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Something was tickling my nose, and it interrupted the dream in which I was chasing a stag, getting ever closer, right at the point where I was about to leap upon him and sink my fangs into that mighty throat. I could already taste the hot, spicy blood, but that tickling was becoming increasingly insistent. The stag escaped, and I felt myself slowing down, a pale light entering through half-open eyelids, my limbs still twitching, not yet free of the dream. All at once, I awoke, and sprang to my feet, landing on all fours beside the bush whose branches had been rubbing against my muzzle.
I looked around me, wildly, hackles rising and a low snarl in my voice as I realized that somehow I’d wandered into a village of Men and fallen asleep under a bush. A fatal folly had there been anyone there to notice, but as it happens, the only Men anywhere within sight were unmoving—carrion, my nose told me. I looked around again, the growl dying in my throat, and was abruptly sure that I was alone. Nonetheless, my hackles remained up, for there was something disturbing about my situation.
I looked back at the bush I’d lain beneath, anger rising in me. I’d almost had that stag! Stretching my muscles, I only then became aware of the pressure in my bladder, and with a wolfish grin, I suddenly understood how I could gain my revenge on that bush. That done, and feeling somewhat less annoyed about having been woken, I stepped daintily around the puddle beneath the bush, slowly sinking into the earth, and tiptoed over to the nearest corpse, ready at any instant to take to my heels and flee for the fields I could smell just beyond the houses that surrounded me. The corpse had a faintly familiar smell, even in death, and I drew closer, prodding it with my nose as I wondered.
It was an old Man, and one that had been maimed at some time in the past, for it had only a single arm. Had I taken that arm in some fight long ago? But no—the ghost of a memory told me I'd never hunted Men, though there'd always been the temptation to see whether that soft flesh would taste as sweet as the scent suggested. But I’d not lived as long as I had by taking foolish chances. I knew well that these soft creatures that lacked fangs or claws with which to defend themselves had other weapons of defense. I was tempted for a moment to sample this one, for I had no objection to eating carrion if there were nothing better available, but the remembered taste of stag’s blood was still on my tongue, and fresh meat was always tastier. Besides, it wasn't clear what had killed the Man, for there was no sign of violence. Could it have been age? No, probably some Man’s disease. I stepped hastily away from the corpse, wrinkling my muzzle.
Just over there, beyond the heaps of stone that rose about me, the cleaner scent of the fields beckoned, promising living prey with none of the taint of Man upon it, and I gave in to that urging, leaving the corpses and hard stone walls behind me.
Some time later, having dined on one of the thick, curly-pelted animals that Men raised as their own prey, I lay with my head on my paws, watching the rest of the herd clustering nervously as far from me as they could and scenting the wind and reading the news it brought me. I'd been terrified at the notion of stealing into the closed-in meadow where the Men confined these creatures, but some time spent surveying the area reassured me, contradicting what common sense told me: the Men had left this area. Even as a wolf, it had been no challenge at all to spring over the wood and stone barriers, for after all, they’d been placed there to confine herbivores, not to keep out such as I. And though the chase had been disappointingly brief, the prey had been tastier than I’d imagined.
A shift of the wind brought me to sudden alertness, for it bore a tantalizingly faint, half-remembered scent to my nostrils, a scent that awoke a different kind of hunger in me. The image of a human face danced in my mind’s eye, awaking uncomfortable emotions, but it was the wolf in me that ruled, and that wolf had different priorities. I rose to my feet, drinking deeply of the wind, and my hackles rose as I recognized the scent of a great hunting cat—but also something else. Part of me reacted with instinctive hatred, the age-old feud between canine and feline bringing a silent snarl to my lips, but another part rose in me, and the snarl eased from my face. I felt myself flowing, changing, and as I did the world changed around me. In a moment, it was the snarl of a hunting cat that sent the herd into a frenzy of motion at the far end of the field.
But I’d already dined, and it was that wind that held my attention now, bringing the familiar scent to me more strongly now, and there was none of the wolf left in me to protest, and precious little of the Man. I felt a delicious shiver along my spine as I read the message of that scent, and without a second thought, I sprang across the barrier that separated me from that scent, roaring my anticipation and a promise in the direction of the forest, hardly noticing as my claws sink deep into the soft ground beyond the barrier and my legs carried me headlong towards the woodlands that beckoned.
I could not run for long, for unlike the wolf, I was no distance runner. It was just as well, for the scent had awakened memories in my head, and I recalled well how the females of my kind were wary, and had to be stalked. It wouldn't do to become her prey before we’d completed our negotiations, and as I entered the woods, I slowed almost to a halt, tasting the air about me.
It had been some time since she’d been here, perhaps hours, but it was clear where she’d gone. I flowed along her back trail, warily casting about to ensure she wasn’t lying in ambush, but compelled by that maddening scent that nearly made me throw all caution to the four winds and pursue her as fast as my limbs could carry me. The closer I came, the stronger that temptation grew, until it was only some deeply buried part of me that held me back. As I paused, testing the wind to be sure she’d not detect me until it was too late, I felt the impatience that unsheathed my claws and drove them deep into the fallen log beneath my feet. Bark shredded and wood flew as I flexed the muscles of my forelimbs and took out some of my frustration on that wood.
Then, her scent fixed once again in my mind, I set off, keeping to cover as only a hunting cat can. My senses were keyed to an exquisite pitch, far beyond what they attained even during the hunt, for her scent maddened me, taunted me, made me ache for her. So intent was I on my prey that I slipped past startled grouse, ignoring them as they erupted into the air above me and fled for the safety of the skies, and crept past a sleeping doe that any other time I would have slain and dragged into a high tree limb against future need. But I left her too, and slowed as I drew closer. She was close, now, so close that I could almost taste her heavy, musky scent on the thick forest air.
When I came upon her, she lay on her side in a clearing, stretching mightily as if she’d not a care in the world. Then she glanced lazily in my direction, and it was clear she’d been expecting me. Her lips wrinkled in a silent snarl of challenge, and I replied in kind, my excitement growing. Disdainfully, she rose to her feet and shook gracefully, scattering moss and twigs that had stuck to her fur. Then she turned her back on me, and tail trailing seductively behind her, tip twitching, vanished into the low bushes on the far side of that clearing.
I bared my own fangs in reply, and I leapt across the clearing, nothing else in my thoughts but that overpowering scent. She was waiting for me on the far side of the bushes, casting an impatient glance back over her shoulder, and as I burst through the bushes, she turned once again and slunk off, tail lowered. I pursued, and as she didn't run, I caught up close enough to touch her tail. I inhaled her heady scent, drinking deeply of it and feeling its promise, and as I reached out to touch her, she suddenly whirled upon me.
Besotted, I was slow to react, and the blow from her paw staggered me, knocking me sideways a pace and blinding me for an instant. When my vision cleared, she'd moved off a pace, back turned towards me and tail trailing enticingly in the air once again. With a silent snarl, I stalked towards her again, shaking my head to clear it, scattering drops of blood. For the second time I came close enough to touch her, and as my nose brushed her tail, she once again turned on me, her paw slamming into me, and though I’d expected it, she was faster than me.
Ignoring the ache in my head, I got to my feet and snarled at her, this time loud enough to echo from the trees and to startle the birds that had been watching into flight. I roared my hurt and my need into the forest once, twice, three times, and when I’d done, she’d moved a few paces off and stood, looking back at me over her shoulder. Then once again she moved off. We repeated this dance until my ears rang from her blows, and my vision had narrowed until she was all that existed in my world. I felt a slow-burning rage growing in me, and this time when I stalked her, she moved just a little bit faster, forcing me to break into a slow lope in pursuit.
We came to another clearing, and this time she fell to the ground, rolling upon her back and exposing her belly to me. Heedless, I rushed to her, her scent once again overpowering all reason, and as I slowed, reaching delicately forward again to touch her with my nose, she whipped forward like a sapling released from a load of snow and slashed at me with naked claws. Some instinct saved my eyes, but even as I jerked my head away, I felt the heat of her claws tearing into my skin, drawing blood. I shook my head, smelling my own hot blood and hearing it patter against the leaves of nearby bushes, but feeling that anger growing in me until it submerged all else but my need.
This time when she paused, I sprang upon her, knocking her to the ground with my greater weight and cuffing her with one of my heavy paws. She moved beneath me, struggling once more to her feet, but this time I was atop her, and I seized the nape of her neck in my jaws, biting hard enough to penetrate her skin. And all at once, she was immobile, and I mounted her, feeling her writhe against me as my forelimbs wrapped around her chest and drew her too me. She was a fire that consumed me, banishing all else from the world, and I only half heard her snarl of pain and pleasure as I withdrew from her, shaking my head to clear it that I might keep my feet. Then she was beside me, butting me playfully with her head, and we lay down together on the earth she’d torn with her claws, oblivious to all else but each other.
We mated several more times over the next few hours, until at last we were both sated, and I lay there, drained by my exertions. All at once, she got to her feet, circled me, then paused to lick my muzzle where her claws had scored it earlier. The harsh rasp of her tongue on my wounds was oddly pleasant despite the pain it awoke. Then without so much as a backwards glance, she gathered her muscles beneath her and sprang away into the forest. I watched her go, and with what was left of my consciousness, pulled myself sluggishly into a nearby tree and fell asleep on a large horizontal limb that shrouded me in leaves and obscured me from the ground.
I wandered timelessly for many days after that, hunting as hunger took me, sleeping, and marking my territory to keep other cats out. I have vague memories of taking on other shapes in response to half-understood urgings and experiencing the forest in those guises, a part of me submerged always, yet not entirely unaware. Once, I fought with a wolf, in wolf form myself, and it fled, tail between its legs and I let it go. Mine was the rhythm of the sun, rising by day or night as my shape dictated, the sun hot on my back or the rain cold on my fur. Sometimes I climbed trees or mountains; other times I swam across lakes too large to go around, in the form of something that had no fear of water, or leapt across rivers too deep to ford, avoiding contact with the water with the distaste only a cat could feel. I had no sense of the past, nor yet a sense of the future; for me, there was only the present.
How long I prowled those woods is unclear, but after a time, I found myself in a part of the forest that felt familiar. Old markings told me I’d been here before, patches of scent that spoke faintly of me, but there were also memories that swam half-submerged beneath my conscious thoughts, disturbing me. Then one day, following a game trail in my wolf form, I caught a familiar scent. It was human, at least in part, but also profoundly inhuman, and it failed to awaken any urge to flee. So I followed that scent to its source, and there I found the human.
She was bathing in a stream, and arose unselfconsciously from the water when she noticed my presence. Though the world around her was the familiar monochrome of Shadow, somehow there was color to her, at least such color as my wolf eyes were capable of seeing. The air about her flowed and twisted, and suddenly she was garbed in a long, flowing orange gown that contrasted strongly with the silvery greys and blacks around her.
“Welcome, friend wolf.” Her voice was gentle like the breeze, cool and refreshing, yet also warming me like the gentle sun of autumn. “Ah! Amodai, is it you again?”
That name awoke something in me that had lain dormant for far too long. Amodai? There was a curious familiarity to that word, though just what it was I couldn't say. Nonetheless, the welcome in her voice made me wriggle in pleasure, and I pranced up to her like a puppy, delirious in her proximity and desperate for her to touch me. She ran her hand gently over my fur, and I found myself grinning foolishly, my tail thumping her leg, and I had a ridiculous desire to roll onto my back so she could rub my belly. I resisted with a more-than-lupine effort, preserving my dignity by a vanishingly small margin.
“Ah, Amodai, I can see in your thoughts what has happened. What a pity!” There was a deep sadness in her voice, and all at once my own demeanor changed. I hung my head and whimpered, devastated that I had brought any form of sadness to her. I pressed against her leg, wishing myself dead or at least able in some way to ease her sorrow. Then, all at once, she sighed, and her sorrow was gone, and the warmth of her laughter washed over me like the sun emerging from behind a cloud.
“Fear not, child. It's not you who brought the sorrow upon me, but rather one I've been estranged from for far too long. It's my fault, what happened, and I must set it right. But I shall need your help. Will you help me, Amodai?” I wriggled with pleasure at the change in her voice, and thumped her leg again and again with my tail. She smiled, and there was nothing else in the world but that smile. “Thank you!” Then she sighed again. “Come with me, little wolfling, and we shall see what must be done.” With that, she strode off into the forest at a pace I was hard pressed to match.
As we walked, birds and animals sprang out from behind bushes and pressed against her, barking and cooing and chirping and hissing and buzzing their pleasure, and her laugh rang out again and again as she reached out to caress each one, sending it on its way with a laugh or a kind word. And a pride rose in me that she kept me by her side, and not the others, and it was all I could do to keep from yipping my joy. As it was, I pranced along at her side, tail and head held high, magnanimously sharing her with these others she had so little time for.
Eventually we came to a small hut, which in itself awoke memories of something that had happened in the past, though the memories were distant and unapproachable to the wolf-me. That didn't matter, for the door opened to a gesture from her hand, and I bounded through the door at her heels.
All at once, my world changed, and I found myself on hands and knees, looking up at the woman I’d once known as Mother. New sensations swept over me in a dizzying flood, and the restoration of color to my world was itself enough to disorient me. Suddenly embarrassed by my posture, I got shakily to my feet. I stood there, uncomfortable in this new form, and striving to regain my comfort lest I embarrass myself by falling and taking some of her furnishings with me. Heedless, Mother went about her business, pulling mushrooms, herbs, and other, less familiar things from previously unnoticed pockets in her gown and ranging them in various nooks and crannies of her home. By the time she’d done, I was nearly in possession of my faculties.
Unfortunately, with the return of my humanity came a wash of memories, none good. My knees went weak as I recalled the last hour of Haven: I was assailed by images of Mareth’s death, and that of Graemor, and fearful of what might have happened to Talmin, and the pain that rose in my chest dropped me to the floor, the peace of Mother’s home erased from me in a flood of tears.
Mother turned at the sound of my choking sobs, and she rushed to my side, sitting beside me and taking my head into her lap. The gentle touch of her hands on my hair and cheek, and her soothing, wordless crooning took the edge off my pain, and though they did not banish it, they did ease it enough that I no longer sobbed quite so harshly. She kept on stroking my hair and crooning to me until at last I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
When I awoke, I was still on the floor, my head cradled in her lap, hands still gentle on my head and the crooning having faded away, leaving nothing but echoes in my mind. When she noticed I was awake, Mother rose from the floor gracefully, pulling me along with her, showing no sign that she might have been sitting there for hours. I gathered my feet beneath me, still muzzy with sleep.
“Are you feeling better, child?”
The concern in her voice took the edge off the pain that still weighed on my heart. I took a deep breath, and that pain eased somewhat. “I think so. But Mother... Oh, Mother...” And the pain rose up in me again, blinding my eyes with tears at the memory of Mareth’s face.
Mother frowned and hugged me tightly to her. “Hush, child. It’s over, and there’s naught that can be done about it. I’ve taken away enough of the pain that you can mourn them later, but not all of it, for that would be robbing you of something precious. In the meantime, we’ve things to do.”
The scolding tone in her voice brought me out of my misery, and chased the pain far enough away that I could ignore it with some effort. “I’m sorry. It’s just—”
“Of course you’re sorry. What kind of child of mine would you be were you not?”
A brief, hopeful thought occurred to me. “Mother, can you—”
“Of course not!” she snapped, and the force of her voice was like a bracing slap on the cheek, clearing the last lingering fuzziness from my head. “Dead is dead, and that’s an end to it.”
“But I thought—”
“And just who do you think I am that I’d have that power?”
“Be done with it, child. Honestly!”
I took a deep breath, and the pain in my chest eased still further. I still didn’t understand, and the more I thought about it, the less I understood, but the command in her voice was enough. I let the matter drop. As I wrestled with my thoughts, Mother moved to her kitchen and returned to thrust a brimming earthenware bowl into my hands. All at once, I realized how hungry I was. I sat as swiftly as I could without looking ungrateful, and began spooning the rich, hearty broth into my mouth as fast as propriety permitted. Mother watched with an amused smile as I sated my hunger, and when I was done, she reached down to take the bowl from me, then banished it somewhere with a casual gesture.
Shaking my head to ease the confusion, I gazed up at her face and tried to trace the flow of thoughts across it. “Mother?”
“You said we had things to do now...”
“Yes, I did, didn’t I?” She went back to her contemplations.
“And just what would those things be?”
“Hmm? Ah, yes. Things. Well the first thing, obviously enough, is to put your little village back in order.” She frowned down at the floor and gave it a thump with her heel. Beneath me, the hut swayed, and I had the distinct impression that we were rising from the ground. That impression intensified as the hut wheeled beneath us and tilted briefly, strings of garlic and teacups hanging from hooks swaying alarmingly where they hung. If I concentrated, I could feel the gentle swaying, and all at once, I recalled the tall chicken legs on which the hut rested. I shuddered.
“And how will we do that? You said there were things you couldn’t do.” A shadow crossed my face at the memory of those I’d lost, but a touch of her hand on my shoulder pushed the sorrow away.
“Oh, that’s a certainty. But I do have a measure of power, child. Those who are gone cannot be brought back, at least not by me, but there are many who have left but not departed. Them we can still do something about. You can, leastwise. I’ll have my hands full with other things, I’m thinking.”
“Me? What power do I have?”
She smiled gently, and from yet another of her myriad pockets, she pulled what seemed to be a large sewing needle. “Why, you have such power as I gift you with.” Not stopping to explain, she plunged the needle into her fingertip, then banished it back to her pocket with a dismissive gesture, watching attentively as a single, large drop of blood welled up from the wound. “Give me your hand.” Without waiting for me to respond, she seized my arm in her uninjured hand and turned it palm upwards. With her wounded finger, she pressed the drop of blood into my palm, then watched as it sank into my skin without leaving so much as a stain.
Warmth surged through me, the warmth I’d felt many times before while communing with the Light after a long stay in Shadow, and if I’d been standing, I’d have reeled from the impact of the strength that rushed through me. “Mother, what have you done?”
“Why, child, nothing more than restore to you some of what He took away, and what you’d lost after so many years of my inattention.” She waved dismissively with her hand as if I’d been talking of trivial matters. “Now you pay attention, child, for you’ve work to do.” Her brows knit in concentration. “When I return you to Haven, it will be your job to rekindle the Light in the Temple. That should push back Shadow enough to give you a place of stability from which to work. Are you with me so far?”
I nodded uncertainly. “But how do I rekindle the Light?”
Ignoring me, she went on. “Once the Light has been restored, your task will be to recover those He sent into Shadow. You already know how to find them. All you need do is return them to the Light, and they’ll regain their former shapes, good as new if a bit the worse for wear.”
I repeated myself, a little louder this time. “But how do I rekindle the Light? And how will I know which are shadowbeasts and which are my people?”
Mother rushed on, heedless. “While you’re busying yourself with those small tasks, I’ll be having a little talk with Him and reminding him of some things he’s evidently forgotten. Men are all alike, you know, big or small; you’re all little children when it comes to the important things.”
“Mother!” I implored, and the desperation in my voice must have finally gotten through her distraction.
“Hmmm? I’m sorry, did you have a question, child?”
I shook my head, bewildered. “Yes... about everything you’ve said. Rekindling the Light, finding my people, who this Him is...”
Mother sighed in exasperation. “Forgive me, Amodai. I’ve spent far too long alone, and I’ve forgotten how little my children understand. That will have to change if we’re to prevent this from happening again. What was it you wanted to know?”
I mustered my resources, and started over. “First, about the Light...”
“Yes. Nothing could be simpler. When you’re in the Temple, simply shed a drop of your blood at the appropriate place, and the Light will spring up again, good as new.”
“And my people?”
“Honestly, child, think for a moment. Take on the form of a wolf or some other forest creature and sniff them out. You’ll have no trouble recognizing them, not for some time yet.”
“The blood, Amodai.” The sheer patience in her voice made me feel like a little child again. “The gift I gave you will strengthen all your abilities for some time, but not forever. Use the strength you now have wisely.”
I shook my head, only dimly beginning to understand. “Can’t you help me? I’m not sure I’m up to the task.”
“Nonsense. If you’re not, then no one is. And as I said, I’ll have my hands full elsewhere.”
“Who is Him?”
Her sudden smile filled the room, erasing all the fears and uncertainties that had risen in me. “Why, my goodness, child! Who else could He be?”
Inspiration struck me. “The child of Shadow who took the Light from us and cast us into Shadow?”
Mother laughed outright. “Did you say child of Shadow? Is that what He told you?”
Abashed, I looked down at the floor, too embarrassed to meet her eyes. “No. It was what we called Him.”
A gentle hand tipped my chin upwards until I was able to meet her gaze again. “Child, forgive me; it’s not meet that I mock you so. You can only understand what you can understand, and nothing more.” She sighed again, her eyes gone distant, as if remembering something long past. “That’s the Him I’m talking about, of course. As to who that Him really is, well—let’s just say it was Him and me who started things so long ago I’d almost forgotten.” There was a sudden hunger in her eyes and voice that made me look away, embarrassed, as if she’d shared some private intimacy with me that I’d no right to hear.
Her voice turned businesslike again. “We’ve had our disagreements over the years, that’s a certainty, and perhaps I’ve let them drag on unresolved for too long. Time and past time to fix that.”
The hut slowed its progress, teacups and garlic strings swaying alarmingly, though Mother showed no sign of having noticed. My stomach rose in me as the floor sank away beneath me, coming to a sudden but surprisingly gentle halt. Mother drew me to my feet, and gently but irresistibly steered me towards the door.
“Now, child, quickly. Be about your business, and leave me to be about mine.”
I staggered slightly as I stepped through the doorway, and had to hold firmly to my identity as Shadow tugged greedily at me. “Mother...”
“Be brave, child. You have much work ahead of you, but nothing beyond your abilities. I’ll see to it that you’re undisturbed, of that you can be certain.”
“Thank you.” That sounded at best ungrateful, but there were no other words that felt right.
“Oh, and one more thing...”
“When you’re done putting things back in order, don’t make the same mistake I’ve made.”
“What mistake is that, Mother?”
“Losing touch with those who are important to you. Your cousins.”
“Those you call the children of Shadow, Amodai. Honestly, sometimes I wonder what your father gave you for brains! They’re your kin, no matter how you choose to look at it, and you’d best come to terms with them. You can’t choose your family, so you might as well learn to love them. Sometimes, for all their warts, they’re all you’ve got.”
And with that, her hut rose up on those towering chicken legs and rushed off into Shadow, gone on an errand I had finally begun to understand, at least as much as it was given to a mortal to understand.
Continue reading: Chapter 7
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