Of Cats and Dragons

Carol E. Leever Camilla Ochlan

Nights Gift

Night's Gift

Night's Gift cover art

Young Omen Daenoth cannot control his deadly supernatural powers. The only thing keeping him from inadvertently destroying everyone and everything around him is a dragon-forged artifact. But when the item is stolen, Omen can either give up his freedom and admit he's a monster, or find a way to rein in his chaotic psionics.

Terrified his devastating power will kill an innocent, Omen enters into a shady deal with an undead alchemist and fights his way through the fabled, underground Night Games of the arcane city of Hex to retrieve what he has lost.

When he inadvertently frees a talking cat, his erratic powers may be the only weapon capable of protecting this new companion from savage creatures out for feline blood. Can Omen protect the cat and the people of Hex or will he be forever lost to darkness?

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Chapter 1: Pickpocket

Omen Daenoth slipped through the castle's outer wall and disappeared into the teeming streets of Hex. He had yet to reach fifteen years of age, but he felt as if he'd been imprisoned for a thousand years.

But today I'm free! No lessons!

Having just arrived in the foreign land, he was still in his traveling clothes. Sneaking away from the king's guards hadn't been easy, but he was completely at liberty and intended to make the most of it.

Omen tugged his hood lower over his brow and hoped it would disguise him enough. His flame-red hair could give him away quickly. Just have to make it to The Song Master's. After that, I don't care.

He tried to orient himself. The castle's back that way, so I want to go toward the ocean. The giant-built city was a jumble of monumental structures that sprawled from the base of a snow-covered mountain to a mighty port. Arcane symbols carved into the smoke-grey stones of every brick and paver of Hex conjured an eerie, ominous tension as if a door had been barred from the outside to keep something terrible inside. A shiver ran down Omen's spine. Dangerous city. Should be fun!

Omen swiveled his head back and forth as he tried to take in all the sights. He was taller than everyone around him but felt dwarfed by his surroundings. Only the expansive width of the cobbled roads kept him from feeling claustrophobic.

City folk rushed around him like ants returning to their nest, single-minded and laden down. Omen followed the stream of people through the main thoroughfare to the city's bustling bazaar, a large octagonal plaza drenched crimson in the afternoon sun.

Traders from all corners of the kingdom exuberantly offered trinkets and treasures from the bowels of colorful tents. But most important to Omen were the food vendors who fried and seared traditional Terizkandian street delicacies with dizzying speed.

No matter how much trouble I'm in for sneaking out, this is worth it.

Elated, Omen breathed in the amazing aromas. The cool air was rich with a myriad of mouthwatering scents both sweet and savory. They lured him onward, his father's warnings about going into the city forgotten. I can taste some Terizkandian specialties, and then sing at The Song Master's. It'll be interesting to get a new audience. Back home everyone knows what to expect from me.

Omen moved quickly, the shoulders and elbows of passersby catching at his sides as he pushed his way through the throng of humans, elves and others who swarmed around the shops and booths of the Temple Street Market.

A food stall offering deep-fried octopus caught his attention. For a moment Omen hesitated between moving right to purchase several skewers of the golden tentacles or going left to buy a bag of sugary buns stuffed with apples and chopped lamb.

Distracted, he barely felt the quick brush of fingers against his wrist — like feathers dancing across his skin.

Then the world crashed in around him. Colors swirled and melted. Bright lights stabbed at his pupils, torturing his brain with sharp flashes. He pressed his lids shut, but the pulsating spectacle continued behind closed eyes. At the same time the sounds of the crowd escalated to an awful roar. Feeling gut-punched, he crumpled forward and had to grab his knees to steady himself. As if a battle-axe had been driven into his brain, agony split his skull and spread through his entire body with searing throbs. He would have passed out, if he hadn't recognized the symptoms. He'd known them since he was a child.

No protection . . . It's gone.

Panic rose through the pain. He fumbled for his right wrist, confirming what he'd feared: The leather bracelet with the silver dragonhead clasp was gone.

Biting down on his lip, Omen stood up and focused on a simple melody — the tinkling of two keys. What's the song . . . what's the song? The two notes started it — back and forth. That's it . . . drop down a fifth, then into the minor chord.

The song came to him, clear and soothing. There it is! The shielding pattern vibrated through him. The music in his mind created a slight space in the onslaught of pain but, at the same time, decreased Omen's field of vision.

Why are my parents always right?

He'd come to rely on the aid of the charm, but even with its help he dreaded using his psionics. He'd deferred truly mastering his powers, to his father's great frustration, simply because it hurt too much.

I'm not going home to have them fix this! I'm going to get my bracelet back.

He sniffed his wrist, then he sniffed the air. The thief had left a signature — his scent. Male. Traces of Nifilan weed and thyme.

Omen followed the scent like a bloodhound. Ahead he spotted an erratic movement. A cloaked man rounded a corner just a little too fast.

That's my pickpocket.

Omen sprinted forward, knowing that his respite from the mind-crushing headache would be very short-lived and that the pain would return threefold if he didn't recover the stolen bracelet. Keep the song going. Don't let it stop!

The thief, dark cloak covering his form, ran at full speed. He passed a stone fountain in the center of the small square.

Can't catch you, Omen thought, crippled by his narrow field of vision. But I can stop you.

He skidded to a halt. I just need a weapon . . . there! He spotted an apple-sized orb decorating the fountain, and he focused his mind on it. The song coursing through his thoughts changed as he added a new harmony. The pattern of energy in his brain shifted and reached outward to grasp the small orb, plucking it free from the fountain with the loud crack of breaking rock. Omen flung it forward, aimed at the middle of the thief's back. Then he charged ahead to catch the man's fall.

"No!" A deep growl reverberated through the square. "Esil cenquartor!"

A heated haze washed over Omen as a vine of blue light flashed past his head. He watched in shock as the rope-like light wrapped around the stone orb, catching it before it could strike the thief.

Was that Nightspeak? Someone's using magic! Someone is protecting the thief!

Omen's stone projectile hung suspended in the air, imprisoned within the glowing blue tendril.

Outrage filled Omen as he tried to free the small stone from the magical grip. The burning tendril tightened the harder he pulled with his mind. Rat's teeth!

The thief turned to look over his shoulder, his long nose poking out from inside his cowl. He barked out a curse and scrambled out of sight.

Omen staggered back, his stone still levitating in midair — unmovable. His strength ebbed as he fought the magic holding the stone in place. Pain burrowed through him. The song stuttered, the chords growing disharmonious. He couldn't keep himself upright. As he fell backward, he slumped into another person.

Amber and cedar, Omen thought, his sense of smell as keen as his sight was clouded.

"Let go!" the stranger behind him whispered, his deep-toned voice strained as if he were in pain as well.

"No!" Omen spat out, still fighting to free his stone from the glowing tangle of magical energy. "Why did you stop me?" Though nearly blind by now, he could see that the magical glow creating the burning tendril was emanating from the tall stranger. Though the thief was gone, he refused to give up. "I can still get him!"

The stranger grabbed his arm and yanked him around the other direction. "Look at what you did to the road!" Spoken with a commanding, educated cadence, his clipped words were hard to ignore.

Omen's vision sharpened. The cobbled road behind him was destroyed. The enormous flagstones he'd just raced across had been ripped from their earthen bed and were floating silently in the air like cotton fluff caught on a breeze. Bits of dirt and moss dripped from them as the stones hung aloft and trembled in the grip of Omen's psionic power. They dangled, poised to be thrown toward the fleeing thief. Only the tendrils of blue energy wrapped around each kept them in place.

Omen's legs threatened to collapse under him. "I just wanted one—"

"You were aiming all those giant stones! Not just that one small rock!" One of the stranger's hands remained outstretched; the coils of energy holding the rocks in place rushed from his fingers.

The accusation hit Omen like a blow. Hex's roadways had been built for giants, and the flagstones Omen was levitating weighed hundreds of pounds each. They would have killed the thief, not knocked him down as Omen had intended.

Drop, Omen commanded his mind, killing the harmony, forcing the pattern back into the steady flow of the shield alone.

The stones fell.

At that very moment, a jolly Hexian man stepped out from a nearby doorway, laughing loudly with someone inside the building while fumbling with a stack of boxes.

"Esil cenquartor!" The tendrils of blue light coming from the stranger lashed out like lightning as all of them refocused on the few flagstones about to fall upon the innocent man's head. The magical light wrapped around the deadly stones, holding them aloft.

"I can't hold them!" The yellow-eyed stranger's whispery growl turned into a desperate yell. The other stones released from both Omen's psionic grip and the stranger's magic fell and shattered upon the ground with a thunderous boom.

Omen sprang forward and pushed the jolly Hexian back inside the house.

The giant flagstones rained down on Omen in the space of a breath. Though he could feel the tingling energy of the stranger's magic trying to hold back the main force of the heavy mass falling upon him, the stones clobbered his back and arms where he'd raised them to protect his head. He went down in a full sprawl, flagstones pummeling his legs and back. He felt his bones and muscles resisting the crushing weight. Barely. The rumbling crash of stone against stone was deafening as dust swirled up in a cloud of chaos around him.

Pounded and bruised, his body ached. The song slipped away as his vision momentarily faded to blackness.

No, don't stop! Keep the music going. He fought back the void, forcing deep breaths into his lungs — ribs twinged with the movement. Bruised, not broken.

The impact of the stones still vibrating through him, Omen started to rise to his knees, coughing amid the dust, the burden on his back not inconsiderable. The jolly Hexian tugged at the flagstone still pinning Omen's arms over his head, but it wasn't until the stranger with the growly voice joined in that the stone fell away. "You need a healer."

"I'll be fine." Disoriented, Omen placed his hands on his thighs and strained to push himself up. He briefly noted the gleam of gemstones upon the stranger's hands. A nobleman, he thought, wondering just how much trouble he was in.

The jolly Hexian looked pale, his face drained of all blood. "Those stones would have killed me." He looked at Omen oddly — both grateful and suspicious. "Where did they come from?" He blinked in bewilderment at the torn-up road. Confusion flittered over his features.

"I'm terribly sorry," Omen said, struggling to his feet, his body wobbly and out of control. He teetered forward. His jaw felt odd, and he tasted blood on his lips where his teeth had cut through his skin. "The road . . . It wasn't you—"

"You're sorry?" The Hexian's gaze raked over Omen, comprehension filling his eyes. "You did this? How? Why?" His voice scaled higher. "You could have killed me. I have a wife, children! I could have died!"

Guilt swamped over Omen. "I . . . I . . . didn't . . . mean," he stammered, horror swelling within him. Pain pounded through him, the ache of bones straining. He's right — he wouldn't have survived. I'm only alive because I'm not human . . . I'm a monster! I should be chained up!

"Go about your business, Sergen," the nobleman said to the frightened Hexian. "And count today as your lucky day."

Sergen's eyes flicked back and forth between Omen and the stranger who had intervened with his magic. Face pale, hands trembling, Sergen gave a whole body shudder and backed away, seeming to come to a decision. "Yes, Prince Templar." He pasted on a weak smile. Placing one hand against his chest, he gave a shaky bow, taking another step back. "Of course, at your pleasure, Prince Templar. Thank you for your intervention, your highness. If you had not used your magic. . ." He trailed off and bowed his head respectfully, taking several more steps away, eager to be free from the situation.

Templar pulled Omen to his feet without any fuss. "You can stand." It was a statement, not a question.

Omen nodded, his head ringing and his body battered, but already he could feel the pain fading, the inhuman blood flowing through his veins doing what it always did — repairing, mending. The heat that accompanied the rapid healing seared through him as if snakes made of fire were twisting through his bones and muscles. He focused on the song again. Slow it down, smooth the notes out.

He tried to push back the devastating sense of shame roaring through him. I'll hurt someone else — I have to control this, stop this! I'm supposed to be better than this! He made a space in his mind, forcing aside the pain and the guilt. The agony roared twice, and he felt he was losing consciousness. He threw his hands to his head, as if trying to keep it from bursting apart. Notes. Melody. Notes. Harmony. Notes.

The pain dulled into an ache and receded into a corner, still present, still dangerous, but momentarily muted and contained.

"Prince Templar?" Omen said, his teeth hardly parting as his jaw healed. "I'll fix this!" He wanted to fix it — wanted to make up for the near miss. For nearly killing a man.

"You want to fix the road?" The humor filling Templar's voice belied the situation.

Omen spared a brief glance toward the dark-haired prince, noting the untroubled look in his eyes. Yellow eyes — Mother was right. He's a Nightblood!

"No, the man . . ." Omen looked around — Sergen was long gone. So was the thief. "I didn't . . . if you want to arrest me, I won't resist." The words were out of his mouth before he could even think about them. But he didn't regret them — wouldn't take them back.

Prince Templar raised an eyebrow at the roadway and the stones. "Did you do it on purpose?"

"No! Of course not!" Omen protested the very thought. "I just wanted to . . ." He turned to look in the direction the thief had gone.

"Then don't worry about it." Templar waved a hand dismissively, no sign of the magical power he'd used earlier evident now. "It could have happened to anybody . . . well, not anybody. You know what I mean."

Omen pulled off his hood and wiped at the blood on his lips. He took a moment to brush ineffectually at the dirt on the padded gambeson he wore as a coat. He still felt queasy, out of control. "I was supposed to meet you earlier." He didn't know what to say. How do I apologize for something like this — why isn't Templar more upset? I almost . . . He looked down at the stones scattered around him like evidence of his offense.

"Yes, you were supposed to meet me earlier," Templar agreed. "I had planned on going game hawking with you this afternoon — but you gave your guards the slip and decided to go hunting one of my citizens instead."

Templar, dressed in a fine flared coat of black leather with a metal-studded doublet beneath, turned to survey the tumble of overturned flagstones piled around them. "And you made a mess." His tone, even and mild, displayed no sign of the dark heritage Omen had been warned about.

A Nightblood just saved me from making an unforgivable mistake. He's supposed to be the dangerous one — the monster. Not me!

Elegant, with jeweled rings on all his fingers, Templar's appearance was flashy and refined, bringing to mind proper drawing room parties where ladies and lords sat around sipping tea from delicate porcelain cups and discussing politics and art. Even the two swords he wore at his left side, one longer than the other, looked more decorative than useful — the hilts appeared to be made of ivory.

Omen had escaped the castle, against his father's explicit instructions, because he couldn't stomach the idea of spending the afternoon in the company of a pompous fop.

"I was chasing a thief," Omen said quickly, rising to his full height to stare down at Templar — only to discover that the prince was slightly taller. He couldn't remember the last time that had happened — he was used to being the tallest one in the room, despite his youth. "I was just trying to get my property back."

Templar looked unimpressed, his lips curled in a sarcastic twist, his eyes narrowed. "I always feel that people who can't hang on to their valuables deserve to be parted from them. If he pickpocketed you fair and square, you have no right to chase him down and kill him."

Omen felt his cheeks turn red with embarrassment. "I wasn't trying to kill him. The thing he took — it's a charm that helps dampen my psionics." A quick, pained smile crossed his lips. "I have a bit of a problem with my psionics." He waved toward the destroyed street as evidence.

Templar looked intrigued. "I thought your family were all master psionicists. That's what everyone says."

"Everyone doesn't know gnome squat."

Templar laughed out loud. "Can't you—

"I just need it back," Omen cut him off. "It's not meant to protect me, it's meant to protect everyone else from me. As you can see."

That caught Templar's attention, and he shifted away slightly, resting one ring-adorned hand lightly on the hilt of his longer sword. "The logical course of action," Templar suggested, "would be to simply return to the castle, pry your father from his meeting with my father, and explain you lost your bauble. Your father will get you another one. It's not like you aren't as spoiled a princeling as I am. Perhaps even more so. Your family's wealth is legendary."

Even during this crisis, Omen saw the humor in Templar's quip. He gave Templar a droll smile, for a second remembering the extreme hardships his father had endured to acquire the bracelet for Omen a decade ago.

Focus.

"The charm on the bracelet could be used as a weapon," Omen admitted. "It is calibrated for me only. If anyone with even a modicum of psionic potential puts it on, the magic in the charm will crumple their brain like a wad of paper. It will kill your thief."

"I know that guy," Templar said dismissively. "Riaire. He works for me sometimes. He doesn't have a shred of psionic ability. Your bracelet won't do a thing to him."

"What if he sells it?"

Realization filled Templar's eyes. "All right, that could be bad," he conceded.

"Help me get it back," Omen pressed. "I don't have a lot of time here. I don't know how long I can control myself. And do you really want to bother our fathers while they discuss import tax on unicorn snot or whatever it is they do in their meetings?"

Templar grimaced in response and gave a curt nod. "Yeah. Good point." He motioned Omen to follow him as he crossed the plaza to where Riaire had stood. He mumbled a few incomprehensible words, fingers glowing once again with a bluish light. A tiny flicker of flame leaped from his fingertips and raced away down the street, turning a corner as it followed Riaire's escape.

Omen sniffed. The scent of Nifilan weed and thyme was fading, but Omen could still detect traces of it in the air along the path Templar's spell illuminated.

Omen and Templar hastened on, but they came to an abrupt stop only three blocks later. Riaire strolled toward them, an embroidered bag in his gloved fist.

"Where is it?" Omen barked out.

"Pardon, good sir?" Riaire said with a toothy smile. He bowed low in front of Templar. "Your gracious majesty."

"It's highness; majesty is for my father. You sold the bracelet," Templar said with certainty. "You already sold it."

Omen felt ill.

"I know not whereof you speak, Prince Templar." The thief stuffed the embroidered bag into the folds of his cloak. Coins clinked together.

Omen fought the urge to take Riaire by both shoulders and shake him until the thief's bones splintered.

"You have two choices, Riaire," Templar said mildly. "You either tell me where the item you stole off my friend is—"

"Stole," Riaire interrupted. "Such a harsh word. I don't believe you have any proof of my stealing anything. I am merely a victim here. I did nothing but go out for a stroll. I have—"

"Or," Templar continued as if Riaire hadn't spoken, "I have the city guard take you in for stealing from a noble. You'll be lashed for this, and branded."

"You have no proof." Riaire had turned pale.

"I could simply pull the truth out of your head. Don't try to lie to me," replied Templar coldly. "I'm rather clumsy with mind magic, so it will hurt — a lot."

Riaire stood in stubborn silence.

"Choose!" Templar growled.

To Omen it looked as if Riaire were about to spring away. Omen's body tensed, like that of a predator anticipating the flight of prey.

Instead, Riaire's shoulders sagged. "The alchemist has it." The man's flowery speech turned clipped and petulant. "He paid well. He likes magical artifacts."

"How did you know—" Omen stopped himself from revealing anything else about the charm.

"Magic detection scroll," Riaire confessed. "I tripped the spell before going to market. Your bracelet threw off a much bigger magical aura that anything else in the square."

"We're not interested in the tricks of your dirty little trade," Templar said, sounding tremendously interested contrary to his words.

"What alchemist?" Omen asked bluntly, the pain in his head a dull throb.

"The alchemist . . . Gerdriu is his name." Templar looked at Riaire with a raised eyebrow. "Am I right?"

The thief nodded.

"Gerdriu is a famous alchemist," Templar explained, "with an even more famous home. The Alchemist's Tower is a historical landmark. It's been in Hex since before the giants came. They say Gerdriu built it himself, stone by stone."

"Immortal then?" Omen asked cautiously.

"No." Templar pursed his lips with disgust. "Undead."