Fel (James Galloway)

Axe of the Dwarven King

Chapter 1

It was, quite simply, the most wonderful present he had ever received.

The house was absolutely everything he had ever wanted in a house. It was a four story affair, comfortably large but not outrageously spacious, with the top and bottom floors being an open attic and a compartmented cellar. That left two floors for living space, but that was more than enough. The house faced east, faced Aldreth, and it let those on the porch enjoy a sunrise, as those inside could look through the large windows that faced west and watch the sunset. The ground floor was dominated by a large living room that ran from the front of the house to the back, complete with large windows on the rear wall and a glass-paned door that opened to a large deck built on the back of the house, even larger than the deck-like porch that was built at its front. This large living space was divided into a parlor-like area on the north side and a large dining table on the south, a table that could easily seat fifteen people, a table that took up almost all the floor space on that side of the house. There was a fireplace on either side of the large windows and door that led outside, and the stairs leading up to the second floor were just off the entry foyer, running up towards the north side of the house. A passage leading from the dining room held a single small door on its right side that opened into a small privy-like chamber that held nothing but a device called a toilet. It worked just as a privy did, but instead of waste dropping into a midden, letting the smell waft up the same way, this device used water to flush waste into a pipe that led out of the house. Running water refilled the tank that served as a resevoir for the water, creating a way for the house's inhabitants to relieve themselves without having to go out to an outhouse, that also wouldn't stink up the house. The large room that occupied the north side of the house, under the stairs going up, and just down a very wide, short passage, was the kitchen, a very large kitchen complete with shelves and cabinets and two--two--Tellurian stoves that could burn either wood or coal, which made cooking much easier. And just in case he wanted to cook over an open fire, there was also a large fireplace with fixtures for kettles or spits in the hearth, as well as a bread oven just under the mantle, for baking bread or keeping items warm after cooking. The stairs down to the cellar were in the kitchen, just beside a small pantry closet, and there was a larger pantry on the other side of the entrance to the kitchen for storing foodstuffs or cooking utensils. The most fascinating part of the kitchen, however, was the sink, complete with running water that poured from a strange brass spigot-like device called a faucet. There were two knobs for that thing, one that caused cold water to pour out, and one that caused steaming hot water to pour out.

The other side of the ground floor, also separated from the living area by a passage, was the largest bedroom in the house, which was the domain of the master of the house. It was just as large as the kitchen, dominated by a bed so large and long that it looked about large enough to fit a Troll, and it was probably one of the most comfortable beds that ever existed. Leaving no comfort overlooked, the bed's headboard was filled with small shelves for holding small items that the user of the bed may want near, but not want to have to reach out of the bed to a nightstand to retrieve. That massive four-poster bed, built on a poster bed's frame but without the posters and curtains, sat squarely in the center of the floor against the south wall, and all the other furniture in the bedroom was arranged around this dominating centerpiece. To each side of it was a small night stand, and a a large brass-bound chest sat at its foot. On the west wall, just to the left of a large bay window, was a huge writing desk, complete with a small brass lamp-like device that glowed with soft magical light whenever it was touched, a place for someone who had a great deal of correspondence to have a good place to conduct business. The large cherrywood desk had numerous drawers both under the surface and on a shelf of sorts that was built on the back of the desk, where the drawers and shelves were much smaller, meant for tiny things that one wouldn't want to put in a big drawer and risk them getting lost. On the other side of that bay window was another desk-like table, but this one had a mirror on the back of the desk. It was called a vanity, a piece of furniture that was rather unnecessary, but then again, the giver of the house and all the furniture within was a woman, and a woman would consider such a thing an critical element to any properly furnished bedroom. There was a large window on the east side of the house as well, but it was not a bay window, but it too served to separate furniture. To the left of that window was a large bureau, a standing closet of sorts with drawers underneath a large open space where things could be hung off small wooden hangers. To the right was a very large piece of furniture that was nothing but drawers, a thing called a dresser. Quite an odd name. It was made of cherrywood, as everything in the room was, and its many drawers were designed to hold clothes that wouldn't be damaged if they were folded up and stuck inside them. Underneath it all was a massive soft blue carpet, that took up the entirety of the floor, from wall to wall. Blue was the motiff of the room, aside from the reddish furniture, and those two colors seemed to meld in a curiously pleasing fashion. There were paintings to each side of the bed, the one on the left of a fox-Wikuni woman with a wry, almost amused expression on her face, and the other of a ethereal, breathtakingly beautiful Selani woman dressed in her desert garb. Over the bed's headboard was a third painting, that of a handsome woman with a blond braid as thick as a man's wrist and an attractive aging man with a bit of gray in his short-cropped dark hair, both of them with a hand on the younger figure before them. That figure was of a young dark-haired girl with a pretty face and an expression of wisdom beyond her years. There was a tapestry on the wall just to the side of the door leading in of a huge blue dragon, and a pedestal to the other side held a small black metal cat statue atop it, as if it were being kept in a prominent place of honor to display its beauty. Behind and above that pedestal was another painting, one of an exceedingly handsome woman with an expressionless mask, who had strange cat-like ears poking out of a head of tawny hair. Though it was only a painting, it seemed to radiate strength, as if the strength of the woman's image who was captured on canvas was so powerful that even her likeness radiated it. On the wall with the door, to each side of those impressive pieces of art, were two other doors. One led to a very large closet of sorts with room to hang enough clothes for ten people. The other door led to what had to be the most luxurious feature in the house, a bathing room.

It was just like what he remembered from Wikuna. A large room decorated with colored tiles, which formed a shaeram on the far wall when one walked in. Against the left wall was a toilet like the one in the small privy-like room that stood off from the passage leading to the kitchen. It operated using running water just like the other one, flushing waste down a pipe and out of the house. There was a large sink just past it, a sink that also had hot and cold running water running from a faucet that looked almost silver, it was so shiny. There was a large mirror over the sink. Behind the sink, taking up the entire back wall, was the bathtub. It was a monstrous affair, easily capable of holding three people, oval in shape and deep enough to drown a small child if it was filled with water. It too had running water, running from a huge faucet that rose in an elegant arch over the bathtub's rim to pour down inside it. There was a drain in the bottom that one could close off by flipping a small lever just under the faucet, a clever mechanical addition to make things much easier. On the right wall was a small bureau of sorts for holding bathing supplies, such as soap or towels.

The upstairs was divided into eight rooms separated by a passageway that ran up the center of the the floor. Each room was equally large, separated by its partner by a closet. Each room had its own closet. Each room was decorated slightly differently, but all of them held a large bed, nightstands, a dresser, a chest at the foot of the bed, a writing desk, and a large bureau. The furniture in each room was of a different wood, and the carpets and decorations in the rooms were different colors, following different styles. At the far end of the hallway was a split, each side passage only a pace or two long. The left branch led to a single door, and the right split ran up into a very steep set of stairs leading to the attic. That single door led to another bathroom, though it was not nearly as spacious or luxurious as the one in the master bedroom. It had a toilet, sink, and bathtub in it just like the one on the first floor, but they were much more tightly grouped in the smaller chamber, one of white tiled sterility. It had a very small pantry-like closet for holding towels and bathing supplies opposite the toilet.

The attic was an open expanse that ran the length and breadth of the house, its ceiling the roof of the house, with the edges much shorter than the middle as the roof sloped down. The cellar was divided into four rooms, each designed to hold different things. One room was intensely cold, below freezing, to store perishable goods like meats and vegetables. One room was dry and cool, for storing grains and fruits, and the other two were meant to hold old junk and other such things that would certainly accrue over the years.

The house was more than simply wonderfully furnished or beautiful or spacious. It was decidedly magical, and the visible evidence of that magic was all over the house. The most obvious source of magic was the light. Light was present in each room of the house, emanating from small globes that hovered near the ceiling and emitted soft yet bright light that illuminated the entire room. Those globes of light would move if someone commanded them to do so, and would dim or brighten, even go out, at vocal command. The second obvious indication of the house's magical nature was the air. It was fresh and clean, no room ever seemed stuffy, and it was comfortably warm. The air stayed at a comfortable temperature at all times, regardless of how cold or hot it was outside, and the temperature in each room could easily be changed by whoever was in it. All they had to do was ask that it be a little warmer or colder, and the air changed to suit. Even the air's humidity could be changed like that. That magical sphere of control extended outside the house, nearly fifty spans in every direction, leading up to the border of its control. That border was dramatic when one crossed it if the temperature differences were extreme, and it formed a solid boundary for certain insects and other pests. They were kept out of the house and out of its yard by the magic, but still allowed other certain insects or animals to pass through. Flies, wasps, biting insects, termites, weevils, aphids, and ants were stopped by the barrier, but everything else could enter. But there was another barrier that started at the house, which no insect or rodent could cross, to keep such things out of the house. At the edge of the meadow was another magical creation, an arch that only certain people could see, which would transport one to a sister arch that stood at the edge of a farmstead about a day or so to the west if one stepped through it, a farmstead closely linked with the house and its owner.

Although it wasn't obvious, there was a pervasive magic within the house that had driven the owner of it crazy for the first few days of his ownership. Simply put, the house's internal rooms were too big to fit within the outside frame that enclosed it. Careful measuring and pacing off proved that; each room inside the house was larger than what was normal, and when all of them were added together, they formed a structure nearly twice as large as its outside dimensions. The builder of the house was quite an exceptional individual, however, and doing such a thing was well within her capabilities. Just why she decided to do it that way eluded him, but there had to be a reason. Perhaps she wanted the house to appear modest on the outside, but be much larger and more grand on the inside. That was as good a reason as any. He'd stopped trying to figure her out a long time ago.

There was also another kind of magic at work in the house, the magic that dealt with the running water. The water simply appeared within tanks under the basement floor, the hot water was magically heated, and then it moved through the house in pipes that were built into the walls and floors, the pressure used to make it move was also supplied by the magic that governed its operation. When the water was sent down the drainage pipes, those pipes gathered into one main outlet pipe that simply stopped, and that water simply disappeared just as it appeared within the tanks.

Some objects in the rooms of the house also had magical capabilities. All the fireplaces had logs in them, and they would burst into flame at command. The wood never burned down, though the fire was very real, as if it were trying to consume wood that regenerated itself as fast as the fire burned it. There were never any ashes, and in reality, the fires weren't really need. Fire provided light and heat, and both were already supplied by the house's other magical qualities. But sometimes it was nice to sit by a fire, so they were there to provide that comfort. The two stoves in the kitchen were similar to the fireplaces. They would heat up simply by turning a little dial on the front of the stove, a mechanical indicator governing a magical operation--yet another clever little trick. The cook could utterly control the temperature of the stoves, allowing for a slow simmer or a searing blackening of food being cooked atop it or within the ovens.

The house itself was a wonder, but where it sat was nearly as perfect. It stood in a small meadow surrounded by lush, virgin forest, forest untrod by the steps of man for a thousand years. It was utterly isolated, nearly a day away from the nearest human settlement, a place of uncrowded serenity. The meadow had a little stream that flowed along its south side, a curving brook that had any number of fat fish drifting in the pools that stood on either edge of the meadow, separated by a rocky, twisting flow that looked much like a miniature river's rapids. The stream had worn itself down a span or so into the ground, eating out its bed, a miniature gulley of sorts carved out of the flat meadow, one of the rare areas of perfectly flat ground in the gentle foothills of the Skydancer Mountains, some two days or so of travel to the north, mountains that could be seen from either porch of the house on a clear day.

All in all, it was a fantastic house, one that would quickly and thoroughly spoil anyone who stayed in it for any amount of time.

The owner of that house was a young Were-cat named Tarrin Kael, who had earned it as a gift from his Goddess by doing nothing less than saving the world. He had crossed half the world in pursuit of his mission, and that mission was to find and secure an ancient artifact known as the Firestaff, a device with the power to turn a mortal into a god, a device that half the world wanted for itself. He had been successful in that mission, but it had changed him a great deal. He had left home as a human, but had become a Were-cat. He had begun a modest, thoughtful, compassionate young man, but had been subjected to torment after torment that had turned him hard and grim and almost savage, extensions of the animal instincts that had become a part of him after his transformation. He had become one of the most powerful users of magic in all of Sennadar, a force so tremendous that entire armies could not stand against his might. And at the end, he had become a god, having used the Firestaff in a last-ditch effort to protect his daughter and destroy the endless threat that had been Val.

He had been a god for all of about ten minutes, if that, however. The reason his Goddess wanted him to find it was because anyone who used it and became a god would incite a war with the other gods, as they stepped in to destroy the interloper. A god created using the Firestaff wouldn't be a part of the organized structure that the gods used, would be outside the pantheon, and would be a direct threat to the Balance that the gods strove to maintain. Tarrin knew when he did it that he would have to destroy himself along with Val in order to avert a battle between him and the Elder Gods from coming to pass, a battle that, had he fought it, would have sent civilization back to the stone age. The Elder Gods had contained Tarrin and Val in their own battle, and they had managed to sink the land into the magma below and form a gaping wound in the earth that still existed to this day, a hellish inferno of open lava pits and toxic gases that not even the Elder Gods could heal. The damage they had wrought was immense, and had the gods not contained them, it would have extended for thousands of spans in every direction.

To avoid doing any more damage, Tarrin destroyed both Val and himself in a suicidal release of all his godly might. The only reason he was still alive was because he had had the foresight to understand what had to be done, and he had taken steps. He had prepared a device called a Soultrap that would capture his soul at the instant of his destruction, hold it within itself and protect it until the Goddess could decide what to do about it. He had left his braid with Kimmie, and the Goddess had used that to create a new body for his soul. Because of his forward thinking, he had survived the destruction of his godly form, but Val had not. With nowhere for his soul to go, it was caught up in the destruction of his form, and he was utterly destroyed. Tarrin had no memory of his time as a god, and he preferred it that way. He understood that it was best when one had no inkling of what it was like to be something other than what he was meant to be. His experience adjusting to his Were nature proved that to him beyond any doubt.

All he had ever wanted was exactly what he had now. A house out in the middle of nowhere, where he could just live. That was all he wanted. A place to raise his children, a place that was all his own, and time that wasn't spent in the pursuit of some mad quest. To him, it was the best gift his Goddess could have ever bestowed upon him. She had given him a house, but much more than that, she had given him his freedom. He was no longer bound to her will, no longer acting as her agent in the quest to find the Firestaff. For him, for any Were-cat, being free was the most important thing that there was. It defined their existence, and it was the driving force behind most of their behavior. The fastest way to set off a Were-cat and send it into a blind, flying rage was to deny the Were-cat freedom. Were-cats were capable of shocking brutality whenever they felt in danger of being captured or imprisoned, even the mildest and most gentle of them. Now, he could do whatever he wanted to do. His time was his own, and he answered to no one.

For the first few days after coming to this place, coming home, he hadn't done much of anything. But the shock of everything that had happened was still fresh in his mind, and he was still trying to adjust to the finality of it all, the fact that it was over. He wasn't alone, however. He had been surrounded by other Were-cats, friends, lovers, mothers and children, which formed the core of his immediate family among the Were-cats. Firstly there was Jesmind, his mate and the mother of his oldest child, Jasana. Then there was Mist, the feral Were-cat who was the mother of his son, Eron. Then there was Kimmie, a former mate who was the mother of his twin daughters, Tara and Rina. The last of the females in the house was Jula, his bond-daughter, a human that had been turned like him, who he had taken in to raise as his own after finding her. He had hated her at first, because she had betrayed him when she was human, but he couldn't ignore her desperate need when he found her as a Were-cat. That hatred had died away, and now there was nothing but genuine friendship and his sense of parental responsibility towards her. Even though she was an adult now, cut free of his control, he thought of her as a daughter, and always would. And that meant that she had a place within his house. She lived with him willingly, for she felt comfortable with him, and there were things that he could teach her about Sorcery that she could learn nowhere else. The last member of his little family was Triana, his bond-mother, the Were-cat who was so much like his mother to him that he may as well be her natural son. He had two mothers; Elke Kael, the human who had born him, and Triana, who had become every bit as much a mother to him as Elke still was. She didn't stay with him for very long after they arrived, only long enough to see him settle in, then she was off to take care of some other business, promising to return. She was like that; she was the oldest of the Were-cats and one of the strongest Druids, so she was usually a pretty busy woman. They were quite an unusual group, a group that hadn't meant to stay together for very long. Mist and Kimmie had meant to take their children back to their own den at first, but after they had seen the house and come to enjoy it, they kept putting off their departure more and more, until they finally decided to just stay. Tarrin's current mate, Jesmind, hadn't been all that happy about that, since she saw Kimmie and Mist as potential rivals over Tarrin, but all it had taken was one storm of weeping from Jasana over losing Eron as a playmate to crush her reservations and hostility about the idea. Despite everything that had happened, even her abduction and imprisonment by their enemies, Jasana still had a manipulative streak in her about ten longspans wide, and she could play her mother like a lute when she wanted to do so.

They had settled in quite well, truth be told. Tarrin had immediately laid claim to the master bedroom, and since Jesmind was his current mate, she ended up in there with him. Every adult had her own room upstairs, and Jasana and Eron shared a bedroom between them, having become such close friends. The other four bedrooms were unoccupied, but ready for any visitor that would certainly come calling. Tarrin had a great many friends, strange and powerful friends, any one of which more than had the capability of dropping in at almost any time, regardless of his home's remote location.

There were quite a few of them. Tarrin knew a great many unusual people, since he was so unusual himself. His sisters were perfect examples of that. They were the two non-human females that had been in the Tower at the same time as him, and the three of them had formed powerful bonds of love and friendship that had carried Tarrin through a great many trials. They were as different from one another as they were from him, but their diversity had made them a very powerful force to be reckoned with. The only thing they had in common was Sorcery, for all three were capable of using that ancient form of magic. Allia had to be his closest friend, even closer than his mates or parents. She was a Selani, a tall, lithe, slender, and deadly woman whose abilities in the fighting arts her people called the Dance were without equal. She was one of the very few living things Tarrin would fear if he was forced to fight her; that was how dangerous she was. She was quiet and reserved most of the time, for her sense of honor wouldn't permit her to carry on while in public. But in private, she was a warm, caring, compassionate woman with a wicked sense of humor and a tremendous capacity to give. His other sister was Keritanima-Chan Eram, the current queen of Wikuna. She was a Wikuni, one of the animal-people from across the sea, bipedal humanoid beings that resembled common animals. Keritanima resembled a fox, and her personality was much like the animal she resembled. She was clever, insightful, intelligent, and very cunning. Keritanima could play the game of politics better than a vast majority of the other monarchs and rulers with which she dealt, and she could put her formidable mind to work against almost any problem and find a solution. She was an acerbic, surprisingly funny woman, possessing both a towering ego and a remarkable ability to laugh at herself. She noticed absolutely everything that went on around her, and her mind was a remarkable thing. Keritanima had to be the smartest woman Tarrin had ever known.

They were just two examples of the unusual people that were Tarrin's friends. He had travelled with many of them during his quest, strange and unusual individuals that were only unremarkable when grouped with the others around him. The most unremarkable ones of them all had to be Dolanna and Dar, but they were only unremarkable in appearance. Both of them were incredibly unique people. Dolanna was a small, petite, very little woman whose ability in Sorcery was formidable, but was only eclipsed by her powerful force of will and her loyalty. She was the closest friend Tarrin had outside of his circle of family, and he regarded almost as a mother figure. He would obey Dolanna instantly and without question, to this day. She was a quiet, wise, and incredibly experienced Sorceress who had ranged over most of the world doing the will of the Goddess. Whenever Dolanna was with him, he always felt amazingly secure. Dolanna would know what to do, she always did. He hadn't been the only one in their group to rely on Dolanna's leadership, either. Dar was a very young Arkisian, just fledged into a man, who was an absolute natural when it came to Illusions. What made him unusual was his charisma. Simply put, everyone liked Dar. There was just something about him, a sense, an aire, that made it absolutely impossible for someone to dislike him. He was a generous and warm individual, always kind in word and cognizant of others, and that only reinforced his unusual charismatic aura. His personality didn't repel people once his magnetic quality drew them in. Even Tarrin, a grim, mistrustful fellow, had been affected by Dar. The members of Tarrin's woodland society had said much the same thing. Even the most dour Centaur would find himself strangely drawn to the kind-hearted Arkisian.

The rest of his group of friends were a bit more unusual in appearance than them. Many of them were human, but they were striking humans, so unusual that they seemed different. Azakar was probably the most striking example. He was a Mahuut, a race of dark-skinned humans from Valkar, and he was a muscled, handsome fellow who was now a Knight. But he was almost nine spans tall, towering head and shoulders over other men, an absolute monster of a man whose strength was unrivalled among humans. Azakar had been a slave in the empire of Yar Arak, and though it made him quiet and withdrawn, the experience hadn't darkened his soul. He was a Knight of Karas, a member of an order of highly trained warriors who served the Sorcerers as bodyguards when the church of Karas had no active missions for them. Camara Tal was an Amazon, a very rare race of humans from the islands off the continent of Arathorn. She was copper-skinned and raven-haired, and was both handsome and beautiful at the same time. But what set her apart was the fact that she was taller than virtually all mainlander men, as she called them, and had a body that almost any woman would sell her soul to possess. She was both muscled and remarkable well curved at the same time, a Priestess of the Amazon goddess that had been a warrior before putting that aside to answer the call of her goddess and enter her order. She was a very willful woman, stubborn and pushy, but she always had what she considered to be one's best interests in heart when she bossed them around. Once one got past her pushy nature, they found her to be a very generous woman, always giving of herself and seeking to nurture and protect, as were the tenets of her faith. To be strong as steel, but as caring as a mother when necessary. Phandebrass the Unusual was a Tellurian Wizard, a man whose age Tarrin still could not determine. He had white hair like an old man, but had a narrow, young face, complete with a pointy nose and a new affectation, a goatee. His eyes seemed ageless, blue eyes that looked aged and wizened, but still had a youthful sparkle in them. Phandebrass was a phenomenally smart fellow, with a mind that could grasp things that most people could never comprehend, and his lifelong quest was always to attain more knowledge. He was an exceptionally powerful Wizard, capable of many magicks that other Wizards would never be able to understand. But all his learning and experience made him a little...distracted. That was as good an explanation as any. He was a bit absent-minded and tended to repeat himself, and often things that didn't seem all that important to him got neglected, even while he was doing them. The problem was that what Phandebrass deemed important was much different than what most other people would. He would often lose his focus in the middle of a dangerous operation as his mind pondered weightier matters. That made him a little accident prone, but at least life with Phandebrass around was never boring. People often couldn't see past his scattered nature to see how brilliant the man was, and when he put his mind to solving a problem, it got solved. No mystery could hide from the addled Wizard once it piqued his curiosity. He was relentless once he decided to solve a mystery.

He had other friends who weren't human. Sarraya had to be the closest of them. She was a Faerie, and they had travelled a long way together. She was flighty, capricious, scathing, and combative most of the time, and for a Faerie, she was remarkably disciplined...but that was for a Faerie. Actually, she had very little self control, succumbing to her impulses most of the time, and those usually got her in trouble. But she was still one of Tarrin's best friends, and her irreverence and light manner had often cheered him up. He had spent the most time with Sarraya, but he had the chance to make friends with several others. Ariana was an Aeradalla, a race of human-looking people with large feathered wings, and though he hadn't seen her but a few times, he considered her to be a very good friend. She was quite smart, a trader and merchant by profession, though now she was a queen and no longer pursued trade as an occupation. Her help had proved invaluable to Tarrin and his friends more than once in the past, and he made a point to contact her about once every ride or so and see how things were going. His other close friends from the desert were Var and Denai, two Selani who had travelled with Tarrin as he crossed the desert, and had had a hand in showing him both the darkness deep within himself and the strength that would control it. Var was a Selani to the roots of his hair, sober, serious, and intense in everything he did. Denai, his wife, was probably the most un-Selani Selani he'd ever seen. She was whimsical, a little erratic, daring and impulsive, unusual traits in a Selani. But she had manners, and those manners were probably what kept her out of trouble.

They were slightly unusual people, but they were nothing compared to three others of Tarrin's acquaintance. The first was Spyder. She was the Spyder, a figure out of the oldest myths and legends of Sennadar, a ten thousand year old Urzani, the forefathers of the modern Sha'Kar, who had stood vigil at the gates leading into the world of Sennadar, defending their world from incursion from the forces and creatures that lurked outside their dimension. She was the most powerful mortal on all of Sennadar, a being whose powers of Sorcery rivalled the entire Tower, both in raw power and experience. She was a blunt, direct, silent woman whose very demeanor was one of complete mystery. Nobody knew Spyder, even those who were acquainted with her. She was almost as complicated and mysterious as a god. For that matter, she was nearly a god on her own. No living thing on Sennadar could stand against her, and she knew it, but she never acted in arrogance or condescension. It was as if that were simple fact, as simple as the fact that she might be wearing leather boots.

The second was one that Tarrin knew, but didn't really call a friend. She was a Demon, a Succubus, and currently was the Empress of Yar Arak, the largest kingdom on all of Sennadar. The only reason she was allowed to remain on Sennadar was because she had struck a deal with the Elder Gods, to perform certain missions and tasks for them that regular mortals could not accomplish, but Spyder could not perform because of her other duties. They looked the other way when she did some of the things she did, tolerating her in exchange for the invaluable service she could provide. She was named Shiika, or at least that was what she called herself. She was a thoroughly dangerous creature, cunning and manipulative, and Tarrin didn't trust her one whit. But she had proved in the past many times that when her goals were the same as his, they could be powerful allies, and in a very odd kind of way, he sort of liked her. She was a Demoness who had turned her back on the nature of her own kind, preferring to dwell in the mortal dimension. But she was by no means a sweet and innocent maiden. She was a Demon, with a dark soul and something of a evil streak in her, but nothing compared to the evil of other Demons. As Demons went, she was almost...nice. But that was only in comparison to other Demons. She had five female daughters, half-breed Demons called Alus, and one of them was almost an acquaintance on her own, the blond-haired Anayi.

The third was very much his friend, a very beloved and close friend, literally a member of his family. She also just happened to be a blue dragon. He had thought her to be nothing but a drake when he found her, and in a way, that was all that she had been. She was actually a dragon, though, who had retreated into the body and mind of a drake to survive the Breaking. After the Weave was restored, Sapphire and all the other dragons shed their drake forms and reverted to their true power, a power that no living thing on Sennadar, not even Shiika or Spyder, would take lightly. Dragons were immensely powerful creatures, both physically formidable and magically adept. A single dragon could wipe out the entire army of a kingdom. Sapphire had started as his pet, but when she had regained her mind after the Weave was restored, their relationship evolved into one of deep friendship. Sapphire saw him as one of her broodlings, a child, but she loved him and had tremendous respect for him, and he had similar love and respect for her. She was vastly intelligent and tremendously wise, but she was also highly protective of him, a protectiveness that had both been crucial to his mission and a serious impediment. Two days after he had come to his new house, Sapphire had showed up on the doorstep in her magically-granted human form, the result of a magic spell, and toured the place to make sure it was good enough for him. It took nearly five hours, and she decided that it was "barely adequate." That put Sapphire on the hot list for his Goddess, who had put quite a bit of thought and work into the house's design. Just how she had known of the house or where to find him still aggravated Tarrin whenever he stopped to think about it, but that was Sapphire. She had abilities and sources of information he would probably never understand.

But the companion that still had the most impact on his life was the one who was no longer with him. His name had been Faalken, and he had been a Knight like Azakar. He had died in battle with the Doomwalker Jegojah, sacrficing himself to protect Dolanna and Dar just long enough to save their lives. Faalken's death had been crushing for Tarrin, for the jovial Knight had been with him a very long time, had known him, and was one of the very few people that could make him laugh. He had been irreverent, almost immature, someone that Sarraya would have loved to know, but when the cards were on the table, he was all business. And he could back up that business with his broadsword. Faalken's amazing mixture of childish delight and mature seriousness seemed a paradox, but he always knew when to be serious and when it was alright to let his curly hair down and have a little fun. There were few men as solid and dependable as Faalken had been, and even now, not a day went by that he didn't think about his old friend with great sadness. Faalken's death had had a very powerful effect on him because Tarrin knew that he was directly responsible for Faalken's death, and the combination of his death and the knowledge that he had been its cause had turned him truly feral. It had been a very long road to recover the ground he lost when that happened. He'd blamed himself, and when not torturing himself over it, he was defending his remaining friends with a savage brutality that mirrored the feral nature that had overwhelmed him. For a time after Faalken's death, Tarrin was more of a monster than the ones who had sent Jegojah to kill him, utterly consumed by grief, rage, hatred, and fury. He had been evil, completely evil, during those dark times, and it was still something for which he was not sorry. Ferality in Were-cats was a constant through the breed, with only the degree of ferality in question. Even the mildest Were-cats, like Kimmie, had a touch of feral nature in them. But Tarrin had represented the other extreme, a cold-blooded monster who would kill with as much moral consideration as a housewife would have over slicing bread. But he had recovered from that, and at the end, Faalken himself had a hand in changing Tarrin, easing his feral nature, by being there the last time he fought Jegojah, bringing Tarrin a sense over closure of the Knight's death and allowing him to finally put Faalken's body and soul to rest. To this day, Faalken's crypt stood in the ruins of the ancient Dwarven city of Mala Myrr, a place that Tarrin visited in his mind at least once a day to pay his respects to his fallen but never forgotten friend.

Having such unusual friends made life exciting, but it was nothing like a day in the Kael household. Tarrin was a lone male Were-cat surrounded by four females and four children, and though they all liked each other, Were-cat mentality being what it was, it did cause some friction. The biggest friction, predictably, was Jesmind and Mist. The two elder Were-cat females each had their own ideas of the way things should be in the house, who should do what, and they butted heads and exchanged heated shouts at least once a day. At the very least. Mist was a very short Were-cat, but she was powerful and very nasty, and Jesmind knew that she had to be very careful around her. Mist had once been as feral as Tarrin had been, savage and unpredictable, and though she too had recovered much ground from that low, she was still short-tempered and not above smacking Jesmind when she felt it necessary. Mist was much smaller than Jesmind, but Jesmind knew that Mist could thrash her, so more often than not things were done Mist's way in the house.

Were-cat society generally boiled down to that one simple concept. Power. Were-cats possessed human intelligence, but they were still dominated by the cat instincts that were a part of them. The pecking order in the house was decided by who was physically the strongest, and gender made no difference in it. If Tarrin was not bigger and stronger than the females around him, one of them would challenge him for his place as the top rung of the ladder. Below him, the females decided their order simply by who could beat the others into submission. The differences between Jesmind and Mist were very slight, and that was what caused so much friction between them. Jesmind's status as Tarrin's mate made up for the fact that Mist could physically overpower her, so that put them on even ground, struggling against one another for total control underneath him. It was a purely cosmetic thing for everyone else, for everyone in the house knew what needed done, and they simply did it. Beneath them was something of a harmonious co-existence between Jula and Kimmie. They had become fast friends when they met in the Tower, two turned females, and they were as inseperable as two siblings, always together, always talking, always gossiping or laughing. Even if they weren't such good friends and truly didn't care about status, there would still be no friction between them. Kimmie was so mild-natured that she honestly didn't care about status, more than happy to occupy the bottom rung. Jula was only recently released as an adult, and was too insecure about herself to even think of trying to assert herself in any way. Both of them always did whatever Mist or Jesmind told them to do, knowing that it was the easiest way to avoid any hint of conceived challenge.

Those differences were quite profound to Tarrin as he observed them. The two Were-cat females who were born Were were very much different from the two who were turned. Tarrin was turned himself, but he had so utterly embraced his instincts and his Were nature that it was as if he'd been born Were himself. Every Were-cat that knew him agreed about that one fact, as if he'd been born a Were-cat in a human body, and Jesmind's bite had only caused him to become what he was always meant to be. Jesmind and Mist were combative and competitive, while Kimmie and Jula were capable of harmonious coexistence.

Of course, all that went completely out the window when Triana arrived. Triana was the oldest living Were-cat, the matriarch of their entire society, and her power was absolute. Tarrin wouldn't even dream of trying to challenge his bond-mother over that highest rung, and when she was in the house, she ruled it. Nobody would gainsay Triana, not over anything, not for any reason. Triana was the ultimate example of Were-cat society, a Were-cat who stood above all others, and fully expected her every command to be obeyed immediately and without question. Nobody--nobody, not even humans or other members of Fae-da'Nar--could look Triana in the eye and defy her. Except for Tarrin, and only the defiant Tarrin who had not yet learned about his bond-mother. After she had trained him when he was wounded by the Wikuni, he had learned how utterly foolish he had been to ever think that he could match wills with Triana. He did sometimes chafe under her peremptory commands, but he knew that she would never tell him to do something she felt was beneath his dignity. Triana loved him very much, as much as he loved her, and she was neither outrageous nor overbearing in her rulership of Tarrin's house when she was there. It was just Triana doing what Triana did wherever she was, totally dominate everyone and everything around her and assume absolute mastery of whatever domain in which she currently stood. She did it without even thinking about it, so powerful was the sense of her, an aura of absolute power that seemed to surround her at all times, a sense that anyone who disagreed with her must be absolutely crazy to think that she was wrong. That was her way, making someone feel foolish for disagreeing with her, as if they weren't good enough to be right, and doing it all with a certain look and a set of her body that communicated her towering disregard for one's faulty opinion.

The relationships among the children were virtually similar, but instead of strength, the fulcrum tilted around age. Jasana was the oldest, and though she and Eron were the same size, Jasana was the dominant because she was older. She was also dominant because she was a sneaky little manipulator, capable of talking Eron into doing almost anything she wanted him to do, and convincing him that he'd wanted to do it himself by the time she was done. Jasana ruled Eron like a little queen, tricking him into doing all the dirty work so that she reaped the rewards, but any punishments would be exacted against him should they come down. At least she tried. Tarrin and Jesmind both were wise to their daughter's cunning, and though she could easily talk her way out of trouble with Mist, Jula, and Kimmie, she had no chance against her parents. The fact that Tarrin could force her to tell the truth killed her little games more often than not, for neither of his children could look him in the eyes and lie, not when he gave them the stare. No matter how many times Jasana tried to lie, she just could not do it.

In many ways, Were-cat society was shocked by the scandalous cub of Tarrin and Jesmind. Never in the entire history of the Were-cats had there been a cub quite like her. There was no such thing as a deceptive, lying, conniving Were-cat, and her personality and demeanor had utterly shocked several of the Were-cats who had come to visit them. Lying was an alien concept among the Were-cats, who always took the word of others at its face. The fact that Jasana was so outrageously deceitful was a heavy black mark against her in the eyes of the other Were-cats. What they all missed was the fact that Jasana only lied when she couldn't weasel out of something any other way. She was remarkably loose with the truth when she needed to be, capable of tying truth into a knot and making it look like something it was not without ever actually lying. And they also didn't understand that she only resorted to such things when she couldn't get what she wanted. When she was content, she was as honest and forthright as any other Were-cat. It was just when she was on one of her crusades to gain something she wanted that she turned sly. Fortunately for everyone involved, Tarrin and Jesmind had learned the signs of a Jasana on the warpath, subtle shifts in her body language, tempo and timbre of voice, and most tellingly in her scent that warned them that their cub was up to no good. Jasana hadn't quite figured out what was giving her away quite yet, but her parents weren't about to show their hands.

Jesmind and Tarrin, and then the other adult females in the house, all worked very hard to break her of it. Tarrin and Jesmind had been trying for as long as they'd been together, but no matter how hard they tried, Jasana simply fell back into the habit of doing whatever it took to get whatever she wanted. Not even the disaster of Jasana turning Tarrin Were had broken her of her unsavory habits. All those things ever did was subdue her cunning nature for a while, until the mentality of the Cat, which tended to forget and ignore the past, made her revert back to her former mannerisms.

And it certainly didn't help that Keritanima had been giving Jasana "sneaking lessons." True to her word, Keritanima was doing her best to spoil Jasana, and she'd been teaching her all her underhanded tricks, like picking locks and stealing things, as well as refining her ability to lie. Tarrin was furious with his sister for doing that, but that was nothing compared to Jesmind's reaction. Keritanima was forced to project to the house for nearly a month after that. If Jesmind would have been able to get her claws into the fox Wikuni, she probably would have killed her.

The most remarkable personality Tarrin had witnessed in the house had to be Jula's. They had started as enemies, and then they were connected by bonds of duty, but now they were the best of friends. Jula's earning of her adulthood had made her much more confident in herself, and though she was nowhere near as aggressive or pushy as Jesmind and Mist, she was starting to show the same traits she had had back when she was human. Tarrin and Jula would stay up late into the night just talking, about anything and everything. Tarrin learned to value his bond-daughter's experience and insight into things, for she had been a very well-travelled and experienced woman, and she brought that seasoned outlook to her bond-father in their long conversations. And he was quite honestly impressed with her mind. Jula was very intelligent, calm, unruffled, and now that she was an adult and had had time to adjust to being a Were-cat, confident. Neither Jesmind nor Mist liked the friendship that had formed between Tarrin and Jula, but Jesmind and Mist could never think with anything north of their waists. They didn't understand the simple fact that a male and a female could have a strong and involved relationship that didn't involve sex. Jula was Tarrin's daughter, and only Kimmie could understand the position that that made her hold in his mind. Tarrin would be repulsed by the very idea of taking Jula for mate, as much as he would at the thought of taking one of his own daughters.

Life was good for Tarrin after his ordeal, after he settled in. The first thing that happened were visits from Sapphire, Jenna, and Keritanima, after which his two sisters got a solid sense of his home so they could Teleport there whenever they wished. After that, Tarrin spent his days relaxing or talking with old friends using his magic, and occasionally entertaining visitors. His parents were the most frequent visitors, dropping by at least once a day to see him and their grandchildren. He spoke to his old friends at least once a day, but Keritanima had a habit of Teleporting in every two or three days to spend some time with him. She often brought Rallix, and Tarrin had gotten to know the thin badger, and respect him. Rallix was perfect for Keritanima. He was observant, smart, and unruffled sort of fellow that never seemed to be surprised by anything. And Keritanima had learned quickly that her authority over him meant as much to him as dust in his bowler hat. She couldn't dominate her husband, and that strength made for both some pretty heated arguments, as well as just the kind of man she needed to complement her. Sarraya dropped in about once a ride or so, just to see how things were going, as well as to keep Tarrin abreast of what was going on out in Fae-da'Nar. Sarraya was a Hierarch, one of the strongest Druids, and he had learned that the Council of Hierarchs had elevated him to that status as well. They had never so much as spoken to him, but they made sure to pass along information the Hierarchs felt that all the other Hierarchs should know through Sarraya. Tarrin felt that perhaps his history wouldn't make it very good for the Woodkin to know that Tarrin was considered to be among them, for they were the group that made the laws of Fae-da'Nar, and Tarrin was very well known as a Were-cat who would toss the rulebook out the window whenever it suited him. Sapphire's visits were clockwork; every seven days, precisely at noon, she showed up on the front doorstep for what she called kirsa, or what Jesmind coined the "invasion." Sapphire's visits were only enjoyable for Tarrin and his children. The other Were-cats didn't appreciate the dragon coming in and telling them everything she felt they were doing wrong in the house, or what they should fix, or how they could arrange things to make her more comfortable when she visited. They put up with it because Sapphire was a dragon, and not even a Were-cat was insane enough to cross one of those most powerful of creatures. Every once in a while, he got a projected visit from Ianelle or ghostly voice visits from Auli, two Sha'Kar, mother and daughter, with whom he had become quite fond while at the Tower. Auli talked to him quite a bit just to talk, for he and her had been fast friends back in the Tower, after the protective spell surrounding the Firestaff stripped him of both his memory and his Were nature. Ianelle called on him almost as frequently, but she was more business. His visits with Jenna were purely social, so Ianelle kept him abreast of what was going on in the world. He was no longer involved in the world, but it was nice to know what was going on out there, far from his isolated homestead. When she wasn't filling him in on what king was doing what to whom, they often shared warm, friendly conversation. Tarrin liked Ianelle a great deal, and what was more, he trusted her. She was Jenna's right-hand woman, universally understood to be second in command in the Tower, and she advised Tarrin's sister on various aspects of rulership. Ianelle was a steady, methodical woman, deeply rooted in her Sha'Kar heritage and society, and Jenna could not have a better advisor than the dependable Sha'Kar Sorceress.

It was everything he had hoped for. It was quiet, peaceful, and serene. Winter gave way to spring, and spring to summer without anything earth-shattering happening in his life in the least. In those six months he had witnessed the miracle of Were-cat children growing up, for Were-cats aged at twice the speed of humans when they were children, both in body and mind. Jasana, the oldest, grew almost half a span in those five months, going from resembling a five year old to resembling an eight year old, and the first signs of maturity were starting to show in her features. She was going to look so much like Jesmind that it wasn't funny. The maturation of her body was kept pace by the maturation of her mind, as the bubbly child that had shown tremendous affection for her parents slowly evolved into an intensely curious child that was starting to mimic her grandmother in many ways, adopting a very sober and serious posture while still remaining a carefree and fun-loving cub. Jasana really was more mature than other Were-cats her age, a result of her unique experiences and her abilities, and the ordeal of being kidnapped and held hostage had not affected her personality very much at all. She did tend to hover near her parents most of the time and didn't like to go out alone, but those things faded over time until she was as she had been before. For those six months, Tarrin had started teaching both Jasana and Jula about the aspects of Weavespinner magic, starting to train them in a magical art form not practiced since the Breaking, but one that had suddenly become resurgent with the appearance of the Sha'Kar and the crossing over of more and more of the Sorcerers in both Towers. There were a few deaths, but Ianelle had told him that even in the times of the Ancients, sometimes Sorcerers didn't survive the ordeal. Jula proved to be an apt pupil, but Jasana had an unreasoning fear of the concept of joining to the Weave and sending her spirit out into it, probably spawned by a traumatic episode when she'd stumbled across Tarrin as he was doing so and thinking he was dead. Ever since then, she'd been afraid of it, both of seeing others do it, and now of doing it herself.

When not working with his daughters with Sorcery and not talking to any number of his friends or relatives scattered all over the world, Tarrin spent time with his children as both a father and teacher, teaching Jasana and Eron how to hunt and fish, teaching them the ways of the forest as they were taught to him by his own father, a Sulasian Ranger named Eron, and joining that education to his Were abilities to turn both of his little pupils into top-notched hunters and trackers. Eron especially seemed to be quite adept at the idea of hunting, stalking, and tracking, for he had a very sensitive nose--even compared to other Were-cats--and he loved chasing things. Mist had told him that ever since he was a baby, he'd loved to chase things, and that was all hunting and tracking really was, chasing something. But unlike an adult, the chase was what was fun for Eron, not the kill. That didn't mean that he was squeamish, but he saw catching his prey as a let-down, an end to his game. For Eron, the perfect prey was the one that could never be caught, for it would provide him with endless entertainment.

Eron was developing into quite an interesting child. He had a fast mind...perhaps too fast. He tended to talk fast and move fast whenever he got excited, which unfortunately was fairly often, but these traits didn't detract from his ability to sit down, be quiet, and learn, when he was being taught something that he wanted to learn. He didn't show it as much as Jasana, but Eron was actually quite an intelligent little cub, probably as smart as his sister. It was just that his intellect was not as refiined as his sister's, who had received more education than him. He was usually a rather well-behaved cub, at least when Jasana hadn't talked him into stealing something for her, but he had that eternal youthful exuberance in him that made him quite dangerous to the house's furnishings and decorations. He tended to break things, crash around the house, and never, ever seemed to get tired. He was alot like any energetic human boy, but his Were-cat strength gave him the ability to do more than break plates. Getting him to go to sleep was like battling an army of Demons, and getting him to sit still if he was bored often required chaining him to his chair. Handling Eron required at least two adults, because he could break almost anything within ten seconds of coming into proximity to it. Despite his exuberance, he was a little darling. He was very affectionate and lovable, and it was in those rare moments when he was at peace that he was the most beautiful and treasured.

Tarrin watched Tara and Rina grow at an astonishing rate over those six months. They had gone from tiny little things that could fit in the palm of his paw to ambulatory little darlings, tiny little replicas of Kimmie, but with Tarrin's fur. But while they looked alike, it was apparent that their personalities were not. Tara was the elder, and she was highly aggressive, but not mean-spirited. She never pushed her twin sister around, but she was quite pushy with Jasana and Eron, who were not impressed by the Were-cat toddler's bravado. She had a baleful glare already, those flashing blue eyes blazing whenever she felt she wasn't getting the attention or the objects that she desired. She was willful, stubborn, loud, brash, and could be quite grating on the ears when she didn't get her way, and she gave Kimmie fits. She was extremely mischievious, getting into absolutely everything, much as Eron had done at that age. Rina was much different from Tara. She was gentle, sweet, quiet, and quite observant. She had been a very mild-tempered little baby, rarely crying and always staring at everyone with those lucent blue eyes of hers. Her growth had done little to change her personality, for she was still quiet and observant, like a student in a classroom, and she was both gentle in nature and generous. She willingly shared what Tara would selfishly keep for herself. Everyone who had seen the two girls grow over the months agreed that Tara was every bit Tarrin's daughter, while Rina was every bit Kimmie's. It was as if the personalities of their parents had been ingrained to them, but instead of mixing together equally between them, each had inherited all the traits of one parent. They were very much identical in appearance, but not in demeanor. These personality extremes seemed to be softening, however, now that they were learning how to talk and rationalize things without resorting to instinct. Both of them were intelligent, but where Rina seemed very curious about the world and what her parents had to teach, Tara preferred to learn by doing instead of being told. It didn't make Tara any less intelligent than Rina, but Tarrin could see that Tara would probably never be one with the patience to sit down and read a book, where Rina would be more than happy to do so.

It had been quite a wonderful six months. Ianelle kept him up to speed on the happenings out in the world, which were pleasantly dull. The only real news going on out there was the endless war of diplomacy that Keritanima fought with Shiika. His Wikuni sister and the Demoness that ruled Yar Arak were evenly matched, and their fencing had provided all the other monarchs whose kingdoms bordered the Sea of Storms and Sea of Glass with endless amusement. Tarrin had never thought that a personal war could erupt between two monarchs who sent letters and treaties back and forth couched in the most flowery and flattering language, but he had never admitted to understanding either the mind of a woman or the motives of a diplomat. He had no real inkling of how this war worked, or how one would manage to claim victory, but he was certain that someone would explain it all to him. Probably after it was all over. Tarrin was certain that Shiika was really getting under his sister's fur, for she often complained about the Demoness to him when they spoke or when she visited, and more than once had tried to cajole him into using his strange influence over the Demoness to make her do what Keritanima wanted. He only laughed and bowed out, knowing that coming between those two would only get him coccooned like an errant fly that wandered too close to a spider's web.

What made him laugh about the whole thing was when Shiika paid him a personal visit about five months after he'd settled in, to get a look at things, meet his children, and then she tried to convince him to tell Keritanima to do a few things that Shiika wanted her to do. It seemed that Keritanima was getting to Shiika as much as Shiika was getting to Keritanima.

The only thing he was certain about was that the two of them were having more fun than they'd ever had in their lives. Both were thoroughly enjoying their little war, and he had the feeling that they were dragging it out purely for the entertainment it provided. Both had found a worthy opponent in the other, and they were now trying to decide who was the better between them.

From a political standpoint, that was the only thing really going on. There had been civil wars in Daltochan and Draconia after the power vacuum caused by the destruction of the ki'zadun, but those had been settled in a matter of months. There had been a border incursion between Draconia and Ungardt, but the Ungardt marched over the border with two clans and laid waste to a few Draconian towns, convincing the Draconians that if they had any strange ideas about expanding their borders, they'd better look in some other direction.

What had troubled Ianelle was the curious lack of civil discord in certain kingdoms in the world, like Zakkar. Zakkar and Stygia had long been bastions of the ki'zadun, but neither had so much had suffered a single riot with the destruction of Val and the loss of virtually the entire upper echelons of the shadowy organization he controlled. Ianelle thought that at the very least there would have been a power struggle within the kingdoms, but there had not. The Witch-King of Zakkar and the Mage Queen of Stygia had managed to retain control of their kingdoms despite the loss of the support of the ki'zadun, or as Ianelle worried, perhaps they had simply taken over their operations. The ki'zadun was a huge organization that stretched across the entire world, and they all agreed that not even Val's death and the loss of the network's leaders had probably destroyed the organization as a whole. It was still out there, and Ianelle felt that it was possible that they had shifted their focus from resurrecting Val to simply gaining and holding power for themselves, reflected by a change of rulership at its highest level. No matter who had managed to take control of the ki'zadun, most of the political leaders in the world agreed that it would be a good idea to find out who was now controlling it, and possibly doing what they could to destroy it. That was what a good many spies in the West and on the continents of Arathorn and Valkar were doing, and Keritanima had told him that it may take them a couple of years before they found out who was now leading the ki'zadun. That was why there had been such a lull in things. Everyone was busy trying to ferret out the new leader of that shadow organization, who still had designs to rule the world, and had quite a few assets at their disposal. Nobody wanted another period of chaos like the one the ki'zadun had caused in the West. They had taken over two kingdoms and set almost the whole of the West at war against one another. Nobody relished seeing something like that happen on Godan-Nyr, Arathorn, or Valkar, where the relations between kingdoms, nations, and empires were much more volatile. The West, as a region, was probably one of the most stable in the world, for all the kingdoms more or less got along with one another, and wars were very rare. When they did happen, they rarely lasted for very long, and then the combatants shook hands and returned to their own sides of the border. There were some tensions in the West, like between the cities of the Free Duchies and between Tykarthia and Draconia, but they were very minor compared to the millenia of seething hatred between Yar Arak and Godan, or Stygia and every kingdom that abutted its borders, including Sharadar, or Shen Lung and Newan, or Zakkar and virtually every other kingdom on the planet.

There had been a few unusual things, though. The Goddess had said that it would take his mind and soul time to adust to his new body, a body the Goddess had created to house his soul after the Soultrap had saved him from utter annihilation. And for the first month or so, he could feel that. At first, the Weave felt distant and fuzzy, but as time passed, it grew more and more clear, until it felt as it had always felt to him. That meant that his powers of Sorcery had been completely restored to him, just as strong as they had been before. In fact, everything felt as it had before, and he figured that he was fully healed. But, much to his surprise, things didn't end there. As the next month passed, he started feeling very odd sensations, and the vast majority of the time, they happened in the kitchen, in the common room, or when he was over visiting his parents' house. He couldn't quite pin down what the sensation was or why it seemed to be stronger at only certain times, but he didn't have much time to explore it, however. About a month after he started noticing it, the first of the many distractions that interrupted him, prevented him from exploring the origins of these strange feelings and sensations, came along.

As things go, it wasn't a very large distraction, but it did kind of evolve into a major one, one that would uproot him from his life of peace and comfort for a little while. It all started during one of his almost daily talks with Allia through the amulets, and when he asked how things were going, she sighed and went on what was to him to be an almost uncharacteristic venting spree. She was having serious trouble with her father, and it was all over her pet. Allia had a pet inu, which was a desert reptile-looking animal that was about as tall as a man, was bipedal, had a sharply angular head filled with sharp teeth and long, wicked claws, and was one of the desert's most efficient and formidable hunters. Inu preyed on just about anything they could catch, and they hunted in packs. The problem was, the herd animals upon which the Selani depended were deathly afraid of Allia's little pet, which she had named Kedaira, which meant loyal in Selani. Kedaira was very well trained, and would not attack the domesticated herds. But the herds still had an instinctive fear of inu, and every time Allia and Kedaira moved through the camp, they caused a stampede. Her father had had about enough, and had ordered the inu out of the camp. Allia had thrown, what was for her, an absolute fit, which probably meant that she argued in public with her father over her pet inu. Allia was very attached to her pet, and for that matter, Kedaira absolutely adored Allia.

Allia's request seemed a rather simple one. She asked that Tarrin take Kedaira for a few days until she could hammer out a compromise with her father. That didn't seem too outrageous, for he'd had experience with the inu, and knew that she was very smart and would obey him. So he agreed. He Teleported out to Mala Myrr two days later and met them and Allyn, who was now officially Allia's husband. They spent all day together talking and catching up, and Tarrin saw that Allyn looked to be adjusting to life as a Selani better than he'd expected. He was still a bit short compared to Selani males, but he'd toughened up considerably, all wiry muscle now. He'd also been training Allia in Sorcery, and Allia's abilities in that regard were even stronger now. She was now more skilled and had more raw power than the average Sorcerers in the Tower. Their relationship had truly evolved into a symbiotic harmony. They were opposites; everything Allia lacked, Allyn possessed, and everything Allyn lacked, Allia possessed. That was the best kind of union, for they joined to become a whole greater than the sum of its two parts.

Tarrin had thoroughly enjoyed his day with Allia and Allyn, but as the sun went down, he knew it was time to go. So he took Kedaira with him when he Teleported back to the house.

And that's where the trouble started.

Kedaira never intentionally caused trouble. That fact had need to be made clear from the onset. She had impeccable manners inside the house--he let her inside, much to Mist's vociferous objections--and the children all became absolutely entranced by the sleek predator. She was gentle and affectionate with Tarrin and the children, and she never broke anything. It was when she was let outside that she became a problem. Kedaira was an inu, a sleek, highly evolved predator, and when she was outside, she acted like one. The problem was, almost immediately, she found the gateway that led to his parents' house, and she passed through it. Later that night, a furious mother and father paid Tarrin a little visit and tersely told him that Allia's pet had eaten two of the sheep on their farm. It took Tarrin nearly an hour to track her down and take her to task for that, warning her that she couldn't eat the domesticated animals here either. Since he was a Druid, he was more than capable of talking to her. And as in all things, she would obey the commands of a Druid. No animal would disobey a Druid when he spoke with that kind of authority.

Because she was a curious animal, he found her on the other side of the gate almost every time he took his eyes off of her. It only took a day for her to run out of interesting things to see in the forest, and it didn't take her long to find the cart track from his parents' farm to the village itself. Almost every day, he had to go to Aldreth and collect up Kedaira, who caused an absolute panic almost every time she showed up. She didn't break things, she didn't kill domesticated animals, and she didn't chase the villagers. But she was a strange-looking animal, big and intimidating, and the villagers were very afraid of her. Time and again he had to use Sorcery to get to the village quickly after his parents appeared telling him Kedaira was loose again, and he went over there and picked her up. No matter how many times he told the villagers that Kedaira was completely harmless and would not hurt anyone, it always seemed to fall on deaf ears. He even went so far as to talk to Garyth the mayor and had him meet Kedaira, and he'd been impressed with how calm and almost affectionate she was. But not even his assurances that the inu wasn't a danger was enough. In fact, his telling the people that the inu was safe was what caused the big row the next day.

It all started when Olin Sharpsword ignored his parents when Kedaira showed up on the Green and approached the inu. Olin had heard the mayor tell everyone that the inu wouldn't hurt them, so he wanted to look at the animal up close. Kedaira would never have attacked the six year old boy, but the village men didn't understand that. By the time Tarrin got there, Kedaira had put six village men down and had put herself the boy and the villagers, defending the crying child from what she thought were attackers. Kedaira's teeth and the claws on her forearms were formidable, but it was the scythe-like oversized middle claw on each of her feet which were her real weapons. They rested in a vertical position, and when she snapped them down to attack, they carried the force of a sword swung by a powerful warrior, capable of slicing flesh, sinew, and even bone. She'd used those on the village men who were attacking her with farm tools, tearing up the six she'd gotten so far pretty thoroughly. It took Tarrin almost five minutes to calm Kedaira down, but it took him even longer to calm down the villagers to the point where they would put down their makeshift weapons. After he managed that, he healed the village men who had been injured, then turned and berated them for acting so foolishly, reminding them time and again that the village had consistent and cordial contacts with the Woodkin, then chiding them for acting so judgemental when the village was renowned in the Frontier as one of the most open-minded and accepting villages along the Heartwood's borders. He bored into them with example after example of how the village had accepted visits from Centaurs and Giants, Druids and Were-kin, yet they could not accept the presence of the inu, an animal he had personally vouched for as to her behavior. They all seemed a bit defiant until he mentioned in passing that perhaps Aldreth wasn't such a good place for the Woodkin to come and trade. The gold and pelts and other valuable forest commodities that the Woodkin brought to trade for good leathers or steel tools or good shoes or any number of other goods the villagers supplied to them was one of the reasons that the village was so prosperous, and that had been the threat that they couldn't ignore. After that, the villagers backed off.

Sometimes children surprised Tarrin. After calming down a bit following the short battle in the arms of his mother, Olin again approached the inu, who was standing by herself in the spot Tarrin told her from which not to move. Tarrin and the villagers were too engaged with shouting at each other to notice the boy, and by the time Olin's mother did notice, it was a bit too late. Tarrin turned to see that Kedaira had hunkered down to let the boy touch the small crest on the top of her head, then he giggled as she snuffled at his shirt to learn his scent Tarrin used Sorcery to block Olin's mother and any other villager who tried from running over there and starting another fight, making them watch as Kedaira and Olin got to know each other. Tarrin pointed out more than once as they watched how gentle and cautious the inu was being to make sure she didn't accidentally hurt the boy. He then reminded them yet another time that the inu would obey him utterly, and he had specifically told her not to hurt villagers or kill their livestock or pets. Olin's mother countered with Kedaira's injuring of the men who attacked her, but then Tarrin told her that no animal would allow itself to be injured, just as no man would stand there and let another hit him with a stick. He had to explain to them that because he was a Druid, the inu would obey him utterly. Attitudes began to waver when he proved it, ordering Kedaira to do several tricks to prove that to them.

It took a while, but Tarrin eventually convinced the villagers that Kedaira would do no harm. He had healed the injuries from the brief tussle, proved that the animal was no threat, and eventually dragged a promise out of the villagers not to harass the inu when she showed up in the village, but in return he had to agree to come get her whenever someone complained about her, no matter what the reason. All in all, Tarrin was content with the compromise. He didn't want to banish Kedaira from the village, because he wanted her to get more and more experience operating in a civilized area with the rules that usually accompanied it, like not attacking people or domesticated animals. This way, Kedaira would get experience wandering around a place where she had restrictions on her, just as she would have to do at the Selani camp.

After that, Kedaira wasn't a problem anymore. Tarrin had her for another ride and a half, until Allia finally told him that she'd struck a deal with her father. Unfortunately, the deal required Tarrin to come to the desert and have a little talk with the flock of sukk that her tribe owned and instruct them that that particular inu was no threat to them. Surprisingly enough, Tarrin wasn't sure about that. He'd wanted to see Allia's tribe and meet her father, but coming under such circumstances, when father and daughter weren't on the best of terms, didn't seem like quite a good idea. He told Allia as much, but she just laughed and told him that half the reason her father had made that stipulation was because he wanted to meet Tarrin. There were Druids in the desert, and they could have easily tracked one of them down and asked for his assistance. But they both wanted Tarrin to do it. Allia wanted him to do it because she missed him and wanted to spend some real time with him, not just talk to him through the amulet or while he was projecting. Jenna was supposed to make an item that would let Allia Teleport to Tarrin's house, but she hadn't finished it yet. They had seen one another at least once every day because Tarrin could project out to visit with her, but Allia wanted him there in person, where they could touch. Not just a visit from "half of him," as Allia put it.

There was nothing he could deny to Allia. They were too close for him to ever say no. He agreed to do it, despite his misgivings. That made her happy, and they agreed to meet at the ruins of Mala Myrr, the only place in the desert to which Tarrin could Teleport, in five days.

What Tarrin hadn't counted on was the backlash he got from home. Jesmind was not happy that he was leaving, and neither was Mist. Jesmind shouted at him that he'd done enough, and he didn't have to go rushing off to help anyone else do anything. Mist was angry with him because when she asked to go with him, he refused. Mist didn't understand the complexities involved with the Selani. He couldn't take anyone they'd consider an outsider, or he'd be violating their laws. Being a branded member of Selani society, he simply couldn't do that. Jesmind got even more furious when he told her no for the same reason. The only ones he could take would be his children, because they were blood relation to him. Not even his mate Jesmind qualified as a spouse, because they hadn't been married under the vows of Selani custom. Until that happened, she was nothing in the eyes of Selani culture.

Of course, when Jasana and Eron heard that, they went wild with anticipation, and they asked to go. Tarrin refused, and then the very short war began. They were going to go to the Desert of Swirling Sands, and they weren't about to take no for an answer. Eron by himself was no threat, but Jasana was more than enough threat for all four children. She was still a cunning and manipulative little schemer, despite everything that had happened, and it didn't take her long to formulate a plan to wear her father's objections away and defeat him with utter determination. She knew that no amount of cajoling, pleading, wheedling, or screaming would ever sway her father. When it came to him, it required relentless, endless, utterly focused and intense pestering to get anything out of him, but pestering carried out very carefully, so as not to raise their father's rather formidable temper. Jasana knew that by herself, she didn't have the endurance to overcome her father and get her own way...but with Eron to help her, the one child in the house with boundless energy, she knew she had enough gunpowder to set off the cannon.

What they didn't understand was that Tarrin wasn't forbidding them to go simply out of spite or a hasty decision. The desert was a dangerous place, and he wasn't about to take two over-curious cubs to a place where curiosity could get them killed. Selani children were thoroughly educated about the dangers of their homeland before they were so much as let outside of arm's reach of a parent. He knew that the instant his back was turned, Eron was going to stick his paw into a zubu burrow. He'd bet money on it. Keeping an eye on his two cubs would keep him too preoccupied to watch for the other dangers the desert posed. Fara'nae may like him, but she wasn't going to intercede because of his own bad judgement. She was a caring and devoted goddess, but she didn't reward blatant stupidity.

The war started the day they decided they were going to the desert with him, and Jasana started it. She asked to go, and he said no. Then she kept asking, and kept asking, and kept asking. Tarrin's mood and his patience with his daughter deteriorated rapidly over the course of the day, and when Jasana sensed that she was about to get heavily punished for her refusal to obey her father, she backed off. Then Eron started in on his father. Eron was a much more effective pest than Jasana, because he talked fast when he was excited and couldn't stand still, which forced Tarrin to constantly shift his gaze to keep his eyes on his son and forced him to pay more attention in order to make out what Eron was saying. He couldn't simply tune Eron out as he could Jasana. Over and over, again and again, Eron asked to go to the desert, and Tarrin was forced to stop what he was doing--currently putting a new string on the bow he'd had since he was a kid, a bow he'd treated with magic to be able to use in his Were-cat form--and tell him no again and again. After nearly an hour of constant badgering, Tarrin fixed a baleful gaze on Jasana, who was trying to act innocent over at the table with her mother as Jesmind taught her how to sew leather into clothing. It didn't take him long to figure out that Jasana had enlisted Eron in her mission to get to go to the desert. Tarrin stood up and flatly told both of them that they weren't going, and if either of them asked again, he'd cut off their tails and hang them from the ceiling by the ears until he came back. Both of them had the sense not to press any further after that. That final salvo ended the war, with Tarrin the victor.

Realizing that she overplayed her hand and erred in giving Eron instructions on how to pester their father, Jasana changed tactics. Tarrin had absolutely no idea how she did it, but the next day, when Tarrin talked to Allia, she asked him if he'd bring the children. He knew that Jasana had somehow gotten word to Allia that she wanted to go to the desert, but he couldn't figure out how in the world she managed it. He asked Allia the next day, and she told him that Jasana projected out to see her and ask her personally if she could come, conveniently leaving out the fact that her father had already told her no.

Though he was furious with Jasana that she would do something like that, try to go over his head as it were and seek permission from Allia personally, he was silently thrilled at how she had done it. Jasana was terrified of joining to the Weave and projecting. It was a phobia for her, and he'd been trying to break her of it for months. Obviously, she was so intent on going to the desert that she was willing to overcome her fear of joining the Weave and project out to see Allia. It proved to him that, if she was properly motivated, Jasana was capable of overcoming her phobia.

This bit of news was welcome, but Tarrin's resistance to taking Jasana to the desert began to wane as he realized that this would be a perfect opportunity to refresh his scheming little cub about the dangers of getting her own way. If she wanted to go to the desert, that was fine with him. He would make sure that it would be quite an educational experience. So, the next day, Tarrin proposed to her a challenge. He was going to Teleport somewhere and wait ten minutes. If she could find him and project out to him, he would let her and Eron go to the desert with him. He saw the fear creep into her eyes almost immediately, but he saw an equal determination appear in them as well. He Teleported to Dala Yar Arak on a whim, in the same grass field where the circus had put their tents, and waited.

And as surely as clockwork, Jasana's projected image appeared about five minutes later. She was trembling and looked decidedly uncomfortable, but she was doing exactly what she was afraid to do. Again, she had overcome her fear in pursuit of something she wanted. It showed how determined Jasana could be to get what she wanted. For the first time, he had used that trait in her for her own good.

His elation at this breakthrough was muted a bit when he realized just to where he had Teleported. He was literally in Shiika's front yard, and his presence invoked a response from the Demoness, in the form of one of her Alu children, Anayi. Tarrin's relationship with the Demoness and her five daughters were both complicated and not very good, but Anayi had helped him in the past, and in a way she was the only one of them he would even come close to calling a friend. That was probably why Shiika had sent her. Anayi was there to find out what Tarrin wanted, but after he told her he was just there for a few minutes, they glossed over the complex niceties that were usually exchanged between Tarrin and any of the Demons of Yar Arak that prevented misunderstandings and graphic violence, and they had a rather nice little chat.

He learned alot in that little chat. All was not well in the house of Shiika. Anayi was the wild one among the cambisi, possessed of more will and independence than the others. She was also a great deal smarter than her sisters. That made her good for Shiika to use in independent missions where she couldn't be there to watch over her, but lately it had become a raw point between them. Anayi wanted to learn Wizard magic. She was smart enough for it, and Shiika herself was a very accomplished Wizard. But her mother had absolutely refused to teach Anayi any Wizard magic. This infuriated Anayi, who had always done everything she was told to do, done it well, and had never failed her mother in any way or in any mission. She felt it was her right to reap the rewards of her faithful service, and she wanted that reward to be instruction in Wizard magic. Tarrin himself couldn't quite fathom why Shiika wouldn't train her, but she obviously had to have some kind of reason. Odds were, it was a very abstract one, given that she was a Demon and Demons didn't think in a manner that was understandable to most mortals. Either way, it was nothing in which he was about to stick his nose. He knew better than that. Getting between Shiika and Anayi would be about the same as strapping slabs of meat to himself and marching into a den of ravenous wolverines.

That meant that it was about time to go. He bid his farewells to Anayi and returned home, fully intent to hold fast to his promise. He would take Jasana and Eron with him when he went to the Desert of Swirling Sands to return Kedaira to Allia. And he would make sure that Jasana would have a holiday she would never forget.