Fel (James Galloway)
The Questing Game
The ship had pulled out of port during the night, moving against a stiff quartering wind that made the ship rock back and forth rhythmicly. The sky was cloudless, and the multi-colored light of the Skybands and the four moons, all full, shone down on the rolling seas. The ship was anchored near a shoal called Shipkiller Rock, named so because its very low profile made it invisible at night and in rolling seas, and most of the crew and passengers were sleeping below, out of the stiff, cool wind that made sleeping on deck uncomfortable.
Tarrin was not one of those. He stood at the rail, the claws on his feet keeping him perfectly sturdy against the rocking of the ship. The sounds of the clanking chain of the anchor and the creaking of the ropes in the rigging disrupted the strange keening of the wind, wind whipping up the waves that were making the ship lurch to and fro. The fast moving air carried on it only the smell of the sea, purging Tarrin's nose of the foul miasma that hung on the ship, or just about anywhere that humans dwelled. He stood there looking up at the sky, a blanket held loosely around his bare shoulders and a bloodstained bandage around his middle, and his eyes seemed to glow in the light of the night that made Sennadar a place that did not know true darkness anywhere but under the ground.
The wound would not heal. Not even Dolanna's formidable healing ability could so much as urge it to stop bleeding. Its pain throbbed dully on his stomach, through his body, but it had been lost in the turmoil of emotions that were running through his mind. It merely served as a ground to which his mind could cling to, a physical sensation that kept him from drifting too far off in his reverie. And it was not a very happy reverie.
Tarrin felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. And that scared the life out of him.
He fully knew and understood what he had done. He had laid waste to most of the docks ward of Den Gauche, and had probably killed and injured a whole bunch of people. But he felt nothing. No remorse, no sadness, not much of anything now that the shock of it had worn off. There was nothing inside him that was even a bit contrite over what he had done. Nothing. And that scared him, it scared him badly. But yet even that sensation seemed to dull within him if he thought about it for any amount of time. It turned more into an awareness of something, and it seemed to force him to accept it no matter what. The only way he could keep it fresh in his mind would be to relive it all over again, to remind himself of the wasteland through which he had limped after getting away from the female.
And even that was starting to lose its shock value.
Closing his eyes and bowing his head, he looked down at the boiling seas, unsure of what it meant. Why didn't he feel something? When he killed the people in Suld, he'd almost been overwhelmed with remorse, regret, even terror of himself. And now there was nothing. He had acted no different this time, but there was a different reaction. He didn't understand it. He knew that there was a great deal that he didn't know about himself or his kind, but this strange mystery seemed that it should be easy to solve. And yet it wasn't. He couldn't think of any rational--or irrational, for that matter--explanation as to why there was nothing there when he sought to explore his feelings about his actions.
The Cat had changed him a great deal since that fateful day when he'd been bitten, but he couldn't quite come to admit to himself that it was changing him still. Was his lack of remorse from him, or from it? Was the Cat turning him cold, or was it his own reaction to it? It would certainly make things easier. If he no longer felt bad about the things he did while out of control, it would take alot of stress out of his life. But his human morals wouldn't allow him to think about something like that. Tarrin was not a heartless person, and that made his own lack of feeling about causing injury to others so much a mystery to him. By all intents and purposes, he should feel tremendous guilt and remorse about what had happened. But there was nothing.
What did it mean? Was he changing, or was he being changed? Did he want to be like this? To walk through the world and cause destruction and chaos wherever he went, yet be unmoved by the sorrow that he left in his wake?
His eyes caught the glint of the manacles that were still on his wrists, and he sighed. He had alot of burden to bear already. Maybe another stone or two in his burden wasn't making much of a difference. He was a solitary, untaught Were-cat cast into the human world, a world that, should they understand his true nature, would try to destroy him. He was on a mission that he didn't want to be on in the first place, obeying the will of the Goddess, whom he called patroness. It was a mission he had volunteered to do, and that seemed to sting at him now. He didn't want to do what he was doing. He wasn't even sure what he was doing. About all he really knew and understood about it was that he had to recover the Firestaff, because it could be used to make a mortal a god. He was out to find it to prevent that from happening, to keep it out of the hands of people who would use it to raise themselves to divinity, and set off a war between gods that would ravage the world.
He didn't know anymore. Nothing seemed to really make any sense. Not him, not his mission, not the world, not anything.
None of the others would really understand. Besides, he doubted that he could look any of them in the eye, even Allia, and admit to them that he was almost militantly indifferent to the suffering he had left strewn behind him. They'd probably never look at him the same way again. And he wasn't sure if their rejection of him would impact him. If killing a few hundred people and laying waste to a portion of a city didn't incite any remorse in him, he couldn't see how being rejected by his friends and sisters would.
There are many kinds of pain, my kitten, the powerful, choral mental voice of the Goddess sang into his mind, overwhelming him with her presence and her power, subjugating his soul by the mere contact she made to speak with him. She was the reason he was going against his instincts, his own desires. She was the driving force behind his current position, and there was no way that he could deny the fact that he loved her, both as a goddess and as a friend. That in itself never ceased to confuse him, but it seemed to be the way that his mysterious, capricious deity preferred it.
He felt a sudden wave of intense shame. Nobody but her could look inside him, to see the ugly truth within. She knew his turmoil, so she knew its cause. To think that she saw his soul bare caused a powerful pang of both pain and embarassment.
Stop that, she said harshly. When I accepted you, I fully understood what I was taking. I know you're not perfect, my kitten. And we all do things that we would prefer nobody knew. But I think you know that everything I see in you never goes any further. To break your trust like that would be a horrible transgression.
"Transgression? Against me?" he asked with a derisive snort.
Of course, she said. You may not understand it yet, my kitten, but the relationship between a god and a mortal devoted to that god works both ways in many respects. Just as I preclude you from speaking my name aloud, I'm expected to keep the inner thoughts and dreams of the mortals under my care in the strictest confidence. If you really studied it, I think you'd find that for every single thing that you give to a god, by devotion, sacrement, vows, or devotions, you receive it back in the form of a favor or gift. It's not a one-sided relationship. Because of that, even us gods have some rules to follow, or we'll lose our mortal followers, and in a way, our own power. But what's worst, we'd lose the respect of other gods. Not even Berrok, the god of corruption and strife, would dare divulge the secrets of one of his followers.
"What does that have to do with anything?"
Nothing, she replied with a light chuckle. But I like to give my followers a more enlightened understanding of things than other gods. Most like to keep their followers in the dark, to maintain that mystique surrounding them and their power. Keep a mortal in awe, they think, and he'll be a bit more devout. I happen to think that when a mortal makes a conscious choice after all the cards are laid out on the table, his devotion is twice as powerful as the awed mortal's would be. There was a short silence. I guess what I really want you to know is that I'll love you no matter what, kitten, she said. I accepted you for what you are, and despite what you think, I knew that your actions would occasionally go left of center.
"Thanks," he said quietly, but with utter sincerity. The powerful shame he felt lifted somewhat; it was still there, he doubted that it would ever go away, but her kind words had lifted it partially away. "But what does it mean, goddess? Why don't I feel anything?"
That's something that I can't answer, my kitten, she said seriously. For me to simply explain it away wouldn't do you any good. I told you once before that there were some things that you had to discover for yourself. Well, this is one of those things. It won't have any meaning for you unless you're the one who discovers it first.
"Sometimes I think you say that just because you don't want me to know."
Time will tell, she replied calmly. When you have the answer, you can look back to this moment and make that conclusion for yourself.
"It doesn't make it any easier."
It was never supposed to make it easy, she replied. Anything gained easily isn't valued as much as that gained through hardship. There are some lessons that can only be learned in pain, Tarrin. I don't like seeing you in pain, but it makes you stronger, and it teaches you to learn how to make the pain go away for good. If I were to soothe that pain, it would make you feel better now, but then the pain would never go away. If you learn to conquer it yourself, then it will be gone forever. Now, which would you prefer?
"I hate logic," he growled after a moment.
There was a sound not too much unlike a girlish giggle. Just keep your chin up, my kitten, she told him. I have to go now. Be well, and I love you.
And then the sensation of her was gone, leaving him feeling peculiarly empty inside. And it left him even more confused than he'd been in the first place.
She wouldn't help him. That stung a little bit, but part of him could understand why. Just like letting a child stick his hand in the fire to teach him not to do it, she was leaving him to sort things through for himself, so that experience would be more help to him in the long run.
But what if he messed it up? Tarrin's control had evaporated over the months. The short term, the now, that always hung so heavily in front of him that he often forgot to look at things from more than one side. Had he simply stepped back a moment and thought things through, he could have easily led the female away safely, rather than get into a fight with her. But he hadn't. He had looked at right now and had acted on it with little regard as to what his actions would incite in the future. What if the answers to his questions were found in the long view, and he passed it over to take the shorter, more immediate path?
Doubt, worry, they had become such unwelcome friends lately. He doubted himself, his mission. He worried over what he would do next, how badly things would turn out. There seemed to be no escape from it. It surrounded him like the walls of his tiny cabin below, hemming him in and making him feel like he was trapped.
The wind kicked up a loud whistling keen through the jags in Shipkiller Rock, and Tarrin pulled the blanket a bit more around his shoulders.
There just didn't seem to be answers to anything this night.
The ship plied the surging waves ever southward, and everyone was on edge. There were a various number of reasons for it. The ship was on half rations until they reached the port of Roulet, because they hadn't loaded up all the supplies before the explosion. The reduced food made most of the men on the ship cranky, and numerous lines were cast out by sailors not on duty, to try to supplement what salted meat and hard tack remained with fresh fish. The explosion itself had put many of the men on edge. Such a thing had never happened before, at least not that any of them had seen, and it was all the men talked about between grumblings of a light breakfast. Tarrin's solid position near the bow itself had unnerved many of the men, for he stood at the rail and gazed out to sea for hours on end, unmoving, only the swishing of his tail reminding all who stared at him that he wasn't some kind of elaborately decorated statue.
But it was the birds that unnerved everyone the most. Hundreds of them, gulls, albatross, darts and even land birds like swallows and pidgeons, they peppered the sky like a moving cloud. They seemed to follow no specific pattern, yet they seemed to be moving in a general direction, circling and gliding on the brisk sea breeze blowing in from the west. None of the sailors had ever seen so many birds concentrated into a small region before, and it seemed unnatural. Sea eagles, hawks, and other raptors shared space peacefully with the birds which would usually be their prey, as if they had put aside their natural rivalry for some other purpose. The ship was travelling southerly, but the birds seemed to be drifting to the north, and they had already passed underneath the majority of them. The deck showed that passing in the many splatters from the birds above, which caused the captain to grumble and spit irritably. The captain was a compulsively neat man, and such a mess certainly got on his nerves.
Though it was certainly unusual, the birds themselves had demonstrated that they posed no threat, so they were only a curiosity to all but the most superstitious of the sailors, who saw them as a bad omen. It was the ship sitting on the horizon behind them that had the captain and many others worried. It was a Wikuni clipper, one of the fastest ships on the sea, and it was moving right towards them at full sail. The extreme distance made little detail clear, but the Star of Jerod's rather unusual cargo made any Wikuni ship's appearance cause enough for Captain Kern to fret. Anything that could make the legendary Abraham Kern fret was enough to send his junior officers and crew into a panic. But only the captain and the first and second mates knew who her little Wikuni Highness really was, so those were the men that showed the most concern. They knew what would happen if they were caught ferrying a fugitive royal princess. It would not be pretty.
Dolanna was on the steering deck, trying to soothe Kern, trying to explain in calm words that she had no idea what was going on, either with the birds or with the Wikuni ship. Faalken and Azakar were on deck, stripped to the waist, stepping lightly around birdstains as they practiced with their swords. Miranda and Keritanima had their heads together near the wall of the steering deck with Binter and Sisska standing very close guard over them, and Allia and Dar were playing a game of stones near the mainmast, sitting on a deck hatch.
One by one, his friends had tried to talk to him, to gently try to find out what had happened. Only Dolanna, who had bandaged his wounds, knew the full story, and Tarrin doubted that she had fully told the others yet. But Tarrin was in no mood to talk. Even Allia walked away shaking her head, telling him that she would be there when he was ready to talk to her. But he wasn't quite ready to do that yet. Things felt different now, and he wasn't sure how he could talk to his friends without having to explain what happened. And if he did that, he wouldn't be able to tell them anything more.
Tarrin looked down into the water, where those fish were. One man had called them dolphins, and they commonly followed ships to either eat the scraps thrown overboard or simply ride in the ship's wake. They were very common in the southern reaches of the Sea of Storms. They were very sleek animals, fish that breathed air instead of water, and they moved in a sinuous, graceful harmony.
"You are very quiet today," Dolanna said casually, coming up to the rail beside him. She looked up at him when he glanced at her, her eyes steady and her demeanor calm.
"I don't have much to say, Dolanna," he replied quietly. "What did the captain have to say about that Wikuni ship?"
"That it could possibly catch up to us before we reach Roulet," she replied. "If they know who we carry, they may try."
"I doubt that," he said soberly, looking out to sea.
"Perhaps," she said. "It is almost time for the lesson. As always, you are welcome to join."
"No," he said, lowering his head. "It won't do me any good, Dolanna. If I even try to touch the Weave, you know what will happen."
"Yes, but there is never a reason good enough not to keep growing," she replied in a steady voice. "Even though you cannot use what I teach, would it not be a good thing to know it? For that day when you can wield Sorcery without danger."
"I already know what I need to know," he told her. "I'll wait until the teaching does me good before learning anything more."
"But it will do you good. Can you not see that?"
"No, I can't," he said, turning to stare at her with his penetrating green eyes. She didn't flinch away, though his gaze would have made almost anyone on the ship shrink back from him. She knew him too well to be afraid of him.
"Very well," she said after staring up into his eyes for a moment. "Remember, dear one, I will always be here when you need to talk. I will always be here for you." She said that with a light touch on his arm, then she reached up and grabbed him by the back of the neck, pulled his head down, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. That she would do that, knowing what he was and what danger he posed to humankind, impressed him.
Dolanna. What a friend she had been. He smiled slightly as she walked away, marvelling at her small, compact, shapely frame. It was easy to forget that she happened to be a very pretty woman when he always thought of her as a mother figure. She had always been there, even at risk to herself. No human would take the risks around him that she would, and she had no fear of him. In its own way, that was more comforting than many things he could think about. Through all the turmoil of his turning Were, and alot of what happened in the Tower, Dolanna had always been there for him. He owed her a great deal, and a part of him felt bad about snubbing her that way. But she didn't understand what he was feeling, and he had to make sure she understood that he wasn't quite ready to go back to some other life, to forget about what happened or pretend that everything was alright.
The Wikuni ship stayed on their stern, just at the horizon, for most of the day, and was there again in the morning as they moved closer and closer to Roulet. Roulet was a small city, little more than a town, but it sported two large quays sturdy enough and with a deep enough draw in the harbor to accomodate ships the size of the Star of Jerod. Roulet was well known as a seedy place, a place where known pirates would dock for repairs, carousing, or to fence off the booty taken on the high seas. The city's rulers were notorious for being for sale, and the bribes from the pirate clans allowed them to sail in and out of the narrow harbor, defended by fiercely armed coastal fortresses on either side of the very narrow inlet that opened the tiny bay to the sea. Those fortresses had actual cannon in them, for Shacè was the only kingdom to whom the Wikuni would sell their smoke powder. The cannons kept the lawful ships of other nations out of the harbor, protecting the pirates to whom the little town owed its livelihood. That was reason enough for most honest ship captains to stay well away from it, but the Star of Jerod needed supplies badly enough to risk docking in the place.
"I wonder how something like that manages to stay alive," Dar was musing to Keritanima as they approached the narrow inlet and its twin fortresses.
"Simple logic, if you think about it, Dar," the Wikuni princess replied calmly. "By allowing the pirates to dock here, it keeps them out of more respectable cities."
"But why don't they just come over here and do something about it? Or why doesn't the king of Shacè do something?"
"King Louis is a very weak king," Keritanima sniffed. "He rules in title only. In reality, it's the local Marquis that have control of Shacè. It's a very fragmented kingdom. The Shacèan custom of not spilling the blood of a countrymen keeps the kingdom from degenerating into something like the Free Duchies." She plucked at her plain cream-colored dress absently. "Louis doesn't do anything about it because he can't. Marquis Phillipe of Roulet makes a pretty penny off the bribes paid to him by the pirates, so it's very doubtful he'd stop if Louis demanded it."
"Then why don't the Wikuni do something about it?"
She snorted. "Because no Sennadite ship can catch one of our Merchantmen," she said derisively. "Why should our navy protect the ships of our competitors?"
"That's a pretty heartless way of looking at it, Kerri."
"There's no room for petty compassion in politics, Dar," she said in a ruthless tone. "You can't get rid of the pirates. For every pirate you sink, another will take its place. And let's not even talk about the commissioned freebooters."
"What's a freebooter?"
"A freebooter is a pirate that works for a certain kingdom," she replied. "His job is to attack the ships of rival kingdoms, and leave the ships of his own kingdom alone. It disrupts trade and supplies to rivals."
"Something like that," Keritanima agreed. "You can't even begin to imagine what goes on out of sight of land, Dar."
"Do the Wikuni use freebooters?"
"No," she replied. "At least not right now. There used to be Wikuni freebooters, but after Rauthym broke up and the Zakkite armada was defeated, there's been no need for them."
"Then explain Sheba the Pirate."
Keritanima coughed awkwardly. "Sheba is not a sanctioned freebooter, Dar," she said defensively. "There's just a certain formality involved that prevents Wikuni ships from chasing her down. Since she uses a Wikuni clipper, that means that just about nobody else can chase her down either."
"What formality would that be?" Dar asked.
"She's the daughter of a very, very high-ranking noble patriarch," she replied. "If anyone sank Sheba, they'd pay for it ten times over when they got home. I can't stand her, myself. She's an arrogant bitch, flaunting herself when she's home and all but daring anyone to do something about her."
"So, your people know she's a pirate."
"Of course they do, but as far as many in Wikuna are concerned, so long as Sheba doesn't attack Wikuni ships, then why bother?"
"Well, that's certainly hypocritical."
"Of course it is, Dar," she laughed. "It's called politics. Nobody ever said politics were logical, or even sensible."
"Ridiculous," Tarrin snorted. "Sometimes I think that we'd all be better off if we hanged everyone with a title."
"So you're talking to us now?" Keritanima asked him archly.
"I told you that you wouldn't understand," he told her bluntly. "I just needed some time to think things over."
"That's all you've been doing for the last two months, brother," Keritanima snapped at him. "I've almost forgotten you. And what I see in front of me now isn't the same person I knew two months ago."
"You're right," he said flatly, stepping past her. "I'm not."
"That was stupid, Kerri," Dar whispered in a savage hiss, but Tarrin's sensitive ears picked it up as he walked away.
"Sometimes you have to smack Tarrin to get him going in the right direction, Dar," she whispered back. "Trust me."
"I'll let you do that," Dar said quickly.
Crossing his arms, he stood near the mast, a little angry with his sister, but that quickly faded. No matter who he was or how she acted, Keritanima was his sister, and he loved her. He could forgive her for her words, because she was important to him. But she didn't have to know that just now. Better to let her stew for a bit. That seemed a just compensation for that little remark.
"You're off to a good start this morning," Allia told him in Selani, touching him lightly on the shoulder as she came up from behind. "How's your stomach?"
"It's getting better," he replied. "The scratches stopped bleeding last night. Dolanna says they'll heal, just not fast like any other injury would."
"Keritanima's right, you know," she said softly. "You aren't the same as you were."
"Don't start with me, sister," he warned.
"I'm not starting anything with you, brother," she said defensively. "There was a time, not too long ago, when we would talk for hours and hours, about anything. We kept no secrets from each other. And now you won't speak to me anymore about the things that matter to you. You've closed yourself to me, Tarrin. To me! I'm your sister! If you can't speak to me, who can you talk to?" She stepped in front of him and took his paw between her slender, four-fingered hands. "I don't care how you think you feel, my brother, or how you think we'll feel about you. I will love you, no matter who you are or what you do."
Tarrin closed his eyes and bowed his head. "I don't know if I can, sister," he said quietly. "I don't even understand half of it myself."
"Well, talking about it may help," she replied.
"Maybe. But I'm not quite ready to talk about it yet, deshaida. Maybe later, but not now. Not yet."
"I'm not very happy to hear that, but I'll give you that time," she said calmly. "I don't like seeing my brother upset."
"Well, I appreciate the confidence."
"It has nothing to do with confidence," she sniffed, leaning against him. "It has to do with family."
"Have I told you lately that I love you?" he said with a rueful chuckle.
"No, as a matter of fact, you haven't," she said in an imperious tone.
"Well, I love you, sister."
"And I love you, my brother. Now stop this sillyness and let's get something to eat."
"Standing there looking like you're about to tear the mast out of the deck," she replied.
"I did not."
"Don't make me call in witnesses," she said with a light grin, her blue eyes twinkling.
"I'll just make them conveniently forget," he teased.
"Brother, when it comes to a choice between making you angry or making me angry, which do you think they'll choose?"
Tarrin gave her a slight smile. "They'd probably jump overboard."
"I guess that would be a choice," she acceded after thinking a moment. She said it with a completely serious voice. "Not one I'd take, however."
"I think not," he said, following her below decks.
Because of the situation, when the ship docked at the wharf closest to the inlet, Tarrin, Keritanima, and Allia found themselves confined below decks with Azakar, Binter, and Sisska, while Dolanna and the others went ashore. Tarrin chafed at the treatment. He didn't want to be trapped in a small cabin with very large people. But after Dolanna calmly explained that the six of them were highly recognizable, they all had to agree that keeping them hidden was only wise. Roulet was heavily populated by Wikuni, and by then they had to be looking for Keritanima. And that meant that they probably had descriptions of those members of the Princess' party that stood out the most. Dolanna, Faalken, Dar, and Miranda were rather nondescript, at least in the manner of being easily picked out of a crowd, so the chore of buying supplies for the group fell upon them.
Tarrin stood by a porthole, looking out into the city. It was alot like Den Gauche, but not as large. It was built along a very shallow, gentle rise coming up from the waterline, but the buildings of Roulet were dirty, unkempt, and somewhat ramshackle. That had to be a reflection of the type of people that populated its streets. They all tended to be as shady as the buildings around them. Much like Den Gauche, the city was dominated by a large stone fortress at the top of the rise, looking out over the inlet, but it was shadowed by the two hills flanking the bottleneck entrance of the small bay which held the harbor, those hills topped by those two huge stone fortresses. Roulet would be a nightmare for any admiral to invade. Tarrin could see that now that he got a good look at the inlet and harbor.
"How long did Dolanna say they would be?" Azakar asked calmly as he came up beside Tarrin.
"She said as fast as possible," he replied absently. "This doesn't look like the kind of place where respectable people would want to linger."
"I don't like the idea of them being out there alone," Azakar said.
"Faalken can more than take care of both Dolanna and Dar, and neither of them are really defenseless, Zak," he assured the huge, young Knight. "Miranda can take care of herself if it comes to that, but I don't think she'd wander away from the others. Not in a place like this."
"I should be there to watch over her," Sisska growled in her very unfeminine, bass voice. "She is alone."
"Not quite," Keritanima said calmly. "I specifically ordered her to stay with Dolanna."
"And you expect her to obey you?" Sisska snorted.
Keritanima flashed the Vendari female a hot look, but said nothing.
There was a moment of tense silence, as Keritanima looked at Tarrin and started to say something, but fell silent. Tarrin knew that Keritanima wasn't exactly sure if he was speaking to her. "I don't think Miranda would be crazy enough to go out alone among them," Tarrin told Sisska. "This isn't Kerri's father's court."
"My father's court was ten times more dangerous than any pack of rabble-rousing pirates," Keritanima said archly.
"True, but at least there, being attacked openly in a city street wasn't a possibility."
"So you say,"she grunted in reply. "Why do you think I had Sisska escorting Miranda around?"
Tarrin looked at Sisska, who only nodded. "Well, you shouldn't worry too much anyway," he said. "If anyone touches Miranda, Sisska will have to get in line to get a piece of him." He flexed his claws in a very unwholesome manner. "I get the first shot."
"Think twice," Sisska challenged. "Miranda is my child, Tarrin. Avenging her is my responsibility."
"I think we dwell on impossibilities," Allia said. "Dolanna will not allow Miranda to wander, and she certainly will not put them in a position where they must fight."
"True," Keritanima had to admit. "I don't see why we're standing around talking about who we're going to fight."
"You're surrounded by bloodthirsty warriors, Kerri," Azakar said with a wink. "We're just talking shop, that's all."
"Oh, get off of yourself, Zak," she said with a snort.
The space across from the ship filled with a large black ship, sleek and deadly looking, its sides bristling with those little wooden doors that concealed cannons. The ship was some distance from the dock itself, but men on the dock already had ropes in hand, reeling the ship in to a resting place along the quay. The ship's deck and rigging was populated with a very wide assortment of beast-faced Wikuni. They moved with a quiet, precise grace that demonstrated the vaunted Wikuni attachment to ships and the seas, working in a seemingly unheard harmony that made the ship slide perfectly up to the side of the dock. Standing on the steering deck was a tall female, a panther Wikuni, her black fur covering a very lithe form. Her face was very striking, even from the distance Tarrin saw her, a human-set face with a cat's triangular nose, a hybrid mouth, and cat ears poking out of a mass of hair the same inky black as her fur. Much like Tarrin, she had a long tail, heavier than his, that swished behind her absently as she moved away from the steering wheel. Wide, expressive amber eyes broke up the dark features of her furred face, twin yellow orbs that seemed to draw attention to them. She was dressed in a blue coat and white shirt, and a pair of white pants tucked into a pair of shined black leather boots.
"I think that has to be Sheba," Tarrin said, remembering the description Keritanima gave of the infamous pirate.
"Sheba the Pirate? Here?" Keritanima said suddenly, jumping up from her chair and rushing over to the porthole. Tarrin gave ground to her and let her look out, and he heard her gasp. "That is Sheba," she said. "What is she doing here?"
"Who knows?" Tarrin said. "I don't think we want to find out, though."
"Amen," Keritanima agreed. "I think that Kern will want to get out of here as quickly as possible."
"Why is that?" Azakar asked.
"Zak, the Star of Jerod is rather well known among pirates as the one ship they can never catch," Keritanima said calmly. "Even Sheba has never caught Kern on the open sea. She's sure to recognize the ship, and she may feel like a rematch." She looked back towards the Mahuut. "Kern took a big risk putting in here, Zak. Sheba won't be the only pirate that may try to follow us out. We may be leading a procession."
"From what I heard, we didn't have much of a choice," he replied.
"That's why we were on half rations," she replied. "When whatever happened at Den Gauche happened, it kept us from getting the supplies we needed to get to Dayisè. It was Roulet, or live off fish and rainwater for the next nine days."
The Wikuni female seemed to look right at the porthole, causing Keritanima to duck back quickly. "This is not good," she said, hiding behind the wall as Tarrin continued to look out, to look at her. She reminded him alot of Jesmind, in her stance and her demeanor. Powerful, confident, and dangerous.
"They can do whatever they want," Tarrin said quietly. "I have bigger things to worry about than a ship full of rogue Wikuni."
"What's to stop them from just attacking us in port?" Azakar asked.
"There's no sport in that," Tarrin said, moving away from the porthole.
"And no bragging rights," Keritanima said. "Besides, Zak, there are laws here in Roulet. Those kinds of things have to happen outside the harbor."
"Then maybe we could take the harbor with us," he mused. "This is getting boring. Binter, want to play a game of stones?"
"I'm going up on deck," Tarrin said. "I can't stand being cooped up anymore."
"But Dolanna said that they'd recog--" Keritanima started, but when Tarrin shapeshifted into his cat form, she cut herself off. "Oh. Alright, just be careful. Don't let anyone step on you."
Tarrin gave her a flat look, then she opened the door for him. "Well, be that way," she said with a wink.
The ship's crew knew about Tarrin's ability, and they had already had a taste of it. When they saw the black cat come up from below, they immediately worked around him, giving him his space. But he didn't get in anyone's way, he simply climbed up onto the steerage deck and sat on a rope coil near the captain and his first mate, a willowy young man with red hair named Jameson. The captain and the first mate were going over a list of supplies written on a slate board that the mate was holding. "It's looking good, cap'n," the young redhead said in a light voice. "We should be done loading by sunset. We can be out with the morning's tides."
"Any trouble with the men?"
"Not really, sir," he replied. "They know where they are. There hasn't been many to leave the ship that didn't come back quickly."
"Well, if it isn't the illustrious Captain Abraham Kern!" a feminine voice called from across the way. Tarrin looked behind him, between two posts in the railing, towards the black clipper ship moored across the quay from the Star of Jerod. Tarrin saw the female Wikuni, Sheba, standing at the rail of her own steerage deck, a foot on a crate against the rail and her elbow resting upon it. "It's a small ocean, I see! Fix that hole I put in your amidships yet? If I remember right, it's on the other side."
"It wasn't much more than an inconvenience," Kern replied in a calm voice that made the sneering grin melt off the panther-Wikuni's face. "You should know better than to annoy me, girl. How is your shoulder?"
That made her scowl, and almost unconsciously rub her shoulder. "I think I should pay you back for that, Kern," she called.
"You already tried."
That made her expression ugly. "You know what they say. If at first you don't succeed, try try again."
"Any time, my dear, any time," he called. Tarrin noticed that quite a few dock workers and what looked like sailors had gathered between the ships, to witness the challenge of words between the two very different ship captains. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have more important things to do."
"I'm crushed that you don't consider me important."
"You never were," he told her in a dismissive voice, a voice that impressed Tarrin with both its understated offensive quality as well as its dry humor. And with that, he turned his back on the female.
Sheba snarled, showing a mouth full of very sharp teeth, and she drew a strange metallic object from her belt. Tarrin recognized it after a moment, from Keritanima's stories and tales. A starwheel pistol, a little device that used smoke powder to propel a small lead ball with enough force to drive it through a breastplate. The instant she pointed it at Kern's exposed back, Tarrin's protective instincts roared up into his mind. Kern wasn't exactly a friend, but his willingness to help had made him a man worth great respect in Tarrin's mind. Tarrin didn't turn his back on his friends, or those who had earned respect.
Jumping up onto the rail, Tarrin's green eyes ignited from within with a green radiance that was visible to the Wikuni on the ship across the wharf. Sheba's attention focused from Kern's back to the black cat that had suddenly jumped up to interfere with her line of fire, and its glowing green eyes.
He had no idea what he did, or where it came from. He wanted her to drop that weapon, and suddenly he could sense it, what it was made of, and how to make her drop it. Something happened to it, or something, and it suddenly turned red-hot. Sheba cried out suddenly and dropped the smoldering weapon, shaking her furry hand vigorously as the pistol's barrel, glowing with heat, began to scorch the deck under it. They backed away from it as the heat caused the smoke powder inside it to ignite, causing the little weapon to tear itself apart as the little ball inside the barrel struck the heat-softened walls of the barrel and jammed. That bottled up all that explosive energy, and caused it to destroy the weapon in a loud bang, a puff of oily smoke, and flying red-hot fragments of steel.
That didn't seem to be enough. Tarrin's attention focused on the brass-bound steering wheel behind the Wikuni, who was still shaking her hand and holding it with her other by the wrist. He concentrated on that ornate fixture, and it suddenly exploded in a brilliant flash of fire and smoke, sending charred bits of wood and twisted brass in every direction.
"Witchcraft!" Sheba said in a strangled voice as they looked back at the post where the wheel had once been affixed.
"Magic," a Wikuni of some kind of large cat who had been near the wheel said, in a voice that was low, but still audible to Tarrin's sensitive ears. This male wasn't dressed like the others. He wore a simple blue shirt and trousers, and a silver amulet formed like a wave was around his neck. A priest of Kikkali, the Wikuni goddess of sailing? What was a priest of Kikkali doing on a pirate ship? "That little cat can use some kind of magic that I've never experienced before. That's very intriguing."
"Tarrin, lad, did you do that?" Kern asked in a whisper, coming up beside him at the rail.
Tarrin nodded grimly, keeping his eyes, still glowing, fixated on the Wikuni pirate.
"Consorting with devil-cats, Kern? That's not like you," Sheba called in a dangerous voice, still shaking her hand. "It's going to pay for burning my hand. You may as well just send it over here now."
"Do you really want it, Sheba?" Kern asked, putting his hands under Tarrin and picking him up. "I'll bring it right over, if you want. I'm sure you'll find it very entertaining. Just before it burns your ship down to its waterline."
Sheba's angered gaze suddenly turned fearful. "Ah, no, maybe not," she called back.
And that generally ended that. Kern carried Tarrin back down onto the deck, where the sailors were standing around watching. "Sorry to pick you up, but I think it's a good idea to get you out of sight, and them out of sight of you," Kern told him calmly as he climbed down the very steep staircase that rose up to the steerage deck.
Tarrin looked up at the aged man, his eyes still glowing, and nodded calmly.
Kern put him down on the deck, and he immediately scampered down the steep steps that led to the cabins below. He was confused. What did he do? It wasn't Sorcery. At least it didn't feel like Sorcery. It could have been, because he was in his cat form. There was no telling how being in his cat form would affect his ability to use Sorcery. He had done it once before, a very long time ago, but it had been an instinctive reaction born of fear and desperation. What he had just done was a very calculating use of power, and he had been in full control the entire time. Perhaps he had used Sorcery, but his cat form had altered the way it worked, or the way it felt. A Sorcerer's body and physical health had alot to do with how effectively the Sorcerer could control the Weave. Since his cat form was literally a different body, there was no telling how it would change the way using Sorcery felt.
It seemed a logical explanation, mainly because he couldn't think of anything else.
"What was that all about?" Keritanima asked as Tarrin entered the cabin in his humanoid form, a thoughtful and slightly confused look on his face.
"I'm not sure," he replied. "I used Sorcery in cat form. It felt...strange."
"I meant with Sheba," the Wikuni pressed.
"She aimed a pistol at Kern," he shrugged. "I took steps."
"Dolanna said we couldn't draw attention to ourselves," Keritanima said.
"Tarrin did not draw attention to himself," Binter said calmly, making a move on a lanceboard holding chess pieces. Sisska sat opposite the board. "A cat drew attention to itself. A rare few know that they are the same."
"That does make sense," Azakar agreed.
"I guess it does, but you shouldn't have done that," the princess told him. "Sheba is well known for being both vindictive and spiteful. You burned her, and she's not going to forget that. Now she has another reason to chase us down."
"Let her," Tarrin said in a blunt voice. "On the open sea, there won't be anyone to see us, and she'll have nowhere to hide."
"What are you talking about?"
"I...think I can do what I did again," he said hesitantly. "I'm not sure, though. If I can, I could easily crack her ship open like an egg. It won't be chasing us if it's laying at the bottom of the sea."
"Tarrin!" Keritanima gasped. "You can't do that! If you sank Sheba, the entire Wikuni fleet would hunt us down!"
"If I remember right, they're already doing that, Kerri," Azakar said. "Besides, I thought you said that Wikuna doesn't support Sheba."
"Wikuna doesn't, but her family would demand revenge for her loss. And her family is very powerful."
"So, in other words, Wikuna does sanction piracy against other kingdoms."
"Of course not!"
"Then why would Wikuna retaliate if a known pirate gets sunk?" he asked in a very calm tone.
"You don't understand the situation," she protested.
"I don't see why it would be so hard to understand," he replied. "Wikuna doesn't support free--free--freebooters, you said. Sheba is a pirate, and Wikuna knows it. So if she gets sunk, they should be happy another pirate is sent to the bottom."
"A pirate whose father happens to have influence over most of the noble houses of Wikuna," Keritanima said. "If Arthas Zalan got his hackles up, he could easily convince the nobles to mobilize their personal ships to hunt down whoever sank Sheba."
"So? The Royal Fleet would have to stop them."
"That would be civil war!" Keritanima said in outrage.
"So? The law would be on the crown's side. Anyone mobilizing to sink us out of revenge would be revolting against the crown in the first place, since the crown doesn't condone piracy."
Keritanima gave the Mahuut a hot look, then she laughed ruefully. "You're right," she said sheepishly. "But it wouldn't happen. Letting them sink one ship is a much better option than having all of Wikuna descend into civil war."
"That's not right."
"Alot of things in politics aren't right, Zak, but sometimes a ruler has to decide between the good of many over the good of a few. It's part of what makes a king a king."
"Or a queen," Sisska added.
"I'll leave that up to Jenawalani," Keritanima snorted, sitting down in a chair. She stared at Allia, who was looking at her calmly. "What?"
"Just listening to a queen, that's all," Allia replied in Selani. She had a very slight smile on her lips.
"Don't even think that, sister," Keritanima grunted. "That's exactly what I'm here to avoid." She looked at Tarrin. "You need to talk to Dolanna about that, Tarrin," she told him. "Whatever it was you did, I didn't feel it at all."
"I know, but it'll have to wait for her to get back," he replied.
Kern came into the room. "Are you alright, lad?" he asked in his gravelly voice.
"I'm fine, captain," he said.
"I wanted to, apologize, for picking you up like that," he said.
"It was a good idea, captain," Tarrin replied. "I don't mind being held by people when they have a good reason. Don't worry about it."
"Alright. I just wanted to make sure you understood things. By the way, thanks for watching my back. Jameson said Sheba pointed a gun at me."
Kern nodded, then quickly and quietly left the small cabin, which was filled with several very large people.
"I see you are feeling better, brother," Allia said, stepping up to him as Tarrin moved away from the door.
"Aside from being stuck in here, more or less," he replied. "I want to get moving again."
"I do not like being stuck in here either," Allia said. "Every time I take a step, I have to make sure there is not a tail in my path."
"Well excuse us for being more blessed than you," Keritanima said with a wink.
"You do not weigh much, Allia," Binter said dismissively. "It would not bother me to have you step on my tail. Azakar is another matter."
"I only did it once," the large man protested.
"And I will only pay you back for it once," Binter replied calmly.
Dolanna and the others returned just at sunset, and the Sorceress did not look happy. There was a tightness about her eyes, and she kept glaring at Miranda. The mink Wikuni seemed completely oblivious to the hot looks, removing a full cloak that she had used to hide her appearance to other eyes. Miranda was nondescript as a Wikuni, but her blond hair, her insufferable cuteness, and her mink lineage made her very identifiable as Keritanima's maid. "What did she do?" Keritanima asked with a sigh.
"She left us not long after we left the ship," Dolanna said tightly. "I dared not send anyone to look for her."
"Miranda!" Keritanima barked. "I ordered you to stay with Dolanna!"
"And you expected me to obey you?" Miranda asked innocently. "My goodness, your Highness, you've been associating with these humans too long."
"I had a good reason," she said in a dismissive tone. "I'll explain later. After we set sail."
"It's too late and too dark--"
"No, your Highness, now," Miranda said in a very steady tone, staring directly into Keritanima's eyes.
"Now?" Miranda nodded. "Alright, but if you're wrong--"
"Posh," Miranda sniffed.
"I take it that I should go speak with Kern?" Dolanna said in a curious voice, all hostility gone from it.
"It would be a very good idea, Dolanna," Miranda said calmly. "Kern does not want to be in Roulet right now. It would be very unhealthy."
"There is little wind, and no tide," Dolanna said. "To move the ship will require our assistance. Dar, Allia, come with me. Allia, wear the cloak that Miranda was using to hide herself, that will protect you from straying eyes. Tarrin, you and her Highness remain below. There is little we can do to conceal the two of you."
"Tarrin's already been out, Dolanna," Keritanima told her. "We need to talk to you about that after we get out to sea."
"Alright, Miranda, talk," Keritanima said immediately after Dolanna led Dar and Allia out, Faalken fell in behind them silently, and the door was closed.
"I know a few names of people willing to sell information in Roulet," she said simply. "I asked around, spread some coins about, and learned quite a bit."
"Where do you want me to start?" she asked, sitting sedately on the bed.
"Just pick a place," Keritanima said in a voice near exasperation.
"Well, now it's official," she began. "Damon Eram has sent the entire fleet out to look for you. He doesn't know which ship you're on, but Wikuni ships are scouring the Sea of Storms looking for us. They're stopping and searching every ship they cross on the high seas."
"Well, I more or less expected that," Keritanima grunted. "What else did you learn?"
"Tarrin isn't exactly a nobody anymore," Miranda said, looking right at him. "I heard of a man hiring thugs, mercenaries, and cutthroats to look for him. He described you very accurately, my friend," she told him. "He wants you dead. He even passed out silver-gilded daggers and swords to his hires, so it's apparent that he knows what you are."
"Did you find him?" Keritanima asked.
She shook her head. "I didn't have the time. Oh, yes, there's a good chance that there's a war in Sulasia."
"What?" Keritanima, Tarrin, and Azakar gasped in unison.
Miranda nodded. "It was just rumor, but many of them say the same thing. That the army of Daltochan came down out of the mountains and invaded eastern Sulasia. That's about all I managed to find out about that. I also heard that three Ungardt clans have invaded Draconia, probably over some kind of border atrocity. You know how the Draconians are. I also heard that the seas are absolutely crawling with Zakkite triads. Every ship captain and sailor I talked to grumbled about having to run from triads, but for some reason, the triads didn't pursue anyone. That's not like them. It seems like they're looking for something specific."
"But it's winter," Azakar protested. "Why would armies move in the winter? It's crazy."
"You forget the prize, Zak," Miranda said. "It's a good bet that we're not the only ones that know about the Firestaff. The chaos surrounding it seems to have already started. There are probably a few kings that would be willing to throw away half their armies for the chance to be a god."
"Their whole armies," Keritanima agreed. "What else did you hear?"
"Not a whole lot," she replied. "I talked to a Wikuni priestess, who told me that things at home are getting tense. It seems that the nobility isn't too thrilled that your father is wasting so many resources in trying to track you down. Most of them feel that your running away was something that shouldn't be stopped."
"Why can't my father ever listen to other people?" Keritanima sighed.
Tarrin moved away from the others, their voices fading away as he thought about what she said. Why would people look for him? That was an obvious question. Kravon knew who he was, it seemed, and the man had already proved that he had considerable resources. He probably knew Tarrin was looking for the Firestaff, but did he know that Tarrin was on a boat? Were there agents of the ki'zadun in every city, or just the port cities? He didn't know, and he wondered if there had been such men in Den Gauche. If so, then the Were-cat female, Triana, may have saved his life by heading him off before one of them managed to get close enough to find him.
That was ironic enough to make him chuckle ruefully.
Another thought, and another worry, was this talk of war. If Daltochan did invade, they would have moved through Aldreth. The lives of those he knew in his home village were not guaranteed if something like that happened. That worried him. Though he'd never been popular in the village, he had many friends there. What would become of them if Daltochan sent troops to occupy the northeastern marches of Sulasia? Was Torrian a besieged city, the friendly, compassionate Duke Arren now walled up inside his famed fortress, facing off against Dal attackers? Had they marched down the very roads that Tarrin and the others had travelled, claiming the land of his home for their own? Sulasia probably had not been prepared for war. Sulasia was not a very militant nation, depending on the Knights, the Sorcerers, and the famed Rangers to curb any aggression. And they probably had never expected Daltochan to be the aggressor. Sulasia and Daltochan had been very close trading partners for many years. Most of the metal and stone the famed Sulasian craftsmen used came from Daltochan.
It was concerning, but there was nothing that he could do about it. If all this mess was over the Firestaff, then Tarrin did feel a little bit better about being stuck in this mission to find it. If kings would destroy good relationships with other kings over it, send men to their deaths and cause untold destruction and chaos, then perhaps something like the Firestaff wasn't meant for them.
"What's the matter, Tarrin?" Keritanima asked, putting her hand on his shoulder.
"Just thinking about Aldreth," he sighed. "If Daltochan did invade Sulasia, then it's probably being occupied. I hope everyone's alright."
"I wouldn't worry about it too much," she assured him. "If your villagers are anything like you described them, they're all probably hiding in the Frontier. I don't even think the Dals would dare to go in there after them."
"I hope so," he said.
The ship suddenly lurched slightly to the side, and Tarrin felt someone--three someones--using Sorcery above decks. They had joined in a circle, and Dolanna was using weaves of air to move the ship. "Sometimes Sorcery can come in handy," Keritanima chuckled. "I wish I could be helping."
"They can handle it, Kerri," he told her.
"It's still not the same."
"You just want an excuse to use your power."
"Well, you didn't have to put it that way," she said, slapping him lightly on the shoulder. "You make me sound like a braggart."
"I'm so sorry that you can't handle the truth," he said absently.
Keritanima stuck her tongue out at him.
"Brat," he said to her.
"Count on it," she replied.
With the help of Dolanna and her pupils, the Star of Jerod slid out into the narrow harbor and through the inlet, and out into the open sea. The ship's departure was very much noticed by Roulet, both in that a ship was somehow sailing out to the sea directly into a headwind, and that it was the Star of Jerod that was doing it. The ship turned southward as soon as it cleared the shallows around the head of the inlet fortresses, angling on a southerly track that would take it out to the horizon. As soon as the ship passed sight of the fortresses of Roulet, the non-humans and Azakar were allowed to come back up on deck, come back up to a rather dark night. A cloud bank had moved in, and was concealing the light of the Skybands and the moons. Yet Kern continued on his southerly course confidently, using a device called a compass, that pointed towards magnetic north all the time. Tarrin was rather intrigued by the device, and Kern explained how it was done to him after he followed the captain into the navigation room.
"It's easy, Tarrin," the captain said in his raspy voice. "As long as we know what direction we go in and how long we go that way, we can figure out where we are on this map. Then we can change our heading so we can travel to specific spots."
Tarrin nodded. "My mother taught me all about that, but the Ungardt don't use that little compass device. They use the stars."
"Any navigator worth his salt can navigate by the stars, but the compass makes it much more precise," Kern told him.
"I don't know, Kern. Some Ungardt navigators can put you within spans of where you want to go."
"That's because they're experienced," Kern said. "You can say that about anyone, if he has enough time doing it."
"I guess. How does this thing work?" he asked, pointing to a second compass that was mounted beside the map table.
"Well, near as I can figure, that little needle was exposed to lodestone," he said. "Lodestone sticks to metal, I'm sure you've heard, but it also always points to the north if you hang it from something. Metal that's been stuck to a lodestone for a while can make other metal stick to it, just like a lodestone. Well, it passes on that point to north trick too."
"So, they make a needle, then stick it onto a lodestone, then when it's absorbed the lodestone's magic, they put it on that axle," Tarrin said.
"Just about," Kern said. "I ain't never seen them make a compass before, but that sounds like the way someone would go about it."
Tarrin touched the compass' protective glass with the tip of a claw, tapping on the glass gently to see if the needle would react. But it didn't. "Be careful," Kern warned. "That compass cost me five hundred gold."
Tarrin watched the navigator, a slim man with gray hair named Luke, make some notes on a chart. The map was a map of the coastline of Shacè, from Den Gauche to the town of Roulet, all the way down to the southwestern tip of the western continent, where the large island just off the Cape of the Horn held the island-city of Dayisè, one of the largest and best known port cities in the world. Dayisè was utterly devoted to ships, trade, and cargo, from shipping companies to the famed shipbuilders on the north side of the island to the independent captains that called Dayisè their home port. No ship that sailed the Sea of Storms of the Sea of Glass, to the south of the continent, had missed docking in Dayisè. It was said that all roads led to Suld, which sat at the hub of an ancient road system built long before any of the modern kingdoms were forged, but it could also be said that all ships sailed to Dayisè. The coastline of Shacè, it seemed, was rather irregular and jagged, with a multitude of tiny inlets and bays and coves, as well as innumerable small barrier and shore-hugging islands. Those islands were the reason that the Star of Jerod was sailing so far out to sea. That, and those islands were reputed to be the haunting places of some of the smaller bandit and pirate operations in Shacè. Only the small ones. The Pirate Isles, some two hundred leagues southwest of Dayisè, were infamous as the home base of many a famous pirate.
Shacè was something of a lawless place, his father had told him once. Because of the weakness of the king, the local Marquis, what Tarrin would call a Baron, actually ran the kingdom. Because of that decentralized government, bandit gangs and organized crime were rampant all over the kingdom. That lawlessness occasionally spilled over into other kingdoms, which was why Sulasia maintained the Line of the Hawk, a series of forts along the border of Shacè that discouraged armed parties from trying to slip into Sulasia. Shacè also had trouble with the Free Duchies to the east, the remnants of what was once the kingdom of Tor, as well as a few desmenses of former Shacèan Marquis. That was one of the most dangerous areas in the west, which was nothing more than a series of independent city-states, which controlled only the land around them. The land between the city-states was often a no-man's land ruled by whatever warlord had the upper hand at the time. More than once, a warlord had tried to reunite the Free Duchies, but the intense enmity between the city-states made that almost impossible. The Free Duchies had been embroiled in a series of wars over the centuries that would have done Tykarthia and Draconia proud. The only reason that the place didn't explode into all-out war was because that region of the Western Kingdoms was the richest, most fertile farmland to be found. The Free Duchies were often called the bread basket of the west. There was war and struggle, to be sure, but it always happened to occur after a harvest. Not even the most maniacal ruler of a free city would march his army over the food that ran his city. That huge production of food also tended to keep the citizens of the city-states content, and content citizenry rarely found the energy to support a war with some other city.
"What is this place?" Tarrin asked, pointing to a strange triangular symbol on the map. It was on the coastline, probably about twenty leagues from Roulet.
"That? Oh, that's Bajra Myrr," Luke replied, looking at the map. "One of the Seven Cities of the Ancients."
That was a name that he recognized, because they had talked about it in the Novitiate classes. The Seven Cities were cities built and abandoned long before Suld was built. Nobody knew who built them, why, or what happened to them, they just knew their names. They were so ancient that even those that Tarrin referred to as the Ancients had no idea who they had been. Though the old katzh-dashi were considered the Ancients, the peoples who built those seven cities were also called the Ancients. But the two peoples shared nothing in common more than that term, because the true Ancients disappeared long before the katzh-dashi Ancients had settled in Suld. To a Sorcerer it may seem confusing, but when one considered that only the katzh-dashi and those who had studied them called the old Sorcerers the Ancients, it made more sense. Sorcerers called their ancestors the Ancients, but often called the denizens of those forgotten cities the Old Ones to separate them.
According to those lessons, there was very little left of those seven cities. Just piles of mossy stone, a few foundations, and a sense that there had once been something built upon those spots. That was why it was so hard for scholars to even discover who had once been there. There just wasn't anything left to use to learn more about them.
"I didn't realize that it was on the coast."
"Yeah, but nobody goes there. It's said to be haunted, and sailors are too superstitious a lot to risk it."
"Hmm," he sounded absently, but by then his attention span had dissolved. He stalked out of the navigation room quietly, going back out onto the deck.
It was later that day, nearly at sunset, when Dolanna sat Tarrin down near the bow. From her scent, Tarrin could tell that she was a little agitated, but as usual, her appearance gave no clue as to her inner feelings. "Keritanima tells me that you had something happen yesterday," she began.
"Something, but I don't know what." With slow attention to detail, Tarrin told Dolanna about what had happened with Sheba the Pirate. He was careful to explain the way it felt. When he was done, Dolanna was pursing her lips, her brows knitting together. "I do not know if it was Sorcery or not," she finally concluded. "You are right about that, dear one. Since your cat form is so radically different than your humanoid one, perhaps the way Sorcery works while in that form is also different."
"I don't know," he said.
"Do you think you could do it again?"
"I think so," he replied. "It was something like a reflex, but I remember the way it felt. It may take a while, but I should be able to do it again."
"Well, we will work with that once we reach Dayisè," she said. "Because of the confines here, we dare not experiment."
"Yes, we may sink the ship by accident," he agreed.
"Now then, how do you feel?"
The way she said it made no doubt as to what she was asking. Tarrin closed his eyes and turned away from her, and sighed. "I don't feel anything, Dolanna," he told her in a quiet voice. "Nothing. I know what I did, but it's like it wasn't as serious as pulling out a splinter." He looked at her. "If I was put in that position again, I'd do the same thing. Without regret."
"That is your survival instinct talking," she told him. "Once we are off this ship, and you are in a less stressful environment, we will see how you feel then."
"No, Dolanna, this goes beyond that," he said, rubbing the metal of the manacle on his wrist. "I'm just not the same as I was before. I don't know if that's good or bad. To be honest, it scares me half to death. But I just seem to accept it, the same way I accepted this when it happened." He held out his paw, pads up, for her inspection. "I think back to what happened with the female, and what I did, and it doesn't even make me twinge. Not even a bit."
"Dear one, I told you long ago that you had to explore your feelings," she told him. "I rather doubt that you've grown that heartless. You would not still be wearing those manacles if you had."
"I wear these for an entirely different reason, Dolanna," he told her, rubbing one of them. "To me, these represent what happens when I let my guard down. I did once before, and Jula used that collar to enslave me. I paid dearly for that mistake. It's never going to happen again."
"I think you are too hard on yourself, dear one," she said soothingly, putting a hand on his paw, then grabbing hold of it and placing it between her hands. "Do not dwell on such negatives. It can only depress you. Concentrate on the love you have for your sisters, and the friendships that you hold with many of us. Even Kern and the other sailors are starting to relax around you. They are beginning to understand you."
"I don't trust them," he said in a blunt tone. "Not one bit."
"Kern says that you saved his life."
"Out of respect," Tarrin replied. "I respect Kern. That doesn't mean that I trust him."
"I would not find many that would take such an opinion, Tarrin," she said. "How can you respect someone, yet not trust him?"
"Easily," he replied in a blunt voice. "I respect him, but I wouldn't turn my back on him."
"Tarrin," she said in a chiding, slightly exasperated voice.
"Think what you want," he said, pulling his paw away. "I trusted someone once, and I had a collar put around my neck in return. Never again."
"You certainly do not act like they would put you in slavery," she said.
"It's a small ship, they don't have the tools, and they couldn't get away from me if they tried it," he said in an ominous voice. "That makes me a bit more relaxed about it."
"Then why not use that to build friendships among the crew? Kern told me that you took interest in the navigation charts today. Why do you not go down there tomorrow and learn about navigation?"
"No," he said. "I won't be friends with someone I can't trust. And I can't trust anyone I don't know."
"Then get to know them."
"I don't want to know them," he replied, giving her a steady look. "I just want them to get me to Dayisè, then leave me in peace. Nothing more, nothing less. Until then, I'll help defend the ship, but they better stay out of my way." He stood up. "I think I'm done talking," he said, clenching a paw into a fist. "I'm starting to get worked up talking about things like this."
"Go on then, dear one. Have a good night."
"You too, Dolanna," he said, putting a paw on her shoulder fondly, then turning and stalking away.
From not far away, Keritanima approached Dolanna, and then sat down where Tarrin had been. Dolanna's expression was worried, brooding, and her scent betrayed her unsettled condition. Keritanima had learned long ago that scents told the only truth about some people that there was, and she depended on her sensitive nose nearly as much as Tarrin did. It was a rarity among Wikuni to have an animal sense, but she had never regretted having the gift. "So," she said after a moment. "What do you know?"
Dolanna sighed. "I would not tell anyone other than you or Allia, Highness," she began.
"That's not a good sign," Keritanima said.
"No, it is not," she agreed. "Tarrin is turning feral."
"Feral? What does that mean? I heard someone say that once before."
"It means that he is withdrawing from civilization," she replied. "At a more personal level, he is hardening to others. He will not open himself to strangers, and he is developing a distrust of anyone he does not know."
"That describes any number of people I know, Dolanna."
"It is a very difficult concept to explain, Keritanima. It has much to do with his Were nature. When a Were-creature becomes feral, it will not trust anyone except those it trusted before turning feral. It makes a Were-creature moody and potentially violent when it is exposed to civilization, or people it does not know. Right now, Tarrin has around him people that he trusts. If we were to die, or he were separated from us, he would most likely simply disappear into the forest, and never be seen again. He would never trust anyone again, he would probably only speak to others of his own kind, and even them he would not entirely trust. And he would never leave the place he considered his sanctuary unless forced."
"That doesn't sound like much of a problem," Keritanima said. "It's not like we're going to abandon him, and I don't have any plans on dying anytime soon."
"It is very much a problem, Keritanima," she said. "Tarrin will have to function in civilized surroundings. And do not forget, Dala Yar Arak is the largest city in the world. If he turns truly feral, his ability to control his violent tendencies will be greatly reduced. He will strike out in anger or outrage much more quickly, and he will have little or no remorse about his actions."
"So he scratches a few people. They'll learn to leave him alone."
"No. Do you remember what he did to Azakar a few days ago?"
"Yes, but what difference does that make? Zak had it coming. He should know better."
"Azakar is his friend, someone Tarrin trusts. Imagine what he would do to someone for whom he has no feelings."
"A--oh. So, you think he'd leave a trail of bodies behind him?"
"I am saying it is very possible. Tarrin cannot reconcile his feral nature with his human morality. It will certainly unbalance him, and make him even more violent. And that will start a pattern of slow but certain degeneration."
"What can we do to stop it?"
"Nothing," she sighed. "It is something that he must work out for himself."
For three days, the Star of Jerod moved generally southward in front of a stiff tailwind, a cool wind that propelled the old ship towards Dayisè much faster than Kern and his navigators expected. The wind also carried upon it scents of the sea and land, of birds and salt and water and occasionally vaint traces of grass and trees. Tarrin stood on the steerage deck with Allia early in the morning, greeting the rising sun coming over a horizon that Allia said held the edge of land. Tarrin couldn't see it himself. Allia's amazing eyesight was as inhuman as the shape of her ears. She could read an open book from five hundred paces away, and her night vision was probably just as acute as his own.
It was an asset that the captain had noticed. Allia now spent some time each day in the crow's nest, where she used her eagle's eyes to watch for other ships, land, and possible dangers. It had taken some serious goading from Keritanima and Kern to get her up there, because the raw truth of all the water around them was so blatant, but once she and Keritanima went up a few times, Allia developed enough of a tolerance against her fear of water to be able to look out over the vast expanse of ocean. She still wouldn't go up if the seas were rough enough to make the crow's nest sway, but on a day like that day, with the seas generally calm and the skies clear, Allia would go up.
Allia's strength never ceased to amaze Tarrin, and it made him feel a bit guilty. His sister was willing to stand up in the face of her fears, and yet he still seemed to be struggling with his own. But on the other hand, his fears were a bit more tenuous, dealing more in possibilities and conditions than physical things. Allia was a wellspring of strength, and he always felt more comfortable, more confident, when she was near him. That strength did help in its own way, mainly because he always felt more confident, calmer, much more relaxed around his quiet, unassuming sister.
"Calm day. The long-water is like glass," she noted in an idle voice, looking out over the water. She spoke Selani, as she always did when addressing him or Keritanima. The Selani language had no word for sea or ocean, so she had to adjust it to best describe the vast expanse of uninterrupted blue before them.
"The captain said that if the wind doesn't pick up soon, we'll be stuck here all day. Maybe even lose time," Tarrin replied.
"How is that?"
"The long-water has currents in it, like the flowing of a stream," he explained. "There's one right here that flows back to the north. We're moving slowly back the way we came. If the wind doesn't pick up to counter that, we'll be going backwards."
"Strange. I never imagined something like this would flow. I thought it would just sit here."
"There's alot of things we don't know, sister," Tarrin said.
"Truly." She squinted a bit against the bright sunlight, then hooded those piercing azure eyes with her slim hands. "If we are moving backward, how are they moving towards us?"
"Who?" he asked, shielding his eyes from the sun and peering in the same direction. It took his eyes a few seconds to see it, a tiny little smudge on the horizon. But he knew that to Allia's eyes, it would be as if it were half as far away.
"It's that bandit woman," she said. "Sheba, wasn't it?"
"It is?" he asked.
She nodded. "The ship is moving. It's coming this way."
"Maybe they have wind back there," Tarrin said. "Sometimes the wind moves differently across the same field."
"Possible," she agreed. "But they've moving awfully fast. They'll be upon us in about an hour at that speed."
"You spot something, lass?" Kern asked from near the wheel, where he was standing watch with his steersman.
"Yes, captain," she replied respectfully. "It is that Wikuni pirate, Sheba. Her ship is on the horizon, and it is moving this way."
"You're certain it's her?"
"I can see her on deck, master Kern," she said. "It is her."
"That's not something I want to hear," he grumbled in his rough voice. "Sheba coming this way only means that she's after someone. Probably us."
"How would she know where we are?" Tarrin asked.
"Because this is the fastest way to Dayisè," he replied calmly, pulling a spyglass from his vest and using it. After a moment, he swore. "It's about as far away as it can get before I'd miss that ship," he said gruffly. "I can't make anything out, but there's only one black clipper on the seas. That's Sheba, alright." He lowered the curious metal device. "All hands on deck!" he boomed. "Rig up! Rig up! We got a pirate coming from astern!"
That created a wild cacophony of activity on the ship. Every sailor swarmed up from their duties and exploded into activity, working the rigging under the first's guidance to catch any breath of wind. Dolanna and the rest of their group came from belowdecks not long after that, and they quickly learned what was going on. They all gathered on the steerage deck, where Dolanna pressed Kern for information. "You are certain she is coming after us?" Dolanna asked for the third time.
"There ain't nobody else around, mistress," Kern told her after booming an order in a voice that probably could have been heard by the Wikuni pirates some distance behind them. "Sheba is a pirate. She has only one reason to be out."
Tarrin watched with the others for a moment, then Dar posed a simple question that Tarrin hadn't considered. "What will they do if they catch us?" he asked nervously.
"They ain't," Kern said gruffly. "Mistress Dolanna, if you don't mind, I think we could use some of that wind you used to get us out of Roulet."
"Dar, Keritanima," she said immediately. "Allia."
"Me?" Allia asked in surprise.
"I need all the help I can find, young one," she said calmly. "In a circle, your power will be of great use to me."
"I can help," Tarrin said.
"No, Tarrin," she said gently, patting his cheek and looking him in the eyes. "Your power would overwhelm us, and then we would not be able to move the ship."
Tarrin's braid suddenly caught up in a breeze, and he turned to look astern in surprise. "Maybe you won't have to tire yourself out either," he said. "There's that wind that they're using."
"Tack to the wind, mates!" Kern boomed immediately.
The ship rocked slightly, and then the sails snapped taut as they were moved to catch the wind. Kern's sailors were efficient and experienced, and they had the old galleon moving ahead of that wind in mere moments. The black clipper was no longer racing towards them, it was now standing some distance off the stern, but it was obvious to Tarrin that the ship was getting closer. Tarrin and Allia watched it for a goodly amount of time in quiet anxiety, watching it inexorably advance on them, and making him more and more certain that it was indeed gaining on them.
Allia confirmed that. "Captain, they are gaining," she told him, looking back at the ship.
"She has more sail," he replied gruffly. "Give it everything ye got, lads, or we'll be swimmin' home!" he barked at his men, and their activity became even more frenzied.
There was a tiny puff of smoke that rose from the clipper, and Tarrin's ears tracked on the most curious buzzing, whining sound. Then a spray of erupting water exploded from the sea some fifty paces behind the ship, sending a plume of white water very high. "What was that?" Allia asked suddenly.
"That was a cannonball," Keritanima said in a calm voice. "It's a common technique to get range on a target."
There was another blast of water, this one closer but off to the right, making Tarrin flinch. What power! He had never seen a device that could hurl steel balls such great distances! Keritanima's stories seemed plausible when she told them, but to see the reality of it was something that was nearly overwhelming. He realized that as the ship grew closer, it would come into range to hit the galleon with those steel balls, and they would get better and better at aiming them when the distance wasn't such a mitigating factor.
It was a strange, frightening experience. This was a contest between ships, vessels, and he felt helpless to do anything about it. He knew that his Sorcery could probably do some damage, but with his lack of control, he couldn't tell who it would hurt more. That left him feeling powerless, and that feeling angered the animal instincts within him. That his life now hinged on the marksmanship of the man on the other side of that cannon was a very sharp realization to him, and it made him dig his claws into the railing in both fear and frustration.
"Any ideas, Kern?" Dolanna asked.
"I'm still thinkin', milady," he growled. "I ain't never been caught like this on the open sea before. I don't got many options."
Allia put her hand over Tarrin's paw, and he looked at her. Her nervousness over a new, strange, and fearful situation was plain on her face, but she still managed to give him a slight smile. "Kern won't appreciate you tearing up his polished rail," she told him in Selani.
Tarrin looked down, and saw that his claws had dug several very deep furrows in the highly polished wood. "I'll buy him a new rail," he replied, looking back to the clipper again.
Another cannonball came crashing down into the sea, then another, and yet another, and each time they hit closer and closer to the ship. The last made Tarrin and Allia flinch away from the stern, and sprayed them with cool salt water. It had struck not ten paces from the stern.
"Their shots are getting closer!" Allia called urgently.
"Dolanna, if ye got a trick, now may be a good time to use it," Kern told her bluntly. "I don't have enough sail to outrun her, and her guns will chew us up if we turn around and try to engage."
"Keritanima, do you know where they keep their gunpowder?" Dolanna asked immediately.
"Unless they've refitted the ship, yes," she replied immediately.
"Do you think a fire somewhere near that powder would persuade them to stop?" she asked.
Keritanima chuckled, then flinched away as a spray of water from a cannonball sizzled across the sterncastle. She sucked in her breath in both surprise and shock as the cold water knifed into her fur, then she let out a growling cry of fury as she snapped both arms down. "This was a new dress!" she snapped in fury. "Just get me close enough to that ship, Dolanna, and I'll blow it out of the water!"
"Never mess with Kerri's wardrobe," Faalken said with a wink to Azakar.
"So it would seem," he replied sagely.
"No, Keritanima, to try to get that close would be suicide. We will have to try to do this from a distance. Kern, would you be so kind as to have your men ready the port catapult?"
"Sure, but it ain't got the range to reach--" His remark was interrupted by an ear-splitting boom that rocked the ship. Flying bits of wood screamed through the air as the entire ship shuddered and jerked under them, sending many people to the deck. Tarrin and Allia both were pitched backwards, struck the rail, and then tumbled over and found nothing but empty air beneath them. He dimly spotted the railing, and his claws caught it by the very tips, snapping him to a halt as something heavy struck him at the base of his tail.
No, something heavy was holding onto his tail. He became aware of Allia's hands gripping his tail in a vise-like grip, and her screams managed to drown out the cracking and groaning of wood and the reverberations of the horrid sound that still bounced around inside the ship. The weight of both him and Allia weren't even a challenge to his superhuman strength, but his very precarious position, the very tips of his claws caught on the very edge of the railing, made any sudden moves or attempts to use leverage very dangerous.
Raising his feet, he drove them into the planking of the ship claws first, getting a very solid purchase. Using that, he grabbed hold of the railing with both paws, then lifted Allia up by snaking his tail over and up, literally lifting her to where she could get hold of the deck. "What was that?" Allia demanded over the ringing in his ears.
"I think one of the cannonballs hit us!" Tarrin replied as he helped her up, then someone grabbed her and pulled her back over the rail. He froze when another loud bang shocked his ears, and he felt the concussion of another strike on the water slam into him like some kind of gigantic hand trying to flatten him against the wooden planking into which his footclaws were driven. His claws were too deeply embedded to jar him loose, and he held that perch with trembling muscles as he was literally soaked with flying seawater. That was too close! Adrenalin began surging through him even as the fear and uncertainty of the dangerous situation began sinking into his mind, and he felt the Cat begin to stir, to rise up from its corner in his mind and see if it was important enough to attempt to take control to ensure survival.
"No, no, no," he said through gritted teeth, frantically trying to maintain his control over his own mind. Hanging on the stern with eyes closed, he barely felt or registered another stinging spray of seawater slam into his back as he struggled to keep control of himself. He only dimly heard the shouts of people over him, then felt large, powerful hands grab hold of his paws. He opened his eyes to see Binter and Sisska, each with a paw, pulling him back on deck by main force, tearing his claws out of the wood and pulling him over the rail.
The scene above was one of chaos. A huge hole cratered the steerage deck where the steering helm had once been, and a splatter of gore was all that was left of the steersman. Kern lay near that hole, his left arm laying on the deck some paces away from him and his body almost totally covered in blood, being tended by a grim-looking Dolanna. The hole widened until it reached the edge of the steering deck, and debris and blood were littered all over the deck below. Sailors rushed about almost mindlessly, trying to tack to the wind as the ship began to list and turn to the starbord as others attempted to control the damage done by the cannonball strike. The ship immediately began to turn against the wind, only to be pushed back by the blowing air. The device that turned the ship had moved, and it was fighting against the blowing winds, and that was slowing the ship.
Tarrin's mind was cloudy, befuddled, from the loud noises, the shock, and his attempts to retain control, but he fixated on Kern. He pulled out of Binter's grasp and rushed over to the horribly injured captain, his eyes almost glowing as he reached out and put a paw on his mangled shoulder. He touched the Weave, but in his mental state, he felt something more, something expansive. He touched the Weave, and it responded to him gently, smoothly, with no sudden tidal wave of power that always wrested control away from him. Weaving together flows of Fire, Earth, Divine energy, and Water, he laid his paw on Kern and released it, watching as the mangled stump of his shoulder quickly and effortlessly began to grow. Bone and muscle raced away from the shoulder, more and more of it, filling in with sinew, tendon, and tissue, until it ended at the many bones of the wrist. It feathered out from there, into fingers, and the grayish-red color of the muscle suddenly flushed with blood, then covered over with skin. The sight was somewhat gruesome to behold, but the end result was a new arm to replace the one that was laying some paces away from Kern. The grizzled old captain's gray eyes opened curiously, clear and lucid, and they stared up into the Were-cat's eyes in confusion.
"Tarrin," Dolanna said quietly, her voice reverent.
Another shockwave snapped him out of his reverie, and the Weave vanished from him like smoke. He closed his eyes and put a paw to his head, trying to figure out what just happened, as Kern suddenly jumped up from the deck and put a hand on his new left arm, moving it and shaking it, then using it to point. "Lock down that hatch! Trim that sail, man! Someone get below and try to turn the rudder with the rudder rope! Everyone else take cover, and prepare to repel boarders!"
"What is going on, Kern?" Dolanna asked urgently.
"That ball shot took out our rudder," he replied, looking at the shattered place where the helm had been. "We can't maneuver, and we're listing. We're dead in the water. Now it comes down to repelling boarders."
"I think we can handle that, captain," Faalken said grimly. "Zak, go get our shields!"
"Yes, Faalken," the huge Mahuut man replied calmly, then he scuttled down the steep steps leading to the deck.
"Why can you not shoot back?" Allia asked.
"Our catapults and ballista don't have their range," he replied. "They're too far away."
Another loud splash erupted from the side of the ship, sending spray over the deck. "They're going to pound us to pieces like this," Keritanima said. "Sheba must have some serious gunners to hit us from this range."
"Keritanima, Dar, Allia, with me," Dolanna said. "We must protect the ship from any more strikes. Link with me now!"
The three students quickly joined their teacher, and Dolanna reached out to them. Tarrin felt their union, felt them reach out and join their power into a united effort, which Dolanna directed. She wove together a very impressive weave of air, forming a solid, invisible barrier that extended from the waterline to the highest mast, and just wide enough to cover the ship. It was a wall of solid air, and the first cannonball to strike it proved that it was more than effective. It exploded against the invisible wall, sending fiery shrapnel back in the other direction and sending a plume of white smoke into the air. A shockwave rippled through the wall of air, but it held easily.
"Alright men, prepare to repel boarders!" Kern called in his booming voice. "Dolanna, can we shoot back through that?"
"No, Kern, it is a solid mass," she replied in a calm, tightly focused voice. It was obviously an effort for all of them, judging by the looks on their faces. "You must keep the stern to them, Kern. This is hard to maintain, and if I have to increase its size, it will not be strong enough to hold."
"Aye, Dolanna, I'll do my best to keep them astern," he assured her.
Two more cannonballs struck the wall or went wide in rapid succession, and Tarrin realized that they only had two or three weapons firing at them. He remembered Keritanima's descriptions of a clipper, how most of the guns were along its flanks. That getting broadside to a clipper was the same as falling on one's own sword. They couldn't have more than five or six cannons that were shooting at them from the bow, and they were reloading them and firing again as quickly as they could.
He wanted to do something. He wanted to join with his friends and strengthen the wall, but his power was unpredictable, and it was very possible that he would destroy their attempts just by his presence. He wanted to protect the ship, but the enemy was too far away. He was helpless, unable to do anything. All he could do was stand on the stern and look back, watch the black ship approach, and wait for them.
"Son, I wanted to thank you for what you did for me," Kern said to him in a quiet voice. "I didn't realize I lost my arm til I saw it laying on the deck."
"It's nothing, Kern," he replied in a grim voice. "I'm just glad I could help you after everything you've done for us."
He cleared his throat. "Yes, well, no offense or nothing, but I did that for Dolanna. If it was anyone but her, I would've said no."
"None taken, Kern," he said calmly. "I don't expect much generosity from humans anyway."
"Dolanna said that you were human yourself."
Tarrin looked at him, his slitted eyes penetrating and direct. "I was," he said in a blunt voice.
Kern flinched slightly. "Yes, well, I guess you're right. You're what you are now. If you'll excuse me, I have a fight to prepare for."
"Just give the signal when you're ready. I'll fight." He extended the claws on his paw meaningfully.
"I almost feel sorry for Sheba," Kern said in a grim chuckle, scurrying away.
Yes, he was what he was now. He just didn't know what it meant, or where it would take him.
But there were more pressing and immediate matters. The clipper had stopped shooting at them, obviously realizing that magic was defending their prey, but they were still coming. Sheba knew that Kern had magical defense, but she seemed unconcered about it. That meant that she had to have some kind of contingency for dealing with--
The priest. He remembered that priest from when they were in Roulet. No doubt he would use his own magic in support of Sheba. Tarrin had no idea what kind of magical powers a priest had, but Sheba's willingness to pit her priest against the magic Kern commanded was obvious. That meant that he had to be a good priest.
Dolanna couldn't do anything about it. A Sorcerer could prevent a priest from using magic, but she was totally occupied with maintaining the sheild of air that was protecting them from being mauled by the clipper's cannons. And Tarrin didn't know how it was done.
A plan was forming in his mind. He rushed away from the stern and up to Binter, who was standing between Keritanima and the clipper, using his body to shield her. His massive warhammer was in his hand, and his expression was just as stony as usual. "Binter, a question."
"What is it, Tarrin?"
"How far do you think you can throw me?"
Binter's black eyes fluttered slightly. "Well, I never thought to consider that," he admitted. "Judging by your weight, I would say a good ten feet."
"In spans, Binter."
"About twelve spans."
Tarrin turned and looked out over the stern. "When the clipper attacks, what will it do?"
"If she is interested in capturing us, she will try to come up alongside and secure us with grappling hooks," Binter replied. Binter was well schooled in myriad forms of combat, on both land and sea. As was only proper for the royal bodyguard. "If she intends to sink us, she'll try to come up and get her broadside to us. She'll be close to do it, so all her guns hit. No more than fifty feet--about sixty five spans."
"So no matter what, the ship will try to come up alongside," Tarrin said. "And they'll be no further than sixty spans away." It would work. He'd jumped extreme distances before, and this time he would both have a boost and he'd be carrying a rope and grapple to snag into their rigging.
No, there was a better way. A much more effective way.
"Nevermind, Binter," he said. "I think I can do it without pulling you away from Kerri."
"Sheba knows we have magicians aboard, and that doesn't scare her. I think it's because of her priest. I'm going to take that advantage away."
"Tarrin, you cannot single-handedly take on an entire complement of Wikuni sailors," Binter told him adamantly. "Especially these sailors. They are all very experienced pirates, and that means that they are very good in a fight."
"You have a better idea?"
"Yes, I do," he replied bluntly. "Let's first see what they intend to do. If they try to sink us, we'll do it your way. If they try to board us, let's do it mine."
Tarrin gave him a long look. "Alright, it's a deal."
The entire complement of the Star of Jerod watched in tense anticipation as the black clipper approached from the stern. It was no longer firing, but Dolanna maintained the shield to ensure that they didn't catch them unawares. The strain of holding it for so long was clearly showing on the faces of all four of them, and Tarrin realized that they wouldn't have anything left after they stopped.
The thought of his exhausted sisters, Dar, and Dolanna standing to face a swarm of angry pirates made his blood burn. No less than the thought that gentle Miranda would have to take up a weapon and defend herself from bloodthirsty brigands. They'd never make it that far, he'd make sure of it. He rushed below decks and picked up his staff, then secured it onto his back with a length of frayed rope. Then he returned above decks and found a coil of rope and a grappling hook, his face stony enough to make the concerned sailors get anything he asked for. Once he had everything he needed, he effortlessly and gracefully climbed the mainmast, getting himself up onto the highest yardarm. The sail attached to that wooden beam snapped and swayed in the wind, but Tarrin's feet and balance allowed him to walk upon it as if it were solid earth. He squatted down, his claws finding purchase in the wood, and tied the grappling hook to the rope. He snarled as his oversized fingers had trouble threading the eye of the hook with the rope, and he had to center himself and give himself human hands to do it. The pain of it only sharpened his resolve, and burning green eyes turned to look at the black clipper as it quickly advanced on them from the rear.
Tying the end of the rope to his wrist, just below the manacle, he stood on the yardarm and waited. The wind snapped at his shirt and trousers, ruffed his fur, even pulled at his tail. From that high up, he could see the Wikuni on the deck of the ship, fur and feathers and scales of them visible to him as the animal-people efficiently maximized the wind with their many, many sails and caught up to the galleon at a very brisk pace. His sharp eyes caught sight of Sheba and her priest, standing by the helm just as Kern had done, and she was pointing around and shouting orders.
"Tarrin!" someone barked from the deck. He looked down, and saw that it was Miranda. Sisska was standing beside her protectively, her huge axe in her hand and ready, but the other had Miranda by the shoulder, and she was pulling her away. "What are you doing?" When he didn't answer, he could even see the surprise in her eyes from that distance. "Are you crazy?" she demanded.
Maybe he was. He wasn't really scared at what he had planned. It was more of a calm emptiness, a knowledge that he had to do it to protect his friends. He knew what he had to do, and he understood the danger involved. He wasn't about to let Sheba overrun them and either sink them or flood their decks with her pirates. He could take the fight to the clipper, and he was certain that with him on deck, they wouldn't be thinking about boarding the galleon. They'd be much too busy.
The ship was a stone's throw away. At least for him. The men aboard had abandoned some posts and taken up weapons, and several men stood on the port side with grappling hooks in hand. Sheba meant to board. That was so much the better. The group of ten men at the bow with bows were the immediate concern, for the clipper wasn't too far from coming around the shield that Dolanna had raised, and that would expose the crew to arrow fire.
It was time. He was within reach of it now.
Exploding from the squat near the mast, he raced along the yardarm, grappling hook in his paw. When he reached the edge of it, he pushed off at an angle, sending him soaring away from the ship and towards the stern, some hundred and more spans in the air. That altitude increased as he rose in an arc above the yardarm, giving him distance away from the ship, and for a fleeting moment he felt as if he were flying over the waves. But the arc reached its zenith, and he began to fall.
About halfway down towards the water, the grappling hook in his hand began to spin, and then was launched at the clipper. He was directly in front of it, almost perfectly in line with the bowsprit, and the fifty spans of rope that had been coiled in his hand zipped out and away as the grapple lanced towards the black ship. The grapple struck the foremast just above where the ropes holding the spinnaker sails were anchored. The instant it hit, he yanked on the rope, locking it into the rigging, and he tightened the slack with another tug, then grabbed the rope with both paws and heaved. The move caused him to careen towards the clipper in a sharp turn of direction, as his inhuman strength served to yank him towards the clipper.
It was going to be close. Tarrin cut the rope tied to his wrist with a claw and pulled his staff from his back even as he twisted in the air, using his cat-given agility and innate sense of where he was in the air and how he was aligned with the ground--or the sea, in this case. The clipper had been further away than he thought. He'd been aiming for the bow, but he was short. He adjusted himself for the bowsprit, the long pole extending from the bow to which the spinnaker sails and the stay lines for the masts were attached.
The landing was hard, but it was successful. Tarrin landed right at the very tip of the bowsprit, but his force caused his foot to slide out from under him. He grabbed the sprit with his free paw as he tumbled past it, and his arm yanked slightly out of its socket as his claws drove into the wood and arrested his fall. The shock shuddered through the half-healed claw wounds in his stomach, gifts from the Were-cat female, but the pain only served to focus him even more on his task. He was back on the sprit quickly, staff in hand, and he could see the archers through the ropes tied to the wooden spar. Some of them had seen him land, and they looked astonished.
There was no time to recover. Exploding from the crouch he stood in after climbing back onto the sprit, he charged directly through the ropes, cutting them with the claws on his free paw and sending sails flapping into the wind as he rushed up the length of the bowsprit. The archers began to call an alarm and turn their bows in his direction, but it was too late. He came off the bowsprit and was on the deck in a heartbeat, and two more steps brought him right into the midst of the archers. Only one had had the time to draw his bow, but the dog-faced Wikuni wouldn't have a chance to aim.
Staff in paws, Tarrin cut the Wikuni bowmen down with savage efficiency, swinging the ironwood staff with his impressive might. Every swing broke bows and bones, crushed organs, even took the heads right off a couple of his enemies. His opponents didn't have weapons to counter his staff, and he killed them all before they had a chance to run, even to draw their cutlasses. The blazing speed of his attack combined with their surprise at his appearance to doom them, and the ten Wikuni lay dead within heartbeats of Tarrin's arrival on deck. "Repel the boarder! Repel the boarder!" someone shouted ahead of him, and Wikuni that had once been gathered along the port now charged to the bow to deal with Tarrin. They were disorganized, attacking as a group of men rather than an armed body, and Tarrin grinned viciously when he saw that. The faster ones were going to reach him before the slower ones, allowing him to kill them one at a time rather than have to fight them all at once.
With an incoherent roar, Tarrin charged the armed sailors, and that made the lead Wikuni, a big lion Wikuni, stop dead in his tracks. Tarrin bored into him, knocking his sword aside and striking him with the forearm of his other paw, then picking him up and carrying him along. Tarrin heard the cracking of his ribs and the whooshing of air from his lungs as Tarrin picked him up, then used him as a living battering ram, slamming the Wikuni's back into the next closest Wikuni and driving them both to the deck. He was right in their midst then, and Tarrin's conscious mind was joined to his animal instincts, turning him into an effective, efficient killing machine.
Staff whirling, he took on the entire group of Wikuni and their cutlasses. His inhuman speed allowed him to strike and defend in the same breath, and the fury of his attack had put the Wikuni back on their heels. One Wikuni cried out as he was caught right in the belly by a broad sweep of Tarrin's staff, and was picked up and hurled overboard as the Wikuni's body offered absolutely no resistance to the force of the broad swing. Tarrin kicked a man that tried to stab him as he recovered from his swing, then his tail snapped out and struck another Wikuni in the ankle when he tried to attack him from behind, spilling the beaked hawk Wikuni to the deck. The Wikuni were overmatched, surprised, and at a loss to deal with the invader, and Tarrin took full advantage of it. Soon enough the surprise of him would fade, and they would begin to cooperate to deal with him, so he had to do as much damage as possible before they put him on the defensive. He stabbed a Wikuni in the chest with the end of his staff, and the force of his blow plunged the weapon through his breastbone like a spear. Tarrin turned and swept the staff with the body still impaled on the end into a group of four attackers, and they were driven to the deck when the body came free and bowled them over.
The Priest. That was the only reason he was here. Turning away from a trio of attackers, he swept another overboard with a negligent swipe of his staff and charged towards the stern. It was a fast advance, but the Wikuni moved to intercept him. He didn't stop, he simply knocked anyone that tried to slow him down out of the way. He cut a swath of destruction all along the port side, as Wikuni were tumbled over the rail and into the sea or literally trampled over as the Were-cat got them out of its way on its trip to the stern. Head down, ears back, he knocked another man overboard, then felt an icy line run up his left side as another slashed him with his sword as he ran past. The hit aggravated the claw wounds in his belly, causing him to stagger, and he stopped and turned on the sailor with a savage hiss and a snarl, then decapitated him with a single swipe of his staff.
He had to spin aside as an arrow almost went right through his face. Another hit him in the back, just under the right shoulder blade. He dove out of the line of fire of the archers, who were near the stern, and paused behind the mainmast to snake his tail up, wrap around the arrow, then pull it out. It stung like fury, and a glance at the arrowhead showed him why. It was both serrated and barbed, to make the process of pulling it out as painful as possible. A gruesome arrowhead, there. Holding onto the arrow by the feathers, he spun around the mast and flicked it with a snap of his arm, sending it whizzing back down the deck with surprising force. It hit a bear Wikuni in the belly, but it hit sideways, making the wooden shaft snap. But it managed to surprise the Wikuni that were quickly being gathered near the stern to challenge his progress, who were being organized to deal with the inhuman attacker.
They didn't concern him. The Priest was his only objective, and he stubbornly stuck to his plan. Sure, his presence was causing chaos, but that was only a side benefit. Eliminating that Priest was the primary goal. But the wisdom of just charging up on that priest, whom Sheba felt was enough to deal with the magic on Kern's ship, left Tarrin doubting the validity of his plan. He saw a couple more arrows whiz by from his hiding place behind the mast as he considered what may happen if he just ran up the deck. That priest may decide to use magic against him, and it would be crazy to walk into the jaws of a lion. Besides, there were alot of Wikuni between him and the stern, and he didn't relish having to walk through a gauntlet of steel and arrows to reach it. He needed a diversion, something to keep them off his back for long enough to get him to the stern
The mast. Of course! It was worth the risk! Closing his eyes, he centered himself, prepared himself for what he was about to do. He had to do it very quickly. Reaching within to prepare himself, he then reached out, and touched the Weave. The raw power of High Sorcery seemed to respond to him, but the lesser concentration of magic in the region would give him the time to do what he needed to do before it could find him. Weaving together a simple weave of pure air, he focused it down to a line so narrow that it would do the sharpest blade proud. Then, with a broad sweep of his free arm and a growling cry, a gesture to help sharpen his concentration, he released it with all the speed he could put behind it. The effect was a blade of pure air, driven with all the force of the winds of a tornado, and it struck the mainmast right at Tarrin's shoulder level.
There was a loud crack, like the cracking of a whip. The mast shuddered, and a thin, almost invisible line appeared. That same line appeared in a pair of crates behind it, and would have appeared on the necks of the three big cat Wikuni beside them, had not a fountain of blood erupted from them in an instant and sent their heads tumbling from their bodies. But their sudden demise was overlooked as a loud groaning heralded the shifting of the mast in the wind. It slid along its former length, the freed pole beginning to twist now that it found freedom, and the ropes and rigging suddenly went very taut on one side and went very slack on the other. Ropes began to snap and tear, making loud snapping noises like the breaking of branches, and the crow's nest swayed dangerously in the wind. Every eye on the ship looked up just as the mast sagged, broke more of its rigging, and leaned dangerously over. The base of it slid along the smoothly sheared top of the lower half, skidding along that slick surface, until it slid over the edge. The entire mast dropped only a few spans at first, but the massive pressure it placed on the deck planking drove the mast through the deck, and it dropped almost ten spans into the ship. Tarrin scrambled away as deck planking buckled and ripped, snapped like twigs as the mast began to fall to the side, then turn on the rigging that still secured it that had not yet broken. It sent sails flying in all directions and ropes dangling like hanging moss from the spars and yardarms. Most of the Wikuni that were still in the rigging were dislodged by the mast's settling, sending them plummeting either to the deck, or for the lucky ones, into the sea.
The mast tore free of all the ropes holding it up, and it crashed towards the stern like a falling tree, trailing sail and rope behind it. Sailors scrambled in every direction as Tarrin lunged aside, and the mast hit the deck. The entire ship shuddered, and deck planking caved in from the hole in the deck already made by the mast towards the stern. The end of the mast struck the sterncastle, shattering the left corner of it in a deafening collision that send wood flying in every direction. It came to rest laying against the mangled sterncastle, and Tarrin's brief glance told him that it would make a perfect pathway to get to the stern and that priest.
Using the mast as cover, Tarrin began racing towards the stern as soon as the ship was stable enough for him to run. He kept the huge pole between him and the stern, keeping himself out of the eyes of the Wikuni as they shouted and milled around in total shock and confusion. At least until they saw him. When they did, they rushed him with bared weapons, understanding that the invader had somehow brought down the mast, and their very survival now depended on killing him before he could do any more damage. He found himself facing six Wikuni, all cat types, and they quickly moved to encircle him. One of them rushed in to skewer him with his sword, but a negligent flick of his staff sent the Wikuni sailing over the rail and into the sea. He found himself being attacked from almost every direction at once, evading sword slashes in quick succession, reacting sheerly on instinct and Allia's training. He moved like a blade of grass in the wind, bending, shifting, flowing out of the way of the reaping blades, as if he had not a bone in his body. He worked himself to a point where he could retaliate, and the Wikuni behind him crashed to the deck when his tail swept the Wikuni's feet out from under him. That tail snapped around and drove tip first into the belly of the Wikuni to his right, carrying with it enough force to fold the bobcat Wikuni around his tail and take his feet off the deck. Tarrin stepped back into the hole and squared off against the other four, securing his flanks against further attack when a foot came down on the fallen Wikuni's chest with enough impact to shatter his ribcage and cause blood to fountain from his mouth. Tarrin left a bloody footprint when he set that foot back down on the deck, and the other Wikuni paused to glance at the morbid condition of the body.
That was all it took. Twisting around, Tarrin was at a full run before they looked back up at him. He was almost to the sterncastle, and the mast was raising up beside him, leaving room for him to duck under it and cross to the other side. He did that quickly, then with a single leap, cleared the sterncastle and came over its rail. He knew that he had to strike quickly and without hesitation, to get the priest before the priest could use magic against him.
There were four people on the stern. One was Sheba, in her trousers and shirt, and the other was the priest in his tunic. Another was a steersman, and the fourth, a huge reptillian one, reminded him somewhat of Binter and Sisska, but this one had a differently shaped snout.
He never had the chance to land. The priest pointed at him, and a bright white light issued forth from his hand. It turned into a intense white-blue bolt of lightning, and it struck him directly in the chest. Searing, blasting pain roared through him as his vision darkened, and he dimly realized that the impact had thrown him back towards the deck. He felt something sharp and heavy against his legs, then he was tumbling wildly, and then something hit him in the head.
And then he knew no more.
Still locked in a circle, the four Sorcerers watched helplessly as Tarrin made his way up the deck. They still protected the ship's rear quarter against arrow fire, which became more and more sproadic as Tarrin's disruption of the enemy ship took hold. It stopped completely when the mast of the clipper sagged, then came free of its anchorings, crashing to the deck. When that happened, Dolanna broke their circle and wilted visibly. "We no longer need the shield," she panted. "Do what you can where you can." Faalken took hold of Dolanna gently and led her to where she could sit down, for she was drawn and sallow, and the effort of it showed clearly on her face. For Dolanna, it had been exhausting, because she was the one who was leading. The others in the circle would fare much better than her.
Keritanima rushed to the rail with Allia and Dar and watched with something approaching horror as Tarrin appeared again from behind the fallen mast, then vaulted into the air--
--and then was struck my some kind of lightning bolt released from the stern. It struck him like a giant's fist, sending him flying backwards. He bounced off the fallen mast, and between the mast and the deck, Allia and Keritanima clearly saw him hit the rail and then tumble over the side.
"What was that?" Dar asked suddenly, eyes wide. "Is he alright?"
"He went over!" Keritanima said in shock, and then a cold icy hand gripped her around her heart. She'd felt that feeling once before, when Tarrin had been kidnapped by Jula, and she didn't like it. She was stricken with shock and anxiety, uncertain if Tarrin even survived the attack. Tarrin was family to her, the brother she never had, a brother that loved her and cared about her. She felt that cold hand turn suddenly into a raging inferno in her breast, and raw, unmitigated anger and rage roared up in her mind, tinging her vision. How dare they attack her brother! They hurt him!
They would pay!
Fire exploded from her upraised hands as Keritanima shrieked loudly in inarticulate fury, the fire coalescing and condensing down into a ballista-sized arrow of pure fire so bright that it hurt the eyes to gaze upon it. She pointed with a scream, and the bolt of fire lanced towards the black ship faster than the eye could track. It struck in a gunport and drove through like a solid thing, then penetrated the wall behind that, and the wall behind that, until it struck yet another wall and then exploded with terrific force. The explosion blew out the wall where the initial strike could not, and billowing clouds of intense heat and fire, and flaming spears of shattered woord, raged directly into the clipper's main powder magazine. A burning shard of wood penetrated a tightly sealed barrel of gunpowder, and that started a chain reaction of explosions.
The first ripped the side of the ship asunder and send a cloud of sooty fire billowing out from the wound, setting off smaller explosions of powder in the gunchambers that shattered the entire port beam. That explosive shockwave slammed into the galleon, and knocked everyone on the Star of Jerod off their feet. Keritanima and Allia were blown back, Dar landing on top of the Selani as the galleon shuddered away from the force of the blast, sending a few men on the other side of the ship over the rail. The second erupted from around the fallen mast, causing it to shift as fire and explosive force pressed up against its weight.
The third was a thunderous detonation, as the main powder reserves all exploded at once. The entire middle of the ship suddenly disappeared in a horrendously loud blast of fire and smoke, sending shards of wood flying like cannonballs to rake through the galleon's sails and rigging. Keritanima and Allia both screamed in surprise and fear, Dar trying to cover Allia as best he could to shield her from the blast, but their screams were swallowed up by a massive roaring, cracking sound that caused Keritanima's ears to bleed and left her dizzy and dazed. The galleon rocked to the side, almost putting the port rail in the water, and sending men and supplies flying overboard.
When the ship rolled back to where Keritanima could see the clipper, she was horrified. The entire amidships of the vessel was just gone. A gaping hole was there, as if some giant had reached down and scooped out the middle. Her ears were ringing, so she couldn't hear what was going on around her, but her eyes were totally affixed to the black clipper. There was no sign of life aboard, and the ship's bow was beginning to list to starbord as the stern started rolling backwards.
Keritanima was stunned. The ship had literally been blown in half.
Flaming debris, bits of wood, and grisly pieces of what had been living things moments ago began to rain down onto the deck. Keritanima got up onto her knees as Allia angrily pushed Dar aside and rose herself. She was overwhelmed. She had single-handedly destroyed the Black Clipper, and had probably killed the notorious Sheba the Pirate. But that wasn't made her face so horrified. She didn't know if Tarrin survived that explosion. The thought that she may have killed her own brother was simply too much for her to face.
Eyes rolling back into her head, Keritanima sagged forward, and then fainted dead away.
The crew of the Star of Jerod watched in stunned silence as the two halves of the ship settled, listed, then slipped silently beneath the waves.