Of Khromats and Kings
A story of the F'Staa Universe by Lisa Jennings
"Mrriano bssmbrra ngrralt! Sleep until needed, my guardians."
Violent white light disturbed the darkness. The felinoid silhouette was edged with sparks as it moved through the curtain of iridescence. Trica stepped out of the imonlar's wards and into the brilliance of morning. Y'Nalla, the white-yellow primary of Pallmarrica, gently crept over the Arroua Neschtimon, emphasizing the mountain, a female sillouette in repose. Trica's heart soared watching the breath catching view, a sight she missed these past eight seasons abroad.
There was irony that the geological feature looked unmistakenly human, a giant female asleep upon a khromat world. The early morning glow lit up the mesa, to produce the shadowed illusions that made up the "face" and "bust", the sleeper's half-closed "eye" of reflective rock that made it glow dimly in the dawn. Trica had always welcomed the new day from her lofty porch overlooking the great Sidholm River and facing the enigma of "Aurora the Sleeper". Today was even more special: she was back from her advanced studies for good.
Trica called out her greeting to the mountain, "Gi Chilei!", then padded back inside the hillhouse. The feline chirped a quick command as she walked up the kitchen ramp, and the main floor fluoresced in the waxing daylight as various holowindows and skylights were activated.
As she munched away at her meal, Trica studied the interior of the imonlar she hadn't seen in over two arae. The hillhouse was a multi-level structure with over half of the house underground, in the khromat style. Multiple ramps from all levels converged on top of the cylindrical power room, where the kitchen perched. The kitchen island and its ramps divided the middle level into two sections: the main room, which ended in a dais and the sun porch on its far end; and her leisure room, with its holographic viewer and low tables. Above the leisure room was the game room, encased in soundproof polarized material which ringed the entire wall with surrounding decking and another porch on the far end.
Above the main room was Trica's study with retractable ramp and a massive one-way telewindow; from below it looked like smooth ceiling and a skylight. In the lower levels Trica's bedroom, library, computer/communications room and a second sitting room were neatly tucked into the warm insulating earth of the hillside. Under the main room's dais were two guest rooms, and a hot tub nestled between ramps next to the power room. The walls were embellished with holo-pics and gifts from various worlds Trica and her family had visited. The lack of sharp edges, woodtones, and overall roundness of the imonlar gave it the warm feel of a rabbit warren.
Trica was as proud of her imonlar as she was of the path she took twelve arae ago, on the day of her adulthood. It was hard to believe there was a time before she was a sorceress. As a child she was just Trica Rintalana, daughter of the dazzling Rintali, herself an accomplished wizard in the art of theater. Trica looked at the hologram portrait which graced the entrance elevator. The beautifully exotic smokey caracal form of the actress was complimented in the charcoal birthpelts of her twin daughters, Trana and Trica. How long has it been since she last saw her mother and elder sibling? As Femlirilai custom demanded, the eldest was sent off to their mysterious unknown father when she became Student age. Trica's mother continued to perform, and the last she had heard was living with an actors' neshkae on Billetdoux. At least Baralerr is still in her company, the old teddy-bear, Trica mused.
Company! The thought jolted her out of her reverie. Her friends knew the day Trica was to return, and a homecoming / congratulations party was to be held in her own home, the Fiirasta Imonlar. Considering the expense and effort she made to build a party-central kind of dwelling, the gang reasonably decided to make use of it. Trica hustled her dishes into the sanitizer and scurried down to her bedroom. Better to wear appropriate clothing now, in case of early guests. Picking through various flashy items, she settled on a turquoise sequined wrap and some silver bangles to adorn her ears and tail. The glittery blue material gave the ebony cat a pair of wings and the slit-skirt draped loosely about her furred body, covering very little. As she jogged back up the ramp, clothing scattered about the room glowed, righted themselves, and marched back into the closet.
Trica bounced up to the kitchen level and considered appropriate decorations. Humming in concentration, the cat created sparkling boas of fiery crystal to hang about the walls and high ceiling, flickers of colored fire to glow about the exotic plants, and fountains of color to spring from the tiny indoor garden in the corner of the main room.
As she considered what else could be done to spark up the indoors, an odd tingling feeling sent shivers through her web of magic. Instinctively, her pelt winked a shade of yellow.
"Huh?", she wondered, looking up towards the open sun deck.
The familiar tingle of magic continued. The cat frowned and quietly hummed a single resonant note. The air was soon ringing the note without her voice. The atmosphere visibly darkened with her magic as she sought out the feeling.
<Hmmmmm>...Where?....a spot on our Web? ......what...closer...closer....ah...a tear.......? ..<hmmmmMMMMMmmmmmm> another Thread showing through.... hate-tinged magic...air, energy....HERE!
Trica dropped out of her trace with a shock. She was already racing back to the sun porch as she heard the sudden cry from outside, startling the birds perched along her balcony. The wild Sidholm River rushed westward from the Arroua Neschtimon about twenty meters below her imonlar. From this high vantage, all the Nescheta Valley was visible from the distinctive hillside to Ram's Gap sixty kilometers away. With whiskers, ears, and magic senses alert, Trica scanned the surrounding area for the source of the shout. An arm flashed out upstream of the imonlar. Trica watched the swift river drag its victim at a bone bruising pace. Catching her breath, Trica meowrred an odd phrase before jumping off the high porch with a orange flash.
What plunged into the deep and icy whitewater was no longer a small bipedal cat. The sea drake was ebon black with flickers of turquoise over its flippers, its crimson dorsal ridge cascading from its forehead to the fins of its five-meter tail. The morphed being hit the water with a thunderous splash, sending out a jet of fire from its muzzle with a gasp.
Using her powerful tail against the raging current, Trica slowly picked her way upstream. She found her target pinned against a coral boulder by the whitewater. Careful not to get too close to the razor-sharp stones, the sea drake snaked her two meter long neck and daintily picked the creature off the boulder with her toothsome jaws.
Steam rose from the frigid waters around the dragon's skin. Trica lost no time getting to her imonlar's shoreside. The sea drake holumphed along the shore into the nearest cave opening that would fit her bulk.
Laying her charge against her side, Trica examined the unfortunate for serious problems. The creature was a male human, probably in his late twenties, with the general appearance of a shipwrecked sailor. His muscular body was lightly tanned, had unkempt shoulder length copper hair, and showed the shaggy beginnings of a rusty beard. The human's wounds were minor, the worst being a couple of broken ribs, but his body was covered in thinly oozing blood from the numerous gashes made from the rocks. The remnants of his clothes were rustic and an unfamiliar style, the tattered breeches and tunic clung soggily to his skin. Lightly brushing his mind, Trica could find no immediate cause of his current situation, although she was quite certain he was going to feel every bone bruise and slice for a virkt, give or take a day.
Hearing how delicate human systems were to dramatic temperature changes and the heavier gravity of Pallmarrica, Trica wrapped the bulk of her tail into a mattress under him; her delicate tail fins became a blanket to keep the human warm and help dry him. Trica kept watch, waiting for her charge to wake naturally before she took any other medical action. How khromat his crest-hair looks, she mused, his hair flickering from a ruddy brown to flaxen gold with every unsteady breath. The black dragon melted into a deep purple. Similar thoughts caused Trica to realize she was daydreaming, sending a flash of vermillion across her temporarily twelve-meter body.
You've been training too long without a break, Trica admonished herself. Hopefully, Carrnia or Senchena will bring their friends. Weasels are real party animals. She warmed up to the idea and the hulk of sea drake returned to its ebon glow. I just hope Carrnia can keep her paws off this poor guy before I can get the authorities notified. That otter'll pounce on anything that moves!
_ _ - - = * = - - _ _
Branek woke to a world of red pain and black space. Every breath labored, every muscle ached, every bone bruised; even his skin felt on fire from the myriad of cuts and scratches. Looking around with unfocused eyes, Branek studied what little of his surroundings he could see in the darkness. He felt buried under a heavy pile of seaweed inside a cave. A rather warm cave, in fact. Hot air gently blew across his face from somewhere above. The soft, wet mound of blackness he was resting against was also hot. Two red coals glowed faintly above his head. Blinking, he rubbed his eyes to clear them. Something blacker than the cave walls surrounded him. A flash of neon-blue appeared above the two red lights, fluorescing the air around him to a blue twilight, and suddenly his vision sharpened uncomfortably.
He was curled up with a living nightmare. The luminous eyes highlighted the rest of its imposing jet-black body: twenty feet of armor-plated serpent. Its underside seemed to be pearly white, and its entire length was crested with a ridge the color of dried blood. He seemed to be bound under its equally red tail fins. How do I get into these messes? he thought forlornly.
The great ebony head coiled down to his level. Lunch time already? Instead, the dragon puffed a small ball of hot air down his neck and cocked its head back curiously. However still and quiet Branek thought he would stay was cast aside at the searing blast.
"YeeEEOW! Cut that out!" Branek yelped as he tried squirming out of the coils of sea dragon tail.
The huge head shot backwards. It checked itself, then cleared its throat. The sudden guttural noise in the cave was as reassuring as a train whistle in a tunnel to a sleeper on the tracks. The young man gave up trying to wriggle out of the coils in favor of squirming under them to avoid being a snack.
"Do not move so quickly, please," the sea drake asked quietly, "You had a bad fall and you are injured. Please lie still."
Hearing the softly feminine voice from the serpent stunned the human more than Trica thought possible. Slowly unfolding himself, the man faced her neon-bright azure eyes with the wary hazel-brown of his own.
"Who are you?" His voice was loud, defiant. His mind was a swirling chaos of confusion, fear, hurt, stubbornness. One hand crossed his waist as if to ready a sword, finding one no longer there.
"I am the one who rescued you," the black behemoth answered in measured tones. The head again cocked to look more closely at the human. "Does this form frighten you?" it asked in a confused voice.
"Hah!" The human intended more, but found the force of his exclamation enough to send fire through his lungs and body. He sank onto the dragons tail in a moan of pain.
Trica took this as a yes. "I will change to a less intimidating form."
Branek was in too much pain to argue, and simply nodded at the huge beast. Before he could get his heart and breath down to something more manageable, the human found himself resting upon an outcrop of rock. A bipedal, flame-haired black cat wearing a blue spangled wrap stood before him.
"Who-in-oak's-name-are-you?" he panted loudly.
The cat appeared twice her 1.5 meter height as she replied formally, "I am Femlirilen Trica Fiirasta of Pallmarrica, councillor to the Tragant, guardian of the Fminsitt Province and Sorceress of the Fiir Avanalau. And who am I addressing?"
"Branek. Son of Gwydion Whitesnake. Of Briton."
WHAT?! It was Trica's turn to be stunned. The only place she knew of that held that unadorned name was on the ancestral home of humanity, Terra. And that planet has been a burned out cinder for the past thirteen hundred years.
"That's some jump... Terra's been dead for centuries!" The black cat responded after a wide-eyed moment. She always appeared wide-eyed, but the surprise made her eyes the size of small moons.
"Who's Terra?" Branek asked in innocence.
Trica thought about that statement. In the quiet, a rumble sounded from the depths of the cave. Trica spun about, ears alert, black fur tinged orange. Suddenly, she turned. scooped up the human with exceptionally strong arms, and scuttled out of the cave. The cat refused to stop until she climbed the far side of a nearby hill in spite of her reluctant partner's howls and complaints. A thunderous noise issued from the cave as a jet of scalding steam shot out, boiling the water as it struck. No other movement appeared around the cave opening after several minutes of silence.
"Sorry about the rush. We should be safe for now." The catlike female assured the human in a low voice. Producing a green-glowing cloth from inside her wrap, Trica removed Branek's tunic rags and bound his chest. The young man sputtered a question but was silenced by a mouthful of black-furred paw. The cateyes looked significantly over her shoulder to the cave, then looked down to finish binding his ribs.
"We had borrowed the cave of a draotus, or what you would call a dragon turtle. They're not aggressive to their own kindred," Trica continued, checking that the binding was secure. Satisfied, she helped Branek to his feet. "Now you are ready to travel. I want to find out exactly where you 'fell' into this world, and that means I can't carry you and do magic at the same time. Ready?"
_ _ - - = * = - - _ _
They were standing near the crown of a hill, facing southeast. To the east stretched endless miles of steep rolling hillside, olive-colored with vegetation and sharply shadowed by the light of the white-hot sun. To the west was a sweeping view of the guardian mesa and her valley, including what looked to be a small but thriving city.
Trica cautiously walked to the top of the hill and stopped. The northwest side of the hill was a steep cliff invisible from the east. Straight down was the Scyllian Road, the most treacherous area of all the wild Sidholm. High vertical cliffs bordered a narrow, twisted stretch of rapids filled with the slate and ancient coraled rocks common in this province. Hovering near a mace-like outcropping of stone in the middle of the whitewater was a 'X' of ruby light.
"Nasty fall, that," Branek acknowledged, wincing. It was still difficult to breathe, and he was having a problem dealing with moving. The ground seemed to suck at him, though the black cat showed no such hardship.
"That," Trica replied slowly, "is the quick road to Death." The black cat faced Branek briefly, then turned to the Arroua Neschtimon. "The Scyllian Road is for tourists to gape at and adventurers to brave. Even in this technic age, it is a place few beings dare to go, and even less escape from. Consider yourself blessed by whatever gods your faith possesses."
A flicker of tangerine on the mountainside caught Trica's attention. Staring at the mesa proved the flicker to be real, a bright orange light that capriciously glimmered from the `eye' of the giantess. Though it appeared to flicker erratically, Trica felt otherwise.
A warning from the mountain? The khromat cat heard legends of the sleeping giantess supernaturally helping beings, but to signal in Khiomemaii about -- swords?
Deciding that the day was too filled with mysterious magic for this to be coincidental, the sorceress turned to warn the human, but he was looking away opposite from the cliff. A sickly glow emanated from a magic portal that was slowly forming and enlarging not more than fifteen meters away from the pair. The pale yellow glow flickered like fire as the door grew and sucked in the surrounding air.
_ _ - - = * = - - _ _
"Branek! Can you fight with a sword?" Trica shouted as the sound of rushing air grew hurricane loud around the expanding portal. Someone was doing a sloppy conjuring job!
"Yes! But why? And what in oak's name is that?" he yelled back.
There was no time to explain. The feline sorceress called in a strange piercing voice "Yalintal! Singshe!" A great coppery-red sword appeared in the air before the pair, a mithril-silver sword popping in next to the red one. Branek reached for the fiery weapon as Trica grasped its ethereally bright companion.
The portal was now over three meters tall and near that wide. With a gagging rumble, the doorway belched forth four mounted swordsman who screamed as they charged the pair. Although they were mounted and humanoid, they could hardly have been called men. Great black steeds bore equally black skeletons, red pinpricks of light glowed in dead eye sockets. Sick yellow glowed faintly where a human heart would have been, and the horsemen all wore soot-colored chainmail with great capes of scarlet-lined black. The horses joined the screams as the skeletons sliced at Trica and Branek with bright golden swords.
Branek managed to knock one rider from his horse while Trica slashed at the legs of another. The horsemen fought more from blind rage then skill, and the little khromat found it easier to dodge under the horses and fight rather than stand up to be pounded upon. The human used his tattered tunic to fend off one horseman while using his red-tinted sword on the grounded one. The standing opponent swung its sword in an overhead arc, aiming to peel Branek's head in half. The copper sword blocked the move; the powerful parry knocked the gold sword away from the skeletal attacker and into one of the horses while Branek tumbled backwards. The horse screamed and dropped to the springy earth, lifeless.
Trica was too busy to see how Branek fared. More Sorcery! The khromat had scores of questions directed at two different people: Branek, who seemed to be the focus of the attack; and the conjurer, whomever sahn may be. A swing from an overhead sword trimmed the fur of her left arm. A clashing of mithril and gold sent sparks flying, some landing on the rider who wailed with an inhuman cry of agony. Ducking the return swing by skipping under the horse, Trica stabbed at a rear fetlock. The horse added its own shriek to the din as it stumbled and fell. The skeleton swordsman slid off the beast as it collapsed, struck the horse's neck savagely with its sword, then turned to face the cat. A dark cloud swirled from the horse to the sword. No blood issued from the lethal blow, but the horse fell silent and disintegrated into ashes and stained bones.
The khromat hoped Branek would avoid the fate of the horse. Furiously, she searched her mind on how to destroy the warriors permanently as she continued to defend her fur. Tradition spoke that no normal fire or weapon would keep them down. He seemed to feel Singshe's sparks, but she's an elemental, not an ordinary sword. Maybe some fire elemental would work. She catapulted backwards from her attacker, giving a tiny magic push to her somersault so she would leave a good sized space between them. Mentally building the spell, the black cat stood still though her hair rose like a flame about her head. Pointing her free hand at the oncoming skeleton and watching with burning eyes, Trica wailed an incomprehensible phrase rising into the yowl of the Femlirilai war cry. From her hand shot a fireball, exploding into two flamefalcons the size of fisher hawks. Both attacked the warrior, searing and burning everything they touched. The fiery birds devoured the body before it fell to the ground, drowning out the victim's demonic cries in the roar of a bonfire.
Tired beyond measure, Trica turned to help Branek. One rider was still mounted a good distance from the human and his two assailants. Branek was visibly beginning to tire, depending on sword and flailing tunic to hold against the rain of blows. Trica surprised one of them by crashing through its shoulder with her blade, slicing off its sword arm. The warrior turned slowly to look at the black cat, its eye sockets lit in a dead crimson light. It bent down and retrieved the sword with its remaining arm. With eyes mirroring its tainted sword, the skeleton renewed its battle against the cat. Trica parried and stepped back twice before the warrior suddenly screeched and radiated a clean yellow-white glow from within, its blackened skullface contorted in fear as the raptors set the skeleton on fire. White-hot talons tore and burned through cape and armor, roasting their victim while they crunched through brittle bone with razor-sharp flame beaks. The area echoed in the sounds of a wildfire in a dried pine forest.
Moments later, the falcons, finished with their meal, flew off after the mounted rider on Trica's command. Nothing but charred grass remained of Trica's opponents, and she made sure Branek's was the same. Branek noticed one gold sword had remained unscathed and poked at it with his red-metalled one. Before he could pick it up, though, the sorceress motioned him away and sent one bolt of white fire, melting it into black slag.
"Why'd you destroy it? I could've used it instead of borrowing yours." Branek stared at the lump in disbelief, then sighed in resignation. Turning to the khromat, he handed the crimson- blade sword to her, hilt first. "Thank you for the use of your sword anyway," he began, then checked himself. Speaking slower as he clenched his chest, he continued, "It felt like it was alive, and I didn't need to move, just let it do the work! What were those..those... things anyway?"
Trica took his sword, ritualistically cleaned both it and her mithril one on the grass while mentally thanking them, then tossed both into the air. A two-toned note sounded, and scabbards of red and white appeared around their appropriate sword. Both swords vanished as they appeared. Trica looked deep into Branek's eyes and the human shrank back at that critical stare.
"Since you show no aura of magic nor appear to have knowledge of it, yet you have no apparent fear when you encounter creatures of its plane, I will forgive you your brashness." The black cat sighed, and relaxed her mental shields. She sent visual images to the human while she continued speaking aloud. "Those were Raukohoth. The demon-horde. Legend tells us that they are the remains of living beings --usually human-- imprisoned by their destructive ka'o'ma <magic of the emotions>. They serve Fa'Konlau <the path of dominion: evil magic> with their hate of the sintulei <free-willed: mortal life>. The swords they carry are both their weapon and their prison: a lethal blow by one would trap the victim's rruf!a <psyche; soul; consciousness> to be absorbed by the sword-wielder for its greater power.
"Had you retrieved that sword, it would drain you of your Jhestar <good self; higher level; moral consciousness>. It might take a virkt <week>, it might take arae <years> depending on your own strength of will. Your rruf!a would become distorted by the sword's will of purpose, and you would change into a Raukohothi, bent on destruction and slave to the sword, as well as servant to whomever controls the sword."
Her words turned the warm spring morning cold and dreary. Branek shivered at the thought of what he so narrowly avoided. "Bu-- But... why were they--" his voice froze in his throat.
Trica's fur had become bright orange, like the mesa's eye had flickered before the battle, and she signed him to silence. Glancing around, Branek saw nothing suspicious, but then again he had no idea what to expect anyway. Following her lead, Branek left and headed back to the pathway leading to Trica's imonlar.
After leaving the battleground several hundred meters behind them, the feline began humming a little pentatonic tune, alien and yet familiar sounding to Branek's ears. As she hummed the five-toned chorus line for the second time, she was joined by a metallic tone following a harmonic line. Branek saw her ears twitch and swivel before she glanced back at him and, looking at his belt, smiled for the first time. The muzzle grin almost unhinged him, save that she was audibly giggling to inform him of the facial meaning.
"What th'---" Branek started. The red-tinged sword and its scarlet velvet scabbard neatly hung from his belt, singing along with the cat. Trica laughed again as the blade continued its rendition of the song, embellishing it with little grace notes and sometimes two tones or a chord with a proud metallic tone.
"What's going on? My lady, why did you conjure this sword back? And why does it..ah.. hum?"
"<Giggle!> I'm ..Hmmggle!..I'm sorry," Trica managed between laughs. "That is Yalintal, he sings because he enjoys it, and I didn't conjure him. He came himself. He is a sword of the Fire Element, made by forging an elemental into daemon steel and then honing it into a blade. I had befriended him long ago, and he comes to me when I'm in need, as does Singshe of the Air Element."
The sheathed sword stopped singing and `chirped' at its name. Trica whistled a series of notes, and was answered in kind by the sword. "It appears that Yalintal has taken a liking to you." The feline turned her attention to Branek. "He wants to hang around for awhile." Her voice dropped down thoughtfully. "I wonder indeed who watches over you, who seem to almost unnaturally avoid the power of Murphy."
"Er, Lady Trica?" Branek asked carefully, "If you are a sorceress, why are we walking? Why not just conjure us to where ever we're going?"
"Because, silly, it might attract the attention of the being trying to off you!" Trica frowned then relaxed again. "Besides, no sorcerer can keep throwing majiks about without a price. I need to rest."
After a half hour of silence save the background of Yalintal's humming, Trica spoke again. "Branek, have you ever met anyone non-human? Do you know that I am khromat?"
"Ca-ro-mat? Is that what you call this affliction?" Branek's face bloomed into embarrassment, "I mean, ah, is that the name of your curse? Or," he continued as his pink face turned scarlet, "are you of the faery realms?" his voice squeaked slightly.
Trica tried hard not to smirk, which looked even more impressive on her muzzle, then fell into fits of laughter instead. Branek simmered in confusion as the black cat rolled on her back roaring laughter, the sword joining in with a few choice chirps. After a moment the cat stood up, dusted herself off while sniffing and giggling, then turned and patted Branek on the shoulder.
"So sorry about all that, but that is a new one on me," she explained as she started back down the path. "I am not cursed, nor am I afflicted. I am of the race called Khromatai /k-hro-ma-ta-e/. Humm, think of it as a tribe from a far away island. No…no, I understand what your faery lands are like, and we're not there, either. I wanted to get out in the open that you are now in a very different place, and will soon be surrounded by non-human intelligences. My people come in many different forms, although only meijez like myself can change form and not all of us bother. Each of the ten kafarai -- call them ethnic groups, or tribes -- have a different culture and language. I am Femlirilen, or from the "cat clan" as the local humans say. What I mean is, you may see me as a very large black housecat, but that is as far as any similarities to the terran feline go. There are other clans for the civits/mongooses/ringtails, fox/raccoons, rats/rabbits, bears/pandas, wolves/dogs, weasel/otters/skunks, ermine, and a group for the hybrids that look like a little of everything..."
"But why a clan of ermine?" Branek piped up, feeling brave, "are they not weasels in winter coat?"
"Well... yes and no," Trica replied as they rounded yet another curve, "in our case 'ermine' are a weasel-like khromat who always stay snow-white, except for emotional outbursts, regardless of weather. `` She chuckled, a purring coughing sound. ``It's a long story. Maybe I can get Iilyah to explain her kafaren to you, after I get you some basic history tapes. First I have to get you a langlator, er, an electronic translator. I understand English, but not all my friends will, and you'll want to understand the languages we speak: H'Tosslii, or the formal language of khromatai, and S'Chasslii or mixed-khromat. The standard human langlator will let you understand those two, which will be mostly the what you'll hear."
The sword chirped up in rapid fire notes. "Um, yes," Trica grinned at the sword, then Branek, "that's mostly what words you'll hear, among all the other noises!" The cat and sword laughed and the bemused human joined in as they disappeared behind a bush-covered hill covering an elevator shaft deep within a great hillside, which was the main access into the Fiirasta Imonlar.