It occurred to Beddigan, that the scale of the map may not have been very accurate, as he and his companions trudged through yet another broken, heat-blistered piece of tundra towards a bare horizon. It had been several days since they had departed the City of Light, and from what they had thought after viewing the map in Karrinah’s library, they should have reached the border of the Empire by now. It was possible that they had passed the border without knowing it, but it seemed odd that there should be no marker, or guard post of any type.
Beddigan pulled his compass crystal out and held it up to the light. Despite the capital city of the Empire of the Lions being almost exactly due North from the City of Light, they had been steadily angling northwest towards the Bintack Oceania, for no other reason than to get closer to the cooling breeze off the water, in an effort to help cut through the oppressive heat of the desert.
The map they had viewed in Karrinah’s library didn’t have any land markings besides the central, capital city of the Empire in the massive expanse that belonged to the Lions. As they neared the Bintack Oceania though, they began to notice ships dotting the water from their vantage point, high up on the the cliffs, and they assumed that soon they would come to a coastal town of some sort. Finding a village couldn’t come quick enough, as the trio of companions were all tired and sore from days of journeying and sleeping on the hard ground. And their supplies were beginning to dwindle, yet again.
“I see something!” Ragnon called back, having scouted ahead a-ways while Beddigan and William trudged along miserably. Beddigan perked up and quickened his pace to meet his the Wolf at what seemed to be the top of a slope. The grade was so small that he had not even noticed the gentle upwards slope they had been climbing for quite some time, though it explained the burn in the back of his thighs.
The slope on the other side of the gentle peak was a lot steeper, leading down and out and into more sparsely treed lands. But there, to the west, perched on the edges of the cliffs was a cluster of buildings that had to be a town of sorts. Beddigan turned back with a grin to William and waved him up.
“We’ve come to a town, William!” The Bear continued to trudge up the slope at his own pace and when he met them he grunted,
“A town of what, exactly?” Beddigan shrugged and Ragnon offered a toothy grin,
“Food and beds I hope!” William made a face at them both that denoted his frustration clearly.
“Do neither of you think of the potential dangers of this? A land we don’t know, and a species we are likely to have only seen in the books Karrinah gave us, or maybe not even familiar to us at all! What if they perceive us a threat? Are you prepared to fight for your lives?” Beddigan sighed and scrubbed is paws over his face.
“William, I understand that you are anxious being here. But you must quit imagining that everything will turn into a fight. As we have seen and learned, this is a very different land than that of back home. You needn’t be so paranoid.” William regarded him for a long moment.
“Perhaps it is you, Beddigan, that is not anxious enough.” The Bear said in a voice so low that his words were nearly lost in the rumble. Ragnon stepped between them then.
“Now, now, gents, none of us knows that to expect. Let’s just go down there and see what it is instead of standing up here arguing about it.” Beddigan eyed his old friend for another moment before turning his attention to the Wolf and nodding his agreement. William nodded curtly and they set off down the slope, careful not to slip and slide in the loose rocks and sand.
Beddigan had been so focused on the village that he just now noticed that across the water, far to the northwest, the hazy outline of the mountains that had been home to the Dragons was visible. He felt his breath catch at being so close, yet so far from them. He felt a tug inside that surprised him as he looked at the silvery outline and remembered his encounters with Galantus on Mt. Lileen. For whatever reason, he did not fear the prospect of a land filled with Dragons, though he did feel a tug of uncertainty when he thought of it.
Turning his attention back to the village, he slowed as they approached. He caught his first glimpse of an elegant feline form, dressed in breeches and vest, with fur as black as the night, exiting a building on the outskirts of town.
“Panthers.” Ragnon murmured, having caught sight of the figure as well. Though Beddigan was not surprised to see what he had only seen sketched in books before, there was a moment of astonishment. From the books that Karrinah had given them, he had learned that the majority of the species who ceded stewardship of their lands to the Lions, were Felines. Panthers, Jaguars, Cheetahs, and Tigers all united under the Lions Empire. At one point in time, several Turnings ago, the Tigers had held a great deal of the land against the Lions, and they had fought a war not dissimilar to the one fought between the Mice and Wolves back home. He had not learned the details of what ended the war and caused the unity between the species, only that a time came where peace was preferred to war, and when the Tigers ceded to the Lions, so did the much smaller nations of the Cheetahs, Jaguars, and Panthers. Their were a couple of other nations that had agreed to the Lions stewardship that were not feline, such as the Meerkats of the Okonno Islands and the Otters that inhabited the large bays on the north tip of the continent.
The continued moving towards the village, the Panther having disappeared down a sidestreet. For the second time in just a few days they walked into a bustling market square and felt every creatures gaze turn to them. Beddigan blinked to take in the familiar scene of a market square with stands of food and drink, trinkets, tools, weapons, and textiles, all glittering in the hot, midday sun, but populated with all manner of felines. Aside from the Lynx that they had seen only in sparing back home, these new forms were alien to their eyes.
Fur ranging from inky black to golden yellow, with all manner of patches and spots, and stripes, and faces not unlike his own, bearing whiskers and bright eyes, and wearing familiar clothing. A large Feline that he recognized as a tiger, with brilliant orange fur and black stripes approached them; barrel chested and nearly as tall as William.
“My, my, what have we here?” the Tiger said, looking the trio up and down. Beddigan stepped forward, extending his paw.
“We are travellers from far away, come looking for the Empire of the Lions.” The Feline narrowed its eyes slightly at them and made no move to shake paws.
“Well, I reckon you’ve found it, though far from the capital you still are.” A couple of other larger Felines joined them, and Beddigan started to feel a pang of uncertainty at the way they looked at him. Maybe William was right to be concerned, he thought. Letting his paw drop he forced a smile.
“Glad we’ve at least made it to the right piece of this land. We stayed briefly in the City of Light.” The Tiger’s eyes rounded for a moment.
“Is that so, is that so.” He mumbled. One of the other Feline’s spoke.
“Where did you lot come from?” and before anyone could answer the other Feline asked,
“And what are you?” Beddigan resisted the urge to take a step backwards. Though none of them had stepped towards him, the predatory look in their eyes had his nerves on edge, and William’s too from the growl he heard rumbling in the Bear’s chest just behind him.
“We come from lands that lie far South of here, lands that are in danger of a war that could devastate all of our countries. I am a Beddigan T. Mouze and my people are the Mice of Illensdar. My companions are William of the Bears of Sinnerah and Ragnon of the Wolves of Mormant.” The second the word Wolf and slipped from his mouth, all three Felines turned their attention to Ragnon. He smiled uncertainly,
“Nice to meet you all.” The Tiger turned back to Beddigan.
“There isn’t anything South of the lands of the Deer, or at least not anything that could make it through the mountains of the southern wall, or they’d have done it long ago.” Beddigan nodded.
“We too didn’t know it was possible to cross those peaks either, but with help of a powerful sorceress, we were able to make it, just barely.” Growls emitted from the to other Felines and Beddigan jumped back. William swept Beddigan behind him and stepped aggressively forward, growling louder than the Felines.
“You want at him you go through me.” William snarled, hand on the hilt of his sword. Suddenly a silky laugh cut through the growling and quieted both Feline and Bear. Stepping between them a Panther of average height, and a buxom, womanly figure,
“My, my, you males can be so adversarial.” She tutted, and Beddigan was astonished to see the three male Felines step away looking cowed. The Panther turned to them and gently placed her paw over the one of William’s that still lingered on the swords hilt. “Now, Mr. William, there will be no need for this today. Be calm, we have much to discuss.” Stepping aside from William who Beddigan noticed had quit growling and was no longer touching his sword, the Panther met his gaze.
“My apologies for their hostility, Mr. Beddigan. I am Serina, the representative for this area of the Empire, and Mage of the Pantherlands. Welcome to our country.” She bowed in a brief dip which Beddigan returned.
“Thank you for stepping in, Serina. That could have gotten ugly very fast.” Her rich silky laughter poured over him as she fitted herself to his side, looping and arm through his.
“Magic is rare in these lands, my dear Beddigan, and your mention of sorcery startled the poor lads is all.” She said in a way that made Beddigan believe that wasn’t the whole truth. She lead him through the square, gesturing for William and Ragnon to follow until they came to a squat house up on the slope looking over the ocean. She led them inside with a brilliant grin.
“You will surely need to get to the capital to speak to the Lord Regent himself, but I am just dying to know the details of your story. How you made it over the southern wall would be a great start!” she purred, sitting down on a large, plush couch and patting the space next to her. Beddigan exchanged a quick look of discomfort with his companions before they all took seats in the room.
“As I said before, we had help of a great sorceress to aid us in that perilous journey.” Serina smiled at him, her eyes sparkling.
“Yes you did say that.” She murmured. “Now tell me, in all the great details, how you have come to be here and what it is you seek, and I promise to aid you in your quest to the capital.” Beddigan felt a weird sense of compulsion tugging at him to tell her everything, despite also feeling as if he should reserve a great bit of detail from this Feline. He began at the beginning, looking to his friends occasionally for support, only to find them nodding along in the most peculiar way.
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