Raining Cats and Dragons

by Terry Spafford

Once I reached the court yard, I expanded back to normal form and took off to my tower. I opened my travel pack and pulled out a small coin purse which I tossed in a drawer. I took the coin purse with me whenever I went south, even though I rarely needed to use it. Up north, the need was even less, so I didn't even bother with it. I pulled out another pouch and checked the first aid supplies in it. I made a note to get some fresh healing salves when I got back, noting the salves I had were starting to dry up.

Replacing the kit into the shoulder pack, I tossed in some supplies I knew I probably wouldn't need and reached for my sword and slipped it onto a loop on the pack. The sword was sized to my normal morph size. Outside of practice, I had yet to use it, preferring to use my claws and other skills, often in my dragon form which was way too big to use the sword.

The shoulder pouch, on the other hand, had been specially designed for both of my forms. It's straps were enchanted to extend with my form so I wouldn't need to leave it behind in norm form, nor carry extra straps when I was in morph form.

Repacked, I left my tower room and jumped off the ledge, spreading my growing wings and pulling up moments before hitting the ground. It was a stunt I loved doing, even though Brian often said I risked overstraining my wing muscles, and Electra swore that watching me do that took years off her life. With strong wing strokes, I skimmed over the roofs of the Keep and landed a few lengths away from the North Gates.

{I'm on Lutin Watch for the next week. Any suggestions where I should go?} I sent to the two women guarding the gates.

"The last group back said that there was activity going on in the east side of the northern plains passage, near the mountains. You might want to check it out," one of them shouted down.

I crouched in preparation for take off. {Thanks. Let the other watchers know I'll be in that region, watching from the air for the next few days.} With that, I leapt to the air, raising a small cloud of dust with my down stroke. I circled the north gates once then set off towards the plains, eyes watching the ground for movement.

In the first few days, I didn't see any Lutin activity, but I saw traces of it all over, including a rockfall near an old campsite. At nights, I landed on ledges near the peaks of the mountains, ledges that couldn't be reached without flying or a hard climb up or down the vertical rock face. Occasionally, I landed at the edge of the forest and talked to other Keeper guards, exchanging news and Lutin sightings. With myself, or any of the flyers watching the wide, clear passage through the mountains from the air, the rest of the guards tended to keep to the forests, watching the areas I couldn't clearly see from the air.

By about the middle of the week, with the excitement of being home and knowing Sean coming long faded away, I was bored of flying constantly over the same region. I debated going further from the Keep, when movement caught my eye in the shadows of the mountain. I continued flying as if I hadn't noticed it and circled around, coming back with the sun behind me. I could clearly see a small band of six Lutins sneaking along the edge of the plains, dodging from boulder to boulder at the base of the mountains.

Roaring defiantly, I dove out of the sky, arms outstretched, hands glowing with energy. The Lutins leaped in surprise and looked up, terrified. A few meters above the ground, I backstroked hard and 'threw' the energy in my hands at the two closest Lutins. Two bolts of lightning arced down from my palms, striking the Lutins with nearly explosive force. Throwing lightning like that was a trick I had discovered while I was working off the charge from my first casting as a dragon. Most of the time, I didn't have enough skill or power to do that, but as overcharged as I was it came as easy as flying to me as long as I had enough of the charge left on me.

With two of their companions down, the Lutins scattered. I dived down and grabbed the two that ran towards the plains by the shoulders with my feet. The two Lutins screamed in terror as my powerful wings lifted them off the ground. Quickly gaining altitude, I ignored their shouts and screams as my claws held their shoulders tightly and scanned the foot of the mountains for their last two companions. Spying them, I flew over to them and dropped the Lutins from a few hundred meters up, aiming for the two Lutins scrambling up the side of the mountain for cover. One of the falling Lutins struck his climbing companion, as aimed, knocking him off the mountain and sending them both onto the jagged rocks below. The other Lutin missed his target, to my slight disappointment.

I quickly circled around and hovered near the lone Lutin remaining, grinning as I watched him try to hide by pressing into a small crevice in the mountain face. Mentally, I strengthened the down drafts my wings were generating and sent the strong winds whipping around the hiding Lutin. He valiantly tried to hold himself in place, but he never had a chance. With a terror filled scream, the winds tore him away from the crevice and sent him, arms flailing in the air, away from the mountain side, towards the hard ground below.

I waited until he had hit the ground before circling the area once more, making certain I hadn't missed any other groups. Satisfied that they were alone, I landed and began examining the ones I had killed. The two I shot down with lightning were charred nearly beyond recognition. Wrinkling my nose at the stench of burnt flesh, I flew to the ones I had dropped off the mountain, shifting to morph form as soon as I landed.

The first thing I noticed was that one of them was still barely alive. I quickly knelt down and snapped his neck, not wanting even a Lutin to suffer long. By their clothing and equipment, I could tell that they were members of a raiding party. I also knew that six was way too small of a raiding party to go after any of the caravans that came in the region. Paling slightly, I realized what their plan probably was.

{They must be going through in small groups and gathering on the other side of the Keep. I need to alert the others,} I thought to myself, growing back to full size and taking to the air.

I flew low over towards the forest, trying to reach down and sense the other Keepers on watch. I knew someone was in the area; I had just talked to them the day before; however where they were exactly was unknown. Even at this relatively close distance, I still almost missed the familiar tug of a sentient mind below me. Practically standing on my tail in the air, I twisted around to where I picked up the mental tug.

{Who's down there?} I shouted down, peering frustratedly between the tree branches.

"Saroth? We thought you were covering the plains," a voice faintly shouted up to me through the woods.

{I am, I just wanted to pass some news on to the other guard teams. I'm landing in the clearing near you,} I sent back. Shrinking to morph form as I dropped, I landed and waited.

A few moments later, an armored woman and a catmorph slipped out of the woods. "What's going on Saroth?" the Catmorph asked me. Neither of them showed any discomfort around me, though I wasn't sure if it was training or because I was nearly clean again.

{I caught a small group of Lutins sneaking along the base of the mountains. I took care of them easily. They were dressed as raiders though; I think they may be part of a larger group, sneaking through bit by bit. They may be planning to attack the caravan that's on it's way to the Keep.} I explained to them.

The woman nodded her head. "We'll keep an eye out for small groups sneaking through, and let the others know too. When is this caravan due?"

{In a week or so. I met up with it on my way back last week and chatted with one of my friends who was in it.}

The catmorph grinned. "Don't worry Sar. We won't let so much as a Lutin flea get by us and bug your friend's caravan," he said.

{Thank you, I appreciate it,} I sent, smiling at them. They quickly moved back to the forest, giving me some room to take off. The clearing was almost too small for me, but with the barest brushing of my wingtips against the trees, I regained the air.

For the next two days, I watched the passage like a hawk, and saw absolutely nothing. The valley was as still as a tomb, which made me even more concerned with every passing moment. My mind ran in circles, going through all the possibilities it could think of, none of them good.

I was just finishing my umpteenth pass of the valley when a smudge of smoke on the horizon caught my eye. Recognizing the colored smoke as an emergency signal, I turned and started flying towards it, flying low over the tree tops.

En route, concentrating solely on the smoke signal, I was startled when I felt an arrow brush by my wings. Letting out a small, surprised roar, I twisted in midair and saw a band of Lutins on a bluff below me. Three of them were already preparing to send another volley my way. I let out a roar of defiance and quickly gained altitude to get out of their range. I reached back with one hand as if throwing a ball, and gathered a lightning charge around it. The lightning resisted, fighting against my will, but I still managed to gather what I hoped was enough. Diving over the bluff, I released the charge, aiming for the ground between the Lutins and the way off the bluff. I knew it wasn't as strong as the last two I had thrown, but the bolt still packed enough of a jolt to send four of them flying off of the bluff. The other five quickly recovered and took off towards the forest.

I hesitated, glancing back to the smoke signal, torn between helping the Keepers in trouble, and stopping this band of Lutins. I sighed in relief, seeing a large figure was flying towards it, from the direction of the Keep. Recognizing Cerulean and knowing that he would be on the scene long before I could possibly get there, I faced the fleeing Lutins again with my full attention. Diving out of the sky, I bowled them over, only realizing at the last moment that I didn't have enough room to get above the trees. Folding my wings in, I landed on the ground, setting myself between them and the trees and acting like I had planned to do that. I stayed full sized so they couldn't get around me easily, covering the entire safe route off the bluff with my body.

The five slowly picked themselves up and drew their swords. Splitting up, they cautiously approached me. Two of them let out a yell and broke into a run at me. I caught them easily, batting their swords out of their hands with one hand and snapping their necks with the other. Throwing their bodies onto the ground, I scanned the area for the last three who seemed to have disappeared during the distraction.

A short, painful slash on my tail told me where one was. Looking back along my long body, I saw him raising his sword to take another slash at my tail. I didn't give him a chance to complete his stroke. With a twitch of my tail, I smashed him against a tree, ending his attacks for good.

His final two companions took advantage of his sacrifice to leap onto my back from the tree. I roared in surprise and pain as they drove their swords into the thick hide on my back. My telepathy kicked in, overwhelming my mind with the Lutin's evil thoughts. I twisted my neck back and tried to shake them off, but was unable to reach them. I heard them snarl, almost laughing, feeling the pleasure they took in attacking me, moments before they drove their swords into my back again.

Unable to focus through the pain and their thoughts flooding my mind, I couldn't shift nor conjure up a strong wind to knock them off. The only other option I could see was right in front of me, so I took it. I leapt painfully off the bluff edge. One of the Lutins lost his grip and slipped off nearly immediately, forgetting his sword buried in my back muscles, and joining his four comrades at the base of the cliff. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I flapped my wings to keep from falling to my own death. I could feel the two swords buried in my back, shifting and sending fresh jolts of pain with each movement of my wings.

The lone Lutin remaining, held onto my backridges with a one-handed deathgrip. His other hand held his sword which he pulled out and stabbed deep into my back. Releasing my backridge for a moment, he reached forward and started climbing towards my neck. As soon as he had a new grip on me, he pulled his sword free and stabbed it in again ahead of him. He slowly repeated his movements, his mind focused only on reaching and slashing my neck. I tried to ignore his stabbing and his evil mind as I concentrated only on getting enough altitude to do the trick I had in mind.

The Lutin had nearly reached my neck when I reached the minimum height I needed. I waited only long enough to feel him pull his sword out for the next stabbing before making my move. The moment I felt the blade leave my back, I turned suddenly on one wingtip, tilting up, perpendicular to the ground. The Lutin, surprised at my move, lost his one-handed grip and fell off, along my down turned wing.

Screaming he tried to stop his fall by stabbing his sword into my wingsail. I screamed in pain, the sword slicing through my wing's thin hide. For a moment, it seemed like the Lutin had slowed his fall, at my wing's expense, until the sword suddenly jammed against a wing finger bone. The sudden stop caused him to lose his grip, sending him plunging to the ground far below.

Struggling to hold myself up in the air in spite of the pain of my tattered wing and numerous stab wounds, I never saw where the Lutin landed. I only knew that if I landed, I wouldn't be getting off the ground soon. This far from the Keep, I knew that was as good as a death sentence. I tried flapping my wings and nearly blacked out, feeling the swords grinding against my wingbone and in my back.

Whimpering in pain, I slowly turned towards home, trying to hold my wounded wing still and lose as little altitude as possible. Facing in the right direction, I gathered my strength and summoned a wind to help me glide home.

It was a slow trip. Even with the winds help, I still found it difficult to hold my altitude. Every few minutes I needed to take a wingstroke to pull myself higher above the treeline, with each stroke feeling more painful then the previous. After what seemed like an eternity later, with my dried blood caked around the first Lutin's sword, running down my back and tail and each stroke feeling like it would be my last, Metamor Keep rose before me. I weakly tried to flap my wings one final time to clear the last few trees, and lost the battle. The ground rushed up to meet me a few hundred meters from the gates. As the darkness closed in around my mind, I heard someone shouting to get Brian and people running towards me.

I awoke slowly, feeling something cool being spread on my injured wing. Eyes still closed, I twitched my wing reflexively, puzzled not to feel much of anything from it, except that it seemed to be extended and caught on something.

"Easy Saroth; I know this stuff stinks, but it's just what you need right now. Otherwise, you'd probably be screaming in pain right now," a young, female voice said quietly from my injured wing.

I sniffed the air and wrinkled my nose in disgust at the strong smell of medicine in the air. Opening my eyes, I looked back and saw a small girl sitting on my wing, wearing gloves and spreading some sort of salve on my wing. I recognized her as Claudia, a regression spell victim who was one of Brian's assistants.

{Wh-What happened?} I sent weakly.

"What happened? Besides you setting the Keep all astir when you crashed all bloody at our gate! We were sure Nasoj was attacking us again, until some of the guards reported in, saying things were clear." She seemed to finish up with my wing and climb down, walking around in front of me.

{I'm sorry. I should've-} I started stammering out, but she hushed me.

"Don't be! You were in no condition to do anything but heal, and you weren't in very good condition to do even that until Brian and I sewed you up. You must admit though, that when one of the Keep's resident dragons crashes outside our gate, half dead, you can't blame Thomas for assuming the worst.. So, what did this to you? A giant? An ogre?"

I blushed and lowered my head. {Three lutins got the drop on me while I was dealing with their friends,} I sent softly.

She smiled comfortingly. "Cheer up! Even the best of us can have a bad fight at times, and I'm sure those three lutins are in no condition to brag about drawing the blood of the mighty Metamor Keep weather dragon!"

I brightened up slightly. {I didn't have the chance to check, but I seriously doubt any of them survived.}

She patted my large muzzle and started walking away. "I'll go get Brian and Electra and tell them you're up. Now don't you go anywhere, or try to shift. Healer's orders!" she called back.

{I won't.} I sent back, watching her leave the tent. Once she was out of sight, I looked around, taking note of my surroundings and condition for the first time.

Someone had set up a couple of the larger festival tents over me, to shield me from the elements. Through the tent flap Claudia had just slipped through, I could make out enough familiar buildings to realize I was in one of the side courtyards, near the kitchen I figured by the smells that faintly slipped in under the strong salves. I briefly wondered how they had managed to lug me in through the gates, then let the thought go.

Knowing where I was now, I looked back along my body and started trying to make sense of the sensations. I was lying on the cobblestones of the courtyard and could feel the heat of the sun warming the air under the tents. My injured wing was extended as far as it could in the tent and propped up off the ground somehow. The sword wound in my wingsail had been neatly stitched shut, with thick bandages covering the spot where it had jammed against my wing fingerbone. I stared at the stitches, amazed at how long the gash was they were closing. Even though I knew I had done it somehow, I still couldn't believe that I had flown with such a large hole in my wing. Staring at the stitches, I noticed the hide seemed more healed then I expected it to be.

Straining my neck further around, I managed to catch a glimpse of my back. All the way up my back, the smooth bronze colored hide was marred by stab wounds and slightly stained by blood and medical salves. More neat stitching, still moist from the same salve I had seen Claudia spreading on my wing, held my hide together. Bending my neck further, I could just make out the slash wound on my tail, covered in bandages.

"Don't strain your neck too much examining Claudia's needlework; I don't think the Keep has enough ice to put on a neck that size," a voice said from the tent entrance.

Startled, I swung my head back around to the front, nearly knocking over the raccoon morph waiting there. "So how's my biggest patient doing?" Brian asked, ducking under my swinging head and walking along my side. "Any pain?"

{A little hungry and confused. Not much pain though, mainly a dull throbbing pain from my back and an ache from my wing. It's not very comfortable having my wing held up like that,} I informed him, curling my neck around and watching him with one eye.

"Good, good." he muttered reaching the first set of wounds on my back. He touched the stitches lightly with one paw, hming to himself. He wrinkled his nose in disgust at the scent. "Need to remember to talk to Pascal about finding some way to mask that odor of the numbing salve better," he muttered softly to himself moving along the wounds.

{What's the prognosis?} I asked.

He finished looking at my tail before responding. "It's good, Saroth. Lucky for you their swords weren't cursed, and the infections were minor. You should be able to WALK around as soon as you're up to it, but no flying until I say so, and especially no shifting." He climbed onto a stool and looked at my wing as he continued. "Even with your larger morph form, you've still got one of the largest size differences between your forms in the Keep, Saroth, shifting to a smaller form will likely tear out most of Claudia's stitching and make you much worst then you are right now."

I sighed dejectedly, not really caring much about the shifting, but the flying was a blow. {How long before I can fly again?}

He gently felt the skin along each side of the wing wound and peeked under the bandage. "Another week, probably less. Your sail's healing fast, but the muscle was torn all around the bone by that sword and became infected. It also managed to take a chip out of your bone where it hit and jammed. Lucky for you, the bone didn't snap on the way back."

{Could you at least untie my wing? As I said before, it's not very comfortable having it spread open like that.}

"Of course.. Just give me a moment. We tied it up like this so we could work on it better. You weren't in any condition to hold it open for us at the time." He climbed back down and walked to my wing tip. I noticed that my wingclaws were tied to poles driven into the ground, and the entire wing was resting on numerous tables.

"Now, we tried to minimize it, but there will be some scarring, especially where the sword got jammed. It could throw off your flight, so when you DO start flying, take it easy. You're wing and back muscles will be weaker from lack of use and that other sword being jammed in there too, so no jumping off buildings in morph form like you usually do." He said sternly as he untied my bindings.

{Yes sir.} I sent, trying to hold my wing still as he worked. He finally finished and stepped away. I stretched out my cramped wing, knocking over many of the tables and nearly pulling the tent down on us. Sighing contentedly, I folded it against my side, feeling the pull of the stitches and the bulge of the bandage. With more room to move in now, I started stretching out, my muscles stiff from lack of use.

{How long have I been out?} I asked between stretches. Brian quickly scurried over to the entrance as I often over reached and bumped into the tent, causing it to shake and threaten to fall in.

"Nearly two weeks now. We tried to keep you unconscious until your fever broke, or at least what we think was a fever. Cerulean did his best to help, but even so, it wasn't easy. I didn't have much experience with dragons before, especially a dragon like you," He paused before continuing, "You gave us quite the scare for awhile there, Sar, nearly thought we would lose you more then once."

I stood straight up, nearly poking my head through the roof, barely hearing the rest of his words. {Two weeks?!?!}

"Don't worry, he hasn't gotten here yet. One of their carts broke an axle near Sorin, and then a bad storm moved in from the south, missing the Keep, but hitting Sorin hard. Sean's fine, but the caravan is running late while they help repair the town and clear the trails between here and there. They should be here in another week or so." Electra said, hearing my last comment and correctly guessing one of the things I would be wondering about, as she slipped into the tent. She saw me stretching and shook her head in amazement. She was smiling, and I caught a strong sense of relief coming from her. "And I thought this place was crowded with a sleeping dragon in it." she muttered to herself.

"Don't worry Saroth, we'll have these tents down in a jiffy and get you back in the sun." She stepped further inside and put a hand on my finger claw, looking up at me. "Looks like you need it too.. I don't think I've ever seen you this pale since you changed. You're nearly flesh colored again!"

I smiled and heard a ruckus behind me. Glancing back, I saw two primate morphs scaling the tent supports and untying the canvas. The back of the tent quickly fell down to the ground, letting the bright afternoon sun in. Outside, a rhinoceros morph and an elephant morph were quickly folding up the canvas as the climbers moved on to untie the next panel.

Once the opening was large enough, I carefully backed out of the tent and thanked the workers. Feeling the warm sun strike my back, I instinctively spread open my wings and drunk in its warmth. I nearly leapt into the air, but a twinge of pain from my wing and my back as the salve started to wear off stopped me.

Brian, Electra and Claudia watched me from close by. "You know, I'd swear his color was getting better by the second," Electra said softly.

Brian nodded his head in agreement, then started looking in his black bag. "Well, I've got a few more people to visit. Keep an eye on him, Electra, and make certain he doesn't try to fly or shift or do anything other foolish stunts." Brian said as he closed the bag. He started walking back into the buildings. "Come along Claudia, I've got a few things I need your help with," He called back.

Claudia glanced at me and winked. "Guess my break is over now that you're awake," she said before running after Brian.

Electra came over and sat on my forearm as I stretched out, my wings spread out to capture the sun. We watched the workers taking down the tent that had been my hospital room in silence for a few moments. Finally, she sighed and leaned back against my upper arm. "Don't you EVER give me a scare like that again, you hear me?" she said.

{Believe me, I don't plan on becoming a Lutin Sword Cushion again any time soon either.}

She was silent for a short moment, then suddenly turned and hugged my arm, the brave front she had put up in front of Claudia and Brian collapsing. Her short arms didn't even come close to encircling my arm, but I could still feel her squeezing what she could hold as hard as she could. I was surprised to feel tears dripping onto it.

{There, there. Don't worry about it. I'm alive and well, none the worst for the experience,} I said, gently brushing the back of my claw against her back. Considering our sizes, my claw was nearly as big as she was.

"You don't understand. When I saw you lying outside the gates covered in blood, the sword in your wing and Brian and his companions swarming over you, I felt like part of me was being ripped out..." she said softly, before getting too choked up to say anymore.

I stayed silent, unable to avoid seeing her memories of my arrival replay in her mind. In Electra's mind's eye, I saw myself as I had been after I crashed landed, and gasped in shock. I saw my large form laying in the path leading to the gates, my back covered in my own blood, the sword sticking out of it, and my wing with it's sail in tatters on my wing bones and the other sword jammed against the bone. Blood ran down the blade in my wing and pooled under my limp wing. My normal bronze coloring was extremely pale where the blood wasn't covering it. I could see my chest slowly lifting with each weak shuddering breath. Brian was on my back, shouting out orders for water and cloths and trying to coordinate his helpers. I felt the tension rise after a longer pause in my weak breathing, only to feel it drop again as I took in another breath and whimpered. Finally, someone gently turned Electra away and lead her back into the Keep, away from the sight of my battered body.

I shook my head slightly and cleared the images out of my mind. {Don't worry, they won't EVER get the drop on me like that again,} I sent grimly.

"Tha- That was Jon who took me away. He and just about everyone else in the Keep comforted me while Brian worked on you. I barely noticed them at the time. All I could think of is you lying out there, bleeding to death and me hopeless to do anything about it.. As soon as they moved you in here, I stayed with you day and night. I- I should've been here when you woke up, but when Claudia came to spread that salve on, I needed to get out and get something to eat. If you think that stuff smells bad now, you should smell it on an empty stomach," she said, starting slow at first, but talking faster as she went. She had relived the memories at the same time I had been watching them and been just as affected.

In her mind, I could feel the worry she had felt be beaten back by wave after wave of relief. Not once in all the years since she found me at the remains of my parents farm 20-some years ago, had I ever seen her this shaken. Even after Nasoj's curse was cast on the Keep, she had kept her cool throughout the ordeal, but my return had shaken her to the core of her being. I looked at her, realizing for the first time just deep her motherly love for me ran.

Finally, sensing that she was regaining her control, I gently pulled her off of my arm and looked at her. {Actually, I can imagine what that stuff smells like on an empty stomach. I feel like I haven't eaten in weeks! What does a dragon need to do to get some grub around here?} I sent, smiling at her, doing my best to lighten the mood.

She sniffed and gasped. "I'm sorry! I was so wrapped up in myself, I had forgotten you haven't eaten! As soon as Claudia told me you were up, I sent an order to the Kitchens for you. It should nearly be ready now."

{Don't worry, I think you needed that release more then I needed food. Besides, I've waited 2 weeks for dinner; what's another few minutes?} I sent goodheartedly as I carried her over to the kitchen doors.

For the next few days, I stayed in the courtyards, watching the day to day Keep activities and slowly going stir crazy fighting my growing urges to fly. At night, with my tower room off limits to me, I stayed in the now empty stables where the cattle was wintered. The stables were the only ground level quarters that could fit my large size.

I was sunning myself in the southern courtyard when I first noticed the tigermorph. I watched him in silence, trying to figure out who he was before recognition dawned on me. Normally, I never bothered to follow Keep Gossip and stories, but, since I was grounded and basically her captive, Electra filled me in on the latest events and arrivals, whether I wanted to be filled in or not.

{Good day, Scratch,} I sent, nodding my head slightly to him.

He jumped slightly in surprise. His eyes darted up and down my long length until finally settling on my head. " Hello, Saroth," he said pleasantly, trying to give me a slight bow in reply and to hold on the equipment at the same time. He barely succeeded.

I stretched out slightly and yawned hugely. {So, what brings you here this warm, sunny day?} I asked, curling my tail around me and looking at him lazily with one eye.

"I just wanted to do some practicing, dagger throwing, juggling, things like that and the main training fields are too crowded.. You don't mind if I practice here, do you? "

I shrugged my wings, wincing at the pain that shot up from my back muscles and my wounded wing. {Not at all,} I sent, adding a note to myself not to do that again just yet. {Do you need me to move out of your way?}

The tiger scanned the courtyard, carefully judging the distances between flower beds and where I was laying, half on the cobblestones, half on the grassy knoll. "That won't be necessary. I've got enough room," he finally concluded.

I yawned again. {That's good. Don't let me interrupt you,} I sent, letting my inner eyelids drop.

I dozed off, paying him no attention as he set up a wooden target on the other side of the courtyard and left the rest of his equipment near the center. I was next awoken by a loud THUMP echoing through the yard. Cracking open my eyelids, I saw the target shacking on it's wooden legs, a black dagger sticking deep into the wood at its center. For some reason my sun-boiled mind couldn't figure out, the sight of the dagger sent a chill up and down my long spine. With another THUMP, a second black dagger joined it in the target, a few inches above the first.

Shifting my gaze, I saw the tiger standing a few feet in front of me, a third dagger in hand. A fast blur of motion later, and a third THUMP echoed around the courtyard, the dagger seeming to appear out of nowhere within the target between the first two. A fourth dagger appeared in his hand, ready for throwing.

This time, I managed to get a better look at the daggers Scratch was throwing . I saw the markings on the dagger's hilt and the blood froze within me. With a roar that shook the entire Keep, I reared up and grabbed the startled tiger in my claws. The dagger slipped out of his surprised paws.

{MURDERER!!} I mentally screamed, eyes swirling red with rage as I brought him up to my muzzle. {Give me one reason, just ONE good reason why I shouldn't kill you right here and now, you MURDERER!} I sent, watching the startled tiger flinch under my mental onslaught. Keepers were rushing to the windows and doors to see what the noise was about. I ignored them, glaring at the tiger in my claws and slowly tightening my grip. Confusion and terror ran through his mind, but neither showed on the tiger's face. I was too angry to pay any attention to his thoughts.

"SAROTH! What are you doing?!?" Electra shouted up at me, running into the courtyard and pushing through the crowd.

{He's one of them, Electra! He's a killer!} I sent down to her, tightening my grip around the tiger. {Just LOOK! He was using these! Just like those monsters used!} I sent, reaching down and flicking the dropped dagger with a finger claw.

The dagger skittered across the cobblestones of the courtyard, stopping at Electra's feet. She knelt down and picked it up, her face hardening with rage as she saw the symbol on it. I knew she was firmly on my side at that point as she slowly walked up to my side, glaring up at Scratch.

{There are only two groups that I will gladly kill when I meet up with them.} I told the tiger, my mental voice dropping to a cold, quiet whisper only he and Electra could hear. {The first are the Lutins and any other creature associated with Nasoj. I kill them because I need to, to protect the Keep and the midlands. It's not always something I enjoy doing, but it must be done. At times I even regret what I need to do, hoping someday we may finally make peace with them, though it's doubtful.

{Then there's the other group. I kill them with absolutely NO regrets, except the regret that there weren't more of you for me to get. This group is made up of the monsters who gather with this symbol. The monsters that rape, pillage and kill just for the thrill of it! The monsters that KILLED my FAMILY.} I explained, my grip getting tighter around the tiger. The wind picked up around us and thunder rumbled ominously, both fueled by my anger.

"Saro*ACK!* Calm dow-*COUGH*" Scratch shouted out. I stared at him, not reacting to his words, fully intending to squeeze the life out of him. "*COUGH*COUGH* I'm not GASPn like that" he gasped out, pain on his face.

{Once a monster, always a monster,} I responded softly, barely listening to him.

"SAROTH! Stop that this instant!" a voice shouted from the crowd. I stopped squeezing, but held the pressure as I looked down, seeing the crowd part in front of Lightbringer, Pascal following close behind her. "What's this all about?" Lightbringer continued, stopping in front of Electra and me.

{This MONSTER killed my family, THAT'S what it's about,} I shot down to her.

"That 'monster' is 18 years old! Look at him Saroth! He's younger then you are! How could he possibly be responsible for your family's death?" Lightbringer shouted up at me.

{He uses the symbol of the Thief's Guild; the group that killed my family. That makes him guilty of the same crime.}

"He's a servant of Akkala now, no longer a member of that group."

{Once a monster, always a monster. Akkala is a fool for letting a monster like this be her servant!} I spat back to her. Lightbringer froze at my comments, taken aback by them. She quickly refound her tongue, her eyes hardening as she stared me down.

"I know you are under some stress right now Saroth, and, for the sake of our friendship, I am willing to let that go this time. I will NOT let you kill Scratch though. You have made your feelings perfectly clear to all of us here, so you can release him. Killing him will make you no better then the group Scratch USED TO belong to. Scratch is MY responsibility. If you so much as harm one patch of fur on him you will face MY wrath," she recovered, deadly serious.

I stood there, quietly for a moment, feeling the mood of the crowd swing from confusion to firmly supporting Lightbringer and the cat. I glanced down at Electra and was shocked to see she was wavering in her support of me. I knew at that moment that I had lost this round. The cat seemed to realize this too, relief and hope flaring in his mind. Grumbling softly, I opened my claws and dropped the tiger onto a rosebush. {I suggest you remove ANYTHING you have with that accursed symbol from your possession. Next time, I won't hesitate to kill you if you have anything from that cursed guild on you. Renounce your membership to it and all it stands for and you might actually survive our next encounter,} I sent angrily to him before stalking away.

I wasn't a fire breathing dragon, a disappointing fact I had discovered soon after I changed, but many of those gathered in the crowd swore they saw smoke coming from my nostrils as they scrambled out of my way. Electra stared at the tiger pulling himself out of the bush before turning her back to the group and following me. As soon as she went around a corner, out of sight of the crowd, she leaned against the wall and tried to sort through the confusing thoughts in her mind. Looking ahead, she saw me crouching down, ready to take off.

"Saroth! Wait! Brian hasn't given you permission to fly yet!" she called out, running up and grabbing my leg.

{I don't care. I've had enough of being on the land. I need to get out of here; stretch my wings, go some place where my friends won't stab me in the back by befriending one of those... those MONSTERS!}

"Calm down Sar! No one has betrayed you."

{No one? Then why has everyone sided on HIS side? The entire Keep is against me!!!} I shouted, lowering my head towards her.

She stared back at me for a moment then pulled back her hand and slapped my muzzle. I stared back at her, shocked into silence. Even though I had barely felt it, I was still shocked that she had even done it. "Are you ready to calm down and think rationally now?" she asked sternly.

I nodded my head, mutely.

She sighed. "Look, I know what you're going-"

In spite of myself, my anger rose again. {DO YOU? How can you know how it feels to be helpless, to be told to run off and hide while those THINGS butchered your family? To have everything you know in the world be burnt down around you just so some people could get their kicks?!?} I paused, seeing Electra raising her hand again, and took a couple of deep breaths. {I'm just not so sure what to do anymore. All my life the death and destruction of the Thief's Guild has been my driving force, but now everyone I know is telling me to let one of those Guild monsters live in my own home. We might as well send all the guards to the Midlands and invite Nasoj over for dinner with the Duke!} I fought down the frustration that had been rising again. { Besides, as I recall, you were standing there beside me when I had him in my claws until Lightbringer arrived. Then you went and betrayed me too by taking her side. }

She sputtered for a moment before responding. "It's not as if I had much choice! You were broadcasting so strongly, I'm surprised half the Keep wasn't out to get Scratch's hide for that. Thank goodness she arrived when she did, or else we would surely have had a bloodbath in that courtyard. In any case, that still doesn't excuse you for the way you treated Lightbringer. As soon as you calm down, I want you to go to her and apologize to her."

{As long as HE isn't there.}

Electra frowned, and then her face softened. She sighed and leaned against me. "Look, I know you've been going just a little stir crazy, wanting to get back to the clouds, which probably explains why you flew so far off the handle. Just promise me that you'll give him a chance. A lot has happened while you were away, events that have lead to him getting the trust of Lord Thomas and most of the high court."

I let out a disbelieving snort. {Classic thief strategy, shake your hand in friendship with one hand, stab you in the back with the other.}

She glared at me. "Scratch has gained the trust of many of the Keep, at the risk of his own life in some cases. They believe he has changed and isn't the monster you think he is. You've only seen him for what? A few minutes when you were barely awake after baking in the sun all day? Hardly enough time to make a decision about him, especially a life or death decision." She sighed and patted my leg as she stood up again. "Go on your flight, work your temper and energy off and we'll talk later. I won't tell Brian if you won't. Just promise me you'll stay within sight of the Keep."

{Thank you Electra,} I said gratefully, crouching down and taking off.

I ignored the pain of my nearly healed wounds as I climbed into the air. At first, I struggled a little, getting used to the new feel of my wings, but I quickly adjusted. The higher into the air I got, the better I felt, the Lutins, Scratch and all my other troubles seeming so far below. I didn't pay any attention to where I was going, just letting my mind roam and savoring the wind blowing all around me for the first time in weeks.

When I started having trouble breathing I finally started watching where I was going. Looking around, I was stunned to discover just how high I had climbed. I could barely see the Keep below me through the thin cloud layer. With the pain of muscles and new hide stretched to their limits slowly increasing in my back and wing, I started gliding back down to the Keep.

Electra was waiting for me as I landed in the courtyard next to my tower, Claudia next to her. "I said I wouldn't tell Brian. I said nothing about getting Claudia," she explained. "How do you feel?"

I knelt down to help Claudia climb up. {Better, but my conditions about Scratch still stand,} I replied, wincing a little as Claudia examined my back's wounds.

Electra sighed, her disappointment clear on her face. I wanted to do something to stop her disappointment, but the one thing I knew she wanted, I couldn't give. My hatred of the Thief's Guild simply ran too deep for me to let go so easily in the tiger's case.

"I guess that's better then nothing. As long as you don't kill him on sight. What's the damage, Claudia?" Electra asked as an uneasy silence fell over us.

Claudia climbed down off my side. "Spread your wing, please, Saroth," she asked. She examined it carefully before responding to Electra. "It looks like he pulled a few of the stitches in his back but I don't think I'll need to replace them. His wing seems fine though. If you had given Brian a chance, he probably would've declared you airworthy. Any pain Saroth?"

{Just a little, in my back and my wings,} I replied.

"I expected as much. You haven't been using those muscles much over the past few weeks, so it's no surprise they've gotten weak. I'll give you some juice that should dull the pain, and tomorrow you should see Brian so you can fly officially."

"Thank you Claudia," Electra and I said.

"No problem. Just try not to do any more flying tonight and you should be fine tomorrow," she replied before walking away.

Electra watched her leave, then looked back at me. "Come on, it's getting late and you'd better get back to the stables. I know you want to get back to your own room, but until Brian OK's you, you're still down here. You can go apologize to Lightbringer tomorrow."

I let her lead me to the stables in silence, thankful to have the evening respite from facing the wolfmorph.

The next morning, Electra met me outside the stables soon after sunrise. Together, we made our way as close to the Lightbringer's quarters as I could get. I waited nervously outside as she went inside to get the wolfmorph. I knelt as best as I could in front of her when she came out and sent my apology. My heart lifted when she accepted it. I valued her friendship, and wouldn't have wanted my angry outburst the day before, which I now regretted, to come between us, especially since our areas of interest sometimes overlapped.

I still didn't understand what she could possibly see worth redeeming in that monster, but she must have seen something to work with him. I still felt that it was akin to having one of Nasoj's Generals visiting the Duke's chamber's unescorted. In the end though, I finally promised Lightbringer I would leave Scratch alone as long as he let me be.

It is hard to keep a dragon flying around the Keep secret, especially the way Keepers gossip, so it didn't take long before word got back to Brian that I had taken to the skies again. He caught up to me soon after I left the Lightbringer's presence, stopping me in the middle of the road leading back to the stables. At that point he started chewing me out royally for my risky, foolhardy, unauthorized flight. I took it all in stride, waiting patiently for his tirade to die out. Once he finally ran out of steam, he took a moment to examine me.

"Well, it looks like you didn't do TOO much damage. Your wing looks well enough to fly on now," he conceded. "You're fine for flying short distances, but no long distance flights until you get your muscle strength back up, and absolutely NO shifting until I say so. But, considering how fast you're healing, if you're good, I might let you try shifting in a few days."

I smiled and thanked him, greatly relieved. He nodded his head and walked off, muttering something about getting a set of bronze hide armor if he caught me shifting without his permission.

Being cleared for flight lightened my mood a thousand fold. I moved out of the stables and slept on my tower balcony, still too big to fit into my room. My mood was also helped by not seeing Scratch around the Keep. By the way Electra acted, I knew she had probably somehow arranged for him to be sent outside on guard duty or something for a few days, something I was thankful for. Next time we met, I promised Electra and myself that I wouldn't kill him on sight, but more then that I knew I couldn't promise.