Gulf of Shadows
by John R. Plunkett

3,000 years ago

"So much trouble over such a little thing," Rama Thoth mused. It was a roughly oval lump about as big around as a chicken egg, but only half as thick. The basic matrix was black and glossy, like obsidian. A web of conchoidal fractures covered it's front and back surfaces, as if someone had tried knapping it. If so it wasn't clear what tool had been intended; the lump was too small to make a decent axe head and the wrong shape for a spear point.

More likely the ancient craftsman had meant to create a piece of jewelry. As Rama Thoth turned the stone back and forth, light winking from the textured surface brought out detail that wasn't apparent at first glance. Intrusions of deep red and vivid purple mixed like swirling smoke in the inky depths. The longer one looked, the more vivid the patterns became. One could almost imagine them moving, drifting and folding back upon themselves. The experience was... hypnotic. A person could sit and stare at it for hours and hours...

With a minute shake of the head Rama Thoth clenched the stone in his fist and looked away. He didn't have hours and hours. Minutes, at most, before what he'd done would be noticed. Besides, the crimson stains left by his fingers spoiled the stone's beauty. He ruffled his feathers in irritation; already the blood was turning sticky. And he was drenched in it, from head to toe. With the stone still clasped tightly in his hand he moved to the shower and jerked the chain.

A plate pierced with many small holes and set in the flared mouth of the shower's spout caused it to discharge many narrow streams instead of one big one. Rama Thoth liked it because it felt like rain. Not that rain, or water from the spout, could ever completely wash the stain from his plumage, any more than it would wash the stain of what he'd from his soul, but it helped. The simple, prosaic action gave him a much needed focus, through which he could bring his whirling thoughts under control.

Taneko's death would be noticed, and soon. Rama Thoth forced himself to look at her, laying spread-eagled on his workbench. She wasn't hardly recognizable since he'd nailed her arms and legs to the wood, chopped off her hands and feet, cut out her tongue, gouged out her eyes, and finally torn the still-beating heart right out of her chest. Strictly speaking only the final act had been a necessary part of the ritual; the rest was precautionary. She had been an exceptionally powerful sorceress. Only to be expected, since Rama Thoth himself had trained her.

Rama Thoth slumped against the wall of the shower, struggling against the range, anguish, and grief that threatened to overwhelm him. Why, why, why, of all the people who could have discovered the stone, did it have to be her? If it had been anyone else-

Let's be honest with ourselves, he told himself sternly. With anyone else he would have done the same. It simply wouldn't have bothered him as much.

He'd known that none of the mages of his era would understand. They'd look into the stone and see what Rama Thoth had: doom. Chaos, destruction, death... the end of all things, for all time. They'd react in very predictable fashions: the Whites would try to stop it and the Blacks would try to control it. Every resource and every iota of effort the Societies possessed would be devoted to these tasks, to the exclusion of all else, for however long it took: years, decades, centuries, millinea, eons, until one side or the other had achieved victory. Nothing else would matter because nothing else did matter: the losers in this contest wouldn't merely be wiped out. They would cease to exist and would never have existed. Neither side could afford not to seek the prize because of the possibility that the other might. No agreement would ever hold up, with the prospect of ultimate power in the offing.

It was almost funny, in a grim, twisted way. Rama Thoth's own commitment to peace and order had led him to this place. In his youth there had been many Societies and they'd warred constantly, unleashing indiscriminate magical destruction upon each other and whatever and whomever happened to be in the way. Rama Thoth hated it; he couldn't help thinking that so much power could do amazing good if it weren't squandered in acts of childish barbarism. The obvious solution was to eliminate the cause of the conflict, which were the philosophical divisions of the Societies themselves. In service of that, Rama Thoth set out coalescing all the different Societies into one.

Except that it didn't work, and as the years and centuries passed that became increasingly obvious. There were always people who opposed, simply because it was in their nature to be contrary. Excluding those people only gave them the chance to do mischief unsupervised. They had to be assimilated into the cultural whole or the entire exercise would come to naught.

Again, the answer was obvious: there needed to be two Societies, each in opposition to the other. The malcontents of one would naturally gravitate to the other. If one side got too strong the opposition would pull it down. The beauty was, most of the people on both sides would never realize that, through carefully constructed philosophies, they were actually serving a greater harmony through their conflict.

And there, Rama Thoth had been snared by his own clever web. How could he explain that he'd created the Society of Black, as carefully and deliberately as he had the Society of White, without appearing as a traitor to the very ideals he claimed to personify? Or, at the very least, without making those ideals seem utterly pointless? The matter of the stone amplified the problem by many orders of magnitude. How could he justify giving up something that promised ultimate victory over the Blacks and the realization of everything he professed to believe?

The simple fact was that no one, White or Black, mage or mundane, could hope to wield the power of the stone without being consumed and destroyed by it. Humanity wasn't ready for it. But no one would believe it. The Whites would say that Rama Thoth's own teachings and guidance would protect them. The Blacks would say that their experience and pragmatism would protect them. The argument with Taneko had gone so precisely as Rama Thoth had foreseen that he'd had to restrain himself from making her points for her. And it was but a preview of what would happen if anyone else found out.

That the confrontation with Taneko had vindicated Rama Thoth's concerns was cold comfort at best. He should have known she'd find out; they'd been married for... a long, long time. Who knew his moods better than she? Who else would sense that something was bothering him, though he did his best to conceal it? And who, having confronted her husband and received a reassuring but unsatisfying answer, would naturally seek to investigate the matter on her own? In hindsight it was quite obvious that he might as well have given her written directions, for all the good his dissembling had done.

At the same time, he couldn't help feeling proud. Few enough people would ever dare to invade Rama Thoth's workshop without his permission. Of those, far fewer still could ever hope to survive the experience. Taneko hadn't expected to, which is why she'd come up with a particularly clever solution: a spell that, if she were killed, would cause her to reincarnate with her memories and powers intact. It was a beautiful piece of work; Rama Thoth knew any number of individuals who'd been his students far longer and couldn't hope to craft a spell with such skill, delicacy, and power. Just thinking of it make his heart swell with pride.

Except that it's very skill and cleverness were Taneko's doom. Rama Thoth was sure he could have cracked it, eventually. But he wouldn't have the time. Keeping everything hidden while he worked would be absolutely impossible; questions would be asked and sooner or later they'd lead to the stone. He couldn't even kill her; she'd simply come to life again at some point in the future and tell the world of his betrayal.

There was one option which would be quick and final, Taneko's spell notwithstanding. Rama Thoth could consign her to the Gulf of Shadows, as he'd done with the traitors Imhotep and Kallikrates. But if he did that she'd be lost in darkness forever; not even he could bring her back. And he simply couldn't do that, even with so much at stake. He'd loved her; he still loved her, in spite of everything. The world wouldn't be worth saving without her in it. He knew it to be a sentimental weakness on his part that would probably doom him in the end, but he didn't care.

Fortunately there was another option. Without her Gift the spell wouldn't work. Which meant Rama Thoth had to strip it out without killing her. An exceptionally difficult task, but he was the greatest mage who'd ever lived, or so everyone said. And it was his only chance. So he'd done it. And succeeded, a testament to his own skill and power. Taneko would now be reborn in the normal way, with no memory of her past life. The secret was safe. At the cost of destroying the one thing Rama Thoth had loved, unreservedly. For now and always; the wound he'd inflicted upon Taneko's soul in the process of removing her gift would never heal. However many times she lived again between now and the end of the world she'd never again be a mage, and though she wouldn't remember why she would, in some deep part of her being, always feel the lack.

Rama Thoth burst out of the shower, clutching the stone so tightly its edges cut his fingers. Whatever his own feelings, the choice had been made, the deed done. It was too late for recriminations. All that remained was to try and make the sacrifice mean something. For starters, the stone needed a new hiding place; if Taneko had found it then others could as well. He stared at it for a few seconds, then popped it in his mouth and swallowed. It cut his esophagus on the way down to his craw but he didn't care; he was beyond pain now. He raised his wings above his head and concentrated; the bright yellow and burnished copper of his plumage seemed to brighten, then glow. The light increased until loose bits of paper laying about the room began to curl and smolder. He prided himself on his careful and meticulous note-taking, which had aided him greatly in his research over the years, but it was those very notes which had let Taneko discover the truth so quickly. They had to go, irrespective of the mount of knowledge he was casually throwing away. And, of course, he had to destroy the evidence of what had happened to Taneko.

A flash a million times brighter than the noonday sun blossomed from the empty desert. For many, many leagues in every direction all life was extinguished, charred black by the heat pulse then smashed to bits by the shockwave with struck like the fist of God. Stone and adobe blocked the killing flash but overpressure from the shockwave shattered buildings, reducing them to storms of white hot fragments that slew any who'd thought to take shelter in or behind them. The light faded into an enormous, flame-shot cloud that soared skyward with incredible speed, folding back on itself in a characteristic mushroom shape that people of a far distant future would recognize instantly. If one of those people had been present, and properly trained in such matters, he would have estimated the yield at approximately ten megatons.

Where Rama Thoth's house had stood was now a broad, shallow crater. It's floor glowed with the heat which had fused the sand into glass. In the middle of it Rama Thoth stood, wreathed in golden flame. He was a Phoenix; he couldn't be harmed by fire, no matter how severe. He lowered his wings and walked to the edge of the crater. Liquid glass clung to his feet like mud but didn't otherwise discomfit him in any way. When he finally reached ground that had merely been baked hard instead of fused he dropped to his hands and knees and started sobbing. His tears puffed into steam and they landed on rocks that were still red hot to the touch. He was still there, much later, when the ground had cooled enough so that the Gifted who'd come in response to the cataclysm could finally approach. They didn't question his story of an experiment gone horribly wrong, which had claimed Taneko's life. He was Rama Thoth, after all, the first Lord of White; his word was unimpeachable. Besides, his obvious distress at her loss couldn't possibly be faked.

Same era, another place

"What is it, Zuelika?" Thedan inquired. His youngest daughter had stopped, looking off into the distance and testing the air like a hound on the scent. A very apt analogy, given that she was a jackal, just like her father and two brothers. And she probably did actually smell something. Or, at least, Thedan fervently hoped so.

"Over there, Papa." Zuelika pointed. "There's a good one." She rubbed her hands together and licked her muzzle in gleeful anticipation.

"Let's go, then." Thedan set off, without the slightest hesitation, though he didn't sense anything at all exceptional in the night air. Zuelika had proven her worth time and time again; he had no doubts about it now.

Reti had made noises to the effect that Zuelika was old enough that she really should be preparing for marriage, not out at night in the desert with her dad and brothers, as if she were a boy. Thedan agreed in principle, but in practice Zuelika's ability was far more valuable to Thedan than any marriage she could reasonably expect to make. In a mere five seasons she'd brought him as much wealth as he'd amassed in his entire life before that. Which included the period when Thedan had worked with his father the way Zuelika worked with him now. And Thedan's father had been a master of his craft.

Everyone said that old Nebba had quite a nose, but Thedan knew that mostly it had been plain old shrewdness and a keen power of observation. Real power only ever appeared in females. Such as Heti, who'd been Nebba's mother and Thedan's grandmother. Her nose had been the best Thedan had ever seen or heard of, even- especially- including Reti's cousin Bek, who expended much effort to make her power seem like a lot more than it really was. Thedan had really liked Heti, though he'd only known her in the earliest seasons of his youth. Even so, Zuelika's power made Heti's look like nothing at all. And Zuelika was a mere slip of a girl, just barely at the age where her hips and breasts started to fill out. The mind boggled to wonder what she'd be like as an adult-

Zuelika froze, halting her father and brothers with an upraised hand. Thedan held perfectly still, hardly daring to breathe. The necropolis had guards, to prevent meddling with the graves. Mostly they only watched those belonging to the wealthy, whose families had paid handsome stipends, but they wouldn't ignore someone who stumbled under their noses. Especially someone with Thedan's reputation. The guards would really like to meet him, and not in a nice way.

"It's all right, Papa, just a snake," Zuelika announced, and started up again.

Thedan sighed with relief, but he was at best only partly relieved. The encounter reminded him of something that had happened earlier that summer. Bek had taken to spreading gossip and vicious rumors about Zuelika, in particular that Zuelika's apparent success was nothing but trickery, her supposed power little but dramatic hand-waving. Reti complained bitterly but Thedan merely found it amusing. The stories far more accurately described Bek herself. Besides, the idea of a grown fem feuding with a girl not even half her age couldn't be anything but silly.

The silliness had ended a few weeks ago when Zuelika showed up in the market with a jar that she claimed held a cobra; in front of Bek and everyone else Zuelika had offered to put her hand in, and then everyone would see if her power was real. Bek accused her of fostering another trick; the jar was empty. Zuelika had merely responded that if so, Bek wouldn't mind putting her own hand in and exposing the fakery for what it was.

After that, everyone agreed that Bek started shouting. Some said she was angry, some that she was afraid. Some said that Zuelika taunted her, calling her a coward and a blowhard; others said that Zuelika endured the tirade in silence. After a time Bek had moved forward; threatening to hit Zuelika with a stick, according to some, or merely gesticulating, according to others. Then, once again, all the witnesses agreed: Zuelika reached into the jar and drew out a very large cobra. It was wrapped around her arm, from her wrist all the way to her shoulder. She gripped it around the body, well below the hood. There was no way she could have prevented it from striking her. But it didn't; it reared up, flaring its hood, and hissed at Bek, its eyes fixed on her.

Everyone reeled back, including Bek. "What's the matter?" Zuelika asked, mockingly, moving forward. "Why don't you just tell her to leave you alone, Bek? Surely that's not so hard, is it?" Then she brought the cobra up to her face and gave it a kiss. It nuzzled her cheek.

Thedan's mouth pulled down into a frown. He didn't like Bek; She was a blowhard, and a spiteful one at that; he wasn't at all sorry to see her get her comeuppance. Furthermore, the incident brought much fame and fortune to Thedan's house; suddenly all kinds of people were coming around, wanting Zuelika to ward their homes from evil spirits, tell their fortunes, or make potions. For all of which they paid Thedan handsomely, naturally enough. Even so, he never would have permitted Zuelika to pull that stunt, had he known. Which was probably why she'd done it when he'd been away.

The real problem, which Thedan hesitated to admit, even to himself, was that he was afraid. Zuelika's powers went well beyond exceptional, and she was but a child. What would she be like when she grew up? Thedan found himself recalling stories of the goddesses of old; some of the things Zuelika did came awfully close to what the stories talked about. One in particular spoke of a fem who didn't fancy the male to whom she was engaged, instead preferring another. Her father refused to consider her wishes, and pressed ahead with the marriage. On her wedding night the fem transformed into a snake and swallowed her husband whole.

That story was another reason Thedan didn't press the matter of Zuelika's marriage. She was a good girl who loved her papa and- for the most part, anyway- did what he said. He was happy, she was happy, and the family quite well off; why risk upsetting it? He didn't seriously think she might slip a cobra into his bed... but why create a situation where she might be tempted?

Zuelika stopped again and cast about, testing the air. "Here," she pronounced, indicating a spot on the slope.

Thedan unslung his pack and got out his shovel. The boys did the same and attacked the indicated spot. Thedan could tell, by the texture of the soil under his shovel, that he was digging into the rubble left over from an excavation into the cliff face. It was fairly well packed, so it had been there for a while, but the covering of soil laid down by wind and water over the years was fairly thin, so it hadn't been too long. A promising sign, on the whole; newer tombs were carefully watched and therefore unapproachable, while old ones had often been visited by grave robbers of the past, leaving little or nothing for their descendants.

Zuelika positively vibrated with excitement as her father and brother shoveled away the spoil. A rich, luscious odor seemed to waft up out of the ground. It made Zuelika's mouth water, like the smell of fresh bread. Never in her life had she discovered a tomb with such a delightful and compelling scent.

No one- not even Thedan- asked Zuelika how she located tombs. Which was just as well, because she couldn't really say. By scent, yes, but she couldn't in any meaningful way described the scent. It wasn't like anything else she knew a word for. Normal odors could be masked or blown away; this one couldn't. Normal odors couldn't go through deeply piled earth and sealed doors. This one could. Most importantly, other people couldn't smell it. Except for Bek; she could smell it. Zuelika knew that because she could make herself emit the odor, and when she did Bek became afraid. Of course, Bek was a fool. She had just enough power to let her realize how little it really meant. So she tried fooling people into thinking she was stronger than she was and constantly lived in fear of anyone with real power.

Of that particular smell, Zuelika did know one thing: it was the smell of death. Which wasn't the same as the smell of old corpses or rotting meat. For one, those were ordinary smells. For another, they were actually smells of life, just like a stinky midden hole indicated that people lived nearby. Corpses stank because little things lived in them. Dead things- truly dead things- didn't smell at all.

The smell of death- the one Zuelika smelled- sometimes clung to people who seemed perfectly healthy. then, a few days later, they'd get run over by a wagon, choke on a bone, or have some kind of attack, and wind up dead. It came as a terrible shock to everyone but Zuelika, who could usually predict it to within a day or two. She given up saying so when people came for fortunes; most people really didn't want to know, despite what they said.

When someone died and was buried, the smell clung to the grave long after any other traces had been wiped away. That was how Zuelika found the tombs. The necropolis workers might as well have given her a map, for all their attempts at concealment mattered to her.

Theban's shovel hit something hard. He waved the boys back and worked carefully, by himself, for a bit. He uncovered a stone lintel, then the top of a door, sealed with plaster. "That's my girl," he said proudly, then waved the boys back in and shifted the digging pattern. They widened the hole, uncovering the entire top of the door for about the length of a man's forearm. They all laid their shovels aside; Theban got out a hammer and chisel.

"Let me, Daddy." Zuelika dropped down onto her belly in the hole and carefully extended her fingertips toward the top of the door slab. The seal placed on the tomb by the necropolis workers wasn't visible but she felt it, as distinctly as the gravel upon which she lay. There was another seal, too, obviously placed by the person buried here. That one was a lot stronger and more dangerous. Zuelika grinned; that proved she'd picked a good one. People who could afford to put such spells on their tombs packed them with all kinds of good stuff.

Bek would have quailed in terror at the idea of attacking a seal this strong. So would Theban, if he'd really understood what was happening. Zuelika dimly suspected that it was deliberate, that he didn't want to know. Zuelika found that disappointing; as if not knowing would somehow protect him, like those people who didn't really want to be told when they'd die.

For her own part, Zuelika wasn't worried in the least. In fact, she licked her muzzle in eager anticipation. Yes, this was the most formidable seal she'd ever faced, but she had supreme confidence in her ability to overcome it. It was just like weaving, but in reverse. Instead of working threads together into a balanced, cohesive whole, one ever so gently picked the whole apart, reducing it to its component pieces. Though, in all fairness, failing to properly pick apart a rug would only result in losing some threads that might otherwise be salvaged. Failing to pick the seal meant being the victim of a fearsome curse that could easily strike a person dead on the spot. It didn't concern Zuelika in the least. It only made the attempt more exciting.

There were several occasions when Zuelika almost blew it. Each time she managed to save it. By luck as much as skill perhaps, but she'd done it nonetheless. Though she was panting when she straightened up and wiggling her fingers to loosen then. Thuban placed his chisel where she indicated and gave it a blow with the hammer. A whole section at the top of the door shattered as if it were poorly fired pottery instead of stone. Zuelika grinned triumphantly.

From the sack of equipment came a rope. One end went around Zuelika's waist. She was the only one small enough to fit through the hole and anyway she could do the inside work faster and more efficiently than anyone else. She wriggled through the hole, pulling the rope behind her.

The hole was at the very top of the door; to get down Zuelika paid out a loop of rope, then shimmied down it while Thuban held it steady up above. Zuelika untied herself and set out, groping across the floor with her hands. The inside of the tomb was completely and utterly black, so utterly dark it wasn't possible to tell if one's eyes were open or shut, and strange flashes of light and color appeared as the eyes struggled to see anything, anything at all. It didn't bother Zuelika unduly; she was used to it. Besides, her other senses guided her. She got to her feet and walked boldly through the dark, turning unerringly at all the right places.

Treasure didn't have a distinct smell but Zuelika knew when it was near. She dropped to all fours again and groped forward slowly so she didn't inadvertently knock something other. Her questing fingers found something... a jar. She cracked the seal and removed the stopper. Inside she felt... paper. Scrolls. She put the stopper back, moving on. There were lots and lots of jars; instead of opening them she picked them up, checking their weight. Jars containing treasure would be heavier.

The instant her fingers touched it Zuelika knew she'd hit the jackpot. This jar wasn't the same as the others. More roughly formed, for one. Definitely heavier; she could tell just by rocking it gently, without even having to pick it up. Her fingers located the seal and eagerly picked through it. The stopper was heavy, made of the same rough pottery as the jar itself. She twisted it free-

Something burst from the jar. Zuelika couldn't see it but she felt it, spurting from the jar and filling the air like smoke. Desperately she tried stuffing the stopper back in the jar but she couldn't; the vapor was so cold it burned, and the stopper slipped from her numbed fingers. She scrambled back, clutching her injured hand. She felt her flesh shrivel and crack until nothing remained of her hand but bones with hard, leathery flesh shrunk tight around them. She screamed in horror and fear, scrambling away.

You called me. Now you belong to me. Then it struck, as viciously and mercilessly as a hunting falcon diving on its prey.

Zuelika screamed. She didn't scream for long.

When the horrific roar burst from the tomb, Thuban messed himself. He didn't care; he was too scared. A horrible, icy wind exploded from the hole in the tomb door, driving Thuban back under a hail of dust and debris. He staggered away, hands up to protect his face. Just when he thought he was lost it stopped. Then it reversed, sucking back the other way. He staggered, then threw himself flat and clawed at the ground to keep from being sucked into the hole.

As suddenly as it came, the noise and wind stopped. Thuban lay there a moment, too stunned to act. then he picked himself up and looked around.

The hole, where they'd opened the tomb, had been filled in. In fact, it was filled in so completely you'd never know there'd been a hole. Everything else was gone, too. The tools, the rope-

Zuelika. Thuban almost called her name aloud but something stopped him. He was very careful not to know too much, but there were things he'd picked up in spite of himself. In this particular case one thing was blindingly apparent. Something in the tomb had taken Zuelika as casually as a frog catching a fly. Zuelika had powers; the greatest Thuban had ever seen. Against that, he and the boys weren't even flies. Hardly even gnats. And he was about to call the attention of whatever it was on them.

Suddenly, Thuban realized how incredibly, unimaginably terrified he was. His feet started running long before his mind could form any kind of coherent thought on the matter.

From that moment onward Zuelika ceased to exist. The family never spoke of her again. No one dared risk attracting the attention of whatever had taken her. The passage of years didn't dim the fear in the least; if anything it got worse. The strain of it was probably what sent Thuban to his deathbed much sooner than anyone had expected. Though also it could be related to the fact that he'd gotten rid of all the treasure Zuelika had helped him collect, so he'd had to work hard to support his family.

As Thuban lay in bed, his breaths coming in ragged, wheezy gasps, his eyes stared with bleak hopelessness at nothing. Suddenly, they widened. He screamed. He screamed with a vigor that would have been startling in a man half his age and vastly more fit. Then, just as suddenly, he fell silent, his last breath escaping with a gurgle. The necropolis workers did their best, but they couldn't completely remove the expression of utter horror that had become frozen on his features.

1,000 years ago

After taking the loaf from the oven Raza broke it and applied a generous dollop of butter to each half, then set them on a platter along with a lump of cheese. She set the platter on the grass exactly five paces from her chair, one less than yesterday. Then she sat and got on with her spinning, humming quietly to herself.

Right on schedule the porcupine girl appeared. At first she was visible only as a pair of occasionally glimpsed eyes, lurking in the underbrush at the edge of the clearing. In time, just as Raza expected, she crept out, drawn by the enticing smell of fresh bread and butter. Being careful to move only her eyes, not her head, Raza watched as the girl crept across the grass, as if drawn by a string running from the tray to her eagerly quivering nose. Today she only made a show of watching Raza and went straight for the bread without pausing, sitting down to eat instead of squatting, ready to bolt. The show of trust filled Raza's heart with joy, as did the fact that the little dear was finally starting to fill out. In the beginning she'd looked like a scarecrow, nothing but bones draped in empty skin. Now, at long last, she was getting close to looking like a proper little girl. Which, in Raza's view, meant plump and round. Of course, being a badger, it could be said that Raza had a rather slanted view of such things. She'd readily admit it might be so, but surely no mother could condone seeing a child starve if there was a thing she could do about it.

The girl finished the bread and the cheese, going so far as to lick the crumbs off the board. She rose and took a step but paused, glancing back. Hopefully? Longingly?

It was time to make her move, Raza decided. From beneath her skirts she produced a mug of milk, drawn only a short time ago. She leaned toward the girl, offering it. Her eyes widened until they looked about ready to pop out of her face. She wanted it... but the old caution returned. She took a step back, glancing up at Raza, who smiled encouragingly and wiggled the cup enticingly.

The girl looked at the cup, then back at Raza... and made a decision. It was a bit startling to see that on one so young, but the signs were unmistakable. She didn't surrender to temptation, as another child might, she deliberately chose to accept Raza's gift. Though perhaps, under the circumstances, it wasn't so surprising. This girl had obviously been surviving on her own for some time; that would force her to grow up fast.

"What's your name, little one?" Raza asked as the girl took the cup of milk.

For a time the girl just looked, as if she didn't understand the question. "Shona," she said, in barely more than a whisper.

"You don't worry now, Shona," Raza promised. "You aren't alone any more."

Then, a thing happened that Raza had never seen. The corners of Shona's mouth quirked up. She was smiling. "I know." She looked over her shoulder, toward the forest.

Raza looked up, wondering what Shona could be looking at, but instantly looked down again. It had seemed, for just a moment, that Shona's eyes- normally deep, emerald green- had changed to a bright, vivid purple. But surely it was just a trick of the light-

A flicker of movement caught Raza's eye; she looked up yet again. At the edge of the clearing some bushes stirred, as if someone had disturbed them in passing. But there wasn't anyone there; there couldn't have been. Raza would have seen. And yet, as she looked down again at Shona, it seemed like she heard something. A rustle of leaves ,surely... but it almost seemed more like a repressed sob.

28 years ago

Nicholas paced back and forth, back and forth, like a caged animal, his tail lashing. Cain, meanwhile, sat calmly in his chair, holding a book but not reading it, gazing off at nothing with a quiet, relaxed expression. Nicholas grimaced; he fully appreciated the irony of the situation. He was usually the calm one, telling Cain to relax and take it easy. Now it was he, Nicholas, pacing because he couldn't sit still, fighting the urge to rip and bite and tear at anyone and anything within reach. Not because he thought it would help somehow, but because there wasn't anything he could possibly do to make difference. It was all up to Alexandra now. Her and God. She was doing all she could, and God... God had already decided, for good or ill. Against that decision there was no appeal; God didn't bargain. Only the Devil made deals, and his promises were worth as much as those of any politician.

"She's going to be all right, Poppi."

Nicholas stopped and turned. Cain had risen, his book laid aside on the chair next to him. Nicholas felt a lump forming in his throat and tears welling in his eyes; everyone said that Cain was the very image of his father, but Nicholas knew that he'd never been as stunningly fit or as breathtakingly handsome as Cain, not even in the prime of his life. And that had been a long, long time ago; Nicholas had waited until he was well established before committing himself to the responsibility of raising a child.

Which was the crux of the problem, really. In Nicholas' eyes Alexandra would always be the haunting beauty of his youthful passion, but just as the passing years had softened Nicholas' sculpted physique and turned the fur on his cheeks and muzzle to hoary gray, they'd exacted their toll from her as well. The doctors had explained, very thoroughly and carefully, that it was dangerous for a woman her age to be having a baby. There was an increased risk of congenital difficulties that could affect the child, and a greatly increased chance of complications that could affect the mother. Even in the best possible circumstances there would be a significant personal cost for bringing this baby into the world.

Nicholas gazed deeply into Cain's yellow-gold eyes, then swept him into a fierce hug. Cain was not a physically demonstrative fellow- he would shake his father's hand and nuzzle his mother's cheek, and that was about it- but he yielded willingly to his father's embrace and returned it firmly.

"It'll be okay, Poppi," Cain said quietly into Nicholas' ear. "I'll take care of her, I promise. Whatever happens."

Nicholas' mouth worked. He didn't trust himself to speak.

After a while Cain gently broke the clench. From his pocket he drew a hip flask and presented it. With a nod of thanks Nicholas opened it and took a pull. It was the expensive imported vodka, the special stash Cain wasn't supposed to know about. Nicholas smiled wanly; he should have thought of it himself. Right now he could have used a few quarts of the stuff-

The lights flickered. Flickered again. And went out. The emergency lighting snapped on.

Nicholas spun around, looking up and down the hall. The hospital staff burst into a flurry of activity, while the occasional patient or visitor looked around in amazement or tried to ask questions. Nicholas' lips drew back from his teeth in a snarl; he had questions too, but he wasn't going to throw them haphazardly into the air. He'd drop them very carefully, where they'd do the most good. He spun on his heel, taking a step toward the doors leading into the maternity ward, but Cain was faster yet: he reached the door first and swung it open so his father didn't even have to break stride.

"Sir, you can't-" a female nurse, a middle aged vixen, leapt up from her station as Nicholas and Cain burst through the door.

"Why is the power off?" Nicholas demanded, coming to a stop only just before colliding with the fem. She recoiled, even though he didn't actually touch her. "This is a hospital," Nicholas continued, quietly but inexorably. "If the city power goes out, there's supposed to be a backup generator, isn't there?"

"Sir, you have to-" the nurse tried again.

"Answer the question!" Cain snarled. "Now!"

The nurse let out a squeak. Cain had always been a serious lad. As a young male he'd become... not dour, but frighteningly intense. It was an intensity that unnerved a lot of people; when he did something he focused all his attention upon it. It was like... like watching a tiger stalk its prey. Which was appropriate enough, since Cain was a tiger, just like his parents. He'd inherited his father's massive, powerful physique and his mother's grace and beauty, which combined into a truly astounding whole. His physical presence alone was impressive; adding to that his grim, implacable determination and a temper that burned with the quiet intensity of heartwood coals, he could become truly terrifying. He'd conquered people who were much larger and older than him, without lifting a finger, by sheer force of personality. Nicholas spent most of his time reigning his son in- Cain had a tendency to resort a little too readily to intimidation and violence- but this time he said not a word. Nicholas understood his son so well because he himself had spent most of his life combating the same urges, and right now he wasn't in the mood to mess around. Not with Alexandra and his new baby potentially in danger.

"I- I don't know!" the nurse squeaked, on the verge of tears. "There is a generator but it didn't start! I don't know why!"

Nicholas slipped past the nurse; she didn't have the information he wanted so he dismissed her from his mind. Cain fell in step behind and slightly to his right.

The door to the delivery room burst open, admitting a badger in scrubs who was about Nicholas' age, and a scream that Cain and Nicholas instantly recognized as Alexandra, for all that it sounded like nothing human. Both of them advanced, looking even more grim and bloody minded than before. Dr. Houston, the badger, stepped firmly into their path, blocking the door. He was their doctor in no small part because he couldn't be intimidated; he'd been a combat medic in Korea and a surgeon in Viet Nam, and he'd endured far worse than what Fayral elder and junior could throw at him. Though he couldn't help respecting them; a few more like them at the sharp end, especially in 'Nam, and things might not have gone so badly to shit. "Mr. Fayral, you are not going in there," he announced firmly.

Nicholas stopped, but only because he knew that arguing with Dr. Houston would be pointless. Fighting him would be only marginally less so, even with Cain's assistance. Dr. Houston didn't even reach Nicholas' shoulder, but what he lacked in height he made up in girth, and his tubby, rotund build and shaggy pelt concealed the fact that nearly every ounce of his prodigious weight was solid muscle. He knew how to fight, too: not genteel, college-boy fighting but dirty, vicious, gutter-brawling, the kind of thing that kept you alive when the enemy could appear anywhere, anytime, without warning.

Even so, Dr. Houston appreciated that a big part of being a doctor was not the technical aspects of medicine but managing one's patients, what was very inadequately called 'bedside manner.' "A transformer blew up in our main power feed," He began briskly. "A surge caused the backup feed to trip off, and the emergency generator threw a rod, right through the side of the crank case. I know it's not supposed to happen but there it is and right now we have much more serious things to worry about. There's five people in this hospital on life support; at least two of them will die if we don't get them hooked up in the next ninety seconds. So I hope you'll understand that I don't need you two making my like any more difficult."

"What can we do about Mother?" Cain demanded, before Nicholas could speak.

"Nothing," Dr. Houston pronounced. "She's well into second stage labor; we couldn't move her if we wanted to. The best you can do for her is wait here. I have work to do." He turned and re-entered the delivery room, permitting another bloodcurdling shriek to escape.

Nicholas wasn't consciously aware of Cain tensing and shifting his weight, so he didn't understand the impulse to put his hand on Cain's shoulder until his fingers actually touched Cain's flesh. "He's doing what he can, and so are we," Nicholas said. "This isn't a problem we can attack with our fists, however much we may want to."

Cain nodded and relaxed, but he didn't leave his place by the door. Neither did Nicholas.

Inside, Dr. Houston didn't need to glance over his shoulder to know that the Fayrals were watching him through the windows. Much as he wanted to, he couldn't blame them; the birth of his youngest daughter had been like this. Being a doctor made it worse, because you knew all the things that could go wrong and you could tell when they were happening just by watching the obstetrician and the nurses. And there was plenty to see, without a doubt. He deftly replaced the obstetric nurse, taking the sponge with which he'd been wiping the obstetrician's face. "What's the situation, Honeo?" he asked.

"Bad," the obstetrician grunted. He was a coyote, about ten years Houston's junior, but he could make a scalpel do practically anything short of sit up and beg. "The baby's transverse, mother's hemorrhaging, and the placenta's going to pieces."

Dr. Houston closed his eyes momentarily. He could have made that diagnosis just from the haggard expression on Honeo's face. "We have to do a C-section," he said.

"Without power? Are you nuts?" Honeo scoffed.

"Honeo, there's two feeds from the city power grid and an emergency generator," Dr. Houston hissed. "What are the chances that all three would go tits up at the same time? Normal is gone, Honeo! Dead and buried! We can't wait for them to un-fuck the power, we don't have the time! She doesn't have the time!"

Honeo vacillated for about two and a half seconds. Which, for him, was a long time. "You'll have to do it," he says. "I- my fingers are great, but my eyes-"

"I know, Honeo." Dr. Houston squeezed Honeo's arm reassuringly. Then he turned, but the nurses were already setting up the gear; this eventuality had been considered likely long before Mrs. Fayral had gone into labor. As a nurse pulled a latex glove over his right hand it split, from the middle finger all the way down to the wrist. "What the-" Dr. Houston exclaimed. "Never mind, Get me another pair!"

The nurse was already moving. He grabbed a second pair, but even as he unfolded them Dr. Houston saw that one hadn't formed properly in the mold, leaving a hole in the palm. And it was the right hand, of course. How it had escaped quality control checks at the factory and again at the hospital he had no idea, and right then it didn't matter in the least. "Forget it, we'll do this the old fashioned way," he decided.

If Dr. Houston thought things couldn't get any worse, he was dead wrong. While changing the IV bottle the nurse managed to drop the replacement so it shattered against the table leg. The the other nurse stepped on one of the pieces and cut a horrendous gash in the side of her foot. Dr. Houston turned and beckoned imperiously. "You two, get in here!" he shouted. Nicholas and Cain burst in. "Sweep up the glass and get those two out of here!" Nicholas grabbed a broom and Cain addressed himself to the injured nurse. Honeo ran a new IV line but when he hung it from the stand the height adjustment catch suddenly came loose; the bottle bounced off the rack but Nicholas managed to catch it with a desperate dive. He ended up having to stand there, holding it. Then, as Dr. Houston prepared to make his first incision, the portable light flickered and died. Honeo kicked it; it flashed twice and went out again. Cain leapt up on a chair and dismounted one of the emergency lights from the wall. He propped it on his shoulder, aiming it down so Dr. Houston could see.

Dr. Houston didn't consciously remember most of what happened next, except as a series of disjointed images and impressions. It was like being at the aid station in Korea all over again, working mostly by touch and pure instinct. Someone tried to wheel a crash cart in, but the doors to the delivery room were jammed shut, even though Cain and Nicholas had come through them without any difficulty just moments earlier. He distinctly remembered the shattering of one of the windows, because at that very moment he found what he was looking for. He couldn't see- the light was wrong and the operating field covered with blood- but his fingers knew he'd hit the jackpot. He pulled, and a baby tiger came out in his hands. She was an energetic one, too, wiggling in his grip and letting out a very healthy shriek as soon as she was clear.

The lights came on. The door flew open; a maintenance worker who'd been about to jimmy it with a crowbar fell flat on his face. The bar clattered across the floor and bounced from the back of Cain's shoe. Suddenly, it was as if nothing had ever happened; everyone moved with perfect precision and coordination and everything worked just like it was supposed to. Dr. Houston felt giddy, as if he were floating a few inches above the floor. He had to resist the urge to laugh. And yet, he did his part in the dance with flawless perfection; it seemed as if it wasn't possible for him to make a mistake. Only after he'd closed the incision and straightened up did he suddenly realize how desperately sore and drained he was. His whole body was shaking; he had to clench and open his hands repeatedly to save off painful cramps.

One of the nurses had taken care of the baby, washing her and wrapping her in a towel, then laying her in the crook of Alexandra's arm. Nicholas and Cain had been pushed back, since they weren't sterile, but Nicholas forced his way forward. Alexandra look up at him and smiled dreamily, in an expression that somehow contrived to look radiant, despite the fact that the rest of her looked like Hell, to put it mildly. She reached out with her hand; Nicholas caught it, then fell to his knees, clutching her hand to his face, sobbing.

"What's her name?" Honeo asked.

"Raquel," Cain supplied. He was actually smiling; it was a goofy expression, totally out of character, and it made Dr. Houston's throat tighten. For as long as he'd been doing this, there were some things that never stopped affecting you.

Honeo filled out the birth certificate, writing the name Raquel Fayral in neat, block letters. Dr. Houston was glad, because at this point he wasn't sure he could write legibly. "She came into the world with a bang, that's for sure," he commented.

Cain looked directly at Dr. Houston, his face splitting in a wide grin. It was a hard, feral expression, the grin of a predator relishing the prospect of the hunt. Much more in keeping with the Cain Dr. Houston had come to know. "That's my sister," Cain pronounced. Proudly, it had to be said.

Orderlies wheeled Alexandra out. Nicholas walked at her side, still holding her hand. Cain followed. He was watching, Dr. Houston noted: guarding, while his father was distracted. "She's gonna have an interesting life, I think," Dr. Houston commented under his breath.

26 years ago

"That's good, that's good," Maedra assured. "Breathe... breathe... now push."

Abeni gritted her teeth and pushed, groaning with the effort. Chao winced; she'd squeezed his hand in a crushing grip. But there, it was happening! He could see- he could see-

Childbirth was not a beautiful experience. It was a horrific morass of pain, struggle, exhaustion, and fear. What it did to the female anatomy was... shocking, to put it very, very mildly. And what it did to a man's psyche, knowing he'd caused this, and there wasn't a thing he could do to help...

Abeni's vulva bulged and stretched in a most alarming fashion as the baby moved through her birth canal. Maedra had explained that Abeni's big, broad hips and heavy, fleshy build made her ideally suited for this: her reserves of fat would provide ample fuel for the baby's growth, and a larger opening spoke of an easier delivery. Chao could only say it didn't look easy, not with the way Abeni moaned and cried and writhed. Sure, Maedra said that Abeni's labor had been relatively quick and easy, especially for a first pregnancy. But nothing she'd said had truly prepared Chao for the awful truth. He would have fled a dozen times over, except that he wasn't sure he couldn't have broken Abeni's grip on his hand.

Yes! There was definitely something there. Something was coming out-

Chao almost missed it. One minute there was something bulging from Abeni's vaginal opening. Then it squirted out into Maedra's hands, like a cork ejected from the mouth of a champagne bottle. Chao couldn't see clearly because with the baby had come a spurt of fluid which clouded the water. He could see that Maedra was holding something: something that miraculously unfolded from a compact little capsule into a real live baby, with tiny arms and legs waving feebly. With a triumphant grin Maedra held it up, then laid it face down across her hand and thumped it sharply on the back several times. It coughed and started wailing thinly.

"Congratulations," Maedra said. "It's a girl." She was grinning like a loon and crying a waterfall at the same time as she rose up and presented the baby to her parents.

Abeni started laughing, laughing and crying at the same time. Water splashed over the edge of the tub, soaking Chao and the floor, but he didn't care. Abeni had released his hand to reach for the baby, so he moved down the tub to take her from Maedra and transfer her to Abeni's outstretched hands.

Seen up close she was an ugly little thing, all slimy gray and purple, with only a smattering of wet, scraggly hair. She looked bizarrely misshapen, especially her head, which came to a bullet-like point. And on her chest was a curious mark, directly over her heart. Chao might almost have called it a scar, except how could a newborn baby possibly have sustained any injury?

Chao didn't care. She could have had three heads and five arms and it wouldn't have made the slightest difference to him. She was his daughter, his little girl. He laughed, knowing that his own expression was just as goofy and crazy looking as Maedra's and Abeni's. He didn't care about that, either. And what everyone said was right: childbirth was beautiful, a wonder beyond any words.

"What's her name?" Maedra asked.

"Cyndi," Abeni croaked. Labor had made her voice raw but couldn't erase the tenderness in it. "Her name is Cyndi."

2 years ago

"Vicki darling? How do you feel?"

Slowly, Vicki opened her eyes. She found herself gazing up at a soft, feline face. The fur, once lustrous black, was now tinted gray around the muzzle. Age had hollowed the cheeks somewhat, making the face somewhat gaunt, but the yellow-gold eyes remained bright and warm with compassion. Vicki's eyes traveled downward; the face belonged to a elderly fem wearing a gray robe only a few shades lighter than her own pelt. One hand- gnarled somewhat but retaining its strength and surety- rested gently on Vicki's arm.

He swung the knife. The blade flashed, a deadly gleam in the dark. It struck right there, where the old fem had her hand. Blood sprayed as the blade sank deep, all the way to the bone, severing the artery. Vicki screamed and screamed and screamed-

"I... feel kinda funny," Vicki replied. Her voice was scratchy, as if she had a mild cold. She cleared her throat. It helped a little.

"Here, let me help you up." The fem's strong, sure hands elevated Vicki's torso. "Here, darling. Look at yourself in the mirror. Don't you look pretty?"

Vicki found herself gazing at a young, slender mink fem with bright, dark eyes. Quite a looker, too; trim, perfectly proportioned, and curved in all the right places. She was naked, too, which at another time Vicki would have appreciated. She liked well-formed fems.

"Um..." Vicki said. Two unrelated thoughts competed for her attention. She liked well-formed fems: slender, athletic, with tight, round bottoms and pert little breasts. That's why she'd liked- liked- someone. Someone who'd looked like that. Someone who'd been so strong, so confident, in public but so shy and uncertain in bed. It drove Vicki mad with lust. If only she could remember who...

The other thought was that the fem in the mirror had a silky, pure white coat. But shouldn't she have changed to her summer pelage by now? Or as it summer yet? Or had she missed it? How long had it been? She couldn't remember...

He grabbed Vicki's mane in a crushing, painful grip and wrenched her head back. "Do you believe in God?" he whispered, his breath batting against her ear. "Do you believe that when you die angels are going to carry you away to your eternal reward?" His tone was mocking, derisive. The tip of the knife teased the flesh of her throat, dimpling it but not quite cutting. "Well, your angel is here, my dear. He's right over there. You can't see him now but you will. Oh yes, very soon now. But not too soon. What would be the fun of that?" He giggled as the knife bit into Vicki's neck-

"Let me help you up, dear." The fem gently impelled Vicki to her feet. She started to turn Vicki away from the mirror but Vicki resisted.

Vicki stared at the mirror with furious intensity. The person there was herself, as she'd been for all her adult life. As familiar as... well, as anything could possibly be. Then why do I feel like it's a total stranger, someone I've never seen before? Vicki's hands moved to her face, patting her cheeks and exploring her muzzle. Her fingertips tripped lightly down her chin, her throat, her breast. They ranged across her shoulders, down her arms. They stroked her breasts, taking note of the nipples. They continued down: belly, hips, buttocks, crotch, legs, feet. There wasn't anything sensual about it. she was just... taking inventory. Making sure it was all still there. Which begged the question: why shouldn't it be?

The knife was sharp, as sharp as a beam of light, but even it wouldn't cut through bone. For that he used the hacksaw. Whistling tunelessly he set the blade in the cut the knife had already made and set to work. It didn't seem to bother him that blood was still pouring from the severed carotid arteries, splashing over him and Vicki like a waterfall. In short order he'd cut through the vertebra and spinal column; Vicki's head fell to the floor with a thump and rolled once before coming to a stop. He laid the saw aside and grabbed her by the mane again, picking her up and turning her face toward the ruin he'd made of her body. The worst part was, Vicki saw. she shouldn't have been able to, but she did. She saw her torso, with the arms, legs, tail, and breasts all hacked off and piled around it. Her belly, slit open, with her intestines and other internal organs pulled out and strewed around. She was clearly dead but she was still here, still conscious. She tried to scream but her throat wasn't connected to her lungs any more. And yet her chest heaved, causing the bloody mess of her severed neck to froth obscenely as it tried to force air through a throat that wasn't there any more. The arms and legs twitched, the hands grasping.

"And here is your angel, just like I promised," he said, turning Vicki's head. And she saw it. It hadn't been there before but it was now. And it's gruesome visage was a thousand times more horrible than everything she'd seen so far.

"Come over here and get dressed," the fem said, tugging Vicki away from the mirror. This time she went; there wasn't anything more to see. "It's time for you to go home. Isn't that wonderful?" She kept up a friendly banter as she put Vicki into her clothes, as if she were a baby. Vicki didn't help, but she didn't resist, either. She lifted her feet when directed, raised her arms, and so forth. She didn't object to dressing, it simply... wasn't important, really.

"Now, sit down and eat." The fem impelled Vicki into a chair and set a plate in front of her. Vicki picked up a fork and started eating, mechanically, without any real awareness of the food. It was simply that she didn't have anything else to do. And she was hungry, she realized, in a detached sort of way.

The fem watched Vicki eat for a while, then moved to a corner of the room. An ornate lacquered screen stood there. "She doesn't believe it," the fem whispered. "She goes along with it, but she doesn't think it's real."

Lady Synne Pothecarius, standing behind the screen, heaved a sigh. She was a Nighthorse. Her mane and tail were the characteristic flame color, pale yellow at the roots fading to dark, coppery red at the tips. Her hooves and fingernails were black. But her coat was pure white, with silvery highlights, and her eyes a rich lavender. "I know, but I've done all I can. If I press any harder, she'll break under the strain."

"Are we really doing her a kindness?" the fem asked.

Synne's mouth worked. She had her own opinions about that. "Kayleigh insisted, Patricia," she pointed out.

Patricia's mouth tightened into a line. "It was still wrong."

"Probably," Synne allowed, turning to face Patricia squarely. "But tell me, if it were your lover, what would you do?"

"I'd let him go, and be at peace," Patricia replied, without hesitation.

"And when you were Kayleigh's age, would have done it then?" Synne pressed.

Patricia turned, looking at Vicki. "I'm not so old I've forgotten what it's like to be young and in love," she whispered.

Vicki finished eating and looked up. "I need to go to the bathroom," she said.

"Right this way," Patricia said, moving away from the screen.

In the bathroom Vicki took a seat, then looked up. "Oh, hello," she said. "What are you doing here?"

I wanted to say that... I'm sorry about all this.

"It's okay," Vicki replied. "It's not your fault. I know you did the best you could." she smiled wanly. In truth, the angel- if that's what he really was- didn't look any less horrifying now than before. But now... it didn't matter so much. It wasn't important.

I'm sorry I frightened you.

"That's okay. I know you weren't mad at me. You were mad at him."

Yes. For and instant that terrible, implacable wrath blazed in its eyes, but as quickly as it came it faded. I have to go now.

"Will I see you again?"

Everyone does, at least once.

Vicki smiled. A real one, this time. "I'm glad."

The angel touched Vicki's mane, then faded away. That someone should be so eager to meet the Angel of Death, that was truly sad.

2 months ago

In a second floor male's restroom at Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, Rhode Island, a spark of light appeared in the middle of the air. It expanded quickly into an oval of shimmering, pearly radiance about seven feet high that hung between the floor and ceiling without touching either. A foot emerged from it, as if through the surface of a pool: a horse's hoof, but bright silver instead of some more typical color. Following the hoof came an ankle covered in sleek, black hair with a white fetlock, followed by a powerfully muscled and elegantly formed calf and thigh, clothed in a vivid blue robe trimmed with a wide, silver stripe running about a half inch back from the hem. The body, head, and arms came through all at once, followed by the other leg. The shimmering pool shrank and disappeared with a faint pop.

Phaeron Pothecarius, Lord White, glanced at himself in the mirrors and made a slight adjustment to his robe. He looked like a tall, powerfully built horse male with a shiny, black coat, flowing white mane, matching fetlocks, a modest goatlike beard, and deep, blue eyes, but he was in fact a unicorn: a long, spiraled horn, with a shiny golden finish, jutted proudly from his forehead. It, combined with his already impressive height, had forced him to duck slightly when stepping through the portal. Having adjusted his cuffs just right he produced a silver ring from within his robe and placed it on his right hand. Then he left the restroom and strode out into the hall.

It being midmorning on a typical weekday there were a number of people out and about, though the halls were not what one might call crowded. Nevertheless, no one paid the slightest attention to the presence of an outlandishly dressed mythological creature in their midst. Phaeron couldn't help smiling; it was remarkable how people would ignore things that didn't make sense. The spell on his ring took advantage of that, merely encouraging a person's natural tendency to seek out a reasonable explanation for what didn't fit. So everyone he met saw him clearly, then decided that he couldn't be what he obviously was, and replaced him in their memory with something that made sense. The beauty was that everyone who looked would see something different, so even if for some strange reason someone tried to track down what had happened that day, it would be impossible to correlate the witness' testimony into a meaningful whole. A few people would remember something silly and nonsensical- like a person in a unicorn costume- but no one else would corroborate it. Even if an investigator concluded that something had happened, it would be impossible to say what. Phaeron sighed; there were times when it was just too, too easy.

Two policemen guarded a door at the end of the hall. They moved aside and opened the door to let Phaeron pass. Inside, he found a large tank, about the size of a coffin, resting across three tables. In it, completely submerged in water, lay a male gray fox, of approximately thirty to thirty-five years of age. A number of fleshy tendrils sprouted from the base of his neck like a ruff; the tendrils were lined with featherlike fans of tissue in which blood vessels could be plainly seen, pulsating gently.

"He has gills," Phaeron pronounced.

"Yes, my lord." The attending physician, a plumpish brown bear fem in her late forties, turned to Phaeron and nodded in agreement.

"And this happened how?" Phaeron inquired.

"This morning, at the train station, waiting for a commuter train to Boston," the doctor explained. "One minute he was fine, the next he keeled over, choking. Paramedics cut off his clothes and found these things under his shirt."

"I presume all that's been taken care of?" Phaeron inquired, leaning over the tank.

The doctor nodded. "Yes, my lord. Gwendolyn took care of the witnesses and paramedics, and Mr. Findolfin here is under sedation."

Phaeron nodded. "Yes; she came to see me right away." He put his hands in the water, brushing the tendrils ever so gently with his fingertips.

"Do you know what caused it, my lord?" The doctor ventured.

"Yes," Phaeron replied. "Backlash."

"But-" the doctor blinked. "You have to cast a spell to suffer a backlash, don't you?"

"That's correct," Phaeron replied, without interrupting his examination.

"And you have to be Gifted in order to cast a spell," the doctor added.

"Also correct." Phaeron agreed.

"Then how-"

Phaeron stilled the objection with an upraised finger. From the sleeve of his robe he produced a green jade disk with a square hole in the center. He placed it on the fox's forehead; the stone flickered, then glowed faintly. "Our friend here has quite a substantial Gift, and he botched his breakout spell," Phaeron declared. "No great surprise, since he's never had any training."

"But- but-" the doctor protested. "You can't just spontaneously become Gifted!"

"No," Phaeron agreed, his mouth set in a hard, grim line. "You can't."

"Then how-"

"I have no idea," Phaeron interjected. "But I aim to find out. Package our friend for shipment; I'm taking him with me to Avalon."

"Yes, my lord." the doctor hurried out.

Phaeron carefully laid both hands on the edge of the tank, drumming his fingers against the glass and looking down at Mr. Findolfin through narrowed eyes. The doctor was a Society member, and thus privy to the Secret, but not a Gifted herself, so she didn't know all the background. For instance, she didn't know that Backlashes were in fact quite rare, and botching a breakout spell even moreso. The definition of a breakout spell was that it worked, even though it shouldn't. It was something you could cast without all the training normally required. Leaving aside the question of how Mr. Findolfin could have become Gifted without anyone noticing, his breakout spell should have succeeded. If it hadn't, something must have interfered.

Phaeron had already checked with the observers he kept stationed in and around Providence; they hadn't noticed anything. Since Providence was an open city the Blacks had observers as well; Eddie claimed they hadn't seen anything either. Since Eddie said it, Phaeron believed it; Eddie could lie with the best of them but he wouldn't take any guff from his own people. Besides, he appreciated the risks as much as Phaeron. Blacks and Whites were expected to be at odds, but messing with a Mundane like this went way outside the rules of engagement. There were reasons those rules existed. Very good ones. The foremost being that any casual throwing about of magic on Mundane Earth caused a corresponding rise in Paradox. If too much Paradox built up, you started getting random magical side effects, like this. A bit above that- and not very far at all- you hit a level where one Backlash raised the Paradox level enough to spontaneously create more Backlashes, without the need for any additional spell-casting. That led to a self-sustaining chain reaction, and it was Kitty bar the door.

All of which wouldn't be nearly so bad, except that the level of ambient Paradox couldn't be measured. Paradox was the opposite of magic; measuring it was like trying to measure darkness. So you never knew for sure exactly how high the level was. You had to infer it, from how spells reacted in the environment. Sort of like striking a match to check for a gas leak. That was why the Societies, and in particular the Secret, existed. Magic couldn't be left in just anyone's hands. It was too dangerous. Atlantis, Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of Knossos (but not Pompeii; that was a natural event), Krakatoa, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Tungaska event... the list went on and on.

Phaeron left the tank and marched to the window, standing before it with his hands clasped firmly behind his back. If Providence were about to go boom, someone should have noticed. It would be like having a volcano erupt in your back yard without you ever having known it was there. Too many signs, too many warnings. You couldn't miss them unless you ignored them. Which was a possibility, to be sure. But there, at least, was one advantage to having two Societies. If one tried to pull something, or did something incredibly stupid, the other would fetch them up short.

Behind Phaeron, the doors opened. The doctor returned, pushing a gurney, accompanied by two orderlies. Using a sheet, they carefully lifted Mr. Findolfin out of his tank and laid him on the gurney. The doctor wrapped his neck in wet gauze, to protect his gills and keep them wet. Phaeron returned and cast a reversed Breathe Water spell, which allowed Mr. Findolfin to breathe air.

"You can help him, my lord?" the doctor inquired.

"Oh, yes," Phaeron replied. "Removing the Lash and reversing his transformation won't be unduly difficult. But he has to be trained, to keep him fro doing this again. Which means he has join a Society or stay on Avalon. We can't risk the Secret."

"Of course not, my lord," the doctor agreed, but in a hushed tone. Either way, Mr. Findolfin's life, as he knew it, was over. He'd spend the rest of his life a stranger in a strange land. The Society would cook up a convincing explanation for his disappearance. Cold comfort to the people he left behind and now would never see again. Cold comfort to him, for having to abandon everything he knew for the sake of something that struck as senselessly as a bolt of lightning.

"Shades of Harry Potter," Phaeron muttered. Except that Harry wanted to leave his mundane life behind. Not everyone did.

"Have you read those stories, my lord?" the doctor inquired, tentatively.

"Of course," Phaeron replied. "I enjoyed them immensely." He neglected to mention that they'd made him laugh so hard he's almost wet himself. True fans tended to take offense. The doctor smiled; Phaeron smiled back, for having judged correctly.

Phaeron concentrated a moment then raised his arm, fingers spread. A jet of silvery light spurted from his palm; a short ways ahead of him it spread into a spinning disk, like an image of hurricane seen from above, but hanging sideways in the air. A black dot at the center- the eye- expanded as the light spun faster and faster. The darkness gradually gave way to an image: of a room, but severely distorted, as if seen through a marble. As the image grew larger, filling ever more of the disk, the distortion diminished. When Phaeron lowered his arm there was an opening into an ornately decorated Tudor library, all done up in warm, vibrant woods, beautifully carved. He crouched, put his hand under the gurney and, like a waiter hoisting a serving tray, lifted it off the floor. With the gurney in hand he stepped through the disk. It dissolved into a shower of silvery sparks behind him, which faded out before touching the floor.

Three people waited in the library. The first was Lady Synne, wearing a low-cut gown made of pale green silk. the dress was simple in design, lacking much ornamentation, but it hugged her like a second skin. Phaeron spent a moment admiring the transition between her white bosom and the green bodice. She was a busty fem and the gown gave her an absolutely incredible cleavage. Phaeron allowed himself a few very lurid thoughts. Synne responded with a small smile; she knew what he was thinking.

"How bad is it, my lord?" inquired the second of the three, also a fem. At first glance she seemed to be a lioness; she had the feline face, tawny pelt, and a figure that was as fulsome as Synne's, if not a bit moreso. Beneath it, though, lay a hard, athletic musculature which Synne lacked. Also, this fem's mane was composed on fine, hairy feathers, something like an emu's, colored a rich golden yellow that was brighter than but similar in character to her pelt. Most notably, though, she had a pair of feathered wings growing from her back just above the level of her waist. The backs of the wings were a darker, sandy brown, while the undersides were creamy, with brown bands like a hawk's. She had a lion's tail, but at the tip was not a tuft of hair but rather a fan of long, stiff feathers.

"Not to bad, actually," Phaeron replied. "Removing the Lash may be difficult; I'll probably have to do that myself. The rest..." he dismissed it with a flick of the fingers. "Pfft. Routine."

"Why did it happen?" inquired the third individual, a male. His legs, hips, and belly were leonine, with tawny fur a someone darker and browner shade than the fem's. His chest and arms were covered with feathers; his head was that of an eagle, and from the elbow down his arms were scaly instead of feathery, his fingers equipped with long, nasty looking talons. He also had wings.

"That, Viris, is the question," Phaeron replied. "And the simple fact is I haven't the faintest idea how to answer it. This is the fifth incident in six months, and the most severe at that. Something is happening in Providence, but it's not clear what. There aren't any of the usual signs."

"Could it be related to the Contest of the Guide?" the winged lioness inquired. Her voice had a musical, trilling quality that made it delightful to listen to, regardless of what she said. Quite a contrast to Viris' scratchy, parrot-like tones. But no one who ever saw Viris in combat would think him the least bit funny.

"It could," Phaeron allowed. "I've reviewed the signs. There is definitely going to be a Contest in the not too distant future. Sometime this year at the latest." He smiles wryly. "Perhaps the Lords are testing us." It was a joke that wasn't really a joke. Synne and the lioness smiled; Viris didn't.

"The Blacks are up to something," Viris concluded.

"Eddie says they aren't," Phaeron pointed out.

"He would say that, wouldn't he?" Viris responded.

"Indeed he would," Phaeron replied. Viris' views were as well known as they were uncompromising; there wasn't any point arguing with him. "Gwen, would you run Mr. Findolfin over to Heliopolis and install him in the House of Healing?"

"Not Athens?" the lioness inquired, raising an eyebrow.

Phaeron sighed in exasperation. "No, not Athens. If I tell the Phoenixes to leave him alone, they will. The Unicorns..." he shrugged.

"Indeed, my lord." Gwen rolled her eyes. Synne heaved a sigh. Viris, as usual, made no response at all. Gwen stepped forward, raised her hand, and swept it in an arc. It left a shimmering rainbow hanging in the air, which detached from her hand, connected itself together, and floated in the air like a soap bubble. In the area enclosed by the now circular rainbow, a scene gradually swam into view. It showed a city, built of stone and wood, decorated with statues and carvings that had been embellished with bright paintwork and motifs that looked almost, but not quite, Egyptian. Gwen pushed the gurney through; the lower edge of the circle stretched as she stepped over it, then the whole thing vanished with a pop.

"Viris, I don't think the Blacks are involved this time," Phaeron began. Viris wouldn't dispute a direct statement and Phaeron wasn't in the mood to argue. "But I do think something is going on. Something like this happened two years ago, when we fought off that demon invasion. Just before they came, the Paradox rose sharply."

"You think it's happening again?" Synne asked.

"Possibly," Phaeron allowed. "With the demon attack it came on very suddenly. This time, it seems to be happening a lot more slowly. Maybe it's not the same at all. I don't aim to find out the hard way." His eyes narrowed, blazing with some dark, internal fire. He suppressed it, returning to his normal countenance. But Synne noticed; her lips pressed into a tight line. "Viris, I want you to contact Japhet. Explain to him what's going on and tell him I want him to look into it. I suspect it's something in his area of expertise. Tell him he can have anything he needs; I'll see to it myself."

Viris bowed. "At once, my lord." He straightened up and marched out.

"How does he take a shit with that stick up his ass?" Synne inquired once Viris had departed.

"Now, now, dear," Phaeron admonished, but only very gently. His own opinion of Viris was much the same. But Viris' loyalty could not be questioned; he would obey, no matter what. Even if Phaeron sent him to commission the aid of a Black sorcerer.

Synne moved to Phaeron's side. Gently, she wrapped her hands around his arm and pressed herself against him. "You did the best you could," she said. "What happened to Vicki wasn't your fault."

"I should have been there," he growled, clenching his fists. "I could have stopped it. It would have been so easy." His lips drew back, his eyes blazing. It would have been a pleasure.

"You had to stop the demons," Synne insisted. "If you hadn't, more people would have suffered."

"And that makes it all right?" Phaeron demanded hotly.

"No," Synne replied softly, laying her head on Phaeron's shoulder. "Only that you did the best you could. We all did."

The anger went out of Phaeron in a rush. He slumped, leaning against Synne for support. "I hate it," he muttered. "I hate the games. I hate choosing who lives and who dies."

Synne stroked Phaeron's head and mane, while biting her lip so hard it nearly bled. Then quit! she wanted to scream. Every day she saw what being Lord White was costing him. Every day he talked about retiring. But he never did. She feared that he never would. She feared- she feared that one day it would consume him entirely, and she'd be left with nothing. The pain of loss welled up in her so suddenly she didn't even have a chance to try and suppress it; she burst into tears, throwing her arms around Phaeron and clinging to him desperately.

Phaeron held Synne, gently kissing away her tears. The worst part was, he knew exactly why she was upset. He should get out. He knew that if he kept on like this he'd end up leaving office feet first. If that happened... Synne wouldn't make it. After Persephone, losing him too would kill her. Phaeron took a deep breath, to keep from bursting into tears himself. I'm too weak, he wanted to say. He'd tried to get out. But every time, something happened that he had to take care of. He couldn't leave the job undone. He couldn't.

Suddenly, Synne broke away. She glared at Phaeron, her eyes blazing. At times like that one couldn't doubt that she was a Nighthorse. With a curse, she slapped Phaeron as hard as she could on the cheek, then turned and marched away.

Phaeron winced. Her hands, which looked so soft and gentle, could really sting when she was angry. He dabbed at his cheek but left it alone. That was the sad thing about having been together for so long. They could have an argument without ever saying a word. He knew what she'd say. She knew what he'd say. They both knew it so well there wasn't any need to actually say it.

Phaeron turned. His eyes fell upon a statue set in one corner of the library, in a little alcove all by itself. The dark rage boiled in Phaeron's eyes, undiluted this time. Why didn't you warn me, Rama-Thoth? Phaeron thought, venomously. When you picked me for this job, why didn't you tell me what it would really be like? He took a step, his fingers clenching. There was a time in his life when he would have grabbed the statue and smashed it to bits. Now, he didn't bother. There wasn't any point. Besides, he had work to do. He spun on his heel and marched away.

7 weeks ago

Greg Xaio-Phong couldn't help smiling wryly as he brought his broom in for a landing. How appropriate that Japhet should live in a dark, lonely tower, built high on jagged, forbidding cliffs, overlooking the roiling, gray sea. Just the place for a practitioner of forbidden lore.

At least today the weather was clear; Greg didn't have to come in drenched. He shook himself to loosen his muscles; even under ideal circumstances the flight from the mainland was long and hard. Japhet absolutely refused to have a Door installed, which was probably a wise thing, in the main, but didn't mean Greg enjoyed the commute. Greg handed his cloak and broom to the skeleton standing by the door, which took them and retired to the cloak room. By now, Greg had stopped thinking about the undead servants. What else would a dark wizard have?

A dark stone stairway, lit by smoky braziers, led down from the parapet. At the landing, Greg found himself facing a smooth metal door. "Computer," Greg began, "Recognize access Xiao-Phong 2187753."

"Working," a feminine but very mechanical and faintly metallic voice responded. "Access code recognized. You may proceed." The two halves of the door withdrew in opposite directions with a hiss. Greg stepped through. The door closed behind him. Now he found himself in a passage that was a meticulous re-creation of the interior of the starship Enterprise, from the original 1966 TV series. Greg's face twisted into a smile; though he'd seen it many, many times it still tickled him. On Mundane Earth people were fascinated with magic. On Avalon, where magic was everywhere, people were fascinated with... Star Trek.

Or, at the very least, Japhet was. He'd even modeled the incidental sound effects. Greg hurried through the corridors; at his destination he didn't need to knock; the doors slid open for him.

"Ah, excellent!" Japhet exclaimed, looking up and pulling off his glasses. "You got it?"

Japhet was a Manticore. Which meant that basically he looked like a lion. He was also quite tall- a head more than Greg- and very heavy. A bit soft around the edges, perhaps- he was the bookish sort, after all- but with plenty of muscle to back it up. His pelt was reddish-orange, his voluminous mane a slightly darker, deeper color. His eyes were green and eerily reptilian instead of feline. Most striking were his wings- leathery, bat-like vans, with reddish highlights along the spars and dark brown membranes- and his tail, which was that of a scorpion. It curled up behind him, the sting hovering behind his shoulder. His outfit was a suit of Klingon armor modeled on that used in the later films. The pistol holstered at his hip was an actual movie prop he'd paid an exorbitant sum for on eBay, and he'd enchanted it to shoot real fireballs. In that getup he looked rather silly in his gold, wire-frame spectacles, which is probably why he took them off whenever possible.

"Yes," Greg replied, detaching the travel pouch from his belt. "I must say, I'm surprised. I wouldn't have expected them to give it up so easily, but they handed it over without a word."

Japhet's office attempted to duplicate Captain Kirk's quarters, but practicality had impinged upon the motif. For one, the room was much larger; for another, Japhet had added book cases, work benches, and shelves loaded with various arcane equipment. The clash between all that and the sci-fi theme made Greg's head ache.

"Your master wasn't merely Rama-Thot's apprentice," Japhet pointed out. "Rama-Thoth considered him a dear fried. A son, even. If he asked for the old bird's ashes, they'd hand 'em over."

"I find it hard to believe they'd go that far," Greg temporized.

"Perhaps," Japhet commented. "Let me see it, if you please."

Greg handed over the pouch. Japhet opened it, revealing an object of the approximate size and shape of an egg, made of milky, cream colored material. Around the equator of the object, running from point to point, was a jagged band of darker material with hazy, diffuse edges. As if the creamy substance were encrusted around something with a more irregular shape.

"What is it?" Greg asked, peering curiously as Japhet rolled the object back and forth in his fingers.

"I have no idea," Japhet admitted. "I do know that no one, before or since, knew more about black magic that Rama-Thoth. If only he hadn't lost his notes." Japhet sighed heavily.

"He was probably protecting us," Greg temporized. The stone made him uneasy. He didn't know why, but it did.

"Ignorance is no defense," Japhet returned. "Not knowing what can kill you doesn't make you any less dead."

"What makes you think this is important?" Greg asked. They'd been through this before; he didn't want to start another argument about the merits of Dark versus Light philosophy. Neither of them were going to change their minds, nor was Phaeron, who'd ordered this in the first place.

"Rama-Thoth carried this around in his craw for ages," Japhet replied. "No one even knew it was there until they found it in the ashes of his funeral pyre. It should have burned up; nothing can survive the heat of a Phoenix' self-immolation. But it didn't. And yet, there's absolutely nothing in any of Rama-Thoth's surviving writings that makes any reference to it whatsoever. It must be important."

"Then why didn't the Phoenixes ever do anything with it?" Greg wanted to know.

"That only proves how little you understand Phoenix psychology," Japhet pointed out with an admonitory waggle of the finger. "They considered Rama-Thoth the greatest of their species. To them, he's the best that ever was, that ever will be. That makes everything he did, everything he touched, sacred. So they put this in his shrine along with all his other possessions. And that is the whole point. Rama-Thoth knew they'd do that. They'd put it in his shrine and refuse to let anyone else touch it or examine it. The secret he'd hoped to preserve would stay preserved."

Greg fidgeted. Put that way, it made perfect sense. "Then why hasn't anyone bothered to look at it before? It's been three thousand years."

"The only person who could would be Lord Phaeron," Japhet said. "And why should he? He's had other things on his mind."

"Maybe so, but it seems like the only reason you think this is important is because no one else has ever bothered to look at it," Greg exclaimed.

"Isn't that reason enough?" Japhet countered. "When you lose your keys, where do you find them? In the last place you look. Why? Because when you started looking, you told yourself they couldn't possibly be there."

Greg shifted uncomfortably. It made sense, in a twisted sort of way, but Greg still thought it sounded completely whacked. On the other hand, Japhet was the expert, and he'd gotten where he was because he had a... sideways way of looking at things. "Will there be anything else?" Greg inquired, politely.

Japhet grinned. His teeth were jagged, like a shark's. "Get back to your girlfriend. What's her name?"

"Yolanda," Greg supplied.

"Right." Japhet picked up a pouch and tossed it. "Take her out to dinner. Have a good time. She deserves it."

"Ah, thanks." Greg peered into the pouch. It contained several gems. That would buy a lot more than just a night on the town. Greg briefly debated offering an objection, then shrugged and slipped the pouch into his pocket. "See you later, then." He bowed and withdrew.

Japhet chuckled. Greg was a sweet kid. The way he clung so firmly to his White philosophy was endearing. Which explained why Phaeron had assigned him as Japhet's go-for. The kid needed to learn about the birds and the bees. Black and White notwithstanding, the world wasn't really like that. Anyone who wanted to advance in the Societies- either one- needed to understand that. Lord Phaeron couldn't sully his own hands by dallying in black magic. He couldn't trust the Blacks to do it; they'd try to twist it to their own ends. So he engaged a consultant. It made perfect sense.

"Now, let's see what you are, my pretty," Japhet mused, turning his attention once again to the object. He slipped his glasses back on so he could see it more clearly. He noticed something almost at once: the object was slightly oblate along the dark band. That material was apparently harder than the creamy stuff. Japhet took up a dentist's pick and carefully scraped the creamy material. It flakes away very easily, revealing a black facet with crumbs of whitish material clinging to it. Intrigued, Japhet took up a chisel and started chipping the object out of its matrix. It didn't take long; the creamy material was quite soft, and once the outer shell was breached it crumbled easily.

"Well, well, what have we here?" Japhet mused some time later, holding the results of his handiwork up to the light. It was a flattened stone, apparently made of obsidian or something similar. Chip marks pocked he front and back faces; someone had knapped it into a shape vaguely like an arrowhead. But there was something... something... Japhet picked up a wire brush and scraped away more of the clinging matrix. He bathed it in solvent, then scrubbed it again. The creamy material was almost completely gone, revealing the stone's original luster. Japhet turned it back and forth, peering into the black depths. No, not quite black. There was... something in there. Intrusions of color. Swirling purple and red, like smoke...

For a long, long time Japhet sat there, staring into the stone. Then he started to giggle.

1 week ago

Phaeron wanted to curse. He could swear in a dozen languages, of which he liked Ogre the best, since it made even ordinary words sound utterly vile. If you really tried it could peel paint. But Phaeron remained silent. There wasn't any word in any of the languages he knew that would even begin to express what he felt.

Up on the hill, the service was breaking up. There weren't that many people attending, which Phaeron thought was a real pity. The relatives from California stood in a knot, opposite Raquel, Kayleigh, Cyndi, and some assorted friends from each individual's workplace. The two groups didn't seem to be consciously avoiding one another but they nevertheless remained separate.

Raquel stood out, even in her somber gray skirt suit. People at funerals all tended to look the same, but there was no way a buff, two-headed tigress with no tail could not stand out. She was the tallest member of her group, completely aside from everything else.

The corners of Phaeron's mouth quirked up in an expression that someone who didn't know him well might have called a smile. His hand found Synne's and squeezed it. She squeezed in return.

"You'll keep an eye on her, Edward?" Synne inquired.

"You bet your booties, sweet cheeks," Edward deSoie, Lord Black, replied. He extracted the cigar he always seemed to be chomping and exhaled a cloud of bluish smoke. He was a bulldog: short, squat, and thick. His lustrous black robes made him look rather silly, Phaeron thought. Or course, Phaeron also thought that his own formal robes made him look silly.

"Patricia did good work," Synne commented.

"She sure did," Eddie agreed. "I can't think of anyone who caused more trouble in less time than she did."

Phaeron snorted. "That's for sure," he agreed. The Societies were supposed to keep magic a secret. So how do you explain away a person suddenly sprouting an extra head? Best of all, there wasn't a damn thing the Societies could do about it. It was part of the Contest of the Guide, and the rules were clear: the Guide could not be held accountable afterward for actions performed as the Guide. Nor could people who assisted the Guide in good faith. "The Lords seem determined to give me an ulcer."

"Speakin' a which, we need ta schedule a meeting," Eddie pointed out.

"Give me a call later," Phaeron responded. Eddie nodded.

Kayleigh wasn't doing well. She stumbled along, with Cyndi and Raquel almost carrying her. After no more than a dozen steps she broke down completely, sobbing piteously.

Phaeron closed his eyes. Then he forced himself to open them and look. Synne was right; he'd done the best he could. That didn't stop him from seeing Vicki's fate as the Society's most egregious failure in its duty. They were supposed to protect people, dammit. Where had they been when Vicki needed them? "Shona was right," he whispered.

"Whassat?" Eddie inquired, half turning.

"Nothing," Phaeron replied, with a minute shake of the head. He gathered Synne in his arms and hugged her firmly. She responded in kind. She saw Vicki's fate as her own failure as much as Phaeron saw it as his own. Like him, she'd done the best she could, and it wasn't enough. She let out a gulp ad she fought back tears. She buried her face against his chest and started to quiver. He stroked her head, gently nuzzling her face.

Something niggled at the back of Phaeron's mind. He was missing something. Something important. Something he needed to be doing. What was it? Oh yes: he needed to check up on Japhet. He must have discovered something useful by now. With everything that had happened recently, Phaeron wasn't even sure if his original idea of an extra-dimensional invasion even applied anymore. But at least, Japhet should be able to tell him it wasn't an issue, which would be one less thing to worry about.

Synne let out a wail and started pounding Phaeron's chest with her fists. Fuck it, Phaeron thought. Japhet can wait. "Eddie, we're going home," he announced, and without waiting for an answer created a portal. He stepped through with Synne in his arms, directly into their bedchamber.

Eddie shook his head. Phaeron was a good kid, but he took this stuff way too seriously. Which didn't in any way change the fact that the son of a bitch who'd carved up Vicki was damn lucky Kayleigh had blown his ass away before Eddie caught up to him. He dropped the stub of his cigar on the ground, then crushed it under his heel. The wrath that blazed in his eyes as he did so would have made anyone cringe in terror.

2 days ago

For the first time since the funeral, Raquel really felt good. She couldn't help grinning like a loon. This was going to be fun. Carefully, she lifted the three gowns from the back seat of her car and laid them over her arm. Positively skipping, she went up the walk to the front of the building and up the stairs to the unit she shared with Cyndi. Though, of late, Kayleigh had been a sufficiently permanent fixture that she might almost have been living there herself. A fact Raquel didn't mind at all. In fact, she approved heartily. The last thing Kayleigh needed right now was to be alone.

"Honey, I'm home," Raquel called, then gave herself a kiss, and giggled.

Most observers agreed that Raquel Fayral was a stunning fem. She was tall and muscular, well toned and well proportioned. (A lot of fems Raquel knew were intensely jealous of her trim, powerful physique. They seemed to think she'd been somehow blessed with it while other, more needy souls had been passed over. It was true that genetics had been kind to her, but she spent a lot of time and effort staying in shape. Of course, her personality was such that she couldn't easily sit around; she had to be doing something. Since she had all that nervous energy, and it wouldn't go away on its own, she might as well put it to gainful use.)

Raquel's figure curved in all the right places. Enough that she wouldn't ever be mistaken for a male, even with a disguise, but not too much. Having four breasts helped a lot; it made her bosom more impressive even though none of the individual breasts were all that large. (Here too the little green monster reared its ugly head. With far less justification, Raquel felt. Supernumerary breasts were more common among felines than other types; that was a known fact. Her mother had been similarly blessed, which increased the likelihood of Raquel getting it, though it wasn't any kind of guarantee. To a certain extent she could affect her figure through diet and exercise but her boobs were just there, and largely beyond her control.)

And yet, all that was the second thing people noticed about Raquel. What captured and held everyone's attention was that she had two heads. They were as finely formed as the rest of her, with captivating green eyes and flowing, golden manes that contrasted nicely with the orange tiger patterning on the rest of her body. Raquel had always felt that her face was her best feature. Now she had two of them. What could beat that?

Reflecting on it gave Raquel a momentary twinge. Having two heads was not in any way related to genetics, or any other natural process. It was... magic.

When Patricia had made her offer, Raquel had rather flippantly tossed off the first thing that popped into her head. She hadn't really believed it, for all that she did very much want to get rid of her ugly tail. She'd considered having it surgically removed. What stopped her was a very emotional reaction: she didn't want to give it up without getting something in return. Until Patricia came along, Raquel hadn't seen any possibilities in that area that she really liked.

Trading her tail for an extra head was totally nuts. Even Raquel thought that, in quiet moments. She might not have done it, knowing what she did now. But since she had, she'd make the best of it. There was something inside her that liked being the center of attention, that enjoyed stirring up trouble for its own sake. Raquel had spent her whole life struggling with it, fighting to bring it to heel. She'd never quite succeeded; she'd managed to box it in, more or less, but it kept spurting out at odd moments.

For instance, being able to neck with herself excited Raquel far more than she really cared to admit. Better yet, it made Kayleigh so horny she couldn't see straight. Cyndi-

Raquel sighed. Cyndi was distressingly heterosexual. But ever since college she'd always been there, protecting Raquel from her own worst impulses and patiently cleaning up the mess if she couldn't. She'd freaked when she first saw the new, two-headed Raquel but she'd accepted it. She'd allowed Raquel to move her lover into their apartment. Encouraged it, even, and made friends with Kayleigh as if it were perfectly natural to share living space with one's roommate's lesbian lover. Raquel felt outstandingly lucky to have Cyndi as a friend. Just thinking about it brought tears to her eyes.

The warmth of affection Raquel felt for Cyndi actually caused her to pause and look down at the bundles draped over her arm. Loving her doesn't mean you can't have a little fun with her, the mischievous inner voice pointed out. Besides, she really needs to get bent. Especially after Byron.

Byron Tettinger had, once upon a time, been Cyndi's fiancee. The parting had not been amicable, not in the least. Raquel's resolve stiffened. Cyndi needed this as much as Kayleigh did. Too many sad things had happened recently. Raquel spent a moment composing herself, then strode into the living room with a bright smile fixed upon both her faces.

"You're up to something," Cyndi accused, glowering darkly in Raquel's direction.

Cyndi was a porcupine. Where Raquel was tall and lithe, Cyndi was short and rather more pear-shaped. Where Raquel was slim, Cyndi was... not so slim. Not fat, per se, but certainly soft and, in places, quite well padded. Her hips, for instance, were proportionally quite broad, her buttocks impressively round and full, her thighs generously meaty. No love handles, but her belly protruded noticeably. Her breasts weren't especially large but possessed of a pert roundness that, combined with large, well-formed nipples, made them especially pleasing in Raquel's eyes.

Aside from that Cyndi's pelt was ruddy brown. In porcupine fashion the hairs were long and bristly, making her look spiky even though her coat lay flat, for the most part. One place the hairs conspicuously didn't lay flat was on her head; she had a modest but distinct crest, which hung down to the middle of her back. The crest was lighter and more vividly red than the rest of her coat. Her quills, by contrast- which grew on her head and back from her shoulders all the way down to the base of her tail- were darker and more brown than her base color. A sequence of cream colored bands further distinguished the quills from ordinary hairs, in addition to the fact that the quills were very long: even when Cyndi stood upright, they almost reached the floor.

Raquel particularly liked Cyndi's eyes, which were large and vivid green, like jewels. Raquel found them utterly captivating. Even when narrowed suspiciously, like right now.

"Who, me?" Raquel responded in a tone of injured innocence, laying a hand on her breast and fluttering her eyelids.

"Pfft," Cyndi derisively exclaimed. "Your horns are showing, Miss Fuzzy Butt."

"I'm offended," Raquel sniffed, tossing one head imperiously while the other glowered disapprovingly. "Such malign distrust. All it did was stop to pick up your gowns for the party." She took the bundles off her arm and laid them on the table.

Suspicion deepened in Cyndi's expression. "You didn't," she growled, her quills slowly rising to their fully flared position.

"I'm sure I wouldn't know what you're talking about," Raquel responded breezily. She'd deliberately put Cyndi's gown between hers and Kayleigh's so the two larger garments would conceal it. "And here it is." She produced it with a flourish. "Isn't it beautiful?"

Cyndi inhaled sharply, her eyes widening, as if she were inflating. The flared quills only added to the illusion. "It's PINK!" she thundered. Raquel couldn't help marveling at the degree of disdain, distaste, and outrage she managed to pack into that one singe word.

"No it's not," Raquel pointed out, placatingly. "It's Apricot Blush."

"It's pink, you stripey-assed freak!" Cyndi responded. "I'm gonna murdelize you, I swear! I'll skin you and turn you into a coat! I'll take those wise-ass heads of yours and turn 'em into a pair of maracas! It won't even be hard, 'cause they're already empty! I'll-"

"She does seem much incensed," Raquel commented, not the lest bit contrite, as the tirade continued unabated.

"She does indeed," Kayleigh allowed, cracking a smile.

Kayleigh was a husky, with a pale, blue-gray topcoat, creamy white underbelly, and a black mane she typically wore in a single braid. Her eyes, the color of warm summer skies, weren't quite as large as Cyndi's but nevertheless very expressive. In build she took after Raquel: not quite so tall, perhaps, but firm and athletic. Her figure, as compared to Raquel's, was a bit less curvy and more elfin. Though no Twiggy, with the right outfit and a poor light Kayleigh could have passed for a male.

"-stuff your big ugly butt and use it for a football-"

"Hey now," Raquel protested. "I shouldn't be the one to point fingers with respect to big, round asses. There's someone else I know who could maybe use a little less maple syrup on her treebark pancakes, eh what?"

There followed a stream of vituperation that would have made a drill sergeant blush.

"My my," Raquel said sadly, shaking both her heads. "Such language. Not very ladylike at all, I do declare."

Kayleigh laughed, which made it all worthwhile. For the first time since Vicki's unexpected reappearance, the shadow lifted from Kayleigh's eyes.

18 hours ago

This time, as Greg brought his broom in for a landing on the parapet of Japhet's tower, he had to fight it every inch of the way. This morning a line of heavy storm clouds darkened the sky; they hadn't hit the coast yet but marching before them came enormous waves that slammed furiously into the rocks, sending fans of spray more than halfway up the tower. A vicious crosswind did its best to slam Greg into the rocks. He hit hard, stumbled, and recovered only a hair's breadth before plunging headfirst down the stairwell. That would have hurt, no doubt about it.

Once out of the weather Greg paused briefly to cast a spell that dried his soaking robes and cleaned out the salt stains. He really hoped Japhet wouldn't send him out again, but he didn't have much hope. For the last two days he'd been shuttling back and forth; he felt like he'd moved about half the museum. It seemed like Japhet was determined to examine every single piece of esoteric, unidentified junk the Phoenixes had ever collected. And he couldn't go to the Library of Divine Enlightenment, oh no. He had Greg bring it to him, one piece at a time. At the rate things were going, Greg figured he'd be at it for the next hundred and fifty years.

Of course, if Greg were a better spell-caster, he wouldn't be stuck doing this kind of work in the first place. He'd be Lord Phaeron's right-hand man, rising meteorically through the ranks of the Society. His knowledge and might would become legendary. And Lord Phaeron would finally retire, knowing that he was putting the fate of the Society into the hands of his most able and capable second in command.

That's how it should have worked, anyway. Greg's parents set him on that path the minute he became old enough to incant a spell. They trained him, coached him, groomed him, gave him every possible advantage to smooth his way forward. And they had a lot to give; the Xiao-Phongs had been great mages for a long, long time. A member of the family had been instrumental in helping Qin Shi Huang unify China in 221 BC. Ever since the family had focused on one ultimate goal: one of its members would be the first non-Avalonian to break into the upper ranks of the Society of White.

The so-called "magical" races of Avalon had created the Societies and still dominated them. Which wasn't to say the non-magical races didn't produce any Gifted. Greg had studied the matter, albeit informally. His data suggested that the "low" races produced just as many Gifted as the "high" ones. But the prestigious universities of magic were all located in the city-states of "high" races and they didn't admit individuals of low birth. So all the Trolls, Ogres, Goblins, Orcs, Centaurs, and such like with magical aptitudes explored other paths, becoming Bards, alchemists, witches, hedge-wizards, healers, and other such earthy pursuits.

If there was anyone in the pecking order below the non-magical races of Avalon, it was the Gifted from Mundane Earth. But that was something of a special case; the undesirable Gifted of Avalon could be safely ignored. Those on Mundane Earth couldn't. A untrained Mage on Avalon might blow himself up, and take a bunch of others with him, but he wouldn't inadvertently trigger a Paradox event that would wipe out a whole civilization. One of the reasons the Societies existed was to patrol Mundane Earth, locate nascent Gifted before they got into serious trouble, and deal with them.

Someone got the bright idea that the best way to deal with those Gifted would be to recruit them. It really was a smart idea; the Societies could swell their ranks with individuals who knew the local languages and customs. Moreover, they looked right; they didn't have alien features that had to be hidden or explained away. In the past, that hadn't been as much of a problem; in a highly superstitious culture where people had little or no contact with outsiders, the appearance of "mythological" creatures could be rationalized without much difficulty. As societies became more cosmopolitan and communication faster, more efficient, and wider reaching, avoiding embarrassing questions became a lot more difficult. More to the point, the total population of Mundane Earth started growing a lot faster than that of Avalon. There simply weren't enough Avalonians to do the job; the Societies had to recruit from Mundane Earth just to keep up.

As the need for warm bodies broke down traditional prejudices, the Xiao-Phongs were ready. They moved in and, with an artful blend of magical competence and shameless toadyism, insinuated themselves with those who could open their way forward. They'd enjoyed remarkable success, too; it had been almost universally felt that Greg just might be the one.

Except that Greg just didn't seem to have it. He'd studied, he'd practiced, he'd worked his ass off. He'd believed it when his parents told him he'd be the greatest wizard of his age. He'd bent his every waking moment to realizing greatness. But the power simply wasn't in him. His Gift was merely average. He would never become an Adept, even if he studied every day for the rest of his life.

While Greg was young his parents held out hope that he might simply be a late bloomer. As he moved through his teens the worry became more acute. They decided that he needed more personal attention and assigned him tutors. When that didn't help they deemed that he wasn't working hard enough. They coerced him, the browbeat him, they threatened him. He ran away from home when they told him that if he didn't pass his next exam they'd whip every inch of skin off his back. Lady Synne caught him camping in the orchards of Pothecarius; in her firm but gentle way she extracted the story from him. As to what happened next, Greg knew only that Lord Phaeron paid a visit to his parents. Apparently it was at least moderately amicable; Greg wasn't aware of anyone dying or anything blowing up. After that there wasn't any more trouble. But after that, it was as if Greg didn't exist anymore. they'd speak to him, and let him visit, but they acted as if he'd died in some sort of tragic accident even though he was standing right there. Needless to say, Greg didn't go home much.

In what was surely the ultimate of cruel ironies, Greg achieved exactly what his parents had hoped: coming under the personal eye of Lord Phaeron. He and Lady Synne looked after him; if not as parents per se then unquestionably as mentors. They were actually much warmer and more personable that Greg had expected; their reputations made them seem rather formidable and frightening. But it was certainly due to their efforts that Greg discovered what he could do and developed it to the best of his ability.

Greg paused, conjuring a disk that hung in the air and reflected like a mirror. He examined his face, smoothing down the fur that had become disarrayed during his flight. He was a seal point Siamese; dark patches on his face, ears, hands, feet, and tail faded into a rich cream color on the rest of his body. In keeping with the theme he was very lean and lithe, but not very tall or muscular. Not bad looking, either, if he did say so himself. Yolanda certainly thought so; she greatly enjoyed what she saw as his exotic, Oriental looks. Of course she was a ferret, so the two of them matched nicely.

A smile spread across Greg's features. Yolanda had been very impressed with the night out he'd given her after selling one of Japhet's gems. She'd certainly been enthusiastic enough about expressing her gratitude. He stretched; his lower back was still recovering from that one. She specialized in tantric magic, which only made it worse. Or better, depending on one's point of view. From Greg's, it was definitely better.

The smile faded. Greg dismissed the mirror with a wave. He loved Yolanda very much and enjoyed being with her. And yet... his family would never have let him associate with her if they'd still thought he amounted to anything. He appreciated that Phaeron's assigning him to this mission was a gesture of great trust and faith; if rumors of a possible demonic invasion got out, it would cause all sorts of chaos and panic. Moreover, it really wasn't appropriate for the Lord of White to associate with practitioners of the Dark Arts, however useful that association might be. But seen another way, it only emphasized the fact that Greg really wasn't suited for anything bigger and more important.

With a sigh Greg trudged on. Maybe he'd get lucky and this would be the last load.

"Did you get it?" Japhet inquired eagerly as the door hissed open and Greg entered.

"Yes," Greg replied, somewhat listlessly. From beneath his cloak Greg pulled out his Handy Haversack. It had the delightful property of being larger on the inside than on the outside, and better yet it didn't get any heavier, no matter how much you put in it. From the pouches he extracted a number of items: a collection of jars containing various preserved specimens, two fancy tomes with padlocked covers, a collection of wooden balls with carved symbols on them, and a velvet lined box containing a carefully catalogued collection of flint arrowheads.

The lab had undergone a rather marked change since the start of the assignment. The number of Star Trek themed items had gradually diminished until only the walls themselves remained. The rest of the area now looked like a proper wizard's sanctum, with shelves of tomes, jars containing various spell components, alchemical charts, and celestial diagrams either racked up or hanging all over the place. In the middle of the floor Japhet had inscribed a magic circle decorated with complex and intricately interwoven runes. Fancy candleholders and incense burners added to the effect, though none of them were lit at the moment. There weren't any benches covered with hand blown glasswork mechanisms or fuming pots; Japhet was more of the pure research kind who left the actual casting and lab work to others.

"Excellent, excellent." Japhet turned and studied each item carefully, then ticked it off on a list and made notes on various sheets and charts he had laying about all over the place. Greg noted that Japhet didn't bother taking off his glasses now; in fact, he'd augmented them with larger, stronger lenses that made his eyes look round and owlish when he looked up.

"Will that be all?" Greg asked, hopefully, edging toward the door.

"For now," Japhet replied, then he rose and stretched, rubbing his sides. "Ah, me. I'm sorry, my boy. I've been working you hard. I get on something and I forget to eat, to sleep, to do anything. I forget that not everyone is as stupidly single-minded as I am. Sit down; have something to eat. You look like you could use a hot drink after your flight."

"I could, actually," Greg admitted, immensely relieved that he wouldn't have to go out again.

Japhet picked up a little bell and rang it. A skeleton entered, carrying a tray with two large, faintly steaming mugs. "Hot spiced cider," he said, licking his muzzle and rubbing his hands together in gleeful anticipation. He pulled out a hip flask and fortified his own with a shot of dark, foul-smelling liquor. Greg hastily shook his head when Japhet offered him the flask; given what Manticores habitually ate, Greg had no desire whatsoever to sample their drink. He lifted his mug and inhaled the rich, heady aroma.

"Halfling cider?" Greg inquired, over the rim of his mug.

"Of course," Japhet responded, as if there couldn't possibly be another answer.

Greg smiled. When it came to making good food, halflings were far and away the best of the best. He took a sip; it was just the right temperature: hot enough to warm his insides but not so hot as to risk burning his mouth. the mug was sized for a Manticore- more of a tankard on Greg's scale- but he drank down every drop. It was so good he just couldn't help it. He set the mug down with a sigh, burped impressively, then settled back in his chair. His eyelids fluttered, then drooped. In a few minutes he was fast asleep.

Japhet snapped his fingers. The skeleton grabbed Greg under the arms and dragged him out. Greg remained asleep; the drugged cider would keep him out for a while. Japhet nodded approvingly; Greg was a good kid- he'd proven himself again and again- but it was vitally important that he not have the opportunity to report to Phaeron until Japhet had set his plan into motion.

Returning to his desk, Japhet moved several sheets of paper that appeared to have been casually scattered about. they revealed the dark stone, now completely cleaned of its imprisoning matrix. Japhet pushed his glasses up and gazed into it with his own, unaided eyes, watching the colors swirl in its depths.

"I have all the required items," Japhet said aloud. "Actually, I've had them for a while now. I sent him off after a lot of inconsequential stuff so he wouldn't know what was really important. Now he's out and we won't be bothered for a while." He cocked his head slightly, as if listening to someone speak. "Yes, I'm ready to begin." He listened for a long time, then got up and set to work.

3 hours ago

"Sleep well?"

"Nnn... huh?" Greg's eyes snapped open. He looked around frantically, trying to figure out where he was. Oh yes; Japhet's tower. But what was he doing sleeping here?

"We were chatting and you just nodded off, right in the middle of it," Japhet continued. "So I put you to bed. Please forgive me; I didn't realize I was working you that hard."

"'Sallright," Greg muttered, levering himself upright. He'd been stripped to his briefs; his robes, cleaned and pressed, hung next to the bed. His room didn't have a clock or a window so he didn't know what time it was. He had a watch, of course, but technology items- particularly electronics- tended to go all wonky when brought to Avalon, so he left it at his place on Mundane Earth.

"I'd have let you sleep but I'm afraid something's come up," Japhet said, switching to a more serious tone. "I need you to go to Mundane Earth right away."

"Mundane Earth?" Greg paused in the middle of pulling on his pants. "It'll take me an hour just to reach the mainland!"

"I know, I know, and I'm sorry," Japhet sighed heavily. "I thought I had everything I needed. But I've begun a ritual and now find I've misread a few critical runes. I need you to check them, and the only place I know to find them is on Mundane Earth. Specifically, at the Sackler Gallery in Boston. A fellow named Kyle Langford is putting on a display of artifacts. Oh, he doesn't know jack about magic or archeology; he sponsors digs as a tax write-off and holds these parties as a way to make himself look cultured. Anyway, he has several tomb stele on display. The runes I need are on one of the stele, but I'm not sure which one. I can't go look myself; that would attract too much attention. I'm not going to tell you which runes they are, because I don't want you looking for them. We don't know who's watching."

Greg nodded. Any White who visited Mundane Earth would have Blacks tailing him as a matter of course. Just as any Black would have Whites tailing him. Phaeron had authorized this project but it was supposed to be secret; if Greg didn't know what he was looking for, he couldn't give it away, deliberately or inadvertently. "How will I find the right ones, then?"

"I'll give you a device I've bashed up," Japhet responded. "It'll record an image of the stele and transmit them to me. I've used it before; it's especially helpful in places where it's not prudent to hang around too long."

Greg nodded again. He could imagine some of the places Japhet had probably gotten into in the process of pursuing his research. No, you wouldn't want to linger, not at all.

"Come with me to the lab." Japhet turned and left, beckoning for Greg to follow. Greg complied, hastily pulling on the last of his clothing.

"This is it." Japhet indicated a pottery jar, decorated with hieroglyphs and having a stopper shaped like the head of a jackal. Greg had acquired a considerable knowledge of ancient artifacts, what with all the time he'd spent poring through the vast collection in the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis. He admittedly wasn't a trained professional, but he knew enough to see that the jar was either an authentic artifact or a very convincing forgery.

"I've hidden the sensor inside," Japhet continued, lifting the jar and handing it to Greg. "The stele are arranged in an alcove, like they were in the original tomb. I need you to put the jar somewhere inside. And please be careful; this is a real antique."

"I will," Greg promised, slipping the jar into his haversack. Then he hesitated. "How long was I out?"

"A long time," Japhet replied. "More than twelve hours."

"Good grief," Greg exclaimed. That would explain why he felt so stiff. "Say, I really should report-"

"Do it after you've delivered the jar, please," Japhet interrupted. "I've stopped the ritual but I can't undo it at this stage. If it fails I'll lose months of work, if not worse."

"Understood." Greg nodded. A ritual that didn't go off as planed could have disastrous consequences. Phaeron would understand. He hurried to the upper deck, mounted his broom, and sped off.

Japhet watched Greg go, then returned to the lab. He took a seat at his desk, scooted the papers aside, and picked up the stone.

You've done well. In a matter or hours the two-headed demoness will be destroyed.

"I'm not too keen on the price," Japhet muttered.

It's unfortunate, but with what's at stake it must be done. She is the avatar of Destruction, the daughter of Chaos. Her arrival in the world heralds the beginning of the end. She will destroy us all and bring about the end of all that is. Even if she doesn't mean to, it will happen. It is her nature. She cannot choose to withhold destruction any more than the wind can choose not to blow.

"Yes, I know," Japhet said with a heavy sigh. If only she weren't the Guide-

That is why she is the Guide. The Cruel Singer knew that the Societies would see only the Contest, and ignore the danger until it was too late.

The Cruel Singer was Xendaen Mithrilsinger, the so-called Dark Minstrel. The stone never referred to her by name.

Because, though she is dead, she is still present, still watching. Do you honestly think that power such as that held by the Cruel Singer could be banished by mere death?

"Of course not," Japhet said. His own research clearly showed that power could transcend death. Why else were there so many liches in the world?

The Cruel Singer may have had noble intentions once, but ever since the murder of her family she's been consumed by hatred for the Societies and all they stand for. She'll stop at nothing to destroy them and cares naught for the cost, to herself or to others. Who but such a one could embrace such madness as to destroy the World Spires?

Japhet could only nod in agreement. The World Spires regulated the flow of magic through the world. The Lords of Magic had created them after the end of the previous world and the beginning of this one. Without them there wouldn't be a world; the Spires prevented the catacylsm which had almost permanently ended the cycle last time. Admittedly, no one knew precisely what that cataclysm was; no spell had ever been created that could see past beginning. The Lords presumably knew, but if so they'd never said. If asked, they only said that not all knowledge was for humanity to know. Perhaps they were afraid that by letting the knowledge get out, they'd be setting in motion a train of events that would lead to the very disaster they were trying to prevent.

Do not put your faith in the Lords. Neither their wisdom, nor their power, is as great as they would have you believe. They bult the Spires but the Cruel Singer- a mere human- destroyed two of them by herself. Why, for that matter, were the Spires needed in any case? If the Lords are truly so great, couldn't they have built the world properly in the first place? No one asks these questions because they have accepted, without question, the Lords' assertions of their own greatness. When, in fact, those claims are merely camoflage to cover the true powerlessness that lays beneath.

"Yes, yes, I know, I know," Japhet exclamed. He nearly threw the stone down, but didn't. In truth there wasn't anything new about any of this; they'd been through it all before. He'd agreed because it was true; what the stone said fit the facts perfectly. It was still true, even though Japhet was having second thoughts at being confronted with the real cost of his actions. "I wish... I wish Greg didn't have to die. And Yolanda's going to die with him, because he'll ask her to help him get into the gallery."

It's not your fault. It's the Society system that condemned them.

"I should-" Japhet began.

To Be Continued