Tarrin Kael

Pyrosian Chronicles

Book 3

Demons Bane

 

 

 

 

ToC            1

 

 


To:   Title    ToC            2

Chapter 1

 

It was a place of unending continuity.

The clouds in the sky high above did not move. The sun, near its zenith and glowing with golden yellow light, remained fixed in place, as if some unimaginable force had locked it in place. The air had been the same temperature since he had arrived. It was as if the world had been trapped into a singular moment, where time stood still, but still marched onward. The land was the same as it had been, the same as it always would be.

But not everything was locked into this eternal moment. The wind did blow from time to time, a gentle breeze that smelled of flowers and wheat as it feathered across the fields with delicate softness, never more than a slight disturbance of the air. The plants in the ground did grow, but instead of growing at what would be a normal pace, they instead reached their full size within days of being planted, as if for them, time was accelerated. There were no animals in this place of strange extremes, of discordant time, but there were inhabitants. They were from other places, other dimensions, all of them, and they had changed the original look of this place. Where there had been grassy fields, there were now neat villages, modest farms, towns, cities, and great metropolis, depending on where one was within this place. But despite the sky, the wind, the plants, and the people, what most stood out to one visiting this place was the silence. There was a vast silence to this land, to this place, as if sound could not travel more than a stone’s throw. Sounds near to the ears were loud and distinct, but when there were no sounds nearby, there was nothing but silence. There were no birds, no animals making sounds beyond the buildings. There was no sound of wind blowing across the fields, even when the wind was blowing, for it never blew hard enough to make more than a whisper of sound to the ear.

Silence. To some, it was a comfort. To others, it was a curse. It was a lack of sound, a lack of distraction that caused the mind to focus more on what was within than the stimulus of senses without, giving this place a somber feel, a sense of soberness and of reflection that seemed to permeate the land, the air, the very fabric of this reality, even paint its color of silence into those who were visiting. Those visiting this place never yelled, never raised their voices, as if they feared to break that silence. A low tone carried a goodly ways, and when in close proximity, a soft voice, barely more than a whisper, was clearly audible.

This place was called Crossroads, or the Nexus, the center of all things, but its true name was the plane of Concordant Opposition, and though it was a place where some people lived, it was home to no one. It was an Outer Plane, a dimension of reality above that of the Material Plane, the plane of mortals and mortality, one of the myriad dimensions where the Upper Beings made their homes. They all originated from other planes of existence—The Seven Heavens, the Twin Paradises, Arcadia, Nirvana, Limbo, Gladsheim, Tarterus, Hades, even the Abyss and the Nine Hells, but for reasons which were their own, they had come here, to Crossroads. Crossroads was a place of neutrality in all things, where a Demon and a Deva could pass one another in the street and not immediately erupt into combat, for the One Law was imposed upon this plane, and that rule was that in this place, violence was prohibited. That rule was enforced by the Deva themselves, who would appear to stop any sort of brawling, combat, or other violence. The Deva were mysterious beings, quiet, unswerving, and immensely powerful, the direct servants of the God of Gods, the Creator of All. Given that the Deva often ended any violence by doing violence upon the rule breakers, such transgressions were rare. Even the gods visiting Crossroads had the wisdom and sense to give the Deva a wide berth, for in this place, in this plane, their power was paramount.

It seemed odd that Demons would be permitted in this place, for their ultimate goal was to overthrow the God of Gods and conquer the totality of all, but they were here. Very few of them were here, because nobody would have anything to do with them and they were watched so closely that they could not engage in any kind of subterfuge or connivery, but there were some few here.

Demons weren’t the only unusual visitors to this place. Gods visited as well, projecting their consciousness into this dimension to conduct business, or meet other gods in a neutral site, or whatever it was gods did. Those gods who were daring or arrogant in their power visited this place in person rather than sending a projection or Avatar, risking their true selves…for though the One Law prohibited violence, that didn’t mean that it didn’t happen. The Deva took time to reach a fight to break it up, and people could be killed before they could arrive to intervene. A god who visited in person and found himself beset by enemies may find himself fighting for his very life, desperately stalling for time until the Deva could arrive and end the hostilities. Lesser Demons were also seen here and there on the streets of the larger cities, messengers and lackeys doing the bidding of their more powerful masters. Other denizens of the Outer Planes, from the Slaadi of Limbo to the Eirhelar, the warrior spirits who followed the gods of the light of goodness, could be seen in those cities, but as one got further and further from the center of this plane, the lesser and lesser they were seen. Once one passed the Ring, the distance of one thousand longspans from the Core, the center of the plane, the only denizens of this place that could be found were the archons, who farmed this plane for food that was easy to grow and easy to transport to other planes. The archons were the most numerous of the creatures who were from the Outer Planes, humanoid beings that looked just human enough to be mistaken from them, but who were not. Many had features which were decidedly non-human, from exotic hair colors, or glowing eyes, even to unusual skin color. The archons were the “humans” of the Outer Planes, industrious, sincere, and could be found nearly everywhere in the upper planes. Where the archons were the common citizens of the upper planes, the Demons were the common citizens of the lower planes…but the Demons were not the only creatures of those planes. The Demons originated from the Abyss, and the other lower planes had their own nefarious races. From the Hordlings and Daemons of Hades to the Devils of the Nine Hells, from the Gehreleths of Tarterus to the Wailing Ones of Pandemonium, they were all dark products of planes which represented the dark and evil nature of the universe. But the Demons were the most numerous, and the most dangerous.

But the most unique visitor to this plane could not be found in the teeming throngs of the great cities where all manner of things were bought and sold and where intrigue and deception ruled. He could be found on a small farm far from the center of population, far from the Ring, far from everything. His name was Tarrin Kael, and he was the most unusual and unique being in Crossroads. As beings visiting Crossroads went, he didn’t look too unusual. In this place where some could form bodies that could look like anything one could imagine, Tarrin Kael didn’t stand out. His appearance made it clear he was no archon, for his body was a creation of a mind, and it was not normal. His chosen form was tall, greatly tall, sleek, and athletic. Highly toned muscle rippled beneath tanned skin as the body moved, as the form hunkered down and sat on its ankles on the top of a barn, reaching down and picking up a plain looking staff. The form’s arms were covered with black fur up to the elbow, and the legs were covered in fur up to the knee. The hands were huge, oversized for the body, with thick fingers, and the feet were more of a cross between a cat’s paw and a human’s foot than a foot, very wide across the ball and with thick, developed toes tipped with claws that wouldn’t completely retract into the toes. The form had a very long, elegant tail that swished behind it as it stood back up, a tail longer than its leg, and a pair of black-furred cat’s ears poking up through a thick mass of blond hair that was done in a heavy braid that dangled down to the figure’s thigh.

This was the chosen form of Tarrin Kael, a Were-cat who was once a god, and a man who was currently dead. The form was a body of his own creation, formed by his own mind and will when his soul traversed from the mortal plane into the Astral, a physical shell containing a soul which was the divine soul of a god. The ability to form a new body that was something other than what body he possessed in life was one of the aspects of the power of a god’s soul, something a mortal soul could not accomplish. It was about the last power that the soul of Tarrin Kael had left, for he had sacrificed all of his godly power, had given up that might in order to trick a Demon Lord. The new body of Tarrin Kael was a physical projection of everything Tarrin Kael wished it to be; agile, quick, powerful, possessing of all of the Were-cat powers he had enjoyed when he lived, but suffering from the same weaknesses. It was beyond his power to create for himself an invulnerable physical shell, and so he had been forced to fall back on the form he had once possessed, a form with protections, but paid for those protections with weaknesses. His rugged physical form could not be harmed by that which was not magic, but was vulnerable to silver, the natural forces, and to unworked weapons of raw nature.

It was an old friend, this body. He had had the chance to create a new form in any shape he pleased, even that of a human, but he preferred this, his chosen existence, with all the weaknesses and shortcomings included with it. In the trials to come, he would need the feeling of continuity, the feeling of intimacy he had with this form, with its power, with its abilities…and with its power.

This form was an exact duplicate of the mortal form which he had once possessed…up to a point. This created body had some slight modifications over his old mortal form to better allow him to carry out his task. Tarrin Kael was here to kill a god, and he would be at a major disadvantage while doing so, so he had taken steps. Most of the time, Tarrin Kael’s plans weren’t what one would call thought-out; he would develop a good idea and then charge off with it without thinking it completely through, and it often left him in hot water halfway though one of his plans and forced to improvise to carry it out. Planning often wasn’t one of his strong points, nor was it really the strong point of any Were-cat. The breed as a whole was based in its senses and had little concept of the idea of the future, living in the moment. That made them impulsive and rash. But sometimes, when things were serious, Tarrin Kael had the ability—a very un-Were-cat ability—to consider many courses of action and make an intricate, detailed, and thorough plan of action. Tarrin’s presence here in Crossroads was a direct result of one of those intricate plans. Having sacrificed his mortal life in Pyrosia to deny the Demons invading that dimension their magic, now he had come here, to Crossroads, to begin the second phase of his plan.

Tarrin Kael was here to kill a god.

But that wasn’t the ultimate objective. His ultimate objective was to banish the Demon Lord in Pyrosia back to the Abyss, but the creature was of such power that it was impossible to kill him in a direct confrontation. Only an Elder God had the kind of power it would take to kill a Demon Lord when he was surrounded by an army of Demons, and there was no Elder God in Pyrosia. If the Demon Lord was alone, perhaps, with its magic sealed away, Tarrin might be able to kill it in a one on one battle. But that wasn’t the case. Given its raw power and the might of its army, Tarrin had elected to battle the Demon Lord indirectly, by going after what kept it anchored in the material plane.

There were three ways to send a Demon back to the Abyss. One could destroy the Demon’s physical shell. One could banish the Demon using magic. Or one could kill the person who had summoned the Demon to the material plane in the first place.

Despite the Demon Lord’s mighty stature and incredible power, it too fell into these restrictions. It was summoned to Pyrosia by the One, and that meant that its continued existence in Pyrosia depended on the life of the one who summoned it. By going after the One and killing him, Tarrin could send the Demon Lord back to the Abyss without ever having to confront him directly.

But the One would be no pushover. Despite losing his icon in Pyrosia and suffering a major backlash from it, the One was still a god, and Tarrin would be forced to face him in his home plane. That was a daunting proposition. In his home plane, the One would be able to use his true power, would be able to use the plane itself to defend himself from his brash adversary. The One would be a staggeringly difficult opponent to kill, the strongest opponent Tarrin Kael had ever faced.

But he was still a more attractive target than the Demon Lord. On the material plane, the Demon Lord was nigh invulnerable. All things measured, going after the One had a much better chance of success than trying to destroy the Demon Lord in Pyrosia.

Tarrin stood up and looked over the large tract of farmland, watching the archons methodically place seed in neatly plowed rows of earth. There was no doubt in his mind that he’d have a better chance against the One than against the Demon Lord. Had Tarrin decided to face the Demon Lord, he wouldn’t have been able to seal his magic and rewrite the rules of magic in Pyrosia, and that would have been a power beyond his ability to defeat. At least this way, the Demon Lord’s power was crippled, forcing him to rely on his army and his enslaved Wizards and other magic-users to protect him from the vengeful wrath of Dolanna, who was in a position to do him harm now. Dolanna probably wouldn’t be able to kill the Demon Lord, but Tarrin was sure that she could put some serious hurt on him, lay waste to his army, knock down a few mountains…it was all possible. Dolanna was the living will of the Weave now, and it would obey her will.

Or at least it would when she learned how to control it.

That would be the key of things back on Pyrosia. The Demon Lord will seek to reorganize his army as quickly as possible, kill Tarrin’s shadow, and then march on Pyros and attempt to destroy the Weave and kill Dolanna before she gained enough command over the Weave to use it against his army. Dolanna would be working as hard as possible on learning to control that almost limitless power, try to gain enough mastery of it to wield it as a weapon when the Demon Lord marched on Pyros on his mission to destroy her. It was a race that Tarrin sensed would ultimately lead to a battle on the slopes of the volcano of Pyros.

That was what Tarrin needed to prevent, but it wouldn’t be easy. He would have to find a single being in the almost unfathomable expanse of the multiverse, travel to whatever plane the One called home, find him within that plane, then figure out some way to literally invade his home and kill him in the seat of his power. It would be extremely difficult just to find the One. And when he did, then he’d have to battle a god in his home plane and try to kill him…and do it with no power of his own.

That was what made Tarrin unique. He was a god with no power, a god in name only. All of his power was put into his sword, and now the sword was broken. He had no divine abilities outside of the rather unique capabilities he had put into his body when he created it. But that didn’t mean that Tarrin Kael didn’t have power at his disposal. On the contrary, he had at his clawed fingertips access to incredible power…it just wasn’t his.

Tarrin Kael was a legend in his home of Sennadar. He was one of the most feared fighters in the land, with awesome physical abilities tailor-made for combat and extensive training given to him by some of the most skilled fighters alive. From the heavy brawling tactics of the Ungardt to the lightning-fast speed of the Selani, Tarrin had been trained by the best, and was among the very best.

But it wasn’t his skill as a warrior that had made him so legendary back home. Tarrin Kael was probably the singularly most powerful wielder of magic on Sennadar. He was a Sorcerer, wielder of the magic of the Weave, the power of the Elder Goddess Niami. He was a Druid, able to tap into the natural forces of the land to power spells. He was a Wizard, studying that ancient arcane method of drawing power from an unknown place and shaping it into magical effects. And he was a Priest, able to call directly on the power of his Goddess to power spells cast more by his faith than by his words.

And that was the power he would wield in this world. There was no Weave here in this outer plane, so he could not use Sorcery. The All of this dimension would fry him to ashes if he even thought about touching it, so he could not use his Druidic abilities. But he could use Wizard and Priest magic. That was one of the reasons why he had spent so much time studying them before leaving. He’d needed that vast knowledge of magic to help him shape the Weave, to understand how those forces worked to help guide how they would act in a world holding the Weave, but that studying helped him now just as much as it had then, because now he had come to Crossroads armed with all that knowledge. Tarrin was a monster in a physical battle, but he was a nightmare when fighting spell to spell. That was the power he had brought into this land, and that power would serve him well…because here, outside of Sennadar and beyond the mortal realm, Tarrin would suffer no restriction over the access of his Priest magic. He had been forbidden to use it on Sennadar, he had been unable to use it on Pyrosia. Here, in this place, he was one of the favored sons of the Goddess, one of her highest ranking Priests…and the power that came with that position was finally at his fingertips.

He would not fight the One with his own power. He would fight the One with the power of his Goddess. He was a god, but he was a god who was devoted to another god, and against that power, the One could not stand.

There were rules, of course, rules that he had to follow even here. The first rule of Priest magic was that he would be virtually incapable of using anything more than minor devotions without the holy symbol of his Goddess. That was something he couldn’t create with his own power, like had created his staff and his clothes. The holy symbol of a god carried its own power, and it was beyond any god to create a true holy symbol of another god. That was why his shoulders were smooth, why the brands of Fara’Nae were not upon him. He could not duplicate them, even in image, because they were holy to her.

But he wasn’t quite ready to address that step yet. He could create another shaeram, the spell was a simple one, but the instant he did, Niami would know exactly where he was. And he had no doubt she’d be standing in front of him about two heartbeats after he cast the spell. He didn’t want to do that yet, because no doubt she’d give him the rough side of her tongue for about six or seven years. That, and she’d probably demand to know what he was up to, and he wasn’t quite ready to tell her yet. He wanted a concrete plan of action in place before he started talking to her, so she’d know what was going on. If he contacted her without knowing what he was going to do, she might try to derail him…or worse. He honestly had no idea how she was going to react when she found out where he was, and what he was doing. This was an entirely new game with a completely different set of rules.

Tarrin watched the archons toiling in the fields, planting seeds that would be fully grown plants and ready for harvest in just a matter of days. Medjren wasn’t among them, for he was in the inn a few buildings back getting ready to cater to the needs of those out in the fields. Medjren had been a very handy fellow, and Tarrin was glad he’d been honest with him. Though he had no powers, had no stature, Medjren was wise, and he understood this alien place. He’d been very useful to Tarrin simply by explaining how things worked here to him. Thanks to the innkeeper, Tarrin knew some of the basics of Crossroads, and had started formulating the framework of a plan regarding the first step; finding the One. Tarrin could never hope to find the One himself, but he could find someone who could do such a thing. That meant that Tarrin had to track down a sage, or track down someone who had personal knowledge of the One. Either way, Tarrin’s needs dictated that he had to leave this sleepy little hamlet and travel towards the center of Crossroads, travel to the grand megalopolis on what most considered the north side of the Core, a vast, grand city which extended nearly a thousand longspans in one form or another from the Core to the Ring. It was a city larger than some kingdoms, a city with no ruler, a city with no law beyond that which was enforced by the Deva, a city where the closer one went to the Core, the less that magic would function. No magic functioned at all next to the boundary that marked the closest any being could get to what Medjren described as a pillar of light that marked the center of the plane, and it was in that area where many who had made enemies of powerful magic-users dwelled. Most activity took place in a large ring nearly a thousand longspans from that border, where most magic functioned and where people had ready access to the gate stones of the Ring. Most gods preferred an area closer to the Core where mortal magic did not function to interact with one another, but a god’s divine powers did…which gave them a huge advantage. The area right by the boundary was known as the Councillar, a section of the City set aside for negotiations between mortals and between gods, a place where the absolute lack of magic ensured that all negotiations would be above-board. The only powers that functioned in that area were the powers of only one type of Deva, the strongest of all Deva, creatures called Solars.

The Deva were said to be the direct servants of the God of Gods, but nobody really knew, not even the gods themselves. The Deva were an enigmatic, mysterious breed, silent to a being, carrying out instructions that only they knew, instructions that sometimes seemed to make no sense. They served some gods as messengers, servants, and sometimes as foot soldiers, but their loyalty was their own, and they had been known to walk out on a master in the middle of a battle. All of them, in unison. Medjren told him that most sages speculate that the Deva served the gods of good to help keep the balance of power between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The creatures of the lower planes were almost limitless in number and highly motivated to spread their darkness through the cosmos, where the creatures of the upper planes were both less numerous and less aggressive in spreading their ethos through the multiverse. They were a rare sight, even in the City, and then it was usually because a violent act had attracted them and caused them to arrive to mete out punishment for those violating the One Law.

That was where Tarrin needed to go. Somewhere in that teeming megalopolis, where Demons rubbed shoulders with Deva under the enforced rule of peace, Tarrin would find someone who either had the information he sought, or had a way to acquire it.

The city itself had no name. It was simply the city. All other cities and towns and villages in this place had a name, and they were always referred to by their names.

It would be a long journey. The City was on the far side of the Core, which meant that Tarrin would have to travel a circuitous route in order to reach it. It would be a journey of over two thousand leagues, a journey that would take months on foot…if Tarrin intended to travel on foot. Tarrin surmised that it would take him about twenty days to reach the City, and once there, there was no telling how long it would take for him to locate someone that could help him find the One. And there was little doubt in Tarrin’s mind that the One could possibly discover that Tarrin was here, in Crossroads, searching him out, intending to continue the fight that had ended with Tarrin’s victory in Pyrosia. The One was in league with Demons, and Demons were countless in number and could be anywhere…and they would indeed be in the City. There was no law against the creatures of the lower planes coming to this place, so long as they did not violate the One Law. He would have to move carefully when he got there, try to find out what he needed to know without it becoming common enough knowledge that it got back to the One and warned him of Tarrin’s intentions.

With an effortless vault, Tarrin soared through the air and landed on the bare dirt near the barn, then drew himself up to his full height and looked out over the field one last time before turning to go back to the inn. He’d been here for a few days, speaking with Medjren to learn the basics of this place, getting to know the archons of this village, and preparing himself for the task to come. He walked with a elegant, deceptive slowness, looking as if his steps were in slow motion, but he actually traversed huge swaths of land with every stride of his long legs. He was more than head and shoulders taller than all the archons of the village; the tallest only came up to his chest. He was at the door of the Whispering Brook Inn, so named for the tiny stream that gurgled merrily on the far side of the building. He ducked as he slid in through the small door, then rose back up and padded across the large common room. Gyama, his glowing-eyed daughter, gave him a slight smile as he stalked past her, as she set tables in preparation for the coming customers. Imjis, his dark-haired daughter, scurried past him quickly, carrying a large tray of mugs that Cryqua and Thorzi had washed in the back. Sizji and Prikim were cooking in the back, from the smell of it. Medjren had six daughters that helped him run the inn, and though they were all simple people, Tarrin had found them to be wise and intelligent. Medjren had taught his daughters well. He sat down at the bar quietly and set his staff against the edge as Medjren came out from the back, through a door that opened behind the bar. “Ah, hello, Tarrin. Did you finish fixing that barn for Korizkith?”

Tarrin nodded, reaching down to his belt and then bringing up a small pouch filled with krin. “I think he paid me double what he’d have paid someone else,” he said.

“How much?”

“A hundred krin.”

Medjren chuckled. “No doubt it was the novelty of having a god fix his barn roof,” he said.

“Just out of curiosity, since it doesn’t rain here, why have a roof?” he asked.

“It does rain here, Tarrin,” Medjren said absently. “In fact, everything you see around you will change in time.”

“Huh? You told me that it’s like the world trapped in the moment.”

“It is. But it also changes,” he answered. “Eventually, the nature of the plane will shift, and everything will change. For the last few years, it’s been the way you see it now. But before that, everything was a murky swamp, and this was an island surrounded by fens. And before that, it was a desert, and this was an oasis. The buildings change their appearance as well, but not their layout. The only things that remain constant are our location and the life-sustaining nature of this location. No matter how the plane appears, there will always be Whispering Brook, and there will always be farms.”

“Huh,” Tarrin mused, pondering how an entire dimension could so radically alter its appearance. “How often does the plane shift?”

“It’s random,” he answered. “Once, the plane shifted twice in a two hour period, and the plane was a desert for over six hundred years. But on the average, the plane stays one way around ten years or so. But that’s no guarantee it’ll stay the way it is,” he chuckled.

“Still, that just boggles my mind,” Tarrin said in wonder. “An entire plane that changes. I wonder why it does it.”

“No one knows,” Medjren shrugged. “If there’s an intelligence at work, it’s quite beyond us bloods. The gods pretend that they know, but I don’t think they really do either. Odds are, you’ll finish your business here and be on your way before the plane shifts its nature again.” He glanced at the pouch, which was now quite full of chiming discs of solid energy which was what passed as currency. “I take it you have enough now to get started on your task?”

“I think so,” he answered. “If it’s not enough, I’ll just steal what I need.”

Medjren laughed. “You make it sound that easy.”

“It will be,” he said absently.

“You need to be careful, my friend. If you violate the One Law, you’ll earn much more trouble than you expect. The Deva are not to be taken lightly. Their usual method of breaking up fights is to kill all the combatants, and they don’t care who started it. And they won’t give you any special consideration because you’re a god, Tarrin. They’ll attack you just as quickly as they would any blood, fiend, spirit, or mortal.”

“I’m not afraid of the Deva, Medjren,” he said bluntly. “If anything, the threat of their intervention will keep whoever I’m aggravating from taking it to that level.”

Medjren gave him a surprised look, then laughed delightedly. “By the Beyond, Tarrin, you really are crazy!” he exclaimed.

“Sometimes crazy works,” Tarrin said with a shrug. “And I’m not going to do what I need to do by hiding in corners. I’m going after a god, Medjren, on his home plane. Doesn’t that kind of earmark me as crazy right off the bat?”

Medjren laughed a long moment. “At least one of us said it,” he told Tarrin honestly.

“Truth is truth. I know I’m a little crazy, but it works for me.”

“I truly hope it does. When did you plan to leave?”

“After I eat,” he answered. “It’s going to take me quite a while to get there.”

“I’m sure if you waited a few days, I could send word out that you need a lift,” he offered. “A Wizard in the City will transport out here to come get you for the right fee.”

“No, I’d rather get there on my own,” he said. “This may sound weird, but I need to burn a little time. I want the One to start getting busy on his attempts to recover from what I did to him. If I go right after him, he’s going to pay more attention to me than himself. I want him to get distracted, so I’m going to let a little time go by before I start looking for him.”

“Won’t giving him time to recover work against you?”

He shook his head. “He won’t start losing power until his worshippers either start dying or stop believing in him. If anything, letting time go by favors me, but I can’t let too much time go by because of the Demon Lord running amok on Pyrosia. Right now, restoring his icon will be at the top of his list. That can take years, so he needs to get to work on it quickly. I want to give him enough time to start.”

“Then come after him while he’s distracted. Clever.”

“Thank you,” Tarrin nodded.

“Well, if this is to be your last meal with us, then I should make it a good one. And a free one,” he smiled.

“I won’t say no,” he said. “Ksazdreg finished that satchel I wanted yesterday, so I’m ready now.”

“He does good work,” Medjren nodded.

“Yes, it’s a really good satchel,” he agreed. “At first I thought it was leather, but now I’m not so sure.”

“It’s gorta hide,” he answered. “It’s supple, thin, and ridiculously tough. He has to use special enchanted needles to sew it together, because the hides are so strong that he’d break a normal needle trying to push it through the hide. If gorta hide wasn’t so common, it would probably be expensive. But there are gorta by the horde in the Beastlands, so it’s probably the most common hide you can find in the market. They’re so thick there that if you threw a rock, odds are you’d hit one.”

Medjren treated him to a meal of a thick stew and some of his daughter’s special fresh-baked bread that was sweet tasting from the spices she added to the dough. Tarrin ate it in relative peace and quiet, for the farmers had not yet finished their day’s chores and reached the inn, and it gave Tarrin a little time to rest and relax before the journey ahead of him. But he didn’t linger or dawdle, eating his meal with quiet efficiency, then pushing the bowl and plate away and standing up. “Well, it’s time for me to go, Medjren. I’d like to thank you for all your help.”

“Any time, my friend,” he said warmly. “If you need me, any Windtalker can send a message here. The Windtalkers are very discreet, so don’t worry about the message’s contents becoming common knowledge.” Windtalkers were archon Wizards who used a special spell they had created to put messages into the wind. That was where the wind came from here…it wasn’t natural, it was the result of a Wind Whisper spell, carrying a message here or there, wherever it was meant to go. Many archon Wizards used that jealously guarded spell as their means of making a living, acting as a relayer of messages within Crossroads. Those were the Windtalkers, who had taken an oath of secrecy and integrity. Always deliver a message you were paid to deliver, and never reveal the contents of that message. Many used magic on themselves afterwards to make themselves forget the message.

“I’ll remember. Thanks, Medjren,” he said, reaching over the bar and shaking the archon’s hand.

“Be well, my friend, and good luck.”

“Be well, Medjren.”

Tarrin picked up his staff and left the inn, and went to the tailor Ksazdreg to pick up his satchel. It wasn’t very large and looked like a normal pack, complete with shoulder straps. But the pack had four sets of buckles on its sides and two on the top, and long straps were tucked into the pack itself, which Tarrin withdrew. It also had a double-layered back with four slots cut into it at symmetrical points, cut at angles. He nodded to the old archon and thanked him again, then picked up the things he’d bought while in the village that he would need; food, water, a small one person tent, a bedroll, some dry rations, and two waterskins. He packed them carefully into the pack, affixed the straps to the buckles, then went outside and trudged well out from the village, along the road leading towards the Ring.

Once he was a safe distance away, he stopped and set his staff on the ground, gripped the pack with both paws, closed his eyes, and concentrated.

Without sound, Tarrin’s wings, wing he had sacrificed just before he died, flowed from his back, slicing his vest neatly as they bloomed out to their full size, their full form.

Tarrin had sacrificed his wings to unify his power into the sword, but here, where he had had the chance to create a body of his own choosing, it was a simple matter to give them back to himself. His wings had always been a representation of his power as a god, and though he’d given up most of it, his divine soul still had a little of that power. His wings defined his power, and in this alien place and inhabiting a body of his own creation, he was able to use what little power he had remaining to design them into his new form. They were perfect replicas of the wings he had once had…up to a point. They were made of living fire, fluid and weightless, able to change form at a thought, but they had none of the other powers his old wings possessed. These wings were different, though. They weren’t the representation of his power, they were the creations of his power. They were the first of the three powers he had been able to grant himself, and they, like his original wings, granted him the power of flight.

Tarrin rifled through his pack and pulled out a tiny piece of amethyst, then chanted in the language of magic for a moment. The amethyst disappeared, and in his waiting paw wavered into being a visor just like the one he’d had, a Selani creation meant to protect the eyes from blowing sand and bright light, a violet-shaded construction of crystal worn over the eyes. When flying long distances, he’d learned from experience, these visors were extremely useful. The Aeradalla used them as well, because long flights through dry air was very hard on the eyes with the wind constantly blowing into them. This visor was an exact duplicate of his old one, the one that Allia had made for him. That was the nature of the spell, it created a duplicate of an object owned by the caster. Tarrin then reached into his belt pouch and produced a small, glittering diamond. This diamond had cost him more than three quarters of the krin he had earned in the days working in the village, but it had been worth it.

Chanting again in the discordant language of magic, Tarrin set the diamond on the ground and made a long series of intricate, exacting gestures, his words clear and strong and confident as he chanted the words to one of the strongest spells he knew, one he had memorized before he died, a spell that he had retained in his memory despite that death.

At the completion of the spell, Tarrin clapped his paws together sharply. The diamond glowed with a bright light, and then vanished. In its place rested a tiny leather-bound book, small and unassuming…but that book would be absolutely vital to him now.

It was his spellbook, and within its pages were the combined spell libraries of three Wizards…and one of them was one of the most brilliant of his day. And here, in this place, the spells scribed onto those pages would be his greatest weapons and most stalwart defenses. Unable to use Sorcery, and unwilling at the moment to use Priest magic because of the fear of the possibility that Niami might interfere, his training and abilities in Arcane magic, the magic of Wizardry, would be his most potent power.

Tarrin reached down and picked up his Gnomlin Traveling Spellbook, one of his most prized possessions. He opened it and leafed through it quickly, and found everything to be exactly as he left it. There were three sections to the book; those spells penned in his own writing and the writing of the Gnomes, who had placed into his book several spells when they gave it to him, those penned in Kimmie’s hand, and those penned by Kimmie and Phandebrass in the back of the book, which were the spells they had scribed into his book both to give him access to them for study and to provide another copy should some kind of disaster befall their own books. That forward thinking had actually saved them, for Kimmie and Phandebrass had been forced to use his book after losing their own books. The book had exactly one thousand pages within it, and because that tiny book was the repository of every spell that all three of them had collected over the years, it was almost full. There were only about ninety empty pages left in it, at the very back of the book. After a quick inspection, Tarrin nodded and placed the tiny book in the same belt pouch from which he’d taken the diamond, a belt pouch he’d already protected using several Wizard spells, to prevent theft or meddling.

Perfect.

Tarrin put the visor over his eyes, adjusting it slightly with a paw, then knelt down and started getting ready. He pushed his staff through the slotted flap in the back of the custom tailor-made pack, a carrying sling made just for it. He then buckled on the two long straps, a special sling so he could carry the pack under his wings, low on his back. He pulled out one waterskin and tied it to his belt, then pulled a small bag from the pack and filled it with bread and cheese, some of the fare from Medjren’s own kitchen. It seemed that even here, in this fantastic place so far from home, some things seemed uniform through the multiverse. Tarrin suspected that there was bread and cheese in some form or another in every dimension of existence.

Despite being dead, Tarrin had formed a material body out here in the outer planes, and that body would need to eat and drink.

He tied the two straps of the pack together near the top and again near the buckles, then pulled the backpack around behind him and settled it over his shoulders. The tied section of straps let the paired cord run between his wings and down to the buckles. Even though Tarrin didn’t need to flap his wings to fly, he still didn’t want the straps fouling his range of motion. He flapped his wings a few times to make sure they didn’t impede his wings, then knelt and shortened the straps to get the pack off the base of his tail. He couldn’t get it completely off his tail, but he managed to find a happy medium with the top of the pack brushing the base of his wings and the base of the pack pushing slightly on the top of his tail.

He stood up and twisted this way and that, and was satisfied. The staff didn’t catch his wings, the pack wasn’t in the way, and he could easily reach food and water without having to land to dig them out of his pack.

He was ready.

He spread his fiery wings and launched himself into the air, gaining altitude with elegant speed and grace. It took him only a moment to get about a thousand spans off the ground, and once he got to that altitude, he turned and started out towards what he considered the north, starting his journey to the City, beginning the first leg of a dangerous journey whose paths were uncertain and whose completion was in doubt. Once he got there, he honestly had no idea what he would do next. He was winging it on this adventure, forced to play things as they came because he yet again got ahead of himself by finding a good plan, then rushing into it before completely thinking it through. Now he had to pay for his impatience, because he’d be at a dead end once he got the sprawling megalopolis which was the City. Sure, he had an idea of what to do, he had the framework of a plan, but it wasn’t concrete, it wasn’t something he felt completely comfortable about. He’d have to find some sage or some being that had information he needed…and he had no idea who. He’d have to ask around, search carefully, try to find someone that could help him without it becoming common enough knowledge what he was doing that word got back to the One and caused him to react. In Pyrosia he was powerless, but in this place, on this plane, he still could use his power. He needed no icon to exercise his powers here…there was only the threat of the One Law, the threat of retaliation by the Deva should he attack Tarrin in Crossroads.

And if he sent a projection of his consciousness, that really wasn’t much of a threat. That told Tarrin why feuding gods preferred to meet near the boundary of the Core to negotiate, a place where their powers wouldn’t function. If a god got into a fight and a Deva destroyed his mental projection, it meant very little. Maybe give them a headache Tarrin supposed, he had no idea what kind of backlash a god would suffer from having a mental projection “killed” in a battle.

In any event, there was no turning back now. He’d sacrificed his mortal life to get here, and he couldn’t go back. He was committed to this course of action…but he still believed that it was the best one. He was facing a daunting, almost impossible task, but trying to fight the Demon Lord on Pyrosia was completely impossible. This plan of action had the best chance of success.

It would just be dangerous.

 

It hadn’t quite been what Keritanima had expected to see.

Her first view of this world of Pyrosia was a dark, murky apple grove, seen from a low-pulled hood in the dead of night and through a pounding, heavy rain. The air was hot, thick, and heavy, and the area smelled of apples and Were-cats. It was obviously an overgrown orchard, with heavily grown trees, but the systematic layout of the place told her that this place had once been planted, that the trees placed deliberately in neat rows before they had been abandoned to grow on their own. Saplings and smaller trees interrupted the precise, orderly array of the larger trees, making the place look less engineered and more natural…but she could see the truth of this place with but one glance. Any trained eye could.

She also rode her Pegasus through the gate and found herself looking directly at Jasana and Triana, who stood in the rain, but were perfectly dry, shielded from it by an umbrella of Sorcery used by the daughter of Tarrin Kael. They were here to meet her, and they were here to take her to a place called Pyros.

It had been three days since Jasana and her grandmother had come to this alien world, only three days. But in those three days, they had managed to get almost halfway to the ruins of what was once the capitol of the empire ruled by the One, and what was more, Jasana had managed to ground herself to the grove and to their forward position. Jasana and Triana had come back for them, and now that they were here, she would Teleport them to that point halfway to Pyros and shave three days off of that airborne journey. They’d been sent early because this Weave that Tarrin had created needed the presence of a sui’kun to stabilize it, and that sui’kun was Jasana.

Keritanima could sense this weave, and she was amazed at the feel of it. It was complete. It didn’t have the same feel as the Weave of Sennadar, though. It was more…sterile. She realized that that was because the touch of the Goddess wasn’t in this weave, that gentle touch that seemed to be everywhere and reassured every Sorcerer at all times that they were just a touch away from their Goddess. This weave wasn’t as strong as the one she knew, it would take her almost double the time to draw the power to use her Sorcery, but it was complete and whole.

Keritanima advanced, urging her mount forward, then reached down and took Jasana’s paw in her slender hand. “I’m glad you’re here,” Keritanima told her. “I see you managed to ground in time.”

“Yeah,” she answered. “Where are the others?”

“They’re coming,” she assured her niece. “I had to fight with Binter for the right to come in first,” she giggled.

“Binter is coming?” Jasana said in surprise.

“When would he not go with Kerri, you nit?” Triana snorted derisively.

Binter appeared behind the Queen of Wikuna, sporting his massive warhammer and his black, emotionless eyes scanning the area with practiced thoroughness. He was on foot, leading a brown Pegasus that was significantly larger than the others, having been magically grown to make it large and strong enough to bear the Vendari. The monstrous Vendari approached the others as another winged Pegasus came through the gate, carrying the sleek, lithe Allia.

“Aunt Allia!” Jasana exclaimed happily, waving to her.

“Hello, kitling,” Allia smiled as she rather harshly tried to urge her mount forward. It was clear to anyone looking that Allia was not comfortable on the back of the Pegasus, and had little training in the art of riding a horse…or a Pegasus. Then again, that was to be expected, since the average Selani could run a horse to death. They were runners, the Selani, more comfortable on their own feet than riding a beast of burden. In all the time Keritanima had known her, she could count the number of times she’d ridden a horse on one hand.

“Mother sent you to keep me out of trouble, didn’t she?” Jasana asked suspiciously.

“No force in Sennadar could manage that, my kitling,” Allia said with a serious look, but made Jasana giggle anyway.

Behind Allia’s white Pegasus, a dark brown Pegasus appeared, carrying a heavily armed Knight. Even with the helmet on, Keritanima could see that the two Were-cats recognized this Knight. He was Ulger. Behind Ulger came a black Pegasus, carrying a Wikuni wearing a chain hauberk, a powerful leopard Wikuni that was heavily built and carrying a nasty double-headed battle axe in a sling on his belt and a shield strapped to his back. This was Skairn, one of the best of the best among the Royal Marines, who had barged into the Tower after learning of what the Queen was going to do and literally begged her to allow him to represent the honor of the Marines in this expedition. Keritanima knew of this particular Marine. He was brilliant, an amazing fighter, and a tactical master of the various arts of war. He was one of the few Marines who still practiced with bows, despite the fact that muskets and crossbows were the only official ballistic weapons used by the army, because he always wanted to be ready for whatever may come. But, he was also something of a discipline problem, whose commendations was balanced almost perfectly by the number of reprimands he had received, and that was the reason why he was still a private. Every time he earned a promotion, he would lose it after yet another court-martial. He disobeyed orders quite a bit and had a serious attitude problem with his commanding officers, but the one thing that every Admiral and General told her when she considered his request was that he was fanatically loyal to the throne. There would be no disobedience if those orders issued forth from the Queen herself. The final answer, however, came from Binter, who told her in his quiet way that Skairn would be an asset on this mission.

Praise from Binter was the highest form of praise there was.

Keritanima had to admit, Skairn was a handsome Wikuni. He was a leopard Wikuni, with tan fur mottled with dark spots, and a wide, powerful muzzle and piercing green eyes. His left ear had a nick missing out of it high on the outside, a visible indication that Skairn was a Wikuni of war, not of trading. He was heavily built, but just like the leopard he resembled, he moved with elegant grace and sinuous precision. And he was monstrously strong, almost unbelievably strong. It had boggled her mind when she had first taken his hand in greeting, the muscles of his hand were so hard, so toned that it was like he was made of living stone.

“This is all of my team. Kimmie should be next, with her team.”

Kimmie was indeed the next to come through the gate. She pranced her Pegasus forward as two more came through, carrying her daughters, Tara and Rina, both looking wildly excited.

“Tara and Rina?” Jasana asked in surprise.

“Mother said they should come,” Keritanima replied. “I don’t understand why, but Kimmie wasn’t about to disobey. The mood Mother’s been in since—since, you know, nobody in their right minds would gainsay her.”

The next Pegasus that came through was sporting Mist, who came quickly behind Rina, and whose eyes remained locked on the two teenage Were-cats. Jasana giggled when she recognized her, then nodded. “Ohhhh, that’s why they’re here,” she said with a grin.

“Mist is here for the same reason I am,” Triana said in a gruff tone. “To keep control of the children.”

Jasana glared a short moment at her grandmother, but that defiant look died quickly under that withering amber stare.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Eron next,” Jasana said.

“No one can find him,” Keritanima said, in a slightly worried tone. “Mist doesn’t think much of it, but it worries me. We couldn’t even find him with Sorcery. It’s like he’s vanished from the face of Sennadar.”

The next Pegasus to come through was carrying what Keritanima considered to be one of the more curious additions to this mission, and that was the slender, regal, dark-skinned Ianelle, wearing a plain—almost severely plain—plain white robe that was well tailored for her attractive body. She wore no jewelry outside of her shaeram, not even combs in her long white hair. The Sha’Kar was something of an enigma to Keritanima, a pacifist who had a streak of steel in her, as if her pacifism was in name only. She was a hard woman, but she was also kind and giving and very loyal to the Goddess and the Towers. She was the paramount Sorcerer, having devoted her entire life to the Tower and the katzh-dashi, one of the most well trained in the old ways. Ianelle was powerful, but that power was always tempered in wisdom and restraint. Needless to say, Ianelle got along quite famously with Triana. The two of them were of an age.

Behind Ianelle came what Keritanima considered to be the strangest choice of all when it came to assembling these teams to recover the pieces of Tarrin’s sword…Sevren. Sevren was a tall, slender man with thick brown hair tied back in a simple tail and wearing wire-framed spectacles over eyes that had trouble seeing without them. The face behind those spectacles was a bit long, but still somewhat handsome in the human way, with a strong jaw, narrow nose, and high cheekbones. The half-circle lensed spectacles perched on his nose seemed to enhance his appearance, not dominate it. He wore a simple robe of a pleasing brown color, not far from the color of his hair.

Keritanima still didn’t quite understand Mother’s choice of Sevren. He was a scholar, not a field Sorcerer. He hadn’t set foot outside of the Tower since he was sent to a Citadel for a rotation of guarding the border. Sure, he was a nice enough fellow, and his friendship with Tarrin was well known, but Keritanima simply felt that there had to be other Sorcerers who were better qualified for this. He was da’shar, but only just…there were many more Sorcerers stronger than him, Sorcerers with more experience out in the world.

But she wasn’t crazy enough to gainsay Mother right now. Mother said Severn goes, so Severn goes.

She did like him though. He was a bit quiet, but he had a fast mind and an honest curiosity about things. He was much like Phandebrass, endlessly curious about the world, but Sevren’s curiosity wasn’t as unbridled or consuming as that flaky Wizard’s. Sevren was a thinker, a philosopher, and a researcher…she wasn’t sure how those attributes were going to help out here in the world, where Sevren might be called upon to fight. But perhaps Mother saw in him something that she couldn’t, and she would trust the Goddess’ judgment.

Behind Sevren came, in quick succession, two black Pegasi bearing armored men, wearing the armor of the Knights. These two were again, curious choices. They were Kord and Orin, brothers who had been Knights for only five years. They were half Ungardt, much like Tarrin, physically imposing and powerful. They had an Ungardt father and a Sulasian noblewoman mother. They were only five years in the spurs, young as Knights went, but they were supposed to be very good. They would be the personal Knights of Ianelle and Sevren during this excursion. Keritanima had only just met them this morning, but they seemed nice enough, maybe a little irreverent. Typical children…and Keritanima adhered quite strictly to that concept, even though Kord, the older of the two, was only three years younger than she was.

The last to step through the portal was another Vendari. This was Szath, who had served Keritanima as a bodyguard in the past. He was what all Vendari wanted to be: almost mind-bogglingly huge and powerful, an almost overpowering warrior…and not too bright. Szath was as dumb as a box of rocks, but he knew how to fight…Kikkalli’s sails, did that Vendari know how to fight. But unfortunately, that was all he knew how to do. Szath would go with Kimmie and serve as a protector to Tara and Rina—something that Keritanima had absolutely demanded, given that Tara and Rina were her nieces—and he’d do what any good Vendari would do. He had been ordered to obey Kimmie as if she were Keritanima, and to protect the party. Though he was stupid, Szath was loyal and courageous. As long as Kimmie watched out for him, Keritanima felt that he’d do just fine with them. He stood there with the reins of his magically enlarged Pegasus in a scarred, humongous hand and with his huge mace in the other, with a vacant look on his scaled, boxy face, waiting patiently to be told what to do next.

“That’s all of us, Jasana,” Keritanima told her.

The Vendari nodded, and clumsily managed to climb aboard his mount.

“Quite a few,” Jasana smiled. “When are Haley and Kang coming?”

“Three days,” Keritanima answered. “The Sorcerers here have to ground to here and to Pyros to So we have two to get to Pyros, so we can ground there.”

Jasana snorted. “I can ground anywhere in three hours,” she said dismissively.

“Have you talked to Dolanna?”

She nodded, but Triana answered. “Dolanna needs the charm, Kerri. Did you bring it?”

Keritanima reached into her bodice and produced a golden inlay in the shape of a shaeram. “Right here,” she answered. “I hope she’s getting along well enough.”

“Not well at all,” Triana told her. “She can’t sleep more than a few minutes or the Weave starts to destabilize. She hasn’t been very coherent since yesterday. She spends all her time either napping or in a daze. We need to get that charm to her quickly.”

“Well, then we’re going to need to split up,” Keritanima said decisively. “The Sorcerers among us have to ground here…Mother’s orders,” she told Jasana, who gave him a strange look. “Until Dolanna can start guiding us to the pieces of the sword, our job is to help set up the defense of Pyros, and that means we have to ground here, ground there, then ferry men from here to there. So, the Sorcerers and enough support to protect us stays here while a group flies ahead to Pyros to get the charm to Dolanna quickly, Jasana grounds there, then she Teleports back to get us.”

“A good plan,” Kimmie nodded. “So, who’s staying and who’s going?”

“The fewer there are, the faster they can go,” Keritanima said. “But there are Demons running around out there, so we have to make sure of the safety of the group. Kimmie, you and Ulger go with Jasana and Triana, and the rest of us will wait here. I’m fairly sure that the four of you can defend yourselves against nearly any Demon on the way to Pyros.”

“I cannot Teleport, sister,” Allia said. “I can go with our niece.”

“No, deshaida, we’ll need you here in case we’re attacked. You’re not all that good on a Pegasus anyway, and they’ll have to go fast. Sorry, but truth is truth, as Tarrin says,” she said quickly.

“There is no insult in truth, sister,” Allia nodded in an austere manner.

“That’s why I’m not sending one of the Vendari either,” she grunted. “Ulger at least has lots of practice on these beasts.”

“Aye, I can fight on the back of Goldie,” Ulger agreed, patting his honey-colored Pegasus on the neck.

“Seems like a plan,” Jasana said. “Ulger, Kimmie, come over here, we need to get moving,” Jasana announced.

Kimmie turned to her daughters. “You two obey your grandmother,” she ordered. “If I hear from Mist of any kind of trouble, you’ll wish you were back at the Tower. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, mother,” they said in perfect unison.

“It creeps me out when they do that,” Ulger whispered conspiratorially to Keritanima as he passed her.

“They’re not going to sit around idle, Kimmie,” Keritanima promised. “One of the things we need to do is prepare this area for the coming army, so we have lots to do. This area needs to be fortified, because Haley and his force is coming through the gate tomorrow, and behind them is coming the army. We’re going to need fortifications, storage buildings, mess halls, latrines, everything a large base needs to host soldiers.

“But, we’re all going to Pyros,” Rina protested.

“Yes, and the supply lines will come through here,” Ulger told her. “Even after the army moves, there’s going to be a force here defending the gate to Sennadar to protect our supply lines. Kerri’s right about fortifying this place.”

“You will address her as Queen Keritanima, or her Majesty,” Skairn suddenly erupted, banging his fist on his mailed leg.

“Put a muzzle on it, Skairn,” Keritanima snapped.

“B-But, your Majesty, addressing you like that disrespects your station!”

“He’s also a friend of mine, and my friends may call me that,” she told him sharply.

“That seemed, harsh,” Jasana noted to Kimmie in the unspoken manner of the Cat.

“Skairn seems to have an attitude problem,” Kimmie responded in the same way. “That’s not the first time he’s jumped on someone for some kind of imagined insult to Kerri. He’s also as arrogant as sin. I get the feeling that someone’s going to have to step on him before it’s all said and done.”

“I’m sure one of us will step on him before long,” Triana noted in the manner of the Cat.

Jasana giggled audibly, which drew several curious looks. She just shrugged and looked to Keritanima, who simply smiled and tapped her shaeram meaningfully.

“Is everyone ready that’s going?” Jasana announced as the others backed away from the four of them.

“Aye, let’s get going,” Ulger answered.

“I’m ready,” Kimmie stated. “You two mind Mist,” Kimmie warned her daughters.

“We will,” they answered in unison.

“We can speak using our shaerams, Aunt Kerri,” Jasana told her as she reached out and took command of the alien Weave. “Oh yeah, Dolanna told me to tell you not to try to bridge or enter this Weave until she has the charm, because it’s not entirely stable.”

“Well thank you so much for remembering that,” Keritanima said sharply, giving Jasana a narrow-eyed look.

Jasana gave her an impish grin, and then the four of them and their mounts vanished.

“Alright then, let’s get to work,” Keritanima said crisply, turning to look at the others. “Sevren, you and Ianelle are in charge of the layout. We need a place for tents, storage areas, and cordoned areas where bound Sorcerers can Teleport without having to worry about killing anyone.

“Outside the orchard I hope,” Sevren said mildly.

“Of course, we need lots of room for this,” Keritanima told him. “Kord, Orin, stay close to the katzh-dashi while they inspect the area. If they split up, both of you stay with Sevren.”

“Aye, Majesty,” Kord acknowledged.

“Allia, Skairn, you’re on aerial reconnaissance.”

“As you command, your Majesty,” he said, saluting her.

“Can it,” she said sourly. “Mist, could you scout on the ground?”

“I’ll take the cubs with me, they need some practice,” Mist grunted, looking at Tara and Rina.

“It sounds fun,” Rina said excitedly. “Think of the alien plants and animals!”

“Just keep your mind on what you’re doing,” Keritanima told them. “This isn’t a game. There are Demons out there, and even if they don’t have their magic, they’re still powerful creatures. Spend too much time chasing butterflies, and you might get your head ripped off before you even realize what happened.”

Rina paled a little at that, then nodded. Tara simply flexed her claws expectantly.

“Binter, you’re with me. We need to work out how we’re going to fortify the area, so we’ll need to survey the terrain.”

Binter nodded silently.

“Szath, stay with Ianelle and protect her. She and Sevren might have to split up, so there needs to be some extra protection out there.”

“Which is Ianelle, Your Majesty?” he asked in his agonizingly slow manner, as if he had to think of every word he spoke before he spoke it.

“I am, Szath,” Ianelle announced. “I would enjoy having you accompany me.”

Szath walked over to Ianelle’s Pegasus and waited silently.

“Alright, listen,” she announced. “If you’re not scouting, stay within sight of the apple orchard, and keep alert. Remember, the locals here should be considered hostile, even the humans…it pains me to say it, but nobody who sees us can live, unless they can convince us that they’re part of the Shadows. Any human could be a follower of the One, and that makes him a potential spy for the Demons. The only ones you shouldn’t attack on sight are Dwarves and Elara. Is that understood?”

They all nodded or acknowledged her.

“Good. Now, we don’t have much time, and we have lots to do. We need to have the camp laid out and started before Jasana and the others get to Pyros, and we at least need some plans drawn up before Haley gets here with his advance force. So, let’s get to work.”

Keritanima watched as everyone started moving quickly and efficiently to perform their assigned tasks. Keritanima was a bit worried about this, about engaging Demons in a war on an alien world. This really didn’t concern her or her people. She’d committed a sizable portion of her army to this, both Wikuni and Vendari…but she couldn’t say no to the Goddess. That had created some real friction between her and Parliament, that she was putting so many Wikuni lives at risk over something that had absolutely nothing to do with Wikuna. Or, at least, it had caused friction before the Priests of Kikkalli had chimed in and stated that the leader of the Wikuni gods gave Keritanima her blessing. There was still some friction, and justified friction at that, but neither Keritanima nor Parliament really had any choice. She wasn’t about to look the Goddess in the eye and tell her no. Hell no, not with as intense as she’d been since her brother—

She didn’t even like to think about that. Tarrin was dead. Some small part of herself felt really, really good about bringing her army here and beating the snot out of these people who had, by their acts and their beliefs, brought about a god who had ultimately caused the death of her brother, but it was the vindictive brat in her, and nothing more. But, she couldn’t deny this, this…feeling. It told her that Tarrin was still going, that he was out there, somewhere, doing exactly what the Goddess had hinted, that he was still out there fighting. She didn’t know how or why she had that feeling, but she did, and that was what kept her going.

Tarrin just couldn’t be gone. He meant too much to her, too much to too many people for it all to end in this alien world. She couldn’t even imagine living in a world where he wasn’t there. Tarrin was one of the three parts of the hub around which her entire life revolved, and to lose him would means she would lose her center, and the wheel of her life would spin out of control and destroy itself. She wouldn’t even allow herself to consider the possibility that he had died here, that his soul had been destroyed while trapped on this material plane without the protection of his body to save it from the destructive nature of a mortal plane on a divine soul. Tarrin was out there, somewhere, continuing his self-appointed mission. She was sure of it. She believed it with all her heart.

And so long as she believed, she could keep going.

 

It was raining.

It rained quite often in the pristine valley that most called Haven, for it was nestled in the crook where two mighty mountain ranges converged, which trapped the storms in the valley. The valley thrived from the steady rainfall, which made it the lush, verdant paradise which had made it the subject of many a rumor and story. A pristine grassy plain rose up from the reef-protected beach, rising up to a gentle rolling foothill covered in temperate forest. On one of the higher hills, a hill with a flat top, rested the manor of Spyder, the Guardian, and housed the only working two-way gate in and out of Sennadar. The manor had been there for over ten thousand years, as had its occupant, a fixture that seemed just as permanent to the denizens of the region as the mountains themselves. They all knew of Haven by story or by history, a forbidden land that was almost inaccessible, and was the domain of a solitary, legendary woman who guarded her private domain vigilantly and jealously. Many a tale had been told of people who had shown up in Zaradar or Mebadar naked and without memory of what had happened to them…and those were the ones who returned at all. There were many more stories of men who had set out to explore the forbidden lands of Haven and never returned.

It was all part of the legend of the woman known as Spyder. It wasn’t her real name, of course, but it served her well. She was reputed to be the mortal servant of the gods, who performed tasks in the mortal world for them, and it was also rumored also served as an assassin for the gods, punishing those mortals who had so offended the gods that their deaths had become necessary.

It was all true. And it was all false.

In her capacity of the Guardian, she indeed served all the gods, by protecting the gateway into Sennadar from invasion by any and all extra-planar entities. It was her duty—and sometimes her curse—to protect Sennadar from outside, to act as the first line of defense against those who were curious, those who were seeking the mythical power of the plane, and those who had just had bad luck. For ten thousand years, she had stood silent vigil over the gate in the basement of her manor, ten thousand years of quiet, faithful adherence to her task. There were sacrifices she had made to perform this duty, but there had been rewards as well.

As the first of the sui’kun and the eldest child of the Goddess, however, she served in all those roles that most legends had attributed to her, most of them dark and sinister. In the name of Niami, she had done her share of spying, stealing, raiding, looting, and murdering. It would probably shock most of the katzh-dashi to know what their seemingly saintly goddess-mother did under the table, but it had all been necessary, of course. At least in that regard, Spyder never had any reservations, for she knew that though she was doing something that wouldn’t be considered legal by most human societies, it was necessary to either protect the katzh-dashi or advance their cause.

Spyder was one of the few mortals who had seen the dark side of the Goddess, but it didn’t shake her faith in the slightest. Spyder was Urzani, an ancient race of whom she was the last surviving member, and her Urzani heritage actually saw Niami’s duplicitous nature as a positive trait. Had she been nothing but the sweet and gentle goddess she showed to the katzh-dashi, Spyder would probably begin to doubt her. The dark, cynical part of Spyder that had been the root of her Urzani upbringing wouldn’t accept a god or goddess that didn’t also demonstrate a dark edge. Niami’s skullduggery behind the backs of the katzh-dashi only made Spyder that much more faithful to her, for it showed that she was a complete god, possessed of both mercy and spite, kindness and dishonesty, compassion and manipulation. A god that only showed one side would be hiding something in the eyes of Spyder.

In a way, she suspected that that was what drew Tarrin to her as well. She and him were of a mind about many things.

That was her new mission, of course. It was now the mission of the entirety of the katzh-dashi and every mortal over which Niami could exert the smallest amount of influence. It was what had brought her down to her basement, to the gate chamber, to be standing in the presence of a being that could only be called a soldier of the light, a tall, golden-skinned female humanoid of exceedingly handsome features and with large, golden-feathered wings, wearing a simple sleeveless tabard and carrying nothing but a heavy spiked mace, hanging from a wide belt that slung at an angle over her ample hips. She looked much like an Aeradalla, but she was no Aeradalla.

She was a Deva.

The Deva were part of a mythical group of beings that most simply referred to by the title of this entity, Deva. Their more ancient name was Aasimon, though it was almost never used. The Deva, the Agathinon, the Planetars and Solars, they were all simply called Deva. These beings were known through the outer planes as servants of the gods aligned with the causes of good, acting as messengers, soldiers, spies, emissaries, and diplomats. But what most didn’t know was that the Deva served the gods of good only at the behest of Him, of the God of Gods, of He who had created all. He was their true master, and they served no other god without His direct blessing…and their loyalty to Him was never superseded. It had been known to happen in the past that all of the Deva serving a particular god of goodness to abandon their master en masse, all at the command of their Master. No Deva performed any action without the blessing of the God of Gods. Her presence in this room at this very moment was because He had deigned to allow her to come.

Spyder knew this particular Deva. Her name was Ch’Belle, and she was of a pleasant enough demeanor that Spyder would call her a passing friend. Spyder personally had a dislike for most Deva, for they were almost stern in their beliefs and most had no sense of humor whatsoever. She had appeared often in the gateway over the centuries, simply appearing and then asking a simple question: “Is all well upon Sennadar?” Once Spyder gave her an answer, she would bow and leave. Other Deva had come to ask that question, but Ch’Belle was the only one who had accepted an offer of tea on one morning when Spyder was feeling particularly pensive. Ch’Belle was one of only four Deva with which Spyder had conversed with any length over the centuries, and Spyder rather liked her. She had that same regal, austere manner as other Deva, but at least she had a sense of humor, and seemed a little less distant than most of her brethren.

“One is curious as to why you sent a summons for me, Spyder of the Gate,” Ch’Belle announced in a powerful yet beautiful voice, almost as soon as she arrived within the gate chamber. “It was a shock amongst the Celestial Stewards. Never before have you initiated contact with us.”

“The conditions are both unique and pressing, Ch’Belle,” Spyder answered, reaching up and pushing her hood from her head, exposing her face so Ch’Belle could see her clearly. “I sent for you to ask a question or two at the behest of she whom I serve.”

“Niami?” Ch’Belle asked.

Spyder nodded.

Ch’Belle seemed to look over Spyder’s head for a brief moment, her eyes distant. Spyder had come to understand that when a Deva did that, they were communing with Him. She had no doubt that Ch’Belle was asking permission to answer those questions.

“He lives, my friend,” she announced immediately. “He soars above the earth of Crossroads, making his way to the City.”

“That was to be my first question, yes,” she said with a slight smile.

“Niami must not interfere,” Ch’Belle ordered sternly. “She must obey the strictures.”

“I can pass that warning along, Ch’Belle,” Spyder told her.

“It goes beyond that,” Ch’Belle said sternly. “He might break the One Law of Crossroads, Spyder. She cannot intervene. If he breaks the law, he must be held accountable as all others, including the gods. If he invokes our response, she cannot intervene. For a Prime God to challenge the authority of the Deva in Crossroads is an intolerable situation. To do such a thing would cause an, unpleasant, reaction. Is this understood to you?” she asked, looking past Spyder’s shoulder.

“Certainly,” the image of Niami said lightly, her face beaming in a way that told Spyder that the news that Tarrin’s soul had reached the plane of Concordant Opposition made her happy enough not to care about the veiled threat that Ch’Belle had just delivered. “My kitten can take care of himself, Deva. I just needed to know that he was safe and well.”

“He is well. Safe is a relative concept, goddess. The Demons know he is there, and Gruz moves to intercept him and exact vengeance for what happened in the mortal plane. Gruz is rightly furious at your proteg�¨, Niami.”

“If my kitten is good at one thing, Deva, it’s making people mad,” she said irreverently.

“Then the Celestial Stewards have your oath that you will not interfere if it comes that we must exact punishment for breaking the One Law?” she asked directly, staring at the projection’s eyes.

“I so vow,” she said in a stately manner, then she chuckled. “I’m not worried at all, Deva. I’m sure that my kitten has learned about this rule, and has already taken it into account. Even if he breaks the One Law, I don’t think you’ll have the chance to do anything about it. My kitten was ever the clever one. I don’t think you can catch him, and even if you do, I’m not sure your brethren will be quite ready to deal with him. Make no mistake, Ch’Belle. Tarrin will fight you if you challenge him, and he’s more than capable of killing just about anyone, including a Deva. He’s not afraid of anything, and don’t for a second think that he won’t try to kill you if you attack him.”

“How we perform our tasks is not your concern, goddess,” Ch’Belle told her in an emotionless voice.

“Are the Deva aware of his intent?” Spyder asked curiously.

“Nay, we know only what has become common knowledge within Crossroads as divined by the Augers and passed among the Windtalkers. What is common knowledge is that the Mortal God has come to Crossroads, and he makes his way to the City.”

“Mortal God? That’s what they’re calling him?” Niami asked curiously.

“It is a fitting title,” she smiled. “His intentions are his own, but I’m sure they will become clear over time.”

“Odd that his appearance in Crossroads was enough for the Deva to take notice,” she said pointedly, looking the Deva in the eyes. “And that the Deva know what the Demons are up to.”

“The Mortal God is a wild card, Prime Goddess,” Ch’Belle told her. “He is unique, and his powers are outside the bounds of the rules of others. The Deva have kept careful track of him since the day he left Prime Sennadar and entered the other material plane. As to the Demons, well, we always keep tabs on their activities. Anything that so incites the Demons to action as the Mortal God would quickly draw our eye.”

“I’m not sure what he’s up to, but heading to the City is a logical first step for just about anything,” Niami said, pursing her lips in thought. “It’s a good thing that’s where Tsukatta and Jula are going. I’ll have to pass word to Jula that Tarrin’s on his way.”

“Are you sure that they can find him? The City is larger than all of Sulasia, Mother,” Spyder said.

“They won’t let me down,” she said confidently. “Tsukatta is a very experienced worldwalker, and he’s been to the City many times.”

“By your leave, Guardian, I must go. I have other duties to attend,” Ch’Belle announced.

“Yes, yes, thank you for coming, Ch’Belle,” Niami told her.

“I thank you for answering my summons,” Spyder said with a short bow. “It is good to know that when I have need of the Deva, that I will be answered.”

“When the Guardian of a Prime sends a summons, it would certainly be answered,” Ch’Belle smiled. “Be well.”

She put a hand over her mace and turned, then stepped back through the gate.

“Interesting,” Niami mused aloud. “The Deva have some kind of interest in my kitten. I’ll have to keep that in mind.”

“Mother, if I may ask, why does she call us a ‘Prime?’ It seemed that she had meaning beyond that this is the prime material plane.”

“Sennadar is one of the seven prime material planes closest to the Core,” she answered. “It’s hard to explain, daughter, but in the multiverse, with the limitless planes and alternate material planes, there is a definite center to everything. Well, Sennadar is very close to that center, one of seven material planes that is, while all the others are much further out. There’s a big gap in distance between the seven Primes and the next closest material plane in relation to the Core. That proximity is why our magic is so strong, and why I have special rules I have to follow in the Outer Planes. I’m what’s called a Prime god, a god from a Prime world. I have more restrictions on me than other gods, because of my power.”

“It sounds as if it garners great respect.”

“Fear is more like it,” she answered evenly. “I’m fully restricted to the Outer plane I call home,” she explained. “Other gods may move between planes freely, but we’re not allowed. I can send projections, surely, but those projections aren’t nearly as powerful as the real me. The only time I’m allowed to leave my home plane is to visit the realm of Ayise in her home plane, and nowhere else. All the Elder Gods can visit Ayise, so we can meet and talk in person rather than through projections.”

“I did not know that.”

“We don’t like to talk about our liabilities, you know,” she smiled. “We have tremendous power, daughter, the Elder Gods do, far beyond other Elder Gods of other planes, but that power comes at a price.”

“Power always does, even if you cannot see the cost.”

“Well said,” she nodded. “Well, if Tarrin is in Crossroads, I should start looking for him there. I might find him before Jula does, but I’m not sure. If I do find him, I think I’ll have to keep my distance. I get a strange feeling that he’s hiding from me.”

“Why is that, Mother?”

“He’s still one of my children, daughter,” she said. “All he has to do is pray and I’ll hear it, and that will let me lock right in on his location. He could even use Priest magic if he thought about it,” she added. “But he hasn’t done it. Since I know he’s not so dense as to not know he can still talk to me, that can only lead me to believe that he doesn’t want me to know what he’s doing, or he doesn’t want me to interfere. That also leads me to believe that he’s got mischief on his mind, something he doesn’t want me caught up in.”

“He almost always does,” Spyder said with a slight smile.

She laughed. “True enough, but mischief takes on a whole new meaning in Crossroads, daughter. I get the feeling he’s going to run afoul of the Deva before it’s said and done. I feel sorry for them,” she chuckled. “They have no idea what they’ll be getting into when they show up to enforce the law against violence. My kitten will not take kindly to them interfering in his business.”

“Deva are formidable, Mother,” Spyder reminded her gently.

“Yes, they are, daughter, but like I told the Deva, they have to catch him before they can do anything about him, and even if they do, then they have to deal with the ramifications of that success. I’d pay money to be there when they finally corner him, just to see what they try to do.”

“I wondered why you gave Ch’Belle that warning,” she asked. “Does that not put Tarrin at a disadvantage?”

“Quite the contrary,” she replied. “Now, the Deva are going to respect Tarrin. Before that, I have no doubt that they’d just rush in and try to kill him for violating the One Law, and then lose several of their number for their trouble. This prevents any nasty crusades against Tarrin in Crossroads. I want the Deva to be afraid when they approach Tarrin to punish him for violating the One Law. I want them to fully appreciate that he will fight, that he has absolutely no fear of them. That way they afford him the respect he deserves, and maybe they save a few Deva’s lives. They may hesitate before attacking him, and that moment might be all he needs to get away.”

“Ah. I understand. What do you think he is doing, Mother?”

“I have no idea,” she answered honestly. “But I’ll tell you one thing, daughter. It’s not over. Not by a long shot. You know how vengeful he is. I have no doubt that he’s in Crossroads to get at the Demon Lord somehow, or maybe the One. But I don’t think he’s insane enough to do what I think he might be trying to do.”

“What is that, Mother?”

“Attack the Demon Lord in the Abyss to force him to leave Pyrosia,” she answered. “He’s on Pyrosia physically, but all Demons of any stature keep their souls in a vessel and have it somewhere safe. Tarrin might think he can invade the Abyss and find that soul vessel and destroy it, or at least threaten to in order to force the Demon Lord to leave Pyrosia. I know how my kitten thinks, and something like that would certainly be in line with his methodology. Tarrin has never run from any fight, and losing just makes him furious. He’s in Crossroads to continue his fight with the Demon Lord, following whatever plan he made before he died on Pyrosia.”

“I do not think he’d be that crazy, Mother,” Spyder said. “He may lose his head from time to time, but I am positive he understands how impossible that would be.”

“You don’t know Tarrin, Spyder. The implausibility of an act never crosses his mind. If he didn’t do something because people told him it was impossible, he wouldn’t be where he is today. In a way, his refusal to admit the impossible is one of his strengths, because he finds a way to do the impossible.”

“Point taken,” Spyder said mildly, drawing up her hood gracefully.

“But trying to destroy the Demon Lord in the Abyss would be impossible,” she grunted. “A Demon Lord is a god in the Abyss, and can command the power of a god in the material plane. The only chance he’d have would be to find and destroy the soul vessel without alerting the Demon Lord, but that isn’t going to happen. A Demon Lord would have that soul vessel too well guarded, and Tarrin’s divine aura would shine like the sun in the Abyss, making it absolutely impossible for him to hide.”

“And maybe that is why he is hiding from you, Mother,” Spyder reasoned. “So you cannot stop him.”

“Headstrong fool,” Niami snorted. “When Jula finds him and tells me where he is, me and that child of mine are going to have a long talk.”

“Yet another reason he hides from you,” Spyder said in a measured manner, but with a slight hint of amusement.

“No wonder you put your hood up,” Niami said dangerously, giving her daughter a narrow-eyed look.

“I am headstrong, but no fool, Mother,” she added.

Niami laughed. “The only thing I can see is that he’s somehow trying to bluff the Demon Lord into returning to the Abyss, but I seriously doubt that’ll happen. That Demon Lord won’t give up his prize unless Tarrin is standing at the gates of his castle, and he won’t get that close. Not even my kitten’s legendary resourcefulness will get him that close, I’m afraid.”

“I just hope that Tarrin knows what he is doing,” Spyder said seriously. “It would grieve me to lose the first Sorcerer in an age I considered an equal. And a friend,” she added.

“That’s not going to happen, Spyder,” Niami said in a soft tone, but fierce determination flowed through her choral voice. “Because I won’t allow it.”

Spyder glanced at her mentor, her friend, and her goddess, and she nodded soberly.

 

“I report, Sh’Keel,” Ch’Belle stated in a submissive tone, bowing elegantly before a mighty figure with golden skin and black-feathered wings. Though neither were standing in the limitless gray void that was the Astral, the move was not lost on the towering figure dressed in a vibrant red vest, baggy, flaring pantaloons, and black boots. A mighty compound bow was slung over a shoulder, and a quiver hung between those mighty black-feathered wings.

This was a Solar. This was the most powerful breed of the Deva, beings of such might and power that they were almost as gods themselves, beings that the gods feared for their power. They were an enigma to the gods. They were of immense power, but had no ambition to use it except in the act of serving others. Sometimes Solar served this god or that god, but never for long, and usually only to accomplish certain key tasks. When not in the service of gods, they worked on their own, commanding Deva both in the service of gods and those who were not, working on some grand, mysterious, unknown goal, something so abstract that only the Deva really understood what they were doing…and of course, they never explained what they were about. They were the commanders of the Deva, the generals, the tacticians, those who directed activities in the field when so instructed by their master. In this matter, this Solar had been given authority. He was well suited for this task, Ch’Belle felt. He was one of the oldest and wisest of the Solar, and he had served their Master unswervingly for longer than most Deva had the capability to remember. It was considered an honor and a privilege among the Deva to serve under the command of Sh’Keel. It was rumored that Sh’Keel was one of the First of the Deva. But those of the First never revealed that status, part of the custom and culture of humility and service that marked the base mentality of the Deva.

Report.

In the briefest of moments, the Deva relayed the entirety of her encounter with the Prime Guardian through telepathic communion, including her own observations and conclusions. She completed her report with the feeling that the Prime Goddess Niami did not know what was going on. “They do not know, sir,” she said aloud.

You have done well, Ch’Belle.

Ch’Belle absolutely beamed, bowing to him again very deeply.

The mighty figure gave her a slight smile.

“What are your orders, Commander?” she asked.

Return to Crossroads, the figure ordered telepathically. I want you to locate the two the Prime Goddess has sent to locate the Mortal God. Find them but do not make contact with them. Observe them. If the Demons or others attempt to block them or attack them, render unto them that aid which you think is appropriate. I will make it known among the Deva that those two are under special protection, that they are not to be killed if they violate the One Law, only chastised. You are responsible for their well being, Ch’Belle.

“I will protect them, Commander,” she said with another bow. “To whom do I report in Crossroads?”

Report the movements of the pair and other unimportant information to Planetar To’Par. Any important communication or news of any attack on the pair or unusual Demon activity near them should be brought directly to me.

“I understand, Commander.”

You are dismissed. Begin your next assignment.

“At once, Commander,” she said with a final bow, then turned, spread her golden wings, and immediately vanished from sight, moving at such speed through the great emptiness of the Astral towards the nearest color pool to Crossroads that it nearly appeared that she had vanished.

The mighty Solar hung in the void for a moment in quiet contemplation, then also disappeared.

 

The vast expanses of the Astral seemed utterly empty. There was nothing but gray no matter which way one looked, an eternal emptiness without sound, without scent, with nothing but a faint grayish radiance that seemed to emanate from the plane itself, rendering all things within visible from vast distances…but those distances were almost unimaginable between objects within a limitless plane of eternal emptiness.

There was nothing here. There was no matter, except that which had been drawn into the Astral by accident or by design. There was no gravity, but without ground to stand upon, gravity wasn’t necessary. There was no air, but also, there was no time in this place. Certainly time seemed to pass, but it was subjective time, a feeling that time was moving when it in fact was not, the effect of the conscious mind in the plane, a conscious mind that craved linear continuity and thus enforced that concept on the area around him. And since there was no real time, there was no need to breathe, no need to eat, no need to sleep.

The timeless nature of the Astral did make it a home to some who feared the coming of death, retreating to a place where time did not flow, and so they did not age. There were other residents of this vast emptiness, as well as countless travelers moving between the material and the outer planes…but the endless nature of the plane made encounters between beings in the Astral very, very rare.

Two such travelers seemed to hang in the empty void, but in actuality they were moving at great speeds. One was hanging in the void in a vertical posture, though her feet were pointed down, and the other sat cross-legged in the emptiness, hands in his lap and with his eyes closed. The standing figure was Jula, a Were-cat, wearing leather trousers whose legs were shredded from her claws and a simple undyed buckskin shirt, under which she wore a white linen shirt to keep the leather from rubbing against her skin. She looked distinctly uncomfortable, her expression strained and her body rigid. The sitting figure was Tsukatta, a Worldwalker, a human from another material plane who wandered the multiverse seeking out new challenges to test his ability. He was completely at ease, in a peaceful position as he guided them to the nearest color pool that would take them to Crossroads by the force of his mind alone, which was the only method of travel available in this plane. He wore wicker armor of an unusual design, dyed red, and his flared helmet with the antennae-like V adornment on the front rested on his back, hanging over his shoulder by its chinstrap. That gruesome face-like mask that he wore affixed to that helmet was, thankfully, in a small sack tied to his belt. Two slender katana were in their scabbards, tucked into a sash around his waist, and a third, much smaller weapon was tucked in on the other side. He carried nothing else but a small backpack that was in his lap instead of on his back.

“I hate this place,” Jula growled. “It feels, feels, dead.”

“Those are your heightened senses finding nothing to sense,” the human warrior responded in a reposed voice, almost as if he were singing the words. “Be patient, friend Jula. We are not long from reaching Crossroads. Do you remember what I have told you of the place?”

“Yes,” she answered. “That it’s a great city almost as large as the entire West, and I’ll see all kinds of creatures there.”

“And what is the one and only law of the City?” he prompted.

“Do no violence,” she repeated immediately. “To attack another is to invite the wrath of the Deva upon you,” she quoted his words directly. “But I don’t understand. What happens if someone steals?”

“That is not violence,” Tsukatta replied. “So theft of another’s property carries no punishment, outside of that punishment which the victim can exact against the thief on his own.”

“Then how do people protect what’s theirs if they can’t fight to defend it?”

“There are many ways to protect things in the City,” he replied. “Doing violence upon a thing carries the same penalty as doing violence upon a person.”

“I—ah,” she said with a nod. “So, someone breaking down a door to get into someone’s house would attract the Deva.”

“Yes. So, a locked door is all the barrier one needs against a thief.”

“Now that makes more sense,” she said with a nod. “I can’t wait to get out of here,” she growled.

“It will not be long, Jula. We know he is not in the Astral, so the best place to begin is in the City.”

“It’s good that’s where you’re going, because that’s where you need to go,” a disembodied voice came to them, the voice of the Goddess. “I have confirmation from a reliable source that Tarrin is in Crossroads at this moment.”

“Yes!” Jula sighed explosively.

“So, go on to the City as you planned. Jula can find Tarrin in Crossroads.” As quickly as her presence touched them, it was gone, leaving them alone once more.

“I still cannot understand how you will do that, Jula,” Tsukatta said, opening his eyes and looking at her.

“He’s my father, Tsukatta,” she said simply. “Just get me in the same dimension as him, and I can point right to him. And I can guarantee that the instant I set foot in the City, he’s going to know I’m there. We might not have to do anything. He might come to us.”

“But how is the question I would ask.”

“From my end, Mother set it up,” she answered. “Mother used magic so I could find those who once held my bond. But my father did once have my bond, and he’s just like Triana. Even though he doesn’t have it anymore, I can guarantee that there’s enough of an echo of it still in him to respond when I’m in the same dimension as him. He’ll feel it when I arrive, I know he will. I’ll be able to point in the direction he’s in and tell you how far away he is, just as if I held his bond, and he’ll be able to do the same. We just need to find some way to communicate with him over the distance, and if we can’t, we can just move towards him. He’ll feel me coming directly towards him, realize that I can find him, and then he should come to us.”

“A Windtalker might be able to help us with that,” Tsukatta reasoned aloud. “They can send messages anywhere within Crossroads. But it will take a master Windtalker to send a message to a place instead of a person.”

“This Windtalker would be sending it to Father,” Jula said.

“No, the Windtalker would be sending it to the place where Tarrin-san is located,” Tsukatta corrected. “That’s how Windtalkers send messages to people who do not share their ability. And it takes a well-practiced Windtalker to send a message to those without the skill.”

“Ah, I get it.”

“I just hope we find Tarrin-san quickly. He will not need us, but I know he will be happy to hear the news we bring.”

“You don’t think he’ll need help?”

Tsukatta shook his head. “He is a god, Jula. Even without most of his power, that is still a fact that cannot be overlooked. I know Tarrin-san, Jula, I know him well. He knows what he is, and he will know what to do with it. Just be warned, young one, the Tarrin-san we find in Crossroads may not look the same as the one we left in Pyrosia. Without a mortal body, how he appears in the outer planes is purely his own fancy. He could look like anything he desires.”

“Then I know exactly what he’ll look like.” she said confidently. “You may know him a friend, Tsukatta, but he’s my father. I know him better in some ways than you.”

“We will see in time,” Tsukatta said with a smile. “I have my own thought about how we will appear.”

“Well, let’s make some sport of it,” Jula said eagerly. “How much gold you have on you, Tsukatta?”

“A wager? I accept,” he said grandly. “Whoever is closest wins?”

“Deal. How much are you willing to lose?”

“Oh no, I do not bet for money,” he said. “Loser cooks for a month.”

“Oh, you are so on,” she said immediately.

 

Everything was just so…weird.

Zyri could accept that they were in a different world—a different world!!!—than before. She could accept that everything was new, was exciting, that all the people were strange, that she didn’t know where anything was or where to go. She could accept that she was now surrounded by people with strange magical powers. What she couldn’t really fathom was how she was part of a family.

Just thinking of that word made her shiver a little. She was part of a family. True, her adopted mother and father weren’t there and she felt a little lonely, but they weren’t the whole family. Since Tarrin and Mist were gone, she was now under the watchful eye of her adopted aunt, Jenna Kael. Jenna was funny, and she was nice, and she was so smart, and she ruled this place they called the Tower with wisdom and fairness. She was almost intimidating that way, because as the Keeper, she bossed everyone around and made sure everything got done. But she was also Zyri and Jal’s new aunt, and she was open and welcoming, accepting the two of them without hesitation.

It was almost enough to make an orphan think she was dreaming. She had an aunt now, and what was more, she had grandparents too! Meeting Eron and Elke Kael had been really strange. Her grandfather, Eron, he was nice and had a warm smile and didn’t talk much, and her grandmother, Elke Kael…she wasn’t like any woman that Zyri had ever seen before. She was taller than all the men, and she was really bossy and pushy. Zyri had never seen any woman outside of Mist talk to a man like the way Elke Kael did. She was so big…if the man didn’t like it, there wasn’t anything he could do! At first she thought that was why Eron was quiet, that Elke might smack him for speaking out of line, but she realized that Elke wasn’t like that, and Eron was quiet because that was his way. It was a little scary with them at first, because Zyri was very intimidated by Elke Kael, but she’d shaken that off pretty fast. Eron and Elke Kael had spent a long afternoon with her and Jal, had talked to them, taken them to meet a family in the city and introduced her to a girl about her age named Janette. By sunset, she found herself sitting in Elke Kael’s lap, with the tall, tall, woman braiding her hair and fussing over her like she was her own daughter.

Then there was…her. Sapphire. By the One, she’d never been so frightened in her whole life. They’d warned her before meeting her that Sapphire was a dragon. A dragon! Then she came in looking like a human woman, except for her predatory eyes. All she could do was gape up at the woman in mute shock, all she could think of was that this woman was really a titanic beast so big that she wouldn’t fit in the largest barn!

Sapphire, at least, seemed to take it well enough. She gave Zyri and Jal a very thorough inspection, one that made Zyri irrationally think that she was inspecting them to see if they were edible, then declared that they were acceptable. That just made Zyri more frightened, and she almost backed away when Sapphire leaned down and reached a hand to her, smiling at her. “There is no need to be afraid of me, little one,” she had said in a surprisingly gentle voice, a voice that still rang in Zyri’s ears even after three days. “You are the daughter of my little one. He is clan, and you are clan now too.”

She remembered being almost unable to speak. How was she supposed to make conversation with, with a dragon!

Jal saved the day. He reached out and took Sapphire’s hand with a shy smile, and Sapphire seemed quite pleased.

Things had gone so fast. After spending their first night in their new house near a village called Aldreth, they had been brought to this big city using magic, and brought to this place they called the Tower. Telven had been dragged down to where the Knights trained and put to work, and she and Jal had been moved in with Jenna. Not in little rooms out of the way, but living right in the same apartment with Jenna! Like a family! Forge came too, and the big dog-like creature seemed quite happy with the place. Zyri was too, and so was Jal. She had her own room, with a nice bed and furniture and everything! A whole room, all to herself! And there were even servants! They cleaned everything, and helped her with her clothes, and would fetch things if she needed them. That was just too strange, so strange she couldn’t bring herself to ask the servants to do anything for her. She just let them clean her room. It was here in the Tower that she’d met her new grandparents and Sapphire, and where they settled in as Jal’s teachers were quartered in the Tower, and Master Phandebrass got to work down in the library doing something, and that Elara woman Kyrienna helping him with it. She’d met her new sisters, Jasana, Tara, and Rina before they left for her old world, though she’s been a little scared of them. Especially Tara, who didn’t seem to like her very much. She got to meet Allia and Keritanima—Aunt Kerri, she liked to be called Aunt Kerri—before they left too, and she’d felt really comfortable with them. Aunt Allia was quiet, but she was very nice, and Aunt Kerri was like a little girl herself, the way she carried on and joked. It really made Zyri feel comfortable with them. There was that one episode where she just had to touch Aunt Kerri’s tail, but even that didn’t seem to bother her Wikuni aunt. They all came to meet her, coming to the apartment that Jenna shared with them, coming to their home.

Home. For a girl who had been living on the streets, the idea of home was almost a dream too amazing to believe…but it was true. Though this wasn’t the house in Aldreth, though Master Tarrin and Mistress Mist weren’t with her, for now, this was her home. Her home. She had a place now, Jal had a place now, there were people around them that were part of her family, and though she didn’t know them, she already liked them. She really liked Jenna, and she felt so safe and comfortable around Eron and Elke. She had taken up a position within her adopted father’s rather unusual family, had become another of his daughters, and had been welcomed by the rest of the family.

But most of the rest of the family was gone now, gone back to Pyrosia to help deal with the Demons. There was just her and Jal, and Jenna, and Telven who was cleaning stables down at the Knight school. She went to see Master Azakar and found him under the care of the Sorcerers and some robed men that Jenna had said were Priests of Karas, still recovering from the terrible wounds he’d suffered at the battle in the Dwarven lands, but he wasn’t so injured that he didn’t drag himself out of bed and go order Telven around. The big Knight had made her brother his own personal mission, and he rode poor Telven relentlessly, even when he was so weak he could barely stand.

She was on her way to see Master Azakar again, taking him a book from the big library, when she ran into someone on the grounds. At first she thought it was her father, but when he got closer she realized that though he was a male Were-cat, it wasn’t her father. He was tall, but nowhere near as tall as her father. He had black fur and blond hair, dressed in a ragged pair of raw leather pants and a simple black shirt. He was carrying a worn-out walking staff in his hand, made of some black wood she’d never seen before. She stopped in front of him and gawked, and he smiled down at her. That close to him, she could see her father in that face…he had the same facial structure. This Were-cat had to be related to her father somehow. “I hear you’re my little sister now,” he said. “Hi. My name’s Eron.” He extended his big hand to her.

“Bu-But that’s my grandfather’s name,” she stammered.

“Yeah, my mother named me after my grandfather,” he grinned. “You’re Zyri, right?”

She nodded silently as he knelt down, coming eye to eye with her. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said with an earnest smile.

She took his huge hand tentatively, and was amazed at how rock hard it was. By the One’s sword, this Were-cat was strong!

“They still looking for me?” he asked.

“I, um, I don’t know,” she answered. “I mean, it’s nice to meet you and all, but they haven’t said much. I’m still kinda lost and all,” she admitted in a meek voice.

He laughed lightly. “It’s no big thing, sis,” he told her. “I just can’t let ‘em find me yet, that’s all.”

“What? Why not?”

“It’s not time yet,” he answered. “I just wanted to come meet my new sister and brother, so I came out.”

“Why do you have to hide? Did you make father angry? I know he has a temper and all, but—“

“No, it’s nothing like that,” he said with an earnest smile. “I’m just waiting, that’s all. For when father needs me. When it’s time, I’ll let them find me, and then I’ll go help father.”

“I, I don’t understand,” she said helplessly.

“I don’t really understand all of it myself, I just do what I’m told,” he told her, laying his staff on the ground, then fishing in a belt pouch. “I see you’re wearing father’s shaeram,” he said.

“Yeah, he gave it to me before he sent me here,” she answered, reaching up and grabbing it in her hand.

“You’re a Sorcerer. I can smell it on you.”

“Smell? Aren’t you a Sorcerer too?”

He laughed ruefully, scrubbing the back of his head with his clawed hand. “No, not me,” he admitted. “I’m the black sheep of the family. I’m the only child that’s not a Sorcerer, or a Druid, or anything like that. I’m just Eron.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” she said sincerely. “Up until a few days ago, I was just Zyri. I think sometimes I’d rather like to be ‘just Zyri’ again.”

“You’re wiser than I thought for a girl your age,” he said with a gentle smile. “But hey, you’re in the right family. You’ll find lots of Sorcerers around to give you advice, even when you don’t want it.”

Zyri giggled in spite of herself.

He pulled a small bone whistle out of his pouch and offered it to her. “Here.”

“What’s this?”

“It’s a whistle,” he answered. “When you blow on it, it makes a sound,” he winked.

She gave him a slightly offended look. “I know what a whistle is,” she said, a bit tartly. “What are you giving it to me for?”

“I can’t take care of Sandy for a while,” he said with a frown. “She’s getting a little old, and I can’t keep dragging her around with me for a while, because I’ll be moving around a lot more than normal. She also hasn’t been feeling very well. She just got over being sick not too long ago, and it’s a real strain on her to travel with me right now. I really hate to say it, but she needs a nice quiet place and a home that doesn’t change every day, a nice place where she can rest and recover, and where I won’t have to worry about her. If it’s not much trouble, could you watch her for me?”

“Who is Sandy?”

“Blow the whistle and see,” he grinned.

She gave him a look, then did so. It made a high-pitched keen, and after just a second, a medium-sized dog-like animal approached, appearing around the corner of a building. It had a brownish-tan coat that changed to a mellow brown on the back, and the muzzle was sharper than any dog she’d seen. The animal padded up to them and sat down, its tail swishing back and forth. “This is Sandy,” Eron introduced. “She’s a desert fox. She’s been my friend for a long time.”

“Hi,” Zyri said, reaching her hand out to the animal. The fox sniffed at her fingers, then licked them, which made Zyri giggle.

“So, could you keep her for me for a while? Until everything gets back to normal?”

“I, um…sure,” she finally said.

“Hear that, Sandy?” he told the animal. “You’re going to stay with her for a while, until I get back.”

Sandy whined.

“Don’t argue,” he chided. “You need to rest a while, and I really can’t take you with me. Forge is going to be there,” he said. “He’s staying with Jenna. You can visit him.”

Sandy’s ears perked up, and she gave a strange yip sound.

“Good. Now, you behave, young lady,” Eron ordered in a stern voice. “Obey Zyri.”

Sandy gave another yip.

“You can talk to her?” Zyri gasped.

“Well, it’s more like she understands what I want to say,” he replied. “She’s a very smart fox, and we’ve been friends a long time. Thanks a lot, Zyri. I couldn’t leave Sandy with just anyone, and all my other sisters went to Pyrosia. We may have never met, but I know our father would never bring anyone into the family that I couldn’t trust. I’m glad you’re here to help.”

“Well, we’re family now, aren’t we?” she said, getting a little thrill over using that word. “Isn’t that what families do?”

“That’s exactly what families do,” he agreed, picking up his staff and standing back up. Zyri put the whistle in her belt pouch, then patted Sandy on the head gently. Sandy nuzzled her hand, then sat down in front of her. “Jenna knows what Sandy likes and doesn’t like, so if you have any questions, just ask her.”

“Why didn’t you bring Sandy to Jenna?”

“Jenna’s one of those people who can’t know where I am,” he said with a little discomfort. She could tell he didn’t much like the idea. It made her wonder what he was doing, but her manners told her that it wasn’t her place to ask. “Well, I’d better get going before Aunt Jenna finds out I’m here. It was nice to meet you, Zyri.”

“You too, Eron. Um, aren’t they going to know you were here when they see Sandy?” she asked.

“I’ll be long gone before they can find me,” he grinned. “They know I’m somewhere, they just don’t know exactly where.”

“Oh, I get it. Well, I hope you come back soon. I’m sure Sandy’s going to miss you.”

Sandy barked in agreement.

“If I know father, it won’t be long at all. See you soon, Zyri,” he told her, turning his back to her. He then started walking off, his walking stick making a tak-tak sound on the cobblestones of the pathway as he walked away.

Sandy gave only a single low whine as he left, then she looked up at Zyri expectantly. “Um, well, Sandy, let’s take this book to Master Azakar, then take you home, I guess,” she told her new responsibility, looking down at her. “Forge is there. You know Forge, right?”

Sandy gave an excited yip, and stood up.

“Yeah, I like him too,” she said with a giggle as she continued down the path in the same direction that Eron had gone.

And then she realized he wasn’t ahead of her, that the tak-tak sound of his staff clattering on the cobblestones had stopped. Eron had disappeared.

She looked around. There were no buildings in that direction, just that smith’s shed where Sandy had been, but that was off to the left, and Eron had gone straight. She’d only looked away for a second, but in that one second, Eron had managed to vanish from sight. Where did he vanish to?

She laughed nervously. Boy, when Eron said he was going to hide from Aunt Jenna, he certainly wasn’t kidding!

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    1      3

Chapter 2

        It had rained.

        This in itself wouldn’t be much of a deal in most places, but here, in Crossroads, Tarrin understood that it was a big deal, because it meant that the nature of the plane had shifted.

        What had before been an expanse of fertile grassland suddenly became sharp hills covered in thick forest.  What had been a clear, cloudless sky became a dark, foreboding deck of thick clouds that poured rain down upon the land beneath.  What had been an endless summer day, warm and bright, was now a dark and rainy night, and the air was decidedly cool.

        It had happened nine days ago.  Tarrin had been in the air at the time, and it had almost startled him out of the sky.  The air turned gray, the ground below turned gray, and then he was suddenly surrounded by thick fog.  The fog was not clouds.  It was a thick soup of pure gray, as if the air itself had taken on color, and then he felt the air shift violently around him.  He was carried with that shift, so it did him no harm, but he was jumbled around a bit before it was over.

        When it did clear, the gray faded away to be replaced by clouds, and then the rain began to fall.  There was no thunder with this rain, it was just rain, and clouds that completely extended from horizon to horizon in every direction.

        It had rained for six days—at least he’d call them days, since the light never changed--and during that time Tarrin spent his time on the ground in his tent, and his time in the air above the clouds, looking up at a black, empty sky that only had a single object in it, and that was a large yellow moon.  There were no stars, no Skybands, no other moons, just that one featureless moon, with no craters, no discerning marks, looking like nothing but a flat plate hung in the sky.

        Tarrin spent those six days both pondering his problem of how to get the information he needed, and also what to do about a wrinkle that had shown up in his plan.

        Jula.

        She was here, in Crossroads, and he had no doubt whatsoever that Niami had sent her here to find him.  She was some distance away, to the north of him, and she had kept in a consistent area in the time he’d been keeping track of her.  He wondered exactly what Niami had sent her to do.  There wasn’t much she could do by herself to help him, so he figured she was either there to find him and relay a message, or she was bringing him something.  Either way, he hadn’t decided what to do about her yet.  If he went to her, then Niami would know where he was, and she could use that to make contact with him.  That, he wasn’t sure he wanted quite yet.  Without a solid plan of action, she was sure to meddle, and she might not want him to do what he was planning to do.  He loved her, but he knew for a fact that she could be an absolute nightmare of a nagger, and there was also the issue of her rightful belief that as his goddess, she should be able to tell him what to do.

        That couldn’t happen this time.  He didn’t want to get anyone else involved in this, because if he ran afoul of the Deva or the Demons, he didn’t want them going after anyone but him.  This was his problem, it was his mess, and now he had to fix it.  And he’d be damned if his problem caused anyone else any more grief.  He’d already disrupted the lives of the Dura and the Elara and put the world of Pyrosia at war on a grand scale.  Yes, it was a good thing in a way, yes, it needed to be done to rid Pyrosia of the taint of the One, but that didn’t change the fact that he had done it by putting a Demon Lord on Pyrosia with an army of Demons to help him conquer the world.

        An army that dwindled by the day.  His shadow was still alive, and through it he kept track of its progress.  The shadow was an independent entity, apart from him and possessed of its own crude sentience and purpose, but it was his creation.  He could sense its condition and its current activity, but he could not in any way control it.  It still lived, still hunted Demons, but it had been forced to go into hiding after the Demon Lord set a horde of cambisi and the human soldiers still obeying the Demon Lord’s orders on it, armed with weapons that could do it harm.  It now skulked in the shadows, seeking out the scouts of the Demon Lord’s army, finding lone or isolated Demons and killing them whenever it could manage it.  Each kill caused the shadow’s powers to strengthen, never more than a minute amount, but those tiny gains in power would add up as the number of the shadow’s victims increased.

        The rain ended after six days.  Six days, and then the nature of the plane shifted once again.  This time, though, Tarrin was on the ground, and he got to experience it from that perspective.  Everything went gray, and he could feel the very land itself beneath him buck and change, but it wasn’t heavily violent.  It was like a moderate earthquake, startling him out of a doze as the ground beneath him shifted and rocked, and then, to his shock, the ground transformed into water and he fell into it!

        He surfaced, spluttering and astounded, to see that the dark, forested foothills were now an ocean!

        Water, everywhere he could see, in every direction!

        He had never dreamed that the nature of the plane could allow it to become an endless sea!

        The water was warm and salty, like the oceans of home.  It stretched out in every direction, an endless blanket of blue covering the surface, and there was a constant, gentle warm wind that blew in a consistent direction, a wind that never changed its velocity or its direction.  The sky was again daytime, with the occasional cloud and a sun that hung as if it were mid-morning, but he looked to the west and saw another sun, resting in a position of late afternoon.  Two suns?  That seemed unnatural!

        But then again, in this place, he realized, anything was possible.

        But it wasn’t completely endless.  After fishing his tent out of the water and getting high enough into the air, he saw that there were islands here and there in the sea.  Like Medjren’s home village, those had to be consistent safe points, like the way he’d explained it.  Medjren said that no matter how the plane looked, his village was always a safe place, the buildings were always there, and there was always someplace to farm.  So, Tarrin guessed that the village was an island now, surrounded by water and with a little stream running through it, just like it did when he was there.

        Tarrin had wondered idly how many people had drowned in that sea when the plane shifted in its nature.

        It was about then he realized how dangerous it could be to live here.

        He had been forced to land to rest on the islands that broke the continuity of the endless sea—and cursing himself for reproducing his human form so completely it required food, water, and rest when he could have designed himself without those flaws—as he continued to make his way to the City.  He moved with steadiness, but not haste, giving the One that time he felt he would need to become distracted with the task of rebuilding his icon, and putting Tarrin out of his mind.  It gave Tarrin enough time to think about what he had to do, and be ready to start acting on it by the time he got to the City.

        And he was there.

        He saw it on the horizon at first, and he thought it was a vast island, or maybe a continent.  It was, actually, but as he got closer and closer, he saw white and gray and red instead of green, and he understood that he had reached the edge of the legendary City.  It stretched from horizon to horizon, and as he got closer and closer, he saw that it extended as far as he could see before him.  This megalopolis was larger than all the West, he’d been told, a single city into which could easily be placed the Twelve Kingdoms of the West, and with plenty of room to spare.  The place looked…bleak.  There was no other way to describe it.  The buildings were dark gray and monolithic in appearance, with high, narrow windows and gray slate covering the roofs.  The streets he could see were lined by tall buildings, making them seem like canyons.  There was little color below except for the occasional bunting on a windowsill or shutters, and the rare red or white tiled roof, or a larger building with a flat stone roof.

        But these citizens were industrious, and quick to adapt to the superfluous nature of their home.  Despite there not being a sea there a few days ago, he saw that some quays had already been constructed, haphazard in nature to be sure, extending out from the edge of the and reaching shaky fingers out into the sea.  There were no boats that he could see, but he had no doubt that there were already some out on the water, hastily constructed using magic of some sort.

        As he got closer and closer, he saw that he was not the only creature in the air.  Other winged beings were soaring over the City, and to his surprise, he saw that some of them were Demons.  A winged Succubus passed near to him as he flew over the edge of the City, when the surface below ceased being water and became gray stone, and she looked right at him with a strange hunger in her eyes.  He saw beings with feathered wings, Gehreleths from Tarterus with their reptilian bodies and bat-like wings, and any number of winged steeds bearing riders, from Pegasi much like the ones he’d made from the horses to wyvern-looking reptilian creatures to huge feather-winged snakes to this one thing that looked like nothing but a cloud holding a beautiful white-robed human female atop it, sitting sedately on its surface as it ferried her to her destination.  She gave him a surprised look as he crossed her path, then smiled and winked at him, blowing a kiss as she passed.

        Wizards!

        The sense of Jula was closer now, and he knew that she was definitely somewhere in this mind-bogglingly large City.  But, given how huge this place was, the chance she would find was quite remote.  He had time to consider what to do about her without having to worry.

        What was Niami thinking, sending his daughter here!  She had no idea what was going on, her Sorcery wouldn’t work here, and she was a stranger in a strange land with nothing but her Were abilities…and in this place, they didn’t mean half as much as they did back home!  She was in terrible danger here!  What on Sennadar could be so important that she’d put Jula at so much risk, and risk drawing his wrath if she came to harm?  He would skin Niami if Jula got hurt after she sent his daughter here for only she knew what reason!

        It would be easy enough to find out why she was here, but that would alert Niami to him, and he didn’t want her to interfere.  Not until he had no choice but to call on her…he didn’t want her to meddle, and he also didn’t want her to get involved.

        He descended suddenly, his eye catching a large open square filled with stalls set up in a random manner.  He turned in the air, bringing his feet down as people looked up and pointed at him, then they scrambled out of his way when they realized he meant to land, no matter what was under him.  He was not steering towards an open area.  Most of those under him were Archons, the “mortals” of the outer planes, the most populous race of all within Crossroads, but they were by no means the only beings below him.  He saw quite a few humans—hard to discern from the archons aside from the sense of them—scattered among the outer planar denizens, as well as a small handful of other creatures.  There was a large insectoid creature with four arms and four legs, with a black carapace that made it look like an ant.  There was a red-skinned creature with the head and lower legs of a bull and the body of a man, a creature that Tarrin would most closely call a Minotaur, but really looked nothing like the ones he’d seen.  He saw a frog-like Slaad, a creature from Limbo, and also spied a creature that looked like a bipedal elephant, twelve spans tall and with an oversized head, wearing some kind of blue military uniform and a monacle over its left eye.

        And there was the Demon.

        It was called a nabassu, one of the strongest of what they called the Untrue.  There were only six types of what Demons considered “true” Demons:  vrock, hezrou, glabrezu, nalfeshnee, marilith, and balor.  There were many other kinds, but they were not “true,” they were not of the noble stock.  But that did not in any way make them weak.  Nabassu were extremely powerful, and though not physically or magically powerful, a Succubus was a force to be reckoned with, wielding her own unique power of control and subversion.  Chasme and babau were also considered “greater” Demons, the strongest types of the untrue.

        It was long and gangly, with hugely oversized hand and feet, tipped with claws.  Its body was covered with black, scaly skin, and its eyes glowed red.  Its face was a horrid caricature of a human face, with long cheeks, a narrow chin, and a mouth filled with irregular fang-like teeth, complete with two huge tusks that jutted up from its bottom jaw.  It glared at him as he descended, but then it seemed to taste fear and retreated from the square once it met Tarrin’s eyes and saw the pure hate burning within them.

        From what he remembered from his long talks with Medjren, the outlying areas of the City were poor, those on the edges of the city, those furthest from the Core except for those sections of the City that abutted one of the portal stones known as the Ring (Medjren said that the City was so huge that it encompassed three of those stones within its boundary, and those stones were a hundred longspans apart!), those filled with the lowest class of people.  And this market certainly reflected that.  It was filled with archons and other creatures wearing what Tarrin would consider to be modest clothing of sturdy design, but a denizen of this place would consider crude…for it was much similar to what Medjren and the farmers wore, and they were humble people of modest means.  These people were of modest means, even the merchants, peddling their paltry wares on the counters of stalls placed haphazardly within the open area of the square.  They were small time merchants selling to the bottom rung of the society of this unimaginably vast megalopolis.

        Perhaps their luck would change.  Given that this part of the City now abutted a brand new sea, maybe they would see prosperity when goods started flowing through here on the way to settlements out on those islands.

        Tarrin alighted lightly as the entire square watched.  Good.  He wanted their complete attention.

        “You,” Tarrin called, pointing at the closest archon that stood behind a stall, with an array of jewelry on the table before him.  “Where is the most learned sage you know of?”

        “I—I know of no such person, my Lord,” the turban-wearing archon stammered.

        “Fine.  You, where can I find the most learned sage in this area?” he said, turning and pointing at another street merchant.

        “Well, my Lord, I’m sure I could locate what you desire,” the tall, narrow-faced female with hair that actually glowed with a soft white light, said in an acquisitive manner, tapping the fingertips of her long fingers together before her.  “For the most modest of fees, of course.”

        He was upon her in three steps.  She looked up at him with that hawkish expression, but it turned to shock and fear when his arm snapped forward and grabbed her by the front of her baggy tunic, then hauled her off her feet and over the stall table holding many assorted crystals of varying shapes and sizes and colors, bringing her nose to nose with him.  “That was not an offer to bargain,” he said in a dangerously low, seething tone.

        “Are you mad?” she gasped.  “You’ll bring the Deva down on us!”

        “That’s not going to be an issue for you, since you’ll be dead long before they get here,” he hissed.  “Now, either tell me what I want to know, or I’ll give them more than enough reason to come after me.”

        “Jemrik!” she squealed in fear.  “Jemrik the Wise!  He lives in the Korkara neighborhood, twenty leagues that way!” she said hastily, pointing to what he would call the northwest.  “He’s part of the Sage’s Council!  If he doesn’t know what you need, he can tell you who might!”

        Tarrin narrowed his eyes, looking into her fearful eyes for a long moment, then set her lightly on her feet.  “Thank you,” he said in a surprisingly mild and agreeable manner.  He then turned, spread his wings, and again took to the air.

        “Gods.  Such an arrogant lot,” he heard someone sniff disdainfully as he quickly left them behind.

        Tarrin ignored that.  The direct approach, he had learned long ago, almost always got right to the point.  And Were-cats were not creatures possessed of much patience with those who were standing between them and a goal.

        It didn’t take Tarrin long to travel twenty leagues.  He landed again in this City near a statue that had to be a hundred spans high, with a brass plaque at the base labeled Korkara the Just, scribed in what he would call Sulasian, but he knew actually wasn’t.  The Tongues spell he had placed on himself some time past allowed him to read the plaque and understand anyone, for it was the Wizard version of the spell placed on the golden charm he occasionally used.  He would hear and see Sulasian, while all who heard him would hear their own native language.

        “You!” Tarrin called, pointing at an archon resting atop a litter that floated of its own volition, a male wearing a gem-studded robe and holding a pink feather fan in his hand as he reclined on his lushly pillowed self-mobile conveyance.  “I seek Jemrik the Wise.  Where can I find him?”

        “Why should I answer one so rude?” he said scornfully, fanning himself with a fan made of exotic pink feathers.

        “Because I’ll be wearing a necklace of your entrails if you don’t,” Tarrin said in a vicious tone, extending his claws as he stalked towards the fop menacingly.

        “You wouldn’t dare bring the wrath of the Deva upon yourself!” he gasped.

        “Try me.”

        “I-I-I don’t know where he is, but I think that Memerime would know,” he stammered.  “Meremime knows everything!”

        “Where do I find this Meremime?” Tarrin demanded, coming to a stop within reach of his magical self-moving litter.

        “Meremime runs the Salty Siren, a tavern on the Krut,” he gibbered.  “Go that way and count twelve streets, and turn left at the twelth.  Count two streets and you’ll see it on the right side of the street.  It has a statue of a siren outside.”

        Tarrin looked him over carefully, deciding if he was being deceptive, but decided that he was suitably terrified to speak the truth.  “Thank you,” he said curtly, turning and stalking away even as he retracted his wings, as skin grew over the pools of living fire in his back, and his vest mended itself whole.

        It didn’t take him long to find this tavern, mainly because of the garish, fifteen span high statue of a naked female of attractive features and foam-blue skin and hair outside the blue-painted building.  Tarrin ducked in through the doorless entry, moving into a surprisingly large and open common room that had plenty of light.  The place was oval in shape inside, with the bar curving across the back of the room facing the door and with booths lining the walls not taken up by the bar.  The floor was depressed, lower than the street outside, set apart from the entry by two steps tiled with shells and bits of coral, a floor that was covered with white sand.  The walls were decorated with fishing nets, shells, skeletons of aquatic creatures, harpoons, sextants, a ship’s steering wheel, and other objects and weapons that one would associate with the sea, sailing, fishing, and aquatic life.  There were two staircases flanking the open entryway, which he passed as he stepped into the common room and down the two steps that formed the sunken floor.

        Meremime, to his surprise, was a Siren.  He knew because there was a Siren behind the bar, someone called her name, and she responded.  Sirens were ocean-dwelling females whose voices could ensnare the minds of the men who heard them, and they existed on his own world.  This Siren looked much like the Siren that Haley had singing at his festhall, with chalky blue skin, like the foam of the sea in the morning, and bone white hair that was long and thick and very straight.  She was very pretty, but she didn’t look like a young woman.  Hers was instead the handsomeness of a mature woman, much like the handsome looks of Triana, beautiful without a doubt but in the way of a woman, not of a girl.  She had a slightly narrow face with almost overly large green eyes, strong cheeks, a narrow nose that seemed just a tad sharp, and large, pouty lips crowning a very sharp chin.

        Tarrin came straight to the bar, coming between two archons sitting at stools, one of which gazed upon her with almost puppy-like adoration, and put his paws atop it before him widely and leaned down.

        “Welcome to my tavern, my Lord,” she said grandly.  “We don’t get many gods here.  May I get you something?”

        “How does everyone know I’m—I’m what I am?” he asked testily, almost before he realized he said it.

        “Why, it’s just your commanding presence, my Lord,” she said with an amused smile.  “I’m a mortal, I can’t really tell for sure, but the archons and other natural-born outer planars tell me that gods have a glowing aura around them that they can see.  But I know a god’s swagger when I see it,” she winked.

        Despite himself, he chuckled.  “It’s an efficient way to keep attention,” he told her.  “You are Meremime, yes?”

        “I’m Meremime,” she said with a little curtsy.  “What service can I provide to you, my Lord?  Given your divinity, I dare say you didn’t come here for the wine.”

        “I’m looking for a sage,” he told her.  “A sage that’s supposed to live in this vicinity.”

        “You must be looking for Jemrik,” she said, clicking her tongue shortly.  “Yes, he lives near here.  But what would a god need of an archon sage?”

        “That’s my business, isn’t it?” he asked pointedly.

        “Well—yes, yes of course, my Lord,” she said, bowing her head slightly.

        “Well?  Where is he?”

        “Certainly my Lord doesn’t expect a businesswoman like myself to part freely with what can be bought from another?” she said mildly.

        “I’ve already made an example out of the last person that tried to sell me information,” he said in a quiet, ominous tone, narrowing his eyes.  “Words are free, Siren.  They cost you nothing to make, but they might cost you a great deal if you don’t.”

        “I highly doubt that.  Not even gods wish to bring the wrath of the Deva.”

        “Are you willing to take that risk?” Tarrin asked in a dangerous whisper.

        She gave him a look, then chuckled ruefully.  “Clever, my Lord.  Very clever.  Using the threat of violence as a bargaining position!  Most of these kapchah don’t have the guts to even consider such a ploy.  Very well, since your bartering method is both unique and amusing, I’ll tell you what you wish to know.  But only after you buy a drink,” she said, reaching under the bar and producing a sturdy earthenware mug, then taking a crude jug from the counter behind the bar and filling the mug with a strangely sweet-smelling amber liquid.  “One mug of kuquo for what you wish to know.  This way you’re not buying words, you’re simply buying a drink.  The words we can share over your drink.”

        Tarrin gave her a respectful smile.  “You’re braver than most.”

        “Cowards end up poor,” she said simply.

        “And of course, this is the most expensive drink you can pour on such short notice.”

        “Certainly.  I could get some Elysium Wine, but those are in the cellar.  A mug of kuquo usually costs a patron twenty krin, but for you, I’d be willing to allow you sample the brewing skills of the Slaad of Limbo for a mere fifteen krin.”

        “Done,” he said, reaching into his belt pouch, counting out fifteen krin, and slapping them down on the bar.  “If only because you amuse me.”

        She scooped up the strange milky-white bits of what Tarrin would call ceramic smoothly.  “Jemrik the Wise rents an apartment over a baker’s shop fifteen streets from the statue of Korkara, my Lord,” she told him.  “Stand with your back to Korkara’s back and count fifteen streets, then look for a baker’s shop on the left.  There’s a staircase on the side of the building that leads to his apartment.”

        “Thank you,” he said immediately.  “And good day.”

        “But what about your drink!” she protested.

        “Drink something made by creatures that personify chaos?  I’m not that crazy,” he snorted, then stalked back towards the door.

        Meremime laughed brightly.  “You are clever, my Lord!” she complemented him as he reached the entry, then left her establishment.

        Tarrin wasted no time finding the apartment of Jemrik the Wise.  Meremime’s directions were exact, and he was standing on the very narrow landing facing the door of his second floor apartment mere moments after leaving the Salty Siren.  The baker’s shop was small but well-maintained, with a neat exterior and a well manicured row of little white flowers in a box hanging from a first floor window on the opposite side of the building from the stairwell.  The door to Jemrik’s apartment was rattier-looking than what was below, leading Tarrin to suspect that Jemrik wasn’t as fanatical about the appearance of his apartment as the bakers below were with the appearance of their shop.  He knocked once, quite smartly, and he heard a commotion within almost immediately.  “Hold on, hold on!” came an irascible voice from within.  Tarrin heard soft footsteps beyond the door, then the sound of the lock and latch being undone…and then the door opened.

        Jemrik the Wise was something of a surprise to Tarrin.  He was an archon, but he couldn’t be more than thirty years old.  He had green hair that was long and flowing, billowing down over the shoulders of his red waistcoat, and red-irised eyes glared up at him.  He wore a wide leather belt, which held up a pair of matching red trousers, but curiously, Jemrik was barefoot.  He was rather thin and weedy-looking, and he was rather short, only coming up to Tarrin’s chest.  His face was not very attractive, with a wide, squarish face set on a head that seemed just a tad too large for his body, a wide, squashed nose, eyes that were a bit too far apart, and thin lips concealing teeth that were slightly yellowed and with the left front tooth missing.  Jemrik looked like a young man, but the way he carried himself and the set of his eyes led Tarrin to believe that he was much older then he looked.

        “And what do ye want?” he demanded in an irritated manner, not even bothering to look up from the book in his hand for much more than the briefest of glances.  “I have work to do, and I have no time for new commissions right now.  The Council should have told you that before sending you here.”

        “You are Jemrik the Wise?” Tarrin asked steadily.

        “Aye, I’m Jemrik.  Goodbye.”

        And with that, he slammed the door in Tarrin’s face.

        Tarrin was slightly taken aback.  He wasn’t used to being ignored.  It was almost refreshing…or it would have been if he wasn’t in such a hurry and on important business.  Tarrin knocked on the door again, louder this time, which drew an immediate exasperated huff beyond the door.  “I told ye I don’t have time for new commissions!” he shouted through the door.  “Go back to the Council and tell them to recommend someone else!  Why in the Core do they keep sending them here?” he demanded loudly to himself.

        “I wasn’t sent by the Council,” Tarrin stated.  “And you will answer my questions, if you can.  If you’re not up to it, then you can refer me to your council, so I can find a sage that can.”

        “Balderdash!” he shouted through the door.  “I’ll not rise up to such transparent bait, godling!  Go find someone that can tell you where the Council meets, because ye ain’t doing nothing but wasting my time!”

        The sage Jemrik turned around within the common room of his tiny apartment, a place filled with stacks and stacks of old books piled haphazardly over all the old, mismatched furniture, then he gasped and staggered backwards when his nose poked into the chest of Tarrin Kael.  “How did ye--!” he spluttered, then he seemed to regain himself.  “Using magic to get past my door won’t change my answer!  Now kindly get out of my house before I have ye thrown out!”

        “I don’t recall telling you that you had a choice,” Tarrin growled at him in a deep, dangerous voice.  “I have no time to waste on cantankerous archons.  You will answer my questions to the best of your ability, and once you do, I’ll be out of your hair and on my way.  The longer you fight me over that inescapable fact, the longer you keep yourself from your other work.”

        Jemrik gave him a hot look, then sighed and chuckled ruefully.  “Well, if ye could somehow get past a door I enchanted myself to prevent magical intrusion, then I don’t think I’ll have much luck keeping ye out,” he admitted.  “How did ye do that?  The aura about ye is hollow, hinting that ye are a god in title only, yet ye did something that not even some gods could have managed.”

        “I understand how magic works better than most,” he said dismissively.  “Sit.  This should take about ten minutes, so you may as well be comfortable.”

        “Alright then,” he said, looking behind him.  He sat down on a tall stack of very thick and heavy books, and Tarrin immediately seated himself sedately on the floor, wrapping his tail around his legs to keep it out of mischief.  “What’s so important that ye are willing to disrupt my research?”

        “I need to get some very, obscure information,” he answered.

        “What is this information?”

        “The location of the realm of a single god out in the multiverse,” he answered.  “Or, at the very least, what plane his realm is in.”

        Jemrik whistled.  “Ye’re talking about hard information to find,” he agreed.  “It can be done, not even gods can conceal their home realms completely, but it would be neither easy nor cheap.  The sage would have to do some intense research to try to find the location of a single god’s realm in all the multiverse.  What is this god’s name?”

        “He never uses it.  He uses a nickname.”

        “Ugh, that’d make it much harder.  What is this nickname?”

        “He calls himself the One,” Tarrin told him with deliberation.  Now Tarrin knew that he was committed to this course of action, for he had spoken the assumed name of his prey.

        “Ain’t never heard of it.  Is this god an Elder God or somehow notable or notorious?  Is he worshipped in more than one of the dimensions of the material plane?”

        “No, I don’t think so, and I doubt it,” he answered.  “The god practices xenophobia with his followers in the mortal plane, so it’s no stretch to think that he operates the same way in his realm.  I don’t think he has any followers outside of that one material world either.”

        “Well, my Lord, ye be talking the price tag up higher and higher for a sage to find this information,” he said honestly.  “I’m no expert on multiplanar theology, mind ye, but I can tell ye that it won’t be cheap or easy to find this information.  Speaking as a sage with general knowledge of how sages work, ye understand.”

        “What is your field of study?  If you don’t mind me asking?”

        Jemrik’s face brightened somewhat.  “Why, I study planar thaumatology, the study of magic, my Lord. I concentrate on the effect of planar influence on magic,” he answered.

        “Thaumatology?  Is that some kind of strange Crossroads name for what a Wizard does?”

        “Well, I can cast spells,” he said modestly, “but I’m not just a Wizard.  I study the effect of outer planar physics and divine influence on the forces of magic.  Most Wizards in Crossroads know, for example, that most spells from the Divination school don’t work here.  Well, I study why, approaching the problem from both the realm of magical and divine influence and the realm of pure physics.”

        “Ah, I see,” Tarrin said with a nod.  “So, you specialize in the effect of the Outer planes on Wizard magic?”

        “both Wizard and Priest magic, and I study some of the lesser known magical abilities,” he answered.  “For example, there’s a type of magic called Runic from one of the material planes, where spells are cast by throwing stone tablets or pieces of parchment with spell runes inscribed on them.  There’s also a branch of magic from another called Spelldancers, people who cast spells based loosely on Wizard magic only by dancing and using somatics.”

        “I’ve never heard of those.”

        “I’d be surprised if ye had, because ye won’t find them out here.  Their magic doesn’t work out here, only in their home planes.  Only true Wizard and Priest magic work out here.”

        “I don’t see why.  I mean, if these Spelldancers cast Wizard-based magic, it should work out here.”

        “It works on their home world because their gods made rules that aren’t the same as everywhere else,” he explained.  “If the gods make the rules different, then the magic that evolves in that world will be unique, and won’t work anywhere else.  They change some of the rules to give magic a boost, I believe…it’s one of my postulations.  And some of those native magics can be damn strong.  There’s one type of magic that’s called Sorcery that’s practiced in the Forbidden Prime, and it’s said that some of the people who use that magic are so powerful that they could stand on equal footing to some gods,” he said in a reverent tone.

        Tarrin was a bit surprised that this sage would know about Sorcery, but then he remembered his talks with Spyder and Niami.  Sennadar and its magic was well known beyond the borders of their material plane, because Sennadar was one of those material planes closest to the Core, it was what Jemrik had just called the Forbidden Prime.

        “Yes, Sorcery can rival the power of some gods,” he said with light amusement.  “Depending on who’s using it.”

        “Ye’ve read about Sorcery?” Jemrik asked.  “Ye said ye knew more about magic than most.  Are ye a god of magic perchance, or just a god with an interest in exotic and alien magic forms?”

        “I’ve, had contact with certain gods and mortals who have intimate knowledge of that particular dimension,” he said carefully.

        “But it’s forbidden!” he gasped.  “To both man and god!  It has been for some five thousand years, since the gods of that world closed all the gates after the Demon invasion and hid the Astral gateway!”

        “Only if you try to invade, like the Demons did.  I know someone who knows someone who managed to strike up friendly conversation with the Guardian of that forbidden world, and that someone passed on to me what I know about it.”

        Well, it was technically true.  That someone happened to be himself.

        “Oh, hellfire, if only I didn’t have all this work, I’d love to grill ye about what ye know of Sorcery, my Lord,” he said with a rueful sigh.  “Anyway, since ye seem to be a kindred spirit in some things, let’s get back to yer problem.  I can’t tell ye what ye need to know, and I wouldn’t know where to start.  It ain’t my field of study.  What ye need to do is go to the Sage’s Council.  They’re an association of sages of all kinds, and even a few gods,” he said with an aire of self-importance.  “If someone in the council headquarters proper can’t help ye, they can get ye the name of a sage that can.”

        “That sounds like my best bet.  Where can I find this council?”

        “They’re headquartered in the Bessamy neighborhood,” he answered.  “It’s a fairly long clip from here, my Lord, some two hundred leagues, thirty degrees left of the Core.  They meet in the Hall of Knowledge, it’s just off Bessamy Square.  Big building with a roof that has two open books carved into the stone roof, ye can’t miss it.”

        “I don’t know where that is, but I think I can find it,” he said, mentally filing that information away.

        “Yer best bet is to hire someone to take you,” Jemrik told him.  “It’s too far to walk or take a carriage, so ye’re best off hiring a flying carriage or a flying mount to get ye there.  I recommend Porquat’s, they have a fine stable of winged serpents that can fly you almost anywhere in the City.  I don’t take anything but a Porquat serpent, I’ve had nothing but good experiences using them.”

        “A flying taxi service, eh?  Clever,” Tarrin mused with a nod.  It was a fairly good idea.  He’d bet that this Porquat made a killing.

        “When ye’re dealing with a place this big, my Lord, ye need a flying service to get ye around,” Jemrik said simply.  “Ye can take yer pick of which kind of flying mount ye want, from Porquat’s flying service of flying serpents ye have to handle yerself, to grand coaches pulled by teams of kirin.  When I first came here, I almost fell off my first mount, a griffon I hired to fly me from the Bessamy neighborhood to the Robrath neighborhood,” he laughed.  “Ye can always tell the residents from the visitors here by seeing how well they sit a flying mount.  Residents are much better at it than visitors.”

        “Yes, I could see that,” Tarrin agreed.  “Anyone who’s been here any amount of time probably had to hire a flying mount at some point.”

        “Oh, I’m sure there are some peasant archons who’ve never left their neighborhood, but more than less have flown somewhere.  I know that as a god maybe flying on a flying serpent ain’t all that grand for yer reputation among the other gods, but if ye’ve never sat a flying mount, then one of Porquat’s serpents is best for ye to start with. They’re mild-natured and they don’t buck or sway at all.  Very smooth flight, every time.”  He chuckled.  “But, yer manner and the fact that ye be sitting on my floor hints to me that yer not like most gods.  If ye don’t mind me being so bold, my Lord,” he added quickly.

        “The fact that you slammed your door in my face tells me you’re not like most archons,” Tarrin replied with a smile.

        Jemrik winced.  “I’m sorry about that, my Lord.  I didn’t really even look at ye.  I didn’t realize ye were a god til you managed to slip through my defensive spells and accost me in here.  Er, how did ye do that?  I know ye couldn’t have teleported through the door, anyone who’s lived here any time at all knows that that’s the first thing ye do when laying down yer protections, because of those those damned thieving Demons and their ability to teleport around at will.  Did my protective spells fade or something?”

        “No, your defensive spells were impeccably placed, and they’re still going strong,” Tarrin told him with complete honesty.  “You’d have stopped just about anyone but me, probably even quite a few gods.”

        “But, but how did ye do it?”

        “I know a trick,” he said lightly.  “It’s a very rare and relatively unknown trick.  But it’s damn effective.”

        “I can see that,” he laughed.  “So ye are a god of magic then?”

        “No, not at all.”

        “Then how did ye come to learn this trick so rare and unknown that even gods don’t know about it?”

        “My mother taught me,” he said with a slight smile.

        “I’ll take that as the best answer I’m gonna get and bid ye farewell,” Jemrik laughed.  “I do have too damn much work to do, and speaking with ye has put me behind.  I really need to get back at it.”

        “Yes, and I need to get to this Sage’s Council as fast as I can.  I don’t have much time.”

        “Porquat’s is—“

        “I have my own way of getting there, Jemrik,” Tarrin interrupted him.  “I don’t need a flying mount.”

        “Ah, one of yer god powers no doubt, my Lord,” Jemrik shrugged.  “Most gods make sure they manifest here with the ability to fly, or teleport, or both.  If ye don’t think I’m too bold, I have to say that yer much more mellow than I first thought, my Lord.”

        Tarrin laughed.  “As long as I’m getting my own way, I’m a very agreeable person,” he admitted.

        “Ain’t it that way with everyone?” Jemrik said philosophically.

        The Bessamy neighborhood took its name from a large statue of some kind of large, ugly, foreboding giant-looking creature that was female.  The statue, sculpted from solid obsidian, showed this Bessamy creature sitting on a rough rock, reading from a large book in one hand as the other held a staff tipped with a ring holding a crystal to the side.  This Bessamy was some kind of magic-user from the look of her robes, though she certainly wasn’t all that much to look at.  Then again, appearance wasn’t always everything.

        It was during the flight over to this place that Tarrin understood how they found things.  Statues like that of Bessamy and Korkara were all over the place, about every fifty streets or so, and each neighborhood took the name of the nearest statue to it.  Everything around this statue was the Bessamy neighborhood until another statue was closer.

        It was also during the flight over that Tarrin got a feeling for just how many things could fly in this place.  He’d never felt crowded in the air, but he certainly did so while he came here.   Because he was traveling a distance, he gained quite a bit of altitude so he could take in this endless megalopolis from a panoramic height, but his view of the streets below almost always included some kind of flying creature or device.  Flying mounts, carriages or sleds pulled by flying creatures, and even devices that flew under their own power were quite common…almost too common.  A gift that was so rare that it truly set him apart from most was...normal in this place.  He’d never before seen so many flying creatures and devices in one place, not even at Amyr Dimeon.  The Pegasi and winged serpents and the occasional being flying without any visible means using magic of some kind, he could get used to, but the flying carpets, broomsticks, solid clouds, winged carriages, even a flying wardrobe…well, those were just weird.  He wasn’t used to seeing magical objects like that.  Sure, he owned quite a few of his own, but Tarrin was a huge exception rather than the rule.  The Breaking had destroyed almost all of the magical objects…the average citizen of Sennadar would go so long that he would have his grandchildren die of old age before his descendents saw a magical object.  And yet that same common citizen could cast his own spells, at the very least a cantrip or two…life was funny sometimes.  Then again, now that the Weave was whole, it was only a matter of time before magical objects became more common, as the Wizards, Priests, and Sorcerers began to create more and more of them.

        The citizens of the City had not missed the fact that so many were in the air.  There were signs and pictures painted or etched into the roofs of the buildings below, advertising what that place was.  It seemed a bit strange to Tarrin, but it also made a kind of sense, and it also helped those in the air navigate by using certain buildings as signposts.  It also made him understand the way they gave directions here.  They didn’t say go down twelve streets and it’s on your left, they said count twelve streets and it will be on the left side, and they said that because one might not be on the ground to go those twelve streets.  They might be airborne, and from the air, they would count twelve streets as they flew overhead, and the building might not be on the counter’s left if he wasn’t directly over the street, but it would be on the left side of the street.

        He was glad he caught that.  He’d thought it was a weird glitch in how his Tongues spell was translating the language until he actually pondered it.

        The building housing the Sage’s Council was indeed impossible to miss, because it was right beside the grassy square holding the statue of Bessamy, it was the size of the Imperial Library in Dala Yar Arak, and it had an open book sculpted into the gray stone on both sides of the peaked roof.  It had a large campus that was enclosed by an ornate iron fence, with lush grass, many trees, and gardens on the far side.  Tarrin landed inside that fence, landing on a gravel pathway that led from large gates to what looked like the main entrance, two sets of double doors standing side by side at the top of a stone staircase carved from what looked like marble.  He withdrew his wings  even as his feet touched the gravel, flowing inward and pulling back until they vanished into his back, and again his skin and the leather of his vest mended themselves silently, concealing any trace of them.  He started up the stairs as two white-robed elderly male archons exited from the doors above and started down the steps.  Both of them looked at him curiously as they passed, turning to look over their shoulders after he was passed.  Tarrin paid them no mind at all, reaching the doors through which those two archons had exited.  The doors opened of their own volition even as he reached for the handle, swinging inward to reveal a magnificent receiving hall filled with fluted marble columns in two rows that marched down the length of the hall and tiles on the floor laid out like a chessboard, alternating black and white tiles.  The walls that he could see behind the columns were so laden with paintings and tapestries that the wall behind them was almost invisible, and those walls rose up to a buttress holding up a balcony that ringed the hall, and then rose even higher to a marvelous curved celing that was covered with iridescent tiles that reflected every flicker of light and sent it back down in rainbow hues.  There was a huge stone desk sitting squarely in the middle of the gallery between the second pair of white columns.  Two staircases flanked a single set of massive gold-gilded double doors at the far end of the hall, beyond the desk and its lone occupant, a thin, female wizened archon with glowing white eyes, gray hair, wrinkled, withered features, and a hostile demeanor that told Tarrin that this old woman might be a problem.  She sat behind her huge desk and sat rigidly erect, though her head was bowed and looking down a book laying open on the immaculately clean and totally bare desk before her, devoid of anything other than that single book.

        “You don’t have an appointment,” she stated imperiously as he approached the desk, without looking up.

        “No, I don’t,” Tarrin affirmed.  “I only just arrived here.”

        “Obviously, or you’d have made an appointment,” she sniffed.  “Come back when you have one.”

        “How does one make an appointment?” Tarrin asked curiously.  He had a feeling he knew what she was going to say, but he wanted confirmation.

        “You make an appointment with the sage, of course,” she said as if he were stupid.

        “But I don’t know which sage to talk to,” he said mildly.  “How does one talk to a sage without an appointment, when one has to talk to a sage to get an appointment?”

        She glanced up at him in irritation.  “If you don’t have an appointment, I can’t let you in,” she told him gratingly.

        “Fine then,” he said, his suspicions confirmed.  “I have an appointment.”

        “You’re not on the calendar.”

        “Vizhous,” Tarrin said quietly, then he put his palm on the desk meaningfully.  The magic of the spell saturated the stone of the desk, and then transformed it.

        The woman gasped as her elbows stopped resting on cool stone and instead rested on cold ice.  “Jehrash!” she exclaimed.  “I’ll call the Deva on you for destroying my desk, you miscreant!  I won’t stand for this!”

        “I’m not paying you anything to see a sage,” Tarrin said in a low, serious tone.  “So, you have a choice.  You let me by and I change your desk back, or you continue being a bitch.  Then you can sit here and watch your desk melt.”

        “You’ve destroyed my desk!” she shouted at him.  “The Deva will come, and then you’ll be leaving without seeing anything but your own entrails!”

        “I didn’t destroy anything,” he said in a conversational tone, standing erect and crossing his arms before him.  “I simply changed your desk into ice.  That your desk will melt isn’t any overt act, it’s just ice doing what ice does when it’s not in a cold place.  Now, I could fix it so there are some sword blades sticking up from the seat of your chair while I’m at it,” he said in an offhanded manner, uncrossing his arms meaningfully.

        She literally jumped out of her chair.

        “Now, I have an appointment, don’t I?” he asked in a deliberate, frosty tone, putting his paws on the ice that was once a desk and leaning over it, putting him all but nose to nose with her.  The ice steamed and hissed when it made contact with his paws, and he quickly melted deep divots into the top of it.

        “Y-Yes, but the council is in session right now,” she said fearfully.

        “Fine, that puts them all where I can get my paws on them,” he said, rising back up and stepping around the desk.

        “Wait!” she called, a bit helplessly.

        He glanced back, snorted slightly, then lifted a paw up over his shoulder and snapped his fingers.  The ice transformed back into stone, complete with the two depressions in the top that perfectly matched his pawprints.

        The council room of the Sage’s Council was beyond the doors and through a richly appointed antechamber, obviously where important people would sit and wait for an audience, through a truly elaborate set of gold-gilded doors on the far side of the antechamber, sculpted to resemble a large number of bearded men sitting around a table.  Tarrin left his staff and pack by that door and opened it without delay.  What was beyond that door wasn’t far from the relief on the door, for the large room beyond had a raised far side, with four steps that formed rings leading up to the center area.  The floor was carpeted over completely with rich red carpeting, which muffled the sounds of the feet scuffling along it.  There were rows of chairs facing that round raised area in the back, many rows of chairs, with many of them filled. The dais across the room held a large long table which had thirteen people sitting behind it.  Five of them were archons, one was a human, two looked to be Elara—or elves, they were called elves on other worlds—and the last one was some kind of bird-man creature with black feathers and a hawk’s beak.  The archon that sat in the center of the table, with a gold-inlaid lecturn sitting before him upon which rested an ivory-headed gavel, was adorned in a scarlet robe with a gold patch sewn over the right side of the chest, a patch depicting an open book with a lit candle behind it.  In fact, all of them, even those sitting on the chairs on the main floor, wore the exact same kind of robe, but the patches they wore were either copper or silver.  The one in the middle with the gold badge had to be the one in authority.  He had hair the color of lightning, a blue-tinged silver-white, and his features made him appear to be middle aged and just scraping the edges of old age.  His features were drawn and a bit sallow and his eyes seemed to have a permanent squint, the mark of a man who spent all of his time inside peering at books by weak light.

        “—can definitely work with that schedule, Mazrath,” the leading arcon was saying as Tarrin burst into the council chamber.  “Will you have your first draft complete?”

        “I should, your Eminence,” someone on the floor said, standing up to address the gold-badged fellow, then returning to his seat.

        “Very well.  Now, since it’s apparent that your abrupt entry into our chambers during a session decries a lack of manners, we should address the reason you have interrupted our deliberations,” the leader said in a slightly forceful tone, looking directly at Tarrin.

        “Good.  I’d hate to have to do something to get your attention,” Tarrin called in a loud, direct manner as he started filing past the back rows of seats, as every eye turned to look at him.  “I seek information.”

        That created a few whispers, rather unsettled ones.  “Pardon my boldness, my Lord, but why would a god seek the counsel of bloods and mortals?”

        “My reasons are none of your business,” Tarrin said as he marched up to the dais holding the long table.  “And before we start drifting off course, let’s put it on the floor right now.  I need the services of a sage with a background in both planar geography and obscure theology, dealing with little-known gods.  I seek the location of the domain of a single god, worshipped in a single prime material plane.  Who here,” Tarrin said, turning to face the audience of sages, “can answer that question, or know of a sage that can?”
        There was some nervous rumbling in the hall, and Tarrin could sense that there was a tinge of fear.  Fear?  Over what?  Over answering a question?  That made little sense.  It made more sense that they were afraid of him.  That, he was used to.

        “Well?  I’m waiting.”

        “My Lord, I think you can see that none here are either willing or able to hire into your service,” the lead sage said with polite force.  “And you are disrupting our meeting.  If you would be so kind as to remove yourself from the building, we can continue our meeting.  After the meeting, I would be glad to personally send out a contract to our association and see if someone within the Sage’s Council is willing to contract to you to research your question, but it will take time for my contract to reach some of the more distant sages and get a reply.  So, if you would be so kind as to return in four cycles, I will gladly meet with you and give you the results, as well as the names and going rates of fees of any sages willing to contract to you.  Is this agreeable?”

        “That is more than acceptable,” Tarrin said immediately, turning around to look at the lead archon.  That was more or less exactly what he was hoping to get out of this.  “Seeing as how I need to wait nearby, can someone recommend a good inn?”

        That caused the archon to smile slightly.  “A god seeking an inn?  You certainly do like to play the role of blood, my Lord.  But if it’s an inn you seek, then the grandest and most luxurious—“

        “No,” Tarrin said, slashing his paw before him.  “Just a plain old average inn.”

        “Well, then, the Gzargmoth is close to here.  Return to the square and walk away from the face of the statue and count five streets.  You’ll see it on your left.”

        “Thank you.  I’ll return in four cycles.”

        “I will be happy to receive you at that time, my Lord,” he said with a short bow.

        Tarrin turned and stalked back out as eyes watched him, and more muttered whisperings tickled at Tarrin’s ears, too low for him to make them out.  He retrieved his pack and staff and marched back out into the entry hall, and as he started approaching the desk of the old archon woman who’d impeded him, he started getting a faint scent that was making his ears try to lay back.  There was the faintest of faint scent of Demon in the air, and it wasn’t there when he came in.  This was fresh.  Tarrin slowed down, taking slow, deliberate steps towards the old woman, and the scent became stronger, that smell of absolute corruption and evil that made a Demon absolutely unable to hide, no matter how they looked.  This scent was fresh, very fresh, and it was pure.  That meant that it was a Demon of some power, though he didn’t know what kind yet…the scents of the various Demons were very hard to discern from one another.  His deliberate plod became a light-footed padding of utter silence as he slinked past the old woman, who was trying to come up with some way to remove the pawprints from her desk.  As he got closer and closer to the door, the scent became stronger, and he began to discriminate aspects the ghastly stench and break it down.

        Not Demon.  Demons.

        He could pick out five distinct scents now, and two he could identify as vrock.  They were very fresh.  These Demons didn’t come into the council building, but they did come up to the door, and then they left.

        Almost immediately, the paranoid part of Tarrin’s mind concluded that the Demons knew he was here, and they had come looking for him.  Demons, like Tarrin himself, probably had little fear of the One Law, given the Demons could simply teleport away the instant the Deva arrived.  So his paranoid half had little doubt that the Demons he was now scenting had no qualms about starting a fight.  But the more rational part of his mind could not answer one question; how did they know he was here?  Did this even involve him?  Had they approached to seek a sage and sensed the presence of a god, and then retreated?

        Either scenario was entirely possible.  Those Demons had either come for him, or they had come to find a sage, and they sensed Tarrin’s divine aura and retreated.  Either conclusion had merit to back it up.

        That meant that there was only one way to find out.  If they were here to set a trap, then it was best that he simply go out there and spring it.  If nothing happened, if he reached this inn called Gzargmoth without incident, then the Demons had been there on business that had nothing to do with him.

        Either way worked for him.

        With pack shouldered and staff held lightly in paw, the imposing figure of Tarrin Kael exited the headquarters of the Sage’s Council with a light, relaxed stride and a distracted demeanor.  His staff made a tak-tak-tak sound as its butt struck the stones of the steps, then a crunching sound as it was pressed down into the gravel of the pathway from the gate to the stairs.  His eyes didn’t scan the grounds and the skies, fixed firmly on the ground as pondering important matters while walking…and not paying all that much attention.  He almost walked into the gate, pausing to push the wrought iron open, then padded through and onto a cobblestone street ringing the square holding the statue of Bessamy, passing by two archons and a human armor-wearing adventurer who were locked in deep conversation.

        The human glanced back to look at the exotic furry creature, and he was the only one to see what happened.  A huge Demon simply appeared in the air directly over and behind that strange furry man-creature, a creature the grizzled adventurer mecernary recognized from his years of traveling the planes as a vrock, a vulture-Demon that was fond of using a glaive.  That glaive was indeed present in its taloned hands, a glaive whose blade pulsed with a dark, unholy aura that marked the weapon as intensely magical, held over its head as gravity took hold of it and caused it to fall to the ground.  With a screech, the vrock whipped that evil-looking polearm over its head, bringing the blade down directly between the furry creature’s cat-like ears.

        When it made contact, the furry creature’s entire form seemed to disrupt, and then it exploded in a puff of glowing dust.

        The vrock landed on the cobblestones with a cloud of glowing dust all around it, as the archons with the human cried out in alarm and called on him to run away before the Deva came and killed everyone in close proximity to this sudden act of violence, but the human couldn’t look away from the look of shock in the vrock’s beady little red eyes.

        “Surprise,” came a calm voice, called loudly.  The human whipped his head to the side, and he saw that same creature near the gates of the headquarters of the Sage’s Council.  It ran at amazing speed right towards the vrock, holding a staff in one of his huge hands.  The human was absolutely amazed…never in his life had he seen something move so unbelievably fast!  It was upon them in the blink of an eye, and it struck that vrock right across the hooked beak the instant it was within range.  The vrock gave out a squeal of pain as it was literally swept into the air by the tremendous power of that blow, as black Demon blood and pieces of grayish-brown beak horn went flying in the arc of the staff’s swing.  The vrock tumbled in the air, and the crashed in a floomp of breaking bone and bloodstained feathers billowing into the air.

        “Let’s get out of here!” one of his archon friends screamed immediately.

        “How did that god fool the Demon?” the other called even as he ran.  “I thought they could see the true nature of each other!  It shouldn’t have attacked that decoy!”

        The human didn’t bother to even think about the answer.  He was too busy running for his life.

        With speed impossible for any mortal being, speed generated by a Wizard spell that allowed Tarrin to move with unnatural rapidity, a much weaker version of the Druid spell Tarrin knew, Tarrin closed on the still-sliding Demon, who was rolling over and over on his shattered wings and broken beak.  It hadn’t even come to a stop before it was struck once more, struck with a savage overhanded blow that crushed its skull and killed it almost instantly.  The body began to dissolve into that grisly black ichor even before it came to a complete stop on the cobblestones.  Before the body completely became a congealed mass, Tarrin drove his paw into it, spraying his arms and chest with foul-smelling ichor.  It reached deeply into the acidic mass, and then found what it was looking for.

        The Demon had fallen for the second of Tarrin’s three powers he had managed to impart upon himself, the power of creating duplicates of himself so complete, so real, that it even gave off the divine aura.  It was a doppleganger, a solid Illusion that could fool even the eyes of a god.  Jemrik the Wise hadn’t been talking to Tarrin, he had been talking to a created doppleganger, which Tarrin had caused to appear on the far side of the door, and through which Tarrin had been able to see and hear and smell and even taste.  It was more of an extension of self with mass and with solid form than a simple magical trick, a second body that he could completely control.  Tarrin had even worked it so he could become the doppleganger, exchanging his true self with the duplicate and literally swapping locations.  It was a clever and creative means to enact the ability to teleport without having to resort to using a magical spell, mainly because Tarrin could cause a duplicate to appear a good distance away from himself.

        Tarrin sensed more than saw another Demon reveal itself, appearing directly behind him, because of the horrific stench of its body, even over and above the way Demons already smelled, a smell that would have overwhelmed the Were-cat had he not had so much practice blocking out smells from his mind.  He ripped the object he’d snared with his paw out of the dissolving body of the vrock, then hooked the vrock’s glaive with his tail and pulled it along with him as he slid to the side, as a hezrou, a frog-like Demon with a wide head and gaping mouth filled with rows of small, razor-sharp teeth, materialized behind him and tried to impale him with a three-tined trident.  He struck the underside of the trident with his staff and knocked it high as he spun adroitly aside, grabbed the haft of the glaive with his left paw as he curled it upwards with his tail, then whipped it around the far side of his body.  The pulsating steel blade left a wispy trail of glowing evil behind it, cleaving a black arc through the air as the hezrou managed to regain its balance and slither away from the surprise attack, scrambling back until the tip of the glaive just barely managed to ghost across the skin of the beast’s warty chest.  It was a feat that Tarrin grudgingly admitted was quite impressive.  This squat, frog-like creature had a thick body and torso, but it just proved that it could move with fluid grace and precision when necessity demanded it.

        Tarrin tossed his staff aside and took up the glaive in the end grip, then lowered it menacingly at the Demon as it skittered to a halt and brought up its own weapon.

        “I’m sure your three friends are just waiting for me to get too busy with you to notice them,” Tarrin hissed, his eyes exploding from within with the unholy greenish radiance that marked his anger.

        We all have our little surprises, the Demon’s voice touched his mind, tinged with both nonchalance and amusement.  Its confidence about this fight was so absolute that it didn’t see this as a fight for survival, but as a game.

        “This is for keeps, Demon,” Tarrin said with an evil, sadistic half-smile.  “You think that formed body is going to protect you?  Think again.  You lose to me, you lose more than a body.  You lose your soul.”  Tarrin took the spoor-covered hand from the glaive and held it out, showing the Demon a simple obsidian amulet with unspeakably evil words etched into its round border in a language so ancient and evil that no mortal was ever meant to peruse even a single glyph of that damned tongue.  The round obsidian amulet was suspended from a golden chain, which was dripping with sizzling Demonic spoor.  “Recognize this?”

        The creature’s look of arrogance melted from its face, and then its eyes widened.  No! it protested.  It is impossible!

        “I learned a long time ago that possible and impossible are simply illusions for those who can’t comprehend the true nature of things,” he said with a dark glare.  “I will reach into your guts and take this—“ he held out the amulet—“no matter where or how carefully you have it hidden or guarded.  Now you get to know what it feels like to be mortal, Demon,” he hissed.  “In this fight, you can die.”

        It is impossible!  Impossible! the Demon protested over and over again, taking a shaky step backward, its eyes locked in terror at the ichor-smeared soul amulet that Tarrin held before him, the object that encased the soul of the vrock he had just slain, an object that he had reached into the Demon’s body, reached across dimensions, and ripped from its secure hiding place.

        With a deft flick of the paw and wrist, the soul amulet’s chain was wrapped securely around Tarrin’s wrist, the obsidian amulet dangling.  Tarrin wanted to leave it out, to let that Demon see it and know that in this fight, it was not invulnerable, invincible.  If it lost, it lost everything.  Now the Demons were on the same footing as Tarrin, who put everything on the line in every battle.  Now, the Demons would know what it was like to fight when one’s very existence was on the line.

        He knew that he might have to face Demons or other extra-dimensional foes in his search for the One, maybe even face the Demon Lord’s minions if they moved to defend the One, and this power, the last of the three powers he had managed to give himself, would work on any creature whose soul was not joined to the body.  He could reach into any creature and grasp the container holding the true soul of any opponent, be it mortal or Demon or even god, and if it was small enough, he could yank it back into whatever plane of existence in which his material form was currently located.

        This was the great balancer.  Now, any creature who could keep its soul safely in one dimension and assault Tarrin with endless creations or projections would face the terrifying prospect of facing a foe that could take the object holding that soul…but only if it was small enough for him to pick up and move, and could not be larger than the created body or projection through which Tarrin was reaching, using the link between soul and created form as a gateway to seize the soul container.  If the soul was within an object larger than the created form through which Tarrin was reaching, or within a living body, he couldn’t pull it through.  But something like a Demon’s soul amulet, that was child’s play.

        The Demon looked too horrified to even think of advancing on Tarrin, its eyes locked on the amulet wrapped around his wrist.  Tarrin put his spoor-covered paw back on the glaive and lowered it at the hezrou, even as he felt the duration of his speed-increasing spell end, and his magically enhanced quickness faded.  But against this foe, he wouldn’t need it.  Tarrin was more than a match for most Demons in a physical battle.  Hezrou weren’t very powerful when compared to the other True Demons.  It would take a marilith or a balor to worry Tarrin enough to think he still needed his haste spell.  “Let’s get on with it!” he growled, rushing forward with the glaive held professionally low and to the side, ready to strike the instant he was in range.

        Tarrin had never fought with a glaive before, but he had practiced with the many polearms the Knights kept in the armory, and it wasn’t much different from a Shacèan guisarme.  With one swing, an attempt to decapitate the hezrou that met nothing but empty air as the creature displayed again that unseemly speed and agility he had noticed before, he became completely aware of the top-heavy nature of the weapon and immediately adjusted his grip and his stance to compensate for the weight imbalance.  The shaft of the glaive was a bit too long for him, since the vrock was about a span taller than him, but two words spoken in the language of magic caused the weapon to magically shrink until it was perfect for him, spoken even as he deflected a frenzied series of stabs from the business end of the hezrou’s trident.  The glaive was a polearm, meant to deal blows using the bladed end of the weapon, but most wizened polearm users fully understood that the shaft of the weapon could be as much a weapon as the blade at the end.  For a master of the staff, fighting using a more centered grip which sacrificed some power in exchange for the ability to use the entire weapon’s shaft both offensively and defensively was only natural.  The Demon learned quickly that Tarrin knew how to wield his stolen weapon as he rushed in with wild eyes, his trident whipping back and forth as he used the entire length of the weapon, striking at Tarrin with both the barbed triple points of the head and the weighted butt end.  The metallic shafts of both weapons chimed in staccato rhythm as the hezrou tried to overwhelm Tarrin quickly, but found itself facing an opponent he was not going to easily kill in a battle of weapons.  Tarrin didn’t retaliate as it bashed itself against his defenses, getting a more intimate feel for the glaive, feeling its subleties and the whisper of its balance in his paws, until he felt completely confident to answer the Demon’s assault.

        And when he did answer, it was with tremendous force.  The Demon staggered back as the Were-cat all but exploded on it, the glaive whirring and whistling through the still air as it moved with unbelievable speed and a precision that any adept of the fighting arts would know to be true mastery.  The barest shiver of the glaive’s movements and precision were completely under the control of the Were-cat, as massive paws shifted the weapon with the faintest of movements that translated into subtle but powerful movements of the weapon.  It was always just fast enough, always just in the right place, always just able to recover no matter what Tarrin did or what the Demon did in order to knock him out of his defense.  The Demon backed up several paces as it struggled to defend itself from the powerless god’s whirlwind assault, handling the stolen weapon as if he had owned it and used it all his life.

        It gave up trying to fight Tarrin weapon to weapon.  It made a pushing motion with the trident, and a bright gout of flame erupted from the Demon and billowed towards Tarrin with tremendous speed.  The Were-cat rushed right into it without batting an eye, for Tarrin was a god of fire, and it would do him no harm.

        “Stupid,” Tarrin growled as he charged through the flames, but found his opponent slightly to the side.  It had used the fire not to harm, but to block vision.  The Were-cat had no trouble parrying the creature’s surprise attack, striking downward on the thrusting trident and driving the tines into the cobblestones at his feet rather than through his lower side, as the Demon had aimed it.  Before the hezrou could recover its weapon, the Were-cat hopped over the trident head at his feet, spun with blurring speed in the air, and planted his clawed foot directly against the froglike Demon’s wide head as his body whipped around.  Three lines of black blood flew as the Demon was snapped to the side and Tarrin’s foot claws ripped three black lines across the side of its maw, doggedly keeping possession of its trident as it fell, turning over in the air as Tarrin landed lightly on both feet and one paw as the other held the glaive out wide and away from his body.  The Were-cat spun again and whipped the glaive up and over his head, then took it up with both paws as it came screaming over his head and arcing downwards, directly at the Demon’s neck.  It managed to roll aside with desperate speed, and it felt the wind of the glaive’s blade against its head and neck as it cleaved into the cobblestones of the street upon which the Demon had been laying a split-second before.  It curled up into a ball and rolled in a twisting motion until it had its feet under it, then it was up once more and backing away as the Were-cat charged it.  It parried a lightning-fast series of powerful, jarring blows, each one making the trident shudder and the arms recoil as the Demon felt the power of Tarrin Kael’s created form, a tremendous physical strength that the Demon found was greater than its own.  A swarm of tiny biting insects suddenly appeared around both combatants, summoned by the Demon’s magical power, but Tarrin drove the butt of the glaive into the ground and spoke three words of the language of magic in a powerful, clear voice.  A shimmering wind of air and magic pulsed away from the Were-cat’s body, which killed the insects.  He immediately turned on the Demon and pointed the head of the glaive at it and shouted in the language of magic, uttering a single word of such power that the word was the spell itself.  It was one of the Power Words, and this one was the word of stun.

        All who could hear the uttering of that word except for Tarrin was affected.  The magic assaulted their minds as if someone had struck them a heavy blow on the head.  The hezrou staggered backwards in a woozy manner, but it was already shaking its head side to side to clear the effects of the spell.  Demons had a powerful resistance to magic, and this one was shaking off the effects of the spell much quicker than a mortal could.  But that moment of stunned incoherence was all Tarrin needed.  He threw the glaive into the air and immediately started to chant again in the language of magic, making precise gestures with both of his paws even as the glaive spun into the air over his head, reached the apex of its ascent, and then began to tumble back towards the ground.  The Were-cat completed the spell just as the glaive returned to the ground, and the Were-cat snapped it out of the air with one paw, levelled the bladed head at the hezrou, and completed the incantation.

        A jagged bolt of brilliant white lightning erupted from the tip of the weapon and lanced across the empty space, then struck the Demon fully in the chest.  The monster’s powerful resistance to magic took a great deal of the edge off the magical attack, but it still cried out in pain as its slimy, warty skin was assaulted by magical lightning, sparks and motes dancing around its form.  It trembled in pain as the magical charge of lightning dissipated, and it saw the Were-cat rushing it once more as the haze of pain cleared from its large black eyes.

        The hezrou’s eyes were wild and its movements almost jerky from the aftereffects of the lightning bolt as it evaded a vicous swipe with the bladed end of the glaive, one that came within a whisker of taking its head off, then raised its trident to block as Tarrin tried to slam the butt end of the glaive into its hip.  Tarrin leaned into the blow and the hezrou pushed back, which locked their weapons against one another as they struggled to wrench the other just enough to knock the adversary off balance and take advantage.  Tarrin was taller and stronger than his foe, but the hezrou was adept at using its thick body as an anchor to prevent Tarrin from exploiting his leverage, adjusting itself to prevent itself from being pinioned.

        “How does it feel to be just as vulnerable as I am?” Tarrin hissed when their faces were only a span apart.  “How does it feel to know that I can kill you?”

        You will never defeat me! it replied in its telepathic manner, but its thoughts were nearly hysterical.  It was absolutely terrified, but it did continue to fight, it did not run away.  For that, and only for that, Tarrin could find respect for this particular Demon.

        “Too bad you’re just as stupid as every other creature that tries to lock me,” Tarrin growled from his throat, as he brought his tail into the battle.  It whipped up from between his legs and slapped across the left arm of the hezrou, just inside the crook of the elbow.  Tarrin’s tail was his weakest limb, nowhere as powerful as his arms or legs, but it was strong enough.  His tail jarred the Demon’s arm, and Tarrin immediately shifted his power against that side, which caused its elbow to unlock and its arm to collapse.  Tarrin swept the Demon off its feet and out from in front of him by powering through its sudden collapse with the butt end of the glaive.  It hit the ground and rolled, then slid several spans on its back.  It gave a croaking hiss and managed to get its trident up just in the nick of time to block the blade of the glaive, stopping the pulsing blade just a finger’s width from the tip of its pointed snout.  The Demon then vanished silently and instantly, which caused Tarrin to immediately react.  He dipped a shoulder and rolled forward, then raised the butt of the glaive just in time to knock the hezrou’s trident high and to the side from a kneeling position.  Just like every other Demon he had ever battled, this one attempted to teleport behind him and attack his back.  The strike was heavy enough to jar the Demon out of balance, and as it struggled to recover, Tarrin rose up on one foot and reversed the glaive, swinging the weapon in a wide, graceful arc so fast that the dark-exuding blade left a solid arc of darkness in its wake as it screamed back towards the Demon.  The arc was underhanded as Tarrin swept the weapon up with him as he rose on his single foot, and the blade sliced effortlessly into the hezrou’s warty abdomen, just over its right hip.  Black blood fountained from its maw and from the wound as the blade sheared all the way through its torso in a diagonal slash, from right hip to left shoulder, lifting it from its feet as its trident spun lazily from its hands and into the air.

        Its body stopped flying backwards instantly as Tarrin took his right paw off the shaft of the glaive, his body lunged into the air after the Demon, and then his right paw plunged into the chest of the mortally wounded Demon.  Its upward trajectory stopped  and reversed when Tarrin dropped his feet back to the ground, pulled along with it, and then slammed forcefully into the cobblestones of the street.  It managed only a single hysterical scream of terror and agony as Tarrin’s paw clasped around what it sought, and then the Were-cat ripped its paw out of the Demon’s chest, tearing away an octagonal black steel amulet inscribed with words of utter evil and hanging from a brass chain.  Tarrin held the amulet over the Demon’s head as he rested the glaive on his shoulder, presenting it to the Demon as the animating force that had given its body life began to fade.

        “And now you are mine,” Tarrin hissed, just as the hezrou’s eyes became blank, and the created body died.  It dissolved quickly into that acidic spoor, bubbling and burning into the stones of the street.  Tarrin turned and raised both paws, the glaive, and both amulets towards the sky, where he knew the other three Demons were watching, but were too afraid to appear and engage after realizing that the Were-cat could tear their soul amulets from their created bodies.  “That’s two!” he shouted towards the buildings.  “Take this warning back to the Abyss and back to your masters, you cowards!  Any who faces me puts this on the table!”

        He thrust the wet, slimy, smoking amulet that held the hezrou’s soul into the air before him.

        “When you fight me, you play for keeps!” he screamed, just as he sensed a sudden appearance of beings of impressive power.  The Deva, who had been attracted by the initiation of violence within Crossroads, were starting to arrive to mete out punishment for violating the One Law.  He could sense four of them, four Deva, four figures of justice coming to smite the lawbreakers without discrimation over who started it.  In Crossroads, anyone who did violence was guilty, no matter what reason the violator had to commit violence, even in self defense.  He saw them then, four golden-skinned human-looking creatures with gold-feathered wings, descending from the sky with amazing speed.  Each of them carried a heavy club and a triangular shield strapped to the off arm.  They lanced towards him arrow-straight, weapons in hand and ready to attack.

        Though he could have killed all four of them—at least he was confident that he could—he wasn’t ready to start fighting the Deva, not until he got what he needed from the Sage’s Council and was ready to leave Crossroads.  No, right now, escape was the wisest course of action.  With only a gesture, Tarrin beckoned to his staff, and it rose up from the ground and soared through the air and into his waiting paw.  He almost tossed the glaive aside, but then thought twice about it.  It was a well-made weapon, well balanced, and it carried a strong magical aura.  It was a weapon of evil, but its evil could in no way find in itself the ability to affect a being like Tarrin Kael.  In the hands of a god, the corrupting power of a Demon’s weapon mean nothing.

        He decided to keep it.  So long as he didn’t destroy the soul medallion of the vrock, the glaive wouldn’t be destroyed.  It might prove useful later on, if he needed a secondary weapon or needed to give a duplicate a weapon in combat.  He’d taken up the glaive because he wanted to leave his staff out for a doppleganger to use as a weapon if the fight drug on and he needed to kill the Demon quickly, or its allies joined the battle and he needed to even the odds, or the Deva arrived, but it turned out to be unnecessary.  Tarrin could create a doppleganger of himself holding a staff, but it wasn’t that staff.  The staff of a duplicate would have shattered on the first blow, and destroyed the doppleganger along with it.  The dopplegangers could be disrupted with only one hit, and couldn’t even make physical contact with the adversary or they would disrupt…but one had to hit it first, and the duplicates were just as agile and fast as the original.  And if a duplicate was holding a weapon or object that was not created with it, that weapon was just as dangerous to a doppleganger’s opponent as any weapon held by the real Tarrin.  He spoke the same two words of magic, a Wizard’s spell of shrinking, and caused the glaive to become the size of a serving knife.  He dropped it into his belt pouch and turned, then scooped up the hezrou’s trident with his free paw as he darted towards the nearest buildings, even as the Deva dove towards him.  He’d have to use magic to recover his pack, but for now, he was confident nobody in the council building would bother it.  Right now he had more pressing problems.  And one of them was swooping down on him.

        The lead Deva angled himself to land in front of the escaping doer of violence, and even managed to accomplish that task, landing squarely in front of the offending deity, but his mind swam in confusion when the god’s form wavered, and then five gods split from that single point and each rushed off in a different direction!

        Five!  And they were real!  The god had split himself into five identical entities, and each now ran off in a different direction!  The lead Deva was so confused and shocked that he stood there for a critical second trying to decide what to do, which entity to pick out and attack, and that one second was all the god needed to make good his escape.  Two of those gods reached the buildings and vanished around corners, even as the Deva’s three companions attacked the two gods running back towards the statue and the one running towards the headquarters of the Sage’s Council.  Each of those gods simply exploded into a puff of glowing dust when struck by the cudgel of a Deva, showing that it was nothing more than an elaborate trick, one of exceptionally sophisticated magic, so complete that they even radiated the divine aura.

        One of the companion Deva marched up to the leader, her face slightly amused.  “I’m glad I don’t have to give this report,” she said with complete sincerity.  “Though I’m sure the Planetar will assign no blame.  That is the first time I have ever encountered a deception so complete that it even radiated the power and aura of a god.  I couldn’t tell any of them apart from one another.  I’m not even sure the real god was even here.  Maybe all five were simple decoys to hide him escaping the area, maybe even this plane.”

        “We must inform the Planetar at once,” he said with a look of grim resolve.  “He brought his true self here, that was his true self fighting those Demons, that is unusual, and somewhat reckless.  Something is not right here, and it needs to be reported.  Take the element and fan out to question witnesses while I report to the Planetar.  We need to find out what started this violence.”

        “As you command,” she said with a salute, putting her closed right fist to her left shoulder.  The lead Deva nodded, and then vanished in the blink of an eye.

        The Deva weren’t the only ones who had critical information to report.  The three remaining Demons vanished from Crossroads to report to their master, the Demon Lord Gruz, in person, to tell him of this terrifying new twist surrounding the supposedly powerless shell of a god they had been sent to kill.

        A god that was not nearly as powerless as they were led to believe.

        The Gzargmoth was a simple, spartan affair, with no tavern within its building.  It was an inn and an inn only; it did not even provide meals for its guests.  The lack of meals and a tavern certainly would cut into the profits of any normal inn, but this was not a normal inn, and it was not run by a normal innkeeper.  The innkeeper of the Gzargmoth was a creature that, at first, Tarrin nearly mistook as a marilith, but he realized quickly was actually a creature he would call a snake Lamia, one of the fae-da’kii.  It wasn’t actually a Lamia though, but it looked like one.  It was a creature with the bottom body of a snake and the top body of a humanoid woman, but with four arms.  That upper body looked quite human-like, until one looked very closely and saw that her skin was colored in very fine scales that matched the pale coloring of a Draconian human.  Like Tarrin’s cat’s eyes, her orange-red eyes held vertically slitted pupils, and her tongue was narrow and forked, like a snake’s, which tended to flicker out from between a pair of very long and quite venemous fangs.  At first glance, he had an irrational urge to attack her, thinking that she was Shaz’Baket.  Her midnight blue hair almost looked black, and from the back a russet-snake body holding a human female form was easy to mistake as that most-hated Demoness.  But she wasn’t a marilith; a marilith had six arms, and a snake Lamia, which also appeared as a woman’s torso on a snake’s body, only had two.  After introducing himself to her, he found out that her name was Szizazz, and she was a creature called a gzamit.  Tarrin had no idea what that was, or where she came from.  But the Gzargmoth—which meant resting place in her native language—had been her place of business since a magical accident sent her careening from her own world and into the Astral.  At first she sought a way home, but when she reached the City and found the peace that existed here, a peace that did not exist in her own war-torn world, she decided to stay. And had done quite well for herself.

        Szizazz believed in simplicity in all things.  Her rooms held only a bed, a nightstand, a chair under the window, and a single bureau, simple, no-nonsense furniture that was sturdy, clean, and well-maintained.  She did not serve meals.  She did not even keep drinking water in her inn.  She did not clean the rooms when someone was occupying one, not even to change the bedding.  The room’s occupant was responsible for all of it.  In exchange for these frugal conditions, Szizazz charged a very modest three krin per night.  Her inn was a place for sleeping, and that was exactly how she operated it.  The only bow to the idea that someone may not be sleeping within her inn was the receiving room into which the front door opened, which held eight simple, sturdy, uncushioned chairs lined along the walls, four to a side.

        All in all, Tarrin rather liked the place.  There was only three other guests, two archons and a hulking bipedal…thing that was covered in a black exoskeleton and had four large compound eyes set over a pair of large mandibles, so it wasn’t crowded.  Szizazz wasn’t chatty and she had absolutely no curiosity whatsoever about who rented her rooms.  She didn’t bat an eye when one of the archons staying in the inn betrayed his divinity with a gasp and a point and an exclamation that Szizazz was taking krin from a god.  To Szizazz, there were only two kinds of sentient beings in the multiverse:  guests and not-guests.

        And that was it.

        He was also quite impressed when a Deva came to the inn and asked directly about Tarrin, describing him as being involved in an incident of violence.  Szizazz looked the golden-haired, handsome winged male square in the eye and told him in an indifferent manner that she had absolutely no care for what happened beyond the walls of her inn.  The only bow to curiosity he saw out of her came after he left.  She slithered up the ramp to the second floor—her inn had no stairs—and confronted him in the hallway.

        “Did you do as he said?” she asked in a dusty, raspy voice.

        “They attacked me first,” he answered her honestly.  “All I did was defend myself.  And only a smart man runs when the Deva arrive, no matter who started it.  They don’t ask any questions before they start hitting people.”

        She nodded as if that was all she needed to hear, then slithered past him and towards the ramp to the third floor, where she had her private apartment.

        And with that, Tarrin was completely confident that Szizazz would keep his presence in her inn to herself.  It also told him that he needed to lay low until four cycles went by and he could return to the Sage’s Council.

        It would have been that easy, just sit in his room and live off the stores he’d packed away in the pack he magically retrieved from the Sage’s Council headquarters not long after the fight with the Demons, but he quite honestly forgot about one minor complication that threw that entire plan out of whack.

        Jula.

        He’d felt her moving around for days as he flew towards the City, moving near, and then stopping, and then moving near, and then stopping.  But after taking a nap after the battle with the Demons, he awoke and sensed her within a longspan of him, and moving towards him.  At first he was confused, then he was mystified at how she had managed to get so close to him without knowing where he was.

        Then he realized that she had to know where he was.  There was no way that random chance had any part of her coming right at him, given how unimaginably huge this City was.  She had to know where he was…there was no other way she could be so close to him.

        That suspicion was confirmed when he sensed her within twenty paces of him, literally right outside the inn.  He felt her stop, felt her hover there for a moment, and then felt her approach again.  He opened the door to his room just in time to hear a strong, sharp knock on the main door on the first floor.  Szizazz slithered elegantly past him and down the ramp—his was the first room on the right when one came up the ramp—and moved straight to the door.

        “How may I serve?” she asked in her sibilant, reptilian voice.

        “Umm, is my father here?” came the reply, and it was unmistakably Jula.  “Well, he might not very well look like me,” she laughed nervously.  “Tarrin Kael.  Is Tarrin Kael here?”

        “The names of those who stay in my inn are not the concern of those outside,” Szizazz stated indifferently.  “Nor are they mine.  I could not tell you the names of any of my guests.”

        “It’s alright, Szizazz,” Tarrin called from the door to his room.  “She is my daughter.”

        “Father!” came an exuberant squeal, and Jula appeared, rushing past Szizazz, running up the ramp towards him.  She looked exactly as he recalled, though she looked drawn and tired and her scent was a little strained.  She crushed him in a powerful hug, clinging to him like a frightened child, and all he could do was pat her on the back and hope she calmed down before she collapsed his lungs.  Tsukatta’s scent was all over her; why was he here too?  No, wait, it only made sense.  Tsukatta was an experienced interplanar traveler, he would no doubt have knowledge of the City and its peculiarities.  Tuskatta had brought Jula here, and helped her find him.

        “You can let go now Jula,” he wheezed, pushing at her shoulders.

        “Oh Father, I know they said you were dead, but—“ she sobbed, looking up at him.  “You look different.  You smell diffeernt too.”

        “I am dead,” he told her bluntly.  “Or my body is, or whatever you want to call it.  Is Tsukatta with you?”

        “Waiting outside,” she sniffled.

        “Szizazz, would you please allow the human mortal who’s waiting outside to come in?” he called down to her.

        She nodded once, then turned to the door.  “Mortal,” she called.  “Enter.”

        Tsukatta appeared down the ramp as Szizazz slithered backwards a little to make room for him.  He bowed deeply and gracefully to her, then removed his two katanas from his sash and offered them to her.  “It is quite impolite in my society to enter the house of another bearing arms,” he told her.  “It is custom to surrender to the master or mistress of the house one’s weapons.  Please do me the honor of watching my weapons, and know I bring no malice or violence to your house.”

        “You may keep your weapons,” she said with a negligent wave of one of her four hands.  She slithered up the ramp towards Tarrin.

        “Thanks, Szizazz,” he told her with a nod.  “I appreciate it.”

        “It is nothing,” she shrugged, then continued down the hall towards the ramp to her private apartment.

        “Wh-What is she?” Jula whispered.

        “I really can’t pronounce it,” Tarrin told her.  “But she’s a friend.”

        “She doesn’t act like it,” his daughter whispered, a bit tartly.

        “You’ll get used to her.  I kind of like her,” Tarrin chuckled.  “Please come up, Tsukatta.  Come in.”

        Jula and Tsukatta entered his room.  Tarrin sat on the bed, and Jula sat right beside him, keeping her arm around him.  Tsukatta placed his swords on top of the open bureau’s top shelf, then seated himself in the chair.  “Alright, who sent you here?” Tarrin demanded.

        “The Goddess,” Jula answered immediately.  “She doesn’t know where you are or if you’re alright.  She sent us to find you.”

        “I figured as much,” he grunted.  “She can’t keep her nose out of anything.”

        “Father!” Jula gasped.  “What a thing to say!”

        “Well, it’s true, isn’t it?” Tarrin retorted.  “Niami’s a born busybody.”

        Jula flushed, but said nothing.

        “I’ve been keeping myself out of her sight for a reason, I should have known she’d take steps,” he grunted.  “Not that I’m not happy to see you two,” he added quickly.  “I just wish it’d been for some other reason than the Goddess trying to hunt me down.”

        “It is the task she set for us,” Tsukatta told him.  “And also to bring you that which you left behind.”

        “Huh?”

        “I’ve got an amulet for you, Father,” Jula told him, looking up at him.  “And I have your Cat’s Claws.”

        “I gave thost to Jal.”

        “Jal has what looks like the Cat’s Claws,” Jula told him.  “Mother filched then and replaced them with copies, so Jal didn’t think they were stolen and think he failed in his task to protect them.”

        “Take them back.”

        “What?”

        “I gave those to Jal for a reason,” he told her bluntly.  “Take them back to him.  I don’t need them here.  I can’t use them here.  Put them back and do it so he doesn’t know it was done.”

        “But Father—”

        “Are you disobeying me, daughter?” Tarrin asked in a flinty tone.

        “No, no, of course not.  I just don’t understand.”

        “The Cat’s Claws won’t work here, Jula,” he told her.  “Besides, they’re creations of Niami, and I won’t use them here.  I can’t use anything here that can be traced back to her.”

        “Why not?”

        “I’ve already been attacked by Demons once,” he told her.  “I have no doubt that I’m going to get into a squabble with the Deva because of the Demons.  They’re going to show up while I’m fighting a Demon and attack me, and that’s going to be just about it.  I’ll fight the Deva, and once I start doing that, nobody can be connected to me in any way or the Deva might come after them.  I don’t want Niami interfering, I don’t want anyone to have any reason to go after anyone but me.  If Mother tries to help, she might get in trouble, and I know she’ll try to help.  She can’t resist, no matter how against the rules it is.  So, I don’t want the Cat’s Claws, I don’t want the amulet, and I don’t want Mother sticking her nose in Crossroads.  I’m not going to give her the chance to get hereslf in trouble.  She’s in enough trouble with her parents and the other Elder Gods because of me, I’m not going to heap trouble on her here.”

        “She’s not going to like it when I tell her that,” Jula told him.

        “Oh, I have no doubt she heard every word of it,” Tarrin snorted.  “She may not be able to find me in Crossroads, but she knows exactly where you are, and I have no doubt she’s keeping a finger on you.  Any Sorcerer can be the eyes and ears of Mother, Jula, you know that.  She heard every word I said.”

        “You’re being foolish, Tarrin,” came Niami’s spectral voice, emanating from the empty air before him.  “Both in thinking that I’m that headstrong, and that I can’t be of help to you.”

        “Stay out of this, Mother,” Tarrin warned flatly.  “There’s going to come a time when I will need your help.  But not here, not now.  Just stay away for now.”

        “Kitten, at least tell me what you have planned,” she said in a nearly pleading voice.

        “So you can meddle?  No,” he answered directly.

        “Kitten!  I do not meddle!” she protested indignantly.

        “Yes, you do,” he responded evenly.  “I have no doubt that if I tell you what I’m up to, I’m going to find your footprints all over Crossroads.”

        “Oh please,” she huffed.  “I told you before, kitten, you’re an adult now.  You chose this path yourself, without me, and as much as I hate what you’ve done, I’m going to respect your decisions and support you now in whatever you do.  If you tell me not to interfere, I’m not going to interfere.  I just want to know what you’re doing, so I can have some piece of mind, and prepare for any eventualities that might come up when you do finally call on me.  And I’m worried about you, my kitten.  If I knew what you were doing, if I could at least sense you or know where you were, I wouldn’t be so worried about you.”

        “Don’t interfere, Mother,” he ordered in an even voice.

        “I won’t interfere,” she answered.  “Now tell me what you’re doing.”

        “I’m not going to do that either,” he told her with a slight sigh.  “I don’t like keeping you in the dark, Mother, but you can’t know what I’m doing.  I’m saving you from yourself.  You can yell and scream at me all you want, but I won’t change my mind, and I honestly believe I’m doing the right thing.”

        “Kitten, you will be in so much trouble when I get you home,” she warned openly.

        “Fine.  Spank me all you want when I get home, but it’s not going to change my mind.  I’m doing what I’m doing because I love you, and you can’t make me change my mind about it, no matter how hard you try.”

        There was a startled silence.  “Well, you’re right, I can’t argue too much about your reasons.  But we’re still going to have a long talk about this little thing called obedience, Tarrin.  God or no god, you are still my son, and I’m very put out with you right now for not obeying me.”

        “I can’t be an adult when it suits you and a child when it doesn’t,” Tarrin told her.  “If you’re going to treat me like an adult, then start right now by trusting me.”

        There was another protracted pause, and then a strange growling cry.  “I hate that!” she cried.

        “What, Mother?” Jula asked.

        “Do you know how embarassing it is to lose a battle of logic with a male?” she fumed.

        “That’s because you’re not thinking very rationally about this, Mother,” Tarin chuckled.  “Stop thinking with your heart and think with your head.  You know I have a point.  And you know that right now, it’s best for both of us to leave me alone and let me do what I need to do here.  Later on I’ll need your help, but not yet.  For now, just watch over Dolanna and make sure she’s going to be alright.”

        “As much as I hate it, I’ll play this game by your rules, kitten,” she finally agreed.  “And you’re right to worry.  I’m not sure things are going well on Pyrosia.”

        “What’s wrong?”

        “Numbers, kitten, numbers.  Ariana is there now, and she scouted a huge army marching towards the ruins of Dengal.  The Demons have pulled back to the peninsula to the east, and the human armies are moving in that direction.  But that does mean that the Dwarves are marching down out of the mountains unopposed.  Instead of trying to ambush the Dwarves, the Demon Lord is concentrating his forces.  He knows as much as we do that the key to everything is Pyros.  He’s consolidating his forces to attack Dolanna.”

        “That shouldn’t be an issue, Mother.  Has Kang got there with his army yet?”

        “It’s ferrying through the gateway now, moving into a staging area outside of it.  Jasana just got to Pyros a couple of days ago, and she teleported Keritanima, Ianelle, and a gaggle of advance Sorcerers I sent straight there.  As soon as they ground, they’re going to start pulling the army over to Pyros directly.  But that’s not everything that’s going on, kitten.  You need to know.”

        Tarrin listened silently as the Goddess explained the state of Pyrosia to him in succint detail, focusing on the two teams that were going to track down the pieces of his sword, and the importance of the sword itself.  “I’m not sure you’re going to find them.”

        “Why is that?”

        “Because I managed to fling them a long way,” he answered.  “And I threw them in opposite directions.”

        “You separated them on purpose?”

        “Of course I did,” he answered.  “I knew that all it would take to restore it would be to put it back together, Mother.  I didn’t want that kind of power laying around where anyone could get their hands on it when I’m not there.  I didn’t think anyone else could use it, but I also didn’t want someone finding the pieces, putting it together, and getting killed either.”

        “Do you know where you put them?”

        “No, I was a bit busy,” he answered.  “I just know I managed to throw them a long way.  I’m sure they went at least a thousand leagues before they landed.  I didn’t want to take any chances that one person might be able to find both pieces.”

        “Kitten, you just made things very difficult for us,” she told him, a bit accusingly.

        “Just ignore the pieces, Mother.  What matters more right now is protecting Pyros.”

        “Kitten, the people I’m sending includes a Sorcerer for each group.  They’re only going to be a spell away from Pyros at all times.  If Dolanna needs them, they’ll return.  Until then, they’re going to work on locating those two pieces.”

        “Who are you sending?”

        “Jasana and Keritanima,” she answered.

        “Leave Jasana at Pyros, Mother,” Tarrin told her.  “Send someone else.  She’s the strongest Sorcerer alive right now, and as soon as I send Jula home, she can Circle with Jula for more power.”

        “Tarrin, kitten, get over this idea that they have to be right there to defend Pyros,” Niami said with a little exasperation.  “Dolanna can recall them in a matter of seconds.  Because they might have to fight over those sword pieces, I want my strongest and most capable out there hunting them down.”

        “I think you’re being silly, Mother,” Tarrin told her honestly.  “The only thing that matters here is holding Pyros until I deal with the Demon Lord.  That’s it.  Just hold Pyros, and eventually, the problem will be gone.”

        “You overlook the fact that the Demon Lord knows about the sword, kitten,” she told him patiently.  “He will try to recover it.  If he can recover it and restore it, he can bend it to his will and use it against Pyros.  Do you really want to see Pyros destroyed by a weapon of your own creation?  This isn’t about me or how I feel, this is about cold, hard, logic.  I’m certainly not trying to recover the sword to restore you.  That is low on the list of priorities.  We have to keep that sword out of the Demon Lord’s hands. The only way to do that is to get to the pieces first.  This isn’t about getting the sword to use it, it’s about getting the sword to keep someone else from using it.”

        “Ah.  I hadn’t considered that,” he admitted.

        “I rather thought you hadn’t,” she said, rather smugly.

        “But I bet that Jasana could use it,” Tarrin mused.  “She’s my daughter, and the sword would recognize her.  She might even be able to kill the Demon Lord with it,” he speculated thoughtfully.

        “Let’s not get too far afield here, kitten,” Niami interrupted his pondering.  “Keeping things simple is what’s best at this time.  Besides, for Jasana to use the sword against the Demon Lord, she’d be putting it in a position where the Demon Lord might be able to take it from her, and I won’t risk that for any reason.”

        “True.  Tsukatta.”

        “Yes, my friend?” he answered politely.

        “Can you take Jula back to the portal to Sennadar?”

        “Easily.”

        “Good.  I want you to take her home. When she gets there, she can go to Pyrosia and help protect Dolanna.”

        “No,” Jula said flatly.

        “What?” Tarrin said in surprise.

        “I said no, Father,” she said defiantly.  “I’m not leaving you here alone.  You may need me.”

        “Listen to me, cub,” he said, not in an angry tone, not in a hostile manner.  He took hold of her shoulders and made her look him in the eyes.  “There is no room for another in what I’m doing here.  And there’s certainly not room for a mortal who lost her magical powers.  You would stand no chance if you brought the wrath of the Deva down on you.”

        “But you won’t either,” she retorted.

        “Leave my problems with me, cub,” he told her.  “To put it bluntly, you are no use to me here.  Go where you can be useful, cub.  Dolanna’s going to need your help.  Out here, all you’re going to do is get yourself killed.  This is no place for you.  This is no place for a mortal.”

        “But—“

        He put his finger over her lips, silencing her.  “Do you trust me, Jula?”

        She gave him a stricken look, and nodded after a long moment.

        “Then obey me.  Believe me, I’d love to have you here with me, but right now that’s just not possible.  I need you in Pyrosia right now.  Dolanna matters more at this moment than I do.  Just leave me to do what I’m doing and be with Dolanna.  Can you do that for me?”

        She nodded sullenly.

        “Good.  Dolanna’s life is your personal responsibility, Jula.  No matter what happens, she cannot die.  If she dies, then we lose everything.  She’s more important right now than anything else, even me.”

        “How can she be more important?  Even if she somehow died, any Weavespinner could take her place.”

        “Yes, cub, another Weavespinner could stand within the Heart and maintain the Weave, but it doesn’t change the simple fact that right now, Dolanna is the most important person involved in all of this, even over Niami, even over me.  And I’ll tell you this right now, something I haven’t told anyone else, something you can’t tell anyone else, not even Dolanna herself.  She and I are joined.  She is my power.”

        “I don’t understand.”

        “Cub, when I died and moved my soul out here, I lost all of my power.  As a god of the Firestaff, I have no power at all, it’s all locked inside my sword.  I surrendered all of that power when I put it in the sword, and then broke it.  But I do have some minor abilities, things I was able to give myself when I catapulted myself into the Astral over and above the basic aspects of my being based on who and what I am.  Without her, I’d just be a soul trapped in a body that’s immune to fire…and that’s it.  The only reason I have this power is because there’s someone in the material plane who believes in me so strongly that it’s become true faith.”

        Dolanna!” the Goddess gasped.

        “Cub, Dolanna’s more than my friend.  She’s my Priest.  If she dies, I lose the only mortal whose true faith is giving me what little power I have, and without that, I’ll die quickly.  Without that power, I’ll have no defense against the enemies I’ll have to face.  Without it, I’d be dead already.  I’ve already been attacked, and if I hadn’t have had the powers that Dolanna’s faith gives me, I’d be dead.  Even she doesn’t know what she’s doing, what she’s become.  That’s why she’s the most important person in all of Pyrosia at this moment.  If she dies, then I’ll die with her.  That’s why her protection matters more than anything.”

        “How did you do it, kitten?” Niami asked, in sincere shock.  “For her to grant you power as a follower, it requires giving as well as receiving!  And you can’t do that!  The power of the Firestaff cannot give itself to others, and neither can you!”

        “Oh, I can’t now.  But I gave her something when I was alive that had nothing to do with my power as a child of the Firestaff, something very special, and it was enough.  Her faith in me is true, or I wouldn’t have the power that I do.  The power is weak, most gods and Demons would consider it pitiful, but I knew how to apply it for maximum effect.”

        “How so, kitten?” Niami asked curiously.

        Tarrin reached into his belt pouch and produced two black amulets.  He held them up to the empty air before him, where he knew that the true spirit of Niami looked on, though he couldn’t see or sense her.

        “Brilliant!” she cried out gleefully.  “Absolutely brilliant!  Kitten, I could kiss you!”

        “What are those, Father?”

        “They are the soul amulets of Demons, Jula-san,” Tsukatta said with reverence in his voice.  “How did you get them, Tarrin-san?”

        “One of the little tricks I can do thanks to Dolanna.  These are from the two Demons that attacked me just hours ago.  Now, the Demons know that anyone they send against me is risking more than a century of exile from Crossroads.  Now they will face me knowing that if they lose, they lose this.  And Demons don’t like fighting when their own lives are at stake.”

        “Kitten, you are a genius!” Niami literally gushed.  “They’ll be absolutely terrified of you!”

        “That was the idea, Mother,” he said modestly.  “Cub, without Dolanna, I’m nothing but a shell of a god with no power and no defense, and without that power, I’ll fail in what I’m trying to do out here.  That’s why she’s so important.  That’s why she has to be protected at all costs, even if it means losing the Weave on Pyrosia.  She’s the most important living thing on Pyrosia.  That’s why I want you there with her, Jula.  I want you to be to Dolanna what Binter and Sisska are to Kerri.  Can you do this for me, cub?”

        “I, I can, Father,” she told him, looking up at him with her lucent green eyes.

        “And you can’t tell her the truth, cub.  Ever.  Do you understand?”

        “Why not?”

        “Because that faith has to be pure.  If you tell her she’s empowering me, she’ll have a moral crisis.  She is a true daughter of Niami, Jula.  How would you react if you were told you were suddenly the daughter of Bekir?”

        “I’d be confused,” she answered.

        “And so will she.  Faith isn’t a conscious thing, cub, and if you make her aware of that faith, then she’ll begin to doubt it.  Besides, She does not need that kind of added chaos in her life right now,” he told her intensely.  “She already has her hands full with the task I dropped in her lap.”

        Tsukatta stood and put his hands together in front of him.  “If she is that important, Tarrin-san, then do me the honor of allowing me to stand by her side and defend her from harm,” Tsukatta said in a serious tone, bowing to him and remaining in his bow.  “By the holy thunder of Raiden, I swear that I will do everything in my power to ensure she will not come to harm.”

        “I wasn’t going to ask that of you, my friend, but I won’t deny any help, especially from someone like you.  I know that with you, Jula, and Haley watching over Dolanna, she’ll be just fine.”

        “Now that I understand things a little better, I’ll do what I can as well, kitten,” Niami told him.  “Tsukatta will bring Jula back to Sennadar immediately, and I’ll have both of them in Pyros as fast as I can get them there.  Since I can’t convince you to let me help you directly, I’ll do what I can for you.  Oh, and I must say, kitten, that your cunning impresses even me.  Never in my wildest dreams did I even consider what you have done with Dolanna.”

        “I didn’t entirely plan that, Mother.  I’d never play with Dolanna like that.  I’m not using her.  What we share is special and I treasure it, but it has nothing to do with what I’m doing here.  I don’t really know why this faith in me bloomed in her, but I’m not going to turn away from it now, when it’s literally what is keeping me alive.  And I wouldn’t turn away from her in any way, ever.  I’m accepting the gift she’s given me with gratitude, and I intend to do it justice by using it to do what needs to be done.”

        “And that, my kitten, is why her faith empowers you,” Niami told him with complete honesty.  “Now then, Jula, Tsukatta, return to Sennadar at once,” she ordered.  “And remember that what you’ve heard here today will never leave this room.  Never discuss it, even with one another.  Is that understood?”

        “Yes, Mother,” Jula said with a nod.

        “It shall be as you command,” Tsukatta said with another bow.

        “Kitten.  Tarrin.  I won’t interfere without your explicit permission, I promise you, no matter how tempted I am to try.  I won’t initiate any contact with you.  But now that I know where you are, I will be keeping an eye on you from a discreet distance.  And if you need to contact me, you just need to call my name.”

        “I could do that anyway, Mother.  I may be a god, but I’m still a Priest.  I’m your Priest.  I can use those powers here, and I can use all of them.”

        “I’m glad you remembered that,” she said winsomely.  “Just promise you won’t give me any heart attacks.”

        “I can’t do that, Mother,” he chuckled.  “If you feel a heart attack coming, just stop looking.”

        “So easy to say, so hard to do,” she said with a rueful little giggle.  “Do you need anything?  Krin?  Support?  I can have friends have friends get what you need without directly involving myself.”

        “No, Mother.  I have to do this on my own.  It’s important.  You’ll understand when it’s over.”

        “I’ll have to trust you, kitten.”

        “I appreciate it, Mother.”

        Tarrin stood up, which prompted Jula to do the same.  He embraced his daughter wordlessly, and felt her dig her claws into his back, her fingers trembling.  She knew that he was about to kick her out of the room.  “You take care of yourself, cub,” he told her.  “And tell everyone that I’m alright, and I miss them.  I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

        “I will, Father.  I’m worried about you.”

        “Don’t worry about me, cub.  Worry about Dolanna.  As long as you protect her, I’ll be just fine.”

        “I’ll do my best.”

        “That’s all I could ask for.”  He pushed Jula out to arm’s length, then clasped Tsukatta’s hand firmly.  “I wanted to say thanks for everything you’ve done for us, Tsukatta.  I know that you didn’t have to do any of it.  This really isn’t your fight.”

        “You are my friend, Tarrin-san,” he said with elegant simplicity.  “A man is nothing but the ties with friends and family that he creates as he lives, and the honor of name and deed that he makes for himself.  I would dishonor our friendship by doing anything less.  I know you would do the same for me.”

        “I would, my friend,” he declared with steady eyes.  “I would indeed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    2      4

Chapter 3

Money.

It was a hard thing to admit, but despite ascending into this mystical realm where gods dwelled and material things shouldn't matter, his biggest issue was now money.

This was something of a novel situation for Tarrin. Always before, he knew he could always get by with his hunting skills, and if it came down to him needing something, he could simply use magic to get it. But this was something that was new to him, and something of a serious inconvenience.

Simply put, Tarrin needed money. Lots of it. And he needed it soon. The sage that found the answer to his question was going to demand a large sum of krin. Tarrin knew this, he understood it, and his idea around this had been typical of his style of plan-making; deal with it when the issue came up. This was nothing new for Tarrin, whose plans often had shortcomings that forced him to make them up by the seat of his trousers. His ideas when he came to this juncture were basicly to steal what he needed from another. He hadn't really thought more of it than that, trusting on his ability to take what he needed when he needed it.

Krin itself was an unusual currency in that it wasn't made of a precious metal or rare gem... it was solid energy. Krin coins were the result of a being or creature investing some of its own energy into a solid form, and they could be created by anyone who knew the proper spells. Wizard magic could create krin coins, transforming magical energy into the solid, ceramic-feeling milky white discs. And Tarrin had also discovered that krin could be consumed by certain outer-planar creatures like food, and that there were some specialized Wizard spells that drew on the power of krin to cause them to work. Gods as well could convert the energy within krin into magical effects, though their limitless, inexhaustible power made this irrelevant.

Another curious aspect of the krin was that the coins weren't permanent. The life cycle of a krin coin was only about five years, according to Szizazz. They became unstable as time passed, their surfaces began to pit and tarnish, and then the coin broke down and evaporated, reverting back into the energy that had been used to create it. The value of a coin about to break down was no less, however. In fact, there were certain merchants and vendors who made a business out of buying unstable coins and selling them to those who consumed them as food.

Tarrin found the idea of krin to be mystifying. It was a form of money that could be created in unlimited amounts, it was not permanent like gold, but its value never lessened because creatures and beings destroyed them to unlock the energy they contained. The idea of edible money was rather amusing to him. Because of that odd relationship, krin had evolved into the most common form of currency within the outer planes, with only the trafficking in entrapped souls among the denizens of the lower planes anywhere near as popular.

Jemrik the Wise devoted his life to the study of the effect of the outer planes on magical forces, and it was a worthwhile field of study. Here in Crossroads, not all Wizard spells functioned, and some didn't function normally. Spells from the Divination school of magic didn't work at all, for example, and creatures not native to the outer planes could not utilize magic from the Conjuration school within Crossroads. The Demon Tarrin had fought had managed to summon up a swarm of venemous insects using its magic, but Tarrin would not be able to do the same thing, even if he had the proper spell. But some enterprising Wizard had managed to figure out a way to allow a Wizard to cast a special version of some Conjuration school spells by using the energy within krin as part of the power, using them as a material component. Those spells were only spells that conjured forth denizens of the outer planes, but it was more than what a Wizard would usually be able to do.

The spell to create krin was not something that was within Tarrin's spellbooks, but Szizazz had it. She shared it with him willingly after she found out he was a Wizard, for she was a Wizard as well. She traded it to him for a spell out of his own book. The spell to create krin was a very simple spell, one of the first that any neophyte Wizard could learn after he progressed beyond cantrips, but the problem was, it only created one krin at a time. She told him that she knew that there was another, stronger spell that created more than one krin at a time, but she didn't have that one.

So, he found himself facing a dilemma. He could try to create the krin himself using Wizard spells, by trying to locate that other spell that Szizazz didn't have and hoping that it could produce enough krin to satisfy his needs, or he could fall back on his original plan and simply steal what he needed.

Stealing wasn't something that worried Tarrin's morality all that much. His Were mentality made stealing acceptable, based on his concepts of power. Anyone who couldn't protect what was theirs had no right to keep claim to it. If Tarrin could beat the defenses of someone and steal their krin, too bad for them. Usually, however, he wouldn't resort to theft. If he wanted something, he'd just take it from them. Here, where he couldn't resort to violence without bringing the Deva, he'd have to fall back on the arts of stealth and deception.

One thing that Szizazz's spell was useful for was living expenses. As advanced as Tarrin was in Wizard magic, he could cast her little krin-creating spell an impressive number of times before it exhausted him, which let him afford some of the nicer things to be had around her frugal inn. He could buy any food he wanted, some little niceties for his room, and he managed to restock all his material components.

In fact, Tarrin's ability to cast her spell repeatedly mystified Szizazz, and caused her to pull him aside in the receiving room the day after she gave him the spell, the day after Jula and Tsukatta left him to return to Sennadar. She grilled him about how he was managing it. "I do not see how you accomplish this," she told him quite seriously. "You should have forgotten the spell after so many castings."

"Forgotten? I can keep a spell memorized for months, Szizazz. Can't you?"

"Of course I can, at least until I begin to use it. The spell wipes itself from my memory after casting it. If I want to cast the same spell more than once, I have to make a special effort to memorize it in a slightly different manner, using one of the Giyoshan Mnemonics, so I have the same spell memorized twice."

"Really? Huh," Tarrin mused. "I guess even Wizard magic works differently where I came from. What surprises me is that it still works differently for me, even when I'm not home."

"That should be impossible, but you are a god. Perhaps that allows you to bend the rules of Wizard magic. How does it work in your world?"

"Wizards don't lose the memory of the spell after only one casting," he told her. "It does fade from memory, but that's after a few days for the average Wizard. The mark of a veteran Wizard is how many times he can cast spells before he gets tired, and how long he can remember a spell."

"The mark of a learned Wizard for us is how many spells a Wizard can remember at one time," she told him. "And after we cast a spell, it fades from our memory, so we must choose which spells we want to memorize."

"That's almost backwards from how it works on my world. Wizards can memorize every spell they have and cast any of them at any time, until they get exhausted and can't cast any more. Priests do it the same way, more or less, but nothing forces them to forget their spells. They remember them at all times, and can cast any spell they know at any time, until they get tired."

"Magic is very different in your world."

"I know. I just never heard of how it works in other worlds."

"That you can bring your own version of Wizard magic into Crossroads must be because of your divine nature. Usually, any unusual form of magic in a material plane won't work outside of that material plane."

"I remember a sage telling me something like that not long ago," he mused. "That's probably it. That, or it's because I'm a Mi'Shara."

Szizazz gave him a wild look. "Where did you come to know that word?" she asked.

"Why, what does it mean to you?"

"A Mishara is a word that was used to describe an ancient foe of the Deva, before they were all destroyed. It meant dream killer, for those who sought the eternal dreamless sleep of annihilation. They were the mortals and gods who had embraced the cause of Entropy and sought to unmake the multiverse. But the Deva and the gods joined together and destroyed them. What does this word mean in your world?"

"It's a term for referring to a certain type of magic-user," he answered her. "We're very rare. There are two of us on my world, me and one other. But I don't think it's the same word, you pronounced it a little differently," he chuckled. "I guess it's one of those coincidences. After all, with all those languages out there, it's only logical to think that some of them are going to have similar sounding words."

"Yes, you certainly do not look like an agent of Entropy to me," she said, looking him up and down, quite seriously, as if assessing that very statement. "I know that you are unique among the gods from what you told me of how you came to be here, but even that would not be enough to make me believe you seek to unmake all."

He laughed. "No, I'm not quite that fanatical," he told her. "I'm not out to unmake the multiverse, just kill one person. Now then, I have some business to attend to, Szizazz, so I hope you'll excuse me."

"Certainly. May we meet again on your return and trade more spells?"

"Sure. I just hope you can cast them, since they're from my world, and my world's magic works differently."

"The way your Wizards use magic is different, but the spells are not," she told him confidently. "Besides, I've already used the spell you gave me in trade for the spell to create krin. I know for a fact that I can use your spells."

Tarrin did find the Sage's Council to be useful for one thing outside of what he needed of them, and that was that there were many Wizards that were a part of it. He had already managed to corral one of them in the entry hall and, after a quick word, got him to reveal the locations of several magical shops within the neighborhood. That was how he had managed to restock the material components he needed. Such places, however, didn't sell spells. Virtually no place did. Spells were a precious commodity, and no merchant in his right mind would leave something that valuable out where it could be stolen. Wizards guarded their spells jealously, and only gave them up if they received something of equal or greater value in the exchange... such as another spell that they don't know. Tarrin had to track down quite a few sages in the halls and ask about the krin spell Szizazz mentioned, until he finally found a sage who had the spell and was willing to make a trade. That sage, an exceedingly tiny, portly fellow that only came up to Tarrin's shin and reminded Tarrin vaguely of the Gnomes of Gnomlin, turned out to be quite a good Wizard. He traded Tarrin his spell to create multiple krin coins for one of Phandebrass' battle spells, one that created a powerful jet of acid.

In all, Tarrin considered it a good trade.

It took him about three hours to scribe the spell into his spellbook, and then he shared that spell with Szizazz. He rather liked her, and Tarrin was one that liked to see his friends improve their lots. Szizazz certainly had no want for krin, but now she could create more krin faster if she ever had a need for it.

The spell was unusual. It didn't create a set amount of krin when it was cast. Instead, it drew directly on the power of the Wizard and created as many coins as possible depending on how much energy the Wizard could channel, and how many spells the Wizard had memorized. The spell warned that upon its casting, all other spells would be wiped from the memory of the Wizard, and the Wizard would be physically drained and require immediate rest.

Tarrin's use of the that spell was... momentous.

It needs to be stated that Tarrin had absolutely no inkling that the spell would behave any differently for him than it would for any other Wizard. Szizazz had cast the spell first, before him, and she had had no problem using it. She had used the spell to summon forth a sizable sum of krin, a testament to her abilities as a Wizard.

But Tarrin's use of the spell produced a much different result. After casting it and burning the required block of rare, special incense that created a thick hazy fog over him, then sacrificing a drop of his own blood, dripping it onto a flawless uncut ruby which vanished into a thick red mist at the completion of the incantation that rose up into the smoke of the incense to create a thick, compact cloud of misty red fog that then raised itself to the ceiling, the spell created his krin. They appeared from that misty red cloud that rose high into the air, near the ceiling, over where the ruby had been. Coins appeared and poured onto the table in a series of stacatto chiming clinks.

And they kept coming.

And they kept coming.

And they kept coming.

At first, Tarrin didn't think too much of it. After all, he was a more accomplished Wizard than Szizazz, so it was only logical that his spell would create more coins. But then, when the coins were ankle deep in the room, he began to suspect that something might be wrong. By the time they were knee deep, he knew there was something wrong, for he realized that he felt in no way tired, the spell had not drained him of his energy, nor had it wiped from his memory the other spells he had memorized. He thought through the problem furiously as the coins continued to pour merrily from the magical red fog hovering against the ceiling. By the time he decided to risk an attempt to dispel the magic creating the coins, they were waist deep, and had broken the window and began to pour out onto the street below. He cast that spell quickly, as a silvery ray of magical light erupted from his open paw and struck the red fog, but it did nothing, and the coins continued to pour. He thought through the problem again, and realized that the magic he was using was too weak to counter a spell of that power. He tried a different spell that dispelled magic, a much stronger one, one that created a conical volume of complete anti-magic. The spell had to be centered on a living being, so he attached it to himself.

It was a good idea. He just didn't factor into his equation a simple fact.

Krin were coins made of solid energy, and had magical properties.

The krin that came into contact with Tarrin's anti-magic shell became unstable. He realized he made a mistake when all the coins up against him, now up to his chest, began to get hot and vibrate in an ominous manner. Before he had a chance to flee the room, the krin coins began to explode in a sudden cascade of miniature explosions, each one setting off the last. The explosions weren't destructive, did him no harm, but the loud pops of krin breaking down and reverting to energy were loud and painful to his ears, and they stung something fierce when the ones against his skin disrupted and exploded.

It took him a few moments to recover his wits enough to get a handle on the situation, by jumping up onto the top of the coins, then rising up enough to get the red cloud into the area affected by his anti-magic shell. The red cloud shuddered visibly, the coins stopped falling out of it, then it disincorporated itself into an expanding pall of thin, acrid smelling red smoke.

By the time it was over, Tarrin had a series of reddish circular welts all over his body, and he was kneeling on a pile of coins that was nearly six spans deep. He was still under the effect of the anti-magic shell, however, and he could feel the coins under his feet begin to vibrate and heat up. He'd stopped the coins, but he was still a danger to the ones that were already here. He turned and dove for the open window, sliding on the coins, then he erupted in a sudden explosion of krin from the window and out over the street. Citizens who were scrambling under his window the scoop of the rain of coins looked up when he came flying out of it, then scrambled in every direction as he landed heavily on the street on his paws and feet. The coins under him rattled on the cobblestones, then exploded in little puffs. The coins flowing from the window of his room slowed to a tinkling trickle, and then ceased.

Blowing out his breath, Tarrin looked around at, just relieved that it was over, then he laughed helplessly.

"Not often you see that."

Tarrin stood up quickly and looked across the cobbled street, and found himself looking at a very small building made of white stone blocks. It had a simple porch with a roof and slender fluted columns holding it up, anchored to the corners of the roof and two columns flanking the three steps from the street to the porch floor. On that porch were two old rocking chairs. One was empty, with only a knitted cover thrown over the back. The other chair was occupied by a withered, ancient old woman with thin white hair, a face that looked like tanned leather with sunken cheeks and a mouth that only had three teeth in it, and sparkling chestnut brown eyes that seemed alive and vibrant despite her advanced years. She wore a simple brown wool peasant dress, and her gnarled hands worked a pair of knitting needles with surprising dexterity.

Tarrin gaped at her. He knew this woman!

"Well, you're taller," she noted in a gruff voice. "You look meaner too. Offended any Dargu lately?"

"Mother Wynn!" Tarrin exclaimed in shock, staring at her as his mind swam with the absolute impossibility of what was confronting him. But she -- there was no way she could still be alive! And even if she was, what in the furies was she doing here?

"Well, it's nice to be remembered," she said calmly, looking at her knitting. "Chair's empty, dearie. You're not covered in mud, are you?"

"How are you here?" he demanded.

"Manners," she said in her gravelly voice. "And don't keep an old woman waiting."

Without thought, he staggered across the street, up the steps of her porch, and sat down in the empty chair. "I don't understand," he floundered.

"I reckon you wouldn't," she told him calmly as she deftly completed another row, and began another. "Done got yourself in a right mess, didn't you? I expected more out of you."

"How -- "

"Don't even ask," she cut him off. "Now, how are you going to fix it?"

"Mother Wynn -- "

"I'm waiting, boy," she demanded, starting another row.

"How did you get here?"

"Don't make me fetch Ian, boy," she warned. "Now answer an old woman's question. How are you going to fix it?"

"Fix the mess? Which one are you talking about?" he asked.

She cackled. "Now I remember why I like you, boy. The mess you made."

"The Demon Lord? I -- "

"No, boy, that's just a drop in the bucket. This," she said, poking him in the arm with a knitting needle. It wasn't entirely pleasant, "is the mess I'm talking about. What you've done to yourself can't stand, boy."

"I can fix it, once I get everything done. With Mother's help, anyway."

"Boy, you're just being stubborn on purpose," she grunted, poking his belt with her needle. "You know what'll happen if you use those."

"The amulets? What do you mean?"

She grunted. "Well, you're denser than I thought. You go to all the trouble of giving yourself the power to take them, but you don't even fully understand that. They're more than trinkets, boy. You own them, so -- "

Tarrin sucked in his breath. "So I can use them!" he realized. All the innate powers of those Demons were his to command, including their ability to teleport! Those were powers that were within the very essence of Demons, and he owned two of those very essences! Just by commanding the amulets, he could access the innate magical powers of the two Demons he had killed and use them for his own ends!

"And the more you use them, the more you become like them," she warned. "Not even a god is immune from that kind of corruption, boy. The Abyss has enough Bodaks in it as it is."

"Bodak?"

"A being corrupted by the taint of the Demons to the point they become one themselves," she told him. "And just being who you are is no defense. There's been more than one god corrupted and destroyed by the Demons. The One should be thanking you, boy, you saved him from that fate."

"How do you know that? You can't be who you look like."

"Oh, I am who you think I am, boy," she told him with a hard look. "I am Mother Wynn. Me being here seems impossible to you because you lack the ability to understand the true nature of things. Or maybe you just don't want to understand."

"But -- "

"But what? Oh, and one more thing, boy. It won't work."

"What?"

"If you wouldn't be so determined to be a stubborn mule, Niami would tell you so. Well, since you won't let her give you any advice, then take it from me. It won't work."

"What are you talking about?" he asked, completely confused.

"That pitiful excuse for a plan, boy. If you'd stop to think about it, you'd realize it. But there is a way to pull it off, boy. You're just not approaching the problem the right way."

"I don't understand."

"You don't have to. Turn that creative mind of yours about these words, and then let that infamous bent for cunning take hold of them. You're never going to match the One power for power, boy. After all, he's a full god, and you're just a mortal with a whisper of divine power in you, just barely enough for you to hold that form together. That's an important difference, boy, and it has much more to do with power. The way you are now, you can never hope to beat the One, no matter how hard you try. Not only can you never hope to match his power, but trying to kill a god in his home plane is something akin to impossible. But, you made the right choice in coming here to face him. Boy, if you want to stop the Demon Lord, you first have to face the One. What you have to decide is how you're going to survive that encounter. So you need to think about that.

"Now then, I've said what I needed to say. You've been warned about those amulets, boy. I suggest you never use them unless you have absolutely no other choice. Every time you call on their power, you surrender part of yourself to their evil, and not even you are immune. There's no way to reverse it either, unless you dip your hand into the power that is their opposite. But that too would certainly bring its own dangers. The power of righteousness would corrupt you as surely as the power of the Demons. Now, I've said all I intend to say, and I have this knitting to finish. So scat."

Tarrin looked down at his paws, then looked over to her, to ask her what she meant.

But she was gone.

And she left him utterly confused.

 

Heavy thoughts.

For days after his bizarre encounter with what he could only call Mother Wynn, he was all but lost in deep contemplation. The old woman had said little, but those words had carried with them a tremendous meaning to him, on many levels. He sat in his room, a room that had been repaired and was now empty of krin... but that krin was still with him. Szizazz had procured for him a curious little item called a portable hole, a blanket-sized section of cloth spun from the silk of creatures called phase spiders. These spiders had a natural ability to shift themselves out of phase with reality, shifting into some other state of being... it was almost exactly like the druid spell that Triana used to walk through walls and other solid objects. Some enterprising Wizard had managed to discover how to enchant that silk-spun cloth in such a way that it triggered its phasing ability and made it stable. The result was a paper-thin, ten span square length of cloth that held within itself a vast extradimensional space, the size of a small room. The interior expanse of this portable hole was larger than the room Szizazz rented to him. That portable hole was now in his magically protected belt pouch, folded down so many times that it was no larger or thicker than a handkerchief, and also folded in a manner so that Tarrin could open it by unfolding it only twice and open a space wide enough into which he could stick his paw. The Wizard who had fashioned the device -- indeed, making the devices was his main staple of income to fund his magical research -- had taught Szizazz how to do this, and she had trained Tarrin. Everything within this portable hole had a location, and by folding the hole in that specific manner, it allowed him to access certain things placed next to that opening that he might need, such as a large sack of krin, for example.

Tarrin considered Mother Wynn's words, over and over and over, even going so far as to ponder every single word she spoke in and of itself. He had no doubt that she had hinted at much more information that she had given, much like the way Niami had hinted at this or that to fire his curiosity, make him think.

That in itself was another mystery. Just who was Mother Wynn? There was no doubt to him that it really couldn't be the original Mother Wynn, but everything about her screamed at him that it was. She even had the right scent, for Niami's sake! That woman was, from the roots of her hair to her toenails, Mother Wynn. Yet that in and of itself was a scenario that would be a hair's breadth from absolute impossibility. By now, Mother Wynn was dead. He hadn't even really thought of her since his first and only meeting with her.

He thought. And he thought. And he thought more. He ignored time. He forgot to eat or sleep. He simply sat on his bed crosslegged, tail wrapped around his legs, elbow on his leg and chin propped in his paw, and he did nothing but ponder her words, the meaning of her words, the words that she used, and the guesses and conclusions that he could draw from them.

Two things became clear to him after a lengthy consideration. First, that the warning she had brought to him about the amulets was so dire that it demanded she be blatant about it. They really could be that dangerous. They were like the Firestaff or the crown that powered the magic of Amyr Dimeon, artifacts of such power that the very power itself was detrimental to the mortals around them. Both of those artifacts had an aura of corruption about them, a subtle effect of their magic that caused people to covet that power, to desire possessing it. Tarrin had always been very careful to keep the Firestaff in the elsewhere, to shield those around him from the power of that corrupting effect. The Crown of Amyr Dimeon was in a ziggurat that was off-limits to the Aeradalla by law, and Aeradalla were law-abiding enough to accept that law without argument... which isolated them from its power. The power of the amulets wasn't quite like the power of those artifacts, but was equally dangerous. By using their power, by commanding them, Tarrin was exposing himself to their evil, was lowering his defenses, and that power would enter him and begin to try to taint him from within. If the power of their evil became too strong within him, he would become a Demon himself, what Mother Wynn had called a Bodak. That meant that the use of the power of the amulets would literally only be used when his life depended on it. Using them the way he was now, as nothing but anchors which prevented the Demonic weapons that the two Demons had possessed from melting into nothingness like the rest of them had, was passive in nature and didn't expose him to their corrupting evil.

The second thing he had reasoned out was that whoever Mother Wynn was, she had to be something truly beyond his comprehension, because she knew what he had told no one else. And she had flatly stated to him that he was wrong. According to her, his plan to kill the One just plain would not work, no matter how hard he tried. Always before, when faced with overwhelming odds, he simply kept going, kept at it, finding a way to win. In a way, he refused to admit the possibility that he couldn't do something, and that determination had allowed him to overcome tremendous adversaries. His dogged refusal to admit defeat had helped him defeat Val, had allowed him to fight the One toe to toe to a draw, and had allowed him to trick the Demon Lord and destroy the One's icon, setting up the more equivocable situation that existed on Pyrosia now, where the odds were much more even.

Yet now, she had told him, no amount of cunning, connivery, trickery, bravery, or dogged determination was going to make his plan work. Mother Wynn had told him bluntly that he could never hope to fight the One and kill him.

She also told him that he did have to carry through and face the One, but facing the One was not what was going to banish the Demon Lord from Pyrosia and save that world from the Demons.

That was what she had said directly. What she said indirectly was almost as important.

She hinted that he had started on the right path if he wanted to be victorious. She told him that coming here was the right course. That told him that what he did in Pyrosia was the right move, using Niami's help to rewrite the rules of magic on Pyrosia to strip the Demons of their overwhelming advantage.

She hinted that there technically was a way to use the amulets of the Demons without permanent harm, but that was almost as dangerous as using the amulets in the first place. Dipping into the power which was their opposite, she had said, but that power would corrupt just as surely as the power of the Demons. So, perhaps it was best to just ignore that.

And the most important thing she had said, an indirect hint as to what he should do... she had said he had no chance to get rid of the Demon Lord as he was.

After days of contemplation, without even eating or drinking, he realized that he needed to know more, to understand more.

And that took him back to the Sage's Council.

He again accosted the clerk that sat outside the main chambers, who squeaked in fear and seemed to want to throw herself over her desk to protect it from him, demanding this time not an audience with a sage, but the location of and access to the main library the sages used. She flared up as if to deny his request out of reflex, but a single clawed finger held up and before her quelled her innate need to be as inconvenient to him as possible. The determined, stony look in his eyes must have assured her in her own mind that he was very, very serious about getting what he wanted, no matter what he had to do to her furniture, so she grudgingly acquiesced and directed him back down the hall and through a pair of double doors to the right of the main entry, which led down a long curved passageway and into a truly magnificent library. There were floors of books, the compiled knowledge of not just men and other beings from one world, but beings from many worlds.

It was exactly what he needed.

After a meal, he set himself to work. He demanded much of the librarians of that magnificent library, sorely testing their knowledge of the books within their library and the locations of them. He also drove them and all the sages who were there researching crazy by demanding what he wanted when he wanted it... not after a librarian was done helping someone else. The librarians seemed to want to object, at least until he plopped down a sack holding a thousand krin on the book cart of the librarian who had brought him a book he wanted. They were very quick to assist him after that, for he paid them outrageous, almost ridiculous sums of money for their assistance, every time they assisted him.

He knew that though he was a god, he had a mortal's mind, so he began with what the sages understood of the gods. What they did, why they were there, everything from history to philosophy, trying to form a foundation of understanding on which to base everything else. After that, he delved into pure history, reading an abridged version of the history of the multiverse, filled only with the significant events that had transpired. He read book after book after book, moving from the gods to the Deva, trying to understand what they were and their purpose. Then he read some theoretical theology, as sages debated the God of Gods, what it was, what it did, what purpose it worked towards -- if it indeed worked towards any purpose at all -- trying to understand how that fit in with everything else.

After that, he started researching more about the gods, getting more and more specific. He read about theological politics, how gods interacted with one another. Then he moved into some sage's reasearch about how gods and mortals existed, a book of his personal contemplations and observations and theories that, given Tarrin's more intimate understanding of the subject that most, realized weren't far off the mark.

He read, and read, and read. He refused to sleep, refused to eat or drink except when absolutely necessary, he spent his every waking moment in the library day after day, as he struggled to come to an understanding of things that would help him understand what Mother Wynn said, and plan accordingly.

"I think this is the book you asked for, my Lord," a voice called to him after some number of days that he really couldn't recall, days spent in utter devotion to his mission to understand more, to learn what he needed to learn to connect the dots that Mother Wynn had laid out, but had laid out so far apart that he couldn't make the connections. He looked up at saw himself looking at a young, swarthy-skinned woman with a slightly flat chest, wearing a simple woolen peasant dress, her long, straight black hair pulled back from her face by a kerchief folded down into a long strap tied into her hair. He hadn't remembered asking for another book, but the mental state he was in, so distracted and interspective, he really wouldn't be surprised if he had asked for it.

She seemed hauntingly familiar to him. Her face and her scent... he wasn't sure, but he thought he'd met this woman some time before, but he couldn't quite pin it down. Then again, he was very tired, and he was starting to feel like Phandebrass with his head so full of what he'd been reading that he was having trouble separating it from the rest of the world. She handed him a simple leather-bound tome, a tome with no title. She then smiled at him and winked, then scurried off between a pair of bookshelves and out of sight.

Tarrin soon forgot about the girl as he opened the book she had given him, and began to read. The book was a book of history, and the more he read, the more he understood that this was exactly the book that he needed to read. He read page after page, and the more he read, the more he understood. The lessons of the past, reaching out across the marches of time to educate those of the present, to teach him their wisdom, and to ensure that he did not make the same mistakes that had been made in the past. Every word was like fire in his brain, and every word became burned into his memory as if it had always been there. He consumed page after page, chapter after chapter, reading about the past and understanding how it applied to the future.

When he closed the book and laid it carefully on the desk, he understood. He undestood the warnings of Mother Wynn, and he understood what had to be done. He understood the mistakes he had made, and now understood what he had to do to correct his path and get back on the right track. He didn't just understand his own situation, he now understood who he was, and just what it meant.

He understood.

A new plan began to form in his mind, a plan that would rely on those warnings, and guided by the wisdom set forth in the book laying before him. He would indeed have to fight the One, and she had been right. How he handled that battle would decide the outcome of everything else. It was a battle that he could not win... but he couldn't allow the One to know that he understood that reality. It was a battle that he had to survive, however, and Mother Wynn was right. How he faced the One would cause his plan to either succeed or fail.

But that was not a battle he was prepared to fight just yet. There were some other things that had to be done first, some loose ends to tie up, and certain items that had to be acquired before he could challenge the One. And there were also some plans to set in motion that would come to fruition after that battle, plans he would have to rely upon after it was done.

For right now, waiting to hear from the Sage's Council was still his main priority. The knowledge of the One's home plane and the location of his realm was very important information, information that he would need once he was prepared to face the One.

Two things had to be done, however, but both would have to wait until he had what he needed from the Sages.

The first thing he had to do was procure a certain magical object that could only be found in the possession of a Solar. Given also that no Solar would hand that object over willingly, it meant that he would have to permanently run himself afoul of the Deva by fighting a Solar over that object. This would not be easy. Solar were probably the most powerful beings in the multiverse that couldn't be called a god. Solar were more powerful than some gods. Fighting one would be almost as hard as facing the One, but in that, at least, he had a reasonable chance. Solar were not gods. They were immensely powerful and formidable, but they weren't invulnerable, and Tarrin was no pushover in combat himself. This was something he decided would be best to do after his business in Crossroads was complete, where he wouldn't be under the eyes of so many Deva... for there was no doubt that the entirety of the Deva would kill him on sight after he stripped what he needed from a Solar.

The other thing he had to do was return to Sennadar, but it wouldn't be as easy as just walking through the gate and proclaiming that he was home. He had no doubt that the Elder Gods would resist his return to his home world, and would order Spyder to block him from entering his own home. And that meant that he would have to fight and defeat one of the most powerful and skilled users of both magic and steel that had ever lived, the nigh-invincible Urzani Sorceress, Spyder.

Both of these errands weren't going to be easy... but what he had to do wouldn't be easy either. But, he felt that if he could accomplish both tasks, then he could see this through to the end. If he could best a Solar and Spyder in combat, then he'd be able to survive a battle with the One and then carry through to ultimate victory.

And oh, the sweet, ironic justice of this plan. Just thinking about it made him giggle like a little boy. And it gave him a feeling of, of hope, something he hadn't felt in a while. After removing the Demon Lord from Pyrosia, there wasn't much for him to look forward to. The Elder Gods would deny him entry to his own home, and he would be stranded, a refugee in a world that was not his, and still existing in a state that would make him feel as if he did not belong.

But at least if this plan worked, he had a reason to feel hopeful that things would indeed work out for the best, and even if he wouldn't be happy, at least he would be content.

He put a paw over the book, then breathed out a deep, cleansing breath. "Mother."

"What is it, kitten?" her disembodied voice drifted to him immediately. He could count on her to keep an eye on him, even if he absolutey forbade her from interfering.

"I need you to do something for me."

"What do you need?"

"I need you to be ready to tell Dolanna what she's doing. I need her to understand."

"Kitten, if her faith in you becomes questioned, you will lose your power!"

"That's exactly what has to happen, Mother, but only at the right time."

"Kitten, you're being crazy!"

"Crazy like a fox, Mother," he said, tapping his fingertips together over the book. "Crazy like a fox."

"So, perhaps my kitten is starting to understand," she said with a gentle voice, filled with sly amusement.

"Yes, Mother, I understand. Completely.

"Well, since things have changed, perhaps you can explain to me what you intend to do?"

"Let me leave here. Would you walk with me, Mother?"

Immediately, Niami appeared beside the table where he was sitting. She looked exactly as she always looked, with her multicolored hair and her gown made of spun starshine. Tarrin stood up and offered his arm to her, which she took with a gentle smile. They walked together out of the building and out the gate of the compound, then walked aimlessly along the streets. Tarrin explained his plan to her in great detail, going over everything that had to be done.

"Goodness, kitten, you do understand," she said with an approving nod. "What you intend isn't going to be easy, it's actually a little crazy and it's going to get you into a whole lot of trouble, but it will work. I'm just glad you finally understand. Now, things are going to be much easier."

"I'm glad you approve, Mother," he said honestly. "I know it's not an easy thing I'm asking for about Dolanna, but can you do it?"

"Yes, kitten, I can do it. I know Dolanna's mind, I know how to say it so that you get what you need wtihout it doing her any harm."

"Perfect. Mother, I need to make sure of something."

"What is that?"

"You promised not to interfere. I need you to honor that, even when I come into conflict with the other Elder Gods. Will you promise me that no matter what happens, no matter what I do, that you won't raise your hand against me?"

"I know what you have planned, kitten, and I'm very glad you told me. I could try to explain things to my parents, but they probably won't listen to me..if I could even tell them about this. When it comes to you and me, they think I've lost my mind, and won't even listen to me anymore. They think you're a bad influence on me," she said with a giggle.

"I think I have been. Really, Mother, holding Sennadar hostage? Wasn't that a bit extreme?"

"It certainly got their attention," she laughed. "Don't worry, kitten, they'll get over it. And after everything's said and done, maybe they'll respect me a little more now that they understand how serious I can be. I can't make the road any smoother for you in that department, but I can at least promise you that I won't actively interfere or try to oppose you."

"That's all I need, Mother. I can deal with the other parts myself. How are things in Pyrosia?" he asked, if only because he couldn't stand not knowing.

"Quite well, despite a few setbacks," she answered. "Haley and Darvon are at Pyros now, and they're already rebuilding the city using the Sorcerers and some Elara magicians that have come down off their moon. Your shadow is still out there, and it's growing stronger and stronger. The Demon Lord hasn't managed to kill it yet, and it's starting to become very strong. It's done its job, because it's pinned all the Demons in together in a city near the east coast. The Demon Lord can't really send any of them out, because only about half of them manage to come back. Kimmie, Mist, your daughters, and their help have already left Pyros, but it's going to be very slow for them. The Demon Lord has already struck the first blow. He sent several thousand winged Demons to attack Pyros, sending them by air, the only way he has to get forces out and past your shadow without losing a large chunk of them."

Tarrin grunted. "What happened?"

"Dolanna demonstrated that she's getting the hang of it," Niami said smugly. "She raised a Ward over most of the city that stopped the Demons cold. You would have been proud of her, kitten, that Ward protected a huge area. But unfortunately, it wasn't huge enough. She may be the guiding force of the Weave there, but she's still only a mortal -- and not even a Weavespinner -- and she has limits on how much power she can command. She couldn't cover the stables, and the Demons attacked it before they were driven off. I hate to say it, kitten, but almost all the Pegasi and most of the horses were killed."

Tarrin swore. "How bad is it?"

"Bad enough. Only six Pegasi survived, and only about twenty horses. The horses can be replaced, but the Pegasi are another matter. Your mates and children were going to use the Pegasi to sally out to recover the shards quickly, but they can't do that now. Phandebrass and that Elara Wizard Kyrienna are almost done creating magical devices that can locate the shards of your sword. They've already completed one, and Mist and Kimmie are using it, following its directions. Triana and Jasana are waiting for the Wizards to complete the second, and I'm also having them create one more, in case one is lost or destroyed. You know how good Phandebrass is, but this Elara woman is exceptional. Outside of Phandebrass, she's the best Wizard I've ever seen. The two of them are funny to watch," she laughed. "Kyrienna is trying to prove she's a better Wizard than him, but Phandebrass is utterly oblivious to her competitive posturing, and it's driving her crazy. It's even worse because he is a better Wizard than she is."

Tarrin smiled. "I can imagine."

"All things being equal, I think we still have the advantage in time. The Demon Lord has a large force of humans still answering his command, but he's using almost half of them right now to help find and kill your shadow, since they're not vulnerable to it. What he has left that's not committed is about the same size of Bragg's army, but it's spread out to try to keep control of the eastern cities. From what I've seen in the scouting reports, it looks like the Demon Lord -- well, Shaz'Baket, actually, she's probably running that operation -- is trying to keep control of the eastern marches of the continent and discourage Bragg from trying to invade, and use that time to conscript more soldiers from the cities to use in their march towards Pyros. From the way it looks, once the Demons have enough of a human army to reinforce them, and they've dealt with your shadow, they'll march out of their strongholds and come after Dolanna. Until then, they have every flying Demon that wasn't killed at Pyros out hunting for the shards of your sword, and they're also keeping an eye on Bragg's forces. Any time he moves towards one city, human forces march from other cities to reinforce it with enough men to make taking it too costly to consider. They're making Bragg very angry by using flying Demons, but he certainly doesn't seem to mind the detailed reconnaisance the Elara are giving him."

"They have flying animals on Elara?"

"No, kitten, they use magic to simply look down from their moon and see what's going on down on the planet," she answered. "As long as there's no clouds or trees blocking their view, they can see everything. And because of the distances involved, no countermagic the Demons can use can stop them. All they can do is try to conceal their movements as best they can and use cover to hide their numbers."

"Clever," Tarrin said appreciatively.

"They've finally convinced Bragg to pull back to Pyros," she told him. "Kang had to do it himself. Bragg could smell them retreating, and Bragg's not the kind of Dwarf to just let that go unchallenged. So his Dwarves are marching towards Pyros now, and the Elara have also sent some troops, and some of their magicians. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that the Elara are descendents of the Urzani, but in some respects, they're like the past resurrected."

"How so?" he asked with genuine curiosity. The Urzani were a tantalizing mystery to him, for Spyder almost never spoke of that distant past.

"Their culture is almost exactly the same," she answered, making a sour face. "The Urzani had a system of social castes; laborer, soldier, artisan, magician, noble. The Elara society maintains their caste system, but it's much more rigid. In the Urzani system, a laborer could rise to a better caste by working hard to become an artisan, or entering the army and becoming a soldier, or having enough magical aptitude to learn Wizard magic, or entering the priesthood. The Elara have institutionalized their castes. If you're born into the laborer caste, you'll always be a laborer. The soldier castes of the Elara almost look like a different species, since they've bred physical traits into themselves. The soldier Elara are larger and stronger than the rest of their race. The only Elara allowed to learn magic are the magician caste and the noble caste. Those with the natural aptitude for their elemental magic learn that, those that don't become Wizards or Priests. I tell you this, kitten, everything that caused the Urzani to fly apart is seething just under the surface of the Elara's so-called perfect society. One of them that came down, a girl named Myn, she's the perfect example of that wrongness. The girl's an incredibly gifted Wizard, not many rungs under Phandebrass and Kyrienna, but she was born into the laborer caste. She defied Elara law and learned magic, pretending to be of the magician caste, until she was found out. They would have executed her if not for the fact that she's so strong, strong enough to be a Gatemaster, so they instead did what the Urzani used to do with their condemned prisoners."

"What?"

"They tattooed her," she answered. "They would tattoo a mask over the eyes and upper cheeks of the condemned, so if by some miracle they escaped, that tattoo would serve as a marker that one was dealing with someone sentenced to death. It was called Death's Black Mask, since black ink was about the only ink that would show on a brown-skinned Urzani. Myn has just such a tattoo, though hers is blue, and she's a pariah among the Elara. They won't even look at her, they turn their backs to her whenever she comes near them. I felt so sorry for her, I ordered Dolanna to send her out with Kimmie. Kimmie will sort her out. She's very good for that."

"Huh," Tarrin grunted. "I never really talked much to Lorak or Neh. They never wanted to talk about Elara or their people."

"That's because I think they knew it would offend you," she answered. "Dolanna and the others warned them about you, and hearing about how they keep much of their population in a state that's just a small step above slavery would have set you off."

"Yes it would have," he said with a grim expression.

"It's unfortunate that the one trait that I was glad to see fall from the Urzani lives on in the Elara, the need to subjugate others to their will, the need to control. The Elara had no one else to control, so they turned on their own. The Elara society is a society of rigid rules and customs, where the higher castes oppress the lower castes."

"I remember how offended the Elara were when I told them they were probably descendents of the Urzani, or the parent race," he said. "Now I see where some of it came from."

"Yes, kitten. That Urzani arrogance is still deeply seated in them."

"I still get a warm feeling when I remember the look on Lorak's face when I started speaking their language," he chuckled. "How are the children?"

"Zyri and Jal are very happy," she answered. "Jenna is being a good surrogate while you're away, and both of them are starting to settle in. Shara's been replaced by an Elara Water adept named Tem, and his training is starting to come along nicely. Zyri still hasn't manifested her power, but she's in the Novitiate now, and quite the center of attention because Jenna won't let her live in the dormitories. She and Jal live in Jenna's apartment. Everyone knows that she's your adopted daughter and the niece of the Keeper. Telven's really hating working for the Knights, but they're starting to wear him down. Azakar's oveseeing his, ah, education personally while he recovers from his wounds. But despite it all, he's fascinated by the Knights. I get a strange feeling that he's going to end up with spurs before all is said and done."

"I hope Zak can make something of him," he grunted. They walked past a small tavern, and Tarrin gave a cool glance at the two Archons who stood in the doorway gawking, watching them go past. Tarrin himself may not be very noteworthy, just a minor godling as they saw things, but Niami was not just the casual visitor. She was an Elder God from one of the most powerful Prime Material planes, a being of almost incomprehensible power. Her presence here was what they were gawking at... and for once, Tarrin felt relieved that all the attention wasn't focused on him. "I really can't tell you when I'm going to show up in Sennadar, Mother," he told her. "Right now I'm waiting on the leader of the Sages to get back to me."

"For what, kitten?"

"For part of the old plan that's part of the new plan," he answered. "I still have to face the One, Mother, and face him in his home realm. I won't be able to kill him, but I have to try... and I have to make sure that I survive that fight. If I don't, nothing else is going to work."

"I don't like the idea of that," she sighed. "And I'm very glad you decided not to try to kill the One. I would have told you immediately that it would be absolutely impossible."

"And I would have ignored you," he told her evenly. "Then I would have spent so much time trying to prevent your meddling that I wouldn't get anything else done."

"And that would have been the point of my meddling," she said with a sly smile and a glance at him. "You may try to ignore me, I may not outright order you like I do others, and I give you way more latitude then I give any of my other children, kitten, but in the end you will do as I say. I would have found out what you were up to after watching what you were doing, and then I'd have put a hand in, promise or no promise. My promise to stay out of it means nothing if I know you're all but committing suicide."

"Sometimes, I hate you, Mother."

"Then I'm doing my job," she answered. "Sometimes, a parent has to put her foot down, kitten. You know all about that, though, don't you?" she laughed. "Jasana is more than a handful. Honestly, I don't see why you and Jesmind don't have white hair by now."

"I'm not sure either," he admitted. "Anyway, there are a few things I have to do before I can come to Sennadar. Just please, stay out of it. I can deal with it myself."

"This is something I really can't help you with anyway, kitten," she answered his request with honesty. "All I can say is be careful, and know that when you leave Crossroads, I'm not going to be able to help you at all. I won't even be able to speak to you. What you intend to do is going to make you a criminal in the eyes of everyone. I'll help you as much as I can until you pass that point of no return, but once you cross over that line, I can do no more for you. To do so would threaten the Balance, and I can't do that. Once you commit to that course of action, there will be no turning back. You will be an enemy to the gods, the Deva, the Demons... just about everyone. I can only strongly suggest that you fully understand and appreciate what that is going to mean."

"Yes, Mother, I appreciate that. I know what I'm going to do, and what the consequences are going to be."

"I'm glad you fully understand. But I won't oppose you, either. You won't have anything to fear from me in that regard. Refusing to actively oppose you does not threaten the Balance, because I understand what your ultimate objective is. In this case, the end really will justify the means."

"That's all I need, Mother. That and you assuring everyone that I haven't gone mental."

She laughed. "I won't be able to help there, kitten. They already believe that you're mental."

"Well, they may be right," he admitted with a short nod. "And don't worry about me, Mother. I can handle doing this on my own."

"I have every faith in you." She stopped, pulling on his paw to make him stop walking. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave you now, kitten. I want you to be careful, and know that I will not oppose you. I just wish I could warn Spyder of what's coming," she sighed.

"You know we can't," he told her. "If Spyder knew I was coming back, then others would find out, and that would jeopardize everything."

"I know. But at least I can be there to assure her that you forgive her after it's over."

"You talk like I won't have any problem waltzing right by her," he snorted. "Mother, Spyder will be the biggest challenge I've ever had to face. I'm not sure I can beat her."

"You can, kitten, so long as you remember who you are," she told him, reaching up and patting him on the cheek. "Always keep that in mind, Tarrin. No one can stand against you."

"Well, I wouldn't say that," he chuckled.

"I would," she smiled. She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the cheek, and it left his cheek tingling with lingering power. "Be very careful, my kitten. This is the most dangerous road you've ever tried to walk. I know it's going to be difficult for you, but just keep your eyes on that destination. That will make it all worth it."

"I know it will," he told her, taking her hand, then lightly kissing the back of it. "I want you to be careful too, Mother. What you're sitting on could get you in as much trouble as me."

"Oh, I know that, kitten, believe me. I'm just glad that you understand. That you finally understand. You truly have grown up, my son.

"I'm glad you approve."

"Oh, certainly. I really need to go now. Be well, Tarrin Kael. And good luck."

"I'll see you soon, Mother."

"I'm sure you will," she said with a sly smile, and then she simply vanished.

Tarrin sighed, turning to look back down the street where they had walked. At least someone understood what he was going to do, and wouldn't think he'd gone completely insane.

But it wasn't insanity. It was cold, calculated, methodical intent. He understood completely what was coming. The instant he opposed a Solar, he was a marked man in the eyes of the Deva. They would hunt him down. But it was more than that, actually. They would oppose him no matter what when they discovered the truth, discovered his dark secret.

Mi'Shara... it really was a literal term.

He, and Spyder, they were both Entropic beings.

They were Mi'Shara. They were mortal beings who could, in time of great need, exceed their mortal restrictions and bring to bear power far beyond anything a mortal could wield. In effect, they could counteract the very rules of reality and manipulate the universe itself. They were aberrations, abominations some would call them, but according to that book, even the Entropics had a place in the vast design which was that which was created by the God of Gods. They weren't Entropic Entities, which was what most would imagine when one mentioned an Entropic, those vast, plane-sized sentient disruptions in the Astral, forces of such power and concern that Demon and Deva would band together and work as one to destroy the Entropic. Instead, they were mortal beings who had been born with the innate power of Entropy within them. The closest thing that history had to call beings aligned with Entropy was the word mishara, or the Dream Killers, mortal and divine agents of Entropy working to unmake all... but that wasn't precisely what he and Spyder really were. They weren't beings working to destroy everything. They were Mi'Shara.

And Tarrin finally understood what that meant. Something that not even Spyder, with her ten millenia of life and experience, had come to comprehend. It was such a simple truth, but sometimes, the simplest of things were the hardest to understand.

And he had to fight her. His mind shuddered away at the unimaginable potential for disaster implicit within that single thought. Given what they were capable of doing -- no wonder the Elder Gods were so terrified of him. In that battle, he had to make sure to bring Spyder down before she lost her temper, and be very careful not to overwhelm her in power and cause her to attempt to exercise her power as a Mi'Shara in order to combat him. If he was forced to react in kind, it would be almost as bad as two gods warring in the mortal realm. The kind of power that both he and Spyder could channel into the material world could devastate large swaths of his homeworld.

He also would not under any circumstances, either intentionally or even accidentally, kill her. She was his friend, and she was more. She was one of his sister sui'kun, and they were bound together as Mi'Shara. He had to exercise the utmost caution so that he didn't permanently hurt her, even as he fought against her.

He went over what had to be done in his mind. It was quite the laundry list of errands, starting with the Sages and ending with the destruction of the Demon Lord. Once he knew where the One was hiding, he could go find a Solar and take what he needed, then he'd be ready to face the biggest challenge in his life.

Not Jegojah, not Kravon, not Val, not Stragos Bane, not the One, not a Demon Lord, not even the Solar, but someone that would make them all look like children in comparison.

Spyder.

If he could best Spyder and gain entry into Sennadar, then everything else would be relatively easy. The battle with the One wouldn't be that hard, because all he had to do was survive that fight, where he had to defeat Spyder, and do it in such a way that he didn't hurt her and also didn't cause her to use her power as a Mi'Shara against him.

Once he won access to Sennadar, there were several things he had to do there, and probably do them while dodging the wrath of the Elder Gods. He had to go to the Tower in Suld, he had to return to his home in Aldreth, and he had to destroy the spelltrap he'd made so long ago... just do it in a way that didn't damage the statuette itself. He was very fond of that black metal sculpture, he'd rather not lose it.

Once all of that was done, the only thing left would be to face the One, survive the battle, and then destroy the Demon Lord.

Easy, easy.

But it would be worth all the aggravation. If everything worked the way he hoped, he would be able to go home, and there wasn't a damn thing the Elder Gods could do to stop him.

He blew out his breath and turned back towards the Sage's Council headquarters. He wanted to read a little more, and finalize his plans with a little more methodical thought and contemplation. He also wanted to check in with the head of the order and find out how many of his requests had come back declining the job, and how many had yet to reply.

There was much to do.

 

Sitting in her chair, Mother Wynn watched the people go by, as her nimble hands, unfettered by age, continued to knit her yarn into neat, precise rows. She took no notice of any of the mortals or Archons that passed, didn't even raise an eyebrow when a hulking, menacing balor shambled by her porch, even as everyone else scrambled to get out of the Demon's way. For her, the entire world was nothing more than completing her line, and then starting another.

She took no notice of anyone, and no one took notice of her. She didn't look up regardless of who passed by her porch, nor did she look up when someone came up to her porch and sat down in her spare chair. It was a small, young woman with dark skin, radiant brown eyes, and straight black hair, wearing a simple peasant dress of dark wool. She was an attractive young lady, if a bit flat-chested and narrow through the hips, making her look slightly younger than she actually was.

Mother Wynn said nothing, neither acknowledging the girl or looking at her. Both were quiet for many moments, until Mother Wynn finally broke the silence.

"Did you get the book back?" she asked.

"Right here," the girl answered, reaching into midair and closing her hand over nothingness. But that nothingness suddenly became an old, old leather-bound book, a book whose title was embossed in gold letters along its spine:

 

The Blood War of Sennadar; a Study of How One Event Can Affect the Multiverse.

 

"I don't think he recognized me," she said.

"You sound disappointed."

"I guess I am, a little. He remembered you."

"I didn't try to talk to him when he was nose-deep in a mystery."

"Well, yeah, I guess you're right. Think he would have recognized me if not for that?"

"Most likely. The boy's sharp, and he has a long memory."

"I'll say. After he read the book, he homed right in on the truth like a raptor drawing a bead on a rabbit."

"He's not a Mi'Shara for nothing, girl. The truth resonates in him like a forgotten memory. All he needed was a little nudging."

"I hope he got off to a good start."

"He did," she answered evenly. "He's heeded the warnings, and knows what has to be done. He's already talked to Niami. Once the Sages get back to him, he'll get his ball rolling."

"And that's when the fur's going to fly," the girl said with an indelicate grunt.

"Has to be done, girl, has to be done," Mother Wynn told her calmly. "Things have to move forward. Sometimes when you jar the cart, something falls out and breaks."

"I know, it's just... I don't like chaos."

"Sometimes you have to create a little chaos in order to make a little law," Mother Wynn shrugged. "They'll all get over it eventually."

"I know. How do you think it's going to turn out?"

"Who knows?" she shrugged again. "You know that the future's not set."

"Well, what do you think is going to happen?"

"Me personally? Well, I don't think there's ever been anyone born with more brath than that boy. He'll prevail, just because he won't accept anything less. He's too stubborn to do anything other than prevail."

The girl giggled. "I think you're right. You know something?"

"What, girl?"

"I hope he wins."

"That's what we're here for, girl, to help that come about."

If the girl replied to that, no one knew, for she was gone. As was Mother Wynn.

As well as the porch, and the house to which it had been attached, and the very memory that they had ever been there at all. They had all vanished, leaving nothing but a narrow street behind, and not one soul within Crossroads except Tarrin Kael had any memory that the house, the girl, or Mother Wynn had ever existed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    3      5

Chapter 4

        Despite all the weighty matters at hand, Tarrin Kael knew that sometimes, one just had to put it all on the top shelf and worry about it later.

        His plan had been the only thing on his mind for some time, but now that everything was more or less worked through, and a couple of the little bugs were recognized and corrected.  So, to avoid nitpicking himself to oblivion, he knew when it was time to step back and just let it sit.

        That meant that he had to occupy himself with other matters…and there weren’t many other matters into which he could get involved, given that he was trying to keep a low profile.  He ended up spending most of that time talking to Szizazz or stalking the stacks of the large library in the Sage’s Council, searching for more information about Demons and Deva, more about the Deva than the Demons, trying to learn more about those who were his enemies, and were soon to become his enemies.

        And in this he found something of a curiosity.  It turned out to him that the Demons were much more researched and documented than the Deva, and this was a darkly amusing irony to him.  The sages and wise men had spent much time and effort studying the beings that were dark and dangerous and potential enemies, but spent virtually no effort studying the mysterious Deva.  What made it odd to him was that these men knew more about their enemies than their allies.  Demons were heavily researched, entire bookshelves in the library devoted to the subject and written by sages who, often at risk to life, limb, and soul, had laboriously penetrated the veil of secrecy of the Demonic culture and learned…where the Deva barely had a shelf of books devoted to them.

        But that little bit of information was useful to him.  Mainly those few books on the subject glossed over the powers of the various Deva and attempted to penetrate the wall of silence of the Deva concerning who they were and what they did, and had no success.

        And that was probably why the Demons were so much more well known.  Demons would, with enough incentive, reveal their secrets, where the Deva would not.  They were united in their silence.

        But the books had enough in them, as Tarrin was able to study the powers and abilities of the various Deva, from the warrior Agathinon to the almost godlike Solar.  And of course, much like anything else with the Deva, the researchers had never managed to get the Deva themselves to talk about it…their findings were the results of laborious research of watching the various Deva in action, where there was no way to hide what they were doing.  But it was enough for him.  He had no doubt that the various Deva had more abilities than what the books attributed to them, but the observations recorded in those books was enough to give Tarrin a foundation of understanding in the Agathinon, Deva, Planetars, and Solars to understand the nature of their abilities and the best ways to go about combatting them.

        He just had to be careful.  He was in a vulnerable position here, and he knew it.  The Deva were not the Demons in how he could deal with them.  They were united as a whole, and when he started opposing them, they would be much more dangerous to him because of that unity…and this was their home ground, as it were.  Certainly, the first thing he had to do after earning their wrath was get out of Crossroads, and stay out.  He couldn’t come back here after he took what he needed from a Solar.

        After doing all that reading and deciding it was time to take a break, he spent much of his time getting to know Szizazz.  The four-armed creature who looked so much like a marilith was an interesting female, in both her personality and her history.  It took him a while to get her to actually talk to him, and he found her personality decidedly reptillian.  She was a cold, unemotional woman, devoted to the concepts of knowledge and logic and shunning emotional outbursts as a useless waste of energy.  Her race, whose names were literally unpronouncable to him, were not like her, she told him.  They were consumed by greed and hatred and fear, and warred with each other and everyone else.  Szizazz was part of a very small minority of her people who saw the futility of these actions, but unlike others, he saw, she had so utterly rejected the actions of her people that it also caused her to reject the emotions that caused them to act the way they did.  Her status as a Wizard meant that for her, life would be nothing but one endless war until she was killed on the battlefield.  When a magical accident propelled her here, to Crossroads, she saw no reason to return to a life she did not want to lead.

        But Tarrin liked her, despite her cold nature.  She was intelligent and wise, and she was loyal.  That seemed odd to him, but it was an extension of her some of the customs she had yet to shed from her past life, one of the customs of her people.  Guests welcomed into her home were afforded respect and protection as if they were family, until they did something that caused her to withdraw that hospitality.  She insulated herself from potential problems by being very selective over who she allowed to rent a room within her inn.  Only those she felt were worth her hospitality were permitted to come under her roof.

        He had shared spells with her, and had told her about his homeworld, and had even taught her how to play chess, after using magic to create a board.  He did these things because he found that he just needed someone to talk to, he needed a friend, and he felt he could trust Szizazz.  He’d even revealed at least the main framework of the events that had brought him to Crossroads, and his plans to correct his mistakes and return to Pyrosia.

        “So, that is why the krin spell became uncontrollable,” she mused as she held a knight in one of her four hands, studying its form with her cold orange-red eyes.  “It reacted to your divine nature.  It is designed to drain the power of the Wizard and transform it into krin, but your power is potentially limitless.  What the spell drained was immediately replaced, so the spell never found its terminus because it never ran out of power to siphon.”

        “Ah, I see,” he said with a nod.  “That certainly explains what went wrong.  I never thought of that when I cast it.”

        “Obviously,” she sniffed, setting the knight down in a new position.  “And that is how gods make krin in infinite amounts.  Check.”

        “Most likely,” he agreed, studying the board and resisting the urge to frown.  Szizazz had picked up this game entirely too fast for his liking.

        “Do you feel that your allies on Pyrosia will endure until you are able to return?”

        “They should,” he said, moving his king out of danger.  “If Dolanna can get a handle on the power she has at her disposal, Pyros will be a very hard target for the Demon Lord to conquer…and he can’t do anything there without taking Pyros first.  Dolanna’s the lynchpin of everything there.  So long as she’s in Pyros, she controls all magic in Pyrosia, and that’s a threat that the Demon Lord can’t leave unchallenged.

        “How does a mortal do this?”

        “Well, because she’s just a focus for a guiding power,” he answered.  “Dolanna maintains the integrity of the Weave I built there, but the one who’s doing the actual controlling is my Goddess.  She doesn’t do it by doing anything conscious.  All it requires is her physical presence.  A Weave cannot exist without Sorcerers and a coherent force holding it in place.  My Goddess can’t provide that coherent force because it’s not Sennadar, but Dolanna can.  So, my Goddess is the sentient force behind the laws of magic that the Weave enforce on Pyrosia, but Dolanna is the focus of coherent will keeping it in place.  In a way, Dolanna is a living icon for my Goddess, giving her a window into Pyrosia.”

        “It sounds stressful for her.  A mortal was never meant to control such power.”

        “Dolanna’s resilient, and it’s not as hard as it sounds for her,” he answered.  “She doesn’t have to control that power, Szizazz, she just has to be the will of the Weave.  She has to actively keep the Weave stable, but it doesn’t require her to understand every secret of magic to keep it up.  That’s what my Goddess does.  Dolanna just provides the conscious will to hold it in place.  In time, she’s going to learn how to control that power much more comprehensively, and that’s when she’s going to be dangerous to the Demon Lord.  That’s why he has to kill her as fast as possible, because if he gives her time to understand how to control that power, she can lash out from Pyros and decimate his entire army, no matter where it is.”

        “Truly, magic is much different in your world than in mine.  In my home dimension, no magic-user could ever perform such a feat.”

        “I guess it is,” he agreed.  “Too bad you weren’t born there, Szizazz.  I think you’d have liked it.”

        She sniffed.  “Then I would not be who I am.  And I am content with who I am.”

        “True,” he agreed.  “But I’d love to have you come visit someday.”

        “You said the world is closed.”

        “It is, but when I finally get back home, I’m going to assert some authority.  I’m sure I can swing getting you through the gate and in for a visit.”

        “You are going to bully gods,” she remarked.

        “I’ve done it before,” he said with nonchalance.  “They’ll want no part of me after I get home, because I’ll be very unhappy over how they tried to keep me out.  And by then, they’re not going to have any bloody way to deny me my home.  Ayise will give in, or I’ll get nasty.”

        She gave him a cool but amused look.

        “What?”

        “I find it amusing to hear you speak so,” she told him.  “I think you are the first person I have ever met who sees gods as nothing but a minor inconvenience.”

        “Well, technically, I’m also a god,” he chuckled.

        “In name only.”

        “Well, yeah, but let’s not quibble over little things,” he said flippantly.  “I was able to bully gods long before this happened,” he said, jerking his thumb over his back to point at his wings, which flowed from his back to display themselves for Szizazz’s benefit.

        “A strange world you live in, Tarrin Kael,” she told him, her expression still dryly amused.  “I would not be happy living in a world with such power.  It trivializes what is important.”

        “It’s not always fun, believe me,” he told her.  “Sometimes, I’d much rather be the kid I used to be, when I didn’t have any magic, and where my whole world was nothing more than my parents’ farm and the surrounding territory.  And I certainly agree with you, Szizazz.  Sometimes I look at how things have turned out, and I wonder just how in the nine hells it came to this.  Here I am, a bloody god, fighting against a Demon Lord.  You know, ten years ago, I was that kid whose entire world was a farm and a stretch of forest.  I’m just a farmboy from Aldreth.  What in Sennadar am I doing out here?”

        She gave him a strange look.  “Perhaps, that is exactly why it is you who are here,” she told him.  “Because you are that farmboy from Aldreth, and not a god.”  She leaned her cheek against the palm of her hand, elbow on the table between them, as two of her other hands clasped before her and the fourth reached down to the board to move.  “Check.”

        He frowned again.  “I understand what you’re saying.  That’s how I got into this mess in the first place,” he told her.  “I was chosen to go after the Firestaff because I didn’t want to use it.  My Were-cat mentality doesn’t make me seek out power like humans do.  I could be trusted with that kind of power, because it wasn’t what I was after.  But in the end, I used it anyway.  Strange world we live in sometimes,” he sighed.

        “Why did you use it?”

        “Because it had to be done,” he told her, then he glossed over the situation with Val.  “Me using it was half out of revenge for what he did to me and my family, and half because the world just wasn’t big enough for him and the Elder Gods.  Part of me really enjoyed killing him, though, I can’t deny it, it wasn’t completely about duty.  He harmed my family, and that’s something you don’t do if you want to live.  I can be quite vindictive sometimes,” he admitted.

        She gave a low, undulating hiss, which was her form of laughter.  “It certainly seems so,” she told him.  “Do you regret doing it?”

        “No,” he said after a moment’s thought, blocking her attack with his rook.  “Even though it did this to me.  This is the result of it, but the act itself, well, I’d do that again.  This is the burden I bear for it.  I’ve had to learn to live with being what I am, and it caused me a lot of problems early on.  I’ve never been very comfortable with being a god.  It’s just not me, you know?”

        “And does it cause problems now?”

        “I guess it does.  It’s not what I want to be.  It’s not who I am.  I’ve learned how to use it, but if I could have things my way, I’d gladly give it up, in a heartbeat.”

        “You are wise, Tarrin Kael,” she told him.

        “I don’t think so,” he chuckled.  “I think if I’d been given the mind of a god instead of keeping my mortal mind, I’d be singing a different song.”

        “Then you are truly wise,” she told him, one of her four hands moving over the board as she took his rook.  “When I use the spell that changes my shape and gives me legs, I feel decidedly like I am not who I should be, even though when I am in that form, things are much easier for me.  Despite knowing that this place is not designed for someone like me, I cling to my natural form, because it is who I am.  You understand the truth of being who you are, and being faithful to it, Tarrin Kael.  They truly chose wisely when the chose you to bear the burden of the Firestaff.  Check.”

        “Legs, eh?” he said, giving her a slight smile.  “I’ve never seen you like that.”

        “I have no reason to use it within the bounds of my own home, Tarrin,” she told him.

        “You’re going to have to show me some day.”

        “Perhaps,” she told him.  “If I were not a proper maiden, I would almost think you were making an improper invitation.”

        He laughed.  “No, Szizazz, I like to stay within my own species.  But you are a handsome woman to me…at least from the waist up.”

        “For some strange reason, that pleases me.  Though I have no idea why.”

        “Girls like to hear that they’re pretty,” he told her with a grin.  “Even four-armed snake girls.”

        “You are indeed a dangerous man, Tarrin Kael,” she told him with a clever little smile.  “I think you are trying to distract me from defeating you in our game.”

        “I’m not that petty,” he laughed.  “You’ve pretty much well got this game wrapped up.  I need to start teaching people who aren’t smarter than me,” he mused aloud.  “And you just learned!”

        “This game is war, my friend, and if there is one thing I understand, it is war.”

        “I guess you would,” he told her with a hint of compassion in his voice.  “Well, I’m going to resign this game, Szizazz.  You more or less have me in four moves.”

        “A wise person knows when to admit defeat with dignity,” she said simply.  “I would return to my apartment, Tarrin, to rest and to take a meal.”  The door of the inn opened, and that hulking insectoid creature who was staying at the inn entered.  It nodded silently to Szizazz, and she nodded in return as it shuffled past and up the ramp towards its room.

        “Oh, there was something I wanted to give you,” he told her as she slithered backwards, away from the table.  He went up with her as she slid up the ramp, then she paused as he opened the door to his room and entered.  He came out holding a small crystal bell.  “This is for you,” he told her.

        “A spell of some kind?” she asked as she looked at it.

        “The bell itself, no, but there is a spell on it, one taught to me by an old friend,” he told her.  “If you ring the bell, I’ll be able to speak to you for a short time, regardless of distance.  I don’t think it will work if I leave Crossroads, though.  My friend knows a spell that can do that, but she never taught it to me.”

        “A nice gesture, my friend,” she told him.  “And it is a lovely gift.  But fear not, I know a spell that will allow me to contact those in other planes.  Do you plan to leave soon?”

        “Well, you know that I’ll be leaving when I get what I need from the sages,” he said as he escorted her towards the ramp to the third floor, which was her personal apartment.  “Since I don’t know when that’ll be, and it’s certain that I’ll never be back here once I leave Crossroads, I decided it best to just give it to you now, instead of trying to wait until I leave.”

        “Ah.  Well, I appreciate your thoughtfulness.  When you do leave, I would much like the chance to keep in touch with you.  You are truly a friend.”

        “I appreciate that,” he told her.  “I guess I’ll go back down to the Sage’s Council and see if they have anything for me yet.”

        “Good luck with that.”

        “I need some,” he grunted.

        He had no luck with the Sages that day, or the next, or the next.  But there was little that he could do except wait, and check in regularly with the receptionist—who was still terrified of him—and wait until the day she told him that they had information for him.

        But at long last, after many days of waiting, the stodgy receptionist finally told him, in a quavering voice when he appeared, that the leader of the Sage’s Council had left word that he wished to speak with Tarrin.

        He passed through the large council chambers where the sages met, and was directed to a surprisingly small office in the back, filled with books, and books, and more books, and a single small desk in the back, upon which sat a simple lamp that glowed with a soft white light, obviously magical in nature.  The lead sage of the Council sat behind that desk, scribbling on a piece of parchment with a quill pen.  His lightning-colored hair was different than the last time he’d seen him, much shorter, and neatly trimmed.  “Come in, please,” he said without looking up.

        Tarrin nodded to the receptionist and stepped inside, and found that there were no chairs in this man’s office aside from the man’s own, leaving Tarrin to stand.  But this didn’t overly bother him.

        “I apologize for the delay,” he said.  “Some of our brethren weren’t exactly punctual in returning an answer to my query.”

        “And what did they tell you?”

        “You have…a bad reputation, my Lord,” he said bluntly.  “I had no idea of who you were until one of the sages replied with a detailed exposè concerning you.”  He raised a piece of paper.  “According to him, you are a renegade entitity who has earned the wrath of both Demons and Gods, and whose appearance within Crossroads immediately put the Deva on alert.  He responds that he will have nothing to do with you or your contract.  Pity, he was probably your best option to get your question answered.

        “But, it seems that there is at least one sage out there who isn’t too concerned with your, ah, past.  That might be because he himself is something of a renegade, and there are any number of individuals who would very much like to catch him out where they can get their hands on him, One Rule or no One Rule.  The reason it took so long for his reply to reach us is because this sage lives within the area where no power of any kind functions, near the boundary that marks the closest any may come to the Core.  This missive had to travel by mundane channels to reach me, and so it has reached me last.”

        “Renegade?”

        “This sage has written several articles and journals defaming the gods,” he said directly.  “He denounces them and considers them false beings who seek nothing but to steal the souls of mortal man.  His ideals are…radical.  There are any number of mortals, archons, and gods alike that would like to send this fellow to whatever force holds sway over his soul.  And thus, he lives in an area where no magic functions, to protect himself from his critics.”

        “It sounds like he’s a real firebrand.”

        “He is a crackpot and a maniac,” the lead sage said evenly.  “But, he is also an expert in the fields of theology and planar geography.  He has the background to answer the questions you posed to me.  I would send you to any sage but him, if not for the fact that he is the only sage who has agreed to take your contract.”

        “As long as he does what I need him to do, I don’t care about his views,” Tarrin said.

        “Very well,” the lead sage said with a nod.  “His name is Rolteford.  He lives literally within sight of the Boundary, in a large compound where he grows his own food.  To my knowledge, he has not left the walls of his home in over a century.  How he conducts his research when he never leaves his home and cannot use magic is quite beyond me, but that is a problem for you to handle, not me.  His address is the Gojoris neighborhood.  Here, I have a map for you,” he said, grabbing a rolled parchment from his desk and extending it towards him.  “Because you cannot use magic within one hundred miles of the Core, this means you must use natural transportation to traverse the twenty miles between that boundary and Rolteford’s compound.  I suggest you hire a winged mount to take you there.  You can ride a winged mount?”

        “I can manage,” Tarrin said.  He advanced to take the map, but when he got close to the lead sage, he detected…nervousness.  This usually wouldn’t stand out too much to Tarrin, he often had that effect on people, but the man’s outwardly calm demeanor seemed to clash with his scent.  The man wasn’t lying to him, but he was nervous about something.

        “A word of warning,” he said in a measured tone.  “Rolteford is…erratic.  Just because he is expecting you and you are going to hire him, do not let your guard down around this man.  He might attack you without provocation, or warning.  Approach his manor with caution, as he may have his compound trapped.  Do your business with him quickly and then take your leave of him, then return when he is finished with your task.”

        Ah.  Perhaps that was why he was nervous.  He was sending someone whose temper was probably well documented on that paper on his desk to someone that might attack him out of some kind of paranoid impulse.  If Tarrin were in his shoes, he’d be nervous about that too.

        “I can handle a single human,” Tarrin said dismissively.

        “As you say, but do remember that I warned you.”

        “Yes, you warned me.  And thank you for that warning.”

        “Very well.  Our business here is concluded.  And, as you no longer have reason to come here, I would much prefer that this be our last meeting.”

        Tarrin gave him a cool look.  “I usually educate people who use veiled threats with me, mortal,” he said in a flat tone, his ears twitching.  “But I’ll forego it, if only because you’ve helped me.  But don’t ever do it again,” he warned as he turned and stalked towards the door.

        “I will have no reason to do so,” he stated.

        “You’d better pray you don’t,” Tarrin growled as he left the man’s small office.

        Tarrin put the man out of his mind as he unrolled the map and paced through the halls of the Sage’s Council and studied it.  This man Rolteford’s manor literally was within sight of the Boundary, sitting across from the large paved plaza that marked the final expanse of land where anyone could tread before they reached that point where one could simply approach no further.  From what he remembered reading, it was like a wind without wind, an invisible giant hand, a force that pressed against one as one neared that boundary, until the force became so overwhelming that it flung the approacher away.  According to writings and legend, only a Solar could pass beyond that boundary, and only the magical powers of a Solar would work that close to the Core.  Not even the powers of the other Deva would function in that close proximity to the Core, not even the powers of a god.

        Tarrin would need a mundane, non-magical winged animal to fly him the final leg of the journey.  Tarrin’s wings were a creation of his divine power, and their power too would fail when he got within one hundred longspans of the Core, though the wings themselves would not disappear, as they were considered a part of him and would not disappear any more than his arms or legs would…but they would be trapped in whatever shape they held when he crossed into that area where no power functioned.  The boundary was, according to this map, eighty longspans from the Core itself.  That left Tarrin with twenty longspans of territory to traverse without any kind of magical means.

        That would be no real problem.

        Luckily for Tarrin, he saw that the Gorojis neighborhood was almost a straight line from where he was now, on the same side of the Core.  That meant that he wouldn’t have to circumnavigate the Core the way he did when he first came to the City.

        Returning to the Gzargmoth, Tarrin prepared for the journey, which basicly amounted to leaving everything of magical power behind, including his staff.  It was a direct creation of his power, and it would disappear if it was taken beyond the boundary and into the place where no power worked.  His magically protected belt pouch, the weapons and amulets he’d taken from the Demons, his Portable Hole, they all had to remain behind.  But he wasn’t about to leave those things just laying around, either.  He put everything within the Portable Hole except for an amount of krin he felt he’d need to buy what he needed for the journey, then hid it by using magic to separate the fibers of his blanket and then sliding the Portable Hole between them, literally making the piece of magical cloth vanish into the weaving of the blanket.  A few well-placed spells of non-detection, which were themselves undetectable, ensured that the device would not be found.  And the finishing touch was a powerful defensive spell on the room itself, something that not even Szizazz could counteract, a powerful and deadly magical protection that would attack anyone that came into the room.

        But he certainly had no intention of going out there unarmed.

        After warning Szizazz that he might be gone for a couple of days and telling her that the sages had finally come through, he went out into the City and bought two things that he felt he might need.  He had to look around for quite a while to find exactly what he was after, but it was worth the effort.

        The first thing he needed was, obviously, a new staff.  He looked high and low until he found exactly what he was looking for, a staff of the perfect height and weight, and while not magical, was made of a wood that seemed exceptionally tough and resilient, almost as tough as his old Ironwood staff…but not quite.  It had to be very strong, because Tarrin’s strength would shatter a staff made of normal wood if he struck something with it using all his power.  That strength was a function of how he built this new body; it was not magical.  That strength required him to be very careful about the weapons he used.

        Because he would be forced to enter a manor that, according to the map, included enough open land for this man to grow his own food, that meant that he needed some way to strike at this potential maniac from a distance if the need arose.  So, he went shopping for a bow.  Again, his special condition demanded that he find the right bow.  He looked for nearly three hours, until he found what he was looking for in an open market.  It was a bow made of what looked like jet black wood, but was actually some kind of pliable mineral, almost like stone that would bend, but not break.  It was strong, the merchant declared somewhat boisterously that it was absolutely unbreakable, made from the Living Stone of Gladsheim, and he also claimed that the bowstring was also unbreakable.

        This was what Tarrin needed.  Tarrin’s claws could potentially snag a bowstring when he shot it, and the sharp tips would slice a bowstring in half with no effort.

        Testing proved, at least tentatively, the tiny green-skinned little biped’s claim that the bowstring was unbreakable.  Tarrin actively tried to slash it apart with his claws, both with the bow at rest and with it fully drawn.  It wasn’t made of string or fiber, it too was made of the same dark pliable mineral as the bow.  In fact, after studying the bow, he saw that the string was actually part of the bow.

        The bow’s balance wasn’t that good.  It wasn’t crafted by the hand of a master, but as bows went, it was tolerable.  But the special qualities of the bow were exactly what he needed, and a little magic here and there could correct the imperfections of the bow and make him comfortable with it.

        He paid the little man his asking price without even bothering to haggle, then procured two quivers full of adequate quality arrows.  He then used a Wizard spell that shaped stone to buff out some of the burrs and imperfections of the bow and fix its balance problem.  Once he had the bow in a suitable condition, he shouldered it and bought food, water, and a saddlepack, then went off to find himself a mount.

        It didn’t take him long to find what he wanted.  There were any number of services that rented out flying mounts to take people places within the City…a flying taxi service.  There were also any number of different species of flying creatures to chose from, from winged serpents to griffons to hippogriffs to giant insects to giant birds, but Tarrin found himself not a rented mount, but a mount in a stable that was being offered for sale.

        It resembled a Pegasus, but it was not a Pegasus.  It was black as pitch, from the mane on its neck to the feathers of its wings, and it had glowing red eyes, just like a Hellhound.  In fact, a lick of flame flared from its mouth as it whinnied in a threatening manner as Tarrin approached it, and twin puffs of smoke issued from its nostrils.  It was a big animal, more proportional to serve someone of Tarrin’s height as a mount than someone of human size.

        “Please tell me ye’re thinking of buying her,” a voice called.  The black Pegasus narrowed its eyes and snorted, fixing an ugly glare on someone behind Tarrin.  He turned to see himself looking at a Modron.

        A Modron was a rather unique creature that originated from Nirvana.  They were a race of creatures that resembled solid three dimensional shapes…the more sides a Modron had, the lower its rank within their society.  They supposedly represented the perfection of law, a perfectly regimented society that existed for no other reason than to obey the laws of Primus, their leader.  This creature resembled a ball of some kind, a dark gray color, and after Tarrin counted his sides, he saw that he was an eight-sided Modron, among the middle ranks within their society.  This creature literally resembled a die with arms and legs, its eyes, nose, and mouth resting within its central mass.  It was diminutive, only coming up to Tarrin’s thigh.

        “Strange to see a Modron here,” Tarrin said in surprise.

        “Spare me, please,” it snorted.  “So, old Fury has your eye, does she?  I’ll sell her to you for ten krin.”

        “Ten, eh?  Sounds like a steep price for a Modron desperate to get rid of an animal,” Tarrin noted.

        “Well, she didn’t try to jump her gate and pound ye into the yard, so she obviously likes ye.  That at least gives ye a sporting chance with her.  Most people can’t get even half as close as ye are without her going after ‘em.  Worst investment I ever made, buying that brute.”

        The animal gave the Modron a nasty, narrow-eyed glare.

        “What is she?”

        “She’s a Firewing Pegasus,” it answered.  “They come from Gehenna.  Some people call her kind Nightmares, but that’s not really right.  Nightmares don’t have wings.  She’s got an evil temper, but she’s a solid mount if you can get her to obey you, she can fly long distances and carry very heavy loads, and she can breathe fire.”

        “Gehenna?”

        “She ain’t one of the Tainted,” he said quickly.  “She’s an animal, milord, one of the natural creatures from that hellish place.  Sure, she’s got a bit of evil in her, but that’s her natural disposition.  Her kind of evil is just damned contrariness.”

        “Breathe fire, you say?  Is she immune to it as well?”

        “Aye, milord.  Fire can’t hurt her.”

        That was perfect.  Tarrin was a being of fire, she was a being of fire, and it meant he could unleash some of his more destructive Wizard spells without any fear of doing her harm.  He also realized that this animal would be of great use to him later on, after his plan was well into motion.  Besides, Jenna would love it.

        “I’ll take her.  Ten krin.  And I’ll buy whatever tack and harness you have that’ll fit her.”

        “Sold!  Thank Primus!” it exclaimed.

        Tarrin advanced on the black animal.  It gave him an odd look, then it snorted aggresively, lowered its head, and unleashed a blast of flame directly at him.  Tarrin simply walked through it nonplussed, which surprised the evil-tempered creature.  It gave him a startled look, but that expression became mean when Tarrin stared it right in the eyes.  She snorted again, blowing smoke from her nostrils, then reared back and clamped her teeth down on his paw and forearm.

        Her teeth were not blunt.  They were very sharp, very hard, and the animal had incredible power in her bite.  But Tarrin didn’t even flinch, even when her powerful jaws snapped one of the bones in his arm.

        “Are you about done?” he asked levelly, directly addressing her as a Druid would any animal he wished to understand him.  “Mind you, if you take that paw off, I’m going to take something off of you.  And mine grows back.  Does yours?”

        The animal blinked, and immediately released his arm.

        “She understands ye!” the Modron gasped.

        “Of course she does,” Tarrin snorted, absently rubbing his arm as it healed itself.  “Now then, here’s what’s going to happen.  I’m going to buy you.  You’re going to serve me as a mount.  You’re going to be behave yourself and obey my orders, and in return I’ll take good care of you.  When we’re done here, I’m going to use magic to send you to my home where my sister will care for you.  She’ll absolutely adore you.  You’ll have no want of attention and care.  You can have that, or you can stay in this stall by yourself.  It’s your choice.”

        That struck a chord with the animal.  It gave him a deliberate stare, then gave a mollifying whinny.

        “Well, milord, she don’t eat grain and hay like a horse might.  She eats wood and coal and drinks oil, to fuel the fire of her furnace.  She can eat anything that burns if you’re strapped for food, including letting her graze on grass and twigs, but she likes coal the best,” the Modron explained as Tarrin unlatched her stable door, then stepped inside.  She was a tall animal, as big as Azakar’s Ro, but not as heavily built.  She was sleek and graceful, but Tarrin knew that, like any flying animal, she was deceptively powerful, her muscles highly toned.  Flying was very hard work.  Her hooves, he saw, were black and shiny, and looked like stone.  He picked up one of her feet, and found that those hooves were harder than steel, and were very sharp on the leading edge.

        “You’re one well armed little girl, Fury,” Tarrin noted as he released her foot.  “That explains the strength of her bite, if she eats coal and wood,” he said to the Modron.

        “Aye, milord, those jaws of hers can snap branches and pulverize coal.”

        “They also didn’t do bad on my arm,” he mused as he patted her flank.  He came up to her head and urged her to open her mouth, revealing a set of shiny obsidian-colored teeth, all of them sharp, including an impressive set of fanged canines, stained with his blood.  “No damage done,” he told her, “to my arm or your teeth.  You have a saddle and tack for her?”

        “Aye, milord, but I’ve got them stored in the loft.  She won’t let nobody put them on her.”

        “Go get them.”

        “Aye.”

        She may not have let anyone else put on her saddle and bridle, but she wasn’t dumb enough to object when Tarrin did so.  He saddled her and put on her bridle, then noted that he needed to buy a pair of saddlebags.  He adjusted the straps until they were snug enough to hold the saddle securely but not uncomfortable to her, and she fidgeted in place as he did so.  While he did so, the Modron explained how she was trained to obey commands while in flight, at least admitting that that was how he was told she was trained, given she wouldn’t allow anyone to ride her.  “Don’t like saddles, do you?” he asked her.

        She gave a derisive whinny.

        “I’d agree with you if I were in your position, but I’m afraid I’m going to need it.  Don’t worry, you won’t have to wear it for too long.”

        She gave a short snort

        “Well, that’s about it,” Tarrin noted as he stowed his bow and staff in the saddleskirt, on either side of the saddle.  He urged her to move her wing, then he mounted her in an easy motion and immediately tied himself into the saddle.  “All things considered, Modron, I think I got the better end of the deal,” he said with a slight smile.

        “I’d disagree with ye.  I’d have paid ye to take that evil brute off my hands.  The money I’ll save on coal alone makes it worth selling her for a song.”

        “Your loss,” Tarrin told him.

        “So ye think,” the Modron said dismissively.  “Given she’s attacked every single person who’s looked into buying her, I thought I’d never get rid of her.  She even attacked ye.”

        “That just means I like her more,” Tarrin chuckled.  “How did you manage to keep her for so long without the Deva coming?”

        “Well, near as I can figure it, milord, her attacking people don’t really attract their attention because she’s an animal, not a person doing it with evil intent, ye know.  That, or they won’t attack an animal that don’t really know no better, or they won’t kill an animal just acting out of instinct.  She’s gone after plenty of people, but the Deva ain’t never once come.  Take yer pick as to which reason sounds best to ye that they don’t.”

        “That does make a kind of sense,” he said.  “If they won’t come after an animal just reacting out of instinct.  Well, thanks for the mount, Modron.  I appreciate it.”

        “Good journey, milord.”

        “Have a good day,” Tarrin mirrored as he urged Fury out of the stall, then snapped the reins and sent her into the air.

        He enjoyed only a short flight with her, getting a feel for her capabilities as a flier…and he was impressed.  She was very strong in the air, both faster than a Pegasus and able to turn much sharper, even at higher speeds.  She seemed to enjoy the demands he placed on her, almost showing off for his benefit, until he brought her back to the ground, dismounted, and led her by her reins as he returned to the same open-air market where he’d bought his bow.

        He left her at a post at the edge of the market, but did not tie her to it.  “Now listen,” he told her sternly.  “I’d like you to wait right here for me while I buy your food.  No biting, no kicking, no stomping, no breathing fire.  Just leave the people alone unless they touch you.  If someone touches you, then by all means, defend yourself.  But no scenes, Fury.  If you attack someone, you might attract a Deva.”

        She nickered in understanding, then levelled a flat stare at an archon that had paused to gape at her, who then scurried away fearfully.

        “That’s my girl,” Tarrin chuckled, patting her neck fondly.

        He bought two more saddle bags, and filled both of them with coal.  He also bought a small cask of oil for her to drink, then finished up the shopping he needed by buying a single large emerald of fine quality, a component for a spell that would eventually send Fury to Pyrosia, where she would stay in the care of those at Pyros until he could get her back to Sennadar and to Jenna.  He would have definite use for her later; in fact, she filled a small hole in his plan that he’d been planning to address when he reached that point.

        He returned to Fury and found her standing where he left her, giving all those around her dangerous gazes.  He tied on the new saddlebags and cask, then mounted her with graceful ease and took the reins.  He could easily have flown alongside her, but he wanted to get a feel for what it was like to ride a flying mount instead of flying himself, something he’d not really done very much.

        “All right, let’s go, Fury,” he told her, urging her to take off.

        It was almost surreal.

        This close to the Core, which he could now see, a distant pillar of soft, rotating light in the sky, almost resembling golden water illuminated from within pouring up into the heavens in a spiralling pattern, he could feel its effect on him.  It was exactly as it had been described in the books he’d read, almost like a wind without wind, a gentle force that seemed to try to push him away.  But that was not all that he felt.

        The sensation of passing beyond the final boundary between the area where the powers of gods worked and where they didn’t was dramatic within him.  He’d felt the systematic and continuous draining of something inside him, feeling it retreat like the tide away from the center of him.  It was still there, still a part of him, but it was beyond his reach.  The same thing happened when he passed into this area, where no power functioned at all, a strange disassociation of self when his divine abilities retreated from him, but it was much more profound.  He felt…incomplete now, almost as if a part of himself had been stopped at that invisible line where his divine powers ceased to work, and now he was separated from himself.  The oppressive force exerted by the Core affected his mind as well as his body, feeling like he was trying to think through a layer of damp wool.

        It was the Core, he knew it.  The Core was the force pushing the magic away, and now, this close to it, it had pushed away his own divine powers to such a point that he could no long use them.  It felt like it was pushing against his very soul.  And it made him feel…vulnerable.  This was not a feeling which Tarrin Kael often experienced, and he did not like it one bit.

        But what he felt within was only half of the surreal nature of what was before him.

        Below were, literally, palaces of such extravagant opulence that they made the Imperial Palace in Dala Yar Arak look like a hovel.  Streets were paved in precious metals like gold and platinum, gems glittered on almost every wall and column, and the architecture was both fantastic and absolutely breathtaking.  This was a place that would make a mortal’s knees tremble, and fill him with artisitic glory for the rest of his life.  It was that beautiful.

        And it was deserted.

        That was what made it so surreal.  All this beauty, all this stunning opulence and grace and breathtaking perfection, and there was no one here.

        The stunning streets below were empty.  The fluted balconies were graced with nothing but furniture.  The elegant bridging walkways between stunning towers were deserted.  There was no one here to partake of the wondrous perfection that stretched out below him.

        Perhaps…perhaps, Tarrin pondered, this was why this mad sage Rolteford lived here.  Who wouldn’t want to live surrounded by such amazing beauty and wonder?  The only thing that it would cost one would be access to magical power…and for many, that was not much of a sacrifice.

        That thought caught in his mind, and nagged at him just a little.  Why didn’t people live here?  After all, it was empty, deserted.  All these wondrous buildings were already here, just begging for someone to simply move in and take up residence.

        At least, he wondered that until he looked up.

        The Core.  Of course.  The weight of its unseen push against his soul was a tangible thing.  Despite all this opulent wonder, who would want to live with that constant pressure being exerted against one’s soul?

        Besides, just looking at it, it made him feel…insignificant.  That was really the only way he could describe it.  The Core was a thing of beauty, but it was also a palpable force that made him feel exactly like what he was…not a mortal, not a god, not worthy to look upon it.

        That was why virtually no one lived here.  And it made him wonder…did Rolteford move to this place because he was mad, or did this place cause his madness?  Either was a distinct possibility.  Feeling that inexorable pressure on his soul every second, every day…it certainly could drive someone mad.

        He consulted his map again, and recognized one of the landmark buildings on the map, a gleaming silver obelisk so unimaginably tall that it seemed to defy rational thought, clawing thousands of spans into the sky.  Fury flew past it at such a height that the smaller buildings below looked like dollhouses that Jasana once owned, and they weren’t even halfway up its length!

        They flew on for several more moments, and then Rolteford’s compound came into view…and it was a stark, glaring difference from the amazing elegance that surrounded it.  The walls of Rolteford’s compound were squat and ugly, made of rough stone and topped by rows and rows of barbed metal stakes.  Within those walls were a surprisingly large expanse of farmland, done in neat rows, and a simple cottage that didn’t look like it could be more than two rooms sat in the exact center.  Smoke wafted from the chimney of that simple slate-roofed stone house.

        It was…amazing.  From the way it looked, Rolteford’s compound pre-dated the awe-inspiring artisitic perfection that surrounded it, looking very much like a cannon in a ballroom, as Kerri might say.  That rough-walled compound looked almost laughably out of place.

        Fury circled the compound three times as they descended, and Tarrin used that time to look over the place.  It was nearly a quarter of a longspan from the front gate to the cottage, along a simple cobblestone path that ran between two fields of beans.  He saw no obvious mechanical devices that might be traps on the front gate—they had to be mechanical, since magic wouldn’t work here.  There was a bell on the gate, attached to a rope that hung from the gatehouse roof on the outside.  The whole place looked decidedly domestic, just a hermit living a life of isolation…but a hermit that had a violent disposition and a touch of madness.

        Fury landed lightly near the gate, and trotted to a stop close to it.  It was unpainted, a simple bare wooden gate that had no lock on it, with a bellpull to warn the occupant that a visitor had arrived.  There was not even a window on the gate so the occupant could look out to see who was paying a call.

        That seemed…illogical.  If this man was paranoid, why would he not even have a way to see who was at his gate?  For that matter, why have a gate that one couldn’t lock?

        Could it be trapped?  The lead Sage warned him of that possibility.  Tarrin dismounted and pulled both his bow and his staff out of the saddleskirts, slung a quiver over his shoulder, then shouldered his bow across his torso and approached the gate.  His soft padded feet almost seemed to echo loudly in the utter silence of this place, and the bellpull rope made a loud creaking sound.  That silence was shattered when he pulled the rope, causing the bell behind the wall to toll, a harmonic and sweet chime that seemed to echo in this place of utterly still air and nearly oppressive silence.

        Of its own behest, the gate opened, swinging away from him on surprisingly silent hinges.  There was no magic involved, and this man Rolteford was nowhere near the gate…and yet the door opened.  Tarrin stepped up to the gate, perplexed, then slowly stepped through.  He looked around at the gate door’s frame, and saw a small spring and pulley, with a small, fine chain attached to the end and going down into the ground.

        Clever!  The man had rigged up some kind of mechanical device that allowed him to open the gate from his cottage, nearly a quarter of a longspan away!

        Now this was more what Tarrin was expecting.  Obviously, this Rolteford was a mechanical genius, on a level with the Tellurians and Wikuni.  No doubt that the man had other mechanical gadgets, and there was little doubt in his mind that some of them might be seeded on the path or the fields before him.

        Tarrin motioned for Fury to stay where she was, and then he started towards the cottage on silent, cautious feet.  He paid attention to the cobblestones before him, looking for anything that might be amiss, a loose stone, a tiny switch or button, a faint tripwire that might signal the presence of a trap of some kind.  His nose tested the scents that reached it, searching for the scents of metal, anything that might be out of place in this place of beans and earth and cobblestones…but it wasn’t easy.  The air was dead calm, almost thick, and it didn’t carry scents like air would anywhere else.  He could barely scent the beans to either side of him, the only smell that was promininent within his nose were the scents of himself and what he carried and the stone beneath his feet.

        He moved cautiously yet steadily, until he was nearly halfway to the house.  Fury gave a whinny behind him, which caused him to turn around.  The black-coated animal seemed agitated for some reason, braying and whinnying, stomping the ground as it pranced in place.  Then it turned, spread its wings, and then vaulted into the sky.

        “Fury!” Tarrin shouted, shaking a fist at the pegasus.  “Fury, come back here!  Come—“

        He stopped dead, eyes narrowing, looking past his traitorous mount.  There was…something up there.  Very high, very faint, but he could see it.

        Demon!

        It was a single lone winged Demon, a vrock, glaive in its hands as it soared a drastically high altitude above the ground, so high up that it was barely a speck in the sky.  That was what spooked Fury!  Being from Gehenna, a lower plane, of course she would fear Demons!

        Tarrin immediately dropped to the cobblestones, testing the stones for faint traces of scent.  Not only was there no trace of any scent of Roldefort, there was no trace of any scent of any kind, as if the stones had been scoured clean.  It was too clean.

        Things weren’t adding up here.  There was no reason he should see a Demon this close to the Core…it had no reason to be here.  Only gods came to this place, to meet and discuss points of contention in a neutral atmosphere.  It had no reason to come here.

        No.  Wait.  It did have a reason to be here…because Tarrin was here.

        Stupid, stupid, stupid, he should have realized that he should be able to scent Rolteford on the stones and the gate before starting in!

        Damn the Core, and its dulling effect on his mind and his senses!

        This was no interview to hire a sage!

        It was a trap!

        Turning, Tarrin bolted for the gate.  Damn that animal, flying off and leaving him!  Unless she got over her panic and returned, he was looking at running twenty longspans to get to where he could use his own power to fly out of here!  He raced along the cobblestones, abandoning caution, and then hurtled through the gate and out into the vast paved area between Rolteford’s humble compound and the nearest opulent palace.  But he skidded to a stop when he saw what was outside of his view before, hidden by the walls of the compound.

        There had to be a hundred Demons, from half-blood Cambisi to no less than three balor, moving quickly but very carefully and quietly, so as to sneak up on him, coming towards the compound from those very same opulent palaces he thought had been empty before he landed!

        Tarrin stood, momentarily gripped in a moment of indecisive panic.  He couldn’t fight his way through that many, but he couldn’t run away from them, because the Boundary was little more than a stone’s throw in the opposite direction!

        Damn them!  And damn that sage for setting this trap up!  And he’d fallen for it so cleanly…if he weren’t in so much trouble, he would beat himself for being such an idiot.

        No wonder Fury fled…in a moment of clarity, he found he couldn’t fault his treacherous mount for running away, not with that coming towards her.

        Tarrin pondered furiously for precious seconds, watching as that horde of Demons abandoned stealth and charged after seeing him appear in the doorway.  A sound behind him made him glance back, and he saw a marilith and a winged vrock appear from the cottage at the center of Rolteford’s compound, clamping the jaws of the trap shut by promising a fight if he retreated back into the compound…but that itself would be suicide.

        Or would it?

        He couldn’t run away.  He couldn’t go through them.  That left escape running laterally, and hoping that he could run faster than they could cut him off before turning back away from the Core and outflanking them.  If he bolted straight ahead, running across their field of vision, they’d see him and be able to cut him off.  But if he ran back into the compound, the walls of the compound would hide him from their eyes and they’d have to respect the possibility that he might go in any direction, which would spread them out and give him a chance to break through if he couldn’t outrun them.  And least there were only two of them inside the compound that he could see, which was much better odds.  The marilith’s snake body would hamper her ability to chase him, they weren’t very fast on the ground, but the vrock would be highly mobile.  That would restrict the vrock in its pursuit, because he’d gaurantee that the marilith was smart enough to order the lesser-stature Demon to remain with her, so they would have a better chance bringing him down.

        Making up his mind quickly, Tarrin turned and darted back into the compound, grabbed the gate, and then slammed it shut.  He looked back and saw the marilith and vrock moving towards him, and to his chargrin, yet another balor squeezed from that small cottage and started towards him.  In a smooth, graceful motion, Tarrin dropped his staff into the curl of his tail, wrapped it up, then rushed forward even as he pulled the bow from over his shoulder.  He ran forward even as he nocked the first arrow, then had to slide to a stop and raise it as the vrock took off from the ground and charged at him, its glaive presented and ready to try to spear him as it passed.  It gave a cruel, gawking cry, and looked right into Tarrin’s eyes as he loosed the arrow.

        Tarrin’s skill as an archer had not dimished a whit.  The arrow slammed into the vrock right between the eyes, and to the Demon’s shock and dismay, the arrow was not turned aside.  The materials from which the arrows were made were from Gladsheim, they were not made in Crossroads of materials native to Crossroads, and so the Demon’s invulnerability did not protect it from them.  The Demon crashed to the ground, rolling and sliding in a cloud of dust, fragments of bean plants, feathers, and black blood, and then slid to a motionless stop, its body already starting to dissolve into that foul black ichor.

        Tarrin ran by the congealed mass of the dead vrock without so much as a glance, already nocking another arrow even as he picked up speed.  The two mighty Demons near the house seemed to understand that Tarrin was a real threat, given he could conceivably kill them before he got anywhere near them, and both moved to retreat behind the cottage wall, to break his line of sight and not present a target.  He continued rushing forward, mindful of that lone flyer he saw high in the sky…it would be the perfect opportunity for it to swoop down on him from that dizzying height while his attention was fixed elsewhere and there were no other Demons around him to get in the way.  He raced along the cobblestones of the pathway, nocked bow held low as his mind raced, pondering where those two would be hiding behind the cottage, how best to attack them.  The balor would only want to attack him, but the marilith, that was the one to watch.  That was the one that would be the true danger.  Of all the Demons around, she was the one that would see this as a coordinated effort to kill him, not a collection of Demons all trying to be the one to bring him down and earn favor from their Demon Lord master.

        He couldn’t see them on either side as he charged closer and closer to the house, but then he realized that they couldn’t see him, either.  They would simply wait to see which side he went around, and try to catch him on the far side.

        But there were more ways to go.

        With a short vault, Tarrin soared off the ground and landed on the slate roof, then charged up the slanted slope.  He took firm grip of the bowstring in his free paw, then vaulted off the apex of the roof, soaring thirty spans into the air, so high that he could see all four sides of the house under him.  He looked down from his jump and saw the two Demons behind the house, as the balor was flexing his wings and preparing to launch himself into the air to come over the roof at him…the balor had the same idea as him, but Tarrin had been the quicker to implement it.  Both Demons looked up at him in surprise.

        Tarrin had never fired a bow while in the air like this before, where he had no stabilizing force.  But his natural agility and ability to orient himself to the ground helped immensely as he aimed down the shaft of his arrow first at the marilith, but then he realized that the winged balor was the more dangerous of the two in the short term because its ability to fly was probably faster than his ability to run.  He loosed his arrow at the balor; it was an awkward shot, without the true power he could have put into the missle, but his aim wasn’t off by a terrible amount.  He’d been aiming for the center mass of the Demon, the middle chest, and the arrow struck it high in the left shoulder.  It wasn’t a killing shot, but it did make the Demon roar in pain, staggering back and clutching at the arrow protruding from its hide with its right hand as its left dropped its long nine-tailed whip to the ground.  He let go of the bow when he landed and rolled with the force of the impact, and his staff was swept up into a waiting paw by his tail as he suddenly turned on those two Demons with equal measures of hate and fury in his glowing green eyes.

        With a shriek of hatred, Tarrin crashed directly into the injured shoulder of the balor as it tried to turn and get its jagged-bladed sword into a position to defend, and he used the winged Demon as a shield to keep the six-armed marilith out of reach of him.  Tarrin slammed the staff into that wounded shoulder as the larger Demon caused him to rebound off of it, then hooked the back of its ankle with his shin and pinioned it, executing an Ungardt takedown.  Before it even finished hitting the ground, the marilith was on him, her three swords, rapier, and two axes whirling in a dazzling dance of black steel death.  Tarrin managed to turn aside uncountable thrusts, slashes, and jabs of those weapons, pushing Tarrin back as the Demoness did something that Tarrin found almost unthinkable in a Demon; she was covering for the balor, giving it time to recover while keeping Tarrin off of it.

        He’d been right.  The marilith truly was the most dangerous Demon in the pack, and not because of her martial skill.

        In a stunning display of dexterity, Tarrin parried over thirty attacks in less than two seconds, the ends of his staff almost looking as if nothing joined them together in the middle as it whirled and blurred, defeating an amazingly complex and invariably deadly attack routine the marilith unleashed against him.  Were he not trained by some of the best warriors alive, it would have killed him.  This Demoness was not Shaz’Baket; she was better than Shaz’Baket.  Tarrin gave more ground as he furiously defended himself from her onslaught, watching her movements with a trained eye, looking for a hole in her almost smooth and endless array of complicated thrusts and shallow slashes.  It took inhuman coordination to flawlessly wield six weapons in perfect harmony, and though a marilith had that kind of mental capability, even they were prone to slight pauses in their attacks as they transitioned from one attack to the next, as they got their six weapons into the proper positions.

        He saw his opening.  He stopped giving ground and pressed in as she paused for the slightest of instants to reset one of her axes, and she shifted into a defensive posture smoothly and effectively.  She parried a quick series of attacks in a high-low sequence, then bit at a feinted high jab at her face.  She slithered to the side and tried to skewer him from the flank as he turned into the feint, but that only put her where he wanted her to go.  The end of his staff swept the rapier out of his path, and then his foot came up just behind the staff and planted itself squarely in her the side, just under her breasts and almost into the juncture of her middle left arm and her ribs.  The breath wooshed out of her as he felt bones snap under his foot, and then he slammed the butt of his staff on the ground and used his foot on her as leverage to lift himself into the air, vaulting off the staff.  He whipped his body around, just over the axe that tried to cleave itself into his hip, and bones of his ankle and lower shin impacted the side of the martilith’s pretty little face.  She went flying away from him as he spun in the air in the same direction as the force of his kick, just as the balor had pulled the arrow out of its shoulder, regained its whip, and had started rushing for him.  But Tarrin was ready for it.  Tarrin landed already facing the balor, and instead of bringing his staff up to defend, he instead rushed forward with the staff held low and away in his left paw.  The nine-tailed whip lashed out at him, trying to entangle him, but the Were-cat melted out of the way, then brought his staff up and around as the Demon simply released the whip instead of trying to recoil it and took its jagged-bladed sword in both of its mighty hands to meet the smaller Were-cat’s charge.  It decided to move into a defensive posture as Tarrin charged it recklessly, readying to parry aside his staff as he charged towards it.  Tarrin brought the staff into the end-grip and narrowed his eyes, laid back his ears, and surged ahead with shocking speed.

        The balor was almost stunned with shock when, instead of attacking with his staff or trying to knock the Demon into an awkward position, Tarrin instead vaulted himself high into the air well before the Demon could reach him with its jagged-bladed sword.  It realized that Tarrin could not in any way strike at it from so high up almost immediately, and Tarrin could see the methodical calculating behind its eyes as it tried to guess where the Were-cat would land, so it could be there with its sword.

        Tarrin’s back coiled like a spring even as he turned over in the air, and then exploded into motion, uncoiling as Tarrin came head over heels.  His body had been blocking what he’d been doing, and the Demon didn’t realize it until it was too late.

        Tarrin’s staff sizzled down towards the Demon with horrific speed, thrown with such force from the airborne Were-cat that it caused his body to rotate in the opposite direction and literally stopped his forward momentum.

        Just as it had done to Jegojah so long ago, the move completely took the Demon by surprise.  It could not react fast enough to evade or block, it almost seemed to stand there in disbelief as the blunt end of Tarrin’s staff impacted it high in the chest at a sharp downward angle, plunged into its red-skinned flesh, and then erupted from its lower back, just over the muscle of its buttock, and then drove into the ground beneath it with an audible thok.  Tarrin had thrown his staff like a spear, and while his ability to aim an arrow had not been very good, his ability to aim his staff had been deadly accurate and right on the mark.

        The balor shuddered horribly on its impaling pole, black blood erupting from its mouth as its jagged-bladed sword fell from nerveless fingers, even as the staff continued to vibrate from the impact of being driven into the ground.  Tarrin landed lightly on two feet and a paw, then he had to roll aside as the marilith slithered up behind him with surprising speed and tried to brain him with her axe.

        “You have no weapon now,” it purred aloud, in a dreadfully eager voice, raising its six weapons into an attacking posture.

        “Can’t use your telepathy here, eh?” Tarrin answered in a low, growling tone.  “That means that you can’t command the minions the way you’ll need to.  And here I thought you were the dangerous one,” he said with a hiss.  He spread his feet and held his paws up for her to see, then extended his claws slowly, letting her see them.  He then held his paws out wide and low, in that slouching stance he used when fighting unarmed.  “Come get me, little girl.  If you can.”

        She gave an infuriated cry that drowned out the gurgling of the balor as it struggled feebly to free itself of its impaling stake, then rushed forward with strong undulations of that long, dangerous snake body.  From the onset, she tried to end it quickly, probably understanding that Tarrin Kael was no easy kill, even unarmed.  She charged at him for everything she was worth, swinging her weapons with all the speed and power and grace and precision that she could bring to bear.  But, freed of the burden of his staff, Tarrin’s paws and elbows and knees and feet proved just as effective as his staff had been in blocking attacks, provided the attack was anywhere near him in the first place.  He moved with incredible grace and agility, silthering, sliding, ghosting, almost gliding along the ground in a display of terrible beauty, showing the Demoness the wondrous awe that was the Dance.  His movements were almost perfectly synchronized with her own, as if two bodies were controlled by one mind that sought to dazzle the onlooker with displays of precision, of how close a weapon could come to Tarrin without finding him.  Tarrin was one with the ground, one with the Demoness, one with his body, one with his soul as he performed the Dance with absolute perfection.  He was a blade of grass in the wind, swaying, bending, absorbing but not breaking.  He was the inu, his movements fast and precise, lightning speed tempered by exacting precision.  He was the kajat, power, strength, the guile of slow movements and the shock of the burst of speed.  He was the water, a great force of flowing symmetry, deceptive in its graceful power.  He was the desert stone, unyielding, resilient, the only force in the desert which could part the winds.

        In that fleeting moment, as both combatants moved with a speed that almost defied rational comprehension, did he truly understand the Dance, did he truly become one with the warrior within, in an almost religious experience that brought him to understand the very soul of the people for whom the Dance was an intricate part of life.  In that moment, he was Selani.

        That which was easily avoided, was avoided.  That which could not be avoided, was blocked, with paw or foot or knee against the haft of the weapon or the wrist, or blocking against the inside of the forearm or the elbow.  That which could not be blocked, was deflected, with lightning-fast strikes of paw or foot against the flat of the blade.

        Even with six swords, the marilith could not wound him.  After that furious exchange, after the marilith backed off a split second to recover her wits after having been foiled, she could see that she had done little more than nick him.  He was bleeding from several cuts and gashes on his arms or legs, from where he had literally batted aside her weapons using his bare hands, but not so perfectly done that the edges of those weapons didn’t bite into his arms, legs, hands, and feet.

        She rushed right back in, trying to kill him with a coordinated attack of all six of her weapons that would be absolutely impossible to prevent, but the Were-cat vanished.  She surged forward after making no contact with her foe, her mind racing as it tried to wrap itself around the fact that one second he was there, and suddenly he was gone, out of her line of sight, in an area where it was absolutely impossible to use any kind of power, not even her own natural telepathy.  Only at the last instant did she sense him, realized that somehow he had slipped to the side of her in a way that she did not see.  She turned to face him—

        --and turned her head just in time to see his open paw, claws out and leading, racing towards her nose.

        She gave a wailing cry as those claws ripped across her face, cutting four deep lacerations into her handsome yet alluringly wicked visage, and one of his claws slashed directly across her right eye, blinding her.  Only her flinch and the bridge of her nose, sheared through, saved her left eye from the same fate.  She slithered backwards, her snake body and tail thrashing wildly as she put the backs of her upper hands against her torn face, screaming horribly in pain and fury.  At first she couldn’t understand why she was still alive, why he didn’t finish her in her throes of agony, until she cleared enough blood away to see with her remaining eye.

        The Were-cat was already at the balor, kicking it down from its stake to retrieve its staff from its impaled body.  In the distance, she heard the screaming of the other Demons, who were now inside the compound and charging towards the cottage.

        Tarrin managed to get his staff out of the dying Demon, then turned and raced away, not even slowing down when he leaned down and scooped up his bow.  He’d run out of time, and simply had no more time to play with the marilith.  But, since she couldn’t use her telepathy here, it meant that she could not coordinate any pursuit once the Demons got out of her sight…and he’d done his best to make sure her sight wasn’t going to be very much use.  He knew for certain he got one of her eyes, but wasn’t sure he got the other one…but no matter.  Now that she was wounded, and her snake body would make getting over the wall very hard unless she used the gate, she was effectively out of the battle.

        And Tarrin had no intention of making it that easy for her.

        Besides, there was another clock ticking in his mind, and that was the clock that would herald the arrival of the Deva.  Once they entered the fray, then all bets were off.  It would be very hard for Tarrin to escape, since all of them could fly, and they could easily chase him down.

        He streaked across the back side of the compound’s fields, his feet a blur as he ran with all the speed he could muster.  He knew there were Demons outside the walls, moving to surround the compound and seal off his escape, but he was gambling that not many of them could run as fast as he could.  He slowed down only to sling his bow back over his chest, then stripped the black blood from his staff as best he could with one paw and slung the spoor in his paw aside, making it less slippery.  A single glance back showed him that the balor was slumped on the ground, dissolving away in death, and the marilith had her head in his direction, looking at him with her one good eye that peered from a slashed and battered face.  A large number of howling Demons came rushing around the cottage, in hot pursuit of him and he fled away from them.  Thank the Goddess for their screaming and yowling, that had been what warned him of their arrival and caused him to turn away from finishing off the marilith and running.

        Lucky for her.

        He heard the rustling of feathers, and instinctively realized that a vrock was diving at him from high above.  He never looked up, fixing his ears on that faint sound, which told him exactly how far away it was.  He simply allowed it to continue diving at him, until it was a split second from reaching him, diving at him from behind.

        With a burst from his legs, he jumped up.  His jump was not very high, but it was more than high enough to get him out of the path of the startled Demon, who swooped in with its glaive leading, impaling the empty space where he had just been.  That glaive’s head struck the ground instead, and was instantly ripped out of the Demon’s clawed hands.  That impact jarred the Demon up, but another impact nearly drove it into the neatly furrowed bean field, when Tarrin slammed into it from above.

        Tarrin landed heavily on its back, and instead of simply killing it, he instead drove the claws of his feet into its legs and started flailing at the back of its head and shoulders with his claws, pressing down on its back and its wings to prevent it from sweeping its wings to gain altitude.  It squealed in pain and almost plowed headfirst into the ground, but somehow managed to pull out in time.  For almost endless seconds, the winged vulture-Demon raced at high speeds mere fingers above the ground, trying to dislodge the Were-cat that was shredding skin and flesh both on its head and shoulders and along the backs of its legs, then he snaked the staff under its chin—almost losing it when it bounced off a high furrow in the field—and then yanked it upwards to choke the vrock using the staff’s middle.  It couldn’t turn over in the air so close to the ground, and found trying to muster enough concentration to pull up almost impossible with the wild Were-cat doing its damndest to drive it into the ground.  Through an act of supreme willpower, the Demon managed to pull up, partially assisted by Tarrin’s relentless upward pressure of his staff against its throat, managing to gain altitude even as the far compound wall hurtled towards them at shocking speeds.

        Which was exactly what Tarrin wanted.

        Digging his foot claws into the Demon’s thighs, he let go of the staff with one paw and sank the claws of his free paw into its back, just over its wings, and watched that approaching wall with intense concentration.  The Demon had pulled up enough to clear the wall, and from the feel of it beneath him, it was going to try to flip over and rake Tarrin off using the spikes mounted into the top of the wall.  It had to know what Tarrin intended to do; in fact, it started turning over to prevent him from kicking off the Demon and driving it into the wall as he sailed over the top, so any attempt to kick off would just push the Demon to the side instead of down.

        That would have worked too…if that was what Tarrin intended.

        With a single blow, Tarrin slammed the back of the vrock’s head with his staff at that critical instant when the Demon’s control of its trajectory no longer mattered, but before it could complete its roll to present Tarrin’s back to the tips of the spikes lining the top of the wall.  The blow was awkward and off balance, but it had more than enough force to do what it was supposed to do, and that was stun the Demon for that critical instant to prevent it from getting the advantage.  Tarrin did indeed kick off the Demon, pushing away and slightly at an angle, which pushed the winged Demon down just enough.

        Tarrin hurtled over the wall with terrific speed, almost feeling like he was flying himself.  He sailed out and over and found himself looking down at about ten Demons within what he considered to be close enough to attack him when he landed, most of them cambisi but with one glabrezu and one nabassu with them to retain control and keep them from running away.  There were many more Demons both to his left and his right, and several more were running towards the compound from the opulant palaces between Tarrin and his escape.

        The Demon slammed into that row of spikes head first…and the spikes did not budge.  The vrock was literally ripped to pieces as its horizontal speed crushed it into those spike, and caused it to continue onward even though the spikes would not give way.  Bits and pieces of the Demon sailed out over the wall to rain down on the Demons below, as well as a copious amount of black blood, as the remainder of the body rebounded off the spikes and then dropped into the beanfield at the base of the wall.

        They were stunned.  They looked up at him in amazement, watching him catapult over their heads, except for one that Tarrin gauged would be within striking distance the instant that he landed…a landing that would require him to roll through.  There was no way he could come down on his feet and just keep going, he was going way too fast.  It was a cambion, a blue-skinned, yellow-eyed male halfbreed, who had not yet thought of bringing up his sword and shield and readying to attack him.  Tarrin reared back with his staff in both paws, and that action seemed to jar the cambion back into the proper frame of mind.  He raised his shield and sword and backed up to try to intercept the Were-cat after he hit the ground and rolled, when he would be defenseless, but the cambion was not familiar with Tarrin Kael’s intimate understanding of his weapon.

        Tarrin used his staff as a push-off from the ground in a lightning-fast strike of staff to paving stone, causing him to bounce back up like a stone skipping across a pond.  He turned in the air and presented both feet to the cambion, who was so surprised by this unconventional trick that put the Were-cat on a direct collision course with him that he was rendered immobile for a split second, then thought to try to raise his shield in defense at the last instant.

        But it was too late.

        The impact was so tremendous that the cambion’s sword and shield literally remained behind as the rest of him, as well as Tarrin, were driven in Tarrin’s direction of momentum.  The Were-cat landed on top of the cambion feet first, and used him to cushion the sliding impact with the paved street beneath him.  Sparks flew from the cambion’s armor as it slid along the stones for a brief moment, leaving behind a trail of glowing motes and a wide streak of black blood, until the edge of the halfbreed’s breastplate caught on an edge between two paving stones and caused his body to flip upwards into the air.

        And it left the cambion’s head behind.

        Tarrin rolled through the landing, tumbling with the headless body of his foe, feeling pinches and bites when the unyielding bow slung across his chest caught on the stones in uncomfortable ways, using the corpse to the best effect to shield himself from the stones.  When he’d slowed down enough to recover his own feet, he pushed off the corpse and aligned himself, then hit the ground at a dead run, racing away from the startled Demons who had just witnessed something that they had never seen before.

        Tarrin didn’t pay the amazing stunt any mind.  All his little tricks would be for nothing if he got himself killed.

        There were four Demons in front of him, between him and the relative safety of the nearest building.  Once he got out of this large open square and found cover, he knew he’d have a much better chance of making it.  And he had to find cover before the Deva got here and started attacking everyone.  Right now, getting past the babau and three nabassu in front of him was the only thing on his mind, and doing it before the Demons behind him could catch up and surround him.  The three nabassu would fight with nothing but their clawed hands, but the babau had a barbed harpoon-like spear that it brandished as it rushed towards him, its skeletal frame moving with speed and grace, unlike the cumbersome nabassu.

        Tarrin engaged them at full speed.  The first to reach him was a nabassu, but he simply ducked under its heavy swing of its huge clawed hand and passed it by.  He whipped his staff around and struck the inside forearm of the next nabassu to try to rake him, driving it out wide, then again rushed by the Demon as he kept his eyes on the babau.  He turned slightly to evade the third nabassu, who turned in its shambling manner to try to keep up with the faster, more nimble adversary.  He raised his staff as the nabassu behind spread their wings and prepared to launch into the air after him, as he and the babau raced towards each other on a collision course.

        The babau tried to spear him as he came within reach, but the Were-cat simply slithered to the side without slowing down a bit, lowered his shoulders, and then slammed into the small, skeletal Demon.  Tarrin’s size and weight bulled his smaller opponent along with him.  It tried to claw at him with its small but wickedly sharp claws, but Tarrin’s paw clasped around one of the babau’s wrists, and then yanked it aside like it was a rag doll.  He turned in his run and flung the Demon at the nearest nabassu like a missle, but the winged Demon showed surprising agility as it used its wings to hop over the spinning babau, who then crashed to the ground with loud curses.  He rushed away from them as the winged Demons took to the air to give chase, but he didn’t slow down, keeping his course directly towards the nearest of those opulent buildings, a building that, to his dismay, the Demons were trying to cut off from him.  A large throng of Demons, ones that had been in that initial press that caused him to rush back into the compound, were racing up from the flank, and two more Demons had appeared on the avenue between the building he faced and the one on the far side of the flanking Demons.

        He was about to change his direction away from that large throng, feeling that taking on two Demons while outrunning three flying nabassu was better, but a sudden series of movements over the buidling before him caught his attention, as well as the attention of the Demons behind him.

        It was Fury.

        There was neither the room nor the time for him to mount her and make his escape.  As much as he was glad to see her, right now was not the time for her to try to return to him.

        Tarrin gave a shrill, keening whistle, then put his ears back and ran at a full sprint towards the building ahead.  She looked down, then turned and dove towards him as no less than twenty winged Demons of various types dove after her.  He waved her off frantically, and she seemed to comprehend his instructions and pulled out, then disappeared again as she circled behind a building with that group of flying Demons hot on her tail.

        The staff in his hand started getting hot.  Tarrin glanced down at it, and saw that the black blood that had been smeared all over it from the balor had damaged it, damaged it beyond repair, pitting the surface with multiple smoking holes.  It would shatter the first time he used it, but at least he could allow it to perform one more service for him before he abandoned it.  He sprinted ahead as fast as he could go, as the Demons on his right flank kept getting closer and closer and closer, threatening to cut him off before he could reach the wall.  They were five hundred spans out, four hundred, three hundred.  The two Demons on the other side were now running towards him, a hezrou and a nalfeshnee, but the large pack was closer than them; they would not reach him in time.  Two hundred spans.  One hundred spans, and he was about two hundred spans from the edge of the building.

        In one fluent motion, Tarrin dipped his shoulder, then whipped his dying staff away from him in a wide backpawed swipe.  It spun away from him with a shrill whistle, spinning so fast it almost looked like a brown-gray disk, soaring towards the pack of Demons in a low arcing lob.  It wouldn’t come anywhere near their heads…but he wasn’t aiming at their heads.

        The lead Demons in that throng could see where it was going.  They jumped as the staff’s spinning length swept under them at ankle height, and they cleared it.  But the Demons behind didn’t get as good a look, and didn’t react in time to avoid the staff themselves.  It caught three of them right at the feet, spilling them to the ground in a tangled heap, and the Demons behind them also crashed to the ground when they tripped over the bodies of their comrades.  And Demons behind them tripped as well, creating a chain reaction of falling, cursing Demons and effectively slowing down a sizable number of them.

        The Demons in the lead had lost precious seconds by jumping over his staff, and he made them pay for it.  He managed to ghost just out of reach of the lead hezrou’s spear, and they lost speed when they turned to keep up pursuit.  Tarrin careened directly towards the wall of a massive mother-of-pearl sheathed palace, then vaulted high into the air, aiming at a balcony on the second level.  He almost didn’t make it, grabbing it with his claws and literally hauling himself up and over before his momentum caused the rest of his body to crash into the railing.  He somersalted over the rail, then rolled through a bumpy landing and into the building itself, where only the winged Demons could now follow behind quickly.

        He didn’t even dare to look around at the wondrous perfection within the building, for he was too busy running blindly through the structure, searching frantically for another chamber with a window on the far side.  The sounds behind him told him that several winged Demons were now on his level, having flown in the same doorway he’d used to get in, and there were sounds and vibrations in the floor that told him that other Demons were on the first level, seeking a stairwell that would bring them up to him.  He moved quickly and recklessly through the halls and chambers of the palace, at least until a faint flash as he came through a door caused him to dive forward, passing under a sword blade that almost took off his head.  He rolled through and back to his feet to find himself squaring off against an alu, wielding two sabers in her hands and with a twisted sneer on her face.  She charged forward confidently, and forced Tarrin to back up and evade her as he recovered his balance.  But her forward charge instantly became a shuffle-footed retreat when Tarrin was again stable and had turned on her like a rabid wolf, striking her wrist with so much force that it almost jarred the saber from her hand.  She twisted to avoid his other clawed paw, but then she gave out a whauff! when his foot slammed into her belly.  It would have sent her flying through the very door through which he had come, had Tarrin not gotten a firm grip on her wrist before kicking her.  The violent impact broke her arm and quite a few of her ribs, and black blood erupted from her mouth as she crashed to the ground.  She moved to slide away, but her motion instantly stopped when the Were-cat took up one of her fallen sabers and drove it through the back of her head in one smooth motion, pinning her to the floor.  He scooped up the other saber as a nabassu came roaring through that doorway, ripping out a section of the doorframe as it clawed at him even before getting into the room.  Tarrin met it head-on, ducking under its other clawed hand, then catching the first as it swung at him again.  The Demon’s hand made a loud smack when it struck his open palm, and its red eyes widened in shock when its great strength met something even stronger than it was.

        “Don’t look so surprised,” Tarrin said with a snarl.  It swiped at him again with its other clawed hand, but Tarrin slipped aside and stabbed at its flank with the saber in his other paw.  It slipped aside with surprising agility, making room for a second nabassu to shamble into the chamber.  Tarrin evaded a fast array of clawed hands as both of them tried to maul him, making one howl in pain when the saber cut a deep line of black blood across its tricep and bicep, then that howl of pain became a shuddering gurgle when the Were-cat spun, hooked the saber impaled through the head of the Demoness with his free paw, then spun around and buried to the hilt in the nabassu’s gut.  Tarrin used pure power to wrench the mortally wounded Demon into the path of his companion, shielding him from its clawed hands.

        He gave out a hiss when a hot line of pain slashed across his back.  He staggered forward under the force of an impact and felt blood flowing from his back and side, but also felt the stinging in a diagonal along his back from his bow.  The unbreakable bow and his quiver had absorbed a portion of that impact, and had saved him from a mortal wound, but did destroy all the arrows he had in his quiver.  He almost didn’t live to assess his injury or figure out who had hit him, for the first nabassu had gotten clear of its dead cousin and almost took his head off with one of those massive clawed hands.  He just barely managed to slither aside in time, and then sent that clawed paw sailing away from the stump to which it had been attached instants before with a powerful underhanded swipe of the saber in his left paw.  He glimpsed a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye and backpedalled furiously, just in time to evade the blade of a glaive being wielded by a vrock, that was pressing into the room from a doorway he hadn’t noticed earlier.

        “Oh, I’m glad to see you,” Tarrin told the vrock in a dead voice, turning and sliding under a whistling blow of the nabassu’s hand.  It charged in to bite him with its tusked maw, but he struck it with the flat of his right palm right in the chest, with so much power that it shattered every rib that was attached to its sternum.  He reversed direction in an instant, startling the vulture-headed Demon with the blazing speed of his sudden attack.  The Demon managed to get his glaive up in time, but it then moved frantically to parry aside the saber that Tarrin threw directly at its head with the blade of its glaive.  And that left it open for that one instant the fast Were-cat needed.

        He grabbed hold of its glaive with both paws, and then wrenched it down and to the side.  It managed to keep hold of its weapon, and tried to pull Tarrin around itself.  A short and brutal struggle ensued as the stronger Were-cat tried to rip the weapon out of the taller Demon’s hands, as the Demon used its height advantage to pin the Were-cat down and prevent him from using his full power.  His ears twitched as he heard sounds from behind him, as more Demons charged towards the room using the door through which he had come.

        “Mine,” Tarrin hissed as he suddenly reversed direction, pulling the Demon down with him as he rolled to the floor.  The Demon, who had been pushing down with all its might, had no leverage to stay on its feet, and was carried along with the Were-cat.  Tarrin put a foot in its belly and kicked it over his head even as he torqued the glaive to loosen its grip on the weapon.  It did indeed let go, and gave a keening shriek as it somersaulted head-over-heels into the doorway, crashing into the nalfeshnee that Tarrin had seen on the ground moments before, who was in the act of charging through the door.

        Before those two could untangle themselves, more Demons poured into the doorway, a large number of smaller cambisi, five Cambions and an Alu.  They charged forward immediately, weapons raised, but the Were-cat whirled the glaive in his paw into an end-grip, holding it lightly and confidently, prepared to meet their charge.

        From the initial blow, the Demons were in the hole.  Tarrin’s blow with the butt of the glaive sent a Cambion flying against the wall, and he reversed the weapon more than easily enough to catch a broadsword’s blade on the blade of the glaive, sending a shower of sparks as he parried it out and wide, then whipped the weapon around to block an attempt to stab at him simultaneously from two Cambions.  He blocked one and slipped out of the reach of the other, bobbed down, then swept the feet out from under both of them with a wide arcing kick of his foot along the ground, a spinning foot sweep that was a move common to both the Ways and the Dance.  But where the Ways considered that an ending move, there was a continuing counter in the Dance, which he performed to perfection.  He rose back up even as he spun, blocked the Alu’s axe with his glaive, then spun through and planted the heel of his foot in the side of her head.  She went flying off at an angle to his blow, spinning in the air like a top, then crashed into the far wall sideways and back first.  Before she bounced off and crashed to the ground, Tarrin had already parried three impressively fast slashes of a bastard sword being wielded by the last of the cambisi that had flooded into the room.  He took a single step back and parried another quick thrust, then turned and kicked the broadsword-wielding Cambion in the hip before he could deliver an overhanded chop of his weapon at Tarrin’s exposed flank.  One of the Cambions slipped up behind him, but Tarrin’s tail lashed out at ankle level to anyone behind him, and he felt it bite as it impacted the halfbreed’s feet.  His tail was strong enough to sweep the Demon off his feet, crashing him to the floor to join his two cousins as they struggled to quickly regain their feet without leaving themselves open to being skewered by his whirling weapon.  The bastard sword wielder rushed him again, but found his weapon parried easily, even had it kicked wide by one of the Were-cat’s feet as it expertly struck the Cambion on the wrists, a foot that pulled back and then whipped forward with rapid staccato movements, kicking the Demon in the hip, in the side, and then in the chest in the blink of an eye.  He twisted as the last Cambion on his feet tried to stab him in the back, absently decapitated one of the rising Cambions with the glaive as he spun away from the attack of the standing one.  He parried an expert series of blows from the Cambion’s longsword, then took one paw off the glaive and punched his claws into his own palm, producing an instant liberal flow of blood.  He weaved under the longsword, turned, and the flung a line of blood to his side, right into the face and eyes of the other Cambion that was trying to rise.  It hissed in surprise and fear, getting to his feet and staggering backwards as he tried to clear the blood out of his eyes.  The bastard sword wielding halfbreed surged in when he saw that the Were-cat only held the large weapon in one paw, but that one paw was more than strong enough to whip that weapon around like it was a twig.  His yellow eyes widened in surprise when Tarrin systematically parried a hard array of slashes and chops using just one paw on the glaive, then he ducked under a high swipe that tried to strike him in the shoulder and neck.  His tail came around his body, and the Cambion never saw that wrapped in the tip of it was the hilt of the sword that the dead Cambion had been wielding.  It sucked in its breath in surprise when the blade of the weapon bit into his waist, finding a seam between the breastplate and codpiece.  It barely penetrated at all, but it cinched up the Demon’s armor and restricted movement.  Tarrin immediately attacked it on that side, exploiting the restricted movement perfectly, forcing the Cambion to turn awkwardly to protect itself…and that was no protection.  In a blazing sequence, Tarrin kicked the Demon in the side of the knee, shattering the joint, then whipped the glaive around and almost sliced it in half at the base of the ribcage, the glaive ripped so deeply into its breastplate.  The body crumpled to the ground as Tarrin turned on the half-blinded Cambion, who raised his sword and shield even as his yellow eyes blinked furiously to clear the blinding blood out of them.

        His first and only attempt to block the glaive with his shield was his last.  Tarrin’s raw power ripped the glaive right through the metal shield, shearing through and tearing into the upper arm holding the shield.  The Cambion was no match for Tarrin’s raw power, espcially when he could set his feet and use both paws to maximize his leverage on the weapon he was using.  The Cambion was knocked back by the power of the blow, and a fountain of black blood erupted from his mouth when Tarrin impaled him on the blade of the glaive, driving a portion of the blade into the wall behind the Demon.  He yanked it back, freeing it of the wall, but the body was stuck on the end of the blade.  He turned and slung the body in an arcing motion towards the door through which they had all come, where the nafeshnee and the vrock had finally untangled themslves and were coming through the door.  The vrock knocked the body aside contemptuously, leaving itself open to Tarrin’s attack, but this Demon he did not want to kill.  So long as it lived, Tarrin would continue to possess its weapon, and Tarrin much preferred the vulture Demon’s glaive now that his staff had been destroyed.

        But there were many ways to leave one alive.

        The vrock charged him with a keening shriek, taloned hands leading as it sought to reclaim its weapon and kill the Were-cat with it.  It seemed to understand that Tarrin couldn’t outright kill it, or he’d have no weapon to fight the nalfeshnee coming up behind it.  This wasn’t entirely true, since Tarrin would confidently fight just about any Demon with nothing but his bare paws, but its only correct guess was that Tarrin didn’t want to kill it, wanted to keep possession of its weapon.  Tarrin took a paw off the weapon and readied to take the Demon’s charge, then he jumped aside at the last instant, as the talons of the vrock passed so closely to his head that he could smell the detritus clinging to them.  His paw lashed out and grabbed that taloned hand by the wrist, then he snapped that arm back and to the side in a savage, powerful jerk.  Bones broke as the vrock was instantly redirected, being pulled around Tarrin’s body as he spun towards the nalfeshnee, dragging the vulture Demon with him.  The boar-headed Demon reached for him with heavy clawed hands, what looked like thick claws set on a gorilla’s arms and hands, but the only thing it found itself grabbing was the vrock.  Tarrin blocked the boar-headed Demon with the vrock once again, then kicked the vulture Demon so that his shin struck across both of the Demon’s wings, shattering them.  It squealed in pain as the impact drove it forward, into the nalfeshnee, but both of them tumbled to the ground when Tarrin used the glaive like a scythe, ripping it not through his two combatants, but instead aiming the blade directly at their ankles.

        That sweeping blow took off both of the vrock’s feet, sheared through one of the nalfeshnee’s feet, and dug deeply into the lower ankle and upper foot of the other.  Both of them crashed to the floor, howling in pain, but he didn’t wait around for the other stunned cambisi to recover or for those two to try to get up on bloody stumps.  He turned and raced through the second doorway, through which the vrock had originally come.  He spotted light through a small corner, and then zigzagged his way through a series of chambers until he came to a large chamber with a window on the far side, a window that suddenly darkened as a hideous chasme appeared in it, its fly body taking up the volume of the window as it crawled through.  It saw him and gave an eerie, eager droning cry, its wings buzzing as it launched itself through the window and right at him.  He surged ahead wielding the vrock’s glaive, using the longer reach of the weapon to strike at the vile creature before that sharp proboscis on its head could reach him.  The blade of the glaive split its ghastly head neatly in two, and then drove the body to the floor.

        Tarrin wasted not an instant.  He jumped over the body and pulled the glaive’s head out with him as he did so, then hopped up to the window ledge and then vaulted out without even so much as looking to see how high he was.  This was not the time for caution.  Of course, stopping to look might have been wise, since a nalfeshnee was on a head-to-head trajectory with him, angling to fly into the window he had just jumped from.  Tarrin reacted with swift certainty, raising the glaive to impale the boar-Demon, but its tiny wings managed to pull it out of harm’s way in the nick of time.  It did, however, lose control of its flight, and slammed headlong into the wall beside the window with a sickening crunch.

        He hit the ground running, and to his eternal relief, he was in an open area and there were no Demons on foot anywhere near him.  He whistled shrilly, then whistled again, keeping his eyes up and scanning the sky, watching for Fury.   Now he’d have a chance to get in the saddle.

        She appeared in front of him, and she still had about twenty winged Demons chasing her.  Tarrin curled the glaive into his tail as he had done his staff, then pulled his bow off while he raced forward.  “Come around, come around!” he shouted at the winged horse as it got close.  “Line up behind me!”

        There was a glint of light to his left.  He looked to that side, and then up, and then he started cursing very loudly.

        No wonder the Demons hadn’t gotten to this side.

        The Deva had arrived.

        It was a single Deva, a female with golden skin and white feathered wings, wielding a scimitar and a shield.  She spotted the Demons chasing Fury, then saw him on the ground, then gave out a blast of a small horn she had looped around her neck.  Several more Deva appeared, swooping towards the Demons chasing after Fury.  The horse banked away from the Deva frantically, and while one did turn to try to intercept her, one wielding a spear, the others engaged the Demons in an aerial collision.  Two Demons and one Deva tumbled from the sky as the two groups passed one another, but the Deva had broke Fury free of her pursuers, and the lone Deva chasing after her had over banked and lost too much speed to keep up.  The horse vanished from sight to his right, then appeared again behind him as she turned to fly up behind him.  He kept an eye over his shoulder and sped up, then jumped up and back just as she came up from behind him.  She reacted smoothly to this sudden act, slowing down just enough so he landed securely in the saddle.

        “It’s about time, Fury!” he admonished her hotly as he grabbed the glaive from his tail and jammed it under the saddleskirt, then uncapped the quiver hanging from the saddle and drew an arrow from it without tying himself in first.  “Think you could have waited til I was in the saddle before bolting the first time?  You almost got me killed!”

        Fury gave him a hostile snort as she banked to avoid a balor’s whip, but the mighty Demon failed to pursue when two Deva swooped in behind him, forcing him to break off.  Tarrin turned in the saddle, drew his bow, aimed, and fired, all in one smooth motion.  An arrow sizzled so close to a Deva’s face that the fletching slithered through his eyebrows, then buried itself to the feathers in the neck of a nabassu.  “Go!  Back the way we came, fool horse, and move!”  He nocked another arrow, then hastily drew his bow and loosed at a vrock that was screaming at them from above.  The arrow drove into its shoulder, and caused it to spin in its dive and lose its trajectory to intercept them.  Tarrin had to duck frantically to avoid a macehead from a Deva as the winged man tried to take his head off in a sidelong pass, then jammed the bow in the saddleskirt long enough to wisely tie himself down.  Once he was done, he pulled the bow again and nocked another arrow, as Fury banked and climbed with the balor and four Deva hot on her tail. She levelled off and banked again, then banked back the way she came, which brought the pursuers into Tarrin’s line of fire.  They all scattered when he turned in the saddle and drew his bow, so he had to pick the target of nearest opportunity and loose on it.  That was the balor.  The arrow hit it in the upper thigh, which made it roar in pain, but did not deliver a fatal wound or hurt it enough to convince it to back off.  The three Deva spun back into pursuit of the balor and Tarrin, and Tarrin nocked another arrow as he looked forward, and saw that unimaginably tall obelisk coming up on the right.  He stood up in the stirrup as best he could with the restraining ropes around his waist, then used his unnatural range of motion to twist around so he could fire his bow at those directly behind him.  The balor banked away sharply, and when the Deva saw him aiming at them, they did as well.  One of them, not seeing the obelisk because she was too busy looking at Tarrin, banked the wrong way and slammed into the side of the obelisk, bounced off, and then spiralled down towards the ground.  Two of the pursuing Deva broke off and dove after her to save her from a fatal impact with the ground, as the last remaining Deva and the balor continued to chase him.

        “Fury, dive then pull up fast!” he ordered, locking his legs around her as she obeyed.  She suddenly dove down, causing the two behind to mirror her, then she pulled up and almost stalled in the air as she arrested her forward momentum with a powerful thrust of her impressive wings.  Tarrin grabbed the haft of the glaive with his free paw and yanked it out as the balor behind suddenly pulled up to avoid slamming into the back of the Firewing and causing both of them to crash into the ground.  It didn’t pull up enough, though.  Tarrin slashed it with the glaive as it passed over their heads, ripping it from throat to crotch, and spilling everthing that had been inside it out into the air after it went over them.  The pieces of the balor dropped towards the ground as Fury banked away to avoid flying into that caustic mass.  The Deva pulled away as Tarrin reseated his glaive, then wisely turned and fled when the Were-cat stood up in the stirrups, turned, and then levelled his deadly bow at anything and everything behind him.  With no other targets to keep the Were-cat occupied, the Deva understood he was next.  Tarrin urged Fury to fly faster and faster, as his eyes scanned the skies, searing for any airborne combatant that was either chasing them or moving to intercept them.  There were a few straggling winged forms far to his left, but they were not moving to intercept him.  They instead were rushing in the direction from which he came, no doubt rushing to the aid of the outnumbered Deva back around the sage’s compound.

        He was clear of them.

        Tarrin breathed heavily as the full impact of the narrow escape started to sink in.  So close…that had been too close.  His paws began to tremble.  He’d come a hair’s whisker from getting killed, any number of times.  And now that the immediate fury was starting to fade, he was starting to feel the pain of his many wounds, including the rather nasty one delivered by the glaive he now had in his saddleskirt, which began to throb like crazy.  The deepest run of it was low on his left side, where it had nearly nicked his rib.  Outside of that one bad slash, though, he was remarkably unharmed, just minor nicks, cuts, and quite a few spectacular bruises.  He blew out his breath as Fury picked up speed and altitude, fleeing away from the Core and leaving what could only be called a pitched battle behind them, as the Deva and the Demons who had come to kill Tarrin in their trap fought one another in and around Rolteford’s compound.

        “Let’s go back to the Sage’s Council, Fury,” he told her in a vicious tone of voice.  “I have a few people there I need to kill for sending me into this trap.”

        Fury whinnied with dreadful eagerness and banked slightly at his nudging, as he guided her towards the Sage’s Council, where a certain sage was going to have a lot to answer for.

        “How did it—ah,” Szizazz began as Tarrin crashed the door of the Gzargmoth open and stalked in.  He was wounded, with a thick congealed layer of blood running from his left side and down his leg.  Black Demon blood, his own blood, dirt, dust, and grime clung to him all over, and he was holding the vrock’s bloodstained glaive negligently in his paw.  “What happened?”

        “The Sage’s Council sold me out,” he said with an evil growl.  “I’m about to go discuss that with them.  I just need my things first.  I don’t think I’ll have either the time or the chance to come back for my things.”

        “I would advise against such a thing,” she warned.  “The Deva will come in force.”

        “Let them,” he said with a narrow-eyed glare at her, which made her flinch.

        “I see.  Very well.  I will not debate it with you.”

        Tarrin stalked past her, then turned and levelled the glaive at the archon that had been sitting in the common room, who stared at him in shock.  “If you’re not here when I come back, You’ll force me to chase you down.  Do you really want to make me even madder than I am now, mortal?” he asked in a dreadful voice.

        A dark spot appeared on the chair under the archon, which was more than reply enough that he would do no such thing.

        Szizazz slithered after him as he returned to his room, pausing only to cancel the defensive spells protecting it.  “Exactly what happened?” she asked.

        He stalked in and grabbed the blanket.  “They sent me into a trap,” he said in a tight voice, vibrating with his fury, and very briefly related what happened to her.

        “Unusual for them to involve themselves in affairs that are not their concern,” she said analytically.  “The neutrality of the sages is well known.  Knowledge is their only pursuit.”

        “They’re about to learn a very hard lesson,” he seethed, pulling his belt pouch from the Portable Hole and tying it to his belt.

        “Again, let me warn you that doing so will bring the wrath of the Deva upon you, and they will not let it slide,” she warned.  “Know only that simply fleeing Crossroads will not be enough.  They will chase you if you commit an atrocity.”

        “Let them,” he answered her shortly.  “I have no qualms about killing them either.  Anyone who gets in my way won’t be there for long.  The sooner they learn to stay out of my way, the fewer they’ll lose.”

        She sighed.  “Very well.  I can only wish you fortune and success, Tarrin.”

        “I appreciate that, Szizazz,” he said, hefting the glaive and turning to face her.  “You have the bell.  When things calm down, I’ll contact you, or you can contact me if you think it’s imporant.  Be well.”

        “Be well,” she said, slithering aside and allowing him to pace past her and out the door.

        She heard him slam the door downstairs, then slithered over to look down from the window as he and a winged horse started marching down the avenue, towards the Sage’s Council.  She sighed, closed her reptillian eyes, then rose back up.  “Good luck to you, my friend,” she said to herself as she closed the curtains with her four arms.

        “He won’t need luck,” a voice called from behind her.  She turned to look, and found herself looking at a mortal human, a very young female with dark, swarthy skin and straight black hair, wearing a simple brown homespun dress.  She looked almost boyish, with her flat chest and her narrow hips, but she had a face that a mortal human male would find…cute.  “He’ll be fine.”

        “Who are you?” she demanded.

        “Me?  I’m no one,” she said with a gentle smile, stepping forward.  “But I can’t let you roam free knowing what you know.  You see, very soon, the Deva are going to be in a tizzy, and they’re going to be all over the place, asking everyone a bunch of hard questions about Tarrin, what he did, and what he’s going to be doing.  The Deva would take you to task for not trying to stop him, or not alerting them about his intent to go slaughter all the sages in revenge for what they did to him.  They might even seek to punish you.  We can’t have that.  Tarrin would have a fit if you were harmed because of him, so I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen.  We need to make sure you’re kept safe.”

        “What are you about?”she asked, slithering back from the girl fearfully, but she moved with both casual grace and amazing speed, literally on top of her in an instant despite the fact that she never did anything more than walk towards her at a stately, serene pace.  Two fingers of her small hand touched Szizazz on the temple, and that touch was all that was necessary.

        In an instant, Szizazz’s memory of what Tarrin had told her vanished as if it had never been, replaced by a distinct and convincing memory of him telling her that he meant to seek the knowledge he needed elsewhere, and that the repeated attempts by the Demon Lord against him in Crossroads forced him to leave the plane.  The memory of the girl also vanished, erased from her mind completely.

        Szizazz blinked, and found herself staring at a young human mortal female, with swarthy brown skin and straight black hair, who stood near her patiently.  She would be considered cute by human standards, though her lack of female curves made her seem tomboyish.  “Madam Szizazz?  Are you well?”

        “Who are you, young female?  How did you come to be here?” she asked.

        “The archon downstairs told me you were up here.  I’d like to rent a room, if you don’t mind.  Are you well?  You looked quite unwell when I called form the doorway, and didn’t respond when I called.”

        “I…I am well,” she said, blinking and putting a hand to her head.  “A room?  A room within the Gzargmoth is three krin per cycle.  Your meals and maintaining your room are your own affair.  I only provide a room for my guests.”

        “That’s fine,” she answered.  “Are you sure you’re alright, mistress?”

        “Yes, yes, I am well,” she said, waving two of her hands negligently.  “But your concern is appreciated.  Return with me downstairs, and we will discuss your request in more suitable surroundings.”

        Szizazz silthered forward, paying the situation no mind.  She missed the young girl’s slight, knowing smile as she passed.

        The grand entry doors to the Sage’s Council were smashed in, making a terrible squealing sound as they bent their hinges.  The crotchety old receptionist, whose desk was a suitable distance from those doors to both impress upon the visitor the grand majesty and awe of the Sage’s Council and allow her to intercept the unworthy, squeaked in surprise and dove under her desk, then peered over it to see that frightful furry half-god stepping through the ruins of the wondrous front doors, with a massive red-eyed horse filing in behind it.  Her eyes widened when she saw the look of absolute fury on the half-god’s face, his eyes all glowing green and making him look positively sinister.  He stopped just inside the door, then settled the butt of a bloodstained weapon, a heavy one-edged blade fixed to the top of a stout pole, to the immaculately polished marble floor.

        “D-Do you h-h-have an ap-p-pointment?” she said in a frightened voice.

        “Fury,” the awe-inspiring figure said in a low, dangerous voice.

        The horse nickered in response, looking at him.

        “Go make an appointment.”

        The horse nodded, then looked at the woman.  Its glowing red eyes narrowed, and it almost seem to grin at her, a horribly malevolent expression that nearly made her wet herself.  The sinister equine then brayed, a sound that almost sounded like a roar instead of a whinny, as fire erupted from a mouth filled with sharp, savage teeth.

        The receptionist screamed in terror, then turned and fled back towards the main meeting chamber as the huge winged horse galloped at her with evil eyes, sparks flying from its hooves as those mineral-infused, sharp hooves struck the stone, leaving deep pits and gouges in its polished finish as it passed.  Tarrin didn’t follow, he instead turned and threw a handful of white powder into the air, chanting in the language of Arcane magic, his words loud and forceful as they chanted the spell.  It only required somatics from one hand, so he formed the necessary gestures with the paw not holding the glaive, until a ball of fire appeared in the palm of his paw.  It boiled and writhed as he clenched his fist over it, reared back, and then hurled it side-armed down the side passage, a long passage that led to the main library.  His aim was true and the strength of his arm was sufficient to carry the ball of fire all the way down the hall, streaking past two robed sages who had peeked into the archway leading to the library to see what the noise was about.  Those two figures were illuminated in silhouette when the ball of fire sizzled into the room, struck a bookshelf, and then detonated with thunderous force, unleashing a shockwave of fire and concussion that devastated the first floor of the library, and instantly set all wood and paper within the explosive radius ablaze.

        He took up his captured weapon and charged towards the main audience chamber.  Fury had caught up to the receptionist, and had quite deliberately let her continue running just ahead of her for a long moment.  She then knocked the woman forward with her forehead, which made her tumble to the floor, and then galloped right over her, making sure to stomp her diamond-hard hooves into every available point of the woman’s soft anatomy as she went over her.  Tarrin passed both the receptionist and his evil-tempered mount, as the Firewing Pegasus turned and looked back at the woman as she continued to run, following her master.  Her glowing red eyes looked decidedly disappointed when the woman moved, and looked ready to turn around and go finish the job.  But she instead followed behind Tarrin as he reached the ornate double doors leading to the main audience chamber, and then galloped through as he shattered them by slashing them with his glaive and then blasting through the weakened doors.  An explosion of splinters and twisted metal erupted into the room along with Tarrin, an empty room with its plush carpeting and many tables and chairs, but Tarrin’s focus was on the door behind the dais at the far end of the room, where the lead sage’s office was located.

        “Burn it,” Tarrin snarled to his mount as he jumped up onto the nearest table, and then hopped from table to table just as fast as if he were running on the ground.  Fury slowed up, drew in her breath, then unleashed a tightly focused cone of fire at the nearest table, chairs, and rich red carpeting.  All of them immediately began to burn after being subjected to the outer-planar animal’s fiery breath.  She turned her head and raked that cone of fire over everything she possibly could, setting a conflagration in the main audience chamber that not even magical attempts to extinguish could put out, for the fire was already too large and intense to contain.

        The building was now doomed.

        Tarrin reached the plain door leading to the cramped office.  He drove his claws into it, cracking and splitting the wood, then ripped the door and the hinges attaching it to the doorframe out of the wall.  He tossed them aside and found himself staring into the surprised and terrified eyes of the lead sage, who was already up and halfway to the door to find out what all the noise beyond was about.  The men’s eyes locked on Tarrin, who was illuminated from behind by the raging inferno that Fury had set in the audience chamber…but that light was not enough to dim the sinister green radiance that illuminated the Were-cat’s eyes into two pools of absolute emerald evil.

        “No!” he squealed in terror, backing up until he was sitting on the edge of his desk.  He began to chant in the language of Arcane magic, but Tarrin was on him in an instant, paw around his throat and hefting him three spans off the ground, holding him up and at arm’s length as the powerful grip he had on the man’s neck squeezed the air out of his throat, causing his chanting to trail off into hoarse, rapid choking sounds.

        “You set me up,” Tarrin hissed at the man, his ears laying back as he brought the point of the glaive up and stuck it in the man’s stomach deeply, causing the tip to punch through his robe and start sinking into his skin, causing a thin line of red blood to appear along the razor-sharp edge of the weapon, oozing slowly but steadily towards the haft.  “You sent me into a trap, sage!  But you underestimated me, didn’t you?” he suddenly shouted.  “And I’m here to pay you back for your treachery!”

        “tried….to-warn—tried—warn,” the man wheezed, clutching at Tarrin’s gripping paw with both hands, trying to pull the fingers apart enough for him to breathe.  He sucked in a ragged breath when Tarrin relaxed his grip enough to let him breathe.  “I tried to warn you!” he squealed in utter terror.  “I didn’t have to warn you about Rolteford!  The Demons, they threatened to—I had no choice!  But I tried to warn you, Master, I tried!”

        Tarrin blinked.  Yes, the man did warn him about Rolteford, and he’d seemed decidedly nervous.  The sage didn’t have to do that, but he did.  Tarrin realized that the sage did truly try to warn him about the trap, making him cautious enough to go buy weapons to take with him when he met the man.  The sage may have sent him into that trap, but he also gave Tarrin enough warning to be able to survive that trap.  Had he not been warned, he would not have gone with the bow or the staff, and he might not have survived the encounter.

        But it wasn’t as if that knowledge would save him.

        “You have two seconds to tell me what I want to know,” Tarrin told him with flat eyes.  “Who do I talk to to find the One?  Who?” he demanded, pushing the glaive against his stomach with more force.

        “Ahh!!!!!” he cried in pain.  “No one I know can tell you!  No one here can answer that!”

        “Then you are no use to me,” he hissed, and the glaive shuddered against the sage’s stomach as the Were-cat shifted his grip and prepared to plunge it through his body.

        “The Mortai!” he screamed.  “The Mortai!  They know everything!” he screamed frantically, struggling against the paw holding him up.  “Find a Mortai and ask it, but it may not answer you!  They don’t always talk to everyone who brings them questions!”

        “Where are these Mortai?” Tarrin demanded.

        “They float like giant clouds over the forests of the Beastlands!” he said in a hysterical voice.  “One of them might help you, but it’s not a guarantee!”

        Tarrin regarded him a long moment, then snorted.  “That just bought you a fighting chance, mortal,” Tarrin told him in an emotionless voice.  The sage tried to scream when Tarrin’s fist closed around his neck, crushing his windpipe just enough, but not killing him.  He then grabbed up one of the hands clutching his paw, then the other, and then crushed those as well to the sound of shattering bone.  The sage’s eyes almost rolled back into his head as the pain of it assaulted him, but he managed to cling to consciousness.  He gave a hoarse cry when Tarrin dropped him unceremoniously, as fire began creeping into the sage’s personal office.

        “We set fire to this building.  I’m sure you can see the flames behind me.  I was just going to kill you and let the fire burn your body, but you gave me a fighting chance, so now I’ll give you one,” Tarrin told him.  “You sent me there with no magic, and now I’ve taken your magic from you.  So, if you can get out of this building alive on your own wits before the fire kills you, then we’re even.  If you don’t, then you you don’t.  Wether or not you survive depends on you.  But either way, mortal, remember this.  No deal with a Demon ever turns out in any way that benefits you.  You made a deal with the Demons, and it’s cost you your precious library and your building, because you didn’t count on the fact that I’m just as bad as they are.  Just count your blessings that it didn’t cost you your life…or your soul.  What I’ve taken from you today is nothing compared to what they would take from you.

        “Good luck, mortal.  You’ll need it.  Come, Fury,” he said, turning his back on the terrified archon, then he and the winged horse turned and stepped back into the flames, and were quickly gone from sight.

        Tarrin paid the man no more mind as he pondered his words.  Tarrin had never heard of a Mortai, but the man’s terrified scent assured him that he was not lying…or at least he honestly believed what he was saying.

        A Mortai.  He wondered what it looked like.  From the sound of it, floating above the forests of the Beastlands or so the sage had said, it must be some kind of winged creature, or had the ability to fly.  He was sure some of the denizens of that outer plane could give him the information he needed, though.  The locals always did have the best information on local matters.  The pair of them marched through the blazing audience chamber, then along the marble corridor leading to the ruined front doors.  They stepped out just in time to see Deva circling down from above, attracted to the area by the fire and violence, and the receptionist as well.  She was moaning and crawling towards the steps feebly, leaving a trail of blood behind her on the marble landing.

        “Leave her,” Tarrin said, putting a paw out to stop Fury from prancing over and grinding her into the stone.  “She earned her life by getting out.  Right now, we’ve got to fly.”  His wings flowed from his back and filled out to their full size, and for a moment, Fury looked at him with an expression of indignance.  “You’ll fly faster without my weight,” he told her.  “Don’t be jealous, girl,” he chuckled as he saw her continued look of betrayal on her equine features.  “Now come on.  Follow me, and avoid the Deva.  We don’t want anything to do with them, at least not yet.”

        She gave him a look.

        “They have something I need,” he told her as his feet left the ground, and he produced his visor from his belt pouch and snugged it on over his eyes.  “When I find out what I need to know from the Mortai, I’ll be back here to take it from them.”

        Fury gave him a narrow-eyed, eager look as she spread her wings and started galloping towards the stairs, then soared into the air.  She fell in line with her winged master, and together they ascended into the calm air of Crossroads and turned away from the Core, flying with great speed towards the Ring, and one of the stones there that would allow him to leave this plane of existence and enter the plane known as the Beastlands.  There was a being there known as a Mortai, and it knew something that Tarrin wanted to know.

        And he would find out.

        Once he found out where the One was hiding, he would return here and confront a Solar, then he would have to return to Sennadar and face Spyder…but first things first.  Nothing else could happen until he knew the location of the realm of the One.  And now, despite the best efforts of the Demons to kill him, he now had a solid lead…and he was going to a place where they could not follow.  The Beastlands was one of the upper planes, and as such, Demons could not enter.  But that didn’t mean that they’d give up, he was certain of that.  A Demon could not enter, but a denizen of the planes between the upper planes and the lower planes could, and some of them, like the Slaadi, would be more than willing to peform a service for a Demon for the right price.  They wouldn’t be able to come after him themselves, but they could hire mercenaries to do that in their stead.

        No, he hadn’t heard the last of the Demon Lord.  It would take him time to arrange it, but there would be more attempts to stop him, more attempts to kill him.  He would just have a sizable head start on the mercenaries that were hired to kill him.

        Funny.  He should have marched right in there and did that in the first place, threatened the lead Sage with certain death if he did not give him an answer, and give him one now…but he had decided to be nice, to not start a row that would put him on the bad side of the Deva.  But, in a twist of irony, that was now now going to happen no matter what.  He could have had what he needed without all this wasted time, and it might not have left the Sage’s Council a pillar of fire behind him.

        Goddess, he was getting soft in his old age.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    4      6

Chapter 5

        The Happy Hunting Grounds were anything but that.

        Tarrin had learned almost immediately that that name, though not the true name of this plane, was a deceptive misnomer.

        All the animals in this pristine woodland paradise were not targets for a happy hunt.  All of them, every single one, were larger, stronger, and smarter than the animals they resembled.  Most of them could communicate in sentient languages, and some of them were sufficiently intelligent to use magic.  These animals were extremely dangerous, a lesson Tarrin had learned within minutes of arriving within the plane, with a pack of Deva hot on Fury’s tail.

        Fury.  Things would have gone much smoother had he sent her to Pyrosia sooner.  After arriving in the Beastlands, all the animals of this place, sensing her presence within the plane, immediately moved to attack her.  Tarrin had had his Firewing land and go into the forest to hide from the twenty Deva that had followed them through the portal and had been searching for them, and that just played right into the hands of the sentient animal denizens.  The pair had found themselves besieged by a small army of furious animals, some of them throwing spells at the pair.  It had taken quite a bit of work, and not a few messy fatalities, to force them to back off…but the commotion had attracted the attention of the Deva, and they had intercepted Tarrin before he could escape.

        The shimmering crystal medallion secured by a platinum chain wrapped around his wrist was a clear testament to the outcome of that short, ugly fight.

        Taking the amulet of a Deva had been…terrifying.  Reaching into that Deva, he had almost felt like his paw had taken grip on something that could not be pulled through it, and then he felt a sudden massive resistance, as if something had grabbed hold of his paw and was trying to drag him into wherever it was that he had reached.  His arm had sank into the male Deva’s chest all the way up to the shoulder before a panicked reflex had caused him to tear free of whatever had taken hold of him and tear free the prize he had sought.  It was not the same as it had been when he did it to the Demons, and in a way, he should have expected that.  But where he had been reaching into the Abyss to take the soul of a Demon, he had been reaching into a place that no mortal or god had ever been or would ever go when he reached through the Deva and pulled forth its soul.  He had reached into a place that existed beyond rational comprehension, a place outside the multiverse, a place that did not exist.

        Just thinking about it made him look once again, and wonder what had happened in that place, because he had not come out of it unscathed.

        The fur of his right arm, from the tips of his claws to his elbow, was now snowy white.

        Tarrin wasn’t exactly mortal or flesh and blood in a normal sense, so his fur didn’t grow.  But he could control its appearance, and yet this white fur resisted any attempt to change its color.  Not even magic could undo what had been done.  The white fur was permanent, a permanent mark, or scar, the consequence of reaching into a place beyond mortal ken and touching on something not even the gods had any business touching.

        The amulet hanging from his wrist would be the only one he would take if he could manage it, because if he did that again, he might be able to break free, and be pulled in.  And if that happened, he had no idea what would happen to him.

        It did look strange, though.  He put both paws down on the tree limb under him, the ground some hundred spans below, and though for a brief moment that it almost looked like one of Jesmind’s paws had been stuck on his own arm.

        After that ugly fight, where he had stripped one Deva of his soul and killed three others, he had fled with Fury.  They had spent days in a desperate and dangerous game of cat and mouse both with the Deva and with the animal creatures of this plane, and there was nothing he could do to conceal them from their pursuers.  That had been because of Fury.  Her status as an animal native ot Gehenna was like an unholy beacon in this plane, a disharmony in the land that they could all sense, and it kept causing them to come right at them.  He’d lost count of how many animals he’d killed, but he actively avoided fights with the Deva every time they managed to catch up.  He had come to the conclusion that it was going to be impossible to do what he needed to do here so long as Fury remained.

        And so, she was now gone.  Two days ago, he had found enough of a breathing space to memorize the spell he needed to send Fury to Pyrosia, and he had done so.  Fury was now there, with Dolanna and the others, and he had every confidence that they would take very good care of her, and that Fury would be quite content to be among them.  Fury’s safe departure had allowed him to escape from both the Deva and the animals that roamed this plane, and had given him time to rest and recover from his encounter with the Deva.

        He looked at his white right paw again, lifting it off the branch, then he closed his fist and looked at the glittering crystal of the amulet tied to his forearm by a platinum chain, looped through both ends of the medallion and affixed to his arm almost like a bracer..  He kept it tied to his forearm because the crystal made him very uncomfortable if he kept it anywhere else.  It burned in an odd way, even through belt pouches and packs, and it did so in a way that he found painful.  But for some reason, his white-furred right arm felt no discomfort when it touched that amulet, as if the nature of his right arm had been changed when he reached into that place where the Deva’s soul had resided and allowed it to come to no harm when handling the crystal amulet.

        Mother Wynn had hinted that the power he was meddling with would try to change him.  He had managed to take the amulets of the Demons unscathed, but it was apparent that attacking Deva in the same way was an entirely different animal, and he had not gotten through it without their power affecting him in some way.

        Worries for another day, he supposed.

        One worry, one he’d been pondering for a while, was the Solar.  Once he had the location of the One, he would have to tackle one of those mythically powerful beings in order to complete the next step of his plan.  The problem was, quite simply, that he could not match up to a Solar on a direct level.  Solar were staggeringly powerful creatures, possessed of powers and abilities that were just a small step under those of a god.  A Solar could be a god with the power that it had.  His fighting skills and his magic were just not going to be enough to face a Solar, not unless he was very careful.  Add to that the status of a Solar as commanders of hosts of Deva, which they could call upon at any time to help them, and it got very messy very quickly.  Even if he could match a Solar blow for blow, the Solar would simply summon its subordinates to help it if Tarrin proved to be a troublesome adversary.

        What he needed for that Solar…was a plan.

        Staring at his right arm, he realized that all the elements of a successful plan were already out on the field.  All he had to do was set them up properly and then choose the right battleground, and he could get what he needed from the Solar.  It would be dangerous and risky, but the only way he was going to beat a Solar was by going for broke.  Against such a powerful opponent, he had to be bold, daring, and take risks.

        And be ruthless.

        He had an idea of what to do, but he’d have to think about it more, flesh it out, work out the specifics.  But after he managed that, then he had to come up with a plan for dealing with Spyder.  That would be more problematic, because there were some very touchy issues around her.  He still wasn’t sure how he was going to manage Spyder, because the last thing he could do was get into a massive battle with her, but he knew that that was exactly what the Elder Gods were going to order her to do the instant he set foot in Sennadar.  They would order her to fight him, and that was a fight that he did not want.  He had to find a way to get around Spyder without a direct confrontation, or at least figure out a plan to go about minimizing the fighting between them.  He didn’t want to hurt her, and for the Goddess’ sake, he did not want to provoke her into using the kind of power that he knew she possessed.

        Fighting her might be inevitable, but in that fight, he had to be very, very careful to remain in a defensive posture at all times, to stall her, to just stay away from her until he could find a way to either get around her or neutralize her without doing any harm.  Provoking Spyder would be the biggest mistake any being could ever make.  She was one of the most powerful beings in the multiverse, more powerful than even she knew.  There was no way he wanted to face her in her full glory.  He had to do everything in his power to ensure that he did not push her over that threshold.

        He’d be fighting with his paws tied, but he couldn’t see any other way to do it.  Stealth and deception would not work against Spyder, and she wouldn’t disobey if the gods ordered her to try to evict him.

        He’d have to put that particular problem on hold, though.  He had more pressing problems to deal with, such as the three shadows that passed over him.  They were Deva, two males and a female, soaring high over the canopy with their maces and swords in hand, searching for him.  There were hundreds of them out there now, maybe even thousands, and they were all searching for him.  He had no doubt why; his attack on the Deva days ago and the taking of the soul of one of them had incited this massive response.  They were now determined to find him, to take back what he had stolen and most likely kill him.  Where the Demons were terrified of him and would not face him anywhere he was in a position to take their amulets, the Deva were galvanized into response, acting in concert to track him down and deal with him.  It was hard to tell time here because the sun never moved, creating an eternal day, but he was fairly certain that they’d been trying to find him for at least five days.

        He guessed he should have been flattered that they were so determined, and they had brought in more than just the Deva.  Though they were formidable in combat, the Deva—the real Deva and not another type of Aasimon, since all Aasimon were commonly referred to as Deva—didn’t specialize in fighting.  That was the job of the Agathinon, the Warriors of Truth, the militant arm of the Deva, and they were here as well.  The Agathinon didn’t have wings and could not fly, and they were why he was up in the trees.  For every patrol of Deva that passed overhead, a patrol of Agathinon passed on the ground far below, searching for him.  They would have been very hard to avoid if not for the fact that these trees were hundreds of spans tall, and the branches were so thick that he was completely concealed from the ground by branches and foliage as he was from the air.  And since no magic could be used to track, trace, or locate him, it required them to use good old fashioned eyes and ears to find him.  They were the ones that he did not want to get tangled up with.  The Deva were good fighters, strong and intelligent, but the Agathinon were warriors by design.  There were different levels of fighters among the mortals, from the common soldier to the Arakite Legionaire to the Sulasian Ranger to the Wikuni Marine to the Ungardt to the Vendari to the Selani, and the Deva were no different.  A Deva was a strong fighter, but they were much less skilled than the Agathinon, much akin to the Knights among the Deva.  Staying away from the Agathinon was more important than finding a Mortai in the short run.

        Getting into a fight with the Deva had been inevitable, and even necessary.  It was the only way he was going to draw out a Solar and get it in a position where he could get what he needed from it.  His original plan was to escalate the confrontations with them, to keep beating them until they had no choice but to send out a Solar to deal with him, but it was just bad luck that he’d been caught out in the open by the Deva and had been forced to fight.  He hadn’t wanted that, because now it was seriously hampering him.  The Mortai were gigantic beings who floated on the wind, high above the ground, but Tarrin was trapped under the canopy by the searching Deva, forced to peek out here and there when the skies were clear of Deva to look for a Mortai as he travelled in random directions.  If a Deva spotted him, a horde of Agathinon would be on him in moments, and he’d have one serious fight on his paws.

        The only good thing about it all was that the indigenous animals seemed totally oblivious to him now that Fury had been sent to Pyrosia.  Not only did they take no notice of him, they seemed completely unconcerned about him, as if he was just a part of the scenery.  One owl-sized sparrow even landed on his shoulder as if he were a tree branch.  It had startled him, but the animal took no notice of his flinch.  It preened its wing for a moment, then took off again and disappeared into the forest.  The other side of that good fortune was that it seemed that the intelligent animals weren’t telling the Deva where he was, or they’d have come after him already.

        So at least he had one small bit of good luck.

        After making sure they had passed out of sight, he stood up on the branch and poked his head out from the canopy, exposing himself to the view of anything in the air.  He looked around quickly, scanning the blue skies, then dropped back down out of sight after finding the skies empty.  He drifted down among the stronger branches, sturdy limbs that intermeshed a hundred spans above the ground and served him just as well as solid ground served the Agathinon below, providing him with a fast and easy means of getting around, but one that hid him from both those above and those below.  He knelt on the thick branch and then leaned over slightly and looked down, peering through the branches below and to the ground, where six Agathinon, with their blue-white skin, bald heads, and brilliant silver plate mail catching his eyes easily, even as the sound of their muffled clanking carried to his ears.  They seemed to always move about in units of six, five soldiers and a squad leader, who was the one with the gold shoulder guards.  Tarrin crept along the branch on all fours to keep them in sight as they marched below, the six of them scouting the area carefully with their eyes, trying to move quietly judging by the muffled sound of their armor.  Much like any landbound creature, they almost never looked up, and certainly not up enough to see him.

        He came to a stop and watched them march ahead, and they were quickly hidden by the branches of the trees, leaving him alone once more.  He turned and vaulted from one branch to another some ten spans distant, deciding on a path perpendicular to the route of the Agathinon, but not that it really mattered.  The Mortai were high in the sky, and he had no idea where they were or where they went.  There was nothing he could really do but wander around aimlessly—

        Or was there?

        The animals of this place were intelligent.  Though they had been hostile to him before, they were not hostile now, that hostility was only because of Fury.  Since he couldn’t easily find the Mortai, especially not with the Deva chasing him, and the animals of this place were neutral to both him and the Deva, perhaps maybe they knew where the Mortai could be found?

        It certainly had possibilities.  They hadn’t revealed him to the Deva yet, so he guessed that they weren’t going to do so.  This was their native plane, and they might know something about the Mortai that he did not.  Maybe one of them could point him in the right direction.

        Finding an animal certainly was not difficult, as they were everywhere.  Within five minutes, he had found his first potential informant, a squirrel the size of a large dog, but that animal either could not or would not deign to speak with him.  He moved on to try to communicate with an eagle-sized owl and a vulture-sized thrush, and again the animals would not speak to him.  He quieted down and watched as another patrol of Agathinon passed underneath him, laying on the branch and watching them as they marched by.  He slipped up onto his paws and feet and crept along the branch silently and watched them march away, then turned around—

        —and found himself staring at a strange cat-like creature face to face, though the other face was upside down.

        Tarrin was almost impossible to surprise, but this creature had done it.  It was bipedal, almost human in appearance and shape, but his skin was covered in short gray fur, and his face looked more feline than human.  He looked almost exactly like a cat Wikuni, except he had human ears.  He wore a pair of ragged breeches that were black, and Tarrin noticed that this creature had no tail.  He had short black hair that was wild and unkempt, though it was clean, and he moved with a sinuous grace that was much more feline than human.  It was hanging from a branch overhead, secured by claws on hands and feet, dangling over his own branch.

        Tarrin backed up quickly as the creature dropped to his branch, then he rose up on his feet and stared down at the smaller creature, covering over his surprise with a dark scowl.  He too rose up onto his feet and looked up at him with unimpressed eyes.  “They said the Mortal God had come to the Beastlands,” he said in a sibilant voice, almost like a purr.  “It has taken me much time to find you.  You are elusive.”

        “Who are you?” Tarrin demanded.

        He chuckled.  “Were you still the mortal, you would know who I am,” he said simply.  “But since you have lost the song of the Cat, then you would not know.  I am Thraxi, one of the ten Cat Lords, master of cats and embodiment of the spirit of that which is feline.”  He then bowed gracefully.  “And you are Tarrin Kael, the Mortal God, who was once my kinsman, but who now only wears the shape of what he once was.”

        “Cat Lord?  I’ve never heard of you.”

        “I would not expect you to know of my kind,” he said simply, taking a step back and then flopping into a cross-legged seated position on the branch.  “Be seated, if you would, please.”

        Tarrin felt no hostility at all from this creature, so he did as he asked and seated himself, wrapping his tail around his legs to keep it out of trouble.

        “You have nothing to fear from me, Tarrin Kael.  The Cat Lords do not involve themselves in matters that do not concern them, and you do not concern us.  Even if you did, we wouldn’t turn against you, since you are one of us.  That you wear the shape you once possessed in life tells me that you still consider yourself to be Were-cat, and still a part of our brotherhood, even if you’ve lost that part of yourself.  That makes you kin, and the Cat Lords do not harm kin.”

        “Well, that’s good to know,” Tarrin said, and his senses seemed to agree with what this creature was saying.  He felt oddly comfortable with this Thraxi, as if the echo of the mortal in him found an affinity with this being, much as he had had an affinity for Miranda.

        “Ah, so that is why they are so determined to find you,” the creature said, reaching out and pointing at the crystal medallion tied to his right forearm.  “I did not think that possible.  But then again, given who you are, I shouldn’t be surprised.”

        “You seem to know a lot about me,” Tarrin said suspiciously.

        “I know much about you,” he replied easily.  “The Deva have already come to me to ask if you had tried to make contact with me, and after they left, I became curious.  So I made certain inquiries with certain beings, entities, and powers that had knowledge of you.  A cat’s curiosity must be satisfied,” he said with a smile.  “How did you do it?” he asked with eager eyes.

        “Do what?”

        “Take the soul of a Deva,” he answered immediately.  “I thought only the Deva could go Beyond, but obviously that is wrong, for you must have reached into the Beyond in order to take that medallion.”

        Tarrin clasped his right paw into a fist, holding up his arm and looking at it almost unconsciously.  “It…was not pleasant,” he answered truthfully.  “It did this to me.”

        “To reach into a place that does not exist and expect it not to leave its mark on you is foolish,” he said sagely.

        Tarrin ignored that.  “Why would they think I’d seek you out?”

        “I am a Cat Lord,” he said simply.  “They seemed to think that you would search me out to gather information from me.  You see, they know you came here for a reason, but they don’t know what it is.  They were hoping to find your reason for coming here and use it to try to find you.”

        “That was a good tactic,” Tarrin noted aloud after thinking about it a moment.

        “Yes, the Deva are not fools,” Thraxi agreed.  “Would you care to dine with me and my mate later?  Arami would be overjoyed to meet you.”

        “I’m sorry, but I’m a little busy right now.  And besides, I don’t think you’d want the Deva to invite themselves.  If they’ve talked to you, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were keeping an eye on you.”

        “Oh they’re trying,” he said with a sly smile.  “They’re not doing very well, but they are trying.”

        The impish look on his face made him laugh in spite of himself.  “I’m surprised you’d want to talk to me, if you knew anything about what’s going on.”

        “Oh, I’ve heard.  Blew up a building in Crossroads, rightly infuriated the Deva, and now you’ve attacked them and taken something that they value more than life itself.”

        “What?”

        “That, of course,” he said, pointing at the medallion.  “Destroying a Deva simply banishes them back to where they came from, that’s all.  They’re truly unkillable, because their souls are said to exist in that place where the God of Gods resides, a place that does not exist.  As you know, the only way to truly kill a being of the Upper World is to kill them in their home plane, but you can’t get to the home plane of the Deva.  But you, you sly one, you attacked them in a way that does cause them permanent harm.  You’ve taken one of their number hostage, and now they’ll tear the multiverse apart to find you and get him back.”

        “Ah, that does explain why they’re so determined,” Tarrin mused, looking down at the ground.  “I just thought it was because I was forced into a fight with some Deva and killed a few of them.”

        “Killing a Deva doesn’t really do anything,” Thraxi shrugged.  “He’ll just be back in one hundred years.  But the one trapped in that medallion certainly won’t be back.  Not unless the other Deva can take it from you and return it to that place where their souls are.  And now they’re trying to save one of their own, and that makes them very determined.  The one thing you cannot fault the Deva over is their loyalty.  They have lost a brother, and now they will do whatever it takes to recover him.”

        Tarrin was quiet a moment.  In that moment, he had an epiphany of clarity, and understood in that moment exactly how he could use that information to his advantage.

        “I’m surprised you’re taking it so easily, Thraxi,” he said.  “I was told that if I ever attacked the Deva in this manner, then just about everyone would come after me as an enemy, not just the Deva.  It certainly doesn’t seem to bother you what I’ve done.”

        “It doesn’t really personally concern me, Tarrin Kael,” he shrugged.  “How you treat me matters to me much more than how you treat others.  You have been honest and polite, and so I will treat you the same.  We are not enemies, and that is all that really concerns me.  Your relations to others are irrelevant.”

        That certainly fit into a trait he would expect from a being that was part cat.  Cats were very selfish.  “Well, since you’re here, I guess I should do what the Deva thought I was doing,” Tarrin said to him.  “I wasn’t really planning on it, but you might be able to help me take care of my business here and be on my way.”

        “What do you need, kinsman?” he asked.

        “Just simple information,” he answered.  “I have a question that needs to be answered, and I’ve been told that there’s only one being that can give me the answer.”

        Thraxi’s eyes brightened.  “You come seeking a Mortai!” he exclaimed.

        He nodded.  “That’s why I’m here.”

        “That is what the Deva suspect, since you had been so involved with the Sages of Crossroads, but they didn’t know for sure.  They didn’t know if you’d found your answer and was here acting on it, or you were here seeking an answer to the question the Sages could not answer.”  He scratched at his hair vigorously for a moment.  “Well, my kinsman, you’re in the wrong plane to find a Mortai.”

        “But, I was told they only live here in the Beastlands,” Tarrin said.

        “Yes, but not in the Realm of Day,” he answered.  “They prefer the Realm of Sunset.  You might sometimes see a Mortai here in the Realm of Day, but only once in a great while.  If you want to find a Mortai quickly, then you need to go to the Realm of Sunset.  Here,” he said, pointing off to Tarrin’s left and slightly behind him.  “About two day’s travel in that direction, you’ll find a very large, old tree that has a hollow in its bole.  That hollow is a boundary between the Realm of Day and the Realm of Sunset.  Go into it, and you will come out of a similar tree in the Realm of Sunset.  If you get lost, simply ask any animals you encounter for directions, and they’ll get you back on the right track.”

        Tarrin turned to face that direction, and then looked back at the Cat Lord.  “Two days’ travel, you say?  On foot or in the trees or by flying?”

        “In the trees,” he answered.  “I rarely drop the forest floor.  It’s much more fun up here,” he smiled.

        “So, about forty longspans or so?”

        “If I knew that measurement, I could answer,” he said with a shrug.

        “You look pretty healthy, so let’s go with fifty,” he said, rising to his feet and reaching into a belt pounch, and withdrawing a pinch of powdered iron.  He chanted the words of Arcane magic, the discordant language of the Wizards, speaking the words of a rather simple spell.  He spoke the Sulasian words for fifty longspans at the completion of his spell, and then tossed the powdered iron into the air.  It shimmered for an instant, and then vanished.  As soon as it did so, Tarrin had an innate sense of direction that would always point him to the spot he had named in the spell, and that spot was fifty longspans in the direction he faced when casting the spell.

        “You know Wizard magic, eh?” Thraxi stated, then he laughed.  “You are certainly full of surprises.”

        “Thank you, and thank you for the information, Thraxi.  You’ve helped me a great deal, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave you now.  The business I’m here to deal with is very important, and I need to complete it as quickly as I can.  Now that I have a solid lead on where to go next, I need to get there quickly, before the Deva can figure out what I’m doing and try to cut me off.”

        “Oh, I understand, Tarrin of the Were-cats.  I wish you good fortune on your journey, and may your business be concluded to your satisfaction.”

        “I’ll take all the blessings I can get, Thraxi,” Tarrin said seriously.  “I think I’m going to need them.”

        Thraxi’s laughter followed Tarrin as he made his way towards his magically targeted point, vaulting from branch to branch, leaving the Cat lord behind him…but he was hearing faint rustling in the branches ahead and to the sides.  He was about to slow to a stop and investigate, but he heard a startled curse from behind him.  It was Thraxi’s voice he heard, which made him turn around and vault onto a higher branch, which gave him a view back in that direction through a void in the canopy.

        Thraxi the Cat Lord was vaulting through the branches with an Agathinon hot on his heels.

        Tarrin resisted the impulse to surge forward to assist, but he saw quickly that Thraxi needed no assistance.  The Agathinon, too encumbered by his plate armor to follow physically, was instead teleporting from branch to branch to try to get in front of the Cat Lord, his sword and shield at the ready.  But Thraxi followed no predictable path, turning, dropping, and rising in the branches at whim, making it almost impossible for the blue-eyed warrior Deva to predict his movements.  Thraxi always seemed to be where the Agathinon didn’t think he would be, forcing him to vanish from one place and appear in another, only to find that he had guessed incorrectly again.  Thraxi evaded a sudden swipe of a sword as two more Agathinon appeared near where he landed and attacked him, floated between two branches, landed on a particularly thick branch, put his hands and feet on it, and then he simply wavered and vanished.  Having tired of the game, Thraxi seemed to have taken his leave of them in a manner in which they could not follow.

        Tarrin saw all three of those Agathinon immediately look right at where he was lurking within the foliage, and he knew then that he’d been discovered.

        Turning and vaulting, Tarrin put almost twenty spans of air between him and the branch he’d been on, even as his mind feverishly considered all options.  Landing and fighting them on the ground would give them the advantage; he was better of fighting them up here, in the trees, where his superior agility and their armor would combine to give him a tremendous advantage.  However, Tarrin’s inclination for large weapons worked against him in this situation; this was not a battlefield where a staff or glaive or trident were going to be effective.  The long weapons would snarl on the surrounding branches.  That left him only two options…fight unarmed, or battle them using something small and lethal, like his Cat’s Claws.

        As much as that idea appealed to him at the moment, he knew that it wasn’t an option.  They’d be perfect for this kind of combat, but they were objects of Sorcery, and not only was he not sure they would even work out here in the outer planes, they were artifacts of the Goddess that would be tracked back to her, and might get her in trouble if items of her creation were being used to slaughter Deva.  Sorcery did not function here, and he was fuzzy on the possibility that objects created by Sorcery and utilizing Sorcery would work outside of the prime material plane.

        But perhaps, there was a happy medium there.  Tarrin didn’t need the Cat’s Claws themselves, but he did need one of the aspects of them that he had come to be quite proficient in using over the years.

        Hooking a branch and pulling himself up, he immediately began chanting in the language of magic, casting a spell that would allow him to cast the next spell without the need of a material component.  While his ears kept track of the sound around him, as Agathinon used their innate power to teleport to shift their positions around him to try to find him, using his voice to try to locate him, he then cast the spell of Vocarate, which would allow him to cast five spells without the need to speak, only using somatic gestures and pure will.  He dropped almost fifty spans in matter of seconds, using the branches around him to selectively break his fall to keep himself from going too fast, then landed lightly on a paw, foot, and knee on a particularly thick and heavy branch as wide as a wagon track, still nearly a hundred spans off the ground.  The sounds around him distanced themselves quickly after he fell from that height, as they stopped to try to find the sound of his voice and use it to lead them to him.

        The instant he was stable, he was on his feet and casting another spell, his paws making a fast series of exacting movements before him.  Casting spells using Vocarate required him to perform the somatics of a spell twice, once and then once again, causing it to take longer, but at least his voice was not giving away his position.  He again cast the spell that freed him of the need to use a material component for his next spell, and then began casting that spell immediately.  Tarrin removed two small rubies from his belt pouch and set them on the branch before him, and then cast the spell; though the spell required no component to cast, this particular spell did require the presence of gemstones…using the Materialis spell only freed him of the need to use a pinch of diamond dust, that he did not have.  He cast the spell, a spell known as Polymorph.  It was a spell that transformed one object into another object, within certain conditions.  A material couldn’t be changed outside its kingdom of existence, but could become almost anything within that same kingdom.  A rock could not be changed into a fish, since one was a mineral and the other an animal, but a rock could be changed into a diamond, or steel, or into another kind of rock.  Tarrin needed the gems because he intended to transform a mineral, and it required him to use a mineral.  It was a more limited Wizard version of a Sorcerer’s ability to Transmute, though Tarrin knew that there were much more powerful versions of the Polymorph spell in his spellbook.  He just didn’t have them memorized.

        He performed the last gesture of the second set of somatics, which completed the spell, and the two rubies on the branch before him shimmered, and then began to glow with a bright light.  The light flared suddenly, and then it waned into extinction.  Where before there had been two rubies, now there were two plain bracers, made of a sleek black metal.  Tarrin quickly reached down and picked them up, removed the amulet of the Deva’s soul from his wrist, and slid the bracers over his paws.  He then cast a simple spell to change their size, causing them to fit snugly.  The bracers weren’t solid, they were elegant twists and loops of pure Adamantite, forming a crosshatched spiral pattern that ran from the bottom of each bracer to the top, with a large circular hole in each one.  He took the amulet of the Deva in his left paw, sucking his breath in at the touch of it in his unaltered paw, and affixed it to his right bracer.  The amulet locked into the hole Tarrin had purposefully left for it perfectly.  The hole on the other bracer wasn’t entirely planned, for in his haste he had made both bracers identical, but the hole would serve a purpose nonetheless.  Tarrin fished the soul amulet of  one of the Demons he had killed out of his belt pouch and snapped it into place in the second bracer, more to fill the hole than anything else.

        That left only a weapon.  He didn’t want to fight armored foes with his claws, especially not foes like Agathinon, but he had few options available to him.  His first impulse was to call upon the sword Jenna made for him, but that sword was now in the possession of his shadow.  It would have been perfect, given that the original weapon, unaltered, would have been the perfect length.  He thought about using Wizard magic to take the sword of a former enemy, like Jegojah or Stragos Bane, but he wasn’t sure if the spell would pull that off.  He had touched those swords, but they were not his, and it had been a long time ago.  He couldn’t call on the Goddess or Jenna for help either, to find him something suitable.  That left him being creative, or being forced to use weapons not suited for the environment.  Maybe—

        —no, there was another option.  He couldn’t use magic to summon a powerful weapon to him, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t have the ability to create a suitable weapon on the spot, a weapon that, being a creation of magic, would carry within it the innate power to harm a Deva.  He pulled out two more gemstones, a topaz and an amethyst, and again cast the spell of Polymorph, using up the last casting of his Vocarate spell.  He performed the somatics of the spell, and then repeated them to satisfy the demands of both the Polymorph and Vocarate spells, and then watched as the two gemstones flared with sudden light.

        The light brightened and elongated, then flashed brilliantly, and then faded away.  In its wake two weapons exactly like his old sword appeared, smaller weapons meant for one paw only, both perfect duplicates of that sword.  They were black metal blades, Adamantite, and as sharp as they could possibly be.  But unlike his sword, these were more decorative.  The hilts and crosspieces were like the sword Jenna gave him, appearing to be dragons, with the blades extending out of maws that seemed to bite the blades.  These were of a size similar to the weapons Tsukatta used, weapons he called katana, though these weapons that Tarrin would use in one paw would be two-handed weapons for a smaller creature.  These weapons had wirebound grips rather than leather, for Tarrin couldn’t create leather using the spell, but that was a small price to pay.  The weapons were literally tailor made just for him.  They were light, almost unbreakable, and so sharp that the edges could not even be touched without drawing blood.  They were not powerful magic weapons, but they were weapons created with properties that made them just as good.

        They would work just fine.

        Tarrin ran to the edge of the branch and vaulted high into the air, dancing among the branches with grace despite the fact that his paws were holding the swords, racing up and over and around branches, ghosting through clumps of leaves without making a whisper of sound.  He could hear no fewer than seven Agathinon up in the branches, moving in random directions above and below him.  He jumped up onto a heavy branch and skidded to a halt when an Agathinon wavered into being directly in front of him.  The creature was tall and thin, with angled, almond shaped eyes that glowed with a soft bluish light, though he appeared to be human in all other ways.  He wore plate armor that was burnished to a silvery sheen, gleaming in the dappled sunlight that managed to reach them through the foliage above, and he wielded a double-edged longsword and a circular shield with a sunburst design etched into the metal surface.

        Surrender what you have stolen, the creature’s voice echoed in his mind a mental voice full of outrage and determination.

        Tarrin held up his white-furred right arm, displaying the crystal medallion locked within the Adamantite bracer defiantly, his eyes narrow and his expression utterly emotionless.  “Come and take it.”

        So be it, the Deva stated, and it raised its weapon and rushed forward without hesitation.  It brought its sword up to swing at him, a testing blow that any seasoned warrior would use at the initial engagement of combat, but it almost fell off the branch trying to stop itself when, instead of trying to evade the attack or parry with his sword, Tarrin instead presented that amulet-bearing bracer to the Agathinon’s sword.  Tarrin wasted no time taking advantage of the Agathinon’s sudden reversal by slashing at its neck with his weapon.

        The weapon did not penetrate the Agathinon’s skin.  The latent magic left over from the creation of the sword was not enough to allow it to do harm to the Deva.

        However, much like his battles with the Cambisi years ago, Tarrin saw that the swords did lend themselves certain simple unavoidable charactersitics that the Agathinon could not resist, such as physics.  The raw power behind the blow, delivered at a downward angle against an off balance opponent, sent the Agathinon flying off the branch and spiralling towards the ground some distance below.  Though the Agathinon’s sword could not in any way damage or destroy the crystalline amulet embedded in the bracer, the creature nonetheless did not even want to risk it in any way, and Tarrin had exploited that protective bent.

        But that was only one Agathinon of many, and Tarrin knew that the Deva were telepathic and could teleport, so that meant that any second now there was going to be a swarm of them converging on his position, and he was armed with weapons that could only be used in defense until he could find the time to imbue them with magical power.  He vaulted up twenty spans to another branch, even as several armored Agathinon appeared on the branch he had just vacated.  They looked up almost in unison at the sound of the shuddering branch above, and Tarrin saw two of them appear in front of him, weapons raised, one behind the other.  He ducked under the heavy blow of a thick-bladed sword and slammed his fist into the Deva’s stomach, then drove him forward and into his companion.  He knew that he couldn’t remain vertical for more than a second, and pushed off the Deva even as he lunged downward.  The whoosh of air over his head told him everything he needed to know, as an Agathinon had teleported in behind him and had tried to decapitate him with his broadsword.  Tarrin’s tail lashed out and swiped the feet out from under his surprise attacker as the two in front of him stumbled backwards, missed the narrowing branch, and then toppled over.  The one behind slammed into the branch on his side, and his lower half slid off the branch.  He let go of his weapon and scrabbled to hold onto the branch, clawing at the bark, but Tarrin’s tail reared up and then slammed down into his face, breaking his nose and dislodging him from his tenuous grip.  He too fell towards the branches below, but another Agathinon simply appeared in his place, his sword and shield held at the ready.  Tarrin had to twist aside to avoid being skewered, and then again, and then he gasped and rolled aside as another Agathinon popped into being just over his head and tried to stab him through the eye.  Tarrin rolled over the edge of the branch, and both Agathinon lunged towards where he was falling, most likely to report to their comrades where he was going.  He rolled off and into empty air, but then he vanished to the eyes of the Agathinon.

        They never saw it coming.  Tarrin’s tail had hooked the narrow branch, and he swung around the bottom of the branch, twisted, then came back up and around the other side.  He didn’t have enough momentum to get back onto the branch, so he planted both swords into the narrow branch, which caused it to shudder.  The Deva seemed to understand that something was wrong and started to whirl around to look behind them, but it was too late.  Using the two swords as anchors, Tarrin used his arms to power up, brought his legs out and around as his entire body invested into his legs a broad sweeping circular motion.  He let go of one sword and swung far out to the side as the nearer of the two Agathinon registered that he hadn’t fallen down to the branches below, but it was too late for him now, for he didn’t fathom what Tarrin was doing.  His legs arced out and then back in with a powerful circular rotation, and his shin made punishing contact with the closer Deva right in the side, striking with so much force that it dented his steel breastplate.  The Agathinon was sent flying into his companion, and their momentum carried them far out, blasting them off the branch and sending them hurtling out into empty space.  Tarrin landed in a kneeling position on the narrow branch, pausing only to pull his swords free of the branch and preparing to vault up and away from his current position, but yet more Agathinon appeared, one in front and one behind.  Tarrin slithered aside even as rose to his feet as the Agathinon behind tried to impale him, then parried aside the sword blow of the one in front of him with his sword.  His legs bunched and then flexed, and the two Agathinon watched as he soared straight up and over their heads, arms down and holding his swords out and to the sides, pointed down.  His target was a thicker, heavier branch some fifteen spans over them, which ran perpendicular to the branch upon which they were standing.  The two Agathinon wavered and vanished, then appeared on the branch above, then turned to intercept the Were-cat on his ascent.

        He never arrived.

        Under the branch, Tarrin rotated in midair and then struck his feet into the base, driving his claws into the wood.  Thrusting both swords through his belt behind him in a quick motion, he hung upside down on the branch as he heard the two Agathinon above him moving on the branch, looking over both sides, trying to figure out where he went.  He powered himself up to where he could get his paws into contact with the branch, and then hung there on the underside of the branch by his claws as the Agathinon seemed to be searching for him.  When he heard them change positions, moving to get a better vantage point, Tarrin turned and scrabbled along the underside of the branch towards the trunk, faster than a human could run, but making almost no sound, only the faint skritch-skritch of his claws digging into the bark.  He reached the trunk, then climbed around to the far side of the trunk, away from the Deva, and then rushed upwards by literally jumping up the length of the trunk in surging springs, sending small bits and shavings of bark drifting to the ground far below with each lunge upwards.  He wanted to be much higher, up where the branches were smaller and thinner, where a heavily armored Agathinon was going to have serious trouble moving, if his weight didn’t break the branches first.

        A flash of light to his left was the only warning he got.  He pushed off from the trunk with all his might, and he saw a small swarm of small fiery darts of magical power rushing towards where he had been.  The seven magical missles turned effortlessly, homing in on him with unerring accuracy.  “Khizu Shodai!” Tarrin commanded in the language of Arcane magic, which caused a glimmering shield of magical energy to appear in front of his outstretched paws, which his legs penetrated.  He curled in his legs as those magic missles streaked towards him, and then struck his magical shield, splaying angry reddish-orange light across its shimmering blue surface.  The missles struck the shield in rapid succession but did not penetrate, instead flattening themselves against the shield before vanishing..  That spell of shielding had been specifically created to counter the Magic Missle spell, a spell which created fiery darts of magical power that never missed their target.  Tarrin laid out and rotated in the air, selected an appropriate branch, and then hooked it with his claws as he went past.  He altered his downward trajectory into a horizontal one, then tucked and somersaulted, and then landed lightly on a branch not far below where he had been.

        That spell required line of sight, so a Deva had to be able to see him, and that could only mean that any second now he was going to be confronted by an Agathinon.  Tarrin quickly pulled the swords into his paws and turned sideways on the branch so the Deva could not teleport behind him without teleporting out into empty air.  The Agathinon appeared to his right, between him and the trunk, his sabre and shield ready.  Sparks flew as Tarrin fenced with the Agathinon for a brief moment, the sparks testament to the fury of the clash.  This Agathinon was very fast, faster than the others, and he wielded his sabre with exacting precision and confidence.  Tarrin’s katana weaved complex patterns in the air before him as he worked against the Deva’s single weapon and shield, each weapon moving in harmonious symbiosis with its mate as the Were-cat fended off the Deva’s skillful attack, his sabre slicing curious and effective angles designed to knock Tarrin off balance and leave him open to taking an impact from the front of the Deva’s shield.  This Deva understood that a shield was not just a defensive tool, it was also a weapon, and this one was trying to use his shield to knock Tarrin off the branch, no doubt into the waiting clutches of many Agathinon who had appeared on the branches below to take advantage of his plummet, or to deny him any chance to land safely on any branch below him.  But Tarrin’s Ungardt training was still the foundation of his style, and that style caused him to attack his opponent’s shield instead of his weapon, to batter it down, damage it, and also force the adversary to work while moving that shield around.  Shields weighed much more than swords, and working the shield would tire out his opponent even as his relentless assault against it would weaken the shield itself.

        The Deva seemed taken aback when Tarrin went after his shield, seeming to play right into his hands.  But when he tried to slam the shield into his opponent, the Deva was shocked when the Were-cat simply melted away, despite the fact that the branch was so narrow that neither of them could move to the sides.  Tarrin’s katana slashed into the shield a multitude of times as the Deva tried to withdraw his shield, battering at it and pushing the Deva back.  The Deva was even more shocked when the Were-cat suddenly vanished from in front of him, only the glimpse of a tail rising up and out of sight.  The Deva looked up to see the Were-cat in the air, spinning lazily in the air while in a layout position, and spinning away from the Deva.  The Agathinon moved to rush forward, but another Agathinon appeared on the branch before him, which would have been behind the Were-cat, and in that moment the Agathinon realized that the Were-cat would not have enough momentum to get behind the Agathinon that had just teleported onto the branch.

        The Agathinon who had just appeared suddenly buckled as Tarrin landed on top of him, a foot on each shoulder, as the Were-cat’s entire body seemed to hunch over that perch, until his elbows were on either side of the Agathinon’s helmet.  Those elbows suddenly cinched that helmet and wrenched it, twisting it askew and causing the metal helm to cover the eyes of the Deva, blinding him.  The sabre-wielding Agathinon drew himself up short from his forward surge as the Were-cat slid his legs down the breastplate of the Agathinon on which he had landed, then he spun backwards and out of sight, only his shins and feet visible.  It confused the Agathinon for just a split second, but by then it was too late to warn his companion or react.  Those shins suddenly crossed over the victim’s breastplate as the Were-cat’s paws appeared behind and between the legs of the Agathinon, sword-holding fists punching in to give him traction, and then his entire body flexed.  The Agathinon was suddenly yanked from being bowed forward to being whipped backwards in an arc that would carry him downwards.  Instead of letting go and throwing his victim, the Were-cat kept his legs locked around the chest of his victim, carrying him in a powerful, swift arc.

        The Agathinon in Tarrin’s clutches impacted the branch head first, caught in the scissors of Tarrin’s legs, and the Were-cat had used every ounce of his power to make that impact as punishing as possible.  There was a loud clang as the Deva’s head slammed into the branch, causing its entire length to shudder violently as the Deva’s body collapsed around his head.  His body literally bounced off the branch, but Tarrin’s legs released him even as he was carried into the air along with the Deva’s body.  He twisted in the air and landed on a foot, knee, and fist as his victim’s body spun wildly off to the side, and then dropped down and out of sight, only the occasional loud clang reaching them to inform them that the body was bouncing off the branches below on its trip to the ground.

        The sabre-wielding Agathinon was so taken aback by this bizarre tactic that he almost missed the Were-cat lunging at him from that kneeling position so quickly that it seemed impossible.  The air between Tarrin and the Agathinon was a blur of black metal, steel, and sparks as the Deva furiously worked to keep those swords away from him, as they continued to cut into, nick, bite, and otherwise batter the Deva’s shield with almost obsessive determination.  But the instant the Deva tried to pull back his shield and parry, those swords would seek out his head or neck, forcing him to continue to sacrifice the integrity of his shield, not even giving him an instant to recover from his defensive posture and regain any kind of footing against the Were-cat.  Tarrin had already figured out that these Agathinon had no idea that his swords couldn’t hurt them, so they were acting as if they could.  Usually that was the best course of action.  But in this case, Tarrin didn’t want to connect with a Deva in a way that would allow them to see it and understand that his weapons could do no harm, it would rob him of an important advantage.  The one he had hit before had been struck from behind, and the Agathinon he’d struck wouldn’t have been able to really tell the difference between the blade and Tarrin’s paw or arm, not when one was hit that hard.

        Again, Tarrin sensed that this would be the perfect time for another Deva to appear behind him and try to take advantage of his focus on the one before him, and he reacted.  He hopped back just a tiny bit even as an Agathinon appeared behind him, but he was so close to the Agathinon that there was barely a finger’s width between the Agathinon’s breastplate and Tarrin’s back.  The Agathinon staggered backwards when his vision was filled with nothing but Tarrin’s braid, and that move proved to be foolish.  Tarrin lifted one foot, tilted his hips, then raised one paw as he lowered the other to counter his momentum as he performed a standing split-kick.  Tarrin’s foot claws punched in under the Agathinon’s helmet, snapping his head backwards with so much force that it would have ripped the head right off a human had he been kicked in that manner.  Glittering red blood flew in a high arc from the Agathinon’s chin and throat as he was picked up off the branch by the impact, but a foot that when straightened out was nearly two spans over the Agathinon’s head.  That Agathinon sailed backwards in a lazy arc, then slammed into the branch nearly ten spans behind Tarrin, landing on his shoulder.  He flopped over onto his back, bounced off the branch, then slid over the side and disappeared into the gulf below.

        The Deva before him seemed startled, and in that split second of inaction, Tarrin struck, he struck in the only manner he had available to him to permanently take these Agathinon out of action, he struck completely out of reflex, before he even thought about what he was doing.  Tarrin’s right paw released the sword, causing it to spin out of his grip, and he lanced forward.  The Agathinon tried to move to defend himself, but that split second of surprise was a fatal delay.  Tarrin’s paw lashed in between the Agathinon’s shield and sword, struck his breastplate, and then penetrated into him.  Tarrin’s paw drove into the Deva, and then reached through him, beyond him, reaching through the dimensions and reaching into that place where the Agathinon’s soul was kept.

        Again, he felt…the power.  His paw grabbed hold of what he sought, and it was like grabbing hold of pure energy, of solid fire, and caused intense tingles to coarse up his arm, and caused him physical pain.   But Tarrin was committed now, and there was only one thing to do.  He took a firm grip on the shuddering Agathinon’s soul, put a foot on his hip, and then pulled with all his might.  Again, he felt that powerful resistance, a sudden counterforce that grabbed his paw and wrist and pulled back, tried to pull him into the Deva’s body  The Deva’s sabre fell from a nerveless grip and feebly tried to grab the arm driven into him to prevent him from completing the grisly task, his glowing eyes wide with shock and fear, staring at him with mute supplication, almost pleading.  In that moment, with his arm in that place where the Deva dwelled, he could almost hear a sudden cacophony of sound that was not sound, a resounding chorus of agony and dismay, as if thousands of voices rose up in unison and cried out in fear, in pain, and in anger.  Tarrin felt that cry pierce his soul, and it filled with him with sudden nameless dread, so powerful that it chilled his very soul.

        With strength born of desperation, Tarrin tore his arm free of the Deva, but it did not come out empty.  A glimmering crystal amulet was clenched in the bloody paw, blood that turned to fine red dust and fell away from him even as the body before him seemed to shudder, fell to its knees, and then crumbled in on itself and decayed away to dust within the span of three heartbeats.

        Tarrin had to resist a sudden panic.  Such power!  And such fury!  In that moment he had heard the telepathic communion of the Deva, and they had felt the pain of their companion as Tarrin had ripped out his soul!  The act of it left him suddenly weak and dizzy, as the strength he had been forced to exert to pull the amulet through bled away from him, causing him to sink to one knee.  It would have been the perfect opportunity for the Deva to strike, but they too were momentarily stunned, for they had felt he pain of their brother, they had felt what it was like to have one’s soul torn away, and it was not something from which any of them could quickly recover.

        Shaking it off, he slowly stood up, as a sudden wind rustled the leaves above and below and pulled at his braid and tail.  He held the amulet before him, looking down at the starburst design, and could only feel…cold.  He had touched on the power beyond all comprehension, and though is still throbbed throug his arm, the touch of it, the feel, was both exhilerating and terrifying.  The power echoing through his arm made the rest of him feel cold.  Without much thought, he beckoned to the sword he had cast aside, and it rose up from the abyss below and into his waiting paw, a paw already holding the amulet.  He had nowhere to put the amulet, and he couldn’t hold it anywhere but in his right paw, so he set down his other sword, gritted his teeth, and took the amulet in his left paw.  It burned his paw, driving shooting pains up his arm, set both of them down, and then cast a fast spell, making four precise gestures.  The amulet then shrank visibly, becoming smaller and smaller, until it was the size of a gold noble.  He picked it up and then the sword, pressed the amulet against the base of the blade, and then cast another spell, a spell which made the metal of the sword tractable.  He pushed the amulet into the metal until it was snugly secured, then ended the spell, which caused the sword’s metal to become impervious once again.  With the amulet embedded in the blade, it put the amulet in something that he could touch with either paw, and something he could quickly and easily discard if he found a desperate need to distract the Deva.  He was fairly certain that if he threw the sword away, they would go after the sword and not him.

        He had wasted too much time, so caught up in the need to put the amulet somewhere that he had ignored an obvious need to move.  If he had shaken off the effect of what he had done, then the other Deva must have begun to recover as well, and they would be coming after him.  He had to move, to change positions and get out of sight before that spellcaster realized that he had a clear view of him and could cast spells without endangering any of the others.  He turned and bolted down the branch, then vaulted twenty spans over a gulf to set a foot on a branch running sideways, then pushed off and soared throgh thirty spans of empty air to land on the very tip of a narrow branch that descended sharply down with numerous smaller branches jutting from it at odd angles.  He navigated that branch expertly and then jumped up to another branch, pushed off the side, then landed on a branch on the far side of the trunk he had just circumnavigated.  He didn’t miss a step when he saw an Agathinon in front of him, hunched over on a wide but short branch, breathing heavily as he tried to recover from the pain of being telepathically linked to the one that had had his soul stripped from him.  The Agathinon whipped his head up to look at Tarrin, and there was twisted on his face a look of utter rage.  He took one look at the sword, with the crystal amulet affixed to the base of the blade, and he stood up and brandished his heavy spiked mace and shield.

        “Come on,” Tarrin hissed, his eyes flaring with the unholy greenish aura that marked his anger, ears laying back as he held his swords out and low, an extension of his usual slouching fighting stance.  “I still have one more sword that needs decorating.”

        The sounds of weapons clashing marred the sound of the wind through the leaves as the infuriated Agathinon launched himself at Tarrin with almost suicidal furor.  Tarrin turned aside the spiked mace with his swords again and again and again, taking a few steps back to absorb the full impact of the Deva’s charge, his clawed feet navigating the uneven branch with light deftness.  The Agathinon pressed with frenzied eyes, his spiked mace trying to rip Tarrin’s face off with every blow, leaving himself almost enticingly open to Tarrin’s swords…but those were openings he could not exploit, lest the fact that his weapons could do no harm to the Deva become known.  He instead worked on stalling the Deva’s charge with solid defense, strong parries and lightning-fast dodges without giving up any more ground to the Agathinon, until he had the Deva back on his heels instead of on the balls of his feet.  The Deva was pushed back with several strong blows to his shield, threatening to overbalance him and send him careening to one side and off the branch.  He nearly slipped on a knot in the narrow branch as he took a step backwards, but recovered before Tarrin could knock him completely off balance and deliver a kick.

        Something struck him heavily from above and behind, and he cursed inwardly when he realized that more Deva had recovered.  One had appeared over his head instead of behind him, and had landed atop him without any weapons in his hands.  This one grappled with Tarrin, grabbing at his arms and trying to pull them down, to give his companion an opening to use his mace, but it was the hand reaching for the bracer and sword holding Deva amulets that was most frenzied, most desperate, as the Deva struggled to reach the captured souls of his brothers.

        The Deva’s body flinched, and then he fell forward in a cloud of glittering gold as the body of Tarrin Kael beneath simply exploded into a harmless cloud of dust.  He landed heavily on the gnarled branch, his shoulders slid over the side, and then he toppled head over heels over the side of the branch.  The mace-wielding Deva looked at the cloud of dust in mute shock, so much so that he didn’t sense or see the looming shadow that rose up behind him.  He was twice as surprised when Tarrin Kael’s foot slammed into the back of his head, stunning him and sending him careening forward.  He slammed heavily into the trunk of the massive tree, rebounded, his foot came down on empty air, and then he tumbled off the branch to begin the three hundred span fall to the forest floor below.

        Tarrin glanced over the branch, his expression mildly amused.  “Surprise,” he said softly.

        He sensed movement behind him, and whirled around, swords held ready.  Before him was a blue-skinned humanoid with purple hair tied into a topknot but shaved on the sides, wearing black baggy trousers with a red sash.  He wore an ornate breastplate similar to those of the Agathinon, and he wielded a scimitar and a round steel shield with a sunburst design enamelled upon it.  Tarrin had seen pictures of these beings in Kimmie’s spellbooks, it was a Djinn, a denizen of the Elemental plane of Air.  But this was not a Djinn.  The sense of this creature was holy, just as it was with the Deva…Tarrin wasn’t much of a god, but he had enough divine power to be able to see through this false shape and see the truth within.  This was an Agathinon, utilizing some kind of magic to shapeshift into a form that could defy gravity.

        Surprise, the Deva mirrored, brandishing his scimitar.

        In an instant, Tarrin had lost the advantage.  The airborne Deva, who could float, hover, and dart back and forth, harried Tarrin with his lone scimitar, then would slide back and out of reach any time it was worked out of an offensive position.  Tarrin wasted long moments fighting the floating Deva in a running battle that went all the way down to the end of the branch, as he carefully tested out the Deva’s ability to react, testing his reflexes.  The Deva suddenly backed off, making Tarrin pause for a split second to try to understand this unusual maneuver.  Why back off when he had the advantage?

        He almost lost his head as another Deva roared in, himself wearing the form and shape of Djinn, arcing in out of nowhere and trying to decapitate the Were-cat with his longsword.  Tarrin saw him at the last instant and ducked, then reversed his direction and launched himself off the branch in the wake of the hurtling Deva, using him as a shield.  The Deva lanced down and under the branch, out of sight, and the Deva whom he’d been fighting gaped in astonishment as the Were-cat rose up over the form of the Deva who was flying down, leading not with his swords, but with his feet.  Both feet impacted the Deva squarely in the chest at a downward angle, striking so hard that Tarrin was launched straight up after the impact even as the Deva was slammed downward.  The Deva struck a branch crossways, right across the lower back, bowing around it in an unnatural manner.  Tarrin drove both swords into the branch above him as the Deva slid off the branch below head first, slowly, then somersaulted down into the tangle of branches below, bouncing off them at odd angles on his way down.

        Tarrin didn’t have long to consider things.  Another Deva posing as a Djinn raced in, and it was then that Tarrin understood that they were using magic to take an airborne form, all of them, because fighting him on the branches had proved to be difficult for them.  Tarrin had to curl up and around the branch above him to get out of the path of the Deva’s sabre, then he ducked another Deva, then had to jump clear as a third came at him from yet another angle.

        Too much open space.  They had too much room to fly.  He didn’t even glance, he simply vaulted up, pushed off a branch, then another, then another, rising higher and higher as he vaulted effortlessly from branch to branch, getting higher, where the branches beneath his feet became smaller, shorter, thinner, and their density thickened with every new branch he touched.  At first it was a simple matter of adjusting himself to reach the next branch, but the higher he went, the more branches there were to choose from, and the less room with which to maneuver.  He found himself slithering like a snake through the gaps in the branches as the Deva beneath gave chase, threading themselves through the holes and gaps at a faster speed than that which Tarrin could manage climbing, allowing them to slowly but steadily catch up.

        They caught up to him in a small hollow in the maze of brown, and the Were-cat immediately established that in this area, they had no advantage.  The branches to each side made it difficult for them to simply dart out of reach, for the multitude of branches about allowed the Were-cat to simply chase them as they backed off.  Two of them engaged Tarrin in that small hollow in the branches, and they were quickly put on the defensive.  The Were-cat was a whirlwind of explosive movements, falling on the pair like a Revenant in sight of his quarry, his two swords blurring in the confined space, seeking them out, forcing them to fence desperately to keep them away.  They faced him fearlessly, until he drove his right sword into the branch to his side, released it, and then spread out his fingers of that white-furred paw, claws out, and drove it right towards the torso of the nearer Deva.  That move, that action, caused instant panic in the two Deva, causing the one his paw attacked to hurtle backwards, slamming into several branches, breaking them in his desperate rush to avoid contact with that paw.  The other one, instead of fleeing, charged ahead in a frantic attempt to kill him before he could turn that deadly paw against him, lancing his sword in to stab Tarrin in the side, right under his arm.  Tarrin lunged backwards, his back hitting a crossing branch behind him, and he simply rolled over it as the Deva passed in front of him.  The Deva turned in his trajectory with unnatural agility and drove his sword at the Were-cat in a broad stroke, but Tarrin rolled clear of its arc, his feet coming down on the fork of the branch beneath.  He pushed off from that foundation, the Deva’s legs clearly in his vision as he exploded from under the branch.  The Deva tried to rise up and over the branch to stab him on the other side, but all he saw were the Were-cat’s feet disappearing under the branch.

        Tarrin grabbed hold of the Deva by the foot, and yanked it along as he slid along the branch, turning on the branch and whipping the Deva along with him, slamming him against the branch with stunning force.  Instead of letting go, Tarrin slammed him into a branch beside him as he regained his feet, slammed his head into a branch above them, then grabbed hold of that foot with both paws, spun in a circle, whipped the Deva behind him and then over his head, and then drove him directly towards his companion.  His companion tried to catch him or break his fall, causing him to impact his companion with stunning force.  Both of them were driven out of the cubby in an explosion of shattering branches and twigs, and Tarrin distinctly saw one grab the other, then both vanished in the blink of an eye.

        “Can’t teleport away without taking me with you as long as I have hold of you, can you Deva?” Tarrin asked absently to no one in an unholy voice, grabbing his sword and then climing up into denser and denser foliage, where he had to twist and turn, where there was no room to fight unless one had the agility and suppleness of a Were-cat.  He could see six of the Djinn-transformed Agathinon down under him, looking up, pointing, though they made no sounds.  They were obviously debating how to get at him, or calling on aid from others, or both.  But they didn’t hesitate for long.  In unison, all of them shimmered and blurred, their forms compacted, until he saw himself looking at six red-skinned, horned creatures wielding the weapons the Agathinon had been carrying them shrunk down as well.

        Mephits!  They were denizens of the Elemental planes, minor creatures, but some of them could innately fly, such as the Air and Fire mephits.  Those were Fire mephits, and they were small, quick, and agile.  They were perfect shapes for fighting in the terrain to which Tarrin had moved.

        They moved in a group, showing Tarrin two things.  First, that they were intelligent, very much so.  They knew that it was dangerous, almost suicidal, to try to fight him one on one, not when all he had to do was touch one of them to drive his paw in and try to take their souls.  Secondly, it showed him that they were adapting quickly to his tactics, learning, trying to exploit his decisions.  He still was puzzled over one thing, though.  Aside from one use of a very low-level wizard spell and their use of their ability to teleport, and this new shapechanging trick, they had not tried to use any magic at all.  Why?  Agathinon had innate magical powers, why weren’t they using them?  The only reason Tarrin could think of was that they were still trying to stop him instead of kill him.  They were trying to take the soul amulets he’d taken away from him, and it seemed to him that they were unwilling to escalate the matter beyond a certain point.  They didn’t want to make him furious and cause him to attempt to destroy the amulets, that was the nearest thing he could figure.  They had been trying to ambush him, and the one Deva who had actually managed to get through his defenses had not gone after him, he had instead tried to go after the amulet on his bracer.  And he also realized that they had not yet really tried anything overtly lethal.

        That had to be it.  Ironic, that.  They were in the same fix he was in with his looming fight with Spyder, unwilling to take it past a certain point, and struggling to come up with a way to achieve victory while remaining within the boundaries they had set for themselves.

        Tarrin sucked in his breath, reflexively turning his head to look towards his right.

        No, they’d been waiting.

        Tarrin could feel it even at that great distance, an aura of power.  There was a new Aasimon here, and it was not an Agathinon, or a Deva.  This one was tremendously powerful, so powerful that the divine part of Tarrin’s soul sensed its presence even from a distance.

        It was a Planetar.

        A Planetar, the captains and colonels of the ranks of the Deva.  They were beings of tremendous power, with a stunning array of innate magical abilities, both offensive and defensive, that made them terrifying foes.  They were the middle grade of Aasimon between the Deva and the Solar, field commanders who only appeared when things were seriously wrong.

        For the Deva, this situation classified as seriously wrong.  And so, they had summoned one of the heavy hitters of the Aasimon to help deal with the situation.

        Tarrin gave a slow, inward little smile.  Well, that proved that.  Now he knew that if he aggravated the Deva enough, or posed enough of a threat, they would summon a stronger Deva to assist.

        That was exactly what he wanted to know.  And what was more, now everything he needed to know was in place for the time when he had to go after a Solar.  His plan would work.  He already had the how and where planned, the only issue had been when.  And what he just learned settled the issue of when.  He could tackle a Solar whenever he was ready to undertake that task.

        The Agathinon, in their mephit forms, looked confident as they formed up some distance away, preparing to harry the Were-cat out of his sheltered cubby.  No doubt they already had a plan in place for driving him out into a position where the Planetar could appear and attack, and he had little doubt that the Planetar was not going to be as careful or as meticulous as the Agathinon.  That Planetar was here to fight, and that was exactly what he was going to bring to the table, not this careful, measured, restrained ballyhoo that the Agathinon were trying.

        Now it was time to show them that he had been holding back as well.  He hadn’t even used a fraction of his ability in this little confrontation, testing his ability to face the Deva without his powers, which was going to be important later on.  They had been holding back to protect the amulets of their brethren, but Tarrin had been holding back to ensure he could hold his own against Deva without using his powers.  He had only been forced to fall back on his powers once, and that had been a reflex action.  There were any number of ways he could have extricated that Agathinon off his back without resorting to his divine abilities.

        And now he knew.

        “Ko jzi BAKH zhee!” Tarrin intoned as he stood, then he stomped one foot on the branch, then another, completing the somatics of the Arcane spell.  His legs were suddenly imbued with great power, amplifying his own muscles, and it caused him to launch from the branch beneath him with such force that it splintered the branch at the trunk, breaking it.  Tarrin streaked upwards with his paws, wrists, and swords crossed before him to keep the slashing branches from hitting him in the face.  Tarrin exploded from the green sea of foliage, like an emerald ocean of leaves that rolled like waves in the gentle warm wind, lancing upwards like a crossbow bolt, exposing himself to the view of the twelve winged Deva circling high above the canopy to search him out.  As one, the twelve Deva, six pairs of them, banked and dove towards him, seeking to strike at him before he dropped back down into the foliage and vanished.  Tarrin’s upward momentum slowed, until he hung in midair for that split second where gravity overcame the power of his magically augmented jump.

        Now it was time to demonstrate the other side of the equation to the Deva that would cause the Solar to come to him on ground of his own choosing, at a time of his own choosing.

        In that instant of motionless, Tarrin closed his eyes and focused all his attention, all his willpower, inward.  He became keenly aware of the feel of the Demonic amulet against his left forearm, felt the dark stain of evil that pulsed within it, and he felt the power that it contained.  It was power that was his to command.

        He reached out with his will and touched that power.

        Instantly, he felt the dark taint of the Demon surge into him, try to go immediately into his soul to twist it, to transform him into a Bodak.  However, the taint found in this prey a mind, a will, a force, so strong that it was stopped, turned aside, and then that power grabbed hold of it and commanded it, forced it to listen, demanded it to submit.  The taint of Demon was taken aback at the raw force of will in this abomination, this being that was neither mortal nor god, a force of will so overwhelming that it was subjugated to that will before it could reach the soul.

        With a squeal of fury and fear, the taint of Demon retreated from its attempt to taint Tarrin’s soul and did as it was commanded.  It called upon the innate power of the vrock whose soul Tarrin had stolen, wrapped Tarrin within that power, and then teleported him away.

        And since the Deva could not track him, detect him, or locate him in any way, it meant that there was no way for them to know where he had gone, or even if he was still on the same plane of existence.

        The Deva hurtling towards him saw the Were-cat open his eyes, smile evilly, then simply vanish.  And even from that distance, they knew.  They knew that the Mortal God had somehow commanded the powers of a Demon using the soul amulet he had taken.

        And they knew then that he could do the same with the amulets he had taken from the Deva.

        They realized that now, there was a being lurking in the multiverse that could command the powers of darkness and light, of chaos and law, of good and evil, a being holding in his hands the power of both the Demons and the Deva, and a power that would only grow as he took more and more amulets, gained access to more and more power.

        And in that moment of awful clarity, they knew fear.

        Directly over his marking point, Tarrin Kael wavered into existence, but it was neither a majestic nor triumphant appearance.  His form appeared, and then immediately started plummeting towards the foliage canopy below as his mind swam in pain and shock, as the aftereffects of touching on the corruption of a Demon swam through his mind.  He was only dimly aware that he was falling towards the ground as he struggled to recover his senses, tried to clear the dark evil that tried to take up a residence in his mind.  For a long, torturous moment Tarrin struggled against the taint, until he managed to completely push it free of his mind, push it away from his soul, and regain his faculties enough to understand what was happening to him.

        Wings erupting from his back, his power arrested his fall, slowed him down to where he could pick a thin area of vegetation and slip through.  He ghosted down through the many branches, down hundreds of spans, until his feet made gentle contact with the mossy earth.

        Goddess, what a horrifying sensation!  In the moment he called on the power in the amulet, it opened a window into the mind, body, and soul of a Demon.  In that fleeting instant, it was like he was a Demon, full of dark intent.  It was like worms crawling through his soul, and it was not a sensation he would enjoy repetitively.

        Putting a paw to his head, he banished the last vestiges of the sensation out of his mind, but he was fully aware of the feel that the taint itself was still there, still lurking within him like a toxic shadow.  There was that feeling of lingering corruption, and then there was the burning in his left paw and arm.  He looked down at it, and saw that his paw looked as it always did, with black fur and pads, but the claws of his paw were now blood red, where before they had always been beige.

        Just like sticking his arm into the dimension of the Deva had changed it, touching the evil of a Demon had left a visible mark on him.  He looked at his arm for long moments, turning it to and fro to ensure that the only change was the color of his claws.  He then held up his white-furred arm with its golden claws and compared it.  One touched by the power of ultimate good, the other tainted by the power of ultimate evil.  Just as Mother Wynn had warned, using the power of the amulet had opened himself to that power; even now he could feel the faint stirrings of that darkness inside him, trying to linger, trying to fester, but unable to find any purchase within his body, mind, or soul.

        But, if Mother Wynn was right, he could protect himself from that taint, from becoming a Bodak, by calling on the power of the amulet of a Deva.  By balancing his use of them, he could protect himself from both the taint of the Demons and the purity of the Deva.

        Good and evil, law and chaos, all contained within the left and right arms of a powerless god with a mortal’s mind.  Such were the ironies that summed up the wry sense of humor of existence.

        There were other things to do than stand there and fret over something over which he had no control, and he’d been taught long ago that if you couldn’t do anything about it, leave it be and get on with the things you could do something about.  He couldn’t do anything about the invasion of the powers of the universe into his body, but he could go find a Mortai and find out where the One was hiding.

        And that was exactly what he was going to do.

        It took him only half an hour to track down an animal denizen of this plane, who was both polite and helpful, even taking him to where the boundary between the Realm of Day and the Realm of Twilight was located.  The dog-sized rabbit wished him well and then bounded off, leaving him to stare at a dark hollow in a massive tree that had to be fifty spans across and reach four hundred spans into the sky, a deep bole that was dark within, its interior hidden.  Tarrin grabbed the edge of the bole and put a foot on the lip, looking into it, testing the air.  There was a curious dryness to the air in the bole, unnatural for a dark, enclosed space.  He stepped into it and felt the darkness swallow him up, blocking out all light.  There was no gravity, and he felt himself floating within that darkness for long seconds.  He was beginning to get a little nervous and unsettled, but then light appeared before him, a tiny pinprick of light, but it grew rapidly before his eyes.  He realized he was moving towards the light, and that light was the opening on the other side, the entry into the Realm of Twilight, the second layer of the planes of the Happy Hunting Grounds.

        At first he thought he would catapult out of the hole, but its approach slowed, until he was drifting just outside it.  Then gravity returned, and his feet came to rest on dry, soft wood.  The light beyond the bole was reddish in hue, like the light of a sunset.  He put his paw on the edge of the bole and stepped out, then took stock of his surroundings.

        The tree holding the bole was massive, similar of dimension to the one on the other side, but this one opened to a large meadow where three elk-sized deer grazed contentedly.  The sky was reddish in color but cloudless, and the hint of a sun showed just behind the treeline before him.  He looked up at the tree holding the bole, and saw that too towered into the sky, nearly as tall as the Tower of Six Spires in Suld.

        “Pardon me,” Tarrin called to the three oversized deer in the meadow.  “Would any of you know where I can find a Mortai?”

        One of them raised its head, regarding him with huge brown eyes.  “They float of their own whim,” it replied in a husky yet feminine voice.  “If those wings allow you to fly, then searching from the air is your best option.  They are hard to see from the ground.”

        Tarrin glanced back absently.  He hadn’t realized that he’d not retracted his wings.  “Thank you,” he called, causing his feet to rise from the earth.  His wings flared, and then he raced into the sky, leaving the three animals behind, their forms shrinking beneath him as he soared up over the canopy of the trees, higher and higher, until he was three thousand spans above the foliage below.  From that high up, he could see the large red sun clearly, half of its circumference hidden behind the horizon.  But much to his surprise, there was another sun behind him, at the same position in the sky.  One sun rising, the other sun setting…or maybe it was just the same sun, and the half he could not see in front of him was the half that he could see behind.

        Out here, in the Outer Planes, virtually anything was possible.

        Tarrin’s eyes scanned the skies carefully, methodically, as he turned a very slow circle in his hover.  His eyes strained to find any irregularity in the reddish-streaked skies, any hint of a cloud, any clue that he would find a Mortai.  But there was nothing but clear red-stained sky, in every direction.

        “You have strange wings,” a voice called from behind and below him.  Tarrin turned to look, and saw a hawk flapping towards him, a hawk that was five times the size of a normal one, a bird that looked almost too large to be able to fly.

        “They’re made by magic,” he answered as it reached his height, and then circled around him.  Tarrin turned in his hover so that he was always facing the huge sentient animal.

        “It is seemly that you strive to create by magic that which you were denied in birth,” the huge bird said sagely.  “You are unusual.  You have the smell of a god, but there is no power within you.  The land does not bend to your presence, but I can feel your weight in the air.  What are you?”
        “I was once a god,” Tarrin answered truthfully, “but I died and was restored to life as a mortal.  My existence is what you might call unnatural.  I am neither a mortal or a god.”

        “Ah,” it said simply.  “What brings you to the Beastlands?  Are you seeking to correct the unnatural state of yourself?”

        “In a way,” he answered.  “I come seeking the wisdom of a Mortai.  Have you seen one?”

        “No,” it answered.  “But I know that they find pleasure to float near the domain of a goddess named Breina.  They find the winds that blow from the storms that cross her domain pleasant.  If you seek a Mortai, approaching the domain of Breina and waiting for one to appear to take enjoyment from the winds would be wise.”

        “Thank you for that information.  Could you tell me where the domain of Breina is?”

        “Towards the sun I face,” it answered when its beak lined up with one of the half-hidden suns.  “It is a journey of much time, even for one who flies.  But you must cross the domain of Grobarn the Hunter to reach it.  Nothing that moves is safe within his domain, not even those who fly.”

        “I don’t have that much time,” Tarrin grunted.  “I’ll have to cheat.  Thank you for your help, friend.  You’ve saved me a great deal of time.”

        “Good luck to you,” the hawk told him, then it banked and soared away from him.

        Tarrin hovered in midair, then raised his right arm to look at the amulet.  He had to use them in tandem, in balance, and he could not get to where he thought to use them when it was convenient.  This was an emergency.  He didn’t have days to waste, and he certainly didn’t want to cross the home domain of a hostile god.  He would be massacred, in short order.

        No, this was important enough.

        Centering his thoughts, he focused his eyes on the crystalline amulet embedded in the twisted-strand bracer on his right wrist, idly noting the shaggy fetlocks peeking through the holes in the mesh, and then reached out to that amulet.  He already knew how they worked, what they did; Demons and Deva could teleport almost anywhere, as long as they knew where they were going.  They didn’t even really need to know where that place was.  The description that the hawk gave him was enough location for him to get there.

        Take me there, he thought, commanding the amulet.  To the nearest edge of the domain of Breina, at this height in the air.

        The amulet seemed to shiver, and then its power rushed into him, flowing up his changed arm and into his body.  Just as the amulet of the Demon had done, it surged into him and directly tried to reach his soul, to transform it into something akin to itself, a noble being of power, goodness, and law, a loyal minion of the God of Gods.  And just as the Demonic essence had discovered, Tarrin’s powerful personality and his force of will was more than a match for this gentle, loving power…yet a power that sought to subvert his body and soul just as much as the Demon’s power had.  Where the Demonic power sought to corrupt out of evil, hatred, and greed, this sought to alter him to match its own nobility, seeking to change him in the innocent belief that he would be better off being a Deva.  Tarrin resisted that powerful force, focused all his will into the task of forcing the soul within the amulet to obey.

        And in the end, unable to reach his soul, unable to turn aside the indomitable will of the Were-cat, the amulet capitulated and did as it was commanded.

        With a silvery waver, the body of Tarrin Kael vanished.

        Instantaneously, Tarrin Kael appeared a great distance from his previous location, many days’ travel, safely on the far side of the domain of Grobarn, and within sight of the domain of Breina.  That boundary was visible below him, for the domain of Breina was a place of mists and fog, where the trees were more evergreen then hardwood, and there was a constant, steady cool wind blowing from the misty interior.

        Tarrin didn’t get the chance to enjoy that view, for he was trying to recover from the backlash of using the power of a Deva.  Mother Wynn had been right; the power of the Deva was just as dangerous as the power of the Demons.  It was just as invasive, just as dangerous, just as determined to transform him into a being that followed its own path.  Given half a chance, it would change him, and that single use of the amulet did more than just change the color of his arm this time.  He could feel the vestiges of that power lurking within him, even as he felt the taint of the Demon hiding inside, two separate powers that wanted to reach his soul and corrupt him, to change him, powers that seemed to be separate from each other, even unaware of each other.  But two powers that were dangerous to him.  He had to fight both of them off, for the Demonic taint sensed a moment of weakness and had struck at him, even as the power of the Deva tried to join with his soul and remake it in its own image.

        But neither could reach its goal.  Tarrin’s iron will clamped down on both of them, driving them back, keeping them at bay, maintaining control.

        Shivering, Tarrin blew out his breath and opened his eyes, and saw that touching on the power of a Deva directly had also left its mark on him.  His right arm, which had been turned white when he reached through a Deva, now had golden claws, and the fur of his fetlock on his right wrist was now a brilliant, shimmering gold.  And inside his mind, he felt the echo of the Deva’s power lurking within, weak but determined, waiting for its chance to subvert his soul and transform him into a being of good.

        Once both presences within him had been suitably cowed, Tarrin took stock of his location.  The amulet had put him exactly where he needed to be, but there were no Mortai here.  But that wasn’t as important as the fact that he was now where he needed to be.  He could simply find a place to camp and wait, even try to contact the local animals and see if they could tell him where a Mortai was, or could possibly tell him how to cause one of them to come.

        He descended to the ground in a long, narrow meadow that directly abutted the conifers and cool air that was the personal domain of a god, flaring his wings and flapping them a few times before retracting them back into his back and out of sight  He padded over to a huge fallen tree, walking along the length of the ten span tall log, then he jumped up on top of it and looked up at the sky, looked at the abrupt wall of mist that hung over that line of evergreens across the meadow.

        There was little to do now but wait.

        Tarrin seated himself atop the log, legs crossed and tail wrapped around them to keep it out from underfoot, took out his spellbook, and began to read.  After all, there was little else to do.

        He spent two days sitting there—or at least he thought it was two days, it was hard to tell time here—waiting patiently for a Mortai to arrive, but had not seen one.  He had not seen any indigenous animals, Deva, insects, anything living that was not a plant, in those two days.  He would read the spells written in his book, but he always had an eye upward, both to look for Mortai and also to keep an eye out for either Deva or flying animals.  He didn’t want to have a Deva dive on him out of nowhere.

        But sometimes it was hard to keep his attention focused on the spells in his book.  The two alien presences that were now inside him were neither silent nor complacent.  Both whispered to his soul, promising either joy or terror, the terror of joy or the joy of terror, and they ceaselessly tested the bounds of Tarrin’s will, seeking a way to circumvent his powerful mind and reach their goal.  Tarrin had such a practiced, disciplined mind, the product of being intimately in touch with the All, a force that could react to his emotions, that the two forces discovered fairly quickly that even when sleeping, Tarrin Kael’s mind was a fortress protecting the soul housed within, a fortress that those two entities could not penetrate.  Each certainly had its own method of working on his will.  The essence of the Demon bounced randomly from cajoling whispers promising dark delights to enraged demands to plaintive wheedling to cunning lies .  The essence of the Deva was much more straightforward in its intent, but was itself almost as treacherous as the Demon in its method.  It shifted from gentle persuasion to the promise of both power and glory serving in the name of the God of Gods, sounding at times like a man trying to draft him into the military.  The Deva never lied, but it did creatively omit certain truths, proudly boasting of what Tarrin could be if he accepted the Deva’s power and allowed it to change him, without mentioning the price that came with that power.  That price was to be subjugated to the will of the God of Gods, serving as one of his messengers, servants, and soldiers in their eternal struggle to keep the Demons in check and spread the glory of goodness throughout the multiverse.

        This puzzled Tarrin.  The Deva served the God of Gods, yet also openly campaigned in the name of good.  But the God of Gods, the ultimate power, had to have in place a great Balance of forces, much like the Balance in his home.  Good could not exist without evil, after all.  Why were the chosen servants of the greatest god of all working directly in a manner that went against the Balance?  It made little sense to him.

        The time did let him finalize the next step of his plan after getting what he needed from the Mortai.  It was a tricky problem.  He had to take something from a Solar that the Solar would never surrender.  And the instant he took it, the entirety of the Deva would come after him en masse…if they weren’t doing it already in their crusade to recover the two soul amulets he’d stolen.  A Solar was…well, a Solar was obscenely powerful.  They possessed a truly stunning array of magical abilities, as well as lethal weapons and great intelligence.  Fighting a Solar was literally the same as fighting a god…they were that powerful.

        And in his current condition, Tarrin couldn’t win that kind of fight.

        So.  If he couldn’t take what he needed from a Solar by force, then he had to resort to cunning.  The key to it all would be to bring the Solar to him, on ground of his own choosing, when he had the right pieces on the chessboard to make his move.  The last question as to wether he could manage it was answered in the fight with the Agathinon, when they summoned the Planetar to assist them.  That told Tarrin everything he needed to know; it meant that when the time came, he could trick the Deva into summoning a Solar, bringing it to him.  Once the Solar was there, it was going to be a matter of using deception and guile to steal what he wanted from it.  Fighting a Solar head to head was, in his opinion, a last-option scenario.  That was fight he would not survive unless he was either lucky or crazy…or maybe both.

        Tarrin’s plan was something he’d never done before, but it was something that he felt would work.  It was simple, yet it also would operate independent of the Solar’s own intelligence.  Just by showing up, the Solar would fall into the trap, and would have no means by which to think himself out of it.  Tarrin would make sure to take every other option away before the Solar was even on the field, trapping it into a single course of action that would give Tarrin his chance to take what he needed without resorting to a direct attack.  It would be an attack, oh yes, but it would certainly not be done in a manner that would allow the Solar to strike back.

        This wasn’t going to be a fight.  This was going to be an ambush.

        That ambush was going to take place on Crossroads, the one place the Deva would never expect him to try a stunt like that, a place where their power was paramount.  By tackling a Solar in Crossroads itself, Tarrin was both using their sense of supremacy against them, and pulling a stunt so crazy that they’d never see it coming until it was too late.  Only a maniac would take on the Deva in Crossroads.

        Tarrin was just that kind of maniac.

        After that…Tarrin snorted aloud.  He didn’t even want to think about after that.  Because after that, it would be time to go back to Sennadar, and that would mean that he would have to face Spyder.  He would rather fight a Solar naked and with only a wooden spoon than face Spyder.  In her way, she was ten times more dangerous than a Solar, if only because he could never, would never, do her harm.  He had to fight one of his best friends, and defeat her without hurting her, when she sure as hellfire would be trying to hurt him.

        That too would be the point of no return for him.  When he went back home, when he did what he had to do there, he was locking himself into a course of action that would only have one outcome.  It was something he didn’t want to think about it, because it would be the end of the life he knew, and there would never be any chance of ever getting it back.

        But it was what had to be done.

        You must be able to make the choices that must be made.

        How those words had haunted him over the years, how they had hurt him, but now more than ever they applied to him.  This choice was the only choice there was, and yet it was something he approached only with great trepidation and resignation.  But it had to be done.

        This was his mess, and it was up to him to make things right.  No matter what it cost him.

        He…sensed something.  A force, a presence, a sentience so powerful that it made his mind shudder away from it.  It rushed upon him with shocking rapidity, and he felt that presence within sight of him.  He stood up quickly, gesturing with his paw to cause his staff to appear in his grip, and his eyes cast their gaze across the meadow and locked upon a figure standing at the edge of the evergreens on the far side.

        Breina.

        She was a tall, striking figure of a woman, eight spans tall at least, and would stand eye to eye with him.  Her skin was a pale blue, like ice, and her hair was a lovely azure blue.  There was a gentle mist all around her, clinging to her naked form like diaphonous silk that caressed her impressive curves, yet concealed nothing.  Her face was both strong and lovely, with glowing blue eyes and shapely, elegantly pointed ears that poked through that wild mass of blue hair.  But beyond any of that was both the sight and the sense of the titanic power housed within that lovely form.  This was a god.  In person.  She was real, and this close to her, Tarrin could sense the mind-shattering power within her, so powerful that it made his knees weak.

        Mother Wynn and Niami had been right.  He’d been an idiot for ever thinking he could fight the One in his home domain and win.

        One wonders why you lurk on the edge of one’s domain, her mind touched him, a mind of endless, vast power.

        Tarrin was momentarily awestruck, overwhelmed by her indescribable sense of power, far beyond anything he had ever felt.  He could only lower his eyes humbly and ground the butt of his glaive in a non-threatening manner, wondering what wild impulse every gripped him to think that it was going to be any help at all against that if she decided to attack him.

        “I, I come seeking the guidance of a Mortai,” he said in his most respectful manner.  “I meant no offense.  I was told they sometimes come here to feel the wind coming from your domain, and so I’m waiting for one to arrive.”

        Ah.  Yes, they do sometimes come to ride the winds blowing from one’s domain.  She paused a moment.  You are the one the Deva seek.  The Mortal God.  Their voices scream out in fury on the winds, and they beseech one and all to tell them where you are.  One can see why you enrage them so, given that you carry the souls of two Deva and two Demons with you.

        He was dead.  He just knew it.  This Breina was going to either squash him like a bug, or call in the Deva and let them do it for her.

        Don’t fear, unique one, her voice washed over him.  The demands of the Deva are not one’s concern.  They do not serve one, nor does one wish their service.  One is not concerned with the causes of good and evil.  Approach one, Mortal God.  One wishes to get a better look at you.

        Of their own volition, his feet started him moving forward.  He padded across the meadow, up to the treeline, and stood before this magnificent female.  There was sense of cool dampness about her, like the lingering fingers of a morning fog.

        One is Deina, Mistress of the Dawn, bringer of that which renews, harbinger of the promise of the new day, she introduced herself, holding a blue-skinned hand out to him commandingly.  Without thought, he took it and kissed the back of it, feeling the limitless power within her.  The rising of the sun and the renewal of the day are my domain, as is the promise of all things that a new day might bring.

        “My name is Tarrin, Mistress Deina,” he told her with lowered eyes.

        Your touch tells me all.  One must admit, one admires your spunk, Mortal God.  You make one feel ten thousand years younger with your mischievous ways.

        Tarrin felt a moment of raw panic.  If she knew—

        Be at ease, her mind told him quickly.

        “Um, if you don’t serve the cause of good, why—“

        Why is one’s domain here, in this plane aligned with goodness? she asked.  This is the Realm of Twilight to some, but others call it the Realm of Sunrise.  Would you not think of a better place for a goddess of the dawn to reside but in a plane of eternal dawn?

        He had to admit, she had an irrefutable argument there.

        You seek a Mortai.  One will summon one to speak with you.

        Tarrin looked up at her.  “I would be grateful, but why are you helping me?”

        Because one has received something in return, she told him with an enigmatic smile.

        “What?”

        One has seen the state of your Pyrosia in your mind, and one sees…opportunity there.  One has dispatched an avatar to that mortal realm, to try to establish one’s worship.  One promises that one will not interfere in the plans you hold there, but neither is one inclined to assist you, she communicated to him with grave seriousness, making an oath to him that she could not break, the word of a god.  One’s intent is only to establish one’s worship in a new mortal plane, no more, no less.  And when all is said and done and the Demon Lord is vanquished, one swears that one will not seek to take control, and will work to help rebuild and help the mortals recover.  It is not one’s way to seek control, for the dawn lasts only a moment in the span of the day.

        Tarrin looked at her a long moment.  She sent an avatar to Pyrosia?  There really wasn’t anything he could do, because there was no controlling force on Pyrosia.  This Deina could send an avatar there, and nobody could really stop her.  There was no Elder God there to deny her.  The only relief Tarrin saw out of this was that she promised not to interfere.  For that, at least, he was grateful.

        One has summoned a Mortai.  It should arrive within the moment.  One would suggest that you be polite and answer any questions the Mortai asks honestly.  They are purveyors of knowledge, and rarely surrender knowledge without receiving knowledge in return.  It will most likely seek to engage you in debate before giving you the answers you seek.

        Good fortune to you, Tarrin Kael, the odd goddess told him, reaching out and touching her fingertips to his brow.  We will meet again.

        She gracefully walked back among her trees, and the mist quickly concealed her form, until she was hidden from his eyes, leaving Tarrin to stare at where she was in wonder, and confusion.  He had no idea what just happened.  Well, he did, but her actions were incredulous to him.  She was sending an avatar to Pyrosia to try to convert mortals, when the entire world was at war with the Demons?  And she wasn’t going to help him?  But, it wasn’t like there was anything he could do to stop her.  That was something only the Elder god of Pyrosia could do, but Pyrosia had no Elder god.  There was no force there to stop her from entering or force her to leave except for the Demon Lord…and right now, the Demon Lord had much more to worry about than the avatar of a Lesser Goddess appearing on Pyrosia, an avatar that would quickly demonstrate no interest at all in opposing the Demons.

        Tarrin learned one important lesson from this, though, and that was to keep his bloody distance from gods.  To them, he was a mortal, and he had no defense against their powers.  Just by touching him, that goddes, Breina, she had read everything in his mind, even his intent, and had seen what was going on in Pyrosia.  It was just luck that she was only interested in establishing herself in a new plane, and was not running there to smite the Demon Lord—which would devastate the world in the process—then pick up the pieces and rule, potentially putting a god worse than the One in control, one just as bad as he had been.

        There was a shadow on the ground.  Tarrin looked up and saw a cloud forming over his head, but it was more than just a cloud.  It was large and billowing, a cumulus cloud with a flat bottom and knobbed, rounded protrusions reaching into the sky, but those folds and curves of the cloud held faces.  Male, female, human, animal, faces of all kinds, facing all directions, their mouths moving but without sound that he could hear.

        It was a Mortai.

        Who hast summoned me? Tarrin heard in his ears, but it was a voice with a thousand languages murmuring in his brain, like hearing a thousand men speaking the same meaning in a thousand different tongues.  Tarrin had to think a moment to puzzle out the voices who spoke words he could understand, and he was shocked to hear them speaking the languages that he knew.  All of them.  To hear so many words all saying the same thing, in different languages, confused him, forced him to stop and think, to isolate each word and work out how they were strung together when one considered that those languages didn’t share common grammatical structure.

        “Breina of the Dawn called you at my request,” Tarrin shouted from the ground.

        A multitude of eyes all looked down at him in eerie unison.  Ah, the Mortal God.  Rise up to us and speak of the matter that brings you here.

        Without hesitation, Tarrin rose up from the ground, then streaked high into the air, until he passed the base of the titanic, amorphous, misty being with its many faces.  He found himself nearly ten thousand spans off the ground when he reached what he felt was an acceptable altitude, when he was about halfway up the Mortai’s height, where some faces looked up, some faces looked down, and the largest face on that side of the creature looked him eye to eye.

        Tarrin swallowed shortly, mastering his unease at addressing so alien a being, then got down to business.  “I seek rare information and was told that my only hope laid with the Mortai,” he called loudly.

        There is no need to shout, Mortal God.  We are not offended, but we feel that it might strain thy voice to speak so for long.  A conversational volume will suffice.

        “I—thank you,” he said with a nod, speaking in a normal tone.  “I come seeking the location of a god,” he told them frankly.

        Ah, the many voices called.  So, thou comes seeking to find the domain of the One.

        “How did—“

        We know of the events of Pyrosia, it said simply.  That thou wouldst come in search of the One is but a logical conclusion.  We would be curious as to why thou hast a deathwish.  If thou besought Breina of the Dawn to summon us, then thou surely sees the folly of doing battle with a god beyond the mortal realm.  Thou hast the spark of the divine within, but thou art mortal.

        “My business with the One is my own,” he answered.  “But I assure you, I’m not going there to throw my life away.  I have a plan.”

        Plans.  Yes, the plans of Tarrin Kael are much lauded, both for their folly and for their brilliance.  We have seen them, and we are both amused at thy logic and amazed at thy success.

        That stung at Tarrin’s pride not just a little bit.

        Far be it from us to meddle in one of the famous plans of the Mortal God, it said with amusement.  Thou seeks the domain of the One.  Seek thou the One among the shattered battlegrounds of the first layer of Acheron, the Realm of Eternal War, where the One engages in endless conflict against his neighbors.

        Tarrin blinked.  “That, that’s it?  But, Mistress Deina said you’d demand something in return, that you’d want to debate.”

        Thou art a dangerous entity, Mortal God, the Mortai answered.  Even now, the Deva scour the Beastlands in seach of thee to recover what thou hast stolen, and any caught providing thee with assistance will be punished most harshly.  We would prefer not to embitter ourselves of the Deva, for we do not enjoy the same protections as Breina of the Dawn.  She is immune from the wrath of the Deva.  We are not.  But, we understand thy haste and urgency, and the importance of thy task.  We do not agree with thy method, but we do respect thy goal, and so we shall help thee.  Thou art struggling to save a world.  We would be amiss to hold thee back in this important task.  Remember, Mortal God, seek thou thy enemy on the first layer of Acheron, the realm of eternal war.  And know that he is waiting for you.

        And with that, without another word, without any warning, the Mortai’s gigantic misty form evaporated into the air, vanishing.

        Tarrin blinked, and looked around, but the Mortai had vanished as abruptly as it had appeared.  He dropped back to the ground, then clenched a fist and stared at the tip of his tail, which had meandered in front of him.

        Acheron.

        It was a plane of endless war, where titanic cubic blocks, the size of continents, floated in the void of the plane like islands.  Each block was the domain of a god, and when those slowly drifting blocks impacted one another, the denizens of each block would boil forth to do war upon the inhabitants of the other block.  The battle would rage ceaselessly for as long as the blocks were in contact, and then the blocks would drift away, separating the warring factions.  It was a plane of war without end, for a soldier slain in battle simple reformed one day later, a place where beings battled one another for no reason other than the sake of the battle itself.  Since no soldier could be killed, and no territory could be conquered, it made the motives for such conflict pointless.  The only reason to fight was just for the sake of fighting, a vain and empty pursuit of a goal that could never be accomplished.  It was a plane of evil, but evil tinged in the militant rigidity of the soldier, a plane that suited the mentality and personality of the One perfectly.  In Acheron, he waged his endless battle to spread his supremacy until he was paramount…but in Acheron, he was but one power among many fighting a hopeless war that he could never win.

        And the One was waiting for him.

        So be it.  It wasn’t like the One didn’t know that he was coming.  And knowing Tarrin was coming was not going to change anything.  After all, now he wasn’t going there to kill the One.  Oh, there would be a fight, of that there was no doubt, but Tarrin’s goal wasn’t to win the fight, his goal was to survive it.

        It was something that truly didn’t concern him that much.  The One was not going to be half the obstacle that the Solar or Spyder were going to be, and those were the tasks that he now had to undertake.

        Spyder would have to wait.  For now, he had to tackle a Solar.  And he already had a plan for that, a plan that would require him to return to Crossroads.

        And once there, he would begin his campaign of terror, against both the Deva and the Demons.  The instant his feet touched the ground of Crossroads, no Demon or Deva would be safe from him.

        The Demons were targets for their soul amulets.  He’d need one Demon for every Deva amulet he took, else the balance between good and evil would be tilted, and he would run the risk of being overwhelmed by whichever power gained too much sway over him.

        And he was going to take a lot of them.  He would become the hunter, stalking his prey, and then taking what he wanted from them.  He would bring true fear to the Demons and Deva of Crossroads…and that would set up the conditions he needed to get the Solar they would send to stop him into his trap, where he could take what he needed without risking a direct confrontation, a confrontation he might not survive.

        Oh no, he’d come too far to risk losing now.  He would see this through to the end, and he was going to prevail, because he was just too damned stubborn to accept anything less.

        Crossroads had always been a plane of enforced peace.  Well, that was about to change, because the very beings who enforced that peace were about to become the targets of the one disrupting it.

        Throwing a handful of emerald dust into the air, Tarrin chanted the words of the Wizard spell that created gateways.  His words were strong and true, and the very air around him vibrated with the power of his voice as he used that powerful Arcane incantation, until a hole in the fabric of this reality formed before him, a scintillating gateway of glowing green smoke.  It was a gateway back to the Realm of Day, and Tarrin had opened the gateway right back to the portal stone that would return him to Crossroads.

        There was no time to waste, and with so many Deva hunting for him in the Beastlands, it was the perfect opportunity to get back to Crossroads and get himself settled in, prepare his battleground, and get ready to start killing off Demons and Deva until the time and the conditions were right to take on a Solar.

        They would never know what hit them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    5      7

Chapter 6

        It was called the Mytre neighborhood, and it was perfect.

        It was located close to the Core, in that area where mortal magic and the innate powers of Outer Planes beings no longer worked, but the innate powers of a Solar still functioned, as far as one could get from the Core and still feel those effects, where the pressing nature of the Core was minimal against one’s soul, and was a tolerable sensation.  In fact, about one third of the Mytre nighborhood was on the other side of that mystical boundary, which would allow the powers of Deva and Demons and other Outer Planar beings to function.  The architecture of the area was that of a dilapidated slum, with a maze of narrow, crooked streets piercing haphazard blocks of tightly packed, slightly run-down buildings that rose nearly four stories into the sky, with numerous side streets intersecting each twisting street many times in a short distance, creating a warped patchwork of streets and alleys that gave one a multitude of directions to run and the ability to quickly break line of sight with anyone even just a few paces behind.  The result of this architecture was much like the badlands he remembered in the Desert of Swirling Sands, jagged canyons burrowed deep into the surrounding terrain, but in this case it was meandering alleys deep beneath buildings so close together they were like contiguous walls.  From the air, it was almost impossible to see much more than a hundred spans of street before the twisting nature of the narrow avenues hid the street behind a building, and the narrow streets were not wide enough to allow a Deva to fly between the buildings.

        This place was the ultimate place to hide.  And Tarrin was not the first to come to understand this fact, for the Mytre neighborhood was populated—sparsely—with all manner of shady or suspicious beings, be them mortal or planar in origin.  Mortals and Archons made up the vast majority of the population of this stretch of the City, but the occasional Demon was not an uncommon sight, no doubt engaging in nefarious deals with the less than savory residents of this section of Crossroads.  It was a dark, dangerous place filled with dangerous people, a place where it was easy to hide and hard to be captured.

        It would suit his needs perfectly.

        In the three days since he had returned to Crossroads, Tarrin had been very busy.  It had taken him nearly a day to find this place, and once he had, he had spent most of the rest of those two days carefully surveying the area, coming to know the knot of streets and alleys so that he would always know where he was within this warren of passages.  Much as he had meticulously studied the arena and surrounding neighborhood of Mala Myrr in preparation for battling Jegojah, Tarrin carefully memorized the layout of the Mytre neighborhood in preparation for his upcoming campaign against the Deva, both the streets and the layouts of the buildings within this neighborhood.

        Mytre would see no action from him until the very end.  This was the place where he intended to confront a Solar, to exploit this neighborhood’s unique geography to his utmost advantage in keeping away from the Solar after he attacked it…provided that assault was a success.  Up until that time, he would be out in other parts of the City, randomly attacking Demons, then attacking the Deva that showed up in response to the perpetration of violence within the plane.  He had a laundry list of things he had to do already laid out in his mind, how many Demons and Deva he would have to kill, how many amulets he would have to take, before he had things prepared for the Solar.  One thing that had to happen before he could confront the Solar, however, was that he had to locate and attack a balor and take its soul amulet.  The balor were the mightiest of all the Demons, with tremendous power and formidable magical abilities, and he would need the threat of that power to draw out a Solar.  The Deva now knew that he could use the powers of any Demon or Deva whose amulets he possessed…when he got his claws into a balor and took that power for his own, his threat to the Deva would increase by exponential degrees, and would set the stage for having a Solar arrive to deal with him.

        Taking a balor would not be easy.  They were very powerful creatures, and he had a healthy respect for them and their ability.  Taking out a balor itself would require planning and preparation; that was not a fight he cared to engage in head-on.  For such dangerous prey, ambush was the preferred method of attack.

        Maybe he was getting soft, or maybe he was getting timid, but he’d come too far to risk losing now because he was thinking with the wrong brain.  He had too many people depending on him.

        Or maybe it was finally that the influence of the Cat was removed from his mind.  Tarrin did tend to think like a Were-cat even now, despite no longer being one, but the influence of the Cat itself was no longer in his mind, no longer urging him into rash action without thinking things through, and it no longer prevented him from carefully weighing risks and taking a more prudent approach than what was normal for him.  The mortal Tarrin probably would tackle a balor head-on, relying on luck and his own skills and abilities to carry him through to victory after throwing the together the barest framework of a plan and charging into it headlong without even a moment’s thought.  The Mortal God Tarrin was much more cautious, because he had a hell of a lot more to lose than just his own life.

        No matter what it was, right now, Tarrin understood that in his unique position, he was no match for some of the beings and creatures he now had to face, and no amount of bravado or Were arrogance was going to change those facts.  The balor, the Solar, Spyder, the One, those were opponents that Tarrin dared not face head-on, else he would surely lose.  Each of them were going to require a light touch, planning, subtlety, cunning, and above all else, prudence.  Oh, to be sure, Tarrin was more than a match against some of them in a physical contest, but these fights were not going to be about who was best in a fight.  These were going to be battles of magic and power, and those were weapons which Tarrin no longer possessed in the quantity he once did.  Either he had to find a way to remove that magic from the playing field, or he had to strike in a manner such that his opponents could not bring that power to bear.

        Removing magic from the playing field was definitely an option.  There were twelve separate Wizard spells in his book that dealt with disrupting magic in operation or preventing magic from being used in the first place…and those spells would affect the innate powers of a Demon or a Deva. Despite them being natural powers, they were still magical effects, and as such were subject to the disrupting power of those spells.  The spell he used most often was the Anti-Magic Shell, a spell placed over himself that totally rendered the area around him magic-dead.  That was all well and good when they came to fight, but in the fights to come he needed to stop the magic of his prey to prevent easy escape, and the Anti-Magic Shell was a spell not well suited for this, due to its very limited range. He had to physically touch the recipient of the spell, and while that did have certain use, against the more powerful opponents, that wasn’t as attractive an option.

        There was one spell in his book that was more suited, but it too had a drawback.  It was a spell that totally nullified all magic in a very large area, about the length of a Suld city block, but the spell only lasted about ten seconds, and the caster had to be within the area of effect when it was cast.  This spell Tarrin could see being useful for the upcoming hunts, for he only had to be within one block of his prey and on the same street.  After casting, he’d have ten seconds to close on his prey before the spell ended and his quarry could teleport away.

        Between that spell and the use of the Anti-Magic Shell, Tarrin felt that he had the magic issue under control.  Once he took magic off the field, Tarrin was more than a match for a vast majority of Demons and Deva.  They were good, but they weren’t as good as him.

        There were also other ways to go about it, mainly by ambushing them in such a way that they never saw it coming.  The soul amulet of the Agathinon he’d taken was going to be extremely handy, because Agathinon had the innate power to shapeshift, into any living form.  Any living form.  Tarrin had already tested it, and found that it was more than effective.  The power of the Agathinon had allowed him to shapeshift into a Demon.  He’d had the other powers of a Demon, even their telepathic ability, and had the scent of a Demon.  It was a complete change, so complete, so effective that he’d walked right past a pair of Demons without them suspecting a thing.  And of course, there were other ways to use the power to shapeshift.  Tarrin had possessed that power himself when he was alive, he understood the versatility it could bring to someone…up to a point.  No matter what form he took, his right arm always appeared as white, and his left arm always appeared as black.  But, that wasn’t something that completely ruined it.

        He just wouldn’t be using those swords again.  After thinking back to that fight in the Happy Hunting Grounds, he’d realized that the swords hadn’t been a very good idea.  Certainly they did help him, but he’d been looking for small weapons to use in a confined space, and he’d already had them.  After thinking back through the fight, now that his mind wasn’t dominated by trying to find a Mortai, he realized that he’d already had those weapons available to him…himself.  He had done harm to the Deva with his claws, while the swords had done absolutely nothing to them.  With the bracers on his wrists to act like defensive shields, as he had used the manacles and the Cat’s Claws, he already had all the weapons he needed in his Demonic glaive, his staff, and his own paws.

        The swords hadn’t been destroyed, though.  Using magic, he had sent them on, sending them to Tsukatta.  He used swords like that, odds are the warrior would either find use for them or just hang them up somewhere.  He did take the amulets out of them first, however.

        As far as holding the amulets went, the weapons had served a useful purpose, and Tarrin had had to come up with an alternate means of storing them.  The Deva amulets still caused him distinct discomfort if he touched them with the wrong paws, so he solved that problem by shrinking the amulets and attaching them to the bracer on each wrist, Deva on his right bracer, Demon on the left.  The amulets were the size of brass bits, and were attached to the underside of the bracers, so they couldn’t fall off or be knocked off, and also so they were in direct contact with his arms.  That would allow him to call on their power if he needed it.

        And he would probably need it.  The ability to teleport away was going to save his life when the time came.

        And that time was now close at hand.  Tarrin now knew the Mytre neighborhood better than most of those who lived there.  He could navigate its streets with his eyes closed, and when the time came to face a Solar, he would have the advantage.  Now came the time to bring that Solar to him, and that meant that it was time for them to see the full power and fury of an Entropic.

        For the first time in recorded history, the megalopolis of the City would know war.

        And it was true war, in all its gory, ghastly, graphic ugliness.  The rules were set in the very first attack, and that was there were no rules.  The citizens of the City, the entire City, knew that something very wrong had happened, even those as far from the scene of the attack as could be.

        It had happened in the Brezka neighborhood, a quiet place with many warehouses, that was known a center of financial activity for the denizens of the Lower Planes. The warehouses usually held larva, the slug-like manifestations of the souls of evil humans, which were traded and used as currency among Demons, Devils, and Daemons just as krin was used among those on Crossroads.  It was in this place that the evil denizens of the dark planes traded souls, information, and evil plots to further their own individual power, or the power of their kind.

        It was there, on a corner between two warehouses, that it began.  A dog-headed glabrezu and a pig-headed nalfeshnee were concluding a deal out on that corner.  They had no idea that they were being watched.  They had no idea that they had been singled out.  They had no idea.

        It was said that Demons were possessed of such intelligence, senses, and telepathic awareness that they were impossible to surprise.

        That was wrong.

        They weren’t surprised enough to not understand what was happening, but that was not enough to save them, because they never dreamed that the Were-cat would do what he was about to do, and that disbelief created a split second of indecision that doomed them.  Tarrin simply appeared behind the nalfeshnee and struck, physically attacking the Demons within the protected sanctuary of Crossroads, doing that one thing that was so unbelievable to them that both Demons were taken aback, and that instant of hesitation spelled doom for the boar Demon.  They could have teleported away with the speed of thought, but Tarrin’s spell of haste allowed him to move with such blazing speed that he literally beat the Demon to the punch.  Tarrin’s left arm drove into it, drove through the boundaries and into the Abyss itself, and then he tore free its soul amulet from the black-blooded flesh of its created form on Crossroads.  The glabrezu gave him a shocked look as the body of his business partner dissolved between itself and Tarrin, its eyes locked on the gore-covered amulet in Tarrin’s left paw, gore that evaporated away.

        “Surprise,” Tarrin hissed, then the magically shrunk glaive slid down from under the bracer and into his paw and quickly and magically grew to its full size, even as he lunged over the bubbling corpse of the Demon at his feet, still moving with such accelerated speed that he moved like a living blur.

        The Demon raised its pincered outer arms and struck at the Were-cat, who did not try to protect himself, only reached at him with that deadly left arm, still holding the amulet.  It struck with that pincered arm, drove the tips into the body of the attacker, but that body simply exploded into a sudden cloud of golden, glittering dust.

        It understood the nature of this deception, but Tarrin’s magical speed advantage caused the Demon’s instinctive reaction to be an instant too late.  Its body stiffened as Tarrin’s left paw drove into its back a split second before it could teleport itself to safety, and then those horrified eyes dissolved into hideous black ichor as Tarrin ripped the soul amulet from its body.  Both bodies began to melt into acidic slime as Tarrin turned and chanted a simple spell to shrink down his two new prizes, then affixed them into their places on his bracer, taking up two new slots and opening more doorways.  It was important to get as many different kinds of amulets as possible, for each Demon and Deva had its own unique powers and abilities.  By taking amulets from many species of Demon and Deva, it gave him more and more powers to use.

        The attack was sure to attract the attention of the Deva, but Tarrin didn’t want them to think that this was just some run-of-the-mill instance where two Demons lost their heads and attacked each other in a bout of pique.  Raising his paws, he chanted the most powerful and destructive Wizard spell he knew, a spell of tremendous power, the Meteor Strike spell.  It took several long seconds to cast, but when he completed it, he pointed at the two warehouses before him and finished the spell.  Swarms of fiery orbs rained down from the sky, slamming into the buildings with thunderous crashes, and then explosions as the burning missles penetrated the roofs of the buildings and then detonated.  The buildings immediately became burning pyres, raging conflagrations that sent red flames hundreds of spans into the sky.

        That would get their attention.

        Surging forward just as the spell of haste faded from him, returning his body to normal, Tarrin rushed directly into the raging inferno, and quickly vanished from sight.

        And there he waited.

        He didn’t have to wait long.  Four winged Deva swooped in and landed, three males and a female, with shields and heavy maces in hand and ready.  They investigated the two black, smoking piles of acidic ooze that was what was left of the Demons, looked at the fire, then looked at the corpses once more.

        The female gave a shocked gasp and looked down at the head of a glaive, a nimbus of unholy darkness surrounding the blood-streaked head, that suddenly extruded from her chest.  Then she tottered forward and fell upon the Demonic corpses.

        Deva were impossible to surprise, but to do what they never dreamed would be done was just as effective.  They’d sensed him just at the last second, but just like the Demons, they never dreamed that he would actively attack Deva within the boundaries of Crossroads, where their power was supreme.  But that moment of surprise was now gone forever, for he knew that never again would the Deva feel so arrogantly confident that Tarrin would not attack them here, that he would run instead of fight.  Now they knew that Tarrin Kael, the Mortal God, had no fear of the Deva, not here, not in the Happy Hunting Grounds, not anywhere.

        The other three quickly looked back, but the male on the right didn’t react fast enough.  Tarrin’s glaive struck him dead in the left eye, shearing off the top of his head, and he flopped bonelessly to the ground as the top half of his skull sailed into the fire.  The other two hastily raised their shields and backed off, their glowing gold eyes wild and afraid as they gazed upon the Mortal God, a bloodstreaked glaive in his paws and his eyes glowing green, narrow slits of pure evil that glared upon them like they were insects, the air around him shimmering slightly from the effect of an Anti-Magic Shell.  He crooked his paw at them them with his empty left paw.  “Come enforce the peace of Crossroads,” he said in a sinister low hiss.

        It was apparent that they believed that with the Anti-Magic Shell surrounding him, it was impossible for him to escape, so they advanced on him with surprising confidence.  Tarrin knew that all they really wanted to do was keep him occupied for the moment it was going to take more Deva to arrive, and Tarrin was more than willing to play that game, since that was upon which he was depending.  He wanted them to think that they were keeping his attention while more of their companions Teleported into the area and then swarmed all over him.  The Deva were not fools, they knew after the fights he’d had with them that he was more than a match for a pair of Deva in armed combat, when the Anti-Magic Shell took the power of magic off the table and forced both them and him to use nothing but the mundane weapons of a mortal.  So, they were only nursing his desire for hand to paw combat to lure him into a trap.

        But the trap was his.

        Tarrin surged forward as if his feet never touched the earth and crashed upon the two Deva like a tidal wave, both ends of his staff whistling in the air as he immediately put the two male Deva on a shocked defensive.  The first blow had caught the taller one completely off guard, sliding under his shield and striking him on the upper left thigh, slicing deep into flesh and almost hitting the bone.  He then parried the other’s mace, reversed his momentum even as he shifted into the end-grip, and weaved the tip of his glaive with blurring precision as he slapped the mace wide, struck the inside edge of the Deva’s shield, and then drove the tip of his glaive into the opening to punch it into his armored belly, punching through armor and driving about a finger’s length of blade into his midsection.  The Deva’s armor was compromised, but it had saved him from death.  Before the struck Deva could even stagger back, the Were-cat twisted and brought up a foot, then whipped it into the face of the first one, slamming his ankle and lower shin into the cheek of the lamed Deva, driving all his weight onto his injured leg and pushing him off his vertical base.  Tarrin continued the spin, turning with his momentum as his glaive screamed around his body, then dipped low and slashed the second Deva’s feet right out from under him with the butt end even as he fell backwards from the impact of the weapon.

        “Is this all the Deva have to offer?” Tarrin hissed scornfully as both Deva rolled quickly to their feet, both of them staggering backwards and away from each other with surprise showing in their eyes.  He gave them a scathing look, then shivered his tail and gave them time to collect themselves, allowing them to think that he was just that arrogant, even giving both of them a chance to use their Deva innate abilities to heal their wounds, when all he really wanted was to keep these two alive long enough for their help to reach the scene.  “I heard you knew how to fight.  It’s so sad to see that reputation is nothing but hot air.  Or is it just the Agathinon that do the fighting?  At least they put up a good fight.”

        One of them narrowed his golden eyes, and then both charged him at some unspoken cue, probably telepathic.  Tarrin turned and drove towards one of them, not allowing them to reach him at the same time.  He swiped the Deva’s mace out wide using his glaive’s advantage in reach, ducked under his arm, then hooked his claws into the Deva’s wrist as he went under his arm.  He skidded to a stop behind the Deva, his claws pulling him into a jerky turn, then he torqued his shoulder and pushed off his planted foot, pulling the Deva along with him.  The hooked Deva found himself pulled off his feet, and then hurtling through the air as the Were-cat used him as a living projectile, using an Ungardt hammer lock and flowing effortlessly into an arm throw, hurling the Deva over his bowed shoulder, hurling directly at his charging companion.  To the Deva’s credit, he managed to slip around his hurtling compatriot, raising his mace and shield as he got into striking distance.  The Deva’s mace was slapped aside by Tarrin’s open paw, and then the Were-cat found himself slithering aside as the Deva tried to slam his shield into his face.  He took up his glaive in both paws and defended himself from a surprisingly aggressive series of heavy blows from the Deva’s mace, as the golden-eyed being swung that weapon with some impressive anger and control.  This Deva acquitted himself quickly in Tarrin’s mind in that he certainly knew how to use his weapon.  He was very good.  Tarrin parried a series of fast yet heavy blows from the mace with both ends of his glaive, the weapon whirling before him to keep the mace at bay as Tarrin protected himself, backing up a couple of steps, and then melting away as the Deva went to club him in the leg.  The Deva overswung by the tiniest of fractions, but that was an eternity for someone with the speed and reflexes of Tarrin Kael.  He struck like a viper, slashing his glaive’s butt end into the inside forearm of the Deva, striking so hard that the mace was dislodged from his hand.  It went spinning towards the growing fire as the Were-cat weaved to the side and whipped his glaive around and down in a tight circle, driving one of the Deva’s feet out from under him.  The Deva didn’t even have time to cartwheel his arm or try to regain his balance, from the Were-cat’s foot planted itself directly in the Deva’s belly with so much force that the being was lifted off his feet.  He unfurled his wings in a vain attempt to soften the impact with the ground, but he rolled over his wings and landed on the back of his neck, then rolled over onto his stomach.  Tarrin wasted not an instant, turning and bending backwards at the waist deeply, catching the surprised Deva he’d thrown earlier off guard, who had regained his feet and rushed at them with his mace swinging for the back of Tarrin’s head the instant he got within reach.  Tarrin put one paw on the ground an scissored his legs up, catching the Deva’s forearm between his shins, then he powered from that one-handed anchor to the side, pulling the Deva’s arm back across his own body.  A deft flex and twist of the legs snapped both bones in the Deva’s arm in unison, then Tarrin’s tail whipped around his legs and slapped the Deva squarely in the face, with sufficient force to snap his head to the side.  The Deva was pulled to the ground by Tarrin’s weight, and the Were-cat rolled over after releasing his broken arm and quickly regained his feet.  The Deva tried to roll to his own feet, but Tarrin almost casually kicked him dead in the face, snapping his head back with so much force that one of the Deva’s teeth flew ten spans high into the air.  The Deva rolled on the ground, coming to a rest on his back, blood oozing from his mouth and nose, and quite unconscious.

        Tarrin could almost sense the arrival of other Deva nearby, and he knew it was time to end this.  It was time to send the message.  Tarrin let go of his glaive with his right paw, and before the other Deva could react, he knelt down and plunged that white-furred appendage into the chest of the senseless Deva before him.

        Again, it was so much harder than it was with Demons.  Tarrin had to fight for control of what was in his paw, pull against the sudden force that sought to pull him in, but this time there was less fear, less trepidation.  He knew what to expect.  Using his purchase on the ground as leverage, he literally stood up to pull his arm free of the Deva.  His paw erupted from the Deva’s chest with the prize firmly gripped in blood-soaked fingers, blood that evaporated into fine dust even as the Were-cat returned to a vertical base.  The other Deva looked upon him with outrage and fear, then recoiled from the deadness in Tarrin’s eyes, eyes that had not one shred of pity or remorse.

        Without his mace, knowing that the Mortal God was invulnerable to any and all magical attacks so long as he was within the protection of the shell, seeing that the power of that Anti-Magic Shell did not stop Tarrin from using the innate divine powers imbued within his form, and seeing the amulet of his brother hanging from the Were-cat’s paw, the Deva’s form shimmered and vanished as it enacted its ability to teleport to remove itself from danger.

        Clever fellow.  He knew what was coming.  It had been his intention to take his amulet, but he could work with only taking one…and besides, Tarrin had intended to take that amulet with an audience.  Instead of displaying the amulet to the Deva who were now looking on as they rushed to the scene to assist, instead now the escaped Deva would spread word that Tarrin could take amulets while wrapped in the invulnerability of an Anti-Magic Shell, which was exactly what he wanted them to know.  Either way, it worked for him.

        Tarrin turned and walked back into the fire just as the shell around him winked out of existence; it was earlier than Tarrin thought, but then he realized he wasted more time than he’d planned fighting that one Deva, which caused the shell to expire earlier than he expected.  He then cast a Wizard spell known as Fireflow, which was a spell that would allow him to control the flames in a limited manner.  It was a weak shadow of the power he had once possessed as a divine being, a power now locked in the pieces of his sword back on Pyrosia, but it would be enough.  In control of the flames, he directed them to jump over to the buildings on all four sides to set fire the the other buildings around them, and those fires took hold and began to burn with satisfactory enthusiasm.  In just a couple of moments, before those Deva out there could ponder a suitable plan of attack to lure him out of the fire, the inferno was burning an entire city block, as Archons, mortals, Demons, Deva, and other beings scattered from the area, racing away from an aggressively expanding firestorm that leapt from building to building, structure to structure, quickly immolating a large swath of the neighborhood in an inferno.

        The message had been sent.  The City was at war, at war with the one being that the Deva could not easily stop.  The message was about more than killing a few Deva and burning down a few buildings.  It was a message that told the citizens of the City that they were now dealing with a being that the Deva could not stop, a being that actively hunted down and killed the very Deva that kept the peace within the confines of the City.  They were dealing with a being that could systematically burn the City to the ground in a maniacal rampage of destruction, a being that the Deva had twice now failed to capture, kill, or stop.  And the beings of Crossroads knew that there was only one force in the universe that the Deva couldn’t stop by themselves.

        An Entropic.

        The citizens of the City now knew the terrible, frightening truth.

        There was an Entropic loose in Crossroads, and it had declared war.

        The Brezka neighborhood was only the first area of the City to taste the bitter medicine of Tarrin Kael.  Cycle after cycle, rumors and reports flew through the City, some of them true, some of them not.  The attacks were not mindless rampages.  They were well planned, well executed, and the very Demons and Deva they targeted could not help but appreciate the precision and cunning of the attacks.  They were not the work of a mindless, rampaging beast.  They were the work of an intelligent, cunning hunter stalking a dangerous prey, a prey that could fight back.

        No attack happened the same way.  Not every attack was perpetrated against Demons, some were strikes at the Deva directly.  Some were ambushes in the true sense of the word, where the Mortal God would strike out of nowhere, then either melt away like the shadows before the sun or wreak random destruction and havoc through the neighborhood to lure in Deva, who were afraid to engage the Mortal God with numbers any less than ten.  Some were daring frontal attacks, where the Mortal God would charge in with weapon in hand and attack his prey in a savage onslaught of offensive ferocity.  Some were cunning acts of subterfuge or deception, where the Were-cat attacker would carefully maneuver himself into a position where he could strike at a target in such a way that the victim never saw it coming, or dismissed the Mortal God as a mortal or Archon or some other harmless creature.

        Even the arrival of the Deva, in force, was an occurrence that would foster different reactions.  Sometimes the Mortal God would run.  Sometimes he would fight.  Sometimes he would engage in wholesale destruction using powerful Wizard magic, leaving a neighborhood in ruins and forcing the Deva to either try to put out the fires or chase him down. Sometimes he would use Wizard magic to befuddle the senses, bringing down darkness or fog, sometimes cancelling all sound in a wide area, or creating a cacophony of magical noise that made it impossible to hear someone screaming right beside you.  But the only true commonality that occurred after the Deva reached the scene of an attack was that the Mortal God managed to elude his Deva hunters, sometimes after killing a few of them before he made good his escape.

        Not all attacks resulted in him taking an amulet.  Quite a few of them were attacks designed simply to kill Demons, or kill Deva, or engage in destruction of buildings to frighten the citizenry and foment the spread of rumors.  They were acts that seemed random, but were well planned and designed to conceal the true motives and patterns behind his attacks.  The simple fact of the matter was, he didn’t have room to carry a horde of amulets.  All he needed were amulets from different kinds of Demons and Deva, one from each type, which would grant him the powers of that type of creature.  He wanted no more than fifteen Demon amulets and fifteen Deva amulets, so he was being very selective in which amulets to take, and he knew he had to make sure to count the amulets he intended to take.

        And he had to be very careful to keep the Deva off balance.  If the Deva managed to puzzle out what he was doing, it might jeopardize everything.  The Deva were very intelligent, adapting to his attacks and forcing him to constantly change his tactics to keep ahead of them.  He gave them the respect they were due in that regard, and he didn’t want them to work out his ultimate goal and move to deny it to him. Most of his random acts of destruction were nothing more than red herrings, to keep the Deva off balance and guessing, hiding his true intent behind a mask of wanton destruction.

        After twenty days, after many attacks that took place all over the city, the citizens of the megalopolis were starting to look upon the Deva with new eyes, eyes that didn’t see them as omnipotent figures that meted out justice with a heavy hand, but as harried, beaten entities who were very much in fear for their own existence.  And they knew their own fear, because they knew that the being out there dealing out such punishment to the City and to the Deva was an Entropic, a terrifying bringer of destruction, chaos, and disorder.  It was a being that was not supposed to exist outside of the Astral, but nevertheless had somehow managed to invade Crossroads, either assume or possess the form of the Mortal God, and who now wreaked havoc across the entire plane, a havoc so absolute that even the godlike Deva were worn to their last coil of rope.

        The fear and nervous activity of the residents only helped Tarrin, for it stirred them up, made them unpredictable and jumpy, and it helped the Were-cat blend in with the frightened masses that much more.  And they too helped him conceal the master plan behind his attacks.

        And one part of that plan was now complete.  After twenty days of ceaseless, unrelenting pressure, of daily attacks that destabilized whole sections of the City, undermining the reputation of the Deva, demoralizing them, terrorizing the Demons, and making both sides afraid to move about the city without large numbers for mutual protection, the attacks simply stopped.  A cycle went by, then another, then another, and there was no hint of what had happened.  But people weren’t waiting around to find out, for a mass exodus from the City had begun, as throngs of archons, Demons, and mortals were fleeing for other planes, trying to get out of the battleground.  Despite the unimaginable vastness of the City, everyone was just convinced that their neighborhood would be the next one to suffer an attack.  Those that remained couldn’t help but talk, talk about the attacks, talk about Tarrin, and what mattered most, talk about the rumors and conjecture as to who Tarrin was after and who might be next.

        The next phase of the plan involved a balor.  For cycles, Tarrin skulked through the City, listening, searching, isolating Demons or their servants and grilling them for information using the shapeshifting powers of the Agathinon amulet as well as some spying spells in the spellbook to gather information.  In that time, he isolated the balor that he would attack, a rather brash and arrogant one, even by Demonic standards, who was currently in the City because he had fallen out of favor in the Abyss.  It was rumored that his actions had so infuriated the rest of Demon kind that it was here under exile, in person, and not just a projection or constructed body.  This balor, who went by the name Krzak, was Tarrin’s chosen target.

        It took Tarrin fifteen cycles to find Krzak, invade his compound on the southwestern side of the Core, in the Furaga neighorhood, and come to learn the strength of his retinue of servant Demons and the power of his bodyguards.  This Krzak had come to Crossroads with a very large retinue of the Demons that personally served it, and those Demons included a marilith.  This was a surprise to Tarrin, because marilith were even rarer than balor outside of the Abyss, even though there were more of them.  Marilith were the generals and tacticians of the Demons, probably the most intelligent of them all, and because of that they tended to stay where they were needed.  Those forays into Krzak’s compound taught Tarrin that the only way he was going to get at the balor was to lure him out, because his defenses were almost infallible within his walled fortress.  This, no doubt, was because of his marilith subjugant and not because of his own brilliance.  With that marilith supervising the defenses of her master, Krzak would be literally untouchable inside the black walls of his fortress compound.

        That meant that it would have to be drawn out, separated from its bodyguards, and what was most important, removed from the protection of its marilith servant.  Tarrin respected the marilith’s mind ten times more than he respected the balor’s raw power.

        And now that he had a target, he needed a plan.  This plan would have three goals.  Firstly, Tarrin had to draw Krzak out of his fortress and onto a more favorable battleground.  Secondly, he had to be separated from the marilith, else her tactical mind would devise a counter and foil Tarrin’s plot.  Thirdly, he had to be isolated from his army of protectors long enough for Tarrin to engage him and take his amulet.

        This would not be easy.  Krzak clearly was in enough fear of his life to never leave his obsidian citadel, its black walls made of volcanic black glass, and almost pretty in a gothic, eerie kind of way.  Digging that Demon out of his fortress was going to be required.  So, if he never left, then he had to be made to leave willingly.  That wouldn’t be accomplished by force, that was for sure…so Tarrin had to devise a means to cause Krzak to come out willingly.  He had to accomplish this task in a manner that caused him to leave without his guards, and not to alert the marilith to his departure so as to cause her to follow.  No, Krzak had to leave the citadel on his own, of his own free will, and not feel that he was in danger.

        The problem was, no plan presented itself to Tarrin quickly, even after careful study of the citadel.  So, Tarrin retreated back to the Mytre neighborhood to consider the problem further, go over the maps he’d drawn of the outer areas he could see, and ponder a way to make Krzak leave his safe citadel willingly.  He hid there for four cycles, moving quietly and carefully, always keeping himself hidden, because now he was the enemy of the entire plane.  The scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells that lurked the alleys and streets of the Mytre neighborhood that had once allowed him to pass in silence would now either run away, alert the Deva, or attack him outright themselves.  Now he was the shadow lurking on the wall, observing those around him without making them aware of himself in return.  He hid out in abandoned buildings and basements as he pored over his maps and racked his brain, trying to come up with some way to lure the Demon out of his citadel without raising any alarms, and take him on ground favorable to himself while offering Krzak the least chance to strike back.

        That damned marilith.  Without her, he could find a hole in their defenses, but there simply were none.  Any attempt to lure the balor out would raise a big red flag with her.  Tarrin respected and feared the Demoness’ great intellect much more than the naked power of her stronger cousin, and it was her presence in that citadel that caused him to throw away plan after plan after plan.

        That meant that he was going to have to fall back on more Tarrin-esque plans…make something up on the spot and go with it before thinking it through…then scramble like a manic Faerie once the plan fizzled out halfway through and forced him to improvise.

        He could do that.  Before embarking on this madness, it was his standard operating procedure.  It was only coming here and being in a position of weakness and with so much to lose that made him get cautious.  But if pulling the master plan out required him to get crazy, well….

        Sometimes crazy works.

        Now, if he was the Tarrin of old, how would he go about it?  Simple.  The Tarrin of notorious legend in the realm of plan making back on Sennadar would invade the citadel by stealth.  Once inside, his objective would be to find and eliminate Krzak’s marilith servant.  Without her, Krzak would be a deer in the sights of a hunter.  The marilith would not be as heavily guarded as Krzak, and would be an easier target to reach…but not necessarily an easier target to kill.  Fighting her in her own lair, with its prepared defenses, would be the action of a maniac.

        Tarrin had been known as somewhat maniacal back when he was a mortal, and to pull this off, the Mortal God needed to reach back into that mortal’s infamous history and resurrect that brashness.  It was going to be the only way to do this.

        So, now he had a plan…such as it was.  Go back into the obsidian citadel, find the marilith, and kill her.  That was it.

        That was the whole plan.

        It was a plan that would have made the mortal Tarrin proud in its slapdash simplicity.  There were no annoying details, no frivilous backup plans, no distracting “what ifs”.  Just invade the citadel by stealth, locate the marilith, and kill her.  Everything else was going to be dealt with on the spot.

        But if there was one thing the plan had going for it, it was sheer, unmitigated audacity.  He had no doubt that Krzak and his minions would be flabbergasted that someone would actually try to invade their citadel and attack them directly.

        Now that he had a plan, he had to carry it out.  He emerged from a small void between two buildings that was covered by the roof of the taller one from above and blocked on the far side, a convenient hiding spot, and noticed immediately that something was amiss.  The usual sparse crowd that would be visible along this stretch of crooked street was missing.  Tarrin’s careful study of the neighborhood had been very thorough, and included an understanding of the patterns of activity of those who either lived in this place of frequented it.  There should have been denizens moving about along that alleyway, as well as the solitary Demon that stood guard on a small balcony overlooking a door at the end of the alley to his left side, but that Demon was not there.

        That immediately raised Tarrin’s hackles.  The shady residents of this neighborhood were very wary, cautious creatures, much like the rogues and thieves back home, sensitive to danger and quick to run to ground when things were getting dicey.  They wouldn’t vanish like that, not without a reason.  Without thought, Tarrin beckoned to his staff, and caused it to appear in his hand, then took a single step back into his little cul-de-sac and watched.

        It was just a flash, but it was enough.  A lone Deva flitted into view for a split second between the rooftops overhead, mace and shield in hand as it flew past.  It was flying low and slow.  It was looking for something.

        They knew he was here.  And the scroundrels that inhabited this area knew better than to be anywhere near here.  They knew what was coming.

        For that matter, so did Tarrin.  If they knew where he was, then that meant that they were going to appear and arrive in force, swarm the area to locate him, then converge and attack with large numbers, the only way they could take him.  They’d already got a healthy dose of his fighting prowess, and would not come at him without numbers to make sure of it.

        Tarrin cursed silently and backed into his hiding spot.  It was too soon!  Damn those Deva!  Tarrin could have lived with being found and attacked anywhere but here, where he intended to make his final move!  Now his entire plan was in jeopardy, because he doubted he would be able to find a place quite like this, with its perfect mixture of topography and magical aspects that made it the prime locale to handle a Solar.

        He knew that this was a possibility.  Tarrin’s unique nature made him nearly impossible to locate with magic, but the Deva were intelligent and they had eyes everywhere.  It seemed that simple bad luck had revealed him to them, and now everything was out the window.  He had to retreat from this place, back off and try to find another location to stage his confrontation with a Solar.

        Tarrin shivered.  Or was it?

        That presence.  He remembered feeling it once before…it was a Planetar.  Just like in the Happy Hunting Grounds, he could sense the arrival of that powerful being.  Just like before, there was a Planetar here, most likely to help them capture him.  In this place, where mortal magic did not function yet the innate powers of extra-planar beings like Deva and Demons did, the Deva would feel that they would have a large advantage…it was one of the reasons he had selected this very spot, because they would know that he could not rely on his Wizard magic to escape from them.  It had been his intention to use that very fact against them once he took what he needed from the Solar, baiting them into a false sense of his confinement to allow him to get away.  That was why the Planetar was here, he realized, because the Deva knew where he was, and felt they had him at a disadvantage.  They knew where he was, they had come in force, and one of their commanders, a Planetar, was on the scene to personally oversee the operation and direct the forces.

        Tarrin’s original intent was to take the soul of a balor and use the threat of that power to draw out a Planetar, and then attack him and force that Planetar, on pain of destruction, to summon a Solar to come to him.  But if there was a Planetar already here….

        It could work.

        Quickly, Tarrin formed a plan, one not much unlike his idea to use against the balor’s citadel.  He had to isolate that Planetar, split him away from the other Deva, and get him into a position where Tarrin could attack him with minimal threat to himself, for the Planetar was even more powerful than a balor.  Attacking a being like that head to head was not the wise course of action.  All he had to do was force that Planetar to summon forth a Solar, and that was it.  That was all he needed, a face to face meeting with a Solar on ground that favored Tarrin more than his adversary.

        But how to get at that Planetar.  He wouldn’t come down and engage Tarrin unless he felt that he was the one that had the advantage, that or Tarrin decimated his forces and forced him to take direct action.  But since Deva could call other Deva, the idea that Tarrin could decimate the numbers of Deva and the Agathinon they would surely summon once they knew his location seemed remote.  So, he had to trick the Planetar into a direct confrontation or find some way to strike at him from a position of utter surprise.

        No, he wouldn’t fight.  To bring the Planetar closer to him, he would run.  For in this place, with its maze of alleys and streets, one could run in a straight line that would actually go in a circle.  To lure the Planetar out, Tarrin had to scatter and misdirect his forces, spread them out, get them chasing their own tails.  Once he had them all in disarray and out of position, he could double back easily and strike at the Planetar from surprise, for the Planetar’s sense of presence was something that was like a beacon to the Were-cat.  Tarrin could point right at him, and use his sense of presence as an anchor from which to spread out his forces.

        And his actions wouldn’t seem out of place, given they believed that he had no effective means of easy escape from this place.

        It would work.

        So, all he had to do was start spreading out the Deva.  And to do that, all he had to do was let them find him.

        And find him, and find him, and find him.  After all, they couldn’t focus all their forces in one direction when he was going in four.

        It was time, time to use the weak powers he’d manage to grant himself to their utmost, and cause the Deva to understand just how dangerous Tarrin Kael could be.

        In the blink of an eye, there were four Tarrin Kaels occupying that narrow niche.  Each of the simulacrums nodded in understanding of what needed to be done, and each one hefted its staff in a meaningful way as the three fakes and the real Tarrin prepared to leave the niche and commence the operation.

        “Let’s go,” Tarrin whispered, and then they began.

        The Deva knew they had him.

        But catching him proved to be just as difficult.

        The Planetar overseeing this operation learned that very quickly.  They knew what the Entropic was capable of doing, but knowing that information and seeing it in action, and summarily being forced to counter it, was another matter entirely.  Tarrin Kael’s ability to create duplicates of himelf that were utterly indiscernable from the real thing was a known ability.  They knew that he could only create a small number of these replicas, and that they could not fight or otherwise engage in contact with living things, else the magic of their creation would be disrupted and they would vanish in a gentle explosion of glittering dust.

        This was what was known.

        But it was impossible to tell the fakes from the original when none of them would fight.

        The four of them had been sighted on a narrow, crooked street only moments ago, and the Planetar had sent in his forces, even as he sent word to the Demons that had agreed to cooperate in this venture that their prey was sighted, and the Demons surged into the area to corner their mark.

        When it came to Entropics, Demons and Deva fought on the same side.  There would be no universe to conquer and rule for the Demons if they allowed an Entropic to carry out its task to unmake all.

        And in this operation, there were both Demons and Deva down in that maze of narrow, twisting streets, hunting down the Entropic, the Mortal God, Tarrin Kael.

        The initial sighting warned the Planetar that the Entropic knew they were there, knew that he was found, and the initial sighting of the four of them took on clarity of meaning when they reached an intersection, then split up.  Each one went down a connecting street at that intersection while the fourth turned back and ran back the way it had come.

        The Entropic was not going to fight.  It was going to run.

        This was what made the Planetar understand the nature of the game.  They could not tell a fake from the real thing, and because of this, all of them had to be chased down, cornered, and engaged.  And because they had no idea which was the real one, a sizable force had to be on hand to engage the Entropic once it was cornered.  Each one of the four had to be treated like it was the real one, when there was actually only a one in four chance that they were dealing with the one that could fight back.  The idea to use a bow from the air to destroy a duplicate and weed out the potential targets was an option that the Planetar had considered when he first saw them split up, but looking down at this overgrown warren of tall buildings and narrow, twisting streets, he understood the nature of the place and the Entropic’s selection of this place as a hiding space.  The buildings were too close together for a Deva to fly between them, and a street didn’t go straight for more than a few hundred kelams before either turning or reaching an intersection.  The buidings were so high that it would force an archer to be directly in line with the street below to have a shot, and the interconnected maze of uncountable side streets gave their quarry way too many ways to go to allow an archer to get ahead of him and try to shoot at him in a moment of opportunity.  An archer that did manage to get into postion would have no clear shot against a target that could reach a side street and duck out of the line of fire before an arrow could reach him.

        The Planetar had to admire the cunning of this adversary for a moment.  In selecting this place to hide, it had ensured that the Planetar would have to bring an army to contain him and corner him, an army that would be powerless where the Entropic would retain a portion of his own power, and that included his fearsome ability to steal the very souls of those who opposed him.  No wonder he would come to this place, where the nature of the layout of the neighborhood and the imposing difficulties involved in fighting the Entropic in this place balanced the loss of his mortal magic, which made escape by spellcraft impossible.  The proximity of the Core also prevented the use of the powers he had stolen when he took the souls of both Demon and Deva alike, though the distance from the Core caused the boundary that prevented the use of those powers to cross through this area, an invisible line of which everyone had to be very aware.  If the Mortal God took one step over that line, he could Teleport away using the captured powers of the souls he had taken, but at the current time, he was located in the region where those powers did not function.  In this place, only the power of a Solar and the powers of a god would function.  Even the Planetar himself was powerless in this place, relying on his wings for flight and his weapons for defense.  Unfortunately for all involved, the Entropic’s unique background included powers which were divine in nature, and as such they would work in this place.  That gave the Entropic a distinct advantage, and also required them to use caution.  If someone chasing the real Entropic found himself alone, the Entropic might very well turn on him and try to take his soul.  Down there, in that knot of intermeshed streets and alleys, the Entropic had an advantage, and the Planetar knew that he was smart enough to understand when to use that advantage.

        The Planetar, M’Boh, fully respected the cunning of his opponent.  This Mortal God, this Entropic, Tarrin Kael, he was not one to be taken lightly.

        M’Boh’s course of action was clear.  At the current time, the Entropic was in an area where he could not use his captured souls’ powers, and the Planetar had to make sure it stayed that way.  The Planetar had already formed a picket at that boundary, a line of Agathinon that would stop the Entropic from getting into an area where he could exploit his captured powers and escape.  The rest of his forces had been split into two groups.  One group was sent down into that knot of streets to chase the images of the Entropic while the other half created a loose line that contained him in a certain area, a half-circle that would close inward inexorably as the chasers harried the four potentials and tried to flush them into a position where a large force could arrive quickly to engage them in combat.  One by one, those Entropics would be pinned down and engaged, and when they found the real one, the Planetar himself would make sure to be there so his sword could mete out the sweet justice the Entropic had coming to him.

        Minutes passed by as the Planetar watched from high above the air, as his semicircle closed itself and Demons and Deva both scrambled through those narrow, twisting streets below, directing the forces on the ground using telepathic communion, even the Demons.  M’Boh did his best to get forces in place to cut off those Entropics, but the twisting nature of the place contributed to the fact that the Entropic seemed to have an uncanny knowledge of the place.  Not once did any of the four of him turn into a dead end alley or turn up a street that did not offer a quick means of escape.  M’Boh realized then that the Entropic had a detailed knowledge of the neighborhood, and any attempt to trap him in a dead end alley was going to be in vain.  More than once, one of those Entropic forms weaved along streets and alleys with agile speed and ended up circling the very forces that were trying to box it in, ignoring more than one opportunity to attack a lone Demon or Deva that had become separated from the others.  M’Boh knew that they would not attack, even if they had a chance to strike without any fear of counterattack, because that act of attack would single out the real one from the fake one and allow them to surround and engage without having to chase down the other three.

        Then, much to the Planetar’s shock, the Entropic banished his three fake incarnations and revealed his true location.  The lone Entropic form left, which was moving towards the Core, not towards the picket and freedom, then created three new duplicates, and those four incarnations again split up.

        This puzzled M’Boh, until he understood the nature of the act.  Now, all those Demons and Deva that had been pursuing his three false incarnations were woefully out of position, and the only forces M’Boh had in position to intercept the Entropic and his false images were the Deva forming the semicircular noose trying to trap him into a specific area and the forces that had been chasing that Entropic incarnation.  Instead of having a sufficient force on hand to stop the Entropic from breaking through the line, now M’Boh had to sacrifice his picket to try to contain the four incarnations.

        Damn clever!

        And just how did the Entropic know what the Planetar was about?  It was almost as if he could see all the Demons and Deva in the area, knew exactly where they all were, and was able to outmaneuver them with nearly ridiculous ease.

        The amulets!  Of course!

        The Entropic had the souls of his brother Deva, and could use their powers…could that be allowing him to hear their telepathic communion?  If he could, no wonder he knew exactly where all the Deva were…they were telling him!

        The Planetar ordered telepathic silence at that point and descended so his shouted commands could be heard and relayed.  The Entropic would not use the powers it had stolen against them.

        The four of them zigzagged wildly for long moments, then mysteriously converged at a jagged intersection that was akin to the center of a spiderweb, a hub of nine streets that met at a single point, at the statue of Mytre which gave this region its name.  Then, for some mysterious reason, they started crisscrossing the close-knit streets with their many interconnecting alleyways, doubling back on each other, twisting and weaving.  Then all four entered a building that was close to the hub.

        But only three came out.

        M’Boh ordered a Deva lieutenant to take command of a unit of ten Deva to land and enter the building to find the fourth while he continued directing the effort to pin the three left to be engaged.  The Planetar circled over the statue of Mytre in slow, lazy revolutions as he watched the three remaining basicly circle the hub of the streets radiating out from the statue, seemingly unwilling to get too distant from the statue.  This behavior made little sense to the Planetar, for it would only behoove the Entropic to spread his three images out and away from himself to force the Deva and Demons to maximize the manpower needed to contain them.  As it was, M’Boh had more than enough forces on hand to corner each of the three visible manifestations, even enough to re-establish the semicircular containment as he marched the Agathinon up from their position at the line, but not very far, only enough to seal the edges of the semicircle.

        This had a purpose.  The Entropic had proven one thing to M’Boh, and that was that he was not stupid.  He wouldn’t make this kind of a basic error on purpose.  For some reason, he wanted all the Deva bunched up in this area.

        Maybe the other three were only a diversion, giving the fourth that had not left the building, the real one, a chance to escape the containment.

        That had to be it.

        M’Boh received the report from the Deva who had invaded the building.  It was a large warehouse, and it was empty.  There was no sign of the Entropic within.

        The Planetar cursed.  There was no way he could escape that building without being seen, which meant that one of the three remaining had to be the real one.  But to what purpose?  The Planetar could see no reason, no logic to that action.  It only made things more difficult for the Entropic having so many Deva and Demons so close together, and now none of the three remaining had a hole or opening through which to escape.  They were firmly withing the ring, and that ring was shrinking moment by moment.

        Did he intend to fight?  Would he now turn on the Deva and Demons stalking the streets of the spiderweb hub and abandon his game of deception using his manifestations?

        Again, to what end?  There would be no gain in such an action, not when the very act of attacking would reveal the true Entropic and allow the Planetar to concentrate his forces against him.  No, there was something else going on here.  The Planetar wasn’t going to fall into that trap.  The Entropic had a trick waiting for them, he was sure of it.

        That building…it had to be the central focus of this impending trick.  The fourth Entropic form had entered that building and had not left.  Either the Entropic had escaped using some hidden passage or tunnel or sheltered cove protected from aerial view, he had dismissed that fake image in order to be able to create another at a later time…or he truly had never left the building, and was keeping the other three images nearby and close to each other to give the Deva a false sense of impending victory, to get them so interested in those three that they forgot all about that building and the fourth Entropic incarnation.

        The tactical bent of the Planetar decided that that was what it had to be. The other three were a diversion.  The building was what mattered here.

        M’Boh landed on a rooftop some distance from the building and ordered another thirty Deva and Demons to surround and invade the building, to take it apart stone by stone if needs be to either find the fourth incarnation or find the means by which the incarnation might have escaped that building without being seen.  If they could truly find nothing, then the Planetar had been in error and one of the three remaining was indeed the real Entropic.  But he lost nothing to make sure, not with the other three contained within the tightening ring.  They had nowhere to go, and it was only a matter of time until they were pinned down and engaged.  The eleven span tall being, with his golden skin, glowing blue eyes, and bald pate cut quite the figure on that rooftop, with his Deva scouts circling over his head, as he watched that building with narrowing eyes and waited for a report.

        It was his Planetar senses that saved him from instant defeat.  He became aware of a presence, and understood immediately that what he was sensing was unlike anything he had ever sensed before.  And there was only one thing that could be.

        The Entropic!  He could sense him clearly, he was nearby, and he was getting closer and closer!

        The Planetar raised his sword and looked around, but saw nothing.  He looked up, but saw nothing, even as he sensed the Entropic close to him, very close…too close.  Why could he not see him?

        With widening eyes, the Planetar looked down, at the roof of the building upon which he stood.

        Just as he understood, there was a sudden explosion of dust and flying chips of rock.  The white-furred paw of the Entropic exploded through the roof just between the Planetar’s legs, and before the being could react, that paw grabbed hold of the Planetar’s armor-shod boot.

        With a gasp, the Planetar was pulled through the roof in an explosion of dust and stone.  He felt himself in freefall as the hand on his ankle yanked, and then the disappearing hole above suddenly covered over in strange fire.  Fire was all around him, fire that did not burn.  Then something kicked him in the back, hard, and the fire parted and vanished to reveal a small warehouse stacked with crate upon crate in neat rows.  The Planetar landed on a stack of crates and whirled on his opponent, as the Entropic turned in the air and landed on another stack of boxes on both feet and a hand, the other hand holding a simple wooden staff.

        He intended to, to fight!  What foolishness!  The Planetar cast out with his thoughts for his forces to converge on the building—

        —and felt nothing from the others.  Nothing at all!

        The Planetar gave the Entropic a shocked look, then realized that there was no dust or stone falling from the hole in the roof.  He glanced up and saw a whole, undamaged roof above.

        How!  How did the Entropic do it!?  How did the Entropic move them to another place?

        Amazing!  The Planetar realized that everything up to that point had been nothing but a means by which to get the Planetar alone for a direct confrontation!  The Entropic obviously meant to try to take his soul!

        And the Planetar could feel that wherever they were now, it was a place on the other side of that line.  In this place, the Planetar could use his innate powers.

        A clever plan.  It’s unfortunate that you made only one error.  You wanted to get me alone, but you will find that I am the only Deva that needs to be here to kill you, the Planetar cast out his thought in grim amusement, hefting his huge two-handed sword in both hands and pulling it into a guard position.  I am as far above the Agathinon and Deva as you are above the mortals.  You are no match for me.

        “Maybe if I intended to kill you, I’d be concerned,” the Entropic stated fearlessly, standing fully erect, his eyes glowing an evil green as they bored into the Planetar’s own.  “But I don’t have to fight you, Planetar.  I just have to touch you.  And you can’t stop that.  You’re not fast enough.  I know you have an encyclopedic knowledge of me and my power, but think of only one thing, Deva.  I got close enough to you to grab you before you could react.  When I bring my simulacrum here and you find yourself trying to avoid being touched by a swarm of paws instead of just two, you’re not going to last long.”

        The Planetar narrowed his glowing blue eyes and said nothing.

        “But this is a fight we can both avoid.  I’ll let you walk out of here untouched and unharmed.  All you have to do is do one thing for me.”

        I do not bargain with Entropics.

        “Suit yourself,” Tarrin shrugged.  “I would have rather avoided this fight.  Trust me, sticking my paw into the place where your souls exist is not pleasant, and in your case, I’d have to leave my paw in there for quite a while.  I don’t think either of us is going to enjoy that very much.”

        With a blinking waver, three perfect replicas of Tarrin Kael appeared on each side of him.  Instead of moving in perfect unison with the original, each one moved independently of the others.  Each one did, however, set down its staff.  “You don’t understand how my power works, Planetar,” the Entropic told him as the four moved to circle and surround the Planetar.  “These simulacrum aren’t entirely fake.”  Those words came from a different one.  “They’re not real in the sense you and me are,” the words emanated from another one, “but at any time, I can shift my true self into one of the projections, effectively moving to another place.  It’s how I brought you here.  I surrounded you with myself, then moved myself to a projection.  Since I completely encompassed you, you came along with me.  That’s why we have all this nice time to ourselves and I don’t have to worry about any of your comrades crashing our party.  Right now, we’re quite a distance away from where we were.”

        The Planetar jumped backwards to another set of crates, then again, then again, and then abandoned dignity and rushed back to a wall, jumped down to the floor, then put his back to the wall.  With crates near him on both sides, it narrowed the possible avenues to reach him to only one; a frontal attack.  The images and the real Entropic appeared on the crate tops to each side of the Planetar, looking down.  “You never really understood that power or how it works, did you?  I’m sure you realize now just how hard it’d be to kill me for real.  You’d have to simultaneously strike me and my projections, to prevent me from just moving to another one.  And at any time, you have no idea which of these is the real me and which is a fake, even after I attack you.”

        The Entropic was right.  If he truly could simply move to an incarnation, then there was no way to really kill him unless one struck at every image of the Entropic at the same time.  It was possible to kill the Entropic, but it would be very, very difficult.  And the entire time they were trying, that Entropic was free to run around and do only who knew what kind of damage.  But what insanity would possess the Entropic to reveal the one way to destroy it for good?

        “Of course, you’re thinking that I’m a fool for revealing that,” the Entropic said with an evil little smile gracing all of those incarnations.  “But I wanted you to fully appreciate just how hard it’s going to be to get rid of me.  But you can end it all, right here and now, Planetar.  You can stop the attacks, the destruction, and the losses of your Deva brothers and sisters.”

        I do not bargain with Entropics, he repeated, raising his sword.

        “We’re not going to bargain.  I’m going to ask you to do something.  If you refuse, I’m going to make you do it.  But understand here and now, Planetar, you will do it.  It’ll be a lot less painful for both of us if you do it willingly.  And if you run away, if you call for help, or you cause such a display that it causes all the other Deva to come here, I’ll go on a rampage that makes what you’ve seen from me so far look like nothing but a spat between two toddlers.  I’ll set the entire City on fire and fix it so the Deva can’t so much as appear anywhere in Crossroads without being immediately attacked.  You’ll have to bring every Deva you have here to try to kill me, and now that you know how hard I am to kill, you understand that you’ll lose a lot of Deva in the attempt.  I will bring ruination to your precious Crossroads and shatter what remains of the reputation of the Deva among the other Outer Planar beings.”

        The Planetar suppressed a gasp when he realized that the Entropic was being totally serious…and what was more, the Entropic could make good on that threat.

        “Now, I’m going to ask you to summon a Solar.  I’m not insane enough to want to fight one, but I do need to talk to one.  If you refuse, I’m going to make you summon a Solar.  Because now you understand what’s going to happen if you run away from me or trick me, and you know what’s going to happen if you try to fight me with the limitations I put on you.  You’ll lose.  I’m sure you’ll put up a magnificent fight, and you may even wound me, but you can’t fight all of us.  One of us is going to get a paw on you, and when I do, that’s it.  I’ll put my paw inside you and grab hold of your soul, and force you to do what you could have done voluntarily.  It’s your move, Planetar.  You can do whatever you want.  You can call a Solar because I asked, you can call one because we both know I couldn’t fight both you and a Solar at the same time without losing, you can try to fight me, or you can run away and unleash me on Crossroads.  Decide.”

        The Planetar thought furiously.  Flight was not an option here.  If he infuriated the Entropic and caused him to go on his promised rampage, then it would irrevocably harm the reputation of the Deva in the Outer Planes, a reputation that they actually depended upon for much of the enforcement of law within Crossroads.  Just the reputation of the Deva was enough to curtail foolishness in this place.  If he fought the Entropic, he understood that even with all his powers and strength and skill, the Entropic was again right.  Who would win a fight between them with the rules that were on the table was up in the air.  The Planetar had much more power than the Entropic, but the Entropic wasn’t trying to kill him, was only trying to touch him.  And the Planetar, alone, could not simultaneously attack all of the Entropic’s incarnations in such a way to prevent the Entropic from simply moving to a projection to escape injury, not with the threat of him abandoning the fight and going on a rampage hanging over the Planetar’s head.  The Planetar actually had several innate powers that would strike at everything in an area, but the Entropic’s threat to go on a rampage if he did anything that attracted attention to where they were took most of them off the table.  The only power that the Planetar could think to use that would affect all of the incarnations and not attract attention was the power of Symbol, which created a glyph that enacted magic on whoever read it.  But the Symbol wasn’t foolproof, and he couldn’t risk that the Entropic would evade its power.

        But the balance here was that if the Planetar could use his innate powers, then so could the Entropic use the powers it had stolen.  At any time, in an instant, it could teleport away from this place.  If it recognized the use of the Planetar’s Symbol, it could teleport away without being affected by it.

        No.  There was too much at stake here.  If the Planetar failed, then the Entropic would go on his promised rampage and destroy what the Deva had labored for eons to create.  It was just too risky to try to fight the Entropic without causing it to do what it threatened to do…and besides, if the Planetar did summon a Solar, well, the victory was all but assured.  The Entropic itself was smart enough to understand how insane it would be to attack one of the great Solars.  Calling a Solar to kill the Entropic was probably more than was necessary, but the Planetar saw that it would be the most efficient way and with the least chance of causing any damage.

        And they might not get another chance to get this close to the Entropic.

        It took no effort.  All the Planetar had to do was call to a Solar and entreat that it come to him.  That was all it took.

        And that was what the Planetar did.

        Tarrin had seen that moment of indecision race across the face of the Planetar, but then Tarrin felt the presence of a being that could only be called a titan among the Deva.  Clearly, the Planetar had assessed the risk of battling Tarrin against his own ego of believing he could win, and saw that the risk was just too great.

        Tarrin just had to smile.  The Planetar had summoned a Solar, and Tarrin didn’t have to risk his hide fighting it to make it do it.

        The Solar appeared directly before the Planetar, and Tarrin had no doubt that the Solar already knew everything about what had happened here, and what the situation currently was.  And he was a majestic creature!  Twelve spans tall, golden skin, flowing golden hair, huge white feathered wings, wearing a loose fitting wrap-like red and yellow striped vest and a simple pair of baggy red pants that tied with straps around the ankles over a pair of bare feet.  A bow and quiver were slung over one shoulder, and a large sword was in the Solar’s hand.  The Solar turned and looked up at Tarrin, seemingly looking right at the real Tarrin and ignoring the images, and those glowing blue eyes were adamant and unwavering.  The creature had an aura of power about him that was almost a palpable thing, but Tarrin’s exposure to his mother and the Goddess had steeled him against such things.

        I am Sh’Keel, the Solar intoned mentally.  Planetar M’Boh summoned me at your behest.  A foolish, foolish action, Entropic.  I am paramount among Deva.  You have no hope against me.

        “I’m not here to fight you, Solar,” he said, banishing his three simulacrum and dropping down to the floor.  “I’m here to make a deal with you.”

        The Deva do not bargain with Entropics.

        “Ah, but you will bargain with me,” Tarrin said, “because I have something no other Entropic has ever had.  The souls of your Deva comrades.”

        He held up the bracer on his right wrist.

        The Solar’s eyes narrowed dangerously, but it said nothing.

        “First things first, though,” he said, putting his black furred paw over that bracer meaningfully.  “To prevent any brilliant ideas, both of you, drop all your weapons.  I want to talk, not fight.  Put them all on the floor, and know that I’m ready to destroy what I have in my paw if either of you so much as twitch, or try to use your innate powers.”

        The Planetar looked to the Solar, and the Solar nodded.  Both of them set their swords on the floor, and the Solar placed his bow on the floor as well.

        “The quiver too,” Tarrin called.  “You’re not going to try to stab me with any arrows.”

        The Solar unbuckled his quiver, then set it on the floor.

        “Now then, I’ll give all the souls I’ve taken back to you, Solar, both Deva and Demon.  I don’t really need them.  Truth be told, I took them for no other reason than to get you where you are now.  Everything I’ve done in Crossroads, all the fighting, all the destruction, it was all just for this.”

        With deliberate slowness, Tarrin took the bracer off his right wrist, and then the one off his left.  He then set them on the floor and took a step back.  “The souls of your brothers and sisters, and the souls of the Demons.  Yours.”

        And what would you demand in return for them?

        “Nothing.  No conditions, no restrictions, no negotiations.  You’ve already given me what I want.  All I ask is that you return the souls of the Demons back to Abyss safely.”

        But we have given you nothing.

        “What I want from you is not something you give.  All I want from you is five seconds.  In those five seconds, you will do nothing.  You will not call for help, you will not try to stop me, and in return I promise I won’t attack either of you.  You’ll give me a five second head start.  After those five seconds, you can do whatever you please, which I’m fairly certain will involve chasing me down.”

        The Solar nodded immediately.  I understand now what you intend, and just to prove to you how foolish you are, I will give you that five seconds.  But you can’t even touch them, Entropic.

        “Your confidence in me overwhelms me, Solar,” Tarrin drawled.  “So, you agree then?  I can have five seconds?”

        If only to try, you may, the Solar told him with a little amusement.

        “Very well then.  Before we begin, let me say that you’re the one that’s foolish, Solar.  If there’s anything about me that you should have been warned about, it’s that I find ways to do the impossible.  Get out your running shoes, Solar.  You’re about to start chasing me.  Five.”

        Tarrin’s paw whipped under the waist of his trousers as he lunged forward.

        “Four.”

        He produced a long length of golden cord, weighted at both ends with a bit of metal.  The Solar’s eyes widened when it saw that object.  It was then, in that instant, that it understood just how Tarrin was going to do it.

        It was rope made from a Deva’s hair.

        “Three”

        In a stunning motion of complex dexterity, Tarrin whipped the weighted end of that cord through the strap on the quiver, and between the bowstring and the wood of the bow.  He grabbed the loose end to form a carrying sling that held both objects.

        “Two.”

        Tarrin’s wings, a facet of himself he had kept scrupulously hidden the entire time, exploded out from his back, even as he reached out to the side, and caused his staff to rise up and race to his open paw.

        “One.”

        Tarrin’s feet lifted from the floor, he turned, and then rocketed away from the Solar and Planetar with his prize.  In that one remaining second, he plowed into the far wall, striking it with his staff and causing it to shatter in an explosion of brick and mortar that blew out into the street beyond, a street that marked the boundary where the Deva’s powers wouldn’t function.  He catapulted through that hole, split into five separate incarnations, and vanished from sight in an instant, each one going in a different direction.

        He was after your bow this entire time? the Planetar asked in astonishment.

        I would say the bow and quiver both.  Clearly, he believes he can find some way to make them work for him, the Solar responded, slightly impressed.  The use of a Deva’s hair was clever.  My bow and quiver wouldn’t strike out at the touch of another Deva, though they also won’t work either.  He did indeed find a way to touch them.  It now makes sense why he went to these lengths.

        How so, great Solar?

        Clearly he understood what would happen when he took them.  If he would have all of the Deva after him for taking the bow and quiver, why tiptoe around us up to that point?  But that is another matter.  Let us go about the task of reclaiming what he has taken, and ending the threat of him once and for all.

        “No.  You won’t.”

        Both of them whirled around in total shock to find themselves looking down at a small, gnarled old woman, wearing a simple peasant dress and a shawl over her gray hair.  The old woman raised a knobby hand, and both Planetar and Solar shuddered, and then moved no more.  “That’ll keep the two of you out of his hair for a few minutes,” she told them, though she knew that couldn’t hear her, or register anything.  They were now trapped outside of time in a manner that would make them skip over the next few minutes.  When they again rejoined time, it would be to them as if no time at all had passed.

        With a grating cackle, the old woman then vanished, vanished so completely that even the memory of her was wiped from the Deva she had entrapped.  Those Deva would come out of their stasis and believe that the Were-cat Tarrin Kael had fled from them just seconds before, when the reality was that he would have several minutes to make good his escape…and that time was all that he needed.

        Tarrin expected a maniacal chase by every Deva in Crossroads the instant he left the warehouse with his prize, for them to appear in massive numbers and fall on him like Death Himself.  They all knew what he now had, and they all knew that it absolutely could not be allowed to remain in the hands of anyone other than a Solar, no matter what it took.

        The bow of a Solar wasn’t all that amazing.  It was, after all, simply a bow.  But this bow was the only bow in existence that could fire the arrows from the quiver, and it was that quiver that every Deva in existence was going to be after him to get back.

        The quiver of a Solar was probably the most deadly and lethal thing about the noble being, even over its magic, even over its nearly godlike powers, even over its great strength, even over its vast intelligence.  The quiver of a Solar produced magic arrows that killed whatever they hit.

        Period.

        If the arrow struck, the target died. The arrow only had to make contact with the skin or flesh.  The power of the bow that fired it would cause it to penetrate through armor, but once the arrowhead made contact with the natural being beneath, that being was dead.

        The Deva knew that if Tarrin found a way to make the bow and quiver work for him, he could use it against the Deva, even use it to slay a Solar.  Not even the mighty Solar were immune from the power of the quiver.

        Tarrin had the bow and quiver now, having quickly stashed them in his Portable Hole while on the move to put them in a place where he didn’t have to worry about them and also kept them out of trouble, and now he flew at ground level along the twisting, narrow streets, so fast that he kept brushing against walls and banging his elbows and knees on corners, using his detailed knowledge of the neighborhood to allow him to go faster than anyone else could possibly go in here.  He had to return back to the area where Wizard magic would function, and it was some distance away from him, and he was currently not moving towards it, he was moving parallel to his goal to remain in the area where the Deva couldn’t use their innate abilities…well, all of them except that Solar.  He would have to leave the warrens of the neighborhood soon, but he wanted to get as far as possible before he did so.

        But there was no pursuit.  None at all.  Were they allowing him to escape?  It made no sense!  He saw no Deva at all.  Were they hiding, waiting for him to run out of room down here and emerge from the buildings?  Tarrin rose up and just barely peeked his head over the roof of a building and quickly looked around.  In that fleeting glance, his confusion increased.  No Deva at all!  They were not pursuing him!

        For the Goddess’ sake, why?  They knew what he had, they’d never let him simply get away with something like that!

        It confused him so much he nearly failed to take advantage of the opportunity it represented, as bizarre as it was.  He was far enough from where the Deva had been chasing him that they were out of sight.  The Solar and Planetar, for some unfathomable reason, had not yet raised an alarm to call their forces to this area.  That was a combination of facts that was too good to pass up.

        Lancing out from between two buildings, the winged Were-cat emerged from the cover of the buildings and flew just over the rooftops, so close that his feet nearly banged on roof edges, then turned and moved arrow-straight away from the Core.  The buildings beneath him blurred by in a surrealistic landscape, and the wind in his face was so strong that it stung his eyes.  He moved at tremendous speed away from the scene of his attack.

        Long, tense moments went by as Tarrin hurtled along the rooftops, as the Were-cat would rise up just enough to be able to look behind him without having to worry about plowing headlong into a slightly higher building, but there was no pursuit.  That made absolutely no sense at all.  Why was the Solar just letting him waltz away with something like this?

        From behind him, there was a sudden, dreadful sense of fury.  It could only come from something of tremendous power.

        Tarrin had to chuckle.  That was the Solar.  So, clearly, the Deva were chasing him, but somehow, in some mysterious, unknown fashion, he had managed to get outside the area of their search.  It had to be in those precious moments when the Solar didn’t act.  But why did he do it?  He should have called every Deva in Crossroads to him the instant Tarrin vanished out of that hole.  But for some reason, he did not.  He had waited, and had waited too long, for now Tarrin had managed to evade the concentrated search.  They hadn’t started looking for him so far from where the attack had been, that was why there were no Deva out here.

        Tarrin sensed the crossing of the border that marked the return of Wizard magic.

        Success!

        Tarrin pulled up and halted, sliding through the air to arrest his forward momentum.  The instant he was stationary, he spoke a single word, the word of Contingency.  The spell of Contingency allowed him to use a pre-determined spell at the utterance of a single word, already cast in advance.  Wizards used Contingency as an escape mechanism in cases of dire need.  Well, this was a case of dire need.

        As soon as he spoke the word, a swirling magical gateway appeared before him, which was a gateway that would return him within reach of one of the portal stones.  He moved through it quickly, and found himself hovering just in front of a portal stone, a large black obsidian obelisk standing upon a stone pedestal, surrounded by mortals, Archons, and other denizens of the Outer Planes.  Some of them recognized him and turned to flee from him, but he ignored all of them.  He put a single paw on the portal stone and willed that it transport him to another plane, willed that it move him to the vast expanses of the Astral, a place where the Deva could not find him.

        His time in Crossroads was now done.  He had what he needed from here.  Now, it was time to face the greatest challenge of his life.  Now, he had to find some way to get past Spyder, if only for just long enough to do what he had to do in Sennadar.  He still had no plan, no idea what he was going to do about Spyder, but he would have plenty of time in the journey to the hidden gate of Sennadar to consider it.

        Tarrin appeared in a vast empty gulf of dull gray, the only physical object in sight in any direction.  Without wasting a second, he fixed the dull gray color pool of the gate to Sennadar firmly in his mind, and willed to go there.  There was no sensation of movement, but he knew that he was now moving towards that destination.  It would take time to get there, and that time would be spent trying to fathom how to keep Spyder off of him without hurting her.

        He’d find a way, he was confident of that.  He always did.

        The Blushing Mermaid was a seedy dive, a dilapidated, ramshackle tavern on the banks of the great river Merin, that split the city of Tor in two.  It was a popular place, however, for though the building looked ready to fall over in a stiff breeze, the grizzled tavern owner, Gralt, sold drinks that weren’t watered down and at a fair price.

        The interior of the tavern was a ramshackle as its outside.  The walls were unpainted, unadorned, made of bleached and faded wood that had been cannibalized from sailing vessels, the gaps between them sealed with tar.  All the furniture was mismatched, and much of it was either partially broken or on the verge of collapse, the victims of being often used as weapons in the brawls that were rather commonplace in this particular tavern.  It was so commonplace that the Torian Watch stationed a detachment of watchmen on the wharf outside the front door after dark, so they could quickly respond to any eruption of violence within.  The interior of the place was a study in the many races that plied the Twenty Seas.  There were Arakite sailors over in one area, and beside them sat a host of Wikuni merchantmen, whiling away some shore leave.  A small band of Ungardt were being loud and raucous over in one corner, offending a large group of Torian sailors that were sitting nearby.  There was a large group of Shacèan sailors near the bar, and the bar was populated with any number of people from other, smaller nations.

        But there was one figure in the place that looked decidedly out of place.  He looked almost like a Wikuni, but not really.  He was an absolutely monstrous fellow, easily nine spans tall, with a human body, but with arms and legs covered in black fur, a long, delicate tail, and hand and feet that looked more animal than human.  He had a human head, but had triangular animal ears poking out over blond hair and vertically slitted, feline green eyes.He was a very stocky figure, but his great height made that stockiness deceptive in appearance.  He’d come in some time ago and had been quite content to sit at the bar and try several different ales and wines that Gralt had, and paid for them with Torian gold marks.  And since he was a paying customer, that made him welcome in Gralt’s tavern.

        The other patrons in the tavern were curious about the fellow, but they kept their distance…at least as long as they were sober.  One of them got drunk enough to cast manners to the wind, a young Ungardt man wearing a fur vest and a pair of raw buckskin leggings, and he approached the large non-human at the bar boldly.  “What manner of creature are you, stranger?” he asked boldly, speaking in slightly broken Torian.

        “I’m a Were-cat,” the figure replied, looking at the crest on the axe in the Ungardt’s belt.  “You’re from my clan.  That makes us cousins.”

        “Clan?”

        “My father’s an Ungardt,” the figure explained.

        “Kael?  You’re a Kael?” the Ungardt asked in surprise.

        “Yup,” he answered with a nod.

        “Ay!  He’s one of Tarrin’s kids!” the Ungardt shouted to his companions in the corner.  “What’s your name, cousin?”

        “Eron.”

        “I’m Goraad,” he returned, offering his hand.  The Were-cat took it, clasping his wrist in the Ungardt greeting.  “I never thought I’d meet a clansman in Tor that wasn’t from my own ship!  Come, sit with us, cousin!  We’ll drink and share stories!”

        “I’d like that,” Eron said modestly.

        “You do speak Ungardt, don’t you?”

        “Of course I do,” he answered in Ungardt.

        “Good.  A few of us don’t speak Sulasian.  I didn’t want to have to translate back and forth.”

        And so, the odd figure was absorbed by the Ungardt, sitting at their table. The other sailors nearby that could understand Ungardt heard the sailors tell the stranger stories about their journeys around the Sea of Storms and the Sea of Glass, about battles they’d fought with pirates and Zakkites, ports they’d visited, and women they’d had.  Then, they asked the figure about his story.

        “Oh, I’m wandering around,” he told them.  “It’s something of a custom for us after we earn our adulthood.  We’re supposed to roam around and learn things, and when I think I’ve roamed enough, I’ll go back to the Frontier and find a stretch of unclaimed territory and make it my own.”

        “Roaming eh?  Where have you been so far?”

        “Well, I started in Suld,” he answered.  “I went to Ultern and turned south, then passed through the northern marches of Shacè and started coming east.  I’ve always wanted to see Tor, so I decided to pass through here on my way to Shoran’s Fork.”

        “That’s no way to tell a story, kinsman!  Details!  We need details!” one of the Ungardt boomed with a hearty laugh.

        The figure gave a sheepish smile, then started again, detailing much of his travels from Suld to Tor.  “From here I’m going to Shoran’s Fork,” he told them.  “I’m not sure where I want to go from there.”

        “You need to watch yourself over in Arkis, cousin.  The Arkisians are even stuffier and more full of themselves than these Torians,” one of the snorted.  That caused a ripple of annoyance through the nearby Torians, some of which spoke Ungardt.  “And they’re too cowardly to fight their own battles.  They love to insult us, then run away and fetch the Watch when we go to do something about it.”

        “I’ll be alright, cousin,” the figure, Eron, said mildly.  “I’m not really afraid of the humans.”

        “No reason to be afraid of the little races, cousin,” a gray-haired Ungardt grinned at him.

        They all looked at the figure when his eyes became distant for a moment, and he turned to look towards one of the walls.  Then his expression became dark.  “Cousin?  What troubles you?” Goraad asked in concern.

        “Huh?  Oh, nothing.  It’s just something I’ve been waiting for, that’s all.  I’m afraid I’m going to have to go, cousins.  My father needs me.”

        “It’s important?” the one-eyed Ungardt said in sudden grim seriousness, and the figure nodded gravely.  “Well, ye got an Ungardt ship to take you wherever you need to go, cousin.  We can get you where you need to be fast.”

        “I’ll be fine getting there on my own, but I really appreciate the offer,” he declined with a wave of his huge furry hand.  “A ship can’t take me where I need to go, I’m afraid.  After I’m done, I hope we can meet somewhere again.  It’s nice talking to people who aren’t afraid of me.”

        They all laughed, and the gray haired Ungardt stood up and raised a tankard.  “To Eron Kael, may Dallstad’s axe sweep your path and give you safe journey!”

        “I hope so,” Eron said, his expression somber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    6      8

Chapter 7

        Myn was driving the twins absolutely crazy.

        Rina, well, Kimmie could understand that.  Her younger cub had a sweet innocence and kindness about her that would make someone like Myn the utter center of her attention, with her need to be her friend.  Rina wanted to be Myn’s friend, but it was a selfish impulse, not something of true compassion.  Rina was interested in Myn because Rina had decided that Myn needed a friend, and that was that.  Myn’s feelings, or the reality of the situation, would not enter into Rina’s mind in the slightest.  Much like other Were-cats, Rina had decided on how things should be, and that was how things were going to be.  And if anyone complained, well, that was their problem, since Rina obviously knew better than them.  Typical Were-cat arrogance.

        Tara, that was the surprise.  At first, her curiosity about Myn went no further than her mask-like tattoo. Tattooing was an almost unknown thing on Sennadar, practiced only by certain Mahuut and Nyrian peoples, and something of a fad among seagoing men who plied the seas around the continent of Arathorn.  She would stare at the tattoo endlessly, and Tara being Tara, the discomfort this caused Myn was irrelevant.  In true Tara fashion, she had made no pretense about staring at the tattoo, getting right in Myn’s face and staring right at it, even touching the dark blue skin, skin colored blue by the dye beneath it.  Not even getting called down about her atrocious lack of manners had dissuaded her.  Tara was mystified by the tattoo, but then after she learned why she had it, her interest in Myn became centered more in her history.  Tara wanted to know what it had been like to be of the magician caste, and how she had managed to trick Elara society to rise from the laborer caste to become a Wizard.  There was a story there lurking beneath that attractive tattooed face, and Tara had a weakness when it came to a good story.

        Kimmie was certain that it was not a good one.  She had watched the girl from a distance in the days since they had left Pyros, riding south, following the device that her mentor Phandebrass had fabricated to point them in the direction of the shard of Tarrin’s sword they were tasked to recover.  Something very bad had happened to the girl, something terriby traumatic.  Myn reminded Kimmie almost perfectly of Azakar, or more to the point, how Azakar had been when she first came to know him.  Back then he was almost militantly silent, as if he was afraid to speak, to draw attention to himself.  Myn was much the same way.  She never spoke unless someone spoke to her first, and when she did speak, she said as few words as possible without being evasive.  That was the behavior of someone who did not want any attention, trying to blend into the background and be as invisible as possible.  She always kept her head down, looking at the ground, and her long, almost sinfully thick and luxuriant blonde hair was almost always covering her face.  Her hair could be absolutely lovely, but it was unwashed, stringy, and unkempt, but not so dirty or so dishevelled that it brought attention to herself.  Her robes were much the same way, severely designed gray robes with a simple leather belt that had many pouches on it for her material components, neither completely clean nor conspicuously dirty, devoid of any decoration save the mask-like emblem that was dyed onto the back in dark blue, a blue the same shade as her tattoo.

        The mark of her shame, Kimmie saw.

        A tragic story, hers was.  She’d been filled in before leaving Pyros.  Myn was a brilliant Wizard, exceptionally powerful despite the fact that she was only a shade under thirty years old; barely more than a child in the eyes of the Elara.  She could have been one of the brightest stars of her generation, if not for the fact that she was of the laborer caste, which was the lowest caste in her society.  The higher castes scornfully called them korga, one of the harshest-sounding words in their musical langauge that rather succinctly summed up how those other castes viewed the laborers.  Loosely translated, korga meant untouchable, a reference to the fact that under Elaran law, they were not even allowed to touch a member of a higher caste.  They had to wear gloves at all times, symbols of their status as laborers.

        Slavery without ownership.  That’s what Kimmie called it.  Arakite slaves had more rights than her caste.

        Kimmie still hadn’t managed to drag the details out of the girl, but she knew enough to understand the basic events.  Myn had such a desire to learn magic that she had somehow managed to trick her way into being accepted into a Wizard school, and there she learned magic.  She graduated, earned the rank of Wizard, and served her people for five years before they found out the truth of her.  And it was only her awesome potential that saved her life.  The penalty for an untouchable to violate the laws of caste was death, but the Elara were so desperate for Wizards of Myn’s potential that they waived that death sentence…though sometimes Kimmie wondered if death wouldn’t have been more humane.  Instead of executing her, Myn was tattooed with that blue mask, a symbol of her shame, and put back into service to her people as a Wizard under the command of Elara who hated her for her deception.  They had been her former colleagues, people who before that had called her friend, but after they found out who she really was, they felt revolted that she, a laborer, an untouchable, had dared to pretend to be their equal.  It infuriated them and caused them to mistreat her terribly, but they didn’t beat her or abuse her physically…instead they starved her of any kind of meaningful social contact, surrounding her with people who would not even acknowledge her.  That didn’t seem like too harsh a punishment until one understood how utterly alone she was now.  No Elara of any caste would so much as look at her.  She was urimiuni, The Invisible, a punishment of exile from social contact, and for someone like Myn, a young girl surrounded by those she had once called friend but who now scorned her, it had to be hell.  Surrounded by people who would not even look at her, the only contact she had of any kind of social interaction the harsh commands of her handlers, who treated her like a trained dog.  She was there to do one thing and one thing only, and that was cast spells.  When they had no need of her, she did not exist.

        There were many ways to abuse a person, and the way they deigned to abuse Myn was just as cruel as those who had put the scars on Azakar’s back.

        And in the paramount act of hatred for Myn’s deception, they had made the tattoo absolutely impossible to remove.  It was laid into her skin with magic, and the magic was infused and intertwined into her very body and soul.  Any attempt to remove the tattoo would kill her.

        She rode just behind Kimmie, head bowed, trying her best to ignore the bubbling chatter of Rina, her bare hands tightly gripping the reins and pulled tightly against her stomach.  Kimmie had absolutely forbade her from wearing gloves, and Myn seemed utterly unable to keep her hands out where someone might touch her bare skin.  Kimmie was in the middle of making her a new dress to replace that horrible robe, but Myn seemed unwilling to give up the garment, stating in a soft, quiet voice that to wear anything other than the robe would be breaking the law.

        Not that that mattered.  Kimmie too was a Were-cat, and she had many of the traits of her daughter.  She would straighten Myn out, wether Myn wanted it or not.

        The others either weren’t all that worried about Myn, or understood that she wasn’t the talkative type.  Ianelle and Sevren, riding behind the slender Elara, rode in comfortable silence.  The blond-haired Sha’Kar was looking off the the east, towards a low series of hills carpeted with trees, while Sevren rode with a book in one hand and the reins in the other, basicly letting the horse follow along behind Myn as he read.  Behind them were Kord and Orin, the blond-braided half-Ungardt brothers in their Knight’s armor, both of them with faces sheened over with sweat from wearing the heavy armor in the muggy summer day.  Tara rode behind them, her face dark as she shot glares from between the Sorcerers towards her mother after being sent back to ride with Szath.  That monstrous Vendari rode behind the Knights, leading the pack animals, following along behind the others as his black eyes kept a cautious eye out behind them.

        Szath was…well, Kimmie could just say that he was a nice enough Vendari, but he had to be the slowest sentient being she’d ever met.  He wasn’t very intelligent.  It sometimes took him a moment to puzzle out the meaning of the commands he was given, but Kimmie had to admit, once he understood what it was she wanted him to do, it got done.  Sometimes it didn’t get done immediately, especially if it required him to think about what to do, but he got it done, and he did it to the best of his ability.  He considered hanging a tea kettle over a fire to be just as important a task as defending the host from danger, and he approached all things with total focus and attention to the task at hand.  The only field where Szath’s reactions were swift and sure were when he reacted to possible danger, or pointed out potential threats to the others.  His mind was slow, but he had been trained in those areas, and they were things he understood and knew what to do when confronted with them.  At first Kimmie thought he was going to be a liability, but after getting some experience with him, she quickly revised that opinion.  So long as one remembered that he wasn’t very smart, it was not hard at all for him to fit in with the others.  He wasn’t talkative or open—no Vendari really was—but he was polite, he was observant, and he was always careful.  Ianelle was the one who gently guided him along, and the Sha’Kar had shown both patience with the Vendari and a curious kindness to him.

        Mist loped in from ahead, having run ahead to scout a small thicket of trees that was dead ahead.  She rejoined the host and motioned for them to stop.  Kimmie reined in her horse, and the train came to a halt before the tall Were-cat.  “There’s no humans,” she announced to them.  “It has a stream running through the middle, it’d be a good place to camp for the night.”

        “That would be most agreeable to me,” Ianelle said.  “I still have not quite acclimated to riding this animal.”

        “We need to eat anyway,” Kimmie reasoned.  “I’d like something hot for dinner.  Did you find a camp site, mother?”

        Mist nodded.  “A small clearing on the south side of the thicket,” she answered.  “There’s a few deer roaming in there.  I’ll go on ahead and take one down, you can meet me at the site.  Cubs!” Mist called.

        “Yes, Grandmother?” they asked in unison.

        “You’re coming with me,” she called back to them.  “Both of you need some exercise.”

        “Aww,” Rina growled, glancing at Myn.  “Alright, Grandmother.”

        Rina’s reluctance was overshadowed by Tara’s enthusiasm, as she literally jumped off her horse and ran between Ianelle and Sevren, then grabbed Rina’s foot and hiked it up and over the horse as she ran between Rina and Myn, nearly sending her head over heels of her horse.  Rina managed to recover and land on her feet, giving her twin sister an ugly glare.  Tara was about the only thing around that could sour Rina’s usually sunny disposition.  The two adolescent Were-cat females joined their towering grandmother in front of the host, as Tara used a rawhide thong to tie back her dark hair, and Rina absently scratched at the black fur on her arm as she waited.

        “Come on, you two,” Mist ordered.

        The three of them hurried ahead, and Kimmie watched them rush towards the grove of trees with a quiet sigh of relief.  The twins had been bored and fidgety, and Mist had had the perfect idea to take them ahead and have them help her hunt.  Kimmie called for Kord and Orin to take the reins of the twins’ horses, and she also motioned for Myn to advance and ride beside her as she started then forward again at a walk, giving her bond-mother and daughters time to get in there and track down a deer before they arrived.  The Elara rode beside her in total silence, her head down and her hands tucked in against her stomach.

        “Are you having trouble with saddlesores, Myn?” she asked.

        “No, Mistress,” she answered in her soft voice.

        “Myn.”

        “Yes, Mistress?”

        “Look at me.”

        Myn shyly turned her head towards Kimmie, then slowly raised her eyes, as if fighting against a strong impulse to keep her head down.  “Keep going, girl, you’re almost there,” Kimmie noted, which made Kord and Orin chuckle behind her.  Myn finally brought up her vibrant lavender eyes, stunningly beautiful eyes that both seemed to clash with her blond hair and pale skin and also accent them.  Those purple eyes were surrounded by the dark blue of the mask that was tattooed into her skin, making them even more striking.

        “There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?  From now on, when you talk to me, I want you to look at me.  I promise, I don’t bite.”

        “Yes, Mistress,” Myn replied, her eyes moving down, and then she caught herself and raised them again.

        “And don’t call me Mistress,” she snorted.  “My name is Kimmie.  When you call me Mistress, it makes me feel like a Shacèan courtesan.”

        “Yes, M—Kimmie.”

        “Someday you’ll have to explain how you know that, Miss Kimmie,” Kord said. Orin tried in vain to stifle a laugh.

        “Boys,” Ianelle called sternly.  “Behave.”

        “Aye, Mistress Ianelle,” Orin said with a straight face, which caused Kimmie to suppress a grin.

        Kord and Orin were surprisingly informal as Knights went.  They certainly didn’t forget who was in charge, but they liked to banter, and they weren’t afraid to banter with the Were-cats, and both had a rather mischievous bent.  In fact, they seemed to have no fear of the Were-cats whatsoever, not even Mist.  They didn’t banter with Mist like they did with Kimmie and the twins, but they showed no fear of her, and always seemed perfectly at ease around her.  This Kimmie saw as a good thing, both for them and for Mist.  Their nonchalance about the Were-cats would go far towards having Mist accept them, because it showed a strength in them that Mist would respect.  Though she wasn’t entirely comfortable around all these strangers, straining her composure to its limit, at least none of the strangers in the host were outwardly afraid of her.  Ianelle was too unflappable to be afraid of Mist, Szath really wasn’t afraid of anything, and Sevren had a great deal of experience from his friendship with Tarrin.  Sevren and Ianelle knew exactly what to say and do to appear non-threatening to Mist without appearing weak, and that was exactly how a stranger would go about trying to earn a feral Were-cat’s acceptance.  Kord and Orin didn’t seem quite as measured or prepared as the Sorcerers were, but their free-wheeling responses, honesty, and friendly demeanor were quite disarming without appearing forced in any manner, and that was something that Mist would respond to in a positive manner.  They were doing everything exactly right...wether that was by accident or they were trained to do it was the question.

        They entered the small wood, having to dismount and walk their horses along an old game trail, as Kimmie led them towards the southern end of the small grove.  They found the clearing that Mist had mentioned within moments, a narrow strip of land nestled in the heavy curve of the deeply entrenched, meandering stream, which had cut nearly ten spans down into the earth, etching out a deep streambed.  It was just wide enough to serve as a good camp, and the stream’s deep trench on three sides made it very defensible.  Szath, Kord, and Orin dismounted and started unpacking the tents just as Mist, Tara, and Rina stalked in from the west, Mist carrying a small deer over her shoulders.  She gave Rina several disapproving looks as they entered the camp.  “Next time, cub, don’t use Sorcery to kill it,” she said, giving the Were-cat another displeased glance.  “That’s not how Were-cats do things.  Your father doesn’t even use magic to make a kill.  If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for you.”

        “Well, I didn’t want it to get away,” she protested.

        “Yes, and it was running because you were about as quiet as a Wikuni cannon,” she said flatly.

        Rina flushed, her tail drooping.  “I haven’t had much time to practice, with me being in the Tower and all Grandmother.  I’ll try harder next time.”

        “Do that,” she said cooly, dropping the carcass where Szath was busy digging a firepit.  “Now dress this and get it ready to be roasted.  I’m sure you remember how to do that?” she asked with a direct stare.

        “Um, of course I do, Grandmother,” Rina said with another flush.

        Tara gave Rina a smug look.  “Ow!” she barked when Mist slapped her on the back of the head with her huge paw, causing the cub to put both paws over the struck region.  “What was that for?”

        “For acting more like Sarraya than a proper Were-cat,” she said in a grating tone.  “Now help your sister get dinner ready.”

        The twins busied themselves with the task as the others quickly and efficiently got the camp ready.  Tents were erected in a ring around the firepit, and the two Knights picketed the horses.  But all activity stopped instantly when a screeching cry emanated over their grove of trees, an inhuman call that made the fur on Kimmie’s arms stand up.

        “Demon,” Mist intoned in the manner of the Cat, looking up.  “There.  It’s passing over us.”  She pointed to a break in the trees, where, for the briefest instant, a feather-winged Demon appeared, a tall, gangly creature with the head of a vulture and carrying a single-edged polearm.  They were called vrock, and they were both the least powerful and the most numerous of the True Demons, the soldiers among them.  But that was a relative comparison, for a vrock was an extremely powerful and dangerous adversary.

        “Do you think it’s looking for us?” Rina asked.

        “There’s no way to tell,” Kimmie answered her daughter.  “But I rather doubt it would be looking for us after giving away its position with that screech.”

        “Was it calling to its friends?”

        “That’s possible, cub,” Kimmie said with an audible grunt.  “I’m not sure if what Tarrin did stops their telepathy or not.  My master would know, but I’m just not that smart.”

        The sound of the Demon’s feathered wings trailed away to nothing, but no one moved for several moments, until they were sure that it wasn’t circling back around.  But after Mist seemed certain that it was gone, she motioned for the others to continue what they were doing, and they returned to the chores of setting camp.  Szath started a fire in his expertly dug firepit, then took up some flour and started mixing it in a bowl.

        “I didn’t know you knew how to cook, Szath,” Rina said to him as she quartered the deer carcass.

        “I’m making kota,” he told her in his slow manner, as if he had to think about every word he intended to say.  “All Vendari know how to make kota.  It’s trail bread.”

        “What’s in it?”

        “This powder, and this powder, and then I have to pour this much water in it, and this much milk,” he said after thinking a moment, then he pointed at a ladle he had put out with two bags and a large skin.  “I must make it before the milk spoils.”

        “Can you teach me?  I love to cook.”

        He looked at her with those black, expressionless eyes.  “I can teach.  But you have to finish your work.  Work always comes first.”

        “This won’t take us long,” she told the Vendari with a smile.

        After they finished getting the deer ready to be roasted, Rina knelt by Szath and listened quite attentively as he methodically explained how he was making his bread.  She didn’t seem to mind when she found out that it was made with rough oat flour and bone meal, but that combination made Ianelle give a slightly disgusted face.  She glanced over at Myn when the Elara seated herself by the fire with her spellbook in her lap, studying it, but she didn’t engage the reclusive woman, instead giving Szath all of her attention.  The Vendari showed her how to mix the dough the ingredients created, then knead it and shape it into small oval loaves that were spitted on small metal rods and placed over the fire to bake.  The Vendari stayed right there, watching the ten loaves with absolute attention, as if looking away would cause him to forget to turn them when the underside became brown.  Tara and Rina helped Mist spit the deer and set it over the fire to be roasted, then Kimmie seated herself beside Myn with her spellbook in her lap.  “Alright, girl, it’s about time we did some crosschecking,” she told the Elara firmly.  “I’m sure that you have quite a few spells created by your people I don’t have, and I know that I have quite a few you don’t.  My master is anything if not prolific when it comes to designing new spells.”

        “Assuming they don’t blow up,” Sevren said mildly, then he cleared his throat and offered Ianelle a small cushion to sit upon when Kimmie gave him an ugly glare.

        “I’ll have you know that Phandebrass is the best Wizard of this generation,” Kimmie said defensively.

        “I have never doubted his ability.  It is his sanity that I find questionable,” Ianelle said calmly as she placed the cushion on the ground, then seated herself.  “Truth be told, I am quite fond of him.  If you can hold his attention, he is a wonderful conversationalist, and he is quite engaging.  And his ability astounds me.  I have never known of any other Wizard who has successfully managed to study Necromancy without losing his soul.”

        Myn gasped, then flushed and lowered her eyes.

        “What is it, Myn?  You can speak your mind here.”

        “N-Necromancy,” she said in a quiet tone.  “Your master studied Necromancy?”

        “He didn’t master it, no, but he has studied it, as much as a Wizard can study Necromancy without permanent harm,” she answered seriously.  “I see your people know of Necromancy.”

        “Mother, what is Necromancy?” Tara asked.  “I’ve never heard anyone talk about it.”

        “It’s a good thing you haven’t, or I’d flay someone,” Kimmie snorted.  “Necromancy is a very specific branch of Wizard magic that deals with death and the dead.  I’m not talking about just killing someone, either, cub.  Necromancy spells directly tap into the negative energy of death, decay, and pain.  Just using it twists your soul and makes you evil, because you’re opening your soul to that negative energy.  No spell in Necromancy can ever have a beneficial effect, cub, not even indirectly.  The entire school of Magic is about spreading death, decay, and misery.”

        Tara paled slightly.  “It sounds scary.”

        “It’s very scary,” Kimmie told her daughter.  “If anyone ever told you about Necromancy, even your own father, I’d skin them.”

        “How did Phandebrass do it without it hurting himself?”

        “Because he knew where to stop,” she answered.  “He knew where the line was, and he knew not to cross it.  How much of Necromancy do your people know about?” Kimmie asked Myn.

        “Very little,” she answered.  “It is a field of study only recently discovered and brought back by the Worldwalkers, but what they have brought back is incomplete.”

        “I’d imagine so,” Kimmie said with a frown.  “Any of your Worldwalkers that mastered Necromancy would abandon his mission and be consumed by the evil of the magic.”

        Myn nodded.  “I could see that truth when I was given the first book.”

        Kimmie stared at her a long moment.  “They made you learn Necromancy?” she said with sudden heat.

        “They care nothing for me, mistress Kimmie,” she said wanly.  “They only care about the magic I can use.  But I could see the truth of Necromancy when I started my studies, and like your master, I understood where the line was.  I would not cross that line.  And since it was a field of magic that they would dare not undertake, they didn’t know that I was holding back.”

        “Clever girl,” Sevren said with a nod.

        “I don’t see why you stay with them,” Tara snorted, crossing her arms.

        “Where else would I go, Mistress Tara?” Myn asked in a small voice.  “This is the first time I have ever been off Elara.  I was trapped there.  They also wouldn’t let me learn Gatekeeper magic, to keep me there.  They knew the first thing I would do would be to escape this world if I could master a spell that would let me escape them.  What else can I do?”

        Tara was silent, but the dark scowl on her face betrayed her emotions.

        “Well, we’ll just have to take care of that,” Kimmie said calmly.  “I have that very spell in this book, the Gate spell your Worldwalkers use.  They gave it to my master, and my master copied it in my spellbook.  I can’t cast it, but I think you could.  So, let me find it, and let’s get it copied into your book.  Oh, and I suggest you always keep it memorized.  Just in case, you know,” she said with a wink.

        “You would do this for me?” Myn asked, incredulous.

        “Of course we would,” Kimmie said with a bright smile.  “We like you, Myn, and we don’t like what your people did to you.  We had to swear to return you to the Elara, but we never said we wouldn’t arm you with everything you need to get away from them once we do,” she finished with a wink.

        The act of arming Myn with a spell that would allow her to escape from her people had had a noticeable effect on her.  In the two days since she was given a copy of the spell, and what was more important, was able to understand and memorize it, she became less timid.  Though still quiet and withdrawn, she would engage in brief conversation with the others from time to time, and started asking small questions to Kimmie when she thought no one else was paying any attention to her.  The only time she came anywhere close to shedding her shy demeanor was when she was teaching.  Kimmie had absently noted, after helping Myn copy the Gate spell into her spellbook, that Myn’s book had quite a few spells that Kimmie’s didn’t.  And Myn, sensing the hidden question behind those words, offered to teach Kimmie, acting as her mentor in Phandebrass’ stead while student was separated from teacher.

        And it was during that first exchange that Kimmie understood why the Elara kept her alive.  Myn wasn’t just a great Wizard.  That would be an insult to her.  Myn was unique in that she understood the texture of magic on a level Kimmie had never seen before.  Myn was not a magician, she was an artist, where every spell had textures, colors, and meanings that Kimmie had never noticed before.  In just that first broaching conversation about Arcane magic, Kimmie had to completely redraw basic conclusions about the fundamental nature of magic.  Phandebrass saw things in the magic that Kimmie could not, and probably never would, but his approach was from one of science and logic, trying to compartmentalize and rationalize to the smallest detail.  Myn’s approach was the artist’s approach, where it was the beauty of the spell that mattered, not the exacting mechanics of the process.  Phandebrass tried to analyze magic under a magnifying glass, but Myn stepped back and observed it as a whole.  This different viewpoint and different approach shocked Kimmie at first, but after just one evening of conversation, she began to understand at least some of what made Myn’s approach effective.  Phandebrass had taught her to understand a spell in minutae, analyzing every syllable and inflection, but Myn’s approach to spellcasting was much looser, almost dangerously loose…at least that was how it seemed at first.  Myn’s casting was loose, almost sounded slapdash, where not even the same spell was cast the same way twice.  The words were the same, but the inflection, the intonation, the texture of the words varied, which went against almost everything that Phandebrass had taught her.  But there was no arguing with the fact that though Myn’s approach to magic was dramatically different than how Kimmie was trained, it was just as effective.  She could induce more power into every spell she cast than any Wizard Kimmie had ever seen, except for her own master.  Though Myn and Phandebrass had different approaches to Arcane magic, both of them could achieve a similar result, and it was then that Kimmie realized that she had the rare blessing to be tutored by two of the most powerful and learned Wizards alive.

        In that first evening, Kimmie learned that the power of Arcane magic was not as exacting and demandingly precise as she had always been taught, but on the other hand, one had to sense the mood of the spell to be able to cast it without using those exacting formulas taught to her by Phandebrass.  Myn’s approach was much like what Kimmie understood of Sorcery, since she breathed life into every spell by putting a tiny bit of herself into them, by giving them more than exacting formulas…she gave them emotion.  It was a radically different approach, because Myn considered Arcane magic to be a living thing, possessed of emotions, moods, and desires, where Phandebrass simply saw it as a natural force, like the weather.

        The second evening of instruction was a more involved discussion about the nature of Arcane magic, as Myn taught Kimmie about the mood of the spell, a sense of the hidden emotion of the magic even as the words shaped it, a sense of understanding of how to change tone and inflection to enhance the spell by feeling the heart of the magic she was shaping.  They had stopped on a grassy plain by a large stream that had worn down into its streambed, and Kimmie was taking advantage of some private time with Myn as Kord and Orin were off doing the evening dishes, Mist and the cubs were bathing in the stream, and Ianelle and Sevren were out of the camp, studying an old ruin very close to the camp, with Szath accompanying them for their protection.  Kimmie tried many times to cast a simple cantip using Myn’s method of casting, but only managed fizzle after fizzle.

        “I don’t think I’ll ever get this right,” Kimmie fretted as her Dust cantrip fizzled out without accomplishing the task of sweeping the dust off a rock placed before the fire for the exercise.

        “There is no right way, Mistress Kimmie,” Myn said in a curious singsong voice, sitting demurely across the fire from Kimmie with her hands in her lap and her eyes closed.  “Try again.  Remember, try to feel the magic.”

        “But I always feel the magic.”