Fel (James Galloway)

The Tower of Sorcery

Chapter 2

It was a good day to travel. Tarrin led the pack horses behind the others along the Torrian Road, as birds chirped in the early summer morning and the sun peeked through the trees to warm the earth. This stretch of road wasn't unfamiliar to Tarrin, who had accompanied his father to Watch Hill numerous times, so he settled into a comfortable muse as he let the horse plod along behind the others. Now that they were actually moving, he couldn't deny that he was tremendously excited about this trip. He was still a bit nervous over going to the Tower and learning magic, but even that was starting to interest him as he thought back to the roar of fire that Jenna had created, or the healing that the Sorceress had done. He began to think about what she had said, about earth, air, fire, water, the mind, and the power of a Goddess, and he began to speculate what Sorcerers could do.

There was a reason why he was put in the back, he noted not long after they started out. It put a fighter at each end of the caravan. Faalken took the lead, occasionally scouting ahead, leaving Tarrin to defend the rear in case something snuck on them from behind. This was wild territory, and just about anything could happen. There could be a new band of brigands that had just settled in, or a pack of Bruga or tribes of Dargu, Waern, or even a gaggle of Trolls could have come down out of the mountains to the north for a bit of plunder. Those races, called the Goblin Races, were universally malicious, cruel, and extremely hostile to human life. Bruga and Trolls were very dim-witted, but Dargu were very cunning, and Waern were downright intelligent. There were Ogres and Giants as well, but both of those races were rather gentle and more amiable than their cousins. Ogres weren't very bright, but they weren't evil like the others, and Giants were intelligent and rather friendly when not encountered in their home range. Giants were welcome in most cities, provided they were careful not to break anything. Four times that Tarrin could remember, Giants had visited Aldreth to buy some things that they couldn't make on their own. Master Karn had been commissioned to make giant-sized versions of an axe and some belt knives, which looked more like swords except for their massive hilts. It was a testament to Karn's ability that he made them so well. The villagers of Aldreth had a good relationship with that Giant Clan, which lived two days walk to the north, in the foothills of the SkydancerMountains.

They weren't the only forest beings that Tarrin remembered seeing in Aldreth. Being right on the Frontier, Aldreth saw more of the exotic beings than just about any other village or city in Sulasia. Tarrin had seen Centaurs three times, and had once seen a Druid, a human that was devoted to the power of nature. On a regular basis, people that looked like humans came out of the forest and visited the village on market days, bought assorted supplies and merchandise, and simply walked back into the forest. The village had a long standing practice of not asking these people any questions. They always behaved with exquisite courtesy, they paid with good money or bartered with good pelts or other valuable forest goods, and it was promoting good relations with their unknown sylvan neighbors in the forest to cater to the needs of those that chose to live there. Those visits were one of the things that kept Aldreth villagers out of the wild western forest. It had been a long standing rule that no hunting or expeditions would go beyond the farthest settlement, which was the Kael farm. Tarrin broke that rule with daily regularity, but Tarrin felt that if he was willing to take the risk, then so be it. Tarrin had travelled two days into the Frontier last year, curious to see what kind of trees and underbrush would exist in a forest that had not been seen by man in thousands of years. He hadn't seen any forest denizens, but on the second day, he began to feel watched, and decided that they'd allowed him to go as far as they wanted him to go. He turned around at that point.

These woods here between Aldreth and Watch Hill were wild for the most part, but there were many farmsteads and freeholdings that had been carved out of the heavy woods on both sides of the road. Most of them were out of sight of the road, down cart tracks that disappeared into the trees, but they were there. Not long after setting out, they'd encountered Arem Darn, one of those freeholders, on his way to Aldreth with a load of hay to sell. He had his wife with him, and their three children played in the hay in the back of the cart. It was unusual to see a living soul on this road until one almost got to Watch Hill.

"Tarrin!" Tiella called, shaking him out of his musing consideration of the trees.

"What?" he asked. He noticed that Walten had drifted back with Tiella, and Dolanna and Faalken were a bit up the road from them.

"I said, what do you think of all this?" she asked in a quiet voice.

"How do you mean?"

"Well, I for one am a bit nervous," she said.

"I was planning on leaving anyway," Tarrin shrugged. "I'm just going to a different place, that's all."

"Where were you going to go?" Walten asked.

"I was going to try to get into the KnightsAcademy," he sighed. "I knew it wasn't a sure thing, but this kinda blew that out of the water. By the time I finish at the Tower, I'll be too old." He brushed his hair out of his eyes. "Maybe I'll go into the army, like my father. If I decide not to stay at the Tower, that is."

"I can't wait," Walten said simply. "I've hated carpenting since they day my parents stuck me there. At least this is more interesting, and I get to do something." He looked up the road. "I didn't want to spend all my life in the village anyway."

"I've always thought of leaving Aldreth, but I didn't really take it seriously," Tiella admitted. "And here I am."

"Step it up, young ones," Dolanna called to them. "We must stay together."

Tarrin and the others urged the horses to a faster walk, and they were up with the knight and the Sorceress again.

They stopped several times over the day to rest, so that the Aldreth villagers could get themselves out of the saddle and stretch out muscles cramped by sitting down. They stopped for a meal of bread, cheese, and dried meat by a large stream, in a small meadow near the bridge that spanned it. Despite the slow pace and frequent stops, by the time the village of Watch Hill came into view at dusk, sitting atop the small, rounded, flat-topped rise, Tarrin's legs were painfully cramped and his back felt like he had an axe in it. He almost fell down when they stopped outside the Hilltop Inn and dismounted. The sky was changing into the colors of night when the stable hands came out to get the horses. Three of the four moons were up, all three of them full, and the Skybands, the bands of light that existed in the sky both day and night, were going from their daytime dull white and into the brilliant rainbow cascade of scillinting color that they wore at night. They weren't too wide, about the same width as Domammon, the largest moon, which rode just over the brilliant bands of color. Sometimes Domammon hid behind the Skybands. Duva and Kava, the twin moons, had just risen. Vala, the Red Moon, would rise around midnight, as it did at this phase of the month. The three moons and the Skybands filled the darkening land with curious light, just enough to see but not so much that details could be easily made out.

Watch Hill sat upon a single hill that rose out of the surrounding forest, where there was a large flat valley. During the day, a person could see quite a distance over the green-carpeted valley in which the village stood, thus the village's name. The architecture was so much like Aldreth that it was easy to see the similarities, but the layout of the village was much different. The village followed the contours of their hill, arrayed in rows on the flatter parts of the ridges along the sides, and with the inn and the smithy sitting at the top. The hill had a gentle enough rise so that the road went right up one side and down the other, with several spur streets along the flat ridges leading to the homes and shops. Watch Hill was about twice the size of Aldreth, with fifty homes and shops, and a population of around four hundred both in the village and on the farms surrounding the base of the hill. The Hilltop Inn was larger than the inn in Aldreth, a large four story structure with a huge stable behind it, painted a bright red that was quite visible for miles around.

Before Tarrin could move, he felt Dolanna put her hand on the back of his neck. He gasped slightly as he felt an icy rush go through him, but where the icy sensation flowed, the pain was washed away.

"Warn me next time!" he said in a breathless hiss, holding onto the saddlehorn for support.

"Very well," Dolanna said in a light voice. He had the suspicion that she did that on purpose.

The interior of the inn was spacious and rather crowded. The people filling the inn were both the functionally dressed farmers and villagers, as well as a few men in armor and wearing swords here and there. These were caravan guards, hired by merchants to guard their wares as they moved them from Watch Hill to Torrian. The merchants were here as well, well dressed men, and a couple of women, sitting apart from the common folk of the village like little kings and queens, with their noses in the air. Tarrin didn't particularly like travelling merchants. Most of them were snotty and arrogant, and they always tried to cheat their customers. At least the ones that had come to Aldreth had. They'd thought that just because the people there lived in an isolated community that they were stupid or too back-country to know better. Tarrin knew that not all merchants were like that, but he'd not had any good role models thus far with which to compare them.

A rotund, tall man with a bald pate and wearing a dirty apron scurried up to them. "Mistress Casbane, it is good to see you again," he said. "I have only two rooms left, but they are yours for the taking, with my complements."

"Such a generous offer," she smiled, "but we would not deny you the coin you would make on your rooms this night. We will take your rooms, for the usual fee. I would ask, though, that some supper be brought to us in our rooms. We will not dine in the hall this night."

"It will be as you wish, milady," he said with a warm smile. "Please, follow me. I'll have the hands bring up your packs as soon as I come back down, and I'll send Emmy and Kamy up with dinner for you. We have roasted beef and stewed potatos this night."

"I can hardly wait to taste your wife's excellent cooking," Dolanna said with a genuine smile.

The rooms they were led to were on the second floor, and were side by side. Both were the same size, and both were rather spartan but clean. Each of them had three beds in it, a single stand with washbasin and water, and pegs along the only free wall for cloaks and clothes. A lamp was set into the wall near the door, and the innkeeper lit this lamp with his candle in each room after opening the door. The room key was sitting on the basin table, duplicate of the one the innkeeper had used to unlock the doors from the outside. Tarrin had slept in this inn before, but not in this particular room. He knew that the window would have a good view of the village and the forest below, but right now there was only darkness. "Bring the packs to this room," Faalken told the innkeeper as he moved into the room. "Alright, boys, pick a bed. The one by the window is mine."

"I don't care," Walten grunted, flopping down on the one against the far wall, by the washbasin. That left Tarrin the one beside the door.

Tarrin sat down on the bed, surprised at how soft it was, and took off his boots. Dolanna's healing touch had taken away the pain of a day in the saddle, but not the aching weariness of a day's full activity. Two men brought up all their packs and Tarrin's staff and bow, along with Faalken's shield he'd hung from the saddlebow of his horse. Tarrin and Walten took Tiella and Dolanna their personal packs, and by the time they returned, two young, pretty women in simple dresses came into the room with large trays. "Master Luhan bade us bring you dinner," she said with a coy look at Faalken.

"Just set it anywhere, and mind you bring up the Lady's dinner quickly," he told her.

"Yes, my Lord," she said with a little bob, and the two women set their trays of food and drink down carefully on Tarrin's bed so as not to spill them, and hurried back out.

"Dinner!" Walten said happily, snatching up a plate and a mug of ale. He sat down on his bed, put his plate on his lap and flagon on the floor, and tore into it like a starving wolf. Tarrin handed Faalken a tray and flagon, then started on his own. He had to admit, their cook was very good. The meat was seasoned while it was roasted, and seasoned well, and the potatos had spices in them that Tarrin had never experienced. It was amazingly good.

"Luhan's wife is Shacèan," Faalken said, reading the surprise in the faces of his charges. "She cooks in their classic style, which involves using spices. Luhan grumbles at the price of those spices, but he more than makes up for the cost with the food he sells."

"It's like nothing I've ever had," Walten said. "My mother uses spices, but only what grows around the village."

"These don't grow anywhere but Shacè," Faalken told him.

"No wonder they're expensive," Tarrin mused as he took a sip of the ale. He was surprised. It was his father's. Tarrin could tell his father's ale as clearly as a smith could see the difference between a forge and an anvil. He laughed ruefully. "This is my father's ale," he said.

Walten took another drink of his. "It is, isn't it?" he agreed with a grin.

"Then your father's a good brewer," Faalken said.

"It's a hobby of his," Tarrin said. "I'll have to tell him that people who buy it are selling it instead of drinking it," he said mainly to himself.

"Well, eat fast, cause we'll be up very early," Faalken cautioned. "I suggest you go to bed right after you eat."

"I intend to," Walten groaned, putting his hand to his back. "Mistress Dolanna took away the pain, but not the soreness."

"With good reason," he replied. "What you're feeling is exhaustion, not just saddlesores. If she'd taken that away, you wouldn't want to sleep. And you need it. Healing isn't just a touch and you're well. It drains away some of your own strength, as well as some of hers, before the magic of it puts some of it back. That's why it's not an entirely pleasant feeling."

"You can say that again," Tarrin agreed. "It felt like she put ice down my shirt."

"That's as good a description as any," Faalken chuckled. "It's worse the more she has to heal." He took a drink from his flagon. "If you're hurt too badly, it'll kill you before it can heal you, if the healer isn't very careful."

"What can Dolanna do with magic?" Tarrin asked impulsively.

"I'm not going to answer that," he said bluntly. "I'll leave the explanations of it up to her. I'd be a bad teacher anyway." He looked at both of them, seeing that they were done. "Finish your ale and let's go to bed."

"What about the dishes?" Tarrin asked.

"Oh, we put them on the trays and set them out in the hall. Luhan or someone else will pick them up later. Now let's get to bed."

They put their dishes out, undressed for bed, and Tarrin put out the lamp after they locked the door.

Wake up, something seemed to whisper to him. You have to wake up.

Tarrin awoke in the middle of the night. He had no idea why; usually he was a very light sleeper, but he didn't wake up unless there was a reason. He looked around. Walten and Faalken were still asleep. The window was open, and a cool breeze blew in from the rather warm summer night outside, the top of his windowsill illuminated in a very faint ruddy light. Could that be what woke him up? That light was probably a torch, held by a watchman or a latecomer down below.

He decided he was just jumpy, being the first night out, and laid back down, ready to go back to sleep.

Then he heard it again.

It was the faintest of noises, like the sound of a man stepping on a twig, but not quite. It came from under the floor, where the kitchen was. He swung his legs out of bed, wanting to get a candle.

The floor was hot.

Tarrin pulled his feet back up quickly and reached down and put a hand on the floor. It was hot. Very hot. That could only mean one thing.

The kitchen was on fire.

"Faalken!" Tarrin called quickly, reaching over and grabbing his boots. His boots were noticably warm where they were sitting on the floor. "Faalken!"

"What is it?" he asked in a calm voice.

"The floor is very hot. I think the kitchen is on fire."

Faalken reached out and put his hand on the floor, then snatched it back. "I think you're right. Walten!"

"I'm up," he said grimly.

"Get on your boots and get Dolanna," he ordered. "Tarrin, go downstairs and make sure. If there is a fire, get everyone up and out of the inn."

"Yes sir," Tarrin said, yanking on his boots quickly and jumping out of the bed. He went to put his hand on the door, then yelped and drew it back. "Aaii!" he hissed, shaking his hand. "Faalken, the hall must be on fire! I can't even put my hand on the door!"

They could hear it now, the rushing, roaring, and crackling that came with a fire. Smoke began to pour in from under the door.

Faalken jumped out of bed and grabbed his metal gauntlet, put it on, and smashed his hand through the wall between their room and the room holding Dolanna and Tiella. "Dolanna!" Faalken shouted. "Dolanna, there's a fire! Get up!"

"Faalken!" she called in reply. "It is too large for me to try to affect! We have to go out the windows! Throw our packs down and jump out the windows!"

"Tarrin, Walten start throwing out packs!" Faalken ordered, getting on his boots. "I'll go out first and catch the ladies as they jump!"

"Come on!" Walten called urgently to Tarrin as they ran to the packs stacked neatly in the corner. They quickly formed a unit. Tarrin would toss packs to Walten, who was standing by the window, who would then throw them to the ground one story below. Tarrin picked up the last pack and threw it to Walten, then he started collecting up Faalken's armor and his sword belt. "Go on, I'll get these!" Tarrin ordered.

"Alright, I'll catch them on the ground," Walten said, climbing into the window and then dropping out of view. Tarrin waddled across the room under the heavy burden of the weapons and armor, then carefully dropped them out of the open window. Tarrin saw many people in nightclothes milling about on the grass below as many of them threw buckets of water on a raging fire on the first floor and a bit to Tarrin's right. That was the light that had illuminated the top of the windowsill. "Tarrin, come on!" Walten called, waving his hand.

"I have to get my things!" he said. "I have time!"

Tarrin rushed back in and grabbed his bow and staff, made a fast sweep to make sure they hadn't left anything, and then ran back to the windowsill. Just as he reached it, there was a loud bang behind him, and he suddenly found himself smashed against the wall. On his kness, he turned and looked as he felt sudden, searing heat against his back and side.

The door had exploded inward under the heat, and the raging inferno was sweeping into the room like water. Tarrin saw something for a fleeting instant, and then saw it again. It almost looked like a man, except its outline was one of flames, and it was almost invisible in the conflagration around it. But he could see its eyes, green slits or pure light that stared out from the flames like twin beacons of doom. It seemed to point at him, and the fire erupted at him like water rushing from a cracked dam.

Blinking away his surprise, he quickly got to his feet as the fire swept in after him. He didn't have time to do this gracefully. Just as the fire was about to engulf him, he turned and dove headfirst out the window.

There was a feeling of weightlessness, as the ruddy-illuminated ground changed places with the starry sky in a whimsical manner, and then there was a numbing pain all along his right side and the back of his head. He felt his mind swirl around like the sky and ground had done, so much so that just trying to remember how to move was quite a chore. He managed to roll over and get onto his hands and knees, but his head refused to respond to his commands to lift it, hanging limply from his shoulder as he groggily tried to get up.

He got some semblance of response from his neck. His head lifted partially up, but his brain instantly swam in a haze of distorted pain and disorientation. It proved to be too much for him. Without a sound, Tarrin slumped down to the ground as his mind descended into darkness.

Tarrin was first aware of the light. He opened his eyes as they registered a dancing, wavering light against the inside of his eyelids. He was laying on the ground on his back, staring up at the stars, partially hidden by smoke. Dolanna, in a nightshirt, was kneeling beside him, and his body registered an icy after-feeling and an exhaustion that he wasn't used to feeling. The wavering light was the fire. It had totally consumed the entire structure, regardless of the attempts to put it out, and now men and women worked feverishly to keep it from spreading to other buildings. They were well away from the blaze. Walten and Tiella stood nearby with Faalken, the three of them holding onto the reins of their horses. Their packs were both on the ground nearby and on the horses; obviously they'd been tying them on to make it easier to move. Tiella was in a nightshirt, and Walten in nothing but breeches and boots. Faalken had found the time to put on both his clothes and his armor.

"The next time you decide to dive out of a window," Dolanna said with a crisp voice but a smile in her eyes, "try to land on your feet."

"I'll remember that," he grunted as he sat up. "What happened?"

"The fire spread faster than I have ever seen a fire spread without the use of oil or magic," Dolanna said sourly. "By the Goddess's grace, nobody was killed. You were the last one out, young one.

"Did we get everything?" he asked.

"I believe so," she replied. "We need to get dressed and decide what to do next. Tiella, come with me."

"Yes ma'am," Tiella said, picking up her pack and following the diminutive woman.

"That was impressive, the way you dove out of that window," Walten said with a grin as he tossed Tarrin a pair of breeches. "You landed on your head."

"I didn't have time to do it any other way," he shrugged. "Better a bump on the head than barbecued Tarrin."

Faalken chuckled, picking up another pack and starting to tie it onto a packsaddle.

"Where's my staff and bow?"

"They're over here," Faalken assured him. "You landed right on the bow. You'd best make sure it didn't crack."

They dressed quickly, and Tarrin checked his bow and staff for damage as Walten helped Faalken add the rest of the packs to the saddles. Tarrin was bone-weary for some reason. No doubt an effect of the healing. Faalken had said that it took some of the strength of the person being healed. Well, he certainly felt drained. He leaned heavily on his staff for a few moments, then sucked in his breath and set his weapons into the skirt on the saddle. "I see the stable was spared," Tarrin said.

Faalken grunted as Walten said "we had time to get everything. Sir Faalken, what are we going to do now?"

"I'm not sure," he said, tying down the last pack, "but it would be best if we just rode on. It's a couple hours til dawn right now, and it serves us no purpose staying when we have nowhere to stay. They'll want us travellers out from underfoot while they deal with this anyway. That, and the longer we stay, the more that they'll think the fire was set by someone."

"Why is that?" Walten asked.

"Because we'd be visible, we're strangers, and something bad happened. It's natural for them to want to blame somebody."

"I didn't think of that," Walten said quietly as Dolanna and Tiella returned. They were wearing curiously similar brown dresses, but Tiella's was of wool while Dolanna's was of silk.

"Tarrin, do you feel well enough to ride?" she asked immediately.

"I can ride, ma'am," he said confidently.

"Excellent. We will start out. There is no place for us to stay, and it is close to dawn. It will just give us more time to travel this day."

Quietly, the small group mounted their horses and, with Faalken leading, they left the village of Watch Hill with the reddish light of the fire illuminating the road. That large fire was like a beacon that was visible for miles on end, a grim monument to the passing of a fifty year old building.

It was not a good start to this trip, Tarrin thought grimly as he looked back.

It was cloudy all day, and there was a fierce wind that tore from the north. Tarrin had his cloak on, pulled around him and with the hood drawn up to protect himself against the dust and leaves that blew on the wind, the dust picked up off the road behind them and the leaves from the forest. The air had also noticably cooled; at this time of year, with the conditions the way they were, Tarrin knew it meant that there was a thunderstorm moving in.

The day had passed in almost total silence. They'd left Watch hill moving at a very fast pace, as if to put distance between them and the accident behind them They stopped not long after daybreak for a short rest, eating a cold breakfast of cheese and dried meat, then had set out again at a pace only slightly slower. The fire last night had subdued Walten and Tiella somewhat the same way it worried Tarrin. They all thought that it was a bad omen of some kind, a warning that there was worse to come. Dolanna and Faalken were quiet as well, but theirs was a wary quiet; this stretch of road was wild, with the next populated area being Torrian itself, some two and more days down the road. The reason the caravans hired guards was to defend against raiders and brigands that were known to ambush along the road from time to time. Tarrin's strength seemed to rush back into him after breakfast, and he felt his old self by noon. Faalken had scouted ahead from time to time, leaving the defense of the rear to Tarrin.

He rode up past his friends to Dolanna, who was riding her small white palfrey at the lead while Faalken ranged ahead to sniff out any potential hazards. "Mistress Dolanna," he called.

"Just Dolanna will suffice until we reach the Tower, Tarrin," she said in her gentle, relaxed voice.

"Dolanna, we need to find shelter, soon," he said. "There's a storm chasing out of the north."

"Yes, I know," she assured him. "Faalken is looking for a place of relative shelter as we speak."

"I hope he's looking for something solid," Tarrin said. "The thunderstorms we get this time of year can be really nasty."

"He will find us something," she assured him.

Faalken rode towards them even as she spoke, coming around a bend farther up the road as Tarrin glanced behind them. The clouds were getting black back there. The storm wasn't too long in coming.

"Dolanna, there's a cave about a quarter mile up a game trail, about a half mile up the road," he told her. as he reined in beside her. "It's been used. It's a bandit hideout of some sort, or was at one time."

"It will have to do," Dolanna said, glancing over her shoulder, back at the clouds. "Is there room for the horses?"

"Yes, plenty," he told her.

"Then I think we had best get there soon," she said. "There is not much time before the storm reaches us." She turned to Tiella and Walten, who had begun to watch the black clouds behind them and talk to each other. "Faalken found a cave for us to shelter in," she told them. "I think it best we hurry. Let us pick up the pace."

They urged the horses into a canter, and quickly reached the game trail as the first rumblings of thunder reached them. The black clouds were moving faster now, but their progress was hidden by the trees as the small party moved as fast as the horses could along the narrow, twisting trail. The forest turned gloomy, and then dark; it seemed to Tarrin that it was more like darkness than the gloom of a storm. "It's going to be a bad one!" Faalken warned. "The cave is right past that bend, so let's get moving!"

The cave was set into the face of a steep incline that marked the base of a hill. The opening was rather large, but it quickly bottlenecked into a tight passage not far inside. They dismounted outside the cave mouth. "Take the reins and follow me," he said, holding out an unlit torch to Dolanna. Tarrin felt that curious sensation again, and then the torch lit by itself. "There's a large chamber just inside the chokepoint we can put the horses."

Tarrin had to yank on the reins of all three horses as a loud crash of thunder almost instantly followed up a blindingly brilliant flash of lightning. "I'm going to need help with the pack horses!" Tarrin shouted over a sudden howling gale that tried to drown out his voice, but Faalken's nod and wave told him that he'd been heard. Tarrin waited just inside the entrance as the others led their horses into the narrow passage one by one, forcing the unwilling animals to enter the confining space as Tarrin sawed and yanked on all three sets of reins to calm the horses down. Faalken and Walten reappeared quickly, and the three of them led the remaining horses into the narrow passage with Faalken leading and Tarrin in the middle.

The chamber at the end of the chokepoint was indeed large. It was almost the size of the stableyard of the Road's End Inn, nearly a hundred spans long. There was an obvious place set up on the north end, the end holding the entrance, for horses. There was even a water trough and fodder laid in neat stacks. The walls of the cavern were very rough and irregular, meandering this way and that, but the chamber was still rather wide at its widest point. The ceiling was also irregular, but at its lowest Tarrin could just barely scrape his fingertips across the stone when he raised his arm. The south end of the chamber had a sand-covered floor, with a firepit neatly laid out directly under a very small hole in the ceiling. The hole didn't open directly to the outside. Tarrin looked up there and saw that it was pretty badly slanted, but that didn't let the rain just fall it. Instead, there was a pretty steady stream of water that fell from one side of the hole and dropped into an area where the sand had washed away, creating a loud splashing. There was another white flash from the hole, and the whole cavern shook with the ear-splitting crash of thunder that followed it up. They all took down the packs, and pretty quickly a well organized campsite had been set up. Tarrin laid out the bedrolls as Walten set up wood for the fire, moving the stones forming the firepit a bit to get the fire away from the waterfall pouring from the chimney hole. Tiella and Dolanna were taking out food for dinner and cooking utensils. Faalken had taken a large piece of tarp, probably one of the tents, and was securing the entrance to the chamber with it to form a door of sorts. He then ducked through it to do something outside. Tarrin doubted he would be long, for it was raining like the furies out there.

Tarrin was sitting to one side of the fire, back to the wall, checking his arrows one by one in a methodical fashion, as Walten sat beside him. Faalken was stirring a stew that had been set over the fire, and Tiella was talking with Dolanna in hushed tones across the cave. "Not such a great start to an adventure, is it?" he asked.

"Adventure?"

"That's how I see this," he said. "Getting out of stinking Aldreth, getting a chance to travel with a knight and a Sorceress, going to see Suld. This beats making cabinets any day of the week."

"I'd be eating dinner at home about now," he said.

Walten gave him a strange look. "You know, there's alot of rumors that fly around about your family," he said. "Tel Darlik used to say that all you did over there was train to kill people."

"Not quite," he chuckled. "I did learn how to use weapons, and hunt and all, but how do you think we got our food?"

Walten laughed. "We never thought about things like that," he admitted. "I've never even been out to your farm before."

"It's a farm," he shrugged. "We have a house and a barn and a toolshed and such. Father has a brewhouse where he makes his ale, and we have fields out behind the house."

"Sounds like you miss it," he said.

"I do," he replied. "I've been preparing to leave Aldreth for two years now, but now that I'm really gone, most of me wants to turn around and go home."

"Preparing to leave?"

"Since I was a boy, I've wanted to be a knight," he said. "Well, mother and father trained me with that in mind. Two years ago, I decided that that's what I was going to do. I'd earn a chance to test for it, and go to Suld. If I got in, great. But if I didn't, well, there was always the army, or fletching, or something that I could do to earn my way."

"Everybody always used to say that you didn't do anything," Walten said. "You weren't apprenticed to anyone. All you seemed to do was hunt. My mother used to say that you were a shiftless, lazy freeloader. But that's her," he said quickly.

"Words are words, I guess," he said. "Besides, the rest of the village really didn't understand. Most of them couldn't see past my mother."

"She is a bit strange," Walten said defensively.

"Only to you," he replied.

Walten laughed. "I guess you're right."

"She's Ungardt. Of course she'd do things differently than everyone else," Tarrin told him. "Ungardt ways aren't much like Sulasian ways."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, women aren't just wives and mothers," he said. "Most women are as big as men there, so they can learn to fight if they want. They crew the sailing ships like men, they fight in the clan armies, they do about anything that men do. And men don't mind all that much, cause they're used to it."

"That is different," Walten said, taking out his knife and a chunk of wood and starting to work on it. "You ever meet your mother's father?"

"A few times," he replied. "His name is Alrak, and he's about twice as big as me. He's very nice. He came to the village to visit with mother."

"Oh, yes, I remember that now," he said. "The last time was, what, five years ago?"

Tarrin nodded, putting away his last arrow and securing the quiver cap. The rain sounded like it was beginning to taper off outside. "I don't think I'll ever understand that," he said.

"What?"

"That you hate carpentry, but you like woodcarving."

"Nailing boards together is boring," he said defensively. "This is alot more fun."

"Whatever you say," Tarrin said with a grin.

The storm passed quickly after that, so they ate with general silence, then went to sleep.

The next day dawned clear and warm, and they set out again. The forest showed signs of the ferocity of the storm, for there were limbs and even a few trees littering the forest floor, and Tarrin spotted one tree that was split in half with its insides blackened and charred. It had been struck by lightning. The road was damp but not muddy, having mostly dried over the night, but Tarrin found that he rather liked it, for it eliminated the dust that had been swirling in the wind the previous day. Dolanna pulled them up for a moment as she considered the area. "If we move a a good pace, we can reach Torrian some time after nightfall," she said to Faalken.

"Aye," he agreed. "We made good time yesterday, even with the storm."

"It was the extra time we had, from when we left after the fire,"Walten surmised.

Dolanna nodded. "We get no closer standing here," she said. "Let us move on."

They rode rather hard most of the day, stopping only for very brief rests and eating lunch in the saddle. The pain of the saddle had begun to creep into Tarrin's legs and backside again, and about midafternoon he saw that he wasn't the only one. Dolanna had stopped them when Walten began to slow down, then did her healing work on them all again. After that, they returned to the brisk canter that had propelled them so far. They encountered five or six other travellers on the road, all but one of them groups of merchants riding to Watch Hill. The last was a party of King's Men patrolling the Torrian road to discourage bandits. They rode past the armed party without a word.

It was well past sunset, riding by the light of three full moons and the brilliant Skybands, when they topped a hill and looked down into the shallow valley that held Torrian.

From what he could see of it, Torrian was a large city, surrounded by a stout wall of huge logs sharpened at the tops. The hazy sight of buildings could be seen inside the walls, as well as occasional points of light that marked a torch or other light source along the streets. It was about ten times the size of Aldreth. Tarrin wasn't the only one to gawk at the size of the place; he'd never seen something quite so large before.

As they started down the hill towards the city gate, Tiella looked fretfully at the wall. "Won't they have the gates closed?" she asked.

"Yes, but there will be a guard at the gatehouse, over the gate," Dolanna replied. "That guard will order the gates open."

"Good," she said. "I'd like to sleep inside tonight."

"What is the matter?" Dolanna asked.

"I don't know," she said, looking around, "but I have the feeling that something is going to happen."

The gate was a large pair of wooden slabs bound with iron, with a large room of some sort built onto the wall above it. A single light oulined a small window, and at that window a silhouette appeared. "The gates stay closed til sunrise," the man called down.

"I am Dolanna Casbane," she called back.

"I don't care if you're Sheba the Pirate," the man said back.

Dolanna reached into her bodice. "I am not she," she said in a level voice. "But I am a katzh-dashi. By law and the agreements between the Tower and the King, you must obey my request to open the gates." She held the amulet up, and Tarrin saw that it started to glow with a milky white light.

There was a span of silence after the silhouette disappeared, and then it was back. But it was a different voice. "He's a new man, Mistress," an older voice called. "They're readying to open the gates now. Please step back a bit."

"My thanks, sir guard," she said as they moved back. "It has been a long day, and we require food and rest."

"Most of the inns are full, Mistress, but the Duke is at home," the guard called down as the gates began to creak and groan. The left gate pulled away slightly, moving at a slow, loud pace. "I'm sure you can get hospitality from him."

"I know Duke Arren," Dolanna said. "He is a most kind and generous man, and one of the best stones players I have seen in many years. Yes, I would like to pay him a visit."

"I take it you know the way to his keep?"

"Yes, I am familiar with the way," she told him as the gate came to a groaning stop, more than wide of an opening for them to enter.

"The Gods be with you, Mistress," the man above called down.

"May the light of the Goddess illumine you," she returned.

They followed Dolanna as the three younger ones gawked and stared at the streets of Torrian. The streets were narrow and a bit crooked, with large houses built so close together that they all seemed to be the same structure in the darkness. There was an acrid pall that hung in the air, what his father had always called the "city smell", the smell of garbage, unwashed people, waste, and stone and wood. The streets were not deserted, as people moved to and fro in small groups, or parties of city watchmen patrolled the city in search of thieves.

It was obvious where Duke Arren lived. It was a huge keep set on a small hill overlooking the river that flowed through the city. It was a brooding structure, with impressive stone walls and a deep, steep ditch dug around the walls that were filled with sharpened stakes, the towers of the keep itself visible over the walls. There was a drawbridge out over the staked ditch, down, with a gatehouse on the other side. A portcullis hung threateningly at the top of the gatehouse roof, ready to drop down to protect the castle from invasion on a second's notice. Four men stood at the other end of the drawbridge, and Tarrin could see about ten more sitting around a table set up in the courtyard beyond the gatehouse. Dolanna stopped them at the edge of the drawbridge as two of the four advanced. Tarrin could see that they were all wearing chain mail armor, and all four held pikes.

One of the two, the taller, one, called out in a friendly voice. "Mistress Casbane?" he asked.

"You have a good memory," Dolanna smiled. "I have not been here in many years."

"I remember you," he said. "You healed my broken arm. Duke Arren is here. Would you mind waiting in the courtyard while I send a man to let him know you're here?"

"That would be very good," she said.

The two men led them over the drawbridge and into a large courtyard, where they dismounted. Like the castles that his father had described, this one had several buildings inside the impressive walls. He couldn't identify all seven of them, but one was obviously a smithy and another a stable, and another looked like either a kitchen or a storehouse. The ten men sitting at the table set up in the middle of the courtyard were the only men to be seen, and despite the many torches set in holders along the walls, the courtyard was dark and foreboding. The main keep was on the far side of the courtyard, a massive construction of huge stone blocks that clawed its way well past the height of the city walls. It had a tower on either side of the main structure, which was easily four stories tall. There were a multitude of window, both arrow slits and larger, more conventional windows, but those larger windows were on the upper floors. There was a balcony on the highest level that he could see; that, most likely, was the Duke's private bedroom. Eron Kael had remarked to Tarrin once that Torrian Keep was over a thousand years old, and in all that time, it had never fallen to an enemy army. He also said that if he ever had the chance to visit it, to go to the main hall and look for a small hole just to the right of the center on the wall where the raised dais was, where the old Duke of Torrian had been killed by a man who had used a bow so powerful that it had driven the arrow through him and so deeply into the wall behind him it had left a hole half the length of an arrow. That had happened three hundred years ago, so his father said, and it had started the civil strife that had brought the present family into power in Sulasia, the kings of the Markas line.

The front doors were massive, at the top of a steep staircase that made the entry level the second floor, and the ground floor a basement. They were made of wood, but they had hammered bronze sheathing the wood, creating a burnished look that was more than visible in the light of the two torches to each side of them. It was obvious that several servants polished those bronze covered doors fairly often. The doors opened a bit, and a rather well proportioned man wearing a red doublet and hose exited. As he approached, it was obvious he was a middle aged man, but still burly in the shoulders and spry of step. Once he was near, Tarrin saw that he was a very handsome man, with a few wrinkles around his eyes and some gray peppering his black hair and beard. Dolanna curtsied to the man gracefully as Faalken bowed, and Tarrin, Walten, and Tiella followed suit. Just alot more clumsily.

"It's good to see you again, Dolanna," the man said with a smile. "Still roaming the countryside?"

"When I have the chance, your Grace," she replied with a smile. "Faalken you may remember, but these young ones you have not met. May I present Tiella Ren, Walten Longbranch, and Tarrin Kael, pupils journeying to the Tower."

"Pleased to meet you," the Duke said with a smile.

"I know it is late, old friend, but do you have room for five more?"

"Dolanna, I'll make room," he said with a grin. "I need to throw some of these lackeys and sycophants out anyway."

"If it pleases you, your Grace, may we dispense with the visiting until tomorrow? We have been on the road since before dawn, and we are all tired."

"Of course, of course," he said. "I'll have baths arranged for you, and some dinner, and some rooms with soft beds. We can catch up on old times in the morning, over breakfast. Tiv, have the hands stable the horses, and have their packs sent to their rooms."

"Aye, my Duke, I'll see to it," one of the men behind them replied, as he trotted towards the stables, shouting some names.

"Come along then, we'll go give my seneschal some work to do," he said.

The entrance hall of the keep was massive, with vaulted ceilings and several suits of armor arrayed on posts to each side of the hall. There was also a huge, well made tapestry hanging at the far end of the hall, where it opened into the main hall of the keep. "Your Grace," Tarrin blurted, "my father told me a bit about this castle. Is the hole still there?"

Duke Arren chuckled. "Yes, it's still there," he replied. "You can look at it in the morning, if you like."

"Maybe," he said, blushing at having said anything in the first place.

"Your father's a historian?" he queried.

"No sir, he's a soldier," Tarrin replied. "He's retired now."

"That's the best kind of soldier to be," Arren said. "Kael? Eron Kael's boy?" he asked quickly.

"Yes, my lord," Tarrin said, a bit surprised.

"I remember him. Tall fellow with wide shoulders. The deadliest bowman I ever saw in my life. I hear he makes a living selling arrows now."

"He brews ale on the side for something to do, my lord," Tarrin said, a bit startled at this bit of information. "Pardon my asking, but how did you know my father?"

"He was garrisoned here for a while," he replied. "He had this wife, the tallest woman I ever saw, an Ungardt--" he looked at Tarrin a bit closer. "Yes, that would be her I see in you," he mused to himself. "Are they still married?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Amazing. I was sure she would have killed him by now."

Tiella giggled.

"You have quite a family reputation in front of you, my boy," Duke Arren told him as they went up some stairs at the far end of the entrance hall. "Eron Kael was a good man, the kind of man we like to have around. His wife, well, she was quite a work. She was the best fighter with an axe I ever saw. If not for the law against women fighting in the army, she'd probably had been a good officer. Karas knows, even I jumped when she barked commands at me."

"I'm just surprised you knew my father, my lord," Tarrin admitted as they turned into a wide, well lit corridor that had a thick rug that went all the way to both ends.

"He was the kind of man that's hard to forget," Arren told him.

They went up another flight of stairs, and were in a large corridor much like the one below, again with a rug on the floor. "Each of you pick a room," he offered, pointing down the corridor. "People will arrive very soon and draw baths for you and bring up your belongings, and I'll have some roast venison and some soup brought up for you."

"I'll take this one," Tarrin said, pointing at the nearest door.

They all said their goodnights, and entered their respective rooms.

Tarrin was shocked at the room. It was very large, with a poster bed in the middle of the wall to his left. There was a washstand with a basin and pitcher against the wall with the door, and a writing desk on the wall facing the bed. A large footchest was at the end of the bed, and a nightstand flanked the bed on each side. A large window was on the far wall, with a tapestry depicting a charging knight on the wall beside it. All of the furniture was old, possibly antique, and it was all ornately carved with flowing leaf and vine designs. He sat on the bed tentatively, feeling the soft feather mattress, as a woman in a plain brown dress entered. "My lord, we're bringing in your bath," she announced.

"Thank you," Tarrin said. Two large men carried in a copper tub, and a procession of servants emptied buckets of steaming water into it. Two more carried up his pack and his staff and bow, and then in a whirlwind of hasty activity, they finished filling the tub, handed him soap and a couple of large towels, and set a large platter of piping hot venison and a large bowl of soup on the desk, then put a mug beside it. Then they were gone.

Tarrin sank into the bath gratefully, scrubbing three days of dirt and sweat off of himself, then cleaning his hair. Then he just soaked in the water langorously as he ate the dinner that was brought him--he didn't want it to get cold. After his skin began to wrinkle, he climbed out and towelled off, and then dressed in a clean nightshirt and underdrawers. Almost as soon as he pulled the shirt over his head, there was a discreet knock at the door. "What is it?" Tarrin asked.

"Are you finished with your bath, my lord?" came the woman's voice.

"Yes ma'am," he replied.

The door opened, and she stepped in. "Would you like the tub removed?" she asked.

"Yes, please," he said. "I don't want to get up in the night and trip over it."

Five men came in, and as three of them filled huge buckets with lukewarm water to lighten it, the other two picked up the tub and carried it from the room. "Will there be anything else?" the woman asked as she picked up the empty dishes and damp towels.

"No, thank you very much," he said.

"You're welcome," she said with a smile, and left the room.

Tarrin climbed into the bed almost excitedly, ready to get into some serious sleeping in such a nice bed. He reached over and turned the lamp all the way down, and then pulled the hood so the tiny bit of light emanating from it wouldn't bother him. Then he snuggled in and fell asleep.

Wake up, something seemed to whisper to him. You have to wake up.

Again he woke up, for no apparent reason. It was still dark outside; very dark, with only the light of the Skybands filtering into the window with the warm night breeze. He looked towards the lamp.

And saw the indistinct silhouette above him.

Without thought, almost instinctively, Tarrin rolled out of the way even as the figure's arm smashed down against the pillow with so much force that the bed shook. Tarrin felt hot lines of pain along the side of his neck as he twisted aside, rolling up into the blankets and he spun aside, falling off the bed. He then immediately rolled in the opposite direction, under the bed, unspooling himself from the constricting covers. He got free of them just as the bed sagged from the weight of his attacker. Tarrin shimmied out from under the bed between the bed and the washstand and quickly got to his feet. He saw the indistinct shadow across the bed, between him and his staff. It hunkered down a bit, and then suddenly was flying towards him with shocking speed.

With speed born of thoughtless reflex, Tarrin bent his knees and twisted, just like he'd been taught to avoid the pounce of a rock lion. The shadowy assailant had aimed for his high chest, but Tarrin was now under that angle of attack. He reached up and out even as something snagged his shirt at the shoulder. It didn't register to him that the palm of his hand came into contact with a woman's naked breast. His other hand came up under a flat, tight belly, and he helped the attacker along on its flight across the room, using its momentum to hurl it headfirst into the washstand. There was a horrifically loud crack as the washbasin and pitcher shattered, spraying water all over the wall, him, and the bed. The stand itself was crushed with a loud smashing crunch, splinters and shards bouncing across the carpeted floor as Tarrin quickly reached out and unhooded and turned up the lamp, then without even looking, jumped over the bed and ran to the far corner to fetch his staff. He turned around armed, confident that that noise would alarm someone, but he was brought up short by what he saw.

It was a woman. Almost. She was totally nude, but it wasn't her unclad condition that caused him to stare in shock.

She wasn't human.

Her arms and legs were covered with white fur, to just above the elbow and just above the knee. Her hands and feet were oversized for her body, noticably so, and were an odd cross between a human's hands and an animal's paws, with wide, thick fingers and toes and feet sufficiently large and long so that she stood up on her toes. Each limb ended with large, long, wickedly sharp claws on the fingers and toes. One of those white-furred hands was stained with his blood. She was standing with her back to him, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs of the impact, and he could clearly see that she had a long, cat-like tail growing from between the muscles at the very top of the cleft of her backside, covered in white fur. She had red hair, this creature, so thick that it all but stood straight up at the top of her head, but not so tall that the back of triangular, cat-like ears weren't visible. She turned around quickly, and Tarrin stared at what was probably the loveliest face he'd ever seen, but a face twisted into a snarl of animalistic rage. She had high cheekbones, a small, pert nose, and a sharp chin, but it was her eyes that captivated him. They were nothing more that two slits of pure green, literally glowing from within with an unholy radiance that made his blood run cold. Her body was tight and well defined; it was obvious that she was very strong the way her muscles rippled and shifted as she moved. Tarrin did see that she was wearing a collar of some strange black metal around her neck.

She growled at him, hunching down in an obvious preparation to lunge at him in the same manner she'd done so before. Tarrin saw with dismay that she had fangs. She may look human, he decided, but this was not a foe to take lightly. A single swipe from those wickedly clawed hands could kill. Tarrin held his staff at one end in the end-grip, getting ready to bat her out of the air if she tried it again. She jumped up on the bed and hunkered down, almost on all fours, her growl lowering to an ominous rumbling in her throat, and then she lunged. Tarrin brought his staff up and around with every bit of power he had. The cat-creature put her feet on the floor and reached out with her hand, and caught his staff. Tarrin's hands felt the shock of the impact; it felt like hitting a rock. She grabbed hold of his staff and yanked, ripping it out of his hands, and threw it aside contemptuously.

Tarrin hopped back, almost stunned. This thing was strong. It would have taken two grown men to rip the staff out of his hands the way she just did. She stepped forward so fast he almost missed it, and missed getting his head ripped off by the span of a child's hand as he ducked under her open-handed swipe. He stepped through her overswing, getting behind her, looped his hand around her neck, and then bodily hauled her over his shoulder in the classic Ungardt neck-throw. Done right, it broke the opponent's neck before any part of him touched the ground. It was a killing move, but Tarrin had quickly realized that only one of them would walk out of this room alive. Not only did it not kill her, but she twisted in his hold and put her feet on the floor as she came over. Before she could set herself, Tarrin lunged forward, letting his weight bull his lighter opponent. But it was like trying to push a mountain. She'd dug her claws into the stone, and he was not about to move her.

He cried out in shock when she picked him up around the waist with one hand, and then bodily threw him all the way across the room. He impacted the wall with a bone-numbing impact, landed on the writing desk, and then fell with the writing desk as it collapsed under his sudden weight. She was on him almost instantly, but he had presence of mind to kick out with his leg. His shin impacted her foot solidly, and despite her strength, she wasn't able to defend against it. Her legs were swept out from under her, spilling her to the ground on her side and back as she grunted in surprise and pain with the hard landing. Tarrin grabbed a splintered leg of the desk and sprung up, holding the wood like a dagger, and tried to plunge it into the woman's face. She quickly caught his wrist in her hand, stopping it as quickly as if he'd struck the floor, and her hand closed around his wrist. Tarrin heard the bones snap audibly as her inhuman strength crushed his left forearm. In a haze of pain, Tarrin gritted his teeth and fixed her with a baleful gaze full of hate as he let go of the wood with his right hand , falling from his limp hand and to the floor beside them, and punched her dead in the face. Her head snapped to the side, and the grip on his broken arm eased, but he was motivated to keep it up. He punched her again, and again, and once again, bloodying her nose and breaking one of her teeth. She seemed disoriented, so he quickly got his feet under him and stomped deliberately on her belly. Her breath whooshed from her lungs with a sound that was quite satisfactory to him. He did it again, higher up, hearing her ribs break under the force of his bare foot smashing down on her. But one of her feet suddenly was up and between his legs, and the heel of her foot smashed into his lower belly so hard he was catapulted into the footchest by the bed, crushing it underneath him, as his back slammed into the footboard of the bed.

Tarrin wheezed for breath as the creature got to one knee, hugging a set of broken ribs with one arm as her other helped support her. He felt like he'd fallen fifty spans out of a tree. Tarrin got to his feet first, scampering around the bed and to the nighstand, where his dagger was sitting. He drew it and advanced quickly as the creature gained its feet, still a bit wobbly. He lunged at her as if to stab her, but she twisted to the side. He was waiting for just such a move. He quickly went to one knee even as her clawed hand swiped at the air where his face had been, then sprang up with every bit of power he could put behind his shoulder. His shoulder slammed into her broken ribs with enough power to lift her up off the floor. His broken arm reached around her and held her side as he ran as hard as he could, ignoring the hot lines of pain that he felt against his back and thighs, smashing her punishingly against the wall. She again lost her breath as Tarrin rebounded off of her. Tarrin slammed the elbow of his broken arm against her head, pinning her head to the wall, and drove the dagger into her heart.

Tarrin felt hot blood wash down his hand. She made no sound, only fixed him with a look so evil it chilled his blood. But instead of limply losing her strength, she grabbed his broken arm in one hand as her other grabbed the forearm of his right. Tarrin quickly twisted the dagger in her, making her shudder, but it did not stop her.

She twisted her head around, pushed his arm slightly away, and then sank her fangs into his forearm.

Tarrin screamed as white-hot pain instanly erupted in his arm, followed by a fatally ominous numbness. Tarrin twisted the dagger again, which only made her saw her teeth back and forth, making him all but howl in pain as her long, sharp teeth worked deep into his flesh, gnashing and shredding the flesh of his forearm. It was a gruesome battle of wills, to see who would stop inflicting pain first, to see who could withstand more. But Tarrin was only human, where she obviously was not. Unable to withstand the pain blasting into his arm, Tarrin let go of the dagger and put his hand on her neck, then literally ripped his wounded arm out of her mouth, tearing a sizable hole in his own arm to do it.

Tarrin staggered back, cradling his numb arm as the creature simply pulled the dagger out of her own chest. There was a great deal of blood smeared on her breasts and flowing down her belly, but the wound, that would have killed about anything Tarrin could think of, hadn't seemed to phase her much at all. She fixed him with a gaze full of hate, but oddly enough, a sort of grim respect.

Tarrin knew he had no chance against her. He never really did. And if nobody had come by now, then nobody would. But he'd given her a fight that would make her earn her kill, and he wasn't about to stop now. He was Ungardt. He would die with honor.

"Come on," Tarrin growled, letting his numb arm hang limply at his side and balling up his fist. "Let's get on with it."

She snarled at him, baring her fangs stained with his blood. She then took his dagger and threw it at him. He saw the throw coming, so he easily evaded the missle as it streaked by as if shot from a bow. The dagger struck the door, and there was a loud snapping sound as it went through the door and cracked into the wall outside. She then advanced on him slowly, as if she knew that he was too wounded to make any sudden or fast moves, as Tarrin tried to back up. She took her time, letting him take a step back for every step she took forward, and it wasn't until it was too late he realized what she was doing. His foot snagged on a piece of what was left of the desk, and he stumbled slightly. She lunged at him in that exact instant. She hit him fully in the chest, driving him backwards to land heavily on the floor. The back of his head cracked into the floor, making his vision dance and weave as stars filled his eyes. He managed to focus his eyes just in time to see her rear back one hand-paw, claws extended, as the other came to rest on his upper chest to hold him down.

But she never delivered the blow. She stayed like that for several seconds as her eyes registered surprise, then shock, then rage. He felt the muscles of her legs, up against his sides, flex and bunch, as if she was trying to move something or push something, but she wouldn't move. He even felt the claws of the hand on his chest shimmy and flex, as if something was holding her hand down, and she was pushing against it.

"By Karas' Hammer, what is that thing?" he heard Faalken's voice. Faalken came into view quickly over his view, from behind.

"Do not touch her!" Dolanna's voice cracked like a whip. The creature glared at Faalken with that unholy gaze, and Tarrin saw the knight take a step back.

Tarrin put his head on the stone in relief. Talk about arriving in the nick of time. His heart was still racing from the fight, and that racing was what made him realize what was happening to him.

The numbness had spread, and now there was an angry itching and burning in the arm where she had bitten him.

She lifted off of him as if an invisible hand had picked her up, and she was pushed back and off of him. She came to rest on her knees, still locked in that position of delivering the fatal blow. Tarrin sat up unsteadily, putting a hand over his racing heart. He could feel it inside him, like a venom. Could she have a poisonous bite? Whatever it was, it had already spread all through him. He was almost totally numb inside and out, from head to foot, except for the itching and burning in his ripped arm. "Dolanna," he said in a slurred voice, as he tried to roll over and get to his feet. His actions were jerky and erratic as unfeeling muscles tried to respond to his mental commands. He felt Faalken's hands on his sides, and he was helped to his feet.

"Tarrin, lad, what in the Abyss happened in here?" Faalken asked, looking at him with a professional eye, assessing injury. Tarrin was a mess of blood and shredded clothing, with angry red welts that would develop into spectacular bruises later. His left arm was badly mangled, and he had exceptionally deep lacerations on his neck, back, and on both thighs from the creature's claws. The room was completely smashed; Tarrin had given back as good as he got.

"It, she, tried to kill me," he returned in a wooden, listless voice.

"Tarrin!" Dolanna said quickly. "Tarrin, did she bite you?"

He tried to find the words to reply. It took a moment as he worked through the haze in his mind. "Yes," he finally replied. "She almost ripped my arm off."

"Faalken," she said in a suddenly strangled voice, tightly controlled, "Faalken, do exactly as I say. Do not argue. Let go of him, Faalken, let go of him and step away from him very slowly."

"Dolanna--"

"Do it!" she snapped.

Tarrin felt a sudden sharp stab of pain in his wounded arm. He winced and grabbed it, but then he felt it again, then another pain in his shoulder. "Dolanna, something's happening," Tarrin said in sudden palpable fear. He could feel something inside him, something that suddenly felt like a knife in his belly. "Augh!" he cried, doubling over and putting both hands on his belly. His left arm was on fire, and that fire was sweeping through him like an avalanche.

In an instant, there was nothing but pain. Blinding, white hot pain that filled him like a cistern, flowing over and washing through him like fire in his veins. His small cry instantly became a howl of such agony that Faalken backed away from him like he was Death Herself come to claim him. The pain scoured away all conscious thought. But some part of his mind knew full well what had happened, and what was happening. Wherever the fire touched, his body began to change.

His hands cracked and split, cracked again as bones were broken and reformed, expanded, changed, and then reset. Fingers lengthened and thickened, and claws formed from the nails of his fingers. His feet lengthened and expanded, the toes becoming larger and more defined, with even larger claws forming from the nails. His back was hunched, but it was obvious that the bones in his spine had reformed themselves, adding to his height as his torso elongated slightly even as his legs and arms grew longer by a proportional amount. Tarrin's ears simply fell off as two black cat's ears sprouted up through his hair, just over and behind his eyes and just behind the hairline of his forehead and bangs. There was a ripping sound, and his tail emerged from behind him, pink with new skin as it grew as fast as a snake could slither, then it thickened and fleshed out. Then black fur quickly grew over it, over his arms to above the elbow, and his legs to above the knee. His teeth all simply flowed into slightly different shapes, slightly more pointed and sharper, except for the wicked fang-like insicors that grew out from the gums on both his upper and lower teeth.

Then his long scream ended. He slumped to his hands and knees, his tail hanging limply behind him and his claws retracting back into their resting positions inside his fingers and toes, as he panted in deep breaths of air. He tottered to one side, then the other, and then fell onto his side, oblivious to the world.

"By all that's holy," Faalken said in a mute, awed voice, staring at Tarrin like he was a live snake.

Dolanna's gaze was on the creature. She looked unsually subdued, her body still wrapped up in the solid air she'd woven around her. Her face carried a strangely remorseful expression, but it was her eyes that caught the attention of the Sorceress. They looked on Tarrin's altered form with pity. The collar, Dolanna could sense, was magical. Foul magic, the type used to control other beings. She could sense the weaves of magic inside it as she probed the black metal collar. It was specifically made to force the owner to do what the collar's owners commanded.

She has been forced into this, the Sorceress thought grimly. Something has sent her to kill him.

Several of the Duke's men arrived at last, and they tried to bull into the chamber. But Dolanna halted them with a single forceful command to stop. She wove certain flows of magic into the collar, disrupting its controlling effects, and then found the clasp to unlock it from her neck. She took it off of her smoothly, and could literally see the hazy, unfocused look in the creature's crystalline green eyes. It looked up at her in confusion. She turned to the guards. "You will take this creature to a holding cell," she instructed in a voice that would brook no opposition. "You and you," she pointed to two men wearing leather gloves, "you will carry her, and you will do exactly as I say. You will carry her to the cell, making sure you get as little blood on you as possible. Once you are there, you are to lock it in the cell and leave it be. Both of you are to remove your uniforms and gauntlets as carefully as you can to make sure the creature's blood does not touch your skin. Then you will burn the uniforms. Is that understood?"

"Is it poisonous?" one of them asked.

"Not a poison, but the creature's blood is deadly to humans in its own way," she said. "So long as you do not touch her blood with your skin, you are perfectly safe. Sergeant, nobody is to enter that cell without my explicit permission. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Mistress," the guard sergeant said in a steady voice.

"Do it," she said. Two guards hurriedly rushed in and grabbed the paralyzed creature by her sides, then carried her statue-like form from the room, keeping her as far from their bodies as they possibly could.

"Madam, what about that one?" the sergeant asked, pointing at the unconscious Tarrin, laying on the floor.

"Leave him to me," she said in a quiet voice. "Now leave us. I will not be disturbed. Faalken, get the cover and use it to pick up Tarrin, and place him on the bed. Do not touch any blood on him. It may be the creature's. Then stand outside the door so that I am not disturbed."

Faalken grimly collected up Tarrin's limp body in the quilt that was laying on the floor and gently placed him on the bed, which happened to be the only piece of furniture in the room that was still whole. "What happened to him?" Faalken asked quietly.

"I cannot tell you that yet," she replied, sitting on the edge of the bed with a look of dreadful concentration on her face. "Now leave me. I cannot afford any distractions."