Ti`jris opened her eyes slowly. As she became aware of her surroundings, she realized that she was no longer in the white room that smelled of medicine. When her eyes had adjusted to the clear pre-dawn light, she found that she was in a dank cave. Wrinkling her nose in distaste, she glared at the smelly damp cloth she was lying on. She scrambled to her feet and looked about her. The first thing she noticed was the new perspective. Ti`jris, before, had stood a foot high at the withers when she stood on all fours. Now she was fully six feet at the tips of her alert, silky ears. She examined herself carefully. She was standing on her hind legs. She gave a convulsive shudder and moaned. It was an eerie sound. She found a shattered mirror next to one of the walls of the cave. Picking it up carefully, she examined her reflection.
Green eyes flecked with gold stared back at her, like the eyes of a wraith floating in space. A black muzzle held these eyes, along with a sensitive dark grey nose, and a set of whiskers, trembling and quivering, as if a gentle breeze was blowing through them. She opened her mouth and looked at the needle sharp teeth it contained. The upper part of her white V shaped ruff formed a collar shape around her neck, and the lower part extended to her belly, twisting and churning like a river that had flooded its banks. Across her upper chest there was a white crosspiece. Her upper arms had grown several times the length they once were. She looked at her hand and casually extended razor sharp claws. She sighed with relief. A cat without claws was as good as dead. Her legs had also changed. She noticed that, if one took away the fur, her legs looked like the un-furred man-people. She snorted disdainfully. "Man-people." She muttered, "No claws to fight or hunt with, no teeth to eat with, no fur to protect from the cold. I hope that I shall not turn into one of those." Had a person been listening to this, it would have sounded like soft hisses and growls, along with a sound as delicate as tiny silver bells, all set to music. She turned toward the front of the cave, and widened her eyes in wonder. She took several steps forward, which brought her out of the smelly cave onto a ledge in front. Her nostrils quivered, picking up many delicate scents. She smelled water, fresh clean water. She moaned in anticipation, and realized she felt as if she had walked for months in the dry, hot desert of her homeland.
She glanced up; sure she had heard someone speak. The painful clench of her belly as it made its rumbling protest to any hesitation about getting food and water shocked her back to reality. She breathed in the crisp air, testing, tasting, for any signs of danger. She leaned over the edge to see how far she would have to jump. To her combined dismay and delight, it was only seven feet off the ground. "Not much of a challenge." She scoffed. She leapt nimbly off the ledge, and landed lightly on her feet. It was then that she noticed her tail.
Ti`jris did not have a tail, before. Now she was amazed at the sight of it. It was three feet long, and after curling it a few times, she decided it was prehensile also. She took it in her hands, and stared at it in wonder.
"Bast's glory!" exclaimed Ti`jris. "A tail! Who would have thought the great and wonderful goddess could be so forgiving!"
She nearly swooned with happiness. At that exact moment, the glory of the rising sun came up over a nearby hill.
Her jaw dropped. She had never known that the rising sun could be so magnificent. Brilliant shades of yellow and gold, pushed away the blues and pinks of the pre-dawn.
Ti`jris dropped to her knees, and a single shaft of the golden glory fell upon her through the trees.
"O great lord Osiris," she chanted.
"Always were you near us,
"After we lost the way,
"You always forgave us."
Ti`jris rose to her feet, and bowed until the golden shaft had moved on, and was joined by others. Her belly growled, and she moved to satisfy the first priority. She knelt by the stream, and lifted the cool, clear water to her mouth. Freezing as she heard a rustle in a nearby bush, she scented the air for familiar smells. She immediately noticed that the rustle was made by something that smelled like a naka. Ti`jris melted into shadow to wait and see if she was correct. In a few moments, an animal made its way to the stream, followed by another. The naka had long ears, bright eyes, and a nose that never stopped wriggling. It was very small, about a foot long, and brown. It and its companion hopped to the stream, paused for a moment and began to drink. Ti`jris was ready. She pounced as swift as a hawk diving on its prey. She caught them both in one fell swoop. She delicately slipped a claw into them both, easily lifting the furry animals. Turning around, she stared at the cave, puzzled.
There were two caves, one right under the other. She had awakened in the upper one. She walked over to the ledge and flung the nakan onto it. Then she crouched down carefully, examining the small opening. She smelled the air, her ever-sensitive nose twitching. Smelling nothing except the hide of a long dead animal, she crawled through the opening.
Ti`jris crawled through what seemed like miles of tunnel even though it was only one hundred yards. The tunnel was barely wide enough for her shoulders, and she had to duck her head to keep from scraping it on the rough ceiling. She crept ahead cautiously, scenting for a change in the smell of the air that would indicate a sudden drop or a sharp turn ahead. Presently she came into a corridor that was high enough for her to stand in. This went through several sharp turns before opening into a spectacular cavern.
Ti`jris looked about her in amazement. The cave was nearly 250 feet high, and perhaps 500 feet long. It was illuminated by a large crack in the ceiling, out of which she could see the bright blue sky and the occasional passing bird. She heard the steady dripping of water, and soon she discovered its source. She observed the magnificent stalactites dripping mineral-rich water onto their stalagmite twins. Here and there they had joined, forming majestic columns. She walked toward the back of the cave, and heard rushing water. She could not locate its source until she turned to head back to the front of the cave. Hidden behind a frozen fall of flowstone, she saw a dark crevice. Smelling nothing dangerous, and also fresh water, she went through.
She walked through several yards of twisting and turning passageway, before coming into a magnificent room. Here was the source of the sound of rushing water. A huge waterfall spilled down a crevice in one wall, splashed into a large pond, and slithered out the room through a small opening to the left of it. Ti`jris guessed that this was the source of the stream outside her little cave. Scattered around were little pools of water, some of which contained small round balls. She picked one up and examined it curiously. It was milky white, and smooth. She shrugged and tossed it away.
She then remembered that she was hungry. "There shall be more time to explore after I eat," she snickered.
(you have all the time in the universe, little one)
She flattened her ears back angrily. "Who speaks?!" she shouted. Looking around, she tried to determine where the voice came from, but to no avail. Muttering to herself angrily, she left the cavern.
Back outside in the bright sunshine, she leapt up to her ledge. The nakan fur glistened in the light. Ti`jris licked her lips hungrily. She walked back into her cave, pausing for a second to let her eyes adjust. The rank smell assailed her nostrils.
She rooted around in a pile of smelly cloths and fur. Shaking her head in dismay, she decided to toss the whole pile out. Grimacing at the feel of the cold, damp mass, she hoisted the pile and flung it out over the ledge. Surveying the rest of the small cave, she found a small ledge that held a few thin leather thongs, two small silver bells, and a thick leather glove. She cocked her head curiously, and picked up one of the bells. She giggled at the light, tinkling sound it made. Gathering up these items, she stepped outside again.
(Jras`kre Jres! See the fluid sky dancer! Jras`kre Jres! She will be yours!)
Ti`jris looked up sharply at these words. High above the earth, the `kre Jres soared. Strong pinions supported the majestic flight. She wheeled and dived, like a streak of lightning. Coming up again, holding a snake, she gave a scream of triumph. The thin creature squirmed weakly in the falcon's grip. Ti`jris surprised herself by whistling to the magnificent bird, and was startled when the bird answered her call. She watched her until she landed not 50 feet away, on a narrow ledge. As the falcon settled down to her meal, Ti`jris decided to settle down to her own. She leapt up to her ledge, and tried to find a comfortable way to sit. Ending up sitting Indian-style, she began to strip the skin off the rabbits. Normally, she would have eaten the whole rabbit, including the skin, but she decided she didn't want to get any fur in the way of the tasty flesh. Munching contentedly on the tender meat, she watched the falcon strip the scaly skin off of her meal, and then tear off bite-sized morsels to swallow.
When the falcon had finished her meal, and began looking about for scraps she might have missed, Ti`jris whistled again. The falcon looked up and fluttered her wings. Ti`jris tore a small piece off the remaining naka and tossed it a few yards away. The `kre Jres gave a mighty cry and vaulted into the sky. Coming back down a few minutes later, she pounced on the piece of meat, eyeing Ti`jris warily. She whistled softly and threw another piece of meat, this time a little closer. It took several minutes before the falcon overcame her wariness enough to accept the piece. Ti`jris did this several times until the falcon was not a foot away. Slowly, cautiously, she reached out. She managed only the lightest touch before the falcon hissed and launched herself back toward the ledge.
(she will come for the glove)
"Glove? What gl- ohhh." Ti`jris reached over and picked up the thick leather glove she had removed from the cave. Placing it on her right hand, she found that the contours fit her hand almost exactly, as if it were made for someone like her.
She was now becoming used to this inner voice and barely paid attention to it. She turned back toward the falcon and held her arm out in front of her. She watched the falcon watching her for a moment, and whistled. The falcon whistled back and flew to her arm. Ti`jris picked up a small piece of meat and fed it to the falcon. Then the falcon looked expectantly at Ti`jris for a moment and, seeing and hearing no commands, began to preen. Ti`jris stroked the noble head, and thanked Horus for the gift.
"I see you have met my bird." said a rich voice.
Ti`jris shrieked and whirled with fright. The falcon shrieked with her and flew off her arm back to the ledge.
She faced a figure clothed in a hooded tan cloak that swept the ground. Under the cloak, she could see a grey kilt that went to the figure's knees, a grey tunic that had many hieroglyphs on it, and a golden belt that had many small pouches hanging off of it, as well as a small dagger hilted in gold.
"Come Kal`an," said the rich voice from within the shadows of the hood, and held out a gloved arm. The falcon flew the few yards and landed neatly on the stranger's wrist.
"Who? Wha....?" Ti`jris struggled to regain her composure. She hadn't even heard him, and he was merely 10 feet away.
"Don't be alarmed," the figure said, and pulled its hood back, revealing a human-looking face with inky black skin, bright blue almond-shaped, slightly slanting eyes, a smiling mouth that held teeth a little too sharp to be considered human, and slightly pointed ears. Long, thick silver hair, with two black stripes over the ears, covered the head.
"A man-creature!" Ti`jris spat. Her ears flattened against her skull, her eyes narrowed, and her whiskers came forward. She swept the glove off her arm and leapt toward the human. He moved his hand toward her and said something in an unfamiliar language. Instantly she was immobilized and came crashing back to the ground. When she realized she could move again, she picked herself up carefully, and began grooming her tail.
"Tut! My dear, Bast would NOT be pleased if you made snap judgements like that all the time," the stranger admonished. "She expects you to be cautious, but not violent."
"Wha...who are you?" she asked nervously.
"When I am like this, I am known as Kestrel. This bird is Kal`an, the sun worshipper. She answers to me, you, Horus and Isis. However, this is not my true form." he said.
"You are a...a...mak`tan? A shape-shifter?" she exclaimed.
"Something of that. On this world, we are called Shar'tal, the Magic Callers. Most of the world knows us as mages, and very few know our true forms," he stated.
"What is this world?" she asked.
"The world is known as Taren, but you are in an area known as the Temple. This whole area is a sacred place. Many gods and goddesses are worshipped here. The large cave below is the Altar of Bast. Several cats like you have been delivered here. Many years ago, I was delivered here too," he said.
"But, are you not human?" she queried.
He held up his hand. "Watch." His hand began to change. The nails grew narrower, longer, and sharper. They pulled back into his fingertips. Hid fingers grew wider, and the pads on the tips became more defined. Soft, silky fur grew in. Within seconds the transformation was complete. The stranger had a very dexterous cat's paw, exactly like Ti`jris', but for the color.
Ti`jris nodded and said, "Yes, but..." She stopped abruptly as her eyes flicked back to Kestrel's face.
His hand wasn't the only thing to change. His face had also gone under an incredible transformation. His nose had broadened, and together with his mouth, had lengthened into a muzzle. In his mouth, his canines had become needle sharp. His ears had moved higher up, to the top of his head. His eyes had become even more almond shaped, and the round pupils had become slitted, but they retained their blue color. Soft, silver fur had grown in, and stripes had appeared. She now noticed that the golden circlet had a seated cat at the front of it. Except for his upright stance, clothes, amused expression, and the jaunty tilt to his head, he gave the outward impression of being a large, silver tiger.
Ti`jris fell to her knees. "My lord...I did not realize.."
"Stand up, faithful Ti`jris. Bast has forgiven you by giving you the tail. Isis and Osiris have forgiven you, and have completed the sacred ankh that you now wear," he said.
"My ankh?" She dashed into the cave, picked up the mirror and examined again her markings. There was the ankh, permanently drawn in white fur around her neck, across her arms, and down her belly. She dropped the mirror and staggered back outside, and stood, quivering.
"This is not all," he said. He removed his cloak, tunic, and kilt, carefully folding them and tenderly placing the golden circlet on top. He crouched down on all fours, and the transformation continued. His back lengthened, and his legs and arms shortened. His fingers shortened and became thicker. His toes lengthened and also became thicker. He now was a large, silver tiger. His eyes had a keen, intelligent look in them. He looked Ti`jris over, and quickly changed back to the tiger-man form. He put his clothes back on, and carefully placed the circlet on his head.
"Ti`jris, black huntress, in this, my true form, you must address me as Ce`jret," he said pointedly.
"Molten silver," she mumbled, and slipped away into darkness.
Ti`jris' eyes fluttered open, to meet the calm gaze of the being regarding her. Her nose twitched, and she breathed deep of the rich, meaty smell coming from the pot that was hanging over a gently crackling fire.
"I see you are awake, kitha," he said.
"Kitha? What does that mean?"
"You will learn my language eventually, but that word is considered a term of endearment, from one friend to another," he said.
"I am not your friend," Ti`jris flicked her ears back.
"As you will, milady."
Kestral turned back to the pot, and stirred it. Presently he stopped and removed the pot from the fire. He filled a bowl with some of the stew and brought it to Ti`jris.
"Eat this. It will make you feel better," he said gently. Ti`jris suddenly realized she was hungry and thirsty. Her mouth felt like a desert.
"What is it? How long was I asleep?" she asked cautiously. Distantly she heard the rush of water.
"My dear, you must learn to have patience! It's stew, and you've been unconscious for a day. That was my fault, I'm afraid, I misjudged the strength needed to stop you from attacking me. You seemed all right for those few minutes, but then you collapsed."
"Where am I?" she asked.
"You mean, where are we. We're in Bast's Altar. This is my camp. Eat," he said as he picked up a fragrant spoonful of the stew and held it in front of Ti`jris' nose.
"But it has plants in it!" she snorted.
"Of course. Do you think we could survive on meat alone? No, my dear, your body needs the nutrients that are in plants. You would become ill if you did not eat them," he explained.
She sniffed again.
"Well, if you say so..." she said, and took the proffered spoonful. She chewed cautiously. The rest of the stew disappeared in five minutes.
Smiling contentedly, Ti`jris leaned back and stifled a burp.
"It was very good," she said.
"Thank you," said Kestral.
"I never knew plants were so tasty."
"Well, you just have to know the right ones to use, because some plants are pretty awful. I'll show you how to find good ones and avoid poisonous ones. I also show you how to use what you find, both for cooking, and in healing."
Ti`jris thanked him and stood up to go outside. Kestral watched her as she walked through the mouth of the cave, sighed, and stood up.
Outside stars sparkled brilliantly, twinkling in patterns Ti`jris had never seen before. She sat down next to the stream and stared up at the sky. Kestral came out and quietly stood behind her. Shifting form to the cat-man, he moved to sit down next to her. Ti`jris looked over at him. The starlight glistened off the water and played light across his face. He looked up.
"See that group of stars there?" he asked, pointing. "That's the Fisher's Net. Over there is the Knight. There, the Rose."
"What about those? Do they make a form, also?" she asked.
"That is the Eye of Othar. It is said that he and his brother, Kia`ran, had a terrible fight about the universe."
"Tell me," she said.
"In the beginning, there were two brothers. Othar, which means 'The Darkness,' and Kia`ran, which means 'The Bringer' were both creating new things. One day Kia`ran created Shoth, our sun. Othar was jealous of the jewel that burned in the dark. In a rage, he attacked Kia`ran, and tore his flesh into many pieces. Kia`ran, hurt and angry, scratched down Othar's face, and put his eye out. Kia`ran's flesh formed the planets and moons, and Othar was forced to watch his brothers success even in defeat. His eye floats there, above us, envious of the rich planet that Taren became."
"Is there more?" asked Ti`jris.
"Some rubbish about the elements," he said.
"Tell me this also!" she cried.
"Another night, kitha," he said, calmingly. "I know of many stories, and many I can tell you. But not tonight."
She looked at him, disappointed. He turned to her, a serious expression on his face.
"Let me show you something," he said. "I want to see if you can do it."
"I can do anything you can do," she said, stubbornly.
"Maybe not all of it," he said, grinning. "Okay, close your eyes," She did. "Hold out your hand. Picture a little flame above your palm, floating there, flickering. Good." She tried to imagine a flame in her hand, but she could not do it. "No," he said. "You're trying to hard. Just relax." She tried again. She felt her arm tingling slightly, but passed it off as fatigue. With a small and subtle 'pop' the tingling stopped. "Good. Open your eyes." She did, and saw a tiny flame hovering above her hand. She passed her other hand through it, but there was no heat. "Now," he said. "Change its color." She thought for a second and the tiny flame turned to blue, then green. "Very, very good. Here is your lesson for tonight. Practice with the flame. Change the size, shape, and color. Make it follow you without thinking about it. Make it appear and disappear when you want it to. I will return at dawn."
"You're not going to stay here?" she asked, ears flicked back. The flame, forgotten, vanished.
"You do not need me, this area is well protected. I will leave Kal`an with you," he said.
"But...I...I mean..." She stopped, unable to think of a good argument to keep him here. (Besides) her mind spoke (you don't really like him anyway, do you?) But as she watched him turn and walk away, a smaller voice said yes, maybe she did. She walked back to the camp, tail drooping slightly, and sat down by the fire. She tried to make the little fire again, and almost panicked when it didn't appear. She closed her eyes, breathed deep, and relaxed. She felt the tingle again, and with relief opened her eyes and looked at the little flame. She played with it for hours, making it appear and disappear, making it round, oblong, and square. She made it dance over her hand, her leg, on her tail tip. Then she got it to follow along above and slightly behind her right shoulder. Satisfied, she made it a dark, soft blue and set it in a little niche in the wall. She would see if it would stay there while she slept. She curled up by the embers of the dying fire, and fell asleep. A few minutes later, dawn broke, and Kestral stealthily crept back to the camp. He smiled with satisfaction when he saw the little blue flame. It was all he needed to know, and he turned and left Ti`jris to her well-deserved sleep.