Tarrin Kael

Pyrosian Chronicles

Book Two

Sword of Fire©

by James Galloway (aka Fel)

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Title    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    10    11    12    13    14    15    16    17    18    Epilogue    

 

 

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 1

 

      It was a beautiful summer day, with a warm, gentle breeze blowing across a large open expanse of lightly rolling hills, caressing the tall grass with the lightest of touches as a brilliant sun shone from a sky dotted here and there with small, puffy little clouds.  Several hawks were soaring on thermals over the grassy hills, on the hunt for mice, rabbits, and other small birds, hawks who looked down upon a band of seven riders and four pack horses that made their way along a long unused track that left a grove of trees well in the distance behind them.  The hawks paid these travellers very little mind, busy as they were in their hunt for a meal, to feed their hungry chicks nesting in the very grove the travellers had just departed, the only substantial stand of trees for quite some distance in any direction.  The mice and rabbits lurking in the grass also didn’t pay these travellers much mind as well, scurrying out of the way of their horses and keeping a mindful eye out for seeds and roots and tasty plants that grew in the midst of the grass, at least until the group got close enough for the scents of the travellers to reach them.  Then they fled.

      They fled because the smells coming from this group were alien, and one of them was the smell of a predator even if it wasn’t completely understood.

      This group of travellers was certainly something that the animals in this area had never expected, for they had come from another world.

      Riding at their lead was a tall, handsome man with piercing green eyes, a long, thick blond braid, and riding atop a large, powerful black stallion.  He wore a simple pair of leather breeches, a white cotton shirt and a black vest over it, with sturdy leather boots upon his feet.  And much like every member of this party, he was much more than he appeared to be.  His name was Tarrin Kael, and though he appeared to be human, he was not.  He was a Were-cat, a creature infused with the magical gift of the common housecat, what many called a Lycanthrope.  Though he looked completely human, it was but one of the three shapes he could assume, and it was not the way he usuallly appeared.  His common appearance, the natural form of all Were-cats, was a hybrid form with both human and cat qualities, a human body but with hands and feet which were hybrids of hand and paw, black fur on his arms to just above the elbows and on his legs to just above the knee, vertically-slitted, piercing green eyes, and a pair of furry cat ears atop his head.  Just as he could take on the fully human shape—though it was no longer natural for his breed of Were-kin, and caused most Were-cat considerable pain to assume—he could also take on the shape of the common housecat.  His fusion with the Cat granted him supernatural strength, agility, dexterity, the ability to quickly regenerate wounds, and immunity to weapons which were not made of silver, imbued with magic, or were unworked weapons of nature, but it also imprinted the instincts of the cat into his mind.  That was the curse that came with those powers, and it had nearly destroyed him.  He was a very young man, but the trials of his life gave him a bearing and a demeanor that made him seem to be much older, which probably suited him better anyway.  His was a commanding presence, even in his human form, strong and powerful and radiating a quiet, sure strength that never failed to intimidate those who did not know him and remind those who did of just who they were dealing with.

      Not that they ever forgot.  Tarrin was, quite simply, one of the most powerful beings in his world.  His Were-cat nature gave him overwhelming physical advantages, but it was his powers in magic which made him such an unstoppable force.  He was well trained in every form of magic known on his world, one of only a very, very rare few capable of using more than one order of magic, but it was the fact that he was a being known as a Mi’Shara that stood him apart.  He was one of only two, and they were capable of exceeding the limitations of the mortal realm if the need was great enough, and wield more magical power than any mortal could hope to control.  He and the Urzani Sorceress Spyder were the only Mi’Shara, and they were beings who were all but invincible on their own world, Sennadar, blessed with these incredible powers to be used in the defense of the world itself against the titanic forces who sought to invade their home world and take its powerful magic for themselves.

      Of course, the secret behind the secret of Tarrin Kael was what was hidden within him, for he had once been an actual god…for about ten minutes.  He had used a mighty artifact from his world called the Firestaff to become a god in order to destroy another god, the dark and evil god Val.  He had been restored to life, and though he was no longer a god, the infusion of divinity into him had altered his very soul, and over time he had regained minor aspects of his lost power.  The representation of that power came in the form of a pair of wings made of living fire that had become a part of him some years ago, limbs more than wings whose size and shape he could control with but a thought, which he could hide when the needs suited him.  They were hidden now, locked into his back where they were anchored to him and covered over with his own skin.  He was a mortal but had certain aspects of a divine being, what they called a demi-god, a condition that caused him not a little trouble on his home world, for the gods there were afraid of him.

      But this was not his home world of Sennadar.  This was a brand new world, an unknown world, and he had come in search of those who had fled here thousands of years ago to escape a terrible war which had been fought in Sennadar, as well as coming in search of two of his friends who had been forced to come here, so he could take them home.  He was rather excited about the idea of it, truth be told, coming to an exotic, unknown world where nothing could be taken for granted, where there was an element of excitement, even danger, and trouble could be lurking behind every corner.  The problem with invincibility was that it became boring after a while, and here, in this unknown world, there was that aire of danger that made it exciting.  It made it even more exciting in the fact that his Sorcery, Druidic powers, and his ability to use Priest magic all did not work here.  He could still use Wizard magic—that worked just about everywhere—so at least he had some kind of magical reserve to call upon if things got hairy.

      He blinked and looked down at a small black snake that slithered lazily across the path of his horse, and he wondered idly if the snake was venemous.  Then he wondered if it was aggressive, then he wondered if it was edible.  It looked like a common blacksnake, but there was no way to be sure of that, for this was a different world and nothing here could be taken for granted.  This place felt like the Desert of Swirling Sands to him, a place where everything contained a hidden danger and everything had to be treated with caution and respect.  They just didn’t know what was dangerous and what was not, so they had to be careful to treat everything like it was a potential threat until they knew one way or the other.

      He led six other mounted horses, and they were seated by some of the best his world had to offer.  That was why they were here.  Immediately behind him was Mist, who looked like a small woman with tan skin, unruly, short black hair, and hawkish, sharply handsome features and sharp green eyes that made most people uncomfortable to look into for very long.  She too was a Were-cat, hiding behind an Illusion of how she appeared in her human form, and currently she was his mate.  The others knew all about Mist, so he was sure there wouldn’t be too many messy incidents, for Mist was feral.  Ferality in Were-cats was a dangerous trait, for she was like a wild animal inside, and she was capable of tremendous violence if she felt afraid or threatened.  The problem was, a feral Were-cat feared everything that was not intimately familiar, everyone who was not a known and trusted friend.  Mist was more than feral, though.  She was a rough, crude, blunt woman who didn’t see life the way any of the others did, and to her it was perfectly acceptable to make someone shut up by clawing a gash over his face as it was to tell him to be quiet.  But despite her volatile demeanor and propensity for violence, she was a surprisingly patient, insightful woman who had a great deal of common sense, and was much more intelligent than she seemed.  Tarrin had learned to respect Mist’s opinions over the years he’d known her, for she often saw right to the heart of the matter, and her advice was usually good.  She was also an unusual mate.  Were-cat society was based on pure, physical strength, and in Mist’s eye, Tarrin was dominant, which caused her to obey him utterly and without question, something that she just did not do with anyone else but Triana.  His prior mates had not acted like that with him.  Jesmind fought him every day, and Kimmie used clever manipulation to get him to do what she wanted, but Mist never did any of that.  She would suggest a course of action, but would never try to force him to take her advice.  She obeyed him without question and was always demure around him.  She was also violently defensive of her mate’s body and his reputation, and would not tolerate anyone disrespecting him in her presence.  Mist was devoted to him in a way he’d never seen any female devoted to a male before, and sometimes he wondered if it was an entirely healthy situation.

      Behind Mist rode Dolanna, a very small woman with dark hair, dark eyes, and who was the real leader of this expedition, dressed in a modest riding dress of soft brown wool with skirts divided for riding.  Dolanna was a vastly wise Sorceress who was always calm and measured, and never panicked.  She was their leader, a fact even Mist accepted, and they all felt better with her being among them.  Dolanna was a very even-tempered woman who thrived in this kind of situation, where she could apply her cool logic and use her aire of confidence to keep the others settled down.  Even though she had lost her powers when they arrived in this new world—Sorcery didn’t work here—she was still the most important member of their party, and they all held her in the highest respect.  He had known Dolanna for a very long time, and he always felt much more confident when she was with him.  She was a friend and confidante, someone who understood him in ways that most others did not, a close friend who he respected so much that his Were-cat nature saw her as a mother figure, and someone to which he deferred without argument.  Much as Mist obeyed him, he obeyed Dolanna, because he saw her as the dominant.  They all did that, truth be told, for to put your trust in Dolanna was to put your trust in the competent hands of a woman who would not let you down.  She always spoke with stiff formality, but her eyes and her expressions were always soft and gentle, and just her presence was enough to settle people down.  Dolanna’s wisdom and her ability to react quickly and concisely to unknown situations made her perfect for this mission, but he was more glad she was along because of their friendship.

      Always near Dolanna was Azakar, a truly monstrous young man riding an equally monstrous horse, wearing a full suit of black plate armor.  He was nearly half again as large as a normal man, though he was entirely human, a hulking, powerful Knight whose massive body hid a gentle, almost child-like personality.  Azakar had been a slave for much of his life, and the abuse he had suffered at the hands of cruel masters made him very quiet and reserved, never wanting to draw attention to himself.  The hideous scars from the lash that made his back look like a dry lake bed had not scarred his personality, for he was a caring, compassionate young man who took his duty to protect Dolanna very seriously.  He was what the Knights had in mind when they created the order; dutiful, modest, skilled, kind, and filled with powerful resolve.  While he was there, nothing would get close enough to Dolanna to even think about hurting her.  Tarrin and Azakar had had their fights in the past, but they never lost their respect for one another.

      Also near Dolanna, though he wasn’t being open about it, was Haley.  Haley was a Were-wolf, a quick-witted fellow with a fast tongue and a propensity for dabbling in crime.  He wore a dark blue wasitcoat and breeches of Shacèan make, the cuffs of his white shirt ruffled with lace, flared black leather knee boots, and a sleek rapier hung from his belt which he could use with frightening efficiency.  Tarrin rather liked Haley, for he was a sober-seeming Were-wolf with a sly, sardonic wit and who still appreciated humor, and was one of the few people who could make Tarrin laugh.  He was along mainly because of Dolanna.  They had known one another for a very long time, and though Tarrin couldn’t prove it yet, he had the feeling that Haley’s feelings for Dolanna extended well beyond the bounds of friendship.  He never seemed to push it or reveal it, however, content to simply be Dolanna’s friend, for harsh reality assured that they would never be anything else.  Dolanna was human, he was a Were-wolf, and that made any kind of relationship absolutely impossible.  Despite that, though, Haley was a welcome addition, for he understood the baser nature of humankind in a way that probably only one other person in their group could come close to matching.

      That person rode behind Haley, looking thoroughly miserable in the summer heat when they’d all been dressed for winter, and her fur made it even worse.  Her name was Miranda, and she was a Wikuni, a race of beings who resembled bipedal animals of many different kinds.  Miranda was a mink Wikuni, with sleek, soft white fur and a human body, but with a head and face that was a combination of the best traits of human and mink.  She was, by far, the cutest little thing he’d ever seen in his life.  She had large, expressive blue eyes, and cute little mink button nose affixed to a softened muzzle, and a cheeky grin that would disarm absolutely anyone with its charm.  Rounded mink ears poked out of a very thick expanse of luxurious blond hair, and a thick, lush tail peeked out from under a heavy brown wool robe, which was also blond; Miranda was an exotic Wikuni in that her tail was the same color as her hair, which often wasn’t the same color as a Wikuni’s fur.  But Miranda was one of the most exotic Wikuni of them all, for she was an Avatar, a mortal blessed by a god upon birth, and carrying certain abilities that exceeded mortal kind.  Miranda hadn’t known that until just a few years ago, and finding out caused her to have a crisis of self-identity.  She had left them all to discover who she truly was, and had returned just a few months ago as a Priest.  This was quite a surprise to just about everyone, for Miranda never seemed the type to be a Priest.  She was a cunning, sly, dangerous young lady who had served her friend and queen, Keritanima, as a maid, a spy, and also as an assassin when the need arose.  She was a very formidable woman who understood politics better than anyone but maybe Keritanima or Tarrin thought she did, and had made a career out of tricking people into underestimating her.  It still seemed odd that she was a Priest to Tarrin, for her personality had not changed at all.  She was still the clever little girl he remembered, all disarming smiles while those cunning eyes stripped one of all his secrets and left his soul bare to her whim.  Only a fool would think that Miranda was not the second most dangerous person in that group.  Miranda’s god, however, seemed perfectly alright with having a Priest with her kind of personality, for she was a truly powerful Priest, one of the strongest he had ever seen, capable of magic that most other Priests couldn’t even dream about.  And unlike Tarrin’s own Priest magic, she could use hers here.  The fact that she was an Avatar allowed her to do so, and her magic was the way they were going to get home.

      Behind her, minding the pack horses, was one of the little problems in this group. His name was Ulger, and he was also a Knight.  He was a burly, slightly tall middle-aged man with a shaved head and a face criss-crossed with several scars.  Ulger was a very good man in a fight, one of the best fighters the Knights of Karas could field, and Tarrin did kind of like him, but he had this bad habit of saying the absolutely wrong thing at the right time.  Putting a muzzle on Ulger was something that he was already considering.  Ulger had a nasty wit and a sly way of delivering his barbs, but he was also a fun-loving fellow who was just as much at ease being the brunt of the joke as he was the deliverer.  There was a strange lack of self-consciousness about the scarred Knight that Tarrin could actually respect, for he was just as quick to laugh at himself as he was at someone else.  Despite his tendency to blurt out the wrong thing to say, he was a very jovial, friendly man who was growing on the others as much as he grated on them, but also knew exactly when to drop his joking and get serious when the need arose.

      Ulger was a gift from the gods in more ways that just one, though, for Sarraya seemed strangely attracted to the Knight as a recipient of her scathing wit, flitting around his head and being as annoying as possible to him.  Sarraya was a Faerie, a race of very, very tiny blue-skinned beings with gossamer, multicolored, dragonly-like wings.  She had a head full of short, curly auburn hair that clashed with her blue skin, and wore a gauzy dress that looked to be made of spiderwebs.  She was one of Tarrin’s closest friends, but that friendship came with it a certain need for tolerance.  Sarraya was a flighty little thing, impulsive and lacking in self control, with a razor for a tongue and a need to unleash it on everyone around her.  Though she was a pain much of the time, she was a solid and true friend, caring and giving, and he loved her very much for it.  Though she, like Haley and Tarrin, could not use her Druidic magic on this alien world, she could still use the magical power blessed to her by her race, which was the ability to turn invisible.  Since she was an exceedingly tiny thing, able to fit in the palm of his paw easily, the fact that she could fly, go almost anywhere she wanted because her small size let her squeeze into openings no other could, and could turn invisible made her the ultimate spy.  She should have died when she came here, for she was bound to their homeworld’s magic, but she had found a way around that.  That was much in line with Sarraya’s personality.  She was very un-Faerie in that she was capable of exceptional bouts of determination and self-control if it was necessary, used usually when she was trying to get something that was denied to her.  She had wanted to go, and she kept at it until she found a way to do it.  Telling Sarraya no was a virtual guarantee that she was going to do it, no matter what it took.

      They were a diverse group with a wide range of skills and abilities, but that was what they needed to do what they came here to do.  They were here to find out what happened to the Dwarves who fled their homeworld five thousand years ago, them and the Sorcerers who had come with them, and they were also here to track down two of their own, Kimmie and Phandebrass.  They had been forced through the gate to this world two months ago by an avalanche, and they were now lost in this alien world.  That was their first goal, to find them, and then they would continue on with their original mission.  Tarrin had hoped that his friends would be camped at the gate waiting for them, but they had not, so now they were following their trail.  Haley, Tarrin, and Mist all could track it if it was necessary, so that wasn’t much of a problem, but it was not knowing where they were or what trouble that crazy Wizard was getting Kimmie into that worried him.  He’d already tried using his amulet to contact her, but it didn’t work…and he’d more or less expected that.  The ability to use the amulets to talk to others depended on the Weave, and there was no Weave on this world.  The magically charged items still worked—why, he had no idea, for they should not—but that function specifically depended on the Weave to be used, and without the Weave to carry the message, it wouldn’t work.

      Right now, Miranda was providing their direction.  She used a Priest spell that she called Find the Path, which was letting her track where Kimmie went, tracking her as easily as any of the Were-kin could without requiring them to crawl around on the ground snuffling for a scent like a bloodhound..  She had imbued Tarrin with the spell’s effect instead of herself, and it was guiding him without fail along the exact path that Kimmie had taken when she passed by here two months ago.  He could see the hoofprints of her horse as a ghostly radiance on the grassy plain that trekked off into the distance, and he was leading them along it.

      It was odd that his vision wasn’t so…cluttered.  Usually, the strands of the Weave were interlaced within his vision with the real world, and he was forced to separate them.  And here lately, he’d been starting to see, well, he could only call them patterns.  Textures, shimmering forces, things he thought were magical focused around places, things, and people.  They were faint and easy to ignore, but they were new, and Tarrin didn’t like new.  He guessed that it had to do with this new world, or his condition, but for now, it was really nothing to worry about.

      He knew that his condition was letting him see and hear more than the others, for they couldn’t hear the welcoming.  He’d started hearing it as soon as he got here, and it had been getting both stronger and more joyous since he first noticed it.  He didn’t know where it was coming from or who was doing it, but someone was very happy that he was here.  That surprised him a little, for he privately thought that he’d be as unwelcome here as he was at home.  The gods of his world were terrified of him, for he was a mortal who had access to power that no mortal was ever meant to wield.  That power was locked away from him, locked within the sword that he had created when he was a god, and had survived the destruction of his divine body.  The sword was sentient after a fashion, and it held within it the power to transform his mortal body into something truly divine, and that gave him access to the divine power he had once wielded as a god.  It decided when the need was great enough to take that drastic step, however, and it was very, very picky.  Only once had it ever done that, when he was fighting a nightmarish magical creation of the god Val, whom he had destroyed, a creation that had been born in Val’s destruction and had been tasked with killing Tarrin to avenge his death.  That was the event which had given him his wings, wings of pure, living fire which were now an integral part of him, a touch of divine magic that forever marked him as different from everyone else

      Perhaps the gods of this world weren’t quite as high strung as the gods of his own.

      It was a world that was amazingly similar to Sennadar, from what he’d seen so far.  Strolling along this grassy, low and gentle hilly area was almost like running along the steppes of western Arak’s savannah, except for the lack of raintrees.  The grass smelled just like grass from home, and they’d already seen quite a few animals they recognized and, after inspection, discovered were exactly like the animals from home.  Mice, bees, birds, flies and other insects, all were easily recognizable and exactly like home.  There were some differences, however.  The sky here was eerily empty, lacking the Skybands that striped the skies of his home, and there was no sense of magic here at all.  This world’s natural energy, what he would call the All, was radically different from what was at home, and that was what was causing them the most trouble right now.  That major difference weakened him and the other Were-kin, for they drew power from the All which fueled some of their quasi-magical abilities.  They could all still shapeshift, but their magical strength was greatly reduced, and experimentation had shown that the Were-cats’ ability to regenerate was greatly weakened here.  They still could not be permanently hurt by weapons not made of magic, silver, or an unworked weapon of nature, but wounds that would have instantly closed at home took minutes to mend here, and the aggravated accumulation of small wounds could kill them just as easily as it could kill any human.  That was a very important thing to know, and it meant that they’d have to approach any battle with a measure of caution.

      In a weird twist of things, however, that loss of strength was offset slightly, for there was something odd going on with all of them that seemed to cover that a little.  All of them, even Dolanna, were stronger than they had been at home.  He didn’t understand how that could be, but it was most certainly the case.  Dolanna, who was a very small, slim woman, could pick up items her own weight with only moderate difficulty, when she would have barely been able to get them off the ground at home.  In the case of the Knights, it was very noticable, for they moved with a spryness of step that made it look like their armor was made of silk instead of steel.  Even the horses were affected, for they moved as if there was nothing at all on their backs.  For the Were-kin, it was a very noticable decrease in their strength, but this strange strengthening stacked onto what magical strength they did still possess still gave them superhuman physical power.  Tarrin couldn’t jump thirty spans into the air in his natural form here like he could at home, but he figured he could make fifteen easy.

      Not that he really needed to jump.  Tarrin’s wings gave him the power to fly, and unlike most of his other magical abilities, his divine-imparted powers were still a part of him.  Since that power came from within him, it didn’t depend on the magical power of any dimension, and thus worked absolutely anywhere.  The only catch was that in order to use any of his divine magic, he had to have the wings out, and that meant giving away the fact that he was not what he appeared to be.

      That was an important consideration right now.  They hadn’t come across any sentient beings yet, but they had no idea how the people of this world would react to exotic circumstances.  They were assuming that there were humans here, but that was just an assumption based on the fact that humans were the most populous race of their world, but they honestly had no idea what they were going to encounter, and how they were going to react.  Tarrin had wanted to bring his pet Hellhound to help find Kimmie, but Dolanna had overruled him on the grounds that Forge may be too exotic, and might cause them problems.  He definitely would if the beings of this world had experience with Demons, for he’d have a very hard time trying to explain how he came to be the master of a dog from the Abyss, and he doubted they’d listen when he told them that Forge wasn’t evil.  That was why he and Haley were in human form, and Mist was concealed behind an illusion of how she appeared when she was human—unlike him, Mist couldn’t hold her human shape for any amount of time without it causing her pain—and Miranda was hidden under a heavy, voluminous robe to conceal her Wikuni heritage.  Sarraya was too small to see from a great distance, and she could simply turn invisible whenever she wished to hide.  Humans may be exotic here, but at least anyone who would see them would see seven similar beings, and that similarity might prevent some grief.

      They crested a hill, and Tarrin reined in his horse as he looked down into a very shallow valley that had a brook rolling along its bottom, but it wasn’t the small stream which had his attention.  Down and to the right was a thin muddy scar that ran down one hill, across the brook, then up the other hill and out of sight.  The glowing trail turn towards that line, and Tarrin fully understood why it did.  That was a road, and Kimmie and Phandebrass had turned to get onto it, to find some kind of civilization.  Mist and Dolanna came up to either side of him, and they all slowly gathered around the crest to look down.

      “I take it she went to the road?” Dolanna asked.

      Tarrin nodded.  “Looking for civilization,” he said aloud.

      “Not a bad idea,” Miranda observed, fanning the front of her robe.

      “I think we should stop for lunch, and then continue,” Dolanna announced.  “We have been riding for hours, and I am growing hungry.”

      “Let’s move down to the stream,” Ulger proposed.  “We can test the water, and if it’s drinkable, we can use that instead of wasting our own stores.”

      “Sensible,” Dolanna nodded.

      They moved down and found a flat spot by the brook not far from the road, whose trampled condition hinted that others had camped in this very spot, for it was a flat stretch immediately beside a slow-moving pool in the brook, which had remarkably clear, clean water within it holding several large fish.  They let the horses graze on the grass as Dolanna and Ulger took out some bread and cheese for them to eat, and Tarrin, Mist and Sarraya went down to the pool’s edge.  Mist hunkered down on all fours and sniffed at the water tentatively, then put her hand in and brought it to her lips.  “It’s safe,” she announced.  Then, her eyes glittering dangerously, her paw whipped into the watter, plunging into it with a sound like she was ripping the surface, and it recoiled as quickly as it entered, bringing with it one of the larger fish at the bottom of the pool.

      “Hey, can you fish a couple more of those out?” Miranda asked.

      “If you want to eat them raw,” Dolanna advised.  “We do not have the time for a fire.”

      Azakar made a slight face, but said nothing, but Miranda chuckled.  “Raw is fine with me.  Wikuni aren’t as squeamish as you humans.”

      “Raw fish is a delicacy in Shacè,” Haley said.

      “Everything is a delicacy in Shacè,” Ulger said with a grunt.  “I’ve never seen people who eat snails and frogs.”

      “You just don’t have a sense of adventure, Ulger,” Haley told him.

      “I’ll do my adventuring with my sword, not my tongue,” he announced.

      “Perhaps cooking them would be wise here,” Dolanna offered.  “These animals might carry diseases of which we have no knowledge.”

      “Don’t worry about that, Dolanna,” Miranda said.  “I know a spell to cure diseases.  We’ll be safe enough.”

      “Ah.  In that case, carry on,” she said with a smile and a wave of her hand.

      “How many do you want, my mate?” she asked.

      “One will do, so fish out four if you don’t mind,” he answered.  “One for each of us, plus whatever extra you want.”

      “I’ll have them in a minute,” she promised.

      Mist was a proficient fisher, so she had lunch out of the pool in mere moments.  Ulger kept giving disgusted faces as the four of them enjoyed a meal of raw fish, bread, and cheese, with water from the brook to wash it down.  The fish tasted just like fish from home, but that was something of a broad generality and he knew it.  But this particular fish tasted very good.  It was his first meal here on this new world, and it also included food from this new world.  That seemed like a good enough start to him.  “Ick,” Ulger said as he watched.  “There goes my appetite.”

      “It’s your loss,” Haley told him.  “These aren’t bad.  They taste like freshwater rockfish.”

      “Tarrin,” Miranda said as they were finishing up.  “Can you please do something about this robe?  I’m begging!  I’m going to die of heat stroke!”

      “I’m not sure what I can do, Miranda,” he told her.  “Don’t you know a Priest spell to fix it?”

      “I can pray for one that makes the air around me cool, but anyone who gets close to me is going to notice it,” she told him.  “I need a permanent solution, and I just don’t have one.”

      “I may not have one either,” he warned.

      “We won’t know until you look, will we?”

      He chuckled.  “Alright,” he said, standing up.  “Let me go get the book and I’ll see if Kimmie or the Gnomes put a spell in there that will help.”

      The book was a Gnomlin Traveling Spellbook, a gift from the Gnomes of Gnomlin, and it held all of the Wizard spells he could cast within it.  Kimmie and the Gnomes had added spells into it beyond those in his own tomes, and he still hadn’t managed to go through all of them because he was always busy doing something else.  He went to his horse and pulled it out of the saddlepack, the brought it back over to where they were sitting.  He spoke the word that made the little thing expand to its full size, which took up his entire lap, and then he started paging through it.

      “So that’s a spellbook, eh?” Ulger said.  “I always wondered what one looked like.”  He came over and looked over Tarrin’s shoulder.  “Tarrin, why are the characters moving?”

      “They’re not,” he answered absently.  “You don’t have the magical skill to read them, so they’re hiding themselves from your eyes.  If you could read them, you’d be a danger to yourself and everyone around you.  You don’t play with Arcane magic, Ulger, so Wizards take steps to prevent messy accidents.”

      “Arcane magic?” he asked.

      “Wizard magic.  That’s what they call it.  Kimmie kinda made that stick on me.”

      The book wasn’t organized into sections or divided into groups of similar spells.  Each page held its own spell, and they weren’t in any order.  He had to go by memory and bookmarks which were liberally dispersed through it, each a different color, to find spells he was looking for.  He leafed through it as the others finished their meals, and began getting ready to move again, til he found one that looked promising.  “Here we go,” he said.  “Here’s a spell that creates a duplicate of an object in size and shape but leaves what it’s made of up to the caster.  It also creates the duplicate in the condition of the original when it was first made.”

      “That’s perfect!” Miranda said with glee, clapping her hands.  “Can you make a copy of this robe, but in a lighter material?  Like cotton, or plaxa fiber, or silk?  I’d prefer plaxa.  It’s very light, it breathes, it’ll keep me cool, and it’s very rugged.”

      “Easily, but I have to have a bit of the material that the creation will be made of, and it will disappear when I cast the spell.  So will the item I’m duplicating.  You have anything made of plaxa you don’t mind losing, and do you mind losing the wool robe?”

      “I don’t need a heavy wool robe in the summer, and I think I have a shift,” she said.  “Do you need the whole thing or just a piece of it?”

      “Just a piece.”

      “Then I’ll tear a swath for you, and you can cast it again with another swath to replace the shift itself.”

      “Clever,” Sarraya said admirably.

      “I didn’t get this far by being a silly girl, Sarraya,” Miranda said with a cheeky grin.

      “Only when it suited you to look silly,” Tarrin added.

      She gave him a knowing wink.

      “I’ll need the robe, Miranda, but without you in it,” he told her.  “You need to take it off.”

      “Gladly,” she said, standing up and reaching for the belt holding it around her waist.

      “You are wearing something under it, aren’t you?”

      “Of course I am.”

      “Damn,” Ulger muttered just loud enough to hear, which made Haley laugh.  Miranda gave Ulger a daring little smile as she passed him, going to fetch the shift.

      More than just Ulger watched curiously as Tarrin accepted a torn piece of Miranda’s shift and the robe he was going to duplicate, then memorized the spell.  Tarrin had a knack for it, and he was finished in mere moments.  It actually was a very easy spell to memorize.  When he was done he closed the book and spoke the word which made it shrink back to its tiny travelling form, and he stuck it absently in his pocket.  He put the robe on the ground, laid out flat so he could see it, then put the swath of white shift on the ground beside it and backed up.  Everyone else did the same, and he began the spell.

      Wizard magic was done in the language of magic itself, a nonsensical tongue that seemed to make no grammatical sense. Then again, Arcane magic often contradicted itself, and operated by rules that nobody who practiced Wizard magic truly understood.  They had learned enough to gain some control over the power, but not enough to truly understand it.  Wizards spent their entire lives in study of a force that their minds simply were not advanced enough to fully comprehend.  He chanted in that strange language, which seemed both musical and discordant at the same time, his hands making five distinct and sharp gestures before him, one after another after another, as was dictated by the spell’s formula.  The words and the gestures were what shaped the force of the magic and would cause it to do what he wanted it to do.  When he finished, he felt that tenuous connection to a force that existed elsewhere, and the magic came to him and then moved through him.

      The torn piece of shift shimmered on the ground before him, then vanished, as did the wool robe itself.  Almost immediately, a brown robe made of plaxa fiber, an exact duplicate of the original, appeared where the wool robe had been.

      “I don’t need a swath for the shift,” he told Miranda as she handed him the other half of the torn piece.  “Keep that in case you need something else duplicated.  If I’m just replacing one garment with an undamaged duplicate of the same material, I just need the garment itself.”

      “Oh, alright.”

      He repeated the spell once more to replace the torn shift, and he was done.  The casting of the two spells didn’t tire him at all, for Wizard magic took a great deal of the Wizard’s own energy to control the forces of magic and make them do what he wanted them to do.

      “Why did you have to memorize it anyway?” Ulger asked.  “I know how good your memory is, Tarrin.”

      “The words are in the language of magic, and they don’t let themselves get memorized like that,” he answered him.  “I’ll forget the spell in a few days or so, and I’ll have to memorize it again.  That’s why you see Wizards with their noses in their books all the time.  They have to keep memorizing their spells over and over again.”
      “Oh,” he said.

      “That certainly explains why my cub always had her nose in her books,” Mist grunted.

      “The more advanced a Wizard is, the longer they can remember a spell,” he said, reciting what Kimmie had taught him when she trained him in Wizard magic.  “I can remember a spell for about four days.  Kimmie can hold one for six, and Phandebrass can remember a spell for almost a ride.”

      “That’s surprising, but then again it’s not,” Sarraya laughed.

      “Nothing about Phandebrass should surprise anyone anymore,” Dolanna said mildly as Miranda belted the new robe around her curvy form.  “How are the horses, Ulger?”

      “We’ve just been riding a few hours, Dolanna,” he scoffed.

      “Yes, but we went from winter to summer.  We should check them over to ensure they have adjusted.”

      “I’ll see to it,” Azakar said, standing up with a rattle of clanking armor.

      “I can’t let a brother Knight do all the work.  I’ll supervise,” Ulger said with a roguish grin, following the huge Mahuut.

      “You couldn’t supervise a sleeping slug!” Sarraya piped up.  “I’d better make sure that you stay out of Zak’s way!”

      The three of them moved to check the horses as Tarrin, Mist, and Miranda started cleaning up and getting ready to go, and Dolanna packed what few items they had taken out.  Tarrin stretched out his arms, and several sickening cracks from popping joints accompanied the motion.  “Does it hurt?” Mist asked.

      “It never does, but sometimes I get a little stiff,” he replied.

      “It certainly sounds like it,” Miranda told him.

      Ulger and Azakar endured the Faerie’s scathing commands and comments as they checked over the horses, and proclaimed them fit.  Tarrin mounted up after helping Dolanna onto her gentle mare, and Sarraya landed lightly on his shoulder.  “You’re not ingratiating yourself very well, Sarraya,” he said in a quiet tone.

      “Heh, who cares?  I’m having fun,” she said in a wicked tone.

      “Tread lightly around Ulger, little friend.  He’s like Faalken was.  He will get you if you annoy him.”

      “Isn’t he the one that shaved the hair off one side of Zak’s head?”

      He nodded.  “Zak threw him overboard in retaliation.  In full armor,” he added.

      “Ooh, this trip is sounding more and more fun,” she said in a grim kind of anticipation.

      “You’ve been warned,” he said mildly.

      Miranda seemed much happier after they started out once again, following Kimmie’s trail as it turned left onto the road.  The heavy wool cloak, combined with the summer heat, the beating sun, and her own thick fur, was making her utterly miserable.  But plaxa fiber, one of the plant fibers the Selani made clothes and tent fabric from, was perfect for her.  It breathed out the hot air and circulated cooler air in, keeping the mink Wikuni from overheating.  Tarrin was glad for that, for he didn’t like seeing his friend uncomfortable.  Now that her troubles were off his mind, he, Haley, and Mist were studying the road with a practiced eye that told them much.  This road wasn’t much used, and it hadn’t seen rain in a while.  There were traces of cart tracks on it, as well as horses, sheep, cattle, dogs, and strange three-toed tracks with claws that reminded Tarrin of inu.  And most importantly to Tarrin, there were bootprints that were the size and shape a human’s foot in a boot would have.

      “Human,” Mist announced.  “Days old.”

      “Are you sure, my dear?” Haley asked.

      “Positive,” she answered.  “I can smell it from up here.  Humans.  Really smelly ones.”

      “Well, that answers one mystery,” Dolanna said.  “There are humans on this world.”

      “They seem to be everywhere.  Like rats,” Mist grunted.

      “Vermin,” Sarraya agreed from Tarrin’s shoulder with an evil little smile at Ulger.

      “You’re closer to the size of a rat than me,” he answered with a smirk.  “And you have eyes like a rat.”

      “Children,” Dolanna said in a mild but firm voice.  “Do the tracks go in the direction Kimmie went, or against it?”

      “In the same direction,” Mist answered.

      “Then let us be off.”

      They travelled for about five hours, and Tarrin watched the empty sky start to show a front of clouds in the same direction as the sun seemed to be travelling towards the horizon.  If the weather here was anything like it was at home, then that meant that there was rain coming for this parched land, which was good.  Though the grass was green, the earth was dry, telling him that the grass was feeding from ground water that was still high enough for their roots to reach.  The land also seemed to start flattening, as the hills became gentler and gentler, and small stands of trees started to appear along hillsides and in shallow valleys through which the road was laid.

      “It looks as if rain is moving this way,” Haley announced.

      “We have a few hours,” Tarrin said calmly, looking back towards him as they crested a very low hill.

      “It might not be an issue,” Mist called, pointing.  He looked forward again and saw a small village nestled in the bottom of the valley.  If it could be called a village.  It was a small gathering of rude mud and thatch huts surrounded by a wall of blackened logs, but there was a stone building down there in the middle of the village, rectangular in shape and with a strange symbol on its top, two small steel spires that angled away from one another, rising up from the roof of the building at angles from the ground rather than straight up, then bent and turned towards the ground at right angles, ending about a fourth of the length as the upsweeping side.  There were farm fields surrounding the wall, literally right up against it, and there were humans toiling in those fields.  The road split off to cut through the fields into the village through a gate, as the other fork circled wide of the village and continued on the way it was going.  Tarrin peered at the humans in the field, and saw that they were dressed in rough homespun smocks and tunics, and often had either wrapped leather around their feet for shoes, at least those who had them.  They used battered, worn tools, a very rare few of them steel, and most others made of bone or simple wood.

      “By the Goddess,” Dolanna said.  “These people dwell in such crude conditions!”

      “They look like Mahuut tribals from Valkar,” Haley said.

      “That stone building tells us that they are not as crude as first impressions suggest,” Dolanna said after a moment of study.  “Though the architecture is odd and the design is somewhat simplistic, these people have learned to work in stone.”

      “And steel,” Haley added.

      “Well, Kimmie’s trail goes down into the village,” Tarrin said.  “So I guess we need to go pay them a visit.”

      “Sarraya, kindly hide,” Dolanna said.  “Let us give no impression that we are more than we should appear.”

      “You got it, Dolanna,” Sarraya said, even as her form shimmered and vanished.

      They started down towards the village slowly, and Tarrin reached into the pouch hanging from his saddle and withdrew the golden charm given to him by Spyder.  It exactly resembled a Weavespinner’s shaeram, and it needed to, for it was supposed to be affixed to the back of his and not be noticable.  These people probably spoke no language that they would understand, so he wanted to be ready.  “Let me do the talking,” he called as they approached.  The first villagers noticed them, and jumped up from their work in the fields to run through the gate of their crude wall, calling out.  Tarrin listened to them shouting, and affirmed that they were speaking in no language that he understood.  He affixed the charm to his amulet, and felt that odd surge of awareness rush through him, a heightening of sense of self and surroundings, an alertness imparted to him by the charm.  It also granted him the power to have hear any language and understand it, and have his words understood by any who heard them.  The only drawback to it was that he couldn’t control that, and if he wanted to speak in a language that someone couldn’t understand, he had to take the charm off.  Everyone who heard his voice would hear him seemingly speaking their own language, but for him, he heard their language as it sounded properly, but the charm gave him the ability to understand what they were saying.

      All work stopped as they drew near, and the villagers ran into the village.  Several men were visible at the top of the wall, holding hemp-stringed bows and arrows with steel arrowheads that flashed in the lowering sun.  Four men hurried out of the gate, three men in chainmail hauburks and carrying rusty swords, and a fourth in a pristine black cassock and a large gold medallion hanging from a thick gold chain around his neck.  This man’s clothing was made of the finest wool, and he was clean and neat and just a little chubby, an aging man with a balding head of brown hair, a heavy, raw-boned face with a large nose and eyes that were small and set close together piggishly.  Tarrin took an immediate dislike for this man.  Why, he did not know, but he did.  There was just something about him that Tarrin found annoying, upsetting, wrong about him.  The man fidgeted a bit with his clothes, preening his balding pate of mousey hair that looked to be oiled down.  Tarrin’s casual eye swept over the three armed men, but the way they moved and the condition of their armor told him that they were no threat, so much so that even the sight of potentially dangerous, armed strangers didn’t rouse the Cat within him.

      Tarrin’s large black stallion pulled to a stop not far from the men, more than enough space to kill them before they could reach him, then put both hands on his saddlepom and regarded them with a slightly chilly gaze.

      “W-Welcome, my Lord,” the man in the cassock said in an alien language, yet Tarrin could understand him clearly.  “Welcome to the village of Astun.  Praise be to the One.”

      Tarrin said nothing immediately, staring at the man and letting the silence unnerve him a bit.  It had the intended effect.  “I have come from a distant land in search of two individuals,” he said immediately.  “One is a scatterbrained fellow with white hair, the other a slender woman with dark hair.  Both were on horses.  I know they passed by this village.  When did they pass?”

      “A-Are you a Hunter, my Lord?” the man asked in awe.  “Have you been chasing those two Defiled all this time?”

      “Defiled?  Explain your term.”

      “Why, they were Defiled, my Lord!  Evil!  One wasn’t even human, and the other practiced witchcraft!”

      Immediately, Tarrin switched to the unspoken manner of the Cat, a language which the charm would not translate into a form all could understand, because it was not a spoken language.  “Mist, tell Miranda to keep that hood up,” he said quickly.  “They hate non-humans here.”

      Mist relayed the command to Miranda, who nodded and carefully bowed her head without moving her hands.  To do so would have revealed her fur-clad hands to the man in the cassock.

      “Do you know which way they went?” he asked.

      “Well, after my guards attacked them, they ran off to the south, along the road, my Lord Hunter,” he answered.  “That she-devil killed seven of my men!  Has the Church sent word of their replacements?”

      “I don’t answer to the Church,” he said calmly.  “I seek those two for my own reasons.”

      The man blanched, his face turning white.  Tarrin must have said something wrong, and he struggled quickly to figure out what it was.  “Sure you didn’t mean to blaspheme the One!” the man said.

      “No, I meant no such thing,” he said, understanding.  “I meant to say I seek those two for personal reasons, that I’m not acting on the orders of the Church.  I’m not a Hunter.”

      “Oh!” he said, making an odd motion with his hand, rising his flat palm to his right shoulder and crossing it to his left.  “I’m sure He will forgive you for your mis-statement, my Lord.”  He sighed.  “I was hoping that you were carrying a reply from the Diocese.  My three men can barely keep these dullards in check.  I’ve already had two of them try to escape.”

      “Too bad they didn’t run fast enough,” one of the guards snickered, glancing back into the village.

      Tarrin looked over their heads, at the stone building.  He realized it was some kind of temple, and there were two still forms impaled on wooden stakes outside of it.  They had been impaled through their backs, and from the condition of the bodies and the black bloodstains, they hadn’t died immediately.  They had lingered for a long time, in agony as gravity dragged them further down the stakes, until loss of blood finally, mercifully, claimed them.

      Tarrin’s eyes flashed, and a sudden fury rose up in him.  These men were, were evil.  They had impaled those two for trying to escape, and let them die slowly and in hideous agony.  His fury was mixed with a kind of moralistic outrage he had not felt since going to Dala Yar Arak and seeing how the Arakites treated slaves.

      In a moment of utter clarity, almost as if the information were imparted to him by another, he understood.  This church ruled by terror, and only by terror did they keep their minions in check.  And from the sound of it, this church was large, was impressive, and ruled a very large area.  Despite him saying he was from a distant land, the man assumed that his church ruled it.  He spoke of a Diocese, meaning that they had divided up the land into sectors, and his talking about getting more men told him that he was but the end of a line of command.

      Tarrin was in a furor, and his sense of justice demanded that something be done.  Now.  He dismounted his horse and threw the reins in Haley’s general direction, and stalked towards the men in a kind of dangerous walk that put the three guards at sudden unease.  “Tarrin!” Dolanna called.  She knew him well, and could tell just by watching him move that he had bloodshed on his mind.  “Tarrin, do not!”

      He didn’t answer.  “Tell me, priest, exactly what crime did those two commit that warranted such a painful death?” he asked in a low, calm, deceptively dangerous manner that everyone behind him realized was a question that might sentence the one who answered it to death.

      The man looked at him suspiciously.  “Does the Church do things differently where you come from, my Lord?” he asked.   “It’s the standard punishment for a serf trying to escape.”

      “We don’t have your Church where I come from,” he answered coldly.  “And if we did, I’d have wiped it out long ago.”

      The words hit the man like a slap in the face, and his chubby visage reddened up in sudden anger and outrage.  “You’re Defiled!” he said in understanding.  “Kill him!” he barked at the three men, then he started to chant in a language that even the charm could not decipher.  To Tarrin’s surprise, he was chanting in the language of the gods, the exact same language that Priests from his world used to cast spells!

      The three men drew their shortswords and advanced, but not confidently.  Tarrin’s stance and his expression showed an absolute and utter disregard for the three armed men, as if they were absolutely nothing, and that kind of towering confidence never failed to intimidate.

      He didn’t even bother bringing out a weapon, because in that moment if intense, icy anger, he forgot himself and shapeshifted into his natural form.  He was so piqued that he he shifted into his true form, which included the wings, as they were now a natural part of him.  Those wings seemed to strike utter terror into the three armed men, but the chanting of the Priest behind them seemed to bolster them into making an assault.

      It was an assault doomed at its inception.  Even without his overwhelming strength, he was more than a match for three fearstruck humans.  The first one to reach him tried to thrust his shortsword through Tarrin’s belly, but the Were-cat simply slithered aside and turned his wing so its edge met the man’s neck.  He altered the wing so that leading edge was sharper than a razor, which quite neatly decapitated the man as his own momentum carried him by.  He twirled around the dead man, shielding his demise from the other two, then slapped aside the thrusting blade of the second with one paw and took out his throat with the other, sending a glittering trail of blood in an arc away from his slashing paw as the man fell to the side, yanked out of his path by the power of Tarrin’s swipe.  He spread his feet and assumed his slouching battle stance, then roared furiously at the last living guard or soldier or whatever he was, snapping his wings out in a display of pure, naked power.  That display made the man falter in his charge, eyes wide and mouth agape, but he crumpled to the ground when an incensed Mist, her Illusion gone, hurtled in from his flank and savaged him with her Cat’s Claws, puncturing about every vital organ the man possessed faster than the human could react to the first blow.  She finished him by taking off his head with her five magical blades, sending five different pieces of head sailing off in the general direction of the path of her lethal blow.  A sudden fountain of blood erupted from the neatly severed stump of the man’s neck, then the body toppled over stiffly, muscles locked in shock at losing the brain’s direction.

      The Priest managed to finish his spell, which was an accompishment when staring death in the face as he was, and a smoky haze appeared before him.  It solidified after a moment into an ugly little creature with reddish skin, gangly limbs covered with warts, and a large head with black eyes, a big, hooked nose and a mouth full of sharp little teeth.  Tarrin recognized the creature as a quasit, and it was the least of the many forms of Demonkind.

      Now he knew that this church has to be utterly evil, for its Priests called on Demons for assistance.

      “Now you are dead!” the man screamed in triumph.  “Attack him!” he commanded the quasit.

      But the qausit didn’t move.  It trembled in absolute terror when it looked upon Tarrin, for it could see what the Priest could not, and it fully understood just who, and what, Tarrin was.

      The Priest looked on his servant with shock, then actually kicked it in the rump. “I said attack him!” he ordered.

      It actually wasn’t a bad idea.  Only Wizard magic, Priest magic, or weapons alien to this world would harm a Demon, but unfortunately for the Priest, he didn’t know that Tarrin possessed all three of those weapons.  Had Tarrin been a regular, mundane mortal of this world, he would be utterly defenseless against the quasit, despite the fact that it was the weakest of its kind, with virtually no magic of its own.

      Still advancing, Tarrin closed his paw on empty air, and his black-bladed sword was summoned from the elsewhere.  Tarrin’s eyes exploded from within with the greenish radiance that marked his anger, and licks of flame appeared around the fetlocks of his wrists and ankles.  The quasit squealed in terror at the sight of him, and ran around behind the Priest to hide behind his ankles, quivering and clicking its teeth as they chattered.  “He’s mine, Mist,” he called coldly as his mate stalked up on the man with murder in her eyes.  She glanced at him with annoyance, but stopped, waiting with dreadful eagerness.  “Your Demon sees what you can’t, human,” he said scathingly.  “I can kill your quasit without even breaking my stride.”

      “Flee, master!” the quasit said in a creepy, soulless voice.  “He is an Avatar!  You face a god!”

      “There are no gods but the One!” the man shrieked hysterically.  “Destroy him, or I will send you back to Hell!”

      “Then do so!” the quasit said defiantly.  “Better to be sent back than exiled for one hundred years!”

      This put the Priest in an obvious quandary.  His best weapon against his attacker refused to obey.  He swept his piggish eyes over them, then grinned suddenly.  “Then attack that inhuman Defiled!” he said, pointing at Mist.  “Kill his servants!”

      This seemed to be a command that the quasit would obey.  It skittered out from behind the Priest and launched itself into the air, giving out a keening cry.  Tarrin simply put the flat side of his blade on his shoulder and watched, for Mist was in no danger at all.  She knew it too, for she simply stepped into that pounce, then speared the quasit on all ten blades of her Cat’s Claws when it reached her.  It gave out a gurgling cry of surprise, then she flung it aside contemptuously, where it immediately started to decay into that hideous black ichor that burned and ate away at the tilled ground like acid.  Mist plunged the ten tines of her magical weapons into the ground to clean the Demon blood off of them, then retracted them and moved away from the growing cloud of noxious smoke rising over the dead Demon.  “Mist,” he called in a reasonable tone.  “Keep him from getting away, and don’t let him cast any more spells.  I have an idea, and I’m going to need him alive for it.”

      “My pleasure, my mate,” she said with a ghastly look of anticipation.

      The Priest, who understood what he said, blanched, and then turned to flee back into the village.  She bounded after him, and caught him before he took ten steps.  Though she was weakened by this alien world, she was still very, very strong, stronger than him, and she used that strength to grab hold of his neck.  He snapped to a stop by that grip, his legs coming out from under him as they tried to continue moving forward.  Mist punched him heavily in the middle of his back, knocking the air out of him, then stomped on the side of his foot.  There was an audible crack as her blow on the awkwardly set limb broke his ankle, and another crack when she kicked him on the inside of the knee of his other leg, doing some serious damage to it.  She yanked him back a little and then elbowed him in the side of his face, breaking his jaw and cheekbone with a blow that sent two teeth and a long line of blood flying from the man’s mouth.  She turned and dragged him back to Tarrin, then dropped him unceremoniously on the ground in front of her mate.  The Priest started sobbing, rolling over on his belly, then he tried to crawl away with his injured legs, but Mist planted her foot in the small of his back and slammed him to the ground, and held him there to keep him from getting away.

      “Would you explain why you did that?” Dolanna said hotly.  “This is not what I expected from our first meeting with these people, Tarrin!”

      “The fat one conjured a Demon, Dolanna,” Haley said in a mild tone.  “I don’t think he really needs to explain.  That’s explanation enough.”

      She gave Haley a withering look, then she blinked and chuckled a bit ruefully.  “You make a point, old friend,” she admitted.

      “He’s a Priest,” Miranda said clinically.  “But a Priest who summons Demons?  I didn’t think that was possible.  Only Wizards can summon Demons.”

      “On our world, yes,” Dolanna told her.  “The rules must be different here, Miranda.”

      “True that, but if a Priest summons Demons, then the god he serves must be in league with them.” She shuddered.  “I don’t even want to think about that.  Gods collaborating with Demons?  It’s, it’s—there’s no words for it!”

      “Exactly,” Tarrin said flatly, glaring at the chubby little man as he stalked over to him.  “Val had Demons who served him.  This One sounds no different than Val.”  He sat down sedately on the ground in front of the Priest.  “If he tries to talk, just grind your foot in him, Mist,” he ordered.  “He needs to be able to speak for this to work, but I don’t want him trying to cast any more spells.”

      “My pleasure, my mate,” she nodded.

      “Wh-What are you going to do to me?” he blubbered thickly, trying to speak with a broken jaw.

      “I’m going to use magic on you,” he answered cooly as he took out his spellbook and spoke the word that made it expand to its full size.  “My companions don’t speak your language.  You’re going to teach it to them.  After that, I’m going to leave you here.  I’m sure the villagers here will take very good care of you.”

      “Good idea,” Sarraya said as she winked into view, and landed in front of the Priest, who was whimpering and blubbering in abject terror at the idea of being left to the tender mercy of the very people he terrorized himself.  His face turned white when he saw her, and she stuck her tongue out at him.  “He’s fat while everyone else is rail thin,” she noticed.  “I don’t think the others like him very much.”

      “They’ll probably kill him,” Azakar said in a tone that said he certainly hoped they would.

      “They’ll do what’s proper, all right,” Ulger said with an evil little laugh.

      Those villagers, who had run away to hide, were slowly creeping back out, like frightened mice coming to see if the cat had gone away.  They were too afraid to come any closer, however, and Tarrin really didn’t blame them all that much.  After all, he and Mist was obviously non-human, and from the sound of it, they’d been taught all their lives that non-humans were evil.  Tarrin found the spell he was looking for, and quickly memorized it.  It required no material component to cast, but it would take nearly three minutes to complete.  He’d have to chant three incantations over and over again while the magic gleaned the language out of the Priest and deposited into his friends.  It was the Wizard version of the Druidic spell that did more or less the same thing, something Phandebrass would have immediately sought to do once he realized they couldn’t speak the language.  But unlike the Druid version, this one would teach multiple people at the same time, having an area of effect around the one who was supplying the language.  All they had to do was be inside that area of effect, and they’d be magically taught every language the man knew.

      Tarrin spoke the word to shrink his spellbook and put it away, then stood up.  “Everyone get around our fat friend,” he called.  “We have to be within six spans of him for this to work.”

      “Who’ll look after the horses?” Ulger asked.

      “I’ll tell them not to stray,” Haley said.  “I can’t use my magic, but I can still address animals.  That doesn’t really require power to do.  It’s a trick all Druids learn.”

      “I forgot about that,” Sarraya chuckled.

      “That’s why I’m glad we have at least one experienced Druid along,” Tarrin said.

      “And what are you, Mister I can make my own spells?” she flared.

      “Not as experienced as Haley, even if I can use stronger magic,” he told her.

      “And I’m not experienced?” she accused.

      “You might be, but making you think straight for long enough to apply that experience is the trick,” he answered.

      “Well!” she huffed.  “I’m insulted!”

      “The truth hurts,” Ulger said with a sly wink at the Faerie.

      “You are so starting to go up on my list, iron-butt,” she said dangerously.

      “Fine.  Wanna duel?” he asked in a swaggering manner, patting his huge broadsword’s hilt.

      “Children,” Dolanna snapped.  “Dismount and gather around the Priest, so that Tarrin may get this done quickly.  It may not be well for us to tarry now that we have attacked their cleric.”

      “That sorry lot’s not going to give us any trouble, Dolanna,” Ulger grunted, looking at the villagers, who were hiding behind the walls.  The men on the walls still looked down with their crude bows, but they were not firing at them.

      Tarrin ignored them, taking off the charm as they all gathered around the Priest, and then he started the spell.  He chanted the first part again and again and again, allowing the magic to infuse the Priest and find his language.  When it was done—he could sense it—he started the next incantation, which implanted that knowledge into the minds of everyone within six spans of the Priest.  Again, he chanted the same incantation over and over as he felt that knowledge implant itself into his mind, much faster than it had been lifted from the Priest, then when it was done, he chanted the third part, which sealed the spell and made the gaining of that knowledge stick.  It wasn’t permanent, but so long as they used the language frequently, the spell’s effect would last until they stopped speaking it.  Only when they actively stopped using the language would it start to fade from their minds.  It would carry them well through until they left this world and went home.

      The Priest, to his surprise, spoke three languages, and all three were picked up and implanted into them.  He paused a second to sort them in his mind, to look them over and compare them to the languages he already knew.  All three had certain grammatical similarities with one or more of the languages he knew, hinting that humans tended to think alike even across dimensions.  The language they’d been speaking—called Penali—had grammatical similarities to Arakite, and the other two had similarities to Torian and Ungardt.

      “There,” he said, standing up and glaring down at the man with cold eyes, taking the charm off of his amulet and putting it in his belt pouch.  He then spoke in Penali.  “I hope these villagers show you the same tender mercy you’ve shown to them over the years, fat one,” he said in a ruthless tone.  “And you’d better pray that nothing happened to my friends, or I’ll wipe your church off the face of this world.”

      “The One will destroy you!” he said spitefully.  “All power be to the One!  You have made an enemy of the Church of of the One God!”

      “I’m not afraid of gods, and if yours gets in my way, I’ll destroy him,” he said in a steely, lethal kind of voice that made the Priest blanch.  But more than that, higher up in his consciousness, like whispers, there was a sudden outburst of elation…of joy.  Tarrin could barely make sense of it, for it was so faint, so distant, so weak, but it was definitely there.  Did the others notice that little surge?  He doubted it.  He had the feeling that it had to do with him being what he was that he could even detect that in the first place.

      “Let’s go,” he said in Sulasian to the others.

      “We’re leaving him there?” Azakar asked.

      Tarrin pointed to the two staked bodies with a cold expression.  “He deserves that.  I’ll explain once we get moving.”  Tarrin shifted back into his human form, retracted his wings, then stalked back to his horse and remounted.  The others did the same quickly and efficiently.  Then Tarrin led them in the direction where Kimmie and Phandebrass had fled when they’d been attacked by that Priest’s men, leaving an entire village full of stunned and confused people behind.

      The encounter upset Tarrin, on more than one level.  He could accept the concept that some people worshipped evil, it was an aspect of the human condition.  It was that an evil order seemed to have so much control that bothered him.  Seeing that made him think of what might have happened if Val had defeated him and conquered the world.  Would scenes like that one, with the escaped serfs staked in the village commons as a warning to the others, have been played out in his own world?  How much control did this Church of the One have over this world?  Was it a national religion, or had it spread further than that?  And where was the resistance to it if it had not in fact taken complete control?  For that matter, where was the resistance even if it did?  He rode on in grim, edgy silence, furious at that Priest, concerned at how much control they would have, worried that Kimmie and Phandebrass were in very real danger, and nervous about what was to come.  The others rode behind him quietly, waiting for him to calm down enough to talk.  All of them knew better than to press him when he was in that kind of mood, even Sarraya.  But, as with many things, it was a mood that would quickly pass.  Tarrin was capable of wild mood swings, an aspect of his Were-cat nature, and that was something that they also knew.

      After he felt calm enough to talk, he explained what had happened, and what the Priest had said.  “It sounds like this church is big and has a great deal of control,” he surmised darkly.  “That means we’ll have to be very careful.”

      “Miranda’s going to be a problem,” Haley said seriously.  “She can only hide under a robe for so long.”

      “I know,” Miranda said contritely.  “But what can I do?”

      There was a brief silence.  “Mist,” Dolanna called.  “Give Miranda your belt.”

      “What?  I—Oh, I understand,” the feral Were-cat said, reaching for her belt.  Her image blurred when she took it off, causing her to appear in her normal form.

      “Why do that?” Sarraya asked.

      “The Illusion that causes Mist to appear human is tied to the belt,” Dolanna answered.  “By giving it to Miranda, she will be able to hide under that Illusion.  Mist, I fear, will have to endure her human form or conceal herself in cat form for now, until we find a different solution.”

      “Won’t Miranda look like Mist?” the Faerie asked curiously.

      “Yah.  Don’t get any ideas, Tarrin,” the mink Wikuni said with a wink at him as she rode up to them, and Mist handed her the belt.  She belted it around her slender waist, and her form blurred.  When it was done, an Illusion of Mist looked back at them, but with Miranda’s cheeky grin.

      “You don’t smell like me.  Only an idiot would confuse us,” Mist grunted as she handed the reins of her horse to Tarrin, then gracefully swung her leg over the saddle and hopped lightly over to Tarrin’s horse.  She hunkered down behind him and shapeshifted into her cat form, then slithered around him and laid down in the saddle between him and the saddlehorn.

      “I don’t have your nose, Mist, so I guess I’m an idiot,” Ulger chuckled.  “Miranda looks like she stepped out of your mirror.”

      Mist looked up at Tarrin in a scathing manner that told him that she certainly agreed.  “I’d like to put some distance between us and that village,” he said brusquely.  “I don’t want to camp close to it.”

      “Then let us make use of the light left,” Dolanna said.  “Judging by the speed with which the sun has travelled, we have about two hours to sunset.”

      They picked the horses up into a canter and put some distance behind them, and Tarrin spent that time brooding over the events of the day and enduring nearly two hours of steady rain, following Kimmie’s trail.  The very shallow valley and the little river in its center dropped down out of those rolling hills onto a flat plain dotted here and there with stands of trees, where the river started meandering to and fro like a drunken sailor.  Kimmie’s path cut through that river many, many times, as they moved in a straight line, probably seeking to flee from that village.  Each time they entered the river they found the water strangely warm, almost hot, and the river itself barely more than four spans deep at its center.  It was more like a creek than a river, but it was nearly twenty spans wide in places, definitely the size of a river if not the depth.  The rain passed with surprising swiftness after about two hours or so, and the clouds raced away to grace them with a sunny sky that helped dry them out.  The sun crept closer and closer to the horizon, and Dolanna was visibly starting to look around for a suitable place to set up camp for the night.

      They found a nice flat, dry spot in the crook of one of the river’s many meandering turns, which put water to their backs in three of four directions.  The river wasn’t deep, but it was still wide through that curve, and that would give them time to react if someone tried to splash through the river to reach them.  The camp had much to offer as a defensible position.  Ulger and Azakar both called a stop when they reached it, looking around and proclaiming that it was a suitable place to camp, for it was defensible.  Dolanna agreed, and they started setting up camp.

      Mist lounged about in cat form as the others worked to set up the camp.  Azakar and Ulger took care of the horses, relieving them of their saddles and burdens and allowing them to roam freely to graze on the grass after Haley asked them not to wander from the area.  Tarrin and Haley began to set up the tents, and Dolanna began preparing to cook dinner with Miranda after Azakar dug them a shallow firepit and fetched some of the firewood that was brought with them on the pack horses.  Sarraya flew about and bossed them around outrageously, at least until she had to dive aside when Mist pounced at her from behind as she flitted around and gave Tarrin and Haley rude instructions in a condescending tone of voice.  After that, she darted away and annoyed Ulger, staying well out of Mist’s reach.  Even in cat form, Mist was a force to be reckoned with.  She laid back down, head on her paws and her eyes locked on Sarraya with an evil, predatory glint.

      The sun set on their first day in this new world, and to all their surprise, only one very large moon rose not long after the sun set, a moon that was like no moon they had ever seen before.  It was not white or red or brownish, like the four moons of their world were, it was blue and green and had bright bands and patches of white spread across it.  Tarrin had never seen anything like it before, and he wasn’t the only one who stared at it as it rose from the opposite horizon as the setting sun like the majestic rising of a dragon into the air.  They were so enthralled by it that Dolanna nearly let their meal of cured, salted ham burn on the fire.  “I was never much of a cook,” she apologized as she started cutting away parts of the spitted meat, handing it out to the others.

      Mist shifted back into her normal form and sat by the fire, obviously satisfied that it was dark enough, or perhaps tiring of being unable to speak.  “I’ll cook,” she announced after taking one bite of the ham.  “You’re a bad cook, Dolanna.”

      “Is it, ah, safe for you to cook for us, Mist?” Ulger asked delicately.

      “As long as I don’t lick the spoon and put it back in the pot, yes,” she answered him directly.

      “How will you know how it tastes?” he asked.

      She snorted.  “Don’t you humans ever use your nose?” she demanded.

      “After years of wearing armor, it’s better that I don’t have a good sense of smell,” Ulger laughed.  “Else I wouldn’t be able to stand it.”

      “Armor does get a bit fragrant,” Haley chuckled.

      “We can’t wash it or it rusts,” Ulger told him.  “We clean it best we can, but it never seems to be enough.”

      “Well, I hope this lasts us until morning,” Dolanna chuckled.  “Faalken always used to do the cooking.  He was a surprisingly good cook,” she said with a misty, distant expression.

      “He was a great man, Dolanna,” Haley told her gently, patting her shoulder.

      “He was the best of men, Haley,” she sighed.  “All of Sennadar was lessened with his passing.”

      “Well said,” Ulger said stoically.

      Tarrin was about to say something, but the faint sound of flapping wings caught his attention.  Given that they were new to this world, it could have been about anything.  Mist heard it as well, her head rising and her ears swivelling towards the sound, a sound that was approaching them.  “We’ve got something small flying this way,” she called, putting aside her ham and standing up.

      “The light of the fire might be attracting it,” Dolanna pondered as Azakar and Ulger rose up and drew their swords.

      Mist turned her head and cocked her ear at the sound, then snorted.  “Bah, it’s nothing to worry about.  I’d better think about trying to make them listen to you, my mate.  That’s two that disobeyed you.”

      “What are you talking about?” Tarrin asked, glancing at her, then something glittery appeared in the darkness past the light of the fire.  It got larger as it approached them, moving erratically, until it was close enough for him to make out.

      It was Fireflash!

      Tarrin jumped up and rushed towards the drake, who swerved and tottered in the air, until it finally seemed to give out just before it reached him.  The gold drake flopped to the ground, panting heavily, and Tarrin scooped up his precious drake in human hands and cradled him close to his body.  Fireflash looked very, very weak, and he was panting so hard that Tarrin feared his lungs would burst.  “You foolish drake!” Tarrin said in a strangled tone.  “I told you not to follow!”

      “How did he get to the gate?” Dolanna demanded.  “Quickly, bring him here!  Sarraya, come here at once!”

      Tarrin hurried his drake over to the fire and deposited him in Dolanna’s lap.  The Sorceress inspected the panting drake, quickly, and Tarrin was very worried.  His scales seemed to be dull, and he was moving very, very feebly.  Fireflash was a strong little drake, and could fly all day and all night without getting tired.  But he looked like he was about to die from exhaustion!  Then he remembered Niami’s warning that Fireflash would die if he came here.  And now he saw how.  He wouldn’t die the instant he crossed over, he would slowly waste away like a man dying of thirst.  But his thirst would only be satisfied by the magical emanations and energies of their home world, which did not exist here.

      “Come here!” Dolanna ordered as she carefully handed Fireflash back to Tarrin, who sat down by the fire and put him in his lap.  “The amulet you wear, does it require you to touch it or merely be close to it?”

      “I only have to be close to it, Dolanna,” she answered.  “It has a range of about a good hundred spans.”

      “Then do not get further from Fireflash than that,” she commanded.  “He needs the power of your amulet to recover.”

      “You mean I’m going to be chained—“

      “Do you want him to die?” Dolanna hissed in a voice so harsh that Tarrin was taken aback.  “Now stay with him!”

      “Yes, Dolanna,” she said sulkily, flitting up and landing on Tarrin shoulder, her arms crossed and a pouty look on her face.

      Tarrin wasn’t listening, however.  His total attention was affixed to his weakened little drake.  Fireflash lay limply in his lap, still panting, eyes seemingly glazed, but he did manage to nuzzle at Tarrin’s fingers slightly when he stroked his snout.  He collected him up in his human hands and cradled him to his chest, not minding the sharp pokes of the spikes at the ends of his wingbones in his arm.  What a crazy thing to do!  Why did he disobey and come here?  For that matter, how did Fireflash find him?

      Then again, his willful little drake would have come in a hearbeat if that was what he wanted.  He would disobey Tarrin if it came to something like being left behind.  Fireflash had been with him for years, and he really didn’t like to be separated.  They were more than master and pet, they were friends, and Tarrin had felt just as incomplete without his little friend on his shoulder as Fireflash had probably felt being left behind.

      It really didn’t matter, though.  He was here now, he was safe, and after some time exposed to Sarraya’s amulet, he should recover.  His day-long journey to reach Tarrin had shown that it wouldn’t be instant death to wander beyond the range of Sarraya’s amulet.

      Mist cooked  stew with the supplies they had brought with them, but Tarrin didn’t eat but a few bites.  He saved his bowl for a while, until after everyone but Azakar went to their tents, and gently hand-fed his drake once he felt strong enough to eat.  Once he had food and water, Tarrin affixed the charm to the back of his amulet to ensure he didn’t get sleepy, and sat right there by the fire with Sarraya, who had fallen asleep on a large pillow Dolanna had kindly put beside him.  Azakar, who was standing watch, didn’t speak, and neither did Tarrin.  Though they had had their differences in the past, they were still very good friends, and they both understood that neither tended to want excessive conversation.  Dwelling together in silence was more than preferable to both of them.  If either had something to say, they would say it, and they both knew it.  For them, the silence was neither awkward nor pregnant.

      Throughout the night, as Azakar was replaced by Ulger, and then Haley, and then he stood watch alone, Tarrin sat by the fire and pondered what had possessed him to risk death to come through the gate, but that was just a mystery.  Then he worried about what trouble Kimmie and Phandebass could get into here.  Kimmie had the sense to keep a low profile, but Phandebrass was going to be a major problem.  He would be utterly incapable of keeping his mouth shut, and the longer he stayed around these people, the more danger he would pose to them both.  Kimmie should be able to keep a throttle on him, at least up to a point.  But he knew it was eventually going to come to a point where the two of them would have another confrontation like the one they had had at the village back there, and there was no guarantee it would turn out well.  There was a possibility that they were already being tracked down by one of those Hunters that that Priest had spoken of, who the Priest had mistakenly believed he was.  If that man had reported the incident, there could be Hunters on Kimmie and Phandebrass’ trail right now.

      Towards dawn, Dolanna emerged from her tent and came over to him, seating herself by the fire with him.  She had her tea kettle in hand, which she placed by the fire to heat the water.  “Did you sleep at all, dear one?” she asked.

      He shook his head, stroking Fireflash’s scales, which now looked lustrous and healthy.  His breathing was strong, and it looked like a night exposed to the magic of Sarraya’s amulet had restored him.  His sleep was a natural one now.  “I have the charm on, Dolanna,” he told her.  “At least it gave me time to think.”

      “About yesterday?”

      He nodded.  “They’re in trouble,” he told her.  “Kimmie can keep her head down, but Phandebrass won’t be able to.  And I think that Priest reported what happened, so there’s a chance that they have these Hunters on them now.”

      “Why do you think that?”

      “He said he was waiting for new troops to arrive to replace the ones Kimmie killed,” he answered.  “So he had to tell them why he lost his men in the first place.”

      “But he thought you were the Hunter, dear one,” she answered.  “So perhaps they had not dispatched one yet.  We could very well be ahead of him.”

      “I hadn’t considered that,” he admitted, nodding in agreement.  “So he has to get through us to get to Kimmie.  I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

      “I would hope not,” she said with a mild smile.  “I would ask that you keep your moral outrage under control, my dear one.  We cannot afford to have half of this Church after us before we go a hundred leagues.  I do not like what goes on here either, but we are but eight, and we face an unknown enemy who seems to have complete control of this land.  We are the invaders, my dear one, and we cannot afford to fight a running battle.”

      “I know,” he said with a snort.  “But it doesn’t look good for finding the Dwarves or Mother’s lost children.  If they survived after reaching here, this Church might have hunted them all down and destroyed them.”

      “I reached a similar conclusion,” she said with a somber expression.  “But we must be sure.  That they still hunt we defiled means that there are still practitioners of magic and non-humans on this world.  There is a chance that we will find them, or more logically, their descendants.  After all, it has been five thousand years.”

      “We can hope, Dolanna,” he said.  “But right now, getting Kimmie and Phandebrass back in one piece is all I care about.”

      “Yes, that is the main goal we have right now,” she agreed.

      Mist came out of the tent he and her were to share, stretching languidly.  She was nude, which made Dolanna give a hint of a smile, and then padded over and gave Tarrin a kiss on the cheek before booting Sarraya’s pillow out of the way, startling the sleeping Faerie something awful, and sitting down beside him as Sarraya yowled in sudden fright.

      “Hey!  I was sleeping here!” she protested as she wobbled into the air, glaring at the Were-cat menacingly.

      “So?” Mist said in a dangerous tone, giving Sarraya a flat look.

      Sarraya had the sense not to tangle with Mist.  She clamped her mouth shut and flitted up to land on Tarrin’s shoulder.

      “How is he?” Mist asked.

      Fireflash had been awakened by Sarraya’s high-pitched squeal, and his golden eyes blinked a few times before he looked up at Tarrin.  He clambered to his feet and then turned and hurled himself at Tarrin’s chest.  He caught his little drake and hugged him lightly as he rubbed the side of his head against Tarrin’s bicep affectionately.  “I’d say he’s just fine,” Tarrin chuckled lightly.  “It looks like he’ll be alright so long as he stays near enough to Sarraya not to get too weak.”

      “We will have to observe and learn how long he can safely remain away from Sarraya,” Dolanna told them.  “Tarrin, ask him to use his breath weapon.  Let us see if he retains that ability here.”

      Tarrin nodded.  “Go ahead, Fireflash,” he prompted to his drake.

      “He understands the common tongue?” Dolanna asked.

      Tarrin nodded.  “Some.  He has a vocabulary of about four hundred words, and breath weapon is one of the commands I taught him,” he answered as Fireflash dropped down to Tarrin’s legs, then sucked in his breath.  A small cone of intense fire blasted forth from his open maw, aimed at the crackling fire before them.  It washed over Dolanna’s teapot, which caused the water within to instantly boil.  Steam whistled shrilly from the spout as it sought escape from the container.

      “I think your water is boiling, Dolanna,” Sarraya snickered.

      “I’m glad you’re alright, scale-skin,” Mist told the drake, patting him on the head.  She yawned, then climbed to her feet.  “I’d better get started on breakfast.  I don’t want to hear that scar-faced knight bitch about being hungry again.”

      “I would suggest that you dress before the others awaken, Mist,” Dolanna told Mist politely.  “If you would please.”

      “And you don’t have to do all the cooking,” Tarrin told her.  “Miranda’s a passingly good cook, and she likes to do it.  She wouldn’t mind sharing cooking duties with you.”

      “If I cook it, I know I’ll like it,” she said bluntly.

      “And the rest of us better like it if we know what’s good for us,” Sarraya said slyly.

      “She learns fast,” Mist told Tarrin levelly as she padded back towards the tent.

      “Sarraya.  For my sanity, please, do not start on her,” Dolanna said in a low whisper.  “Mist will hurt you if you annoy her.”

      “I’m not an idiot, Dolanna,” Sarraya replied.

      “That remains to be seen,” Mist called from the tent.

      “You’ll find that Mist is tolerant in some ways, Dolanna,” Tarrin chuckled.  “She does have a sense of humor.  Just don’t make her the butt of the joke, and you’ll be just fine.”

      “This should be an, exciting, journey,” Dolanna said with a sigh.  “Two feral Were-cats to manage.  I believe I shall get gray hair after this.”

      “Better you than me,” Sarraya said with an evil smile at her.

      Haley emerged from his tent just as Mist came out and started collecting cooking utensils.  He walked over and seated himself on the other side of Dolanna, pulling a small cloth pouch out of his waistcoat.  “For you, Dolanna,” he said.  “This tea is the finest from the Shou Empire.  I thought you might like to enjoy our first morning here on this alien world with a bit of luxury.”

      “Ever thoughtful, my friend,” Dolanna said brightly as she accepted the bag.  “Though I believe we shall need more water.  Fireflash boiled off most that was in my kettle, I fear.”

      “How are you feeling this morning, little one?” Haley asked Fireflash amiably.

      Fireflash gave a few bright chirping sounds, then vaulted up to Tarrin’s shoulder with a single thrust of his wings.

      “Well, he feels chipper today,” Haley chuckled.

      “A night near Sarraya’s amulet did the trick,”  Tarrin answered, reaching up and scratching his drake under the chin.  “I think he’ll be fine as long as he spends each night close to Sarraya.  After all, he managed to get all the way over here without it.”

      “True,” he nodded, testing the heat of the tea kettle with a hand, then drawing away quickly.  “Ah, Tarrin, would you be so kind?”

      “Certainly,” he said, grabbing the hot kettle’s handle and standing up.  “I’ll be right back.”

      Mist cooked them a large meal of porridge and bacon, with some flatbread and water to wash it down, and they started packing up the camp to prepare to move out.  Azakar came over to Tarrin just as they were finishing and cleared his throat.  “I think I should take point, Tarrin,” he said.  “No offense,” he added quickly.  “But an armored Knight in the lead might be smart, and Miranda can put the spell on me so I can see Kimmie’s trail.”

      “I’ll be fine, Zak,” Tarrin told him mildly.

      “Yes, but you’re not as intimidating in human form as you usually are, and, well, I’m intimidating just about all the time.  Sometimes all it takes is one mean-looking cuss riding point to discourage any kind of foolishness.”

      Tarrin laughed.  “If you think it’s safest, then I don’t have a problem with it,” he agreed.

      “It is safest,” he said bluntly.  “It puts an armored Knight at each end of the group.”

      “Alright then.  You’re leading us today, Zak.”

      “I won’t get us lost, I promise.”

      “I never thought you would, Zak.”

      When they got started, Azakar led them out.  Tarrin and Miranda rode behind him with Fireflash on his shoulder and Mist in cat form in the saddle with him.  Haley and Dolanna were behind them, with Haley leading the pack train, with Ulger bringing up the rear looking menacing and glaring at every blade of grass that went by.  Sometimes Ulger reminded Tarrin so much of Faalken that it was like Faalken was reborn, but then again, he remembered again Darvon telling him that Ulger and Faalken had been the best of friends and partners in crime, for they had been mischievous terrors as cadets.  Ulger was just being silly to entertain Sarraya, who was flitting around him like a moth drawn to a flame.  At least Ulger was drawing Sarraya’s attention away from everyone else, saving them from her barbs and witty little comments, and in that respect the fellow had already become everyone’s favorite group member.

      Kimmie’s trail stayed away from the road, and she proved with that that she was a clever girl.  She was cutting cross country, through the tall grassy plain, moving in a straight line as if she had somewhere to go, or she was being chased.  There were no signs of battle or commotion in the grass, but after a month, it would have recovered by now.  They rode through another brief shower that sent Sarraya scrambling under the cloak Tarrin pulled out to deflect the rain, only to come flitting out and be obnoxious again when the brief shower passed and the sun came out once more.  Tarrin rode along in relative silence, again lost in thought as to this world and the rude welcome they had received.  Miranda, wearing Mist’s face, rode along with him also in silence, and her presence seemed to spark that line of thought within him once more.  This Church of the One hated magic—at least any magic not Priest magic—and hated non-humans as well.  From the way it sounded, there were non-humans out there, but they were probably very careful never to be seen.  That was a small hope that any surviving Dwarves still lived here, probably deep underground if they stuck to their base natures, well away from the Church of the One and the Hunters that sought to destroy them.

      He worried a great deal about this Church of the One.  Tarrin could sense that they were going to be a serious problem, and what was more, something deep down inside of him told him that there might come a time that he might have to do something about them.  He didn’t know why he felt that, but he did.  Part of him didn’t want to make this any harder than it was going to be, but another part of him took exceptional offense to this Church of the One, and within him was the faint stirrings of a desire to stamp it out.

      It wouldn’t be easy, that was for sure, but Tarrin was never one to worry about frilly little details.  If he wanted to do something, he did it.  He worried about how hard it was after he got started.  It was an aspect of his Cat-dominated mentality, often flying into something without thinking it through or having a solid plan for going about it.  More often than not, he made it up as he went along…but it always seemed to work out in the end.

      The idea that he might be making an enemy of an organization that ruled everything around him didn’t matter.  The fact that he might run afoul of a god also didn’t concern him.  He had no fear of gods.  If this One wanted a piece of him, he could just manifest himself nearby and try to take it.

      After all, Tarrin too possessed a certain amount of power along those particular lines.

      Some might call it overpowering arrogance…and they might be right.  Tarrin was arrogant, and he knew it.  All Were-cats were.  The idea that he was willing to take on a god was the pinnacle of arrogance, but he simply didn’t care.  This One would have to manifest here in a weakened form, an Avatar, and though he wasn’t as powerful as a god, all of his power was focused in the mortal world, and that gave him the raw might to challenge any god on any material plane and have a good chance to win.  All of his power was here, and he could use it as he saw fit.  Unless this One had the power of an Elder God from back home, his Avatar wouldn’t bring enough to the table to defeat Tarrin.  That wasn’t arrogance in his mind, that was just the plain, bald, naked truth.  And truth is truth.

      He had no fear of gods.  Not on this world, not back home, not anywhere.

 

 

 

 

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 2

 

      When Mist told him about wanting to assume her proper height, he really hadn’t given it much thought.  When he did, he thought fleetingly that it was going to be like it was for him after Shiika kissed him and caused his body’s aging to accelerate at a frightening rate; the hunger, the weakness, the discomfort.  Granted, he’d been lost in the Cat when that happened, barely aware of what was going on around him, only aware of the unbearable emptiness that had consumed him after he’d been separated from his sisters and his friends.

      He could not have been more wrong.

      Mist’s transformation began the day after Fireflash’s appearance, after another day of following Kimmie’s trail across flat grasslands, moving in the direction that he would call south, since he was assuming that the sun rose in the east and set in the west like it did at home.  She warned him that it had started that morning, as they packed the tents in a brief, heavy shower that seemed to be something like a norm for this region, and he hadn’t thought much about it.  He figured she’d be bad-tempered for a month or so as her body slowly grew out to its new size, because she said it would take about a month, and secretly he was hoping that it would end as quickly as possible.  Mist was bad enough with her feral tendencies, but having her with a lightning temper was going to be very dangerous for everyone around her, even him.  Having Mist finish this growth quickly would be best for everyone involved, even Mist.

      But it was not taking a month.  Most of it happened that day.

      Mist didn’t complain.  Mist never complained.  It was the sound of it that made it unpleasant for him.  She lay quite limply in the saddle with him, sometimes panting quite heavily, and the sound of her bones cracking made him spend that day in a continual shudder.  Around about lunch, he was wondering if Mist was going to survive what was happening to her, and he even consulted Dolanna on it.

      “This is not Sennadar,” she told him patiently.  “She assumed it would take a month because she was going on what she knows.  We are not home, dear one, and this alien world is affecting what is happening to her.  All we can do for her is make her comfortable and wait for this accelerated growth to abate.”

      It was agonizing for both of them.  Tarrin kept a hand on Mist’s flank for the rest of the day, a hand of comfort and a steadying anchor to keep her from sliding out of the saddle, and he could feel it under his palm.  Mist’s body was growing at a phenomenal rate, and he could actually feel that growth under his hand.  Her cat form, like her other forms, was growing larger as well, a reflection of her size in all her forms, and it was an indicator of his mate’s progress.

      By the time they stopped, by a small pond with unhealthy-looking green water, Much of Mist’s growth seemed to have been finished.  She was visibly larger now than she had been that morning.  He put her on the pillow Sarraya had slept on to rest as they set up camp, as Fireflash laid beside her both to give her company and to protect her.  After they were done setting up camp, after the firepit was dug and a fire started, Mist dragged herself off the pillow and shapeshifted into her base form.

      It was quite a momentous event.

      The first thing that got everyone’s attention was the sound of leather ripping.  Tarrin’s head whipped to her as he heard that sound, and saw her just in time to see her clothes literally burst from the strain of trying to contain her.  They fell around her in tattered shreds, leaving her nude, but nobody noticed her nudity in the stunned gaping at her.

      She was nearly as tall as Tarrin.

      She fell to one knee, her paws hugging her midsection, and for a moment he had to gawk at her like a mouse staring down the gullet of a snake.  Her body was just the same as it had been when she was short; highly developed muscle corded around a surprisingly feminine frame, a mixture of power and femininity that made Mist a paradox, for no one could look at her and deny neither her luscious curves nor her physical power, but it was like some god had grabbed her at both ends and pulled her out like taffy.  Her face was still the same fierce, handsome visage he knew, but there was a new sharpness to it, the sharpness of maturity, and her eyes were more hawkish than ever.  Her hair was still short and unruly, a wild black mass atop her head.  She still looked just like Mist, but now this Mist was nearly ten spans tall, only a few fingers shorter than him.  Tarrin rushed over to her and put his arm around her shoulder to steady her as she swayed on her knee.  “Mist!” he said in a strangled tone.  “Are you alright?”

      “Have…to…cook,” she said between labored breaths.

      “You fool, sit back down!” he told her chidingly, yet commandingly.

      “Karas’ hammer,” Ulger said, looking at her.  “Is it me, or is she trying to catch up with Zak?”

      “No wonder it hurt so much,” Haley said clinically, inspecting her with his eyes.  “I’ve never heard of a Were-kin doing that before.  It usually takes rides.  I’m surprised she lived through it,” he added soberly.

      “That’s Mist you’re talking about, Haley,” Sarraya told him.

      “True.  Half of Fae-da’Nar thinks she’s invincible.”

      “She’s got that much of a reputation?” Ulger asked.

      “My dear Ulger, from the point of view of Fae-da’Nar, you look upon probably the second most feared being on the face of Sennadar,” Haley told him lightly.  “Given she’s beside the first, you understand why the Woodkin breathed such a sigh or relief when they heard they were leaving for a while.”

      “She doesn’t seem all that mean.”

      “And what is this?” Miranda asked, tapping the half-healed gash over his eyebrows.

      Ulger laughed.  “A love tap,” he replied.  “I’ve gotten worse from frisky barmaids.”

      “I thought Triana was the most feared,” Miranda added to Haley.

      He shook his head.  “They respect Triana, but they don’t outright fear her.  They know she’ll obey the rules.  But Tarrin and Mist have never been much for adhering to our laws.  If it wasn’t the fact that they’d kill a couple hundred Woodkin in any attempt to kill them, they’d probably have tried.  They’ve debated killing Mist for years, and they really wanted to, but the fact of the matter was that nobody was insane enough to try.  They knew it would take an army to do the job, and they’d lose a good chunk of it in the process.”

      Miranda chuckled humorlessly.  “Now that’s a reputation,” she agreed.

      “Why didn’t the Druids just do it?”

      “Ah, yes, that,” Haley replied with a slight smile.  “Well, it’s not that easy, Azakar.  Mist herself never showed any great aptitude for Druidic magic, but she does have one little trick that stopped that idea cold.”

      “What?”

      “Mist can sense Druids,” he replied.  “She’s Were-kin, and she can detect us.  After she turned feral, everyone learned to stay out of her range.  It was instant death to take one step past the markers of her territory, and she even killed Druids.  Many Druids speculate that the markers of her territory were the limits of her ability to sense us.  She killed Druids immediately and without question whenever they tried to come into her land.”

      “Yeah, that’d kinda put a stopper in that idea,” Ulger chuckled.

      “Doesn’t that break the rules of Fae-da’Nar?” Miranda asked.

      “Not when the Druid enters the territory of someone else, it doesn’t,” Haley replied.  “Druids are respected and given safe passage as a matter of courtesy, not of law.  Mist had every right to defend her territory from anyone, even Druids, as long as she marked her boundaries and put out the cross this line and die markers.  Putting out those particular markers gave her the right to kill anyone who crossed the line.  Given who she was, you’d understand why killing Druids who invaded her territory was so important.”

      “To prevent just what they wanted to do,” Ulger surmised.

      “Triana was the only one who could go into her territory,” Sarraya added.  “Most of the Hierarchs wanted her to kill Mist, but she wouldn’t do it.”

      Tarrin ignored the talking over the others as he made Mist sit down on the pillow, then held her down with a hand on her shoulder when she tried to get up.  “Didn’t you hear me?  I said sit down,” he commanded.

      “Yes, my mate,” she said demurely, gripping his forearm in paws which were now absolutely huge.  “I don’t really feel much like standing right now anyway.”

      “Does it still hurt?”

      “Some, but not as much as earlier,” she answered.  “I’m just really tired and very hungry.”

      “Stay there, I’ll get you something to eat now while you wait for Miranda to cook dinner.”

      “I love being volunteered,” Miranda laughed.

      “I’ll help, but get started.  Mist needs to eat.  Now.  Trust me, I went through this myself.”

      “Just not as fast,” Sarraya said clinically.

      “I’ll fetch some cheese and meat,” Azakar said firmly.  “You stay there, Tarrin.”

      “Bring a lot,” Tarrin ordered.

      “Tarrin, may I fetch one of your large cloaks for her?” Dolanna asked politely.  He knew she wouldn’t rifle through his packs without his permission.

      “She’ll probably fit in my clothes,” he told Dolanna.  “Bring a shirt and a pair of breeches too.”

      Azakar brought over a large sack of dried meat and cheese, and Dolanna threw one of Tarrin’s cloaks over Mist’s shoulders as she began to eat ravenously.  He made to go help Miranda cook, but she waved him off and instead received help from Dolanna and Sarraya as Ulger, Azakar, and Haley completed setting up camp on their own.  After camp was set up, Miranda cooked a hearty stew in a pot over the fire with another pot simmering beans beside it, and Mist continued to eat.  She emptied the sack of its cheese and meat by the time the stew was done, and ate most of that herself after letting the others take a plate.  She then ate what was left of the beans after everyone took their fill of those as well, and then ate three loafs of bread and another wheel of cheese as they cleaned up the dishes and Azakar and Ulger removed their armor to tend to small spots of rust on them which had appeared after the last time they got rained upon.

      Tarrin watched her eat in concern, but he was still quite bowled over by how fast she had grown.  She had done all that growing in one day, and it looked to more or less be over.  But why had it happened?  It should have taken a month, but instead it had happened over the course of only one day.  He didn’t even want to think of how painful it had been for her, but this shocking development had him rightfully concerned.

      The food did wonders for her.  Her body seemed to visibly fill out as she ate, as that Were-cat metabolism absorbed the food and quickly used it to replenish weakened muscles, something that not even this alien world seemed to affect very much.  After eating, she laid down by the fire and immediately fell asleep, cloak drawn around her like a blanket.  Tarrin sat beside her, playing idly with her short, wild hair, trying to make sense of what happened.  But there just wasn’t enough information to even draw any kinds of conclusions.  It was a mystery, a mystery they could simply pin on the fact that this was an alien world.  Somehow, this world had caused her to grow in one day rather than one month.

      It was quite an adjustment for him to see her so large.  Mist was always such a small thing, not much taller than Dolanna, sometimes she seemed like a child to him.  But now she was taller than Jesmind, almost as tall as him, and another reminder of her age.  Mist was nearly seven hundred years old, one of the elder Were-cats, but her small size always made her seem so much younger.  She looked more mature now, that was for sure, a new sharpness to her face that made her seem much like Triana was.  He took hold of her paw, which swallowed up his human hand, stroking the short, thick black for on the backs of her fingers and then rubbing his fingers along the thick pink pad on her palm.  She was going to have a period of adjustment, that was for sure.  Being taller changed everything, and after seven hundred years of being small, she had quite a long road ahead of her.  Being with her like this in human form, it reminded him again how incredibly tall he was, how tall she was now, because now he felt like a child beside her.

      After a while by the fire, Dolanna suggested that he take her to their tent.  He shapeshifted into his natural form and collected her up, feeling how heavy she was now compared to before, and took her to their oversized tent.  He packed her away on their single large sleeping mat and pulled the covers up around her, then went back outside and collected up the pillow.  He brought it back to the tent and put it by their sleeping mat, then deposited Fireflash on it.  He yawned and immediately curled up on it, allowing Tarrin to go back out to sit by the fire with Dolanna, Sarraya, Haley, and Miranda, as Azakar and Ulger went to their tents a bit early so they could get some sleep before their turns at watch.  They talked for a while about what had happened to Mist, but they too had no real answers, and could only say what he had already thought, that they could only suppose it was this alien world and leave it as an unexplained mystery.

      “Is she alright?” Miranda asked.

      “We’ll see in the morning.  She will be a bit clumsy for a while, though.”

      “I can imagine,” Haley said.  “She’ll literally wake up and be nearly twice as tall as she was before she went to bed.  She’ll have to learn how to move again.”

      “She will probably be a trifle sore as well,” Dolanna said.  “I suggest we give her a wide berth until she feels better.”

      “That might be a good idea,” Tarrin agreed.  “I need to go back in there.  She’ll sleep better with me there.”

      “That nose of hers even goes when she’s asleep, doesn’t it?”

      “Now you know where Eron got his sense of smell from,” Tarrin replied.  “Though his is better than Mist’s, she’s still got quite a nose.  Better than mine.”  He looked to Sarraya.  “If you’re not sleeping in my tent, at least try to sleep close,” he told her.  “So Fireflash can be close to your amulet.”

      “I’m making her her own little tent,” Miranda told him.  “It’ll look like a doll’s tent, but it’ll be just her size.  She can pitch it beside yours.”

      “How are you doing that?” Tarrin asked curiously.

      “I just need a little leather, some string, and a couple of sticks, Tarrin,” she giggled.  “Making something like that is easy.”

      “You’re the resident seamstress, Miranda,” he told her absently.

      “A tent, for me?  When can I have it?” Sarraya asked in excitement.

      “I should have it done by tomorrow night,” she answered.  “I don’t sleep much, and it gives me something to do with my hands while I’m waiting for everyone else to wake up, and I can work on it while we ride, since it doesn’t take much precision.”  She looked at Tarrin.  “Um, I did kind of filch some of that leather that Mist brought with her,” she admitted.  “Just a small piece of one hide.  Do you think she’ll mind?”

      “To keep Sarraya out of our tent?  She won’t mind at all.  In fact, she might kiss your feet.”

      “Hey!” Sarraya said waspishly.

      Tarrin stood up, towering over them like a giant.  “I’ll see you all in the morning.”

      “Sleep well, dear one,” Dolanna answered.

      Mist slept heavily that night, and Tarrin, despite being sleepy, kept waking up during the night to check on her.  He knew it was silly, because he knew she was fine, but he couldn’t help it.  Sarraya had flitted into the tent with them not long after he went to sleep, sharing the pillow with Fireflash, who didn’t seem to mind her presence at all.  Her presence also reassured him, since her presence when they had gone through the desert had become important to him, and having her near again was like the reawakening of an old need within him.  It was well after midnight that he finally settled down and managed to sleep for longer than half an hour, arm draped protectively over his mate, the smell of her and the sound of her strong, steady breathing finally overwhelming his concern and allowing him to sink into a dreamy kind of contentment that made his sleep a peaceful one.

      Well past dawn, he was stirred awake by her, as she caressed the side of his face with her paw.  He opened his eyes and looked up at her, at a mysterious expression on her face, as she gazed down upon him.  “What?” he asked sleepily.

      “I’m just marvelling at how much smaller you look to me now, my mate,” she told him with an enigmatic smile.

      “Are you alright?  Does it still hurt?” he asked, reaching up and putting his arms around her.

      “I feel like I got wrung out with the wash, but I’m alright,” she answered.  “I haven’t gotten up yet, but I get the feeling it’s going to be different.”

      “You’re not going to fall over every time you take a step, but you’ll have to get used to it,” he told her.

      “Alright then, let’s give it a go,” Mist said deliberately, sliding aside and rising up onto her knees.  She put a paw down on the ground and put a foot under herself, then slowly rose to her feet.  She towered over him that way, tall and regal and intimidating, at least until he got up himself.  She was only a few fingers shorter than he was, and the change in aspect at looking at her was profound.

      “You should fit in my clothes now,” he told her.  “That’ll hold you until you make some new clothes.”

      “It should,” she said, looking at her paw, turning it around so she could see both sides as Tarrin picked up the clothes that they’d selected for her the night before.  “I feel…lighter.”

      “You’re stronger,” he told her evenly, handing her a pair of sturdy leather breeches.  “And you’ll bang your head on doorframes a lot until you get the hang of ducking.  But you’ll be alright.”

      She carefully stepped into the breeches, chuckling.  “That will take some adjusting,” she agreed, then stepped into the other leg and pulled them up.  They were loose at the waist and very tight through her hips, since hers were so much wider than his, but they did fit her well enough.  “I won’t wear these long,” she grunted, patting her hips.

      “You’ll bust out of them if you try,” he noted clinically.

      “I feel like I’m being squeezed by a Giant,” she said, putting a paw on her backside.

      “Miranda can help with the breeches,” he told her.  “She’s a very good tailor.”

      “I can make my own,” she told him absently.

      “If she helps, you can get them done that much faster,” he explained.  “Oh, yes, she used a little bit of your leather. Not much, just enough to make Sarraya a tent.”

      “That’s fine,” she said.  “I won’t need all that much, and we can always ambush a few humans and take their clothes.  I can make patchwork clothes out of them.”

      “Let’s not be unfriendly to the natives, my mate,” he chuckled as he handed her the shirt.  Fireflash yawned and got up from his pillow, stretched, then vaulted up onto Tarrin’s shoulder.

      “From what I’ve seen so far, they deserve it,” she shrugged as she pulled on the shirt.  It was just a bit tight through her bosom, but otherwise fit her just fine.

      “We’ll see.  We don’t know enough about this place yet to draw any foregone conclusions.”

      Mist moved tenderly as they came out, and he could tell that she was already having trouble with her balance and her strength. She kept looking like she was about to topple forward at any moment.  She walked around the camp gingerly at first as the others went about the morning chores, and Azakar and Ulger watered the horses, and seemed to become more confident with herself with each step.  They all watched her without being obvious about it, and he could tell that they were all rather shocked at seeing her so tall.  He knew she’d need another heavy meal to make sure she was fully restored, so he dug extra meal out of the sack and went about making an extra pot of porridge that would be served with the rest of  the breakfast Miranda was preparing.  “Should I add more bacon?” she asked without much greeting.

      He nodded.  “And another loaf of bread.”

      “She’s going to eat up our entire stores in three days at this rate, Tarrin,” she warned him.

      “She won’t have to eat like this again,” he assured her.

      “I hope not.  She might start giving me looks that would make me very uncomfortable,” she said with a cheeky grin.

      “She’d never eat you, Miranda,” he said mildly.

      “Oh?  And how do you know that?” she asked lightly.

      “Because Wikuni taste terrible,” he answered as he went towards the packs.

      Tarrin was right to fix so much food, because there was nothing left when breakfast was over. Mist ate everything that the others left behind after they took what they wanted, and then shifted into cat form and lounged by the extinguished firepit as the others packed the horses and got ready to go.  She slept most of the day as Tarrin carried her, Fireflash, and occasionally Sarraya with him in the saddle. Miranda, hiding again behind the Illusion of Mist, sat in her saddle and finished sewing Sarraya’s tent, then quietly started working on a new leather tunic for Mist.  Miranda already had an idea of her size, since she had made clothes for Tarrin before, so all she had to do was add some extra room in the chest.  She cut the leather when the stopped for a break, and her nimble fingers worked thick leather twine through holes she punched into the leather with an awl in the saddle.  Haley watched this display of dexterity with undisguised admiration, that she could sew while riding on a horse, but she paid the Were-wolf little mind, for all her attention was on her work.  Tarrin led her horse for her while she did so, because she wasn’t paying any attention to where they were going.

      By sunset that night, Mist had a sleeveless leather tunic in her size.  She tried it on, neglecting to go into a tent to take off the tunic she was wearing, but everyone was familiar with Were-cat customs and didn’t pay it much mind.  “Nice,” she told Miranda, twisting at the waist to test the fit.  “Sleeves?”

      “Tomorrow,” she answered.  “Those take a little work.  I don’t want to do that while riding.”

      “I’m surprised you managed to do that so well on a moving horse, Miranda,” Haley told her.

      “It’s not like I was doing embroidery, Haley,” she chided him.  “If I wasn’t moving, I’d have finished it in a couple of hours instead of it taking all day.”

      “You’re better than me then,” he chuckled.

      The sleeves were ready by morning, and they lingered at their camp an hour longer than necessary to give Miranda time to finish sewing the sleeves onto the tunic.  When she was done, Mist had a nice undyed buckskin tunic with laces at the neckline, elbow-length, and loose sleeves that flared very slightly at the ends.  “You can make me pants too,” Mist told her.  “These are going to split the next time I bend over.”

      “That would certainly be a show,” Ulger snickered.

      She gave him a level look.  “Look all you want, but remember that you’ll never be man enough to have it, human,” she told him.

      Ulger gave her a slight scowl, Miranda laughed, and Haley winced with a sly twinkle in his eyes as Mist stalked off towards the tent she shared with Tarrin.  “Might I suggest keeping your thoughts to yourself, Ulger?” Dolanna said with a light tilt to her voice that betrayed her amusement, though her words was as formal as ever.

      “Yeah, cause he’s not big enough to play with Mist,” Sarraya giggled.

      “Not anymore,” Haley remarked.

      “He never was,” Miranda added, which made Ulger scowl at her.

      Pants weren’t that hard to make for Miranda, for she decided to use two pieces of material and simply lace them up the sides, while sewing them together on the inside seam.  That would allow Mist to alter the fit to suit her by undoing the outside lacing and relacing it.  She had to measure Miranda for the pants, which was something that Mist had never undergone before.  “Hold still,” Miranda ordered as she held a knotted cord to the outside of Mist’s leg.

      “Why are you wasting your time?” she said.  “Just make them like Tarrin’s and add some space here.”  She put her paws on her hips.

      “I’ve never made pants for Tarrin before, so I don’t know his size,” she answered, looking up.  Then she chuckled ruefully.  “I still can’t get used to how tall you are now.”

      “I’m surprised I grew this much,” she admitted.  “I figured I’d just be a few fingers taller than Jesmind.”

      “Well, I like it. I don’t feel like my mate is a child anymore,” Tarrin announced.

      “Then it’s a good thing,” she told him with lowered eyes, then she raised them to look into his face with that same look of admiration that always seemed to be there.

      Miranda flashed him a knowing grin, but said nothing.

      By working well into the night, Miranda had the pants finished by late morning.  She did the sewing work while they were stationary and did the easier parts, such as punching the holes for laces and making the leather thong, while they were on the move.  Then it was a simple matter to lace the sides up, and then hand them to Tarrin.  “There you are,” she said with a grin.  “These should hold her until I make more.”

      Tarrin held them up and admired them.  They looked to be a perfect fit for his mate, and the leather lacing on the outsides of the legs would leave the skin beneath that mesh appealingly bare.  She had sewn in a waistband that was almost continuous that would prevent the pants from falling off her if the lacing broke, and the pants had the customary slit and button in the back for her tail and the leather lacing in the front so she could get them on over her hips.  The craftsmanship was outstanding, but that was the norm for Miranda.  There was almost nothing that Miranda could not sew.

      “Kimmie changed direction,” Azakar announced from the front, pointing off in a new direction.  She’d been moving in a virtual straight line for days now that they’d been following the trail.  The way Azakar pointed was what Tarrin would call east, for it was almost directly towards where the sun rose in the morning.  “She went that way.”

      “I wonder why she did that,” Dolanna mused.  “Perhaps some new information came to light, or she saw something I do not see.”

      “Or she was chased,” Ulger added, looking at the ground.  “It’s been a month since she passed, so it’s impossible to tell if that happened.”

      “Well, if we come across any decaying bodies wearing those uniforms those guards had on at that village, we’ll know,” Haley chuckled.

      “I think there’s a wood over that way,” Azkar said, holding his hands up his bare head to shield his eyes from the noontime sun.  “I think, it’s hard to tell.  I think she went right for it.”

      “This is where I miss Allia,” Dolanna said.  “Her eyes would tell us.”

      “I’ll go look, Dolanna,” Tarrin said, taking Fireflash off his shoulder and putting him on the horse’s back in front of the saddle.  He reached into his saddlepack and took out the violet visor that Allia had given him, which they used to shield their eyes from sand and the sun’s glare.  He used it when flying to keep the wind out of his eyes, which made it much easier to see.  “We need to have a look around anyway.”

      “Do not reveal yourself, dear one.”

      “I’ll be up too high,” he answered her.  “I want to get a look around.  We’ve gone days now without seeing any human settlements, and I want to know if there are any around us.”

      “Why?” Sarraya asked.

      “Because we need to resupply,” he answered.  “We’re down to a ride’s worth of food.  I’d rather buy it than hunt it, because the only thing I’ve seen out on this grass plain to hunt so far are rabbits.”

      “Yeah, I noticed that.  No deer, no elk, no antelope, nothing big,” Ulger said.  “That’s unusual.”

      “Not if we’re in a void surrounded by human habitation,” Tarrin said.  “They might have hunted them all out, and the other wild ones have no way to get in here.”

      “That, or they simply do not exist here,” Dolanna reminded them.

      “We’ve seen deer,” Haley noted.  “But then again, the deer from home don’t live out on grasslands.”

      “Give me a few minutes,” he said as she handed the reins of his horse to Azakar.

      “Oooh, I’m coming too!” Sarraya said, zipping up from the back of the line and circling Tarrin a few times in her excitement.

      Instead of dismounting, Tarrin nimbly climed up to stand on his saddle, then brought forth his wings an instant before Dolanna sharply called for him to stop.  “What?” he asked.

      Dolanna smiled wryly.  “Dear one, you just burned holes in the back of your shirt and vest.  How are you going to fix them?”

      “I’ll-oh.  Forgot about that,” he grunted ruefully.  “I’ll have to use that Wizard spell to fix them.”

      “Next time, dear one, take them off.  It will save you some trouble.”

      “I will,” he promised.  “Ok, we’re going straight up, Sarraya.”

      “Straight up is no sweat!” she declared as she started ascending over them.

      Tarrin put on the visor and lifted away from his horse, soaring straight up easily, almost languidly, as he momentarily lost his head in the glorious sensation of being able to fly.  Even after years with the ability, the pure joy of it had never become old for him.  He caught up with Sarraya, then cradled her in his paws as he accellerated faster than she could fly, quickly and easily getting them nearly two longspans above the ground.

      “Showoff!” Sarraya accused as he levelled off and hovered in midair.  She flitted around him, just a little unsteady as her multicolored wings beat frantically at the thinner air to keep her aloft.

      “Alright, let’s get a look,” he told her, and he started looking around.  They were in a bowl of sorts of flat land, with a mountain range visible to what he would call south, the direction they were moving, and a spur of that range creeping through to the east.  There indeed was a forest to the east, where Kimmie went, not a large one, though, and just at the edge of his vision he could see the walls of a human settlement, on the other side of the forest.  Kimmie was moving in a straight line right for it.  There was another very small settlement to the northeast, and there was a road that went from it and into the forest, north of where they would enter the forest if they followed Kimmie’s trail.

      “That looks like a village over there,” Sarraya called.  He turned to look, then looked off where she was pointing, to what he considered southwest.  There was indeed a very, very small village there, or perhaps a large farm, just on the horizon, its cultivated fields just barely visible.  “We need one of those Wikuni spyglasses,” she complained.

      “You-hey, Miranda might have one!” he said.  “She had one at one time, I remember seeing it in her satchel when I was riding in it.”

      “Let’s go ask her!” Sarraya said.  “Care to give me a lift down?”

      Tarrin took hold of her and dropped back down close to the ground so quickly his stomach rose up in his belly.  He got down to within a hundred spans of Miranda and shouted down to her.  “Miranda, do you still have that spyglass you had in your satchel?” he called.

      “I think I do!” she shouted back, going for the shoulder bag that she always carried with her, which was now attached to her saddle.  “I don’t remember taking it out!”  She rummaged through it for a few seconds, then pulled out a bronze tube.  “Got it!” she called.

      “What did you see up there, Tarrin?” Dolanna called as he came down.

      “There’s a city to the east on the other side of the woods that Azakar did in fact see, and a village southwest and northeast of us,” he answered in a quieter tone as he hovered by Miranda’s horse.  The horse shied a bit from him, seeing the fire of his wings, but Miranda kept him steady as she handed him the spyglass.  “The city looks good-sized, but I couldn’t see that much.  There’s a road that runs from the northeast village into the forest, and it looks like it’s headed for that city.  Kimmie headed arrow-straight for that city.”

      “She must have needed something,” Dolanna mused.

      “I’ll be back down in a few minutes,” he told them as he took hold of Sarraya again and vaulted up into the sky.  Once he got back to his former altitude he released the Faerie, extended the spyglass, and aimed it at the city.  It took a bit to get it focused, but it allowed him to see much better.  The city was about the size of Torrian before Tarrin had burned it down, surrounded by a log wall whose exterior had been charred to prevent attackers from using fire to burn it down.  It did have a stone gatehouse, and from the look of it, they were building a stone wall in front of the log wall to replace it.  They had the foundation laid, but had only just started raising it.  The buildings within were made of wood, but they didn’t look to be all that elegant.  They had a slapdash quality to them, as if they were hastily constructed.

      “Hmm,” Tarrin mused.

      “What?” Sarraya asked.  “What do you see?”  He described his observations to her, and she put her finger to her tiny chin for a moment in thought.  “I wonder why they’re building walls if this One guy controls everything?” she asked.

      “Maybe we were wrong about that,” Tarrin said.  “But they certainly think they need to be defended from something.”

      “Yeah, from us,” Sarraya said with a nasty little giggle.

      Tarrin turned the spyglass on the road, and could barely make out a column of soldiers on that road, moving towards the city.  He swept it past them, then grunted.  “That village northwest of the city, we must have passed by with it just under the horizon,” he realized.  “We came from that general direction, but we didn’t see it.”

      “We should have seen smoke from their fires,” Sarraya fretted.

      “Sarraya, there are no fires,” he told her, looking at the village, which was too far away to make out much detail.

      “Well, we can barely see it now, so odds were we couldn’t see anything on the ground, fires or no fires,” she told him.

      “True.  I think the land rises between the village and where we came through, that would have helped hide it.  I wonder how long it’ll take those soldiers to get there.”

      “What soldiers?”

      “There’s a column of soldiers marching on the road,” he told her, zooming in on them again.  “About a hundred, I think.  They’re moving towards the city.”

      “Walking?  Not today.”

      “You’re probably right there,” he agreed.

      “How long do you think it’ll take us to get to the city?  You’re the one with the better view.”

      “We might get there by sunset if we don’t get hung up too much in the forest.  It looks like it’s about five leagues away from where we are now.  With these horses, five leagues is more than doable in half a day.”

      Sarraya laughed.  “Five leagues is doable in half that time,” she told him.  “We could make twelve leagues easy on those horses.  Twenty if we don’t stop too much and go at a canter.  They’re very strong horses.”

      “Yeah, but we have to go through the woods, and that’ll slow us a bit.  If it’s got a lot of underbrush, we might not make it today.”

      “Well, let’s go back down and tell the others, so we can get moving,” Sarraya told him.

      After explaining what they saw, Dolanna wasted no time making her decisions.  “Let us move towards the city and try to reach it by nightfall.  I would like to sleep in an inn this night,” she announced.  “And this time we do nothing untowards,” she said, levelling her steady gaze on Tarrin.

      “I’ll try,” he promised as Azakar turned his massive horse in the direction Tarrin considered due east.

      It took them a couple of hours to reach the edge of the forest, which was filled with massive hardwood trees that cooled the air considerably as they entered it, complete with all the sounds he would expect to hear in a wood, from squirrels and chipmunks to the scratching of woodchucks to the chirping of birds in the foliage high above and also on the ground, foraging amond dead leaves that carpeted the forest floor.  There was no underbrush, so they made very good time as they moved along Kimmie’s trail.  It met up with a wide path, just large enough for a very small cart, about two longspans into the trees, and Kimmie turned onto that path.  They did as well, making much better time as the forest began to show undergrowth, where holes in the canopy above allowed sunlight to filter down to saplings, bushes, and vines that obscured their vision on either side of the track.  Mist stood up from where she was reclining, her ears swivelling towards the brush to their left.

      “What is it, Mist?” he asked the black cat in the saddle with him.

      “Humans,” she replied in the manner of the Cat.  “Hiding in the trees.”

      “Sarraya, be a dear and go take a look,” he said to the Faerie, who was sitting on the other shoulder opposite Fireflash.

      “I’m on it,” she told him confidently, and though he didn’t see her, he heard the buzzing of her wings as she zipped off in the direction Mist was looking.

      “What is it, dear one?” Dolanna asked.

      “Humans are off over there,” he answered, nodding with his head.  “Sarraya’s investigating.”

      “Ah.  I will inform Haley and Ulger.”

      Tarrin pulled his bow out from the holster in his saddle, which slung it behind his leg, and uncapped the quiver slung on the opposite side, and Azakar drew his broadsword meaningfully after pulling his shield down from where it was slung on his arm to get a grip on it.  The others also visibly prepared for an attack, as they waited for Sarraya to return with information about the hidden humans.  Tarrin reflexively nocked his bow when he heard a rustle of leaves off in the same direction the humans were hidden, but refrained from drawing it when a squirrel erupted from a small bush and bounded across the track to a tree on the far side.  He was about to pull the arrow off his bow when he heard the buzzing of Sarraya’s wings approach them.  She landed on his shoulder and sat down sedately.  “Nothing to worry about,” she told him.  “Just a bunch of peasants.  They’re gathering berries.”

      “Perhaps you should foray out ahead of us to ensure the path is clear,” Dolanna proposed.

      “Sure, Dolanna,” Sarraya answered, flitting off his shoulder.  “I’ll be ahead a ways.  If I see anything, I’ll come back and tell you.”

      It took them most of the afternoon to reach the other side of the forest.  They passed two groups of humans dressed in rough homespun smocks and tunics.  They were very thin people who had the look of frightened animals, moving quickly and in a tight group, staring at the mounted party as it passed.  They all bowed or curtsied as they went by, with fear in their eyes, and Tarrin realized that their very fine clothing-by their standards-the Knights’ armor, their weapons, and their horses had to denote them as rich or part of the nobility.  If such a thing existed here.  When they left the treeline, they could see a fair sized town, about the size Torrian had been before it burned down, surrounded by that blackened log wall.  A large group of men worked outside that log wall to build a stone one, laying heavy stones in place under the eyes of three mean wearing scarlet tabards.  They had a crest of a white triangle on a black circular background on the chests of those blood red tabards, and they were gathered around a large scroll of parchment that one of them was holding, talking about something and pointing to it.  They stopped when Azakar led them towards the stone gatehouse of the town, their eyes hard and uncertain as they watched the group pass by.

      When they reached the gatehouse, Azakar pulled up to a stop and Dolanna moved her horse forward as six men carrying halberds and wearing rusty chain jacks with surcoats of the same scarlet and with the same device upon their chests stepped forward.  “Good evening, my Lords,” the tallest of them addressed in Penali.  “Praise be the One.  What business have you in Dengal?”

      Dolanna urged her horse up with Azakar’s.  “We travel from one point to another, goodman,” she answered.

      “Hush, woman!” the man barked.  “Let your betters speak!”

      Tarrin’s eyes blazed as a sudden well of icy fury roiled up in him, but Haley calmly urged his horse up to the front.  “Forgive our customs, my good man,” Haley said with a light smile, “but we have come from a great distance on a pilgrimage.  Where we come from, it’s customary for the one of highest rank to do the talking, and our good Lady here happens to outrank us all.”

      “That’s bunk,” he snorted.  “Who would put a woman in any position of authority?”

      “If that woman gives the order, we’ll make you a head shorter, lout,” Ulger said in an ugly manner, putting his hand on the hilt of his broadsword.  “Now be civil, or we’ll have to go get you a new tongue.”

      The threat present in those words was not lost on the tall, gangly man.  He gave the shortest of bows to them and took a single step back.  “What business have you in Dengal?” he repeated.

      “We seek nothing more than a bed for the night and a chance to replenish our stores.  We shall be gone with the morning sun,” Dolanna answered him, perhaps a bit tartly.  “Now stand aside.”

      “I can’t let that, that thing through the gate,” he said, pointing at Tarrin.  Or, more to the point, pointing at Fireflash, who was sitting on Tarrin’s shoulder.  “What is that thing?”

      “It’s called a drake,” Tarrin answered.  “It’s a very rare animal that lives on an island off the coast of our homeland.”

      “It’s not normal.  I don’t see why the Church hasn’t killed it yet.”

      “As it is still quite alive, I would say that the Church does not agree with you.  Or are you now saying that you know better than the Church?”

      There was a veiled threat so hideous within those words that the man melted out of the way, bowing several times and proclaiming that he did not.

      “Very good.  Now direct us to your finest inn.”

      “We only have the one, your Ladyship, the Three Masks.  Straight down this street, about halfway into town, on the left.  There’s three wooden masks hanging outside the door.  You can’t miss it.”

      “Thank you.  Enjoy your day.”

      “May the One watch over you,” he said with another bow as they started moving forward.

      “By the trees, I hope not,” Sarraya whispered from his other shoulder.

      The streets of the town, Dengal, were choked with half-dried mud, and the stench of human waste assaulted even Tarrin’s human nose as they moved along the pedestrians.  The contents of chamber pots and kitchen refuse were simply tossed out of windows into the streets, creating a miasma of stench that clung close to the ground, hanging almost like a smoky mist over the sewage filling the bottoms of narrow ditches dug into either side of the muddy street.  Small wooden bridges connected the buildings to each side of the street to the street itself, or long wooden decks that were built out over them to provide passage for many people at once.  The first thing that Tarrin noticed outside of the numbers of crudely dressed humans were the guards.  Patrols of ten men in uniforms similar to those men at the gate roamed the streets, and there was never less than two in sight from the backs of their horses at any one time.  All the citizens of the town gave these patrols a very wide berth, even if they had to wade in the ankle-deep sewage in the ditches on the sides of the street.  The buildings themselves were made of rough timber, log walls chinked with mud that lined the sides of the streets, at least until they got about a quarter of the way in.  The buildings went from rough timber to slate tiles, wattle and daub, and even a few stone buildings that looked to be businesses, and what was not a surprise, the large, ornate stone building that had to be the town’s chapel clearly visible at the end of the street.  It had two spires on either side of its front and a stained glass window, with that same triangle an circle design, over the large brass doors that led inside of it.

      The Three Masks was a small inn exactly where the guard said it would be.  Nervous grooms took the reins of the horses as they rode into a very small yard to the side of the main building, then waited as they all dismounted.  Ulger took one of them aside and spoke to him in low tones, and the whitening of the man’s face told Tarrin that the Knight had made several nasty threats should anything happen to their horses, their packs, or anything within them.  Tarrin picked up Mist and carried her after he dismounted, following the others into the inn’s main building, a ratty doorway with no door, only an old blanket nailed across the doorway to provide some illusion of separation between outside and inside.  Tarrin thought the place to be a seedy dive until they got inside and found a small yet meticulously clean common room with tables in the middle of the floor, a row of booths on the far wall, and a small, cozy little bar on the left.  The door that was probably hung in the doorway before they arrived was laying between two chairs, and a small, portly man with a patch over his left eye and a head full of short-cropped graying hair was bent over that door with a carpenter’s planing tool, shaving some of the wood off its edge.  The tool he was using, Tarrin noted, was fairly well made and built around a sharp steel planing blade, hinting that perhaps these people were not as primitive as they seemed to be.

      “Goodness me, we have guests!” the man said in surprise, putting the tool down.  He took one look at them and then gave a false smile.  “The Church is on up the street, my Lords,” he told them.  “They should have plenty of room for you.”

      “We’re not from the Church,” Tarrin told him, answering before Dolanna could speak.  “We need rooms for the night.”

      “Well, then, welcome to the Three Masks.  I’m Merik Thatcher.  You have come to the best inn in Dengal,” the man said brightly.

      “You mean the only inn,” Ulger chuckled.

      “Well, that makes it the best, does it not?” he answered with a sly little look at Ulger.  “Come in, my Lords, come in!  And please forgive this mess, I’ve been meaning to fix this door for a while now.  It’s just the luck of the Defiled that you would pick this particular day to pay me a call.  Would you like something to take the dust from your throats?”

      “We would like our rooms, please,” Dolanna answered him.  “And perhaps directions to your greengrocer or nearest food merchant.  Our travelling stores are growing thin, and we have need to resupply to continue our journey.”

      “Well, er, is that what you need, my Lord?” he asked, giving Dolanna an odd look before turning to address Tarrin.  The man’s eyes locked on Fireflash, but unlike the guard, this man said nothing, nor did he make any indication that Fireflash was out of the ordinary.

      “You heard the lady, goodman,” Tarrin answered him.

      “Yes, I most certainly did,” he said with a charming smile.  “Please, have a seat if you’re of a mind while you’re waiting for me to get your rooms ready, though I’d bet that you’re tired of sitting by now.  Such finery could only mean you rode here on horses, or perhaps even a carriage.  Brolli, we have guests!” the man called towards the bar.  “Start supper!”

      “Aye,” a feminine voice called from the back.

      “Would you like to inspect our rooms, my Lord?  You can look things over as I prepare them for you.”

      “That’s my department, goodman Merik,” Miranda told him with a smile, though the Illusion of Mist made it look predatory, when he knew Miranda wore her cheeky grin beneath it.  “But judging from the condition of your common room, I think I’ll find little to criticize.”

      “You’d be within your rights not say that with this door hogging the room and my clean floor littered with sawdust and wood shavings,” he said with an honest smile.

      “But it’s a clean floor under that sawdust, goodman,” Miranda told him with a straight face.

      He laughed.  “You honor me, my Lady.  Are you sure you don’t want something to drink?” he asked again.  “I shouldn’t be but a few moments to prepare your rooms, but you should spend those moments in comfort.”

      “I’ll take whatever you have on hand, my good man,” Ulger announced.  “I could use a drink.”

      “Would you prefer ale or water?”

      “Ale, of course,” he replied.

      “Anyone else?” he asked, but there was only silence.  “Brolli, could you bring a tankard of ale out for our guest?” he called.

      “Aye, Merik,” she called back.

      “I’ll go prepare your rooms.  If you need anything at all, just tell Brolli, and she’ll get it for you.  We, ah, can discuss the cost of the night’s stay when I return.  If you would follow me, my Lady?”

      “Certainly,” Miranda told him, stepping forward.  “I’ll only be a few minutes, my Lord, and I’ll make sure that the rooms here are worthy of you,” she said, giving Tarrin an outrageous smile when Merik couldn’t see, and Tarrin inwardly groaned.  Miranda was going to play up this notion that they were nobles, and he’d have to endure simpering and my Lords being thrown at him all night.

      Ulger swung his leg over a chair and sat down as the woman Brolli brought out a crude ceramic tankard filled with dark ale. Brolli was a very small, thin woman of middle years wearing a homespun smock that left her legs bare, with heavy lines around her mouth, her graying brown hair pulled back from her face and done up in a tight bun.  Brolli seemed a severe woman, but her smile was warm, almost gentle.  Ulger took it and downed almost half of it in one swallow, then set it on the table before him with a heavy clunk.  “Not bad,” he said with a nod.

      “Thank you, my Lord.  Does anyone else want anything?”

      “No thank you,” Tarrin said.

      The woman too stared at Fireflash for a long moment, who regarded her with his amber, reptillian eyes steadily, then she curtsied and hurried back into the kitchen.

      “We must finish our shopping quickly, before the shops close,” Dolanna told them.  “Each of us will take some gold and fan out to buy what we need.  Miranda and Ulger will remain to watch our possessions.”

      “Sounds like a plan,” Haley said.  “It’s going to depend on where we can buy what we need.”

      Merik returned with Miranda about ten minutes later.  The disguised Wikuni gave Tarrin a bright smile, and Tarrin immediately was worried.  “The rooms are more than adequate, my Lord,” she announced.

      “Yes, I told you they would be.  And your maid here has already settled the night’s lodgings, so we don’t have to worry about that,” Merik added.  “Now, you needed the locations of merchants?”

      “Yes,” Dolanna told him.

      “There are several, and they’re all not far from here.  Just go out the door, turn left, and then go either left or right at the next corner.  That’s Market Street, and you can find almost anything you need in a shop or stall.”

      “Thank you, good innkeeper,” Dolanna said.

      “Now, my stablehands will take your things up to your rooms, so you can get to your shopping.  Would you like them to port for you?”

      “That will not be necessary,” Dolanna replied.  “Azakar, please go out and make sure they do not unsaddle two of the pack horses.”

      “Yes, Dolanna,” the Mahuut said with a nod, and he hurried towards the empty doorway.

      “Very well.  Miranda, you and Ulger shall remain here.  The rest of us shall see to our stores.”

      “Sure, my Lady,” Miranda said with a little curtsy.

      “Merik!  I need some help with this!” Brolli called from the kitchen.

      “Excuse me, my Lord,” he said, bowing to Tarrin.  “I’ll be back in a moment.  Coming, Brolli!”

      “What did you tell him!” Tarrin hissed at Miranda in Wikuni after Merik left the room.

      “Only that you’re a travelling noble of very high rank who’s a historian, and you’re searching far and wide for ancient lore,” she replied.  “Dolanna is your cousin, also a noble of high rank, and the rest of us are your servants.”

      “Miranda!” Tarrin said sharply.

      “Hey, it works,” she said with a cheeky grin.  “By the way, you’re a duke of Sulasia.  He has no idea where Sulasia is, but he certainly believes you’re a noble.”

      “Our clothing leads them to believe so,” Dolanna said in agreement.  “And her story will make things easier for us to explain.”

      “How did you pay the man, Miranda?” Dolanna asked curiously.

      “Oh, with some money I stole from a merchant along the way,” she answered absently.  “That fat one in the litter.”

      “But we were on horseback!  How did you do so without him noticing?”

      “I have lots of talents, Dolanna,” Miranda winked.  “Some of them aren’t quite as obvious.”

      Dolanna gave her a look, then laughed helplessly.  “Perhaps I will have only Ulger remain.  You should go to a moneychanger and trade in our nuggets for coin.”

      “I can take care of that, Dolanna,” Haley said mildly.  “I’ve had dealings with moneychangers.  I’ll get us a good conversion rate.”

      “Very well then.  The rest of us shall buy our stores.”

      “What should we get?”

      “I will buy the meal and some bread, and also food for the horses.  Haley will buy cheese and dried meat, and Tarrin will buy whatever vegetables he can find that will not perish on us quickly, as well as some beans.  Azakar will accompany me, for I know he will not allow me to wander alone.”

      “You’re right,” he agreed as he came back inside.

      “But first Haley will get us some coin of the realm,” she said.  “Are the horses ready, Azakar?”

      “Yes ma’am,” he answered.

      “Haley, ask Merik where we might find a moneychanger, then meet us outside.  Sarraya, Mist, you shall remain here.  Tarrin, you must convince Fireflash to remain as well, but we have seen how well he listens to you,” she said with a gentle smile at the drake.

      “You got that right,” Sarraya giggled from her invisible perch on Tarrin’s shoulder.

      “Certainly, my Lady,” he said with a rakish smile and a graceful bow, then he walked toward the kitchen.

      Merik’s directions were fairly accurate, and they found themselves outside of a small, sturdy timber building whose entrance was flanked by two guards about ten minutes after leaving the inn. Haley spent perhaps twenty minutes inside, then came out with a small satchel that weighed heavily on its strap.  “Not bad,” he announced, reaching in and taking out several small leather pouches.  “I had him divide it up.  Everyone take one, and Azakar will carry the rest.  Nobody in his right mind would try to steal it from him,” he chuckled.

      “I would say not,” Dolanna said with a smile at her massive protector.

      They split up from there, and Tarrin walked along the street, looking for a place that sold vegetables.  Greengrocers were a staple in any market in Sennadar, but this was a different world, and he was unsure what these people would do given the fact that the vast majority of them seemed to be very poor.  There were people in what would be considered finery here, though their clothes would probably be worn by milkmaids and farmers back home, wool tunics of moderately fine weaving, or tanned leather, even a few garments that looked to be made of a finer material than wool, like cotton.  But interspersed with those people in their finery were people wearing torn, dirty clothing shuffling down the street, looking longingly at the food displayed in stalls or behind windows while their clothes hung from them as if they were scarecrows.  The place reminded him of everything he had hated about Dala Yar Arak, for these people were hungry, they were in need, and those who had the resources to help them did not care.  He tried to distance himself from his displeasure, but it wasn’t easy when an example of it passed by him every few seconds, scrambling out of his way and bowing repeatedly.

      He found a greengrocer not far from the intersection where they had turned onto the street, ran by a small, thin little man with bad teeth, sunken cheeks, and his right eye milky white from a cataract which made it useless.  He fawned all over Tarrin when he came in, whining and wheedling in a manner which immediately got on his nerves.  Tarrin looked over his goods, most of which he immediately recognized as foods from Sennadar as well.  Beets and cabbage, beans and apples, peaches and plums, lettuce and turnips, rutabagas, nuts, and even some familiar looking berries.  He also dealt in wheat meal, but he didn’t have any corn, nor did he have squash.  Tarrin inspected his goods and found much of it to be of inferior quality, but the man did dry it fairly well, and could provide staples that would last for at least a ride.

      Tarrin started making a list of what he wanted to buy when the little man started scowling towards the door.  Tarrin turned to look, and he saw a very small, almost emaciated girl that looked to be about fourteen, standing there wearing little more than filthy rags.  Her dark hair was long, tangled, and very dirty, and she didn’t look all that steady on her feet.  “What do you want, street urchin!” the man barked.

      “I’ll work for a meal, kind master,” she said in a little voice, her eyes on the floor.

      “Bah, you can do us all a favor and die!” the man shouted at her.  “Grubby little thieves, you’ll steal me blind the instant I turn my back!”  He reached for a wooden pole of sorts leaning against a table of baskets holding his wares, but he winced in pain when Tarrin closed his hand over the man’s wrist.  Though he was in human form, he was still a head taller than the man, and his hands were powerful.

      “You show a surprising lack of common courtesy,” Tarrin told him in a cool, dangerous voice.  Though he did not know the girl, part of Tarrin’s fundamental nature caused him to be protective of children, any children, even those not his own.  The man was not going to chase the girl down the street with a wooden rod while he was there to stop him.  “You offered to work for your supper?” Tarrin asked her.

      “Y-Yes, my Lord,” she said in a trembling voice when she raised her head and looked at him, and saw him in all his finery.  She then tried to curtsy, though she didn’t do a very good job of it, for she was trembling too much to make it look graceful.

      “Then you’re hired,” he told her.  “I have things I need carried.  You will carry them for me.”

      The look she gave him was apprehensive, yet slightly hopeful.  There was a wariness about her that showed that she approached the offer with trepidation.  Given that she was a young girl, he could understand why.  Odds were, the girl had had her share of scrapes with those who would force their attentions on her.

      “She can’t carry what you’ve bought, my Lord,” the man said gratingly.

      “She’s not.  You will.”

      He spluttered.  “I got porters for that!”

      “Then get them.  I want my goods loaded on a horse I have down the street.”

      “There’s the matter of the payment, my Lord,” the man coughed.  “I don’t bring out my porters until we’ve settled the bill.”

      “Fine, then.  How much for all I want?” he asked, holding up his little piece of parchment.

      The man blanched, and then he turned white.  Tarrin had never expected that kind of a reaction.  “S-Surely my Lord doesn’t think I can read, do you?” he asked in a now fearful voice.  “I’m not a nobleman!”

      “No, certainly not. I just meant-nevermind,” he grunted, putting the parchment away.  “We’ve already discussed what I want.  How much?”

      “Ten silver shar, my Lord.”

      Tarrin gave the man a penetrating look, judging his greed against his obvious fear of Tarrin’s seeming nobility.  He then nodded absently.  “I think you can imagine what I would do to you if I thought you were cheating me, so ten it is,” he agreed, which made the man grimace just a little bit.  He beckoned to the girl with a finger, and she shuffled into the shop warily.  She looked up at him with dark eyes, and then she backed away when he held out his leather purse to her.

      “You will carry this,” he told her.  “Now take it and pay the man.”

      The girl goggled at him, but it was nothing compared to the look of abject shock on the face of the merchant.  She almost dropped the leather pouch when Tarrin thrust it into her hands, and they trembled as they held more money than she had probably ever held in her entire life.  Then, with deliberate intent, he turned his back on her to look at a table holding baskets of pears, apples, and peaches.  Much to the merchant’s surprise, the girl opened the pouch and poured out coins into her hand, then stepped up and started handing them to him.  He glared at her the entire time, but he could say nothing, because she was now paying him for Tarrin’s purchase.  It was a lesson for the merchant in not passing judgement, for the girl had not taken the purse and run with it, as she had the chance to do.  When he looked at her, he just knew that she was worthy of that trust.

      “Now then, get your porters,” Tarrin ordered the merchant.  “I have better things to do than stand here.”

      Tarrin supervised the six porters who packed up his purchase, then made them and the girl follow him back to the horse, which Haley currently had.  They had to go two blocks to reach it, and Haley had men loading it with his own purchases when he reached it.  “I see you were successful, my Lord,” Haley said to him with a very slight smile.

      Tarrin gave him a flat look, then ordered the men to load the horse.  The girl stood right behind him, clutching the leather pouch to her breast as if it were going to jump out of her hands and run away at any moment.  “I see you got more than foodstuffs,” Haley chuckled a he looked at her.  “Quite a charming young lady.  I think she needs to have sharp words with her tailor, however.”

      The girl flushed, lowering her head.

      Tarrin paid her little mind.  “I think I got enough to last us a while.  I’m sure the horse is going to hate us for loading him down so much.”

      “I already told him that he won’t have to go far with it,” he answered with a sly little smile.  “I’m sure he’ll forgive us.”

      Tarrin and Haley watched as the porters finished loading the supplies onto the horse, who kept glaring balefully at Haley.  The men moved quickly, casting fearful looks at Tarrin and Haley the entire time, even as the poorly dressed girl remained steadfastly just beside and slightly behind Tarrin, holding onto his leather pouch with both hands, keeping it clutched tightly to her breast as if to keep anyone from taking it away from her.  The porters finished loading down the horse, and then rushed away quickly after Haley took up the reins.  “What about the others?” Tarrin asked.

      “They’re using the other horse,” he answered.  “My Lord,” he added with a smirk.

      “Zyri!” a tiny voice called in a hushed manner.  “Zyri, did you get any food?  I’m hungry!”

      Tarrin glanced at the young girl, who was trying to shoo a boy of about ten away, who was hiding behind a barrel on the other side of a sewage ditch, just at the mouth of a narrow alley between two shops.  The boy was just as thin, bedraggled, and filthy as the girl was, with thick, limp brown hair but with lucent brown eyes.  He saw a look of fear on the girl’s face as she looked at the boy.  “Telven!  Go back to the alley!  You can’t leave Jal alone!” she said in a fierce whisper of command.  “Go!  I’ll bring food when I get some, and get off the street before they see you!”

      “But I’m hungry!” he whispered back from the water barrel.

      She took one step towards him, taking a hand off the leather pouch and pointing down the alley.  “Go back to Jal right now!” she hissed at him.

      The crowd parted for yet another patrol, and the small boy suddenly darted back down the alley and out of sight.  The girl seemed to want to bolt as well, but she did not move, clutching the leather pouch to her breast and wringing its top in her small hands as she stared at the ten armed men with something almost approaching terror.  The ten men seemed about ready to march by, at least until one of them seemed to notice.  He drew a heavy wooden rod from his belt and rushed towards her. The girl turned as if to run, then stopped and dropped to her knees, hugging the pouch tightly as she burst into tears.  Tarrin wasn’t sure why she was doing what she was doing, but he wasn’t about to let that guard hit her with that baton.  Tarrin stepped into his path, a tall, intimidating figure that brought the man up short immediately.  He blanched when he saw the flat look in Tarrin’s eyes, and lowered his wooden rod.  “Stand aside, my Lord,” the guard said immediately, giving the young girl a sinister look of eager anticipation.

      “Why?”

      “She’s stolen your purse!” he said in surprise, as if it was a stupid question.

      “She’s done no such thing,” Tarrin snorted.  “Now move on and don’t concern yourself with her.”

      “Here now, you can’t order me around, nobleman,” the man said with sudden heat.  “I’m a soldier of the Church.  We don’t answer to you.”

      Tarrin had to struggle to maintain his composure.  Getting into a fight in the middle of the street was not what he wanted to have happen.  “I’m not ordering, I’m suggesting,” he said in a level, deceptively mild tone.  “I’ve hired her to fetch and carry for me, and she’s not done anything wrong.”

      The guard mulled it over.  “Alright, but keep a civil tongue when addressing soldiers of the One,” he commanded arrogantly.

      “You will get all the respect you deserve,” Tarrin said in a flinty manner, the sarcasm lost on the man as he rejoined the other guards and moved on without any more discussion.

      Haley went over and offered his hand to the girl.  “It’s just not proper for a page of Lord Tarrin to be kneeling on the ground.  There’s a certain amount of dignity that goes with the position,” he said lightly, giving Tarrin a rakish smile that said that he, along with Miranda, was enjoying teasing him over it immensely.

      She gazed up at him fearfully, then, sniffling, she took his hand and let him pull her to her feet.  She shuffled slowly back to Tarrin’s side, holding the pouch tightly and staring at the ground.  Tarrin looked down at her, impressed that even in the face of that much fear, she would not run away.  She was taking her job to carry his purse seriously enough to risk a beating over it.  Or, perhaps, she was so desperate to feed that boy and the other she named, which Tarrin did not see, that she would be beaten by that guard if it meant getting food from Tarrin for performing the duty he set upon her.

      Either way, that was loyalty.

      Tarrin and Haley exchanged a look over the girl’s head, then the Were-wolf shrugged noncommitally.  “Are the others almost done?” he asked.

      “Probably, my Lord,” Haley answered.  “With four of us out doing this, it wouldn’t take long.”

      “Alright.  Go ahead and take the horse back to the inn, and try to talk him out of his displeasure.”

      “That may not be easy,” Haley said lightly, taking the reins.  The horse was still giving Haley an accusing look.  “It might take a few apples.”

      “We have plenty,” Tarrin shrugged as Haley led the horse down the street.  He turned and looked at the girl, who still stared at her feet.  “Look at me,” he ordered.  She slowly, hesitantly raised her eyes, and he looked at her face and realized that if she was cleaned up and had some food, she would actually be a rather cute young lady.  There were hints of it in her cheekbones and her chin, a promise of something more lurking on that dirty face.  Her dark eyes were lustrous despite her gaunt visage, stormy eyes that showed the strength of her will, eyes that looked upon him with both fear and gratitude, and an uncertainty of what was to come.

      “I don’t need your service any more,” he told her, holding out his hand.

      Immediately, she offered up the purse to him, but he simply closed his hands over hers, making her grip the pouch.  There was the strangest tingle in that touch, of his skin on hers, as if there were something about this girl he should know, but whatever it was managed to evade his attention.  “It’s yours,” he told her.  “Get something to eat, take a bath, and buy some better clothes.”

      Tears immediately welled up in her dark eyes.  “Th-Thank you, m-my Lord,” she managed to choke out.

      “You earned it, in my opinion,” he stated.  “Now you’d better run along, before that Telven of yours gets into trouble.”

      “H-He’s my brother, my Lord,” she told him.

      “Don’t call me that,” he snorted.  “I’m no more a Lord than you are, I just happen to have enough money to make them think I am.  My name is Tarrin.”

      “I’m Zyrilin, my Lord.”

      “Well now, Zyrilin, you’d better go get something for your brother to eat,” he said gently.

      The look she gave him was one of such gratitude that he thought he had never seen its like, as if he were some kind of Deva descended from on high to grant her this windfall, then she turned and ran.  She jumped over the foul-smelling ditch of sewage and disappeared between two buildings, going the same way her brother had gone.

      “Who was that, Tarrin?” Azakar asked as he led the other horse up to him.  Dolanna was behind, fiddling with one of the straps even as the horse moved.

      “Nobody, Zak,” Tarrin said with a slight smile.  “Nobody at all.”

      “Oh.  Did you finish?”

      He nodded.  “Haley’s leading the horse back to the inn.  He’s only about a block ahead.”

      “We have completed our tasks as well,” Dolanna told him.  “Let us return to the inn.  I would like to get an early start in the morning.  Us being here invites disaster.”

      “I almost had one,” Tarrin grunted.  “But I managed to keep my temper.”

      “Wonders never cease,” Dolanna told him lightly, patting him on the arm.  “Very well, cousin, let us return to the safety of the inn.”

      Merik and Brolli served up a mutton stew for dinner which actually wasn’t half bad, which they all enjoyed after Ulger and Azakar redistributed their purchases through the saddle packs to balance the load of each horse.  They ate in the common room, which only had six or seven other patrons all night, all of them men dressed in finery and often accompanied by women who looked to be wives and one or two armed men serving as bodyguards.  They spent most of the night in conversation with Merik however, as Miranda and Haley skillfully dragged quite a bit of useful information out of him.  Dengal was a new city, only about twenty years old, built as a stop for the army of the Church as it marched to the east, over the mountains and to the lines of a war that they were fighting with what Merik called “heathens,” primitive tribal humans who didn’t worship the One.  These “heathens” were, in Merik’s description, “unwashed barbarians who believe that the spirits of animals are gods and worship them.”  The Church was forcibly converting them to worshipping the One, and had managed to conquer nearly three quarters of the territory held by this other group of humans.  There was a short bit of panic when Merik produced a map and asked them to show him where Sulasia was, but seeing that map was in and of itself a stroke of good fortune.  It mapped out a vast empire that the map marked as Pyrosia, and according to the map, Dengal was in the extreme southeast corner of it.  The empire had conquered about nine tenths of the landmass, with only a strip of land along its eastern border, on a peninsula separated by the rest of the continent by a mountain range, and a long strip of land over a mountain range on the north not being denoted as owned by the empire.  There was another peninsula of land almost touching the one to the east, that trailed off the map, making it look like part of either a different landmass or a large island.  That road leading northwest he’d seen that afternoon ran back into the empire.  The west side of the kingdom was a coast line, and Miranda glibly explained that theirs was a small island nation off the west side of the map, far removed from the center of the Pyrosian empire.  Merik seemed to accept this explanation on its face, and laughed and said that it explained why they seemed to have different ways.  “I thought that the Church taught a uniform doctrine, but I guess that it is a little different from region to region,” he chuckled.

      “It does teach a uniform doctrine,” Miranda answered. “It’s just that we opened our arms to the Church only about ten years ago, so we’re still learning,” she winked.

      “I see the light of truth shines into the hearts of all the pure,” Merik said piously.  “Your people must be untouched by the taint of the Defiled for you to see the light of the One and want to be part of it.”

      “Most likely.  We’re out here on our pilgrimage so we can take information of the rest of the world back home,” she explained.  “There’s only so much you can see on a map, you know.”  She pointed at an area beyond the northern border of the empire.  “What’s up here?”

      “Oh, those are the Dread Lands,” he said.  “A wilderness filled with dangerous beasts and monsters.  The children of the Defiled used to hide up there until the Army of Light destroyed them.  Now it’s filled with the Sub-Humans.  You know, orcs, gnolls, kobolds, goblins, those kinds of creatures.”

      “Ah.  We came along the south edge, and now we’re going north.  I see it’d behoove us if we made a left turn before we got over these mountains,” Miranda chuckled, pointing at a mountain range that divided the empire from that region.

      “Have you visited Pyros yet?” he asked.  “Certainly you can’t visit the Church’s holdings without going to see the seat of all.  You just have to see the Altar of Truth, and the Obsidian Cathedral, and the Wall of Purity!”

      “We were going to save that for last,” she explained.  “So the memory of it would be freshest in us when we go home to tell everyone what we’ve seen.”  She pointed at the landmass trailing off the east side fo the map.  “Is this an island?”

      “That’s the continent of Auromar,” he explained.  “The Haunted Lands.  It’s a cursed place, filled with the ghosts of the Defiled who the Church destroys.  The One cursed Auromar long ago when a pagan religion managed to take hold there and seduce the weak, which triggered the first Crusade of Holy Might.  Since the Defiled are also cursed, when they die their souls are trapped there, and they wander the land killing anything alive that steps onto the shore.  There’s nothing alive on that entire continent now, not even plants.  The souls of the Defiled are cursed, and they can’t find joy in the light of the One, so they wander the Haunted Lands for all eternity, suffering for their darkness.”

      “When did that happen?” Miranda asked.  “When did people first start seeing them, I mean?”

      “I’m surprised you’ve never heard of it,” he said with slight suspicion.

      “We’re very isolated, good Merik,” she said, flashing him a disarming smile.  “We didn’t even know about Pyrosia until fifty years ago.”

      “Well, the first Crusade was about two thousand years ago,” he answered.  “Until then, the souls of the Defiled wandered all the land, but after the One cursed the earth of Auromar, they all became trapped there.  Even the souls of the Defiled that are found and destroyed now are trapped on Auromar.”

      “Sounds like an unpleasant kind of place,” Miranda said.

      “I wouldn’t want to go there,” Merik chuckled.

      “We have no Defiled where we come from,” Miranda said.  “I wonder what they look like.”

      “Well, some of them look just like you and me,” he answered in a conspiratorial whisper.  “There are those who are born Defiled, the ones that aren’t human, and then there are the ones that become Defiled when they embrace false gods, or start practicing witchcraft.   Since regular people can become Defiled, you never know if the stranger you’re talking to walks the path of light or has succumbed to the darkness and become Defiled.”

      “Oh,” Miranda said, glancing at Tarrin with a wicked little smile.  If Merik only knew just who he was talking to, he’d understand how correct his words really were.  “So, all non-humans are Defiled?”

      Merik nodded.  “It’s the taint of evil staining them.  Only the pure can walk the path of light, and only humans are pure.  The Sub-Humans and the other races originally were human, but they were cursed by the One to show the taint of evil within them in way a that all those who walk the path of light could see, so they became something other than human.  The Sub-Humans are too stupid to be a threat, and sometimes the Church uses them to do things, since the One said that all those who are cursed may be used to serve the One in bondage, in retribution for their rejection of him, before being wiped from the world.  But the other Defiled are too smart or too dangerous to serve the One, so they’re hunted down and destroyed.  Especially the witches,” he said in a harsh whisper.  “The Hunters of Truth do that, go around and hunt down the witches.”

      “How would one know a witch?” Miranda asked in what Tarrin saw was utterly feigned fascination, acting as if she hung on Merik’s every word to make him talk.

      “There’s no way to see one on the street and know what he is,” he answered after looking around.  “But the Hunters can find them.  The taint of their unholy magic leaves a mark on them that the Hunters can find, but I don’t know how.  Maybe they’re blessed by the One to see darkness, since they themselves walk so closely down the path of light.”

      “Oooh, that sounds dangerous,” she breathed.

      “It’s not a job I think I could do, facing the forces of darkness every day,” Merik said.  “But the Hunters protect the rest of us, so I’m glad there are men out there that can.  Oh my, here I am ignoring my other guests.  I must be along now, Miranda.  I’ll be back in a while, and we’ll chat some more.”

      “Certainly,” Miranda told him as he got up, then she turned to Tarrin after he was gone.  “Quite an interesting bit of information,” she said soberly in Wikuni to him.

      “I think we might want to leave before dawn,” Tarrin grunted.  “If these Hunters really can sense other magic-users, then we might not want to linger here for long.  This is a good-sized town, and they might have a Hunter in residence.”

      “Amazing that a religion can call itself pure and walking in the path of light when it summons Demons to serve it,” Miranda said acidly.

      “Didn’t you hear him, Miranda?  He said the that One said that they can use the Defiled to serve the Church.  Wouldn’t you think a Demon is Defiled?”

      She looked about to say something, then the comprehension dawned in her eyes.  “You’re right.  Some kind of ‘fight fire with fire’ mentality.”

      “No, a tool of terror.  And I think if there’s one thing a Demon would be good for with this church, it would be a tool of terror.  The reasoning for it is just sophistry to explain to the lay populace why their Priests are summoning Demons.”

      “You know, this religion of theirs almost doesn’t sound evil had we not seen what they do to people who disobey them,” she said grimly.

      “I know.  But it’s all nothing but a well orchestrated lie to maintain power, and nothing more.”  He looked at Merik who was chatting with another patron.  “Merik believes in this Church because he’s swallowed the line they’ve given him.  He doesn’t question them, and he’s closed his mind to the starving people around him and the fear in everyone’s eyes, seeing it as normal.  He himself also lives in fear, but the Church has deflected that fear away from itself and put it on the Defiled.  They keep the people so afraid of these shadowy Defiled that they don’t think about who’s oppressing them in the first place.”

      “An old political trick,” Miranda said with a nod.  “Passing the marked coin.”

      “Aye.”

      “Well, we’ve learned a good bit from him.  We’ve also learned that there are nobles, but the nobles aren’t exactly connected to the Church.”

      “And that the Church controls them,” he answered, then he described what happened between him and the church soldier.

      “Puppets on the strings of the Church,” Miranda agreed.  “Where is Mist?”

      “Up in the room with Fireflash and Sarraya.  If Sarraya’s still alive,” he chuckled.  “I’d better go up.”

      “Alright.  I’ll tell Dolanna about what we learned, and tell everyone we’re going to leave early, so we’d better get some sleep.”

      “Good idea.”

      Tarrin went up to his room, and found that everyone was indeed still alive.  Fireflash was chasing Sarraya around the room in tight circles as the Faerie laughed.  Mist had the shutters closed and was in her natural form, eating a bowl of stew that Tarrin had brought up for her earlier, ignoring the laughing Faerie as the drake chased her through the air.  “I’m surprised you haven’t killed them,” Tarrin chuckled.

      “They’re not bothering me, my mate,” she answered.

      “We’re leaving early.”

      “How early?

      “As early as possible.  Miranda dragged some information out of the innkeeper.”  Tarrin related what Merik had told them.  “If there’s a Hunter here, we don’t want to linger.”

      “Good idea,” she agreed pushing the bowl aside.  “Let’s go to bed.”

      “Isn’t it a bit early?”

      “Not for what I want to do,” she said, standing up and giving him a direct look.

      Sarraya laughed.  “I guess this is where I get thrown out.  I’ll go sleep with Haley.  Open the door for me, Tarrin, and see you in the morning,” she said, winking out of sight.

      Tarrin let  Sarraya out the door, then shfted into his natural form, locked the door, and took Mist’s paw.  “Not a child any longer,” she cooed to him as she snuggled up against him and kissed him.  He didn’t have to bend down at all to kiss her.

      “You never were,” he teased lightly.

 

      It was well into night when Tarrin and Mist were awakened by the sound of a tolling bell.  He rose up from the sturdy bed and looked towards the shuttered window, shifting into human form as he climbed out of bed to open it and look outside.

      “Why are they ringing that damn thing this late?” Mist complained, sitting up in the bed.

      “Stay there, I’m going to open the shutters,” he ordered, then he did so.  The street below was quiet and deserted, but people were opening doors and windows and looking out, just as he was.  He watched them for a moment, until he started seeing men and women in nightclothes and robes filing out of their doors, and walking towards the center of town.  He had no idea why, but the bell had to be some kind of a signal or something.

      “Why are they coming out?” Mist asked, coming up beside him to look out.  She was in her human form, something she very rarely did because of the discomfort of it, and he was surprised that she was so tall even in her human form.  She hadn’t bothered to put anything on, and one older fellow happened to look up at their window and see much more than he had expected.  He gaped for a moment, then gave a wolfish grin and saluted Mist with the hand not carrying his cane.

      “Put on a shirt or something, Mist,” he chided her.

      “Why?”

      “So we don’t offend the locals.”

      “I don’t know, that one didn’t seem too offended to me.”

      “That’s probably because he’s a dirty old man.  Now put on a shirt.”

      “I like humans not afraid to be themselves,” she said with a snort, leaning out to look down the street.

      “Girl, you’re about to learn a valuable life lesson.  Now go put on a shirt.”

      “Oh, alright,” she huffed, pulling back into the window and hurrying over to the bed.  She picked her shirt up off the floor and pulled it over her head, then came back to the window and leaned back out.  “They’re all going that way,” she said, looking out the window towards the middle of town.

      “The bell’s ringing!” Merik called from the hallway.  “Everyone up, please, the bell is ringing!”  He knocked on the door.  “My Lord, the bell is ringing!  Please get up!  We can’t be late!”

      “We’re up,” he called.

      “We, my Lord?” he asked curiously through the door.

      “Skip it.  Go wake up the others.”

      Mist and Tarrin watched the humans mill around outside for a moment longer, then Tarrin leaned out to look with Mist towards the center of town.  It looked like the entire city was coming out of their houses and moving towards the chapel in the middle of town.  “I guess we should get dressed,” he surmised.

      There was a knock at the door, and then it opened.  “Oh, pardon me, dear one,” Dolanna said mildly from the doorway.

      “Come in, Dolanna, you’re not looking at anything you haven’t already seen,” he answered without looking back at her.

      “I think you should dress and prepare to leave.  I do not have a good feeling about what is going on, and I think we shall leave when it is over.  Azakar and Ulger will pack the horses when they are dressed..”

      “Good idea,” Tarrin agreed.

      “Well, at least half of that sight is cute,” Ulger’s voice called from the doorway.

      “Be careful, my mate, Ulger thinks you have a cute butt,” Mist told him evenly, which made Ulger burst into laughter.  “Don’t turn around, or I might have to fight him for you.”

      That made Ulger almost fall over laughing.  He staggered out of the doorway, and the sound of his laughter trailed away.

      “You are a wicked woman, Mist,” Dolanna said lightly.

      “Well, I think it’s a cute butt,” she said, looking down at Tarrin’s backside.  Then she reached down and patted it fondly.

      “I’m so glad you approve,” Tarrin said dryly.

      “At least you cut short any remark Ulger might have made about you, Mist,” Dolanna told her.

      “Bah.  He wouldn’t know what to do with my butt if I gave it to him,” she snorted, which made Tarrin laugh.

      “Well, dress quickly and prepare to leave, my friends,” Dolanna ordered.

      Mist gave Tarrin a roguish smile and goosed him, then moved to shutter the windows.  “Let’s get going,” she told him.

      They dressed and packed their things, and Mist shifted back into cat form after they were ready.  Tarrin’s arms were full with packs, Fireflash, and Mist as he came down, until Haley quietly took his pack.  “Dolanna wants you to stay with the pack horses, Mist,” he told the black cat in Tarrin’s arms quietly, since Merik and Bolli, wearing nightclothes, were very close to them, trying to urge their guests to get going in stronger and stronger terms.

      The black cat nodded, and Haley collected her from him gently, then beckoned to Fireflash.  “I’ll take care of your cat, my Lord, and your drake,” he said audibly.  “She’ll settle down once we put her in the saddle.”

      They got moving quickly after that.  Azakar and Ulger led the horses as the others walked at the tail end of the procession of the citizens of the town as they filed towards the middle of the city.  Tarrin wasn’t sure what was going on, but from the looks of sleepiness in those around him, he realized that this wasn’t a normal occurrence.  Something special was going on.  Tarrin honestly had no idea what to expect as they reached the large square before the town’s chapel. The whole population of the town was there, almost two thousand people, packed into a large open area before the chapel’s iron fence, behind which was built a large wooden platform that rose over the top of that fence.  There were six figures on that platform, two adult-sized, three smaller ones or men on their knees, and one was unmistakably Demonic.   It was a vrock, a twelve span tall vulture-like Demon, with bird-like legs whose feet were equipped with wicked talons, human-like arms and hands also equipped with talons, and large feathered wings anchored the a skinny body that supported a vulture’s head.  It held a black-bladed glaive in its hands, towering over the men on the platform, holding its pole with the single-edged blade mounted atop it negligently in its hands.

      “They’ve caught a witch!” someone whispered to his right, and then a rumble of gossip rolled through the back edge of the crowd.

      One of the standing men raised his arms, and the crowd hushed.  “Good citizens of Dengal!  You have been summoned to witness the execution of the One’s justice!” the man boomed.  Tarrin saw now that he was wearing one of those red robes that denoted him as a Priest.  “This night the blessed Hunters have entered our town and captured a practitioner of witchcraft!  The witch has been caught, as well as two who have tried to hide him, witch-lovers!”

      There was a rumble of cheering through the crowd, which died down when the Priest raised his arms again.

      “Blessed be the One!” the man shouted, and the crowd shouted the same phrase in reply, raising their hands to the sky.  Tarrin, Dolanna, nor any of the others bothered to do the same.  Then again, since they were at the very back edge of the congregation, nobody seemed to notice.

      “Show us the witch!” someone shouted from the crowd, and there came a chant of “Witch!  Witch!” from the mob that got louder and more demanding as the seconds passed.  The Priest let it go on for a moment or two, then beckoned for the other man standing beside him to do something.  The man took a few steps over to a kneeling person on the platform, did something that Tarrin couldn’t see, then hauled him up.

      Not onto his feet, into the air.

      This “witch” was nothing but a child!

      The man was holding up a child that could not be more than eight years old, small and thin and dressed in filthy rags, the figure’s hands and feet bound with heavy chains.  “Here is your witch, caught practicing his foul magic in your very town!” the man screamed.  “This I attest under vow to the One!”

      Rather than be offended that their “witch” was only a child, the crowd immediately started screaming hysterically, calls for the child to be executed, beheaded, to have his entrailed ripped out with hooks, and even more vicious things.  The people had no care that the one they wanted destroyed was nothing but a child.

      Tarrin balled his hand into a fist.  He was not about to let these maniacs kill a child, but to intervene would reveal to the town that he too was a witch.  He struggled within himself for a long moment, knowing that he was going to put them all in danger if he stepped in, yet unwilling to allow what was about to happen come about.

      The vrock turned and looked directly at him.  Tarrin tried to get his emotions under control, ducking down just a bit to hide in the crowd since he was taller than most everyone else.  But the Demon continued to stare in his direction, and the reddish eyes of the monster began to glow visibly.

      “Damn,” Tarrin muttered.  “Dolanna, go that way.  I think the Demon sees me.”

      “How would-oh,” she said seriously, remembering when he told her that Demons could see him for what he really was, just as he could see them.  “What do you want us to do?”

      “Get away from me,” he answered.  “If it comes at us, I’ll make sure they don’t even think about you.”

      “Very well.  If it is needful, we will meet you in the forest.  I am sure you can find us.”

      “Easily,” he said as he ducked down and moved away from them.  Dolanna shooed the others in the other direction, putting distance between them.  The Demon kept staring in his direction, and it tightened its grip on its glaive.  Tarrin realized that the crowd had quieted down somewhat, and he raised his eyes to look and see what was going on.  The Priest was ranting about the evil of the Defiled, and how they were about to send the evil witch to eternal torment in the Haunted Lands, and then he spouted off about the glories of the One, but Tarrin’s eyes were locked on that Demon, and its eyes kept looking right in his direction.

      “And now it is time to have the Defiled destroy their own!” the Priest shouted as the crowd fell silent in dreadful anticipation.  “The time has come to rid our world of the stain of evil and send this witch’s soul to eternal torment in the Haunted Lands!”  The Priest pointed at the Demon, but the Demon wasn’t looking at him.  He gave a low call of command, and the Demon glanced at him in obvious irritation, then turned towards the child that the second man was still holding aloft.  Tarrin heard the other two scream, and his heart seized up when he recognized one of those voices.

      It was Zyrilin!

      Tarrin looked to the Demon’s immediate left and saw that it was Zyrilin, on her knees and her hands chained together, struggling against those chains now.  He realized that the chains were anchored to the platform to keep the prisoners from trying to escape, and both of the other children were now struggling agaisnt those chains desperately, almost hysterically, as the one held in the man’s hands did not move.

      The Demon took one more step towards the child, then raised his glaive to spear the small form through the middle-

      And Tarrin lost all sense of self.  One moment he was standing there in disbelief, the next he was hurtling through the air towards the Demon, wings out, shapeshifted into his natural form, his black-bladed sword in his paws, and an infuriated, defiant shriek of outrage emanating form his lips, a sound that overwhelmed all other sound and stunned everyone into awed silence.  Trailing licks of fire from his wings, which had lost their usual smooth consistency in his fury, he lanced through the air right at the Demon, who had turned and raised its glaive to defend itself, both surprise and a kind of grim recognition in its eyes, as if it had suspected he was there but had not expected such a brash attack.  The blade of Tarrin’s sword seemed to erupt into flame, and fire burst from the fetlocks on his wrists and ankles, making Tarrin look like he was afire as he arced over the crowd and raised his sword to cleave the Demon right down the middle.

      It was not a clash of power or a meeting of weapons that heralded Tarrin’s arrival on the platform, but sudden deception.  The Demon simply vanished as Tarrin tried to cut him in half, his sword leaving a trail of fire behind it, and the enraged Were-cat barely had the presence of mind to remember some of the abilities of his foe.  He raised his weapon and spun just in time to parry aside the attempt from the Demon to spear him in the back, having teleported himself behind Tarrin as the Were-cat made his charge.  The Priest gave out a sudden cry, then immediately began chanting, but the other man cooly pulled out a dagger and moved to slit the throat of the child he held by one steady arm before him, who was not moving.  That look of cool reasoning evaporated into a shriek of terror, then agony, when Tarrin raised a paw and unleashed a concentrated blast of pure fire from his paw, which raced over the child’s shoulder and immolated the man’s head.  The man dropped the child and staggered back, and then, in a sickening display, his head literally exploded from the pressure of blood and fluid within the skull flash-boiled by the intense heat of Tarrin’s attack.  The headless body then fell backwards off the stage and landed on the ground below in a boneless heap, flame licking at the shoulders and arms of his red tabard.  The Priest started chanting in the language of magic, but Tarrin could do nothing about it as he turned to face the Demon.  Sword met glaive as the Were-cat parried a surprisingly subtle and deft series of shallow slashes and stabs from the weapon, then the vrock pressed the haft of his weapon against Tarrin’s sword, locking them in place as they pushed at one another.

      Forget magic, mortal fool, and grant me the power to summon! he heard the Demon command of the Priest telepathically.  Your magic won’t do you any good against this enemy!

      The Priest nodded in understanding and pointed at the Demon with both hands.  Tarrin instantly moved to stop that, as he spread his wings and sent almost a dozen lances of living fire from their inner expanse, flying fast as arrows at the Priest.  They all impaled him at varying angles, making his body shudder horribly before Tarrin withdrew them and let the body fall, but he didn’t do it fast enough.  The vrock’s eyes glittered dangerously, and if it could smile with that beak, Tarrin knew it would have been doing so.  That close to the Demon, he felt its power reach beyond this dimension, towards that place where Demons existed, and call to its kin in a plea for help.

      This was the most dangerous aspect of Demonkind, he knew.  In Sennadar, they could not do this, but this was not Sennadar.  The Demon was summoning others of its kind, using its power to form a gateway between their worlds.  And each of those Demons could also summon other Demons.  Though only the original Demon could remain in this dimension, the others could only remain until the magic that granted them the power to come here waned and they were dragged back to their own dimension, they wouldn’t need much more than a few moments.  He knew what would happen.  The vrock would summon other Demons and then back off and have them fight for it.  So long as it had the magical reserves, it could keep those other Demons here for as long as it could expend the magical power to hold them here.  If Tarrin could kill the vrock, the other Demons would be banished back to their own dimension.

      He was only vaguely away of the screaming of the humans in the crowd beyond the fence as he suddenly found himself surrounded by three glabrezu, who had appeared around him.  The dog-headed, four-armed menaces immediately attacked, using their huge pincered arms with their wicked points at the ends to impale Tarrin, but the Were-cat simply wove through them like a dancer, his burning sword flashing with arcs of fire as he retaliated in kind.  The pincered hand of one of them tumbled to the platform, twitching and clacking spasmodically, with a slash of Tarrin’s sword, but he was struck from behind by another, staggering him forward.  He made to cut one in half at the waist, but the huge Demon simply vanished as it teleported out of harm’s way.  A paw off his sword protected him from another stab, as he grabbed the pincer with his paw and pushed back, sliding his feet across the wooden platform.  He sensed another one coming from behind, so he slid aside as the one who had vanished tried to spear him in the back, right between the wings.  He lunged at the one whose hand he had severed, and it too vanished, but Tarrin had seen this trick once too often.  Spears of fire blasted out of the backs of his wings, flying outwards behind him, and they managed to reach the Demon just as it reappeared.  It howled in agony when the living fire pierced its flesh, and then fell off the platform and started dissolving into that hideous black ichor on the far side of the fence, just before the terrified crowd.  The attack so surprised one of the other glabrezu that it didn’t move fast enough when Tarrin turned on it, and Tarrin’s burning sword sent its head flying into the crowd with a single powerful swipe.  Tarrin took two fast steps towards the last one, who looked suddenly nervous, and then he reared back and threw the sword, point first, right at its head.  It reflexively teleported itself out of harm’s way, but the glabrezu wasn’t his intended target.  The vrock, who had had its line of sight blocked by the other Demon, did not see the sword until it was too late.  It looked as if it had tried to teleport out of the way, but the sword’s chisel tip caught it right over its heavy hooked beak.  Its head was slammed back by the force of the blow, and it crumpled to the platform’s edge, slid a little, then tumbled off to fall to the church’s courtyard below.  The last Demon’s form wavered, and then it vanished as if it had been swallowed by dark smoke.

      There was dead silence from the crowd.  Without even a thought, he raised his paw, and his sword floated up from the ground below, its blade still bathed in fire.  His wings still pulsated irregularly with flame, illuminating the three children like it was a bonfire before them, two of them staring at him in terrified awe, frightened of him yet unable to look away.  He knelt quickly by the limp form of the third child, grabbing hold of the chain and snapping it with a flex of his paw.  The limp form of the child was so small, so very small, and it tore him up inside to see him, to think that they were about to murder him.  He put a finger thicker around than the child’s wrist on his neck, and felt a very faint pulse.  He stood up and turned to regard the silenced, stunned crowd, and his wings suddenly flared into incadescent brilliance as his outrage spilled over into his wings.  “You people are unbelievable!” he raged at them.  “Trying to murder a child!  How can you be so cruel?”

      “Get out of our town, you filthy creature!” one brave person shouted at him.  “All Defiled must die!” another one shouted.  “It’s the will of the One God!”

      “One god?” Tarrin shouted furiously.  “Your all powerful god that sees all and can do anything?  Well where is he now?” he raged.  He turned and pointed his sword at the ornate chapel behind him, and a blast of the hottest fire the world had ever seen lashed out from the tip.  It struck the building right in its stained glass window, and the entire impressive building simply detonated in a fiery explosion of smoke, fire, and debris.  The population of the town was blown off their feet, and smoking chunks of debris rained down on them.  “Bring him out!” Tarrin screamed at them, rising off the platform to hover over the square like Death Himself coming to take them all.  “You follow a god that keeps you living in terror, and kills little children!  All I’ve heard of your One God since coming here is purity and truth, while he has his Priests preach to you nothing but hate and fear.  Do you want truth?  I can give you truth!” he raged.  “Your One God is a liar and a bloody coward!  If he’s as powerful as you think, then why isn’t he here to kick my ass!  Does he fear a single mortal?  Am I too much for him?  Is a single Defiled so terrifying to him that he hides under his bed, afraid to come and face me?  Or does he not care about any of you enough to protect you now?”

      He swept a scathing gaze across the populace, rage mixing with disgust, then turned back to the children.  He broke the chains of the other two, then turned and picked up the unconscious child, cradling him in his powerful arms.  The other two looked at him in awe, but the girl seemed to recognize him, putting her hands over her mouth and gaping in consternation.  “That’s right, little bit,” he told her gently, holding out his paw to her.  “Do you want to fetch and carry for me again?”

      She gave him a fearful smile.  “A-Are you a witch?” she asked in a bare whisper.

      “Yes and no,” he winked.  “As you can see, I’m not what I seem to be, but it’s not witchcraft.  I’ll explain later.  Right now, I have to get you and your brothers somewhere safe.”  He reached his paw out to her.  “Here.  Come with me, little bit, and I’ll protect you.  You’ll always be safe with me.”

      She reached out and put both her chained hands in his paw, and when she touched him, he felt the strangest feeling, a sense of peace, of security, of love.  There were also feelings of fear, of concern, of uncertainty, but under it all was also the strangest hint of power.  There was a power hidden within this thin, bedraggled young girl, a strange power that seemed familiar, yet at the same time was something he had never experienced before.  It was dormant, latent, lurking within her and simply waiting for it to be realized.  He didn’t know what kind of power it was, but in a way, it seemed boundless.

      “Are you going to blow them up, mister?” the boy said in fearful excitement.

      “They’re not worth my time,” he answered, standing up and glaring down at the terrified people of Dengal.  “Now come here, both of you.  Stand with me.”

      “What are we going to do?” the boy asked.

      “Leave,” he answered, snapping out his wings.  They grew larger, and larger, and even larger, until their span was nearly forty spans across.  He had never done this before, but he knew that it was more than possible, knew deep down inside himself.

      Fire was an element of change.

      The wings furled in upon them, covering him, the child in his arms, and the two at his feet, covering them, enveloping them, surrounding them in a warm sensation of utter protection.  The fire without expanded, grew, picked them up as it took form, as the fire expanded into an image, a form, of Tarrin’s own personal choice.  The fire grew and grew until a form of a dragon loomed over the square, a dragon made of living fire with Tarrin at its heart.  He closed his eyes and raised his consciousness up into the shell of his own creation, just as if he were pushing his consciousness into an image projected though the Weave.  Just as he became the illusion, he now became the dragon.

      That dragon, a dragon made of living golden fire, and safely holding within it Tarrin and the three children, opened eyes of glowing green and glared down at the terrified peoples of Dengal.  Then it spread its mighty wings and carried itself into the sky, a beacon of bright golden light illuminating the darkness, leaving the town and its burning chapel far behind, with only the sound of the young boy Telven’s amazed, delighted laughter left behind for them to hear.

 

 

 

 

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 3

 

      It took Tarrin a while to calm down, but the fact that he was flying managed to make that come about faster than, as well that the surprising condition in which he found himself.

      Simply put, he was the dragon.

      He was looking through its eyes, was hearing through its ears, he could even smell through its nose.  The form made of his living fire actually breathed, even though there was no internal organs within outside of the three people contained within it, but that breathing did supply air to those locked within the fiery expanse of its shape.  It felt…strange, to have his consciousness raised into his creation.  He was aware of his true body in a way that wasn’t like how it was when he projected into the Weave, aware of it and able to see through his eyes, hear through his ears, and so forth, but that part of him seemed like an extension of his body, rather than the fireform dragon being the actual extension.  He could see and hear and smell through his real body, but he couldn’t move. He found he could switch that distinction in his mind, shifting his consciousness between his true body and the fireform body, aware of both, capable of moving both, but forced to push his consciousness into one or the other, but not both simultaneously.  He found that his creation of his own living fire was faithful to the form, but lacked the powers of a dragon.  That was little loss, however, for he could still use his own powers while raised into his creation.  It had the proportioned size and shape, moved just like a dragon, but lacked its weight and lacked its magical powers.  The monstrous form, with a winspan of nearly sixty spans, weighed little more than the four mortal bodies contained within it.  Fire in and of itself was a nearly weightless substance.

      It was just so strange.  He looked down on the darkened expanse below him, aware that his brilliant body of living fire—colored gold, probably because of his partiality to Fireflash—was visible for leagues in every direction.  He was a beacon of light in the moonless sky, and anyone awake and outside probably was looking at him right now.  In a way, he wanted that, for he wanted the others to see which way he was going and go that way, to follow the road to the northwest because that was what he was flying over.  It was something like pushing himself into a projected Illusion, but not entirely.  It felt more real, for he could feel with this fireform, and he could touch, where in an Illusion he could not.  He could feel the wind rushing past him as he flew northwest, could feel the surprisingly cool night air, even as he could feel the movements of the three children contained within the shape.  He had set it so they could see out of the fireform but could not be seen from the outside, looking out through windows to appreciate the fact that they were flying.

      But, as exhilerating as flying was, and as strange as this newfound ability seemed to be, he knew that he had to land and hide.  Once they got over the shock, they were going to send a force out after him.  Besides, he needed to check on the unconscious boy, and he wanted to do that on the ground.  That, and he felt they deserved a little explanation, and probably some reassurance.  He had little doubt that they rather unsettled at the moment.

      So, rather suddenly, he lowered his head and dove down towards the ground at a surprising rate of speed.  The girl, Zyrinin, gave a squeal of fright as the feeling of weightlessness gripped her, but the boy Telven just laughed delightedly.  He aimed for a very small clearing in the forest canopy, which had no signs of life in it outside of grass and a single fallen tree laying beside a very small brook that cut through the middle of it.  He landed by that tree, fiery feet touching the cool grass, and as soon as he was safely down, he withdrew from his fireform and reversed the process that created it.  The fire of its body wavered irregularly, then it compacted, compressed, swirled down smaller and smaller until it was again nothing more than his own wings furled around the four of them.  He then opened his wings, reducing them to their normal size and folding them behind his back.  The girl looked a little traumatized, but the boy just laughed and jumped up and down in place a couple of times.  “That was so neat!  Let’s do it again!” he cried out.

      Tarrin didn’t listen to him, however, as he set the small body in his arms down on the grass, leaning his head against the log, and inspected him.  He was thin as a stick, gaunt, and a bit pale.  There was dried blood on the back of his head, and an impressive knot underneath it—the reason he was unconscious, most likely.  Despite that injury, his breathing was strong, and his heartbeat was steady.

      “Jal!” the girl cried, kneeling beside him, putting her hand on his forehead and taking hold of his hand with her other.  “Is he going to be alright, my Lord?” she asked fearfully.

      Obviously, concern over her brother even overruled the dramatic manner in which they escaped from Dengal.  “Looks like a bump on the head is all,” he answered her gently.  “With a little sleep, he’ll be just fine.”

      “Are you a Defiled, mister?” the boy Telven asked him boldly.  “Like Jal?”

      “Telven!” Zyrinin said sharply.

      “That’s no such thing as a Defiled,” Tarrin snorted.  “I know magic, yes, but magic’s not evil.  If magic was evil, wouldn’t that mean that the Priests of the One, who use magic, are Defiled too?”

      Telven looked at him.  “Well, aren’t they the pure?”

      Tarrin snorted again, more darkly, and stood up.  “Umm, my Lord?” Zyrinin said meekly.  “What do we do now?”

      “We wait,” he answered.  “My friends are going to come this way, and when they get here, we’ll get you three out of here and somewhere safe.”  He gave her a level stare.  “And don’t call me Lord.  My name is Tarrin, as you recall.  I’m rather fond of it.”

      “Yes, my—“

      “Aaat!” he cut her off, which made Telven giggle.

      “T-Tarrin,” she said, giving him a shy smile.

      “Better,” he said with a curt nod.

      “How did you, uh,” she started, but he looked back at her and chuckled.

      “I’ll explain it later,” he said as he withdrew his wings, retracted them into his back, then willed his skin to grow over them.  “Is Jal really what they think he is?” he asked.

      “Uh, yes, my—Tarrin,” Zyrilin answered honestly.  “He can do witchcraft.”

      “Magic,” he corrected her.  “Witchcraft is something else.”

      “What is witchcraft then?” Telven asked.

      “A made-up term to make magic sound like something evil,” he answered bluntly.

      “But there is witchcraft,” Zyrilin said astutely.  “Else you wouldn’t know what it takes to do it.”

      He gave her a glance, and she flushed for speaking up.  Tarrin was mildly surprised; this girl was very observant.  “Yes, there is such a thing as witchcraft, but it has nothing to do with what the Priests of the One say it does.  Witchcraft is also called Necromancy, at least where I come from, and that’s magic that deals with death and the dead  There’s absolutely no way a half-grown child could so much as read a book about Necromancy.  Witchcraft is evil, but what they call ‘witchcraft’ here is little more than a loose term for any kind of magical force that’s not the Priest magic of the One.  If anyone in this place is practicing evil magic, it’s the Priests.  They’re summoning Demons,” he said with a hiss.

      “But that’s just them calling the Defiled to destroy the Defiled,” Telven protested.  “So they don’t become unpure.”

      “Boy, when a Priest summons a Demon, that means that the god he worships has an agreement with the Demons to allow it,” Tarrin said in a flat, dangerous manner, staring at him in a way that made the boy shrink back from him.  “No pure god allows his Priests to do such a thing.  Demons are the enemies of the gods.”

      “But doesn’t the One have power over everything?  Even the Defiled?  Even his enemies?”

      “Telven!” Zyrilin hissed, “behave!”

      “Boy, if the One controlled everything, then why are there Defiled?” he asked in a powerful voice.  “If they’re evil and must be destroyed, why doesn’t he just destroy them?  Well?  I’m waiting for an answer.”

      Telven obviously had no answer for this, the major hole in what he’d seen of the teachings of the One so far, so he fell silent.

      “So, if you’re not a witch, then what are you, Master Tarrin?” Zyrilin asked, repeating her question.

      “There’s no real term for what I do here in this place,” he answered her.  “Let’s just say I use magic and leave it at that.”

      A ghostly voice seemed to whisper out of the air to his right.  “Tarrin, where are you?”  It was Miranda, probably using one of her Priest spells.

      “I’m along the road northwest from the town,” he answered.  “Where are you now?”

      “We’re still trapped in the town.  They haven’t opened the city gates.”

      Tarrin swore.  “Want me to come back and knock them down?”

      “No, you don’t have to do that,” Miranda replied with a laugh.  “We’re waiting for everything to settle down, then we’ll get out and come to you.  Right now, I’m tracing Kimmie’s movements through town so we can get back on her trail after we pick you up.”

      “Where is that voice coming from?” Zyrilin asked.

      “Quiet, little bit,” Tarrin told her.  “Are they coming after me?” he asked.

      Miranda laughed.  “They’re still in shock,” she replied.  “I have to say, Tarrin, you know how to make a point.  There are pieces of that chapel laying out in the fields surrounding the town.  They’re also a bit disorganized because you killed their highest-ranking Priest.  Is that child alright?  I don’t see any blood on him.”

      “You’re using the scrying pool spell?” he asked.

      “Of course.”

      “I didn’t realize you could use it to communicate.”

      “This is a different version of it.  A bit more advanced,” she said with a slight chuckle.  “How did you do that dragon thing?”

      “I’ll explain it when you pick us up,” he replied.  “We’ll be waiting.”

      “Alright.  Be careful out there, Tarrin.”

      He turned and looked back at the three children.  They were gaunt and dirty, and they looked both hungry and exhausted.  He wasn’t sure if should feed them or let them sleep, but looking at them, seeing how upset and surprised they were, sleep wouldn’t be easy.  So he’d better feed them.  He stood up and turned his nose into the wind, testing the many scents he found within it, and detected no less than five animals that smelled familiar to him, squirrel, rabbit, groundhog, snake, and deer.  There was also a hint of bear in the air, but it was distant and a bit stale.

      There was also something on the grass under him.  He dropped to all fours and tested it, and found a very faint trace of human scent…and horses.  It was very old, days, maybe even a ride.  The grass and ground also showed very faint signs of human activity, he saw.  A small group of humans had used this clearing as a camp several days ago.  To his surprise, they’d been careful not to damage the site, for it barely showed any hints that they were here.

      He stood up and looked back at the three children.  Telven and Zyrilin were obviously afraid, but Telven seemed to excited for it to affect him too much, and Zyrilin was too concerned for her youngest brother.  She sat beside him, stroking his hair, watching him carefully.  Obviously, those two needed something to do.

      “We’ll probably be here until well after dawn,” he told them.  “You need food, and you need rest, so we’re building a camp.  Telven, take that stick laying over there and use it to tear up the ground right there,” he said, pointing with a large finger.  “We need to make a fire.  After you’re done turning the ground over, stomp it down so it’s flat.”

      “Why do we do that?” he asked curiously.

      “So we don’t catch fire to the grass,” he answered.  “Zyrilin, look around for small twigs and branches in the clearing and gather them into a pile by the firepit.  I’m going to go get us something to eat.  After we have a little food, we’ll get some sleep.”

      “What are we waiting for?” Telven asked.

      “My friends,” he answered.  “They’re still in Dengal.  They have to come get us.”

      “Are they witches too?” Telven asked.

      “Telven!” Zyrilin hissed hotly.

      Tarrin ignored that.  “Do as I told you to do,” he said, turning and walking towards the woods.  “I won’t be gone long, and I’ll be within earshot.  If you need me, just yell, and I’ll be right there.”

      Tarrin could tell that Telven was too conditioned in the teachings of the perverted religion of the One to easily give up on his preconceptions.  But for some reason, Zyrilin seemed able to accept what Tarrin had said.  He put that aside and dealt with the food problem, which didn’t last for very long.  He happened across a bedded herd of deer not far into the woods, in a large thicket, and moments later he had dinner thrown over one shoulder as he cleared the trees and returned to the tiny meadow.  Telven was about halfway done with the firepit, though he wasn’t doing a very good job, and Zyrilin was gathering up the dead branches of the fallen tree and stacking them near where Telven was working.  She kept looking to Jal, and every time he so much as sighed, she rushed back over to him to check on him and make sure he was alright.

      Feeling that his normal form was intimidating them a little bit, he shifted into his human form and approached.  They stopped and watched him as he dropped the young doe to the ground, then knelt by it as he drew the dagger from his belt.  “Well?” he asked as Telven continued to stare.  “We don’t eat until you get that firepit ready, boy.  You’re holding up my dinner.”

      “How do you do that?” Telven asked excitedly.  “Make yourself look different?”

      “It’s part of what I am,” he answered casually as he started cleaning his kill and getting it ready to eat.  “I’ll explain it all later.  Now get back to work.  Or are you not hungry?” he asked pointedly.

      That cut the questions short.  Telven worked hard and fast until he had a large patch of ground turned over, then he stamped it down as Tarrin quickly and expertly dressed the kill.  They watched in curiosity, Zyrilin by Jal’s side, as he built a fire, and to Telven’s disappointment, didn’t use magic to get it started.  A Sulasian Ranger could start a fire with two sticks, and though he wasn’t one, he’d been trained by one.  Once he got the fire going, he cut sticks for a spit and got the venison roasting over the fire.  The two children watched these actions as well, both with some hungered longing as they looked at the venison cooking over the fire.  There was nothing but the sound of the crackling fire, and then a ghostly light as the odd blue, white, and green moon of this world rose up over the trees of the clearing.  The patterns of white on that moon had changed once again trained by one. start a fire with two sticks, and though he wasn'ver, then he stamped it down as Tarrin quickly and exper, as they seemed to do so every night when it rose.  He noticed that it was waning, that it had been full when they arrived but now only about three quarters of it was visible.

      After the venison was roasted well enough, he allowed them to eat.  He watched as they attacked the venison like starving wolves, but he also noticed that Zyrilin took one large slab and set it aside, telling Telven that it was for Jal when he woke up, and she didn’t so much as look at it.  He had to chuckle at that a little.  “Zyrilin, there’s an entire deer over here.  You don’t have to hold back food.  I roasted this for you.  I’ll put on more in a bit so Jal will have something when he wakes up.”

      “But—“

      “But nothing.  Eat.”

      She flushed a little, then attacked the food she was saving.

      After he made sure both of them ate as much as they could, he checked on Jal as they got some water out of the tiny brook.  The young boy was sleeping comfortably now, and Tarrin marvelled at him a moment.  Jal looked much like Zyrlin in the cheeks and chin, but his nose was a bit longer, and his eyes were a bit smaller and a tad further apart.  His hair was a sandy blonde rather than the dark, almost black hair of his sister and brother, dirty and shoulder length, the bangs falling over his eyes.  He looked at Telven and realized that the boy didn’t look much like his siblings. His face had a width about it that wasn’t present in his brother and sister, his eyes were blue instead of the hazel of Zyrilin and whatever color eyes Jal had—he hadn’t seen them yet—and there was a hint of stockiness in the boy’s emaciated frame that suggested that the boy might grow up to be very large and quite strong.  Zyrilin looked to be about fourteen or so, Telven about eleven, and Jal looked only eight or nine.

      “Is he alright, Master Tarrin?” Zyrilin asked quickly as she knelt beside her brother, putting her hand on his forehead and stroking his hair gently.

      “He’s fine.  He’s about to pass into a natural sleep,” he answered.

      “Did you use magic to find out?” Telven asked quickly.

      “Magic is something I only use when I have to, Telven,” he said patiently.  “Like with all things, there’s a time to use it, and it’s not right to use it when it’s not needful.  If I just ran around and magicked everything, I’d be disrespecting my gift.”

      “Oh.  How did you learn magic?”

      “It’s a very long story, and we don’t have time right now,” he answered, giving the boy a look.  “You need to sleep.  The others won’t be here until dawn at least, and I think you’ve had a very busy day.”

      “But I’m not sleepy!” Telven complained.  “Not after they locked us up in that dungeon, then they were going to kill us like we were the ones that were Defiled in the square, then you appear with your magic sword and fight the executioners, and then we flew!”

      “I don’t care if you’re tired or not,” Tarrin told him shortly.  “Lay down.  If you can’t sleep, then pretend to sleep.  Either way, I want you on the grass and eyes closed.  You too, little bit.”

      “But I have to—“

      “Sleep.  I don’t think Jal will wake up until morning if we don’t disturb him, and he can use the sleep.  It will help him recover faster.”  Tarrin reached into his pouch and withdrew the charm that allowed him to go without sleep, and affixed it to the back of his amulet.  There was that familiar rush of alertness that always came with putting it on, as if someone had dunked his head in icewater, then it settled down.  “Lay down.  We have a long way to go, and I don’t want you falling out of the saddle tomorrow.”

      “Saddle?” Zyrilin asked.

      “We get to ride a horse?” Telven said in excitement.

      “Trust me, it’s not as great as you think it is,” Tarrin chuckled.  “By tomorrow night, you’ll really hate it.”

      “Why?”

      “Saddlesores,” he answered.

      “What are those?”

      “You’ll find out tomorrow.  Now lay down.”

      “But—“ Telven started, but Tarrin gave him a withering stare that effectively shut him up.  He pointed at the ground near Jal, beside his sister.

      “Boy, you’re walking a very fine line.  I don’t have much patience with people who don’t obey me.  Now lay down and go to sleep, or pretend.  Either way, I don’t want to hear you make one more sound until sunrise.”

      Telven looked fearfully at him, then quickly crawled over beside Zyrilin and laid down.

      “I can stay up,” Zyrlin offered.  “I have to watch Jal.”

      “Jal doesn’t need watching,” Tarrin told her.  “Sleep.  You’ll need it.”

      “What, what are you going to do with us?” she asked quietly.

      “I don’t know yet,” he answered.  “But for now, you’ll be going with us, at least until we can find someplace safe for you.”

      “Where are you going?”

      “I don’t really know quite yet,” he answered.   “We’re following the trail of a pair of our friends who are lost.  When we find them, we have to accomplish a mission, and then we’ll be going home, I suppose.”

      “What mission?”

      “I was sent here to find some people who disappeared from my—my homeland a very long time ago,”
 he answered, not quite ready to explain things in detail yet.  “If there are any left, I’m supposed to offer to bring them home, and then I’ll be going home as well.”

      “Who are these people?”

      “You wouldn’t know them, little bit,” he told her, then he glanced at her.  “Or maybe you might.  There are two distinct groups of them.  One group is made up of non-humans, about yea big,” he said, holding his hand up beside him about the height of an average Dwarf.  “They’re stocky people, have beards, and they’re craftsmen by nature.  They’re called Dwarves.”

      “I’ve never heard of them.”

      “The other group are a mixture of humans and tall brown-skinned people that have pointed ears.  They’d call themselves katzh-dashi.”

      She gasped and stared at him wildly.  “Those are the Damned!” she told him breathlessly.  “They’re the first Defiled, the ones that brought the blight of evil to the land!”  She stared at him in horror.  “You’re—You’re one of the Damned!” she said with barely a whisper.

      “They still exist here?” he asked quickly.

      “Only legends,” she answered, giving him a fearful look.  “Nobody’s seen one of the Damned in a long time, or at least no stories I’ve ever heard.  The Priests say the Damned were destroyed centuries ago, and that their taint infects the pure and makes them Defiled.”  She gave him a sheepish, frightened glance.  “Are, are you one of the Damned, Master Tarrin?  Are the stories false?”

      “I’m a katzh-dashi, Zyrilin, but we’re not the Damned,” he told her evenly.  “We are magicians who serve our Goddess.”

      “There are no gods but the One,” Telven said reflexively from where he was laying down, then sat up and put his hands over his mouth.

      “It’s alright, Telven,” Tarrin said with a light chuckle.  “I’m sure that you’re a bit surprised right now.  And you’re wrong, there are gods outside the One.  His name should tell you that, you know.  If he’s called the One God, doesn’t that mean that there’s more than just one?  If he was the only one, wouldn’t he be called something else?”

      “All other gods are false,” he said immediately.  “Fake gods.”

      “If Mother ever heard you say she was fake, she’d probably paddle you,” Tarrin chuckled, holding up his amulet.  “This is the symbol of my Goddess.”

      “That’s the mark of the Damned,” Zyrilin told him.  “They brand that on the Defiled before killing them, so if something happens and they actually survive or escape, they’re marked so they can never hide.”  She sniffled.  “They did that to Jal.  The brand’s on the back of his right hand.”

      “They didn’t brand you?”

      She shook her head.  “We were going to be killed because we were harboring Jal,” she answered.  “Not because we’re Defiled.”

      Tarrin got up and moved over to Jal, then knelt and carefully turned his hand over.  She was right, it was there.  The shaeram’s triangles and circle burned into Jal’s hand, the wound still raw, his flesh red and blistered around it.  He looked at it, and realized quite soberly that now they had proof that the lost children of the Goddess had indeed been here.  They had been the Damned, and they had been caught up in the holy war of purity that the Priests of the One God waged on the land.  His heart sank as he realized that odds were, most of the children of Niami were now dead, and he had little hope of finding any left.  Not after five thousand years.  And since these fanatics held non-humans in the same regard as Sorcerers, he also had little hope of finding any Dwarves alive.  Odds were, they had been killed not long after coming here, and the symbol of Niami had become the mark of hatred and the mark of evil in this world.

      She’d be very upset when he told her.

      He sighed and put his amulet back under his shirt, then slid back a bit and sat down cross-legged on the ground, close to the children.  It looked to him that now, the only thing they really had to do was find Kimmie and Phandebrass, and then take them home.  He would need to poke around a bit more to make sure of his assumptions, but he already knew that he wouldn’t look for very long, nor would he probe too deeply.  He was fairly certain that the children of the Goddess that had brought the Dwarves to this world had perished here at the hands of religious zealots, as had the Dwarves themselves, most likely.

      Such a pity, and such a waste.  The last of the Dwarves, who had survived the horrors of the Blood War, escaping to this world to try to find a place of safety, only to walk out of one fire and into another.  Sometimes, he felt, life simply was not fair.

      “Well, Miranda can get rid of that brand,” he told them.  “Easily.”

      “Who is she?”

      “Miranda is a Priestess,” he answered.  “She can heal Jal and remove the brand, like it was never there.”

      “Why isn’t she trying to kill you?” Telven asked.

      Tarrin gave him a curious look, then he laughed.  “Miranda’s not a Priest of the One God, Telven.  She’s a Priest of a god named Kikkalli.”

      “There are no gods but—“

      “I wouldn’t finish that if I were you,” Tarrin interrupted him with a slight smile.  “Just wait until tomorrow.  You’ll see.  When you see Miranda, you’ll never be able to say that again.”  He pointed at Telven.  “Now, I’ve given you enough leeway, young ones.  Lay down and try to get some sleep.  Tomorrow will be a very long and trying day, and you’ll need your rest.”

      “Are you going to watch?   They say there are orcs and bandits in the forest,” Zyrilin said fearfully, looking around.

      “I’ll be watching, little bit,” he answered gently.  “Don’t worry.  I won’t let anything hurt you.  As long as you’re with me, you will always be safe, and you will always be cared for.  I promise.”

      She gave him the most profound look of sincere gratitude he had ever seen on anyone’s face, then she laid down beside her injured brother and closed her eyes, putting a hand on his shoulder as if to reassure him that she was there.  Telven laid down on her other side and closed his eyes, laying on his back with his hands under his head, and Tarrin took out his Gnomlin Travelling Spellbook and spoke the word that caused it to expand to its full size.  He figured that now was as good a time as any to go through it and see if there were any spells in it that would be useful to know, and besides, it would give him something to do other than brood over what he had learned from Zyrilin this night.

      He already felt like this was a wasted trip, and a fruitless one.  Were it not for his need to find Kimmie and Phandebrass, he would probably be telling Miranda to take them home in the morning.  But, he did owe it to Niami to make sure of it.  He’d need to look around and see if there was any evidence that some of the Dwarves or the katzh-dashi survived after he found Kimmie and Phandebrass.  He owed it to Mother, and he owed it to the memory of those he felt had died long ago.  If only to make sure that they were dead.

 

      Morning dawned over the tiny clearing, the light catching the dew that had fallen during the night and making the grass of the clearing almost make it look like it was glowing.  Tarrin sat by the fire, his spellbook back in his pouch, and seval Wizard spells now comfortably within his memory.  They were combat spells mostly, battle magic that he might have a need to use, most of which would require no material components.  But he also memorized a Wizard spell the Gnomes put in the book that he knew would be very handy, a spell that mimicked the Druid’s ability to Summon.  The spell required a small diamond as a material component, but if he had one, he could summon any one object that he possessed that was weighed less than he did.  They had quite a few diamonds in a pouch on Dolanna’s horse, gems brought along with them to use for money, and he silently told himself that he was going to have to lay claim to them.  With that spell, he could summon to him anything that he owned.  Right now, that would be very nice, for he wanted his bow, which was still slung to his horse.  He didn’t need it, not really, since they still had nearly half the deer left over from last night, but he’d feel comfortable having a missle weapon at hand, because of the sounds.

      There had been something out there about a half an hour ago, a large group of creatures on foot.  They had spoken in a harsh, gutteral language he had never heard before, and they had passed within two hundred spans of the clearing, on its east side, moving north.  They had been moving quickly, as if they were trying to get away from something, and hadn’t put out any scouts.  That had worked in Tarrin’s favor, for their lack of scouts meant that the main host of them passed without ever knowing how close they had come to Tarrin and the children.  That close call had made him feel decidedly unarmed.  Because of the dangers involved in revealing the fact that he could use magic, it meant that he had to hold magic back as a weapon of last resort.  That was especially true because of Telven, for the boy seemed to have this obsessive need to talk about Tarrin’s magic, and kept calling him a witch or Defiled.  If he kept doing that and did it in public, he could get the group attacked.

      Besides, because of the tremendous danger involved in using any kind of magic in a public forum, it meant that magic had to be his last option at all times, because using magic would mean that absolutely everyone who saw him do it would then have to die, even the innocent bystanders, for they were just as much a danger to him and the others as a Hunter.  It would be the only way he could protect himself and the others from attack, for a survivor or observer could run straight to a chapel of the Church of the One and bring a cadre of Hunters down on them.  So, he had a choice.  Use magic and destroy everyone who saw him, even women and children, or attempt to solve the problem by mundane means.

      To Tarrin, that was little choice at all.

      “Tarrin,” Miranda’s disembodied voice called from just before him.

      “Miranda,” he replied in acknowledgement.

      “We’re out of the city, and on our way.  You’re about two hours’ ride from us, or so.  I can’t locate you with magic, at all, Tarrin, so I’m using a spell that’s leading me to those children with you.”

      “My amulet defeats any attempt to locate me with magic, that’s why.  Do you need me to do anything?”

      “No, nothing at all.  I’m using a rather archaic old spell that’s allowing me to lock in on that unconscious boy, and I have a marker set where Kimmie’s trail is, so we can come back to it.  She went due north from Dengal.”

      “Any trouble?”

      “None, the city’s in chaos right now,” she answered.  “Almost all the Priests are dead, not just the High Priest.  Most of them were in the chapel when you destroyed it.  The city guard did open the gates this morning at dawn, so we just rode out, about five minutes ago.  We’re not the only ones.  I think about a quarter of the city’s population is leaving the city and moving northwest along the road.  The gossip we’re overhearing is that they think Dengal is cursed now, and they won’t stay.  You’re not on the road, are you?”

      “No, we’re in a clearing about a longspan from it,” he answered.

      “Good.  We’ll be there as soon as we can, Tarrin.  Do you need anything?”

      “I’d feel more comfortable with my bow, but it’s over there.”

      “Hold on.”  Tarrin waited with mild curiosity, then he gave a slight start of surprise when Miranda’s hand simply appeared out of thin air, above his head and about two spans in front of him. She had his bow and two quivers of arrows in her hand, reaching them out to him as if she was kneeling on an invisible platform above and before him.

      Tarrin chuckled.  “My, that must really be an advanced version of the spell,” he told her.

      “You bet,” she said in a cheeky manner.  “Take them, Tarrin.  I can’t drop them, and it’s making my arm numb to reach into the pool like this.”

      Tarrin took his bow and the two quivers, and she withdrew her hand back into nothingness.  “Need anything else?  Make it count, I can only reach into the pool twice.”

      “Not that I can think of,” he answered.  “We have everything we need here.  I’ve been hearing things moving around in the woods, so I wanted my bow as a safety measure.”

      “I can understand that.  Alright, we’re on the way.  See you soon.”

      “Be careful,” he told her.

      “Dolanna’s leading us, so that’s a rather dumb thing to say,” she said with a giggle, and he knew she ended the spell because her giggle ended abruptly.

      “Wow, was that magic?  Was that the other witch?” Telven asked breathlessly.

      “Boy, if you don’t stop calling me that, I’m going to make you forget that word,” Tarrin said in an ugly tone, pulling his bowstring tentatively to ensure that it wasn’t damaged.  Then he remembered that the thing was enchanted to be unbreakable, and pulled arrows from his quiver one by one to check them.

      “Why do you have that when you can just magic things?” Telven asked.

      “Telven!” Zyrilin said hotly, slapping him on the shoulder.  “Sit down and be quiet!”

      “Yes, Zyri,” he said meekly, sitting by the embers of the fire.

      “Stir up the fire, and we’ll warm up the rest of the venison,” Tarrin told them absently as he eyed the fletching on one of his arrows.  “Good morning, Jal.”

      Zyri gave a gasping sound, then rushed over to where the small boy was sitting up.  His eyes were bleary, and he held his hand over the brand on the back of the other carefully.  Zyri put her hands on his face, then hugged him fiercely.  “I was so worried!  Are you hungry?  Are you thirsty?”

      Jal looked at her with his dark eyes, and nodded.

      “He doesn’t talk,” Telven told him excitedly.  “Not since what happened with Mama.”

      “What happened with your mother?” Tarrin asked curiously.

      “It’s when we found out Jal’s a witch,” he answered.  “Mama tried to take him to the chapel, but Papa wouldn’t let her.  They started fighting, and Mama slapped Papa.  Well, Papa did magic on her, and he was all surprised and stuff.  Papa was a witch, and he’d never known it til then, Zyri says.  Papa got took away by the church soldiers, and we never saw him again.  Mama died a few days later.  The neighbors threw rocks at us cause Papa was a witch, and one hit her in the head and she died.  Jal did magic when it happened, but lucky for us nobody saw it.”

      Tarrin sighed, seeing that even in this world, people could truly be ugly towards one another.  The rest of the family was condemned in the eyes of the people because of the actions of only one.  It just showed him how deeply these people were conditioned to hate.

      Tarrin looked gravely at the young boy, who simply stared back at him unblinkingly.  “I’m sure you know how to roast meat?” Tarrin asked the children.

      “I can do it,” Zyrilin said happily after she saw that her brother was well.

      As he checked all his arrows, Zyrilin helped her brother get something to drink from the brook and Telven got the fire going again, then she and Telven spitted the meat he had cut into sections and wrapped in the doe’s pelt near the fire.  He watched from where he sat as they heated breakfast and then started eating, as Zyrilin helped Jal get something to eat before she started herself.  He put his arrows back in the two quivers and simply waited, because they really had nothing to do until the others arrived.  The three children ate quite a bit, so much so that Telven groaned and laid down by the log after he was done.  “I haven’t eaten this good since Mama died,” he said with a sigh of contentment.  Tarrin went over and knelt by Jal, then turned his head so he could inspect the injury.

      “Well, this’ll heal up in no time,” he said.  “Any headaches?  Dizziness?” he asked the boy.

      Jal nodded, and waggled his open hand before him.

      “Alright.  Just don’t get up, and it should pass in a while.  Sometimes dizziness lingers when you get bumped in the head.  Trust me, I know.”

      “Show him what you can do, Jal,” Telven prompted.  “The nice man’s a witch too!”

      “Telven!” Zyrilin said reproachfully, but Jal simply nodded.  Tarrin watched on as the boy closed his eyes, a look of quite serious concentration on his face, and then he held out his hands.

      What happened next shook Tarrin to the foundations of his soul.  The boy created a small globe of water between his hands, and then it froze solid in the span of a blink of the eyes.  But under that, Tarrin felt what the boy had done.  He felt it quite distinctly and quite sharply, because what the boy had done was so similar to Sorcery that he was open to the sense of its use.  The boy had reached out and touched…something, just like touching the Weave, but the boy did not touch the Weave.  Instead, he reached beyond this world and tapped directly into some other power, and the resonations of that touch were familiar to him.

      The boy had directly made contact with those dimensions where Elementals lived.  The boy had drawn substance and energy directly from the plane of Water.  The substance had appeared before him, and the power had been channeled, had been directed, to cause the water to freeze.  In addition to representing water, the plane of Water also held sway over weather, and to a lesser degree, cold.  Ice was water, and the cold of ice became part of the sphere that represented water’s power.  All four elements had little tertiary representations like that.  Fire also represented change and concealment, earth represented continuity and growth, and air represented weather and lightning.  Air and water overlapped with the weather, for it required both air and water to make weather happen.

      Tarrin gaped at the boy in shock.  How could he feel that?  And yet he could, as clearly as he could see the little boy before him, holding his little ball of ice proudly.  It felt so, so much like Sorcery, but it obviously could not have been!  Incredible!

      “Um, master Tarrin?” Zyrilin asked meekly.  “Are you alright?”

      “I’m fine, little bit,” Tarrin said, blinking and shaking his head.  “It’s just that your brother’s ability stirred something in me.  I could feel it when he used it.”

      Jal nodded gravely.

      “You can feel it when other people do this too?” Tarrin asked.

      Jal nodded again.

      And that, Tarrin realized, was how Hunters found the witches.  Because the Hunters were witches.

      “Jal, listen to me, and listen to me carefully,” he said grimly.  “Don’t use your power unless I tell you that you can, or you think that your life depends on using it.  It’s very important.  When you use this power, people who can sense it are going to know, and not all of those people are going to be friendly to you.  I think that’s how the Church finds witches, I think they’re using people with this gift to hunt down the others.”

      Jal nodded, covering the raw brand on the back of his hand reflexively.

      “Wow, you mean the church uses witches to find witches?” Telven said excitedly.

      “I think it’s a definite possibility,” Tarrin said brusquely, standing up, then throwing his braid back over his shoulder.  “I’m going to look around.  I want you three to stay here by the fire.  I won’t be out of earshot, so if you need me, just yell.  Some things passed near the clearing before you woke up, and I want to see what they were.”

      “How can you tell?” Telven asked.

      “They leave footprints,” he answered evenly.  “Someone who knows about that can tell who made them, how many there were, which direction they were going, and how long ago they passed since making the tracks.”

      “Ooh, you’re a woodsman?” Telven asked breathlessly.  “One of those men who explores the wild forests?”

      “My father was.  He taught me everything he knows,” he answered, slinging his quivers, one over each shoulder, and uncapping the one on his right.

      “But, I thought witches just did witchcraft,” he surmised.

      “Telven!” Zyrilin snapped hotly.

      Tarrin sighed, then he chuckled despite himself.  “Keep them out of trouble, little bit,” he told her.  “If you need me, just yell.”

      “Yes, master Tarrin,” she replied immediately.  “I think we need to clean up the camp a little, and maybe cut some more meat for lunch,” she announced.  “May I borrow a knife, master Tarrin?” she asked him.

      Tarrin unsheathed his belt dagger and handed it to her.  “Don’t lose it,” he told her.  “Someone I care about gave me this.”

      “I’ll be careful with it, master Tarrin,” she told him with a shy smile.

      The separation gave Tarrin time to think, even as he quickly located the tracks those people left behind earlier.  Jal’s power wasn’t Sorcery, but it certainly felt like it…at least initially.  He had no idea why Jal’s gift spurred that sensation in him, because it should have been impossible.  Sorcerers could sense the use of Sorcery, that was true enough, but what Jal did wasn’t Sorcery.  Sorcery couldn’t be used on this world, because there was no Weave.  And because of that, he shouldn’t have sensed the use of that boy’s power.  The idea that the powers were somehow similar, just similar enough to spur that sense of it in him, occurred to him, but it seemed outlandish.

      Or perhaps not.  Sorcery was a gift from Niami, but it was also, in its own way, elemental magic.  The seven Spheres represented seven forces of nature; fire, water, earth, air, the power of the mind, the power of the gods, and the binding force that held it all together.  This “witchcraft” was obviously elemental magic, a direct tap into the power of the Elemental planes.  Just as Wizards drew from elsewhere, these “witches” drew from points of magic that Sorcery could access.  Perhaps that commonality was allowing his powers of Sorcery to sense the use of this magic.  After all, he wasn’t totally powerless as a Sorcerer.  Just as he could speak to animals using a Druid’s trick, he could still use the senses that being a Sorcerer granted him.  Those aspects of his abilities didn’t require the use of the magic itself.

      Yes, that made sense.  He went over it once again as he found the tracks of the people or things who had passed earlier, and found that the theory was sound.  He saw no holes in it.  He’d need to talk to Dolanna about it, and perhaps Haley as well, and have Jal use his power again to see if Haley could sense it.

      The tracks were not human.  That was immediately obvious to him.  They were about an hour old or so, made by creatures who were humanoid, but not human.  The tracks were booted, made by people wearing shoes and boots, but those feet had an unnatural breadth to them, and the pattern of weight distribution in the tracks told him that whoever made them walked with a kind of rolling gait not found in anyone who wasn’t a five year veteran sailor.  After about ten minutes of careful inspection, he deduced that there had been about forty of them.  They had moved due north, and had done so very quickly, so quickly that he found little bits and pieces of things they’d dropped but had been too much in a hurry to stop and pick up.  They were crude possessions of people he realized were raiders and hunters, and those paired with what he remembered Merik say told him that these had to be those orc creatures.  Sub-humans, Merik had called them.

      Strangely, though, the tracks seemed vaguely familiar.  He wasn’t quite sure why, but they did.  But he was too busy to dwell on that, so he dismissed it in his mind and moved on to the matters at hand.

      There was no sign of pursuit, so Tarrin figured that the commotion down in Dengal had spooked this band, who probably made a living by preying on travellers on the road, and they were now beating a hasty retreat northwest, shadowing the road, to avoid any kind of armed conflict with soldiers out of the city.  Little did they know that a good thousand or so people were also moving in this general direction, people who had fled Dengal, and if they stopped for any amount of time they might get more than they bargained for.

      They weren’t really a threat, so Tarrin dismissed them in his mind and went back to the clearing.

      And he was met with a rude greeting.  Instead of finding the children making themselves either useful or a nuisance, he was greeted by a band of thirteen men wearing mismatched, patchwork armor and carrying rusty, badly kept weapons.  There were four horses picketed behind them, being cared for by two middle-aged women in dirty, torn homespun smocks.  They had the children sitting by the log, where they clutched at each other fearfully and watched these men.  Tarrin had heard their voices well away, and had crept up to the edge of the clearing to get a better look at them.

      “I told you to relax, kids,” one of them, the tallest of them announced.  “Don’t cause any trouble, and you won’t get hurt.  We will take that venison, but I’ll leave you enough to get to Throce.  Isn’t that noble of me?”  He held up Tarrin’s dagger, the one Mist had given him, and smiled.  “And I got this excellent knife to boot!”

      “Give that back!” Zyrilin said defiantly.  “I promised  I’d take good care of it!”

      “Oh, we know a street rat like you couldn’t get something like this unless it was given to you,” he chuckled.  “So, where are the men you’re with?  Why did they leave you behind?”

      Zyrilin glared at the man, but said nothing.

      “I think maybe we should take the girl with us,” another man, who had a scraggly black beard and watery, close-set eyes, said with an evil laugh.  “She’d be more fun than those two mules.”

      “You always did like `em young, Gort,” another man said, then he laughed.  “And unwilling.”

      “It’s better when they put up a fight,” the man Gort said with a leer at Zyrilin, who shrank back from the man’s stare.

      “Not today, Gort,” the man, who seemed to be the leader, announced.  It was not a friendly tone.  “And never when you work for me.”

      “I liked it better when Dorl was leading us,” Gort said openly.

      “Dig him up and tie him to his saddle, and you can have him again,” the leader told him.  “I just wouldn’t get too close.  After three months, I’m sure he doesn’t smell all that good.”

      Tarrin pondered the situation.  The children seemed to be safe enough, because this bandit leader didn’t seem inclined to hurt them.  On the other hand, it was dangerous to assume that, because them men he was leading didn’t seem to be similarly inclined, and there were many more of them than there was of this one man.  Getting into a fight with thirteen men wasn’t such a good idea, but using magic was out.  If one of them got away, he’d have Hunters all over him, and besides, he didn’t want to do something like that in front of the children.  It may traumatize them, and that would make it hard to move them around.

      Perhaps there was a middle ground here.  Yes, there certainly was, he realized as he shifted his position as quiet as a stalking cat, and pulled out an arrow.

      “I suggest you turn around and leave!” Tarrin shouted from his place of concealment.  “I don’t want to have to hurt any of you!  So just give the girl back her knife and get out!  You can even keep the venison!”

      “Now you’re gonna get it!” Telven said smugly.  “He’s a witch, and he’s gonna magic all of you!”

      Tarrin cursed, and at that moment, he probably would have brained that boy if he was close enough to reach him.

      “I’m not much afraid of the boastings of a foolish boy,” the man said, but his eyes were serious.  Tarrin saw that he was somewhat handsome, with strong features and short coal black hair that reminded him briefly of Faalken’s hair color, but this man’s hair was straight as straw as it came out from under a rusty conical helmet.  Like the others, he wore piecemeal armor, but this man had a much better sword at his belt, and was holding Tarrin’s dagger in his hand.  “Well now, my shadowy friend, I think you should come out and hand over your purse and belongings.  Hand them over, and I think we’ll see fit to let you leave here alive and unharmed.”

      The man flinched when an arrow came sizzling out of the foliage before him, hitting the very top of his helmet.  The impact made the arrow break and spin away behind him, but it also knocked his helmet off his head.  “Boy, I can peel you out of that armor from where I am,” Tarrin called.  “Want to lose your belt next?”

      Another man drew his sword, but he yelped when Tarrin sent another hastily nocked arrow flying, striking the flat of the man’s nicked broadsword.  The impact surprised the man, and the weapon was jarred from his hand.

      “Next man to draw a weapon gets an arrow through the wrist,” Tarrin shouted to them.  “The man after that gets and arrow through the eye.  I’m being courteous out of a need to be civil in front of the children, but don’t push my patience.”

      “It’s only one man!” one of the bandits called.  “We can rush him easy!”

      “Fine, Thol, you go first,” another said acidly.

      “Looks like we have a marksman in the trees,” the leader chuckled.  “But I think you’re in no position to bargain.  The next arrow that comes at us is going to cost one of the children a finger.”

      Tarrin silently swore, afraid that something like this might happen.  Tarrin swapped his bow with his staff in the elsewhere, then slid around the tree behind which he was hiding and started working way to the left.  “Fine.  I didn’t want to have to do this, but you leave me little choice.”

      He struck like a viper, erupting out of the forest about fifteen spans away from the closest man.  His sudden appearance took them all aback for that critical instant he needed to close on the man before he could draw his weapon, his booted feet moving like lightning.  He set the staff like a spear or lance as he jumped over the little brook, then lunged at his target the instant his feet hit the ground.  The man managed to get his hand on his sword hilt just when the tip of Tarrin’s staff struck him in the chest, sending him flying back as Tarrin drove through him.  He skidded to a stop, turned, and whipped the staff into the back of the man closest to the first, who gave out a “whuuaff!” sound as he was pitched forward, tumbling into the brook Tarrin had jumped to reach them.

      “Get him!” several men shouted as they started drawing weapons in unison, but Tarrin was lost in the moment.  His mind was clear and open, and there was no fear.  Just as Allia taught him, he was unthinking, his eyes taking in all, feet and hands and body moving in perfect harmony as he lost his doubt and worry and concern in the rhythms and forms of the Dance.  In the blink of an eye, he became one with the ground, with his staff, and with the men around him, becoming a living weapon whose mission was to defend the children from harm.  Killing was not a necessity here, for all he had to do was frighten these men into running.  They were bandits, mercenaries, and would retreat once he put enough men on the ground.  In fact, killing would best be avoided, to keep Telven from spouting off at the mouth, and to keep from traumatizing Jal any more than he probably already had been.  The staff was a perfect weapon for that, for it only dealt a killing blow when Tarrin specifically wanted to do so.

      Pulling the staff up into the center grip, both ends whistled shrilly as he spun it before him, using its speed and deception to put off the two men before him who had drawn their swords.  One man rushed at him from behind, but his sword found nothing but empty air as their blond braided adversary simply melted out of the way.  The man didn’t even have the chance to cry out when Tarrin’s staff rapped him on the back of the head as it spun in from behind the man, and he collapsed to the ground in a boneless heap.  Another man lunged in when he saw the staff lash out, but Tarrin saw his attack coming from half a longspan away.  Still spinning through the evasion of the sword, he simply moved a bit further to the side, completed his rotation, and brought his foot up.  The man obviously had never conceived of such an attack, and as such made no attempt to defend himself as Tarrin’s foot connected with his face solidly, making the man’s head snap back.  He’d been in the act of rushing forward with a dagger in his hand, and his body kept coming forward as his head went the other way, which made him swing up into the air.  Though he was in his human form, Tarrin was still awesomely strong, and the power of his kick literally made the man flip over in midair.  He landed on the top of his head and his knees, then slid down to his belly and sank into unconsciousness.  Tarrin brought his foot down and raised his staff grimly, his expression simply daring another man to try to attack him.

      The nine men still on their feet all paused at that rather impressive display, but the voice of their leader spurred them on.  “He’s only one man!” he shouted.  “Whoever takes him down gets his gear!”

      He’d never fought in human form against so many people, but the experience was not wholly bad.  He didn’t have his blazing speed or his agility, but Allia’s lessons easily translated into the human shape, and he had no trouble adapting himself for combat in a weakened state.  The men he fought were novices in fighting, and it became glaringly obvious after the first minute of the renewing of hostilities.  Tarrin quickly backed up a bit to put the brook behind him, limiting attempts to come at him from behind, as the men moved to engage him.  men, all armed with short swords, pressed Tarrin from the front as the others tried to circle behind him, but the men couldn’t so much as get a blade within a span of Tarrin’s body.  The two ends and middle of Tarrin’s staff were always there to catch the weapons, turn them aside, or he simply wasn’t there to be hit if they encountered no resistance.  They also did not work together, each man fighting as an individual, and it was a simple matter to shift his position to make the three men jostle into one another, fouling each other up.  The others thought he was so involved with the three before him that he was an easy mark, and a short man lunged in from the right flank with his broadsword out before him like a spear, intent on impaling Tarrin in the ribs.  The man gave a look of shock when the end of Tarrin’s staff suddenly appeared at his eye level, then slammed into the noseguard of his barrel-shaped helmet, sending blood flying as the man’s head snapped back.  He staggered back, hand over his face, and the other three men found that the attack came so quickly that Tarrin was again in a defensive position before they had a chance to capitalize on his attack on the fourth man.  He blocked several more attacks from the front, ducked under the heavy swipe of an axe initiated by another man who had come up on his left flank, the slithered aside when a man who had managed to work in behind Tarrin tried to stab him in the back with a short sword.  He took a hand off his staff and slammed the back of his fist into the face of the man wielding the axe, then grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him as he shifted aside, flinging him into the three men in front of him.  He shuffled aside of the man he flung and gave a sudden sharp downward stroke with one end of his staff, knocking the sword out of the hands of the man who had jumped the brook and tried to stab him in the back, then reversed his momentum and spun the same end that had disarmed the man up and under the man’s chin.  The sound of his clicking teeth was audible as he was literally lifted off his feet, then flopped in the air and landed on the backs of his shoulders on the ground.  His legs went over his head, and he rolled backwards into the brook.

      With feet as light as a dancer’s, Tarrin was the one that pressed the attack now, coming in on the three men who were trying to untangle themselves from the fourth that Tarrin had pushed into them.  The fourth man dropped to the ground as the men simply threw him down to meet Tarrin’s attack, and their three swords worked feverishly to deflect the whirring ends of Tarrin’s staff.  It seemed to them like there were ten of them in that blurred, whizzing mass, striking with blazing speed, slapping, lunging, striking from every angle at once, as Tarrin’s feet moved as if they carried no weight whatsoever.  They only seemed to come down and take firm hold of the earth as Tarrin hunkered down slightly, then exploded upwards with his staff’s end screaming through the air.  The blow carried so much power that it sent the sword of the man on the far left spinning out of his hands and high into the air, and caused Tarrin to leave his feet.  Even in the air, he turned out to be more than a match for the men, as he turned in midair and brought a leg straight out, catching the middle man squarely in the chest and sending him catapulting backwards from the raw power of the blow.  The instant the other foot hit the ground, the man seemed to collapse on himself so quickly that the two men thought he vanished, but the man on the left had his feet knocked out from under him as Tarrin performed a spinning foot sweep, landing on his side and ribs and having all the wind knocked out of him.  Tarrin spun around and regained his feet, then drew up his staff and swatted the disarmed man, still confused over what had just happened and too slow to react, squarely in the side of his helmet of leather with iron plates sewn to it.  He spun as he fell to the side, and didn’t get up when he hit the ground.  The man with the axe, whom Tarrin had thrown into his companions, struggled to get to his feet from his hands and knees, but Tarrin almost absently took up his staff and jammed the end of it into the back of the man’s head, sending him right back to the ground, where he held the back of his head with both hands and kicked his feet into the dirt in pain.  Tarrin took one step back, whipped his staff up into the ready position smartly, and squared off against the last of them.

      The four men who weren’t rolling around on the ground groaning, one of which had a broken nose, gaped at Tarrin in absolute shock, and one of them was the troop’s leader.  Tarrin took a hand off his staff and crooked his fingers at them, inviting them to come and play, though his expression was like stone and his eyes hard.

      Telven summed up the expressions on the men’s faces quite well with a single word.

      “Woah!

      “Who wants to be number ten?” Tarrin asked in a cold voice, his eyes moving to the four men in turn.

      “Er, well, perhaps we could reach some kind of accommodation,” the bandit leader said hesitantly.  “You’re obviously a professionally trained soldier, much better than us.  The One knows how much better, since I see that you managed to put down nine of my men without killing anyone.  I don’t think I want to fight you, and I’d rather not lose any of my men.  It is my responsibility to keep them alive, you know.”

      “Then gather your men and leave,” Tarrin told him, rising up to stand erect and grounding an end of his staff.  “Keep your weapons.  You have nothing I want, and I saw orc tracks out in the forest, so you may need them.  And give her back her knife,” he reminded him.

      “I—yes, I think we can live with that,” the man said, giving Tarrin a deep bow.

      “I am certain you will, for you shall not circle back on him,” came a familiar voice.  Tarrin looked past the man and saw Dolanna and the others, riding through the part in the trees through which the men themselves had rode, coming up beside the two women and the horses they were tending.  Azakar and Ulger had their swords drawn, and were riding into the clearing resolutely.  Fireflash vaulted from Dolanna’s shoulder and landed on his own, nuzzling his neck fondly as Tarrin patted his flank.  “Tarrin.  I see you could not resist playing a bit while waiting.”

      “You know me, Dolanna,” he said evenly.  “I hate to sit around.”

      “Nine, not bad,” Ulger said with a chuckle.  “Then again, they look like they fight like women, so it probably wasn’t all that hard.”

      “Bandits never do put up much of a fight,” Tarrin shrugged, and Ulger laughed and nodded in agreement.  “I think Sarraya could have taken them.”

      “Gentlemen, I believe this is where you gather up the men on the ground and stagger away,” Haley said lightly.

      Under the watchful eyes of Azakar and Ulger, the bandits did indeed slowly crawl off the ground, organize themselves, and move towards the horses and the two women tending them.  Then they limped off the same direction from which Dolanna had come, moving towards the road.  But the man who had been leading them lingered just long enough to present Zyrilin with the dagger, then he too walked away.  Oddly enough, he was chuckling to himself, and had a strange bounce in his step.

      “I trust you are well, dear one?” Dolanna asked, with a sly little smile.

      “They were babies,” he snorted, looking at the children.  “How was the ride up?”

      “Nervous,” she answered.  “Everyone is on edge.  We do stand out, so we have been getting any number of stares.”

      “Then maybe we should settle in here for a little while and let them go by.”

      “No, there are too many.  If we wait them out, we will be here for days.  Besides, we are going that way,” she said, pointing away from the road, behind Tarrin.  “We only took the road for the expedience.”

      “Well, we need to reorganize a little,” Tarrin said, looking at the children.  “They’ll be riding with us for a while, at least until we find someplace safe to put them.”  He looked over the horses, and realized there were too many.  “I see someone thought of that.”

      “You’ve got to keep on top of things,” Miranda said with a grin from behind Mist’s illusory face.  “I realized we’d need at least two more horses, so we bought them.  At an outrageous price,” she growled.  “The stableman took advantage of the panic to make some fast money.”

      “I’m surprised you let him get away with that.”

      She held up a small leather pouch.  “He thinks he did,” she winked.

      “You stole it back from him?”

      “No, I was the soul of propriety,” she said piously.

      “So while she was being the paragon of virtue, she distracted the man so I could do it,” Haley said lightly.

      Tarrin laughed.  “You two are terrible.”

      “Yes.  Isn’t it fun?” Haley agreed shamelessly.

      “That’s alright, we need to make lunch anyway,” Miranda announced.  “We can stop a little while.”

      “That would be a good idea, Dolanna,” Azakar said.  “I want to check one of the pack horses.  It was stumbling a little when we turned up this path.”

      “Indeed.  Then let us pause for a meal and to ensure our horse is well.”

      Tarrin helped Dolanna down from her saddle, then picked up Mist and set her down as well.  He looked back to the path, then nodded.  “It’s safe,” he told her.

      The three children all gasped when Mist shifted into her humanoid form, then patted Tarrin on the face with her huge paw.  “You scared me a little, my mate,” she told him.

      “Sorry,” he answered, reaching up and touching her face.

      “How did you do that dragon?”

      “I’ll explain it later,” he told her.

      The children gasped in unison when Sarraya winked into visibility, flitting around Tarrin and Mist before coming to a hover in front of him.  “You have got to tell me how you did that!” she said excitedly.  “Right after I poke you in the eye for scaring me half to death!”

      They got the fire going and had a hot lunch, as Miranda made a quick but tasty stew.  The children gaped at all of them in turn, huddled together near the fire, but it was Mist and Sarraya that seemed to dominate their attention.  Sarraya flitted around them, inspecting them boldly, and the children could only stare at the tiny Faerie in both shock and wonder.  “They need fattening up,” she declared.

      “We’ll take care of it.  Well, everyone, this is Zyrilin, Telven, and Jal.  Miranda, when you’re done cooking, could you heal Jal’s hand?  They branded him.”

      “Really?  I’ll take care of it right now.  You should have told me, Tarrin, we can’t leave Jal in pain,” she said sharply.  “The youngest?”

      Tarrin nodded.

      “A-Are you that other one’s sister?” Telven asked boldly, though his eyes were wild when he looked at Miranda.

      “Not exactly,” Miranda said with a wink, then she cancelled the Illusion.  Telven gasped in her face when he saw Miranda’s furry reality, but Miranda just gave him the cutest little cheeky grin and winked at him.  “I know, it’s quite different, isn’t it?” she asked lightly.

      “Are all of you witches?” Telven asked.

      “I’ve been called a witch more times than I can count,” Miranda told him with a girlish giggle.  “Among other things.  Now then, you’re Jal?” she asked, looking to the boy.

      Jal nodded.

      “He, um, doesn’t talk, Lady Miranda,” Zyrilin offered.

      “I’m no lady, little lady,” Miranda laughed, holding out her furry hand to Jal.  The boy offered his branded hand hesitantly.  “Tut, this is nothing to worry about, but I bet it stings, doesn’t it, Jal?” she asked in a gentle manner, which made the boy nod.

      “What are you?” Telven asked.

      “Telven!” Zyrilin hissed.

      “I’m sure he’s never seen one of me before,” Miranda told Zyrilin with a wink.  “I’m called a Wikuni.  My people live a very, very long way from here.”

      “Are they all as pretty as you, Lady Miranda?” Telven asked boldly.

      She gave him a wolfish grin.  “Why, I’m flattered, young one,” she told him.  She took out her amulet and displayed it prominently outside her dress, a requirement to do Priest magic, and started chanting softly in that language that Priest magic required.  Tarrin knew this spell, it was a spell to heal injury and also to restore disfiguring conditions, restoring the body to an undamaged state.  Under her gentle hands, the red, raw flesh on Jal’s hand soothed, and the black char of the brand faded away.  When she removed her hands, Jal’s hand was as if he had never been branded.  Zyrilin gaped at Jal’s healed hand, and touched it reverently, then Telven took his turn touching where the brand had been.  He looked up at Miranda in surprise.

      “Now, Telven, look me in the eye and tell me that all other gods are false,” Tarrin said in a neutral tone, though Miranda gave him a sly grin; she knew he was amused.

      “Who knows what witchcraft can do?” Telven shrugged.

      Tarrin sighed, threw up his hands, and turned to stir the stew.

      After eating, Azakar went to check the horse that had stumbled, and a much more animated Telven tagged along after him, asking him endless questions.  Azakar endured the boy nobly, answering those questions he could, and bluntly telling him that he was not the man to ask when it came to others, mainly concerning witchcraft.  Tarrin, however, told Jal to do his magic one more time for Dolanna’s benefit.  Tarrin was quite sure he wasn’t crazy when he saw Dolanna’s eyes widen when he did so.

      “It is not Sorcery, but I can feel it!” Dolanna proclaimed.

      “I know,” he agreed.  “He’s calling on power from the Elemental planes.  I think that since Sorcery is mainly elemental magic, and we Weavespinners can also access that power, it’s letting us sense it when he uses it.”

      “I must agree with your postulations, dear one,” she said after a moment.  “It certainly does make sense.  Can they sense its use as well?”

      Jal nodded gravely.

      “So, the Hunters of the church are actually magicians like Jal,” Haley surmised.  “Working for the enemy.”

      “That, or their power is awake, but unrealized,” Tarrin added.  “The Church thinks they’re holy or something because they can find the witches, when they’re actually witches themselves.”  He snorted.  “I don’t like using that word.  I think I’d rather call them magic-users.  Witch is an ugly term.”

      “I do not know, dear one,” Dolanna smiled.  “Given that they are magicians in touch with elemental forces, I think calling them Elementalists would be more correct.”

       “That’s too long, Dolanna,” Haley told them.  “Let’s just call him special, and leave it at that.”

      Jal gave them a shy smile.

      “Now, dear one, how did you create that dragon?” Dolanna suddenly pressed.

      “Yeah, I’m dying to know!” Sarraya agreed.

      Tarrin looked around, then stood up and brought forth his wings.  Zyrilin and Jal stared at them, but he more or less expected that.  “Well, I always knew I could create fireforms,” he said as fire appeared around his paw. It swirled, then suddenly contracted down into the shape of a kitten, which promptly jumped down from his paw and sat by the campfire at his mental direction.  “The dragon was just a fireform.  Since it was a part of my wings, it was a part of me.  All I had to do was push my consciousness up into it the same way I push it into a projection, and I could operate through it.  For a while, I was a dragon,” he said in a strange kind of voice.  “It was fun.”

      “Clever,” Haley nodded.

      Jal was looking at the kitten made of golden fire, and started reaching out for it.  “Don’t,” Tarrin warned.  “It may look cute and harmless,” he said, kneeling down and picking up a twig, then setting it against the fireform’s back. The twig burst into flame.  “But it’s not as harmless as it looks.”  He brought a wing around and presented it to Jal.  “But this, you can touch,” he told him.

      “Can all witches do that, Master Tarrin?” Zyrilin asked, as both of the children couldn’t resist reaching out and touching Tarrin’s wing.  “Will Jal grow wings of ice?”

      “Tarrin’s powers are not what you would call magic, young one,” Dolanna told her.  “They are…different.  Jal will not grow wings of ice, for Tarrin’s abilities are not the same as Jal’s.”

      “Yeah, because Tarrin’s a god,” Sarraya piped up.

      Tarrin glared at Sarraya in an unholy manner.

      “Well, it’s true,” she grinned.  “Well, almost.  What is it they call you, Tarrin?  Ex-god?  Former god?  Unemployed god?”  she gave him a wicked smile, but it turned into a yelp when a thin strand flowed out of Tarrin’s wing, slid behind her, then lashed her on the bottom.  She rubbed her backside with both hands, and gave him a pouty look.  “That hurt,” she complained.

      Zyrilin looked at Tarrin, then giggled with her hands before her mouth.

      “Ignore Sarraya,” Tarrin told them.  “She has no idea what she’s talking about.”

      “I, I think it would be wonderful to have wings,” Zyrilin said, touching Tarrin’s wing.

      “You don’t want these,” Tarrin told her grimly.  “They aren’t worth the price I had to pay to get them.”

      “We should be on our way,” Dolanna announced.  “If Azakar is finished?”

      “I’m done, Dolanna,” the Knight called back.  “The horse is fine.  Just a minor bruise under her hoof.  She’ll be good as long as we don’t run.”

      “We must traverse virgin forest.  I doubt we will even be able to ride,” Dolanna answered him.

      “There are non-human creatures out in the woods,” Tarrin told them.  “I tracked a large group of them that passed about four hours ago or so.”

      “Orcs!” Telven said with both fear and excitement.  “Ooh, are we going to go fight orcs?”

      “Dear child, wise travellers never go looking for battle,” she told him.  “Mist, Sarraya, could you please range ahead and ensure our path is safe?”

      “Sure,” Sarraya said with a nod of her head.

      “It’ll give me a chance to get used to this,” Mist said, sweeping a paw up her torso.  “I need some activity.”

      “I can lend a hand also,” Haley said.  “I feel a need to let Scar out a while.”

      “Scar?” Ulger asked.

      Haley shapeshifted into his hybrid form, the large, sleek, menacing wolf-man which had been known as Scar back in Dayisè, the form in which Haley moved about when he didn’t want to be known.  Zyrilin and Jal gasped in surprise yet again, and Telven ran over and jumped up and down in front of Haley.  “Wow!  Are all of you Defiled?” he asked in excitement.  “Can all of you turn into animals?  Are you a wolf?”

      “I’m a Were-wolf, son,” Haley told him evenly.

      “Wow!  Are you going to eat us?”

      Haley laughed, not an entirely pleasant sound.  “Son, the stories you’ve heard of us are all wildly blown out of proportion.  Were-wolves don’t eat people, you know.  People taste terrible.”

      “At least they have Were-wolves here,” Mist surmised.

      “Or stories of them, at the least,” Dolanna added.

      Tarrin withdrew his wings, and in so doing, the fireform cat at his his feet dispersed in a tiny whirlwind of flame.  “There are some other things Zyrilin told me we need to talk about, Dolanna, but we can do that on the move,” he told her.  “Right now, finding Kimmie and Phandebrass as fast as possible is our only concern.”

      Leading their horses, the group moved into the wild forest west of the clearing.  The growth was too thick for riding, but the horses had little trouble navigating the woods with their riders leading them by their reins.  Zyrilin and Telven had each been given a horse, leading the animals behind Tarrin and Dolanna, but Jal rode in Tarrin’s saddle as he led the horse.  As they walked, following a trail that Mist and Haley were marking for them that told them it was safe, Tarrin told Dolanna about what Zyrilin had told him, about the Damned, and then told her his fears over what had happened to their long-lost brothers and sisters.

      “I doubt there are any left,” he told her with a sigh.  “I think they and the Dwarves came here seeking safety, and walked into a different kind of trap.  After five thousand years, I’m sure they’ve all been hunted down and killed.”

      “There is merit to your argument, dear one, regardless of how I wish it was not so,” she agreed with a somber nod.  “But we owe it to Mother to make sure.  Had they died, I think she would know, for their souls would join with her in the after.”

      “Can they?  Dakkii isn’t here, Dolanna.  She can’t come and take them.”

      “The soul can find its way without the help of Dakkii,” Dolanna told him.  “Though it may take them some time.”

      “So, either they’re still alive, or their souls are trapped here,” he said quietly.  “Maybe in Auromar, if the story of that curse is true.”

      “It is a possibility.”

      “If that’s the case, I don’t see how we’re going to get them home.”

      “Miranda can handle that, dear one,” she told him.  “You forget, Priests can turn the undead.  A Priest of exceptional power can destroy them, sending their souls on to their reward.  Do you not think that Miranda is of exceptional power?”

      “You have a point,” he agreed with a nod.

      “Either way, we owe it to Mother to make sure,” she told him.

      “I know.  But I think that once we get Kimmie and Phandebrass back, most of us should go home.  Get out of harm’s way.”

      “Some of us for certain,” Dolanna agreed.  “But I shall remain.  Mother is depending on us.”

      “So, how does it feel to be the enemy?” he asked her quietly.  “Now we’re the evil ones.”

      Dolanna laughed lightly.  “I am sure we will survive, dear one,” she told him.  “In a way, being known as one of the Damned certainly gives me a formidable reputation.”

      Tarrin looked at her, then laughed, then he sighed again.  “Trust me, my friend.  Having that kind of a reputation is not something you want.”

      She reached over and put her hand on his shoulder.  “I know, dear one.  I know.”

 

      Haley, Sarraya, and Mist led them out of the forest in a matter of hours, and they found themselves blocked by a surprisingly deep yet small river.  They mounted, with Haley and Miranda leading the horses of Zyrilin and Telven, as Jal rode with Tarrin.  It was a little crowded on Tarrin’s horse, with Tarrin and Jal in it, Fireflash on Tarrin’s shoulder, and Mist riding in her cat form on the horse’s back in front of the saddle.  went nearly two leagues before they found a ford, and then crossed the river and moved out onto a hilly plain between the forest and another forest nestled on the foothills of a low mountain range to the east.  Miranda took over the lead once they forded the river, as she used her Priest magic to locate the marker, then used a little bit of mathematics to use the direction of that marker and Kimmie’s path to angle in and cross her path without having to go back to the marker she set.  Miranda admitted that her trick depended on Kimmie not making a sudden right or left turn, but nobody objected when she offered to try, for it would save them two days of travelling.

      As they rode, Telven asked endless questions, but those questions became further and further apart as the effects of riding a horse started making themselves known to him.  Those questions turned into complaints, and then into a kind of incessant whining that got on everyone’s nerves.  Zyrilin, on the other hand, endured the discomfort, and snapped at her brother whenever his complaining got too grating on the others.

      They stopped for the night under a single oak tree that stood in the grassy plain, a huge tree that looked to have been there for centuries.  Haley and Sarraya ranged out to scout the outlying terrain, and Mist did as well, but she returned quickly to cook.  There was scant firewood, forcing them to draw on the wood they’d brought with them, and Mist also drew on their supplies to make supper.  The children sat by the fire and watched everyone else, though Telven still complained about how sore he was, but his complaints weren’t as shrill as they’d been when he was bouncing in the saddle.  “Stew and beans?” Ulger asked, looking into the pots.

      “That’s right,” Mist told him, stirring the stew.

      “But we had stew for lunch.”

      “If you don’t want it, don’t eat it,” Mist replied evenly, but there was a dangerous touch in her voice.

      “I’m not saying you’re not a good cook, Mist.  I love your cooking.  I just think we need a little variety.”

      “We don’t have the supplies for variety,” she answered, looking at him.  “There wasn’t much to go on in the market.”

      “Ah.  Then I’ll go out and see if I can’t get some rabbits in the morning, so we can have roasted rabbit for dinner tomorrow,” he told her.  “If I catch them, will you cook them?”

      “Certainly,” she answered.

      “Will you need my bow, Ulger?” Tarrin asked.

      “I brought a sling,” he answered.  “I used to be quite good with it when I was a boy.  It’s time I shook off the rust.”

      “What, um, what is a sling?” Zyrilin asked, faltering after realizing she was talking.

      Ulger reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a leather cord with a pouch sewn into its middle.  “Sling,” he said, showing her.  “Put your finger in the loop on this side and put a rock in the pouch.  You spin it over your head and then let go, and it sends a rock at your target.  It takes a while to get the hang of it, but this little thing can be as deadly as a bow at close range.  And it’s very easy to carry,” he said with a conspiratorial wink.  “I keep this with me so I always have a weapon.”

      “Wow!  Can you teach me?” Telven asked breathlessly.

      “Sure, I have an extra one in my pack,” Ulger told her.  “What about you, Zyrilin?  A sling’s a perfect weapon for a young lady.  It doesn’t take much strength at all, but it gives you something to protect yourself with.”

      “You, um, you would do that for me?” she asked shyly.

      “I asked, didn’t I?” Ulger told her with a wink.  “I’m a Knight, honey.  When a Knight says he’ll do something, he does it.”  He looked to Miranda.  “Oh, Miranda, dear, you think you can make one of these?”

      She gave him a scornful little laugh. “Are you trying to be funny, Ulger?”

      “I know how hard it will be for you.  It’s such a complicated bit of leatherwork.”

      Miranda laughed.  “I can make about ten of them before the stew’s done.  But, speaking of sewing, I think we need to make something a bit better for our guests instead of filthy rags.”

      “I think this would be a good time for Tarrin’s spell of replacing damaged clothing,” Dolanna suggested.  “It will take too long to make clothes for them.”

      “That’s a good idea,” Tarrin nodded.  “But they’ll have to take them off.  I take it that tent over there is theirs?” he asked, pointing at a rather crude, smaller tent that they had not brought with them.

      Miranda nodded.  “I bought it when I got the horses.  It’s a crude one, but it’ll serve them for now.”  She gave him a cheeky grin.  “I got them a tent and bedrolls and blankets.”

      “You think of everything,” he commended.

      “No, Dolanna thinks of everything,” she replied with a look to the Sorceress.  “I remembered the tent, but she’s the one that remembered the other things.”

      “Alright then, children, we need you to go into your tent and remove your clothing,” Dolanna said, clapping her hands to get their attention.  “There are blankets within you can wrap around yourself when you come back out.  Bring your clothes with you.”

      “What do you need our clothes for?” Telven asked.

      “Because we are going to repair them, and we cannot do that when you are wearing them.”

      “After we get your clothes fixed, we get some dinner, and Miranda makes you some slings, we’ll go out and learn how to use them,” Ulger added.

      “Hold on, hold on,” Mist said.  “Cleaning up the clothes doesn’t mean much if they’re still dirty underneath them.  They need baths.”

      “We should have stopped at that river,” Azakar grunted.  “I could use a bath myself.”

      “It’s simple enough,” Mist said.  “I know Kimmie had a spell that created a bathtub and hot water that always stayed clean.  I’ve seen her use it.  And I know she put all of her spells in Tarrin’s spellbook.”

      “Sounds like a plan,” Ulger nodded.  “I think we could all use a turn in the bathtub.”

      “We have the time,” Tarrin agreed, going over to his pack and pulling out his book.  “Oh, that reminds me.  Dolanna, I need a couple of our medium-sized diamonds.”

      “For what, dear one?”

      “There’s a spell in here that lets me summon possessions, just like a Druid,” he said, taking out his book and holding it up to her.  “But it takes a diamond to do it.  I’d like to have one on hand in case I need to summon something important.”

      “Ah.  Feel free to take them from the strongbox, dear one.”

      “I just wanted you to know,” he told her.

      The spell was easy to find, and after he memorized it, he cast it behind the largest tent.  It created a very large ceramic bathtub filled with delightfully hot water.  Rather than each person using the tub singly, it was decided that it would be shared by pairs.  Dolanna took Zyrilin with her as they bathed, for Dolanna’s calm manner would keep Zyrilin calm, and then Ulger was the one that took Jal and Telven for their turn.  As Ulger kept the boys busy, Tarrin used the spell to restore clothing on Zyrilin’s dress, as she stood wrapped in a blanket and watched.  Tarrin was surprised that the filthy rags she’d been wearing had originally been a rather pretty blue dress made of stout, soft wool, and the badly tattered shoes on her feet had been very handsome leather slippers.  Zyrilin’s parents must have had a little money for them to put their daughter in such a nice dress, when most peasants wore crude homespun smocks and tunics.

      “Well, here you go,” he told her, offering the dress and slippers to her.

      She reached for them, but the blanket’s tail slipped out of her other hand, and the blanket dropped to the ground.  Zyrilin gave out a surprised squeak and clutched the dress to her, blushing to the roots of her hair, but Tarrin’s attention had been caught by something on her stomach.  He knelt, reached down, picked up the blanket, then draped it over her shoulders, but then he deliberately made her move her hands so he could see her stomach.  She didn’t try to cover herself, standing there with her face red as Tarrin got a good look at a rather nasty scar on her stomach. It ran from the base of her ribcage on her left and ran diagonally down her abdomen, ending at her right hip.  He touched the scar tentatively with his finger, and felt that it was old.  “What happened, Zyrilin?” he asked in a gentle voice, yet a voice that demanded an answer.

      “It was a church soldier,” she said in a tiny voice.  “He—“

      “I don’t think you have to finish that, little bit,” he said, pulling the blanket around her.  “Nobody will ever touch you again, not if you don’t want them to.  I’ll make sure of that.”

      She gave him the strangest look, then burst into tears.  She threw her arms around his neck and clutched onto him tightly, like a frightened child, weeping out a long-ago pain and a memory that was best forgotten.  He put his arm around her, comforting her, and again, he felt that strange sense of power within this little girl, who had been through so much pain in such a short life.  He barely knew her, but already he felt a powerful attachment to this strong young lady, who had endured pain and suffering and continued to fight, caring for her brothers with as much self-sacrifice and devotion as any mother would have for her children.  This was a girl—a woman—of hidden strength, a strength unrealized because of her young age, but so glaringly obvious to any who looked upon her.

      In that moment, he knew that Zyrilin was now just like one of his own daughters to him.  And he would protect her, nurture her, help her grow and help her discover her place in this dangerous world.

      He simply held her until she was done weeping, then put his hands on her shoulders as she drew away.  “Alright now?” he asked gently.

      She nodded, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand.

      “Go get dressed, Zyrilin, and Ulger will show you how to use a sling,” he told her.

      “Zyri,” she said meekly, though she was giving him a shy smile.  “Only my mother calls me Zyrilin.”

      Tarrin chuckled.  “Well, gods forbid you confuse me for your mother,” he said, which made her giggle.  “And since we’re going on about names, please don’t call me Master Tarrin.  It really annoys me.”

      “But, but—“

      “I won’t melt if you call me by my name, Zyri,” he told her.  “Say it.  Tarrin.”

      “Tarrin,” Zyri said, giving him a misty-eyed smile.

      “Good.  See, I’m still here,” he said grandly, tapping her on the tip of her nose like he’d done with all his children.  “Now go get dressed.”

      “Yes, sir,” she said automatically.

      Tarrin watched her go, and Mist stepped up to his side.  “Strong,” she deduced in her manner, though Tarrin understood her meaning.  Mist was a woman of few words.

      “Stronger than she looks,” he agreed.

      “Aren’t they always?” she asked.  “We get the bathtub last.  The stew should be done by then.  Want to eat first?”

      He shrugged.  “Whatever.”

      “Change, please.  I hate seeing you that way when it’s not necessary.”

      Tarrin chuckled, and shifted into his normal form.  “Happy?” he asked.

      “Very,” she replied, putting her paw on his side.  “Do you think Kimmie’s in that much danger?  Dolanna told me about what you were talking about.”

      “She’s in danger, but she’s got a level head, my mate. It’s Phandebrass I’m worried about.”

      “Amen.  But we’ll catch up.  We’ve already gained ten days on them.  I found their trail.”

      “They must have lingered in Dengal,” Tarrin mused.  “We’re, what, twenty days behind?”

      “More like eighteen,” she answered.  “But they were moving fast out of Dengal.”

      “Probably with a Hunter on their tail,” Tarrin grunted.  “We’ll probably find the body soon.  Kimmie wouldn’t tolerate a tracker on her tail for very long.”

      “Not if she has any sense,” Mist agreed.  “And I taught the girl to have sense.”

      “You know, I think Kimmie was one of your finest works, my mate,” Tarrin told her with a chuckle.

      “You’re just saying that because she’s one of yours,” Mist retorted.  “I hope you don’t start comparing.  Since I’m last, I have too much to compete with.”

      “Each of you is unique.  Comparing you would be impossible.  And as long as you want me, I’m yours.”

      “Then prepare to be mine forever,” she said with a purr in his ear.  “Because I do love you, Tarrin.  I know you know that.”

      “I know, Mist.  And I’ll always honor those feelings.  At least until you can make me love you back, like Kimmie did.”

      “You were human. It’s part of your nature to love.  I have no concern about it at all.  It may take time, but you’ll love me just as much as you love Jesmind and Kimmie.  All I have to do is treat you with love and respect, and it’s a given,” she told him evenly, patting him on the side.  “I have to check the stew.  I don’t want to hear Ulger whine about a ruined dinner all night.  I might have to cut him short.”

      Tarrin chuckled, but it masked his surprise at his mate, watching her as she sidled away.  He did know that Mist loved him, but never quite that way.  He wasn’t sure if she was capable of it, because of her extremely feral nature.  But it seemed that she was just as attached to him as Jesmind and Kimmie.  In a way, that made him very happy, for of all his three mates, he certainly got along best with Mist.  She lacked the jealousy of the other two, was more content just to be with him, didn’t needle him or harass him or anything like that.  She just wanted to be together, living her own life, letting him live his own, but sharing those lives together in happy harmony.  He was also very glad that she could love a male like that.  It was a good sign that most of the savagery of her former nature had been healed with time, compassion, and love.  Tarrin had started her down a path that Kimmie and the birth of their son had completed, and now she was a different female then she had been before.

      Part of him was surprised at her surprising calm about it all.  She felt that making him love her wasn’t a chore, it was simply a matter of time, and she was more than content to simply wait for it to arrive.  That, actually, was a part of Mist’s nature.  She was very accepting of things, and looked on the world in a way that very few people did.  Since it would come in time, she was more than willing to simply wait for it to arrive.  Until then, she was perfectly content with what she had.  It reminded him of when he was human, how calm she had been then.  She had told him that she since she knew what he would do, there was no reason at all to get into a twist over things the way Jesmind did.  Mist accepted it, had faith in her understanding of Tarrin and faith in her love for him, and simply stepped back and allowed things to come about as she knew they would.  That had really endeared him to her then, to her and his daughter Jula, and that endearment had not diminished at all since that time.

      Could he love Mist romantically?

      Not just yes, but bloody hell, yes.

      She was right.  He didn’t feel that way yet, but eventually he would.  Given their intimacy, and his still-human need to have romantic feelings for the woman sharing his bed, him developing love for Mist was an inevitability.  She was simply going to wait for it to happen, calmly, measuredly, with all the dignity she possessed.  And when it came, she wouldn’t gloat or become arrogant in her achievement, she wouldn’t harp on it or let it become the central aspect of her life.  It would simply be an acceptance of what is, to be savored in the moment of fruition, then simply added to her life as a part of it she would treasure, but not allow to rule her.

      In many ways, Mist was definitely the best of his three mates, and he was developing a powerful respect for her.

      Haley stalked up beside him, still in his hybrid form.  “Did Mist tell you that we found Kimmie’s trail?” he asked.

      “Yes, she did.  You just got back?”

      He nodded.  “I was tracking a group of non-humans.  When I caught up to them, I was shocked.  They’re Waern, Tarrin.  They look just like them, except their skin is kind of grayish-green, where Waern are more ashen colored.”

      Tarrin clicked his claws, a Were-cat’s version of snapping one’s fingers.  “Damn, that’s why those tracks seemed familiar!” he said.  “I’ll bet what we call Waern at home, they call orcs here.”

      “You think a group stumbled through the gate and kind of populated this world?” he asked curiously.

      “It’s certainly possible.  You know how fast Waern breed.”

      “True enough, that,” Haley chuckled.  “Sarraya’s still out there. She wanted to have a good look at them, but I think she just wants to torment them a little bit.  She hasn’t had a chance to prank anyone for a while now, and she’s getting itchy.”

      Tarrin chuckled.  “I feel sorry for the Waern.”

      “So do I.  Is that a bath I smell?”

      Tarrin nodded.  “One of Kimmie’s spells.  You know how she is about taking baths.”

      “The first Were-cat I ever met that didn’t hate water,” Haley told him.  “I can smell Ulger and the boys in that direction, so I take it we’re taking turns?”

      Tarrin nodded again.  “We’ll be last.”

      “We always are when humans are around.”

      “Any rabbits out there?  Ulger wants some for dinner tomorrow.”

      “I hope he’s hungry.  It would take him a week to eat all the rabbits within a longspan of the camp,” Haley answered lightly.  “My, that stew smells heavenly.  I think I’ll go try to filch a bit of it.  I much more enjoy a bath if I’ve had a good meal before getting into it.”

      “As long as it’s done, I don’t think Mist will object.  She’s no stickler for silly human traditions like a set meal time.”

      “You’re her mate. The rest of us are a bit more cautious around her,” he said with a sly smile.

      “That’s actually a wise thing,” Tarrin agreed sincerely.

      Tarrin replaced simlilarly fine clothes for Jal and Telven, hinting that their parents had to be at least modestly well-off, and then they ate.  After dinner, Ulger and Azakar taught Telven and Zyri the basics of using a sling, and Mist, Tarrin, and Haley ended up sharing the bath before the spell’s duration ended and Tarrin had to cast it again.  Tarrin thought at first that Mist might have a problem sharing the bath with Haley, but he realized quickly that that was a stupid supposition.  Mist tolerated Haley well enough to spend time with him—she was probably more comfortable with him than any of the others—and she had no reservations about sharing a bath with just about anyone she didn’t mind.  After getting cleaned up, Tarrin, Mist, Haley, Azakar, and Ulger decided on the watch schedule for the night, and they packed the children off to their tent to get some much-needed sleep.  Tarrin, who had drawn the long straw and managed to get out of watch duty for the night, also retired to his tent. He’d been awake for two days now, and as soon as he removed the charm, he’d immediately get very sleepy.  Tomorrow was going to be a long and busy day, and he had a feeling that he was going to need his energy.

 

 

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 4

 

      The next day wasn’t arduous as much as it was simply long.

      They awoke before dawn to get moving, and encountered their first little obstacle.  Zyri’s restored dress, though pretty, wasn’t made for riding.  Rather than having a neophyte to riding attempt to ride sidesaddle in a saddle not designed for it, Dolanna allowed the girl to borrow one of her dresses until Miranda could alter the one she had.  Zyri and Dolanna weren’t too far from the same size in height, but Dolanna was certainly more developed through the bust and hips than the dark-haired girl, so Dolanna’s dress hung off from her a little bit.

      The second obstacle was Telven.  It wasn’t long before the boisterous boy was again complaining very loudly and incessantly about the discomfort of riding, and he was getting on everyone’s nerves.  Sarraya turned out to be the one who literally saved the boy’s life, for she started bantering with the boy, flitting around his head, distracting him from his saddlesores, which caused the complaining to ease considerably.  Telven had no idea how close he had been to death; Mist, riding with Tarrin in her cat form, was about to go back there and shut him up, no matter what it might take to do so.

      The third obstacle presented itself just after an early lunch, in the form of another group of bandits.  They came riding around a hill just as they were mounted and preparing to move on, either an ill-timed surprise attack or one done out of haste at just finding quarry.  There were twelve of them, all of them riding horses and wearing mismatched and badly maintained armor and wielding battered weapons.  This time, Tarrin was not alone, and this time, there was no quarter being given for the sake of the children.

      It was an absolute slaughter, at least for the bandits.  Though only four of the riders moved out to confront these twelve attackers—after Tarrin quickly passed Mist off to Miranda so she could remain behind and help protect the children and Dolanna—they were more than enough to handle twice that number.  Tarrin, Ulger, Azakar, and Haley didn’t look as dangerous as they were—well, Tarrin and Haley anyway—but the bandits quickly learned the folly of their hasty assault.  They faltered when they got close enough to realize that Azakar was really that big, that it wasn’t a trick of the distance on the eye, but the lead attackers didn’t have a chance to turn around and run.  That falter became a sudden realization that they got in over their head when Tarrin sent two arrows into their number, taking out the two men in the lead, nocking and firing faster than any of them had ever seen a man use a bow, before stuffing the bow back into its saddle sheath and having a sword literally appear in his hands.  By the time the ten survivors reached the four who had moved to intercept them, it was too late to retreat.  Azakar chopped them out of their saddles with his massive sword, which would be a two-handed weapon for anyone but him, flicking the heavy blade almost negligently as he dispatched the first two to reach them.  The other three unfurled behind the monstrous armored behemoth before them like a spider trapping its prey, and the bandits were quickly thrown into chaos.  Ulger was one of the best fighters that the Knights had, and he showed it by taking down two bandits with almost scathing disregard, not even bothering to fence or feint.  His broadsword wasn’t as large as Azakar’s, but he swung it with the same blinding speed, literally cutting men down with single swipes that came so fast that they had no chance to parry or evade them.  Tarrin didn’t like fighting from horseback, mainly because he was much more mobile on his feet and all his training had been geared towards fighting on foot, but he knew the fundamentals of mounted combat from training sessions with his father.  His staff wasn’t an effective weapon on horseback, so he opted instead for his sword, wielding the huge sword with only one hand and using the Cat’s Claw bracer on his left wrist as a shield.  The bandits could tell that Tarrin seemed tentative to battle, but it was an unfamiliarity with mounted combat, and not their mistaken belief that it was because he wasn’t a very good fighter.  After fencing a little bit with the first bandit to reach him, he quickly became accustomed to guiding his horse with his legs, and then he took down the bandit opposing him with ease, smacking his sword aside with the Adamantite bracer on his wrist, then skewering him with his sword with his reply.  Fireflash made sure to contribute as well, flying over the heads of the bandits and unleashing small blasts of fire at them to harry them and put them into a near-panic, making it very easy for the others to finish them.

      But the most surprising combatant was Haley.  Wielding his rapier and a basket-hilted dagger called a main-gauche in his left hand, the Were-wolf showed that he had learned well from the Shacèans.  Even from horseback, Haley was a pure fencer, toying with his opponents for a moment before sending his slender blade expertly right into their hearts or throats, confusing them with dazzling swordplay, weaving his rapier before them in a mesmerizing dance that defeated any attempt their weapons made to touch him before sending its point into a vital point on their bodies.  Haley didn’t seem to want to initiate any attack, content to let his attacker make the first move, then kill with a riposte.

      It was over before the bandits knew what happened, before any of them could even consider a retreat.  In a shockingly short amount of time, all of them had been killed, and twelve startled and confused horses now roamed the grassy dale in which the battle had taken place.

      “Nice,” Ulger said professionally, cleaning his sword with a rag before sliding it home in its scabbard.  “These bandits don’t look to have ever really used their swords.”
      “I don’t know, that one right there seemed to have some training,” Haley countered, pointing at one of the dead men.  “He actually managed to parry me once.”

      “Probably just luck,” Azakar said grimly.  “What shall we do with them?”

      “This isn’t populated territory, so we don’t have to bury them,” Ulger answered him.  “I say we round up their horses, unsaddle them, then set them free.  We can’t let them go carrying all that stuff around.”

      “Let’s make sure Dolanna agrees with you,” Haley answered.

      “Aye.”
      Dolanna did in fact agree with Ulger, at least up to a point.  “Select the best two horses from them and add them to our train,” she instructed.  “I think we might find it wise to bring in some extra horses now, in case Kimmie and Phandebrass have lost theirs.  And if not, at least we will have two additional horses to work with in case of any problems later on.”

      “We can do that, Dolanna,” Ulger nodded.  “Alright, Haley, I think you and me are the best judges of horses.  Let’s go pick a pair of winners.”

      “After you, Ulger,” Haley said with a motioning of his hand towards the milling animals.

      “Wow, can you teach me how to fight like that?” Telven asked Azakar breathlessly.

      Azakar removed his helmet and regarded the boy with a sober eye.  “Do you want to learn because you want to protect others, or do you just want to learn just so you can kill people?”

      Azakar’s poignant question seemed to strike at Telven, for the boy felt silent, and his eyes became suddenly troubled.

      “Think about that,” Azakar told him.  “If you want to learn how to protect someone, then ask me again tomorrow.  But I won’t teach you how to fight just so you can kill people.  That’s wrong in the eyes of Karas, and he would be disappointed in me if I did.”

      Tarrin was rather surprised.  That was the first time Tarrin had ever heard Azakar mention the name of Karas in such a, a holy manner.  Tarrin hadn’t been sure if Azakar worshipped Karas, for it wasn’t really a requirement to be a Knight.  Obey Karas, yes, but it wasn’t necessary to worship him.

      After a long lunch, during which Miranda altered Zyri’s dress so she could ride in it, they continued along.  While Telven complained, Zyri asked them what they were doing.  After she did so, Dolanna glanced at Tarrin, who nodded.  If the girl was going to travel with them for any amount of time, her understanding the truth would be important for her.

      “Well, child, we have come seeking two of our friends,” she answered.  “That is what we are doing now.  But we also have come to find out what happened to some long-lost members of our order, the katzh-dashi.  But, given what you have told us, it is highly doubtful that any of them are left alive.  Now we will simply find out what happened to them, seek out any who might still be living, and then take them home if we find any.”

      “But the Crusade was two thousand years ago,” she said haltingly.

      “We do not age the way you do, child,” she told her.  “There may very well still be some of them alive after two thousand years, but I am not sure.  These Hunters seem to be very thorough.”

      “Yes, but they’re geared towards catching witches,” Sarraya added.  “Sorcerers aren’t the same.  Trees, you can’t even use your magic here!”

      “Where is your home?” Zyri asked.

      “We do not come from your world, child,” Dolanna said bluntly.  “We come from another.”

      “How can there be anything other than the world?” Zyri asked.

      “Every world is like a ball,” Tarrin told her, bringing out his wings and creating a little ball of fire in his palm, which floated over it.  “Think of this as your world right here, little bit.  Everything is inside of it.  The planet, the moon, the sun, the stars, everything.  Outside of this ball, there are other balls,” he said, creating another and having it circle around the first slowly.  “This is how the planes work, Zyri.  Every world is endless, eternal, but it’s also an enclosed universe to itself.  But there are other universes, just as boundless and eternal, that exist in other places.  There are gateways between these different dimensions that allows someone to travel from one to another.  That’s how the original katzh-dashi came here, using a gate to come from our world to this world.  We came here using the same gate.”  He saw her confused look, then made the balls vanish and retracted his wings.  “Think of your world like a house.  It’s your own personal space, kind of like your own little world.  But you can leave your world simply by opening the door, where you find other houses outside.  Every world is a house, and every world has a door that lets you enter and leave the house.  We came in through the door to this world, to this house.

      “And, and it’s not the same on your side of that door?” she asked.

      “As different as night and day, dear child,” Dolanna told her.  “The One does not exist in our world.  Just as every house has different furniture and different decorations, every world is different from one another.  Each world has its own peoples, its own gods, and so on.  There are some similarities between worlds, though.  There are humans in your world, and humans in mine, and your world looks remarkably similar to ours.  The plants, the trees, the animals, they all look familiar to us, because we have them in our world as well.  In fact, this grassy plain looks almost indistinguishable from the northern plain of Sharadar,” she told her, looking around.  “I could almost feel like this was my home, that the forest over there is the Haunted Wood, and that the Inner sea is just over the horizon to the north.  But this is not.  This is the grass plain north of Dengal and between the forest and the low mountains to the east.”

      “But the Priests say that there’s only the world, heaven, and hell,” Telven said.  “If you’re not from here, then you’re either from heaven or hell.  And since you’re witches, you must be from hell,” he concluded quite logically.

      “Demons come from what you call hell, Telven,” Tarrin told him.  “Do I look like a Demon to you?”

      “You do when you’re the other way,” he answered boldly.

      Sarraya laughed.  “He’s got you there, Tarrin.  You do look a little Demonic when you’re in your normal form and you have your wings out.”

      “Well, I can prove that to you, Telven,” he said calmly.  “Remember when I killed the Demons at the church?”

      “Yeah.”

      “What color was their blood?”

      “It was black and icky smelling.”

      Tarrin drew his belt dagger and  slid it across his palm to create a thin line of blood, then showed it to Telven.  “And what color is my blood?” he asked.

      “Red.”

      “Then I’m not a Demon,” he said in a measured tone.  “And since I’m not a Demon, how can I be from hell, since only Demons live in hell?”

      Telven wasn’t prepared for that.  He floundered a bit, looking to try to start talking, then he just shrugged.  “They say witches come from hell,” he stated.

      “You don’t listen to your Priests,” Tarrin told him.  “They say they get their power from hell, which is itself a stupid and completely wrong conclusion.  They say that’s how they become Defiled, and lose their purity.  So that means that they’re not from hell.  Now, I’m obviously not a Demon, we’ve established that I don’t come from hell, I do come from another world, and I’m obviously not from your One’s heaven.  So then, exactly where did I come from?”

      Telven struggled with that bit of logic for several long moments, then sighed and shrugged again.  “I dunno.”

      “Well, he admits he doesn’t know everything,” Tarrin said cooly.  “That’s a first.”

      Zyri laughed, and Jal, who was riding on a horse being led by Zyri, gave a shy smile of his own.

      “Some things, you just have to accept when you don’t understand them, Telven.  Trust me on this one, it’s something I have a lot of experience with.”

      “What’s it like in your world?” Zyri asked.

      “Well, it looks a lot like yours,” he answered.  “But it’s not just humans.  There are more humans than any other race, that’s for certain, but there’s more than just them.  We have the Wikuni who live across the sea,” he said, pointing at Miranda, who was again hiding behind an Illusion of Mist.  “There are the Sha’Kar, who serve in the Towers and do the will of my Goddess.  There are the Selani who live in the desert, and the Were-kin and other forest folk who are called the Woodkin, who live in the vast forest west of the desert.  There are orcs in our world too, but we call them Waern, and we have a bunch of other races related to orcs that we call Goblinoids as a whole.  There are the Aeradalla who share the desert with the Selani, and there’s the Vendari, who are a race of lizard-men even bigger than me, Mist, and Zak.”

      “They sound scary,” Zyri said.

      “The Vendari can be scary-looking, but once you get to know them, you’d be surprised how nice they can be,” he answered.

      “And you don’t fight with each other?” Zyri asked.

      “Gods no,” Dolanna laughed.  “The Sha’Kar are our brothers and sisters, as close to us as close can be.  The Vendari and the Wikuni are some of our best friends, and we have very good relations with the Aeradalla and the Selani.  The Woodkin tend to keep to themselves, because most humans do not really understand them, but they too are friendly with the humans.  The only non-human race that really causes us any trouble are the Goblinoids, because they would rather steal what they need than make it themselves.”

      “But there’s fights, or you wouldn’t have Knights.”

      “Yes, there are occasionally fights,” Dolanna admitted.  “But it tends to be humans against humans more than anything else.  When we have fights on our world, it is most often one kingdom fighting another, or very rarely the worshippers of one god having fights with the worshippers of another, though that happens only once in a very great while.”

      “It sounds nice.”

      “It is, but I think this world would be nice if it wasn’t for the One,” Tarrin told her.  “This world would be much better off if he’d just drop dead.”

      “That’s blasphemy!” Telven gasped.

      “It’s only blasphemy if I cared about what the One felt about it,” Tarrin answered flatly.  “If he wants to take issue with the fact that I think he’s a plague on this world, he can come over here and try to tell me so.  I’d enjoy that particular opportunity,” he finished, flexing his fingers in an ominous manner.

      “You’re not afraid?” Zyri asked in disbelief.

      “Little bit, I’m not afraid of any god,” he told her flatly.  “Not even the One.”

      Zyri gaped at him

      “Ah, it seems that we’ve found Kimmie’s tailers,” Haley spoke up lightly, pointing ahead.

      The conversation forgotten, Tarrin and the others looked ahead.  There were several bodies littering the grass, and a change in the wind brought the smell of decomposing flesh to them.

      “Ewww!” Telven squealed, putting his hands over his nose and mouth.  “That smells awful!”

      “I do not think we need to get too close to them,” Dolanna suggested.

      “I’ll go look,” Haley offered.  “I’d like to know if they were from the Church.”

      “Be my guest,” Miranda said, just before she sneezed.

      They circled wide of the carnage as Haley inspected the corpses.  There were seven bodies there, but they didn’t get close enough for Tarrin to see if they were wearing Church uniforms, because their clothing was badly mangled from both whatever killed them and also stained from the process of decomposition.  Haley moved his skittish horse through the scene, then trotted him over to the group with a slight smile on his face.

      “Church soldiers,” he affirmed.  “Judging from the condition of the bodies, it was certainly Kimmie and Phandebrass who killed them.  They were killed by magic and by something with very large claws.”

      “That would definitely be Kimmie,” Miranda agreed.

      “How could you tell?” Telven asked.  “They’re all icky looking.”

      “It’s not all that hard, young man,” Azakar told him.  “It just takes a willingness to look at something unpleasant to find the clues left behind.”  He turned to look at Dolanna.  “We should start thinking about finding a site for camp, Dolanna.”

      “Well away from this place, that is for certain,” Dolanna told him.  “Let us move up a couple of longspans and then start looking for a good place.”

      They found an excellent campsite about an hour before sunset, a flat, dry patch of grass beside a very strange river that flowed from the north, then turned to the east.  The river wasn’t very large, but it was surprisingly deep, and it held water that was so clear that the bottom of the river, some twelve spans down in the middle, was as visible as the grass at the riverbank.  There were large plants growing on the riverbed, undulating in a slow yet steady current that led off to the east.

      “Now that is bizarre,” Ulger said, kneeling at the bank of the river and looking into it after they had finished setting up camp.

      “Spring water,” Mist told him.  She had shifted into her normal form and joined him at the riverbank for a moment to get a drink.  “I’ve seen water like this, but never in a river this big.”

      “It’s safe to drink, right?” Ulger asked.

      Mist nodded.  “It might taste a little heavy, but it’s safe.”

      Ulger dipped a hand into the water and brought a cupped palmful to his mouth.  “Heavy?  It tastes great!” he said, taking the waterskin off his belt and pouring the water within out onto the grass.

      “It’s got the steepest bank I’ve ever seen in a river flowing this slow,” Sarraya said, flitting over and landing on Ulger’s shoulder.  “There’s no slope at all.  It goes from river’s edge to the very bottom just like that.”

      “Don’t ask me how it got like this,” Mist snorted.

      “I hope we don’t have to cross it,” Ulger grunted.  “It might get tricky.”

      “Kimmie’s trail goes along the river’s edge, and she’s still on horseback,” Azakar told him as he stacked firewood by the firepit.  “If she crossed it, she did it at a ford, so we should be alright.”

      The evening was pleasant enough.  Tarrin watched Ulger give Zyri and Telven lessons with a sling, and they had an excellent meal of rabbit stew and roasted rabbit, victims of Ulger’s sling during the course of the day.  Tarrin was mildly surprised at the Knight’s accuracy with what was basicly a hunting weapon, even when mounted on a moving horse.  Tarrin opted to take the watch all night that night rather than have his friends not get enough sleep, and after everyone else went to bed, he took out a rolled leather kit that held all his fletching tools and got to work with it.

      By morning, he was quite satisfied with the result.  He had three small bows, designed specifically for Zyri, Telven, and Jal, one made out of a large section of blueleaf wood that he’d brought along with his fletching equipment, in case he needed to make a new bow, the second made of yew, and the third made of elm.  The bluish wood wasn’t often used for bows in Aldreth, not when there was oak handy, but Tarrin had found that blueleaf wood was an excellent wood for people who weren’t all that strong.  It was resilient and gave a good feel for the pull, but wasn’t so strong that they’d find fully drawing the bow impossible.  It was the perfect training wood, because they’d learn how to fully draw the bow without it exhausting them, teaching them proper form, yet still have enough power behind the arrow to bring down small game, and perhaps send an arrow a good three hundred spans with a favorable tailwind.  Tarrin had brought a blueleaf bow staff as part of a group of six, the other five of which were woods more mainstream for use as adult bows, and it had always been part of his fletching supplies, so he’d brought it out of habit.  That habit had been good luck for him, for he’d had it on hand to do this.  He’d used the blueleaf wood to make a bow for Jal, the yew to make a bow for Zyri, and used the elm bow staff to craft a bow for Telven.  They were proportionally the size of longbows for the children, each one specifically made just a bit too large so they could grow into them.

      It had been a long time since he’d made a bow.  He’d forgotten how easy it could be when one had the proper tools and wasn’t entirely worried about being utterly perfect.  The bows had been hastily made, but they were still quality work, very simple longbows without recurve or additions.  The only real extravagance he had put into them was a nock in the handle to help guide the arrows.

      “I see you were busy during the night, dear one,” Dolanna said as she came out of her tent, wearing a simple robe over a nightshirt.

      “It gave me something to do with my hands,” he shrugged, looking up at the sky.  “Our good luck is over concerning the weather.”

      She looked up with him, at dark bands on the eastern horizon that was hiding the sunrise.  “We will survive, though riding in the rain was never my favorite pasttime,” she told him.  “For the children?”

      “Something in me objects to them learning how to use a sling and not a bow,” he answered.

      She chuckled.  “You are from Aldreth, dear one.  They give infants longbows there almost as soon as they can grasp it.  I have never seen a group of people who were collectively more accurate with a bow than those from Aldreth.  They truly made a name for themselves during the Battle of Suld.  General Kang was utterly astounded by their accuracy.”

      “Well, we do favor it,” Tarrin nodded in agreement, picking up the bow he’d made for Telven.  “I’ve never so much as picked up a sling in my life.  I’ve always had one of these.”

      Dolanna was about to say something, but her eyes narrowed as she looked behind him, then she looked to the fire.  “Dear one, have you brought more firewood from the packs?”

      “No, I didn’t,” he answered, looking at the fire, which was still merrily burning, and then to the firewood.  He looked at it, wondering why Dolanna would ask that question, then he blinked and realized that the same amount of wood was in that pile as there had been when he started on the bows.  And he’d gotten so wrapped up in crafting them, he couldn’t remember a single time he’d put more wood on the fire outside of throwing wood shavings into it and the splinters of wood he’d taken off the bows as he made them.  But that was not enough wood to make the fire last that long.

      The fire had burned all night without fuel.

      “Huh,” Tarrin said, looking at the pile of wood.  “I never noticed the fire dying.  It never did.”

      “Dear one…do you feel different?” she asked him intently, her eyes serious.  “Obviously, you have caused this to happen.  Fire is your realm.  But—“

      “I haven’t had my wings out all night, Dolanna,” he protested.  “I can’t use my powers without bringing them out.”

      “I think you might want to explore the boundaries of your abilities once again, dear one,” she told him, pointing at the fire.  “That is still burning strong and well, and you have not stoked it.  Now that I look closely, I see that there is nothing but ashes remaining.  The fire is burning atop them.”

      “That shouldn’t be possible.”

      “It should not, at least with your powers being the way they are at home.  But this is not Sennadar, dear one.  Just as Sorcery and other forms of magic are different here, then perhaps so are your powers.  Try to do something.”

      “I, alright,” he said, holding out his hand and trying to create a small ball of fire in his palm.

      And it appeared.

      “Well,” Dolanna said with a smile.  “I think that this world is starting to affect your abilities, dear one.”  She reached into his hand and took the ball of fire from it, which did not vanish once it left his hand.  “But the fireform cat you created the other day did vanish,” she said with suddenly pursed lips.  “This might be an aspect of a shift in your power.  Perhaps when you discovered you could join to a fireform, you unlocked a new branch of your powers heretofore undiscovered, which is only now beginning to manifest in a way we can see.  That, or the realization caused a sudden increase in your powers, like making a jump between Sorcerer and da’shar.”

      “I don’t see how, Dolanna.  I’ve had these powers for years, and I know them well.  They’re not like Sorcery.  They tell me what they can and can’t do, after a fashion.”

      “As I recall, dear one, you were resistant to Phandebrass’ attempts to help you explore the extent of your abilities.  He told me that you might very well be capable of other things, but you lacked the desire or motivation to explore those boundaries.  Perhaps they told you only what they thought you wanted to hear.”

      “Maybe.”

      “And as I also recall, you did tell me that you had no idea how to use these powers when the sword changed you.”

      “Those are a different set of powers, Dolanna.”

      “Are they?  They are just stronger, dear one.  The powers you have now are just shadows of your true potential.  If you could not use your full power because of a lack of understanding of it, is it not a logical assumption to say that you might have also not fully learned how to use the shadow of that power as well, since you have never fully explored its limits?”  She held the little ball of fire out so he could see it.  “This does not lie, dear one.  Your powers are different now, or stronger, else this ball would not be here.”

      He couldn’t refute her logic, or the ball of fire in her hands.  “It’s possible,” he acceded.

      “Dear one, tell me something.  The powers you have in your current state.  Are they still considered divine, or aspects of fire?”

      He gave her a look.  “It’s still divine power, Dolanna.  It just manifests as fire.”

      Her eyes glittered for a long moment, and she gave him the strangest look.  It was amused.

      “What?”

      “Nothing, dear one.  Just satisfying an old curiosity, that is all.”  She touched the fire in her palm with a finger, and saw that unlike a fireform or the fire of his wings, this was normal fire, without substance.

      “Morning,” Haley called as he came out of his tent.  He was wearing nothing but a pair of linen knee-length undergarments, the name of which escaped Tarrin.  They were a Shacèan garment…he thought they were called braes, but he wasn’t entirely sure.  The garment did, however, show off a very sleek body, the perfect blending of muscle and slimness.  Tarrin could admire Haley’s physique for the appeal it would hold for a human female.  “No one else is up?”

      “I’m letting them sleep a bit,” Tarrin answered.  “Sleep well?”

      “Well enough,” he shrugged, stretching.  “How was your night, Dolanna?”

      “It was pleasant, dear friend,” she replied with a gentle smile, reaching her hand out to him as he approached them.  He kissed the back of her hand gallantly, then seated himself by the fire with them.  “I see now what I heard you two talking about,” he announced, nodding at the small ball of fire in Dolanna’s other hand.  “Having growing pains, Tarrin?”

      Tarrin chuckled.  “I guess so,” he agreed.  “It feels weird to know that I can do things without having to take out my wings.  I’m curious to know just how much I can do without doing it.”

      “I don’t understand why you had to take them out in the first place,” Haley divulged.  “After all, they were always there, just hidden.”

      “In a way, the size of the wings determines the power Tarrin can bring to bear,” Dolanna told him.  “Remember in Dengal, when he created the dragon of fire?  Remember how his wings expanded in size before he did so?”

      “Yes—ah, I see,” Haley nodded.  “So, if you can use your powers now, with them at their smallest size, I’d wager that your powers are growing.”

      “Or I’m learning how to get around that little condition,” Tarrin added.  “Every rule has an exception, you know.”

      Haley chuckled.  “That’s the truth,” he agreed.  “Would you like some tea, Dolanna?  I have some excellent leaves from Xau Lu.  It’s a mellow flavor, just a hint of tang, strong yet smooth on the palate.”

      “When do I not want tea, dear friend?” she told him with a smile.

      Tarrin reached behind him, and produce Dolanna’s rather worn travel kettle, and set it on one of the heated stones circling the fire.  “It should be ready in a couple of minutes,” he told her.

      “Would you like some,  Tarrin?” Haley asked.  “I have plenty.”

      “I’m not all that fond of tea, Haley, thanks anyway,” he answered.

      “Alright then.  Be right back.”

      They watched him go, and Tarrin picked up the bow he had made for Zyri, inspecting it.  “I wonder how many kinds of tea he has,” he mused.  “Every day he offers you something different.”

      “I am curious to know myself.”

      “Then ask him.”

      “And ruin his fun?  I think not, dear one.  He enjoys surprising me,” she said with a strange little smile.

      Tarrin looked at her for a short moment, then went back to inspecting the bow.  He considered telling her his suspicions about Haley’s true feelings, but he decided that that might not be wise with Haley in possible earshot.  “How long have you known him?”

      “About fifty years,” she answered.  “At that time, he was running a moneychanging business in Tor.  He must move every ten years, or the locals notice that he does not age, and they get suspicious.”

      “Ah.  When did he open that inn in Dayisè?”

      “Fifteen years ago,” she answered.

      “I’m glad he was there.  He was a lifesaver.”

      “He is always there when I need a hand, dear one,” she said with an odd look towards the tent.

      Tarrin quietly considered that look, and wondered if Dolanna had the same hidden feelings for Haley that Haley seemed to have for Dolanna.

      The others started getting up, and Tarrin decided not to talk about this change in his power quite yet, at least with the others.  He quietly pondered it as Mist made breakfast, and after he presented the children with their new bows and promised them he’d teach them how to use them in the evenings.  He wasn’t sure if was a change in his powers, or if he’d simply acclimated to this world or his powers to the point where he could now access them without having his wings out.  He actively avoided thinking about that power or using it too much, because the others didn’t understand the way he did just what those powers were and what they meant. They were the curse that made him separate from everyone else, the constant reminder that he could never again be a true part of the mortal world.  He didn’t like to dwell on what that meant for too long, or it depressed him, to know that he simply didn’t belong anywhere.  Unable to be understood by mortals, yet scorned by the gods, he was trapped between the two, cursed to an existence where he could look into both worlds and yet not be allowed to belong to either.

      But at least he still had his friends and his family.  Thank the Goddess that they at least accepted him for what he was, and at least with them, he did truly feel as if he belonged.

      Sometimes, just feeling that way was all that mattered, regardless of the fact that it was merely an illusion.

 

      They followed that strange river for two days before angling off to the northwest and travelling for five more days.  The weather turned nasty on them, raining off and on every single day, sometimes so heavily that they were all soaked to the skin before managing to either find or construct shelter.  One storm drenched them so quickly that Tarrin couldn’t even create a shelter from a fireform before he got soaked.

      The days were quiet introspection for Tarrin, as he pondered the significance of the change in his abilities, but no amount of thinking about it produced any real answers.  Fireflash and Mist’s presences in the saddle were a strange comfort to him as he thought about it, tangible reminders of the anchors that held him to the mortal world.  Each evening after making camp, he and Ulger took turns teaching the children how to use their weapons, which also turned into a swapping of instruction between them, as Tarrin picked up a sling for the first time and started learning how it was used, and Ulger took some lessons in the finer points of marksmanship from an Aldreth bowman, who were now, after the battle of Suld, regarded as some of the best archers in all the world.

      After the others went to sleep, Tarrin would go out a ways and try to understand how his powers had changed.  It only took a few days of practice to determine that unless he had his wings out, his powers were very limited, restricted to little more than producing fire, and creating fireforms no larger than Fireflash.  With his wings out, he found no real change in his abilities…they were the same as they had been before.  They weren’t stronger and they hadn’t changed, the only real change seemed to have been in the fact that he could now produce very minor effects without having to take out his wings.

      He pondered on that for an entire night and half a day, sitting in the saddle and thinking it over as Azakar guided them northwest, following Kimmie’s trail.  The children had become accustomed to riding horses now, so much so that Jal’s horse wasn’t guided anymore.  Haley had taken the boy aside and taught him how to control his horse, and he’d been an apt pupil.  Then again, Haley had also cheated a little bit by telling the horse to keep up with the other horses.  Telven didn’t complain about saddlesores anymore, and he’d become a little more accustomed to the peculiarities of the group in which he found himself, so Tarrin didn’t mind him at all now.  Then again, Sarraya still bantered with Telven, keeping the boy amused and keeping him out of everyone else’s hair.  Truth be told, Tarrin thought that Sarraya rather liked Telven.  In him she found someone more along the lines of her own level of maturity.  Despite the fact that she was an intelligent female, aged and wise, and a powerful Druid, Sarraya was still a Faerie, and that fundamental fact would never change.  It would make her an eternal child; mischievous, petulant, impulsive, and flighty.

      “Hold on,” Azakar called, holding up a mailed hand to stop the group.  “There’s something wrong.”

      “What do you mean?” Tarrin asked.

      “The path’s all messed up.  I see both hoofprints and footprints, and they go all over the place.”

      Haley quickly dismounted, and to the gasps of Zyri and Telven, he shapeshifted into his hybrid form.  Mist also jumped down from Tarrin’s saddle and shapeshifted into her normal form, and the two of them started going over the grass before them.  Tarrin looked out ahead of Azakar, and saw a flat patch of grass with a black scar roughly circular in shape, looking like a firepit.  The grass did look a bit trampled in places, as if a group had stopped to make camp, but Tarrin wasn’t close enough to it to give it a good inspection.

      “There was a fight here,” Haley said immediately.  “I can smell hints of blood.  And that burned place is from a Demon getting killed.”

      “A Demon?” Ulger said in concern, riding up from the back of the group.

      “Kimmie and Phandebrass were ambushed,” Mist told them, moving around on all fours, analyzing the scents and visible marks left behind.  “There were at least four different Demons and about fifteen humans.”

      They all waited anxiously as the two of them combed over the scene.

      “Phandebrass ran off that way on foot,” Haley said, pointing southeast.  “From the smell of it, he was pursued.  I’ll go track this down, Mist.”

      “I’ll come with you,” Sarraya called, flitting off Telven’s shoulder and zipping over to the Were-wolf.

      “Alright,” she said in a low growl.  Mist continued to comb through the area quickly yet methodically.  “Kimmie’s scent disappears, but there’s no Were-cat blood anywhere,” she finally announced.  “She could have used magic to escape, something that doesn’t leave a scent behind.”

      “Can you see anything, Zak?” Miranda asked.

      “No, the trail just stops right here,” he answered her.

      “Hmm.  If she used magic to escape, my spell wouldn’t be able to show us that,” she fretted.  “It would simply pick up where it starts again.”

      “Can you find it?  If she didn’t go far using magic,” Tarrin added.

      “Yes, but it might take me some time. I’ll have to scry for it.”

      “Let’s hold off until Haley gets back,” Ulger said.  “Kimmie’s trail might pick up with his.  That’s what I would think it would do.  Odds are, she covered Phandebrass so he could escape, then used magic to get away and joined him somewhere else.”

      “A definite possibility,” Dolanna agreed.  “Mist, were there any casualties?”

      “I’d say a bunch,” Mist grunted.  “Human blood is everywhere.  I think Kimmie and Phandebrass killed all the humans, and only ran from the Demons.”

      Haley came loping back over a small rise.  “Well, I found Kimmie’s scent,” he announced.  “There are three more patches of burned ground over there.  It looks like they killed the other three Demons.  There’s also horse tracks that lead off to the north over there.  From the looks of it, Phandebrass chased down the horses, they killed the last of the Demons after catching up to them, and then moved on.”

      “Zak, go look, if you please,” Miranda prompted.

      “Sure, Miranda,” he nodded, then spurred his horse into a quick gallop.

      “I guess she didn’t get them all at that last battleground,” Ulger grunted.  “That, or this was a group called in by the other group before Kimmie wiped them out.”

      After a moment, Azakar galloped back and reined in before them.  “Yeah, the trail picks back up over the hill,” he announced.  “From the looks of it, they got out of here at a dead run, going northeast.”

      “Can you blame them?” Sarraya said acidly.  “It’s not every day you have to kill Demons, you know.”

      “Quiet,” Tarrin said absently.  “I don’t like this.  I think we’d better catch up as fast as we can.  How far are we behind now?”

      “About fourteen days,” Mist answered.  “They hadn’t been moving very fast, so we were catching up.”

      “That will probably change now,” Dolanna said grimly.  “Let us hope that this time, they destroyed all eyes which were following them.”

      “Yah, I don’t think fighting Demons on a daily basis is something anyone but Tarrin would feel comfortable doing,” Sarraya said, giving Tarrin a sly wink.

      He ignored the Faerie.  “We might want to think of picking it up a little.”

      “Agreed,” Dolanna nodded.  “Let us finish this day’s ride at a canter.”

      “Still, though, that’s quite a feat.  Kimmie and that mage killing twenty people?” Ulger asked, then he laughed.

      “I’d think I didn’t train her right if she couldn’t,” Mist snorted before shifting back into cat form and jumping up onto Tarrin’s boot, then vaulting back up into the saddle with him.

      They rode through the rest of the day at a canter, and with a silence that came with knowing that their friends were in much more danger than they first believed.  They all kept looking for traces that someone had been following Kimmie and Phandebrass, even Sarraya stopping her bantering with Telven to flit about to either side of their path and look for traces of others.  Kimmie’s trail turned almost due west after about an hour of moving northeast, and they reached the upper edge of the forest that they had passed through to reach Dengal by sunset.  The forest didn’t extend across their path, ending some league or so to the south.  They put out two on the watch that night, and moved on the next morning with the same urgency.

      After two more days of an increased pace, skirting north of the forest and moving out onto a slightly hilly grassland not much different than what was on the other side of the forest, the strain of it was starting to show on the children.  They had just gotten used to riding, and days of moving at a canter was making them sore and stiff once more.  Telven again started complaining, and even Zyri modestly asked if they could take an extended break when they camped for the night.  “Even I could use a few extra hours out of a saddle,” Haley admitted.  “Maybe we should set an early camp tonight.”

      “It might be a good idea,” Dolanna agreed.

      They set an early camp in a small grove of pear trees, that looked to have been deliberately planted at one time, but had not been tended by human hands for decades.  Tarrin wasn’t entirely happy about the delay, but he knew that the other needed a little rest, especially the children, and he didn’t want to push them too hard.  He wasn’t sure of their opinions of him quite yet, and he didn’t want to alienate them.  He took Fireflash with him as he hunted for something fresh for dinner, ranging almost halfway towards the forest before crossing paths with an animal that looked like a small elk.  After getting it back to camp, he found out it tasted like elk as well.

      “It’s a bit small,” Mist told him critically.

      “We have no idea how big it’s really supposed to be, and it’ll feed all of us,” he retorted.

      “True.”

      As Mist cooked, he gave the children a lesson with their bows.  Telven didn’t like it all that much, much more interested in the sling, but Zyri and Jal were rather taken with their bows.  Jal seemed to have a knack for it, naturally doing what needed to be done to make a good shot.

      “Where did you learn how to shoot bows?” Zyri asked him.

      “My father,” he answered.  “Raise your elbow in a bit more, little bit.  That’s better,” he said as she practiced drawing her blueleaf bow.  “You want a straight line with the arrow and your arm.  Crooking your arm like that’s going to put your aim off.”

      “Was he a hunter?”

      “He was a soldier,” he answered.  “A member of an elite part of the Sulasian army called the Rangers.  They were woodsmen, trained to use the forests of our kingdom to their advantage while they protected the land from invaders.”

      “Did he ever fight a war?” Telven asked excitedly.

      “Not a war,” Tarrin shook his head.  “Thankfully.  The worst thing my father ever had to deal with was bandits, and Goblinoids.  My father taught me everything I know about the forest, and how to survive in it.”

      “I’ve always been afraid of the woods,” Zyri admitted.  “It’s dark there, and you can’t see what’s there.”

      “And what’s there also can’t see you,” he told her.

      “I never thought of it that way,” she said after a moment of contemplation.

      “Is your father as big as you?  What color is his fur?” Telven asked.

      “My father is human,” Tarrin answered calmly.  “So is my mother.”

      “But, but how—“

      “What I am isn’t how I was born,” he answered the boy.  “It’s a condition that can be passed on to humans.  I caught it, and now I’m a Were-cat.”

      “Are we going to catch it?” Telven asked with a kind of wary excitement, both afraid of and intrigued by that idea.

      Tarrin chuckled.  “No, you won’t catch it,” he answered.  “It can’t be passed by accident.  It has to happen on purpose.”

      “So someone did that to you on purpose?” Zyri asked astutely.

      He nodded.  “It’s a very long story, Zyri, but the short of it is yes, it was done on purpose.  I wasn’t very happy about it at first, but now I rather like what I am, and I know that it had to be done.”

      “Why?” she asked.

      “That, little bit, is a story so long it can’t be told in one day,” he chuckled, handing her an arrow.  “Now, this time, release smoothly.  Don’t jerk, that makes the arrow fly off target.  Remember, keep the bowstring on your fingertips, not in your knuckle joints, and remember what I taught you about releasing the string.  Just relax your fingers and the bowstring slide out of your grip.  Trust me, it’s not going to make the arrow go slower.”

      After letting them practice a while, they put aside the bows and Tarrin joined as Ulger taught them how to use the sling.  Tarrin was naturally quite agile and dextrous, even in his human form, and he caught onto the trick of it almost immediately, mainly because his training with the bow already gave him a knowledge of distance and trajectory needed to make a sling stone hit a target.  “By Karas’ hammer, Tarrin, that’s not bad,” Ulger said appreciatively as Tarrin’s stone struck the knot of the tree which was their target.  “You should put that bow down and go with the sling.”

      “Not in this lifetime,” Tarrin told him evenly, which made him laugh.

      “Just keep practicing,” Ulger told him.  “You might find someday that that sling may be just what you need.  Mine has saved my life several times over the years.”

      “I think I’ll have Miranda make me one,” he nodded in agreement.

      The elk was a good filling meal, and it made them all quite drowsy, sitting around a cheery fire and with soft bedrolls beckoning in the tents surrounding it.  “Well, I guess we’d better draw for guard duty,” Ulger yawned.

      “Just go to sleep,” Tarrin told them, taking the charm out of his pouch and affixing it to the back of his amulet.  “I’ll keep watch tonight.”

      “You sure, Tarrin?  You’ve been relying on that thing a bit too much here lately,” Ulger told him.

      “Ulger, I once wore it for over a year,” he told him sharply.

      “What does it do?” Telven asked.

      “I don’t have to sleep as long as I have it on my amulet,” Tarrin told him.  “I’m going to stay up tonight and keep watch so everyone else can get some sleep.”

      “That sounds neat!” Telven said.  “You’d never have to go to bed again!”

      “I think it would be boring,” Zyri said after a moment’s thought.  “I mean, what do you do all night when everyone else is asleep?”

      “That, little bit, is the double edge sword,” he said with a slight smile.  “Keeping watch all night is boring if I have nothing to read or nothing to do.”

      “Then what will you do tonight?”

      “I’ll think of something, Zyri.  I always do.”

      “Well, I’ll stay up with you,” she announced.  “You shouldn’t be alone.”

      “You will go to bed,” Mist ordered.  “If my mate wants company, he’ll come wake me up.”

      “Maybe not that kind of company,” Sarraya whispered conspiratorially to Haley.

      Tarrin stood up and shapeshifted into his normal form, so he had access to his powerful senses, moving without even thinking about it so Fireflash wasn’t dislodged from his customary place on his shoulder.  He swished his tail a few times to get the stiffness out of it, then sat back down beside the fire.  “I’m going to get some sleep, my mate,” Mist told him.  She came over, leaned down and kissed him.  “Want me to stay up with you?”

      “No, no, go get some sleep,” he told her.  “If you want to keep me company, get up before dawn.  That’s when I get bored.”

      “Alright.  Night.”

      “Sleep well.”

      “I think Mist has the right idea,” Haley said with a yawn as the female Were-cat stalked off towards the tent she shared with Tarrin.  “See everyone in the morning.”

      “If you want someone to relieve you, Tarrin, you can come get me,” Azakar said as he stood up.

      “Don’t worry about it, Zak.”

      One by one, the others took to their tents, until only Zyri was left.  “Well?” he asked her impatiently.

      “I don’t want you to be alone,” she said in a small voice.  “And I want to hear the story of what happened to you.”

      “It’s not a good story, girl.”

      “I’m not worried if it’s a bad story.”

      “No, it’s not a nice story,” he told her honestly.  “I don’t think you’re ready to hear it.”

      “Why?”

      “If you did, by the end of it, your opinion of me would be much different,” he told her, giving her a steady look.  “I was a much different person back then, and I wasn’t nice.”

      “Who you were doesn’t matter as long as you’re who you are,” she said sagely, then she blushed and gave him a sheepish smile.  “It’s something my father used to say.”

      “Your father was a wise man.  Now go to bed.”

      “But you’ll be alone.”

      “I’m used to being alone,” he told her, then he looked into the fire, his eyes distant.  “Bed.  Now.”

      “Yes, sir,” she responded, then got up from the ground and brushed off her skirts.  He was a little surprised when she put her hands on his shoulder, barely missing Fireflash, and kissed him on the cheek.  “Good night,” she said, then she scurried off to her tent.

      Fireflash hissed a little as she retreated from them, but Tarrin just chuckled.  “Stand down, you big fraud,” he chided.

      Fireflash snorted a little, then jumped down onto his leg and looked up at him.

      “You staying up with me, little one?” he asked.

      Fireflash gave him a serious little look.

      “I could use the company,” he said with a smile, reaching down and scratching the drake between the horns.  He brought out his Gnomlin Travelling Spellbook and spoke the word that made it expand to its full size.  “I also need to work on this a little.  I’m trying to figure out Kimmie’s spells.”

      Fireflash gave a little chirp, moving so Tarrin could put the book in his lap, then laying down on Tarrin’s lap just below the bottom edge of the book.

      “Sometimes I agree,” he chuckled, then got to work.

 

      He expected Mist to wake up early and come join him, but he didn’t expect Zyri.  She came out of the tent she shared with her brothers well before dawn, wearing one of Dolanna’s nightshirts.  She padded over in the warm, muggy night on bare feet and seated herself beside the fire.

      “Go back to bed,” he ordered.

      “I’m not sleepy anymore,” she replied in a measured tone, looking up at him.  “Do you want some breakfast?”

      He chuckled.  “You’re going to cook?” he asked.

      “I know how to cook,” she said in a slightly challenging tone.

      “I’m sure you do,” Tarrin said with a slight smile.

      Fireflash vaulted over to land on Zyri’s shoulder.  The girl gasped in surprise, and froze like a startled fawn.  “He won’t hurt you, little bit.  He’s just curious.”

      She remained still as Fireflash sniffed at her shoulder, but she started giggling when the drake stuck his nose against her neck, which turned into loud laughing when he flicked his tongue along the base of her jaw.

      “Fireflash, behave, the others are still sleeping,” Tarrin chided the drake absently.  “He’s playing with you, Zyri.  He likes you.”

      “Well, I kind of like him too,” Zyri offered.  “Can I hold him?”

      “Sure,” he answered.  “If he doesn’t like you, he’ll just gas you.”

      “He’ll what?”

      “He can breathe out a gas that paralyzes people who breathe it in,” he explained.  “The effect lasts a few minutes, but it’s not all that pleasant.”

      “Wow, really?” she said in surprise.  “That sounds really neat.”

      “I had him do it to me once to test its power.  Trust me, you don’t want to be gassed.”

      “If you say so,” she said, gingerly taking the drake off her shoulder and holding him before her.  Fireflash didn’t object at all, and cuddled with her when she held him up against her chest.

      “He definitely likes you,” Tarrin informed her.

      “What is he called?”

      “He’s a drake.  I told you that once before.”

      “I forgot.  He looks like the pictures of dragons they have in the old books.”

      “He’s a cousin to dragons, just much smaller,” he answered her.  “A real dragon is about five hundred spans long.”

      “Do they look like him?”

      “He’s a perfect replica of a dragon.  Only smaller,” he chuckled.  “Much smaller.”

      “How big is five hundred spans?”

      He held his hands about a span apart.  “This is a span.  A fully grown, mature dragon is five hundred of these long.  The tops of their backs are about a hundred spans off the ground.”

      “Wow!” she gasped.  “That’s bigger than, than a warehouse!”

      “Dragons are the most powerful creatures on my world.  Nobody crosses them, but thankfully, they’re a peaceful species that doesn’t like to get involved with the smaller races.”

      “They sound scary.”

      “They look scary, and sometimes they can seem a little scary, but once you get used to them, you find that they’re actually rather nice.  One of my best friends is a dragon.”

      “Really?  What’s he like?”

      “She.  Her name is Sapphire. She’s a blue dragon.  She’s not so much as a friend to me as she is a part of my family.”

      “Blue?  She has blue scales instead of gold?”

      He nodded.  “She’s a bit arrogant, but you have to expect that from a dragon.  They are powerful, and they know it.”

      “I can’t imagine something being that big,” she said hesitantly.

      “I know.  It boggles your mind when you first see one.  You almost can’t believe your eyes.”

      She was quiet a long moment.  “I want to hear the story,” she told him, then she blushed and gave him a demure look.

      He looked at her, then chuckled.  “I don’t think you’re going to take no for an answer,” he told her.

      “Not if I can get you to tell me the story,” she answered.

      “Well, if you want to hear it, that’s fine.  But understand now that it’s not the kind of story you want to hear.  Like I said, you’ll never look at me the same way again.” 

      “I’ll be the judge of that.”

      He gave her a long look.  “Alright, but remember, little bit.  You asked for this,” he told her sincerely.

      It took a surprisingly short amount of time to tell, as he reckoned things.  That, or Zyri had woke up much earlier than he thought, for he finished the tale of his adventures before sunrise, even before Mist woke up and joined him.  He told her the story evenly, without much emotion, describing the darkest of his deeds with the same detached tone as he described the greatest of his accomplishments.  He left little out, even describing the destruction of Val and the battle with Val’s shadow which had unlocked the hidden power within him.

      “So, you were a god,” she said in wonder.  “No wonder you’re not afraid of the One!”

      “The key word there is that I was a god, Zyrilin,” he said grimly.  “Not anymore.  The wings, the power, they’re like ripples in the surface of a pond after the rock is thrown in, just a shadow of what I used to be.  I’m just as mortal now as you are, the only difference is that the echo of my lost power still resonates inside me, and that gives me the power I have now.  I can die just as easily as you.  The reason I’m not afraid of the One is because I understand the power that gods use, and I know that he can’t use all of his power against me.  In the mortal world, here, his power is limited.  Since he is, the power he can use against me is probably about the same as the power I have now.  That makes us even.”

      “What’s it like?  Being a god.”

      “I’m not a god,” he told her again.

      “Well, having all that power,” she amended.

      “I’d give it all up in a heartbeat,” he answered immediately.  “It’s not a blessing, little bit.  It’s a curse.  If I could free myself from this power and be totally normal again, I’d do it without thinking twice.”

      “But you have the power to do almost anything,” she protested.

      “I do, at least if my sword decides it’s necessary to unlock my full power,” he admitted freely.  “But just because I can do something, that doesn’t mean that I should.  My goddess taught me that lesson long ago, as I struggled to control my Sorcery.”

      “I wish I could use magic like that.  I’d always be safe, and me and my brothers would always have food and a house and never be hungry again.”

      “Zyri, remember what I told you about Jula?” he asked, and she nodded.  “Think about what happened to her before you say that again.  Don’t make the same mistake she did.  The greater your power, the greater your duty to use it responsibly.  The day you seek power for its own sake is the day that the power controls you instead of you controlling it.”

      Zyri frowned, looking into the fire.

      “Listen to my mate, girl,” Mist told her as she came out of the tent.  Zyri looked at her, then blushed a bit when she saw that Mist had no clothes on.  “He speaks from experience.  Hungry, my mate?”

      “A little, but you need to go put on a robe.”

      “She’s not seeing anything she doesn’t have herself,” she shrugged him off as she passed by the girl and sat on her feet by the fire.

      “Well, I don’t have a tail,” Zyri offered meekly, which made Tarrin laugh.

      “What time is it?” Tarrin asked Mist.  She always knew.

      “About an hour before sunrise,” she answered.  “We’ll need to get an early start to make up for the time we lost to the early camp and the rain.”

      “Um, Lady Mist, Kimmie’s your daughter, right?” Zyri asked.

      “Yes.”

      “But I thought Kimmie was Tarrin’s girlfriend, that she’s the mother of two of his children.”

      “She is.”

      “And he said you’re the mother of his son.”

      “I am.”

      “Well, um, uh,” she hedged.

      Mist gave her a piercing look.  “Were-cats aren’t humans,” she told her.  “Tarrin is my mate, but Were-cat natures don’t let us stay together forever.  When we can’t stand each other anymore, we’ll split up.  When we do, he’ll go back to Kimmie, or maybe go to Jesmind.  The three of us share him, because we all love him.  So we take turns being his mate.”

      Mist had to be the only person he knew that could say the word love and make it sound like so business-like.

      “Oh.”

      “That’s good, girl.  Don’t apply your human morals to us.  We’re much more different from you than we look,” Mist told her.

      “I’ll try, but it’s not easy,” she admitted.

      “We always want to think of others the same way we think of ourselves,” Tarrin said absently.  “It’s a trait I’ve seen in many races, not just humans.”

      “Racial arrogance,” Mist grunted.  “We all think we’re better than everyone else.”

      “True enough,” Tarrin nodded.  “You know, you should practice your human form, Mist.  I’d like to have you around in something other than cat form more.”

      “I should take my belt back from Miranda,” she growled.  “Too bad you can’t use Sorcery here.  We could really use your Illusions.”

      “No use wishing for what you can’t have,” he told her.

      “What do you want for breakfast?”

      “I don’t really care.  Surprise me.  Just put on a robe before you start.  I’d rather avoid all of Ulger’s impending comments.”

      “True,” she agreed, standing up easily.  She paused to put her massive paw on Zyri’s head lightly, a touch of fondness, then she stalked back towards the tent she shared with him to dress.  That surprised Tarrin just a little bit, because Mist’s feral nature didn’t allow her to act so comfortably with strangers.  Then again, Zyri was still a child, if nearly an adult, and she’d demonstrated to him before that she rather liked the girl.

      “Feel very, very lucky, little bit,” Tarrin told her quietly.

      “Why?”

      “Mist likes you.  She’s extremely finicky when it comes to liking people.  And since she does, my opinion of you just went up a few notches.  Mist is never wrong when it comes to judging people.”

      Zyri blushed rosily, but said nothing.

      Kimmie’s trail, which had veered almost due west, was true to its course.  They followed it during the morning, a morning marked with a difference this day, for Mist was riding one of the spare horses, in her human form.  Tarrin had suggested she practice her human form, and she had taken that as an order to do so.  Sarraya kept intentionally calling Mist Miranda and Miranda Mist, which quickly aggravated both of them to the point where Sarraya spent a couple of hours trailing the group from a distance after Miranda used a Priest spell to freeze her to the spot over which she hovered, unable to move, which lasted nearly five minutes.  It felt nice to Tarrin to have his mate riding beside him instead of in the saddle with him, able to talk to her and her able to talk to the others without relaying her words through Tarrin.  She did look a little silly, however, for she didn’t have a set of clothes that fit her smaller human body, and her clothes hung off of her like she was a girl playing dress-up, wearing her mother’s dresses.  She was just about Tarrin’s size in her human form, just a little shorter, so after they stopped for lunch, he dug a spare shirt and pair of breeches out of his packs and gave them to her.  He had no spare boots, so she was forced to go barefoot.

      “I’m afraid I’m no cobbler, Mist,” Miranda chuckled ruefully.  “I could probably do it if I had the supplies, but I don’t.  I could sew you some leather shoes kind of like slippers, though.”

      “I don’t care one way or the other, Miranda,” Mist grunted in reply.

      “Make them, if you would please,” Tarrin told Miranda with a nod.  “There might come a time when Mist may have to move around in human form, and she’ll need shoes.”

      “You got it,” Miranda said with a cheeky grin, a very alien sight considering she was doing it with Mist’s face.  “I’ll make them tonight, when we stop.”

      “Hold,” Azakar called, reining in at the top of a shallow rise, the bottom of which only Azakar could see.

      “What is it?” Tarrin asked.

      “Trouble,” he said as Tarrin crowned the hill.  He looked down and saw a large group of grayish-green skinned Waern—orcs, they called them orcs here—running to the south, towards the forest some half a day’s ride away.  Tarrin could see that this wasn’t a complete band of Waern—orcs.  These were females and children, and they had absolutely nothing with them.  Whatever had happened, it had caused them to flee their encampment without taking anything with them, literally running for their lives.  They weren’t grouped up, they were a long line of stragglers as the faster ones outpaced the slower, and the youngest of the children who had been separated from their mothers were the ones lagging the furthest behind.

      The cause of that rout came around the turn of the shallow valley to the north a moment later.  It was a large column of red-uniformed men on horses, almost three hundred of them, and the thin sound of a trumpet or horn reached them as one of them sounded their pursuit.  They were racing towards the fleeing orcs, swords and spears flashing in the noontime sun, blades that were already stained red with the blood of the band’s warriors.

      “Yay, the army’s killing orcs!” Telven said excitedly.

      Tarrin, however, was starting to feel the first stirrings of outrage.  These soldiers were obviously intent on running down and slaughtering defenseless females and children.  Tarrin had never had much love for Waern, and since they were Goblinoids, he had an ingrained hatred of them, but still, Tarrin could not stomach the idea that these men were about to kill children.  That was the one thing that Tarrin would never willingly do, kill a child, no matter what race it happened to be.

      “There’s no need for this,” Azakar said grimly.  “They’ve beaten the band’s warriors.  Running down and killing the women and children is going too far.”

      “You Knights are too soft,” Mist told him with a growl.  “The only good Waern are dead Waern.  That band will join up with another band, and in five years you’ll have more Waern raiders.”

      “Your racial bias against Goblinoids is talking, Mist,” Miranda said evenly.  “Or would you strike down a Waern infant?”

      “Yes,” Mist said brutally, giving Miranda a flat look.  “I’m no simpering human, Wikuni.  If you’re looking for mercy for Goblinoids, don’t look for it from me.”

      That seemed to take Miranda back a little.  But then again, it was more or less what Tarrin expected.  Mist may have come a long way, but she was still feral, and she was capable of such actions.  In his own way, so was he.

      “Ah, but Mist, these aren’t Waern.  These are orcs,” Haley told her.

      “Different name, same Goblinoid,” Mist told him with a dangerous look.

      “Regardless of our feelings, there is nothing we can do about this,” Dolanna said in a tone of finality.  “Were we inclined to intervene, we would have to face far too many soldiers to handle.  In this, we are forced spectators.”

      “Well, I’m not watching it,” Miranda said with dignity, turning her horse around and starting back down the hill.  “Come get me when it’s over.”

      “I’m not either,” Sarraya agreed, flitting after the Wikuni.

      “I have no desire to watch myself,” Dolanna announced, and she too turned her horse to go back down the hill.

      Tarrin too didn’t want to watch this.  Senseless destruction was something that he had too much of in his lifetime.  And yet, he found that he could not turn away.  He watched with cold, almost emotionless eyes as the soldiers bore down on the tail end of that disorganized band of Goblinoids, which was made up of mostly very small children and females who looked to be either old or lamed.  He kept his outrage in check as they got closer and closer, even when some of them lowered their spears, and he flinched when the lead soldier stabbed his spear into the back of a fleeing female who had turned and threw her arms out to slow the advancing attackers, to protect the children.  She collapsed to the ground and was trampled over by the horses, but she had managed to slow the lead elements of that attacking force for a few more seconds, giving her life to grant life to the others, if only for another moment.

      He found himself unable to look away as the soldiers spread out and encircled the slowest of the fleeing orcs, trying to surround the entire host, an icy fury building up inside him to see what they were doing, and yet be unable to put a stop to it.  He couldn’t fight them all, and that made him powerless to prevent what he knew was going to happen.  He watched as the horses of the soldiers allowed them to race past the females and children on either side, then rein in and veer in front of them, cutting off their retreat.  The sixty or so orcs were now surrounded by the humans on horseback, giving up their race and gathering in a tight circle, as the children cried and the females screamed in fear or anger, or perhaps both.

      He closed his eyes and bowed his head.  It was generally over now.  Not that the orcs ever really had a chance in the first place.  But now they were trapped, unable to flee, and the soldiers had just ensured that they would kill them all without having to ride all over the place to chase down the singles that might escape, had they tried to kill them all by chasing them down from behind.  He opened his eyes and saw that the children were still on the hilltop; Jal looked confused, Telven eager, and Zyri looked very sad.

      “Down the hill,” Tarrin told them, pointing towards where Miranda and Dolanna had gone.

      “But I want to see!” Telven protested.  “They’re gonna kill Defiled is all, we get to see it all the time on the stands back home!”

      “Fool cub, you have no idea what you’re talking about!” Tarrin snapped at him hotly, which made Telven flinch.  His sudden flash of anger made him forget himself, and he shapeshifted into his true form, which included the wings.  Those wings flared out, suddenly turning bright red, a visible symbol of his growing anger.  “Or have you forgotten that you were on that stand, and you’d be dead right now had if I hadn’t have saved you?”

      A thin squeal from the bottom of the hill got Tarrin’s attention, and he turned to look.  He wished he hadn’t.  One of the soldiers, just one, had darted his horse in close to the trapped orcs with a spear and used it to impale an orc child, no more than a toddler, and raised the body up over his head, still on his spear shaft.  The child was not dead, convulsing and writhing on the shaft.  And the soldier was laughing, as the others gave a great cheer at the slaughter of an innocent, at the cruel wounding of a child.

      All shreds of rational composure were lost in the sight of that.

      With a scream of such outrage that no voice could truly define it, Tarrin hurtled at the soldiers like a fiery missle fired from a catapult, wings trailing licks of fire behind him.  His mind was consumed in a red haze of outraged fury, and there was nothing that mattered to him in the entire world in that moment than eradicating the mounted soldiers so thoroughly that not even their ashes would infect the grass beneath their feet.  There were too many for him to take on as he was, so his infuriated mind recalled a memory of what he had done before, creating the shell of another form around him and joining to it, which would make him much larger, much more capable of dealing with a large group.

      Expanding to massive size, Tarrin’s wings exploded out to either side of him, then quickly collapsed around him as the enraged Were-cat willed them to do so, to begin the process of change that would transform him into another shape.

      But this time, something was…different.  It struck him so suddenly that it knocked him from his fury for a moment, as he felt the fire infuse him, reaching into his mortal form and touching what was there.  In that fleeting moment of lucidity, he felt his body yield to the power of his fire, to the power of his divine power, and become fluid.  Tarrin wanted size and power to deal with a large group of humans; well, the divine power within him, always seeking to do what Tarrin wanted of it and much more aware of what it was capable of than he who commanded it, responded to that desire.

      To the others, it was an awesome sight.  Tarrin’s body simply melted away within the core of the fire, as it as well was transformed into living flame.  He became a living entity without set form, able to mold the exterior of its borders at will, a true being of change, which was the representation of fire’s impact upon the world.

      The exterior of the fire suddenly billowed outward smoothly as Tarrin’s mind reverted to memory, to experience.  He needed to be able to take on three hundred men—or, more to the point, stop them from slaughtering the orcs.  That didn’t actually require combat if he could scare them enough, and if he wanted to scare someone, then he knew the perfect shape in order to do it.  Tarrin’s fire expanded, changed, twisted, grew, growing bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until it hovered over the entire valley, taking on a solid, defined form, displaying a shape with which his friends were more than familiar.  The fire completed that shape, and then, in a blinding flare of incandescence, the fire faded, retreating within the form it had just shaped, leaving behind true flesh and blood and bone in its stead rather than solid, living fire.

      In an earth-shaking cloud of dust, Tarrin landed on the floor of the valley.  His human form was gone, and in its place, stood a five hundred span long dragon with golden scales.

      It could be said with certainty that everyone in that valley was absolutely stunned, including Tarrin.  He had no idea he was capable of something like this!  This was not creating a fireform and joining to it, this was real!  Tarrin had shapeshifted into a form other than a human, cat, or his natural hybrid state!  He had shapeshifted into a gold dragon, a true, living, breathing, gold dragon.  He had the scales, the claws, the blood, the flesh, the bone, even the breath weapons of a gold dragon, he could sense it within himself.  The change was absolute, complete, perfect in every detail save gaining the mind of a gold dragon.  The Cat within objected violently to the taking of an unnatural form, but then it suddenly and mysteriously fell silent, as if it realized that this was nothing more than temporary, or perhaps that it found the shape to its liking.  He wasn’t sure.  He had no idea how he had done it, had no idea he was capable of it.  Tarrin had just crossed the threshold and expanded his power to shapeshift to include forms that was not natural to him.  His wings, his power, seemed to have touched on that basic, ingrained ability within him and augmented it, allowing him to exceed his normal natural limitation.  He seemed to understand, perhaps subconsciously, that his familiarity with dragons was the reason he was able to take the form, that and the fact that he had touched one, in the form of Sapphire.  He had touched her, and in that touch, the understanding of how they were built from within was opened to him, just like he needed to have touched something in order to Summon it with Druidic magic.  In that touch was all he needed to perform his magic.  He had copied Fireflash’s abilities into a dragon’s body, merging them to form what he was now, which really was a gold dragon.  After all, drakes were pefect replicas of the dragons they resembled…only much smaller.  He understood in that moment of clarity that he could not shapeshift into any animal that he had not personally touched, and that change was absolute, gaining the powers and abilities of that creature, while retaining his own mind.  He also understood in that moment of clarity that his own divine powers were locked away from him while he was shifted into another form, as his wings of fire, the source of his power, were not there.  He could shapeshift back, but until he did so, all of his other powers were denied to him.  He sacrificed them in order to do this, trading his divine powers for whatever abilities he would gain in taking a different form.

      Shaking off the enormity of what he had just done, he looked down upon humans and orcs that looked no larger than beetles to him now, like little tin soldiers on wooden toy horses.  The humans gaped up at him in terror, as they looked upon something so unimaginably huge that it defied rational explanation.  The horses started to shy and prance as Tarrin, who seemed to have an imparted understanding of how this body worked, took a single step towards them, moving a forepaw, that zoomed him fifty spans closer to them in one lurch.  It was almost dizzying, looking down from such a height, unused to how it changed his perspective, how much smaller everything looked to him now.  He took another step, and then his head was within striking distance of the closest of the humans, but they probably didn’t understand that quite yet, since their ability to gauge the length of his neck was restricted by their point of view.  Tarrin singled out the one who had impaled the orc child, who was now mercifully dead, and then his head lanced in with such speed that it shocked all the humans so badly that they were frozen in place.  Massive jaws closed on that particular human, and he was killed instantly when Tarrin crushed him between his huge teeth, taking him right off his startled horse.  The taste of blood in his mouth was pleasing to him, but he had no desire to eat human flesh, so he opened his mouth and flung the mangled body out to the side.  It sailed for almost fifty spans before finally hitting the ground.

      The humans and orcs aliked were terrorized into near paralysis, though the horses were not so overwhelmed. They started whinnying in terror when Tarrin’s dragon head retreated, trying to rear or pull away, but a single word from Tarrin, spoken in a certain manner that the horses would understand, the Druidic trick of addressing animals, calmed them.

      “Anyone else going to kill an orc?” Tarrin asked in a sibilant tone, as he worked to make human speech from a maw not designed for it, his voice so deep it quivered the grass before him.  “No?  Good.  Then all of you can drop your weapons right now and ride back the way you came, and never come back.”  He waited a moment, but nobody moved.  “Now,” he snapped.

      The clatter of dropped swords and spears was tinny, high-pitched in his now much larger ears.

      “Go,” he ordered, rising up on his hind legs and pointing to the north.  They seemed to understand that he was letting them go, so they spurred their horses quickly and bolted the way they came, wildly flailing their horses with the reins and kicking their flanks to make them go faster.  Tarrin looked to the orcs, who stared up at him in terror, but he found that he had little love for them.  He only wanted to stop the humans from killing the children, that was all.  “Go,” he ordered.  “And bother the humans no more, unless they bother you first.  That is my price for saving you.”

      Tarrin came back down on all fours and sat sedately, folding his wings behind him, as he watched the stunned orcs turn and run towards the south, continually looking over their shoulders.  He felt a bit foolish, but his sense of outrage had been satisfied in killing the one who had killed the child, and he had managed to defuse the situation and prevent an atrocity without laying waste to the entire region and staining his standing with the children.  That, in his opinion, was a good thing.

      Sarraya flitted up over his snout, so tiny that she was almost invisible to him, and he heard her voice in his ears, so high-pitched it was almost funny, but he found that he could easily hear her.  The main problem was that her voice sounded like a whisper, lacking any real power.  Dragons, he discovered, had ears that were capable of hearing a truly stunning range of sounds as well as being exceptionally sensitive to the faintest sound, from the squeak of a mouse to those sounds so low, so deep, that only a dragon could make them, and only a dragon could hear.

      “Ohmygosh, Tarrin, is that you?” Sarraya gasped, flitting up to his eyes, which was about fifty times bigger than she was.  That close, he could make out her amazed expression.

      Tarrin ignored her for a moment, looking down at Dolanna, who was riding up to him with a similarly amazed look on her face.  “Dolanna,” he called.  “I think you were right.  That’ll teach me for not listening to you.”

      “Is that an Illusion, dear one?” she called up to him.  “A trick of light of the fire you create?”

      “No.  This is real,” he told her, holding out a monstrous forepaw.  “I am a dragon.  I shapeshifted into this form.”

      “But that is not possible!” she gasped.

      “It isn’t, except I have these,” he said, jerking the thumb on his forepaw behind him, motioning at the huge wings on his back.  They were not his wings of fire, but Dolanna would probably understand what he meant.  “They touched my shapeshifting ability and used it to do this to me.  It’s a perfect result, though,” he admitted.  “I even have the breath weapons.”

      They all stared up at him in shock, and he started to understand all those things Sapphire used to talk about.  “I know, I’m all big and impressive.  Stop gawking at me,” he told them irritably.

      That made Sarraya laugh, and that seemed to break the mesmerizing effect on the others.

      “And people thought you were already big,” Miranda called up to him, shouting a little bit.

      “You don’t have to shout, Miranda.  I could hear you if you whispered.”

      “I wonder if you could do that to one of us,” Haley said in contemplation.  “Instead of just yourself.”

      “That’s an intriguing idea,” Miranda told him.

      “This is a huge change in your power, dear one,” Dolanna said seriously.

      “Actually, it’s small,” he answered, looking down at her.  “It didn’t take much at all for my power to do this, just nudge a power I already have a little bit.  The result is just big.  You forget, Dolanna, I am a shapeshifter.  It’s part of my very being.  My power used my own shapeshifting power to do this, not its own power.  All my power did was let me pour myself into a different mold.”

      Dolanna looked thoughtful for a long moment, and then she finally nodded in understanding.  “Will you have trouble changing back?”

      “Of course not,” he replied.  He willed the change, and just like that, the process began.  Tarrin’s body suddenly became fire, as the core of living fire that was Tarrin detached itself from the rest, returned to its normal size, and then reformed into his normal shape. The fiery shell then it evaporated like smoke, and Tarrin’s winged form became visible in the heart of it, until he was the only thing left.  He slowly drifted down to the ground, his feet lightly touching the earth, and he started walking towards the others, who were now nearly a hundred spans ahead of him.

      They all gawked at him, but none more so than the children, who all looked absolutely overwhelmed by Tarrin’s display.

      “Dear one, we absolutely must talk,” Dolanna said breathlessly as Tarrin shapeshifted back into his human form.

      “I know.  But we’d better get going before they realize the dragon’s gone, and come back.”

      “Yes, we still have to catch up to Kimmie.”

      “The trail is over there,” Azakar announced, pointing back down the hill.

      Tarrin remounted his large black stallion and retracted his wings, then turned his horse.  “Let’s get moving.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 5

 

      Peace.

      Sometimes it was hard to find among the others, but now, after what had happened the day before, it was even more elusive.  Tarrin hadn’t felt so self-conscious in a very long time, because they all wouldn’t stop staring at him.  He couldn’t understand why, after all of the things they had seen him do over the years, that that one thing would suddenly make them gawk at him like frightened lambs.

      In a way, he felt like staring at himself.  He never dreamed he would be capable of something like that, and the strange thing was, it was a relatively simple trick.  The size of the shape was no barrier to the ability, the only restriction was that he couldn’t change into any animal or living thing that he had not previously touched.  That was the only condition required to assume a form using that trick.  It had been so, so easy, like it was something he should have realized he could do all along, but had never noticed until that moment.  And the feeling of it, being that large, looking down on everyone like they were insects…no wonder dragons were so arrogant.  It was hard to take someone seriously that would fit in the palm of your hand.

      He’d brooded over it all afternoon, and after they made camp as well, taking watch once again to be alone.  But still he brooded, staring into a fire that never needed to be fed, sustained by his own power without him even concentrating on it, because though the trick itself was an interesting one, the meaning of it very much had him worried.  His powers were changing, they were growing, and that frightened him deep down inside himself.

      Always before, the ability to separate himself from his power had provided a buffer, a way for him to feel normal.  When his wings were hidden, he had no powers, nothing that distinguished him from everyone else, and that made him feel almost like he belonged.  But now, now the power was changing inside of him, manifesting even without the wings, driving home the stark reality that he was not normal, and he did not belong in this world.   He was an abomination, they called him, a creature that was neither mortal nor divine, with aspects of both yet truly belonging to neither group.  It was his curse to walk the land and be among those who could never understand him, who would either be afraid of him or jealous of him, and be rejected by those who could, rejected and reviled because he was just enough like them to remind them that they were not as powerful and invincible as they believed.  Too divine to be a mortal, not divine enough to be a god, he was trapped between the two, and that left him without any sense of inclusion.  He was a singular, unique being, alone, and destined to remain so for the rest of his life.  And that made him feel alone.

      Strange that a Were-cat would have such a need to belong, but he did.  Tarrin was born human, and he had always been surrounded by friends, by family, a core of people who had literally defined his existence.  They still stood beside him, he knew they did, but now, now they were starting to stare at him, now they were forgetting about Tarrin and seeing the power.  That hurt, more than a little bit, but he also knew that it was a temporary issue.  Once they got used to it, they’d start treating him like they always did.  Azakar would be distant around him, Sarraya would annoy and insult him, Haley and Miranda would joke with him, Ulger would irritate him just a little bit with his comments, Dolanna would quietly guide him, and Mist would be there to support him.  He could only hope that they would get over it soon, because he didn’t think they understood how much their change in behavior towards him had upset him.

      So much so that, after Ulger woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep, he had left the camp to clear his head and sort things through.  For Tarrin, that meant indulging in the one aspect of his divine power that he was never sorry he had, his ability to fly.  Up high, above a deck of low clouds, Tarrin could find peace in the blowing of the wind, sanctuary in the cold bite of the thinner air, and a moment’s peace communing with the stars.  Hovering in midair, he stared up into the sky, trying to understand why he was changing, why his friends were starting to worry more about the change than they were about him, and worry about Kimmie and the danger this world put them all in.

      Could this world be affecting his powers?  It was certainly possible.  This was a different world, after all, with its own set of rules concerning just about everything.  Sorcery didn’t work here, Druidic magic didn’t work here, so maybe the rules for using divine powers were also a little different.  Maybe it was like grounding; he had to spend time in an area to ground to it so he could Teleport back there, so perhaps he had had to spend time on this world for his power to attune to it, and maybe here, his powers were actually a little stronger than they were at home.  There, the gods hated him, and actively strove to suppress him.  Here, the only god he had truly sensed as being active was the One, and though the One certainly couldn’t like him all that much, the One did not control this entire world.  The One was a god of man, not one of the gods who controlled the Balance, gods who directed the world’s primal forces.  He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but he was certain of it.  Those gods, well, he didn’t know where they were, or if they even cared enough to bother to show themselves.  The Elder Gods back home barely took notice of the mortals, for their attention was focused on keeping the world in harmony and maintaining the Balance.  There was a good chance that the Elder Gods of this world simply didn’t care about the struggles of the mortals.  They were just a tiny fraction of the totality of the Balance, unnoticed until something they did, or something did to them, upset the Balance.

      Gods.  Maybe they were exerting themselves a little, for he was starting to feel just a little manipulated.  He wasn’t sure why, or how, but he had this strange, almost instinctual feeling that someone out there was goading him.  Every time he lost his temper, he exhibited a new aspect of his power, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone out there was goading that, setting up scenarios that were inciting him into reacting.  Were they testing him to see how strong he was?  The One certainly came to mind.  He knew Tarrin was moving around, and by now, he had to understand that Tarrin was not just an extremely powerful mortal.  Tarrin posed a viable threat to any god just because of who he was, because he possessed the power to destroy a god’s icon.  And since he’d already made it clear that he detested the One, it was possible that the One was directing his minions to set up atrocities in his path to test the extent of his power.  It also showed that the One was willing to throw away a few hundred men, but not so willing to throw away too many, else he’d send an army after Tarrin.  If that were indeed the case, it was a tactical risk, exposing a smaller unit to attack to reveal the strengths of the enemy, and plan accordingly with the main bulk of one’s forces.  Put into those terms, the reasoning made sense, up to a point, because it made little sense to throw away men to test something he could discover by sending a single powerful Demon, so there was a nagging flaw in his reasoning.  Though he had the feeling he was being pushed somehow, he wasn’t sure who was doing it, or why.

      This was supposed to be easy, damn it all.  Just come here, track down Kimmie, search old books for lore, talk to people, find the Dwarves and information on the lost Ancients, and then go home with whoever they found that was willing to go with them.  This wasn’t supposed to turn into a game of hide and seek with a power-hungry god whose stranglehold on the land was a direct affront to Tarrin’s sensibilities.  It most certainly was never meant to become anything other than a mission to recover either people or information.  But things were by no means easy now.

      He was afraid.  He knew himself enough to be able to admit that.  He was afraid of the power in him, power that was starting to grow.  He was starting to use it for more than the occasional joy flight now, actively use his power, something he had never done before.  By never touching it, he had distanced himself from it, tried to ignore it, tried to pretend that it wasn’t there just to delude himself into feeling that it didn’t matter.  But it did matter, and no amount of wishing could ever change that.

      Bringing his sword out from the elsewhere, Tarrin gazed upon the black blade and pondered it for a long moment, feeling the curious warmth of the blade against the pad on his palm.  What he wouldn’t give to throw it away, it and everything it represented, just abandon this power within him and return to being mortal…being normal.  But that was impossible now.  The power came from the very core of him, inseparable by any definition.  There would be no miraculous happenstance this time, like what happened when his Were nature was stripped from him by the curse the Elder gods placed on the Firestaff.   The power came from his soul, it was his soul that had been forever and irrevocably altered.  His was the soul of a god, a divine incarnation that had been forever changed in the moment of his ascension.

      If he kept using his power, it was going to grow, and that chasm between him and the others was going to get wider and wider.  It had already begun, with the shapeshifting.  He would feel less and less like he belonged with them, and they would see him more and more as someone other than who he was.  They would see the power instead of the man behind it.  But that might be unavoidable, if he kept relying on his power to get them through this hostile world, and he kept enjoying the use of that power.  He had enjoyed using his power to take on a new, different form.  He couldn’t deny that, any more than he could deny his love of his ability to fly.

      It was times like this when he felt the separation from his mother, from Triana, from his sisters, and especially from his Goddess most keenly.  Always before, whenever he felt lost or confused, one of his sisters, or his mother, or Triana could help him work through his problems.  When it was a big problem, like this one, Niami was always there for him, ready to guide him, to reassure him, to support him as he struggled through and found a solution.  But they were beyond his touch now.

      Or were they?

      All he needed was something linked to Sennadar, something ingrained into the fabric of that universe, and he could use it as a bridge to reach into his own world using a Wizard spell that allowed communication between two dimensions.  Wizards most often used it to talk to Demons and other otherworldly spirits to gather information, but there was nothing stopping him from using it to talk to someone in Sennadar.  He just needed a material link to his world.  And he had the Firestaff.  If anything—

      —Wait.  It wasn’t there.  Tarrin searched through the other place that was the elsewhere with a sort of sense of it provided by his amulet, a knowledge of what was held within it and where it was, and he found it was missing.  Where did it go?  He didn’t take it out, not even once, since coming to this world—

      Oh.  That was right.  Niami said it wouldn’t allow itself to leave Sennadar, or they would have just tossed it through a gate to be rid of it.  Obviously, the Firestaff had managed to extricate itself from the elsewhere and remained behind.

      Odds were, it was lying in the snow in front of the gate.  He hoped the Goddess or someone had the foresight to pick it up.

      If he couldn’t use the Firestaff, he needed something else.  It had to be something that was inexorably tied up with the power of Sennadar, something that was bonded to his world in such a way that its fundamental identity could not be altered.  Wizards often used weapons forged by Demons, weapons made of the stuff of the Abyss, which was so unique that it maintained a tie to its home dimension.

      His sword might work.  It was an artifact created on Sennadar, and the circumstances of that creation gave it a unique tie to his home world.

      Then again, Sarraya’s amulet was perfect.  It met every condition.  But, given that it was the only reason that she and Fireflash could survive here, he didn’t want to tamper with that amulet in any way.  He would try it with his sword first, and if that failed, and Sarraya and Fireflash agreed, he could try it using the amulet…but only if they had a dire need to talk to someone in Sennadar.  He wouldn’t risk their lives just because he wanted to talk to someone from home to help him work through his feelings.  That would be unspeakably callous of him.

      If only he could just Whisper, or bridge.  But there was no Weave here, and Sorcery was denied to him.  Things would be much easier if he could just use his Sorcery, because the Goddess would be within reach of him at all times, but that was quite impossible.

      A faint flicker of light danced across the flat of the blade of his sword.  At first, he thought it a reflection of the rising moon, that odd blue and green moon, but it was the wrong color.  Tarrin ignored it, then he sighed and again looked up at the moon.  He would save that for later, just in case he felt so lost or uncertain that talking to Niami was absolutely necessary.

      Silly of him that he felt the need to run to Niami the instant he started feeling uneasy.  He was an adult, for the tree’s sake.  He’d have to work out his problems himself.

      The first step, he supposed, was not hiding from his power anymore.  He had it, there was nothing he could do about it, and that was that.  It was about damn time he accept that fact.  He didn’t have the time to be childish, he was putting Kimmie’s life at risk by trying to hide from what he was.  If finding and saving Kimmie meant that he could no longer pretend to be a mortal, then so be it.  Her life was more important than any immature impulses he was suffering through.

      No matter what it might cost him, the only thing that mattered was what it would cost her.

      Lowering his sword, he looked into the sky, up at the stars, then looked down to the clouds below him.

      It was time to grow up.

      “I’ll make you proud, Mother,” he said quietly, to himself, then he straightened up a bit.  “I’ll make you proud, Niami.”

      I am always proud of you, kitten, her voice touched him, but as if it had come from a great distance.

      “Mother?” he called in surprise.

      That title no longer suits me, Tarrin, her reply came.  You are no longer my child, and I should no longer address you as one.  If anyone has earned the right to call me by my name, it is you.

      “How are you doing this, Mo—Niami?” he asked.

      I am doing nothing, Tarrin.  You are.

      “I am?”

      You wanted to talk to me, and so you are.  I would guess that now, you’re strong enough to do it.  I take it your powers are awakening?

      “You knew this would happen?”

      Tarrin, since when do I not know what’s happening to you? she asked winsomely.  I knew that your powers would grow if you started using them.  Always before, you’ve avoided doing that, but I would guess that since you have fewer options there, you’ve been forced to fall back on them.

      “More or less.”

      How goes it?

      Quickly, Tarrin summarized their progress thus far in finding Kimmie.  He told her about the One, and the troubles he was causing this world, and then explained the One’s hatred of magic and non-humans and related what Merik had told them in Dengal.

      Hmm.  That might cause it, if  it’s true, she told him.  The spirits of my children haven’t returned to me.  I thought they were alive because of that, but if the One has trapped their souls in that world, then that would certainly explain it as well.  You need to free them, Tarrin.

      “How do I do that?”

      Easy.  Open a gate to Sennadar.  If the One is blocking the souls of my children from entering the Astral, then you need to give them another way to reach me.

      “How do I do that?”

      There are Wizard spells that create gateways between worlds, Tarrin.  They’re extremely powerful spells, and only the greatest of Wizards are capable of casting them, so naturally, Phandebrass can do it.  Phandebrass has several versions of the spells in his spellbooks, but he can’t use them in Sennadar.  He’s collected them over the years, you know how he is.  You need to find him and tell him that he must cast one that has a sustained duration.  The instant a gate is opened to Sennadar, I can call my children home.  The One can’t stop it.

      “But the Elder Gods won’t allow a gate into Sennadar,” he protested.

      I’ll handle that from this end.  Just find Phandebrass and tell him what we need.  When he’s ready, let me know, and I’ll make arrangements with my mother.

      “We’re on his trail right now, Mother,” he told her.  “He’s with Kimmie.”

      Then finding Kimmie is what’s important.  When you recover her and Phandebrass, we can recall the souls of my children, and I can bring them home.  And you can come home.

      “That sounds strangely vehement, Mother.”

      Niami, Tarrin.  I’d much prefer it if you call me by my name.

      “It won’t be easy thinking of you by any other name.”

      You’re not a child anymore, Tarrin, she said with a light manner.  I’ll have to find a new name for you as well.  It just won’t do to call you kitten now.

      “Niami, kitten sounds just fine.”

      She laughed.  Much as I love to call you that, it’s not suitable for you now.  A name is an important thing, Tarrin.  It is more than a way to call someone, it is a representation of who one is, and who one is to another.  It’s no longer proper for you to call me Mother, so that must stop.  And since I can’t think of you as a child anymore, I have to address you properly.

      “You lost me.”

      She laughed again.  It’s a god thing, Tarrin.  Well, actually, it’s a concept of all non-mortal beings, not just gods.  A name has great power, just ask any Demon.  The names they use aren’t their real names.

      “I remember Kimmie teaching me about that.  Now, why are you so vehement about me coming home?”

      Let’s just say that the idea of you coming home isn’t sitting well with some of the others, she answered.  They like you where you are.  Out of their hair.  But don’t worry about it, Tarrin.  They are not going to do this to you.  I won’t allow it.

      “They don’t want me to come back?” he asked in disbelief.

      Let me worry about that, Tarrin.  They’re not going to treat you like this, not so long as I have an iota of life left in me.  They often dismiss me because my power isn’t vital to the Balance, that I’m the only expendable Elder God.  But they’re going to find out how powerful I really am, and just what happens when they cross me.

      Tarrin blurted out a short laugh.  He’d never heard her so, so, indignant before.  “What are you going to do?”

      If they think the power of my magic isn’t all that important, well fine.  They’ll have to learn how to live without it.

      “What do you mean?”

      Tarrin, the power they give to their Priests comes through me, she said with a little anger in her voice.  If they want to act like frightened children and dismiss me when I assure them that you’re no danger, that’s fine.  This child is about to storm away from the playroom in a tizzy, and she’s taking her toys with her.

      What she was saying dawned on him.  “Mother!  You’re going to deny the Priests their magic!”

      You better believe it, honey, she said smugly.  If they want to act on something this important to me without even listening, then I see no reason to continue being nice.  They want to play this hard, so hard is what they’re going to get.

      “You’re going to get in a load of trouble!” he warned.  “I’m not worth that much!”

      I say you are.  Prove me wrong.

      She’d used that reasoning against him before.  He’d had no answer for it then, and he still had no answer for it.

      “But, but what about the Balance?”

      Tarrin, dear, if you recall, I told you that magic is the only aspect of our world that isn’t vital, she reminded him.  Because of that, I can completely withdraw my power from the world and it will go on as it always did before.  That gives me much, much more freedom than any other Elder god.  Because the others have annoyed me, I’m going to withdraw the Weave from the other gods, and nobody, not even my mother and father, can force me to stop.  And not just the Elder gods, Tarrin, all of them.  The Youngers are going to scream bloody murder, and I’m just going to point to my parents and tell them that they’ll have to take it up with Ayise and Shellar.  Mother and father are going to have an absolute furor on their hands, but I’m not going to budge.  Not a finger.  Either they let you come home, or no Priest will so much as light a candle with magic ever again.

      The image of that in his mind, of Ayise and Shellar in that other-dimensional place where they truly lived, trying to calm down a pack of furious Younger gods, was just too funny to keep silent.  She was going to blackmail her parents into getting her way, and there was nothing that they could do to stop her.  If she didn’t allow the Younger gods to grant magic to their Priests, the worshippers that gave them their power may lose faith in them and stop believing, and that would make them weaker.  Niami was playing a major trump card, because she was manipulating the Younger gods into rallying together and demanding that the Elder gods relent on this issue.  If nobody could truly force Niami to stop, then she held every Younger god in the palm of her hand…and she was about to close her fist around them and squeeze.  “Niami, you’re something else, do you know that?”

      I know I am, she replied impishly.  Just leave it to me, Tarrin.  I’ll get my way, one way or another.  My parents and my brothers and sisters often overlook me, but they will not ignore me for long.

      Tarrin couldn’t help but laugh.  “Mother, you’re going to throw the entire world on its ear.  I do appreciate the thought, though.”

      I told you not to call me that anymore, she said sharply.  Brand it into your memory, Tarrin.  I am not Mother to you anymore.  Find another nickname for me, or call me by my name.

      “It’s not going to be easy.  I’ve always thought of you as Mother.”

      Well, you’ll have some time to adjust before you get home.  I’ll just have to think of something else to call you that sums up my feelings for you.

      “Mother—Niami, it would please me if you just called me kitten,” he said honestly.  “Not as a term addressing me as a child, but as a term of endearment.  It pleases me when you call me that.”

      Well, if that’s what you want, then kitten is who you will be, she told him with a warm voice.  But no more a child.

      “I’m starting to feel less the child,” he said seriously.  “If I’m going to bring Kimmie, Phandebrass, and the souls of my brothers and sisters home, I’m going to have to suck it up and do for myself.  There’s no Mother here to hold my paw this time.  I didn’t anticipate running into a problem like the One, but I’ll find a way to do what I promised I’d do.  I won’t fail you, Niami.”

      Tarrin, when a girl puts her trust in you, she cannot go wrong, she told him seriously.

      Tarrin looked down, flattered by her complement, and then he noticed for the first time the ghostly white aura surrounding the blade of his sword.  It almost looked like, like…magelight.  He brought the sword up to his eye level and studied the nimbus, which hovered around the blade in smoky wisps.  He felt nothing from the sword, but that wasn’t unusual, for he rarely felt any kind of power coming from it.

      “Well, Niami, I think I see how I’m doing this now,” he said with a hint of curiosity in his voice.  “Or, more to the point, my sword.  It’s doing this.”

      Truly? Well, we knew the sword had power.  And I’m certainly not going to complain.

      “Me either.”

      You should look into that, kitten.  The sword obviously has some other abilities outside of its ability to grant you your true power.  Those abilities might be useful to you.

      “It’s never done this before,” Tarrin mused in curiosity.

      It’s never needed for you to have it do it before, Niami told him.  It’s reacting to your need, kitten.  Artifacts do that when they’re in the hands of the person they were created to serve  It’s tied to you, Tarrin, and that means that its power is also growing. You and that sword are linked.  Changes to you are going to affect it as well.

      “I didn’t think it would work that way.”

      Well, kitten, an artifact’s power depends on the god who created it, and it’s not static.  If a god’s power grows or weakens, the power of the artifact changes to reflect that.

      “I’m not a god anymore.”

      No, but that power remains, and that power is what created the sword.  That power is changing, and so the sword’s power is also going to change.

      “Oh.”

      Niami chuckled.  You still have much to learn about the power of gods, kitten.

      “That’s no lie.”  He looked down, and saw a glint of shimmering light among the clouds below.  Even from that distance, he knew that that glint was off Sarraya’s multicolored wings.  “Sarraya’s looking for me.  I think it’s time to go.”

      Alright, my kitten.  Now that you know how to do this, don’t be a stranger.  I miss talking with you, and I worry about you terribly because I can’t sense you.

      “I’ll be fine, Niami.  Please tell everyone I’m alright, and that I’m working on getting home as fast as I can.”

      I will.

      “I’ll try to contact you again in a few days.”

      I’ll be waiting.  Fare well, Tarrin, good luck, and I love you.

      “I love you too, Niami,” he said, and then, unsure of how to make the sword stop, he simply sent it back into the elsewhere.  He looked down at the approaching Faerie, and he had to admit that he felt much better now.  He knew he had to be more mature, more responsible, but it also felt good to get a little guidance.  And besides, it made him feel better to talk to Niami, it always did, and it probably always would.  He felt a new feeling of purpose, and he also knew that his change in plans was alright with her, that he had made the right choice, was doing the right thing.  That mattered to him, mattered very much.  He looked up at the moon once more, and felt, for the first time in a while, that things were progressing in a satisfactory manner.  He knew that working around the One wasn’t going to be easy, and he also knew that there was a direct confrontation coming when he tried to free the souls of the Ancients from the One’s prison, but he felt much more confident about it now.  He was here for a reason, and that reason was what he had to keep in the forefront.  His personal outrages over the One kept clouding the issue, and he had to stop letting that happen.  He was here to recover the Ancients, and hopefully the Dwarves, and bring them home.  He was also here to get Kimmie and Phandebrass back, and take them home as well.  He also had to find a good home for the children…or, if they wished it, take them home with him as well.  He wouldn’t mind taking them in, not one bit.  Truth be told, he rather liked having them around.

      Sarraya was panting when she reached him, flopping on her stomach on his shoulder.  “Geez, Tarrin, do you think you could have gone a little higher?” she asked acidly.  “You know I can’t fly well in thin air!”

      “I didn’t know you were coming.”

      “How else are we going to get your attention when the clouds block your view of the ground?” she wheezed.

      “What do you need?”

      “There’s more church soldiers on the move,” she said breathlessly.  “They might be the same ones, we don’t know, but they’re moving in from the west.  Dolanna wants you back, we’re about to move out.”

      “We’re going west,” he fretted.  “We’ll have to go through them.”

      “We’re going to circle around them.  Haley scouted them, there’s about two hundred or so on horseback, and we can get around them.  We might have to kill a few scouts, but we can get around them without too much trouble.”  She crawled up and then sat down properly on his shoulder. “Miranda’s put a marker on Kimmie’s trail, so we won’t lose it.  I wish I knew how she did that,” she grunted.

      “Priest magic,” he answered.

      She slapped him on the neck.  “I know that, you dingleberry!” she said indignantly.  “Don’t get cute with me, Tarrin!  I’m in a bad mood from having to fly halfway to the moons to come get you!”

      “Excuse me,” he said mildly, but the banter was obvious in his voice to those who knew him.

      “I hate you,” she growled.  “Come on, let’s get back.  You’re holding the rest of us up.”

      It was a simple matter to fly down, and when he got under the clouds, he saw that the camp was packed, and everyone was mounted.  Mist and Haley were gone, out scouting the soldiers, most likely, and they were waiting.  Tarrin descended and landed lightly in his saddle, then retracted his wings.  Fireflash was on Zyri’s shoulder, and he kept making the girl giggle by flicking his tongue against her ear.  He was playing with her, Tarrin could tell, doing it on purpose.  Jal looked half asleep, and Telven looked both nervous and excited at the sudden packing of the camp before dawn, and the impending maneuver to go around the soldiers.

      “I am sorry to come fetch you, dear one, but we did not want you to come down and find us gone.”

      “It’s nothing, Dolanna,” he said with a wave of his paw.  “Thanks for giving me the time.  I feel better now.”

      “That is what matters, then,” she said, walking her horse over to his and reaching out to pat his furred forearm.

      “Haley and Mist are out scouting?”

      Dolanna nodded.  “Azakar, has Haley waved us forward?” she asked the Knight.  “I know he saw Tarrin descend.”
      “Hold on, I can’t see him now,” Azakar answered, taking off his helmet.  Tarrin saw a faint light wave back and forth in the darkness to the west.  “There he is.  He’s waving us up.”

      “Then let us go,” Dolanna ordered.

      “What’s that light?” Tarrin asked.

      “One of my spells,” Miranda answered.  “It imbues light on an object.  I cast it on a few pebbles and gave it to them so they can signal us.”

      “Clever.”

      “I’ve been around the block a few times, Tarrin,” Miranda said with a cheeky grin.

      “Put on your Illusion, Miranda.  That white fur all but glows in the darkness,” Dolanna instructed.

      “Oh.  Forgot about that,” she said, and then her image blurred for a second before changing into the visage of Mist’s human form.

      “Want me to move up with Haley and Mist?” Tarrin asked Dolanna.

      “No.  I like to keep one Were-cat with the host at all times, dear one.  That is significant defense if anyone should attack the children or the horse train.”

      “Or you,” Ulger told her.

      “I have you and Azakar to defend me, Ulger,” she told him with a light tone.  “A girl cannot get much more protection than that.”

      Miranda and Ulger looked at each other.  “A Were-cat,” they said in unison, then they both laughed.

      “Give me a few minutes to rest, and I’ll get out there and help Haley and Mist,” Sarraya told them.

      “No, Sarraya, you rest,” Dolanna told her.  “Mist and Haley can manage.”

      Following directions from Haley, Azakar led them in a wide circle around the host of church soldiers.  They got within a longspan of them at one point, but the men hadn’t noticed the group of travelers.  They would realize that something was wrong, though, because they passed the corpses of two men in church uniforms along the way.  Both of them had been mauled, Mist’s work, as he realized she was making their deaths look like some kind of animal attack.  Mist’s claws could easily pass for bear marks now that her paws were bigger.

      Mist was an effective path clearer, for they encountered no major problems as they circled the eastbound soldiers.  They stumbled back on Kimmie’s trail, which had angled slightly to the south, and then they returned to following it after Haley and Mist rejoined them.

      “That went well,” Haley said in satisfaction.  “I forgot how fun it can be to stalk.”

      “You should get out more.  You’re as quiet as a flock of ravens fighting over a carcass,” Mist admonished him.

      “I was quiet enough,” he said with a wink at her, which made her snort and give him a flat look.

      “How many were you forced to kill, Mist?” Dolanna asked.

      “Nine,” she answered.

      “Woah!  You killed nine men and nobody noticed?” Telven asked in surprise.

      “I know what I’m doing, boy,” she said, giving him a look that made him a little intimidated.  “I’d be a sorry hunter if I couldn’t pick off a straggler on the edge of the herd.”

      “You make them sound like food,” Telven said, making a face.

      “They’re not, but the basic premise is the same,” she told him.  “Sometimes you’d be surprised how often humans act like herd animals.  I think you’re distantly related to sheep.”

      “As long as we’re smarter than sheep, I won’t say a word,” Ulger chuckled.

      They continued on at a brisk canter after sunrise and well into the morning, stopping only briefly for breakfast.  They stopped again briefly for a quick lunch of bread and cheese, and then stopped once more in the midafternoon as Kimmie’s trail abruptly turned south.  “What is that girl doing?” Mist growled as they turned to follow.  “She’s just zigzagging around out here.  That’s stupid.”

      “Not if she’s being followed,” Haley said seriously.

      “This is open territory.  She can zigzag when she hits forest.  You don’t waste time when you’re exposed, you run straight for cover,” she answered shortly.

      “Mist does raise a point,” Dolanna.  “What is Kimmie doing?  I do not understand her reasoning for turning.  They have followed this westerly course for days.  Why the abrupt change?”

      “I’m sure we’ll find out when we catch up to her.  We can ask,” Ulger reasoned.

      “Hold on, the path turns west again,” Azakar said, holding his hands up to his eyes to shield them from the sun angling on from his left.  “She only went south about half a longspan.”

      “Alright, now that doesn’t make much sense,” Ulger agreed.  “Rabbit,” he called, pointing.

      As they’d been doing all day, all three children quickly took out their slings and loaded them, then tried to hit the rabbit.  Telven got his stone off first, but was nearly three spans off the mark.  The rock scared the rabbit, which turned and bolted, and that caused Zyri’s stone to also miss.  Jal came closest, trying to lead the rabbit, but it turned and raced the other way, which caused his stone to miss.  Had the rabbit not turned, Tarrin saw, he probably would have got it.

      “Aww!” Telven growled in disappointment.

      Without much concentration, Tarrin smoothly pulled his bow from the saddleskirt, nocked it with an arrow out of the quiver hanging from the saddlebow, shook Fireflash off his shoulder so he could aim, and then sent the arrow flying at the rabbit.  It looked to be off course, but the rabbit suddenly turned back into the arrow’s path, which caused it to skewer the animal squarely through the body, killing it instantly.

      “Rabbits always zigzag when they run,” Tarrin instructed them as he dismounted.  “You have to remember that.”

      “That wasn’t bad though,” Ulger said.  “You got a little too excited there, Telven.    Don’t loose if you’re not calm enough to make a good shot, or you’ll scare the food away. You were pretty close too, Zyri, at least if it hadn’t have run.  And Jal, I think you’d have got it if it hadn’t have turned.  That was a good lead.”

      Jal smiled bashfully.

      “You three had better buck up, though.  Tomorrow, you’re getting our dinner.  So if you don’t bag anything, none of us are going to eat.  And you don’t want to know how surly I get when I’m hungry,” Ulger warned with a rakish smile.

      “I’ll try, Master Ulger,” Zyri told him.

      Tarrin fetched his rabbit and carried it back to the horses.  “Dinner?”

      “I’m sick of rabbit,” Miranda said, making a face.  “I want something out of the stores tonight.  We can save it for tomorrow.”

      “There’s not much dried meat left, and all the fresh meat is gone,” Mist warned.  “Beans and porridge is about all I can muster, or maybe a vegetable stew.  I’m saving that meat.”

      “Why?”

      “Because eating meat makes riding in the rain easier to take,” she answered.

      “Mist, that doesn’t make any sense.”

      “It may not to you.”

      “We do need to find a settlement soon, to replenish our stores,” Dolanna said.

      “Or hunt up something other than rabbit,” Azakar said.  “There’s been a few herds of what look like elk.”

      “We should hit humans again soon,” Sarraya piped in.  “Their road went off to the northwest from Dengal.  We went north, now we’re going west, and there were those soldiers.  We can’t be too far from a village or something.  Maybe close enough to see.  I’ll go up and have a look around,” she offered.

      “That is a good idea, before we lose the day’s light,” Dolanna agreed.  “We might have to leave the trail long enough to find a place to buy food.  Go ahead, Sarraya.”

      “I’ll be right back,” the Faerie announced, flitting up from Telven’s shoulder, then quickly rising straight up over the group.

      “If we’re taking a minute, I think I’ll get down and stretch my legs a bit,” Haley called, then he dismounted.

      “There’s a village over there, southwest!” Sarraya shouted down after descending low enough to be heard.  “It’s a little one!  And I think I see the walls of a town off to the west!”

      “How far?” Dolanna called to her.

      “We can get to it by midmorning tomorrow,” she shouted back down.  “The village is about an hour’s ride away!”

      “I think we can go on to the town,” Dolanna decided.  “The village might not have what we need, and we need to limit our contact with the citizens of this land as much as possible.”

      “Why?” Telven asked.

      “Because it prevents…accidents,” she replied, glancing at Tarrin.

      “Those aren’t accidents,” Ulger chuckled.  “I’d say that they were pretty darn deliberate.”

      Tarrin gave Ulger a cool look, which made the Knight laugh.  “Hurry up Sarraya, before I get peeled out of my armor!”

      “It would serve ya right!” she shouted back down.  “I don’t see anything else, I’m coming back!”

      “Shall we move on a little more or camp now?” Miranda asked, as Sarraya flitted down and landed on Tarrin’s other shoulder.

      “Let us make the most of the daylight,” Dolanna announced.  “Haley.”

      “I’m ready,” he said, swinging back up into the saddle.  “I wouldn’t dream of holding us back, Dolanna.”

 

      They approached the town about midmorning, and saw that it was set on a river than flowed from north to south in a shallow valley on the grasslands.  The land inside that valley was cultivated, and there were a large number of small villages, collections of hovels, and some lone farmsteads up and down that shallow valley for nearly two leagues in both directions.  The town itself was quite large, about the size of Ultern, taking up both sides of the riverbank, and most of the shallow valley floor where it was situated.  It was surrounded by a stone wall that was about thirty spans high and looked to be about fifteen spans thick, but it wasn’t easy to tell from the distance at which he was viewing it.  There was a guard tower at a road some longspan or so south of where they were, at a road leading southwest, and another two guard towers on the opposite side of the valley, guarding roads that went west and northwest.  There were small outpost-like guard houses at regular intervals along the valley’s rim, each of which was manned by ten men in the uniforms of church soldiers.  Each guard house was only a few minutes away from the one to each side by horse, and there were horses tethered to posts behind each shack.

      This was a town, Tarrin saw, that felt threatened by something.  Then again, fear was how the One kept control, so it wasn’t a shock that they were afraid.

      They rode south to get on the road, earning several very long looks from the guards at the houses and the tower that they passed, then rode down into the valley and towards the city.  Peasants dressed in rough homespun smocks, many without shoes, toiled in the fields, and Tarrin noticed that they were under the watchful eye of nearby church soldiers, and even the occasional black-clad Priest or church official overseeing the farming effort.  The children looked a little antsy, but Tarrin just gave them a long look to calm them down as they rode along the raised road through the fields, a road that was pitted and rutted, though dry and packed hard.  It had not rained since that spat through which they had ridden several days ago, the road reflected that.

      They waited behind a caravan of four wagons and about twenty men who had the looks of mercenaries about them, who were on horses immediately behind the horses at the city gates.  The guards inspected each of the wagons as the drivers waited, and then they were waved through.  They waited and watched, and Tarrin glanced at Mist, who was actually in her human form, riding one of the new horses.  She and Miranda looked eerie together, but anyone who looked at them would probably just think that they were twins.  Dolanna urged her horse forward, taking the place of the first wagon before the guards standing in the way of the opened city gates.

      “What business do you have in Teram?” the tallest of the ten men asked in a bored voice.

      “We seek to buy supplies in order to continue our journey,” Dolanna answered him.

      The man glanced at her, then snorted.  “Funny, having a woman address me.  Now someone with a brain tell me why you’re here.”

      “You’d better listen to the lady, my friend,” Haley told him lightly.  “Or she’ll have you beheaded on the spot.”

      At that, Azakar immediately drew his sword.

      The man’s bored expression evaporated instantly.  “Here now, what business is this?”

      “This woman is a Lady,” Azakar told him in a very dangerous tone.  “Address her with respect.  If she gives the order, I’ll take your head off.”

      Though the man had never seen the black armor of the two Knights, the immediate threat of that monstrous sword was not lost on the man.  “M-My apologies, my Lady,” the man said, bowing suddenly.

      “Must we go through this at every city gate we visit?” Dolanna asked Tarrin in Sharadi, obviously exasperated.

      “Prejudices die hard,” he shrugged in reply.

      “Stand aside,” Dolanna ordered the man in Penali.  “Once we have our supplies, we will be away from your city and bother you no more.”

      “No horse or wagon enters Teram without being searched,” he said gruffly.

      “I am sure that that edict does not apply to nobles,” Dolanna told him in a stern manner.  “I have yet to be searched at any city I have visited thus far.  I will not submit to such a search now.”

      “If you want through this gate, you will be searched,” the man said stubbornly.

      “Right, just like those caravan guards were searched,” Haley said with a sly look.  “Or does the search rule only apply to people you don’t like?”

      “They weren’t pack horses,” the man replied.

      “But they went through without being searched,” Haley objected.

      “Tarrin, do you have any spellbooks in the pack horses?” Dolanna asked him quietly in Sharadi as Haley engaged the guard in a short argument.  “Anything we do not want them to find?”
      “Not that I can think of, but if they search us, they’ll see our amulets.  You know what those mean here,” Tarrin answered.

      “Here now, do you want us to think you’re witches?” the man snapped.  “Where do you come from that you don’t speak Penali?”

      “We come from a small island nation far to the east,” Dolanna told him.  “Only recently brought into the church.  If our use of our native language offends you, then perhaps you should not listen.”

      The man’s face reddened, and Tarrin saw that this was about to get out of hand.  It wasn’t like Dolanna to be so combative, but then again, he’d seen already that she had issues with people thinking that she was some kind of dumb animal because she was a woman.  He stepped his horse up in front of Dolanna and leaned his elbow down on the saddlebow, getting closer to the guard.  “Alright, listen,” Tarrin said in a very reasonable tone.  “We need supplies.  That’s all we’re here for.  You can have half the city guard follow us around if you want, that’s just fine, but you’re holding us up, and we have to be done and on our way before we lose too much daylight.  So, you can search our pack train, but since you didn’t search the men in front of us, then you’re not searching us.  So, do the search and let us go on.”

      “Not without a search of all horses, you’re not,” he said adamantly.  “No horse passes this gate without being searched.”

      “You’re sure?”

      “Positive.”

      “Fine, then.  Fireflash.”

      The gold drake, who had been sitting on the saddle behind the saddlebow, jumped up and sucked in his breath, then blasted a cloud of greenish gas in the man’s face.  He gasped in surprise, and that intake of air was all it took.  He shuddered, then collapsed to the ground in a boneless heap.

      “Witchcraft!” one of the other men screamed, moving to draw his sword.

      “Please,” Tarrin snorted.  “Haven’t you ever seen a drake before?  They’re native to my homeland.  Witchcraft,” he said scornfully.  “Now then, anyone else want to get ugly?”

      Fireflash put his forepaws on Tarrin’s forearm, over the saddlebow, and hissed at the men threateningly, then snorted out just enough greenish gas from his nostrils to make the men take notice of it.  Tarrin’s dismissal of their claims of witchcraft seemed to have dissuaded them from that idea, most likely because of the manner in which he did.

      “Wha-yoodoo-tamee?” the paralyzed guard slurred, his arm twitching jerkily.

      “Making you more tractable,” Tarrin answered him, then he looked up at the other guards.  “I hate having to talk over idiots.  Now, I don’t have a problem with you searching the pack horses, but since you let the guards ahead of us pass unsearched, you won’t lay a hand on our mounts or us.  Understand?”

      The remaining guards nodded, glancing at the paralyzed man repeatedly.  “What about our sergeant?” one asked.

      “The animal in my lap here can breathe out a gas that paralyzes anything that comes into contact with it.  The effect only lasts a few moments.  He’ll be fine in a little bit, but he’ll have one serious headache after it wears off.”

      They stood there, staring at him.

      “Well? Get on with it.”

      They did so, quickly and with surprising thoroughness.  To their credit, they didn’t tear up the packs, and Haley and Miranda watched to ensure that nothing disappeared, but the men searched all their packs quickly and without making a fuss about anything.  “Move along,” one of the others said to them as the man on the ground, whom the others had not touched, started moving jerkily.

      “You’ll be able to move again in a few minutes,” Tarrin told the man steadily.  “The effect is temporary.  Effective, though.”

      “Quite,” Miranda said with a smile at him.

      They rode into town, which was much different than Dengal.  Everything about this town revolved around farming.  The streets were wide, to accommodate wagons, and rudely dressed peasants walked the streets with the finer dressed townsfolk, displaying the odd separation between the classes that Tarrin had never seen anywhere on Sennadar.  Most of the space near the gate was taken up by large warehouses, and peasants were loading wagons to either side of the street, under the watchful eye of uniformed men.

      “This must be a main food producer,” Haley noted as they moved past warehouses, into a residential area of sorts with shops scattered here and there along the buildings.  “It looks like almost all the food they grow here goes somewhere else.”

      “And they don’t let the peasants eat any of it,” Miranda added, looking back over her shoulder.  There were no peasants where they were now.  “It’s almost a crime that those people are so thin when they’re surrounded by food.  It must be torture for them to be hungry and have it right there, but not allowed to so much as take a grain of wheat.”

      “Kikkalli certainly wouldn’t approve,” Tarrin said, saying aloud what Miranda was thinking.

      Miranda nodded grimly.

      “Let us get this finished quickly,” Dolanna announced.  “Tarrin and Haley will see to our stores, and the rest of us shall wait here.  Take the pack horses and hurry, dear ones,” she told them.

      “Why the change?” Ulger asked.

      “We did not enter the town on the best of terms, Ulger,” she answered.  “It will be best for us to stay together as much as possible.  Tarrin and Haley can handle themselves, and what is more, they are used to operating either alone or in small groups.  They will be more than safe.”

      “Can we at least get down off the horses?” Telven asked plaintively.

      “We can rest in that park over there,” Dolanna said, pointing to a patch of grass between two buildings a little further down the road, which had several children within it, playing with strange wooden hoops which they rolled about the lawn with sticks.

      “That looks fun.  Maybe I can show them my sling,” Telven said eagerly.

      “We’ll get this done as fast as we can,” Haley assured them.  “Anything special we should pick up?”

      “Fresh meat,” Mist told him.  “And more vegetables for stew.”

      “It does not matter, so long as you hurry,” Dolanna told them.

      “We’ll just surprise you then,” Haley said with a sly smile.  “I’ll have to find something worthy of you, Dolanna.”

      “Haley,” she said flintily.

      He laughed, then took the reins Ulger offered to him.  “Come on, my Lord.  Let’s go shopping.”

      “Fireflash, stay with Mist,” Tarrin ordered, picking the drake up from the saddle, and lobbing him into the air.  He unfurled his wings and flapped over to Mist, landing on her shoulder, then sliding around the back of her neck to stand between her shoulders so he could look back at him.

      “I’m coming with you,” Sarraya whispered from his other shoulder.  He’d forgotten that she was there.

      “Fine.”

      Tarrin and Haley split up further down the street, after each of them agreed on what they were going to buy.  Haley was going to handle meat, bread, and cheese, and Tarrin was going to handle vegetables, grain, meal, and perhaps some wine to accent the meagre fare.  They secured directions to shops from a citizen, and got down to business.  Tarrin found almost everything  he needed in a single greengrocer’s, who had almost everything Haley needed as well.  He unobtrusively sent Sarraya to go tell Haley about the place, and bought all the vegetables that they needed, four large bags of meal for porridge, a large sealed clay jar of raw flour, and even managed two baskets of fine-looking eggs and a small cask of ale.  With that much, they had not only ready-made food available, but had the supplies on hand to make others from scratch if needs be.  Haley met him at the door as he started loading it on his pack horse, and quickly moved in to buy most of what he needed as well.

      “I just need meat now,” Haley said as he finished his shopping, and Tarrin helped him load it on his pack horse.  “The merchant suggested a butcher just down the street.  Want to come, or are you going back?”

      “I’ll tag along with you,” Tarrin answered.

      The butcher to which they had been directed was more than happy to see them, given that Haley all but bought him out of dried beef and mutton, bought a large amount of salted pork, and also bought nearly an entire butchered cow.  “Ye must be feedin’ an army, good Master,” the thin, smallish butcher said, rubbing his hands before his bloodstained apron nervously.

      “No, just people who eat a lot,” Tarrin answered, which made the little man laugh in a wheezing voice.  “Road travel makes a fellow hungry.”

      “That it does, that it does.  Off to see the world, eh?”

      “Something like that.”

      “Well, y’uns be careful,” he said.  “The One be with ye, and thanky for the business.”

      “Any time,” Haley told him with a smile.

      They left the little man’s shop with everything they needed except the wine.  “The greengrocer warned me off on that,” Tarrin told Haley.  “He suggested a cask of ale instead.  He seemed to know what he was talking about, so I decided to take him up on it.”

      “His shop wasn’t exactly swanky, Tarrin, and good wine isn’t cheap,” Haley nodded.  “I think we can work with the ale.  Dolanna doesn’t much like ale, but she can always drink tea.”

      “How much tea did you bring?” Tarrin asked.

      “Enough to keep her on her toes for at least another month,” he answered with a grin.  “One of my bags is full of nothing but tea.”

      “I was curious about that.”

      “I’m surprised you didn’t smell it,” Sarraya told him from her invisible hiding place on his shoulder.

      “How much have I been in my natural form lately, Sarraya?”

      Haley laughed.  “I’m not the only one packing a secret.  Didn’t you wonder what that little barrel is that Ulger brought?”

      “Gunpowder,” Tarrin answered.  “Kerri gave it to us.  Ulger wanted more, but Kerri didn’t think it was too good of an idea to give him too much.  He might get bad ideas.”

      “That does sound like Ulger,” Haley winked.  “I didn’t know you knew about it.  I thought Ulger was keeping it a secret.”

      “Why do you think I’m keeping Fireflash away from it?” Tarrin asked.

      Haley laughed.  “Good idea.”

      “I wonder,” Tarrin said, watching two women in wool dresses walk by.  Neither woman was exactly pretty, but their dresses were of good quality, of different shades of blue.  “How they got into this situation.”

      “You mean, how the One got so much control?  Odds are, the One started out much like Val did.”

      “But on this world, he won,” Tarrin said grimly.

      “More or less,” Haley nodded.  “The gods of this world either underestimated him or didn’t care, and he took control.  I know you’ll hate me for saying this, but it does look like he did a better job at running things than Val would have,” he admitted.  “I don’t like his methods any more than you do,” he said quickly, “but at least he managed to build something.  Val would have destroyed the world.”

      “You think so?”

      “Val was about control,” Haley told him.  “After he got it, that need to control would have eventually destroyed everything.  That’s what’s happening here, or at least the start of it.”  He swept his hand out.  “The One wants to control everything.  He doesn’t yet, else he wouldn’t be fighting a war back on the other side of Dengal.  He’s built this society to gain that control.  All of them, they’re nothing but elements in his grand army of conquest, from the highest-ranking general to the oldest peasant.  And that’s what keeps this society together.  But after the One gets control, then all of this will turn on itself.  His need to control will destroy everything he’s built.”

      “I never took you for a thinker, Haley,” Tarrin said soberly, nodding.  Haley’s words made a certain amount of sense.

      “I’m three hundred years old, Tarrin,” he chuckled.  “Once you live that long, you’ll start thinking about things whether you want to or not.”

      “What do you think’ll happen?”

      “As long as the One has something left to conquer, then this will work,” he said.  “But the minute he finishes, then it’s over.  That’s what happened to the Urzani empire.  After they conquered the world, they had nothing left to do.  Their society turned decadent, and they were eventually destroyed.  It took a thousand years, but it did happen.”  He bent down and picked up a small piece of straw lying on the dirt street.  “No society that stagnates, that thinks it has nothing left to do, can survive.  That’s why the Younger Gods and the Wikuni gods back home always push us.  They want us to grow, to reach new levels, to expand and find new paths.  Gods like Val and the One, they want everything to stop, to be the same for all time.  Like the creation of a perfect world where nothing ever changes.  It doesn’t work, because people need challenges, need to change and grow.  The Urzani taught us that.”

      “That’s profound.”

      “That’s Miranda,” Haley admitted with a chuckle.  “She explained that to me.”

      “I’d say that Miranda is much more the Priestess than even I thought,” Tarrin said quietly.

      “You should sit down and talk with her some evening,” Haley told him.  “You’d be amazed at what you can learn.”

      “I can see that,” Tarrin replied.

      They walked the pack horses back to the little grassy park, but to his surprise, saw that not everything was well.  Zyri was crying, being held by Dolanna, and Mist and Miranda were nowhere to be found.  Tarrin glanced at the town’s children, who were still playing with their toys in the grass, but his attention was focused on Dolanna.  “What’s the matter?” he asked.

      “Telven and Jal are missing,” she answered.  “They were playing with the other children, and we were letting them.  After so much time in the saddle, we thought it would be good for them.  But when we looked back to check on them, they were gone.”

      “Mist’s tracking them,” Ulger told him.  “It took a bit of doing hiding her so she could, you know.”

      “Fireflash went with her?” Tarrin asked.

      Dolanna nodded.

      “How long ago did you notice they were gone?”

      “Not long after you and Haley left,” she answered.

      “Well, it looks like they went full circle,” Azakar said, pointing down the street.  “There’s Jal.”  Tarrin looked down the street, and saw the young boy, running towards them.  He had a whitish rod of some kind in his hand.

      “Hold on, why is he holding a club?” Ulger asked.

      “That’s ice,” Tarrin said.  “He used his power.  I told him not to!”

      Tarrin stepped up when Jal got close to them, and caught the boy by his shoulders.  He was dancing in place, and his eyes were wild and fearful.  “Drop it,” Tarrin ordered, and the boy dropped the shard of ice.  “What’s the matter?”

      Jal looked to try to say something, but nothing would come out of his mouth.  He instead turned and pointed back the way he came.  Tarrin looked over Jal and down the street, and saw a large complement of church soldiers and Priests, some on horseback, and on the lead horse, riding with a Priest, was Telven!

      “That’s them!” Telven shouted.  “They’re the witches, and one of them is one of the Damned!”

      Tarrin was absolutely stunned.  Telven betrayed them!  Tarrin’s mind swam in an ocean of disbelief, and he could only stare at the men who were racing towards them, trying to rationalize it.  But why?  He had saved Telven from death, had taken care of him, had shown him kindness and given him a place where he could belong…and this is how he repays them?  After the church of the One tries to kill him, Telven goes back to them?  Why?  Why, for the gods’ sake?

      Still reeling, Tarrin put Jal behind him and surveyed the men bearing down on them.  There were at least thirty, and he counted five black-robed Priests.  Telven’s betrayal had stunned him, but now that shock was yielding to outrage, and to fury, a fury he quickly contained.  There were too many innocents here for him to lose his temper, and doing that would put his own friends in danger.  He shifted into his normal form, and then his eyes ignited from within with the glowing green aura that marked his anger, and finally, in stark majesty, his wings exploded out from his back, causing a sudden cascade of screams and shouts from the citizens who witnessed it.

      “Get them out of here!” Tarrin shouted at Ulger, looking back to him and pointing at Dolanna and Zyri with a paw.  “Jal, go to Zyri!” he ordered of the boy who clung to his leg, trying to shake him off, as he brought forth his sword from the elsewhere.  The blade immediately burst into flame, as licks of flame sprouted in his fetlocks on his wrists and ankles.

      “Tarrin, we can help!” Azakar said, drawing his sword.

      “Don’t abandon Dolanna,” Tarrin hissed, crouching and holding his sword in both paws.  “Telven, have you lost your mind?  Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

      “I’m getting rid of witches!” Telven shouted back at him.

      “They tried to kill you!” he screamed.

      “That was all Zyri!” he shouted back. “I never wanted to keep that witch of a brother, but I couldn’t live by myself!”

      There was little time for further debate, for the first of the mounted soldiers were almost on him.  Instead of attacking them, Tarrin held out his paw and shouted “STOP!” in a powerful voice, shifting his intonation just slightly, which was how a Druid addressed an animal in a manner in which the animal would understand.  All the horses charging at him suddenly whinnied in surprise, then pulled up short.  They did so with such sudden speed that five of the soldiers went flying over the heads of their mounts, landing on their backs on the street.  “Buck your riders and run!” Tarrin shouted at the horses.

      They obeyed.  All the horses started bucking and thrashing, causing the foot soldiers to scramble in every direction to keep from getting trampled.  The moment of chaos distracted all of the soldiers, and Tarrin used that critical moment to wave at the others, to get them mounted and out of harm’s way.  “Go now!” Tarrin snapped at them.  “Find Mist and Miranda and get out of town!”

      “Tarrin!” Dolanna barked, but she said no more when Tarrin decapitated the first man to reach him with his blazing sword, sending an arc of fire into the air along with the man’s head.  Tarrin backpawed the still erect, headless corpse, flinging it to the side to get it out of the way as three more men charged him with wild cries and their swords drawn and brandished.  Both men came to an instant halt when they were impaled by spikes which erupted from the inner surface of his wings, sizzling across the space between them.  Those two spikes tossed the men aside contemptuously, and he saw that the rest of the host was starting to get organized.  There were too many to fight, not when they could get around him and attack the others.  He needed magic here.

      Sending his sword into the elsewhere to free his paws, Tarrin started chanting in the discordant language of magic, which made all five Priests suddenly start screaming in the languages of the gods.  But Tarrin’s spell was much faster to cast, and when he held out his paws, palms out, and then jerked his arms upward, they suddenly flared in a strange brownish glow.  The earth around the men began to buck and heave, and then massive slabs of stone exploded from the ground, sending dust, dirt, and small stones flying in every direction.  More and more of the slabs thrust from the street, until a large wall of rock separated Tarrin and his friends from their attackers, stretching from one side of the street to the other.

      “Go now!” Tarrin snapped at them, dancing back a few steps when a section of the wall suddenly began to glow with a whitish radiance.  That section of the wall vanished with a wavering flash of light, dispelled by the magic of the Priests.  Tarrin immediately began to chant again, his fingers weaving an intricate pattern before him as he quickly and flawlessly chanted the formula of the spell, even as the first of the soldiers ran through that hole, followed by a Priest, who skidded to a stop and began to chant himself.  Tarrin’s paws burst into flame at mental command during the course of the spell, for he needed an open source of fire for the spell to operate properly, and after he finished chanting, the spell latched onto the fire around his paws and consumed it to power the spell’s effect.  Smoke billowed out from Tarrin’s paws at a phenomenal rate, quickly covering the width of the street, and then the cloud of dark matter rolled away from him.  There came a storm of coughing and choking as the spell washed over the first of the men, causing the Priest to stutter and lose his place in the spell, ruining it.  The cloud engulfed their attackers, and the sounds of their hacking and coughing told Tarrin that the smoke would make it impossible for the Priests to cast any spell that required any significant amount of time.  That worked in his favor, as only those kinds of spells posed a major threat to him.

      One man staggered out of the cloud of smoke, hand over his mouth and sword held low, then an arrow appeared in his chest.  The man staggered backwards two steps and collapsed, and Tarrin glanced back to see Zyri, alone, eyes full of tears and a strange expression of a mixture of anger and fear on her face, sitting on her horse and with her bow in her hands, quickly reaching for another arrow.  Ulger was riding back towards her, in the act of clapping his barrel-shaped helmet down over his shaved head.

      “Have you lost your mind, girl!” Tarrin shouted at her vituperously, absently smashing another man who staggered through the smoke to the ground with his paw, then calling his sword from the elsewhere and impaling him through the chest with the chisel tip.  “Get out of here now!”

      “I won’t let them kill you!” she said in a strangled tone.  “I won’t let Telven kill you!”

      “Ulger!”

      “Come on, fool girl!” Ulger growled at her.  “It don’t do Tarrin no good to hold them off if you won’t leave!”

      “But he’ll be killed!” she protested.

      “Youngling, if they don’t have no Demons with them, ain’t nothin’ gonna kill Tarrin!” he snapped at her, regressing to some dialect Tarrin had never heard before.  “He’ll just turn into a dragon and flatten the whole lot, but he can’t do that as long as we’re under his feet!  Now come on, you’re putting him in more danger by sitting here than you would be if we were runnin’!”

      Zyri looked tortured for a moment, her eyes lingering on him, but Ulger’s words seemed to have finally sunk in.  She turned her horse and bolted in the direction the others went.  Ulger waved at Tarrin.  “Show ‘em a hammer of Karas, brother Knight!” he shouted, then he too charged after the others, an old saying among Knights.

      Ulger actually had an idea there.  It was something that Tarrin hadn’t even considered.  He turned and chopped another man who staggered out of the cloud down, then backed up a few steps.  Fury still roiled through his mind, but concern for Mist and Miranda was also there.  He really couldn’t flatten anything until he was certain both of them were out of harm’s way, especially if their tracking Jal would bring them back to this area.  He wasn’t worried about them getting away, but he didn’t want to accidentally kill them while they were doing so.  Backing up again, Tarrin again sent his sword into the elsewhere and lunged down and pried a pebble out of the hard-packed dirt of the street.  He again chanted in the language of magic, gesturing with only one paw as the other held the pebble, and then he threw the pebble to the ground before him and completed the spell.  He quickly turned and rose into the air, then flew back away from the spell’s area of effect.

      In a sudden flurry, dirt erupted from the ground, flying in every direction, showering into the smoke, against and onto the roofs of the buildings to each side of the street, and onto the street immediately before the Were-cat.  In a matter of seconds, the magic of the spell had dug a pit nearly ten spans deep and stretching from one side of the street to the other, and was almost twenty spans across.  Another man staggered out of the cloud of smoke, which ended just before the pit, and then fell into it with a sudden cry of alarm.

      That would slow them down.

      But it wasn’t enough.  His wings flaring with sudden light, globes of fire formed around Tarrin’s paws, and then he thrust his arms out to either side of him.  Cones of intense fire blasted forth from his paws, slamming into the faces of the buildings to either side of him, causing their thatch roofs and plaster-covered timbers to burst into flame, moderately sized fires that would spread to every building on the street in about ten minutes if they were not stopped.

      Now they had a choice.  Put out the fires, or chase him and let the city burn to the ground.

      A sudden blast of wind blew from Tarrin’s back, and it attacked the integrity of his cloud of smoke, tearing it apart quickly.  He saw most of the men had crawled through the hole in the wall, and the five Priests were all chanting now that they could breathe and speak once again.  Quickly, without thinking much about it, Tarrin created ten fireforms in the shape of ravens, and sent them after the Priests.  The ten birds made of living fire streaked across the pit and attacked the Priests with shrill cries of outrage, setting fire to their hair and clothes as they clawed and pecked at the men’s eyes and faces, shattering their concentration and causing chaos as the soldiers tried to knock the fireforms away with their swords and shields, to protect their Priests.

      Movement from behind him made him turn, just in time to see another large complement of soldiers appear with another group of Priests, cutting off his escape.  The soldiers rushed forward at a barked command of one of the Priests, swords raised and shields presented, and they were too close for Tarrin to use another Wizard spell to delay them.  He also didn’t want to set another fire, because if he did, it might cause the fires to rage out of control, and that might put Mist and Miranda in danger if they were nearby.

      The charging soldiers saw the fire-winged Defiled creature snap those wings out, flaring them open, and then they saw the wings start to have dark lines appear in stripes running parallel to the upper edges of the wings.  Their charge faltered, however, when the bands of wings suddenly split away from each other, the dark lines revealed as separations between each individual tendril, and the man suddenly faced a man not with wings of fire, but with a multitude of small, rope-like tendrils emanating from his back.  They tried to back up when the formidable-looking monster rushed forward, his feet seemingly not even touching the ground, until he smashed through two men and penetrated their front line, getting right into the middle of them.

      The surprise turned to terror when those many rope-like tentacles suddenly came alive, each one moving independently of one another.  Like a hundred angry whips, the components of Tarrin’s wings attacked the men surrounding him, a dizzying cloud of independent movement as each tendril lashed around him without touching any other.  Men were literally sliced apart by the fast-moving whips of fire, each one’s edge honed down to a razor-sharp edge.  Blood, swords, body parts, gore, and pieces of slashed armor flew in every direction around the Defiled, who stood in the center of that whirlwind of death with his eyes closed, head bowed, arms tucked tightly to his chest to keep them out of harm’s way, and a look of intense concentration on his face as the multitude of pieces of his wings ripped every soldier around him for ten paces in every direction to pieces.  Screams were cut horrifically short, replaced by the shrill sound of the whips of fire as she whizzed through the air, and the sound of metal, bone, and flesh yielding to the edge and the tremendous speed of the solid fire which sought to shear them in twain.  Men were slashed into bits where they stood, before they could even turn to run, and only those at the furthest edge of the reach of those whips of fire managed to make any kind of defensive movement, and those pieces were themselves sliced apart in the lethal whirlwind of death that surrounded the Defiled creature’s body..

      In a matter of seconds, it was over.  Every man in the attacking host who had charged at Tarrin was dead, and there were only a few pieces of them left large enough to be remotely recognizable.  Tarrin’s body was covered with blood and small bits of the remains of his attackers.  The hundred fiery whips retracted and grouped together into the recognizable shape of wings behind him, and then they merged together once again to form two solid masses.

      The Priests and those soldiers who remained behind to protect them stared at the blood-covered Were-cat in awe and terror, and then one of the soldiers turned and fled.

      “Tarrin!  We’re trapped at the gates!” Miranda’s voice called to him faintly, as she talked through one of her spells.  “They closed the gates, and we’re in the middle of a throng of citizens trying to flee!  We need your help!”

      “I’ll be there in a minute,” he called.  If they were out of harm’s way, then there was no need to be careful anymore.  “Move off the street.  Get out from in front of the gates.”

      “We’re moving,” she answered.

      Ulger had a damned good idea.

      His wings suddenly exploding out to five times their normal size, they folded around Tarrin’s body as it suddenly blazed forth with the light of fire.  Again, his body became fire, became a sentient force without form, and the wings that enfolded that awareness provided the means by which that formless consciousness could create a new form to house itself.  The fire grew, expanded, grew larger and larger, took up the street, rose above the houses, expanded to staggering size, and then took on the shape of the dragon.  Then the power of Tarrin’s might infused the fire, gave it flesh and blood bone, and the fire evaporated away to reveal the full might and majesty of Tarrin, who was no longer a Were-cat, but was now a full-sized gold dragon.

      From his new perspective, Tarrin looked down upon the terrorized men with scathing disregard, for they were now no larger than ants to him.  A paw so huge it could hold a man in its palm rose up from the ground, and then slammed down into the street with such force that it shook the buildings, knocked men off their feet, and left an imprint in the ground nearly five spans deep.  Tarrin turned to face the street that would take him back to the city gates, but two of the Priests began to chant in the language of the gods, preparing to cast spells to either attack Tarrin or protect themselves.

      Drawing in his breath, Tarrin turned his head towards those to chanters.  They had no idea how bad of a decision that was.  He was going to ignore them, but not if they were going to take action against him.  Tarrin’s huge maw opened, and then he used a dragon’s most fearful and destructive attack, his breath weapon.

      A raging hellstorm of fire, compacted into an expanding cone that started at his mouth, blasted forth from that open maw.  The fire spun about itself as it expanded in size, as it moved away from Tarrin’s mouth, and by the time it hit the street, the cone of fire was nearly fifty spans across.  It struck the knot of soldiers and Priests and engulfed them with a loud roaring sound of flames.  Tarrin ended the attack after just a second or two, and the cone of fire dissipated quickly, leaving nothing behind on the street except melted rock, blackened earth, and a few bits and pieces of red-hot, melted metal scattered among a fine layer of white ash.

      Using that weapon told him much.  It told him that a dragon didn’t have an unlimited supply of the magical energy that powered it.  He had enough left to use four, maybe five full-power breath weapon attacks, and since a gold dragon’s paralyzing gas was a component of the fire weapon, it also depleted the gas built up in the pressurized bladders that flanked his lungs, where the gas was produced.  But he wouldn’t need his breath weapon to get everyone out of town.  All he needed was his massive size.

      Tarrin glanced to his left, and saw the original group of attackers, trapped on the far side of the pit, staring up at him in awe.  Among them was Telven, who had betrayed them, betrayed him, sitting on the ground where the horse had thrown him off, staring up at him in shock and fear.  Tarrin felt an irrational surge in him to blast Telven into ash, but no matter how angry he was, he still wouldn’t hurt a child.

      “This is all your fault, boy,” Tarrin told him grimly.  “If you’re so devoted to the One, then go to him.  But you’ve made your choice, so live with it.  You’ve given up your sister, your brother, and the life I could have provided for you, and traded it in for a life of hating Defiled and being afraid.  If you hate us so much that you’d kill your own brother and sister, then I want nothing to do with you.  Pray you never see me again.  If you do, child or not, I’ll kill you.”

      Tarrin left him there, marching down the wide street as people screamed and ran in every direction, his tail smashing the fronts of buildings in as it swayed to and fro with his gait.  He could see over the entire city, and his eyes were locked on the gate that they had used to come in, which was where the others were at.  He moved just slow enough to let the terrified townsfolk scramble out of his way, passing by throngs of soldiers and more than a few Priests, who could not think of anything to do against that, so awe-inspiring and intimidating Tarrin looked to them now.  He turned a corner, knocking down two buildings on the corners as he did so, leaving a pile of debris in the intersection as he tried to squeeze through the tight confines.  The streets were only just wide enough for him, and the corner wasn’t wide enough to let him squirm around without doing damage.  But it put him on the street that led to the city gate, and he could see it clearly now.  The mob of townsfolk gathered at the gate all looked at him, and he saw that they were going to get in his way, so a little clearing was necessary here.  He took in his breath and emitted an earth-shaking roar, heard for longspans away, as he picked up his pace into a deliberate trot that told everyone in front of him that he was coming down that street, and they had better get out of his way.

      The result was nearly mindless panic.  The mob in front of the gates, who had been trying to get them open, now screamed in terror and fled to either side, running down both sides of the street that ran just inside the outer wall of the city.  The large crowd gathered in front of the gate quickly started to thin, and Tarrin picked up his pace when the street before him cleared of people.  Guards on the walls shouted and ran back and forth over the gatehouse and to each side of it, and several arrows came flying at Tarrin when he got within range of them, but the arrows struck his armor-like golden scales and rebounded harmlessly.  He didn’t even feel them.  He roared once more, then lowered his head and broke into a sudden bounding gait as he bore down on the closed gates.  His backswept horns were presented to that wooden barrier, like a ram preparing to butt heads with a rival, and he lunged forward and locked his neck just before he made contact with the gates.

      The impact was deafening.  Squealing metal and shattering wood created a cacophony of sound as a cloud of debris plumed outward from the city wall as Tarrin’s massive head rammed the gates, sending shards of wood into the closed portcullis on the far side, which was bent outward and tore free of its mountings when it was struck by a gigantic creature who weighed almost as much as the gatehouse itself.  The portcullis slid down Tarrin’s horns and got stuck, but the mighty gold dragon paid the weight of it no mind at all as he backed up two steps and rammed the gates again, knocking what was left of the gates off their hinges and getting the twisted portcullis off his horns.  He then backed up a step and removed his head from the now open archway.  He turned and scanned the crowds, and quickly made out Azakar almost two blocks down on his left, well away from the gates.  He looked more carefully, and saw that Mist and Miranda had joined the others, that everyone was together.  Jal and Zyri were mounted, and both of them looked pale and shaken.  He didn’t want to expose to the crowd that they were with him, so he reared back on his hind legs and spread his wings, which cast a shadow over nearly two city blocks.  A single thrust of those wings pulled his massive body into the air, and Tarrin was silently awed that creatures that were so unimaginably huge had the ability to lift that size, and all that weight, into the air using perfectly natural means.  A blast of fierce wind whooshed away from the ground under him as the displaced air roared away from his wings, and the people all screamed in collective fright when that monstrous body suddenly began to fall as the wings performed an upstroke, but it rose again even higher into the air as those sail-sized wings again pushed down the air, which pushed the body upwards.

      With just three more strokes, Tarrin was at a cruising speed and ascending over the farm fields outside the city.  It was a great deal of work to fly using wings, he discovered as the effort of pulling his monstrous bulk into the air registered on muscles that weren’t often used, and some which didn’t exist when he wasn’t in that form.  His wings beat the air, lifting him higher and higher as he gained more and more speed, until he had enough momentum to execute a turn.  He did so, turning in a wide arc around the city’s wall, watching the gate he had knocked down.  He flew completely around the city, continuing to ascend, and when he came around to the gate once again, he saw his friends had managed to squeeze through the gate with their horses, and were pounding across the farm fields almost due south, moving to follow the river as it wound its way southward.  Tarrin took note of that, and then stopped turning and arced his way eastward, back the way that had come.  All eyes would be on him, allowing the others to escape unnoticed, and he could simply change into something much, much smaller and circle back to meet up with the others later on.

      Tarrin flew out over the edge of the valley and out of sight of the men and women in the city, leaving the city behind him, and unmitigated chaos in his wake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 6

 

      Rage.

      Tarrin had experienced many different types of rage.  From the mindless fury of the Cat in its many degrees to the icy, cold rage of his human half, to almost every shade of anger, fury, rage, pique, irritation, annoyance, and discomfort in between, but he had never felt like this before.

      He had never felt betrayed.

      Not even Jasana’s treachery that turned him Were the second time had registered to him what Telven’s act had.  He found that he could think of nothing else as he flew south, away from the city, then used a low-hanging cloud to change out of his dragon form and into his own, mainly because the dragon was making his outrage even worse.  Dragons were noble creatures, and they reacted to betrayal in a manner even more vehement than a Were-cat.  Though he wasn’t part dragon as he was part cat, the characteristics of the form did have some influence on him when he borrowed their form.  Changing back into his normal form freed him of a tantalizing impulse to turn around and raze that city to the ground.

      How could he do it?  How could he return to people who tried to kill him?  It made no sense!  Tarrin had to admit that he didn’t give the boy the same attention that he had Zyri, but he had shown him kindness and concern, had offered him a place with him, had tried to make him happy.  He was willing to throw that away to go back to an order that would kill him?  He’d been willing to murder his own brother, all because he had succumbed to the hate that the Priests of the One preached to their masses.  Telven—

      —he had to stop thinking about it.  He was getting furious again, to the point where a tiny village not far from the road began looking like an inviting target for venting righteous wrath.  He couldn’t fathom what that boy could have been thinking.  To turn his back on his family, to spit in Tarrin’s face the way he did, to try to murder Jal…it was just inconceivable to Tarrin and to the Cat.  The Cat was much more flabbergasted than Tarrin, almost into insensibility, and Tarrin knew what that meant.  Once it managed to recover enough to be semi-rational again, it was going to try to overtake him and send him into a rage, like it did after Tarrin found out that Jasana had been the one to put the blood in the potion.  The time in dragon form had muted it a little, but he could feel it rising up in him, preparing to unleash its pent-up outrage on anything and anyone.

      He had gone far enough.  He was almost two hours ahead of the others, and he knew that Miranda was already leading them to him.  He descended and landed by the river, which was shallow and fast-moving here, the sound of water splashing on rocks reaching his ears and making him feel a little more tranquil.  He blew out his breath and sat down in the grass by the riverbank, looking down at the water, seeing the glow of the light of his wings on the surface of the water.  He shivered those wings slightly, but did not retract them.

      And he would not.  Ever.

      Someone had to stand up.  Someone had to walk down the street and be not normal and show the people that the Priests were lying to them.  Someone had to show them that the One was the one who was their enemy.  Someone had to show Telven—

      —Telven…for Niami’s sake, why?

      He would hide no more.  He didn’t care how much trouble it caused him.  The wings were a part of him, and he would not hide them.  If he had to slaughter every church soldier and Priest in every town he visited along the way to finding Kimmie, well, that was so much the better.  But he would not hide his wings again.  He might need to withdraw them temporarily to negotiate tight quarters, and certainly when he went to sleep or Mist would scalp him, but he wouldn’t hide them, he wouldn’t hide who he was, anymore.

      He had to shake himself to calm down again…he was right on the verge of exploding.  He glanced down and saw red, and at first he thought his vision was hazing over from his anger, but he realized that he was still covered in blood, and the smell of that blood, which he hadn’t noticed until now, was aggravating his temper.

      Well…there was a river right here.

      Undressing, having to retract his wings to get them out of his shirt, he trudged down into the water until it came up to his waist, and then spent a considerable amount of time in the surprisingly warm, slightly muddy water scrubbing blood off his skin and out of his hair and fur.  After he was done, he bent to the laborious task of washing the blood out of his shirt and trousers and vest, but found that it wouldn’t come out.  Nonplussed, Tarrin simply used a Wizard spell to cleanse his clothing, then left them laying by the riverbank to dry as he sat on a rock half submerged in the river and rebraided his wet hair.  He sat in the waning light of the afternoon sun, feeling its warmth rain down on him, and finally felt like he was calming down.  The simple act of getting clean took his mind off Telven, off how betrayed he felt, and let him look at things with more logic and less emotion.

      It was a given now that anything the children knew about him and the others, now the Priests of the One knew.  That meant they knew about his power, they knew about Mist and Miranda, they knew about Dolanna, and they probably knew that they were from another world.  He wasn’t sure if that information was good or bad, for there was an outside chance that perhaps the church would give Tarrin a very wide berth if they knew just who they were dealing with.  But that was probably just wishful thinking.  Odds were, the church knew that Tarrin and Dolanna were Sorcerers, or what they called the Damned, and they were going to specifically make it a point to come after them.  Tarrin and Dolanna were the embodiment of everything the church preached against.

      Fine.  Let them come.  He was tired of hiding.

      Shaking his head a little, feeling the weight of his damp braid, Tarrin looked down at his leathers and blew out his breath.  He wouldn’t wear them wet, so he shifted into his human form, complete with its set of clothing, and sat back down on the rock after laying his clothes out to dry in the waning sunlight.  He looked up at the sky and saw the clouds start to roll in from the west, threatening to hide the sun as it crept closer and closer to the horizon.  It wasn’t going to be easy now.  The Priests now knew about Tarrin’s shapeshifting, and he was pretty sure that they now knew about his weakness against silver.  He was pretty sure he told Zyri about that, and he had little doubt that Zyri had repeated the tales he told to her to her brothers.  He would not be surprised at all if the next batch of Hunters to cross paths with him were wielding silvered swords.  They knew about the others too, so it was going to be dangerous for everyone.

      Fine.  He didn’t care anymore.  If he had to leave a trail of bodies behind him on his way to get Kimmie and Phandebrass, that was just fine with him.  Perhaps, after he killed enough of the One’s people, the god would get the message and call off his followers.  He’d lost his sense of adventure with all this now.  All he wanted to do now was find Kimmie and Phandebrass, arrange for the gate spell to be used, and then go home.

      Sighing, leaning back on his hands, he curled his wings around himself a little and looked up into the sky, his expression pensive, distant.  Sometimes he cursed his wings and what they represented, but at that moment, there was a strange comfort in them.  They were warm, radiating a gentle heat that soothed him, and he was aware of every square finger of them in a way that no one would really understand.  They were more than simple appendages, they were a manifestation of the power that he had once possessed, and that was what he was aware of at that moment.  By mere thought, the wings lost their ragged appearance and became like an Aeradalla’s wings, with structure and feathers, colored in the hues of fire, in reds, blues, whites, oranges, and yellows, which gave them a strange mottled appearance.  They looked grand, he supposed, after staring at the inside slope of one, but he liked them the other way.  They reverted to their normal appearance, looking not quite like an Aeradalla’s wings, not quite like Shiika’s wings, something of a vague hybrid of the two, whose borders shifted slightly as the living fire seemed to undulate like a dancing flame.  Their power was needed now, for without Sorcery, without Druidic magic, facing what he knew that they were going to face, they were going to need everything they could get.  Miranda couldn’t protect them all, he knew that.  If he was going to do what he intended to do now, he needed all the power they could give to him.

      He was going to end this madness.  He was going to get Kimmie and Phandebrass and get everything done as quickly as possible, so they could all just go home.  He would take Zyri and Jal with him, raise them as his own, and they would leave Telven to face the consequences of the choice he had made.  Zyri and Jal would grow up happy and wanting for nothing, but Telven would reap the harvest of the seeds he had sown this day, living out his life being afraid and hating.

      “Well, I’m glad to see you’re calm,” Miranda’s voice came out of thin air, just behind him and to his right.

      “Miranda.  How far away are you?”

      “About a half an hour’s ride.  Are you going to stay where you are, or do you want to come to us?”

      “I guess I’ll come to you, it’s faster,” he answered.  “Which direction?”

      “We’re due north of you,” she answered.

      “I’ll be there in a few minutes,” he told her, standing up. “Let me get my clothes,” he added, looking at his damp clothes laid out on the ground.

      “We’ll be waiting.”

      Tarrin collected his damp leathers, and then, still holding them, he spread his wings and lanced up into the air.  He quickly oriented himself due north and picked up speed as he gained altitude, until he was nearly a longspan above the ground, and the terrain below was laid out before him like a verdant blanket, and easily visible for longspans in every direction.  What would take half an hour on horseback he could traverse in a matter of minutes, so he started looking for them not long after he levelled out his climb.  That high up, he could see the storm front to the west much more clearly, and he knew that it was going to start raining sometime during the night.

      He spotted them, still mounted, standing their horses by the riverbank not a few moments after looking at the storm.  He immediately started descending, feeling that strange lightness in his stomach, like he was falling, but by now he was used to that sensation.  He was upon them quickly, flaring out his wings and twisting a little in midair, then putting his feet on the ground a dozen or so spans away from them.

      He didn’t expect what happened.  Zyri burst into tears and slid off her horse, then ran towards him.  Her action startled him a little bit, but he should have expected it.  The poor girl had had her own brother betray her.  He opened his arms to her, and almost staggered back when she slammed into him, clutching him tightly, sobbing into his chest.  He saw that Jal was mounted with Mist, sitting in front of her.  His mate had her paws around the boy in a protective manner, and that he was leaning against her.  He was also trembling, not a little bit, holding onto Mist’s paw with both hands, hands which were shaking so badly that he doubted the boy could have gotten off the horse.

      “Did you have any trouble?” Tarrin asked Dolanna in a neutral voice.

      “No, dear one.  Did you?”

      He shook his head.  “I didn’t kill Telven, though I should have,” he growled.  “If anything, I want the boy to live long enough to appreciate the mistake he made today.”

      “I—I—can’t believe…he’d do that!” Zyri said chokingly.

      “Hush, little bit,” Tarrin said with infinite tenderness, stroking her hair.  “I think we should camp here, Dolanna.”

      “We might be too close, dear one,” she said hesitantly.

      “Zyri can’t ride right now, Dolanna,” Haley told her.  “And I think we all need a chance to sit down and collect ourselves.”

      “Don’t worry, Dolanna,” Tarrin said in a quiet, flat tone that they all knew too well.  “No one will bother us.”

      “I, very well,” she said with a nod.

      Tarrin accepted Fireflash onto his shoulder, dipping his head down to nuzzle his pet briefly, then held his hand out to Mist as she dismounted and approached him.  Her huge paw swallowed up his human hand, and standing beside her like that reminded him how huge she was now, as big as him.  It was easy to forget sometimes.  “Are you well?” she asked.

      He nodded.  “Well enough.”

      They set up camp right there, but Tarrin couldn’t do very much.  Zyri was still crying uncontrollably, so he ended up sitting right where he’d been standing, holding her close and letting her cry herself out, keeping his wings partially curled around them both as a measure of comfort.  He ended up with Jal as well, for the boy same over and sat beside him, still trembling, until Tarrin unfurled a wing and wrapped it around him.  He didn’t clutch onto Tarrin as Zyri did, but he stayed up against his side, holding onto the outer edge of Tarrin’s wing to keep it around him…as if he felt safe while wrapped within the living fire.

      After the camp was set up, Dolanna, Sarraya, and Miranda sat with him as Mist cooked and the others scouted the area, wary of the church sending soldiers or Hunters to kill them.  Tarrin kept hold of the children as the smell of stew reached them, stew and potatos baking on stones surrounding the fire, and pan bread baking just beside them.

      “What happened?” Miranda asked quietly.  “What we didn’t see.  I felt some serious magic flying.”

      He nodded.  “I got into a spell war with the Priests, then, once Ulger came back for this little tiger here, I was free to change and deal with them.”

      “Tarrin, we must face—“ Dolanna started, but he cut her off.

      “I know.  Everything we’ve told the children, the Priests know now.  They know about me, you, what we’re doing here, everything.”

      Zyri started crying harder again, but Tarrin put a hand on her back to calm her.  “It’s not your fault, Zyri.  Or yours, Jal.  It’s something that would have eventually happened no matter what.  This is the third town we’ve visited where we’ve done major damage, so it was just a matter of time.”  He glanced at the fire.  “That suits me just fine,” he said.  “I’m tired of hiding.”

      “Completing our tasks will be harder, I fear,” Dolanna said.

      “Maybe not,” Miranda mused.  “If Kimmie’s smart, and she is, she’ll have avoided civilization.  I’m hoping that this was the last city she visited.  The girl should have realized by the time they got here that just staying out in the country was the smartest thing to do.”

      “I’m not sure what they’re doing, but there does seem to be a kind of plan,” Sarraya injected.  “They moved in straight lines from place to place.  They’re going where they’re going on purpose.”

      Miranda nodded in agreement.  “We can only hope that they finished what they were doing, and now they’ll stay off the main shipping lanes.”

      “If only we could contact Kimmie,” Dolanna fretted.  “She has an amulet.  But mine simply will not work.”

      “Are there any Wizard spells in the book that can let us talk to her?” Sarraya asked Tarrin, landing on his other shoulder.

      He shook his head.  “I’ve looked.  Kimmie and Phandebrass have spells that can do that, but I guess they either never put them in my book, or they’re too advanced for me.”

      “If we cannot talk to Kimmie, then we must have her talk to us,” Dolanna stated.  “We must let her know we are here.”

      “She might already know, if rumor has gotten ahead of us.  Stories of a fire-winged man with a tail shouldn’t be hard for her to identify.”

      “This is not Sennadar, Sarraya,” Dolanna sighed.  “If anything, we are ahead of any rumors.  We travel much faster than most anyone else.  The only ones that might have advance information is the church of the One, and they would not disseminate that kind of information.”

      “Oh.  Yeah, you’re right,” Sarraya agreed.

      “Well, you can travel faster than anyone,” Miranda proposed, looking at Tarrin.  “If you can carry me, we can hunt down Kimmie.  We can make up the twelve days in a matter of hours.”

      “We could do that, but we’re not,” Tarrin said.  “I won’t leave the others undefended.  If we go, we leave the others without any kind of magical protection.  Since anything that comes after us will be a magic-user, that’s unacceptable.”

      “Then take us all,” Sarraya said casually.  “In dragon form, you can carry half a village, Tarrin.”

      “Have you ever ridden a dragon, Sarraya?” Tarrin asked pointedly.

      “Well, no,” she answered.

      “Trust me, you don’t want to learn when you’re a longspan above the ground.”

      “Then just basket us,” Miranda said with a grin.  “You said Ariana carried you around in a basket.  We just make a really big basket, and you carry it while you fly.”

      “Fine.  Make me a basket big enough to carry us all,” Tarrin said bluntly.

      “I—ah.  Point taken,” she winked.

      “That is an idea though,” he agreed.  “We just don’t have the resources to carry it out right now.  It would be way too dangerous for you all to try to ride on my back.  The only real safe place is just behind my head.  Anywhere else, and you’re going to fall off.”

      “What about further down the neck?” Sarraya asked.

      He shook his head.  “My neck is narrowest just behind my head.  Go further back and you’re sitting on a flat space you can’t lock your legs around.  There’s no way for you to keep your seat if I turn.  You’ll slide right off my neck.”

      “That would be a problem, yes,” Miranda winked.

      “We don’t have to rush,” Tarrin said with hard eyes.  “We’ll catch up to Kimmie and Phandebrass.  We’ve already cut their lead by more than half.”

      “Why do we not have to rush?” Dolanna asked pointedly.

      “Because I’m not going out of my way to accommodate anyone else anymore,” he answered.  “I’m going to find Kimmie and Phandebrass, and then we’re going home.  And Goddess help anyone who gets in my way,” he finished in a seething hiss.

      “Tarrin, we are not here to start a holy war,” Dolanna warned.

      “I’m not going to,” he told her. “But I will not hide.  Not now.  I’m going to walk down the street in my normal form and with my wings out.  If they’re stupid enough to get in my way, they’ll pay for it.  If they leave me alone, I leave them alone.  Sneaking around hasn’t worked for us, Dolanna.  Now, we do it the Were-cat way.”
      “It’s about damned time,” Mist said with a snort from the fire.

      “Dear one, you are the reason sneaking through has not worked,” she said with a slightly accusing look.  “Though, I must admit, I might have done what you have done myself.  I find the church of the One repugnant, evil, and completely despicable, and nothing would please me more than wiping it from the face of this world.  But that is a fight we cannot win, so we must be more careful.”

      “We had to be.  But now I can flatten anyone who crosses us.”

      “Literally,” Miranda said with a throaty chuckle.

      Tarrin nodded.  “This change in my power was just what we needed to be able to just bull our way to  Kimmie.  If we come up against more than we can handle at any one time, I just change into a dragon and sweep them aside.  He shifted slightly, keeping his grip on both children, then looked over at Dolanna.  He could see that she wasn’t sitting well with his intentions, but then again, the look on her face told him that she knew better than to push him.  The expression on his face made it clear that he would not be moved in the matter, and she knew him well enough to understand it.  The breadth of the friendship between them was such that they often communicated with one another without saying a word.

      “Well, then, I must ask, what do we do now?” Dolanna said tentatively.  “Going to cities will be difficult, and we will need supplies.”

      “We go anyway,” Tarrin said bluntly.  “When I said I won’t hide, I meant I will not hide.  If I have to kill a few hundred zealots, then so be it.”

      “Tarrin, you are talking war.”

      “Perhaps it’s about time someone brought a little taste of conflict to the lives of these sheep,” Tarrin growled.  “If they want to hate me and everything that I stand for, then let them see it up close and personal.”

      “Dear one,” she sighed, “let us not backslide.  If you are so intent on this, then I will accept it.  But we do not have to go looking for trouble.”

      “Yeah, it’ll find us all by itself,” Sarraya said with an evil little chuckle.

      “My meaning is, do not become what they think you to be,” she said patiently.  “Show them that they are wrong, not that they are justified to believe as they do.”

      Miranda nodded.  “I’d listen to Dolanna, Tarrin,” she agreed.  “I know your temper’s all up in a knot right now, but think about that once you calm down a little.”

      “I proably will, at least after I calm down some,” he grunted, squeezing the two children in his arms.  “These two are the only reason I’m not out trying to hunt down someone to kill.”

      “I think you being in your human form is helping with that, dear one,” Dolanna said with a slight smile.  “You were ever more reasonable when your human half has greater prominence in your mind.”

      “Are you saying that we’re irrational, Dolanna?” Mist asked gratingly.

      “Yes, Mist, you are,” she said honestly.

      Mist snorted.  “Finally, a human that understands us,” she said, leaning over the stewpot to test its aroma.

      Sarraya laughed.  “Were-cats are easy to understand.  Just stuff a bucket of attitude into a perfume bottle, and you have the average Were-cat.”

      “Let’s not start comparing races, Sarraya.  I wouldn’t want to embarrass all of you,” Miranda said with a cheeky grin.

      “Yeah, like your people are all that impressive, fuzzybutt,” Sarraya shot back.

      Haley and Azakar reined in their horses on the far side of the camp, and Ulger came up just behind them.  They let the horses join the others in the free-roaming miniature herd that made up their horses—they were told not to wander—and the three came over and sat down by the fire.  “There’s no pursuit anywhere,” Ulger announced.  “There was a column of church soldiers that went west from the city, but they’re no threat to us.”  He looked over to Mist.  “That smells good.”

      “It’s not ready,” she said with a warning stare.

      “But I’m hungry,” he complained.

      She held up a single finger and extended her claw.  “Remember what happened last time you stuck your hand in my cooking?”

      He put his hands behind his back.  “Well, the blood did make it taste better,” he admitted.

      “If you’re that hungry, grab some bread out of the food pack,” she told him brusquely as she stirred the stew, then put a lid on it and placed a spit holding several strips of meat beside the hanging kettle.  “As soon as the meat’s cooked, it’ll be ready,” she announced.

      “Well, I think we can unsaddle the horses,” Haley announced.  “I don’t think we’ll need a quick getaway tonight.”

      “I’ll take care of it,” Azakar announced, turning and going back to the horses.

      “I’ll give you a hand, Zak,” Miranda called, then got up and hurried after him.  “I need to learn how to do this.  I don’t know much about horses.”

      “Helping you will keep my mind of of Mist’s stew,” Ulger chuckled, then he turned and went to aid his brother Knight.

      Zyri and Jal refused to let go of him as they ate dinner, and it took quite a bit of coaxing to calm them down and get them to eat something.  Tarrin took that opporunity to change back into his normal form and put on some dry clothes, but they returned to his strong arms as soon as they were finished.  Zyri’s storm of weeping seemed to be over, but she continued to cling to him, keeping her head against his stomach.  Jal, whose exhaustion had finally overwhelmed him, had fallen asleep, and had slumped down into his lap.  Tarrin put a paw on Jal’s back, which was nearly as large as Jal’s back itself, then wrapped his wings around them to give Zyri some additional comfort.  Being surrounded by someone, feeling safe and protected, he felt that she needed that right now.  The others sat around the fire a while, but one by one they drifted off to their tents, until there was only him and Mist.  She sat with him, and he opened his arm and wing to her and let her snuggle up against his other side.  And for the first time in a while, he felt curiously complete.  He had a mate in one arm and a child in the other.  Zyri wasn’t his child, but her need had awakened his strong protective instincts, and at that moment it really didn’t matter that she wasn’t one of his children.  She needed him, and that was all that mattered.

      “I think we don’t do this often enough,” Mist said in contentment, putting her paw on the back of his, which was still resting on Jal’s back.  It still looked a little odd that her paw was almost as large as his.  Mist was only a shade shorter than him now, as towering and regal as Triana.

      “I know,” he agreed.  “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?”

      “No,” she answered honestly.  “There’s a time for brute force, and a time for stealth.”

      “But Telven’s going to tell them about us.  We can’t hide.”

      “We can’t hide, but you going around with your wings out will draw every eye to us,” she told him.  “We don’t have to hide to be overlooked.  We’re stalking our prey, Tarrin.  We can’t do that stomping on every dry leaf in the forest.”

      “I know, but,” he said, then he sighed.  Then he chuckled.  “Wasn’t it you you were just agreeing with me?”

      “I agree that we stop sneaking around, but that doesn’t mean I agree with us marching up to Kimmie and inviting every church soldier and Priest to take a shot at us along the way.  You know I’d never tell you what to do, but you asked my opinion.”

      “You always give good advice, Mist.”

      “Odd that I’m agreeing with a human on this one,” she snorted.  “But at least Dolanna won’t pretend like the human way is the only way.  I’ve never met a more arrogant species.”

      “It’s a racial flaw,” he shrugged.

      “I’m amazed that you used to be one of them,” she snorted.

      “Well, we all can’t be perfect,” he answered.  “Now then, feeling better, little bit?”

      Zyri sniffled.  “A little,” she replied in a weak voice.

      “It helps to talk about it, kitling,” Mist said in a surprisingly gentle voice.

      “I can’t believe he’d do that,” she said weakly.  “I can’t believe—“

      “Just let him go, Zyri,” Tarrin told her.  “He’s made his choice.  If he’s old enough to make that choice, then he’s old enough to live with the consequences of his actions.”

      “But he’s my brother!” she protested.

      “And look what he did to you,” Tarrin told her.  “You did nothing wrong, Zyri.  The fault is his.  He’s not a child anymore, little bit.  What he did today was tell you that you don’t have to protect him anymore.  He’s made his first adult decision, honey.  It’s the wrong decision, but it was his to make.  Just don’t dwell on it.  He’s decided what he wants to do with his life.  Don’t let his decision ruin your life.”

      “But, but—“

      “There’s no but, kitling,” Mist told her bluntly.  “The boy’s gone.  Face it.  If he ever does show up again, odds are I’ll kill him.”

      Zyri blanched at Mist.

      “Don’t be surprised, girl.  You listened to Tarrin’s stories, you know what we’re like.  We don’t take well to betrayal.  You can say that that’s the worst thing you can do to a Were-cat, because among us, our word is our bond.  I’m amazed that Tarrin didn’t kill him on the spot, but sometimes he does stupid things.”

      “Thanks,” Tarrin said dryly.

      “Tarrin told you what to do, girl,” she continued.  “You have to live your own life.  You don’t have to look after him anymore, and you don’t have to be Jal’s mother.  So, the question is, what do you want to do?”

      Zyri looked away from her, and put her head against Tarrin’s stomach again. “I don’t know,” she answered in a small voice.

      “Then think about that instead of thinking about that treacherous brother of yours,” she instructed in a cold tone.  “You can’t change the past, so just accept it and move on.  And think about what you want to do with your life instead of worrying about your brothers.  One’s gone, and one has people to watch for him now, so you don’t have to be his mother anymore.”

      Zyri was silent.  Tarrin stroked her back and her dark hair, then patted her shoulders.  She responded by grabbing the edge of his wing in her small hands and playing with the solid fire, tracing her finger along a border between colors that often made the appendages look like they had feathers.

      “Well, if anything, you have time, kitling.  It’s not something you can decide here and now.  But don’t let me catch you moping.”

      “Yes, Mist,” she said quietly.

      “Well, you’re being awfully motherly,” Tarrin teased in the manner of the Cat, which Zyri could not hear or understand.

      “Someone needs to be,” she replied in similar fashion.  “Besides, she looks at you like her father.  It’s only fitting that she feel like she has a mother too.”

      “Strange family,” he mused with a slight smile.

      “You?  Talking about a strange family?  Please,” she retorted.

      “True,” he chuckled aloud.  “Now, little bit, you need to get some sleep.  We’ll have a long day tomorrow.  Go to your tent and get some sleep.”

      “Can I stay with you tonight?” she asked after a moment.  “I, I don’t want to be alone.”

      “Well, I think we can let you, but just for tonight,” Tarrin said after looking at Mist, who nodded.

      “You’ll have to wait a while, though.  Me and Mist are on guard duty,” Tarrin told her.

      “That’s alright,” she said.  “I can stay awake.”

      She was quiet a moment, and Tarrin looked down and saw that she was asleep.  “Riiiiight,” he drawled in a quiet tone.

 

      Finding Kimmie’s trail as it left the city was going to be a problem, but one that had an easy solution.  After everyone was up and ready to go, Tarrin flew very high up into the sky over the city, so high that nobody would notice him, and used Miranda’s spyglass to find the magically marked trail she left behind, for he was the recipient of Miranda’s tracking spell that morning.  Sarraya was with him, so after he saw that she left the city travelling on the road going east, he was supposed to send Sarraya back with the inforamation and wait where they could see him to lead them to the path.  But since it was on the road, he decided that it would be easy enough to find it, so they both returned to the group and forded the river a longspan north of where they were camped, on what looked like a rarely used wagon path.

      Tarrin knew they were all looking at him.  He was riding at the forefront, but after a night of thinking it over, he decided that listening to Dolanna and Mist was the wisest thing to do, so he was in his human form and his wings were concealed.  Mist was right; even if they did know about him and the others, there was no reason to be flaunting himself all over the place and draw every eye to him.  He wasn’t alone in the saddle, however, for Fireflash was on his shoulder, and Jal was riding in the saddle in front of him.  Jal was still a little traumatized by yesterday, so he kept the boy with him to reassure him.  He spent the time following Kimmie’s trail by having Jal use his power, both to get used to how it felt when he did so and to see how much control Jal had over it.

      Not much control at all, he discovered.  Jal could create water and ice, but the ice he created was crudely shaped in the form he wanted it to be.  Tarrin berated him a bit for that, and started trying to teach him how to refine that ability, to make shapes exactly the way he wanted them to be.  Tarrin had no experience with the boy’s power, but he figured that his ability to create ice was similar to a Druid’s Conjuring ability, and it just took a little mental imagry and concentration to get what he was after.  Tarrin demonstrated with fireforms, which, he figured, was a pretty close approximation to what Jal was doing.

      They made little progress that day, though it was an eventful one for its own reasons.  After a half a day of travel, they managed to skirt the farms and come up onto the road and rejoin Kimmie’s trail.  And once on that road, they started meeting other travellers.  The people didn’t panic or run away, which told them all that their descriptions hadn’t gotten out to the commoners quite yet, but they also noticed a steady decline in the number of people that passed by.  After a few hours, they met no more travellers, and Ulger noted darkly that that meant that they were going to run up against a patrol of church soldiers very soon, when word of them got back to a local chapel or roving patrol.

      Ulger’s prediction was quite accurate.  About an hour before sunset, a column of thirty mounted soldiers came trotting over a small rise and bore down on them, then reined in suddenly when they got close enough to see who they were.  This told Tarrin that the church soldiers did know about them, and had been on the lookout for them.  Tarrin handed Jal off to Dolanna and urged his horse forward, ready to change form and kill them the instant they became an obstruction.

      “Stand aside,” Tarrin said in a blunt manner.

      “By order of the One, you will surrender and be tried for the crime of witchcraft!” a thin, reedy looking fellow with a gold tassel hanging from the epaulet of his red uniform called.

      “Boy, I just told you to stand aside,” Tarrin said, staring at him.  But he glanced back and saw Dolanna, saw the reproachful look on her face, then sighed and looked at the situation through her eyes.  If he killed his way to Kimmie, he was going to create a big mess and put his friends in danger.  On the other hand, he was not going to hide who he was.  After all, he saw it as being relatively pointless now, because of Telven.  He had no doubt that every Priest of the One within a hundred leagues knew exactly who he was and what he could do, and knew all about everyone else in their group as well.  So, he had to reach some kind of a compromise between those two needs.

      Haley came up beside him and whispered, “you think you’re commanding enough to get the attention of thirty horses?  They don’t obey me outright all the time.”

      Tarrin chuckled.  “I think I can do that,” he answered, then looked at the officer.  “I’ll tell you one more time, stand aside.  I’m sure you know who I am and what I can do, so, do you really want to fight with me?”

      The man looked a little uncertain, but he drew his sword anyway. “Surrender now!”

      “Fool,” Tarrin snorted, then sat up in the saddle and shouted, changing his inflection to allow the animals to understand him.  “Run that way for a while!” he shouted at the horses, pointing to the north.  “Ignore your riders’ commands!  Run fast and don’t let them dismount!”

      The horses all blinked, looked at one another, then turned north and bolted at a dead run, leaving a wake of startled shouts and cursing.  The officer, who hadn’t had a very good grip on his reins, tumbled out of the saddle after about fifty spans, and was trampled over by about six horses that were running behind his own.  He lay limply in the grass, moaning weakly, and he did not move.

      “Nice,” Haley complemented.  “I never could get that much command into my voice.”

      “Take some lessons from Triana,” Tarrin told him.

      Haley laughed.  “No doubt there,” he agreed.  “You know, eventually they’re going to realize that any soldier on a horse will never get within ten paces of us.”

      “There are always birds,” Tarrin shrugged.  “I think a flock of birds descending on them would make it a little hard for them to charge us.”

      Haley laughed richly.  “We’ll sic an army of squirrels on them,” he said in a devious manner.

      “Chipmunks.  They’re more daring.”

      “I don’t know, I always thought woodchucks were pretty brave,” Haley said seriously as they watched the horses continue to pound to the north.

      “Well, if we want to delve into the realms of utter daring, then we should definitely be looking into otters,” Tarrin replied.  “Think an army of otters would make them quiver in terror?”

      Haley gave him a look, then laughed delightedly.  “Let’s stick with birds,” he said after a deep breath.  “At least they’re always handy.  We might have a tad of a problem rounding up enough otters to make a difference.”

      Azakar walked his horse up to them and regarded the prone officer distantly.  “Cute,” he noted.

      “Thank you,” Tarrin replied soberly.

      “Druids are much more than magic, Zak,” Haley chuckled.  “Make a Druid your enemy, and all of nature is going to be against you.”

      “I’ll remember that,” he said slowly, then urged his horse to continue down the road.

      They camped in a small dell between two low hills, and as Mist cooked, Tarrin made sure to keep Zyri and Jal busy.  Dolanna and Ulger seemed to understand that, so they too kept the children engaged.  While Tarrin worked with Jal to refine his ability, Dolanna taught Zyri a little Sulasian.  Then Ulger took both of them for their sling lesson.  When they were done, and after eating, Tarrin gave them their lesson in bows, then they all sat for a while before going to sleep, engaging in small talk as Tarrin stared up at that strange blue, green, and white moon.  He had the strangest feeling when he looked at it, a feeling that touched on that other part of him, the divine part that was still trying to find itself inside him.  It was distant, but it was a feeling of reaching out, like something, or someone, was desperately trying to talk to him.  He also sensed that something or someone was actively trying to prevent that, an interposing hand between them and Tarrin that sought to block all communication.

      That didn’t take any time to figure out.  He could sense, feel, that there were other gods in this dimension,  so that interposing force had to be the One, striving to prevent those other gods from communicating with Tarrin.

      “Tarrin?” Dolanna said for the fifth time, then she reached out and touched his arm.  Tarrin blinked and looked at her, saw that her dress was soaking wet but had wisps of steam escaping from it, then saw that they were all looking at him.

      “What?”

      “Turn the heat down, hon,” Miranda said with a wink, pointing at the fire.  Tarrin saw that she was standing over by the tents, along with everyone but Dolanna.

      Tarrin looked at it, and saw that the flames were white-hot  He felt the heat against his face, and realized that it was hot enough to melt lead.

      “Oh.  Sorry,” he said, causing the fire to return to normal with barely a thought.

      “Alright, Jal, now try to pull the water from my dress,” Dolanna instructed, holding her arms out.  “And thank you, dear one.  You kept it from bursting into flame.  That was quick thinking, child.”

      Jal blushed and gave her a sheepish smile.  Tarrin watched as the boy closed his eyes and screwed his face up in concentration, holding his hands out to Dolanna.  Then, with surprising suddenness, the water saturating her dress pulled out of the fabric in ropy tendrils, collecting into a gyrating ball in front of him.  He collected up enough water to make a ball the size of a sora melon, then froze it solid with a single touch.

      “Well done, nice and dry,” Dolanna said with quiet praise, which made Jal blush again.  “What was that about, dear one?” she asked Tarrin.

      “I, I could sense someone trying to talk to me,” he answered, looking at the moon again.  “But I also sensed someone trying to block it.  I think the other gods of this world are trying to contact me, but the One is interfering.”

      “There are other gods?” Zyri asked in surprise.

      “Of course there are,” Tarrin chided.  “I’ve sensed them before, when we first arrived here.  But after that, they fell silent.  I never thought to wonder why until now, because I’ve always had other things on my mind.”

      “Perhaps it would be worth our while to try to contact them,” Dolanna suggested.  “Given the One’s positions, they must be against him.  Perhaps they can give us information that will aid us in finding Kimmie.  Perhaps they can talk to her.”

      Tarrin shook his head.  “They can’t,” he told her.  “She doesn’t know about them or believe in them.  A god can’t talk directly to a mortal who doesn’t acknowledge his existence.”

      “That is a rule of our world, dear one.  This is not Sennadar,” she reminded him pointedly.

      “I know, but it’s still possible that it applies here.  There are certain rules that apply to all gods, set by the God of All Himself.  That might be one of them, I’m not sure.”

      “Who?” Zyri asked.

      “The God of All,” Tarrin told her absently.  “The Creator of all the universes.  This world may have been created by a god, little bit, but this universe was created by the God of All.  He creates a universe and brings into being a single god within it, who he directs to run his or her universe as he sees fit.  On my world, that first god, or goddess in this case, is Ayise.  I don’t know who that is here, but I’m certain it’s not the One.”

      “How do you know?”

      “A primary god like a first god has unlimited power, little bit.  If the One were that god, we’d all be dead.  He could kill us with a thought.”

      “Then how can the Goddess blackmail Ayise if she has ultimate power?” Azakar asked curiously.

      “Because she set the rules on Sennadar about how gods control the forces of the universe, and she’s bound by them as much as any other god, Zak.  She can’t just change them when they don’t suit her.  Niami’s using those rules to blackmail her mother into letting me come home.”

      “Well, why can’t she?  After all, she has unlimited power.”

      “When a god makes a contract, they must honor it, Zak,” Tarrin told him.  “It’s one of those rules that the God of All set down.  When Ayise created the system that the gods of Sennadar use, she placed herself inside that system, and because of that she’s bound by its rules as much as any other Elder or Younger god.  If she’d just kept herself aloof of her system, the she would be able to blow Niami off.  There’s also the fact that Ayise actively invested some of her power into her children.  She doesn’t have unlimited power anymore, Zak.  When she had her children, she gave each of them some of her own power.  In a way, if you look at the ten Elder Gods, you can say that the other nine are just extensions of Niami’s power, each with a different focus.  But they’re individuals, truly her children, so when she gave away her power to create the Elder Gods, she ended up placing her power into gods that weren’t just simple extensions of herself.”

      “Ah.  I think I understand.  Ayise wanted to run the universe with others, not all by herself.”

      “That’s the general gist of it, Zak,” Miranda said with a wink.  “Ayise is female, so the motivation to have children and nurture them most likely is the reason why she did what she did.  A male first god probably would have kept all his power for himself.”

      “I never thought that gender would really matter,” Azakar said.  “I thought gods would be above that.  I thought they were male or female because they wanted to be.”

      Miranda and Tarrin looked at each other, and laughed.  “Zak, the concept of gender is a multidimensional constant,” Tarrin told him.  “The two primal forces in the universe, animus and anima, know no boundaries.  Think of gender as an aspect of the power of the God of All, reaching into every universe.”

      “Why is that?” Zyri asked, then flushed and bowed her head.

      “Because the primary focus of the God of All is to create,” he answered her.  “To make sure of that, the forces of animus and anima infuse the multiverse, and their influence encourages creation.  That’s why, no matter which universe you visit, you are absolutely guaranteed to find one common denominator anywhere you go.”

      “Males and females,” Ulger surmised.

      Tarrin nodded.  “Males and females.  And it’s more than physical, as we all know.  Animus has a different way of thinking than anima, so there’s a fundamental difference in how males act than females.  The way that shows up differs from race to race, but males almost always have different ways of doing things than females do.  That’s one way animus and anima maintain separation.”

      “That’s the truth,” Sarraya snickered.

      “There are some exceptions, though.  There always are, both in nature and among some societies.  The Selani are a good example of that.  Males and females do act differently, but you have to pay very close attention to see it.  They all seem the same to people who don’t know them.”

      “Where did you learn all this, Tarrin?” Ulger asked curiously.

      In answer, Tarrin brought out his wings, then fanned them a little ostentatiously.

      “Oh,” Ulger said, then he laughed.

      “They do more than decorate my back, Ulger,” Tarrin said with a slight smile.

      “Well, I’ve noticed that you and Mist don’t act too different,” Azakar said slowly.  “No offense,” he said quickly, looking at Mist.

      “None taken,” Mist told him.  “Though if you think me and Tarrin act alike, you need to pay more attention.”

      “We’re were-cats, Zak,” Tarrin explained.  “We have something else influencing us that doesn’t worry about gender.  Besides, Mist is right.  If you think me and her act alike, you do need to pay more attention.”

      Ulger yawned.  “Well, this is interesting and all, but we’d better draw for guard duty so I can see if I can get some sleep.”

      “I’ll take first watch,” Tarrin volunteered.

      “I wonder why the first god here doesn’t do anything,” Sarraya mused.

      “Odds are, he simply doesn’t care,” Tarrin shrugged.  “A god whose primary focus is keeping the universe running usually doesn’t have time to pay attention to the little things like the One.”  He sat down by the fire, which was burning without wood now, but burning brightly and cheerfully in the firepit.  The bottoms of his wings bent in from contact with the ground, and he absently shortened them to take that into account.  Ulger was standing up and stretching, but Dolanna was staring at him in a curious manner, then she sat down before him.  “What?” he asked her, noticing rather uncomfortably that she was staring at him intently.

      “Dear one,” she said hesitantly.  “Would you do something for me without asking questions?”

      “Sure,” he answered, “but why—“

      She reached up and put her fingers on his lips to silence him.  “Bring out your sword, dear one.”

      Not sure what she had in mind, he obeyed her, calling forth his sword from the elsewhere.  “Alright, here—“

      “Take hold of your amulet, dear one, and try to contact Kimmie.”

      “I—“

      “No questions,” she interrupted.  “Just do it.”

      He sighed.  “Alright,” he agreed as he took his amulet in his paw.  “Kimmie.”

      There was nothing, at least at first.  But after a few seconds, he felt a strange sensation coming from the amulet, as if it was trying to work.  “Put your will behind it, dear one,” Dolanna told him.  “Treat it like a weave.”

      Without moving, Tarrin did as she directed, exerting his will against the amulet, treating the device like it was a weave he had created, something that required concentration to weave and maintain.  “Kimmie,” he called again, with more authority in his voice.

      He distinctly felt something, and there was a faint light touching his eyes from below.  He glanced down, and again saw the blade of his sword limned in ghostly radiance, like wisps of solid light, floating and ghosting around the black blade like smoke.  He nearly lost his concentration when he saw that, but he also felt a sudden surge of power rise up in the sword, surge into him through his grip on the hilt, a power that felt so much like the power of Sorcery that he could not have told them apart.  He directed that power into his amulet almost by instinct, and brightly light erupted from between his fingers as the device flared into incandescence.  The muted flows in his amulet surged with power, and that power reached out, he felt it reach out, spanning an unknown gap.

      “T-Tarrin?  Am I going crazy?” Kimmie’s voice weakly emanated from between his fingers.

      “Kimmie!” Tarrin said in surprise as more than one person by the fire gaped in astonishment.  “Kimmie, we’ve come to get you!  Where are you?”

      “Tarrin!  Oh, Tarrin!  Is it really you?  Am I dreaming?  Oh, please don’t tell me I’m dreaming!”

      Tarrin exchanged confused looks with Mist.  “Kimmie, what’s wrong?  Where are you?  Where is Phandebrass?”

      “I don’t—“ she started, and then there was a strange taint that floated across his fingers.  “Well, I see you finally figured out how to use the amulets.”

      Tarrin’s face turned white, because he knew that voice.  It was a voice he thought he’d never hear again.  “Shaz’Baket!” Tarrin said in an ominous growl.  The Marilith general of Val’s armies!  The last he’d seen of her, she cut Eron’s throat and left him for dead just before abducting Jasana!  “If you—“

      “Oh please, spare me the empty threats,” she said scathingly.  “As you’ve probably deduced by now, your little playmate belongs to me.  You see, after getting banished from Sennadar, I’ve been looking for a way to pay you back for destroying my Master.  Well, it was just luck that Kimmie happened to wander away from the protection of your gods, and the One graciously agreed to allow me to come here to give me that opportunity.  But she’s not the one I want, Tarrin Kael.  You are.”

      “If you want me, witch, you’ll get more of me than you ever dreamed,” he hissed.

      “Oh, I’ve heard,” she replied in an infuriatingly conversational tone.  “A demigod now, I’ve found out.  Turns out you weren’t god enough to slay my Master without dying yourself, and lost most of your power when your cursed Goddess found some miracle to bring you back.  Demons quiver in fear when they realize they may come up against you.  Certainly, a lowly little marilith like myself could never defeat someone as mighty as you.  But you see, I don’t have to,” she said with a chuckle.  “Turns out that you’ve pissed off the One something fierce, Tarrin Kael, and he’d like to have a little chat with you.  But he wants that little encounter to take place where everyone can see him grind you into the dust.  He didn’t think that you’d come and face him without a little, incentive.  It’s just lucky that I happened along.  I’m providing you with sufficient motivation to come face the One, and the One gets to destroy you, which is what I wanted in the first place.

      “So, Tarrin Kael, the One extends an invitation for you to come to Pyros and face him in a duel, where he will destroy you.  You don’t have to do that, though, but if you don’t, then Kimmie becomes my new toy.  I’m sure you know what Demons do with the souls of the mortals they possess, Tarrin Kael,” she said in an evil little whisper.  “If you don’t want that for Kimmie, then come to Pyros and just try to defeat a god.”

      Tarrin made no sound, but the light around his sword suddenly blazed forth into white fire, a clear indication of his anger and outrage.  That white started staining the wings on his back, as pure, incandescent white infused the wings where they extended from his back and crept steadily towards the edges in a ragged, irregular pattern.  Tarrin rose up onto his feet, his face an icy, emotionless mask.  “I’ll crush your soul like an egg, Demon,” Tarrin said in a barely audible voice, but in a tone that made Dolanna crawl back from him in sudden, inexorable fear.  “No matter what it takes.  I’ll make you pay.”

      “Then I’ll take that as an acceptance of my offer,” she said with morbid enthusiasm.  “Oh, and don’t think that we’ll just let you waltz into Suld like a visiting carnival,” she chuckled.  “The One is still coming after you, because he wants to kill everyone with you first.  He wants you to suffer before putting you out of your misery, and I know you oh so well, Tarrin Kael,” she said with an evil little lilt in her voice.  “The best way to make you suffer is to make those you love suffer.  How will it feel to know that you have to stay with the others to keep them alive, but that delay leaves Kimmie in my tender care that much longer?  You’ll keep them alive, but every day you’ll know that she’s suffering, and that you could put an end to it simply by abandoning the others.  I will sing her sweet screams to you every night,” she promised in a dreadfully eager voice.

      Tarrin’s eyes exploded from within with the unholy green aura that marked his anger, and his wings lost their usual smooth composition, flames rising up from the surface that was now reds, oranges, and yellows mixed with snowy white.  His vision began to blur over with red as the impact of the Demoness’ words sank into his mind, and an image of Kimmie being tortured by that soulless monster every day quickly caused his temper to boil over.  The fire beside him roared up into a pillar of fire that reached halfway to the heavens, the air around him shimmered and took on a palpable aura as his power superheated the air around him, and the searing heat of both it and him assaulted the others and caused the horses to turn and run in fear.

      “Uh, Dolanna,” Ulger said fearfully.

      “Now we run,” Dolanna said sagely and with authority.

      “Dolanna?  What’s wrong?” Zyri asked as Dolanna took her hand, then she yelped when the small woman yanked on it as she broke into a run, forcing the girl to keep up or be dragged.

      “Everyone, back!” Dolanna shouted.  “Move away from him now!”

      “Dolanna!” Zyri squealed.  “What’s happening?”

      “Tarrin’s going to rage, that’s what!” Sarraya said fearfully as she buzzed by the girl.  “And we don’t wanna be anywhere near him when he loses it!”

      But not everyone was running away from him.  Mist was instead lunging towards her mate, and Dolanna had turned just in time to see her action.  She was virtually floating through the air as she vaulted at her mate, rising up about ten spans above the ground before descending on a trajectory that would take her right to her mate.  Dolanna saw that she had the empty stewpot in her paws, holding it behind her, and she also saw that Tarrin did not seem to comprehend that Mist was hurtling at him.  She lanced through the air, breaching the shimmering aura that surrounded him, which caused her clothing and her fur to literally burst into flame.  Tarrin did snap his head up to look at her, but only after she was too close to do anything about it, for she whipped the stewpot around with a savage cry, swinging it like a weapon, and she aimed it right at his head.

      The impacting clong was so loud that it made everyone stop in their tracks.  The cast iron pot hit Tarrin right in the temple, and the raw, naked force behind the blow caused the sturdy pot to buckle.  Tarrin’s head was snapped to the side with a spray of blood, as well soaring skin, hair, and bits of bone, as the pot ripped away his scalp and the nubs that served as legs ripped into his skull.  The pot could do him no true harm, for it was a worked object, not a weapon of nature, but the raw power behind it, wielded by a Were-cat who was nearly as stong as he was, was more than enough to cause the impact of it to knock him senseless, as well as give him a concussion.  Tarrin was flung to the side, through the pillar of fire that was his own creation, his sword spinning from his paw.  It landed point first in the ground and stayed there, wobbling back and forth in the ground as its master collapsed onto his side in a boneless heap, where he did not move.  Mist slowly got to her feet as fire licked at her clothes and in her fur, throwing down the destroyed pot and regarding her mate with eerily emotionless eyes, but she flinched and gapsed when a torrent of water deluged over her.  Jal had run back, and was using his ability to inundate Mist, a large jet of water emanating from his hands as he extinguished the fires burning on her.

      She paid him not a whit of notice, for after standing there a moment as if stunned, she rushed to her mate’s side, picking his head up off the ground and seeing that he had already healed.  The others also rushed back as Mist carefully checked her mate, and saw that he was merely unconscious.  She had done him no permanent injury.

      “Mist!” Dolanna said in a frightened tone.  “Are you alright?”

      “I’m fine, Dolanna,” Mist said grimly, collecting her mate up in her arms.  “I need to get him to his bed.”

      “That was very fast thinking, dear one,” Dolanna told her.  “Are you hurt?”

      “I’m a little cooked, but I’ll be alright,” she answered in that same emotionless tone.  Dolanna looked at her, and realized that Mist herself was but one step from flying into a rage as well.  Kimmie was her daughter, after all, and they had all heard the terrible proclamation issued by the Demon who had somehow used Kimmie’s amulet to speak to them.

      “I, see,” Dolanna said hesitantly.  “Say what it is you need, and it is yours.  We are yours to command.”

      “Just bring me some water and stay out of my way,” she answered, looking down at the diminutive woman with eyes that flickered from within with the greenish aura that marked an angry Were-cat.  Mist was somehow controlling her Cat nature, actively trying to suppress a rage, something that Dolanna knew she had never done before.

      “Zyri, stop!” Miranda snapped demandingly.

      Dolanna turned to look, and saw that the girl was reaching for the hilt of Tarrin’s sword, her eyes wide and her expression shaken.

      “Dear child, never touch that sword!” Dolanna told her quickly and intensely.

      “I, I wanted to take it back to him,” she told them in surprise.

      “Leave it where it is, kiddo,” Ulger told her seriously, coming up beside her and putting his hand on her shoulder.  “That’s not something that any of us messes with.  When Tarrin wakes up, he’ll get it.  Until then, it stays right where it is.”
      “Is it dangerous?” she asked.

      “If Tarrin’s not holding it, yes, it’s very dangerous,” Miranda told her.

      Mist snorted, detouring just enough to march over to the sword.  She grabbed hold of the hilt without a second thought, and then pulled it out of the ground.  “It won’t hurt me,” she told them gratingly.  “Now soemone hold open the tent flap so I can get Tarrin in bed.”

 

      He first became aware of pain behind his eyes.  It was a dull pain, and it messed with his ears in a way that made him feel like he was both falling and spinning at the same time.  It also darted in and out of his thoughts, scattering them whenever they tried to organize.  He was able to take control of his senses, though, and knew that Mist was in his tent with him, but that she smelled like burnt hair.

      He grunted quietly and opened his eyes, but found his vision both blurred and doubled.  Two hazy images of Mist appeared to his eyes, leaning over him, her visage so distorted that only the scent of her told him who it was.  The image of her sharpened and then became recognizable, but she didn’t smile.  He could smell her tension, her pent-up anger.  Whatever was keeping her from exploding was beyond him, because she was but a hair’s breadth from flying into a rage.

      “Do you remember what happened?” Mist asked immediately, still staring at him with those penetrating eyes.

      “You hit me with the stewpot,” he said in a flinty tone, then he sighed.  “Thank you.”

      “You’re welcome,” she answered emotionlessly.  “Do you remember the rest?”

      The mere mention of that caused his wings to flare with bright light, and his eyes to limn over in green.  Just the thought of Kimmie in clutches of that monster was enough to send him spiraling into a rage, but Mist’s paws closed over his quickly.  “Not here,” she told him intensely.  “Not now.”

      “You’re, you’re right,” he said, blowing out his breath.  “Did I hurt anyone?”

      “No,” she replied.  “I got to you before you could.  What do we do now?”

      “What can I do, Mist?” he sighed.  “I can’t leave the others.  That bitch knows that, that’s why she taunted me with it.”

      “How will they know?”

      “Mist, love, this is the One’s territory.  If he’s anything like the Younger Gods back home, he can see anything important that goes on here, and I leave way too much of a footprint to move around without attracting his attention, so he can see what we’re doing.  If I leave, he can send his troops, or even worse, Demons, after everyone else.  The instant I leave, the rest of you will be swarmed.”

      “They have to catch us, Tarrin.”

      “Demons, Mist.  All they have to know is where we are, and they can Teleport right to us.  If I leave, you’ll get a face full of Demon.”

      “If they can do that, why haven’t they done it by now?” she asked pointedly.

      “I, I don’t really know,” he answered honestly.  “They can do it.  Why they haven’t done it is a mystery to me.  After all, if the One wanted to get rid of me, he could just summon up a few hundred Demons and sic them on us.”

      “He wants to kill you himself,” Mist told him.

      “No, he intends to face me because he’s the only one who can kill me,” he answered.  “The question is why make me come to Pyros?  Why not face me here, away from any civilization?”

      “You can ask him that just before you rip out his heart,” Mist told him in a cold, concentrated manner.

      “That’s a promise,” he answered with narrowed eyes.

      “You don’t touch the Demon bitch, Tarrin,” Mist warned him, flexing her fingers as her eyes exploded from within with green light, and her ears laid back.  “She has my daughter, and that matters much more than what she means to you.  The Demon is mine.”

      At that moment, Tarrin felt a fleeting feeling of pity for Shaz’Baket.  If the Demoness could look into Mist’s eyes at that very moment, she would know true fear.  On Sennadar, there were three understood rules which all life followed.  Be in harmony with nature, be in harmony with the gods, and never make Mist angry.

      He put his paw on her cheek, and she patted the back of it fondly.  “Do you feel well enough to move?  We’re breaking camp and moving on.”

      “Are the others ready?”

      “No, but they will be,” she answered brusquely.

      “What time is it?”

      “Midnight, more or less.”

      “They’re asleep?”

      “No.”

      “Have they slept at all?”

      “I don’t think so.  They’re waiting to see if you’ll be alright.”

      Tarrin got up.  “We should move now, if only because the One’s troops have to travel to reach us.  And I know they’re coming, so we shouldn’t make it easy for them.”  He glanced at his wings, then folded them behind him rather than retract them.  “We can stop somewhere and get some rest, then move on.”  He looked at her.  “Let’s pack.”

       “I’ll do it, you go out there and make the others get ready.”

      He nodded, kissed her on the cheek, then burst from the tent.  The others were already standing, having heard him talking, and Fireflash zipped from Haley’s shoulder and landed on his, chirping and rubbing the side of his head against Tarrin’s neck affectionately.  “Are you well, dear one?” Dolanna asked carefully.

      “Mist knocked the rage out of me,” he answered curtly.  “Everyone pack.  We’re moving.”

      “Pyros?” Ulger asked in a serious manner.  Tarrin looked at him, and saw that the Knight was tense, like a man about to do war.

      “As soon as we find out which way to go,” he answered.  “So we’re going north.  We’ll accost the first person we find to get directions, and start out.  We have to get to Kimmie as quickly as we can.”

      “The other question we must answer is what happened to Phandebrass,” Dolanna said grimly.  “Dear one, before we move, contact him.  We must know if he was captured.”

      Tarrin nodded, and realized his sword wasn’t in the elsewhere.  “Where is my sword?”

      “Mist took it to your tent,” Sarraya answered him.

      “Mist touched it?” he asked in shock.

      “It did her no harm,” Dolanna told him quickly.  “I think it knows her, or knows that she is your mate.  It did not strike at her.”

      With but a thought, Tarrin called to the sword, and it responded by floating quickly through the opened tentflap and to his waiting paw.  He closed his paw around it as his other went to the amulet, and then he set his will against the amulet.  “Phandebrass,” he called as the sword’s blade again limned over in ghostly radiance, almost like Magelight, and spots of white appeared within his wings.

      “I say, Tarrin!  Thank the gods you finally arrived!  I say, where are you, lad, and how are you making the amulet function?  There’s no Weave here!”

      “I have no idea,” he growled.  “What happened?  I just found Kimmie.  The church of the One has her.”

      “Aye, nasty business, that was.  I just barely managed to escape, and I’d be dead if not for Kimmie.  We were ambushed by a few dozen Demons.  Kimmie used the Shadow Step spell on me about an instant before a Vrock  took my head off with a polearm, she did.  I say, I still get a strange feeling across my neck when I think of how close that was.  I say, anyway, the spell teleported me about a longspan away, and I’ve been on the run ever since, I have.  Where are you, lad?”

      “About half a day south of a city called Dengal,” he answered.  “We need to find you, Phandebrass, but we can’t go out of our way.  The One is using Kimmie to force me to come to Pyros and fight him, and every day she’s in their prison is a day they can torture her.  So I’m going to Pyros to get her back.  One way or another,” he said grimly.

      “I say, lad, I can meet you along the way.  I’m in Pyros right now, I am, and I’ve been trying to find a way to break Kimmie free.  I also have some new friends you should meet.  They’re part of the Shadows, a group of Elementalists and Wizards that help find people and get them to safety before the One’s Priests kill them.  I say, I’m glad you’re here, I am.  I’ve had a bear of a time trying to get Kimmie out.  I can start on the road to Dengal right now and we can meet in the middle.”

      “He may be of more use to us there,” Dolanna said.  “Especially if he has met other magic-users that might help us.”

      Tarrin nodded.  “Just stay in Pyros, Phandebrass, and find out everything you can about where they have Kimmie, how many people are guarding her, the layout of the city, anything you think might be useful to us when we go get her.  And if you think you have a chance to get her out before we get there, by all means, take that chance.  We can’t let them keep her any longer than absolutely necessary.  But don’t get caught!  We need your help to do what the Goddess needs done before we can leave, so don’t get yourself killed.”

      “I say, lad, I’ll do my best to be careful, I will,” he promised.  “How are you doing this?” he demanded.

      “I honestly have no idea,” he replied.  “I just am.  Do you still have your spellbooks?” he asked impulsively.

      “Not all of them, no,” he answered.  “I lost my full set when Kimmie shadow stepped me to safety.  All I have left are my travelling spellbooks and everything I was wearing when she stepped me.  I say, I’ll just have to be careful not to lose them, I will.”

      Tarrin felt a sudden pang of concern.  “Which spells did you lose?”

      “I say, none, lad, none at all,” he replied.  “I have three of Phandebrass’ Collapsible Spellbooks, my own creation,” he said proudly, “and they hold all the spells I have, they do.  But I’m down to my last set of books, I am, so I have to be very careful with them.  If I lose these, I’m up a tree, I am.”

      Tarrin sighed in relief.  “Good.  I’ll try to contact you every other day or so to make sure you’re alright.”

      “I’ll do what I can, lad.  Kimmie’s one of my best friends, and I want her out of there, I do.  I say, are you alone, or do you have others with you?”

      “I have Dolanna, Miranda, Mist, Ulger, Azakar, and Sarraya.  Haley’s also here, but I don’t think you know him.”

      “We’ve met a few times.  I say, courteous fellow, well-mannered, he is.  Sarraya?  She’s not dead?”

      “She had a plan to get around that,” Tarrin said, giving Sarraya look.  The Faerie preened herself shamelessly.

      “Don’t let me start prattling, lad,”  Phandebrass said seriously.  “I know that we both want Kimmie out of the One’s prison and safe as quickly as possible, so I won’t hold you up, I won’t.  I’ll do everything I can to get ready for you when you get here, so we can go right after her.  If you’re in Dengal, then you’re about nine days away from Pyros.  It lies on the road that goes, dear me, let me get my map, hold on.”

      There was a protracted pause, and Tarrin spent that time looking at the others.  They were all tense, wary, but Zyri and Jal looked afraid and confused.  But there was a singular sense of urgency that seemed to emanate from everyone now.  They all know what dire straits Kimmie was in right now, and they all wanted to rescue her as quickly as possible…even the usually addled Phandebrass, who was showing uncharacteristic focus on the matter at hand.

      “Thanks much, Lorak,” Phandebrass’ voice came from the amulet again.  “Lorak gave me a map.  Unrolling it now, I am.  Here we are.  The road that leaves from the east side of Dengal is the road to Pyros, lad.  It turns to the north, and you’ll go through six villages and two good-sized cities along the way, Brund and Varga.”  There was a pause.  “Lorak says he can send word towards you to the circles of Shadows in the cities to be on the lookout for you, and help you if you need it.”

      “We won’t need it,” Tarrin said in a quiet tone.  “Trust me, Phandebrass, nobody’s going to miss me when I come that way.  I’m not going to hide.  You might want to tell this Lorak to get his people out of those cities.  I’m coming for Kimmie, and I’ll destroy anything and everything that gets in my way.”

      There was a lengthy pause.  “Very well, lad,” Phandebrass said seriously.  “I’ll have Lorak pull his people out of Brund and Varga.  No, Lorak, I’m not joking.  I say, when Tarrin says something like that, he’s not joking, he’s not, and he’s the kind of magic-user that can back up his claims.  I say, we’ll know he’s close to Pyros because of the columns of smoke that are rising into the sky behind him.  I say, there won’t be a chapel or temple to the One left standing between Dengal and Pyros, and the road’ll be littered with dead church soldiers.”

      “I’m glad you understand,” Tarrin told Phandebrass bluntly.

      “All too well, lad.  And hit a few of them for me as you come north.  I’m rightly incensed, I am.”

      “I can do that.”

      “Alright then, lad, contact me again in two days.  I say, I hope to have some information ready for you by then, I do.  Until then, be well, and good luck.”

      “You too.  Be safe.”

      “Good journey,” Phandebrass said, and he Tarrin took his paw off the amulet.

      Tarrin regarded the others with narrow eyes.  “Anyone have any objections?” he asked bluntly, looking right at Dolanna.

      She sighed.  “No, dear one.  Any objection I make will be ignored.  And I feel the same outrage as you.  It is clear from the words of the Demoness that they know where we are, so it will be pointless to hide.  So if we cannot hide to move quickly, then we will ride proudly and with heads held high, and drive our way through like a Wikuni clipper cutting the waves of a storm.”

      And with that, she rather pointedly reached into the bodice of her dress, withdrew her silver shaeram, and set it outside her blue dress, displaying it for everyone to see.

      “Nobody touches little Kimmie that doesn’t become a crusade for the Knights,” Ulger said flatly, punching his fist into the open palm of his other hand.  “As Karas gives me strength, we’ll ride through them like Death Himself and take her back from that unholy god and his Demon pets.”

      “Aye,” Azakar agreed with hard eyes.  “She’s family to a Knight, so that makes her one under Karas.  It’s only unfortunate that we don’t have more brothers here to exact vengeance.  I’d like to see how brave these churchmen are when a column of Knights comes riding over the hill.”

      Tarrin looked down at his sword, which was still glowing with wispy light.  Now that he was looking at it, aware of it, he sensed the power it held more clearly, and felt that power respond to his awareness.  He realized that the sword was using Sorcery, it was in touch with the Weave.  He could feel it clearly.  It was somehow reaching through the dimensional boundary between Sennadar and this world and making contact with the Weave.

      He had no idea how it was doing it, but it was.  The sword was bringing the power of Sorcery into this new world, and Tarrin had drawn on that power when he had used the amulets, had used the power the sword had drawn to fuel the weaves in the amulet to make them work.  He drew on that power once more, weaving a simple spell of Fire and Air which caused a ball of light to appear over his palm.

      There was no joy in this discovery.  There was only relief that he had access to another tool he might need to deal with the One and his Demons.  The power was substantially weaker than what he was used to, and it required a supreme amount of his own energy and concentration to control it, as he was weaving from power drawn literally from another world, but even that weak power might make a tremendous difference.  After all, it wasn’t the power, it was how it was used.  There was a great deal he could do with this power, especially if….

      “Dolanna,” he said, looking at her.  “Can you feel it?”

      Her eyes were wide, and a bit wild.  “Yes, I can!” she answered immediately.  She reached out towards the sword, and then he felt it respond to her, allowed her to touch the power within and draw it out.  She wove a spell of Air and Fire, creating a silvery sheen of light to sparkle between her hands.  “I can touch it!” she exclaimed.

      “Is that Sorcery, Dolanna?” Haley asked in surprise.

      “Yes, Haley, yes!  Tarrin’s sword has somehow made contact with the Weave!  The power within it is very weak, but it is there, and I can draw on it!  It is like weaving through a projection, but it at least is something!”

      “That’s how he made the amulet work!” Sarraya said, snapping her fingers.  “Where it was drawing power from the Weave at home, now it’s drawing power from him!”

      “Yes, Sarraya, I suspected as much earlier, because our items still function even without the Weave.  I knew that something has to be powering them, and now we know.  It is Tarrin’s sword!”

      “That’s nice to know.  Now let’s pack,” Miranda announced.  “One of my best friends is being held by a Demon, and that’s not going stay that way for long.”

      “Aye!” Ulger boomed, pounding his fist into his palm again.

      Tarrin looked at them, his glowing sword in his paw, and he felt both towering fury that Kimmie was being held and was suffering, but also tremendous relief and pride in his friends.  They felt as he did, and they would not falter, no matter how hard the path to Pyros would be.  He knew that with them, with their help, Kimmie was as good as home already.

      It was just a matter of going to fetch her.

 

 

 

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 7

 

      The ride was long and arduous for the children, but it was filled with grim resolve for the others.

      They followed Tarrin, whose wings were unnaturally bright, lighting the way and illuminating everything around him, and anyone who got close to him could feel the heat emanating from him, even noticable in the hazy summer night.  His wings were a beacon that drew every eye to them, and not all of them were friendly.

      Not that it mattered.  On two separate occasions, small roving patrols caught the light of Tarrin’s wings and moved to investigate, and were summarily wiped out.  Tarrin didn’t even allow anyone to so much as draw a weapon.  He simply rode forward on the six man mounted patrols, then incinerated them where they stood with a hellish inferno that raged from an open paw, horses and all.  The display frightened the children and concerned the others, for they had never seen Tarrin use his power like that before, nor had they seen such a display of it.  Tarrin very rarely used his divine abilities, and even when he did, they were always tightly controlled, focused, and never any stronger than what was necessary to get the job done.  But this was a naked display of overwhelming power, an extension of his anger.  Sometimes it was easy to forget that Tarrin had that kind of power without using any of his magic, since he was so reluctant to use it.

      The trip through Dengal was quick and tense, but there was no major warfare.  Instead of going around they city wall, Tarrin led them right into the destroyed gate, and the guards inside were wise to get out of his way without a fight.  The fact that he blasted the two outside the city gates to ash when they moved to impede him was all the motivation they needed to get out of his way.  He then led them straight through the city, as soldiers ghosted their route on other blocks, watching but not interfering.  Word had obviously reached the east gate as well, for it had been opened well before they arrived, allowing them to leave without having to knock it down.

      Once they were on the east road, they picked up into a canter and rode throughout the night.  Tarrin kept his sword out, and the entire time it continued to glow with that ghostly radiance, as if he was using it to do Sorcery, and Dolanna rode right beside him.  But that was not what he was doing.  The sword allowed him to reach across the dimensions and touch the Weave from home, but with no Weave here, it meant that any use of Sorcery would be extremely limited.  He could use no weave that manifested anywhere but from him, since there was no Weave to carry the power, no other place to push flows out of the Weave.  That did give him some range, since the flows would come from the sword, but not the kind of range with which a Sorcerer was used to working.  Without the power of the Weave to call upon, they were limited to what weak power the sword would provide, or what they could hold.

      Both of them were building up the magical energy of Sorcery, drawing it off the sword, and holding it.  A well trained Sorcerer could hold power for a good deal of time, but a Weavespinner, immune to the heat that the power introduced into the body, could hold the power for however long they wanted.  In fact, since there was no Weave, the power literally had nowhere to go until it was actively used.  It couldn’t bleed off, and an incidental contact with a strand wouldn’t drain the stored power away by giving it somewhere to go.  So, through the night, both Tarrin and Dolanna siphoned the power of Sorcery from the sword, storing it away to be used at a later time.

      Over the night, both of them had managed to build up a decent amount of power.  By dawn, creeping over a low range of hills to the east and staining red a bank of ominous clouds on the western horizon, Tarrin could sense that Dolanna had managed to build enough power to unleash one relatively strong spell.  They were forced to use normal Sorcery without a Weave to work with, working only with the power within, but that would be more than enough.  Dolanna had enough power built up to last her a while, so long as she rationed it wisely.  And so long as she stayed near the sword, she had the ability to replenish that magical energy, albeit very slowly.

      Strangely, Tarrin’s absorption of that power seemed faster than Dolanna, and unlike her, it seemed to have a visible effect on him.  Zyri pointed it out when they stopped for the morning, to rest a while and eat before continuing on, pointing at his back.  “Your wings are turning white,” she announced.

      Tarrin looked back and saw that she was right.  The upper edges of his wings were indeed white, all the way to where the joint would have been, were they real wings, a stripe of white along the top edge that extended down into the interior of his wings in a ragged, patchy manner.  Immediately, he sensed that it was because of the Sorcery built up inside him.  That power wasn’t resting in him, it was drawn into his wings.  In a way, that made a kind of sense.  They were magical constructs, a manifestation of his divine power, and they were inexorably linked to the sword, which was also nothing more than an exterior aspect of his divine power.  The sword seemed to be the gateway to Sennadar, a bridge back to the Weave…perhaps, in their own way, his wings were also linked to the Weave, in a way that made them more receptive to containing the power of the Goddess.

      Or maybe that was Niami’s doing.

      Either way, that white coloring was indeed being caused by the power of Sorcery, almost like the ghostly magelight of High Sorcery staining his wings.

      But he paid it little mind.  He just nodded absently at Zyri, then immediately sat cross-legged on the ground and put the sword in his lap, which still glowed with ghostly radiance even after he took his paw off the hilt.  He closed his eyes and put the palms of his paws on the blade, then tried to open himself more to the power of the sword.  He wanted to draw in power until he absolutely could not hold any more, and for him, that was a considerable amount of power, because he was a sui’kun.  The strong wash of Dolanna’s scent over him preceded feeling her put her hands on his paws, and he opened his eyes to see her seated before him, hand on his paws, eyes closed and a look of serene concentration on her face.  He could feel her open herself, as if opening herself to the Weave, but instead directing it towards the sword…exactly as he was doing.  He closed his eyes and bowed his head, then tuned out the entire world to work on gathering as much power as he could for the short time that his attention wasn’t required to guide his horse or keep his eyes open for attackers.

      “What are they doing, Mistress Miranda?” Zyri asked the Wikuni curiously.

      “They’re soaking up magic from the sword,” she answered.  “Both of them can do a type of magic that we didn’t think could be used here, but it turns out that Tarrin’s sword is going to let us bend the rules.  It’s complicated, so let me just say that using this kind of magic is going to make them draw it from the sword before they can do anything with it.  Usually they wouldn’t do it this way, but since there’s no Weave here to power their magic, they have to build the power up first and just hold it until they use it.”

      “They’re going to hold that power?” Ulger said in sudden concern.

      Miranda nodded.

      “Oh, nevermind.  I forgot, Dolanna’s a da’shar.  It won’t hurt her.”

      “Since when does a Knight know anything about magic, Ulger?” Sarraya asked with a wicked lilt in her voice.

      He grunted.  “It’s a Knight’s duty to know how Sorcery works.  It lets us work with Sorcerers better.  Any Knight who’s won his spurs knows as much about how Sorcery works as a Sorcerer.”

      “We had classes when I was a cadet, on Sorcery.  That lets us know if the Sorcerer is about to do something dumb,” Azakar added.

      “Well, those two are going to be out of it, so let’s just work around them,” Haley announced.  “We have horses to feed and water and breakfast to arrange.  Let’s get ourselves together.”

      “Azakar, Ulger, horses.  Miranda, breakfast.  Haley, Sarraya, Fireflash, scout.  Zyri, Jal, help Miranda,” Mist commanded in short, tense words, as she took up an erect posture near her mate and Dolanna.  She looked ready to kill the first person who came within ten spans of them, and seemed to instantly forget they were there.

      “Uh, I’m not arguing with her,” Haley said in a low voice, then chuckled.  “Well, we’ve been given our orders.  Let’s get moving!”  He then hunched down and shapeshifted into his handsome gray wolf form, then loped off into the high grass by the road, quickly vanishing from sight.

      “Okay, Fireflash, you go that way, I go this way,” Sarraya pointed as she instructed the drake, who was on the saddle of Tarrin’s horse.  “Don’t go far, and come back if you see humans.”

      Fireflash chirped in understanding, then turned and vaulted into the air, then flapped off in the direction Sarraya had indicated.  Sarraya’s body wavered into invisibility, and the buzzing of her wings indicated that she was flying off in the opposite direction.

      Miranda cut some dried meat and cheese for them, but they didn’t get the chance to eat it.  Haley came bounding back mere moments after leaving, shifting into his human form in midair.  “There’s a patrol of soldiers coming this way!” he shouted.  “Call it, Mist!”

      She looked down at Tarrin and Dolanna, who did not even move.  “Fight,” she growled, her eyes exploding from within with greenish radiance.  “Stay here.  I’ll be right back.”

      “Uh, you’re not going to take on an entire patrol by yourself, are you Mist?”

      In response, Mist held up her arms, displaying her Cat’s Claws, and then extended the narrow blades.  The metal flowed over the backs of her paws, then down over her fingers, to form two-span long, delicate little edged blades that were attached to her fingers.

      “I’d take that as a yes, Ulger,” Haley said smoothly.  “Do you want me to help?”

      She snorted disdainfully, then loped off in the direction from which Haley had come.

      “That’ll be ugly,” Ulger grunted.  “She’s been in a mood ever since we found out what happened to Kimmie.  You know she’s going to boil over on those soldiers.”

      “I think it will do her some good.  I’d rather her vent on them than us,” Haley noted.

      “True enough,” Ulger agreed.

      “Will Mistress Mist be alright, Master Ulger?” Zyri asked fearfully.

      “Honey, worry about those soldiers, not Mist,” Miranda chuckled humorlessly.  “Mist is every bit as tough as Tarrin is, and unless they have someone who can do magic with them, they can’t even hurt her.  That complement of soldiers had better pray that they have a Priest with them, or they won’t stand a chance.”

      “Not even a Priest is going to matter,” Azakar said bluntly.

      “True, but he’d slow her down for a minute.”

      “Not even a minute,” Azakar countered.

      “I’m going to angle off and check over there,” Haley said, pointing at a small grove of trees to the southwest.  “Make sure they don’t have scouts trailing us from a distance.”

      As Miranda and the children prepared something to eat, the sound of Mist’s arrival at the patrol reached them.  First it was startled shouts just over the little hill to the south, then it was confused shouting and cursing mixed in with the screams of the injured.  Then it turned to chaos very quickly, and the shouting and cries began to fade as, from the sound of it, the patrol broke and ran to escape from the infuriated Were-cat.

      She came back about the same time Haley returned.  Blood matted her arms, and it was spattered all over her clothes and face.  Her eyes were still glowing green, as if the expression of her anger had not been nearly enough to calm her down.  “I’ll fill a bucket so you can wash off,” Miranda told her calmly.  “I think the blood smell isn’t doing you too much good.”

      “Are you alright, Mistress Mist?” Zyri asked in concern.

      “They were a bunch of frightened little rabbits,” she growled.  “They won’t be following us again.”

      “Did any get away?” Ulger asked.

      Mist gave him an unholy look.

      “I didn’t think so,” he said, then he chuckled.  “Good.”

      As the others did what they could, Tarrin continued his deep contemplation of the sword.  Dissatisfied with the rate at which he was drawing power, he submerged himself into the sword directly, exploring it, seeking to cause it to deepen its connection to the Weave.  He was linked to the sword body, mind, and soul, but he found that the sword was resistant to any attempt to breach its outer boundaries and discover the power inside.  The sword was a part of him, but he found it very intent to remain distinctly separate, even attempting to hide itself from him.  The sword did not want him to look inside it.  The sword did not want him to know how it was touching the Weave.  The sword did not want him to see how it worked.  He found that the harder he pushed, the more resistant it became, until it became obvious to him that he was not going to win this little battle.  Unable to deepen his connection to the Weave by forcing his sword to open up to it more, he instead reached through the sword, trying to draw directly from the Weave, much like how he reached through the Cat to touch the All.

      That worked.  Tarrin found the power on the other side of the sword, and though it was distant, it was familiar power, the power of the Goddess, and it heard his call.  Power surged into and through the sword, whose dim glow suddenly flared to brightness.  It was still little more than a trickle compared to the kind of power he could draw if he had direct contact with the Weave, but it was more than he could draw before, and that was good.  Dolanna’s eyes snapped open suddenly, then she smiled and then closed them again, friming her grip on the backs of his paws.

      Moments became minutes, and minutes became hours as Tarrin and Dolanna sat there, as the sun rose higher into the sky, and was then covered over by a bank of ominous clouds.  The others became more and more impatient, but none of them would dare attempt to disturb Tarrin.  The only ones who could do so without risking injury were Mist and Dolanna, and neither seemed inclined to do so.  Dolanna was also absorbed in what she was doing, and when Miranda delicately breached the idea of getting Tarrin to stop so they could move, she waspishly retorted that Tarrin would move when Tarrin bloodly well wanted to move.

      “We’re losing time, Mist,” Miranda pleaded.   “And it’s just giving them more time to get soldiers here.  If we don’t move soon, we’ll have a few hundred soldiers to deal with instead of just a roving patrol.”

      “We’ll leave when Tarrin is ready, and not a second before,” she replied adamantly.  “You think I like sitting here when we can be moving?  I don’t,” she snorted.  “But we have to trust Tarrin.  He wouldn’t hold us up unless he had a damned good reason.  He knows what he’s doing.”

      “Honey, I think we need to have a little talk, very soon,” Miranda sighed, but she gave Mist a cheeky grin.

      “It’s going to rain,” Azakar announced, looking at the sky.  “If we’re stuck here until Tarrin and Dolanna snap out of it, then let’s at least get something over them so they don’t get wet.”

      “Or us either,” Ulger grunted.  “We don’t have time for tents, but we can set up some lean-tos with the tent poles and some canvas.  We’ll be able to knock those down in less than a minute when Tarrin’s ready to go.”

      Ulger, Azakar, and Haley set up a trio of crude shelters, then Haley ranged out again to keep watch on the area.  Sarraya and Fireflash returned from time to time to report in, Fireflash having to wait impatiently for someone who could understand him to return, until he growled in frustration from Miranda’s shoulder and began hissing in a strange manner.

      “What’s the matter, Fireflash?” Miranda asked in concern as the drake continued its strange hissing.

      “Ssssssssssspeaths

      Miranda started, then snagged the gold drake from her shoulder and held him before her.  “Fireflash!” she said in shock.  “You’re talking!”

      “He’s always understood, he’s just never spoke,” Mist told her shortly.  “I’m think he’s sick of waiting for Haley or Sarraya to translate for him.”

      Miranda gave her a surprised look.

      “Tarrin always said that Fireflash had the ability to talk.  Tarrin said he’s as smart as any human.  He’s just never had the compunction to try until now, I guess.  When he lived with us, we always knew what he wanted.”

      Fireflash nodded vigorously.  “Thrass no hhhumahhsss.”

      “He said there’s no humans,” Zyri announced, then she blushed slightly and assumed a meek posture.

      “Well, since it seems you’ve got an ear for figuring out what he’s saying, I say it’s your job to translate for us,” Miranda winked.  “Fireflash, report to Zyri when you come in.”

      The drake nodded, then he wriggled until Miranda let go of him.  He swooped into the air and then flapped away towards the south.

      “I didn’t realize that you were so fluent in Sulasian, Zyri,” Miranda winked at her.  “I couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was saying.”

      Zyri blushed and returned a sheepish smile.  “Mistress Miranda, I’ve been meaning to ask a question.”

      “Sure, honey.”

      “Why is it you can do your magic when Tarrin can’t?” she asked.  “He said he was a Priest of his Goddess, but he can’t do that magic here.  But you’re also a Priest, and you can.  Why?”

      “Well, let’s just say that I defy the rules,” she winked.  “I’m a little different than Tarrin.  My relationship to Kikkalli is a bit more direct than his is to his Goddess.  The special circumstances of our relationship lets me use my magic here.”

      “How is it different?”

      “Honey, I don’t think you’d understand it.  It gets very, very, complicated.”

      “You make things too complicated on purpose, Miranda,” Mist grunted.  “It’s simple, child.  Miranda is an Avatar.”

      “What is an Avatar?”

      “She has a direct connection to Kikkalli, because Kikkalli blessed her when she was born,” she answered.  “That special blessing lets Miranda use her magic anywhere she goes.  That’s something that other Priests can’t do, because a regular Priest can’t use magic on a world where his god isn’t worshipped.  That’s why Tarrin can’t use his Priest magic here, but Miranda can.”

      “My, that is a pretty good way to explain it,” Miranda chuckled ruefully.  “I didn’t know you knew so much about it.”

      “I don’t speak, but I do listen,” Mist told her flatly.  “And I’m not stupid.”

      “I never thought you were,” Miranda told her.

      “Well, why can’t a god just give that blessing to a Priest?”

      Miranda smiled.  “Because they have to do it when the Priest is born,” she answered.  “I guess my goddess had the feeling that I might be needed some time in the future, so she blessed me when I was born.”

      “Well, don’t gods know who they’ll need later?”

      Miranda laughed.  “Gods aren’t as all-powerful as they want mortals to think that they are, honey,” she winked.  “They want mortals to believe that they are, though.”

      “Why?”

      “Well, it gets complicated, honey, but I’ll try to make it easy to understand,” she said, with a sly little look at Mist.  “There are two kinds of gods, I’m sure you remember Tarrin explaining that.  There’s the ‘creator’ god, and then there’s the other gods in a world.  The creator god is apart from the others, because he was here first.  But all the other gods, like the One, are only here because the people living on the world want him here.”

      “I don’t understand.”

      “Give me a minute, honey, I’m trying to fill in the background a little bit.  Gods like the One are created because regular people decide that there’s a need for him, and that belief causes him to come into being.  The One will live as a god as long as people believe that he is one.  When no one believes he’s a god anymore, he’ll disappear.”

      “That doesn’t make any sense.”

      “I don’t think I explained it very well,” she said with a grimace.

      “Gods depend on mortals for their very existence,” Mist interrupted.  “They’re created when mortals develop true faith in them, and they exist as long as people have that faith.  Gods are created by mortals, and they depend on the mortals who believe in them.”

      Zyri’s expression was still a bit muddled.  “Doesn’t that mean that gods aren’t really gods?”

      “I told you it was complicated,” Miranda grinned.  “Gods are gods, honey, with powers far beyond the mortals who believe in them.  But that power comes from the mortals who worship them.  The more mortals there are that worships a god, the stronger he is.  As long as one person out there believes with all his heart in a god, that god has power.  But when there are no more mortals who believe in a god—“ Miranda snapped her fingers— “poof.  They’re not gods anymore.  The relationship between a god and a mortal who worships him is pretty complex, but it boils down to ‘you comb my fur and I’ll comb yours.’  The god gets power from the belief of the mortal, and the mortal gets a god to believe in.  People need that, they really do.  Our belief in our gods is one of the cornerstones of just about every mortal society I know of.  Us mortals like having someone up there to watch over us, I suppose.”

      “That’s why the One is conquering everything,” Ulger added from the other lean-to, where he was sitting on the ground, sharpening his sword with a wetstone.  “He wants more power, and one way to get it is to force people to worship him.  Kind of like the K’Tar subversion that took place in middle Nyr some five hundred years ago.  The One is pulling the same stunt, but on this world, there are no Elder Gods to step in and pull his leash.”

      “I don’t think she knows about Sennadar history, Ulger,” Miranda winked.

      Dolanna blew out her breath and stood up, then smoothed out her dress.  Jal ran over to her, and she put her hand on his shoulder with a smile.  “Are you alright, Dolanna?” Ulger asked.

      She nodded.  “I am carrying such an amount of power that I think my hair is standing on end, but I am well,” she answered.  “It has been so long since I did this, I have forgotten how it feels.  Had I a Weave to work with, I could Teleport with the power I hold.  So long as I ration its use, it will last me quite a while.”

      Jal screwed up his face in concentration, and a small glittering flower made of ice appeared in his hand.  He offered it to Dolanna, who took it with a gentle smile.  “Thank you, dear one,” she told him.  “It is too bad it will melt.  It is quite lovely, one of your best works yet.”  She passed her hand over it, and the ice flower shimmered briefly.  She handed it back to him, and Jal felt it with confusion.  Zyri came over and touched it, then she gasped.

      “It’s glass!  She changed it into glass!”

      “Transmutation,” Ulger chuckled.  “You’re back, Dolanna.”

      “It feels good to be back,” she smiled.  “That little exercise cost me power I cannot afford to waste, but on the other hand, a test was in order to ensure it would work as it should.”

      “Is Tarrin nearly done?” Miranda asked.

      “I know not, but I would doubt it,” she answered.  “Tarrin’s capacity far exceeds my own, but he is drawing power faster than I was.  His wings are nearly halfway white.  I would assume that when they are fully white, he will be finished.”

      “Odd that it shows like that on him.  That’s not entirely a good thing,” Ulger grunted.  “If someone can see how much power he has built up, they might have an advantage.”

      “Tarrin can change the color of his wings at will,” Dolanna assured him.  “He can mask it easily.  Where are Haley and Sarraya?”

      The rain started abruptly as they explained what they were doing, and they all had little to do but hunker down and wait for it to end.  Haley, Sarraya, and Fireflash remained out in the rain, scouting, returning occasionally to report, but they all watched Tarrin’s wings as they visibly expanded the white which was the indication of the power he had built up.  In the span of another hour the white completely infused his wings, all they way down to the very tips, until they no longer resembled looked like solid fire.  When it was done, they looked like solid magic.

      “I think that’s—“ Ulger started, but Tarrin’s sudden movements startled him into silence.  Tarrin immediately stood up, knocking the lean-to over, and snapped his wings out.  He lifted into the air as the wings expanded to five times their normal size, then stared down at them with eyes that made all of them uncomfortable, for they glowed with an incandescent white energy, the power of the magic which was within him.

      “Everyone under me,” Tarrin ordered in a distant yet intensely focused voice.

      “Tarrin, what are you doing?” Dolanna called to him.

      “Going to Pyros,” he answered.  “Now.”

      “Now?  But—“ Dolanna started, but then she sighed.  “Very well.  Give Haley, Sarraya, and Fireflash time to return, they are out scouting.”

      “What is he going to do?” Azakar asked Dolanna worriedly.

      “I do not know, but he obviously thinks that it is possible, and I am not going to argue with him.  That is quite impossible right now.  He will not listen to anyone.”

      “Is it possible?” Ulger asked.

      “Tarrin’s powers are much stronger than mine, Ulger,” she answered.  “Yes, I think it might be possible, but without a Weave to work with, I do not see how he is going to do it.  I will simply have to wait and see what he has managed to come up with.”

      “Sarraya!  Haley!  Fireflash!” Tarrin’s voice boomed, shaking the grass and clearly audible by people a league away.  “Return!”

      “Well, at least he’s keeping us dry,” Ulger grunted, looking up at the huge wing which was shielding them from the rain.  “Let’s get this stuff packed before the others get back, Zak.”

      Haley bounded in first, shifting into his human form and shivering.  “I hate it when my fur gets wet.  I’ll feel all clammy and musty for days,” he grunted.  “What are we doing?”

      “Tarrin thinks that he can get us to Pyros right now,” Miranda answered.  “So we’re going to hitch a ride.”

      “Everyone mount,” Tarrin ordered in that same intense voice.

      “Hmm, now it gets interesting,” Miranda said, as she moved towards her horse.

      By the time they were all mounted, Sarraya and Fireflash both had returned.  Sarraya immediately sought out Dolanna’s shoulder, while Fireflash landed on Mist’s saddle.  “I see he’s all cranky again,” Sarraya grunted.  “What are we doing?”

      “He thinks he can get us to Pyros, so we are waiting to see what he does,” Dolanna answered.

      Tarrin’s body rose up a bit more into the air, until they were all in front of him, then he looked down at them with those eyes that glowed white with the power contained within him.  “Hold onto your reins,” he ordered, even as he extended a paw forth and presented his open palm to them all.

      There was a blinding flash of light, and a series of tendrils of ropy magical energy burst forth from his open paw, each one seeking out a horse.  It touched each horse in the forehead, above and between the eyes, and it caused each of them to shudder and whinny in shock.  The magic infused each horse, causing them to suddenly glow with incadescent light.  That light bulged on their backs ahead and to each side of the saddles or packs on them, just over their front legs, then suddenly shot out at surprising speed.  Those spikes of light bent, then grew longer, then ended and caused the spikes to grow down, elongating along its width, flaring out.

      The light faded quickly, and it caused all of them to blink.  Dolanna gasped, Miranda laughed, and the others just stared mutely at their horses, whom Tarrin had infused with his magic and altered at their most basic level.

      Every single horse, be it mount or packhorse, now had huge, feathered wings protruding from their backs, just over the shoulders of their front legs.  In unison, they all beat those wings once or twice, then calmly folded them to their sides, covering the legs of their riders with feathers.

      “He Transmuted the horses!” Dolanna gasped.  “They’re now Pegasi!”

      “Pega-what?” Ulger asked in surprise.

      “Pegasi, an extinct animal from Sennadar, which died out in the Blood War.  Horse-like animals with wings!”

      “You mean these things can fly?” Ulger asked in shock.

      “Yes,” Tarrin answered flatly.  “All of you strap yourselves to your mounts.  You’ll find lashing straps on the saddles and on the stirrups.  I made them while I was changing the horses.”

      They all moved quickly to do so, Ulger wrapping his straps as tightly around his armored body as he could while swearing and muttering under his breath, then leaning over to tie the straps that would go over his lower thigh.  “Does this thing know it can fly?” he asked Tarrin acidly.

      “It knows,” Tarrin answered, as the white of his wings flared brightly, then was replaced by the usual colors of red, yellow, and orange that were normal for them, though now there were scattered spots of white, as if the individual licks of flame that resembled feathers, each its own color, now had a new color added to the mix.  “It was born to fly,” he added cryptically.

      “Not only do we have to bloody fly, we get to do it in a soaking rain,” Ulger growled under his breath as he cinched the knot around his leg so tightly that it would have cut off the circulation in his leg, were he not wearing armor.

      “I think it’s brilliant!” Sarraya laughed brightly.  “Since he can’t carry us all, he found a way to find something that can!  They can’t follow us now!”

      “The flying Demons can,” Tarrin said in a focused voice.  “But they don’t want any part of me in the air.”

      “Why is that?” Haley asked curiously.

      “They fly depending on their wings.  I don’t,” he answered.  “I can fly rings around them, and now that I have my Sorcery back, they can’t Teleport to save themselves or ambush us.”

      “There’s no Weave here, dear one,” Dolanna reminded him carefully.

      “Wards don’t need the Weave,” he answered, staring at her.

      She opened her mouth, then laughed.  “I stand corrected,” she said with a light smile.

      “What is a Ward, Mistress Dolanna?” Zyri asked, who looked a bit shaken from seeing her horse change right underneath her…but her sense of shock had been getting numbed after so many days around the magic-users which made up Tarrin’s group.

      “A magical barrier of sorts,” Dolanna answered her.  “Tarrin will set it so the Demons cannot use their magical powers anywhere near us.  They will be forced to fly to us and attack us with nothing more than claws or weapons, and under those conditions, Tarrin is quite right in that they stand no chance against him.  His mastery of flight is too insurmountable.”

      With little more than a thought, Tarrin wove out the Ward from the power within him, setting it so its boundary was a thousand spans out from him in every direction, truly a huge Ward that would take a great deal of power to create.  He set the Ward so it would stop all magic inside its volume except for Priest magic and Sorcery; doing so sacrificed his own ability to use Wizard magic, but he didn’t think that he’d need it all that much, and the fact that a great many Demons knew some Wizard magic as well as their natural magical powers made it important to stop it.  The Ward wouldn’t interfere with his divine powers in any way, so that was not even a worry.  He could see the flows extend out from his wings, flow out to the determined distance and then branch out like spiderwebs as he wove them together to form the Ward’s boundary.  He charged the flows of the Ward so it would last an entire day, which drained nearly half of the power he had siphoned from the sword, and then snapped down the weave and released it.  The air some distance from them shimmered visibly, and then returned to normal.  “The Ward is set,” Dolanna announced.

      “Then let’s go,” Tarrin announced.  “I want to be halfway to Pyros by nightfall.”

      “Can these things go that fast?” Ulger asked.

      “A Pegasus is one of the fastest things there are with wings,” Tarrin snorted.  “We could be there today if we left this morning instead of now.  Now let’s go.”

      “Er, how do we make them fly?”

      “They know what to do,” Tarrin told them impatiently.  “And they’re much smarter than horses.  Just get them going.”

      Hesitantly, Dolanna shook her reins.  “Alright then, my friend.  Let us be off,” she told the winged animal.  It whinnied excitedly and spread its wings, and then vaulted into the air with a single powerful thrust.  Dolanna gasped and gave out a surprised cry as the Pegasus lanced into the air, gaining speed and altitude with each stroke of its wings.

      Without urging, all the Pegasi vaulted into the air as well. Zyri screamed in fright, clinging to the neck of her Pegasus, but Miranda and Haley looked strangely unruffled by this amazing change in their mounts.  Ulger kept a death-grip on his reins, but Azakar simply patted his monstrous black-coated mount on the neck as its large wings pulled them higher and higher into the air, as the Pegasi started to circle to gain altitude before turning to the north.  Tarrin rose straight up, looking both majestic and terrible with his fiery wings and his glowing eyes and the look of icy fury on his face, then he turned to the north as the lead Pegasus did the same.

      They were everything Tarrin said that they were.  The winged horses cut through the air with incredible speed, and the land beneath them seemed to blur as they travelled longspans in a single minute.  The wind in their faces was strong and sharp, and the raindrops struck with stinging force, causing them all to wrap up in cloaks and caused Ulger and Azakar to clap down their visors and depend on their armor to stop the stinging rain.  But the rain didn’t last long, as they flew out from under it and steadily moved into skies with groups of thick clouds with gaps between them, pouring sunlight in golden shafts down on the land below.  Zyri and Jal seemed mesmerized by the sight of it, and they weren’t the only ones.  Haley looked down on the land below with dreamy interest, but Ulger kept his eyes locked straight ahead.

      “Look!” Haley called, pointing down at the ground.  They all looked down at an armed column of men wearing the uniforms of the Church, riding hard to the north.  Many were pointing up at them.

      “I think the One is sending out his orders,” Dolanna said.  “That means we should expect an attack soon, as soon as he summons Demons who can fly and they realize that they cannot teleport into our midst.  I doubt he expected us to do this,” she chuckled.

      Dolanna was right.  About an hour after she predicted it, five twelve span tall vrocks appeared before them.  They were huge Demons, with a vulture-like body and large feathered wings on their back, each carrying a black metal glaive.  Tarrin immediately brandished his glowing sword and surged ahead of the others, his wings flaring brightly with reddish light as the appearance of the Demons gave his anger a visible outlet.  All five seemed to flinch when they entered the boundary of the Ward, but they levelled their glaives like lances and locked their wings as they hurtled towards the Were-cat.

      They were quite shocked when the Were-cat’s trajectory suddenly changed, and he dropped under their glaives, changing so sharply in midair that it could not possibly be natural.  They realized quickly that Tarrin’s method of flight was magical in nature immediately on seeing that, but the lead vrock didn’t have the opportunity to dwell on its significance.  Tarrin changed again, flying directly under the Demon, while his sword quite literally sliced it in half from head to foot, cleanly down the middle of its body as he went by and underneath.  The two halves tumbled from the sky with its glaive as Tarrin turned so sharply that it almost defied belief, literally turning back on his own path and coming up on the tails of the Demons with no loss in his speed.  He overtook them before they registered that one was already dead, and he cleaved his blade right into the back of a second one.  It squealed in pain and dropped away from the others, black blood spraying from its mortal wound as it fell from the air, still clutching its glaive.  The other two on the outside veered away in opposite directions, turning sharply to evade their nimble attacker, while the third doggedly kept on a straight line for the flying horses.

      Tarrin accelerated to kill the one racing towards the others, but a blinding bolt of lightning lashed out from the host and slammed into the Demon face first.  It caused its head to literally explode, and the body tumbled from the air like a rag doll thrown from the top of a tree.  Dolanna pulled her hand back, still with arcs of lightning dancing around it, and she gave Tarrin a vicious smile.  “This is not Sennadar, dear one!” she shouted.  “Sorcery is an alien magic here!”

      And so it was, he realized.  Since Sorcery was not a magic of this world, then Demons summoned to this world were not immune to it.  Dolanna turned and unleashed another blast of lightning on the Demon to her left, striking it in the wings.  The blast seemed to paralyze it, and is fell from the sky with a shriek of pain.

      The final Demon, realizing that it could not fight back against a magician and an aerial foe with vastly superior maneuverability when its own powers were effectively neutralized, dove for the ground, seeking to escape.  Tarrin reared up and wove a weave of Fire, Water, and Air, then snapped it down and released it from his open paw.  A jagged blast of lightning, the same spell Dolanna used, arced through the air between them, then struck the Demon squarely in the back.  It shrieked in a horrid manner and lost control of its dive, spinning and free-falling towards the ground.  Unlike the others, though, the Demon’s image vanished when it fell a certain distance, and Tarrin knew that it had Teleported itself to safety.

      “I think they got the message,” Ulger grunted.

      “I think so,” Miranda agreed confidently.  “Just don’t even bother trying.  They’re just lucky Dolanna got to them first.  I was already starting my banishment spell.”

      “I forgot that you could do that,” Dolanna called to her.

      There were no more interruptions, and the Pegasi made fast time flying through the summer day.  By nightfall, when the land beneath them had changed into a vast, slightly hilly grassland of lush green rather than brownish tan with stands of trees dotting the landscape, they were fully halfway to Pyros.  They had passed by a good sized town just before landing, but were at least three leagues away, more than far enough to avoid local patrols.  Tarrin landed just off the road, within sight of a large, sprawling farm nearly a longspan to the west, and folded his wings as the Pegasi circled as they descended, then reared up and landed gracefully one by one.  Ulger was the first one out of his saddle, nearly tearing the straps in his haste to get away from the flying horse.  Everyone did join him, though, stretching cramped muscles and working out the kinks of being mounted all day.  Haley laughed and summed up how they were all feeling succinctly.

      “I would guess that it’s going to be a race to the nearest bush?”

      Miranda laughed.  “I’ve been looking for a nice bush for about an hour now,” she agreed.  “Let’s just say that the bush over that rise is the gentelmen’s bush, and that little shrubwall over there is the ladies’?”

      “Why should we have to walk farther?” Haley asked with a sly smile.

      “Because you have less clothes to work around,” she replied frankly.

      Haley chuckled and bowed gracefully.  “As always, your logic defeats me,” he said with an outrageous little smile.

      “I’ve always been a gracious winner.  Now excuse me while I run to the little girl’s shrub.”

      And she did.  Literally.

      Mist looked to Tarrin immediately, but the Were-cat said nothing.  He immediately sat down where he stood, cross-legged, wingtips bending against the ground, tail curled around his legs, and put his sword in his lap.  He put his paws over it and closed his eyes, tuning out the world in his communion with the power within his sword.  Mist scowled, but then moved to the pack horse and started unpacking her cooking supplies.

      “He needs to eat,” Miranda fretted, looking at him.  “This can’t be good for him.”

      “You will leave him alone, Miranda,” Dolanna warned.  “Look at him.  Look at Mist.  Both of them are but one step from losing control.  This is how Tarrin deals with his rage, my friend.  He shuts out the world and broods, and though it is not good for him, it protects everyone else from him.  Mist seems to deal with it by keeping herself occupied with small matters.”

      “I noticed that he’s been, well, distant since last night,” Ulger grunted.  “Even this morning, he never said an extra word, never made a single move that didn’t have purpose.”

      “That is his way,” she affirmed.  “He will act thus until we reach Pyros.”

      “Then?”

      “Then, my friend, we will see what happens,” she sighed.

      Mist cooked a hasty meal as the others changed out of clothes that had been soaked and then dried by the wind, leaving them a bit scratchy, but the dinner was still good.  She then paced back and forth at the edge of the camp while the others rested a bit before seeking their tents.  Tarrin had not so much as moved the entire time, looking like a statue, even when Fireflash landed on his shoulder and nuzzled his neck.  There was a calm to the night that everyone noticed, a lack of wind, a stillness, a quiet even among the animals and insects of the night, almost as if they sensed Tarrin’s simmering fury and feared to draw his attention.

      Then once again, Tarrin snapped to his feet without warning, startling most of them.  He opened his eyes, which still blazed with incadescent white energy, and extended his paw to his side.  He again wove a Ward of Sorcery, causing it to curtain over their camp, then he snapped it down and released it.  The air around them shimmered, and then returned to normal as the Ward became active.  He then put his paw to his amulet.  “Phandebrass.”

      “I say, I’m here, lad,” he answered immediately.  “I have much to report, I do.”

      “Go ahead.”

      “They’ve moved Kimmie to the main cathedral,” he began.  “That was done this morning.  It was done in an awful hurry, it was.  Something must have happened that has them spooked.”

      “I’d say we know what that is,” Miranda chuckled.

      “There’s also about half an army of Demons here now,” he continued.  “I say, the One must have his archpriests summoning Demons in a chain.  They’ve taken to patrolling the streets, they have, and there’s been some rather messy incidents.  People are getting nervous, they are.  They’ve also put a ridiculous number of Hunters on the streets, they have.  Every patrol has a Hunter in it, almost like they know we’re here and they’re trying to find us.  They can’t find the Elementalists as long as they stay underground, they’ve discovered over the years, so they’re relatively safe, they are, but they can’t leave their complex.

      “Now, as to the cathedral, I’ve managed to find out that they’re holding Kimmie in the dungeon underneath it,” he informed them.  “There’s only one way in or out, there is, through the basilica itself, but I’m not sure exactly where.  I say, finding a map of the main cathedral has been impossible, it has, and the Demons on the streets makes using magic extremely dangerous.  As long as they’re out there, I can’t get a lock on Kimmie with my magic.”

      “Phandebrass, tell everyone there that you care about to get out of Pyros,” he ordered in a voice seething with pent-up anger.  “I’ll be there at sunrise the day after tomorrow.  There won’t be anything left when I leave.  Do you understand me?”

      “That soon?  I say, how did you come so far, so fast?  Did you fly ahead of the others, lad?  Are they alright?”

      “They’re with me.”

      “I say, lad, I’ll do my best.  It won’t be easy to convince the Shadows that I’m serious, it won’t, but I think I can get them to leave.  Since we’ll have a whole day to do it, we will, we should be able to filter out of the city tomorrow without attracting attention.  We might have a problem getting the Elementalists out with all the Hunters, but we’ll do our best, we will.  I say, what’s the plan?”

      “The plan is I get there and raze the city to the ground.  We take Kimmie, and then we leave.  That’s all the plan I need.”

      “Lad, they’ll kill Kimmie the first time you set fire to a building.  We need to get to Kimmie before you start rampaging, we do.”

      “Just stay out of it, Phandebrass.  Get out of the city.  I promise you that Kimmie will walk out of Pyros alive and well.  Just leave it to me.”

      There was a protracted pause.  “Very well.  I leave it to you, lad.  We will vacate Pyros immediately, we will.  I hope that what information I managed to gather helped.”

      “Phandebrass, you just saved Kimmie’s life.  Now get out of Pyros.”

      “I say, I’ll be out in the morning.  Where will we meet?”

      “We’ll find you.  Now go.”

      “I say, very well. Good luck, and may the holy might of Azur and the Lorekeeper bless your thoughts with purity.”

      Tarrin took his paw off the amulet and sat back down.  He was quiet a long moment, and the others stared at him.  “The One eavesdropped on our last talk,” he announced, then he looked up.  “Mist, this will all hinge on you.”

      “What did you have in mind?”

      “I can get you close to Kimmie, but I can only send you.  If I can get you in there, can you get to her and get her out by yourself?”

      “Easily,” she snorted.

      “Timing will be everything, Mist.  I have to send you well before we get to Pyros.  You have to get to Kimmie after I engage the One, and get her out before I reach the Cathedral.  That means you’ll have to stay there without being found for some time, and there won’t be a large window of time when you act.  I can’t make it look like I’m stalling, and the One absolutely must believe that I’m coming to the Cathedral to get Kimmie.”

      “Get me within a longspan of my daughter, and I’ll have her safely away before you can draw another breath,” she answered intensely.

      Tarrin’s eyes narrowed, and the light and heat of his wings suddenly intensified.

      Miranda gasped, then laughed.  “Tarrin!  You really think it’s there?”

      “Where better to put it?” Tarrin answered here evenly.  “The One is arrogant and overconfident.  He’ll have it sitting in the nave of his main cathedral for everyone to see, even if they don’t know what it is.  I’ll bet my life on it.”

      “Won’t that cause problems for Mist getting to Kimmie?”

      “He won’t know that she’s there, and that will let her get to Kimmie,” Tarrin answered.

      “What are you two about?” Ulger asked.

      Miranda laughed.  “Is it safe to talk?”

      Tarrin nodded.  “The Ward I put up blocks the One.  He can’t see us or hear us in here.  He overheard what me and Phandebrass said, but nothing more.”

      Miranda gave him a wolfish grin, then turned to Ulger.  “When the One moved Kimmie to the cathedral, he gave Tarrin a chance to come right to it and not be obvious about what he was doing.  So, when we get there, Tarrin’s going to charge straight to the main cathedral, and the One is going to think he’s coming for Kimmie.  But Mist is going to get to Kimmie first, so when Tarrin gets there, he’ll be free to do what he really means to do.”

      “What is that?” Ulger asked impatiently.

      Dolanna’s eyes brightened, then she too laughed.  “Dear one!  That is clever!”

      “Tarrin is going to attack the One’s icon,” Miranda told Ulger.  “If he can destroy that, then the One will lose his connection to this world, and it will just about make him and all his Priests powerless.”

      “As long as it’s there,” Ulger grunted.  “But then again, even if it’s not, it’s not like it will be a total loss.  Tarrin gets the chance to flatten the center of the One’s power.  This church is huge, and if you destroyed its headquarters, I think it would put the entire thing in disarray.”

      “You see the point,” Tarrin announced in a low voice.   “Tomorrow morning, I’m sending Mist ahead so she can get into position.  Sarraya, you’re going to be Mist tomorrow, so anyone who looks sees that she’s still with us.”

      “How am I going to pull that off?” Sarraya asked, flitting up to his face.  “There’s just a little bit of a height difference!”

      “Mist, give me your belt,” Tarrin ordered, holding his paw out to his mate.

      Miranda laughed.  “Clever!” she praised.  “Can you shrink it without damaging its magic?”

      He shook his head.  “It won’t work that way.  If I shrunk the belt, it would just make a Sarraya-sized Mist.  I’ll have to go from the other end.”

      Sarraya glared at him indignantly.  “Don’t you dare make me taller, Tarrin!”  Tarrin fixed the Faerie with a withering stare, which brought her up short.  “Well, uh, I can be put back to my rightful size, right?”

      Tarrin snorted shortly.  “Mist, I’ll need to change your amulet,” he commanded.  “You’ll need some defense against fire for me to send you ahead.  I’m going to copy the weave that the Goddess put into Camara Tal’s amulet so you’ll be safe from it.  It’s about time you got that anyway.”

      “I can’t take it off, my mate,” she reminded him.

      “I know, so you’re in for a long night,” he answered her, sitting down cross-legged on the ground.  She sat down in front of him, but he immediately reached down and grabbed her by the legs, then scooped her up and put her on his lap.  He took hold of her amulet in his paw, and immediately set to work.

      “I wonder how he’s going to pull this off,” Ulger grunted as Tarrin closed his eyes.

      “If there is anything I have learned about Tarrin over the years, my friend,” Dolanna told him soberly, “is that you should never underestimate him.  If he thinks he has found a way, then odds are, it will work.”

 

      It was one of the hardest things he had ever done.  It would not have been had he been at home, but this was not home.

      He had to alter a complex weave set down by his own Goddess in order to add something, and do it in such a way that it did not destroy its other functions.

      It took him literally all night.  He had to expand out the weaving of the amulet and study it for a long time, come to understand how it worked, then start inserting his own weaving into it that would allow it to do what he wanted it to do without interfering with anything else.  Half of that time entailed finding just where to make his weaving, then going through the long and complicated task of weaving it in.  He had to use the power within himself, constantly siphoning more off from the sword, to create the permanent weaving and then seal it so it would not dissipate.  Flow by flow, he interlaced his own addition into the amulet, moving with infinite care and caution, until he was finally finished.  An hour before dawn, as Ulger stood silent watch over the camp in a warm, stiff wind that whipped over the grassy plain, Tarrin carefully withdrew his power from the amulet, allowing the weaving to return to its normal state, which included a new addition.  Then he sealed the weaving once more, rendering it permanent.

      He opened his eyes and saw that Mist was sleeping, sleeping sitting upright and stock still, her paws on his shoulders for balance.  He felt Fireflash on his shoulders, draped across them, also sleeping peacefully.  He shook her gently, and those glorious eyes opened immediately.  “Done?” she asked.

      He nodded.  “Now it’s time to test,” he said.

      They both stood up gracefully, though Tarrin’s knees and back popped from an extended period of time in one position.  Fireflash He raised a paw and caused fire to come forth, dancing in his palm, and held it out to her.  “Slowly.”

      She looked at him a moment, then understood what he wanted.  She extended her paw towards the fire, then pushed it inside.  “I can feel the heat, but it’s not burning me,” she announced.  “There’s no pain.”

      “Good.  That’s what I wanted.  Now I can send you ahead without it frying you to a crisp in the process.”

      “Exactly how are you going to do that, Tarrin?” Ulger asked curiously.

      Fireflash erupted from the tent that Zyri and Jal shared, then landed on Tarrin’s shoulder and nuzzled him exuberantly.  Tarrin patted his drake on the head absently, then took him in an arm and stroked his sleek scales with his other paw.  “Fire is connected to itself,” Tarrin told Ulger in an absent manner.  “Fire may be here or there, but it is all simply fire.”  He pointed to the dying coals of the campfire.  “I’ll send Mist into that fire, and join it to another somewhere else.  She’ll come out of the other fire.  I can sense many fires a great distance to the north, and from the number of them, that just has to be Pyros.  I’m going to pick one, take a look through it, and if it looks good, Mist goes through.  It’s not Teleporting, but it’s almost as good.  The only drawback is that if you’re not immune to fire, you’re going to get burned going through it.  That’s why I had to make Mist immune to it, the way me and Dolanna are.”

      “You can do that?” Ulger said in surprise.

      Tarrin nodded.  “I’m not sure how, or how I know that I can, but I can,” he answered.  “It’s like I always knew, but I never really thought about it because I never needed to use it before.”

      “How will Mist find Kimmie once she’s through?  We don’t even know what building she’s being held in.”

      “I’ll find her,” Mist told him brusquely.  “I know where they’re holding her, after all.  All I have to do is find some lone human and drag the location of the main cathedral out of him.”

      “True,” Ulger agreed.  “Are you going now?”

      Mist looked to Tarrin, then she nodded.  “The more time I have to get into position, the more certain it’ll be that I’m where I need to be when the time comes,” she announced.  “When do I act, my mate?”

      “When you hear me coming,” he answered.  “Trust me, you will not miss it.”  He reached into his belt pouch and handed Mist a tiny book, his Gnomlin Travelling Spellbook.  “When you free Kimmie, she absolutely must get you out of there.  The Shadow Step spell is in this book.  If she’s forgotten it, she can read it right off the page.  When you free her, she must get you two out of there, you can’t come back out through the cathedral.”

      “I understand,” Mist said soberly, putting the book in her belt pouch.

      “That’s why you’re sending Mist,” Ulger realized.  “If Kimmie was immune to fire, you could just use fires to find her, then reach out and grab her and bring her back,” he said brightly.

      Tarrin gave Ulger a long, steady look, but it was slightly amused, and a bit respectful.

      “Well, why not find Kimmie with fires, then send Mist or Dolanna right to her?”

      “Because the One will feel it if I start poking around his cathedral,” Tarrin answered.  “I’m going to drop Mist at the edge of the city, and she’ll work her way in.  If I tried to reach right into his cathedral, he could interfere.  And I’m not risking the life of whoever gets caught between us as we fight over control of the gateway.”

      “Oh.  I forgot.”

      Tarrin gestured at the coals of the fire absently, and they roared into flame at his command.  They burned high and bright and hot, rising up as high as Tarrin was tall.  Tarrin handed Fireflash over to Ulger, then he and Mist walked over to the fire, and then Tarrin closed his eyes and put his paws into the flames.  He reached into the fire, into the core of it, reached into the core of his own power.  He extended his wings, which flared with bright light as he accessed powers that he had never used before, but also inherently, instinctively, knew were there and knew how to use.  He then reached out with that power, the power within him, that defined him, the power of fire, feeling the location of every single fire for a hundred leagues in every direction.  Every farmer’s fire, the flames of every soldier’s campfire, the licks of flame on the wicks of lanterns and candles on every bedstand, on posts on streets, every cookfire, they all were known to him in that instant.  He found a large concentration of fires far to the north, a very large number of them, and then picked one at the fringe of that concentration at random and opened himself to it.

      He saw in his mind a hazy image, distorted by the heat of the flames, of a small, almost crude room that looked to be the entirety of the structure.  There was a single standing form in it, a woman in rough clothing, her back to the fire.  Two figures slept on pallets near the fire, and the hovel’s doorway was open, showing a street beyond that looked empty and deserted.

      Perfect.

      “Mist, cat form,” Tarrin said distantly as he deepened his connection to the fire.  Mist shifted into her cat form immediately as the fire’s flames shuddered, and then stopped as Tarrin reached into the fire, then reached through the intervening distance to the other fire, joining fire to itself and creating a union of fire with itself, causing to separate fires to become one.  He had no idea how he did it, but he did.  The fire again started moving, but its flames turned from reds and oranges, to blues and whites.  “Go.  And the Goddess be with you.”

      “See you soon, my mate,” Mist replied in the manner of the Cat, then she bounded fearlessly into the fire.  The union of fires caused her to exit from the fire on the other side, and he saw her immediately scamper through the room and out of the open door before the woman in that room turned around.  Tarrin withdrew himself from the fire, which caused both fires to return to normal.

      “She’s through,” Tarrin told Ulger.

      “Not much of a goodbye,” he noticed.

      “It’s not a goodbye,” Tarrin told him.  “We’ll see each other again tomorrow.  And neither of us are in the mood right now for affection.  It’s our way, Ulger.”

      “You think she’ll be alright?”

      “Stop thinking of Mist as a woman, Ulger,” Tarrin said bluntly.  “Women are not as helpless as you tend to believe.  Mist will do exactly what she needs to do, and do it well.  Nothing can stop her, because she won’t let it.”  He folded his wings behind him, and slashed his tail a few times.  “When I get to Pyros, Mist will be exactly where she needs to be.  I have faith in her.”

      “Not misplaced faith, that’s for certain,” Ulger chuckled.

      “Faith in Mist is never misplaced,” Tarrin answered evenly, as the Knight handed Fireflash back to him.  He stared into the fire, his glowing eyes a mystery of complex emotion.  “Wake the others.  It’s time to go.”

      The others were surprised to find Mist already gone when they awoke, but Ulger was sure to describe how Tarrin did it in lustrous detail as Miranda cooked breakfast.  Tarrin sat nearby with his sword in his lap, eyes closed and distant from the world, even oblivious to Fireflash’s insistent nudges with his nose for attention.  “It is alright, little one,” Dolanna told him, patting him on the head as she went by.  “He will be back to normal in just another day or so.  He is just worried about Kimmie, that is all.”

      “I’ll play with you, Fireflash,” Zyri announced, coming over to Tarrin.  “I know how it feels to be alone.  I miss him too.”

      Fireflash vaulted over to her shoulder, then flicked his serpentine tongue in her ear, which made her convulse slightly and giggle uncontrollably.  Jal however, came over and sat in front of Tarrin, his hands on the Were-cat’s shins, staring at the sword intently.  He then lifted his hands and produced a sculpture in ice of Tarrin’s sword, which immediately started to melt when exposed to the radiant heat of Tarrin’s wings.

      “Yes, he’s very hot,” Haley chuckled.  “It’s the wings.  They always radiate heat, but here lately, since he’s been so worried about Kimmie, they’re hotter than usual.”

      Jal pointed at Fireflash.

      “Oh, him?  He’s immune to fire.  It’s because he’s a drake.  He breathes fire, sprout, don’t you think he’d be immune to it too?  If he wasn’t, he’d burn his mouth every time he did!”

      Jal seemed to ponder that, then looked back to Tarrin.  He extended his hands, a look of intense concentration on his face.  Then a wave of cold emanated from his hands.

      The result was a bit startling to the boy.  Fog instantly formed around Tarrin and  Jal, a thick, heavy fog that was cool and a bit clammy, but also was quickly torn apart by the stiff wind blowing across the plain.  Jal had a wild look in his eyes, then he actually giggled aloud.

      “That’s what happens when cool, wet air meets warm air, kiddo,” Miranda said with a cheeky grin.

      “That is a rather clever little trick, though,” Ulger chuckled.  “Instant smokescreen.”

      Azakar finished saddling the Pegasi, patting his huge one on the neck fondly and getting nudged with the horse’s snout in return.  Only Azakar’s massive charger had the strength to move the equally massive Mahuut.  “Will this wind intefere with us?  I’m still new to this.”

      “I think we all are,” Dolanna said with a light smile.  “But I think it will not be an issue, my friend.  These animals know what they are doing.  They will carry us safely through this wind.”

      The camp was broken down after breakfast, before the dawn, just as the false dawn’s light faded from the eastern horizon.  Tarrin stood up suddenly just as the last flap was tied on a pack on one of the pack Pegasi, as if he’d been aware of everything going on in the camp even with his eyes closed.  “Mount,” he ordered.  “Sarraya, come here.”

      “Aww,” she growled.  “I was hoping you’d forget.”

      “Dream on,” he grunted as she landed on the ground before him, such an incredibly tiny thing, not even coming up to his ankle.  “This might tingle.”

      “What are you doing exactly?”

      “It’s a Wizard spell.  It will last until sunrise tomorrow, or until I cancel it.  It will just grow you, it won’t change you any other way.  But I doubt you’ll be able to fly.”

      “Probably not,” she sighed.  “Alright, go ahead.  Let’s get it overwith.”

      Tarrin began chanting in the discordant language of magic, his paws forming five distinct gestures before him as he did so, each gesture occurring at a precise point in the incantation.  He then pointed at Sarraya and uttered the final word of the spell, and he felt that alien magic from elsewhere surge into and through him, then affect Sarraya in the manner in which he intended.

      Very quickly, Sarraya began to grow.  She grew a span in a matter of seconds, as her auburn locks crept higher and higher in comparison to Tarrin.  Her dress of gossamer cobwebs enlarged with her as she expanded, growing at an astounding rate, until her curly cap of hair was level with Tarrin’s lower chest.  Still she grew, getting taller and taller, until she was eye to eye with Tarrin.

      “Put on the belt,” Tarrin ordered.

      Sarraya looked at her hands, then laughed.  “I don’t look any larger, at least until I look around,” she told them.  She looked at her feet, then all around her.  “I’m used to this point of view, since I can fly.  It’s just odd to see from up here while my feet are on the ground.”  Miranda handed her the belt, and she buckled it around her waist.  “How do I make it work?”

      “Just want to look like Mist.  That’s all there is to it,” Miranda replied.

      Sarraya nodded, and almost immediately, her bluish-skinned form wavered, until a Illusory duplicate of Mist stood in her place.  “How do I look?”

      “Like Mist,” Ulger answered.

      “Good.  Now, someone might have to help me get on the horse.  I’ve never done it before.”  There was a sound of low-pitched buzzing, and Sarraya sighed.  “Flying is definitely out.  I’m too heavy for my wings to lift me.  I feel like I weigh as much as a cow.  I’ll be glad to get back to myself when this is done.”

      “Help her, Zak,” Tarrin ordered as his feet left the ground, and he hovered there with his feet dangling just fingers over the ground.

      “Showoff,” Sarraya muttered darkly.

      With Azakar’s help, Sarraya managed to get onto Mist’s Pegasus.  The Knight helped tie her to her saddle, then he mounted and quickly strapped himself to his mount as the others did the same.  Ulger helped Jal and Zyri, and Fireflash settled in on Zyri’s saddle, just in front of her, as the scarred Knight finished tying the thongs around her legs.  “He won’t fall off, will he?” she asked, pointing at Fireflash.

      “Has he yet, shorty?” Ulger asked with a wink.  “He’ll be fine, don’t worry about him.  I’d worry about Sarraya.  She’s such a big fat cow now, she might break her straps and fall off.”

      “Hey!  I’ll get you for that, Ulger!” Sarraya snapped hotly.

      “You’re stuck in that saddle,” Ulger teased.

      “I won’t be forever!”

      “Yeah, like you’ll remember what I said tonight,” Ulger said, making a dismissive motion with his hand.  “Sometimes I think you only remember your own name because people say it all the time.”

      “Oh, that’s it,” Sarraya said darkly.  “When I get back to my normal size, we’ll see who remembers what.”

      “Fine with me.  I’ll just get to swat you.”

      Sarraya muttered some rather ugly obsceneties, her eyes boring into the Knight, whose expression was flippant, almost taunting.

      “Children.  Ulger, you are holding us up.  Mount, please.”

      “As you command, Dolanna,” Ulger said in a swaggering manner, making sure to give Sarraya a smug look that sent her into another round of withering profanity.

      “That’s a very offensive man,” Haley noted to Miranda.

      “Funny, though,” Miranda replied with a wink.

      Tarrin led the way as the Pegasi vaulted up from the ground, following the fire-winged Were-cat as he rose into the air.  They circled around him as they gained altitude, then they all turned to the north with the vindictive Tarrin leading, sword still in his paw, still glowing with ghostly white energy, leading to the north, to Pyros, and to a confrontation with the One.  Tarrin felt confident in his plan, confident that despite being overmatched by the power of a true god, that the power that he could bring to bear would be enough.  With Kimmie out of the picture, with Mist retrieving her and getting her out of harm’s way, he could come at the One without reservation, without consequence, and without mercy.  He would ram the One’s icon down his throat and then bury them both so deeply into the ground that it would take an army of workers a month to dig him out.  Tarrin’s fury had been icy, contained, since discovering Kimmie’s fate, but that control would not last once he had Pyros in his sight and the One so close at hand…and he welcomed the opportunity to lose control of his rage and use it as a controlled weapon against the One.

      If the One wanted to fight Tarrin over the streets of Pyros, so all his worhsippers could watch him destroy Tarrin and bask in their adulation, then he would give the One that opportunity.  The worshippers of the One would see their god fighting valiantly against whatever it was the One told them that he was…and then he would burn them to ashes.  Them, their streets, their buildings, everything.  When he was done, Pyros would be a crater, a scar in the earth filled with lava, much like the crater of Gora Umadar back on Sennadar.  The One had gone out of his way to infuriate Tarrin, and now he would reap the harvest of wrath that he had sown with seeds of hatred.

      The One wanted to fight him.  So be it.  The One was going to get everything that he wanted.

      And more than ever dreamed he’d have to face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 8

 

      They had no idea that they were doomed.

      Mist carefully wandered through the streets of this large city in her human form at first, and then in her cat form, a city filled with buildings and streets of red stone and gray slate roofs, the same red stone as the solitary, steep-sloped mountain that rose high to the north, a mountain that Mist saw was an active volcano.  It was nearly the color of blood, and in Mist’s mind, that was almost fitting.  These animals worshipped a monster for a god, and they were about to face their punishment for doing so.

      Unlike most of those around Tarrin, or Tarrin himself, Mist did not have any compassion, or compunction to spare these people.  Centuries of ferality had hardened her in ways that most did not understand, and the Cat had no warm feelings for these people.  That meant that if they all died, it wouldn’t even so much as make her bat an eye.  In fact, the Cat in her cried out to destroy them, because they were more cruel than she had ever been.

      The differences in them were so obvious.  The people involved with the church wore either black or red, cassocks or robes of flowing splendor, escorted by guards and soldiers wearing plate armor with red surcoats and carrying broadswords.  Then there were the rich city folk, who wore finery out on the red-bricked streets, carried in litters, riding in carriages, or walking, but never without armed men protecting them at all times.  Then there was everyone else, dressed in rough homespun clothing, moving through the streets with fear in their eyes.  Twice she had seen instances of the guards or soldiers of the rich beating on some hapless poor person, who had done something that someone had taken offense to.

      She felt no pity for them, however.  There were a thousand times more poor people than rich people, and they allowed it to happen to themselves.  They had the power to make it stop, but they let fear rule them.  And even if they died, well, dying for something you believed in was much better than living in fear all your life.

      She knew what it was like to live in fear.  For centuries she was trapped by her own fear.  After the Were hunter had wounded her and made her barren, she had become feral, and had been miserable.  Afraid of everything and everyone, unable to even trust those she respected, like Triana, she was condemned to a life of unending solitude.  She had hated it, hated it with every fiber of her being, but she just could not overcome the fear.  She had even wanted to kill herself, but the instincts of the Cat would not allow it.  The instinct of self-preservation would prevent any attempt to end things…she knew that oh too well.  So she lived in that prison for hundreds of years, alone, afraid, tormented by what she had become, and haunted by what she wanted to be.

      Kimmie had been her first true victory over her fear…if it could be called that.  The poor girl was half crazy when Mist found her, but her life wasn’t any easier after she took her in.  Mist had been afraid of Kimmie, and Kimmie seemed to sense it, because she was always very careful around her bond-mother.  But Kimmie was her first true conquest of her ferality, aided by her instinct, her need, to raise a child.  She had never felt any love for the dark-haired girl, only an instinctive need to teach her the ways of Were.  Her ferality even overruled the instinctive need to protect the girl, for by protecting her she would have to put herself in a position where she could not protect herself against Kimmie.

      But then Tarrin came.  The injured cub had healed away the scar in her body, the scar in her mind, with the gentlest of touches, and that first time he had touched her, she had sensed the beauty inside him.  She had wanted that beauty from the instant she became aware of it, but she was afraid of him.  So instead she managed to conquer her fear for the briefest of times to allow herself to take him for mate, with the hope that he would give her a child of her own, a little piece of the beauty of him that would be part of her life forever afterward.

      It was safe to say that Mist had instantly fallen in love with him, but it was love at first touch rather than love at first sight.  She just hadn’t understood what she was feeling back then, she knew now.

      He had sired Eron, and Eron had filled the void in her heart, and in his own way, had healed his mother of much of her feral nature.  Her life’s single wish had been fulfilled, she had a child of her own, and it caused her to mellow out quite a bit.  She had even reconciled with Kimmie and came to discover love in her heart for her former bond-child, and it brought a richness, a warmth into her life that steadily, quietly, and gently lifted the cold hands of fear from her soul, allowed her to accept her ferality, but chain its power, bringing it to heel.  She was feral, would always be feral, but now she had control of her ferality.  It did not rule her anymore.  She could still sense the fear, but it no longer ruled her life.

      But her love for Tarrin was much more than love, even she seemed to understand it.  She loved him, but in a way, she was devoted to him in a way that even frightened her.  Of all the females, she was the only one that didn’t go crazy when he was turned human, because she knew in her heart that he would want to be Were, and that knowledge gave her comfort.  She trusted him far more than she trusted herself, a trust that was nearly blind in its faith.  There was nothing that she would not do for him.  She knew that, accepted it in a calm way despite the alien concept of it, because what she felt for him had nothing at all to do with her instincts, and despite how far she had come, she was still feral, and always would be.

      Being Tarrin’s mate, finally, had made her the happiest female anywhere.  She knew that he didn’t love her quite the same way yet, but again, she had faith in him, and faith that her love would open his eyes, just as Kimmie’s had done.  Until the day when she heard him say those words, she would wait.  And unlike most Were-cats, Mist had the patience of a stone.  Before turning feral she had been grounded in common sense, and that sense told her that sometimes one had to wait to get something worthwhile.  She would wait as long as it took to get what she wanted.

      Perhaps that had been why turning feral had been so hard on her.  She had been very un-Were in her outlook before being wounded, and then had the full brunt of the worst aspects of her Were nature thrust upon her.  She had not handled it well, and that only made her ferality worse.

      But that was all in the past, and the past had no meaning for a were-cat.

      The main cathedral of the One was certainly unmistakable, and she had been moving steadily towards it all morning.  It was a huge black-walled monstrosity built at the far end of the city, on the edge of the slope of that volcano.  It was vast, towering over all the other buildings of the city with its black walls and its towering minarets and towers rising around a main building that was capped by a gold dome that whose top would rival the central tower of the Tower complex at Suld.  It was built on a shelf of sorts that put it higher than the ground of the city before it, so it was visible to everyone in the city at all times, an eternal reminder of their god and his station over them.

      Kimmie was in a dungeon under that thing, and that Demon bitch Shaz’Baket was also there…and those were Mist’s current two reasons for living.  To retrieve her daughter, and kill that Demoness.

      Tarrin was coming…she could feel it, like a whispering in her soul that grew faintly stronger with every passing moment.  His fury was growing with every second, and when he arrived, he would be a hurricane of furious wrath.  He was not a god, not even close to the power of one, but his fury and the rightness of what he was doing would give him what he needed to face the One and defeat him.  Tarrin had faced adversaries much stronger than himself before, and he’d won every time, because that was what he did.  She had no doubt that he would triumph over the One.  He had bested that dragon in Sha’Kari, he had defeated Val, so there was no doubt in her mind that he would defeat the One.  It may not be easy, and it might not be pretty, but he would win.  She knew he would, and since she knew it, it was simply a matter of calm acceptance for her.  All she had to do was ensure that her mate could attack the One without reservation, and that meant getting into that cathedral and hiding somewhere close to Kimmie, so she could act when she knew it was time to do so.

      Getting there was no problem. Nobody accosted her, even in her human form, because one glare was enough to make anyone back away from her quickly.  Though she wasn’t dressed in frilly finery, her clothes were very well made, clean, and neat in appearance, making the poor people believe she was rich, and the rich people think she was crazy for not going out without armed escort.  She simply marched through them all, uncaring about them.

      It took her nearly an hour to reach the cathedral, because she didn’t want to make it obvious that that was where she was going.  It was well separated from the rest of the city by a large wall around the base of a gentle slope that led to the plateau where the thing was built, with a heavily fortified gatehouse defending the breach in the wall.  Getting further simply required a little change.  She slunk off into an alley and shapeshifted into her cat form, then idled on the road leading to the gatehouse long enough to catch a ride on a fancy carriage that was going up to the cathedral.  She sat on the axle beneath the carriage calmly and steadily as it rocked and bounced on the red brick street, then rode it as it carried her up to the cathedral building.

      Nobody paid much attention to Mist as she crept past fearsome-looking guards and into the cathedral proper, entering a vast antechamber filled with gold statues, ivory-inlaid stone and wood sculpture on the walls and doorframes, and velvet curtains hanging before each doorway, tied back and away.  Mist got a cold chill in her soul when she entered that room, entered the base of power of the One, literally walking into the mouth of the beast.  She could feel his presence in the place like a palpable aura of cold settling around her, and had the distinct feeling that he would notice if she were there…if it wasn’t for the fact that he wasn’t distracted.

      Tarrin.  She was going to kiss that man when this was over.  His approach was distracting the One, just as he said it would, and it was allowing her to invade his personal domain unnoticed.

      Secure in her anonymity, Mist crept through a doorway, her mind locked on the mission before her.  She would find out where Kimmie was, and then hide somewhere nearby.  When Tarrin arrived, she would spring into action.  She would free her daughter and then escape with her, and that would give Tarrin freedom to exact righteous vengeance on the One without fear of harming Kimmie.  She would do her part, and do it exactly as Tarrin expected it to be done.

      She would not fail him.  She would never fail Tarrin.  No matter what it took, she would find a way to succeed, because he expected it of her, just as she knew he would succeed because she expected it of him.

      He had faith in her.  She would not let him down.

      Not ever.

 

      It was a day spent in tense, anxious silence.

      From the instant the Pegasi lifted up from the ground, nobody said a single word for the entire time that they were airborne.  The only sounds were the wind in their ears and the deep whoosh which emanated from the large wings of the Pegasi on which they rode, as none of them seemed willing to break the pregnant silence around them.  The winged horses followed Tarrin as if they had been commanded to do so, as if the brilliant light that emanated from his wings had enraptured them and caused them to follow him blindly.

      They landed once around midday, and Dolanna dared to break the silence to ask why.  Tarrin simply pointed to a nearby brook and said not a word, immediately sitting cross-legged on the ground and putting his sword in his lap, a sword that still had the ghostly white radiance around it that announced to them all that it was in contact with the Weave.  The others rested and grabbed a quick meal, but Tarrin did not move a finger while they were doing so, did not speak.  When the others were ready to go, Tarrin did not move, forcing them to wait on him, which seemed to them to be counter to what they were doing.

      But they didn’t understand.  Timing was everything.  The battle with the red dragon on Sha’Kari had taught him that brutal lesson.  Timing was everything, and he was not going to mess things up by getting there at the wrong time.  The optimal time to reach Pyros was sunset, and the engagement with the One should take place in the dark of night.  In that environment, with no daylight to diffuse the light of his wings, their brightness would serve almost as well as the sun in the face of a charging army.  They would attract the eye, and when his sword dipped in front of them, it would be lost in the background light of them.  That would give him the advantage.  It also gave Mist plenty of time to find Kimmie and get into position, for what she had to do was also a matter of critical timing, and he wanted her to have plenty of time to be ready.

      And so, he caused them to wait a while, then he finally deigned to allow them to go.  They flew for most of the midday and afternoon, and as they moved north, he became aware of the gnawing sensation that he knew was the One ahead of him.  They were close enough to sense one another now, and he felt a sudden explosion of anger and anticipation…and not a little excitement.  The One was looking forward to this, wanted to fight.  Tarrin, on the other hand, only emanated raw, naked fury, so much so that the One could not possibly feel anything else.  That also served to prevent the One from sensing that Tarrin did have a plan, and it had already been set into motion.  From what the One could feel from Tarrin, all he knew was that the Were-cat was so angry that he barely contained any rational thought.  The One probably thought that that gave him an advantage, but he didn’t understand the complexities of his opponent, whose mind was effectively layered.  He was able to be that angry and think at the same time, because the Cat did all the raging while the Human did all the thinking.  The duality of his mind could often be as much an asset to him as it was a liability, when its unique aspects were used the correct way.

      Tarrin stopped them one more time about a half an hour before sunset, when the spires and towers of Pyros were just beginning to become visible over the northern horizon.  He did not sit this time, only stood there with his sword in his paw, still as a stone.  The only thing that changed about him was that the glowing white radiance around his sword flickered, and then vanished.  He turned to look to his side, then extended a paw and pointed his open palm at the ground some spans away.  A sudden blast of fire issued forth from his hand, striking the ground and swirling around itself, and it remained after Tarrin ceased the gout of flame, burning angrily in the grass, remaining even after it consumed its fuel, but not spreading from where it was burning.  He then reached out with his paw and wove a frighteningly complicated Ward that was nearly five hundred spans across, a dome of absolute protection that would stop any magic from crossing its boundary, and canceling all magic but Sorcery within it.  No Demon could Teleport within their midst, and the Ward would render their magic unusable.  That would give them the ability to kill them relatively easily, for few Demons were a match for Azakar, Ulger, or Haley in a battle with weapons, and the magic of Miranda and Dolanna would destroy them quickly.  He pointed at the ground, and a fire erupted from the ground, burning brightly and without fuel, in the middle of an open area that would serve as a good camp.

      “Stay here,” Tarrin finally spoke, sending his gaze over them all.  “This is as close as you can get.”

      “For what, dear one?”

      “For you to stay safe,” he answered in a detached manner.

      “But we’re still two leagues out of Pyros,” Ulger objected.  “It’ll take us ten minutes to get there from here!”

      Tarrin fixed Ulger with such a penetrating, emotionless stare that it made Ulger flinch.

      “Uh, I think that Tarrin means that we’re much safer way over here,” Haley said lightly.  “And we’ll be out of his hair.”

      “Well said,” Miranda nodded soberly.

      Tarrin spread his wings and rose just slightly into the air, looking down at them.  “Wait here,” he ordered.  “I’ll be right back.”

      “Tarrin, be careful,” Dolanna warned.  “Remember, he is a god, and Pyros is filled with Demons who will aid him against you.  He will have powers, just as you do, and may know magic.  Do not underestimate him.”

      “I won’t,” Tarrin replied.  “I don’t have to kill him to win, Dolanna.  Remember that.  All I have to do is get to Kimmie.”

      Dolanna nodded knowingly.  “May the Goddess’ light and love shine down on you and protect you, my dear one.”

      Tarrin closed his eyes and nodded his head ever so slightly, then turned and flew off towards the north, towards Pyros, and towards the One.

      “Do you think he’ll be alright, Dolanna?” Miranda asked, reflexively reaching out and putting her arm around Zyri’s shoulder, as the little girl watched Tarrin fly away with frightened eyes.

      “I think that if all goes as he envisions, then he will be well,” Dolanna said, then she took hold of her amulet in a steady hand.  “Well, on to matters, then.  We need something to eat.”

      The others got down to the business of preparing the evening meal, for now they could do nothing other than wait.  But Zyri stood in place, hugging Fireflash to her breast, simply watching Tarrin dwindle into the distance, until only the light of his wings could be seen, and then well after even that was gone from her eyes.  She did not move, she only looked to the north with an expression of haunted fear.  Tarrin, the scary non-human who had shown her such kindness, was going off to fight with the One.  She knew what had happened to him, that he was more than a mortal, but he also made sure to explain to her that he was by no means a god.  And now he was going off to fight with a god.  The others seemed to think that he could win.

      Well, if he could fight a god and win, wouldn’t that make him a god?  Maybe he was, and he just didn’t know it.  Adults loved to say that, that people were this or that, and just didn’t know it.

      Either way, she was worried about him.  In his own way, him and Mistress Mist had become like her own mother and father, taking in her and Jal and caring for them, teaching them things, showing them kindness, even a little bit of love.  For two orphans, that was more than they could have ever dreamed to get.  She often felt lost and confused traveling with this group of people from another world, but no matter how lost she was, just feeling like she belonged with them, that they like her and her brother, that they didn’t throw them out after Telven betrayed them, was all she could have dreamed about.

      And now Master Tarrin, a towering figure of authority, of power and strength, and a surprising wellspring of wisdom and guidance for her, was going away to fight the One to get back his friend.  And he was doing it without showing a whit of fear.  She always felt so safe when he was near, so protected, knowing that he was so strong and he would protect her from whatever would do her harm.  And oddly enough, she still felt safe and protected, even knowing that he was gone and where he was going, what he was about to do.  But it didn’t lighten the burden of worry from her heart.

      “Be careful, Master Tarrin,” she whispered in Penali.  How rarely they used her native tongue now, always speaking in that Sulasian language that Tarrin had taught her with magic, but speaking words from her heart itself.  “Come home soon.”

 

      Sunset.  The last sunset that Pyros would ever see.

      Tarrin had traversed the distance to the large city quickly, then, when he got within a longspan of it, he landed on the well-worn road leading to Pyros and began walking.  Every step brought him more and more into focus, prepared him for what was to come.  He knew exactly what he was going to do, exactly how to make it happen, and went over the steps of it in his mind over and over again as the Cat’s rage built with each step, drowning out those rational thoughts to any Demon or god that might try to eavesdrop on his thoughts.

      This had to be a physical confrontation.  Tarrin was well aware that the One’s magical power far outstripped his own, because the One was a god.  He had a full charge of Sorcery and every Wizard spell he could comprehend memorized, but he knew that it might not be enough.  The One would have the innate powers that were a part of him, part of his being a god.  Every god had those kinds of powers, just like Tarrin’s mastery of fire, but the One’s would be different, because he was a god of mortals rather than of a natural force.  Tarrin would be at a disadvantage in that regard, because the One knew what Tarrin could do—roughly—while Tarrin had no idea what powers the One possessed.  On top of that, the One could certainly use magic.  He doubted that a god who hated any non-Priest magic would actively use Wizard magic, but Tarrin knew that he could use every Priest spell that existed, because gods could use any spell that they could bestow upon a mortal, and the One was a powerful enough god to grant the most powerful spells to his Priests. So he had to take it to the One with his sword, force the One to deal with him weapon to weapon, try to take magic out of the game as quickly as possible.  It had to be a loud and explosive confrontation, to alert Mist that he was there and that he had engaged the One, and give her time to get to Kimmie.  Then, after Tarrin felt that Mist had had enough time, he would simply disengage from the One and attack the One’s cathedral.  If the One’s icon was in that cathedral, and Tarrin could get to it, then the battle was over.

      Tarrin didn’t have to fight the One to beat the One.  The battle was nothing more than a stalling tactic.

      Oh, but there would be some serious fighting.  Tarrin’s fury demanded ripping out the One’s eyes and stuffing them down his throat.  If he could kill the One’s physical manifestation, his avatar, before going on and destroying his icon, well, that was just that much better.  He doubted that he could do it, but it would be very, very wonderful if he could.

      The gates of Pyros stood before him, closed, and were heavily manned with both human guards and Demons.  Vrock, Glabrezu, Hezrou, and Nalfeshnee, the four lowest rungs of the strongest of Demonkind, were present on that wall and in front of that gate, waiting for him.  Behind that gate was a very large city built of reddish stone, the same reddish stone as the steep-sloped volcano which stood behind the city itself.  The roofs were covered with gray slate, and the architecture was crisp and exacting, much different from the rude mud hovels of the serfs and the ragged timber buildings in most of the smaller towns.  This was the pinnacle of Pyrosian society, and they held back their riches and glory for themselves and themselves only, as if to make Pyros seem even more grand by making it beautiful while actively keeping all other holdings of the One ugly and poor. It spoke much of the One’s mentality.

      Tarrin came to a stop some distance from those front gates, studying them.  The One was not here.  He was not going to meet Tarrin immediately, he wanted Tarrin to fight his way through his minions.

      Very well.  That was his first mistake.

      He started forward, walking at an inexorable pace, as if nothing was going to prevent him from moving forward.  But every step became longer and longer, and his pace quickened with each step, until he went from a walk to a blistering run, sword bursting into flame as he took it up in both paws, just before his feet left the ground and his wings snapped out, carrying him forth along the ground like a diving eagle.  He did not rise his feet more than a finger off the ground, displaying with his actions his intent to go through that gate rather than over it.

      The Demons all took on a surprised expression when they realized that they could not Teleport to him.  The Ward that Tarrin had woven to protect them while they were flying was still active, and it was centered on him.  When they came within the Ward, their magic would no longer function.  They quickly formed up in front of the gates, vrock carrying their glaives while the other Demons intended to use nothing but claws, teeth, or fists.

      Not that it would help them.

      Tarrin rammed into the very center of their line like a Wikuni cannonball, sword over his head, then he whipped it down on the vrock in the center.  The vulture-like Demon raised his glaive up to defend itself, but the burning sword sheared through the metal haft of the weapon and cleaved the Demon’s head in two.  The Demon fell back, but Tarrin turned and drove the tip of his sword into the chest of a hezrou, then ducked under the lunge of a Glabrezu’s pincers.  That pincered hand sailed away with the stroke of Tarrin’s sword, then the Demon squealed in agony when a dozen fiery lances erupted from the inside curves of Tarrin’s wings and plunged into its body.  Those lances withdrew, and then Tarrin’s wings divided into irregular tendrils, then spread out.  The Demons found themselves facing a foe not with wings, but with an innumerable number of ropy, whip-like tendrils attached to his back.  And to their horror, they discovered that the Were-cat could move each one independently.

      It was like fighting a foe with twenty arms.  The Demons were immediately pushed back as those whipping tendrils whizzed around in a dizzying frenzy of motion, striking with such force that they cut into the bodies they impacted.  A few Demons backed away from him fearfully, some lifted their arms to protect their faces, but the armed vrocks pressed in, using the reach of their weapons to strike at the Were-cat from outside the seeming range of his fiery whips.  All five vrocks lost their heads as a pair of whip-like appendages expanded in length and slashed across their necks, each whip changing trajectory to strike true as it passed from the last victim.

      Using the sudden reel of his foes, Tarrin reformed his wings and turned on them with his sword.  Black blood flew with every stroke of his burning sword as the staggering Demons found themselves overwhelmed by the raw fury of his attack.  The Were-cat’s face twisted in a snarling mask of pure hatred and Demons were struck down with every blow, overwhelmed by the ferocity of his attack and off kilter from losing their ability to use magic.

      After striking down the last Demon, surrounded by pools of smoking black sludge, Tarrin turned on the gates themselves, massive gates of brass-banded hardwood and with a portcullis before it.  Tarrin’s paw suddenly was engulfed in flame, flame that coalesced and brightened, until he leveled his paw at the gates and unleashed that might.  A concentrated blast of fire, hotter than anything the humans and Demons above the gatehouse could imagine, blasted out from the enraged Were-cat’s paw.  The fire was not red, or yellow, or even white, it was blue, and when it struck the portcullis, it caused the metal to instantly wither away like wax thrown into a bonfire.  When the fire struck the wooden gates, it caused the wood to explode, sending shards of fiery wooden splinters flying for hundreds of spans in every direction.  The shockwave of that detonation shattered what was left of the gates, and collapsed the red stone archway over the gates.  Stone squealed and men screamed as the gatehouse collapsed into the passageway, causing a cloud of dust to billow out from it in both directions.

      There was a moment of eerie silence, as the last of the echoes of the collapse bounced back to them, and before the moans of the injured in the twisted wreckage of the gatehouse became too loud.  The air around Tarrin became hazy, like the shimmering of air over a hot rock in the desert, and when he moved forward, blackened imprints were left behind from his feet as he walked.  Tarrin’s eyes glowed green in the fading light, backlit by the brilliance of his fiery wings, and the shards of wood in the wreckage upon which he tread as he climbed over the ruins of the gatehouse burst into flame as he pass over it.

      In dramatic fashion, Tarrin had gained entry into the capitol city of the One’s large empire, Pyros.  And he was there to destroy it.

      “I HAVE COME!” Tarrin bellowed in a voice that was impossibly loud for any mortal being.  The sound of his voice shook the dust from the rafters of buildings across the entire city, shattered windows, and terrified the population of Pyros.  “COME OUT AND FACE ME, YOU COWARD!  YOU WANTED TO FIGHT ME?  THEN STOP COWERING IN FEAR BEHIND MY MATE AND FACE ME, YOU SPINELESS DOG!”

      Tarrin’s wings suddenly expanded to five times their normal size, then they collapsed in on him as he turned his power on himself, became the fire, and then caused himself to assume a different form.  The fire of him expanded, extended, grew to immense dimensions, then it vanished from him in a wave of flame as it left flesh and bone behind.  Tarrin had again assumed the form of a gold dragon, and that dragon keened a mighty roar that again shook the foundations of Pyros, then he turned his massive head, craned his neck as he sucked in his breath, then unleashed a hellish inferno of fire on the buildings to the right of the street leading in from the gatehouse.  The stone was volcanic rock, highly resistant to heat, but even that was no defense against the withering might of Tarrin’s breath weapon.  Slate exploded, reddish volcanic rock shattered, and everything within those buildings was either melted to slag or burned to ash in the blink of an eye.  Tarrin sustained his breath weapon, raking it across a large swath of the city block adjoining the city gate, leaving behind a massive fire in his wake when he finally ceased the blast.

      Demons again rushed at him from the walls, but Tarrin simply turned his head, sucked in his breath, and then unleashed another cone of fire.  Demons were immune to heat and fire, just as he was, but they could not resist the force of the blast, as all that superheated fire and air slammed into them like an avalanche.  They leaned into the cone of fire, protecting their faces, but one by one they lost purchase and were sent flying, tumbling along the ground.  And when the fire ended, they didn’t think quite fast enough.  The first one never saw it coming as Tarrin’s monstrous forepaw crushed it into the red bricks of the ground, which now glowed a ruddy red from being superheated.  Tarrin was not native to this world, and neither was the dragon form which he occupied, so the Demon had no defense against him.  There was nothing left but a black smudge among shattered red bricks.  The second one saw it coming, but couldn’t Teleport itself to safety.  It tried to do that first without thinking, without realizing that Tarrin’s Ward was still up, and it too was crushed into a liquid by Tarrin’s titanic weight.  The others, realizing that they had no magic and nothing but teeth and claws against a creature so massive that they could do little more than bite at its feet, scrambled up off the ground and fled towards the open land beyond the shattered gate.

      Tarrin let them go, turning his head back to the city.  He unleashed yet another blast of fire to his left, setting another massive fire among the ruins of what was not instantly destroyed, then he turned and unleashed the last of his fire at the walls themselves, killing several dozen city guardsman who were scrambling about in fear and confusion.  His gas sacks were depleted, and he could use no more of his breath weapon.

      But the form had served its purpose by intimidating the Demons into giving up.  The massive dragon form turned to flame, then dissipated, leaving nothing behind but Tarrin, wrapped within his own wings, at the center of it.  He unfurled his wings and lightly descended to the ground.

      Obviously, Tarrin was not going to draw out the One with wanton destruction.  It seemed that he didn’t care about the state of his city.  The One wanted him to come forward before he acted, for some reason.  He didn’t understand why.  The One should have come out the instant he arrived, to defend the city, but he did not.  He was allowing Tarrin to advance, maybe all the way to the cathedral itself.  Was he that arrogantly overconfident?  Was he going to allow Tarrin to come within striking distance, confident that Kimmie’s captivity would stay his paw?

      Spreading his wings, Tarrin rose into the air and lifted himself above the buildings, then started towards the cathedral.  But when he did so, he sensed an immediate reaction from inside that cathedral.  He distinctly felt a sense of manifestation, as the direct might of the One came from wherever he truly was and took solid form here, in the material plane.  That convinced him that the One’s icon was definitely in that cathedral, and that his decision to abandon destroying everything along the way and just come right after the One had provoked a reaction.  He didn’t understand why, though.

      On the far side of the city, a massive column of light descended from the heavens and illuminated the golden dome of the building, and there was a strange harmonic hum shimmering in the air.  The One was resorting to theatrics, Tarrin realized in surprise, because his material form was already here.  The light became incandescent, almost too bright to look at directly, and then it began to wane.  Within the light was a silhouette, a form that became visible as the light faded from around it.

      It was the One.

      He resembled a human, wearing gleaming silver plate armor and carrying a broadsword and a kite shield with a center spike.  He had no helmet, showing a perfectly handsome face and piercing blue eyes to the world, as well as a head full of platinum-blond hair that was long and flowing, pulled back from his face in a tail.  And to complete his majestic appearance, he had a pair of feathery wings on his back, spread out as he appeared, and then folded behind him.  A nimbus of soft light surrounded him, and even from that distance, Tarrin could tell that he was at least twenty spans tall.

      “Cease, minion of evil!” the One’s voice boomed in Penali across all of Pyros, echoing off the volcano behind him.  “Thy reign of terror ends here!”

      The sight of the instigator of the abduction of his mate caused Tarrin’s control to waver, then succumb to the fury within.  He gave no frilly speeches, no dramatic standoffs, he simply charged at the One with such speed that he left a trail of flames behind him with a furious howl that was nearly as loud as the One’s booming voice.  Tarrin was only dimly aware of his body briefly becoming pure flame, becoming the fire, then expanding.  When the flames extinguished, his body was larger, the same size as the One’s, some part of Tarrin’s mind having made him big enough to fight the One weapon to weapon.  Tarrin’s sword had enlarged as well to stay the same size to Tarrin, and he held it in both paws as he streaked directly at the glowing god.  The One moved forward to interecept him away from the cathedral, flying but not using his wings.  He raised his sword and shield as Tarrin advanced upon him, ready to do battle.

      The first contact between them sent shockwaves through the city.  Tarrin reared back with his sword over his head as he careened at the One, then brought it down with every fiber of his being.  The One blocked it with his shield, and the impact between sword and shield created a brilliant flare of light and a cascade of angry sparks to rain down on Pyros.  The One staggered back through the air with the raw power behind the blow, and there was a look of shocked surprise in his eyes.  But Tarrin did not relent, immediately striking again, and again, not bothering to try to get around the  One’s defenses, instead beating directly on his shield, falling back on the classic Ungardt tactic of shield destruction.  The One’s entire body shuddered as the burning blade of Tarrin’s sword impacted his shield, sending a steady rain of glowing sparks raining down on the city below.  Tarrin did not relent, striking with such raw power and such speed that the One could do nothing but protect himself with his shield, until one particularly savage blow, where Tarrin turned in a full circle and chopped at the One like a woodsman cutting down a tree, sent him careening back and put a charred slash through the gleaming metal of his shield.  The Were-cat immediately took one paw off his sword and began chanting in the discordant language of magic, making a single gesture with his free paw.

      A bolt of jagged lightning issued forth from his paw and blasted through the open space between them, but the One was quick to counter.  He raised his shield and presented it to that attack, which struck it and harmlessly reflected away, lancing through the night to Tarrin’s left.  The lightning created an earth-shaking BOOM that shuddered the entire city.

      Foolish mortal, thy magic has no effect on a god! the One’s voice taunted within his mind.

      Tarrin did not even think a reply.  The attack had served its purpose.  It was never meant to harm the One.  But it was a loud declaration that Tarrin had engaged the One in battle.

      The nimbus of light brightened around the One, and he surged forward.  He pointed his sword at Tarrin, and Tarrin felt a wave of raw power issue from the god’s material form, as a god unleashed his divine might into the world.  An incandescent blast of power raced towards him, but Tarrin simply slithered to the side like a skimmer on the surface of a pond, then his wings snapped out and he hurtled forward with his sword leading, closing the distance before the One could try again.  He could not allow this to become a battle of power; it had to remain a physical confrontation, or he would lose.

      The One assumed a defensive posture, his feet looking as if they were standing on solid ground, and met Tarrin’s blow with his shield.  Tarrin did the same, putting his feet on a solid nothing beneath them, and continued his frenzied assault.  The One’s face became serious as the Were-cat unleashed a flurry of quick, shallow slashes with his huge weapon, moving it with dizzying speed and grace.  The One barely managed to keep up with that whirling blade, which trailed flame as it moved that distracted the eye, blocking with his shield or parrying with his broadsword when the weapon came at him from the right instead of the left.  Tarrin raised his weapon and started a downward chop, then shifted the angle of the blade with such speed that it totally fooled his foe.  Tarrin’s sword dipped under the edge of the shield, slashing across the metal of the One’s armored greave, leaving a deep rend in the metal protecting his shin.  There was a brilliant burst of sparks and a strange bluish light emanating from that slash through his armor, and it effectively wiped the smirk off the One’s face when he realized that he was facing a master of armed combat.

      Tarrin had scored first blood, and it infuriated the One.  With a howl of furied outrage, the One pressed in, his broadsword dancing with the grace of a flitting Faerie, but Tarrin was more than capable of keeping up with it.  Tarrin parried a series of light strokes and several shallow stabs with ridiculous ease.  The One was a fencer, and fencers relied on speed and deception.  But the One’s fighting style was crude compared to many warriors Tarrin had faced in his life.  His style was simplistic and relied on speed, but against Tarrin his speed was no advantage.  Forget a demigod, the One would lose a battle with Allia or Tsukatta hands down.

      Unless it was all a feint, of course.  The One suddenly pressed Tarrin with a blindingly fast series of slashes at Tarrin’s head, but Tarrin had little trouble dealing with this sudden onslaught, for he was still slower than Tarrin.  The One had been hiding his true speed behind a deceptive feint, then unleashed his full speed in a burst to try to take Tarrin off guard, which was admittedly a clever tactic.  Tarrin had done the same thing himself many times.

      “What’s the matter?” Tarrin hissed in a low growl.  “Having trouble battling a mortal, even with a sword and shield?  Here, let me make it more interesting for you.”  Tarrin took his left paw off his sword and extended the Cat’s Claws, then immediately put the One on the defensive as the god had to deal with a truly stunning array of lightning-fast attacks from both the sword and the five lethal blades extending from the Were-cat’s left paw.  Despite the large difference in reach between his huge sword and the claws on his paw, Tarrin managed to use them both, slashing his sword against the One’s shield, continuing to concentrate on that defensive barrier, then lunging in with the Cat’s Claws and driving them before him like a spear, or raking them at the edge of the One’s shield, or turning the back of his paw to the One’s sword and parrying it away harmlessly.  The One became so consumed by trying to protect himself from the sword and Cat’s Claws that he left himself totally open.  So, when Tarrin struck heavily with his sword against the One’s shield, then slashed the Cat’s Claws against its edge, he was totally surprised when the Were-cat spun in the air and brought out his foot, claws out and leading, and smashed it into the One’s pretty little face.  The claws caught him just in front of the ear and hooked his jaw, and they dug into his flesh and ripped nasty gashes through his face as the foot continued along.  The pad on the ball of his foot hit him right on the edge of his mouth, and they sent teeth flying as the One’s head was snapped to the side.

      The One spun to the side, then staggered back and righted himself, a gauntleted hand to his face.  His face was a mask of outrage and fury.  “You, you, you hurt me!” he screamed incredulously, taking his hand away to reveal three deep gashes in his cheek, one of which cut clear through and into the cavity of his mouth.

      Tarrin just glared at him viciously, then quickly pulled in his arms.  His wings snapped out, and a dozen slender lances of fire erupted from the inner surface of his wings, streaking towards the One, aiming for his head and his body.  But the One made a furious slashing gesture with his shield, and Tarrin’s lances struck something solid and were deflected away.  Tarrin withdrew them as the One gave him a look of utter contempt, and then pushed out with both of his arms.

      What came next was not a bolt, but a wave of pure power, and Tarrin had nowhere to go.  He found himself staring a wall of white energy that took up his entire field of vision, hurtling at him with shocking speed.  Instead of trying to defend himself, Tarrin took his sword up in both paws and slashed at that power as it reached for him.  The blade struck it, and he felt resistance, as if he were striking a solid object.  Tarrin didn’t let up, he sheared his blade through the wave of the One’s power, which caused it to part before him like a curtain.  It went to either side of him harmlessly, but did catch on his wings, which pulled him off balance before he could make them fluid and pliable and slide through the hole without resistance.  The One looked shocked that his blast of power had not caught Tarrin, but did not delay or relent.  He made a slashing motion with his sword, and Tarrin felt something impact him from the side, like a gigantic fist.  It struck with such force that Tarrin felt that his head was going to come off.  Stunned, he was swept off the invisible platform on which they had been battling, hurtling towards the city at an alarming rate.  He shook off the cobwebs and sensed his quick approach to the ground, then flared out his wings and arrested his descent.  He felt them pull at his back as they defied his momentum, but they prevented him from slamming into a gray-slated roof, under which was a window where two children watched on in muted awe.  He landed on the roof of the building, and spotted another wave of power hurtling towards him.  In an instant of protectiveness, he called on the power of Sorcery.  He wove a weave of Air and Fire and released it from his paws, then projected it before him as a shield of pure force.  Even though he had marked all within Pyros as doomed, seeing a child in danger had caused him to rise up and protect without even thinking, as his instincts overwhelmed his reasoning.

      Tarrin was crushed down to one knee as the wave of power struck his shield, assaulting him as if he were holding it up with his own paws.  He clenched his teeth and poured more power into the shield as the wave of force threatened to tear the weaving, as a shimmering globe of blue opposed the white energy which was the One’s attack.  That attack shattered the buildings to each side of the row house upon which Tarrin stood, and the slates under his feet cracked under the strain, but the shield of magic held up against the assault.

      The shield dissolved as Tarrin streaked back into the air, sword held in both paws as he raced to close the distance.  It was quickly degenerating, and he had to reestablish a physical confrontation, to avoid having to fight the One power against power.  But the One, who had been stung in a physical clash, seemed determined to prevent Tarrin from getting anywhere near him.  He backed away as he began chanting in the language of the gods, preparing to cast a Priest spell, which caused Tarrin to double his speed to reach him before he could finish.  The One finished his spell before Tarrin could reach him, however, and a raging column of fire descended from the heavens and struck Tarrin, engulfing him in a raging inferno.

      Idiot!  Didn’t he have any sense at all?

      Tarrin burst forth from the column of fire unscathed, but found that the One was gone.  The brief moment that Tarrin’s vision had been blocked by the fire had allowed him to vanish.  Tarrin opened his senses and quickly located the One, for the power he emanated could not be hidden, and Tarrin turned and slashed his sword through another blast of power that had screamed in at him from the left flank.  The One flowed backwards in the air and prepared to do it again, but Tarrin had had enough.  He wove together a weave of Air, Fire, Water, and Divine power, with token flows from all the other spheres, a chaotic mess of flows that formed one of his favorite and most powerful magical attacks.  Tarrin’s paws burst forth with the glowing, wispy nimbus of Magelight as he used a spell of High Sorcery, snapping it down and releasing it just as another incandescent wave of force was unleashed from the One’s sweeping sword.

      The brilliant bolt of chaotic magic Tarrin unleashed lanced through the air and slammed into the wave of force unleashed by the One, then punched through it and raced towards the One.  But the One simply raised his shield, and Tarrin’s attack was deflected harmlessly up into the sky.  Tarrin streaked straight up and away from the wave of force, which passed under him and slammed into the city below, shattering even more buildings.  The One seemed to not care about his city or his people.  It didn’t matter how many died as long as he got Tarrin.  The One spread his feathered wings, and motes of light appeared before them.  Those motes got larger, turning into little white balls, and then they all streaked directly at Tarrin with amazing speed.  Tarrin careened to a halt and instantly started chanting in the discordant language of magic, then made a slashing motion with his left paw.  A scillinting wave of magical power erupted from his paw, growing and expanding as it traveled away from him, and it intercepted the illuminated orbs.  In brilliant puffs, each orb exploded into harmless light as they touched the effects of Tarrin’s spell, a spell designed to dispel magic that touched it…and even the divine power of gods was considered magic, as far as the spell was concerned.

      Tarrin and the One both started chanting in unison, Tarrin in the language of magic, the One in the language of the gods, their voices unnaturally loud as their words echoed from the buildings and from one another.  Tarrin heard the words, knew that the One was about to use a spell intended to kill instantly, one of the mightiest Priest spells of all…a spell that focused the power of a god into a touch that caused instant death.  Tarrin continued to chant even after the One completed the spell, and an ominous black cloud formed around each of his hands.  Now the One would rush in and engage in melee, and try to touch him.  He had nearly five minutes until the power of the spell dissipated, five minutes to touch Tarrin’s bare skin with his own, or touch him through organic material, like his clothing.  Tarrin continued to chant, his voice strong and unwavering as death dove on him from above, those black-shrouded hands leading as the One sought to end the contest quickly.  Tarrin made six precise gestures, then snipped the thongs of a belt pouch with a claw, grabbed it, and slung its contents into the air around him.  Thousands of motes of glittering light surrounded the Were-cat as the quartz dust refracted the light from his wings, from his eyes, creating a display awe-inspiring in its majestic, terrible beauty.  Tarrin completed the spell with a final shouted word, and then he flinched in the oddest manner.

      Just before two perfect duplicates of himself separated from his body.

      The One pulled out of his dive, confused and swearing as three Tarrins, each moving independently of the others, suddenly raced towards him, each wielding a burning sword.  Tarrin charged fearlessly, despite the fact that the two duplicates were merely shadows, solid magic that looked like the caster of the spell, and could do no harm.  They would be disrupted the instant they were touched.  But each of those simulacrums gave off the exact sense of presence as their creator, which was to say that there was no sense of him at all thanks to Tarrin’s amulet and its ability to hide him from magical detection, so the One absolutely could not tell the fakes from the original.  Only one could harm, but since he had to defend against three, and also the fact that the death spell would discharge into a simulacrum if he touched it and render it useless, the One had reason to be intimidated by this counterstroke.  The One pulled up and began chanting in the language of the gods, the Priest version of the exact same spell that Tarrin had used, the spell to dispel magic.

      There was a counterspell for that, and now they were close enough to each other for the One to be in range of its effect.  Without thinking, Tarrin also began to chant, pulling up and uttering the words of the spell, then he completed it and pointed at the One.  Tarrin felt the strangest surge from deep within him, like a power that had been hidden had suddenly been awakened.  Newfound power flooded into him, through him, then was released from him and crossed the distance to the One.  A sphere of magical silence settled around the god’s Avatar, taking his voice and leaving him unable to complete the spell.  It was a simple spell, a quick spell, a spell that neophytes used, but it had valid tactical worth even in a duel using magic of the magnitude they were using.

      Tarrin felt dizzy.  He wavered a bit in the air even as his duplicates surged ahead, putting a paw to his forehead, feeling both drained and energized at the same moment, confused and out of sorts.

      Silence was a Priest spell.  And the energy that had powered it came from him.

      He had used a Priest spell!  And the power had not come from the Goddess, it had come from himself.  He had granted himself the power to cast a spell!

      That was impossible!  He couldn’t do that like he was!  Maybe if he was in his divine form, if the sword changed him, then maybe, but not with his mortal body!

      The One’s eyes were wild, and a look of absolute shock was gracing it.  That look of shock was mirrored on Tarrin’s own for a brief moment, but the Were-cat snapped out of it and lunged ahead, flames from his wings trailing behind him as he took up his sword in both paws and held it to his side.

      Toying with me?  If you wish to use your full power, then so be it!  I was but providing you with a shell of greater power than your own to make sport of you!  Now face my true power!

      The voice, indignant and outraged, thundered into his brain from everywhere at once, and Tarrin sensed a sudden eruption of divine energy, the likes of which he only felt when a god was doing something so powerful that it altered the very texture of reality.  The Avatar of the One became incandescently bright as the god channeled incredible power into it, infusing it with such might that it no longer adhered to mortal boundaries.  It ceased being a mortal Avatar and became a direct manifestation of the god, a true Avatar, the wounds on his face vanishing and the black cloud disappearing from his hands.

      For a moment, Tarrin had a terrifying vision of the shadow of Val.  That was the same kind of power he was sensing now coming from the One.  The gloves were off, the One was not playing anymore.  This was a divine being, and now Tarrin’s magic would no longer work against it.  All he had were his divine-imparted abilities of fire and his sword as weapons.

      The One brushed aside Tarrin’s simulacrums with a wave of his hand, making them vanish, then he thrust his open palm at Tarrin.  There was no spell, no magic, just a release of divine will as the One brought his direct power to bear in the mortal realm.

      It was like being struck with a hundred mountains.  The air was crushed out of him as a pure force of staggering dimensions literally smashed him out of the air.  Nearly every bone in his body was broken as that force impacted him, sent him racing towards the ground, and he could do nothing more than swim in a sea of pain.  He felt the sword slip out of his shattered paw, a paw that was already beginning to knit itself back together, and the intense pain eased enough to allow him to think.  He was not going to stop himself in time before he hit the ground, he knew that.  Since he could not arrest his descent, he had to find a way to mitigate the impact, because slamming into the ground was perfectly natural, and it would kill him.

      Easily done.

      Tarrin folded his wings around himself and caused his body to merge with the flames, to be one with his power, to become the fire.  His mortal form melted into flame, but the wings remained, causing him to become a being of pure fire surrounded by a material shell that was invulnerable to anything but a god.  Turning to pure flame would protect him against the impact of hitting the ground, as fire liquid, fluid, and wouldn’t be hurt by something like hitting the ground, while his wings would prevent that impact from causing his form to dissipate when it hit.

      The orb of solid flame that had become Tarrin punched through the roof of a warehouse, then slammed into the floor beneath.  There was a huge explosion of wood and dirt as Tarrin hit like a cannonball, but his wings did not falter in containing his fiery form, and that immaterial body was immune to the physical impact of hitting the ground.  He returned to his physical form as his wings unfolded from around himself, and to his surprise he found himself uninjured.  He had reformed himself without the broken bones, in effect healing himself during the transformation.  He has lost his sword, but knew that he could get it back with a thought, and knew that moving right now was absolutely imperative.  He turned and lanced through the back wall of the warehouse, just as the entire building literally vanished in a blazing column of incredible might, like silver flames, as the One used his divine power to consume the building in a column of pure divine energy.

      Rising up from the smoke and dust created by the One’s powerful attack, Tarrin called his sword to him, and the instant his paw closed over it, he felt the sword’s power explode, felt in that touch that the sword’s true power was unlocking, and unlocking the power within him.  The sword blazed forth with intensely bright flame as the power that Tarrin had once possessed was released from its prison.  Incandescent flame flowed over the sword, then up his arm, quickly enveloping him in the purity of its radiant might.  That power touched him, infused him, saturated itself into the core of his being even as the fire continued up into the heavens, as once more the sword released the true power of Tarrin’s divine nature.  He felt the almost ecstatic rush of power rage through him, felt his mind expand as it was touched by divine power, and felt his body’s very nature change in a subtle manner as the power transformed him into something capable of wielding it.  The column of fire enveloping him slowly dissipated, until the One found himself staring at a being with hair and fur that was flame, radiating a heat so intense that wood and cloth would instantly turn to ash if it were placed close to him.  The One found himself facing a being that could fight back.

      Again, Tarrin ceased to be a mortal.  Just as the One had infused his Avatar with direct power, so Tarrin had once again infused himself with his own imprisoned power, and become an Avatar, a direct physical manifestation of his own power.

      The urgent calls began almost instantly.  Run!  Run! a startling number of voices screamed at him urgently, distracting him for the slightest of moments.  He realized immediately that these voices were the other gods of this world, and now that Tarrin was a being more sensitive to the workings of gods, things that a mortal could not sense, they could directly communicate with him.  But Tarrin ignored them.  He focused on the One, on keeping the One’s attention for just a few moments more, to make absolutely sure that Mist had gotten Kimmie away from the cathedral before he acted.  By the God of Gods, you must flee! One voice rose above the others, but Tarrin ignored them.  The One is more powerful than you are!  Do not face him!

      Tarrin could sense that power.  Yes, the One was much stronger than he was, but that didn’t matter.  Tarrin had faced beings much stronger than himself before.

      Faster than a mortal eye could track, Tarrin was again in the face of the One, who seemed unsurprised at Tarrin’s revelation.  Burning sword met kite shield, and their touch created a storm of spark-like motes of pure magical energy to rain down on Pyros.  That blow seemed to shock the One, because Tarrin had sensed that the One had been expecting something much more than a purely physical attack.  The One replied with his broadsword, but Tarrin parried it easily away from him.  But behind that sword there seemed to be a strange sense of might, an odd power, almost limitless, focused on Tarrin’s form.  But that power could not touch him, sliding through him, like a phantom wind that went through him harmlessly.

      Then he understood.  The One was trying to fight Tarrin in more than just the mortal realm.  But Tarrin had no power outside the mortal realm, did not exist anywhere but here.  He was a being of divine power trapped in the mortal world, and only power that affected the mortal world could touch him.  It was the limitation he suffered for being what he was, but in its own way it was also his advantage, for the One could not use his full, true power against him.  He could only use the power he could manifest in the physical realm, which had to be limited to avoid unraveling the very fabric of reality.  The material world was just not sturdy enough to support the true power of a god.

      Tarrin took advantage of that revelation for the One to try to end it quickly.  He pressed in, sword slashing with such blazing speed that the mortal eye would see nothing but a fiery blur, pressing the One and forcing him to back up.  Tarrin continued his single-minded focus on the One’s shield, marring the smooth silver finish of its outer face, trying to remove it from the duel by either destroying it or ripping it off the One’s arm.  The One seemed the stagger for a moment, then Tarrin sensed that he had recovered, and was about to reply.

      He felt the power build up, sensed the One call it into the mortal world, and Tarrin was forced to do the same.  He called to the endless power within him, summoning it forth, focusing it into his off paw, and then projected it forth in the form of a defensive barrier as the One unleashed his power in the form of an attack.

      Again, it was like being struck with a mountain.  Tarrin snapped out his wings and was pushed back by the power the One hurled at him, but the defensive barrier held, deflecting it away.  The One came charging in behind the blow he had released, but Tarrin was ready for him.  He shifted the texture of his barrier to turn it into a physical force, and it caused the One to bounce off of it as he tried to get to Tarrin before the Were-cat could recover.  Tarrin manifested his power as fire hotter than anything that could ever be created in a mortal realm, then unleashed it at the One in a concentrated, spiraling blast.  But the blast struck the One’s shield and was deflected, bouncing up and racing into the heavens without touching the One.

      Tarrin had expected that.  He took up his sword and charged the One, who now had a smug look on his face, and tried to take his head off.  The One parried that blow, sending another cascade of white sparks to the city below, then presented the face of his shield to Tarrin and released his power once more.  Tarrin evaded it by dropping down, then rose up with a mighty slash of his sword, trailing an arc of fire, which the One narrowly avoided.  The One raced through that fire, sword taking on an incandescent glow as he rushed in on the Were-cat’s defenseless flank as he recovered from his blow, then stabbed it through the exposed flank of the Were-cat.

      But the Were-cat’s body simply dissolved into smoke an instant before the sword reached him.  The arc of fire behind the One suddenly twisted and reformed into Tarrin’s physical form, and the Were-cat reared back with his sword over his head, then chopped it into the One’s winged back without hesitation.

      It almost worked.  The One somehow managed to turn around and barely managed to catch the weapon on his shield, but it was a poorly executed block, putting the One at a disadvantage.  Nonplussed, the Were-cat rained massive blows down on the One, using raw power to prevent a quick recovery, which were parried or blocked with sword and shield awkwardly as the winged god tried to recover himself.  Tarrin pressed in, causing the One to back up step by step on the empty air on which they battled, raining heavy blows on the One’s shield and sending a steady stream of spark-like motes of pure magical energy flying with every strike.  The air around them began to writhe and distort as it was saturated with magical energy, and the sky above them began to cloud over, the clouds racing around a nexus that was directly over the pair.  The power they were releasing into the world was beginning to affect the reality of the material plane, unnaturally twisting the natural order, but neither of them noticed as the One managed to recover himself, then began to counterattack, flicking light stabs and slashes of his weapon in reply when Tarrin struck at his shield, forcing the Were-cat to quickly parry or evade the weapon.  It halted his forward progress, and put them on even footing once more.

      But why was the One not using his power more liberally?  Tarrin didn’t quite understand.  He had changed into a direct manifestation to unleash his might, then tried to fight Tarrin god to god, but now he seemed perfectly comfortable with a pure sparring match of weapon to weapon after that single attempt to use his power.

      Simple, my doomed, hobbled opponent, the One’s voice crooned in his mind.  You cannot defeat me.  So have at me.  Your fighting will do nothing but inspire more awe in my subjects when I destroy you.  After all, the epic battle is remembered much longer than the easy victory.

      “Hardly,” Tarrin snarled aloud, snapping his wings out, which instantly grew five times their normal size, and calling on the power inside him.  It focused in his paws, and then he unleashed it through his sword.  Just as he had done when fighting the shadow of Val, Tarrin released his power in a raw state, nothing but power itself, and that raging maelstrom of divine energy lashed at the One.  The One rose up and met that power with his own, and when they touched it set off a violent explosion of power that knocked both of them away from each other.  Tarrin raced through the chaos of magical energy left over from that detonation, like a soup of pure magical energy, and brought his sword down on the One’s raised weapon.  “Seeing you struggle against me will make them wonder why their god couldn’t kill a mortal so easily,” Tarrin hissed at him scathingly.  “And if you admit that I’m something other than a mortal, well, then how can there be more than the One when the One says that there’s not?”

      You are the Demon Prince, the One replied jovially.  And I must say, you look the part.  You have risen up to challenge my mastery of your kind, and when you are dead, my people will rejoice that the Defiled once more serve their betters.

      Tarrin growled.  So, that was the game.  He reached out with his senses and realized that Mist and Kimmie had not left Pyros yet, and that made him wary.  He had to hold off the One a little bit longer, but he couldn’t make it apparent that he was stalling.

      Or did he?  No, he did not.

      “You haven’t finished it yet, One,” Tarrin growled at him, in a voice loud enough for the people beneath him to hear.  “I can sense the other gods of this world, and I can’t sense any kind of interest from the creating god of this dimension.  Even now they cry out to me, and your creator doesn’t seem to care.  They’re weak, but they are there.  How did they get away from you?  Can’t find their faithful, can you?  Your Hunters can’t reach them, can they?”

      They are cowards, and will die soon, he answered.

      Tarrin dropped down from the air until his feet dangled just over the level of the roofs of the buildings and raised a single paw, calling again on the boundless power within him.  It surged forth and gathered inside him.  He focused it into his paw, built it up like water behind a dam, then unleashed it as a brilliant spiraling cone of blue-white fire.  It raged through the air, falling well short of touching the One, passing under him harmlessly as the One descended to engage Tarrin.  At first the One smirked at him, then looked back and realized that he had never been the target of the attack.

      The blast of spiraling fire was aimed directly at the One’s cathedral.

      NO! the One’s voice screeched in outrage and shock, and his glowing body simply vanished from where it was and reappeared in front of his cathedral, shield presented and ready to deflect the blast to protect what was within.

      Connected to his fire, Tarrin yielded to his fire, merged with it, became the fire, then touched the fire of his attack.  Fire was connected to itself, it was separate manifestations of the same thing, and as such it was all merely fire.  Tarrin’s fiery form vanished in a gentle puff of expanding flame.

      The vanguard of Tarrin’s blast suddenly contorted, then expanded as Tarrin reformed his physical body from that fire.  That fire was traveling at incredible speed, so when the fire faded and left Tarrin’s physical body behind, he was racing ahead dizzyingly with the rest of that stream of fire immediately behind him.  He took up his sword in both paws as the One’s glowing eyes widened in shock, then coiled up like a spring with his sword to his side.  He uncoiled and whipped his sword from the One’s right to his left, the tip of his sword catching the One’s shield, which had been positioned to deflect Tarrin’s attack of fire, and jarred it far out to the side.  Tarrin slammed into the One with his shoulder, and the fire behind him caught up, pushing them both forward, like riding a cannonball fired from a Wikuni cannon.  The One screamed in surprise and outrage and then simply vanished, but Tarrin did not.  He impacted the side of the One’s cathedral and was slammed through.

      In an explosion of stone and dust, Tarrin penetrated the outer wall of the One’s center of worship.  He found himself in a vast chapel with many pews and benches facing a raised altar to his right, and behind that altar stood a regal statue of a winged human holding a sword and shield, nearly twenty spans tall, the detail of the sculpture so amazing that the sculpture nearly looked like a living thing.

      It was the One’s icon.

      The fire of Tarrin’s attack struck the far wall and exploded back into the chapel, instantly setting fire to anything that could  burn, creating a hellish firestorm contained within the cathedral’s walls.  Tarrin surged out of that inferno with his sword raised, lancing through the air at the One’s icon, sword suddenly burning brightly, eagerly, in anticipation of delivering the telling blow.

      NO!!!!!! the One shrieked in his mind as the distant voices of the other gods suddenly rose up in breathless anticipation, and the One’s icon animated itself, as the god resorted to his last line of defense to protect his icon…using the icon itself.  The stone sword of the icon moved, the shield turned, and caught Tarrin’s savage blow on its stone face, creating an intense flash of light as Tarrin’s direct might made contact with the One’s direct might.  He struck again, and again, and again, a blazingly fast flurry of immensely powerful blows, each one sending a shockwave from them that shuddered the cathedral’s walls.  The One’s icon did not move smoothly or fluently, but it moved just fast enough to use its shield to protect itself, a shield that lost pieces of itself with every attack, as chips of stone went flying with every blow.  Tarrin focused the power within and unleashed it through his sword, but the One’s direct manifestation appeared in the confined space between Tarrin and the One’s icon and caught that blast on his shield, reflecting it directly back at him.  Tarrin was forced to slither to the side to avoid his own attack.

      The look on the One’s face was almost mindless in its outrage, indignation, and fury.  Tarrin had made a direct attack on the One’s link to the material plane, and he seemed just as outraged that Tarrin had known it was there as he was infuriated that he would dare try.  How…DARE…you!!!!! he managed to call out into Tarrin’s mind, that voice holding all his immeasurable dismay and anger.

      Tarrin retracted to his normal size as he wove a simple weave of Air, but a weave of intense power.  A shimmering aura of red formed around the Were-cat’s winged form, as the weave was woven and charged with power, and more power, and even more power.  The reddish glow was discordant and chaotic, but the One ignored it as he rushed forward with his sword leading, but Tarrin could sense that the One was preparing to unleash a direct blast of his divine might well before he reached the now smaller Were-cat.

      The red glow around Tarrin suddenly became coherent, symmetrical, a globe of angry red energy as Tarrin snapped the weave down…a spell ready to be released.

      “Chew on this,” Tarrin said calmly, and he released his spell.

 

      The people of Pyros, who had seen the invading Demon and their god go in the direction of the One’s cathedral, all had their eyes locked on it in that terrible moment.  The gold-domed basilica which was the seat of the One’s power simply shattered.  The golden dome of the basilica rocketed into the sky, oddly undamaged, as the building under it exploded in every direction, sending jagged pieces of stone arcing high into the air, straight out, sending a cascading shower of smoking rubble raining down on Pyros.  The deafening shockwave of sound and pressure washed over the city, an ear-splitting BOOM that shattered every window in the city, and even caused some of the shabbier huts and dilapidated buildings to collapse.

      There was a massive cloud of dust where the cathedral used to be, which boiled anew when the huge golden dome of the basilica returned to the ground, sending a squealing sound over the city as it struck the ground and broke apart, sending large, jagged pieces of metal tumbling down the slope of the volcano to the base of the mountain below.  But within that cloud of dust was a glowing shine of light, bright white and pristine, and the voice of their god thundered over the city to assure them that he had not been destroyed.

      “My beautiful cathedral!” the One’s voice raged.  “Now you are DEAD!

 

      If Tarrin ever really, really wanted to tick off a god, now he knew how to do it.

      In that boiling cloud of dust, the light of the shield of divine magic that the One’s Avatar had raised to protect the icon cut through the darkness, illuminating the dust itself in an eerily, hauntingly beautiful display, like tiny particles of solid light suspended in the air.  The ground beneath them was scoured clean of everything, but the ground itself was untouched.  That was important, for he could sense Mist and Kimmie somewhere beneath him, and that ensured that his attack tried to destroy the One’s icon without putting them in jeopardy.

      Tarrin reared back and threw his sword at the icon of the One, and the burning weapon lanced through the air at the stone statue.  The One quickly interposed his Avatar, and Tarrin’s sword struck the One’s shield and clattered to the ground, its fire quickly disappearing.  Tarrin left it there and called his staff out of the elsewhere, infusing his favorite weapon with divine energies to give it the power to harm the One.  The staff began to glow brightly, and continued to glow as Tarrin’s feet left the ground and he surged forward. Holding his staff in the end-grip, almost like a sword.  But the One seemed to have lost his taste for the game, for his eyes burned with seething fury.  He held out his shield, and a blast of pure power impacted Tarrin, knocking the air out of his lungs and sending him careening off the flat ridge upon which the cathedral had been built.  The One boiled out of that cloud like Death Himself, howling with fury and outrage, his face no longer handsome and composed.  A concentrated release of power much more powerful than anything that the shadow of Val used against him came raging at him, a blindingly white expression of the One’s power, but the Were-cat simply rose higher into the air, avoiding it as it slammed into the city below.  There was no explosion, nothing like that, it simply caused the buildings and red-bricked streets to dissolve as if scoured by the sands of the Sandshield until nothing was left, leaving nothing behind but smoking dust.

      I will flay your skin from your flesh! the One raged in Tarrin’s mind as he sent another blast at him, which Tarrin again evaded easily.  I will strip the soul out of you and imprison it in a gem to decorate my sword!

      “I thought you wanted an epic battle, a grand show,” Tarrin taunted lightly as he raced at the One.  Staff stuck shield with a dull thunk, and Tarrin continued past the One and aimed a blow at the back of his head.  The One turned and caught the staff on his shield once again.  “Doesn’t the destruction of your cathedral make this more epic?  Or are you just worried that because I can strike back at you, you don’t look quite so grand and impressive to your people?  After all, I just blew up your cathedral…aren’t you god enough to protect it from a measly little nothing like me?  Upset that you’re not as invulnerable and all-powerful as you think?  That you’re just as limited as the gods you say don’t exist?”

      Oh, that did it.  That more than did it.  The One shrieked in mindless fury and lost all composure, as Tarrin’s taunts caused him to lose his temper.  He lashed out at Tarrin with nothing but raw power, power with no finesse, no control.  Tarrin evaded it and sent a dozen fiery lances out of his wings at the One in reply, and the One was too angry to coherently consider a defense.  He tried to barge through them, deflecting two with his shield, but four of those lances got around his shield and struck him in the chest, left side, and leg.  And they penetrated.  The One cried out in surprise and pain when Tarrin’s lances penetrated armor and struck at the divine energy beneath, a direct assault on the integrity of the One’s Avatar.  An injury.

      “Can’t fight me the way you want, can you?” Tarrin continued to dig as he rushed forth and delivered a series of heavy blows at the One’s shield with both ends of his staff.  “You can only use energy you can manifest in the physical world against me, and your precious city is under us.  If you blow it up, nobody will be here to see your grand victory, will there?  So you flail at me with just enough power to try to kill me without doing any permanent damage to the mortal realm…but it’s not enough, is it?  I’m a better fighter than you, and you know it.  All you have is your power, and you can’t use it the way you want to.  Doesn’t that frustrate you?  Doesn’t it eat at you to feel so limited in the face of a mere nothing?”

      You are being a fool! one of the voices of the gods raged at him.  Do not do this!  His icon is your goal, you are being stupid!

      Tarrin ignored that bit of advice and evaded another savage release of power from the enraged Avatar with delicate grace, then took up his staff and jammed the end of it into the One’s face.  His head snapped back and he staggered backwards in the air, and when he came back up it was clearly apparent that his nose was broken.  Unimpressed, Tarrin reared back and stabbed at his neck, but the One managed to get his sword up and parry the blow just wide.  Tarrin spun away from that, going in the direction the One’s sword had knocked his staff and whipped his tail around, hitting the One in the side of the head with its tip, then slammed the outside curve of his wing into the entirety of the One’s body.  Hundreds of small spikes suddenly erupted from the outside curve, driving deep into the One’s Avatar and causing him to scream in pain.

      A shockwave of might erupted from the One’s form, sending Tarrin flying backwards, stunning him briefly.  Tarrin shook out the cobwebs just in time to twist to the side to avoid getting skewered by the One’s sword.  The Cat’s Claws snapped out its claw-like blades over his right paw, and he drove them into the One’s shield.  The four extended blades penetrated the marred surface, and Tarrin caused them to bend, to hook into the One’s shield.  When Tarrin spun away in the opposite direction, avoiding another swipe of the One’s sword, he yanked with his right arm and tore the shield out of the One’s grip.  Instantly, Tarrin brought forth the power deep within and focused it into his left paw, the paw holding the sword, and unleashed it at the One’s now unprotected flank.

      The One saw it coming, and unleashed a blast of his own as a counter.   Those two energies met between them, and exploded into a fiery mass of destructive power as their energies battled one another in the air between them.  Both of them anchored into the fabric of reality to avoid being knocked backwards by the shockwave, a shockwave which thundered across Pyros and flattened the buildings directly beneath them.  An incandescent, blazing globe of energy boiled between them as their divine energies struck one another, did battle, and cancelled each other out, releasing that energy into the physical realm.

      Tarrin pushed both paws before him as the One continued to add more and more power to their duel, forcing Tarrin to do the same or be overwhelmed.  The raging orb of destruction between them expanded in size as they both added more and more power, a dreadful kind of tug-of-war that sought to push instead of pull.  Tarrin threw more and more into it, feeling the power in him rise up, and then the rate of that increase began to wane.  Tarrin discovered, to his dismay, that he could offer up no more, that he had reached the limits of his divine abilities.  Tarrin was, after all, only a demigod, without the full power of a truly divine being, and his ability to channel divine energy into the mortal world was restricted by his unique state of existence.  The One, on the other hand, did not have that restriction.  Tarrin felt keenly in the place of the shadow of Val in that moment, unable to put anything more behind his assault, knowing that he was being overwhelmed, but not in a position to pull out of it cleanly.  But he would not make the same mistake that the shadow of Val made, try to overwhelm the One in a frenzied, suicidal assault.

      He had not wanted this to become a battle of power, for he knew he would lose.  And that was exactly what it had become.

      Disengaging himself from the fabric of reality, Tarrin skewed his power, wrenching it in an odd manner, which caused the direct focus of his might to shift from straight ahead to slightly to the side.  The One’s power found no resistance on one edge of their meeting, and boiled forward.  But, since it was still meeting Tarrin’s power, it was deflected by that steady stream of might, reflecting off of it and sending it out wide.  Tarrin flowed quickly to the same side where he had skewed, shifted his power with the delicacy of a master fencer, and it was just enough to allow him to avoid the raging might of the One’s divine fury.

      It is only a matter of time! The One crooned in malicious delight.  Now you know you can never match my power!  Eventually you will make a mistake, and you will be mine!  And the people of Pyros will rejoice at having seen their god win a battle of epic proportions against the servants of darkness!

      “Too bad they won’t be alive to remember it,” Tarrin hissed at the One vituperously.

      The One’s eyes widened as Tarrin dropped from the sky, so fast, like an arrow fired from a bow.  If the One could somehow hear his thoughts in this new state of being, then he had no doubt what Tarrin intended to do.

      Destroy Pyros.

      Tarrin reared back, then punched his paw into the red brick street of Pyros as he landed, driving his fist deep into the earth.  Tarrin’s power immediately flowed into the ground, under it, deeper and deeper, seeking out his own power deep within, the magma beneath the crust of the earth, the liquid fire which was of his realm.  Tarrin called to the magma, commanded it to do his bidding, and the magma could not disobey.  His wings doubled in size, and doubled again, becoming like sails attached to his back, sails of solid fire that were a physical indication of the immense power he was releasing into the world.

      FOOL!  WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? the One’s voice raged in his mind.

      Tarrin looked up at the One as his eyes changed color from green to an ominous red, as Tarrin touched on the fire within the earth and sent wave after wave of his own energy deep into the ground to give the magma the energy it needed to do his bidding.

      To the north, the steep-sloped volcano, upon whose slope the cathedral to the One was built, began to rumble and smoke.

      “I just beat you,” Tarrin answered in an evil hiss, his eyes shifting from blazing green to brilliant red as he came into communion with the core of his power, and touched on the core of this world.  Tarrin had created a massive upsurge in magma in the neck of the dormant volcano.  The hardened plug in the neck of the caldera would hold that magma back until the pressure became too great, and then the volcano would literally explode with such power that it would wipe Pyros away as if it had never existed.  “Now nobody will be here to see your victory!  You just destroyed the seat of your power and thousands of your own worshippers, and for nothing!”

      With a howl of pure outrage, the One thrust his sword at Tarrin far below, and then unleashed his full might.  He did not hold back.  The One could save the city, but it absolutely required that he destroy Tarrin right now.  So he struck at Tarrin with absolutely everything he could bring to bear.

      Tarrin was not prepared for what the One threw against him, for it made the shadow of Val look like an apprentice Wizard using a cantrip.  Tarrin disengaged himself from the ground and threw all his power forward, forming once again a defensive barrier to protect himself from the One’s might.  But the One’s power was immense, and it was all Tarrin could do to hold it off.  Tarrin screamed in rage and pain as he fell to one knee, holding his staff before him, holding onto either end, channeling his power through his weapon, fighting to keep the One’s power away from him.  Tarrin tapped into his reserves of Sorcery, weaving that power into his barrier, then called directly on the magic of the Wizards, then directly sought power from the earth itself in the manner of the Druid, feeling the All of this world suddenly awaken itself to his presence, then move to comply.  The Mi’Shara called on all the magic he could muster to bolster his defense, hurling all the magic of the mortal world into the shield woven by his divine power to reinforce it, to protect him from the wrath of the One.  But Tarrin was not home, and his access to the magicks of mortalkin were severely restricted here.  In seconds, his entire reserve of the magic of Sorcery was gone, and his connection to that elsewhere from which Wizard magic flowed became unstable, and then was cut off, and his touch on the All of this world disrupted when Tarrin began to lose his focus.  Blinding pain assaulted him as the One’s power started burning away the shield, the pain of trying to hold back an avalanche, and then his shield faltered and failed.  He covered himself with his wings in a feeble attempt to defend himself from that torrent of divine wrath, but it was but a pittance in comparison to the raw, unmitigated might that the One hurled at him.

      This time, Tarrin was not the equal of a god.

      The earth around him evaporated, and the integrity of his wings was all but destroyed as they tried to hold back the wrath of the One.  Pain like he had never felt roared into him as the power of the One sought to shatter his very existence, to unmake his body and utterly destroy him.  Tarrin’s power rose up and tried to protect his soul from that overwhelming assault, but only just.

      It was an instant that lasted an eternity, as the full power of a god struck him, and in that eternity he understood his mistake.  He had played the One’s game, had not disengaged to seek out and destroy the One’s icon, had allowed his hunger for revenge trap him into an encounter that he would be hard pressed to win.  In that moment of eternal torture, Tarrin frantically scrabbled at his last defense, trying to channel enough focus through the soul-rending attack to do it.  Tarrin reached into himself, to his connection to fire, and then sent out his mind disjointedly, seeking out that part of himself he had left behind, his last defense in case things went terribly wrong.

      He found it.  He pulled the tattered remnants of his wings about him, and merged with their fire.  Fire was connected to itself, and in that state of purity, despite the One’s assault, he was able to step through the unity of fire and remove himself from the One’s proximity.

      In a puff of smoke, the physical form of Tarrin Kael, but a heartbeat from total destruction, simply evaporated.

 

      Far to the south, the self-sustaining fire that Tarrin had placed on the ground at the camp roared into a blazing pillar, and then took form.  Tarrin Kael emerged from that blazing pyre.  His body was marred with horrific wounds, and his wings were shreds of quivering flame that twitched spasmodically.  His eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed to the ground in blissful oblivion.

 

      “By Karas’ hammer!” Ulger swore as he jumped up from the ground, staring at Tarrin’s body.

      “Miranda!” Dolanna shouted as she rushed over to him.  “Miranda!”  She knelt by his body and turned him over, and was immediately covered in blood.  His left arm was mangled beyond recognition, his tail was gone, his right leg was nothing but exposed flesh and bone, and there was a gaping hole in his flank that exposed his ribs, liver, and entrails.  He looked as if he’d been mauled by a hundred bears, and blood flowed from every part of his body.  “Miranda!” Dolanna shrieked in panic.  Given the horrific nature of his wounds, his lifespan could be counted in seconds.

      And then she was there.  Chanting softly in the language of the gods, she placed her hands on Tarrin’s chest.  His body began to glow with a soft white light as the healing power of Kikkalli infused him, bolstered his body and kept it operating as it searched through him to understand the nature and extent of his hurt.  Then it set to work repairing the damage, knitting wounds together, urging the growth of new flesh, new bone, new skin, gently prodding misplaced organs and tissue back to its respective place and sealing it within newly regrown flesh and bone and tissue.  The spell took long moments, as Miranda continued to chant in a stately, serene voice, as the power of Kikkalli brought Tarrin back from the brink of death and renewed his physical form, saving him from death.

      Miranda blew out her breath and sagged, putting her elbows on Tarrin’s now whole chest.  “By Kikkalli’s winds, I just barely managed to make it,” she wearily told them.  “What did this to him?”

      “Tarrin has lost,” Dolanna said fearfully.  “Can you not feel the wrath of the One in the air?  The One has defeated him, and even now searches for Tarrin to finish him off.”

      “Why isn’t he coming?” Azakar asked pointedly.  “And what happened to Mist and Kimmie?”

 

      It was chaos.  And it was perfect.

      Mist slunk through the dark passages of the dungeons beneath the Cathedral in her cat form, keeping an ear on what she was hearing outside.  Tarrin and the One were dueling somewhere out over the city, and Mist was frantic with worry.

      She was late.

      She had found the passage to the catacombs, but the door had been closed, and the cathedral always seemed to have people in it.  The door was in the nave itself, behind the altar on the back wall, and she could not change form to open the door without giving herself away.  So she had been forced to wait, hiding under the altar’s black silk drape, literally sitting under the nose of the dreadful god which had come to dominated this part of the world…a god that did not notice her.  Tarrin was right, his approach had the One’s total and undivided attention.  It was several minutes after she heard Tarrin arrive that someone finally opened that door, and she darted in just before it closed.

      Now she was moving quickly through the dark, candle-lit tunnels, following the faint scent of her daughter back to its source.  The large black cat blended in perfectly with the shifting shadows of the underground passage, and the red-garbed Priests and guards paid her no mind whatsoever as she quickly yet methodically tracked Kimmie’s scent.  They had taken her through just yesterday, and her trail had not yet been swallowed up by the heavy human smells contained in the stale air of the chamber.

      For long moments Mist traced her daughter, having to hunker down as the earth shook several times.  By the trees, Tarrin was really going at it out there!  She had to hurry, she knew that her mate couldn’t hold that monster back forever!  She had to find Kimmie and get them out before Tarrin reached the Cathedral, or they very well may get killed.  She went down a flight of stairs, through a series of twisting passages, then reached the landing of another flight of steps.

      She went down and into a place that reeked of the unnatural scent of Demons.  The fur on her back started to bristle at that scent, but it also told her that she was getting close.  She reached an iron-bound door at the end of a long, empty passageway that had the smell of Kimmie wafting under the edge, as well as the evil reek of Demonkin.  The closed door signaled an end to stealth; she would have to open the door to get past it, and reveal herself.

      She debated doing that for a moment, until the entire cathedral shook violently, and the sharp sound of breaking stone echoed down the passage.  She was out of time…Tarrin was here!

      She shifted into her normal form, and extended the Cat’s Claws.  She heard some kind of muted sound from high above as she took a few steps back, then she exploded forward.

      She hit the door the exact instant that the entire earth shook as if some titanic hand had struck it.  A sound so loud that it was a physical force rocked the earth just as Mist struck the door with all her impressive might, shattering it and bursting forth from the passageway and into the room.

      It was a large room with rough stone walls, reddish stone like everything else, and it was obviously a torture chamber.  Several cruel devices to inflict pain were situated in the room, but the focus of Mist’s attention was on the far side, where her beautiful, gentle daughter, Kimmie, was chained to the far wall on manacles hanging from a bolt above her, holding her arms up.  Her naked body was dirty and covered with dried blood, matting her orange tabby fur, and her head was hanging low.  She was not moving.  Beside her, large and terribly impressive, was the marilith Shaz’Baket.  The night-haired Demoness, with six slender arms and the lower body of a massive snake, had her back to the door, looking up at the ceiling, but was in the act of turning to look in her direction.  She did so, looking at Mist with red-irised eyes, and there was a moment of surprise.  The thunder of whatever had happened above echoed through the chamber as the Were-cat and the Demoness faced off against one another across the expansive room.  Then she laughed.

      “Cleverly played, Were-cat,” she purred.  “He sent you to recover this one while he plays with the One.  But to get her, you have to get past me.”  She spoke a single word, and a different style of sword appeared in each of her six hands.

      “I was counting on it,” Mist snarled, then she exploded across the room with a screeching howl of utter, unleashed fury.

      Shaz’Baket had faced Tarrin in combat, so she knew what to expect from a Were-cat.  But that was a paltry shadow of what the Demoness faced in Mist.  The female Were-cat was beyond fury, fighting to recover her child from the clutches of an enemy, and that unity of need of both Human and Cat gave her a strength and determination that paled in comparison to what Shaz’Baket had seen from Tarrin Kael.  Immediately she was knocked backwards as the female attacked her with those flashing, blindingly fast claws, coming from everywhere at once, staggering the Demoness back in a display of naked, raw, savage hatred.

      Mist drove the Demoness back, and back, and back more, her arms blurring with blazing speed as the need to punish the Demoness united with her desperate need to recover her daughter and get them to safety before Tarrin destroyed Pyros.  The Demoness’ six swords just barely managed to parry or block those lethal blades extending from the Were-cat’s fingers as the Were-cat pressed in on her with her face twisted in a savage snarl of utter hatred.  She attempted to riposte with two stabs at Mist’s left flank, but had both of her weapons swatted aside by the same paw in quick succession, then had a third blow blocked by the black metal of the bracers covering her wrists.  She used four weapons to parry a series of savage rakes with those claws, but could not find an opening to reply.

      Shaz’Baket was stunned at the raw ferocity behind the assault, giving even more ground, until the tip of her snake tail touched the wall behind her.  Even when accelerated with Druidic magic, Tarrin Kael did not seem so fast!  She surged ahead just as the Were-cat launched herself into the air, and quickly tried to lean back to give herself room to deal with this sudden turn of events.   But the Were-cat was too close, was inside the reach of her swords.

      Mist’s five blades punched into empty air just where the Demoness’ head had been an instant before, as the Demoness teleported herself out of harm’s way.  But she did not panic, landing with both feet and one paw on the wall, then turning and springing back the other way.  She had heard all of her mate’s stories about how Demons fought, and she knew exactly where the Demon bitch had appeared.  She would appear directly behind Mist and try to kill her before she could turn around.

      And that was exactly what she had done.  Instead of getting a clear shot at Mist’s unprotected back, Shaz’Baket instead got a face full of the Were-cat’s unleashed fury.  She howled in pain when Mist’s claws raked three deep, almost surgically neat slices in her face, slithering backwards with her swords flashing to keep those lethal claws away from her.  Black blood flowed down her neck as the Demoness struggled to use her six weapons to protect herself from her opponent’s two, but she could not match the raw ferocity of her opponent.  What was nearly as bad was the steady stream of half-hissed, half-growled obscenities and curses that flew from Mist’s mouth as she assaulted the Demoness, ear-withering profanity in a chaotic mixture of languages that would do any Demon proud, giving voice to the Were-cat’s outrage and anger.

      Mist’s deadly claws sought out the Demon’s flesh with every swipe, even as they protected her from the Demoness’ answering blades.  Sparks flew as blade met claws, and the ringing sound of metal on metal reverberated constantly through the chamber as the two did battle at a frantic, almost unmatchable pace.  The Demoness reared back and projected a column of fire at her opponent, one of her innate magical abilities, but the Were-cat came right through it with no fear.  The fire had not touched her!  She slid backwards again and raised four of her six hands, and set forth a lightning bolt of magical power, another of her innate magical powers.  The Were-cat did not even try to dodge, allowing it to hit her with its full force.  It staggered her back just slightly, creating a smoking, smoldering hole in her shirt as arcs of electrical energy danced over her body, but she continued to advance, seeking out the Demon’s flesh with her claws.  She enacted another of her innate powers, speaking a single word with such power that it unleashed a stunning force on any who heard its utterance.  But the Were-cat came right through it, seemingly oblivious to its power, for the word had no effect on her.  The Demoness raised her weapons and frantically tried to fend off the Were-cat’s physical assault, for the Were-cat was again within reach of her, and the ringing chime of steel against Adamantite reverberated in the chamber.  The Demoness’ tail wrapped around the leg of the large rack behind her, then whipped it around her body as she turned, hurling it at her foe.  But Mist simply reared back and slammed her forearm into the torture device, knocking it aside contemptuously, and did not waver for an instant in her methodical, unstoppable advance.

      What was stopping her magic!  Something had to be protecting the damned Were-cat, or the word of power would have stunned her, and this duel would be over!  She slithered backward yet again, and then her eyes locked on the amulet around the Were-cat’s neck.  It was a shaeram, a holy symbol of the Sennadar goddess of magic, but it was glowing with a soft, gentle light.  That was what was doing it!  She enacted yet another of her impressive array of innate magical abilities, seeking to disrupt the effects of magic before her, attempting to dispel the amulet’s protection.

      A magical wave of power swept out from the Demoness and struck Mist, but the anti-magic of the dispelling power was disrupted when it struck the amulet, exploding into motes of visible blue light that surrounded the infuriated Were-cat.  Those motes danced around her, moving in her wake as she surged ahead.

      Shocked, Shaz’Baket realized that she was not going to disrupt the amulet.  It was divine.  The power of a god was protecting the Were-cat, and she could not counter that.  And it was clear already that she was no match for this hellion in a physical confrontation.

      With a howl of frustration, the Demoness fixed a withering glare on the Were-cat, and then disappeared.

      Panting, trying to get herself under control, Mist retracted the Cat’s Claws.  From the look on the Demon’s face, she knew that she was beaten, so she ran away like a coward.  She turned immediately and ran to her daughter.  She used a single blade of the Cat’s Claws to cut the manacles off her wrists, and her gentle, precious cub collapsed into her arms.  “Kimmie!” Mist said in a strangled tone.  She was covered in dirt, dried blood, and worse, and she smelled like Demons, but her pulse was strong and her breathing regular.  She was unconscious, but she was alive.

      This put a serious kink in the plan.  Kimmie was supposed to use Wizard magic to get them out of Pyros, but that was obviously impossible, and they could not dawdle.  Even now that Demon bitch was going for reinforcements, and they had to get out now or get trapped by a superior force.  Mist had to carry Kimmie, and she wouldn’t be able to fight.  Throwing her daughter over her shoulder, she raced to the doorway, then into a dust-choked passageway.  She raced past stunned and terrified Priests and church soldiers, absently killing a few as she passed with her clawed paws, retracing her steps back to the door that led to the cathedral proper.

      It wasn’t there.  She came out of what she could only call a hole in the ground and onto a devastated, barren scene of utter destruction.  There was nothing left but a single pristine white statue of the One with several nicks in its shield, with smooth slate tiles on the ground surrounding it, which ended abruptly in a perfect line some ten spans from the statue.  Everything else, even the tiles that were on the floor, were gone, scoured away by the titanic force of Tarrin’s magical might.

      That was the One’s icon.  It had to be.  And the fact that it was here, and Tarrin was not, told her that Tarrin had failed to reach it.

      The volcano behind her began to rumble, and the earth shook, and then there was a blinding flash of light from the city below that struck Mist to her soul.  She could feel her mate’s pain.  She felt it as if the One had unleashed his attack against her.  She staggered and bent over, almost toppling Kimmie to the ground, panting to recover from the pain, pain that shot all over her body like a million angry hornets stinging her inside and out.

      By the trees!

      Sudden palpable concern for her mate washed over her, but bent over like that, she spotted something laying near the One’s icon.  It was long and black, gleaming in the light of the odd blue and green moon, and it called to her with a singular purpose.

      It was Tarrin’s sword.

      Of course.  Now she understood what had to be done.  She put Kimmie on the ground gently, then quickly raced over and took up her mate’s sword.  It did not strike out at her.  She felt the One pass over her, looked up and saw his glowing body going up to the volcano.  She didn’t understand why he was doing that, why he didn’t seem to be aware of her.  All she knew was that her mate had risked his life to leave the sword behind, had left it for her, to do what he had failed to accomplish.

      And she would finish it.  She would not fail her mate.  Not ever.

      She took up Tarrin’s sword, the artifact that linked him to his own power, and then charged at the icon of the One.  The blade of the sword burst into angry flame, and then she leaped into the air, high, high into the air, and raised the sword over her head with both paws to deliver a killing blow.

      The icon seemed to suddenly flare, as the One became aware of the imminent threat that the Were-cat mortal now posed.  But the One’s physical manifestation was busy saving Pyros by destroying the blockage that was preventing the volcano from exploding, and that half an instant of delay between when the One’s Avatar was able to act and capable of dealing with Mist was a half an instant too late.

      The One’s icon animated, raised its shield to protect itself against Mist’s blow, but the Were-cat simply landed on the shield, digging her claws into its marred stone surface, pitted from where Tarrin had struck at the icon himself, and then she lunged over the rim of the shield and brought the sword down on the stone head of the One’s pristine icon.

      The sword split the stone like water.  The blade sheared through the head of the statue right between the eyes, and then there was an explosive release of energy that flung her away from it.  She sailed through the air and landed on the ground, then bounced and slid to a halt beside her daughter.  She was dazed, the release of power had literally ripped the clothes off her body, but she was generally unharmed.  The icon of the One made a horrific squealing cry, like a wounded badger, and the Avatar that had just appeared to deal with Mist began to writhe and shriek as if in agony, holding its head with both hands as his wings beat frantically at the air.  She had not destroyed the icon, but she had damaged it, had wounded the One, and now he was incapable of doing anything against her.  She could flee with her daughter and her mate’s sword, and as long as she ran fast enough, she was safe.

      She jumped up and grabbed her daughter by the hair and drug her away, then grabbed hold of her by digging her claws directly into her back and hauling her up onto her shoulder.  Carrying her daughter over one shoulder and her mate’s sword in her other paw, the Were-cat fled from the devastation of the plateau just as the volcano behind them seemed to explode, erupting with furious might that sent ash and cinders high into the sky along with huge fiery boulders, and lava began to boil over the rim and down the slopes.  She ran down that steep slope as lava boiled down the slope, directly towards the city of Pyros, directly towards the narrow ridge where the cathedral had once stood, directly towards the icon of the One.  An icon that had blazing light pouring from a stone head that was cleaved in twain that illuminated the city below just as brightly as the red light from the lava on the slopes above it did so.

      She raced into a city about to be destroyed by the final stroke of her mate’s answering strategy, and left behind a god whose icon had been damaged, which partially disrupted how he could interact with the physical world.  She raced into a city in chaos and left behind a god in pain, and a world about to be turned on its ear.

      She raced the streets of Pyros unchallenged, towards the shattered gate where Tarrin had entered, with a feeling of fierce satisfaction.  Her daughter was safe, her mate was badly injured but was alive—she could sense it—and though they had not destroyed the One’s icon, they had destroyed the base of  his power and dealt a direct blow to the god himself.

      She ran through the shattered gates of Pyros with her daughter over her shoulder, her mate’s sword in her paw, and her clothes ripped form her body.  She left Pyros knowing that though they had not destroyed the One, that though her mate was wounded, they had still managed to win…because Tarrin had placed his trust in her, had depended on her, had needed her to complete what he had not been able to complete.

      And she would never fail her mate.  Not ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 9

 

      Tarrin would not wake up.

      That single fact more than had everyone on edge.  His body was whole, but his wings were still shredded, in tatters, and he would not wake up.  Not even Miranda’s healing nor any spell she attempted to cast could rouse him from his unconscious state.  Her healing could not restore his wings, the magic just seemed to slide off of them like water, and the state of those wings seemed to hint that Tarrin was still grievously injured, in more ways than simply what damage was done to his mortal body.

      It lent itself to more than a few troublesome complications.  No one could hold onto Tarrin and keep a mount stable in the air because of his great size, not even Azakar, so the Pegasi, created by Tarrin specifically to get them around quickly, were now forced to galloping along the ground.  Mist and Kimmie were still missing, Phandebrass was nowhere to be found, and what was worse, the only person who could quickly find and communicate with them all was in no state to do so.  There were church soldiers, Demons, and men wearing black tunics that seemed to have rank over everyone—Hunters, Miranda had guessed, and Dolanna did not disagree—swarming the plains south of Pyros.

      Or what might be left of it.  They saw the titanic volcanic eruption from where they had been waiting, as the towering cone of the volcano suddenly burst forth bright lava that illuminated the entire northern horizon, and that eruption only intensified as time wore on.  The earth shook and rumbled with nerve-jarring regularity as the mountain to the north seemed to spew forth an endless flow of liquid rock, and ash began to fall on them as burning cinders created streaks of brilliant red in the sky, molten rocks that had been ejected from the volcano with such force that they had managed to travel longspans before falling back to the earth.  One of those fiery missles very nearly hit Azakar’s massive winged charger, and that was Dolanna’s indication that it was just too dangerous to wait any longer.  They had no idea what happened to Mist and Kimmie, but they knew that if anyone could find them, it would be Mist.  She would reach the camp and see them gone, then track them down.

      But the flaming cinders were only one danger.  Four times in the span of an hour, they were ridden down and attacked by mounted patrols of church soldiers, each one being led by a vulture-headed, winged Demon.  Those flying Demons were finding them from the air and directing the ground forces to them.  Haley, Azakar, and Ulger were forced to defend the host, for Dolanna’s finite amount of magic would not be used unless she had absolutely no other recourse.  But Dolanna’s magic turned out to be not needed, for Miranda stepped up and displayed the little known ability of Priests to use their magic offensively.  Miranda knew any number of powerful combat spells, and she used them against the church soldiers, disrupting them, banishing the Demon that was leading them, breaking them up and giving the two Knights and the Were-wolf enough of an advantage to finish off groups of more numerous adversaries.  The Pegasi seemed to have no trouble operating in a fight on the ground, keeping their wings tightly pressed up against their bodies, effectively pinning the legs of their riders and making it nearly impossible for them to fall out of their saddles, and displayed their greater intelligence by predicting and anticipating what their riders were going to do.  They would look at the situation and react with surprisingly accurate combat instincts, which made it much easier for the Knights and the Were-wolf to take control of a skirmish.

      They retreated to the south for half the night, as Azakar carried Tarrin’s inert form across his saddlebow, forced to share his mount with a highly upset Fireflash and an almost grimly concerned Sarraya, then he would hand off his precious cargo to Dolanna, whose small Pegasus would struggle with the oversized Were-cat’s bulk added to her rider’s slight weight.  Those times when Tarrin was slumped over her saddle, his feet nearly dragging the ground, Dolanna tried as best she could to assense what was wrong with him, using up her precious reserves of Sorcery with probing weaves used by healers to determine the extent of one’s injuries.

      What she found made her very, very nervous.  Tarrin’s wings were more than a simple extension of his hidden divine abilities.  They were much like a metaphor, a symbol, of that power.  When he used his powers, the wings reacted, as they must.  And when he used more power, the wings expanded in size, as if to grant him the ability to do as he wished.  His wings were his power, were that divine aspect of his dual existence, and whatever the One had done to him, it had injured him at that level.  Miranda had healed his mortal body, but she could do nothing to heal that other part of him.  What she found after studying what was left of his wings was that they were not healing.  In fact, upon closer inspection, she realized that they were slowly dissolving away, as the shreds and tendrils hanging limply from the top edges slowly yet inexorably evaporated, ceased to be.

      His wings were dying.  And if his wings died, then so would he.

      But there was absolutely nothing that she could do, that any of them could do.  Their mortal magicks had no effect on Tarrin’s wings.  None of them knew what to do to heal a god, for that was the side of him that had been injured, and that was the side of him that they had to heal, and heal quickly.  At the rate that his wings were dissolving away, Tarrin would not live to see the sunrise.

      Then it hit her.  There was only one chance here, one possibility.  His sword.  He had not returned with it, so he was separated from its power.  The sword was linked to him, and in a way it contained the power that he was either unable or unwilling to wield in the mortal world, keeping him separate from the majority of his true power.  Tarrin’s wounding would have weakened the power of the sword—they were linked—but it would still have power, and that power might be what Tarrin needed to stop the slow degeneration of his wings and restore the divine aspects of his power.

      She called them to a halt around midnight as her smaller Pegasus pounded its hooves across the plains in step with Azakar’s charger, her hand on Tarrin’s wing even as they rode, keeping careful track of their rate of decay.  She turned her mount to face them, and looked at them all grimly.  “Tarrin is dying,” she announced without any kind of warning.  “I do not know what to do to help him, but all I can think of is that we must find his sword.  It is part of him, and maybe its power can stop what is happening.”

      “What’s happening, Dolanna?” Sarraya asked fearfully from Tarrin’s back.

      “His wings are dying, little one, and if that happens, then he will die with them,” she answered.  “Tarrin and his sword are linked, for the sword is a part of him.  There is nothing that Miranda or I can do for him, so finding his sword is our only option.  We can only hope that the sword will realize the extent of his harm and do what it can to help him.  That is going to mean that we have to turn around and ride back the way we came, through the soldiers.  We must fight our way back to Pyros and locate his sword as quickly as possible.”

      “Why don’t we send a couple of people ahead through the air,” Ulger offered.  “They won’t be able to touch us—“

      “That’s not an option unless I go with you,” Miranda warned.  “You don’t want to face a Demon in the air, Ulger.  Not without some magical backup.  And if I leave, then those that remain behind won’t have any protection.  We have to stay together.  If we split up, we’re going to lose someone.”

      Dolanna nodded.  “So our only options are to ride back or find some way to secure Tarrin and fly.”

      “Just tie him to a pack horse,” Azakar announced.  “Since he won’t get any worse if he gets banged around, it won’t matter.  We have to do this fast, so we don’t have many options.”

      Dolanna gave Azakar a glance, then nodded.  “That is our only option,” she agreed.  “Ulger, Haley—“

      “Already on it, my friend,” Haley called as he jumped down from his Pegasus.  “We’re just leaving the packs behind?”
      “We have little choice,” she answered.  “Just cut it loose and help Azakar lash Tarrin to the mount.”

      “Another of those firebombs is coming,” Ulger warned as he looked up at the sky.

      Dolanna looked carefully at it.  No, it was not.  It was a fiery mass, that was true enough, but it was moving too slowly to be another glob of ejected magma.  Dolanna studied it as Haley cut the straps of the packs off the largest of the pack Pegasi, then she started making out a faint silhouette.

      It was not a glob of fire.  It was Tarrin’s sword!  It was flying through the air of its own accord, straight towards them!  And grasping the hilt, with an inert form gripped tightly with the other arm, was Mist!

      Miranda laughed in delight when she looked up, and Dolanna gave out a fervent cry of relief.  “Mist!” she screamed.  “Mist, oh, I am so happy to see you!”

      “It’s about bloody damn time you asses stopped!” Mist shouted back at them angrily.  “My paw’s numb from gripping this thing, and I think my shoulder’s dislocated!”

      Mist’s feet hit the ground, but she would not let go of the sword, so she ended up being dragged along with it as it pulled itself towards its master.  “Someone take Kimmie!  I can’t let go!” she called urgently, her eyes widening in surprise.

      Haley surged towards her as Ugler and Azakar lunged forward, but Zyri reached her first.  She was nearly knocked over by the much larger Were-cat, but she grabbed hold of Kimmie’s leg and refused to let go.  She too was dragged along on the ground behind Mist as the Were-cat struggled to free her paw from the sword, but for some reason she could not let go of it.  “Ngghh!  It won’t let go of me!” she shouted, fear creeping into her voice.  She threw Kimmie off her shoulder, who landed on top of Zyri, then grabbed her wrist with her other paw and tugged at it even as she tried to find purchase with her clawed feet.

      “Just let go!” Azakar barked at her as he caught her by her waist, then he too was jerked along with her.

      “You think I bloody damn well didn’t think of trying that already, you idiot?” she raged at him vehemently.  “It’s stuck to my paw!”

      “Do not fight it, Mist!” Dolanna called quickly.  “Let it do as it wills!”

      “I have a choice?” she snapped acidly as the sword drug the Were-cat towards Tarrin.  Dolanna waved Azakar off, who let go of her and snatched up Kimmie from the ground, then backed away.  The blade exploded into even brighter, brilliant flame as it got closer and closer to its master, who Haley quickly and insightfully ran back to Tarrin and pulled him off the Pegasus.  He laid Tarrin on the ground quickly and all but dove out of the way as the sword, whose heat was so great now that Haley’s hair was starting to singe as he retreated, advanced quickly on its dying master.

      The sword touched Tarrin, and there was nothing but a blazing column of fire, fire that rose all the way into the sky.  Mist screamed, but not out of pain.  Hers was a scream of surprise as the fire engulfed her, and her shadow vanished into the fierce inferno.  Hidden within the blazing pyre, Mist felt the sword’s power flow into her mate, pouring into the shattered remnants of his wings, aggressively shoring up the delicate lattice of surprisingly gentle energy which was Tarrin’s godly power.  Mist’s unwilling grip on the sword gave her an odd insight into what was going on.  The sword had surrounded them with fire, Tarrin’s element, for he drew power from fire just as fire drew power from him.  The sword had taken a grip on her and dragged her into it because she was his mate, and even now her presence registered to Tarrin in his unconscious state.  The sword was using her love for him as a cudgel, beating him over the head with it.  He could feel her through the sword, aware of her nearness, and that awareness produced the necessary reaction out of him, shaking awake his instincts and desire to live from the torpor they had undergone, the state of shock from which he still suffered after the brief yet savage confrontation with the One.  Tarrin’s mind and his will reacted to the touch of the sword, reacted to the sudden realization that Mist was alive and well.  She felt Tarrin’s divine nature open itself to the power of the sword, draw power from it, draw in the power of the fire around him, and send it into his dreadfully injured wings, which were also the direct representation of his power.  The systemetic decay that had been taking place, the slow death of his divine nature, was quickly and effectively stopped as new power flowed into him, revitalizing him, replacing what was lost and giving him the extra power he needed to start the process of repairing the damage that had been done.

      Quickly, almost shockingly quickly, the fire evaporated like smoke.  Tarrin lay on the ground, still unconscious, his wings still tattered, and looking in no way different than before.  Mist was on her paws and knees beside him, the sword still in her paw, looking dazed and bleary.  She grunted weakly and rose up onto her knees, putting her paw to her forehead, and that sound made Tarrin move.  He seemed to try to roll onto his side, but got about halfway there before collapsing back onto his stomach, and he moved no more.

      “Goddess!” Dolanna said intensely as she rushed forward.  She put her hands on Mist’s shoulder, then a palm to her forehead, then patted her on the shoulder before kneeling down and putting her hand to Tarrin’s cheek.  “I think he will be alright,” she announced.  “I must observe him for a while, though.”

      “He’ll be fine,” Mist said wearily.  “The sword bandaged him up.  Sort of.”

      “Did you feel what happened?” the diminutive Sorceress asked.

      Mist nodded.  “It was hard not to, since it wouldn’t let go of me,” she replied.  “I felt it flood him with power, probably what the One injured.  His wings will heal themselves, he just needs time, that’s all.  It wanted me there to let him know that I’m alright.”

      “It did?  You are certain of that?”

      She nodded.  “It did what it was supposed to do.  When Tarrin sensed me, he started actively trying to heal himself.”

      Miranda gave Mist an oddly curious look, then her eyes widened.  Then she turned halfway away from them, crossed her arms beneath her breasts, and looked back towards Mist with a narrow-eyed, very slight, clever little smile.  But that faded the instant she looked at Kimmie.  She rushed over to the Were-cat, who was laying partially on top of Zyri, and rolled her over.  Then she pushed her sleeves up and immediately started chanting in the language of the gods, the medium through which Priest magic operated.

      “Let’s put a tent up for him,” Ulger offered.  “And for Kimmie.  She gonna be alright Miranda?”

      “I’ll tell you in about ten minutes,” she replied after a long pause.

      “Let us simply make camp,” Dolanna said.  “We are all tired and need to rest.  We will rest for the remainder of the night and move on in the morning.  Kimmie and Tarrin need time to heal, but we simply cannot stay in one place for long.”

      “Mist!  Come here and hold her down before she starts thrashing!” Miranda barked.

      “I’ll help, Mistress Miranda,” Zyri offered.

      “You’re not strong enough hon.  Mist is, though,” she replied with a wink.

      Mist was indeed strong enough.  For nearly twenty minutes Miranda used her Priest magic on Kimmie, and she did start convulsing and thrashing not long after her bond-mother came over to pin her to the ground.  Mirand blew out her breath after Kimmie stropped struggling, wiping her hand over her furry forehead to get her hair back into place, then gave Zyri a sly smile.  “She’ll be just fine,” she announced.  “Jal, time to earn your supper, hon.  Come over here and give Kimmie a very thorough shower.  We have to get this blood and dirt off her.  Just don’t drench me,” she said with a teasing wink.  “Wet Wikuni are very unhappy Wikuni.”

      Jal, who had been hiding behind Haley nervously, advanced with a shy smile, his eagerness to use his power evident on his face.

      “How is she, my friend?” Dolanna asked.

      Miranda blew out her breath as she stood up, and Jal began inundating Kimmie with warm water as Mist scrubbed the grime from her.  “She’ll be alright,” she answered.  “The Demon tortured her, in both body and mind.  The body I can fix, but the mind…well, we’ll see.  I tried to literally erase out her memory of what happened as best I could, but Were-cats aren’t easy to work with.  It was all I could do.  I’m sorry.”

      “That might be enough,” Dolanna said quietly.

      “If I did it right, she’ll have absolutely no memory of anything that happened for the last five days, since before she was abducted.  If I messed up—well, let’s not go there.”

      “I have confidence in you, my friend,” Dolanna assured her.  “As soon as we have tents prepared, let us move her and Tarrin into them.”

      Miranda knelt beside Kimmie again and watched as Jal produced a steady, strong stream of water from his hands, water that was warm and clean.  “Zak, go fetch us some towels, and a blanket.,” she ordered, and the Knight simply nodded and hurried to the pack Pegasi.  “So, Mist,” she said, looking over Jal’s head at her.  “I want to see you after we get Kimmie packed away into a bedroll.  I want to check and make sure the sword didn’t do you any harm.”

      “I’m fine.”

      “That wasn’t a request,” she said in a mild yet authoritative tone.  “The kind of power you were exposed to can leave damage that you can’t see or feel or sense.  I want to make sure you’re alright, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

      Mist gave her an ugly glare, but Dolanna intervened.  “Miranda is being wise, Mist,” she said.  “It would behoove you to do as she asks.  Best to ensure that you have no hidden injuries now rather than when those injuries might suddenly surface and impact your abilities at a bad time.”

      Mist snorted.  “Alright,” she agreed.

      “Now let us not tarry.  We must get Tarrin and Kimmie into bed and let them get as much rest as we can before we must move on.”

 

      Pain was a sensation to which Tarrin Kael was more than accustomed.  During his short life, he had experienced it in all its myriad forms, at more levels and forms that most other living beings could not even imagine.  He had felt the intense, body-wracking pain of being turned.  Twice.  He had experienced physical pain that would drive humans mad, and had felt the icy pain of betrayal, had felt the mind-wrenching agony of loss.  He had experienced pain in body, mind, and even soul.  He had experienced more pain that any living thing should have to experience, and it was an unwelcome guest in his home, a visitor whom he despised, yet still knew intimately well.

      This was a new pain.

      He had never felt anything like it before.  It was a physical sensation but it wasn’t, a kind of phantom pain in something that wasn’t there.  And it was driving him batty.

      The pain was aching in his wings.  There was the expected pain along the torn remnants of what was left, but the pain that really was annoying him was pain in parts of his wings that simply were not there anymore.  He’d heard stories of how men who’d lost hands or feet sometimes felt pain as if they still had them, but he didn’t really believe them.  Well, he believed them now.

      Oh, he knew before he was even conscious what kind of shape he was in.  He remembered every instant of it, as the One’s power ripped through his wings, attacked his very divinity, tried to kill him by destroying the divine aspect of his being, which severely injured his mortal body simply as a collateral effect.  The One hadn’t been trying to kill Tarrin, he had been trying to destroy him, had tried to destroy his very soul.  But the One had underestimated Tarrin, for Tarrin had gambled on Mist being able to complete the task.

      She had been partially successful.  He could sense it, sense a drastic reduction in the sense of the One’s presence on the land, and the wary eye that always seemed to be looking over Tarrin’s shoulder was now gone.  The One’s icon was damaged, but not destroyed, and even now the god was laboring to repair it.  Even as Tarrin labored to repair his wings.  Both of them had been injured, damaged, wounded in their battle, and Tarrin knew that now, now it was a race to see who could heal first.  They both had suffered injury, and now both of them were partially crippled.  The One had lost part of his touch on this world, and Tarrin had lost access to his divine powers.

      That he could tell with just the most casual assensing of himself.  His powers were tied up with his wings, they were his wings.  With his wings injured, he would be incapable of using his divine abilities.  The only thing he could do would be to try to heal them, which was what he was doing even now.  It wasn’t something that require active thought, and it was the only kind of divine action that he could take.  Until his wings were healed, he would have to do things the mortal way.

      Given the amount of wing that was destroyed and the rate he was healing, they’d be restored in about a month.  But, he could sense that the damage to the One’s icon was much more extensive, and it would take him longer to repair his icon than it would take Tarrin to heal his wings.  He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but he did.  That meant that for right now, they were equally incapacitated.  But, since Tarrin would heal first, it meant that Tarrin would have a window of time to hunt down the One’s icon, and destroy it.

      He turned his attention to his physical senses.  The smell of canvas told him he was in a tent, a tent which had seen some visitors.  Everyone had been inside the tent at one time, but Mist, Dolanna, Miranda, and Zyri and Jal had been the most frequent visitors.  He was alone at the moment, but their voices were just outside the tent, as was the sound of a campfire.  He was laying on his side, and he could feel the aching throb in his wings, a throb that became a sharp stab of pain when he moved.  It made him wince, and he went about the business of getting up very, very gingerly.

      He should have known that Mist would sense or notice him moving almost instantly.  By the time he had rolled up to a sitting position, Mist was flinging the tent flap aside and rushing in.  She didn’t slam into him, she knelt beside him quickly and put gentle paws on his shoulders, his face, his chest.  “Tarrin!” she called urgently.  “Are you alright?”

      “I’ll live,” he grunted as Miranda, Haley, and Dolanna appeared in the tent’s entrance, and Zyri wormed past them and quickly moved to his bedroll and sat down beside it.  She didn’t touch him, but the concern was evident all over her face.  “Is Kimmie alright?  I can smell her on you.”

      Mist nodded.  “She’s sleeping in the next tent.  She was in no condition to use magic to get us out when I got there, so I carried her back out and found your sword.  I used it on the One’s icon,” she told him. “I think that’s what you wanted me to do.”

      He nodded.  “I knew I had no chance to get at his icon so long as he had his Avatar there, so I gambled that if you were still there, then you couldn’t get out.  So I left it there hoping you could backstab the One while his attention was fixed on me.”

      “A very brazen gamble, dear one,” Dolanna said with a smile.

      “Sometimes crazy works,” Tarrin shrugged.  “I knew that Mist can pick up my sword, and you don’t have to be a god to attack an icon.  You just have to have a weapon capable of doing damage, that’s all.”

      “Well, it almost killed me,” Mist grunted.  “I got knocked across where the cathedral used to be.  I’d have finished him, but I figured doing that would kill Kimmie, and the volcano was erupting, so I didn’t have time to stand there and debate the issue.  I had to get Kimmie out of there.”

      “You did enough,” Tarrin told her.  “The One’s lost most of his power on this world while he fixes his icon.  That means he can’t grant his Priests any spells stronger than the basics, he can’t directly communicate with them, and he can’t keep track of us anymore.  We have some breathing room.”

      “What about you, dear one?  Are you well?”

      He shook his head.  “The One’s power comes from his icon.  Mine comes from these,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.  “I’ve lost my powers too, until they’re healed.  Me and the One are in the same fix, but I can heal my wings faster than he can fix his icon.  I’ll get my powers back first.  And when I do, I’m going to hunt his icon down and finish what Mist started,” he declared flatly.

      “Dear one, if we have enough time, we will be gone long before then,” Dolanna told him gently.  “All we must do now is find Phandebrass and have him open the gate.”

      “No, Dolanna.  Ni--the Goddess has to arrange to allow Phandebrass to open that gate.  She doesn’t know when that’s going to happen, and until my wings regrow, I can’t tell her.  We’re stuck here until I get my powers back.”

      “Silly boy, I can ask Kikkalli to relay any message you might need,” Miranda told him.  “It won’t be as fast, but I can do it.  I’ll have to get her attention, and that might take some time.  She can barely hear me as it is, and this won’t be just a request for the power to cast a spell.  It might be a few days before I finally get in contact with her.”

      “Why is it different?” Ulger asked from behind her.

      “Think of hearing calls for power for spells to be something of an automatic reflex,” she answered, turning to look at him.  “Half the time she doesn’t even realize it’s going on.  That’s how the ki’zadun managed to infiltrate the order of Karas, friend.  He didn’t know just who he was granting spells to.  As long as the agents went through the motions and kept themselves in good standing with Karas, he kept granting them spells.  Younger gods aren’t omnipotent, old friend.  He did his best to keep up with what was going on, but the Priests who were agents of Karas had been very well trained before entering the Priesthood about how to hide their true loyalties.  They were taught how to show a false front to Karas, and if you didn’t notice, it is possible to fool a god.”

      “I always wondered about that,” he grunted.

      “Karas wasn’t the only one with traitors in his order.  Every Younger god, even Kikkalli, had a little house cleaning after what happened in Suld.”

      “They didn’t try it with an Elder god?” Haley asked.

      Miranda laughed.  “Hon, you don’t toy with gods who can kill you with a thought,” she answered him.  “Elder gods can do that, especially if you’re one of their Priests who has gone awry.  Ayise doesn’t give a flip if you smack down one of the mortals who follows you.  It’s entirely an internal matter.  You cross an Elder, and he’ll drop you dead on the spot.  The ki’zadun was very wise to keep them at arm’s length.”

      “That would make the idea of it a bit nervous,” Haley laughed.

      “I take it Phandebrass isn’t here yet?” Tarrin asked.

      Dolanna shook her head.  “We told him that we would find him.  Unfortunately, that poses a problem now, since you cannot make contact with him.”

      “He knows which way we were coming,” Tarrin grunted.  “If I know him, he’s not very far away.  All we have to do is let it be known where we are, and he’ll find us.”

      “That is a dangerous idea, dear one.  If we let it be known where we are, then the soldiers of the One will also come for us.  We have been fighting running battles all night.  It seems that the Demons have stepped in to lead the troops now that the One is incapacitated.”

      “I was hoping that losing their god would take the fight out of them,” Tarrin fretted.

      “It has not,” she answered.

      Tarrin winced as he shifted his weight, then pulled himself onto his feet.  There was a rather brilliant flash of pain though his wings as they shifted, but the pain eased back to a dull throb quickly.  There wasn’t much at all left of them, just a pair of ragged bone-like appendages sticking out of his back which had torn tatters of living flame dangling from them limply.  They were so damaged that he couldn’t even retract them.  “Well, this is going to make riding fun,” Tarrin growled.

      “I take it you cannot withdraw them?” Dolanna asked.

      He shook his head.  “They’re too injured to do anything,” he answered.  “I won’t be able to retract them for a while.  I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to shapeshift.”

      “No, it is best not to experiment,” Dolanna warned.  “Besides, if you cannot withdraw them, then there is no reason for you to change form to conceal yourself.  They will simply give you away.”

      “How is Kimmie?” he asked.

      “Physically, she’s alright,” Miranda told him.  “The Demon tortured her mind as well as her body, though.  I erased her memory of the last few days to purge it from her mind, but I’m not entirely sure how well it worked.  I figured if she had no memory of it, it wouldn’t affect her state of mind.”

      “No, it wouldn’t,” Tarrin agreed, thinking back to Jula.  “Let me go see her, then if someone wouldn’t mind cooking something, I’d like to get something to eat.”

      “I can do it, Mistress Mist,” Zyri offered in a small voice.  “I don’t want to take you away from your daughter.”

      “You’re a good cub,” Mist told her steadily, a paw on her shoulder.

      “What do you want for breakfast, Master Tarrin?” she asked.

      “Girl, I’ve told you not to call me that,” he grunted.  “I’ll take just about anything.  I’m not picky when I’m hungry.”

      “I’ll find something,” she said with a bob of her head, then scurried out of the tent.

      “I’ll give her a hand,” Haley said from outside.  “Come on, Jal.  Let Tarrin see Kimmie, then he’ll have time to say hello to you.”

      Tarrin stepped out of the tent carefully, to prevent snagging his injured wings on the sides of the tent, and walked into an eerie scene.  The air was thich with very fine ash, and smelled of sulfur and lava.  The sky overhead was boiling with dark clouds of ash, from which the fine ash fell like snow, and the clouds were very low and very thick.  They blocked the light of the single moon, making everything more than twenty spans from the fire black as pitch.  Haley, Azakar, and Ulger had to shake the ash off things before they packed them, and the Pegasi shivered and flapped their wings often to get the ash out of their feathers and off their coats.  Tarrin paid the strange scene no more mind, rather gingerly made his way across a small, hastily erected campsite to the next tent over, and his spirit soared just a little bit as her scent touched his nose.  He threw aside the tent flap to see her laying in a bedroll, nude under the blankets he could tell, sleeping peacefully.  There was no sign of her ordeal on her face, hers was the visage of a calm, untroubled slumber.  That was a very good indication.  She began to stir as Tarrin ducked into the tent, sucking his breath in when his wing snagged on the edge of the tent, and those beautiful blue eyes opened when he knelt by her bedroll.  She looked up at him in sleepy bemusement, then she laughed softly.  “Well, either this is a very vibrant dream, or something went horribly wrong somewhere,” she said to him with a slight smile.

      “Let’s just say that something went horribly wrong,” he answered honestly, in a tender, gentle voice.  “How do you feel?”

      “Fine,” she answered, stretching languidly.  Then she reached up and put her paw on his cheek.  He put his paw over hers and closed his eyes, revelling in her nearness.  “I’m glad to see you too, Tarrin,” she said winsomely, though there was nothing but honesty in her voice.  “What happened?”

      “Something that required Miranda to wipe it out of your memory,” he answered bluntly.  “Something you do not want to remember.  But it’s over.  We managed to get you back, and that’s all that matters.”

      “Phandebrass?” she asked fearfully.

      “Fine,” he answered.  “We need to find him, but we absolutely know for a fact that he’s just fine.”

      “That’s a relief,” she sighed.  “Last thing I remember was going to sleep in our camp.  I take it things went wrong after that?”

      He nodded.

      “What happened to your wings, darling?”

      Tarrin glanced back.  “Let’s just say that it might give you an idea of how wrong things went,” he told her seriously.

      “I, see,” she said in a quiet voice.  “Are you alright?”

      “I’ll heal,” he told her.  “Everyone else is fine.”

      Mist ducked under the doorway and entered the tent.  Kimmie gawked at her, than laughed.  “Mother!” she cried.  “What happened to you?”

      She glanced down at herself.  “Oh, that’s right, this is new to you,” she mused.  “I decided to be my proper size.  Being half Tarrin’s height made it a bit awkward being his mate.”

      Kimmie laughed.  “That’s wonderful, mother!” she proclaimed.  “I’m so happy for you!”

      “I see you’re well,” she noted, sitting on her heels on Kimmie’s other side, her paw stroking her hair tenderly.  It wasn’t often that Mist displayed her maternal feelings for Kimmie.

      “I get the feeling that I wouldn’t have been,” she answered.  “I don’t remember what happened, and I think our darling here convinced me that I don’t want to know.”

      “You don’t,” she affirmed in a strong voice.  “You were taken by that same Demon bitch that nearly killed Eron, and she used you to trap Tarrin into a fight with the One.  That’s all you ever need to know.”

      Kimmie gave her mother a stricken look, then swallowed nervously.  “I think you might be right about that, mother,” she said in a quavering voice.  “How long—how many days did I lose?”

      “Three days?” Mist asked Tarrin.

      “Maybe four.  We’ll have to ask Miranda,” he answered.  “Alright, Kimmie…exactly how did you end up here?”

      Kimmie did not miss the intrinsic threat hidden behind those words, so she fixed Tarrin with a steady, honest gaze.  “Phandebrass was showing me the gate.  He managed to find out the location, even though you wouldn’t tell him.  We went the way we did for speed, darling, the gate being on the path was just a bonus.  When we got there, we were attacked by several—I have no idea what they were.  They were very ugly and white, and big.  They trapped us in the canyon, and more on the canyon rim triggered an avalanche.  We could either flee through the gate or get buried.  I’m sorry, darling, but we did what we had to do.”

      “Yetis,” Tarrin grunted absently.  “You must have stumbled across a pack of them.  Usually they’re not aggressive, but if they set up their camp in the canyon, then they probably would have attacked.”  He looked back to her.  “They abandon a campsite if it’s compromised…that’s why they weren’t there when we arrived.”

      “So you’re not going to blame us?”

      “No.  I’ll probably kill Phandebrass anyway, but I don’t blame you.”

      Kimmie chuckled weakly.  “My turn.  Who’s looking after our children?”

      “Jula,” he answered.  “She’s with them at the Tower.  Forge is with them.”

      “I was really missing Forge,” she grunted.  “He’s a Hellhound.  Given this One’s tendancy to let his Priests summon Demons, having a pet Hellhound might have stopped a great deal of foolishness.”  She blew out her breath.  “So, what’s the plan?”

      “Find Phandebrass,” Mist said first.  “We need him to free the souls of the Sorcerers so Tarrin’s Goddess can get them off this world.  Then we go home.”

      “You have no idea how nice that sounds,” she sighed.  “Do you have your spellbook, darling?”

      Tarrin nodded.

      “Good.  I’ve lost mine, and if you remember, I copied all of my spells into yours,” she winked.  “There’s a spell in there that will find Phandebrass.”

      “Which spell?” Tarrin asked.  “I went through the book from cover to cover looking for a spell that could lead us to you?”

      She gave him a perplexed look, then she chuckled.  “Well, I didn’t write a description with it,” she answered.  “And it wouldn’t work for you, darling, because I never set the spell up for you.  It’s a spell that allows an apprentice to know which direction her master is in, in case she ever gets lost.  It’s a cantrip, one of the first an apprentice learns, and the master has to set the spell.  Phandebrass did that for me, so I can use the spell to find him.”

      “Do you feel well enough to move?” Mist asked.

      “I feel just fine,” she answered immediately, then she reached under the blankets briefly.  “Just as soon as someone finds me a robe or something, I’ll be ready to go,” she announced with a slight smile.  She looked past Tarrin and Mist, then rolled over on her side.  “And who is this handsome young man?” she asked, looking at him.

      Tarrin looked back, and saw Jal and Zyri standing at the tent entrance, partially hiding behind the flap.  Dolanna was standing behind them, and Miranda behind her.  Jal was blushing.  “That’s Jal, and Zyri,” Tarrin told her.  “We picked them up a while ago.”

      “Well, you’re looking good,” Miranda told Kimmie with a cheeky grin.

      “I’m feeling fine.  Have a dress I can borrow?”

      “I’m almost done altering one for you,” she answered.  “You were rather undressed when Mist got you back to the camp.  I’ve been working on it a while.  Give me a few minutes and I’ll bring it to you.”

      “You’re a lifesaver, girlfriend,” Kimmie laughed.

      “Do you feel well enough to travel, Kimmie?” Dolanna asked.  “Tarrin?”

      “Whether I am or not, we have to move,” Tarrin answered over his shoulder.

      “I feel just fine, Dolanna,” Kimmie answered her.  “Let me get dressed and I’ll be out to help.”

      “If you come out now, I’d be more appreciative!” Ulger called from across the camp.

      “If I did, you wouldn’t get any work done!” Kimmie called back immediately, which made Zyri giggle.  “You brought Ulger with you?  The Knights must have been hard up for decent people,” Kimmie told Tarrin with a wink.  “Who else is here?”

      “Azakar,” he answered.  “And Haley and Sarraya.  You’ve met everyone else.”

      “Sarraya?  How’s she surviving here?”

      “The bug actually planned ahead,” Mist grunted.  “Which is a miracle.  She made a talisman that lets her survive here.  She and Fireflash both are here.  Both of them are out scouting around right now.  They’re small and they can fly, so they’re better at avoiding being seen.”  She snorted.  “I had to pry Fireflash off Tarrin and throw him out of camp to get him going.  He came back twice, then Haley explained to him that he was helping Tarrin more by watching out for enemies than he would be sitting in the tent.”

      “That sounds like Fireflash,” she said, sitting up in the bedroll, then sitting cross-legged on the mat with the blanket in her lap, which left her chest bare.  “Does that hurt, darling?” she asked, reaching up and very gingerly touching his wing.

      Tarrin winced at the touch.  “Yes, it hurts,” he said bluntly.  “But there’s nothing to be done about it.  They just have to heal.”

      “What did that?  I didn’t think anything could even hurt your wings.”

      “The One,” he answered.  “We’ll explain it all while we’re moving.”

      “Well, give me the spellbook, and I’ll memorize that spell so I know where to take us,” she prompted.

      Tarrin looked to the tent flap, where he saw Jal’s presented back.  The boy had turned around after Kimmie sat up and exposed her breasts, but did not leave.  “Jal,” he called.  The boy didn’t turn around, but turned his head slightly.  “Go to my tent and get my saddlepack.”

      Jal nodded and hurried off.

      “Come in, Zyri,” Tarrin called.  “Come introduce yourself.”

      The girl stepped out from behind the tent flap and filed in, keeping her eyes down and averted from Kimmie.  She stopped just inside the tent flap and folded her hands before her demurely.  “Nice to meet you, Mistress Kimmie,” she said in a small voice.

      “She’s just a little lady, isn’t she?” Kimmie laughed.  “Come in, sweetie.  And drop the Mistress.  Only my apprentice calls me that, and it drives me batty.”

      “But, um, you’re not properly dressed.”

      “Honey, girls are allowed to see each other naked,” Kimmie winked.  “And Tarrin doesn’t count.  He’s technically my boyfriend, and the father of my children.  There’s nothing here he hasn’t already seen.”

      “You had your turn, daughter,” Mist warned tersely.  There was plenty of underlying threat in those words, showing that Mist’s maternal feelings for Kimmie only went so far.

      “Don’t be silly, mother,” she said dismissively.  “I wouldn’t dream of trying to interfere in your happiness.  Don’t be a Jesmind, please.”

      Mist gave her a strange look, then actually laughed.  Mist did not laugh often.

      Kimmie snapped her fingers—not easy when one’s hands were covered with fur and there were thick pads on the tips of one’s fingers—and pointed at the tent floor beside Tarrin imperiously.  Zyri shuffled in and sat down beside Tarrin.  “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Zyri,” Kimmie said, holding her paw out to her.  Zyri took it and shook it.  “I can smell both my mother and Tarrin all over you, honey.  Are they taking care of you?”

      Zyri nodded, giving her a slightly surprised look.  “They’re letting us live with them ‘til they find a good place for us.”

      “Well, she speaks flawless Sulasian,” Kimmie noted clinically.  “I see you found that tongues spell, Tarrin.”

      Tarrin nodded.  “I’m glad I did.”

      “Did you get all three languages they use?  Only the Priests speak anything other than Penali.  One of them is a language they only use in the west, and the third seems to be a language they only use in the Priesthood when dealing with each other.”

      “I got the other two,” he assured her.  “I used one of their Priests when I did it.”

      “We just got buzzed!” Ulger shouted from outside.  “Throw on a blanket or something Kimmie!”

      Mist immediately stood up, and there was the sound of commotion outside the tent.  “Buzzed?” Tarrin asked Mist.

      “One of the flying Demons just flew over the camp.  Every time that happens a column of soldiers comes.  They guide them to us,” she answered.  “If it’s like the last couple of times, we have about twenty minutes to get ready.”

      “The Demon won’t attack?” Kimmie asked.

      “The first one did,” Mist grunted.  “Miranda destroyed it with magic.  The rest must have seen it happen, they won’t come anywhere near the Wikuni unless they have at least three and have soldiers behind them.”

      “I take it we don’t have long?”

      “No.  Miranda!” Mist boomed.  “Get that dress in here now!”

      “I’m bringing it!  Let me bite this thread off and it’s ready enough!”

      Miranda scurried in at the same time as Jal, who blushed furiously and turned away from Kimmie.  Miranda was carrying one of her homemade dresses, one of the blue ones, whose hem had been lengthened and the sleeves made longer, as well as some lengthening in the bodice to account for Kimmie’s taller height.  “The stitching holding the bodice to the skirts isn’t totaly done, so be careful,” she warned.

      “I’m sure it’ll be just fine,” Kimmie said with a nod, taking the dress.  “Let’s hope it fits.”

      “I know your size, silly,” Miranda said dismissively.

      Tarrin stood up and took the saddlepack from Jal, who militantly kept his back to Kimmie as she climbed out of the bedroll and pulled the dress over her head.  Mist helped her thread her tail through the hole in the back of the skirts, then the Were-cat tugged and pulled on the bodice and skirts until she had it where she wanted it.  “It clashes with my fur, but I guess I can live with that.  That’s why I always preferred brown.  When a girl has orange fur, her color choices are a bit limited.”

      “You can worry about fashion later, Kimmie,” Mist chided darkly.  “We have to get the camp packed and move.  I don’t want to engage them as long as Tarrin’s injured.”

      “I’m fine, Mist,” Tarrin snorted.  “If—“

      Tarrin never finished that statement.  Mist’s paw clamped onto the upper arch of his wings where they came out of his back, then squeezed.  It sent a white-hot lance of pain through him, making him cry out in pain and his knees unlock, making him hunch over and drop to his knees.

      “You were saying?” Mist asked bluntly.  “I know you, my mate.  If we engage, you’ll run right into the middle of it, and you’re in no condition to fight.”

      “Alright, now you’re starting to sound like Jesmind,” Tarrin said in a panting tone after she let go of his wing, climbing back to his feet.  His wing still throbbed with the beating of his heart, which seemed odd to him because blood didn’t go into them.

      “I don’t care what you think of it,” she said defiantly.  That was very unusual, for Mist usually deferred to him no matter what.

      “You’re fighting a losing battle, darling,” Kimmie warned lightly in Torian.  “You’ve riled her protective side.  Now you have to live with it,” she finished with a wink.

      Now it seemed to make a bit more sense.  Mist was extremely protective of him…if this was just an aspect of that protectiveness, then it explained why she was going against her demure nature when regarding him.

      “Don’t do that in front of me, daughter,” Mist warned darkly.  Mist didn’t speak Torian.

      “I’m just telling Tarrin to give up, mother,” she said with a sly smile.  “He won’t win this one.”

      “Oh.  Carry on, then,” she announced, then turned and left the tent without another word.

      “Would you like to help me get everything ready, cubs?” Kimmie asked the children.  “I have to memorize this spell so I can guide us, so I need a hand packing up the tent.  Would you like to lend me a hand?”

      “I’ll help, after I get Master Tarrin something to eat,” Zyri replied, and Jal, who had finally turned to look at her, nodded vigorously.  There really wasn’t much to do, just pack the bedroll; nothing else was in the tent.

      “That’s sweet of you,” she said, taking the spellbook that Tarrin fished out of the saddlepack and handed to her. She spoke the word that expanded it to full size, then looked around.  “Oh, I think I’d better do this outside,” she mused.  “They can’t knock down the tent if I’m in it.”

      Tarrin carefully navigated the tent flap behind Zyri, keeping his wings away from the edges, and saw everyone working hard and fast.  Kimmie’s tent was the only one still up, and Azakar and Haley quickly and efficiently packed the gear onto the pack Pegasi.  One of them had been stripped of its packs, for use by Kimmie, with only the leather pack saddle remaining on it.  That would only do if they stayed on the ground; Kimmie would need a proper saddle if they took to the air.  Kimmie stopped and gawked at the winged horses for a long moment, then laughed delightedly.  “Tarrin!  Where did you get them, and what are they?”

      “They’re our horses.  Well, our Pegasi now,” Tarrin answered.  “I Transmuted them when it became necessary to move very far very fast.”

      “You used Sorcery?”

      Tarrin nodded.  “My sword can touch the Weave.  I have no idea how.  Me and Dolanna used that touch to build up a charge of Sorcery.  I’ve burned all mine, but I think Dolanna still has some held back for emergencies.”

      “I’ll have to look into that when we have the time,” she mused.  “Now if you’ll excuse me.”  She quickly padded over to the firepit, which had only the ashen remains of a fire within it, and sat down and opened the book.  She immediately lost all notice of the outside world as she turned to the proper page and began to study.

      Fireflash lanced in from the edge of camp and slammed into Tarrin’s chest, making his wings shudder with pain, but he folded his paws over his drake and stroked his scales tenderly as the drake cooed and chirped in exuberant relief.  “I’m alright, little one,” Tarrin chuckled as Fireflash nuzzled his neck aggressively.  “Just mind my wings, they’re still hurt.”

      Fireflash chirped in understanding and took his place on Tarrin’s shoulder, carefully keeping his tail near Tarrin’s shoulder to avoid accidental contact.  Tarrin immediately paid his drake’s position so close to his injured wings little mind; it felt odd when his drake was not on his shoulder.  That he was there only seemed proper.

      “Nice to see you up and about, Tarrin,” Haley said tersely as he cinched a bagged tent onto a saddle pack.  Zyri rushed over from one of the other saddle Pegasi and offered Tarrin a large chunk of dark bread and some cheese.  Tarrin took them and then patted Zyri on the shoulder fondly, and the girl rushed back to help Jal pack Kimmie’s bedroll.  “Hand me that pack there?”  Tarrin reached down and grabbed the pack, then lobbed it to the Were-wolf.  “Thanks,” he grunted as he piled it on top of the first.

      “I’ve heard the doom and gloom.  Mind telling me what’s really going on?”

      “Pretty much the doom and gloom,” he answered honestly.  “We’ve been fighting skirmishes with advance elements of the One’s army all night.  Now that that Demons know where we are, he’s finding a column of troops to bring back to us.  He won’t try it by himself because Miranda can blow him out of the water if he gets within shouting distance of her, and somehow they know that.”

      “Demons are defeneseless against Priests,” Tarrin told him, handing him another pack.  “If the Priest is strong enough to banish, it’s gone, and there’s nothing it can do about it outside of trying to get to the Priest before he can finish the spell.”

      “That’s good to know,” he said with a nod.  “The main thing now is to get out of sight, but that’s not going to be easy.  Even if you could shapeshift, these winged horses are rather, unique,” he chuckled.  “Our best bet is to find a forest and hide in it for a little while.  That neutralizes their aerial reconnaisance, and it puts us in the advantage.”

      “No, we have to find Phandebrass, and running to a forest isn’t going to get us there,” Tarrin grunted.  “We’ll just have to plow through the soldiers.”  He was about to say something else, but an idea occurred to him.  “Or maybe not.  Dolanna!” he called.

      “What is it, dear one?”

      “How much power do you have left?” he asked her from across the camp.

      “Not much,” she answered.  “I have used most of it in the battles last night.”

      “Think you have enough for a sustained Illusion?”

      “Yes, but I cannot hold it for long.”

      “Think you can hold it for an hour?” he asked.  “It wouldn’t be a complex Illusion, just a basic one.”

      “A basic one?  Perhaps,” she told him.  “I take it it must be large enough to hide us all?”

      “Yah,” Tarrin replied.  “But it’s just going to be an Illusion of a single color, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble making it large.”

      Dolanna started to speak, then laughed.  “That’s clever, dear one,” she answered.  “Yes, I think I can do that, but it might not be necessary.  The ash is thick, and we would be hard to see.”

      Tarrin looked up at the sky, which was thick with dark clouds spewing from the volcano.  The smell of ash and brimstone was heavy in the air.  It was perfect.  That low cloud of ash restricted visibility, and the fine ash drifting down from the sky was seriously cutting visibility—no, wait.  The ash was very fine, and though it was little more than a nuisance right now, if they were flying, the fine ash would be like sand blowing in the desert.  Without eye protection, the Pegasi would very quickly be blinded by the soot and ash.  Tarrin reached into the saddlepack in his paw and dug out his violet crystal visor, turning it over in his paw, pondering how to get around this problem.

      A Ward.  A Ward would do it, but Dolanna might not have the energy to—hold on, he had their energy source.  If it still worked, anyway.  The sword’s power was linked to his own.  His wounding might have altered the power the sword could bring to bear.

      “Where did you put my sword?” he asked Haley.

      “It’s laying on the ground where your tent was,” he answered.  “We can’t touch it, so we just rolled it out of the tent opening, then packed the tent.”  Tarrin looked in that direction, and saw his sword laying on the ash-covered ground, almost buried in the two fingers of ash that covered everything.

      Well, this could be the first test.  He put on the visor and then reached out to the sword, commanding it with a single thought to return to his paw.

      The sword seemed to shudder on the ground, then rose up from the earth and sailed through the air.  The hilt turned towards him in midair, and slid comfortably into his grip.  The sword’s blade had a few licks of flame slide along its length when Tarrin touched it, then fell dark.  Tarrin pushed his awareness towards his weapon, and found that it responded to him.  It knew what he wanted to know, and communicated to him in a way that he could not quite describe that it could in fact still do as he wished.  The blade of the sword started to glow with a faint, wispy white light, a wispy nimbus that looked just like Magelight.  It wasn’t the white fire from before, it was much more subdued, and Tarrin sensed that the sword’s ability to reach back into the Weave had been reduced.  It would take them longer to draw power from it, but the simple fact remained that they could still use it.

      Well, at least Dolanna could.  Tarrin tried to open himself to the power of the Weave, but the instant he tried, his wings exploded into a savage rake of pain that lashed through them, then through the rest of his body.  It was so intense and so sudden that it made his mind swim in a dark haze, threatening to make him pass out.

      Dazed, Tarrin fought through the cobwebs and tried to comprehend why that had happened.  His wings had nothing to do with his Sorcery.  Why did they react that way?  They had tried to absorb the magic first, he realized, as they had before.

      That was easy enough to circumvent.  After all, his wings had nothing to do with Sorcery.  He tried again, being very careful to tell his wings to stay out of it, and again felt a wracking pain through them.  He had been halfway ready for it this time, so he disconnected himself from the power immediately.  He blew out his breath and tried one more time, and was again assaulted with pain.

      Annoyed, Tarrin tried to understand why it was happening, then he caught a glimpse of his wings as he looked to the side.  Of course.  The wings were divine, but they were a part of him, they were physical limbs, and they were injured.  Sorcery put stresses on the body, even on a da’shar or sui’kun, and the stresses of the magic of Sorcery were causing his wings pain.  He couldn’t block his wings from touching the power because they were a part of him, a part of his body, and his entire body was a conduit for the magic.  With his wings injured, he wasn’t going to be able to draw power because they couldn’t tolerate the stress of holding the power right now.  But he could weave directly from the sword.  It would take much longer, but it was more than possible.  He’d been using the power as a Sorcerer.  Now it was time to weave like a da’shar, weave without drawing in.

      That was the only way.

      “I’m alright, little one,” Tarrin said absently to Fireflash, who was urgently nuzzling his neck.  He reached up and patted the drake’s head, then turned and looked at Dolanna, who was approaching him.  “Think you can make a Ward to block this ash, Dolanna?” he asked.

      “Easily, dear one,” she assured him.  “Are you fit to ride?”

      “Fit or not, I don’t have much choice,” he grunted.  “We have to move.”

      “I have the spell,” Kimmie called.  “I’ve already cast it.  Phandebrass is due south, and now he’ll know I’m looking for him.”

      “How is that?” Azakar asked her.

      “The spell has two parts,” she answered him.  “The first tells me which direction he is.  The second tells him that I just used it, so now he knows I’m alright, and that I’m looking for him.  He’ll stop if he can and wait for me to catch up to him.”

      “Good, I’d hate to chase him around,” Azakar said as he finished cinching the strap on a pack Pegasi’s last pack.

      Azakar and Ulger roughly knocked down the last tent, and didn’t bother to fold it and pack it away properly.  They tied it up with its own guide ropes, then jammed it onto the back of the least loaded pack Pegasus and tied it down.

      “Is the camp packed?” Dolanna called, looking around at the hastily abandoned campsite.

      “Just finishing up, Dolanna,” Ulger replied.  “Go ahead and mount up.  We’ll be on the way in a minute.”

      It took the help of Mist and Haley to get into the saddle, because the act was excruciating.  Tarrin panted from the effort once he was in the saddle, slumped over the saddlebow as he tried to get over the pounding throbbing of his wings.  Odd that limbs that had no blood in them would resonate with pain with the beating of his heart.  Fireflash jumped down into the saddle and laid down between him and the saddlebow, his usual spot, and Tarrin patted him on the back before, then he pulled his bow from the saddleskirt where he usually kept it stowed.  Give me a quiver,” Tarrin called to Azakar as he sheathed his sword in the spot where he had taken the bow.

      Azakar nodded and went over to a pack Pegasus.

      “What are you doing, my mate?” Mist asked dangerously.

      “I can’t fight, but I don’t have to just sit back and be useless,” he answered.  “If I can ride this thing, I can shoot a bow.”

      Mist turned it over in her mind, then nodded.  “Good enough,” she told him, then went over and mounted her own Pegasus.

      Azakar handed him two quivers brimming with Tarrin’s hand-made arrows, which were hung from each side of his saddle.  Pulling those arrows was a bit tricky in his natural form, but the power he could put into his bow with his current strength would give him a range that was almost ridiculous.  Tarrin sent the bow into the elsewhere where he could call it in a second, then grabbed the reins.

      “Umm, I’ve never ridden one of these things,” Kimmie called nervously as she mounted one of the newly freed up pack Pegasi.  Ulger took a cord of rope and tied one end of it to Kimmie’s foot.

      “Just hold on without breaking the Pegasus’ ribs,” Tarrin told her.  “We’re going to be careful until we get you a proper saddle.  Ulger’s strapping you to the Pegasus, so you can’t fall off.”

      “I wondered why he was tying ropes on my foot,” she laughed.

      Ulger quickly and efficiently strapped Kimmie to her mount.  He tied a rope between her feet that looped under the Pegasus, then used the leather thongs on the pack saddle and some extra rope to very securely lash her to the Pegasus’ back.

      “Everyone tie in,” Dolanna called as she gracefully mounted her own Pegasus.

      Tarrin forgot to do that.  He tied the leather thongs that they’d added to the saddles and tested them to make sure the knots were good, then took the reins again.  “Azakar, you will lead with Kimmie just behind you,” Dolanna told him.  “Follow her directions.”

      “Aye, Dolanna,” Azakar nodded as he finished tying himself in, then clapped down his visor.

      “Do not worry, dear one, I will use a Ward to block the ash, or we will all be blinded,” she told him.

      “Oh.  Good,” the Mahuut nodded, putting his visor back up.  “Sarraya back yet?”

      “Not yet,” Dolanna answered.  “Haley?”

      The Were-wolf nodded, then raised two fingers to his lips and unleashed an ear-piercing whistle that almost seemed to resonate with Tarrin’s teeth.  He had never heard a whistle that loud before.

      “Ouch,” Kimmie growled, patting her ears.

      “Sorry, should have warned you,” Haley chuckled.

      “That’s a neat trick, Haley,” Tarrin said admiringly.

      “I’ll teach you how to do it later,” Haley answered with a smile.  “It’s not hard.”

      They waited for several moments, then Sarraya’s voice reached them.  “Coming!” she shouted, then she appeared out of the drifting ash.  “I’m here, I’m here!  Well, good to see you up, Tarrin.  You okay, Kimmie?” she said, flitting around each of them in turn as she addressed them.

      “I’m fine.  I’m just surprised to see you,” Kimmie winked.

      “I’m full of surprises,” Sarraya grinned in reply.  “You feeling alright, Tarrin?”

      “I’ll live,” he answered her shortly as she landed on his shoulder.

      “Alright, let me raise the Ward, and we will be ready to go.”

      Kimmie had no trouble with riding a Pegasus, but Tarrin did.  The Pegasus knew he was injured, and to its credit, it tried very hard to be as gentle and smooth as possible, but there was only so much it could do.  Every downstroke of its wings caused a subtle jar, and that jar was a shockwave that raced through Tarrin’s wings.  The cloud of ash was breeding its own weather, so the Pegasus had to deal with sudden crosswinds, updrafts, and downdrafts that caused it to shift sharply in the air.  But Tarrin had endured greater pain before, back when he’d been shot, so he simply gritted his teeth and used all the tricks that Allia had taught him about how to control pain to try to blot it out.  He kept his eyes on Dolanna’s Pegasus and concentrated only on following her.  There was nothing else but keeping himself behind that winged horse. There was no pain, there was no time, there was only Dolanna, her white Pegasus, and the need to keep himself squarely behind them.

      He was so lost in himself that when the white Pegasus before him put its hooves on the ground, Tarrin was surprised so much he lost his center when his own mount landed.  The pain was a white jag through his wings, so much so it put white spots in his eyes, and he almost bit off the tip of his tongue when his teeth clamped shut in reflex.  He looked around and saw that they were still under the ash cloud, though it was much thinner than it had been to the north, so much so that the sun peeked through as a dim white disc.  They were on a road, a deserted road, except for ten men and women wearing heavy cloaks and riding horses.  They all turned to look towards them as the Pegasi shivered and beat the wings to clear the ash out of them before folding them, and none of them moved for a moment.

      Then he heard Phandebrass’ wonderful voice erupt from the middle of them.  “Pegasi! I say, I thought they were extinct!  How did you find them?  Do they live here?”

      “Phandebrass!” Kimmie cried out, urging her mount forward.  “Are you alright?”

      “I’m fine, my dear, just fine,” he answered, removing his hood.  He had an ugly slash on his face, just outside his right eye, that went from his hairline to his chin.  “As you can see, we’ve had a bit of excitement here and there, but nothing we couldn’t handle.  Are you alright?”

      “I’m fine,” she answered as the others squared off agaisnt the Arcane mage and his nine hooded companions, who still had neither moved nor spoken.

      “I say, what happened to you, Tarrin?” Phandebrass asked.

      “The One happened,” Tarrin said evenly.  “We had a bit of a fight.  Neither of us got out of it easy.”

      Phandebrass laughed as all nine of his companions gasped in unison.  “Did you get him?”

      “Mist did,” he said, looking at his mate.  “He’s not gone, but we bought ourselves some time while he repairs his icon.”

      “We will explain it later, my friend,” Dolanna said.  “Right now we must find a secure place to hide.  Tarrin cannot ride for much longer.  He must rest.”

      “I’m afraid there’s nowhere safe anymore,” one of Phandebrass’ companions, the one to his right, announced.  “The soldiers of the One are scouring every house in every city, searching for Defiled, and they’re patrolling the roads and lanes so thickly it’s nearly impossible to get around them.  We had to flee from our last safe house, and lost several good men and women during the course of it.”

      The fellow removed his hood, and Tarrin wasn’t the only one to gape at him.

      He was the mirror image of a Sha’Kar.

      Almost.  He had the same light, delicate features, the same pointed ears, the same slender, graceful limbs.  But his skin was fair, almost pale, and his hair was the deepest, darkest black that Tarrin had ever seen.  His almond-shaped eyes were the color of molten gold, and they swept over them all like an eagle’s gaze.

      “I say, at least they didn’t get us all, Lorak,” Phandebrass told his companion.  “I say, dear me, how rude.  Lorak, these are the friends I was telling you about.  Everyone, this is Lorak, an officer in the Shadows.  He’s an Elementalist, he is.”

      Lorak only nodded curtly.

      “It is a pleasure to meet you, though the circumstances leave much to be desired,” Dolanna greeted him.

      “A dark truth,” Lorak agreed.  “Our only choice is to flee cross country.  I’m sorry, but stopping anywhere within a league of a road is suicide.”

      “How did you get this far if they’re that thick?” Haley asked curiously.

      “I say, Lorak is an Air Adept, he is,” Phandebrass answered.  “He knows a spell that’s as close to invisibility as one of Dar’s best Illusions.  He’s kept us hidden from the soldiers, he has.”

      “They’re not spells,” Lorak chided Phandebrass absently.

      “I know they’re not, but it helps me classify your capability to think of them as such, it does,” Phandebrass answered.

      “What do you plan to do?” Dolanna asked Lorak.

      “Flee,” he answered.  “Our only recourse is to seek refuge with the Dura.  Not even the soldiers of the One have been able to breach their mountain fortress.  I just hope that they understand how desperate we are.  The word’s already gone out to all our cells to flee into the wilderness and make their way to the Dura.”

      In unison, Tarrin, Mist, and Kimmie all picked up their ears and turned north, down the road.  All three of them could hear the very faint sounds of hooves pounding the ground.  “What is it, dear one?” Dolanna asked him.

      Tarrin called his bow from the elsewhere.  “Company,” Mist growled.  “Twenty horses, and I hear something that I can only assume is a Demon.  I’ve never heard anything quite like it before.”

      Ulger and Azakar surged forward.  “Tarrin, back with the others,” Ulger ordered as both the Knights drew their massive weapons and clapped down their visors.

      “You would fight twenty soldiers and a Demon?” another of Phandebrass’ hooded companions asked incredulously in a lilty, feminine voice.

      “Twenty?  That’s it?” Ulger snorted.  “I was hoping it would be a challenge.  You ready Zak?”

      “Ready,” he answered.

      “Fighting isn’t needful,” Lorak called.  “I can hide us.”

      “Not from a Demon, you will not,” Dolanna answered bluntly. “And they are too close to outrun.”

      “We’ve hidden from Demons before,” Lorak protested mildly.  “They’re not immune to my power.  They will go right by us so long as we allow it.”

      Dolanna pursed her lips.  “Tarrin?”

      He nodded.  “I’d rather not fight if we can help it.  Besides, if they discover us that close, we’ll have the advantage.”

      “I don’t see how,” Lorak said calmly.

      “I can kill half of them before they can blink if I can get close enough,” Mist stated flatly.

      “Me and my mother have certain physical advantages, friend,” Kimmie said with a light smile.  “They won’t stand a chance.”

      “Ah.  I remember Phandebrass talking about that,” he said as he moved his horse well off the road.  “No matter, gather around me please.  The closer you are, the easier this is.”

      They all gathered their horses and Pegasi around the strange pale Sha’Kar, and the dark-haired man closed his eyes.  Tarrin could feel him reaching out, reaching, reaching beyond, and then he seemed to make his connection, for power flowed through him.  He was a bridge, a conduit between the material plane and the Elemental plane of Air, Tarrin realized, and he was directly channeling its power.  A light, warm wind blew from him, washing over them all, and then it seemed to coalesce and swirl around them for a brief moment.  Then it shimmered and vanished.

      “There.  No one move.  Keep as quiet as you can.  The Windwall will mute sounds, but it can’t block them entirely.  We wait for them to pass, then we move on.”

      Tarrin nodded, and they all waited.  They did not have to wait long, however, for the first of the soldiers appeared a brief moment later, charging out of the dark pall that was the falling ash, like a black fog.  More appeared behind him, and more behind them, until their entire disorganized column was visible as it charged down the road.  Above and just behind them all was a vrock, and its large feathered wings beating the ash-choked air, which muted and distorted the sounds from far away, was the strange sound that Mist was hearing.  Tarrin put his palm on his Pegasus’ neck to make it stay still, but it wasn’t necessary.  The Pegasi were very intelligent animals, could partially understand their language, so they already knew to be calm and quiet.  The horses among them shied just a bit, but their riders quickly settled them down as the mounted Church soldiers pounded past them.  They galloped past without even giving them a second look, and moments later they vanished into the black pall.

      “And that’s that,” Phandebrass chuckled.  “We’ve been hiding like this all day, we have.  So, it’s good to finally be with you again, lad.  Where are we going?”

      “For now, nowhere,” he answered.  “My wings are injured, so I’ve lost my powers until they heal.  You have a task to do before we can leave, but you can’t do it until I get back in touch with my Goddess.  So for right now, we’re waiting on Miranda to get in contact with Kikkalli, so she can relay messages for us.”

      “What am I to do?”

      “Free the trapped souls on Auromar,” Dolanna answered.  “They are the fallen spirits of my brothers and sisters.  The Goddess wants them to return to her.”

      “You are of the Damned!” one of the cowled, robed figures gasped.

      “If that’s what you want to call us, yes,” Tarrin answered in a cool voice.  “We are katzh-dashi.”  He turned back to Phandebrass.  “So, we have to go to Auromar.  I guess we’ll move in that general direction until I have my wings back.  When I do, first I’ll go kill the One, then we’ll release the trapped katzh-dashi and go home.”

      The casual way he said it made it not quite register to the robed men and women with Phandebrass for a moment, then they all gaped at him from beneath their deep hoods.

      Phandebrass chuckled.  “Well, I think we should go with Lorak,” he suggested.  “Else your second mission will fail, it will.”

      “What mission?”

      “The Dwarves, lad,” he answered.  “They’re called Dura here, they are.  The Dwarves have a stronghold far to the north, in a mountain range buried in snow.  I say, they might not be the descendents of the Dwarves of Sennadar, but if anyone would know what happened to them, the Dura would.”

      Tarrin mulled it over in his mind.  They just might know what happened, at that.  Tarrin was here to find out what happened to the children of the Goddess, but also to find the Dwarves and bring them home, if they were still alive.  If these Dura did in fact know what happened to the Dwarves, then they might point him in the right direction.  Or they might be the Dwarves of Sennadar’s descendents, which was also a possibility.

      He looked to his side.  “Dolanna?”

      She shrugged.  “We are trapped here for a while regardless,” she answered.  “Auromar will not go anywhere, dear one, and the nature of the place suggests that we do not go there until we are ready to leave.  And we should find out what happened to the Dwarves.  For Gnomlin and Clangeddin if nothing else.”

      “It might be wise, Tarrin,” Haley spoke up.  “There’s safety in numbers right now, given how dangerous it is.  These winged horses of yours will let us get to Auromar quickly whenever we’re ready for it, so it wouldn’t hurt to go with Lorak.  If he’ll have us, that is,” Haley added with a smile at the strange Sha’Kar.

      “Friends of Phandebrass are welcome among the Shadows,” Lorak said immediately.

      “I think it’s a good idea,” Miranda agreed.  “It’d be nice to know where we’re going for a change.”

      “Thanks,” Tarrin said dryly.

      “Any time,” she said with a cheeky grin.

      “Well, since it does seem to be a good idea, we may as well go with Lorak for now,” Tarrin announced.

      “All of you are welcome among us,” Lorak announced.  “We must be on our way, and we’ve waited long enough for that patrol to leave us behind.  We can take care of the introductions while moving.”

      “That is fine, but we must stop soon,” Dolanna pressed.  “Tarrin must rest.”

      “I’ll be fine, Dolanna,” Tarrin said in a grim tone.  “I’ll deal with it.  I won’t put us all in danger.”

      “Shana is an Earth adept.  She could heal you,” Lorak offered.

      “Aye, I can,” the one called Shana agreed.  “Och, there isna’ a wound or hurt ever made that I couldna’ heal.”

      “There’s nothing you can do for me,” Tarrin told her.  “Nothing can heal this.”

      “Isna’ such a thing as nothin’, friend.”

      “Trust me, you can’t heal him,” Sarraya told her, and judging from the looks on their faces, she had become visible on his shoulder.  Fireflash stirred from the saddle, looking up at him, then at the others, then laid back down.  “Unless you happen to be a god, that is,” she added.  The woman gave Sarraya a shocked look, which made Miranda laugh.  “Get used to us, friend.  We’ll shock you right out of your shoes about fifty times today.  We’re unusual people, and if you think I’m unusual, you have no idea what’s coming.  I’m nothing compared to that.”

      “I’m sure it will,” Lorak said calmly.  “Follow me, please, and don’t lag behind.”

      “You were saving it for that, weren’t you?” Tarrin accused.

      “Ohhh, you bet,” she answered with an evil chuckle.  “I’ll laugh every time I remember the looks on their faces.  I live for that.”

      “We all know only too well,” Tarrin grunted as Lorak turned his horse north, and they all moved to follow.

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 10

 

      It was decidedly odd.

      That was the only conclusion that Tarrin could draw as he traveled with the Shadows over the course of the day, as they fled to the northeast to swing wide of Pyros, charging back into the thicker ash and the protection it afforded to them from the eyes of their enemies.  Riding itself was excruciating, but he didn’t allow it to show on his face or in his demeanor, using Allia’s mental exercises to block out the pain.  His Pegasus was trying to be careful, but there was only so much that it could do.  Every bounce in the saddle caused a jagged flash of pain, but Tarrin managed to block it out mostly by doing what he did before, concentrating on something to the exclusion of everything else.  Earlier he used Dolanna’s mount as his focus, but this time he focused on Lorak.

      Lorak mystified Tarrin, who talked as they rode, answering Dolanna’s questions.  The first thing she asked him was what race he was.  He called himself an Elara, and said that at one time the humans referred to his kind as elves, at least before the One came to dominate much of the world.  She then asked him if he had ever heard of the Sha’Kar, and he replied that he did not.  When she described a Sha’Kar, Lorak looked shocked, and told her that Elara that looked like that were called Demora, and they were evil and malicious.  The Demora lived deep underground, or had at one time, for they were presumed extinct, for no one had seen a Demora for a thousand years.

      “Umm, you’re named after the moon?” Zyri asked, then clamped her teeth shut.  They were speaking in Penali, because Lorak and the others didn’t understand Sulasian.

      “That is the name of your moon?” Dolanna asked Lorak curiously.

      “We’re named for the moon because that’s where we’re from,” he answered the girl calmly.  Lorak wasn’t the kind that got ruffled, Tarrin noticed.  “The moon is its own world, full of life and populated by the Elara.  The One will turn his eyes to our moon when he finishes conquering this land, so we work very hard to keep him in check.”

      “The maiji-din used to transport us back and forth,” another Elara added, a brown-haired male that had been introduced as Thren.  “Our most learned Wizards.  They know spells that open gateways between here and Elara.”

      “That is why Master Phandebrass is welcome and needed by the Shadows,” Lorak explained.  “He is human, but his skill and mastery of the arts of Wizardry are exceptional, even by our own reckoning.  He is maiji-din, a Gatemaster.”

      “Why do your Gatemasters simply bring your people back to Elara?” Dolanna asked.

      “Two hundred years ago, the One altered the nature of the land under his dominion,” Lorak answered.  “He changed things so our Gatemasters can’t open gates into or out of his domain any longer.  We’re trapped here.  The only way we could get back to Elara would be to flee to Auromar, but that’s all but impossible.”

      “Why is that?” Dolanna pressed.

      “The One’s navy is patrolling the straits between Pyrosia and Auromar,” he answered.  “They attack any boat on the water.  Even a single man in a rowboat.  It’s a two day journey between the eastern tip of Pyrosia and the western edge of Auromar, and there’s simply no way a ship can make it without being attacked.  The One knows about the Shadows, and took these steps to isolate the agents from Elara.  By blocking the maiji-din from opening gates into Pyrosia, he forces us to run a gauntlet at sea where we have a major disadvantage.  But that doesn’t completely stop us,” Lorak smiled.  “Some Wizards and Elementalists know magic that lets us cross the straits safely, so we can get new agents into Pyosia.  Just not many.”

      “That’s why the eastern tip of Pyrosia is the last unconquered area,” Thren informed them.  “Those that oppose the One have concentrated there to give our agents a safe place to go when they attempt to make the crossing.  The eastern peninsula and the stronghold of the Dura are the last bastions of resistance left in Pyrosia.  The One has conquered everything else,” he added with a sigh.

      “Hold.  If the One can change the land to stop your Gatemasters, why can your gods not simply do the same?” Dolanna asked.  “That creates a stalemate.”

      “There are permanent gates that lead from Pyrosia to Elara, part of the nature of the universe itself,” Lorak answered.  “The One controls them on this side.  When he finishes conquering Pyrosia, he’ll use them to try to invade Elara.  So, the longer we can prevent him from finishing his conquest of Pyrosia, the more time we have to prepare for his invasion of our home.”

      That seemed to be the primary and complete interest of Lorak, and the other two Elara with him, Thren and a female with blonde hair and lovely, delicate features named Neh.  As they talked more, heard Lorak explain things, the more he understood the simple fact that protecting his homeland was Lorak’s driving, almost obsessive, concern.  He could tell from the way he talked, the words he used.  He had that same single-minded determination that anyone would probably have if his entire way of life was being threatened.  To Lorak, Thren, and Neh, everyone in Pyrosia was there to stall the One.  They were pieces on a chessboard, units to deploy.  That was a general’s mentality, and understandable, but there was a certain coldness about Lorak that he didn’t entirely like.  He wasn’t quite sure what it was, but he’d put his finger on it eventually.

      Sarraya took complete advantage of the newcomers.  With calculating casual remarks, she dropped shock after shock on the Shadows, mentioning just in passing that Tarrin had fought the One, noting to Dolanna that he’d wiped Pyros off the map, then just mentioning that Tarrin and Mist had managed to seriously damage the One’s icon.  When they didn’t know what an icon was, she treated them like children, feigning shock that they didn’t understand something so simple.

      “How can you do such a thing?” Neh asked.

      “All gods are represented in the material plane by an icon,” Miranda explained.  “It’s their link to this universe.  While they really exist in another plane, they use the icon to direct their power here.  The icon makes them invulnerable in the material world, but it’s also their one true weakness.  Destroy a god’s icon, and he loses touch with the material world until he replaces it.  That takes years.  When Tarrin was lured to Pyros to fight the One, Mist managed to nearly cut his icon in half using Tarrin’s sword.  That seriously damaged the icon, and that’s why the One himself isn’t charging an Avatar at us right now.”

      “I’ve never heard of an icon,” Lorak said mildly.

      “It’s not something that only a god’s High Priest would know about,” Miranda told him.  “Gods keep it a secret, for obvious reasons.  Even if a mortal can’t do any real damage to an icon, if they knew about them, they might be tempted to try.  And the resourcefulness of mortals is not something even gods take lightly.”

      “If only a High Priest knows, then how do you know?” Lorak asked, his tone mildly challenging.

      “Because Miranda is the High Priest of her goddess,” Sarraya said smugly.  “High Priestess, actually.  Her Grandness might suffice, but I think she likes being called Her Absolute Wondrous Eminence.”

      “Enough, Sarraya,” Miranda chided.

      “Oh, I’m sorry.  It’s Her Magificent Muckety-Muckness, right?”

      “How’d you like a black eye?” Miranda threatened.

      “I think you have to catch me first,” Sarraya taunted from Tarrin’s shoulder.

      Tarrin felt Fireflash slide over from his other shoulder, then he heard Sarraya squeak in surprise.  The gold drake vaulted from Tarrin’s shoulder and flew over to Miranda’s Pegasus, with Sarraya’s wing clamped in his teeth.  The Faerie had no choice but to follow along, kicking and screaming at the drake, even punching him once in the side.  Fireflash landed on Miranda’s Pegasus, in front of her saddle, and spat out her wing, dropping her to the back of her mount.  Then he sat down and looked up at Miranda expectantly.

      “Um, hi,” Sarraya said with a nervous laugh, trying to back up, but backing into the drake.

      “Hi,” Miranda said with a voice that was both light and cutting at the same time.  “You were saying something, weren’t you?  Something about my title?” she asked, putting a single finger on Sarraya’s belly, which effectively pinned her to the back of the Pegasus.

      “I think Wavemistress sounds really nice,” Sarraya said wheedlingly, reverting to Sulasian.  “Traitor,” she snapped at Fireflash.

      Fireflash ignored her completely.

      “That’s a good little drake,” Miranda smiled, patting him on the head with her other hand.

      “I’ll get you, scalybutt,” Sarraya growled at the drake.

      Without blinking, Fireflash reared back slightly, then unleashed a small blast of greenish gas directly into Sarraya’s face.  The Faerie screamed in surprise, then flopped limply to the back of the Pegasus.

      “I think Sarraya forgets that Fireflash understands Sulasian,” Miranda said in Penali with a sly smile.  “I do believe that he decided to get you first.  Doesn’t that just burn you up?”

      Sarraya made several gurgling sounds.

      Nodding gravely, Fireflash leaned down and clamped his jaws on Sarraya’s leg, then vaulted off her Pegasus and flew back over to Tarrin.  The Faerie flopped bonelessly in the air as she was carried, her gossamer skirts riding up to bare her blue-skinned rump.  He dropped the Faerie in Tarrin’s saddle, then lept up onto his shoulder and wrapped himself languidly around the back of Tarrin’s neck.

      “Would someone explain what just happened?” Lorak asked.

      “Sarraya got to experience my drake’s breath weapon,” Tarrin answered.  “It paralyzes the muscles for a short time.  She’ll be alright in ten minutes or so.”

      “Ah.  She won’t require any healing?”

      “No, it does no harm.  It just paralyzes, that’s all, and the effect is very short-lived.”

      Sarraya made several more gurgling noises.  Tarrin picked her up by gripping her two upper wings, pinching them between his fingers, then laid her limp body down in the cup of his palm.

      “Maybe Fireflash should gas her more often.  It seems to be the only way to shut her up,” Ulger said with a rasping chuckle.

      “I think it might be the only way to shut you up too,” Miranda proposed.

      “I can take a hint.”

      “Really?  After how many times?” Miranda pressed, which made Haley laugh.

      By sunset, they were well away from Pyros, but the blowing winds made the ash and the cloud above even thicker.  Gray ash fell like snow, covering everything, blotting out the sky and making the late afternoon blacker than the blackest night.  Tarrin had no idea how the Elara was navigating, but he led them arrow-straight on his course and did not waver, so Tarrin suspected that he knew what he was doing.  After Dolanna’s power waned and her Ward dissolved, Lorak took over the task of protecting them from the choking ash and dust-like cinders that drifted from the nasty remnants of Tarrin’s battle with the One with his Elemental powers.  Tarrin’s entire body was drained from the pain in his wings, and by the time Lorak called for a halt to make camp, Tarrin was sagging heavily in his saddle, with Ulger leading his mount.  Sarraya, who had been cowed into behaving by Fireflash’s treachery, kept patting his arm and trying to cheer him up with light smiles and clever little remarks, often at the expense of the others.  But Tarrin’s alertness waned with the passing of the hours, as the pain of his wings slowly yet inexorably consumed his ability to think.  By late afternoon, there was nothing but the pain, and he stopped responding to the others.

      “We will stop here,” Lorak announced.  “Bedrolls only.  We will be away by midnight.  We’re still too close to Pyros to stay in one place too long.”

      “Tarrin?  We’re stopping,” Sarraya said, which barely registered to him.  Goddess, he was so tired.  Tired and weary, and he wasn’t entirely sure where he was.  He was dimly aware that the horse—if that was what it was, it had wings—wasn’t moving anymore.  He saw someone else get down off his horse, and realized that that meant that they were stopping for a while.  The throbbing of his wings eased somewhat now that the mount wasn’t bouncing him up and down, and part of him debated trying to move as the other part of him found the idea of remaining absolutely still to be quite a wonderful concept.  But in the end, the realization that he could lay down if he got off the mount overruled the idea of staying where he was.

      It took him a moment to figure out how to make his leg work.  He tried to pull it free of the stirrup three times, but for some reason he couldn’t get it out.  He leaned down a little to look, and the shift caused a flash of pain to race through his wings and into his back.  Gritting his teeth, he leaned down even further, reaching for the stirrup, and then realized that he was sliding in that direction, that his other foot had come free of the stirrup.

      “Tarrin!” Kimmie cried out in surprise when Tarrin tumbled out of his saddle.

      The Pegasus tried valiantly to prevent him from hitting the ground.  It stiffened its wing and locked it against its side, but Tarrin was too tall, too much weight came over the top.  Tarrin lurched over the wing, and the Pegasus swept that black-feathered appendage out and almost fell to the ground itself, collapsing its legs to reduce the distance he would fall.  Tarrin landed on the Pegasus’ wing, and the impact of his shredded wings with the flight feathers of the Pegasus was like someone had ripped him in half.  He screamed in pain, arching his back to pull them out of contact with everything, but the act did nothing to stop the pain, it only made it worse; he was laying on his side, and the act scraped his wing across the feathers of the Pegasus.

      Mist was there immediately.  Her powerful paws grabbed hold of his arm and dragged him off the feathered wing of his Pegasus, then turned him onto his stomach.  His claws sank into her forearms above her Cat’s Claws, so deeply that blood poured to the ash-choked ground in rivulets as Tarrin’s wicked claws embedded themselves in her flesh, but she did not even flinch.  “Grab his feet!” Mist ordered sharply.  Kimmie moved to obey, but Azakar reached him first, his powerful hands clamping on Tarrin’s ankles as his arms flexed to resist any sudden convulsive kicks, his face a stoic mask.  Outside of Kimmie, Azakar was probably the only one who had the raw power to succeed in that task.

      But no convulsions came.  The pressure taken from his wings, the sharp stabs eased, and the relief flowed through him.  His claws retracted from his mate’s arms, and he suddenly felt weak as a kitten.

      “Is he well?” Lorak asked calmly.

      “No, he’s bloody not well!” Kimmie shouted at him angrily.  “He’s injured!  We should have stopped!”

      “The fault is his,” Lorak shrugged.  “All he had to do was speak.  And since no one spoke in his stead,” he added, sweeping his gaze across them, “then I would guess that you didn’t think he needed to stop either.”

      Kimmie’s face flushed guiltily, and she raced over to help her bond-mother pull Tarrin off the ground.

      The cobwebs clearing from his mind, he slid up onto his knees, then sat back on his haunches.  He put his paw to his head, then shook it as the last of the pain bled away, leaving him coherent again.  “I’m alright,” he announced in a weak voice.

      “That didn’t look very alright to me,” Mist grated at him.

      “Just drop it, Mist,” he grunted.  “Just someone find me something to eat and let me sleep.  I’ll be fine.”

      “Let’s get  the tents up,” Haley called, putting a scarf around his face to protect it from the falling ash.

      “No tents.  They take too long to pack,” Lorak called.

      “Fine.  You can lay in this ashfall and get a volcano up your nose, but I’m pitching a tent,” Haley told him calmly.  “Or do you want to sit on your horse and keep the ash off us all night?” he offered in a reasonable tone.

      Lorak blinked, then he chuckled.  “Point well taken.  We will have to make time, I suppose.”

      “Not all of us have tents,” Thren fretted.

      “I know a spell that creates a magical one,” one of the human Wizards with them called, a youngish fellow with red hair and pale skin that seemed to be permanently burned by the wind and sun, who was named Kord.  Kord didn’t look much like a Wizard, because he was built like a Dal, with wide shoulders, a barrel chest, and arms corded with thick muscle.  Kord looked more physically imposing than anything else.  He wore a simple brown robe, but left it unbelted and open in the front, and underneath it he wore a brown wool tunic and leather breeches.  “It’ll be big enough for us all.”

      “I say, so long as it leaves no magical impression, it’d be safe enough,” Phandebrass told him.  “Demons can sense magic, so it can’t be active, it can’t.”

      “Well, then it’s not a good one,” Kord frowned.

      “Men,” Shara grunted.  “Och, just pitch yuir cloak over the top half of yuir bedroll and weight the sides down with stones, an’ face the opening away from the wind.  Yon quiver there has plenty of arrows in it ta’ serve as poles.  The ash willna’ blow in.”

      “Clever,” Miranda nodded in agreement.

      As most of them worked to set up the camp site, Tarrin sat on the ground, cross-legged, slumped over so far his elbows were on the ash-choked grass.  Mist and Kimmie checked him in turns, but they didn’t stay with him, because there was really nothing that they could do.  Sarraya and Fireflash did, however, Fireflash sitting on the ground beside him as Sarraya walked back and forth on his back, inspecting his destroyed wings carefully.  “You know, Tarrin, I think they’ve grown back a little,” she told him.  “This piece and that piece were torn back closer to the arch of your wing this morning.  They’ve sewn themselves back together a little.”

      “I really couldn’t say,” Tarrin told her.  “I can’t see them, and they don’t feel any different to me.”

      “I wish I could do something for you,” Sarraya said sincerely.  “Even if it really didn’t do that much.”  She walked back towards his neck.  “Hmm, maybe there is something we can do,” she mused aloud.  “Fireflash, come up here a second.”

      Fireflash looked up at her.

      “No, up here.  I need you to do something for me.”

      He snorted derisively.

      “Alright, not for me, for Tarrin.  Sheesh,” she huffed.  “You can’t still be mad.”

      He snorted, a hint of greenish gas billowing from his nostrils.

      “Alright, alright, I’m sorry,” she growled.  “I won’t get you back.  I promise.”

      “Don’t trust her,” Tarrin warned.  “She may mean it now, but she’ll forget all about that promise in about an hour.”

      “Tarrin!” Sarraya snapped.

      “Truth is truth,” Tarrin said absently.

      “Well, do it from down there, then.  Let me move, then blast Tarrin’s wings with your fire.  I want to see if it makes the pain go away.”

      Fireflash looked at Tarrin expectantly, and the Were-cat shrugged.  “It can’t possibly hurt me,” he told his drake.  “You know that.”

      Fireflash nodded.

      “Oh, don’t use up all your gas,” Tarrin noted quietly.  “She might try something if she thinks you can’t gas her.”

      “Grroah!” Sarraya growled in a squeaky voice, stamping her foot on Tarrin’s back.

      “See?  She thought of that too,” Tarrin said with a slight smile at his drake.

      Fireflash nodded to Tarrin with an impish look on his scaly face, then backed up a step.  He sucked in his breath, then lunged his head up and forward.  A brilliant gout of bright red flame erupted from his mouth, spiralling around itself to form a concentrated cone.  That cone of fire washed over his left wing, and it actually did feel somewhat better.  The pain eased noticably, at least so long as Fireflash kept the fire going.  When he stopped, the pain slowly started creeping back into it.

      “Did it help?” Sarraya asked, looking over his shoulder down at Fireflash.

      “A little,” he answered honestly, as the drake released another puff of greenish gas, then stared up at the Faerie deliberately.

      Sarraya growled in her throat, then pulled up out of the drake’s sight.  “We should build a nice fire and let you sit in it,” she mused, touching the base of his left wing gingerly.  Even that light touch sent a shiver of pain through him.

      “What made you think of that?”

      “I remember what happened when the sword came back to you,” she answered.  “It surrounded you in fire to try to heal you.  Fire is your element, Tarrin.  It just stands to reason you’ll feel better if you’re surrounded by it.”

      “What is this?  Analytical thinking?  Logic?  Reasoned and controlled conclusions?  Is that Sarraya on my back, or an evil copy?”

      “I’m not a total ditz!” she objected.

      “No, just mostly,” he answered.

      “You!” she snapped.  “Why do I even bother?”

      “Because you love me,” he answered evenly.

      “Well, that’s true,” she said with a chuckle, patting his back gently.  “I’m not sure we can make a fire, though.  We’re supposed to be hiding, you know.”

      “This ash is thick enough, the light won’t go ten paces,” Mist said as she passed by.  “I’ll get on it right now.”

      Mist did just that.  Lorak objected strenuously to the idea of a fire, but he learned the first rule of interacting with Phandebrass’ friends…never make Mist angry.  Shara managed to heal the fracture in his jaw, and regrow the three teeth that Mist knocked out after Lorak put a hand on her, teeth that Mist collected up in her paw and kept for some strange reason.  The Elementalist looked about ready to use magic against her, but quick words from Phandebrass, who pulled him aside and spoke very quickly and very quietly, headed that idea off.

      “Give me a hand here, Kimmie,” Mist ordered.  “Light this wood, then help me bring Tarrin to the fire.”

      “I’ll get burned,” Kimmie protested.

      “Get my belt.  Sarraya, where did you put it?”

      “I gave it back to Miranda,” she answered from Tarrin’s back.

      “What good will your belt do?” she asked.

      “Tarrin made it for me.  Put it on and you won’t get burned.”

      “You’ll need it, mother.”

      She shook her head.  “He did the same thing to my amulet before we went to Pyros.  I’ll be safe.  That belt gives us four people who can’t be hurt by fire.”

      Miranda handed the belt to Kimmie, who donned it just before using a simple spell to light the fire.  It quickly burned up to a respectable blaze, then Mist and Kimmie took Tarrin’s arms and helped him over to the fire.  Instead of sitting or standing directly in it, Tarrin sat at its edge and leaned back just enough to allow his wings to make contact with the flames.   The fire immediately pulled towards him, ghosting up his back like phantom fingers, coalescing around his injured wings.  The pain immediately eased, which caused tense muscles to relax, and he sighed in relieved contentment.  The flames were like a hundred massaging hands that caressed the pain away, and for the first time all day, he was almost comfortable.

      “Better, my mate?” Mist asked.

      “Yes,” he answered.  “Sarraya actually came up with a good idea.”

      “You make it sounds like it’s never happened before,” Sarraya fumed from Zyri’s shoulder.

      “The problem is that all your good ideas get lost in the avalanche of silliness,” Tarrin answered her, leaning back on his paws, putting most of his back and the back of his head into the fire.

      “Now that is something you just don’t see,” Lorak chuckled as he came to the fire.  “Doesn’t that hurt?”

      “It stopped hurting years ago,” Tarrin answered.  “Me and Dolanna are immune to fire, it’s a side effect of our ability to use our magic.”

      “I know any number of Fire adepts who would kill for that,” Lorak told him.  “Of all the Elemental arts, that’s the most dangerous.”

      “Well, you are a bit different from me in that regard, dear one,” Dolanna said with a slight smile.  “I would like to inspect your wings, if you do not object.  I promise I will try to be gentle.”

      “They don’t hurt right now,” he told her.

      “Yes, but I am not sure if they will remain thus when I start touching them,” she reminded him.

      “True.  Go ahead.”

      As the others prepared for some rest, Dolanna rolled up her sleeves and put her hands into the fire, inspecting Tarrin’s wings.  Her touch didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t entirely pleasant, like fingers sliding over raw skin.  She inspected the tattered remains of his wings methodically and thoroughly, then had him try to move them, but with no success.

      “It is as I suspected,” she said in a brusque manner.

      “What?” Tarrin asked.

      “Your wings are still evaporating.”

      “What?  I thought you said—“ Mist began, but Dolanna cut her off with a hand.

      “Parts of them still are,” she said sharply.  “But the main sections of them, the top arch where bones would be in a bird’s wing,” she informed them as she touched the top arch of his wing, “are mending, and very quickly.  I think that your wings are excising those parts that cannot be saved and concentrating on rebuilding themselves from the core.  I suspect that after they have healed the main arch, they will begin working on regrowing the body.”

      “Then it’s not evaporating,” Miranda mused.  “It’s just pulling wing from one place and using it to patch another.  Don’t forget Dolanna, those aren’t real wings.  It needs to do that anyway.  Tarrin looks like he has monster cobwebs growing out of his back.”

      “Thanks,” Tarrin said dryly, which made the Wikuni give him a cheeky grin.

      “Everyone needs to get some rest,” Lorak called.  “We have a long way to go.”

      “Go take a nap, Mist,” Tarrin told his mate.  “I’ll be fine.”

      “I won’t leave you,” she stated bluntly.

      “There’s nothing you can do, I’m actually quite content right now, and you need to sleep,” he said.  “I’m going to lay back and take a nap.  You need to do the same.”

      “But—“

      “But nothing,” he said with a hint of sternness in his voice.  “Sleep.  Now.”  He pointed towards the tent that Azakar and Ulger had just finished raising.

      Mist lowered her eyes, then nodded.  “As you wish, my mate.  Come, cubs,” she said, holding her paw out to Zyri and Jal.  “Let’s get you put down.  You need all the sleep you can get.”  She looked back at him.  “Are you sure—“

      “Go,” he said, pointing at the tent.  “Don’t make me get up and spank you.  I’ll be in a very bad mood.”

      Mist smiled slightly, then leaned in and kissed him lightly on the lips before marching off to the tent with the children in tow.  Kimmie stood up herself, then chuckled.  “I forgot you could do the impossible,” she told him.

      “What?”

      “Make mother obey someone,”  she said with a wink.  “You sure you’re alright?”

      “I’m just fine.  You need to get some rest too, Kimmie.  You may not remember it, but you had a very exhausting few days.  Even Miranda’s healing’s not going to fix it all.  You need some sleep.”

      “Yeah, she already warned me that I needed to get some sleep,” she nodded.  “Rest well, dear.”

      “I’ll be fine as long as I don’t move, and I’m not moving any time soon,” he told her.

      She gave him another smile, then got up and went to the tent.

      Tarrin laid back, wriggling just a bit to shift the coals and burning wood around so it didn’t jab at him, then drew in a breath laced with flame and smoke, then sighed in contentment.  Breathing inside fire wasn’t exactly good since it put smoke and cinders into his lungs, but he never seemed to have much trouble with it, for some reason.  The fire soothed the pain of his wings, and that was worth breathing acrid-smelling air for a little while.  The sound of it consuming the wood was serene, calming him, and the presence of the element of which he was part, which was part of him, helped along the mending of his wounded wings, and the injured power that they represented.

      After all, the wings were but a metaphor for the true injury he had suffered at the hands of the One, even as the blow that Mist struck to his icon was but a metaphor for the actual damage that she had meted out against it.  In the world of the gods, metaphor was a powerful symbol as a way for the material world to rationalize the immaterial power that gods wielded within it.  What one saw was only a representation of what was really going on.  Even with his wings, it was a metaphor.  The physical representation of them had been damaged, a metaphor of the real injury he had received, and even their healing was nothing but a metaphor for the mending taking place within him.  He could feel that part of himself drawing in the power of the fire around him, using that energy, that power, to help restore the delicate matrix of divine energies that was his power.

      Odd, that.  Ever since he’d gotten the wings, he had hidden from the power they represented, hated it, denied it.  If he could separate himself from it and be a mortal again, he would do it in a heartbeat.  But he had come here, to this new world, and had come to depend on that power…even to enjoy it.  It had expanded, become stronger, and he had learned to use it in new ways.  It had saved Zyri, Jal, and Telven, then saved them again when Telven betrayed them.  It rose up and achieved its full potential when he fought the One over Kimmie, and though it had been found lacking, it had done enough.

      He was mortal, but had the powers of a god.  The others didn’t understand what that meant—well, Miranda certainly did.  She was the only one who understood what it made him, and she empathized with him more than the others.  She too was a singularly unique being, and she had had to learn what that meant when she left Keritanima and Wikuna and embarked on a journey of self-discovery.  But where Miranda had a place in the world, Tarrin did not.  He was a walking abomination, something that should not exist, something that the Elder Gods back home would sooner destroy than have around.  But as this world had seen, a direct confrontation between Tarrin and a god could have disastrous effect on the very fabric of reality itself.  Even hobbled, only able to focus his power in the physical world, Tarrin had managed to do catastrophic damage to the land itself.  Had Tarrin been able to wield a god’s true power, his conflict with the One could have devastated the land for leagues in every direction.

      He couldn’t remember the battle, but he had visited the twenty longspan hole in the world that his battle with Val had created in Gora Umadar.  It was a veritable sea of boiling lava, which would churn and bubble and remain exposed to the air for the rest of eternity, for there was a lingering remnant of the power that was unleashed at that place that would never allow the land to heal.  It was a scar, a blight, a curse on the very fabric of reality itself, and not even the Elder Gods could repair it.  It would remain a boiling lake of lava until time was no more, and all things ceased to be.

      That was what happened when gods fought one another in the material plane.  That was why the Elder Gods could take no direct action against him.  They feared exactly what had happened at Pyros…or what used to be Pyros.

      And here he was, using the power he had vowed to himself he would never use against a god that sought to destroy him as some kind of sick, twisted spectacle to incite more loyalty and worship from the mortals under his dominion.  Tarrin could feel him out there even now, feverishly laboring to restore his icon, an icon buried under a mountain of volcanic rock, ash, and lava, wrapped in the fiery cocoon of the earth’s blood, awaiting the moment it was whole once more and could burst forth the One’s power back into the world.  The One was not an Elemental god, he could not draw on the power of the fire around him to accelerate his healing as Tarrin could.  All the One could do was try to communicate to his Priests, probably through the Demons, that more worship was needed, more adulation, for that was the power that the One would use to heal his damaged icon.

      It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  Tarrin closed his eyes and concentrated on what he felt deep inside him, concentrated on that power he always strove mightily to ignore.  He could sense the wound, and he could also sense that that power, which always worked of its own volition it seemed, was currently busily at work mending the damage.  He could feel the energy in the fire that surrounded him infuse his being, bolster the power within, grant to it its power so that it could be used to heal the damage done.  This was his power.  This was what he was.  And it was both what he did not want to be, and what he had feared he would become.  He had used his full power in direct conflict with a god.  He had ravaged the land, he had destroyed an entire city.  He had become everything that the Elder Gods were afraid he would become.  He had become the Aleax, the embodiment of the power of Chaos, the dark manifestation of the power of the animus.  A force of primal destruction, which only sought to unmake all and revert the multiverse back into the state of Entropy from which it had been formed.

      And they had been right.

      Though he lacked the remorselessness of the Demons, he had become no better than them.  They sought to rule through destruction.  Tarrin, it seemed, could not help but destroy, even when he did not want to.  Every time he exercised his power, he brought about ruination and devastation, no matter how hard he tried not to.  Well, that wasn’t entirely true.  Tarrin never exercised his power unless he was angry, and when he was angry, he simply didn’t care.  That was most of the reason why he was so afraid of it.  He had doomed Pyros for no other reason than to give Mist the opportunity to finish the task the had been unable to complete.

      He could sense them out there.  The fire was expanding his consciousness, making him more in touch with the divine aspect of his being.  Even injured, he could still use those senses.  The world lost its reality to his eyes, to his ears, and became overlaid with sounds and sights and smells and sensations that a mortal couldn’t comprehend, a humming continuity of wellness that beat like the heart of a child, surging through this dimension.  It was the soul of this universe, the manifestation of the Elder God who had been created to oversee this dimension, a soul that seemed to be in hibernation.  He could feel it out there, present but unresponsive, almost as if it was a power without conscious direction.  There were other concentrations, other points of dichotomy that were made aware to him.  He could sense the dark shadow of the One not far away, an immensely poweful presence hovering over his icon, and he could feel the rage and fury like an acid taste on his tongue.  There were other presences on this world as well, and even one a great distance above him—the god of the Elara most likely.  All of them were very weak, very distant, and all of them seemed to be trying to reach out to him, trying to make contact with him.  All of them were desperate, terrified, almost panicked, even the stronger sense of presence coming from the god whose domain was so high above them.

      Why?  Why contact him?  And why were they so afraid?

      The One, of course.  Tarrin was a being of divine power who didn’t depend on the faith of the mortals to survive, just like an Elder god.  They had probably been hoping for exactly what happened, that Tarrin would fight the One and hopefully destroy him.  But it hadn’t been a victory for either side, more like an aggravated stalemate that put their battle on hold until one of them was well enough to take it up once more.  Whoever healed first was going to defeat the other, by striking before the other could defend against it.  Tarrin’s arrival to those other gods was probably looked upon as a gift from the God of Gods, a savior who would face and defeat the One before he eradicated the mortals who followed them.

      He was no savior.  He would have came and went without interference, had the One not made the eternal mistake of abducting Kimmie.  That was a fatal mistake, for now Tarrin was angry.  And it wasn’t rage, it was the cold, seething anger of the human in him, an icy fury that was in its own way ten times more dangerous than the volatile temper of the Cat.  It gave him a clarity of purpose that would not be denied, and that was to mete out righteous punishment on the One for daring to lay a hand on one of his mates.  Tarrin would hunt down the One, no matter how long it took, and finish him…because now it was personal.

      Those were worries for another time, though.  Right now, healing himself was the primary objective, so he closed his eyes and bent to the task.  The main focus right now should be minimizing the pain that was making him a burden, keeping them from moving as fast as they needed to move.  So that was where he began.

 

      The hours in the fire had done a world of good, for when he removed himself from it, his wings had an entirely different look.  The ragged remnants no longer dangled from the top arch like cobwebs, for they were gone.  The main arches of his wings were now whole, like the bones from which the rest of the wing would sprout, two slender spikes of living fire jutting from his back.  Though he could not move them yet, they were locked in a folded position, the majority of the pain was gone.  There was only a dull, nagging ache, as his wings had consumed much of what was causing the pain and used that material to rebuild the main arches.  When he left the fire, he found he could move without pain, only that dull ache in them was there, and that pain was easily controlled.  He felt an entire world better.

      He felt so much better than he actually picked up Zyri and twirled her a couple of times in the air when she came out of the tent, making the girl squeal in surprise.  “Good morning,” he told her brightly.  “Sleep well?”

      “Master Tarrin!  You’re feeling better!” she said happily.

      “I am indeed, little bit,” he told her.  “And I told you before—“

      “I know,” she sighed, then she giggled when he tapped her nose with a huge finger.  “Your wings look better.”

      “They are,” he answered.  “Most of the pain is gone.  They just ache now, and that’s not bad at all.  Where’s Mist?”

      “She and Mistress Miranda are off talking,” she answered, pointing out into the ashfall, which still was thick in the air.  “Everyone else is still sleeping.”

      “Not everyone,” Ulger called in amusement from the far side of the three tents that were erected.  “Good to see hear up and about.  Up to riding?”

      “I’m fine,” he answered.  “Just some dull aching, nothing I can’t easily ignore.  How’s Kimmie?”

      “She looked fine last I saw her,” he answered.  “She’s probably still asleep.  We’ll have to wake up and get moving soon though.”

      “Demons?”

      “Actually, just soldiers,” he answered, scratching his cheek just below the wicked scar marring it.  “I’ve heard them ride by several times.  This black fog won’t let you see more than ten spans in front of you, so they haven’t seen us.”

      “So much the better for us.”

      “Aye.”

      “How long was I asleep?”

      “About six hours,” he answered.  “I was about to start waking everyone up.  Want me to go find Mist and Miranda?”

      “No need,” he said with a wave of his paw.  “They know I’m awake.”

      Tarrin picked up Jal after he came out of the tent and, with a child in each arm, he went back over to the fire and sat down.  Fireflash flew from the tent and landed on his shoulder, nuzzling his neck, and Tarrin suddenly felt very sedate and content.  “I figure we’ll just grab something quick to eat before starting out,” Tarrin mused, then he chuckled as Jal gingerly touched his wings.  “They’re better, they don’t hurt anymore,” he told the boy.  “How are you?”

      Jal smiled shyly, and patted his shoulder.

      “That’s good to hear.  What do you think of the Shadows?”

      He raised his eyes slightly.

      “They’re just like you.  Give them a chance.  They might be able to teach you more than I can.  They know how your power works, after all.  I’m just guessing.”

      He shrugged, the pointed his small finger in Tarrin’s face.

      “We’ll see.  As you know, I’m none too fond of strangers.”

      “I would hope that you’d think different of us,” Lorak stated calmly as he came out of a tent.  “Are you feeling well?”

      “Well enough,” he answered.  “And to me, everyone is a stranger unless they’ve been with me a while.  I’m sure Phandebrass took quite a bit of time to explain some things to you while I was sleeping.”

      “He did.”

      “Then I’m sure you understand what not to do,” he said bluntly.  “Just remember, Lorak, I do not take orders.  You’ll only try once.”

      “Yes, I discovered that little racial aspect from your mate,” he said, rubbing his jaw absently.

      “Then we understand one another,” he said, standing up with both children.  “You can teach Jal how to use his power, can’t you?”

      “I can’t,” Lorak said calmly.  “He’s a Water adept.  He needs to be taught by someone of his own element.  Water adepts are fairly rare, though, we don’t have one with us.  But when we join up with others, I’m sure there will be one among them.  He can instruct the boy.  Now if you will excuse me, I have to get everything ready.”

      They watched him go back into the tent, and Tarrin turned back to the fire.  Jal, his eyes glittering in the light, held out a hand and caused a rod of ice to form in his hand.  Again, Tarrin felt an odd tingling when he did that.  He held out the icy dowel, adding to it, until it became a startling likeness of the Elara, then wiggled it back and forth in a fair imitation of Lorak’s flowing stride.

      “Jal!  Be nice,” Tarrin admonished in a low voice, as Zyri giggled with her hand over her mouth.

      After a cold breakfast, and after he got the expected examination from Dolanna, Mist, and Kimmie, they started out once again.  This time Tarrin was alert and well, with only a minor dull ache in his wings that was no problem at all for him to ignore, falling back on Allia’s training in how to ignore pain.  He rode with his bow in his lap, for almost twice an hour they had to stop and allow Lorak to hide them as soldiers galloped by, or Demons flapped overhead.  They rode as fast as they dared in the thick black ashfall, but as it started to thin after several hours of riding, they started going faster and faster.  It was impossible to tell time in that endless blackness, but when it started to thin, as they started getting out from under the ashfall, the faint white disc of the sun started showing high in the sky.  “Phaugh, noon,” Ulger growled.  “We must have got up and started moving at midnight.”

      “We’re moving into a large region of farmland,” Lorak told them.  “The roads here are small and winding.  There is little in the way of cover, so we’re going to be spotted quickly after this ash cloud lifts.”

      “Then we just go faster than they do,” Haley said lightly.

      Lorak gave him a cool look, but said nothing.

      “Open farmland?  That should be fast movement,” Miranda mused.

      It was indeed.  As the ash cleared and they could see further, they picked up the pace, until they were doing a brisk canter through neat rows of low farm crops.  They moved in a straight line until a fence got in the way, then, more often than not, Lorak simply knocked it down with his Elemental magic.  Farmers watched the horses and Pegasi plow through their crops with slack-jawed astonishment or dark glares, but did nothing to interfere.  Tarrin kept his eyes open and kept scanning the skies, looking for the large silhouette that would be a vrock, the church’s primary airborne scout.  He kept his bow in his lap and an arrow nocked half the time, ready for whatever might come.  They continued to move north, out of the ashfall, until they had finally broken out from under that black cloud.  Lorak no longer had to protect them from breathing in the ash with his magic, and they could again see without the ash reducing visibility.  They finally rode over land that wasn’t ankle-deep in gritty ash, and the smell of sulfur finally cleared out of Tarrin’s nose.  Getting out of the ash was a relief, but it also lent itself to a new set of problems, for it could no longer hide them from the soldiers of the One.

      Around sunset, his diligent scanning of the skies paid off.  The outline of a vrock appeared from the ash behind them, moving towards them in almost a perfect straight line.  Tarrin reined in his mount and turned it, then quickly nocked an arrow, set his legs around his Pegasus to keep it from fidgeting, and drew his bow in a smooth motion.  The magical bow bent back as the arrow’s fletching touched his cheek, and he took careful aim at the figure, which was swooping towards them to investigate, to get a closer look.  He blanked out all distractions and became one with his bow, with his target.  The slightest shifting of the wind was immediately sensed and his aim adjusted, the gleaming metal arrowhead shifting by a hair’s breadth.  “Tarrin?” Kimmie asked, but he did not hear her.

      With a slight exhale, Tarrin released the arrow.  It whizzed away from them at shocking, almost insane speed, as the unbreakable bow allowed Tarrin to put all his inhuman strength behind that arrow’s flight.  The arrow disappeared from view almost immediately, and three seconds went by without him even moving.  Then the outline of the vrock kiltered wildly in the air behind them, and almost immediately started plummeting to the ground.

      “Wow,” one of the Shadows said in a low tone.

      “Good shot,” Azakar said appreciatively, coming up beside him.

      “Thanks,” Tarrin said.  “Want to give it a go?” he asked, offering his bow.

      “I doubt I could draw it,” Azakar chuckled.

      “Sure you can, you’re strong enough,” Tarrin told him.

      “Can you do that every time?” one of the Wizards asked.

      “Nobody can do that every time,” Tarrin snorted.

      By the time they camped, Tarrin still felt just fine.  And he felt fine the next day, and the next, as they continued to ride due north, through huge tracts of farmlands, and down onto a flat plain.  Tarrin’s wings started to show a lengthening along the bottom edge, as they slowly began to regrow, and he was in a relatively even temper.  The pain was easily tolerable, leaving him only a little sore at the end of each day, and Mist did not give him the chance to see if it would get worse.  Six times during those three days, they were run down or ambushed by church soldiers.  They were not full columns, only roving patrols of fifteen men, and none of them had stood a chance.  Ulger, Azakar, and Haley combined with Mist to hold the men off, away from the numerous spellcasters behind them, as the Wizards, Elementalists, and single Sorcerer rained death upon them with magic.  No battle lasted more than two minutes, for half of the church soldiers would die within the first fifteen seconds.  The rest of the battle became a stalling tactic by the Knights and Mist, stopping the men from reaching the spellcasters before they had a chance to unleash another volley of death-dealing magic.  Mist glared viciously at Tarrin just before the first of those skirmishes, warning him that he would answer to her if he dared enter melee, so he stayed with the Wizards and Elementalists, serving as the last line of physical defense should one of them get past the fighters.  He used his bow during those battles, not even bothering to use Wizard magic, firing into the crowd with surgical precision to pick off enemies.  Tarrin’s mastery of his bow so impressed Zyri that she all but started ignoring Ulger and his sling lessons, practicing with the bow Tarrin made for her almost every time they were not moving, and often while on horseback as well.  If they weren’t at a canter, Zyri had her bow out.  She didn’t waste arrows when shooting from horseback, as they couldn’t recover them, so at first she had Jal make ice arrows for her.  They lasted more than long enough for her to nock and fire them, but Tarrin chided her for getting her bowstring wet.  That ended that, until Shara started creating arrows made of light, strong stone, with vanes instead of fletching. They worked just as well, they didn’t damage her bowstring, and Shara could provide her with a virtually unlimited supply.  She had natural aptitude for the weapon, and she showed marked improvement even over those few short days, because she seemed to have a burning desire to get better.

      Watching Zyri gave Tarrin some peace, watched as she fired her bow at little targets that Phandebrass was creating with Wizard magic and hanging out in midair for her early one afternoon, but his mind still wandered to the battle, and to what happened afterwards.  It was time to face the fact that he had used Priest magic, the he had granted himself the power to cast that spell.  And he had done it before changing, before the sword transformed him.  And then there was what he felt when he drove his paw into the earth and commanded the magma below to do his bidding…that sense of connection to this world.  It wasn’t just then, though.  Throughout the battle, it was as if the world, this dimension was…attuning itself to him.

      Or…was he attuning itself to it?

      Without much thought, Tarrin raised his paw.  He reached within, through the Cat as he always did, and searched for the boundless energy, the power, of the All.  But it wasn’t there, as he privately suspected.  But then again, the Cat knew only the All of home, it would be incapable of fathoming a different All.  An All with a different sense, a different presence.  In its way, the All was the indirect manifestation of the power of Creation, the power of Ayise, the Allmother, the goddess who had created the world of Sennadar.  After all, the All was the collective power of life present on Sennadar, and that life existed because of Niami, the goddess of Creation.  The All of this world would be a manifestation of the Elder god of this dimension, and as such would most certainly have a different sense, even if it had the same power.

      This time, Tarrin did not reach through the Cat.  He reached directly for that power.

      And it was there.  It was weak, feeble, listless.  The All had a kind of sentience about it, a sentience that was deadly to the Druids who used that power, but this power had no sense of that sentience.  It was power without guidance, energy without form, magic without direction.  It was simply there.  Perhaps that was a symbol of the seeming indifference of the Elder god of this world, who seemed to have created the world and then disappeared.

      Immediately, his mind wrapped around what it would take to command this power.  The All acted on the will of the Druid and carried out the task, but in its own manner.  This energy would not do that; it would have to be directed step by step, point by point, walked through the entire procedure to perform any task.  Where a Druid only had to create an image of an object and intend it appear, someone here would have to tell the power exactly what they were going to do, then explain to it in exhausting detail exactly what it had to do to carry out the task.  That was not something that the average mortal could do, for it would take an intimate understanding of the forces of magic and the aspects of reality.

      Phandebrass could probably do it, though, Tarrin reasoned with a slight smile.

      But Tarrin…Tarrin most definitely could not.  He had no idea even where to begin trying to do such a thing.  He may have some divine power, but he did not have the mind of a god.  Without that power of sentience to aid the Druid in the use of that power, it was absolutely out of the question.  Tarrin wouldn’t even dream of trying to use that.

      So…that was out of the question.  He put that aside and went back to the troubling reality that he cast a Priest spell.  He remembered how it felt, how the power seemed to flow out of his very soul, through his physical form, and then manifested.  It felt much the same as when he cast Priest spells powered by Niami, but now he knew what it felt to give that power rather than take.  It had been frightening, it had been shocking…and in a way, it had been beautiful.  And he knew that he could do it again, at least after he was whole again.  It was not just a one-time deal.

      It was scary.  He knew his power had changed, had grown, but this.  This wasn’t just some trick, this was starting to encroach on the power of a real god.  He shouldn’t be able to power spells, because he wasn’t a god.  He just had limited divine power that was focused in very specific, very rigid forms.  Most of his power was locked away in the sword, for crying out loud.  There just seemed to be no way he could do it.  He couldn’t understand how it happened, he couldn’t even begin to ponder just how he had managed to do it.

      Perhaps it was best just to say that he did do it, and that he just couldn’t explain it.  When his wings were whole, he’d be able to do it again, he just knew he could.

      His wings.  He looked over his shoulder, and saw that they were growing nicely.  The bottom edges of the arch of his wings was longer, starting to thicken, and the dull red and yellows were starting to sharpen, to become clear, almost like new feathers or scales on the surface of his healing wings.

      There wasn’t much else that he could really do, and Tarrin was never one to dwell on things that he couldn’t change.  That was the way things were, he couldn’t change it or understand it, so he just had to accept it.

      And that, was that.

 

      Farmland yielded to virgin grassland quickly once they entered the flat plain, as they continued to hurry to the north, grass that showed signs of heavy traffic by groups of mounted men, patrols of the One’s church with whom they sparred on four occasions that first day they left the domesticated farmlands.  A single look back told them all that the One’s soldiers were following, but they were moving too quickly for enough reinforcements to catch up with them to attempt an assault.  The Pegasi were just as tireless on the ground as they were in the air, and the Shadows had had the foresight to choose durable animals capable of extended activity.

      The opportunity to ride without pain allowed him to observe the Shadows more closely.  Tarrin only knew the names of a couple of them…and he really didn’t care to know any more.  They mattered very little to him, they were nothing but extra weight.  But Dolanna felt that traveling with them was to their advantage, and he would not gainsay her.  But watching them let him understand how things worked among them.  Lorak was the utter and undisputed ruler of their group.  They deferred to him in all things; in fact, it seemed like they had no opinion that was not his own.  Some men or women ruled in that manner through charisma or exceptional leadership, but so far, Lorak had shown neither of those traits.  He was too driven, too single-minded to show the kind of charisma that would create that kind of devotion, and so far, few of his command decisions seemed to show a vast intelligence.  Tarrin hadn’t quite figured out why they followed him so blindly, but there obviously had to be a reason.  He’d figure it out.

      They were certainly unsure about Tarrin and his group, however.  He could see it in their eyes, even after so many days with them.  Tarrin frightened them, Kimmie frightened them, Mist frightened them even more, but oddly enough, Miranda was the one that seemed to frighten them the most.  The Were-cats were obviously not human, but they looked somewhat human.  But Miranda, Miranda was decidedly inhuman.  The only thing that made her even remotely seemed normal was the fact that she wore clothes and could talk.  He wasn’t sure why that seemed to bother them, that the fact that Miranda didn’t have a human face made her more frightening than the Were-cats, but it did.  Tarrin was cold, Mist was downright violent, but they still were less afraid of them than they were of Miranda, who was as friendly as could be…at least at first.  The only one of them that seemed to want to have anything to do with her was Shara, the Earth Elementalist who served as their group’s healer.

      They couldn’t see how beautiful Miranda was…none of them could.  There was an aura of purity around Miranda that shone like a beacon, the power of Kikkalli that made her what she was.  It wasn’t an aura of power or might, it was an aura of love, the love of a mother for a child, the special bond between Miranda and Kikkalli that gave her the power to use her magic in this world.  Tarrin had sensed that bond since the moment he met her, but only now could he see it.  Again, it was a disturbing alteration in his own power, and he wondered if Miranda could see anything like that about him.  Miranda was a very special mortal, blessed by Kikkalli from birth as an Avatar, but only after she had become a Priestess did she really come into that birthright.  Of them all, Tarrin probably had the easiest time talking to Miranda about his concerns or his power, for she was the only one that could really understand.  Just like him, Miranda was in something of the inner circle of divine ability, a mortal that really did know what was going on, privy to information and knowledge beyond mortal ken.

      “Why aren’t there any farms out here?” Haley asked.  “This is fertile land, and flat as a board.  It’s perfect farmland.”

      “That’s why,” Shara said, pointing to the northeast, where the hint of forest lurked on the horizon.  “That’s called the Fangwood.  Rumor says that there’s all manner of nasty beasties lurkin’ within, so the farmers willna’ till any land within a day’s walk.  You willna’ find a single man or woman within a day’s walk o’ that place.”

      “It’s all subterfuge, of course,” Lorak said calmly.  “We used to use the Fangwood as a base, so we encouraged those kinds of rumors.  We stopped using it some ten years ago, but the rumors remain.”

      “Why did you stop using it?” Tarrin asked.  “It’s a perfect way to lock down a good piece of the One’s army if you can raid his farmland.”

      “After the One sealed away his lands from our Gatemasters, we deemed it too much of a risk to try to reinforce the outpost after too many parties were ambushed.  We pulled it east, closer to the coast, on the far side of the Goldblade Hills.  But that outpost was destroyed after the One cut our lines of communication with the Dura.”

      “How far are we from the Dura’s fortress?” Dolanna asked.

      “Some twenty days, at least,” Lorak answered, pointing.  “We’ll have to cross the Stonespine Mountains first, then through a vast forest that covers the land between the Stonespines and the Ice Mountains.  What concerns me most is the Stonespines.  There are only a few passes through them, and the Pyrosians have built citadels in the passes to defend them.  The One’s church was always terrified of the Dura for some reason, the citadels are part of the defenses they built to protect themselves from the Dura.”  He snorted.  “Foolishness.  The Dura almost never leave their fortress.”

      “If they’re anything like the Dwarves from our legend, the Pyrosians have reason to be afraid,” Miranda mused.  “They were powerful and fearless warriors.  They were regarded as the greatest warriors of their time.  I’d love to see how they’d fare against the Ungardt, or the Selani, or the Vendari, though,” she chuckled.

      “What I wouldn’t give to have Binter and Sisska here,” Tarrin grunted.  “We’ve been lucky so far.  It’s just a matter of time before we run into more soldiers than four people can hold off.  They could hold off a squad all by themselves.”

      “I wonder how they’re doing,” Sarraya piped in from Tarrin’s shoulder.

      “Probably trying to keep their patience,” Tarrin chuckled.  “Just think about it.  Keritanima and Faalken?  They must be about to go crazy.”

      Sarraya giggled.  “Probably,” she agreed.  “We might be better served asking for someone we could get though, like Var and Denai.”

      “Perhaps they won’t be necessary,” Lorak said, reining in and then suddenly standing in his stirrups and looking to the west.  Tarrin looked out in that direction as well, and he saw a small column of mounted men, riding northward.  From that distance they were little more than specks against the grass, but even from that distance he could see that they weren’t church soldiers.

      “Are they ours?” one of the other Shadows asked.

      Tarrin felt that odd sensation again as Lorak used his power, but what he did was quite beyond Tarrin.  “They are,” he answered.  “Twelve men, most of them guards.  I only see two casters with them.”

      “That’s ten swords to help defend us,” Neh said in her lilting voice.  “Signal them, Lorak.”

      Lorak immediately responded to the Elara female in an authoritative voice, using his their native tongue.  Tarrin’s ears picked up instantly as he heard that language, for its similarity to Sha’Kar—or more specifically, the ancient root language of Urzani, whom Spyder had used for him once—was uncanny.  Neh blushed and lowered her chin, then nodded silently, quite obviously reprimanded in some manner.  He went over what Lorak said multiple times, puzzling out the separate words, putting a finger to his chin in furious thought as he struggled to piece together what just transpired.

      It did not take him long.  Tarrin had a knack for languages, and when it came to linguistics, everyone brought it to him first.  Silence, girl.  I’ll signal them when I’m sure it’s safe, and not a moment before.

      Well, he didn’t see anything in there mean in that, but the tone of Lorak’s voice hinted to Tarrin that the Elara didn’t like any kind of challenge to his authority.

      Tarrin’s heart fluttered a moment as he had a revelation of sorts.  The orcs were Waern who had come to this world through a gate, and settled in…could it be that the Elara were those beings who existed before the Urzani?  Could they be the ancestor race of Spyder, Miranda, and Allia?  Tarrin remembered a conversation with Spyder a long, long time ago, when she remarked in passing that the parent race of the Urzani were called elves.  Well, Lorak had said that the humans here also called his kind elves.

      Tarrin looked at Dolanna, who had a similar thoughtful look on her face, and then to Miranda, who was whispering Lorak’s words over and over to herself, and then to Phandebrass, who was furiously writing in one of his books.  “Phandebrass,” Tarrin called, but the Wizard waved him off with his free hand, which caused the book to nearly slip out of his saddle.  “Phandebrass!”

      “I say, not yet lad,” he replied quickly in Sulasian.  “I must write that down.  I—“ he started, then he looked up at Tarrin, who simply nodded.  Then the white-haired Wizard laughed.  “I say, capital!  Is it?”
      “Yes,” Tarrin said again.  “Lorak, how long have your people been here?” Tarrin asked.

      “That’s a strange question,” he answered as he used his magic to create another spell.  Tarrin had no idea what it did…it was probably some kind of scrying spell of some sort.  Some of Lorak’s magic seemed to deal with vision and images.  “We’ve always been here, since the day Elara formed our world from the hair of her husband, Keralon, who then breathed life into us.”

      It took a significant realignment of his thinking, but he was able to do it.  “Are you sure?” he asked, using the same ancient, archaic dialect of Urzani that he was certain that Lorak would understand.

      He couldn’t have produced a more profound effect if he’d clubbed Lorak out of his saddle.  Lorak’s spell got away from him, then disrupted  as all three of the Elara stared at him like he was a live snake.  “How do you come to speak our language?” Thren demanded instantly.

      “Actually, I don’t.  Not completely,” he answered in Penali.  “But it’s based on an ancient dialect of Urzani, which is the root language of the Sha’Kar, and I do speak Sha’Kar.”

      “Tarrin is gifted in the realm of language,” Dolanna told Lorak with a smile.

      “How would some ancient language from a people I’ve never heard of be related to our own?” Lorak demanded.

      “I’d hazard to guess that it’s because you’re related to them,” Tarrin mused.  “Either you’re also descendents of people from Sennadar, or some of them came over and were introduced into your society.  Or, maybe some strange twist caused you to develop a very similar language, who knows.  But that seems a bit far-fetched to me.  I’d bet you’re somehow related to the ancestors of the Urzani.”

      “Possible, but it’s impossible to conceive that we did not come from here,” he said flatly.  “If there’s any relation between the Elara and this ancient race you describe, perhaps we traveled there instead of them traveling here.”

      “Possible,” Tarrin admitted without much emotion.  “If your history goes back some fifteen thousand years.  That’s when the Urzani destroyed their parent race and conquered the world, so it would have to be before that.”

      “Our noble history goes back much further than that,” Lorak said stiffly.

      “Which only helps reinforce my point,” Tarrin said calmly.

      Miranda laughed.  “We might be distant cousins,” she announced.  “The Wikuni are descended from the Urzani, though it’s a bit hard to explain how, given how I look,” she said with a cheeky grin and a wink.

      “It is impossible that you would be in any way related to us,” Thren said with sudden hostility.

      “Anything is possible,” Miranda told him with sudden seriousness.  “Wikuni look the way we do because we were touched by the hands of our gods and changed, a physical reminder of the fact that we were taking up a new life.  Before we looked like this, we looked much like you.”

      “I will not hear that our bloodline turned into mongrels,” Thren said hotly.  “You can’t be related to us, and that’s that.”

      Tarrin’s eyes narrowed dangerously, as did Mist’s and Kimmie’s, but Miranda put her hand up to stay them.  Were-cats took being called those kinds of names personally.  “It sounds like you’re suffering from a raging case of racial superiority, Thren,” Miranda said with a clever little smile.  “I guess that’s something of a rampant disease here on Pyrosia, where there are only like three races.  We don’t have that option on Sennadar, because there are so many different races.  Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages, but when you put them on the scales, you find out that they all balance out to be the same.  No race is better than any other race.  What advantage you have is made up by another race in some other area.  Despite the glorious fifteen thousand or more years of your noble history, it seems you still have a great deal to learn.  Elara are no better than humans, who are no better than the Elara.

      “Think you’re better than me, honey?  Well, get down off your horse and arm-wrestle me,” she challenged with a cheeky grin.  “After all, not only am I not an Elara, I’m also just a girl.”

      “A preposterous idea,” he objected.

      “Only because you think you can’t lose,” she taunted, dismounting..  “Prove it.”

      “We do not have time for foolishness,” Lorak grated.

      “We have time,” Tarrin told him. “While they’re ironing this out, you can signal those others.  We’re not moving anyway.  Or are you afraid that Thren might lose?” Tarrin asked pointedly.

      “Very well,” Thren growled, after Lorak nodded in his direction.  “If only to make you fall silent.”

      Tarrin had to suppress a chuckle, because he knew that Thren had no chance.  Miranda, like everyone else, was much, much stronger on this world for some reason, and he had little doubt that she couldn’t whip this slender Elara.

      Without any kind of table to use, Miranda laid down on the soft, thick grass, propped herself up with her left arm, then planted her elbow on the ground before her and waggled her fingers tauntingly at Thren.  The Elara laid down opposite her, propped himself up, then presented his arm and clasped Miranda’s furry hand solidly.  “I take no joy in winning against a helpless opponent,” Thren stated.  “And I certainly don’t like to enter physical challenges with women.  As much as I admire a woman’s mind, it’s obvious that they just don’t have the physical gifts of men.”

      “Well, you’re just making it even more humiliating when you lose,” Miranda teased, the poof of hair that hung over her eyes, the flare of hair that was parted to the side, bouncing as she moved her head.  “Would someone count to three, please?” she asked.

      Haley, who was trying hard not to laugh, stepped his Pegasus up.  “Very well.  One…two….”

      Just as Haley said “three,” Miranda lunged forward, opened her maw, and grated her tongue up the entirety of Thren’s face.  Despite Miranda’s very human appearance compared to many Wikuni, she still had the teeth and tongue of her bonded animal, a minx.  Her tongue was very long, very wide, and she slurped it over Thren’s pretty little face from chin to hairline.  The Elara flinched and spluttered, and offered up absolutely no resistance to Miranda’s arm when she drove his hand towards the earth.

      “I win,” Miranda said with a cherubic smile as Thren coughed and rubbed at his face with his left hand.  Sarraya burst into uncontrollable laughter, almost falling of Tarrin’s shoulder, as Kimmie, Haley, Ulger, Shara, and a couple of the other Shadows joined in.

      “A clever trick, madam, but just a trick,” Thren said darkly, continuing to rub at his face.  “I didn’t expect you to cheat to prove your point.”

      “Rules?  Did you hear me mention rules?  You just assumed I’d be all noble and sportsman-like, because I’m such a well-behaved young lady,” she said with a wink.  “So, despite the fact that you’re a big, strong, studly young Elara, you lost to a bandy-armed little girl in arm-wrestling, because you underestimated me.  Think about that.”  Then she leaned in and licked him again, just a light tap on the cheek, before getting up and going back to her mount.

      “You’re mean, Miranda,” Tarrin said with a slight smile.

      “That’s why you love me,” she replied as she remounted.

      Tarrin laughed.

      Thren rolled over so he was sitting on the grass, then he too laughed in spite of himself.  With a foolish little smile, he got up and went back to his horse.

      Lorak got back to the business at hand, and after using another spell, which made Tarrin tingle, the small group of mounted men immediately turned and galloped towards them.  Thren kept staring at Miranda the whole time as they waited, and seemed to be doing his best to keep from laughing.  It was a simple lesson that she taught the Elara, but an effective one.  Miranda was not a woman to take lightly, not in any way, shape, or form, and her lesson carried more within it than the simple dressing-down of a cocky young man.  She had proven herself the equal of an Elara, by displaying traits that weren’t immediately apparent.  It was a poignant and necessary lesson for Thren, as well as for Lorak and Neh.

      The mounted men slowed down when they got closer to them, could see Tarrin’s half-formed wings and Azakar’s massive size as not a trick of distance, and Miranda’s obvious inhuman appearance.  They saw that the mounts of these strange people weren’t really deformed, that they had wings, that these were very, very unusual peole.  They were very cautious as they closed the final distance, eleven men in assorted, mismatched pieces of armor that had the look of caravan guards or mercenaries, and two robed figures.  One of them came forward as the others stopped, a tall, rugged human with long brown hair tied in a tail and trimmed beard, then he made a curious gesture by holding out two fingers, then passing them over his eyes.

      “Skord?” one of the Shadows behind them called, one whose name Tarrin did not bother to learn.

      “Yemil,” the man returned.  “Master Lorak,” he said, bowing in his saddle.

      “Are you two all that’s left of Thoravi’s circle?”

      He nodded.  “They knew exactly where we were.  I think they did the entire time,” he said with a grim frown.  “Everyone I managed to contact is moving north.  Have you seen anyone else?”

      Lorak shook his head.  “You’re the first.”

      “Who are your, ah, companions?”

      “They are visitors from another plane of existence, caught up in this insanity,” Lorak answered honestly.  “The companions of whom Master Phandebrass spoke.”

      “Then it’s my sad pleasure to welcome you to hell,” Skord told them.  “I am Skord, leader of the Thoravi circle.  I see you have no fighters with you aside from two very formidable-looking gentlemen,” he said, nodding towards Azakar and Ulger.  “I lost most of my circle to the Hunters, but our defenders managed to spirit me and Lienne to safety.  I think we’ll be a good match.”

      “Put your men under command of our two Knights,” Lorak ordered, turning to them.  “Which of you has rank?”

      “That would be Dolanna,” Ulger chuckled.  “Or Tarrin, actually.  He’s a Knight Champion, answerable only to the Lord General.  He outranks us.”

      “You know that’s just a technicality,” Tarrin snorted.

      “You know I would not dream to command a military formation, Ulger,” Dolanna told him.

      “Well, if you’re going to delegate your rank, I guess that would put it on me.  Both me and Zak are Captains, but I have more time in with my gold spurs.”

      “Then our soldiers are under your command,” Skord told him.

      “We should move, it is not wise to stand about,” Lorak called.  “We will organize ourselves when we camp for the night.  Until then, everyone simply needs to stay together.”

      “Do you think the Dura will accept us?”

      “We have nowhere else to go, Skord,” Lorak sighed.  “And even if they don’t, at least we know that the One’s armies won’t attack us so close to the Dura.  Even if they don’t actively help, just their presence will help protect us.  If worse comes to worst, we can call to the Gatemasters at home and have them try to open a gate.  The land of the Dura isn’t under the One’s domain, they should be able to open a gate there.  None have tried before, it is only speculation, but I am somewhat confident that it can be done.”

      “I certainly hope so,” Neh sighed.

      “I just need enough time to heal,” Tarrin grunted.  “After I’m whole, the One won’t matter anymore.”

      “Why is that?” Skord asked.

      Tarrin’s eyes flared with the unholy greenish radiance that marked an angry Were-cat, and he closed his paw into a fist.  “Because I’m going to kill him.  And I won’t fail this time,” he hissed.

      “This time?”

      “Tarrin and the One have already had one spat,” Sarraya announced, and judging from Skord’s expression, she had just become visible on Tarrin’s shoulder.  “That’s what caused the volcano to erupt.  It got a bit flashy towards the end.”

      “Sarraya,” Dolanna called with authority.  “Tarrin has certain, abilities, that allows him to do battle with the Avatars of gods,” she explained to Skord.  “The One kidnapped one of us and forced Tarrin to battle with him at Pyros.  Both of them were wounded in the exchange, which is why the Priests of the One are not using their magic to track us down.”

      “You fought a god?” Skord gasped.

      “I’m not afraid of gods, Skord,” Tarrin replied in a cold tone, turning his Pegasus.  “When I heal, I’ll go back to what’s left of Pyros and finish the One off.  Everything we do until that is just stalling for time.”

      “Be that as it may, what Master Tarrin plans has little to do with us,” Lorak said after clearing his throat.  “We just happen to be traveling together for mutual protection.”

      “If he can fight a god, I’ll take that protection,” one of the soldiers behind Skord whispered to his fellow soldier.

      “So will I,” the other replied.

      “Let’s go,” Lorak commanded, turning his horse northward.  “The sooner we can get into the forest north of the Stonespines, the better.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:       Title      EoF

Chapter 11

 

      Tarrin wasn’t sure which was garnering more attention from the newcomers…him, Miranda, or the Pegasi.

      Not that he cared.  Having so many strangers around caused both him and Mist to all but withdraw from the group.  They rode at the back of the column when it moved, to keep them all in sight, and always kept as many of them as possible in sight whenever they stopped.  The two feral Were-cats seemed to become a single unit of wary surveillance, watching each other and helping each other keep all these potential threats under a watchful eye.  But it was probably unfortunate that him and the other two Were-cats seemed quite interesting to this Skord and his band of soldiers, who seemed to want to ask endless questions.  He learned almost immediately to direct all those questions to Kimmie, because Tarrin and Mist would have very little to do with him.

      Again, though, it was Miranda that seemed to capture the attention of the others almost immediately, and not entirely positively.  Her obvious inhuman appearance, so much more so than the Were-cats, again attrracted overwhelming attention, and Tarrin still hadn’t quite figured out why she was so much of an item of interest to these people.  Only Skord didn’t seem to have any fear of Miranda, riding along with her the first day he’d joined them and politely but quite thoroughly trying to grill her for all kinds of information.  Skord reminded Tarrin of Phandebrass, an inquisitive fellow with a sharp mind, but he also seemed quite tolerant of the alien nature of some of Lorak’s companions, more curious about them than afraid.  There was also something of a thin, wispy aura around Skord that Tarrin found pleasant, something that his awakened divine senses could detect, something that was missing from Lorak and the others.  He wasn’t quite sure what it was or what it meant, but Skord seemed quite agreeable to Tarrin in some ways, but Tarrin’s ferality wouldn’t allow him to explore this agreeable quality.

      For most of them, though, it was the Pegasi that seemed to most solidly take their attention.  They gawked at the winged horses almost all of that first day, which unsettled them just a little bit, making them a bit jumpy.  They’d already been restless from being forced to stay on the ground for so long, so Tarrin ordered that all the Pegasi be taken on a “recreational flight” the morning after Skord’s group joined them.  Perhaps that had been what caused it, he supposed, for the guardsmen were infatuated with them since that morning.  Ulger still seemed very uncomfortable flying on the back of his mount, which his mount seemed to take as somewhat offensive.  The Pegasus stomped on his foot after they landed and dismounted, then  headbutted him in the back several times as they walked the mounts back to the area where they were keeping all the horses.

      “Now listen, you feather-headed mutt, don’t be getting me mad,” Ulger warned the Pegasus as they reached the edge of the pasture where the horses were contentedly grazing.  The Pegasus responded to this threat by pulling his reins out of Ulger’s hand, then quite deliberately turning his back on the Knight.  “Serves you right, you—“ Ulger started, turning around, but that was a fatal mistake.  The instant Ulger took his eyes off the winged horse, it leaned forward, pulled its back legs off the ground, then drove both back hooves into Ulger’s armored back.  Ulger slid about five spans along the grass before coming to a stop on his stomach, with two impressive hoof-shaped dents in the shoulders of his backplate.  He laid there for just a moment, then moved to get his elbows and knees under him, but the Pegasus came over and put a foreleg on the small of his back and put enough weight on it to stop that.

      “Hey!” Ulger said in a growling tone.  “Get off me if you don’t want to be in Mist’s stewpot!”

      “I think you’d better apologize,” Haley said lightly as he let his own Pegasus to a large trough of water that one of the Wizards had created using magic.

      “What do I have to apologize for?” Ulger demanded.

      “Oh, all the yelling and screaming when we were flying, to start,” Haley chuckled.  “Not to mention all those times you threatened to brain your Pegasus every time it went down.”

      The Pegasus snorted out a neigh and nodded its head vigorously.

      “It shouldn’t scare me like that!” Ulger snapped.

      “No, I think you should have a bit more faith in your Pegasus,” Haley told him evenly, his tone more serious.  “He wouldn’t let you fall.  Well, he might let you fall now, but only if you’re really being an ass,” he chuckled, giving the Pegasus a warm smile.

      “I am not apologizing to my horse,” Ulger stated adamantly.

      The Pegasus put both forehooves on Ulger’s back, then started to press down.  There was the clear sound of bending metal in the air.

      “Hey!  You’re bending my armor!”

      “I think you’d better rethink that declaration,” Haley chuckled.  “You’re in no position to make any, you know.”

      “Stupid animal—“

      That was cut off when the Pegasus put all its weight on its forelegs, which caused Ulger’s armor to squeal in protest.  The Knight gave out a breathless “whuff!” and tried to struggle out from under his mount.

      “Down,” Tarrin ordered tersely as he came up to them.  The Pegasus gave Tarrin a single nod, then removed himself from the back of his rider.  Tarrin reached down and hooked his claws into the base of that backplate, then hauled the Knight up off the ground, holding him almost by the seat of the pants, from the look of it.  He turned to face Ulger’s Pegasus, then held him up so he was dangling at eye level with the animal.  “First thing, Ulger, never call them stupid.  They’re probably smarter than you are, and if you didn’t notice, they can understand what you’re saying.”
      The Pegasus nodded, glaring at Ulger openly.

      “Apologize.”

      Ulger was defiantly quiet.

      Tarrin bent down, then slammed the Knight into the ground.  He was not gentle.  Ulger’s armor made a loud clatter as he impacted the ground, and the Knight’s eyes were just a bit woozy when Tarrin picked him back up.  “That was the only warning you’re going to get, Ulger,” Tarrin warned in an ominous tone.  “Don’t disobey me again.  Now apologize.  Both of you.”

      Ulger wasn’t stupid enough to miss the threat of impending violence in Tarrin’s voice, were he not immediately obeyed.  “I’m sorry I insulted you,” Ulger said grudgingly. The Pegasus simply bowed its head in an act of contrition.

      “Good.  Go take your armor off.”

      “What?  Why should I—“

      Tarrin shook him just enough to make him hold his tongue.  “You’re afraid of flying,” the Were-cat noted.  “There’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to get over it.  So you’re going to spend most of today in the air.  You’re today’s flying scout.”

      “But you need me on the ground,” Ulger protested.

      “I’m sure that Zak can direct those new men well enough.  You need to get over your fear, and the only way to do that is to face it.”  Tarrin looked to the Pegasus.  “You understand that it was his fear talking.  You’ve dealt with him on the ground, he’s much different.”

      The Pegasus nodded.

      “Good.  Do you feel up to spending today airborne?”

      The Pegasus nodded vigorously, obviously very happy about the idea.

      “I’ll feel naked without my armor,” Ulger complained.

      “It needs to be fixed, and besides, you won’t tire out your mount by making carry that extra weight.”  Tarrin dropped him unceremoniously, then padded off with those long, slow strides that made him seem to move in slow motion, yet was a pace faster than a human could match.  Fireflash soared through the air and landed on Tarrin’s shoulder, nuzzling him affectionately and getting an absent pat on his flank from the Were-cat, who was watching the new men with hawkish eyes.

      “Thhhaarriiihhh,” Fireflash hissed sibilantly.

      “Keep practicing, little one, you’ll get it eventually,” Tarrin told his drake affectionately.  “It took Sapphire a while to learn too.”

      They encountered no patrols or flying Demons that day, which was, in Tarrin’s opinion, not a good thing.  He wanted to see if these new men could fight, and besides, fighting patrols was the norm, and Tarrin didn’t like deviation from the norm.  If the patrols were pulling back, either they had other orders, other plans, or they were moving ahead to ambush with combined forces.  Tarrin sent Ulger far ahead to scout around noon, but he came back to report nothing but empty farmland as they passed the Fangwood to their right, and nothing within the Fangwood but animals, thanks to Haley’s quick scouting of it.

      By evening, the dull ache in Tarrin’s wings became more noticable to him, and it made him just a little short tempered…at least more than usual.  He had his first and only brush with one of the new soldiers that evening as they made camp, hissing threateningly at a man who tried to offer him a skin of water.  The others kept their distance after that, which suited Tarrin just fine…he had no doubt that Lorak or Neh had made sure to explain the rules to them.  He sat by a fire with Dolanna, Mist, and Miranda, as Haley and Kimmie ranged out to hunt some fresh meat, and Sarraya flitted around with Fireflash chasing her after she poured one of Phandebrass’ inkwells onto his head.  Gouts of fire and gas erupted from the furious drake’s mouth as he chased the more agile Faerie around, but Tarrin paid them little mind.  Fireflash wouldn’t hurt Sarraya—much—and she deserved anything she got if he caught her.  Ulger was out with the Pegasi, rubbing his mount down and spending a little quality time with him.  Ulger had spent the entire day in the air more or less, and though it didn’t teach him to love flying, at least he’d learned how to tolerate it.  Zyri and Jal trotted over, both of them holding their bows.  “Master Tarrin, have you seen Mistress Shara?” she asked hastily.  “We need more arrows.”

      “I think she’s over at Lorak’s tent with the others, honey.  They’re having a talk,” Miranda told her.

      “You mean Master Phandebrass is talking and they’re all trying to interrupt him,” she giggled, and Jal smiled impishly.

      “Probably,” Tarrin agreed with a slight smile.  “How many have you hit?”

      “I hit nine, and Jal hit two,” she said proudly.

      “Then you need to go back twenty steps,” he told her, looking at the circular target made of soft earth and wood that jutted out of the ground which they were shooting at, something that Shara had used her magic to create for them.  “Why do you need more arrows?” he asked curiously.  “I see bunches of them out there.”

      “But then we won’t know what we hit,” she protested.  “And we’d have to go down and—nevermind,” she said sheepishly when Tarrin fixed her with a cool stare.  She grabbed Jal and started towards the target.

      “Lazy, lazy, lazy,” Miranda laughed.

      “Just seeing what she can get away with is more like it,” Mist grunted, watching them.

      “Have you been able to move your wings yet, Tarrin?” Miranda asked.

      Tarrin glanced back at them.  “Not yet,” he answered.  They were almost halfway formed now, looked definitely like wings, but wings with their feathers clipped.  “I was thinking of stealing my sword back from Dolanna tonight and seeing if that won’t help them heal a little faster.’

      “Well, she didn’t use any Sorcery today, so she probably won’t mind,” the Wikuni mused.  “The pain eased any since yesterday?”

      She asked this question every night, and Tarrin’s response had yet to change.  “No,” he answered.

      “Anything unusual?  New?” she asked.

      Tarrin glanced at her.  “How do you mean?”

      “Oh, just fishing from the rail here, but something tells me to ask that.  Well, someone,” she corrected.

      “Oh, what information is she fishing for?” he asked bluntly.

      “She’s worried about you, Tarrin,” she said immediately.  “And if you don’t recall, Kikkalli is how Niami’s getting information about you.  They want to know if anything feels different, or if you’ve noticed any changes.”

      He was quiet a moment.  “Well, I’m starting to see things, things I can’t really explain,” he told her, turning and looking at Zyri.  “There’s like a nimbus around some people, glowing colors.  Some people’s colors seem to hint at some things, others just strike me in certain ways without me seeing anything.”

      “Really?  Give an example,” she pressed.

      “Well, there’s that new Elementalist…Skord.  There’s an aura around him that seems, well, agreeable.  Something hints at me that Skord might me someone I could get to know.  Lorak has a sense about him that’s almost completely opposite, but that’s not something I can see…it’s just something I can feel.  There’s a coldness around Lorak that doesn’t sit well with me.”

      “Well,” Miranda mused.  “Well, well, well.  What do you see around me?”

      “A blinding light,” he told her honestly, looking at her.  “Well, it would be blinding if it were real, but it’s that strong.  I know what that is.  When I look at you, I can see your mother’s power around you.  It’s a mark of what she did before you were born.  It’s the mark of what you are.  Almost like she was reaching out to you and putting her hands around you.”

      “Well, I hope she’s not trying to wring my neck,” Miranda laughed.

      He ignored that.  “What I can see around you would be impossible to hide, girl.  It’s holy.  I bet every Demon that looks at you immediately sees it.  I bet they can feel  it from a longspan away.  It’s like a beacon of holy power, and that’s the kind of power that Demons fear more than anything else.  That’s why they either come right after you immediately or start running as soon as they take notice of you.”

      “I’m just a popular girl,” Miranda said with a winsome smile.  “What do you see around Mist?”

      “Nothing,” he answered.  “I told you, I don’t see things around everyone, at least not all the time.”

      “Ah.  What about Jal and Zyri?”

      “Nothing.  The only one I can see anything about in our group is Phandebrass.”

      “I’m almost afraid to ask,” she giggled, “but what do you see?”

      “Power,” he answered immediately, looking in the general direction of the Wizard.

      “That’s not much of a surprise,” Miranda said, tapping her muzzle thoughtfully.

      Dolanna and Haley came over from the other group.  “Might we sit a spell, Tarrin?” Haley asked politely.

      “You never have to ask, Haley,” Tarrin chided as he waved his paw at them.

      “I’m a Were-wolf, Tarrin,” he said dismissively.  “If I didn’t have manners, I wouldn’t be much of a Were-wolf.”

      “I didn’t realize that thieves had manners,” Miranda winked.

      “Of course they do, that’s how they keep their victim nearby while they pick his pockets,” Haley said with a smile in reply as he and Dolanna sat down.

      “What are they talking about over there?” Mist asked.

      “Not much, I fear,” Dolanna answered.  “Lorak is exploring the possibility that Phandebrass can open a gateway once we reach the Dura.”

      “Does he have that kind of spell?” Tarrin asked.

      “Lorak carries copies of them with him,” Haley answered.  “From what I’ve pieced together, they already gave him the spells, and he’s learned them.  Kimmie’s studying them right now, but she doesn’t think she can cast the spells.  She told me it’s magic on a level she’s never seen before.”

      “How are you feeling, dear one?” Dolanna asked Tarrin.

      “I feel fine,” he answered.

      “I would challenge that statement, given your earlier behavior,” she said with a slight smile.  “What is wrong?”

      “Oh, just more ache than usual,” he said, shrugging absently.  “Added to being surrouded by all these strangers.”

      “I thought as much,” she told him.  “Lorak has started quietly hinting that he would like for someone to teach him Sulasian,” she informed them.

      “No,” Tarrin and Miranda said in unison.

      “My feeling as well, but one wonders why you would be against it, Miranda,” Dolanna said.

      “Lorak has no reason to need to know Sulasian,” Miranda stated.  “Besides, if he does learn it, I’ll just start speaking Sha’Kar.”

      “He might be able to puzzle some of that out,” Tarrin mused aloud.

      “Wikuni then.  You can just translate for me, Tarrin,” she said with a cheeky grin.

      “How many are you up to now, Tarrin?  Twelve?” Haley asked with a chuckle.

      “Thirteen,” he corrected absently.  “Sulasian, Arakite, Sha’Kar, Sharadi, Selani, Ungardt, Wikuni, Amazon, Duthak, dragon, and the three languages from here.”

      “Dragon?  Sapphire taught you dragon?” Haley said in surprise.

      He nodded.  “About half of it.  Dragons are born knowing their language, so when I took the shape of a dragon that first time, the rest of the language got imprinted into me.  I hadn’t really thought of that until now,” he admitted with a thoughtful stare past Haley, into the night.

      Haley laughed.  “You should teach us to speak it, so we have a failsafe fallback language.”

      “I can’t speak it like this,” he said.  “Many words are based on the shape of a dragon’s mouth, and I can’t reproduce those sounds.”

      “Ah.  Clever,” Haley said after thinking a moment.

      “Don’t you already speak Arakite, Haley?”

      “What caterer to the worldy traveler doesn’t?” Haley answered with a smile.

      “Figured.  All that time in Dayisè, you’d better speak Arakite.”

      “And Shacèan,” he chuckled, then he looked to Dolanna.  “But I think my favorite language has to be Sharadi,” he admitted.  “There’s a sense of formality and ancient traditions lurking in it that appeals to a Were-wolf.  We’ve always been ones for tradition.”

      “It is an ancient language, Haley, virtually unchanged for thousands of years,” Dolanna smiled.  “It is only logical that it would seem thus.”

      “What language do the Woodkin speak?” Miranda asked curiously.

      “We don’t have a common language,” Haley answered her.  “Generally those closer to this or that area speak whatever they speak around there.  Generally, most in the west speak Sulasian, or an old dialect of it, from back when Sulasia destroyed Rauthym and annexed the lands abutting the Heartwood.  The people on the eastern side of the forest speak Arakite, because of the Arkisians, and the ones in the south speak whatever local dialect of Shacèan or Torian happens to have dominance.  There’s also a large number of local or dead languages floating around in there.  I know one pack of Were-wolves who speak Ruri, the language of Rauthym.  They’re the only ones I know of who know that language, probably the only people left in Sennadar that do.  If you want to be able to speak to most anyone in the Heartwood, you’d best be able to speak both Sulasian and Arakite on top of whatever language you learned growing up.”

      “Ruri eh?  Talk about secure communication,” Miranda chuckled.

      “That’s why they do it,” he nodded.

      “That wouldn’t be your old pack, would it Haley?” she asked with a grin.

      “No, but I convinced a certain handsome young female to teach it to me,” he said with a laugh.

      “Audry?” Tarrin asked, and Haley nodded.  “That girl’s full of surprises,” he mused.

      “Be careful then,” Dolanna said with a smile.  “You speak a language that Tarrin does not.  That is not something he will allow to stand for long.”

      “I speak two,” he chuckled.  “Shacèan and Ruri.  But he speaks about nine that I don’t, so he has no reason to be jealous.”

      “Well, I’d better get dinner going,” Mist announced.

      “You don’t have to keep cooking,” Miranda told her.  “They have people for that.”

      “They can cook for themselves,” she said bluntly, standing up.  “I won’t eat anything they make, and I won’t let Tarrin or the cubs either.”

      She stalked off without another word, going to where they had their packs set, near the horses and Pegasi, and Haley watched her go.  “Cubs?  Sounds like you have two new children, Tarrin,” he said in a quiet tone, full of amusement.  “That sounded rather final to me.”

      “I won’t mind,” Tarrin shrugged.  “I have a big house, and it’s sitting empty at the moment.”

      “It’s a good thing you don’t.  Sounds like you don’t have much choice,” Haley chuckled.

      After dinner, after an evening as Lorak and Skord compared information and made plans, which Tarrin didn’t bother sitting in on, darkness caused most to seek out their tents.  Lorak seemed to want to object to the fire that had been built for Tarrin, but it just took one glance in Mist’s direction to make him hold his peace.  He’d tangled with Mist once already, and it seemed that Lorak was the kind that learned his lessons.  Tarrin sat within the large fire, which caused wild curiosity by the soldiers before they went to their tents, his sword sitting on his legs as he closed his eyes and concentrated in silent meditation.  The power of his element seemed to be awakened by the presence of his sword, and he could feel much more energy around him than other times he had done this.  He wondered idly why there was more around him this time than the others, more energy surrounding him, but he could find no easy or quick answer.  All he knew was that there seemed to be more around him to work with, more available energy to use to bend to the task of reparing his wings, and he had to take advantage of it while he could.

      He could hear their voices now.  He didn’t tell Miranda that.  He could hear them, like whispers, like ghostly sounds that seemed to be far away, but they were clearer now than they had ever been before.  He could hear them talking to each other, hear them trying to talk to him.  He wondered what they were trying to say…who they were.  There were eleven of them that he could hear, and not all of them were friendly.  One voice railed and screamed and raged, hurled curses that were directed at him, but it was just as distant as the others.

      That was the One.  The other ten were the remaining gods who inhabited this world.

      He touched the blade of his sword, and those voices suddenly became much closer, much clearer.  Touching on the power locked within the sword, the other part of his dual existence, brought him closer to that power that was locked away from him…that he had locked away from himself.

      That was true enough.  That power was his power, and it was him.  The sword was not something separate from himself, with its own will, it was him.  The sword locked that power away because he wanted to be separate from it.  That was a simple, fundamental truth, something he had always evaded or ignored, because he did not want to understand, he did not want to know, he did not want to admit it.  He had long denied the divine part of his being, because it represented something he did not want to face.

      That he no longer belonged in the mortal world.

      But now he faced a threat from the divine side of things, and now he found himself desperately needing that power.  And it was there, still locked within his sword, simply waiting for him to call upon it.  It could not just instantly heal him, for the wounds done to him were dealt by a divine hand, and thus made  them true.  But if he could touch on that power, unlock it, it would help accelerate his ability to repair the damage done to him.  Unlike the One, he did not rely on others for his power.  It was all his own.

      He meditated on this truth for long hours, until the concept of time dissolved into the recesses of his mind.  He looked within, trying to find the path to the power locked in his sword, trying to understand how he had separated himself from it, and learn how to unlock it.

      It was not easy.  Walking through the tunnels of his mind, he found multiple barriers in his path…barriers he himself had erected.  They were the isolation of man from god, mortal from divine, a series of blocks he had put inside himself to deny the truth within, to cling to his mortality despite the grim reality of his condition and futility of such an act.  They were barriers he discovered that he could not penetrate, because despite his need to find that other part of himself, he still refused to accept, deep down in his soul, what he was.

      There was no getting past that.  To unlock his full power, he had to accept his divinity, he had to abandon his mortal life and fully embrace the power of his divine soul.  That was something that he would not do, that was something he would die to avoid having happen, because he desperately feared destroying everyone and everything around him should that come to pass.  He hated who he was, hated it with a passion, because he was afraid of it.  It was his only real fear, and in a way it had replaced his old fear of losing himself to his ferality.  Now he feared losing his mortality, of giving up his life…it would be like dying to him, and the Cat joined with the Human in raging against that possibility.  Self preservation was the most powerful instinct within him, and both sides of his nature agreed that accepting the power of his godhood would end his life as a mortal…which would not be allowed.

      But he did feel that he could make progress.  Maybe he couldn’t accept what he was, but he could acknowledge it.  He could admit it.  That was a step in the right direction, and he found that to be relatively easy.  Yes, he could admit that he was at least part god.  Yes, he could admit that he had that power, and yes, he could admit that right now, he needed it.

      That did matter.  He felt more of a connection with that other side of himself. Acknowledging that the power exists allowed the power to touch him more strongly…odd, that was.  It was almost like a mortal admitting the existence of a god, which allowed the god to make contact with him…just like what happened with Keritanima and the Goddess.  Keritanima had to acknowledge she existed before Niami could even begin trying to communicate with her.  He had never acknowledged his power the way he had like this before, and it was like opening a door inside of him, just a little bit.

      He felt that power blossom inside him like a rose, flowing into him from his sword.  It was a warm, gentle sensation flowing into his wings, and for the first time in many days, the pain was completely washed away…if only for a moment.  He became aware of the fire around him, surrounding him, and he touched on its power, commanding it in a way he had not been able to since his injury.  He made it hotter, intensified it, feeding his power into it even as he drew power from it, forming a symbiotic bond with the fire.  He felt that power surround him, to the point where he wasn’t quite sure if he was still on the ground or not, but he was too lost in his work to worry about such trivial things.  He bent this influx of power to the task at hand, sending it into his wings, attempting to repair the damage done to them during his battle with the One.

      He had no concept of time.  There was only the time when he was working to repair his wings, and then the instant when he felt a paw grab hold of his ankle.  That touch instantly conveyed to him that it was Mist grabbing hold of him, reaching into the fire.  She was concerned, but she was also quite happy about something, and a little excited.  He opened his eyes and found him looking down at her, and realized he was hovering in the air within the fire, a fire which was no a raging bonfire whose flames reached a hundred spans into the air.

      With but a thought, he caused the fire to subside, until it was gone.  He dropped to the ground at a stately pace, then looked at Mist for a moment without recognizing her by sight, absorbed in looking upon what was within, looking directly at her soul.  What he saw inside of her was much different than what was outside.  Her soul was a loyal, loving soul, shining like a blazing star with both its purity and its power, and he realized that the bonds of loyalty shining in her soul were tied directly to him.  The loyalty and trust he had earned with her since that first day he’d met her, healing away the scar deep inside her and restoring her ability to have children had only strengthened over the years, blossomed into a powerful love that made Jesmind or Kimmie’s feelings for him but candles held up to the sun.  Mist’s devotion to him was so utter, so absolute, that her soul almost seemed to begin where his ended, the ghostly tendrils of their bonds visible to his eyes, snaking between them like wispy cords.  Tarrin was a male who had many powerful bonds with many people, for it was in his nature to be so accepting.  His bonds with Mist were powerful, but in their way, so also were his bonds with Allia and Keritanima, or his bonds with the Goddess, or his bonds with Dolanna, his bonds with Triana and his parents and Sapphire, and his bonds with Jesmind and Kimmie, and his children.  But where Tarrin’s soul was receptive to holding others, Mist’s soul only had room for him.  Not even her own child held the same place inside her soul that Tarrin occupied.

      She was smiling at him.  He blinked, then looked over at her, and impulsively reached out and put the pad of his palm to her cheek.  She cupped his paw with her own and gave him a look of sedate, boundless love, the utter contentment of a woman who had everything in the world she would ever want.

      “What?” he asked absently.

      “Are you killing the One today?” she asked.

      “Why ask that?” he retorted.

      She reached past him, over his shoulder, then he felt her grab his wing.  There was some pain, but it wasn’t sharp or raw.  She pulled on it, and Tarrin felt it move.  He looked over his shoulder as she continued to pull, and saw, to his surprise, that his wings were now fully fledged and grown out.  They looked whole, even down to the licks of flame that appeared to be feathers.  But they were a shell, nothing more, because inside of them there were still injuries to heal away.  Tarrin found that he could move them, but he still could not retract them, nor could he cause them to change shape.  He had made significant progress towards repairing them, however.  At first, he had shored up the arches to provide a foundation.  Now, he had accelerated filling them out so he could again move them.  Now simply came repairing the rest of the damage, to fully restore the powers and abilities that those wings represented.  He could sense about himself that by restoring partial functionality of his wings, he now had access to some of his divine power.  Not much, and certainly not anything spectacular, but he had certainly regained the ability to affect fire, and to create and extinguish it.  He could fly again, though that wouldn’t be quite as easy as it usually was.  If he really pushed himself, he might be able to shapeshift, because that power really wasn’t a very hard one to enact.  Traveling through fire was absolutely out of the question, as was any kind of large-scale expression of fire or direct implementation of divine power.  No matter how small of a thing he did, though, he already knew that it would come with a cost in pain, since he was using a half-healed ability.  It would be like trying to run on a sprained ankle…more than possible, but certainly not pleasant, and also with a risk of injuring it worse.

      “Oh,” he said, flaring his wings out to their full wingspan, shivering them a bit, then folding them behind him sedately.  “I managed to get them filled out, but they’re still not whole.  It’s going to be at least another ride before I’m fully healed.  I can’t retract them yet, but at least I can move them.”

      “Well, it’s a start,” she said with a nod.  “Any pain?”

      He nodded.  “Not nearly as much as before, though.  Now it just feels like an old half-healed cut.”  He looked around and saw that it was morning, and the camp was almost completely packed up.  The horses were saddled and ready, and everyone was staring at him, even Dolanna.  He had been in the fire all night, and had not even registered the passage of time.

      “Are you hungry?  I saved you some breakfast,” Mist said, taking his paws in hers and staring over at him.  Then, impulsively, she leaned over and kissed him tenderly.

      “What?” he asked with a slight smile.

      “I’m just relieved to see you healing, my mate,” she told him.  “And happy you’re not hurting so much.  Besides, I’ve told you I think you look so majestic with these,” she told him, reaching behind his shoulder and touching the rising arch of his wing, where it came out of his back.

      “You certainly don’t seem to like them at night,” he teased.

      “They get in the way,” she answered immediately.  “Though they are convenient ways to get a grip on you that you can’t break.”

      He should have known better than to joke about something like that.  He cleared his throat as Dolanna and Ulger approached with Lorak.  “Dear one, that is some dramatic improvement,” she noted.  “How much are you healed?”

      “Just enough to flesh them out,” he answered.  “It’s still going to be at least ten days before I’m completely whole.  Maybe more, I’m not sure.”

      “Have you regained any of your power?”

      He nodded.  “A little,” he answered.  “I can do little things, but that’s about it.  And it will definitely hurt to do it, so I’m not doing anything unless it’s a last resort.”

      “That is encouraging news,” she told him.  “Are you hungry?  Mist saved you some breakfast.”

      “He can eat as we move,” Lorak announced.  “We’ve spent too much time here already.  Have you gotten one of those winged horses into the air yet?  We need a scout to ensure our path is clear, and to search for others so they can join us.”

      “Master Tarrin, Master Tarrin!” Zyri called as she ran up to him. She looked at his wings and smiled brightly. “You’re better!”

      “Some,” he nodded.  “What’s wrong, little bit?”

      “May I do the scouting?  Please?  I can be careful, and I’d love the chance to do something other than be in everyone’s way.”

      “You’re never a burden, girl,” he chided.  “But if you want to do it, you’re more than welcome to.”

      She beamed him a brilliant smile.  “Thank you, master Tarrin!  I’ll go get my Ped—Pegi—uh, the Pegisus.”

      “Pegasus,” he corrected.

      “You would send that child to ensure we’re not ambushed?” Lorak asked sharply.

      “She can do the job,” he said cooly.  “She’ll be safer up there than she’ll be on the ground, and she knows how to handle her Pegasus in the air.  Besides, it will be good for her.”  He then fixed Lorak with an icy stare.  “And you’d best remember right here and now that I don’t ever let someone question me, elf.  That sounded pretty close to you challenging my decision.  I’m sure Dolanna explained to you how I deal with people who challenge me.  Do you understand me?”

      Lorak said nothing, turning to walk away.  He didn’t get far, however, when Tarrin reached out and grabbed the slender elf by the shoulder and whirled him around.  Tarrin’s claws snagged on his robe, tearing two small holes in it.  “I said do you understand me?” he repeated in a voice that dripped with hostility.

      “I understand you,” Lorak answered, though his stiff back and his cold tone showed that he was not intimidated in the least.

      Tarrin did decide to eat on the move, enjoying a breakfast of cold bacon and bread from the back of his Pegasus as he absently flexed his wings, getting used to the feel of them moving again. Despite the pain involved whenever he moved them, it certainly felt better than the two immobile things that had been there the night before.  They moved across the relatively flat area towards low hills on the northern horizon, behind which he was pretty sure was that mountain range that Lorak had said was there, the one he’d said they might have trouble crossing.  He watched through the day as those hills got closer, noticing a forest on the hills to the right of where they were going, that marked the end of the open grassland.  Zyri swooped from one side of the sky to the other, flying in wide circles then coming back to see where they were now.  She indeed handled her Pegasus with surprising competence for such a young lady, enjoying riding on its back as it flew through the air.  Fireflash was riding in her saddle, and when the Pegasus slowed down, he would jump out and soar along with the winged horse.

      Zyri swooped in and landed to the side of the main host in the midafternoon, about an hour before they were going to stop for the night, then galloped up to Tarrin quickly.  “Master Tarrin!” she called.  “There’s soldiers ahead of us!”

      “Where?” Tarrin asked as Lorak, Skord, and Dolanna came up along with him.

      “About a half an hour ahead, if you keep going this fast,” she answered.  “But there’s more.  There’s a big group of weird things over that way,” she said, pointing to the west.  “They’re not on horses.  There’s a group of soldiers on horses behind them, though.  I think they’re chasing them.  If they keep going the way they’re going, they’ll run into those soldiers directly ahead of us just a while after we go by.”

      “How many soldiers stand ahead of us?” Lorak asked.

      “Lots.  Over a hundred,” she answered.  “And there’s lots of those Demon things with them.  A few tried to chase me after I flew close to them, but they couldn’t keep up.  I didn’t want to lead them back to you, so I went a way out that way, and that’s when I saw the others,” she said, pointing again.

      “What exactly did you see over there, child?” Dolanna asked.

      “Well, they’re a bunch of weird looking people wearing odd clothes.  They’re running kinda that way,“ she explained, pointing northeast, “but they’re over there,” she said, pointing due west.  “About ten minutes behind them on horses, there’s about another hundred or so soldiers.  They’re from the One’s army, they’re wearing red, just like the ones ahead of us.  I didn’t see any Demons with them, though.  It looks like they’re chasing the people on foot into the soldiers ahead of us, because the people running are really stretched out, like they’re just running really fast and the kids and slow people can’t keep up with the faster ones.”

      “How many of these people on foot are there?” Lorak asked.

      “Kids?  There are children with them?” Dolanna asked.

      “Lots, and yes, Mistress Dolanna,” she answered.  “It was hard to count that many, but there were lots and lots more than there were soldiers.  But some of them were real small, like they were just kids.  They were mainly at the back of the group.”

      “It sounds like they’re being routed, and pushed into the waiting soldiers,” Skord grunted with a grim face.  “An ambush.”

      “I do not see why any Shadows would be ferrying children,” Lorak said uncertainly, frowning as he thought.  “Or display such a lack of discipline if they were.  If they have the advantage in numbers, they should turn and attack the soldiers, even if they’re mounted.”

      “You assume that they’re Shadows,” Tarrin grunted, leaning over his saddle.  “Zyri, did they look kind of green to you?”

      “Orcs?  They could have been,” she said.  “You think they’re like those others we saw before we met Master Lorak?”

      “That’s what I was thinking,” he nodded.  “It’s not the first time we’ve seen them moving with their children.  Did they have men with them this time?”

      “I think so,” she answered.  “The ones in the front were pretty big.”

      “If they’re leaving their women and children behind, they’re definitely orcs,” Skord said with a little vituperous grunt.

      Tarrin continued to ponder for a moment, then he sat up again.  “I see what they’re doing now,” he said grimly.  “We haven’t run into any soldiers for a couple of days because they’ve figured out where we’re going.  They’re moving them up to those mountains to fill the passes, to stop us there.  It’s easier for them to simply build up numbers in a place where we have to go instead of just chasing us around in the open.  We’re not running away from them now, we’re running right into them.”

      “How are they passing orders like that?  If the One can’t speak to them, he can’t organize them,” Lorak asked.

      “The Demons,” Dolanna answered.  “They have their own ways of communicating, and it seems odd that there are so many of them.  I cannot understand where they are coming from, if the One’s Priests cannot summon them anymore.”

      “Maybe they were already here,” Tarrin said, “but that’s not really the issue.  Lorak, are these passes large enough for us to slip by?”

      He shook his head.  “They are very narrow and somewhat treacherous,” he answered.  “The objective of us moving fast was to get past them before they could build up their forces.  We would have had to get past the citadels, but that would have been possible if they had not overmanned them.”

      Tarrin didn’t like the implied accusation in that comment, that somehow Tarrin was responsible for their delay.  “We don’t have the numbers here to fight our way through.  And we can’t depend on finding any other Shadows. We have to keep moving, because if they’re pulling men into those mountains, we’re in the path of it.”

      “We let the soldiers drive the orcs before us and go around,” Lorak said calmly.  “They will be busy killing the orcs.  We will circle as they engage, and I’m sure that the runners will keep them engaged more than long enough for us to get by them.  Orcs are cowardly brutes.”

      Tarrin sighed, getting down off his Pegasus.  “Nothing is anything but a piece on a chessboard to you, is it, Lorak?” he asked.  “I guess you don’t really care about the women and children, except that their slaughter just buys you time.”

      “That is exactly how I feel,” he said bluntly.  “What is coming is nothing but a winning situation for us.  The orcs buy us time, and the soldiers kill the orcs.”

      “Fine.  When the time comes when we need a diversion, I’m going to abandon you behind us.  That way you can slow them down while we get away.  That sounds like a winning situation to me.  You slow them down, and they kill you.”

      “If it becomes needful to save my people, I would accept such a fate,” he said with quiet dignity.

      “I’ll remember that, Lorak,” Tarrin said bluntly, walking out ahead of the horses.

      “What are you doing, dear one?” Dolanna asked.

      “We don’t have the manpower to get through the mountains.  We need reinforcements, so I’m giung to get us some.”

      “You would dare bring the orcs into our midst?” Lorak said with sudden heat.  “I would not allow those animals within twenty paces of me!”

      “I’m not recruiting orcs,” he replied absently.  “I’m just going to save them.  Stomping on some church soldiers should manage that easily enough.”

      Lorak looked at him in confusion, but understanding dawned in Dolanna’s eyes quickly.  “Dear one!  Are you sure you can do it?”

      “We need it, Dolanna,” he answered.  “That kind of physical force is something that the One’s men out here can’t counter, even with Demons.  I’ll have to try.  I may sprain something in the attempt, but as long as I can get there, that’s all that matters.  If I can do it, we can just march right through them.  They won’t be able to do anything.”

      “Do what?” Skord asked.

      Zyri looked at Tarrin thoughtfully, then she clapped and laughed.  “At least it won’t be so scary this time!” she said.

      “What do you intend to do?” Lorak pressed.

      Mist rode up to them with Jal in her saddle, her eyes baneful, but her expression neutral.  “He’s going to change into a dragon,” she told them before Dolanna could speak.

      “Pardon my ignorance, but what is a dragon?” Lorak asked.

      Zyri held Fireflash up. “A dragon looks just like this, Master Lorak,” she answered, “but much bigger.”

      “Much,” Dolanna agreed with a nod and a smile as Tarrin walked away.

      “I don’t see how one of these dragon creatures can be large enough to make such a difference,” Lorak said uncertainly.

      He wasn’t sure if he could do it, but if he was right, if they had to go through an army that knew they were coming, they needed his dragon form.  There was no way they could fight against him if he was in that form, not even with Demons helping them.  He could save those orcs and have them help protect the casters as they simply rammed through the mountain pass that was the fastest route to the Dura’s fortress.  If they didn’t obey him, he’d just eat them.  That would be a very pointed lesson about disobeying the one who saved them from death.  He had no doubts that the orcs would be troublesome, because they were Waern after all, but they needed the reinforcements that those orcs could provide.  Even in dragon form, Tarrin would be hard pressed to protect the others if they were attacked by large numbers of soldiers who were willing to die just to do some damage.  It might come to that…those soldiers would be smart to be willing to die rather than face the wrath of a Demon they disobeyed.  There were things worse than death.

      Affixing the charm to the back of his amulet, he continued to walk further and further away.  He would need it now, to speak to the orcs and to remain constantly vigilent.  He would be the main protection of the host as they drove through hostile territory, relying on his size and power to defend the group and destroy their adversaries.  He got out far enough, then came to a stop and raised his head and closed his eyes, feeling the sun and wind on his face.  This was going to hurt.  He knew that already…but he wasn’t sure if he could do this.  Shapeshifting was actually a minor power, very easy to do, but with his injuries, he wasn’t sure.  The power was willing, but it was still not fully healed.

      He had to do it, and wasting time wasn’t getting it done.

      He started at his paws.  Fire appeared around his paws as he suddenly held them out and over his head, then snapped his wings out.  Just producing fire hurt, and the twinge in his wings told him that the next step wasn’t going to be very easy.  He concentrated on his wings, and started making them expand.  The pain was immediate and sharp, blooming throughout each wing, even creeping into his back as he commanded them to grow.  Every finger they grew out caused him more and more pain, but he blocked it out and continued, going more slowly to prevent hurting something, out further and further until they were ten times their normal size, fiery sails rising from his back and casting shade across large swaths of land behind him.  Once that was done, he put the image of the dragon in his mind, and willed the change to occur.

      It was like someone stuck a sword in his back.  Tarrin sucked in his breath, his eyes losing focus as his wings shuddered, then exploded into discordant flame.  He focused through that sudden agony, keeping the dragon firmly in his thoughts as he felt the flame eat into his flesh, flame that was incomplete, almost tainted by injury, corrupting him and causing pain wherever it touched.  But if anything his many years and many trials had taught him, it was the ability to function through pain.  He blotted the pain out, concentrated on what had to be done.  He guided the injured power through its task, infusing him until his physical form was consumed by the flame, until he became a being of pure flame, unfettered by physical form.

      The flame of his form expanded, grew, billowed out, though the motion of every lick of flame in that amalgalm caused striking pain to boil through him.  The movements weren’t fluid and graceful as they usually were, they were sharp, erratic, almost jagged in the way the fire expanded, a reflection of the difficulty that he was having trying to do it.  But he pushed on through the pain, and the fire got bigger, and bigger, and bigger.  The limbs pushed out from the mass, as did the long, graceful neck and the whip-like tail, growing, expanding in discordant surges from this place and that, until the fireform was complete.  With a wrench that would have made him suck in his breath were he in a physical form, he enacted the final change.

      With a billow of flame away from the construct, flesh and blood and bone came into being beneath that fiery layer, and the fire was thrust away like a butterfly discarding a cocoon.    The fire billowed out, revealing the massive form of a gold dragon as it evaporated away.  The change was complete, he could feel it, but his entire body throbbed with jags of intense pain, so intense that he had to lower his head nearly to the ground and try to recover from it.  Panting heavily, his breathing blasting waves of stiff wind across the tall grass, the titanic body of the gold dragon had replaced Tarrin’s humanoid form.  He blew out his breath one final time as the last of the pain faded, then he turned with two steps and craned his long neck to face the others, regarding them with massive amber eyes.  He could sense immediately a fundamental shift in the power inside him, relegating it to a much dormant state.  He couldn’t use his divine abilities when shapeshifted, and as a result, that power was buried deeply within him, where he would have great difficulty accessing it.  He realized that as long as he was shifted out of his normal form, the rate at which that power would heal, would become whole once again, would be much slower.  But he saw little choice in the matter.  They were only about twenty, and already there was a force of over one hundred to the west, and even more to the north.  They needed him in this form, where his monstrous size would be a weapon against which the armies of the One could not stand.  With him like this, he could crush a hundred soldiers in a matter of moments, if they even dared attack him at all.  They’d probably run away.

      Lorak and Skord were absolutely awestruck, and their horses shied nervously until Haley quickly rode up and started assuring them in the manner a Druid used to talk to animals that this massive form was no threat to them.  They gaped at Tarrin like he was some kind of god fallen from the heavens, and Skord was physically trembling.  “Well, Lorak, do you think I’m big enough now?” he asked pointedly.

      “Amazing!” Skord finally managed to say, looking at Fireflash, and then back to Tarrin.

      “Are you unhurt, dear one?” Dolanna asked in a conversational tone.

      “It hurt plenty, but I didn’t break anything,” he answered.  “I won’t be changing back for a few days.  I won’t go through that every time I need this form.  I’ll just stay in it til I smash through the fort up in the pass.”

      Mist gave him a flat look, but said nothing.

      “Perhaps now you understand Tarrin’s intention, Lorak,” Dolanna told him with a sly smile.  “With the One’s Priests unable to use magic, what do you propose can stand in the way of something like that?” she asked, waving her hand at Tarrin.

      “V-Very little, madam,” he agreed with a fervent nod.  “But why save the orcs?  What use are they to us?”

      “Sometimes it’s not about what use someone is, Lorak.  I’ll save the orcs because they need to be saved, and besides, I won’t let those soldiers hurt children.  Not even orc children.  Now, Zyri, lead me to them, the rest of you stay here.”

      Spreading his huge wings, he thrust into the air, creating a backdraft of wind behind him so strong it almost pushed Skord out of his saddle.  Zyri’s Pegasus climbed into the air a moment later and moved up quickly behind him, then came up even with Tarrin’s huge head.  He glanced at her as he climbed higher into the air, and she was staring at him with a big smile on her face.  “What?” he asked in irritation.

      “I think you’re amazing, Master Tarrin,” she gushed with complete insincerity, obviously making fun of Lorak.

      “Oh, get ahead of me and lead the way,” he told her waspishly.  “And stay out of the way when I get there, young lady!”