Of Cats and Dragons

Carol E. Leever Camilla Ochlan

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Radiation

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Radiation

In their second big adventure, Omen and his giant talking cat Tormy journey to a blighted land to rescue a doomed child. But the fateful quest entwines their lives with an ancient curse. And Omen has to risk everything for the sake of the innocent he refuses to abandon. Aided by his magic-wielding family, the guardian dragons of Melia, and an unexpected friend, Omen must confront cataclysmic evil. But how can anyone stand against the immortal wrath of The Dark Heart?

Chapter 1: Quest

Omen Daenoth stared hard at his pony-sized cat. Tormy had grown rapidly in the last six months — going from a fluffy, thirty-pound kitten to a robust adolescent that Omen was no longer capable of lifting. He looks like a Shindarian tiger — without the black stripes. Must weight at least four hundred pounds.

Utterly silent for once, the large cat balanced on his furry toes and stretched his long, orange body in an effort to reach a thick leather-bound book high on a shelf in the section of the sprawling library designated as off limits.

The Divine Library of The Soul's Flame, nestled in the realm of its namesake, had become Omen's latest refuge. He loved the quiet calm, the mythology-inspired art of the concave ceilings, the storytelling mosaics of walls and floors, and the smoke and vanilla scents mingled among the endless collections of books and scrolls.

While Omen's ability to focus had improved with Tormy's arrival, he still had needed to contend with the constant distractions at home in Melia — friends inviting him out, his sister asking to play with Tormy, his father piling on new fields of study, his mother surprising him with random magic quizzes, and Tormy "feeling peckish" and sweetly demanding second breakfast, pre-lunch snack, after-lunch nibbles, afternoon pudding, before-dinner appetizer, tummy-settling post-dinner digestive, or late-night test breakfast. The library had become his place of concentrated, uninterrupted study — until now.

Tormy swiped at the thick book again, catching its edge and scooting it a quarter inch off the shelf. Omen held his breath, watching and waiting for the inevitable.

They were alone in the Divine Library of The Soul's Flame. Unable to take his eyes off Tormy's antics, Omen absently chewed on the tip of his quill, even as he pushed the scroll he'd been reading aside.

Tormy's claw caught the golden-lettered spine of the thick tome. The book tilted forward, hung suspended in the air for an infinitesimal moment, and then plunged to the floor with a loud thump. Omen thought he heard a brittle crack in the mosaic tiles. I think Tormy just fractured the antler of the constellation of the Fallow Deer. Hope Etar doesn't notice.

"Read this one, Omy!" Tormy squealed. The cat's sweet baby voice had deepened as he had grown, but his joyful enthusiasm still imbued his every word.

The cat pushed the enormous leather-bound tome across the gold-and-cream mosaic, passing more of the myriad of constellations and artistically-rendered calculations that made up this section of the floor. Diffused light from gleaming crystal ceiling orbs illuminated the long fluffy orange and white fur around the cat's ears and ruff.

Omen set aside his quill as he rose. He rolled his stiff shoulders back, blinked to clear his vision, and quickly crossed to Tormy's side, hoping to spare the ancient volume grievous mistreatment by the floor.

Tormy proudly planted a silken paw the size of a dinner plate on the book's textured cover.

He's so pleased with himself. The big kitten had been trying to help him study all day. Omen crouched down to look at the book, waving Tormy's paw away. He recognized the language the book was written in: Sul'eldrine, the Language of the Gods.

"The Book of Cats, by the Architect," he read the title — upside down as it was facing Tormy — out loud.

"I is thinking this is the bestest book ever!" Tormy's amber eyes widened with excitement. His whiskers flared.

Curious in spite of himself, Omen opened the cover and glanced at the first few lines written inside. "It does appear to be a book about cats," he told Tormy. "But it's not what I'm supposed to be doing, remember? I'm learning my spells."

"I is knowing!" Tormy seemed undeterred as he pushed his nose into the pages and then turned several of the sheets of parchment with one paw, claws carefully sheathed. "You is doing this spell!" He planted the same paw on the page for emphasis.

Omen turned the book. He recognized the lines and strokes of the pattern — a magical spell, just like the ones he'd been studying. There was a drawing of a mouse above the pattern — no doubt the reason for the cat's interest. Clever cat — he recognizes it as a spell!

The stack of books on the desk behind him were filled with magical patterns his mother had determined "beginner level." The bulk were spells she believed Omen should have learned long ago. "Remedial," he grunted under his breath. To his burning embarrassment, his mother had called his lessons remedial.

"You're not really supposed to cast spells from books, Tormy," Omen explained to the cat — this was a lesson his mother had drummed into him early on. "I have to memorize the patterns first, internalize them. When you cast a spell out of a book or from a scroll you can't really control the energy properly."

Tormy's excitement did not dim. His pink ears perked forward, his long fluffy plume of a tail flicking uncontrollably. "I is not knowing what that is meaning," he purred. "You is casting my spell for me?" The cat's hopeful tone made Omen pause.

"It means that if I don't memorize the spell first I can't . . ." He trailed off, faced with Tormy's eager anticipation, and glanced down at the spell once more.

While he didn't exactly know what the spell was — it was labeled MICE just under the drawing of the mouse that had caught Tormy's attention — he could tell that it was a minor cantrip. The spell was uncomplicated — only two sets of circular lines describing the pattern. Cantrips are harmless. He reasoned that the spells his mother wanted him to study were of the same variety. It is technically the type of spell I'm supposed to be learning.

"Well, all right," he agreed. "Can't hurt to try once."

Tormy leaped in the air and spun around several times, before landing with his paws splayed, head down, hind quarters in the air as if ready to pounce. Amber eyes sparkling, he looked from the book to Omen and back again.

Chuckling to himself, Omen took a deep breath and sat on the floor in front of the book. He closed his eyes, concentrating on the sensation of magical energy all around him. Magic feels amplified here, stronger. This is a divine realm — I bet all my spells will be affected! A sense of glee flooded through him. Maybe learning these spells will be easier than I thought!

Normally he would pull the magic inside himself, and then push it into a pattern he'd formed in his mind. For this experiment, he simply gathered the diaphanous power around him like a warm blanket. He held it for a moment, listening to the tonal shift in the buzzing as strands of energy expanded and knitted together. Then he simply thrust the magic outward toward the book as if slapping it down on the page — it felt messy and disorganized. The energy slipped from his grasp and chaotically flowed down onto the ink and parchment, swirling into the diagram as if seeking shape and form.

The ink glowed brightly as the magic streamed into it. A moment later, the light coalesced into a small blue ball in the center of the page. Omen watched with wonder as the ball of light took the shape of a little glowing mouse. The glow-mouse instantly scampered free of the book and raced away. Tormy pounced after it, leaping with abandon.

The mouse flitted and dodged, swerving to avoid the enormous paws of the oversized kitten. But despite being a magical construct, the mouse was no match for the cat's speed and agility. A mere moment later, Tormy slammed his paw down upon the magical rodent with a loud merrrowww. The glowing mouse exploded into a shower of glittering sparkles.

Excited, Tormy swiveled around, eyes on the book again. Another mouse formed in the center of the pattern and ran off. Tormy charged after it.

Omen watched the chase, laughing. "Magical mice. I'm going to have to add this one to my list of must-learn spells."

A third mouse formed on the pattern and raced away. Tormy shrieked, torn between chasing after one mouse or the other. He leaped and pounced in one direction, then turned and hopped the other way. A fourth mouse skittered from the book, and Tormy flipped back around in mid-turn, trying to catch it too. His claws scraped against the marble as he skidded and slid. He bowled over several chairs in his single-minded pursuit.

Omen cringed at the sound of furniture crashing. "Don't knock into the bookshelves!" he called to the cat.

Luckily the bookshelves in question were all made of solid stone and would likely hold up to Tormy's flailing as he gamboled after the glowing mice through the maze of the great library.

A fifth mouse escaped.

Omen frowned down at the book, suddenly feeling a little ill. "That shouldn't be happening." The spell was a mere cantrip; as far as he knew, it should only have been able to produce a couple of illusionary mice. The magic should have run out already. Without Omen actively pushing magic into it, there should have been nothing to sustain the spell.

A sixth mouse escaped from the book.

"Rat's teeth! The spell is not stopping!" Omen called out to the cat.

"Hurrah! More mouses!" Tormy leaped, sending another shower of mouse sparkles into the air.

"It has to stop!" Omen knew the cat couldn't comprehend the gravity of the situation. I am in such trouble!

"You is the bestest wizard, Omy!" the cat praised loudly as he caught two of the glittering mice beneath one front paw, and another beneath a back paw at the same time.

Several more mice escaped from the book.

"Think," Omen muttered to himself as more mice swelled from the book. "I'm not pushing magic into it, so it's drawing the magic from somewhere else. All I have to do is block the flow."

Block the flow! Use a shield! The only sort of shield he knew how to create was psionic, not magical. But he'd become quite adept at shielding psionically over the last few months. Ever since Tormy had appeared in his life, the mental shield he had to maintain to control his powers no longer debilitated him with mind-numbing pain. Something about the cat's presence calmed him, eased the chaotic jumble of thoughts that had tormented him through his childhood. Feline focus, his father had called it.

Omen touched the personal shield surrounding him. A slow, steady hum — a purr really — flowed through him and kept the shield in place. He used the hum as a base to craft a new song as an overlay. The song — a mnemonic device he used to trigger his psionics — started immediately. He felt a surge of energy rush through him as he formed a faint glowing shield around the book on the ground. That should block the magic from flowing into the book. That should stop the spell.

He could feel the outside pressure of magic swirling through the library and coalescing on the page. The pressure met his shield like water on stone — crashing against the barrier, held back by the sheer force of his mind. He steadied the shield against the onslaught of energy lashing wildly all around him.

I'm in a divine realm! He cursed himself for ignoring the location before attempting the new spell. Mother always warns me not to take easy shortcuts!

Tormy padded over to him a few moments later, crouching down in front of both Omen and the book, his amber gaze on the glowing dome of light covering the pattern. "No more mouses?" the cat asked plaintively. His voice cracked with disappointment.

"I don't think so," Omen replied, relief ebbing over him. "I think I've stopped the flow of energy." I hope. "Sorry, little guy."

Omen took a deep breath and slowly relaxed his tense muscles, letting go of the energy of the shield, letting the song in his head wind down and stop, effectively erasing the pattern in his mind. The glowing shield vanished.

He felt it the instant he released the shield. Like water crashing against stone, the energy had not dissipated, but merely backed up, building and building behind the barrier holding it. It all rushed forward now, like a raging river, flooding into the book and setting the pattern into a blinding flare. The mice formed instantly, and escaped — not one at a time, but dozens upon dozens rushing from the page and scattering in all directions. Omen felt them racing up his body and over his head, leaping past him to disappear into the stacks.

Tormy trilled and gave chase — dozens more escaped. Hundreds! Panic washed through Omen as he realized that in a matter of moments the library would be hip deep in glowing mice. He started whacking the glowing constructs as they came out of the book, striking them over and over again, making them explode into glittering flashes of light. "Tormy, get them!"

Omen could hear Tormy letting out gleeful snarls and trills while the happy cat raced around bookshelves and circled pillars, stalking his prey. Omen scrambled after him, swatting at the mice still crawling over his clothing. He shook his head — mice flew from his hair — every step he took sent explosions of light into the air. He stomped and spun, and tried to destroy as many sparkling rodents as he could.

Maybe I can crush them psionically? he thought, frantic for a solution. Or I can use my cloak — beat them out like a flame — fire! I can set the library on fire! "Tormy, catch them!"

"I is catching them, Omy!" Tormy insisted. The cat whirled in a frenzied dance, his powerful tail knocking over what little furniture remained standing.

The mice raced up the walls, swarming over the bookshelves.

Omen couldn't even see The Book of Cats anymore. It had disappeared beneath the flood of mice erupting from the surface of the pages.

Omen turned and twisted, stomping and shrieking until — on one flailing swat — he crashed into Tormy, and they both went down in a heap on the floor. In moments they were buried under a cascade of glowing mice. The shimmering fiends simply trampled right over top of them, tiny claws scratching, and bolted toward the far reaches of the library. Omen pushed at the cat sprawled across him. "Tormy, we have to stop them!" he shouted.

The wave of mice grew, streaming over them until Omen feared he and Tormy would be smothered. Drowned in a sea of rodents! He reached for a song in his mind. I have to. . .

But from one moment to the next, it all just stopped.

One second they were choked beneath a glowing avalanche of mouse bodies, and the next they were not. The mice were gone; the library was silent — the blinding glow faded back to the simple light from the crystals illuminating the room from overhead.

Omen and Tormy sat up.

Standing a few steps away was Omen's half brother and current host — Etar, The Soul's Flame. Etar held The Book of Cats in both hands, the cover firmly closed.

The mice were gone.

Omen blinked. "Um, we were. . ." His thundering pulse slowed.

"You were supposed to be studying," Etar reminded him.

"Well," Omen searched for a response. "Technically, I was studying." When Omen had asked his mother's permission to visit his half brother that day, he had promised he'd spend part of the time studying in Etar's library, learning the spells she insisted he learn. "Mother asked me to study the cantrips — this was a cantrip."

Etar — firstborn of the Elder God Cerioth, The Dark Heart — looked skeptical.

Can gods tell when you're lying? Omen wondered. He wasn't entirely certain what powers Etar did or didn't have. He'd never seen Etar do anything particularly impressive in the time he'd known him — certainly nothing that would lead Omen to believe there was anything truly divine about him. He's one of the younger gods. Godling? Godlet? Maybe they can't do anything powerful.

Omen's close relationship to divinity stemmed all the way back to before his birth. His pregnant mother had been savagely attacked by a powerful elemental force. Never did find out why the thing was trying to kill her.

Omen's father, desperate to heal his beloved and save their unborn child, had enlisted the aid of a faerie healer and the Elder God Cerioth. While saving both mother and child, the strange and unpredictable magic had tangled the bloodlines of the healer, the elemental force attacking them, and the Elder God Cerioth, bestowing upon Omen the benefits and disadvantages of five bloodlines.

His connection to the Elder God Cerioth had meant little to Omen until he had wandered into an Elder Temple on his tenth birthday and had discovered a doorway into the divine realm of Etar, The Soul's Flame.

Like Omen, Etar was one of the many children of Cerioth. But unlike Omen, Etar was a god himself — one of the younger gods of the world, capable of channeling the power of the Elder Gods. As a ten-year-old, Omen had not understood the implications of meeting a god — to him having a brother had been far more important. And in the five years Omen had known Etar, his brother had always appeared as nothing more than a regular man. Etar was generous and kind, and he'd always had time for the over-active child Omen had been.

"I hardly think your mother asked you to learn a spell to create magical mice," Etar remarked.

"Tormy wanted me to learn the spell," Omen admitted.

"I is asking!" Tormy agreed wholeheartedly. "And Omy is brilliantnessness at the magics!"

"Who's in charge?" Etar asked pointedly. "You or the cat?"

"The cat." Omen grinned at his brother and pointed a finger at the book Etar still held in his hands. "It says so in that book of yours — right there on the first page."

Etar's gaze narrowed as he opened the front cover and scanned the first page. "Before we begin, you need to understand that the cat is always in charge," he read the first line of the book out loud.

Etar sighed in exasperation and shut the book, heading toward a nearby bookshelf to return the tome. "Didn't it occur to you to just close the book when the spell got out of hand?" he asked.

"Close the book?" Omen cringed. Of course that's all I had to do!

"Is we not chasing mouses any more?" Tormy asked as he watched Etar put the book away. "I is liking the mouses. We is studying our books and we is chasin' mouses!"

Omen rose to dust himself off. Tormy was not going to be distracted by simply putting the book away.

"You two are a menace," Etar mused with a shake of his head, though Omen could see his eyes glittering with humor.

"You could find us something fun to do instead?" Omen suggested, seeing an opening in his brother's demeanor — a chance to possibly get out of several long hours of copying down magical spells that would likely not be half as interesting as the magical mice spell he'd just cast. "I know, send us on a quest!"

"We is going on a quest!" Tormy squeaked breathlessly. The cat's tail lashed back and forth.

Etar snorted in derision as he carefully righted some of the fallen furniture in the room.

"And not some dumb quest where I run around fetching something pointless — a real quest. An epic quest!" Omen continued, ignoring the fact that Etar had dismissed him.

"I'm not sending you on an epic quest," Etar stated flatly. He picked up a fallen chair.

"We is going on an epicnessness quest, and we is being fiercenessness!" Tormy was growing more excited by the moment, and a wary look entered Etar's glittering blue eyes. Once Tormy got an idea into his head, it was difficult to deter him from it.

"Omen, I'm not going to send you on a heroic quest that you'll abandon halfway through just to go to the Night Games with Templar," Etar said frankly.

Omen sputtered with outrage. "What . . . what . . . abandon . . . Night Games. . ." Actually, the Night Games sound really fun and I bet that would amuse Tormy. But Templar had been commandeered by his father. Stupid princely duties. He's probably off fighting giants and I'm stuck here doing nothing. "I'm not going to abandon a heroic quest. I'm not that irresponsible!" He moved to help pick up the fallen furniture, hoping to prove his point regarding his sense of responsibility.

"Yes, you are." Etar's words were blunt but said gently. They merely stated a simple fact. Nonetheless, it was probably the rudest thing Etar had ever said to Omen. Even if it is true. Normally Etar was less judgmental.

"Omen, I'm not saying that's a bad thing," Etar added with a soft smile. "I mean you're young — barely twelve years old — you're allowed to be—"

"I'm fifteen!" Omen protested in shock. So much for divine wisdom!

Etar looked quite startled. "Fifteen?" he asked, sounding amazed. "Most fifteen-year-olds are hard at work learning a trade or preparing to enter the military. Are you sure you're fifteen?"

"I is fifteen too!" Tormy agreed with gusto. "I is three weeks old, and now I is fifteen — Omy, how many is fifteen? Is we going on our epicness quest now, or is we chasin' more mouses?"

"See — it's mice or quest," Omen reasoned with Etar. "Send us on an epic quest! You're a god — that's what you do, right?"

"Is that what you think I do?" Etar asked.

"An epic quest!" Omen repeated as he lifted up one of the couches Tormy had knocked over in his hunt for mice. "I swear I'll complete it!"

Etar paused at that, staring intently at him. "You swear?"

"I swear!" Omen insisted blithely, sensing victory. "You have my word of honor! But it has to be an epic quest, something no one else has ever done! Something no one else can do."

"Hmm." Etar scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Well, there is one thing . . . no, I don't think you're really suited to epic quests. Epic quests take you down dark roads that tend to have lasting consequences. You set foot on a road like that and you may travel it your whole life."

Offended, Omen glared hard at him. "You think I'm not suited? I can travel a dark road as well as anyone — I'm not afraid! What's this great quest of yours? I'm perfectly suited!"

Etar's holding something back — I can see it in his eyes!

"Well, there is one epic quest I can think of," Etar said thoughtfully, his gaze suddenly intense and probing as if trying to see into Omen's heart.

"What is it? I already gave you my word of honor!" Omen pressed.

"We is promising," Tormy added helpfully. "Honest honest! We is promising to be epicnessness!"

Etar's eyes narrowed suddenly, his expression darkening. "Oh, I'd need more than just a single promise before I'd give you this quest," he said softly. "If you really want this quest, you'll have to make several promises."

Anticipating victory, Omen and Tormy both nodded their heads in agreement.

"If I give you this quest, you must promise that you'll go right now, without question, taking only what I give you. No delay, no hesitation, no questions. No consulting your father or mother. You'll go now and you will not stop until you have completed the quest." Etar's voice matched the intensity of his gaze, and already Omen felt excitement rising inside him.

This is sounding more and more interesting by the minute. "All right!" Omen clapped his hands together. "Agreed! I promise!"

Etar turned toward the door. "Then both of you, come with me." He strode away at a swift pace.

"Where are we—" Omen started to call out to him.

"No questions!" Etar shouted back, making Omen bite his tongue.

I did agree — no questions.

"Come on, Tormy!" Omen said, eager to get started. The two of them chased after Etar.

Servants lined the halls beyond the library door. They held packs and waterskins which Etar grabbed as he passed by.

Omen's brows knitted as he followed. "What are—" he cut off the question himself this time, remembering his promise. How did Etar's servants know to have all that stuff ready? But before he could puzzle out the answer, the castle melted away, and he found himself standing in the middle of a dark forest next to an equally startled Tormy. Omen gasped at the sudden display of grandiose magic.

As if in a trance, he stared in awe at the brilliant, icy sky overhead. It was filled with constellations he'd never noticed before.

What just happened? What was that?

Etar tossed an intricate-looking saddle on Tormy's back and nimbly strapped it down, ignoring the cat's sputter of shock. Is that contraption specially-made for Tormy? The quick saddling, even more than the magical transportation to the woods, stunned Omen. It takes me ages to put any sort of harness on Tormy. Etar did it in a second.

Etar fastened the numerous bags and heavy waterskins to Tormy's saddle. "You know, eventually you'll be able to ride Tormy. Maybe in another year or so. I suppose a small child could ride him now."

"He's just a kitten!" Omen protested. "All that water is way too heavy for him."

"I is strong!" Tormy proclaimed and stood up straight beneath the weight of the saddlebags. Etar produced Omen's great two-handed sword, a gift from his father, from seemingly nowhere and strapped it alongside the saddle beneath one of the leg stirrups.

When did he steal my sword?

"See! I is carrying everything!" Tormy proclaimed proudly.

"The bags are magical," Etar assured Omen. "They don't weigh as much as you'd think."

Before Omen could ask, Etar turned away and held out his hands to the darkness as if reaching for something.

"It's here," he announced, motioning Omen to come forward.

The sharp scent of pine and cedar blew past as a cold wind swept through the forest. Overhead, the tree branches rustled. Dry pine needles crunched beneath Omen's every step.

Deeply suspicious, Omen caught hold of Tormy's shoulder strap. "Etar, what is this—"

"No questions," Etar told him once again. "You promised. Now listen to me very carefully. There is a rift here — a rip in time and space—"

"What!" Omen barked in disbelief. "That's not—"

"A rip in time and space," Etar continued as if Omen had not interrupted, "that leads to another world. You're going to go through it and you will not return until you find our brother."

"Brother?" Omen exclaimed, anxiety flooding through him. What did I get us into?

"Our brother has been lost for a very long time," Etar told him. "You must find him. And you must bring him back, bring him home. Do not stop, and whatever you do, do not turn back. If you turn back, our brother will be lost forever. Now, come quickly. We're running out of time. Step through!" He caught hold of Omen's arm and pulled him forward.

When did I lose control of this situation? "Wait a minute!" Omen protested. "How am I even supposed to recognize our brother?"

"You'll know him," Etar assured him. "He's the only one."

He gave Omen a hard shove, and a moment later Omen found himself standing in another place, in another world. Harsh daylight pierced his eyes. He blinked at the bright glare and tried to comprehend the arid landscape that stretched out before him.