Of Cats and Dragons

Carol E. Leever Camilla Ochlan

Nights Gift Audiobook on Audible

The Hollow Season

Amazon
The Hollow Season cover art

Young warrior bard Omen Daenoth and his intrepid companions —the prince of Terizkand, a Sundragon scholar, a cynical spy, a reckless Corsair, not to mention the talking cats — journey toward the looming Mountain of Shadow.

But how will they rescue the kidnapped king and lift the curse of the faerie sorceress when every step along their way is wrought with murderous creatures and lethal magic? And what exactly is the secret of the Cypher Runes?

Join the adventure and find out the answers!

Chapter 1: Port

OMEN

Kadana had described the port of Khreté but what Omen beheld upon their approach on that bracing, fog-shrouded morning was unlike anything he had imagined. In the distance, a large granite islet jutted out from the mainland at a considerable distance and provided a solid platform for Khreté. The coastal town spread upward at a steep angle, the citadel winding around in a gradual spiral that reminded Omen of cinnamon snail rolls. Seamless stone walls corralled many-storied buildings from the busy harbor to the sizable fortress at its pinnacle. The stoic battlements of the fortress and four round towers took shape as the early-morning fog started to burn off.

I heard Kharakhian architecture was unimaginative. But if Khreté is any measure, Kharakhian builders have dark romance in their souls. I should write a song.

"Khreté is smelling deliciousnessness." Tormy sniffed the air. "Like adventure and shaved truffles."

"Could be, Tormy. Could be," Omen said. I guess the wet stone could smell mushroomy. But how can he smell the city from all the way out here? Cat's like a bloodhound.

Omen leaned a little closer, snuggling into Tormy's thick coat to protect himself from windburn. "You don't mind the wind, fuzz face?"

The cat giggled, his orange mane blowing this way and that in the rough breeze. Kyr, also cuddled into Tormy's fur, blinked sleepily and murmured, "Stone city by the sea." The sunset hues of his irises swirled slowly, seeming to change from violet to red gold.

Trick of the light, Omen convinced himself.

"Pieces scattered on the ground. Broken." Kyr studied the tall walls and the length of the causeway leading to the battlements at the highest point.

"The city isn't broken." Omen put his hand on Kyr's shoulder. "It's built to withstand the fury of the ocean. It's encased in thick walls. Unbreakable."

"The stones defend the city from the sea, but the man with the dove-grey eyes is frozen in time." Kyr's speech took on a distant lilt, as if he were not the one speaking. Omen noticed the quality of the vibrations in Kyr's voice change briefly.

A spike of some sort? Omen wondered if the fluctuating eye color and the shift in vocal quality could be markers of Kyr's odd episodes.

Maybe I can train Tyrin to notice the early warning signs. Maybe Tyrin can help pull him out of it before it starts.

"The man with dove-grey eyes? What man?" Omen asked carefully.

"What man?" Kyr asked, his incandescent eyes large and round. "Is it a joke, Omen? Like knock, knock?"

"What?" Omen couldn't hide his confusion.

"Man," Kyr said firmly and then let out a hearty belly laugh. "That's a good one, Omen!"

Though the sea had been rough at sunrise, the waves smoothed for their arrival. The grey dampness had given way to blue skies, nearly clear with intermittent dustings of thin white clouds.

As they glided toward port, Omen admired the water's gradual color change. Deep blues rivaling the sun-streaked sky flowed into brilliant aquamarines that in turn reached up to the fine sands of the cliffside beach.

Shalonie climbed down from the rigging, the ship's tiny monkey lounging tamely on her shoulder. "Built at the beginning of the Set-Manasan dynasty." She cleared her throat. "Khreté was the capital of Kharakhan for hundreds of years. The ramparts are twenty feet thick and have served to protect the citadel from both land and sea. This port city was the Set-Manasan seat of power—"

"Until Indee built the new capital?" Omen asked plainly.

"Caraky," Shalonie agreed. "Built for the coronation of King Khylar."

"My parents went to the coronation, but I didn't get to go," Omen said with an edge of embarrassment. "Something about slurping my soup in elevated company."

"You were ten," Templar threw in, he and Dev having joined them from below deck. Both young men were armed and wearing leather armor in anticipation of going ashore. The sigils embossed on Templar's armor blazed briefly in the sun as if reacting to the light before settling back into a dark charcoal grey that blended in with the black. "It was mostly dull. Mostly." He fell silent.

"Respectfully, I can't exactly agree with that assessment," Dev said. "Granted, my circumstances were very different."

"I thought you said you hadn't been there." Omen hoped to catch a glint of uncertainty in the spy's silver eyes.

"Did I?" Dev's lips curved into a smirk. "Must have been a lie. Or maybe I am lying now—"

"Well, which is it?" Shalonie looked as if she were making a list of questions to ask Dev later.

"I was stuck with my sister," Templar admitted ruefully, ignoring the Machelli. "But according to my father it was lots of pomp and circumstance, most of it kak Indee had made up." Templar squeezed one eye shut and studied the horizon. "Of course, Terizkand and Kharakhan were barely on speaking terms at that time. My father hated King Charaathalar. Called him a burr on the rear of a donkey. Only agreed to enter into talks once Charaathalar had officially been declared deceased."

Dev's usually unreadable silver eyes flashed as if he were biting down a comment. Omen noticed Shalonie raising an eyebrow.

"Of course, my father liked Indee," Templar continued almost wistfully. "She was bold and fearless. The scuttlebutt was that Indee used wild magic to get Caraky built so fast."

Templar unwrapped a piece of hard Melian cheese and an apple from a folded handkerchief. "Mégeira gave me this. Anybody hungry?"

"I is liking cheese," Tormy mentioned casually, hope twinkling in his amber eyes.

Templar nodded. "I had a feeling." He broke a small piece of the cheese off and threw the rest to Tormy, who snapped it out of the air. Templar handed the smaller piece to Kyr, who stuffed it in his pocket.

The pocket undulated, and a tiny voice yelled out, "It's &*$!^% cheese. My favorite!" The rest of Tyrin's words were lost in hurried munching.

"Wild magic?" Omen shouted as if he'd been smacked upside the head. "Khylar disappeared from Caraky! A city built by wild magic! Maybe he's not even in the Autumn Lands, maybe he's trapped in the city itself?"

Kyr cried out, then quickly hid his hand behind his back.

"Kyr!" Omen turned toward his brother, realizing with alarm that his careless words had inadvertently triggered the hex. Shame flooded through him. How? What did I say? I didn't refuse the quest. What triggered it?

"Kyr, show me your hand."

Slowly, Kyr brought forward his marred hand. Blisters were forming along the mark, spiraling up his wrist. The web of inky black lines was growing and pulsing even as they watched.

"It's the Autumn Lands!" Dev exclaimed. "Say you're going into the Autumn Lands to rescue Khylar. Quickly!"

Praying that Dev was right, Omen swiftly said the words, speaking them clearly and loudly with as much conviction behind them as possible. "I'm going into the Autumn Lands to rescue Khylar." To his relief, the mark on Kyr's hand stopped growing.

"But now the mark's bigger," Omen said, his voice hollow. "A lot bigger."

"Well, at least now we know that you can't even suggest something else happened to Khylar." Dev fished a small jar of ointment from the inner pocket of his coat and handed it across to Omen. Omen recognized the label on its lid as his mother's. Familiar with his mother's potions from a long childhood of scrapes and bruises, Omen knew the concoction would ease Kyr's pain.

Omen carefully smeared the ointment over the burn and then bound Kyr's wrist with the white bandages Dev handed to him. He nodded his thanks to the Machelli, glad at least one of them had the sense to carry such things. Dev knows what to do to lessen the pain of the hex — either my mother told him, or he has experience with hexes himself. Maybe I shouldn't open my bloody mouth at all! How am I supposed to know what will trigger the hex?

Templar watched with a bitter twist of his lips. "Indee's a bitch!" he spat out. "I can't even magically or psionically heal the burns."

"Indee might not even realize what she's done," Shalonie tried to defend Indee once again, though she didn't sound convinced.

Her loyalty to the Sundragons runs deep.

"I think this means we have to move faster." Omen felt helpless but determined. "Your psionic blast already brought us here weeks before Kadana was expecting to arrive." Shalonie scratched at her eyebrow with her thumb as if deep in thought. "We should have arrived about ten days after midsummer — and instead we're arriving almost a week before the solstice."

So we'll be here for the solstice.

"Kadana sent word to her husband a few days ago," Shalonie said. "Another one of her handy magic trinkets, some sort of message box. She put a letter in; it disappeared, and not five minutes later a reply from Diatho came."

"How big was that box?" Templar asked; wheels seemed to be turning in his head.

Shalonie ignored him.

"Diatho should arrive in Khreté by lunch," she said to Omen. "If possible, I'd like to get into the fortress. Rumor has it there's a faulty portal there, and seeing it could help me with my studies. I'll need to know more about portals if we're going to be wandering around in the Mountain of Shadow — that place is filled with portals and traps and doorways into other worlds. The more knowledge I have, the better I'll be able to help you."

"I don't know anything about a faulty portal, but I can get you into the fortress," Dev told them then. He'd pulled a small spyglass from another inside pocket of the metal-studded leather coat he was wearing and peered at the long stone dock they were approaching.

"Can't we ask for an audience?" Omen asked, turning his attention to the tall battlements of the massive structure at the top. The fortress had been the home of King Charaathalar Set-Manasan, and likely still was home to numerous members of his family. As prince of Lydon, Omen had always been granted full access to any castle he'd visited, and since his grandmother Kadana held some sort of title in Kharakhan, he couldn't imagine they'd be denied.

"If you ask for an audience, you'll be welcomed into the Palace Hall — that's that large stone building next to the fortress with the white tower and all the flags," Dev told him, pointing toward the building in question. It appeared to be made of a different type of stone — the outward facade's gleaming white marble designed to catch the eye. Fluttering flags proclaimed that at least one member of the royal family was in attendance. "There's nothing interesting in the Palace Hall. If there is anything to be seen it would be in the fortress, but Indee sealed that off years ago. They won't take us there. Especially not you."

Omen gaped at Dev. He makes it sound like they have something personal against me. He couldn't recall ever having had any sort of unpleasant encounter with the Set-Manasans. Khylar and Caythla were the only ones he'd ever met. And Indee — but she's a Lir Drathos now.

"Especially not me? What's that supposed to mean?" Omen asked.

Templar and Shalonie looked at Dev with curiosity.

Dev's lips twitched upward. "The Set-Manasans don't like your father . . . or your mother for that matter. They tend to hold grudges. Wouldn't say anything to your face, but wouldn't even bother to spit on you if you were on fire either."

"Spit on you?" Tyrin piped up, poking his head up from inside Kyr's coat pocket, his little white paws looped over the side. "I is thinking that the saying is that they wouldn't p—"

"Tyrin!" Omen cut the little cat off before he could finish. "He was trying to be polite. We don't say bad words in front of Shalonie."

"Why not?" Tyrin looked baffled. "I is just trying to be accurateness. Shalonie is liking things to be accurateness."

Omen stared hard at the little cat, and Tyrin twitched his ears a few times before letting out a little sniff and sinking back down into Kyr's warm pocket.

Kyr seemed oblivious to the exchange, staring instead at the bandages wrapped around his wrist. Avarice's burn ointment was supposed to take away any pain on contact, but Omen worried the boy was still suffering. It's not like Kyr would say anything about the pain.

"So what was it my father—" Omen began again, turning his attention back to Dev.

Dev cut him off, his smirk widening. "You might want to ask your parents that," he told Omen. "I try to stay out of politics, and I definitely have no interest in meddling in your mother's personal affairs. You're welcome to borrow the bonding book if you want to ask her yourself."

Annoyed, Omen turned his attention back to the city. She wouldn't answer. Would tell me to mind my own business. Avarice had never responded well to his pointed curiosity — she expected him to figure things out for himself. And if he couldn't, then — she'd told him — he'd have no business knowing.

"If you don't meddle in politics, how are you going to get us into the fortress?" Templar asked then, looking intrigued by the entire conversation.

Good question. Omen frowned and glanced back at Dev.

Dev pointed toward the fortress. "See that stone house with the red roof at the base of the battlements?" He indicated one of many manor houses ringing the fortress. "The locals call the area Fortress Hill. It's where lesser nobles and wealthy merchants like to live."

The neighboring abodes were all built of the same dark stone, only the tile on the inner roofs distinguishing one from another. The tile colors were quite impressive in variety — reds, blues, greens, golds. The house Dev pointed to had tiles of reddish gold — like untarnished copper. As the fog around the hilltop burned away, the roof caught the sunlight and flashed like flames.

"That's the Machelli Guild House. We can get into the fortress from there." Dev motioned toward the long stone dock the ship was approaching. At the far end, on the main causeway that surrounded the port, Omen spotted a number of carriages. "Kadana has business with the guild. They're waiting for us." He handed over the spyglass without asking.

Omen peered through it toward the dock at the carriages. Apparently they know how many are in our group. Doubt they accounted for Tormy. Omen couldn't really see Tormy wanting to ride in a carriage, even if he were tired. The poor cat had grown so restless, Omen didn't expect him to slow down even for a second as soon as his paws hit solid ground.

Along with the carriages and the muscular horses attached to them, Omen saw two tall, dark-haired men standing nearby. Wonder how long they've been waiting.He strained to see as many details as possible.

Though well-dressed in the fine doublets expected of wealthy merchants, there was something wild and dangerous about them — even from the distance. Both were well-armed, swords hanging from their sword belts and gleaming daggers strapped to sheaths on their legs. Bits of shiny metal plating was woven through the fine material of the doublets and leather breeches. Omen recognized their profiles and had no doubt that their eyes would be silver. These men looked like the Machellis Omen knew — unlike Dev who, despite his uncanny resemblance to Avarice, was far more delicate and slender than the typical Machelli male.

"Relatives?" he asked, guessing Dev would know the answer. He handed the spyglass to Shalonie who was watching curiously.

"Probably," Dev agreed. "Cousins more likely. Glaive and Foil."

"Those are Kharakhian long swords," Shalonie corrected swiftly as she peered through the spyglass.

Dev laughed at that. "I meant those are their names."

Definitely Machelli.

Shalonie's brow furrowed. "I understand the custom behind the names," she said. "But do you all have actual names as well — like Armand for Omen and Ava for Avarice? And do you ever use them?"

"My mother and I have those names because the Machelli custom doesn't go over very well in Lydon," Omen admitted. He smiled fondly when he thought of all the times as a child he'd argued with his father's mother, Queen Wraiteea, about his name. She'd finally agreed to call him Omen in private as long as he went by Armand in public. "My grandmother Wraiteea insisted we have proper names. My real name is actually Omen — that's what my mother named me when I was born. And as far as I know, my mother was named Avarice at birth. The Machellis call them hex-names, to ward off bad luck."

"What about you, Dev?" Shalonie asked. "Do you have another name?"

"Lots," he admitted with a smile that gave nothing away. "If you don't like Devastation, make one up. I'll answer to it. Not particularly attached to any of them."

Not the answer she was looking for, Omen noted, grinning at the consternation on Shalonie's face.

"Names can be stolen," Kyr said, his gaze still on his bandaged hand. "Like rings found on the ground and picked up by kings who are no more." He turned his solemn gaze on Omen, the morning sunlight catching in the violet hues of his eyes and making them seem more amber. "There's a monster inside it."

"Inside what, Kyr?" Concern swept through Omen.

The boy's eyes widened, and then he smiled peacefully. "That's a great idea, Omen! I miss fried cakes. There aren't any on the ship — Tyrin and I looked. I hope they have ones with custard inside them. Do you think they know about custard?"

Omen glanced over at Templar who raised his shoulders imperceptibly. They were both willing to take Kadana's words to heart and take more notice of Kyr's strange ramblings, but it wasn't easy when it always seemed as if he were having a completely separate conversation. "We'll check when we get to shore," he assured his little brother. "I'm sure the Kharakhians know all about custard."

Kadana and Liethan joined them on deck a few moments later, Kadana barking out orders to the sailors around them as they prepared to pull into port.

Khreté, like most port cities, possessed deep-water slips where even a ship the size of the Golden Voyage could dock — though they were limited to a small number of outer piers. Some had only floating wooden docks leading back to the main causeway, but the pier Kadana directed the ship toward was permanent, held up by enormous stone pylons embedded into the sea floor. Omen imagined his grandmother had paid quite a handsome docking fee for the slip.

Omen watched in fascination as workers rolled large, intricate cargo cranes into position along the pier to empty the hold. My dad would love this. Workers easily hand-cranked the wheels on the side of the cranes to lower the jibs by ropes and pulleys.

Numerous people lined the docks and congregated farther up along the causeway, all having watched the great ship pull into port. From the looks of people pointing toward them, Omen guessed more than one person had spotted Tormy. A giant orange cat hopping around on the deck, tail lashing back and forth, is pretty hard to miss. Omen tried to see his cat through a stranger's eyes. Hope they like cats.

Tormy's presence in Melia went for the most part unremarked — beyond the numerous people who admired him. The giant cat, while strange, was not the oddest thing to see in that city — the Sundragons dwarfed the cat, and the Melians had no fear of large creatures. And while Tormy had certainly caused a stir the first time Omen had taken him to Lydon, the citizens there had gotten the opportunity to know the cat when he was still relatively small. The Kharakhians would have no such preparations. In a few more months Omen imagined Tormy would be large enough for him to ride.

From the look of things, Tormy was not going to present himself sedately, and Omen didn't imagine that any amount of cajoling would change that.

He patted the cat on the flank and scratched him behind the ears to calm him down, but even before the sailors could finish lowering the gangplank, Tormy took one huge leap over the side of the ship and landed all four paws on the stone pier, causing the workers below to scatter. The cat took off, racing down the pier, turning at the end, and sprinting back to the ship, only to repeat the course over and over again. All the while he shouted at the top of his lungs, "DRY LAND! DRY LAND! I IS LOVING DRY LAND!"

Watching from the upper deck, Kadana roared with laughter. Kyr tittered happily from his place at the ship's railing while holding a remarkably sedate Tyrin.

"We is being a spectacle," Tyrin explained to anyone who wanted to hear. And it did seem as if all work had stopped as Kharakhians and sailors stared at the giant ball of orange fluff racing up and down the pier.

Initially, the cat gone wild had been met with sounds of concern and even terror, but the panic was short-lived. Before long, Omen saw people beginning to laugh at the sight, and numerous sailors nodded as if they could well understand Tormy's sentiments. If nothing else he's an extremely cute giant fluff-ball.

"You're going to have a serious problem if you ever want to arrive somewhere unseen," Templar remarked as they watched the cat.

So quiet, so stealthy, so cat-like.

Eventually, Tormy calmed down and trotted happily back toward the ship to sit down and wait for the others. While warming himself in the breezy morning sunlight, he thoughtfully positioned himself off to one side, well out of the way but still able to see all.

Satisfied that his cat wasn't going anywhere, Omen headed below deck with Kyr to retrieve their belongings and prepare to disembark.

He'd already packed his things — keeping track of everything he'd need for himself, Tormy, Tyrin, and Kyr for the journey. Like Templar, he wore a light coat of armor — thin, interwoven metal scales made of lightweight Lydonian silverleaf that would turn most blades. And though it was summer, the weather was more autumn-like, and the wind blowing in off the ocean was cold. Omen shrugged on a knee-length leather coat over the armor, before slipping his sword belt over his left shoulder, and strapping the enormous two-handed blade across his back. He adjusted the quick release buckle that rested against his chest, allowing him to unfasten the sword belt instantly and draw the sword from its scabbard easily. He'd learned the painful way that it was too difficult to draw over his shoulder, the blade far too long to clear the scabbard unless he'd released it from the belt.

"Do you have everything?" he asked Kyr. Omen fastened two thin daggers to his belt and tied them down to each thigh. Then he grabbed his backpack along with the lightweight saddle he'd have to coax onto Tormy's back. The larger the cat grew, the stronger he became, and the more could fit into his saddlebags.

Kyr held up the small traveling satchel Avarice had given him in Melia. Save for a few changes of clothes, he didn't have much, leaving the bulk of their supplies for Omen to manage. Kyr wore a finely cut leather coat also made by Omen's mother — Lydonian design with a high collar and inner silk lining. It was made of dyed brown and green leather and would hold up well to travel, but it offered little in the way of armored protection.

Omen worried that Kyr would need something more substantial.

He's quick; he hides well, Omen reminded himself. And he knows to run if there's trouble. Besides, knowing my mother, she wove protection spells into that coat.

The boy also held the thin sheathed blade Omen had selected for him before they left Melia — a Lydonian sword also made of silverleaf. Kyr seemed uncertain what to do with it, holding it out to Omen.

Omen took the blade and clipped the scabbard to the metal loop on the boy's belt. "You should always have a weapon on you," he told Kyr. "And remember that this one is sharp. So be careful with it!"

If worse came to worst, he wanted Kyr to have some means of defending himself, even though the lesson in the Melian park had still been the only time they'd practiced. Should have worked with him during the crossing, he scolded himself. But while the boy didn't have any understanding of how to use a sword, he was extremely skilled with his carving knife and certainly understood the dangers of sharp edges. It'll have to do for now.

Kyr nodded blithely, accepting Omen's word without hesitation.

Tyrin, who was watching them from the desk, leaped with grace onto Kyr's shoulder. The boy instinctively turned at the last moment to make his shoulder more readily accessible. The kitten settled contently down, tiny claws digging into the leather of the extra padding Avarice had added to Kyr's coat.

"All right, let's get going, and remember you two, stay with me. This isn't Melia. Don't go wandering off by yourself," Omen reminded them both. Kyr was not prone to wandering — he followed silently after Omen no matter where he went. But sometimes Tormy and Tyrin were harder to corral, and he feared they could manage to get the boy lost if he wasn't vigilant.

Templar, Shalonie, and Liethan were waiting for them on deck when they arrived, all of them armed and decked-out for travel. Shalonie's dragon blade gleamed brightly in the sunlight, and Omen had to grin when he saw that Liethan was at last wearing boots.

Liethan noticed the angle of his eyeline. "I do occasionally wear shoes," he told him. "The Corsair Isles are all white sandy beaches, but my mother also owns land in the heart of Kharakhan. Spent a lot of time hunting in the Kharakhian forests." Along with the long sword the Corsairs tended to favor, Liethan also carried a crossbow which he had strapped to his backpack.

Omen glanced briefly over at the dock to assure himself that Tormy was still waiting in the sunlight. The cat was eating a large fish that he'd most likely begged from some fisherman and that Omen would no doubt have to pay for. He looked to the others. "Where are Kadana and Dev?"

"Kadana is talking to the harbormaster," Shalonie told him, pointing a bit further down the dock where Omen could see his grandmother talking to a tall burly man with a bushy black beard and dark skin. "Wanted to warn him about the leviathan and the troubles with the summer route so he can pass the word on to the other captains."

"And Dev's up there," Templar added, pointing toward the long causeway beyond the docks where the carriages were still waiting. "No doubt plotting something dastardly with your Machelli cousins."

Omen glared at him. "The Machelli are merchants, the guild is a merchant's guild, regardless of whatever ridiculous stories you might have heard."

Templar laughed out loud. "Even most of the Machellis call themselves 'information brokers' and not merchants . . . They're spies, and that's the polite term."

"They're merchants," Omen insisted. "They sell stuff — food, spices, clothes. My mother designs clothing — see this nice coat she made for Kyr." While Omen was well aware that the extended Machelli clans were far more than mere merchants, he tended to ignore the more unsavory side of the family. Admittedly, their wolf-bred Shilvagi blood made them ill-suited for the more placid life of shopkeepers and tradesmen, but he didn't consider them bad people. They were rowdy, temperamental, often aggressive, and mostly mysterious. And his mother had systematically kept any darker aspect away from the immediate family in Melia.

"I like my coat," Kyr offered. "It has extra deep pockets for Tyrin. Avarice says it makes me look lovely." The plainspokenness of his voice, as if he were imparting the weather, caused the others to burst out in guffaws. Kyr laughed along, looking only slightly disoriented.

Tyrin, still seated on top of Kyr's shoulder, preened and fluffed his tail, nuzzling his face into the boy's pale, golden hair.

"We is being the loveliest," the little kitten agreed with a purr.

"Come on then, lovely." Omen chuckled with a shake of his head. "Let's go ashore."

At the bottom of the gangplank, Tormy happily licked his chops clean of the last remnants of the fish. "People is being so nicestness here!" the cat purred. "I is telling the dockworkers that I is being really hungry and they is all throwing fish at me."

"And who said Kharakhians were dull-witted?" Templar looked around, making sure Kadana hadn't heard him.

If a giant cat told me he was hungry, I'd probably throw fish at him too.

Kadana joined them a moment later, the harbormaster following after her. The man kept a wary eye on Tormy. "Your beasty there tame?" the man boomed out to Omen.

Tormy began spinning in circles, his large plume of a tail whacking Omen and Templar repeatedly. "Beasty, beasty, beasty? Where is being the beasty?" the cat jabbered frantically, looking around with keen interest.

"He was talking about me, Tormy," Templar assured him.

Tyrin, still balancing on Kyr's shoulder, narrowed his eyes dangerously as if understanding the truth.

Worried that the harbormaster was about to be lambasted with the kitten's blistering tongue, Omen stepped forward to assure the man. "Everything is fine," he told him quickly, holding up the saddle he was still carrying. "See I even have a saddle."

The man nodded gruffly, his eyes still distrustful.

Tormy sat down and scratched at his ear with his back paw. "I is thinking the saddle is being for me, Omy? Is it being for Templar?"

The question set Templar choking with laughter; he turned away attempting to hide his mirth at Omen's dilemma.

Tyrin stood on his hind legs on Kyr's shoulder, front paws perched on the boy's head so that he could glare at the harbormaster. The tiny cat's tail lashed violently back and forth. "Hey, mister!" the little cat shouted.

Kadana fought hard to keep a somber expression but failed.

"Really . . . Everything's fine!" Omen cut in, glaring briefly at Templar and throwing his grandmother a pleading look. "No beasties here, and yes, Tormy, it's your saddle, though if Templar doesn't shut up, he's going to be wearing it. Now, are we ready to go?"

"Yes." Kadana took the reins of the conversation. "The Machellis are waiting for us." She motioned toward the causeway, before calling out a few final orders to her crew. The Corsair sailors were attaching the hook block of one of the cargo cranes to the first crate of the ship's stored haul, the unloading of cargo in full swing as if choreographed.

Omen quickly ushered Tormy and Kyr forward.

Tyrin, hardly appeased, continued to glare the prickliest of his spite at the harbormaster as the lot of them hurried up the stone dock and toward the awaiting Machelli carriages.