Ayre of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY


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D'Zhin, Shazad of all the Cat-Clans, chuckled quietly. "Mrr... He's a sly one, alright," he muttered, his emerald eyes carefully reading the latest scouting reports. The campfire nearby crackled quietly in the cool, moonlit air while the ebon tom considered his options, the flickering light of the fire gleaming on his polished cuirass. Idly, D'Zhin reached up to pull back the hood of his purple cloak, then stroked his whiskers in thought for a moment. "Mrr... Like us, he wishes to fight on ground of his own choosing. Our armies dance and feint, to no purpose. A skirmish here, a few scouts killed there, a village burned there, but no real end is in sight. We seem to be about equal in numbers... He is trying to lure us into terrain where he will be at an advantage."

"Mrowrrr... With respect, my lord, we should lure him, instead."

D'Zhin looked up from the reports to the gray tabby tom that had spoken. Gathered around his campfire were all ten of the clan-leaders that had chosen to follow him on this campaign. A dozen more all told had simply sent a few thousand troops and a low-ranking lord to lead them, and D'Zhin knew this was because the leaders of those clans had lost faith in him as a war-leader, following his defeat at the Battle of Three Armies last year. Another two dozen clans had defected to R'Narr's side after D'Zhin's defeat at the Battle of Three Armies, and another thirty or so refused to take any side. The last group, however, was composed mainly of petty, small clans who had no real forces to offer either D'Zhin or R'Narr anyway, thus they were no loss. D'Zhin had simply resolved to crush them later for their insolence, after R'Narr was defeated. "Mrrr... And what did you have in mind, D'Lith?"

The gray tabby tom rose, flicking aside his blue cloak, and gestured in the flickering firelight. "Miao... You're right, of course, my lord. Our armies dance around like two warriors in a duel, each searching for the weakness of the other. I think, perhaps, if we act as though we fear him, beginning a series of holding actions and a feigned retreat, we can lure him to Sezawa Plains. There, on even ground, we can make our stand, and resolve this campaign."

As the other clan-leaders nodded, D'Zhin considered the plan. It was a good plan, yet D'Zhin wanted more. He didn't want to fight R'Narr at even odds. He wanted the edge. More, if he agreed to everything the other clan-leaders suggested without some modification to their plans, it was likely he would lose what little control he had over them. In the end, D'Zhin had to retain a firm grip on them, or he risked losing control of his army. "Mrr... No. I think it would be better if we made it look like we were retreating to Sezawa Plains, but instead continued on, then turned to fight at Mirawa Pass. There, we can pin him between Mirawa Ridge and the Yellow River, and have the edge."

"Miao... That's risky, my lord. Our own forces could fall into the very trap we're trying to set for him."

D'Zhin slowly rose, then gave D'Lith a gaze of steel. His stance was loose, his clawtips slightly extended from his fingers. Slowly, his ears flattened against his ebon skull. "Mrr... It is a risk I am willing to take. Unless you think that you or one of the others, here, might not be up to the challenge?"

The skill of Domination was no minor thing to a tom, and it was completely different from the female skill of Manipulation. Domination was a thing of the senses, not of words. A shift in stance, tone of voice, and pheromones. Part bluff, part force of will, and part raw threat, it was a skill in which mastery often determined a male's status in life. And D'Zhin was no simple tom, struggling to make his way in the world. He was Shazad. His will would not be denied.

D'Lith paused. This was no mere tom challenging him, this was the Shazad. Even if he did resist, it was obvious D'Zhin was willing to duel for the slightest insult. D'Lith wasn't sure he could win in a duel against D'Zhin - and he was certain that if he tried, the other nine lords gathered around him would tear him to shreds to gain an advantage in D'Zhin's eyes. Slowly, D'Lith bowed his head. "Miao... Of course not, my lord. We are, one and all, more than up to the challenge, and willing to follow wherever you lead."

D'Zhin nodded, and visibly relaxed. "Mrr... Alright. Pass these orders among your warriors, then. We'll begin by feigning a retreat at Timor bridge, with D'Kas' troops fighting a holding action. D'Lith, your scouts will draw theirs to the bridge, that they may see our movement. Any questions?" There was a chorus of agreement from the clan leaders. "Mrr... Good. Then goodnight," D'Zhin replied, dismissing them with a wave of a paw.

D'Zhin crossed his arms, staring into the firelight as the clan-leaders bowed and walked away. Slowly, a grin split his ebon muzzle. "Mrr... I'll carry R'Narr's head back to the capital on a pike," he chuckled. D'Zhin let his gaze drift into the darkness that surrounded his encamped army, thinking. After a long moment, he snarled quietly. "Fsst! Your end is coming, R'Narr, and soon..." D'Zhin muttered at the darkness, raising a paw and flexing his claws.

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Chapter One<<<<