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The Lyran Chronicles

Written by WhitePaw :: [Tuesday, 16 January 2007 17:07] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 23 December 2012 20:20]

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The Lyran Chronicles

(“Tangerine Dreams”, “White Silence” and “Prelude to Warspine II”)

 

by Whitepaw

 

 

Tangerine Dreams

 

 

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Foreword:

 

Welcome to Lyra, a backwater crumble of a world or two I just pulled completely out of my ass(ets). It's kind of a dumping ground for all my in-genre writing inspirations of late. Make yourself at home. Beer's in the icebox, just flag down a waitress-and don't mind the foreign label.

 

And you'll need the "beer". And peanuts.

 

No, you don't speak the language. Apologies, but this was written back when italics were an option. This will spin your ears around a bit in some of the early-on dialogy spots without them. Yes, they're speaking in two (sometimes three) languages and no, they don't all understand each other either.

 

Let's flag that as an understatement and move on.

 

No, we don't work with your travel agent. Strictly a one-time package deal.

 

Yes, I like cats. You'll be in deep Kleenex here if you're allergic.

 

There will be a quiz.

 

Good luck.

 

Cue the cockroaches … (yes, they're the universal life form)

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Part I, "Dawn of Dionysius".

 

"Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one conscious experiencing ourselves subjectively, there's no such thing as death,

life is only a dream, and we're the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather."-Tool, "Third Eye".

 

 

The air hung heavy, tangerine with heat, and lush green with the sweat of the shimmering bay. Conversations drifted in corners like water in a desert stream. The corner band wound down dusty like brooms in a closet for the evening. The cantina burned through the night in Christmas lights and candles on crayon tables and chairs. Crickets and stars crowded in close to the ivy-covered walls. A war drum fell heavy at sighing breaths somewhere in the hazy distance. Traffic in bottles and glass circulated like autumn leaves in a lazy sun-baked breeze. As many cockroaches as customers idled on the warm, sandy floor, watching the rest of them sway in a sweaty, shifting rumba.

 

Or was it a tango?

 

Eric awoke as into a bad dream, pulling his unshaven face off the painted table like flypaper, skull shifting in pain like sand. Oh my god. Where the hell am I?

 

He still wore the fraternity t-shirt he'd last remembered wearing, now soiled brown in sand, dust, and sweat-stained. He felt like he looked – like he smelled.

 

Hazed? His hands slid through is empty pockets in a snake-like daze.

 

A linen and lace-trimmed barmaid clacked a sweating, lime-capped bottle of something and a saucer on the table before him, rolling her eyes as she turned away.

 

No. It was about her … her brother …

 

He'd more seen than met 'her' at the party. Barry had pointed her out to him in a drunken stumble. She had just finished the punch Barry had served her as he giggled drunkenly in Eric's arms. Three gasps later and she just collapsed on the couch.

 

Eric was starving. Sweat ran over his eyes as his head swam around the cantina in rolling waves.

 

He'd thrown Barry off of her like a drunken rag doll. He was carrying her up to her room in the house to sleep it off in safety when her brother and his friends blocked the hallway- understandably enraged.

 

Tijuana? Crap.

 

"Excuse me, Miss?" A slur was all he could yet manage.

 

"Moi?" She turned with a smirk.

 

"Where am … is this?"

 

She shrugged. "Estitha …"

 

Crap.

 

She continued talking while he listened … and heard nothing.

 

Crap crap crap. Not even Spanish!

 

Anxiety began to squeeze out nausea for space in his skull as his heart rate started notching up his throat.

 

"Anybody here speak English?"

 

The music stopped.

 

Blank stares.

 

Drumfall in the distance.

 

Damn.

 

He squinted at the writing on the bottle before him while everyone looked on.

 

Sanskrit.

 

Not a word of English – if they were words at all.

 

Holy …

 

All eyes turned to the woman in the doorway. She never made an entrance. She was just there, one drumbeat to the next.

 

She brushed her long, fire-stained wavy hair from her face, looking at him with her sparkling bronze eyes and a giggle.

 

"Lefrem?" She asked.

 

Eric just stared. Her loose, white linen blouse was tied off high on her waist and billowed like the sails of a two-masted ship under heavy gusts as she stepped into the cantina. She wore more of a denim glove than cut-off jean shorts. Eric was too dazed not to stare at the way her taut abs flowed like milk as she walked to him.

 

"Hetzen frei mir." She offered her hand as she passed by. She peeled him out of his chair like brushing through so much spider web. She shot a look at the band that seemed to twang in the wall behind them like a dagger.

 

The girl on the microphone shrugged as they started into something a bit more … tribal.

 

Drumfall in the night.

 

Eric found her in his arms, back-leading him around the sandy floor. She smelled of cinnamon and didn't seem offended at his stench. The peach fuzz of her bareback slithered coolly beneath his sweating fingers. She wasn't shy about snuggling up to him like a teddy bear, wrapping her tail ar-

 

Tail?!

 

That distant drumbeat echoed where Eric's heartbeat had paused.

 

Eric's vision blurred and refocused on things he didn't want to see.

 

Her skin was velvet in tiger stripes, and loosely hung over a solid core of enough muscles to probably put him through a brick wall one handed-one pawed? He could feel the gentle scratch of her claws on his shoulder, the leathery pads of her hand in his as they stalked together over the dance floor, the primal purr of her chest on his.

 

It was either the most fabulous costume he'd ever experienced or-

 

Drum echo.

 

They were all cats.

 

Big cats.

 

They were leopards, mostly, around the tables against the back wall. The waitress' black-streaked lion mane hung past her rear, occasionally pawed by the teased patron. The girl at the microphone sported a wiry, more sun-baked cheetah-like set of spots, her appearance more in black tear lines than eyeliner. The big guy on the guitar: another lion, his chest fur proudly displayed through his wide-open shirt. The svelte fella on the bass: a black panther in a white Stetson. Another jaguar on drums, or was he more ocelot?

 

The only actual person in the room was Eric.

 

Do they see me as a cat?

 

Acid. They've slipped me acid and dumped me in Tijuana.

 

Ok … now what?

 

… "Whoa – !!!"

 

This tigress could dance.

 

She tacked around him like a sail on a mast. The growl in her eyes lit his spine on fire. Her chest was a fountain of fuzzy flesh, disgorging wave after wave her eyes bid him to taste while her hair seemed to skiff around her backwards to the tune the band rolled out on steam-engine rails. He was merely the coat rack, at the mercies of her ebb and flow, helpless against the gripping power of her hands, legs … tail. Far more than her sandy tongue slathered over him as the audience slid from drunken to dazed over stares at the pulsing of her body.

 

Mysterious ways indeed. She nearly tore him to pieces, claws sheathed, sweeping the skin of his arms, chest, and shoulders raw with her roughhouse slither-clean through his sweatshirt. His pants fared … worse.

 

"RA-JA!" The huge white tiger man's deafening roar swept away the music from the cantina like a breaker over so much sandcastle. The archway of the doubled door could barely contain the mountain of his shoulders. The doorposts splintered to the trembling of his dinner-plate-sized fists. Veins throbbed across the trough of his neck, gripped his straining wrists. His eyes burned the same electric emerald as studded his leather collar. He wore a leather ring strap and bracers, but little else worth mentioning.

 

Eric felt immediately small and miniscule. Drum beat meekly in the distance.

Eric's bones still rung like chimes from the tiger's bellow, ears throbbing like a flock of seagulls. He collapsed, stunned into her arms like so much flour sack over brass railings. She gave him a kiss of a wink as her eyes whipped over her shoulder's shrug. "Charin." She hissed the word, purring as she gripped Eric closer like a teddy bear, her ears flattening.

 

Oh … shit.

 

At the first thudding footfall of the big tiger inside the cantina became silently vacant. "Tok nherrewa ish naguuta!" He spat and flung the words at her with huge gestures. "Whaheem nur es da, Ra-Ja?" He flung a heavy hewn oak table into the wall like a cleaver.

 

Ohshit.

 

Eric's pulse fluttered in fear to the Cadillac purr of her chest. "Naiteh murr!"

 

Ohshitohshitohshit....

 

The smell of Eric's already dampened pants became … acrid.

 

The cantina clattered to the stomp of the big tiger's foot as he stepped in. "Rotu necrossss, hir athenen!"

 

She set Eric's body gently against the piano in a pool of his own cold sweat.

 

"Nuhl." She whispered, turning to face the seething tower of tiger now looming over her, her hands on her hips, tail twitching, ears flat in defiance as he drew his backhand to her. He was easily twice her height and many times her petite fame in bulk.

 

His eyes flared ruby in a last fit of anger before he swung at her.

 

 

She'd caught him by the forearm, flipped him over, and slashed with her free paw. She landed in a hissing crouch as his green-glowing blood splattered across the table to her right, and the huge tiger tumbled through the crumbling wall to her left.

 

Eric felt the steam of the breath she knocked out of the big tiger as the bulk of him tumbled by.

 

Daemn … one handed.

 

She leapt straight into the air before the giant cat clawed himself free of the rubble and pounce-skidded to the middle of the dance floor hard enough to bounce Eric off the piano bench. Glowing green blood streamed from the three claw gashes across his right cheek. "RA-JAAA-"

 

She landed all fours on the back of his skull, plowing him face first into the dirt and flipping him on his back in the dust like a two-ton rib eye. Next blink she had him lain flat, skull pulled back by his mane in her left fist, her fangs dripping steam over his jugular, her right claws unsheathed at the ready over his crotch.

 

He thought about it for an instant before collapsing beneath her in submission.

 

Eric peeled himself off the floor and sat up on an elbow, still too dizzy to stand.

 

"Zenterah nurwehn, Charin." She hoisted the white tiger one-handed before her by his mane. "Suhl fentoch les mir zebben." She dabbed the blood from his face, cooing softly.

 

"Hunan fur." He sighed.

 

"Deb fosh." She flung him on his face again and turned her back on the tiger. He pulled himself up confused, watching her slink back to Eric, tail twitching. "Noir fuzen zeb minen heute."

 

Acid … AND speed. Eric's head throbbed, ears still ringing.

 

She pulled Eric up like a wet rag, her face a soft glow of warmth. "Nekke kekke." She nodded comfortingly. "Nekke kekke."

 

The tiger monster was gone … both of them.

 

Eric wasn't reassured watching her assets slink to the bar, nor did he feel better when she returned with a sweating bottle of something and offered it to him.

 

His hands trembled taking it.

 

Half a bottle later in her arms he found the balance to stand again.

 

Mostly.

 

She hoisted him up by the scruff of his sweatshirt and led him confidently through the back door.

 

Eric never lost the feeling that he was still on the chew toy menu. The tiny tiled courtyard she lead him back to would be an ideal place to neatly slaughter him. The walls dripped with violet vines

blooming black in the starlight, staining the already heavy air with a nauseating brew of lime and cherry. Open only to the sky and two heavy oaken doors, Eric felt like no one would hear his screams. The raised tub to one side looked like a tidy spot to drain his blood into, perhaps by hanging his dismembered parts from the wooden sluice overhead. Something in the drink slicked up his mind to allow all that to drain through without the slightest concern on his part.

 

She's going to kill and eat me now … raw.

 

He almost laughed at the thought.

 

Pale starlight filled the tiled room in an eerie glow, green like the dark alleys of the Matrix in Eric's mind. It turned her orange coloring nearly blood red as she pulled down the sluice overhead.

 

Warm water poured over her, spinning off her curves, slapping against the tiles at her clawed feet. Her hair drained down over her face as she drank in his reaction with her eyes, licking her fangs hungrily the downpour. Her padded fingers untied the front of her sopping wet blouse and let it drain off of her in the water while she watched him … watching her.

 

Her body and all its flowing muscles seemed rough hewn from the shale of ocean cliffs, yet she moved for him in waves like flowing saltwater. She especially enjoyed teasing him, flexing out her chest until Eric thought his eyes would explode with the rise and fall of her slow breathing.

 

Her denim shorts peeled off her like a snake shedding her skin: slow and slithering, inch-by-inch under the heavy clapping of the water over her back and thighs.

 

The tub had filled to overflowing, water and her clothing spilling out onto the floor. Her legs stirred the waters, invitingly.

 

Eric had one hand on his shoe when one of hers gripped him by the sweatshirt like an iron tong. Their eyes met, his stunned brown to her blazing bronze. She gave his deer-in-headlights a long, thirsty, waterlogged hiss … fangs and all – and yanked him in, quenching him in the water.

 

Darkness swept over him.

Voices troubled his dreams.

"Offworlder? … Dance with me."

A long, reeling pause spun with the noise around his spine.

 

"Raja! What are you doing? What are you doing with that off-worlder?"

 

"Charin, it's over. You're not welcome here."

 

"I am high guard, woman. I come and go as I please."

 

"Then go, please."

 

"It pleased me to pay you a visit tonight. I was hoping you'd come to your senses."

 

"My senses?"

 

"There are many women in service at the Citadel, but my mind continues to return to you. I was going to grant you-"

 

"Grant me? No. Return to the harems, Charin. Use them to satisfy you and cast them aside as you please."

 

"Raja-?"

 

"No, Charin. The high guard has changed you. You are not the lover I used to know. Even this poor whelp of an off-worlder offers me more dignity now than you and your lording ways could ever-"

 

"You dare! Give the worthless spy to me. I will take him to the slave camp for you."

 

"I've other plans for this one, Charin. He pleases me, appreciates-"

 

"You will not prostrate yourself to this insect! For the sake of what little dignity you've remaining, I demand you give him to me."

 

"You're not empowered here on the surface, high guardsmen. The heavens may move for you, but not the islands. I've been taking the trash out of this cantina since long before father left it to me. Do not take that tone with me and expect any different."

 

"Insolent woman! Were it not for my hearts sake I would rend you limb from limb. You will not dishonor me again. I will have this off-worlder."

 

"Until your heart beats again, clear of all this high-guard nonsense, you'll have nothing but dishonor from me – "

 

Dreaming. I must be dreaming-and still on acid. That can't be right. My ears are playing tricks on me.

 

Eric's thoughts returned to that mission trip he'd been on in Los Angeles. Their kind host had boasted of his ability to give the same sermon in both Spanish and English. The whole team had been quite confident listening to the Sunday sermon in Spanish, nodding in agreement with what they'd thought was said. But when the English sermon came – he remembered his amazement at how far off his meager Spanish ear had been.

 

And the cat people weren't speaking Spanish. Obviously his mind was just filling in its own subtitles. Odd how self-centered his musings were, but what else did he have that hadn't already fried in the acid obviously seeping through his brain?

 

He awoke, sore from neck to toe, locked in her soft-furred arms like so much steel roller coaster harness.

 

Wait-no! He'd missed a whole-What was THAT last night!?!

 

Dreaming within dreaming … Total Recall? Mind must be just melting …

 

Must remember …

 

She'd pulled him in …

 

Only strobes of sensation returned to him from the evening's end-all out of order: the slow-motion splash of her wrists backhand into warm, flower-pedaled water; the baby's coo that slid between her fangs as her eyes rolled back against the cool tiles; the cannonball knead of her iron-hard body in loose skin over the cold tiles as he'd pumped her; the heavy lift of water off her chest as she exhumed herself from the deepening bath before him … She rolled him over to face him on the floor mat. Her eyes warmed him like campfire as she winked slyly into a seemingly miles-long

stretch. "Morning, cutie."

 

Eric felt somehow cornered and abused. "You speak English?!?"

 

She dropped nose-close to him in a fanged smirk. "Not yet." She rolled over, purring as she rolled his hand absently over her tummy. "Who's kiss do you think this is, anyway?" She curled under the

touch of his hand. "You're speaking Lyran."

 

"What?" His exclamation returned to his ears...in a warped growl. He looked at his hands-still human, regardless of how closely he squinted.

 

"Come on, silly." She rolled over and stretched, tail in the air, claws into the floor, wearing only her birthday fur coat in the sweltering heat. "We've got to ship you out of here."

 

"Here?"

 

"Here" was the bar's back room, a dark, mud-and-thatch affair crammed with crates and boxes of various questionable imbibements. Dusty light beamed in from the scant vents left in the roof. The

whole place seemed more dug-in than built up.

 

"Here." She stood and stretched herself up before him to reach a box in the rafters. "Put this on, you look like a leper, all fur-less like that. Best cover up."

 

Eric's heart sank a smidge. She doesn't see me as a cat.

 

The linen shirt was huge for him, more like a robe. She was returning with a bit of twine to tie it off for him when she stopped and giggled at his appearance.

 

"What?" Eric was thumbing about trying to find a button or zipper or something for his fly.

 

"Um … Other way on the pants, silly."

 

They did feel a bit odd around the waist.

 

Oh.

 

That wasn't a fly. The dusty linen pants were cut for the casual gentleman – with a tail. Eric was now glad the shirt hung nearly to his knees.

 

A few hemming rips of her claws later and the sleeves and pants fit him like a gi.

 

She popped a straw wok on his hat and tied it around his chin before he could complain. "Keep your head down and please don't shoot off your mouth with that horrible offworlder mouse accent of yours."

 

"Hmph."

 

"Look, cutie, I like you but don't press your luck." She scolded him. "If your offworlder butt stays here on Lyra, you'll be dead from the sickness inside two months."

 

His attentions were more about her tying on little more than a linen sling up top and that suggestion of a black skirt …

 

"Listen you -" She pounced down nose-to-nose and stared him down with a flash of those huge bronze cat eyes of hers. "Feeling woozy? Nauseated? Head spinning?"

 

Eric had been all of those and a migraine since he'd arrived last night.

 

"It's only going to get worse for you until it kills you, offworlder."

 

That thought didn't help his migraine.

 

"The law says any offworlder caught down here is to be turned over to the mines, where their leper little buts are worked until they vomit themselves to death."

 

Eric's attention and her breasts gently rose and fell as she spoke.

 

"One cure is to get you back into the sky world, fast." She opened the side door into blinding daylight. "Come on, and keep quiet."

 

Eric drug himself to his feet and crept like a deer to the door. His eyes took about ten steps to adjust to the sunlight before he could open them-and be stunned.

 

"Come along now." She took him by the hand and drug him down winding stone stairs carved into the mountain while he gawked – at everything but her for a change.

 

The world seemed inside out. Mountain-sized islands drifted like icebergs in the sky all around them, complete with forests and streams draining mist off into the air. Eric could see two or three villages clinging to the cliff's edges on nearby mountains, even a thin rope bridge spun like a single strand of spider's web between this sky island and the next across the drifting quarter-mile void.

 

Seagulls? Birds drifted on the ocean drafts all around, screeching in flocks in the distant haze.

 

It felt more like an asteroid belt than a planet. The sun was orange, but the rocks sparkled in emerald.

 

The staircase wound down to a small village plaza crammed with half-timber storefronts and narrow apartments for about a block in all directions. A small market stood by, milling with cats and feline merchants in their various produce bluffs. A few small sailboats crammed with produce and trinkets bobbed tied to the short pier that jutted out over the void like a switchblade. An acre at most held the village carved out of a forest cliff. Ladders lead to the overgrown forest plateau above, presumably to more.

 

She marched him by the wrist like a trophy through the main square to the market. Gasps and stares followed in their wake. He didn't like the feel of it: seemingly lethal were he to twitch wrong.

 

"Skat'en." She stabbed an old merchant in the back with his formal name. "I've a delivery for you."

 

The old grey ocelot turned beneath his black tunic and took an eyeful of the she-cat and her 'prey'. "Always a pleasure, Raja." He slicked back his fur. "My usual rates for freight, weather permitting."

 

The hairs on the back of Eric's neck shot up and a familiar booming growl rained acrid-smelling breath down over him. "I will be taking the offworlder now, Raja."

 

With a jerk to Eric's wrist, the she-cat spun around between him and the huge tiger man. "That will be quite all right, Charin." Eric stumbled around behind her, catching a glimpse of the big cat's bandaged face. "I've business at Skyport anyway and will drop him off along the way."

 

"Raja!" The crowd slunk back as the big tiger drew his backhand against her in full public view. Eric could see the muscles of her back ripple, and feel the prick of her claws unsheathing against his forearm as she held him behind her.

 

"Lieutenant …" An elderly woman stepped forward, her age-whitened cheetah appearance none-the-less sly for her leaning on a staff. "Were I a commander, I could understand if one of my kittens fell on his own claws once while visiting home, having not used his legs in so long …" She visibly purred as her eyes drifted from Charin to Raja and back. "But twice in one sojourn … one would wonder why such a clumsy kitten was allowed into the Citadel."

 

The big cat snarled, and straightened up. "I will walk with greater care, Madam Mayor."

 

"Indeed, young warrior." The old woman turned with a flourish of distain to Raja and winked. "As for you, young 'lady' …" She made it clear she used the term loosely. "Kindly remove that offworlder spy from my village. He'll be of little use in the mines for all this prattle about and delay."

 

"Yes Ma'am." Raja bowed, sheathed her claws, and turned back to the merchant. "Usual freight rates eh …?"

 

The "sloop", if it could be called that, was a lionfish-looking affair with a plank keel of some purple hardwood, and blood red, ribbed, swing-arm sails all-around. The whole of it was paint-chipped, weather-beaten, and splintered like a wicker chair at the slightest shift.

 

"Business is brisk then, missy?" The squint-eyed captain loaded boxes of foodstuffs one foot aboard, the other pier-side. "Drained out that whole raft load from last we -"

 

"Shh." She hushed him, one eye still on a brooding Charin from across the narrow plaza. "Hazard pay for this whelp of an offworlder's enough, Skat. Don't press me -" She gouged a deep set of claw marks in the crate she handed him. "Captain."

 

"Well, I suppose we best be shifting off then." The big lanky cat motioned to Eric. "Come aboard now. Mines are better than the dive from here, offworlder."

 

Eric froze petrified at his first glance over the dock planks.

 

Nothing.

 

Haze and fog obscured the view, but it was a good 500 feet of cliff he could see below him on the way there.

 

"No plunging in now, squirt." The captain grabbed Eric by the scruff of his neck and hoisted him board-stiff terrified into the craft. "You've nothing to fear from me. My bonus for you is for delivery, not disposal."

 

Eric scrambled in a panic to wrap himself around something solid and a moment later had locked his arms around the ships main mast where he remained, white-knuckled.

 

With that, the ship creaked and snapped and lifted into the air over the town. Trees and forests fell away as the little ship lurched straight up, the captain unfurling its sails.

 

"Oh my g-" Eric's stomach couldn't quite keep pace.

 

"First time sky sailing for the little fella?" The captain scoffed from the rudder.

 

"Nah, it's just the sickness." Raja reclined on the foredeck, lazily watching her island disappear into the mist below. "Poor fella's got it bad already."

 

"That ain't the sickness, princess." The captain nodded at Eric. "That's the fear. Same as you had when your pappy first brought you ab-"

 

"Sickness, Skit." Raja corrected. "I found him in my bar last night. No way of knowing how long he's been down here." Her tail twitched over Eric's nose. "He doesn't speak anything sensible."

 

"You're lying, girl." Skit chuckled. "Your tail betrays you."

 

"Just never mind. Ok?" She rolled over to face him down. "What ever happened to 'any load, any rock, no questions asked'?"

 

"Ha!" The captain chuckled. "Back in your father's day, perhaps."

He licked his finger for wind. "I'm too old now not to know where

death should come from." He put the sloop's stern into the

prevailing updraft. "Best to face it when it comes."

 

"Then this is far enough." Raja sat up. "To Skyport, Skit."

 

"What?" He paused as mountains drifted by in the partial cloud cover. "What about him? The mines are drifting south this time of year …"

 

"I'm going to leave Lyra." Her eyes glazed over distantly. "And I'm taking him with me."

 

Skit paused before breaking out in a roaring laughter that echoed in the island canyons. "What!?"

 

"I'm going up the Warspine, and boarding the first offworld ship that will take me." Her eyes darted about the plans in her head.

 

Skit sat back against the keel. "Tigress, if any woman could bluff their way up the War Spine it'd be you for sure, and I believe you might actually get away with it."

 

She nodded, eyes looking far into the future.

 

"But your chances with this whelp in tow are zero and worse."

 

"There has to be a way."

 

"Besides, not if, but once the High Guard spot you, they'll tear whatever offworld ship your on to shreds."

 

"There must be a way."

 

"And you along with it, betrothed lovers or not."

 

"It can't be impossible."

 

"And why risk your life for this whelp anyway?"

 

She paused. "Because the longer he lives in my company … " Her expression soured. "The more shame I pile upon that bastard Charin's name."

 

The captain paused. "Oh my." He gave Eric a second look … and a smell. "Goodness, woman. You didn't -"

 

"I did."

 

Silence.

 

Eric cautiously opened his eyes.

 

The captain whispered to the wind. "To face it when it comes … "

 

"Can I get off now?" Eric begged.

 

"How can I help, lass?" The old captain set his chin. "That Charin boy needs to be humbled."

 

Raja's eyebrow spiked. "All I need is to get to Skyport with him." She pulled an emerald-studded strip of leather from beneath her top and buckled the collar around her neck. "I'll think of the rest."

 

"Your father's High Guard collar." Skit nodded. "You're serious."

 

"Very."

 

"For Sher-Jan then." He tacked the ship over to a new heading and reset the sails.

 

"Thank you, Skit."

 

"How far are we going?" All four of Eric's limbs were now clamped around the mast in petrified fear of the whole conveyance.

 

"There, squirt. Home for you if you live long enough." Skit pointed. "Skyport, Citadel, and the Warspine."

 

He'd pointed to the moon, shimmering white in the distant sky.

 

It had a slight teardrop shape to it … it … was … tethered to the ground like a balloon?!?

 

 

 

Part II: "Neptune's Wrath"

 

The remainder of Eric's day had been a descent into white-knuckled nausea. The sloop tacked at some speed among the floating mountains and clouds like a kayak through a black ice flow-and was about as stable for its size. Captain Skit had produced some twine and muttered something about kittens while he lashed Eric somewhat reassuringly to the mast. This did not dissuade Eric from his best efforts to leave fresh claw marks in the mast-despite Eric not having any actual claws. The craft continued to splinter like wicker at every shift of the wind or bodies and seemed as seaworthy to Eric as the next bundle of matchsticks.

 

"What's holding us up?" Eric had once asked, quite uncomfortable with the wispy void beneath them.

 

"Offworlder spy." Skit had spat. "If I asked what held your space ships in the sky, would you tell me?"

 

"Spaceships?" Eric was confused.

 

Dusk set with all the showy pomp and circumstance in silent color one would expect.

 

They were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of feet higher than the village they'd departed from and the weather turned crisp to prove it. Skit brought the craft to a gentle landing atop a grassy meadow, lashing its keelsails on the approach. "Night here, we'll make Skyport by sundown tomorrow with an early start."

 

Eric's were the first feet to touch grass. His fingers fumbled coldly over the twine knots between him and the sloop's mast as Raja helped Skit stow the sails.

 

"Best not be running off to far, offworlder." Skit cautioned. "Unless you've wings tucked somewhere the cliff's edge is no place for you. And if the High Guard spots you-worse." He pointed to the sky. "We are in the high islands, where trade winds flow swiftly, but they can see from the sky."

 

"Under the hull for you, kiddo." Raja tossed him a tarp off the deck. "Out of sight and stay there."

 

The ground jolted hard beneath them to emphasize their warnings. Eric was knocked hard on his face in the grass as a train wreck of a rumbling swept over his bones. The cats just looked at him, each other … and snickered.

 

"What was THAT?" Eric spat sod.

 

"Island rub." Skit shrugged as he began pounding stake lines into the sod to lash down the sloop. "They hit hard up here."

 

"You get used to it." Raja giggled. "Shhh!" She silenced them, ears twitching in the open wind.

 

The sky had a green city glow to it, enough to choke out all but a handful of the brightest stars and the hazy white shine of the approaching moon. The wind was cold and steady, streaming over the grassy bluff they'd anchored to with a damp mist. Crickets chirped all around them punctuated by the occasional birdcall from the forest at the foot of the hill.

 

"Down!"

 

Skit threw Eric under the boat and tossed the tarp over him. Eric could still see out under the floating keel.

 

A building-sized spaceship in white gleaming plastic and steel lifted over the bluff on white-glowing cables hung from the sky. The craft was scorch marked, torn, and broken, yet it still drifted off overhead like a white whale disappearing into the murky depths of sky. Something returned.

 

It was another tiger man, hanging on a glowing thread like a trapeze artist as it lowered him out of the sky to them.

 

Eric froze, silent as the tiger man's paw touched down.

 

"Good evening my friends." He growled, sniffing the air about. "Apologies for the intrusion, we're just cleaning up here. Have you been here long?"

 

"No sir." Skit paused from his stake pounding. "Just landed a bit ago."

 

"Very good, sailor." The tiger man stepped to the sloop. "Have you seen an offworlder through here recently? We suspect one might have fled the ship in this direction."

 

"Yes sir." Raja's admission stopped Eric's heart. "He ran over our boat, but his weapon wouldn't fire. He ran off into the woods down there just a minute ago. Probably fallen off the edge by now."

 

"Indeed." The tiger man sniffed over the sloop's deck where Eric had been lashed. He picked up the frayed ends of twine from the mast. "First time skysailing?"

 

"The missy's just getting her sky legs, sir. I told her father I'd take care of her."

 

"Mmmm...." Eric could see Raja's feet step lightly between the tiger man's. "Will you be off patrol tomorrow night, soldier?"

 

"Two nights more, Miss."

 

"I was going to Citadel tomorrow night, but for you, I may wait …"

 

"I do appreciate a good tigress, miss …"

 

"Raja."

 

"Its been so many lanky cheetahs lately, a woman with some meat would be most welcome, Miss Raja."

 

"Two nights then …"

 

"I will meet you there. If you will excuse me … I am still on patrol."

 

"Of course, High Guardsman."

 

There was enough silence for Eric to hear the rustle of grass as the tiger man bounded down the hill and into the forest.

 

"Shh." Raja stalled them both.

 

Minutes passed.

 

"Shh." Again she halted them before they could speak.

 

Trees rustled.

 

"Is this the outworlder?" The tiger returned with a struggling human in a bulky space suit in tow by the collar.

 

"Yeah, that's him." Raja lied. "I guess he had his clothes hidden. He was nearly naked when we saw him."

 

"Ah, yes." The tiger agreed. "They often try to hide their scent with these bubble clothes."

 

Eric could hear his fellow man screaming muffled obscenities in an alien language inside his space helmet.

 

"Good evening, citizens." The tiger man found the same glowing strand he'd lowered in on. A tug later and the thread pulled him and the astronaut back into the darkening sky.

 

"Shhh!" Raja hushed them both again.

 

Minutes passed.

 

"Ok, put this on and get under the keel." Raja tossed Skit Eric's hat.

 

Skit looked at her stupid. "You told him you were going to Citadel?"

 

"Just do it."

 

Skit sniffed the hat with apprehension. "And you told him your name?"

 

"Yes." Raja purred ice cold.

 

"Are you mad girl?" Skit gingerly donned the wide-brimmed hat and crawled under the keel without tying it on.

 

"I want them to remember my name."

 

"For what?" Skit handed Eric his hat back. "So they can burry your ashes next to your mother's?" He shook his head at Eric. "Her mother died there, you know."

 

"No." Raja reached under the keep and pulled Eric, hat and all out, her tail twitching. "For when I bring the prophesy."

 

"What!?!" Skit's fanged mouth dropped open. "Girl, I believe in you but -"

 

"How else do you expect me to climb the Warspine?"

 

"It is forbidden. Very forbidden!"

 

"Many things are forbidden."

 

"They'll kill you."

 

"Wait there." She commanded. "They are still watching."

 

"Why?" Skit shook his head in disbelief.

 

"Because High Guardsmen are gods in the sky. But old men and Guardsman on ground patrol are deaf, blind, and scentless." She propped Eric up straight. "Walk with some grace, offworlder. There's another offworlder rat hiding in the trees."

 

"Hey!" Skit objected. "I've enough sense yet to out skysail any whelp you care to mention!" He sat down beneath the keel. "Then again …" Skit mused to himself. "You have your father's cunning."

 

"Hush you." She walked with purpose off into the woods. "Quickly, offworlder."

 

Eric tried to keep up as best he could, but his spinning head and churning stomach make his gait...difficult at best. He barely made it to the tree line before he had to fall to his knees and crawl the rest of the way.

 

"Alright, good." She shrugged. "Just wait there."

 

She was gone just long enough for Eric to yak up the remainder of his stomach. Whatever sickness they threatened him with was slowly convincing him of their honesty. Or was it the day-long tumbling vertigo?

 

The forest was an odd mix of pine and tropical. It felt cold and soggy on his well-soiled linen rags. The trees swayed and hushed each other in the wind. Eric strained to listen for her voice, some sign of her movement.

 

He heard everything but her.

 

She dropped in out of nowhere with another flailing astronaut by the collar which she unceremoniously dumped at Eric's feet.

 

"Talk to him." She flipped the newcomer over on his stomach and began unbuckling his space suit from behind.

 

"Get her off me!" The spaceman struggled uselessly.

 

Eric recovered from being spooked enough to be astonished. "You're hum – you speak English?"

 

"Frack, buddy!" The man's words were suddenly unmuffled as she popped his helmet off. "There's a sidearm on my sleeve holster, can you get to it before she tears us both apart?"

 

"You do speak English!"

 

"Can you understand him?"

 

"Little help here, buddy?"

 

"Yes, he's speaking English-"

 

"Holy frack! You speak Lyran? Get her off me! Not food! Tell her not food for FRAQ's sake! NOT FOOD!!!"

 

"He thinks you want to eat him."

 

She giggled … with a bit too much of a motorboat accent for comfort.

 

"Tell him we can discuss that later. I just want his clothes for now."

 

"You're screwed pal."

 

"What!?! You fracking prick!"

 

"Just kidding. She just wants your space suit."

 

"Frack that!" He struggled against her with renewed vigor like spaghetti struggles against fork and spoon. "That's worse!"

 

"You mind calming him down a bit? I'm kinda ticklish there..."

 

"Just relax buddy. Believe me, she'd have already torn you in two if she wanted to kill you."

 

"Fraq!" He went limp just as she pants'd him. "And I thought it was only the males that were like that."

 

"Thanks. Now ask him where I can catch the first ship out of here."

 

"No problem."

 

"Like what?"

 

"Like what do you THINK, frack head! Ever seen a tiger tear a cruiser in half with his bare hands like a soda cracker?"

 

Eric stalled.

 

"Um … "

 

"What's he say?"

 

"Hang on, he's thinking."

 

"Put on his armor." She'd finished shucking the astronaut like corn.

 

"What?"

 

"Just do it. It will slow the sickness for you. Tell him I can kill him quick at dawn if he can give me information I need."

 

"What are you, her pet or something?'

 

Eric shrugged through his nausia. "Dunno." She pulled Eric's tunic off and helped him with the overly heavy space jacket.

 

"Oh frack no! You're not going to take my-" The astronaut grasped for the firearm, drew and –

 

Flocks of birds lifted noisily off the forest. Skit looked up from his evening nap … and settled his chin back again.

 

The bark had splintered beneath the astronaut's wrist where she had impaled it against the tree. The firearm fell unfired in Eric's lap from the astronaut's limp and whitening palm.

 

"Fraq!" The astronaut winced in pain but Eric couldn't hear him over the ringing in his ears from her point-blank roar.

 

"Don't piss 'er off man." Eric whispered just as uselessly. "I saw her take down a male once like that."

 

She stepped away with distain. The astronaut fell back on his posterior, cradling his shattered wrist, turning white with shock and pain.

 

She knelt to nose-to-nose with Eric and mouthed "make him talk", stood, turned on her heel, and disappeared into the woods.

 

Minutes passed before the ringing subsided.

 

"Frak." The astronaut finally winced. "They're not supposed to be that strong on the surface."

 

"How strong … exactly?"

 

"Frakhead! Were you born in the mines or something?"

 

"No, but I've been threatened with that."

 

"Best play mouse then, pet boy. I get you now. Definitely don't want to go to the mines."

 

"Wouldn't mind dying about now."

 

"Yeah, you got it bad. Check my back pack, anti-rad meds will keep you together for a day or so, or … you have the firearm. Just off me before you off yourself is all I ask."

 

"Radiation?"

 

"Frak! Don't you know anything?"

 

"My name is Eric."

 

The astronaut paused. "Trace. My name's Trace."

 

"What are you doing in my nightmare, Trace?"

 

Trace chuckled weakly through the pain. "That's about right. You don't look like the starfaring type. Some kind of admin?"

 

"Journalism major, baseball scholarship."

 

Trace pitched back against the tree. "Well, take a memo, press boy: we're both frakked. Leo's boys got my ship and the rest of my crew. Sky only knows what you're doing here."

 

"Crash land?"

 

"Hardly. Perfect thirty point landing-most of them the windshield." He paused in a nervous chuckle. "Yeah, they spotted us coming in and frakked us up. Too close to the Warspine. Thought we could slip by in all the traffic."

 

"Pirates?"

 

"Of a sort." Trace palmed a handful of dirt. "Ever see raw kryptonite?" He ground the dirt through his fingers and watched half of it fall back to the forest floor-and the other half fall up like chunky green-flecked smoke from his hand. "Most valuable stuff in the whole galaxy-impossible to synthesize."

 

Recent things started to make sense in Eric's mind like butter mixing with molasses over frozen toast.

 

"Huh?"

 

"Don't know what you're sitting on? A whole frakking planet made of the stuff." He shook his head in disbelief. "Kid, even the dust on your feet's enough to make you wealthy for life-if you can survive to get your feet off this hell hole."

 

"Like gold?"

 

"Frak, kid. Are you for real? Gold I can getcha by the asteroid-full! It's everywhere. Shoot, Cappy used'ta wipe is ass with that frak. Makes for good electronics I suppose, if your into antiques. Kryptonite, on the other hand-gotta have it, impossible to get. It runs everything on a star cruiser from the engines to the captain's shoe-shiner."

 

"Fuel?"

 

"Nah. Fuel's easy. Just nuke whatever frak you've got handy. Problem is dumping the waste energy-and that's what kryptonite's for. This stuff absorbs limitless energy at room temperature. Kryptonite's what keeps the nuke hardware from overheating-run it all day long, perfectly safe. It's the miracle cure for any high-energy application. Nice and neat … and lethal expensive. A fleck of it can run a star cruiser, but there's only a shovel full or so of it left in the Galaxy-except for here."

 

 

"But they mine the stuff don't they?"

 

"Hardly. Used to, but then they got all snippity about is pulling these big ore rocks down out of their sky. Pulled the plugs on us ten years ago. See that?" He pointed to the chained moon through the trees.

 

"Yeah?"

 

"That's not their moon. That's the crushed remains of the last battle fleet to try and take it from them. They tethered it up there just as an example. They make you dock with it to trade with them for a few flecks of the stuff every now and then at ludicrous exchange rates. And nobody's allowed down on whatever surface you can find down here anymore."

 

"You're a pirate."

 

"High risk prospector. Doesn't matter. Dead now. Tigers have seen to that. Turns out the cats turn all god-like once they're off the surface. They're like one-critter battle cruisers. Fly just as fast, can scan further, hit harder, and you can't kill 'em for nothing. Tried to nuke 'em all on the surface from orbit that last time, but..." He pointed to the moon. "Didn't quite work out. Only thing that keeps them from taking over the galaxy is they've got no trans-light ability – not that they don't already get whatever they ask for from us as it is."

 

"So how'd you get through?"

 

"Look, frackker, for all I know you're just her pet spy. I ain't telling you nothing she don't already know-except that that gun ain't gonna work. It's my plasma, and none of that refined energy stuff works down here in the dirt anyway: plasma, electrics, nuclear – nothing. All damped out. Only the sickness and fire works here. It's not even hard radiation. You can hold a carrot or two of the green stuff in your pocket forever no big-its this frakking planet full of the stuff all at once that builds up enough sub-quark noise to kill you. She already got my carbine when she jumped me. Gunpowder's about all that works down here. She frakked up my wrist for nothing."

 

"Could have fooled me."

 

"Yeah, well that's what I was going for." He pulled out a sealed packet from his pocket. "It's a small victory, but all I've got left lately. We had a chemical rocket ready to return a load, but I saw they just towed that off from orbit. Frank and I were lucky we were off scouting-well … not so lucky I suppose. Help yourself to my rations, but stay out of these …" He popped a pill.

 

"… Until you're ready to punch out." He slumped over against the tree, dead.

 

"Well?" She dropped out of the tree. "When's the next trade ship coming in?"

 

"Midnight, tomorrow." The lie came out too easily.

 

"That's about what I was hoping." She winked. "Let's get you into his suit before you start to blister too much."

 

 

 

Part III: Of Heavens and Earths

 

Whatever Trace had in his 'anti-radiation meds' was amazing. The migraines dissipated, the nausea had flushed itself out and Eric was actually strong enough within the hour to stand wearing the space suit …

 

Or what was left of the suit once she'd unscrewed all the armored panels and left him with a leaden chain mail romper. It weighed more than he did, but with some assistance he could sit up, even stand, but walking was slow business. His tunic did fit over most of it nicely.

 

As if he ever stood a chance at making a break for it.

 

Two feelings never left Eric: the feeling his brain was slowly melting and the feeling he was going nowhere.

 

They'd stowed him under the tarp and lashed him to the mast as dawn broke through the floating crumble of continents in the alien sky.

 

Raja assumed her lazy sprawl over the bow rail, one leg trailing over the void. Skat brooded as his usual lump at the rudder, one eye at the skies ahead, the other shaving over the lay of her curves.

 

A seagull of sorts once ventured a perch on the foredeck-for about three seconds before being nearly snapped in half beneath her paw like a mousetrap. They'd offered, but Eric preferred to gnaw on a few dried jerky bits from Trace's gear instead while he watched Skat and Raja peel the bird's carcass apart between them for a bit of raw brunch.

 

Eric's stomach just wasn't up to the adventure, or much of the jerky either after that spectacle in feathers and blood.

 

It seemed to Eric that although they walked upright, wore clothes, lived in somewhat sensible housing, and said mostly intelligible things-they were never more than a minute or two from some shameless display of their feral nature. Certainly he found it quite erotic in small doses, but as the second day dawned in their company Eric's heart grew sore of the constant brace in primal fear of them … and the altitude.

 

Civil, sometimes, but civilized they weren't.

 

"Skyport" was another matter entirely. They'd approached it from above. Better winds, Skat claimed, but mostly it afforded a stunning view of the thing. Were they trying to impress him with its grandeur?

 

It was a pond's ripple of a sky-floating atoll. It stretched nearly from horizon to horizon as they descended upon the rim of the thing miles, perhaps dozens of miles across. The whole of it was built to overflowing in boney, bright stucco towers, flowing, canvas-covered plazas, vine-choked pathways, flagstone fountains and streams, sinuous bridges in wood, stone, and twine, and cluttered to ticklish with milling cats of all dress and description. The cooking oil and aged lemon stench of the place hung heavy with flocks of odd seabirds like swarming flies and drifting fleets of sky-sailing craft of all sizes from one-board flotsam to building-sized barges hung with anything from spears to crates to banners proclaiming the bargains they carried in the shanty markets within. The deep grey waters of the actual ocean could be seen through the center void of the harbor, gleaming in smaller, darkly forested islands and pleasure yachts a mile or so below in the morning sunlight. There were no bridges to the central feature: "Citadel" hung in the vast middle of the place, a sparkling diamond of white crystal and timber palace encrusted across a huge black asteroid brooding like a fishing weight at the moon's sinuous tail. "Warspine", the bristling moon, hung over it all like a coral chandelier over a polished ballroom in the lengthening sun. Thunderheads prowled the horizon, but dared not approach the pier-bristling Skyport.

 

"Down you." Raja shoved Eric's face back under the tarp. "Not a peep, mouse."

 

The sloop nudged soft to the dock. Eric tried not to breathe as the craft splintered all around him, the two cats tying off to the pier.

 

Eric heard a new snarl.

 

"My my. The wild child returns, and so soon. Thirsty, they have

become on the frontier this season, perhaps, yes?"

 

"Hush." Eric was noticing a theme in Raja's dialog. She suffered no teasing and little of much else either. "I'm not here on my business today-nor any of yours either."

 

"I see. Curious, I am. And Captain Skit? Expensive transport for your errands, Miss."

 

"Only a fool hunts after a woman's business."

 

"Indeed, Captain. Forgive my intrusion. Five for the mooring, if you would."

 

"Five!?" Skit snarled. "It was three only last week!"

 

"Wholesale discount last week, my friends. No cargo … no discount."

 

"Give the warf rat his due." Raja spat. "And wait for me here. By business may be brief-and I'll expect a refund if we depart early."

 

"Of course."

 

"Panthers." Raja sighed as she departed.

 

Skyport's breath was raspier than the exhale of cities where Eric was from. Then again, Skyport traffic seemed entirely on foot and no cat here wore a bell, let alone carried horns. The screech of sea birds kept up like a distant cacophony of beginning violin students, punctuated by the odd roar and child-like scream of the cats all around.

 

Eric awoke in night's black embrace as the tarp was ripped off him in a snarling baritone of a flourish. "Offworlder!" The huge tiger roared, his eyes flaring ruby crimson as he brandished his torch intrusively over the shadows in the sloop's small hull.

 

Oh shit.

 

The prison barge had all the luxury trappings of a Roman war galley: chains, benches, and stench stiffer than the bulkheads. Eric had been glad when they'd set sail with no other prisoners aboard, but now, five days out to sky, the empty crate was eating at his mind faster than his starving stomach was eating him alive from the inside-out, and faster than the stench of the place, mostly his, was corroding his nose.

 

The beating they'd given him wasn't particularly malicious, merely the lack of care for his frailty the big tigers had shown him in dragging from one holding cell to another until a prison ship was ready to depart. There'd been no trial. His not being a cat was reason enough for them. Strictly business, he was strictly cargo at this point.

 

Eric awoke with a jolt as the craft shuddered.

 

Did we hit something? Have we arrived?

 

The hatch opened and another prisoner was unceremoniously dumped in, chains and all.

 

She looked up at him as the hatch closed to pitch darkness once again. She was battered and bruised, clearly beaten with purposeful maliciousness, her bronze eyes an angry, tarnished green.

 

"Raja!"

 

The barge lurched to a crosswind and was under sail once again.

 

 

 

Part IV: Yours, Mines, and Hours

 

Eric spent the rest of the voyage a taught ball twine, unable to

sleep for fear the coiled she-devil in the corner would devour him.

 

She said nothing.

 

He couldn't even see her in the pitch black of the ship's hold, but he could hear her chains rattle as she ship shifted to the weather.

 

And he could hear her breathing, slow, deliberately, an injured rasp to her. More than that he feared to know.

 

Hours? Days?

 

The deck fell out from beneath them.

 

Sand.

 

The shadow of the prison barge glided off them like a manta ray back into the sea of sky and stone above. Fresh, sea air washed over them in its wake.

 

Tufts of grass jerked in the dew-heavy wind atop the sand dune where they'd been silently dumped. Twilight eternal settled in all around them in the heavy fog.

 

"Stand up, mouse." She whispered in the wind's howl.

 

His legs were as wobbly and stiff as they ever were, but he stood just out of thankfulness to hear her raspy voice again.

 

They both stood in chains atop a hill of black sand. A group of shambling cats in chains looked at them in fog-wrapped silence from the bottom of the hill.

 

She led him stumbling in the loose sand down the hill to meet with them while they watched. She stumbled down and stood next to a wiry-looking panther as he watched the both of them with motionless, steel-grey eyes.

 

"He's mine." She whispered over the panther's shoulder.

 

Words dropped from the grey panther's fang-packed lips like drool. "We'll see."

 

Lightning flashed in the clouds overhead. The black rock and sand crag was no bigger than a football field. It hung heavy up to its neck in the grey sea, waves, foam, and spray breaking over the cliffs at its chin. Scrub grass passed for vegetation on the volcanic clod. The surface was pockmarked with burrows, sand piles, and bones. A single wooden platform stood in the middle of the plateau, a single woven basket flapping in the wind, tied to a pole hung above it.

 

The grey panther strode to Eric's side, staring out over the sand. "Welcome to the mines, offworlder."

 

Eric stood as best he could in the driving ocean winds.

 

English. He's speaking English!

 

"Yes, I know your tongue, offworlder. We're all here for helping the offworlders try to steal the sickness stones. I served for many missions on a skimmer of theirs before we were caught. Your language is hardly the accomplishment you make of it."

 

The tribe of them shuffled up the hill with their expressions of distrust and disdain. The very ground shifted and rolled lazily in the ocean waves, adding to Eric's growing nausea.

 

"Don't mind this old cat and whatever he tells you." She walked through the midst of them. "Another old man with no life left in him. That he speaks offworlder only tells of the high sky life he once lost."

 

"As punishment the High Guard sends us here to learn the true value of the sickness stones." He swept his arm over the island crags. "This is what's left of an old mine, once a high island mountain." He paused to sit in the onyx sand. "The stones are all that hold our land above the ocean and the beasts it contains."

 

"Or the rest of them. How long have they been here?" She stooped to stare into one's blank expression. "Defeated."

 

The clan of them stood around like statues, looking on … and out. The one she stared down growled, hissed at her...and sighed.

 

"Children will never again play in its forests, hunt in its streams. Only us, here, waiting for this mine to sink beneath the waves forever."

 

"He's just trying to drag you down into his world."

 

"They offer you food here for what sickness stones are left for you to find." He pointed at the basket on its rope. "They send us here to starve … or feed yourself and drown … or worse."

 

"What would you have us do, stripes?" One of the tribe shrugged. "Swim back to Skyport? None can out-swim the leviathans in this sea. Only the black ship ever comes here anymore, and it never lands."

 

"I didn't come here to die." She spat.

 

They all chuckled.

 

"Live then, stripes." The panther sighed. "Fish are cunning but plentiful here, good meat but you'll need bait to hunt them."

 

"Sorry kiddo." The panther nosed at Eric. "Cut him up if you like. We might anyway."

 

"No." She shinged open a paw full of claws. "I'll kill the first four to even think of it."

 

"And the fifth?"

 

"There are only eight of you. If I kill the quickest four, what chance do the rest stand?"

 

"I'll take that bet, stripes." A mangy lion stood two full heads over her.

 

"Trust me, you're not her first." Eric shook his head.

 

"The mouse speaks Lyran?" The panther nodded. "Choice."

 

They all double-took Eric.

 

"Nobody will be killing anybody today, my friends." The panther held up his hands. "Fewer voices make for a tighter prison. Friends, we welcome you and the company you will provide." He looked at Eric. "For as many days as you may live."

 

"Swell."

 

"May I have a look around then?" She asked.

 

"Certainly." The lion shrugged. "There's fresh rain water in the pits, but please make all deposits over the edge, as one would expect. Dinner is when you can catch it and linen services never come. You're allowed to give them no more than one handful of stones for meat, and we recommend you use that as bait to fish. There's a salt patch on that wall over there, and avoid that bluff over there as its full of bloodstone. And don't let the waves rock you to deep into sleep: the larger storms can roll the whole mine over in the water."

 

The panther leaned back and stretched out in the sand. "He says that to everybody. I've only seen it roll twice."

 

Her ears pricked up. "Bloodstone did you say?"

 

"Yeah, and could you settle a bet for us?"

 

"What?"

 

"Which one of us are you going to take first?"

 

She didn't answer.

 

"Please." The panther rattled his own chains. "We have to know. There's little else to do here. Fishing is such endless doldrums."

 

"None." She spat.

 

"Well now." The panther gave her a second look. "Another desperate harlot, eh? We get more of those down here than Skyport rumor would have it."

 

"Call me a harlot again and I'll -"

 

"You'll what? Take the eight of us on? Either way you'd like to hear that I'd like to see it. Can mouseboy here watch?"

 

"Nevermind."

 

"Listen, stripes, none of us here really did anything all that murderous."

 

"I'm getting off this mine."

 

The wind paused, and resumed from a different direction.

 

"Can we watch?" The panther gnawed on the end of the femur he'd been fumbling with. "Unless you've got a Highguard boyfriend with a really long tether to drag your cute rear out of here …"

 

"If I could humble myself to a highguardsman, I wouldn't have landed here."

 

"Figured." The panther leaned to whisper to Eric. "Poor tigers. Their women are all prisses, their boys are always knuckle-dragging brutes. It's a wonder how they ever reproduce."

 

Eric bit his tongue.

 

She rolled her eyes and sat down in the sand. "And panthers toms and their silver tongues lie every third word."

 

"Second word." The grey panther corrected with a chuckle.

 

"So who'd you toss over to be the mayor of this rock?" She asked.

 

"Would you like the list?" He grinned and held his chains up innocently. "Really depends on who was asleep that night."

 

"Figured."

 

"Take your time. The island is small. You'll have to come back around to me sooner or later, especially after we chop up mouse here for bait."

 

"You're not really going to -"

 

"We're serious, stripes." The panther tossed the bone over his shoulder. "We just ran out of bait yesterday. It was so nice of you two to drop by. You can't use the basket until you've found some stones, but there's a few whole shoulder blades left in that pit over there."

 

"Thanks." She stood. "Come on, mouse."

 

Eric stood and sat down again. The sickness was returning.

 

"Crawl if you have to. It's dig or bait, and they ain't cutting me up first."

 

The water in the bottom of the pit was cold and bit almost as much as the jagged volcanic rocks did. Eric's blood hit the water in the bottom of the pit before his feet did.

 

"Come on, mouse. I'll help." She encouraged. "Just a few rocks I suppose and we can call it a night. This far down in the mountain's feet it should be easy."

 

Together they turned over rocks. Mostly her. His meager strength was fading to the cold and sickness and she was as spry as ever. Half the time he had to stop and catch his breath it was from the strain, the other half just from watching the muscles across her back flex and flow beneath her stripes and chains as the rocks lifted easily in her grasp.

 

"We're getting out of here." She was hoisting two to five hundred pound armload-sized hunks of jagged granite like shlepping baskets of laundry. Eric had seen her deck a tiger five times her size, but he'd figured it was all just some cat judo style of hers. Was she really that strong? Eric had tried a boulder when she wasn't looking-and couldn't budge it. It felt to him like it was bolted to the pit's wall. He'd quickly resigned in a nervous grin to pawing crumbling handfuls of rocks from around the boulders she was prying up.

 

"Just need to find the …" A few heaves later she lay paws on the boulder Eric had tried, tugged it up and tossed it one-handed over her shoulder. It cracked in two in a splash on the pile of boulders she was moving, other side of the pit, and she was on to the next one.

 

Geez!

 

"Citadel isn't the only …" She seemed every bit as strong as the nine-hundred-pound Bengal her dirty orange stripes implied-all the more insanely strong considering the svelte frame she somehow crammed it all into. Were they all that strong? Was it just tigers – or just … her?

 

"I dig, you spot." She ordered. "Looking for the green chunks, kinda shiny. And …"

 

Eric got down on his knees and pawed through the rubble in her wake. He was more fantasizing about his roommate's beat-up Honda that always stole his parking spot back at the house and how if she were there she could just flip it over by the bumper, slamming it flat on its roof into the side of the disused pool. The little Honda perhaps, but could she flip a Buick?

 

How strong is she, exactly? She seemed to be working up a bit of a pant shifting boulders, seems close to her limits down here …?

 

"… Said it would be here … somewhere …" Thunder rolled overhead.

 

Rain dripped, and then poured down, chilling the walls of the pit.

 

It had been a while since Eric had a free thought for home, the college frat house … if the place could even survive someone like Raja around, and if she were in that world if she'd even notice him. She'd probably be off with one or more of the varsity gorillas that drug their knuckles about the place. Having her in his world would probably do him more harm than good anyway. She'd only break his heart just in passing, and quite a bit of the scenery along the way. Home seemed like lifetimes ago in the jagged, soaking wet cold of the pit, yet only moments away … soft ground, a warm bed to sleep in …

 

Until they struck metal.

 

She froze at the hollow, metallic twang at her feet and hushed him. Her eyes sparkled with some insane glee.

 

"Not a word from you, mouse." She whispered, in awe. "Help me with this …"

 

He wasn't much help. She doubled her pace in excitement. Inside a minute she'd cleared stones off the side of what looked in the gloom like a cratered meteor buried in the side of the pit's rock wall.

 

She ran her claws through its skin and showed him the black putty she scraped off. "Lead." She could hardly contain her excitement.

 

Great. As if I'm not being poisoned enough.

 

She motioned for him to hold the chain between his wrists up to it for her. She hoisted an armload of boulder and posed to smash his chains with it.

 

"Um …" He winced.

 

Sparks jumped off the meteorite as she heavily crumbled the boulder off his chains.

 

His chains held.

 

The meteorite cracked.

 

"Again …" She looked around for another sizable boulder. "Can't believe there's one …"

 

"Found anything yet?" The panther growled from over the lip of the pit.

 

"Nothing yet, dear." She lied.

 

"Not surprised." He called back. "It's an old pit. Just wanted to bait-out the offworlder while he's still got some meat on him."

 

"Figured." She called back and cracked another boulder over Eric's chains. "Bastard."

 

"Just getting by, Stripes."

 

"Life." The shell of the meteorite crumbled inward and white. It was a geode in white crystals.

 

"Exactly."

 

She shoved Eric in the hole they'd made like loading laundry. "Rough work here. Taking five."

 

"You got about three hours left, Stripes. Dawn coming and the fish will be biting."

 

"Oh yeah." She slipped in behind Eric. A moment later she'd found the plug they'd knocked out and fit its two pieces back in the geode's shell.

 

The glass-sharp center of the thing was barely hollow enough for the both of them to sit and look at each other in the white crystal's dim glow.

 

She held her finger to her lips in a nodding grin.

 

The walls began to glow brighter, either that or Eric's eyes were just adjusting to the darkness. That didn't make sense. It was night outside to begin with.

 

She began to undress him from the tattered chain mail he still wore.

 

The glow began to pulsate from the walls.

 

Saltwater at the bottom of the fractured geode began to fizz.

 

Eric's chains kept him from removing his shirt and chain mail shorts, but they managed to bunch them at his wrists and ankles.

 

"Citadel" She whispered, grinning in the orange glow. Cuts on her face began to visibly heal. "The sickness' other cure."

 

Eric's skin began to crawl with pins and needles. It felt like an acupuncturist was massaging his body with porcupines, stabbing, and pulling them bloodily from his flesh.

 

His eyes sparked with ice-cold light as his head began to clear. Chains, chain mail, and mud alike began to fizz and dissolve into the air. His body seemed to float off the jagged crystals all around as if in some gaseous spa.

 

Her flaming red hair danced around her face, bleeding white while he watched, transfixed.

 

She gripped him by the skull, yanked him in and plunged one on him, salty lips, sandy tongue, fangs and all. The kiss oozed over their bodies until they were well entangled. She seemed to suck a symphony of every love song he'd ever heard from his brain, exploding all at once in his ears.

 

Did her tail just rattle?

 

He could feel her skin tightening on her. She was slowly melting into stone in his arms. He tried to pull away but couldn't, she was far too strong. The next moment he didn't want to.

 

She let him slip into her, like being smothered into a flaming ice cream sandwich. Her waist slithered like a snake in his arms, her ass flowed like cold steel in his grip. She rode him, moaning like a flailing fish, her tail constricting down his right leg. Her claws raked through flesh across his shoulder blades leaving fire in their wake and ice again as the gouges healed over in scars as quickly as she drug her claws.

 

She pulled off his face and both-handed his face to his ears into her deepening cleavage. She purred like a tractor, numbing Eric's teeth in their gums as she all but shook them from his head.

 

A moment later she'd plunged him back first into the jagged crystal behind him. She worked his body like a pestle from the hips, grinding the huge crystals like sugar to crumble beneath them. Eric thirsted to return the favor but she was just impossibly strong, her muscles shuddering as they expanded while he yet gripped her. The grey panther reclined atop the bluff, picking his teeth with a fish bone. It had been a good evening. New company, the weather was somewhat agreeable …

 

The tigress was a hot little number, a godsend. Rare that the High Guard would banish one of their own like that, but he'd take her. Take her indeed. He'd pointed her to the oldest, most fruitless digging pit on the rock, hoping she'd wear her enthusiasm out quickly and her pet mouse could be dispatched neatly in the morning. He could wait. "Stripes" obviously never tried the smooth and velvet soft mannerisms of a true panther, of which he was a prime specimen. She would melt to his words. At his advanced age and experience, he knew how to pet a woman's heart in ways that would haunt her dreams … she was just a kitten –

 

The island jolted.

 

Gravel danced for a moment across the pits. Cats popped up looking around nervously. Island fall? Was it some new leviathan toying with them from beneath?

 

The ground thumped again. Spray kicked off the cliffs all around at once.

 

Nothing but ocean as far as the fog would allow the eyes.

 

The land jerked fore than aft … and again.

 

"Leviathan!" The panther shouted over the roar of the ocean's loosening grip on the island. Cats bounded and scrambled to the center of the island where the panther stood like a hedgehog, watching, waiting.

 

The ground jolted in fits beneath them. Waves stood and fell in all around the islands edge. The whole island lifted in a titanic heave from the water and fell back again in a sigh.

 

Cats sunk claws into stone, tails twitching wildly.

 

The ground crumbled in a shaft of light at their feet and fell into the pit as they all scrambled for higher ground.

 

Raja sat up snow white from the rubble, casting it aside as easily as brushing her hair back. All eyes fell to her as the island bobbed and lurched to steady itself after the island quake.

 

She stood unchained and leering from the rubble, pulling Eric's unconscious body from the black swath behind her, her eyes blazing a brilliant jasper. "Now … about who I'll take first?"

 

The grey panther stuttered. "Skkyf-"

 

"Skyfang?" Raja shrugged.

 

The cats present dropped to all fours and bowed low at the word.

 

"Please. She was so ten generations ago." Her feet dripped saltwater as her toes leapt to the pits crest. "Come'on, mouse, wake up." She flicked water across Eric's face. "You're cured. Snap out of it."

 

"But h-how?"

 

She picked up the lion by the chin. "Look, we're not monsters, or legends or anything like that. The highguard toms are just … insecure is all." She brushed the lion off and set him on his feet. "Skyfang was just a priss like me, nothing more."

 

Eric's head rolled around in a moan-and snapped more awake than he'd been in a week. "Whoah."

 

"Get down!" The panther had him on his knees by his hair in a moment.

 

"Hey!" Thunder struck among them as she blinked to the panther's face. "I told you he's mine."

 

The panther slunk back at the scalding glow of her ruby eyes.

 

"What's – ?" Eric risked looking up.

 

"Nice going, mouseboy." The panther bowed. "Your mistress was a goddess in disguise – respectfully, miss."

 

"Well, um …"

 

"Look, fellas, I'm just another Highguard, nothing to be afraid of."

 

"Um … Highguard … they can only -"

 

White-hot beams of heat lanced across the lion's ears from her eyes, singeing the tips of his fur-and blasting the tops of three rubble piles fifty yards behind him red hot, steaming into the sea.

 

"Do that in space?" She blinked smoking and sly. "Yeah," she shook out her snow white hair. "The sickness stones don't affect females. I'm feeling that already."

 

The fragrance of burnt fur assaulted Eric's nose. Something about it jarred his brain. "Wait a minute … kryptonite!?!"

 

She turned to him and licked her fangs. "Yes." She curled a bicep and watched with the rest of them, transfixed. "Most of its green, lethal to offworlders and little use to Lyrans either …" Her arm shuddered and slowly expanded, veins popping through her fur as her muscle shuddered and throbbed slightly bigger to each beat of her slow, steady heart. "It saturates us, holding back the energies we all have inside us … but white krypton …"

 

The panther nodded. "She found starstone. Girl, please, we could all -"

 

"No." The twitch of her tail knocked the panther scrambling against the rocks without even touching him. "You toms can't handle it. It must be returned to the sea where it belongs."

 

"Please … if only –"

 

Her bicep throbbed monstrously huge, beginning to fill out into her palm.

 

"I only wish to leave Lyra. I've no intent of starting a war among you."

 

"But, you let the mouse – ?"

 

"I suggest you all run … that way please."

 

They did.

 

 

Her fist bounced the island whole off the sea and shattered a hole through its rock it like a donut. A huge spray of saltwater shot up from all points and returned through the hole she made with rock and sparkling diamond shards in its massive grip into the black heart of the ocean.

 

The panther squinted through the spray just to see her lean into the side of the rocks "Run fools!" The grey panther caught Eric midair by the ribs and carried him underarm up an increasingly steep rock face. "She's going to roll it!"

 

Cats scrambled up what became a sheer cliff. There was a pause a hundred feet over the frothing waves as the island keeled over like stadium-sized granite platters … don't.

 

"Go, go go!" The panther leaped down the wet side, following the slide of the waves as the ocean's fingers slipped from the seaweed-choked and slimy side.

 

Debris dusted off the dry side of the island as it fell over sunny-side down. Eric was trundled, splashed and slimed over the undersea side as it fell out from beneath them, back into the sea. Crabs too large for carryon luggage skittered from beneath a withering forest of seaweed.

 

A wave of water ten feet high swept over again as the bottom flattened into the sea. Eric was nearly drowned by the wash of it. Somehow the panther held on until the water drained away again. The panther shook water from his ears and roared at the sky loud enough to set Eric's ear's ringing. That was an experience he was getting used to.

 

Another cat answered him from somewhere out in the seaweed slime … then another.

 

"Come fool." The panther dropped Eric in the slime and set off on foot, growling curses under his breath in both languages, and a third Eric couldn't catch. "I was just frigging kidding about rolling it … hear that girl?…"

 

"Sounded like fun, actually." She had Eric and the panther swept up and into the air, one in each hand as she flew over the beached kelp forest.

 

"And who taught you offworlder speak?" The panther growled.

 

"Ask him." She giggled as she set them on their feet with the others she'd gathered. "His name's Talos. He snuck off a trader a month ago. Quite the diplomat, but not much else."

 

"Should have chummed him on sight."

 

"Careful what you wish for." She bolted straight up into the morning fog and plunged into the sea downrange.

 

The next instant a locomotive-sized eel breeched jaw-first where she'd gone in. She'd leapt from the water and caught it by the jawbone before it could fall back. She hoisted the beast straight up one-armed. It jerked and flailed its enormous length as she continued to lift its snake-like body from the water, but could not break free of her clawed grip. The same could be said of the sopping wet and obviously irked lion she had by the scuff of the neck in her other paw.

 

She was easily a hundred feet in the air before the beast's tail flapped free of the water.

 

"She wouldn't …" The panther's shoulders fell in resignation as he watched her approach with her flailing cargo. The leviathan must have weighed dozens of tons of scaly, slimy, angry fish.

 

"Scatter!"

 

Seaweed flew in sedan-sized chunks in all directions as the giant sea beast jerked and flailed against the island. The island itself teetered under the weight of it.

 

She released its head and drew back into the air, inhaling. The maw of the eel gaped and shot up like a snake strike after her to swallow her whole for its revenge.

 

She blew a blizzard from her lips that caught the leviathan in a spider's web of crackling ice and blasted a hurricane of frozen seaweed and crabs across the suddenly foggy surface of the island. The trembling lion collapsed to the ground in shock when he dropped him off with the others. "Enough fish to share?"

 

They were all shock-stunned, nearly as wide-eyed frozen as the leviathan.

 

"It should stay frozen for a year or so. Good luck eating it all … just a second …" She bolted off into the fog again.

 

There was a clap of thunder heavy enough to land them all on their rears in the muck where they were when she returned the next instant.

 

"Fresh water enough for you as well."

 

Rain fell in a heap all around them like glass shearing off a skyscraper.

 

"Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to take my mouse and my leave of you gentlecats."

 

It was minutes after she shot off with Eric by the armpits before any dared breathe.

 

 

 

Part V: Of Hammers and Nails

 

 

 

 

Part VI: Warspine and Beyond

 

 

 

 

Part VII: Dreamcatcher

 

"Lips locked" never made much sense to Eric, the phrase was just too … case hardened. It was more like "lips smeared", or "slid", more like how a cool sponge on a soapy car on a hot summer's day … scrubbing … pricking-

 

Pricking?

 

Ow!

 

Eric awoke in a hungrily choking fit as her lips lifted off of his face.

 

"He'll be alright." She was an unnaturally cute … Eric's tongue stung with a fresh cold sore or something as they helped him off the scruffy hardwood floor. The tattered couch smelled of dust and sweat, but felt comfy to sit on while Eric's head spun down.

 

"Geez dude, you ok?" Barry was just peeling himself off the floor. The party had long since broken up. Those remaining were wielding brooms and pulling the streamers off the wood paneled walls of the old ramshackle sorority house.

 

She wore nothing between her white suede petticoat and that shrink-fit miniskirt of hers. She was the kind of shape superbikes aspired to, seemingly built for power, speed – and the space between your legs. "Just about lost you there, kiddo. You shouldn't let them spike you like that." She righted an overturned sofa single-handed.

 

"Dude … what time is it?" Barry flailed in the corner like a newborn deer trying to stand for the first time.

 

"Sunday." She answered. "You're cool, no class yet."

 

"Oh gawd." Barry winced. "Parents day."

 

"Dude, you're frakked." Eric chuckled, puzzled at the taste of blood.

 

"Heh. 'Frakked'. Good one man." Barry climbed up the back of the sofa to standing. "What's that from?"

 

She shot Eric a look that went through him like a bucket of ice water. "Come on you two clowns. Party's over. Shoo!" She was on Barry's butt with a broom.

 

"Alright, alright babe!" Barry stumbled over Eric's lap. "Little help dude?"

 

"Can you take Mr. Happy here home?" She helped them both to their feet. "I can't figure how he's still drunk 8 hours later."

 

"Nah." Eric shrugged. "Barry's like this all the time. I'll get him home."

 

"Thanks." She went back to sweeping the bottles and cans from the corners.

 

"Hey Raj!" One of her housemates paused with the vacuum in the hallway. "Your week for the hall bathroom …" She swung a door open and made an acrid face. "Special prize inside for ya."

 

"Gee thanks." She sighed.

 

Raj – ?!?

 

Eric froze at the sound of her voice. His room turned slowly around to face her. He dropped Barry off his shoulders like a sack of potatoes.

 

She paused at the thud, leaning on the broom and swept a look over him he missed while his eyes refocused on the nonsensical things about her he'd simply … passed over.

 

Her eyes narrowed as well. "How much do you... remember …" She mouthed the words silently with her fangs – and not in English.

 

Oh … shit.

 

 

 

The Lyran Chronicles, "White Silence", (chapter order unknown).

(a continuation of "Tangerine Dreams")

 

WHAM!

 

Deep blue bathwater warm snapped him up like the maw of a fizzing cobra. The water tinted the violet hewn glistening sun azure. His whole back stung from the impact and the air from his lungs burst towards the sky, fairly well knocked out of him as he drifted suddenly near the sandy bottom of the crystal clear pond, an easy thirty feet down, judging by the hammer-and-nail popping in his ears.

 

That was insane.

 

A bright orange sunfish drifted by and rolled its eyes at him as the whole pond sloshed about in its rocky basin from his impact. The fish darted away as she approached like a shark from the shadows.

 

He didn't even hear her enter the water again. She swam like a tiger shark, her giggling cat face cutting through the water, the sparkle in her eye sharper than any maw of shark's teeth, hair and those daggered ears of hers flat back as the sleek curves swam for her, her long tiger's tail whipping through her wake …

 

He felt the cool pads of her hands grip him firmly under the arms. She held him at arms length and rocketed the both of them to the surface. He found it all to easy to drool while submerged at her purposefully erotic throb and pulse of her breasts, her hips, and legs through the water. She watched him gleefully all the way, drinking in his dazed and sloppy admiration.

 

He gasped for air as they breached and rolled over together. The forest stream tumbled noisily over rocks all around them as he crawled, gasping over her like a diving board as she hung mid-air drizzling water three feet over the surface.

 

"Holy –"

 

"You're a silly one, mouseboy." She giggled, picking him up and

laying him out chin-first panting deep in her rolling cleavage.

 

"Oh gawd-" He tried to move his limbs through the stinging pain. "No …"

 

"Just one more, cutie?" She took him by his hands to cup her ruby-hard nipples. His hands could hold little more of her.

 

"Oh gawd –"

 

Her throbbingly muscled legs spread for him like silken vault doors opening as his burning erection slid easily into her flexing lips. His eyes rolled back as she gripped him gently and rolled her icetray-cut abs while she rolled over him moistly within. His hands gripped the tiger-striped folds of her skin, tugging and pulling uselessly against the granite-firm muscles within.

 

She swooned for him in midair, reveling in the affection. She drew back her arms through her sopping mop of a mane and slushed his face like toothpaste from the abyss of her cleavage and opened to suck him nose-first to her very depths. Her tail whipped through the pond below in absent twitches as he pumped her as hard as he could manage.

 

Her body hardened like ice, muscles crackling and veining out beneath his wet-noodle grip as she began to shudder and purr like a Harley. Hanging on with his strength was impossible as the streams around them began to dance and spray with her rock-shaking purr. She held him as they rolled over together, her legs still spread winding over like the wings of a rolling jet fighter. He continued to pump, long since exhausted as she absently drew back and cocked back her pelvis like a catapult.

 

WHAM!

 

The pond leapt over them both in a three-story splatter of heavy spray falling back from his meteoric impact. Rain washed heavy over like a breaker as her as her tail plunged twitching deep between her legs. Her flexing roar snapped timber, scoured shrubbery and shook flat a swath of forest to meadow, cracking the granite to pebbles in her facing direction.

 

As quick as a pounce she whipped her tail out, shook off her boulder form and slipped into the frothing pond like a spear after his drifting carcass.

 

Skath picked his way through the dense underbrush, an armload of kindling at his side. The thud of her jolted the entire sky island and dropped him in the dirt on his knees. He cursed his age, snapping his gnarled paws to his ears just before the shockwave of her roar ripped through the foliage over him.

 

"Going to give us away, foolish goddess." He whispered under his breath as he gathered his kindling up again, knowing perfectly well she'd heard him.

 

The last stick of wood stuck to the ground. He gave it an ineffective tug and looked mildly irked, shuddering from the sudden cold snap in the air.

 

His eyes widened. The stick had frozen to the suddenly frosted forest floor. Heavy icicles were creeping like slugs up the length of it toward his paw.

 

"Frak." He fell back on his narrow ass and scrambled up into a graceful, long-striding run through the forest, whistling as he went. He burst upon the clearing where they'd camped, skidded to a halt and roared. "RAHJAAA!"

 

His heavy wooden sloop was well tied down in a solid spider's web of crackling ice. A chill mist had lifted off the meadow's once dewy grass. A lone figure crouched on the frozen foremast beneath a wide-brimmed reed hat. Four others stepped from the forest all around Skath, all in reed hats and straight-cut robes of the same black and red glyph.

 

Raja skidded into the clearing's mist, water still skittering off her mop of fur, 'mouseboy' limp over her shoulder.

 

A wave of the newcomer's paw and ice engulfed her in a crackling encasement a solid three inches thick, frozen clean through her fur.

 

"We have no issues with you." Skath's tail twitched behind him. "Release my ship and we will leave and tell no one."

 

The newcomer tapped the ice-encased foremast at his feet with his claw. The timber cracked cleanly in two.

 

"I have issue." Raja stepped from the ice noisily like through so much glass-beaded curtain. "And YOU will tell no one." She pounced from the far side of the meadow.

 

A solid wall of ice leapt up at the man's uppercut. He feigned away left as her claws raked through the ice where he'd stood like so much glass fog. She crashed through the bow of the ship and spun around to face him.

 

"My ship!" Skath sunk to his knees in the chill damp grass.

 

"You're quick," she crouched as spears of ice flying in from all sides of the meadow shattered like rain against her pelt, "for a shadow."

 

The man drew back, and peeled all the ice to water from the ship's encasement with him. A moment later and she found herself submerged and flash frozen an easy ten feet deep in all directions.

 

The stranger was a true master. He'd left not a hint of air bubbles anywhere and the ice around her was single-crystal glass-clean, the sort of "diamond water" that could rend starship hull armor plate like wet paper and the heaviest offworlder artillery bombardment could barely scuff in return.

 

mouseboy's head rolled over as he coughed in naked red flashes of bruised pain. "Oh gawd. Wha-"

 

"Release her!" Skath set off at full, fuming gallop across the meadow, his yellowing claws drawn and trailing at the ready in the mist behind him. He spun off sheets of water and freezing columns of ice from the acolytes behind him, snarling as he zigged and wove, eyes locked with their master on the remains of his sailboat.

 

"ENOUGH!" Furniture-sized chunks of the diamond water exploded in all directions from her flex. The shockwave of her shout snapped the air to fog. Skath stuck to a sudden stop in time to watch his own reflection at whisker's length across a razor-sharp shard whizzing by his face. The master had braced in time to liquefy the SUV-sized chunk of ice she'd bumped in his general direction, but the weight of the oncoming water still bounced him tumbling across the meadow, unconscious and soggy.

 

Acolytes faded to mist in a panic.

 

"What the hell was that all about?" mouseboy surveyed the bow damage to the ship in dismay.

 

"The White Silence Tribe." Skath knelt darkly over the unconscious leader and removed the man's bandit mask. The cat beneath was a well-aged albino, ocelot in markings. "A story we tell our young pilots to keep them from straying too far from the traveled shipping streams."

 

"Scary story."

 

"Scary enough to keep both Citadel and the offworlders out of the ring islands." Raja carried mouseboy battered and bruised to the half-smashed boat. "They were supposed to be a myth."

 

"They are no myth, Miss." Skath yanked an emblemed charm from the fallen cat's necklace. "I was just hoping they were few enough in number that we could slip through unnoticed." He stood and sprinted sourly to the broken ship. "We must move on. They would not have attacked without sending word. This was a scouting party. They will return with half or more of their white navy soon."

 

"Let them come." Raja tossed her still half-frozen mane over her shoulders.

 

"That was a scout party, miss. Enough to dissuade a Citadel or offworld warship, but mouseboy and I would not last seconds if the noise of you has drawn any of their true white masters."

 

"Whatmaster?" mouseboy had learned not to protest when she was lashing him once again to the mast.

 

"Alright, fine." She pulled up her ragged jean shorts in a huff and pulled the wreckage of the sailing sloop into the air as easily as she'd pulled on her over-streched top. "We'll move on."

 

"There's a chill from leeward." Skath growled as he took up his drum. "Tack around that if you know what is good for mouseboy and I."

 

"Fine." The still frosty timber craft crackled as she leaned into it. "You boys are starting to slow me down."

 

"You'll be the death of us yet, Miss."

 

"Complaining with what breath you still possess, Skath?"

 

"No, miss."

 

"And Skath?"

 

The old cat grunted.

 

"That was sweet."

 

"Hmph."

 

"Stupid, but sweet." She shifted the ship's weight. "He would have so killed you."

 

Skath scowled at mouseboy's shivering lump of a body. "There are less honorable ways to die."

 

The trio of them vanished into the blinding evening fog that hung between the drifting stone islands in the hollow sky, the echo of Skath's slow drumbeat watching over them in the pitch night darkness.

 

mouseboy shivered in the damp blackness. "Where are we going again?"

 

"Warspine."

 

"Sounds lovely."

 

 

 

Prelude to Warspine II. (season Finale to the Lyran Chronicles).

 

It was massive.

 

It was silken.

 

He clung to her back, his body frozen stiff in pure acrophobia. He would have thought he would be over that by now, having spent the last several weeks lashed to a wicker sky ship suspended untold thousands of mist and fog-veiled feet of ebbing and flowing mountains that still hung in the sky all around him. But there was something about Warspine, being this close to the skyscraper-sized shaft of silken spider web, the astronomical scale of the thing that pierced the mists below to its anchor Citadel, itself a city-sized castle-encrusted asteroid, and Warspine's head, the moon-sized ball of half-crushed starship remains moored far out into space from the last time the 'offworlders' tried to take Lyra by force.

 

Wind howled past them as she rocketed up its length. His borrowed offworlder pressure suit tightened around him as the air thinned and thinned. Sky islands drifted passed them in ever-increasingly snow-covered procession. Yet on the scale of Warspine, the moon never seemed to approach.

 

He awoke cradled in her arms. Apparently he'd just passed out for a while. She was a comfortable marble statue to repose upon – a statue that would have eaten the Venus de Milo for breakfast and left even Hercules with an inferiority complex and a side of felinophobia.

 

She was sleekly magnificent to look at. She really made the view from there worthwhile. He could see the curve of the planet below. Warspine sunk into the haze of it like a javelin from here. Space glistened wetly black all around, the stars twinkled in pinks and reds. Lyra was a jeweled ball of wispy white clouds and mountain tops tinted amethyst in the tingling violet light of Lyra's star. Lyra trailed mist in a train of asteroids that spun off into the thick, hazy belt of forested and jungled islands in space Lyra rolled lazily through. Warspine's moon-sized head loomed over all of it, and behind that the nearby swirling maw of the black hole the entire star system drained into …

 

Black what!?!

 

He was awestruck for the first time by something besides her. It was gorgeous. Tendrils of it drifted through space all around, tinting everything crimson around its blue wisps.

 

It was entirely too close for comfort. Suicidal. They'd all be sucked into nothingness in an instant! Then again, from onboard the ride, it would seem to take forever …

 

She smiled warmly as he grasped her almost as tight as her denim shorts did. He could see the crystal spiders passing, tending the web as they ascended. Barges hung in space, suspended by shimmering threads of silk. A thin flock of shimmering offworlder starships buzzed about Warspine's head. It was the one place the Lyrans would meet the offworlders to trade with them for a few flecks of those rocks.

 

Rocks. This was all about rocks. It wasn't about him, or even her. It was about the glowing rocks seemingly every stone around was laced with. It was those rocks that held the mountains suspended and drifting through the skies. It was those rocks that sapped the energy, even the very life force out of everything not born already rank with the radiation, and had almost killed him. It was the rocks and their insatiable appetite for energy that kept Lyra and every cat down there trapped in the Stone Age, despite the intricate civilization they'd cobbled together. NASA had nothing on this tigress girl, but it was every rule of that culture below her she was really trying to break through.

 

It was the rocks the offworlders wanted. While he didn't think they were particularly nice for jewelry he'd heard that small bits of these rocks made offworlder technology go like stink. He'd met offworlder prospectors willing to die for just the dust off their shoes from this place. He suddenly realized why the prospectors were so grizzled. To them the venture meant diving into clawing distance of a black hole. And he'd met the cats willing to see to their deaths for trying.

 

Kryptonite. He wished he'd never heard the word. "Gold" tarnished by comparison. What had driven the offworlders to venture here, in the very skirts of a black hole?

 

Then again, the right shade of it perked up this little barmaid tigress girl into something … else.

 

Why she still cared for him two cents he couldn't fathom. Was it still to tear some jealous sense into that ex-marine boyfriend of hers right over there, or was she warming up to him as a person. Surely it wasn't for the sex. Physically he was nothing to her, not even a mosquito. Even that lanky, geriatric tiger sea captain friend of hers could wipe the deck with him one-handed over a catnap.

 

Wait-right over there?!?

 

She slowed to a hover. They'd reached the neck of Warspine, where Warspine's webbing unfurled to grasp the miles upon miles of starship wreckage in a shimmering moon-sized net. Warspine wore a necklace today in her honor. No less than one hundred monstrous-looking tiger men hovered motionless in a perfect ring around the Spine, waiting.

 

Oh … shit. She'd had the advantage back at Citadel, being the only enhanced tiger whose paranormal powers didn't fade in the Lyran radiation field. She was the only female among the enhanced tiger population, near as he could figure. He'd seen other enhanced feline females in his brief romp-'n-drag about Lyra-but none of them were tigresses. Every species of cat he'd met seemed to have a different set of abilities they would spawn on enhancement: command over the ebb and flow of water and ice to the ocelots, that cheetah boy he'd seen put out a stiff lightning bolt when he so pleased, and he shuddered to recall what that lioness could do to them. But tigers? They were merely giant tiger men he still never wanted to meet in a dark alley when back in the Lyran haze, but out here in space?

 

Gods.

 

They alone could fly into space like this, unclothed. They were Citadel. The hundred or so of them alone fend off all offworld threats to all of Lyra.

 

They had reason to fear this tigress. She was a threat to them from within. She had reason to want to leave Lyra altogether. He could see how they would consider that treason, punishable by death. If she ever sided with the offworlders, the balance would change.

 

The playing field was even this far out of the haze. He knew any one of them was probably an even match for her up here and they'd brought the whole council.

 

Revenge? Tough love? Public execution? Regardless of their intentions, by their numbers and the expressions he could see on their faces, this was no office farewell party.

 

She tossed him.

 

He didn't realize it for the minute it took him to wake up from blacking out from the sudden g-forces. He was miles from the spine by the time he figured out how to roll over enough to see it, adrift in space.

 

Weightlessness, adrift high over the nearest solid foothold.

 

Alone.

 

Don't believe the NASA hype. It wasn't a pleasant sensory experience. It was all he could do to keep from hurling on his faceplate.

 

As to how she was faring – another chapter he supposed. The first Battle of Warspine had been epic, but one-sided between Citadel and the offworld battle fleet that now drifted in a ball of ruin above them. The Second Battle of Warspine?

 

Either way he figured he was a dead mouseboy.

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