Fel (James Galloway)

The Shadow Realm

Prologue

"Come back here, boy!"

The shout rumbled across the small meadow deep in a forest so pristine, so dense, so remote that it had not known the footsteps of mankind in a thousand years. The clearing stood at the end of a shallow valley nestled at the top of a rather large hill, a cleft at its top that concealed the clearing from any who did not already know of its existence. It held a small log cabin, little more than two rooms and a loft, with a small vegetable patch tended at its back and a well several paces to the right of the small cabin's raised front porch. The porch held a pair of rocking chairs, a small table, and hanging from the side of it was a rack of drying meat. It was a small home, a cozy home, and most important of all, it was an isolated home.

Very few knew of the valley's existence. The few that did were either the friends of the occupant, or they were dead. The owner of that small cabin in the forest was a small yet powerfully built female, short and lithe, yet her every muscle rippled with her movements as she jogged off the porch to chase down a toddler. This female was not human, though she appeared very close to a human. She had human features and a human build, tall for a woman but short for her age and her species. That was the extent of the resemblence, however, for the female had a long furred tail sprouting from the back of her untanned, rather ragged breeches. Her arms and legs were covered with short, thick black fur to just above the elbows and knees, and instead of human ears, a pair of triangular cat's ears poked out of an unruly mane of short, curly black hair. Her hands and feet were not hands and feet at all, they were curious crosses between human appendages and animal paws, oversized for her frame and hiding very long, very sharp, very deadly claws. Despite these obvious indications that she was not human, a human would have considered to be rather handsome. She had sharp, drawn features, with pronounced cheekbones and a sharp chin, giving her face a fox-like quality. Bright green eyes, with pupils vertically slitted like a cat's eyes, stared out under a bouncing array of bangs and slender eyebrows, eyes that would chill most people who looked into them. There was an ominous quality about those eyes, as if the woman looked at others as enemies, or as prey, a predatory gaze that even put members of her own race on edge and uncomfortable. There was more hiding within those eyes, an old, haunted pain that had only recently begun to heal, an old wound that had only recently been repaired.

Her name was Mist, and she was a Were-cat, one of a magical race of beings blessed with the ability to transform into the shape of a common housecat. She had come to that small shallow valley on the top of the hill to raise her son, to provide him with shelter and protection from the dangers of what the humans called the Frontier, though there was no danger any longer. Mist defended her territory with a ferocity and savagery that gave the Were-cats a very bad reputation among Fae-da'Nar, the loose association of wood-dwelling beings, often killing invaders without any warning or any quarter. Mist did not mark the edges of her territory, fearing that it would attract Were-wolves or migrating Centaurs looking to harass her, so many of the Woodkin who wandered into her territory did so with no idea that they had just meandered into a very deadly place. It got so bad that the closest Druid to the valley, an eldery human woman named Ne'Vanne, marked Mist's boundaries clearly and made it clear that any who entered did so at their own peril, and did so without her approval. The Druids of the Heartwood held great power over the Woodkin, and a statement like that would be enough to dissuade even the most hateful Were-wolf or Centaur to leave the Were-cat alone.

Then again, once the boundaries had been marked, they left her alone anyway. They all knew Mist, and they all knew her reputation. If Were-cats had a very bad reputation among Fae-da'Nar, Mist had a very bad reputation even among the Were-cats. She was feral, a term for a Were-kin whose animals instincts had come to dominate their thinking, Were-kin who no longer trusted strangers. They were like rabid wild animals, vicious, unpredictable, and very violent. Mist had been one of the most feral Were-kin ever known, so feral that she did not even trust her own kind, so feral that there were only a very, very few who could even get close enough to speak to her. When the boundaries were marked with Mist's name, every Woodkin within fifty longspans moved even further away.

But few knew that she had managed to conquer some portions of her feral nature. Much of the reason she had been feral was tied up with her history, a history when a Were-kin hunter wounded her with silver and left her barren. Still carrying the powerful instincts to reproduce and care for children, yet left incapable of doing so, it sent Mist spiralling down into a black void of hatred and frustration, which inevitably caused her to turn feral. Mist blamed the humans for her condition, and for nearly three hundred years she remained thus, scarred both physically and mentally, unable to forgive, unable to forget, and unable to trust.

But that all changed when she met Tarrin. He had been much like her, a feral Were-cat who had been scarred by the actions of the humans, betrayed by the very ones who had promised to care for him, who had been turned Were by the orders of the very Sorcerers who had promised to take care of him. He too was a Sorcerer, and he had magical powers of healing. He had used those powers on Mist, healing what the Druids could not heal, restoring her body to its rightful condition. The restoration of her body had done much to restore her mind, because it finally allowed her to put her wounding behind her, and it restored her ability to bear young.

That was why it happened. Tarrin had restored Mist's body, but he was the only male around. Mist desperately wanted a child of her own, and that meant that she had to trust him, trust him in a way she never thought she'd ever trust another again, to mate with him and leave herself exposed to attack. She found herself at war within, as her feral fear warred against her powerful urge to follow her instincts, but in the end, it was Tarrin himself that allowed her to face herself. He had been wounded at the time, and what at first started as a thought that she could control a wounded mate became the realization that he would not hurt her, because he wasn't like that.

When she realized that he wasn't going to hurt her, that he had healed her because he cared about her, and that he was willing to mate with her--something that he would not have done because of the lingering traces of human morality within him--because it was what she needed instead of what he wanted, it broke the wall she had built around herself. She opened up to him, put her complete trust in him, and for the first time in centuries, she found peace within herself. She took him for mate, something she could not have done with any other male, even to this day. She had found a friend that day, had finally found someone she could trust.

He had changed her life so much. His gentle words had caused her to reconcile with her bond-daughter, Kimmie, whom she had found half-crazy and nearly dead after being bitten by a Were-cat and changed from human to Were. Mist was just as feral then, but the instincts to nurture and raise young had briefly overwhelmed her fear, and she had taken the turned human as a child. It had been a very nervous time for both of them, for Mist feared the very child she had taken, and would have killed her the instant that she felt that Kimmie was a threat. Somehow, the turned Were-cat had sensed this, and had exhibited almost supernatural self-control and the ability to read Mist's moods, and that kept her alive. Kimmie had stayed with her bond-mother, even after she released Kimmie to the world, staying with her and giving her the only companionship she had had during the entire time she had been feral. But after he mated with her, Tarrin showed her that Kimmie had stayed with her because she loved her and cared about her, and that had been a revelation to the feral female. She had had a long talk with her daughter after she left Tarrin, after she knew she was pregnant, and had come to accept her daughter completely.

It was a happy time for Mist now. She still did not trust any strangers, but she had come to accept four Were-cats who had been there for her when she was feral, or had been there for her since. Tarrin and Kimmie, of course, and also Triana, the eldest of the Were-cats and the undisputed ruler of their kind. The last was Jesmind, another of Tarrin's acquaintances who had started visiting not long ago. She didn't completely trust Ne'Vanne, but the human was a Druid, so that status allowed Mist to treat her amiably and respectfully when she came to visit. She had even reached a point where she would allow other Were-cats to visit her cabin, but the visits were usually very brief and somewhat strained. Most of the Were-cats either still feared Mist or didn't like her, and most of the visits were simple requests for a night's sleeping and a meal. The only other Were-cat that visited with any regularity was Shayle, one of Triana's daughters, and Mist had started developing a genuine fondness for her. She was still feral, and that ferality made her fear Shayle, but with a little work and some understanding from Shayle, Mist felt she may even be able to accept her as a friend.

The only one who had never seen Mist's nasty side was Eron, her son. She caught up to him and grabbed him and picked him up, then momentarily forgot that she was angry with him for knocking over the dishrack. Mist's entire life revolved around her son, her precious son, the most valuable gift she had ever received. She had named her son after Tarrin's father to honor him, just another way to honor him, and she could never touch his son, or hold him or scold him or think about him, without having warm thoughts about his father and the joy she had brought into her life. She turned him around and stared into his green eyes, which were a little fearful, but then he giggled and threw his paws around her neck and hugged her.

He was about eight months old now, but was the same comparable age as a three year old human, and he was the same size as a three year old human. That was normal for Were-cat cubs, growing to adulthood in about ten years. Such a short time to have with her son, but she would cherish every moment of it. He looked like a miniature version of his father, with the same cheekbones and strong jaw and expressive eyes. He had his father's hair as well, blond as corn silk and thick enough to be unmanagable, and it was almost inevitable that he would end up with black fur. Both his parents had black fur, and a child's fur almost always took after one of the parents. He was a little Tarrin, healthy and happy and growing stronger every day. He was an energetic, precocious child, always getting into trouble and trying to give his mother gray hair.

She gazed at him lovingly, then put on her scowl. "I told you not to climb on the counter, cub!" she said sharply. "Now go back in there and pick up every single piece of the plate you just broke!"

"Yes, Mama," he said, his pronunciation a bit skewed. He had started talking about three months ago, and was learning at what a human would consider to be an inhuman rate. But that was normal for Were-cats, whose minds matured as rapidly as their bodies. He could speak in complete sentences now, building quite a vocabulary which included some of the more colorful words that no human would teach her cubs, but were perfectly acceptable for a Were-cat to teach a Were-cat cub. There were many things Were-cats taught their children that would have mortified a human female.

"Now scoot!" she barked, setting him on the ground and swatting him on the backside with the side of her foot. She was about to follow him in, but the wind changed, and it carried to her a scent that she had not scented in quite a while, a scent that made her ears pick up. Were-cats had incredible senses, sharp eyesight, acute hearing, sensitive touch and taste, and a sense of smell so delicate that they could track by scent and detect the approach of others from longspans away, if the wind blew the right way. The scent was Triana's, and she was close by. She was also alone.

Mist felt a bit elated about that. It had been almost two months since she'd seen Triana, who stopped in regularly to check up on Eron. Mist had been a bit lonely since Kimmie had left last month, left to answer the call of Fae-da'Nar to help the humans fight the Goblinoids that had invaded Sulasia. They had been called at Tarrin's behest, and that had been enough for Kimmie.

It was quite a situation. Mist adored Tarrin utterly, for he had been the one who had made her life so wonderful. She would do absolutely anything for him, would always be there for him--at least after she released Eron as an adult, her duty to their cub came first--and would always love him in a powerful way. Tarrin had been her mate once, and she fully intended to chase him down and take him for mate again. Then Jesmind arrived with her daughter, Tarrin's daughter, which was quite a surprise to Mist and Kimmie. They talked, got to know each other, and Mist had found that she liked Triana's hot-tempered eldest child. Their talks eventually came around to Tarrin, and Mist found out that Jesmind was in love with him. Not the distracted love Were-cats exhibited, but the powerful, binding love that was common in humans. That caused not a little bit of animosity to rise up, but then they realized that neither could ever claim him forever, and neither was about to back down, either. Were-cat behavior and instincts would permit an extended mating, but over time the mates got to wearing on each other, and they had to part before they killed each other. Jesmind wanted Tarrin, but so did Mist. And then she realized that Kimmie did too. Mist's quiet, clever daughter harbored an almost childish crush on the enigmatic male, a male who had been turned just like her, a male, she admitted to them, with whom she felt more comfortable than with any other male. Kimmie's infatuation with Tarrin was partly her identifying with him, and partly because of what she had done for Mist. She could see that, and could understand it.

And so, a deal was struck. All three of them wanted Tarrin for mate, but there was only one of him. So they decided to let Tarrin decide for himself. Tarrin would choose his first mate, and when time forced them apart, one of the others would be allowed the chance to take him for mate, until they grew weary of one another and parted, and so on and so on. They would share him by turns, not interfering with one another, but defending their rights to him from the other females. Peculiarites of the race caused there to be seven females for every male, so the competition for males was fierce among the females. Their little circle of three was not the first time a group of females had laid a collective claim over a male. Some females had even taken a male for mate simultaneously, sharing him between them.

Mist couldn't think of Tarrin without thinking of Triana. She appeared at the edge of the clearing and paced towards the smaller female with that resolute gait of hers, like she owned every grain of soil beneath her feet. Triana was the tallest, oldest, and most powerful of the Were-cats, a thousand years old and possessing Druidic powers that rivalled the most powerful of the Druids. She was an intimidating, imposing figure, whose beauty was overlooked because of the stony, emotionless expression that was usually on her handsome face. Her tawny hair matched the color of her fur, a rarity among Were-cats, blowing in the wind as she approached the smaller female. Triana looked grim and serious, but Mist knew that it was a front to intimidate others. Triana spoke her mind, was brutally honest, and absolutely expected everyone around her to obey her. And they did. Even complete strangers could feel the aura of absolute power that enshrouded the Were-cat matron, a sense of invincibility that thoroughly intimidated everyone around her into doing her bidding. Triana spoke, and kings and queens jumped at her command. Literally.

"Triana," Mist said, taking the much taller female's paw warmly when she reached her. "It's been a while. Where have you been?"

"Suld," she replied in her customary brusque voice, not bothering to go through frilly greetings. She was like that. "Where's Eron?"

"Being punished," she replied. "How did the fighting go? Is Kimmie alright?"

"We won the fight," she replied evenly. "Kimmie's fine, but she's not going to be coming back for a while."

"Why?"

"I'll tell you inside," she said. "I'm tired, and I'd like to sit down."

"I have some venison drying, if you're hungry," Mist offered as they started for the cabin. "I'm afraid I don't have much else to offer right now."

"I'll Conjure us something suitable, Mist," she stated.

They entered Mist's small cabin, which consisted of a small common room and two bedrooms in the back. One had been Mist's with room for Eron's cradle, and the other was Kimmie's. Kimmie's room was empty now, but Mist had been thinking of letting Eron sleep in her room by himself. Mist's room was small and her bed was smaller, and Eron was getting a little big to share it with her. Eron was dutifully picking up the small shards of one of Mist's plates, almost finished, and he knew better than to stop even to greet Triana before he was done. Triana sat down at the small, ramshackle table and immediately Conjured up a large meal of roasted pork, boiled potatos, a large loaf of warm, dark bread, and bowls of a thick vegetable stew.

Eron finished, throwing the last bits of crockery into a wastebin Mist kept beside the door, and then ambled over to the table and held his arms out to Triana. She reached down and picked him up, holding him out so she could look at him. "He's getting bigger every day," she said. "How are you, Eron?"

"Tee-wana," he bubbled. Eron had always had trouble pronouncing her name, and that was customarily the closest he got. "Did you bring me a present?"

"Not this time, cub," she told him. "Maybe next time. Now sit yourself down and eat." She hoisted him over to the empty chair beside her, and then stared at him until he picked up a spoon and started feeding himself. He wasn't very graceful, but his Were nature gave him more dexterity than a human as old as he appeared, so he didn't make too much of a mess.

"What happened in Suld, Triana?" Mist pressed. "Why isn't Kimmie coming home?"

"She's on a journey with Tarrin," she replied, then she very thoroughly went over everything that happened at Suld. "They had to leave almost as soon as the smoke cleared," she sighed. "They don't have much time, and they're going to run into enough trouble on the seas as it is."

"I can understand why they left, but why did Kimmie go?"

"I wanted another Were-cat with Tarrin," Triana told her. "Jesmind couldn't go because of Jasana, and Kimmie had already arranged to take lessons in magic from a human Wizard that travels with Tarrin, so I picked her."

Mist looked at her, then laughed. "Clever girl!" she said. "Is Tarrin that attached to Jesmind, Triana?"

"I've not seen two Were-cats closer than those two," she replied. "They're almost as sappy as humans." She snorted. "It can't be good for them. I also picked Kimmie because she has it for Tarrin. I can smell it all over her. I'm hoping that she educates him about the more necessary aspects of our kind."

"What a thing to say," Mist murmured, though she was happy to hear it.

"Jesmind can't be hogging Tarrin to herself," Triana grunted. "When she starts getting tired of him, she'll spoil him for all the other females. She keeps forgetting that he was born human, and he still thinks like they do. If he ups and decides to think of Jesmind as a wife, he won't touch another female. And Jesmind would be the sort to lead him on, just so he wouldn't be mated to another female when she decides she wants him again." She blew out her breath. "She's always been a little selfish."

"Well, Triana, we talked about him, when she was here," she disclosed. "She agreed not to interfere if me or Kimmie went after him."

"She meant it at the time, Mist," Triana sighed. "But after getting him for mate, she's been acting like they'll never get tired of each other. I think this time apart will be good for her, show her that she will push him away eventually. I just want Tarrin to be ready for when that happens. If I'm lucky, Kimmie will seduce him and show him that there is life after Jesmind." She snorted, then chuckled. "She won't be able to resist. Jesmind will be too far away to do anything about it, and Jesmind knows it's going to happen."

"I think Tarrin is stronger than you think, Triana," Mist said defensively. "He may have been born human, but he understands his instincts. Better than many Were-cats."

"I know how strong he is, but you know how humans get when it comes to love. I know my son better than anyone else, but even I'm not sure how he's going to handle it the first time he and Jesmind have a fight, and he tries to kill her. That's about the time any other Were-cat pair would know it's time to separate, but with him, I'm not sure. The way they look at each other, I'm afraid they may try to stay together, and one of them will end up hurting the other."

Mist hesitated. She remembered the story she'd heard of him from when he was at the Tower, about when he nearly killed his birth mother. That had almost driven him mad. But he'd come so far since then! She had seen it in him during the single night they had been mates, a strength that could rise up and conquer any obstacle. "I think he'll be alright."

"I think so too," Triana grunted. "I don't want to intefere with this. I want Tarrin to get seduced, I want him to realize that it's alright. It'll help him understand the nature of mates. I know Jesmind didn't tell him that when she let him leave, she gave him up. He thinks he's still mates with her, but he's not. He's a free male, fair game, and I'm confident that Kimmie's going to teach him that." She looked at Mist. "I want him to learn about being mates from someone other than my very selfishly motivated daughter. I want him to learn that it's alright to love Jesmind, so long as it doesn't interfere with his ability to take other mates. Love may be love, but instincts are stronger, and there aren't enough males around for him to only be willing to be mates with one female. Kimmie will show him that it's alright to love Jesmind, yet still be able to mate with other females."

"He took me for mate."

"You didn't give him much choice," she said with a very slight smile. "But he did, and that's a good sign. He needs to learn the difference between love and mates. He can love Jesmind and be mates with Kimmie at the same time. He'll have to learn it eventually, so better now than later." She looked at the table absently. "And if he knows he can be mates with a female after he leaves Jesmind, it'll make things easier for him. He does love my daughter, Mist. It'll hurt him when they split up, so it'll be good for him to see that there are other females out there, and it'll be good for him to know that the hurt doesn't last long. He can love her and still be a devoted mate to another female, and when he splits up with that female, he can go back to Jesmind."

"True," Mist agreed. "If one of us doesn't steal him away from her."

Triana glanced at her. "I rather doubt that, but don't worry, Mist. He cares for you. If you took him for mate, he'd be a devoted mate to you. Once he realizes how Kimmie feels about him, he'll be a good mate for her as well."

"That's fine with us. Me and Jesmind and Kimmie, we kind of agreed to share him. As long as we keep him away from the other females, it's alright."

Triana looked at her, then laughed. "That explains a great deal right there," she said. "I was wondering why Jesmind wasn't so against Kimmie going."

"She will be in a while."

"I think her magnanimous mood left her as soon as the ship pulled out and she realized that Tarrin was going to be alone on that ship with Kimmie," Triana agreed.

"Excuse me if I sound even more biased than you, but I hope Kimmie gets him."

"She will. A male trapped on a ship with a willing female? Come on, Mist! What do you think is going to happen?"

Mist laughed. "Kimmie has her prey cornered."

"That she does. The sooner Tarrin bows to the inevitable, the better it will be for everyone."

There was a sound at the door, and then to both of their surprise, someone knocked upon it. Mist stood up immediately and moved to grab Eron, but Triana calmed her with a paw and moved to answer the door. She opened it, and Mist saw beyond her a human female, a little tall for a human, lithe and voluptuous. She was a very pretty woman, with a lovely face, a pretty body garbed in a strange garment that looked all shimmery...like stars spun into silk. Her scent was a human one, but there was something strange about it, something unusual that Mist had never scented before...almost like stone. But it was her hair and eyes that got Mist's attention. Her hair was striped, and the colors were absolutely bizarre. Colors like green, and blue, and even purple. And her eyes! She must have been victim to some kind of strange magical accident, for she had no white or pupils, only a strange glowing amber radiance that emanated from her eye sockets. But she seemed perfectly able to see, for she smiled when she looked up at Triana. The Were-cat matron seemed taken aback by this strange visitor, stepping back in surprise and giving the woman enough room to simply invite herself into Mist's house.

Mist saw that she was barefoot. But it was only one more oddity about this strange woman.

"Triana," the woman nodded with a rich, strong contralto voice. "You're looking well."

"What are you doing here?" the matron gasped, staring at the woman in shock.

"I can go anywhere I want now, Triana," she smiled. "And I wanted to come and see Tarrin's son. Is that so wrong?"

Mist's son had climbed down from his chair and ran past Mist, towards the woman. Mist had to strangle the impulse to snatch her son away from the strange stripe-haired woman, but something deep inside her told her that this woman was not an enemy. There was just something about her that calmed Mist, and allowed her to kneel down and embrace the child lovingly. "Eron," she said with a radiant smile. "You're getting so big!"

"Shining lady," he bubbled, looking up at her adoringly. "You came!"

"Of course I came," she said with a chiding smile. "Did you think I'd forget about you?"

"How do you know my son?" Mist demanded, the sense of peace she was feeling dissolving away in a wave of fear and anger. How did this woman know her son?

"Eron and I are very good friends, aren't we, Eron?" she asked him.

"Yah, Mama. She visits my dreams, and we play games and she tells me stories! And you came!"

"I promised you I'd come, little one," she reminded him. "I always keep my promises."

"Who are you?" Mist demanded, suddenly confused.

"Who I am doesn't matter, Mist," she said seriously, standing up. "I am a friend of Tarrin's. That is all you need know. While he's gone, I decided to watch over his family for him, and I take my job seriously. You and Eron are part of his family, so I have come to meet you." She looked at Triana, who paused and then nodded imperceptibly. "I came here to give you a gift, Mist," she announced, reaching into the bodice of her dress, and then withdrawing two strange necklaces. The amulet at the end of the black steel chain was also black, and she recognized it as the symbol that Tarrin wore around his neck. "These are for you. You and Eron."

"Why should I take them?" she demanded hotly.

"Because I say you'll take them," Triana ordered flatly. "Trust me, Mist. You won't be disappointed."

"What are they?"

"Insurance," the woman with the strange eyes and hair replied cryptically. "These are special necklaces, Mist. They are magical, and Tarrin would want you to have them."

"Magical?" she asked suspiciously.

"Yes," she replied. "As long as you wear them, nobody can track you down using magic. And they'll allow you to shapeshift without losing your clothes, just like the way Tarrin's amulet does for him."

That piqued her curiosity. The annoying part about shapeshifing was that the clothes didn't change with you, and you had to leave them behind. Nudity didn't bother Were-cats, for they were part animal and had little concept of human modesty, but a naked Were-cat walking down the street of a human city did attract attention.

"These are safe?" Mist asked Triana.

"Safe enough," she replied with a nod.

"Just to warn you, Mist. Once you put it on, it won't come off. It won't allow itself to get lost, and it won't allow itself to be stolen. If you want to take it off, you'll need Tarrin to do it for you. Does that bother you?"

Mist considered it, but she had made care to mention that Tarrin could remove the amulet. She looked at the woman suspiciously. She was a stranger, and Mist feared her if only because of that...but Triana seemed to know her and trust her. And she was a close friend of Tarrin's, from the way she talked. Mist trusted Tarrin, and she found that if she was sure she was close to him, she would trust her if only because she trusted him. "How do I know you're not lying?" she asked.

"Look into my eyes, Mist, and then ask that question again."

Mist did indeed look into those strange eyes. She looked deeper, and deeper, and then she saw something. Something...strange. The sense of peace she'd felt when the woman entered her house intensified, and she realized that it came from the woman's love for Tarrin, and her love for his family. Mist simply knew right then and there that this woman was not an enemy, that she had genuine care for and interest in Mist and her son. That she was there as a friend.

Mist's hostile posture melted away, and she actually blushed slightly. "I, I'm sorry," she apologized. "I'll accept your gift, lady."

"That will never do," the woman said. "Call me Mother, child. All my closest friends do."

"Mother," she corrected herself immediately, feeling a strange compulsion to please this strange woman.

She took the amulets, and felt how warm they were. One of them had a short chain, obviously meant for Eron, and she looked at them. They looked just like Tarrin's amulet.

"Put it on, Mist," she prompted. "I won't feel safe about leaving until you do."

Obeying out of impulse, she took the amulet meant for her and put the chain around her neck, then settled it on her chest. It seemed suddenly hot, then cold, and then it got heavy for a split second...and then it simply felt like it belonged there. She wrapped her paw around it for a moment, surprised at what she felt, then she bent down and helped Eron put on his.

"Aww, you're leaving, shining lady?" Eron pouted.

"I'll always visit your dreams, little cubling," she smiled sweetly. "But it costs me much to come and visit this way. It's much easier to do it the other way."

"Who are you?" Mist asked, almost plaintively.

"You already know that answer, Mist," she replied cryptically, looking at Triana. "How long are you staying?"

"A few hours," she replied. "I need to get back to Suld. Jesmind needs constant defusing."

"I've noticed," the woman laughed.

"How is Tarrin doing?"

"He's doing fine."

"Has Kimmie seduced him yet?"

The woman looked at her, and then laughed. "No, but Tarrin is fully aware that she's interested," she replied. "He's resisting her out of respect for Jesmind, but I doubt it will last long. Tarrin understands his instincts, Triana. He knows when it's not healthy to deny them."

"Good," she snorted.

"Well, I hate to come and go, but it's time for me to go back," she sighed. "We'll talk later, Triana?"

"If you wish," she replied respectfully.

"I do wish it," she assured with a nod. "Goodbye, Mist. It was nice to meet you."

And with that, she knelt and gave Eron another hug, kissed him on the cheek, then stood and walked towards the open door.

"But who are you?" Mist asked a final time, but got no answer. The woman stepped out the door and closed it behind her. "Triana, who is that woman?" she demanded.

"Mist, you wouldn't believe me if I told you," the matron said seriously. "She's a friend. A very unusual friend. Let's just leave it at that."

"She's the shining lady, Mama," Eron told her, as if that explained everything.

The shining lady. Mist looked at the closed door, thoroughly convinced that something very weird, very unique, had just happened. But she had no idea what it was. She just had a feeling.

She reached up and put her paw around the amulet, felt the strange energy that emanated from it, and then it just hit her. She gasped, her eyes widening in shock, and she turned to Triana with pleading eyes. "It wasn't--"

"It was," she said with a simple nod. "Feel very lucky, Mist. You were just visited by a Goddess."

Mist gaped at her.

Triana laughed. "I told you that you wouldn't believe it if I told you," she chided her. "Now let's eat. I have to get back to Suld by nightfall, or Jesmind may get pecky and kill somebody."