Fel (James Galloway)


Chapter 1

It was a beautiful morning.

It was pleasantly warm, but not too hot. The air was cool, and there was the gentlest of breezes blowing across the rather unusual city in which they'd been staying. The sun shined down on them with pleasant warmth as Tarrin walked along the white stone paths with the Were-cat Kimmie, enjoying the outside and marvelling at the incredible buildings and homes that had been built by the Sha'Kar. The gentle wind rustled the lush trees of the forest along the edges of the large grassy plain in which the large town had been placed, swayed the grass in waves as the wind blew across the open areas inside the forest on the large island. The wind blew over him like a gentle caress, tugging at his long bangs and threatening to blow them into his eyes again, but it was an almost pleasant sensation.

It just felt good to be outside again. After nearly two days sitting in that bed under the watchful, almost smothering stare of the Were-cat Triana, she had finally relented to let him out. Her behavior towards him annoyed him greatly, for she treated him like some kind of helpless infant. She hadn't let him out of his room for those two days, tried to keep him in that bed the whole time as if he were dreadfully sick and would die if he set foot on the floor. He understood in a vague way why she was treating him like that, though. He wasn't what he was before, and to her, that was the same as him being ill. She had awed and thoroughly bullied him over those two days, until he finally screwed up the courage to stare her down and demand to be let out of her cage.

They were wandering the town without course or destination, he and Kimmie, while he gawked at the fences and the buildings and the sometimes outrageously lavish decorations they had on them. The house that was hosting them had a huge stained glass window. Another had a huge sculpture over the front doors, set into the wall, so lifelike that it seemed ready to move at any moment. Another had a magical image set on the side of the wall that actually did move. Every main building in those fenced compounds had some kind of grand central decoration or magical effect that tried to outdo all the others. They passed Sha'Kar, who bowed to him or curtsied with smiles and called him "honored one," and passed humans, too, who bowed or curtsied and looked upon him like he was some kind of hero. Their gazes were absolutely adoring, and it unnerved him to no end when more than two or three crossed his path at the same time.

From what he was told, he had done something that had made them all extremely happy, but he didn't know what it was. It was why he was out there, getting his first good look at this place that was not supposed to exist, surrounded by a race of beings the whole world thought had died a long time ago. They had come here, he'd been told, seeking an ancient magical relic called the Firestaff. They had succeeded in getting it, having to actually confront the rulers of these Sha'Kar people because they wanted it too. Tarrin had been shocked to find out that he killed them. They had gotten the artifact, but its recovery had come with a price. Tarrin had lost his memory of the last two years, and from what he was told, it had stripped out of him what had made him a Were-cat.

Those two days had been spent listening to this odd assortment of people tell him all about what he'd done for those two years, and Triana had been right. Some of it was information he really hadn't wanted to hear. He'd been cruel there for a while, what Triana had explained as feral, like beating a dog until it turned mean. He'd done some pretty mean things. He couldn't imagine himself like that...it seemed impossible. There was that, and then there was hearing that Faalken had died. That was a shame, for though he'd only known the Knight for a few days, he seemed an amiable fellow, and Tarrin rather liked him. But all in all, the story did sound intriguing, full of danger, magic, and excitement. He had travelled all the way to Dala Yar Arak, had crossed the Desert of Swirling Sands. He had climbed high enough to touch the sky, and ridden on the backs of birds made of fire. He had been a Sorcerer and a Druid both, a warrior without equal, a single living being of such towering ability that he was virtually undefeatable. He had battled Demons, he had befriended lost races, he had become part of the Were-cat society's inner circles. He had held an ancient, priceless relic called the Book of Ages in his hands, and he had learned things lost to the world for a thousand years. He had done all of those things in search of the Firestaff, and that search had led him here, where--this was the most exciting of it all--he had fought a dragon for ownership of the relic. It was just enough excitement to give flavor and purpose to the dark things they admitted he'd done, for he was a man so utterly focused on his goal that he would often resort to any means to achieve it. His parents would not approve of that, for they'd raised him better.

Triana and Dolanna spent many hours carefully explaining that to him, and they'd done a good job. They told him about the darkest things in his past, and then patiently and methodically explaining to him why they happened and why they were sometimes not only necessary, but preferred over choosing a different path. Sometimes it wasn't easy to understand why he would do such things, but Triana told him over and over again that it was because he had went feral. She explained the condition in detail to him, then they had to backtrack a bit to go over again the situation with Jula that had brought it about. That had confused him, because they told him that Jula was his adopted daughter and lived with his family.

That had been the most shocking thing he'd heard of it all. He had children! Two of them, and they were by different women! He felt absolutely scandalized by that revelation, and it only got worse when he found out that Kimmie was pregnant with a third. Tarrin had been in love with Triana's daughter, Jesmind. He had healed a woman named Mist with Sorcery because an old wound had made her barren, and agreed to father a child for her because she wouldn't trust any other man in her bed. But what seemed most shocking, most difficult to believe was that Tarrin also loved Kimmie, and they were having a child together. He asked how Jesmind felt about him leaving her like that, but they told him that he never dumped Jesmind, he just picked up Kimmie. He had two girlfriends at the same time, and wasn't even married to either of them. He had two children, another on the way, and he was never married! His parents were going to have an absolute fit! He didn't believe them when they told him that his parents knew about his two children. He just couldn't even fathom that they'd agree to something like that.

That made him feel a little uncomfortable with Kimmie. He could tell that she wanted to reach out and touch him. He could understand that she loved him, but since he lost his memory, she was really like a stranger to him. A stranger he had slept with. He was trying to be nice to her, but the way she looked at him sometimes unnerved him a little bit. She was nice, he had to admit that. Alot different from Triana. Where Triana was all strength and power and intensity, Kimmie was soft and gentle and easy going. She was a very mellow woman who smiled alot, and seemed to be quite happy with the world.

They saw that pale-haired boy Sha'Kar with the woman Allia on a path across from them, and they both waved. He waved back. From what he'd been told, Allia was his absolute closest, best friend in the world. Every time he saw her, it tickled at the back of his mind in the most peculiar way, and that inclined him to believe them. They had tried to restore his memory with a magic spell, but it failed. But it had reawakened very vague, almost dream-like flashes of memory in him, just enough that sometimes when they said something or he saw something, it caused one of those flashes that made him believe it. He got those flashes every time he saw Allia. She was, quite simply, the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen in his life. Allia was absolute perfection, with beautiful, large blue eyes, a heart-shaped face with sculpted cheekbones and chin, and elegant white brows over those expressive eyes. She had brown skin and pointed ears, her hair was the color of polished silver, and strangest of all, only had four fingers on her hands. She was wearing a baggy set of clothes that were brownish-tan, the color of sand, the desert garb that Selani wore in their homeland to protect themselves from the desert's heat. There was an aura about her, a feeling of control and power, a much reduced sense of what Triana had when he was close to her. She had brands too, the same brands he did, and he'd found out that she had given them to him so they could be brother and sister. That was how close they had been. She'd come into his room and sat with him several times during his forced bedrest, and though she seemed a little hesitant at first, she had opened up to him in rather startling ways. She'd told him all about Allyn, the Sha'Kar boy on her arm, and told him how much she liked him and her plans to kidnap him and take him back to her desert home. Before he lost his memory, Allia and her were "closer than a Faerie's toes," as Triana had eloquently put it. Best of friends, sharing their secrets with one another. Allia would tell him things she wouldn't tell anyone else, even now that he was no longer the person she knew. Despite him losing his memory, she treated him no differently than she had before. Despite one rather embarassing episode where she undressed in front of him to change clothes, he felt utterly comfortable with her. She seemed quiet and reserved in company, but when they were alone, she became quite outgoing and talkative. She had a rich sense of humor and a wicked eye for unleashing it on others, and he found her to be charming, engaging, and utterly likable. He had felt a little uncomfortable with her at first, but after only four hours, she had him giggling and gossiping and carrying on. She knew him very well, even with what happened to him, so she knew just what to do to show to him just how close they had been.

Her eyes reminded him of Kimmie's eyes. Her eyes were blue too, but they had vertically slitted pupils, like a cat, and they almost attracted his eyes right to them every time he looked at her. She was just a shade shorter than him, a tall woman actually, who was very slender, very lithe, but had very generous curves. She seemed to prefer plain dresses of brown or blue, dresses that didn't seem to clash very much with the ruddy orange tabby-cat fur that was on her arms. Her hair was dark, as dark as Dolanna's, long and very thick, but a pair of orange ears poked out from the hair in the front of her head. It creeped him a little to see that smooth skin where human ears would have been. Kimmie's ears were on top of her head, not on the sides, just behind the hairline. They weren't too large, poking just over the mass of her thick hair, but they did seem cute. And they moved alot, swivelling towards sound. She had a tail too, banded with orange and darker orange fur, like the rings on a raccoon's tail. Her tail was quite a bit longer than her leg, he had noticed, and she had to move it around alot to keep it from dragging on the ground. She was a very graceful woman, he noticed, her strange half foot, half paw feet making no sound as they padded along the white stone pathway, where his own sturdy boots--still not quite broken in--thudded into the stones loudly. The only sound she made was the swishing of her wool peasant dress, a dress that wouldn't have looked out of place on a village woman in Aldreth, the kind of sturdy, functional garment that a woman who worked alot would wear. Her dress was a peasant dress, but she did keep it clean and well maintained, and it looked good on her.

Kimmie and Allia weren't even the beginning of the strangeness of the people he'd been travelling with. If Tarrin ever wanted to define diverse, he felt that it had been justified in the group that had sought the Firestaff. Keritanima was a Wikuni, and from what Allia told him, she was also like a sister to him. She even had the same brands he and Allia did. She was a fox Wikuni, a bipedal version of a fox, complete with the fur and the tail and the head. Her arms and legs looked human in shape but covered in fur, and her head was a fox head set on a humanoid body. But the face was humanized in a strange way, giving her a way to display complex emtion. She had a sharp, slightly boxy muzzle with white under her chin, white fur that went down her neck and disappeared under the expensive silk dresses that she wore. She had yellow eyes, a burnished amber that seemed to glow in low light, and she could somehow speak through that muzzle with its array of very fox-like teeth. She had fox ears poking up out of a mane of hair the same color as her reddish fur, complete with little black tips at the tufts. She also had a tail, just like Were-cats, bushy and furry with the red-white-black coloring at the tip that marked fox tails. Keritanima was a very animated girl, talkative and blustery. She was an honest to goodness queen, the queen of Wikuna, and she was used to people obeying her. But she was very friendly and had a wicked sense of humor that Tarrin rather liked. She was all smiles with him from the moment they met, talking up a storm and quite effectively subduing him into liking her. He could tell that she was very smart from the way she talked, and Dolanna seemed rather impressed by her sometimes.

Wherever Keritanima--she told him to call her Kerri, he had to remember that--went, there were those frightening Vendari. If Tarrin thought that Triana was big, these two Vendari made her look like a little girl who still played with dolls. They were absolutely monstrous, twelve spans tall at least, and they were heavily corded with thick muscle. They looked like big two-legged lizards, complete with scaly green skin that had white on their chests, and they had huge, powerful, muscled tails. Very much unlike the dainty tails of the Were-cats and Keritanima. They had boxy snouts complete with wicked teeth, long, sharp claws on the ends of fingers that were nearly as thick around as his wrists, but what chilled him the most were those cold, emotionless black eyes, soulless eyes that peered down at him like he was a bug about to be squashed. They wore simple kilts of undyed wool and leather harnesses of some kind that attached to wide belts. One of them carried the biggest hammer he'd ever seen in his life, and the other carried an axe he doubted he could even pick up. Tarrin had heard tales of the Vendari, and after meeting them, he found out that they were true. They were an unemotional race who prized honor above absolutely anything else. They were a race of warriors, and they spoke to him in a very polite, dignified manner. They seemed to have respected him before he got changed, and that respect had not diminished now that he wasn't what he was before.

The last of Keritanima's little private clique was Miranda. She was a mink Wikuni, and she had to be the cutest thing he'd ever seen in his life. She was cheeky, with big eyes and a short, soft, slightly narrow muzzle complete with a black button nose, and her narrow little snout seemed capable of such cute smiles that he couldn't help but like her. She had silky white fur all over her and a head of very thick blond hair, through which two circular little ears popped free. She had a tail too, an almost luxuriously thick, bushy blond tail--very unusual for Wikuni, he'd been told, having a tail the same color as one's hair--whose fur was so incredibly soft if felt like whispers over the skin. She had playfully wrapped that tail around him yesterday, teasing him with that cheeky grin. She seemed a very outgoing woman, friendly and chatty, but he could see a calculating nature behind those luminous green eyes of hers. She was alot smarter than she let people think she was. Miranda was sometimes Keritanima's maid, sometimes her advisor, and sometimes, she admitted freely, Keritanima's spy. The political world of Wikuna was very murky and very dangerous, full of intrigue and deception, and Miranda had served Keritanima ever since they were both little girls in whatever capacity was needed of her. He could tell that Miranda loved Keritanima very much, was probably her best friend, and that only seemed proper.

Dolanna's new Knight--or so he was told--was himself rather remarkable. His name was Azakar, and he had to be, beyond any doubt, the largest human being on the face of the planet. He was even taller than Triana, if only just, and was as wide and powerfully built as a bear. He was a Mahuut, a race of dark-skinned humans from the distant southern continent of Valkar, with broad features, thick lips, and a mane of tightly cropped curly black hair in the front that had grown down in wavy bundles over the back of his neck. Azakar seemed very quiet and guarded, and though he was nice to him, Tarrin felt that there had been some kind of bad blood between him and this big Knight in the past. He seemed rather contrite and not willing to talk to him. Tarrin hadn't had much time to talk to him much to see what it was, but they had time.

Azakar's friend and Dolanna's pupil was a young man of medium height named Dar. He was Arkisian, from the kingdom across the Frontier from Sulasia, and Tarrin knew the Arakite language, which was what they spoke in Arkis. Karn Rocksplitter had taught him Arakite when he filled in for his apprentice one summer, working the forge while his regular apprentice recovered from a broken arm. Dar was only a year younger than him, and had a roguishly handsome face. His skin was swarthy, not as dark as Azakar's, but he had a very slender build and soft, sensitive hands. His hair was black too, but it wasn't curly, and he wore it combed straight back away from his face. He had hazel eyes that were very expressive, and looking at him, Tarrin could understand why all the human servants--and even some of the Sha'Kar girls--turned their heads to look at him as he went past. He was a rather handsome fellow. He had a quiet nature about him, but it didn't seem to suit him. Almost as if he felt overwhelmed by those around him. He seemed rather smart, but Tarrin hadn't talked with him long enough to get a good feel for him.

By far the two strangest members of the group were the other two humans. One of them was an Amazon woman--a real live Amazon!--by the name of Camara Tal. She was very exotic in appearance, with coppery skin and very long black hair that was perfectly straight. She kept it tied in a tail behind her head. She was an exceedingly handsome woman with exotic features to match her exotic skin, but she had a noticable scar along the left side of her face. She had a very narrow nose, pouting, full lips, and large brown eyes under thin, delicate black brows that were both inviting and intimidating at the same time. She was the most voluptuous woman he'd ever seen, and much to his shock, she was not afraid to show it off. She wore this kind of vest-like garment that went across her very generous breasts and tied in the front, absolutely straining to contain her formidable feminine amplitude, leaving the inside slopes of her breasts bare. She wore a battered swordbelt and a sword that hung there like it was part of her, and also wore a kind of red cloth skirt that Kimmie told him was called a tripa, barely managing to come down over her mid-thigh, and to his horror he had found out the wrong way that she didn't wear anything underneath it. That had nearly given him a heart attack. There was an intense sensuality about the woman that seemed to enslave his eyes, and whenever she was near, he could not help but look at her. She was like the forbidden fruit, seeming to have absolutely no modesty at all, but daring a man to look where he really wanted to look. Everything about her radiated that unusual strength. This was a woman so comfortable with herself that she would wear a garment that revealed her most intimate charms with the slightest breeze, and it did not bother her in the slightest. Kimmie and Keritanima explained to him that the Amazon culture was radically different from the culture of the West, and her dress and behavior was a reflection of that. Nudity was not nudity in Amazar. Or, that was, it didn't have the same impact it did in the West. The Amazon was blunt, gruff, almost rude, and was very dominating. She also had something of a volatile temper as well, but he was used to that from his own mother. In many ways, she reminded him of Elke Kael, his mother, for she had many of the same qualities. Of course, his mother wouldn't be caught dead wearing what she was wearing, but many of their other idiosyncracies were similiar.

The man she seemed to endless argue with was himself rather unusual. Even his name was strange, an odd name for an odd fellow. His name was Phandebrass, and everything about him was an absolute puzzle. He looked very young, with narrow features, but had white hair like an old man. He was thin and bony and that made him look old, but he moved with a spry step that made him appear young. His blue eyes were befuddled at times, but they didn't have the look about them of a man debilitated by senility. In his case, that befuddled look came from the fact that his mind was sometimes so occupied by one thing that it seemed to lose track of everything else. Things like where he was, what he was doing, what his name was, who other people were, that kind of thing. He seemed absolutely scattered at times, asking the same questions over and over, looking for things that were oftentimes right in his hand, and behaving like some kind of insane old man that got loose from his keeper. But Tarrin could tell that he actually was rather smart. It was just that it seemed that his mind had to concentrate on one thing at a time, that was all. He was kind of funny, and Tarrin rather liked him, even if he did tend to be annoying at times. Phandebrass was a Wizard who was absolutely consumed by the passion of learning, and he had gotten himself bounced out of Tarrin's room when he showed up with all kinds of bottles and odd things with the intent of studying Tarrin's condition. Triana barely tolerated him for about three minutes, until he mentioned that he wanted to get a sample of Tarrin's brain tissue. It was about then that he got tossed out on his rump. Tarrin found it hard to believe that they were all absolutely depending on that odd fellow to find a cure for Tarrin's amnesia, and even Camara Tal, who seemed endlessly irritated by the man's scattered nature, admitted that Phandebrass was probably one of the best Wizards alive. Once he did settle down and focus his attention on one thing, he was capable of startling intelligence and wisdom, and had quite a knack for solving very complicated or unusual problems. Kimmie was a Wizard too, and she had been tutoring under Phandebrass. She defended her mentor passionately whenever someone talked bad about him in her presence.

There were those people...and then there was that dragon. Tarrin nearly suffered a seizure when they told him about Sapphire. He had found her and thought she was a drake, a little reptile that looked like a dragon, but was only about five spans long. He had taken her in and taken care of her after she had been attacked by a pack of other drakes, and she had become quite attached to him. Little did any of them know, even Sapphire, that she was actually a dragon, hiding in the form of a drake because of what had happened during the Breaking. It sounded complicated and he didn't understand it, but when the Weave tore, all the dragons had to magically change themselves into drakes to avoid getting killed. And when they did, they were stuck that way, even taking on the minds of drakes. But the Weave was mended now, it was whole, and that meant that all the dragons had come out of their hiding places again. Tarrin had yet to see her in her dragon form, though. She had visited him three times over the last few days looking like a drake. Small enough to fit in his lap. She nuzzled him and even licked him once, and he found her affection to be quite contagious. He liked her alot, was surprised that she knew how to talk and was actually very smart, but he just couldn't believe that that cute little animal in his lap was actually bigger than the house in which he'd been staying. Kimmie had used a magic spell to make her small again, and she used the time under the effects of the spell to visit with what she called her "little friend." He was hoping to get a look at her now, his first time out of the house, in her real shape, but Kimmie said that she stayed on the far side of the volcano when not visiting him. She didn't want to terrorize the Sha'Kar, and her moving around tended to dislodge buildings from their foundations like miniature earthquakes when she did move around in town. Tarrin found that hard to believe until he remembered feeling the bed shake about ten minutes before Sapphire came in for one of her visits. If she was big enough to shake the ground with a step, then she really had to be that big.

Kimmie showed him her footprints when they came out, and that was proof beyond anything. The footprint she showed him was about ten spans long and was two spans deep, three wide fingers and a duke finger like an opposed thumb. That paw was so big that he'd fit inside it.

And they'd all come together to find the Firestaff. The story of their adventure seemed almost unbelievable at times, and the most unbelievable of all was that he was personal friends with a god. That stripe-haired woman with the glowing eyes was not a queen or the Keeper as he thought, but the mortal manisfestation of that goddess. That blew his mind. Absolutely blew his mind. She was the goddess of the Sorcerers, and Tarrin had been her personal choice for undertaking the mission of recovering the ancient artifact. She certainly didn't seem like a god. No glowing aura, no trumpet fanfare, no displays of her godly might. She was almost chatty with him, he remembered. But Dolanna looked at her like she was a goddess, he remembered. She seemed on the verge of falling down and worshipping her at any moment. Dolanna told him that their Goddess didn't like such displays, that it was how they felt about her in their heart that mattered more to her than what they displayed to her. She seemed very nice, and Tarrin had certainly felt that she loved him. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but he did. That goddess woman loved him, and loved him very much. And he knew that he loved her too. That was more than a flash of memory, that was a feeling that came from deep inside him. It took him a while to understand that, but now he did. No matter how outlandish it seemed, he knew that it was the truth.

It was just a part of that most intriguing story. A life of danger, magic, and excitement. The story certainly lived up to that. It seemed almost unbelievable, some of the things he'd done, the people he'd met, the things he'd seen. And he had some very unusual friends out there, friends that made Sapphire seem...normal. There was a Faerie named Sarraya who'd travelled with him as he crossed the desert. He couldn't remember her at all, but there was a flash, an impression of a very tiny thing with blue skin. That had to be her. There was Shiika, the Demoness, who was now the undisputed ruler of Yar Arak. That relationship was a very wary one, they told him. The Demoness seemed to like him, but he wasn't too keen on her. Tarrin didn't remember her either, but she certainly sounded like an exciting sort of person to know. He wondered what she looked like. There were Var and Denai, two Selani he'd come to befriend while crossing the desert, and again, he couldn't remember anything of them. There was Ariana, an Aeradalla, an extremely rare and exotic race of human-like, winged beings. Now her he did vaguely recall, but it was little more than the briefest of images, a memory of a tall slender woman with blue hair and large feathery wings. Like all those images, it came with a splitting headache, as if it caused him pain to try to dredge up those lost memories. There were the Were-cats he'd befriended. Thean and Singer, Rahnee and Shirazi, Jeri and Triana's other children, Shayle and Nikki. They said he'd met her son, but he and her son didn't get along very well. He couldn't remember any of them either.

Quite a story. Quite a big story. But that part of it was over. Tarrin had the Firestaff with him at that very moment, in a magical place that Dolanna had explained to him. It was a magical function of the amulet around his neck, a special magical place where he could put things and not have to carry them around. The first thing she did was teach him about that magical device and show him how to use it. He'd put the Firestaff in that magical place, what Dolanna called the elsewhere, so that it wasn't visible. She told him never to take it out of the elsewhere, never to tell anyone else about the elsewhere, and never tell anyone at all that he had the Firestaff in the first place. It was the most sought-after thing in the entire world, the most valued and prized artifact of them all, and she warned him quite bluntly that people he thought were his friends would kill him to take it away from him. The only people who knew that he even had the Firestaff were those in his private circle of forgotten friends. And Dolanna made it clear to him that only they should know.

Not that he'd tell anyone else. He couldn't remember very much, but he'd been told what the Firestaff was and what it would do. It would turn someone into a god if they had it on a certain day, and that's why his goddess had sent him out to find it. The gods didn't want that to happen, because they couldn't let another god come to power. They'd have to try to destroy the invader, and that would cause a war between the gods that would ravage the world. That was a very terrifying thought, conjuring an image of a firestorm sweeping across the whole world, even setting fire to rocks and water, and it made him very serious about protecting what he had with him. The idea of being a god had a kind of dream-like appeal, but not if it would cost the world such a heavy price.

Besides, the Firestaff was creepy. It didn't look creepy, being nothing but a length of petrified reddish wood, stone but looking like wood, even with the grain and a few old nicks and dings visible along its length. But when he touched it, it was hot,almost throbbing under his fingers, and there were these whispers coming from it. Strange whispers that seemed to be inside his head, promising all kinds of wild things to him. It promised him all sorts of things. Money, land, power, a harem of pretty girls to do anything he wanted--that made him blush a bit--magical might, absolute dominion. Promises to unlock the secrets of the universe, promises to show him things beyond the rational understanding of mortal man. Those whispers were frightening, but after listening to them for a few moments, they became more and more tempting. He'd told Dolanna about it, and that was when she was even more adamant about teaching him about the elsewhere. When the Firestaff was there, he couldn't hear the whispering. It was an artifact of great power, and that power had a corrupting effect on anyone that held it for too long, making them want to use that power. It was part of the diabolical nature of the thing, twisting even the most pure motives by exploiting the weaknesses of the one holding it. Dolanna had him get around that corrupting effect by sticking it where it couldn't reach him. Not even its power could reach outside of the elsewhere. And she told him to never take it out, not for any reason. Every moment he held it, it gave it that much more time to try to dominate him.

And so he carried it with him, even without carrying it. He thought about it alot, whenever someone wasn't keeping him occupied, wondering at just what those whispers meant, and if they could really do what they promised. They didn't say that he'd have to become a god to find out, either. He didn't really want to be a king or have a harem or be rich, but he did have an interest in learning about magic. He'd been one of the strongest Sorcerers alive, they all told him, but now he couldn't remember any of it. He still had his power, they said, but he had no idea how to use it, and Dolanna had refused to try to teach him. She told him that he'd get it back when he got back his memory, but he wanted to know now. Had he really had the power to blow up buildings? That seemed pretty impressive, but it was the stories of him healing people that held his interest the most. That seemed a much more useful ability than blowing things up. Helping friends was much more rewarding the exploding buildings and setting enemies on fire.

A Sha'Kar woman curtsied to as they passed her, and he had to admire her silently. All these Sha'Kar were very handsome or very beautiful. The women were nowhere as pretty as Allia, but they were still very attractive. They had large eyes and delicate bones, those pointed ears and four-fingered hands, and most of them were very voluptuous. He'd yet to see one woman that had a flat chest or narrow hips. They all wore shimmering robes that clung to those curves in a most appealing manner, and he'd started wondering what was under those gowns. That felt a bit dirty, but even he had to admit that a thinking about it was just fine so long as he didn't try to do anything about it. Tarrin was raised right, but he wasn't dead, and those Sha'Kar were very beautiful girls. And they always smiled at him so invitingly, almost like they knew he was admiring them, and they liked it. More than once he caught himself wondering what would happen if they knew he wanted to see what was under those robes.

Kimmie elbowed him sharply as he watched the Sha'Kar girl go by, his eyes dropping down to her posterior almost unconsciously. Her jab hit him right in the ribs, and it knocked the breath out of him and staggered him to the side. "Hey!" he wheezed.

"Keep your eyes in your head," she told him sharply. "If you want to look at a girl's butt, I'll pull my dress up for you, but you're not going to ogle those other girls."

Tarrin knew that Kimmie had feelings for him, but that was the first time she had ever displayed jealousy. Her bold statement caught him off guard. He had the feeling that if he said anything, she would pull her her dress and show him her bottom. He wasn't used to a girl saying things like that. Boys said them in jest all the time, but not girls. It would be a scandal if a girl even joked about pulling up her skirts back home.

"You didn't have to break my ribs, you know," he said breathlessly, putting a hand to his side.

"Sorry," she said contritely, reaching under his shirt, and putting one of those big furry hands on his side. As always, her touch was very gentle, very intimate, and it always confused him. He had slept with this woman, but he didn't remember her, or it. That made him a little embrassed. She'd seen him naked, knew all kinds of very intimate things about him, and they'd done the most private things a boy and a girl could do together. Kimmie was around him all the time, either she or Triana, he'd noticed, almost hovering over him almost all the time. They'd even slept in his room for those two nights, Triana curled up on his bed in her cat form--it had been amazing to see her do that! Too bad she took off all her clothes beforehand, which made him blush to the roots of his hair. Triana was even more handsome naked, but even thinking that about her seemed absolutely scandalous to him. She was his mother, for goodness' sake! They wouldn't let him out of their sight, and he could see how defensive they got whenever stranger Sha'Kar or servants came close to him. They were being protective over him, as if he couldn't protect himself anymore. He knew that him not being a Were-cat anymore worried them and they thought it was unnatural, but he was getting tired of them thinking that he was helpless. When he finally got Triana to let him out of the house, Kimmie simply invited herself along and trampled over his desire to take a walk by himself. He found their hovering starting to get a little annoying, but he wasn't going to yell at them. No way he'd sass Triana, and Kimmie was just too sweet-natured for him to be mad at her for long.

Alot of their peculiar customs seemed strange to him. Were-cat women seemed blunt, direct, outspoken, alot like human men. Triana was rough and rather harsh, but Kimmie was sweet and charming. That didn't mean that she wasn't as forward as Triana, though. They spoke their minds, and they had no qualms about talking about all sorts of very embarassing things around him, almost like it didn't matter if he was there or not. When Triana checked Kimmie's belly, checking the progression of her pregnancy, she made some frank, downright nasty observations about Tarrin's ability to father children. He'd been absolutely mortified. And Kimmie had just given her a naughty grin and agreed with every word she said! Then she gave him this wicked smile, like she knew he was embarassed by their talk, and winked at him. They were having fun with him, but he was just too embarassed to try to fight back.

It still surprised him. Kimmie was carrying a baby, and he was the father. She'd told him all about what would happen when the baby was born, how it would grow so quickly, how it would have some of the Were-cat traits at birth but would have to mature to gain the rest.

"Well, nothing seems broken," she said, keeping her paw against his bare side lingeringly. The pads on the palm of her hand were both rough and smooth, and they were very warm. Tarrin grabbed her wrist and pulled her hand out, then pulled her hand up to where he could see it. He hadn't looked closely at her hand before. She even had short fur on her fingers and on the fringes of her palms, with those dark brown pads on her palm and on the tips and middle sections of her fingers. She allowed him to run his fingers along those pads, touch the fur between them, and then she slowly extended the finger-long claws that recessed into those big fingers. He couldn't figure out for the life of him where they went. They were too big to not be noticable when they were in her hands, but there was no sign of them once they disappeared into the slots at the very tips of her fingers. She had no fingernails, which made her hands look a little strange.

"Where do the claws go?" he asked her as those claws fully extended.

"The bones in the tips of our fingers are forked," she replied. "The claw slides up between them. That's why our claws aren't longer than the tips."

"They look it," he said, measuring one of her claws, the one on her middle finger. It was nearly as long as his entire index finger.

"Well, the claws are hooked, so they can be a little longer than the finger as long as they bend in enough for them to fit. They recess all the way back against the joint, and the tip is right at the sheathe when they're retracted," she said, pulling in her claws. "Tap the tip of my finger." He did so. "Feel it?"

"Yeah," he replied. It didn't prick him, but the tip of that hooked claw was definitely there.

"That's why we have such big fingers," she told him calmly. "The rest of the finger is as wide as the tip, and the tip houses the claw."

"I didn't know that," he mused.

"Well, now you do," she said with a smile. "Any other parts of me you want to inspect? Wanna play with my tail?" she asked with a playful smile, bringing her tail around her body and wiggling the tip of it at him.

Before he could stop himself, he let go of her hand and gingerly touched her tail. It was surprisingly thick, with thick fur at its tip. He could feel the bones in her tail, but it wasn't bony. It had flesh on it, and it seemed to shiver a little in his grip as he parted her fur and inspected the skin beneath.

"Having fun?" she asked with a smile.

"Just curious," he told her. "I had a tail?"

"Mmm-hmm," she hummed in agreement. "It was longer than mine, but since you're taller than me, that's understandable. The tail is always exactly half again as long as the leg. It's a proportion true through all of us."

"It must be tiring to keep it up all the time."

"We're used to it," she replied. "Want to see where it comes out?" she asked with a wink.

"Not if you have to pull up your dress," he countered.

"You're no fun today," she accused with a smile. "I'll show you back in our room. Where it'll just be you and me, and you won't have any reason to be embarassed. It doesn't bother me when you look at me, Tarrin. It's nothing you haven't seen before."

"I don't remember seeing it before," he said with a blush.

"Well, I remember showing it to you, so don't worry about it. Trust me," she grinned.

Tarrin cast about for a a change of subject. "How long are we going to stay here?" he asked. "I heard Triana talking about us leaving."

"Probably in a couple of days," she answered. "The Sha'Kar are going to use magic to get all of us back to Suld really fast, but they need time to pack up all their things. So we're waiting for them. It shouldn't take them too much longer."

"They're coming with us?"

She nodded. "Now that the Ward isn't trapping them inside anymore, they're returning to the Tower in Suld." She laughed. "Boy, are they going to be shocked to see them."

Tarrin remembered that they said that everyone thought that the Sha'Kar were extinct. That it was a big surprise when they found them on this island. There were some five hundred or so of them, but that wouldn't be a big deal, Dolanna said. She said that the Tower was big enough to house five thousand Sorcerers, and currently there were less than two thousand there. More than half of the Tower's space was unoccupied, and settling in the Sha'Kar would be very easy.

"They seem nice enough," Tarrin said. "Not that you and Triana let them get close enough to me to find out," he added sharply.

"We're just protecting you while you're in this weakened condition," she said boldy.

"I did just fine before I met you guys, you know. I'm not a pushover."

"Certainly not," she said. Then she casually put her paw on his chest, and pushed. The power behind that hand was irresistable, and he found himself staggering back, tripping over his own feet, then falling down on his backside. He sprawled there for a moment, glaring up at her, but she just smiled down at him. Were-cats were powerful creatures. Kimmie didn't look it, but she could pick up a horse, and probably be able to throw it a goodly distance. Sometimes it amazed him that creatures with such incredible strength could be so exquisitely gentle. "Not a pushover at all," she teased.

"Well, not against other humans," he corrected sullenly as she reached down and helped him up.

"To us, Tarrin, you seem helpless," she told him honestly. "You've lost your strength, your speed, your senses, and most importantly, your immunities and regeneration. You're fragile now, just like the humans, and neither me nor Triana are going to let you out of our sight. You're too important to us. Until you're yourself again, one of us going to be right with you all the time."

"Well, I'm not helpless," he protested.

"Maybe not, but it's not going to change anything," she said mildly. "Get used to us, love. We're not going anywhere."

He glowered a little, but said nothing. Because he knew that no matter what he said or did, it wouldn't change things.

"I wonder where everyone else is," Tarrin asked.

"Well, Phandebrass is going through his books back on the ship, looking for information that may help him find a cure for you," she told him. "Camara Tal went with him to make sure he doesn't get distracted along the way. Keritanima and Allia are up at the volcano with Dolanna. Sapphire said she and the red dragon lost alot of scales when they fought, and she wants to find some of them as souvenirs. Binter, Sisska, Miranda, and Azakar are with her. Dolanna is giving Dar his daily lesson, but Iselde and Allyn are with them, so it'll probably be Dolanna doing the learning instead of the teaching. I think Triana went back to Suld for a while to fill in Jesmind on everything."

"How does Triana do that?" he asked. "Isn't Suld across the ocean?"

"I wish I knew how she does it," Kimmie said sourly. "Triana's a very powerful Druid, Tarrin. She can do some serious magic. She won't even tell us what she's capable of. That really annoys me sometimes." She chuckled. "Now that the Weave is restored, maybe me and Phandebrass can engineer a spell that does the same thing. Being able to just appear halfway across the world would be really handy. I'd only be a spell away from you," she said, reaching over and taking his hand gently.

Tarrin still felt a little uncomfortable when she did that. She'd told him she loved him, but he couldn't even remember her. He didn't know her at all, though she certainly seemed to know him. He let her hold his hand because it seemed to make her happy; he wouldn't be cold to her. But it did make him feel a little strange. It was like waking up one morning and finding out he was married.

It wasn't marriage, of course. That seemed one of the stranger things. Were-cat's didn't marry, and males didn't spend their lives with one female. Kimmie told him, in rather lurid detail, that he was the recipient of the love of three Were-cat women. Herself, of course. Then there was Jesmind, who had been his first love. Kimmie admitted that he grew to love her after they started sleeping together. That they slept together just for the fun of it. That shocked his sensibilities, but he kept telling himself that they had a different culture, and by then, it was his culture too. The third woman was Mist, the one he'd healed, who loved him because he had helped her so much. She told him that he'd never really gotten the chance to love her, but she had very much fallen in love with him from the moment he agreed to sleep with her to impregnate her. Because she wanted a baby, and she wouldn't trust any other male but him. They were a bit vague as to why she wouldn't trust any other male, but he'd take their word for it. For a boy raised to believe in the sanctity of marriage, it seemed almost unnatural to him. He had a, a, a harem. Kimmie hadn't gone into great detail about Were-cat society, telling him that it may shock him a bit, but he was starting to understand some things. Triana explained that they were part animal, with the mind and instincts of a cat mixed in with their human ones, so maybe that part of them affected alot of things that the human parts of them didn't. Or affected them differently.

"Well, that would be nice, I guess," he said awkardly.

"Don't worry, Tarrin. When you get your memory back, everything will make perfect sense," she said with a smile. "I just have to keep telling myself that."

"What do you mean?"

"It kills me to see you like this," she told him honestly. "To me, your very identity was stripped away from you. It's like someone changed you into something else with magic. And everything you knew is locked away. You're like a different person to me. I want to tell you things, but I know you won't understand. I want to be your mate, but that's just not possible like this." He felt her hand tighten over his. "I have to keep myself from biting you every time I touch you. I can't stand it, because I know I could change you back any time, but I can't do it, because without your memory, it would be a very hard adjustment for you."

"Well...do you still like me?" he asked. "I mean, do you like me now?"

"If course I do!" she said. "You're still Tarrin, and there are hints of the Tarrin I know about you. In fact, now that I've seen you like this, I understand those parts of you alot better. The turning changed you alot, Tarrin. I won't lie about that. But seeing where you came from, it's opened my eyes about the true nature of you. I can see the young man that's been buried under the weight of everything we've piled onto you," she said with a gentle, very loving smile. "In fact, given everything that happened to you and all the pressure and duties that's been thrown on top of you, I'm amazed that you've come through it as unscathed as you did. You're a very resilient fellow, my Tarrin," she told him with a wink.

"Well, I guess you can thank my parents. They raised me."

"I've met them."

"You have?" he asked in surprise.

"Mmm-hmm," she nodded with a smile. "Your mother reminds me of Triana. They have the same 'do it my way or die' sense about them."

Tarrin laughed. "That's my mother, alright," he agreed. "No wonder I liked Triana so much." He cleared his throat. "Uh, do they, uh, know about--"

"Of course they do," she told him with a grin. "Triana told them. They understand, Tarrin. They know you embraced our society, and that included embracing some of our more outrageous customs," she winked. "I had to as well. Don't forget, I was turned too. It was quite a culture shock, now that I remember," she said with a fond chuckle.

"Oh. I, I guess that's alright."

"Elke adores your daughter Jasana, and Jenna's the one who's been training her in Suld," she said. "And Triana told me that Mist brought Eron to Aldreth to meet them. She adores him too. Mist is quite taken with your parents. She even stayed the night with them. I never thought I'd see her do that," she mused, shaking her head. "So, your parents and your sister approve, Tarrin. They love you the same as they did before. They adjusted to your turning just as well as you did."

That had been a more surprising part of the tale. Jenna was also a Sorceress, but she was actually one of these sui'kun that Dolanna described, seven special Sorcerers that are tied to the Weave in ways that regular Sorcerers are not. Jenna had come to Suld and helped defend it against an invading army, and had remained behind after they won the battle to help train Jasana, who was also a sui'kun. She was on the Council in the Tower and everything, even though she was only thirteen--no, she was almost sixteen now. He couldn't forget that. She wasn't a little girl anymore. She was a young woman now, a very strong Sorceress, and had a position of importance among the katzh-dashi. Tarrin wondered how much of a fit his mother threw when she left home. Elke was very attached to Jenna, since she was her youngest child. In Elke's eyes, Jenna would always be her baby girl, no matter how old she got. She'd still be calling her janni, which meant baby in Ungardt, when Jenna was married and had children of her own.

"Well, that's a relief," he said sincerely. "I'm a little hungry."

"Me too. Let's head back and raid the kitchen," she smiled.

They raided the kitchen as well as any pirate raided a fat tradesman, but the pickings didn't suit Kimmie. The Sha'Kar were primarily vegetarians, raising a large number of assorted fruits and vegetables on their farms. Tarrin didn't mind that, for his mother had a big garden herself and they had alot of vegetables when he grew up. But Kimmie was primarily a carnivore, and she wasn't too fond of mutton. That happened to be the only real meat available on the island. She growled quite a bit about Triana leaving and not being able to use her Druid magic to make something edible appear, then made do with a piece of mutton that had been cooked the night before to feed the visitors.

After eating, Kimmie literally dragged him back to the huge room that the Sha'Kar had given to him to use while he was there. She didn't tell him what she was up to, but he could tell that she had some kind of mischief on her mind. That suspicion was justified when she closed the door behind them, leaned against it, and gave him a knowing smile.

"What?" he asked.

"It's time you found out."

"Found out what?"

"Where it comes out," she winked at him.

Tarrin blushed to the roots of his hair, backing away from her.

She laughed delightedly. "Calm down, silly," she told him, coming off the door and walking towards him. "Nothing's going to happen, I promise. But I do want to take a bath. Why don't you join me?"

"J-J-Join you?" he stammered.

"You saw the pool, Tarrin. It's huge. It can fit ten people, so I think you and me can manage to squeeze in it without too much trouble. And nothing's going to happen. I promise you that," she said, holding up her hand to emphasize her statement. "Nothing can happen. You're too fragile for me to be frisky with you. I'd break your arm by accident."

"B-But we'll have to take our clothes off and--"

"Get used to it, Tarrin," she warned. "We're going to the Tower, and didn't they tell you about how the Tower works?"

"No," he said hesitantly.

"They have one really big bathing pool for everyone. You bathe in public, and you do it in front of girls. If you're going to go red being in here with just me, I think you're going to get very smelly if you stay in the Tower for very long." She took him by the hand. "I know it won't be easy for you, but trust me. Don't you trust me, Tarrin?"

"I--Yes, I think I do," he told her as she took his hand in her paw.

"Alright then," she told him, pulling him towards the archway.

It wasn't easy, but he knew she wouldn't lie to him, so he realized he'd better get used to the idea of it. She undressed first, and she watched him the entire time, keeping his eyes on her by all but daring him to look away with her gaze. She pulled her dress over her head and then modelled for him a little bit, even turning around to show him exactly where the tail did come out of her back. He was surprised a little, but it was the fact that he couldn't take his eyes off her bottom that got his attention more than the striped orange tail that protruded from her back just above that bottom. Her bottom was gorgeous.

Gritting his teeth, he quickly pulled off his clothes and all but jumped into the pool as she slid in herself. She didn't stare at him while he was doing so, and he realized she did that on purpose. She was doing exactly what she said, helping him get used to the idea. She took up the soap and started lathering the fur on her arms. Tarrin relaxed a bit at this and waded away from her, to the other side of the pool, where it was very nicely hot.

"Lucky you," she told him. "I can't go over there."

"Why not?"

"It's too hot. It's about one step from boiling on that side."

"It doesn't feel that hot to me," he protested.

"You're sui'kun, silly," she said, splashing at him. "Heat can't hurt you."

"It can't?" he asked in surprise, looking down. He put his hand in the water and felt it. It was hot, alright. Steaming a little. But it didn't burn.

"Not a bit. Think about it, mate. You were in a volcano. Do you think you would have lived long in there if you could get burned?"

"I guess I didn't think about that," he said, mulling it over. So, he couldn't be hurt by fire. "You mean I could put my hand in a bonfire and it wouldn't hurt?"

"Tarrin, you could go swimming in the lava in the volcano and it wouldn't hurt," she chided. "Now come over here and wash my back."

Tarrin accepted that little bit of news like he accepted everything else they'd told him so far, believing it no matter how outlandish it seemed, and did as she asked. He began to relax with her a little, not feeling nervous about lathering soap on his hands and scrubbing her shapely back. "I meant to ask something," he said as was rinsing her back clean of the soap.


"You said you were turned, like me."


"Where did you live before that?"

"Tor," she answered. "About a hundred years ago."

"A hundred?" he asked in surprise.

"We don't grow old, Tarrin," she told him. "Triana told you that."

"I guess I wasn't paying attention when she said it," he admitted. "You don't grow old at all?"

"Not at all," she said, turning her head enough to where she could see him out of the corner of her eyes. His eyes fell on her cat ear, though, and the smooth skin where her ear was supposed to be. She seemed to notice it, turning around and facing him. "Go ahead," she said with a smile, leaning her head down and presenting one of those ears to him. "I know you're curious."

He was, in fact. He pinched the ear, felt that it felt just like a cat's ear, soft yet springy. He looked down inside it, saw that it looked just like the interior of a cat's ear as well. He ran his fingers along the interior edge of it, and was a little startled when her ear flicked, twitching under his touch. She giggled reflexively. "That tickles," she complained, and he almost jumped when her tail wrapped around his leg. He moved instead to where a human ear would have been, feeling nothing but smooth skin, but the bony ridge that was usually just above the ears in a human was indeed there.

"Alright," she said with a smile, turning him around so his back was to her. "Hand me the soap."

She scrubbed his back for him thoroughly, and yet she was very gentle, and her claws never so much as broke his skin. She did run them up his back, and felt very odd to feel those four points sliding up the skin of his back. "Now it's my turn to check something," she said boldly. He jumped when her fingers traced down his spine, coming to rest right where a tail would have been coming out of him were he still a Were-cat. He struggled to remain calm, and did become calm when he was sure that that was indeed the focus of her inspection. "That is so weird," she told him. "The bone even occludes back into the pelvis."

"I could say the same about you," he said. "What is occludes?"

"In Were-cats, the spine isn't fused to the pelvis," she told him. "The spine extends out as the tail. There's nothing holding the spine to the pelvis except a knob of bone, a modified vertebra, that has tendons running from it to the pelvis under and to the sides of it. We have nerves that run through the center of our spines, and there's a small knob of bone, where the spine bends. Right here," she said, touching him just below the small of his back, right above his own backside, "where the nerves come out of the spine and continue on down to the legs. The pelvis isn't the same shape either. Since it's the spine that fuses the pelvis together in humans, and we're not like that, our two pelvis bones aren't actually fused together like yours. It's one reason why we're so flexible. Because our spines aren't actually attached to anything and our pelvises aren't one solid piece of bone." She turned him around, then turned around herself. "Go ahead," she said. "I won't mind. Feel how it's different."

He was a little hesitant, but he had to admit, he was curious now. He slid his hand under the water and touched the base of her tail, feeling that little knob she was talking about right at the base. There was a indention of sorts a little more prounounced in her back down there. Where in a human, the back flattened out from its lined dimple formed by the spine, it continued on in her back, all the way to where the hips widened and the muscled curve of her bottom began.

"When did you learn all this, Kimmie?" he asked curiously.

"I'm a Wizard, Tarrin," she said pointedly. "Wizardry isn't just about learning how to cast spells."

"I didn't know that."

"Not many people do. A good Wizard is well versed in biology, chemistry, physics, alchemy, herbology, and also ancient history. That's all in addition how much we study the magic itself. We have to know those things because it helps us design magic to affect the physical world. So we study all about the physical world in our studies, from how rocks form to the anatomy of many kinds of creatures."

"Sounds like you don't have much free time."

"It's a good thing we don't age. I don't think I could learn everything there is to know about magic in a thousand years," she admitted. "I don't see how Phandebrass does it. He's only a little over forty, yet he's learned so much in that short time it's almost mind-boggling."

He accidentally slid his hand down to the top of that forbidden area under her tail, then pulled it back quickly with a bit of a blush. "Sorry," he apologized.

"I told you I don't mind, Tarrin," she told him with a smile, looking back at him. "If you stuck your hand between my legs, I wouldn't mind."

That made him blush furiously. "Does it hurt when you sit in chairs?"

"The tail is extremlely flexible," she told him. "I can push it up against my side if I have to. But if we sit up against our tails like that, it cuts off the blood flow and goes numb."

"Huh," he sounded. "It must be interesting to have a tail."

"Well, in a little while, hopefully you'll have yours back," she said. "Though I do like your curiosity," she admitted, wrapping her tail around her arm, like a snake. "You won't be putting your hands on girls' butts in the bathing pool at the Tower," she said with a wink, "but one that knows you may ask you to help scrub her back, just like I did. Think you can handle that?"

"I guess," he answered.

"You did with me, and I'm as good as a stranger," she assured him. "It's the ones that ask you to scrub the front that you have to watch," she told him with a smirk.

"You!" he said loudly, pushing her from behind, but she didn't go far, because her tail was still wrapped around his arm. "You said you'd behave!"

"I am behaving," she teased. "And I got you to relax. That's what I really wanted. I want you to relax around me, Tarrin. I want you to not feel nervous around me, no matter what I do or what I'm not wearing. I want you to feel comfortable with me, even if we're both wrestling naked in a pool."

That caught him a little off guard, and he chuckled ruefully. "Well, it's working," he admitted. "I don't really feel as self-conscious as I did when we started."

"Good," she said wading up to him and, to his surprise, wrapping her arms around him. He'd never been so close to a naked woman before, and the fact that he wasn't wearing any clothes either made it even worse. "Calm down," she said in a gentle tone, looking over at him with a smile and dancing eyes. "Boy, you weren't even close to being this jumpy when you were a Were-cat. I think it's kinda funny."

"You should see it from my side," he said bluntly.

"I did," she laughed. "Do you know what Mist did to me to break me of my modesty?"


"She made me go naked for almost a year. Then she made me walk through a village in Arkis naked, then she took me to a Druid and had him summon a male Were-cat to deflower me. She seemed to think that the fact that I was a virgin was the reason why I didn't like being naked."

"She didn't!" he gasped.

"Oh yes she did," she laughed.

"Did--Did you let him--"

"Of course I did," she said. "I was getting used to my instincts by then, and if you didn't notice, there are very strong instincts about that kind of thing in animals. I was curious, and truth be told, I was ready for some serious deflowering."

Tarrin felt distinctly uncomfortable talking about sex with a naked woman who had her arms around him.

"Now calm down and give me my attention, and I'll let you go," she told him.

He wasn't sure what she meant, but he did hold still when she pulled him close and hugged him to her. He could feel her body against him in a most intimate manner, and he struggled to not pay too much attention to it. She clapped her hands around him, gave him a gentle squeeze, then let him go with twinkling eyes. "There, it didn't kill you," she grinned.

"I have no idea what that was about," he told her.

"It's simple, Tarrin. I was getting my free feel."

"You're terrible!" he said with a gasp, then he laughed and splashed water in her face. "Taking advantage of me like that! Shame on you!"

Kimmie laughed and splashed him back. "Well, you are my mate, Tarrin!" she shot back. "I shouldn't have to trick you into getting my feels!"

"Oh, you're in trouble now, woman," he said in a dangerous tone, splashing her vigorously with both hands.

In moments, they were laughing and playing in the water like two little kids, splashing one another as quickly as they could. He redoubled his efforts when she shielded her face with her hands and turned around, but realized too late that it was a ploy. Her tail whipped around right along the surface of water and sent a sheet of stinging spray over him, making him stagger back and wipe at his eyes.

"Alright, you two," Triana's voice called. "Out."

"Mother!" Tarrin said in surprise, clearing his eyes. She was standing in the archway, stalking over to them quickly. She was wearing a ragged sleeveless buckskin shirt and breeches, not too far off the color of her fur. She came up to the edge of the pool and glared down at them in a manner that Tarrin did not like to see.

"Are you nuts, Kimmie?" Triana said in an accusing tone. "I thought you knew better!"

"We're just taking a bath, Triana," Kimmie said.

"She hasn't messed with me or anything, mother," Tarrin affirmed, defending her. "We're just playing around, that's all."

"That's not why I'm mad at her, cub," she told him. "Out, both of you. Now!"

They both scrambled out of the pool, and he felt a little silly for a moment. There they were, standing naked at the side of the pool, both of them. Triana was between them and the towels, and neither of them felt like trying to go around her to get to them. She fixed Kimmie with a stern look, then snorted in that strange manner that she did. "Didn't you think that you'd pose a danger to him girl?" she said in a flat voice.

"I know he's fragile, Triana," she said quickly. "I was being very careful--"

"That's not what I mean!" she snapped, which made Kimmie flinch. "Foolish cub, you're a Were-cat! You just got in a pool with a human, and you unloaded the trees know how much spit into that water! Thank the furies it's a big enough pool!"

Kimmie suddenly paled, looking at Triana in sincere chagrin. "I never even considered--I'm sorry!" she said quickly. "I won't do it again, I promise!"

"I don't understand, mother," Tarrin said.

"She could have infected you," she told him gruffly. "Spit can do it, and it only takes a drop of it in your eyes or going up your nose with the rest of the water. The pool is big enough to where it diluted it down to the point where it was harmless. If that had been a smaller pool, though, you may have been turned again. Not that I wouldn't have been happy to see it, but we're going to play this by Dolanna's rules for now. That means we keep you human so that mad Wizard has a chance to find a cure for your amnesia. Don't get back in that pool until I have a chance to purge it, Tarrin. Now dry off and get dressed, both of you."

"Yes ma'am," he said obediently, and they both rushed past her to their towels.

A little chagrined, Kimmie dried off, dressed, and then lavished numerous apologies on Triana, who seemed a little too angry to accept them very graciously. "I had no idea, Triana," she said emphatically. "I mean, I know he's human, but he's still just Tarrin to me. I didn't think about that."

"Well, there was no harm done," she snorted. "Why were you dragging him in there, girl?"

"We were dirty, for one," she said. "And he's a little too shy. You know how they do things in the Tower. He'd be mortified. So I'm trying to get him used to the idea of it, that's all."

Triana swung that penetrating stare in Tarrin's direction, and he nodded in agreement as he pulled his trousers back on. "I see," she said slowly.

"How did it go with Jesmind?" Kimmie asked.

"Badly," she snorted. "First she threw a fit, then she demanded to bring her back with me. She knows I can't do that," she snorted. "Jasana took it alot harder than I thought," she said absently. "But I think it was a reaction to how hysterical Jesmind got when I broke the news. She's curious to see what you look like as a human, cub. That must be an old issue between you two. Jenna asked to come see you, but I told her no again," she added. "I think she can wait a couple more days, and I don't want her confusing you right now."

They told him about that. Jenna was a very powerful magician now, and she'd learned a trick where she could visit people thousands of leagues away. He didn't quite understand how it worked, but Dolanna explained that it was an Illusion that they could see through, kind of like a magical window that bridged the distance. He was quietly hoping that she would visit, that he could see it, but Triana was keeping him out of everyone's sight for some reason. At least that was what he suspected.

"When are we going to leave?"

"That Sha'Kar woman, Ianelle, she said they'll be ready by tomorrow," she answered. "They're having trouble with the human Sorcerers that lived on the island, though. Some kind of minor rebellion."

"Ianelle doesn't seem like the kind to put up with that for long," Kimmie chuckled.

"I agree there. The humans and the youngest children don't want to leave. Dolanna explained what went on here before I got here, so I can understand their reluctance. They're about to go from kings to paupers, and they know it. They don't want to give it up."

"They'd better," Kimmie chuckled. "Or Ianelle will flog them."

"She looked about ready to flog her daughter this morning," Triana chuckled. "Her daughter Auli must be a serious troublemaker."

"Oh, she is, Triana," Kimmie grinned. "Auli was the town's bad girl, and I don't think being freed of the mind control is going to change that much. She's a free-spirited, adventurous girl, and she's probably been pulling on the leash that Ianelle put around her neck."

"I like her," Triana delcared immediately. "Now finish dressing and I'll take you over to Phandebrass," she told Tarrin. "He wants to check something, and it sounds important."

"We're going to the ship?" Tarrin asked hopefully.

"We are," she affirmed. "Now hop."

He did hop. The opportunity to visit this amazing steamship, see it for himself, was an exciting proposition.

Of all the strangers that were his friends around him, the one Tarrin probably felt most comfortable with was Dar. Dar was only a year younger than him--mentally, at least, for Tarrin still considered himself seventeen--he was a boy, which made it a little easier to talk to him, and he seemed as intimidated at some of the things around him as Tarrin did. Tarrin liked spending time with Dar, just talking to him, learning what it was like in Arkis and hearing what had happened over the last two years through Dar's point of view. Dar had once been his roommate in the Tower, so he knew Tarrin pretty well. Tarrin decided that it was only fair that he got to know Dar just as well.

That did, of course, require a little subterfuge. Tarrin didn't like talking about private things like that around the two Were-cats, and he privately bristled a great deal at them treating him like an invalid. He did like Kimmie very much, and respected Triana a great deal, but he felt that they were wrong. He was perfectly safe on the island. The Sha'Kar were all very friendly, calling him "honored one" all the time and doing anything he told them to, even when he didn't mean it. If he got in any trouble, all he'd have to do was yell. They all watched him pretty close anyway, so he figured that him calling for help would bring help to him before he finished shouting.

It was absolutely impossible to sneak out on Triana. She seemed to sense his chicanery even as the plans formed in his mind, and that withering gaze evaporated any fantasy of even trying to slip out of the room while she was in it. Kimmie, however, was much more easy to dupe. It wasn't that she didn't pay attention, but she often got distracted by her books, and she slept more soundly than his bond-mother did.

It was later that day, while Kimmie had her nose buried in a book that Triana had brought back from the ship, a book that Phandebrass had asked her to study, that he seized the opportunity. He was still excited from visiting the ship, meeting Captain Jalis and the crew and getting a very thorough tour of the amazing steam engine from Donovan, the ship's inventor and lead engineer. He'd even brought back the rest of his things from the ship, which someone had thoughtfully shrunk so they would fit him again. He didn't want to sit around the room and be bored, because Kimmie was too involved in that book. He had nothing to do, no one to talk to, and Tarrin was not the kind of boy that could sit still like that for very long. He wanted to go out and look around, and he wanted to find Dar and talk with him for a while.

While Kimmie was busy reading, Tarrin put on a comfortable pair of leather breeches and an old buckskin shirt like the ones he used to wear, functional clothes that were rugged and well suited for wandering the forest, put the hawk-hilt dagger in his belt that he'd won during the staffs competition right before he left--that dagger showed the wear of hard travel, another striking physical reminder that two years of memories had been taken from him--and proceeded to use every dirty trick his father ever taught him to escape from Kimmie's watchful eye. The key, of course, was not to tip her off that he intended to leave, and she was sitting right in the middle of the room, where the opening of the door would alert her immediately. So he required a diversion. That diversion came when he told Kimmie that he wanted something to drink, and opened the door and asked the serving girl that was permanently stationed right outside the door to bring back a tray with tea for both of them. She returned a few minutes later with a tray holding a teapot and two cups. She poured both of them a cup, and just as he expected, Kimmie didn't say a word, didn't even look down, feeling around until she found the cup and picking it up without her eyes ever leaving the book.

So, when the serving girl left, Tarrin crept out behind her, a finger to his lips and a mischievious look in his eyes. She grinned at him and nodded, then waved silently to him as he crept down the hall with his heart pounding a little with the excitement of it. Triana was going to kill him when she found out, but he'd take the punishment just for a little time to himself. They were smothering him with all that attention.

After he got far enough away to suit him, he broke into a dash, tearing through the house as Iselde and Allyn stared after him in surprise when he came around a corner and nearly knocked them down. He skidded to a halt and scrambled back to them. "Where is Dar?" he asked in a hasty tone. A little confused, both of them said nothing and pointing to a door in the wall. "Thanks," he said, rushing over to the door and opening it. He found himself staring into another one of those huge, stunningly beautiful bedrooms, but one could take only so much beauty before getting numb to it. Dolanna and Dar were sitting on a pair of backless chairs, sipping tea. Dolanna's back was to the door, thankfully, and Tarrin waved madly until he had Dar's attention. Dar noticed him and realized that there was no Were-cat with him, then nodded when Tarrin beckoned him. He excused himself from his mentor, setting his teacup down on a little table between them and hurrying over to the door. "What's the matter, Tarrin?" he asked.

"Nothing. Come on!" he said with a conspiratorial smile. "Kimmie's going to realize I'm missing any minute now, and I need time to get away!"

"Get away?" Dar asked in confusion. Then it dawned on him. "Oohhhhhhhh!" he hissed. "Alright, come on!"

Tarrin and Dar ran, barely able to keep a straight face, through the house, through the entry hall, and then out the front doors. Dar paused to use his magic to obliterate their scent trails--he was fully aware of the keen senses of their hunters--and they dashed along the lush grassy lawn and out the gate. Dar paused to obliterate that scent trail, then they ran at full speed along the white stone pathways, often having to go around the stately Sha'Kar, who would stop and stare after them in confusion. They headed towards the middle of town then abruptly turned east, towards the treeline as Dar concealed the signs of their passing. They ran across the grassy clearing between the closest manor and the trees, then plunged into the wood like adventurers diving through some killing trap. They looked behind themselves and then started laughing. Dar was winded, but the run was nothing to Tarrin, who waited for his friend to catch his breath, then they started off through the woods.

It was almost like being home, but there were differences in this forest that reminded them of where he was. It had been getting progressively warmer since the Ward had been brought down, as the Ward and the magical wind's effects on the local weather were slowly being reversed, and the trees were showing it. Alot of them were breeds that were hardy in both heat and cold, and he knew that they'd be just fine after they adjusted to the change. After all, those same breeds had to have been there when the Ward was created, so their species had lived on the island. Tarrin led Dar through the woods at a leisurely pace as they talked about nothing of any great importance, laughing over their escape and worrying at how long it was going to take them to find them.

"It'll be over when Triana comes back," Tarrin admitted. "She'll find me in a blink. But I don't think she's on the island. I think she went back to Suld or something. I haven't seen her since we came back from the steamship. So let's enjoy it while we can," he grinned.

They wandered aimlessly through the forest as Tarrin listened to Dar tell him all about their time in the Tower, when they were sharing a room, and the suspicious things that went on. Then they talked about the others, Tarrin listening to Dar's impressions of the others. Dar was a good judge of character, and he had a surprisingly keen understanding of the others. He told Tarrin about Camara Tal's aggravation being because of her love for her husband, Koran Dar, who was resisting her every attempt to get him to go home with her. "Master Koran Dar loves her, but he thinks she'll make him sit in their house all day. He ran away to experience life, and now that he has, he's afraid to go back. He doesn't want to lose it."

"I don't blame him," Tarrin agreed completely. "There's got to be some way to make them patch things up," he mused. "If they love each other, it's a shame for them to be apart."

"Not anytime this century," Dar chuckled. "Camara Tal's been out of Amazar for a while, but her attitude hasn't changed at all. I think she would confine him to the house if she got him back. She may even chain him in his room to keep him from getting away. She loves him, but she wants to control him. Master Koran Dar is too strong to be controlled that way, and he's the kind that would wilt in those conditions, like a flower blocked off from the sun. She doesn't understand that if she did that to him, she'd be destroying most of the things in him that she loves the most. She wants to break him, but when she does, she'll realize how bad of a mistake it was. But by then, it'd be too late," he sighed. "I feel sorry for them. Camara Tal is too stubborn to change, and Master Koran Dar is too good of a man to survive what she'll do to him."

"That is sad," he agreed.

"Well well, look what I found," a voice called. They both jumped a little as a Sha'Kar came around a large tree. He'd seen her before. She was a very pretty girl with platinum blond hair and blue eyes that were always dancing with mischief. Her name was Auli, and she was one of Iselde's friends. He'd met her after losing his memory, and she had given him the most chilling smile...it was predatory. She stood there with her back against the tree, hands behind her back, staring at the two of them with a similar wolfish grin on her face. Tarrin couldn't help but admire her tall, curvy frame, being accented in a most appealing manner by the clingy nature of her shimmery blue dress, the same color as her eyes. She had that ethereal Sha'Kar beauty and had a very attractive body, and though Dar may be used to it, Tarrin wasn't. She gave him a very inviting smile when she realized that he was staring at her. "You realize that this area is forbidden, don't you?" she said. "We're not allowed here."

It took Tarrin a little bit to get used to that. Triana had used some kind of very powerful spell to teach both herself and Tarrin their native language in about three seconds. It had left him dizzy for nearly an hour, but it had been very effective. He could speak the Sha'Kar language like a native now, literally because Triana had borrowed Auli's mother's knowledge of the language as the model to implant into both herself an Tarrin. Ianelle was two thousand years old--inconceivable!--and her grasp of the Sha'Kar language was beyond profound. Tarrin knew many words and phrases that younger Sha'Kar like Auli didn't know, because he had borrowed the knowledge of someone much more learned than she.

"Then why are you here?" Dar asked her in flawless Sha'Kar. All Tarrin's friends spoke the language.

"Same as you. Hiding from my elders," she said with a laugh and a wink. "My mother's really getting on my nerves." She strode forward boldly then, to both his and Dar's surprise, went around them and draped her arms over both their shoulders and laughed. "It's about time I had company. All the other youngers are too cowardly to come out here. So, let's go get in trouble," she said with a conspiratorial wink at Tarrin.

Auli virtually invited herself along, but neither of them were very mad about it after a few minutes. Auli had a truly wicked sense of humor and she was alot of fun, laughing and telling them embrassing secrets about other Sha'Kar youngers and flirting with Dar so shamelessly that his Arakite friend looked like he was continuously blushing. She was impossible to dislike, urging them deeper and deeper into the woods, playing on their pride as adventurous rulebreakers to goad them into taking her up on the dare. Tarrin found that he liked Auli alot, for she was very brave and was very funny, as quick to laugh at a joke she made about herself as she was about someone else. She was completely comfortable with being with the two of them, a trio of youngsters looking for a little time away from the cloying presence of their elders.

They found themselves in the foothills not far from the volcano after a while, as Auli was goading Dar and Tarrin into scaring sheep and making them scatter on their bewildered keepers, then watching the hapless humans trying to round up the animals. "Watch this," she winked, and Tarrin felt something weird, like he always did when Sorcerers used their magic. The sheep that the tall human man was dragging back to the flock shuddered, then all its fleece turned a bright shade of pink. Tarrin and Dar had to clamp their mouths shut to keep from laughing and giving themselves away as the human staggered back at this amazing change in color, then he turned and shook his fist towards the trees. "I know that's you, Mistress Auli!" the man shouted. "I'm going to inform your mother about this, mark me!"

"Come on," she whispered with a wink at them, then they snuck away as the human tried to calm the terrified animal, that had probably just noticed its new fleece.

They did laugh when they got far enough away, and Tarrin was a little surprised. Auli was almost incorrigible, and he'd never seen a girl like that before. There were several chronic troublemakers back in Aldreth, like Walten, but Auli seemed even more fearless than they were. Girls just didn't act the way Auli acted in Aldreth. It was shocking, but in a way, it was quite appealing. Girls always seemed so stuffy and stuck up--alot of that was because their mothers didn't want their daughters getting interested in the handsome son of that witch Elke Kael--but Auli was outgoing, fearless, and utterly likable. Tiella had been the only girl that had been his friend back in Aldreth, and that was only because her parents, the village innkeepers, were friends of the Kael family.

"Come, I have a great idea," she said with bright eyes. "Let's go up to the volcano!"

"But Kerri and the others are up there," Dar said. "They may catch us!"

"So? What's the fun in going where we can't be caught? I want to go see that dragon! Come on, Tarrin! She's your friend, she won't eat us if you're with me!"

Tarrin wanted to see Sapphire in her dragon form too. "You think you can get us up there without getting caught?" he asked her.

"I know five ways everywhere," she affirmed with a grin and a nod, reaching out and taking Tarrin's hand boldly. "Come on, let's go!"

And so Tarrin, Dar, and Auli started up the many steep, winding trails on the sides of the volcano. Dar kept muttering to himself that they were going to get in trouble, but neither Tarrin nor Auli really cared very much. They were having too much fun. The paths got dangerous, and they had to shuffle along with a wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other, but Tarrin didn't feel in any danger. It was all some kind of grand adventure to him, even when he nearly slipped off the path once when a loose stone gave out under his foot. They worked their way around the side of the volcano to the north side, and a small peninsula of relatively flat land that was on that side, where they said the dragon was staying. As they came around the volcano, Sapphire did finally come into view, and Tarrin ran into Auli's back as she stopped to gawk at the beast. Dar looked around them and saw it as well. It was definitely Sapphire, with her midnight blue scales and the fact that she completely took up a rocky clearing between the base of the cone of the volcano and the trees just past it. She seemed to be reading from a book laying on the ground in front of her, a book that had to be thirty spans wide. Tarrin marvelled at how she looked just like the tiny little Sapphire that sat in his lap, but she was some kind of titanic replica of that little drake. She snuffled a bit and lifted her head, and then her gaze locked right on them.

"What are you three doing?" she demanded. "Oh, Tarrin! Come down, come down!" she invited, sitting up on her haunches. They were nearly a hundred spans over the clearing, but when she did that and craned her neck up, her head was suddenly level with them. Tarrin stared long and hard at that immense head, and he realized that she could swallow him whole without even having to chew!

"H-Honored dragon!" Auli said in awe, looking at her.

"I thought Kimmie would be with you," Sapphire said critically to him, her powerful voice vibrating inside him in the weirdest way.

"Uh, she's reading a book, Sapphire," he answered her. "I was bored, so we came out to look around a little bit."

"I'm reading as well," she said, pointing with a clawed finger nearly as long as Tarrin down at the ground. "I'm just starting to get my powers back. I'm surprised my gear all survived so long."

"Gear?" he asked.

"All dragons have magical powers, little friend," she said, rising up on her hind legs and holding out that huge forepaw at the edge of the steep incline. Tarrin realized that she wanted them to get into her paw. The three of them would fit, but only just. Auli daringly clambered out onto her paw and sat down, and Tarrin and Dar crawled out with her a moment later, Dar praying hastily under his breath. It was a tight fit with the three of them, one of Tarrin's feet dangling some hundred spans off the ground below, but the dragon was very careful with them. Tarrin's stomach rose as the dragon lowered them carefully to the ground, by the book. Tarrin helped Dar and Auli out of her paw, and they stared up at her massive head as she lowered herself enough to be about fifteen spans over them. "All dragons have Druidic magic, because we are creatures of the land. But since we are not bipeds, we are free to study other kinds of magic. Most dragons learn Wizard magic as well, because we are good at it. As my mind has cleared with the return to my true form, my powers are coming back to me. I hid this spellbook over a thousand years ago in a safe place, and I was surprised that it was still there."

"That's a spellbook?" Tarrin asked.

She nodded. "I used a spell to check on my other things, and they're all still there as well. Untouched after a millenia. It's amazing," she said with a raspy chuckle that blew hot, strangely charged air down on them. "As soon as I'm sure you're going to recover from this strange malady, I'll be returning to my lair."

"Where is that, great dragon?" Auli asked curiously.

"My kind prefer dry places," she answered, "where the static builds and the rain that does fall always comes with lightning. We prefer sandy caves. My lair is on the border of the desert and the dry steppes of Saranam, far to the northeast of here. The Sha'Kar agreed to transport me back to Suld, and from there I can fly back to my lair with little trouble."

Tarrin tried to imagine a cave big enough to hold her immense form. It wasn't easy. "Are all dragons as big as you, Sapphire?"

She shook her head. "I was very old, even before the Breaking," she answered. "Dragons grow larger as they age. A good indication of the age of a dragon is how big it is. Most dragons will be about half my size. The age we gained during the Breaking didn't affect us. I guess it was because the aging didn't happen while we were in our true forms," she mused.

Tarrin looked up at her. Even half her size was still absolutey gigantic. Sapphire could swat down a Giant with little difficulty.

"I was ruler of my clan," she said proudly. "Mother of all, and shazil of the eastern desert and the western steppes."

"What is shazil?" Dar asked curiously.

"Overlord," she answered. "We blues are much more organized and social than most other dragons. We cooperate with each other, and we live by rules. As shazil, enforcing the rule of law was my responsibility, and I oversaw a region that held about ten other clans."

Tarrin had absolutely no doubt about that. Tarrin couldn't imagine anything being even bigger than Sapphire. "What happened to your children?" Tarrin asked impulsively.

"I've managed to make contact with three of them," she answered. "I've yet to find the other two, but I've yet to give up hope. The youngest are taking a very long time to come out of the shock returning to our true forms induced. The oldest of us were starting to regain ourselves before we even returned to our true forms. That was why I got smarter and learned to speak, little friend," she told him. "The younger ones are still like that, just beginning to remember their pasts. In a few days, even the hatchlings should have regained their memories, and we'll be moving back to where we belong."

"If you started out in Saranam, how did you end up on that little island out in the middle of nowhere?" Tarrin asked.

"I have no idea," she replied with a smile. A very chilling smile. "I can't remember what happened after I enacted the magic to confine me into the drake form."

Auli strode forward a few paces. "Honored dragon, may I ask a favor?" she asked.

"What is it, small one?"

"Could you come down here and let me see you up close?"

Sapphire said nothing, but lowered her head to where she was just in front of and above Auli. The Sha'Kar reached out with a trembling hand and put it on Sapphire's snout, over the lips but under the nose, touching her small diamond scales tentatively. "Her scares are very smooth," Auli told them. "And they're warm. They feel nice." She traced her finger along the seam between two scales, and that made Sapphire snort and flinch away slightly. That act made Auli stagger back in sudden fright, into Tarrin, who grabbed her and steadied her so she wouldn't fall down. The Sha'Kar finally showed fear.

"Sorry, but that tickled," the dragon told her with an amused look. "I didn't mean to startle you."

Auli laughed ruefully. "Well, I almost wet myself, but it was worth it!" she told her with another infectious laugh.

"This is Wizard magic, Sapphire?" Dar asked, who was literally climbing up onto the book to look at what was in it.

"It is," she answered. "Your Wizards would be able to read these pages, young human. It is written in the same language as theirs. Even though we dragons use it a slightly different way, Wizard magic is still Wizard magic. If you weren't a Sorcerer, you may even be able to learn it yourself."

Tarrin and Auli climbed up onto the cover of the book and peered over huge pages that looked to be made of stiff leather and looked over the page. The pages were written in glyphs that were two spans long, large glyphs that the dragon could read easily. Tarrin realized that as big as Sapphire was, if she could even manipulate a human-sized book, the writing in it would be so incredibly tiny to her that she probably wouldn't be able to make it out. The humans and Sha'Kar were like small dolls to her, easily fitting in her forepaw, and anything smaller than them would be very hard for her to scrutinize. It was like sand. Tarrin could see a grain of sand, but Sapphire probably would not be able to do so. Sand seemed grainy to him, but to someone like Sapphire, it would be as fine as the most powdered dust, almost as fluid as water. Even now the dragon's massive bulk loomed over them. From nose to tail, Tarrin realized that the dragon was about five hundred spans long. Over half of it was tail, and about another sixty or seventy was head and neck, but that still left about a hundred and fifty spans or so worth of body. Her legs had to be at least thirty spans long each. Probably closer to forty. Everything about her was massive.

Tarrin, Auli, and Dar climbed down off the book, and the dragon entertained them with a story about her five dragon children and her home back at the border between the desert and Saranam. She told them all about how they studied magic and enjoyed their existence, about her duties as shazil to watch over the clans in her territory and keep them from fighting too much with the copper dragons that shared their preferred territories, and how they would watch the Selani when the nomadic peoples filed through their range. The dragons knew that the Selani knew that they were there, but they were very good neighbors. They respected the dragon's territory, moving through it quickly, and never trying to find their lairs or bother them when they did see them up on the mesas sunning themselves. Because of their amiable nature, Sapphire and her clan discouraged humans from Saranam from trying to invade the desert, as they had a penchant for doing.

"Where is your male dragon?" Auli asked. "You know, the father of the babies?"

"Males live more or less alone, Sha'Kar. Female blues don't take permanent mates. When we are ready to mate, we make it known, and allow the males to compete for our favor. The one that proves himself strongest, most intelligent, and most magically experienced earns the right to sire my clutch."

"That sounds fun," Auli said with bright eyes. "At least your kind's advanced enough not to limit yourself to the same old male all the time."

"I've had the same mate for the last few centuries, Sha'Kar," Sapphire answered. "Tenshale is the oldest, wisest male in the eastern marches. Every time I want to raise a clutch, he proves most worthy. I've grown quite fond of him," she admitted.

"Sapphire isn't your real name, is it?" Tarrin asked suddenly.

"I've grown fond of it," she smiled at him. "Before they called me Midnight because of my dark scales," she said, unfurling her wings and letting them marvel at how handsome her scales were, "but called names are changed easily. Since I keep my given name a secret, I choose how I want others to address me. When I get back, I'll let it be known that from that day forth I am to be called Sapphire, and that will be that."

"Why keep your name a secret?" Dar asked.

"A name is a powerful thing, Arakite," Sapphire answered seriously. "Especially for beings of great power, like myself. You can control someone if you know their true name and the right spells. A Wizard that knew my true name could use it as a weapon against me. No dragon will take that risk, so the only time a true name is voiced is the day we give it to our hatchlings. We then give them a called name and use that from that day forward."

"I didn't know that," Dar mused.

"Then your trip here wasn't in vain," Sapphire said, looking down at them. "No journey is for vain if you gain knowledge in the course of it."

"You're really wise, Sapphire," Tarrin said appreciatively.

"After two thousand years, I would hope so," she said with an amused look.

"Auli!" an enraged voice came from Auli's amulet. It was Ianelle, her mother. "Aulienne, you come back home this instant!" she raged. "And while you're coming back, make yourself useful and see if you can find Tarrin! Kimmie's frantic!"

Auli looked at Tarrin and laughed. "I think it may take me a while," she said with a wink. "I just can't seem to find you anywhere!"

"Why aren't you answering her, Auli?" Dar asked.

"Because I never do," she told him with a mischievious grin. "She knows I won't. That's why she just yells at me."

"Well, at least tell her that Tarrin's alright," Dar said. "Kimmie's worried. You can do that without giving yourself away, can't you?"

She shook her head. "If I use the amulet, my mother can track it right back and pinpoint where I am. Then she'll Teleport here so fast I won't have a chance to get away. I made that mistake once before, Dar," she grinned. "I learn from my mistakes."

"You are here without permission?" Sapphire asked intently.

"Well, we didn't think we'd need permission to visit you, honored dragon," Auli said with innocent eyes. "After all, doesn't Tarrin have the right to come see you whenever he wants?"

"You talk fast, Sha'Kar," Sapphire said with amusement. "Almost as fast as Skulker, my youngest and an endless handful for me. Always getting into trouble. You two seem cut from the same cloth." She rose up a little. "But you received orders from your mother, and you will obey them," she said bluntly. "I will see that you get back to the town."

"B-Back?" Auli stammered. "You're taking us back? You mean you're going to fly us there?"

"No, child," she said with a smile. "You are going to answer your mother, and she will get you back to town."

Auli looked a little crestfallen, but even she wasn't crazy enough to defy the dragon. She put a hand to her amulet sullenly. "Tarrin's with me, mother," she answered. "Me and him and Dar were out walking, and we decided to come visit with the honored dragon. We'll--"

Whatever they were going to do would remain a mystery, as Ianelle, tall and regal and with her blond hair and handsome face reminding Tarrin that she was definitely Auli's mother, simply appeared not three steps in front of them. Her eyes were very cold, very hard, and she had her hands on her hips in an aggressive posture. "What are you three doing over here?" she demanded.

"I told you we were going to get in trouble," Dar muttered under his breath.

"I wanted to come visit Sapphire, Misterss Ianelle, and Auli knew the way," Tarrin said quickly to deflect the formidable Sha'Kar's anger.

"Of course she would know the way," Ianelle said scathingly, glaring at her daughter, who now looked a little sheepish.

"They did not bother me," Sapphire announced, seeming to startle Ianelle a little. Ianelle had her back to the dragon. She turned and looked up at her over her shoulder, seeing that the blue dragon looked a little amused. "In fact, I found their visit quite enjoyable. But it sounds like they are needed at home, so you may take them home now." She fixed those huge eyes on Tarrin. "Be sure to come again, little friend. At least if we stay here much longer."

"We will be leaving tomorrow, honored dragon," Ianelled told her politely. "We will be able to carry you as well as the rest, as promised."

"Very good then. Let me know when to arrive, and I will do so."

"We will," Ianelle nodded, then turned a steely eye back on the three youths. "As for you three," she said in a stern voice, pointing at the ground at her feet. "Here. Now. Join hands with me and form a ring."

They did so, Auli looking very sullen, and the most amazing thing happened. Tarrin felt that strange feeling whenever anyone used Sorcery around him, and they were suddenly somewhere else. There was no sensation to it. One second he was looking at Sapphire over Ianelle's shoulder, then he was looking at the manor house where they'd been staying. Ianelle let go of Tarrin's hand, but Auli, who was holding his other hand, did not let go. Tarrin was thinking of saying something, but her hand was warm and very soft, and he rather liked the way that it felt.

"Alright, Tarrin, Kimmie wants you back in your room," Ianelled told him calmly. "As for you," she said, turning on Auli with a dark look.

"Can we wait for Kimmie with him?" she asked quickly. "It must be lonely in that room by himself. We can keep him company until she comes back."

Ianelle gave her a searching look, then nodded. "As long as I know you're not out causing trouble," she said. "But mind you, if you're not back as soon as Kimmie returns, you'll get a serious punishment. And I'll be calling over here to make sure. Fail to answer me once, and I'll lock a tracking spell on you so fast you'll think you were born with it. Understand?"

"Yes, mother," Auli said with a slight frown.

"You still need to pack your room, girl," Ianelle told her. "Remember, one trunk. Everything else you leave behind. So you'd better decide what you're going to take."

"I know," she said with a pout. "I don't think it's fair."

"It's all we have room for," she said bluntly. "Outside of books and cultural artifacts, everyone only gets one trunk. Even me, and I'm First on the Council. If I get one trunk, everyone gets one trunk," she declared adamantly.

"But we can just come back for the rest," Auli protested.

"We could, but we must leave these indulgent ways behind, daughter," she said. "We have much to do. We simply don't have time for wasting days with parties and gossip any longer. We have to return to the katzh-dashi, return the order to its former glory, and that's going to take time. Silly possessions and frilly things are not our way."

"They're my way," Auli growled under her breath.

"Now go on. I'm sure Kimmie will be back soon. We have people out searching for her."

"Where is she?" Tarrin asked.

"Out looking for you," Ianelle replied. "She was having quite a problem with it. It seems someone knows about her kind, and intentionally wiped the traces of your passing so she couldn't follow."

Dar blushed and turned away from Ianelle, hurrying towards the house.

"Well, get on, you two," she said, shooing them. "Remember Auli. Back home as soon as Kimmie returns. And I'll be checking up on you."

Auli and Dar did go with him back to his huge room, and he was glad they were there. They sat on the divans and talked about their journey, laughing like old friends. Dar found it especially funny when Auli told them about touching the dragon's snout, and how it flinched away from her. "I thought I left a dark spot on your trousers, Tarrin," she said with a self-deprecating laugh. "I've never been scared like that before in my life!"

"I'd better go see Dolanna and let her know we're alright," Dar said, slapping his knees.

"She probably already--" Tarrin began, but Auli cut him off.

"That's a good idea, Dar," she told him quickly. "Besides, you never know, she may have something for you to do."

"Probably," he agreed. "I'll see you two later. I did have fun, even if we did get caught," he admitted with a laugh, then he walked towards the door.

Tarrin was a bit wary now. Auli obviously wanted to get rid of Dar, and now they were alone. She was sitting on the divan across from him, not looking like she had anything on her mind, just smiling amiably. "Do you know how to play chess?" she asked him.

"No, not really," he answered.

"Well, we can't have that!" she said with a grin. "There's a chessboard on that dresser over there. I'll teach you how to play."

And so, they sat down on the floor, on a very thick, soft fur rug near the pedestal that held the bed, and she showed him how to play chess. It was a strangely complicated game, with six different kinds of pieces that all moved according to their own specific rules. She'd started on her side of the board when she started showing him, but then scooted around to sit beside him, showing him the rules of movement from his side of the board, saying that it would make a little more sense to him to see it from his own side of the board. Tarrin found Auli's nearness just a little disconcerting, for she was sitting with her hip touching his leg, propping herself up with a hand that was placed behind him. He found it a little hard to concentrate on the rules with her so close to him. He forgot which piece was the one that moved diagonally, and she had to show him again. "Now this is the queen," she said, touching the second tallest piece. "It's the most powerful piece on the board, because it can move in any direction, as far as you want it to move. It's the strongest piece, but it's also the piece you have to take the most care to protect."

"It can move anywhere?"

"Well, in a straight line, yes," she replied. "This way, this way, or this way," she displayed, tracing her finger on the checkered board diagonally, horizontally, and vertically. "The knight is the only piece that can't move in a straight line."

"Two in one direction, then one over," he repeated the rules for the knight.

"That's right," she said, turning to look at him, but he was looking at the board. "You should always protect your queen, Tarrin, but sometimes it's worth it to gamble with it a little. Take risks," she said in a slightly throaty tone, leaning towards him. "It can throw your opponent off."

And then, to his shock, she blew gently in his ear.

He nearly jumped out of his skin, but he didn't have time to even look at her, because the door opened and Kimmie came in. Auli looked towards the door and glared at Kimmie in a most hostile manner, but her face became all sweet and light again by the time the Were-cat noticed the two of them sitting on the floor on the far side of the room.

"Where have you been, Tarrin?" she demanded in a cross tone. "I've been worried sick!"

"I needed some time outside, Kimmie, and you were busy," he said.

"You shouldn't have done that!"

"I'm not helpless, Kimmie!" he said in a loud voice. "There's nothing on this island that's going to hurt me, and I didn't go alone! Dar and Auli here went with me. We went to go visit with Sapphire, that's all!"

Kimmie gave him a long stare, but then finally nodded. "I guess I wasn't paying enough attention to you. I'm sorry," she apologized. "But I'm only doing what I was told to do, Tarrin. I'm not about to disobey Triana any more than you are." She looked at Auli, and then back to Tarrin, and her eyes turned strangely suspicious for a moment. "Learning how to play chess?"

He nodded, and Auli smiled up at her. "He's a fast learner," she said. "We were about to start a game."

The way she said it seemed strange to him. It was throaty, slow, almost purring, and he realized that her words were a cryptic flirtation with him, one that Kimmie wouldn't understand. "But mother said I had to come home as soon as you got back, so I'd better get going. We can play some other time, Tarrin," she said as she gracefully got up. Tarrin did so as well, and while her back was to Kimmie, she winked at him. And it was not a wink in amusement. "You'd better practice. I play to win," she warned with a slow smile, then she sauntered out of the room like she owned it.

Kimmie watched her going with narrow eyes, and when the door closed, she came up and sat down in front of the chessboard. "If you need some company, I'll be happy to oblige," she said with a kind smile. "I'm sorry I ignored you earlier. I'll make it up to you. Want to play?"

"Well, alright," he said, sitting down. "She showed me how the move, but I think there's more to this than just knowing how they move."

"You're right. While we're waiting for dinner, I'll show you," she promised, setting up the board.

Tarrin looked over Kimmie's shoulder, towards the door. Auli had been flirting with him, and alot more seriously than she'd been flirting with Dar. What was she up to? She was a Sha'Kar, and he was a human. Didn't that make them too different for that kind of thing? He had to suppress a flush when he caught himself hoping that they weren't. Auli was very pretty, and very funny, and very nice...and she flirted with him. What if she was interested? What would he do about it?

That wasn't the right question to ask, he realized, his eyes still on the door. The question was, what would she do about it.

Given where they were going, when he would meet Jesmind and his daughter Jasana, he had the feeling that if Auli was serious, she was going to cause some serious friction. Kimmie seemed rather mellow, but from everything he'd heard, Jesmind was not. Jesmind was supposedly a firebrand, and if she laid claim on him, she may be violently opposed to Auli's little games.

Tarrin had a sinking feeling that things in the Tower were going to be very sticky.