Chapter 8/ little kitten

Salma

Salma

Chapter Eight   Little Kitten

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The following day the road began to climb, yet remained straight and smooth. It veered neither to the left nor right, but ran due west. As they walked, the Bog was left behind in stages. Slowly, the vegetation began to change. It grew thicker with reeds and began to fill in with several different types of grasses, many more varieties than what grew in the deeper Bog. The moss, algae, and slime-covered water gave way to the tufts of grass. The clusters began to grow together into what appeared to be wet fields. Those, in turn, began to lift up and form hills which honestly offered dry ground out of the marsh. Small bushes and shiny green vines began to grow on the hills and along the road bank. Small twisted trees had begun to grow here and there on the hills, but the smell of the Bog was still thick and hung on them.

Reluctantly, Dave led them off the road. Their new destination, in the North Orc Mountains, lay to the northwest through the foothills. As good as it felt to be among trees again, the travel through them was difficult hiking due to uneven ground. They all had blisters and bites on their feet, making it even harder to walk. Despite all that, their moods began to lighten, boosted by the fresher air and the lack of biting bugs.

As they climbed, it grew overcast, the weather cooling as they went higher up. They had to put their cloaks back on. It was cold; After the heat of the Bog, they were not ready for the cooler air.

Dave explained that it was the arctic current that made the north coast so cold. He reminded them that it was only the end of September and winter had not even set in at Awens from where they had set sail. The last of the fields on the hills of Awens were just now finishing the harvest and the festivals would start soon.

They stopped on a hill that rose slightly higher than the others, with a few scattered boulders about the top and a lone tree that grew out of them. Dave chose a rock as a seat and sank down without even looking to Shannon for permission, immediately pulling his boots off. It took no time for the others to do the same. Shannon watched a moment and then walked away, leaving them to their battered feet.

Riven pulled up his pant leg to look at his wound as discretely as he could. The bite was clearly visible with a blistering burn that spread out from it. Veins of black snaked away in the lines where the poison had run. A massive bruise had grown up around his entire leg and was spreading down to his ankle and foot. The whole thing ached, but didn’t hurt nearly as much as he might have expected by the look of it.

Riven pulled his pant leg down to focus on his foot, which was blistered open and bleeding. The integrity of the skin on his foot seemed to be utterly compromised. He didn’t know what magic Shannon had used to save him, but whatever it was, something in Riven’s body and his magics was having side effects. He tried not to think about it… to just pretend that it was as normal as all the others’ battered and blistered feet from the bugs and the long damp hike.

He had hoped no one had seen, but Kelly did. He saw her look away and back to her own feet, not saying a word. He wanted to argue with her: at least he was alive. Still, he had seen such effect marks before, and while he couldn’t think where at the moment, it made him feel a little sick.

They let their feet dry before they limped on, leaving the last of the Bog behind for the healthy-feeling and cleaner air of the forest, growing ever denser about them. Shannon paused at the rear to look back at the last of the Bog and whatever magics lingered in the great marsh.

“Nasty place,” Ivan said, joining him. “What made it, do you think?”

“A battle,” Shannon said.

“But we are clear of it now, right?” Ivan asked, both concerned and hopeful.

“Warps from battles are limited to a warp-storm. The power builds and creates a ball of energy that warps all within it. Those sorts of warps have edges and we have passed out of this one. There is also the warp of just too much unbalanced work of too many magi, and that is what most of the lands within the Barrier suffer. We will pass in and out of battle sites and in those places, it will be worse again.” Shannon turned his back on the Bog and moved to follow the others.

With the last hint of the Bog out of the air, but still lingering on them, their path met a deep stream. Kelly and Tavia exchanged one look, then dropped their packs and headed downstream at a fast pace. It only took Ivan a moment longer. He grinned at Dave and then they both raced to shed their clothes, jumping into the cold mountain water. Oirion was slower, but followed. Riven darted down to the water as he shed it all, jumping in with as large a splash as he could. Despite his horrid looking leg, he was all too eager to get the filth off.

“You’re a regular little rug there, Riven,” Ivan laughed at the hairy little dwarf.

“It’s cold in Castava in the winter,” River said shrugging, not flinching in the cold water. The water is always cold in Castava, he thought, smiling to himself while the other men cringed and shivered.

“It’s cold in Ezeer, too, but I’m not that hairy. I thought I was, but I guess not.” The big man chuckled and scrubbed at his massive hairy chest briskly.

“You coming in, Shannon?” Dave asked. “It’s not that cold. I’ve been in a lot colder than this.”

“So have I, David, but no, I think not.” He turned to go.

“You got some sort of scar you want to hide from us,” Ivan asked, “some identifying tats?”

“Something like that,” Shannon said. Dave was surprised that he was still here to answer the question, and even more surprised by the fact that he had.

“You know, where I come from, a scar is a mark of distinction. Look, I have a number of my own.” With great pride, Ivan showed off a white scar that ran across his chest.

“Very nice, Ivan, but it’s not quite like that.”

“Did you get chopped off then?” Ivan asked with a stricken look, trying to think what could be so personal as to hide.

Shannon was already walking away and didn’t answer.

“Coming in?” Dave asked Theo, trying to get them all to relax again and enjoy the water.

“It’s cold,” Theo said, standing on the side of the bank. “I don’t like pain.”

“It’s not that cold,” Oirion said honestly, “and besides, to be clean is well worth it. I’ve been in the mud so long, I hardly remember how it feels to be clean.”

Theo stood a moment longer on the bank before he went in still wearing his clothes. He felt a little too self-conscious to go without. Bathing next to a man like Ivan would make him seem even smaller. He didn’t want them to think of him as a little boy. It wasn’t his fault that he was so small; it happened a lot in royal families due to the inter-marriages. There was really nothing he could do about it.

The others didn’t even seem to notice. They didn’t care; everyone just wanted to get clean. Oirion was right… getting clean was well worth the chill. Ivan, of course, couldn’t leave well enough alone and started a water fight with Dave. The two men both proved themselves to be great swimmers in their game, dragging the others into it as well. It was hours of play before they all finally got their clothes scrubbed and began to crawl out. They were all blue-lipped with chattering teeth, but smiling and refreshed when they emerged.

Just up the hill, Shannon had set up camp. He had a fire going for them; on it was a kettle of water for tea and a pot of thick stew. The aroma was incredible. Shannon had used new types of fresh herbs and roots that he found around the campsite. The camp was ready for them, but he wasn’t there.

They pulled on their cleanest clothes to get dressed and took the time to attempt to tame their hair. With the tent up and the ponies taken care of, they all set to washing out the rest of their clothes. Tavia took over the cooking. The food was almost ready and Theo went off to look for Shannon. He hiked upstream, thinking that as long as he was out here, maybe he would catch some fish. He needed to get away for awhile.

It was beautiful here, he decided. The ground was covered in a glossy shrub with dark green needles and small blooming flowers. Tiny strawberries grew everywhere, and birds were singing a farewell to autumn and a welcome to the gathering evening. He wasn’t really thinking about anything when he approached a small pond. It had a waterfall at one end and large moss-covered boulders that surrounded the clean deep water

The sun had gone down, but a blue twilight made a gentle light. Theo nearly jumped when he saw Shannon. The man was swimming silently through the water, back to the rocks where his clothes were neatly folded.

“The food is ready,” he said, thankful that his voice didn’t crack. It still did that every once in awhile. He should have outgrown that by now, but he was cursed to always seem younger and weaker than he was and his voice cracking didn’t help at all.

“I’ll be there shortly,” Shannon said. Theo was really very curious as to what sort of scar Shannon had, but he wasn’t about to spy on the man. He turned and headed back to camp.

As he walked, he thought about home and the heated pool that he had learned to swim in. His parents would have been hysterical about him learning such a mundane skill, had they known, but a handful of gold will get just about anyone to do anything you wanted. Having an old guard teach him how to swim was a good investment, he thought.

Shannon joined him in his walk, startling him a little.

“You always so quiet?” Theo asked.

“Always,” Shannon said.

“Why do you talk so quietly?” Theo asked, curious as to what answer Shannon would give.

“When I grew up, it was very rude to raise your voice around any sort of nobility and it was almost forbidden around the Imperial household. They were all expected to be soft-spoken. If you never raise your voice, then everyone has to stop and listen to hear what you are saying. It is just a habit, an old mannerism that I have that has outlived its source.”

“Well, I know what a Whisper is and why it’s used, but why do you? It’s no longer done. The Armond house isn’t around to be respected by it,” Theo sighed. “You’re really old, aren’t you?”

“Fairly so.”

“You don’t look old.”

“I am a wizard.”

“Oirion thinks you’re a Dark Wizard.”

“I know.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“It does not do much for our getting along.”

“Why don’t you prove him wrong?”

“Because it is far too complex for that.”

“He’s wrong though, right? You’re here because you want to help us be safe, not for some other evil reason.”

“I am here to keep you safe. No dark mysteries there.”

“I bet you can be pretty terrifying if you want to, though, can’t you.”

“I can be about anything I want to be,” Shannon said, and then looked over for a moment as if he was going to say more, but didn’t.

The food was just getting ready as they returned. They all ate together with no arguing for the first time in a long time. Ivan set to telling stories of the ports of the south, of the black-skinned desert traders, and the warriors of the Ta‘Zan Empire.

“Have you ever met the Ta’Zan?” Ivan asked Dave.

Dave looked up from cleaning the leather on the handle of his dagger.

“Not personally. I’ve seen their ships though.”

“Are they as wild as Ivan says?” Riven asked.

“They do hang the skulls of their enemies off the rails of their ships,” Dave said. “The Captain has dealt with them, but was never eager to.”

“What’s their history?” Riven asked Shannon. “You know them?”

“The Ta’Zan are the descendants of the slaves that served the Elite of Goddess Razz. They learned what they had to in order to revolt and stay free. They were forced to choose a very hard way of life and to hold on to it. Like the Razzan, they are a demon cult with very hard rules.”

Kelly shifted as if she was going to speak, but set to studying her boots instead.

“What?” Ivan asked her. “Just say it. You have traveled enough to add to that. Is Shannon wrong?”

She looked up to her fellow warrior.

“I would argue that the Razzan are not a demon cult. Razz is a true Goddess; good or bad, she is real and not a demon.” She looked slowly to Shannon, not eager to get in a debate, but not backing down, either.

“I do not deny Razz as real. That is not what I said. I said her people were a demon cult. Does not the priesthood build its power on demons, demons that She binds to her Chosen?”

Kelly pressed her lips, almost as if she was arguing with herself to keep this up.

“Razz gives many powers to her Chosen. It doesn’t mean that a priest could summon any demon like a necromancer. To call the Razzan a cult is also unfair.”

“The Razzan Empire is as shattered as Purt,” Shannon said, almost sadly. “Those who claim the power of the past have no idea how pathetic they are in the shadow of their fathers. I do not like Razz. She is no demon, but she is not worthy of worship, either.”

Kelly shifted. They could all see in her that she knew a great deal about the topic, but as usual, she chose not to talk. She just shook her head and looked back to the fire.

“You don’t argue with that?” Dave asked with a troubled look, “or… you don’t argue it with Shannon.”

Kelly looked to the younger man.

“Razz is a powerful Goddess. If she chose to, she could take on the powers of Purt.”

Oirion squirmed in his seat, but kept silent with a look from Riven. Riven was watching, fascinated, and didn’t want Oirion to interrupt yet.

“That’s beside the point,” Dave said. “Do you not think Her worthy of worship?”

Kelly rubbed at her great tattooed arm, looking at Dave.

“The priesthood of Razz is shattered. She shattered her own, letting the blood of millions stain the deserts and fill the rivers. She chose to punish only one, her high priestess, at the cost of Her whole people. Shannon is right; Razzan is as shattered as Purt. Its power is lost. It’s a mere shadow of what it was and what it was no longer matters.” She looked to Shannon, “but to call it a demon cult is as true as to say the Church of Purt is a cult of astral worshipers. His Church might be,” she pointed at Oirion, “but yours is not. Would you argue that?”

“Fair enough,” Shannon said simply.

“Mine is no such thing! …and how can you all sit there and talk of such things as Razz?” Oirion demanded, unable to hold back any longer. “There is only one God. Anything else are just spirits of the others realms. I do not think it even a worthy topic as to argue such things.”

“No other gods?” Ivan asked, a bit annoyed at Oirions attitude. “Oirion, you amaze me at times.”

“Ezeer no longer clings to the superstitions of the past,” Oirion said. “The cathedrals of the Church rise on the hills.”

Ivan leaned forward on his knee. “Ezeer bowed to Gerome for the pleasure and fears of one old man.” His voice had lost all its jovial lightness and dropped lower than he had yet spoken. “Do not think that the Ezeeren people happily skipped off to the temple of your god. They were driven to knee by the sword and the blood of their children. Two things might happen when a man is forced to watch as his children are butchered. Either he gets very angry and learns to hate, or he is broken and has no fight left.”

“Purt doesn’t force its faith on people.”

“You’re so naive.” Ivan shook his head and let it go, brushing his emotions and his tone of voice away. “It is of no matter, my friend. Ezeer kneels before Gerome now and how it happened was before you were born. It is the past.” He reached to pour more tea. “Tell me, Shannon,” Ivan glanced up at him, “have you ever been to Ezeer? Have you walked the Highlands or seen the great herds migrate across the silt flats?”

“Yes, Ivan, I have,” Shannon answered.

“Have you ever heard the drums and flutes? Seen the sparks dance above the solstice fires? Have you had the stars spin above you and the sky open up?”

“Yes, I have,” Shannon said.

“Do you think they still dance?”

“Not in Dacan, Ivan.”

“For a man who has such love for his home, Ivan, you sure do choose to live as far from it as I can imagine,” Tavia said.

Ivan ran a hand over his stubbled head. “It’s a matter you wouldn’t understand, woman. What of you? I suppose you find yourself far from your little farmstead. Your first trip abroad?”

“Think what you wish, Ivan,” she said, smoothing her son’s hair.

“Shannon…” Riven started to ask, having several religious questions on his mind, but the Purtan was already gone. He sighed and leaned back in the grass. “It’s good to not smell the mud,” he said, “and oh, to lie back on solid ground.”

The camp grew quiet as they all began to unwind. They let their bodies rest and recover from the long trip through the Bog.

Shannon left the camp and the talk of the others. He followed their trail back to the old road and stood there for a moment before settling himself. He opened a sliver in his shielding, just enough to let in the flavor of the local energy and effectively hide his own. Carefully, he scanned back the way they had come.

Despite the attacks, the weather, and the inhospitality of the Bog, they were still being followed, just more cautiously. There were more than a dozen trying to track them through the mud, likely with the same fervor that Oirion had for hunting vampires.

With even more caution, he touched on a raw nerve inside himself. Before he even let the energy touch him, he knew that Gerome was indeed here. He was circling around to the south of the Bog.

It had been years since the last attack Gerome had made on him. This time was a bit more direct than the normal style and clearly had a lot of power behind it. Shannon didn’t know what new power Gerome had acquired to set up such a move, but something had to have changed. Never had Shannon had any doubt that Gerome was both resourceful and cunning.

Carefully, he shifted his shields back into place. He had to be very careful so as to not alert Gerome or the demons to his presence. It was bad enough to get the random attacks, but if the powers that sought him had a link to him, he would be in very real danger. They already had enough to make it an unfair attack, so with great care and risk did he ever shift his shields.

Shannon closed his eyes and bowed his head. Only strong mental discipline kept him calm after even the lightest touch of Gerome. He refused to think about it, any of it, but considered how best to shake their followers. Turning, he made his way back over the trail as he always did. Carefully, he absorbed the energy residue of the company and hid their tracks.

***********

The sun rose gradually up over the mountains in the east, giving them a long morning. Riven woke slowly, refreshed. He savored the feeling. With a stretch, he sat up and looked around. The others were all sleeping still, all except Shannon. He sat on a nearby log, reading.

Where had Shannon gotten a book? Riven had seen him with it a few times already, but where had he gotten it? As he got up, Riven’s mind went through all the things he had seen in the packs, and books weren’t any part of it.

As he thought back about packs and the baron, other thoughts came up as well. A chill began to replace his ease. Shannon looked up, either hearing the movement or feeling Riven’s shift in mood. Strengthening his will, the dwarf got up and walked over.

“Where’d you get the book?” he asked, squatting down in Dwarven style.

“The Baron’s library.”

“Is it any good? I could use a good book to distract myself.”

Shannon closed the book and handed it over. “I’ve read it before. It might not distract you, but it might prove to keep you interested in its contents. Just don’t let Oirion see you with it. He would have a heart attack.” Shannon got up to go check on the ponies.

Riven looked at the book in his hands. It was encased in old, worn red leather. The lock on it was gold-hinged and so powerfully spelled that Riven had no doubt that he couldn’t just open it. He grunted.

“Thanks, Shannon,” he said, holding up the book. “I’ll be sure to get on it right away.” He got the distinct feeling that he was being laughed at as Shannon turned and looked back at him. “Show off,” he muttered in Dwarven through his teeth.

To Riven’s surprise, Shannon actually smiled despite himself and gave Riven a little nod with a hint of humor in his eyes. Riven was sure it wasn’t a thing normally expressed or seen.

Riven couldn’t resist the challenge, though, so he took a seat with the book, trying to think of some way to open it. Basic lock magics were part of being a priest of the Sixth Kingdom, but this was far from basic. He got comfortable and let the others wake up in their own time.

The moods in camp were improved; Oirion opted to cook breakfast and there wasn’t a single harsh word spoken by anyone all morning. The Bog was behind them and the air was clean. Dave had found a route that should take them to a city. Anywhere that people had settled and built a city had to be livable, and they could decide what to do once they were comfortable in an inn with a bath, bed and meal. They seemed to be nearing the end of their journey and the idea cheered them further.

Dave was hopeful of the outcome and it showed. He led them north through the mountains. They talked as they walked today. Ivan told stories about the gladiators of Dacan, his friends, and not about the seedier adventures, for once. Everyone listened and enjoyed the stories this day.

Dave was a little surprised when Shannon moved up to walk beside him, but then Dave wanted to talk to the man anyway.

“Did you look at the place that I found?”

“I did.”

“Will it work?”

“Quite well, I think.”

“Are you sure we looked at the same place?”

“Yes, I followed your trail.”

“Are you really my uncle?” Dave asked suddenly. The question had always been there, but he had not planned to ask it. It had just popped out. With this new group of people and what seemed like a whole new set of rules, Dave felt he needed to know.

“Cousin.”

“We’re related? For real?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“My father had an older sister and she had a son, a son who entertained a small indiscretion. You are down that line. It is more fitting to be an uncle at this point.”

“How many generations?”

“My cousin, his son, your father.”

“That’s only three. How many years are we talking?”

Shannon smiled. “A few,” he said.

“So, what’s my real last name? I doubt Sailor is the name of your family.”

“I’ll tell you one day.”

“Today is good.”

Shannon looked over and actually smiled at Dave’s interest. “Let us just say that it is a name you have heard before.”

“So, you’re pretty old, huh.”

“That is relative. To you, I am really quite old. To others whom I recall, I am not so impressively old.”

“Why do you put up with Oirion?” Dave asked, curious about that as well.

“I have put up with worse.”

“But he’s always poking, trying to get you mad.”

“I know. I find it rather amazing at how good he is at it. Most things that men use to anger each other really mean nothing to me, but Oirion has a skill for saying just the right thing to get to me. You do not need to tell him that, though,” he added. “But you put up with it.” Dave tried not to smile. To hear his uncle so relaxed and reveal that he did have a sense of humor was very nice. “I mean, I’ve seen you throw men overboard for talking too loud.”

Shannon was quiet for several minutes, thinking. “I suppose it is because he reminds me a lot of a man I used to know. He is not that bad of a person; he just does not know better. Oirion is overly pious. He has to believe fully, without question, or not at all. If he did not have his faith, he would drown. It is easier to tolerate him when you understand that. We will see if I can pry his fingers off the pontiff’s cloak yet, but I worry for him if I do.”

“I think Tavia could,” Dave said with a little sly smile.

“Perhaps.”

It was truly amazing talking to Shannon and now it wasn’t the same as when he was little. He was a man now and treated that way. Shannon was so quiet, it was hard to think that he had a sense of humor, but the more that Dave overcame his fears, the more he was convinced that under the hard exterior, there was a man who was anything but cold. He had wondered how his father could be so pleased to have their uncle on board, but now he was beginning to see. Shannon could be a friend if you got past the shields.

Shannon and Dave were in front, headed vaguely north, picking an easy trail through the forest. They entered an area that the map called the “North Orc Mountains.” They could see the peaks soaring up before them through the trees. It felt like their destination was in sight.

Shannon suddenly veered off and picked up his pace. Dave paused and then followed.

“Shannon! Dave! Where the hell you going?” Ivan called to them, then moved to catch up with them, leaving the others to follow or not.

In a clearing, not too far off their path was the most incredible woman Dave had ever seen. She was hanging from her ankle by a wire cable and was clothed in only a leather vest and shorts. The shorts barely went to her legs at all, and her vest was a low “V” neck that was belted around the waist. Her clothes did not speak of modesty but of a desire to accent her lovely endowments. More remarkable was that the woman was red-brown. Her entire body was covered in silky fine hair, like a shorthaired cat.

The long hair on her head was slightly more golden, but close to the same shade as her body and she had the most incredible green eyes he had ever seen. Not even elves had eyes that bright. Those eyes stared at them, unblinking.

Shannon walked over to her in his normal calm, graceful way. She hissed and swiped at him. Claws flashed in the evening sunlight that slanted down through the trees. She showed her sharp canines and flattened back her pointed little ears.

Her motion made her start to bleed from a wound in her side. The amount of blood she had already lost was an indication that she was in a great deal of pain, as well as likely to be fairly weak.

Shannon could taste her pain in the air like a sweet candy that was just touching his lips; sweet, but not all that potent. He tasted his lips discreetly as she snarled at him.

“What is she?” Kelly asked fascinated.

“She’s a sexy little thing, isn’t she?” Ivan chuckled to Oirion, elbowing him a little.

“What is your freedom worth?” Shannon asked her. He knew about her race. The memories that he had received from the orc woman had given him a lot, most of which would shift its way up as he needed it – like something that one knows but has forgotten for the moment. He knew what a Sphinx was worth and what they were hunted for, either to be love slaves or sacrifices.

“What’s your throat worth?” she snapped back, her words quite clear. She used a spell that removed whatever accent she might have had. Shannon and the others in the group who understood the difficulty of such a spell were impressed. She swung with all of her might and swiped at him. He caught her arm, but not before her claw pricked his lip.

“That is no way to earn my friendship, little kitten,” he said softly. He tasted his own blood and saw the little woman shiver as she smelled the sheer power of what she had freed with the prick of her claw. Her race was almost like vampires, but they didn’t have the Must or the addiction-like desire to feed on blood. Just to taste and feel the power within it was all they wanted, not to consume and command. It was part of the creature that she was; at least she would be appreciative of his blood’s worth. He pulled her close to his face so that she could get a good sense of how powerful he was.

“I don’t make friends of demons,” she hissed.

“I’m flattered,” he said flatly. “You could join us. All you have to do is help us move through the country and then you are free to go.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“Because if I leave you here, you are headed to a stone slab, and we both know it.”

“We’re trustworthy, lady,” Oirion said. “You’re welcome to join us.” He stepped forward, trying to show Shannon the workings of diplomacy and a gentle voice. The cat woman was not at all impressed by him.

“You serve him?” she demanded.

“No,” Oirion said firmly, “absolutely not.”

“Actually,” Tavia said, arching her eyebrow, “he and Shannon do nothing but argue. It’s like having a couple of little boys along.”

“Cut her down, Shannon,” Riven said. “She’s not going anywhere with her side like that.”

Shannon reached up with a tiny spell that snapped the wire cord and she dropped into his arms. He didn’t want her to hit the ground and cause more pain energy to be released into the air. That would just make it harder for him. She wasn’t that much of a temptation. She was more of an irritation, like a naked woman walking around would be for Oirion: attention getting, but nothing that was going to make him do anything except get irritated. For any vampire less mastered than himself, she would be a different matter, but he was far beyond fulfilling such little whims. Neither women nor pleasure-feeding were anything he allowed himself to even crave.

She shuddered in his grip out of the nearness to his bleeding lip and the pain in her side.

“You hurt me and I swear to all the gods that I’ll get a taste of you before I die. Demon or not, you ooze power,” she hissed, almost breathless.

He neither smiled nor acknowledged her comment in any way and simply set her on her feet. Tavia was already digging in her pack and came out with the little med-kit. Oirion had to catch her from falling.

They all had something to eat while Tavia cleaned and bandaged the arrow hole in the woman’s side. It was an old injury and already on the mend. It had just been torn open when she got snared. Travis walked over to her and watched his mother for a moment, then stood beside the cat woman, petting her arm comfortingly. She looked up and smiled at the boy.

Riven watched carefully, feeling a dangerous protectiveness for little Travis. He didn’t trust that look. Who knows what a half-cat might do to a little child like that?

“What’s your name?” Tavia asked.

“Salma.”

“I’m Tavia, and that’s my son Travis.”

“Ladies, we need to keep moving. Whoever set this trap isn’t going to be happy to find it empty,” Ivan said sweetly. Tavia grit her teeth and almost spat back a reply, but she knew that Ivan was doing it just to get her to do that very thing.

Salma smiled and glanced over at Ivan. He was leisurely reclined on the ground, in no hurry at all. A man that size could wrestle an orc and not be too worried; a mere human out hunting was nothing to worry that massive hulk of flesh. She understood the whole thing at once.

“Black,” Salma said, as Tavia helped her to her feet. She jerked her vest smooth.  “It suits you,” she said to Shannon, and then headed off to the North, not even looking back to see if the others followed. She was slowed only by her side and the limp caused by the injury to her ankle from the wire.

“There’s a Wooders’ camp up ahead,” Salma told them as she led the way. She fell back a few paces to walk beside Shannon. “Who’s going to claim me? You?” She rubbed up against him teasingly. “Could you handle that?”

He looked down at her tolerantly. She was in pain and Shannon felt it, but still, it was not enough to be a real temptation. After Riven, he doubted that much of anything was going to seem so difficult to turn down.

Shannon eventually took the lead. He had felt the existence of living people up ahead several miles back. Salma fell in beside Kelly, who now carried Travis. The boy had fallen asleep in the big woman’s arms, draped over her shoulder.

“What’s wrong with him?” Salma asked Kelly, nodding forward toward Shannon. “He one of those that only likes men?”

“No,” Dave said from in front of them, looking back at her. “He just has high standards. He’s a sort of a… a holy man.” Dave tried to explain it. “It’s religious,” he said simply to her baffled look.

“So, it’s a challenge then,” she offered. “Fine, I like challenges.”

Dave just shook his head. Shannon might not have any appreciation of the little woman, but Dave sure did. He wondered if Riven did as well. They were almost the same height; that must be intriguing for the dwarf. It seemed a shame to Dave that she wasted her attention on Shannon. He wasn’t going to be tempted by her and Dave knew it. He sighed and picked up his pace to walk with Ivan.

The man was big and not the brightest fellow in the world, but Dave suspected that a lot of his ways were learned behaviors – learned from a group of men who fought and killed each other for entertainment. He almost felt that Ivan was learning to actually think. It must be painful for a man that old to, only now, learn to use his head. But the man told amusing stories. It was certainly better than listening to women gossip. Even, at times, Shannon seemed to listen.

***********

The Wooders’ camp was about ten miles farther up into the mountains and was made up of about fifteen tents around a large fire. There was a deer turning on a spit over the flames and rowdy Wooders running everywhere. Near the fire, all the older men sat around watching the younger women work. At the same time, the older women stood back and laughed at the men.

The group was welcomed to the fire, escorted over by a throng of children who were nearly naked, even in the dusk of night and the coolness of the mountain air.

The clothes that were worn here were bright and covered in wild embroidery that seemed to reflect the mentality of these self-reliant people.

The leader of this group was a man in his early forties, maybe. He was solid, with a wild beard and rumpled but heavily embroidered clothes. He sat at the fire on a heap of hides, with a wooden mug in his hand and a grin on his face. He looked at the group, appraising them, and then motioned them to sit.

“Even the women,” he said. “Well, which of you is the head of this little group?”

“I am,” Dave said quickly. He didn’t want the Wooders to think they were unorganized. He had been born among pirates and could spot one from a mile away. He could tell immediately that this man was going to think and move as one. Dave knew that the lack of a single leader was a sign for the other crews to attack and plunder. Dave wasn’t about to let the group get plundered just because Shannon and Oirion couldn’t agree on anything.

“Well now. You look young, but maybe you’ve got the balls of a man.” The man’s accent was strange, but Dave had picked up an ability that allowed him to emulate accents of the rest of the world and he began to assume it at once.

“You look old, but maybe you can still rise to the occasion,” Dave returned in the same tone and manner. The man laughed, his eyes lit up. Dave had just proved himself in the leader’s eyes to at least be worthy of a moment’s time.

“Tell me, you have much to trade?” the old Wooder asked eagerly, leaning forward and motioning to the men around the fire to go and get something. Several of the younger men left quickly to obey.

“Some,” Dave said, “if the price is right.”

“Aye. What say ye for them ponies o’ yours. It’s been quite a time since I had good, sweet horsemeat to eat. I got sabets to trade if ye need pack animals.”

“I’d have to see your sabets, neighbor. And such inspection has to wait until the sun.”

“Aye. Maybe you’re smarter than ye look.” He leaned back with a chuckle and looked them over again.

Dave smiled slightly at the remark. It was going well. This is what he was trained for… dealing with men like this. It was what he grew up doing. He actually relaxed and almost felt at home.

“I do have some weapons I’d part with for a bit of good, storable food,” he said.

“What of her?” the Wooder nodded to Tavia. Tavia gave a startled look and pulled Travis tighter. Oirion put a hand on her knee protectively. He was about to speak, but Riven gave him a withering look.

“No,” Dave said. “Sorry, she’s married.”

“To?”

Dave nodded to Oirion.

“You willing to sell her?” the man asked Oirion, his eyes still on Tavia.

“Absolutely not!” Oirion said, a little more fiercely than even he expected. Ivan chuckled a little and got a furiously cold look from Oirion. It made Riven have to try not to laugh, as well.

“The cat yours?” he asked Shannon. “You two don’t look like part o’ this group.”

“She is mine,” Shannon said in his soft voice.

“You willin’ to part with her.”

“I am, but you cannot afford her.”

“I can’t? I’m a wealthy man.”

“She is a skilled cat,” Shannon said calmly.

“What can she do?”

“I talk for starters,” Salma said arrogantly, “and I dance, I sing, I can hunt better than any of your men and I can do any craft your women can do. Not only that, I can make any man moan like a bull while I watch his eyes roll back in his head.”

“How much then for a dance?” the man asked.

“Horses,” she said.

“I don’t have horses.”

“No dance then,” she said. “I’m tired of walking.” She slid into Shannon’s lap, neatly settling into his crossed legs. She stretched out suggestively, reached up and ran her claws along Shannon’s jaw. She began to purr softly. The Wooder got instantly upset, scrambled to his feet and stalked away. She looked up at Shannon, amused.

“You owe me,” she whispered. The young men returned with wooden mugs filled with white fermented, sweet milk.

Shannon looked down at her, not pleased to have her in his lap getting her blood on his clothes.

She smiled slyly, caught his hand and slid it around to cover her side.

“Maybe I’ll own you,” she said, straining and stretching her body to look up at him.

“Maybe,” he said, displaying an unconcerned expression for the cat-woman as he took the mug from the young man. “Or, maybe I’ll sell you the moment you begin to bore me,” he added.

The man returned with a somber expression on his face, but a glint in his eyes.

“Alright. My men have enough horses for you all, but we want a good dance… one that will send us all to our wives tonight.” He said it challengingly and yet he was eager to see it.

She looked up at Shannon again and smiled sweetly.

“If the horses aren’t good enough, we will be taking some of your women as well,” Shannon said.

The man hesitated. “We’ll see after she dances.”

Salma laughed and got to her feet. “When’s the last time you ached a little, Shannon?” she asked as she smoothed her fur.

Men from all around the camp began to gather, men of all ages, some with no facial hair, others with no teeth. There were only fifteen tents to be seen, but the sheer number that gathered told of a far larger camp than was visible in the open. Musicians quickly assembled near the fire, pulling out several drums, a collection of pipes, and several little six-stringed contraptions that looked like a cross between a guitar and a violin.

They started with the drums – a slow steady beat that Salma began to move to slowly. The drums began to pick up speed and the other instruments began to join in one by one. Dave had seen exotic dancers before, but this was by far the most awesome thing he’d ever seen.

“I didn’t think the spine could do that,” Theo whispered appreciably to Dave.

“Maybe it’s her race,” he mused, no less impressed.

“Oh, man,” Theo said, as she seemed to perform for Shannon alone, half standing over him, dancing erotically, “that’s not fair!”

The dance didn’t stop there, despite her wound. She moved to each of the men of the camp. The music played for what seemed like hours, with cheering and howling each time she moved to another man. She even went so far as to actually force the leader back, her foot on his chest. Her wound seemed almost to mend itself as she danced and when all thought she was done, she circled back around and did something that no one expected. She danced for Tavia. Tavia surprised them all… she got up and joined Salma. Oirion’s face went white. He got up briskly and bolted from the area. Riven raised an eyebrow. Shannon watched after the fleeing Oirion.

“What’s that for?” Dave asked his uncle of the smile Shannon had revealed, as Dave attempted to not show how much he was affected by the dance, but to be cool as his father would have been.

“Poor Oirion. I do believe he has just been stricken with an impure thought. How un-priestly of him.” Shannon actually smiled a true smile and was a different man. Dave would not have even recognized him. Thoughts of the woman vanished for a moment at the shift in his uncle. Dave realized that he had never even seen Shannon’s teeth or a real smile from him. He had to shake an uneasy feeling and look back to the dancers.

The dance ended back in Shannon’s lap. The men roared; many left at once. The leader was wide-eyed and a brilliant shade of red in the face.

“What do you think?” she purred at Shannon, an intoxicating musk rising off of her. The racial musk was half the reason why a Sphinx was so attractive. She was quite literally intoxicating. “What about how well Tavia danced? I didn’t know human women could move so well.”

“Some do rather well,” Ivan said, looking over at Tavia, his eyes sparkling with whatever thought he had on the matter.

“Oirion didn’t like it, apparently,” Salma said, stretching and then sinking back into Shannon’s lap.

“Oh no, dear,” Theo said, quite amused and flushed, but enjoying it all a great deal. “He liked it far more than he was supposed to. He’s a priest; he’s not supposed to think things like that.”

“He must have an odd religion.”

“Some aspects of it are a little severe,” Ivan agreed.

“I’ll have to try and convert him. In my faith, a holy man is obligated to have children with as many women as he can in order to pass on his blessedness and his powers. It’s selfish to deny the race your genetic strengths,” she added.

“He is rather attached to his rules,” Shannon warned.

“But I was more interested in your reaction,” she purred for him.

“Very nice,” he said plainly.

She sighed, almost disappointed. “Tell me, Shannon, are you a holy man that I can have fun converting?”

He looked down at her with a raised eyebrow. She sighed and got up.

“So, you won’t mind if I go favor a few of the younger men here?”

“No.” He couldn’t have cared less what she did with her body. With a growling grumble, she spun and stalked away. She strutted toward the group of young men who were sitting at the fire, drooling, with their wide eyes glued to her.

Tavia shook her head and sighed, then gathered up her sleeping son and headed to find a place to sleep.

Shannon was awake still even after all the noise had died down and the camp had settle in for sleep. He was working on his shields, running his mind through the exercises that he hadn’t needed in over a century, but they helped now. The orc woman, the priests, and now the Sphinx; he felt he needed some quiet time to recover.

Salma entered the tent. She was silent, but he could feel her presence and taste the blood on her side. She moved around and slipped into his lap, ducking under his arms. She took his hand and pressed it to her side.

“It hurts,” she breathed. He was well aware of that. Her pain was far more tempting than her blood or her dancing. He could have the combination of them all, he knew. “Not even a little tempted?” she asked in his ear.

“You are trying to provoke something that you really do not want to see.” He blew her hair out of his face, almost annoyed.

“Afraid you’ll lose control?”

“Call it religious convictions,” he said, setting her aside. “Go wash and get dressed.”

She considered a moment, then got up and walked to the doorway. She paused, looked at him and then went out. She didn’t come back that night.

Shannon began to relax slowly and to get his shields reworked so that the tears in it were truly mended, not just held together. What energy he had gained from the dark wizard in the village had been lost in the Bog, but he had drawn off the lust of the men in the camp and was finally able to disregard every little whisper of blood and pain around him. Gently, he had been sifting power to himself since they had arrived.

The priests had faded back into a subtle glow of awareness. He might actually be able to get some rest. He considered slipping down into a trance, the only way to not use up energy. Wakefulness used it and dreaming used it, and sleep never went without dreams. His dreams were never good ones and had cost the world a great deal, so he didn’t sleep anymore; he couldn’t afford it.  In this company he tried to fake it, but at most he was in trance or other times just lying awake with his eyes closed.

The tent flap opened a little.

“You awake?” Tavia asked from outside.

“Yes,” he said, not moving at all. She opened the flap and knelt in the door.

“I don’t mean to bother you, Shannon, but I got my hands on some fruit and I thought you might like some. Plus it’ll hide me from the young men of the camp.”

“You may come in, but you do not need to bribe me.”

“I’d give you the fruit even if you didn’t let me in,” she said, and then crawled in, taking a place on the blanketed floor. It was a small tent, but it was far enough from camp that the music wasn’t quite so loud and sleep might actually happen. She pulled out several different fruits and her dagger.

She cut the largest first and offered him half as she set the pit aside. He took the red fruit and smelled it, not only for the smell as food, but for the energy element of it. It was rather like cherries, only dryer and with a far deeper power to it. The fruit offered strength to the heart and lungs: a very good fruit. He ate it slowly, absorbing as much as he could. He received energy far quicker through the mouth than through the energy-burning demands of a quickly eaten meal.

“It’s not a fine wine, but cheers.” She lifted her half in a toast before she took a small taste of it.

“Not bad,” she decided as she finished off her piece of fruit. She cut the others in slices and set them in the little wooden bowl she had carried them in. She was busy cutting and deciding which ones to peel while he carefully ate the piece she had given him.

“Can I ask a question and you don’t have to answer if you don’t like, but I’m curious.” She looked up. “How old are you?”

“Old.”

“Travis really likes you. I’ve not seen many men so comfortable with him. They never know what to do with a child. You seem very natural. I wanted to say thank you for that and for saving his life, however many times you’ve done that… the times I know about and the ones I don’t.”

“You are welcome,” he said, barely audible.

She didn’t say much else, just shared her gift and then lay down beside him, closing her eyes and falling asleep very quickly.

Shannon watched a moment, then slowed his energy and shifted down into a trance.

***********

The horses were all fit and healthy, strong and well-trained. They were ugly as sin and had oversized heads, but they were horses and would speed up the trip. The gathered company thanked the men who had given them up and then looked at the sabets. The sabets were large carnivorous birds, about five feet tall at the back, but they were all too jumpy for Dave’s likes. They looked like freakish big ducks with hooked beaks and big black eyes. Riven was fascinated by them, but the rest of the group was either not impressed or scared of them. To make things even more uneasy, they were scared of Shannon, so he didn’t get too close.

They left the birds and moved out, heading northwest again. They had traveled most of the day before they stopped for a break to rest the horses and to eat a little something. They planned to use the full moon to keep going that night.

“You’re insane, you know that,” Salma said suddenly to Oirion.

“What?” He looked up at her, utterly at a loss.

“Well, you’re shouting your thoughts. If you don’t want me to hear them, shield up.”

“I wasn’t even thinking anything,” he said

“Yes, you were. You were thinking that I was a Blood.”

“I was not,” he said defensively.

She snorted.

“You know about Bloods?” Riven asked.

“Don’t you know anything? Bloods hunt Sphinxes; we’re very sweet. Yes, all sphinxes study the art to understand our hunters… not to use it,” she added, speaking directly at Oirion.

“What would it do to a Blood to have his hand up to the side of a bleeding Sphinx?” Riven asked curiously. She looked over at the dwarf and considered her reply before she gave it.

“If I were to bleed in front of a Blood, he’d go mad. He’d either be my slave, or I’d be his. It would be like trying to hold your hand over a burning candle. The impulse to pull your hand away is the same as the impulse that an adept Blood would have to taste a sphinx as noble as myself.”

“Could a Blood resist such an impulse?” Riven asked.

“No, not very likely,” she said confidently, but scowled. She had tasted Shannon’s Blood scent on the air, and yet….

“What about a Blood having the blood of a wizard priest on his hand. What would it take for him to resist that?” Riven pressed, leaning forward, his face as intent as his tone.

“That is impossible,” she said with certainty. “I don’t think a man has that sort of willpower. Why would he? If a Blood could handle the power of you, or him for instance,” she nodded at Oirion, “and not get burned up, he would be god-like. A Blood could have unlimited power as long as he was sipping on you. He could take on hell itself… but refuse it? God, no. No Blood could refuse the temptation of the Golden powers of a priest.”

“It’s totally impossible?” Riven asked to be sure.

“It’s about as likely as the Pontiff being the one who is hunting us for his own mad pleasure,” Shannon said from the far side of the clearing where he looked eastward out of camp. Riven looked to Shannon, a little startled, his face going slightly pale. That was almost a self-admittance. Riven shifted a little nervously. He needed to talk to Shannon, and soon, but here and now was not the time, and it was getting late. He had so many questions, but the longer he took to ask, the more they seemed impossible. The Sphinx had said that the idea of Shannon being any sort of Blood was insane, but then Shannon had to add to it. He looked at the man as if to tell him to just be quiet and not make him think anymore. Shannon met his eyes a moment. As if surprised at the look that Riven gave him, Shannon, for the first time, was the one who looked away.

Riven swallowed hard. That look, at least, said that Shannon knew who was hunting him. It didn’t say who Shannon was or why the Church was doing this. Riven was troubled but tried to push it away. He would deal with it all later.

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