Chapter 1

Ashley panted hard, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. He knew he could not keep running. He would have to stop to fight. The mist swirled around his soft-booted feet, wisps of ghost tears. He was ready to stop and turn when he saw a chapel rise out of the vapor, the sun striking it through the early morning fog. He was sure he could find refuge here. The towers of the chapel, with the twin tears attached to each other by their points, rose up out of the fog like fingers stretching for the blue sky. Clutching his bleeding side, Ashley used his last bit of strength and endurance to run to the church.

He reached the double doors. They were both closed, but he pushed on them and they opened with ease. As soon as he saw the inside, he gasped. The fog was light, but it was enough to capture the rays of sun that filtered through the open windows. The scene was breathtaking. Elegant pillars rose up into the darkness, expressing the need to balance light with dark. At the very end of the hall was a statue of a cat. Above the black obsidian cat were the twin tears in gold and silver. Gold and silver streaks ran down her cheeks and seemed to pool on the floor at her svelte paws. Her limbs, neck, ears, and body were greatly elongated and sleeked out. Her paws were long and thin, one paw with claws retracted, the other with claws extended. By the claws extended pooled the gold, and the silver pooled at the retracted claws, and the two pools mingled together, expressing that everything is interwoven, even life and death. Around her throat was a sash of red that gently brushed the ground. Red symbolized love and healing. And her massive ears were pierced a few dozen times, each earring a symbol. And her nose was pieced with the Sacred Eye, a pure sapphire with a vein of obsidian running through its middle, an extremely rare occurance.

Out from around the pillars that led to the staute, came several cat monks, the eldest swinging a steaming cauldron with the symbol of the twin tears all over it. They chanted quietly, their deep, enchanting voices whispering through the room. Several smaller figures, dressed in the blood red robes, their hoods pulled up, their hands hidden in the folds, followed after them. They walked slow and steady steps. He could tell that these smaller ones were females.

Suddenly, one of the females, the smallest one, turned her head and looked at Ashley. He was still breathing hard, holding his bleeding side. His clothes and his silky blonde fur were staind with it. His yellow eyes met her piercing green ones. She broke away from the procession and hurried over to him. When she reached him, he fell to one knee and bowed his head. "O holy feline of The Great Felid, Maerin. I beg forgiveness for this intrusion." His voice was quiet and soft. His long hair fell over his shoulders, having been cut loose by his swift, unexpected battle with some highwaymen. He felt the female's soft, gentle hand touch his head.

"Please rise, great warrior. You are injured and need healing." Her voice was like silver chimes, wispy and beautiful beyond anything he had ever heard before. His ears flickered slightly, trying to clear them of that wonderful sound. But another sound came to him. One coming from outside of the temple.

He rose, turning as he did so, a throwing dagger, his trademark weapon, in his hand. A snarl bubbled in his throat but he kept it down, hoping that the thieves would pass on, leaving this holy place alone. But they entered, drawing sword and knife, and cocking crossbow. The monks' chanting stopped and they turned at the loud sound of steel boots upon the red marble floors. These were mostly humans who did not have respect for the cats' religion. Those few felines that were with them coward in fear and looked ready to run at the slightest sign of their goddess.

The leader, a hulking human, grinned and pointed his sword at Ashley. "Alright, cat! I'm gonna finish you!" He took a step towards Ashley.

In a blur, the little female appeared in front of him. "This is a holy place! You cannot fight in here!"

The man laughed. "Look, hon, I can fight anywhere I chose. And since the cat's in here, I'm gonna fight him in here." He pushed the female to the side and she fell to the marble floor. Her hood came off and she glared up at him.

Faster than the man could see, Ashley was at his throat. The dagger flashed in the morning light, danced with the light, embraced the light. The man did not. He fell back several steps, his throat slashed, but not deep enough to split the Life Vein. The man choked and fell to his knees, dropping his sword with a clatter to the blood red floor. His own blood dripped through his fingers.

The other men looked at each other as Ashley turned to face them. "Leave now! And you," he pointed to his fellow cats, "are a disgrace! I shame you and your families for generations to come!" These cats bowed their heads and let their tails drag along the ground as they helped their leader out of the temple.

Ashley turned to the little female now. His breath caught in his throat. She had a beautiful and soft looking grey tabby pelt. Her little face was the cutest and most beautiful he had ever seen. She had small ears, and plenty of white and black whiskers. Her long tail looked like it came off of a snow leopard it was so fluffy. Her green eyes were bright and clear and she had a small pink nose. Bowing, Ashley helped her up. He kneeled before her. "I ask for forgiveness for the blood I have shed upon this holy ground."

The female smiled. "You have likely saved us all. You are granted forgiveness, Great Warrior. Please rise and tell me your name."

Ashley stood, a whole head and shoulder taller than the little tabby. "I am known as Ashley. I was separated from my friends in the storm last night. I was looking for them with first light when I was attacked. I don't suppose there is a town nearby that they could have found themselves at?""

"I am Silve, though most call me Sil. You may call me however you like." Silve smiled charmingly. "And I am certain the Mother Maerin is watching over your friends and will unite you all soon."

"Excuse me, good sir," the eldest of the monks, an old black cat with a broad black nose, a large build, and not a spot of white on any part of him, shuffled over. His dull yellow eyes were still clear and full of life and wisdom. He had seen much in his lifetime. His broad scarred head, broad nicked ears, and the chipped fang all suggested his rather "unholy" beginnings. He pulled back his hood, looked up at Ashley who was tall for one of their kind. He was only about 5'4, but that was one for the record. "I am called Stormy, the Elder Monk." His voice was deep and slow, and his large belly shook slightly as he moved, his short tail held relaxed under his robes. "I thank you for saving our temple from those forsaken few. May The Great Felid watch over and guide their souls to the light. As for you, you need to be healed."

Ashley was about to protest, to say that he really did not expect anything from them, but he did not have that chance. The old cat reached forward and gently touched his wound which still bled slowly. In the instant his hand touched it, Ashley felt a warm tingling sensation and when the elder pulled away his padded hand, his wound was gone, barely even a scar. Silve looked up at her Elder Monk. "I will take him to a room and give him some fresh clothes and food, Holy One." She bowed to him and he nodded his head once slowly. He again thanked Ashley, who in turn thanked him for the healing.

Silve led him from the main temple to the back temple, which was a smaller, more private place for the monks to pray and study. Smaller statues of the Great Goddess lined the walls, alternating between black and white, a black one staring at a white one across from it. The Cats believed in Balance above all things. Life and Death, Peace and Violence, Light and Dark. One could not exist without the presence of the other. If only good things happened, then there would be no such thing as good. If there was only the color blue, blue wouldn't exist.

Silve led Ashley to a room that was simply furnished, with a fairly large bed, a table with a few chairs, a trunk, and a dresser with a mirror. Silve went over to the trunk and pulled out a red robe. "I'm sorry, but these are all we carry. If you like, you can bathe before putting it on."

Ashley smiled. "That would be lovely." Silve smiled, her ears slightly back to show her slight embarrassment. She led him to the pool that the male monks used as the bath. She laid the robe and a towel on a bench for him when he was finished. After she left, Ashley pulled off his brown vest, blue tunic, and brown leggings. He then wad into the warm water. They still sometimes went to the ancient way of their ancesters by licking themselves, but since the humans gave them tongues very similar to their own in the genetic mutations, they perferred not to. Ashley's blonde fur, with very light stripes of a darker yellow, waved about him in the water. He relaxed, considering his good fortune. Yet he could not get the thought of his friends still lost out of his mind. He had to find them, even if his Goddess was watching over them.

When he was done, he crawled out of the water and shook himself. His fur stuck up, but he then used the soft towel to pat his fur back down. He licked a few spots that refused to to stay down and pulled on the velvet robe. He came out of the bathing room and spotted Silve speaking softly with another cat. This one was very young, only a kitten still. He was very cute, with a short and stocky build. He was black with a white chin, white hands and feet, and a long thin tail. His face whiskers were all white. His eyes were bright yellow. He looked up at Silve, speaking quickly and hopping from one paw to the other four toed paw in excitement.

"Calm down, Mici," Silve said. She placed a small hand on his trianglar head and held him mostly still. He was very hyper. He had just heard of the fight in the temple and he wanted to talk to the "Great Warrior" to know what it took to be one. When he spotted Ashley, he knew he had come out at a bad time. The little kitten ran over to him. However, Ashley found out he was not quite as young as he seemed to be.

"Are you the Great Warrior? I'm Mici, Stormy's little brother! Well, he's not really my brother, but we were raised that way! Anyway, I want to be a warrior, like you are! Can you teach me how? Pleeeease?"

Ashley flattened his ears. "Um, perhaps that's not the best idea. Trust me, if I had a chance to go back and be a monk, I would. Being a warrior is all about blood, guts, and glory. There's plenty of bloodshed, lots of death, lots of dirty, hard labor. It's not exactly glorious conquests." He hated to squash the young cat's enthusiasm, but he'd rather not let such a young playful kit lose his life in a foolish want to be something he could not hope to be. His brother, perhaps, had once been a warrior. His old muscles still rippled under the fat of age and Ashley knew very well that the giant monk, who was the largest in the whole temple, at Ashley's nose, could easily throttle him with his bare hands. This little cat, though, looked barely strong enough to lift a spear, much less a shield and sword like his friend, Jacques.

Mici lowered his ears to the side in disappointment. Ashley smiled at him. "But I'm sure if you practiced hard enough, you'd make a wonderful warrior." This made Mici's ears pop up and he grinned and strutted away. Silve came over and smiled at him.

"That was nice what you said to him. He'll always be a kitten at heart. Stormy always treats him that way." Silve smiled at him and led him back to his room.

After he had gotten comfortable in his room, he went back out to the temple. It was Moon High, and most of the monks were asleep. Unlike their ancesters, they were not strictly nocturnal although they did spend a lot of time awake during the night. He knelt before his goddess' statue, that glittered in the filtered moonlight. He bowed his head in prayer, asking for his friend's safety until he could go out and find them.

There was soft whisper of robes and padded paws. He turned quickly and looked into the shadows. Silve emerged and leaned against the pillar. "You're worried about your friends?" Her voice was very quiet.

Ashley stood and came to her. He had to look away from her shining eyes. "Yes. I've been with them for a long time. We're very close."

Silve watched his expression. It was obvious he was worried. "Do you love them?"

Ashley smiled slightly. "We're like brothers, all of us."

"It must be nice to have such close friends." Ashley looked her straight in the eye. "Here, we merely know each other, we don't really get very close. Some of the finatics do nothing but pray all their waking hours. It's really very sad."

Ashley put his large hand on her furry cheek and brought up her head. He kissed her gently. Though they had the thin lips of their feline ancestors, they were able to move them like humans. She accepted his kiss and gave it back. He put his other arm around her waist and held her close to his body. They stood that way for several moments.

There was a sound of thumping from outside of the temple. Ashley moved quickly, stepping in front of Silve and pulling a dagger from the folds of his robes. The doors suddenly opened, slowly because the lock had been placed on the rollers, not to keep it closed, but to make it harder to open so that theives thought twice before wasting the time and energy to open it. There was a tall silhouette at the door, the full moon shining behind it. Others suddenly joined the first. To Ashley, they seemed familiar.

"Ashley?"

Ashley blinked. Then he realized. "Jacques!"

The giant BuRak shook his head. A thinner figure ran up to Ashley and bear hugged him, lifting him into the air. "Ashley! I thought I'd lost you!"

"You can put me down now, Ron!" Ashley was able to squeak out. Ron, the War Cat-War Dog halfling, grinned sheepishly and put his best friend down. They had known each other ever since childhood. "Sorry."

Then he looked down at the tiny Silve, who watched them with wide, glowing eyes. "Who's this?"

"This is Silve. But how did you guys find me?"

Jessie, the old Shan'juu, grunted. "We're all cats. We have noses." He then ruffled his wings when his dry humor was not recieved as he had hoped. "We have a mishapel with us. Is that even a valid question?" he sneered.

Standing only to Ashley's hip (and to Jacques' knee), the mishapel, a species of feline possessing magical power that was revered, feared and sought throughout the galaxy, looked slumped and exhausted. Easily tired from any kind of exercise, they had been walking all day while he used his magic to track Ashley's trail. But he somehow managed to lift himself up and smile.

"Michele, you really didn't need to use all that much power to find me."

Silve gasped at Michele. "Oh, by Maerin! Look at you! Please, come with me. You must be exhausted. All of you! Please, come. I'll take you to some spare bedrooms. Come, come!"

Once all the companians had been cared for and were asleep, Silve came back to the main temple where Ashley was thanking his goddess for his friends' safety. He looked up at Silve as the full moon shone down on her, turning her grey fur to molten silver. Her long black hair seemed to turn white. Ashley bowed his head again, this time praying that he had the strength to resist his male urges.

"How was it that you were seperated?" Silve asked, leaning against a pillar. She glanced to Maerin, sending out her own prayer that she could have the strength to resist her own urges as the moon split over him, turning his fur a strange golden color.

"I went ahead to find shelter. I was able to find an area that seemed as good as any and went back down the trail to find them, but discovered that a mudslide was blocking the way. It was raining too hard to try and find a way around so I went back to the small shelter. With first light I went back to find a way around. That's when I was ambushed." He looked up to her, and the moon slowly moved away, resting upon the statue of Maerin.

Ashley caught the cunning glint in his goddess' eye as the moon moved away and he knew his prayer would not be answered. Sometimes their goddess could be very cruel indeed. Ashley stood and came to Silve. His eyes glowed softly. Silve lowered her ears. She was on supressants, but they were wearing off. Ashley kissed her softly, and for a moment she was frozen. She suddenly tore away and ran to her room. Ashley followed her, calling to her softly.

"Wait, Silve, I'm sorry." He caught up to her when she got to her room. She looked up at him, but it wasn't fear he saw in her eyes. With all his passion, his lips closed upon hers and they tumbled backwards into the room, the door shutting behind them.

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