Fel (James Galloway)

Sword of Fire

Chapter 2

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

He could not have been more wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was quite a momentous event.

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

She was nearly as tall as Tarrin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She doesn’t seem all that mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why didn’t the Druids just do it?”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it still hurt?”

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

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

“I love being volunteered,” Miranda laughed.

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

“Just not as fast,” Sarraya said clinically.

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

“Bring a lot,” Tarrin ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she alright?” Miranda asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!” Sarraya said waspishly.

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

“Sleep well, dear one,” Dolanna answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded. “And another loaf of bread.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not anymore,” Haley remarked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miranda flashed him a knowing grin, but said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do not reveal yourself, dear one.”

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

“Why?” Sarraya asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She must have needed something,” Dolanna mused.

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

“Hmm,” Tarrin mused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What soldiers?”

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

“Walking? Not today.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah. I will inform Haley and Ulger.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you. Enjoy your day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean the only inn,” Ulger chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you prefer ale or water?”

“Ale, of course,” he replied.

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

“Aye, Merik,” she called back.

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

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

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

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

“No thank you,” Tarrin said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Dolanna told him.

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

“Thank you, good innkeeper,” Dolanna said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miranda!” Tarrin said sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What should we get?”

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

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

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

“Yes ma’am,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s not. You will.”

He spluttered. “I got porters for that!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ten silver shar, my Lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl flushed, lowering her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either way, that was loyalty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Zyrilin, my Lord.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Did you finish?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oooh, that sounds dangerous,” she breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Good idea.”

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

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

“We’re leaving early.”

“How early?

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

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

“Isn’t it a bit early?”

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

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

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

“You never were,” he teased lightly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

“So we don’t offend the locals.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re up,” he called.

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

“Skip it. Go wake up the others.”

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

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

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

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

“Good idea,” Tarrin agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not onto his feet, into the air.

This “witch” was nothing but a child!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Zyrilin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire was an element of change.

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

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