"Kai." Nathan touched her shoulder, frowning. He'd brought the mage light up again, hoping the cessation of dark would calm her. It hadn't. "Kai, it's all right. Wake up."
She stopped making the distressed noises. Her eyes opened. "What..."
"You were dreaming, I think." She'd whimpered, turning her head from side to side, then stilled. But her hand clasped his so tightly, and she'd kept making those small, unhappy sounds. "A bad dream."
"It was... I've had it before. The crying one." She blinked fuzzily. "So lonely. At first I thought it was you, but this time I knew... she just wanted to be held, so I – What? What is it?"
He'd sprung to his feet. The plucking inside him announced the breach of his wards a second before the beast crashed through the window.
Glass smashed, flying everywhere. The chameleon landed on the floor between the window and him – and he stood between it and Kai. It was eight feet long counting the lashing tail, its shaggy fur like mottled smoke. Feline, with an oddly shaped muzzle, tufted ears, and the oversize pads of a mountain or arctic cat. And it needed only a split second to orient itself before launching all eight muscular feet at him.
Kai screamed. He heard that, but his entire being was focused on his prey. He couldn't move and expose Kai to those claws, so he locked himself to the earth and met the attack.
Claws raked his forearm, ripping flesh from bone, spattering blood. He rocked back only an inch as he smashed his other fist inside the gaping mouth, aiming for the roof of it, where bone was thin and could be driven into the brain.
But the beast was fast. It flung itself back, howling – and bunched its hindquarters, readying for another attack.
"No!" Kai cried. "No, don't – don't – stop!"
The beast shook its head. And looked at her.
That second's inattention was all Nathan needed. He had his knife in his hand as he leaped onto the beast's back, seizing the great head so he could draw the blade across its –
"Don't kill her! She can't help it, and she's so lonely, so confused – don't kill her, please. Please."
He froze, panting. His arm shook with the need to finish.
But the chameleon wasn't moving, either. It wasn't moving.
"See?" Her voice wobbled, but she came toward them. The idiot woman started toward him and his prey. "She won't hurt me. She won't – won't even save herself, because I told her n-not to hurt you."
The beast's muscles tensed. A fine trembling ran through the great body.
Slowly, slowly, Nathan eased the knife away from its throat, but he held his position otherwise, crouched over the chameleon, his wounded arm strobing pain with each heartbeat. "If you stay back, I won't cut her throat. But stay back."
She stopped. "You're bleeding. Your arm. I need to... no, it's stopping already, isn't it? You said you didn't like to bleed in a fight, but... Nathan, she couldn't help it. She's so alone, and she was dying."
There were tears on Kai's face, shiny in the small glow of the mage light. Nathan stared at her, stricken. "What have you done?"
"I don't know, exactly. Only I touched her somehow, or she touched me... I've dreamt of her before, but tonight was different. I – I reached her. I feel her now. She came to me because she couldn't be alone anymore, and I... I told her, in my sleep. I said she didn't have to, so she came to me."
Pity twisted through him. He knew what it was to be cut off from all you knew. So alone... "She'll kill again, Kai. As you said, she can't help it. There isn't enough magic to sustain her here."
Kai took another step. "There's more magic in some places, close to the big nodes."
"Not enough." Eventually there might be, but not yet.
Kai was only four feet away now. She held out her hand, and the head Nathan had pinned struggled. "Let her smell me," Kai said. "She won't hurt me. She won't."
Nathan knew that every being had to decide his or her own course. He'd earned that knowledge one painful step at a time when he'd been stranded and had to learn how to make his own choices, all of them. But he felt sick, physically sick, as he slowly released the chameleon's head.
It – she – stretched her head out, sniffed the hand held out to her. And beneath him Nathan felt a vibration start.
She was purring. The beast was purring for Kai.
"Can you send her back?" Kai whispered. "Back where she belongs?"
He couldn't, no. But he knew one who could.