Fel (James Galloway)

Honor and Blood

Chapter 3

I was like moving through an alternate reality.

For the entire night, Tarrin and Sarraya slowly made their way through the howling sandstorm, the Faerie cowering within the safety of his hood as Tarrin stood against the fierce winds and blowing sand. The sand removed any ability to see much past his own nose, which caused him to rely on Sarraya's Druidic ability to detect north after they left the nameless city. That in itself had not been very easy, for the river stood in their way. There were no bridges, nor would any boat go out in the sandstorm to ferry them across. Tarrin had to rely on Sarraya to get across, as the Faerie used her magic to harden the water of the river in a narrow path, letting Tarrin walk across the water to get to the other side.

Wet feet dried quickly in the howling wind, which intensified after they got outside the protection of the city's thick stone walls, after they abandoned any cover that would slow the gale down. It was so strong that it nearly carried him off his feet several times, made him cower in his cloak and literally walk blindly as Sarraya called into his ear if he wandered off course. He could not see, he could not smell through the scarf. The wind howled, which was the only thing he could hear outside of Sarraya's shouting voice, which was itself barely comprehensible over the raging sound of the storm. The cloak protected him from the driving, stinging sand, but he felt the sting of it against his feet as he walked, sure that the fur on his feet had been scoured off by the grinding action of the blowing sand.

Time seemed to play tricks on him in the deprivation of the sandstorm. It seemed as if he'd been walking for days, then it felt like he'd only been walking for minutes. With no way to tell time, he was set adrift in a sea of his own speculation. He had no idea if it was night or morning, or even afternoon, because the heavy wind-driven sand blotted out all light. If there were any light to blot, anyway. He had already been tired before he started out, so his physical exhaustion was no marker on time. Fighting against the wind and the sand tired him even more, and his exhaustion added to his temporal vertigo. Tarrin could go as long as he wanted without sleeping, just as he could sleep any time he wanted for as long as he wanted. Because sleepiness never entered the equation, he had no stick by which to measure his exhaustion.

The deprivation of senses, other than the loud howl of the wind, left him in a curious state of reverie. Most of his thoughts focused on that girl in the inn back in the city, and the strange feelings she incited in him. It had been a very long time since he'd felt those things. It had been a long time since a complete stranger hadn't caused him to fear. It had been so long. He didn't quite know what to make of it, but he was relatively sure that it wouldn't be that easy. He figured that his tiredness and his long isolation had caused him to want company, even to the point of quelling his feral impulses. And the young girl was probably the only one who could have gotten that close, the one person in the inn that did not in any way present an openly intimidating or aggressive appearance. She was a young girl, and Tarrin's human memories told him that young human girls were very rarely dangerous in a physical sense. They may have a tongue like a razor, but a slap from one of them did little more than sting. Because she did not seem threatening, Tarrin had allowed her to get closer than he would have allowed anyone else.

Her getting close to him wasn't the core of his quandry, however. It was how she made him feel. When she handed him the scarf, he felt things that he hadn't felt in so long, he wasn't entirely sure what they were. His entire life was dominated by suspicion, fear, and anger now. Very few positive emotions managed to get through it, aside from his love for his family, friends, and his goddess. The girl had caused him to feel...wanted. That was the only way he could describe it. She had given him her scarf, but she had also given him her trust, and her smile, and her attention. It was something he didn't expect, nor did he expect to feel good about her attention. To his own shock, he hadn't reacted to her badly, though she was a complete stranger. That was the first time that had happened with someone other than a Were-cat since he left Suld.

He just couldn't explain it, he couldn't forget it, and he couldn't let it go. He played it over and over in his mind, his surprise when she handed him the scarf, the surge of impulse to fight or flee...then it just, went away. That was all. His defensive instincts just disappeared, washed away by the realization that she was being kind to him. That had to be the last thing he expected, that was why it took him so long to understand what she was doing.

Mist had changed. Could he change too? He doubted it, at least not so quickly. Part of him didn't want it. In this mad game he was playing, he needed his feral nature to help keep him alive. After all, there was nobody he could trust out here, nobody he would trust. Absolutely everyone out there would turn on him if they knew what he had. Maybe even that girl. Most likely, the combination of the long isolation and his weariness had subdued what he considered to be his normal reaction. The girl's smile and her gift had helped ease the lonely ache in his heart, an ache for his sisters and his friends. That had to be why he reacted to her in such a positive manner.

He did find hope in the exchange, hope that he could lose some of his harsh ferality. Despite needing it, it did cause him pain. It hurt to be afraid all the time, it hurt to drive away people that, for all he knew, wanted nothing but to say hello and chat a while. People that would probably make good friends, but for the fact that they were strangers, and that made them suspect in his mind. He accepted what he was, and he lived with it, but he did not like it. He did not like finding it so easy to kill, and have no regard for the lives of those around him. He did not like seeing the fear in the eyes of those that met his. It was why he had tried to change, at least before all the chaos in Dala Yar Arak ground his attempts to a screeching halt. He wanted to be more like Triana. He felt just a little hope that he could do just that, but it would have to be later, when he wasn't in so much danger.

When he finally noticed light coming through the sand, he stopped and tried to figure out if it was morning or afternoon. If they'd been walking for minutes, or hours, or maybe even days. He'd been lost in thought, only responding when Sarraya told him he was drifting off course. He noticed that the wind was starting to lessen. "Sarraya, we're coming out of the storm," he called to her over the lessening wind. It had gone from a ear-splitting shriek to merely a loud groan. "How long have we been out here?"

"I'm not sure," she shouted back to him. "At least several hours."

"That light means it's daytime, so it's been longer than that," he called back. "Maybe morning?"

"Like it matters," she shouted ruefully. "Are you feeling alright?"

"I think I have sand just about everywhere, but otherwise fine," he told her.

The going became noticably easier as he walked. The wind stopped trying to knock him over, and then walking against it became easier and easier as moments passed. He didn't have to hold on to the cloak anymore, letting it go and flexing a paw that ached from holding a tight grip for a very long time.

After some time of walking through the decreasing wind, he realized that it no longer howled. It was merely a gentle breeze, and the features of the land were beginning to become apparent to him as the dust and sand in the air thinned out. Most of it was caught up in the sandstorm, and he noticed curiously that it wasn't piled up all over the ground. The ground looked windswept to be sure, nothing but clumps of some short, wiry grass that kept the soil from being picked up, but there were wide swaths of bare ground, eaten away by the wind to form gentle bowls in the earth. Some of them were fifty spans across. He'd walked through a few of them, so he knew that the bottoms of them did tend to collect dirt, dust, and sand as the wind eddied within them. Visibility improved progressively moment by moment as the sandstorm's back edge passed over him, until the sun shone through the haze and he could see nearly half a longspan ahead. The breeze dropped to a whisper, and there was a curious silence under the ringing in his ears caused by hearing the ridiculously loud wind howl in his ears all night. He stopped, then turned around to see a black cloud of swirling shadows broiling behind him, moving away from them. He lowered the scarf from his face and took off the visor, sneezing once before letting out a relieved sigh.

"That's something I'll be sure to tell my children," Sarraya laughed as she came out from her hiding place in his hood. She sneezed a few times, then put a bit of her gossamer gown over her mouth. "I hope the dust settles," she complained. "It's getting into my eyes."

"It has to settle eventually," he told her. "I get the feeling it's going to be in the air for a while, though. Look how high up it goes." He pointed up into the murky sky, caused by the dust. It reduced the sun to a pale white disc that struggled to illuminate the ground beneath the cloud of dust. "Be glad for it, Sarraya, and don't hope it settles any time soon."

"Why?"

"Because nothing in the air can see us," he told her calmly. "If those flying things went around the storm, they could be very close to us. This way they can't get an exact idea of where we are if they did."

"Good point," Sarraya agreed. "How long has it been since you slept?"

"That doesn't matter," he said dismissively. "What matters is what I can find to eat around here. I'm getting hungry."

"Now that you've fleshed out again, I think you can make it on what fruit I can conjure til we get to a place more hunter friendly," she told him.

"I'm certainly not going to find anything in this," he grunted. "I can't even smell the ground. All I smell is this scarf and dust."

After stopping right where he stood and sitting down, he and Sarraya shared a meal of fruit and berries that the little Faerie conjured. All of it had a faint taste of dust, which was understandable considering the fog-like pall of dust that hung in the air, but after a night of movement it was exactly what he needed.

The wind began to pick up when they were done, when Tarrin stood up. It blew and billowed the dust as it reached them, tugging at Tarrin's cloak, and the Were-cat realized after looking up that the wind was pulling the dust out of the area, blowing it towards the back of the sandstorm. He cursed under his breath at the loss of their concealment, then reached under the cloak for his water skin. It was only half full, but that was no problem. Sarraya could conjure water as easily as she conjured fruit. She had been the one to fill the skin he had. She'd conjured the skin too.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"The wind is pulling the dust out of the air," he told her, pointing up. The dust was getting thinner and thinner, blowing towards the back of the storm. "If those flyers went around, we're going to be exposed."

"I think that's not much of an issue, Tarrin," Sarraya told him. "I don't think the wind can completely get all the dust. Besides, if it worries you that much, I'll go up and look."

"That would make me feel better."

Sarraya rose up from her seat on the ground and darted straight up, quickly leaving his sight. Even the sound of her wings faded after a moment, leaving him to wait in relative silence for several moments. Then he heard her winds again, growing louder by the second, and she appeared in front of him, moving towards him quickly. "Nothing," she replied. "I can't see around the sandstorm, but there's nothing in any other direction."

"I guess that's a good thing. How long would it take them to get around that storm?"

"It would depend on how close they were when they started," she replied. "But even if they started early, if I can't see them now, then they can't be anywhere near close to us. We shouldn't be bothered all day by anything in the air."

"That's a relief," he sighed contentedly.

The wind did not get rid of all the dust, as Sarraya had predicted. It hung like a dirty fog for most of the day, concealing the Were-cat from anyone who may happen to be overhead. It was considerably challenging to run in the pall, Tarrin discovered, for his visibility was very poor, and many times he had to react with lightning speed to avoid running into the few obstacles the dusty plains could present. But visibility improved as the morning progressed, allowing him to see further and further, until they came across a road.

This baffled Tarrin, but only momentarily. After all, there were trading posts on the border of the desert, and those posts had to have some way to move their goods back and forth to the rest of the kingdom. Tarrin didn't see a road when he left the nameless city behind him, but that wasn't very much of a surprise, because he could barely see his own feet at that time. The road was little more than a clean patch of sand and dirt running through the low scrub grass, the road's level below the land around it, wide enough for three wagons to pass one another. The sandstorms had dug out the bare earth of the road and carried it away, leaving the road lower than the land around it by nearly a span. The road was covered by at least three fingers of loose dust and sand, shifting and parting for his feet as he stepped into it, telling him that any wagon or cart would find this road very slow going. It told him that he was on the right track, and it also told him that he was going to see some civilization before he crossed over into the desert.

He followed the road for the rest of the day, moving more confidently in the dust-filled air now that he didn't have to worry about tripping over a log or running into the shallow gorges that tended to present themselves at inopportune moments. The road's loose surface slowed him down a little, but not enough to make him feel as if he needed to abandon it for the scrubby grass. The road proved to make time pass more quickly, because now he didn't have to worry about his direction or running into or over something. He could simply follow the road and allow it to guide him. It made for easy running, and that made the time flow by quickly.

The dust had almost completely settled by sunset. There were no objects in the sky, as Sarraya had predicted, but the clearing air did reveal something on the ground. It was a wagon, a wagon with no animals to pull it, turned over on its top on the side of the road. It rested on the gentle slope running from the ground above down into the road's relatively level middle, and it was rather large for a wagon. It had curious wheels, made of some strange ivory-like substance which he couldn't identify, and they were about five times wider than standard wagon wheels. That made sense, given the loose nature of the road on which it travelled. The wide wheels would make it easier for the wagon to move. The dust had stripped away any scents in the area, and the dust and sand carried along by the evening winds forced him to put the scarf up to keep it out of his nose and mouth.

"Looks like someone didn't get to shelter," Sarraya said conversationally, zipping over the wagon. The sand and dust had piled up around it like a snowdrift on the side that would have been leeward of the storm.

"No tack or harness," Tarrin said. "Either it was left behind, or the animals broke free."

"You think there's anything in it?" Sarraya asked.

"I don't know, but it'll serve as shelter for a night's sleeping," he said, reaching up and unclasping the cloak. "It shouldn't be that hard to turn over."

Settling himself beside the wagon, Tarrin sank his claws into the side of it, then began to pull. As he suspected, the wagon wasn't very heavy--it had to be light, else it would sink into the road and be hard to move. He turned it on its side, then slid partially under it and heaved it over and above him.

The activity told him that he was stronger now. He held the wagon completely off the ground, a feat that five men could not easily accomplish. He turned towards the middle of the road and readied to set the wagon back down on its wheels--

--and a sudden shrill scream nearly startled him out of his fur.

Tarrin heaved the wagon aside, landing with a crash on its side beside him as he whirled around in the direction of the scream, claws out and eyes lit from within with their unholy greenish radiance. Whatever had made that sound was right there, close enough to attack, and he hadn't sensed it. Tarrin did not react well to surprise. He growled loudly in his throat and laid his ears back, primal threat displays to whatever it was attacking him, telling it that it wouldn't take him without a fight.

His surprise grew when he found himself looking down at a child of no more than eight years, screaming at the top of her lungs, pressing and shoving at a still form beneath her.

A child! All that nonsense over a human cub! Tarrin rose up from his slouching battle stance, looking down at the little girl with annoyance and relief. She was still screaming, trying to rouse another human beside her, an Arakite woman of youngish years. The woman was breathing, if only just, and she had blood clotted with dust on the side of her head. Around them were tattered canvas, broken shards of wood, and small bales of some grayish fiber. Wool? They must have been under the wagon, protected from the storm by the artificial cave in which they were trapped.

The little girl was still screaming, staring up at him in terror. All things considered, he could understand her fear, but she was starting to get on his nerves. The woman, that was another story. He approached them silently, ignoring the girl's increasing screams and the nearly hysterical look that had come into her eyes. She was absolutely terrified. He lowered his scarf and took off his visor to get a good look at the woman, ignoring the screaming cub as he knelt down by the woman's body. She was still alive, but she'd hit her head very hard. It was a nasty injury, explaining why she was unconscious.

Almost immediately, a confrontation arose within him. Part of him wanted to help the woman. She was injured, and the child would not survive without the woman. It would cost him very little to help the woman, and then he could send her and the child on their way with no trouble on his part. But the other part of him rejected that idea. The woman was a stranger, a potential enemy, and it did not want to aid an enemy. Her life, her survival, would do nothing for him. It meant nothing to him. To leave her here to die would not affect him in the slightest. To help her would mean getting close to her, exposing himself to her, and he did not want any part of that.

But there was little even his feral instincts could do against the suffering of the child. Seeing her reminded him of Janette, his little mother. He would be devastated if she was left somewhere to die, if someone had had the chance to help her and refused. The woman meant very little to him, but no part of him could refuse the suffering of the child.

The little girl continued to scream, rooted to the spot. Tarrin looked down at her in a way that made her immediately stop screaming, causing her to stare at him with fear in her eyes. He looked away from her as Sarraya flitted over, looking down at the woman. Her features made her the girl's mother, and she was dressed nicely enough to tell him that she was no servant. She had probably owned the wagon that had turned over on them. But why were they still here? Surely she'd been travelling with others, and they should have stopped and helped them. Maybe she could give him those answers.

Reaching down with his paw, he absently reached out and touched the Weave.

And what responded was enough to nearly make him faint.

The totality of the Weave sought to infuse him within a heartbeat, a power greater than anything he had ever felt from the Weave before. It did not try to flow into him. It simply was there, all of it, as if the entire Weave had tried to place itself within him. As quickly as it struck him, Tarrin reacted instinctively, pushing himself away from that staggering power before he could understand what had happened. The backlash of his action was immense, almost mind-numbingly painful, and it tore a ragged cry from him. The physical effect of the backlash, a sudden displacement of the air around him, ripped his shirt in a few places and caused the little girl to collapse on top of her mother in abject terror, hugging her as if Death Herself had come for her.

Kneeling there in vacant confusion, Tarrin put a paw on the back of his head, panting heavily to overcome the intense pain of the forced separation. What had just happened? That wasn't supposed to happen! There was no buildup at all, the power was just there! Blinking, he looked around, and then he reached out with his other senses, reached out to feel what was around him. And the backlash! It was like nothing he'd ever felt before! If it would have been just a little stronger, it may have killed him!

Of course. Stupid, stupid, stupid! He was kneeling in a minor Conduit! No wonder! Teach him to go and simply try to use Sorcery without getting a feel for the local Weave! The little girl's screaming and carrying on had distracted him, she and his internal conflict had caused him to ignore what he was feeling around him, because that was something that he would have noticed otherwise.

"Tarrin, what happened?" Sarraya asked, winking into visibility.

"I'm kneeling in a Conduit," he said, a bit chagrined. "The cub's screaming distracted me, I wasn't paying attention when I tried to touch the Weave."

Sarraya looked at him, then she began to laugh uncontrollably. "A Doomwalker can't touch you, you eat Demons for breakfast, and you nearly get killed by a hysterical human child!" she said, nearly falling out of the air. "This is just too much!"

"Shut up," he growled in embarassment, reaching down and picking up the injured woman gently. The little girl let go of her mother and stared up at Tarrin in confusion and fear. "I'm not going to hurt you," he told the girl in Arakite. "I need to move your mother over to the wagon so I can help her. I can't do it right here."

Accompanied by Sarraya's endless laughter, Tarrin looked down at the woman. Part of him was ready to pick her up, but the other part resisted, caused him to kneel there for a very long moment and stare down at the woman like she was a live snake. To reach down and touch her, to pick her up, it would be the point of no return. He would be committed to the act, and for good or ill he would have to finish it through. He felt foolish for fearing an unconscious, injured woman, but he simply could not help what he was feeling. He looked down at her, and he felt the fear. This was a stranger, an unknown, a person that could do him harm. He could not deny that. But he also couldn't deny that his need to help the child overwhelmed his aversion to exposing himself to this woman. Feeling like he had very little choice in the matter, Tarrin reached down and scooped up the woman in his strong arms. He picked her up and carried the human woman over to the wagon. It had rolled back over on its top after Tarrin tossed it aside, and the Were-cat laid the woman on the underside gently as the little girl followed behind, finger in her mouth, her eyes still filled with terror. But she would not leave her mother, so she remained close to him as he laid the woman down gently. He reached down absently and scooped up the girl with a paw, making her squeak in fear, but she calmed immediately when he set her down beside her mother on the top of the overturned wagon. Tarrin reached down and put his paw on the woman's chest, and after Sarraya came back, still laughing, he reached out and touched the Weave again.

This time it was normal. Tarrin resisted the incoming avalanche of power as it rushed into him, caused his paws to limn over in Magelight, until he felt Sarraya's Druidic constraints choke off that flood to a managable level. With Sarraya's continuing laughter chiming in his ears, Tarrin sent flows of Earth, Water, and Divine power into the woman, and wove them together into the complicated weaves of healing. He released the weave and allowed it to do its work, to attack the injuries within the woman, to mend them and restore her to health. The woman's breathing became stronger, the grayish pall in her skin immediately cleared up, returned to a normal dusky brown. The wound in her head knitted itself back to perfect health, though it was impossible to see under the ugly black mass of clotted blood on the side of her head.

The Weave felt...different to him. He couldn't quite put his finger on what felt different, but something definitely did. Almost as if it were closer, somehow. Of course, the very close proximity of a Conduit probably was causing that, but he wasn't quite sure if that was the case or not. Sarraya was choking it off, but she wasn't choking off as much as she would have. It was like he had more control of it now, able to manage more than before. The closeness of the Conduit shouldn't have that kind of effect. But there were other things to worry about now, he'd think about that when he had the time. It wasn't an important issue at the moment, not as important as the unease he felt being near the strange woman.

Letting go of the Weave easily with Sarraya helping him, Tarrin removed his paw from the woman's chest and looked down at the pair of them calmly. The girl had seen the light around his paw, and she had been mesmerized by it, it seemed, for the fear that had been in her eyes had been replaced by wonderment. Tarrin blinked and realized that he was within arm's reach of the woman, and quickly stood up and got a safe distance away. His quick action startled the little girl in the act of reaching out to touch his paw, making her look up at him in confusion before leaning down and hugging her mother.

Sarraya's laughing stopped, but she still snickered and giggled from time to time. "How is she?"

"She's going to be fine," Tarrin told her. "She'll be alright, little cub," he told the girl in Arakite. He took his first good look at the girl. She was rather cute, in an Arakite sense, with pattern Arakite skin, hair and eyes. Her features were a bit sharper than the standard Arakite, and he realized that she was very skinny under her pretty cream-colored dress, a dress now brown from dirt, dust, and sand. Her cheeks were sunken, and her lips were swollen. She was dehydrated. It was amazing that she had the energy to scream as loudly as she did. "You need some water, and some food. I think I have some in my pack somewhere. You just sit here and wait for your mother to wake up, and I'll get you something."

Tarrin stepped away from the two of them, and Sarraya followed. "I think a goodly amount of water is called for here, Sarraya," he told her quietly. "Both of them are dehydrated. They're going to need alot of water. And we'll need some decent food. They have a ways to go, so they'll need enough to get them back to that city too."

"I can conjure up some bread and honey for them, but you know I won't conjure meat." That limitation was a conscious one for Sarraya rather than a limit on her ability. Sarraya refused to conjure any animal for food, since it would appear alive, and she objected to summoning animals from the wild with the implicit reason to kill them. She didn't mind hunting, it was a natural process, but her reasoning was that a conjured animal had no chance to get away. So she refused to allow that to happen. If Tarrin wanted meat, he had to find it himself the old-fashioned way.

"I think that will be enough," he assured her. He looked back at them, and realized that he had to leave them quickly. Stay long enough to make sure they were alright, then leave them. They'd be in much more danger with him near than they'd be alone. Besides, being close to them made him feel uneasy, uncomfortable, and those were very bad feelings for him. It was only a two day walk back to that nameless city for a human, so it wasn't like he was abandoning them out in the middle of nowhere. All they had to do was follow the road. It gnawed at him a bit that he was leaving them alone, but the feral disposition in him squashed that feeling quickly and reminded him that whether or not they lived was none of his concern.

Sarraya conjured up a large leather cloth, and then set to work conjuring a meal large enough for two starving refugees. She had the foresight to conjure up several waterskins as well as a stone urn, and she filled all of them with water. By the time she was done, the woman began to make low grumbling sounds. She was waking up. Sarraya winked out of sight as Tarrin picked up several of the skins and moved towards the humans.

The woman opened her eyes just as Tarrin was approaching with the waterskins. She looked up at her daughter, who was beginning to cry and hug the woman fiercely, then she turned and looked at him. Her eyes widened in surprise, but there wasn't the irrational outburst that had come from the girl. There was definitely fear in her eyes, but it was tempered by the fact that she was alive and whole, and that her daughter was unharmed. The woman sat up and cradled the girl in one arm as her other hand touched the massive clot on the side of her head tentatively. There was confusion in her eyes now, and she looked up at Tarrin with fear, bewilderment, and a little awe at his intimidating size.

"It's healed," he told her in Arakite. "You're safe for the moment."

"Wh-Who are you?" she asked in a trembling voice. "It's alright, Sami, it's alright. Calm down now."

"Who I am doesn't matter," he replied calmly. "I'm going to leave you with enough food and water to recover, and enough to get back to a city. There's a city two day's walk that way," he said, pointing the way he'd come. "But I think you already knew that."

"Sargon," she filled in. "What happened to the others?"

"I found you alone," he told her. "They must have left you behind."

"As bad as that storm was, I'd be surprised if they knew it by the time they got to Sargon," she grunted, looking at him. "They probably looked around and realized that my wagon wasn't there."

"Will they look for you?"

"They'd better," she said ominously.

"Then waiting here for a while may not be a bad idea," he said, throwing his cloak back over his shoulders. "If they don't come back, then you shouldn't have too much trouble getting back to that city."

"You're leaving?" the woman asked urgently. "But I didn't get to thank you, or find out your name or anything!"

"I am no one worth your time," he said simply. "I was never here."

"But what if something attacks us?"

"There's nothing out here to attack you," he replied.

"What about the Trolls? They haven't come this far?"

That made his ears pick up. Were-cats--all of Fae-da'Nar for that matter--hated Trolls. Goblinoids existed outside the natural order, destroying the balance of nature more aggressively than humans did, and that made them the mortal enemies of the Forest Folk. Any Were-kin worth his fur would go ten longspans out of his way to kill a Goblinoid.

But what were Trolls doing out in this arid plain? This wasn't the range of a Troll. They preferred forested foothills and mountains, a climate much cooler than the hot plains of the mid-continent.

"I haven't seen any Trolls," Tarrin told her warily. "I haven't seen anything, because of the storm. What are Trolls doing in Saranam? This isn't their range."

"They started showing up about two months ago," the woman replied. "At first, it was just one or two, but then we saw more and more of them north of the trading post. About a month ago, we realized that there was all but an army to the north, and the Trolls were only a part of it. They swept down about two tendays ago and took over the border with the desert. We barely managed to get away."

Trolls raiding in Saranam? And they were spreading out along the border of the desert? He'd seen Trolls working for his enemies before. These Trolls would have no reason to block off the desert, but to keep him from getting into it. Whoever had sent that Wyvern and the Trolls was up to his or her old tricks again, setting up a picket, a gauntlet through which he had to pass to reach the safety of the Desert of Swirling Sands.

They knew where he was going. He had never really made that much of a secret, and those that knew him knew that he was friends with a Selani, so it was no stretch to conclude that he was going to go to the desert. Now he understood why they weren't actively hunting him down. Why waste resources trying to find him on the vast plains of Saranam when they knew where he was going to be? He had to cross that border to get into the desert. So long as they covered a majority of it, they had a good chance to encounter him when he arrived. And Trolls were one of the few enemies which Tarrin feared. Not any single Troll, he was much too skilled and powerful to be bested by one, but Trolls fought in packs. A single Troll was no problem, but thirty of them was another matter. If he had to wade through a pack of Trolls to get to the desert, it put his success very much in doubt. He would have to resort to Sorcery, and he had the feeling that his adversaries knew that he would have to resort to Sorcery...so they may have some sort of plan. They wouldn't put their Trolls in jeopardy otherwise, it was a foolish waste of very powerful assets. There wasn't an army in the world that would relish the task of having to face a horde of Trolls.

No, he wasn't going to play their game. He had the feeling that they had set the rules very much in their own favor. Now that he knew what was waiting for him, he could devise a way to get past them safely before he reached that juncture. If it took her twenty days to get this far in a wagon, then it would take him about ten to twelve days to run the same distance. If he didn't hurry.

"I haven't seen any sign of Trolls," he repeated. "There's nothing between you and the city but an empty road. If you're that worried about Trolls, then I suggest you walk fast."

"You're going to abandon us?" she asked in disbelief.

"What happens to you after I leave this place doesn't concern me," he said stonily, staring at her with emotionless eyes. "If not for that child, I would have left you to die. Don't push my patience, female, or I'll put you back in the same condition I found you in."

She gaped at him, clutching at her child instinctively.

"I am no savior or hero, female. I am just a nameless traveller with too much of a soft spot for children. I'll give you what you need to make it back to your city. Whether or not you reach it all depends on you."

There was nothing she could say in the face of such a statement. She just clutched her child in tight arms and stared at him in disbelief, and not more than a little fear.

Sensing her fear, angry with himself that he would fear someone who was obviously terrified of him, Tarrin snorted and threw the waterskins down near the wagon. "There's a spread back there with enough food on it to last you to that city," he told them testily, pointing behind him. He placed the visor over his eyes, pulled up the hood of the cloak, then wound the scarf around his neck, around the outside of the hood loosely. "You should wait here for tonight, then start out in the morning. Once you do, don't stop until you reach safety."

He looked sideways at the little girl. There was something about her, something curious. It was something he was just starting to notice, as if there was an aspect of her that had been hidden from his view before, but was now becoming clear. It wasn't just her. He could almost see the Weave, almost as if he had charged the strands around him and set them glowing, but barely enough to see them in the daylight. Despite that unseeing sense, he could feel them all around him much more clearly than he usually would be able to do. Usually he could only feel the local strands, and discern a Conduit from a strand, but would have to touch the Weave to learn anything more precise. But now each strand seemed to be distinct and separate, as if he could feel how large they were without touching the Weave, how much energy they possessed, and where and how they joined with Conduits or other strands.

The little girl had potential. Alot of potential. She was a Sorcerer. Or she would be, in about eight years, and a very strong one.

That was why she seemed suddenly unusual. He was sensing the Weave, and despite the fact that her talent had yet to manifest, it still connected her to the Weave in a manner unlike other people.

"What?" the woman asked in a cautious voice. Tarrin realized that he was staring at the girl. He blinked and looked away, trying to understand this alteration in the Weave. Was it in the Weave? Maybe it was something of an aftereffect of touching the Weave inside that Conduit. Perhaps it left him with a temporary connection to the Weave, a tenuous one through which he could do nothing but sense. He'd never touched the Weave directly through a Conduit before--at least not willingly--so he wasn't very familiar with any possible side effects of such an act.

Again, it was something that could wait until he had the time and opportunity to think it through. Being so close to the woman was still making him just a bit edgy, which was probably why he didn't notice the expanded sense of the Weave sooner. A small part of him had this irrational worry that she was going to suddenly jump up and attack him, and despite the fact that he knew he could kill her with no danger to himself, it just wouldn't go away. And it was something that he just couldn't ignore, no matter how much his rational mind told him that the woman was no threat to him.

His relief from his feral nature hadn't lasted that long. The very first encounter with strangers after the girl, and he had quickly reverted to his old self.

Tarrin levelled his gaze on the woman, who was now painted over in gentle violets through the tinting of the visor. "In six years, take your daughter to Sharadar," he told her evenly. "Take her to the Tower of Sorcery in Abrodar, and enroll her in the school there."

"Why should I do that?"

"Because in ten years, that girl will be katzh-dashi," he replied bluntly, using a term that the woman would certainly understand. "The girl has considerable potential. She'll be a strong Sorceress."

He wasn't about to send her to Suld. He didn't trust anyone in the Tower outside of Sevren and Dolanna. If she had to learn about Sorcery, it was better for her to go to Sharadar. In six years, Sharadar may have the only Tower left standing. That depended on how quickly he could ferret out the spy in the Tower and get rid of her.

"Stay put until tomorrow, then walk fast," he told her. "Protect the girl. In twenty years, she'll be a woman of great importance. And thanks for the warning about the Trolls," he added as an afterthought.

The woman stared at him in surprise, but he didn't pay her much mind. He had a long way to go, and he had quite a bit to ponder while travelling. He had to think up a way to get around the Trolls with a minimum of danger to himself, and he wanted to see if this curious after-effect of touching the Conduit would fade sooner or later. He pulled the cloak over his shoulders, looking down at the pair one more time, then he started walking past them. He kept his ears and senses open to feel or hear it if the woman suddenly rushed him, but such a thing didn't happen.

She did call to him one more time, however, after he had passed her and started along the road towards the desert, a road whose end would present him with an exciting passage into the desert. "Thank you!" she called. "Thank you for saving us!"

Tarrin made no visible sign that he had heard her, and there was nothing inside that reacted to her gratitude. Helping her was only a means to protect the child. That was all that really mattered to him. There was nothing out in the plains to threaten them, so they would simply have a long walk ahead. He expected them to make it with no problem, and that released him from any sort of feeling of responsibility for them. He simply walked away from them, into the setting sun, leaving them to whatever fates smiled or frowned upon them.

And he didn't think twice about it.

It wouldn't fade.

Tarrin lay in a shallow bowl, dozing after a morning of dreamless slumber in one of the shallow depressions caused by the wind, sandwiched between a sand-colored leather spread that concealed him from any observers and thick bales of wool that Sarraya had Summoned from where the woman and child had been. He had moved on to get away from the woman, moved most of the night until his weariness forced him to stop. It wasn't sleepiness, it was the exertion of nearly three days of constant activity with very little rest. He still felt something of an aversion to shifting into cat form, so he had slept in his humanoid form under the leather cover that Sarraya conjured, laying on a bed of sheared wool that kept him quite warm and comfortable.

Despite a night and morning, the sense of the Weave had not faded. He could still almost see it, sense every strand around him, sense their sizes and power and position within the Weave. He could feel the magic within them, feel it in a way that made the magic pulse with the beating of his heart. It confused him that the sense of it had yet to fade, even after so long. It made him start to wonder if it was going to fade at all.

That wasn't the only strange feeling about his magic. Before, when he had used it, he had felt...more in control. Almost as if the power flooding him wasn't as intimidating as it had once been. He'd still needed Sarraya to help control it, but she didn't have to work as hard as usual. She even told him so. Somehow, he knew that the sense of the Weave and this alteration in his Sorcery were related. But what had caused the changes? He hadn't really used his power since Dala Yar Arak, except for twice, and he hadn't felt any differences the first time. Only now. It made him think about what was different between then and now, what had changed that could possibly explain a change in the way he used Sorcery.

Well, the one explanation was the Conduit. He'd used Sorcery within a Conduit once before, but he didn't really remember that much about it. It had been the first time he'd fought Jegojah, and the Doomwalker had pushed him into the Heart of the Goddess, the largest and most concentrated Conduit in the Weave. But this time he remained coherent afterward, and it had been after that that he'd noticed the change. So it was possible that the overload of trying to touch the Weave through a Conduit had created the change in feeling.

The other explanation was him. Shiika's draining kiss had done more than drain away his life energy, it had aged him. He'd grown over a span since then, his hair had grown, his features had changed. A Sorcerer's ability to use his magic was a direct relationship to his body. It was the body's physical limits that determined how much power a Sorcerer could hold, and that amount almost never changed as the Sorcerer aged. But Tarrin wasn't human, and his Were-cat body had a natural affinity and aptitide for magical energy. Part of what he was, his very nature and composition, was magic. The kiss from the Succubus had caused him to grow, to become stronger, to age. If the aging had changed his body, it was very possible that it had also affected his Sorcery in a similar fashion.

For Tarrin, his magic was very much tied up in his body, and his body was very much tied up in his magic.

Of the two, the second seemed to make more sense. If Tarrin's aged body had expanded its limitations of Sorcery, it would explain why it had seemed easier to use it. But it didn't explain this sense of the Weave, why he could feel it around him so clearly now. The Conduit theory seemed to support the expansion in sense better, but it did nothing to explain why Sorcery seemed more tractable.

Well, there was one guaranteed way to find out. This was something that he felt he'd better figure out before he went and fried himself by accident.

"Mother," he whispered under his breath. "Are you listening?"

Of course I am, the Goddess replied immediately. The sense of her presence still had yet to fade within him, so there was no expansion of self that he'd felt during her earlier visitations. It was always with him now, a gentle glow just outside his soul that constantly bathed him with gentle love and assurance. And the answer is the second. Your body is different now, and it is why the Weave seems different to you.

"But it feels...less overwhelming."

As it should, she replied. But that is no reason to begin experimenting. You are stronger now, both in your ability to hold magic and your aptitude to control it, and those cancel one another out. You must understand the dangers involved with the changes in your power.

"What do you mean?"

Those dangers haven't changed, they have just become more serious. There is no room for error now, my dear kitten. Your power is now beyond Sarraya's ability to control. If you lose control, she cannot help you.

"She helped me with the Conduit."

No, you helped yourself when you tapped that Conduit, she corrected. Remember the backlash? Do you feel a backlash when Sarraya helps you? Have you ever felt a backlash like that before?

"No," he answered soberly, to both questions.

That should tell you what happened, then. You must be very careful, my kitten, very careful. Sorcery is just like Druidic magic for you now. You have no room for error, so you must exercise the most extreme caution when you use it.

"But she helped me use it to heal."

Yes, she did, but that was because you were not out of control, she replied immediately. You were fully coherent, and you were aiding her by controlling the inflow of power over what she was restricting. What I'm saying is that if you use your full power, you will be beyond Sarraya's ability to stop you. And if you attempt to cut yourself off while filled with that power, it's very possible that the backlash will kill you.

Tarrin absorbed that in sober silence. Sarraya said that it may come to this, that he grew beyond her ability to control him. Thanks to Shiika, that had happened. It meant that there wouldn't be any mass rearranging of the local geography, and his idea to simply sweep the Trolls out of his way with magic was no longer a viable option. Sarraya could help him control his magic when it wasn't his full power, but since he didn't know where the line was between her control and beyond her control, he wasn't about to experiemtnt to find it. If he took in too much power for Sarraya to counter, then he'd be exposing himself to very real danger. The backlash of cutting himself off may kill him.

"I, I understand, Mother," he said grimly. "So this sense of the Weave isn't going to fade?"

No. It is simply an aspect of your growing connection to the Weave. You are coming into the fullness of your power, my kitten. This will not be the first change that you notice, and you're going to find that Sorcery is much more versatile and useful than you believe.

"How do you mean?"

The Goddess chuckled in his mind. Alright, I'll give you a hint. What's the fundamental process to weaving?

Tarrin groped for a moment to put into words something that he did without thought. "Well, you touch the Weave. Then you draw in the power, then you weave the flows, then you release it to let it do its work."

Right.

"And?"

And what? she asked in a teasing voice.

"That's the hint?" he asked in annoyance.

I didn't say it was going to be an obvious hint, she told him with a giggle. But since you're going to be dense, tell me the three strictures of using Sorcery.

"You can't use Sorcery on yourself," he answered automatically. "You can't weave where you can't see, and you can't weave a spell that requires more magic than you can hold. Unless you know how to bridge the power," he amended hastily.

I'm so glad you were paying attention when Dolanna was instructing you, the Goddess teased. Now, to that third rule. Why do you say it can be broken?

"Because I've broken it," he answered, a bit pugnaciously. "And Dolanna told me that there are advanced tricks to let experienced Sorcerers weave spells beyond their ability. I don't know what they call it, but that's how it feels when I do it, so that's what I call it."

Since you can break the third rule, doesn't it stand to reason that there are also exceptions for the other two?

"Well, High Sorcery lets someone use Sorcery on himself, so that's the exception there. And you can weave blind if you're very good. Dolanna can weave blind."

So, what do those exceptions show you?

"What do you mean?"

Think about it. There is no rule that cannot be broken. What does that mean to you?

"That you make stupid rules?"

Tarrin! the Goddess snapped. She even used his name, so he knew he'd gone beyond the bounds almost immediately.

"Sorry, but you told me to think about it," he said defensively. "It doesn't make much sense to have a rule when you also have a way to make the rule pointless."

Those rules exist for those just learning, so they know where not to go, she told him, a bit testily. Now stop being irritating and answer the question. What does it mean to you?

Tarrin closed his eyes and considered it. There was no rule that did not have an exception. Outside of a rather bad rule system, what it told him was that there was alot more to the Weave, and to Sorcery, than one person could imagine. The Ancients were said to have powers that made modern Sorcerers look like Initiates. It stood to reason that they knew how to use the power in ways that the modern Sorcerer did not, which meant that they could transcend the rules by which the modern Sorcerer operates. If there was no rule that could not be broken, then perhaps that meant that the modern Sorcerer really didn't know the true rules. He only knew what small piece of the true rules he could understand, and pieced together an incomplete understanding of the rest. And that adherance to things that weren't complete meant that he had little chance to reach beyond a plateau of ability.

I'm impressed, the Goddess beamed. Sometimes your intellect surprises me, kitten. Now, what does that mean to you?

"That the Ancients weren't inherently stronger. They just knew more than we do."

Yes and no. Truth be told, the Ancients did have more aptitude than the modern Sorcerer, but you're partially right. There are a good number of Sorcerers out there now that have as much aptitude as the Ancients. In some cases, as you, Keritanima, Jenna, Dolanna, Sevren, all of the Council, Jula, and some you don't know, those Sorcerers have even more aptitude. Their inherent aptitude is greater than the average Ancient. So it stands to reason that you, or any of them, can do almost anything an Ancient can do, right?

"I sorta figured that. They call me a Weavespinner, and they existed back when the Ancients were still here. It's why they couldn't train me, because there's nobody left that knew how Weavespinners used their magic."

They did. You're the first Weavespinner since the Age of Power. But you're not the last.

"Jenna," he said immediately.

Among several, she affirmed. The old powers are reawakening, kitten. In you, Jenna, and several others you don't know. It's also why you fought with those two Demons. The Wizards and the Priests are also regaining powers lost to them for a long time, returning to the power they could hold before the Breaking.

"But won't that just cause another Breaking?"

In time, it could, she admitted. But that's something that wouldn't happen for a very long time. But we're getting off the point. You just said exactly what I've been getting at, kitten..

"I just--about there being nobody left that knows how Weavespinners use their power?"

Exactly. That should mean something to you.

"It means that there's more than one way to use Sorcery."

I'm so glad it seems obvious to you, the Goddess chuckled. It's something you already know, after all. High Sorcery is simply an alternative method of using Sorcery. They're different, but they're also the same. Each has its own set of rules and restrictions under which you have to operate, but when you boil it all down to stock, it's just two sides of the same coin. But in this case, kitten, the coin has more than two sides.

"You mean there's more than two ways to use Sorcery."

Obviously, she told him offhandedly. Your sense of the Weave has changed, my kitten. Think about what that means, in more than narrow terms. Just don't try to solve this mystery today. It's something that's going to take you some time.

"Alright. Goddess, what did you mean when you said that the old powers are coming back?"

Just what I said. Powers that have been sleeping for thousands of years are starting to return to the world. You are one of them. Your powers are one of the old powers, my kitten. You're a Weavespinner. And I think that now, you finally begin to understand what that truly means. I told you once before that it was something that they call you without understanding its true meaning. Now you begin to understand that meaning.

"I think I do," he answered soberly. "What made them come back?"

That's something that would take years to explain, kitten, but the short of it is that it was the ordained time, she replied.

"It seems awfully fast."

Time is a subjective thing, kitten. It moves at different paces for different things.

"So this means that Wizards can summon Demons again?"

They always could. It's just now the spells that they needed to control the Demons work again--or, more to the point, they've finally rediscovered those spells after them being hidden for thousands of years. Don't worry, you're not going to be rubbing elbows with Demonkind every other day. There are only a handful of spellbooks left that hold those spells, and without them, no sane Wizard would dare try to summon a Demon.

"That's a relief," he sighed. "I'd rather not have to face them again." He closed his eyes again. "I take it that you're not going to teach me anything about Sorcery?"

I can't do that for you, kitten. I'm your patroness, and you're my direct agent in the game we play. That means that I can't give you that kind of direct aid. It's against the rules under which we operate.

She said it with strange inflection, and when the Goddess did that, it told him that she was trying to pass along some information that she couldn't directly give to him.

He mulled it over for a moment, but he decided that this too was something that he wouldn't solve quickly. But he had the feeling that it would reveal itself in time.

I don't have much more time, kitten. All I can tell you is to keep going the way you're going, and be very careful when you get to the border. You know what's waiting there for you, and now you understand the care you're going to have to exercise to get past it in one piece. But you will. I know you will. I have great faith in you, my dear kitten. I know you won't let me down.

And when you get into the desert, you'll find an entirely new and exciting world waiting to challenge you.

And then she fell silent, and Tarrin knew in his heart that she would say no more.

As always, she left him with more questions than answers.

But this time, she had left him with some interesting information. That the old powers were returning to the world, and that his powers, as well as the powers of his enemies, they were all growing stronger. It was an increase in the stakes in the dangerous game of chance they played with one another. It certainly explained why the Zakkites had two Demons working for them. Because now they could control the Demons they could summon from the Abyss. It explained why he felt stronger now, and maybe it had nothing to do with Shiika.

That, or Shiika's attack on him, her draining and the subsequent aging, had been ordained.

That was something of a scary thought. That what to him had been a completely random act, an act undertaken in the middle of a fight, had been something that was fated to happen, it worried him. It made him wonder just how much had happened to him, how much he had done, had been things that would have happened no matter what. It made him feel curiously helpless, as if he were nothing but an actor playing out a part, rather than a free-willed individual doing what he wanted to do. Tarrin didn't like feeling helpless.

"I heard half of that," Sarraya noted from just beside his head. "What old powers are coming back?"

"All of them," he replied quietly. "She said that all the old powers were returning. She said because it was the right time for it."

"That's certainly interesting information. I guess that means that we're going to be entering another Age of Power, and it's doomed to end in another Breaking. Humans certainly won't learn their lesson from the last one."

"I guess so," he sighed.

"What was all that about other Sorcery?"

"I think the Goddess was trying to tell me that I should be trying to learn how the old Weavespinners used their magic," he told her. "She said that the changes I feel in the Weave are actually changes inside me, and that now I'm ready to try to expand my abilities. She also told me why the Weave feels different to me. Shiika's little gift did more than age my body. It also changed my touch on the Weave. It made me stronger." He sighed. "She told me that I'm beyond your power now, Sarraya. If I lose control, you won't be able to stop me. So I don't think you should try. It might get you killed."

"I knew it would come to this, Tarrin," she told him evenly. "Your power has been growing ever since we met. Every time you use it, you're stronger the next time. Almost like every touch on the Weave brings it closer to you. What this means is that now you can't use Sorcery unless we really don't have much choice, and when we do it, you have to be very calm, very collected, and know exactly what you intend to do. And you can't do anything that I can't control."

"I figured that already," he replied. "I was going to use Sorcery to sweep out the Trolls at the border, but now we're going to have to find another way." He looked up into the sky, at the Skybands. "She said something funny. She said that she couldn't teach me how to use Weavespinner magic, but she said it in a strange way. I think she was trying to tell me that there is someone that can teach me that."

"But all the Weavespinners are long gone," Sarraya protested. "They disappeared with the Ancients and the Sha'Kar."

"I know. That's why I can't figure it out. There's just nobody left to teach me something that disappeared a thousand years ago."

"There has to be someone. She wouldn't have told you that otherwise."

"I know, but I haven't got the faintest idea who. Not even the katzh-dashi know, and if anyone in the world would know, it's them."

"Why wouldn't she teach you?"

"She said she's not allowed. She's my patron, and she can't give me that kind of help. It's against their rules."

"Well that's no big deal, Tarrin," Sarraya said impishly. "Answer me this. Do you think a God would know something like that?"

"Well, they've been around since the age of Power, so they might," he said after a moment. "I don't know if gods use Sorcery."

"You're being very narrow-minded, Tarrin," Sarraya chuckled. "Gods know lots of things that really don't do them any good. It's part of what being a god is all about. You know, that omniscience angle to impress the peons."

Tarrin had to laugh at her irreverent tone.

"And you've forgotten, you're an equal-opportunity peon. You're walking around with more than one god under your belt. I remember what Dolanna said about you, and about these," she said, and he felt her finger touch his shoulder, touch the fabric of his shirt, under which were his Selani brands. "That when Allia put them on you, you became subject to the Selani goddess. When you get into the desert, you think you could convince her to teach you what you need to know? After all, she's not your patron. She's just a goddess that has partial ownership of you. She isn't bound by the same rules that your Goddess is."

Tarrin sat up, then he looked down at the reclining Faerie with wide eyes. What a clever idea! Of course! Fara'Nae wouldn't be bound by the same restrictions as the Goddess! If he could convince her to teach him, she very well may be able to do so, provided that she knew about Sorcery. When he passed into the desert, he would pass into her lands. He would be right where he'd need to be to learn anything she was willing to teach.

"Sarraya, if you weren't so small, I'd kiss you," he said sincerely. "That's a very good idea. She may not know what I need to know, but it's still a great idea."

"Well, you finally admit to my superiority," she said with a wink.

"Don't push it, bug," he teased with a smile, then he flopped back down onto his bedroll.

It was certainly possible. Only a god would really know what he needed to learn, and Fara'Nae did have a stake in him. If she did know how Sorcery worked, she could conceivably teach him what had been forgotten by man for a thousand years. It gave him a new reason to get into the desert, a greater motivation.

All that stood in his way was an army of Trolls.

He hadn't forgotten about that. He couldn't just blast them out of his way now, so he had to come up with something else to get around them. But he was a clever Were-cat, with a devious companion. If he couldn't use brute force, then he could always use deception and subterfuge. Tarrin could handle deception and subterfuge, and Sarraya was born with vast quantities of it.

If there was a way around those Trolls, they would find it.

But that was something that was still days away. They had quite a bit of travelling to do first, and plenty of time to come up with a good plan to get them safely into the desert. When the time came, they'd be ready.

But until then, there was time to plan. Time to prepare. Time. It was something that he'd felt was in short supply lately, but here, now, at least for this problem, he still had a great deal of it. He felt nearly luxuriously afforded that precious item, at least for a little while. Until his time ran out, anyway.

Tarrin looked up into the bright sky, looking at the narrow white lines that were the Skybands as they crossed the empty, cloudless sky. Yes, just this once, he had time.

He would make the most of it.