Fel (James Galloway)

Demons Bane

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

It had rained.

This in itself wouldn’t be much of a deal in most places, but here, in Crossroads, Tarrin understood that it was a big deal, because it meant that the nature of the plane had shifted.

What had before been an expanse of fertile grassland suddenly became sharp hills covered in thick forest. What had been a clear, cloudless sky became a dark, foreboding deck of thick clouds that poured rain down upon the land beneath. What had been an endless summer day, warm and bright, was now a dark and rainy night, and the air was decidedly cool.

It had happened nine days ago. Tarrin had been in the air at the time, and it had almost startled him out of the sky. The air turned gray, the ground below turned gray, and then he was suddenly surrounded by thick fog. The fog was not clouds. It was a thick soup of pure gray, as if the air itself had taken on color, and then he felt the air shift violently around him. He was carried with that shift, so it did him no harm, but he was jumbled around a bit before it was over.

When it did clear, the gray faded away to be replaced by clouds, and then the rain began to fall. There was no thunder with this rain, it was just rain, and clouds that completely extended from horizon to horizon in every direction.

It had rained for six days—at least he’d call them days, since the light never changed--and during that time Tarrin spent his time on the ground in his tent, and his time in the air above the clouds, looking up at a black, empty sky that only had a single object in it, and that was a large yellow moon. There were no stars, no Skybands, no other moons, just that one featureless moon, with no craters, no discerning marks, looking like nothing but a flat plate hung in the sky.

Tarrin spent those six days both pondering his problem of how to get the information he needed, and also what to do about a wrinkle that had shown up in his plan.

Jula.

She was here, in Crossroads, and he had no doubt whatsoever that Niami had sent her here to find him. She was some distance away, to the north of him, and she had kept in a consistent area in the time he’d been keeping track of her. He wondered exactly what Niami had sent her to do. There wasn’t much she could do by herself to help him, so he figured she was either there to find him and relay a message, or she was bringing him something. Either way, he hadn’t decided what to do about her yet. If he went to her, then Niami would know where he was, and she could use that to make contact with him. That, he wasn’t sure he wanted quite yet. Without a solid plan of action, she was sure to meddle, and she might not want him to do what he was planning to do. He loved her, but he knew for a fact that she could be an absolute nightmare of a nagger, and there was also the issue of her rightful belief that as his goddess, she should be able to tell him what to do.

That couldn’t happen this time. He didn’t want to get anyone else involved in this, because if he ran afoul of the Deva or the Demons, he didn’t want them going after anyone but him. This was his problem, it was his mess, and now he had to fix it. And he’d be damned if his problem caused anyone else any more grief. He’d already disrupted the lives of the Dura and the Elara and put the world of Pyrosia at war on a grand scale. Yes, it was a good thing in a way, yes, it needed to be done to rid Pyrosia of the taint of the One, but that didn’t change the fact that he had done it by putting a Demon Lord on Pyrosia with an army of Demons to help him conquer the world.

An army that dwindled by the day. His shadow was still alive, and through it he kept track of its progress. The shadow was an independent entity, apart from him and possessed of its own crude sentience and purpose, but it was his creation. He could sense its condition and its current activity, but he could not in any way control it. It still lived, still hunted Demons, but it had been forced to go into hiding after the Demon Lord set a horde of cambisi and the human soldiers still obeying the Demon Lord’s orders on it, armed with weapons that could do it harm. It now skulked in the shadows, seeking out the scouts of the Demon Lord’s army, finding lone or isolated Demons and killing them whenever it could manage it. Each kill caused the shadow’s powers to strengthen, never more than a minute amount, but those tiny gains in power would add up as the number of the shadow’s victims increased.

The rain ended after six days. Six days, and then the nature of the plane shifted once again. This time, though, Tarrin was on the ground, and he got to experience it from that perspective. Everything went gray, and he could feel the very land itself beneath him buck and change, but it wasn’t heavily violent. It was like a moderate earthquake, startling him out of a doze as the ground beneath him shifted and rocked, and then, to his shock, the ground transformed into water and he fell into it!

He surfaced, spluttering and astounded, to see that the dark, forested foothills were now an ocean!

Water, everywhere he could see, in every direction!

He had never dreamed that the nature of the plane could allow it to become an endless sea!

The water was warm and salty, like the oceans of home. It stretched out in every direction, an endless blanket of blue covering the surface, and there was a constant, gentle warm wind that blew in a consistent direction, a wind that never changed its velocity or its direction. The sky was again daytime, with the occasional cloud and a sun that hung as if it were mid-morning, but he looked to the west and saw another sun, resting in a position of late afternoon. Two suns? That seemed unnatural!

But then again, in this place, he realized, anything was possible.

But it wasn’t completely endless. After fishing his tent out of the water and getting high enough into the air, he saw that there were islands here and there in the sea. Like Medjren’s home village, those had to be consistent safe points, like the way he’d explained it. Medjren said that no matter how the plane looked, his village was always a safe place, the buildings were always there, and there was always someplace to farm. So, Tarrin guessed that the village was an island now, surrounded by water and with a little stream running through it, just like it did when he was there.

Tarrin had wondered idly how many people had drowned in that sea when the plane shifted in its nature.

It was about then he realized how dangerous it could be to live here.

He had been forced to land to rest on the islands that broke the continuity of the endless sea—and cursing himself for reproducing his human form so completely it required food, water, and rest when he could have designed himself without those flaws—as he continued to make his way to the City. He moved with steadiness, but not haste, giving the One that time he felt he would need to become distracted with the task of rebuilding his icon, and putting Tarrin out of his mind. It gave Tarrin enough time to think about what he had to do, and be ready to start acting on it by the time he got to the City.

And he was there.

He saw it on the horizon at first, and he thought it was a vast island, or maybe a continent. It was, actually, but as he got closer and closer, he saw white and gray and red instead of green, and he understood that he had reached the edge of the legendary City. It stretched from horizon to horizon, and as he got closer and closer, he saw that it extended as far as he could see before him. This megalopolis was larger than all the West, he’d been told, a single city into which could easily be placed the Twelve Kingdoms of the West, and with plenty of room to spare. The place looked…bleak. There was no other way to describe it. The buildings were dark gray and monolithic in appearance, with high, narrow windows and gray slate covering the roofs. The streets he could see were lined by tall buildings, making them seem like canyons. There was little color below except for the occasional bunting on a windowsill or shutters, and the rare red or white tiled roof, or a larger building with a flat stone roof.

But these citizens were industrious, and quick to adapt to the superfluous nature of their home. Despite there not being a sea there a few days ago, he saw that some quays had already been constructed, haphazard in nature to be sure, extending out from the edge of the and reaching shaky fingers out into the sea. There were no boats that he could see, but he had no doubt that there were already some out on the water, hastily constructed using magic of some sort.

As he got closer and closer, he saw that he was not the only creature in the air. Other winged beings were soaring over the City, and to his surprise, he saw that some of them were Demons. A winged Succubus passed near to him as he flew over the edge of the City, when the surface below ceased being water and became gray stone, and she looked right at him with a strange hunger in her eyes. He saw beings with feathered wings, Gehreleths from Tarterus with their reptilian bodies and bat-like wings, and any number of winged steeds bearing riders, from Pegasi much like the ones he’d made from the horses to wyvern-looking reptilian creatures to huge feather-winged snakes to this one thing that looked like nothing but a cloud holding a beautiful white-robed human female atop it, sitting sedately on its surface as it ferried her to her destination. She gave him a surprised look as he crossed her path, then smiled and winked at him, blowing a kiss as she passed.

Wizards!

The sense of Jula was closer now, and he knew that she was definitely somewhere in this mind-bogglingly large City. But, given how huge this place was, the chance she would find was quite remote. He had time to consider what to do about her without having to worry.

What was Niami thinking, sending his daughter here! She had no idea what was going on, her Sorcery wouldn’t work here, and she was a stranger in a strange land with nothing but her Were abilities…and in this place, they didn’t mean half as much as they did back home! She was in terrible danger here! What on Sennadar could be so important that she’d put Jula at so much risk, and risk drawing his wrath if she came to harm? He would skin Niami if Jula got hurt after she sent his daughter here for only she knew what reason!

It would be easy enough to find out why she was here, but that would alert Niami to him, and he didn’t want her to interfere. Not until he had no choice but to call on her…he didn’t want her to meddle, and he also didn’t want her to get involved.

He descended suddenly, his eye catching a large open square filled with stalls set up in a random manner. He turned in the air, bringing his feet down as people looked up and pointed at him, then they scrambled out of his way when they realized he meant to land, no matter what was under him. He was not steering towards an open area. Most of those under him were Archons, the “mortals” of the outer planes, the most populous race of all within Crossroads, but they were by no means the only beings below him. He saw quite a few humans—hard to discern from the archons aside from the sense of them—scattered among the outer planar denizens, as well as a small handful of other creatures. There was a large insectoid creature with four arms and four legs, with a black carapace that made it look like an ant. There was a red-skinned creature with the head and lower legs of a bull and the body of a man, a creature that Tarrin would most closely call a Minotaur, but really looked nothing like the ones he’d seen. He saw a frog-like Slaad, a creature from Limbo, and also spied a creature that looked like a bipedal elephant, twelve spans tall and with an oversized head, wearing some kind of blue military uniform and a monacle over its left eye.

And there was the Demon.

It was called a nabassu, one of the strongest of what they called the Untrue. There were only six types of what Demons considered “true” Demons: vrock, hezrou, glabrezu, nalfeshnee, marilith, and balor. There were many other kinds, but they were not “true,” they were not of the noble stock. But that did not in any way make them weak. Nabassu were extremely powerful, and though not physically or magically powerful, a Succubus was a force to be reckoned with, wielding her own unique power of control and subversion. Chasme and babau were also considered “greater” Demons, the strongest types of the untrue.

It was long and gangly, with hugely oversized hand and feet, tipped with claws. Its body was covered with black, scaly skin, and its eyes glowed red. Its face was a horrid caricature of a human face, with long cheeks, a narrow chin, and a mouth filled with irregular fang-like teeth, complete with two huge tusks that jutted up from its bottom jaw. It glared at him as he descended, but then it seemed to taste fear and retreated from the square once it met Tarrin’s eyes and saw the pure hate burning within them.

From what he remembered from his long talks with Medjren, the outlying areas of the City were poor, those on the edges of the city, those furthest from the Core except for those sections of the City that abutted one of the portal stones known as the Ring (Medjren said that the City was so huge that it encompassed three of those stones within its boundary, and those stones were a hundred longspans apart!), those filled with the lowest class of people. And this market certainly reflected that. It was filled with archons and other creatures wearing what Tarrin would consider to be modest clothing of sturdy design, but a denizen of this place would consider crude…for it was much similar to what Medjren and the farmers wore, and they were humble people of modest means. These people were of modest means, even the merchants, peddling their paltry wares on the counters of stalls placed haphazardly within the open area of the square. They were small time merchants selling to the bottom rung of the society of this unimaginably vast megalopolis.

Perhaps their luck would change. Given that this part of the City now abutted a brand new sea, maybe they would see prosperity when goods started flowing through here on the way to settlements out on those islands.

Tarrin alighted lightly as the entire square watched. Good. He wanted their complete attention.

“You,” Tarrin called, pointing at the closest archon that stood behind a stall, with an array of jewelry on the table before him. “Where is the most learned sage you know of?”

“I—I know of no such person, my Lord,” the turban-wearing archon stammered.

“Fine. You, where can I find the most learned sage in this area?” he said, turning and pointing at another street merchant.

“Well, my Lord, I’m sure I could locate what you desire,” the tall, narrow-faced female with hair that actually glowed with a soft white light, said in an acquisitive manner, tapping the fingertips of her long fingers together before her. “For the most modest of fees, of course.”

He was upon her in three steps. She looked up at him with that hawkish expression, but it turned to shock and fear when his arm snapped forward and grabbed her by the front of her baggy tunic, then hauled her off her feet and over the stall table holding many assorted crystals of varying shapes and sizes and colors, bringing her nose to nose with him. “That was not an offer to bargain,” he said in a dangerously low, seething tone.

“Are you mad?” she gasped. “You’ll bring the Deva down on us!”

“That’s not going to be an issue for you, since you’ll be dead long before they get here,” he hissed. “Now, either tell me what I want to know, or I’ll give them more than enough reason to come after me.”

“Jemrik!” she squealed in fear. “Jemrik the Wise! He lives in the Korkara neighborhood, twenty leagues that way!” she said hastily, pointing to what he would call the northwest. “He’s part of the Sage’s Council! If he doesn’t know what you need, he can tell you who might!”

Tarrin narrowed his eyes, looking into her fearful eyes for a long moment, then set her lightly on her feet. “Thank you,” he said in a surprisingly mild and agreeable manner. He then turned, spread his wings, and again took to the air.

“Gods. Such an arrogant lot,” he heard someone sniff disdainfully as he quickly left them behind.

Tarrin ignored that. The direct approach, he had learned long ago, almost always got right to the point. And Were-cats were not creatures possessed of much patience with those who were standing between them and a goal.

It didn’t take Tarrin long to travel twenty leagues. He landed again in this City near a statue that had to be a hundred spans high, with a brass plaque at the base labeled Korkara the Just, scribed in what he would call Sulasian, but he knew actually wasn’t. The Tongues spell he had placed on himself some time past allowed him to read the plaque and understand anyone, for it was the Wizard version of the spell placed on the golden charm he occasionally used. He would hear and see Sulasian, while all who heard him would hear their own native language.

“You!” Tarrin called, pointing at an archon resting atop a litter that floated of its own volition, a male wearing a gem-studded robe and holding a pink feather fan in his hand as he reclined on his lushly pillowed self-mobile conveyance. “I seek Jemrik the Wise. Where can I find him?”

“Why should I answer one so rude?” he said scornfully, fanning himself with a fan made of exotic pink feathers.

“Because I’ll be wearing a necklace of your entrails if you don’t,” Tarrin said in a vicious tone, extending his claws as he stalked towards the fop menacingly.

“You wouldn’t dare bring the wrath of the Deva upon yourself!” he gasped.

“Try me.”

“I-I-I don’t know where he is, but I think that Memerime would know,” he stammered. “Meremime knows everything!”

“Where do I find this Meremime?” Tarrin demanded, coming to a stop within reach of his magical self-moving litter.

“Meremime runs the Salty Siren, a tavern on the Krut,” he gibbered. “Go that way and count twelve streets, and turn left at the twelth. Count two streets and you’ll see it on the right side of the street. It has a statue of a siren outside.”

Tarrin looked him over carefully, deciding if he was being deceptive, but decided that he was suitably terrified to speak the truth. “Thank you,” he said curtly, turning and stalking away even as he retracted his wings, as skin grew over the pools of living fire in his back, and his vest mended itself whole.

It didn’t take him long to find this tavern, mainly because of the garish, fifteen span high statue of a naked female of attractive features and foam-blue skin and hair outside the blue-painted building. Tarrin ducked in through the doorless entry, moving into a surprisingly large and open common room that had plenty of light. The place was oval in shape inside, with the bar curving across the back of the room facing the door and with booths lining the walls not taken up by the bar. The floor was depressed, lower than the street outside, set apart from the entry by two steps tiled with shells and bits of coral, a floor that was covered with white sand. The walls were decorated with fishing nets, shells, skeletons of aquatic creatures, harpoons, sextants, a ship’s steering wheel, and other objects and weapons that one would associate with the sea, sailing, fishing, and aquatic life. There were two staircases flanking the open entryway, which he passed as he stepped into the common room and down the two steps that formed the sunken floor.

Meremime, to his surprise, was a Siren. He knew because there was a Siren behind the bar, someone called her name, and she responded. Sirens were ocean-dwelling females whose voices could ensnare the minds of the men who heard them, and they existed on his own world. This Siren looked much like the Siren that Haley had singing at his festhall, with chalky blue skin, like the foam of the sea in the morning, and bone white hair that was long and thick and very straight. She was very pretty, but she didn’t look like a young woman. Hers was instead the handsomeness of a mature woman, much like the handsome looks of Triana, beautiful without a doubt but in the way of a woman, not of a girl. She had a slightly narrow face with almost overly large green eyes, strong cheeks, a narrow nose that seemed just a tad sharp, and large, pouty lips crowning a very sharp chin.

Tarrin came straight to the bar, coming between two archons sitting at stools, one of which gazed upon her with almost puppy-like adoration, and put his paws atop it before him widely and leaned down.

“Welcome to my tavern, my Lord,” she said grandly. “We don’t get many gods here. May I get you something?”

“How does everyone know I’m—I’m what I am?” he asked testily, almost before he realized he said it.

“Why, it’s just your commanding presence, my Lord,” she said with an amused smile. “I’m a mortal, I can’t really tell for sure, but the archons and other natural-born outer planars tell me that gods have a glowing aura around them that they can see. But I know a god’s swagger when I see it,” she winked.

Despite himself, he chuckled. “It’s an efficient way to keep attention,” he told her. “You are Meremime, yes?”

“I’m Meremime,” she said with a little curtsy. “What service can I provide to you, my Lord? Given your divinity, I dare say you didn’t come here for the wine.”

“I’m looking for a sage,” he told her. “A sage that’s supposed to live in this vicinity.”

“You must be looking for Jemrik,” she said, clicking her tongue shortly. “Yes, he lives near here. But what would a god need of an archon sage?”

“That’s my business, isn’t it?” he asked pointedly.

“Well—yes, yes of course, my Lord,” she said, bowing her head slightly.

“Well? Where is he?”

“Certainly my Lord doesn’t expect a businesswoman like myself to part freely with what can be bought from another?” she said mildly.

“I’ve already made an example out of the last person that tried to sell me information,” he said in a quiet, ominous tone, narrowing his eyes. “Words are free, Siren. They cost you nothing to make, but they might cost you a great deal if you don’t.”

“I highly doubt that. Not even gods wish to bring the wrath of the Deva.”

“Are you willing to take that risk?” Tarrin asked in a dangerous whisper.

She gave him a look, then chuckled ruefully. “Clever, my Lord. Very clever. Using the threat of violence as a bargaining position! Most of these kapchah don’t have the guts to even consider such a ploy. Very well, since your bartering method is both unique and amusing, I’ll tell you what you wish to know. But only after you buy a drink,” she said, reaching under the bar and producing a sturdy earthenware mug, then taking a crude jug from the counter behind the bar and filling the mug with a strangely sweet-smelling amber liquid. “One mug of kuquo for what you wish to know. This way you’re not buying words, you’re simply buying a drink. The words we can share over your drink.”

Tarrin gave her a respectful smile. “You’re braver than most.”

“Cowards end up poor,” she said simply.

“And of course, this is the most expensive drink you can pour on such short notice.”

“Certainly. I could get some Elysium Wine, but those are in the cellar. A mug of kuquo usually costs a patron twenty krin, but for you, I’d be willing to allow you sample the brewing skills of the Slaad of Limbo for a mere fifteen krin.”

“Done,” he said, reaching into his belt pouch, counting out fifteen krin, and slapping them down on the bar. “If only because you amuse me.”

She scooped up the strange milky-white bits of what Tarrin would call ceramic smoothly. “Jemrik the Wise rents an apartment over a baker’s shop fifteen streets from the statue of Korkara, my Lord,” she told him. “Stand with your back to Korkara’s back and count fifteen streets, then look for a baker’s shop on the left. There’s a staircase on the side of the building that leads to his apartment.”

“Thank you,” he said immediately. “And good day.”

“But what about your drink!” she protested.

“Drink something made by creatures that personify chaos? I’m not that crazy,” he snorted, then stalked back towards the door.

Meremime laughed brightly. “You are clever, my Lord!” she complemented him as he reached the entry, then left her establishment.

Tarrin wasted no time finding the apartment of Jemrik the Wise. Meremime’s directions were exact, and he was standing on the very narrow landing facing the door of his second floor apartment mere moments after leaving the Salty Siren. The baker’s shop was small but well-maintained, with a neat exterior and a well manicured row of little white flowers in a box hanging from a first floor window on the opposite side of the building from the stairwell. The door to Jemrik’s apartment was rattier-looking than what was below, leading Tarrin to suspect that Jemrik wasn’t as fanatical about the appearance of his apartment as the bakers below were with the appearance of their shop. He knocked once, quite smartly, and he heard a commotion within almost immediately. “Hold on, hold on!” came an irascible voice from within. Tarrin heard soft footsteps beyond the door, then the sound of the lock and latch being undone…and then the door opened.

Jemrik the Wise was something of a surprise to Tarrin. He was an archon, but he couldn’t be more than thirty years old. He had green hair that was long and flowing, billowing down over the shoulders of his red waistcoat, and red-irised eyes glared up at him. He wore a wide leather belt, which held up a pair of matching red trousers, but curiously, Jemrik was barefoot. He was rather thin and weedy-looking, and he was rather short, only coming up to Tarrin’s chest. His face was not very attractive, with a wide, squarish face set on a head that seemed just a tad too large for his body, a wide, squashed nose, eyes that were a bit too far apart, and thin lips concealing teeth that were slightly yellowed and with the left front tooth missing. Jemrik looked like a young man, but the way he carried himself and the set of his eyes led Tarrin to believe that he was much older then he looked.

“And what do ye want?” he demanded in an irritated manner, not even bothering to look up from the book in his hand for much more than the briefest of glances. “I have work to do, and I have no time for new commissions right now. The Council should have told you that before sending you here.”

“You are Jemrik the Wise?” Tarrin asked steadily.

“Aye, I’m Jemrik. Goodbye.”

And with that, he slammed the door in Tarrin’s face.

Tarrin was slightly taken aback. He wasn’t used to being ignored. It was almost refreshing…or it would have been if he wasn’t in such a hurry and on important business. Tarrin knocked on the door again, louder this time, which drew an immediate exasperated huff beyond the door. “I told ye I don’t have time for new commissions!” he shouted through the door. “Go back to the Council and tell them to recommend someone else! Why in the Core do they keep sending them here?” he demanded loudly to himself.

“I wasn’t sent by the Council,” Tarrin stated. “And you will answer my questions, if you can. If you’re not up to it, then you can refer me to your council, so I can find a sage that can.”

“Balderdash!” he shouted through the door. “I’ll not rise up to such transparent bait, godling! Go find someone that can tell you where the Council meets, because ye ain’t doing nothing but wasting my time!”

The sage Jemrik turned around within the common room of his tiny apartment, a place filled with stacks and stacks of old books piled haphazardly over all the old, mismatched furniture, then he gasped and staggered backwards when his nose poked into the chest of Tarrin Kael. “How did ye--!” he spluttered, then he seemed to regain himself. “Using magic to get past my door won’t change my answer! Now kindly get out of my house before I have ye thrown out!”

“I don’t recall telling you that you had a choice,” Tarrin growled at him in a deep, dangerous voice. “I have no time to waste on cantankerous archons. You will answer my questions to the best of your ability, and once you do, I’ll be out of your hair and on my way. The longer you fight me over that inescapable fact, the longer you keep yourself from your other work.”

Jemrik gave him a hot look, then sighed and chuckled ruefully. “Well, if ye could somehow get past a door I enchanted myself to prevent magical intrusion, then I don’t think I’ll have much luck keeping ye out,” he admitted. “How did ye do that? The aura about ye is hollow, hinting that ye are a god in title only, yet ye did something that not even some gods could have managed.”

“I understand how magic works better than most,” he said dismissively. “Sit. This should take about ten minutes, so you may as well be comfortable.”

“Alright then,” he said, looking behind him. He sat down on a tall stack of very thick and heavy books, and Tarrin immediately seated himself sedately on the floor, wrapping his tail around his legs to keep it out of mischief. “What’s so important that ye are willing to disrupt my research?”

“I need to get some very, obscure information,” he answered.

“What is this information?”

“The location of the realm of a single god out in the multiverse,” he answered. “Or, at the very least, what plane his realm is in.”

Jemrik whistled. “Ye’re talking about hard information to find,” he agreed. “It can be done, not even gods can conceal their home realms completely, but it would be neither easy nor cheap. The sage would have to do some intense research to try to find the location of a single god’s realm in all the multiverse. What is this god’s name?”

“He never uses it. He uses a nickname.”

“Ugh, that’d make it much harder. What is this nickname?”

“He calls himself the One,” Tarrin told him with deliberation. Now Tarrin knew that he was committed to this course of action, for he had spoken the assumed name of his prey.

“Ain’t never heard of it. Is this god an Elder God or somehow notable or notorious? Is he worshipped in more than one of the dimensions of the material plane?”

“No, I don’t think so, and I doubt it,” he answered. “The god practices xenophobia with his followers in the mortal plane, so it’s no stretch to think that he operates the same way in his realm. I don’t think he has any followers outside of that one material world either.”

“Well, my Lord, ye be talking the price tag up higher and higher for a sage to find this information,” he said honestly. “I’m no expert on multiplanar theology, mind ye, but I can tell ye that it won’t be cheap or easy to find this information. Speaking as a sage with general knowledge of how sages work, ye understand.”

“What is your field of study? If you don’t mind me asking?”

Jemrik’s face brightened somewhat. “Why, I study planar thaumatology, the study of magic, my Lord. I concentrate on the effect of planar influence on magic,” he answered.

“Thaumatology? Is that some kind of strange Crossroads name for what a Wizard does?”

“Well, I can cast spells,” he said modestly, “but I’m not just a Wizard. I study the effect of outer planar physics and divine influence on the forces of magic. Most Wizards in Crossroads know, for example, that most spells from the Divination school don’t work here. Well, I study why, approaching the problem from both the realm of magical and divine influence and the realm of pure physics.”

“Ah, I see,” Tarrin said with a nod. “So, you specialize in the effect of the Outer planes on Wizard magic?”

“both Wizard and Priest magic, and I study some of the lesser known magical abilities,” he answered. “For example, there’s a type of magic called Runic from one of the material planes, where spells are cast by throwing stone tablets or pieces of parchment with spell runes inscribed on them. There’s also a branch of magic from another called Spelldancers, people who cast spells based loosely on Wizard magic only by dancing and using somatics.”

“I’ve never heard of those.”

“I’d be surprised if ye had, because ye won’t find them out here. Their magic doesn’t work out here, only in their home planes. Only true Wizard and Priest magic work out here.”

“I don’t see why. I mean, if these Spelldancers cast Wizard-based magic, it should work out here.”

“It works on their home world because their gods made rules that aren’t the same as everywhere else,” he explained. “If the gods make the rules different, then the magic that evolves in that world will be unique, and won’t work anywhere else. They change some of the rules to give magic a boost, I believe…it’s one of my postulations. And some of those native magics can be damn strong. There’s one type of magic that’s called Sorcery that’s practiced in the Forbidden Prime, and it’s said that some of the people who use that magic are so powerful that they could stand on equal footing to some gods,” he said in a reverent tone.

Tarrin was a bit surprised that this sage would know about Sorcery, but then he remembered his talks with Spyder and Niami. Sennadar and its magic was well known beyond the borders of their material plane, because Sennadar was one of those material planes closest to the Core, it was what Jemrik had just called the Forbidden Prime.

“Yes, Sorcery can rival the power of some gods,” he said with light amusement. “Depending on who’s using it.”

“Ye’ve read about Sorcery?” Jemrik asked. “Ye said ye knew more about magic than most. Are ye a god of magic perchance, or just a god with an interest in exotic and alien magic forms?”

“I’ve, had contact with certain gods and mortals who have intimate knowledge of that particular dimension,” he said carefully.

“But it’s forbidden!” he gasped. “To both man and god! It has been for some five thousand years, since the gods of that world closed all the gates after the Demon invasion and hid the Astral gateway!”

“Only if you try to invade, like the Demons did. I know someone who knows someone who managed to strike up friendly conversation with the Guardian of that forbidden world, and that someone passed on to me what I know about it.”

Well, it was technically true. That someone happened to be himself.

“Oh, hellfire, if only I didn’t have all this work, I’d love to grill ye about what ye know of Sorcery, my Lord,” he said with a rueful sigh. “Anyway, since ye seem to be a kindred spirit in some things, let’s get back to yer problem. I can’t tell ye what ye need to know, and I wouldn’t know where to start. It ain’t my field of study. What ye need to do is go to the Sage’s Council. They’re an association of sages of all kinds, and even a few gods,” he said with an aire of self-importance. “If someone in the council headquarters proper can’t help ye, they can get ye the name of a sage that can.”

“That sounds like my best bet. Where can I find this council?”

“They’re headquartered in the Bessamy neighborhood,” he answered. “It’s a fairly long clip from here, my Lord, some two hundred leagues, thirty degrees left of the Core. They meet in the Hall of Knowledge, it’s just off Bessamy Square. Big building with a roof that has two open books carved into the stone roof, ye can’t miss it.”

“I don’t know where that is, but I think I can find it,” he said, mentally filing that information away.

“Yer best bet is to hire someone to take you,” Jemrik told him. “It’s too far to walk or take a carriage, so ye’re best off hiring a flying carriage or a flying mount to get ye there. I recommend Porquat’s, they have a fine stable of winged serpents that can fly you almost anywhere in the City. I don’t take anything but a Porquat serpent, I’ve had nothing but good experiences using them.”

“A flying taxi service, eh? Clever,” Tarrin mused with a nod. It was a fairly good idea. He’d bet that this Porquat made a killing.

“When ye’re dealing with a place this big, my Lord, ye need a flying service to get ye around,” Jemrik said simply. “Ye can take yer pick of which kind of flying mount ye want, from Porquat’s flying service of flying serpents ye have to handle yerself, to grand coaches pulled by teams of kirin. When I first came here, I almost fell off my first mount, a griffon I hired to fly me from the Bessamy neighborhood to the Robrath neighborhood,” he laughed. “Ye can always tell the residents from the visitors here by seeing how well they sit a flying mount. Residents are much better at it than visitors.”

“Yes, I could see that,” Tarrin agreed. “Anyone who’s been here any amount of time probably had to hire a flying mount at some point.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are some peasant archons who’ve never left their neighborhood, but more than less have flown somewhere. I know that as a god maybe flying on a flying serpent ain’t all that grand for yer reputation among the other gods, but if ye’ve never sat a flying mount, then one of Porquat’s serpents is best for ye to start with. They’re mild-natured and they don’t buck or sway at all. Very smooth flight, every time.” He chuckled. “But, yer manner and the fact that ye be sitting on my floor hints to me that yer not like most gods. If ye don’t mind me being so bold, my Lord,” he added quickly.

“The fact that you slammed your door in my face tells me you’re not like most archons,” Tarrin replied with a smile.

Jemrik winced. “I’m sorry about that, my Lord. I didn’t really even look at ye. I didn’t realize ye were a god til you managed to slip through my defensive spells and accost me in here. Er, how did ye do that? I know ye couldn’t have teleported through the door, anyone who’s lived here any time at all knows that that’s the first thing ye do when laying down yer protections, because of those those damned thieving Demons and their ability to teleport around at will. Did my protective spells fade or something?”

“No, your defensive spells were impeccably placed, and they’re still going strong,” Tarrin told him with complete honesty. “You’d have stopped just about anyone but me, probably even quite a few gods.”

“But, but how did ye do it?”

“I know a trick,” he said lightly. “It’s a very rare and relatively unknown trick. But it’s damn effective.”

“I can see that,” he laughed. “So ye are a god of magic then?”

“No, not at all.”

“Then how did ye come to learn this trick so rare and unknown that even gods don’t know about it?”

“My mother taught me,” he said with a slight smile.

“I’ll take that as the best answer I’m gonna get and bid ye farewell,” Jemrik laughed. “I do have too damn much work to do, and speaking with ye has put me behind. I really need to get back at it.”

“Yes, and I need to get to this Sage’s Council as fast as I can. I don’t have much time.”

“Porquat’s is—“

“I have my own way of getting there, Jemrik,” Tarrin interrupted him. “I don’t need a flying mount.”

“Ah, one of yer god powers no doubt, my Lord,” Jemrik shrugged. “Most gods make sure they manifest here with the ability to fly, or teleport, or both. If ye don’t think I’m too bold, I have to say that yer much more mellow than I first thought, my Lord.”

Tarrin laughed. “As long as I’m getting my own way, I’m a very agreeable person,” he admitted.

“Ain’t it that way with everyone?” Jemrik said philosophically.

The Bessamy neighborhood took its name from a large statue of some kind of large, ugly, foreboding giant-looking creature that was female. The statue, sculpted from solid obsidian, showed this Bessamy creature sitting on a rough rock, reading from a large book in one hand as the other held a staff tipped with a ring holding a crystal to the side. This Bessamy was some kind of magic-user from the look of her robes, though she certainly wasn’t all that much to look at. Then again, appearance wasn’t always everything.

It was during the flight over to this place that Tarrin understood how they found things. Statues like that of Bessamy and Korkara were all over the place, about every fifty streets or so, and each neighborhood took the name of the nearest statue to it. Everything around this statue was the Bessamy neighborhood until another statue was closer.

It was also during the flight over that Tarrin got a feeling for just how many things could fly in this place. He’d never felt crowded in the air, but he certainly did so while he came here. Because he was traveling a distance, he gained quite a bit of altitude so he could take in this endless megalopolis from a panoramic height, but his view of the streets below almost always included some kind of flying creature or device. Flying mounts, carriages or sleds pulled by flying creatures, and even devices that flew under their own power were quite common…almost too common. A gift that was so rare that it truly set him apart from most was...normal in this place. He’d never before seen so many flying creatures and devices in one place, not even at Amyr Dimeon. The Pegasi and winged serpents and the occasional being flying without any visible means using magic of some kind, he could get used to, but the flying carpets, broomsticks, solid clouds, winged carriages, even a flying wardrobe…well, those were just weird. He wasn’t used to seeing magical objects like that. Sure, he owned quite a few of his own, but Tarrin was a huge exception rather than the rule. The Breaking had destroyed almost all of the magical objects…the average citizen of Sennadar would go so long that he would have his grandchildren die of old age before his descendents saw a magical object. And yet that same common citizen could cast his own spells, at the very least a cantrip or two…life was funny sometimes. Then again, now that the Weave was whole, it was only a matter of time before magical objects became more common, as the Wizards, Priests, and Sorcerers began to create more and more of them.

The citizens of the City had not missed the fact that so many were in the air. There were signs and pictures painted or etched into the roofs of the buildings below, advertising what that place was. It seemed a bit strange to Tarrin, but it also made a kind of sense, and it also helped those in the air navigate by using certain buildings as signposts. It also made him understand the way they gave directions here. They didn’t say go down twelve streets and it’s on your left, they said count twelve streets and it will be on the left side, and they said that because one might not be on the ground to go those twelve streets. They might be airborne, and from the air, they would count twelve streets as they flew overhead, and the building might not be on the counter’s left if he wasn’t directly over the street, but it would be on the left side of the street.

He was glad he caught that. He’d thought it was a weird glitch in how his Tongues spell was translating the language until he actually pondered it.

The building housing the Sage’s Council was indeed impossible to miss, because it was right beside the grassy square holding the statue of Bessamy, it was the size of the Imperial Library in Dala Yar Arak, and it had an open book sculpted into the gray stone on both sides of the peaked roof. It had a large campus that was enclosed by an ornate iron fence, with lush grass, many trees, and gardens on the far side. Tarrin landed inside that fence, landing on a gravel pathway that led from large gates to what looked like the main entrance, two sets of double doors standing side by side at the top of a stone staircase carved from what looked like marble. He withdrew his wings even as his feet touched the gravel, flowing inward and pulling back until they vanished into his back, and again his skin and the leather of his vest mended themselves silently, concealing any trace of them. He started up the stairs as two white-robed elderly male archons exited from the doors above and started down the steps. Both of them looked at him curiously as they passed, turning to look over their shoulders after he was passed. Tarrin paid them no mind at all, reaching the doors through which those two archons had exited. The doors opened of their own volition even as he reached for the handle, swinging inward to reveal a magnificent receiving hall filled with fluted marble columns in two rows that marched down the length of the hall and tiles on the floor laid out like a chessboard, alternating black and white tiles. The walls that he could see behind the columns were so laden with paintings and tapestries that the wall behind them was almost invisible, and those walls rose up to a buttress holding up a balcony that ringed the hall, and then rose even higher to a marvelous curved celing that was covered with iridescent tiles that reflected every flicker of light and sent it back down in rainbow hues. There was a huge stone desk sitting squarely in the middle of the gallery between the second pair of white columns. Two staircases flanked a single set of massive gold-gilded double doors at the far end of the hall, beyond the desk and its lone occupant, a thin, female wizened archon with glowing white eyes, gray hair, wrinkled, withered features, and a hostile demeanor that told Tarrin that this old woman might be a problem. She sat behind her huge desk and sat rigidly erect, though her head was bowed and looking down a book laying open on the immaculately clean and totally bare desk before her, devoid of anything other than that single book.

“You don’t have an appointment,” she stated imperiously as he approached the desk, without looking up.

“No, I don’t,” Tarrin affirmed. “I only just arrived here.”

“Obviously, or you’d have made an appointment,” she sniffed. “Come back when you have one.”

“How does one make an appointment?” Tarrin asked curiously. He had a feeling he knew what she was going to say, but he wanted confirmation.

“You make an appointment with the sage, of course,” she said as if he were stupid.

“But I don’t know which sage to talk to,” he said mildly. “How does one talk to a sage without an appointment, when one has to talk to a sage to get an appointment?”

She glanced up at him in irritation. “If you don’t have an appointment, I can’t let you in,” she told him gratingly.

“Fine then,” he said, his suspicions confirmed. “I have an appointment.”

“You’re not on the calendar.”

Vizhous,” Tarrin said quietly, then he put his palm on the desk meaningfully. The magic of the spell saturated the stone of the desk, and then transformed it.

The woman gasped as her elbows stopped resting on cool stone and instead rested on cold ice. “Jehrash!” she exclaimed. “I’ll call the Deva on you for destroying my desk, you miscreant! I won’t stand for this!”

“I’m not paying you anything to see a sage,” Tarrin said in a low, serious tone. “So, you have a choice. You let me by and I change your desk back, or you continue being a bitch. Then you can sit here and watch your desk melt.”

“You’ve destroyed my desk!” she shouted at him. “The Deva will come, and then you’ll be leaving without seeing anything but your own entrails!”

“I didn’t destroy anything,” he said in a conversational tone, standing erect and crossing his arms before him. “I simply changed your desk into ice. That your desk will melt isn’t any overt act, it’s just ice doing what ice does when it’s not in a cold place. Now, I could fix it so there are some sword blades sticking up from the seat of your chair while I’m at it,” he said in an offhanded manner, uncrossing his arms meaningfully.

She literally jumped out of her chair.

“Now, I have an appointment, don’t I?” he asked in a deliberate, frosty tone, putting his paws on the ice that was once a desk and leaning over it, putting him all but nose to nose with her. The ice steamed and hissed when it made contact with his paws, and he quickly melted deep divots into the top of it.

“Y-Yes, but the council is in session right now,” she said fearfully.

“Fine, that puts them all where I can get my paws on them,” he said, rising back up and stepping around the desk.

“Wait!” she called, a bit helplessly.

He glanced back, snorted slightly, then lifted a paw up over his shoulder and snapped his fingers. The ice transformed back into stone, complete with the two depressions in the top that perfectly matched his pawprints.

The council room of the Sage’s Council was beyond the doors and through a richly appointed antechamber, obviously where important people would sit and wait for an audience, through a truly elaborate set of gold-gilded doors on the far side of the antechamber, sculpted to resemble a large number of bearded men sitting around a table. Tarrin left his staff and pack by that door and opened it without delay. What was beyond that door wasn’t far from the relief on the door, for the large room beyond had a raised far side, with four steps that formed rings leading up to the center area. The floor was carpeted over completely with rich red carpeting, which muffled the sounds of the feet scuffling along it. There were rows of chairs facing that round raised area in the back, many rows of chairs, with many of them filled. The dais across the room held a large long table which had thirteen people sitting behind it. Five of them were archons, one was a human, two looked to be Elara—or elves, they were called elves on other worlds—and the last one was some kind of bird-man creature with black feathers and a hawk’s beak. The archon that sat in the center of the table, with a gold-inlaid lecturn sitting before him upon which rested an ivory-headed gavel, was adorned in a scarlet robe with a gold patch sewn over the right side of the chest, a patch depicting an open book with a lit candle behind it. In fact, all of them, even those sitting on the chairs on the main floor, wore the exact same kind of robe, but the patches they wore were either copper or silver. The one in the middle with the gold badge had to be the one in authority. He had hair the color of lightning, a blue-tinged silver-white, and his features made him appear to be middle aged and just scraping the edges of old age. His features were drawn and a bit sallow and his eyes seemed to have a permanent squint, the mark of a man who spent all of his time inside peering at books by weak light.

“—can definitely work with that schedule, Mazrath,” the leading arcon was saying as Tarrin burst into the council chamber. “Will you have your first draft complete?”

“I should, your Eminence,” someone on the floor said, standing up to address the gold-badged fellow, then returning to his seat.

“Very well. Now, since it’s apparent that your abrupt entry into our chambers during a session decries a lack of manners, we should address the reason you have interrupted our deliberations,” the leader said in a slightly forceful tone, looking directly at Tarrin.

“Good. I’d hate to have to do something to get your attention,” Tarrin called in a loud, direct manner as he started filing past the back rows of seats, as every eye turned to look at him. “I seek information.”

That created a few whispers, rather unsettled ones. “Pardon my boldness, my Lord, but why would a god seek the counsel of bloods and mortals?”

“My reasons are none of your business,” Tarrin said as he marched up to the dais holding the long table. “And before we start drifting off course, let’s put it on the floor right now. I need the services of a sage with a background in both planar geography and obscure theology, dealing with little-known gods. I seek the location of the domain of a single god, worshipped in a single prime material plane. Who here,” Tarrin said, turning to face the audience of sages, “can answer that question, or know of a sage that can?” There was some nervous rumbling in the hall, and Tarrin could sense that there was a tinge of fear. Fear? Over what? Over answering a question? That made little sense. It made more sense that they were afraid of him. That, he was used to.

“Well? I’m waiting.”

“My Lord, I think you can see that none here are either willing or able to hire into your service,” the lead sage said with polite force. “And you are disrupting our meeting. If you would be so kind as to remove yourself from the building, we can continue our meeting. After the meeting, I would be glad to personally send out a contract to our association and see if someone within the Sage’s Council is willing to contract to you to research your question, but it will take time for my contract to reach some of the more distant sages and get a reply. So, if you would be so kind as to return in four cycles, I will gladly meet with you and give you the results, as well as the names and going rates of fees of any sages willing to contract to you. Is this agreeable?”

“That is more than acceptable,” Tarrin said immediately, turning around to look at the lead archon. That was more or less exactly what he was hoping to get out of this. “Seeing as how I need to wait nearby, can someone recommend a good inn?”

That caused the archon to smile slightly. “A god seeking an inn? You certainly do like to play the role of blood, my Lord. But if it’s an inn you seek, then the grandest and most luxurious—“

“No,” Tarrin said, slashing his paw before him. “Just a plain old average inn.”

“Well, then, the Gzargmoth is close to here. Return to the square and walk away from the face of the statue and count five streets. You’ll see it on your left.”

“Thank you. I’ll return in four cycles.”

“I will be happy to receive you at that time, my Lord,” he said with a short bow.

Tarrin turned and stalked back out as eyes watched him, and more muttered whisperings tickled at Tarrin’s ears, too low for him to make them out. He retrieved his pack and staff and marched back out into the entry hall, and as he started approaching the desk of the old archon woman who’d impeded him, he started getting a faint scent that was making his ears try to lay back. There was the faintest of faint scent of Demon in the air, and it wasn’t there when he came in. This was fresh. Tarrin slowed down, taking slow, deliberate steps towards the old woman, and the scent became stronger, that smell of absolute corruption and evil that made a Demon absolutely unable to hide, no matter how they looked. This scent was fresh, very fresh, and it was pure. That meant that it was a Demon of some power, though he didn’t know what kind yet…the scents of the various Demons were very hard to discern from one another. His deliberate plod became a light-footed padding of utter silence as he slinked past the old woman, who was trying to come up with some way to remove the pawprints from her desk. As he got closer and closer to the door, the scent became stronger, and he began to discriminate aspects the ghastly stench and break it down.

Not Demon. Demons.

He could pick out five distinct scents now, and two he could identify as vrock. They were very fresh. These Demons didn’t come into the council building, but they did come up to the door, and then they left.

Almost immediately, the paranoid part of Tarrin’s mind concluded that the Demons knew he was here, and they had come looking for him. Demons, like Tarrin himself, probably had little fear of the One Law, given the Demons could simply teleport away the instant the Deva arrived. So his paranoid half had little doubt that the Demons he was now scenting had no qualms about starting a fight. But the more rational part of his mind could not answer one question; how did they know he was here? Did this even involve him? Had they approached to seek a sage and sensed the presence of a god, and then retreated?

Either scenario was entirely possible. Those Demons had either come for him, or they had come to find a sage, and they sensed Tarrin’s divine aura and retreated. Either conclusion had merit to back it up.

That meant that there was only one way to find out. If they were here to set a trap, then it was best that he simply go out there and spring it. If nothing happened, if he reached this inn called Gzargmoth without incident, then the Demons had been there on business that had nothing to do with him.

Either way worked for him.

With pack shouldered and staff held lightly in paw, the imposing figure of Tarrin Kael exited the headquarters of the Sage’s Council with a light, relaxed stride and a distracted demeanor. His staff made a tak-tak-tak sound as its butt struck the stones of the steps, then a crunching sound as it was pressed down into the gravel of the pathway from the gate to the stairs. His eyes didn’t scan the grounds and the skies, fixed firmly on the ground as pondering important matters while walking…and not paying all that much attention. He almost walked into the gate, pausing to push the wrought iron open, then padded through and onto a cobblestone street ringing the square holding the statue of Bessamy, passing by two archons and a human armor-wearing adventurer who were locked in deep conversation.

The human glanced back to look at the exotic furry creature, and he was the only one to see what happened. A huge Demon simply appeared in the air directly over and behind that strange furry man-creature, a creature the grizzled adventurer mecernary recognized from his years of traveling the planes as a vrock, a vulture-Demon that was fond of using a glaive. That glaive was indeed present in its taloned hands, a glaive whose blade pulsed with a dark, unholy aura that marked the weapon as intensely magical, held over its head as gravity took hold of it and caused it to fall to the ground. With a screech, the vrock whipped that evil-looking polearm over its head, bringing the blade down directly between the furry creature’s cat-like ears.

When it made contact, the furry creature’s entire form seemed to disrupt, and then it exploded in a puff of glowing dust.

The vrock landed on the cobblestones with a cloud of glowing dust all around it, as the archons with the human cried out in alarm and called on him to run away before the Deva came and killed everyone in close proximity to this sudden act of violence, but the human couldn’t look away from the look of shock in the vrock’s beady little red eyes.

“Surprise,” came a calm voice, called loudly. The human whipped his head to the side, and he saw that same creature near the gates of the headquarters of the Sage’s Council. It ran at amazing speed right towards the vrock, holding a staff in one of his huge hands. The human was absolutely amazed…never in his life had he seen something move so unbelievably fast! It was upon them in the blink of an eye, and it struck that vrock right across the hooked beak the instant it was within range. The vrock gave out a squeal of pain as it was literally swept into the air by the tremendous power of that blow, as black Demon blood and pieces of grayish-brown beak horn went flying in the arc of the staff’s swing. The vrock tumbled in the air, and the crashed in a floomp of breaking bone and bloodstained feathers billowing into the air.

“Let’s get out of here!” one of his archon friends screamed immediately.

“How did that god fool the Demon?” the other called even as he ran. “I thought they could see the true nature of each other! It shouldn’t have attacked that decoy!”

The human didn’t bother to even think about the answer. He was too busy running for his life.

With speed impossible for any mortal being, speed generated by a Wizard spell that allowed Tarrin to move with unnatural rapidity, a much weaker version of the Druid spell Tarrin knew, Tarrin closed on the still-sliding Demon, who was rolling over and over on his shattered wings and broken beak. It hadn’t even come to a stop before it was struck once more, struck with a savage overhanded blow that crushed its skull and killed it almost instantly. The body began to dissolve into that grisly black ichor even before it came to a complete stop on the cobblestones. Before the body completely became a congealed mass, Tarrin drove his paw into it, spraying his arms and chest with foul-smelling ichor. It reached deeply into the acidic mass, and then found what it was looking for.

The Demon had fallen for the second of Tarrin’s three powers he had managed to impart upon himself, the power of creating duplicates of himself so complete, so real, that it even gave off the divine aura. It was a doppleganger, a solid Illusion that could fool even the eyes of a god. Jemrik the Wise hadn’t been talking to Tarrin, he had been talking to a created doppleganger, which Tarrin had caused to appear on the far side of the door, and through which Tarrin had been able to see and hear and smell and even taste. It was more of an extension of self with mass and with solid form than a simple magical trick, a second body that he could completely control. Tarrin had even worked it so he could become the doppleganger, exchanging his true self with the duplicate and literally swapping locations. It was a clever and creative means to enact the ability to teleport without having to resort to using a magical spell, mainly because Tarrin could cause a duplicate to appear a good distance away from himself.

Tarrin sensed more than saw another Demon reveal itself, appearing directly behind him, because of the horrific stench of its body, even over and above the way Demons already smelled, a smell that would have overwhelmed the Were-cat had he not had so much practice blocking out smells from his mind. He ripped the object he’d snared with his paw out of the dissolving body of the vrock, then hooked the vrock’s glaive with his tail and pulled it along with him as he slid to the side, as a hezrou, a frog-like Demon with a wide head and gaping mouth filled with rows of small, razor-sharp teeth, materialized behind him and tried to impale him with a three-tined trident. He struck the underside of the trident with his staff and knocked it high as he spun adroitly aside, grabbed the haft of the glaive with his left paw as he curled it upwards with his tail, then whipped it around the far side of his body. The pulsating steel blade left a wispy trail of glowing evil behind it, cleaving a black arc through the air as the hezrou managed to regain its balance and slither away from the surprise attack, scrambling back until the tip of the glaive just barely managed to ghost across the skin of the beast’s warty chest. It was a feat that Tarrin grudgingly admitted was quite impressive. This squat, frog-like creature had a thick body and torso, but it just proved that it could move with fluid grace and precision when necessity demanded it.

Tarrin tossed his staff aside and took up the glaive in the end grip, then lowered it menacingly at the Demon as it skittered to a halt and brought up its own weapon.

“I’m sure your three friends are just waiting for me to get too busy with you to notice them,” Tarrin hissed, his eyes exploding from within with the unholy greenish radiance that marked his anger.

We all have our little surprises, the Demon’s voice touched his mind, tinged with both nonchalance and amusement. Its confidence about this fight was so absolute that it didn’t see this as a fight for survival, but as a game.

“This is for keeps, Demon,” Tarrin said with an evil, sadistic half-smile. “You think that formed body is going to protect you? Think again. You lose to me, you lose more than a body. You lose your soul.” Tarrin took the spoor-covered hand from the glaive and held it out, showing the Demon a simple obsidian amulet with unspeakably evil words etched into its round border in a language so ancient and evil that no mortal was ever meant to peruse even a single glyph of that damned tongue. The round obsidian amulet was suspended from a golden chain, which was dripping with sizzling Demonic spoor. “Recognize this?”

The creature’s look of arrogance melted from its face, and then its eyes widened. No! it protested. It is impossible!

“I learned a long time ago that possible and impossible are simply illusions for those who can’t comprehend the true nature of things,” he said with a dark glare. “I will reach into your guts and take this—“ he held out the amulet—“no matter where or how carefully you have it hidden or guarded. Now you get to know what it feels like to be mortal, Demon,” he hissed. “In this fight, you can die.”

It is impossible! Impossible! the Demon protested over and over again, taking a shaky step backward, its eyes locked in terror at the ichor-smeared soul amulet that Tarrin held before him, the object that encased the soul of the vrock he had just slain, an object that he had reached into the Demon’s body, reached across dimensions, and ripped from its secure hiding place.

With a deft flick of the paw and wrist, the soul amulet’s chain was wrapped securely around Tarrin’s wrist, the obsidian amulet dangling. Tarrin wanted to leave it out, to let that Demon see it and know that in this fight, it was not invulnerable, invincible. If it lost, it lost everything. Now the Demons were on the same footing as Tarrin, who put everything on the line in every battle. Now, the Demons would know what it was like to fight when one’s very existence was on the line.

He knew that he might have to face Demons or other extra-dimensional foes in his search for the One, maybe even face the Demon Lord’s minions if they moved to defend the One, and this power, the last of the three powers he had managed to give himself, would work on any creature whose soul was not joined to the body. He could reach into any creature and grasp the container holding the true soul of any opponent, be it mortal or Demon or even god, and if it was small enough, he could yank it back into whatever plane of existence in which his material form was currently located.

This was the great balancer. Now, any creature who could keep its soul safely in one dimension and assault Tarrin with endless creations or projections would face the terrifying prospect of facing a foe that could take the object holding that soul…but only if it was small enough for him to pick up and move, and could not be larger than the created body or projection through which Tarrin was reaching, using the link between soul and created form as a gateway to seize the soul container. If the soul was within an object larger than the created form through which Tarrin was reaching, or within a living body, he couldn’t pull it through. But something like a Demon’s soul amulet, that was child’s play.

The Demon looked too horrified to even think of advancing on Tarrin, its eyes locked on the amulet wrapped around his wrist. Tarrin put his spoor-covered paw back on the glaive and lowered it at the hezrou, even as he felt the duration of his speed-increasing spell end, and his magically enhanced quickness faded. But against this foe, he wouldn’t need it. Tarrin was more than a match for most Demons in a physical battle. Hezrou weren’t very powerful when compared to the other True Demons. It would take a marilith or a balor to worry Tarrin enough to think he still needed his haste spell. “Let’s get on with it!” he growled, rushing forward with the glaive held professionally low and to the side, ready to strike the instant he was in range.

Tarrin had never fought with a glaive before, but he had practiced with the many polearms the Knights kept in the armory, and it wasn’t much different from a Shacèan guisarme. With one swing, an attempt to decapitate the hezrou that met nothing but empty air as the creature displayed again that unseemly speed and agility he had noticed before, he became completely aware of the top-heavy nature of the weapon and immediately adjusted his grip and his stance to compensate for the weight imbalance. The shaft of the glaive was a bit too long for him, since the vrock was about a span taller than him, but two words spoken in the language of magic caused the weapon to magically shrink until it was perfect for him, spoken even as he deflected a frenzied series of stabs from the business end of the hezrou’s trident. The glaive was a polearm, meant to deal blows using the bladed end of the weapon, but most wizened polearm users fully understood that the shaft of the weapon could be as much a weapon as the blade at the end. For a master of the staff, fighting using a more centered grip which sacrificed some power in exchange for the ability to use the entire weapon’s shaft both offensively and defensively was only natural. The Demon learned quickly that Tarrin knew how to wield his stolen weapon as he rushed in with wild eyes, his trident whipping back and forth as he used the entire length of the weapon, striking at Tarrin with both the barbed triple points of the head and the weighted butt end. The metallic shafts of both weapons chimed in staccato rhythm as the hezrou tried to overwhelm Tarrin quickly, but found itself facing an opponent he was not going to easily kill in a battle of weapons. Tarrin didn’t retaliate as it bashed itself against his defenses, getting a more intimate feel for the glaive, feeling its subleties and the whisper of its balance in his paws, until he felt completely confident to answer the Demon’s assault.

And when he did answer, it was with tremendous force. The Demon staggered back as the Were-cat all but exploded on it, the glaive whirring and whistling through the still air as it moved with unbelievable speed and a precision that any adept of the fighting arts would know to be true mastery. The barest shiver of the glaive’s movements and precision were completely under the control of the Were-cat, as massive paws shifted the weapon with the faintest of movements that translated into subtle but powerful movements of the weapon. It was always just fast enough, always just in the right place, always just able to recover no matter what Tarrin did or what the Demon did in order to knock him out of his defense. The Demon backed up several paces as it struggled to defend itself from the powerless god’s whirlwind assault, handling the stolen weapon as if he had owned it and used it all his life.

It gave up trying to fight Tarrin weapon to weapon. It made a pushing motion with the trident, and a bright gout of flame erupted from the Demon and billowed towards Tarrin with tremendous speed. The Were-cat rushed right into it without batting an eye, for Tarrin was a god of fire, and it would do him no harm.

“Stupid,” Tarrin growled as he charged through the flames, but found his opponent slightly to the side. It had used the fire not to harm, but to block vision. The Were-cat had no trouble parrying the creature’s surprise attack, striking downward on the thrusting trident and driving the tines into the cobblestones at his feet rather than through his lower side, as the Demon had aimed it. Before the hezrou could recover its weapon, the Were-cat hopped over the trident head at his feet, spun with blurring speed in the air, and planted his clawed foot directly against the froglike Demon’s wide head as his body whipped around. Three lines of black blood flew as the Demon was snapped to the side and Tarrin’s foot claws ripped three black lines across the side of its maw, doggedly keeping possession of its trident as it fell, turning over in the air as Tarrin landed lightly on both feet and one paw as the other held the glaive out wide and away from his body. The Were-cat spun again and whipped the glaive up and over his head, then took it up with both paws as it came screaming over his head and arcing downwards, directly at the Demon’s neck. It managed to roll aside with desperate speed, and it felt the wind of the glaive’s blade against its head and neck as it cleaved into the cobblestones of the street upon which the Demon had been laying a split-second before. It curled up into a ball and rolled in a twisting motion until it had its feet under it, then it was up once more and backing away as the Were-cat charged it. It parried a lightning-fast series of powerful, jarring blows, each one making the trident shudder and the arms recoil as the Demon felt the power of Tarrin Kael’s created form, a tremendous physical strength that the Demon found was greater than its own. A swarm of tiny biting insects suddenly appeared around both combatants, summoned by the Demon’s magical power, but Tarrin drove the butt of the glaive into the ground and spoke three words of the language of magic in a powerful, clear voice. A shimmering wind of air and magic pulsed away from the Were-cat’s body, which killed the insects. He immediately turned on the Demon and pointed the head of the glaive at it and shouted in the language of magic, uttering a single word of such power that the word was the spell itself. It was one of the Power Words, and this one was the word of stun.

All who could hear the uttering of that word except for Tarrin was affected. The magic assaulted their minds as if someone had struck them a heavy blow on the head. The hezrou staggered backwards in a woozy manner, but it was already shaking its head side to side to clear the effects of the spell. Demons had a powerful resistance to magic, and this one was shaking off the effects of the spell much quicker than a mortal could. But that moment of stunned incoherence was all Tarrin needed. He threw the glaive into the air and immediately started to chant again in the language of magic, making precise gestures with both of his paws even as the glaive spun into the air over his head, reached the apex of its ascent, and then began to tumble back towards the ground. The Were-cat completed the spell just as the glaive returned to the ground, and the Were-cat snapped it out of the air with one paw, levelled the bladed head at the hezrou, and completed the incantation.

A jagged bolt of brilliant white lightning erupted from the tip of the weapon and lanced across the empty space, then struck the Demon fully in the chest. The monster’s powerful resistance to magic took a great deal of the edge off the magical attack, but it still cried out in pain as its slimy, warty skin was assaulted by magical lightning, sparks and motes dancing around its form. It trembled in pain as the magical charge of lightning dissipated, and it saw the Were-cat rushing it once more as the haze of pain cleared from its large black eyes.

The hezrou’s eyes were wild and its movements almost jerky from the aftereffects of the lightning bolt as it evaded a vicous swipe with the bladed end of the glaive, one that came within a whisker of taking its head off, then raised its trident to block as Tarrin tried to slam the butt end of the glaive into its hip. Tarrin leaned into the blow and the hezrou pushed back, which locked their weapons against one another as they struggled to wrench the other just enough to knock the adversary off balance and take advantage. Tarrin was taller and stronger than his foe, but the hezrou was adept at using its thick body as an anchor to prevent Tarrin from exploiting his leverage, adjusting itself to prevent itself from being pinioned.

“How does it feel to be just as vulnerable as I am?” Tarrin hissed when their faces were only a span apart. “How does it feel to know that I can kill you?”

You will never defeat me! it replied in its telepathic manner, but its thoughts were nearly hysterical. It was absolutely terrified, but it did continue to fight, it did not run away. For that, and only for that, Tarrin could find respect for this particular Demon.

“Too bad you’re just as stupid as every other creature that tries to lock me,” Tarrin growled from his throat, as he brought his tail into the battle. It whipped up from between his legs and slapped across the left arm of the hezrou, just inside the crook of the elbow. Tarrin’s tail was his weakest limb, nowhere as powerful as his arms or legs, but it was strong enough. His tail jarred the Demon’s arm, and Tarrin immediately shifted his power against that side, which caused its elbow to unlock and its arm to collapse. Tarrin swept the Demon off its feet and out from in front of him by powering through its sudden collapse with the butt end of the glaive. It hit the ground and rolled, then slid several spans on its back. It gave a croaking hiss and managed to get its trident up just in the nick of time to block the blade of the glaive, stopping the pulsing blade just a finger’s width from the tip of its pointed snout. The Demon then vanished silently and instantly, which caused Tarrin to immediately react. He dipped a shoulder and rolled forward, then raised the butt of the glaive just in time to knock the hezrou’s trident high and to the side from a kneeling position. Just like every other Demon he had ever battled, this one attempted to teleport behind him and attack his back. The strike was heavy enough to jar the Demon out of balance, and as it struggled to recover, Tarrin rose up on one foot and reversed the glaive, swinging the weapon in a wide, graceful arc so fast that the dark-exuding blade left a solid arc of darkness in its wake as it screamed back towards the Demon. The arc was underhanded as Tarrin swept the weapon up with him as he rose on his single foot, and the blade sliced effortlessly into the hezrou’s warty abdomen, just over its right hip. Black blood fountained from its maw and from the wound as the blade sheared all the way through its torso in a diagonal slash, from right hip to left shoulder, lifting it from its feet as its trident spun lazily from its hands and into the air.

Its body stopped flying backwards instantly as Tarrin took his right paw off the shaft of the glaive, his body lunged into the air after the Demon, and then his right paw plunged into the chest of the mortally wounded Demon. Its upward trajectory stopped and reversed when Tarrin dropped his feet back to the ground, pulled along with it, and then slammed forcefully into the cobblestones of the street. It managed only a single hysterical scream of terror and agony as Tarrin’s paw clasped around what it sought, and then the Were-cat ripped its paw out of the Demon’s chest, tearing away an octagonal black steel amulet inscribed with words of utter evil and hanging from a brass chain. Tarrin held the amulet over the Demon’s head as he rested the glaive on his shoulder, presenting it to the Demon as the animating force that had given its body life began to fade.

“And now you are mine,” Tarrin hissed, just as the hezrou’s eyes became blank, and the created body died. It dissolved quickly into that acidic spoor, bubbling and burning into the stones of the street. Tarrin turned and raised both paws, the glaive, and both amulets towards the sky, where he knew the other three Demons were watching, but were too afraid to appear and engage after realizing that the Were-cat could tear their soul amulets from their created bodies. “That’s two!” he shouted towards the buildings. “Take this warning back to the Abyss and back to your masters, you cowards! Any who faces me puts this on the table!”

He thrust the wet, slimy, smoking amulet that held the hezrou’s soul into the air before him.

“When you fight me, you play for keeps!” he screamed, just as he sensed a sudden appearance of beings of impressive power. The Deva, who had been attracted by the initiation of violence within Crossroads, were starting to arrive to mete out punishment for violating the One Law. He could sense four of them, four Deva, four figures of justice coming to smite the lawbreakers without discrimation over who started it. In Crossroads, anyone who did violence was guilty, no matter what reason the violator had to commit violence, even in self defense. He saw them then, four golden-skinned human-looking creatures with gold-feathered wings, descending from the sky with amazing speed. Each of them carried a heavy club and a triangular shield strapped to the off arm. They lanced towards him arrow-straight, weapons in hand and ready to attack.

Though he could have killed all four of them—at least he was confident that he could—he wasn’t ready to start fighting the Deva, not until he got what he needed from the Sage’s Council and was ready to leave Crossroads. No, right now, escape was the wisest course of action. With only a gesture, Tarrin beckoned to his staff, and it rose up from the ground and soared through the air and into his waiting paw. He almost tossed the glaive aside, but then thought twice about it. It was a well-made weapon, well balanced, and it carried a strong magical aura. It was a weapon of evil, but its evil could in no way find in itself the ability to affect a being like Tarrin Kael. In the hands of a god, the corrupting power of a Demon’s weapon mean nothing.

He decided to keep it. So long as he didn’t destroy the soul medallion of the vrock, the glaive wouldn’t be destroyed. It might prove useful later on, if he needed a secondary weapon or needed to give a duplicate a weapon in combat. He’d taken up the glaive because he wanted to leave his staff out for a doppleganger to use as a weapon if the fight drug on and he needed to kill the Demon quickly, or its allies joined the battle and he needed to even the odds, or the Deva arrived, but it turned out to be unnecessary. Tarrin could create a doppleganger of himself holding a staff, but it wasn’t that staff. The staff of a duplicate would have shattered on the first blow, and destroyed the doppleganger along with it. The dopplegangers could be disrupted with only one hit, and couldn’t even make physical contact with the adversary or they would disrupt…but one had to hit it first, and the duplicates were just as agile and fast as the original. And if a duplicate was holding a weapon or object that was not created with it, that weapon was just as dangerous to a doppleganger’s opponent as any weapon held by the real Tarrin. He spoke the same two words of magic, a Wizard’s spell of shrinking, and caused the glaive to become the size of a serving knife. He dropped it into his belt pouch and turned, then scooped up the hezrou’s trident with his free paw as he darted towards the nearest buildings, even as the Deva dove towards him. He’d have to use magic to recover his pack, but for now, he was confident nobody in the council building would bother it. Right now he had more pressing problems. And one of them was swooping down on him.

The lead Deva angled himself to land in front of the escaping doer of violence, and even managed to accomplish that task, landing squarely in front of the offending deity, but his mind swam in confusion when the god’s form wavered, and then five gods split from that single point and each rushed off in a different direction!

Five! And they were real! The god had split himself into five identical entities, and each now ran off in a different direction! The lead Deva was so confused and shocked that he stood there for a critical second trying to decide what to do, which entity to pick out and attack, and that one second was all the god needed to make good his escape. Two of those gods reached the buildings and vanished around corners, even as the Deva’s three companions attacked the two gods running back towards the statue and the one running towards the headquarters of the Sage’s Council. Each of those gods simply exploded into a puff of glowing dust when struck by the cudgel of a Deva, showing that it was nothing more than an elaborate trick, one of exceptionally sophisticated magic, so complete that they even radiated the divine aura.

One of the companion Deva marched up to the leader, her face slightly amused. “I’m glad I don’t have to give this report,” she said with complete sincerity. “Though I’m sure the Planetar will assign no blame. That is the first time I have ever encountered a deception so complete that it even radiated the power and aura of a god. I couldn’t tell any of them apart from one another. I’m not even sure the real god was even here. Maybe all five were simple decoys to hide him escaping the area, maybe even this plane.”

“We must inform the Planetar at once,” he said with a look of grim resolve. “He brought his true self here, that was his true self fighting those Demons, that is unusual, and somewhat reckless. Something is not right here, and it needs to be reported. Take the element and fan out to question witnesses while I report to the Planetar. We need to find out what started this violence.”

“As you command,” she said with a salute, putting her closed right fist to her left shoulder. The lead Deva nodded, and then vanished in the blink of an eye.

The Deva weren’t the only ones who had critical information to report. The three remaining Demons vanished from Crossroads to report to their master, the Demon Lord Gruz, in person, to tell him of this terrifying new twist surrounding the supposedly powerless shell of a god they had been sent to kill.

A god that was not nearly as powerless as they were led to believe.

The Gzargmoth was a simple, spartan affair, with no tavern within its building. It was an inn and an inn only; it did not even provide meals for its guests. The lack of meals and a tavern certainly would cut into the profits of any normal inn, but this was not a normal inn, and it was not run by a normal innkeeper. The innkeeper of the Gzargmoth was a creature that, at first, Tarrin nearly mistook as a marilith, but he realized quickly was actually a creature he would call a snake Lamia, one of the fae-da’kii. It wasn’t actually a Lamia though, but it looked like one. It was a creature with the bottom body of a snake and the top body of a humanoid woman, but with four arms. That upper body looked quite human-like, until one looked very closely and saw that her skin was colored in very fine scales that matched the pale coloring of a Draconian human. Like Tarrin’s cat’s eyes, her orange-red eyes held vertically slitted pupils, and her tongue was narrow and forked, like a snake’s, which tended to flicker out from between a pair of very long and quite venemous fangs. At first glance, he had an irrational urge to attack her, thinking that she was Shaz’Baket. Her midnight blue hair almost looked black, and from the back a russet-snake body holding a human female form was easy to mistake as that most-hated Demoness. But she wasn’t a marilith; a marilith had six arms, and a snake Lamia, which also appeared as a woman’s torso on a snake’s body, only had two. After introducing himself to her, he found out that her name was Szizazz, and she was a creature called a gzamit. Tarrin had no idea what that was, or where she came from. But the Gzargmoth—which meant resting place in her native language—had been her place of business since a magical accident sent her careening from her own world and into the Astral. At first she sought a way home, but when she reached the City and found the peace that existed here, a peace that did not exist in her own war-torn world, she decided to stay. And had done quite well for herself.

Szizazz believed in simplicity in all things. Her rooms held only a bed, a nightstand, a chair under the window, and a single bureau, simple, no-nonsense furniture that was sturdy, clean, and well-maintained. She did not serve meals. She did not even keep drinking water in her inn. She did not clean the rooms when someone was occupying one, not even to change the bedding. The room’s occupant was responsible for all of it. In exchange for these frugal conditions, Szizazz charged a very modest three krin per night. Her inn was a place for sleeping, and that was exactly how she operated it. The only bow to the idea that someone may not be sleeping within her inn was the receiving room into which the front door opened, which held eight simple, sturdy, uncushioned chairs lined along the walls, four to a side.

All in all, Tarrin rather liked the place. There was only three other guests, two archons and a hulking bipedal…thing that was covered in a black exoskeleton and had four large compound eyes set over a pair of large mandibles, so it wasn’t crowded. Szizazz wasn’t chatty and she had absolutely no curiosity whatsoever about who rented her rooms. She didn’t bat an eye when one of the archons staying in the inn betrayed his divinity with a gasp and a point and an exclamation that Szizazz was taking krin from a god. To Szizazz, there were only two kinds of sentient beings in the multiverse: guests and not-guests.

And that was it.

He was also quite impressed when a Deva came to the inn and asked directly about Tarrin, describing him as being involved in an incident of violence. Szizazz looked the golden-haired, handsome winged male square in the eye and told him in an indifferent manner that she had absolutely no care for what happened beyond the walls of her inn. The only bow to curiosity he saw out of her came after he left. She slithered up the ramp to the second floor—her inn had no stairs—and confronted him in the hallway.

“Did you do as he said?” she asked in a dusty, raspy voice.

“They attacked me first,” he answered her honestly. “All I did was defend myself. And only a smart man runs when the Deva arrive, no matter who started it. They don’t ask any questions before they start hitting people.”

She nodded as if that was all she needed to hear, then slithered past him and towards the ramp to the third floor, where she had her private apartment.

And with that, Tarrin was completely confident that Szizazz would keep his presence in her inn to herself. It also told him that he needed to lay low until four cycles went by and he could return to the Sage’s Council.

It would have been that easy, just sit in his room and live off the stores he’d packed away in the pack he magically retrieved from the Sage’s Council headquarters not long after the fight with the Demons, but he quite honestly forgot about one minor complication that threw that entire plan out of whack.

Jula.

He’d felt her moving around for days as he flew towards the City, moving near, and then stopping, and then moving near, and then stopping. But after taking a nap after the battle with the Demons, he awoke and sensed her within a longspan of him, and moving towards him. At first he was confused, then he was mystified at how she had managed to get so close to him without knowing where he was.

Then he realized that she had to know where he was. There was no way that random chance had any part of her coming right at him, given how unimaginably huge this City was. She had to know where he was…there was no other way she could be so close to him.

That suspicion was confirmed when he sensed her within twenty paces of him, literally right outside the inn. He felt her stop, felt her hover there for a moment, and then felt her approach again. He opened the door to his room just in time to hear a strong, sharp knock on the main door on the first floor. Szizazz slithered elegantly past him and down the ramp—his was the first room on the right when one came up the ramp—and moved straight to the door.

“How may I serve?” she asked in her sibilant, reptilian voice.

“Umm, is my father here?” came the reply, and it was unmistakably Jula. “Well, he might not very well look like me,” she laughed nervously. “Tarrin Kael. Is Tarrin Kael here?”

“The names of those who stay in my inn are not the concern of those outside,” Szizazz stated indifferently. “Nor are they mine. I could not tell you the names of any of my guests.”

“It’s alright, Szizazz,” Tarrin called from the door to his room. “She is my daughter.”

“Father!” came an exuberant squeal, and Jula appeared, rushing past Szizazz, running up the ramp towards him. She looked exactly as he recalled, though she looked drawn and tired and her scent was a little strained. She crushed him in a powerful hug, clinging to him like a frightened child, and all he could do was pat her on the back and hope she calmed down before she collapsed his lungs. Tsukatta’s scent was all over her; why was he here too? No, wait, it only made sense. Tsukatta was an experienced interplanar traveler, he would no doubt have knowledge of the City and its peculiarities. Tuskatta had brought Jula here, and helped her find him.

“You can let go now Jula,” he wheezed, pushing at her shoulders.

“Oh Father, I know they said you were dead, but—“ she sobbed, looking up at him. “You look different. You smell diffeernt too.”

“I am dead,” he told her bluntly. “Or my body is, or whatever you want to call it. Is Tsukatta with you?”

“Waiting outside,” she sniffled.

“Szizazz, would you please allow the human mortal who’s waiting outside to come in?” he called down to her.

She nodded once, then turned to the door. “Mortal,” she called. “Enter.”

Tsukatta appeared down the ramp as Szizazz slithered backwards a little to make room for him. He bowed deeply and gracefully to her, then removed his two katanas from his sash and offered them to her. “It is quite impolite in my society to enter the house of another bearing arms,” he told her. “It is custom to surrender to the master or mistress of the house one’s weapons. Please do me the honor of watching my weapons, and know I bring no malice or violence to your house.”

“You may keep your weapons,” she said with a negligent wave of one of her four hands. She slithered up the ramp towards Tarrin.

“Thanks, Szizazz,” he told her with a nod. “I appreciate it.”

“It is nothing,” she shrugged, then continued down the hall towards the ramp to her private apartment.

“Wh-What is she?” Jula whispered.

“I really can’t pronounce it,” Tarrin told her. “But she’s a friend.”

“She doesn’t act like it,” his daughter whispered, a bit tartly.

“You’ll get used to her. I kind of like her,” Tarrin chuckled. “Please come up, Tsukatta. Come in.”

Jula and Tsukatta entered his room. Tarrin sat on the bed, and Jula sat right beside him, keeping her arm around him. Tsukatta placed his swords on top of the open bureau’s top shelf, then seated himself in the chair. “Alright, who sent you here?” Tarrin demanded.

“The Goddess,” Jula answered immediately. “She doesn’t know where you are or if you’re alright. She sent us to find you.”

“I figured as much,” he grunted. “She can’t keep her nose out of anything.”

Father!” Jula gasped. “What a thing to say!”

“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?” Tarrin retorted. “Niami’s a born busybody.”

Jula flushed, but said nothing.

“I’ve been keeping myself out of her sight for a reason, I should have known she’d take steps,” he grunted. “Not that I’m not happy to see you two,” he added quickly. “I just wish it’d been for some other reason than the Goddess trying to hunt me down.”

“It is the task she set for us,” Tsukatta told him. “And also to bring you that which you left behind.”

“Huh?”

“I’ve got an amulet for you, Father,” Jula told him, looking up at him. “And I have your Cat’s Claws.”

“I gave thost to Jal.”

“Jal has what looks like the Cat’s Claws,” Jula told him. “Mother filched then and replaced them with copies, so Jal didn’t think they were stolen and think he failed in his task to protect them.”

“Take them back.”

“What?”

“I gave those to Jal for a reason,” he told her bluntly. “Take them back to him. I don’t need them here. I can’t use them here. Put them back and do it so he doesn’t know it was done.”

“But Father—”

“Are you disobeying me, daughter?” Tarrin asked in a flinty tone.

“No, no, of course not. I just don’t understand.”

“The Cat’s Claws won’t work here, Jula,” he told her. “Besides, they’re creations of Niami, and I won’t use them here. I can’t use anything here that can be traced back to her.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve already been attacked by Demons once,” he told her. “I have no doubt that I’m going to get into a squabble with the Deva because of the Demons. They’re going to show up while I’m fighting a Demon and attack me, and that’s going to be just about it. I’ll fight the Deva, and once I start doing that, nobody can be connected to me in any way or the Deva might come after them. I don’t want Niami interfering, I don’t want anyone to have any reason to go after anyone but me. If Mother tries to help, she might get in trouble, and I know she’ll try to help. She can’t resist, no matter how against the rules it is. So, I don’t want the Cat’s Claws, I don’t want the amulet, and I don’t want Mother sticking her nose in Crossroads. I’m not going to give her the chance to get hereslf in trouble. She’s in enough trouble with her parents and the other Elder Gods because of me, I’m not going to heap trouble on her here.”

“She’s not going to like it when I tell her that,” Jula told him.

“Oh, I have no doubt she heard every word of it,” Tarrin snorted. “She may not be able to find me in Crossroads, but she knows exactly where you are, and I have no doubt she’s keeping a finger on you. Any Sorcerer can be the eyes and ears of Mother, Jula, you know that. She heard every word I said.”

“You’re being foolish, Tarrin,” came Niami’s spectral voice, emanating from the empty air before him. “Both in thinking that I’m that headstrong, and that I can’t be of help to you.”

“Stay out of this, Mother,” Tarrin warned flatly. “There’s going to come a time when I will need your help. But not here, not now. Just stay away for now.”

“Kitten, at least tell me what you have planned,” she said in a nearly pleading voice.

“So you can meddle? No,” he answered directly.

“Kitten! I do not meddle!” she protested indignantly.

“Yes, you do,” he responded evenly. “I have no doubt that if I tell you what I’m up to, I’m going to find your footprints all over Crossroads.”

“Oh please,” she huffed. “I told you before, kitten, you’re an adult now. You chose this path yourself, without me, and as much as I hate what you’ve done, I’m going to respect your decisions and support you now in whatever you do. If you tell me not to interfere, I’m not going to interfere. I just want to know what you’re doing, so I can have some piece of mind, and prepare for any eventualities that might come up when you do finally call on me. And I’m worried about you, my kitten. If I knew what you were doing, if I could at least sense you or know where you were, I wouldn’t be so worried about you.”

“Don’t interfere, Mother,” he ordered in an even voice.

“I won’t interfere,” she answered. “Now tell me what you’re doing.”

“I’m not going to do that either,” he told her with a slight sigh. “I don’t like keeping you in the dark, Mother, but you can’t know what I’m doing. I’m saving you from yourself. You can yell and scream at me all you want, but I won’t change my mind, and I honestly believe I’m doing the right thing.”

“Kitten, you will be in so much trouble when I get you home,” she warned openly.

“Fine. Spank me all you want when I get home, but it’s not going to change my mind. I’m doing what I’m doing because I love you, and you can’t make me change my mind about it, no matter how hard you try.”

There was a startled silence. “Well, you’re right, I can’t argue too much about your reasons. But we’re still going to have a long talk about this little thing called obedience, Tarrin. God or no god, you are still my son, and I’m very put out with you right now for not obeying me.”

“I can’t be an adult when it suits you and a child when it doesn’t,” Tarrin told her. “If you’re going to treat me like an adult, then start right now by trusting me.”

There was another protracted pause, and then a strange growling cry. “I hate that!” she cried.

“What, Mother?” Jula asked.

“Do you know how embarassing it is to lose a battle of logic with a male?” she fumed.

“That’s because you’re not thinking very rationally about this, Mother,” Tarin chuckled. “Stop thinking with your heart and think with your head. You know I have a point. And you know that right now, it’s best for both of us to leave me alone and let me do what I need to do here. Later on I’ll need your help, but not yet. For now, just watch over Dolanna and make sure she’s going to be alright.”

“As much as I hate it, I’ll play this game by your rules, kitten,” she finally agreed. “And you’re right to worry. I’m not sure things are going well on Pyrosia.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Numbers, kitten, numbers. Ariana is there now, and she scouted a huge army marching towards the ruins of Dengal. The Demons have pulled back to the peninsula to the east, and the human armies are moving in that direction. But that does mean that the Dwarves are marching down out of the mountains unopposed. Instead of trying to ambush the Dwarves, the Demon Lord is concentrating his forces. He knows as much as we do that the key to everything is Pyros. He’s consolidating his forces to attack Dolanna.”

“That shouldn’t be an issue, Mother. Has Kang got there with his army yet?”

“It’s ferrying through the gateway now, moving into a staging area outside of it. Jasana just got to Pyros a couple of days ago, and she teleported Keritanima, Ianelle, and a gaggle of advance Sorcerers I sent straight there. As soon as they ground, they’re going to start pulling the army over to Pyros directly. But that’s not everything that’s going on, kitten. You need to know.”

Tarrin listened silently as the Goddess explained the state of Pyrosia to him in succint detail, focusing on the two teams that were going to track down the pieces of his sword, and the importance of the sword itself. “I’m not sure you’re going to find them.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I managed to fling them a long way,” he answered. “And I threw them in opposite directions.”

“You separated them on purpose?”

“Of course I did,” he answered. “I knew that all it would take to restore it would be to put it back together, Mother. I didn’t want that kind of power laying around where anyone could get their hands on it when I’m not there. I didn’t think anyone else could use it, but I also didn’t want someone finding the pieces, putting it together, and getting killed either.”

“Do you know where you put them?”

“No, I was a bit busy,” he answered. “I just know I managed to throw them a long way. I’m sure they went at least a thousand leagues before they landed. I didn’t want to take any chances that one person might be able to find both pieces.”

“Kitten, you just made things very difficult for us,” she told him, a bit accusingly.

“Just ignore the pieces, Mother. What matters more right now is protecting Pyros.”

“Kitten, the people I’m sending includes a Sorcerer for each group. They’re only going to be a spell away from Pyros at all times. If Dolanna needs them, they’ll return. Until then, they’re going to work on locating those two pieces.”

“Who are you sending?”

“Jasana and Keritanima,” she answered.

“Leave Jasana at Pyros, Mother,” Tarrin told her. “Send someone else. She’s the strongest Sorcerer alive right now, and as soon as I send Jula home, she can Circle with Jula for more power.”

“Tarrin, kitten, get over this idea that they have to be right there to defend Pyros,” Niami said with a little exasperation. “Dolanna can recall them in a matter of seconds. Because they might have to fight over those sword pieces, I want my strongest and most capable out there hunting them down.”

“I think you’re being silly, Mother,” Tarrin told her honestly. “The only thing that matters here is holding Pyros until I deal with the Demon Lord. That’s it. Just hold Pyros, and eventually, the problem will be gone.”

“You overlook the fact that the Demon Lord knows about the sword, kitten,” she told him patiently. “He will try to recover it. If he can recover it and restore it, he can bend it to his will and use it against Pyros. Do you really want to see Pyros destroyed by a weapon of your own creation? This isn’t about me or how I feel, this is about cold, hard, logic. I’m certainly not trying to recover the sword to restore you. That is low on the list of priorities. We have to keep that sword out of the Demon Lord’s hands. The only way to do that is to get to the pieces first. This isn’t about getting the sword to use it, it’s about getting the sword to keep someone else from using it.”

“Ah. I hadn’t considered that,” he admitted.

“I rather thought you hadn’t,” she said, rather smugly.

“But I bet that Jasana could use it,” Tarrin mused. “She’s my daughter, and the sword would recognize her. She might even be able to kill the Demon Lord with it,” he speculated thoughtfully.

“Let’s not get too far afield here, kitten,” Niami interrupted his pondering. “Keeping things simple is what’s best at this time. Besides, for Jasana to use the sword against the Demon Lord, she’d be putting it in a position where the Demon Lord might be able to take it from her, and I won’t risk that for any reason.”

“True. Tsukatta.”

“Yes, my friend?” he answered politely.

“Can you take Jula back to the portal to Sennadar?”

“Easily.”

“Good. I want you to take her home. When she gets there, she can go to Pyrosia and help protect Dolanna.”

“No,” Jula said flatly.

“What?” Tarrin said in surprise.

“I said no, Father,” she said defiantly. “I’m not leaving you here alone. You may need me.”

“Listen to me, cub,” he said, not in an angry tone, not in a hostile manner. He took hold of her shoulders and made her look him in the eyes. “There is no room for another in what I’m doing here. And there’s certainly not room for a mortal who lost her magical powers. You would stand no chance if you brought the wrath of the Deva down on you.”

“But you won’t either,” she retorted.

“Leave my problems with me, cub,” he told her. “To put it bluntly, you are no use to me here. Go where you can be useful, cub. Dolanna’s going to need your help. Out here, all you’re going to do is get yourself killed. This is no place for you. This is no place for a mortal.”

“But—“

He put his finger over her lips, silencing her. “Do you trust me, Jula?”

She gave him a stricken look, and nodded after a long moment.

“Then obey me. Believe me, I’d love to have you here with me, but right now that’s just not possible. I need you in Pyrosia right now. Dolanna matters more at this moment than I do. Just leave me to do what I’m doing and be with Dolanna. Can you do that for me?”

She nodded sullenly.

“Good. Dolanna’s life is your personal responsibility, Jula. No matter what happens, she cannot die. If she dies, then we lose everything. She’s more important right now than anything else, even me.”

“How can she be more important? Even if she somehow died, any Weavespinner could take her place.”

“Yes, cub, another Weavespinner could stand within the Heart and maintain the Weave, but it doesn’t change the simple fact that right now, Dolanna is the most important person involved in all of this, even over Niami, even over me. And I’ll tell you this right now, something I haven’t told anyone else, something you can’t tell anyone else, not even Dolanna herself. She and I are joined. She is my power.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Cub, when I died and moved my soul out here, I lost all of my power. As a god of the Firestaff, I have no power at all, it’s all locked inside my sword. I surrendered all of that power when I put it in the sword, and then broke it. But I do have some minor abilities, things I was able to give myself when I catapulted myself into the Astral over and above the basic aspects of my being based on who and what I am. Without her, I’d just be a soul trapped in a body that’s immune to fire…and that’s it. The only reason I have this power is because there’s someone in the material plane who believes in me so strongly that it’s become true faith.”

Dolanna!” the Goddess gasped.

“Cub, Dolanna’s more than my friend. She’s my Priest. If she dies, I lose the only mortal whose true faith is giving me what little power I have, and without that, I’ll die quickly. Without that power, I’ll have no defense against the enemies I’ll have to face. Without it, I’d be dead already. I’ve already been attacked, and if I hadn’t have had the powers that Dolanna’s faith gives me, I’d be dead. Even she doesn’t know what she’s doing, what she’s become. That’s why she’s the most important person in all of Pyrosia at this moment. If she dies, then I’ll die with her. That’s why her protection matters more than anything.”

“How did you do it, kitten?” Niami asked, in sincere shock. “For her to grant you power as a follower, it requires giving as well as receiving! And you can’t do that! The power of the Firestaff cannot give itself to others, and neither can you!”

“Oh, I can’t now. But I gave her something when I was alive that had nothing to do with my power as a child of the Firestaff, something very special, and it was enough. Her faith in me is true, or I wouldn’t have the power that I do. The power is weak, most gods and Demons would consider it pitiful, but I knew how to apply it for maximum effect.”

“How so, kitten?” Niami asked curiously.

Tarrin reached into his belt pouch and produced two black amulets. He held them up to the empty air before him, where he knew that the true spirit of Niami looked on, though he couldn’t see or sense her.

“Brilliant!” she cried out gleefully. “Absolutely brilliant! Kitten, I could kiss you!”

“What are those, Father?”

“They are the soul amulets of Demons, Jula-san,” Tsukatta said with reverence in his voice. “How did you get them, Tarrin-san?”

“One of the little tricks I can do thanks to Dolanna. These are from the two Demons that attacked me just hours ago. Now, the Demons know that anyone they send against me is risking more than a century of exile from Crossroads. Now they will face me knowing that if they lose, they lose this. And Demons don’t like fighting when their own lives are at stake.”

“Kitten, you are a genius!” Niami literally gushed. “They’ll be absolutely terrified of you!”

“That was the idea, Mother,” he said modestly. “Cub, without Dolanna, I’m nothing but a shell of a god with no power and no defense, and without that power, I’ll fail in what I’m trying to do out here. That’s why she’s so important. That’s why she has to be protected at all costs, even if it means losing the Weave on Pyrosia. She’s the most important living thing on Pyrosia. That’s why I want you there with her, Jula. I want you to be to Dolanna what Binter and Sisska are to Kerri. Can you do this for me, cub?”

“I, I can, Father,” she told him, looking up at him with her lucent green eyes.

“And you can’t tell her the truth, cub. Ever. Do you understand?”

“Why not?”

“Because that faith has to be pure. If you tell her she’s empowering me, she’ll have a moral crisis. She is a true daughter of Niami, Jula. How would you react if you were told you were suddenly the daughter of Bekir?”

“I’d be confused,” she answered.

“And so will she. Faith isn’t a conscious thing, cub, and if you make her aware of that faith, then she’ll begin to doubt it. Besides, She does not need that kind of added chaos in her life right now,” he told her intensely. “She already has her hands full with the task I dropped in her lap.”

Tsukatta stood and put his hands together in front of him. “If she is that important, Tarrin-san, then do me the honor of allowing me to stand by her side and defend her from harm,” Tsukatta said in a serious tone, bowing to him and remaining in his bow. “By the holy thunder of Raiden, I swear that I will do everything in my power to ensure she will not come to harm.”

“I wasn’t going to ask that of you, my friend, but I won’t deny any help, especially from someone like you. I know that with you, Jula, and Haley watching over Dolanna, she’ll be just fine.”

“Now that I understand things a little better, I’ll do what I can as well, kitten,” Niami told him. “Tsukatta will bring Jula back to Sennadar immediately, and I’ll have both of them in Pyros as fast as I can get them there. Since I can’t convince you to let me help you directly, I’ll do what I can for you. Oh, and I must say, kitten, that your cunning impresses even me. Never in my wildest dreams did I even consider what you have done with Dolanna.”

“I didn’t entirely plan that, Mother. I’d never play with Dolanna like that. I’m not using her. What we share is special and I treasure it, but it has nothing to do with what I’m doing here. I don’t really know why this faith in me bloomed in her, but I’m not going to turn away from it now, when it’s literally what is keeping me alive. And I wouldn’t turn away from her in any way, ever. I’m accepting the gift she’s given me with gratitude, and I intend to do it justice by using it to do what needs to be done.”

“And that, my kitten, is why her faith empowers you,” Niami told him with complete honesty. “Now then, Jula, Tsukatta, return to Sennadar at once,” she ordered. “And remember that what you’ve heard here today will never leave this room. Never discuss it, even with one another. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Mother,” Jula said with a nod.

“It shall be as you command,” Tsukatta said with another bow.

Kitten. Tarrin. I won’t interfere without your explicit permission, I promise you, no matter how tempted I am to try. I won’t initiate any contact with you. But now that I know where you are, I will be keeping an eye on you from a discreet distance. And if you need to contact me, you just need to call my name.”

“I could do that anyway, Mother. I may be a god, but I’m still a Priest. I’m your Priest. I can use those powers here, and I can use all of them.”

“I’m glad you remembered that,” she said winsomely. “Just promise you won’t give me any heart attacks.”

“I can’t do that, Mother,” he chuckled. “If you feel a heart attack coming, just stop looking.”

“So easy to say, so hard to do,” she said with a rueful little giggle. “Do you need anything? Krin? Support? I can have friends have friends get what you need without directly involving myself.”

“No, Mother. I have to do this on my own. It’s important. You’ll understand when it’s over.”

“I’ll have to trust you, kitten.”

“I appreciate it, Mother.”

Tarrin stood up, which prompted Jula to do the same. He embraced his daughter wordlessly, and felt her dig her claws into his back, her fingers trembling. She knew that he was about to kick her out of the room. “You take care of yourself, cub,” he told her. “And tell everyone that I’m alright, and I miss them. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

“I will, Father. I’m worried about you.”

“Don’t worry about me, cub. Worry about Dolanna. As long as you protect her, I’ll be just fine.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I could ask for.” He pushed Jula out to arm’s length, then clasped Tsukatta’s hand firmly. “I wanted to say thanks for everything you’ve done for us, Tsukatta. I know that you didn’t have to do any of it. This really isn’t your fight.”

“You are my friend, Tarrin-san,” he said with elegant simplicity. “A man is nothing but the ties with friends and family that he creates as he lives, and the honor of name and deed that he makes for himself. I would dishonor our friendship by doing anything less. I know you would do the same for me.”

“I would, my friend,” he declared with steady eyes. “I would indeed.”