Return 24
36 2 2
Reading Options
Font Size
A- 15px A+
Table of Contents
Loading... please wait.

The first tremor made Tyrel blink and look down. Had he imagined that?

It quickly became obvious that he hadn't.

The first tile to come loose let a narrow shaft of moonlight into the darkness. It wasn't close to any of them, but it was still a welcome sight. Another tile, another thin beam of moonlight, and as the shaking escalated, it became harder to count. One allowed a spear of light to fall on Kaveri, who sighed deeply—and, before her captors had time to drag her out of the way, she changed to her raccoon form, melting out of their hands. She ran, not for the door, but for Juro, ducking around behind him. Tyrel figured sharp raccoon teeth and clever hand-like paws would make short work of the ropes around his wrists. When one tried to follow, Juro twisted in place and kicked with both bare feet. His aim was good enough to send the other man reeling back several staggering steps before he fell, though falling was certainly easy at the moment.

Tyrel could see Juro straining against the restraints, and when they finally gave way, he snapped both arms around in front so he could use Tyrel's knife on the rope around his neck. Free, he shifted his grip on the knife and straightened.

Their other captors, and now even the one who had tried to intervene, were too busy ducking the tiles that fell inside and trying to keep their footing to pay any attention. That changed when Juro tangled his fingers into the dark hair of the bronze-skinned man and jerked his head back, the knife against his throat. The man went rigid, barely breathing. Tyrel would have, too: the insane fluidity of the ground beneath them would make it far too easy for Juro to lose his balance and cut the man's throat even if he didn't intend to. And how long would it take for one or more of those beams to come down?

Cages,” Juro said flatly. “Up. Open them. The longer I'm holding you and this knife, the greater the chance I'll slip, and I'm not letting go until those cages are open.”

Kaveri climbed up on top of Kieran's cage, chittering excitedly and standing on her hind legs, though she had to drop to all fours to keep from being flung off.

'Veri, get out!” Tyrel told her. “Find Cissa!”

Kaveri scrambled down and ran for the door. Not the fastest animals, raccoons, but much more stable than a human at this point. Two of the four reborn went after her, though whether they actually wanted to catch her or saw an excuse to get outside, Tyrel wasn't sure.

The end of one beam finally shook loose and thudded to the floor, though not close to anyone. It took a substantial section of wall with it, and part of the roof followed, and suddenly much of the interior was exposed to the moons' light.

Kieran shook himself hard all over, and changed to human-form, though the cage forced him to a crouch. “That's my mother's voice!”

That's what?” Well, Ejiro had already intervened, though what the cost might be to him, Tyrel didn't know. Was Neoma reappearing any less probable?

Juro's captive was shaking so badly that it took him three tries to get Tyrel's cage unlocked. Tyrel ducked out, throwing knife in one hand, and helped Juro haul him over to Kieran's cage. The two remaining reborn seemed completely paralyzed, with no idea what to do without someone giving them orders.

Get outside!” Tyrel shouted at them. “Are you stupid? It's dangerous in here!”

Back in amarog-form, Kieran streaked past Tyrel and Juro, overtaking and passing the last two reborn, and was out the door at a dead run, somehow managing to keep his footing—though the quaking did seem to be dying down somewhat now. Their erstwhile opener of locks followed him as quickly as he could cross the floor.

Us too,” Juro said. He offered Tyrel the throwing knife back. Tyrel accepted it to keep with the other.

True, but unarmed? And Madoc and Mirren will be pissed if we lose their gear.” He ducked into Kaveri's cage long enough to retrieve his third knife.

Mirren's sword was already outside, in Gernot's hands, but they paused long enough to gather up the rest of the weapons. Juro tested the balance of Madoc's sica thoughtfully in one hand, then grinned. “Nice.”

I thought you were a poet.” Tyrel snatched up his hidden belt and buckled it hastily in place, even though it was over bare skin—his clothes were a lost cause and there was no time. Two throwing knives back in place, the third still in his hand, then his katar belt over the other. Mirren's belt he looped over his arm and pushed up to his shoulder.

You don't know my people. If you're old enough to be considered an adult, you know how to use at least a short sword and a spear. The neighbours aren't always friendly, you know? The claws are interesting. Fond of pointed metal, you two are.”

The situation they emerged into made Tyrel grateful they'd taken that extra moment.

Gernot with Mirren's sword circled a small reddish wolf, who had hackles raised and ears back, tail straight up aggressively and teeth bared. Tyrel had seen people who looked less sane than Gernot, but not many of them, and rarely running around free.

Kieran was facing nearly a dozen people, some bright with moonlight and usually naked but four of them neither, both sorts armed with spears. Kaveri crouched beside him, a rock in each hand, and Tyrel saw one prone figure already that might be the result of her aim. Amarog and rocks were keeping them cautious, though if they all moved at once, Kieran and Kaveri would be overrun.

Lysandra and Demetrios were standing wary guard over Narcissa who was, probably inevitably, examining an injury—specifically, the shoulder or upper arm of a naked woman seated on the ground.

Oddly, not one of the reborn was in animal form, though they typically had forms that could be quite effective in a fight, and Demetrios had mentioned some were searching that way.

The one near the left end past Kieran, Sahen's,” Juro said quietly to Tyrel. “He owns this house and the human warriors follow him.”

Thank you.” Tyrel adjusted his grip on his throwing knife. Take out the commander, which might get the humans out of the picture, then the next knife was for Gernot...

Narcissa straightened, looked around, and took a deep breath.

Stop it!” she cried, in the local language. Trained to speak in public, she could achieve considerable volume without giving any impression of a shout. Tyrel paused before throwing, though only with an inward sigh.

There doesn't have to be a fight! They've lied to you! They told you Talir is angry, but look in front of you! Three of her children are right here—and one of them is Neoma! The last time your bloodline fought ours, our mothers healed us but not you, though they allowed none to die. One of your own is there,” she gestured, “injured but not healed even in Sanur's light. You cannot change shape! The humans with you have no hope of surviving. You outnumber us, but do you really want to fight us? In the name of lies?”

Tyrel saw two or three hesitate, body language suggesting uncertainty, grips on spears loosening slightly. Not enough of them, though.

He looked up at Talir. Please? Help Cissa make her point?

Instantly, the topaz luminescence around him, around Kieran, and around Neoma all brightened considerably. His own even went so far as to gather itself into a lightweight version of his own preferred clothing—not much actual protection, but a psychological advantage.

A couple of heartbeats later, the light around Kaveri and their princesses and around Juro and Demetrios strengthened as well, though less dramatically. Similarly, Kaveri acquired her favoured halter and loincloth... and aquamarine light around Juro twisted itself into a sort of kilt and a laced vest, the former bearing a linear crisscrossed pattern of blue-green shades, the latter dark teal-grey. He glanced down in surprise, gave Tyrel a questioning look; Tyrel just grinned back. More subtly, damaged and soiled clothing and tangled hair repaired themselves for their princesses, who had both been looking rather the worse for wear.

That caused a ripple of consternation among their opponents.

It's only a trick,” Gernot bellowed. “Don't be fooled by it!”

How is that a trick?” Demetrios asked. “It's moonlight! If anyone can recognize genuine moonlight, shouldn't it be their children?”

Neoma retreated warily a step or two from Gernot, so she was close to Narcissa, and changed to human still watching him. “Do you know my language?” she asked Narcissa, who was keeping her attention on the main group.

Yes,” Narcissa said more quietly. “From Kieran.”

You're trying to talk them down?”

I'm open to ideas. I'd rather end this with words than violence.”

Agreed. Translate this?”

Of course.” Then, more loudly, “Neoma has something to say to you! I'll translate it as precisely as I can.” She looked at Neoma.

We were promised whatever meant most to us,” Neoma said, pausing often for Narcissa to translate. “Very few of those promises have ever been kept. We were told that the initiation ritual was necessary, but it isn't.”

Shall I add,” Narcissa asked quietly, “that no one descended from you has been through it?”


Narcissa complied, and waited.

Before Neoma could speak again, Gernot took a step towards her, the sword coming up.

Tyrel darted in, drawing his larger katar. The slender sword clanged against it as he deflected the blow; a slash with the throwing knife in his other hand, across Gernot's lower arm, drew violet blood but wasn't enough to force him to drop the sword.

Juro used the distraction, though, to get around behind Gernot and lay the inside curve of Madoc's sica ever-so-gently against the front of Gernot's throat.

Drop the sword,” he murmured. “Do you think I wouldn't do it?”

As favourite techniques went, Tyrel reflected, that one was really rather effective. He stepped in to catch Mirren's sword as Gernot released his grasp on it, and let the belt slide down his arm so he could sheathe it safely. While Juro kept Gernot still, Tyrel gave him a quick pat-down for any other weapons. He found and removed a small knife with a curved blade—a good size and design for cutting off a finger, for example—and in disgust hurled it back into the unsafe outbuilding.

A knife with a flaked blade of glossy black stone, he tossed to land in front of Kaveri. She brought a fist-sized rock down on it several times, until the shards were too small to be readily broken further.

Sit down,” Juro said quietly. “Keep your hands visible and your mouth closed, and let the ladies have their say. I think that's the very least you owe Neoma. Tyrel can, I suspect, put one of those knives through your throat in a heartbeat if necessary.”

Believe it,” Tyrel muttered.

Kieran and Kaveri edged backwards, so there was less open ground between them and Neoma and Narcissa, more space between them and the ranged arc of opponents. Lysandra and Demetrios followed their lead, cautiously. It was something of a relief to have family and allies all clustered together and easier to protect, but Tyrel wasn't sure he cared for where this was all going. Gernot wasn't going to be swayed by any appeal to logic or emotion: he had too much of a vested interest in maintaining the current system, which justified even the worst of his actions. The same would be true of his second in command, and probably of others. Some of the rest might be persuaded, but they'd have to take an immense personal risk to act on it. And the humans? They were out of their depth and if it came to a fight they were doomed, but it would be dishonourable under local values to disobey their lord.

We were told,” Neoma said, “that the moons wanted us to live under a harsh law and obey others who were more worthy of their grace. The law was created to turn us into domesticated animals, easily controlled for the purposes of others with no say in our own lives. Draw this load, hunt that prey, carry this, guard that. Talir helped me to escape. She asked an earthborn to give me sanctuary. She gave me a new ability that helped me to survive there, the ability to weave moonlight into fabric and other things. When Gernot believed me dead, Talir took me very far from here to protect me. Would she have done any of that, if she were displeased with me? Since then, she has chosen two others who share my blood...”

More,” Narcissa murmured, before translating the last line. “Several died, only Kieran met ever them. All were Talir's until recently.”

Incomplete information,” Neoma muttered. “Explain to them, please.”

Since then,” Narcissa announced, “Talir has chosen only from Neoma's bloodline. Until some twenty-five or thirty years ago, only Talir chose Neoma's bloodline. The others have begun to do so more recently, which suggests that they approve.” She paused to wait for Neoma's next words.

You do not have to obey anyone. You can reject their authority and the right they claim to command your actions and dictate your thoughts and to punish you if you question them. Our mothers will not be angry and will not judge you for it.”

In fact,” Narcissa added on her own, “they will be delighted.”

This is all heresy,” Wira snarled. A bright line of silver-blue blood still showed across his throat, unhealed. “All lies, meant to turn the chosen of the moons from the True Path. Do you think we're that gullible?”

You were,” Demetrios pointed out, “sufficiently gullible to fall for empty promises and to continue to consent to your own abuse. We all are. There are abundant facts in front of you, and you are refusing to admit that they exist. That is worse than gullibility.” Tyrel heard a soft echo, and realized that Narcissa was translating for Neoma. “How do you deny that you're bleeding still, and what that means?”

Gernot's right, this is trickery of some sort! We've been following the laws for centuries, and the moons have blessed us with success after success! They reward our submission to them with immortality and freedom from merely human laws! And you want us to reject that in favour of listening to the Great Traitor who turned her back on the True Path?”

The laws are no more than four centuries old. Possibly less. Before that, no one could have followed them. But there is no reason to believe that the moons only created our kind at that time.”

The moons gave us the laws so we could follow them the right way, the way they want us to! They were not invented by men, they were given directly. The laws are not meant to be interpreted or debated or doubted. The laws say to obey those who earn greater authority because they are more worthy and nearer to the moons, and not to question that!”

Exactly Neoma's point, I believe. An excellent way to convince sheep that they should worship and obey the shepherd who wears sheepskin and eats mutton.”