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J D Collins

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Erik the Red part 1
By J D Collins
Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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Were-cat meets Pyro-mancer in a world where magic and were's are common. But no one understands a poor under aged Dragon.

Madam Olivia sat at her desk and went through the accounts of the day. One of her children had brought her a new puzzle box in the shape of horse. She thought it would be simple to solve. But it was the thought that counted and it was a new one to her. Going through the accounts was a pleasant pastime always soothing to the jangled nerves accumulated by dealing with the other species that came to stay at this Crossroad Inn. Her littermate was due a visit next month. They would talk about home and their children for about half a day. Then the conversation would go back to the management of the Inn’s. The Crossroad Inn’s were the life blood of the clan and the managers were chosen by the queen wisely. A nesting instinct coupled with a knack for math, leadership in buckets, a aptitude for getting along with almost any species, the ability and discipline deal with mages were just a few of the qualifications needed to apprentice to an innkeeper. Oh, children too, litters and litters of children. After all children were the whole point, weren’t they? All of this was for the children, room for the children to grow, food for the children to eat, a place for the children to learn and perhaps make things better overall for their people. Movement on the hidden trail brought Madam Olivia’s head up quickly. Movement there usually meant smugglers or raiders coming in for trade. But there had been no signal so this time it was not one of her usual “grey” visitors. Examination of the area where the movement had caught her eye at first yielded nothing. Just the usual dip in the brush, the light wind moving the brush in it’s ever different, ever the same dance. But her eyes were superb and she soon spotted the man standing just below the ridgeline and just off of the trail. She watched and waited while a light eldritch sense moved just under her surface thought. “This one foreshadows something, perhaps something bad, perhaps something good, or perhaps something very, very bad.” She would almost swear she could smell blood. After an hour she grew impatient and called for Tabby. Erik stood just below the ridge in the thorny scrub looking down into the valley. Despite the moonless night he could easily pick out the nine guards around the inn. The place was well lighted and clean. The barn and corrals were well tended, the glass clean and the clearing picked up. The three obvious guards that moved in a loose patrol of the grounds, barn and outbuildings were alert tough looking men armed with sword, spear and bows. Those guards hidden in the scrub were alert non-moving and well hidden from most eyes. These latter held bows and wore swords, but Erik could not see any spears. There were five horses in the small corral and about thirty in the large corral. The thirty showed no signs of saddle or pack and so must be a herd being moved to the trainers in Tunson. Tunson was well known for its horse trainers. The five were too large and powerful to be drover horses so Erik thought they might be war-horses. The inn it’s self was a large two story rock and timber affair with an appealing solidness to it. Known though out the five kingdoms, the Crossroads Inn is famous for its food, its hospitality and the short way it has with troublemakers. The Crossroads Inns were also the headquarters for the world government. The Manager of the Inn was also the manager for the worlds Kingdoms as regards their interactions with each other, Empire laws and taxes paid to the Owner of the Six worlds. Judging from the guards, Erik thought that someone should be famous for planning as well. Erik had been standing for a good hour when one of the windows of the second floor opened. A largish ball of fur was hurled out of the window and the window slammed shut. Opening in mid-flight to a lynx sized cat the object landed softly on four outsized feet and promptly sat down and started grooming it’s self. The roaming patrol swung over and one of the guards spoke to the cat. “Well Tabby, what did you do to enrage your customer this time?” The wry amused tone carried clearly to Erik. The cat stretched and blurred into a small curvaceous humanoid wearing what appeared to be a furry top and skirt. “He wanted the usual sex stuff and got scratched when I would not agree.” She had a light tenor voice with a hint of a purr. She stretched again and speaking to the guard in a voice meant to not be overheard, said “There is a man just below the ridge line; he has been watching the inn for over an hour. He is just off of the hidden trail and that is the way he came in. Mistress Olivia said to send one of the boys to check it out. She is tired of waiting for him to do something.” Erik raised one eyebrow and moved on down toward the inn on the trail he had been following for the last three days. As soon as he moved the cat-girl warned the guard, “Here he comes.” The guards looked him over as he moved into the clearing. Erik was a largish humanoid, some six feet tall and looked to weigh over two hundred pounds. Even as large as he was, the guards all looked to weigh close to two hundred and fifty without all the chain and black leather and steel. He had a bulky pack on his back and was armed with a sword along with an oversized quiver of arrows. The Quiver looked to be part of the pack and a cased bow was visible also attached to the pack. There appeared to be something else between the pack and his back as a thick handle stuck up above his head. He was dressed in dark red leather. This latter was something the guards had not seen before and they thought that they had seen everything. Erik walked over to the group and asked the girl, “So what services do you provide?” Tabby looked him up and down and said, “Errands, I will draw your bath, wash your back, clean your equipment, bring your food when you want to eat in your room. Gather information for you and keep your secrets. I will not have sex with you, nor obtain women or men for you to have sex with them. I am a licensed companion and respected by those who have hired me and kept faith with me.” Erik looked over at the guard and said, “I did not mean to alarm anyone, I was just looking the place over before coming on down.” Then to Tabby, “What are your rates? And can we discuss it over a meal?” Tabby smiled, “are you buying, then?” “If the prices are reasonable and you do not eat like a lion. Then yes I will buy. I trust there are rooms available. “ As Erik and Tabby moved toward the porch covering the entire front of the inn, the guard held up an extremely furry hand. Erik stopped at once and looked over to the man, “Yes?” “The red leather sir, where would you find red leather?” Now that Erik was in the light from the lanterns the guards could see that not only his clothing was of the red leather, the pack and quiver was also made of the same material. “Ahhh, it is a process known in my country, it is called, Dragon Skin and is somewhat pricy. These leathers were a gift from my father. I am a trader, sir and should you desire a set of Dragon Skins I would be happy to purchase them for you, at a small commission of course.” Erik’s smile was meant to be reassuring, but as usual failed to quite make it. The guard thought it was like being smiled at by a particularly hunger tiger. The guard said, “I will look you up when I am off duty, if that is ok. I am Guido Elder to White Oak Den of Were-wolverines.” “But of course, although I would suggest you wait until day after tomorrow as I am weary and will most certainly sleep most of tomorrow. I am Erik Daemon Bane, Son of Fire.” Erik, seeing that the smile failed again, nodded and continued to the porch. As he and Tabby stepped up on the rock floor of the porch the front door opened and a much larger cat-person waved them in. “Welcome to Crossroad Inn sir and madam. We offer hospitality unparalleled in the five kingdoms and indeed in the known universe. Rates for sleeping cots only are three coppers per night, with a meal four coppers. A private room is one silver coin per night with a meal is one silver coin and one copper. Private room with all meals and a house provided companion is two silvers per day. Should you have your own companion it is one silver five copper. As the tiger stripped cat-person moved them through the door and into the lobby he closed the door behind them, dropped two large bars into the brackets to lock the heavy timbered door and continued his litany of prices. When he stepped across the door jamb, Erik felt the Inns defense shield pass through him. Erik said, “First we will share a meal and a tankard of watered wine, then we will discuss prices. Right now I hunger.” Tabby led the way through one of the bigger openings off of the lobby toward the smell of food cooking. The room had the usually arrangement of benches and tables but unlike every other inn Erik had ever been in, the wood was clean and rubbed to a high shine. He thought it might be oak, but was not knowledgeable about the wood of this world. The room was not empty, but at this hour there were no more than seven travelers drinking at the room’s long bar. One really big fighter looked Erik over as if to gauge how tough he would be in a fight but was ignored. Fighting was not permitted in the Inn and Erik knew this. Erik moved to a table that gave him an open view of each of the three openings and gesturing to Tabby to sit opposite, shifted the pack to the floor next to his foot and stretched. Another tiger-stripped cat person appeared by their table and said, “We have roast pig, roast cow and soup of everything.” Erik waved at Tabby and said “You first.” Tabby said, “Roast cow, please with a tankard of watered wine.” Erik asked,, “Could I get a haunch of cow, uncooked but cubed? Also with a tankard of watered wine?” Both of the cat-people raised their eyebrows but the waiter said, “Certainly sir, it will be right out.” Erik laid 4 coppers that were in his hand into the hand of the waiter and asked, could you hurry, I am very hungry. Turning to Tabby he asked, “What are your rates and how long does your contract run?” “My rate is one gold a moon, and as long as I am paid one gold in advance, every moon, I will serve you for life. Probably your life as our people are very long lived.” “So no sex, but how about fight for me, would one gold every moon, earn your fighting skills?” Erik clearly knew more of her people than she had first thought. The were-cats of Rrrt were some of the best fighters in the known universe, even those not classed as warriors by their own people. But because so few of them ever left the area of this universe known as the six worlds this fact was not well known. “To hire me as protection is twice as much. Two gold in advance per moon, and this must be two full ounces of pure gold not some debased outer kingdom gold.” Tabby was very firm in her declaration of terms. The waiter placed a platter of chunked beef haunch, raw and another platter of chunked beef haunch, roasted on the table. Another Tabby sized cat-person (or about sixty pound of were-cat) put two tankards of watered wine on the table and rubbed up against Tabby as she left. Tabby immediately fell to and started popping the bite sized chunks of meat in her mouth and chewing. Erik opened the top of his pack and pulled a largish sized pouch of the red leather out and opening it, sprinkled a fine red powder over his meat. Then he took one of the chunks of meat with the powder on it and tilting his tankard spilled some of the watered wine on it. He then threw the chunk of meat all the way across the room into the fire on the hearth and murmured something while it flew into the flames. There was a flash and the meat was gone. Tabby’s eyebrows went up a bit more but she made no comment. The big fighter’s eyes opened a little wider and he whispered to his companion, “Pyromancer!” His companion looked at Erik and then at his friend and said, “Yah, I think that is the one called Erik.” The other paled and turning to Erik bowed deeply and loud enough for his voice to carry to the table said, “No offense intended.” One of Erik’s eyebrows went up and he waved his left hand in a dismissing gesture. “No offense taken.” Then the eyebrows went up some more as Erik started using both hands and continually fed the meat into his mouth at a very rapid rate. When he was down to five chunks he slowed down and using the meat sopped up every bit of the red powder and juices from the platter. The platter was as clean as if it had been licked when Erik stopped and raised his tankard and drained it in one long swallow. “Is there an Oath-Taker here in the Inn or must one be summoned? I have decided you would do well for me as a companion.” Tabby made a yowling sound and the waiter appeared at the table. “He wants an Oath-Taker for witnessing a contract.” The waiter left and immediately returned with one of the white robed Oath-Taker wizards following. The Oath-Taker appeared to be a youthful human woman, but this was almost certainly not the case. Her entrance was carefully watched by the entire room. She placed the silver dagger and the white candle on the end of the table and said, “Speak.” First Tabby, “I am Tabby Wolf Stalker, slayer of Hunds, swearing service to this person as long as I am paid two ounces of gold per moon before the moon of service. I will both companion and defend this person in exchange for this money. I swear.” She then took the silver dagger and sliced the palm of her right hand and dripped blood on the candle.” Then Erik, “I am Erik Daemon Bane, son of Fire and I accept service from Tabby Wolf Stalker for the price of two ounces of gold for every moon of service, gold to be paid in advance of each moon of service. I will treat her as a faithful retainer. I will care for her welfare and give her the same loyalty she gives me. I will deal with her with honor and respect her special needs.” Repeating her actions he took the silver dagger and cut the palm of his right hand and dripped blood on the white candle. In her eerie sing-song voice the Oath taker said, “The oath is witnessed, burn the candle.” The waiter tried to hand Erik a lighted candle but Erik just held his hand above the candle and fire flowed down from his hand and consumed the candle entirely. Tabby glimpsed the palm of his hand and the cut was completely healed. He then dipped his hand down into the opened pack and took a pouch from it. He bounced it in his hand and then handed the pouch to Tabby. “Take out two gold coins for yourself; use the rest as needed for being a companion. Get us a suite for a couple of weeks on the second floor and I need to sleep for a couple of days. He then handed the Oath-taker several silver coins. Closing his pack he lifted it once more to his back and bounced it into place. Tabby left toward the front and quickly came back and waving him to follow led him past the bar where the fighters stood. Erik stopped in front of the big fighter. The fighter stood a good seven feet tall and probably weighed four hundred pounds. Erik put a gold coin on the bar and told the bartender, “this one drinks on me tonight”. Raising his right hand he continued on through one of the doors to the big staircase leading to the upper floor. They went quietly but quickly up the stairs and down the long hall to a door at the end of the hall. Opening the door Tabby went in first and took a quick walk though then returning to the door waved Erik in. Erik waked through the outer room to a room with a window and a large bed. He took the pack off and sat it on the floor and turning to Tabby gave his instructions. “Go through the pack; make your self familiar with the contents. Any thing sealed with black wax, leave sealed. Read all the documents you can read, clean and care for the weapons. A warning, the arrows with the black fletching are poisoned as are the blades with the black handles. Wake me no later than day after tomorrow morning at sunrise.” He then took off his coat, revealing a waistcoat of the now familiar red leather stitched with an orange flame design. The stitching was so well done as to give the appearance of moving. Taking off the waistcoat revealed a red silk shirt which he also removed. Instead of the black hair she was expecting Erik had a very fine scale pattern on his skin. This pattern extended from mid fore arm to just below his neck and as he turned to sit and remove his boots all the way around his body, disappearing down into his britches. He undid his belt, pulled off his britches and laid them on the end of the bed. He was wearing some kind of silk underpants which he also removed to show that the scale pattern continued down to mid thigh, from the bulge at his crotch, the scale was another garment. This surmise by Tabby was proved to be correct as Erik plucked at his waist and finally grasped the edge of the “Dragon Scale” and peeled it over his head. Modestly he turned his back as he removed the bottom of the scale and laid it over the top on the pack. He appeared to be hairless below the neck. Then over his shoulder as he climbed onto the bed, “The scale you clean with sand, I think you know how to do everything else. When I wake, I will want a hot bath and then more food. I prefer raw meat, but in a pinch can eat anything…” he was already asleep. Tabby made sure the door was bolted, the windows locked and closing and locking the bedroom went to the pack and examined it carefully the buckled straps holding the quiver to the pack held her interest for a while. She finally unbuckled the straps and removing the quiver laid it aside. Then she went to the other side of the pack and the bow case. The straps and buckles were the same. She wondered to her self how he got that matte dark red on the buckles. She could see that it was not paint. Tabby came from a very hard school and she had been doing companion work for close to twenty years and was well versed in holding her emotions in check when on the job. So she did not exclaim aloud when she saw the bow but it was a close thing. She had never in her life seen anything as beautiful as that bow. It looked like it had been poured instead of being carved; its curves were fluid and its color a deep green as if the wood was still alive. She did notice when placing the case down on the floor, that the case seemed heavy. When she attempted to lift the bow, she could not budge it. It was as if a spell prevented her from lifting it. Her people were much stronger than they appeared and very much stronger than humans. It made no difference; she could not get that bow out of that case. There was movement on the bed and she looked up. Erik had a sheepish look on his face, “sorry, forgot, too tired I guess.” He then said something she did not understand and she nearly threw the bow through the ceiling as the restriction holding the bow down released. Looking back at the bed she saw that Erik was already back asleep. The bow was warm to the touch almost the temperature of a living being. It also felt more like holding satiny skin instead of wood. The longer Tabby examined the bow, the more she came to the conclusion that the bow was alive, or perhaps a magical artifact. It was difficult but she eventually put the bow back into the case and delved deeper into the pack. The pack opened to the red pouches she had seen in the dining room. Each of the pouches was large enough for her to have used as socks, assuming she wore socks, which she did not. There were four of the pouches lying on the top of the contents of the pack. One appeared to hold the red spice he had used on his meat. Far too wise to taste the powder, Tabby pulled a thin wooden sliver of wood from her boot and touched it to the powder then closed the pouch again. She put the sliver of wood on the hearth, far enough away from the coals for it to not ignite and went to the next pouch. This pouch held gold coins, unmarked gold coins. Bouncing one in her hand she judged it to be exactly one ounce. Unmarked, one ounce gold coins, this was something else new to her. She enjoyed learning new things, but this customer was proving to be surprise after surprise. The next pouch also held gold coins, but these were a mix of five kingdoms coins. The fourth pouch also held coins, a mix of copper, silver and gold. Also in this pouch were several small bits of metal. These bits were copper, silver and gold droplets. They looked like the left over bits from someone smelting or molding metal coins or jewelry. Was her new customer also a jewelry maker? She already knew one thing about him from the performance with the oath maker. He was a Pyromancer, a fire mage, a wielder of the essence of fire. There were a few of them wandering around the five kingdoms along with the more common Elementalist mage of water, air and earth. Maybe as many as ten, but she could only come up with six names. Mages of any kind were odd by most any standard; it was generally believed that too much exposure to magic tended to warp the brain. Tabby’s people knew it was the years of practice and study in solitude that tended to warp the brain. She set the four pouches off to the side and again delved into the pack. There was a layer of something hard lying across the top of the pack under where the pouches had lain. Carefully she felt around the edges and lifting it out, found it to be surprisingly heavy. It measured the exact size of the inside of the pack and the thickness of a silver coin. Turning Tabby laid it off to the side and turned back to the pack. Then she stopped and considered the plate. She had been taught to examine each thing as she came to it. Why then had she just taken the plate out and set it aside? Reaching out delicately with her fingers she picked up the edge of the plate and satisfied, turned again to the pack. Once again she stopped and considered the plate. Tabby turned and kneeling over the plate studied it closely without touching it. Twelve by eighteen inches by a forth of an inch thick, it appeared to be made of black iron. Tabby would have been willing to bet it was not metal at all. She became aware of it watching her. Softly she spoke to it, “Hello.” There was an acknowledgement of her presence. Although how she knew that she would have been hard pressed to say. She then sensed amusement along with the watchfulness that appeared to be the essence of the thing. “Now I am wondering exactly what you are?” Again she addressed it softly and with respect. It always paid to be respectful of magical artifacts, especially those that were self aware. Again there was the acknowledgement of her presence heavily laced with amusement, but no additional information was forthcoming. Sitting back she narrowed her eyes and dropped her inner lids which would enable her to see magic. It was as if she had gone from the darkest cave to looking directly into the brightest of the summer sun. Shocked she cupped her hands over her suddenly smarting eyes and waited for the blinding flash of light to clear from her eyes. Tears poured from her eyes and she waited. The pain left as a cooling hand passed over her eyes. When she blinked them open she was able to see normally at which she gave a sigh of relief. She had thought she might have damaged her eyes forever. Then she blinked in surprise. Other than the sleeping Erik and herself, there was no one in the room. Who then had helped her with her pained eyes? A sense of acknowledgement of her presence again emanated from the artifact along with an apology of sorts. There was a vague “Tut tutting” and the presence hid it self from her. Tabby decided to let well enough alone and turned deliberately this time to the pack again. Under where the artifact had been was a box. Tabby pulled the box from the pack and moved it father out past the artifact and set it down. Letting go, she rocked back on her heels and just looked at it for a bit. The box was made of an exotic wood. Smelling faintly of smoke the wood was a golden brown color, somewhat like stained oak. Careful examination did not reveal any hinges, lid, or other opening. And yet it felt hollow. Tabby had seen many examples of the puzzle boxes, her mom collected them. But thought this one was worth mentioning to her mom. Deciding for once to move on, thinking that the puzzle box might take weeks to solve she turned once more for the pack. Next in the pack were a couple of rolled leather belts. Removing them from the pack she realized they were knife belts. Each of the belts held eight knives. All the handles on one belt of knives were black. The other belt held only red hafted knives. Remembering Erik’s admonition she left the black hafted knives alone and pulled all of the red knives from the belt and the sharpening stone she found in its own pouch on the belt. Six of the knives were very sharp indeed. The other two were merely razor sharp so she felt qualified to touch them up. Finishing the sharpening she replaced one of the knives in the belt and hefted the other. There was something about the knife that made her feel as if it was vibrating in her hand. Eager to fly, to kill, this knife was also an artifact. Tabby was in something of a state of wonder. A mage that had one working artifact was powerful beyond measure and rare too. This Erik, her employer had many. Setting the knife belts aside she looked into the bottom of the pack. There was another box, black and looking in some way,, cold? Some sixth sense, some cattish instinct made her don her gloves for this one. The gloves were a special gift from her mother. They were warded against the strongest and most subtle magic that their people were aware of. Even through her thick warded gloves her fingers were starting to go numb by the time she had yanked the box out of the pack and very nearly dropped it on the rug in front of the hearth. When she looked at her fingers there was frost on them up to the knuckles. This box had a simple lid and a hook as a catch. Using a couple of pieces of kindling from the fire box she held the box down with one and slipped the catch with the other. She was still using the kindling although it was starting to frost up. Tabby pushed the cold black box lid back. Inside were several scrolls. Most of the scrolls were on the red leather she had come to expect. Some however were on the more common parchment. These latter were sealed with black seals and she again heeded Erik’s admonition to leave the black seals alone. Most of the red scrolls were secured with simple string ties. She worked one of these out of the box and untied it and unrolled it with expert fingers. It started with a short list of ingredients listed by both the Magidradic name and the name in common. This was followed by a list of tools and bowls needed. After that was mixing instructions with expected results for each step and a few warnings for when the results did not match that which was expected. The final result expected was at the bottom. Her eyes had been getting wider and wider as she read through this simple to follow scroll. Quickly she re-rolled the scroll back to the beginning and read the title again. It still said, “Dragon Spice, THE Potion for preventing were-dragon from involuntary changing to dragon form.” Her eyes were drawn to the first pouch she had opened, the red powder Erik used on his food. Then her eyes went to the bed, to where her new employer snored on in slumber. Her mind was churning with all the stories of the oral and written history of her people and their association with the Crossroad Inn’s. In the Six Worlds there were six Crossroad Inns. One Inn on each of the worlds and in the Inn there was the Gate to the Six Worlds. The Inns predated the Five Kingdoms by thousands of years, indeed predated the settlement of this world by some thousand years. One of the stories of the creation of the gates was that the people of the first world were the humans and had a mage with more power than any before or since. He cast a portal spell that opened up the second world and the third and the forth and the fifth. The were-cats of Rrrt opened the sixth them selves, (maybe) at least that was one story. The other story the one that the Tabby clan came more near believing was that they were hired then, by the Owner of the Crossroad Inn’s. The Queen met the Owner once a year to report and to get paid for the clans work for the next year. Her clan was the richest and most powerful of the clans of Rrrt. It was because of their employment by the Owner that they held the richest hunting grounds and had the pick of the best of the Toms for breeding. Each member of the Queens family worked in the Inns until old enough to either be hired out, (all the males that had not gotten neutered in one of their many fights) or trained as companions. About thirty percent of the females and all of the neutered Toms were trained as companions. The money they brought in helped the clan migrate to the other worlds (seventh and eighth) where the population pressure was not so high. Part of the money was hush money to the Owner about the seventh and eighth worlds. Were-cats did not do well in crowded conditions. Although the clan knew of the ninth and suspected the tenth they did not ask the Owner to be permitted to migrate there. The stories told of nine for sure being inhabited by dragons. Dragons were said to be chancy creatures to deal with. Sly and short tempered most of them. But the Reds, the Reds were said to be grumpy and very dangerous on their good days. They were easy to anger, slow to forgive and deadly enemies. They were said to take the long view as well. If for some reason they could not burn you to ashes today, they were perfectly willing to burn you to death in the future. Some stories told of the Red Dragons waiting until you and your children’s children died before taking revenge on your great, great, great grand child. Another story told that the reason you had to take two steps between world three and four was that there used to be another world there, but a single Red Dragon had destroyed it in a temper tantrum. Never in the history of her people had anyone ever heard of a were-dragon. They had records of were-cats, duh, were-wolves, were-badgers, were-wolverines (the crossroad guards were of this breed) were-horses and even were-eagles, but were-dragons, no. Her oath prohibited her doing anything about this except reporting it to her people. Walking over to the door, she unlocked it and eased it open just a crack, taking a quick peep outside she spotted her littermate Flashslash and gave the hand signal that she had important information to share with her mom. Flashslash nodded and left quickly. Purrer came out of a room down the hall and took up Flashslash’s post. Tabby closed and locked the door and returned to her duties. Re-rolling the recipe scroll she sat it to one side and teased all but the black wax sealed scrolls out and one at a time read them. All but two were in languages that she understood. Like all were-cats she had a photographic memory. She would never forget what she read or saw. One of the scrolls was a finely detailed map of a world she had never seen. Tabby was very familiar with the maps of the six worlds as well as the two hidden worlds. This map was not of any of the worlds that she knew. The language that the map was annotated in was unknown to her as well. She studied the map and the writings as well taking extra care that she noted each detail and each curve and point of the unknown writing. When she knew she could reproduce it at will she rolled it up and prepared to read the next one when there was a faint scratch at the door. Coming to her feet she silently moved to the door and opened it a crack. Shauna was outside with their mom. Butting heads and rubbing across each others face for few seconds; Shauna entered the room as Tabby exited. Shauna sat in front of the door and went no father into the room. Tabby and Calico (known to non were-cats as Madam Olivia) moved away from the door some twenty feet and Tabby started talking very fast. Any non-Were-cat that was very familiar with the language might have gotten two words out of her whole five minute speech, but no more. Calico nodded when Tabby was finished and they moved back to the room where Tabby and Shauna exchanged places and Tabby went back to her chores. Calico had brought a bucket of fine sand and a mail pan and Tabby started to clean Erik’s Dragon Scale. In the space between one snore and the next Erik’s voice came from the bed, “Did you get your report done?” Startled Tabby replied, “Yes.” Erik grunted and said, “Good.” He then promptly started snoring again. Leaving Tabby now even more scared and puzzled. After a while she returned to the pack and examined the handle that protruded up from the pack. Looking at the strap side of the pack she determined that there was a sheath that existed between the wall of the pack and the thick pad that went against the wearers back. Over half of the handle disappeared into the sheath. The end of the handle that stuck up high enough for Erik to grasp over his shoulder was wrapped in something different that the ever present red leather. Touching it Tabby thought it felt a bit like the shark skin her brother Bairre had brought back after his first Companioning. It felt abrasive to the touch, whatever it was it would provide a secure grip even if coated with something slippery, say blood. Overall the length of the thing was just shy of two feet long and about an inch and a half in thickness. Like the iron plate, it felt magic. She did not want to touch it. Reaching out to it she kept her hand almost touching it, just skimming the air close to it. Grey in color the handle reminded her of the area around the burning valley. Hot and dry, the area was only traveled through. No species lived there, it was simply too hot and dry. As long as anyone had lived on this planet it had never rained there. Volcanic vents around the area spewed sulfurous fumes into the air and left yellow smelly powder over everything. The shortest fastest route was ten miles and no one tried to do it in anything other than as fast as possible. There were skeletal remains all along the trail of unfortunates who had not made it. Staring at this object made her think of this area. Once again donning her warded gloves she grasped the handle. Her scream of rage brought Erik out of bed to stand in the middle of the floor. After an incredulous look at the fur standing on end, enraged were cat trying to let go of the handle he said two words and the spell released Tabby. She bounded a few feet away from Erik and stared at his hands. Puzzled Erik looked down at the globes of fire that surrounded his hands and embarrassed caused them to vanish. “That should not have happened. It should have recognized you as my companion.” Then with a look of realization he noticed her gloves. “Heh, heh, heh.” He looked at the contents of his pack neatly laid out for her inventory and glancing at the black box began to chuckle, then to laugh and then began to howl in laughter. He sat on the bed and laughed and laughed. Then the door burst open and five of the guards burst in edgy and expecting to fight. Erik went off into howls of laughter again. Puzzled the guards looked at Tabby who was obviously seriously pissed off but in no visible danger, then at the howling guy on the bed. The guards looked at the neat layout of stuff from the pack and again at Tabby. Resigned she waved them at the door and with another look at the now subsiding man on the bed. Left by the open door and softly closed it after them selves. “I apologize.” Erik said, “I know I over reacted. I plead exhaustion as my excuse. I have been traveling without stopping for six days and am too tired to think straight. My wards did not recognize you as companion because of the gloves you are wearing. Neither the box nor the wand would have triggered defensive actions had you touched them with your bare hands. Again I apologize and I must express admiration for someone who continued to function despite the appearance that the things you were attempting to care for were the very things that were attacking you.” “Wand, that thing is a wand, as in magic wand? Would you then tell me what the iron plate and the two boxes are?” Tabby was still a little pissed but if he had indeed been awake that long and traveling it was a wonder he could communicate at all, much less make sense. “Yes, that is my wand, the wooden box is a present for your mother, I was informed that she collects puzzle boxes. The black box is a scroll vault; if you do not open it correctly it will freeze you. It has several thousand scrolls in it and if addressed properly will open with the correct scrolls in the open compartment. If just opened it will show the last twenty scrolls used. The iron plate as you called it is my spell book. I am sorry, but I must sleep now.” He eyes had been glazing over as he spoke and he fell back on the bed. Puzzled, wary and not a little worried, Tabby again went to the door and updated her littermate on information gathered. Tabby then returned to her duties. Meanwhile Madam Olivia met with those of her first litter who were onsite for a council. “What do we know?” Madam Olivia asked. “He is a powerful Pyromancer.” This from Bairre, her eldest son, a blue/grey with deep topaz colored eyes. Bairre was in charge of security for this Cross Roads Inn. “Gordo is probably the bravest were-wolverine I have ever known. He said that when this Erik smiled at him he wanted to run. It was as if he were a mouse under a hungry tiger’s eye.” “He is an eccentric, powerful Pyromancer, who has a lot of artifacts. He also knows way too much about were-cats.” Shauna was suspicious by nature and the stranger sent tingles along her spine. “He wants us to believe he is a were-dragon. Does this mean he is a were-dragon, or is he a pyromancer who is playing a game? Conniving, sneaky, sly, convoluted mage is redundant terminology.” Madam Olivia was also suspicious of anything having to do with mages. “I do not believe there is any such thing as were-dragons. I think this mage is playing some deep game. How did he know you collected puzzle boxes? That is fairly well known among the families, but not among the mages. Other than Wilhelm I do not think any of the mages know.” Shauna thought all mages underhanded and sly. They were always playing games of intrigue, politics, and status and above all power. Some of the games lasted for tens of years. Some of the gnome mages played power games that lasted hundreds of years. “Did you consult the Oath Taker?” One-ear, silent until now asked. “Yes, it has never heard of were-dragons either.” Bairre replied. Madam Olivia sat and thought, and then after a while said, “We will treat him as if he is a “were-dragon”. Let us see where this is headed before we commit one way or the other. His asking Tabby if she had reported in makes me think he wants to involve us in his scheme. If he attempts to involve the families in some mad mage scheme he will be dealt with. But the oath he swore for Tabby is troublesome. He swore to deal with her honorably. He gave blood to the oath. One-ear, I will send a communication through the portal tonight. It is to go to each of the Inns and to the Queen’s guard. I will pass all the information we have as well as our speculations through the network. Maybe someone else knows of this Erik Daemon Bane, son of Fire.” After a couple of minutes of soothing grooming among the group, the meeting broke up. One-ear went to his room to get some rest before going through the portal seven times. While stepping through the portal was not tiring in and of its self, passing on this message to seven different groups was. Even at this late hour the traffic in the halls was considerable. In the two hundred feet between his mothers’ office and his room he met a gnome mage, three human wranglers, a cook from Tunson, six tradesmen and a couple of the guards carrying a passed out patron on their way to deposit him in his room. The patron was the very large humanoid fighter that Erik had paid for in the bar. Late in the evening of the next day, Madam Olivia was startled when One-ear came to her office with an old friend in tow. This visitor was from the home world. What’s more, this was a visitor that she knew and knew well. This was Rachel, first litter of Queen Victoria and envoy to the Queen. That is now, but once she was Olivia’s adventuring partner. Years before, they had been as close as it is possible for non-littermates. Now they were just very good friends. Olivia enveloped Rachel in a hug and they spent some minutes rubbing checks and purring loudly at each other. Then Rachel got down to business. “Erik, is he still here?” Rachel was visibly tense. “Yes he is still asleep. His companion, my daughter Tabby was instructed to wake him at dawn.” Madam Olivia was starting to get nervous. “This is very good. I was afraid that he would leave before I could get here. I have a message for him from mom. Erik travels far and fast when he moves and mom did want me to talk to him.” Rachel was calming down as they watched. “So! He is known to the Queen.” Madam Olivia sounded surprised. “He is not known to the Queen, but mom and I know him.” This put a different face on the matter. Had Rachel said he was known to the Queen, it would have been an official relationship. He would have been someone who was either an ally or a contact for all of the families. But Erik just being known to Victoria, as a mother of were-cats, made it unofficial, something that affected only her family. That Rachel knew him as well raised some questions in Olivia’s mind. She and Rachel had been sharing secrets for nearly two hundred years. There was little that they did not know of each others lives. For Victoria and Rachel to know a powerful pyromancer that Olivia had never heard of was… odd. She started thinking, picking out data bits and assembling and reassembling them looking for a pattern that made sense. The only thing that made sense to her would be that they had met Erik while helping another member of their immediate family. Then they would have not shared information throughout the families. At least not until Olivia sent in an official inquiry. “I will tell Tabby that you are here to see Erik.” Olivia said with a small smile. “Is he a were-dragon or not?” Rachel winked and said, “Why ask me? I do not know what he is other than an eccentric pyromancer who took out thirty five heavily armed orks who had cousin Mira wounded and pinned down. He then healed her and escorted her to the nearest Inn. Mom was visiting when he brought her in. Mom said that Mira tried to give him oath for saving her life and he refused. He told Mira that while a were-cat would be nice to have around, he would find one that was not under obligation to him. A strictly business arrangement would be better. He hung around for a couple of weeks. He and mom hit it off somehow. They spent hours talking. Mom would not say much of what they discussed. Then one day he was gone. Mira tried to follow but quickly lost the trail. This was five years ago. Three years ago, Peron came home and told mom that Erik had helped him subdue an ogre that he had been hired to bring in alive. Two months ago he pulled me out of a jail in Hundlind.” Rachel ignored Olivia’s wince and continued, “I was to be beheaded the next day. He personally delivered me to mom with recommendation that I stay out of Hundlind forever. Then he left again. I told mom that there was not a lot left of Hundlind anyway; it was all on fire when he came and got me.” Olivia was both very relieved that Rachel was alive and still seemed to her normal self. But any were-cat that survived the Hundlind jail was usually so mutilated that they committed suicide. Rachel was once again engulfed in a hug and Olivia was licking her eyelids in an old comforting gesture. “How badly were you damaged, love?” Olivia was shuddering as if nearly frozen and her mind was taking her back through the years to a relationship that no longer existed. The horror of her beloved Rachel being in the hands of the Hundlind torturers was very bad. Her mind kept trying to turn off. “It was bad.” Rachel’s eyes were very bleak for just a second. But as you can see some fire heals instead of wounding. Also there is a rumor that Hundlind is having some very serious problems with fires.” Her grin was dangerous and more than a little cold. “It seems as though someone loosed a couple hundred salamanders in the city and a few thousand more throughout the country. The borders have always been sealed of course and their gate does not work any more. The border posts say that the few Hunds that make it to the gate are gibbering in terror, but both of their neighbors turn all of them back. Also all of the Hund refugees have either scorched fur or outright burns on them somewhere. They are offering gold, fancy jewels, and their women to be allowed through. No one is offering them passage either. The Queen sent one of our agents that knew the King of one of the neighbors. This one had helped us in the past with their insane neighbor and spoke frankly to our agent. He said even if he or the other Hund neighbor had been inclined to pity them and allow them out; they had been warned the salamanders would follow the Hunds where ever they went. When asked who warned them the King turned pale and said he could not/would not say. When the agent approached the other king the interview went pretty much the same except this one sent word to the Queen. The message was merely, when you see him, tell him we will comply fully. When ask tell who? The king just smiled and ended the interview. We suspect Erik, but he has been gone since the first report came in.” “He came back twice the next week, each time he healed me more. The last time he said that should have me back to normal and he had business elsewhere. He left in the morning, the reports from Hundlind started coming in the next day. We were reluctant to send word through out the family, but were very happy when One-ear came to us. You should know, there is a full litter coming through behind me. He might not allow us to take service with him, but when he is in the Inns, he will be guarded as well as the Owner. Mother has spoken to the Queen and he has been asked to meet with the Queen. All we have to do is invite him before he leaves again.” Olivia and her counsel all hurried to the Gate room. The single door was in the first sub-basement and looked very much like the door opposite which was one of the pantries. It was and is today a simple plank door with a simple lift latch. But when One-ear opened it for Olivia and Rachel, there followed a long narrow hall. The lighting in the hall was bad. Torches would not stay lit in here. Magic light faded very fast and did not light as well as it should. One mage had said it was as if the very walls drank the light to leave only a dim twilight. Single file, they walked to the door at the other end and Olivia scratched on the door. It was opened by Guido the head of her were-wolverines. Guido looked down the line of people and examining Olivia carefully; allowed them to pass. He had been checking her for coercion, to see if someone was forcing her to come to the gate. Olivia hated the Gate room and other than full inspections of the grounds, never came here. But welcoming a full litter guard from Victoria was enough of a reason to change her habit. The Gate room was the same as all other Gate rooms in the Six Worlds. The room had a shallow dip to the floor with the Gate at its lowest point in the center of the room. This room had always made Olivia feel as if she were in the top half of a Roc’s egg. It was ninety three feet from wall to wall and forty seven feet to the top of the ‘egg’ from the lowest point on the floor. The Gate would only move one person at a time, be it gnome or elephant. The hallway was always one person wide, again be it mouse or ogre. The Gate in inactive form was a column of slowly moving fog three feet across and running from floor to ceiling. When active the column shape changed to a slightly oversized silhouette of the traveler and the traveler stepped out of the fog into the room. The already present honor guard of Crossroad Inn came to fifteen were-wolverines, nine in humanoid form. The humanoids were wearing full armor and seven of the nine had bows with arrows nocked but not drawn. The other humanoids had the special cestuses called slasher’s affixed. The three slightly curved razor sharp blades extended eight inches past the longest finger on each of the hands. The other six were in full animal form. A natural wolverine might hit fifty pounds; the were-wolverine in animal form all hit close to two hundred pounds. Even the were-cats who were the greatest hand to hand warriors in the six worlds did not like going up against were-wolverines. The cats usually won, but all too often both combatants died. This happened rarely these days since the signing of the compact. Now the wolverines were as close as brothers. But once in a while a were-cat and a were-wolverine got crossways and then they usually both got bloody. Both were inclined to fight rather than reason, at least until past their first thirty years. Were-cats tended to large litters every three to five years. The ideal mix appeared to be twelve. A litter was also the smallest group of organized guards/soldiers. Twelve guards made up the Queens litter, a litter of litters was one hundred forty four and a large litter was twenty thousand seven hundred and thirty six. The Queen could call twelve large litters of Were-cats and expect them to be with her in less than a full day. The full compliment of warriors at the Queens command numbered in the millions. Fully half of them were were-wolverines and half of her army was protecting Were-wolverine dens due to the compact. Were-wolverines tended to litters of three to five every four years. The constant fighting between the Wolverines and the Cats was bleeding both species. After a long council between the leaders of both races the compact was agreed on. It took almost as long to find an oath taker that would bring the candle and the dagger to the councils meeting place. While indifferent to most things, all that refused said that going into a place where angered Wolverines and Cats were arguing by the hundreds was just too dangerous. Their death would cost their god the gold that they could earn by staying alive. The Queens and the Elders finally had to guarantee the oath takers life in separate oaths before one would come to the meeting. The other reason for a Queens litter soon became obvious. When the first six were through the gate, the Queen herself stepped through. The Queen was followed rapidly by three of Rachel’s littermates. Then the last six of the litter followed. Olivia and her guard all flopped down on their backs and bared their throats. Victoria snorted, “Olivia quit that and stand up. The rest of you too, this is not court and court manners should not be used here. Certainly not by my Rachel’s beloved, Olivia did you think I did not know what Rachel meant to you? That is why I sent her to tell you what had happened to you. You might not have been able to realize that she was whole unless you could see for your self.” Victoria put her own hand down for Olivia to grasp as she stood. Rachel, Myra and Diana immediately began grooming her and hugging both Victoria and Olivia. The other were-cats watched the group trying to decipher status now. By her actions Victoria had elevated Olivia a few steps. The were-wolverines ignored this grooming and watched everything else. Once all of the grooming and hugging was over the groups moved out into the corridor and the internal hallways were used to move the Queen and party to the suite across the hall from Erik’s. Dawn was spectacular. There was enough dust blowing across the horizon of the burning valley to bring out the reds and yellows. The light entering the room awakened Tabby who had been sleeping next to the repacked pack. The only thing left to re attach was the sword sheath. As soon as she figured out how to put the sword back in the sheath she would. But first it was time to wake Erik. Having seen him startled awake yesterday, she took the precaution of waking him from a fair distance. First she just spoke his name. He snored on. Then she took one of the cleaning towels, a clean one, and tying a knot in it threw it at him. Without opening his eyes he caught it about a foot from his face. Sitting up in the bed, he snap tossed it back at her with a grin. “Ok, you made your point; it’s time to get up.” “If you are indeed awake, I am drawing a bath. Going by your affinity for fire, it is a hot bath. After you are bathed you have the option of eating in here, eating in the private hall or eating with my family.” Tabby listed his choices with mischief dancing in her eyes. Erik had stood, stretched hugely and started to walk toward the bath when Tabby spoke the last choice. He stopped and turned and looked at her. His normally blue grey eyes appeared to have little red flames in them for just a second. He just stood and looked at her for a minute or so and then his eyes returning to normal said, “Your mom got suspicious, sent word to Victoria and now Rachel knows where I am. And the little blabbermouth told your mom everything.” Shaking his head he turned and went to the bath. “Bring a scrub brush, I am very dirty.” Tabby was delighted to bring a stiff scrub brush. In some manner their relationship had already passed from just business to a friendlier one. And she had just gotten him to lower his guard a little. He also did not appear to mind being teased. She thought she might have to be careful about the teasing though, he looked as if he would tease back. While she was scrubbing his back she asked, “How do I get the sword back into the sheath?” “You do not, I have to do it. You can clean it and polish it. You probably already noticed that it does not ever need sharpening. But I am the only one who can sheath it.” Erik leaned forward so that Tabby could reach father down on his back. This was the second bath; the first one had gotten dirty pretty quickly. A lot of what was being washed off looked like dried caked blood. Tabby scrubbed hard everywhere except where there was a long fresh looking scar on the top of his right thigh. Neither one made a comment about the cut. Tabby poured clean hot water over him until all the soap was gone and then handed him a towel. Erik looked at the towel and then at Tabby and handed it back. “You might want to stand back a little.” Erik said with a small grin, mischief dancing in his eyes now. Tabby hastily stepped back and watched closely as Erik’s skin took fire. Flame started at his feet and moved as a thick ring up his body and over the top of his head. Once clear of his head it vanished. Erik was now both clean and dry. Tabby just shook her head and said, “Neat trick that. I would be afraid to try it my self. I think I am a bit too furry.” “That would not be a problem. I would not singe even a single hair.” Erik grinned and raising his right hand said, “I could show..” Stepping a bit father back Tabby hastily said, “No thank you that will be alright.” With a small grin, she continued, “Your clothes are laid out on the bed. And you never said where we would be eating.” Erik dropped the grin and sighing heavily walked to the bed and started getting dressed. “Please get the puzzle box out of the pack. We will eat with your family. Maybe we can eat and run before Rachel gets here.” Erik was watching Tabby out of the corner of his eye and reading her body language went on to say, “No I guess not, she is already here isn’t she? Who came with her?” Again reading her body language he exclaimed in shock, “Victoria?” It was a whispered shout. He went off into a language Tabby did not know, what’s more, she did not think she wanted to know this language. The sounds made her throat hurt just to think about saying them. “I am being catted.” Erik stated finally. “What?” Tabby was puzzled. “I would say hounded, but you are all cats.” Some of the humor had returned to his eyes. Erik finished dressing as Tabby groaned and fetched the box. The private dining room was spacious without being overlarge. Victoria and Olivia were sitting at the head of the table with Rachel standing just behind Victoria when the door opened and Tabby stepped into the room and after a quick scan moved over to allow Erik to enter. Erik drifted into the room with the puzzle box held under his left arm. In his right hand he held a scroll he had removed from the vault. Erik moved to within six feet of Victoria and gave a small bow, of the kind given by queens meeting in a neutral location. One of Victoria’s eyebrows went up. “So are you now claiming to be a royal of your people? That you give me such a greeting? I owe you much Erik but not I think that much.” Victoria spoke with some asperity. Erik replied in a language that only he and Victoria could understand. The shocked almost horrified expression on her face brought the few family guards to high alert. They were ready to attack Erik if given even the slightest hint by their queen. Olivia, Rachel and Tabby were puzzled, all they had heard was praise of Erik by the queen and now she appeared to be furious with him. “I greet you in the name of the Owner, The Light and Shining One, Ra, Lord of Light.” Erik spoke in the language of the Owner, and offered to Victoria the scroll held in his right hand. “As Envoy, I was commanded to remain anonymous unless it interfered with my mission. It has begun to do so.” Victoria took the scroll as if it were poisonous. Breaking the seal she read the authorization of Erik as Envoy to Lord Ra, Owner of all Crossroad Inns. All employees were to hold the word of Erik as if issued by Lord Ra. Erik enjoyed the highest confidence of Lord Ra and was investigating the interference of a hostile entity in the workings of the Crossroad Inns. Over the past several years, certain occurrences such as the unexplained deaths of manager’s families had interfered in the smooth operation of the Inns and this was not going to be tolerated. Victoria stood and gave Erik the bow of employee to employer. Olivia, Rachel and Tabby looked stricken. Still speaking in the language of the Owner, Victoria asked, “How much of this can I tell them?” waving at the others in the room. “As long as we restrict it to the people in this room, everything.” Erik was saddened that Victoria was giving him Envoy honor but the warmth of before was gone. “Erik is more than we thought before.” Victoria announced, “We must give welcome to Erik, Envoy of the Owner. We are all to obey his every command, this information is restricted to the people in this room, and no one else is to be told anything.” At this stark announcement, everyone in the room bowed deeply. Erik continued to the table and gently handed the puzzle box to Olivia. “My master sent this to you when he found that you enjoyed puzzle boxes. It was constructed for you by his eldest son.” The expression on Olivia’s face was torn between gratitude for the gift and wonderment at the realization of Erik’s true status. In the hierarchy of the Crossroad Inns, of the six worlds, Erik ranked as high as an emperor of all the worlds. Choosing a seat where he could view all of the diners, Erik began. “Over the past few decades my Lord has noticed that more and more of the eldest daughters of the managers of the Inns were dying in unlikely incidents. This fact coupled with the degradation of Hundlind and the increase in attempts of slavers to move into the six worlds, shows a passionate and cunning enemy is working against us. My mission is to identify, locate and if possible destroy the enemy. If not then I am to report to my Lord, who will destroy the enemy. “He then turned to Rachel, “It has been custom for the eldest daughter of the managers to be the head of the World Guards on each world with those Heads reporting to the Queens eldest daughter. That custom will continue except that you will now report to both the Queen and to me. I want all reports concerning slavery, Hundlind, and unusual drug trafficking along with unusual stories about magic.” “It would seem that I do not have to swear service to you after all, eh?” Rachel asked quietly. “I tried to avoid your finding this out, much less finding it this way.” Erik said sadly. “I knew it would color our relationships, I had enjoyed just being friends. What I do usually precludes friendship. But my Lord told me to quit jacking around and get with it. So here we are.” There was an old sadness in his eyes and for just a brief instant his eyes were ancient and bleak. “I will remain here and Rachel can come to me once a week to report. In between Tabby and I will travel around a bit. Tomorrow, I will take both Tabby and Rachel on a little field trip. Tonight let us just eat and try to recapture some of our friendship.” Erik then started to eat, first powdering everything with the red powder and again consuming everything as if he were starved. In between bites he asked about Mira, the kittens, all of the families. Especially he wanted to know about the “Purr pack” Mira’s four kits from three years ago. He could remember waking up in a patch of sunshine and all four kits piled on him asleep. The family loosened up as the meal progressed and the conversation about the kits relaxed the mothers. Erik’s obvious affection for the kits showed through and where their children were concerned they were like all mothers proud of their offspring. Some not too gentle teasing about Erik’s bathing habits by Tabby brought out the laughter in Erik’s eyes. This relaxed the mothers even more and they were nearly back to normal when Rachel asked, “So where are we going tomorrow?” Erik’s laughing eyes danced with humor, “Impatient as always little Ripper? We will be going to the Burning Valley; there is something you two need to see.” The use of the nickname had Tabby and Olivia both looking askance at Rachel. She had dropped that name when she and Olivia had quit adventuring. Now how had Erik known of it? Rachel was going through the grooming that indicated mild embarrassment among the were-cats. Licking her hand and running the fingers through her short white hair. Erik reached out a quick hand and touched her on the arm. “Sorry little one, I did not mean to embarrass you.” Erik thought he had stepped over the line a little. Rachel ducked her head and said, “I had forgotten that I told you that.” “If I might ask, when did you tell him that?” Olivia was very surprised, that name had powerful meanings to both Rachel and herself. “In the first camp after he took me out of Hundlind. At the time of the first healing, I was much damaged. I was raving; I can remember parts of it. It was very bad, I was hoping to just die but Erik would not let me.” “Can you talk about it now dear? You have not been able to and the counselors think you need to.” Victoria was torn; she wanted Rachel to deal with this. But the remembered pain in her daughters eyes. The extensive healing needed after Erik had returned her to home. The memories brought her much pain and the horror in Olivia’s eyes was almost too much to bear. “I will try.” Rachel swallowed heavily and started. “The first thing they do of course is hamstring us. The knife is sharp and saw-toothed so as to be as painful as possible. Then the rapes start. I was raped twelve times in the four hours I was in the jail. They kept bringing larger and larger males to make it more painful. The Hunds kept bragging that the “Mother and sons” had helped them capture me and that I would be a sacrifice to them. They had removed my toes and all but three fingers. My eye lids had been removed so I could not look away, My fur had been singed all off and they were starting to flay me when Erik came in.” It became hard for Rachel to speak as Olivia had wrapped her up in a bone crushing hug. Olivia and Victoria enveloped Rachel and were rocking and crying. Tears were streaming down Rachel’s face and she was crying and moaning and sometimes screaming as she relived her ordeal. She could have damaged herself had Olivia and Victoria not had her so wrapped up. The smell of musk in the room was nearly over powering. Her littermates were pacing the room, screaming challenges to the Hunds. The guards were circling the room en-masse most had shifted to animal form. “There was this huge Hund on me when the front door blew in. The door was on fire and burned to ash before it hit the back wall. The Hund on me attempted to cut my throat when the door burst in, but Erik was inside by then and he grabbed the Hund by the neck and yanked him off and threw him at the wall. When he saw me he erupted into flame, the only thing I could see was fire. It was cool to my burned skin and I went to sleep. When I woke I had my fingers and toes back and could move my arms and legs a little. I could blink my eyes,, my eyes.. ohhhhhh.” She cried and cried for quite some time then continued. “Erik would not allow me to quit, the healing the first one, I do not remember. The second scared me pretty badly even though Erik had warned me what he was going to do. He said it would heal, but it looked as if he was going to burn me. A ring of fire appeared above me and came down around me and washed over me. It was hot, but I did not burn. When it had passed I felt almost whole, just very weak. He carried me in his arms all that long way. But it did not seem as if it took as long as it should. He would only tell me his name, nothing more, not why he saved me. He was angry, I could see that. At that first camp I could see the wall around Hund where I had entered. Hund was on fire. The flames were sky high and spreading. I said something about them burning the whole country. Erik said no, they would only burn the people. When I asked, “they?” He would not say any more and just fed me some chunked up meat and water. Then picked me up and started running. I think he ran all the way from Hund to Home, we did not go through any of the standard gates. I would sleep and awaken on another world. He would stop every couple of hours to feed me and give me a little healing but I could see he was getting tired. He was haggard when we reached home. He walked through the guards and they just let him in. I think that impressed me as much as anything. Mom cried, and Erik let her take me, I did not want to let go but..” Rachel cried herself to sleep. When Victoria and Olivia calmed enough to look around again, Erik was gone. Guido was pouring a pitcher of water on his chair. The chair was scorched and smoking. One of the other guards was slapping a wet towel on the burning tracks that led to the door. Tabby was also gone. Tabby was barely able to keep up with the furious mage. The halls cleared as soon as the people saw the stalking burning mage. Fire streamed up from his head and dribbled from his eyes. Small tongues of flame danced across his shoulders and he left smoking footprints in the stone passageways. Down the stairs and out the porch into the courtyard, Tabby strode at his side. Fearful for herself and guests of the Inn, but faithful to her oath she matched Erik stride for stride. Once in the courtyard Erik gestured with his left hand and his pack appeared in his hand. He slung the pack onto his back, checked the wand, bow and sword by touch. Then gesturing with his right hand, a door of fire appeared in front of him. More and more of his person was on fire; flames raced up his legs and circled his waist. The color was changing also, before he had been covered in orange flame, now the flame was turning blue. He turned to Tabby, “Do you stay here or go with me?” “I am your companion, I go where you go.” Tabby had to work at it, but spoke matter-of-factly. Erik held out his burning left hand and said, “Grab hold then.” Without hesitation Tabby placed her right hand in his and held on. It was as if she had grasped a mug of tea, fresh with hot tea. Warm enough to feel, but not uncomfortable. She and Erik stepped through the fire door together. She stepped into nightmare. Once a green forested area now the country here was covered in sooty, grimy ash. Some of the stumps still smoldered. The ground was raw. No vegetation covered the ground here. She could see what was once a cobble-stoned road now merely a rocky barren path. There was rubble stacked around in piles and something about the shape made her believe she was looking at the remains of a building, or possibly a small town. “Where is this place?” Tabby asked quietly. “You are looking at the jail they had Rachel in.” Erik was now completely covered in blue flames. He stalked to the rubble and fire from his left hand blew the rubble off of the floor. There was a door in the floor and now that the rubble was out of the way, Tabby could hear sounds coming from below the floor. The sounds were horrible. They made her think of souls in hell. Startled she looked suddenly at Erik. The burning man said, “Stay here.” And walked over to the door in the floor and stooping lifted it to reveal a space underneath. The basement appeared to be full of fire. When the door opened and banged against the floor on the other side from the opening, screaming arose from the basement worse than before. Erik walked down into the fire and the terror filled sounds from below suddenly went down to whispers of distilled fear. Some little time later, Erik came bounding up the stairs and turning threw a large Hund down at Tabby’s feet. “This is the High Sheriff of Hund. He is going to tell us how he spotted our friend and how he managed to catch her.” Erik was still covered in blue flames. The huge Hund was covered in burns, none fatal but all looked painful. As Tabby looked him over it was apparent that Erik had burned his genitals off along with one ear. Moaning with pain, the Hund started babbling about the wand of truth given to the priests to give to the Hund King. “I am going to call someone to come carry this piece of trash, try not to jump too much.” While still grim looking, Erik’s flame was flickering as if trying to go out. Tabby raised one eyebrow as if to say, “Jump?” but did not actually speak aloud. Erik gestured and a shimmer in the air allowed a really large humanoid to step out of the air. Tabby jumped a little. The massive humanoid was dressed oddly. Boots, pants, shirt all of a style unfamiliar to Tabby but the hat was the oddest. No, the mask, the mask was oddest of all. “Grey,” Erik addressed the humanoid “pick this piece of garbage up and carry it with us. Watch it carefully it is sneaky and sly. I want it alive and able to talk when we get back to the Inn.” Tabby thought Grey was an appropriate name for the creature as it was dressed entirely in Grey. From the top of his hat to the soles of his boots including the mask and gloves, Grey was grey. “I want you free to fight, Tabby. I need my hands free for casting; we are now going to walk back to the gate we entered into. Should you see a fire lizard just point it out to me and I will take care of steering it away from us. I do not want to neither banish them nor kill them until their job is done. There are still Hunds running around here unpunished.” Erik sounded as implacable as death. “Can I ask a question?” Tabby just had to ask. “Of course you can. What do you want to know?” Erik was surprised. “How can Grey watch the Hund when he appears to have no eyes? The mask covers his entire head.” Tabby had never heard of an eyeless humanoid, or an eight foot tall one. “He can see through the mask, from the inside it is invisible.” Erik noticed when Grey looked at him, and answered, “She is my oath-given companion. I owe her truth.” Grey nodded and stooping down picked up the Hund and manipulated its legs in a complicated manner. The Hund screamed but Grey continued on to do the movement to its arms as well. He then slung the Hund over his massive shoulder and waited. Erik and Tabby started walking back toward the gate. Tabby kept checking to the rear because she could not hear Grey even with her super sensitive ears. The man made no more noise than a ghost. Surprising to Tabby the walk back to the gate was uneventful. The arrival at the gate on the other hand… The Hunds sprang the trap perfectly. When the cat was within twenty feet of the gate there was a snapping as thirty bows went off at the same time. The arrows were all aimed at Tabby, the Hund fearing were-cats more than demons. Not that it mattered in the end. None of the arrows came closer than ten feet of Tabby. All of the arrows turned to ash and drifted away on the light breeze. Erik dropped the glamour which had rendered himself and Grey invisible. Tabby heard the Hunds start to run away in panic only to scream and run back past her small group. They were dropping swords, bows, armor anything that might slow them down. The salamanders were waiting on that side of them as well. A few burst into flame before making it back to the little clearing that held the gate. They all scrambled into a moaning screaming clump of terrified Hunds. Erik calmly opened the gate and gestured Tabby and Grey through. Grey stepped through at once, Tabby lingered her nose wrinkled with the stench of terror. Most of the Hunds had befouled themselves and were trying to throw each other out of the center of the mound. They were trying to hide under their fellows. “Are you sure you want to see this Tabby?” The fire that covered Erik was approaching white in color. “Yes, sir, I think I need to see this.” Tabby’s voice was trembling but committed. With no more quibbling Erik turned to the Hunds and spoke: “For treason most foul, I judge you. For rebellion against your government I judge you. For murder, for rape, for immorality, I judge you. I find you beyond the pale, beyond hope and worthy of death. You who are condemned it is time now for punishment.” Erik raised both hands and the mound flamed into ash. The light breeze scattered the ashes and blew them into the trees. “Hundlind I find you the valley and the country worthy of death. For one hundred years you will stand as an example of the wrath of the owner and his envoy. No life will abide here. As the Hunds rebelled against their rightful ruler so will this place rebel against you. I condemn you, Hundlind to burn for one hundred years.” The plate that was a spell book suddenly in his left hand and the wand in his right Erik continued speaking. Only now Tabby could no longer understand him. It sounded like the same language he had spoken to Victoria in, but whatever it was sounded dangerous. It seemed lighter than it had before, it was not time for the sun to rise but the sky was growing lighter. Then, looking up, she saw it and stepped through the gate. Grey was standing a little was away from the gate looking at the guards who were pointing arrows and spears at him as well as the mages who were pointing wands at him. He appeared to be taking no special note of them. Some of the guards and mages switched targets when she stepped through but immediately went back to pointing at Grey. She dropped to her knees and just stared at Victoria and Olivia who had just came out into the court yard. Victoria and Olivia rushed to Tabby as Erik stepped out of the door of fire. His covering of fire was gone and he was just a man wearing red leather again. He signaled to Grey and his burden and said, “There is the last living Hund. We will question him thoroughly and determine what magic was used to track were-cats. Then we will search for the mage who is causing all this trouble. How is Rachel?” “Rachel is much better; she is sleeping now with her sisters. What do you mean last living Hund?” Victoria was almost speechless. Olivia was stunned. Erik had all but told them he had killed every member of an entire species. Glancing aside at Tabby, Olivia tried but could not read the expression on her face. “Tabby, what is wrong with you?” Olivia’s sharp query had everyone looking at Tabby. “She felt that she had to see what I did to Hundlind. I think it shocked her a bit.” Erik was concerned that the sight of one hundred fire elementals descending into Hundlind accompanied by a large pack of salamanders had done something to her mind. Fire elementals were a strange half fire of maternal essence and half spiritual essence. The sight of a fire elemental had been known to cause insanity in a normal human. Erik thought Tabby was mentally tough enough to handle it, but it did bother him a bit. He intended to take her and Rachel far. But he needed to not go too fast. “Grey, bring that with you and let’s go down to the barn. It is time to get some answers.” Grey wordlessly followed still carrying the Hund. Victoria and Olivia followed with their guards with Tabby trailing behind them. Erik went to the big post outside of the corral and had Grey tie the Hund to the post. The straps went around the Hund’s boney wrists and fastened to the top of the post. Grey adjusted the ties until the Hund could just barely lift his weight off of his wrists by standing on tip toe. Grey then stepped some distance away. Erik approached and moving his left hand summoned his book and gesturing with his right hand called forth his wand. Erik started to chant in a language that was not designed for a human’s throat. The wand and the book began to glow with a reddish light and the end of the wand burst into flame. A neutral yellow glow began to appear around the Hunds head. “Truth will bring pleasure, lies will bring pain. Refuse to answer and it will bring much pain. You will not be permitted to go insane or to pass out. Now answer the questions.” Erik’s implacable voice delivered the terms of the Hunds release into death. Lifting his now empty hands, the book and the wand having vanished, Erik pulled a scroll out of his shirt and began reading from it. “Who are the mother and the sons?” “Describe them, as a group and individually.” “What does the wand of truth look like?” “Where is the wand now?” “Where is the gate that the mother and the sons entered your world from?” The questions and answers continued for hours. The Hund quickly became eager for more questions so that he would receive the pleasure that the spell gave him. When all the questions that Erik, Victoria and Olivia had been answered, Erik turned to Victoria and asked, “Would it benefit Rachel to terminate him? He was the one raping her when I broke in on them.” “We can ask her, but I think Tabby should do it for her.” Victoria replied. “We do not want her too caught up in vengeance, it is not healthy.” She turned to Golden Eyes and told him to go get Rachel. “Be sure she knows what we are offering before you bring her down.” Erik again summoned his wand and holding it in his right hand caused it to burst into a bluish flame. Tracing in the air with the end of the wand, the fire lingered in the outline of a door of fire. From the bottom of the door to the top blue flame climbed until there was a sheet of blue flame standing before him. Erik stepped aside and Gray walked by him and stepped into the door of fire. The door vanished and Gray was gone. Rachel and Golden Eyes came down after about an hour and said, “I agree mother, Tabby should do it for me.” Tabby still had that distant look in her eyes but she walked over to Rachel and they hugged and rubbed cheeks. Rachel pulled a dagger from her belt and handed it to Tabby. Tabby took it and turning to Erik asked, “Would you please remove the spell from him? I want him awake and aware.” Erik nodded and waved his left hand and the glow left the Hund. The Hund promptly started screaming and fighting the bonds but had no chance of getting loose. Tabby walked over to the bound Hund and started cutting on him. It took her over three hours to finally kill the Hund even as careful as she was being. The Hund had sustained so much damage from Erik that he was not as tough as would normally be the case. But he died awake and aware. Erik handed Tabby a cloth bag. Tabby carefully put the bloody dagger into the bag and tied the whole thing to the half skinned remnants of the Hund. She then walked over to Rachel and said formally, “It is done.” Rachel wrapped her up in a hard hug and again started leaking tears. Then she stood straight and walked over to the Hund and spat on it. Turning to Erik she formally thanked him and asked, “Would you dispose of that trash for us?” Erik raised his right hand and fire poured down over the Hund’s remains. The fire consumed as it ran down. When it reached the ground it vanished. Not even ash remained. The Hund, the post and the bag with the dagger in it were all just…gone. Facing Victoria and Olivia, Erik said, “We will talk in the morning. We need think time on what we have learned and I for one need a bath.” Erik then walked to Rachel and gave her a brotherly hug, “You did very well. I am proud to know you.” He then headed up to the Inn and his room. Tabby and Rachel were instantly walking with him. ------------------- [1]Oath Takers were very specialized mages/priests of unknown origins. One of the few things known about them was that whatever form they took, usually that of a young human girl, they were sexless. Their highly specialized magic ensured compliance with an oath taken in their presence. Should someone violate an oath after burning the candle, all the blood in the violators body would turn to dust instantly. [2]*A note about juvenile were-dragons. The initial shape change is involuntary brought about from hormonal changes during puberty. A juvenile Red Dragon, post puberty, but before full adult-hood, in that half changed state that plagues all creatures. Caught between the state of childhood and that of adulthood, hormones raging around changing not only the size of the individual but awakening functions not engaged until now, overloading the brain with new and often contradictory messages it is a wonder that more creatures do not morph into something else. Red Dragons live in an environment of elemental magical fire. Their natural home is not the planets of any solar system but instead the star or sun of that system. However when the change is triggered they not only morph into the alternate shape, but the shape is derived from the dominate race upon the nearest planet with intelligent life. Red Dragons have learned the hard way that they must only colonize stars with planets that have intelligent species living on them. If there are no intelligent species on the planet the juvenile dragon teleports to, it morphs into a mouse or some other animal. Once this happens they are unable to change back to dragon form. It takes the ability to form a coherent thought in a structured manner to make the change. An unintelligent animal cannot do this nor can it be done for them, at least not the first time. Controlling the switch is a learned process. Once the change has occurs a couple of times the instability of the juvenile stage will sometimes cause the morph to occur without the conscious decision by the individual. This is the root cause of the formulation of Dragon Spice. Dragon Spice does not stop the voluntary deliberate morph; it just inhibits the unconscious knee jerk change. The recipe for Dragon Spice includes but is not restricted to: hot peppers, naphtha, and a few other common ingredients with a binding agent. The contents are available on every inhabited planet that has Red Dragons living on its sun.  


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