Fel (James Galloway)

Sword of Fire

Chapter 3

It took Tarrin a while to calm down, but the fact that he was flying managed to make that come about faster than, as well that the surprising condition in which he found himself.

Simply put, he was the dragon.

He was looking through its eyes, was hearing through its ears, he could even smell through its nose. The form made of his living fire actually breathed, even though there was no internal organs within outside of the three people contained within it, but that breathing did supply air to those locked within the fiery expanse of its shape. It felt…strange, to have his consciousness raised into his creation. He was aware of his true body in a way that wasn’t like how it was when he projected into the Weave, aware of it and able to see through his eyes, hear through his ears, and so forth, but that part of him seemed like an extension of his body, rather than the fireform dragon being the actual extension. He could see and hear and smell through his real body, but he couldn’t move. He found he could switch that distinction in his mind, shifting his consciousness between his true body and the fireform body, aware of both, capable of moving both, but forced to push his consciousness into one or the other, but not both simultaneously. He found that his creation of his own living fire was faithful to the form, but lacked the powers of a dragon. That was little loss, however, for he could still use his own powers while raised into his creation. It had the proportioned size and shape, moved just like a dragon, but lacked its weight and lacked its magical powers. The monstrous form, with a winspan of nearly sixty spans, weighed little more than the four mortal bodies contained within it. Fire in and of itself was a nearly weightless substance.

It was just so strange. He looked down on the darkened expanse below him, aware that his brilliant body of living fire—colored gold, probably because of his partiality to Fireflash—was visible for leagues in every direction. He was a beacon of light in the moonless sky, and anyone awake and outside probably was looking at him right now. In a way, he wanted that, for he wanted the others to see which way he was going and go that way, to follow the road to the northwest because that was what he was flying over. It was something like pushing himself into a projected Illusion, but not entirely. It felt more real, for he could feel with this fireform, and he could touch, where in an Illusion he could not. He could feel the wind rushing past him as he flew northwest, could feel the surprisingly cool night air, even as he could feel the movements of the three children contained within the shape. He had set it so they could see out of the fireform but could not be seen from the outside, looking out through windows to appreciate the fact that they were flying.

But, as exhilerating as flying was, and as strange as this newfound ability seemed to be, he knew that he had to land and hide. Once they got over the shock, they were going to send a force out after him. Besides, he needed to check on the unconscious boy, and he wanted to do that on the ground. That, and he felt they deserved a little explanation, and probably some reassurance. He had little doubt that they rather unsettled at the moment.

So, rather suddenly, he lowered his head and dove down towards the ground at a surprising rate of speed. The girl, Zyrinin, gave a squeal of fright as the feeling of weightlessness gripped her, but the boy Telven just laughed delightedly. He aimed for a very small clearing in the forest canopy, which had no signs of life in it outside of grass and a single fallen tree laying beside a very small brook that cut through the middle of it. He landed by that tree, fiery feet touching the cool grass, and as soon as he was safely down, he withdrew from his fireform and reversed the process that created it. The fire of its body wavered irregularly, then it compacted, compressed, swirled down smaller and smaller until it was again nothing more than his own wings furled around the four of them. He then opened his wings, reducing them to their normal size and folding them behind his back. The girl looked a little traumatized, but the boy just laughed and jumped up and down in place a couple of times. “That was so neat! Let’s do it again!” he cried out.

Tarrin didn’t listen to him, however, as he set the small body in his arms down on the grass, leaning his head against the log, and inspected him. He was thin as a stick, gaunt, and a bit pale. There was dried blood on the back of his head, and an impressive knot underneath it—the reason he was unconscious, most likely. Despite that injury, his breathing was strong, and his heartbeat was steady.

“Jal!” the girl cried, kneeling beside him, putting her hand on his forehead and taking hold of his hand with her other. “Is he going to be alright, my Lord?” she asked fearfully.

Obviously, concern over her brother even overruled the dramatic manner in which they escaped from Dengal. “Looks like a bump on the head is all,” he answered her gently. “With a little sleep, he’ll be just fine.”

“Are you a Defiled, mister?” the boy Telven asked him boldly. “Like Jal?”

“Telven!” Zyrinin said sharply.

“That’s no such thing as a Defiled,” Tarrin snorted. “I know magic, yes, but magic’s not evil. If magic was evil, wouldn’t that mean that the Priests of the One, who use magic, are Defiled too?”

Telven looked at him. “Well, aren’t they the pure?”

Tarrin snorted again, more darkly, and stood up. “Umm, my Lord?” Zyrinin said meekly. “What do we do now?”

“We wait,” he answered. “My friends are going to come this way, and when they get here, we’ll get you three out of here and somewhere safe.” He gave her a level stare. “And don’t call me Lord. My name is Tarrin, as you recall. I’m rather fond of it.”

“Yes, my—“

“Aaat!” he cut her off, which made Telven giggle.

“T-Tarrin,” she said, giving him a shy smile.

“Better,” he said with a curt nod.

“How did you, uh,” she started, but he looked back at her and chuckled.

“I’ll explain it later,” he said as he withdrew his wings, retracted them into his back, then willed his skin to grow over them. “Is Jal really what they think he is?” he asked.

“Uh, yes, my—Tarrin,” Zyrilin answered honestly. “He can do witchcraft.”

Magic,” he corrected her. “Witchcraft is something else.”

“What is witchcraft then?” Telven asked.

“A made-up term to make magic sound like something evil,” he answered bluntly.

“But there is witchcraft,” Zyrilin said astutely. “Else you wouldn’t know what it takes to do it.”

He gave her a glance, and she flushed for speaking up. Tarrin was mildly surprised; this girl was very observant. “Yes, there is such a thing as witchcraft, but it has nothing to do with what the Priests of the One say it does. Witchcraft is also called Necromancy, at least where I come from, and that’s magic that deals with death and the dead There’s absolutely no way a half-grown child could so much as read a book about Necromancy. Witchcraft is evil, but what they call ‘witchcraft’ here is little more than a loose term for any kind of magical force that’s not the Priest magic of the One. If anyone in this place is practicing evil magic, it’s the Priests. They’re summoning Demons,” he said with a hiss.

“But that’s just them calling the Defiled to destroy the Defiled,” Telven protested. “So they don’t become unpure.”

“Boy, when a Priest summons a Demon, that means that the god he worships has an agreement with the Demons to allow it,” Tarrin said in a flat, dangerous manner, staring at him in a way that made the boy shrink back from him. “No pure god allows his Priests to do such a thing. Demons are the enemies of the gods.”

“But doesn’t the One have power over everything? Even the Defiled? Even his enemies?”

“Telven!” Zyrilin hissed, “behave!”

“Boy, if the One controlled everything, then why are there Defiled?” he asked in a powerful voice. “If they’re evil and must be destroyed, why doesn’t he just destroy them? Well? I’m waiting for an answer.”

Telven obviously had no answer for this, the major hole in what he’d seen of the teachings of the One so far, so he fell silent.

“So, if you’re not a witch, then what are you, Master Tarrin?” Zyrilin asked, repeating her question.

“There’s no real term for what I do here in this place,” he answered her. “Let’s just say I use magic and leave it at that.”

A ghostly voice seemed to whisper out of the air to his right. “Tarrin, where are you?” It was Miranda, probably using one of her Priest spells.

“I’m along the road northwest from the town,” he answered. “Where are you now?”

“We’re still trapped in the town. They haven’t opened the city gates.”

Tarrin swore. “Want me to come back and knock them down?”

“No, you don’t have to do that,” Miranda replied with a laugh. “We’re waiting for everything to settle down, then we’ll get out and come to you. Right now, I’m tracing Kimmie’s movements through town so we can get back on her trail after we pick you up.”

“Where is that voice coming from?” Zyrilin asked.

“Quiet, little bit,” Tarrin told her. “Are they coming after me?” he asked.

Miranda laughed. “They’re still in shock,” she replied. “I have to say, Tarrin, you know how to make a point. There are pieces of that chapel laying out in the fields surrounding the town. They’re also a bit disorganized because you killed their highest-ranking Priest. Is that child alright? I don’t see any blood on him.”

“You’re using the scrying pool spell?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“I didn’t realize you could use it to communicate.”

“This is a different version of it. A bit more advanced,” she said with a slight chuckle. “How did you do that dragon thing?”

“I’ll explain it when you pick us up,” he replied. “We’ll be waiting.”

“Alright. Be careful out there, Tarrin.”

He turned and looked back at the three children. They were gaunt and dirty, and they looked both hungry and exhausted. He wasn’t sure if should feed them or let them sleep, but looking at them, seeing how upset and surprised they were, sleep wouldn’t be easy. So he’d better feed them. He stood up and turned his nose into the wind, testing the many scents he found within it, and detected no less than five animals that smelled familiar to him, squirrel, rabbit, groundhog, snake, and deer. There was also a hint of bear in the air, but it was distant and a bit stale.

There was also something on the grass under him. He dropped to all fours and tested it, and found a very faint trace of human scent…and horses. It was very old, days, maybe even a ride. The grass and ground also showed very faint signs of human activity, he saw. A small group of humans had used this clearing as a camp several days ago. To his surprise, they’d been careful not to damage the site, for it barely showed any hints that they were here.

He stood up and looked back at the three children. Telven and Zyrilin were obviously afraid, but Telven seemed to excited for it to affect him too much, and Zyrilin was too concerned for her youngest brother. She sat beside him, stroking his hair, watching him carefully. Obviously, those two needed something to do.

“We’ll probably be here until well after dawn,” he told them. “You need food, and you need rest, so we’re building a camp. Telven, take that stick laying over there and use it to tear up the ground right there,” he said, pointing with a large finger. “We need to make a fire. After you’re done turning the ground over, stomp it down so it’s flat.”

“Why do we do that?” he asked curiously.

“So we don’t catch fire to the grass,” he answered. “Zyrilin, look around for small twigs and branches in the clearing and gather them into a pile by the firepit. I’m going to go get us something to eat. After we have a little food, we’ll get some sleep.”

“What are we waiting for?” Telven asked.

“My friends,” he answered. “They’re still in Dengal. They have to come get us.”

“Are they witches too?” Telven asked.

Telven!” Zyrilin hissed hotly.

Tarrin ignored that. “Do as I told you to do,” he said, turning and walking towards the woods. “I won’t be gone long, and I’ll be within earshot. If you need me, just yell, and I’ll be right there.”

Tarrin could tell that Telven was too conditioned in the teachings of the perverted religion of the One to easily give up on his preconceptions. But for some reason, Zyrilin seemed able to accept what Tarrin had said. He put that aside and dealt with the food problem, which didn’t last for very long. He happened across a bedded herd of deer not far into the woods, in a large thicket, and moments later he had dinner thrown over one shoulder as he cleared the trees and returned to the tiny meadow. Telven was about halfway done with the firepit, though he wasn’t doing a very good job, and Zyrilin was gathering up the dead branches of the fallen tree and stacking them near where Telven was working. She kept looking to Jal, and every time he so much as sighed, she rushed back over to him to check on him and make sure he was alright.

Feeling that his normal form was intimidating them a little bit, he shifted into his human form and approached. They stopped and watched him as he dropped the young doe to the ground, then knelt by it as he drew the dagger from his belt. “Well?” he asked as Telven continued to stare. “We don’t eat until you get that firepit ready, boy. You’re holding up my dinner.”

“How do you do that?” Telven asked excitedly. “Make yourself look different?”

“It’s part of what I am,” he answered casually as he started cleaning his kill and getting it ready to eat. “I’ll explain it all later. Now get back to work. Or are you not hungry?” he asked pointedly.

That cut the questions short. Telven worked hard and fast until he had a large patch of ground turned over, then he stamped it down as Tarrin quickly and expertly dressed the kill. They watched in curiosity, Zyrilin by Jal’s side, as he built a fire, and to Telven’s disappointment, didn’t use magic to get it started. A Sulasian Ranger could start a fire with two sticks, and though he wasn’t one, he’d been trained by one. Once he got the fire going, he cut sticks for a spit and got the venison roasting over the fire. The two children watched these actions as well, both with some hungered longing as they looked at the venison cooking over the fire. There was nothing but the sound of the crackling fire, and then a ghostly light as the odd blue, white, and green moon of this world rose up over the trees of the clearing. The patterns of white on that moon had changed once again trained by one. start a fire with two sticks, and though he wasn'ver, then he stamped it down as Tarrin quickly and exper, as they seemed to do so every night when it rose. He noticed that it was waning, that it had been full when they arrived but now only about three quarters of it was visible.

After the venison was roasted well enough, he allowed them to eat. He watched as they attacked the venison like starving wolves, but he also noticed that Zyrilin took one large slab and set it aside, telling Telven that it was for Jal when he woke up, and she didn’t so much as look at it. He had to chuckle at that a little. “Zyrilin, there’s an entire deer over here. You don’t have to hold back food. I roasted this for you. I’ll put on more in a bit so Jal will have something when he wakes up.”

“But—“

“But nothing. Eat.”

She flushed a little, then attacked the food she was saving.

After he made sure both of them ate as much as they could, he checked on Jal as they got some water out of the tiny brook. The young boy was sleeping comfortably now, and Tarrin marvelled at him a moment. Jal looked much like Zyrlin in the cheeks and chin, but his nose was a bit longer, and his eyes were a bit smaller and a tad further apart. His hair was a sandy blonde rather than the dark, almost black hair of his sister and brother, dirty and shoulder length, the bangs falling over his eyes. He looked at Telven and realized that the boy didn’t look much like his siblings. His face had a width about it that wasn’t present in his brother and sister, his eyes were blue instead of the hazel of Zyrilin and whatever color eyes Jal had—he hadn’t seen them yet—and there was a hint of stockiness in the boy’s emaciated frame that suggested that the boy might grow up to be very large and quite strong. Zyrilin looked to be about fourteen or so, Telven about eleven, and Jal looked only eight or nine.

“Is he alright, Master Tarrin?” Zyrilin asked quickly as she knelt beside her brother, putting her hand on his forehead and stroking his hair gently.

“He’s fine. He’s about to pass into a natural sleep,” he answered.

“Did you use magic to find out?” Telven asked quickly.

“Magic is something I only use when I have to, Telven,” he said patiently. “Like with all things, there’s a time to use it, and it’s not right to use it when it’s not needful. If I just ran around and magicked everything, I’d be disrespecting my gift.”

“Oh. How did you learn magic?”

“It’s a very long story, and we don’t have time right now,” he answered, giving the boy a look. “You need to sleep. The others won’t be here until dawn at least, and I think you’ve had a very busy day.”

“But I’m not sleepy!” Telven complained. “Not after they locked us up in that dungeon, then they were going to kill us like we were the ones that were Defiled in the square, then you appear with your magic sword and fight the executioners, and then we flew!”

“I don’t care if you’re tired or not,” Tarrin told him shortly. “Lay down. If you can’t sleep, then pretend to sleep. Either way, I want you on the grass and eyes closed. You too, little bit.”

“But I have to—“

“Sleep. I don’t think Jal will wake up until morning if we don’t disturb him, and he can use the sleep. It will help him recover faster.” Tarrin reached into his pouch and withdrew the charm that allowed him to go without sleep, and affixed it to the back of his amulet. There was that familiar rush of alertness that always came with putting it on, as if someone had dunked his head in icewater, then it settled down. “Lay down. We have a long way to go, and I don’t want you falling out of the saddle tomorrow.”

“Saddle?” Zyrilin asked.

“We get to ride a horse?” Telven said in excitement.

“Trust me, it’s not as great as you think it is,” Tarrin chuckled. “By tomorrow night, you’ll really hate it.”

“Why?”

“Saddlesores,” he answered.

“What are those?”

“You’ll find out tomorrow. Now lay down.”

“But—“ Telven started, but Tarrin gave him a withering stare that effectively shut him up. He pointed at the ground near Jal, beside his sister.

“Boy, you’re walking a very fine line. I don’t have much patience with people who don’t obey me. Now lay down and go to sleep, or pretend. Either way, I don’t want to hear you make one more sound until sunrise.”

Telven looked fearfully at him, then quickly crawled over beside Zyrilin and laid down.

“I can stay up,” Zyrlin offered. “I have to watch Jal.”

“Jal doesn’t need watching,” Tarrin told her. “Sleep. You’ll need it.”

“What, what are you going to do with us?” she asked quietly.

“I don’t know yet,” he answered. “But for now, you’ll be going with us, at least until we can find someplace safe for you.”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t really know quite yet,” he answered. “We’re following the trail of a pair of our friends who are lost. When we find them, we have to accomplish a mission, and then we’ll be going home, I suppose.”

“What mission?”

“I was sent here to find some people who disappeared from my—my homeland a very long time ago,” he answered, not quite ready to explain things in detail yet. “If there are any left, I’m supposed to offer to bring them home, and then I’ll be going home as well.”

“Who are these people?”

“You wouldn’t know them, little bit,” he told her, then he glanced at her. “Or maybe you might. There are two distinct groups of them. One group is made up of non-humans, about yea big,” he said, holding his hand up beside him about the height of an average Dwarf. “They’re stocky people, have beards, and they’re craftsmen by nature. They’re called Dwarves.”

“I’ve never heard of them.”

“The other group are a mixture of humans and tall brown-skinned people that have pointed ears. They’d call themselves katzh-dashi.”

She gasped and stared at him wildly. “Those are the Damned!” she told him breathlessly. “They’re the first Defiled, the ones that brought the blight of evil to the land!” She stared at him in horror. “You’re—You’re one of the Damned!” she said with barely a whisper.

“They still exist here?” he asked quickly.

“Only legends,” she answered, giving him a fearful look. “Nobody’s seen one of the Damned in a long time, or at least no stories I’ve ever heard. The Priests say the Damned were destroyed centuries ago, and that their taint infects the pure and makes them Defiled.” She gave him a sheepish, frightened glance. “Are, are you one of the Damned, Master Tarrin? Are the stories false?”

“I’m a katzh-dashi, Zyrilin, but we’re not the Damned,” he told her evenly. “We are magicians who serve our Goddess.”

“There are no gods but the One,” Telven said reflexively from where he was laying down, then sat up and put his hands over his mouth.

“It’s alright, Telven,” Tarrin said with a light chuckle. “I’m sure that you’re a bit surprised right now. And you’re wrong, there are gods outside the One. His name should tell you that, you know. If he’s called the One God, doesn’t that mean that there’s more than just one? If he was the only one, wouldn’t he be called something else?”

“All other gods are false,” he said immediately. “Fake gods.”

“If Mother ever heard you say she was fake, she’d probably paddle you,” Tarrin chuckled, holding up his amulet. “This is the symbol of my Goddess.”

“That’s the mark of the Damned,” Zyrilin told him. “They brand that on the Defiled before killing them, so if something happens and they actually survive or escape, they’re marked so they can never hide.” She sniffled. “They did that to Jal. The brand’s on the back of his right hand.”

“They didn’t brand you?”

She shook her head. “We were going to be killed because we were harboring Jal,” she answered. “Not because we’re Defiled.”

Tarrin got up and moved over to Jal, then knelt and carefully turned his hand over. She was right, it was there. The shaeram’s triangles and circle burned into Jal’s hand, the wound still raw, his flesh red and blistered around it. He looked at it, and realized quite soberly that now they had proof that the lost children of the Goddess had indeed been here. They had been the Damned, and they had been caught up in the holy war of purity that the Priests of the One God waged on the land. His heart sank as he realized that odds were, most of the children of Niami were now dead, and he had little hope of finding any left. Not after five thousand years. And since these fanatics held non-humans in the same regard as Sorcerers, he also had little hope of finding any Dwarves alive. Odds were, they had been killed not long after coming here, and the symbol of Niami had become the mark of hatred and the mark of evil in this world.

She’d be very upset when he told her.

He sighed and put his amulet back under his shirt, then slid back a bit and sat down cross-legged on the ground, close to the children. It looked to him that now, the only thing they really had to do was find Kimmie and Phandebrass, and then take them home. He would need to poke around a bit more to make sure of his assumptions, but he already knew that he wouldn’t look for very long, nor would he probe too deeply. He was fairly certain that the children of the Goddess that had brought the Dwarves to this world had perished here at the hands of religious zealots, as had the Dwarves themselves, most likely.

Such a pity, and such a waste. The last of the Dwarves, who had survived the horrors of the Blood War, escaping to this world to try to find a place of safety, only to walk out of one fire and into another. Sometimes, he felt, life simply was not fair.

“Well, Miranda can get rid of that brand,” he told them. “Easily.”

“Who is she?”

“Miranda is a Priestess,” he answered. “She can heal Jal and remove the brand, like it was never there.”

“Why isn’t she trying to kill you?” Telven asked.

Tarrin gave him a curious look, then he laughed. “Miranda’s not a Priest of the One God, Telven. She’s a Priest of a god named Kikkalli.”

“There are no gods but—“

“I wouldn’t finish that if I were you,” Tarrin interrupted him with a slight smile. “Just wait until tomorrow. You’ll see. When you see Miranda, you’ll never be able to say that again.” He pointed at Telven. “Now, I’ve given you enough leeway, young ones. Lay down and try to get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a very long and trying day, and you’ll need your rest.”

“Are you going to watch? They say there are orcs and bandits in the forest,” Zyrilin said fearfully, looking around.

“I’ll be watching, little bit,” he answered gently. “Don’t worry. I won’t let anything hurt you. As long as you’re with me, you will always be safe, and you will always be cared for. I promise.”

She gave him the most profound look of sincere gratitude he had ever seen on anyone’s face, then she laid down beside her injured brother and closed her eyes, putting a hand on his shoulder as if to reassure him that she was there. Telven laid down on her other side and closed his eyes, laying on his back with his hands under his head, and Tarrin took out his Gnomlin Travelling Spellbook and spoke the word that caused it to expand to its full size. He figured that now was as good a time as any to go through it and see if there were any spells in it that would be useful to know, and besides, it would give him something to do other than brood over what he had learned from Zyrilin this night.

He already felt like this was a wasted trip, and a fruitless one. Were it not for his need to find Kimmie and Phandebrass, he would probably be telling Miranda to take them home in the morning. But, he did owe it to Niami to make sure of it. He’d need to look around and see if there was any evidence that some of the Dwarves or the katzh-dashi survived after he found Kimmie and Phandebrass. He owed it to Mother, and he owed it to the memory of those he felt had died long ago. If only to make sure that they were dead.

Morning dawned over the tiny clearing, the light catching the dew that had fallen during the night and making the grass of the clearing almost make it look like it was glowing. Tarrin sat by the fire, his spellbook back in his pouch, and seval Wizard spells now comfortably within his memory. They were combat spells mostly, battle magic that he might have a need to use, most of which would require no material components. But he also memorized a Wizard spell the Gnomes put in the book that he knew would be very handy, a spell that mimicked the Druid’s ability to Summon. The spell required a small diamond as a material component, but if he had one, he could summon any one object that he possessed that was weighed less than he did. They had quite a few diamonds in a pouch on Dolanna’s horse, gems brought along with them to use for money, and he silently told himself that he was going to have to lay claim to them. With that spell, he could summon to him anything that he owned. Right now, that would be very nice, for he wanted his bow, which was still slung to his horse. He didn’t need it, not really, since they still had nearly half the deer left over from last night, but he’d feel comfortable having a missle weapon at hand, because of the sounds.

There had been something out there about a half an hour ago, a large group of creatures on foot. They had spoken in a harsh, gutteral language he had never heard before, and they had passed within two hundred spans of the clearing, on its east side, moving north. They had been moving quickly, as if they were trying to get away from something, and hadn’t put out any scouts. That had worked in Tarrin’s favor, for their lack of scouts meant that the main host of them passed without ever knowing how close they had come to Tarrin and the children. That close call had made him feel decidedly unarmed. Because of the dangers involved in revealing the fact that he could use magic, it meant that he had to hold magic back as a weapon of last resort. That was especially true because of Telven, for the boy seemed to have this obsessive need to talk about Tarrin’s magic, and kept calling him a witch or Defiled. If he kept doing that and did it in public, he could get the group attacked.

Besides, because of the tremendous danger involved in using any kind of magic in a public forum, it meant that magic had to be his last option at all times, because using magic would mean that absolutely everyone who saw him do it would then have to die, even the innocent bystanders, for they were just as much a danger to him and the others as a Hunter. It would be the only way he could protect himself and the others from attack, for a survivor or observer could run straight to a chapel of the Church of the One and bring a cadre of Hunters down on them. So, he had a choice. Use magic and destroy everyone who saw him, even women and children, or attempt to solve the problem by mundane means.

To Tarrin, that was little choice at all.

“Tarrin,” Miranda’s disembodied voice called from just before him.

“Miranda,” he replied in acknowledgement.

“We’re out of the city, and on our way. You’re about two hours’ ride from us, or so. I can’t locate you with magic, at all, Tarrin, so I’m using a spell that’s leading me to those children with you.”

“My amulet defeats any attempt to locate me with magic, that’s why. Do you need me to do anything?”

“No, nothing at all. I’m using a rather archaic old spell that’s allowing me to lock in on that unconscious boy, and I have a marker set where Kimmie’s trail is, so we can come back to it. She went due north from Dengal.”

“Any trouble?”

“None, the city’s in chaos right now,” she answered. “Almost all the Priests are dead, not just the High Priest. Most of them were in the chapel when you destroyed it. The city guard did open the gates this morning at dawn, so we just rode out, about five minutes ago. We’re not the only ones. I think about a quarter of the city’s population is leaving the city and moving northwest along the road. The gossip we’re overhearing is that they think Dengal is cursed now, and they won’t stay. You’re not on the road, are you?”

“No, we’re in a clearing about a longspan from it,” he answered.

“Good. We’ll be there as soon as we can, Tarrin. Do you need anything?”

“I’d feel more comfortable with my bow, but it’s over there.”

“Hold on.” Tarrin waited with mild curiosity, then he gave a slight start of surprise when Miranda’s hand simply appeared out of thin air, above his head and about two spans in front of him. She had his bow and two quivers of arrows in her hand, reaching them out to him as if she was kneeling on an invisible platform above and before him.

Tarrin chuckled. “My, that must really be an advanced version of the spell,” he told her.

“You bet,” she said in a cheeky manner. “Take them, Tarrin. I can’t drop them, and it’s making my arm numb to reach into the pool like this.”

Tarrin took his bow and the two quivers, and she withdrew her hand back into nothingness. “Need anything else? Make it count, I can only reach into the pool twice.”

“Not that I can think of,” he answered. “We have everything we need here. I’ve been hearing things moving around in the woods, so I wanted my bow as a safety measure.”

“I can understand that. Alright, we’re on the way. See you soon.”

“Be careful,” he told her.

“Dolanna’s leading us, so that’s a rather dumb thing to say,” she said with a giggle, and he knew she ended the spell because her giggle ended abruptly.

Wow, was that magic? Was that the other witch?” Telven asked breathlessly.

“Boy, if you don’t stop calling me that, I’m going to make you forget that word,” Tarrin said in an ugly tone, pulling his bowstring tentatively to ensure that it wasn’t damaged. Then he remembered that the thing was enchanted to be unbreakable, and pulled arrows from his quiver one by one to check them.

“Why do you have that when you can just magic things?” Telven asked.

Telven!” Zyrilin said hotly, slapping him on the shoulder. “Sit down and be quiet!”

“Yes, Zyri,” he said meekly, sitting by the embers of the fire.

“Stir up the fire, and we’ll warm up the rest of the venison,” Tarrin told them absently as he eyed the fletching on one of his arrows. “Good morning, Jal.”

Zyri gave a gasping sound, then rushed over to where the small boy was sitting up. His eyes were bleary, and he held his hand over the brand on the back of the other carefully. Zyri put her hands on his face, then hugged him fiercely. “I was so worried! Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?”

Jal looked at her with his dark eyes, and nodded.

“He doesn’t talk,” Telven told him excitedly. “Not since what happened with Mama.”

“What happened with your mother?” Tarrin asked curiously.

“It’s when we found out Jal’s a witch,” he answered. “Mama tried to take him to the chapel, but Papa wouldn’t let her. They started fighting, and Mama slapped Papa. Well, Papa did magic on her, and he was all surprised and stuff. Papa was a witch, and he’d never known it til then, Zyri says. Papa got took away by the church soldiers, and we never saw him again. Mama died a few days later. The neighbors threw rocks at us cause Papa was a witch, and one hit her in the head and she died. Jal did magic when it happened, but lucky for us nobody saw it.”

Tarrin sighed, seeing that even in this world, people could truly be ugly towards one another. The rest of the family was condemned in the eyes of the people because of the actions of only one. It just showed him how deeply these people were conditioned to hate.

Tarrin looked gravely at the young boy, who simply stared back at him unblinkingly. “I’m sure you know how to roast meat?” Tarrin asked the children.

“I can do it,” Zyrilin said happily after she saw that her brother was well.

As he checked all his arrows, Zyrilin helped her brother get something to drink from the brook and Telven got the fire going again, then she and Telven spitted the meat he had cut into sections and wrapped in the doe’s pelt near the fire. He watched from where he sat as they heated breakfast and then started eating, as Zyrilin helped Jal get something to eat before she started herself. He put his arrows back in the two quivers and simply waited, because they really had nothing to do until the others arrived. The three children ate quite a bit, so much so that Telven groaned and laid down by the log after he was done. “I haven’t eaten this good since Mama died,” he said with a sigh of contentment. Tarrin went over and knelt by Jal, then turned his head so he could inspect the injury.

“Well, this’ll heal up in no time,” he said. “Any headaches? Dizziness?” he asked the boy.

Jal nodded, and waggled his open hand before him.

“Alright. Just don’t get up, and it should pass in a while. Sometimes dizziness lingers when you get bumped in the head. Trust me, I know.”

“Show him what you can do, Jal,” Telven prompted. “The nice man’s a witch too!”

“Telven!” Zyrilin said reproachfully, but Jal simply nodded. Tarrin watched on as the boy closed his eyes, a look of quite serious concentration on his face, and then he held out his hands.

What happened next shook Tarrin to the foundations of his soul. The boy created a small globe of water between his hands, and then it froze solid in the span of a blink of the eyes. But under that, Tarrin felt what the boy had done. He felt it quite distinctly and quite sharply, because what the boy had done was so similar to Sorcery that he was open to the sense of its use. The boy had reached out and touched…something, just like touching the Weave, but the boy did not touch the Weave. Instead, he reached beyond this world and tapped directly into some other power, and the resonations of that touch were familiar to him.

The boy had directly made contact with those dimensions where Elementals lived. The boy had drawn substance and energy directly from the plane of Water. The substance had appeared before him, and the power had been channeled, had been directed, to cause the water to freeze. In addition to representing water, the plane of Water also held sway over weather, and to a lesser degree, cold. Ice was water, and the cold of ice became part of the sphere that represented water’s power. All four elements had little tertiary representations like that. Fire also represented change and concealment, earth represented continuity and growth, and air represented weather and lightning. Air and water overlapped with the weather, for it required both air and water to make weather happen.

Tarrin gaped at the boy in shock. How could he feel that? And yet he could, as clearly as he could see the little boy before him, holding his little ball of ice proudly. It felt so, so much like Sorcery, but it obviously could not have been! Incredible!

“Um, master Tarrin?” Zyrilin asked meekly. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, little bit,” Tarrin said, blinking and shaking his head. “It’s just that your brother’s ability stirred something in me. I could feel it when he used it.”

Jal nodded gravely.

“You can feel it when other people do this too?” Tarrin asked.

Jal nodded again.

And that, Tarrin realized, was how Hunters found the witches. Because the Hunters were witches.

“Jal, listen to me, and listen to me carefully,” he said grimly. “Don’t use your power unless I tell you that you can, or you think that your life depends on using it. It’s very important. When you use this power, people who can sense it are going to know, and not all of those people are going to be friendly to you. I think that’s how the Church finds witches, I think they’re using people with this gift to hunt down the others.”

Jal nodded, covering the raw brand on the back of his hand reflexively.

“Wow, you mean the church uses witches to find witches?” Telven said excitedly.

“I think it’s a definite possibility,” Tarrin said brusquely, standing up, then throwing his braid back over his shoulder. “I’m going to look around. I want you three to stay here by the fire. I won’t be out of earshot, so if you need me, just yell. Some things passed near the clearing before you woke up, and I want to see what they were.”

“How can you tell?” Telven asked.

“They leave footprints,” he answered evenly. “Someone who knows about that can tell who made them, how many there were, which direction they were going, and how long ago they passed since making the tracks.”

“Ooh, you’re a woodsman?” Telven asked breathlessly. “One of those men who explores the wild forests?”

“My father was. He taught me everything he knows,” he answered, slinging his quivers, one over each shoulder, and uncapping the one on his right.

“But, I thought witches just did witchcraft,” he surmised.

“Telven!” Zyrilin snapped hotly.

Tarrin sighed, then he chuckled despite himself. “Keep them out of trouble, little bit,” he told her. “If you need me, just yell.”

“Yes, master Tarrin,” she replied immediately. “I think we need to clean up the camp a little, and maybe cut some more meat for lunch,” she announced. “May I borrow a knife, master Tarrin?” she asked him.

Tarrin unsheathed his belt dagger and handed it to her. “Don’t lose it,” he told her. “Someone I care about gave me this.”

“I’ll be careful with it, master Tarrin,” she told him with a shy smile.

The separation gave Tarrin time to think, even as he quickly located the tracks those people left behind earlier. Jal’s power wasn’t Sorcery, but it certainly felt like it…at least initially. He had no idea why Jal’s gift spurred that sensation in him, because it should have been impossible. Sorcerers could sense the use of Sorcery, that was true enough, but what Jal did wasn’t Sorcery. Sorcery couldn’t be used on this world, because there was no Weave. And because of that, he shouldn’t have sensed the use of that boy’s power. The idea that the powers were somehow similar, just similar enough to spur that sense of it in him, occurred to him, but it seemed outlandish.

Or perhaps not. Sorcery was a gift from Niami, but it was also, in its own way, elemental magic. The seven Spheres represented seven forces of nature; fire, water, earth, air, the power of the mind, the power of the gods, and the binding force that held it all together. This “witchcraft” was obviously elemental magic, a direct tap into the power of the Elemental planes. Just as Wizards drew from elsewhere, these “witches” drew from points of magic that Sorcery could access. Perhaps that commonality was allowing his powers of Sorcery to sense the use of this magic. After all, he wasn’t totally powerless as a Sorcerer. Just as he could speak to animals using a Druid’s trick, he could still use the senses that being a Sorcerer granted him. Those aspects of his abilities didn’t require the use of the magic itself.

Yes, that made sense. He went over it once again as he found the tracks of the people or things who had passed earlier, and found that the theory was sound. He saw no holes in it. He’d need to talk to Dolanna about it, and perhaps Haley as well, and have Jal use his power again to see if Haley could sense it.

The tracks were not human. That was immediately obvious to him. They were about an hour old or so, made by creatures who were humanoid, but not human. The tracks were booted, made by people wearing shoes and boots, but those feet had an unnatural breadth to them, and the pattern of weight distribution in the tracks told him that whoever made them walked with a kind of rolling gait not found in anyone who wasn’t a five year veteran sailor. After about ten minutes of careful inspection, he deduced that there had been about forty of them. They had moved due north, and had done so very quickly, so quickly that he found little bits and pieces of things they’d dropped but had been too much in a hurry to stop and pick up. They were crude possessions of people he realized were raiders and hunters, and those paired with what he remembered Merik say told him that these had to be those orc creatures. Sub-humans, Merik had called them.

Strangely, though, the tracks seemed vaguely familiar. He wasn’t quite sure why, but they did. But he was too busy to dwell on that, so he dismissed it in his mind and moved on to the matters at hand.

There was no sign of pursuit, so Tarrin figured that the commotion down in Dengal had spooked this band, who probably made a living by preying on travellers on the road, and they were now beating a hasty retreat northwest, shadowing the road, to avoid any kind of armed conflict with soldiers out of the city. Little did they know that a good thousand or so people were also moving in this general direction, people who had fled Dengal, and if they stopped for any amount of time they might get more than they bargained for.

They weren’t really a threat, so Tarrin dismissed them in his mind and went back to the clearing.

And he was met with a rude greeting. Instead of finding the children making themselves either useful or a nuisance, he was greeted by a band of thirteen men wearing mismatched, patchwork armor and carrying rusty, badly kept weapons. There were four horses picketed behind them, being cared for by two middle-aged women in dirty, torn homespun smocks. They had the children sitting by the log, where they clutched at each other fearfully and watched these men. Tarrin had heard their voices well away, and had crept up to the edge of the clearing to get a better look at them.

“I told you to relax, kids,” one of them, the tallest of them announced. “Don’t cause any trouble, and you won’t get hurt. We will take that venison, but I’ll leave you enough to get to Throce. Isn’t that noble of me?” He held up Tarrin’s dagger, the one Mist had given him, and smiled. “And I got this excellent knife to boot!”

“Give that back!” Zyrilin said defiantly. “I promised I’d take good care of it!”

“Oh, we know a street rat like you couldn’t get something like this unless it was given to you,” he chuckled. “So, where are the men you’re with? Why did they leave you behind?”

Zyrilin glared at the man, but said nothing.

“I think maybe we should take the girl with us,” another man, who had a scraggly black beard and watery, close-set eyes, said with an evil laugh. “She’d be more fun than those two mules.”

“You always did like `em young, Gort,” another man said, then he laughed. “And unwilling.”

“It’s better when they put up a fight,” the man Gort said with a leer at Zyrilin, who shrank back from the man’s stare.

“Not today, Gort,” the man, who seemed to be the leader, announced. It was not a friendly tone. “And never when you work for me.”

“I liked it better when Dorl was leading us,” Gort said openly.

“Dig him up and tie him to his saddle, and you can have him again,” the leader told him. “I just wouldn’t get too close. After three months, I’m sure he doesn’t smell all that good.”

Tarrin pondered the situation. The children seemed to be safe enough, because this bandit leader didn’t seem inclined to hurt them. On the other hand, it was dangerous to assume that, because them men he was leading didn’t seem to be similarly inclined, and there were many more of them than there was of this one man. Getting into a fight with thirteen men wasn’t such a good idea, but using magic was out. If one of them got away, he’d have Hunters all over him, and besides, he didn’t want to do something like that in front of the children. It may traumatize them, and that would make it hard to move them around.

Perhaps there was a middle ground here. Yes, there certainly was, he realized as he shifted his position as quiet as a stalking cat, and pulled out an arrow.

“I suggest you turn around and leave!” Tarrin shouted from his place of concealment. “I don’t want to have to hurt any of you! So just give the girl back her knife and get out! You can even keep the venison!”

“Now you’re gonna get it!” Telven said smugly. “He’s a witch, and he’s gonna magic all of you!”

Tarrin cursed, and at that moment, he probably would have brained that boy if he was close enough to reach him.

“I’m not much afraid of the boastings of a foolish boy,” the man said, but his eyes were serious. Tarrin saw that he was somewhat handsome, with strong features and short coal black hair that reminded him briefly of Faalken’s hair color, but this man’s hair was straight as straw as it came out from under a rusty conical helmet. Like the others, he wore piecemeal armor, but this man had a much better sword at his belt, and was holding Tarrin’s dagger in his hand. “Well now, my shadowy friend, I think you should come out and hand over your purse and belongings. Hand them over, and I think we’ll see fit to let you leave here alive and unharmed.”

The man flinched when an arrow came sizzling out of the foliage before him, hitting the very top of his helmet. The impact made the arrow break and spin away behind him, but it also knocked his helmet off his head. “Boy, I can peel you out of that armor from where I am,” Tarrin called. “Want to lose your belt next?”

Another man drew his sword, but he yelped when Tarrin sent another hastily nocked arrow flying, striking the flat of the man’s nicked broadsword. The impact surprised the man, and the weapon was jarred from his hand.

“Next man to draw a weapon gets an arrow through the wrist,” Tarrin shouted to them. “The man after that gets and arrow through the eye. I’m being courteous out of a need to be civil in front of the children, but don’t push my patience.”

“It’s only one man!” one of the bandits called. “We can rush him easy!”

“Fine, Thol, you go first,” another said acidly.

“Looks like we have a marksman in the trees,” the leader chuckled. “But I think you’re in no position to bargain. The next arrow that comes at us is going to cost one of the children a finger.”

Tarrin silently swore, afraid that something like this might happen. Tarrin swapped his bow with his staff in the elsewhere, then slid around the tree behind which he was hiding and started working way to the left. “Fine. I didn’t want to have to do this, but you leave me little choice.”

He struck like a viper, erupting out of the forest about fifteen spans away from the closest man. His sudden appearance took them all aback for that critical instant he needed to close on the man before he could draw his weapon, his booted feet moving like lightning. He set the staff like a spear or lance as he jumped over the little brook, then lunged at his target the instant his feet hit the ground. The man managed to get his hand on his sword hilt just when the tip of Tarrin’s staff struck him in the chest, sending him flying back as Tarrin drove through him. He skidded to a stop, turned, and whipped the staff into the back of the man closest to the first, who gave out a “whuuaff!” sound as he was pitched forward, tumbling into the brook Tarrin had jumped to reach them.

“Get him!” several men shouted as they started drawing weapons in unison, but Tarrin was lost in the moment. His mind was clear and open, and there was no fear. Just as Allia taught him, he was unthinking, his eyes taking in all, feet and hands and body moving in perfect harmony as he lost his doubt and worry and concern in the rhythms and forms of the Dance. In the blink of an eye, he became one with the ground, with his staff, and with the men around him, becoming a living weapon whose mission was to defend the children from harm. Killing was not a necessity here, for all he had to do was frighten these men into running. They were bandits, mercenaries, and would retreat once he put enough men on the ground. In fact, killing would best be avoided, to keep Telven from spouting off at the mouth, and to keep from traumatizing Jal any more than he probably already had been. The staff was a perfect weapon for that, for it only dealt a killing blow when Tarrin specifically wanted to do so.

Pulling the staff up into the center grip, both ends whistled shrilly as he spun it before him, using its speed and deception to put off the two men before him who had drawn their swords. One man rushed at him from behind, but his sword found nothing but empty air as their blond braided adversary simply melted out of the way. The man didn’t even have the chance to cry out when Tarrin’s staff rapped him on the back of the head as it spun in from behind the man, and he collapsed to the ground in a boneless heap. Another man lunged in when he saw the staff lash out, but Tarrin saw his attack coming from half a longspan away. Still spinning through the evasion of the sword, he simply moved a bit further to the side, completed his rotation, and brought his foot up. The man obviously had never conceived of such an attack, and as such made no attempt to defend himself as Tarrin’s foot connected with his face solidly, making the man’s head snap back. He’d been in the act of rushing forward with a dagger in his hand, and his body kept coming forward as his head went the other way, which made him swing up into the air. Though he was in his human form, Tarrin was still awesomely strong, and the power of his kick literally made the man flip over in midair. He landed on the top of his head and his knees, then slid down to his belly and sank into unconsciousness. Tarrin brought his foot down and raised his staff grimly, his expression simply daring another man to try to attack him.

The nine men still on their feet all paused at that rather impressive display, but the voice of their leader spurred them on. “He’s only one man!” he shouted. “Whoever takes him down gets his gear!”

He’d never fought in human form against so many people, but the experience was not wholly bad. He didn’t have his blazing speed or his agility, but Allia’s lessons easily translated into the human shape, and he had no trouble adapting himself for combat in a weakened state. The men he fought were novices in fighting, and it became glaringly obvious after the first minute of the renewing of hostilities. Tarrin quickly backed up a bit to put the brook behind him, limiting attempts to come at him from behind, as the men moved to engage him. men, all armed with short swords, pressed Tarrin from the front as the others tried to circle behind him, but the men couldn’t so much as get a blade within a span of Tarrin’s body. The two ends and middle of Tarrin’s staff were always there to catch the weapons, turn them aside, or he simply wasn’t there to be hit if they encountered no resistance. They also did not work together, each man fighting as an individual, and it was a simple matter to shift his position to make the three men jostle into one another, fouling each other up. The others thought he was so involved with the three before him that he was an easy mark, and a short man lunged in from the right flank with his broadsword out before him like a spear, intent on impaling Tarrin in the ribs. The man gave a look of shock when the end of Tarrin’s staff suddenly appeared at his eye level, then slammed into the noseguard of his barrel-shaped helmet, sending blood flying as the man’s head snapped back. He staggered back, hand over his face, and the other three men found that the attack came so quickly that Tarrin was again in a defensive position before they had a chance to capitalize on his attack on the fourth man. He blocked several more attacks from the front, ducked under the heavy swipe of an axe initiated by another man who had come up on his left flank, the slithered aside when a man who had managed to work in behind Tarrin tried to stab him in the back with a short sword. He took a hand off his staff and slammed the back of his fist into the face of the man wielding the axe, then grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him as he shifted aside, flinging him into the three men in front of him. He shuffled aside of the man he flung and gave a sudden sharp downward stroke with one end of his staff, knocking the sword out of the hands of the man who had jumped the brook and tried to stab him in the back, then reversed his momentum and spun the same end that had disarmed the man up and under the man’s chin. The sound of his clicking teeth was audible as he was literally lifted off his feet, then flopped in the air and landed on the backs of his shoulders on the ground. His legs went over his head, and he rolled backwards into the brook.

With feet as light as a dancer’s, Tarrin was the one that pressed the attack now, coming in on the three men who were trying to untangle themselves from the fourth that Tarrin had pushed into them. The fourth man dropped to the ground as the men simply threw him down to meet Tarrin’s attack, and their three swords worked feverishly to deflect the whirring ends of Tarrin’s staff. It seemed to them like there were ten of them in that blurred, whizzing mass, striking with blazing speed, slapping, lunging, striking from every angle at once, as Tarrin’s feet moved as if they carried no weight whatsoever. They only seemed to come down and take firm hold of the earth as Tarrin hunkered down slightly, then exploded upwards with his staff’s end screaming through the air. The blow carried so much power that it sent the sword of the man on the far left spinning out of his hands and high into the air, and caused Tarrin to leave his feet. Even in the air, he turned out to be more than a match for the men, as he turned in midair and brought a leg straight out, catching the middle man squarely in the chest and sending him catapulting backwards from the raw power of the blow. The instant the other foot hit the ground, the man seemed to collapse on himself so quickly that the two men thought he vanished, but the man on the left had his feet knocked out from under him as Tarrin performed a spinning foot sweep, landing on his side and ribs and having all the wind knocked out of him. Tarrin spun around and regained his feet, then drew up his staff and swatted the disarmed man, still confused over what had just happened and too slow to react, squarely in the side of his helmet of leather with iron plates sewn to it. He spun as he fell to the side, and didn’t get up when he hit the ground. The man with the axe, whom Tarrin had thrown into his companions, struggled to get to his feet from his hands and knees, but Tarrin almost absently took up his staff and jammed the end of it into the back of the man’s head, sending him right back to the ground, where he held the back of his head with both hands and kicked his feet into the dirt in pain. Tarrin took one step back, whipped his staff up into the ready position smartly, and squared off against the last of them.

The four men who weren’t rolling around on the ground groaning, one of which had a broken nose, gaped at Tarrin in absolute shock, and one of them was the troop’s leader. Tarrin took a hand off his staff and crooked his fingers at them, inviting them to come and play, though his expression was like stone and his eyes hard.

Telven summed up the expressions on the men’s faces quite well with a single word.

Woah!

“Who wants to be number ten?” Tarrin asked in a cold voice, his eyes moving to the four men in turn.

“Er, well, perhaps we could reach some kind of accommodation,” the bandit leader said hesitantly. “You’re obviously a professionally trained soldier, much better than us. The One knows how much better, since I see that you managed to put down nine of my men without killing anyone. I don’t think I want to fight you, and I’d rather not lose any of my men. It is my responsibility to keep them alive, you know.”

“Then gather your men and leave,” Tarrin told him, rising up to stand erect and grounding an end of his staff. “Keep your weapons. You have nothing I want, and I saw orc tracks out in the forest, so you may need them. And give her back her knife,” he reminded him.

“I—yes, I think we can live with that,” the man said, giving Tarrin a deep bow.

“I am certain you will, for you shall not circle back on him,” came a familiar voice. Tarrin looked past the man and saw Dolanna and the others, riding through the part in the trees through which the men themselves had rode, coming up beside the two women and the horses they were tending. Azakar and Ulger had their swords drawn, and were riding into the clearing resolutely. Fireflash vaulted from Dolanna’s shoulder and landed on his own, nuzzling his neck fondly as Tarrin patted his flank. “Tarrin. I see you could not resist playing a bit while waiting.”

“You know me, Dolanna,” he said evenly. “I hate to sit around.”

“Nine, not bad,” Ulger said with a chuckle. “Then again, they look like they fight like women, so it probably wasn’t all that hard.”

“Bandits never do put up much of a fight,” Tarrin shrugged, and Ulger laughed and nodded in agreement. “I think Sarraya could have taken them.”

“Gentlemen, I believe this is where you gather up the men on the ground and stagger away,” Haley said lightly.

Under the watchful eyes of Azakar and Ulger, the bandits did indeed slowly crawl off the ground, organize themselves, and move towards the horses and the two women tending them. Then they limped off the same direction from which Dolanna had come, moving towards the road. But the man who had been leading them lingered just long enough to present Zyrilin with the dagger, then he too walked away. Oddly enough, he was chuckling to himself, and had a strange bounce in his step.

“I trust you are well, dear one?” Dolanna asked, with a sly little smile.

“They were babies,” he snorted, looking at the children. “How was the ride up?”

“Nervous,” she answered. “Everyone is on edge. We do stand out, so we have been getting any number of stares.”

“Then maybe we should settle in here for a little while and let them go by.”

“No, there are too many. If we wait them out, we will be here for days. Besides, we are going that way,” she said, pointing away from the road, behind Tarrin. “We only took the road for the expedience.”

“Well, we need to reorganize a little,” Tarrin said, looking at the children. “They’ll be riding with us for a while, at least until we find someplace safe to put them.” He looked over the horses, and realized there were too many. “I see someone thought of that.”

“You’ve got to keep on top of things,” Miranda said with a grin from behind Mist’s illusory face. “I realized we’d need at least two more horses, so we bought them. At an outrageous price,” she growled. “The stableman took advantage of the panic to make some fast money.”

“I’m surprised you let him get away with that.”

She held up a small leather pouch. “He thinks he did,” she winked.

“You stole it back from him?”

“No, I was the soul of propriety,” she said piously.

“So while she was being the paragon of virtue, she distracted the man so I could do it,” Haley said lightly.

Tarrin laughed. “You two are terrible.”

“Yes. Isn’t it fun?” Haley agreed shamelessly.

“That’s alright, we need to make lunch anyway,” Miranda announced. “We can stop a little while.”

“That would be a good idea, Dolanna,” Azakar said. “I want to check one of the pack horses. It was stumbling a little when we turned up this path.”

“Indeed. Then let us pause for a meal and to ensure our horse is well.”

Tarrin helped Dolanna down from her saddle, then picked up Mist and set her down as well. He looked back to the path, then nodded. “It’s safe,” he told her.

The three children all gasped when Mist shifted into her humanoid form, then patted Tarrin on the face with her huge paw. “You scared me a little, my mate,” she told him.

“Sorry,” he answered, reaching up and touching her face.

“How did you do that dragon?”

“I’ll explain it later,” he told her.

The children gasped in unison when Sarraya winked into visibility, flitting around Tarrin and Mist before coming to a hover in front of him. “You have got to tell me how you did that!” she said excitedly. “Right after I poke you in the eye for scaring me half to death!”

They got the fire going and had a hot lunch, as Miranda made a quick but tasty stew. The children gaped at all of them in turn, huddled together near the fire, but it was Mist and Sarraya that seemed to dominate their attention. Sarraya flitted around them, inspecting them boldly, and the children could only stare at the tiny Faerie in both shock and wonder. “They need fattening up,” she declared.

“We’ll take care of it. Well, everyone, this is Zyrilin, Telven, and Jal. Miranda, when you’re done cooking, could you heal Jal’s hand? They branded him.”

“Really? I’ll take care of it right now. You should have told me, Tarrin, we can’t leave Jal in pain,” she said sharply. “The youngest?”

Tarrin nodded.

“A-Are you that other one’s sister?” Telven asked boldly, though his eyes were wild when he looked at Miranda.

“Not exactly,” Miranda said with a wink, then she cancelled the Illusion. Telven gasped in her face when he saw Miranda’s furry reality, but Miranda just gave him the cutest little cheeky grin and winked at him. “I know, it’s quite different, isn’t it?” she asked lightly.

“Are all of you witches?” Telven asked.

“I’ve been called a witch more times than I can count,” Miranda told him with a girlish giggle. “Among other things. Now then, you’re Jal?” she asked, looking to the boy.

Jal nodded.

“He, um, doesn’t talk, Lady Miranda,” Zyrilin offered.

“I’m no lady, little lady,” Miranda laughed, holding out her furry hand to Jal. The boy offered his branded hand hesitantly. “Tut, this is nothing to worry about, but I bet it stings, doesn’t it, Jal?” she asked in a gentle manner, which made the boy nod.

“What are you?” Telven asked.

Telven!” Zyrilin hissed.

“I’m sure he’s never seen one of me before,” Miranda told Zyrilin with a wink. “I’m called a Wikuni. My people live a very, very long way from here.”

“Are they all as pretty as you, Lady Miranda?” Telven asked boldly.

She gave him a wolfish grin. “Why, I’m flattered, young one,” she told him. She took out her amulet and displayed it prominently outside her dress, a requirement to do Priest magic, and started chanting softly in that language that Priest magic required. Tarrin knew this spell, it was a spell to heal injury and also to restore disfiguring conditions, restoring the body to an undamaged state. Under her gentle hands, the red, raw flesh on Jal’s hand soothed, and the black char of the brand faded away. When she removed her hands, Jal’s hand was as if he had never been branded. Zyrilin gaped at Jal’s healed hand, and touched it reverently, then Telven took his turn touching where the brand had been. He looked up at Miranda in surprise.

“Now, Telven, look me in the eye and tell me that all other gods are false,” Tarrin said in a neutral tone, though Miranda gave him a sly grin; she knew he was amused.

“Who knows what witchcraft can do?” Telven shrugged.

Tarrin sighed, threw up his hands, and turned to stir the stew.

After eating, Azakar went to check the horse that had stumbled, and a much more animated Telven tagged along after him, asking him endless questions. Azakar endured the boy nobly, answering those questions he could, and bluntly telling him that he was not the man to ask when it came to others, mainly concerning witchcraft. Tarrin, however, told Jal to do his magic one more time for Dolanna’s benefit. Tarrin was quite sure he wasn’t crazy when he saw Dolanna’s eyes widen when he did so.

“It is not Sorcery, but I can feel it!” Dolanna proclaimed.

“I know,” he agreed. “He’s calling on power from the Elemental planes. I think that since Sorcery is mainly elemental magic, and we Weavespinners can also access that power, it’s letting us sense it when he uses it.”

“I must agree with your postulations, dear one,” she said after a moment. “It certainly does make sense. Can they sense its use as well?”

Jal nodded gravely.

“So, the Hunters of the church are actually magicians like Jal,” Haley surmised. “Working for the enemy.”

“That, or their power is awake, but unrealized,” Tarrin added. “The Church thinks they’re holy or something because they can find the witches, when they’re actually witches themselves.” He snorted. “I don’t like using that word. I think I’d rather call them magic-users. Witch is an ugly term.”

“I do not know, dear one,” Dolanna smiled. “Given that they are magicians in touch with elemental forces, I think calling them Elementalists would be more correct.”

“That’s too long, Dolanna,” Haley told them. “Let’s just call him special, and leave it at that.”

Jal gave them a shy smile.

“Now, dear one, how did you create that dragon?” Dolanna suddenly pressed.

“Yeah, I’m dying to know!” Sarraya agreed.

Tarrin looked around, then stood up and brought forth his wings. Zyrilin and Jal stared at them, but he more or less expected that. “Well, I always knew I could create fireforms,” he said as fire appeared around his paw. It swirled, then suddenly contracted down into the shape of a kitten, which promptly jumped down from his paw and sat by the campfire at his mental direction. “The dragon was just a fireform. Since it was a part of my wings, it was a part of me. All I had to do was push my consciousness up into it the same way I push it into a projection, and I could operate through it. For a while, I was a dragon,” he said in a strange kind of voice. “It was fun.”

“Clever,” Haley nodded.

Jal was looking at the kitten made of golden fire, and started reaching out for it. “Don’t,” Tarrin warned. “It may look cute and harmless,” he said, kneeling down and picking up a twig, then setting it against the fireform’s back. The twig burst into flame. “But it’s not as harmless as it looks.” He brought a wing around and presented it to Jal. “But this, you can touch,” he told him.

“Can all witches do that, Master Tarrin?” Zyrilin asked, as both of the children couldn’t resist reaching out and touching Tarrin’s wing. “Will Jal grow wings of ice?”

“Tarrin’s powers are not what you would call magic, young one,” Dolanna told her. “They are…different. Jal will not grow wings of ice, for Tarrin’s abilities are not the same as Jal’s.”

“Yeah, because Tarrin’s a god,” Sarraya piped up.

Tarrin glared at Sarraya in an unholy manner.

“Well, it’s true,” she grinned. “Well, almost. What is it they call you, Tarrin? Ex-god? Former god? Unemployed god?” she gave him a wicked smile, but it turned into a yelp when a thin strand flowed out of Tarrin’s wing, slid behind her, then lashed her on the bottom. She rubbed her backside with both hands, and gave him a pouty look. “That hurt,” she complained.

Zyrilin looked at Tarrin, then giggled with her hands before her mouth.

“Ignore Sarraya,” Tarrin told them. “She has no idea what she’s talking about.”

“I, I think it would be wonderful to have wings,” Zyrilin said, touching Tarrin’s wing.

“You don’t want these,” Tarrin told her grimly. “They aren’t worth the price I had to pay to get them.”

“We should be on our way,” Dolanna announced. “If Azakar is finished?”

“I’m done, Dolanna,” the Knight called back. “The horse is fine. Just a minor bruise under her hoof. She’ll be good as long as we don’t run.”

“We must traverse virgin forest. I doubt we will even be able to ride,” Dolanna answered him.

“There are non-human creatures out in the woods,” Tarrin told them. “I tracked a large group of them that passed about four hours ago or so.”

“Orcs!” Telven said with both fear and excitement. “Ooh, are we going to go fight orcs?”

“Dear child, wise travellers never go looking for battle,” she told him. “Mist, Sarraya, could you please range ahead and ensure our path is safe?”

“Sure,” Sarraya said with a nod of her head.

“It’ll give me a chance to get used to this,” Mist said, sweeping a paw up her torso. “I need some activity.”

“I can lend a hand also,” Haley said. “I feel a need to let Scar out a while.”

“Scar?” Ulger asked.

Haley shapeshifted into his hybrid form, the large, sleek, menacing wolf-man which had been known as Scar back in Dayisè, the form in which Haley moved about when he didn’t want to be known. Zyrilin and Jal gasped in surprise yet again, and Telven ran over and jumped up and down in front of Haley. “Wow! Are all of you Defiled?” he asked in excitement. “Can all of you turn into animals? Are you a wolf?”

“I’m a Were-wolf, son,” Haley told him evenly.

“Wow! Are you going to eat us?”

Haley laughed, not an entirely pleasant sound. “Son, the stories you’ve heard of us are all wildly blown out of proportion. Were-wolves don’t eat people, you know. People taste terrible.”

“At least they have Were-wolves here,” Mist surmised.

“Or stories of them, at the least,” Dolanna added.

Tarrin withdrew his wings, and in so doing, the fireform cat at his his feet dispersed in a tiny whirlwind of flame. “There are some other things Zyrilin told me we need to talk about, Dolanna, but we can do that on the move,” he told her. “Right now, finding Kimmie and Phandebrass as fast as possible is our only concern.”

Leading their horses, the group moved into the wild forest west of the clearing. The growth was too thick for riding, but the horses had little trouble navigating the woods with their riders leading them by their reins. Zyrilin and Telven had each been given a horse, leading the animals behind Tarrin and Dolanna, but Jal rode in Tarrin’s saddle as he led the horse. As they walked, following a trail that Mist and Haley were marking for them that told them it was safe, Tarrin told Dolanna about what Zyrilin had told him, about the Damned, and then told her his fears over what had happened to their long-lost brothers and sisters.

“I doubt there are any left,” he told her with a sigh. “I think they and the Dwarves came here seeking safety, and walked into a different kind of trap. After five thousand years, I’m sure they’ve all been hunted down and killed.”

“There is merit to your argument, dear one, regardless of how I wish it was not so,” she agreed with a somber nod. “But we owe it to Mother to make sure. Had they died, I think she would know, for their souls would join with her in the after.”

“Can they? Dakkii isn’t here, Dolanna. She can’t come and take them.”

“The soul can find its way without the help of Dakkii,” Dolanna told him. “Though it may take them some time.”

“So, either they’re still alive, or their souls are trapped here,” he said quietly. “Maybe in Auromar, if the story of that curse is true.”

“It is a possibility.”

“If that’s the case, I don’t see how we’re going to get them home.”

“Miranda can handle that, dear one,” she told him. “You forget, Priests can turn the undead. A Priest of exceptional power can destroy them, sending their souls on to their reward. Do you not think that Miranda is of exceptional power?”

“You have a point,” he agreed with a nod.

“Either way, we owe it to Mother to make sure,” she told him.

“I know. But I think that once we get Kimmie and Phandebrass back, most of us should go home. Get out of harm’s way.”

“Some of us for certain,” Dolanna agreed. “But I shall remain. Mother is depending on us.”

“So, how does it feel to be the enemy?” he asked her quietly. “Now we’re the evil ones.”

Dolanna laughed lightly. “I am sure we will survive, dear one,” she told him. “In a way, being known as one of the Damned certainly gives me a formidable reputation.”

Tarrin looked at her, then laughed, then he sighed again. “Trust me, my friend. Having that kind of a reputation is not something you want.”

She reached over and put her hand on his shoulder. “I know, dear one. I know.”

Haley, Sarraya, and Mist led them out of the forest in a matter of hours, and they found themselves blocked by a surprisingly deep yet small river. They mounted, with Haley and Miranda leading the horses of Zyrilin and Telven, as Jal rode with Tarrin. It was a little crowded on Tarrin’s horse, with Tarrin and Jal in it, Fireflash on Tarrin’s shoulder, and Mist riding in her cat form on the horse’s back in front of the saddle. went nearly two leagues before they found a ford, and then crossed the river and moved out onto a hilly plain between the forest and another forest nestled on the foothills of a low mountain range to the east. Miranda took over the lead once they forded the river, as she used her Priest magic to locate the marker, then used a little bit of mathematics to use the direction of that marker and Kimmie’s path to angle in and cross her path without having to go back to the marker she set. Miranda admitted that her trick depended on Kimmie not making a sudden right or left turn, but nobody objected when she offered to try, for it would save them two days of travelling.

As they rode, Telven asked endless questions, but those questions became further and further apart as the effects of riding a horse started making themselves known to him. Those questions turned into complaints, and then into a kind of incessant whining that got on everyone’s nerves. Zyrilin, on the other hand, endured the discomfort, and snapped at her brother whenever his complaining got too grating on the others.

They stopped for the night under a single oak tree that stood in the grassy plain, a huge tree that looked to have been there for centuries. Haley and Sarraya ranged out to scout the outlying terrain, and Mist did as well, but she returned quickly to cook. There was scant firewood, forcing them to draw on the wood they’d brought with them, and Mist also drew on their supplies to make supper. The children sat by the fire and watched everyone else, though Telven still complained about how sore he was, but his complaints weren’t as shrill as they’d been when he was bouncing in the saddle. “Stew and beans?” Ulger asked, looking into the pots.

“That’s right,” Mist told him, stirring the stew.

“But we had stew for lunch.”

“If you don’t want it, don’t eat it,” Mist replied evenly, but there was a dangerous touch in her voice.

“I’m not saying you’re not a good cook, Mist. I love your cooking. I just think we need a little variety.”

“We don’t have the supplies for variety,” she answered, looking at him. “There wasn’t much to go on in the market.”

“Ah. Then I’ll go out and see if I can’t get some rabbits in the morning, so we can have roasted rabbit for dinner tomorrow,” he told her. “If I catch them, will you cook them?”

“Certainly,” she answered.

“Will you need my bow, Ulger?” Tarrin asked.

“I brought a sling,” he answered. “I used to be quite good with it when I was a boy. It’s time I shook off the rust.”

“What, um, what is a sling?” Zyrilin asked, faltering after realizing she was talking.

Ulger reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a leather cord with a pouch sewn into its middle. “Sling,” he said, showing her. “Put your finger in the loop on this side and put a rock in the pouch. You spin it over your head and then let go, and it sends a rock at your target. It takes a while to get the hang of it, but this little thing can be as deadly as a bow at close range. And it’s very easy to carry,” he said with a conspiratorial wink. “I keep this with me so I always have a weapon.”

“Wow! Can you teach me?” Telven asked breathlessly.

“Sure, I have an extra one in my pack,” Ulger told her. “What about you, Zyrilin? A sling’s a perfect weapon for a young lady. It doesn’t take much strength at all, but it gives you something to protect yourself with.”

“You, um, you would do that for me?” she asked shyly.

“I asked, didn’t I?” Ulger told her with a wink. “I’m a Knight, honey. When a Knight says he’ll do something, he does it.” He looked to Miranda. “Oh, Miranda, dear, you think you can make one of these?”

She gave him a scornful little laugh. “Are you trying to be funny, Ulger?”

“I know how hard it will be for you. It’s such a complicated bit of leatherwork.”

Miranda laughed. “I can make about ten of them before the stew’s done. But, speaking of sewing, I think we need to make something a bit better for our guests instead of filthy rags.”

“I think this would be a good time for Tarrin’s spell of replacing damaged clothing,” Dolanna suggested. “It will take too long to make clothes for them.”

“That’s a good idea,” Tarrin nodded. “But they’ll have to take them off. I take it that tent over there is theirs?” he asked, pointing at a rather crude, smaller tent that they had not brought with them.

Miranda nodded. “I bought it when I got the horses. It’s a crude one, but it’ll serve them for now.” She gave him a cheeky grin. “I got them a tent and bedrolls and blankets.”

“You think of everything,” he commended.

“No, Dolanna thinks of everything,” she replied with a look to the Sorceress. “I remembered the tent, but she’s the one that remembered the other things.”

“Alright then, children, we need you to go into your tent and remove your clothing,” Dolanna said, clapping her hands to get their attention. “There are blankets within you can wrap around yourself when you come back out. Bring your clothes with you.”

“What do you need our clothes for?” Telven asked.

“Because we are going to repair them, and we cannot do that when you are wearing them.”

“After we get your clothes fixed, we get some dinner, and Miranda makes you some slings, we’ll go out and learn how to use them,” Ulger added.

“Hold on, hold on,” Mist said. “Cleaning up the clothes doesn’t mean much if they’re still dirty underneath them. They need baths.”

“We should have stopped at that river,” Azakar grunted. “I could use a bath myself.”

“It’s simple enough,” Mist said. “I know Kimmie had a spell that created a bathtub and hot water that always stayed clean. I’ve seen her use it. And I know she put all of her spells in Tarrin’s spellbook.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Ulger nodded. “I think we could all use a turn in the bathtub.”

“We have the time,” Tarrin agreed, going over to his pack and pulling out his book. “Oh, that reminds me. Dolanna, I need a couple of our medium-sized diamonds.”

“For what, dear one?”

“There’s a spell in here that lets me summon possessions, just like a Druid,” he said, taking out his book and holding it up to her. “But it takes a diamond to do it. I’d like to have one on hand in case I need to summon something important.”

“Ah. Feel free to take them from the strongbox, dear one.”

“I just wanted you to know,” he told her.

The spell was easy to find, and after he memorized it, he cast it behind the largest tent. It created a very large ceramic bathtub filled with delightfully hot water. Rather than each person using the tub singly, it was decided that it would be shared by pairs. Dolanna took Zyrilin with her as they bathed, for Dolanna’s calm manner would keep Zyrilin calm, and then Ulger was the one that took Jal and Telven for their turn. As Ulger kept the boys busy, Tarrin used the spell to restore clothing on Zyrilin’s dress, as she stood wrapped in a blanket and watched. Tarrin was surprised that the filthy rags she’d been wearing had originally been a rather pretty blue dress made of stout, soft wool, and the badly tattered shoes on her feet had been very handsome leather slippers. Zyrilin’s parents must have had a little money for them to put their daughter in such a nice dress, when most peasants wore crude homespun smocks and tunics.

“Well, here you go,” he told her, offering the dress and slippers to her.

She reached for them, but the blanket’s tail slipped out of her other hand, and the blanket dropped to the ground. Zyrilin gave out a surprised squeak and clutched the dress to her, blushing to the roots of her hair, but Tarrin’s attention had been caught by something on her stomach. He knelt, reached down, picked up the blanket, then draped it over her shoulders, but then he deliberately made her move her hands so he could see her stomach. She didn’t try to cover herself, standing there with her face red as Tarrin got a good look at a rather nasty scar on her stomach. It ran from the base of her ribcage on her left and ran diagonally down her abdomen, ending at her right hip. He touched the scar tentatively with his finger, and felt that it was old. “What happened, Zyrilin?” he asked in a gentle voice, yet a voice that demanded an answer.

“It was a church soldier,” she said in a tiny voice. “He—“

“I don’t think you have to finish that, little bit,” he said, pulling the blanket around her. “Nobody will ever touch you again, not if you don’t want them to. I’ll make sure of that.”

She gave him the strangest look, then burst into tears. She threw her arms around his neck and clutched onto him tightly, like a frightened child, weeping out a long-ago pain and a memory that was best forgotten. He put his arm around her, comforting her, and again, he felt that strange sense of power within this little girl, who had been through so much pain in such a short life. He barely knew her, but already he felt a powerful attachment to this strong young lady, who had endured pain and suffering and continued to fight, caring for her brothers with as much self-sacrifice and devotion as any mother would have for her children. This was a girl—a woman—of hidden strength, a strength unrealized because of her young age, but so glaringly obvious to any who looked upon her.

In that moment, he knew that Zyrilin was now just like one of his own daughters to him. And he would protect her, nurture her, help her grow and help her discover her place in this dangerous world.

He simply held her until she was done weeping, then put his hands on her shoulders as she drew away. “Alright now?” he asked gently.

She nodded, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand.

“Go get dressed, Zyrilin, and Ulger will show you how to use a sling,” he told her.

“Zyri,” she said meekly, though she was giving him a shy smile. “Only my mother calls me Zyrilin.”

Tarrin chuckled. “Well, gods forbid you confuse me for your mother,” he said, which made her giggle. “And since we’re going on about names, please don’t call me Master Tarrin. It really annoys me.”

“But, but—“

“I won’t melt if you call me by my name, Zyri,” he told her. “Say it. Tarrin.”

“Tarrin,” Zyri said, giving him a misty-eyed smile.

“Good. See, I’m still here,” he said grandly, tapping her on the tip of her nose like he’d done with all his children. “Now go get dressed.”

“Yes, sir,” she said automatically.

Tarrin watched her go, and Mist stepped up to his side. “Strong,” she deduced in her manner, though Tarrin understood her meaning. Mist was a woman of few words.

“Stronger than she looks,” he agreed.

“Aren’t they always?” she asked. “We get the bathtub last. The stew should be done by then. Want to eat first?”

He shrugged. “Whatever.”

“Change, please. I hate seeing you that way when it’s not necessary.”

Tarrin chuckled, and shifted into his normal form. “Happy?” he asked.

“Very,” she replied, putting her paw on his side. “Do you think Kimmie’s in that much danger? Dolanna told me about what you were talking about.”

“She’s in danger, but she’s got a level head, my mate. It’s Phandebrass I’m worried about.”

“Amen. But we’ll catch up. We’ve already gained ten days on them. I found their trail.”

“They must have lingered in Dengal,” Tarrin mused. “We’re, what, twenty days behind?”

“More like eighteen,” she answered. “But they were moving fast out of Dengal.”

“Probably with a Hunter on their tail,” Tarrin grunted. “We’ll probably find the body soon. Kimmie wouldn’t tolerate a tracker on her tail for very long.”

“Not if she has any sense,” Mist agreed. “And I taught the girl to have sense.”

“You know, I think Kimmie was one of your finest works, my mate,” Tarrin told her with a chuckle.

“You’re just saying that because she’s one of yours,” Mist retorted. “I hope you don’t start comparing. Since I’m last, I have too much to compete with.”

“Each of you is unique. Comparing you would be impossible. And as long as you want me, I’m yours.”

“Then prepare to be mine forever,” she said with a purr in his ear. “Because I do love you, Tarrin. I know you know that.”

“I know, Mist. And I’ll always honor those feelings. At least until you can make me love you back, like Kimmie did.”

“You were human. It’s part of your nature to love. I have no concern about it at all. It may take time, but you’ll love me just as much as you love Jesmind and Kimmie. All I have to do is treat you with love and respect, and it’s a given,” she told him evenly, patting him on the side. “I have to check the stew. I don’t want to hear Ulger whine about a ruined dinner all night. I might have to cut him short.”

Tarrin chuckled, but it masked his surprise at his mate, watching her as she sidled away. He did know that Mist loved him, but never quite that way. He wasn’t sure if she was capable of it, because of her extremely feral nature. But it seemed that she was just as attached to him as Jesmind and Kimmie. In a way, that made him very happy, for of all his three mates, he certainly got along best with Mist. She lacked the jealousy of the other two, was more content just to be with him, didn’t needle him or harass him or anything like that. She just wanted to be together, living her own life, letting him live his own, but sharing those lives together in happy harmony. He was also very glad that she could love a male like that. It was a good sign that most of the savagery of her former nature had been healed with time, compassion, and love. Tarrin had started her down a path that Kimmie and the birth of their son had completed, and now she was a different female then she had been before.

Part of him was surprised at her surprising calm about it all. She felt that making him love her wasn’t a chore, it was simply a matter of time, and she was more than content to simply wait for it to arrive. That, actually, was a part of Mist’s nature. She was very accepting of things, and looked on the world in a way that very few people did. Since it would come in time, she was more than willing to simply wait for it to arrive. Until then, she was perfectly content with what she had. It reminded him of when he was human, how calm she had been then. She had told him that she since she knew what he would do, there was no reason at all to get into a twist over things the way Jesmind did. Mist accepted it, had faith in her understanding of Tarrin and faith in her love for him, and simply stepped back and allowed things to come about as she knew they would. That had really endeared him to her then, to her and his daughter Jula, and that endearment had not diminished at all since that time.

Could he love Mist romantically?

Not just yes, but bloody hell, yes.

She was right. He didn’t feel that way yet, but eventually he would. Given their intimacy, and his still-human need to have romantic feelings for the woman sharing his bed, him developing love for Mist was an inevitability. She was simply going to wait for it to happen, calmly, measuredly, with all the dignity she possessed. And when it came, she wouldn’t gloat or become arrogant in her achievement, she wouldn’t harp on it or let it become the central aspect of her life. It would simply be an acceptance of what is, to be savored in the moment of fruition, then simply added to her life as a part of it she would treasure, but not allow to rule her.

In many ways, Mist was definitely the best of his three mates, and he was developing a powerful respect for her.

Haley stalked up beside him, still in his hybrid form. “Did Mist tell you that we found Kimmie’s trail?” he asked.

“Yes, she did. You just got back?”

He nodded. “I was tracking a group of non-humans. When I caught up to them, I was shocked. They’re Waern, Tarrin. They look just like them, except their skin is kind of grayish-green, where Waern are more ashen colored.”

Tarrin clicked his claws, a Were-cat’s version of snapping one’s fingers. “Damn, that’s why those tracks seemed familiar!” he said. “I’ll bet what we call Waern at home, they call orcs here.”

“You think a group stumbled through the gate and kind of populated this world?” he asked curiously.

“It’s certainly possible. You know how fast Waern breed.”

“True enough, that,” Haley chuckled. “Sarraya’s still out there. She wanted to have a good look at them, but I think she just wants to torment them a little bit. She hasn’t had a chance to prank anyone for a while now, and she’s getting itchy.”

Tarrin chuckled. “I feel sorry for the Waern.”

“So do I. Is that a bath I smell?”

Tarrin nodded. “One of Kimmie’s spells. You know how she is about taking baths.”

“The first Were-cat I ever met that didn’t hate water,” Haley told him. “I can smell Ulger and the boys in that direction, so I take it we’re taking turns?”

Tarrin nodded again. “We’ll be last.”

“We always are when humans are around.”

“Any rabbits out there? Ulger wants some for dinner tomorrow.”

“I hope he’s hungry. It would take him a week to eat all the rabbits within a longspan of the camp,” Haley answered lightly. “My, that stew smells heavenly. I think I’ll go try to filch a bit of it. I much more enjoy a bath if I’ve had a good meal before getting into it.”

“As long as it’s done, I don’t think Mist will object. She’s no stickler for silly human traditions like a set meal time.”

“You’re her mate. The rest of us are a bit more cautious around her,” he said with a sly smile.

“That’s actually a wise thing,” Tarrin agreed sincerely.

Tarrin replaced simlilarly fine clothes for Jal and Telven, hinting that their parents had to be at least modestly well-off, and then they ate. After dinner, Ulger and Azakar taught Telven and Zyri the basics of using a sling, and Mist, Tarrin, and Haley ended up sharing the bath before the spell’s duration ended and Tarrin had to cast it again. Tarrin thought at first that Mist might have a problem sharing the bath with Haley, but he realized quickly that that was a stupid supposition. Mist tolerated Haley well enough to spend time with him—she was probably more comfortable with him than any of the others—and she had no reservations about sharing a bath with just about anyone she didn’t mind. After getting cleaned up, Tarrin, Mist, Haley, Azakar, and Ulger decided on the watch schedule for the night, and they packed the children off to their tent to get some much-needed sleep. Tarrin, who had drawn the long straw and managed to get out of watch duty for the night, also retired to his tent. He’d been awake for two days now, and as soon as he removed the charm, he’d immediately get very sleepy. Tomorrow was going to be a long and busy day, and he had a feeling that he was going to need his energy.