Fel (James Galloway)

Axe of the Dwarven King

Chapter 2

When Tarrin and his children appeared in the center of the destroyed arena at Mala Myrr, not far from the marble tomb of Faalken, he fully expected to feel the desert's heat, maybe be in the middle of a storm, and he expected to see Allia waiting for him somewhere very close by. Much to his surprise, she had yet to arrive. That was unlike his Selani sister; when she said she would be somewhere at a certain time, she was there.

"Stop!" Tarrin said sharply almost immediately, without even having to look. Eron froze in his tracks almost in mid-run, starting to dash off towards something that got his attention. "This isn't home, cub. Everything here has a hidden danger, and you never go rushing off into things you don't understand," he told him in a measured, almost stately pace. "If you don't behave, I'll send you home. Remember that."

"Yes, Papa," Eron said quickly. Both of his children had been thoroughly warned that if they didn't behave, if they caused absolutely any trouble whatsoever, and the very first time either of them disobeyed him, he would send them home. It wasn't an easy thing to make them appreciate the danger of the desert, because children never saw danger in much of anything, but he finally drilled it into them by giving them that ultimatum. Eron padded back over to his father and grabbed the end of his tail, a gesture of obedience.

Tarrin looked around as Kedaira hunkered down patiently, then he put his paw on his amulet. "Allia, where are you?" he asked.

"I'm about an hour from the outskirts of the city," she replied immediately. "We were delayed by a sandstorm, brother. Do you want to meet me halfway, or shall one of us wait for the other?"

"I'll meet you halfway, deshaida," he answered. "Who's with you?"

"Only Allyn," she answered.

Tarrin chuckled. "No wonder you're so late," he teased.

"He heard that, brother," Allia laughed. "He said he's going to get you for that."

"He can certainly try."

"Who are you talking to, Papa?" Eron asked.

"He's talking to Aunt Allia, you nit! Who else would he be talking to?" Jasana chided sharply, smacking him on the shoulder. Eron smacked her back, and they were suddenly wrestling around on the ground.

"Cubs!" Tarrin said sharply, causing both of them to freeze, then he sent pulses of his awareness out into the Weave. They quickly locked onto Allia's power, and he knew which direction to go and how far away she was. Given that it would take them nearly an hour to get free of the ruins, they'd meet right on the outskirts.

"I have you, brother. We're on the way."

"Alright, looks like we'll meet in about an hour."

"See you then."

Tarrin broke the connection and looked towards the southeast, the direction in which Allia was. He'd never really gone that way before. He'd come through the western and eastern parts of the city, but hadn't really fanned out into the northern and southern sections of it before. Mala Myrr was a huge ruin, probably one of the largest of the ancient cities of the Dwarves, and there was quite a bit of it that he hadn't seen. Certainly not for wanting to see it. The Dwarves were a favorite topic of his, for he had a great deal of respect for a race so willing to stand in the face of evil, even when it meant their total destruction. In the six months since the destruction of Val, he'd made a couple of trips to the library in the Tower and gotten some books about the Dwarves. They hadn't said very much, since the race was destroyed over five thousand years ago, but there were quite a few illustrations of ancient Dwarven artifacts and descriptions of some of the ruins thought to have been their cities. Most of which, to his surprise, were underground; Mala Myrr was one of the very few Dwarven cities that was built above ground. In fact, he still had one of those books, a book that tried without much success to decipher the written language of the Dwarves, what the author had dubbed Duthak, which was the Dwarven word for their own kind. Actually, the book was more of a written account of the author's attempts to decipher the language and his study of the extinct race more than anything else. He had made some interesting observations about the Dwarves, but Tarrin wasn't sure if they were right or not.

Once again, Tarrin remembered the Dwarven art that the Goddess had removed from Mala Myrr. He realized that she still hadn't told him where it was. Alright, Mother, where did you put it? Tarrin finally asked directly, within the vaults of his own mind.

There came a silvery laugh. It currently decorates my palace in the dimension where I truly exist, she replied. And you can't have it back. I've grown quite fond of it.

"That's alright, Mother. I'm certain I can find a few interesting pieces here before we go home."

Eron looked at him strangely, but Jasana had an understanding look about her. Sometimes he wondered if Jasana could hear it when he spoke to the Goddess, since she was so strong as a Sorcerer.

"Oooh, Papa, is that Faalken's tomb over there?" Eron asked excitedly, pointing to a pristine marble building in the middle of the arena floor, shaped like a hammer.

"Yes, cub," Tarrin answered quietly, looking at it and remembering his old friend, and marvelling at how much of an impact Faalken had had on his life, both during his own life and after his death. Even now, so long after it had happened, even after the mission to protect the Firestaff was over, he still couldn't think of his old friend without a wistful smile and a pang of guilt.

"Can we go look at it?" he asked impatiently.

"Alright, but you will not touch. Do you understand?"

"I won't!" Eron promised immediately, then let go of his father's tail and bolted towards the marble mausoleum.

Tarrin guessed that since he was there, he may as well pay his respects. He padded towards the building at a much slower pace than his son, with Kedaira and Jasana following him closely. There was alot of history bound up in this place, the floor of the ruined arena where he and Jegojah had had their last fight. Over there on that toppled wall was where he'd suffered such a fit of outrage that he had unleashed the power of High Sorcery on the unsuspecting Jegojah, after the Doomwalker had called on Faalken's rotted body for assistance. That was when he'd discovered what they'd done to his old friend. They were hoping that the shock of it would make him drop his guard long enough for either Jegojah or Faalken to finish him off, but it had a completely different effect. The gouge in the earth was still there from where Jegojah tried to sink into the earth to escape, but Tarrin had ripped him out of it as if he was a long-rooted weed. It was filled with sand now, a patch of beige on the reddish brown floor of the arena, with its hard-packed surface of earth and soft clay. Tarrin glanced over and saw the hole in the skyline from where the buildings that they had toppled had once stood. The battle between Tarrin and Jegojah had ranged out of the arena, and they'd done some damage to the city in the course of it. That was why Tarrin had removed all the Dwarven art and artifacts from all the buildings surrounding the arena, because he didn't want any of the priceless artifacts to be damaged. Even now, over a year after the battle, Tarrin could remember every stone, every pit and scratch on every one of those stones, and the place had such a feel of famliarity to him, like his own home, that he felt perfectly at ease here. He had spent days studying and memorizing the layout of the arena and the city surrounding it to give him every possible advantage over Jegojah, and in the end it had paid off.

It was a violent past, but in many ways, it had been the beginning of modern history. It was here that Tarrin and Jegojah made peace between them, after Tarrin freed the Doomwalker's soul from the Soultrap. Jegojah later became a key element of the battle of Suld, killing Kravon before he could use that evil artifact he had to raise another wave of undead to battle, slaying him with that evil sword that caused anyone who was struck by it to bleed uncontrollably and suffer excruciating pain.

That evil weapon was now sitting in Tarrin's bedroom, because he didn't want anything like that laying around where someone could find it in one of the Tower's many storerooms, and besides, it had been Jegojah's, and it was the one material possession he had that served as a reminder and memorial of the long dead Shacèan general. Tarrin didn't have that one sitting out where someone may pick it up and cut him or herself by accident. Jegojah's sword was in the trunk at the foot of his bed, the one thing in the house that absolutely everyone in the house knew, even Jesmind, that the were not to open. Tarrin held his most personal effects in that trunk, as well as some objects which were exceedingly dangerous. Jegojah's sword was the most dangerous of them all.

Because of what happened here, history was written in the way Tarrin would have preferred. It was here that Jegojah became an ally, it was here where he finally came to terms with Faalken's death and put both him and the darkness of the memory that he had caused his friend's death to final peace, and it was here where he had looked inside the workings of a Soultrap, which had allowed him to duplicate the magic of it and prepare the vessel by which his life was saved after he destroyed both Val and himself. There was alot of history here, as well as the site where so much history had been made. Both personal and historical.

While Eron rushed around the tomb to look at it from every angle, Tarrin stood silently before it, his eyes half-closed and a wan, distant expression on his face. Sometimes he thought he'd never completely put Faalken's death behind him. Even now, he couldn't think of the Knight without a pang of guilt over having played a part in his death. He doubted that the cherubic Knight would appreciate him pining like that, but sometimes one just couldn't help but do such things. Memories of him floated through Tarrin's memory, and those made him smile. His favorite memory was the time he cut all the hair off one side of Azakar's head. To this day, he couldn't figure out how he managed to get in there and shave half of Azakar's head without waking the Mahuut up. He was a very capable and dependable man, but he was never one that got so caught up in himself or his work that he couldn't have a little fun. Him and Sarraya would have gotten along absolutely famously, had they ever have had the chance to meet.

But he was not there to visit. He had to meet Allia, and they had a ways to go. He didn't want to have them have to come into the city.

"Alright, cubs, come with me," he said. "I'll tell you right now, don't touch anything if you don't know exactly what it is, don't come within the length of your tail to any animals you may see, even insects, and don't ever leave sight of me. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Papa," they said in unison.

"Kedaira, keep an eye on the cubs and make sure they don't stray," he told the inu in the Druid's manner, which was simply willing that the animal understand him. The mottled predator growled shortly in reply, stalking up to the two cubs and hovering right behind them. She would make sure that both of them remembered that promise.

Using his lock on Allia, Tarrin guided them steadily southwest, even as he felt the sense of his sister grow nearer. She was travelling towards him as he travelled towards her, but where she travelled over the rocky expanses on the edges of the city, Tarrin moved along a sandy broad avenue that seemed to run all the way to the edge of the city. It was flanked by progressively smaller stone buildings, most of which were still standing despite some five thousand years of exposure to the winds and scouring sands of the desert. This section of the city had been buried in sand the last time he was there, and he figured that the large number of standing buildings meant that this part of the city was buried more often than not...or so he thought. Or maybe most of the buildings were still standing because it hadn't been buried most of the time. Tarrin regarded them as they walked, with the cubs close behind him and Kedaira following behind, trying to imagine what the city looked like when there were Dwarves here. It wouldn't have been a desert, that was for sure. The desert was created after the Blood War, a scar of that terrible war, during climatic changes that were brought about because of the raw power that the Demons and the denizens of Sennadar hurled at each other, enough power to change the climate. The entire region in the center of the desert had been burned to ash, and the shift in the climate didn't allow anything to grow back, creating the desert that had more than tripled in size since those days. Mala Myrr supposedly had been situated on a grassy plain back then, in a lush area much like the bread basket that the Free Duchies were now. Tarrin tried to envision an entire city full of Dwarves, who the histories said were short, stocky, widely built beings that were broad-featured and physically powerful. All of them wore beards, even the women, which surprised him when he saw a picture of a female dwarf with her beard divided up into three braids that hung off her chin like dark icicles. He'd never seen a female with a beard before, but then again, the ancient Dwarves probably would have thought it strange that females of other species were bare-faced. The histories said they were about five spans tall on the average, which meant that one of them would top out right about at his belt. They also said that they were warriors without peer, as well as the best stonemasons, miners, and builders that the ancient world had ever seen. Their building skills were displayed here in this city, where their buildings were still standing strong after five thousand years.

Such a terrible waste. Tarrin had always had something of a fascination with the ancient Dwarves, because he, like many others, could find nothing but towering respect for a race willing to die to the last man, woman, and child to defend the world from the Demons. The Dwarves, the Hobbits, and the Gnomes all died out in the Blood War--or at least everyone thought that the Gnomes had; since becoming a Were-cat, he'd learned that there were a few Gnomes still alive, but they never came into contact with humans. The Dwarves had fought to the last man, the Hobbits had been exterminated during the Blood War by the Demons, because their homeland was what was now Nyr, and had been in the direct path of the Demons as they advanced out of northern Arathorn, and the Gnomes, which had always been very few in number, had their only two cities overrun and destroyed by the Demons as they crossed over what was now the Sandshield Mountains that separated the desert from Arkis. There were only a handful of Gnomes left, a couple of hundred at the most, and Triana expected that their race would finally succumb and die out within a thousand years, the final casualty of the Blood War.

The Blood War had wiped out three races, but it had created two others in its stead and radically changed a third. It had caused a rift among the Sha'Kar, and those rifts were what created the Selani and the Wikuni, and the Sha'Kar that remained tried to come to terms with the great violence and carnage that they had perpetrated during the war. Some Sha'Kar fled to avoid facing what had happened, and they had become the Selani. Some had left the Known World for lands that hadn't been devastated, and they became the Wikuni. Those that remained underwent a cultural revolution, becoming a race of pacifistic beings who abhorred violence, but trained and prepared for the day when they may have to protect the world from Demons once again. They had become the katzh-dashi, or more to the point, they had founded the order, and most of the traditions and rituals that existed among the katzh-dashi could be traced directly back to the Sha'Kar who had created them.

Tarrin mused about that, and about his own personal history in this place, and realized that even the worst events could sometimes have positive effects, if one looked far enough into the future. The Blood War had been a grievous and absolutely devastating thing, but there had been some good to come of it. But that good could not balance the destruction that was wrought in the wake of the rampaging Demons.

For the first time, Tarrin wondered why it was called the Blood War. Usually a war had a name that in some way explained what the war was about, or where it had been fought. The War of the Morning over in Wikuna was a good example of that, the one-day battle between Keritanima and Damon Eram over the Sun Throne of Wikuna. But what kind of name was the Blood War? It had to have some kind of significance or meaning, probably one lost over the thousands of years since it had happened.

They continued down the avenue until it opened into what looked to be some kind of square or open area, maybe a place for open-air markets. It was an empty space devoid of rubble, but there were tiny little bumps and occasional depressions in the sandy ground, ground that was not paved like most of the other streets. About a quarter or a third of the square was covered in a very shallow sand drift, from where sand had been blown in during a sandstorm and collected up on the leeward side of buildings and obstacles. The sand had built up on the lee side of a low wall and long three story building on the east side of the square, which covered the eastern quarter of the square. What was more, there was something about the place that was tickling at Tarrin's awareness, like there was something here that was unusual. Tarrin slowed down as he looked around, then he knelt by one of the little mound-like bumps in the sandy ground. It was dirt, not sand, hard-packed, but it had a patch of sand on its leeward side from where it broke the wind and gave the blowing sand a place to fall without being carried away by the wind. There was a bit of metallic glint at the top of it, and when he reached down and touched the mound, the realized that it contained the skeletal remains of a Dwarf, still clad in his pristine, uncorroded armor. He had found one such skeleton the first time he was here, buried in a sand drift, and he wondered what it was about the desert that prevented the bones from decaying into dust.

"Bones," Eron said, brushing some hard-packed dirt away from the mound and exposing a metal gauntlet with two arm bones protruding from it.

"It looks like they had a battle here," Tarrin said, looking around. "I think they tried to slow the Demons down so the others could escape."

"Who, Papa?"

"The Dwarves, Jasana," he answere, shooing Eron away from the mound to keep him from tearing it up in his curiosity. "This city was built by the Dwarves."

"Who are they, Papa?" Eron asked.

"Cub, do you ever listen to me?" Tarrin asked in more than a little exasperation. "What do you think those big books I've been reading were about?"

"I dunno, Papa. You always seem to have a big book in your lap."

Tarrin snorted and gave his son a sharp-eyed look. "The Dwarves were a race of short, stocky people that all died in the Blood War. I'm sure your mother has told you stories of that."

"Yeah, but they always sounded like they were just stories."

"They're true enough, cub," he said, standing up. "The Dwarves died fighting the Demons."

"All of them?" Jasana asked.

"All of them," Tarrin replied.

"That doesn't seem fair," Jasana fussed.

"Life isn't fair, Jasana," he told her calmly as Kedaira snuffled around the mound without much curiosity. "Come on, Allia's waiting for us. Just don't walk on the mounds, cubs. They're the graves of the Dwarves, and it's not very nice if you walk on them."

They picked their way across the open area carefully, so as not to disturb the mounds, but Tarrin's sense of presence seemed to intensify as he crossed the square. He realized that he was sensing magic, but it was a very old magic, so old that the sense of it had seeped into the area surrounding it. Tarrin could sense it more clearly for every step he took, until he could tell exactly where it was.

"What's that strange feeling, Papa?" Jasana asked.

"It's magic, cub," he said, turning towards one of the larger mounds, his curiosity piqued. "Probably some magical object that's been laying here since these Dwarves died. Strange that it survived the Breaking. I haven't sensed any other magic in the city, and I've explored a good part of it."

"Why would that be strange?"

"Most of the old magic was destroyed in the Breaking, cub," he answered her. "Only a handful of objects survived, and most of them completely by accident. Something here survived the Breaking, but it's so old, I'm not sure what it is."

Whatever it was, it was indeed at the largest of the little mounds. Tarrin knelt by it and brushed sand off its top. It too was covered in hard-packed dirt, dirt that had somehow not been scoured down by the sandstorms that blew through the region. Curious to find out what was there but reluctant to disturb the grave, Tarrin turned to Sorcery. He sent weaves of Earth and Divine down into the mound to determine what was inside it, and found that it was entombing a large Dwarf wearing a heavy suit of that same armor. The magical sense was emanating from that armor, he realized, or more to the point, the magic was surrounding the skeleton within the armor. It had to be the armor. This Dwarf had magically augmented armor, but even that had not been enough to save him from the Demons.

"Oooh, Papa, look!" Eron said excitedly, pulling something out of the ground a few spans from the mound.

Tarrin looked up and saw Eron holding a dirt-crusted object. The young Were-cat shook off the excess, and Tarrin realized that his son was holding an axe. It was a battle axe, a weapon of war, with a gleaming silvery double-headed axe head with a thrusting spike between the two crescents. It was affixed to a haft of what looked to have been leather-wrapped metal; no, now that he looked at it, the entire weapon looked to be made of one piece of metal. There were duthak runes etched into the axe head, as well as a strange symbol that looked like an angular mountain or pyramid with three lines running horizontally in its center.

"Give it here, cub," Tarrin ordered, and the Were-cat boy surrendered his find to his father. Tarrin felt its considerable weight as soon as it was put in his paw; it had taken Eron both arms to hold it up. Someone like Dolanna wouldn't even be able to pick it up off the ground. It was an impressively heavy weapon, but it had a different kind of metal at the base of its long haft that was heavier than the other metal of which it was constructed, to serve to balance the weapon when wielded. It was apparent almost immediately that this was a weapon of truly exquisite craftsmanship, a weapon that had served its owner well through many battles, judging from the many faint scratches, nicks, and scars on the axe's heads, imperfections that had been buffed or polished out over the years. Tarrin used his claws to dig the dirt out of the etched runes, seeing again the angular writing of the Dwarves that was all straight lines and sharp corners. The Dwarves didn't seem to like a curved line, for there was not a single one in their writing. He couldn't read it, and he had never seen that mountain symbol before, so the axe presented to Tarrin several interesting mysteries. Its proximity to this large mound hinted that the Dwarf with the magical armor had been the one that had wielded this weapon, a weapon that was not itself magical, but Tarrin could sense that at one time in the past it had held an enchantment. The magic within the axe had faded long ago, and it was lucky for the axe that the magic faded before the Breaking, or it would have been destroyed when the magic contained within it was disrupted by the tearing of the Weave.

Again, Tarrin's eyes drifted back to that strange symbol. It looked like a pyramid with its top corner chopped off to form a small flat plateau, or a steeply sloped mountain with no peak. The bottom of the pyramid or mountain was not enclosed; the lines that turned towards one another to form its base did not meet, ending just inside the top edges of the small plateau at the top, forming an open-bottomed device. Inside it were three horizontal lines, their lengths differing from one another, with the shortest on the top and the longest on the bottom. Tarrin wiped more dirt away from that symbol, and then used his clawtip to dig the dirt out of the etchings, but found no other symbols or features concerning that unusual glyph. What made it strange was that it was ten times larger than the duthak writing which surrounded it. This symbol had some significant importance. It could be that the weapon itself was special in some way, or it had been made for someone of high military or social rank. The craftsmanship of the weapon itself hinted that it was made for someone who could afford to have it made, so that wasn't an outrageous conclusion.

"What is it, Papa?" Eron asked excitedly.

"It's an axe, you nit!" Jasana told him irritably. "You've seen Gramma's!"

"But it has to be a special axe!" Eron retorted. "I mean, I found it right here where all the Dwarf bones are, and Papa's looking at it real careful, and--"

"It's a very, very old axe, cub," Tarrin cut him off in a quiet, distracted tone. "It was probably used by one of these Dwarves."

"Oooh, can I keep it? Please?" Eron begged.

"No, cub, this isn't something for you," Tarrin told him calmly. "This is not a toy." Tarrin looked at his son's crestfallen look, and he felt a little guilty for usurping it. "But I tell you what. Before we leave, we'll go into one of the buildings that's still standing and see if we can't find some little souvenirs, so you can take something back home with you. Is that alright?"

"I can't wait!" Eron said excitedly, completely forgetting about the axe. Eron was easy to distract that way. "I want to try that one!" he said, pointing at the largest building he could see, then he started running towards it.

"Stop!" Tarrin barked. "I didn't say now," he told his impulsive son as the Were-cat boy started shuffling back towards where Tarrin and Jasana were.

"Can you read any of it, Papa?" Jasana asked, staring at the axe curiously.

"No, cub. I haven't found any books that translate the Dwarven language yet."

"Papa," she said in a chiding tone. "Just borrow the Book of Ages from Aunt Jenna. I'm sure it has what you're looking for."

Tarrin gave his daughter a surprised look, then he felt a little embarassed. He hadn't thought of that. And she was entirely right. There would be a key in the Book of Ages for translating Dwarven, just as there was one within it for translating Sha'Kar. In fact, there would be quite a bit of extra information in the Book of Ages about the Dwarves, like where their cities had been, what gods they worshipped, and most of their written history. There wouldn't be detailed history within, such as the histories of cities or individuals, but there would be a great deal of information within about the Dwarven race as a whole, and the impact they had on the world before the Blood War. If he dug, he could probably find more information about them in the Sha'Kar books, as well as the older Urzani tomes. The Dwarves had been conquered right along with the humans, Hobbits, Goblinoids and Gnomes when the Urzani conquered the majority of the Known World. Their Imperial histories would have some information in them about the Dwarves under Imperial domination.

He realized that he'd only been playing at learning about the Dwarves before. If he really wanted to learn, there were any number of places where he could look to find what he was looking for.

"You're right, cub," Tarrin chuckled. "I never thought of asking Jenna to borrow it."

Kedaira made a series of hissing sounds, and then hunkered down and glared towards the large building towards which Eron had been running. "What's the matter, Kedaira?" Tarrin asked as the inu suddenly turned wary and nervous.

There was the tiniest of small tremors that shuddered underneath Tarrin's feet. Tarrin put his paw down on the ground and felt another one, and when he was certain at what he was feeling, his ears suddenly laid back. "Eron, come here right now," Tarrin said in a voice that would brook no disobedience.

"What is it, Papa?" Jasana asked as Kedaira hissed threateningly, taking a step back.

"There's a kajat close by," he answered in a quiet tone. "Kedaira, come to me," he called. "I'll keep the kajat off you."

"Aren't those those really big ones that look something like Kedaira?" Eron asked in a hushed yet excited tone as the inu backed up until she was standing literally on top of the kneeling Tarrin. Tarrin pushed the predator off of him and stood up, his eyes scanning the buildings facing him. He knew he'd never smell the kajat, for they had a scent that was so much like sand and rock that it was impossible to detect unless he was right on top of it. And if he was that close, then he was too close.

"That's right, cub," Tarrin answered.

"Ooooh, can I see it?"

"Eron," Tarrin snapped in a low tone, "if you're close enough to see a kajat, then you're too close. If you want to see what a kajat looks like, I'll show you an Illusion of one later. But right now, the last thing I want to see is a kajat."

"Just magic it, Papa," Eron said dismissively.

"I'd rather not do that unless I don't have any other choice," he answered. "I don't want to do any damage to the city, and I don't want it knocking down buildings trying to get past my magic to eat us."

"Just talk to it," Jasana reasoned.

"That's not easy when you're trying to talk a hungry predator out of eating you," he told her. "When they're like that, sometimes they don't listen. I'm not about to take the chance." He felt another tremor, and realized the kajat was trying to circle around behind them so it would have a chance to get close enough to run one of them down before they spotted it. They were massive animals, but they could move with blazing speed for short distances. They were ambush hunters, not predators that ran down prey over a distance like lions or wolves, but they would try to run down a meal if they felt that they could get close enough.

Tarrin weighed his options. The kajat wasn't going to give up, not now. It knew they were there, and that meant that a confrontation was inevitable. Tarrin didn't want to deal with the animal here, because it may damage the ruins, and Tarrin didn't want that to happen. He wouldn't fight, and he didn't feel like trying to slip away from the animal, so that left the third option; using magic. But instead of trying to deal with the kajat, he would use it to get out of its reach.

"Move in close, cubs," he ordered. "I'll have an Elemental carry us out of here."

"Oh, boy!" Eron said in excitement. "I love flying!"

Putting his will against the Weave, Tarrin wove a spell of Air and Divine, and then felt it reach inward, breaching the barriers between his dimension and another. Once it did that, he felt it call out on the other side, and when a reply came, he used the spell to build a construct of Air and Divine flows, forming a shell of sorts. He felt the awareness that had answered his call on the other side of the dimensional barrier flow through the hole he had opened, then fill the magical construct he had woven for it. The force occupied the provided host and then grounded itself into it, and then two pools of light appeared within the invisible shell as the force fully animated his magic. He felt the mental link between him and the magical construct form, which informed him that the spell was complete and it had been successful.

It was an Air Elemental; or more to the point, it was his Air Elemental. The same Elemental being answered a Sorcerer's call every time a Sorcerer used the magic to summon Elementals, forming a symbiotic relationship where the Elemental performed services for the Sorcerer, and fed off the magic that the Sorcerer supplied to allow it to come into this dimension in form of payment. The Sorcerer benefitted from the Elemental's aid, and the Elemental gained power from the service as payment. A mutually benefitting relationship, the best kind to have. Tarrin and his Air Elemental weren't just partners, they happened to be friends. Tarrin made a habit of summoning all four of his Elementals at least once every ten days, even if he had no need for them. Elementals gained power from being summoned, and since it was the same Elemental every time he Conjured it, he wanted his Elementals to be strong as well as prove to them that choosing to answer Tarrin's call the first time he tried to summon them had not been a mistake. He made sure his four Elemental partners were well rewarded for their decision to serve Tarrin, and they repaid his attention to their needs and willingness to help them by always performing to the best of their abilities. The Elementals that served Sorcerers were probably the most loyal of all Elementals that the orders of magic could summon or conjure, because of the special relationship involved.

"I need a favor, old friend," Tarrin addressed the Elemental as soon as it was fully formed and cognizant of the material world. Tarrin never ordered his Elementals, he always requested their help. He was ever aware of the fact that an Elemental Conjured by a Sorcerer was not forced to answer the call. If he infuriated his Elemental, it may not come when he truly needed it. So he was always careful to be polite and not seem overbearing. "There's a kajat stalking around out there, and I'd rather not get into a fight. Could you pick us up and move us to the southwest edge of this ruin?"

The Elemental agreed in a rather jovial manner, and Tarrin felt the Air Elemental move forward to envelop them. Tarrin hastily told Kedaira that they were going to be picked up off the ground and carried somewhere safe. He didn't have to worry about his children, for they had had contact with his Elementals before, and had even ridden along with the Air Elemental a few times. A strong wind blew over them, and then it swirled and converged around them, creating a small dusty vortex with them at its core. Kedaira hissed in surprise when the wind gently picked them up off the ground and up into the air, but the inu didn't panic, trusting in the word of a Druid. They were lifted over the buildings, and Tarrin got a good view of the ruins from above. The northern sections of the city were buried in sand, but not enough to hide the buildings that were still standing. Last time he was here, it was the southern sections of the city that were buried. A testament to the shifting nature of the desert. The city sat inside an interconnection between two very shallow and very wide valleys, forming a giant X when seen from high in the air, and the city filled its valley from one side to the other. The hills on either side were not large, gentle, sloping hills that had been eroded by the howling winds of the desert, marking the natural borders in which the city was contained. Those hills also allowed sand to pile up in the city, protected from being swept away by the winds. Those winds were why the vast majority of the sand in the desert was piled up on the eastern and southern reaches of it, the natural depositing zone for the storms that weakened as they raged across the desert. But some places, like the city, provided natural shelters from the wind, and as such were repositories for a great deal of sand, dust, and dirt.

For a moment, Tarrin forgot everything and just revelled in the sensation of flying. It was something he loved very much, a sense of freedom and liberty that couldn't quite be matched by anything one could feel on the ground. When he was in the air, no matter how he was doing it, he always felt a thrill and a feel of exhileration. Tarrin loved to fly, and though he was more than capable of doing it by any number of magical means, he almost never did. Even he didn't quite understand why, since he enjoyed it so much. Almost as if he wouldn't indulge in something for its own sake, wouldn't use his magic to fly unless he had a good reason to do so. Tarrin was like that, and he knew it. He didn't show off using his magic, or use it for no reason. Unless he could do something no other way, he almost never used magic. It was something he'd been trying, without much success, to teach Jasana. Jasana found her powers to be a bit too convenient for Tarrin's tastes.

"I love doing this!" Eron laughed, holding out his arms as if they were wings as the Elemental carried them higher up, so it could survey the land below and decide just where southwest was, and find a suitable place to set down its passengers.

"When can I conjure an Elemental, Papa?" Jasana asked plaintively.

"When I've decided that you're mature enough not to abuse them," he answered bluntly. "Elementals are not servants or pets, Jasana. They're sentient beings, and you have to treat them with respect. When you can prove to me that you're mature enough to handle the responsibility, I'll allow you to conjure your own."

There wasn't much she could say to that. Despite her incredible power, she was still a child, and she was positive that her father didn't think she was ready for an Elemental.

"Don't forget, you promised we could look for souvenirs!" Eron said as the Elemental got closer and closer to the edge of the city.

"I haven't forgotten," he assured him, then he addressed the Elemental. "Don't set us down too far from the city, old friend. Something on the edge will do just fine."

The Elemental assured him it had a good landing area in its sight, and it began to descend. Jasana and Eron both laughed when their stomachs seemed to rise up, but Kedaira hissed in surprise and started to writhe a bit. Tarrin concentrated on keeping the inu calm, but it wasn't easy. Despite the fact that she was a smart animal, she was still an animal, and she was dominated by her instincts. She was experiencing something she neither had instincts to help her nor memory to assure her, so it was understandable that she wouldn't find it to be very pleasurable.

The Elemental set them down on a wide avenue that ran right out to where the city wall had once stood, which had fallen down to form a ring of rubble that bordered the old city. Tarrin hadn't crossed a city wall when he entered the city from the west the first time he was here, but it was possible that there had not been a wall there when the city was abandoned. There were quite a few buildings still standing, more than enough for Jasana and Eron to have the opportunity to find something small that they could take home with them. Tarrin thanked the Elemental for its service and allowed it to return to the dimension in which it resided, then he spent a few minutes calming Kedaira down the rest of the way as his children all but jumped up and down waiting for the chance to find something. "In a minute," he told them as they clamored for the chance to explore, then he realized quite suddenly that he still had the axe in his paw. He'd meant to put it back where Eron had found it, but he'd forgotten when the kajat had started stalking in on them. He shrugged and sent it into the elsewhere; it was too far to go back, and besides, he could take it home and study it. He tested the air with his nose to make sure that there were no animals lurking nearby. There were some scents of umuni and the ever-present zubu, but they weren't very strong. It seemed safe enough...perhaps this section of the city had only been unearthed recently, and the desert wildlife hadn't had time to move in with great numbers.

"Alright, cubs, before we start looking around, I want you to understand what to do," he said, kneeling down so he could get closer to his children. "When we go into the buildings, I want you to stay away from the corners. You also can't put your paws into any small spaces, into jars or drawers or chests, or down inside holes. There are small lizards called siktu and little brown snakes called zassu and big spiders called zubu that love those places, and they're very poisonous. They may bite you."

"But I wouldn't hurt them!" Eron protested.

"They don't bite because they're angry, cub," Tarrin told him. "They bite because when you go and stick your paw in like that, you surprise them. A zubu or zassu won't bother you if it knows you're there. As long as you leave it alone, it will leave you alone. Siktu are another matter. If you see any small lizard, no matter what color it is, stay away from it. They're very aggressive. If you hear it hiss, or hear any hissing at all, and if you hear something that sounds like a rattle, step backwards quickly and pull your paws and tail away from the ground. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Papa," they said in unison, Jasana putting her paws behind her back demurely.

"If I find any, I'll show them to you so you can see them and know what they smell like. And they're not the only dangerous animals here, cubs. Treat absolutely every animal you find, even the smallest bug, like it was dangerous. Because it is. I don't think there's a single animal in the desert smaller than Kedaira that isn't poisonous."

After getting vigorous nods of understanding, and after Tarrin told Kedaira to wait for them, they chose a building and went inside. It had been filled with sand, and about a span of sand was still on the floor. The rooms were small enough as it was; a span of sand on top of it forced Tarrin to literally crawl around within the building. The sand covered everything but the tops of the furniture, which made finding anything require digging through the loose sand. The upstairs wasn't covered in sand, and there they fared much better. It looked that the building had been a residence, for the upstairs had what looked to be the stone frame of a bed in one room, whose mattress and covers had long decayed away to dust. The empty frame shared the floor with a single empty chest and a small stand, but there was nothing else in the room. Searches of the other two rooms yielded little more than dust and cobwebs, but the attic, which was so small that Tarrin was forced into cat form simply to gain entry, had two chests inside among piles of debris that were unrecognizable.

"Carefully, there may be some nasty surprises inside," Tarrin warned in the manner of the Cat as Jasana moved to open one of the chests.

"I don't smell anything that could be an animal, or a bug," Eron told her.

"I'll be careful, Papa," Jasana said in a sober kind of voice that seemed unusual for her. She often pretended to act like her grandmother, all grim and serious, but this was one of those rare instances when she really was being serious. Tarrin watched as her small paws--at least small to him--flipped open the two latches, and she slowly pulled the chest's lid up. It squealed loudly in protest, startling Eron a little, and the brass hinges broke when Jasana pushed the lid over and back down, toppling the chest lid to the floor behind it.

Inside was alot of sand. Tarrin wasn't sure how the sand had managed to get inside, but it had, somehow. Jasana was too cautious to user her paws to fish around in it, instead she set her will against the Weave and used a weave of Earth and Air to pull all the sand out of the chest. She did so slowly and carefully to prevent anything else that may have been in the chest from coming out with it, depositing it on the far side of the attic, well out of the way.

Under the sand were several items. One was a small pouch that looked to be made of some kind of very fine metal mail, as well as several small stone plaques of some kind that had duthak runes etched into them. there were several very small figurines of some kind made of metal laying loose in the bottom of the chest, tiny figures holding a variety of axes, hammers, and swords, all of them looking to have the same build and shape as the Dwarves he'd seen in paintings and tapestries. The little figurines were very, very detailed, even with what looked like individual hairs in the beards. There were a few small stone balls that looked to have been painted different colors, as well as the unfinished head of what looked to be an axe, like it was taken from the blacksmith before he had a chance to finish. There were several small rings made of some kind of gold-colored metal but weren't gold, for they didn't smell like gold. There were four weird looking sticks of ivory cut into long rectangular shapes, about as long as Tarrin's smallest finger, and they had duthak runes etched into them. There were different runes on each side. The last thing they found in it was something that they could all identify, two pairs of ivory dice, yellow from great age, with small dots etched into their faces.

"I wonder what these are," Eron mused, holding up one of the small stone plaques and looking at it.

"They're only engraved on one side," Jasana told him as she picked up the mail pouch and carefully opened it. She looked in, then snorted slightly and poured what looked to be small marbles into her palm. "I think we found a Dwarf child's toybox, father," she told him. "Dice, marbles, little balls, toy soldier men, they're all toys. These plaques and those little sticks have to have something to do with children too."

"I think you're right," he agreed as he put his front paws on the edge of the box and looked in. "Alright, each of you can have something out of this box."

"I want the soldiers!" Eron said immediately, reaching in to scoop them all up.

"Why not just take all of it?" Jasana asked.

"We're here to find souvenirs, not to loot, cub," Tarrin told her. "Taking one or two things is alright. Taking everything isn't."

"Why not?" Jasana asked. "There's nobody here, Papa. Who's going to care?"

"I am," he said, giving his cub a flinty look.

"Alright, alright," she said quickly. "If I can only have one thing, I'll take the bag of marbles."

"Conjure your brother a bag so he can carry his toy soldiers, then come back down. And don't touch anything else!" Tarrin ordered as he padded back towards the steep stairs leading back down to the second floor. Jasana's Druidic powers were untrained and raw, but she did know how to Conjure. He rarely allowed her to do so, and she respected that boundary. Jasana understood completely how dangerous her Druidic magic was, because her grandmother had scared the life out of her explaining what would happen to her if she made a mistake. Every once in a while Tarrin would allow her to perform a very minor Druidic spell, if only so she could gain more familiarity with those abilities. Conjuring a small pouch for Eron was within her allowed boundaries.

After they came back down, they left the sand-choked house and moved towards the edge of town, Jasana holding onto the mail bag full of marbles, and Eron had two of the small metal figurines out, one in each paw, studying them in wide-eyed interest with a large leather satchel much like the one Miranda carried around slung over his shoulder, obviously holding the rest of them. He had them put their new possessions away and got them moving, out towards the edge of town, but he was moving relatively slowly, and he paused often to let his children rest, staring into the haze before them as he felt Allia come closer and closer. That haze reminded Tarrin how hot it was in the desert, but all he had to do was look at his sweating son. Jasana was immune to heat the same as he was, leaving Eron to be the only one not all that comfortable in the desert's midday heat. But the boy was a Were-cat, and that meant that his system would adapt quickly to the heat, and his regenerative powers would protect him from any illness or injury caused by the heat or the sun. In two days, the heat would be little more than an annoyance to him. His skin was already starting to turn decidedly brown.

"Is it always this hot out here?" Eron asked, panting a little.

"In the summer, it's hotter," Tarrin told him in reply, motioning for them to stop and rest. Tarrin Conjured water into the waterskin he'd Conjured earlier and handed it to his son, who drained the thing in a matter of seconds.

"I wish heat didn't bother me like it doesn't you two," he complained, using the back of his paw to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

Tarrin smiled and Conjured a piece of cloth, then tied it around his son's head. His blond hair did well to reflect away the sun's heat, but it would do much better with something covering it over. "It's going to make me hotter," he complained as he pulled at the head covering.

"It'll keep the sun off your hair," he told him. "This isn't home with its wet heat, cub. Here, the sun is all the heat, and if you can keep the sun off you, you can keep cooler. That's why the Selani cover themselves all up in those baggy clothes. Here, the more you were, the cooler you stay."

"That doesn't sound like it makes much sense."

"The world doesn't make much sense, cub. Just live with it." He patted Eron on the shoulder, and then he glanced at Jasana, who was standing near the ruins of some old statue that had been sitting in the middle of the street. It had toppled over, blocking half of the wide avenue, and five thousand years of scouring wind had worn the features off of the remains. Tarrin could only just make out that the feet and some of the legs were still standing, and the rest of the vaguely humanoid figure was broken in several pieces laying across the street.

"I wonder what it looked like," Jasana mused as Tarrin left Eron another skin of water and approached her. Kedaira shuffled over and nuzzled him for water, and he gave her some water out of his own skin. The tips of Jasana's ears were at the same level as his mid-thighs; the fact that she was a child and he was so tall was never so apparent as it was when he stood beside her.

"We can find out," he told her as he knelt and touched the stone of the statue with his paw. "There's a Druidic spell that lets someone see what something originally looked like."

"I thought only Sorcerers can make Illusions."

"That's right. The image you see is within your own mind. I can make an Illusion of it so you can see." Tarrin reached within, through the Cat, and touched the endless, boundless power of the All. The All looked into his mind and saw his intent, sensed his will, and then it responded by sending power back through the connection, through his paw, and into the stone. Tarrin saw within his mind's eye how the statue looked when it was just made, and he in turn set his will against the Weave and spun out a spell of Illusion that resembled what the All was showing him. The Illusion manifested before him, but it was only the size of Jasana herself. It was a Dwarf, a rather stocky Dwarf wearing what looked to be leather smock, holding a hammer in one hand and a pair of heavy metal tongs in the other, the tongs gripping an axe head which were held against an anvil that was part of the statue's base.

"That doesn't make any sense," Jasana fussed.

"It's a blacksmith, cub," he told her in reply. "This statue is of a blacksmith making an axe."

"Why make a statue of a blacksmith?"

"Because Dwarves loved to make things," he answered. "From what I've read, they were builders and metalsmiths without equal when they were alive. Most of the metal objects that were made back before the Blood War were made by the Dwarves. I think this statue is a testament to one of the race's most renowned abilities."

"I thought they were famous for building things, Papa. Why not make a statue honoring that?"

"I'd guess that there was another statue around here somewhere that showed that, cub," he surmised. "Maybe several of them scattered around the city, all showing a different aspect of Dwarven life."

"It doesn't make much sense for them to build those things," she pressed, motioning towards the Illusion. "It's like they're bragging."

"All races think they're better than every other race, cub," Tarrin chuckled. "Even Were-cats."

"But we are better than other races," Jasana said pointedly.

Tarrin looked right into his daughter's eyes. "Cub, if you really believe that, then you have alot more to learn than I thought."

Tarrin walked away from his daughter, motioning for his cubs and the inu to follow. It seemed that Jasana had alot to learn. But the desert could be quite a teacher of things one needed to know. Tarrin had intimate knowledge of that.

It didn't take very long for them to reach the edge of the city, which formed a boundary of the fallen outer wall. Tarrin pondered shortly why there was a wall here but there hadn't been a wall where he had entered the city the first time he had been here. Maybe the city had grown past the wall on that side of town, and they hadn't had the chance to build a new one before the Blood War forced them to abandon the city. Tarrin helped his cubs and Kedaira climb up the debris, and when they reached the top, Tarrin saw two figures in the haze moving towards them. He'd had a lock on Allia the whole time, so he knew that it was her. The smaller figure beside her was Allyn, her husband, and to his surprise, Allyn was keeping pace with his wife as she ran across the desert. Tarrin felt a sudden happiness and lightness when he saw his sister. Though he talked to her every single day and saw her almost as often, it just didn't seem the same as being near her in person. Tarrin was a creature grounded in his senses, and unless a person registered to all his senses, sight and sound and smell and touch, they just didn't seem to actually be there. Seeing Allia through a projection was like talking to nothing more than a shadow, an illusion of Allia's true self.

Tarrin smiled as he shaded his eyes, remembering all at once that maybe he should have conjured up some visors for all of them. He'd seen Allyn many times when he projected out to see Allia, but it still amused him a little to see the Sha'Kar doing Selani things. Sha'Kar were not very physical people, dependent upon their magic, but Allyn had come to a place where using magic to do his work would be seen as dishonorable. The Selani only used magic when no other option was available. Allia had formidable powers in Sorcery, but she would rarely use them, adhering to her customs even when not in the desert. That was why few Sorcerers had ever seen Allia use Sorcery, and even fewer knew just how strong she was. Even Allia didn't realize how powerful she was, for she had been eclipsed by Tarrin and Keritanima the whole time she had been aware of her powers. True, compared to her two siblings, Allia's powers were very weak, but compared to other Sorcerers, her powers were comparable. Perhaps maybe even a little stronger. And with the training she had received from Dolanna, her siblings, and now Allyn, Tarrin didn't doubt that Allia was a formidable opponent in a magical battle.

"What is is, Papa?" Eron asked.

"Allia," he answered.

"Auntie Allia is here!" Eron said in glee, racing down the rubble's slope and then racing off in her general direction. Eron didn't realize that if he kept moving that way, he'd be some fifty spans to her left. But Allia changed direction to intercept Tarrin's impulsive cub.

"He's such a baby sometimes," Jasana fussed, crossing her arms.

"And you're better," Tarrin said calmly. "Since Eron's not here to hear it, I have something to tell you, cub."

"What is it, Papa?"

"While you're around the Selani, you will not use your Sorcery," he ordered. "Not unless your life depends on it. Do you understand me?"

"Why?" she demanded with sudden heat.

"The Selani see the indiscriminate use of magic to be dishonorable," he told her calmly. "While you are on Selani land, you will obey their rules. And the rule is no magic unless I specifically say you can, or you're in immediate, life-threatening danger."

"That's not fair!"

"Life isn't fair," Tarrin shrugged, then he put a deliberate gaze on her. "And you will obey me, cub. If I catch you using magic, you're going home. And while we're on the subject, you won't argue with me or backtalk me or fuss when I tell you to do something, Jasana. How you act is going to reflect on me. If you disobey me in front of the Selani, or if you cause a scene or argue with me, both me and Allia will be embarassed. Me because you're my child, and her because I'm her brother. And that's the last thing you want to have happen. Do you understand me?"

"But--"

"I said do you understand me?" Tarrin cut her off in a tone that would brook nothing other than immediate and uncontested submission.

Jasana knew better than to push when her father spoke like that. She was a cunning little sneak, but she was also intelligent, and she knew where the line was.

"Yes, Papa," she sighed in a defeated tone.

"Good. If you embarass me in front of Allia's tribe, you'll be regretting it for the next ten years. Remember that."

"I will."

"Good. Now let's go greet your aunt Allia."

Tarrin helped Kedaira clamber down the uneven slope, then they moved towards Allia as she picked up Eron and moved towards him. Tarrin felt the months slide away effortlessly every step he took towards his sister, like old times come again, until they were standing before one another. She reached her hands out and he took them, swallowing them up in his huge paws, and he took in her spicy, coppery scent as he gazed down into her eyes with a sober expression that conveyed more than words ever could. The bond between him and Allia was a powerful one, as they were entwined together with bonds of love and friendship and understanding that defied rational explanation. That single touch made it as if they had never been separated, and things were again as they were meant to be.

She smiled up at him and then embraced him, and he returned it warmly. "It's so good to see you!" she said happily, squeezing him.

"It's good to see you too. For real, anyway," he returned.

"And I see my little girl followed you here," she said with a smile, reaching down and picking up Jasana, who giggled when Allia hugged her. Kedaira stalked over and pushed at Allia for attention, and she laughed and put a hand on her inu's head fondly, stroking her scales.

"You're looking thin, Allyn," Tarrin noted as Jasana and Eron both started jabbering at Allia, competing for her attention.

"Desert life isn't easy," he chuckled. "You're looking well, Tarrin."

"As well as can be expected," he answered. "How was the run?"

"Not too bad," he replied. "We only came across one kajat. They've been getting pretty thick lately."

"They're migrating south, love," Allia answered. "The storms are fiercest to the north. That's why the northern clans move south."

Tarrin realized something. "Isn't Gathering next month?" he asked, trying to count off the months.

"Two months," she answered. "During the midwinter lull in the storm season."

"What are you saying, Papa?" Eron asked.

"You haven't taught them Selani?" Allia asked in a shocked voice.

"I've had some other things come up, Allia," he said a bit sheepishly. "With everything else they've had to learn, there just hasn't been time to teach them Selani."

"Tarrin! How are they going to meet my family?" she demanded.

"I'll cheat," he promised. "They're Were-cats, so I can use a spell Spyder taught me to implant the language in them. It won't hold long, but it should stick to them long enough to meet your clan."

"As long as they can understand what's going on while they're here, that's all that matters," Allia nodded.

"I see you didn't take long to learn Selani, Allyn," Tarrin noted.

"Allia taught me a spell that aids memory," he replied. "It let me learn it in about two rides."

"Allia taught you a spell?" Tarrin asked.

"We were cut off from the Goddess, Tarrin," he replied calmly. "Those Priest tricks the katzh-dashi use were denied to us, and since our parents couldn't use them either, they never taught them to us."

"Ah, I see," he nodded. "Have you heard from Auli or Iselde lately?"

"Iselde's at the Tower in Suld, and she's doing fine. Auli's about two steps from getting thrown out of the Tower in Sharadar," Allyn said with an amused smile. "I've been meaning to ask. Whatever happened to those two human girls you took from the island, Tarrin?"

"They're being trained by Druids," he answered. "I haven't seen them since leaving Sha'Kari, but my mother keeps me up to date on how they're doing."

Tarrin focused his attention on Allia, who was listening with gentle attentiveness as Eron showed off his leather pouch full of little metal figurines. "The whole bottom floor was filled with sand, but we found chests up in the attic that was so small Papa had to shapeshift to get inside. There were little balls and dice and marbles and all sorts of things in the chest!" he was relating to Allia in a fast, almost continuous stream of words. "Papa let me keep these little metal men. Aren't they neat? Jasana kept a little metal bag full of marbles, and Papa made us leave the rest of it behind. And we found a bunch of Dwarf skeletons and Papa took an axe I found from me cause he doesn't think I'm old enough to have something like that and--"

"We'll have plenty of time to catch up later, cub," Tarrin told him, cutting him off. "How far do we have to go, sister?"

"The camp was five days south, but they are moving this way," she answered in Sulasian. "We should reach them in three days."

"Why are they moving north?"

"We saw some good grazing while we were on the way, and I signalled them."

Allia was a Scout, one of the Selani that ranged far from the tribe in search of grazing and to keep an eye out for wandering predators. They were the eyes of the tribe, locating danger and searching out the food that their flocks of sukk needed to survive. All of them had that gift of keen eyesight; Allia could read a book from five hundred paces away. In fact, that was what made them Scouts. Var was also a Scout, and he too shared Allia's gift of incredible eyesight.

"Any trouble with Sandmen?"

She shook her head. "Allyn can drive them away with Sorcery. He taught me how to do it."

Tarrin looked to Allyn, who only shrugged. "It's rather simple, actually. I'll teach it to you tonight."

"I'll be interested to learn it," he said honestly.

"Can I learn too?" Jasana asked brightly.

"It would be an honor to teach you, little one," Allyn smiled.

"Do you want to camp here and await the dawn, or set out now?" Allia asked.

"I'm not going to waste half a day sitting around, sister," he answered. "I can take care of teaching the cubs Selani when we camp. It won't take very long."

"Very well then," she smiled, pushing her visor a bit more snugly onto her nose. "I think the cubs need some proper desert garb, brother. A visor, at the very least. We'll be running into the wind."

"I was meaning to take care of that," he nodded.

"Running? We have to run?" Jasana asked in surprise.

Tarrin looked at her. "Did you think I was going to carry you, girl?" he asked bluntly.

"Papa, your Elemental could--"

"That is not our way, young one," Allia told her pointedly. "Here, we do for ourselves, and in our desert, you will do as we do. Magic is a tool, not a crutch, and all tools have times when they are used and times when they are not. There is nothing wrong with your legs, so you will run."

"What are you all mad for, you big baby?" Eron taunted. "I think it'll be fun!"

Jasana glared death at Eron, but her brother just stuck his tongue out at her.

"It will be harder for Eron than it will for you, since you will not be affected by the heat," Allia told her with steady eyes.

Jasana looked pointedly annoyed, but said nothing. The stern warning Tarrin had laid down on her was probably still fresh in her mind.

"I think he needs a better shirt than that, brother," Allia said as she gave Eron a critical eye. "And that head cover will never do."

"I'll take care of it, sister," he assured her.

A few moments later, Eron was marvelling over his new clothes. He looked like a little Selani, with a loose-fitting shirt and head covering complete with a veil. His leather trousers were good enough without having to be replaced, so he did look a little unusual with his mismatched clothes. He fussed a little with the visor, complaining that it felt weird how it rested on the small ridges of bone where his human ears would have been, but it didn't dampen his excitement. Jasana had gone from annoyed to sullen as Tarrin handed her a Conjured visor, and she shoved it over her eyes aggressively. Tarrin could tell that this trip had already not gone at all to Jasana's satisfaction. Tarrin was sure it'd get worse for her before it was all over. Tarrin put his own visor over his eyes, and the bright desert sun's brilliance was soothingly dulled by it, as the world was cast over in shades of violet and purple.

"You know, I'm finally going to see how your people make these visors, Allia," Tarrin mused.

"You'll be disappointed, brother," Allia smiled as she tucked her veil in under the neck of her shirt. "Are you ready, little nephew?" she asked Eron in Sulasian.

"I'm ready!" he said excitedly, mimicking Allia's action of tucking in the veil under his shirt.

"Can they keep up, brother?" Allia asked in Selani.

"They should," he answered. "But are we in a hurry?"

"No, not at all," she answered as Kedaira started nipping at Allyn, but not in an aggressive manner.

"What's wrong with you, Kedaira?" Tarrin asked her.

"She does that all the time," Allyn answered as he stroked the inu's mottled scales. "Whenever she thinks we're ignoring her."

They started out moving to the southeast at a very leisurely pace by Allia's standards, little more than a jog. Tarrin could tell that she was going slow to see how well the children were going to be able to run, but she should have known better. They may have been children, but they were Were-cats, and that gave them an endurance that outmatched any Selani child. Their little legs couldn't let them go very fast, but their regenerative natures would allow them to run all day. They ran along the wide valley that eventually fed into the city of Mala Myrr, then up and down very gentle hills that were filled with the small, tough, springy scrub bushes on which the sukk and many other desert herbivores fed. The growth was relatively new, probably as the yearly cycle brought the ground water that was under the desert closer to the surface in this area. There was little water in the desert unless one knew where to look. The Selani had lived here for some five thousand years, and they knew exactly when and where the ground water was risen, high enough to where a pit dug in the ground would yield seepage. Their migration was as much following the water as it was finding the scrub for their herds, for the scrub grew where the water table was raised.

They moved freely and easily through the afternoon, as Jasana's face looked more and more sullen with every step she took. Allia would point out interesting things to the cubs as they passed them, such as what looked like a big rock but was actually a kajat balled up and waiting to ambush anything that got too close to it. She stopped once to show them an umuni, the large quadrapedal lizards that were both highly venemous and somewhat tasty to the Selani. She showed them a seed mouse and a snapper lizard, which fed off of desert insects, and when they stopped for a short rest and to give Kedaira water, about an hour before sunset, they found a zubu sitting on a rock watching a marcher centipede, which was in turn trying to sneak up on a scrub locust that was eating a leaf from a scrub bush that had fallen to the sandy ground.

"I didn't know there were so many animals here!" Eron said in wonder as they watched the locust jump away, but the centipede, so intent on the locust, did not see the zubu until the large spider jumped from its rock. It tried to scramble away, but the spider landed right on it and delivered its fatal bite before the centipede could get clear.

"Our lands are not a barren wasteland, nephew," Allia told him with a smile. "In the desert, there are many, many things, but nothing here is obvious or apparent. In this place, everything has a secret."

"I thought those spiders were slow," Jasana said.

"They move slowly most of the time, but they are capable of short bursts of speed," Allia told her. "They also jump on prey, as you just saw."

"Are they poisonous?"

"My dear niece, almost everything in the desert is poisonous," Allia chuckled. "It is a good rule to consider anything smaller than an inu to have either a poisonous bite, sting, or claws."

"At least it's not so hot now," Eron sighed as he put his wrapped head cover back on.

Tarrin looked towards the setting sun, and realized that it was a little cooler. The wind was blowing a little more strongly now, and it had a dusty smell to it. That meant that there was a sandstorm coming. Allia looked as well, shading her eyes and standing stone still for a moment. "The air is cooler because there is a sandstorm coming," she told him.

"How long?" Tarrin asked.

"About an hour," she replied in Selani. "It's a pretty strong one. We'll need to find shelter."

"We passed a notch in a spire right back there," he said, looking back the way they came, to a solitary rock spire that was visible some two or three longspans behind them. "It might have a cave in it."

"Or we can make a cave," Allyn added. "I think the rock spire is our best option, love."

"What are you saying, Papa?" Eron asked curiously.

"There's a sandstorm coming, cub," Tarrin told him. "We're deciding the best place to go to wait it out."

"What are sandstorms like?"

"In about an hour, you're going to find out for yourself," he answered his son absently.

"What's going to happen to all the animals?" Eron asked.

"They'll be safe, cub," Tarrin told him. "They've been through them before. They know what to do."

"Don't they know it's coming?"

"They know, but they also know they have time before they have to seek shelter," Allia answered for him. "We should move, brother. If we have to do any digging, it is best if we have plenty of time for it."

They returned to the solitary rock spire, reddish-brown in color and about fifty spans tall. It was a very narrow one, and a single paw on it told Tarrin that it would be much too brittle and delicate to attempt to dig a cave into it. There was a depression on its southwest side, and though it wasn't enough to provide cover from a sandstorm, it would serve as an anchor point for the four Sorcerers to do something with it. Tarrin did the honors, weaving a powerful Ward that would keep out sand and dust, and would also prevent fast-moving air from penetrating it. Tarrin was rather proud of his creation, for it would allow air to pass through it, but only air that wasn't a powerful wind. In that way, Wards were one of the most versatile things a Sorcerer could make, for what they could stop was sheerly up to the Sorcerer that made it. Tarrin had set it so that it would last for nearly three days.

Protection against the sandstorm was only half of what they needed. Allia pulled her pack off and started digging a shallow firepit, her firebuilding materials within her pack. If they would be held immobile by the sandstorm through the rest of the day, they would need the fire to repel the dangerous Sandmen that roamed the desert at night. No Scout left their camp without a pack full of the dried dung and wiry branches of scrub brush that served as fuel for the fire. The dung burned fast, usually just long enough to ignite the slow-burning, hard to ignite scrub wood. Tarrin told the cubs to help her, and they lined the shallow pit with stones they found in the area.

Things stopped quickly when Eron returned holding what looked like a small branch in his paw. "Look what I found under a rock!" he announced happily, holding up his prize. Tarrin looked at it, and his heart seized momentarily when he realized that Eron was holding a sandsnake, probably the most poisonous and lethal animal in the desert. They had the most deadly venom of all, but they were actually rather mild-tempered creatures, not prone to biting without considerable provocation. Eron's picking up of the snake had not been enough to irritate it, and it wrapped itself around Eron's arm quite sedately.

"Cub, what did I tell you about putting your paw under rocks!" Tarrin snapped at him.

"Cub, do not squeeze that snake," Allia said with deceptive calm. "Do not let go of it either. Give it no reason to get angry. Brother, talk to it."

"I'll take care of it," Tarrin said with a glare at his son.

"What?" Eron asked innocently.

"That is a sandsnake, cubling," Allia told him in a calm yet careful voice. "There is nothing in the desert more lethal."

"Really?" Eron asked, not in fear, but in curiosity. He held up the little yellow snake, the color of sand, his eyes curious. The snake looked back at him calmly, its tongue flicking out to taste the air. "It didn't hiss at me or anything, and it let me pick it up. I thought it was being friendly."

"Sandsnakes are very mild-natured, Eron," Allia told him. "They will not bite unless you step on them."

Tarrin knelt by his cub and centered himself for the task of speaking to an animal. "I'm going to take you from the small one," he told the snake. "I'm not trying to hurt you. Do you understand?"

It looked at him lazily, and Tarrin knew that to be a signal of comprehension. It uncoiled itself from Eron's arm, and Tarrin collected up the snake with careful gentleness. Eron still showed no fear of the animal, his eyes intensely curious as Tarrin took the snake and held it in a very gentle paw. The snake wrapped its small body around Tarrin's wrist, or at least it tried, for its body wasn't long enough to wrap itself completely around.

"Wow, it's just like the diamond head snakes at home. It'll let you hold it and everything."

"Eron, do you have any idea how dangerous it is to handle those things?" Tarrin asked waspishly as he turned and took a few steps towards the rock spire, which formed an anchoring wall for the Ward. "I'm going to set you down, little one," Tarrin told the snake. "Do you have any preference about where you'd like to be put?"

Tarrin hadn't used the Druid spell to allow him to understand the snake, but he understood well enough when he put his paw down, but the snake didn't uncoil itself. Tarrin moved his paw close to a large rock, and then the snake uncoiled itself and slithered off his paw. It disappeared under the rock quickly, and Tarrin realized that it was within the Ward. But that wasn't too much of a danger, for the animal was not an aggressive one. "I'll keep the young ones from bothering you," he told the snake.

Tarrin's glare at his son was enough to make him flinch. "You try my patience, cub," he warned. "I told you not to bother the animals here. They're all very dangerous. Do you want to go home?"

"Actually, Papa, you told us not to get within the length of our tails to any animals or insects," Jasana said clinically. "Since Eron didn't know it was there, it wasn't his fault."

Tarrin fixed an ugly stare at Jasana, who averted her eyes. "I can do without you playing the lawyer, cub," he told her in a dangerous tone.

"Oh, Papa, it wasn't going to hurt me," Eron told his father dismissively.

"And how do you know that?" Tarrin asked.

"Because it didn't smell like it."

Tarrin was aware that Eron's sense of smell was considered acute, even among Were-cats. That meant that to a human, his sense of smell would be beyond rational concepts. "That's no excuse, cub," Tarrin growled. "You don't know these animals, so you can't trust your nose."

"But--"

"Do you want to argue with me, cub?" Tarrin asked in a dangerous tone.

"Uh, no," Eron said submissively, averting his eyes.

"Wise," Allyn murmured under his breath.

"I think you should have Kedaira keep an eye on them, brother," Allia told him in Selani. "She'd be a good nursemaid."

"I think you're right," he answered, glancing at the inu, which was hunkered down near the firepit. "I'll have a talk with her. She can keep the cubs out of trouble."

The sandstorm gathered on the western horizon as they continued setting camp,and it looked to be a big one. It hit just at sunset, and Eron and Jasana were amazed and a little frightened by its power. They could see the sand and dust, and even small stones, being driven before a howling wind, a wind so loud that it made all their ears hurt until Tarrin adjusted the Ward to muffle the deafening sound. The fury of the desert awed the two children, to the point where all they could do was sit by the fire and stare at the raging sandstorm just on the other side of Tarrin's Ward.

"Wow, these happen all the time?" Eron asked in wonder as a particularly big rock struck the Ward.

"This is a strong one, but yes, storms like this happen frequently, cubling," Allia answered him.

"How do the plants and animals keep from getting swept away?" Jasana asked.

"The plants have very deep roots," she replied. "And the animals know to take shelter. The small ones hide under rocks. Animals like sukk and chisa and inu and draka take shelter behind rock spires or large boulders, and some animals are so large that they can't be picked up by the wind, like kajat and kusuk."

Tarrin had never seen a kusuk before, but he'd heard descriptions of them. They were monstrous armored animals, the size of kajat, that looked like gigantic armadillos, with tough armored hides and knobs of heavy bone growing at the end of a surprisingly long tail, which the animal wielded like a club to defend itself. They were indiginous to the southeastern tracts of the desert, the section of the desert Tarrin had never visited. They also had draka down there, another animal he'd never seen, which was supposedly a large ant-like insectoid creature about the size of a pony which had been tamed by the southern clans to use as sentries.

"How long will it last?" Jasana asked.

"We will know when it is over, cubling," Allia replied. "It is extremely hard to predict." She looked to Tarrin. "I think this is a good time to start their education. I tire of having to speak to family using such a rude tongue."

"You're insulting my native language, sister," Tarrin smiled.

"Some things require insult," she said with a sly smile in reply.

"I've been wondering something, Tarrin," Allyn mused as Tarrin beckoned for his children to come to hi with a paw. "Allia said you're good at languages. Just how many do you speak?"

Tarrin sat down by the fire. "I dunno," he replied, starting to count them on his fingers. "Seven," he said.

"Seven?" Allyn asked in surprise. "And you're only twenty?"

"It's a knack," he shrugged. "Besides, I used magic to learn two of them, so they really don't count."

"Which ones?" he asked curiously.

"Wikuni and Sharadi," he replied.

"How did you learn the others?"

"Why are you so curious?"

"I don't mean to pry," Allyn said quickly. "It's just that it's not exactly normal for someone so young to have such a broad array of language skills."

"Well," he said, mollified a bit by Allyn's explanation, "I learned Sulasian and Ungardt while I was growing up. Karn taught me Arakite when I filled in at his forge when his apprentice broke his arm. Allia taught me Selani while I was at the Tower, and we all learned Sha'Kar together while we were there. Dolanna taught me Sharadi, and Keritanima and Miranda taught me Wikuni."

"You learned a language while working in a blacksmith's forge?" Allyn asked. "How long did it take?"

"A few months," he shrugged.

"A few months? It took me a year to learn Sulasian!"

"My brother has something of a gift concerning language, my heart," Allia told him. "It is proof that he is not as dumb as he looks."

"I love you too, Allia," Tarrin drawled dryly, which made her laugh.

It didn't take long to handle the language barrier with the cubs. Tarrin had several options available to him, since they were both Were-cats and that meant that he could use Mind weaves on them, but Triana's Druidic spell was much more appropriate in this situation. They wouldn't like its effects very much, but the Druidic approach was to transplant the entirety of the language in one shot and very quickly, where it would take time with Sorcery. And it would be much more seated in their minds if he used the Druidic approach. Tarrin could only implant a language he knew and they would have the same command of the language as he did, but luckily for them, Tarrin's grasp of Selani was as profound as it was for Allia, who had taught him. But while he had the opportunity, he realized that this would be a good opportunity to teach them another language that they may need to function around some of his friends and acquaintances, Sha'Kar. He wasn't worried about teaching them more than one language at once, for he knew that the spell would allow it. It would just make the dizziness which was a side effect of the spell last longer. He performed it on Eron first, warning him that the spell would leave him dizzy for a while afterward, then having his son lay down by the fire while he repeated it with Jasana.

While the cubs were recovering, Tarrin Conjured something for them all to eat, a large rack of venison, which was cut into strips and set to roasting over the small fire in short order. "How many languages do your children speak?" Allyn asked.

"Three now," he answered. "I just taught them Selani and Sha'Kar. Nobody in our house speaks anything other than Sulasian most of the time, though Kimmie is going out of her way to teach her daughters Torian."

"Are you learning it?"

"Not officially," he answered. "I've overheard most of her instruction, though. It's not all that different from Sulasian. I've been working on Dwarven lately, so I haven't really had time to have Kimmie teach me. Besides, if I really wanted to learn it, I'd learn it from her the same way I taught Selani and Sha'Kar to the cubs."

"You're learning Dwarven?" Allyn asked curiously. "It's a dead language. Who can possibly teach it to you?"

"I haven't been really learning it," he replied. "I've been trying to learn it. I haven't had much luck finding the right books. But I forgot about the Book of Ages," he admitted. "When I get back home, I'll ask Jenna if I can borrow it. It'll have the Dwarven language in it, the same as it had Sha'Kar."

"Why Dwarven? Why not a language you may need, like Amazon?"

Tarrin smiled slightly. They all kept that particular appointment firmly in mind. "I'm curious about the Dwarves, Allyn," he answered. "The best way to learn more about them is to learn their language, so I can read what they left behind. It also gives me something of a window into the way the Dwarves think, because language isn't much more than an organized way of thinking."

"My parents had a book about Dwarves in our library somewhere," Allyn mused. "And I think Ianelle knows some of it. She used to study ancient history."

"Ianelle is ancient history," Tarrin chuckled. "She's, what, fifteen hundred years old?"

"About that," Allyn agreed. "If you count the thousand years she was trapped on Sha'Kari."

Jasana tried to sit up, but she swayed dangerously before flopping back down. "Why won't the gound stop spinning around?" she complained.

"It's going to last a while, cub," Tarrin told her patiently. "You're dizzy because your mind is trying to organize all the information I put in it. It's going to be a couple of hours."

"Maybe we should have fed them before you did that," Allia noted.

"It won't make them sick to their stomachs," he told her calmly. "We'll have to bring the food to them, but they'll be alright."

"Can they understand Selani now?" Allia asked.

"They should."

"Good," she said in Selani. "I don't understand how your people ever manage to communicate with each other, Tarrin. Sulasian is such an ugly and restricting language."

"You don't understand the soul of it, sister," Tarrin smiled. "Languages are the mindset of the races that created them. If you understand the people, you understand their language a little better, because to be truly fluent in a language, you have to be able to think in it, and that means you're thinking like the people who speak it."

"I never thought of it that way," Allyn said with respect in his eyes.

"Allia has trouble with Sulasian because she doesn't like to think like anything other than a Selani," Tarrin said with a smile. "You can't really do that if you want to express yourself in another language."

"I am what the Holy Mother made of me, brother," Allia laughed. "To be anything other than Selani would be impossible for me."

"Dolanna has similar trouble," Tarrin told Allyn. "She's so wrapped up in her Sharadi mindset that she has trouble expressing herself in Sulasian."

"She speaks Sha'Kar easily enough."

"She speaks formal Sha'Kar easily enough," Tarrin pointed out. "Think about it, Allyn. Have you ever heard her speak in informal or low Sha'Kar?"

Allyn's eyes raised as he thought about it. "Now that you mention it, no," he admitted. "I've heard her speak semi-formal Sha'Kar, but even in the house back in Sha'Kari, she always spoke in one of the formal forms."

"Sharadi is an extremely rigid language," Tarrin told him. "It's an ancient language, but unlike most others, it has very few shortcuts or contractions, so even when used in the most informal way, it still sounds very formal. She has no trouble speaking formally in other languages, but she can't easily express herself informally. That's why she always sounds so stiff when she speaks any language. The concept of formality in language is too deeply ingrained in her."

"It almost feels like we're gossiping about our friends," Allia laughed. "Maybe we should stop."

"I need to feed the cubs, or they're going to be a little surly," Tarrin said, looking towards his children. "You're awfully quiet over there, Eron," he called. "You alright?"

"I'm just waiting for the world to slow down, Papa," he answered. "I feel like I'm sitting on a top."

"That's a pretty fair description of it," Tarrin chuckled as he got up.

After feeding the cubs, they both decided to simply sleep out the night. Tarrin, Allia, and Allyn sat around the fire and simply talked, as he heard about their journey to Mala Myrr, then he told them about what happened while he was taking care of Kedaira. The inu raised her head and looked at them every time one of them spoke her name, but she eventually settled down and got some sleep, hunkered down between the two Were-cat children.

After that, Tarrin listened as Allia told him all about her family for about the fiftienth time. Her father was named Kallan, and he was tall as a walking cactus, thin as brambleweed stems, and as tough as stone. He was the paramount Selani and the ultimate clan chief, chief of the entire clan rather than just the tribe, stern, unbending, and authoratative, yet also fair and benevolent in his rule. Her mother, Kaila, was a very tall and graceful woman, a Scout like Allia, but a bad run-in with a pack of inu had left her with one eye, a missing left hand, and a stiff right leg. Despite that, she was still a vibrant, active woman, and though she couldn't Scout anymore, she more than made up for that by becoming a weaver, weaving the tough plant fiber the Selani used into the rugged cloth that made their clothes. She had no brothers or sisters, but her aunt lived with them, a woman named Dulai, who was very young and already widowed. She had a son, who was now nine years old, a tall boy named Zakra who showed considerable promise at being a blacksmith or craftsman. Allia told him that next Gathering, they were going to look into having the boy apprenticed to a smith. Allia's clan had two smiths, but neither were experienced enough yet to be good teachers. They were good smiths, but Selani only apprenticed to masters, and neither had achieved that status as of yet. Zakra was just at the age where apprenticing was done, if the child was going to enter into a trade.

Every three months, they journeyed to the permanent settlement the clan possessed--every clan had one permanent village--which was a very small place of about twenty buildings nestled inside a narrow gorge along the eastern edge of the Sandshield. The village was where all the things were done that the clan needed to do but could not while moving, such as growing what scant vegetables they ate or the fiber for their clothes, and where their smiths, fletchers, and craftsmen plied their trades. While there, Kallan dealt with the business of the clan, settling disputes, surveying herds of sukk, chisa, goats, and draka, and addressing any needs that individual tribes may have. During those small clan gatherings, tribes exchanged needed goods, marriages were performed, the ceremony of branding was performed, apprentices were taken, and information was passed through the clan. They also discussed events dealing with other clans. Clans never openly fought one another, but there were some pretty strong rivalries between the clans, and border raids where livestock and other goods were stolen were not uncommon. Stealing was an accepted thing among the Selani under certain circumstances, so long as one wasn't caught. If a raiding party was discovered or captured, the initiating clan lost honor. Like in all things, the Selani competed among themselves in almost all things. The border raids were little more than yet another way the clans competed between themselves. If such a raid was successful, but it left the victim tribe in dire straits, the clan that perpetrated the theft would often return what was taken. The object wasn't keeping the goods, it was the act of theft itself. The goods were merely a convenient way to keep score.

Tarrin listened to Allia go on and on about her tribe and her friends, most of them about her age, his eyes lost in the flickering flames of the fire. Again he felt that strange sensation, that little twinge, and it seemed to rise and fall with the flames themselves, as if the sensation was tied to the movement of the flames. He was too distracted listening to Allia describe her best friend in the tribe to pay it much attention, another female Scout named Suilla, whom she had met only since returning to the clan from their journeys. Suilla was from another clan, having married into it, and she and Allia had taken an immediate liking to one another.

Once again, something distracted him away from that sensation, and by the time Allia was done, he forgot completely about it.