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The Land-Nymph Child

Chapter 1: Within a Dream

Rysk’s pale light drifted through the stately pines, dressing them in shades of blue. A ghostly breeze tickled across the last of the snowbanks, spraying the watcher with icy pinpricks. Amber eyes closed and turned away from the breeze. The scent it carried with it, laced with frost, took him by surprise. Turning back into the wind, he scented it deliberately. His fur ruffled, standing on end as the coppery, meat-taste of blood rode the air.

Oracle started awake. He lay still, heart pounding, staring up into the darkness, and listened to the room around him for a moment before closing his eyes once more. He focused on his breathing, waiting for his heart to slow. Consciously, he ran through the dream, committing it to memory. Only once he was sure it was solid in his mind did he rise from the feather bed. He stretched his feet and toes, his claws clicking on the marble floor as he stood.

Reciting the story of the dream under his breath, keeping it fresh in his mind, he pulled his cloak from the back of his chair and slipped it over his shoulders. Yawning, Oracle left the room and padded quietly down the hall, reaching the stairs before meeting a guard. “Seer Oracle,” the guard greeted. She bowed low, her pale, elfin skin glowing in the darkness. A powerful crossbow rode high on her back and she wore three white feathers in her black cap.

“High ranking for a night guard,” he noted, “but none of my business,” he thought before adding aloud, “Do you know of Palo?”

The guard studied him, staring hard into his glowing amber eyes. “I believe he is asleep,” she replied. “It is the middle of the night.”

“I will wake him,” Oracle rumbled. The guard bowed, allowing him past. Oracle drifted down the stone steps, his wolf feet carrying him silently through the shadows, the few people he passed in the branching hallways, casting curious glances at him but saying nothing. He opened the large door at the base of the tower and stepped out onto the deserted plaza before the Dome of Gaity.

The late winter wind swirled around him. It brought the dream back to the front of his mind. He half-expected to scent blood on the wind and he lifted his nose to the burning stars in the sky, waiting for it. Of course, there was no blood on this wind. Chiding himself silently, he started off again toward the dome and Palo’s quarters.

“Good evening, Seer Oracle,” a thrumming voice greeted him as he moved away from the tower. Oracle turned to the Semian behind him. Pyko’s eyes glittered in the darkness. His tiger features dominated his body, though not as completely as Oracle’s own wolf features dominated his—with no hint of human, Oracle was a rarity among the Semians, from his shaggy ears to the tip of his bushy tail, he was a wolf. Though he would never admit it, he even preferred to move about on all fours. Pyko, the black tiger-man, wore a Potent uniform, tight black leather from head to toe with a small black cap between his ears, three blood-red feathers stuck in its band to denote his rank. Like most feline-Semian Mages, he had an affinity for Water. “High Water Mage,” Oracle greeted, bowing his head.

“What disturbs your sleep?” Pyko asked.

Oracle studied him closely, drawing his white cloak around himself, covering his unclothed wolf body. “I don’t feel you need to know,” he replied shortly, his voice a deep rough growl.

Pyko blinked at him then smiled bemusedly. “Of course not, Seer, I am merely making conversation.” With a bow, the black tiger-man turned and walked away, his white ear-spots aglow in the darkness, returning to his patrol of the grounds.

With an inward sigh, Oracle watched him for a moment, trying to decide if setting Pyko’s mind at ease would be easier than letting the gossipy high mage jump to his own conclusions. Dismissing the worry with a shake of his head, Oracle started across the stone plaza toward the dome once more.

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