell me what?" he pressed.

      "Oh, didn't I tell you?"

      Tarrin snorted slightly.  "What did you need to tell me, Phandebrass?"

      Jasana started giggling, but Jesmind inobtrusively swatted the cub on the back of her head to remind her of her manners.

      "Oh, yes, the drakes!  It's quite a development, it is!  Chopstick and Turnkey have started breathing fire!"

      Tarrin gave him a long look,  then blinked, remembering Sapphire.  Back when they all thought Sapphire was a drake, including Sapphire, she had the ability to generate electrical attacks.  Chopstick and Turnkey were true drakes, not shapeshifted dragons, and he didn't think they'd have any special magical powers like that.  Some drakes did have magical powers, like the blue drakes, but these two had never showed even a hint of such things.

      "Breathing fire?  Isn't that a little hard on your clothes?" Dar asked in surprise.

      "I didn't know they could do that, I didn't," he admitted.  "I had to do some research on drakes, and it took a little while, it did.  It turns out that some drakes, like the reds, don't manifest any magical capability until they reach a certain age, they do.  I say, Chopstick and Turnkey are just reaching full adulthood, they are, and it turns out that that's when the powers of red drakes mature."

      "I thought Sapphire said they didn't have any powers," Dar said to Tarrin.

      "She did," he frowned.  "Maybe she only meant at that time."

      "Maybe Phandebrass did experiments on them," Jasana proposed.

      "I found out that not all drakes of a species have powers, I did," the Wizard continued, either having not heard or actively ignoring the Were-cat cub.  "The fire-breathing of red drakes is somewhat rare, it is.  I say, it's rather unusual that both of them have manifested the ability.  Perhaps exposure to my magic over the years triggered it in them.  I say, what an idea!" he said suddenly, raising a single finger towards the ceiling.  "I must write that down for further study, I must!  Now then, where is my book?" he asked himself, starting to pat his pockets and pouches once again.  Tarrin pointed before him, at the book, and the Wizard gave him a grateful thanks.  "I say, now where did I put my quill and ink pot?" he asked after tapping the book with a finger, as if to make sure it was real, then returned to checking his pockets.

      "Have you eaten yet?" Jenna asked the Wizard.

      "Me?  Let's see now," he said, pursing his lips.  "I think I did.  I say, I distinctly remember going into the kitchens.  Was that today, or last ride?" he asked himself.

      The door opened once more, and before Tarrin even looked up, the very faint scents of Keritanima and her company reached him.  He looked up quickly to see his sister in the doorway, with Miranda to one side and Rallix to the other, and two massive, hulking forms hovering behind them, the huge bodies of Binter and Sisska.  Tarrin stood up and hugged his sister when she came into the room, then hugged Miranda in a similar fashion.  When he got that close to her, he could scent something disquieting about his rambunctious friend, a somberness of some sort that had stained the fringes of her scent, something she was quite admirably hiding behind a mask of happiness.  Miranda was a good actor; in her line of work, being able to lie believably was of utmost importance, and that was little more than acting.  Somehow, he had the feeling that it was something he'd need to broach with her in private.  Were it a problem she'd feel comfortable taking to Keritanima, his sister would have fixed it already.  He kept an arm around the mink as he shook paws with Rallix, then struck his forearm against the forearm of Binter, and then Sisska, the ritual Vendari greeting.

      "You're here early," Jenna said as she hugged Keritanima.  "I thought you'd be here last."

      "I figured everyone would be here by now," she yawned in reply.  "Where is Allia?"

      "Not here yet," Tarrin answered.

      "You mean I dragged my tail out of bed in the middle of the night and she's not here yet?" she fumed, putting a hand to her amulet.  "Allia!  We're all waiting on you!  Get over here now!"

      "My, she's in a good mood," Jenna remarked to Rallix.

      "My wife has been having a little trouble at home," Rallix said without much amusement.  "The nobles are causing trouble again."

      "We'll be there in a little bit," Allia's voice emanated from Keritanima's amulet.  "We've been delayed."

      "What did she say?" Jenna asked.  Allia had spoken in Selani.

      "She said she's been delayed," Tarrin told her.  "What did the nobles do this time?"

      "We just found out two days ago that some of the larger houses have been very quietly and very slowly stockpiling gunpowder," Rallix told him soberly.  "That is not a good sign.  It means that they think they'll be going to war soon."

      "Neither Jervis nor Miranda have had a whiff about this," Keritanima said sourly.  "Whatever they're planning, they're doing a damn good job of keeping it under wraps."

      "Well, I'm sure that Jervis will find out," Rallix said confidently.  "He's quite good."

      "He should be.  He cut his teeth playing against me," Keritanima said shortly.

      "What about Jenawalani?" Tarrin asked.

      "None of the nobles really trust her, because they know she's my horse," Keritanima answered.  "They know that anything they say to her gets back to me."

      "That's obvious.  Have you mended fences with her?"

      "We're cordial, but that's about it," she answered.  "I don't think I'll ever be able to forgive her for some of the things she did to me when we were younger.  I can trust her to keep me informed, but only because her noble house survives at my pleasure."

      "Have you eaten yet?" Jenna asked.

      "Before we left," Keritanima said, brushing past Jenna to hug Jasana.  "There's my little spoiled brat!" she said happily, squeezing her as she picked her up.  "How have you been?"

      "I've been okay," she answered.  "Do you have any presents for me?"

      "Not this time, cub," she said with a smile.  "You know I can't give you anything with your parents here.  You know how stuffy they are," she said with a wink in Tarrin's direction.

      "I don't object to presents, but you go too far," Jesmind told her.  "That china doll with the solid gold mesh gown was a bit much."

      "I thought it was lovely," Keritanima protested.

      "Oh, it was, but she broke it about two minutes after she took it out of the box.  Tarrin had to put it in our room after he used magic to put it back together."

      "How did you break that doll, Jasana?" Keritanima asked.

      "She tore off its head to see what was stuffed inside it," Tarrin said bluntly.

      "Jasana!" Keritanima said in surprise.

      "She's too young for things she can't play with, Kerri," Jesmind told her.  "If you want to give her gifts, give her toys.  Cheap, expendable toys."

      "That doll was a toy."

      "A toy for a Were-cat cub, not a human girl," Jesmind clarified.  "She won't appreciate the doll until she's more mature.  Until then, it stays out of her reach."

      "I still think it's not fair," Jasana huffed.  "How about a pet?" she asked brightly.  "Eron has a pet.  Why can't I have one?"

      "Because you'd kill it," Jesmind told her straight out.  "Eron loves Sandy, and he's always very, very careful with her.  You're nowhere near that gentle."

      "I can be careful," she flared.

      "Until you lose interest in it, then you get careless," Jesmind said, staring into Jasana's eyes.  "As I recall, you said you'd be careful with the doll.  And I don't think it would do much good if Tarrin put the head back onto a pet we got for you."

      "It's not fair," she complained.

      "You're already pretty deep in the hole for your past exploits, cub," Jesmind said flintily.  "I'm not stupid enough to trust you until you prove beyond any doubt that you're trustworthy."

      Keritanima had drifted away from the argument to marvel over Kimmie's twins, lauding praise on Kimmie over how big they'd gotten, and how pretty they were.  She acted like she hadn't seen them in months, when in reality she'd seen them just five days ago, the last time she came to visit.  Kimmie looked quite radiant sitting there with someone lavishing attention on her and her babies.

      By the time she finished, Allia and Allyn opened the door and entered the room.  Allia had a fresh bloodstain on her shirt, inu blood, but she didn't look like she'd been fighting at all.  Allyn had a slightly wild look in his eyes, and his hands were trembling a little.  "What happened to you?" Keritanima asked acidly.

      "We had a short dispute with a pack of inu before coming here," she answered lightly, taking Tarrin's paw and then giving him a warm hug.  "They saw things my way quickly."

      "You bloodthirsty savage," Keritanima laughed, then hugged her.  "What started it?"

      "They tried to kill us!" Allyn said, his voice a bit hysterical.

      "I take it it was his first time?" Tarrin asked Allia.

      She nodded.  "He didn't do that badly," she said, giving him a critical eye.  "But he threw aside the Dance and used Sorcery when they marked him.  I'll have to break him of that."

      "I'd like to see you try!" Allyn said hotly.  "I've seen Kedaira play, but I never dreamed they could move that fast!"

      "Inu are pretty rough customers, Allyn," Tarrin told him.  "If the Selani respect them, you know they have to be dangerous."

      There was a short, briefly flat look that exchanged between Allia and Jula.  They didn't exactly get along, because Allia had been hostile to Jula before she won the trust of the rest of them, and though Allia had forgiven her, Jula hadn't forgotten it.  Allia had wanted to kill Jula, and in a way, Allia had never forgotten that it was Jula who had been responsible for Tarrin's ferality and all the grief he suffered because of it.  Neither could forget, though both had forgiven.  Whenever Jula and Allia were in the same room, the tension became palpable between them.  But that look passed quickly, as Allia's face and eyes softened as she hugged Jenna and then greeted Tarrin's children fondly.

      "I say, I think that's all of us," Phandebrass announced.

      "Ianelle isn't back yet," Jenna told him.  "She went to go get Iselde a while ago."

      "Iselde's coming?" Allyn said brightly.

      "She's going to Abrodar with us, if only to visit Auli and you before you leave," Jenna told him.

      "I have to fetch Darvon," Jenna said.  "He and Azakar are coming.  Darvon's decided that he's my personal Knight.  He won't let me leave the Tower without him."

      "It's the Lord General's personal duty to see to the safety of the Keeper, Jenna," Tarrin told her.  "That means that if he's not busy or if he feels he's not personally up to the task, he goes with you."

      "What happens when he is busy?" Rallix asked.

      "He sends the best Knight he has," Tarrin answered.  "Probably Azakar, or maybe Ulger."

      "Kargon is very good," Allia noted.  "He would be up to that honor."

      "Triana's not here either," Tarrin fretted.  "She said she'd be here."

      "Triana's going?  Why?" Allyn asked.

      "I say, she and Camara Tal are very good friends," Phandebrass answered.  "She wouldn't miss this event for the world, she wouldn't."

      "She went to go get Sarraya," Jesmind announced.

      "The bug's coming?  This should be interesting, then," Dar chuckled.  "I've always wondered what it would be like if Auli met Sarraya."

      "Let's all hope we can get Sarraya out of there before that happens," Tarrin said fervently.

      "It's getting a little crowded in here," Jenna noted, seeing that they were all packed around her dining table.  "Has anyone not eaten yet?" she called.

      Everyone was silent.

      "Alright then, let's all move down to the lawn outside the main door," she ordered.  "I'm afraid to move in here.  I might step on someone's tail."

      "For those of us who have them," Dar said with a smile.

      "It's your loss," Keritanima said airily, then she gave him a wicked smile.  "Do you want one, Dar?  I think I could manage that.  How about a nice bushy tail?  Or maybe a rat's whip-like tail, or even a pig's curly tail!  Oh, I know, I'll give you a peacock's tail, so you can display your plumage and impress Tiella!"

      "I like my butt unadorned, Kerri.  Thanks all the same," he said dryly, which produced several chuckles.

      The group of them--quite a large group, Tarrin had to admit--moved down to the lawn outside the Tower proper, which was neat and highly groomed by the army of gardeners that maintained the massive grounds surrounding and between the seven towers that made up the compound.  They stood and socialized warmly with one another, catching up on things and getting more familiar with the in-laws of the inner circle, Rallix, Allyn, and Tiella.  Tarrin had to hang back a moment and look them over, and he revelled a bit in just how right it felt that they were all together like they were.  Though not all of them had travelled with him the whole time, or even travelled with him at all, every one of them was a part of his family, even Allyn and Rallix.  They were sisters, brothers, dear friends and close confidantes.  From the boundless love that existed between him, Allia, and Keritanima to the calm confidence and utter trust he had in Binter and Sisska, from the warm friendship he had with Allyn and Rallix to the closeness he shared with Dar and Miranda, there was not a face there that he did not love in one way or another.  Though he was a Were-cat, fiercely independent and occasionally very demanding of his personal space, he couldn't deny the simple happiness, almost joy, he felt at them all being together in physical person once again.  Not all of them were there yet, as Dolanna, Azakar, Sarraya, and Camara Tal weren't with him quite yet, but their absences were only a temporary thing, and would soon be rectified.

      It was rather remarkable how such a widely, vastly different group of sentient beings had come together to form tight bonds of kinship.  Even Binter and Sisska, the most radically different of them all in terms of appearance and cultural personality, were tightly knitted into their inner circle, and they were as easily accepted as the two Vendari accepted the quirks of all the little races around them.  They were such a disparate group.  A mercurial Faerie, a pair of cunning Wikuni, a wise, regal Selani, a virtual pack of dangerous, unpredictable Were-cats, several formidable humans with their widely ranging personalities, and two powerful and honor-bound Vendari.  There were others as well, even more exotic, if not so tightly knitted into the core group.  An Aeradalla, a few Demons, a couple of Sha'Kar, and a dragon.  All of them so greatly different from one another, so different from their own kind in many ways, yet all of them had come together to form a tight bond that transcended race and culture.

      Four Knights quietly stood just to the edge of the group, all of them easily recognizable.  The most obvious was Azakar, whose trememdous size--he was a bit taller than Tarrin--easily set him apart from the other three.  The white moustaches of Darvon and his elegant, ornate armor barely contained the sense of authority that hovered around the man.  Scarred Ulger stood to Darvon's left, and beside him was the Knight that Allia had mentioned, a tall, rather burly fellow with a drawn, deceptively youthful face and curly red hair named Kargon.  Tarrin had sparred against Kargon a few times when he and Allia had been training on the Knights' practice grounds, and knew that the man was a solidly trained warrior, but it was Kargon's mind that Tarrin had respected.  Kargon was a wily, cunning opponent, and he was Tower-educated in the Noviate, a solid base to expand the young man's intelligent mind.  Kargon also happened to be Darvon's nephew, but he had never been given any preferential treatment because of his relationship to the Lord General, and didn't want any.  He was surprisingly young to be in the rather elite ranks in which he stood, but then again, Azakar was even younger than him.  Azakar and Kargon were what Darvon would call the future of the order, their best and brightest, being trained and groomed to assume command positions after the elders of the order either died or retired.  Giving orders wasn't something that Tarrin would associate with Azakar, however.  The young man's past made him quiet and unassuming, trying to avoid the eyes of the men holding the whips, as the virtual carpet of scars criss-crossing his back would attest.  Those kinds of habits would take half his lifetime to break.

      Before Tarrin had a chance to go over and talk to them, Triana arrived on the field, and she wasn't alone.  A blue blur zipped from her and almost struck Tarrin in the chest, and the tiny, piping voice of Sarray could be heard laughing happily.  She hugged him around the neck, perching on his collarbones to do so, and her earthy smell established itself in his nose.  Despite the fact that she occasionally drove him nuts, Sarraya was among one of Tarrin's closest friends.  He and the Faerie had crossed the Desert of Swirling Sands together, and that had brought the dissimilar pair of them very close together.  Tarrin was grim in his manner towards those who didn't know him--and many who did--who came across as a humorless, unpleasantly blunt male whose chilling stare could freeze boiling water and who demanded all around him to utterly obey any order he issued.  Those who knew him well found him to be a rather sober man with little patience and a surprisingly dry sense of humor.  Sarraya was the absolute opposite of him.  She was capricious, impulsive, fun-loving, and very easily distracted.  She loved playing pranks on people--everyone but Tarrin, that is, for she had not forgotten that rather poignant lesson--and could be unbelievably abrasive to others.  She thought it was great fun to harass, insult, and irritate people.  Despite the fact that they were diametrically opposite of one another in personality, theirs was a friendship that had not only endured, but had flourished.

      "Tarrin!  How are you, you big sourpuss?" Sarraya said in her tiny voice.  Everything about her was tiny.  She was barely a span tall, with blue skin and auburn hair and chitinous, multicolored dragonfly-like wings on her back which she used to fly.

      "I've been well, Sarraya," he replied fondly, holding out his paw for her.  She landed in it and sat down, dangling her legs over his palm and leaning back on her tiny little hands.  "Why haven't you contacted me lately?"

      "Triana said you were really busy with something, so I didn't want to bother you."

      "You, listening to someone?  Are you getting old or something, Sarraya?"

      She laughed.  "I guess I am.  You're a bad influence on me," she winked.

      Triana reached him, and to his surprise, she wasn't alone.  Along with her was a rather tall, sleekly thin fellow with dark hair and a well-formed face, slightly narrow with light bones.  Quite handsome.  Tarrin was surprised to see this man, for he hadn't seen him for years, and had only been his guest for two days, back in Dayisè.  But this man actually wasn't a man.  His name was Haley, and he was a Were-wolf.  Something of a black sheep among Were-wolf society, for he preferred human culture and human luxuries over the forest.  Tarrin had distrusted Haley at first, for back then he'd been a Rogue and at odds with Fae-da'Nar, but after talking with him a while, he had actually found Haley to be intelligent and understanding, not judgemental as he first feared.  Haley had been the first outside of Jesmind to really teach him something about the Woodkin, and had been the first Were-kin Tarrin had encountered that hadn't either immediately attacked him or tried to kill him.  Tarrin remembered that Haley was a refined man, educated and witty, well-spoken and urbane, with a penchant for flattering ladies and a sharp mind that served him well in the cesspool of intrigue that was Dayisè.

      "Triana said you got tall, boy, but I didn't expect another Triana!" he said with a light laugh.

      "Haley!" Tarrin said in surprised recognition.

      "You remember me," he said, somewhat pleased.

      "What are you doing here?"

      "The Circle of Hierarchs summoned me, and Triana was nice enough to come and get me and take me," he answered.  "That saved me a month of travel.  We got delayed, and I kind of got stuck along with her when she went to fetch that obnoxious Faerie.  I guess I'm along with you, wherever you're going."

      "You could always take a ship back to Dayisè," Triana told him bluntly.

      "Well, I could, but I think I'd rather go with you," he answered.  "I get the feeling you're about to embark on a very interesting journey.  I think I'd like to get in on it, if that's alright with you."

      Tarrin shrugged.  "There's room for one more, given how many there are already," he answered.  "I doubt we'd even notice you tagging along."

      "Quite an interesting group.  Who are they all?"

      "I'll introduce you," he promised.

      "Is everyone here?" Triana asked.

      "I hope so, I'm not going to sit around here all day!" Sarraya announced.

      "We're only waiting for Ianelle, I think," he answered.  "She's the one that's actually going to get us to Abrodar."

      "Abrodar?" Haley asked in surprise.  "As in the capital of Sharadar?"

      Tarrin nodded.  "From there, we go on to Amazar."

      "Amazar?" he asked, then he laughed suddenly.  "You're going to Amazar, are you?  Has anyone thought to look around?"

      "What do you mean?" Sarraya asked.

      Haley swept his arm across their rather large host.  "Have you though about what's going to happen to all these men?"

      "Oh, that," Tarrin said, then he shrugged.  "I'm not too worried about it.  It's not like they can stop us from leaving."

      "No, but they can scatter the group's men all over the islands."

      "Maybe a little scattering would do you a little good, burr-butt," Sarraya teased.

      "Camara Tal made arrangements," Triana said brusquely.  "While we're there, all the unmarried human males will be considered her property.  The married ones belong to their wives."

      "I'm glad someone thought to make sure of things," Haley chuckled.  "As astute as ever, Triana."

      "Who is this, Tarrin?" Jesmind asked as she and Jasana disengaged from Allia and Allyn and came over.  "Mother."

      "This is Haley, daughter, the Were-wolf of Dayisè," she said, giving him a flinty look.

      Haley cleared his throat and looked distinctly uncomfortable for a second.  Tarrin had an idea that Haley had done something wrong, hence his summons from the Circle of Hierarchs.  But he didn't think it would be a good idea to ask out here in the open; such things tended to be rather sensitive.

      Jasana, however, had no such sense of etiquette.  "Was he bad, Gramma?" she asked.

      "You could say that, and it's not something we discuss in front of the humans, cub," she said shortly, cutting off any further questions.

      Ianelle and Iselde arrived with three other Sha'Kar, in their shimmering robes, which were about the only vanity they had not abandoned since leaving Sha'Kari.  Those robes were something of a material display of loyalty to the Goddess, trying to imitate the shimmering aura she sometimes had around her in the Heart and during certain rare physical manifestations, when she meant to impress the mortals.  The fact that they were gorgeous and quite soft probably were only added bonuses.  All five Sha'Kar immediately curtsied to Jenna, who looked a bit annoyed but said nothing.

      "Ah, so that must be the child Keeper of the Tower," Haley said, looking at her.  "She's definitely your sister, Tarrin."

      "How did you know that?"

      "Tarrin, everyone knows that," he said with a chuckle, giving him a smile.  "They're singing songs about you now, didn't you know that?"  Tarrin shook his head.  "They're all the rage down in Shacè and especially in Dayisè, mainly because they're all sulky that they got left out of the battle.  Shacèans love to fight, but only for the challenge of it, not to kill."

      Tarrin remembered the Musketeers of Shacè, who would duel one another for the flimsiest of reasons.  Not to kill each other, but to test their abilities against others.  They enjoyed the fight, not the slaughter.  To them, it was a sport.

      "The most popular one right now is the song about the Battle of Suld," he continued.  "In the song, you and Jenna are twenty spans tall and smite complete divisions of Demon troops with waves of your hands.  They did get some of it right, though."

      Tarrin was a bit startled.  They had made up songs about the battle?  That seemed silly to him.  But then again, he remembered how the citizens of Suld had treated Jenna when she took him into the city, way back when the curse over the Firestaff had made him human again.  They adored her, almost worshipped her, and she was probably even more popular than King Arren, even now.  Jenna was the first Keeper in a very long time that enjoyed the popular support of the common citizens of Suld.

      "What other songs are there?" Jesmind asked curiously.

      "Quite a few," he answered her.  "Most of them are about what they now call the Seekers of the Staff.  That's your group," he said, pointing at Tarrin.  "I don't know how dangerous that mission was, but the songs and stories say that you fought Demons every ten seconds and sank fleets of ships.  You also single-handedly depopulated the Goblinoids, tamed Shiika, brought Fae-da'Nar under your heel, purged the Tower of the darkness that infested it--which has put the katzh-dashi under new light and made people more curious about them than afraid of them, I might add--unearthed the ki'zadun and wiped them out, and destroyed a god."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "Just about everything you said is so far from the truth it's funny," he responded.

      "Songs and stories are always embellished with a bit of spice to make them more interesting.  If they were boring stories, the bards wouldn't have audiences, would they?" Haley smiled.  "Besides, it gives you quite a reputation."  He looked around again.  "I'd think that Dolanna would be here."

      "She's in Abrodar," Tarrin answered.  "She decided to go home for a while."

      "Well, I'm going for certain now, if only to see her again."

      "You like Aunt Dolanna," Jasana deduced.

      Haley smiled.  "Everyone that knows your Aunt Dolanna likes her, cubling," he told her.  "She's one of the most interesting women in this whole world."

      Tarrin considered Haley for a moment.  There was something very delicate in his voice, in his scent, that hinted that his regard for Dolanna extended a little past what might be considered proper.  But then again, he was a Were-wolf, and Dolanna was a human, so there really wasn't anywhere that it could go.  Haley wouldn't dare bite Dolanna against her will, and he wouldn't even think in his wildest dreams that Dolanna would agree to be bitten, not with how much she knew about Were-kin.  If any human intimately understood the dark curse that came with the gifts of Lycanthropy, it was Dolanna.

      If that was even what it was.  It was so faint, he wasn't that sure.

      "Alright, as soon as the porters finish carting out the luggage, we'll be going!" Jenna called over the conversations.  "It's a couple hours before sunset in Abrodar, just to warn everyone!"

      "I'll never get used to that," Jesmind complained.

      "What?" Triana asked.

      "The idea that the sun isn't shining everywhere at the same time," she replied.  "I know the world is round, but it just seems...unnatural."

      "Get used to it."

      Jesmind sniffed, crossing her arms beneath her breasts absently.

      "I've never Teleported before," Haley said.  "What's it like?"

      "You never feel anything," Jasana told him as Tara and Rina meandered over with Kimmie just behind.  "All you see is a little blur, like two things laying over top of one another, and then you're wherever you were going."

      "Nice.  It sounds much better than whatever it was Triana does," he said, giving her a sly glance.  "I thought I was going to be sick."

      "That's because you're a lightweight, Haley," Sarraya teased.

      "Then I'm a lightweight," he shrugged.  "I think you know that it's common knowledge I prefer the more convenient things in life.  That's why I don't run with my pack anymore."

      Porters and servants were bustling about, bringing the luggage that was going to be taken to Abrodar, and Tarrin saw that there were quite a few chests, crates, and bags mixed in with it.  Probably things that were going to be transferred to the other Tower.  Everyone more or less settled down as they finished their task, and then the five Sha'Kar and Jenna Circled and had everyone bunch together around the pile of cargo going along with them.  Tarrin could clearly sense the Circle, and felt that Jenna had relinquished the lead to Ianelle, who would be doing the actual Teleportation.

      "Here we go," Sarraya said brightly, then she grinned at Haley.  "If you're going to be sick, do me a favor and face the other way.  I don't need a vomit bath."

      "I'll make sure to specifically aim right at you, Sarraya," he drawled in an urbane manner.

      "Not when she's sitting on my shoulder, you're not," Tarrin warned in a slightly dangerous tone.

      Before Kimmie could interject herself into the conversation, Ianelle began.  Tarrin distinctly felt her reach way out, half the world away, and then find the place for which she was looking.  The tendrils of the spell reached all the way to Abrodar and laced themselves around her intended target of appearance, and when they were done, she completed the spell.  In a burst of energy, the affected space in Suld was exchanged with the affected space in Abrodar, and they were moved along with it.  Just as Jasana had described, there was a very brief blurring of the background, everything not actively being Teleported, and then it was replaced with the scenery of the landing area.

      Tarrin immediately noticed that it was a bit cool, and a little damp.  It was much later in the evening, and they were standing in a large flat grassy lawn that stood before what had to be the most awe-inspiring thing he had ever seen in his life, when the personal meetings with gods were excluded.

      It was the Tower.

      It was the Tower, he was sure of that, but it was nothing like the Tower of Six Spires, in Suld.  This was not a tower, didn't even look like a building.  It was a tree.  It looked exactly like the wide-canopied raintrees he had seen on the dusty plains of Saranam, with a straight trunk that went three hundred spans into the air, then exploded into a canopy of green leaves that had to shade an area across the widest point that just had to be at least a quarter of a longspan.  It had brown bark, and green leaves, and many branches that disappeared into the green of the leaf canopy, and looked like a raintree, a monstrous raintree that made everyone that had never seen it before gape up at it in open-mouthed astonishment.  But that barked exterior held windows and balconies, and Tarrin could see a massive pair of bronze-inlaid doors at its base.  It looked like a tree, but it was most definitely an artificial construction, and now that the wind had shifted, he could smell that it was made of stone, not of wood.  It was a work of art, a sculpture on a gigantic scale that happened to serve a practical purpose.

      Tarrin was stunned.  It perfectly resembled a tree, but a tree with stone for wood and stone for leaves, completely hollow within its trunk, housing the complement of the Sorcerers of Sharadar.  Never in his entire life had he seen anything like it.  Even the Tower in Suld seemed to pale in comparison to this delicate work of gigantic art, for the katzh-dashi of Sharadar had turned their Tower into a work of art, an exquisite work of art that so dominated his sight and his mind that he hadn't even noticed any other building in the ancient city of Abrodar yet.  The raintree Tower absolutely dominated all his attention.

      He wasn't the only one.  The only ones who didn't gape at this amazing Tower were Jenna, Ianelle, and one of the other Sha'Kar who had come with them.  Everyone else could only stare up into that huge canopy and marvel in awe.

      "Welcome," a voice called, making Tarrin blink and look towards the Tower again.  There were three people standing there just ahead of a large formation of men and women in robes, and he recognized two of them.  One was Dolanna, petite Dolanna dressed in a lustrous blue silk robe, and Auli, wearing a rather plain brown robe made of some kind of fine cloth.  The one in the middle was a remarkably tall woman with flaming red hair and luminous green eyes, wearing a robe exactly the shade of her hair, a fiery red.  She was a very attractive woman, in a human way, and wore a rather simple and elegant little tiara on her head.

      This was Alexis Firehair, the Keeper of the Tower of Abrodar, and Queen of Sharadar.

      She smiled, a glorious smile, and opened her arms.  "Welcome, my friends, to the Raintree Tower of Abrodar."


To:       Title                EoF    

Chapter 8

 

      The interior of the Tower was nothing like the outside.

      After a very long, very exhausting, and rather boring ceremony of welcome carried out by Alexis and her Sorcerers, they were finally permitted to enter the amazing tree-shaped building.  Tarrin wasn't one for much ceremony, and he thought Alexis would know better, but he guessed he was wrong.  It lasted nearly an hour, and all seven Were-cats were looking decidedly unsettled by the end of it.  Alexis spoke in greeting, then she welcomed each one of them individually with a gift of a small gold pendant that was made in the shape of a shaeram.  Just as she finished greeting the last of them, and Tarrin thought that it was over, she had her assembled Sorcerers sing.  Tarrin had to admit that that part he didn't mind all that much, for Alexis had obviously made the group of her best singers.  The hundred or so Sorcerers there couldn't be the entire complement of her Tower.  After the seranade, Alexis spoke some more, blessings from the Goddess and assurances that they'd be well fed and housed until they left in the morning, by which means nobody but Alexis and her Sorcerers knew.  Then, after that, they finally managed to glare at the woman long enough to make her wrap things up and bring them inside.

      The inside of their Tower was so much like the main Tower at Suld that for a moment he thought that he had somehow been Teleported back.  The hallways parallel to the outside were just slightly curved, following the shape of the round Tower, making it impossible to see much more than twenty or thirty spans ahead.  The walls were a richly polished dark marble or granite, different from theirs, but the red carpet right in the middle of the passage and the glowglobes and the art hanging from the walls was in the exact same manner as the passages back in Suld were decorated.  Doors lined the passages, much closer together than at Suld, hinting that the rooms here were smaller, but aside from the color of the walls, it was almost exactly like home.

      That impression only counted against the building.  The katzh-dashi of Abrodar really, really irritated Tarrin.  As the group passed, they all bowed and curtsied.  This in itself wouldn't bother Tarrin, since they did have a pair of queens, the Lord General of the Knights, and Jenna in the host.  But he quickly found out that they were bowing to him.  Those damned Sha'Kar had infected the Sorcerers of Sharadar with the need to call him honored one, and that was all he heard as they moved through Alexis' Tower.  Honored one here, Honored one there, from down the halls and up the staircases, from the most richly dressed Sorcerer down the dirtiest scullion, all of them called him that, and much to his annoyance, he was the only one they addressed in that manner.  Jenna was also a sui'kun and was the One Keeper, but they didn't call her that.  They called her High Keeper or Her Grace, saving honored one for him and him alone, much to his ire.  If that wasn't bad enough, they also bowed or curtsied so deeply that he thought they were going to fall over, looking clumsy and foolish in the process.  That in itself probably wouldn't have bothered him too much, but it was the looks in their eyes that really got him agitated.  It was a look of mindless, almost thoughtless awe.  Granted, his height and unusual appearance would be enough to startle most people, and he did have something of a reputation, but it in no way justified the doe-like fawning looks that all the people in the Tower gave him.  It wasn't fear; he would have been more than content if they had looked at him with fear.  But it wasn't fear.  As a matter of fact, not only were they not afraid of him, they didn't have the sense to be afraid, no matter how much he glared or scowled or gave them the look.  It was worshipful adoration.

      Tarrin was not an object of adoration.  He was going to educate them very fast that if they wanted to gawk at him, it had better be looks of terror, not loving gazes of adulation.  All it would take would be one object lesson, but his sense of duty to the Goddess kept interfering with those wonderful violent fantasies.  These were katzh-dashi, and he wouldn't feel right ripping a few of them open for simpering at him the way they were.  This left Tarrin in a bit of a quandary.  They didn't have the sense to back off when he glared, and he wouldn't feel right about smacking them around for looking at him like that.  After all, they were Sorcerers.  He knew that the Goddess would have quite a few dark words to share with him if he did that, and she was one of the very few that Tarrin would obey.

      There was one thing he noticed about Sharadites.  They were all small.  He thought that Dolanna was petite, even diminutive, and to him, she was.  The top of her head just barely reached the base of his sternum; to the peoples of the West, she was just slightly taller than adolescent girls.  But to other Sharadites, she was only slightly shorter than the average height.  Even their males were rather short, a little over five and a half spans tall or so on the average, where the average man in the West was just shy of six spans.  This was a surprise, but he realized that just as some human strains were taller than the average, like the Ungardt and the Amazons, there were bound to be some that were smaller than the average.  It just took a little getting used to, that was all.

      It was easy to pick out the non-Sharadites in the groups because of their size.  There were many pale-skinned humans, like Sharadites, who were much taller, as well a liberal representation by what looked like Arakites, with the same swarthy skin, but with slightly narrower faces and sharper features.  Probably Godans or Nyrians, cousins of the Arakite race.  The Sha'Kar were gracefully taller than most of them, however, standing out with both their shimmering robes and their innate grace as much as the fact that their heads tended to be above everyone else's.

      At first he wasn't sure what Alexis had planned, at least as she seemed to wander around her Tower as if not sure where she wanted to take them all.  Then he actually listened to her prattle, and realized that she was giving everyone a very brief tour of her amazing Tower, only pointing out the important places, like the kitchens, the baths, the privies, and telling them how to reach the library from a staircase at which they briefly stopped.  Tarrin had been too busy giving flat looks to worshipful Sorcerers and servants to pay Alexis much attention.

      The last straw was one of their Initiates.  He was a rather weedy looking fellow with pimples on his face and a slight gap between his front teeth, who bowed to Tarrin so deeply he stumbled forward, then pushed a small book and a quill forward and asked him to sign it.  Tarrin gave the boy an incredulous look, so startled he honestly was left speechless by the request.

      "Why in the world would you want me to sign your book?" he asked after a long moment of trying to understand what the boy was after.

      The boy gaped at him, then stammered out what sounded like five apologies at once as he bowed repeatedly.  Alexis came over and put a hand on his shoulder and soothed him with a few words, explaining that it wasn't a custom of the northerners (what they called the peoples of the West), then she sent him off with a swat on his bottom.  After he was safely off, she turned and gave him a sly smile.  "It's proof he met you," she answered.  "A keepsake of the experience."

      Jasana giggled uncontrollably, and Jesmind snorted.  Tarrin gave Alexis a flat look and put his paws on his hips.  "What experience?" he said crossly.  "What earthly difference would it make if he'd ever seen me or not?"

      "Tarrin, you're a celebrity," she told him, with that same sly smile.  "That means you have your own troupe of fans."

      "Fans?" he asked in a dangerous tone.

      "Admirers," she amended.

      "Nobody in Suld acts this silly.  I'd brain them if they did."

      "Well, we don't have that innate terror of you down here that they do up there," she teased.  "You didn't rack up the exploits here that makes the Sorcerers in Suld so wary of you.  Chalk it up to lack of exposure."

      "I can fix that," he said in an ugly tone.

      "Just enjoy it," she told him with a slight chuckle.  "For the moment, you're the only thing on everyone's mind here, Tarrin."

      "It's silly," he snorted.

      "Of course it is.  They're humans, aren't they?" Triana interjected, which caused Haley to nod sagely.

      "Now now, be nice," Alexis chided.  "Triana, isn't it?"

      "Girl, you're about to learn the first rule," Triana said in an unflappable manner, crossing her arms beneath her breasts.

      If Tarrin's disquiet with the situation didn't faze the Queen of Sharadar, Triana's blunt statement and the sense of aggression that suddenly emanated from her did.  The smile slid off her face and she regarded the Were-cat matron cautiously a moment.  "That would be?"

      "Gramma is always right," Jasana piped in.  "You never tell her what to do, and you always do what Gramma says, or she'll spank you."

      "I...yes.  I think I can live with that rule," Alexis said in a calm, unruffled voice, though her body language showed immediate submissiveness towards the imposing Were-cat.

      Triana managed to deflate Alexis' humor at the situation, and the tour wrapped up quickly.  She took them up near the top of the Tower and announced that the entire floor was theirs, that there were ten very richly appointed apartments on the floor, each with two bedrooms and all of them with balconies that looked out over the city.  She told them that they could refresh themselves or rest for a short while before the grand feast Alexis had prepared for them.  The problem was, none of them were really tired.  They'd only been up for a few hours, and it was already close to sunset.  They ended up all gathering in Tarrin's apartment and simply catching up, as each of them told the others what they'd been up to, and listening to a few stories.  Stories such as Dar and Tiella's ongoing war with Dar's mother, and inane ramblings from Phandebrass as he told them all what sort of magical chicanery he'd been up to lately.

      In a way, it was a good thing.  It gave the core group of Tarrin's inner circle the chance to catch up with each other, since some of them hadn't been in intimate communication.  Dar hadn't been sending messages to Azakar, for example, and poor Sarraya had no one to give her news, mainly since her flighty mind didn't let her concentrate on the idea of talking to one of them long enough for her to do anything about it.  Dolanna had only been getting the major news from Jenna, since she always had so many demands on her time, and since whenever Dolanna projected out to talk to Tarrin, they almost never discussed those kinds of things.  It also gave those who had been included in that inner circle a chance to get a better understanding of those within it, and pick up on some inside information that they all knew, never explained to outsiders, and usually tended to leave those who listened to them completely lost.  Those who could keep up, anyway, for their conversations tended to bounce around among Sulasian, Sha'Kar, Selani, Wikuni, and occasionally into Sharadi.

      And, of course, it was a chance for meetings.  Tarrin had been dreading the idea of Auli meeting Sarraya, but it didn't turn out as bad as he thought.  The first words out of Sarraya's mouth was a snide comment about Auli's beaten silver belt, a comment that there was enough silver in it to buy half of Nyr.  It was just vague enough to seem innocent, but of course was a blatant insult about the girth of Auli's waist.  If there was anything that Auli had, it was vanity, and the remark about her weight struck her to the quick.  What Sarraya didn't count on was that the fluent-minded Auli had a razor for a tongue, and she managed to completely destroy the Faerie in about thirty seconds.  Sarraya flitted away to sulk and gather her wits, for she rarely got thrashed like that, leaving the young Sha'Kar the victor in that initial exchange of a war that was sure to follow.

      Sometimes the relationship between Auli and Ianelle was oh so obvious.

      The catching up didn't bring Tarrin anything new, at least nothing obvious, mainly because he tended to be at the center of the web of information that existed among them, so he spent that time pondering on his friends.  Two things were still in his mind that he needed to check, and those were Haley and Miranda.  What had happened in Dayisè that caused the Circle of Heirarchs to summon him?  It had to have been bad.  They wouldn't have summoned him if was something minor, like someone discovering that he was a Were-wolf.  No, he had to have done something that got public attention, like killed a taproom full of people.

      And why did Miranda seem so...distant?  He could look at her and see it.  She seemed her normal self, witty and charming, but also somewhat quiet, content to speak or content to remain silent, as both suited her.  That was Miranda's way.  But there was something else there, something she was hiding from Keritanima and the Vendari, something that seemed alien when one thought of Miranda.  Was it...discontent?  That seemed almost impossible. Though she didn't know it--and neither did anyone else in the room, for that matter--Miranda was actually an Avatar created by the goddess Kikkalli, the head of the Wikuni pantheon of gods.  She wasn't a physical manifestation of Kikkalli, she was more of a special Wikuni who had a spark of divine inspiration in her.  If Wikuni were works of art, then Miranda might be what one would call a great masterpiece.  Kikkalli's gift to Miranda was a quick mind, a steely will, and the mental capability to be both a companion for Keritanima and a confidante, someone smart enough to understand the complicated little Queen and also someone with whom Keritanima could scheme and plot.  Miranda had literally been created to be a friend and servant of the Queen.  So for Miranda to be dissatisfied seemed to violate the very nature of his insufferably cute little friend.  Miranda literally lived to serve Keritanima.  It was what she was born to do, and the need to be there to help, protect, and serve the Queen was ingrained into her very being.

      Tarrin brooded about that for quite a while, until the group began to get a little tired of sitting around and talking.  A servant informed them it would be about another hour before dinner, so they decided to wander around the Tower, or stroll the grounds, or have a short rest in their own apartments.  Tarrin seized on the opportunity to find out what was going on, blowing off all the others in short order, even Triana--who gave him a sharply remonstrating look--and managing to get hold of Miranda's elbow and guiding her away from Keritanima, Rallix, and the Vendari as they walked out his door.  They turned and went one way, and Tarrin turned them the other.  Sisska looked back when Miranda didn't come up behind them, then simply nodded Tarrin's way when she saw that he had her.  Sisska would trust Miranda's safety to Tarrin.

      They walked for some time without saying a word, but that wasn't unusual.  The relationship between the Were-cat and the mink Wikuni was both rather complicated and exceptionally simple at the same time.  They simply enjoyed each other's company.  No more, no less.  That meant that they were just as content to be absolutely silent as they were chatting away at each other.  Miranda was one of the very few people who could make Tarrin forget himself and act immature, even silly or childish, because he felt totally comfortable with her.  Tarrin ignored the mewling sheep of the Tower as they bowed and curtsied and gawked and blubbered as they passed, keeping his attention on Miranda.  When she felt they were far enough away from Keritanima's formidable ears, she'd say something.

      "I reckon we're far enough away now," she said in a surprisingly serious voice.  "Was there anything in particular you wanted to talk about?"

      "You can't hide from me, Miranda," he told her.  "Kerri may not see it, but I do.  And I'll bet that Binter and Sisska can too.  What's the matter?"

      "I guess that's the whole problem," she sighed, looking up at him.  That wide-cheeked face, which was so overwhelmingly cute that she could disarm absolutely anyone with just a smile, seemed so very sober.  That was not an expression he was used to seeing on her.  She could be very serious, but rarely did she ever look serious.  That cute act was so well practiced for her that it was something she did without even thinking about it.  "I know you'll think I'm silly, Tarrin, but I guess I'm just a little jealous."

      "Jealous?  Over Rallix?"

      She nodded, the side-parted bangs that seemed to hover over her forehead bobbing with lively verve.  "Kerri doesn't seem to have time for me anymore," she confided.  "She's always with him, and we don't talk the way we used to."

      "You knew it would happen."

      "I know, but I thought that at least she'd try to take the time to keep up with me," she told him with a great deal of emotion in her voice. "It's like she's forgotten me, old friend.  To her, I'm just there.  Whenever she needs something, she remembers that I'm there, but any other time, I'm just part of the scenery.  She never seems to talk to me anymore, and whenever I try to talk to her, she always cuts me short."  She sighed.  "I've become an old dog laying by the fire, one that nobody bothers to notice unless they need to step over it or they want their slippers fetched."

      Tarrin was quiet a moment as he pondered her words.  That didn't seem like Kerri.  She didn't forget people like that, and especially not Miranda.  She was the one friend who had stuck with her since she was a little girl, the only one she could confide in.  Tarrin and Allia may be Kerri's brother and sister, but Miranda was her best friend.  "Well, you could always pack up and leave."

      "I can't do that!" she protested instantly.  "She may need me, and what good will I be if I'm not there?"

      "I didn't say leave forever.  I mean leave her apartment."

      "I already did that," she told him.  "Kerri threw me out."

      "She did what?"

      "She threw me out," she repeated.  "She told me that me being there was interfering with her personal relationship with Rallix.  I live in the apartment next door now."

      "Now that's raw," Tarrin frowned.  Keritanima tossing Miranda out of her apartment would be like Tarrin making Jesmind live in the cellar.  "I don't know, Miranda.  That's not like Kerri.  Not at all."

      "I know, but I guess her marriage has made her a different person," she said somberly.

      "Well, if you don't want to leave her employ, then you can either beat her over the head with your dissatisfaction, or you can just endure it.  Or you could find a nice man and settle down yourself," he urged.

      "Marry?  Me?" she said, then she laughed.  "I was never meant to be a wife, Tarrin.  I was a born bachelor--well, bachelorette."

      "Then find a significant other for a while.  Personally, I think marriage is a bit overrated."

      "That's only because you'd kill your wife inside ten years," she teased with one of those cheeky grins that made her so unbearably cute.

      "True," he agreed.  "You just need to focus on men who share your interests."

      "Let's see, my interests are needlepoint, rumormongering, knitting, intrigue, crochet, spying, flirting, and assassinations," she said, ticking off her fingers with each new item on her list.  "I don't know to many men who can plot the downfall of a noble house while doing saddlestitches."

      "What about that one Kerri always talked about?  Jervis?"

      "Jervis?" she said, then she laughed loudly and for a very long moment.  "Me, take up with Jervis?  Give me some credit!"

      "What's wrong with him?"

      "He's too ridiculous looking for me to take him seriously!"

      "Yes, alot of people say the very thing about you," he said, giving her a slight look.

      "Yes, but I'm a girl," she said, fluttering her eyelashes at him.  "I'm not supposed to be taken seriously."

      Tarrin ignored that.  "Well, if not Jervis, then maybe you should find a nice rich nobleman, let him spend his entire fortune on you, then break his heart with malicious glee," he said in a serious tone that made Miranda laugh.

      "Who says I haven't done that already?" she teased, winking at him.

      "No comment," he drawled.  "What I'm saying, Miranda, is that there's an entire world out there waiting for you.  You don't have to feel like being on Kerri's right side is all there is to life.  I know it's where you want to be, but just take a little time to experiment a little.  Who knows, you might find something out there that you like.  Maybe not as much as serving Kerri, but something that would definitely be fun."

      "Are you telling me to leave?"

      "I'm telling you to remind Kerri what it's like when you're not there," he told her seriously.  "After a few months of having you not laying by the fire to step over and fetch her slippers, maybe she'll appreciate you the way she should."

      "But what if--"

      "There is no what if, Miranda," he told her curtly.  There's only is and is not.  Right now, Kerri won't fall to pieces if you're not there, and Wikuna won't self-destruct without you there to keep all the knots tied."  He looked down at her.  "Who knows, maybe you'll even find out a few things in the process."

      "What things?"

      "Try and you'll see," he told her.

      She was quiet a very long moment.  "I don't know, Tarrin."

      "Look at it this way, Miranda.  What do you have to lose?"

      She looked up at him, then laughed ruefully.  "Everything," she said.  "If I make Kerri mad, she may give me the heave-ho."

      "She'd never do that, and you know it," he chided her.  "No matter how mad she gets at you, you're still Miranda, her very best friend in all the world.  Even if she did have an irrational episode and did do it, she'd hate herself almost immediately afterward, and she'd come crawling to get you back."

      Miranda chuckled.  "That would be a sight to see," she said.  "The mighty Queen of Wikuna crawling across a room to beg her maid to come back to work for her."

      "Kerri's might is only in her own mind.  I think it's time to teach her just how far her authority reaches in some respects."

      "She's the queen, Tarrin.  We can't disobey her."

      "Bull.  You disobey her on a daily basis.  I know you do."

      Miranda's cheeks ruffled demurely, a Wikuni version of a blush.  "Well, I'm a special case."

      "That's right, Miranda.  You are special.  I think you need to educate my thoughtless sister about just how special you are."

      "You know something, Tarrin?  I think you're about the best friend a young girl could have," she said with a gloriously affectionate smile, taking his arm in both of her hands and leaning against his side as they walked.

      "Only certain young girls," he told her with a quirky kind of half-serious smile, putting his arm over her shoulders.

      Tarrin felt much better about the Miranda situation by the time he returned to his room.  He found it a little hard to believe that Keritanima ws ignoring her like that, but then again, love made people do strange things.  Jesmind had to be the ultimate example of that.  Where Tarrin was concerned, she was capable of acts that so went against her personality, and often her very nature and instincts as a Were-cat, that it seemed impossible.  She had tolerated the other females in the house, because Tarrin liked having his children around him, even though it was a direct challenge to her Were-cat nature.  That was just one example of many, examples that had begun almost since the day they'd first been properly introduced.  But, unfortunately, this was not one of those times.  She had that angry look about her when he came in, as Kimmie was trying to keep Tara from running out the door without her pants on, and Jasana and Rina were playing some kind of game with little loops of red yarn wrapped around their fingers.  Tarrin absently hooked Tara with his tail as she tried to scurry past, then pushed her to where Kimmie could get a grip on her shirt.  Tara's trousers were in Kimmie's other paw, a large tear in the seat of them, ripped from the hole for her tail down.

      Tarrin knew his mate, and knew that something was on her mind, and past experience had taught him that it was best to get her to release that anger before she had a chance to stew on it.  Not that she wasn't one to make her feelings abundantly clear to everyone, but sometimes, in typical female fashion, she preferred to keep private her ire and the reasons for it, so as to be more worked up and more able to blame Tarrin for her mindset because of his obvious misdeeds.

      He stared at her.  "What?" he asked bluntly.

      "Do you intend to spend any time at all with your family while we're out here?" she asked tartly, putting her paws on her hips and glaring up at him.

      Tarrin glanced at Kimmie.  "Jealous again, isn't she?" he asked.

      "That's a given, Tarrin," she replied with a sly smile at Jesmind, then held Tara by the end of her tail as she chanted a spell of magic to repair the tear in her trousers.

      Jesmind flashed Kimmie a rather hot look, then returned to glaring at Tarrin.  "Don't change the subject!"

      "That is the subject," he told her with quiet reserve.  "You worry too much, my mate.  For the next few days, I'm going to be spending alot of time with other people, but that doesn't change things between us, does it?"

      It was typical Jesmind.  Her most aggravating trait was her jealousy, a hot, very un-Were-cat kind of possessiveness concerning him, a trait that was almost human.  Past experience between them made her not quite completely trusting in him, for she still stung somewhat over his mating with Kimmie.  She had let him go and allowed him to take Kimmie for mate, but he had fallen in love with her.  And though she had forgiven him for it and come to accept it, and was more than aware that his feelings for Kimmie did not in any way change or take away from his love for her, it made her wary and guarded concerning him, afraid his fickle heart would end up in some other woman's pocket.  Jesmind did not like to share, and she was especially defensive concerning her mates.  It was a trait that had been in her long before she met Tarrin, a trait that had caused her to have a century-long spat with the Were-cat Rahnee, when she had stolen one of Jesmind's mates away from her.

      But it wasn't something that Tarrin couldn't manage.  This particular thorn in her personality was the one that stabbed him more than any other, so he had a great deal of experience in digging it out of his hide.  Usually, all it took was a reminder of just where she stood with him, and a little extra attention when they were alone.  After that, she'd be rather kittenish for a while.  Tarrin endured these barbs in her personality quite willingly in order to get to the softness that lay beneath that dangerous exterior.  When she wasn't angry or pecky, she was a vibrant, affectionate, quite enjoyable and agreeable woman.  The problem was, Were-cat mentality made those peeks at her she-softness uncommon, usually only coming when they were alone and when she was happy and content.  Happiness wasn't difficult to give her, but in a house with other grown females in it, the alone part wasn't always easy to accomplish.

      Tarrin looked around.  "Where's Jula?" he asked curiously.  He realized he hadn't seen her since the greeting ceremony.

      "Jenna took her with her," Kimmie answered.  She always knew where Jula was, for Jula wouldn't leave the room without telling her.  "I think they're with that other Keeper.  Alexa?"

      "Alexis," he corrected.  He noticed a sudden hot look from Jesmind, for telling her that her standing in his eyes didn't change, then turning around and asking about another female, but in this case it was totally silly.  Jula was his daughter, and she knew what that meant to him and his still human-like outlook on life concerning certain things.  Tarrin had never thought of Jula in terms of a mate, and he was rather sure that he never would.  "Jenna should keep her out of trouble," he said absently, then he looked down at Jesmind.  "Maybe I should see if she'd keep you out of trouble while she's at it."

      "I only cause trouble when you bring it down on yourself," she flared, but he could see the slight smile on the corners of her slightly pouted lips.

      "Right," he drawled, swatting her playfully on the backside as he stepped past her.

      "It really is your fault, you know!" she called to him as he walked away.  Now that was more like the Jesmind he knew and loved.  It seemed her pique of jealousy had passed.

      Tarrin passed the time teaching Jesmind how to play chess, as Jasana watched with intense curiosity.  Jesmind had never really gotten around to learning, mainly because at home she was one of the primary hunters in the house.  Jula and Kimmie had always been busy with the children, leaving Tarrin, Jesmind, and Mist to do the hunting for the entire household.  But Tarrin was often busy, either holding lessons or speaking to various figures from around the world, or engaged in intense study, so he didn't hunt every day.  Mist and Jesmind tended to split the duty, but after Mist left, it left Jesmind with it more or less by herself.  She did have eithar Kimmie or Jula along with her about every other day, when one of them could find the time, but she didn't quite like that.  Jula actually turned out to be a rather good hunter, but Kimmie seemed hopeless at it; as far as Jesmind was concerned, anyway.  Tarrin had the idea that good old fashioned prejudice was creeping into her opinion, due to Kimmie's rather unusual habits.  Kimmie was very good at catching small prey, but she tended to either avoid or pass over larger game, like deer and antelope.  Jesmind had a bigger is better mentality that caused her to go right after those animals which Kimmie had never really bothered to hunt, and as such was not in practice for hunting.

      After Tarrin handed Jesmind her fifth defeat, trying to explain to her where she was going wrong, a herald arrived at the door and announced that the feast would commence in exactly half an hour, and would they kindly dress and prepare for the occasion, thank-you-very-much.  Jesmind sent the foppishly dressed young man running with a savage hiss at the suggestion that she wear a nice brocade gown; Alexis had obviously not warned her Tower's staff about the volatility of Were-cats.  For her, it was probably just a good joke to play on her staff.  The warning really meant nothing more than the fact that Tarrin had to work fast to beat Jesmind a sixth time before they came for them.  Were-cats didn't dress for any occasion, because they knew that nobody in the Tower could make them.

      Tarrin would have thrashed Jesmind in that last game had Jasana kept herself from intefering.  She kept pointing out the holes Jesmind had made in her defense, and his mate actually listened to their daughter's advice, shoring up her lines in only two clever moves and ruining Tarrin's quick death strategy.  Tarrin gave Jasana several ugly looks and then told her to go mind her own business, which caused Jesmind to put her daughter in her lap and announced, quite shamelessly, that if she could help her beat her father in the game, then Jesmind would find some favor in her eyes for her.  Jasana didn't seem to care about that, by the challenging look in her eyes when she settled herself on her mother's lap and stared steadily into her father's eyes over the chessboard.

      The game slowed down dramatically at that point.  Jasana knew how to play, as Tarrin had taught her months before, and the game reminded him just how intelligent and cunning his daughter was.  In the game she had the chance to unleash it all, playing a solid game that seemed offensively bold, but carried cunning defensive undertones that always would cause Tarrin more harm than her when it came time to sacrifice pieces.

      They only got about three moves into the game when the door opened, and Dolanna and Azakar entered with Sarraya buzzing in just behind them.  Azakar stood just behind and to Dolanna's left, the common position for a Knight, so he could throw his shield over his charge in case of attack.  It seemed that since they were reunited, he instinctively sought Dolanna out and took up his task of being her Knight, a position he had inherited from Faalken, and one he approached with utter seriousness.  "Dear one," she said in Sharadi with a smile as they came in.  "The feast is about to begin.  Are you going to get dressed?"

      "I am dressed, Dolanna," he answered absently, his eyes on the chessboard.

      "Triana's went around and implanted the Sharadi language in everyone," Sarraya announced.  "She taught me how to do it!  Can I do it for you, Tarrin?"

      "I speak Sharadi," he warned.

      "Oh.  How about you, Jesmind?"

      "Not in a million years," she said with blunt flintiness, glancing over her shoulder and giving the Faerie and icy stare.

      "Well, huf-fy!" she snapped.  "Kimmie?"

      "I already speak Sharadi, Sarraya," she said mildly.  "Tarrin taught it to me days ago.  He did for all of us, seeing as how we were coming here and all."

      "Toadwarts," Sarraya sulked, landing on Tarrin's shoulder and looking down at the board.  "She's got your tail in a knot," she said critically as she studied the board.

      "Well, if everyone is ready, then we should go down," Dolanna urged.

      "Let's get this overwith," Jesmind grunted as she stood up, pulling Jasana up with her.

      The main dining hall here was just as large as the one back in Suld, but they had really gone over the edge with dressing it up for the occasion--what occasion, Tarrin really couldn't fathom, but they certainly seemed to think that it was important.  They had colorful buntings hanging from the walls, and streamers that looked to be made of crystal lace that glittered in the light of the many glowglobes, hanging from the top of the buntings and draping across to a huge chandelier in the exact center of the room.  The chandelier had a thousand little crystals hanging from elegant, sweeping brass protrustions, each of them glowing with a soft, gentle light.  The tables were all rather small, seating about six or seven, all of them round and positioned at exact distances from one another with an almost military precision.  The tables were all made of a dark reddish stone, but were rather thin and delicate, and looked to be reinforced with magical assistance to keep them from collapsing under their own weight.  Each chair was made of red cherry wood, complete with a cushioned back and a thickly padded seat.  At the far end of the chamber was the main table, which was a long rectangular affair made of glittering quartz standing on a slightly raised dais.  The chairs around it, twenty of them, were made of quartz as well, shimmering and scillinting in the magical light, and the table was set with the finest bone china, delicate crystal goblets, and gold silverware.  The chamber was already full of robed men and women, as well as a few wearing doublets and hose and fancy gowns that marked them as nobles or high-ranking members of Sharadar's government.  It only made sense that they would be here, since Alexis was the Queen of Sharadar in addition to being the Keeper of the Tower.  Alexis herself was seated at the middle of that main table, and all of Tarrin's friends and companions were seated there, patiently waiting for the rest of them to arrive.  Jenna sat immediately to Alexis' left, but the chair to her right was empty, as were the two chairs beside it further down the line.

      All the conversation in the hall stopped when Dolanna led them into the dining hall, and much to his surprise, they all stood up.  Every eye was on them as they hesitated for a short second at the entrance to the dining hall.  It made Tarrin more than a little wary and nervous.  Though he had come a very long way, the elemental feral nature that made him so dangerous not more than a year ago still lurked within him.  He still didn't like strangers, and still didn't like crowds, and this was a crowd of strangers.  His trepidation did not ease as she led them across the dining hall, towards Alexis, who stood and waited for them to arrive.  The others at the table stood as well, a gesture that made Tarrin think that they were all being very silly.  What was even more silly was that every single person who had stood up when he arrived at the door bowed or curtsied as he passed by, and remained so even after he went by.  His eyes darted back and forth, trying to puzzle out this strange action, until Jesmind had to push him from behind to keep him moving when he nearly turned and stopped to regard them.  Why were they making such an incredible fuss?  After all, he was nobody special.  He held no official rank, he wasn't a noble or a politician.  He was just Tarrin.  He did happen to be a sui'kun, but that made no difference to him, as his sister and daughter were as well.  He didn't consider himself special because others in his inner circle shared his unique power, which really wasn't all that unique.

      By the time they reached the main table, Tarrin was certifiably unnerved, and unnerved Were-cats were very unpredictable and volatile.  Dolanna, who always seemed to be able to sense the subtle shift in his moods, put a comforting hand over his furred wrist, over his fetlock, and her very touch calmed him a surprising amount.  Tarrin had forgotten the powerful effect the small woman had over him, a power that had not diminished with the distance between them and the time they had spent apart.  She looked up at him with steady eyes, and he seemed to understand what they were saying to her.  To calm down, that though it was unusual behavior, there was no reason to fear it.  And there was fear there.  Tarrin had little fear of normal humans, but Sorcerers wielded magical powers, and that gave them the capability to hurt him.  That knowledge caused him to respect the danger they posed.

      Alexis graced him with a sweeping curtsy, which caused Jenna to giggle a little under her breath, putting her hands over her mouth to cover it.  The redheaded queen glared hotly at Jenna for a moment, as if to berate her for ruining her moment, then that hostility evaporated as she graced Tarrin with a dazzling smile.  "Please be seated, honored one," she said in a strong voice that carried across the dining hall.

      "Don't call me that, Alexis," Tarrin growled under his breath as he took the chair she indicated, to her right.  The others sat where there were available chairs, with Jesmind sitting at Tarrin's side, and Jesmind glaring Dar out from in front of the chair beside hers to give Jasana somewhere to sit so she was within her mother's reach.  Dar moved to the other side of Tiella, who looked a little uncomfortable sitting beside Jasana.  There was a little rearranging so Kimmie could sit with one of her children on each side of her, between Jenna and Phandebrass.  After the issue of seats was decided, Alexis gave them an amused grin and then sat down herself.  When she did so, the assembled diners also took their seats, and the low buzz of talk rose up from the dining hall.

      "Do you mind telling me what all that bowing was about?" Tarrin demanded immediately.

      "You're the honored one, Tarrin," she said with a slightly teasing smile.  "We're only affording you the respect you deserve."

      Tarrin snorted darkly and affixed Alexis with a hostile narrow-eyed stare.  "I get enough of that from the Sha'Kar," he grated.  "I don't need them infecting you with their bad habits."

      "We're only following ancient rules of etiquette," she winked in reply.  "Don't you like being fawned over?"

      "No," he said in a low, growling voice.

      "Oh, come on, them bowing is half the fun of being the leader," she said lightly.  "I think we should get this dinner going, don't you?"  She picked up a small crystal bell that was standing by her goblet of wine, and then rang it briefly.  No one could have possibly heard that little bell over the buzz of the many conversations, but Tarrin distinctly felt the surge of Sorcery that emanated from that little bell when it was rung.  Tarrin sniffed out the path of the spell, and found that it terminated in the kitchens.  Nobody really heard it in here, but it was as loud as a rampaging Ogre in the kitchens, the unmistakable signal to start bringing in the feast.

      In mere moments, a massive feast was laid out on all the tables by an army of servants wearing pristinely white robes or gowns, the color of the purest snow.  Tarrin's irritation with Alexis and his discomfort and nervousness about being in the dining hall with so many strangers was mometarily subdued by the wonderful smells coming from the trays that were being set before them.  There was every kind of food Tarrin had ever sampled laid out on the table, as well as many he had never seen before.   There was beef and fish and venison and pheasant and quail and lamb and pork, and there was crab and lobster, one of Jesmind's favorites, but there were also dishes made of small sea-dwelling things that looked like tapered pale pink segmented worms with little red tails, and salads made of more kinds of vegetables than he had ever seen, plants of every color, even purple, be them leaves or bulbs or stems or stalks or buds or roots.  Vegetable dishes were very important, as the Sha'Kar were more or less vegetarians by virtue that most Sha'Kar found most meat to taste bad, though there were some meat dishes that they would eat.  Obviously some kind of racial trait.  There were other kinds of fruits and vegetables as well, from grapes to little green lemon-like fruits with fuzzy rinds, carrots and rigid bowed stalks of green plants, what looked like a big green pine cone to little red balls with a kind of ringing garland of tiny green leaves about their midsections.  There were watered dishes to go with the solids, soups and stews of every kind one could imagine, simmering in large kettles hung from little tripod stands set on the tables so the hot kettles wouldn't scorch the tablecloths.

      Though Tarrin didn't notice it, nobody so much as touched a thing until he reached for a tray of roasted pork ribs, and then the feast began.  The talk at the tables was muted as people paused in their conversations to chew and swallow.  Tarrin sampled many of the dishes that he had never seen before, asking Alexis what they were.  The little tapered segmented things were called shrimp, and he found them to be strangely tasty, though they had a weird metallic taste that both seemed to detract from and enhance the base flavor of the meat.  There was a soup that was so spicy and hot that it made Tarrin's tongue burn, and a baked pot dish of spiced beef, carrots, potatos, and stringed beans that he rather favored.  The different mixtures of vegetables in the various salads gave each one a unique taste, and he was surprised that a bunch of green plants could have such varying ranges of taste.  Perhaps the Sha'Kar weren't as boring in culinary matters as he once believed.

      After a quite satisfying meal, trays and trays of cakes, pastries, and pies were brought out for dessert, of which Tarrin partook liberally, almost forgetting himself and the fact that strangers' eyes were constantly on him.  He tried several different desserts, sweet ones and tart ones and buttery ones and even one that was both sweet and spicy-hot at the same time, until he felt that if he ate one more bite, his stomach would burst.  He pushed away his plate and leaned back in his chair, feeling quite sedate and calm and content at that moment.

      But it didn't last long.

      As if his finishing his meal was some kind of signal, Sorcerer after Sorcerer nervously approached the main table and bowed or curtsied before Tarrin, Alexis, and Jenna, then introduced themselves to him with nervous voices, trembling hands, and fear rolling off of them like the tide.  But it was a fear borne of speaking to him, as if his grand stature were so awe-inspiring that it made them tongue-tied and unbalanced.

      Though they were nervous a little afraid to speak to him, their effect on Tarrin was quite different.  These were strangers, strangers with the power to harm him, and yet they were afraid of him.  Tarrin's feral instincts caused him to fear them as well, but their fear and subservient demeanor triggered his dominant nature, making him both wary of them and slightly tolerant of them, as they knew their place in the scheme of things and submitted to his rightful authority.  But that tolerance was very thin, and it was quickly worn away by the long procession of new faces replacing the prior ones.  Tarrin's tranquility was quickly boiled off by the seemingly endless line of strangers that mounted the dais and geneflucted and simpered or wheedled before him.

      Dolanna moved quickly to intervene when she noticed that Tarrin had reached the end of his tolerance, but not quite quickly enough.  One rather tall Sorcerer--at least tall for a Sharadi--boldly advanced to the edge of the table after bowing and introducing himself as Shazil Lothu, and his sudden advance triggered a defensive reaction in the Were-cat.  Tarrin laid his ears back, bared his fangs and hissed threateningly at the man, who stopped and tried to backpedal so suddenly that he actually lost his balance and dropped onto his backside.

      "I think Tarrin is ready to retire, my Keeper," Dolanna said in a reasonable and very calming, soothing tone, reaching them and putting a hand on Tarrin's shoulder.  "I think his endurance for pomp and circumstance has reached its limit this evening."

      "Yes, I think I agree with you, Dolanna," Alexis said critically, looking at a totally unapologetic Tarrin, who was looking flintily over the table at the frightened Sharadi male, who was still sitting on the floor fearfully.  "It's alright, Shazil," she told him.  "If you recall, our guest has a certain aversion to crowds, and his temperament has limits.  It's not personal.  It's just his way of declaring that he's ready to retire, that's all."

      "That's some announcement," Dar chuckled.

      "F--Forgive me, Honored One," the Sorcerer Shazil stammered.  "I meant no offense."

      Tarrin waved a paw before his face wearily.  "I--It's not your fault," he answered.  "I've just had enough for one evening."

      "Well then, why don't we declare an official end to the feast?" Alexis prompted, standing up.  "As you know, we're going to be starting out tomorrow, and I think we'll all want to get some rest.  It's going to be quite exciting," she said with a dangerous gleam in her eyes, a gleam Tarrin had seen in Phandebrass' eyes more than once, usually right before something exploded in his face.

      It was not a look that instilled any confidence.

      Tarrin fretted about whatever surprise the unpredictable Keeper of this strange Tower had up her sleeve for most of the rest of the night.  Dolanna had been invited to sit a while with Tarrin and his family, for she was one of the few humans around which both Jesmind and Kimmie would totally relax.  Kimmie because of her friendship with her, and Jesmind because of the total trust Tarrin had in his diminutive mentor and friend.  Sarraya managed to invite herself along, and for once she didn't make a nuisance of herself.  Probably because she was more than a little worried about what Jesmind may do to her if she caused any trouble.  Besides, Jasana liked Sarraya for some strange reason, and it was a chance to introduce Tara and Rina to both one of Tarrin's most trusted and loved friends and both another dear friend as well as another non-human member of Fae-da'Nar.  Exposing the twins to a Faerie would be a good learning experience for them.

      They all forwarded assumptions about Alexis' plan, but none of them really thought of anything that seemed to fit both the practicality of transporting all of them in the time frame allotted as well as being exotic enough to fulfill the Sharadi Queen's promises about her surprise.  Her collusion with Phandebrass was the wild card, and because of that, almost anything was possible.

      "Ugh, can we talk about something else now?" Sarraya complained.  "If you all keep worrying about it, your hair is going to fall out!"

      "It's just like a bug to not worry about anything," Jesmind told her.

      "At least I won't get worry wrinkles like you," she taunted in reply, then wisely flitted off Tarrin's shoulder and put herself out of reach of Tarrin's mate.  Tara and Rina were watching her with rapt attention, and the Faerie put her hands to either side of her head and made several rather strange faces at them, all of which made the two toddlers giggle uncontrollably.

      "I wonder what's going on with Haley," Tarrin mused.  "Something must have happened."

      "He told me about it before the feast," Dolanna told him.  "We took a walk through the city.  There were several landmarks he wanted to see before we leave."

      Tarrin leaned back on the couch, which was entirely too small for him, and absently accepted Jesmind as she nuzzled in against his side.  When Dolanna didn't immediately say anything, Sarraya zipped just over Tarrin's head and put her hands on her tiny hips.  "Well, spill it!" she shouted.  "What did that weird Were-wolf do that got his butt hauled up before the Council of Hierarchs?"

      "It was nothing major, Sarraya," she answered.  "He had a run-in with Stragos Bane."

      Sarraya rose about two spans into the air and gasped.  "He's still alive?" she asked in sudden fear.

      "Who is Stragos Bane?" Tarrin asked.

      "He's a Were hunter!" Sarraya said in an intentionally melodramatic voice.  "He's about the only human the Were-kin were really afraid of!"

      Dolanna nodded.  "He just happened to come to Haley's inn to stay while waiting for a ship to leave Dayisè.  Stragos immediately knew what he was and attacked him.  Unfortunately, his inn was burned down during the tussle, and Haley's true nature was revealed to the city."

      "Why would Haley be afraid of a human?" Jesmind asked dismissively.

      "Because he wears silvered armor and carries a magical silver sword that seems to have been made specifically to kill Were-kin," Sarraya answered.  "And he also happens to be a good fighter.  He'd killed some hundred Were-kin about ten years ago, then he vanished.  He seemed to try to hunt down any Were-kin that left the Frontier when he was around, but then he vanished, and everyone thought that someone had killed him."

      "I guess they didn't," Kimmie said mildly, swatting Tara's paw away as she tried to stop her mother from straightening her hair.

      "Rumor in Dayisè was that Stragos Bane came to Dayisè to find your trail, Tarrin," Dolanna told him.  "The stories of you are many, and because you are Were, I guess it is only natural that this Were hunter would seek you out.  After all, you are the most famous Were-kin in the world right now."

      "That'll be a laugh," Sarraya snickered.  "When he shows up in Aldreth, call me, Tarrin.  I want to see you thrash him."

      "I guess he's got too big of a head now," Kimmie agreed, though not as boisterously.  "He'd be a maniac to try to kill Tarrin."

      "He'd be the ultimate prey," Jesmind said steadily, her eyes thoughtful.  "The ultimate test."

      Tarrin could understand that line of thinking.  To this Stragos, Tarrin would be something of the top of the pyramid, the keystone in the arch.  If he could kill Tarrin, then the rest of the arch would be easy to knock down.

      But then again, he was only a human, whose only advantage seemed to be a magic sword that could kill Were-kin.  That would be no advantage against him.

      "I hope Haley managed to salvage something," Tarrin sighed.  "Is he going back to Dayisè?"

      Dolanna shook her head.  "The inn was a total loss, and much of the reason he stayed there was because nobody knew the truth about him.  He told me he intends to relocate and open a new in elsewhere.  He hinted that he might do so here in Abrodar, though I doubt he would be happy here."

      "Why is that?"

      "Haley thrives in an atmosphere of intrigue and deception.  Such behavior is very rare here in Sharadar.  We are a very orderly and peaceful people, who do not scheme and plot to better our place in life.  The only scheming one finds here is in the nobility, and it is as nothing compared to other kingdoms."

      "Borrr-ring," Sarraya teased.

      "I guess we are boring to outsiders," she smiled.  "Many who visit here say that the people are as much a part of the scenery as the buildings, with almost as much personality.  But they do not understand the nuances of Sharadi culture, that is all."

      "You sound like a Sha'Kar," Kimmie chuckled.

      "Maybe now you understand why we and the Sha'Kar get along so well," she replied with that same smile.

      "At least you're not as arrogant as they are," Tarrin told her.

      "Old cultures breed old people, even when they're young," Sarraya pressed.  "You teach your kids how to be dusty old curmudgeons before they even start wondering what's under the clothes of the other gender."

      "As I said, few understand us," she said lightly, giving Sarraya a slight smile.

      Tarrin did understand, and in a way, his ability to speak Sharadi gave him that insight.  That, and his closeness to Dolanna.  The Sharadi were actually quite lively, personable people, but much like other old cultures, theirs was one almost drowned in tradition and custom that made them seem austere and regal, and not a little dried-up and boring.  But more than that, Tarrin knew that the Sharadi were a very subtle people.  By the merest lifting of an eyebrow or corner of her mouth, Dolanna displayed tremendous shifts in her emotions and mood, though the general expression of her face didn't change by a large degree.  These physical subtleties mirrored the great subtlety of the Sharadi language, where the mere shift of inflection in one word could alter the meaning of an entire sentence.  Their culture was much like their language, where small things were changed in small ways, but had great meaning to those who understood their significance.  But to someone outside of that understanding, one Sharadi would seem as dull and boring as another Sharadi.  Only when they were upset or under duress did Sharadi often display great emotion, and when they did, they made it count.  Dolanna had only lost her temper once since he knew her, but it was as impressive a tantrum as any that Tarrin had ever thrown, only without the widespread geographical devastation.  Almost like the bursting of a dam; the water ravaged everything in its path, and then once the lake was drained, it returned to calm steadiness.  The Sharadi were much the same way in that when they did release their emotions, they really let them go.

      What made Dolanna rather interesting was that she was one of the most forceful Sharadi Tarrin had ever known.  She did have a wider range of emotion about her, and her expression did change, but Tarrin now understood that she only did that when around northerners, an act that to her would be grand exaggeration, almost melodrama, but to the more emotional northerners, she would only seem less distant to them than she would if she acted like she did at home.  She had tried to adapt to the customs of the northern Tower, but didn't quite manage it.  Much like she had never managed to master the concept of shortcuts in language, which is why her Sulasian always sounded so formal.

      "She never will, Dolanna," Tarrin told her.

      "I rather doubt it.  She can barely hold a single thought in her head more than a minute," she answered in that same light voice.

      "Hey!" Sarraya said indignantly.  "I'm not that impulsive!"

      "Yes you are," several voices said in unison.

      "Hmph!" she snorted.  "You're all just jealous!"

      "Only in your own mind, bug," Jesmind told her languidly, leaning her head against Tarrin's shoulder.

      Kimmie yawned, then reached down and patted Rina's head tenderly, who had it in her mother's lap.  "I think I'm about ready to take a short nap," she said.  "All that food made me a little sleepy."

      "Well, I'm not sleepy," Jasana declared immediately.

      "I never said you were," she said with a smile.  "But I think I'll go put Rina down for a while, and catch a little nap myself.  Watch Tara for me?" she asked Tarrin.

      He nodded, then the door opened and Jula came in.  She shut it behind herself and blew out her breath, causing her bangs to rustle.  "What's the matter with you, cub?" he asked her.

      "I've been trying to find out what Alexis has planned," she replied.

      "Well, did you?" Sarraya asked.

      She shook her head.  "Whatever it is, she's got it under very tight wraps.  Not even Auli could find out, and Auli knows everything that goes on around here, I've discovered."

      "You were with Auli?" he asked.

      She nodded.  "I like her.  She's funny," she disclosed.

      Jesmind snorted, and her claws dug just a tiny bit into Tarrin's side.  Jesmind didn't like Auli because when Tarrin was human, she seduced him.  That made the Sha'Kar a possible competitor in her eyes, and since she wasn't a Were-cat, Jesmind didn't have to obey any niceties or customs concerning her.  Tarrin was usually careful to keep Jesmind and Auli either well separated or with several obstacles between them if they were in proximity to one another.

      As a friend, sometimes Auli was more trouble than she was worth.

      "Someone has to know," Tarrin reasoned.

      "Alexis probably made some ugly threats if anyone talked," Jula replied.

      "Just ask Phandebrass," Jasana offered.  "I heard you say that they talked to him about whatever it is they were doing."

      "He won't tell us," Tarrin frowned.

      "So?  Make him tell you," she said casually.

      "Phandebrass doesn't intimidate, cub," Jula told her with a smile.  "Anyone who does what he does for a living has nerves of steel, and besides, he's too familiar with Tarrin."

      "Then you do it," she concluded.  "He doesn't know you."

      "Actually, he does, and rather well," she countered.  "You forget, cub, I was in the Tower with him and the others while father was coming back across the desert.  Me and Phandebrass know each other very well."

      "Well, then Gramma can do it.  Nobody refuses Gramma."

      "That might work," Tarrin agreed after thinking a minute.

      "Why don't you ask me," Sarraya piped in, flitting down and waving her arms before his face.  "I can find out what's going on!"

      "You think you can?" Tarrin asked her.

      "Tarrin!  How quickly you forget!  Nobody can hide anything from a Faerie who has her mind set on finding out!" she teased with a smirk and a wink.

      "Alright then, Sarraya, let's see if you can back up your promises," he told her.

      "Hah!  You'll be eating those words when I get back!" she said smugly, then she faded from view even as the sound of her buzzing wings retreated towards the open window.

      "Think she can find out?" Kimmie asked, standing near the bedroom to where she had been carrying Rina.

      "She has a good chance," Tarrin admitted.  "Sarraya can be quite a spy when she's serious about it."

      Tarrin spent the rest of the already very late evening with family, but after they all turned in for short naps before the dawn, Tarrin found himself not ready to sleep.  The jump in time from Suld to Abrodar had messed up his internal sense of time, and besides, he really wasn't that sleepy.  He decided to go for a walk around the city in the comforting cover of night, but in order to get out of the Tower, he realized that he would need some way to get around unnoticed, without the fawning and bowing and all the attention that it would surely bring down on him.  The simplest way to do that was simply to change form, to shift into his fully human form and then simply walk out.  That was the manner in which he decided it would be best to proceed, and did so without too much trouble.  It had been quite a while since he had shifted into his human form, and he found it to be surprisingly pain free as he went from his room to the gates leading off the Tower's grounds.  He had done very well to adjust to the human shape in the past, and had built up quite a tolerance to it, but now it seemed even easier to him.

      He paused just outside the Tower's gates when he realized that it was the first time he had held the human form since his death and subsequent resurrection, and he now occupied a body that was made from him, but was not the original him.  It had taken him time to get used to this new body that wasn't new, or whatever it really was, since it always confused him whenever he tried to figure it out.  Maybe that period of adjustment had aided his ability to stave off the pain of holding a form that was no longer natural for his kind.

      Abrodar was a very large city, about half again as large as Suld, but the differences between the two were radical and unmistakable.  Suld was actually the older of the two cities, but its architecture was a chaotic clash of many different styles, and buildings there were torn down or destroyed as often as they were built.  But here in Abrodar, it seemed that the same buildings that had been constructed thousands of years ago were still standing.  Their architecture was bizarre, alien, and it all looked absolutely ancient, vaguely similar to the rugged construction of the ruins of Mala Myrr.  Had Abrodar been built by the Dwarves?  The city had been here during the Blood War, so it was entirely possible.  There were hints of Dwarven architecture in the buildings, with their oversized building stones and the columns and balconies that dominated them, the small, narrow windows and the strange semicircular sculptures over the doors of the buildings, a Dwarven custom of design where the glyph that represented the name of the family within was carved into a semicircular block over the door, inside a holy symbol of the Dwarven goddess of family and duty, whose task it was to watch over and protect those beyond the door.  That semicircle was one of the very rare instances of the use of a curved line in Dwarven architecture; actually, one of the rare uses of something not straight in their entire culture.  Their alphabet was nothing but straight lines and crisp, exacting, sharp angles, and their building philosophy was as angular as their writing.  But in this one recurring situation, they used a semicircle, and built around its top to level out the top of the wall above the door, working around that radical element introduced into their construction rather than altering the semicircular block.  It was one of the very rare situations where the ancient Dwarves worked around something.  Their usual method was to change the aberrant element to suit their own designs.  Perhaps the labor involved to work around the symbol of their goddess was itself an offering to her, a demonstration of their devotion by changing themselves in order to suit her desire.  It was entirely possible, as the Dwarves were an intensely devout race, unerrantly faithful to their nine gods.

      But on closer look at a shop, he saw that though the architecture was Dwarven, the construction was not.  The building was much newer than it appeared, and he realized that all buildings built in Abrodar adhered to the ancient architecture that dominated the city's skyline.  Where Suld had evolved over the centuries, Abrodar looked just as it had thousands of years ago because the Sharadi would not allow it to change.

      That was something of an insight into the Sharadi mentality, an ancient race with an ancient culture that was rigid and organized, but tended to reject change.  That inflexibility could be their fatal flaw in the future, he realized.  Animals that did not adapt to the changes of nature died out, while those that did survived.  If the Sharadi did not learn to change with the times, they would become a culture in danger of becoming extinct.

      But it was still beautiful, and Tarrin was reminded of the Dwarves just enough to wander much of the western sections of the city, nearer the river, before sunrise, where the larger and older buildings were located, comparing what he saw to the ancient illustrations he had seen in the decayed books of the Imperial Library and the ruins of Mala Myrr.  Tarrin even found a few ancient villas whose foundations had been laid before the Blood War, though the buildings themselves had been repaired and remodeled and patched so many times that literally all the stone and wood and tile and mortar that had orginally built them had all been replaced, but had not changed the basic design or appearance of the building.  They were links to the distant past, the last maintained vestiges of a lost race.  Tarrin wondered if the Sharadi who lived here knew that their city had originally been built by the Dwarves.

      In a way, the Sharadi resistance to change, in this one instance, pleased Tarrin a great deal.  The Dwarves were gone, but here, in Abrodar, one could walk the streets and see the legacy that they left behind.  It was quite fitting.

      Of course, the Sharadi didn't seem that much bigger than the Dwarves, so maybe ancient Dwarven architecture suited them, but for Tarrin it was bloody inconvenient.  The one time he decided to enter a building, a raucous tavern by the river's bank, just off the stout wharves they had built into the wide, slow-moving river, he almost had to go on all fours to get under the door's top.  Of course, all sound within absolutely stopped when the towering Were-cat literally crawled in under their door, then stooped to keep his head from banging against the ceiling, but he didn't really notice them.  His eyes were taking in the walls and doors of the common room, looking for evidence that the Sharadi had been faithful to Dwarven construction on the inside as well as the outside.  In this, he saw, they did change things.  The interior of the buildings was much different from a Dwarven building, meaning that they adhered to their ancient building appearances only on the outside.  They scrambled out of his way, staring at him with wide eyes, as he padded across the common room to inspect the plaster-coated far wall, plaster that showed signs of its age with many pits, stains, nicks, and scratches that had filled in with dirt over the years.  Tarrin shifted from the wall to the ceiling, seeing that it had been replaced recently, using the same type of stone as the outside but showing the relative shoddiness between the meticulous construction of the outside and the construction inside.  They went to great pains to make the outside perfect, but they weren't quite as demanding when it came to things that only they themselves would see.  He couldn't pin that attitude on all Sharadi, only the ones who had built the ceiling, but it was a valid observation nonetheless.

      He left as silently as he came, and left an utterly silent tavern behind him when he did so.  But he didn't remain alone for very long.  Not too long after leaving the tavern, a familiar scent touched his nose, and he saw a dark figure moving towards him from further up the street.  It was Haley, dressed in a rather dashing black waistcoat with no sleeves, a Shacèan affectation, over a white silk shirt with flared sleeves and with delicate, almost gaudy lace at the neck and cuffs, flared black trousers tucked into highly polished black leather knee boots, and a graceful rapier hanging easily from a belt made from woven strands of gold inlaid into a sturdy, wide leather strap with a wolf's head in relief as the buckle, complete with a small emerald to serve as its eye.  A long, narrow-bladed dagger with a small basket-hilt rested in a sheath just over the rapier's mounting studs, the end of it resting lightly against the leather-covered scabbard of his rapier, a weapon that most would call a poinard, but the Shacèans called a main gauche.  It was a fencer's dagger, used to complement the rapier in the off hand, primarily a defensive weapon, but still a weapon.  They were on the same side so Haley could use his free hand to help him draw his rapier, then slide it up and draw the main gauche in a single smooth motion.  He even wore a cape to complete his look of a Shacèan Musketeer, a short waistcape that flared every time he turned and tended to float on the gentlest breeze.

      He raised his hand in greeting as they approached one another, then Tarrin turned a corner just before meeting him.  He fell into step beside the Were-cat easily.  "I wondered how long it would take you to come out," Haley said with a chuckle.  "It's not often that you can explore a city like this one."

      "Have you even been back to the Tower?" he asked.

      Haley shook his head.  "What in the Tower can compare to this?" he asked brightly, motioning with both hands to the city spread out before him.  "This is where the action is, my cousin, this is where the life is.  The Tower is a dusty old tomb compared to the life being lived out here."

      "I can't argue with that," Tarrin said honestly.  "Now I see why you don't stay with your family."

      "I guess I'm just too human for them," he chuckled ruefully.  "They never fail to amaze me, Tarrin.  They have such short lives, yet they do so much with them.  Humans never seem to stop from the day they're born to the day they die.  It's almost like they know they don't have much time, so they live every day to its fullest."

      "That can be as much a problem as an asset," he said.  "Sometimes they meddle in things they have no business being in.  Val was a good example of that."

      "True, and you can hate him for what he did--starting the Blood War and all--but you still can't help but admire him for his ambition, and you have to admit that he did some pretty impressive things before he became a god.  He built an empire from scratch and turned it into a force that only the Sharadi could match.  That's an accomplishment.  His only drawback was that eternal human weakness.  Greed."

      "Hate the message but not the messenger?"

      "Not exactly," he said quickly.  "I hate his memory for the destruction he wrought, but when you look before that, before greed and ambition turned him evil, you'll find that he was actually a pretty decent guy.  He was a great man whose legacy will forever be so tainted by his evil that it blots out the good that he managed to accomplish before hand.  But there was good in his history before he started his quest to rule the world."

      "You have a strange way at looking at history, Haley."

      "No, I just looked at all of it, Tarrin.  Not just those things that everyone else accepts.  I believe in seeing the whole picture, from both sides.  I've read some Valkari history books, and they're quite different than the history books most sages have now.  They show what went on in Valkar before Val went mad with power and started down the path that led to the Blood War."

      "I think I've had enough of talking about Val, Haley," he said wearily.

      "I guess you would," he agreed with a nod.  "Quite alot of bad blood there.  Sorry I brought it up."

      "That's alright.  Why are you out here dressed like a Shacèan, Haley?  You stand out like a cannon in a ballroom, as Kerri would say."

      "I lived in Shacè for thirty years, Tarrin," he laughed.  "I guess I've been nationalized."

      "That's a strange word."

      "It is, but it's as good a description as any."

      "Dolanna told me what happened.  Do you plan to go back to Dayisè?"

      "I won't be able to go back for a while," he sighed somberly.  "I had to reveal myself to deal with Stragos, and they'll talk about that for a good five years."

      "I'm surprised you had so much trouble with a human, Haley," Tarrin said reproachfully.

      "This was no ordinary human, cousin," Haley said seriously.  "Whoever trained him did not leave any holes in his education, he was damn smart, and he had several actual magical items with him.  Between his skills, that magic, and that damned sword of his, I was put on the defensive from the get-go and stayed there almost until the end."

      "What kind of magic?"

      "Well, he had an amulet that looked like an eye on a chain that made everyone see me as a Were-wolf instead of as a human," he said.  "I remember that the eye opened as soon as he looked at me, and everyone started screaming and pointing.  He had a metal glove on his free hand that shot fire and lightning out of it.  That's how my inn got burned down.  He had on this silver-plated armor that caused a jolt up my arm every time I made contact with it with my sword and main gauche, almost like it was lightning flying up my arms.  It hurt so much, I couldn't bring myself to try to touch his armor with anything I was holding.  Then there was that sword," he growled.  "It glowed from the instant he drew it, and it hurt like bloody blue blazes if he so much as slid the flat of the blade across the back of my hand.  I think the sword and armor were specifically made to battle Were-kin.  I could sense the pure hatred that seemed to emanate from both the sword and the armor as soon as we started fighting."

      "How did you beat him?"

      "It wasn't a matter of beating as much as it was a controlled retreat," he admitted with a frown.  "I was pretty ineffective against him, even when I shifted into my hybrid form, but he was no match for my Druidic magic.  As soon as I managed to get enough of a cushion to bring it to bear against him, I had his chafed little backside right at the end of my spear; so the Ungardt say," he said with a smile.  "After I dropped a building on him, he decided I wasn't a very fun playmate anymore and managed to disappear in the all the dust and confusion."

      Tarrin actually laughed.  "No wonder the Council of Hierarchs summoned you."

      He winced.  "They had quite a few unflattering things to say to me, that's for sure," he admitted.

      "I didn't think you had a building in you.  I thought you'd be more around the area of a large cart, or maybe a good solid carriage."

      He laughed.  "I didn't either, but fighting for your very life sometimes shows you that you can exceed your limitations," he agreed.  "He wouldn't have been impressed if I sent a horse cart flying at him, but he was very impressed when I uprooted a small house and sent it flying down the street."

      "I think most people would be," he said dryly.

      "Outside of a few certain exceptions," he chuckled.

      "I'll be the people in that house were impressed."

      Haley laughed deeply.  "Tarrin, at that moment, they were probably the most impressed people on the entire island," he said richly.  "Lucky for me that they survived to fully appreciate how impressed they were.  If I'd have killed them, I don't think the Hierarchs would have let me off with a stern scolding."  He glanced towards the east.  "Well, it's coming on dawn, and we're supposed to leave at daybreak.  I think we'd better wander back towards the Tower, or we'll make everyone very cross with us."

      "They can wait all day," Tarrin said absently.  "They're certainly not leaving without me."

      Haley gave him a look, then laughed once more.

 

      The trip back reinforced an old acquaintance he'd had with Haley, and actually caused it to change into something approaching friendship.  Haley was a very smart, droll fellow with a rich sense of humor, exquisite manners, and a razor-sharp mind.  That was why he liked Dayisè so much, and it was an environment that suited him.  What likened Tarrin to him was that he didn't make a fuss about him.  To Haley, Tarrin was just Tarrin, not an earth-shaking magical force, not a creature to be feared or to hold in awe.  Haley treated him like a person, and Tarrin warmed to him greatly because of that.  Haley remembered Tarrin from their first meeting, and marveled at how much he had changed, but not so much that it changed who he was.  Tarrin remembered Haley from their first meeting, and found that he was very much like the Haley he had seen just before they left his inn, after the Were-wolf had warmed up to the idea of having a Rogue in his home.  Tarrin had been impressed by Haley then, and found a little respect for him.  They had both built on those impressions of each other and found common ground, and it was a common ground that suited both of them.  Tarrin ignored the fact that Haley once threatened to call Triana down on him, and Haley ignored the fact that Tarrin was a Were-cat, a traditional enemy of the Were-wolves.

      Haley joked about that as they returned to the Tower, about how the world would end if a cat and a dog ever became friends.

      But from the way it was looking, the world just might be about to play its finale.

      It would take a little while for Tarrin to come to trust Haley enough to consider him a friend, but he did like the Were-wolf, and he knew from past experience that that was the first step.  Tarrin wouldn't turn his back on Haley or trust him, but he enjoyed his company and thought him to be a rather funny person.  For Tarrin to accept Haley as he did his other friends, it would take time and patience.

      Though Tarrin seemed much different to those around him, he was still feral, and always would be.

 

      It turned out that there in fact were some things that a determined Faerie could not find out.

      Sarraya had come up empty in her quest to discover what Alexis' secret was, mainly because almost everyone was asleep when she decided to find out.  All she could really do was what Jula and Auli did, search the grounds to try to find the vehicle by which they were going to travel.  And just like Auli and Jula, Sarraya found nothing.

      They all debated what it could be as they gathered for an intimate breakfast devoid of outsiders, but it was still a rather large group.  It was a chance for them to catch up with Dolanna and what she'd been doing since returning to Abrodar, which wasn't very much.  She'd mainly been acting as a teacher and translator for the Sha'Kar, training the humans in the Sha'Kar language and serving more or less as Alexis' First, as Ianelle did Jenna.  The Sorcerers in the Tower resented Dolanna for that, as she was seen as something of a wild element within the Tower's political landscape.  She didn't jockey and jostle for position as they did; she didn't create a pool of friends and a base of relative power to impress the other katzh-dashi and therefore earn respected positions within the Tower as they had; and she didn't slave and toil within the Tower, making herself look wise and important as they had.  She hadn't even asked for the job.  Alexis had simply informed the Tower in an open Council, where the Council met in the main hall with the rest of the katzh-dashi attending, that Dolanna would assume the newly created position of First, the Keeper's right hand.  Dolanna was even more surprised than the powermongers that were outraged by the announcement.  Just as the Council in Suld had done when Myriam Lar stepped down and personally named Jenna as her successor, the power-player katzh-dashi in the Abrodar Tower had a collective apoplexy and were extremely put out by the appointment.  But unlike in Suld, the Goddess did not have to personally intervene, mainly because it was not a retirement from the position of greatest authority as it had been in Suld.  Alexis was still the Keeper, and she brought her power down on the whiners like a sledgehammer, assigning anyone who objected too vociferously to what was called "boot duty," travelling Sharadar and the neighboring kingdoms of Darrigon, Vendar, Kypernius, and covertly doing the same in Stygia, which was an ancient rival and enemy of Sharadar, searching out youths with the inherent aptitude for Sorcery.  Unlike in Suld, this was seen as the lowest and most menial task a Sorcerer could perform, something given to neophytes who had only just completed the Initiate, and Alexis' heavy-handed tactic silenced all criticism almost immediately.

      Dolanna wasn't very comfortable in the position, but it did smooth things over with the Sha'Kar.  It put her in a position of authority over them, and allowed her to direct them and handle them without constantly having to go to Alexis.  The Sha'Kar weren't that unruly, but their natural arrogance and impatience with their human counterparts began to show quickly after they reached Abrodar, and Dolanna had to constantly keep an unofficial war from being declared between the two races.  It had taken some time, but Dolanna had managed to get both sides to come to understand the other, which led to the current period of goodwill and cooperation between human and Sha'Kar.

      Of course, the position unofficially had become the "keep a leash on Auli" position.  The Sha'Kar's wild child made sure to keep things from getting too sedate or boring in the Tower with her stunts and her outrageous activities, from figuring out some way to make the stone leaves of the Raintree Tower turn brown and wilt, as if the ancient magical construction was about to shed for the winter, to causing a riot in the area of Abrodar called Lowtown, where the river sailors and caravan guards and the shady types that preyed upon them tended to gather.  She had caused two men to get into a fight after she flirted with both of them, but both of them had a dozen or so friends with them at the time, and it went from a personal dispute between two men into a barroom brawl.  The full-scale barroom brawl spilled out into the streets, and the fighting absorbed any number of passers-by as it roiled through the crooked streets near the docks.  The denizens of Lowtown were a rather high strung lot, and it didn't take much for them to get embroiled in the private war between Auli's would-be suitors.  The open fighting touched off a riot that required Alexis to mobilize the army to quell.  Much like Sarraya, Auli had the ability to cause trouble wherever she went, even when she didn't intend to do so.

      Auli was there, of course, for she was one of Tarrin's friends, looking just as pretty and dangerous as ever, with her slightly heavy-lidded eyes and that mischievous half-smile that always seemed to grace her lips.  Jesmind had taken her presence remarkably well, as if the time since he had been human had reinforced her sense of security.  Now that Tarrin was a Were-cat again, he'd have nothing to do with Auli in that fashion, and Jesmind finally seemed to understand it.

      What had everyone just a little nervous was the fact that Auli was smiling as Sarraya talked.  They had all dreaded the idea of Auli and Sarraya getting together, for the potential for disaster that existed between the two of them was all but undeniable.  Neither had any sense of self-constraint, and the two of them would only incite the other to be more daring, more bold, and more outrageous.  But so far, they seemed to be unexplosive.  The little tiff that occurred between them from before seemed to have been either forgotten or dismissed, and they were actually starting to be nice to each other.  Whether it was genuine friendliness or only a front so Sarraya could avenge herself against Auli was the question, and unfortunately it was a question whose answer would remain a mystery until Sarraya herself answered it with her actions.

      Tarrin knew Sarraya, and he'd bet money that Sarraya was just trying to worm her way into Auli's graces, only to humiliate her in the most spectacular fashion.  Sarraya was both petty and spiteful, and considering that she was a Faerie, that was an extremely bad combination.  The only time that Sarraya could ever really formulate complicated and clever plans was when they were plans to get back at somebody for a past slight, be it real or imagined.

      Of course, what Sarraya probably didn't realize yet, and probably only Tarrin, Iselde, Ianelle, and Allyn knew, was that his Sha'Kar friend was more than a match for Sarraya.  She'd been playing games like this for hundreds of years, and Sarraya would find herself woefully unprepared.  Auli could probably read Sarraya like a book, and was just leading her by the nose so she could turn Sarraya's plot against her.  Though she was immature and more interested in fun than work, Auli had a very sharp mind and was capable of surprisingly astute observations, as well as an awareness of the subtleties hidden within words that often betrayed a speaker's true intent.

      After breakfast, as the others went up to pack what little they'd unpacked for the single night's layover, Tarrin went on ahead with Jula, and met up on a staicase with Auli and Dolanna, each of which was leading a young servant who was carrying their baggage towards the front lawn.  That was where they were all supposed to meet, so they could all marvel at Alexis' clever way to transport them to Amazar.

      "Any luck finding out what that sneaky Keeper has up her sleeve?" Tarrin asked Auli after trading kisses on the cheek, a Sha'Kar custom of greeting between friends.

      "Bah," she snorted.  "I have no idea.  Nobody will tell me, even when I offered them all sorts of things that I know they were interested in."

      "I think you overlook the simple fact that they simply might not know," Dolanna said calmly.

      "You know," Tarrin said accusingly.

      Dolanna only smiled slightly.

      "I should have known!" Auli said in disgust, glaring at Dolanna.  "Of course you would know, Dolanna!  You're only halfway in Ally's dress with her!"

      "I thought you had the wisdom not to use that term about the Keeper, Aulienne," Dolanna said in that infuriatingly calm, unruffled manner of hers.  In all the time he'd known her, he could count on one paw the times he'd seen her upset or at a loss for either words or actions.  Dolanna all but had icewater in her veins when it came to her ability to handle surprises.  "You know she despises it."

      "So what?" she said flippantly.

      "Maybe the fact that Alexis could set you to scrubbing pots for the next ten years is a good reminder," Jula offered with a chuckle.

      "Telling me to do something and making me do it are two different things, Jula," Auli told her with a roguish grin.

      "So, what is Alexis' big secret, Dolanna?" Tarrin asked directly.

      "I cannot tell you, dear one," she said sternly, but then she smiled.  "But I can assure you that it is not dangerous, and that you in particular are going to like it."

      Tarrin felt all his reservations about this secret vanish instantly with that statement.  "If you say it's not dangerous, that's good enough for me," he said confidently.

      "And you're going to trust her?" Auli demanded, motioning at Dolanna.

      "I trust her alot more than I trust you," he told her sharply in reply.

      "And I thought you were my friend," she said in an overly melodramatic, totally insincere whimpering voice.

      "I hope you can act better than that," Jula chided her, which caused the Sha'Kar to laugh richly.

      "So, when are you going to crush Sarraya?" Tarrin asked absently.

      Auli gave him a malicious grin.  "Not for a bit.  I want to build up her hopes first.  I'll let her get right to where she thinks she's got me and starts gloating, then I'll step on her."

      "And I thought Were-cats were ruthless," Jula chuckled.

      They reached their designated meeting area just as the sun managed to fully climb over the buildings to the east, but they were not the first to arrive.  Phandebrass and his drakes, Sarraya, and Azakar were already there, talking in low tones with Darvon, Ulger, and Kargon, resplendent in their polished armor and now wearing white surcoats, their ultra-formal attire.  "You're early," Tarrin noted to them as they arrived.

      "We had to check out the meeting area and make sure it's safe," Kargon said seriously, pushing his dark hair out of his face absently, then putting his hand back on the hilt of his sword.

      "We're inside the Tower grounds," Jula scoffed.  "It defines safe."

      "It's not as safe as it once was," Darvon grunted.  "If this Tower had the same trouble we had in Suld, then we're more than justified in making sure everything is safe."

      "Those were extreme circumstances, my Lord General," Dolanna told him in a measured tone.

      Chopstick and Turnkey jumped off Phandebrass' shoulders and flew over to Tarrin, landing on his.  Tarrin picked Chopstick off his shoulder and cuddled him for a moment as he reached back and scratched Turnkey between the horns fondly.  "Well good morning to you two too," he said gently.  "They're getting fat, Phandebrass."

      "I say, I know, I know," he admitted.  "Ever since their powers manifested, they've been eating twice what they usually do, they have.  I've been trying to find out why.  I know they're not about to molt, they did that last month, they did."

      "Molt?" Kargon asked.

      "I say, they may look like reptiles, but they're not," he told him.  "But though they're not, they do share some reptillian traits, they do.  Dragons and drakes both shed their skins about twice a year, they do.  I say, it's how they grow."

      "They eat more when they molt?" Tarrin asked curiously.

      "I say, they do, but not enough to make them fat," he answered.  "Mostly they drink excess liquids and eat fruits with alot of water in them, they do.  I say, the water helps soften the skin and makes it easier to shed."

      "They get cranky when they molt," Sarraya piped in, her eyes nervously glancing over at Auli quite a bit.

      "I say, the loose skin is itchy and irritating, it is," Phandebrass said.

      "But now they can breathe fire," Tarrin mused.  "That must make the molting a little more dangerous."

      Phandebrass grinned.  "I say, I had to put them in a bare stone room for a day or so," he agreed.  "Turnkey almost burned off my hair, he did, because I shooed him off my desk."

      "If they weren't exciting pets, what fun would they be?" Auli said with a sly smile.

      "Drakes do keep one occupied, they do," Phandebrass agreed with a chuckle.

      Pair by pair or small group by small group, the others gathered on the lawn, joining those who got there beforehand.  Haley walked down with Alexis, Ianelle, Iselde, and a male Sha'Kar who seemed to be going, and Allia and Allyn came down with Keritanima and the rest of the Wikuni, with Binter and Sisska standing vigilant guard.  The other Were-cats came down at the same time, as Jasana herded Tara and Rina quite imperiously under the watchful eye of their mothers and grandmother.  Standing on the edges of the group were about thirty servants carrying their baggage, waiting patiently for instructions, and beyond them, between the group and the outer gate, was a large complement of Tower guards, formed up and ready to accompany the group wherever it was that they were going to go.  Alexis looked around and nodded to herself, then got their attention by using Sorcery to create a loud noise.

      "Alright then, everyone is here!" she called.  "If you would all follow me, then!"

      Knowing that it wasn't going to be dangerous, Tarrin felt his curiosity pique as Alexis led them not towards the Tower, but off the grounds and into the city proper, with her soldiers going first to both clear the way for them and cause the citizens of Abrodar to stop and gather and watch them go by.  He debated what idea she could have possibly had as the others whispered or traded wild rumors, from a house with legs that would run at blazing speeds to being carried on the backs of dragons.

      But when Alexis steered them towards the river, Tarrin suddenly thought that he figured it out.  He kept it to himself, privately wondering if he was going to be right or not, as the Tower's soldiers continued to march them towards the large, slow-flowing, muddy river that connected Abrodar with the sea, a river wide and deep enough for ocean-going vessels to dock there, despite being some three hundred leagues from the nearest salt water.  Seeing Wikuni tradesmen and clippers along those docks was the surest sign that the river was navigable all the way to the sea.

      "We're moving towards the docks," Jula noted.  "Some kind of ship?"

      "You will see," Dolanna said simply, and then would not speak again, no matter how much the others asked, begged, cajoled, pleaded, or downright threatened her to talk.

      When they got to the docks, he found that he was right, but he was also wrong.  They were indeed going by ship, a large galleon that had been painted a blazing silver-white and even had bleached white ropes woven between and around the three masts of the impressive ship.  He looked at the ship, and saw that he was right in how Alexis was going to do it.

      Sitting squarely on the main deck, just before the sterncastle, was one of the Zakkite magical devices that made their ships fly.  Tarrin knew what it was, because he had seen one before, at very close proximity, as Phandebrass had captured one of them and spent a great deal of time studying it.  It made sense that Alexis would need Phandebrass' help in setting this one up, and Dolanna's remark that he would like Alexis' plan hinted that it involved flight.  Tarrin loved the sensation of flying, and Dolanna knew that.

      He suspected that that was how it was going  to be done, but he figured they would be going on a captured Zakkite ship.  But he was glad that it wasn't.  Zakkite Triad ships were low-drafting, ugly ships that had little elegance or art to their design.  They were functional ships built by a functional kingdom to serve a functional end.  At least Alexis' galleon was a sleek, majestic vessel, whose paint and glittering sails and ropes gave it a sense of the fantastic.  Tarrin could just imagine what it might look like to people on the ground to see the ship pass overhead.

      "A Zakkite flying device!" Kimmie gasped, then she laughed richly.  "No wonder she needed your help, my teacher!"

      "Actually, her questions had more to do with other things, they did," he admitted.  "I say, I just helped her iron out a few wrinkles, that's all."

      They boarded the grand vessel, and the first thing that Keritanima did was start giving the ship a thorough inspection as porters and servants loaded their baggage and personal gear on the ship, dropping it off in rooms that had obviously been pre-determined were theirs.  But Tarrin, Jula, and Jenna had Alexis cornered near the menacing metallic device the Zakkites used, as Jenna assaulted her with rather blunt criticism.  "You know that thing will kill anything you put inside it!" she said sharply, in obvious disapproval.  "We can't go using this thing!  I won't be party to it, Alexis!"

      "I solved that problem," she said quickly.  "The device consumes energy from flying creatures.  With Phandebrass' help, we discovered that if a Sorcerer weaves a shell for an Air Elemental without actually summoning the spirit, and puts it in the device, it will operate it.  It just consumes the magic, and it doesn't hurt anything, because we never actually summon the Elemental."

      Tarrin analzyed her idea, and found it had merit.  The Zakkite device didn't care what was inside it, so long as it was an avian creature.  If they did weave together the first stage of the spell used to summon an Air Elemental, the magical construct that the spirit of the Elemental would occupy when it was summoned, and then put it in the device, the device would sense it as energy from an aerial creature.  It wouldn't really be anything more than a mass of flows of Air and Divine, however.  But if the device could take that energy of Sorcery and transform it into Wizard magic and it would'nt do anything any harm, then there was nothing wrong with it.

      In actuality, now that he thought about it, Alexis had stumbled across a rather important little idea there.  If Keritanima had her Wikuni take those devices from every Zakkite ship they battled, then they could stick them on ships with Sorcerers on them and turn them into ships that could fly more or less all the time.  A Sorcerer could easily recharge the magic that the device was consuming, and the ship could remain airborne for virtually unlimited amounts of time.  The Zakkite advantage had always been their ability to pull their ships into the air and attack enemy ships from above.  Alexis' idea would strip that advantage away from them, and the ironic justice of it was that they'd do it using their own magical devices.

      Jenna's brows furrowed for a moment, then she suddenly smiled.  "That's rather clever, Alexis," she said appreciatively.  "You have any more of those devices laying around?"

      "A few," she grinned. "I think Keritanima probably has a few hundred stored somewhere, though.  You may want to ask her if she has a few to spare."

      "She'll make me buy them," Jenna frowned.

      Alexis laughed.  "Who says I'm not going to make you pay for them?" she challenged with a wink.

      "I'll give you a copper bit for them," she said immediately, which made Tarrin chuckle.  He remembered Jenna's laments about Shiika, and the idea to pay her a copper bit over the outrageous demands for reparation that Shiika sent to her concerning mobilizing her troops for the Battle of Suld.

      Word of how they were going to be going to Amazar spread quickly through the ship, and was looked upon with both excitement and trepidation.  Miranda and Azakar in particular looked a little green around the cheeks at the idea of flying all the way to Amazar, but Jasana was wildly excited about the idea, and Auli looked about ready to get out and push if they didn't start right now.  Tarrin, Keritanima, Allia, and Jesmind stood at the bow as the servants disembarked and the ship's sailors, all wearing gleaming white waistcoats and white slacks, with little round caps on their heads that had a blue ribbon hanging from the left side, moved quickly through the ship, throwing off hawsers, securing rigging, and preparing the ship for departure.  A large fellow with dark skin and black hair, a Mahuut, took up a place at the wheel on the steering deck, who wore a blue waistcoat instead of white, and had a strange boat-like hat on his head.  An officer of some kind, Tarrin reasoned.

      "Think this thing'll fly?" Keritanima asked in Selani, the language of choice when the three of them were together.

      "It probably will," Jesmind said absently, making Tarrin's sisters give her a surprised look.  "Tarrin taught me Selani a long time ago," she told them with a slight smile.

      "I'm glad I know now," Keritanima laughed.

      "I'm sure you are," Jesmind said bluntly.

      "Alexis' idea is sound, and I'd bet that she's already tested it," Tarrin said.  "I just wonder if she's taken the wind into account."

      "Wind?" Allia asked.  "Like the wind in your face when you run fast?"

      Tarrin nodded.  "If this thing is going to go fast enough to get us to Amazar in three days, it's going to be like a gale on deck."

      "But then again, if she's already tested this ship, then she knows about that," Keritanima countered.

      "Good point," Tarrin agreed with a nod.

      They watched as the last of the preparations were made, and then the male Sha'Kar which Tarrin didn't know stepped up and cast his spell into the metal device.  Tarrin could sense it clearly, the housing energy a Sorcerer created for the spirit of an Air Elemental, and a rather strong one at that.  But instead of completing the spell and summoning that spirit, the male instead put the coherent shell of Air and Divine into the diabolical Zakkite device, which caused its base to immediately start to glow.  Tarrin knew from Phandebrass' many studies of those devices that it was what the Wizard called mechano-magical, the fusion of magic and mechanical technology.  That meant that the control of the device was accomplished by four levers that were mounted on the steering deck.  One lever controlled altitude, one controlled attitude, one controlled yaw, and one determined the ship's speed.  The first three were set with springs to be center-resting, so it could be pushed up or down, but returned to its center, or neutral, position.  Pushing up or down made the ship go one way or the other, depending on which control was pushed.  The fourth, which determined speed, was a lever that was mounted to the deck, and moved back or forth over little marks that determined speed either backwards or forwards, and the lever stayed where it was put.  Those four levers were magically connected to the device itself, so that manipulating them caused the device to alter its magical production of the energy that made the ship fly.

      Tarrin sensed an envelope of Wizard magic suddenly bloomed forth from the Zakkite device and surround the ship.  Alexis, who was standing on the steering deck, gleefully rang the large bell hanging from a post behind the steering wheel, and then Tarrin distinctly felt it when the ship lifted straight up and out of the water.  Jasana, Tara, and Rina ran to where they were and looked over the rail, gasping in awe and delight as the ship rose up and over the buildings, and continued to rise higher and higher.  Everyone eventually joined them, including Azakar and Miranda, who looked down with wild eyes as the ship rose hundreds of spans over the river, then the bow slowly rotated until it faced north-notheast.

      All over again, Tarrin was caught up in the sensation of flying.  It never got old, from that first time he had experienced it from the back of his Fire Elemental.  Looking down on the world, seeing it so very far away, and revelling in a sense of freedom that made him feel like he was the absolute master of himself, the master of everything around him, the master of everything below.  The total and utter sense of freedom that came with the ability to defy one of nature's most unbending and inbreakable laws, the law of gravity, and be capable of soaring through the air with the ease of the birds.  To be unfettered and unrestricted by nature, by the land, by everything, to rise above all and look down upon it and know that he had escaped their clutches.

      To know that he was free.

      The ship began propelling itself forward, as Tarrin sensed another Sorcerer--dressed in the garb of the sailors--weave a Ward of Air over the deck to deflect the wind that would soon become a raging gale.  Tarrin, his sisters, his mate, his friends, and his children all stood at the rails and looked down on the land of Sharadar, and they all marvelled and gawked and feared and gasped and pointed, but they were too caught up in the surprise and marvel of it to feel what Tarrin felt at that moment, a feeling that gave him the strangest sensation right over his shoulder blades as he looked down on the golden land of the fabled kingdom of Sharadar.

      The feeling of total and unhindred freedom.


To:       Title                EoF    

Chapter 9

 

      It was something that he would never tire of.

      Tarrin stood amidships on the port side of the amazing ship that Alexis had provided for their trip to Abrodar and looked down upon the golden desert of Kypernius, with its green and gold band of life where the river Kyper flowed through the barren desert and turned it into a lush and fertile paradise.  It was a secretive and culturally isolated kingdom northwest of Sharadar, which sat on the northwestern edge of the Inner Sea that very nearly cut the continent of Arathorn in half.

      Amusing that both groups called the other's continent after the first kingdom with which they had made contact.

      He'd never get tired of the feeling of it.  Even though gravity kept his furry feet squarely on the deck, he still felt weightless.  It was the perspective of it, being able to look down upon the world from high above and know that though he could feel gravity pulling on him, it could not control him.  It was a sense of utter freedom and liberty, as if gravity was just a symbol of everything that those on the ship had managed to escape.  As much as it had for him when he rode his Fire Elemental over the Sandshield, riding the clever galleon through the skies filled Tarrin with a strange nameless joy, very nearly a giddiness, and put him in quite a mellow and amiable mood.  For Tarrin, that was quite a rare event.

      Two days had not diminished it either.  They were right on the coast now, ready to fly out over what Keritanima would call the Sea of Gold, whose name was changed to the Sea of Glass once one got past the isles of Amazar moving north.  They were only half a day from Amazar, the maps Keritanima and Alexis had shown him revealed.  The isles of Amazar were about two hundred leagues off the west coast of Arathorn, a chain of about fifty islands of varying sizes that stretched from the middle of Arathorn to the southern edge of Telluria.  Arathon was located at the edge of the isthmus that marked the border between the continents of Arathorn and Nyr, the northernmost kingdom of the continent which, in the West, bore its name.  The peoples of Arathorn called it Sharadar, for the ancient kingdom of Sharadar was the very first civilized kingdom to establish itself on the continent, who were themselves remnants of the True Ancients, those humans who had fled from the conquering Urzani so many thousands of years ago.

      For two days, his friends didn't quite know how to take their usually brooding and ominous friend.  Tarrin was talkative, outgoing, almost downright playful from time to time, and reacted with amusement or dismissiveness to situations where he would usually have sent the one antagonizing him running screaming for whatever cover he could find.  He didn't even seem to have too much mistrust and wariness of the strangers that were crewing the ship and the Sorcerers that had come along to supply the magical power to make it fly and deflect the wind.  It was quite a shock for those closest to him, his sisters and his mate, but Triana and Jasana didn't seem to be very surprised at all in this sudden change of temperament in him.  Then again, both of them had rather special insight into the more intimate workings of Tarrin's personality.  Triana had shared his mind with him, and his daughter had been Circled with him, as well as being remarkably observant and keenly aware of the more esoteric elements of her father's complex personality.  They knew that it was Tarrin simply expressing a side of himself that only came out when he felt utterly and completely safe and unfettered, something that Jesmind saw quite a bit when they were alone together, but not quite as exaggerated as it was now.  Sarraya had asked Alexis more than once how she had managed to trick Tarrin into eating the catnip she must have snuck on board, a joke that lost its humor after about the tenth time that she repeated it.

      After two days, even Tarrin was getting a bit sick of how he was acting.  He felt foolish and undignified, but he still couldn't help himself, like a precocious kitten who knew better than to climb up the curtains.  It was all but irresistable.  He was certain that he was going to be absolutely mortified with himself for the way he was acting when they landed, something that he was sure was going to cause him grief with the others.  He had already vowed to himself that the first one that made fun of his behavior when he got back on the ground was going to pay, and pay dearly.  He figured that it was only going to take one object lesson to make everyone absolutely convince themselves else that what they had seen for the last three or so days actually had never happened, and even if it did, then they were obviously mistaken.

      Strange that it would make him feel so completely silly.  But then again, there was a strange sensation in it that he had never noticed before, a more intimate feeling deep in himself that he'd never noticed before.  He'd felt it a couple of times before, the times he could remember, however, he had been staring into a fire.  This was something like the same feeling, but something else was triggering it inside of him.  It really didn't make any sense, and usually Tarrin dismissed things that illogical as things that he'd never understand...so there was no real reason to worry about them.

      That Were-cat mentality, combined with his magical abilities,  were why he hadn't really thought of flying anywhere until now.  Oh, he'd taken a joy-flight or two with his Air Elemental a few times, usually in the guise of teaching Jula how to summon Elementals with Sorcery, but most of the time it didn't cross his mind, despite the fact that he loved to fly so much.  The Cat couldn't fly, flight was a totally alien concept to it, and as such it tended to rule out those alien concepts most of the time, quietly guiding his mind away from thoughts of it.  It wasn't that the Cat hated flying, or that it felt it unnatural.  It was that the Cat's instincts didn't include flight as a mode of travel, and as such he'd always consider modes of travel which were familiar to it first.  On foot was usually the very first thing Tarrin considered when he thought about travelling.  But his human mind overcame that quickly and considered the use of magic as the second option.  Since he could Teleport anywhere important that he wanted to go, he never really considered flying as a viable alternative to travelling...mainly because this was the first time he'd really needed to go somewhere where he couldn't either Teleport or reach on foot, or both.

      But Alexis' wonderful ship showed him that when a Weavespinner needed to go somewhere to which he could not Teleport, then flying was the most appealing alternative.  It was speedy as well as highly enjoyable.

      Jenna had already engaged Keritanima in a bid to get some of the Zakkite flying devices from her, but as she predicted, Keritanima saw the sudden value of the captured magical devices, and demanding a ridiculous amount of money for them.  Despite the fact that they were sisters, Keritanima's hawkish Wikuni merchant mentality had taken control of her.  A Wikuni wouldn't give anything to her own mother for free, and Keritanima wasn't about to budge on the idea of making Jenna pay for them.  But Jenna was desperate, and Keritanima, sensing this, managed to wrangle Jenna into a contract that was ridiculously in her favor.

      Poor Keritanima.  Tarrin had to chuckle about that.  Little did she know that Jenna knew a spell that created temporary gold.  It was a rather pointless spell, since Sorcerers strong enough in the Spheres of Earth and Divine could Transmute real gold, but the fake gold spell had been a viable alternative for a Sorcerer without that kind of power and in desperate straits, at least before the Breaking, when the spell had been lost when the Ancients disappeared.  It was such a pointless spell that Tarrin and Jenna had never thought to teach it to anyone else, if only to prevent a sudden glut of fake gold from destroying the economy of Suld.  He knew his sister, and he knew she'd pay Keritanima with that fake gold, if only to get her back for making her pay for the devices.  Jenna was strong enough to whip up an entire room full of it in a matter of seconds, and the clever part about it was that it wouldn't give off any kind of magical aura to give away its temporary nature, and it would last almost a ride before breaking down and crumbling into fine pyrite dust.  And before that happened, it would look, feel, act, smell, even taste like real gold.  Keritanima would be furious when she found out, but then she'd laugh and silently congratulate Jenna for her clever riposte.

      Jenna may be the Keeper, and may have been greatly changed by the knowledge that Spyder had imparted to her, but the petty, petulant girl Tarrin remembered from his childhood peeked through from time to time.

      The sun was just about to set in the west, and Tarrin had been told that they'd be landing in Amazar just a few hours after staring out tomorrow.  They were planning on leaving a couple of hours before dawn--there would be no danger of accidentally hitting anything out over the ocean--and arrive at the island of Amazar just after dawn.  They were actually only a few hours away, but the ship had landed and anchored at night as a safety measure, to keep it from accidentally ramming into something, to prevent them from drifting off course, and give the Sorcerers who had been powering the ship's flying device with magic the chance for a night's uninterrupted rest.  Besides, it would be generally pointless to show up in the middle of the night, as there would be nobody there to greet them and perhaps touch off a hostile response when half-awake Amazon sentries saw the galleon land in the water and float towards the islands.  They'd probably mistake them for Zakkite raiders in the darkness, and nobody touched off the Amazons like that.  They were much like the Ungardt were back home; highly respected and somewhat feared because of their size and their formidable martial ability.

      They'd be landing a little after sunset, when they got far enough away from the coast of Kypernius that boats and ships couldn't sail out to find the flying ship.  The darkness would prevent that, as there were many reefs and shoals around the Shaullow coast of Kypernius to make sailing around at night a very dangerous proposition.  Tarrin watched it all from the rail with detached interest, for his attention was focused more on Dommamon, the White Moon.  It was full for the first time this month tonight, and would remain more or less so for about four days.  The moons sung to Were-kin in ways that most humans would never understand, a powerful image and presence that kindled their animal instincts, brought them more in touch with their animal halves without the usual dichotomy and warfare that usually ensued between the animal and the Human.  But the White Moon had the strongest effect, probably because of its size and its clarity; of all four moons, the surface of Dommamon was clear and sharp, easily visible with its patchwork of light and dark areas.  The Twin Moons, Duva and Kava, were kind of blurry, and their appearances seemed to change randomly, murky streaks of grey and blue that tended to move around in unpredictable patterns.  The Red Moon Vala was a featureless red disc, a uniform color from one side to the other, aside from what was called Eagle's Point, a slightly darker pinprick of coloration on the moon that only those with very sharp eyes could discern.  Dommamon was fully up over the horizon now, rising in the northeast this day--it tended to wander all over the eastern horizon when it rose, sometimes rising after sunset, sometimes before, and sometimes faintly visible in the middle of the day.  The other three moons had yet to rise, but they woudln't be anywhere near as bright.  Vala was in its waxing half phase, and the Twin Moons were in their waning quarter.  All three would rise within a half hour of one another about two hours after sunset.  It had been six months since the conjunction, when all four moons had aligned, and the short months since then hadn't allowed the moons to drift too far apart from one another quite yet.

      The others seemed content to leave him alone.  Tarrin silently suspected that they thought he was acting a little too weird, and maybe it was a good idea to give him a wide berth.  In a way, he guessed he was, and it was infuriating, but he just couldn't help himself.  He stood there while the ship landed quite some distance from shore well after sunset, staring up at the blazing white moon and letting it sing to him, communing with the power that lurked within it in a time-honored tradition that every Were-kin, no matter what type, observed to one degree or another with every full moon.  The moons were the one true force that bound the Were-kin together, for it was really the only thing that they all had in common.  He stood there for a while, probably much longer than he should have, until a second magnetic force seemed to intrude itself upon him.  It had the same feeling as the moon, but it was coming from behind him.  It took only a half a second to realize what it was.

      Miranda.  She sang to him the exact same way the moons did, and Tarrin was the only one who knew why.  She was an Avatar, a mortal who had been touched with the power of a god, a god who had instilled into the mortal special powers abilities in order to carry out a task.  Miranda had been seriously cheated when it came to that, for the god who had touched her, Kikkali, the Wikuni goddess of sailing, navigation, and the sky, had granted her only a quick mind and undying loyalty to Keritanima.  She had literally been created to be Keritanima's friend, a dependable woman who could be Keritanima's crying shoulder as much as her confidante and closest and most trusted advisor.  Miranda's mind was remarkably complex, and though she wasn't as smart as Keritanima, she had lurking within her an instinctive, probably god-given cunning and awareness of the subtle complexities of a situation that would allow her to see its heart and take care of it.  Miranda acted like an insufferably cute, utterly charming and seemingly completely harmless little flipskirt, but she was in actuality a sober, careful, methodical, and very patient schemer, always keeping her eyes open and luring the darkest secrets out of others with her disarming personality.  She wielded that disarming nature and her unbearable cuteness like a Troll's metal-shod club, smashing through the defenses of her opponents with them and plundering their chest of secrets bare for whatever information she desired.  Miranda was an exceptionally dangerous woman, and she was even more dangerous for the simple fact that nobody who did not have intimate knowledge of her would never believe her be as dangerous as she really was.

      None of the others knew she was an Avatar.  Triana probably did, but she'd never say, and the other Were-cats certainly knew that there was something unusual about her, for they could feel it in her as well.  Not even Keritanima knew, and for absolute certain, Miranda herself had no idea what she was.  And Tarrin would never tell her, because the Goddess had specifically instructed him to never tell anyone.  Not his mate, not his daughters, not his mother, not even his sisters.  Not even Keritanima.  It was one of the very few secrets he had, a secret so secret that not a single soul outside of him knew--at least for certain--and he was sworn to absolute silence.  He wasn't quite sure why, but that wasn't something upon which he ever dwelled.  He was told to keep his mouth shut, and since he'd obey the person who told him, that was that.  He didn't have to understand it, he just had to do it.

      There was a rather unusual and special relationship that existed between the two of them.  They were the best of friends; Miranda was probably his best friend outside of his sisters.  They never judged each other, they never argued over stupid little things, and oftentimes they were both perfectly content to let hours pass in complete silence.  They didn't need to talk to enjoy each other's company.  In reality, Miranda tended to be a quiet person, and when she was with Tarrin, she knew she could indulge her preference for quiet without having him try to fill up the void with inane conversation.  She got enough vapid chatter from the marks upon which she preyed when she was hunting for information, she didn't need even more of it when she was trying to relax and get away from things like that.  Miranda had a soothing effect on him because of the fact that she was the Avatar of a goddess of the moons, and Tarrin often served to keep her company when Keritanima was busy with other things, reminding her that at least to him, she was worth being around.

      Keritanima did tend to take Miranda for granted sometimes, now that he thought about it.  It was never to the degree that it was happening now, but it had been there before.  Tarrin hoped that Miranda's attempts to voice her displeasure would ram that simple fact home.

      She stood by the rail with him for long moments, without either of them talking.  Her scent seemed sedate.  She wasn't upset or irritated.  Perhaps she was just wandering around and decided to come visit him, or perhaps someone had sent her to fetch him.

      "Well," she finally broke the silence, putting her elbows on the rail and leaning onto her hands.

      Tarrit put his paws, four times bigger than her hands, on the rail and leaned well down on them to get their heads closer.  "Well what?"

      "Nothing," she said with a faint smile, glancing up at him.  "Out here for a reason, or just trying to be anti-social again?"

      Tarrin chuckled ruefully.  "Maybe I should be."

      "Now I know where to bring you whenever I have really bad news.  Just a mile or so that way," she said, pointing straight up.

      "I guess the height gets to me."

      "I just know how you feel about flying," she smiled.  "It makes me a little giddy too.  It's like you can do anything in the world, and the stars are almost close enough to touch."  She patted the back of his paw.  "And for you, that would be a very powerful feeling.  The more free you feel, the happier you are.  Quite the change from the dour sourpuss I remember from two years ago."

      "I guess we all change, Miranda," he said with a gentle smile.  "Even me."

      "Gods, I hope I don't," she said with a huff.  "After seeing Kerri in the throes of wedded bliss, I'm about ready to enter a convent."

      Tarrin chuckled.  "They have convents in Wikuna?" he asked.  "Not all orders have them over here.  Karas does, and monastaries too, but I think he's about the only one."

      "Melthis does.  He's the Wikuni god of science and technology."

      "The Wikuni have a god of technology?" he asked in surprise.  "That sounds almost like a paradox.  A god has control over something that might replace the god someday."

      "I see you read that book that Kerri gave you," she smiled.

      "A long time ago," he replied.  "It was rather interesting."

      "Well, I think that as long as the people don't forget the god, it doesn't matter how much we figure out how to do with technology.  There's this one lunatic in the Ministry of Science who is absolutely convinced he can build a flying machine.  No magic," she told him.  "It's supposed to fly all by itself."

      "I guess it's possible," Tarrin shrugged.  "After seeing that steam engine that Donovan built, I'd say that there are ways to build machines that can do all sorts of things we'd never think that machines could do."

      "If you met this one, you'd agree when I call him a lunatic, Tarrin," she told him.

      "People think Phandebrass is stark raving mad, Miranda."

      That brought her up short, and then she laughed ruefully.  "Touchè," she said in a teasing tone.

      "What?"

      "It's a Shacèan word.  Musketeers shout it out whenever they score a hit on their opponent."

      "Weird."

      "That about fairly describes the Shacèans," she winked.

      "Don't let Haley hear you say that.  He'll challenge you to a duel.  He's very taken with them."

      "Oh yes, that handsome Were-wolf," she said in a challenging kind of voice, putting a finger to the side of her little muzzle as she took on a speculative look.  "I wonder if he likes Wikuni."

      "You could always ask."

      "I'll bet he's an absolute heartstealer in his hybrid form.  At least to a Wikuni," she continued to speculate.

      "He may not be interested," he told her.  "I think he has his eyes elsewhere."

      "Oh, yes, Dolanna," she said brusquely.  "I think I could fix that."

      "How did you know about that?" he asked in surprise.

      "Tarrin, I watch people.  Anyone with half a brain would know exactly how Haley feels about Dolanna by watching him around her for five minutes.  She certainly fills his sails with wind, that's for sure.  It's as obvoius as a bolt of lightning in the night sky."

      "I guess others aren't as observant as you, Miranda."

      "Phaugh," she snorted.  "They're either too distracted by spouses or too busy watching you act like a babbling toddler."

      Tarrin grimaced.  "Well, I guess it is true."

      "I'll bet you have a plan to stop any kind of teasing once we get to Amazar," she said with an insufferably cute, cheeky little grin.

      "You know me too well, my friend," he said in a dry, dusty kind of voice that just bordered on sounding ominous.

      "Well, surprise me," she winked.  "I may need a laugh right about then."

      "I'll do that."

      She was silent a while.  "Too bad about Haley," she remarked.  "Dolanna likes him, but she'll probably never feel that way about him.  Add that to the fact that he's a Were-wolf, and you have the recipe for one of those abundantly morose and heartbreaking Torian tragedies."

      "I think Haley knows the realities of it, Miranda," he told her.

      "Maybe I could distract him," she said, licking her chops, as the texture of her scent changed in a very subtle manner, a physical reflection of a shift of mood.  "He is cute."

      "Feeling predatory, old friend?" Tarrin smiled.

      "A little," she admitted, unconsciously smoothing her skirts.  "I wonder what he looks like."

      He knew exactly what she meant.  "Noticably taller than when he looks human," he told her.  "He has a strong muzzle and dark grey fur, with a patch of white under his chin.  He looks very wild and very intimidating."

      "One of those rugged types," she mused.

      "He'd also be about five times stronger than the average Wikuni," he warned her, "and he might accidentally break you in half if you two tried it."

      "You had to go and ruin it," she said accusingly.

      "Just reminding you of a nasty reality, Miranda," he told her.  "Were-cats aren't the only ones who have that kind of strength.  Most Were-kin do, but only in their hybrid forms.  He'd be strictly 'look but don't touch' when he's in hybrid form."

      "Ah well, it was an idea," she said with a shameless smile.  "Oh, here, this is for you," she said, reaching under her wide stomacher belt, withdrawing a small piece of white silk.

      "What is it?" Tarrin asked, taking it from her.

      "It's a handkerchief," she answered.  "I got bored, so I embroidered your name in it.  Right here, see?" she said, pointing.

      Tarrin laughed.  "You embroidered it in Wikuni script, Miranda!" he told her.

      "So?  You can still read it, can't you?" she countered with a cheeky smile.

      He laughed.  "You're terrible," he accused with complete insincerity, carefully tucking the handkerchief under the thin leather belt around his waist.

      "A girl has to keep her reputation," she said airily, then slapped him playfully on the arm.

      Just about the only one that really liked Tarrin in his strange mood was Jesmind.  His sense of freedom made him a bit friskier than usual, and Jesmind was never one to frown on that kind of behavior out of her mate.  Besides, she rather enjoyed seeing him happy.  Jesmind was usually very sensitive to her mate, and often quietly complained to him that he should try to loosen up and be more relaxed.  She knew, like anyone that knew Tarrin knew, that nagging him or trying to change him was a very dangerous proposition.  But Jesmind was determined about it, and approached the situation much like Kimmie had always approached Mist; carefully, calmly, methodically, and ready to turn tail and bolt at the first sign of danger.  It was rather strange to see Jesmind act so logically and calmly, for logic and restraint were certainly not her strong suits.  But despite her irrational, emotional personality, she was actually quite an intelligent woman.  She just suffered from the Were-cat curse of being overly ruled by her instincts and emotions.  She had demonstrated many times in the past that where Tarrin was concerned, she was capable of defying her Were mentality and acting with almost human calm and reason.

      After he came in for the night, Jesmind was more than happy to nuzzle for a while, and they talked about Amazar a while before going to bed.  Neither really knew what to expect, mainly because Camara Tal never talked about her homeland.  The reason for that was as close as the massive Mahuut Knight, Azakar.  He had been a slave, and heatedly disapproved of slavery in any form or manner.  Despite the fact that Amazon men weren't actually slaves, the simple fact that they were owned, bought and sold like property, infuriated the usually laid-back Knight.  Tarrin knew that going to Amazar had to be the ultimate test for him, having to face that which he hated and despised the most, and it explained the utter silence that had greeted anyone who had tried to talk to him since they got onboard the ship.  Because Camara Tal had never talked about her homeland in deference to keeping the peace within the group, it left them with a hole of sorts.  Tarrin knew and understood most of their customs when dealing with a single Amazon, and had a good idea of how their society worked from his many talks with Camara Tal, but had no one really had a solid idea of what would greet them when the ship pulled up to the dock at Amazar.  If there was a dock.

      But serious thinking wasn't really on either of their minds, so that didn't last very long.

      By the time they woke up, the ship was again in the air.  This surprised Tarrin, for both of them were very light sleepers, and the slightest shift of the ship usually was enough to wake them up.  They had slept through the ship's ascent, but the feeling in his stomach told him that the ship was descending, and the light pouring in through the single small window in their cabin told him that the ship was probably preparing to land and dock at Amazar.

      Dressing quickly, Tarrin rushed out onto deck and found everyone else there, all of them looking down with great interest.  Tarrin did so himself, accepting Sarraya's miniscule weight as she landed on his shoulder, and found himself staring down on a rather large town sitting by a trio of heavy stone quays, resting some distance across a flat forested plain leading up to the slopes of a small, steep-sided mountain that had a very thin plume of smoke wafting from its crown.  A volcano.  Camara Tal had never mentioned that Amazar was a volcanic island.  A glance past the volcano showed him that there were two more of them of about the same height behind the first, three peaks that marched across the island's center like a spine.  The town itself was both neat and orderly and somewhat rough-looking, he noticed.  The quays were filled with many small ships, and more were already leaving them, moving out into the open water.  They looked like fishing boats, but a few sleek two-masted ships with narrow beams were moored to the left quay.  Those were rakers, small, sleek, very fast and highly maneuverable ships used as interceptors and pirate chasers by many kingdoms.  Even the Wikuni used them, so that was saying something about their capabilities.  Most of the buildings were made of of a strange beige substance that looked suspiciously like plant leaves, and they had a great many of what looked like unwalled frames, with only a roof.  Then again, in the heat of the tropical island, open-aired areas with a roof to protect against the plentiful rains would only be smart.  There were some stone buildings, as well as quite a few timber log buildings, all of them covered with roofs of a grayish stone, cut into tiles.  Probably slate.  Some of those unwalled roofed frames were also that gray stone, but many of them were simple thatch.  Tarrin could see even from that distance that every building had many large windows in it.  Devices to help air circulate within the buildings, he reasoned.  This was a hot climate, and was plenty muggy.  Air trapped inside a building would quickly become unbearably hot and stiflingly sticky.

      Tarrin saw the layout of the buildings quickly, and realized that a dwelling was not one building, but a compound of several small buildings laid out around a central garden or small pond, the entirety of which often surrounded by a fence that ran between the buildings.  The poorest dwellings were only two buildings and maybe a small shelter in the center of a modest garden, while the richest were huge complexes of upwards of twenty buildings encircling a huge colorful garden which often held a pond within, with many of those roofed shelters scattered throughout it.  Again, only smart.  Small buildings would be easier to cool than large ones, and the layout maximized open air, which would feel cooler than air trapped within the buildings.  Tarrin could see that the Amazons were completely adapted for living in their hot tropical climate.

      And it was hot.  Tarrin often had no inkling of temperature, because he was immune to heat and his Were nature made him extremely resistant to cold.  To him, air superheated by a pool of magma wasn't much different from the wind blowing across a meadow.  He could feel the heat, but it meant nothing to him, and because of that he often forgot to even consider temperature.  The four Knights with them had started out in their armor, but they weren't wearing it now.  Even now, so soon after dawn, it was noticably warm.  If they wore their armor, they'd all die of heat stroke before they put a foot on Amazon soil.  They were all wearing shirts or doublets--and a surcoat, in Darvon's case--with their swordbelts over them to ensure they had at least the weapons to protect the Sorcerers.

      "At least  Triana taught us all Amazon already," Kimmie mused.  "Imagine dealing with that dizziness combined with the movement of the ship?  We'd all be airsick."

      "Amazar would declare war on us," Keritanima chuckled.  "For dropping all sorts of unpleasant things on them if nothing else."

      "There is Camara Tal," Allia said quickly, pointing towards the town.  "She just left that large stone building on the top of rise.  Koran Tal is with her, as well as four others."

      Tarrin leaned over the ship's rail and peered down, following Allia's pointing finger.  That was definitely her.  She was so heavy she looked ready to give birth at any moment, wearing a large smock-like garment in place of her usual haltar, but still wore her tripa skirt.  She was being attended by Koran Tal, who curiously enough stood one pace behind her, and remained that one pace back as they walked.  There was another woman and another man with her, and though Tarrin couldn't make out any subtle facial features from that distance, he had the impression that those two strangers were in some way related to Camara Tal.

      "She looks like a beached whale," Dar chuckled.

      "She'll kill you when she finds out you said that," Sarraya said challengingly.

      "Who's going to tell her?" Dar scoffed.

      "Oh, I can think of someone, unless you do something very nice for her," she teased with an evil little smile from Tarrin's shoulder.

      "Then I guess Camara Tal's going to find out who cut the holes in her haltar," Dar retorted instantly.

      "Holes?" Jesmind asked curiously, which produced almost uncontrollable giggling from Keritanima.

      "Someone cut two small holes in Camara Tal's haltar, back when we were all on the Dancer," he answered.  "You can guess where those two holes were."

      "She had just about everything else hanging out of it anyway, so why not just go ahead and showcase exactly what interests men the most?" Sarraya shrugged.

      Jesmind gave Tarrin a quizzical look, then burst into laughter, as did several others who had heard it.

      "That haltar may come in handy once the baby's born," Kimmie observed dryly.

      "Maybe she could sew little flaps on it," Sarraya agreed with a naughty grin.

      "It seems we are attracting a great deal of attention," Allia told them, still looking down.  "The Amazons are starting to leave their dwellings and move towards those docks."

      "You don't see a flying ship everyday," Jenna said.

      "If you live in Zakkar you do," Auli replied with a smile.

      Jenna fixed the Sha'Kar with a dark stare, but was met with a flippant expression that was probably calculated to make the Keeper even more antagonized.

      The ship slowed in its forward movement and then started descending, making almost everyone scramble to grab hold of something.  It was a reflex action to the lightening feeling in their stomachs, a sensation that they were out of control in some manner.  After that came the feeling that they were very heavy, as the ship slowed in its downward movement, then the slight jar as the keel once again submerged into water.  The ship was some distance from the docks of Amazar, and immediately the sparse crew started preparing the vessel for docking as the ship was propelled forward purely by means of the device that allowed it to fly.  They had lowered their sails for that first day, probably to look grand and majestic in the air, but since then the sails had been and had remained furled.

      Alexis came up on deck with Ianelle as the ship started slowing, preparing to toss out lines to be tied down by haltar-clad women waiting on the dock, behind which began to gather a large crowd.  "Remember, the crew can't leave the ship," she said to Ianelle sharply.  "If they set foot off this ship, they're going to be staying here.  And warn them that the Amazons are going to try to lure them off the ship.  The special exemption we got from the High Queen only applies to the ship itself."

      "They have already been instructed," the Sha'Kar said in her unflustered manner.  "At least the men."

      Tarrin glanced at Azakar, whose expression had turned pinched and dark, his grip on his huge broadsword tightening, but he said nothing.  That was important.  Azakar couldn't have a moralistic fit, or the Amazons would kill him.

      "Alright, remember, everyone, this is a different culture," Alexis said loudly as she approached.  "Men, you're going to be the temporary property of your wives while we're here."

      "Temporary?" Keritanima said challengingly, giving Rallix a teasing smile.

      "Yes, well, that's an issue between you two now, isn't it?" Alexis said dryly, then she continued.  "The Knights are going to be more or less on loan to Camara Tal while you're here.  The Amazons don't expect you to know their customs, but on the other hand, they're not that famliar with yours, so just use a little caution when you're speaking to Amazons you don't know.  Amazons don't offend easily, but they do tend to take whatever you say as what you mean, so be careful using expressions or sayings or such.  Try to be literal at all times."

      "That's all?" Darvon asked.  "No other warnings or anything we should know?"

      "You know Camara Tal, my Lord General," she answered.  "Just treat all the other Amazons like you do her, and you'll do fine.  They're very tolerant of those who don't know their customs.  Just remember that every Amazon you meet will be arrogant and brash, and treat them like at least you pretend they're that much and a pinch of salt besides."

      "What does that mean?" Keritanima asked Tarrin curiously.

      "That they're all the rope in the rigging," Tarrin translated into a Wikuni idiom.

      "Oh."

      The sailors tossed out lines to youngish looking Amazon women at the docks, who quickly and expertly tied them off and allowed the ship's crew to haul in the lines, which pulled the ship up close to the dock.  Two others lowered the gangplank quickly as the Amazon observers approached the ship, with the very pregnant Camara Tal, Koran Tal, and the two others accompanying them leading.  Now that they were closer, those two looked to be relatives of Camara Tal, for there were some facial features that were similar to her.  They had to be parents or uncles or some other older relative, for both had gray in their hair and a few wrinkles on their faces to denote their age.  That was about the only thing that did, for both moved with a spry lightness that belied the age their faces advertised.  The woman wore a tripa skirt and a half-shirt of sorts with sleeves that ended at her elbows, and a hem that stopped just below her breasts.  The man was wearing a simple black leather vest, not much unlike the one that Tarrin favored, and strangely enough, a knee-length skirt or something that looked to be wrapped around his waist, held in place by a wide leather belt with a large gold or bronze buckle that had a sword and an axe crossed etched into it.  It was made of a simple red cloth, and Tarrin racked his brain to remember what they were called.  Binter and Sisska wore something like that.  What did they call them....  Kilts?

      Jenna and Alexis were the first two on the gangplank, and they both curtsied lightly to the older woman after Camara Tal said something to them in hushed tones.  Tarrin picked up Jasana so she could see over everyone, see what was going on, and the group filed in to take their turn walking down the narrow gangplank and onto Amazon soil.

      Few of the visitors attracted as much attention as the Were-cats, and surprisingly, Azakar.  Azakar alighted before Tarrin, and he saw almost every Amazon female suddenly lock her eyes on him, and follow his every movement.  Their eyes stayed on him until Tarrin stepped onto the gangplank and padded down the narrow glorified board, then put his feet on the stone of the quay.  They all stared at him in surprise, this insanely tall non-human creature (though not as tall as the dark-skinned man) who was powerful and regal and radiated his power like the wearing of the finest cloak.  They watched as he set down his daughter, they watched as Kimmie, Jesmind, Jula, and Triana joined him, the three cubs being held firmly by the paws to keep them out of mischief, and they watched as he approached Camara and Koran Tal with a slight nervous twitch in his tail.  They didn't know that being stared at by so many strangers unsettled him in ways that weren't exactly healthy for those who beheld him.

      "Camara," he said with strange directness, totally skipping over any kind of greeting.  "You're about to pop."

      "Not soon enough for me," she said with a slight smile.  "I see Triana taught you Amazon."

      "She taught all of us."

      "Pity I never got the chance to finish."

      "That's your fault."

      She gave him a slight smile.  "Before we go too far, let me introduce my mother and father.  Sulina Tal and Ezran Tal."

      Tarrin's eyebrow rose slightly.  "Sulina Tal?  As in Karaja Sulina, High Queen of Amazar?"

      "That is a title that some use with me, yes," the woman with the slight tendrils of gray in her raven-black hair answered.  "Karaja is my Royal name, in honor of the first High Queen."

      Tarrin's eyes shifted to Camara Tal.  "You never said she was your mother."

      "What difference does it make?" she asked.

      In a way, she was right.  Though her mother was the queen--or High Queen, as every island had its own queen--Camara Tal had no claim or right to the throne.  The High Queen was a position decided by martial prowess, not bloodlines.  Any queen could challenge Sulina Tal at any time for her throne in a battle to the death.  Sulina Tal held her throne by the power of her sword arm and the wits of a grizzled veteran.  Each queen, in turn, could be challenged at any time by any citizen of her island, so long as she was at least thirty years old.  The only Amazons not permitted to challenge for the throne were men and Priestesses.  Because she was a Priestess, Camara Tal would never be a queen, even if she quit the order.

      Tarrin studied this aging woman with a critical eye.  Strong shoulders.  Light on her feet, and her forearms were corded, meaning she had a powerful grip and strong wrists.  Those were critical assets in a warrior.  Yes, this Sulina Tal would be quite a formidable opponent.

      "I see you haven't changed," Koran Tal laughed.  "Decided if she's edible yet?"

      "Koran!" Camara Tal snapped shortly, giving him a hot glare.

      "You know, some think it proper to bow in the presence of the High Queen," Sulina said with a slight, quirky kind of smile that effectively took any kind of offense out of her statement, as if she didn't take the practice very seriously.

      "Ah, but you've forgotten the Were-cat mantra, my Queen," Koran said lightly.

      "What would that be, stepson?" the man, Ezran Tal, asked.

      "Make me," he answered with a straight face.

      Sulina Tal burst out laughing, then extended her hand towards the Were-cats.  "Well, if that's the way it is, then that's the way it is.  I think we can let you slide concerning certain Amazon customs, at least for now.  I'd hope that before you leave you think enough of me to actually bow."

      "I doubt that'll happen," Triana said curtly.  "But if you're anything like what Camara describes, you might almost be worth it."

      "You must be Triana," Sulina said to her.  "My daughter speaks very highly of you."

      "She will if she knows what's good for her," Triana answered in a flat kind of tone that made it clear that she was not joking.

      Koran Tal had an amused smile on his face, and Tarrin looked him in the eyes.  That look told him much.  Koran Tal seemed quite relaxed, even in the presence of Sulina Tal, almost playful and bantering.  That was very much unlike Koran Tal.  Perhaps life on the island and the impending birth of his child had changed him a little.  That unconscious defensiveness that he'd always had when Camara was around was certainly gone, and he looked happy and content.

      After all, that was all that really mattered, when one looked at the big picture.

      "Well, I must say, you're just as intimidating as Camara described," Sulina Tal told Tarrin with a smile, looking up at him.

      "Thank you," Tarrin said evenly.

      The Amazon queen only smiled.  Camara Tal stepped forward and put her hand up on his shoulder.  "We've prepared rooms for everyone," she announced.  "Being the daughter of the High Queen does has some advantages.  One of them is a house with plenty of empty space."

      "Be nice, daughter," Sulina Tal murmured.

      "So let's get all of you out of the eyes of this crowd," Camara Tal said.  "I know how you feel about crowds."

      Tarrin nodded knowingly, and then Sulina Tal swept herself up regally and led the large and diverse group up into the city of Amazar.

      As cities went, Tarrin rather liked it.  The buildings were constructed away from one another, leaving quite a bit of open space, and they didn't cut down all the trees.  There was much grassy lawn separating small compounds or single buildings that had the look of shops or a craftsman's workplace.  The overall effect was much like Aldreth, a population center that was widely scattered across a space much larger than was necessary to hold it all.  That spaciousness kept the place from building up that normal city smell, that and the fact that the Amazons seemed more intent on the concepts of hygiene and the cleanliness of their town.  Any human-generated miasma was blown away by the ever-present sea breeze, carrying the smell of the salty sea up onto the land, and the green smell of the grass and the strange, broad-leafed trees that dominated the town.  They had no leaves but at their very top, with brown trunks that often leaned to the side, with horizontal bands of a sort that ran up the trunks to that poofy canopy at the apex.  The leaves vaguely made the trees look like they were tall creatures with green hair.  Since the buildings were log or stone, it gave the place a rough feel, more like a frontier village than a town, and almost made the place seem laid back.  More like a village than a city.

      The crowd of curious Amazons followed these strange visitors all the way up to the High Queen's abode, a very large compound of about twenty small buildings, some stone, some timber, some to be woven of the leaves of those big trees, surrounding a large garden of lush and breathtakingly beautiful tropical flowers.  There was a copula at the very center, set on a tiny island in the middle of a large, Shaullow pond that was full of small orange fish.  The island had two bridges running to it, two small, arched, high-sided bridges with gracefully carved handrails set into a black glassy stone that formed the walls supporting them.  The floor of the bridges was made of a bone-white wood, at least that was how it looked to Tarrin, for he saw it over a fence between two of the buildings that formed Sulina Tal's compound.  The compound looked to only have one way in, through the largest of the stone buildings, where two haltar-clad Amazons holding pikes snapped them upright in salute as the High Queen mounted the worn, slightly mossy steps leading up to the huge, empty doorway.  It was a simple arch, old and worn from weather, and it was apparent that it did not and had never held a door within it.

      Tarrin noted this as they entered, seeing the weather-worn stones inside that entrance foyer, where rain blew into the building.  So did Phandebrass, it seemed, for he paused to kneel down and inspect the stones carefully.

      "Why isn't there a door?" Jasana asked.

      "It's a symbol of the open nature of the throne," Sulina Tal answered the little Were-cat girl.  "Any who comes to challenge for my throne will find no door blocking them from my throne room," she said, pointing ahead of them, into a large chamber where a simple, unadorned stone chair stood on a very small dais at the far end.  The throne room of Amazar.  There is nothing standing between me and any challenger but the challenger's own fear of facing me."

      "Poetic," Dar noted.

      "I say, I've noticed that Amazons can be a surprisingly poetic people," Phandebrass said as he got up.  "Much of their language and ideology is full of metaphor, it is.  Quite curious.  I say, I think I'll have to look into it, I will."

      "Are we staying here?" Jasana asked her.

      "Not in this building," she replied.  "This building holds nothing but my throne room, my office, and a few antechambers and offices for my staff.  Our private residence is out there.  We'll get to it through the garden."

      There were numerous women and not a few men in the stone building, and even more out in the garden.  Each of them wore a simple white kilt and went with their chests bare, including the women.  The ones with long hair had it tied back away from their faces in simple tails, just like the one Camara Tal wore.  To a being, they all had coppery reddish-brown skin and raven black hair that was as straight as straw.  They all bowed as the group passed, bowing to Sulina Tal, who swept past them without even seeming to register their presence.  She stopped just before the garden and clapped her hands sharply, and not seconds later a rather tall woman wearing a simple white kilt scurried up and bowed.  Just like every Amazon he'd seen so far, she was tall, muscular, but with generous curves that were not hardened in any way by her physique.  Just like Camara Tal, steel wrapped in the seductive and voluptuous blanket of femininity.  It was only natural for him to compare all Amazons to Camara Tal, the only Amazon he knew with any intimacy, but one thing was for sure.

      Compared to Camara Tal, all these other Amazon women, even her mother, were lacking.

      "Sinna Liu is my chambermistress," Sulina Tal announced.  "If you need anything or have an issue with any of the servants, this is the woman to see.  Sinna, we need to accommodate our guests."

      "I have all prepared, my Queen," she answered in a husky, seductive voice, bowing again.

      "Excellent.  Have your staff settle our guests in."

      "As you command, my Queen."

      A very young and rather short Amazon man, looking to be barely seventeen, was the one tasked to lead Tarrin and Jesmind to the room that would be theirs.  Sulina Tal had many rooms, and each person would get his or her own, if that was what they wanted.  Jasana was rather ecstatic over having her own room, in one of the small woven buildings facing one of the two bridges leading to the little island.  Tarrin regarded this young man for a long moment.  Camara Tal had never mentioned servants.  From the way she'd always talked, Amazons didn't believe in them.

      "How long have you been a servant here?" Tarrin asked the male bluntly.

      "I'm not a servant, my Lord," he answered.  "I got caught breaking plant pots.   I'm working towards my freedom price."

      "What does that mean?" Jesmind asked.

      "When we're found guilty of a crime, the judge assigns a price for it, the freedom price.  We have to pay that price to be absolved.  If we can't pay it, we have to work until we pay, our wages going towards our debt until we can meet our freedom price."

      "Sensible," Jesmind nodded.  "I'm starting to like these Amazons."

      "Unless someone refuses to work," Tarrin noted.

      "Oh, we'll work, my Lord," the man chuckled.  "Anyone who breaks the tradition of the freedom price ends up working towards his price in the obsidian mine.  After you come out of there, you'll be wishing you behaved.  If you have hands left, at any rate.  The obsidian cuts you to shreds inside five days."

      The young man showed Tarrin and Jesmind to a simple log building that had nothing but a single room within.  It was a rather large room, but there were no things like fireplaces or privies or closets, just a single room with no door and very large windows, the door and windows having large bead curtains hung within them to conceal what was within.  But not very well.  The open feeling of the place actually irritated Tarrin just a little bit, since his Were-cat instincts made him want to find a cozy place that was dark and confined where he could easily hide, and the exposure to this new place and all the strangers had brought his instincts to the forefront.  This was nowhere near that ideal.

      "Strange," Jesmind said, looking around at the very spartan room.  It had nothing in it except a single very large chest against the far wall, behind a recessed point in the floor that was filled with soft mats and pillows.  A sleeping place, but one under the floor's level instead of above it, as beds were designed.  That was indeed unusual.  There was a simple wooden rack on the wall to the right when stood in the doorway, a large one with pegs for hanging swordbelts, cloaks, or other items.  Everything else was on the floor.  There was a water jug and a washing basin, on the floor.  There was a chamber pot, on the floor.  There were several very large, deep pillows for sitting, also on the floor.  The floor itself was made of stone, despite their dwelling being made of timber logs.

      Tarrin had never seen so empty a room before.  Not even the Selani tents were this empty.  They couldn't carry around any furniture--aside from collapsible furniture that was light and easy to carry--but even their tents seemed populated.  This place was very...bare.  Perhaps the fact that it was a visitor's building had something to do with it, but Tarrin had the feeling that that was not the case.

      "Why would they do things this way?" she continued, looking around.

      "Because it's cool," Camara Tal's voice called from the doorway.  She surprised Tarrin just a little but, for he hadn't scented her, and even pregnant, she could still move on silent feet.  She walked into the room and stopped just before the sleeping area, motioning towards it with her hand.  "The sleeping pit puts you in the coolest air.  Cool air sinks, you know."

      "Why no furniture?"

      "We've never been ones to clutter things," she answered.  "My room has only a writing desk and a few cabinets for holding papers and small objects.  And I have a shelf hanging on the wall over there," she said, pointing to where the rack was, "where I have my souvenirs and keepsakes displayed.  That's just about it."

      "It's weird," Jesmind complained.

      "It's our way.  I think you have entirely too much stuff.  Rooms are for sleeping and nuzzling, not spending all your time in them."

      "I guess it's a cultural thing," Tarrin mused, looking around.  "By the way, where are all your other husbands?" he asked curiously.  "I thought we'd be meeting them."

      "They live on my other holdings," she answered.  "That's more or less why I married them.  They keep an eye on my land and farms.  And besides, Koran won't tolerate them when he's with me.  He's first husband, and he can't stand any competition over me at all.  I never knew he was quite so jealous," she said with a slight chuckle.  "He even made me sell my concubines.  And I made a tidy profit in the bargain," she boasted slightly.

      "A Priestess with lands and wealth?" Tarrin mused, raising an eyebrow when he glanced at her.

      "What's mine I got to keep when I joined the order," she answered.  "It's everything we amass after that is what we have to tithe."

      "Tithe?  What word is that?" Jesmind asked.

      "It means she has to give some of what she earns to the church, as a kind of offering," Tarrin answered absently.  "The Priests of Karas have to give up everything.  They depend on the church for their needs, and the church makes sure to keep them poor by forcing them to give up everything they own when they join the order.  They call it the vow of poverty."

      "Foolishness," Camara Tal snorted.

      "It works for them.  I guess we can't really complain since it doesn't really affect us," Tarrin told her.  "What did you want?"

      "To tell you not to make any plans for tonight.  You're going to be there."

      "Be there?" Jesmind asked.

      Tarrin guessed at her meaning almost immediately.  "You know when you're going to give birth?" he asked with mild surprise.

      "Of course I do," she said in a condescending manner.  "I've known for almost a month.  I should be going into labor in about five hours."

      "You cheated."

      "It's not cheating when it's allowed," she said with a light look.  "Since you're going to be the child's godfather, you have to be there.  You have to be the first person who touches the baby.  It's tradition."

      "What about the midwife?" Jesmind asked.

      "Midwife?" she snorted in reply.  "We don't bother with conventions like that.  I'll deliver the baby onto a reed mat.  Tarrin has to be the first one to touch it."

      "Then you're sensible humans," Jesmind said.  "Were-cat females don't need any help either.  It's just that most humans have this need to complicate a natural process."

      "That's human nature, Jesmind.  They complicate everything," Tarrin said dryly.

      "Except this room," Jesmind grunted, looking around.

      "We're not like most humans you've dealt with, Jesmind," Camara Tal told her bluntly.  "The islands and the climate and our isolation from the mainland means we do things a little different than most others."

      "I noticed," Jesmind said, looking around.  "But that doesn't seem like a bad thing."

      "I'll have a servant come get you when you need to be there," Camara Tal told him.  "Feel free to look around and visit the town, but wander back to where we can find you in about five or six hours.  I know when I'm going into labor, but I don't know exactly when I'll deliver."

      After Camara Tal left, Jesmind continued to look around.  "No wonder they don't spend any time in their rooms," she mused.  "There's nothing in them."

      "I guess they pass their time outside, or in the garden," Tarrin surmised.

      "Unless they enjoy counting the logs in the wall," Jesmind added.

      "Well, want to wander around?"

      "Naw, I'm going to keep an eye on Jasana," she said.  "You know she's going to do something.  I want to be there to head it off."

      "I think I'll go wander around.  I want to see that forest over there," he said, pointing in the general direction of the volcano.  "It doesn't look like any forest I've ever been in."

      "Well, don't forget about the time," she cautioned.  "And maybe taking along someone wouldn't be a bad idea.  So you don't lose track of time."

      "I think I can keep track of time," he flared.

      "Right," she drawled.  "This from the male who disappeared down into his dungeon and came out three days later, thinking it was tomorrow morning."

      "I was busy," he said defensively.  "I was running out of time to finish my studies."

      "I was starting to think Phandebrass had infected you," she grunted as they turned towards the door.

      Tarrin left Jesmind to her observance of Jasana, who was laying on the bridge with Tara and Rina, watching the fish with quiet intent, when Tarrin passed by the garden on his way towards the building that would let them back out into the town.  Tarrin asked Dar to come along with him, but Azakar, Haley, Ulger, and Koran Tal overheard Tarrin's intent and decided to come along.  Tarrin didn't much mind their joining, since he was rather fond of Ulger, if he wasn't an intimate friend, and it would be a chance to catch up on things with Azakar without so many other people around.  Haley had been a bit wary about the four of them, all males, wandering around out in the town unescorted until Koran Tal joined their group.

      Koran Tal was a good guide.  He showed them some of the more interesting buildings in the town, like the chapel to Neme on the highest point in the town.  It was a surprisingly small and modest stone building with a gong hanging from rough timbers outside its front door.  Tarrin had heard of gongs, but had never seen one before.  He pointed out the compounds of some of the richer or more prominent families, and showed them the very long fields that flanked the town, taking advantage of the narrow and fertile strip of land between the forest and the sea.  The farms extended almost four longspans to either side of the town, with the individual compounds that stood in the middle of family lands, and the stone piles that marked the boundaries between them.

      From there, it was a very short jaunt up into the forest, and it truly was something very unknown to Tarrin.  The trees were large, at least a hundred spans tall each, with huge canopies that totally blocked all sunlight to the floor below.  That dark gloom wasn't devoid of undergrowth; in fact, the underbrush, vines, and plants were so thick on the forest floor that they couldn't see more than two spans ahead, and they had to cut their way through with their swords--or claws, whichever was most convenient.  There were no smells that were familiar to him, no trees or plants he could identify, and the few animals they saw were all creatures he had never seen before.  It was all wonderfully new, and he found himself quite excited about being there.  He startled the others when he scampered up a tree faster than any of them could run and popped his head out over the canopy, surveying the sights above the branches.  It was quite interesting; it was a carpet of green that bobbed and ebbed and almost seemed to flow as the wind blew, as the limbs swayed in the breeze, like a vast green cloud or green fog that hugged the land.

      He climbed down as quickly as he went up, dropping the last twenty spans to the forest floor.  "Well, what did you see?" Dar asked.

      Tarrin turned and wove an Illusion in the empty air beside them, showing them the sight he had seen.  Haley whistled, and Dar was quite taken with the image.  "It's like the sea was, but green.  And with leaves," Ulger noted.  "The wind waved the branches like waves in the sea."

      "The wind makes the waves in the sea, so it's not an outrageous idea," Koran Tal told him.

      "I didn't know that," Ulger mused.  "Well, are you going to go all light-headed on us again, Tarrin?  Or were you not high enough?"

      Tarrin said nothing, mentally making a note to himself to get Ulger.  And though he said nothing, Dar's sudden explosion of laughter told him that at least one of his friends was familiar enough with the very subtle shifts in his body language that broadcasted his sudden irritation.

      "Uh, should I run now?" the scarred Knight asked Azakar, his voice only half amused.  Ulger, it seemed, wasn't quite so dense as Tarrin first believed.

      "No.  When his tail stops moving, then you run," Azakar replied in total seriousness.

      "Oh.  I guess I'm alright then," he said with a sudden grin at the Were-cat just before he turned around and started hacking at thick vines with his sword.  He missed the narrow-eyed, vengeful expression from the Were-cat, which made Dar grin wickedly and even made Azakar smile a little.  But then again, Azakar wasn't a total prude.  He did enjoy the occasional prank or joke, such as the war of pranks he got involed in with Faalken, so very long ago.

      Then again, Faalken could always bring that out in people.  He made everyone laugh, even when he ended up the butt of the joke.

      Ulger, he remembered, had been one of Faalken's best friends, and had often been his partner in crime.  Much as Tarrin, Auli, and Dar had terrorized the Tower when Tarrin was human, Faalken and Ulger had been the kings of misdeeds back when they were Cadets.  It wasn't a stretch to think that Ulger may be cut form the same cloth as Tarrin's dear friend Faalken.

      Oh, Ulger was going to pay.  And he knew exactly how to go about getting him.  All he needed was a little favor from Koran Tal.

      They didn't get much further before a sudden weight alighted on Tarrin's shoulder.  He was startled only a short instant before the scent of Chopstick reached him, and he realized that the drakes had either followed them out into the forest, or had been exploring and crossed paths with them.  Tarrin patted his little drake friend in greeting.  "Where's Turnkey?" he asked aloud.

      Chopstick snorted and looked a little offended.

      "I think the two of them are having a fight," Dar warned him.  "They were hissing at each other this morning."

      "Oh.  Sorry, then.  Didn't mean to upset you," he apologized, scratching him between the horns.

      "It may be the rut," Azakar said.  "Phandebrass told me that when their mating season starts, the two of them fight and get cross with each other, even though there aren't any females to impress."

      "Instinct," Tarrin said absently.

      Koran Tal led them deeper into the undergrowth, for almost an hour, until they finally breached it and found themselves standing on an uneven scar of evil black rock, a large field of undulating chaos, like water frozen to ice as it gushed down the hillside and was covered over in black ash.  It smelled sulfurous, and all it took was touching the rock to know that it was hardened lava, from a previous eruption.  It didn't look to be more than a year old, at most, and the stone was noticably warm under his pads.  Even after a year, the cooled lava was probably still very hot deep inside, maybe even liquid, insulated from the cool air by its sheathing layer of surface crust.

      "It's a lava flow," Koran Tal told the others as Tarrin knelt down to touch the rock.  "The volcano erupted a couple of years ago, and this flow burned down all the forest as it came down the mountain."  He pointed up the mountainside, and they could see the black scars cutting into the lush green forest on both sides, the green extending like fingers up towards the mountain's peak, the areas which hadn't been burned by the lava flows.

      "It's not very far from town," Haley noted critically, looking back towards the town, about a league away.

      "The Priestesses would have intervened if it got that far," Koran Tal said dismissively.  "They don't often use their magic, but don't ever think that they don't have much power.  I think because Neme won't let them use it wastefully, it makes it that much stronger when they do use it."

      "That has nothing to do with it," Tarrin told him absently as he patted the rock, feeling a strange tingle in his fingers from the touch.  "It just means that the Priestesses of Neme are very strong."

      "Camara Tal--"

      "Your wife is the most powerful Priest I've ever seen, Koran," Tarrin cut him off.  "She could put the High Priest of Karas in a dress and make him serve drunken sellswords in a tavern like a common barmaid."

      Koran Tal laughed at that image, as did the others.

      "Trust me.  Any mortal who can banish a Demon like that marilith is not a Priest you want to cross.  That takes the kind of power that only one Priest in a thousand ever manages to touch.  Those kinds of Priests are the ones that their gods watch over personally."

      "Well, she is the High Priestess of Neme," Koran Tal said, a little proudly.

      "She is at that," Dar agreed.

      "I think we'd better turn back," Koran Tal said, looking up at the sun.  "If I lead us too far out, Camara will kill me."

      "Then let's turn around.  She may not be able to catch us now, but I don't think I want her to stew on it until she can," Dar said with a chuckle.

      "Especially not when we're her guests," Ulger added.  "All it would take would be one command, and we'd be stuck on this island until she caught us.  I don't think I want to hide in a cave for the next few rides, only to be dragged out by my hair for my trouble."

      "What hair?" Dar ribbed him, pointing to the Knight's extremely close-shaved hair, so short that Tarrin wouldn't be able to pinch it together between his fingers.

      "I need to shave again," Ulger noted, running a hand over his fuzzy head.  "I like to keep it bald.  It keeps my helmet from itching," he explained.

      "I don't have that problem," Azakar told him.

      "My helmet doesn't weigh as much as a breastplate like yours," he shot back.  "That monstrosity probably smashes all your hair flat against your scalp."

      "You couldn't pick up my helmet, Ulger," Azakar said with a straight face, hinting at the humor that Tarrin remembered back on the Star of Jerod.

      "Maybe.  But an Ogre couldn't put his head in mine," he shot back.

      "An Ogre can put his head in anything if he pushes hard enough," Azakar countered, which made Dar burst into laughter.

      "Yeah, well, my mother can beat up your mother," Ulger said with a mischievious grin.

      Azakar's eyes darkened slightly, and he drew himself up to his full height.  "I'm sure she could.  My mother is dead," he said flatly, then he stalked past the startled Knight and started towards the town.  Chopstick took off from Tarrin's shoulder and flew over to Azakar, landing on his wide shoulder as if to comfort the Knight as he trudged away from them with surprising speed.

      "Touchy subject there, Ulger," Dar said quietly as they watched him stalk off.  "Zak doesn't like to talk about his past, and he really doesn't like it when people bring up his family.  I think the Arakites did something awful to his family, but he never talks about it."

      "They did some very awful things to him to boot," Ulger said with a grimace of chagrin.  "I should have known better to say that, even in jest.  I'll apologize later.  At least after he calms down a little," he added.

      Tarrin was about to suggest they start after Azakar, if only to keep close in case one of the jungle cats that Koran Tal had described as they walked up crossed paths with him--to protect the cat from Azakar, not to protect him from the cat--when a thin, distant, strange keening cry caught Tarrin's ear.  His ears turned back towards the volcano and he turned to see what had made the sound.  It was a bird, he saw, what looked to be a respectably sized bird, about the size of a large hawk or small eagle, with a long tail of feathers.  It was plumed in shades of white, red and orange, with a white belly and chest with red feathers bordering it, covering its head and tail and the base of its wings, and the orange covering the remainder of its wings.  Its tail feathers started out red, but flared into various shades of red, white, orange, almost brownish, and even what looked like blue, a riot of mismatched colors as each feather was its own color, and they were scattered randomly through its fan of tail feathers.  It also had much longer tail feathers that ended with little fan-like decorations, and all of those were white on the outside with a red center, in the shapes of eyes.  Tarrin had never seen a bird like it before--he'd never seen just about any of the animals on the island before--but this one seemed...majestic.  Proud, like an eagle.

      "Koran, what kind of bird is that?" he asked, pointing into the sky.

      Koran Tal turned and looked, then he took in his breath.  "I've never seen one flying around this time of day!" he exclaimed.  "They usually only come out in the morning!"

      "What is it?" Dar asked, as Haley shaded his eyes and looked up at it.

      "It's a Phoenix," Koran Tal answered.  "A very rare kind of bird that nests on ledges inside the crater of the volcano."

      "That's an active volcano, Koran Tal.  Wouldn't it get cooked up there?" Ulger asked, but Haley cut him short.

      "Not if that's the kind of Phoenix I think it is," he answered.  "They have birds called Swan-necked Phoenixes in Nyr, but they're not real Phoenixes."

      "Is it me, or is it circling us?" Dar asked.

      Tarrin watched it.  It was circling them, and what was more, it was descending rather rapidly.

      "Go on about that bird, Haley," Ulger prompted.

      "They're magical creatures, something like drakes," Haley told him.  "They like fire, and they don't die--well, sort of.  They do die, and when they do they burst into flame and immolate, but they get reborn from their own ashes.  Phoenixes are said to be a symbol of the continuity of life because of that."

      "How can something that lives in a bloody volcano burn to death?" Ulger asked.

      "Maybe you should ask the gods, Ulger," Koran Tal said with a chuckle.

      The bird circled lower and lower and lower, and Tarrin saw that it wasn't quite as big as he first thought.  It was about the size of a hawk, it was just that its long, colorful plume of tail feathers made it look a little bigger than it really was from the air.  They watched in curiosity as the bird circled them once more, then dipped down and landed on a bulge of rock about twenty spans up the slope from them.  It folded its wings and regarded them calmly, almost curiously, its glowing red eyes--quite eerie to look at!--were locked on them, like burning coals from a blacksmith's forge.  If anything, those eyes demonstrated that the bird before them was not an entirely natural animal.  This was a magical creature.  Its head was sharp, sleek, like a bird of prey, and its eyes were set forward in its head, another indication that this was a hunter, but its beak was more pointed and not hooked like a hawk's; the beak of a bird that didn't subsist primarily on meat.  That beak could carve up a rabbit quite easily, but it could also pick berries, fruits, and nuts off bushes and trees without much trouble.  A beak of an omnivorous bird.  It had tufts of fur to either side of its beak, giving its head a strangely triangular appearance.  Its body was sleek and streamlined, but it had a sturdy chest and large wings, the build of a soaring bird but also with traits of a hunter.  The wicked black talons on its red feet were another indication that this was a predator.

      The bird fanned its tail feathers, raising them up over its head and spreading them, showing them its many long-tailed feathers with those red eye marks on the ends.  Each one was angled towards each other, just like eyes, and there were an even number of them. The result of the display was an eerie sensation that many eyes were upon him, watching him, studying him like he was going to be the animal's next meal.

      "I've never seen a Phoenix behave like this before," Koran Tal said critically, observing the animal with a very careful eye.

      "I remember seeing a painting of a bird that does that," Dar said.

      "Keritanima has some of them in Wikuna.  They call them peacocks," Tarrin told him.

      "It's eerie," Ulger said.  "I feel like it's watching me with fifty eyes."

      "Maybe it's warning us," Koran Tal said.  "Maybe it doesn't want us to go any further."

      Tarrin wasn't sure about that.  It didn't seem hostile, or even defensive.  It was just standing there, like it just wanted to get a better look at them.  And there was something about the bird that gave Tarrin a very subtle, very strange sensation, something that he could neither identify nor describe, something of a tickling of knowlege or understanding that was just beyond his grasp.

      "I think we'd better catch up with Zak," Ulger said in a cautious tone.

      "I think that would be a good idea," Koran Tal agreed.  "I don't think we'd better cross this particlar animal.  It could barbecue us from where it's standing as fast as we can blink."

      "It breathes fire?" Dar asked.

      "To put it mildly," Koran Tal answered.  "Trust me, Dar, you don't want to see what they do with fire."

      "It sounds dangerous," Ulger said uncertainly.

      "Phoenixes are very dangerous, but they don't really cause us any problems, Ulger.  They keep around the volcano and they almost never fly over our settlements.  They're also not very aggressive.  It's like they know we don't mean them any harm, so they don't attack us."

      "No wonder you're surprised to see it land like that," Dar realized.

      "I've never seen one get so close to people before," Koran Tal told him.  "But let's get moving before it does decide to do something.  I'd rather not be who it does it to."

      Haley, Ulger, Dar, and Koran Tal slowly took a few steps backwards, then turned and started walking slowly and smoothly towards the forest, not making any sudden moves.  Tarrin stood there a moment longer and stared into the bird's eyes, not sure what he was feeling, but he was certain that the bird wasn't displaying its feathers as a hostile act.  It was a signal of some sort for certain, but not a hostile one.

      He considered using Druidic magic to talk to the animal, but it calmly furled and lowered its fan of tail feathers, blinked and regarded him for a moment, then turned and took off from the rock.  It circled wide of them, rising higher into the air with each powerful flap of its large wings, then began circling on a thermal to gain altitude to return to its volcano home.

      "Odd," Koran Tal said quietly as they watched the bird fly off.

      "Too bad Zak missed it," Dar sighed.

      They managed to catch up with Azakar not long after entering the jungle again, for the immense man couldn't move very quickly through the extremely dense growth.  The path they had cut served as a trail to lead them back to the town, which they reached about an hour after setting back out.  Dar looked around the  town curiously several times after they had reached its boundary, then looked quizzically to Koran Tal.  "Is it me, or is this place...I don't know, incomplete?" he asked.

      "I was wondering if anyone would notice that," he chuckled.  "You're right, Dar.  This town isn't quite like any other you've ever seen, because all this town does is support the High Queen.  That's it.  Oh, there are some craftswomen here who do their work because the docks makes it easy to sell to traders, and there are the farmers and farmland that flank each side of the town, but it's populated by really nothing more than the Queen's staff, craftsmen, and some of the farmers who have fields just outside the town.  But that's about it. No inns, no laborers or anything like that except what work on the farms, and not too many other people. That's why it's so small."

      "This isn't small, Koran," Ulger noted, looking around.

      "This is small," he said.  "Shining Rock is ten times this big.  That's the city on the island of Raltha," he explained to a few blank looks.  "That's where my family lives."

      "How many islands do your people own?" Dar asked in curiosity as they moved back towards the compound.

      "About sixty," he answered.  "The island chain is mostly a series of very small islands, large enough to comfortably support a small town of people, but most of them are very close together.  If you go to the far side of this island, you can see seven of them," he told them.  "You can see about twelve from the top of the volcano.   There are six large islands, the main ones.  This one is Amazar, the southernmost of all the islands, and it's the one where our history says our people started.  We spread out to the other islands."

      "What do Amazons do mostly?" Ulger asked.

      "Amazons are fishers mostly," he said, motioning out towards the many small boats out in the sea.  "Fishing is our primary food source, combined with what we farm.  Alot of Amazons are craftswomen and builders and engineers, though, especially the men.  We're rather well known for our wood carvings and small ships," he said proudly.

      "Rakers," Haley sounded.  "So good even the Wikuni borrowed the design, as well as about half the seafaring nations on this side of the continents."

      "Captured would be a better description," Koran Tal chuckled.

      "Amazons designed the rakers?" Dar asked in surprise.  "I always thought Yar Arak did."

      "No, we sold some to them, and they copied the design," Koran Tal said. "Wikuna simply captured a raker and tore it apart to learn how it was built.  But the rakers you see in the West were built here.  Yar Arak and Wikuna may know how to build them, but they still can't build them as well as we can."

      "So, women do the fighting and men do the building," Tarrin noted.

      "Actually, we do the designing, and women do the actual building," he corrected.  "Amazon men aren't uneducated slackjaws, Tarrin.  We design the things that the women build.  We're not allowed to do the actual building."

      "Why not?" Ulger asked.

      "Because it's dangerous work," he answered. "We're not allowed to do anything dangerous.  The engineer who drew up the plans is usually on the build site to supervise the construction, but he doesn't do any of the actual building."

      "Building isn't dangerous," Ulger scoffed.

      "Until a ten ton support beam falls on your head," Haley said lightly.

      "That is a possibility," Dar agreed.

      Azakar seemed to be working himself up to speaking.  They were all quiet as the young man seemed to bolster himself, then he finally did in his deep voice.  "I didn't know that men went to school here," he told Koran Tal in a grim kind of manner.

      "Of course we do.  We don't sit around the house all day, Azakar," he said calmly.  "We may have to do what the women tell us to do, but they're actually not that bossy.  We do our things, they do their things, and we're both rather happy with the arrangement."

      "Camara Tal is," Dar laughed.  "Bossy, I mean."

      "Well, my wife is a bit unusual," Koran Tal winked.  "She firmly believes that she knows better than we do."

      "The worst kind of woman," Ulger shuddered.  "I like the Draconian way.  Women are there to keep the house clean, cook, and make babies."

      "Savage," Dar teased.

      "Just call me the original male chauvanist," he said shamelessly.

      "Then you're on the wrong island," Koran Tal chuckled.

      "I'd like to see you say that to Jesmind, Ulger," Tarrin said.

      "She's not a human woman, so she doesn't count," Ulger said flippantly.

      Immediately, Tarrin saw that his previous idea was the perfect means by which to avenge himself against Ulger.  And it would be very easy to set up.

      "I hope you never get married," Haley laughed.  "She'll kill you."

      "There ain't no human woman alive that can beat me in a fight," he said pugnaciously.

      "Ulger, Camara Tal could whip you right at this moment, despite her being about to drop a baby," Dar said immediately.

      "I'll tell you what, Ulger," Tarrin said with quiet seriousness.  "When we get back to Suld, you're going to have to put your money where your mouth is."

      "I'll take on any woman, anywhere, any time," he boasted.

      "Fine.  Then you're going to have a little spar with my mother," he said in a voice that cracked like the sound of doom.

      Ulger paled visibly, then winced.  "Triana ain't--"

      "I didn't say Triana.  I mean my human mother, Ulger.  Elke Kael.  If you can beat her in a fight, I'll pay you a thousand crowns and eat my own tail besides.  But if she beats you, you have to walk the Wall Street three times around in a dress."

      "Easy money," he bragged.

      Haley exploded into laughter, as did Dar.  Even Azakar managed to smile.  "I take it Ulger just talked himself into a dress?" Koran Tal asked.

      Dar managed to regain control.  "I know Mistress Elke," he snickered.  "She'll tie him in a knot!"

      "She's Ungardt, Koran Tal," Azakar said seriously.  "If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on Tarrin's mother."

      "Traitor!" Ulger accused, glaring up at the larger Knight.

      "We may be all one under Karas, but even he doesn't mind it when one of his Knights gets the air taken out of him," Azakar responded mildly.

      "We'll see," he said gratingly.  "I'll beat your mother, Tarrin--or her reputation, that is.  I'll prove there ain't no human woman alive that can beat me in a fair fight."

      "Say that again louder, Ulger, and you'll have a line of women ready to see if you're all talk or all action," Koran Tal warned him with a sly smile.

      "He doesn't have to say it any louder," one woman announced, moving towards them from a small compound.  She was a typical Amazon woman; tripa skirt, wearing a vest instead of a haltar, and with a broadsword belted at her waist.  She had a narrow, hawk-like face, and a puckered scar on her right cheek.  She had her hair cut very short, barely reaching her shoulders, and her bangs were pinned back over her ears with two silver barettes.  She was a handsome woman, Tarrin decided, with Amazon bustiness and hips, but not looking very voluptuous with her highly muscular body.  She was the most burly Amazon Tarrin had ever seen.  The most burly female of any species Tarrin had ever seen.  One thing was for sure, and that this woman was strong.  "I heard that, baldie.  Care to put up or shut up?"

      "What do I get if I win?" he asked brashly.

      "What do you want?"

      "I want your skirt," he said with an evil smile.

      "Fine.  When I beat you, I get your pants.  And you're mine for a night."

      "You call that a punishment?" he said with a leer.

      "Unless you're the kind that loves cleaning out stables, yes," she warned flatly.

      "Well, then, if I win, you have to serve me like a man for a night."
      "Keep dreaming," she snorted.  "I agree, but it'll never happen.  I'll have you on the ground squealing like a pig in three minutes."

      "Bring it on then," Ulger challenged, crooking his finger at her.

      "This should be good," Haley said with a gleam in his eye as he backed away from Ulger, who made quite a show out of drawing his sword.

      Ulger never had a chance.  In his own defense, given that he was an outstanding Knight, well versed in all kinds of fighting and warfare, and he had experience with unorthodox opponents, he would have been a serious challenge for the Amazon warrior.  But Tarrin never gave him the chance to so much as set himself in the guard position.  Before he had his sword set, Tarrin stepped up and clubbed him soundly in the back of the head with an open paw, sending the Knight crumpling to the cobblestone street.  The other males with him gasped in shock as the Were-cat calmly withdrew his open paw, gaping at him that he would swat down one of his own companions.  The Amazon looked similarly shocked, giving the Were-cat a wary, uncertain look as his tail writhed behind his body for a short moment, his eyes narrow and unreadable as he looked down at the twitching man before him.

      She flinched slightly when the Were-cat's eyes met hers, but then she seemed to sense that he was no longer hostile.

      "Tarrin, have you lost your mind?" Dar suddenly exploded in a loud voice.

      But the Were-cat ignored the Arkisian.  "Make him work," he told her.

      "I'll put him to cleaning the stables with nothing but his bare hands," she said with a sudden sly smile.  "Naked."

      The others gaped at Tarrin, but then Haley burst into laughter.  "Ye gods, Tarrin!" he chortled.  "I knew you were vindictive, but this is really swindling the merchant!"

      "What?" Azakar asked.

      "Ulger offended Tarrin back on the ship.  Tarrin knocked him out as payback," Haley explained with a laugh.  "He's going to make Ulger work like a dog in revenge!"

      Koran Tal suddenly understood, and he too began to laugh.  "That's something Faalken would have done," Azakar said, and then he cracked a slight smile.

      "At least he didn't kill him," Dar muttered, looking down at the prone Knight, who was just beginning to groan and stir.

      Ulger groaned, rolling over onto his back.  "What hit me?" he asked in a slurred voice.

      "I did," Tarrin said in a flat voice, looking down at him..  "I guess I was just too giddy to control myself."

      "What?  You hit me?" he managed to slur. "What for?"

      "Because I guess I was high enough," he said in slightly dangerous tones.

      Ulger looked up at him, his eyes a bit crossed, then he laughed ruefully.  "I never expected to get pranked by you, Tarrin!" he admitted.

      "I'm just full of surprises, Ulger," he said mildly, turning aside and starting towards the compound of Camara Tal's mother.  "Remember, make him work," he called to the Amazon.

      "Oh, he'll be thanking every god he can remember when the sun comes up," the woman told him with a chilling smile.

      "I'm going to get you, Tarrin!" Ulger said, then he laughed.  "Just as soon as I can figure out how to do it without getting myself killed!"

      "You do that, Ulger," Tarrin told him, stalking away with a sudden spring in his step.

 

      He was rather sure that the others had explained why Ulger hadn't come back with them when they returned some time after him, probably to go wherever the Amazon woman was taking him and tease him while he toiled naked in her stables.  But Tarrin had the sense that he needed to get back to the compound, and it turned out to be a correct assumption, for Camara Tal just started going into labor about ten minutes after Tarrin came through the stone building that served as the compound's front door.

      Tarrin had never been present for the births of any of his own children, and his memory of Jenna's birth was relatively dim.  He only recalled that he hadn't been allowed in the room with his mother while she was giving birth.  But he did have a rather good understanding of what was going on and what would happen, and he was probably the least squeamish person on the face of Sennadar.

      So, not knowing precisely what was going to happen, but rather certain that nothing would possibly shock him, Tarrin attended Camara Tal as the labor began.  He knew that labor could take minutes, hours, or even days, depending on a set of circumstances that most people would never understand.  Triana would certainly understand them, but Triana was not permitted to be present at the birth; only Koran Tal, Sulina Tal, and Tarrin were permitted to be there during the birth, and Tarrin had to be the first to touch the infant after it was delivered.

      One thing was for certain, however, and that was that the Amazons had a custom of childbirth that was nothing like just about any other human civilization.  Camara Tal, unclothed, did not lay down as most other human women would.  Sulina Tal kept her daughter on her feet, moving around, and whenever the labor pains struck her a little too sharply, she was allowed to lean against one of the walls of the single room stone dwelling that would be the delivery room, a room that was totally stripped of all decoration and adornment, even of all furniture.  It was a bare stone room with a bare stone floor and a tiled roof, that had nothing in it except the people present, a pile of towels, rags, blankets, and a large pot of water, and those were neatly arranged beside a very thick and somewhat soft-looking reed mat set in the middle of the floor.  Tarrin stood quietly near one of the walls and watched Camara Tal with steady eyes, observing her for signs that the birth was at hand and secretly worrying that the labor was taking too long.  He wasn't squeamish, but Camara Tal was obviously in pain, and he didn't like seeing any of his friends suffer.  While standing there, he thought up any number of ways that he could speed things along, but in the end he decided against it.  Camara Tal would be furious with him, and she wasn't the kind of woman that even he would want to cross.  It was Camara Tal's baby, and he had the feeling she wouldn't want anyone making any decisions for her, even if he had her best interests in mind.

      As the day wound into dusk, and then to night, the labor continued.  Camara Tal became coated with sweat as she struggled to get through her labor, as Koran and Sulina Tal walked with her, held her arms, let her support herself on them, and rubbed her shoulders and back to try to keep her from knotting up.  Tarrin said nothing, remaining near the wall, staying out of the way.  Sulina Tal and Koran Tal seemed to have everything well in hand, and they didn't ask him for help.

      Sulina Tal did finally address him about a half an hour after sunset, after it had become dark outside.  "Alright, it's time," she announced to him as she led Camara Tal over to the reed mat.

      "Do I have to do anything?" he asked her quietly as Camara Tal was helped into a squat by her husband, whose face was a mask of reassurance with all the fatherly nerves trying to be buried beneath it.

      "No," she answered.  "I think birthing is something that no man can really help with, you know," she told him with a sudden wink.  "Just be here with us, and when she delivers, all you need to do is pick up the baby and hand it to me.  I'll clean it up, then we hand it to Camara so she can name it."

      "Sounds simple enough," Tarrin said with a nod.

      And it was.  Not required to actually do anything, Tarrin instead knelt before Camara Tal and watched the rather grisly and strangely uplifting process of giving birth.  It looked painful, but the simple fact that his Amazon friend was bringing a new life into the world was much more amazing than anything else.  It was such a rare and special thing, something that a male could participate in, help with, and was required to initiate, but never experienced for himself quite the way that a woman could.  That was something that Tarrin seemed to innately understand, even if he couldn't quite rationalize it with words.  So he simply knelt there and watched the entire process with a kind of clinical interest of someone that was not sickened by the sight of it, and had never seen it before.  He was attentive to how things happened, just in case he was in a future position where he was helping with the birth of another child.

      Maybe even one of his own.

      It was amazingly short, given the hours that Camara Tal had been pacing around in labor.  In a matter of minutes, Tarrin watched Camara Tal dilate, saw the baby's head crown, and then the grayish, wet mass of newborn infant was delivered onto the soft reed mad with an audible plop.  Just like that.  Hours of contractions and pain building up to a crescendo of sorts that lasted but a mere fraction of the time leading up to it.  It was nearly anti-climactic.  Knowing that it was now his turn to do something, he reached down and scooped up the newborn with his paws.  The baby was so small that its entire body fit in the palm of his paw, almost fitting comfortably on the pad on his palm.  The skin under that grayish mess covering her was coppery, just like its parents, and it was born with a thick mass of straight black hair, plastered to its head. The baby kicked suddenly and then let out a very loud, lusty cry, and Tarrin carefully shifted the baby so it was on its back, so he could see its gender.

      "Congratulations, Camara," he told her with a gentle smile, holding the baby out to her.  "It's a girl."

      "Neme smiles on us," Sulina Tal said with a laugh, but Koran Tal looked just a tiny bit disappointed.

      Camara Tal took the wet copper-skinned infant--though the color of her skin wasn't easily discernable under the colored fluids covering her body--and cuddled her to her breast, panting and trying to laugh at the same time.  "Well, seeing as how it took so long for you to get here, and it took quite a bit of determination, I think I'll name you Faith," she told the infant in her arms.

      But that wasn't the word that Tarrin considered to be her name.  It was the Amazon word for faith, which was Shaul.  Tarrin suppressed a smile when he realized that the girl would be known as Shaul Tal.  A pair of short rhyming words.

      "Alright, daughter, deliver out the afterbirth while I cut the cord and clean up your daughter," Sulina Tal told her.

      Koran Tal looked over his wife's shoulder, then reached down and reverently touched her daughter's forehead.  "She's beautiful," he whispered.

      But Tarrin was looking at the infant with different eyes.  Invisible to the others, he could see a faint, indistinct aura of sorts that surrounded this infant, an aura that he had never seen before, but almost instinctively understood what it was and what it meant.  The moment of cognizance was the key, he seemed to understand.  When the infant opened its eyes and took in the world, realized its place within it, grasped the fundamental truth that was life, something it could not comprehend within the womb.  It was in that moment, when the girl opened her eyes and looked at her parents between loud howls, that the aura appeared, flickered, and then winked out almost as quickly as it appeared.

      This one was a Sorcerer.  Just like her father.

      "Hmph," Tarrin sounded in amusement.  "I hope you don't have too many plans for her, Camara."

      "What do you mean?"

      "She may be a girl, but she's her father's daughter."

      Koran Tal seemed to grasp his cryptic comment instantly.  "She's a Sorcerer?" he asked in surprise.

      Tarrin nodded.  "I can't tell how strong she is, though," he told her.  "I won't be able to find that out for several years.  I can just tell that she has the gift."

      Koran Tal looked at him, then he laughed in delight.  "She's a Sorcerer!" he said in glee, clapping his hands.

      "Well, it doesn't change too much," Camara Tal said wearily as Sulina Tal cut the umbilical cord with a sharp knife, tied it off with a bit of twine, and then started cleaning off the infant with the towels and rags sitting by the mat.  "As long as she's healthy and has all her fingers and toes, I can live with her being a Sorcerer.  I already put up with one, after all," she chuckled weakly.

      Sulina Tal finished cleaning up the infant, which looked more and more like an Amazon with every pass of the wet rag.  When she was totally clean, gleaming in her new copper skin, she was handed back to Camara Tal, who had finished the arduous process of evacuating the afterbirth from her body.  Koran Tal attended that rather gruesome mess left on the reed mat with Sorcery, then turned to attend his wife and marvel at their new infant daughter with eyes that were filled with love and wonder.

      Tarrin looked on, far over their heads, staring down at the parents and their new child with a strange pride and protectiveness.  That little bundle in Camara Tal's arms was his godchild, and he realized that he took that duty quite seriously.  She would never lack for anything; he would see to that.  She would be well cared for, loved, nurtured, and she would never want for anything.  He could make sure of that.  Just as much as any of his own children, little Shaul Tal would be guaranteed if not a blissful childhood, at least a happy one.

      Though not by blood, nor by deed, nor by action, Shaul Tal was just like any of his own children to him, be them bond-child or blood child.

      And he was fiercely protective of his children.


To:       Title                EoF    

Chapter 10

 

      The celebrations continued well into the night.

      The birth of a child was always worth celebrating, but the birth of a child for which the parents had waited for nearly ten years was truly a special event.  That it was the High Priestess of Neme's child, the highest ranking member of the order, was an even greater reason to celebrate.  The fact that it was the child of Camara Tal, who was something of a living legend on Amazar now even beyond the fact that she was the High Priestess, one of the storied Questers of the Staff and the friend and sworn defender of the legendary Tarrin Kael, was even more reason to raise tankards and toast the happy occasion.  The fact that said legend Tarrin Kael was the appointed godparent and protector of the child was even more reason to celebrate.  By the time the fact that it happened to be the granddaughter of the sitting High Queen was taken into account, people had forgotten what an incredibly joyous occasion it truly was, for they were all far too drunk to care.

      It was probably one of the strangest celebrations that Amazar had ever seen, due to the unique makeup of the guests of honor.  Sulina Tal opened the doors of her compound after the birth of the child, and the bells in the little chapel on the top of the hill tolled all night long to announce the celebration, and the citizenry of the unique town of Amazar flooded into the house of their High Queen and celebrated with the blessed family.  Sulina Tal hadn't formally planned such a celebration, but she had made sure to have plenty of wine, ale, stronger spirits, and plenty of food on hand to feed virtually the entire town.  Nobles, merchants, and the successful craftsmen happily rubbed elbows with the fishers and farmers and laborers of Amazar, all of them clamoring to meet the large group of outsiders who everyone knew were the group that had recovered the Firestaff and their families.

      For Tarrin, it was a chance to observe the Amazons interacting with one another, and he was fairly surprised.  He didn't like crowds and he didn't like strangers, so when the happy group of friends suddenly became a huge throng filling Sulina Tal's garden, he shapeshifted into cat form and laid down quietly at Camara Tal's feet.  She was sitting on a divan that had been brought out into the gardens so she could rest after the delivery, holding her little copper-skinned infant and accepting all the congratulations with a great deal of dignity.  He watched the Amazons talk to one another, and watched them talk to his friends, and found that Camara Tal's personality was something of a general template for the average Amazon.  Even the lowliest of them, the poorest farmer and the poorest fisher, carried herself with pride and grace, proud of who she was and proud of the island nation of which she was a part.  Though most couldn't manage the regal aire of Camara Tal or her mother Sulina Tal, it was as if each one thought herself a little queen.  Despite that, however, they did not act overtly arrogant or overbearing to the mainlander guests among them, though there was some sense of superiority that Tarrin had noticed that every human culture--and non-human, for that matter--seemed to possess.  The consideration that outsiders were alright, but they could never be as good as them.  Even the Were-cats were like that, but at least the Were-cats knew that it was truth.

      At least as far as they were concerned.

      The average Amazon, Tarrin noted, was a bit blustery, very much unlike Camara Tal.  Camara Tal didn't grandstand or show off.  She was good, and she knew she was good, so she didn't bother with trying to impress others with her ability or skill.  Camara Tal was actually humble as Amazons went, and that trait made the Amazons much like the Ungardt, who were also a very boisterous and boastful people.

      But the women were only half of the society.  Tarrin watched the men as well, and he carefully observed how the women treated them.  Tarrin only knew Koran Tal, and he knew that Koran Tal was a willful, stubborn man who happened to be very learned and very wise.  He had always wondered if Koran Tal was a typical Amazon male, or a rare exception.  It turned out, he saw, that as much as he could see, Koran Tal was an exception.  The males who attended were polite and gabby, as talkative as the females, but the males never strayed too far from the female who claimed ownership of him.  The female would often reach out and put a hand on her male, as if to assure herself that he was still there, or to ensure that he didn't stray too far.  Some males were totally silent, and moved with a quiet wariness concerning his female that hinted that he wasn't entirely happy with his situation.  On the other hand, there were a few females who seemed to not entirely like their males, so Tarrin guessed that went both ways.  He noticed that some men did in fact roam around unrestricted, often gathering into groups of males to talk amongst themselves.  All of them wore a simple golden bracer on the right wrist.  It took Tarrin a few moments to remember his talks with Koran and Camara Tal, and he finally recalled that those bracelets were something akin to wedding rings.  Those were the married men.  A female could own a male and not be married to him; for Amazons, marriage was a symbol of love between male and female for commoners, and political arrangements for nobles to create ties between houses, much as the marriage between Koran Dar--at that time--and Camara Tal had been.  An arranged marriage set up by their parents.

      Tarrin noticed curiously that Koran Tal did not wear a wedding bracer.

      Tarrin wondered idly just how males managed to learn the things they learned if their females didn't like them being out of their sight.  From the way Koran Tal talked, males freely indulged themselves in studies of philosophy, engineering, science, herbology, and many other fields of study that most in the West would call scholastic in nature.  Sciences, the realms of sages, Wizards, and scholars.  But at least the females realized that males would go crazy just sitting around the house all day.

      Some of them did do that, he recalled.  Some wives wanted from a man what Ulger had boasted was all that a woman was good for; to keep the house clean, care for the children, and make babies.  As he remembered, just such a divisive argument had been at the core of the trouble between Koran Dar and Camara Tal.  Camara Tal had wanted a house-husband, a husband to run the household and manage things and care for their interests, when Koran Dar had wanted much more from the world than to have his entire life revolve around his household.  The fact that Koran Dar had not really liked Camara Tal at that time had probably had a little to do with it as well.  Or, more to the point, loved to hate her.  He had admitted that from the first day he'd met her, there had been an intense attraction between them, but that base attraction had been seriously bogged down by two wildly different expectations of life.

      It was interesting to watch the Amazons interact with his friends.  All the females were all but smitten with Azakar, which made the Knight distinctly uncomfortable.  Azakar, who had once been a slave and had an intense hatred of the institution, had come to Amazar against his will.  He had not wanted to come to a place where men were considered property.  But Tarrin felt that the Mahuut's concepts of the Amazons had changed a little bit.  He had found out that though men were property, they weren't actual slaves.  There was a difference between the two, a difference that may not seem like much of one to one who didn't understand Amazon culture.  Granted, males had to obey females, and did some things that they didn't want to do, but there were laws and customs that prevented females from beating males, or putting them in dangerous situations, and from what he could see of them, he saw that most females took an active interest in the well-being of the males they owned, and more than simply an interest in their physical health.  To call males slaves was a poor choice of words.  Tarrin found that he rather liked the idea of calling them partners.  A female that wanted a companion bought a male.

      He was sure that there were exceptions to that idea.  He was fairly certain that there were some males out there who really hated their females, or were owned by females who didn't care for them or maybe even abused them.  But such things went on in every society, even Sulasia's, so to villify the entire Amazon culture for what existed in virtually every human culture would be sophistry.

      Azakar wasn't the only popular person in his group.  Many Amazons were rather drawn to Dar, because he was a handsome young man, but Tiella's wrathful look kept them from getting too adventurous.  Kargon, Darvon's nephew, seemed to be just as popular as Dar, and he was unattached.  But Kargon deflected their admiration with skillful delicacy and even aplomb, declining obvious invitations gently and carefully, and even managing not to insult the Amazons in the process.  Alexis, Jenna, Phandebrass, and Dolanna had attracted a sizable group of mostly males, but with a few females, probably discussing politics or magic or science or some other heady topic that probably wouldn't interest Tarrin at all.  Tarrin liked to learn, but only subjects that appealed to him, like the Dwarves.  He didn't learn for learning's sake, like Phandebrass did.  Keritanima, Rallix, and Miranda had the High Queen's attention, as well as a few older-looking females who had to be powerful nobles, and they were almost definitely talking about politics.  Sarraya, Chopstick, and Turnkey all attracted a great deal of attention, for they were very rare and exotic creatures, but not half as much as Ianelle and Auli did.  The two Sha'Kar seemed to consume all Amazon attention until they managed to greet the two women and talk with them, a fact that, Tarrin saw, didn't sit well with the flighty, impulsive, and somewhat self-centered Sarraya.   Auli had managed to defeat and upstage her at every turn, and now she was upstaged again.  It didn't sit very well with his Faerie companion.

      Others weren't very popular at all.  All the Were-cats didn't find themselves surrounded by the same group of people for very long, for the Amazons only wished to meet them, not engage in conversation with them.  That happened to suit the Were-cats just fine.  Besides, Tarrin had the feeling that the Amazons were just a little intimidated by Triana, Jesmind, Kimmie, and Jula.  Jasana wandered around the group more or less freely, with Tara and Rina tagging along behind her, and all four females kept a cautious eye on the roaming cubs.  The late arrivals kept asking about Tarrin himself, and were rather disappointed with the explanation that he didn't like crowds, and he happened to be the black cat curled up by Camara Tal's feet.  Allia and Allyn had remained for the first part of the celebration, certainly long enough to have a long conversation with Camara Tal and hold her infant daughter many times, but when the Amazons started getting loud and a little rowdy, they quietly withdrew to their room.  Tarrin was surprised they didn't leave sooner.  He was sure that the raucous nature of the Amazons would be grating to his sister, whose sense of honor wouldn't allow her to act so silly in public.  Selani didn't act silly in public.  They were more than happy to act silly in private, but never in public.  He was sure that to the Amazons, the Selani culture would seem tight-laced, inflexible, and very stringent.  But they didn't really know the Selani like Tarrin did.  Few outside of the desert did, for that matter.

      The noticable absence, of course, was Ulger.  Darvon had asked about the Knight not long after Camara gave birth, then he just chuckled when he heard what had happened.  Ulger, at that very moment, was probably up to his ankles in animal dung, laboring to clean out a stable with his bare hands and not wearing a stitch of clothing.  Tarrin had the idea that that Amazon woman would really make him pay for being such a braggart.  Amazons took affronts to their pride very seriously, and there was probably little that could irritate them more than a chauvanist male.  That Amazon would put Ulger into the place she believed he belonged, and it would not be very pleasant for the scarred Knight.  Not pleasant at all.

      Darvon didn't disapprove of what Tarrin had done.  In his words, "maybe that smart-mouthed overgrown child will learn when to keep his mouth shut for a change."  And as Dar has noticed, Tarrin hadn't killed him.  Just a year before, and Tarrin would have killed him.  It was a noted change in the Were-cat's personality over time, and a testament as to how relaxed he had become since the business with the Firestaff had been completed.  Relaxed enough not to instantly slaughter someone who had offended him.

      It was well into the night before any of the Amazons had even noticed that time had passed.  Tarrin was surprised at the endurance of these Amazons, both for drink and for revelling; Tarrin himself found the concept of a "party" to be boring and redundant.  One came, talked a while, and when there was nothing more to talk about, to him it was time to end it.  The Ungardt, legendary for their partying, got drunk at parties and often ended up fighting one another.  Shacèans also had something of a reputation for indulging in celebration, but they mostly just danced, sang, and listened to music during their parties, something with which Tarrin could identify just a little more.  But the Amazons were content to drink and talk, and drink and talk some more.  It was only well after midnight that a group of Amazons had finally struck on the idea that the party needed something over than voices to entertain it, so they had fetched instruments and started playing music.

      That shocked Tarrin, as well as most of his friends.  These Amazons were fantastic in their music.  It was lively and almost catchy, upbeat songs with a heavy beat of the four drums surrounding one musician, but possessing stunningly complicated harmonies and counter-melodies that made the songs both catchingly simple to the ear, yet remarkably complicated to play.  They made playing such complicated music seem easy.  Nobody in the rest of the world had ever equated the Amazons to being such a musical people.  The Shacèans were the ones who had that reputation.

      "My, that's quite lovely," Miranda mused as she sat at the edge of Camara Tal's divan, holding the newborn infant in her arms.  Tarrin had shamelessly abandoned Camara Tal's feet to lay on his close friend's lap.  Jesmind and Jula were letting Kimmie and Triana keep an eye on the cubs, who were by now so listless that they were about to fall asleep where they sat, as they took their turns marvelling at the baby over Miranda's shoulders.

      "I think they're just showing off for the guests," Camara Tal grunted wearily.  She was tired, but since she was the guest of honor, she was honor-bound to stay at least until the first guest retired.  It was some kind of Amazon custom, but Tarrin had the idea that maybe Camara Tal was proving her womanliness to the other Amazons by giving birth then managing to stay awake so long afterward without sleep.

      "It's quite a complex song," Jesmind said critically, almost professionally.  "That lutist could give any Shacèan bard a run for his money."

      "Don't you play, Jesmind?" Miranda asked.  "Tarrin once told me you had an interest in playing the lute."

      "Well, that was a long time ago," she said with surprising modesty...almost demureness.  "I got  so good at taking the human shape because I wanted to learn how to play the lute.  These paws of ours just aren't designed for such delicate movements," she said, holding up her huge paws with a rueful look on her face.

      "I'd say not," Miranda chuckled.  "The neck of that lute he's playing doesn't look much longer that Tarrin's fingers are wide.  "Well, did you learn to play?"

      "Of course I did," she said bluntly.  "I learned the Nyrian citar, the flute, and the harpsichord too."

      "Ah, so," Miranda said with a cheeky grin.  "The one with the Shacèan word for jewel for a name displays some Shacèan traits.  Maybe Triana knew what she was doing when she named you."

      "I doubt it," Jesmind actually laughed. "Sometimes I don't know what got up my mother's craw when she named me.  None of my brothers or sisters are named as oddly as I am."

      "Let's see, if I remember right, they're Shayle, Nikki, and Laren," she said.

      "Tarrin must talk too much," Jesmind said with a disapproving look at him.

      "Too much?  Do you know how long it took me to drag that out of him?" Miranda asked with a laugh.

      "Probably a long time," Jula surmised, giving her bond-father a warm smile.

      "Care to grace us with your talent?" Miranda prodded.

      "Me?  Play?  Phaugh," she snorted.  "I haven't even picked up a lute in fifty years.  I'm probably so rusty that I'd sound like a dying vulture."

      "Why did you stop, then?"

      "I had more important things to do," she said shortly.

      Miranda had touched on something that Tarrin had wondered from time to time himself.  Jesmind had braved the pain of the human form to learn how to play the lute, something she had wanted very much to do, and then she simply stops?  What had happened to make her give it up, especially after going to the trouble of learning how to play those other musical instruments?  It was something that Jesmind never talked about, and one of the few things which she wouldn't share with him.  Despite her love for him and his for her, they both kept secrets from one another, and that was one of her secrets.

      Jasana came over, leading Tara and Rina, and she had a strange look on her face.  "What is it, cub?" Jesmind asked her.

      "Umm, Mama?" she asked hesitantly.  "Did you know there's a big colorful bird over there that's watching us?"

      "There are many birds here on the islands, cub," Camara Tal told her.  "Many are very big and colorful, and a lot of them aren't afraid of humans.  Since we don't bother them, they have no reason to be afraid of us."

      "Well, Aunt Camara, do many of them have glowing red eyes?"

      Glowing red eyes?  Tarrin picked his head up off of Miranda's lap and looked around, and when he started looking for it, he realized that he could sense it.  The Phoenix was back, and Tarrin could feel it now, feel its presence in a way he hadn't noticed before.  Were he in his humanoid form, he could have pointed right to it, but he had no idea how he knew where it was.  He looked in the direction his senses told him to look, and he could just barely make it out.  It was sitting on the top of one of stone building that served as Sulina Tal's throne room, staring down at them with eyes that glowed brighter than the firelight that reflected off of its colorful reddish plumage.  From that distance, the bird was little more than a silhouette, an outline of avian form of which details were lost to him.  The bird was far away and not moving, so his eyes had trouble making it out.  But even from that distance, those glowing red eyes were quite visible to him.

      “I’ve never seen one of those out at night,” Camara Tal said in surprise, staring up at the bird.

      “What is it?” Jasana asked.

      “It’s a Phoenix,” she said with respect in her voice.  “They live on the volcano.”

      “We saw a Phoenix when were out earlier today,” Tarrin said in the manner of the Cat.

      “Well, it’s not bothering us, and we don’t usually annoy them, so let’s just leave it be and not worry about it,” Camara Tal said calmly, leaning back a little more on the divan.  “Can I have my daughter back now, Miranda?” she asked with a smile.

      “Oh, certainly,” she said with a cheeky smile.  “It’s better to admire someone else’s than to have your own anyway.”

      “Someday you’re going to change your mind,” the Amazon woman told her.

      “Not in this lifetime,” she said adamantly, putting Tarrin back down on the divan and then standing up.

      “That’s what they all say,” Camara Tal chuckled as the mink Wikuni sauntered off.

      The party continued well into the night, as the Amazons got steadily more and more inebriated, the musicians got progressively less and less formal, even going to the extent of playing some rather bawdy little tunes and engaging in impromptu “make it up as we go along” sessions that were probably even better than the organized music was.  Those of Tarrin’s friends who managed to stay awake during the majority of the night had a wonderful time, though Azakar, Dar, Tiella, Phandebrass, and Dolanna decided a little after midnight that they’d had just about enough fun for one evening.  Camara Tal remained on her divan, handing her daughter off to those who came up to see her so they could hold her, and taking a few quick naps while her husband or her mother or some trusted family friends or relatives watched over the newborn for her.  And through it all, sitting on the top of Sulina Tal’s throne hall, sat the Phoenix, doing nothing but watching.  Tarrin doubted that many of the Amazons even noticed the animal, for it didn’t really move around, except to occasionally lift its tail fan and display those odd eye-shaped markings on the long feathers in its tail fan.  Every time it did that, Tarrin got a strange feeling just behind his ears and he invariably looked up at the bird.  Those eye spots were the same shape as the animal’s own eyes, matching up in orderly pairs just like real eyes, and they too seemed to nearly glow just like the Phoenix’s eyes did, probably catching the light from the many torches just so to produce that effect.  It wasn’t outlandish, for the bird had many feathers that were iridescent, a few of them almost reflective, catching the light like a cat’s eyes and shining it back at the onlooker.  But it was decidedly eerie.

      Aside from those times when the bird had its tail feathers fanned out, Tarrin largely ignored it.  It wasn’t bothering him, so he wasn’t going to go and borrow trouble.  He’d done that more than enough during his lifetime, and he’d managed to survive it by sheer luck and phenomenal intestinal fortitude.

      He had no idea how Camara Tal managed to