Fel (James Galloway)
Honor and Blood
The morning air was cold, crisp, something that seemed unnatural for being just a few days past midsummer. The dry air, devoid of moisture, would lose the fiery heat of the day very quickly after sundown, plunging the dry savannah into surprisingly cool temperatures. The sun was a dim reddish disc on the horizon, calling the creatures of the day to awaken and begin their daily search for food and water, their daily watches for danger, their daily inspections of their territories. It also called to the nightdwellers as well, a call that their night of searching for food, of stalking, was complete, and that they had earned their rest. It was the changing of the guard, the transfer of ownership of the arid steppes from one class of creature to another, it was a cycle that had taken place countless times in the past, and would continue countless times in the future. The first stirrings of the wind, which blew as the air heated during the morning and again as it cooled after sundown, had begun to unsettle the widely spaced raintrees and other exotic flora of this strange land, causing stirring herd animals to shiver as the sun's warmth began to heat the cold air, causing small burrowing creatures to retreat into the warm safety of their dens. The huge herd animals, large, shaggy brown beasts with large horns, had started to move again, along with the white-and-black striped horse-like animals that tended to group with them, beginning to search for water.
But not every animal belonged to this ecosystem of great beasts. Sitting on a small, dead log was an animal that looked as if it belonged in a woman's boudoire than on the massive savannahs of Yar Arak. It was a cat, a large black cat, wearing a simple collar of black metal. The log was on a gentle rise, the closest thing approaching high ground in the flat terrain, and the small animal was surveying the movements of the great herd animals with mild curiosity. The cat blinked slowly, turning its head to look at a pride of great cats, lions, as they began to settle down in an area of high grass, done with their night's hunting. Predator and prey shared this great land, supporting one another and forming the web of interdependence that made life possible. The singular cat understood this, deep in its soul, for it was indeed a part of the great cycle that existed here.
Only in different ways.
The cat was no normal animal. It wasn't even a true animal. It was a Lycanthrope, a Were-beast, a being that was both human and infused with the essence of a specific animal. Part man, part animal, these unique beings existed in both worlds, living on the narrow ground that existed between human civilization and the great engine of nature. Within the small cat was the instinctual knowledge and impulses of his animal kind, as well as a human intelligence and comprehension. Unlike the animals around him, the small cat had more on his mind than food, water, and safety. He had a great many things on his mind, and very few of them were pleasant.
His name was Tarrin, and he was a Were-cat. He had not always been so, however. He had been born human, raised on a small frontier village called Aldreth, in a faraway land called Sulasia. Misfortune had brought the Cat inside him, had changed him into what he was, what seemed like an eternity ago, though it had only been a little under a year. In that year he had undergone many changes, more than simply his exterior appearance. What had been a carefree, curious, good-natured young man had turned dark, suspicious, even a little sadistic. Repeated betrayals and pressure from those around him had caused him to turn feral, to reject contact from strangers and outsiders, and it had become second nature to him to react with violence to things that he did not like or understand. But that too was a part of him, a part that he accepted stoically. Though he did things that occasionally haunted him, what he was had saved his life more than once.
And he needed that now. At that moment, he was the most sought-after being on the face of the planet. Carried with him in a magical elsewhere created by the magical collar around his neck was an ancient artifact called the Book of Ages, an artifact he had stolen from the Empress of this vast kingdom, who was herself inhuman. Within the pages of the Book of Ages, he had learned, lurked the location of an artifact known as the Firestaff, a legendary device that, when held at a certain time, would grant the holder the power of a god. That artifact was what he was after, at the behest of the Goddess of the Weave, his goddess, to gain ownership of that artifact and prevent it from being used by anyone. It was the most important thing in the world. If someone got the Firestaff and used it to become a god, the other gods would be forced to rise up and destroy the interloper, and that would create devastation on the face of Sennadar not seen since the cataclysmic Blood War.
But there were motivations, and there were motivations. Tarrin did not care about the world. He didn't care about the people who lived within it, he didn't care whether they suffered or not. Being Were, and being feral, had changed his outlook on things, had altered the value he placed on the lives of unknown people. He did not care about the world that did not exist within his territory. What he was doing was being done because the Goddess had told him to do it, not because he felt any noble need to protect humanity. It was being done because she told him to do it, it was being done because there was a little girl in Suld named Janette, a beautiful little girl who had saved him from madness, who was depending on him to protect the world that would be hers when she grew up. Tarrin did not care about the world, but he did care about Janette. Janette's life depended on this world, and that made it Janette's world in his eyes. That Janette's world would be the world he saved was nothing but fortunate coincidence. The world meant nothing to him, unless its importance was attached to someone for whom he cared.
In this he was a somewhat unwilling player, and what was behind him made him all that much more unhappy. He turned to look at them, on the horizon. Hundreds of individual campsites, each of which held at least one person who was chasing him. They couldn't find him right now, because when the Book of Ages was kept in the elsewhere, it could not be located by magical means. But as soon as he changed shape, returned to his natural form, their spells of location would work again, and they would be after him. They were all after the book. They all had dreams of acquiring the Firestaff and using it to gain ultimate power, unaware that that power would be the herald of their own destruction. It fell upon him to save them from their own foolishness, whether he wanted to or not. It was just as Shiika had said. Every two-copper mage and apprentice in Arak was bearing down on him, for their spells could now locate the Book of Ages. Most were behind, but he'd had encounters with some who attacked from the front, moving in from a city he had passed two days ago. That kept him on his toes now, for there were more Arakite cities between him and the border of Saranam, and the mages within them were no doubt moving in his direction. The Book of Ages almost seemed to be calling to them, beckoning, urging them to come to it and sample the vast knowledge locked within its ancient pages. It was the only explanation he could think of for so many to be coming after him.
But he preferred it that way. He had come out here, changed into humanoid form intentionally to lure them, to protect the others. For nine days he had moved northwest, into the heartland of this vast savannah, to draw these pursuers away from his sister and his friends. If anything happened to them, the stress may make him go insane. Allia was his sister, but by bonds of powerful love and friendship rather than blood. She was Selani, a race of tall, lithe beings that dwelled in the Desert of Swirling Sands, a race of peoples who lived and died by a code of honor and proper behavior. She and him had been together since she had arrived at the Tower, and the time there had forged between them a deep love that could not be broken. Tarrin loved his sister in a way that nearly defied rational explanation. It wasn't a romantic love, it was a deep, boundless love that he had always felt towards his family. Allia was family to him, his sister, and he was so serious about their ties that he had allowed her to brand his shoulders in the Selani rite of adulthood, just so she could feel more like he was a part of her life. They had been separated from him, and his heart yearned for them every moment he had time to think. But it was necessary. If he were with them, aboard the circus ship Dancer, they would be in extreme danger. He wouldn't risk that. He had already lost one of his precious friends, Faalken, killed by a powerful undead being called a Doomwalker, who was sent by an organization called the ki'zadun to find and destroy him. He would not lose another friend to death. He had vowed it. On the land, where he had command of his own speed and direction, he was more than a match for any pursuer. His inhuman endurance allowed him to outpace a horse. He couldn't outsprint one, but over distance he could run a horse to death. He probably had run a few to death, since his pursuers had managed to keep up with him. But they'd be gone soon enough. For nine days he had led them away from Dala Yar Arak at a pace intentionally slower than what he could comfortably maintain, had kept the attention of absolutely everyone who had any interest in the Book of Ages, had kept them following him rather than attempt to kidnap his friends to secure his cooperation. He would move at his slower pace for one more day, giving his sister and friends a ten-day head start, and then he would simply disappear from them. He would not shift into humanoid form anymore, he would not bring the book out to where they could use their magic to find it. And then he would simply slink away, leaving them running in circles to find him.
It was a very simple plan, simple yet very effective. Or so he hoped. Sarraya had thought that one up. The little Faerie, who had lost her wings in the vicious battle with the Demon who had been guarding the book, was sitting down at the base of the log, dozing a bit before another day of being carried along on his head. She was the only friend he had now, the only one he could talk to. She was irreverant, combative, a bit surly because she couldn't fly until her wings grew back, but he could understand her irritation. When not fuming over not being able to fly, she kept him distracted, entertained, with wild stories and crass humor. Faeries were punsters, pranksters, flighty and impulsive, with a bent for humor and self-gratification. But she had managed to subvert her own impulses around him, mainly because he wouldn't tolerate being the butt of her practical jokes. She had learned that lesson the hard way, a long time ago. A very hard lesson. He looked down at her. The gossamer haltar and skirt she wore were dirty and bedraggled, not a little torn, but her bluish skin was clean and shiny, and her reddish auburn hair was clean and neat. She had healed herself of her broken bones with her considerable Druidic magic, but for some strange reason she couldn't cause her wings to regrow. He had offered to heal her with Sorcery, but she had refused. She had told him that her wings had to regrow naturally, that it was important to her health and her ability to use her innate magical abilities. He didn't understand that response, but he would abide by her wishes. She wasn't that heavy, even when she had to ride him like a horse when he was in cat form.
The nine days had replenished him as well. The activity had been good for him, and he felt fully restored after the vicious battle against the huge Demon that had been guarding the book. It had been a momentous thing for him, for he had learned great things that day. Tarrin was a Sorcerer, a being that had a natural connection to the matrix of magical energy that surrounded the world, a matrix known as the Weave. Tarrin was more than an ordinary Sorcerer, however. He was called a Weavespinner, a being who had the ability to call upon the might of High Sorcery alone, a being who could directly affect the Weave itself, something that a normal Sorcerer could not do without being linked together to combine their powers.
But the battle with the Demon had showed him something new, something different. Tarrin had used a spell of Druidic magic to finally defeat the monster, something that he never knew he could do. It was something that he thought was impossible. It was decreed by the Allmother, the Elder Goddess Ayise, ruler of the gods, that no mortal would be permitted to wield more than one order of magical power. But Tarrin had used two. The Goddess had explained to him that it was because he was not mortal that this was allowed to be. Tarrin--all Were-cats, for that matter--were blessed with the ability to regenerate any wound not inflicted by magic, silver, or raw natural forces or unworked weapons of nature. Aging did not seem to fall into any of those categories, so a Were-cat's body regenerated the effects of aging, rendering them virtually immortal. A Were-cat lived until something killed it. That made Tarrin more than mortal, something other than natural, and it allowed him to transcend that limitation and gain the ability to use more than one type of magic.
He hadn't told Sarraya yet. He didn't quite know how to broach the subject with her. Sarraya was a Druid, a very powerful Druid, and she could teach him how to use Druidic magic. But he wasn't quite ready to ask her yet, not until she got her wings back and wasn't quite so cross all the time.
The Demon worried him a little bit, for that fight reminded him of Shiika, the Demoness who actually ruled Yar Arak. She had been conspicuously absent after he killed the mortal Emperor she used to rule her empire, and levelled a good deal of the gladitorial stadium where he had caught up with her. She had kidnapped his friends, annoyed him, made him very mad, so he had retaliated on a very grand scale, disrupting her very government by assassinating the Emperor she controlled. The invasion of her Palace to claim the book from her still confused him. He had buried her in rubble, but he had been in the Palace too long. She must have freed herself. Why didn't she come for the book? Perhaps she feared him. Tarrin's powerful Sorcery could cancel out her Demonic magic, and he had found a sword that could harm a Demon after she destroyed his Ironwood staff. Only objects not of this world could injure Demons, and the staff and sword were both otherworldly in nature. But that wasn't like Shiika. The Demoness never had to challenge him to simply take the book and hide it from him. Now that he'd had time to calm down, he had to admit to himself that in a strange way, he liked the Demoness. She really hadn't been that serious about killing him. She did attempt to warn him off first, only trying to kill him after he ignored her warnings. And though she had kidnapped his friends to gain his cooperation, she did release them without being forced to do so. That told him that there was more to Shiika than he had first seen. A great deal more.
Tarrin's Were-cat mind wasn't like human minds. What Shiika did in the past didn't hold as much water for him as it would for a human. Tarrin did not hold grudges. What was past was past. He'd tried to kill his own friends and family before, and he meant it at the time. But after he calmed down, it was as if it had never happened. It was the nature of Were-cats to be that way. Their fiery, unpredictable, and aggressively violent natures had earned them the distrust and scorn of the rest of the forest-dwelling beings, a loose society known as Fae-da'Nar, but that too didn't really bother the Were-cats very much. They did as they did, and they made no excuses for it. It was who they were. Shiika's harms against him were balanced by her acts of contrition, not challenging him over the book, releasing his friends, so it gave her a clean slate in his mind. If he met her again, she would neither be friend nor enemy.
Not that he would trust her. Tarrin's feral nature did not allow him to trust strangers. He could barely tolerate being around them. But trusting a Demoness would be insanity, even if he lacked that distrustful nature.
He looked to the sunrise. He was going the other way, to the west, a very long journey before him. He had to return to the Tower of Sorcery, the base of power for the organization of Sorcerers known as the katzh-dashi. The Goddess herself had told him to go there, because the information in the book was useless unless the book was in the Tower. He had not opened the book yet--he had no intention of opening it until he was in Suld--so he had no idea exactly why he had to go to Suld. But he would not disobey his goddess, no matter how nonsensical her instructions were. She told him to go to Suld, so he was going to Suld. She also told him not to get on a ship, and he would not get on a ship. That meant that he had to travel across the entire continent on foot, would have to traverse the arid savannahs of Yar Arak, the dusty plains of Saranam, he would have to cross the Desert of Swirling Sands and climb the Sandshield Mountains, he would even have to travel across Arkisia and the Frontier to return to Sulasia, but that was the way things were.
It would be a very long journey, but it was a journey he would undertake willingly. He would do anything the Goddess asked him to do. If she told him to jump into a bonfire, he would do it. He was a faithful child of the Goddess, and he would do her bidding. Not because he feared her or revered her, but because he loved her. His relationship with the Goddess was much more than goddess and mortal. It was personal, even loving, for she often directly spoke to him to give him instructions, grant him her wisdom, or nurture him in times of despair or confusion. Her interest in him, her gentle aid, her love, her devotion to him had sealed him to her, had caused him to give her something that he would never give to another.
His undying loyalty.
He was her faithful child, and he would do as Mother asked, no matter what it cost him.
It had become much stronger than it had been only days ago. The trials of finding the Book of Ages had awakened his faith, had cemented it within him stronger than it had ever been before, had blessed him with a strange contentment and happiness he had never known before. It was the contentment only a follower could feel when touched by the love of his goddess. He could still feel it there, a strange connection to the Goddess that never seemed to go away, like a ghostly finger that reached down from the heavens and pointed into his soul. But he welcomed it.
Blinking, he looked down at Sarraya again. It was nearly time for them to go. One more day of moving at a pace just enough to kill their horses. He had found that it was quite an art to run a horse to death. He couldn't leave them in the dust, because it would discourage their riders. On the other hand, he couldn't let them get close enough for those riders to throw magical spells at him. So he had found that keeping them about ten minutes behind him, where he was more than well in sight yet beyond the range of any of the magical spells, was the most effective. Being able to see him spurred them on, caused them to push their mounts past the point of exhaustion, literally running them into the ground. He never looked back once he found his pace, unless the sound they made changed in some way to make him check, so he wasn't sure exactly how many horses had died in a vain attempt to catch up to him.
Now that this phase of his plan was nearly over, he began to consider the next. It would be daunting, surely. He would have to travel from the middle of Yar Arak to the other side of Saranam, a distance of at least five hundred leagues, in cat form. And his cat form was not large. It would take him months to do it, but he had no real choice in the matter. Those chasing him would certainly realize that he was fleeing back towards the West, and would overtake him in his slower form and try to catch him as he went through. But most of them probably had no idea how stealthy a black cat could be in the middle of the night. Tarrin had no intention of moving around during the day. He was a creature of the night, more at home under the Skybands and the four moons than under the sun, and in the darkness he would have an overwhelming advantage over his pursuers. The only reason he was running during the day was to ensure that they kept chasing him, that they didn't turn and try to go after his sister and his friends.
Some were safer than others. Tarrin still desperately missed Keritanima, and Miranda and the Vendari and Azakar. They were his friends, but Keritanima was more than that. She was like Allia, a sister in all but blood, the third of the tightly knit trinity of non-humans that had fled from the Tower of Sorcery so long ago. Keritanima was Wikuni, one of the animal-people from across the sea, and she was a princess. She had tried to flee from her duty, but her father had chased her down and captured her. The Wikuni soldiers that had carried out the abduction had nearly killed him, shooting him with a silver-tipped arrow to prevent him from protecting Keritanima when they abducted her. That was why she was so angry. Keritanima was brilliant, highly intelligent and cunning, but she had grown up alone, fearing her own family. Tarrin and Allia were her new family, the only family she trusted, so much so that she too had been branded in the Selani rite of adulthood, just so she could belong. Belong in a way that she had never belonged among her conniving, murderous family, a family where her father and two sisters had repeatedly tried to have her murdered. Her father, because he thought that she wasn't fit to rule, and her sisters just to get another obstacle between them and the throne out of the way. Her father's misjudgment of her had been intentional. Keritanima had used an alter-ego she affectionately called the Brat, acting like an empty-headed, vapid, spoiled brat to cause people to seriously underestimate her intelligence and skill at intrigue, a facade that had been so overwhelmingly successful that nobody realized that Keritanima was smart or experienced at playing politics. It had been a ruse that protected her, but in its own ways it had also haunted her. Tarrin had the feeling that her deception was part of the reason her father had been so vehement at bringing her back, rather than simply let her go and promote her next-oldest sister to the position of heir apparent. And Keritanima probably would have been very happy about it. But her father had erred badly when he ordered Tarrin killed to keep him from attacking anyone trying to take her. That had been the last straw for Keritanima concerning her family. So she had gone back to Wikuna to teach her father a lesson. Tarrin knew that that lesson involved murdering him somewhere down the line, and when that happened, the Sun Throne of Wikuna would fall to her. She was the crown princess, after all. They had been separated from him nearly two months ago, and he had no idea how they were doing. The amulet he wore would allow him to talk to his Wikuni sister any time he wanted, but part of him was afraid that his voice would interrupt her at a very bad time. She was probably right now either plotting the death of her father or carrying it out, knowing her. He had full faith in her, that she would be sitting on the throne of Wikuna before fall. But until she contacted him, the only way he would know it was safe for her, he would be left guessing.
He would see them again, he was sure of it. Keritanima and Miranda, her maid, a cheeky beauty of a mink Wikuni who held a rather special place in Tarrin's heart. Azakar, the monstrous Mahuut Knight, and Binter and Sisska, the quiet, ever-vigilant Vendari bodyguards that protected Keritanima and her maid at all times. He wanted to talk to Keritanima, to see them again, but he had to wait. Keritanima's safety depended on it, and she didn't seem all that interested in talking to him or Allia. Perhaps what she was doing was too important, too time-consuming for her to spare the time. He certainly hoped so. He knew that she wouldn't forget about them. Keritanima was his sister, and he knew her nearly as well as she knew herself. The ties that bound the three of them together were too powerful for such a paltry thing as a few thousand leagues to get in the way of their relationship.
Keritanima was family. Allia was family.
Tarrin seemed to have a great many families. He had his own natural family, Eron and Elke Kael and his sister Jenna, who were in Ungardt right now to keep themselves out of the chaos going on in Sulasia. Something he was very relieved that they had done. He also had his sisters, Keritanima and Allia, who were all but accepted as sisters by his parents and natural sister. They had never met Keritanima, but his parents had met Allia, had come to know her and love her, and who was welcomed at the Kael hearth at any time. Being bound to Allia, that made them part of her clan, though he had never met any other Selani. The fact that he was brother to a Selani and had to cross Selani lands would not help him. He would only be welcomed by Allia's clan, and only if Allia were with him to introduce him. The Selani would treat him as an enemy, whether he had the brands or not, and that was something for which he was prepared. He also had his Were-cat bond-mother, Triana, who served as his mother and protector among the Were-cat society, and whom he also loved. She was much like his natural mother, direct and outspoken, and he loved her just as much as he did Elke Kael. Though Triana was his mother, her daughters were of no relation to him.
That fact made him somewhat relieved. Jesmind, Triana's daughter, was the one that had turned him Were. They had had a very stormy relationship, full of both love and hate, and for some reason he could never forget her. When he thought of a female, he thought of Jesmind almost every time. Tarrin had very complicated feelings for the fiery-haired Were-cat, running from fascination and intense attraction to furious hatred. He had been attracted to her from the first time they met, but actions both of them undertook caused them to be enemies. That was when he hated Jesmind, and thinking about the times she tried to kill him still made his blood burn a little bit. He figured he felt that way because of the way he felt about her. Tarrin was still attracted to Jesmind, intensely so, and her turning on him had been a violation of his feelings all the way to the core. Even now, he yearned to see her again, though he wasn't sure if he'd kiss her or try to strangle her if they met face to face. The fiery intensity of their feelings for one another had caused more than a few rather complicated situations during their brief yet tumultuous time together. She had tried to kill him more than once, but she had also seduced him on two separate occasions. She was very forward with her feelings, and hadn't held anything back from him. Jesmind was just as attracted to him as he was to her, and despite the rocks they had stumbled over, they had parted more or less on amicable terms. Jesmind had had to leave, though she wouldn't tell him why. He knew that whatever it was, it had to be important for her to abandon him. At that time, she had taken responsibility for his learning to be a Were-cat and his well-being, and Jesmind was never one to shirk a responsibility. If it had been serious enough for her to leave him, then he was satisfied that her reasons were good enough. He had been a little mad at her for leaving him alone, though. Even when they hated each other, her proximity had given him a very strange feeling of security. She had been his bond-mother at that time, and it was like the child within was responding to the presence of mother, even though he had hated her. That part of him took comfort that she would be close to him, and he hadn't appreciated how much it helped soothe him until after she was gone.
Jesmind had managed to capture his interest, even now, but thinking of her made him give a moment of thought to Mist. Mist was another Were-cat, a Were-cat whose feral nature was so severe that she wouldn't even trust her own kind. Her mental state had come about because she had been wounded long ago, wounded in a way that made her barren, and her inability to have a child of her own had hardened her to the rest of the world. Were-cats were beings grounded in instinct, and in the females of their kind there was no instinct more powerful than the instinct to reproduce and care for the young. The denial of that most primal of instincts had probably been one of the reasons she was so intensely feral, being denied the one thing she felt she was born to do, taken away from her by the hatred and anger of humans. But Tarrin had healed her of her barren condition, an act of impulsive compassion, an act that had caused the feral Were-cat to reach out to him and place her trust in him, the first time in centuries she had placed her trust in another. Tarrin had felt so sorry for her. She had been so tortured inside. He had such compassion for her that he had agreed to father a child for her, her own child, the one thing that would make her life complete. His human morality had been a bit outraged at the idea, it still was, but even it could not deny the lonely Were-cat the one thing in this world she had wanted above all others.
Were-cat males didn't have a hand in the raising of the young. After making her pregnant, she had left him, left him to return to her home to prepare for the coming of her child. Tarrin hoped that she was well, and that the child would bring everything she hoped it would bring. After all she had suffered through, she needed some happiness in her life. Mist trusted him, something he was very proud about, something that he appreciated for its great value. He hoped she was well.
The sun was nearly fully above the horizon. Sarraya groaned slightly and stretched her arms, then sat up and yawned languidly. When she did so, he could see her bare back, a back that looked unusual with no diaphonous, multicolored wings attached to them. She had two small ridges on each side of her spine, where her wings attached so they wouldn't hit her back when they fluttered, and the slits where her wings had been were still raw, open wounds. He worried about them getting infected, but she had blown off his concern with that same careless frivolity that she used for anything that didn't interest her. She turned and looked up at him quietly, then her tiny, pretty face broke into a bright smile. Amber eyes gazed up at him, glowing in the morning sun, and he returned her gaze calmly.
"Tarrin," she hummed. "You should have woke me up. It's already past sunrise."
"You needed to rest," he answered in the unspoken manner of the Cat, a language of silent intent that all felines used to communicate with one another, a language that the Faerie could understand. "They needed to rest as well."
"Them," he answered, nodding his head towards the southeast. "They can't keep up if their horses start dying ten minutes after they start moving."
Sarraya laughed in her piping, very high-pitched voice, a voice created by the fact that she was only about a span tall. The sprite could squeak like a mouse if she wished to do so, her voice capable of reaching such high tones that no human or creature human sized could manage to find. "You're certainly caring today," she grinned. "I didn't know you cared about them."
"Not them. I do feel a bit sorry for their horses, though."
Sarraya laughed again, standing up. "Well, let me conjure up something to eat, and then we can move. You hungry?"
He shook his head. "I caught a couple of mice before dawn."
The hunting had calmed him. In cat form, the instincts dominated him, and so he found absolutely nothing wrong with stalking, killing, and eating mice and other prey suitable for a cat, or doing any of the other little things that cats did. He had a particular fondness for squirrel, though none lived in the savannahs of Yar Arak. The rhythmic ritual of hunting had caused him to concentrate on it, to distract himself from his worries, and it had made him feel better.
And those strange long-tailed mice were rather tasty.
He watched absently as Sarraya conjured forth a few large blackberries, which seemed to be her favorite. She rarely used her Druidic magic, and because of that, he only understood a few of the things that it could do. He had seen her Conjure many times, to cause to appear small objects and materials, seemingly from thin air. Related to that was Summoning, the apperance of a specific object by bringing it magically to the Druid's hand. That had been what he had used against the Demon in their battle, Summoning his dropped sword to his paw after the Demon had grabbed him and was threatening to crush him. He had seen her heal, a curious healing that was affected by magically accelerating the subject's own healing mechanisms. Aside from those and the fact that Druidic power had a controlling influence on the Weave and Sorcery, he had never seen her do anything else. He knew that she could use Druidic magic to send messages to other Druids, who were distant from her, and Triana somehow used her Druidic magic to cross an entire continent in the span of a day.
He wondered how Triana was doing. She was with his friends now, taking care of Jula. Jula had been his enemy, a human female Sorceress who had been secretly working for the ki'zadun. She had betrayed him, locked a magical collar around his neck to enslave his will. He had escaped, and in retaliation, had ripped out a section of her spine and left her to bleed to death. But she had managed to procure a vial of his blood, and used it to escape death, to drink it and become a Were-cat herself. But unlike him, she could not control the beast within, and it had driven her mad. The ki'zadun had sent her to Dala Yar Arak, a mindless, rampaging beast, to have her wreak havoc and cause the populace to turn against him and slow him down as he searched for the Book of Ages. He could have killed her, but he didn't. He had had something of a moral epiphany, looking down at her filthy, naked body, and had found it in himself to pity her. He took her for his own daughter instead of killing her, separating her instincts from her conscious mind with Sorcery, giving her a second chance. She had been loyal to him after that, because she understood that her only hope of finding balance within herself was to listen to him. He'd only had her for a few days, before all the insanity with Shiika had turned everything on its head. But even in that short time, he'd seen marked progress. Triana had come to complete her training, and he felt more than confident that his aged, wise bond-mother could be as successful with Jula as she had been with him. Not that Jula would like it very much. Triana didn't know Jula, and she knew that Jula had once betrayed him. Triana could be a bit rough with people she didn't like, but he wasn't afraid that Triana would just give up on his bond-daughter. She would do her best to help Jula find her inner peace, to keep her from going insane again. He knew his bond-mother, knew her well.
He hadn't felt anything from Jula's bond for a few days now. When he decided to take her for his own child, he had taken her bond, a mystical connection to her brought about by taking her blood. It was something that all Were-cats could do, probably an extension of their affinity for Druidic magic, and he used it to gauge Jula's mental state and her general location. He could feel it when she experienced powerful emotion or physical pain, something that hadn't happened for a few days. He had known when Jula had met Triana for the first time, judging by the panic that roared through her. She had felt several other episodes of powerful emotion since then, but nothing that compared to that first tidal wave of fear.
Tarrin's feelings for Jula were rather complex. He still didn't like her very much, but his parental duty to her overrode his distaste. She had proved herself to him during those short days, by fighting with him against Shiika's minions, by doing as she was told with no argument. His dislike for her had eased during those days, but his dislike was overshadowed by his powerful, instinctual impulse to protect who he considered to be his own offspring. Jula was his daughter by choice and by bond, and he had a responsibility to her that superseded his own personal feelings. Even among the males, who had little to do with the raising of a child, the instinct to protect the young was powerful, nearly overwhelming. Shiika had come to discover just how far Tarrin would go to protect his child, a lesson that had cost her a few thousand of her Arakite citizens and more than a few buildings. Were-cats were deeply based in their instincts, and the rages that could be spawned when those instincts were excited or outraged could be extreme.
He felt...incomplete. Now he knew how Jesmind felt when he had run away from her, a feeling that made what she did afterward much more lucid to him. He had a daughter out there, a daughter that was not ready to be on her own, and he could not be there to teach her, to guide her, to protect her. It was infuriating, something that ate at him every time he thought about it. He trusted Triana to continue where he left off, but it wasn't the same. He'd be almost insane with worry if Triana wasn't there, and would probably have abandoned what he was doing to seek her out and reclaim her. That was how powerful the instinct to protect her was within him. It would be worse if he felt constant negative feelings through her bond, but the lack of those bad feelings allowed him to more faithfully lay his trust in Triana.
Sarraya finished her breakfast of berries, then stood up and tugged at her dirty skirt. Both of them looked like they were in desperate need of a bath, and Sarraya's clothes were starting to tear in places that would compromise her modesty. Not that he cared very much. The concept of nudity was a very loose one among Were-cats, who weren't all that impressed by the gratuitous display of things humans preferred to conceal. That change in him from human to Were had been a bit confusing at first, but he had completely shed his human conceptions about it very quickly.
"Looks like they're getting ready to move," Sarraya said, shading her eyes against the morning sun and looking back to where their pursuers were arrayed. "Some of them are moving, coming this way at a walk."
"They're waiting for me to reveal myself to their magic," Tarrin replied sedately. Some of them had mounted up and were slowly moving forward. They knew that Tarrin was somewhere ahead of them, and they were trying to get closer to run him down before their mounts tired. They just didn't realize that Tarrin had kept moving after changing into cat form, nearly half the night, to put them several longspans behind. He doubted that very many of them understood the nature of their quarry. He doubted that even a few of them knew very much about the nature of Were-cats. If they did, they would have abandonded their vain pursuit long ago. They simply would never catch him on open ground. And even if some fluke did allow them to catch up to him, he would turn and attack, and that was something that they would not surive. A Were-cat was as strong as five fully grown human men, even the weakest of their kind had that kind of inhuman power, and he was blessed with the dexterity and agility of the Cat to which he was bonded. In a fight, Tarrin was an absolute nightmare, using his Were gifts with his extensive training in myriad forms of combat to destroy any who challenged. No single human could ever hope to defeat him, and even a large group would have to be lucky to even lay a weapon on him. Even if they did, his Were immunity to any weapon that was not magic, silver, or a raw natural force or unworked weapon of nature would protect him from a vast majority of his pursuer's weapons. Their only true weapon against him was magic, and the fact that Tarrin was a Sorcerer, who could control the very arteries through with their Wizard magic travelled, made their Wizard magic a mere shadow of its former might. Against a Sorcerer, a Wizard was powerless. Without their magic, they had no chance. Tarrin knew that. It didn't make him arrogant or vain, it was more of a simple acceptance of truth. He had fought against Jesmind when he was human, so he understood how powerful a Were-cat could seem to a human in a fight, and he had himself been overwhelmed by Sarraya's Druidic magic, so he could appreciate how having one's magic taken away could turn the tide of a battle.
He could have turned around and attacked them all, slaughtered them to prevent them from threatening his sister and friends, but he didn't want to do that. It wasn't what Triana would do. Triana would simply draw them off, then leave them behind. He had been striving to be less violent lately, since he'd realized that indulging in his first violent impulses was bad for his mental condition, making him even more prone to greater violence. He had slipped badly after Shiika had kidnapped Jula, Allia, and the others, but in retrospect he couldn't blame himself for that. He had killed a few thousand innocent people, but Shiika had done the one thing that she should never have done. Tarrin blamed her for those deaths, not himself. She had provoked him in the worst possible way. Tarrin's protective instincts over Allia and Jula were absolutely overpowering, and when they were in danger, he would react in the most direct manner to protect them, no matter how much damage it caused.
These were no threat, really. They couldn't catch him, and they were now too far away to harm his sister or bond-daughter. Triana wouldn't kill them, so he wouldn't kill them either. He would leave them be. If they got too close to him, then he'd change his mind, but as things were right now, there was no reason to kill them. The only ones who had died were the ones that had come at him from in front, who had ambushed or attacked him. Those who did not challenge him would not be killed. If they wanted to waste their time by following him, that was just fine with him. It was one less person to threaten his family and friends. But they were safe now, safely out to sea where only ships could reach them. And no ship would have a reason to attack an unarmed circus ship, carrying nothing but performers and their gear.
It seemed too little too late, sometimes. He had changed since he had left Aldreth, changed in ways that would horrify his mother. He had become...evil. There was no other way to say it. That truth was something that gnawed at his soul, but not even he could deny it anymore. He no longer cared about the people he had started out to save. He didn't care about their lives, their health, their dreams, their rights to survive. He didn't care about the land or the world, he didn't care about anything anymore. Only those things immediately before him, only those things that were so deeply implanted within him that nothing could alter them, those were the only things he cared about anymore. He was no better than a rampaging Troll, or the calculating Kravon. It was only the cause of the destruction they wrought that differed. Trolls or Kravon destroyed for pleasure, or power. Tarrin destroyed in the name of saving the world, which was itself the greatest irony. Whatever was left of the world when he was done would probably not be very fond of him. Tarrin had killed just as many people as Kravon during this mad quest. He had probably killed more than Kravon. Sometimes Tarrin wondered just who was on which side. And just like Kravon, he didn't think twice about the lives he snuffed out. They were things, objects, inconveniences that stood in his path to victory, and that made them worthless in his eyes. It was ironic that all his striving to become a better person, to conquer the savagery within, had turned him even more cold-blooded.
He was no better than Kravon.
That truth still hurt. He hadn't wanted to turn out this way, and he was trying to pull away from his dark nature. But it wasn't easy. His feral nature made showing mercy or compassion very difficult for him, for he would have to show those things to people he did not trust, and his feral nature would not permit that. He found it nearly impossible to extend his paw to someone his instincts were screaming at him to kill. The only strangers for which he could allow that kind of compassion were children. And even they weren't safe from him. He was certain that he had killed children when he destroyed half the arena in Dala Yar Arak. Beautiful children, innocent children, whose deaths had come simply because they were in his way.
That had been the defining moment, he realized now. When he had turned his power on innocents, when he killed hundreds of people just to slow Shiika down, he had gone beyond the point of reclamation. His attempts to climb out of his pit seemed ridiculous to him. He didn't even understand why he was bothering to continue with it. What he did...there was no absolution for it. None. He had placed a deep black stain on his soul with that heinous act. And even now, he felt very little remorse. He had an awareness that what he did was wrong, but there was no real regret. Given the circumstances, he would do the same thing again. To know that he should feel guilt, to know that he had done wrong, yet feel no remorse for his actions...he didn't know what word described that, but he felt that evil came pretty close to the mark.
There was no grief. There was no happiness, no joy, no fear, no anxiety. There was only the mission. That was all he had left. He had thrown away his life, destroyed his humanity, lost dear friends, sacrificed his very soul, all of it to save a little girl named Janette. That was all there was, now. It was the only thing that motivated him to go on. And she was worth his effort. She had saved him, saved him in ways that nobody could ever understand. He would kill a million people for her, he would die a thousand times for her. He would do absolutely anything he had to do to protect her life, protect the world that she would grow up to inherit. And if it meant casting away everything inside him, if it meant becoming just as ruthless, monstrous, and evil as Kravon, then so be it.
They were getting closer. They would have to leave soon. He considered shapeshifting and going out to destroy them, but he dismissed the idea immediately. It wasn't what Triana would do.
"We have to go, Sarraya," he called calmly.
"I was about to say the same thing," she replied. "You ready?"
"I'm ready," he replied emotionlessly. With barely a thought, Tarrin shapeshifted. The large black housecat was suddenly replaced by a towering, menacing Were-cat male, more than a head taller than a tall man, with a stony expression marring a handsome face, and green cat's eyes that would make a man shiver to stare into them. There was no light in his eyes, only a sinister quality that would make a grown man fear. His cat's ears atop his head shivered, and his tail lashed only once before settling behind him. He reached down and opened his huge paw, holding it flat for the small Faerie. She stepped up into his palm and sat down, and he carefully lifted her up and deposited her on top of his head. He felt her burrow her legs into his hair, sitting right on top of his head and between his ears, then grab hold of his hair with both of her exceptionally tiny hands.
Without changing expression, the towering Were-cat turned and started off towards the northwest at a ground-eating lope, letting his long legs eat up the longspans, a pace that a horse could not match for very long. He didn't look back. He never looked back, unless the sound he heard coming from behind him changed enough to make him curious. He knew that the men behind him suddenly could find him again, and those that hadn't already mounted up and started moving towards him were now scrambling to do so. Those that had already began were spurring their horses into a flat sprint, trying to use their horses' superior speed to catch up to him before they tired out. But Tarrin wasn't all that worried. He was more than five longspans ahead of them, and that was a distance that very few horses could run at top speed. Once they wore out, Tarrin would pull away, and this time he would not slow down to let them keep up with him. By then, they'd understand that the Were-cat was just leading them away, had been playing with them the entire time.
For the entire morning and most of the midday, Tarrin ran effortlessly through the savannah heat, keeping that same pace that had caused those chasing him to fall further and further behind. It wasn't the pace he'd kept before, a pace that allowed them to keep up. This was a murderous pace, a relentless expansion of the ground between him and his pursuers, a pace that killed quite a few of their horses as they attempted to maintain their distance from him. Those that understood that there was no way to catch up to him had broken off or fallen behind, saving their mounts to get them back to civilization. But Tarrin didn't really notice it. His eyes were forward, his mind wandering as it tended to do while he was running, allowing his body to carry through the monotonous motions of running great distances and freeing his mind to pursue other matters. But there were few matters that caught his fancy, causing him to run in a nearly dazed state of unawareness, a sense not of past or future, a condition with which he was familiar. It was the eternal now in which animals lived, where only now mattered. It caused him to blink as the sun began to shine into his eyes, a sun that was now lowering into the western sky.
Tarrin pulled up slightly, then slowly brought himself to a halt. He had run the entire day. Sarraya was still on his head, but the feel of it was that she was laying down, tied down by his hair, and was probably asleep. His belly was a little empty, but it was a sudden sense of thirst that got his immediate attention. He was rather acclimated to heat, but he had run in the brutal savannah heat the entire day without stopping, even for water.
A grunt from between his ears heralded a shifting in his hair. "Wow, you actually stopped!" Sarraya said acidly. "I'm tired, hungry, thirsty, and I'm about to wet your hair, Tarrin! Put me down!"
"You should have asked," Tarrin said bluntly, reaching up and letting her climb into his paw, then setting her down on the grassy ground, grass nearly as tall as she.
"I figured we needed the distance," she grunted as she wandered into the grass and disappeared from his sight. "Are you hungry?"
"Thirsty," he said, turning around to look towards the east. They were all long behind him now. They'd catch up with him, there was no doubt about that, but by the time they did he'd be well away from where they sensed him last, in cat form. They'd never find him out in the savannahs. If they even knew what to look for.
A thousand longspans. That was about how far it was to the border of the desert, and he'd have to cross almost all of it in cat form. A journey of months. It was a daunting proposition for a little cat, but he had little choice. They could find him unless he was in cat form, and only within the protection of the desert could he move about freely in his humanoid form. Only the truly rabid zealots would dare enter the desert after him, and they wouldn't get far. Tarrin himself would face resistance from the Selani, but at least he had an edge in that regard. Allia's teachings about the desert and his ability to speak Selani would help him get across the desert in one piece. And if it came down to it, he could defeat Selani in combat, where no human would stand a chance against the agile, speedy desert dwellers. But he had to get there first, and that wasn't going to be easy.
Movement to the south got his attention. Tarrin turned and looked in that direction, where strange dark shapes had appeared near the horizon. Strangely enough, they were above the land, which was why he noticed them. Large birds? Rocs, immense hawk-like birds with a wingspan around seventy spans, were an uncommon sight around Aldreth, but they did see them from time to time. Perhaps Yar Arak also had Rocs, but he didn't see where they would roost. The Rocs back home nested in the jagged peaks of the ClouddancerMountains to the north, where this land was a flat table of dry soil.
Whatever they were, they were a very long distance away. The wind had begun to stir, as the heat of the sun began to wane, and the air started to cool and shift, and that was creating a shimmering haze that made it hard to see the birds, so far away they were from him.
"Want some berries?" Sarraya called as she moved back towards him. She had a large blackberry in her tiny blue hands, already gnawing a goodly sized divot out of it.
"No, I'm more interested in water," he said, dropping down onto all fours and closing his eyes as he breathed the air into his nose. His nose was more than just a decoration. Tarrin's sense of smell was just as acute as a cat's, giving him the ability to track by scent, to identify people and objects by their scents, and to detect distant things by their scent as well. The faint smell of water was reaching him, very faint, coming from upwind. His tail slashing behind him a few times, he deduced that the water was a good longspan distant, but that it was a sizable pool. "I can smell some nearby," he told the Faerie, rising back up to his considerable, intimidating height. The Faerie barely crested the top of his furred ankle.
"Sounds like a plan to me," she said, looking at his leg. "Tarrin, you're fetting."
She pointed to his ankle, where long hair had appeared around the backs of his ankles. "Fetlocks," she replied. "Strange."
"What are fetlocks?" Tarrin asked, looking down. He'd never noticed that before. And Tarrin was usually keenly aware of his own body.
"Fetlocks. Shaggy tufts of fur around the ankles. Some horses have them," Sarraya told him. "Were-cats fet too, but the fetlocks are small, only the males fet, and only the very old ones. It's a Were-cat male's form of growing a beard, it's a sign of age. That's why it's so strange to see them. You shouldn't be fetting for another five hundred years."
"I'm a changeling, Sarraya. Maybe that affects it."
"You have a point there," she agreed. "The only male changelings I've ever seen didn't live long enough to find out." She looked up at him critically. "I need my wings."
"Tarrin," she said carefully. "Do I look, smaller, to you?"
Tarrin was taken a bit aback by her question. What a silly thing to say! But then again, looking down at her, he almost had to say yes to her question. She did seem to be a little smaller. "I think you do," he said after a moment of reflection.
"Bizarre," she said, reaching out and putting her hand on his ankle. He felt her do something with her Druidic magic. "Tarrin, you're growing!"
"You're growing!" she replied. "You've been growing at an accelerated rate for a while now, but I didn't notice it! Has something unusual happened to you lately?"
"Anything unique," she pressed. "Something had to trigger this. It's not natural."
"Unique? Do you want a day by day dissertation, or would a blanket summary of the last two months of my life satisfy you?"
Sarraya screwed her face at him, then she laughed. "Point taken," she chuckled. "But something had to trigger this in you. You're growing, but the fact that you're fetting means that you're aging too, years for every day. Let's try it this way. Did anything extraordinary happen in Dala Yar Arak?"
He looked right into her small eyes. "I used Druidic magic," he told her directly.
She gaped at him. "You did what? Why didn't you tell me!"
"I was waiting until you weren't in such a bad mood," he replied calmly.
She glared at him, then she gave him a rueful grin. "Well, I'm certainly surprised that it took that long."
"Tarrin, dear, my being here to control your Sorcery was only half the reason Triana sent me. She could feel it in you, and so could I. Any Druid can. You have talent. She sent me along to prevent you from realizing your ability, because it's way too dangerous to try to teach Druidic magic in anything but complete peace and isolation. I guess I didn't do a good enough job," she grunted. "Triana's gonna have words with me."
"You knew I could use Druidic magic?"
"Didn't I just say that?" she said waspishly. "But even that shouldn't be having anything to do with this growth. Did anything else happen?"
"The Demoness drained me," he replied, shuddering a little bit. That was not a pleasant memory. The feel of her inside him, feeling her suck away his very life energy, it still made him cold inside. A cold that always seemed to be there, and the memory of it made it worse.
Sarraya pursed her lips. "Now that could be it," she said. "Those Succubi drain life energy, which is loosely associated with youth and vigor. I've heard of what happens to humans that get drained. They die as dried-up husks, looking like they're a hundred years old. If she drained you, maybe your body is reflecting the loss of years, or more to the point, the advancing of years. But since Were-cats don't die of old age, it's really just cosmetic. You'll fet, and you'll grow to a height that corresponds with your body's new physical age. You'll probably be able to look Triana in the eye. It all depends on how long the Demoness drained you, how much she took."
Tarrin took it as he accepted so many other things in his chaotic life. It was simply the way things were. There was nothing he could do about it, and to be perfectly honest, given what he already had to worry about, he wasn't going to even pay a thought to the idea that he was going to grow a few more fingers and develop little shanks of fur on his ankles. That was not very high up on his list of priorities. The Druidic matter, that was something else, though. He looked down at her steadily. "Will you teach me Druidic magic?"
"Not now," she replied immediately. "It's something I can't really do while we're running around the steppes of Arak, Tarrin. You'll understand later, trust me," she said quickly when he gave her a disapproving look. "Actually, you'd probably understand now," she said to herself. "Let me put it this way, Tarrin. Remember what happened when you messed up with Sorcery, when you were learning? What happened?"
"Usually, I'd lose touch with the Weave," he replied after thinking about it a moment. "If I made a bad mistake, sometimes the weave would cause a wildstrike."
"Well, when you're working with Druidic magic, there is no room for mistakes, Tarrin," she told him calmly. "A Druid only messes up his magic once, and he won't live to learn from his mistake. Any time you do something wrong with Druidic magic, it kills you. It's that simple. Now do you understand why I'm not going to teach you anything unless I have complete control of the environment?"
Tarrin could appreciate her candor. He nodded slowly, but he was still a little disappointed. If he could learn Druidic magic, he could control his own Sorcery with it, without having to either depend on Sarraya or gamble that he could sever himself from his power before it destroyed him.
"I'm glad you're not arguing," she said bluntly. "Teaching Druidic magic is a very dicey undertaking. It's hard to learn when you can't even make one mistake. That's why there are so few Druids in the world. Many have the spark, but most of them die long before they gain even a limited command of the power."
"I'll trust you on that, Sarraya," he told her quietly. "We'll have plenty of time later. So long as you teach me, that's what matters."
"I'll have to," she said. "You used your power, and you'll use it again eventually. You've opened a beehive, so now I have to teach you how you don't get stung while reaching for the honey. I can supress your Druidic ability the same as your Sorcery, so don't worry about having an accident while I'm around. I'll protect you until it's time for you to start learning."
"That's good to know," he told her. "I think the water is over that way. Let's go find something to drink."
"Wow, you're just so overwhelmed," Sarraya said acidly as he reached down and picked her up from the ground.
"I have too much on my mind to be worried about one little thing, Sarraya," he told her in an emotionless voice. "I've had too many of these little revelations go by to be terribly impressed by any one of them."
Sarraya chuckled ruefully. "I guess you would get numb after a while," she said as he reached down and scooped her up in his paw.
"Numb is a good word," he agreed as he moved in the direction of the water.
It wasn't very encouraging. The water hole was little more than a muddy pool, the center of which bubbled and bulged as water siphoned up from underground. The stamped dirt and mud around it, and the riot of conflicting scents crisscrossing the ground, told him that it was a very popular location in the area. Tarrin knelt down by the edge of the pool, debating between drinking the muddy water or simply going thirsty. But Sarraya made up his mind for him when he felt her use her Druidic magic again, and the muddy color of the water simply disappeared, leaving crystal-clear water in its wake. The pool had some fish in it, and the bottom was a churned landscape of hoofprints, ridges, and holes where animals waded into the shallow pool to drink. The water coming up from underground was muddy, and it was quickly beginning to stain the clean water Sarraya's magic had created. They both quickly drank their fill before the water became contaminated.
"Much better," Sarraya sighed, looking up at him. Then she looked past him, and her expression turned grim. "Uh, Tarrin, I think you'd better take a look."
Tarrin looked over his shoulder, in the direction of her gaze. The distant birds he'd seen before were much closer now, and it was apparent that they weren't birds. He looked with a mixture of surprise and anger as six black-prowed ocean vessels drifted in the air about ten longspans to the south, their squarish sails and the flags on their masts marking them as Zakkite. They were about a thousand spans in the air, and it was apparent that they were moving in his direction with impressive speed.
Skyships! How did the Zakkites get skyships so far inland! Zakkite skyships could fly, but only for a limited amount of time. They literally used flying creatures as fuel for their flying, draining away the life energy of avian creatures in special magical devices to give their ships the power of magical flight. He'd seen them before, had saved an Aeradalla from one of those soultraps quite by accident while blowing it out of the sky. No flying creature could have lived long enough to get a skyship so far inland! Not even a mighty Roc could have given a skyship that much range.
There was little doubt why they were there. They too could detect the Book of Ages, and they had been tracking him just as the Arakite mages had been. It had only taken them longer to reach him.
"How did they get in so far?" Sarraya demanded in exasperation as he picked her up from the ground. "There's not a living winged creature strong enough to power a skyship ten days inland!"
"I really miss Allia about now," Tarrin said, shading his eyes from the setting sun and peering at the ships. They were too far away for him to see very much. Allia's incredible eyesight would have allowed her to count the men on the ships. Even see which ones needed shaving. Several smaller objects suddenly separated from the skyships, and Tarrin squinted to see what they were. It took him a moment, but he realized that they were large winged beasts. And by the shapes of their tails, they looked like Wyverns.
"I think they're sending out scouts," Sarraya said.
"They're not scattering," Tarrin said. "They know exactly where they're going."
"I think that means we should expect company," Sarraya said quickly.
"Fools," Tarrin snorted, rising up to his full height and glaring in their direction. How stupid could they be? They should know that he commanded Sorcery that could sweep their ships from the sky. They were fools for coming so close, for giving themselves away. But the Wyverns were getting no closer, he realized after a moment. They were moving to his left, not towards them, going somewhere else. To his left was back the way they came, and the Arakite pursuers would be about where those Wyverns were going. Were the Zakkites attacking the mages chasing him? If so, why? What gain could they get from such an act? It would only help Tarrin, because the Zakkites couldn't bring their ships or their Wyverns close enough to threaten him. If they did, he would respond with Sorcery, and rip them apart. They were out of his effective range at the moment. But if they came in range, they wouldn't be around long enough to realize their mistake. "What are they doing?" he asked Sarraya.
"I think they're either talking to or attacking the mages behind us," Sarraya replied. "Can you bring the ships down?"
"Not from here," he replied. "They're too far away. And they're not moving towards us anymore."
"What do you think we should do?"
"Hide," he replied. "They aren't getting any closer, so let's hide from them and see what they do. If they wander too close, maybe I can pick a couple of them off. I do not want a pair of Zakkite triads chasing after us. Zakkites are way too dangerous."
"No argument here," Sarraya agreed. "I guess this means that I'm going to have a sore butt tonight."
"Better a sore butt than fireballs raining down on us from above."
"Amen," she chuckled as Tarrin set her down, then shapeshifted into his cat form. Sarraya climbed up onto his back and grabbed a couple of handfuls of his fur, and he turned and scampered away, towards the northeast. But a housecat could not move very fast compared to the size of the animals and constructions chasing him, so the presence of those ships did not change for a good while as he moved away from them, looking back over his shoulder nervously every few moments. The ships did not move, but they weren't getting any further away as he moved away from them.
The presence of the Zakkites angered him. Why couldn't they just leave him alone! Couldn't he get at least one break? Ever since he had started on this mad quest, everything seemed to be stacked in his way, lined up against him. He'd had to overcome some ridiculous obstacles to get where he was now, and it looked like it wasn't about to get any easier. Now, when things seemed to be going his way, the Zakkites had to show up. Zakkites were a dangerous enemy, even for him. Their command of arcane magic was impressive, and that made them very, very dangerous. They couldn't get close to him or use their magic against him, but he knew from experience that there was often more than one way to go about capturing an objective. He'd used his own magic in some rather creative ways against beings who were immune to it, so he wasn't about to get complacent enough to think that they didn't have something up their sleeves. Zakkites were not fools. They wouldn't just rush all the way inland like this if they didn't have a plan.
That plan seemed to manifest itself as he fretted over things. Two winged creatures separated themselves from the six ships, and it was obvious that they were moving in his direction. Their size and silhouette against the setting sun made it very apparent that they were not Wyverns. They were very large, taller than him if they stood straight up, with large bird-like wings and vaguely humanoid in form. From the way it looked, both were holding long polearms.
"What are those?" Sarraya asked as Tarrin stopped and turned around to get a better look at them.
"I can't tell, my eyes aren't that good in this form," he replied. In cat form, he had excellent night vision and the ability to make out shapes and see motion, but the clarity of his vision was poor. Small features blurred together or were lost. He could easily see a book in the dark, but he couldn't read what was on its pages if it were opened. He could make out the shapes of those creatures moving his way, but any details about them were lost on him. "And if I shapeshift, I'll give our position away."
"Hunker down, let's see what they do," the Faerie offered.
"Good idea," he agreed. He laid down on his belly in the tall grass, causing his form to disappear, and then he felt Sarraya use her Druidic magic. The grass around him shuddered, then pulled over him to form a tent of sorts to hide him from those above.
They waited in quiet tension for long moments, watching them get closer, until the ground shuddered as one of them landed about two hundred spans away. Even at that distance, he couldn't make out a great many features, but it was apparent that they were not even close to being human. They were ten spans tall, and they were strangely birdlike. As if they were crosses between humans and vultures. They had arms and legs, but their heads held a large hooked beak, and they had huge wings on their backs. They had those polearms in their hands, and they stood upon legs with backwards-jointed knees, just like birds. Not only that, they also had vulture feet. They were very ugly, even to his diminished vision.
He had no idea what they were, at least until the wind changed and caused their scents to wash over him. That made him nearly choke. They smelled as if they were made up of pure, unadulterated corruption and unnatural evil. They were Demons!
"Demons!" Tarrin hissed in shock. "Why would Demons be working with the Zakkites!"
"Hush!" Sarraya hissed very quietly, kicking him in the side with her heel to emphasize her command.
This was insane! Demons couldn't be summoned by mages anymore, not since the Blood War! How did two Demons come to be allied to the Zakkites? Maybe they were the same as Shiika had been, Demons that had somehow made it to Sennadar of their own free will. Shiika had not been summoned or conjured by anyone. She was free-willed, ruling the largest kingdom in the world from behind the scenes. He also had a suspicion that Shiika wasn't quite like other Demons. All the stories painted Demons as utterly evil, sadistic and monstrous. Shiika was no fair maiden, but she didn't seem to have those reputed qualities. She was evil, there was no doubt about that, but she wasn't sadistic. She was manipulative, but she wasn't monstrous. Her evil was more of an underlying quality, something that accented her personality rather than defined it. But he still didn't trust her. After all, she was a Demon. So were these two, and that made them a threat not to take lightly.
Tarrin's ears laid back as they moved towards them, obviously searching for them, but seemingly unable to locate him. They looked about carefully, moving step by deliberate step towards him, carefully examining the ground. "What's taking you so long!" a disembodied voice emanted from the air between them. "He has to be right there! We saw him lay down in the grass, and he couldn't crawl fast enough to get away by the time you got there!"
"Patience, human," a horrid voice came from one of them. "He cannot escape."
"Don't toy with me!" the voice replied hotly. "I can banish you just as easily as I conjured you! Would you like to go back to the Abyss without having your promised payment? Just find him, and remember that we need him alive!"
Conjure? How could he conjure a Demon? That was impossible! Even if he could conjure a Demon, he couldn't control it if it appeared!
But that meant little now. They knew where he was, and it was just a matter of time before they reached him. It was going to be a fight no matter what, so the warrior in him realized that it was best to start the fight on his terms rather than their terms. At least they would have to be careful, where he would not. They needed him alive. He wasn't working under such a restriction. It also meant that he had to bring those skyships down, or he'd never be able to get away. They were watching him, no doubt with magic, and he'd never be able to get away from them so long as they could see where he was.
"Sarraya, get down, carefully," he said in the manner of the Cat. He knew exactly what he had to do. The idea of battling a Demon didn't frighten him as much as it had before. He had the sword, and it could harm a Demon. He had fought one before, and he had won. And these two couldn't fight back with the same fury that he would fight them with. They were simply things, obstacles in his path, and it was his duty to deal with them and move on to the next obstacle. There was very little emotion involved in it anymore. There was very little emotion involving anything anymore. "I'm going to bolt right and get them lined up, then turn on them. If you could do something to distract the one on the left when I change shape, I'd appreciate it. I'd rather not have to fight both at once."
"Tarrin, are you crazy?" she hissed.
"Crazy or not, we won't go another step if we don't deal with them right now," he replied as both looked in the direction of Sarraya's tiny, whispered voice. Sarraya slid off of his back, and he tamped his feet to prepare to run. "Three, two, one," he counted silently, then he rose up and charged to the right, in an arc that would try to take him around the two Demons.
They instantly looked in his direction, but both cursed vehemently when the grass around them shuddered, and then literally came alive, growing from simple tall grass to huge tentacles of green plant fiber in the blink of an eye. Sarraya's Druidic magic had taken hold on the grass, causing it to grow from simple grass to writhing tentacles of vines in a heartbeat, and it lashed out against the Demon on her left like an octopus, ensnaring arms and legs and twining around its thin midsections and wings. Its strength easily broke the snaring vines, but it distracted it for a critical moment as Tarrin managed to get to where the two Demons were lined up before him. He slid to a halt and shapeshifted in an instant, returning to his impressive, intimidating humanoid form, then reached over his shoulder and drew his sword even as he rushed straight at the surprised Demon.
It did not consider him a threat. It smiled evilly at him and raised its polearm, but not to fend against the sword. It didn't know! It didn't know that his sword could harm a Demon! It was setting itself to swipe him to the ground regardless of what he intended to do with the sword. It couldn't sense that the sword was otherworldly, that it had the power to injure it!
Understanding that he'd only get one free shot on the first one, Tarrin ducked down as the distance between it and him vanished, slithering under the polearm's metal shaft as it tried to strike him to the ground with it. The Demon was three spans taller than him, but the sword was nearly six spans of blade on its own, so it gave him all the reach he needed. He ducked under the polearm and got inside the Demon's reach, then he drove the chisel-tip of the sword straight up the Demon's body. It nearly sliced its chest, so close was it to the Demon as it came up, but the chisel tip struck the Demon just under the beak. And the black metal blade of the sword continued, puncturing the weird joint between the end of the beak and the start of the neck, driving up through the beak, through the top of it and all the way up into the brain. Just as quickly as it impaled the brain, Tarrin snapped the blade out and spun around the Demon, hiding the blade behind his body as he charged the one pulling itself free of the vines. The one he'd stabbed was still standing, its body locked in a paralysis of death, unaware that the brain could no longer send it commands. The entwined Demon raised its polearm and tried to stab Tarrin with it when he came into its reach, but the Were-cat leaped up and out of its path, seeming to hover in the air before it. Tarrin's sword came around in a wide, whistling arc, black blood from the first Demon flying off the sword's tip as its edge homed in on the neck of the second, then neatly and quickly taking the ugly head right off its unnatural body.
Tarrin dropped to the ground easily as both Demon bodies stood stock still, and then started to topple. The first dropped its polearm, then fell over backwards to lay motionless on the grass. The second slumped in its vine prison, held up by the clinging plants, as the head rolled to a stop some spans distant.
Holding his sword low, dripping with the black ichor of Demon blood, Tarrin turned to look at the six ships. They were nearly two longspans away, well out of reach of Sorcery. They sat there, mocking him, threatening him with their presence, and he suddenly felt helpless to do anything about them. That helplessness ignited a sudden storm of anger, anger that they would not come close enough to face him with honor, not come close enough to where he could kill them. They would not threaten him! He wouldn't allow it! He had come out here to draw them away from his friends, but he would not run to the desert with six skyships hovering over him the whole way! He focused on that single thought, letting the anger take him over. Only in fury could he control his power, and he needed that anger now. He had to work himself up to the point where it would be safe for him to use his power, because that power was the only thing that could get rid of the Zakkites. He could feel it build inside him, and he fueled that anger with images of his sisters, his friends, in danger because of the Zakkites, because of him. And that was all it took. Even the fleeting thought of Allia or Keritanima in danger was enough to send him into a mindless fury, but this time all it did was give him the anger-fueled willpower to risk using his magic.
Throwing the sword aside, Tarrin closed his paws into fists and raised them to his chest as his eyes suddenly ignited from within with a blazing, incadescent light as Tarrin reached out and touched the Weave. The raw, unadulterated power of High Sorcery raged through the Weave and then broke over him, threatening to drown him with its incredible power, a power that no single living Sorcerer other than him could control. His anger gave him the power, the will, to harness that rampaging flood of magical power, a power that caused his paws to limn over with the ghostly, wispy white radiance known as Magelight. Tarrin absorbed the power that the Weave thundered into him like a thirsty man drinking water, allowing it to fill him, coarse through him, infuse him with the might of the Goddess. Tarrin sought to draw the power faster than the Weave could supply it to him. Tarrin threw out his paws as flows of the seven Spheres of Sorcery emanated from his body, the tendrils of magic of which the Weave was constructed, and they twisted and wrapped together into groups of seven flows as they issued forth from him. Those braids of flows that struck the strands of the Weave held fast, while the rest dissipated, and when all of them had found purchase, Tarrin yanked on them. In a visible flash, every twisted braid of flows that had touched a strand flared with a brilliant light, then vanished back into invisibility, itself a brand new strand. The new strands were all joined together in a vast spiderweb of magical ropes, and they joined within Tarrin, giving him a direct pathway to the magic he sought.
His entire body literally exploded into Magelight as the power filled him at a rate that would have destroyed lesser Sorcerers in the blink of an eye. He screamed out his anger and the pain he felt at drawing such power, the living fire that ignited inside him as the accumulated power sought to consume him in holy fire from the inside out. It hazed over his sight, but his control over that power did not waver in the slightest as he used the pain to drive his fury, to focus his attention on the distant Zakkites, the ones that had to be destroyed. The anger, the pain, the power, they dulled his thinking as he devoted most of his conscious mind to controlling the rampage of unstoppable power that had pooled within him. He only knew that they were out of range of conventional Sorcery. That meant that he had to create a weave that would release near him, yet have a residual effect that would carry all the way over to them. His first thought was the weave of pure, raw magical power of which he was fond, a beam of pure Sorcery whose destructive power was unrivalled for a weave of its type. But such a weave required physical aim, and they were too far away for him to hit all six ships with it before he was drained to the point where the weave would dissipate. No, that was too grand. For this, he had to think small, use something elegant for its simplicity.
Wind. Wind, pure wind, a force that, if it was strong enough, could destroy almost anything.
Tarrin's preference for air magic was something he had never actively admitted to himself, but the simple truth was that weaves of air seemed the most natural for him to create. Tarrin reached out, reached within, using the vast power within him to draw out flows of Air from the Weave, draw them from strands a longspan away, a vast network of flows that all conjoined in the air above his head. That confluence of combined power grew, and grew, and grew, growing systematically more vast, more energized. Tarrin wove the single flow together in a simple weave whose dimensions were absolutely staggering, a feat that not even a Circle of joined Sorcerers could accomplish, a singular weave whose dimensions could be measured in longspans. The effort had not only drained every fiber of magic out of him, it forced him to continue to feed the weaving by simultaneously drawing power from the Weave and then channeling it into the weave he was creating, something that he was told was impossible to do, yet he could do. Such redirection of magic was ten times more exhausting than simply drawing power then discharging it, and the fringes of his vision began to blur as the monumental effort of creating such a massive weave began to make him feel as if his bones were turning to powder. But his rage, his fury, absolutely would not allow him to falter. His wobbling knees suddenly became strong, straight, and Tarrin raised up to his full height and looked up into the sky, looked up at the titanic weave forming over his head, feeling in one instant the horror of what he was about to do, the resolve to carry through to protect his life and Sarraya, and the ecstatic feeling of absolute invulnerability, the feeling of being the most powerful being on the world, a sense of nearly godliness.
But all such feelings vanished as the glow around Tarrin's body suddenly went out, and he motioned in the skyships' directions with both paws in an overhanded sweeping motion. He did this as he released the Weave. And when he did so, the sky split open as a sudden shift in the atmosphere caused a powerful blast of wind, moving at the speed of a hurricane's gale, erupted from the magical spell over him and raged towards the south, expanding as it moved.
Absolutely nothing could withstand the absolute power of the magic he unleashed. When the weave touched the ground, it scoured absolutely everything away. Grass, branches, raintrees, animals, even the upper layers of topsoil, absolutely everything. It grew larger and larger and larger, growing wider and wider, until it formed a crescent dome whose edge was nearly half a longspan wide, whose top was more than a thousand spans high. But this was no solid weave, it was simply the leading edge of a blast of wind that would last for nearly ten seconds. The invisible weave began to take on coloring from the debris it scoured from the ground, turning a muddy color, hiding the ships from his view.
Tarrin sagged to the ground, panting heavily. He could feel the Weave begin to rebuild the energy he had expended, but then it suddenly drained away harmlessly from him. Sarraya had cut him off, protected him from the power in his weakened state. He could no longer see the skyships, but that no longer mattered. They would not get out of the way in time, and the wind would hit them. It would rip their ships to pieces, and everyone on those ships would die.
They would not threaten him again.
The weave dissipated about the same time he gathered his breath and managed to stand back up, Sarraya patting him on the leg in concern. Before him, there was grass and life, but about two hundred spans past him there was nothing but a massive brown scar, an area of earth stripped of everything that had been over it just seconds before. As if the grass had been a rug, and some immense hand had reached down from the heavens and plucked it up from the ground. There was a huge cloud of dust to the south, but it was turning from brown to beige as the dissipated weave began to lose its energy. He knew that the wind would continue in that direction, but it would not move at such incredible speeds. It would simply be a strange gust of strong wind, that would move towards the south. It would grow wider and weaker as it moved, until it finally expended its energy back into the atmosphere from which it had been formed.
Tarrin looked at the devestation, and it did not move him in the slightest. He had been threatened, and now he was not. The how of reaching that conclusion did not matter to him. Panting, feeling strength slowly seep back into his body, he knelt down for a moment to rest, to gather himself.
"My, that was...excessive," Sarraya said carefully.
"It got them, didn't it?" he said bluntly. His body quickly melted down into his cat form, and he sat down sedately on the ground. "Come on, we have to go while we have a good chance to escape unnoticed," he told her. "Anyone close enough to chase us now has other things to worry about."
"If they're still alive," she grunted as she climbed up onto his back, but then she slid off quickly. "Wait, Tarrin, the sword. It's laying over there. We can't leave that behind."
Tarrin looked to his right, and saw the black-bladed sword laying on the ground. She was right. He shapeshifted and reclaimed it, then shifted back and allowed her to climb back on. "We can't stop tonight," he told her. "We need as much distance as we can get. We'll rest when the sun comes back up."
"I really miss my wings," she muttered, then he rose up, turned towards the west, and started off at a bounding pace. "Tarrin, I think we need to talk about your Sorcery," Sarraya said as he ran.
"You're getting stronger," she replied. "Every time you use that much power, you seem to be able to handle more the next time you do it. You're growing stronger, and you're going to grow past my ability to control you if you don't stop doing that kind of thing. I'm not saying to stop using Sorcery, I'm just saying to stop trying to crush a bug with a mountain. You need to learn how to do what you need to do without trying to drain the Weave dry. If you don't, I'm not going to be able to control you much longer."
That was something he never considered. But...she was right. He did seem to be able to go another step every time he drew power to his limit. Almost like working a muscle, every time he exhausted it, it became stronger. But it was not balanced. His ability to control that power was not increasing with the power itself. Sarraya was right. If he exceeded her ability to control him, he was going to be in very real, very immediate danger. And so would she.
"I can't promise anything, but I'll try," he replied after a moment. "Most of the time, I do things by impulse. I guess it's a Were-cat thing."
"Did I mention how much I hate Were-cats?" Sarraya said with a grunt as Tarrin bounded away from the devastation behind him.
"I wonder how those Zakkites conjured those Demons. Phandebrass told me that no Wizard would be insane enough to try."
"You'd better ask him, because I have no idea," Sarraya replied. "Then again, considering what we have, maybe they were insane enough to try."
"You have a point," Tarrin acceded as he bounded into the setting sun, leaving behind him a scene of tortured landscape.