Party Time is a novel set in the World of Zekira. Copyright 2004 Lethe and Droppin the Fork Productions. All rights reserved, no copying for any reason.

Party Time chapter 3 and a half

Who Better or Party Time Down The Middle

Kenya continued to giggle the whole night through. She and her dearest companions, Mirage and Lam, remained where they were in the Treasury until someone thought to summon them to the racing field below. Lam was impressed by the Chanay fellow's bravery in actually apologizing to her: no one had ever done that before, and she'd been watched in her trances many, many times by less friendly folk. They said nothing more about it, the women, but they were apt to promise themselves the boy would be at more parties in the future.
True to form, even with these bizarre events unfolding elsewhere with the brave handful of souls out to rescue poor Mihr, Mirage was ever the genial hostess and was expected to perform certain duties at her own scheduled race and party, so when the women arrived beyond the east portal of the mansion they immediately were thronged by servants, fans, and followers. Over the din, Mirage adopted a brilliantly false smile, and told her people to please go find their seats and let her do her own betting in private. The other two followed and were not pushed away. Never spurned by Mirage.
HighMistress Mirage went to speak to Aern and her daughter Shatter, but could only locate the young woman.
"Father's already down with the Steeds, and Ruben is as well," Shatter said. "Have you bet on either of them?" Her manner and voice told her mother that she was both excited about the race and worried that the weather would harm it. The first few sprays of that storm spat to the ground minutes before, and were now seen to come down harder over the water. Mirage looked into the darkness of the storm, watched as a hoverjet soared away from the Telva strip, and felt her son and favored men aboard it mentally. Shatter turned, her two-colored deep blue and silver hair was starting to get drizzled on and the beads of water fell as she watched the jet move over the clouds.
"What is it, mother?" Shatter asked, fearful of whatever could be making the normally peaceful and together Mirage seem so disturbed. Carefully the daughter reached for her mother's face, but before she could touch it, Mirage snapped her attention back on Shatter.
"It's an old enemy come to life again," she sighed. "I'd rather not bother you with it right now, dearest. You've a race to announce!"
Suspicious of the sudden change in her attitude, but knowing well that this could mean something much deeper than her words indicated, Shatter simply smiled and bounded up to the edge of the cliffside race course.
Mirage watched after her daughter, her precious Shatter, and hoped that she could maintain this air until the race was over. At least she knew where both her daughters were, she thought. Mirage very privately wished that she could be asleep and hiding as Amaranth was, still sleeping off her rather annoying and oh-so-wonderful heat (as that Breeder would put it) upstairs in her traditional bedroom. She looked back at Lam and Kenya who had come out to view the race with her, both the grey-colored women were watching the High Mistress with as worried looks as she offered them. Together, then, they walked up the now-slick cement way into the upper viewing lodge.
That lodge was just east of Mirage's mansion, more set into the curve of the cliffside than atop it as her homestead was. The building was unimpressively rectangular in shape, built of the local materials and painted a normally garish orange but was seen in this evening and storm-covered light to be a gentle tan. The entire north face of the building was thick glass, angled slightly from the top down with an awning feel. The base of the building blended in with a large broadcasting booth, where Shatter and others had gathered to watch and announce. There were seats both covered and open-air, below the lodge and huge bank of sensing equipment, and even though the race was going to be in the storm, many of those unprotected seats were filling up. There were several large, weatherproof viewers scattered about the place, set up while the day was young and dry.
This race would determine the fall and winter Race Seeds, so who would miss it? Normally a beach race like this would either occur fully on the land, just beside the cliff, or down on the pebbly and uncertain wet terrain of the beach. But this one, it was new and ever more dangerous: it began down on the low beach, where there was an excavated hall for the Steeds to line up and spread their wings, and then they were to soar almost without galloping space into the stormy sea air. Three base stations had been erected at varying distances and heights out over the ocean, the farthest one nearly ten miles out and half a mile up! Each rider and Steed had to circle the base station once to establish their place in the race, then they could make it as quickly as they could back to atop the cliffside where the finish line was.
The whole race course had been deisgned by one Autev Akur, a Suzeraan who had been in attendance at the party -- because if he was making the course, he was there for the race. He strode already in tight lines around the large lodge, waiting the race to begin and waiting as per his usual less-than-patient grace. Anything else: wines, clothing, dancing, he was elegant and subtle but now, his pacing was wearing on the servants who tried to calm him.
"This is wonderful," he claimed brightly to one of the local servants, not one of Mirage's. "Now take it back and bring me something colder, dear. You mustn't hold the glass so tightly, it warms the-- Oh, Mirage, darling. You've finally brought yourself out of hiding I see!" His angular face switched so quickly from vague outrage to plastered-on cheer that the women nearly laughed. "Your fine presence is so welcome up here. It gets so boring without you."
"Why thank you so much, Autev, dear," Mirage said, practically through gritted teeth, "do you mind if we all find seats now? I'm afraid that other activities earlier this evening have been very wearing on my heart."
Autev took a deep gasp, clutching his over-dressed chest. His skin was as deeply blue as the night sky, and contrasted utterly with the soft off-white of his frilled shirt. He had a pinched face, very sharp chin and nose, and to Kenya he looked like a sage rat. He was still more honest in his surprise than faking it, she thought, so they allowed his excess.
"My dear, what has happened?" He affected a concerned look which involved him hunching down and looking up, even more to Kenya's thoughts of rat-ness, one which Mirage glanced away from to avoid smirking.
"Many things," she said, simply and with a subtle use of her mental powers. "But let us watch this race, shall we? It ought to take my mind off things. Show me, Autev," Mirage said, while extending her white hand at the glass window, "where are the Steeds to fly?"

High Beast Mistress Rachael and her Slave Threen and far too many arms for just two people moved around down in the pits. They watched the Steeds prance and unfurl their wings, snort and angrily challenge each other before the racing began. The older, taller Rachael kept the girl beside her closely, keeping secrets even though she trusted Threen with her life and more. With two of her four arms clasped gently around her torso, Rachael nudged Threen with another hand still free.
"Look at that," she said, pointing with the fourth arm at a Steed and his rider. Threen was tiny compared to her Mistress, darker orange-red in skin and blood red of hair, but...
"It's too far away," Threen said, embarrassed and moving her own second set of arms in her typical display. "I can't see it, Rachael. All I can see is a big blur."
"That boy, Shanto, from the Lisar ranches, he's trying to get his Steed to steady," Rachael explained, remembering that her little bodyguard was there to prevent disasters, not to protect her bodily, and had her own weaknesses. "He's got a bridle on the Steed but he's still too hot to ride in this storm. I hope he pulls from the race before he --"
"He won't," Threen said, smiling, "but he'll be okay. I can 'see' that now."
Rachael offered the girl a private smile, ever since the day nearly ten years before when Threen had saved everyone at Rachael's Xnet breeding house... She caught on fast, the girl, it would only be a matter of time before she realized who she really was.
Rather, Rachael thought, like that beautiful boy that was usually quite off-limits according to BreedMaster Sengihr. Everyone knew or suspected they knew who he was, everyone but the boy's fathers and there would be a storm brewing when they did find out. Perhaps they already knew, for the Breeder wasn't known for appearing anywhere other than at his elegant employer's offices, and here he was at Mirage's place. He brought back memories, Rachael attempted to drag herself away from them, but there was always Threen at her side, there might be a day that the girl would actually meet him. Rachael shook her head and thought harder about the boy, Ten. She had watched Ten earlier as he moved through the dance rooms, and the private discussions, and through everyone's vision. He was there wanting to be seen, she thought, and seen he was. How like either of his fathers, she pondered with a smile. And how unlike any Slave before him.
Where was he now, she wondered, and where in the world was Bepa? She was meant to be with the Animal Masters down by the shoreline sensing any trouble, Rachael had invited her personally. When another Steed began rearing and beating his wings nearby, her reverie was broken. Several of the Steed's handlers moved in, apparently used to this. The Steed was blood red, completely, save for his wings of a more orange tint, and his mane and tail which were yellow orange, and cut nearly flush with the fur. The Pride, Rachael thought.
That was The Pride, Tika's Steed. The most ornery of all animals paired thoughtfully with the most ornery of Riders. Naturally. Who else? Only a woman of Tika's dangerous bent would not hesitate to ride this beast into these turbulent skies. Threen pressed into Rachael's side and not because she was cold or felt friendly, rather out of fear of being hit at such a close presence to the Steed.
"We can find the betting crowd," Threen suggested, "it will do you good to get away from all this for a moment."
"I love this," Rachael reminded the girl. "I thrive on it."
"You thrive on good emotions," the little Slave said, smiling. "This place has too many angry people and Steeds."
"I don't want to be angry, true," Rachael admitted. "Let us go back to the transport rim."
Many of the Riders, transport crew and race attendants knew both the Animal Mistress and her servant, all were friendly, but all were busy enough that a passing heio or hasty nod at them was the most the pair recieved on their way out of the Steed zone. None of Rachael's own Steeds were being run in this race, they were still coming back into the limelight and breeding rings before being tried at racing again, after the fire at their facility. A touch of sadness at having lost the samples of her prize Stallions and breeding Mares in that fire glanced through Rachael, but it was time enough ago that her tears had long since dried, and her desire to rebuild was still stronger than ever.
The pair made their way up those same wide cement stairs that Mirage and her own friends had gone, only Rachael and Threen stopped at the more 'common' platform below the High lodge, so many of her friends were there already, and cheering on a betting cadre. Immediately swept up into the hype, Rachael urged Threen to go to the other servants whom she had found earlier at the mansion -- and told her that she had three hundred credits to bet with, herself. Rachael looked over the Steed and Racer chart, and began placing her own enthusiastic bets.

"He'll be running at three to one," Ruh said, "I'd put another Dec on him but I've got rent to pay." The other announcers laughed together at the LandMistress' joke. "With this rain on the way, and the windy conditions, there are quite a few young Riders who might find themselves outclassed by the star Riders here at this Telva OverSea Loop. BeastLord Okora, what do you think about this course?"
"It's not a complex loop," the man said, "but the conditions make this course one of the hardest I've seen in years. It's a wonder to me that the designer didn't bring this storm on himself, just to see it done right!"
They laughed, paused, while the central broadcasting unit showed graphics of the storm front and the racecourse illuminated above it. Someone else showed where the Steeds would fly, while still others ran frantically around behind Ruh and Okora and the seven other broadcasters from other Lands and stations. Every moment in this booth was frantic, every moment well worth it, Ruh thought.
She watched the secondary screen information, as well as the main one being broadcast. Each of the Riders and their Steeds were being displayed with updated betting information below them, on the second screen. She ran her bronze hand quickly through her short-cropped rust-orange hair, and her eyes wandered over the bodies more than the scores.
The LandMistress was tempted to put that extra Dec on Aern, just because.
Just because he was perfect, but that was beside the point... That thought led her into another fit of nearly-giggling and she stifled herself before the camera eye was turned back onto her. This was an uphill pull for her, of course, because if he won (which he would, of course) she'd get to interview him again.
And maybe, that could lead --
"With the conditions changing constantly," Ruh jolted at the bright yellow light atop the small camera unit before her, "we'll have to see which Riders are ready for this kind of challenge. Now a final run down of all the Steeds and their Riders. At the top of the heap, as I said with odds of three to one, is BeastLord Aern Kshau, riding WindTears, who we've been told has been proving himself in weather like this for almost a year in training--"
"It's a pity that Steed is so ugly," Okora broke in, smiling. "Those wings are just about the nastiest in the race."
"Hold your tongue, BeastLord," Ruh said, "those wings without feathers might be ugly to look at but they are probably going to beat the feathered ones to the cliff."
"You've got a good point," Okora said, "this isn't a Show ring. Next up and also at three to one, is HighMistress Tika, riding The Pride. Now there's a pair we've seen before."
"And I'm sure we'll see them again," Ruh said. "With three Extreme Altitude titles behind them already this season, and several Placings in events before that, The Pride looks to be a true winner, like his Rider. Tika, as we all know, is clearly the most aggressive Rider in this race, but with a bit of bad luck that aggression might turn into disaster."
"That's why we have a good emergency staff on hand," another announcer said, "there are all kinds of boats down there on the Pin Gulf below the course, waiting for any rider unlucky enough to fall. In this storm, they'll probably be getting a work out, in those ships."
"You know it," Ruh said. "In the third seed possition is HighMaster Tain, with four to one odds. He is riding Eternal Gold, the Steed known for his endurance and strength. Also one of those ugly Steeds, Okora, or aren't you counting this one?"
"His wings are only partially feathered, Ruh," the Animal Master said, adjusting his darkly shaded glasses. Okora was of a pale blue-green skin color, and had vibrant purple hair, but most of his skin had to be covered for reasons known only to his Breeder and closest friends. Ruh thought that he was attractive and that suited him as an announcer, but he ought to take those silly sunglasses off more often. She'd heard he had beautiful blue eyes too. While she absently daydreamed (as her usual mental track led her) the Animal Master continued his report. "That gives some advantages, but I think it will be the Steed's innate strength that will get him through this race. The more frail Steeds here possibly won't make it if the rain really starts coming down."
At that, the station broke for a weather report, the pair of announcers leaned back. Shatter had come in, sat down beside them, and was silently watching the preparations down on the beach and cavern on one of the monitors. Ruh wondered how lucky she'd have to get, after that interview, to get the same results as High Holders or other Beast Masters might: Ruh held no jealousy regarding a mate like Mirage for him, anyone ought to be allowed the chance at her. There was never a doubt in Ruh's mind that she'd eventually be chosen by the Rider, even if only for one small stint beside him. He was seen with anyone who was anyone, and she had bigger plans than remaining merely a Land Holder all her life.
But that could wait until the race was done, at least.
"We have several Slaves racing this time," Okora said, selecting a camera angle and pressing for it on his console. "Taasva hailing from the Stetil highlands on LightHoof and Owned by Master Breeder Genn, they're at five to one; Teus on Winter, working out of the Lantu stables Owned and operated by High Holder Bomi Avidah; and Lekis riding Shock Value from Lord Klaesh's Muyar Breeding camp. You know the Muyar bred Steeds are known for their speed. I'm not making any predictions, but if any one of those Steeds and Riders even place in this race I'm sure they'll be well on their way to FreeWorker status, don't you think?"
"If they can prove themselves by getting through this race," Ruh agreed, "I'd surely offer them Freedom. And a good warm blanket afterward!"
They laughed and continued the rundown of riders. There were all told fifteen riders and two others who had decided to pull from the race when the weather became rougher than they were prepared to handle. There was no animosity from them against those who chose to race, the field announcer down in the preparation cavern said.
"We'll be using these complex satelite links for locating and watching the Riders," Okora said, as the base brought up a view of one of them. "How they're going to find these stations I can't imagine, though. This storm has cut visibility down to less than five hundred Spans." They spotted one of the three touch points and looked in at the three judges who were seated within. From overhead, the link could edit out the storm, but there was a slight delay in broadcasting as it did so. Each of the three stations also had their own cameras, and those when they were shown off made each announcer slightly dizzy from the swaying, and more worried at the lack of space that could really be viewed from them. The racers would have to circle terribly close to those stations if they were to be seen at all. Ruh checked the broadcast station's monitor for instructions, and nodded.
"We'll be giving you what visual updates we can while the distances are being covered, this race is a total of forty miles long, so it might be an endurance race at home to watch! Meanwhile, at the start and during some of the crucial moments, we'll have Lady Shatter's expert eyes on the race while she does the actual announcing there. Shatter, a word for the viewers?"
The pale blue woman turned to the camera behind Ruh, then met the LandMistress' eyes. "Keep those bets coming in," she said. "I am certain this race will determine more than just the top seeds for the late season races. It will show us who is made of tougher material, and who can't handle a little rain."

"A little rain," the voice on the monitor said, and Kenya grunted.
"This is going to be much more than a little," Kenya said, settled into her wide chair. Autev had finally stopped pacing, and found his way to another plush chair. There were only a dozen or so High Holders, Breeders and others in the lodge, most had apparently chosen to stay in Mirage's mansion out of the rain even momentarily. The course designer was not any longer a High Holder, but he acted as if he were. His long thin fingers gently wrapped around the stem of an extremely expensive glass of wine -- this time cooled to his liking. His red-orange hair was utterly straight, flopped stylishly over half his pointed face, and he pushed it away with his free hand.
"I'm hoping," Autev said. "Because that is exactly why I decided to put this course here on the Pin Gulf. Because of the storms."
"Did you tell them that?" Kenya asked, thumbing down to the Riders far below.
Autev only smiled, bearing those sharp white teeth which still reminded Kenya of a sage rat.
Mirage still sat silently, then reached out to push a few buttons on a betting unit. Kenya watched, and her silver-grey eyebrows shot up.
"You're not betting on Aern?"
"I always bet to win," Mirage said with a vague grin. The other two women gave off half-surprised half-affected gasps.
"He would be hurt," Lam said, finally able to enjoy the evening after her visions had worn off and her power was exhausted. Her head was light, but at least it meant that her eye would not be opening for another day at the very least.
"He'd be hurt in this race if he wasn't careful, and believe me, he isn't into pain like some people we know." Mirage reminded her companions. "No, I've got three hundred on Tain and another two on that Esham fellow."
"The hairy one?" Lam jibed.
"The very one."
"He's a good racer, and that Steed, Striker? Looks like a winner."
"Looks like a candy cane," Kenya pointed out. The Steed was in fact wintermint white and candy red, with wing-feathers mixing those colors boldly.
Mirage only grinned, broadly.
"You aren't betting on your close-personal-friend and father of your daughter? Nor his very own son?" Kenya continued pressing the subject, always enjoying Mirage's discourse on mates and bets.
"I have several of those," Mirage said, looking at the pictures of the Riders and their insets of the Steeds, on a small information flier. "I'm looking for another one."
Lam paused, looked at Kenya in exactly the same manner as she recieved from the younger woman across from her, and they then turned their attention equally on their High Mistress.
"Mirage," Lam said, "do you mean --"
"Tain is extremely attractive, don't you think?" Those beautiful dusty violet eyes had focused once again on the storm beyond the windows, but she still held her information flier loosely in her hand.
"Vanya will be crushed," Kenya muttered.
"Vanya will just wait," Mirage reminded her. "Because he loves me. And I'm sure that he would also agree with me regarding our lovely Tain. Besides, Darkhanis introduced me to Tain before I started bringing him in to my parties. He's a delightful gentleman, don't you think?"
"He does dance well," Kenya said, remembering the earlier activities. "But--"
"Wait," Lam said, "Darkhanis introduced you two?" Mirage deeply nodded. "So he's interested in Breeding you two?"
"He is indeed. Rather fewer strings attached to this one than my priors, this way with the Breeder giving us no choice but to agree."
The women sat and watched the rain splattering onto the huge glass windows, and their reflections in them as well. The reflection of Mirage was smiling.
"Did Darkhanis Breed Tain?" Kenya asked.
"No one Bred Tain. He's natural." Mirage's grin broadened.
The other two women both scrambled for the information flier, and looked at his picture again. He was handsome, and his dark skin was mottled with fine, white spots. Those features certainly looked highly Bred, and if they were not, clearly this man was of very high caliber indeed. And if he won this race...
"So what if he doesn't win?" Lam asked, as she placed her own bets.
"Then I'm sure he will next time. Besides, when Darkhanis gets back he won't care if Tain has won, placed or fallen from the sky. I believe he's already started drawing up the paperwork."
"Then he ought to hope Tain doesn't fall, Mirage," Lam reminded her friend, as they laughed. "There are still parts of him that need to work right."
The broad grin over Mirage's lips told both the others (and Autev, the other Holders and Breeders and the Slaves present) that she'd already given much thought to such things, and would do so long after their paperwork was finished.

"Normally, I'd say that speed would win a race of this type and distance," Okora said into his camera, "but this time I'm going to bet on the endurance racers. The storm will cause some unpredictable wind currents over the water, surely, but the fact remains that if the Steed can't fight the wind for a long enough time he'll fall."
"I agree totally, but also I think that the more experienced Riders might call for their Steeds to conserve their energy and just be more careful than normal." Ruh watched the camera view of the starting cavern, and could see it past the crowded lower platforms through the window. "This might not break any speed records, but finishing means staying alive here."
Shatter nodded at the pair of video announcers, and turned on her own microphone. "It is certainly what I'd do if I were there. This kind of wind is dangerous to ride in low altitude or high, but above the water," she made a pshaw noise, "I certainly hope that we don't have any trouble. Now, the riders and Steeds are all prepared, and coming to the starting line."
There was an expectant hush, over the whole crowd outside and indoors. The whole of the starting cavern area had been bathed in bright light, now the spotlights had been turned off in the deeper parts, leaving the entrance and the strip of beach still lit. Slickly the pebbles on that beach shone and danced with the patter of raindrops, it wasn't much but it was enough to make some of the Riders clearly tense.
The tide was currently out, that was a blessing. The short galloping distance the Steeds would cover could have been much shorter, given that the tide was actually coming in. Without much further wait, the tremendous amplified blatt of the starting horn shook through the air, and the race was on!
"And they're up!" Shatter said, excitedly. "This field is packed tonight! But right off we've got Hearts And Stars first, with SlimSlick, Lighthoof, and Winter right behind him!"
The Steeds shuddered off with the sound of the horn still echoing over the water, and the cheering began again at last. Shatter continued to call the names off, as all the Steeds pushed their ears down and angled wing-wrist with the wind. They strode at whatever speed they could manage on the slick stones, and as usual no one paid attention to those left behind at the start: but everyone would always wonder why they never saw it coming when those slow starting Steeds managed to place in races like this?
"Over the rocks on that beach it's going to be a rough ride, as the Steeds get up to speed," Shatter said, over the cheering of the crowd. "It takes a lot to get those Steeds up into the air, and they've got barely a quarter mile to run before they must either hit the water or the air!"
Betting continued frantically, until the moment that the horn sounded, even in the announcing booth. Any electronic betting that was being sent in was automatically cut off at that moment, everything was timed. Ruh and Okora watched as Shatter glanced with her experienced eyes over each Steed and Rider, their distinct wings and colors being her only true guide to the race.
"Looks like Pressure Point has lost her footing for a moment, and that's holding up the last few in line," Shatter continued. "But with the speed that the first four have got, it's a wonder they're not already up there! It's Hindsight and WindTears in the lead on the beach, but they've got a pack behind them."
"Winter's in the air!" Okora shouted, half at himself in wonder, and half into his microphone. "First in the air and not even close to the water line!"
"A Dec of Silver is up next," Shatter said, aiming a slightly wry look at her companion in the sensory depravation suit he had to use in company: she wondered if it didn't dampen his sense of decorum as well. She was, after all, the announcer here. "Eternal Gold is making his move too, and now it's anyone's guess! All the wings in the world right here on the Telva beach!"
The Steeds began to spread into the air, each with barely enough room to beat their wide limbs as hard as it was required. True to the estimation of the announcers, too, the more ugly but stronger-winged Steeds were beating the others to the air with their short deep scooping flaps. Some of the Steeds still back in the pack and on the beach began to attempt to rise into the air and were either being chastised or encouraged by their Riders, depending on how brave the men and women on their backs were feeling.
"It's still Winter in the air highest now, but Dec of Silver is pacing her at a length behind, and Eternal Gold is now being nosed by The Pride," Shatter said, then briefly turned off her microphone. She turned to the other two important announcers, those working for her own company. "You'll have to keep up on the ones I can't watch," she told Ruh and Okora. "If they're more than, say, four lengths behind the leaders, you take them."
"I'll take the last in the pack," Okora said. "I've got too much money out on those losers."
They laughed, and Shatter went back to her work.
"WindTears is coming into the lead, down there from underneath -- finally, dad. She'll have to work up to the proper flying height, though, because the rest of those racers are halfway to the first checkpoint and twice as high up. Oh, this is stunning," she said excitedly, "WindTears is beginning to swoop up and we've got Thirty Degrees coming out of nowhere with that amazing speed of his!"
"Thirty Degrees looks to have an ability to sense the wind currents, Shatter," Ruh said, peering into the wet distance, "he was dodging around but going faster with each beat. The middle pack is keeping up but struggling with those same winds. We've got Lighthoof, followed by Turmoil In Black, Striker, and now Hindsight seems to be losing air."
"Hindsight's conserving energy, Ruh," Okora said, "she's still doing fine at the front of this pack. PressurePoint's still staying with Shock Value, and Hearts And Stars seems to be playing with the ocean -- oh, no, just waiting for a draft to follow. Bitterlime is way back there, it doesn't look like he's having an easy time with this cold air, but it sure looks like that Steed doesn't want to touch down in the water!"
"I'd bet on that," Shatter said. "We'll have to go to sat-pics for this, now," she indicated the pair of cameras from the storm view, either one was now picking up vastly different views of the racers. One, the wide-angle, was better for a front-on view, and was able to show that dramatic difference in height the racers had. "Look at how WindTears is gaining altitude on the other leaders! I wonder if she's headed for the high clouds, Okora?"
"If Aern thinks there's easier air up that way, it's possible, but I don't know for sure. This is the first time I've ever seen a race in weather like this, and it's actually a whole lot faster than I was expecting!"
"The middle pack is tight," Ruh said, "Hindsight seems to be unwilling to stay with the stragglers, she's breaking up the distance quickly into the middle. SlimSlick is out there somewhere, ah, I see her up just behind the leaders, but she's so far down she's got to follow WindTears' example sooner or later, or she'll be facing a vertical climb to get to that first checkpoint!"
"Speaking of that checkpoint, we can see the first racers from their camera view," Shatter cheered. "It looks like WindTears and Thirty Degrees, trying for the same air so they can circle, Thirty Degrees is opting to draft on WindTears' wake, and behind them it looks to be Dec Of Silver, followed very closely by The Pride, Eternal Gold, and Winter seems to be losing a little speed now."
"I'm following that on the overhead sat," Ruh said, "Winter is having some trouble, it looks like Teus isn't holding the reins very well, probably this rain is making things extremely slippery. Hindsight and SlimSlick are fighting for a decent position, and Lighthoof is moving around for that chase spot behind the leaders. I can't see Turmoil in Black anywhere, now."
"He's back with the hind pack," Okora groaned, "his wings look soaked. The feathers on these poor Steeds are really taking a beating in this storm. I wonder if this isn't going to be the start of some new racing procedures for those leather-winged Steeds? It's pretty clear now that they have the advantages in this weather. I've got Hearts And Stars leading up the hind pack, Pressure Point and Shock Value staying together, and Bitterlime is way back there."
"WindTears is circling the checkpoint," Shatter said, smiling broadly and only as a daughter could. "Thirty Degrees is directly behind her, and the others are getting ready for their own maneuvers -- The Pride's left wingtip just hit Eternal Gold! They're so close they can't avoid it! The Steeds look to be paired off and angry, but Eternal Gold's dropped back and down to avoid The Pride's wings. He's made a good decision, I think. Dec Of Silver is coming on strongly, and is very nearly outpacing Eternal Gold now. WindTears and Thirty Degrees have cleared the checkpoint -- I've got the judges' ruling on that, they're both on the second leg of this race!"
"Bitterlime is still cruising down over the water, looks like he's actually hit the waves with his hooves once or twice," Okora said, darkly entranced. "This can't be good for him, those wings are completely out of shape now, and he still looks to be hating every minute of contact. There's a rescue boat on the scene now, too," Okora listened to a chirping broadcast coming from the small craft. He nodded, and said, "they're going to take Bitterlime out of the race, I'm sure that Gihjo and his people are sore at this, but it's better to lose this race and keep that Steed in his own element later on. Hearts And Stars is clearing a lot of space up there, Ruh, is he coming into the checkpoint yet?"
"He is, Okora," Ruh said. "Right behind Striker and -- what happened to Winter?!"
"Turmoil In Black is down!" Okora shouted, suddenly, "there's a rescue crew on the way -- it looks -- let's get a replay of that!"
They ran a brief scan, and it was clear that the combination of the weight on the wings and a tremendous downdraft combined onto the back of the poor Steed, and he plummeted directly down, his wings rising into what would normally have been a sheer drop onto land.

Rachael watched the large display monitor in horror. The terrified Steed was out there, more than ten miles away, but she could feel not only it's angry fright at falling, but the sheer confusion and hurried thoughts of those on the rescue boats. They fought with the waves and now the darkness, as the storm had come in it was also sunset, not even a glimmer of the afternoon sun was gracing the water any longer.
Other Animal Masters in the audience stood in silence, all of them aware deeply that the Steed and his Rider had both lost consciousness when they hit the black water.
It was as if some terrible hand had pushed them, the wind their enemy rather than their eternal lover. But now, it was up to the few in the boats who would brave the choppy water to find the Steed and Rider. Everyone held their breath, even those still in the air were aware of the terrifying events behind and below them.
Anyone with a touch of Animal Tuning in their blood was aware of it.
With three divers, each with a bright water-spot-light and a long pole with hook devices on it, it took only moments to locate the downed pair. They were barely afloat, of course, Turmoil's wings spread out slightly below the water, useless and logged terribly. His head was above the water, but Vata's was not! Her hands had slipped from the reigns and her back slumped over the neck of the dark Steed, the rescuers in the water were now racing against time and the storm. Vata was caught by a hook, the diver with his jet-propelled floater yanked the High Holder off the Steed ungracefully but effectively, leaving the other two to take care of the Steed.
All this was being captured by the ameteur camera on that boat, nearest the disaster. The automatic feed to the satelite was invaluable now, normally only used for the rescue parties and the judges. This time, it was to the effect of horrifying the audience, but as they watched they saw that Vata was coming around with a bit of effort by her brave rescuer, and that Turmoil was angrily fighting the waves in an effort to climb aboard the rescue boat!
"They'll be all right," Okora breathed, when he had the word from the rescue boat.
"We've got word that Turmoil might have had a mental push as well as a physical one," Shatter growled, and the Animal Masters in the audience were shocked.
"We'll give everyone watching an update as we find out more about that," Ruh said, reading from her monitor. But now everyone else has officially passed the first checkpoint and are on the longer second stretch."

"Isn't that illegal?" Someone in the lodge said, getting several responses. The mutterings turned silent, as they watched and listened. The large view screens as well as the smaller ones showed what little could be seen from each of the checkpoints, and from above that, the weather sats monitored more. Mirage watched with her eyes narrow, her fingers balled into fists. She was nervous, but probably not because of the race.
Kenya leaned over to her pale skinned friend and whispered, "it's all right, Lam would know if they would, you know…"
"Not be coming back?" Mirage whispered. Kenya dared to nod at that. "I wonder who will challenge for this power use?" She said a little more loudly, so that people around them didn't get the wrong impression. Of course the race was the most important thing in the world, the whole universe rested upon it. Particularly for Autev.
The Suzerain would have been pacing, were it not for the fact that he enjoyed the comfort of the deeply cushioned chair he was offered. His nails were too heavily manicured for him to bite at them, but the skies knew that he would have. He himself would probably be the one to locate the user, if there was one, so he could pry them away from the racing circuit. How dare someone attempt to sully his race, this first Telva race?

Ruh's voice remained steady as she relayed the new order of the Steeds. "Into the air go a line of wings. First up in the race is WindTears, then Thirty Degrees. Following them shortly is Striker, then The Pride. He looks quite angry with the fact that Hearts and Stars is on his tail, look at that angry Steed!"
"He's got good reason, Ruh," said the Beast Lord Okora. "It isn't just Hearts, he's got Dec of Silver on his hoof just off to the right! Following them are Eternal Gold, Winter, Hindsight and Pressure Point." The dark skinned man looked to his companions. "The last in the line are SlimSlick, and a pair of struggling LightHoof and Shock Value."
"It surprises me that Slave Taasva is allowing LightHoof so much lead in the air, it isn't like them to wander around in the back of the pack," Shatter said, while looking over the stats. The lull wasn't very long, but enough to go to a brief advertisers break. The whole room relaxed for half a minute, clearing their throats and getting fresh water for their troubles.
Meanwhile outside, the sky was growing more and more dark. That storm had come in fiercely over the sea, and not coincidentally, that was precisely where the second checkpoint rested.
"Suzeraan Akur has certainly outdone himself," Okora said, when the camera's light came back on to him. "After the race, of course, we'll be doing interviews with him as well as the riders and their Steeds' owners."
"Providing everyone actually comes home in one piece," Ruh muttered with a grin. "It looks like a long hard climb for most of these Steeds, but they're mostly making it with confidence. From what we can see here in the studio," Ruh checked her small viewers linked to each of the checkpoints' cameras, "the harder endurance test is coming up. Leaving the first checkpoint and climbing requires a lot of speed and lift, but now they have to search for that second check base. It looks to be a problem for some, but not for most of the Steeds."
"Hindsight is dropping, fast," Okora breathed, and brought up a closer angle view of the Steed in question. "Definitely sensing that Anmalu and her Steed are done in this race. They're signaling to be picked up, it looks like those wings of hers just aren't going to make it."
"It also looks as though Thirty Degrees is slowing up a bit too," Shatter proclaimed, now that there was something interesting going on she seemed to want to be in on it. "He's certainly not looking like he wants to be headed that high up. Probably a lot of concern about his breathing, but Maresh isn't taking him out of the race just yet."
Out in the checkpoint, it looked for all the world like a rainbow of feathers and fur had descended. With an excited squeal (no doubt delighting the viewers at home and in betting parlours everywhere) Shatter exclaimed, "It's Hearts and Stars coming in first to the Beta Checkpoint! He looks absolutely sure of himself, coming in like that!"
"The Pride and Dec of Silver are getting too close for either of their riders comfort," Okora slid in, bringing up a closer view from the checkpoint's south-eastern camera. The angry red and white Steed nipped at the paler one, and Dec of Silver seemed willing to drop out of his range. That put the Steed directly in front of Winter, and with a gasp, the three commentators all scrambled for closer views.
"Dec of Silver and Winter look like they're almost tangled up together!" Shatter said, "neither of them are injured, but they're flying so close together they may as well be standing on top of each other!"
"It's really interrupting the others behind them," Okora announced, "but enough of the others have gotten past them that right now, it's just LightHoof who's in need of some course correction. That near-collision has just cost Dec and Winter a long slot into the third leg of this race!"
Ruh collected her wits and looked at the results as the Steeds swooped by the checkpoint's camera station once more before gliding down to the next stretch. "At the start of the third leg of this long race, the most amazing rout of changes has happened! Striker is now in the lead, with WindTears following him at a bit of a distance. But what's most amazing is that Thirty Degrees managed to swing around that collision so well that it puts him in third place! Behind him is Hearts and Stars! The middle of the pack is led by a very angry looking Pride, followed up by SlimSlick and PressurePoint, though I'm not sure how they're staying in this race the way they're looking."
"Both of them do look quite tired, Ruh," Shatter said, licking her lips. "This doesn't look like the end for some of those stragglers, though. Eternal Gold has cleared out around Shock Value, and that leaves the Steeds who nearly crashed into one another, Winter, Dec of Silver and LightHoof all the way in the back. They've only just now cleared the checkpoint."

In the stands, the collective breath being held for the nearly crashed riders and Steeds was finally let out. Rachael would be among those who sensed a strange but slight power before that, pushing the other Steed out of the sky. But for the moment, the two who had landed in the water, Bitterlime and Turmoil in Black, were now finally reaching the shore in their rescue crafts. The Steeds were cold, but relaxing quickly. Apparently, they would both far rather be upon a boat in this hard weather, than flying up in it!
Several more Animal Masters gathered to help, mostly those who worked for the downed Steeds' Holders. Rachael determined herself that she would let them work, she wasn't really needed. And she wanted very much to see who would finish this race, almost more than who might win.

"Now that the sun has set," Shatter said, "the Steeds and their riders are both worse and better off. The storm seems to have mostly passed, it's still raining, but there isn't as much wind out there as there was before."
"They're losing altitude as well," Ruh added, "the last checkpoint is less than a third as high as that second one. The Steeds are probably getting a good second wind while they're soaring."
"As well as their riders," Okora said. "I certainly hope that the quarters down at the finish line are equipped for warming up chilled racers!"
The commentators laughed, broke for another advertisment, and watched each other. Ruh did not stop staring at Shatter, and Shatter's grin only grew wider as she did so.
"You're completely drooling at my dad, aren't you?" She asked, and Ruh at first blushed terribly, as Okora's eyes nearly became visible from behind his shaded glasses. But Ruh was well known for recovering quickly.
"I am," she said. "But let's keep that between you and me," Ruh glanced at Okora and the other announcers, who quickly got back to looking over their own work stations. Shatter laughed musically.
"He's worth it, I hear," she whispered to Ruh. "Don't let up. I bet mother will introduce you if you haven't been already. She likes to share treasures like him."
Ruh and the sky-pale girl laughed quietly to each other.

Taasva fretted to herself. Her Steed was not going to just fall out of the sky, like the others, and she was not going to pass out from exertion. But she so felt like giving up. Her Lord would be disappointed, she knew, in her performance. She knew better than to think that he would punish her, though. This weather was the cause of all their worries. Taasva hated the rain, to begin with. And it looked to her like half the other riders and their steeds did too. She could see the pale silvery color of Dec's tail and wingtips before her, and somewhere past her, a bit lower in altitude, was Winter. If only she could coax a little more effort out of LightHoof…
But it wasn't the back of the pack who she was worried about when she looked down. The third checkpoint was visible as a blinking red beacon, distantly washed with the light rain. But dark SlimSlick and PressurePoint were both edging with their aching wings, until both of them simply dropped down from the sky. It wasn't so far to fall, neither of them were injured, but if they pushed themselves any further, they could have been.
The rescue crafts blinked green and yellow lights, and bright filming lights came onto the pair of steeds as they landed upon the flat wide surface of the boat.

"Well that narrows the field a bit more," Okora commented, about those two leaving the race. "I would have thought they'd both be there to the end, but the early endurance must have taken a lot out of them."
"The third checkpoint is receiving the first comers, and it's a massive change from what we saw leaving the second!" Shatter exclaimed. "Just in the time they've been descending from the high checkpoint, the standings have almost reversed themselves! Some of those steeds are just made for swooping and diving, and I'm guessing that they're taking advantage of the brief rest they've gotten to gain speed. So now, the first around the checkpoint is The Pride! He's followed very closely by Eternal Gold, and WindTears is still clinging onto that third-place spot."
"Striker and Dec of Silver have really come up, but they've left Winter way back with Thirty Degrees and Shock Value." Okora drummed his fingers on the console, "I don't know how Thirty Degrees lost so much air speed!"
"There's a draft coming from the shore," Ruh looked over the weather sat picture, and put up a superimposed image of the Steeds and then the windspeed and direction. True to her words, there was a whipping wind coming around from the Gulf's cliffs, not unusual but certainly unexpected for some of the Steeds whose riders doubtless expected to be able to cruise down to the third checkpoint. "That leaves Winter just behind Hearts And Stars, and LightHoof has gained a little air in the meantime, hanging a bit behind Dec of Silver."
"The checkpoint's been cleared by all the participants, except for one - it looks like Shock Value has almost struck the checkpoint!" Shatter said excitedly, "let me get a replay on that!"
The Steed narrowly grazed one of the extended camera/light booms, shaking the view and thrilling the audience. Both rider and Steed were proclaimed all right, but neither apparently had the heart to continue. It had grown completely dark, save for the vague strips of grey-green placement lights which deliniated the course to the riders. On the sea's surface, they could see it gently swaying. From the control booth, a long line of that green light went into the foggy distance.
"With the speed that will count in the end," Ruh said, "this last stretch of the course may be the hardest for them all. It's one-fourth the distance of the whole course, to the landing finish line, here at the cliff side. But that fierce wind is really putting a dent in their progress! Look at how The Pride is fighting with it!"
The brilliant tips of the wings on that Steed beat heavily, and the Steed was tossed up hard into the sky. Dec of Silver on the other hand seemed to relish it. She pushed her wing wrists into the wind, and let off a fierce whinney.
"Well, I'll be!" Okora gasped, "did you hear that? The checkpoint monitor actually picked up that angry noise!"
"Striker's not making much progress against that wind," Ruh told the camera, "he almost looks like he's standing still. He's been passed by Winter, but only barely."
"LightHoof has made the last move she'll be able to, look at the others in the front break out of that wind!" Shatter said, bringing up a more local boat-based camera view. "Hearts and Stars is trailing a bit, arguing with The Pride. That's not a fight I'd like to pick, especially this late in the race!"
"No joke," Ruh agreed, "but look, as the last of the group has spread out, the leaders are finally coming clear! Will you look at WindTears! She's passed Dec of Silver and left the others behind like there isn't even a breeze!"
"That's why her name is WindTears," Shatter said, with a grin. "And as we can see now, the Steeds are coming in for their remarkable landings! It's WindTears, ridden by BeastLord Aern Kshau, winning by … eighteen seconds! Thirty Degrees has put in a tremendous second place showing and his rider Master Maresh looks absolutely stunned! Following them by just half a minute is Eternal Gold, ridden by High Master Tain, behind him are Dec of Silver and The Pride, just moments apart."
"Hearts And Stars has touched down," said Ruh, "along with LightHoof, and Winter just behind her. Striker is … finally, Striker is in and safe!"
"What a race!" Cried Okora. "This is sure to make or break careers!"

"What a race," breathed Rachael. Threen finally came to her side, grinning broadly. "You won, did you child?" She asked, and the orange-skinned girl nodded quickly. "Good. I expect you to!"
"I didn't even cheat," she added, as they wove their way through the crowd.
In the darkening night, most all of the attendants of the race waited until the boats had come in, seeing for themselves that all the riders and steeds were safe.
As for the announcement that someone's powers had been illegally used, when Shock Value arrived at the shore, his owner and Lord, Klaesh, put any doubts to rest: the Slave had accidentally washed his power over the other Steed. He'd be disqualified of course, but since he hadn't finished the race properly either, Lekis hoped that his punishment wouldn't be too stiff. It had been an accident, after all…

"What a race," giggled Lam. "A fine place for your Tain to come in, too," she chided Mirage.
"A finer one for my most beautiful Aern," Mirage said. "Now, there are interviews to be had and arrangements to be made. Come along, my friends. Autev?" She called out to the rat-faced man, but he had already vanished into the throng looking for praise. It came to him constantly, loudly, and to his utter delight, no one bothered to take his drink away from him as he left the lodge. Mirage laughed, as the women went back down to the mansion.