Fel (James Galloway)

Demons Bane

Chapter 1

It was a place of unending continuity.

The clouds in the sky high above did not move. The sun, near its zenith and glowing with golden yellow light, remained fixed in place, as if some unimaginable force had locked it in place. The air had been the same temperature since he had arrived. It was as if the world had been trapped into a singular moment, where time stood still, but still marched onward. The land was the same as it had been, the same as it always would be.

But not everything was locked into this eternal moment. The wind did blow from time to time, a gentle breeze that smelled of flowers and wheat as it feathered across the fields with delicate softness, never more than a slight disturbance of the air. The plants in the ground did grow, but instead of growing at what would be a normal pace, they instead reached their full size within days of being planted, as if for them, time was accelerated. There were no animals in this place of strange extremes, of discordant time, but there were inhabitants. They were from other places, other dimensions, all of them, and they had changed the original look of this place. Where there had been grassy fields, there were now neat villages, modest farms, towns, cities, and great metropolis, depending on where one was within this place. But despite the sky, the wind, the plants, and the people, what most stood out to one visiting this place was the silence. There was a vast silence to this land, to this place, as if sound could not travel more than a stone’s throw. Sounds near to the ears were loud and distinct, but when there were no sounds nearby, there was nothing but silence. There were no birds, no animals making sounds beyond the buildings. There was no sound of wind blowing across the fields, even when the wind was blowing, for it never blew hard enough to make more than a whisper of sound to the ear.

Silence. To some, it was a comfort. To others, it was a curse. It was a lack of sound, a lack of distraction that caused the mind to focus more on what was within than the stimulus of senses without, giving this place a somber feel, a sense of soberness and of reflection that seemed to permeate the land, the air, the very fabric of this reality, even paint its color of silence into those who were visiting. Those visiting this place never yelled, never raised their voices, as if they feared to break that silence. A low tone carried a goodly ways, and when in close proximity, a soft voice, barely more than a whisper, was clearly audible.

This place was called Crossroads, or the Nexus, the center of all things, but its true name was the plane of Concordant Opposition, and though it was a place where some people lived, it was home to no one. It was an Outer Plane, a dimension of reality above that of the Material Plane, the plane of mortals and mortality, one of the myriad dimensions where the Upper Beings made their homes. They all originated from other planes of existence—The Seven Heavens, the Twin Paradises, Arcadia, Nirvana, Limbo, Gladsheim, Tarterus, Hades, even the Abyss and the Nine Hells, but for reasons which were their own, they had come here, to Crossroads. Crossroads was a place of neutrality in all things, where a Demon and a Deva could pass one another in the street and not immediately erupt into combat, for the One Law was imposed upon this plane, and that rule was that in this place, violence was prohibited. That rule was enforced by the Deva themselves, who would appear to stop any sort of brawling, combat, or other violence. The Deva were mysterious beings, quiet, unswerving, and immensely powerful, the direct servants of the God of Gods, the Creator of All. Given that the Deva often ended any violence by doing violence upon the rule breakers, such transgressions were rare. Even the gods visiting Crossroads had the wisdom and sense to give the Deva a wide berth, for in this place, in this plane, their power was paramount.

It seemed odd that Demons would be permitted in this place, for their ultimate goal was to overthrow the God of Gods and conquer the totality of all, but they were here. Very few of them were here, because nobody would have anything to do with them and they were watched so closely that they could not engage in any kind of subterfuge or connivery, but there were some few here.

Demons weren’t the only unusual visitors to this place. Gods visited as well, projecting their consciousness into this dimension to conduct business, or meet other gods in a neutral site, or whatever it was gods did. Those gods who were daring or arrogant in their power visited this place in person rather than sending a projection or Avatar, risking their true selves…for though the One Law prohibited violence, that didn’t mean that it didn’t happen. The Deva took time to reach a fight to break it up, and people could be killed before they could arrive to intervene. A god who visited in person and found himself beset by enemies may find himself fighting for his very life, desperately stalling for time until the Deva could arrive and end the hostilities. Lesser Demons were also seen here and there on the streets of the larger cities, messengers and lackeys doing the bidding of their more powerful masters. Other denizens of the Outer Planes, from the Slaadi of Limbo to the Eirhelar, the warrior spirits who followed the gods of the light of goodness, could be seen in those cities, but as one got further and further from the center of this plane, the lesser and lesser they were seen. Once one passed the Ring, the distance of one thousand longspans from the Core, the center of the plane, the only denizens of this place that could be found were the archons, who farmed this plane for food that was easy to grow and easy to transport to other planes. The archons were the most numerous of the creatures who were from the Outer Planes, humanoid beings that looked just human enough to be mistaken from them, but who were not. Many had features which were decidedly non-human, from exotic hair colors, or glowing eyes, even to unusual skin color. The archons were the “humans” of the Outer Planes, industrious, sincere, and could be found nearly everywhere in the upper planes. Where the archons were the common citizens of the upper planes, the Demons were the common citizens of the lower planes…but the Demons were not the only creatures of those planes. The Demons originated from the Abyss, and the other lower planes had their own nefarious races. From the Hordlings and Daemons of Hades to the Devils of the Nine Hells, from the Gehreleths of Tarterus to the Wailing Ones of Pandemonium, they were all dark products of planes which represented the dark and evil nature of the universe. But the Demons were the most numerous, and the most dangerous.

But the most unique visitor to this plane could not be found in the teeming throngs of the great cities where all manner of things were bought and sold and where intrigue and deception ruled. He could be found on a small farm far from the center of population, far from the Ring, far from everything. His name was Tarrin Kael, and he was the most unusual and unique being in Crossroads. As beings visiting Crossroads went, he didn’t look too unusual. In this place where some could form bodies that could look like anything one could imagine, Tarrin Kael didn’t stand out. His appearance made it clear he was no archon, for his body was a creation of a mind, and it was not normal. His chosen form was tall, greatly tall, sleek, and athletic. Highly toned muscle rippled beneath tanned skin as the body moved, as the form hunkered down and sat on its ankles on the top of a barn, reaching down and picking up a plain looking staff. The form’s arms were covered with black fur up to the elbow, and the legs were covered in fur up to the knee. The hands were huge, oversized for the body, with thick fingers, and the feet were more of a cross between a cat’s paw and a human’s foot than a foot, very wide across the ball and with thick, developed toes tipped with claws that wouldn’t completely retract into the toes. The form had a very long, elegant tail that swished behind it as it stood back up, a tail longer than its leg, and a pair of black-furred cat’s ears poking up through a thick mass of blond hair that was done in a heavy braid that dangled down to the figure’s thigh.

This was the chosen form of Tarrin Kael, a Were-cat who was once a god, and a man who was currently dead. The form was a body of his own creation, formed by his own mind and will when his soul traversed from the mortal plane into the Astral, a physical shell containing a soul which was the divine soul of a god. The ability to form a new body that was something other than what body he possessed in life was one of the aspects of the power of a god’s soul, something a mortal soul could not accomplish. It was about the last power that the soul of Tarrin Kael had left, for he had sacrificed all of his godly power, had given up that might in order to trick a Demon Lord. The new body of Tarrin Kael was a physical projection of everything Tarrin Kael wished it to be; agile, quick, powerful, possessing of all of the Were-cat powers he had enjoyed when he lived, but suffering from the same weaknesses. It was beyond his power to create for himself an invulnerable physical shell, and so he had been forced to fall back on the form he had once possessed, a form with protections, but paid for those protections with weaknesses. His rugged physical form could not be harmed by that which was not magic, but was vulnerable to silver, the natural forces, and to unworked weapons of raw nature.

It was an old friend, this body. He had had the chance to create a new form in any shape he pleased, even that of a human, but he preferred this, his chosen existence, with all the weaknesses and shortcomings included with it. In the trials to come, he would need the feeling of continuity, the feeling of intimacy he had with this form, with its power, with its abilities…and with its power.

This form was an exact duplicate of the mortal form which he had once possessed…up to a point. This created body had some slight modifications over his old mortal form to better allow him to carry out his task. Tarrin Kael was here to kill a god, and he would be at a major disadvantage while doing so, so he had taken steps. Most of the time, Tarrin Kael’s plans weren’t what one would call thought-out; he would develop a good idea and then charge off with it without thinking it completely through, and it often left him in hot water halfway though one of his plans and forced to improvise to carry it out. Planning often wasn’t one of his strong points, nor was it really the strong point of any Were-cat. The breed as a whole was based in its senses and had little concept of the idea of the future, living in the moment. That made them impulsive and rash. But sometimes, when things were serious, Tarrin Kael had the ability—a very un-Were-cat ability—to consider many courses of action and make an intricate, detailed, and thorough plan of action. Tarrin’s presence here in Crossroads was a direct result of one of those intricate plans. Having sacrificed his mortal life in Pyrosia to deny the Demons invading that dimension their magic, now he had come here, to Crossroads, to begin the second phase of his plan.

Tarrin Kael was here to kill a god.

But that wasn’t the ultimate objective. His ultimate objective was to banish the Demon Lord in Pyrosia back to the Abyss, but the creature was of such power that it was impossible to kill him in a direct confrontation. Only an Elder God had the kind of power it would take to kill a Demon Lord when he was surrounded by an army of Demons, and there was no Elder God in Pyrosia. If the Demon Lord was alone, perhaps, with its magic sealed away, Tarrin might be able to kill it in a one on one battle. But that wasn’t the case. Given its raw power and the might of its army, Tarrin had elected to battle the Demon Lord indirectly, by going after what kept it anchored in the material plane.

There were three ways to send a Demon back to the Abyss. One could destroy the Demon’s physical shell. One could banish the Demon using magic. Or one could kill the person who had summoned the Demon to the material plane in the first place.

Despite the Demon Lord’s mighty stature and incredible power, it too fell into these restrictions. It was summoned to Pyrosia by the One, and that meant that its continued existence in Pyrosia depended on the life of the one who summoned it. By going after the One and killing him, Tarrin could send the Demon Lord back to the Abyss without ever having to confront him directly.

But the One would be no pushover. Despite losing his icon in Pyrosia and suffering a major backlash from it, the One was still a god, and Tarrin would be forced to face him in his home plane. That was a daunting proposition. In his home plane, the One would be able to use his true power, would be able to use the plane itself to defend himself from his brash adversary. The One would be a staggeringly difficult opponent to kill, the strongest opponent Tarrin Kael had ever faced.

But he was still a more attractive target than the Demon Lord. On the material plane, the Demon Lord was nigh invulnerable. All things measured, going after the One had a much better chance of success than trying to destroy the Demon Lord in Pyrosia.

Tarrin stood up and looked over the large tract of farmland, watching the archons methodically place seed in neatly plowed rows of earth. There was no doubt in his mind that he’d have a better chance against the One than against the Demon Lord. Had Tarrin decided to face the Demon Lord, he wouldn’t have been able to seal his magic and rewrite the rules of magic in Pyrosia, and that would have been a power beyond his ability to defeat. At least this way, the Demon Lord’s power was crippled, forcing him to rely on his army and his enslaved Wizards and other magic-users to protect him from the vengeful wrath of Dolanna, who was in a position to do him harm now. Dolanna probably wouldn’t be able to kill the Demon Lord, but Tarrin was sure that she could put some serious hurt on him, lay waste to his army, knock down a few mountains…it was all possible. Dolanna was the living will of the Weave now, and it would obey her will.

Or at least it would when she learned how to control it.

That would be the key of things back on Pyrosia. The Demon Lord will seek to reorganize his army as quickly as possible, kill Tarrin’s shadow, and then march on Pyros and attempt to destroy the Weave and kill Dolanna before she gained enough command over the Weave to use it against his army. Dolanna would be working as hard as possible on learning to control that almost limitless power, try to gain enough mastery of it to wield it as a weapon when the Demon Lord marched on Pyros on his mission to destroy her. It was a race that Tarrin sensed would ultimately lead to a battle on the slopes of the volcano of Pyros.

That was what Tarrin needed to prevent, but it wouldn’t be easy. He would have to find a single being in the almost unfathomable expanse of the multiverse, travel to whatever plane the One called home, find him within that plane, then figure out some way to literally invade his home and kill him in the seat of his power. It would be extremely difficult just to find the One. And when he did, then he’d have to battle a god in his home plane and try to kill him…and do it with no power of his own.

That was what made Tarrin unique. He was a god with no power, a god in name only. All of his power was put into his sword, and now the sword was broken. He had no divine abilities outside of the rather unique capabilities he had put into his body when he created it. But that didn’t mean that Tarrin Kael didn’t have power at his disposal. On the contrary, he had at his clawed fingertips access to incredible power…it just wasn’t his.

Tarrin Kael was a legend in his home of Sennadar. He was one of the most feared fighters in the land, with awesome physical abilities tailor-made for combat and extensive training given to him by some of the most skilled fighters alive. From the heavy brawling tactics of the Ungardt to the lightning-fast speed of the Selani, Tarrin had been trained by the best, and was among the very best.

But it wasn’t his skill as a warrior that had made him so legendary back home. Tarrin Kael was probably the singularly most powerful wielder of magic on Sennadar. He was a Sorcerer, wielder of the magic of the Weave, the power of the Elder Goddess Niami. He was a Druid, able to tap into the natural forces of the land to power spells. He was a Wizard, studying that ancient arcane method of drawing power from an unknown place and shaping it into magical effects. And he was a Priest, able to call directly on the power of his Goddess to power spells cast more by his faith than by his words.

And that was the power he would wield in this world. There was no Weave here in this outer plane, so he could not use Sorcery. The All of this dimension would fry him to ashes if he even thought about touching it, so he could not use his Druidic abilities. But he could use Wizard and Priest magic. That was one of the reasons why he had spent so much time studying them before leaving. He’d needed that vast knowledge of magic to help him shape the Weave, to understand how those forces worked to help guide how they would act in a world holding the Weave, but that studying helped him now just as much as it had then, because now he had come to Crossroads armed with all that knowledge. Tarrin was a monster in a physical battle, but he was a nightmare when fighting spell to spell. That was the power he had brought into this land, and that power would serve him well…because here, outside of Sennadar and beyond the mortal realm, Tarrin would suffer no restriction over the access of his Priest magic. He had been forbidden to use it on Sennadar, he had been unable to use it on Pyrosia. Here, in this place, he was one of the favored sons of the Goddess, one of her highest ranking Priests…and the power that came with that position was finally at his fingertips.

He would not fight the One with his own power. He would fight the One with the power of his Goddess. He was a god, but he was a god who was devoted to another god, and against that power, the One could not stand.

There were rules, of course, rules that he had to follow even here. The first rule of Priest magic was that he would be virtually incapable of using anything more than minor devotions without the holy symbol of his Goddess. That was something he couldn’t create with his own power, like had created his staff and his clothes. The holy symbol of a god carried its own power, and it was beyond any god to create a true holy symbol of another god. That was why his shoulders were smooth, why the brands of Fara’Nae were not upon him. He could not duplicate them, even in image, because they were holy to her.

But he wasn’t quite ready to address that step yet. He could create another shaeram, the spell was a simple one, but the instant he did, Niami would know exactly where he was. And he had no doubt she’d be standing in front of him about two heartbeats after he cast the spell. He didn’t want to do that yet, because no doubt she’d give him the rough side of her tongue for about six or seven years. That, and she’d probably demand to know what he was up to, and he wasn’t quite ready to tell her yet. He wanted a concrete plan of action in place before he started talking to her, so she’d know what was going on. If he contacted her without knowing what he was going to do, she might try to derail him…or worse. He honestly had no idea how she was going to react when she found out where he was, and what he was doing. This was an entirely new game with a completely different set of rules.

Tarrin watched the archons toiling in the fields, planting seeds that would be fully grown plants and ready for harvest in just a matter of days. Medjren wasn’t among them, for he was in the inn a few buildings back getting ready to cater to the needs of those out in the fields. Medjren had been a very handy fellow, and Tarrin was glad he’d been honest with him. Though he had no powers, had no stature, Medjren was wise, and he understood this alien place. He’d been very useful to Tarrin simply by explaining how things worked here to him. Thanks to the innkeeper, Tarrin knew some of the basics of Crossroads, and had started formulating the framework of a plan regarding the first step; finding the One. Tarrin could never hope to find the One himself, but he could find someone who could do such a thing. That meant that Tarrin had to track down a sage, or track down someone who had personal knowledge of the One. Either way, Tarrin’s needs dictated that he had to leave this sleepy little hamlet and travel towards the center of Crossroads, travel to the grand megalopolis on what most considered the north side of the Core, a vast, grand city which extended nearly a thousand longspans in one form or another from the Core to the Ring. It was a city larger than some kingdoms, a city with no ruler, a city with no law beyond that which was enforced by the Deva, a city where the closer one went to the Core, the less that magic would function. No magic functioned at all next to the boundary that marked the closest any being could get to what Medjren described as a pillar of light that marked the center of the plane, and it was in that area where many who had made enemies of powerful magic-users dwelled. Most activity took place in a large ring nearly a thousand longspans from that border, where most magic functioned and where people had ready access to the gate stones of the Ring. Most gods preferred an area closer to the Core where mortal magic did not function to interact with one another, but a god’s divine powers did…which gave them a huge advantage. The area right by the boundary was known as the Councillar, a section of the City set aside for negotiations between mortals and between gods, a place where the absolute lack of magic ensured that all negotiations would be above-board. The only powers that functioned in that area were the powers of only one type of Deva, the strongest of all Deva, creatures called Solars.

The Deva were said to be the direct servants of the God of Gods, but nobody really knew, not even the gods themselves. The Deva were an enigmatic, mysterious breed, silent to a being, carrying out instructions that only they knew, instructions that sometimes seemed to make no sense. They served some gods as messengers, servants, and sometimes as foot soldiers, but their loyalty was their own, and they had been known to walk out on a master in the middle of a battle. All of them, in unison. Medjren told him that most sages speculate that the Deva served the gods of good to help keep the balance of power between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The creatures of the lower planes were almost limitless in number and highly motivated to spread their darkness through the cosmos, where the creatures of the upper planes were both less numerous and less aggressive in spreading their ethos through the multiverse. They were a rare sight, even in the City, and then it was usually because a violent act had attracted them and caused them to arrive to mete out punishment for those violating the One Law.

That was where Tarrin needed to go. Somewhere in that teeming megalopolis, where Demons rubbed shoulders with Deva under the enforced rule of peace, Tarrin would find someone who either had the information he sought, or had a way to acquire it.

The city itself had no name. It was simply the city. All other cities and towns and villages in this place had a name, and they were always referred to by their names.

It would be a long journey. The City was on the far side of the Core, which meant that Tarrin would have to travel a circuitous route in order to reach it. It would be a journey of over two thousand leagues, a journey that would take months on foot…if Tarrin intended to travel on foot. Tarrin surmised that it would take him about twenty days to reach the City, and once there, there was no telling how long it would take for him to locate someone that could help him find the One. And there was little doubt in Tarrin’s mind that the One could possibly discover that Tarrin was here, in Crossroads, searching him out, intending to continue the fight that had ended with Tarrin’s victory in Pyrosia. The One was in league with Demons, and Demons were countless in number and could be anywhere…and they would indeed be in the City. There was no law against the creatures of the lower planes coming to this place, so long as they did not violate the One Law. He would have to move carefully when he got there, try to find out what he needed to know without it becoming common enough knowledge that it got back to the One and warned him of Tarrin’s intentions.

With an effortless vault, Tarrin soared through the air and landed on the bare dirt near the barn, then drew himself up to his full height and looked out over the field one last time before turning to go back to the inn. He’d been here for a few days, speaking with Medjren to learn the basics of this place, getting to know the archons of this village, and preparing himself for the task to come. He walked with a elegant, deceptive slowness, looking as if his steps were in slow motion, but he actually traversed huge swaths of land with every stride of his long legs. He was more than head and shoulders taller than all the archons of the village; the tallest only came up to his chest. He was at the door of the Whispering Brook Inn, so named for the tiny stream that gurgled merrily on the far side of the building. He ducked as he slid in through the small door, then rose back up and padded across the large common room. Gyama, his glowing-eyed daughter, gave him a slight smile as he stalked past her, as she set tables in preparation for the coming customers. Imjis, his dark-haired daughter, scurried past him quickly, carrying a large tray of mugs that Cryqua and Thorzi had washed in the back. Sizji and Prikim were cooking in the back, from the smell of it. Medjren had six daughters that helped him run the inn, and though they were all simple people, Tarrin had found them to be wise and intelligent. Medjren had taught his daughters well. He sat down at the bar quietly and set his staff against the edge as Medjren came out from the back, through a door that opened behind the bar. “Ah, hello, Tarrin. Did you finish fixing that barn for Korizkith?”

Tarrin nodded, reaching down to his belt and then bringing up a small pouch filled with krin. “I think he paid me double what he’d have paid someone else,” he said.

“How much?”

“A hundred krin.”

Medjren chuckled. “No doubt it was the novelty of having a god fix his barn roof,” he said.

“Just out of curiosity, since it doesn’t rain here, why have a roof?” he asked.

“It does rain here, Tarrin,” Medjren said absently. “In fact, everything you see around you will change in time.”

“Huh? You told me that it’s like the world trapped in the moment.”

“It is. But it also changes,” he answered. “Eventually, the nature of the plane will shift, and everything will change. For the last few years, it’s been the way you see it now. But before that, everything was a murky swamp, and this was an island surrounded by fens. And before that, it was a desert, and this was an oasis. The buildings change their appearance as well, but not their layout. The only things that remain constant are our location and the life-sustaining nature of this location. No matter how the plane appears, there will always be Whispering Brook, and there will always be farms.”

“Huh,” Tarrin mused, pondering how an entire dimension could so radically alter its appearance. “How often does the plane shift?”

“It’s random,” he answered. “Once, the plane shifted twice in a two hour period, and the plane was a desert for over six hundred years. But on the average, the plane stays one way around ten years or so. But that’s no guarantee it’ll stay the way it is,” he chuckled.

“Still, that just boggles my mind,” Tarrin said in wonder. “An entire plane that changes. I wonder why it does it.”

“No one knows,” Medjren shrugged. “If there’s an intelligence at work, it’s quite beyond us bloods. The gods pretend that they know, but I don’t think they really do either. Odds are, you’ll finish your business here and be on your way before the plane shifts its nature again.” He glanced at the pouch, which was now quite full of chiming discs of solid energy which was what passed as currency. “I take it you have enough now to get started on your task?”

“I think so,” he answered. “If it’s not enough, I’ll just steal what I need.”

Medjren laughed. “You make it sound that easy.”

“It will be,” he said absently.

“You need to be careful, my friend. If you violate the One Law, you’ll earn much more trouble than you expect. The Deva are not to be taken lightly. Their usual method of breaking up fights is to kill all the combatants, and they don’t care who started it. And they won’t give you any special consideration because you’re a god, Tarrin. They’ll attack you just as quickly as they would any blood, fiend, spirit, or mortal.”

“I’m not afraid of the Deva, Medjren,” he said bluntly. “If anything, the threat of their intervention will keep whoever I’m aggravating from taking it to that level.”

Medjren gave him a surprised look, then laughed delightedly. “By the Beyond, Tarrin, you really are crazy!” he exclaimed.

“Sometimes crazy works,” Tarrin said with a shrug. “And I’m not going to do what I need to do by hiding in corners. I’m going after a god, Medjren, on his home plane. Doesn’t that kind of earmark me as crazy right off the bat?”

Medjren laughed a long moment. “At least one of us said it,” he told Tarrin honestly.

“Truth is truth. I know I’m a little crazy, but it works for me.”

“I truly hope it does. When did you plan to leave?”

“After I eat,” he answered. “It’s going to take me quite a while to get there.”

“I’m sure if you waited a few days, I could send word out that you need a lift,” he offered. “A Wizard in the City will transport out here to come get you for the right fee.”

“No, I’d rather get there on my own,” he said. “This may sound weird, but I need to burn a little time. I want the One to start getting busy on his attempts to recover from what I did to him. If I go right after him, he’s going to pay more attention to me than himself. I want him to get distracted, so I’m going to let a little time go by before I start looking for him.”

“Won’t giving him time to recover work against you?”

He shook his head. “He won’t start losing power until his worshippers either start dying or stop believing in him. If anything, letting time go by favors me, but I can’t let too much time go by because of the Demon Lord running amok on Pyrosia. Right now, restoring his icon will be at the top of his list. That can take years, so he needs to get to work on it quickly. I want to give him enough time to start.”

“Then come after him while he’s distracted. Clever.”

“Thank you,” Tarrin nodded.

“Well, if this is to be your last meal with us, then I should make it a good one. And a free one,” he smiled.

“I won’t say no,” he said. “Ksazdreg finished that satchel I wanted yesterday, so I’m ready now.”

“He does good work,” Medjren nodded.

“Yes, it’s a really good satchel,” he agreed. “At first I thought it was leather, but now I’m not so sure.”

“It’s gorta hide,” he answered. “It’s supple, thin, and ridiculously tough. He has to use special enchanted needles to sew it together, because the hides are so strong that he’d break a normal needle trying to push it through the hide. If gorta hide wasn’t so common, it would probably be expensive. But there are gorta by the horde in the Beastlands, so it’s probably the most common hide you can find in the market. They’re so thick there that if you threw a rock, odds are you’d hit one.”

Medjren treated him to a meal of a thick stew and some of his daughter’s special fresh-baked bread that was sweet tasting from the spices she added to the dough. Tarrin ate it in relative peace and quiet, for the farmers had not yet finished their day’s chores and reached the inn, and it gave Tarrin a little time to rest and relax before the journey ahead of him. But he didn’t linger or dawdle, eating his meal with quiet efficiency, then pushing the bowl and plate away and standing up. “Well, it’s time for me to go, Medjren. I’d like to thank you for all your help.”

“Any time, my friend,” he said warmly. “If you need me, any Windtalker can send a message here. The Windtalkers are very discreet, so don’t worry about the message’s contents becoming common knowledge.” Windtalkers were archon Wizards who used a special spell they had created to put messages into the wind. That was where the wind came from here…it wasn’t natural, it was the result of a Wind Whisper spell, carrying a message here or there, wherever it was meant to go. Many archon Wizards used that jealously guarded spell as their means of making a living, acting as a relayer of messages within Crossroads. Those were the Windtalkers, who had taken an oath of secrecy and integrity. Always deliver a message you were paid to deliver, and never reveal the contents of that message. Many used magic on themselves afterwards to make themselves forget the message.

“I’ll remember. Thanks, Medjren,” he said, reaching over the bar and shaking the archon’s hand.

“Be well, my friend, and good luck.”

“Be well, Medjren.”

Tarrin picked up his staff and left the inn, and went to the tailor Ksazdreg to pick up his satchel. It wasn’t very large and looked like a normal pack, complete with shoulder straps. But the pack had four sets of buckles on its sides and two on the top, and long straps were tucked into the pack itself, which Tarrin withdrew. It also had a double-layered back with four slots cut into it at symmetrical points, cut at angles. He nodded to the old archon and thanked him again, then picked up the things he’d bought while in the village that he would need; food, water, a small one person tent, a bedroll, some dry rations, and two waterskins. He packed them carefully into the pack, affixed the straps to the buckles, then went outside and trudged well out from the village, along the road leading towards the Ring.

Once he was a safe distance away, he stopped and set his staff on the ground, gripped the pack with both paws, closed his eyes, and concentrated.

Without sound, Tarrin’s wings, wing he had sacrificed just before he died, flowed from his back, slicing his vest neatly as they bloomed out to their full size, their full form.

Tarrin had sacrificed his wings to unify his power into the sword, but here, where he had had the chance to create a body of his own choosing, it was a simple matter to give them back to himself. His wings had always been a representation of his power as a god, and though he’d given up most of it, his divine soul still had a little of that power. His wings defined his power, and in this alien place and inhabiting a body of his own creation, he was able to use what little power he had remaining to design them into his new form. They were perfect replicas of the wings he had once had…up to a point. They were made of living fire, fluid and weightless, able to change form at a thought, but they had none of the other powers his old wings possessed. These wings were different, though. They weren’t the representation of his power, they were the creations of his power. They were the first of the three powers he had been able to grant himself, and they, like his original wings, granted him the power of flight.

Tarrin rifled through his pack and pulled out a tiny piece of amethyst, then chanted in the language of magic for a moment. The amethyst disappeared, and in his waiting paw wavered into being a visor just like the one he’d had, a Selani creation meant to protect the eyes from blowing sand and bright light, a violet-shaded construction of crystal worn over the eyes. When flying long distances, he’d learned from experience, these visors were extremely useful. The Aeradalla used them as well, because long flights through dry air was very hard on the eyes with the wind constantly blowing into them. This visor was an exact duplicate of his old one, the one that Allia had made for him. That was the nature of the spell, it created a duplicate of an object owned by the caster. Tarrin then reached into his belt pouch and produced a small, glittering diamond. This diamond had cost him more than three quarters of the krin he had earned in the days working in the village, but it had been worth it.

Chanting again in the discordant language of magic, Tarrin set the diamond on the ground and made a long series of intricate, exacting gestures, his words clear and strong and confident as he chanted the words to one of the strongest spells he knew, one he had memorized before he died, a spell that he had retained in his memory despite that death.

At the completion of the spell, Tarrin clapped his paws together sharply. The diamond glowed with a bright light, and then vanished. In its place rested a tiny leather-bound book, small and unassuming…but that book would be absolutely vital to him now.

It was his spellbook, and within its pages were the combined spell libraries of three Wizards…and one of them was one of the most brilliant of his day. And here, in this place, the spells scribed onto those pages would be his greatest weapons and most stalwart defenses. Unable to use Sorcery, and unwilling at the moment to use Priest magic because of the fear of the possibility that Niami might interfere, his training and abilities in Arcane magic, the magic of Wizardry, would be his most potent power.

Tarrin reached down and picked up his Gnomlin Traveling Spellbook, one of his most prized possessions. He opened it and leafed through it quickly, and found everything to be exactly as he left it. There were three sections to the book; those spells penned in his own writing and the writing of the Gnomes, who had placed into his book several spells when they gave it to him, those penned in Kimmie’s hand, and those penned by Kimmie and Phandebrass in the back of the book, which were the spells they had scribed into his book both to give him access to them for study and to provide another copy should some kind of disaster befall their own books. That forward thinking had actually saved them, for Kimmie and Phandebrass had been forced to use his book after losing their own books. The book had exactly one thousand pages within it, and because that tiny book was the repository of every spell that all three of them had collected over the years, it was almost full. There were only about ninety empty pages left in it, at the very back of the book. After a quick inspection, Tarrin nodded and placed the tiny book in the same belt pouch from which he’d taken the diamond, a belt pouch he’d already protected using several Wizard spells, to prevent theft or meddling.

Perfect.

Tarrin put the visor over his eyes, adjusting it slightly with a paw, then knelt down and started getting ready. He pushed his staff through the slotted flap in the back of the custom tailor-made pack, a carrying sling made just for it. He then buckled on the two long straps, a special sling so he could carry the pack under his wings, low on his back. He pulled out one waterskin and tied it to his belt, then pulled a small bag from the pack and filled it with bread and cheese, some of the fare from Medjren’s own kitchen. It seemed that even here, in this fantastic place so far from home, some things seemed uniform through the multiverse. Tarrin suspected that there was bread and cheese in some form or another in every dimension of existence.

Despite being dead, Tarrin had formed a material body out here in the outer planes, and that body would need to eat and drink.

He tied the two straps of the pack together near the top and again near the buckles, then pulled the backpack around behind him and settled it over his shoulders. The tied section of straps let the paired cord run between his wings and down to the buckles. Even though Tarrin didn’t need to flap his wings to fly, he still didn’t want the straps fouling his range of motion. He flapped his wings a few times to make sure they didn’t impede his wings, then knelt and shortened the straps to get the pack off the base of his tail. He couldn’t get it completely off his tail, but he managed to find a happy medium with the top of the pack brushing the base of his wings and the base of the pack pushing slightly on the top of his tail.

He stood up and twisted this way and that, and was satisfied. The staff didn’t catch his wings, the pack wasn’t in the way, and he could easily reach food and water without having to land to dig them out of his pack.

He was ready.

He spread his fiery wings and launched himself into the air, gaining altitude with elegant speed and grace. It took him only a moment to get about a thousand spans off the ground, and once he got to that altitude, he turned and started out towards what he considered the north, starting his journey to the City, beginning the first leg of a dangerous journey whose paths were uncertain and whose completion was in doubt. Once he got there, he honestly had no idea what he would do next. He was winging it on this adventure, forced to play things as they came because he yet again got ahead of himself by finding a good plan, then rushing into it before completely thinking it through. Now he had to pay for his impatience, because he’d be at a dead end once he got the sprawling megalopolis which was the City. Sure, he had an idea of what to do, he had the framework of a plan, but it wasn’t concrete, it wasn’t something he felt completely comfortable about. He’d have to find some sage or some being that had information he needed…and he had no idea who. He’d have to ask around, search carefully, try to find someone that could help him without it becoming common enough knowledge what he was doing that word got back to the One and caused him to react. In Pyrosia he was powerless, but in this place, on this plane, he still could use his power. He needed no icon to exercise his powers here…there was only the threat of the One Law, the threat of retaliation by the Deva should he attack Tarrin in Crossroads.

And if he sent a projection of his consciousness, that really wasn’t much of a threat. That told Tarrin why feuding gods preferred to meet near the boundary of the Core to negotiate, a place where their powers wouldn’t function. If a god got into a fight and a Deva destroyed his mental projection, it meant very little. Maybe give them a headache Tarrin supposed, he had no idea what kind of backlash a god would suffer from having a mental projection “killed” in a battle.

In any event, there was no turning back now. He’d sacrificed his mortal life to get here, and he couldn’t go back. He was committed to this course of action…but he still believed that it was the best one. He was facing a daunting, almost impossible task, but trying to fight the Demon Lord on Pyrosia was completely impossible. This plan of action had the best chance of success.

It would just be dangerous.

It hadn’t quite been what Keritanima had expected to see.

Her first view of this world of Pyrosia was a dark, murky apple grove, seen from a low-pulled hood in the dead of night and through a pounding, heavy rain. The air was hot, thick, and heavy, and the area smelled of apples and Were-cats. It was obviously an overgrown orchard, with heavily grown trees, but the systematic layout of the place told her that this place had once been planted, that the trees placed deliberately in neat rows before they had been abandoned to grow on their own. Saplings and smaller trees interrupted the precise, orderly array of the larger trees, making the place look less engineered and more natural…but she could see the truth of this place with but one glance. Any trained eye could.

She also rode her Pegasus through the gate and found herself looking directly at Jasana and Triana, who stood in the rain, but were perfectly dry, shielded from it by an umbrella of Sorcery used by the daughter of Tarrin Kael. They were here to meet her, and they were here to take her to a place called Pyros.

It had been three days since Jasana and her grandmother had come to this alien world, only three days. But in those three days, they had managed to get almost halfway to the ruins of what was once the capitol of the empire ruled by the One, and what was more, Jasana had managed to ground herself to the grove and to their forward position. Jasana and Triana had come back for them, and now that they were here, she would Teleport them to that point halfway to Pyros and shave three days off of that airborne journey. They’d been sent early because this Weave that Tarrin had created needed the presence of a sui’kun to stabilize it, and that sui’kun was Jasana.

Keritanima could sense this weave, and she was amazed at the feel of it. It was complete. It didn’t have the same feel as the Weave of Sennadar, though. It was more…sterile. She realized that that was because the touch of the Goddess wasn’t in this weave, that gentle touch that seemed to be everywhere and reassured every Sorcerer at all times that they were just a touch away from their Goddess. This weave wasn’t as strong as the one she knew, it would take her almost double the time to draw the power to use her Sorcery, but it was complete and whole.

Keritanima advanced, urging her mount forward, then reached down and took Jasana’s paw in her slender hand. “I’m glad you’re here,” Keritanima told her. “I see you managed to ground in time.”

“Yeah,” she answered. “Where are the others?”

“They’re coming,” she assured her niece. “I had to fight with Binter for the right to come in first,” she giggled.

“Binter is coming?” Jasana said in surprise.

“When would he not go with Kerri, you nit?” Triana snorted derisively.

Binter appeared behind the Queen of Wikuna, sporting his massive warhammer and his black, emotionless eyes scanning the area with practiced thoroughness. He was on foot, leading a brown Pegasus that was significantly larger than the others, having been magically grown to make it large and strong enough to bear the Vendari. The monstrous Vendari approached the others as another winged Pegasus came through the gate, carrying the sleek, lithe Allia.

“Aunt Allia!” Jasana exclaimed happily, waving to her.

“Hello, kitling,” Allia smiled as she rather harshly tried to urge her mount forward. It was clear to anyone looking that Allia was not comfortable on the back of the Pegasus, and had little training in the art of riding a horse…or a Pegasus. Then again, that was to be expected, since the average Selani could run a horse to death. They were runners, the Selani, more comfortable on their own feet than riding a beast of burden. In all the time Keritanima had known her, she could count the number of times she’d ridden a horse on one hand.

“Mother sent you to keep me out of trouble, didn’t she?” Jasana asked suspiciously.

“No force in Sennadar could manage that, my kitling,” Allia said with a serious look, but made Jasana giggle anyway.

Behind Allia’s white Pegasus, a dark brown Pegasus appeared, carrying a heavily armed Knight. Even with the helmet on, Keritanima could see that the two Were-cats recognized this Knight. He was Ulger. Behind Ulger came a black Pegasus, carrying a Wikuni wearing a chain hauberk, a powerful leopard Wikuni that was heavily built and carrying a nasty double-headed battle axe in a sling on his belt and a shield strapped to his back. This was Skairn, one of the best of the best among the Royal Marines, who had barged into the Tower after learning of what the Queen was going to do and literally begged her to allow him to represent the honor of the Marines in this expedition. Keritanima knew of this particular Marine. He was brilliant, an amazing fighter, and a tactical master of the various arts of war. He was one of the few Marines who still practiced with bows, despite the fact that muskets and crossbows were the only official ballistic weapons used by the army, because he always wanted to be ready for whatever may come. But, he was also something of a discipline problem, whose commendations was balanced almost perfectly by the number of reprimands he had received, and that was the reason why he was still a private. Every time he earned a promotion, he would lose it after yet another court-martial. He disobeyed orders quite a bit and had a serious attitude problem with his commanding officers, but the one thing that every Admiral and General told her when she considered his request was that he was fanatically loyal to the throne. There would be no disobedience if those orders issued forth from the Queen herself. The final answer, however, came from Binter, who told her in his quiet way that Skairn would be an asset on this mission.

Praise from Binter was the highest form of praise there was.

Keritanima had to admit, Skairn was a handsome Wikuni. He was a leopard Wikuni, with tan fur mottled with dark spots, and a wide, powerful muzzle and piercing green eyes. His left ear had a nick missing out of it high on the outside, a visible indication that Skairn was a Wikuni of war, not of trading. He was heavily built, but just like the leopard he resembled, he moved with elegant grace and sinuous precision. And he was monstrously strong, almost unbelievably strong. It had boggled her mind when she had first taken his hand in greeting, the muscles of his hand were so hard, so toned that it was like he was made of living stone.

“This is all of my team. Kimmie should be next, with her team.”

Kimmie was indeed the next to come through the gate. She pranced her Pegasus forward as two more came through, carrying her daughters, Tara and Rina, both looking wildly excited.

“Tara and Rina?” Jasana asked in surprise.

“Mother said they should come,” Keritanima replied. “I don’t understand why, but Kimmie wasn’t about to disobey. The mood Mother’s been in since—since, you know, nobody in their right minds would gainsay her.”

The next Pegasus that came through was sporting Mist, who came quickly behind Rina, and whose eyes remained locked on the two teenage Were-cats. Jasana giggled when she recognized her, then nodded. “Ohhhh, that’s why they’re here,” she said with a grin.

“Mist is here for the same reason I am,” Triana said in a gruff tone. “To keep control of the children.”

Jasana glared a short moment at her grandmother, but that defiant look died quickly under that withering amber stare.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Eron next,” Jasana said.

“No one can find him,” Keritanima said, in a slightly worried tone. “Mist doesn’t think much of it, but it worries me. We couldn’t even find him with Sorcery. It’s like he’s vanished from the face of Sennadar.”

The next Pegasus to come through was carrying what Keritanima considered to be one of the more curious additions to this mission, and that was the slender, regal, dark-skinned Ianelle, wearing a plain—almost severely plain—plain white robe that was well tailored for her attractive body. She wore no jewelry outside of her shaeram, not even combs in her long white hair. The Sha’Kar was something of an enigma to Keritanima, a pacifist who had a streak of steel in her, as if her pacifism was in name only. She was a hard woman, but she was also kind and giving and very loyal to the Goddess and the Towers. She was the paramount Sorcerer, having devoted her entire life to the Tower and the katzh-dashi, one of the most well trained in the old ways. Ianelle was powerful, but that power was always tempered in wisdom and restraint. Needless to say, Ianelle got along quite famously with Triana. The two of them were of an age.

Behind Ianelle came what Keritanima considered to be the strangest choice of all when it came to assembling these teams to recover the pieces of Tarrin’s sword…Sevren. Sevren was a tall, slender man with thick brown hair tied back in a simple tail and wearing wire-framed spectacles over eyes that had trouble seeing without them. The face behind those spectacles was a bit long, but still somewhat handsome in the human way, with a strong jaw, narrow nose, and high cheekbones. The half-circle lensed spectacles perched on his nose seemed to enhance his appearance, not dominate it. He wore a simple robe of a pleasing brown color, not far from the color of his hair.

Keritanima still didn’t quite understand Mother’s choice of Sevren. He was a scholar, not a field Sorcerer. He hadn’t set foot outside of the Tower since he was sent to a Citadel for a rotation of guarding the border. Sure, he was a nice enough fellow, and his friendship with Tarrin was well known, but Keritanima simply felt that there had to be other Sorcerers who were better qualified for this. He was da’shar, but only just…there were many more Sorcerers stronger than him, Sorcerers with more experience out in the world.

But she wasn’t crazy enough to gainsay Mother right now. Mother said Severn goes, so Severn goes.

She did like him though. He was a bit quiet, but he had a fast mind and an honest curiosity about things. He was much like Phandebrass, endlessly curious about the world, but Sevren’s curiosity wasn’t as unbridled or consuming as that flaky Wizard’s. Sevren was a thinker, a philosopher, and a researcher…she wasn’t sure how those attributes were going to help out here in the world, where Sevren might be called upon to fight. But perhaps Mother saw in him something that she couldn’t, and she would trust the Goddess’ judgment.

Behind Sevren came, in quick succession, two black Pegasi bearing armored men, wearing the armor of the Knights. These two were again, curious choices. They were Kord and Orin, brothers who had been Knights for only five years. They were half Ungardt, much like Tarrin, physically imposing and powerful. They had an Ungardt father and a Sulasian noblewoman mother. They were only five years in the spurs, young as Knights went, but they were supposed to be very good. They would be the personal Knights of Ianelle and Sevren during this excursion. Keritanima had only just met them this morning, but they seemed nice enough, maybe a little irreverent. Typical children…and Keritanima adhered quite strictly to that concept, even though Kord, the older of the two, was only three years younger than she was.

The last to step through the portal was another Vendari. This was Szath, who had served Keritanima as a bodyguard in the past. He was what all Vendari wanted to be: almost mind-bogglingly huge and powerful, an almost overpowering warrior…and not too bright. Szath was as dumb as a box of rocks, but he knew how to fight…Kikkalli’s sails, did that Vendari know how to fight. But unfortunately, that was all he knew how to do. Szath would go with Kimmie and serve as a protector to Tara and Rina—something that Keritanima had absolutely demanded, given that Tara and Rina were her nieces—and he’d do what any good Vendari would do. He had been ordered to obey Kimmie as if she were Keritanima, and to protect the party. Though he was stupid, Szath was loyal and courageous. As long as Kimmie watched out for him, Keritanima felt that he’d do just fine with them. He stood there with the reins of his magically enlarged Pegasus in a scarred, humongous hand and with his huge mace in the other, with a vacant look on his scaled, boxy face, waiting patiently to be told what to do next.

“That’s all of us, Jasana,” Keritanima told her.

The Vendari nodded, and clumsily managed to climb aboard his mount.

“Quite a few,” Jasana smiled. “When are Haley and Kang coming?”

“Three days,” Keritanima answered. “The Sorcerers here have to ground to here and to Pyros to So we have two to get to Pyros, so we can ground there.”

Jasana snorted. “I can ground anywhere in three hours,” she said dismissively.

“Have you talked to Dolanna?”

She nodded, but Triana answered. “Dolanna needs the charm, Kerri. Did you bring it?”

Keritanima reached into her bodice and produced a golden inlay in the shape of a shaeram. “Right here,” she answered. “I hope she’s getting along well enough.”

“Not well at all,” Triana told her. “She can’t sleep more than a few minutes or the Weave starts to destabilize. She hasn’t been very coherent since yesterday. She spends all her time either napping or in a daze. We need to get that charm to her quickly.”

“Well, then we’re going to need to split up,” Keritanima said decisively. “The Sorcerers among us have to ground here…Mother’s orders,” she told Jasana, who gave him a strange look. “Until Dolanna can start guiding us to the pieces of the sword, our job is to help set up the defense of Pyros, and that means we have to ground here, ground there, then ferry men from here to there. So, the Sorcerers and enough support to protect us stays here while a group flies ahead to Pyros to get the charm to Dolanna quickly, Jasana grounds there, then she Teleports back to get us.”

“A good plan,” Kimmie nodded. “So, who’s staying and who’s going?”

“The fewer there are, the faster they can go,” Keritanima said. “But there are Demons running around out there, so we have to make sure of the safety of the group. Kimmie, you and Ulger go with Jasana and Triana, and the rest of us will wait here. I’m fairly sure that the four of you can defend yourselves against nearly any Demon on the way to Pyros.”

“I cannot Teleport, sister,” Allia said. “I can go with our niece.”

“No, deshaida, we’ll need you here in case we’re attacked. You’re not all that good on a Pegasus anyway, and they’ll have to go fast. Sorry, but truth is truth, as Tarrin says,” she said quickly.

“There is no insult in truth, sister,” Allia nodded in an austere manner.

“That’s why I’m not sending one of the Vendari either,” she grunted. “Ulger at least has lots of practice on these beasts.”

“Aye, I can fight on the back of Goldie,” Ulger agreed, patting his honey-colored Pegasus on the neck.

“Seems like a plan,” Jasana said. “Ulger, Kimmie, come over here, we need to get moving,” Jasana announced.

Kimmie turned to her daughters. “You two obey your grandmother,” she ordered. “If I hear from Mist of any kind of trouble, you’ll wish you were back at the Tower. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, mother,” they said in perfect unison.

“It creeps me out when they do that,” Ulger whispered conspiratorially to Keritanima as he passed her.

“They’re not going to sit around idle, Kimmie,” Keritanima promised. “One of the things we need to do is prepare this area for the coming army, so we have lots to do. This area needs to be fortified, because Haley and his force is coming through the gate tomorrow, and behind them is coming the army. We’re going to need fortifications, storage buildings, mess halls, latrines, everything a large base needs to host soldiers.

“But, we’re all going to Pyros,” Rina protested.

“Yes, and the supply lines will come through here,” Ulger told her. “Even after the army moves, there’s going to be a force here defending the gate to Sennadar to protect our supply lines. Kerri’s right about fortifying this place.”

“You will address her as Queen Keritanima, or her Majesty,” Skairn suddenly erupted, banging his fist on his mailed leg.

“Put a muzzle on it, Skairn,” Keritanima snapped.

“B-But, your Majesty, addressing you like that disrespects your station!”

“He’s also a friend of mine, and my friends may call me that,” she told him sharply.

“That seemed, harsh,” Jasana noted to Kimmie in the unspoken manner of the Cat.

“Skairn seems to have an attitude problem,” Kimmie responded in the same way. “That’s not the first time he’s jumped on someone for some kind of imagined insult to Kerri. He’s also as arrogant as sin. I get the feeling that someone’s going to have to step on him before it’s all said and done.”

“I’m sure one of us will step on him before long,” Triana noted in the manner of the Cat.

Jasana giggled audibly, which drew several curious looks. She just shrugged and looked to Keritanima, who simply smiled and tapped her shaeram meaningfully.

“Is everyone ready that’s going?” Jasana announced as the others backed away from the four of them.

“Aye, let’s get going,” Ulger answered.

“I’m ready,” Kimmie stated. “You two mind Mist,” Kimmie warned her daughters.

“We will,” they answered in unison.

“We can speak using our shaerams, Aunt Kerri,” Jasana told her as she reached out and took command of the alien Weave. “Oh yeah, Dolanna told me to tell you not to try to bridge or enter this Weave until she has the charm, because it’s not entirely stable.”

“Well thank you so much for remembering that,” Keritanima said sharply, giving Jasana a narrow-eyed look.

Jasana gave her an impish grin, and then the four of them and their mounts vanished.

“Alright then, let’s get to work,” Keritanima said crisply, turning to look at the others. “Sevren, you and Ianelle are in charge of the layout. We need a place for tents, storage areas, and cordoned areas where bound Sorcerers can Teleport without having to worry about killing anyone.

“Outside the orchard I hope,” Sevren said mildly.

“Of course, we need lots of room for this,” Keritanima told him. “Kord, Orin, stay close to the katzh-dashi while they inspect the area. If they split up, both of you stay with Sevren.”

“Aye, Majesty,” Kord acknowledged.

“Allia, Skairn, you’re on aerial reconnaissance.”

“As you command, your Majesty,” he said, saluting her.

“Can it,” she said sourly. “Mist, could you scout on the ground?”

“I’ll take the cubs with me, they need some practice,” Mist grunted, looking at Tara and Rina.

“It sounds fun,” Rina said excitedly. “Think of the alien plants and animals!”

“Just keep your mind on what you’re doing,” Keritanima told them. “This isn’t a game. There are Demons out there, and even if they don’t have their magic, they’re still powerful creatures. Spend too much time chasing butterflies, and you might get your head ripped off before you even realize what happened.”

Rina paled a little at that, then nodded. Tara simply flexed her claws expectantly.

“Binter, you’re with me. We need to work out how we’re going to fortify the area, so we’ll need to survey the terrain.”

Binter nodded silently.

“Szath, stay with Ianelle and protect her. She and Sevren might have to split up, so there needs to be some extra protection out there.”

“Which is Ianelle, Your Majesty?” he asked in his agonizingly slow manner, as if he had to think of every word he spoke before he spoke it.

“I am, Szath,” Ianelle announced. “I would enjoy having you accompany me.”

Szath walked over to Ianelle’s Pegasus and waited silently.

“Alright, listen,” she announced. “If you’re not scouting, stay within sight of the apple orchard, and keep alert. Remember, the locals here should be considered hostile, even the humans…it pains me to say it, but nobody who sees us can live, unless they can convince us that they’re part of the Shadows. Any human could be a follower of the One, and that makes him a potential spy for the Demons. The only ones you shouldn’t attack on sight are Dwarves and Elara. Is that understood?”

They all nodded or acknowledged her.

“Good. Now, we don’t have much time, and we have lots to do. We need to have the camp laid out and started before Jasana and the others get to Pyros, and we at least need some plans drawn up before Haley gets here with his advance force. So, let’s get to work.”

Keritanima watched as everyone started moving quickly and efficiently to perform their assigned tasks. Keritanima was a bit worried about this, about engaging Demons in a war on an alien world. This really didn’t concern her or her people. She’d committed a sizable portion of her army to this, both Wikuni and Vendari…but she couldn’t say no to the Goddess. That had created some real friction between her and Parliament, that she was putting so many Wikuni lives at risk over something that had absolutely nothing to do with Wikuna. Or, at least, it had caused friction before the Priests of Kikkalli had chimed in and stated that the leader of the Wikuni gods gave Keritanima her blessing. There was still some friction, and justified friction at that, but neither Keritanima nor Parliament really had any choice. She wasn’t about to look the Goddess in the eye and tell her no. Hell no, not with as intense as she’d been since her brother—

She didn’t even like to think about that. Tarrin was dead. Some small part of herself felt really, really good about bringing her army here and beating the snot out of these people who had, by their acts and their beliefs, brought about a god who had ultimately caused the death of her brother, but it was the vindictive brat in her, and nothing more. But, she couldn’t deny this, this…feeling. It told her that Tarrin was still going, that he was out there, somewhere, doing exactly what the Goddess had hinted, that he was still out there fighting. She didn’t know how or why she had that feeling, but she did, and that was what kept her going.

Tarrin just couldn’t be gone. He meant too much to her, too much to too many people for it all to end in this alien world. She couldn’t even imagine living in a world where he wasn’t there. Tarrin was one of the three parts of the hub around which her entire life revolved, and to lose him would means she would lose her center, and the wheel of her life would spin out of control and destroy itself. She wouldn’t even allow herself to consider the possibility that he had died here, that his soul had been destroyed while trapped on this material plane without the protection of his body to save it from the destructive nature of a mortal plane on a divine soul. Tarrin was out there, somewhere, continuing his self-appointed mission. She was sure of it. She believed it with all her heart.

And so long as she believed, she could keep going.

It was raining.

It rained quite often in the pristine valley that most called Haven, for it was nestled in the crook where two mighty mountain ranges converged, which trapped the storms in the valley. The valley thrived from the steady rainfall, which made it the lush, verdant paradise which had made it the subject of many a rumor and story. A pristine grassy plain rose up from the reef-protected beach, rising up to a gentle rolling foothill covered in temperate forest. On one of the higher hills, a hill with a flat top, rested the manor of Spyder, the Guardian, and housed the only working two-way gate in and out of Sennadar. The manor had been there for over ten thousand years, as had its occupant, a fixture that seemed just as permanent to the denizens of the region as the mountains themselves. They all knew of Haven by story or by history, a forbidden land that was almost inaccessible, and was the domain of a solitary, legendary woman who guarded her private domain vigilantly and jealously. Many a tale had been told of people who had shown up in Zaradar or Mebadar naked and without memory of what had happened to them…and those were the ones who returned at all. There were many more stories of men who had set out to explore the forbidden lands of Haven and never returned.

It was all part of the legend of the woman known as Spyder. It wasn’t her real name, of course, but it served her well. She was reputed to be the mortal servant of the gods, who performed tasks in the mortal world for them, and it was also rumored also served as an assassin for the gods, punishing those mortals who had so offended the gods that their deaths had become necessary.

It was all true. And it was all false.

In her capacity of the Guardian, she indeed served all the gods, by protecting the gateway into Sennadar from invasion by any and all extra-planar entities. It was her duty—and sometimes her curse—to protect Sennadar from outside, to act as the first line of defense against those who were curious, those who were seeking the mythical power of the plane, and those who had just had bad luck. For ten thousand years, she had stood silent vigil over the gate in the basement of her manor, ten thousand years of quiet, faithful adherence to her task. There were sacrifices she had made to perform this duty, but there had been rewards as well.

As the first of the sui’kun and the eldest child of the Goddess, however, she served in all those roles that most legends had attributed to her, most of them dark and sinister. In the name of Niami, she had done her share of spying, stealing, raiding, looting, and murdering. It would probably shock most of the katzh-dashi to know what their seemingly saintly goddess-mother did under the table, but it had all been necessary, of course. At least in that regard, Spyder never had any reservations, for she knew that though she was doing something that wouldn’t be considered legal by most human societies, it was necessary to either protect the katzh-dashi or advance their cause.

Spyder was one of the few mortals who had seen the dark side of the Goddess, but it didn’t shake her faith in the slightest. Spyder was Urzani, an ancient race of whom she was the last surviving member, and her Urzani heritage actually saw Niami’s duplicitous nature as a positive trait. Had she been nothing but the sweet and gentle goddess she showed to the katzh-dashi, Spyder would probably begin to doubt her. The dark, cynical part of Spyder that had been the root of her Urzani upbringing wouldn’t accept a god or goddess that didn’t also demonstrate a dark edge. Niami’s skullduggery behind the backs of the katzh-dashi only made Spyder that much more faithful to her, for it showed that she was a complete god, possessed of both mercy and spite, kindness and dishonesty, compassion and manipulation. A god that only showed one side would be hiding something in the eyes of Spyder.

In a way, she suspected that that was what drew Tarrin to her as well. She and him were of a mind about many things.

That was her new mission, of course. It was now the mission of the entirety of the katzh-dashi and every mortal over which Niami could exert the smallest amount of influence. It was what had brought her down to her basement, to the gate chamber, to be standing in the presence of a being that could only be called a soldier of the light, a tall, golden-skinned female humanoid of exceedingly handsome features and with large, golden-feathered wings, wearing a simple sleeveless tabard and carrying nothing but a heavy spiked mace, hanging from a wide belt that slung at an angle over her ample hips. She looked much like an Aeradalla, but she was no Aeradalla.

She was a Deva.

The Deva were part of a mythical group of beings that most simply referred to by the title of this entity, Deva. Their more ancient name was Aasimon, though it was almost never used. The Deva, the Agathinon, the Planetars and Solars, they were all simply called Deva. These beings were known through the outer planes as servants of the gods aligned with the causes of good, acting as messengers, soldiers, spies, emissaries, and diplomats. But what most didn’t know was that the Deva served the gods of good only at the behest of Him, of the God of Gods, of He who had created all. He was their true master, and they served no other god without His direct blessing…and their loyalty to Him was never superseded. It had been known to happen in the past that all of the Deva serving a particular god of goodness to abandon their master en masse, all at the command of their Master. No Deva performed any action without the blessing of the God of Gods. Her presence in this room at this very moment was because He had deigned to allow her to come.

Spyder knew this particular Deva. Her name was Ch’Belle, and she was of a pleasant enough demeanor that Spyder would call her a passing friend. Spyder personally had a dislike for most Deva, for they were almost stern in their beliefs and most had no sense of humor whatsoever. She had appeared often in the gateway over the centuries, simply appearing and then asking a simple question: “Is all well upon Sennadar?” Once Spyder gave her an answer, she would bow and leave. Other Deva had come to ask that question, but Ch’Belle was the only one who had accepted an offer of tea on one morning when Spyder was feeling particularly pensive. Ch’Belle was one of only four Deva with which Spyder had conversed with any length over the centuries, and Spyder rather liked her. She had that same regal, austere manner as other Deva, but at least she had a sense of humor, and seemed a little less distant than most of her brethren.

“One is curious as to why you sent a summons for me, Spyder of the Gate,” Ch’Belle announced in a powerful yet beautiful voice, almost as soon as she arrived within the gate chamber. “It was a shock amongst the Celestial Stewards. Never before have you initiated contact with us.”

“The conditions are both unique and pressing, Ch’Belle,” Spyder answered, reaching up and pushing her hood from her head, exposing her face so Ch’Belle could see her clearly. “I sent for you to ask a question or two at the behest of she whom I serve.”

“Niami?” Ch’Belle asked.

Spyder nodded.

Ch’Belle seemed to look over Spyder’s head for a brief moment, her eyes distant. Spyder had come to understand that when a Deva did that, they were communing with Him. She had no doubt that Ch’Belle was asking permission to answer those questions.

“He lives, my friend,” she announced immediately. “He soars above the earth of Crossroads, making his way to the City.”

“That was to be my first question, yes,” she said with a slight smile.

“Niami must not interfere,” Ch’Belle ordered sternly. “She must obey the strictures.”

“I can pass that warning along, Ch’Belle,” Spyder told her.

“It goes beyond that,” Ch’Belle said sternly. “He might break the One Law of Crossroads, Spyder. She cannot intervene. If he breaks the law, he must be held accountable as all others, including the gods. If he invokes our response, she cannot intervene. For a Prime God to challenge the authority of the Deva in Crossroads is an intolerable situation. To do such a thing would cause an, unpleasant, reaction. Is this understood to you?” she asked, looking past Spyder’s shoulder.

“Certainly,” the image of Niami said lightly, her face beaming in a way that told Spyder that the news that Tarrin’s soul had reached the plane of Concordant Opposition made her happy enough not to care about the veiled threat that Ch’Belle had just delivered. “My kitten can take care of himself, Deva. I just needed to know that he was safe and well.”

“He is well. Safe is a relative concept, goddess. The Demons know he is there, and Gruz moves to intercept him and exact vengeance for what happened in the mortal plane. Gruz is rightly furious at your proteg�¨, Niami.”

“If my kitten is good at one thing, Deva, it’s making people mad,” she said irreverently.

“Then the Celestial Stewards have your oath that you will not interfere if it comes that we must exact punishment for breaking the One Law?” she asked directly, staring at the projection’s eyes.

“I so vow,” she said in a stately manner, then she chuckled. “I’m not worried at all, Deva. I’m sure that my kitten has learned about this rule, and has already taken it into account. Even if he breaks the One Law, I don’t think you’ll have the chance to do anything about it. My kitten was ever the clever one. I don’t think you can catch him, and even if you do, I’m not sure your brethren will be quite ready to deal with him. Make no mistake, Ch’Belle. Tarrin will fight you if you challenge him, and he’s more than capable of killing just about anyone, including a Deva. He’s not afraid of anything, and don’t for a second think that he won’t try to kill you if you attack him.”

“How we perform our tasks is not your concern, goddess,” Ch’Belle told her in an emotionless voice.

“Are the Deva aware of his intent?” Spyder asked curiously.

“Nay, we know only what has become common knowledge within Crossroads as divined by the Augers and passed among the Windtalkers. What is common knowledge is that the Mortal God has come to Crossroads, and he makes his way to the City.”

“Mortal God? That’s what they’re calling him?” Niami asked curiously.

“It is a fitting title,” she smiled. “His intentions are his own, but I’m sure they will become clear over time.”

“Odd that his appearance in Crossroads was enough for the Deva to take notice,” she said pointedly, looking the Deva in the eyes. “And that the Deva know what the Demons are up to.”

“The Mortal God is a wild card, Prime Goddess,” Ch’Belle told her. “He is unique, and his powers are outside the bounds of the rules of others. The Deva have kept careful track of him since the day he left Prime Sennadar and entered the other material plane. As to the Demons, well, we always keep tabs on their activities. Anything that so incites the Demons to action as the Mortal God would quickly draw our eye.”

“I’m not sure what he’s up to, but heading to the City is a logical first step for just about anything,” Niami said, pursing her lips in thought. “It’s a good thing that’s where Tsukatta and Jula are going. I’ll have to pass word to Jula that Tarrin’s on his way.”

“Are you sure that they can find him? The City is larger than all of Sulasia, Mother,” Spyder said.

“They won’t let me down,” she said confidently. “Tsukatta is a very experienced worldwalker, and he’s been to the City many times.”

“By your leave, Guardian, I must go. I have other duties to attend,” Ch’Belle announced.

“Yes, yes, thank you for coming, Ch’Belle,” Niami told her.

“I thank you for answering my summons,” Spyder said with a short bow. “It is good to know that when I have need of the Deva, that I will be answered.”

“When the Guardian of a Prime sends a summons, it would certainly be answered,” Ch’Belle smiled. “Be well.”

She put a hand over her mace and turned, then stepped back through the gate.

“Interesting,” Niami mused aloud. “The Deva have some kind of interest in my kitten. I’ll have to keep that in mind.”

“Mother, if I may ask, why does she call us a ‘Prime?’ It seemed that she had meaning beyond that this is the prime material plane.”

“Sennadar is one of the seven prime material planes closest to the Core,” she answered. “It’s hard to explain, daughter, but in the multiverse, with the limitless planes and alternate material planes, there is a definite center to everything. Well, Sennadar is very close to that center, one of seven material planes that is, while all the others are much further out. There’s a big gap in distance between the seven Primes and the next closest material plane in relation to the Core. That proximity is why our magic is so strong, and why I have special rules I have to follow in the Outer Planes. I’m what’s called a Prime god, a god from a Prime world. I have more restrictions on me than other gods, because of my power.”

“It sounds as if it garners great respect.”

“Fear is more like it,” she answered evenly. “I’m fully restricted to the Outer plane I call home,” she explained. “Other gods may move between planes freely, but we’re not allowed. I can send projections, surely, but those projections aren’t nearly as powerful as the real me. The only time I’m allowed to leave my home plane is to visit the realm of Ayise in her home plane, and nowhere else. All the Elder Gods can visit Ayise, so we can meet and talk in person rather than through projections.”

“I did not know that.”

“We don’t like to talk about our liabilities, you know,” she smiled. “We have tremendous power, daughter, the Elder Gods do, far beyond other Elder Gods of other planes, but that power comes at a price.”

“Power always does, even if you cannot see the cost.”

“Well said,” she nodded. “Well, if Tarrin is in Crossroads, I should start looking for him there. I might find him before Jula does, but I’m not sure. If I do find him, I think I’ll have to keep my distance. I get a strange feeling that he’s hiding from me.”

“Why is that, Mother?”

“He’s still one of my children, daughter,” she said. “All he has to do is pray and I’ll hear it, and that will let me lock right in on his location. He could even use Priest magic if he thought about it,” she added. “But he hasn’t done it. Since I know he’s not so dense as to not know he can still talk to me, that can only lead me to believe that he doesn’t want me to know what he’s doing, or he doesn’t want me to interfere. That also leads me to believe that he’s got mischief on his mind, something he doesn’t want me caught up in.”

“He almost always does,” Spyder said with a slight smile.

She laughed. “True enough, but mischief takes on a whole new meaning in Crossroads, daughter. I get the feeling he’s going to run afoul of the Deva before it’s said and done. I feel sorry for them,” she chuckled. “They have no idea what they’ll be getting into when they show up to enforce the law against violence. My kitten will not take kindly to them interfering in his business.”

“Deva are formidable, Mother,” Spyder reminded her gently.

“Yes, they are, daughter, but like I told the Deva, they have to catch him before they can do anything about him, and even if they do, then they have to deal with the ramifications of that success. I’d pay money to be there when they finally corner him, just to see what they try to do.”

“I wondered why you gave Ch’Belle that warning,” she asked. “Does that not put Tarrin at a disadvantage?”

“Quite the contrary,” she replied. “Now, the Deva are going to respect Tarrin. Before that, I have no doubt that they’d just rush in and try to kill him for violating the One Law, and then lose several of their number for their trouble. This prevents any nasty crusades against Tarrin in Crossroads. I want the Deva to be afraid when they approach Tarrin to punish him for violating the One Law. I want them to fully appreciate that he will fight, that he has absolutely no fear of them. That way they afford him the respect he deserves, and maybe they save a few Deva’s lives. They may hesitate before attacking him, and that moment might be all he needs to get away.”

“Ah. I understand. What do you think he is doing, Mother?”

“I have no idea,” she answered honestly. “But I’ll tell you one thing, daughter. It’s not over. Not by a long shot. You know how vengeful he is. I have no doubt that he’s in Crossroads to get at the Demon Lord somehow, or maybe the One. But I don’t think he’s insane enough to do what I think he might be trying to do.”

“What is that, Mother?”

“Attack the Demon Lord in the Abyss to force him to leave Pyrosia,” she answered. “He’s on Pyrosia physically, but all Demons of any stature keep their souls in a vessel and have it somewhere safe. Tarrin might think he can invade the Abyss and find that soul vessel and destroy it, or at least threaten to in order to force the Demon Lord to leave Pyrosia. I know how my kitten thinks, and something like that would certainly be in line with his methodology. Tarrin has never run from any fight, and losing just makes him furious. He’s in Crossroads to continue his fight with the Demon Lord, following whatever plan he made before he died on Pyrosia.”

“I do not think he’d be that crazy, Mother,” Spyder said. “He may lose his head from time to time, but I am positive he understands how impossible that would be.”

“You don’t know Tarrin, Spyder. The implausibility of an act never crosses his mind. If he didn’t do something because people told him it was impossible, he wouldn’t be where he is today. In a way, his refusal to admit the impossible is one of his strengths, because he finds a way to do the impossible.”

“Point taken,” Spyder said mildly, drawing up her hood gracefully.

“But trying to destroy the Demon Lord in the Abyss would be impossible,” she grunted. “A Demon Lord is a god in the Abyss, and can command the power of a god in the material plane. The only chance he’d have would be to find and destroy the soul vessel without alerting the Demon Lord, but that isn’t going to happen. A Demon Lord would have that soul vessel too well guarded, and Tarrin’s divine aura would shine like the sun in the Abyss, making it absolutely impossible for him to hide.”

“And maybe that is why he is hiding from you, Mother,” Spyder reasoned. “So you cannot stop him.”

“Headstrong fool,” Niami snorted. “When Jula finds him and tells me where he is, me and that child of mine are going to have a long talk.”

“Yet another reason he hides from you,” Spyder said in a measured manner, but with a slight hint of amusement.

“No wonder you put your hood up,” Niami said dangerously, giving her daughter a narrow-eyed look.

“I am headstrong, but no fool, Mother,” she added.

Niami laughed. “The only thing I can see is that he’s somehow trying to bluff the Demon Lord into returning to the Abyss, but I seriously doubt that’ll happen. That Demon Lord won’t give up his prize unless Tarrin is standing at the gates of his castle, and he won’t get that close. Not even my kitten’s legendary resourcefulness will get him that close, I’m afraid.”

“I just hope that Tarrin knows what he is doing,” Spyder said seriously. “It would grieve me to lose the first Sorcerer in an age I considered an equal. And a friend,” she added.

“That’s not going to happen, Spyder,” Niami said in a soft tone, but fierce determination flowed through her choral voice. “Because I won’t allow it.”

Spyder glanced at her mentor, her friend, and her goddess, and she nodded soberly.

“I report, Sh’Keel,” Ch’Belle stated in a submissive tone, bowing elegantly before a mighty figure with golden skin and black-feathered wings. Though neither were standing in the limitless gray void that was the Astral, the move was not lost on the towering figure dressed in a vibrant red vest, baggy, flaring pantaloons, and black boots. A mighty compound bow was slung over a shoulder, and a quiver hung between those mighty black-feathered wings.

This was a Solar. This was the most powerful breed of the Deva, beings of such might and power that they were almost as gods themselves, beings that the gods feared for their power. They were an enigma to the gods. They were of immense power, but had no ambition to use it except in the act of serving others. Sometimes Solar served this god or that god, but never for long, and usually only to accomplish certain key tasks. When not in the service of gods, they worked on their own, commanding Deva both in the service of gods and those who were not, working on some grand, mysterious, unknown goal, something so abstract that only the Deva really understood what they were doing…and of course, they never explained what they were about. They were the commanders of the Deva, the generals, the tacticians, those who directed activities in the field when so instructed by their master. In this matter, this Solar had been given authority. He was well suited for this task, Ch’Belle felt. He was one of the oldest and wisest of the Solar, and he had served their Master unswervingly for longer than most Deva had the capability to remember. It was considered an honor and a privilege among the Deva to serve under the command of Sh’Keel. It was rumored that Sh’Keel was one of the First of the Deva. But those of the First never revealed that status, part of the custom and culture of humility and service that marked the base mentality of the Deva.

Report.

In the briefest of moments, the Deva relayed the entirety of her encounter with the Prime Guardian through telepathic communion, including her own observations and conclusions. She completed her report with the feeling that the Prime Goddess Niami did not know what was going on. “They do not know, sir,” she said aloud.

You have done well, Ch’Belle.

Ch’Belle absolutely beamed, bowing to him again very deeply.

The mighty figure gave her a slight smile.

“What are your orders, Commander?” she asked.

Return to Crossroads, the figure ordered telepathically. I want you to locate the two the Prime Goddess has sent to locate the Mortal God. Find them but do not make contact with them. Observe them. If the Demons or others attempt to block them or attack them, render unto them that aid which you think is appropriate. I will make it known among the Deva that those two are under special protection, that they are not to be killed if they violate the One Law, only chastised. You are responsible for their well being, Ch’Belle.

“I will protect them, Commander,” she said with another bow. “To whom do I report in Crossroads?”

Report the movements of the pair and other unimportant information to Planetar To’Par. Any important communication or news of any attack on the pair or unusual Demon activity near them should be brought directly to me.

“I understand, Commander.”

You are dismissed. Begin your next assignment.

“At once, Commander,” she said with a final bow, then turned, spread her golden wings, and immediately vanished from sight, moving at such speed through the great emptiness of the Astral towards the nearest color pool to Crossroads that it nearly appeared that she had vanished.

The mighty Solar hung in the void for a moment in quiet contemplation, then also disappeared.

The vast expanses of the Astral seemed utterly empty. There was nothing but gray no matter which way one looked, an eternal emptiness without sound, without scent, with nothing but a faint grayish radiance that seemed to emanate from the plane itself, rendering all things within visible from vast distances…but those distances were almost unimaginable between objects within a limitless plane of eternal emptiness.

There was nothing here. There was no matter, except that which had been drawn into the Astral by accident or by design. There was no gravity, but without ground to stand upon, gravity wasn’t necessary. There was no air, but also, there was no time in this place. Certainly time seemed to pass, but it was subjective time, a feeling that time was moving when it in fact was not, the effect of the conscious mind in the plane, a conscious mind that craved linear continuity and thus enforced that concept on the area around him. And since there was no real time, there was no need to breathe, no need to eat, no need to sleep.

The timeless nature of the Astral did make it a home to some who feared the coming of death, retreating to a place where time did not flow, and so they did not age. There were other residents of this vast emptiness, as well as countless travelers moving between the material and the outer planes…but the endless nature of the plane made encounters between beings in the Astral very, very rare.

Two such travelers seemed to hang in the empty void, but in actuality they were moving at great speeds. One was hanging in the void in a vertical posture, though her feet were pointed down, and the other sat cross-legged in the emptiness, hands in his lap and with his eyes closed. The standing figure was Jula, a Were-cat, wearing leather trousers whose legs were shredded from her claws and a simple undyed buckskin shirt, under which she wore a white linen shirt to keep the leather from rubbing against her skin. She looked distinctly uncomfortable, her expression strained and her body rigid. The sitting figure was Tsukatta, a Worldwalker, a human from another material plane who wandered the multiverse seeking out new challenges to test his ability. He was completely at ease, in a peaceful position as he guided them to the nearest color pool that would take them to Crossroads by the force of his mind alone, which was the only method of travel available in this plane. He wore wicker armor of an unusual design, dyed red, and his flared helmet with the antennae-like V adornment on the front rested on his back, hanging over his shoulder by its chinstrap. That gruesome face-like mask that he wore affixed to that helmet was, thankfully, in a small sack tied to his belt. Two slender katana were in their scabbards, tucked into a sash around his waist, and a third, much smaller weapon was tucked in on the other side. He carried nothing else but a small backpack that was in his lap instead of on his back.

“I hate this place,” Jula growled. “It feels, feels, dead.”

“Those are your heightened senses finding nothing to sense,” the human warrior responded in a reposed voice, almost as if he were singing the words. “Be patient, friend Jula. We are not long from reaching Crossroads. Do you remember what I have told you of the place?”

“Yes,” she answered. “That it’s a great city almost as large as the entire West, and I’ll see all kinds of creatures there.”

“And what is the one and only law of the City?” he prompted.

“Do no violence,” she repeated immediately. “To attack another is to invite the wrath of the Deva upon you,” she quoted his words directly. “But I don’t understand. What happens if someone steals?”

“That is not violence,” Tsukatta replied. “So theft of another’s property carries no punishment, outside of that punishment which the victim can exact against the thief on his own.”

“Then how do people protect what’s theirs if they can’t fight to defend it?”

“There are many ways to protect things in the City,” he replied. “Doing violence upon a thing carries the same penalty as doing violence upon a person.”

“I—ah,” she said with a nod. “So, someone breaking down a door to get into someone’s house would attract the Deva.”

“Yes. So, a locked door is all the barrier one needs against a thief.”

“Now that makes more sense,” she said with a nod. “I can’t wait to get out of here,” she growled.

“It will not be long, Jula. We know he is not in the Astral, so the best place to begin is in the City.”

“It’s good that’s where you’re going, because that’s where you need to go,” a disembodied voice came to them, the voice of the Goddess. “I have confirmation from a reliable source that Tarrin is in Crossroads at this moment.”

“Yes!” Jula sighed explosively.

“So, go on to the City as you planned. Jula can find Tarrin in Crossroads.” As quickly as her presence touched them, it was gone, leaving them alone once more.

“I still cannot understand how you will do that, Jula,” Tsukatta said, opening his eyes and looking at her.

“He’s my father, Tsukatta,” she said simply. “Just get me in the same dimension as him, and I can point right to him. And I can guarantee that the instant I set foot in the City, he’s going to know I’m there. We might not have to do anything. He might come to us.”

“But how is the question I would ask.”

“From my end, Mother set it up,” she answered. “Mother used magic so I could find those who once held my bond. But my father did once have my bond, and he’s just like Triana. Even though he doesn’t have it anymore, I can guarantee that there’s enough of an echo of it still in him to respond when I’m in the same dimension as him. He’ll feel it when I arrive, I know he will. I’ll be able to point in the direction he’s in and tell you how far away he is, just as if I held his bond, and he’ll be able to do the same. We just need to find some way to communicate with him over the distance, and if we can’t, we can just move towards him. He’ll feel me coming directly towards him, realize that I can find him, and then he should come to us.”

“A Windtalker might be able to help us with that,” Tsukatta reasoned aloud. “They can send messages anywhere within Crossroads. But it will take a master Windtalker to send a message to a place instead of a person.”

“This Windtalker would be sending it to Father,” Jula said.

“No, the Windtalker would be sending it to the place where Tarrin-san is located,” Tsukatta corrected. “That’s how Windtalkers send messages to people who do not share their ability. And it takes a well-practiced Windtalker to send a message to those without the skill.”

“Ah, I get it.”

“I just hope we find Tarrin-san quickly. He will not need us, but I know he will be happy to hear the news we bring.”

“You don’t think he’ll need help?”

Tsukatta shook his head. “He is a god, Jula. Even without most of his power, that is still a fact that cannot be overlooked. I know Tarrin-san, Jula, I know him well. He knows what he is, and he will know what to do with it. Just be warned, young one, the Tarrin-san we find in Crossroads may not look the same as the one we left in Pyrosia. Without a mortal body, how he appears in the outer planes is purely his own fancy. He could look like anything he desires.”

“Then I know exactly what he’ll look like.” she said confidently. “You may know him a friend, Tsukatta, but he’s my father. I know him better in some ways than you.”

“We will see in time,” Tsukatta said with a smile. “I have my own thought about how we will appear.”

“Well, let’s make some sport of it,” Jula said eagerly. “How much gold you have on you, Tsukatta?”

“A wager? I accept,” he said grandly. “Whoever is closest wins?”

“Deal. How much are you willing to lose?”

“Oh no, I do not bet for money,” he said. “Loser cooks for a month.”

“Oh, you are so on,” she said immediately.

Everything was just so…weird.

Zyri could accept that they were in a different world—a different world!!!—than before. She could accept that everything was new, was exciting, that all the people were strange, that she didn’t know where anything was or where to go. She could accept that she was now surrounded by people with strange magical powers. What she couldn’t really fathom was how she was part of a family.

Just thinking of that word made her shiver a little. She was part of a family. True, her adopted mother and father weren’t there and she felt a little lonely, but they weren’t the whole family. Since Tarrin and Mist were gone, she was now under the watchful eye of her adopted aunt, Jenna Kael. Jenna was funny, and she was nice, and she was so smart, and she ruled this place they called the Tower with wisdom and fairness. She was almost intimidating that way, because as the Keeper, she bossed everyone around and made sure everything got done. But she was also Zyri and Jal’s new aunt, and she was open and welcoming, accepting the two of them without hesitation.

It was almost enough to make an orphan think she was dreaming. She had an aunt now, and what was more, she had grandparents too! Meeting Eron and Elke Kael had been really strange. Her grandfather, Eron, he was nice and had a warm smile and didn’t talk much, and her grandmother, Elke Kael…she wasn’t like any woman that Zyri had ever seen before. She was taller than all the men, and she was really bossy and pushy. Zyri had never seen any woman outside of Mist talk to a man like the way Elke Kael did. She was so big…if the man didn’t like it, there wasn’t anything he could do! At first she thought that was why Eron was quiet, that Elke might smack him for speaking out of line, but she realized that Elke wasn’t like that, and Eron was quiet because that was his way. It was a little scary with them at first, because Zyri was very intimidated by Elke Kael, but she’d shaken that off pretty fast. Eron and Elke Kael had spent a long afternoon with her and Jal, had talked to them, taken them to meet a family in the city and introduced her to a girl about her age named Janette. By sunset, she found herself sitting in Elke Kael’s lap, with the tall, tall, woman braiding her hair and fussing over her like she was her own daughter.

Then there was…her. Sapphire. By the One, she’d never been so frightened in her whole life. They’d warned her before meeting her that Sapphire was a dragon. A dragon! Then she came in looking like a human woman, except for her predatory eyes. All she could do was gape up at the woman in mute shock, all she could think of was that this woman was really a titanic beast so big that she wouldn’t fit in the largest barn!

Sapphire, at least, seemed to take it well enough. She gave Zyri and Jal a very thorough inspection, one that made Zyri irrationally think that she was inspecting them to see if they were edible, then declared that they were acceptable. That just made Zyri more frightened, and she almost backed away when Sapphire leaned down and reached a hand to her, smiling at her. “There is no need to be afraid of me, little one,” she had said in a surprisingly gentle voice, a voice that still rang in Zyri’s ears even after three days. “You are the daughter of my little one. He is clan, and you are clan now too.”

She remembered being almost unable to speak. How was she supposed to make conversation with, with a dragon!

Jal saved the day. He reached out and took Sapphire’s hand with a shy smile, and Sapphire seemed quite pleased.

Things had gone so fast. After spending their first night in their new house near a village called Aldreth, they had been brought to this big city using magic, and brought to this place they called the Tower. Telven had been dragged down to where the Knights trained and put to work, and she and Jal had been moved in with Jenna. Not in little rooms out of the way, but living right in the same apartment with Jenna! Like a family! Forge came too, and the big dog-like creature seemed quite happy with the place. Zyri was too, and so was Jal. She had her own room, with a nice bed and furniture and everything! A whole room, all to herself! And there were even servants! They cleaned everything, and helped her with her clothes, and would fetch things if she needed them. That was just too strange, so strange she couldn’t bring herself to ask the servants to do anything for her. She just let them clean her room. It was here in the Tower that she’d met her new grandparents and Sapphire, and where they settled in as Jal’s teachers were quartered in the Tower, and Master Phandebrass got to work down in the library doing something, and that Elara woman Kyrienna helping him with it. She’d met her new sisters, Jasana, Tara, and Rina before they left for her old world, though she’s been a little scared of them. Especially Tara, who didn’t seem to like her very much. She got to meet Allia and Keritanima—Aunt Kerri, she liked to be called Aunt Kerri—before they left too, and she’d felt really comfortable with them. Aunt Allia was quiet, but she was very nice, and Aunt Kerri was like a little girl herself, the way she carried on and joked. It really made Zyri feel comfortable with them. There was that one episode where she just had to touch Aunt Kerri’s tail, but even that didn’t seem to bother her Wikuni aunt. They all came to meet her, coming to the apartment that Jenna shared with them, coming to their home.

Home. For a girl who had been living on the streets, the idea of home was almost a dream too amazing to believe…but it was true. Though this wasn’t the house in Aldreth, though Master Tarrin and Mistress Mist weren’t with her, for now, this was her home. Her home. She had a place now, Jal had a place now, there were people around them that were part of her family, and though she didn’t know them, she already liked them. She really liked Jenna, and she felt so safe and comfortable around Eron and Elke. She had taken up a position within her adopted father’s rather unusual family, had become another of his daughters, and had been welcomed by the rest of the family.

But most of the rest of the family was gone now, gone back to Pyrosia to help deal with the Demons. There was just her and Jal, and Jenna, and Telven who was cleaning stables down at the Knight school. She went to see Master Azakar and found him under the care of the Sorcerers and some robed men that Jenna had said were Priests of Karas, still recovering from the terrible wounds he’d suffered at the battle in the Dwarven lands, but he wasn’t so injured that he didn’t drag himself out of bed and go order Telven around. The big Knight had made her brother his own personal mission, and he rode poor Telven relentlessly, even when he was so weak he could barely stand.

She was on her way to see Master Azakar again, taking him a book from the big library, when she ran into someone on the grounds. At first she thought it was her father, but when he got closer she realized that though he was a male Were-cat, it wasn’t her father. He was tall, but nowhere near as tall as her father. He had black fur and blond hair, dressed in a ragged pair of raw leather pants and a simple black shirt. He was carrying a worn-out walking staff in his hand, made of some black wood she’d never seen before. She stopped in front of him and gawked, and he smiled down at her. That close to him, she could see her father in that face…he had the same facial structure. This Were-cat had to be related to her father somehow. “I hear you’re my little sister now,” he said. “Hi. My name’s Eron.” He extended his big hand to her.

“Bu-But that’s my grandfather’s name,” she stammered.

“Yeah, my mother named me after my grandfather,” he grinned. “You’re Zyri, right?”

She nodded silently as he knelt down, coming eye to eye with her. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said with an earnest smile.

She took his huge hand tentatively, and was amazed at how rock hard it was. By the One’s sword, this Were-cat was strong!

“They still looking for me?” he asked.

“I, um, I don’t know,” she answered. “I mean, it’s nice to meet you and all, but they haven’t said much. I’m still kinda lost and all,” she admitted in a meek voice.

He laughed lightly. “It’s no big thing, sis,” he told her. “I just can’t let ‘em find me yet, that’s all.”

“What? Why not?”

“It’s not time yet,” he answered. “I just wanted to come meet my new sister and brother, so I came out.”

“Why do you have to hide? Did you make father angry? I know he has a temper and all, but—“

“No, it’s nothing like that,” he said with an earnest smile. “I’m just waiting, that’s all. For when father needs me. When it’s time, I’ll let them find me, and then I’ll go help father.”

“I, I don’t understand,” she said helplessly.

“I don’t really understand all of it myself, I just do what I’m told,” he told her, laying his staff on the ground, then fishing in a belt pouch. “I see you’re wearing father’s shaeram,” he said.

“Yeah, he gave it to me before he sent me here,” she answered, reaching up and grabbing it in her hand.

“You’re a Sorcerer. I can smell it on you.”

“Smell? Aren’t you a Sorcerer too?”

He laughed ruefully, scrubbing the back of his head with his clawed hand. “No, not me,” he admitted. “I’m the black sheep of the family. I’m the only child that’s not a Sorcerer, or a Druid, or anything like that. I’m just Eron.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” she said sincerely. “Up until a few days ago, I was just Zyri. I think sometimes I’d rather like to be ‘just Zyri’ again.”

“You’re wiser than I thought for a girl your age,” he said with a gentle smile. “But hey, you’re in the right family. You’ll find lots of Sorcerers around to give you advice, even when you don’t want it.”

Zyri giggled in spite of herself.

He pulled a small bone whistle out of his pouch and offered it to her. “Here.”

“What’s this?”

“It’s a whistle,” he answered. “When you blow on it, it makes a sound,” he winked.

She gave him a slightly offended look. “I know what a whistle is,” she said, a bit tartly. “What are you giving it to me for?”

“I can’t take care of Sandy for a while,” he said with a frown. “She’s getting a little old, and I can’t keep dragging her around with me for a while, because I’ll be moving around a lot more than normal. She also hasn’t been feeling very well. She just got over being sick not too long ago, and it’s a real strain on her to travel with me right now. I really hate to say it, but she needs a nice quiet place and a home that doesn’t change every day, a nice place where she can rest and recover, and where I won’t have to worry about her. If it’s not much trouble, could you watch her for me?”

“Who is Sandy?”

“Blow the whistle and see,” he grinned.

She gave him a look, then did so. It made a high-pitched keen, and after just a second, a medium-sized dog-like animal approached, appearing around the corner of a building. It had a brownish-tan coat that changed to a mellow brown on the back, and the muzzle was sharper than any dog she’d seen. The animal padded up to them and sat down, its tail swishing back and forth. “This is Sandy,” Eron introduced. “She’s a desert fox. She’s been my friend for a long time.”

“Hi,” Zyri said, reaching her hand out to the animal. The fox sniffed at her fingers, then licked them, which made Zyri giggle.

“So, could you keep her for me for a while? Until everything gets back to normal?”

“I, um…sure,” she finally said.

“Hear that, Sandy?” he told the animal. “You’re going to stay with her for a while, until I get back.”

Sandy whined.

“Don’t argue,” he chided. “You need to rest a while, and I really can’t take you with me. Forge is going to be there,” he said. “He’s staying with Jenna. You can visit him.”

Sandy’s ears perked up, and she gave a strange yip sound.

“Good. Now, you behave, young lady,” Eron ordered in a stern voice. “Obey Zyri.”

Sandy gave another yip.

“You can talk to her?” Zyri gasped.

“Well, it’s more like she understands what I want to say,” he replied. “She’s a very smart fox, and we’ve been friends a long time. Thanks a lot, Zyri. I couldn’t leave Sandy with just anyone, and all my other sisters went to Pyrosia. We may have never met, but I know our father would never bring anyone into the family that I couldn’t trust. I’m glad you’re here to help.”

“Well, we’re family now, aren’t we?” she said, getting a little thrill over using that word. “Isn’t that what families do?”

“That’s exactly what families do,” he agreed, picking up his staff and standing back up. Zyri put the whistle in her belt pouch, then patted Sandy on the head gently. Sandy nuzzled her hand, then sat down in front of her. “Jenna knows what Sandy likes and doesn’t like, so if you have any questions, just ask her.”

“Why didn’t you bring Sandy to Jenna?”

“Jenna’s one of those people who can’t know where I am,” he said with a little discomfort. She could tell he didn’t much like the idea. It made her wonder what he was doing, but her manners told her that it wasn’t her place to ask. “Well, I’d better get going before Aunt Jenna finds out I’m here. It was nice to meet you, Zyri.”

“You too, Eron. Um, aren’t they going to know you were here when they see Sandy?” she asked.

“I’ll be long gone before they can find me,” he grinned. “They know I’m somewhere, they just don’t know exactly where.”

“Oh, I get it. Well, I hope you come back soon. I’m sure Sandy’s going to miss you.”

Sandy barked in agreement.

“If I know father, it won’t be long at all. See you soon, Zyri,” he told her, turning his back to her. He then started walking off, his walking stick making a tak-tak sound on the cobblestones of the pathway as he walked away.

Sandy gave only a single low whine as he left, then she looked up at Zyri expectantly. “Um, well, Sandy, let’s take this book to Master Azakar, then take you home, I guess,” she told her new responsibility, looking down at her. “Forge is there. You know Forge, right?”

Sandy gave an excited yip, and stood up.

“Yeah, I like him too,” she said with a giggle as she continued down the path in the same direction that Eron had gone.

And then she realized he wasn’t ahead of her, that the tak-tak sound of his staff clattering on the cobblestones had stopped. Eron had disappeared.

She looked around. There were no buildings in that direction, just that smith’s shed where Sandy had been, but that was off to the left, and Eron had gone straight. She’d only looked away for a second, but in that one second, Eron had managed to vanish from sight. Where did he vanish to?

She laughed nervously. Boy, when Eron said he was going to hide from Aunt Jenna, he certainly wasn’t kidding!