Run Yourself Dry
First, she sleeps.
In sleep, she runs. As always, her stride is long and loose, unmatched in efficiency. She runs like she was born to it. She runs towards, never away, and batters herself again and again against the great doors of the Clerics' monastery.
She scratches and kicks. Her claws go ragged and her and feet red; her fur mats, turns brown, with blood. She aches all over, through and through, past her bones and skin and muscle. Cold rain seeps in and washes nothing away but the last vestiges of warmth. Hulking shadows in the distance take up pursuit.
She run towards, never away, but she will not go back.
Against the grand door of the monastery, Cheetara of No Clan, No Name, Cheetara who belongs to no one, batters her body until it breaks.
She wakes with a flower stem clutched desperately in one hand and the head Cleric, Jaga, offering her a bowl of thin broth. The linens on the small pallet tangle about her legs and the sweat of her brow has soaked her top fur through. It lies plastered against her forehead.
She is come in from the storm.
"Serenity," her teacher says, "will be your next lesson."
Serenity is to be gained through sweeping and carrying and cleaning - through errands taking her from one end of the monastery to the other.
She is only to walk. Patience is not to be forgotten.
The tasks, at least, are familiar, and she has been charged with far worse before. She would fetch books to and from one library to the next crawling on her knees. She would do it for a thousand years, as long as it was here. As long as she can stay.
In meditation, she kneels bare-faced and exposed at the end of a long line of clerics for nearly a month.
"Who you were does not matter here," Jaga counsels as he presents her initiate's mantle. "You are a Guardian of the Crown now and nothing else. You are the Claw that strikes out against all that would threaten Thundera."
The diaphanous robes fall around her, cocoon her, and she wears her headress like a shield. The veil drapes, feather light, over her face.
There were worse places to grow up and worse fates she could have met. There are worse things to be than a cast-off, clanless and nameless, than a drain - as she has been told again and again - on charity and mercy. Worse things yet than to be a small, pitiable thing, alone.
Cheetara, however, has never known them.
She does not believe in the Book of Omens.
It is a wonderful tale, it always has been, and she has listened with wide eyes and ears perked in interest. But it is a tale for cubs, for the innocent and naive, and Cheetara has been neither for a very long time. There is no harm in it, she thinks. She enjoys memorization and can recite everything as she should just as well, if not better, than the others of the order.
She is not a heretic. She is a realist and wanted for real things. The staff in her hands and the mantle on her shoulders, a purpose and people to protect. Behind her veil, she is anonymous. Behind her veil, everyone knows exactly who she is.
There is an altercation. Cheetara is not better trained than the others in combat, but she wins nevertheless. They stay to their forms. She takes openings when she sees them. Another initiate takes exception and Cheetara's claws are out, a hiss slips from her throat, not before she has thought it through - she thinks too quickly for that - but before she can convince herself otherwise.
The other initiate is sent to their quarters and Cheetara, bits of fur not her own still stuck beneath her claws, faces repudiation alone.
"We train forms to encourage discipline," says Jaga.
"In a real fight-" Cheetara begins, but Jaga silences her with a look. That seal will never make you more than you are. It rings in her ears, pounds through her skull. She would do it all again.
"You cannot fight like an alley cat here," he continues. "It is not our way and it is not worthy of a Cleric. You represent the order now, in all that you do. You must prove yourself capable of that if you wish to progress."
"You said it didn't matter." She makes no attempt to mask the accusation in her voice. "You said it didn't matter who I was, where I- You said it didn't matter."
"It does not matter to the order." He is as serene as ever, his voice a low roll, like thunder in the distance. "But it clearly matters to you."
Sneaking about the monastery at night is not difficult, though opening the great doors quietly proves a challenge. The second moon is high and it casts its bright glow across Thundera where it spills out across the horizon. Beyond it are the plains and, beyond that, the forests.
She goes as far as she dares, earth rushing beneath her feet, then goes farther. The distance is a salve, but solitude has never been so easily cured.
She has only ever conceived one remedy.
She returns to the monastery before first light. The meditation bell rings, echoing through the high vaulted ceilings.
Cheetara sets her veil in place.