Disclaimer: Everything relating to the world of Velgarth, and the kingdom of Valdemar, is the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey. The things that almost look as if they’re actually resolving into plot can probably be blamed squarely on etcetera-cat.
Notes: Insert your own witty comment here.
Most of Giff’s face was a rather unattractive pale grey-green colour. This was due to the bruise poultice which a junior Healer had painted him with about a candlemark ago. The Companion mournfully examined his reflection in the large sheet of highly polished metal that was fixed to the wall next to the main entrance of the Stables.
:At least it covers up the bruises.:
Giff twitched an ear sideways at the comment and continued to stare glumly at the mirror. A large white shape ghosted up behind him and quickly resolved into another Companion. :I look like I’ve been on the wrong end of an argument with Ambassador Shadowflame!: Giff said.
The other Companion— a mare about Giff’s age, named Lillin— snickered audibly. :Oh, I don’t think so. You haven’t nearly enough holes in you for that.:
:You’re not helping Lillin.:
:Who said anything about helping? I’m sure that if you think about it, you’ll come to the conclusion that there is actually some justification for the lumps on your head.: Lillin fixed him with a stern look that was far older than her years.
Giff sighed loudly. :You know, a little sympathy wouldn’t go amiss— I have a new-Chosen who’s sole purpose in life seems to be to kill me painfully!:
Lillin shook her head and made a clucking sound. :Don’t exaggerate.:
:Okay, okay, but still; this is hardly anything that the elders mention when you go out on Search, is it?:
:Well, someone had to go… wherever it was you went… to find his Chosen, didn’t he? I’m half surprised that your Michael has been coping as well as he has.: Lillin looked sideways at Giff. :Minor breakdowns non-withstanding.:
Giff couldn’t think of a reply to that so he merely heaved another sigh.
:Where is he, if you don’t mind me asking?:
Giff twitched all over. :Our bond is not strong and he is managing to block me out, but Dadero said that he’d been called into Healer’s by the mages a short while back,: he couldn’t keep the tone of worry out of his voice. Even though Michael did average one object thrown at his head a day, he was still Giff’s Chosen.
:Ah,: Lillin sounded uncertain. :I wonder why?:
:I honestly don’t know.:
After been hustled along what seemed like every single corridor in the whole of Healer’s Collegium— twice— Michael found himself perching uncomfortably on the edge of a wooden chair in a small, whitewashed room, nervously eyeing up the other people in the room.
Not all of the people were human, and one of them was definitely part of the reason why the room felt as small as it did. Michael swallowed as quietly as he could manage and tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible to Dadero. The Groveborn Companion had paced into the room through an open pair of glazed garden doors a few moments before and now appeared to be in deep conversation with Gillan and a serious looking woman dressed in a floor-length white robe, trimmed with golden-brown.
The final occupant of the room looked like a lynx on steroids. Serious steroids. Its attention was on the Companion and two humans and it hadn’t started talking in Michael’s head.
Michael tried to stare at the giant cat-creature as surreptitiously as possible; the thing looked like it could chew Hirrn in two without noticing, and then make serious inroads into the gryphon. Tarii!
:I am a ratha, silly human,: the amused voice rang in Michael’s mind. :And I don’t make a habit of eating anything that can answer back.:
Michael jumped and emitted a squeak, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. His own gaze was fixed on the deep green eyes of the giant ca— ratha. “Um, sorry,” he managed.
Gillan shook his head, muttered something under his breath and regained the attention of the woman.
The ratha continued to watch Michael, although one of its ears was twisted to catch the conversation between the Herald and the mage. :That is quite alright. You’re bound to have a somewhat… off kilter… perception of intelligent carnivores if your initial contact was with Healer Hirrn.: A feeling of intense amusement. :Although the threat of unleashing her— or the blessed Tayledras Ambassador— on people is an efficient way to obtain civility.:
“Oh,” Michael said quietly.
:I am Rhiska pral Lirrindal and I imagine that you would be the Michael that everyone keeps on talking about.:
Michael’s dyheli-powered super memory, which seemed to have briefly gone to sleep, abruptly woke up when the ratha gave her name; it informed him that— with that kind of name— Rhiska was from a place called Iftel.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Michael mumbled, unwilling to interrupt Gillan in case he got another glare.
:Very well.: The ratha turned her attention back to the others, and Michael got the strangest sensation that her Mindvoice was suddenly… more there. :I think we can go over the smallest details at a later date, Queen’s Own, Groveborn. The reason Venni and I suggested you get young Michael there was to see if he could help us identify the… object. It seems pointless to keep him perched on a stool for longer than necessary.:
“True,” Gillan admitted reluctantly after a moment. “Very well, I leave this in your capable paws, Rhiska.” The elderly man’s face twisted for a moment and Michael wondered if he was going to be sick. “I will wait here, I have no wish to see… that… again and I believe Dadero feels the same.”
“I understand,” Venni said in a remote tone. “This is that last thing we need it—them— for.” Her expression became slightly set. “Then I will oversee the cremation myself.”
The Groveborn inclined his head gracefully to the woman and stepped closer to his Chosen, nudging Gillan on the shoulder.
:Come on then, Trainee Michael,: Rhiska said in a strangely gentle tone. :Let us get unpleasant duty out of the way.:
Michael stood up and followed the woman and the ratha out of the room. The last thing he saw, just before the door swung closed behind him was Gillan hugging Dadero’s neck tightly, his expression tense and distraught.
After a moment of hurrying to keep up with the human and the ratha, Michael cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Um, where are we going?”
Rhiska twitched her ears and looked back at Michael for a moment. :I shall defer to you in this matter, Herald-Mage Venni,: she said in oddly formal tones.
The mage nodded her head and slowed, so that Michael could walk next to her, Rhiska leading the way down the corridor. Michael looked at her sideways as much as he could without making it obvious that he was staring. The ‘Herald-Mage’ thing obvious explained the reason her robes were white. She looked tired, stressed and pretty much like Michael felt towards the end of every double shift he pulled in the E.R.
“Some… allies… were Gated here as an emergency,” the Herald said. “There were pursued and badly injured by a Changeling; a construct made by magic, from other creatures.” Venni swallowed. “Construct creatures are usually bound to the mage that created them. Their creator is the only one that can supply them with power to keep them alive, consequently a mage usually only has one or two constructs and the loss of a construct injures the mage magically.”
:The connection between a mage and a construct also means that a skilled mage can track one from the other,: Rhiska offered. :Under normal circumstances.:
Venni nodded her agreement and continued before Michael could ask any questions. “Indeed, but this… thing… was different in several ways. Firstly because of its twisted nature and horrifying origins— and secondly because a part of it was like nothing we have ever seen in Valdemar— or in any of the known countries of our world.”
Venni halted suddenly in front of a closed door and half spun to stare penetratingly at Michael.
“So, uh… what was… it? And why, um, do you need me?” Michael asked nervously. There was a faint metallic hint to the still, cool air in the corridor.
Venni paused, one hand on the door handle, and exchanged a brief look with Rhiska. “It was a Changeling-construct not bound to any mage and it was mostly made of a Herald called Nattan and a Companion called Zica.” Venni’s mouth spasmed and she closed her eyes and took a steadying breath, before opening them and fixing Michael with a direct gaze. “And it contained an object that is made of this world, but holds the form of something alien; something that is linked to you and your world.”
Michael stepped back involuntarily, but found that he was unable to retreat any further, as Rhiska had crowded up behind him.
Venni swung open the door and a wave of sickly-sweet death smell rolled out to envelop them. “You are going to identify the object for us,” she said in a toneless voice.
The Darling generally known as Stripe was discontent. Mistress had sent it— and the others, except for pathetic-Rabbit— out to the north nearly two nights ago. Two nights in which the pack had only managed to corner a family of tree hares, which had barely provided amusement, let alone a meal. Stripe hummed to itself and absently chattered together the two halves of the tough grey, brown and green carapace that covered most of its back and protected its delicate wings.
The unequivocal leader of the Darling pack, Stripe had ordered the other three to scout ahead when they’d reached the edge of the strange forest that began up in the mountains and provided an easy route north. The Darling— a twisted combination of insect, great plains cat and human— shifted its weight slightly on the large tree branch it was using as a perch and used one wicked claw to pick tufts of fur out of its fangs. All the while, it watched its surroundings with faceted, reflective eyes; eyes that bulged out the front of a distorted feline face.
Stripe stiffened and looked down. Point oozed out of the deep shadows of the foliage; the moonlight painting dapples over its matted woollen fur and tattered feathers.
Point twined itself around in a circle and looked obsequiously up at the pack leader. Village— it said eagerly. Rag and Gulp watch—
Stripe blinked and stood up, stretching with a cat-like suppleness at odds with its insectoid appearance. Many people?— it asked with interest.
Food— Point gaped its mouth open in a grin; revealing sharp carnivore teeth that were completely at odds with the dyheli-type face that it wore. The Darling half-spread its wings and crouched down. Hunt?—
Stripe opened its carapace and spread its wings with an evil, buzzing sound. The pack leader flexed its claws in the branch, leaving splintered furrows, before letting go and adopting a hovering position in the air.