"Here, kitty, kitty . . . here, kitty, kitty . . ."
The voice was mocking, but Truth turned toward the sound. Those words offered something she had been without for what seemed like an entire lifetime: direction.
Truth did not hear the voice. Rather the call appeared to her as a physical thing, a strand of certainty amid the chaos of nearly infinite probability. She followed that strand's odor, though she smelled it with her nose no more than she saw it with her eyes, no more than she heard that mocking voice with her round, furred ears.
The jaguar dipped her head close to the ground and took the scent, then followed its trace--for how long? Truth had no idea. The notion of time was one of the first things that had fragmented beyond repair. Even so, she followed, desiring certainty as once she had desired the hot blood of her prey, the attentions of lovers in season, lavish praise or admiration.
Truth followed, hearing a voice that wasn't there, scenting a trail that did not exist, seeing a path that left no mark on its surroundings. She followed, because all these things led her toward certainty.
Forever after, that full year's turning of seasons on Misheemnekuru, the Sanctuary Islands, would remain green in memory for Firekeeper. Events of the summer before had freed her from responsibility for her human companions. Now she ran with the wolves, as free and unencumbered as ever she had been in her childhood.
The wolf-woman even had acquired a pack of her own, she and Blind Seer, for though Moon Frost had won Dark Death back from the doom he had ordained for himself, the season was too early for mating. Instead of dispersing to seek their own territory, the pair ran with Firekeeper. The greatest wonder of all to Firekeeper was that she, she and Blind Seer, were the Ones of this small pack.
Later, another joined them. Young Rascal of Moon Frost's own birth pack followed these first four when they moved on from hunting with his family. The pups Rascal had nursemaided were hunting small game on their own, so neither his mother nor his father held Rascal back from his desire to explore his strengths, though his new teachers would be odd indeed.
Summer was a fat time, as was the autumn that followed. Firekeeper's reputation was such that no wolf pack minded if the wolf-woman's small band shared the hunting in their lands--as long as the five first cried for permission, and granted those who held the territory their due.
When they were not hunting, the wolves usually slept, but Firekeeper--who was wolf and not--often searched out the human ruins that dotted Misheemnekuru. Blind Seer--who was wolf, but had run where no wolf had run for a hundred years and more--went with his Firekeeper. Between her questing eyes and his keen nose they discovered many curious things.
Winter was harder, though to Firekeeper and Blind Seer, born farther to the north, the temperatures were comparatively mild. Firekeeper's five joined with another little pack, a mated pair and their first year's pups. When a pup or two who might not have otherwise survived the winter's lean hunting lived because Firekeeper was clever with bow and snare, then to the songs that were already sung of her battles were added those of her generosity, and of her mercy.
When spring came around, Firekeeper and her pack went their way, seeking fresh hunting grounds. Spring had brought with it a small litter, born to Moon Frost, sired by Dark Death. Only two pups survived the birth. There were others, but deformed so that they came forth dead or only breathed a few shallow breaths. This was the curse of Misheemnekuru, and the reminder of it darkened Firekeeper's idyll.
Yet nothing could diminish the wolf-woman's contentment for long. The surviving pups grew strong and fat with only one other to share Moon Frost's milk, and with five adults eager to spoil them, for wolves love their pups and indulge them greatly. Firekeeper had Blind Seer at her side, and a pack with which to sing songs to the Moon.
That summer a few young hunters trying their skill--and some not so young, nor without skill--came to challenge Firekeeper, for as she was wolf and yet not wolf, there were those who doubted Firekeeper's right to walk freely on Misheemnekuru. These battles she won--and the fact that her pack showed willing to fight alongside her counted for much in all eyes.
With the coming of the raven, this time of contentment was shattered forever.
The raven came to Firekeeper and Blind Seer early one morning at that time of year when the days were hot and heavy, and so--unless the wind came off the water--were the nights. The wolves had been sorting among bits of broken glass and cut stone at what had probably once been a fine estate, but was now little more than an assortment of vine-covered mounds.
When the raven landed on one of these mounds, Firekeeper greeted her with a friendly smile.
"Hey, Lovable," she said. "Come to see if we have found anything that shines?"
The raven lifted her head, angling it to one side to better look at what Firekeeper might be holding, then sank her head between her shoulders and sleeked her feathers flat, so that she looked smaller than she was. This was not very small, for Lovable was a Wise Raven, and like all of her kind, larger than her Cousin counterparts.
"Something that sparkled would be nice," Lovable began, then stopped herself with visible effort, "but that isn't why I have come. The beast-souled, the maimalodalum, asked me to find you and request that you attend upon them at Center Island."
Firekeeper let the bits of stone and glass she had been sifting through her fingers fall to the ground. Blind Seer, who had been lying recumbent, watching Firekeeper as he drowsed, rose in one easy motion. He did not quite challenge the raven, but his posture was defensive.
"What do they want her for?"
"They want both of you, actually," Lovable replied. "Powerful Tenderness, speaking for the rest, said to me, 'Find Firekeeper and Blind Seer. We have learned something that may interest them.' That is what he said."
Blind Seer relaxed somewhat, but Firekeeper, who knew the blue-eyed wolf well, felt he was still suspicious.
"You," Lovable agreed. "Though your pack would be welcome, I am sure. But it is to you the beast-souled wish to speak."
Firekeeper rose and placed a hand on Blind Seer's shoulder.
"I would go," she said. "Otherwise, I will wonder what the beast-souled wished to tell us."
"Curiosity," Blind Seer growled. "It is the most human thing about you, Little Two-legs."
Firekeeper did not bristle as once she might have. She knew what Blind Seer said was true. Instead she turned her attention to Lovable.
"What do they want?" she asked.
"I don't know exactly," Lovable replied, and from the set of her feathers, Firekeeper could tell this lack of information annoyed the raven. "All I know is that it has something to do with the jaguar Truth."
After arranging to have the other three adults follow more slowly with the pups, Firekeeper and Blind Seer set off for Center Island. During the year they had spent on the Sanctuary Islands, they had not often visited this one particular island. They were not unwelcome there, but the island held not only bad memories, but two human residents whom Firekeeper had no desire to know better.
Unlike humans, Firekeeper and Blind Seer did not speculate as to what might await them at their destination--at least not out loud. Privately, Firekeeper did wonder, and she suspected Blind Seer did, too, but they saved their breath for running.
So it was that some days later, as evening was falling, the two wolves climbed the hill to the towers where the beast-souled made their headquarters. Once there had been five towers, each dedicated to one of the five elements worshipped by the Liglimom, the humans who had settled these islands before moving to the mainland. The central tower, the one dedicated to Magic, was nothing but a heap of broken stone. The four that surrounded it stood tall--and in far better repair than their battered exteriors might suggest.
Magic's tower alone had been permitted to deteriorate, but then the beast-souled had little reason to love magic, even though magic had made them what they were.
And what they were was as unlovely a lot as Firekeeper had ever seen: furred, fanged, horned, antlered, these characteristics blended without sense or harmony. Each of the maimalodalum possessed traits taken from at least one human and one animal, but most blended those from three or four. A typical representative of the beast-souled might have the scales of a snake on the torso of a broad-chested man--or perhaps of a bear--in addition to the head of a wolf or great cat. However, there were no typical beast-souled. What was most typical about them was that each was a unique monstrosity.
The maimalodalum were descended from the results of sorcery gone awry. In the generations since a plague had either killed or driven away from the New World those who were most skilled in the magical arts, these mutations had interbred. Their children and their children's children now resided here at the heart of Misheemnekuru, a secret from most who lived on the mainland.
Yet for all their ugliness, Firekeeper respected and even liked the beast-souled. She knew better than most how intelligent and strong-willed were the spirits imprisoned within those mismatched exteriors. As Firekeeper entered the round Tower of Earth toward which a waiting raven guided her, she bowed her head in respectful greeting to those who waited within. Beside her, Blind Seer stretched out his forelegs and gave a sort of bow, a mannerism he had picked up from humans that had nothing to do with the hierarchical groveling of wolves.
"Join us, Firekeeper and Blind Seer," said Hope. Her form blended, not disagreeably, the features of a bird and a human woman. She indicated a space left empty in the seated circle of the beast-souled. "We heard from Lovable that you were coming, and gathered here that we might speak with you. But perhaps you and Blind Seer would prefer to eat or drink before we convene? You have run far. Perhaps you need to rest."
"We hunted," Firekeeper said, "while we waited for the tide to shift so we could cross the inlet to this place. There were springs and creeks enough on the path we followed here. We slept through the worst of the day's heat. There is no need for you to wait your business."
"Is this wolfish efficiency I hear?" asked Hope, her laugh holding a touch of a bird's trill. "Or human curiosity?"
"A bit of both, Hope," Firekeeper said. "You invited us. We came. There seems no reason to delay. Why did you summon us here?"
Hope gave a quick, dipping bob of her feather-capped head. Her gaze, eagle-sharp, scanned her companions and found only listening interest. "Very well. I will begin. You remember Truth?"
"A Wise Jaguar," Firekeeper said. "The diviner. She was driven mad."
Driven mad, Firekeeper thought, helping me. Had Truth not immersed herself in omens that final time so I might climb Magic's tower before it fell . . .
But might-have-beens were the stuff of nightmare. Firekeeper knew this far better than most of her acquaintances even suspected. Of those present, only Blind Seer knew that she cried in her sleep and sometimes awoke screaming. In her nightmares, too, she almost remembered her human life, but most of the time Firekeeper was a wolf--a wolf in everything but shape.
Hope continued, "You know that Truth did not return to the mainland after the events here last summer. She was certainly not fit for the honored position she had held. Equally, she could not simply be let roam free. She would have died of starvation. Moreover, she would have been a hazard to any who encountered her."
Firekeeper nodded understanding. Any jaguar was dangerous. A Wise Jaguar, larger and more intelligent than its Cousin-kin, would be more so, even one who was insane--perhaps especially one who was insane.
"Yet we could not simply kill her," Hope said. "Truth had done nothing to earn execution. Her injuries were as much battle wounds as those so many others took to their bodies."
Firekeeper felt a twisting in her gut as she thought about those who had died or been permanently mutilated. She herself bore scars from the battle in which Truth had lost her mind. The least of these marked her body. The deepest were in her heart.
"So you didn't kill Truth," Blind Seer said, perhaps to give Firekeeper a chance to compose herself, "nor let her run free. That must mean you have taken care of her."
"We have," Hope said. "Powerful Tenderness made Truth's care his charge, and to him belongs the next part of this tale."
Attention shifted to where Powerful Tenderness sat--or rather hunkered--on the ground. He was one of the most physically terrifying of the beast-souled. It was impossible for Firekeeper to decide whether his torso was that of a brown bear or merely of a very large, very hairy man. His head bore traces of both ancestries. His toes and fingers ended in claws, not nails. His eyes, when Firekeeper forced herself to meet them, were those of neither man nor bear, but the cold, somehow dead-looking eyes of a snake.
When Powerful Tenderness spoke, a snake's tongue slipped from between too-human lips, and gave his words an incongruous hiss. Yet for all his fearsome appearance, Firekeeper knew, Powerful Tenderness deserved his name as much as she deserved her own. She waited with interest to hear what he would say.
"Bide while I begin with those first days," Powerful Tenderness began, "for only in knowing how Truth was then can you understand what she has become."
Firekeeper inclined her head respectfully, and slung one arm around Blind Seer's shoulders. This was a posture that said "I am not going anywhere. Speak as much as you like," and Powerful Tenderness responded to it as he would have to words.
"At first, I despaired of keeping Truth alive once the fat in her body, the strength in her muscles, was depleted. It was almost impossible to get her to eat, and the few times I restrained her and tried to force her . . ."
He held up one forearm. A scar made a white river through the brown fur. He need say no more.
"Weakness saved Truth," Powerful Tenderness went on, "for when she was weak, she seemed to see this reality more clearly and would eat what I set out for her. But this was not her salvation. Every time Truth ate herself to some modicum of strength, she would again see each possibility in her action and balk at dangers we could not imagine, though sometimes phrases she spat to invisible enemies gave us a clue. She might fear choking, or illness from a faint trace of rot, or even mourn the creature that had died to provide her sustenance. She would again refuse to eat, grow weak, and become somewhat sane, only to fall into madness as she regained her strength. It was not a good time.
"But at last--sometime this spring--Truth broke this cycle. She did not return to full sanity, but she had flashes wherein I know she knew me, knew where she was, and knew, too, that this reality held the foundation from which she derived her omens. Then, just as I was hoping Truth would be with us more often than not, something new happened. Truth seemed to find another . . ."
Powerful Tenderness trailed off, and for a long pause Firekeeper thought he had forgotten what he had been about to say. The other beast-souled waited with such tense watchfulness that Firekeeper felt certain that they, too, had not heard this tale. Hope alone held herself differently. Hope waited, her lips pursed as if ready to prompt her friend, but she held herself silent: a bird on the edge of song.
She knows, Firekeeper thought, but she does not wish to take this hunt from her friend.
"It was as if," Powerful Tenderness said at last, "Truth had located another reality, one as solid and as real as this one. I swear I saw her lap as if drinking. There was no water near her, but I saw the muscles beneath her throat fur rippling as she swallowed. Once I thought I glimpsed a drop of water on her whiskers, but that might only have been saliva. Yet, yet . . . It glittered clear and shot rainbows when the sunlight touched it."
Firekeeper fought the urge to lean forward, not wanting to seem like a bird dog straining at the leash. Others of those gathered there, as new to this tale as she was herself, were not so restrained. One, a lean bipedal creature whose tusked boar's head seemed far too heavy for the frame it concealed beneath human-style clothing, made a snuffling, grunting, rooting-in-the-ground noise. Beside him, a voluptuous creature who might have passed for human, except that she had three paired sets of breasts and was downed in thick red fur, twitched her bushy tail uneasily. She wore a fox's muzzle like a mask over human features--though Firekeeper well knew this was no mask.
Another, a man with a stag's head--or perhaps a stag with a man's chest and arms where only a stag's muscular neck should be--dipped his rack as if seeking some enemy he might impale. The stag-man had retractable claws like those of a cat; he was sliding them in and out in his nervousness.
Some few of the nervously listening maimalodalum made even these look normal, for in them the traits of many beasts and perhaps even several different humans were so blended that deciphering their actual heritage was difficult, even impossible. Yet in this company, their oddness went unremarked, for all were remarkable.
The maimalodalum who broke the listening silence resembled either a very short, very fat man with a fat, fluffy tail, or a very large raccoon who had become bipedal. His facial features reinforced the confusion. Although his nose was more like that of a raccoon, his mouth was a bit broader, like that of a human.
When he spoke, it was in the tones of one who is being reasonable, although he knows full well he has excuse to be otherwise.
"Why," the raccoon-man began, "didn't you speak of this before, Powerful Tenderness? You of all people knew all too well the concerns we have harbored this year and more."
Powerful Tenderness's reply held the faintest rumble of a bear's growl mingled with his usual serpent's hiss. "Plik, I said nothing--except to Hope, for she shared some of my vigil with Truth--because there was nothing definite to say. Spend enough time with madness, and you will begin to doubt your own sanity."
There was another round of uncomfortable shuffling at this point, and Firekeeper felt Blind Seer's flanks heave as he swallowed panting laughter. Clearly, while all the beast-souled had agreed that Truth should not die of her mental injuries, only a few had been willing to assume the tedium--and danger--of nursing an insane Wise Jaguar.
Blind Seer said so only Firekeeper would understand him, "Unlike wolves, jaguars are solitary souls. Even Truth's Wise kin would have been unable to care for her properly. Such dependence from another adult would have strained even her own mother."
Firekeeper scratched between the wolf's ears in agreement. She had tremendous admiration for the great cats--both the pumas of her childhood ranges and the jaguars she had met here in the south. One on one, a jaguar could defeat any wolf, but ultimately, she felt that their solitary habits were a weakness.
Plik replied cryptically, "I have not spent time with madness, no, but I have come close. I think you should have trusted us."
Powerful Tenderness flicked his ears forward (they were placed like those of a human, but rounded and furred like those of a bear) in acknowledgment, and resumed his report.
"To this point I have spoken only of supposition. Truth had run from invisible terrors in the past, had hunted insubstantial game. It did not seem unreasonable that she was drinking water where there was none. In fact, Hope and I concluded that Truth might have found some congenial hallucination. Our plans were centered on how to use this to our advantage in her care."
The lean creature with the boar's head grunted, "And then?"
"And then Truth spoke," Powerful Tenderness said simply. "She spoke not muttered phrases nor screams, but clear sentences, meant for our hearing." Powerful Tenderness glanced over at Firekeeper. "You must understand, I only quote."
Firekeeper nodded. "I do."
"Truth said, 'Bring me the bitch. The wolf-bitch. The human-wolf-bitch. She's impossibly stupid at times, thinks the world runs on simple lines, but bring her.' " Powerful Tenderness shrugged. "Truth said this repeatedly. Hope heard her. We both tried to question Truth as to why she wanted you, but we got little more from her. What we did get was not precisely comforting."
"And this was?" Firekeeper asked, keeping her manner casual.
" 'There is a door here,' " Powerful Tenderness quoted. " 'My paws cannot open it. She has hands. She can open the door. She can let me out.' "
Firekeeper frowned. "Do you have Truth caged then?"
"After a fashion," Powerful Tenderness said. "To let her roam free would have been a danger to herself and others. However, where she is there is no door--not so to speak. She is within a walled area that was once part of a house. The 'door'--if you can call it such--is a hole in the wall. I have blocked it with a huge boulder. Forgive me, for I remember you are strong beyond what one would imagine for one so small, but I do not think you could move this stone. Even I need a lever to do so."
Blind Seer tilted his head back as if taking a scent. "So you think that this door of which Truth speaks is no door at all. You think she refers to something else."
The vixen-human yapped excitedly. "Or that this door is in another place, some other place that Truth has found, the place where she found fresh water to drink!"
"So you wish me to speak with Truth," Firekeeper said, "perhaps learn what this door is of which she speaks."
"Yes," Powerful Tenderness agreed. "Not only may it be the means of helping Truth from her delusions, but it may be related to something else that has been troubling us. Would you hear of that now, or go to Truth?"
"Is Truth in any immediate danger?" Firekeeper asked.
"No. She is in one of the quieter portions of her cycle."
"Then let us hear the rest of your tale," Firekeeper said. "If I am not mistaken, this one"--she indicated the raccoon-man with a toss of her head--"has hinted at it already."
Hope stretched, rolling her head as if to loosen tension in her neck. Her arms were adorned with feathers, as if they had tried to turn into wings, but had failed. For the first time, Firekeeper realized that the bird-woman looked weary, and not her alone. Every one of the dozen or more beast-souled gathered here showed signs of weariness. True, they were mostly diurnal, unlike Firekeeper and Blind Seer who were as often active at night as in the day, but this seemed more.
This wasn't just the sleepiness of those accustomed to being awake in the day, forced by circumstances to stay alert through the night. There was tension here, nor was it the drawn tension of a bowstring the archer has pulled back, preparatory to loosing the arrow. This was the tension of a tree bough, overburdened with snow or ice, ready to snap unless something shook that burden free.
Again it was Hope, though among the most physically slight of the beast-souled, who took up the burden of the tale.
"We have told you how, as a result of the peculiar circumstances of our ancestors' creation, many of us are able to sense the use of magic?"
Firekeeper nodded. "The sense varies from individual to individual, but it is like seeing or hearing, something you do without conscious thought."
Hope smiled. "Yes. Though as with any other sense, this ability can be trained so that the possessor has a greater understanding of the various sensory impressions."
Firekeeper nodded again. She did not think her actual night vision was much better than that of a normal human, but because she had lived her life among nocturnal creatures, she had learned to use what she had in order to function when there was relatively little light. Such was also the case with her sense of smell. Compared with a wolf, she was as nose-dead as any human, but compared with a human, she paid far more attention to the impressions she received from her sense of smell.
Hope continued, "When the Tower of Magic fell just over a year ago, all of us sensed a surge of magic. Part of this may have been due to the actions of Shivadtmon. Part may have been due to the release of some passive magics worked into the tower. In any case, we knew that this surge would be perceptible to any creature that shared our ability. Needless to say, we were curious to learn if any would come in response to this surge."
Blind Seer tilted his head to one side in inquiry. "Are you saying that you think there may be others who are attuned to magic? My people--the wolves of my pack--always taught that magic other than the small talents died in the New World with the coming of what the Liglimom call Divine Retribution, the great illness that targeted those who used the magical arts."
"And led to the withdrawal of the sorcerers who founded these New World colonies," Hope added. "Your teaching was, as you know, less complete than you thought before you came here."
"True," Blind Seer admitted, panting white-fanged in laughter. "It certainly did not take you beast-souled into account."
"I think," Hope said gently, "that the Wise Beasts of the northwest--let us call them the 'Royal Beasts,' after Firekeeper's idiom--taught more what they hoped than what they knew. In any case, with a few exceptions like ourselves, that teaching was probably more right than wrong.
"However," Hope continued, "we here perceived the surge of magic as a loud cry or a bright flash of light. We wondered if any others would sense it. We also knew that since Misheemnekuru is an island group, it might be difficult for any to reach us. We have always been alert, but now we were doubly so lest there be a sign and we miss it."
Firekeeper ran her fingers through Blind Seer's fur. "And you have smelled magic, haven't you? That's what he . . ." She tossed her head to indicate Plik, the raccoon-man, who sat hunched over looking more like a raccoon than a man in the firelight. "That's what he was referring to earlier."
Hope trilled approval. "That's right, Firekeeper. Plik is among the best at sensing magic, and he was the first to hear this. We have all done so since, even those whose ability is so slight that they are nearly deaf. It is definitely there, but it is not at all what we expected."
Plik straightened, his semblance to a small, fat man--if one oddly costumed--returning.
"It was . . . Think of it as a sound, if you would. Have you ever filled a bladder with air?"
Firekeeper nodded. Bladders, properly cleaned, were useful for carrying water.
Plik smiled approval. "Then you know the sound they make when the air starts leaking out. A whine that changes as the pressure changes. This . . . this was a little like that. It was not a sound of something building up or being projected. It was the sound of magic draining away. At least that is what we think."
"Could it be something that was in the Tower of Magic," Blind Seer asked, "something broken but not entirely broken?"
"We thought of that," Plik said, "and have checked, but have not found. The 'sound'--which is not really a sound--is not easy to pinpoint. It shifts, ebbs almost beneath detection, then comes clearly again. This is why when Powerful Tenderness began to speak of Truth finding a place . . . a place that was not a place as we know it . . ."
Plik shrugged, the gesture saying better than words, "That was why I think he should have told us rather than sending ravens for you."
In the face of this rebuke, Powerful Tenderness looked as mild as something of his ferocious mien could.
"So you wonder if this 'sound' and whatever place Truth seems to have found might be related. It's an interesting idea."
Hope interjected, looking at Firekeeper and Blind Seer, obviously concerned they might misunderstand. "Now you do realize that Plik is offering a theory only. We have no real proof that these two occurrences--or three if we include the surge that followed the collapse of the tower--are related. It might be coincidence, or two could be related, but not the third."
Firekeeper asked, "Could Truth also have 'heard' this sound and followed it to wherever she is--to this place where there is apparently some sort of door?"
"Possibly," Plik said. "Interesting. The sound did not begin immediately following the tower's collapse. It might not be related as Hope said. All three. Two of the three. No connection at all. We just don't know, but we must try to know."
"Because if we don't try to know," Blind Seer said, "and this magical emanation is something more than a broken artifact leaking away its power, we may miss something important. In my experience, and sadly it is greater than I would like, things related to magic tend to be very dangerous indeed."
"Dangerous," Firekeeper said, "and unpredictable. Come. Someone take us to Truth. She may have the beginnings of answers."
Copyright © 2006 by Jane Lindskold