Sun warrior, p.8
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       Sun Warrior, p.8

         Part #2 of Tales of a New World series by P. C. Cast

  The big Shepherd didn’t hesitate. He jogged a few yards away and then sprinted to Nik, leaping onto his back, scrambling up his shoulders, and using his forward momentum and the corded muscles of his athletic body to drive himself up until Antreas was able to grab the big canine around his torso and heave, so that he finally landed safely on one of the Tribe’s lower platforms, still well above the danger-filled forest floor.

  “Rigel! Now! Up!” Nik shouted.

  Rigel followed his sire, using Nik to catapult himself up within arm’s reach of Antreas, who grabbed him by his scruff and tossed him up into the tree after Laru.

  “Hurry!” Antreas said, his gaze flicking behind Mari and Nik. “The swarm is almost here.”

  “Mari, climb up my back. Just like Laru and Rigel. Do it now!” Nik told her.

  With a painful groan, Mari stood and staggered to him. She started to climb up, onto his back, but her arms and legs were trembling so badly that she kept slipping.

  “I can’t,” she said, her voice so weak he almost couldn’t hear her as she collapsed across his back. “I’m sorry, Nik. I’m sorry, Rigel.”

  “Oh, stop being so sorry and look up!”

  Nik looked up. He would never forget his first sight of Antreas in his natural Companion state. The man was within an arm’s reach, with one hand stretching down, beckoning to Mari, and with the other he was clinging to the bark of the pine with his claws! His eyes were glowing with the same yellow light that radiated from Bast’s eyes, and Nik was sure he saw other changes in the man, too, changes that had to do with his hair and his ears, but he blocked it all out and barked at Mari.

  “Mari, get your butt up there! Grab his hand! Go! Go! Go!”

  Nik’s words acted on Mari as if they had been hot coals. She scrambled up his back, clutching the tree and pulling herself up so she was standing on his shoulders.

  “Hurry! Take my hand!” Antreas shouted.

  Nik felt her hesitate. Antreas cursed softly under his breath and said, “Sorry, I’ll retract the claws on that hand. Now, hurry!”

  Mari’s weight lifted from Nik’s shoulders and then he was there, by himself, standing on the forest floor as the ominous sound of the swarm drawing ever closer intensified.

  “Come on! Your turn. Grab my hand, then climb over me like Mari just climbed over you,” Antreas said.

  Blocking out the stabbing pain in his hands, Nik did exactly as Antreas said, thinking to himself he didn’t even give a damn if the Lynx man’s claws were out, in, or shredding his skin, as long as he was being lifted above the forest floor and the deadly swarm that converged upon them.

  “Nik! Help!”

  Sprinting for the tree was Davis, his little blond Terrier, Cameron, running beside him. Nik glanced at Antreas, and the Lynx man shrugged his shoulders. Nik nodded quickly and then cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted down to Davis.

  “Cammy first, then I’ll get you!”

  Davis let his actions be his response. He assumed a position much as Nik had taken moments before, leaning like a human ladder against the old pine. The well-trained Terrier didn’t hesitate. He sprinted a few yards away and then ran at Davis, leaping onto his back and scrambling up and up until Nik, who had wrapped his legs around a low branch and was hanging upside down, arms opened to accept the canine, caught him and passed the Terrier along to Antreas.

  Then, with Antreas’s help, they pulled Davis up with them. Between Antreas, Davis, and Nik, they managed to pull and push Mari up to the platform to join the Shepherds, where they all collapsed together, breathing heavily.

  Nik crawled to Mari. She had her arms around Rigel—her face pressed into his coat. “Hey, it’s normal to feel exhausted after calling down sunfire. You’ll be back to yourself again as soon as you can eat and rest.”

  She looked up at him, her gray eyes dull and hopeless.

  “You know we’re not going to be able to rest. The swarm is going to kill us.”

  Nik shook his head. “No, we’re safe.” He pointed up. “From above, the Tribe will open vats and pour liquid on the roaches. It’s a concoction made of cypress oil, peppermint oil, lye soap, and salt water. It makes it almost impossible for them to breathe, and if they can’t breathe, they can’t climb up here. We’re safe,” he repeated, and then he put his arm around her. “Okay, watch. As soon as the roaches get close enough the Tribe is going to rain oil and salt water on them.”

  Nik felt the tension in Mari’s body beginning to release when someone rappelled down to their platform, landing with a thump! beside them. Unstrapping the Shepherd from across her back, she nodded a grim hello to Nik.

  “Claudia, good to see you and Mariah are well.”

  Claudia shoved a crossbow and a quiver of arrows at Nik, saying, “Sadly, tonight there’s not enough Tribe left to rain anything on anyone—or at least not in this pine there isn’t. Good to see you, too, though. If I’m going to be stuck on a platform in the middle of a swarm, it’s handy to be stuck with the best bowman in the Tribe.” She turned her attention quickly to Davis. He had his own bow strapped across his back. “Davis, you need more ammunition?”

  “Whatever you can spare,” Davis said, taking a handful of sharp-tipped arrows from her.

  Claudia squinted appraisingly at Antreas as her Shepherd ignored the Lynx crouched beside him. “Are you good with a crossbow?”

  “If the alternative is to be consumed by the swarm then, yes, I am good with a crossbow.”

  Claudia grunted and unslung another bow from around her shoulder, along with a handful of arrows. “Make each of them count.”

  The Lynx’s head rotated around, reminding Nik suddenly of an owl. Then the big feline arched her back and hissed a warning.

  “Swarm’s here,” Antreas said.

  Mari began trembling against him. “I can try to call down more sunfire,” she said weakly.

  Nik shook his head. “No, it can be fatal if you call sunfire without the energy to control it, but we’re going to get through this—I promise. Move to the center of the platform. Rigel! Stay with Mari. The rest of us will keep the swarm away.”

  Mari leaned on Rigel as she crawled to the center of the little platform, and Claudia moved into the spot beside Nik. Laru pressed close to his other side, ears pricked and tail up, ready to clamp his mighty jaws around whatever roach dared get too close.

  Nik glanced down the platform at Davis. “You might want to get Cammy back with Mari and Rigel. Those damn Death’s Heads are as big as him. They might carry him off.”

  “Shit!” Davis swore softly. “You’re right.” He ruffled the curly blond hair on the top of the little Terrier’s head and kissed his noise quickly. “Stay by Mari,” he told his Companion. “Help Rigel keep her safe.” Cammy licked Davis’s face and then padded to Mari, taking a defensive position pressed to her other side.

  Claudia pulled a cutting ax from the belt around her waist and chopped a clublike section of branch from a bough above them, tossing it to Mari. “You’ll need this if any of them get past us.”

  Nik wanted to say something encouraging to Mari. She looked terrible—pale and frightened—the exact opposite of the powerful Goddess she’d appeared to be when she was calling down the ferocious power of the sun. But there was no time. With an all too familiar whirring sound of their leather-like wings, roaches the size of Terriers began lifting from the forest floor around them, drawn to the platform by the scent of blood.

  Nik steeled himself to set aside his fear for Mari and Rigel and Laru, as well as the radiating pain in his burned and bloody palms. He tightened the strips of cloth around his hands, then aimed and fired, catching the first roach through its thorax as Laru plucked another giant insect out of the air, shaking it until its spine snapped and then dropping it to the writhing forest floor below.

  Time suspended for Nik. He moved automatically through the pain in his hands, aiming and firing, and shouting encouragement to Davis and Claudia and Antreas, while the canines and the Ly
nx fought beside them.

  It was over fast—much faster than Nik expected, but the swarm wasn’t mindless. They tended to avoid things that could kill them, which was why they rarely attacked close to the City in the Trees. Even burned and partially deserted, the humans in the city were more difficult prey than the wounded humans and canines who weren’t able to climb to safety. Within a few minutes all roach sign was gone, their brothers had devoured even the dead or wounded bugs, and the forest floor was swept clean of any trace of the carnage that moved with the swarm.

  “Everyone okay?” Nik asked as he ran his hands over Laru’s body, checking to be sure none of the roaches had managed to spear him with knifelike mandibles. When Nik was sure Laru was fine, he went to Mari, kicking a dead roach from the platform and crouching beside her. “Did it cut you? Let me see. Their pinchers are full of all sorts of poisons.”

  Mari gently took his hands, stilling him. “I’m fine. Unbelievably tired, but fine. Rigel and Cammy killed the only roach that got past you.” She smiled at the Terrier as he wiggled up to her, and she scratched under his bearded chin while Cammy wagged enthusiastically.

  “Good boy, Cammy!” Davis said, holding out his arms so that his Companion jumped into them, covering his face with licks. “Good job keeping Mari and Rigel safe!”

  Mari and Nik shared a secret smile as Rigel huffed and then sneezed, clearly not agreeing with Davis’s assessment of his canine’s bug-killing prowess.

  “So, what now?”

  Nik looked up from Mari’s smile to see the Lynx man standing over him, hands on hips, his feline sitting beside him looking so serene she seemed otherworldly.

  “What now?” Nik shrugged. “I go with Mari.”

  “You’re leaving?” Davis and Claudia said together.

  “Of course he’s leaving,” the Lynx man said with a sarcastic snort. “Your Tribe has lost its collective mind. Your Sun Priest is dead, and if I’ve listened in enough to get things straight, that angry little Hunter, Thaddeus, killed him, just as he intends to kill Nik and Mari. I don’t see any evidence that Nik and Mari are idiots, so of course they’re leaving.”

  “Sol is dead?” Claudia’s face blanched white and her Shepherd whined as she slid down the bark of the tree to a sitting position on the platform.

  “He is,” Nik said.

  “And Thaddeus killed him? Why in all the levels of hell was that mean bastard not tied up and fed to the swarm?” Claudia said, wiping angry tears from her face.

  “He killed Sol accidentally, though I believe he’s glad he did,” Mari said. “Thaddeus was trying to kill me. Sol saved my life by taking the arrow meant for me.”

  “But if Sol’s dead how was the blaze stopped? Who called down sunfire?”

  Everyone’s gaze turned to Mari. Nik smiled proudly. “Mari called down sunfire and saved us.”

  “And still that damned little Hunter came after her and Nik,” Antreas said. “Which is why Nik and Mari need to go. Now. Before Thaddeus shows up here and another accident happens with his crossbow.”

  “The cat man is right,” Davis said. Then he shot Antreas an apologetic look. “Sorry, didn’t mean any disrespect by calling you that.”

  “None taken.” Antreas smiled. “I don’t mind you calling me a cat man if you don’t mind me calling you a dog man.”

  Davis frowned but corrected himself before continuing. “The, uh, Lynx man is right. Thaddeus is definitely after Nik and Mari, and with the Council scattered or, worse, and our Warriors the same, he could get away with just about anything.”

  “Like he’s getting away with killing my father,” Nik said grimly.

  “He won’t get away with it,” Claudia said. “He can’t. The Tribe won’t let him.”

  “There isn’t much of a Tribe left,” Antreas said. Then he held up his hands in surrender as Davis and Claudia began to protest. “Wait, wait; I really don’t mean to disrespect you, but look around. More than half of your city has been burned to ash. I’d guess that more than half of your Tribe are either dead or badly injured, and that’s my guess before the swarm got to them. The Tribe of the Trees was great, but what are you now? I think you’ve been hurt and hurt badly—and that’s a prime time for someone with Thaddeus’s mentality to bully survivors into believing like he does. I’ve seen it happen before—and it can get ugly.”

  “I didn’t think Lynx people lived in packs,” Nik said.

  “We don’t. We’re as solitary as you believe we are, but we are also well-traveled mercenaries—the only humans who know all the passes through the mountains. I’ve worked for a lot of different Tribes, and a lot of different types of people and their Companions. Tragedies like this bring out the best—and the worst—in Tribes, and I’m afraid your Tribe has a very vocal worst being brought out right now.”

  Mari suddenly struggled to her feet. “Nik, please take me home.”

  “Nik! There you are!” The call came from above, and Nik looked up to see Wilkes grabbing a line to rappel down to them. He landed lightly beside Nik, who stood to face him, but the tall Warrior looked past Nik to Mari. He bowed low to her before saying, “I ask again for your forgiveness. Please. I hated what I had to do to your Rigel, but it was the only way I could think to get you mad enough to call down sunfire.”

  Mari studied him warily. “You would have killed Rigel.”

  “No,” the Warrior said firmly. “I would not have, but you needed to believe I would have—and so did Rigel. But had you not called down sunfire, we all would have been killed. Forgive me. The Tribe does not abide violence against any canine.”

  “Someone should tell Thaddeus about what the Tribe does and doesn’t abide. Seems like he doesn’t know the rules,” Mari said.

  “Oh, he knows them,” Davis spoke up. “He just thinks he’s above them.”

  “He’s wrong,” Wilkes said. “I’ll prove that after we get through this mess.”

  “How can you be sure of that?” Mari asked.

  “I’m Leader of the Warriors. As long as I hold that position, I give you my word that I will bring Thaddeus to justice before the Council.”

  Mari let out a long, exhausted breath. “I forgive you, and I’ll hold you to your word.”

  “As well you should,” Wilkes said.

  “I’ll hold you to your word, too,” Nik said. “And I’m glad to see that you survived the swarm.”

  “You, too,” Wilkes said, nodding at the others. “I’d like you to come with me, Nik. And Mari, too.” The Leader of the Warriors bowed to Mari respectfully again. “I believe she’s a great Healer, and the Tribe has need of her. Also, we must get this mess with Thaddeus straightened out, and you two can help do that.”

  “No,” Mari said.

  “No,” Nik echoed.

  Mari went to Nik’s side, sliding her arm through his in an obvious gesture of solidarity. Rigel moved to stand beside her, just as Laru stood next to his Companion. “First, I am going to go to my Clan. They need me, and they are my priority. And I already told you the condition you have to meet if you want me to return and share my healing with your people. Your Council must give me their word that the Tribe will never take another Earth Walker captive,” she said.

  “And I go with Mari, though I’ll return to testify to the Council, and to see that Thaddeus is made to take responsibility for what he has done,” Nik said.

  “Nik, I don’t think I can let you leave.” Wilkes spoke slowly, reluctantly.

  “You have no choice,” Mari said. She lifted one hand, spreading her fingers and holding her palm out, as if she was readying herself to call down more sunfire. “I understand why you threatened Rigel. But now I know how to call down sunfire, and I swear to the Great Earth Goddess if you ever threaten Rigel, Nik, Laru, me, or anyone under my protection again, I will call down sunfire and the consequences to the forest—to your people—be damned!”

  Wilkes moved several paces back, giving Mari’s hand wary looks. “Hey, like you said, I only did what had to be
done for our Tribe. There’s no need for more fire. Let’s talk about this instead.”

  Surprising Nik, Antreas moved so that he was standing beside Laru. “So, you’re admitting this young woman saved your entire Tribe?” He shot the question at Wilkes.

  “She did, and we thank her for it,” Wilkes said.

  “You thank Mari by holding her and her mate prisoner?” Antreas said.

  “It’s not right,” Davis said as he and Cammy moved to stand beside Rigel and Mari, too.

  “No, it sure isn’t.” Claudia joined the others as they faced the Leader of the Warriors.

  “So, you’re all leaving with Mari?” Wilkes said, shaking his head in disbelief.

  There was a long silence, which Antreas broke after he and his Lynx shared a look. “I go with Bast. Bast is ready to leave. Finally. And it seems she wants to go with Mari.”

  “Really?” Mari peered around Nik to look at the big, silent feline, who regarded her back through unreadable yellow eyes.

  Antreas shrugged. “Really. Mind if I tag along with you?”

  “I don’t mind,” Mari said. She paused for a moment, looking from Davis to Claudia. “I don’t mind if either of you and your canines would like to come with us, too. I can’t promise you a City in the Trees, but I can promise you warmth and safety if you can promise me that you will be open to living peacefully with Earth Walkers.”

  Davis spoke first. “The truth is that I’m sick of Thaddeus. I’ve had it with his bullying and his hatred. He’s getting worse and worse, and he’s affecting the Hunters. They’re changing, and I don’t like what they’re changing into. So I’m going to follow Nik.” The young man smiled shyly at Mari. “And his Earth Walker who can call down sunfire.”

  “Davis, don’t be hasty—” Wilkes began, but Mari cut him off.

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