Jeronem looked at the wobbling tent dubiously. "It's awfully small."
"I didn't want to use up all of the money your father gave us." Mikaen said defensively.
As he turned back to the tent, it collapsed into a pile of metal rods and canvas. Snorting, Mikaen gave the remains of the tent a moody kick. "I guess it wouldn't be the first time I've slept on the ground."
Jeronem patted his friend on the arm. "Don't worry about it."
He whirled his staff around and pointed at the tent. Instantly, the misshapen shelter began to change, first in size, then in shape. Within moments, the tent had become the size of a small house, complete with chimney and mailbox.
Mikaen glowered at Jeronem. "Showoff."
Jeronem beamed at Mikaen a moment before prancing up to the front door. As Mikaen started to follow, a sharp pain in the back of his leg made him pause. There was a rather nasty cut on the back of his thigh, probably from chasing the monk earlier that day. It didn't look serious, but it did need to be healed.
"Hey, Jeronem!" Mikaen called out, "I don't suppose you magicked a bathroom in there."
"No, but if you're looking for a bath, there's always the lake."
"Yeah, Yuna Lake. The lake you insisted we camp near. Y'know, the big blue wet thing?"
Snorting, Mikaen said, "I know what a lake is, Jeronem."
"Then go knock yourself out." Jeronem stepped out of the tent, his staff in hand. "I'm going to see if I can't scare up some dinner."
"No insects this time, please." Mikaen called after him.
Mikaen shook his head and headed in the direction of the lake. Jeronem wanted to camp right beside the lake, but Mikaen didn't want to risk such an open spot after the incident with the monks. Still, it only took Mikaen a few minutes to break through the undergrowth and reach the lakeside.
Yuna Lake, named after an ancient Sorceress whose tale had long since become legend, was actually two lakes that had become joined by a combination of idestan labor and natural erosion. It was believed to be a place of new beginnings; bathing in its waters prior to a new venture was said to bring the bather good luck.
Of course, Mikaen had no idea of this. His need was a bit simpler, though the sight of the lake did give him pause. Even partially obscured by clouds, the light from Everblue shone through the surface of the lake and moved slowly along the sandy dirt at the bottom.
After a few moments of admiring the moonlit lake, he knelt by the lakeside and began to unbuckle his tek-boots. Once the final straps were loose, he tugged the heavy leg armor off and set them beneath a nearby tree. After a moment's hesitation, he slid off his gauntlets and his shirt as well. He winced a little as the shirt slipped off of his back; though the cramp had faded hours ago, there was still a lingering soreness in his shoulders. He gingerly lowered his injured leg into the water, sighing with relief as the cool water washed over his bare skin.
Mikaen had never had the benefit of proper training to focus his energist abilities on Earth, so it had been quite a surprise to learn that energist magic not only encompassed the so-called elements, but minor healing powers as well. It wasn't much; any injury that was more than superficial would take a tremendous amount of stamina and time. A scratch, on the other hand, was well within his power.
Mikaen focused his concentration on the wound like Elduran had taught him. As his hands began to glow, wispy blue-green strands of lifestream energy spreading along his leg until they began to gather around the wound. In a matter of moments there was no trace of the cut, scar or otherwise.
Part of him wanted to return to camp; he was quite tired from the day's travel and was more than ready for a nice long rest. On the other hand, the cool water felt fantastic. Feeling slightly embarrassed even though he was alone, Mikaen slid off the rest of his clothes and threw them over his armor before wading out into the lake.
All of his aches and pains faded away as he swam through the lake, leaving him with a mellow, peaceful feeling that permeated every cell in his body. He floated on his back, staring up into the sky; while Everblue was the largest of Vinta's five moons, Mikaen could make out the small green ball that was Traysia floating in the night sky.
Staring at the night sky, Mikaen's thoughts wandered to Syrin and the rest of the Knights of the Star. When he thought about it, wasn't it possible that the Knights had already destroyed the Restored Earth Alliance? Perhaps he would return home to discover his enemy long gone. It was wishful thinking and he knew it, but it was still a pleasant thought … one that was abruptly interrupted when his head bumped into something that let out a yelp.
It only took Mikaen a moment to find his footing and spin about to face this threat, only to find Tirinia standing within arm's reach. They both simply stood there, both naked in the moonlit lake and clutching their respective heads as they stared speechlessly at the other.
For a single moment, Mikaen thought that she was Maria. Her almost white fur, her violet eyes, and even her face brought to mind his late fiancée. He started to reach forward to stroke her cheek when reality came crashing down on him. Maria was dead. With that realization, he began to notice little differences in her face and form. As she covered herself, her pale cheeks turning slightly darker in what was unmistakably a blush, Mikaen realized he had been staring at her for a few minutes, his hand partially raised as though to touch her.
He quickly dropped his hand and looked away, his own face growing warm. "My apologies, Miss. I didn't know realize-"
She began to back away, her soft growl silencing him in an instant. She may not have been Maria, but Mikaen recognized her reaction all too well. He had seen it on Maria's face when they had first met, when she had mistaken him a Rev and nearly killed him.
Mikaen started backed away, holding his hands up in what he hoped was a pacifying manner. "I'm sorry I intruded, Miss. I'll leave immediately."
He made it three steps before Tirinia leapt toward him, claws fully extended. Fortunately, Mikaen was ready for her; with a wave of his hand, a torrent of water rose from the lake and knocked her back.
Mikaen quickly moved aside in case she managed to fight her way through the surge, his mind racing for options. When he turned, however, Tirinia was nowhere to be seen.
"Winged humanoids, monks with energy weapons, and now this." Mikaen muttered, wishing he had studied more about other Vintan races during his stay in Homestead.
He could only imagine what had set her off; perhaps he had mispronounced something. Elduran had taught him Vintan Common, but he had only a few opportunities to use it prior to leaving Homestead. Perhaps it was more simple than that; she may have just been angry at being caught skinny-dipping, perceiving him as a peeping tom or worse.
Whatever the reason for her aggression, Mikaen decided the best course of action would be to leave immediately. Keeping his eyes and ears open, he waded toward the shore. Just as he reached his abandoned gear, he heard a twig snap above him. He looked up just in time to see Tirinia leaping toward him.
Her surprise attack knocked him to the ground, just out of reach of his clothes and equipment. She tried to take a swipe at his unprotected throat, but Mikaen managed to catch her wrists and push her back.
"Look," he hissed through clenched teeth as he struggled to keep her claws away, "I'm not here to fight you, so GET OFF!"
With a loud grunt, Mikaen kicked Tirinia off him and into the lake. Quickly gaining his feet, Mikaen looked to the once-tranquil water. The last few ripples were subsiding, but there was no sign of his assailant.
Hearing the telltale sound of sliding metal directly behind him, he spun around just in time to grab the shaft of Truth before the blade split him in two.
Tirinia's eyes glittered as she slowly forced Mikaen back with a surprising amount of strength for a woman her size. He tried to gain control, but she retaliated by kicking his feet out from under him.
Mikaen grabbed the butt end of Truth as he fell and channeled a gust of wind through the amplifier. The blast of air shot the weapon out of her hands and straight into the depths of the lake.
Thinking fast, Mikaen knocked her off her feet while she was confused and leapt on top of her.
Pinning her arms and legs to the ground and trying to ignore the press of her bosom against his, he said, "Look, I don't know what your problem is, and I don't care; I'm not here to-"
Mikaen wasn't sure how it happened; one moment he was shouting at her, the next Tirinia was in his arms, her fur soft as velvet against his skin, her hair running through his fingers, and the scent of spiced apples on her breath as their lips met.
After what felt to Mikaen like an eternity, he and Tirinia separated. As he met her gaze, it suddenly occurred to him that he was still lying on top of her. His face red, Mikaen rose to his feet and helped Tirinia to stand. For the longest time, all he could do was stare into her deep, purple eyes. They didn't have a shred of clothing between them, yet it was the silence that embarrassed him.
Tentatively, she took his hand. Mikaen's heart began to beat wildly as she slowly and deliberately rubbed his hand against her cheek. He couldn't seem to think; her touch wiped the slate of his mind clean.
He must have flinched, for Tirinia blushed and quickly released his hand, whispering, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't-"
Her apology fell short as Mikaen, his arm moving almost independent of his control, gently took her hand and repeated the gesture, rubbing her delicate hand against his rough cheek. He wasn't sure why; it just seemed the right thing to do.
Passion in her eyes, she pulled Mikaen close. As her body pressed against his, he closed his eyes; all of his control, all of his training, all thoughts of Earth, the Knights and the Revs slipped blissfully away.
"Yo, Mikaen! Ready for some grub?"
Jeronem's piping mental voice made Mikaen jerk back in surprise, and with that the spell was broken. Tirinia slipped away in an instant, leaving Mikaen alone on the riverbank. He felt a strange sense of disembodiment as he stood there in the light of the moons; it was as if he had awoken from a long sleep and his mind was still working on sorting out dreams from reality.
"Mikaen! Hello? Can you hear me?"
"I'm right here, Jeronem." Mikaen called out. "Give me a sec, okay?"
Mikaen glanced around again, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tirinia, but there was only the once again tranquil lake and the silent forest. Shaking his head, he put his clothes on, picked up his armor, and headed back toward camp.
Jeronem had caught a bird-like creature with four legs that tasted a little like chicken. Despite the cabin having a fully-stocked kitchen, the young vuestan insisted on cooking outside on a fire, probably as an excuse to roast the bird with a burst of flame. After they finished eating, Mikaen cleaned and stowed the cooking implements as Jeronem leaned back against a tree trunk with the book on sentients.
As Jeronem read silently, Mikaen stared into the depths of the fire, his mind on the tigreth. He couldn't stop thinking about her; her face, her body, even the way she had fought hung in his mind, making it difficult to think about anything else. Even thoughts of Earth seemed strangely distant in comparison.
Jeronem's eyes peeked over the top of the book. "You're quiet. What's up?"
Mikaen shook his head. "It's nothing."
"Obviously not, or you'd just spit it out already."
After a brief internal debate, Mikaen asked Jeronem, "What can you tell me about the tigreth?"
Marking his place in the book and setting it aside, Jeronem leaned forward so that his elbows rested on his knees. "The tigreth are pretty much the backbone of Longshore. There aren't as many tigreth as there are lupere or the tauren, but most important government positions have been left to the tigreth since the time of King Calliban."
"What happened?" Mikaen asked curiously.
"Calliban's initial assault decimated the fional, the previous leaders of Longshore. They would've been wiped out completely if it weren't for the tigreth. The story goes that the tigreth forces were only a tenth of the size of Calliban's forces, yet they fought so fiercely and with such cunning that the Galden were completely routed. By the time the Galden mounted a second assault, the tauren and the lupere had joined the tigreth, making the Longshore forces an easy match for Calliban's army. Ever since then, the tigreth have been the voice of Longshore in … well, pretty much everything."
"What of the fional?" asked Mikaen as he poked at the fire, "Did they recover?"
Jeronem nodded. "Yeah, they did, but they're still in hiding. You still see fional around, but they fiercely guard the locations of their cities and rarely interact with outsiders."
Mikaen stared into the embers. "I can understand why."
"So why the sudden interest in the tigreth, Mikaen?"
Feigning nonchalance, Mikaen replied, "Just a random thought."
He felt a sudden deep ache in his upper back, similar to what he had felt after the monks attacked, though not nearly as bad. He sighed and shifted position as the ache subsided.
Jeronem raised an eyebrow at Mikaen. "Another cramp?"
Mikaen waved off his friend's worried glance. "I'm fine. My back's been bothering me since I was on Earth. Syrin told me it was nothing to worry about; 'the side effects of an active lifestyle', I think she said."
After a few moments of silence, Jeronem sighed and fixed Mikaen with a knowing glance. "Well, I guess I'll head to bed, but tomorrow you've got to tell me how you beat that tigreth."
Mikaen raised an eyebrow. "How did-"
"You never were good at hiding your thoughts. Goodnight." Without another word, Jeronem picked up the book and headed toward the cabin.
Shaking his head, Mikaen quelled the fire with a wave of his hand before following Jeronem into the cabin. It wasn't as nice as his house back in Homestead, but it was a far-cry better than the tent Mikaen had brought along.
Jeronem was already fast asleep, his tail hanging off the edge of a small bed in the largest room in the cabin. Choosing another room, Mikaen tossed his gear in the corner and climbed into bed. As he pulled the thick, quilted blanket around him, he tried to put the image of Tirinia out of his mind so he could get some rest.
Just as he started to drift into a deep sleep, his thoughts turned to his mysterious friend, One, and what trouble he might be up to at the moment.
One ran through the forest, tearing through bushes and hurling past trees. He was practically covered with scrapes and bruises, he had dirt in his hair and nostrils, and the right sleeve of his favorite green and gray-striped shirt had a tear in it.
He had clearly underestimated the tenacity of a tigreth on the prowl. No matter how craftily he navigated the forest, no matter how hard he tried to lose her, she had kept up with him perfectly. That he had stayed ahead of her thus far was quite frankly amazing, considering she was a tigreth.
Still, One wouldn't be able to run forever. Dreamer or not, he was still a just a slightly out of shape human who was not used to prolonged sprints. He mentally kicked himself for not bringing along his tek-boots.
After running for what felt like hours, One glanced back and found Teria gone.
"Oh, thank God!" He said as he skidded to a halt and quickly focused his thoughts on the Elsewhere. "I thought I'd never lose her!"
The CPD appeared moments later, embedded in a nearby tree as though it had always been there. One ran toward the door, and was just about to close his hand around the knob when Teria erupted through the bushes and tackled him to the ground. His arms and legs pinned, One braced himself for the tearing pain of her claws rending his flesh.
Then, to his amazement, all of the anger and ferocity in Teria's face vanished, replaced with a look of utter disbelief. Without a word, she stood up and stepped away from him.
"Look, I can explain." One said as he stood up, not sure what was going on but glad for it none-the-less, "I'm here to-"
"It's you." She whispered.
One blinked. "I'm sorry?"
That was apparently not the right thing to say. Teria punched him in the face hard enough to knock him to the ground. Energy swirled around her fist as she stood over him, her face livid. One had dealt with a few Streamers during previous Vintan assignments. The only thing worse than an angry brawler is an angry brawler who can channel magical energy into every kick and punch.
One pushed himself up, trying to ignore the spots that were now flashing before his eyes. Holding a hand to his now throbbing cheek, he said, "Cyber-friggin-cripes! What the heck was that for?"
"Why did you come back!?" She demanded. "Why?"
One was dumbfounded. He occasionally ran into old friends and enemies on assignments, but as far as he knew, he had never seen Teria. Before he could think of a response, she grabbed the front of his shirt and yanked him to his feet. One tensed for what was to come, hoping that it wouldn't be her fist.
Without warning, she pulled him close and gave him a kiss that made him tingle right down to the tips of his toes. His eyes flew open, but somehow he couldn't break away. She released his shirt and slipped her hands around him in an unmistakable embrace.
As they released, she rubbed his cheek tenderly, whispering, "I missed you, Glen."
One was about to tell her she had clearly mistaken him for someone else (in as gentle a manner possible, of course), but his words died in his mouth.
Somehow, he did remember her. It was like a half-forgotten memory buried beneath hundreds of assignments, but it was there: a moment of warmth and affection between two lonely souls, a sense of belonging after an eternity of loneliness. He raised a trembling hand to touch her cheek.
The pain hit him with the intensity of a lightning bolt. It was a seething, burning agony that seemed to course through every inch of his being in a way he had never experienced either before or after becoming a Dreamer. He fell to the ground, clutching his head and screaming.
Teria took a step back, looking as though she wanted to do something, but didn't know what. "What is it? What's wrong? Glen, talk to me!"
One wanted to respond, but the pain was overwhelming; it felt as though his mind was tearing itself apart. Everything began to fade from his vision: the moons, the night sky, the forest, and finally Teria. Her worried face was the last thing One saw before the darkness overcame him.