Authors: T. L. Shreffler
(The Cat's Eye Chronicles, Book 2)
T. L. Shreffler
2012. Redistribution is prohibited.
Published by The Runaway Pen.
Edited by LindaJay Geldens
The Cat's Eye Chronicles
Crash awoke from the dream with a start.
It dissipated as soon as he opened his eyes. Stars glinted above him, pinpricks on the pitch-black horizon, the ground cold and moist. From the stillness in the air, he knew that it was early, early morning.
He stood, looking across the flat plain, a dark ocean of wavering grass. The residue of the dream lingered, its cold hand on his back, as if warning him of something....
he thought, studying the broad expanse of the lower plains.
What am I overlooking?
He felt keenly disturbed, as though a predator stood just beyond the fringe of grass, watching him, filled with murderous intent. But was the threat far away or nearby? It was like watching a heavy storm cloud approaching.
How long before it reaches us?
A large flock of crows suddenly appeared in the sky, flapping loudly against the dead night air. They cawed and squawked to one another, rushing by overhead. Dozens, perhaps hundreds. The mass of birds was so thick, it blacked out the stars.
Crash stared. Crows flying at night?
Then he noticed a certain skittering in the underbrush. Rabbits, mice and ground squirrels dashed through the dry grass, all following the same direction as the crows. The more he watched, the more he saw. Sparrows, black birds, swallows... all darting across the plains, fleeing west.
What is this?
he wondered. A fire? An earthquake yet to strike? Yet there was no firelight on the plains, no telltale smell of smoke. The ground remained cold and solid.
Crash pondered the animals thoughtfully.
Why are they running?
Deep in the pit of his stomach, he felt like he already knew the answer.
A bush rustled, and he turned around to find his companion, Burn, returning from his watch. Small leaves, curled and dry from the summer climate, crunched beneath his boots. It was difficult to move soundlessly. They were camped next to a thicket of spindly trees tall enough to offer shelter from the elements. Burn had spent the last several hours in the branches, taking a better look at their surroundings.
“So they woke you?” Burn asked softly, glancing at the sky where the crows were still flying by. “I wonder where they're going.”
Crash nodded. So he wasn't just imagining it. “They're fleeing from something.”
Burn paused next to the assassin and gazed at the horizon. He turned his face into the wind, his flared nostrils sniffing the air, his long, pointed ears twitching; Wolfies' senses were naturally heightened and sharp. Finally, he pointed toward the northeast. “There,” he murmured. “Far away, at the base of the mountains.” He looked troubled. “It smells like... blood.”
Crash's eyes hardened. Volcrian. Had to be. The bloodmage was approaching—though Crash doubted he was close because if he was, they would know it by now.
“He wants my head,” Crash replied. “We should go our separate ways. He would most likely let you go. This isn't your fight.”
The Wolfy's eyes turned hard. “It
my fight,” he murmured. “Or have you forgotten what he did...?”
Silence. No, Crash hadn't forgotten. He only wished that Burn could forget—Burn was one of those rare, upright, honorable men who deserved a good life. But if they continued traveling together, they would both end up dead.
Now Crash could feel the bloodmage's presence descending onto the plains, a malevolent force, unstoppable. He seemed larger than before, easily detectable, powerful.
“We should leave the mainland,” he finally said.
“Aye,” Burn grunted softly in agreement. “Might be our only option. We can travel south to Delbar, take a ship overseas... we have some backtracking to do.” They were currently traveling north, and had planned to traverse the mountains to the distant ice fields. If Volcrian was close, however, they would need a faster route of escape. Overseas would do.
Crash's eyes turned to the south, tracing the constellations in the sky. To reach the port city of Delbar, they would have to pass through the region where they had left Sora more than six months ago.
Should I warn her?
he wondered. Hopefully, Volcrian would leave her alone now that she wasn't traveling with them anymore. If they showed up at her house, they would risk drawing the bloodmage there, too.
he decided. Better to stay away.
“We leave at dawn,” Crash said determinedly, and turned back to the copse of trees, ready to keep watch. The crows continued to fly overhead, growing in number.
The poles definitely did not look inviting.
About a full hand's width in diameter, they were wooden, moss-covered and lined the meadow like solemn sentinels. They started low to the ground, progressing around the field in a half-circle, growing taller and taller until they reached the height of a man. Sora had never seen anything like it.
“What are these?” she asked, and gave her mother a skeptical look.
“These, my dear,” Lorianne said, “will make you a true fighter!”
Lori had awakened Sora at the crack of dawn. The two women had dressed and eaten a hasty breakfast. Then her mother had led her out into the fields, gray mist hovering above the frosty grass, and into the forest beyond. They entered the overgrown clearing soon after.
“I constructed this place especially for combat training,” her mother said, “though it hasn't been used in a while.”
Sora was confused. The poles looked degenerate and rotted; with a bit of effort, she dug her fingers into the soft wood. A firm shove might have sent one toppling to the ground. She couldn't imagine what they were used for. Was she supposed to practice sparring? She raised an eyebrow. They didn't strike her as very challenging opponents.
“I don't get it,” she said plainly. “And why wouldn't you let me bring my staff? What's the point?” Her staff was her best weapon, the only thing that felt natural in her hands.
Her mother grinned, a mischievous glint in her eye, and said, “Climb one.”
“That one, right there.” Her mother pointed to a short, stout pole nearby. It was only about a foot off the ground, Sora stepped on top of it easily. Then she stood there, balancing on one leg like an awkward stork. She felt a little foolish.
“Okay, now what?” she asked, trying not to get annoyed.
“Now jump to the next one.”
Sora looked around, trying to see where the next pole might be, only to find it almost a yard away and a good foot higher than the first. After a bit of eyeballing, she swung her arms and jumped, landing clumsily on the other foot, wavering to keep her balance.
“And now the next one,” her mother said immediately.
The next one?
Sora looked for her next landing place, only to find it another yard away and a whole foot higher. At this point, she shook her head. “You're crazy!” she exclaimed. “I can't jump over there and land. I'll break my ankle! No one can do that!”
Her mother's mischievous grin widened. “No one?” she asked in amusement.
Lori walked boldly past her. She leapt lightly onto the third pole, as though it were a normal doorstep, and proceeded to dash across the clearing from one to the other. Sora's mouth dropped. Her mother was magnificent! Fluid! Graceful! She danced across the pillars, climbing to the highest and then bouncing down to the lowest. When she finished, she came vaulting back in Sora's direction, and landed at her daughter's side with an elegant twirl. She had crossed the entire clearing and back in under five minutes.
Sora was eighteen, but had only known her real mother for about a year now. The woman was full of surprises. She still couldn't believe her eyes.
“This is called 'step training;' it's to gain balance and confidence,” her mother said knowledgeably. “This is an old, old technique. It's also the way your assassin friend trained.”
Her assassin friend.
The reminder of Crash was unexpected, and Sora quickly turned away. Well, he hadn't truly been a friend, but definitely someone who had changed her life. The mention of Crash left her flustered and tense, not a welcome feeling, though she didn't mention it. He had left a year ago, traveling away with their mutual companion, Burn. An entire year... but she still thought of them every day.
Every. Single. Damned. Day.
do it,” her mother said, ignoring Sora's reaction, or perhaps oblivious to it.
Sora turned back, clenching her teeth, forcefully shaking the memories away. She certainly wasn't going to give up if her mother could do something like that,
and if this is what Crash can do, then I'm going to do it too!
She and the assassin had started off on pretty bad terms—he had kidnapped her from a disastrous birthday ceremony, killing her supposed father, and had whisked her away into the night—but things had changed. They had grown close, somehow. “Close” seemed almost too much. Perhaps familiar? Was there another word for it? Crash was not the kind of man who inspired warmth, and yet... she missed him strangely, in rare moments of the day, when she was knee-deep in housework or out riding through the forest. She yearned to see him again, though she wasn't sure why. A cloud would shift overhead or a crow fly past, and she would turn to look, imagining it was him.
Or Burn, she reminded herself.
I miss Burn too.
Blushing, she slowly turned on her pole so she was facing the next one, and carefully aimed.
There's no way I'm going to make that without a little momentum
. Swinging her arms at her side, Sora summoned her courage and launched herself across the open space, flying toward the next pillar.
Amazingly, she landed on her target—for about two seconds. Then she overbalanced and tumbled head over heels with a yelp. She fell four feet to the ground, landing with a clumsy thud in the dirt.
“You've got to be kidding me!” she exclaimed. She picked herself up, brushing dust and grass from her clothes. “That's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life!”
Her mother winked at her. “And with enough training, it'll soon be the easiest. You'll be able to jump across rooftops, climb fences, vault through trees...! I'm going to take you out here every morning for at least two hours until you can climb like a squirrel. Feel free to practice whenever you want, though.”
“Sure, whenever I want,” Sora muttered. She couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. She wanted to fight again, feel the surge of adrenaline in her muscles, the excitement of combat. She missed using her staff and daggers. She cleaned her weapons daily to keep them from collecting dust, but other than that, her staff might as well have become a broom handle. She spent most of her time doing chores now. Not the life she had imagined so long ago, when she had plotted to run away.
“Don't look so glum!” her mother chided. “These small exercises will make all the difference. But we don't have time to practice now. We have an appointment in town.”
“In town?” Sora asked. “An appointment? Another one?”
“A sick farmer this time,” her mother said slowly. “Seems like the infection spread from the animals... to the man.”
“Huh,” Sora frowned. Unusual.
Her mother was a Healer, one of the few in the region, and some farmers traveled for weeks to see her. She always had a steady flow of work, and since moving in, Sora had learned quite a few things about the healing trade. She had become an assistant in some ways, a personal maid in others. But that was country life, wasn't it? One person wore a lot of hats.
Sora was used to an army of maids doing her laundry and turning out her sheets, or cooking her meals, or cleaning her dishes. Her adoptive father had been a rich Lord, well known on the High Plains, but there had been no warmth in that house; instead, only a distinct feeling of imprisonment. A year ago, she had willingly given it up—though sometimes she wondered why. Housecleaning was hard work!
Lorianne turned abruptly and started back across the fields, pulling up a few plants as she went, or snatching leaves from certain vines. Collecting remedies.
Sora followed with a sigh. Another day of dealing with the sick. It had been exciting at first, learning how to mix potions and sew up wounds, but after a long winter of colds and a warm spring of hay fevers, she was absolutely, without a doubt, tired of it.
* * *
The small farmhouse was about four miles away. Sora recognized it. They had visited only three weeks ago to deal with sick chickens, and had found over a dozen hens with gummy eyes and blackened beaks, their feathers falling out in odd clumps.
When Sora saw the farmer, she thought he looked much the same.
He laid on the bed restlessly, tossing and turning with a fever. After wrapping a cloth over her mouth and pulling on her leather gloves, she mixed a concoction of yellowroot and mint at her mother's direction, which would help lower his fever.