Fel (James Galloway)

The Questing Game

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not like him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why must we stop there?" Allia asked.

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

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

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

"I did not know that."

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

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

"Not this one," Miranda said bluntly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ren-who?"

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

"How do you know that?"

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

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

"What is that?"

"Getting Allia into a jester's costume."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you think we'll catch him?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why uh oh?" Dar asked.

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

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

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

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

"Zakkites," she spat.

"They sound unfriendly," Dar said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did you?" Dar asked.

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

"Must have been interesting."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How can you tell?" Dar asked.

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

"Oh. That makes sense, I suppose."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It wasn't like that."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm not hungry," he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Den Gauche was a riot of conflicting colors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That sounds dangerous."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That could cause a riot," Dar noted.

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

"You go first," Allia challenged.

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

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

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

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

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

"Alright," Dar said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No. I can't trust you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You can try," he hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that saved her life.

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

What he saw horrified him.

He had laid waste to the entire docks ward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tarrin was unconscious.