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Regret, I have known no greater pain than that unrelenting and merciless torturer, but I escaped his cruel clutches. A bittersweet victory, indeed, and at a very high price; yet one I happily paid. At least I would be happy, if I could feel happy ... if I could feel anything. The world believes that I am dead, and in many ways I am; but you cannot truly kill a god.
The world saw me expend all my divine power on the field of Armat to close the ephemeral gash and save creation. There my body passed away, but my spirit drained into the earth. And there the complete realization of what my children had become under my guiding hand pierced me through the heart. I fled from it. I pushed my spirit in all directions. I covered the face of the earth--north, south, east, and west. I stretched myself so thin I could feel nothing deeply, and yet regret was still a dull ache within me. I pushed myself to become thinner by exploring the tapestry of time itself. I expanded out along the thread of my personal past and by so doing I finally became so thin that I felt nothing, nothing at all. I cherished the numbness, my blessed escape from all pain, and I gazed with total detachment at my own life laid out before me all the way back to the time I wandered the void as a young, bold, bachelor...
What are this beauty and this horror I behold? Set against the starry canvas of the cosmos, I chanced upon a bright spirit slowly being leached of life by a despairing darkness that sought to envelope the beauty, to destroy her. I saw her spirit both longing to be free but only making a weak effort to save herself. It was as if a spectacularbutterfly were caught in a black widow's web.
"My dear lady, cast off your dark cloak and come travel with me?" My smile lit the heavens. "I will show you wonders you could never imagine."
"But I am afraid."
"Afraid?" That puzzled me. "What do you fear?"
"I relish the unknown!" I mirrored back to her all the glories of the heavens I had seen in my travels. "Come, explore the unknown with me. Embrace it with excitement and not fear."
And so she did. Slowly, over time, she completely shed her cloak. Freed from the darkness, I saw her in all her true splendor. I was overwhelmed. I loved her; and much to my unbridled delight, she loved me! She became heavy with child. It was so exhilarating. We came upon a shadowy land that was all but uninhabited save for two spirits that dwelt there, a brother and a sister. The brother befriended us and helped us shape the land into our nursery. He became a close and cherished friend and oftentimes would visit me in the raiment of a hawk. But the sister chose to set herself apart, and we seldom saw her.
"I felt a kick." My hand rested on her pregnant belly. "There's another, and yet another. But how is that possible, my beloved queen? Is our child going to have three feet?"
"You are so silly." Her laughter rang out. "I am carrying twins, a boy and a girl."
She bore me two children, but the labor exhausted her. I cradled my beloved queen in my arms, trying to pour my life into her to sustain her spirit, but she became thin, and her spirit slipped away. One day I hope she will return to me, but that day is somewhere in the future where the tapestry of time unravels in a constantly changing sea of chaotic threads and uncertain possibilities.
Halting, Tayus cast his gaze skyward. Patches of late afternoon sunlight danced through the pine branches. A ray caught Tayus' right temple; as the muzzle of an old dog goes gray, so too had Tayus' temple taken on a salt and pepper pattern. A breezed shifted the branches above, and the ray of light fell full on the top of his head. His chestnut hair glowed richly in the golden light, but the sun's probing fingers still managed to find and highlighted a few more rogue ashen strands. They were not as numerous as the interlopers had been in his temple, but they were still there nonetheless. He brushed a couple of these white strands from his forehead as he shielded his eyes from the light. A lone hawk circled high above the pine trees. A smile softly creased Tayus' lined and leathery face. Crow's-feet accented his eyes. Emerald fingers wove a chaotic latticework throughout his sapphire irises giving his eyes a mercurial quality. Sometimes they appeared green, at other times blue, and sometimes even gray. Right now they reflected back the blue of the heavens, and in those eyes lay yet an even greater puzzle beyond their chameleon characteristics, for they sparkled uncannily clear and young. Perhaps he was just a man weathered before his time. Maybe a vibrant soul brightened his eyes. Or, perhaps, he shared the piercingly keen sight of a hawk.
"Quaw, quaw, quaw!"
"Yes, the hunting is poor," Tayus quietly mused as he eyed the hawk. "Very poor."
"Wha-ee-awh!" Breaking from a tight circle, the hawk flew off to the north.
"Maydeus' speed, my friend." Tayus watched the noble bird soar off. "Maydeus' speed."
A breeze rippled through the pine needles. Tayus lowered his hand and inclined an ear to the whisper of the trees. The chill in the air spoke to him of yet another fruitless day soon slipping away with nothing to show for it. Well, he wasn't turning back yet. He tugged his hood over his head. The forest green in the dust-drenched wool evoked the emerald hue in his eyes. Tayus wrapped his cloak around his shoulders. The fabric twisted about his thigh-high leather boots, and the point of his sword bobbed out from beneath the hem.
Tayus resumed his loping gait as he scanned the forest floor for signs of game. The pendant beneath his shirt danced reassuringly between his skin and the fabric. His feet flitted over the ground, and yet each footfall echoed in his ears. Why? A frown creased Tayus' forehead. The sound of his feet was the only one to be heard. The forest was eerily quiet. He adjusted his bow and quiver, which were slung across his back. What slow death had overtaken his beloved forest? What was driving the animals from their homes? Tayus' eyes fixed on the ground. Dropping to one knee, he brushed aside some broken pine needles. Finally. Tayus probed a print. Bear--large--and still fresh. He slowly stood. At least the bears hadn't been frightened out of the forest. The hunt was on.
Tayus set a quick clip through the forest, racing like a timber wolf, agile and light, as he slalomed between the trees. The shadows lengthened. The ground grew rocky and uneven. The dusky-red of the setting sun burned across the sky. The trees began to thin. Why was the bear heading toward the hill country? That twisted land was utterly forsaken and devoid of life. The question plagued the hunter, but soon he could hold nothing in his mind save the will to race onward. Tayus' heart pounded in his ears. His muscles ached, begging him to slacken his pace. He would not listen to their pleas, but instead he focused his mind on the sole task of tracking his prey. Nothing else mattered. He just needed to hang on to that, and yet it was slipping from him. The acrid smell of damp earth tingled in his nostrils as the evening dew rose, and the odor revived him like smelling salts. But even that failed him in the end. He fought the lead in his feet, and then in the blink of an eye, the chains of his physical limitations seemed to snap and fall away from him. He felt light as a feather, as if he had passed from the waking world of pain into a dream of bliss. He flew on. In the fading light of the setting sun, he saw her. A huge black bear trundled toward shadowy hills that sprawled across that landscape like some great fallen giant. Tayus quickened his pace.
Nightfall found the hunter racing past the last sentinel trees of the forest into the dead hills. Finally, Tayus slackened his gait. There would be a half-moon tonight, but it would be rising late. For now, he had only the light of the stars to navigate the maze of ravines and ridges. He had lost track of how many slopes he had scrambled up and then slid down on the far side when at last his prey had chosen an easier path. Tayus was tracking her up a dry streambed when he heard a soft grunt ahead of him and just off to the right. She must have stopped just around the bend. He slid his bow from his shoulder, loosely fitting an arrow to the string. He'd have one shot, maybe two, before she'd be on him. Then it would be his sword and dagger against her claws and fangs. He circled up the bank to gain the advantage of higher ground.
They spotted each other almost at the same time, but it wasn't a bear Tayus locked eyes with. A woman of light looked back at him. She was being held captive by a cowled figure of darkness who cruelly cradled her in its arms. No shoes clad her fragile feet. A gossamer dress clung to her skin from her ankles to her bosom. Golden hair streamed about her ivory face. Sapphire eyes pleaded with his, as she stretched her delicate arms towards him.
"Save me," she whispered. "Please, save me."
Confusion dulled Tayus' wits. Exhaustion numbed his caution.
"Save you?" Tayus stepped forward, lowering his bow. "Save you from..."
The cowl encompassed the woman as a python gulps down a small dog. In a blur, the cowl shifted shape. Growling, the bear lunged. Tayus stepped back. The ground gave way, hungrily gaping open behind him. He hurtled backwards into blackness. His quiver slid over his head. The strap slipped past his shoulder. He reached for it with one hand as if by grabbing it he would stop his fall. The air exploded out of his lungs as his back hit rock. His vision swam in a wild dance of light and dark. The darkness swirled and pooled around the edges of his shrinking world. The mouth of a pit gaped above him. Tayus fought to focus his eyes. Blurred, misshapen figures from a child's nightmare flitted by the rim. Tayus' eyes failed, yet his inner sight opened. A panoramic vista rushed before Tayus' mind as if he flew high above in the spirit of the hawk. From this lofty vantage, the misshapen figures looked like a stream of ants as they swarmed from the hills toward the forest. What were these night shadows? Where did they come from? Where were they going? And why? His gaze swooped down on the phantoms. Elves and dwarfs together? How could such a thing be? The two races hated each other. He blinked. An instant later, the view rushed up at him as if he were diving in still closer. He saw the scene before him then all too clearly. It shook him so much he almost lost his second sight. But he held on and beheld in horror the sickly pallor of the soldiers' skin.
"Undead!" screeched a higher voice inside his muddled mind. "Undead invading the forest to burn and kill. And, in killing, swell their ranks. Kyquina must be warned!"
There was just enough time to reach the elves' village of Kyquina. He could outrun the undead, but first he must rouse himself. He must do it now. He struggled to awaken, groping upwards towards consciousness. But Tayus was like a man who had fallen into a frozen lake, and a sheet of ice blocked his final liberation. His mind pounded against the barrier, and yet it would not break or even crack. His limbs felt like they were in irons, and a heavy weight pinned his chest. A low growl echoed in his ears, devouring the higher voice and shattering his second sight. Hot breath pulsed down on his face, melting his memories of the undead. He caught one last glimpse of the night sky before drowning in total darkness, without even so much as the light of one faint star to guide him.
The hawk wildly clawed the night sky, reaching desperately out with his mind for Tayus, but to no avail. All the hawk heard were the hollow echoes of his own thoughts. Years ago, when the hawk had befriended Tayus as an orphan child in the wilderness, their minds had connected easily and often. In those days, the hawk had tutored the boy about nature, counseled him in the ways of courage, and taught him to be a noble hunter. As Tayus grew into manhood, the joining of their minds had waned. Now on those few occasions when they did connect, their shared thoughts often faded away in an untimely fashion. But never before had his mind been ripped away. Not since the passing of the god Maydeus had he felt such a sudden loss of union.
The memories of the god's friendship flicked through the hawk's mind in a kaleidoscope of bittersweet emotions. He and his sister had been shapeless spirits in a land of shadows when the gods came. His sister turned a dark eye upon them and spoke ill of their coming. The gods would have turned and left had he not bade them welcome. The compassion in his heart would allow him to do no less for he could see with his own eyes that Puldea was with child, and Maydeus merely sought for a suitable home for them. He struck up a fast friendship with Maydeus from then on. They were kindred spirits, he and Maydeus, benevolent counselors in a world torn with strife. He helped the gods separate the shadows into substance and light. He himself took on the form of a hawk while his sister reluctantly donned the raiment of a raven. He rejoiced at the birth of the children of the gods and mourned at the passing of each and every one of the divine. In the eyes of the world, the gods were dead, but he knew better. The divine could pass from one form to anther, they could become thin and tired, they could sleep and for all appearance be dead, but the gods could not truly die. He had held out hope that Maydeus would one day come back to him. Yet it was not the god who had returned, but rather the goddess, a goddess enraged at the loss of her loved ones and determined to destroy creation in blind retribution. His sister had rushed to confront Puldea for reanimating the dead into mindless mercenaries. If only his sister had come to him first, together their power might have been enough to stop the goddess. Now his sister's spirit languished in a swampy prison--brooding, a raven of death without any compassion or love. And he? He now looked for hope anywhere a light shone in the darkness.
Far away to the west, too far away for even the keen sight of the hawk to catch a glimmer, just such a light of hope flickered. A lone campfire danced in the midst of the silent forest. The flames cast yellow-orange highlights on the three seated figures that huddled around the warmth of the fire.
A sky-blue cloak draped about one figure's slender shoulders as the folds of the garment cascaded around her six-foot frame. Her moccasin-clad feet and the very bottom of her ivy-green leggings were all that peeped out from beneath its hem. A gust of wind billowed her hood, tugging loose some strands of golden-blond hair. They fluttered in front of her blue eyes before sliding down her freckled face. She awkwardly tucked the mischievous locks back in place, but then out of nervous habit, she pulled a few hairs to her mouth. She fretfully chewed on the strands, looking all the while the picture of a young elf who has not quite mastered the grace of adulthood.
A battle-ax in the lap of another seated figure caught the glint of the fire. The haft was well wedged under one baggy, leather pant leg and pressed over the top of the other. Hands thus free, the figure methodically ran a sharpening stone over the edge of the blade, putting the full weight of his stocky four-foot form into his work. His muscles bulged in his forearm as his hoodless fur cloak swayed with the rhythm, and his tousled black hair jolted at the end of each stroke. He paused, examining his handiwork with keen, brown eyes. A smile creased his gnarled face. He might not be a dwarf in his prime anymore, but he certainly was still a force to be reckoned with in battle. He mused about his past victories as he returned to sharpening his blade.
The third figure sat a bit away from the fire. She seemed impervious to the cold night air. Her ashen-gray cloak gaped open in front, thrust apart by the javelin that lay across her lap. Thigh-high leather boots disappeared under a maroon woolen kilt that hugged the curves of her hips and wrapped around her slim waist. A mustard-colored blouse clung to her skin, the cotton fabric stretching about her well-formed bosom. Her hood lay dismissed on her back as waves of strawberry-red hair rippled about her shoulders. Her placid face revealed no hint of the nagging self doubts that percolated up from the depths of her human soul. Instead, her hazel eyes simply wandered deep in thought, pondering questions whose answers seemingly lay in the dancing flames of the fire.
"Mistress." Suepa slipped the strands of golden-blond hairs from her mouth and tucked them back under her hood. "Mistress, could you please tell us the Tales of the Elder Days?"
"Not again!" Idus jolted to a halt in mid-stroke. "She finished the final tale last night. I say we turn in!"
"Sleep?" Suepa glared at the dwarf. "But you're still honing your blade."
"Well, I'm done." Idus slipped his sharpening stone into a pouch at his belt. "It's good and sharp now."
"It was sharp before you started." Suepa rolled her eyes. "Why not try sharpening your dull wit with our good Mistress's wisdom?"
"Dull wit!" Idus' hands snapped to the haft of his battle-ax. "I know more than you, elf!"
"And I more than you." Awna lifted a staying hand. "Truly, Idus, it would be wise to avail yourself of my superior knowledge."
"Mistress, it is indeed a privilege to be with you." Idus respectfully nodded to Awna. "But we've had a long day's march, and we've got just as long a trek tomorrow."
"Dwarfs," Suepa muttered to herself. "So frail."
"What?" Idus snapped his head around to glare at Suepa. "What did you say?"
"Will a little less sleep do you so much harm?" Suepa cocked her head. "I thought dwarfs were sturdier creatures than all that."
"Sturdy?!" Idus hopped to his feet. "By the War Hammer of Dwardeus, we're hardier folk than the runts of Eldea!"
"Runts?" Slowly standing, Suepa looked down on Idus. "My people are taller than yours and not afraid of your kind."
"Stop it!" Awna slapped the fire with her javelin, sending up a plume of sparks. "You're both acting like squabbling commoners!"
"You should be afraid." Oblivious to both Awna and the sparks, Idus' eyes narrowed on the unflinching elf. "You really should be."
"Enough!" Awna sprang between the elf and the dwarf. "Your mistresses both sent you to me with tidings about the ancient relics because I am the one, the only one, who can save our world. Now, you're traveling with me to help retrieve those relics, not to start the Third War of Elves and Dwarfs!"
Suepa's eyes flitted from Idus to Awna. Biting her lip, the elf bowed her head.
"I'm sorry." Suepa sat back down.
Awna fixed her eyes full on Idus who begrudgingly faced her. The staring match lasted only a few moments before Idus flinched and then looked away.
"Ummm." Idus cleared his throat. "I'm, uh, sorry, too."
Awna kept her eyes on Idus as he sat down and then returned to her own seat. She glanced between the elf and the dwarf. She knew it was in their blood to hate one another, but she also knew that their only hope lay in facing these evil times together.
"It's..." Suepa paused as she caught Awna's eyes over the fire. "It's just that I want to be a lore mistress like you someday, and so I need to hear the old tales as many times as I can."
"And I need to get some sleep!" Idus threw up his hands.
"Soon." Awna nodded to Idus. "I won't keep you up all night."
"Thank Dwardeus!" Idus slapped his knee.
"Rather you should say, praise be to Maydeus," Awna softly scolded. "For it was Maydeus who brought peace to both of your kindred."
"Yeah, right." Tightly wrapping himself in a blanket, Idus laid down on his side to try and get some sleep. "Whatever you say."
"In the beginning..."
"Oh no," groaned Idus. "Not the beginning."
Sighing, Awna glanced at Idus who scowled back at her.
"Mistress." Suepa caught Awna's eye. "Please go on."
"In the beginning, Maydeus roamed the void alone until he met Puldea. She was cloaked in darkness and despair and reluctant to venture forth into the unknown. Maydeus, however, pursued her to join him in exploring the vast void. As they wandered together, she slowly shed her cloak. Thus revealed in all her splendor, Puldea and Maydeus loved each other. And so it came to pass that Puldea was with child. Together, Puldea and Maydeus created the heavens and the earth as their nursery. They carved out the great seas and raised up the high mountains. They painted the land with forests and deserts and vast plains of flowing long grass. And with the clay of the earth, they molded the birds of the air, and the beasts of the land, and the creatures of the sea. They breathed on each of them and gave them life. And when her time was near, together they sealed the heavens so that nothing of the void would ever enter into their children.
"Puldea gave birth to twins, but exhausted from her labor, she died in Maydeus' arms. In his sorrow, he cried so that his tears fell like rain. So it is that every time it rains we honor the life-giving blessing of Puldea and the deep compassion of Maydeus. Maydeus went on to raise their children as best he could on his own. Eldea grew to be a tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed goddess in love with the forest and its creatures. Dwardeus grew to be a stout, dark-haired, brown-eyed god in love with the mountains and the metals within their bosom..."
"Ah, Dwardeus." Idus rolled over onto his back. "And no doubt he appreciated his sleep."
"No doubt, indeed." An amused grin spread across Awna's lips in spite of herself. "And I suppose it is time to turn in."
"Dwardeus lives!" Rolling back onto his side, Idus snuggled in his blanket. "May his beard always grow long and lustrous."
"Thank you for the tale, Mistress." Suepa's eyes sparkled as if she had personally witnessed everything of which Awna had spoken, and then a frown creased the elf's face. "It always mystifies me how even the gods can die. Mistress, what is your understanding of the gods' mortality?"
Idus groaned, but the others didn't pay him any mind.
"High lore gives little insight into this aspect of the gods save only to note when and how one dies." Awna pursed her lips. "It is clear, however, that sickness, disease, and old age never touched the divine. The lesser lore does speak of a raven of death whose mere whispered command could bring cessation of life to mortals and whose power could vie in a life or death struggle with even the gods themselves. But that is as fanciful a tale as the one that says this raven could take an enlightened being and make him dance like a marionette in the hands of a puppet master. I place little stock in such fairy tales."
Suepa thoughtfully nodded, but her narrowed eyes and furrowed brow betrayed a wellspring of unanswered questions.
"You two get some sleep." Awna took a deep breath. "I'll take the first watch."
"I'll take the third," Idus muttered. "Unless the elf needs a night of unbroken beauty sleep."
"I'm fine with the second watch." Suepa pulled a blanket from her pack and rolled herself up in it. "In fact, I rather like the small hours of the night. It's a wonderful time to ponder and contemplate Mistress Awna's lore."
Awna smiled at the elf. Awna did not always see eye-to-eye with Quinta on the Clandestine Council, but she had to admit that the elderly elf had chosen her young apprentice well. Suepa would grow to be a fine lore mistress and sorceress someday. That is to say, if there were a someday. Awna frowned. She only hoped that the Clandestine Council had acted quickly enough to face down the threat. How long had it been? The Clandestine Council had originally been formed to try and quietly smooth out tensions between the races. A little less than a decade ago, she had been selected as the head of the council in spite of her young age. Her parents had always told her that she was born an adult and apparently the council had felt the same. Within months of her taking the lead, the first reports of growing evil in the desolate valley of Armat reached the council. Quinta of the elves, Molla of the dwarfs, and herself of the race of men each agreed to build a tower on the border of Armat and their respective lands to keep watch. They all had been very vigilant, and once it was at last learned that the power behind the undead was Puldea ... Awna caught herself. No, not Puldea. She was the loving goddess of creation. This thing was only a twisted mockery of the former deity. Once it was learned that the power behind the undead was this ... this bear goddess, the council sought out a way to deal with her.
Awna shook her head. They had wasted nearly an entire year in the debate over whether to try and redeem the goddess or destroy her. Quinta had stubbornly championed the idea that they could turn her back to her once loving self, but Awna had finally prevailed with the council that the only wise course was to destroy her. Then there were the months of scouring the lore until they devised the plan. The only weapons that could possibly be powerful enough to kill the bear goddess were the Staff of Eldea and the War Hammer of Dwardeus. Both would be needed. Quinta sent out her emissary to find the staff, and Molla had hers search for the war hammer. Awna could do nothing but watch the growing evil in Armat and anxiously await tidings.
Awna glanced at Suepa. She had arrived first with word from Quinta that the staff had been recovered. Awna had been preparing to leave with Suepa when Idus arrived with word that the Warrior Dwarfs were holding the war hammer in the Temple of Dwardeus. A mere three days ago they all had set out on the journey to Quinta's tower.
Sighing heavily, she rose and reviewed in her mind once again the chain of events. If only they had acted more quickly. She frowned. An entire year lost debating Quinta. Shaking her head, she dismissed the thought as best she could. There was nothing that could be done about that now. Using her javelin like a staff, she strolled over to a pile of wood. With her free hand, she picked out a dry branch and brought it back to the dying fire. She tossed it into the center of the flames. It snapped and popped as the flames licked about its bark.
A fire crackled in Tayus' head. It pounded in his ears with each beat of his pulse. Pain pushed back the shroud that death yearned to sew around him. He struggled to fit together the fragments of his shattered thoughts. He'd been hunting, tracking a bear, or was it a bear? No, it was a woman imprisoned in the arms of a dark figure. She shone like the moon, but then the figure devoured her like a dragon of darkness. Both transformed into the bear which charged, and he fell back into nothingness. So where was he now? Open your eyes and see. No. Not yet. His hunter's instinct warned him to first use his other senses. Did he lay on his back as he had fallen? No, his head was propped up. It felt like a rolled-up blanket nuzzled up against the skin of his neck. Warmth wafted in waves up from his feet to his face. The smell of smoke tingled in his nose. Tayus fought to clear his hearing. He separated out the crackling of his inner pain from that of a campfire.
Someone was tending to him. But who? Why? Tayus slowly cracked open his eyes to mere slits. A campfire did, indeed, dance at his feet. He slid his pupils to the left. The firelight faded off into the night. He scanned to his right. A shadowy figure shrouded in a cowl sat hunched by the fire. The dark emptiness of the hood gaped in his direction. He felt the unseen eyes resting on him, hungrily waiting for him to awaken. Was his sword still at his side, and where was his bow? He could not see them from his current vantage point. He would have to turn his head to see or move his hand to feel if they were still there. Either way, the watcher would know that he was awake. And if he had been stripped of his weapons, he did not like the position that left him in. Fortunately, those were not his only weapons, nor were they the best defenses in close combat. He slowly flexed his right thigh muscle. The top of his boot stretched against his skin. Sandwiched in between, Tayus felt the press of his hunting dagger, still tucked inside its hidden boot sheath. Good. Tayus slowly gathered his breath. With the speed of a mongoose facing a cobra, he yanked the blade from his boot, thrusting it before him as he sat up. His free hand leaped for his sword. Its cold hilt greeted his groping fingers.
"And your bow and quiver are just off to your right," cooed a woman's voice from the cowl. "Those I had to remove, or you'd have an awful pain in your back right now."
"Your voice sounds familiar." His eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"
"A hunter, like yourself." A delicate hand slipped out from each of the cowl's sleeves. The fingers hooked the edges of her hood and pushed it back. Golden hair streamed from around her ivory face, while her sapphire eyes danced in the light of the campfire. The same eyes that had pleaded with him as he gazed down upon her from the top of the dry stream's bank earlier that night.
"A hunter?" Tayus had not meant to voice his doubts, but the words slipped from his lips.
"Yes, I found you in one of my traps." Her words pulled at Tayus with an unseen power that clouded his mind. "I pulled you out, and here you are."
"But..." Tayus fought the fog in his head. "But I saw you before I fell into the pit. You asked me to save you."
"I asked you?"
"Yes and then..."
"And then?" She cocked an eyebrow.
"You and the cowl turned into a bear and attacked me."
Everything was clear in that moment, and then she laughed. It was as if she dropped a stone into a reflecting pool in his mind, and the ripples broke up his memory. He almost laughed himself at how ridiculous his words sounded. But the pendant of joined rings hidden beneath his shirt pressed coldly against his chest. It sobered him, impressing upon him the need for caution for all was not as it seemed.
"You must have hit your head." Her eyes narrowed knowingly, and she scolded him with her stare. "You can't be remembering what actually happened."
"But it seemed so clear to me just a moment ago." Again Tayus did not mean to speak, but the words slipped out as he struggled to calm the ripples in his mind and regain his memory. "And for all I know, you're a shape-shifter."
"You don't really believe in such superstitions, do you?" Her words struck him like a wave, sucking him out into the sea of her will. "Come now, put down your dagger, and let us be friends."
With one hand Tayus obeyed and slipped the dagger back into his boot. But the other hand heeded the unease of his pendant and re-slung his bow and quiver across his back. He could now flee or fight with any of his weapons at a moment's notice. A frown creased the huntress's lips, but then she laughed again. "Next thing I know, you'll be telling me you're a shape-shifter!"
"Perhaps?" A merry grin danced across her lips. "Well then, what do you turn into, a mouse?"
Tayus leaned into the power of his pendant, and no words slipped from his lips this time. The huntress pondered his silent smile and missed the moment when he glanced away from her. His eyes sparkled in the thin white light of the rising moon as it flirted with the craggy horizon. Tonight was just a half-moon, but it would have to do. He took a deep breath. He'd have to make it work. His musings were cut short as she pressed him again with her will.
"So tell me, what band of mice do you nest with: men, elves, or dwarfs?"
"Whoever pays me the most at the time."
"So you're a loner?" She slowly stood. "I like that."
"Do you?" Tayus felt her allure as she tossed her head, spreading out her golden hair, but the pendant steadied him.
"Oh yes." Her swaying hips sent sensuous ripples through her cowl as she sauntered around the campfire to Tayus. "You and I have much in common. We should be allies."
"Allies among loners?" Tayus rubbed his chin and then let his hand slide down his neck to his chest. "Come now, we are mercenaries, you and I. What did you have in mind in way of payment?"
"Aren't you lonely?" She knelt beside Tayus as he slipped the hand on his chest into his shirt. "Isn't the pleasure of a woman's company enough?"
She seductively brushed her hand against his cheek and then rested it lightly on his shoulder. Tayus fingered his pendant. Her allure was strong, but cold, cold as death.
"No." It was as much his pendant speaking as it was Tayus.
"Well then, if you join me, I'll let you live, mouse!"
She shimmered and shifted. Bony fingers gripped his shoulder, while her skull's empty sockets stared out at Tayus. His eyes replied with the sparkling light of the moon now clear of the horizon and steadily rising.
"I'm not a mouse, but rather a..." His hand closed fully around both rings of his pendant as they throbbed with the power of the moon. "...wolf."
He shimmered and shifted. Only his sparkling eyes remained the same. In a flash of fur and fang, the wolf eluded her grip and bolted into the night.