Fel (James Galloway)

Honor and Blood

Chapter 2

Eternity.

The days flowed together in an eternal moment, a sensation that time does not move. Every day dawned just as the last, every day seemed to be the day before, every day became the day tomorrow would have been.

Time flowed in different ways for many people, but for Tarrin in his cat form, it was a life of an eternal moment, where concepts of past and future blurred in the power of the moment. It was the happenstance existence of the Cat, an animal who understood the concept of time of day, but could not distinguish one day from another within its memory. There was only past, or present. There was no future that did not exist beyond the setting or rising of the sun. The days ran together within his mind one after another, becoming a jumble of sameness that could not be counted, nor even remembered. Every day was the same. He would sleep during the day in a covered place, a place to hide, oftentimes evicting or eating the prior inhabitant of his daily den. The night was spent on the move, moving in the direction that the Faerie told him to go, a night spent in near complete silence and sensitivity to his environment. Sarraya seemed more than happy to chat or while away the time, but the savannah was a vast plain full of huge animals, many of which would consider the small cat to be a meal rather than part of the surroundings. There was no sense of progress, no sense of anything other than the needs of the moment. He would sleep, eat, or move. There was nothing else to him.

He had no idea how long he had followed that daily pattern. There were only very broad, vague concepts of the passage of time. One was Sarraya. At first, she rode on his back, rode him like he was a horse. But her wings did indeed grow back--how long it took, he had no idea--and then a distinction arose in his mind. There was the time when she rode him, then the time when she flew near him. There was nothing to remember about the time when she rode him, but that memory remained inside him, a distinct memory of the past. She had also changed during that time, that was another thing he understood as the Cat slowly dominated his thoughts, as it did when he spent extended amounts of time in cat form. She had become less chatty and capricious, less irreverant and waspish. She became quieter, more distant from him.

Though he had a sentient mind, the time in cat form had brought the Cat out in him, causing his personality to succumb somewhat to the instincts within, and he had a strange feeling that that was one of the reasons Sarraya began to drift away. The other was the emptiness within.

Emptiness. There was no other way he could describe it. Despite his instincts and his animal-tinted view of the world, that emptiness stayed within him. It was the emptiness of loss, the keen awareness that those he wanted to be near were not near him. Every waking moment, every fleeting thought, they were images of those he yearned to be close to, those who were supposed to be by him. Allia's face haunted him whenever his eyes were opened, a shady image of a beautiful dark princess, an empty feeling that the peace he felt when she was near had been taken away from him. Keritanima's furry face was there as well, the sister long gone from him, whose absence was both dulled by the many months, and more sharp in its cut for the amount of time she had been gone. Even in his diminished ability to track the passage of time, the sense of her distance was not lost to his conscious mind. There were other faces as well, the faces and scents and feelings of friends and relatives, confidantes and siblings, a whirling jumble of security in his mind that had been taken away. They were all gone, far away, stripped from him by his own choice, but that was little consolation to him now.

The missing part of his life had drastically altered his behavior. It was an eternity in pain, an endless moment of feeling the loss of something that was vital to him, a loss that he could not ignore, could not deny, could not dull. The feeling of it did not change day after day after day. Every day was as the last, a day of surviving, of running towards some distant goal which made no sense to his animal-dominated mind, and always there was the emptiness inside, a gnawing pain in his heart that told him he was not where he wanted to be. It did not go away, it did not change, and it was something to which he could not grow accustomed.

His animal mind was not prepared to deal with such a powerful memory, a powerful emotion. It could not get away from it, and even its formidable ability to control him could not affect that singular feeling. It was something against which even his instincts could not prevail. Since it could not deny the feeling, and it was not capable of handling it, it surrendered to it, allowing it to remain in the forefront of his mind at almost all times.

Because there was no moment that did not hold emptiness, Tarrin withdrew from Sarraya. Nothing seemed to hold any meaning for him. There was nothing but the emptiness, a consuming feeling that tainted everything he saw and felt and did. When Sarraya spoke to him, he did not listen to her. He did not reply to her. She was a friend, but she was not one that made the emptiness go away. He did as she said, if only because he understood that she knew where they were going. Every day was as the day before, every day was a monotonous repeat of every other day. Sleep, eat, run, always with the feeling that there was something missing from within him, and that missing something brought a strange hollow pain that would not go away. Even though his conscious mind was still within him, even it began to succumb to the emptiness, making him listless and slow to comprehend things. It was as if the emptiness were a blanket thrown over his senses, thrown over his coherent mind, forcing him to reach through it to see or do or feel anything else.

There was little sense of continuity. There was little sense of the passage of time, yet he seemed to be aware of time moving. There was the time before Sarraya could fly, and the time after. There was the time when he had a shiny coat, clean, and his body was strong. But there was also the time where he was dirty and matted, after he stopped grooming himself, of when his limbs and body withered from great exertion with little food. Hunting seemed to lose its importance in the face of the emptiness, as did everything else. To do anything at all sharpened the empty pain inside, so to do anything was only done when absolutely necessary.

It was an endless moment, an eternal now of empty pain, a pain within that would not heal, a pain that eroded him from within. An eternity, and even his conscious mind seemed to dully realize that it was going to drive him insane if something was not done to end it. That realization came as the sun rose over yet another day of empty sameness, a sunrise coming after a night of running. The sun rose over the same flat land, as if he had done nothing but run in a great circle during the night, only to come back to where he began. Tarrin sat on a dead log of a raintree, his head hung low as his eyes dully surveyed the land before him. It was a day like any other, a day of weary emptiness, a day like the last. The only thing different was the reawakening of his conscious mind, an act that required something significant from his conscious mind after so long in cat form. But as his instincts affected his conscious thoughts, so they too were influenced by the human in him while in cat form. He had learned long ago that even when he tried to bury his human mind, to forget it, it would not remain quiet forever. It had finally stirred inside him, had finally rebelled against the slow degeneration of body and mind, had finally had enough.

Sarraya landed just in front of him, on the edge of the log. She was wearing a new dress, seemingly spun out of spiderwebs, and her new wings glistened in the cool morning air. They looked just as the old ones did, chitinous wings mottled with a riot of rainbow colors, each of the four nearly as long as her body was tall, tapered to a smooth rounding end. Just like a dragonfly's wings. Her auburn hair shuffled slightly as the wind picked up, which was normal during the morning and evening as the sun warmed the air, or the setting sun's heat stopped warming it.

He was tired. Goddess, he was tired. Tired and thin, dirty and bedraggled. Looking down at his paws, he barely recognized his own forelegs. He was nothing but fur and bones. How long had he gone without any conscious reasoning? It was impossible to tell time as a cat, but judging by his condition, it had to be a long time. Rides? Maybe a month? The past was a jumbled blur, where only the sense of empty pain, of loss, was strong enough to be relived. Despite what dangers it posed, he had to change form. He just had to. He needed time in his humanoid body, he needed time with his rational mind to make sense of how strongly his need to be with his sisters had obviously affected him. He just needed a break from the emptiness. A few hours in humanoid form wouldn't be that dangerous, and he realized that he had to face the danger, for his sanity if anything else.

Jumping down off the log, Tarrin dredged the depths of his mind for a long moment, recalling just exactly what was required when he shapeshifted. After he found what he was looking for, he willed it to be.

The realignment of his thinking was profound, and the yearning for his sisters and friends immediately eased inside, now that his human mind could rationalize the feeling, and know that he would see them again. He felt...weak. Tired. Exhausted. He looked down at his paw...

And realized that the ground looked further away.

And the back of his head was very, very heavy.

Sarraya turned and looked at him, then looked up at him with an expression of surprise and happiness. "Does this mean you're going to talk to me again?" she asked with a broad grin.

"I...I'm sorry," he said. "I don't think the Cat was ready to deal with how homesick I am." He looked down at his paws. They seemed just a little bit bigger, and those fetlocks that Sarraya had described had indeed grown onto his wrists. They filled up the space between his wrists and the manacles, and they pinched a bit whenever he moved his paws as the hair of the fetlocks caught on the metal cuffs. The fetlocks weren't very long, but they were just bushy enough to be noticed. They ran from just above his wrist to about a quarter of the way up his forearm, and they grew primarily on the palm side and outside edge of his forearms.

"I could feel the edges of it. By the trees, cub, you're as tall as Triana. And your face is different. More austere. And you're thin!"

"What?"

"Remember what I told you before we started out? That the Demon's touch caused your body to age?" He nodded. "Well, it seems that you didn't stop growing just because you were in cat form. No wonder you were getting so thin. Not eating much, running all night, and you also were burning food to grow."

That little revelation seemed laughable to him, but...the ground did seem further away, and Tarrin was a being very much grounded in his senses. He had an intimate understanding of where the ground should be, and it was further away than that. The wind pulled at his hair, and he realized that almost a quarter of it wasn't braided. Even his hair grew during that time, making the braid hang nearly to his knees.

"I see my hair kept pace," he said with a grimace, reaching behind and pulling the braid over his shoulder. "It's so heavy it hurts."

"Then cut it off."

"When I do that, it just grows back."

"Foolish cub, didn't Triana teach you anything?" Sarraya chided. "Were-cats are shapeshifters, Tarrin! When you change form, you change into what you envision yourself to be, and your body responds to that image. Were-cats have long hair because they want long hair. If you want short hair, just want short hair. Look at Mist, her hair is shorter than most human men's. Cut it off, and it won't grow back."

"I never really liked the braid before," he objected. "It gets in the way."

"Then you wanted something that you didn't like," she replied. "Then again, you're Ungardt, aren't you? Doesn't everyone in Ungardt have a braid?"

"My father was Sulasian."

"Who do you identify more with?"

Tarrin looked at her, then he snorted with a smile. "Well, I guess my mother," he replied. "You mean I saw my mother's braid, and something under my conscious decided that I should have one too?"

"That's the way it looks, isn't it?" she replied.

"It seems pretty farfetched."

"If you were a human, probably," she told him. "You're not."

"Point taken," he said. He looked at the braid, then focused on his paw. It looked a little bigger. "How, how tall am I now?"

"Eye to eye with Triana," she replied with a grin. "And you don't look like a boy anymore. You look like a man. Boy, will be she surprised to see you."

"I'll be surprised to see me," he told her. "How long has it been?"

"You mean you don't remember?"

"Sarraya, I couldn't tell you what year it is."

"Well, guess you regressed into your instincts just about as far as you could go," she snorted. "It's been nearly two months since we saw the Zakkites. Right now, we're just over the border into Saranam. We're out of Yar Arak."

"Huh," he said absently, surveying the land. "It doesn't look any different."

"Why were you so quiet?"

"I don't think my instincts were ready to deal with my human emotions," he replied after a moment of reflection. "All it could understand was the feeling of something missing. Something it couldn't bury or translate into some feeling it could understand." He shuddered. "It's not something I want to discuss."

"I think I understand," she said compassionately. "Aren't you taking a risk by shifting back?"

"I had to," he grunted, sitting down on the ground. Sarraya flitted up and landed on his knee, looking up at him calmly. "I just needed some time to sort things out without the Cat interfering. As far ahead as we are, we should be alright. I...I don't remember seeing anybody chasing us."

"There were a few, but they passed us up during the day. They're probably nearly to the desert by now."

Tarrin sat down on the log, head in his paw, sifting through the pain inside. He'd never felt anything like it, even when he had been with Janette. But that had been a different kind of pain, caused by a different reason. With her, he had felt the security that he so desperately wanted, where out here there was no such comfort. Sarraya was a dear friend, but she wasn't enough to fill the void inside, not in the way his mind wanted. He wanted to be protected, to be loved, to be kept safe. They were things the immature child in him wanted, things the Cat demanded. They were things that Sarraya couldn't provide. He looked on her as his responsibility, his child to protect. She could not give him the same feeling of security as he tried to provide to her.

Nonsense. He was craving security. He was acting like a child. The rational part of him understood that, but even it couldn't hold against so powerful an impulse. He was an adult--his trials had made him older than most people three times his age--but beneath it all was still the vulnerable little cub that wanted to be held and protected. There was no room for such frivolity out here. He had half of the Known World looking to take what he had. That was a little fact that overrode whatever childish desires he had inside.

He was not a child. Anything even close to childhood was lost in the instant that Jesmind's fangs sank into his arm. He didn't blame her for it, but that was just the way it was. Being turned Were had taken away his innocence bit by bit, and his position had robbed him of any right to feel the need to be protected like a cub. There were people out there that needed his protection, and he couldn't protect them if he was wrapped up in feeling sorry for himself. Allia and Keritanima were counting on him to keep the eyes of the enemy away from them. Jenna and his parents were counting on him getting back to Suld, to find out if the Dals really had invaded his homeland, and if they had, to do something about it. Janette was counting on him to protect her world, the world that would be hers, the only world that mattered in his eyes. He couldn't do any of those things if he sat sulking on a dead log in Saranam.

But the feelings weren't going to go away. Even he had to admit that. So that meant that staying in his cat form all the time wasn't going to work. The emptiness was going to come back, and it would send him back into a depression. He had to spend time in his humanoid form so his emotional state couldn't imbalance him again, and that meant that he was allowing his enemies to know where he was. He would move faster, but he'd pay for every day gained with blood. It would be much riskier, but he really had no choice.

That seemed to have become the slogan of his life. He had no choice.

"Maybe talking to Allia would help," Sarraya said quietly, landing on the log beside him.

"No," he said after a long moment. "Talking to Allia would make it worse." And it would. It would only intensify all the negative feelings inside him. Hearing her voice may make her seem closer to him, but the harsh reality of knowing she was out of his reach would hit him that much harder. No. He was alone, and that was how he had to remain. Only if he had to talk to her would he call to her. Not until then.

"Maybe Triana?"

"Triana? I can't talk to Triana without talking to Allia."

"Cub, don't be silly," Sarraya winked. "I can talk to her any time I want. I can fix it so you can talk to her too."

"I forgot," he said. Maybe talking to Triana would help. He trusted her, loved her, felt she was one of his parents. She was, actually. She was as much his mother as Elke Kael was, in his heart and his mind.

"I need to talk to Triana anyway," Sarraya added. "She's been demanding a monthly report, and it's about that time." She looked at him. "Maybe I can let her see you. Boy, will she be surprised."

"Druidic magic can do that?"

Sarraya laughed. "Tarrin, Druidic magic can do anything," she said with a bright smile. "It's only the weakness of the user that limits it."

"What do you mean?"

"I shouldn't really tell you this, but you'll have to learn eventually," she said, flitting up onto his knee and sitting down, then looking up at him. "Druidic magic isn't really magic, Tarrin. Well, it is, but it's not the same as Sorcery, Wizardry, or Priest magic. It's entirely different. All those reach out to some energy supply that exists somewhere else, a power that is just that, power. Druidic magic taps into the living energy of the land, the soul of the world. We draw on a power that makes even Sorcery look like a candle held up to the sun. The power of Druidic magic is absolutely limitless, Tarrin. Nothing is impossible with Druidic magic." She looked right into his eyes. "It's like having the power of a God, but without the rules and limitations they live with."

"There has to be a catch somewhere," Tarrin said.

She nodded solemnly. "A very big catch. The power is limited by the person using it. A Druid can do absolutely anything, but only if he can handle the amount of power it'll take to do what he wants it to do. Overstep yourself, try to do something that requires more magic than you can control--" she snapped her fingers-- "and it's over. That's why you can't ever make a mistake, Tarrin. Druidic power is limitless, and it's also merciless. Make just one mistake, and it'll kill you."

"That's pretty harsh."

"Nature is not very merciful," she told him. "Some of the things we all do are the things that are the easiest to do. Conjuring, summoning, healing, influencing the growth of plants, they're very easy, because Druidic magic is the magic born of nature, so anything that operates within the constraints of nature doesn't take much power. But try to do something unnatural, and the amount of power it requires shoots to the moons. A Druid could literally resurrect a dead man, but the amount of power it would take would kill him."

"Conjuring doesn't sound very natural to me."

"That's because you don't understand how it works," she replied. "Conjuring isn't literally making something out of nothing. Everything I conjure exists, it's just not here. The magic finds it and brings it to me. The berries I eat were literally picked off some bramblethorn somewhere by my magic. The only unnatural part of the process is having it appear here. Summoning is just conjuring a specific object. The more attuned you are to it and the closer it is, the easier it is to summon. That's why your summoning the sword worked. It was yours, you were familiar with it, and it was only a few spans away. So it required very little power to accomplish."

"And if had been too much?"

"Then you wouldn't be here," she replied calmly.

"Then how do new Druids learn?"

"Very carefully," Sarraya said emphatically. "Usually they spend years studying with an experienced Druid, who evaluates the neophyte's capability. Before they ever try to use their magic, they already know exactly how much talent they have, and what they can and cannot do. Then the Druid teaching them teaches them what they can do, and lets them go. Smart Druids never try anything other than what they were taught. Those that don't usually end up dead within a year."

"Well, if that's true, how do Druids learn new things? I mean, isn't it possible that you could learn new tricks?"

"It is, but I'm not willing to risk death to find out," Sarraya said calmly. "There are a few Druids that do gamble, but I'm not one of them. Triana does from time to time, but she's alot stronger than me. When she finds something new I can learn, she teaches it to me."

What she said seemed to make sense to him. When he used Druidic magic, he felt a connection to something greater, something so immense that he couldn't fathom the edges of it. That had to be this living soul Sarraya had mentioned. If Druidic magic was indeed a magic born of the life of the world, then it made sense that its power was directly proportional to the amount of life in the world. Counting plants and animals, that was a huge amount of life. It also made sense that a single mistake could kill. When trying to draw from such a boundless energy source, a single mistake opened the victim up to the full might of all that power. It was only logical that it would kill.

"So, cutting off other magic is easy, because that magic exists in nature."

"No, only the Weave exists in nature. We don't affect the magic, we affect the Weave. Actually, Wizard and Priest magic are unnatural in origin, so it would take more power to affect it than a Druid could manage. Let's not even talk about a Demon or some otherworldly creature. But that power has to get here through the Weave, and that's where we attack it."

"You can control the Weave?"

"Not like a Sorcerer," she explained. "We can simply do nothing more than restrict it or release it. Anything else gets into that instant death area I mentioned before. I use my power to choke you off, but if you were very weak, I could use my power to bring the Weave closer to you, to make it easier for you to draw magic."

"That makes sense. So, in a nutshell, Druids are limited. No matter how much the magic can do, it's only as good as the person who uses it."

"Well, that's a minimalist way to look at it," she snorted.

"Minimalist works. It keeps things in perspective. What could I do with Druidic magic?"

"I have no idea," she replied. "I'd have to study you and take you through some basic exercises, and we don't have the time to do that. Just please, don't get creative on me. I'd hate to wake up one morning and find you laying dead on the ground. It would ruin my day."

"I won't experiment, I promise," he told her.

"Alright, let me contact Triana," she said. Tarrin could feel her using her power, felt the edges of her connection to this living soul, and then she made a little gesture with her hand. "Triana, are you alone?" she asked immediately.

"Where in the bloody hell on this ship could I go to be alone?" Triana's voice seemed to come from midair, a very irritated voice. "Where have you been, you little pain? I've been waiting days to hear from you!" Despite the anger in her voice, Tarrin's heart soared just a little at the sound of that voice, the voice of his deeply loved foster mother.

"I've been busy," Sarraya said curtly. "Tarrin's here. He wants to see you, and I want you to see him," she added in a wicked little tone. "Do you think you could find someplace close to private?"

"Give me a minute. I'll kick Renoit out of his cabin," she said in a brutally practical voice.

Tarrin laughed. "That's Triana, all right," he said.

A wavering image appeared in front of them, inside a glowing oval of swirling mist. It was an image of Renoit's private cabin, a very messy cabin, and of Triana. She was wearing a long-sleeved cotton shirt with ragged sleeves, dyed blue. Her tawny hair and fur were clean and neat, and her handsome, powerful face stared back at him intently. Her face was that same stony mask as always, but hints of the affection she held for him cracked her unwavering facade.

Tarrin stood up immediately, displacing Sarraya, and almost tried to reach through the image to touch her, but he caught himself in time. "Mother," he said urgently, lovingly.

Triana looked him up and down. "Tarrin! What in the furies happened to you!" she immediately demanded. "You look like you grew a thousand years in three months! Sarraya, is he, taller?"

"As tall as you," Sarraya said smugly. "A side effect of his little exercise in Yar Arak."

"Well, cub, it's good to see you, even if it's not exactly what I expected to see. You're a mess."

Tarrin laughed nervously. "Well, it's been pretty hard on us, mother. I'll clean myself up, I promise. How is everyone else?"

"Oh, fine. Your bond-child and that Selani are at each other's throats most of the time, Phandebrass keeps trying to document my training of the girl, and those little drakes are driving me crazy. They must think I'm you. They keep trying to sleep with me." She looked into his eyes. "Are you alright, Tarrin?"

"I'm fine now," he replied. "I, I don't think the Cat was ready to deal with how I'd feel being separated from the others. It's been a pretty rough couple of months."

"Just hang in there, my son," she said gently. "And you should avoid spending extended time in cat form until the feelings ease."

"I sorta figured that out already," he told her. "Is Jula going to make it?"

"I haven't decided yet. The girl has determination, but she's not as strong-willed as you. I don't know yet. Now tell me, what happened to you, cub? You look my age."

"He got the short end of a fight with a Succubus, Triana," Sarraya cut in with a grin. "It tried to drain him, and you know how their powers work."

Triana grunted. "That would do it," she agreed. "I thought he'd got tangled up with a Poltergeist. They can age the living too. Have you had any problems with it, cub?"

"Mother, I didn't even notice it until now," he replied. "I've been in cat form this whole time."

"Well, you'd better take a bit of time to get used to it. You're taller now, and your Were-cat body has changed. You'll be stronger. A lot stronger. We only develop more as we age."

"I'll help him adjust," Sarraya told her.

"Have you had any trouble with being chased?" Tarrin asked.

"Not at all," she replied. "We did have a couple of episodes with pirates, but they didn't last long. Where are you right now?"

"Saranam. Where are you?"

"We just left Tor yesterday. We should be back in Suld by this time next month."

"That's good to hear," he sighed. "When you get to Suld, would you have someone send a letter to my parents? I think they need to know I'm alright."

"I think Dolanna's been sending letters to your parents for a while now, though the trees know how she's getting them there," Triana grunted. "She's been heavy with the pen for about a month now."

"Why?"

"War, cub, war," Triana replied. "Sulasia and Daltochan are heavy into it. The Dals are occupying most of the northern marches of Sulasia. Draconia and Tykarthia are trying to exterminate each other, and Tor invaded eastern Shacè last month. About the only kingdom that hasn't gone crazy in the West is Arkis."

"Sulasia's being occupied?"

"Parts of it, from what we've heard. We may get back to Suld to find it surrounded by a Dal army."

"That won't last long," Sarraya chimed in. "The katzh-dashi will defend Suld. They'll never get past the outer wall."

"I know, but it still makes things nervous. No city likes a hostile army camped outside its walls. Have you been keeping my cub safe, Sarraya?"

"As safe as possible," she replied. "I've started teaching him the basics about how Druidic magic works. I hope you don't mind."

"No, but don't you dare teach him any techniques," she said sternly. "He hasn't been evaluated yet."

"Why didn't you tell me that I could use Druidic magic, mother?" Tarrin asked.

"Because you had more important problems," she replied. "And it's not something you try to learn when you're distracted. If Sarraya taught you anything, it's that there is no room for mistakes when you use Druidic magic."

"She made that point about a hundred times, mother."

"Then that was about a thousand times too few," Triana grunted. "I don't have much more time. Do you need anything, Tarrin? Are you alright?"

"I'll be fine, mother. I just needed to talk to you, that's all."

The stony mask dissolved from her face, showing the loving parent that she was. "I understand, cub."

"Don't tell Allia or the others that we talked. It makes me feel better to talk to you, but I think I'd feel worse if I talked to them."

"I understand that too," she smiled. "What I give you, you can take with you. What they give you only makes you want more of it."

He nodded soberly. Triana was every bit as wise as she was old.

"I have to go now. Be careful, cub. I love you."

"I love you too, mother," he replied sincerely, just as the image of her wavered, then vanished.

Tarrin sighed, then turned around. Everything he wanted in life had just disappeared. Family, home, children. Peace and tranquility. A place where he belonged. It was the main part of his dreams of the future, if he managed to survive long enough to reach it. Triana was a part of that dream, the mother of his new life, and seeing her made him yearn to be with the others, to be where he belonged.

But it wasn't as bad as it would have been if he had seen Allia or Keritanaima.

There was no way to go but forward. He had to keep going, or he'd never find his peace. He couldn't stay in cat form all the time now, not if he wanted to avoid the pain it caused to him. That meant that things were going to be a bit more dangerous. Without his cat form to hide the Book of Ages in the elsewhere, his enemies could track him down. But he really had no choice. Nobody ever said that the road ahead had to be an easy one.

"Tarrin, are you alright?" Sarraya asked.

"I'm fine, Sarraya," he replied quietly. "I'm not ready to change back yet, so I have to keep moving. We need to keep moving. I can't stay in one place like this. They'll be able to come right after us."

"Tarrin, I don't think you're in any condition to keep running. You're exhausted!"

"Then help me find some food, and then we'll go."

"There's nobody in sight, you blockhead! What are they going to do, appear out of thin air?"

Tarrin looked right at her. "I'm not taking any chances," he said bluntly. "If they did appear out of thin air, I wouldn't be very surprised."

Sarraya threw her hands up in frustration. "You're being paranoid!" she snapped.

"One of us has to be."

Sarraya growled in her throat, then landed on the log. He felt her use her Druidic magic, and a small pile of apples appeared on the ground in front of him. "There you go," she said grandly, motioning to the apples. "Eat up, then we'll move on. I'm going to go lay down. Wake me up when you're ready."

He did just that. He sat down in front of the apples and wolfed them down like a starving man, considering what was to come. Since he wasn't hiding anymore, they'd know where to look for him. The Zakkites probably wouldn't be a problem, since they were so far inland now. But the ki'zadun, that was another story. They used Wyverns to fly around, Jula had told him so. He had little doubt that a flight of Wyverns were right now being readied to come after him. That was his greatest threat. There were local mages and such as well, but they weren't as powerful or well prepared as those coming by air. They knew of him, they knew what he was and how to attack him, where the local yokel did not.

Even if they did find him whether they would attack him was also an issue. Tarrin had demonstrated in the past that he had power enough to crush just about any challenger. And his power was only getting stronger. He wasn't sure the ki'zadun were crazy enough to throw away more lives to try to take the book. They may try to steal it, but he wasn't sure they'd attack him unless they felt they had a serious counter to his advantage. No, they'd tried that before, they'd learned their lessons. The locals didn't know that, so they'd just come after him. And they'd be no real threat to him. It was the ki'zadun that was the main threat, and in their knowledge of him came his uncertainty. What dirty trick would they try next to try to beat him? They'd tried deception, kidnapping, assassins, they tried driving him crazy, they even sent Jula to ruin his reputation and slow him down. They had to be running out of items in their bag of tricks. They had to be getting desperate, and that made them dangerous. Tarrin respected the resilience and staying power of his oldest enemies. He hated them and wanted to destroy them, but even he had to respect their power. He'd be a fool not to do so. He'd been trained never to underestimate his opposition.

The emptiness. He still felt its fringes, and part of him dreaded going back to cat form. The Cat lived in the moment, and that was the problem. A feeling like homesickness, longing for family, it was a feeling that the Cat could understand, but could not completely comprehend. That was the core of the issue. The Cat could not forget, even as it lived within its eternal moment. They were not with him right now, and right now was the only thing that mattered to it. He'd have to avoid cat form for a couple of days, or use it only to sleep and hide. In sleep, the Cat could forget the pain.

It was time to go. He'd stood in one place too long as it was, he was just making it easy for anyone chasing him to home in on his location. In a way, he almost wanted them to find him. He wouldn't mind a little bit of therapudic venting at the moment. Take out his frustrations on whoever was unfortunate enough to be his playmate. But with his luck, he'd end up facing an army of Demons, or a Dragon, or some irritated god.

Better safe than sorry.

He stood up. It was time to go.

"Sarraya," he called, shifting the precious pack on his back, with its priceless cargo. "It's time to go."

"Alright," she said in a yawning voice. "You go on, I'll catch up in a minute."

He nodded, looking up into the cloudless morning sky. The Skybands showed him east and west, so it was very easy to move west. West was the desert, and the only safety he would find in this hostile land. The only place where nobody would dare follow him. He set out slowly, feeling the poor eating in his muscles as they were forced to work more than normal, feeling the changes. His legs were longer now, allowing him to cover more ground with each stride. It felt strange to him, to feel himself with a higher center of gravity, to feel as if he was less stable than before. He knew that that was just a combination of a taller body and lack of food for a while, but it didn't change the feeling all that much. He ran for a few minutes at a slow pace, then gradually managed to increase it as he felt more and more comfortable with the new way things felt. He finally settled into a ground-eating pace that few horses could hold for long, a pace that made him feel as if he was flying across the surface of the savannah, allowing his long legs to eat up the distance. A pace that he felt he could hold forever, it felt so comfortable. It was a pace that focused him on his running, that allowed his mind to drift just enough to allow the time to flow by easily. It wasn't the eternal moment of the Cat, but it was still good enough to make him blink in surprise when he realized that the sun was directly overhead, and the dry plains of Saranam were decidedly hot. Sarraya was flitting along just beside him easily, leaving him to his thoughts.

He spotted them just as he began to slow. Three specks to the northwest, close to one another. They didn't have the shape to be birds, not with such unusually formed wings. Tarrin slowed to a stop and pointed in that direction to Sarraya. "What do you think, Sarraya?" he asked without any warning. "Bird or not?"

"Definitely not," she replied, shading her eyes from the light as she peered towards them. "Whatever they are, they're big. I can't tell which way they're going."

Tarrin looked around. On the horizon, there was a ridge that looked to be a city's wall. That was possible, because they were standing on a slight rise which had another behind that wall. A shallow valley, and that meant that there either was or had been a river flowing through it. He couldn't tell, because the wind was coming up from his back, bringing nothing but the smell of dust, dry grass, and hiding animals to him. There was supposed to be a good-sized river in Saranam, the lifeblood of the kingdom, where the majority of the Saranam peoples were located.

"Is this a river valley?" Tarrin asked. "And is that a city over there?"

"I think so, on both," she replied, rising about thirty spans into the air and peering ahead of them. "It certainly looks like a city, and this is about where the Sar river would be. Think we can make it over to that city before whatever those things are up there reach us?"

Tarrin reached behind him and unhooked his water skin, then took a long swallow. "I think we can make it," he replied. "It doesn't look all that far." He wasn't really tired, but he was starting to feel a bit sleepy. That would go away as soon as he started moving again.

"How are you feeling?"

"A bit sleepy, but not really tired," he replied. "Those apples you gave me did the trick."

"Well, we'll get a real meal in that city," she told him. "I want you to eat until you can't eat anymore. And you need meat. Lots of meat. That should rebuild what's wasted away."

"Stopping may not be a good idea."

"This isn't about a good idea, this is about what your body desperately needs," she told him bluntly. "We don't have any choice, Tarrin. If we don't stop and let you get back what you've lost, you're going to get sick."

"We can't afford that."

"Exactly. You should listen to me, Tarrin. After all, I'm much smarter than you," she said with a mischievious grin.

"I'm so glad you think so," he said dryly, securing his waterskin, then starting out for the city. "Use your towering intellect to keep an eye on those birds, or whatever they are."

"Child's play."

"Then it should be a challenge for you."

"You," she huffed as she flitted up to a matching pace with him.

There was something of an aire of urgency now. Sarraya kept her eyes on the three aerial forms, who seemed to only get a little closer as the walls of the unnamed city grew more and more in front of them. And spread out further and further. Tarrin was a bit surprised to find that this city was quite large, built on both sides of a very wide, slow-moving river that was a very unhealthy brown color. The stone of the wall was a curious whitish color, just barely tinged with the color of sand. Tarrin wondered where they found that much stone; the plains of Saranam were dusty sand and loose soil, to find anything harder than wood on the windswept plains was an accomplishment. They had to have brought it in from somewhere else, probably the mountains far to the northwest, or from the desert. Either way, the city's walls became more and more distinctive to his eyes as they approached them, and as the flying forms seemed to continue to keep their distance. Were they truly afraid of him now? Were they just tracking him, waiting for reinforcements? That would be the wisest course. Only three would have virtually no chance of taking the book from him.

He looked over the walls of the city, and saw something that he did not like. It was a darkness, a swirling darkness, like some great cloud.

A sandstorm!

No wonder the fliers wouldn't approach. A sandstorm from the desert had managed to come into Saranam, and it was threatening the area.

"Sarraya, do you see that?" he called as he ran towards the city.

"A sandstorm," she replied. "It's moving this way."

"I didn't think we were that close to the desert."

"We're not. Sandstorms sometimes come halfway to Dala Yar Arak this time of year. It's the beginning of the stormy season. This must be the first one."

"That must be why those fliers won't approach. I don't think I'd want to get caught in a sandstorm while flying."

"I think you're right there," she agreed. "Well, Tarrin, now you know why they call it the Desert of Swirling Sands. That storm would be three times as big in the desert. They lose their power as they come into Saranam."

"When did you learn about all this?"

"I'm a Druid, silly," Sarraya said, coming up to his head level and looking at him as he ran and she flew. "Part of it is magic, but part is study. We study nature. Weather is part of nature."

"I'm surprised that you study weather in places you've never been."

"Who says I've never been to Saranam?" she challenged.

"Me."

She laughed. "Alright, not Saranam, but I have been to the desert before. There are Druids out there, and I've been to see a couple of them. They taught me about desert weather."

"Is that what we're going to be dealing with in the desert?" he asked.

"Afraid so," she replied. "This time of year, if you have a day where you can see the sky, it's a good one. We'd better buy you some good storm clothes. I'll make you a good visor to protect your eyes from the blowing sand, too."

"Why is it like that?"

"Climate," she replied. "The Sandshield mountains generate wind gusts that expand when they get out over the open desert, fueled by the heat of the sand and rock. It kind of snowballs from there into those big storms. This is the rainy season in Arkis, so that means it's the storm season in the desert. The rain winds get funnelled through the mountains and turn into sandstorms on this side."

"That Druid taught you that?"

"Some of it," she replied. "I pieced the rest together based on my knowledge of the weather in Arkis. I live just inside the Frontier on the Arkis side."

"If you're experienced, then tell me we're going to get there before the storm does."

"Tarrin, that storm is a long way off. It's just so big, it looks close. When it gets here, it'll be like looking at a wall of dark dust, five thousand spans high."

"You're serious!"

"Very," she replied. "Seeing a sandstorm roll in is a unique experience."

"How long do they last?"

"This far from the desert, probably not long," she replied. "Now you know why these plains are so dusty. The storms blow it in. Sometimes it takes a month for it to settle out of the air, if was a particularly nasty storm."

The fields around the city appeared when they crested a slight rise, patches of green around the sand colored walls, but they were dwarfed by the huge number of fences for livestock that dominated the center of the wall, as if they were built there to use the wall to protect against blowing sand. Wrangling seemed to be more important to the city than farming, and given the climate, he understood. It was easier to raise sheep, goats, and cattle than it was to grow food in a land subject to scouring sandstorms. The dusty plains had enough scrubby grass growing in the sandy soil to support herding. He could also see the river better, and saw several ships on both sides of the city. The sandy walls began to seem more and more like the bastion of human habitation as he neared them, and the ground just ahead showed signs that a herd of animals had recently gnawed down the wiry grass that grew in the arid plain.

Tarrin pulled up and stopped, looking down at the city in the shallow valley. "What is it?" Sarraya asked.

"I think I need something to disguise me."

"Why don't you just go human?"

"Because I'm very tired, and I don't feel like dealing with the pain right now," he told her bluntly. "Think you can make me something to cover me?"

"Child's play," she winked, waving her hands grandly. A large, voluminous cloak simply appeared in midair, made of soft, thin leather, almost like cloth. It had a deep hood, and it was undyed. The tan garment would blend in well with the arid plain, making it a sensible garment. Tarrin caught it before it fell to the ground. Sarraya grinned and flitted up to his face, then pointed her finger at his face--

--and everything suddenly turned purplish. Not only that, there was a sudden weight on his face.

Recoiling, Tarrin reached up and found something sitting on his nose, wrapping around to hug his skull to keep it from falling off. He grabbed it and pulled it off his face, and found himself looking at a strange formation of what looked like purple glass. It was shaped to fit over the eyes, resting on the nose, and for a human they would rest atop the ears as well. Since he didn't have ears there, they rested on the bone ridges above where his ears used to be.

"What is this?"

"It's called a visor. The Selani make them," she replied. "They shield your eyes from the sand, and their tint protects your eyes from the brightness of the sun. In your case, they're also going to hide those cat's eyes of yours. The humans won't look funny at you if you wear it. Any serious traveller around here has one."

"Strange. Allia didn't have one, and she never mentioned it."

"It's something so common, she probably wouldn't have thought to say anything. If you didn't notice, Allia tends to leave out anything she considers common knowledge."

"I noticed."

"The problem is that her common knowledge is pretty uncommon," Sarraya grinned. "How much has she told you about the desert?"

"She told me about what it's like. She also described some of the animals that live there. I still can't believe there are lizards as big as a barn."

"Believe it," Sarraya laughed. "I've seen them. They call them krajats. There are others that aren't that big, but are no less nasty. The desert is a very dangerous place."

"What do they eat?" he demanded. "There's not much out there."

"Each other, most likely," Sarraya shrugged, then she looked him over from top to bottom. "Well, that cloak manages to hide about everything. Since those furry feet kind of look like boots if you don't look very hard, you shouldn't cause a panic."

"Thank you so very much," Tarrin grunted, sliding the visor back over his eyes. Before he put on the cloak, he realized that the hilt of the black-bladed sword under his pack was going to cause a problem. Sarraya solved that by slitting it, so the hilt could come up through it, then using her Druidic magic to seal up the excess so that the cloak hugged the scabbard, to keep blowing sand from seeping under the cloak. She even thoughtfully created a leather hood for the scabbard that tied on, to protect the delicate wire-wrapped hilt from the damage of blowing sand, should they get caught in the storm. That done, Tarrin started off towards the city at a fast walk, which was nearly a running pace for a human. His long, long legs consumed ground with every light step, carrying him towards the lone city in the vast empty wilderness.

As he neared, he got a sense of the randomness of this city. Fences and pens seemed to be erected wherever was convenient outside the walls, turning the trek to the visible gate something of a zigzagging course. Animal manure made every breath of air a riot of unpleasant smell, not to mention making him pick his steps with exceeding care. There were herd animals everywhere, in flocks and groups, staked to the ground alone, wandering aimlessly on ground long since stomped free of grass, kicking up a ceaseless cloud of dust that hung in a pall just over the ground. There were sheep, cattle, horses, goats, and even stranger animals that he'd never seen before. Long-legged animals with huge humps on their backs, which were even taller than he was. Stocky cattle-like animals that had rounded horns rather than straight ones, like a ram, yet were grayish instead of brown. There were even strange long-necked animals with wooly fur, like a sheep, yet stood as tall as a horse. Tending the animals were dark-skinned people that looked like Arakites, but these people were rather skinny, wearing simple homespun tunics or robes, all the men of which wearing a simple white turban on his head, and all of the women wearing a shawl. Many people had similar covers over their eyes as his own, looking to be made of glass or mica. Tarrin wondered idly just how they were made, since the ones on his face did not distort his vision in the slightest. They only dimmed the bright sunlight and cast everything with a slightly violet color. Most glass was wavy or cloudy when one looked through it. That these visors were perfectly polished so that they didn't distort things was remarkable.

Moving through the patchwork of pens and wandering herds, Tarrin made his way towards the city. Most of the people around him didn't pay him all that much mind, although some of them did stare when he came close to their animals. The herd animals, smelling his predator's scent, bleated or cried out in sudden fear, shying away from him, and that reaction made their tenders wonder what had spooked them. Tarrin didn't pay the animals that much attention, keeping one eye on the city, one on the storm, and turning from time to time to see where the airborne trailers were. He judged that he would make the city well before the storm arrived, for he got an idea of its size as moment after moment passed, and the storm didn't seem to get any closer. It truly had to be huge, and still some distance off.

Moving near to the humans gave him a serious lesson in how different things were for him now. They were so small. Before, the tallest humans--aside from certain exceptions--topped out at the base of his chin. Now, he hadn't passed a single human whose turban or shawl reached his collarbones. He felt like he was an adult moving through a group of children. Looking at the people around him without staring, he realized that he truly was Triana's size now. Probably eye to eye with the massive Azakar. He was used to being tall, but he felt distinctly unusual to tower over everyone else. They were children now, little children who would break in his paws if he was too rough with them. Was that how Triana felt when she dealt with humans? Did Azakar feel the same way?

Still musing over it, Tarrin finally reached the city's gates. They were open, and they were busy. The gates were very wide, and through them filed both people and herd animals, being shepharded either in or out. Beyond the gates was a large open area, probably where herds were gathered before moving or just before sale, and inside the simple wooden gates stood two disinterested men wearing a leather cross harness and a plain white kilt-like skirt, and each holding a pike. There was a crest in bronze at the crossing of the leather straps crisscrossing the men's chests, that of a sun cresting a flat horizon. The cross harnesses left most of the men bare from the waist up as the kilts left their legs bare from the knee down to their tied sandals, and their skin was deeply burnished by the sun and the wind. Each wore a small conical helmet, to which was attached a long tail of hair that wavered in the growing breeze heralding the approaching storm. Judging from the rather nonsensical outfits, these guards were purely ceremonial.

"Sarraya, are you still around?" Tarrin asked under his breath.

"Of course I am," she replied from nearby, though she was hidden from sight. "What?"

"Just checking."

As he passed by one of the guards, he noted idly that he was nearly as tall as the man's pike. The guard stared at him for a long moment, but looked away instantly as Tarrin lowered his visored gaze on the man and did not look away.

"Tarrin, pull in your tail," Sarraya hissed in a low whisper. He couldn't hear her wings either, but from the sound of her voice, she had to be right near his ear, which was flattened a bit under the hood. "You're bulging."

He attended to that quickly, pulling his tail off the back of the cloak, pressing it up against his leg and wrapping the excess around his shin and ankle to keep it out of mischief. If anyone noticed, they didn't tell him anything as he passed through the gate and beyond the large pen, moving into the city beyond.

And he was not impressed. This nameless city smelled ten times worse than any city he'd ever visited. It was so bad that he had to put his paw over his nose, giving away the fact that he wasn't just a really tall human. The place was a cesspool of every bad smell he could remember, peppered with brand new horrible smells he couldn't identify. The city streets were unpaved dirt, dirt coated and salted with sand as people's feet and animals' hooves ground the sand into the packed soil of the street. It was a good thing Saranam saw little rain, else the entire city would sink into the quagmire of mud that would surely result. The lack of deep ruts in the streets said that there was little rain here to make paving the streets necessary. But there was water, usually ditches running close to buildings made of brown mud bricks, liquid waste and urine tossed out from the low-built structures' upper story windows. Dead rats and other unpleasant things floated in those open cesspits, which flowed slowly but inexorably downslope, towards the river. The streets were populated with people dressed in plain, rugged robes and mantles of sturdy wool or that cotton-fiber, or plaxat fiber, the super-strong plant fiber clothing the Selani made. He could easily see all of them, for there was nothing to obstruct his view of the streets except for buildings. Not even the herd animals they kept in the city stood at his height, though there were some outside that were taller than him, and that allowed him to see as far down the street as he wished. There was a noticable lack of horses, or of litters or carriages that marked the wealthy. Everyone in this city seemed to work for a living, that, or the wealthy didn't come into the part of the city in which he currently moved.

His first encounter with a Saranite was abrupt. A child, no more than eight, bumped into his leg, then staggered back and fell down on his behind. The child's eyes were at the same level as his knee when he was standing, but now they were just over his ankle. He stopped and looked down at the young Saranite lad, who looked like an Arakite except for being a bit thinner. The boy got a good look at Tarrin's foot, then he stared up at him in slack-jawed awe. He sat there for a very long moment, then in a sudden burst of activity, he scrambled to his feet and rushed away.

The smell of roasting meat seeped in over the horrible miasma in the city, stirring his stomach to respond. That honestly surprised him, given that the place smelled so bad that, if he would have thought of food before that moment, it would have made him throw up. It had been a very long time since he'd had anything filling, and the growing he did while in cat form had burned much of the food he'd managed to eat during that time. Even with the place smelling as awful as it did, he found the need for a good meal irresistable.

Mutton. It was mutton. Most humans didn't like mutton, but to Tarrin it had a texture and flavor that was quite good. The smell was coming from a wide-doored building just down the street, a place that had the look of an inn or tavern. It had no conventional door, just wide shutters that were tied open. There was a window flanking each shutter at the door, which themselves had small shutters opened to each side of them. A piece of faded red cloth, with fringe that had been tattered long ago, was stretched over the door, attached over the shutters and held up by a pair of poles staked into the sandy ground to provide patrons with a bit of shade before entering or leaving.

Now that he noticed them, he saw alot of those shutters. They flanked windows, they were outside doorways even when there were doors. There was not a single door or window he could see that did not have shutters attached, and he understood why. If sandstorms were a fact of life in the region, then the people would obviously have prepared their homes and shops for them. The shutters would keep blowing sand out of their buildings. The slightly scarred and pitted look of the mud brick of the inn showed that sandstorms did come in, and that also explained why he hadn't seen any painted or whitewashed buildings. Everything was of that same mud brick, and it had to be. The blowing sand would scour away whitewash or paint, would strip off polished exteriors of stones and maybe even gouge out the mortar holding them together, leaving them worn and weakened. As damaging as the blowing sand was, it was only sensible to make buildings out of something that was cheap to replace and easy to repair.

The doorway was too small. He almost bumped his head on the entrance as he entered, as he turned to look towards the street warily as a shout arose, turning back around and realizing his peril at the last moment. He very nearly smacked his nose on the wall over the door before ducking under the mud brick wall and the doorframe which was attached to it. He was used to ducking under doors, but that was the first time he'd ever had the top of the door staring him in the face, taking up his entire field of vision when he bothered to look in that direction.

This height was going to take a lot of getting used to.

The interior of the inn was a bit hazy with smoke from a firepit against the right wall, over which roasted an entire lamb. There was boisterous carousing from the twenty or so men who were inside, drinking, eating, and talking among the tables set out in the floor and the booths built against the wall on the opposite side of the firepit. There were two lanky men behind a bar across from the door, and four serving women in very low cut dresses moved quickly and effortlessly among the tables with wooden trays bearing food and drink. It was much like many other taverns he'd seen in his time, but judging by the rather beaten look of the furniture in this place, it wasn't known for its well-mannered patrons. This place was more of a seedy dive than a respectful eating establishment.

Considering who he was, a seedy dive was probably a better place to be than some posh luxury inn. So long as they were willing to give up that roasted lamb, things would be just fine. There was bit of a lull in the conversations as a few of the patrons took notice of him, an unnaturally tall figure covered in a deep cloak. If he were them, he'd take notice too. It was only natural. Tarrin was very much out of place here, and he felt that way keenly. He didn't fear these strangers, not in the same ways that he felt in Dala Yar Arak, but the first twinges of anxiety at being among strangers was beginning to rear up. Probably the two months of being with nobody but Sarraya had dulled him a bit to his feral rejection of people he didn't know and trust. He didn't accept these people, but he didn't feel the same fear that he used to feel to come into their presence and possibly expose himself to whatever danger they posed. Then again, he was so hungry that he didn't really care if he feared them or not. The screaming coming from his belly, awakened by the smell of the roasting lamb, was enough to make him fight a Roc over it.

Money. He didn't have any money. He'd need it to get the lamb. "Sarraya, are you here?" he asked in the unspoken manner of the Cat.

"I'm right here," she said in a whisper. That was when he realized that she was sitting on his shoulder. The cloak's weight caused him to miss her negligible weight.

"I'm going to need some money."

"I'll whip up something for you when you sit down. I'll make a belt pouch and put it on your lap, just so you know where to reach."

"Thanks," he replied sincerely as he stepped deeper into the tavern. Most of the men were quiet now, watching him stride in on his long legs, moving directly to intercept one of the serving women. She was forced to stop in front of him, barely reaching his chest, staring up at him with wide eyes and an open mouth. She was a pretty little girl, with pattern Arakite dark skin, black hair, and brown eyes. She was barely more than sixteen, with a chest not exactly equipped to being hugged by an open neckline, but she had a pleasing silhouette that made up for her lack of bust.

"C-Can I serve you, good master?" she asked hesitantly in Arakite.

"I want the lamb," he replied in fluent Arakite.

"It's not fully cooked yet, good master," she replied. "If you're willing to wait--"

"I'll take it as it is."

"If you really want it, good master. I'll have someone cut you--"

"You misunderstood me," he said in a calm voice. "I want the lamb. The entire lamb. I'll pay a fair price for it."

"Uh, uh, yes, good master. If you want the whole thing, I'll get it for you. Please find a seat, and I'll tell the barkeep what you want."

That posed him with something of a problem. There was no way he could hide what he was if he ate, but he really had no desire to take the lamb somewhere else. He was tired, and he wanted to sit down and eat it like a civilized person. And he intended to do just that. He'd just sit out of the way of everyone else,

and if they made an issue of it, then he'd deal with them then. Judging by the condition of the men in the tavern, there wasn't a single one there that could even make his eyebrow twitch. None of them could challenge him.

And that gave him a strange sense of security, a sense that made them seem non-threatening despite the fact that they were strangers. He still didn't trust any of them, but knowing that none of them could hurt him, for the first time in quite a while, made him feel confident to be among them. Always before, that knowledge that they couldn't hurt him didn't make any difference. In fact, it made it worse, because he knew they couldn't hurt him, yet he still felt fear, and that made him angry. That anger amplified his fear, which made him angrier, and created a deadly circle that usually made him very easy to rouse to violence. Not this time. He looked at the men around him, most of them staring at him in silence, and he felt very little anxiety being among them. True, there was a bit of apprehension, but nothing like he would usually feel to be in the middle of a bunch of unsavory types like these.

The time away from the others and in cat form really had had an effect on him. He just wondered how long it would last until he went back to normal.

He moved through them, towering over everyone else like an Ungardt in a nursery, until he reached an empty booth in the back corner. He undid his sword and pulled it out from under his cloak, then laid it on the booth's table near the back. Then he gathered up the cloak and sat down, having to fold his legs a bit to get them under the table without lifting it off the floor with his knees. When he did so, he felt a sudden weight on his lap. He parted the cloak and looked down, and saw a seamless leather pouch resting on his lap, and the weight inside told him that it had something inside it, like gold. Sarraya's handiwork.

"Thanks," he whispered to her.

"Any time," she whispered back.

He noticed that they were really staring at him now. Taking off his sword had probably opened his cloak, and it had certainly let them see his paws. Since he had their attention, it was probably the best time to make it blatant. He would have to do it anyway. He reached up and pulled down his hood, letting his ears pop back up from where the leather cowl was weighing down upon them, and then took off his visor.

Their reaction was subdued. They obviously realized that he wasn't human, but they weren't panicking. They were dead silent, and just about all of them were staring at him, but there wasn't any screaming or running around. That was always a good thing. He was too tired and hungry to deal with a bunch of panicky humans. Three men did leave, but there was no mass exodus towards the door. That too was a good thing. After the two months in an eternal moment of loneliness, even the company of untrusted strangers was better than being alone.

A man that had been behind the bar approached him. He was a rather short, thin Arakite-looking man, a bit bony and with very slight cheeks that made his face narrow and long. Amber eyes glowed from under black brows, an unusual eye color for an Arakite-stock human, and they made the man very striking. Though he was sitting, Tarrin's eyes were only slightly under the man's eyes. "Sashi said you wanted to buy the entire lamb," the man said immediately. "I usually don't do that, because I won't have anything to give my other customers. But it's early yet, and I can get another one roasted before the dinner rush. I'll give you the lamb for two gold vipers."

Tarrin reached down and picked up the purse, then upended it on the table. A large handful of pure gold nuggets clunked down onto the table, rolling a bit until they came to a stop. "Take whichever one you want," Tarrin said evenly. "I'll consider the extra a guarantee that I'll eat in peace."

The man's eyes bulged slightly, and then he gave Tarrin a very wide, sincere smile. "I think I can guarantee you a little peace," he said brightly, reaching down and selecting the largest of the many gold nuggets sitting on the table. He bit it to ensure it was true, and then gave Tarrin a very satisfied smile. "Arl, help me unspit the lamb for our customer!" he called loudly to the other man behind the bar.

Sometimes the simplest things in life seemed to be the best. Tarrin sat there with the roasted lamb taking up nearly the entire table, and he ate. The conversation slowly picked back up, leaving him to himself, and allowing him to relish the simple activity of satisifying a hunger that run into his bones. His wickedly sharp claws served as knife and fork at that meal, slicing apart the lamb systematically into managable pieces, then eating them with a casual slowness that belied his towering hunger. It brought a calm feeling to him, to know that life's needs were satisfied for the moment, he was fed and clothed and sheltered after many days out in the wilderness, almost as if his mad escape towards the desert was delayed for a while, with all sides agreeing to a lunch break.

The people in the inn watched in curious fascination as the entirety of the lamb was consumed, leaving nothing but cleaned bones when he was done later that evening, a meal that would have been hard for five men to finish at one sitting. His Were digestion and healing, both powered by his quasi-magical abilities as a Were-kin, had already begun to rebuild what had been consumed to fuel his growth. He could feel his muscles begin to reflesh, to return to their proper state, though it was a very slow process that made him feel like he was itching from the inside. Much like Sarraya, when the need arose, Tarrin could eat much more than his stomach could hold, because his Were body could literally absorb the food nearly as fast as he could eat it. His slow eating hadn't stretched out his stomach or made him feel glutted, allowing his body the time to empty his stomach at nearly the same pace as he was filling it.

Setting down the last bone, Tarrin leaned back in the booth, feeling the backpack with the book press against him, feeling thoroughly content.

Sometimes simple pleasures were best.

Sighing in contentment, he set his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his paws, considering the next step. One of the serving women set a mug of water down in front of him with something of a wary smile on her face, and he nodded to her absently and took a drink after smelling the water for purity. The storm would make everyone take cover, and that would probably be the best time to leave. With Sarraya's Druid magic to help, he should be able to travel during the storm, something that most of his pursuers would not be able to do. That should get him away from the flying trailers for a while, and discourage any pursuit from the city itself.

"She didn't bring me any water," Sarraya grumbled.

"Considering she can't see you, I'd be surprised if she did," Tarrin replied under his breath. "What have you been doing?"

"Watching you eat like a horse isn't very entertaining, so I took a nap," she replied. "Feel better now?"

"A world better," he replied with a contented sigh. "I can feel it working already."

"Just take it easy for a while, and give your body a chance to mend," she told him. "We can leave when the storm hits, so they can't follow us."

"I thought the same thing myself," he agreed with her. "And believe me, the last thing I want to do at the moment is move again."

"That's because you stuffed your face like a pig."

"Are you feeling alright, good master?" the serving girl who had waited on him asked as she passed. "You were talking to me?"

"No, young one. I was talking to my other half. It's being petulant at the moment."

"I am not!" she said loudly, stamping her tiny foot on the top of the table.

The girl looked genuinely baffled. She heard the voice, but her eyes couldn't find its source. She looked around on the table, knowing it came from that direction, but there was nothing there.

"Don't leave the girl confused, my rash friend," Tarrin said with a mysterious smile. "If they've seen me, seeing you won't make a whit of difference, and you'll give the girl something to tell her grandchildren."

In the blink of an eye, Sarraya returned to visibility, standing on the table near the pile of bones. She had a pouty look on her face, and her eyes were a bit sulky as she glared up at him. "There, are you happy now?" she demanded.

The woman stared in shock. "Wh-What is it?" she asked in wonder.

"She's a Faerie. Sarraya, introduce yourself to the girl."

"I thought Faeries were just made up," the girl said in awe, looking down at the exceedingly tiny, blue-skinned being.

"I am not made up!" Sarraya said defensively.

"Excuse her. This mythical being has a little bit of an attitude," Tarrin said lightly, smiling down at his diminutive companion.

"Tarrin!" Sarraya snapped, but the girl just laughed.

"Well, pardon me for staring, good mistress. I've just never seen anyone quite like you before," she announced.

"You think on your feet, young one."

"I'm a barmaid, good master. We have to think on our feet, or we end up in some drunken rancher's lap," she said with an impish smile. "And it's not like we never see non-humans here. There's a tribe of Giants that live in the mountains to the north. They come down here to trade sometimes, and they're allowed into the city. They're very friendly and gentle."

"Giants tend to be," Tarrin told her. He'd seen them a few times himself, for they came down from the Clouddancer Mountains four times in his life to trade in Aldreth. They were thirty spans tall, but aside from that and wide-browed heads with heavy features and a racial tendency to be stocky and barrel-chested, they looked completely human. Very gentle beings, always careful where they put their feet.

"Do you need anything else, good master? More water? Maybe wine?"

"I'm fine, thank you," he told her.

She bowed her head in a little bob, then scurried away.

Cute girl. A very smart young lady. If he were human and three spans shorter, he may be interested in her.

Tarrin and Sarraya passed the time in contemplative silence, listening to the other patrons talk or argue or carouse. They had lost most of their interest in Tarrin, though Sarraya's sudden appearance had caused another round of staring. But with such a unique person already there, her appearance wasn't so earth-shattering as it would have been if she were alone. Tarrin let himself drift a bit in his thoughts as he settled his meal, let it do its work, feeling strangely secure considering he wasn't with his sisters or friends, that he was surrounded by strangers. It was quiet time, devoid of worries or fears, absent of the loneliness he'd felt in cat form, and though he missed his sisters and friends, just a little part of him felt as if their spirits were with him at that moment.

But time passes, as time inexorably does. It reminded him of its passing with a keening howl from outside. He looked up to see the barmaids closing the shutters, locking them down so the inn could ride out the approaching sandstorm. It was evening now, close to sunset, and the massive sandstorm he'd seen earlier had finally managed to reach them.

As nice a time as he had had in the seedy inn, it was time to go.

"Sarraya," he said quietly, squeezing out from under the table and standing beside it. He shook the cloak a bit, then decided to simply take it off so he could put the sword back in its place.

"You feel ready?"

"Feel ready or not, it's time to go," he told her. "We have a long way to go."

"That we do," she agreed as he took off the cloak. The patrons stared at him without the cloak, at his inhuman height, at his sleek frame garbed by dirty, torn clothing. Some of them saw the manacles on his wrists, partially hidden under the new fetlocks that had grown up under and around them. He paid them little mind as he laid the cloak on the table by the plate of bones, then reached down and picked up the sword.

He was in the act of sliding it back on under the backpack when the shutters holding the doorway opened with a bang, and the interior door opened quickly, bringing a blast of sand-filled wind into the inn.

"Durn fools!" someone shouted. "Shut the damned doors before we need a shovel to get out!"

"It's in here somewhere," a voice called urgently.

Tarrin stood up straight, his heart skipping a beat, then flowing over with a calmness. Even here, in his moment of peace, they come to harass him, to disturb him. He turned to see three men standing in the doorway as the shutters banged behind them, sand blowing in around them. Two men in black robes, and one dressed in a chain hauburk and leather leggings, a sword strapped to his side. All three looked like Arakites; they had to be locals. The warrior's equipment was a bit beaten up, making him more likely a mercenary or freelancer than part of an army. The tallest of the three was holding up a strange crystal, which was glowing with a bright amber radiance. It reminded him of the amulets that Phandebrass made, one of which he still had.

All three fixed their eyes on him, in the act of resting his sword in its place on his back, and the mercenary man took a step back. "If that's him, you don't have enough money in the world to make me fight him," the man declared immediately.

"Turn around and leave," Tarrin said in a deadly voice. "I'm going to pick up the rest of my things. If you're still there when I reach the door, I'll kill you."

"Jerlos, you're nuts!" the shorter robed man said as the taller one took a step forward. "There's no way we can take the book from that!"

"But he must have the book, Sashas!" the taller man said plaintively. "Imagine what we could learn from it!"

"It's not worth my head, you fool!" the shorter man snapped. "Can't you feel it? Are you that blind?"

"What are you talking about?"

"He's a Sorcerer, you idiot!" the shorter man said hotly. "A powerful Sorcerer! He could turn all three of us inside out without so much as twitching a finger!"

That made Tarrin's eyebrow raise. Wizards couldn't feel things like that. Only Sorcerers--

--of course. He could feel it now. The shorter one wasn't a Wizard, he was a Sorcerer. Not one of the katzh-dashi or even trained by them. He was self-taught, and judging from what he could feel from the man, he wasn't that shabby. He had considerable natural potential, it only came down to how well he had managed to teach himself as to how powerful he was.

"But he has the book!" the taller one whined.

"If you want to take it from him, be my guest!" the shorter one said flatly. "I'll make sure what's left of you is buried. If you want to die, go ahead, but I'm not going to keep you company!"

And with that, the shorter one turned and fled out into the storm. The nervous mercenary took only one more look at him, then turned and followed the shorter man.

The tall mage stood there for a long moment, his face an agony of indecision, as his desire for the book struggled against the healthy warning he was given. Tarrin gave him an utterly emotionless look, his eyes flashing green briefly as he raised a paw and showed the man his very long, very sharp claws.

That was all it took. The man turned and fled back into the howling gale.

"Well done," Sarraya chuckled from the table. "I say, Tarrin, you actually managed to end a confrontation without tearing apart the other guy. I don't see a single body part anywhere on the floor. I'm very impressed."

"Save it," Tarrin said shortly, picking up his cloak and throwing it over his shoulders in silence, with only the howling of the wind bringing sound into the room. Every eye was on him, and those not sitting down were standing in place. They were all worried, uncertain, and a few of them were a bit speculative. He slid the cloak into place, then picked up the visor from the table and settled it over his eyes. "We'd best go before they find their nerve."

"I doubt that. I think the short one left a puddle where he was standing," Sarraya laughed, flitting up into the air.

Tarrin settled himself, readying to venture out into that stiff wind, with its blowing, stinging sand. But a sudden presence at his side made him look down. It was the pretty little barmaid, looking up at him with just a little bit of fear. She was holding up a scarf of red wool, with tassels at each end, offering it up to him.

"What is this?" he asked her defensively, his expression wary as his fear of strangers rose up in him with shocking speed. For an irrational moment, he felt the impulse to either strike her down or get away from her, but he remembered that she had been kind to him. She had talked to him when nobody else would, had smiled at him with sincerity in her eyes. No, he would not hurt this human. She was not threatening him then, and she was not threatening him now. She was afraid of him, but that was only natural, given what he was. That she would approach him despite her fear said much for her character.

"It'll keep the sand out of your nose and mouth," she replied with a gentle smile. There was absolutely no fear in her eyes now, as if she looked into his face and saw that he would do her no harm.

He looked down at her for a very long moment, his feral fear of her battling against a human feeling, a feeling of--gratitude? Compassion? Something about her struck at the human in him in a positive manner, making him not feel threatened by her.

She was giving him the scarf out of kindness. She expected nothing in return, not like the weaseling cons that had shown him a veil of kindness, only to hide the ugly truth of what they wanted from him beneath. She had nothing to gain from giving him the scarf. Her act was one of genuine compassion for him, a kindness to him. A sincere kindness.

It had been so long since someone had shown him such sincere kindness.

His rigid posture eased immediately. He reached down and took the scarf, her tiny hand absolutely swallowed up by his massive paw as he took it from her, and in that fleeting exchanged he felt her skin against his pad. It was warm, but it was calloused from her hard work. "I--thank you," he said brusquely, not entirely sure how to respond to her. As if he had forgotten what to do when faced with an act of kindness. The only thing he could think to do was reciprocate. "Here, take this. I don't need it anymore," he said, handing her the pouch of gold nuggets.

"What is this?"

"A fair price," he told her, looking down into hazel eyes that showed no fear. "It is a fair price."

Tarrin wrapped the scarf around his neck, placing it over his mouth and nose, just under the visor. Sarraya flitted up against his face, then climbed into the hood and found a sheltered spot within the deep cowl, partially under the scarf. He gathered the edges of the cloak up in one paw and pulled the hood down over the visor with the other as he boldly stepped out into the storm, feeling the howling wind yank and tug at the cloak, at the hood, feel the stinging sand strike the visor as the dim light, almost like a cloudy night, forced his eyes to adjust to see. He disappeared into the storm, barely hearing the doors and shutters close in the nameless inn behind him, both worried that someone would be lurking in the storm, and confused by the young girl in the inn. Confused by her kindness, confused by his own reaction to that kindness. No human had shown him such sincere compassion in so long, a compassion given with no ulterior motives, not since an old woman on a porch had shared a meal with him, giving him the kindness of her ear and the gentle wisdom of her age. He couldn't remember her name, but she had been much the same as the young girl in the inn, a gentle presence that had soothed him in strange ways.

It was something to think about once he was safe. Right now, there were men out in this storm that wanted the book, and he had to get away from them. Turning his face into the wind, lowering his head to keep the hood from flying off his head, he marched into the howling wind, the blinding sand, seeking to lose himself and his pursuers in the surreal environment of a raging sandstorm.

The sand, driven by the wind, struck at the mud bricks of the city, slowly yet surely eroding them away, reducing them to dust and sand. It was a slow yet efficient process, as the sand methodically wore away the baked bricks from which the buildings of the city were made in a cycle of sandstorm after sandstorm. It was a process usually indetectable to the observing eye, a process of months and years rather than days or rides. Yet it was a process that was undeniable.

The driven sand of kindness had struck the stone wall erected around Tarrin's heart, and it too had started its slow yet irresistable work.