Fel (James Galloway)

Sword of Fire

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sensible,” Dolanna nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Arcane magic?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a piece.”

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

“Clever,” Sarraya said admirably.

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

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

She gave him a knowing wink.

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

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

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

“Of course I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, alright.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve been warned,” he said mildly.

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

“Human,” Mist announced. “Days old.”

“Are you sure, my dear?” Haley asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In the same direction,” Mist answered.

“Then let us be off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And steel,” Haley added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Defiled? Explain your term.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My pleasure, my mate,” she nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I forgot about that,” Sarraya chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

“Well!” she huffed. “I’m insulted!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do that?” Sarraya asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well said,” Ulger said stoically.

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

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

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

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

It was Fireflash!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean I’m going to be chained—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About yesterday?”

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

“Why do you think that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is he?” Mist asked.

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

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

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

“He understands the common tongue?” Dolanna asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t get us lost, I promise.”

“I never thought you would, Zak.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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