Part 2 of 2

Metamor Keep: Casting Off
by Charles Matthias

The Venture was a cargo ship and looked the part, wide and shallow of beam. The upper deck spanned the entirety of the vessel from gunwale to gunwale, though a good portion along either side was little more than open lattice above the benches for the rowers. Charles gazed down into the dimly lit oar benches and assumed two or three men could seat each oar, of which there were a good two down on each side of the vessel.

What a crew they would have if the oar ranks were full! The effort simply to move the boat and a hundred men would be no mean feat, much less the tonnage of trade goods. He could only marvel at the scope of the endeavor he had embarked upon. For his sake, for Jerome, Malger had shouldered the financial burden of supporting not only his family, but the pay of an entire ship and its crew for he knew not how long.

Just below the top deck was an open passageway from bow to stern, blanked by heavy beams and only broken by the spar of the mast piercing the deck from above. Between the beams hammocks were neatly strung, drawn close and empty while the crew was, ostensibly, spending the last of their hours in Menth.

A single broad shouldered, stooped man met them at the base of the gangway stair, his rheumy eyes sizing them up. “Ye lot our fare, aye?” He growled though not unpleasantly. His voice was rough by years at sea more than a gruff manner.

“Aye,” Malger nodded, moving to the fore. “And you are?”

“Mogaf, galley master, yer grace.” The man knuckled his brow and bowed, though hardly affecting very much change in height considering he was already stooped by years spent belowdecks. “I'll be preparin' yer meals and sundries, an' overseein th' care of yer animals too. Saw th' wolf and serpent above, Ah did, meanin' them, not yerselfs,” he corrected hastily with a quick glance at the group slowly gathering at the base of the stair.

“The dragon will see to itself, good sir.” Malger smiled with a slow nod in return. “And the wolf was once a man, like us. The Curse was not so kind to him as us, but he has a man's mind.” He paused and pursed his lips, whiskers angling forward before lying back and drooping. “And a wolf's nature, I might warn. He's still learning to grasp the enormity of his change.”

“Ah, aye then well, ah'll be lettin' 'im be on 'is own, then.” Turning the man shuffled down the passageway toward the bow. “Cabins fer yer grace 're up t' th' bow. Be a sight more rough when th' water's up, but be forward o' th' bilge s' not quite such a bite t' th' nose, aye? Cabins fer th' rest 're below. Wit no cargo t' speak of we put up some partitions, like, so's ye'll have some pervacy an' all.” Coming to a wall at the bow end of the passage he waved toward the lone door, and a gangway leading deeper into the ship to one side of it. “'Fraid be naught below thems but th' bilges an' ballast, so's nae let the little 'uns be wonderin', aye?”

“They'll be in good hands and under watchful eyes, master Mogaf, never you fear,” Malger assured him.

With a nod the man made his way through them back toward the stern. “Good, good. Galley be in th' stern.” He paused to glance at Malger, then Charles and Kimberly, taking in the children held among them. “Won't be a'fttin' fer yer lordly mouths, ah'm jes a ship's cook. But it'll keep ye full and healthy like. Yer grace.” With a bob of his head and a touch of knuckle to brow he turned and shambled into the dim shadows toward the stern.

“He seems put out,” Garigan opined laconically, earning an uneasy chuckle from the others. “Couldn't give a damn if we've got fur, or three eyes.” He shrugged and peered down the nearby gangway into the darkness below. “Well, I'll go see about a cabin.”

“Secure one for me as well, lad,” Malger said, turning toward door before them and pushing it open. Despite being wood exposed to the endless damp of the sea the door opened smoothly with little more than a rasp across the jamb. “Charles, you and the Lady Kimberly will need this cabin. I daresay you'll need the space.”

“Malger?” Charles quipped in surprise. “I'm sure the Captain expected you to...”

“I'm sure he did.” Malger nodded as he stepped inside, securing the door open with a strip of leather bolted to the wall within. “But I need only enough space for myself. You've an entire family.”

Just within the entry was a short corridor with a door to either side, beyond which proved to be two smaller rooms hardly larger than closets. Ostensibly those were for the servants of whomever would be using the cabin. The end of the corridor opened out to a relatively large, considering they were at the bow of the ship, somewhat triangular room. At the apex of the triangle was a simple bedstead built to accommodate enough bedding to satisfy a pampered lord though it was still bare. A table was secured to the floor to the right and a bureau to the left complete with mirror of polished bronze.

“We'll have to see about arranging things for the children, but it's certainly better than a mere cabin in cargo.” Malger nodded approvingly as he looked around. There were no port holes but some square ports in the ceiling proved themselves to be covered hatch windows to the deck above. Not big enough for a man to use as a way in or out but sufficient to let in the sun and redolent salt air.

The cargo space below the main and rowing decks proved to be spacious. The forward portion of the hold had been partitioned by sturdy, though clearly temporary, wooden walls creating a dozen cabins. More than enough for the entirety of their retinue and more. From the middle of the hold rearward it was open, save for the heavy wooden beams and mast. Aft of the mast the ceiling was open and through it sunlight spilled into the hold, revealing a large slab of wood five paces to a side on which all of their cargo was piled. Ropes secured at each corner rose into the sunlight, clearly the manner by which the cargo had been lowered from above. The light also revealed ranks of boxes and barrels along either wall, the scent revealing they carried water, food, and various sundries for their journey. Spare ores were slotted along the top of the hold in wooden racks.

As above, hammocks were strung between the beams though all of them were toward the rear of the hold, beyond a curtain wall of canvas which divided the cargo hold forward and aft at the mast. At the moment it was drawn open to either side while crewmen loaded the ship. Two were present, young men perhaps nearing their late teens, rough of look and wary of countenance as they paused in their labors to look at the gaggle of passengers.

“No mo' cargo comin' down.” One of the young men offered diffidently, nodding toward the huge pallet and their property. “So's ye can leave the lot there, er to yer cabins as ye like.” As he spoke the sunlight abruptly waned and vanished with a heavy wooden boom from above. The main deck hatch had been closed, plunging them into darkness but for a single lantern swaying above where the two men were working. “Gots jes a mite t' lash in, then we'll be ashore 'til th' tide.”

They left the two men to their tasks and retreated past the cargo cabins, making their way back to the main deck. Charles squinted at the sun, blinding bright after even their brief time below. A few crew had appeared during their absence, men will small bags slung over their shoulders, crossing the deck to the mid-ship stair. A trio of them abruptly stopped whatever laughing conversation they had been engaged in and gaped openly when they spied the passengers clustered near the mast.

“This is going to be awkward,” Malger observed.

----------

The tide would turn in early afternoon, so the Keepers busied themselves moving the cargo from the pallet and bringing it to their cabins. Misanthe helped Kimberly arrange the state cabin so it would be comfortable. The large bed was more than enough space for all of the rats and as the children were used to sleeping huddled in a pile – Kimberly had seen them do this often enough after a morning of rough play – they laid the little quilts down at the footboard and the larger quilt at the head. Charles and Garigan brought the three trunks of clothes, grooming equipment, and all else he knew they would need and placed them wherever they would fit and not get in the way. The four children scampered about the room, explored under the bed and in the two anterooms for servants, and pestered their parents with questions, most of which began with “Why.”

Once everything was to their satisfaction, Charles and Garigan left the children with the women to help Malger. The marten had selected the cabin next to the ferret's own; both were big enough for a trunk of clothing or two, a hammock, and not much else. They found Malger reclining in the hammock, staring down at his toes in the wan light of the single lantern. He regarded them with a mercurial grin and shrugged. “It will be even more comfortable when we are out to sea! Has Captain Calenti arrived?”

Confused, Charles asked, “I thought you already spoke with him ere we boarded.”

“Aye, I did, but only to inform him of our arrival.” He twisted his body all the way around and landed with a muffled whump on bare paws. “Let us go topside and see.”

“And be seen.” Garigan suggested. “No sense hiding from the crew.”

Malger nodded. “Let them look. Let them gawk. Ere the voyage is done they will admire we Keepers!”

“Hear, hear!”

They returned to the main deck, their beast eyes easily navigating the shadowed hold and passages. All three shielded their faces when they returned to the full light above. A moment more and they could see what their ears had already told them, the main deck was beginning to fill with seamen returning from whatever haunts they'd enjoyed in port. A good dozen inspected the oar locks while another checked the rigging and cleaned up after the many birds who'd perched on the gunwale. Reclining at the prow and half sprawled across the leaping dolphin masthead was Lindsey, with Jerome sitting on his haunches and Pharcellus standing akimbo between them and the crew.

Charles started walking toward them and both ferret and marten followed a pace behind. The red-haired young man smiled when he saw the Keepers, turning his head so a gentle breeze ruffled his long hair. “A lovely day for casting off, is it not, your grace?”

Malger chuffed, eyeing the dragon on the masthead with a smirk. “It is. If the weather favors us we will make remarkable time. I thought you were going to fly the first few days?”

To their surprise, it was Jerome who replied. His voice was guttural and felt at times both a snarl and a whine coming from a wolf's muzzle, but they could still hear the man in it. “I asked to come aboard. Staying on the wharf felt like being left behind.”

Charles wrapped his fingers about his chewstick but did not lift it from his beltloop. “I'm sorry, Jerome. Would you care for a tour of the Venture? It's going to be your home for a few months as well as ours.”

Jerome backed his ears and shifted on his haunches; his shoulders spread outward even as his snout drew back into his face. The black fur of his back softened until it was a tattered Sondeckis robe. His eyes, ears, legs, and tail remained those of a wolf. A softness touched his features as he half-stood on beastly legs, resting a clawed hand on the gunwale. “Thank you, Charles. Thank you, Malger. But I think I would rather wait here until it is time to depart. After this morning hiding in the wagon, I need open air. I need for...” He stopped himself, a flash of pain crossing his eyes.

Charles glanced at the dragon who had spread his wings to soak in the noon-day sun. “Lindsey, Pharcellus? Would you care for a tour? I'm sure Malger would be pleased to show you.”

Lindsey craned his neck and blinked. “Will I fit below decks?”

Malger nodded. “Aye, as long as you do not stretch your wings or lash your tail. We'll give any crew we meet below a bit of a start, but they may as well get used to it!”

“Garigan, why don't you go with them. I'll keep Jerome company here.”

The ferret nodded and after both he and the marten stepped out of the way, Lindsey uncurled himself from the masthead and with his older brother followed the two Keepers toward the gangway below decks. All of the crew working the main deck kept clear. Charles watched them for a few seconds before turning to his fellow Sondeckis. Jerome had fallen to a crouch but was mostly man-like. He slumped his arms and head over the gunwale and stared out to sea. White clouds drifted across the sky, flocks of birds enjoyed the air, fishermen plied their trade, and the waves gently undulated to the horizon.

Charles reclined next to him and gnawed on his chewstick for almost a minute. “How are you doing?”

“I wish I could lope in the woods with you and Garigan and take down a deer.” He sighed. “I need to be a wolf; I ache without it. I know it is what... he... did to me, but...”

“Do you remember when I was stone? I had needs I could not explain to you or anyone else back then. I thought in ways human tongues cannot express. I do not understand all you mean when you say you need to be a wolf, Jerome, but I understand the need of a nature forced upon you.”

Jerome grunted, triangular ears lifting and turning as the crew prepared the oars; the heavy spars groaned and the wood of the oarlocks creaked as they scraped against each other. “I won't run off. I want to reach Sondeshara too.”

“I never thought you might.”

They stared at the sea listening to the lap of waves and the noisome cries of roustabouts making the last preparations for the Venture. Nothing more could be heard, not even the bustling noise of the city. Charles wondered how Julian, Jessica, and the rest of their friends fared as they toured the marketplace. He gnawed his chewstick.

Rat eyes let him study Jerome as well as the sea. His face, other than the ears and the golden eyes, was the same stocky man he'd grown up with in Sondeshara. But where the Jerome he knew had been calm and reserved, almost unreadable to those who did not know him, this Jerome was wild and ever on alert. The tattered Sondeckis robe covered a pale muscular chest and back covered with long scars he'd never spoken of. The fur began at his lower back, a dark black glimmering with moonlight, thick and soft all the way down his misshapen legs and the heavy paws and thick claws digging into the deck. A long tail dangled between those legs, twitching back and forth with every anxious thought.

He wished he could become a wolf to join his friend in the forest.

“There will be many woods along our journey if you need a night to run and hunt.” Charles turned so he faced Jerome. “I know we cannot run with you, but it is something for when you need it. Don't give in too much. Guernef had to warn me many times from thinking like stone. We are Sondeckis. We are brothers, Jerome. I will make sure we reach Sondeshara together.”

“Thank you,” Jerome replied, a smile touching his lips. Charles set his hand on Jerome's shoulder. He felt the man's flesh tremble a moment and then all was still. Jerome took a deep breath and said again, “Thank you.”

Charles smiled and together they watched the sea.

----------

No tour of a sea vessel would ever take long – there was not enough space to tour – unless you were giving the tour to a dragon. Lindsey was a young dragon and small enough to fit on the leaping dolphin masthead, but his long quadrupedal body found navigating stairs and maneuvering through the tight corridors below decks a challenge. Pharcellus offered helpful advice to his brother every step of the way, while Malger and Garigan gave him as much room as they could.

“You can change into a human shape, Pharcellus,” Malger pointed out after Lindsey almost tore one of the partitions in the hold out while squeezing his hindquarters and tail around a narrow bend. “Is this not some dragon magic you can teach Lindsey?”

“I don't have enough magic yet,” Lindsey said while craning his neck to inspect his tail for scrapes or missing scales. “I am starting to feel normal walking on all fours; I know I'm not an animal but it still seems wrong.”

“It is not wrong for a dragon,” Pharcellus reminded him with a faint chuckle. “And you will grow into dragon magic soon. If I could, I would transform you while aboard the Venture, but I can only change myself.”

Lindsey clicked his tongue against his fangs and lifted himself onto his haunches, bringing his serpentine neck up to eye level. “If I get much bigger, I won't be able to fit below decks at all. How do we even live in caves?”

The red-haired man laughed and wrapped an arm about Lindsey's neck, cheek to dragon cheek, “You will see, brother! You will see. Now, is there anything more to see of this Venture?”

Malger shook his head. “This is pretty much everything. We should return to the main deck and see what is keeping the Captain. I thought we would have cast off by now.”

“The tide is starting to turn,” Garigan murmured. “High tide is almost over.”

“How can you tell?”

The ferret gestured at the floor of the hold. “I can feel it in my legs. The waves. They just... it feel like they are pulling away from the wharf.”

Malger narrowed his gaze at the ferret – likely it was some sign of his Sondeckis powers – and asked, “Are you sure you are not secretly a sailor?”

“I am not. I've never seen the sea before today.”

“I know lad. But I have been on the sea many times and I feel nothing. I only know because I consulted the charts!” Malger flicked his eyes to the two dragons and then at the deck above them. “Let us see the sky again. I think Lindsey needs to stretch his wings.”

“Please!”

----------

Lindsey had an easier time climbing the stairs back to the main deck. All of them breathed in relief when they felt the sun on their faces again. Malger noted Charles and Jerome leaned against the gunwale at the prow, the many sailors going over the rigging and the oars a third or fourth time, and a general air of expectancy. The three arctic bird brothers were perched on the port-side gunwale – Lubec had his wings spread to dry them – talking with a middle aged man in comfortable and colorful attire beyond the means of any common sailor. Malger smiled and started toward him.

“Captain Calenti!”

The dark-haired and olive-toned man turned, and an exuberant smile etched into his weathered face. “Your grace! Welcome aboard the Venture! I understand you have already seen to your passengers.”

“And everyone's gear. We are ready to depart at your command.”

“Excellent. Thank you for sending Lubec and Machias with your last message. Having birds who are men as companions these last few days has better prepared my crew and I. And now I have met their brother Quoddy. I see this is one of the dragons you spoke of. Lindsey is it?”

There were too many people standing nearby for Lindsey to stretch his wings, but he did stand on his haunches; the serpentine arch of his back brought him to a little more than man-height. He craned his neck to meet the Captain's gaze. “I am. You have a marvelous vessel, Captain. With your permission, when the night's are pleasant I may sleep by the prow.”

“At your pleasure, master Lindsey. Having a dragon aboard will put to flight marauders faster than a volley of Whalish fire!” His eyes shifted back to the marten. “Now, your grace, will you introduce the rest of your companions?”

“This is Pharcellus. He is an older dragon who has mastered the art of taking human shape when needed.”

“I am much too big as a dragon to sleep aboard your vessel, Captain Calenti, but at this size I can manage.”

“And two dragons will be even better! We are well met!” They shook hands and Calenti gave Pharcellus a manly slap on the shoulder.

“And this is Garigan, Sir Matthias's student.”

Calenti offered him a hand, even as his eyes narrowed. “Garigan... you are a... weasel?”

“Ferret,” he replied as he took the offered hand, careful of his claws. “We're related but not quite the same.”

“I shall remember. It is good to have you aboard.”

“When will we be casting off, Captain?”

Calenti looked to the sky and nodded. “My men are ready. If the dragons and wolf are going to fly alongside, they'll want to disembark now. Unless you mean to jump from the gunwale?”

“The aft looks big enough,” Pharcellus noted. “I'll have to learn how to at some point. But today at least we will disembark and fly from the wharves. Come Lindsey, let us fetch our friend and be off.”

As the pair headed to the prow, Malger stretched his back and felt a thrill of excitement build. “Captain, is there somewhere my companions can watch while you and your men work? I am sure the ladies and children are going to tire of the quarters below.”

“Bow and aft are big enough. Stay clear of amidships when we are rowing; otherwise they can watch from there too. Now, your grace, if you will excuse me, I must see to my ship. The tide is leaving quick and we must be on it.”

As the Captain walked away, Malger glanced at the gunwale. The three birds were already gone, having flown higher in the rigging where they could watch and keep out of everyone's way. He chuffed to himself and looked to the ferret. “Garigan, let Charles know I'm going to bring his family up to the aft to watch. And hopefully get their sea legs. I know you and Charles will be fine, but I do not know of Misanthe or his family. Poor Versyd would have retched just trying to board the Venture!”

“I will let him know.”

----------

Charles smiled as he took his youngest daughter from his wife’s arms. Little Baerle wrapped her arms about his neck and her legs about his middle, while her snout nuzzled his cheek and her tail thumped against his belly. “Do you like your room and bed?”

“Aye, Daddy!” Baerle squeaked as she looked around the boat and wharf. “Can we swimmin’?”

He laughed and shook his head. “Not right now, my treasure. Maybe later.” He caught Kimberly’s gaze; his eldest boy squirmed in her arms trying to climb onto her shoulders. “How long have they been asking?”

“As soon as they saw the water.” She plucked little Charles’s hand from her face and chided, “Careful! You almost poked my eye!”

The little boy ducked his snout. “Sorry, Mama. Can I be on your head?”

Misanthe had already given up trying to keep Erick in her arms. The boy straddled her neck with his legs and was holding on to her head fur, snout framed by black ears. Malger was having more luck with the older daughter Bernadette; she sat in his cradling arms and pointed at each of the bird brothers high up in the rigging and tried to say their names. Charles could only chortle as his wife surrendered, hoisting his namesake on her shoulders like his brother. The boy squeaked in delight, eyes wide and dashing from mast to sea and back again.

“Isn’t Garigan going to join us?” Malger asked. He jerked his snout toward the bow where the ferret reclined by himself.

Charles shook his head. “He wanted to ‘welcome the sea’ as he put it. I think he wanted a moment to himself.”

“None of us will have much time to ourselves for many months. I’m sure Calenti will let him serve in the crow’s nest if he asks.”

“I think Quoddy, Lubec, and Machias will be there ahead of him.”

The marten chuffed and nodded. “How is Jerome?”

“As good as can be expected,” Charles replied. The wolfish Sondecki was back on the wharf with the dragons. Pharcellus was helping the sailors undo the mooring lines while Lindsey stretched his wings. “He should stay on board with us as soon as he is ready. The crew will be used to us in a day or two. Tomorrow I will help row; they’ll accept us better if we sweat alongside them.”

“And if the winds are all we need?”

“I will teach my children of the sea. You know they’ll eventually…” Charles flicked his eyes toward the rigging and grunted. Malger suppressed a chuffing laugh.

Before the marten could offer more, the Captain began shouting orders at the men in the oar ranks. Wood groaned as the last of the moor lines were collected and the sailors heaved the massive spars in their locks. The paddles pressed against the water, and they felt the deck jerk beneath them. The wharves of Menth shifted and began sliding backward. Kimberly gasped when she regained her footing, staring at the city as it drifted away behind them with each stroke of the oarsmen.

“Daddy, Daddy! We’re moving!” Erick squeaked as he bounced on Misanthe’s shoulders. The fox smiled through the discomfort.

Charles smiled and tickled his daughter’s sides. “No gnawing on your Daddy now.”

“Sorry!”

Four Keepers and four children watched from the aft as the Venture slid away from the wharf. As soon as they were in the clear they watched Pharcellus shift into a dragon. Sailors on the other end of the wharf bolted up the esplanade when the vermillion-tipped gray dragon stretched his wings and lashed his tail. Lindsey helped him secure the leather saddle and straps to carry a man while Jerome hid from sight beneath an awning wing.

The fleeing tide drew the Venture far from shore. They were joined in the water by fishing trawlers and flocks of birds riding the waves. Flotsam and seaweed marred the waves but the oarsmen plowed through each. The grunting of the sailors and the straining of the rigging filled their ears while the pungent tang of salt and the dwindling refuse of the city filled their nose.

After rowing for a few minutes, the Captain turned the wheel and the Venture tilted to the left. The sun shifted until it was ahead and on the right; they were now heading south. The deck beneath them shifted with the waves; Misanthe and Kimberly reached for the gunwale to steady themselves.

“Are you well?” Charles asked, taking a confident step toward his wife. Baerle finally seemed to notice the way her siblings had climbed atop the big people’s heads and dug her claws into the back of his head fur to do the same. Charles grimaced and helped her stand on his shoulders; he could feel one of her little hands digging at the burn scar around his right eye.

Kimberly tried to smile. “I’d forgotten how the sea moves. I… I think I’ll be fine in a… in a little while.”

Misanthe slipped beside her and patiently moved one of Erick’s hands off her ears. “I brought a few things to help if you need them, milady.”

Bernadette scrambled even higher on Malger’s head, trying to brace her foot with his ear as she pointed at a shadow in the sky. “Daddy, look atta bird!”

They all glanced upward and watched as a winged shadow descended from the sky. It circled around the Venture a few times, and once it was out of the sun, Charles could see the oblong shape clearly. It was not a bird.

Both he and Malger moved next to the ladies at the aft gunwale as the gryphon came to a landing on the deck between them and the Captain. Calenti cast a backward glance and offered the eagle-headed gryphon a smirk. “Did you finally wear out your wings?”

The gryphon dipped his head and folded his wings. “I waited until we were well away from the city. Why worry about me when you have dragons on this voyage too?”

Calenti laughed. “My bravery stops at telling gryphons what to do. But after seeing how well they and our passengers were received, I see no reason you cannot join us when we dock. Speaking of, let me introduce you.” The captain stepped around the gryphon, who turned around in place, golden eyes wide and intent. “Your grace, allow me to introduce the last member of our voyage, Kurgael. I hired him to help guard the ship. Between Kurgael and the dragons we have nothing to fear.”

“Well met, Kurgael,” Malger said, sketching a slight bow. “It is good to have you aboard. You seem comfortable around Keepers like us. Are you also from Metamor?”

“I was cursed, but I prefer to live on the cliffs to the south.” He lifted his beak and one wing, gesturing to the three birds capering high in the rigging. “Lubec and Machias stopped by my nest to tell me where they were going. It sounded like an adventure and so I came along.”

“I am very glad they did.”

Calenti cleared his throat and gestured at the marten. “Forgive me your grace, but allow me to introduce you. Kurgael, this is his grace, Archduke Malger dae ross Sutt of Sutthaivasse, Sir Charles Matthias of the Narrows, his wife Lady Kimberly and their children, and the Lady Misanthe of Metamor.”

Kurgael glanced briefly at the rest but his eyes stayed on the marten. “Oh? I had heard…” For a moment the gryphon's astonishment seemed to envelop every muscle in his massive body. Tension filled every sinew and for a blink of the eye it seemed he might leap as a cat toward the marten. But then he relaxed and a warm camaraderie touched his avian eyes. “I am glad to have a chance to be of service, your grace.” He turned to the rat and bobbed his head. “And to you as well, sir knight.”

He then turned to greet both ladies, but before he could speak, all four of the little rats roused themselves from marveling at the gryphon and squirmed free, scrambled down parents, fox, and marten, across the deck, and up the startled avian forelegs of Kurgael in an effort to reach the feathered nape of his neck first.

“Well, I’d say we’ve had enough introductions,” Malger remarked with a thinly veiled laugh. “You wear rat very well there, Kurgael!”

Little rat voices chorused, “Can we fly you! Can we! Can we!”

Charles wrapped his arm about his wife’s middle and pulled her close. Kimberly leaned her head against his chest as they watched their children play with the gryphon. He sighed and relaxed, letting the rocking of the waves soothe his anxiety. The voyage would be long and uncertain, but they were making it together. He kissed his wife between the ears, glancing at his friends around the boat and in the sky above him. Sondeshara could wait.

----------

Garigan leaned against the prow and stared across the leaping dolphin toward the horizon. He knew from studying the maps Kayla had given them they would need to sail first south, then west along the northern coast of Sathmore, before turning south again until they reached Whales. From there they would turn east through the coral basin gap between Marzac and Boreaux and then follow the marshy Boreaux coastline southeast. A journey of five months, four if the winds favored them.

And at the end of the journey was a desert and a city nestled deep within the desert built around an oasis rising up from untold depths. A thousand generations of Sondeckis had made this city their home. The very sands thrummed with the power imbuing him, a power until a few years ago he never knew had a name. He had learned much from Charles in the last two years and there was a great deal he had discerned on his own. But in the city awaiting them he would learn so much more.

He would learn to spin a Sondeshike.

He would learn to shatter stone with a song.

He would learn to shape metal with his fingers.

He would learn to move without sound and without muscle.

Perhaps he would even understand why he had been gifted with the Sondeck.

Garigan was grateful to Charles for all he had shown him already. He was grateful to Malger for helping them make this voyage. He knew they journeyed to Sondeshara to help Jerome break free, but he came because of the Sondeck. It needed to find its home.

Garigan dug his claws into the gunwale, savoring the wind in his fur, thrilling with every passing league.

----------

Cool sea air ran through his fur. He held tight to the leather straps framing Pharcellus’s neck and shoulders. Each beat of massive wings pressed dragon muscles into his chest; his breath fell into rhythm as they ascended high above Menth. Far below the Venture rowed away from shore into the sea lanes; the sails were ready to capture the winds to take them south.

A journey of many months now begun. They would reach the ancient city in the desert, the only place in all the world he might be helped. Sondeshara.

To the north, he could feel something. His heart ached for it. He could smell the warm earthiness and feel the loam beneath his paws. He knew his place in the world. He could see a wall with glowing baubles. He had brothers to run and hunt with. He had a father.

A father he disobeyed.

A father aware of him.

A father beckoning him home.

He pressed his muzzle against the dragon’s hide and forced his tongue to still; he would not speak the words tumbling from his heart. Sorrow. Regret. Remorse. Determination.

Forgive me, Father.

Gmork’s Prodigal dug in his claws for the long flight.

----------

May He bless you and keep you in His grace and love,

Charles Matthias
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