The big, white wolf heaved a sigh.

“For weeks – months – you were dealing with the cold of the northern lands, Kob,” he groaned. “Even when you weren’t complaining – which, to be fair, you did little of – I could hear your teeth chattering often enough. I should think you, of all people, would have the good sense to agree with me about this miserable rain. But you pick now to agree with Tasven about the supposed good weather?”

Kob Lightfoot simply laughed, the cheetah flinging his arms out, palms upward. “You call this rain, Varyn?” He shook his head. “I grew up with rain. Rain is something that comes down in sheets, usually sideways, with the full force of a gale behind it. It floods streets in moments, and would wash out a trail like this in the blink of an eye. It makes rivers overflow their banks and is about as warm as a frost giant’s heart. If you’re not careful – or chained down – it’ll pick you up and carry you out to the ocean before you can blink. That,” the trapmaster declared, “is rain! This is nothing more than a warm shower.” He finished shrugging out of his tunic, tying the sleeves around the waist and letting the gentle rain wash through his pelt.

“If you two are quite finished,” their companion chuckled, not seeming to mind or even notice how his own fine clothes were plastered to his skinny frame, “I’m trying to spot dinner here, and that’s rather hard if you keep scaring it away.”

“What, you?” Kob laughed again, if a bit quieter. “I thought you thrived on a diet of penis, Vardeniri.”

“This from the one who was trying to get both Varyn and myself in his mouth at the same time last night,” the shimmering white weasel replied. “Aha!” He flung his hand out, fingers twisting and wiggling in a seemingly meaningless gesture – but as he did, light streamed around his arm, coiling about his wrist, coalescing into three globes of blue-white energy that danced about his fingers, then lanced forward in rapid succession. Their target – a skittish, six-limbed lizard that normally nested in trees but had come down to forage – had tried to make a dash to safety, but didn’t make it more than a few yards before the sorcerer’s magic struck home.

“Good eye,” Varyn Mordanol murmured, squaring his shoulders and starting into the grass to collect the body. “Let’s find somewhere to pitch our tent, and I’ll get to cooking.”

“So quick to volunteer all of a sudden?” Kob laughed. “I think you’re the only one here who doesn’t like the smell of wet dog, and you want to get it out of your nose!”

“I think someone doesn’t want a bedmate tonight!” the cleric tossed over his shoulder.

“I’m afraid there’s little chance of that,” Tasven Vardeniri called out. “After all, we’ve got to keep busy somehow while you’re cooking!”

The wolf groaned, bending down to pick up the stricken lizard by the tail. “Save some for me, then, and I promise not to ‘accidentally’ burn this thing and take all the good parts myself!”

Kob laughed, winding his arm around Tasven’s waist. “Agreed!”

They found a break in the trees, a place where, in the not too distant past, one of those trees had fallen. Thick ferns and brush now blanketed the space, and it was in the lee of those ferns that Kob dropped his tunic. They leaned in close, the cheetah’s hands gliding along the ermine’s sides, caressing his ribs through the thin, wet fabric, their muzzles brushing against each other, hot breath stirring damp whiskers.

Tasven brought his fingers up to Kob’s shoulders, sliding his fingers down, running from one dark spot to another. The cheetah sighed over his chin, nimble fingers moving inward, starting to loosen the weasel’s clothing in turn, working from his collar, down his shirt, and forging on with his belt. The fabric stuck to him enough that it wouldn’t fall away on its own; instead, the feline’s deft fingers peeled his shirt away, pausing at the waistline of his pants, venturing down to stroke the warm, firm ridge in front.

Letting out a soft moan, Tasven clung tight to his friend, snout buried against the cheetah’s neck as Kob fondled him through the thin, sodden fabric. “I want you,” the weasel hissed.

“I’m here,” Kob breathed, fingers slipping in to curl more directly around Tasven’s hardening length. “Mm, I think it’s been much, much too long since I planted my seed in you, Tas…”

The ermine felt a shudder grip him, felt his tail hike up even before Kob’s dancing fingers caressed its underside. “Too long by far,” he gasped, squeezing the cheetah’s shoulders tight.

Kob’s muzzle brushed against his, and then the cheetah drew back slightly, drawing Tasven’s trousers down his legs. He didn’t bother reaching down to tug them off entirely, nor did Tasven feel any immediate need to slip off his boots and do so himself. The weasel’s full attention was on the nimble fingers that now loosened the cheetah’s own belt, drifting out of sight behind him to loosen the fastening there, then returning into view, hooking into the cat’s trousers. For one glorious moment those fingers framed the ridge of his arousal in the wet fabric; then that arousal was bared to his direct sight.

Kob was quite a bit more modest than either of his companions – in length, especially, he was very much an average male. But his member was still thick and plump, and the ebon flesh gleamed now with a sheen of rainwater. Not that Tasven was able to keep a close eye on it for long, as the cheetah leaned in close, gripping one of Tasven’s knees and shrugging the other over his shoulder, the cat’s remaining hand steadying his rod, bringing it into place.

They didn’t need to delay, to wrestle with any aids or implements or oils. Kob just set his cockhead in place and started bearing forward, and the ache as it spread Tasven open, the heat of it filling him – it was raw bliss all the way.

Once he’d slid in to the hilt, Kob paused for only a few moments, rocking against Tasven, stirring under his tail; then his hips started churning, drawing a few inches free, then shoving it back in – then again, faster, deeper, harder. Soon the vigour in his thrusts was such that one might think he’d not known a lover’s touch in years. Each stroke rocked Tasven against his perch; each thrust pushed the weasel’s balls up a little, his own rigid shaft bucking between their stomachs, striking one or the other almost constantly. Again and again the cat drove into him, his slick fur – and the taut, wiry body under it – rubbing against Tasven’s glans with an intensity that had him delirious, and despite Tasven’s incoherent moans, his never-quite-expressed urge to take a more active role in the matter than just feebly pawing at Kob’s shoulders, the cheetah never let up, pounding into him without hesitation – without mercy – and driving him right over the edge into a yowling, squirming climax that streaked both of them with hot, sticky seed before the water flowing in rivulets down their bodies washed it away.

And only when he was gasping in the wake of that release did Kob finally falter, lurching in deep and staying there, a deep moan muffled against Tasven’s neck as liquid heat pulsed into him.

“Gods, Kob,” Tasven whispered, stroking the trembling cat’s cheek. “Can it be healthy, to let such a need build up in you? Varyn and I aren’t unwilling to oblige you, you know…”

“I know,” Kob panted, nuzzling at his wrist, giving his palm a lick. “It’s worth it in the end, though. Worth it and ten times more.” The cheetah grinned. “Besides, it’s not as though I’ve spent all that drive. Give me an hour and a good meal…”

“I’d certainly hope you haven’t,” Tasven laughed, stroking the slender cat’s jaw. “Varyn is going to be cross with us if we don’t show him some proper appreciation for his lot.”

Kob took a careful step back, grinning as he bent to catch his trousers and pull them back up. “I’m sure I can find a few more squirts of appreciation for him,” he purred. “We just need to decide on the manner of it.”

There was something about the cat’s tone that caught Tasven’s ears. “You have something in mind?”

“I most certainly do,” Kob replied, cinching his belt and leaning in to nuzzle at Tasven’s jaw. “Let me keep my little secrets for a while, though, yeah? I think you’ll like it if it’s what comes to pass, and if not, well, I won’t have been teasing by mentioning it.”

“Suit yourself,” Tasven laughed, doing up his belt in turn. “Now, let’s see how the wolf is doing.”

Varyn had found a suitable place for their tent and unrolled it there, but he hadn’t gone so far as to actually start setting it up; that was a job for many hands. He had set up an awning, though, and made a firepit under it; now he huddled near the fire, reaching forward as the other pair drew near to turn the spit on which Tasven’s earlier catch hung, now cleaned, gutted, and – according to their noses – quite deliciously seasoned. A rather damp tabby cat – the small, four-legged kind – was perched on his left leg, washing its forepaw with exaggerated dignity; Tasven’s familiar was in agreement with the wolf about the weather, it seemed.

Kob touched Tasven’s arm, nodding toward the tent, and Tasven nodded back. Varyn was good-natured, but there was no need to abuse that; after leaving the wolf to his own devices while they amused themselves, the least they could do was help make camp without being reminded and without further delay. “Ho there, Varyn,” the cheetah called out as he picked up one of the segmented poles. “Dinner’s smelling lovely. Is that little fire helping you to dry out, yet?”

“I’ll manage,” was the wolf’s wry reply. “It’s as well you found dinner before your little entertainment, though – as much noise as you made, I’d be surprised to find any game, small or large, inside five leagues!”

Tasven laughed, fitting the ends of his own pole together. The spell-treated wood flexed under its weight as he raised it – lighter than normal wood, yet more flexible and resilient than steel. He bent down to thread it through the loops on the canvas. “You’ve never complained of my volume when it was you causing it,” he observed.

“Who’s complaining? You at least had the decency to go upwind – at least until the breeze shifted just a few moments ago, what little wind there was brought me quite an experience.” He patted his groin, and the faint ridge yet visible through his leggings – nowhere near full arousal, but perhaps a bit more plump than usual. “When Drevin showed up, I almost thought he wanted a taste of something other than our meal.”

Tasven laughed again; the cat, looking greatly affronted at Varyn’s shifting about, instead hopped down to the far side of the firepit to continue his grooming. “No, he keeps his affections for females of his own species. I think he rather wishes I’d gone to a magical academy – then he might have met partners he could actually hold a conversation with.”

“One wonders how the two of you manage to get along,” said Kob, working another pole through its loops.

“It’s not as though he’s a stranger to lust,” Tasven replied, slipping the last pole into place and fitting the ends into the cap that would keep them together. “Why do you think we never see much of him while we’re in cities? What his partners lack in social graces, he makes up for with their numbers.”

“And what does that say about us?” Kob enquired, hefting the pole on his side, starting to raise it into place.

“Since, when I come to a new city with you two, I don’t look through half the city’s population looking for bedmates, I don’t think it needs to say much,” replied Tasven, hooking the lower end of his pole into its grommet, then going to the other pole on his side of the tent to do the same. “I don’t think I’ve found that many more new partners, when we were all in the same place, than you have.” He twisted around to give the cheetah a level stare. “And I wouldn’t get myself nearly-killed for any of them.”

“Easy, easy.” Kob held up his hands, pleading. “I didn’t mean anything serious by that, Tasven.”

The weasel bit his lip. That had rather run away from him, hadn’t it? “I’m sorry. I suppose some of my father’s barbs have sunk in a bit deep.”

Coming around to his side of the tent, Kob gave Tasven’s shoulder a squeeze. “Sorry. Where it counts, you’ve been more loyal than I could ever ask for – both of you,” he added, nodding over at Varyn to include him in that sentiment. “I’d never question that in my right mind.” One more pat to Tasven’s shoulder, and he moved on, ambling toward Tasven’s pack.

Tasven took a breath, letting the happy memories of his times with the pair push aside the momentary bitterness. He jogged over to the awning and eased in under it. “Does this need any more tending than turning the spit, Varyn?”

“No,” the wolf replied. “It should be done in a quarter-hour or so. Big beast, for its kind.”

“A lucky find indeed. Well, get yourself into the tent, then,” he suggested with a smile. “Get dry. I’ll finish out here.”

“Thanks,” the big cleric sighed. As he rose, he took up his pack, pausing only to ruffle between Kob’s ears as the cheetah took a mallet to pegs to secure the tent in place, before ducking under the flap. Drevin darted in as well, with one last flick of his tail.

Kob finished sinking pegs, meandering back toward the pack where it sat under the awning, and sitting beside Tasven once he’d stowed the mallet. “He’s a wonderful man,” the cheetah said, “but he does amaze me sometimes. I’d have thought he of all people would be grateful for some relief from the heat. And he’s not objected to being wet before.”

“I think that’s when he can get away from the water,” Tasven mused. He reached over to give the spit a few slow turns, going on, “And I think he has inner cool of a sort. Not so much that he can project it as a full-blood winter wolf can, but enough that he doesn’t have to worry too much about mundane heat. It may be uncomfortable, but it’ll never threaten him.”

“And you’ve got that ring of yours. It sometimes feels like I’m the only one who has much room to complain about the weather,” Kob teased, nudging his elbow against Tasven’s ribs.

“I think you’re a glutton for punishment,” Tasven shot back with a grin. “You could get one like it, if you so chose. And then there’s the way you keep putting yourself in harm’s way instead of the big man with the mail shirt.”

“I suffer for your health and his,” the cheetah replied, tilting his head in a mock-theatrical pose. “Now, is that thing almost done? It certainly smells it.”

Reaching into his pack brought a knife to hand; he poked the roast lizard with it, peering as close as the fire allowed. “It looks good enough for me. You go and keep Varyn company; I’ll be in once I’ve skinned and carved this little beast.”

It was not a grand meal, but with two legs apiece and a fair bit of meat on its body, that lizard left all three of them comfortably fed. Varyn was mostly dry and in good spirits; at his playful insistence, the other two had made an effort to squeeze the water out of their fur, too, and now all three lay atop Kob’s wonderful enchanted bedroll, the big wolf in the middle with the smaller males against his sides, and Drevin curled up some distance away, studiously ignoring the lot of them.

“He’s come to expect things of us by now, hasn’t he?” Kob chuckled.

“And well he might, except for these past few weeks.” Varyn rubbed behind the cheetah’s ears. “You’ve been pushing us forward all this time – not that I’m complaining, with this weather, but what prompts the change of heart, the leisure time?”

“I haven’t been pushing since we came down from the mountains,” was Kob’s protest. “Not that I have any objection to reaching Sharktooth Bay sooner rather than later, but I only wanted to be sure we didn’t get cut off by a storm in the passes. You two may be comfortable in the cold, but we could have got lost in a blizzard up there, and even if not, I don’t have any such protection.”

“We could have wrapped you up in this and carried you,” Tasven laughed, thumping the bedroll under him.

“And I’d have never heard the end of it. No, better to get down from the passes before the storms hit. Now we can relax – or,” the cheetah smirked, “at least have fun.”

“Insatiable thing. After the way you were howling earlier, I’m surprised you can even think of getting it up,” said Varyn with a grin.

“Oh, I’m doing more than thinking about it.” He rolled onto his side, and Tasven saw that he spoke the truth, thick black flesh standing in sharp contrast to the pale fur on his stomach and Varyn’s white pelt alike. “What about you, though, hmm? You haven’t been so thoroughly wrecked by a little damp that you’d want to get an early sleep, I hope?”

The wolf chuckled, thick fingers gliding along that thick shaft, curling around it as Kob pressed into his grip and purred. “No, not with such as this so close at hand, certainly.”

“Well, then. How long has it been since you had a good stuffing, wolf?”

Varyn laughed out loud. “Forgive me, Kob. You know I’ve never been dissatisfied with this.” He tapped his finger against Kob’s glans. “But with my size and yours, do you truly think I could call that ‘stuffed’?”

“With mine alone? Maybe not.” A toothy grin split Kob’s muzzle. “But add the slinky one’s not-so-slinky polearm into the mix, and I think it just might add up to that…”

Tasven shivered, swallowing a moan of sudden need. “I’m certainly game to try,” he breathed.

Varyn’s other hand found the weasel’s shaft, lifting it free of his fur, thumb sliding along its swelling length. “You’re working on it, certainly,” the wolf said with a grin. “All right. If you two can give me a nice stretch and a few doses of hot cream, I think I’ll consider myself well-paid for enduring a few waterlogged days on the road.”

There were, of course, some preliminaries; first and foremost, Varyn’s thick fingers worked along Tasven’s flesh, massaging, squeezing, drawing it up to its full heft. In the meantime, Kob took on the duty of coaxing Varyn’s rather distinctive manhood out into the open – a relic of his winter wolf blood, apparently; the way it hid in a downy sheath, the bright red hue of it, the tapered point, the swelling that lurked at its base – Tasven, at least, hadn’t encountered its like in a two-legged wolf, but despite their size, intellect, and ability to interbreed with the more familiar sort, winter wolves were four-legged themselves. At any rate, neither of them took very much coaxing to catch up with Kob’s rampant arousal, breaths and hearts quickening all around.

Then it was a matter of geometry. Tasven stretched out on his back, while Kob fished in his own pack, pulling out a cloth-wrapped package, from which in turn he produced two vials of amber fluid. One of these he passed to Varyn with a grin; then he sat back off to one side, tapping the other vial idly against his own waiting length.

Much though he was enjoying the touch of the wolf’s hands, Tasven took a breath and forced himself to concentrate. He had an innate resistance to magic from any source he didn’t swallow, and the contents of those vials were a familiar and benign sort of magic; so he found himself in the strange dichotomy of trying very hard to relax, to let those natural defences lower for a moment, as Varyn uncapped the vial. The wolf’s fingers tilted Tasven’s shaft more-or-less vertical, and then his other hand upended the vial over it. Thick oil crawled over his naked flesh, embracing it, clinging to it, and Varyn’s fingers coaxed the stuff all the way down to the base of his length.

When his fingers lifted up to Tasven’s jaw, though, there was no trace of the oil upon them; all of it stayed right where it was needed.

“How long has it been, dear weasel?” the wolf breathed over his muzzle. “Two months, three?”

“I haven’t kept count,” Tasven admitted, grinning up at his larger lover. “Stop musing about the lack and put an end to it, hmm?”

Laughing, the big cleric moved to straddle him. Varyn had just shifted his weight onto one arm and started to reach down when a set of much more slender fingers curled around Tasven’s slickened shaft. “I’ve got that,” the cheetah purred. “Just let yourself down, Varyn – that’s it, yes…”

Large of frame though he was, it wasn’t all that often that Varyn’s inclination was to receive for another male, and Tasven was quite ample; they slid together without much difficulty, but it wasn’t a trivial task, either, and Varyn was groaning rather heavily by the time he pressed down against Tasven’s hips. Their muzzles met, as well as their dissimilar shapes would allow, tongues dancing past one another, exploring anew as they rocked together. When they came up for air, Varyn let out his spent breath in a long sigh. “Truly, I should do this more often.”

“We can make up for lost time now, yes?” said the third and smallest member of their band. “Steady, now…”

For all Kob was the smallest of the three there, too, that girth which had spread Tasven so nicely earlier was far from inconsiderable; now the cat’s glans nudged against the weasel’s shaft and followed it upward, pressing against both of the other males. Tasven’s breath caught – of all the many pleasures he’d enjoyed in his not-so-many years, the feel of another male hard against him still ranked quite highly, and Kob was pushing against him with more force than most. Varyn shuddered atop him, eyes squeezing shut, head tilting back, throat vibrating in a deep moan as Kob’s insistent length nudged at him a little more.

It was a bit too awkward to make much progress, though. “In together, perhaps,” Tasven suggested, arching under the bigger male, drawing himself free. The wolf let out an actual whimper as they separated, but he was not to be left empty for long; Kob took a firm grip on both slippery lengths, holding head against head, and as one they pressed upward.

Their progress was slow, but the sensations to which it gave rise were exquisite.

Once they’d slid in far enough that Kob was in about halfway, their strokes separated; Tasven kept pushing in deeper, while the cheetah started rocking back and forth – tending deeper himself, but doing it measure by measure. Tasven found his own complications to add to the mix – one of his hands reaching up to rub and stroke and scratch behind Varyn’s flattened ears, the other sliding between them, dancing along the upper side of the wolf’s own rigid pole.

For him, it was a lazy sort of coupling – being flat on his back didn’t give him room to apply much force, so he just undulated a little beneath the other two, stirring, shifting slightly back and forth, fondling Varyn’s maleness all the while. The main force of the thrusting was left to Kob, and again the cat seemed almost indefatigable; not nearly so swift and vigorous as he had been with Tasven earlier, but insistent. The tight grip of the wolf’s body would have been bliss enough; having the cheetah’s flesh sliding against his in that same embrace made him rather giddy, and he knew he wasn’t going to have any noteworthy stamina this time around. Not that the others minded – certainly not Varyn, whispering words of encouragement into his ears, lapping at Tasven’s throat as the weasel surged upward, surrendering to his pleasure and shooting deep into Varyn’s silken tunnel. The wolf himself was next, pressing his snout against Tasven’s neck where it met his shoulder, muffling a whimpering groan as his shaft bucked under Tasven’s fingers, sticky heat pulsing over his fur. Kob slowed his stroke somewhat, though the cat, too, was panting on the raw edge of release; still, he held back for a few moments more, waiting for the main rush of pleasure to fade from the other males, for their full attention to be on him again, before he shoved forward one final time, slender body arched, head flung back in a cry of pleasure as a fresh flood of his seed gushed past Tasven’s length and mixed with his own.

And where Tasven’s second climax of the evening had been relatively modest, Kob’s was certainly not – ‘flood’ was definitely the best word for that torrent that pulsed out of him, jet after hot, fierce jet.

“Mmmm. He truly was saving up for you,” Tasven murmured over Varyn’s ears, feeling a grin steal over his muzzle. “He didn’t give me this much, certainly.”

“You weren’t also rubbing against me, then,” Kob panted. “You’re not the only man in the world who enjoys that, you know.”

Varyn let out a long sigh, closing his eyes and lapping at Tasven’s cheek. “Oh, very well,” he said, his tone full of mock severity. “I suppose I can forgive you slipping off early as you did, so long as you hold that much in reserve for me.”

They pulled apart with many a shiver and groan. Tasven took the time to clean up his fur, offering to take the first watch as he did. “Wake me for the second,” Kob suggested – Varyn had turned face-up, and the cheetah was sprawled right atop him, curled up slightly and purring, the tip of his banded tail lazily curling.

Intimate distractions notwithstanding, the territory they were in was still somewhat wild. Tasven didn’t bother dressing, but he did strap his sheathed punch daggers to his legs before he pushed past the flap – to watch the approaching night, and to enjoy the evening rain a while longer.

Tasven had never seen a shark’s tooth before, on or off the shark; nor had Varyn. Kob assured them, though, that Sharktooth Bay came by its name honestly. Seen from the bluff above by the morning’s light, the bay itself came to nearly a point, its sides more or less straight, and straightened further by the construction along them. The peninsulas that framed it bowed inward toward their ends, forming a natural harbour – and, Kob said, the root of the shark’s tooth. That vast harbour helped make the city an important mercantile centre, a place full of opportunity.

Which, when they reached it, didn’t keep the guards from looking upon them with heavy suspicion and stern instructions to keep their noses clean.

“That’s new,” the cheetah muttered once they were past the checkpoint. “There have always been gate guards, of course, as long as I remember, but they used to be a great deal more welcoming. It’s not just them, either. Everyone’s on edge for some reason.”

“So much for the easy opportunity,” was Varyn’s dry reply.

“It does look like it’s harder for everyday people to find work. More beggars and the like.” Kob came to a halt mid-stride. “But we’re hardly ordinary, everyday people, are we? If something big is happening, I imagine there’s that much more call for adventurers among the people who actually know what’s up.”

“First off, we don’t know who that is,” Varyn pointed out. “That can be remedied, yes. But do be careful, Kob – we may be a bit tougher than the common citizen, but we’re not heroes of legend yet, and there are only three of us.”

“Better to enquire and then decide it’s too big for us,” the cat mused, “than to not try at all.”

Reaching up to scratch Drevin’s ears where the tabby was perched on his shoulders, Tasven said, “Kob has a point. We should at least try to learn what’s going on.”

Nods all around. “But first,” said practical Varyn, “we should find lodgings.”

That didn’t prove difficult. For all the recent changes in attitude and the air of desperation that hung over the city, Kob had grown up in Sharktooth Bay, and he still knew the city well. Apparently, he was still owed a few favours; protests at the Roosting Gull that there wasn’t a room to be had evaporated once Kob actually spoke with the innkeeper, a rather fetching middle-aged mouse woman who personally showed them to a room. It wasn’t luxurious, but it was decently appointed like the rest of the place, and it was large enough for all three of them – and it had a door that led directly outside, the portal glimmering with warding runes.

“Charissa keeps a few spaces available for… friends,” Kob explained once the mouse had given them their key and bustled out. “I’ve funnelled enough of my take over the years that my old fellows still value my name, it seems; I thought I might have to meet them and negotiate first. But she’s one of their public faces – the one I know – and if she says I’m up to date, it’s so.”

“You never did tell me just where you picked up all your skills,” Tasven said, sliding his pack onto the floor. Drevin hopped down onto the bed and started nosing around; the weasel took a cushion from the box of bedding and set it on the floor, and the cat was pleased to curl up on it.

“A little of this, a little of that. My contacts are good people, but the city guard wouldn’t always approve of their methods.” Kob drew his kris and peered along the serpentine edge. “Sometimes the law lets bad people get away with bad things. I wound up on the streets because of it, and, well, things kind of went from there.” His muzzle twisted into a tight, satisfied smirk. “My first real job saw the one responsible exposed and run out of town.”

“So,” Varyn sighed, “I guess we wait here while you talk to them?”

Kob gave him a searching look, drawing a deep breath as he did. “If I know you right, you’d rather be useful than sit about.” At the wolf’s nod, Kob went on, “There’s a Temple of the Seven on the Street of the Gods. You could do whatever it is you need to do now and then, and the priests might have heard something about what’s going on.”

“And me?” Tasven queried. If neither of the bipeds were going to be around – well, he liked Drevin well enough, but though he was smarter than the average housecat, Tasven’s familiar wasn’t yet very edifying company. Especially after a long trek.

“Hmm. You could try asking Perri. He has his shop down by the docks.”

That name was familiar. “You mean the one who made – ”

“My bedroll, and those vials of oil, yes. He’s sometimes complained about a lack of people to get bits and pieces for him, but I can never keep those fiddly things straight. I know your magic isn’t so studied, but you might still have a better notion of what it is he needs. And down by the docks, he might have heard something, too; he deals with a lot of merchants, and whatever’s got this city down would be hitting them hardest.”

Wizards. Tasven tried not to grimace. He’d encountered a few of their like – looking down their noses at anyone to whom magic came more naturally and always chasing after this or that bit of obscure ancient knowledge. As if coming up with genuine new things wasn’t good enough for them. Sure, the bedroll was a lovely, practical thing – but the oils, he’d reminded himself, had come about as an attempt to seal scrolls against water. It worked – oilcloths were hardly unfamiliar things – but it seemed a cumbersome way to do it with magic. “I’ll give it a try.”

“Right. It’s probably best if I take the key, but here…” Kob tapped at one of the walls, then apparently found a hidden catch of some kind, because a small panel swung open. From it, he drew a trio of small grey stones. To the naked eye they looked quite unremarkable, but on a hunch, Tasven looked at them under arcane sight – and they were definitely enchanted; it was mild, but it resonated with the wards on the door.

“They’ll let us in the back way?” he gathered, slipping his into his belt pouch; even if he wanted to be so visibly a newcomer as to carry his pack, he wasn’t sure an interdimensional space would let the thing work properly.

“That’s right. Now, the Street of the Gods is on my way – I can show you there, Varyn. We’ll have to part ways a little bit after that, Tas, but I’ll tell you how to get to Perri’s shop as we go. Try to be back here by nightfall, though, both of you – I’m not sure I trust that the streets are safe to walk alone, any more.”

With that warning, they set out. The back door took them onto narrow stairs that led down into a narrow but clean alleyway, and from there they went, not to the street the inn was on, but to the one behind it; Tasven took a look around, taking note of what shops were nearby so he could find the place again. The street with the temples was a few minutes’ walk away, and Varyn was noticeably more cheerful as he set out along it; the docks were farther off, but the route Kob told him to follow was simple enough. Besides, his nose would lead him in the right general direction – salt, tar, and the somewhat noisome smells of the sea.

The shop wasn’t much to look at. A plain sign marked it as the business of “Perri Glimmereye: Alchemist, Enchanter, Spellwright”. The interior was cluttered by a variety of things such as Tasven expected to see at a wizard’s shop – alchemical supplies, a mind-boggling variety of spell reagents, a few odds and ends that he presumed were enchanted in some way. There was nobody behind the counter, though a small, four-footed, brightly-coloured lizard – a gecko, maybe, to judge by the way it clambered around – peered at him with the intelligence he’d come to associate with a spellcaster’s familiar. The only other person in the shop was a tall, fit otter man in his late twenties, inspecting the presumably-enchanted things, dressed like any of the other sailors Tasven had passed.

When Tasven called out a greeting, hoping to get the attention of the shopkeeper if he was in the back room, the otter started, hurriedly setting down the compass he’d been handling and turning to face him, a smile on his stiff-whiskered muzzle. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t hear you come in. Can I help you with something?”

Tasven blinked. “Are you – ?”

“Perri Glimmereye, finest of Sharktooth Bay’s resident wizards, at your service,” the otter said with a small bow. He smiled at Tasven’s amusement. “Don’t worry; I get that reaction often. What is it I can help you with?” He reached out to put a hand against the counter, letting the gecko scurry up his arm.

No wonder he was used to surprise; he didn’t look like any wizard or scholar Tasven had ever seen. Why would Kob have failed to mention that the man was stunningly handsome? Perhaps he wasn’t into men at all and Kob hadn’t wanted to encourage that line of thought. Well, it was probably best to stay focused anyway. “A friend of mine from the city said you might have some idea what’s causing these hard times.”

The otter studied him – and that was a look he was more used to, from wizards. “Mmm. Does this mutual acquaintance of ours have a name, or will he or she remain a mystery?”

“Kob Lightfingers,” Tasven admitted. “He’s – ” “Bought a few of your things,” he was going to say, but the wizard cut him off.

“One of my favourite customers,” the older man said with a chuckle. “You must be the sorcerer he’s mentioned…?”

“Tasven. Yes. I’ve known him, off and on, for… five years now.” Five rather delicious years.

“I haven’t heard from him in three. How is the spotty little rascal?”

“He’s well,” Tasven said, not knowing if he ought to go into detail about what Kob was up to at the moment. What little detail he had, anyway. “He said, even if you don’t have the answers to that question, you might have some work that needs a small band of adventurers to do.”

“Mmm.” The wizard’s levity dropped away; in that moment, his expression was every bit a wizard’s, grave and calculating. “Well, for a friend of Kob’s, I can spare the time for that. Understand, though, that times are hard – if business comes in, I can’t afford to turn it away.” When the weasel nodded, the otter gestured toward what Tasven had taken for a small waiting area, furnished with chairs, a small table, and a tray on which rested a pitcher and a few chalices, water beading on the surface of the former. “Come, sit. I can tell you what I know – and it ties in directly to what I need done.”

The pitcher turned out to contain water – nothing fancy, but it was clear, clean, and cold, and though the pitcher drained when poured, the moment it was set upright it was once again brimming full.

Perri lapped a few times at his chalice, and sighed. “Please understand, I don’t have much specific detail. Most of what I hear comes from the merchants who come by sea, not land; firsthand, I only know that some of my supplies have become damnably expensive, and at the same time, fewer merchants have coin to spare. But I do meet with my arcane colleagues in the city now and then, and they’ve mentioned a few things. Collectively, we are, indeed, looking for adventurers – all of us are city folk born and raised, all of us have businesses to tend to, and I myself am the only one of the lot without a family to support. We can’t afford the time to leave the city and investigate, but we can, together, afford to finance a small expedition to find out what’s going on – and, hopefully, deal with it, before land-bound trade is strangled entirely and the ships seek other ports of call for the storm season.”

A grim fate indeed, for a trading city. “What do you know so far?”

The wizard reached into a pouch at his side, and from it drew a scroll that couldn’t possibly have fit in a bag that size; he intoned a cantrip, water and a tiny bit of accumulated dirt leaving the table at his gesture. Onto that cleared space he unrolled the scroll into a map, weighing down the corners with brass weights. “The main problem is on the road to Sul-Daria, to the west. Caravans have been lost – most of them just vanished entirely, but a few weeks back one of them had survivors that made it to Sharktooth. What they reported lines up with the other disappearances: they were attacked while passing the edge of Brightwood Forest, here. The survivors were scared out of their wits and didn’t see much clearly – their wizard, the only reason there were survivors at all, had too much light in his eyes from his own spells to get any clearer a picture. But apparently the attackers came from within the forest itself.”

“Why hasn’t the guard tried to roust them out?” Tasven wondered. That forest was close enough to the city that he wouldn’t have expected them to tolerate such hostility.

“Partly superstition about the forest itself. There’s something about the place; although we haven’t heard from any druids that might be living there, it feels like the sort of place they would tend, and that alone makes others inclined to stay out. Probably the only reason there’s still a forest at all,” the otter added with a grimace. “But we also know so little about the culprits – who they are, where they’re from; nothing. The only one of the merchants who saw anything worth noting at all swore they were some kind of serpent-demons.”

Tasven sat up stiff. “Serpent-demons?”

“Could mean almost anything, to be honest. A tribe of troglodytes isn’t very likely – too far from any known caves, and they tend not to be so organized. But it could have been lizardfolk of some variety; that’s what I personally consider most likely. An organized band, but hardly a major military threat; if we knew how many there were and where they were based, maybe the guard could be convinced to take action. The Captain’s no happier about the lack of trade than anyone else – and not only because the rise of petty crime makes her job harder.”

“What else could it be? It sounds like you’ve thought about it.”

“Yuan-ti, but again, there aren’t any caves nearby that they might have come up out of. More likely in my mind, but still a bit far-fetched, someone may be summoning actual demons – no more than a few at a time, or they wouldn’t be stopping with caravan raids and a single wizard wouldn’t have been able to turn them away, but a marilith, even if only on this plane for a short time, can devastate the guards of a typical caravan and leave the hauling-work to the main culprits. Vanishingly unlikely is an evil cult or something else that would actually have demons there long-term. It may be slowly strangling our city, but frankly, the destruction is just too small for anyone with that kind of resources. On the other end of the scale, it could be that the serpents have nothing to do with it – there are some very large snakes in the woods around here, but they go for unaware prey; so long as you don’t let them catch you sleeping, they’re harmless. Unless they fall out of a tree on you. But I don’t see why the poor fellow would remember the snakes so strongly, in that case.”

“So probably a tribe of lizardfolk,” Tasven repeated, and the wizard nodded. “What do you want us to do?”

“Find out what’s going on,” Perri replied. “Who’s doing this, and where are they coming from? We’ll pay well for that information. If you can bring back proof that these aggressors have been weakened – or, gods willing, stopped, or even bring back some of the stolen goods – we will of course find a way to compensate accordingly.” The wizard grimaced. “Somehow.”

“I don’t know that it needs to all be in coin,” Tasven suggested. “Kob has introduced me to some of your… remarkable works.”

The otter brightened. “You know, there’s a story there – do you have time? I certainly seem to…” When Tasven nodded, Perri went on, “You see, when I was fresh out of academy, I came back to Sharktooth Bay with my head stuffed full of all manner of practical suggestions, and I tried to follow them. I made practical things, buying some of the resources I needed, or back in the day I took some turns with adventurers myself to help make up what I needed. I found this shop, for sale for a song, and I focused on things that would be useful to sailors. Enchanted compasses that wouldn’t go awry, a barrel that would keep meat fresh and pest-free without needing to salt it to oblivion, that sort of thing – but what my first customer bought was a hammock to stave off sea-sickness while she lay in it. Ever since then, I seem to have gained a name for making life a little more comfortable. I tried to stick with my original plan, at first, and made more practical things…” He shrugged. “Eventually, I gave up on that. People wanted me to bring them comfort, so I turned my attention to comfort – then,” a smirk, “pulled out all the stops and went for pleasure.”

“There’s this oil Kob has used quite a few times…”

“Minor Lubrication. Yes.” Now the otter outright grinned. “One of my last bids toward the boring and practical. Some people have in fact used it to keep machines running, but I think I’m the only one who’s used it to keep things from getting wet. Actually, it was Kob who made me aware of its… other applications.”

Oh. Maybe Kob had refrained from saying the man was handsome, not because he wasn’t into other men, but because he was and the cheetah had wanted Tasven to stay focused. “Very fine applications indeed,” Tasven breathed, feeling his trousers tighten a little at the thought. “I’d be delighted to help exploring them a little further.”

The otter’s sigh was undeniably one of longing. “In happier times, I’d be delighted in turn to close up shop for the afternoon and do so with one of your cut and cloth. Much as it pains me to repeat it, though, as I said, I can’t risk turning away business…”

“Who says you would be?” Tasven purred. “I may be looking for work, but I’m hardly broke yet. Do you have, say, something that could perform that lubrication without needing to mess with vials?”

“Well – yes, actually.” The otter blinked. “But, er, it needs to be… fitted. I’ve yet to devise a way to make it resize itself, you see, so I have to make them to order.”

“All the more reason for me to see it in action before I commission one,” Tasven pointed out. “I’m assuming you’ve made one for yourself.”

The wizard drew in a deep, shaky breath. “Well… yes.” His fingers twitched at his side, starting to reach for the ridge in his trousers, then going back where they were. A ridge that seemed quite likely to reach a fair distance down his trouser leg.

So that was why fitting it wasn’t a trivial thing, hmm? “Even if I do commission one, I’m sure I’ll need a few… supplies… to last me until it’s done,” Tasven said, patting his pouch. “I won’t be costing you business, either way.”

“Good enough for me,” the otter blurted. Another prestidigitation doused the candles in the window, and a third turned around the sign that hung there. Perri didn’t object in the slightest when, while he was casting, Tasven moved closer to him, taking a closer look at that swelling bulge, gliding his fingers along it.

The flesh he felt underneath wasn’t particularly thick, but it was wonderfully warm and it strained to be free. Grinning, he tugged at the otter’s belt to oblige it.

By the way he wiggled out of his trousers, slipped off his shirt, and in general made himself comfortable, it was hardly the first time Perri had entertained someone on that soft, comfortable chair. He did shuffle it back a little, away from the table, before one word – nonsensical, but apparently a trigger of some kind – caused the door to latch itself; and then he started getting more into it, stroking Tasven’s ears and muzzle and neck, tugging at his shirt. “There was a glimmer weasel at the Academy,” he sighed, running his fingers briefly through Tasven’s shining fur. “Delightful breed. Never saw her this close, though.”

“Nor she you, I imagine?” Tasven grinned up at him, then turned his attention downward, running his fingers along bare, pink flesh. Slender he was, but Tasven had never seen a male Perri’s size built so long; a foot and more of firm manhood awaited his attention, still growing and already slick at the tip. Varyn was about that long, if one counted his knot, and thicker besides – but Varyn was a big man. At six feet tall, Perri was certainly above average, but he was no giant – and he didn’t seem to have a four-legger in his blood. From what Tasven had heard, otter men tended to be slick naturally, so that wasn’t a surprise, though encountering it in person was quite pleasant.

Apparently he’d snagged something from a pocket without Tasven noticing; he nudged at the weasel’s fingers, and once they withdrew, slid what seemed to be a bone ring of sorts right down along his considerable length. Its outer surface was carved with arcane symbols, and it was a loose fit at the time; within moments, as the otter’s flesh reached its full modest girth, the latter was no longer the case. Of more note, though, was the way his entire length seemed to glisten the moment it was in place, exuding something much like the oil Tasven had already encountered – slippery, yet not at all sticky as a mundane oil might be.

“If it didn’t go loose, I could wear it constantly,” Perri said. “It is, mmmm… tuned, somewhat; it responds to arousal, and if one’s partner doesn’t need quite so much slickness, it’ll tone back. You can influence it, to some degree, with a thought.”

“It sounds like you do good work,” Tasven purred, sliding his fingers from one end of that slippery length all the way to the other. “Do you always give this sort of demonstration?”

“You’re the first to enquire who wasn’t already a friend and lover,” Perri said with a laugh, reaching down to rub behind the weasel’s ears some more. “I’ll make exceptions for the friend of a very good friend, though.”

Grinning, Tasven got up to his feet. The otter was plenty slick now – not that Tasven would have minded trying to work him in with no more lubrication than what came naturally. Some other time, perhaps. For now, he started peeling out of his own clothing. “And does that thing have any other benefits?”

“It lends a modest gain of health and stamina – not the sexual sort; it leaves that alone. Except in that you’re a touch less likely to wear yourself out and need to stop early, if ever you were. Oh, goodness – Kob hasn’t lost his taste for, mmm, larger men, has he?”

“You should see our cleric,” Tasven laughed, wiggling his hips a little, and along with them, his quite ready arousal.

Perri curled his fingers around the weasel’s girth, stroking from base to tip and back. “Mmm. In all honesty, this is about my limit. More than my usual; I normally look for men I’d be comfortable accepting, myself.”

“But that’s not what this is about, is it?” Tasven enquired, setting his hands on the wizard’s shoulders.

“No,” Perri breathed. “No, it is not.”

Horrible puns about wands and rods notwithstanding, Perri didn’t feel like a wizard. He was sleekly muscular under Tasven’s roaming fingers, and there was a strength in his own webbed hands that couldn’t possibly have come from turning pages. Nor did he have any of the usual reserve one expected in the profession; he pressed his muzzle against Tasven’s chest, suckling at a nipple, and coaxed the weasel downward, onto his lap. It was so, so easy at first – with that slim girth, just what he’d had on his glans when he’d first been exposed would likely have been enough to get started, and that was assuming he didn’t get more slick when fully aroused. As it was, they slid together almost effortlessly until the last few inches, and even those weren’t a particular difficulty. With Varyn, going in that deep would have been a stretch that verged on uncomfortable and would certainly have taken time and care. Now, though – he slid right down against the otter’s lap like he belonged there.

“You’re an inviting little thing,” Perri murmured against his jaw, and nipped at the side of his neck. “Warm, too.”

“I get that reaction a lot,” Tasven replied, mimicking the wizard’s cadence as best he could.

Laughing, Perri took hold of his rump, tensing, lifting him up a few inches, then easing him down again. “Greatly experienced, mmm? And to think, you look no older than my youngest brother, and he’s just starting at the Academy.”

“Another wizard in the family, hmm?” Tasven tried to match the otter’s rhythm, and to extend it, rising about halfway off the otter’s spear, then impaling himself on it once more. “Gods. Is he anywhere near as beautiful as you are?”

“He’s going to break a few hearts, for certain,” said the wizard. “Gods, indeed. If he weren’t my own brother… never mind.” His whiskers splayed out as he grinned. “He’s not here. I am, and so are you.”

“So am I,” Tasven agreed. “And you don’t need to feel the slightest bit of guilt about planting your seed in me, do you?”

The otter shivered under him. “Keep that up,” he whimpered, “and I’ll be much too soon in doing so.”

“Maybe you should stop giving me such things to respond to,” Tasven whispered into his ear.

“Maybe I should,” Perri agreed, splaying a hand against Tasven’s chest and pushing him back a little. Curious, Tasven obliged him by leaning, setting his hands against the otter’s knees.

His curiosity was short-lived. Muscular or no, Perri had all the flexibility of his breed; he curled right up without the least sign of difficulty and stretched his mouth around the head of Tasven’s length.

Tasven clutched at the back of the other male’s head with one hand, and stroked down to his neck, and kneaded at his nape, and in general, urged him on; that tongue was amazing. Even if the otter wasn’t up to going any deeper than his glans, that was plenty deep enough to lap at all the most sensitive places. Especially with that pole stirring so deep inside him.

The otter hadn’t been fibbing about an early finish; even without verbal encouragement, even though Tasven could feel the tension in him as he tried to hold back, it took maybe a minute of wriggling together before Perri shivered, gasping around his mouthful of flesh, lapping frantically at it even as his seed pulsed deep under Tasven’s tail. It was a good, wonderful feeling… but not quite enough to bring him to his own peak before the rush faded, and Perri’s muzzle lifted off of him with a sigh. “S-sorry,” the otter panted.

“Shh. I’ll take that as high flattery,” Tasven replied with a grin. What wasn’t nice about knowing he could make a man lose control like that? “So long as you can still oblige me in some other way.” Hopefully his fingers, stroking along the otter’s jaw, would give the notion he had in mind, rather than suggesting flat reciprocation; the man had said Tasven was too big for him that way, after all.

“At this point, I think I’d be saddened if you didn’t give me a more proper taste,” the otter replied, whiskers lifting. “Come on up here, you…” He curled his fingers under Tasven’s rump, tugging him up and off the otter’s softening length.

The weasel was only too happy to get back onto his feet and lean over the otter’s chair, hands on the broader male’s shoulders, thrusting forward as Perri’s tongue slid under his shaft, dancing against it. Not that the otter left all the work to him – he reached between Tasven’s thighs, stroked over the spot his shaft had just been, cupped and stroked the weasel’s balls, caressed the latter two-thirds or so of shaft that weren’t getting swallowed. His other hand ran along the sorcerer’s thigh, encouraging his motions.

Tasven had no reason to hold back; he luxuriated in the feel of the other man’s fingers and mouth and tongue, letting the pleasure build up in him until it bubbled over. From his perspective, his climax was a subtle note in a symphony of delight.

From the otter’s sudden, sharp grunt, from the way he drew back to make a little room in his muzzle as the weasel’s seed filled it, Perri found his climax anything but subtle. Even as Tasven was still pumping down his throat, though, the otter reached down for something, brought it up – a strip of white cloth, with a long wooden bead capping its end; he wrapped it around the base of Tasven’s shaft, pressed a small stick of charcoal on the outside of the bump raised by that bead, and drew it across.

As Tasven drew his freshly-spent length from Perri’s mouth, the otter grinned up at him. “Sweet Lady of the Stars, but I’m glad you convinced me to dally,” he sighed. “I’ve been fretting so that I haven’t sought out a lover’s company for the better part of two seasons.”

“Always happy to oblige,” Tasven said, grinning back. “And I see you remembered the bit about business, even if I needed a reminder.”

“Hush. I needed these few moments more than I needed one more person to maybe wander into my shop and back out.”

“And I could still use some of your wares.” Tasven grinned, stretching. “Kob always seems to have more of that lovely oil, but he’s bound to run out sometime. Unless he’s hidden an endless decanter of the stuff in an extradimensional bag I’m not aware of, but I’ve never heard of one of those that can make a separate potion with its own persistent enchantment.”

A laugh. “No, nothing of the kind.” The otter glanced at Tasven, at the mess in his own lap and on his chair, and pursed his lips. Ruefully, he said, “Glad though I am to have my repertoire of spells, I do envy sorcerers your flexibility, sometimes.”

“Nothing prepared to deal with the mess?” That was a problem easily solved; one of the most useful cantrips the weasel knew was so because, for all its effects were mild, they ranged so widely. They could certainly handle a bit of cleaning-up.

“And thanks again, for that.” The wizard shrugged back into his shirt and started fastening laces. “Normally, when I know I’m to start such a project for a friend, it’s enough in advance that I have a spell ready to simply make a replica of them. In your case…” A crooked, somewhat shy smile. “I must admit the thought is rather daunting, anyway.”

“So you don’t only use such a spell for business purposes?” Tasven grinned. “Do you have any scrolls of it, perhaps? I think one or two might make for a fair present for a certain mutual friend of ours.”

“Alas that the facsimile fades after a few weeks,” the wizard sighed. “It’s an astral construct of sorts. But if you wish, I could certainly scribe some for you.”

What Tasven wound up purchasing on the spot, in addition to a small package of oil vials, was a small bronze medallion. The image on it was itself pleasant – a naked otter man, in faithful if tiny detail, broaching from the surface of a pool, his body arched, hands outstretched and ready to meet the water again – but it was the mild abjuration upon it that he wanted. Or rather, that he thought someone might. With a small sketch of the area of Perri’s map that showed the forest, and a copy of the proclamation that the local wizards had issued promising a reward for anyone who investigated the scope of the problem, he left – though not without stealing a deep kiss from the startled wizard.

He’d got what he came for, and plenty more besides. Life was good. As he made his way back to the upper districts of Sharktooth Bay, Tasven found himself softly singing.

Rain started falling again on his way back – not a fierce, wind-driven rain, but sudden and plentiful enough that he was glad for the water-sealed scroll case Perri had provided. Despite his dalliance, he was the first to make it back to their inn-room – though not by much; he’d dried himself up and was just fastening his belt over fresh, dry trousers when he heard steps on the stairway, and then Kob let himself in, Varyn right behind him. The wolf rumbled a greeting; Kob started to echo it, then paused.

“Oh, gods. I know that look,” the cheetah sighed, and laughed. “Did you at least get some useful information out of it?”

“Oh, you wound me, Kob,” Tasven protested. He couldn’t help but grinning, though he put as much theatrical self-pity into the words as he could manage. “I got useful information before I entertained myself, and it looks to me like my delay was just about right for time.” He gestured toward the scroll case, left sitting on the small table. “You may have already found what I brought there – the city’s wizards weren’t keeping a secret of it – but Perri did tell me a few things beyond that. By the way,” he turned his attention to the wolf who was trying to dry himself off and not having much success, “I have something for you, Varyn.” He reached into his belt pouch and curled his fingers around the bronze chain, lifting it up into the open.

“Hmm?” As he held it up, Varyn bent down, catching the medallion itself in his fingers and turning it to look at it. “What’s this, a keepsake of your latest conquest?” His muzzle quirked up at the edges.

“It wouldn’t be so subtle if it were,” Tasven assured him. “Come on, bend your neck a little.” Bemused, the wolf complied, letting Tasven reach up to fasten the chain around his neck.

Then he shivered. “That’s… a bit of a curious feeling,” he said once the moment had passed. “What does it – ?”

“You’re dripping,” Kob supplied. “A lot.”

“It makes your fur shed water,” Tasven explained with a grin, as Varyn rushed over near the wash basin to get as much of the water as he could in it. “As an otter’s might, though as it treats every strand rather than slathering your whole pelt with oil, it won’t keep you from getting wet. He had a more potent one that let the wearer breathe water, as well – it might have been a bit more worthwhile as an amulet, but it was very expensive and I’m not that well to do. Nor extravagant enough to get it anyway.”

“You mean Perri didn’t cut you a deal?” Kob teased, looking over the scrolls. “It was Perri, wasn’t it?”

“I didn’t say that, and yes, it was,” Tasven answered in order. “You could have at least told me his age and race, Kob – I mistook him for a sailor looking over the wares, at first.”

“He gets that reaction a lot,” was Kob’s wry reply before he abruptly dropped the matter. “You’re right about me having found this – I’ve got another copy of the proclamation, and a more detailed map of the forest and the hills behind it. What nobody I talked to knew was anything about who might be doing this – did Perri have anything to add about that?”

Briefly, Tasven ran over the wizard’s thoughts and opinions, trying to recall the full if scant details of what he’d said about each.

Varyn nodded. “I think he’s right about there not being a major evil power nearby. The priests have sensed something unpleasant in the land, but not such a bastion of evil. Whoever is behind this may have set up a shrine to their own evil deities, and they probably have priests or militant clerics in their number to officiate, but they don’t think this is a dedicated attempt at expansion on the part of an evil cult.”

“There is one thing else that I did learn, though,” Kob said, and by his sober tone it wasn’t good; the other two looked at him. “Storm season isn’t that far off. If the land trade doesn’t get opened up again before the harbour is cut off by the weather, it could make for hard times indeed.”

“We’d best not delay, then,” said Varyn with a grim nod. “We set out in the morning, to learn what we can.”

“We might as well make it an early start, at that,” Tasven agreed. “Dinner, then, and sleep – unless either of you has more business to tend to tonight?”

They did not, and so it was settled.

The fare Charissa provided them was simple enough, but nourishing, and with a blend of spices that was different enough from what Tasven was used to that it was a little exotic. The beds were soft and comfortable – Varyn claimed one, while Tasven and Kob shared the other; they didn’t take the time for an intimacy, but Tasven still slept with an arm draped over the cheetah, hand spread by his heart, nestled close and warm. It was well before dawn when Varyn shook them awake, already clad in the quilted gambeson that went under his mail.

There was some reluctance in pulling away from Kob, but Tasven didn’t let it delay him beyond a brief nuzzle to the side of the cheetah’s neck. The cat’s sigh as he sat up spoke of a similar longing. Neither of them spoke a word of complaint, though; they simply dressed, and unlike when they’d come into the city, now they bore their weapons – peacebonded, until such time as they were out of the gates, but ready to hand.

Charissa’s morning cook, a rather weedy-looking young bear man, furnished them with warm spice bread and meatrolls, and told them that the innkeeper had ordered their pack-beast readied for them about this time, and it was done. Since they hadn’t brought a pack-beast with them, Tasven blinked at this development; Kob took it in stride, though.

“I didn’t arrange that,” he said to the other two as they went around to the stables. “But I’m not entirely surprised that she did. We might actually flush someone out if we look like merchants ourselves – and unlike them, we’ll be expecting trouble, even before we leave the road.”

The beast in question turned out to be a six-legged lizard, a very distant cousin to the one that had provided their evening meal two nights ago – much bigger, thicker of hide, with the sturdy gait of a ground-dweller rather than a climber’s slender form. All six feet bore thick claws – not very sharp, more for digging than for fighting, but between them and its mouthful of teeth, at least the thing wasn’t entirely helpless. Drevin promptly claimed a perch amidst the supplies to curl up on, and didn’t even protest when the lizard started shambling along.

Getting out of the city was remarkably easier than getting in – in fact, the guards seemed relieved to see them go. Not because they looked like merchants – a pathetic caravan they would make, to pin the hopes of a city upon – but simply for having fewer bodies in the city to worry about. Tasven and Kob undid the bindings keeping their knives in their sheaths, and Varyn, similarly, removed the cloth wrapped about his mace.

“You’re the least visibly-armed of us all, Kob,” Tasven pointed out, pulling a coiled chain out of his pack and picking at the thongs that held it in that coil. “If we’re going to set up a ruse of any kind, maybe Varyn and I should be your bodyguards.”

“Good thought,” Kob replied, and concealed his kris… somewhere; Tasven never was quite sure where Kob tucked the various things he secreted about his person, but somehow he did it, even with such a long knife. He shifted his clothing, so that the leather was concealed and instead he simply looked like he was a bigger, fatter man than he was. And then his whole demeanour changed; proud, bored, and impatient all in one, glaring at the plodding lizard with sudden exasperation. After a minute or two, he toned it down somewhat, but apparently he’d got in the proper mood – he looked every inch a merchant, albeit one of limited means.

Trying to look suitably stern and alert, Tasven followed in his wake; Varyn let his mace lean over his shoulder and did much the same.

Amazingly enough, it worked – but Tasven quickly discarded the notion that the ragged band of leather-wearing bandits that sprang up from the bushes just after dawn was the cause of the troubles. There were only eight of them, and they were far too poorly-equipped to have wiped out the larger caravans; the fox who led them couldn’t even keep his voice steady as he commanded them to hand over their valuables.

The trio exchanged glances. In an instant Kob dropped the facade, standing up straight – he wasn’t tall, no, but he no longer looked like a fumbling penny-counter. “Oh, you lot have no idea what you’re getting tangled up in, do you? Just thought you’d take advantage of the whole mess, find a few easy pickings – I’ll bet you couldn’t believe your luck when you saw just three people instead of a regiment of guards.” A tight smirk. “Not that you were lucky enough.”

That parting shot rattled a few of them, but the leader took a deep breath, and only stammered a little as he repeated his demands. One of the archers, though, wasn’t quite so flimsy as the rest – out of the corner of his eye, Tasven saw the wolf slowly reaching for an arrow from his thigh quiver.

Well, that just wouldn’t do. Tasven kept his eyes forward, as though he hadn’t seen the man, but concentrated. Guiding the forces of magic without word or gesture wasn’t an easy thing, but he wasn’t working one of his strongest invocations; it could be done.

His timing was good; just as the bow creaked in mid-draw, the last invisible strands settled into place and his will snapped into focus. Three shimmers of force twisted into view, coalescing into darts of raw power and racing forth, pummeling the archer before he could finish his draw. The wolf fell back, crying out; his arrow lanced into the ground, the bow tumbling more or less on top of it.

Rag-tag though they were, the bandits were also desperate, and they had some sort of twisted loyalty; when their companion fell, weapons were raised, and the whole lot charged in. Another arrow whistled from behind, aiming right for Kob’s back – and the cheetah just leaned over, letting it hurtle past him, as though he’d known exactly where it was all along.

Words of speed and vigour shaped themselves on Tasven’s tongue, words beyond any mortal language. Instinct guided his hands, nudging and tugging at the unseen strands of the Weave. He was dimly aware of Varyn chanting, gripping his heptacle – their invocations came to a climax at more or less the same time; as Tasven reached out to touch the wolf’s shoulder, to imbue him with speed, a sense of force, of rightness, of good fortune came over him from the cleric’s blessing. Then melee was joined.

Tasven whirled his chain and lashed out with it, the spikes dragging across a burly rat’s arm, tearing at it. The man cried out, staggering, but the chain was already swinging forth again, cutting into his leather jerkin and drawing a ragged, bloody slash through it. Varyn was faced with the largest of the band, another rat not much smaller than he, and the fox who led them; the rat’s shield turned a blow from Varyn’s mace, and he braced for a thrust – only to shudder and fall heavily to the dusty road as Kob danced past his back, the bright metal of his kris now bearing a red sheen.

An arrow whipped past Tasven, slicing his shoulder on the way. Hissing, he whirled, already starting to cast. The culprit was too far for him to reach on foot before another shot, and now that he was facing that way, he saw that the wolf he’d pummeled earlier had recovered his feet and his bow, too.

So be it.

More missiles formed around his gesturing hand. They raced forward, and in mid-air they diverged; two of them streaked out to pound the tiger who’d grazed him, the third instead angling over to smack into the wolf. Again he started casting, keeping his attention on the bows, watching for the draw – but he was faster than they, this time; by the time he needed to jump aside, the magic missiles were already on their way.

This time, it proved to be too much punishment for the wolf; when he fell, he did not rise. The tiger stayed on his feet a moment longer, but by then Kob had taken notice, and a throwing knife slammed into his gut; that was enough to take him down.

The other two had not been idle while Tasven’s attention was thus occupied; they sported some injuries, but the only opponent still standing was the fox who’d made the initial demands. With the wolf and cheetah advancing upon him, he shrieked and started running – right past Tasven; a few steps over, and a quick lash of his chain entangled the man’s legs and brought him down to the turf.

Before he could get free and try again, Kob was on him – straddling his chest, kris touching the hollow of his throat. “Not so fast,” the cheetah hissed. “Do really think we’ll just let you go, after that? No. We are going to play a game, you and I. I am going to count to ten. If you tell me something useful, I will start over. If you’re very helpful, I might even let you go.” The blade turned in his grip, pressing against the leather over the man’s arm. “Every time I reach ten, I will also start over – after my little friend here gives you a souvenir.”

If Tasven hadn’t known Kob better, that recitation would have left him dizzy. The bandit was scum, and had earned the same fate as his companions had already suffered, left to die on the battlefield – but torture was another matter. Even as Kob started counting, Tasven wondered what he’d do if the man didn’t cooperate.

He needn’t have worried about that. Timid all along, the fox outright panicked now – he didn’t know anything about the attacks, just someone said it’d be a good time to wait on the roads –

“Hold on,” Kob said. “Perhaps you didn’t understand me. I said tell me something useful. Like, who was this ‘someone’?” He twisted around, not breaking eye contact with the man, but trailing the point of the kris along his thigh, upward. “Or perhaps you’d rather be… reduced, before being let free?”

In spite of himself, Tasven shuddered.

Words spilled out too fast for him to track, but Kob never faltered, never blinked, only listened. At some point, perhaps in response to something said, he quite calmly sliced the man’s pouch strings, holding onto it. When his captive ran out of words and started stammering, he held up a finger, and the erstwhile bandit stuttered to a halt.

“There, you see? You do know how to play this game. Now, I’ll tell you how this is going to go,” the cheetah snarled, his knife at the man’s throat again. “You are going to leave here, taking nothing. You will not try this sort of… escapade… again. You will find some sort of honest trade – I don’t care if you have to whore yourself to every sailor on the docks, you will not lift a weapon lawlessly again. If you do – ” He bent down, and Tasven’s ears barely caught the finale. “You will wish you had not, in the moments before you die. This is the last mercy you can expect, do you understand?” When the man shrieked that he did, Kob finally swung off of him, keeping his kris at the fox’s throat until he was square on his feet, finally lifting it away as he stood.

“Get out of my sight,” the cheetah growled, and stood rock-solid and impassive, gazing outward along the road, as the fox ran full-tilt toward the city.

Quietly, the other two came up to Kob’s side. The cat’s countenance was stony, his posture stiff; several quiet moments passed before he asked, “Is he gone?”

Varyn glanced over. “Around the bend. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone run that fast.”

Very deliberately, Kob produced a cloth from one of his many pockets, wiping off the blade of his kris. Just as deliberately, he tucked that cloth away and slipped the blade into its sheath. And then he broke, sagging against Tasven with a whimper, so suddenly the weasel had to scramble to hold him up. “Jakebi’s tears,” the cat choked out, “I never want to have to do that again.”

Varyn leaned in close, stroking Kob’s arm – there was a bit of healing magic to it, but the touch continued when the healing was done. “For what it’s worth, you did that unpleasant task well,” he rumbled. “You had him convinced – by the Seven, if I hadn’t known you as well as I do you’d have had me convinced – and you got as much as we could hope for out of him. And I daresay he’ll take your warning to heart, at least for a little.” He grimaced. “Better a chance at one life saved than none at all, for certain.”

“I don’t know what I could have done if he’d held out,” Kob admitted, his voice ragged. “I might have been able to cut his throat – quick and clean, and only the gods know how many he’s done worse to…”

“Hush. He wouldn’t have,” Tasven murmured into the cheetah’s ears, rocking him gently. “You could probably have convinced him we were all angels, come from the good planes to punish the wicked, and he’d have swallowed it whole – he wasn’t in any state of mind to stand up to intimidation.” Best to not let the cat keep feeling so vile about himself, though. “What did you learn, though? I couldn’t catch all of it clearly.”

“Right.” Kob sniffed, but forced himself to stand up a bit straighter. “He and his lot were patsies – someone in a cloak met him at the docks, paid him to set up on the roads and watch for any more stragglers from the raids, try to stop them from getting back to the city. Apparently the one who paid him dropped some sort of marker in with the coins – the man thinks it was an accident, but couldn’t be sure. Still, it’s almost definitely related – he saw none of his benefactor’s features, couldn’t identify him again, but it must have been one of the actual raiders.”

“Maybe that marker can tell us something,” Varyn mused. “Is that why you took his purse?”

“Yeah.” Kob tossed it into the wolf’s hands; it made a soft metallic sound – not too many coins left in it, it seemed.

The wolf rummaged in it, pulled out a small metal disc – and his ears went flat. “Seven mercies attend us,” he swore.

Tasven swallowed. “What? What is it?”

“I’m not sure – it’s too damaged to make out the markings clearly. But whatever it is, it’s unholy. This is definitely a link – I just wish it were in good enough shape that I could say to what.”

“We know they’re out there,” Tasven stated. “We know they’re paying bandits to mind the roads. Maybe we should just start heading through the woods now?”

They all turned, to regard the woods in question. Brightwood Forest was aptly named – the morning sun seemed to dance on the leaves, peaceful, serene… not exactly welcoming, but a long way from hostile.

Who knew what truths that facade hid?

“I think we’d better,” Varyn replied. “If nothing else, in among the trees, there aren’t many archers who could hope to do well.” He dropped the metal disc, grinding it into the dust with his heel. “The forest isn’t a part of this – I can feel that even from here. Whoever we’re after is a trespasser there. Let’s hope the woods don’t see us as more of the same – there’s a power there. Slumbering, dormant… but ancient and mighty. We’d best be careful. Do no damage to the trees that we can avoid.”

Their trepidation eased somewhat when they actually passed under the outer boughs. In fact, Tasven had to force himself to stay vigilant. Like the wolf, like others before, he felt that there was a presence there – but it didn’t feel hostile. It felt more like it was watching over him, warding him. The forest didn’t even impede their progress as much as he would have thought – he’d travelled with a druid once, and knew how the secret paths of the forest opened themselves to that sort; this wasn’t quite so dramatic, but still, not so many roots or vines or branches seemed to get in the way as ought to have done, and those were easy enough to brush aside or disentangle, rather than cutting through.

As they pushed deeper into the forest, it felt like something from a child’s tale. Sunbeams came down through the canopy, wavering on the forest floor, shining and dancing in mid-air, lit up by some sort of gleaming dust. It was everywhere – from the highest canopy down to the brush, and settling on their clothing, to get brushed off now and then – but it didn’t stifle the lungs at all; in fact, it felt… magical. Charged with energy. Tasven spent another of his first-circle spells to work a cantrip without breaking the silence, and found that in arcane sight, the dust actually shone with magical power; seeing it glimmer all around him was so dazzling, so beautiful, it was an effort to keep putting one foot after the other.

They progressed in silence as the hours went by; somehow the sounds of the forest seemed to say exactly what any of them needed to. Even when they paused for lunch, the woods provided – they found a fallen tree, a cleft in the soil and a tumble of rocks that made a natural firepit of sorts; a bit of rearranging of those rocks, some of the wood from the downed tree, and they had a tiny cook-fire. None of them needed a reminder to keep the fire under control; and once their meal was hot, they doused the fire and ate, still in silence, leaning against each other.

So it went, on into the evening, as they worked their way toward the hills that lay deeper in, to the shallow caves that were marked there on Kob’s map. The forest seemed to be speeding them along – if there was a presence there, a spirit, it knew their purpose and agreed with it.

As the sounds of night life started, Kob heaved a heavy sigh. “In all my life,” he murmured, “I have never had a walk through the woods feel so… so good. Especially such a long one.”

“I wish I could hope for it to last,” Tasven sighed. “The forest may be helping us along, but there’s something here that won’t be so kind.”

“Jakebi’s blood, haven’t you two both used a fair number of spells today? We’d better find a place to camp – it’s already getting late. You two might as well get an early start on rest, soon as we find a good spot – I can handle the tent by myself for one night.”

“Hells, you’re right.” The sun was long gone, though the gleaming dust made it harder to tell that than it otherwise might have been. “We’d better put our eyes to finding a good campsite. Varyn?” When there was no reply, Tasven turned – the wolf was standing somewhat behind them, staring at something, seemingly lost in thought. Tasven jogged over to him, hopping over a protruding tangle of roots. “Varyn?”

The cleric just shook his head slowly. “Odd.”

“This entire forest has been odd, Varyn,” Tasven pointed out, brushing dust off the wolf’s shoulder. “It feels like the whole place has been blanketed in low-grade glitterdust, and there’s so much wild magic it almost hurts to look at it. What’s odd now?”

“This tree,” the wolf replied, gesturing. “It’s the first one I’ve seen up close, but thinking back, they’re all over.”

It was a fairly strange tree, indeed. It was recognisable as a tree, of course – thick trunk, bark, roots, branches, leaves – but the bark was a deep red-brown and the convolutions of its surface seemed to form a picture. Of what, Tasven couldn’t say; trying to focus on it reduced it to a bunch of separate lines and folds. The leaves were glossy, broad, dark green, very circular, and their lower surfaces seemed to be liberally coated with that glimmering dust that was everywhere hereabouts. It also bore fruit – clusters of violet, fist-sized fruit, slightly oval but otherwise also quite round, and from them wafted a sweet, enticing sent.

But none of them had survived this long by trying unknown fruit. “Can you tell anything about it?” he asked.

“It’s benign, I know that much.” The cleric muttered under his breath, gesturing, and paused, looking the tree over. “In fact, I’d say it’s blessed. They might be the focus of this place, the source of its magic – they certainly seem to supply the dust. Everything about them seems quite harmless, and may even be slightly beneficial – could mean nothing more than being healthy to eat, in the case of those fruit.”

“So long as they’re that, that makes food a bit easier,” Tasven chuckled.

“At least I don’t need to worry that you two will eat all of it while I’m setting up camp,” said Kob. “They’re everywhere.”

“You’re quite sure you’re all right with that?” Varyn prompted. So he had heard their plans, after all.

“I’m quite sure I want you two to have all your spells in the morning,” the cheetah shot back. “It’s late; you two get started on rest, and I’ll get the tent set up and some food made for you. I think I see a good spot just over there.”

The wolf smiled, clapping Kob on the shoulder, and started toward that tree, while Kob led the pack-lizard over toward a more open space. Tasven followed Varyn, calling over his shoulder, “We’ll let you know how they taste!”

Varyn reached up and took hold of one of those dark purple clusters, and the whole bunch came away in his hand. The smooth skin of the fruit gleamed with evening dew, and this close, the smell was even more alluring. Tasven tugged one of the fruit loose, but then reconsidered, and held it to Varyn’s mouth instead; the wolf grinned around it, then parted his jaws and took a small nibble, rich red juice running over his tongue from the clear flesh. An appreciative groan rumbled in his throat, and Tasven turned the fruit in his fingers, letting Varyn eat it clean; many small seeds, red like garnets, were strewn through the flesh, but they looked small and slippery, not unlike those of a pomegranate, and Varyn showed no objection to eating them as well. Once he’d discarded the stem, the wolf seized his hand, spreading his fingers out, licking them clean.

Shivering, Tasven shrugged out of his shirt, slipping it off entirely once the wolf had let go, setting it aside. He plucked another of the fruit, and as he bit into the succulent flesh, juice as rich as old wine, but without the harsh bite of alcohol, escaped the punctures and ran down his throat. It felt warm, somehow, like a good stew that warmed him from within. Varyn, meanwhile, tugged at his belt; not with the urgency of lust, but that was fine, he had a good idea. By the time Tasven had eaten that one fruit, the wolf had him naked and was stripping out of his own armour and clothing.

He sat against the tree’s trunk, finding a perfect join in the roots, forming a seat for him with the loam trapped between them, and he had another fruit. The firmness against his shoulders was strangely comforting, but far more so was Varyn settling beside him, naked as he. Both of them took another fruit, and they leaned toward one another, each eating from the other’s hand. Sweet, but with just enough tartness to not be cloying, and a wonderful bouquet of subtler flavours – if ever there had been a perfect fruit, this was it. The seeds had their own notes of flavour, sharp and almost spicy, yet not overwhelming; they were slightly bitter to actually bite into, but they were easy to swallow and good-tasting to do so.

“This stuff is divine,” Varyn breathed, taking another for himself. “I don’t think I’ve felt so refreshed by a bit of food in weeks.”

“They truly are magical,” Tasven sighed. “Literally; I think there’s magic in these seeds.” It was as invigorating as it was intoxicating; he felt his blood singing with the urgency of a youth’s, and felt his fingers brushing his malehood before he even realised he was doing so.

Varyn didn’t comment, and no wonder; he’d taken a similar course, firm, tapered flesh starting to poke out of the white wolf’s sheath. They moved no closer than they already were; somehow it just seemed so natural, to lie back against the trunk and fondle themselves. The company was very pleasurable, yes, but Tasven felt no particularly need to actually do anything with Varyn; to do this in his company – to pump along his very needy member, to hear the wolf groan as Varyn fondled himself in turn – that was quite fine.

In not very long at all, Tasven felt ready to burst, but somehow, he didn’t; he just kept going, kept stroking. The shining dust added to the gleam of his fur, and in the moonlight flickering through the leaves he could almost feel as though the stars were shining on his pelt. And where that dust touched his skin – as each mote landed, he fancied he could feel a tiny charge, urging him on, yet reinforcing him, making him last.

The smell of semen was what finally tipped him into his own climax – Varyn was groaning beside him, bucking into his fist, but the smell was what got to Tasven, and he, too, came. Great, arcing jets of his seed shot out of him, and each drop glowed – not just shone in the moonlight, but with its own actual light. He came long and hard, each squirt a mouthful, arcing out over the ground between his spread thighs, a little getting on his fingers. A dozen times his seed issued forth, each a generous swallow – the pleasure suffusing him was so thorough, he thought it might never end.

Finally, after a score or so of those copious squirts had left him, the pleasure faded, and he leaned back against the trunk – but despite the power of his climax, he wasn’t winded, wasn’t even breathing hard; in fact, he felt more relaxed and refreshed than ever. Varyn’s deep and even breathing, less than a yard away, spoke of much the same tale.

And yet Kob hadn’t finished setting up camp, so they couldn’t have drifted off.

He looked over at the wolf, who was still staring down at his own member in disbelief. “I think we could get to like these trees,” Tasven murmured, picking up the bunch of half a dozen remaining fruit. “What say we share our findings with Kob, hmm?”

“Pent up as he has been,” Varyn breathed, grinning, “he might well have enough to drown a man. Whether it’s the forest or the fruit or both.”

Tasven rose to his feet, giving the wolf a hand up; with one of his arms around Varyn’s waist and the cleric’s own draped over his shoulders, they sauntered toward the sounds of the cheetah making camp, clothing forgotten, only their sweet bounty in tow.

The sound of a mallet meeting pegs came to a halt as they wove through the trees. Varyn glanced over at Tasven, then called out, “Ho, Kob! How goes the camp?”

“Back already?” Kob’s laugh drifted out to greet them. “I thought you’d catch an hour or two of rest.” He started crawling out of the tent. “I haven’t figured out yet what I’ll do for – oh, good gods, you didn’t!” He laughed again, looking over their unclad forms. “You know I’ll stand watch when you two need to recover your spells, but if you’re not going to do so after all, I’d have hoped you’d at least give me the option to – ”

“Join in?” Tasven suggested, a grin stealing over his muzzle.

“We did recover our magic,” Varyn murmured, grinning in turn. “It just took a different method than we’d expected.”

“And you certainly can join in,” purred the weasel, hefting his burden.

Again Kob chuckled. “By all the good gods, you two! Someone has to get some proper food made; can’t you keep your hands off each other for that long?” He grinned back at them.

“Oh, but we weren’t touching each other,” Varyn pointed out.

“As for proper food,” said Tasven, tugging one of the dark fruit off its bunch, “hold your breath on the matter until you’ve at least tried it, hmmm?” He set the smooth, dew-damp surface against Kob’s muzzle.

The cheetah blinked. “Mmm? Okay, smells nice, true…” He parted his jaws, hesitated, and took a nibble, red juice running down his teeth. He paused, and tore a bite off, chewing slowly. “Mmmm. ‘s good,” he managed, and swallowed. “Tingles a bit.”

“Fringe effect of the magic, no doubt,” Varyn laughed. “You two enjoy your snack; I’ll finish setting up here.”

Tasven curled one arm around Kob, pulling the cheetah in close; with the other hand, he fed the smaller male much like he had Varyn before, but from a much more intimate point of view, pressing up against the feline’s back. When the last bit of juice had gone down his throat, Kob sighed, leaning back against the weasel. “Gods,” he breathed. “You weren’t kidding about that stuff, were you?”

“Not at all,” said Tasven, his cheek against the cheetah’s as he offered another, this time lapping at what traces of the juice escaped Kob’s muzzle. By the time that one was half-done, the cat was pressing a little more eagerly against him; Tasven was quite unsurprised when his wandering fingers found a ridge in the cheetah’s trousers, and he started loosening them, the spotted cat taking care of his shirt himself.

Once he’d wiggled out of his pants, Kob didn’t push against him right away; he crouched down, reaching into one of the packs in the tent’s vestibule, and stood with a small, familiar square-sided vial in hand. “I don’t know what’s in this fruit,” the trapbreaker said, grinning and looking down at Tasven’s resurgent arousal, “but I’m certainly not complaining. Come here, you.” He pulled the stopper free, tipping the vial over and letting the thick, golden fluid within pour over Tasven’s flesh.

As it had before, it clung to his skin, sheer as a fine glove but far less encumbering. Tasven shivered; he’d concentrated to let the magic in the stuff work on him unimpeded, and the distraction of having it flow over him was even more intensely sensual than usual.

By unspoken accord, they wound up much as they had been, Tasven’s chest to Kob’s back; this time, though, with the cat naked and quite aroused himself, Tasven found a tree to lean against – just an ordinary maple, except for the dust on its leaves – got his slender arms under the cheetah’s shoulders, and hoisted him right up. Kob groaned, taking the bunch of fruit from him with one hand and reaching back to grip a low branch with the other, steadying himself; his feet slid past Tasven’s thighs to brace against the bark, keeping him up high enough for Tasven to get his glans in place.

Not in a long time had Tasven felt someone so small and snug slide onto him so easily – Kob certainly hadn’t, the last time he’d done so at all.

He fed Kob another of those fruit, and then they traded bites from a fourth, starting to rock against each other. The cheetah’s body was just as forge-hot as ever, but something more, too; it clutched at him much more wantonly, with much less hesitation than was usual. Never was there a plea to slow down and take it easy, not even a wordless one like the occasional wince or shiver Kob sometimes showed when one of his larger lovers went a little fast; if anything, Kob was the one pushing faster, harder, demanding more.

“This is a new side of you, Kob,” he whispered into the squirming feline’s ear. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you moan this much for it before.” Not that he or his very eager shaft were complaining, of course; he couldn’t recall the last time a man’s body had felt this intense around him, either. Possibly never.

“Great gods, shut up, Tasven,” Kob whimpered, grinding back against him. “I need you, not – nnnnh…” He trailed into a shuddering moan, body arching, straining to take just a fraction of an inch more.

Not his words. Well, that was fine. He braced his shoulders against the smooth bark and rolled his hips, stirring under the other male’s slender, lashing tail. He kept one arm about Kob’s chest, the other hand, still slightly sticky with juice even after a cleaning by Kob’s tongue, gliding along the male’s thick length, feeling it pulse and jerk. He rested his chin on Kob’s shoulder, gazing down at that very ready maleness, caressing it, then squeezing it, willing it to give up its prize.

He wouldn’t be waiting for long, that he knew. Kob shuddered around him, wailing, his wiry body arching, his rod jerking in Tasven’s grip; yet it was the weasel, awash in the other male’s unaccustomed display of lust, who came first, a surge of warm pleasure washing over him, blurring his senses, only the pulse of his member, the jet of his seed squirting into Kob’s body, remaining clear. He heard a long, low groan, and only by the thrum in his throat did he realise it was his own.

His senses were just starting to clear when Kob cried out louder still, shoving back against him. Tasven’s eyes snapped open and gained focus just in time for Kob’s length to jerk upward, for a prodigious arc of semen to spray out of it. Where Tasven’s and Varyn’s had had a dim glow to it, the cheetah’s seed was bright and luminous, painting the leaf cover below them with speckles and whorls of gleaming silver. Each squirt was enough to match an entire climax under normal circumstances, and they kept coming – nine, ten, eleven of them before he finally subsided, only his hand on the branch staying tense, the rest of him slumped against the taller, slimmer male buried under his tail.

He stared down at his handiwork, gasping for breath, and he swallowed. “Tasven,” he croaked, “you and Varyn – and some others besides – have shown me some amazing times. I wouldn’t have thought I’d have need to say this again, but I have never felt anything even half so intense as this.” He trailed his fingers along the weasel’s. “Gods… is this what magic feels like? No wonder those things left you feeling replenished.”

“That, I couldn’t tell you,” Tasven murmured, lips brushing Kob’s ear. “All I know for certain is that you were incredible tonight, Kob. Even if it was magic at work, it takes a certain sort of someone to… surrender to it like that.”

“Well, I have some hard examples to try to follow,” the cat replied, twisting around, still smiling, to brush his lips against the weasel’s.

Magical fruit or no, Tasven disentangled himself to seek some sleep. None of them had encountered this sort of magic before, and he couldn’t be sure that the magical charge it had lent him, replenishing his spells, would actually linger as did that which he gained from rest and meditation. Varyn had used fewer of his spells and was less tied to rest for replenishing them; he offered to take the morning watch if Kob took the first half of the night.

The weasel’s dreams were vague, shadowy, yet somehow pleasant all the same – as if his mind chased over all the nice things in life and memory, but couldn’t quite focus on any. Only toward the end did they turn distinctly sensual – a kiss here, a caress there, a feeling of firm heat inside and against him; even those grew sharper, resolving into the feel of a warm mouth and eager tongue being applied to his length.

It was so real that for a few moments, he didn’t quite realise he’d awoken – the sensation was still there even as the sounds of the forest returned to his ears.

Drawing a deep breath, he peered down to see Kob crouched over him, cradling his shaft, licking and kissing all over it. The cheetah was trembling in his eagerness, the smell of his own need strong in Tasven’s nose, punctuated by soft, muffled whimpers. When Tasven reached down to stroke his ears, the cat didn’t even blink – just kept lapping at him, drawing him in to suckle.

His body had been nearing the brink even before he woke; with that sort of dedicated attention, it wasn’t long at all before bliss swept over him, a fresh rush of his seed pulsing out of him and over the cheetah’s tongue, down his waiting throat. Kob shuddered as he drank the weasel down, fidgeting, tail lashing behind him.

When he’d swallowed the last drop, Kob lifted his head with a gasp. “Jakebi’s tears,” he panted, shuffling upward to nudge his snout against Tasven’s and grin. “I think it may have been a bit of a mistake to break my fast with those fruit. I thought I might come before you did, there…”

“Oh, really?” Tasven grinned. Sometimes he greatly enjoyed drawing out a lover’s pleasure; sometimes, the thought of bringing it to a peak quickly was itself quite appealing, and this morning was one of the latter times. “Well, we can’t have you distracted all day, now can we? Come here, you.” Kob squeaked in mild surprise as Tasven pulled him upwards, but pushed eagerly toward his muzzle all the same.

It was a good thing he hadn’t delayed. He’d barely wrapped his fingers around the base of Kob’s shaft and his lips around its head, only taken a few light licks, when that flesh surged in his muzzle. Even the torrent he’d pumped out the previous night was nothing compared to this – it shouldn’t have been physically possible for all three of them together to produce so much as flowed down Tasven’s throat from the smallest of them now, yet there it was, sliding slick and warm into his gullet, far sweeter than normal and bearing a host of other tastes less easy to describe. On and on Kob kept squirming against Tasven’s fist, pumping into his mouth – it was all the weasel could do to keep guzzling the stuff down.

When at last the cheetah’s flood subsided and he sank onto the bedroll beside Tasven, he was breathing hard – but it was the heavy breathing of excitement, not exertion. “By all the pleasant gods,” the cat husked. “I think I’ll need to stay away from that stuff through the day, but for now and then – that was incredible.

“You’re telling me?” Tasven laughed, reaching over to caress the cat’s cheek. “I don’t think I need breakfast at all, after that – and for once in my life I can say that without a trace of exaggeration. I’m not sure I could find room for more and still be up for a hike.”

Kob laughed as well, twisting and reaching for his discarded trousers. “Glad to provide. Though if you ever have a desire for it again… give me a bit of notice? I think I’ll need to keep the rest of the day clear, in the future.”

The future, indeed. “I wonder if these trees can be cultivated outside this forest,” he mused, collecting his own clothing. “How long until dawn?”

“About a half hour. I think. Perhaps a quarter hour – I rather lost track of time, there.” A crooked, apologetic smile.

Tasven laughed again, reaching over to ruffle between the cheetah’s ears. “At least you gave me a pleasant awakening, either way. It seems I still have my spells after all, and I don’t think it’s from what I just swallowed, but it’s good to be sure I’m ready for the day.”

Once he’d finished his meditations and Varyn his prayers, they broke camp, packed, and set out once more. While Kob moved ahead to keep point, Varyn enquired if Tasven might not want something to eat; smiling, Tasven replied, “After a few of those fruit, Kob provided me all I’ll need until noon at least. I can’t imagine eating anything but those right now, and I’m not sure it’d be wise.”

Varyn blinked. “Oh? I had some of them with my bread, myself – I feel good, healthier than normal even, but they didn’t have nearly so strong an effect on me as last night.”

Well, that was a bit curious. Thinking aloud, he said, “Maybe it was replenishing your spells that gave them the strong euphoric effect, last night. But Kob doesn’t have any innate way to deal with the magic… maybe it’s bleeding out of him through other means, whereas we naturally shed the excess back into the Weave?”

The cleric frowned. “It could be. Perhaps there’s a hidden peril to those things – too much of even a good thing can be harmful, after all.”

“Too right,” Tasven sighed. It was a pity, really; if he could have lived on a steady diet of those things, even without the magical replenishment and, ah, heightened potency, he’d have been happy to do so. “At least he himself seemed inclined to be wary of them, going forward. If nothing else because he’d lose more time than we can spare coping with the results.”

“Good.” Varyn nodded. “We’ll see if that lesson lingers.” With that, the wolf fell back a little to guard their rear.

They reached the first of the marked caves around midday – it was also the smallest; currently unoccupied, but it showed signs of having been used within the past few weeks; firepits that still held their ashes, and such. The deepest corner of the cave seemed to have been set up as a shrine of sorts, and Varyn again investigated the symbols there.

This time, he started swearing and didn’t stop for a full minute. When his companions’ anxious queries finally seemed to break through and get his attention, he turned to them with a sober gaze.

“We may be in somewhat over our heads here,” he warned. “This was no random band of lizardfolk – this place was, however briefly and weakly, consecrated to Merrshaulk. We are dealing with yuan-ti. I’ll count us lucky if we can learn their position and numbers without getting in deeper trouble.”

For a moment, silence reigned. Then Kob, ears flat, blurted, “But we can’t just give up! We need to try – to learn something, where they are, at least – ”

“Gently, Kob,” the wolf murmured, putting a hand on the smaller male’s shoulder. “I know this city is your home, and I’m not meaning to suggest we shouldn’t try. But we will need to be very careful, or we might just be throwing ourselves away to no benefit.”

“Merrshaulk,” Tasven prompted. “What does that mean for us?”

“In terms of divine influence, not much.” Varyn shrugged, one-armed; the other drew Kob in close for a gentle embrace. “My instructors agreed, whenever the subject of such gods came up, that Merrshaulk has been quiet for quite a while now. But his followers – and the great majority of yuan-ti are among them, but essentially nobody who isn’t yuan-ti – are not nearly so gentle. His teachings – his deeds, when he acted – were brutal, and his clergy do their best to live up to that. We can expect fervour and cruelty that just won’t make sense to us with gentler gods.”

“What about the yuan-ti themselves, then? I’ve only heard a few simple things about them, and they don’t all seem to make sense together.”

“I don’t know too much myself. But one thing that may help yours fit together is that they’re a very variable race. Most of them walk upright – if you see them up close you can tell they’re snake-like, but from a distance, or if they take pains to hide their features, they could be mistaken for other scaly types like lizardmen. Some of them are more snake-like, though – and those tend to be the ones with unusual powers.”

That… did make things fit a little better, yes; most of what he knew was in the basic description of the race, and the name had been applied to two different manners of being entirely. Apparently that was the way they were. “So. Snake-folk. Poisonous?”

“I’m not sure.” Varyn grimaced. “If they’re patterned like a, um… not exactly four-legged, when it’s a snake… which is, it might be best to assume so.” He sighed, shaking his head. “Honestly, the biggest question that comes to mind is why they’re here. This isn’t near any known domains of theirs, and the caves in these hills don’t run nearly deep enough to connect to any kind of underground warren. Sending agents here can hardly be a trivial thing – and yet, effective though it is, raiding caravans on this road is… a little petty, for such an effort to go into it.”

“Maybe they’re not so numerous as we’ve been thinking?” Tasven hazarded. “Not in themselves, anyway – obviously they’re willing to hire more muscle, and the better-quality muscle they might keep closer.”

“True – but we’ll still want to be very careful not to get noticed. I’m not entirely sure what it is that their legless mystics can do, but I don’t really want to find out.”

“Maybe we should try to get higher in the hills, and look down from there,” Tasven suggested. “If yuan-ti naturally live underground – a lot of under-dwellers don’t like looking at the sky, however good they are at watching ceilings.”

“Tough climb, but it might give us a better view, that’s true.” Varyn produced the map, looking over it for a few seconds. “We’ll want to go up where the forest is still dense enough to cover us. That won’t mean an easy climb, though – no sheer cliffs, at least assuming none have come to be since the map was made, but it’ll be uphill at one of the steeper parts of the hills.”

“Then let’s get to climbing,” Kob replied, stalking forward.

Varyn glanced at Tasven, shook his head, and sighed, murmuring a quick prayer. “Don’t push yourself to excess on this, Kob,” he said. “Caution needs to be our guide, now.”

“And I’m better at finding stable paths than you are,” the cat tossed over his shoulder. “Don’t worry, I haven’t completely lost my senses.”

They went up. It was subtle at first – with the trees all around, the grade was barely noticeable; it was just slightly more work to keep putting feet forward. As the day wore into the afternoon, though, it became rather less so. Without landmarks, they trusted to Kob’s sense of direction and position to keep them in the trees while they laboured upward – and labour it soon was; Tasven was puffing in short order. The best off of them was probably their burden beast; it wasn’t carrying all that much, and its squat, six-legged gait was ideally suited to crossing rough terrain.

The trees started to thin out, and Kob kept pressing forward. The sun was at their left shoulders now, softening into the golden tones of sunset – and then they broke into the open. Brush and scrub spread out before them spilling over the craggy hills, but nothing so large as a tree had taken root there.

For a time longer, Kob still wove carefully amid the tumbled rock, keeping low, and they followed him in kind; then he disappeared for a moment over a ridge, popping back up to wave them over. Joining him, they beheld a wonder: a stream ran off to the west, gurgling its way around boulders and over stones, the leaves of the northern Brightwood glittering in the setting sun in the water’s path. To the north, the ground lay more open, tumbling ridges as far as the eye could see; to the east, a short bluff rose, which the stream tumbled over in a shimmering cascade.

“That cliff will shelter us from view of all the marked caves,” Kob declared, a bit raggedly; he was still panting from the heat of the day’s exertions, and in this climate, dusk didn’t offer nearly enough of a reprieve from the heat to matter. “The nearest isn’t far off, but shouldn’t be any bigger than the one we already found abandoned, so hopefully it’s the same – at any rate, we should be able to survey it and a few others by climbing up to the lip. And here,” he gestured around them, “we have just enough level ground to make camp for the night.”

So they did; staking down their tent wouldn’t be easy in this rocky ground, but they might be able to make do by lashing the wires to some of the larger, more stubborn tangles of roots that probed the scant soil. At least the terrain sheltered them from wind.

“It’s my turn to deal with the tent,” Varyn declared, guiding the lizard to a suitable place to rest. “Both of you are looking rather wilted.” He lashed the reins to an especially stubborn-looking bush, the closest this landscape offered to a tree, and secured its feed bag, before turning to one cloth-wrapped bundle on its harness. “Before that, though, we might has well have something to eat, yes? Last we might have of these until we’re on our way back to the city.”

Kob eyed the unveiled clusters of plum-like fruit with longing, but also with a bit of wariness. “Are you sure that’s wise? As strong an effect as they had…”

“More on you than on either of us,” Varyn replied, “and I think it’s significant that they do leave us all revitalized. Better than journey rations could, that’s for certain. It seems safe enough – and perhaps Tasven and I can glean why it affects you so strongly.”

Admittedly, Tasven was curious what the cheetah might look like under magical sight after eating a few of those. “It’d probably take some close examination,” he said. “After which, well, dealing with the more… interesting… side effects would be quite convenient.”

“As long as you’re both willing to put up with it, then,” Kob replied, reaching out to grab one off the cluster and take a bite. “‘s probably going to be quite a mess to clean up, though – and as appealing as it looked at first, that water is going to be cold.

Tasven shivered. He hadn’t heated up nearly as much as Kob had, of course, but even so – at the moment, cold water seemed rather inviting. “Let me correct you there,” he said, slipping a certain ring, set with a ruby and sapphire, off of his finger and catching Kob’s free hand. “It will be pleasantly cool,” he said as he slid the ring onto the cheetah’s finger. “I can probably deal with the cold a bit better than you can.”

Varyn chuckled, reaching for a second fruit himself. “Not that I’m at all unfond of either of you, or have any reason to complain about your treatment of me, but it’s at times like this that I do wonder how you two ever tolerated being apart. You sometimes seem more fond of each other than either of you lets on.”

Tasven shrugged; he was about to make a dry reply when he noticed that the wolf’s remark had left Kob rather flushed, the cheetah looking aside and biting his lip. Apparently it had struck deep, there.

Well… what was wrong with that? Tasven liked to wander, it was true; he enjoyed meeting new people, definitely. But it wasn’t like these two were failing to bring him to new places. And he was always happy to return to them – especially to Kob, who, without meaning slight to the wolf, was easier as a lover. Doing much more than the simplest things with Varyn took work and planning – which was often worth it, but with Kob, he could just do.

Was it a bad thing, if the cheetah fancied him?

He slid his arm around Kob’s waist, nuzzling behind those flattened ears, nudging them forward, encouraging them to stand upright again. “If he’ll forgive me for not properly noticing,” the weasel said, “I’m not going to complain at the prospect.”

The laugh Kob let out around his next succulent mouthful was slightly bitter. “Jakebi’s tears, Tasven, I know how little you like being tied down, I’ve felt that way often enough myself; I didn’t want to be the one to do it.”

“Shh.” Tasven gave one of those ears a lick, then drew his head back, reaching over for one of the sweet fruit himself. “Do you mind, say, that I shared a few moments with your old wizardly friend?”

“Hardly. I rather wish I’d been a part of it – or at least had a chance to see it – but – ”

“Then I don’t think you need to worry,” Tasven chuckled. “Permit me my new experiences, and I think I’ll be content to come back to you – both, and singular – for some time. But enough of the deep talk; if we need more, we can do that when we’re safely done and back in a comfortable inn.” Grinning, he tugged at the buckles of Kob’s jerkin. “I told you we’d want to examine you closely.”

“It probably would be easier, that’s true,” Varyn laughed, stepping over and reaching in from the other side. “Eat up, cheetah, and let us deal with this.”

It was a little bit awkward, with the cat still trying to keep one hand free to eat, but they managed to strip him down. Varyn laid out the cat’s enchanted bedroll; Kob stretched out atop it, flesh already stirring, and Tasven swallowed, feeling an answering tightness in his trousers.

No, he reminded himself, this was serious. The fun could wait a few moments. He closed his eyes, the better to focus on the flow of magic, the twists and tangles of the Weave; he let the pulse of it guide his mouth, hands reaching forth to direct its intangible substance just a little.

When he opened his eyes again, not much was different. The fruit did shimmer somewhat – without the magic of the woods all around them, the magic in them was plain. He turned his focus on the cheetah instead – and that was dramatic enough to make him forget his lust for a moment. “It’s… spreading through you,” he breathed. His fingers trailed down Kob’s chest, resting for a moment at his midsection, over his stomach. “You swallow it, and the magic seeps into you throughout, making its way to your heart – and from there, everywhere.” Glimmering traceries spread through the cheetah’s form, outlining the currents of his blood – running throughout his body, then diffusing into smaller vessels, into a faint haze that permeated his entire being.

“And yet… it has another focus,” was Varyn’s contribution.

So it did; it suffused the cat’s entire being, but a few other places gathered it, concentrated it. “Two,” Tasven offered. “One’s up here,” he touched the cheetah’s brow. “Maybe that’s a part of why it feels good – it’s permeating your very thoughts. But the other…” He reached down, touching his fingertips to Kob’s pouch, the orbs within now gleaming to his sight. “Here.”

“And a bit above them, too; harder to tell, because it’s deeper in,” Varyn corrected. “Odd. I could understand if it was being collected to be passed out of his body – but why through his seed?”

Kob arched and squirmed a little from their touch, biting back a whimper. “It won’t… won’t leave me impaired without it, will it?”

“I don’t think so.” Tasven shook his head. “It’s… intensifying the rhythms of your body, wherever it gathers and until it fades. But just as you’re able to think and walk and act without it, it shouldn’t leave you any less a man, either.”

“Though it might feel like it, in contrast,” Varyn warned. He looked over, and with no word of explanation – and none necessary, really – stepped back and started tugging at Tasven’s clothing instead. “On some level, you’ll remember how vigorous it was with this infusion, and perhaps miss it.”

“I miss how well I can fight when I’ve been sped up by magic, too,” Kob observed, lying back peacefully now, gazing up at the other two with an expectant grin. “If it’s something like that, I can cope.”

“Then you should be fine,” Varyn rumbled. “Now, you two enjoy each other; I’ll get started on the work, and deal with myself later.”

With two pairs of hands involved, it hadn’t taken long to get Tasven’s clothing off of him; he, after all, didn’t have encumbering armour to worry about. Once Varyn had released him, he gave full reign to his previously-suppressed urgency; he stretched out atop the cheetah, mouth to mouth, flesh to flesh.

Maybe it was the magic suffusing them both; maybe it was an effect of the day’s hard climbing; maybe, just maybe, it was the thoughts Varyn’s earlier teasing had brought up to the surface. Whatever the cause, there was a hunger in each of them for the other; once their muzzles met, they didn’t part, just working together in a kiss that was almost fierce. Flesh slid against hot, rigid flesh, without impediment or complication, no need to keep their thrusts together for someone else’s sake; the cheetah’s fingers kept them in close, and Tasven shivered as the cat’s rough, callused pads slid along his length.

There was nothing complex about their lust, nor did either make a bid to restrain it. One thing that definitely did come from the unusual stimulus was that the intensity built very fast; maybe a minute after they’d come together, maybe two, Kob arched under his taller lover, groaning deep into the weasel’s muzzle, warm, sticky seed spattering Tasven’s length, flooding into both their pelts. Sometime in the midst of it – he wasn’t exactly counting – Tasven felt an answering rush inside him, clutching at Kob’s shoulders as his own seed pulsed forth, mingling with the other male’s.

In the wake of his climax, as he was still straining to catch his breath, he heard a long, soft sigh.

Evidently, so did Kob; the cat drew back from the kiss, looking over at Varyn and stifling a laugh. “Oh, dear. It can’t be very helpful to have that when you’re trying to work. Come on, you; you might as well add yours to the mess before we wash it off.” His sticky fingers pressed against Tasven’s chest, his other hand seeking purchase under him.

Laughing, Varyn tugged at his belt and meandered over to them. He’d discarded his mail shirt and gambeson – when, Tasven wasn’t exactly sure, distracted as he had been. Now, with a bit of adjustment, the wolf got his trousers down past the growing impediment of his own deep red shaft.

It hadn’t taken Tasven long to grasp Kob’s intent, and he found the notion good. The pair sat up with Varyn crouching by their shoulders, and the two of them lapped and stroked at either side of the wolf’s ready pole. Like them, he was charged well beyond his usual; inside a minute, the swell of his knot was at its full girth, and with both the other males petting and kneading it, and licking along his shaft – no, it wasn’t very much longer at all before the wolf let out his breath in a deep, heavy groan, drawing another only to voice it the same way, splattering their muzzles and their shoulders; and toward the end of his torrent, yes, a good portion of it dripped down onto their thoroughly-messy chests.

In the wake of the wolf’s orgasm, his own afterglow receding into a general good humour, Kob looked down at himself and laugh. “Not that I’ve minded my seed or anyone else’s on me, but – I think this is somewhat ridiculous. I look like I’ve bathed in the stuff.”

“Obviously we need to find you a friendly dragon,” Tasven murmured into the cheetah’s ears, “and let him gorge on these fruit, and then you actually can.

Again the cheetah laughed, giving Tasven’s shoulder a light and somewhat messy cuff. “Honestly, this is more than enough for me. If you don’t mind, I’m going to take advantage of your generosity and finish cooling down as I wash off.”

Laughing as well, Tasven slipped off from the smaller male’s thighs. He did take the time to nuzzle at Varyn’s leg, giving the wolf a few more moments of gentle fondness; once Kob had ambled over to the water and disappeared beneath the churning surface, though, temptation of another sort called to him. “You’ll be all right, Varyn?”

“I will now,” the wolf laughed, patting his shoulder. “Go on, get clean, before you get frozen into a statue like that.” And he tucked himself back into his trousers and did up his belt, rather definitively putting a finish to things, before he went back to work. Tasven eyed the water somewhat warily, then decided that if he took the spring-fed torrent slowly he’d probably never get all the way in; he plunged himself right into the modest depths at the base of the bluff.

He had, in fact, forgotten what true cold could feel like. It lanced into him, stealing away all the heat the day had built up and clawing at his very being; he threw his head back above the surface in a gasp of near-pain. But after the initial rush of it, the discomfort mostly subsided. It was cold, yes, and he ought not to stay in it too long; but some part of him remembered the day’s heat and exertion, and the cold was welcome. He stretched out under the flow – only to laugh as Kob slid up behind him, nuzzling at the side of his neck.

“Remember that pool outside Karinsholm, with Varyn?” the cheetah called to him over the noise of the cataract. “I know a place, two days west. Fed by a hot spring, so it smells odd, but…” He didn’t say ‘but’ what, just squeezed close against the other male; Tasven felt the cheetah’s flesh, spent but undeniably there, nestle under his tail.

Laughing, Tasven reached back to scratch behind the cat’s ears; anything less, he doubted would be clearly felt, with the water tumbling over the two of them. “Once we’ve got this mess settled, that sounds lovely.”

He slipped away after that, though, borrowing the talisman he’d given Varyn long enough to get dry quickly, then moving Kob’s bedroll into the tent and wiggling into it – not for sleep, but to get warm. When Kob looked in some minutes later, wearing his trousers but shirtless, the cheetah took only a moment to make sense of that. “Varyn has some more substantial fare heating up,” he said, setting Tasven’s pack near the tent flap, then coming in farther to set his clothes down by the bedroll. While he was there, he bent down to nuzzle at the weasel’s cheek. “I’m not sure how much I’ll actually have, but it probably is a good idea to try.” He lifted Tasven’s hand, sliding the enchanted ring back onto its accustomed place.

“I probably should as well,” Tasven agreed, slipping out far enough to reach for and shrug into his shirt. “Especially since breakfast, however delicious, was… a single item that I’m not sure how nourishing it would actually be.” He grinned; Kob coughed, ears flushing.

“Good gods,” the cheetah said. “Can you imagine the mess if you hadn’t had your mouth there in time, this morning?” He laughed, recovering from his moment of embarrassment easily enough.

“It would have been all over the floor of the tent,” Tasven agreed, sliding into his trousers. “I do hope we have another opportunity like that in the future, though – it seems unfair to deny Varyn that sort of meal.”

“Gods.” Kob laughed again. “You know those fountains that have statues of naked or barely-clad men and women in them? I just had an image go through my mind of myself being tied into the place of one such. Just keep feeding me fruit juice and feast on what comes out…”

“There are worse fates,” Tasven pointed out with a laugh of his own, and led the way out of the tent for food.

The magical fruit had chased away the aches of the day’s travel, but it had still been a long and tiring day; the lack of pain would have made it easy to sleep were it not for the tension of their situation, and a thin column of smoke rising under the stars, some distance away from them, didn’t make things any less tense. As it was, Tasven slept well enough anyway; shortly after he’d started the third watch, though, Kob poked his head back out of the tent to ask if he had anything available to help the cheetah sleep.

As it happened, he did – a few vials of sleeping potion, meant for just such situations; no sooner had Kob settled again and Tasven tilted the contents of a vial into his mouth than the cat sank into slumber. The magical sleep only lasted a minute or two, but it was enough; Kob slept on his own, even when Tasven woke Varyn for the wolf’s dawn prayers. Only when food and tea were ready did the weasel shake Kob awake.

The bluff which had been their screen and, during watch, their vantage point, now served them once more as the latter, while they surveyed the land below them. With much referring to Kob’s map, they concluded that the smoke they had seen had come from a sinkhole linked to one of the smaller caves, and that was where they would go; they would look in, see what manner of being they found there, and as soon as they knew that, they would depart. On the way, they reached another such cave; after making sure it had no signs of current or recent occupation, they secured the lizard to a stalactite with a few days’ worth of feed in reach, and continued without it.

There was no sign of patrols at that cave – no movement, but also no indication that the ground had been disturbed since the rain of the day before last. Cautiously, with one hand on his dagger, Kob led the way in; Varyn and Tasven followed some distance behind, under the cover of magical silence from one of the wolf’s spells.

At a bend in the cave, Kob held up his hand, signalling wait; bending down, he beckoned, and when they were close, he pointed out a thin tripwire, strung across the tunnel at ankle height. Too slender to actually trip someone – probably – but there was no telling what it was linked to. Kob mimed stepping over it; they nodded, and again the cheetah took the lead.

Now that they knew the place was occupied, they went with weapons drawn; Varyn held his mace ready, while Tasven gripped a katar in each hand. Only Kob left his weapon sheathed – probably to avoid having it catch what light got into this cave.

When Varyn’s spell of silence lapsed, Kob’s ears caught the sound of their passage, and he waited; Tasven beckoned him back, sheathing his blades and reaching into one of the side pockets of his pack. “It’s getting too dark to go without this,” he whispered. “I’ll have to risk one spell.”

Two things he brought out: one was a rolled-up scroll, the other a faintly-gleaming quartz pendant. He unrolled the scroll, checking the design on its end cap by the pendant’s light to make sure he’d got the right one. It was, of course, magical – most of a spell committed to paper with special inks, its energies rendered dormant by certain key omissions from the pattern. It was those blanks that Tasven bridged, with words mumbled as quietly as he dared, with a few vague gestures – thankfully, much less precise and more forgiving than actually casting a spell of his own.

Once he’d finished the last syllables, the magical ink faded; but suddenly the gloom of the cave was gone. Beyond the very short range of the light, he couldn’t see colours, but at least he could see – and so it was with all of them.

He stowed the light and drew his knives; Varyn cast another zone of silence; and on they went. Deeper in, they found more signs of occupation – a pile of preserved rations, one of fresher meat and discarded bone; but it wasn’t enough for more than a few people. Odd.

They had just investigated what seemed to be a crude study of sorts, with books and a shuttered magical lantern, when Varyn suddenly keeled over, his mace tumbling to the floor in the unbroken silence.

Cursing under his breath, Tasven dove and tumbled, rolling out of the zone of silence and desperately looking around. A force touched his mind – it felt like an enchantment trying to take hold of him, yet somehow different; he gritted his teeth, willing his mind to remain his own, and the force dissipated. Kob was not so lucky; the cheetah was suddenly held rigid, his knife half-drawn, mouth partway open in a shout that had never come. Overbalanced, he fell, still rigid, to the floor.

Cursing some more, Tasven wove a current of speed around himself, and then the culprit came into view. Its head was a good six and a half feet over the cave floor, its body slender yet muscular, showed to advantage by a scarcity of clothing – just a light cloth wrap of some kind – and a total absence of fur; it had no legs, its lower body instead flowing into a serpentine body, tail, or both. In one powerful hand it held a wooden staff with a crook at the end; in that curve, a gleaming crystal hung suspended by strands of some sort of thread, and this crystal was giving off light – a light which glimmered on scales of red and yellow and deepest black.

“You are none of my kin,” it growled – no, he; for all it was heavy on the sibilants, the voice was definitively, even pleasantly masculine. “Who are you, then? More of their paid blades, come to find me and drag me back to Merrshaulk’s altar? You’ll not find me an easy sacrifice, soft-skin.”

Wait. Sacrifice? To Merrshaulk?

There was more to this than met the eye; that was suddenly apparent. Tasven mangled his own spell in the making, disrupting it, his nerves jangling with the force of unfocused, half-formed magic buzzing through his being. “If you aren’t here in Merrshaulk’s name, who is?” He cursed the luck that had left him, probably the least knowledgeable about the whole business, as the only one still standing and able to speak.

“That would be my dear kin.” The yuan-ti’s voice, which seemed like the sort which couldn’t fail to be dry, became even more so. “You have come across them, then, yet wish me to believe you are not here by their order?”

“No, we haven’t and we aren’t,” Tasven grumbled. Suspicion might be natural to someone living alone – someone being hunted, apparently – but this being came to some odd conclusions. “All we’ve seen is traces – we know where they were, we know someone’s been paying bandits to make trouble for the city.” He lifted his head, and tried to be brave as he said, “Even if you kill us, more will come.”

“No doubt. I’ve had to slay seven of their assassins so far.” The snake-man glared at him. “You only live still because you’re of a different sort than they. Different enough to be interesting. But if you expect me to let you leave this place, you are mistaken.”

“Why?” Keep him talking, that was the plan; keep him talking at least long enough for Kob to recover, and maybe Varyn too… “Are you behind the bandits, then?”

A hiss. “This forest provides without me stooping to such measures.”

“Then what do you have to lose?” Tasven pressed. “We’re only out here because we want the attacks on the caravans to stop.”

The snake’s scales scraped on the stone as he slithered closer to Tasven. Close enough that the weasel could make out his fangs as he spoke. “And am I to trust that you will not run back to the city with word of the monster in the hills? That you will not return with five times as many? No. Even if I trust that you are not in Merrshaulk’s service, I cannot let you go.”

“Not even to deal with the ones who are?” Kob’s voice was gravelly, but he was speaking, shaking himself as he worked free of the paralysis. “Think. What my friend said is true – kill us, and there will be more. More who might well be less willing to listen.”

The yuan-ti’s amber gaze darted between them, forked tongue slipping forth for a moment – smelling them? “I have not survived this long with Merrshaulk’s minions on my trail by being trusting. No.”

“If you give us insight that helps us deal with them,” Kob pressed, “you won’t need to hide from them any longer.”

Silence reigned for a time after that suggestion. Tasven couldn’t read the serpentine face, but that very silence suggested the yuan-ti was thinking upon it.

“I cannot trust words alone,” he insisted at last. “Only if you permit me to know your thoughts, and know that the words match your meaning, could I possibly let you free.”

“Know… our thoughts?” Tasven repeated. “I don’t have any way to tell you my thoughts but words.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Varyn stirring.

“But I do, soft-skin.” The snake came closer to him still, close enough for Tasven to feel his breath – not cool, as he was half-expecting of a snake-being, but as warm as his own. “I can look into your thoughts, and thoughts do not lie. Perhaps you could keep me out, as you fought off immobility already – but if you did that, I would have no reason to trust you.”

Tasven swallowed. Varyn had mentioned strange powers among the more snake-like of the yuan-ti, but hadn’t gone into any detail; the weasel had heard tales here and there of beings who had power over one’s very thoughts, beyond the limits of enchantments which crudely imposed new order on them from without, but he’d thought them fanciful legends. “If I let you do that, and I’m telling the truth, will you let us go?”

Varyn was getting up to his feet now, still shrouded in silence. Behind the snake’s back, Kob was frantically signalling to the cleric – wait. The wolf’s hand found his mace, and he stood, but, frowning, he complied.

Some part of Tasven told him that letting the snake find out about this by turning around might be a bad idea. Before the yuan-ti could reply, he took a breath. “Ah – I don’t want to lie even by omission, but our third has recovered. He can’t hear us while his silence lasts.”

The scaly head whipped around, took in the sight, and nodded. He didn’t speak, but his words still made their way into Tasven’s head. ::Know this: that I bear the merchants on the road no ill will.:: Varyn blinked, as the mental voice went on, ::That those who do, are my enemies as well. If you will submit to the touch of my mind, and allow me to confirm that their undoing, not mine, is your goal, I will let you free – and I will aid you.::

“Aid us?” Kob repeated. “Not that help would be unwelcome, but – why?”

The yuan-ti looked at him a few moments, then slithered away from the three of them. As he considered one particular shelf, crystals of many sizes upon it, he explained. ::The brutal life of a service to Merrshaulk was not to my liking. I showed kindness to one who should have been my prey. For this transgression, I would be brutally slain. I knew this would be, and I did not stay to accept that fate. I left, and went as far and as fast as I could, and I came here – but it seems my old tribe has followed me, and seeks to bring me back for a much more public execution. Since they have not swiftly found me, they have found other opportunities for their… sport. So in a way, these troubles are my doing. If I know you are committed to ending them, then so too shall I – to end the threat to myself, both from their priests and from others who might do me harm when seeking them, and to repay their transgressions.::

Tasven let out a breath. This being had, apparently easily, incapacitated two of the three of them; he doubted he’d have been able to win a fight against the yuan-ti alone before those fangs reached him. To have that potential enemy instead become an ally – “Then you can look at my thoughts, yes.”

“And mine,” Kob repeated. Varyn, whose breathing had become audible again during the snake’s tale, nodded.

::So be it.:: The snake turned, slithering back to Tasven. One strong hand came to rest on the weasel’s brow. ::Make no effort to resist this touch on your mind, and repeat to me your aims.::

So Tasven forced himself to relax, withdrew his natural protections – the force that touched him again felt strange, the more so for delving into his thoughts; he shivered, but spoke aloud his intent to stop the threat to the trading caravans on the west road, and not to harm those that did not wish evil on the city or on them. The yuan-ti regarded him for several moments after that.

“You three,” he said aloud, “you are no random collection of adventurers, but well-known to each other. Friends. More than friends.” When Tasven nodded, the snake let out a sigh. “Such gentle memories were a blessing to know. I will let one speak for three. If that is unwise of me, then so be it; for a glimpse of such happiness, I will take that risk.”

Varyn took a breath. “If we are to be allies, then – what is your name?”

“Ssithros,” the yuan-ti replied. For a moment it seemed there was more to come; but what came out at last was, “Any name beyond that is forever behind me. That life is no longer mine.”

Varyn continued the introductions, then said, “How can we help each other, Ssithros?”

“For the two of you, I am simply a companion, another power. But for you – ” The snake slithered near Kob, scrutinizing him. “I am curious. Why has your talent gone untrained?”

Kob blinked. “Talent? I thought I’ve made use of the ones I have, well enough.”

“No, not those. I can feel the spark with in you – the force of your mind yearning to be set free, to be unleashed upon the world. You have a well of psionic force in you – do your people have no knowledge of such things?”

“Few enough do.” Varyn shook his head. “I’ve heard the word, but I daresay most people haven’t.”

Ssithros sighed – he actually sounded wistful. “For some, it takes years to focus their thoughts to the extent that they have even that much power waiting to be used. And there you have it, resting untapped within you. A psion’s path would take much time to unlock – but perhaps I can assist you with tapping it in a more primal way. It is not my way, but I know enough about it to be of some help.”

“You’re sure it doesn’t just have something to do with these strange fruit in the Brightwood?” Kob asked, hesitant.

The snake laughed, and even while he was laughing, explained. ::No, I am aware of those fruit. I have had little opportunity to experiment, but from what I have discovered, their sole effect on someone without some manner of gift outside normal ken is a surge of vitality. Certainly the beasts of the forest are healthy, but otherwise unexceptional – save for a few of its denizens which are magical by nature, of course, though perhaps there are more of those than in most forests of that size.::

Kob blinked. “We thought… it seemed to affect me more than them. They have magic, each in their own way, but me…”

::The power in those fruit suffuses the body. Those with magic can tap that power, yes. For those without, it simply flows through them, then gradually fades. Psionic ability – even, it would seem, inborn and untrained – can direct it to enhance some particular of the body’s rhythms, rather than all of them equally. What, perchance, did it do?::

Now the cat blushed, ears flicking back. “It had… intimate benefits. Greatly so.”

::Then that simply means you have a great liking for sexual activity, and your subconscious mind shaped the power accordingly.:: In thoughts, the snake’s sardonic tone was unmistakable.

“And what’s wrong with liking sex?” Varyn challenged – gently, but a challenge nonetheless.

There was another lengthy pause, and then Ssithros let out a sigh. “I haven’t the slightest idea,” he said out loud. “But such discussions will not aid us. For the manner of my greeting, and for any implied insult, I offer you what hospitality I can; I hunt for food each day, but I have also found that the fruit of the forest makes a pleasant wine. It lacks special power – that fades within days of the fruit being plucked – but it is still sweet. You two eat and drink what you may, and rest.” He gestured to Tasven and Varyn, then turned his attention on Kob. ::You, however, I can aid more directly. Come with me, and we will try to unlock the power within you. The deepest cavern is quiet and well-suited to meditation; that may aid us, and is easy to find should your companions have need, or wish to observe – quietly.:: He nodded over to the other two.

Sceptical, hesitant, Kob nevertheless nodded as well, following the snake out into the hall. The light went with them, leaving only magical sight to pierce the gloom.

Varyn took a breath. “This is certainly an unexpected development, isn’t it? I trust him, though – I saw no evil in him, and what he said makes sense.”

“So it does.” Tasven laughed. “We may have to stop teasing Kob about being the only mundane one among us, though.”

The weasel took a moment to reach out with his thoughts, stretching his awareness to his familiar, left back with the burden-lizard. A summons, an assurance – the distance was too great for anything more detailed; a warning about the tripwire could wait until Drevin was close enough to make sense of it. Varyn summoned some light of his own, and they surveyed their surroundings.

Not that there was much to survey. At the end of the day, it was still a cave, and not a particularly big one. This particular chamber seemed to have been hollowed by an underground watercourse that then dug its way through a direct course in the main tunnel – gently curved around the entire outer edge, dished a little toward the outside. It had a makeshift plank table, a somewhat better-constructed desk, and shelves that were sturdier still. Those shelves bore not books, but a number of stones – some crystalline, some rocky but with designs upon them, either painted or inlaid. The largest were slender spires about a foot long, like the ones the yuan-ti had been looking over a short time ago; the smallest, about the size of Tasven’s thumb.

He didn’t need any warning not to touch any of it. He was far from the longest-lived adventurer out there yet, but those who just poked at random objects – especially those so prominently displayed – tended to have careers shorter than his had yet been.

“Not a chair to be had,” Varyn sighed, leaning against the cavern wall and sliding down to sit. “I suppose he wouldn’t exactly fit in one.”

“What did he do to you, anyway?” Tasven asked, sitting beside him.

The wolf grimaced. “Not a pleasant sensation. I… felt weak, suddenly. Gravely, even mortally hurt. I couldn’t move, and dared not try. I’d much rather be struck by a sleeping spell, that’s certain.”

“I find myself wondering what he could have done,” the weasel mused. “But you trust him?”

“Strange as it may be, yes.” The wolf shifted slightly, draping an arm over Tasven’s shoulders. “We seem to have a common enemy, and… it’s hard to be sure, with a face so different from those I normally see, but I think his reactions to the things we said were genuine. And if he wanted to kill us, he probably could have done so already.”

“There is that,” Tasven agreed. “He did catch us off guard.”

“Grievously so.” Varyn sighed. “We’ll need to be more careful if we’re actually going to do this. Much more careful.”

Tasven sighed as well. “The wait is going to be unpleasant, though. He kind of led things along – he has some good thoughts, it seems, and we can certainly use help – but… we need to get this dealt with, and fast. Whatever it is he has in mind, I hope it won’t take long.”

“If he even has an idea of what we’re facing, it’ll be worth a few hours’ wait,” Varyn pointed out. “If, with his help, we’re actually able to deal with this mess ourselves, that will save days for the city. Weather being as fickle as it is, those days could be significant.”

Right. Of all things to be constrained by, it would be the least predictable. And a singularly unpredictable element of it – frost could be planned around, more or less, but storms? The people of Sharktooth Bay knew that the season for them was approaching, but they couldn’t say when the first would actually hit.

Which made it that much more frustrating to be sitting around. The weasel got up to his feet, taking another look around the place. “He offers us food and drink, but unless he expects us to search through all his things… he hasn’t told us what’s where.”

“I don’t think he’s very much accustomed to having company,” was Varyn’s wry reply, the wolf rising as well. “Come; let’s see if we can find that wine he mentioned. We won’t be wanting much, but a little to settle our nerves might be just what we need.”

The wine was easy enough to find once they explored a little; the barrels of it were obvious enough, resting in a wider portion of the passageway toward the surface. One of them was only partly full; some quick digging in Tasven’s enchanted pack produced a clean flask that they could fill, and they traded sips from it as they made their way back downward.

It was good wine, Tasven had to concede. Better that they only had that one flask between them, though, and that Varyn was taking two swigs to his one; with a wine that sweet, it was hard to tell how strong it actually was. Strong enough, anyway, that it’d be easy to get drunk and, thanks to the masking flavours, not quite realize it.

They got back to the entrance of the “study” and exchanged glances. Voices were drifting from lower down; by unspoken agreement, they went that way instead. Not that it was far; this was, after all, one of the smaller caves. Within two looping turns, the tunnel opened up.

The walls were subtly different here – Tasven didn’t know stone, but it didn’t need any special experience to figure out that that different quality to the rock was probably why this chamber had formed. At one time, it had been a pool, water eddying in this space before rushing through a much narrower cleft in the rock at the far end, too narrow by far for passage.

Kob sat cross-legged in the center of that chamber, facing what seemed to be a makeshift training dummy. The yuan-ti was curled loosely around him – the portion of the snake that rested on the ground was, anyway; nothing that gave any impression of a constrictor.

“No, no – don’t stifle your anger,” Ssithros hissed. “Focus it. Contain it, shape it, use it.”

Kob took a deep breath. “I’m not normally an angry person,” he protested. “When I am, it burns hot, but fast.”

“Your anger can be useful,” the yuan-ti insisted. “It can be a weapon – one that can never be taken from you unless you allow it.”

Kob bit his lip and took another breath, apparently trying again, whatever it was he was doing.

Ssithros glanced over at the other two, head dipping in a slight nod of acknowledgement. His voice dropped somewhat as he went on, “Think. Do you know what the followers of Merrshaulk will do if they capture your friends?” His voice dropped lower still, his head bent down near Kob’s ear; with the strange echoes from the stone, it was impossible for Varyn and Tasven to make out what he said.

Kob, however, had no such difficulty. He stiffened, swallowing, ears flicking back.

“No, no,” Ssithros hissed again. “If you give into your fear, they win. Do not give them such a victory. Your fear will not help you – marshal your rage to keep it at bay. Do not fear these… devils. Punish them, yes, that’s it…”

Suddenly the cheetah snarled, uncoiling, lunging. A strange light kindled around his right hand as it drove forward. There was a sudden sound of tearing cloth, and something broke through the dummy’s other side – like the point of a sword made of blue fire.

Kob lurched back, and there was another tearing sound. In his hand, he gripped what look like a sword forged of raw power. Its outline was serpentine, like the kris he’d used for so long, but a fair bit larger; and that outline was a bit blurry, as though it was surrounded by pale blue flames, the blade itself the same energy condensed into a more solid form. He turned his hand, looking on it from all angles, amazement plain on his features.

“Yeeeeees,” the snake crooned, giving Kob’s shoulder a squeeze. “You see? You can do it – you can turn your mind into a weapon keener than any knife. And if you discard this blade, or even if it is broken, why, you need only marshal your thoughts, and it is remade. From this moment forward, you are never unarmed.”

Kob slashed at the dummy, then lunged, running it through once more; then he stood upright again. “It’s… a bit obvious, isn’t it?”

::It is a reflection of your will,:: the yuan-ti replied. ::An echo of your aggressive thoughts. If you have need for it to be discreet, it will be more so. In time, as you become more familiar with it, it will become more attuned to you in turn, and both its lethality and your ability to shape it will increase.:: He uncoiled and slithered some distance away from Kob, regarding him from there. ::The details are not entirely known to me. That path is not mine. I have shown you the fundamentals, and some ancillary elements. It is a discipline of instinct, however – you should not need much if any instruction beyond that of your own experiences. Study of the related arts may grant you additional insights, but you do not need to wed yourself to tomes and scrolls to advance on this path.::

“Well, I can’t complain about its heft. But, uh, it’s a bit big.” Kob glanced at his belt sheath; there was no way something built for a knife – albeit a long knife – would hold a blade of that size. “You say I can remake it later – but how do I get rid of it?”

::Simply release your hold upon it, and in doing so, your focus.::

The cheetah blinked, and opened his hand. Instead of falling, the spectral blade just… dissolved, fading and vanishing in one last puff of blue fire. He took a breath, curled his fingers, and the blade shimmered into being once again. Satisfied, he let it dissolve. “All right. I think I’ve got it – at least I can make it without actually being so furious.”

::To shape and channel one’s own thought is the essence of my art. In that much, we have something in common. But for now, I have taught you all that I could without weeks of instruction. Now we should plan.::

“You have ideas, then?” Varyn asked.

::I have many. I also have tools which may be useful – too many for me to make proper use of alone, but this one may be able to fathom their use and assist with that.:: Ssithros gestured toward Kob, then started up the tunnel. ::Come. Let us look over the inventory and consider our options.::

They returned to the study. It was around then that the yuan-ti noticed that the bipeds lacked anything to sit on, so there was a bit of a delay while barrels and bundles were brought from his modest storage area to serve as impromptu seats. Then the planning began.

::Unless more have been sent to assist – which I do not think to be the case, or my erstwhile brethren would not be resorting to mercenaries – our primary opponents are five,:: the yuan-ti explained, sifting through the crystals and stones on the shelves, putting most back, tucking some into the small pack that hung at his side or the pouch hanging from higher up that pack’s strap. ::A priestess of Merrshaulk, her acolyte, and three novice psions, all of them yuan-ti halfbloods, save that the priestess herself is a pureblood. Their guards, another half-dozen or so, are mainly accustomed to harrassing helpless prisoners. Their recent activities may have given them some experience, but it is likely that their victories will leave them lacking in caution.::

“What do you mean, halfbloods, pureblood?” Varyn asked.

::They have less of the serpent about them. They likely walk on two legs as you do. The priestess could disguise herself as one of the scaly folk more common to these lands.::

Tasven blinked. For the start of that explanation, he’d thought Ssithros himself was an example of the pureblood sort. “Where do you fit on that scale?” he blurted.

Out loud, in a voice devoid of emotion, the snake replied, “They call my kind abominations. Potent weapons, instruments of their god’s will, respected for our purpose and our strengths, but too twisted and warped to be fit for any proper station.”

Varyn flattened his ears and winced, mouthing a prayer. With the sentiment, at least, Tasven had to agree. To treat anyone as inherently unsuitable for a calling just because of the form they were born to seemed odd to him; to do it to someone who was at the same time the race’s most powerful tools… that was bizarre and then some.

Meanwhile, the snake went back to the matter at hand. ::I know little of their mercenaries, but most are rabble, fractious and unaccustomed to working together. It is likely that they will be ill-coordinated, and probably do not dwell in the yuan-ti camp at all. If we can bypass their lines – and as we are behind them already, that too seems likely – and strike swiftly, we can end the battle and be gone before any of these auxiliaries can muster.::

“A dozen is still bad odds,” Kob said with a grimace.

::The priestess is the only being of substantial power among them. The others may be a danger in concert, but each one is much more vulnerable. The psions in particular are fragile. I know those three – telepaths all; rather than assail us directly, they will attempt to weaken us and bolster their allies.:: The yuan-ti lifted another item from its shelf, this one a long spire of crystal that gleamed in the light, one end of it tipped with a tapered point like a spear’s head. ::Sending those three was unwise. One of the items I liberated from storage will punish them greatly for attempting to impede us, likely leaving them unable to act in any but the most rudimentary ways.::

Varyn whistled. “You seem to have quite the assortment here.”

A snort. ::If only it were so. Most of these things you see are inert. I might use them to make more, but that will take a great deal of time even for those that are within my power.:: Ssithros slid the length of crystal under the strap of his pack, against his shoulder. ::Some of the more useful things are not within my ability to replace. These, for instance, only a dedicated telepath could craft, and I am not such a one. But it is a small price to pay if it should give a chance to vanquish these hounds.:: Bending down, he lifted a small felt pouch from a plain wooden box, and from it, he tipped a number of small, shining things – like pearls – onto his palm. ::These are simple to use. Simply throw them at an opponent. Should one strike, and its power take hold, that foe will have his upper mind sealed away.:: The snake considered the three of them as he tucked the pearls back into their pouch and drew the string tight. After a moment’s thought, he extended it toward Tasven. ::You will likely be the one best positioned to make use of these. Let them augment the impact of your spells and blades.::

Grimly, Tasven nodded, looping one of the drawstrings around his belt and knotting it. The other he wound around the neck of the pouch, tying it such that a quick tug would undo it.

Then Ssithros turned to Kob. ::For you I have three gifts. Two are much in kind; here.:: Reaching into the box again, he held up a ball of… something. It looked slightly fluid, dimpling under his fingers yet pulling itself back into a sphere, and it was hard to see, as though it was barely there.

Gingerly, Kob reached forward to accept it – and started. “What the – ? It just… whispered to me.”

::It tells you its own word of command. Think it while you hold it, and it will spread to encompass you; the same thought will cause it to collapse into your hand when you have no further need of it. While you wear it, it will make you more difficult to see. This other is of my own crafting, and of the same sort, but for a different purpose entirely.:: When Ssithros opened the next tiny box, the thing he drew forth was not hard to see; it looked like a ball of liquid flame, bearing a gleam that was distinct even within the magical light. ::When you are assailed, it will respond with a blast of fire at your attacker, punishing their assault.::

Kob whistled. “Decisions, decisions,” he murmured, hefting one in each hand.

::You can wear both – indeed, you could wear three,:: the yuan-ti advised, slithering back to the shelf one more time. ::Only the outermost will have its effect at any one time. With a thought, you can direct them to change places, bringing a new shell to the surface. Finally – this thing is more difficult to apply, but once you do so, it will help in balancing the numbers of this fight.:: He returned bearing a foot-long rod of smoky white crystal, turning it in his fingers. ::This one is nearly spent, but will serve for practise. I have one much like it, which still has its full potency. Concentrate on its command thought, envision a creature of your desire, and the power in this device will draw matter from the astral plane, shaping it into the image you form at the place you direct. For a short time, it will assist you in battle, acting on its own but following the directions of your thought.::

Balancing the globs of whatever in one hand, Kob ran his other fingers along the crystal, nodding slowly. “Like a wand, but… it feels a bit more elegant, somehow. All right, let’s see – there’s a number of suitably vicious critters that live around here…” He took a breath, lifting the crystal in one hand, brow furrowing in concentration.

When he brought his arm down, the tip of the crystal pointed at a nearby spot on the floor, there arose a shimmer in the air – a shimmer that grew more solid, coalescing into a silvery, not-quite-solid substance. The form of it was recognizable enough – a somewhat bigger version of the lizard that had fed them a few days back, with more prominent claws and teeth – but the outline was a bit tenuous, always shifting and flowing. For about a quarter of a minute it skittered around, apparently following the cheetah’s mental commands, and then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, it… burst, coating the floor for a few feet around it in shimmering fluid that faded into nothingness.

::You take to it well, softskin,:: Ssithros praised, chuckling aloud. ::I imagine our mutual enemies will be suitably dismayed. Here. This will hold the shells, and this dorje is fully charged; I will take the lesser, for its power I can manifest, and better, on my own.::

There was an odd look in Varyn’s eyes, lingering on where the lizard-construct had been. “I wonder if those could be made to last longer?” he mused. “Being able to shape a creature that responds to your thoughts… well.” A smirk. “It has… potential.”

The yuan-ti gave him an odd look, uncomprehending. ::Now is not the time for such things. There is planning to be done, and then we should rest – better to start early tomorrow than to push forward today and be weary.::

“Yes, quite.” The wolf shook his head. “Kob, do you have the charts? Let’s see what we’re looking at.”

The map was duly located and unrolled. The yuan-ti studied it for a time, then tapped one of the marked caves. ::Here. I saw the smoke of their cook-fires outside this one.::

Kob looked at the mark, and nodded. “That could fit a dozen people, though not many more, not if they have supplies. And it’s… well, a bit closer than I like, right now. But even moving quietly and carefully, it shouldn’t take us more than two hours to get to from here.”

::We may not need such silence. Clouds are coming from the west, black and heavy. Sometime tomorrow, a storm will be upon us; its noise will help to conceal our movements, if it arrives in time.::

A storm. Tasven cursed. “We were hoping to get this done before storms hit.”

Kob shook his head. “No, I think this is just a squall. Quick, noisy, and wet, but not the rampaging deluge that keeps ships grounded. I’m sure the sailors won’t like it if it passes over them, but ships drop anchors and weather its like all the time. Okay, let’s think of a few scenarios here – if the storm passes before we get there, hasn’t arrived yet, or hits at the right time, it all changes.”

They talked things over for a few hours, making a few contingency plans – nothing complex, since there was no time to rehearse them, but general notions of how to proceed. Varyn went to retrieve their pack-beast; Kob took up watch; and Tasven did his best to sleep. It didn’t come easily, with this stranger and his unfamiliar powers so close by, but in due time, he drifted into slumber.

Despite his initial unease, Tasven was well-rested by the time Varyn’s hand on his shoulder shook him awake. Once he’d said he was up, the wolf murmured in turn that Kob was sorting out some rations for a quick breakfast, then moved away to don his armour.

Aware of a spot of warmth against his side, Tasven pulled a hand free of the bedroll and scratched behind his familiar’s ears. “I want you to stay here where it’s safe, Drevin,” he said, aloud but in a manner only he and the cat could comprehend. “Stay out of sight until I tell you otherwise.” The cat shot him a haughty glare, as though he should know better than to even bother giving the instruction; but he communicated his assent.

There wasn’t much to be said; after a quick bite to eat, they set out. The sky was still dark, though it was starting to lighten in the east – just enough to show the clouds looming overhead. By the time it was bright enough to see to the west, they were under the trees. The question of the storm answered itself, though; when they were, by Kob’s estimate, about halfway to their destination, the wind rose in the branches, rain starting to drum heavily on the leaves. Within minutes, it was pouring heavily enough that all of them were wet.

Not that their newest companion seemed to mind. If anything, the rain on the yuan-ti’s scales made it easier for him to slither along. He used his hands more than the others did; where the bipeds just pushed branches aside at need, Ssithros took hold and pulled himself along, up and over obstructions. Alien as it was, the way he moved was almost mesmerising; his midsection swayed in counterpoint to the undulations of his lower body in a way that was not unappealing. Coupled with the slick shine of his colourful scales, it made for a surprisingly attractive image.

But now was hardly the time to speculate about such things. There was work to be done.

As they drew close to the cave, the smell of torch-smoke was heavy on the air, though the smoke itself was weighed down by the water dripping from the leaves. Thunder was rumbling around them, now, and coupled with the rain, made it impossible to listen for conversation, but they were close enough for their noses to lead them. Kob paused, mostly shielded from view by the cleft between a fallen tree and its standing neighbour and by thick brush, reaching in his pack and taking out the small wooden box Ssithros had provided him the night before. First, he drew out the shimmering, fiery globe; after a moment’s concentration, it started flowing up his arm, spreading all over him in seconds. The other one, Tasven couldn’t see for the rain, though he could see the motion as Kob held it up; the vivid colours gave way to the colours of the woods, and even knowing where to look, it was hard to see the cheetah at all.

They proceeded a bit further, and through a gap in the drooping leaves, Tasven saw their foes. A half-dozen scaled beings holding a variety of weapons and wearing oiled chain mail – that was about right for what Ssithros had said. Four others were with them, though, apparently trying to hold a conversation of some sort over the rain and the thunder; those four had fur – grey wolves, all of them – and were wearing patched but serviceable leather.

Some of the mercenaries, no doubt. That complicated things, but none of them looked particularly comfortable with their swords, or, indeed, each other or the yuan-ti. Better to continue than to risk being noticed pulling back. Tasven looked over at Varyn, who was looking at him in turn, and gestured forward; the wolf nodded and repeated the gesture.

One of the yuan-ti guards was apart from the rest, none of the others looking his way – a prime target. Tasven reached down into the pouch Ssithros had given and extracted one of the pearly spheres; as he hefted it, it tingled against his fingers, force rising within it. All right, so it would propel itself. He shifted his aim, and hurled it straight forward.

Luck was with him. Just as it left his hand, a flash of lightning over the canopy edged the world in light and shadow, obscuring the pearl’s movement; any sound it might have made, in flight or on impact, was similarly lost beneath the peal of thunder that accompanied it. The pearl struck true on the red-black-and-yellow yuan-ti’s chest, and seemed to sink right through the mail.

There was no obvious response; the snake-man just remained standing there, gazing at nothing in particular. He did look a little less focused than before, though.

::A fine throw,:: Ssithros’s mental voice murmured into his mind. ::It should render her inert for several minutes. Let me take the lead a moment – while they are grouped together, they are vulnerable.::

Her? Oh. Well, it made no difference.

Tasven’s own magic tended to be either more subtle or more precise than a wizard’s fireball, but he was familiar with the notion. Before he complied, though, he beckoned Ssithros and Varyn closer; a hand on his shoulder let him know that Kob was with him as well. With the constant barrage of rain and occasional interruptions of thunder, he had little worry that his spell would be overheard; in fact, it was a greater worry that the din would distract him and spoil the spell. He held his concentration, though, finding Kob by touch and focusing on the other two, lending all of them heightened speed.

That done, he fell back slightly, letting the snake slither on ahead, and following on his flank. Just as Ssithros pushed into the open, another bolt of lightning lit the clearing, even as he grounded his staff and focused his gaze on the throng. Voices rose and were swallowed by the thunder; figures turned to face him; then he lifted his hand.

The air in front of his fingers tore apart.

Glittering shards came into being and lanced forward in a sparkling hail. Leaves and bark were shredded; tufts of soil whipped up from the ground; and in the wake of the thunderclap, screams rose to Tasven’s ears as the shards tore through armour and dug into flesh. In their wake, the whole area was blanketed by a silvery sheen, quickly fading to nothing – and leaving two of the wolves flat on the ground.

Battle was joined in earnest. Shouts of alarm rose up, in a tongue Tasven didn’t know and didn’t care to. The yuan-ti guards started to grab their weapons, the wolves that still stood scattering to either side; then there was a flicker of movement, a barely-visible figure lunging at the slowest of the snake-folk, his kris gleaming with a red sheen as he danced away, the cheetah evidently having decided to stick with the familiar for the moment.

As that snake stiffened and fell, spots of fiery colour blossomed over the cheetah’s barely-visible form, quickly spreading to encompass him again, turning him in moments from a shadow to flame.

Ssithros darted forward with deceptive speed, dashing past the reeling guards toward the cave entrance. There he held that sharp-tipped crystal spire aloft, plunging the spear-head into the sodden ground. Tasven had no further time to observe, though, as foes charged toward him. The nearest he pummelled with missiles of force, but still the snake came; he gritted his teeth and reached down to draw his punch daggers. He danced aside from an axe-blow, lunging forward in its wake to rake his blades over the snake’s hide; the scales were tough, but not so much so that the enchanted metal failed to bite.

Figures emerged from the cave mouth – three of them, all with serpentine features. At first Tasven could barely spare them a glance; by the time he’d landed a solid thrust that finally felled his opponent, the trio had sized up the situation and were concentrating. One of them was briefly surrounded in a nimbus of shimmering multicoloured light, its eyes burning with silver fire; more of that shiny substance that seemed so characteristic of that art came into being around Ssithros, but faded away without obvious effect, the snake whipping around to face them and concentrating in turn.

The other two were not so lucky. In the midst of their concentration, they slumped, and a shimmering filament connected them to the top of the crystal rod that still jutted from the soil. They took no further action, though one of them did wriggle aside when Kob slashed at it.

Tasven’s attention was drawn back to the melee by motion to his left; one of the wolves that had vanished earlier, now returning to the fray. Even as he moved toward the weasel, a shimmer grew in the air behind him, coalescing into a spectral lizard-shape that darted forward to attack. With the wolf thus beset, Tasven pressed his own advantage and darted forward, blades slashing and slicing.

With that opponent down, he turned around, looking at the situation anew. Varyn was holding his own against three opponents, not least because Kob was harassing them too, as was a larger phantasm, darting about on two legs and slashing with arms like blades; still, with them focused on the cleric, the odds were not appealing. Another yuan-ti had emerged from the cave. Kob darted forward, but the snake wove a quick spell, and Kob’s kris shivered and broke into splinters; the cheetah fetched up short, spitting a curse that went unheard in the racket, and brought his spectral blade into being. The cleric started on another spell, but even as it started to chant and gesture, silvery strands wove around it, wrapping it up in a trice and stifling the spell before it finished. The two-legged construct dissolved into nothingness; Ssithros gave the still-functional psion a swipe with his staff that quickly rendered it otherwise, and turned to Varyn’s assistance.

There was still one more in the cave, though, and this one was canny; still standing in the shadows, it chanted. A force touched Tasven’s mind; he tried to throw it off, but it seized him tightly, stiffening his limbs and rooting him to the spot. He couldn’t even move his mouth to curse.

Well, there were still some things he could do, even if he couldn’t move his limbs or speak. As he had a few days back, he bent the Weave with raw force of will, gathering a trio of missiles into being and sending them forth. This foe, though, shrugged them off with seeming unconcern, striding toward him, holding up a wicked, curved blade.

Unlike the guard earlier, whom Tasven had only Ssithros’s word as being female, this one was obviously so; full-figured, strong-limbed, bright-scaled – she might have been comely, were it not for the horrible look on her face. She wasted no further time on words, raising her knife to strike. Unable to even call out, Tasven tensed for a blow, hoping it wouldn’t cut too deep.

He wasn’t left entirely to his own devices, though. There was a barely-visible gleam in the air, and another pearl struck the priestess’s arm, vanishing into the scales much like the one Tasven had thrown. This one, though, had a much more obvious effect; she lurched in mid-stride, bending over as though suddenly winded.

Ssithros, slithering into Tasven’s view, wasn’t done; as he focused his will, there was a sudden sound – soft at first, building in an instant until it eclipsed even the rolling thunder, like many voices all raised to shout – and then a sheet of crackling lightning sprang into being around the priestess, electricity arcing toward her; not quite reaching her, but if she took a single step in any direction, they likely would.

As the priestess stood there in the deadly ring, still gasping for breath and seeming to have great difficulty about it, Ssithros paused to consider her. ::Ahhh, Vressh. What and where might I be, now, if I’d not noticed your affections for the sham they were, if I’d responded to them, as I at first thought them, in kind?:: He shook his head. ::No matter. I think your fangs will make quite suitable trophies to hang around my neck.::

Motion caught Tasven’s eye from the cover of the trees. He strained against the force that bound him, and suddenly he was free – free to spring into the brush, to slash at the bow as it was drawn with one blade, at its owner with the other. In both cases, his aim was good; his first cut sliced through the taut bowstring, his second slamming into the wolf’s gut.

Ssithros had looked over at his motion; now the snake returned his attention to his captive, holding up his hand, pointing at her. Trapped as she was, she could only watch as he focused his mind. Another of those swiftly-building shouts, as the area around him was slicked with a silvery sheen, drawing inward and condensing into a crystalline blade; then it lanced forward, spearing her through the heart with no further ceremony.

With that, all that remained was the grisly work of dealing with the various impaired foes. They weren’t so poorly off that they could be bound – indeed, except for the cocooned acolyte, none of them, however vacant their expressions, had any special difficulty evading blows; but with four of them, it was straightforward, if unpleasant work.

Well, the three bipeds found it unpleasant. Ssithros didn’t exactly revel in it, but he did seem to gain some grim satisfaction, and he also showed not the slightest bit of hesitation in collecting the two fangs from each of the eleven fallen yuan-ti, wrapping them by the pair in small twists of cloth, marking them in some manner.

Still, his assistance had turned what would have been at best a difficult fight into a total rout, none of the four at all the worse for the wear. So long as he did no harm to them or to the city himself, Tasven was willing to forgive a great deal of such unaccustomed behaviour, disturbing though it might be.

“In all, that could have gone much worse,” Kob said. They had pressed forward into the cave, sorting through the things therein, trying to figure out what they might be able to bring back; Varyn had gone to fetch the pack-lizard and what belongings they’d left in Ssithros’s cave. The cheetah was looking normal again, if thoroughly soaked; that wasn’t a state he showed any sign of minding in the least.

“So it could,” Tasven agreed. “That lot could have done us a great deal of harm if we hadn’t had the extra help. Quite possibly killed us.”

Kob lifted the box that held those strange shells, running his fingers over it. “You know, it was a strange sensation, having these things on, but I could’ve got used to them in a hurry. The look on that one guard’s face when he tried to hit me and got a face full of fire for the trouble? Priceless.” He laughed, then turned to their ally, just entering the cave in turn. “Thank you for your assistance. I’m sure Sharktooth Bay will be much better off with this trouble in the past. I suppose you’ll be wanting these back.”

The snake looked at him for a few moments, thoughtful; then he shook his head. ::Keep one, at least, for yourself. If these hunters had not found me, most likely someone less inclined to listen to reason than yourselves would have. Either way, your assistance has most likely saved my life.::

Kob bowed his head. “As you wish. Thank you, again.” He set the box down on a rocky spur, balancing it with one hand and opening it with the other. “This one,” he declared, holding up the nearly-transparent glob.

::It suits you,:: the yuan-ti agreed, reaching forward to draw the fiery orb from the box and slipping it into a pocket on the vest he’d donned for the day’s work; it bulged, but nothing leaked out. Kob returned the other one to its place and slid the box back into his pack.

Again Kob summoned his blade; he turned it in his hand, sighing and leaning back against the rock wall. “You know, so long as this is all I have to worry about, I’m doing well, but… I liked that knife. I’ve had it for years, ever since I was first trained to fight.”

The cat certainly had devoted a great deal of care to the blade in the time Tasven had known him. He wound an arm around Kob’s waist and drew the cheetah in a little closer. “I don’t imagine he liked seeing when you just brought another weapon out of thin air, though.”

“No.” Standing a bit straighter, Kob chuckled. “No, that he didn’t. His face was a bit unfamiliar, but that expression was all too clear. He – if it was a he – didn’t like that one bit.”

Tasven looked over at the yuan-ti, sorting through what seemed to be an impromptu work area of sorts. “What will you do now?”

The snake looked up at him, holding a shard of blue crystal in his hand. ::Do? Keep moving. Now that this batch of hunters has been dealt with, I should be able to make some ground before they send more. If they do; none of them was influential, and it will likely be assumed that whatever slew them would also have accounted for me.::

Kob glanced at Tasven, his expression unreadable. Then he said to Ssithros, “Sharktooth Bay owes you. So do we.”

A shrug. ::To them I will be a monster. Better I go my own way, quiet and unseen.::

“No,” the cheetah insisted. “That’s not better. We can vouch for you, make them see that you helped.”

Helped. That was putting it mildly. Tasven nodded assent. The snake looked from one to the other with an odd expression on his reptilian face; the tip of his tail curled a little, his fingers flexing around that length of crystal. “I… will think,” he said out loud.

“At least don’t leave until Varyn gets back,” Tasven pressed. “I’m sure he’ll have good words for you as well, and wouldn’t want to miss you entirely.”

“Thinking on the likes of what you say will take at least that long,” Ssithros granted, and gestured farther into the cave. ::Come; there is still much to look through, and bandits may well claim what we do not retrieve before any others can.::

As it happened, the decision of what to take and what to abandon was easier than they thought – mostly because Kob located a pen where a trio of burden-lizards were being held. With the extra carrying capacity, all they really needed to leave behind was bulk goods – grain and the like. Two of the lizards were fully laden, and the third lightly so, by the other things they recovered – weapons, cloth, oils, spices, perfumes, even a few carefully-made cases of rough gems stamped with Jewellers’ Guild insignia.

“Even if all the rest is gone or spoilt by the time it can be recovered,” Kob observed, adjusting the load on the third lizard, “we’ve enough here that the finder’s tithe alone will give us a good purse. The things these scaly fiends brought with them – that doesn’t include you, you’ve proven that,” he said in an apologetic aside to Ssithros, who tipped his head in bland acknowledgement, “will add to it nicely.”

“You deserve a fair share of that bounty yourself,” said Varyn, regarding the yuan-ti intently. “We’d not have been able to do more than scout if we hadn’t had your help, I think that’s plain. And good deeds deserve recognition, not… obscurity and a life in hiding.”

::Better a life in hiding than a life below.::

“And would you truly be content with that?” the wolf challenged. “Always running, always hiding, always under the threat of being hunted down? Never known as anything but a monster? Never knowing companionship?”

Up until the last point, Ssithros hardly seemed to even notice the words being said. When Varyn said “companionship”, though, the yuan-ti hesitated.

Varyn seized on that hesitation. “You’ve seen the manner of things we can accomplish if we work together. That alone is a good reason not to shun company. But that’s only a small part of it – the satisfaction, the good-feeling, that comes from having close companions is so much greater than merely what tasks they can help accomplish.”

The yuan-ti looked from one of them to the other, and then the third. It was hard to be sure, but Tasven thought he saw confusion on those serpentine features. ::What do you gain from this?::                  There was no accusation in the thought – maybe a touch of suspicion, but it was the automatic sort that came from a lifetime raised in treachery and ruthless self-interest, almost lost amid the puzzlement.

The wolf bristled. “A good deed can                  be its own reward – ”

“Gently, Varyn,” Tasven urged, touching the cleric’s shoulder. To Ssithros, he said, “He’s right, though. Satisfaction’s part of it. And, well, I suppose I’d like the chance to benefit from that companionship. Maybe just as we did today… maybe not.” Though he wasn’t entirely sure how anything closer would work,                  with that serpentine body, he wasn’t against finding out…

“Besides,” Kob added, “even if it’s not your path or however you put it, I’m sure I’ll be in need of some                  advice and instruction from time to time. And you know more about this,” he flicked his hand, and the psychic blade flickered into existence, “than anyone else around here.”

Relaxing somewhat, Varyn nodded, and even offered a smile. “And I suppose there’s some more… personal curiosity, too. You are                  different… but one of the reasons we get along,” he gestured to himself and his companions, “is that for us, that’s not always a bad thing.”

A few contemplative moments passed.

“At least come with us to Sharktooth Bay,” Kob urged. “We can make sure there’s no problems there, and if their reaction really is too much, you’ll know for sure. But,” and he went on in a tone of grim approval, “you’re the one with trophies, anyway. That should go some way to proving your good faith.”

“Very well,” Ssithros granted, out loud and somewhat hesitantly. Yet, as he turned back to the task of securing some of the loot, he seemed… curious?

The trip back took a fair bit of time. First, they doubled back to the cave Ssithros had inhabited, picking up most of the valuable things he’d stashed there, along with one small cask of wine. By that point, it was late enough in the day that they decided to spend the night. The lot of them were weary enough to have no wish for sex; still, when Tasven roused in the middle of the night to find Kob, just getting off watch, sliding into his bedroll with him, he didn’t complain, and slept the rest of the way through the night with the cheetah comfortably curled in front of him.

The morning brought with it sunshine, though everything was still wet enough to make the start of their journey rather muggy. Kob thrived in it, weaving his way through the trees with just a light vest on his upper half, singing softly to himself as he handled the lead-line of one of the beasts; Ssithros, while not so visibly pleased by the conditions, seemed to have no trouble with them either. Varyn, on the other hand… he was obviously trying not to show it, but before they’d gone half an hour Tasven slipped the enchanted ring off his finger and handed it to the wolf. He at least shed heat fairly easily; Varyn didn’t have that advantage.

“I’ve endured worse,” said the wolf, slightly nonplussed; but he slipped the ring on with a smile nevertheless. “Just before reaching Sharktooth, even.”

“We hadn’t just fought a battle, then,” Tasven pointed out.

Still smiling, Varyn nodded and fell silent.

By noon they’d reached the glimmering, blessed trees of the Brightwood proper, and again, the going was suddenly easier; fewer roots in their path, fewer brambles catching at their fur and clothes, tree branches that seemed quite willing to be held out of the way with only a gentle touch – it was even more dramatic than it had been on their outward journey. Ssithros was the only one of them still having any difficulty, and the only one of them who didn’t greatly relax as the shining dust settled over them.

“The forest doesn’t like you,” Varyn observed when they stopped for food, some hours later. “It’s letting us pass almost like there’s a druid looking over us, but…”

::The wood knows those who did it harm, and I am kin to them,:: the yuan-ti replied with a shrug. ::If it does not aid my passage, at least it does not particularly hinder it, either.::

There was that; they hadn’t been molested by any forest beasts, and it wasn’t like the trees were actively barring the snake’s passage. They just weren’t opening up for him, either.

“If it knows those who hurt it,” mused Kob, reaching up to grab a cluster of hanging fruit, “it should know those who helped it, too. And we wouldn’t have managed this without you.”

::Who can say who watches over this wood? Perhaps there is a druid, or a circle of them. Perhaps fey creatures call this land home. Perhaps there are wild spirits, or perhaps the eye of a wild god is on this place. Perhaps it is otherwise still. We will be on our way soon enough; there is no need to take the time to learn what manner of appeal would be needed to gain favour here, much less to carry it out.::

“Nevertheless, we won’t be out of here by nightfall,” Varyn noted, “and this is as good a place as any to make camp. There’s stones here, a good place to make a small fire that won’t spread, and good, flat ground.” He slid his pack off his shoulder. “There’s no need to rush on, just to look for another campsite when it gets darker; let’s just set up here for the night.”

::That is sensible,:: Ssithros replied, and moved to tend to the pack-lizards.

“Will this still work the same as it did before?” Kob wondered aloud, before the yuan-ti had got more than a few yards off, and held up one of the luscious fruit on his fingertips. “I mean, in some ways, I’m… not quite the same person as I was when we first came through here.”

::Your talents expend no supernatural force, only the raw energy of living things. That, you should find replenished in great measure by the infusion of power. What you do with it is a matter of instinct, though with the rudimentary instruction you have been given, you may find yourself able to steer its course.::

“Fruit’s all to the good,” said Varyn around a mouthful of some, “but I do look forward to a good, hot meal in town. Fresh fish isn’t something I get very often!”

“Trust me,” Kob laughed over his shoulder as he swept some ground clear, “you’ll be sick of it by the time the storms ebb.”

Tasven set his pack down by that little clearing and hauled the tent out of it, reflecting, not for the first nor the last time, that the money he’d put into that pack was some of the best money he’d ever spent. The bundle of canvas and spell-treated wood was longer than the pack was deep, and its weight was considerable, yet he could bear it with ease, and never needed to worry about fussing with straps just to get the thing packed or unpacked.

Working together, the trio got the tent up in short order. Tasven took his turn with the mallet, staking the guy wires, while Varyn gathered some deadwood for a campfire; Kob, his vest abandoned in deference to the summer heat now that he didn’t need it to turn away branches, went to help with the lizards.

That must not have taken very long; by the time Tasven worked his way around the tent, Varyn was nursing a small fire and had a kettle sitting by it, and Ssithros was standing some little ways off, head cocked, looking up into the trees.

What he was looking at was easy enough. Kob had finished with his tasks, reclaimed the bunch of fruit, and left his clothes draped over his pack; now he was lying along a sturdy bough as though it was a fine couch, feeding himself his fresh-picked meal. Apparently some things about the fruit hadn’t changed, because even from the ground, it was obvious that his loincloth wasn’t much use.

Tasven turned his attention back to the yuan-ti, trying to decipher those reptilian features. The snake barely seemed to notice him approach – just a slight tip of the head to acknowledge his presence.

Yet even if the specifics of his expression were unreadable, the way his gaze stayed on the lounging cheetah seemed… wistful, maybe?

“You want some of that?” Tasven murmured, resting a hand on his shoulder. “That relaxed ease, that good humour, that… vitality? It could be yours, you know.”

The yuan-ti stiffened under his touch, looking down at Tasven’s hand as though expecting it to turn into a sn- a spider or something, and bite him. But he didn’t pull away; after a moment, he brought his own hand up, touching Tasven’s fingers, and turned his gaze back upwards with a sigh. ::Do you mean for myself, or some measure of his?::

Hmm. He hadn’t thought of it the first way, but… “Maybe both,” Tasven replied. “Which would you most enjoy?”

Now the snake stared at him. ::The thought of sharing your lover with someone else doesn’t trouble you at all?::

“Why should it?” Tasven challenged. “I don’t own him, nor he me. We enjoy each other where and when we can. Yes, we’re fond of each other, too. And I think I’m closer to him than I am to Varyn. But all of us have enjoyed ourselves with others. Some of them have been mutual acquaintances, even mutual playmates, and some have not. But we still keep coming back to each other. Maybe because we’ve saved each others’ hides so often we’ve all lost count – we know we can rely on each other, especially if we’re all together to help stay alive.” He shrugged. “He likes to experience new things, and new people. Why should I object? I’m even more that way myself.”

Nonplussed – and Tasven marvelled briefly that he could read that – Ssithros looked back up at the cat, who was currently turning another, yet-unbitten fruit in his fingers. “If he’d been born in a wilder place,” Ssithros said aloud, “he might have become a formidable druid. He is very nearly a force of nature as it is.”

“I don’t know.” Tasven shook his head. “I don’t think he’d do well being tied to anything, even the land. It’d just be a chain for him.” The weasel shook his head. “I’m too fond of wandering myself to wish that on him.”

The yuan-ti’s hand shifted slightly atop Tasven’s. “There must be better uses for a chain than that.”

You’re not chained anymore,” Tasven pointed out. “Maybe you should get used to that thought?”

There were a few moments of thoughtful silence before Ssithros produced, “Perhaps you have the right of it.”

“And maybe the forest doesn’t like you because you’re still pulling your past with you. Let it go. Find out who you can be without it – or at least, without the unpleasant parts of it.”

“Are you offering to assist with that, then?” The yuan-ti’s voice was dry by nature, but now it sounded especially so.

“Would it be such a bad thing if I was?” Tasven challenged.

There was another of those contemplative silences. Then, “I suppose not…”

“Join me for the night, then,” the sorcerer invited. “Or go to him,” his free hand gestured up toward the lounging cheetah, “and ask for his company; I’m sure he’d accept yours. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Any of us could and would help you get started on those.”

A soft huff of breath. ::It is likely that “or” is the correct word. I doubt I would be able to adapt to such a complicated situation so quickly.:: The good humour accompanying the thought was as good as a soft chuckle.

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Tasven agreed, “not that I’d have complained.” But at least it didn’t seem like Ssithros was instantly going to choose “neither” – and even if, in the end, he did so, it’d be for his own reasons and after consideration, not just out of reflex…

A tilt of the yuan-ti’s head caught Tasven’s eye – glancing upward again, at that low bough where Kob was biting into another of the fruit. Even from the ground, it was all too easy to see the bare flesh that was pushing aside his loincloth; he wasn’t currently doing anything with it, with a single fruit in one hand and the bunch in the other, but it was undeniably present.

Still, that seemed to be an answer of sorts. “Go on,” Tasven urged, squeezing the snake’s shoulder. “He’s a good sort – and the only thing about him that I could see being intimidating, here, is his energy.” The weasel smirked. “Especially with a few of those in his stomach. But no doubt you’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore, however much – or little – you see fit.”

Somewhat unexpectedly, Ssithros squeezed his hand in turn. ::What of yourself?::

“Honestly, at the moment I think I’m more plainly hungry,” Tasven chuckled. “After that… well, if Varyn isn’t up for company, I can take care of myself.” He’d done so often enough, after all, on nights when he hadn’t been with the other two – or they’d been otherwise occupied. He released the other’s shoulder, and started to turn, only for a thought to occur to him. “If you find it to your liking, though…” He grinned over his shoulder. “I do find myself curious about what it’s like, getting some measure of a lover’s actual thoughts and feelings.”

The yuan-ti’s gaze was as inscrutable as ever, now. Tasven dipped his head in acknowledgement, and then headed for the campfire. He heard scales sliding against leaves behind him, but carefully did not look back; and then the breeze, gentle though it was, was carrying such sounds away from him.

Varyn looked up as Tasven sat opposite the little fire from him. “Oh, good evening,” he said with a soft smile. “Here I thought you might be enjoying some company – Kob certainly looked to be getting in the mood.”

It was, Tasven felt, a bit early yet to say “evening”, but maybe it was a bit late to say “afternoon” still; whatever time of day it was, he let the remark stand and put such tiny quibbles out of his mind. “I think – I hope, honestly – company found more of itself.”

“Oh, really?” Varyn laughed softly. “I wasn’t sure he’d come around – certainly not this soon.”

“It is a little fast,” Tasven granted. “But I guess knowing his own mind is his trade, isn’t it?” He nodded down at the small pot heating over the flames. “Not going to gorge yourself on fruit this time through, hm?”

“No, I’m still not quite sure that’s a wise course… even if it’d be a pleasant way to go.” The wolf grinned for a moment. “All the same, hunting wouldn’t feel right, here… but we’ve provisions enough; it’s only another day’s travel back to Sharktooth Bay, after all.”

“Do you not want any of the things, then?” Tasven enquired, tilting his head. “Going to stay with that bland old stuff?”

“Well, now…” Varyn’s gaze swept over him. “Let’s not be hasty. A couple for flavour wouldn’t do us harm, I’m sure.”

“Dessert?” was the weasel’s suggestion.

The cleric’s grin made a reappearance. “Not a bad thought, that. Plotting, are you?”

“Perhaps,” laughed Tasven, “but nothing concrete quite yet. Tonight, I promise you, when I know what I have in mind, so shall you.”

For the time being, they ate. Preserved trail-rations or no, boiling and spices brought some life back into them; it didn’t hurt that they ate with Tasven perched on Varyn’s thigh, the smaller male leaning back against the bigger, enjoying the contact, the closeness, the company.

The tent was still unoccupied once they’d tidied up after their meal, neither of the other two in evidence; Tasven spent an idle moment, as he plucked a few fruit, wondering just what they might be getting up to. But he didn’t speculate too much, not least because, of course, he had his own company to attend to.

Company that had stripped down to the fur while he fetched their dessert; and while that fur and the way he was sitting sufficed to keep Varyn modest for the moment, it still brought a thrill of anticipation to see. Anticipation, and maybe a bit of inspiration… “Think part of you could use a warm home for the night?” he murmured as he loosened his clothing. “Or are you all over too much overheated for that?”

Varyn chuckled, lifting his hand and wiggling his fingers so Tasven’s own ring glittered back at him. “You’ve seen to it that I’ll manage, of course. Feeling ambitious, are you?”

“Maybe so. Here and now, with these to aid us,” Tasven passed the fruit from one hand to the other and continued wriggling out of his shirt, “is certainly a good place for it.”

“Though it might introduce hazards of its own,” Varyn rumbled, but he grinned, tail thumping against the bedroll. He leaned over, helping himself to Tasven’s pack and reaching into one of the side pockets for a vial.

Thinking of that vial and how it was to be applied, Tasven shivered.

By the time he finished stripping down, Varyn’s interest was already starting to show, shocking red against his white pelt. The weasel knelt between the wolf’s knees, curling his fingers around that growing handful of flesh, thumb sliding over the flat, slanted end of it, and Varyn gathered him into a kiss with a deep groan.

When that kiss broke, Varyn tilted his muzzle up, sighing over Tasven’s ears. “And how much energy will you need of me today, dear one?” he breathed. Though his tone was light and fond, there was a weariness lurking under it, one Tasven could well understand.

“It’s been a busy several days,” Tasven murmured over the wolf’s jaw. “Busy and dangerous. Just to be close to you, close as can be – that’s all I need. We don’t always need to get each other sticky.”

The wolf let out a rumbling chuckle. “There is that, and that plan suits me well, also.”

“Then c’mere, you,” Tasven breathed, drawing his head back, fingers gliding along that growing, extending pole. His other hand shifted as well, small fingers tucking one of the fruit he’d plucked against his palm, the other one held up to Varyn’s muzzle. The wolf closed his eyes and lapped at it a few times, his broad tongue washing over Tasven’s fingertips in the process, before easing forward to pierce the dark rind with his incisors. He was careful about it, as was Tasven; not a drop of the sweet juice escaped Varyn’s muzzle, not from that first nibble, nor as he went on to devour the rest.

By the time he’d finished, his full length was standing proud over his belly, the swell at its base just barely starting to show. He lapped at Tasven’s fingers with a soft, contented sigh, whether from the food or the fondling or something else entirely, even as he uncapped the vial and tipped it in the path of the weasel’s continued stroking; soon as the oil had spread over his flesh, though, he nudged Tasven’s hand aside. One hand cupped under the weasel’s rear, guiding him in close; the other tugged the remaining fruit from Tasven’s palm to feed him in kind.

The fruit was close enough to intoxicating just being eaten on its own; to have it fed to him like that… Tasven shivered hard. Every delicious note in that complex flavour seemed to be heightened, as did every sensation of the wolf’s presence – the strength in his fingers against Tasven’s rear, the heavy sound of his breaths, the heady smell of his arousal. Tasven ate up his offered snack, and even as he did, he leaned on the wolf’s shoulder with one hand, and reached down under himself with the other, steadying Varyn’s length, guiding himself toward it.

It started easy; so it always did – the wolf’s manhood came quite near to a point, after all. It pressed into him without difficulty, and spread him open much more gradually than most. Oh, there was a good deal of spreading to do – but here and now, that only seemed for the best. And though he certainly felt that stretch by the time the wolf’s shaft proper started sliding into him, there was not, this time, anything remotely uncomfortable about it.

Inch by inch that hot pole plunged into him. He shuddered, both hands clutching at Varyn’s shoulders now, and he felt and heard a ragged moan slip from his own throat without even passing through his mind. Gods, it had been a while since he’d felt the wolf like this. The heft of that flesh made it impossible to ignore or deny; every moment of its presence was a reminder that here with him was a dear lover.

The ache of that fullness was exquisite. Even when he felt the larger swell of the wolf’s incipient knot under him, and Varyn’s hands tensed under his rump – partly in reflex, partly to keep him from accidentally sliding onto it – all he wanted was more.

He opened his eyes, sliding one hand in behind Varyn’s neck. “Let it happen,” he breathed over the wolf’s muzzle. Varyn met his gaze, panting past his muzzle in turn, and complied without argument: his hands relaxed, following Tasven’s body as gravity pulled him down farther still.

It was the sort of decision that was best to make early; no matter how lust-addled he got, it would not be practical to try to take the wolf’s knot into him once it had grown. But now, while it was still little more than a suggestion… a bit more of a stretch, a moment of squirming, and it was done; his companion was as close to him as they could possibly be.

And he certainly wasn’t unaffected by that moment of motion; Varyn groaned and shuddered, one arm sliding up around Tasven’s shoulders, squeezing him close, and his snout tucked in against the side of the weasel’s neck. Each heavy beat of his heart inflated his knot a little more, locking them well and truly together – and there was another rhythm, a stirring of that heavy shaft, a regular, upwards jerk.

“I think,” Tasven purred, “some part of you isn’t going to be content to just sit there…”

“Don’t think I don’t feel you rigid against my stomach,” was the wolf’s husky, if somewhat muffled, reply. “Guess we didn’t contend with those little morsels. Still… there’s no need to be vigorous, is there?” He lapped up and along Tasven’s jaw.

“No,” the weasel sighed, “there isn’t.”

And so Varyn lay back, and Tasven sat astride him, hands spread over the wolf’s broad chest. They didn’t do much – just a subtle rocking against one another – but it was enough to keep Varyn’s tension surging ever higher, and anticipation sent an answering tingle through Tasven, arcing down his spine and collecting in his balls.

It was a steady, inevitable progression, though there was enough uncertainty about the details that it was still a delicious surprise when Varyn’s chin jerked up, eyes squeezing shut, a low groan sliding out of him. His shaft bucked under Tasven’s tail, and then liquid heat was pumping into him – jet after copious jet of it.

Gods. It felt like the stuff was going to overflow him and come out the other end – and all he wanted was more, and the wolf kept obliging him, shivering under him in the longest, most drawn-out, and by far the most productive climax Tasven had ever felt from him. The weasel relished every breath, every jerk of that massive organ, every squirt of warm seed – and then, as though he really had been overfilled, something snapped inside him, a spike of ecstasy filling his being.

His own manhood, untended save by the gentle brush of Varyn’s fur against its underside, came to life now, surging upwards in an echo of that pleasure. Time slowed as the first burst of seed rushed down his length and left him – a long, arcing gout of it, tumbling through the air, gleaming like a string of pearls, sailing past Varyn’s head, spattering against the tent’s wall. The shot that followed was scarcely less vigorous. A dozen times his seed issued forth, glowing with wild magic, before it was even weak enough to start landing on Varyn in any quantity; and a dozen more before the storm of bliss finally began to ebb.

At length he was drained, gasping for breath as he crouched over the wolf, dizzy, almost delirious in the wake of his climax. Varyn, with his head start, had had enough time to settle into the afterglow that he was stroking along Tasven’s arms, and now lifted one hand to cup against his cheek. “Maybe, dear one,” he breathed, smiling up at the weasel, “we should have done this outside.”

Glancing up at the mess he’d made – a mess that it shouldn’t be physically possible to make – Tasven had to laugh. “No mundane means will clean that up,” he observed. “And I’d not want to be far enough apart to do so, anyway.”

And it was beyond the scope of a single prestidigitation, at that. Full of energy and vitality as he was, though, working a trio of cantrips – one to clean up the tent, one to get the mess out of Varyn’s pelt, and the last, subtly applied, to ease some of the pressure he felt inside – didn’t feel like a great thing.

Afterwards, he let himself sink down onto Varyn’s chest, the wolf’s shaft still locked tight inside him, and the bigger man’s arms settled over him, a warm breath wafting over his ears. “I thought it was supposed to be Kob that was enhanced to that degree,” Varyn mused, a soft chuckle lurking in his tone but not quite coming to the surface on its own.

Thinking a few days back, Tasven let his own chuckle free. “Believe you me, that wasn’t nearly the measure of what he fed me. This was a mess; that was a meal.

“Well, there’s a power in those little morsels, to be sure…” Varyn’s claws scratched gently behind Tasven’s ear. “From me to you, hmm? You certainly produced enough for us both!”

“Something like that.” It wasn’t really important. The pleasure they’d shared had been intense, and that, to be sure, had been a very fine thing. Now, though… now, after that unexpected diversion, Tasven lay atop his larger partner, the reassuring bulk of the wolf’s body under him, the doubly-reassuring warmth and heft of the wolf’s shaft snug inside him. Situated like that, and with Varyn’s arms around him in a gentle embrace, their closeness was undeniable, omnipresent.

And so he drifted off to sleep.


::I have some doubts about this course. They will not be pleased to see me.::

If not for one thing, Tasven would have contradicted that. But as he looked at the looming walls of Sharktooth Bay, one complication did come to mind: that one survivor’s talk of snake-demons. With words like those being thrown around, the yuan-ti had a point. Nevertheless…

“We’ll vouch for you,” Kob assured him, reaching over to squeeze the serpent’s arm. “You might be best off not going anywhere without us, it’s true, not until things have had time to settle down – but we’re not going to stand by and let them think you’re an enemy.”

::The reavers would not have come here were it not in pursuit of me,:: Ssithros pointed out.

“The refugee is not to blame for his pursuers’ actions,” was Varyn’s stern contribution. “You may have triggered it, but you weren’t raiding caravans, and as soon as you had an opportunity, you put a stop to it. Measure yourself by your own deeds, not by the fact that you were hunted. Help put things right if you still think you owe more, but don’t go thinking it’s your actual fault.”

“Just stay with us,” soothed Kob. “We’ll smooth things over for you.”

Ssithros gave the cheetah’s hand a squeeze and tipped his head in silent acknowledgement.

Tasven noted that gesture, then turned his eyes, if not his thoughts, to the city. Whatever had passed between the two, he didn’t know and wasn’t about to ask; but while Ssithros did tense under personal contact, it seemed, at least from a distance, that he didn’t do so as much as he had at first. Kob had been in good spirits all day, and so far as the weasel could tell, the yuan-ti had been doing well enough until getting in sight of the city.

Hopefully that all spelled a satisfactory evening, of whatever sort. Tasven wasn’t above a good-natured prank now and then, but when he gave earnest advice to a companion, he wasn’t the sort to find enjoyment in that advice turning out wrong.

But that wasn’t going to matter for getting them into the city unopposed.

“One thing,” he said, turning his gaze back to Ssithros. “While there are other people around, try to speak out loud. We’re used to unusual things happening, but many city-folk might be less flexible, and you’re going to look different enough to them as it is.”

“Good point. Many of these are simple people,” Kob agreed – not with condescension, but as a statement of fact. “But when something happens that doesn’t fit in those simple lives, they get superstitious, and the town’s already heard some whispers of ‘snake-demons’ – if that’s spread any further, we’ll have to be careful, but we can pull this off. One of my old contacts is still well-placed in the city guard; she told me to drop her name if we came back with any of the lost goods.” Now he grinned. “A good woman, and everyone knows she’d never betray her principles – but where success is concerned, she’s not as rigid as some. And she can help reassure people.”

Varyn cocked his head and drew a breath, perhaps about to ask what manner of person could command that level of respect, but Kob’s lifted hand and a jerk of the cheetah’s head toward the now-nearby gate cut him off. As the guards looked over the laden pack-lizards with trepidation that was visibly rising to suspicion, Kob advanced to greet them.

“Good news for the city,” he said without preamble. “The bandits that have been plaguing the roads have lost their sponsor. Anyone that’s left should be no harder to deal with than the usual brigands, and not nearly so organized as they have been.” He gestured over his shoulder. “I need a message sent to Kalinda, so she can help get what we’ve recovered back where it belongs.”

The fox on the left mulled that over, and so far as Tasven could tell, seemed inclined to believe it – it wasn’t as though Kob had said he wanted to just sell the stuff. The tiger on the right, though, already the more anxious of the pair, stiffened as he saw the rest of the party. One hand tensed around the shaft of his pike; the other lifted free, trembling, and pointed. “You’re coming back with that? How – how do we know you weren’t helping them all along? How do we know this isn’t just a ruse?”

Kob followed that pointing finger. So did Tasven; Ssithros stood in place, his expression even more blank than usual. “If you want us to present more proof than just the wares that the responsible parties are dead, I believe he’s the best man to ask,” Kob replied.

“What kind of a fool do you take me for?” the tiger shot back. “Serpent-demons, that poor driver said – and might have got laughed out of town for it if the attacks hadn’t been so bad. Nobody believed him! And now you come back with that, and we’re supposed to just let you in? To take it on your bare word that it isn’t one of those same demons after all?”

“There were wolves and foxes and, yes, even a tiger among the bandits that tried to fight us,” said Kob, and now his voice bore a razor edge. “But I’m not blaming you for that.”

“The likes of that don’t live around here,” the tiger growled, shifting his grip on his pike. “None of you is getting through this gate, not…”

“Stand down, Corporal,” a new voice cut in.

Stern, long-accustomed to command, the voice was nevertheless unmistakeably feminine. It wasn’t the sort of soft, beautiful voice that filled bards’ tales; no, it was far too utilitarian for that.

Its owner was another matter.

The fox who’d been at the other side of the gate had apparently gone through it while the tiger was arguing; now he was jogging back to his place, and in his wake came this woman. A badger – not very tall; Tasven himself was head and shoulders over her, but she had the sturdy, stocky build typical of the race. Her fur was neat and shone with good health; her dark brown eyes had a compelling gleam to them; her chain mail shone bright in the daylight, and over it was a bright yellow surcoat. Under the martial demeanour, though, there was a certain beauty to her, though Tasven couldn’t quite identify what of her qualities gave rise to it.

Not that there was much time to appreciate it, with the fire in her eyes and the ferocity on her face.

The tiger whirled, and, seeing her, lurched back against the frame of the gate. “Mistress Kalinda,” he blurted.

Her authority recognized, the woman continued past him, standing before Kob in a pose Tasven had seen in Varyn – that of someone well-accustomed to wearing heavy armour for a long time. She looked at him, at Varyn, at the train of lizards; her brows lifted as she considered Ssithros, but she didn’t comment, didn’t give any indication what that brow-rise meant.

Then she said, “I understand you wish to return what’s been stolen from us, Kob.”

The cheetah nodded sharply. “That’s right.”

“Then we can discuss the matter on the way to the Upper Guardhouse.” Turning, she gestured the gate guards out of the way. The fox’s expression was blank as he leaned back against the frame and pulled his pike in close; the tiger was visibly flummoxed, but also complied; and the little train got back into motion.

“Your news is timely,” Kalinda said as she walked. “We’d started to make plans for the city’s priests and clerics to conjure enough food to get us through storm season, but even dipping all too deep into our stores, that would have left all too few of them to tend to disease and injury and all the other things we need them to do. But if we can get a few caravans through before the ships are land-locked, we can see that food keeps coming in.” She looked over at Kob. “Lance-Corporal Faran said you’d dealt with those responsible?”

“Permanently, Kalinda.” Kob’s voice was grim. “There may still be some bandits and highwaymen out there, but they’re not being organized to ruin us and they won’t have their supernatural support.”

“We’ll be sure to send the first few caravans under heavy guard, to be safe,” Kalinda replied, then gestured over her shoulder. “What of your… guest, then? A prisoner of theirs?”

“Not exactly,” said Kob, and beckoned the yuan-ti forward. “This is Ssithros, Kalinda. He was… hunted by a cleric of Merrshaulk and her retinue. Apparently, while they were here searching, they decided to do as much harm as they could.”

By this point, they’d attracted quite a crowd of onlookers; now, before Kalinda could usher the party into the guardhouse yard, someone called out, “It’s all because of him!”

Angry murmurs swept around the crowd. Tasven swallowed and stood up a bit straighter, hands flexing for a tight grip on the punch-daggers that were not, in fact, in their grasp. Varyn took a breath.

Then, as the murmurs started to rise to a collective shout, Kalinda stepped forward, placing herself between Ssithros and the mob, and declaimed a single word: “Enough.

Surprisingly, it cut through the din. The mob that had been massing to surge forward now milled about in confusion, their voices trailing into uncertain silence.

“To be hunted by evil,” Kalinda went on, her sharp gaze sweeping the crowd, “is not itself proof of evil in turn. Far from it. And however unusual the form he wears,” here she reached out to grasp Ssithros’s arm, not being tall enough to readily clap a hand on his shoulder; the yuan-ti stiffened and looked over at her, but neither objected nor pulled away as she continued, “he doesn’t have a black heart.” Her voice sank to a dangerous rumble as she went on, “Some of you wouldn’t want to meet my gaze on your own.”

At this show of support – not spoken as a hypothesis or even a conviction, but as bare fact – Ssithros blinked, head tilting; and then he actually relaxed somewhat.

In the stunned silence that followed, Kalinda turned back to Kob. “Aside from the bounty you came back with, do you have evidence that the ringleaders have been dealt with?”

Kob gestured to toss that query over to Ssithros; the yuan-ti reached into one of the pockets sewn onto his vest. Apparently he’d found time to drill holes through the fangs of the fallen band of yuan-ti, and had threaded them onto a leather thong. The lot of them rattled against each other as he held it up.

Kalinda’s muzzle quirked. “Huh. Well, as trophies go, I suppose it’s less grisly than ears. Or entire heads.” She waved at the gate to the yard. “Get your beasts on in there. We’ll do an accounting and see to the arrangements for your compensation, though I suspect there won’t be enough on hand here to pay it out.” One leather-armoured guard rushed to pull the gate open; Kalinda herself stood in place, between the party and the onlookers, following them through only when the last lizard was in the yard. “Clear off with you, now,” she called to the crowd. “Spread the news that better times are ahead.”

As the crowd began to disperse on the other side of the yard fence, Kalinda instructed the adventurers to start unloading their beasts and vanished inside. Turning to comply, Varyn asked Kob, “What manner of person can command that much attention and respect alone?”

“Kalinda,” explained Kob, turning to another of the lizards, “is a paladin of Lystara.”

Varyn stiffened. “A paladin?

Tasven swallowed, rather understanding the wolf’s dismay. That sort weren’t exactly known for being very flexible on the notions of good and evil. If Ssithros had had a little too much selfishness in him, and a paladin’s divine senses had read that as evil…

“Of Lystara,” Kob repeated with emphasis. “Goddess of prosperity and mercy, remember. She’d rather redeem an evil life than end it, if she sees a viable chance to do so. Otherwise she wouldn’t be able to work very well with the guard in a place like this. You heard her – even that crowd of everyday people had some nasty characters in it.” He shrugged. “What’s wanting to stay alive, in the face of all the petty, underhanded, spiteful venom that a big-city crowd can give rise to? Nothing. You may have been raised to be evil,” this, of course, to Ssithros directly, “but luckily for all of us, they didn’t know the value of what they had, so they didn’t try hard enough.” He smirked.

Ssithros took a deep breath, and, as he let it out, reached over to squeeze Kob’s shoulder. “Thank you.” It was, Tasven realized, the first he’d spoken since coming in sight of the city.

“’s no less than you deserve,” Kob murmured, nuzzling at those fingers. “C’mon; we’d best get everything unloaded. Just put what didn’t come from the city off to one side.”

That was their own gear, such as they weren’t already wearing – though Tasven dropped his pack there for good measure, and Drevin gratefully curled up atop it for a nap – and a collection of stuff that Ssithros had amassed; it didn’t take long to set all that aside, and then they all got to work unloading and sorting the rest.

They’d just about finished when Kalinda returned, with a slender, sharp-eyed wolf lady and a stout, almost corpulent roe buck in toe. The wolf, it turned out, was a senior official at the Office of the Exchequer; the buck, one of the city’s wizards. Alas that it wasn’t Perri – though perhaps, on second thought, the lack of such a distraction was just as well. This one wasn’t nearly so pleasing to the eye, but he wasn’t ugly; and though his frame and his flashy dress had Tasven half-expecting the worst sort of blustery merchant, he turned out to be soft-spoken and shrewd. As Kalinda spoke to Kob about the events of the last several days, the official stayed silent, but the wizard cut in with a few requests for clarification.

Only toward the end, around Kob’s description of finding the burden-lizards and sorting through the loot, did the official speak up: “You say there were some things you had to leave behind. Was there, by chance, food?”

“Some,” Kob replied. “More than we could carry. But I don’t think there was enough to make much of a difference to the city. If I were to guess, I’d say they kept some for themselves and burned the rest.”

“Damnation. Well, we’ll send a cadre of guards out to look and recover anything that’s still there,” Kalinda said. “Even if bandits have raided the camp, if we can at least apprehend a few more of them in the process, it’ll be time well-spent. Carry on.”

Once the narration was finished and apparently to everyone’s satisfaction, those three inspectors looked over the loot with care, assessing the recovered merchandise and even asking shrewd questions about the things the adventurers had gathered themselves. Ssithros gave terse answers as to where he’d found the things in question; the wolf, having claimed the top of a crate as an impromptu desk, made some more notes. A brief conference ensued; looking at the bottom of that improvised ledger, Kalinda’s brows rose again.

“I was right,” she said. “Even deducting a tax for goods found within the city’s lands, the finder’s fee for this mess is well in excess of my purse, the guard’s discretionary fund, and the Arcanists’ ready cash. Of course, most of that’s taken up in their own bounty.”

“We could offer credit,” the wizard supplied. “The Guild of Arcanists is willing to extend a generous letter of credit, with a one-third bonus for anything you forgo of our bounty in coin.”

“Good for enchanted items?” Kob asked.

The buck smiled. “I hadn’t assumed such as yourselves would be staying in the city long enough to have that many spells cast, nor that you’d stock up on that many consumables. So, yes, of course.”

“Even new commissions?”

“Certainly.” The wizard gestured to one small portion of the loot, that which had apparently been coming to the city for his Guild’s use to begin with. “With all that finally in our hands, we’re better positioned to start such projects than we were. You’ve certainly earned priority on new works.”

“Paying some of it in credit will certainly help spread the burden over time,” the Exchequer official said with a nod.

“Kob, you’re staying with Charissa, isn’t that so?” At the cheetah’s nod, Kalinda went on, “I’ll make arrangements with her, then, for your room and board to be billed to me. Captain Shazanna might be willing to sign for it, but I’ll not decide that on her behalf, nor make you wait for her to be available.

“Of course, we don’t expect you to be paid solely in gratitude. On my name, and in advance of more detailed arrangements, I can authorize a reward of a hundred platinum stars for services rendered to the Lords of Sharktooth Bay and the preservation of peace in its lands.”

Smiling broadly, Kob bowed. “It needed doing,” he said, “but material thanks do help us stay prepared to do more of it. And give some encouragement. Thank you, Kalinda.”

“Thank you,” the badger said, shaking her head as she wrote a note. “You lot have made my job immeasurably easier, and saved the people of this city from a great deal of pain and hardship.” She took a breath. “Just try not to let your celebrations get out of hand, hm? I haven’t forgotten that Festival.”

“Neither have I,” replied Kob, his tone some mixture of wry and tart. “The friends I go with now don’t get me that drunk.”

“Hmm,” Kalinda uttered, then excused herself.

Expectant, Kob looked over his shoulder at them. It was Varyn who obliged him by asking, “What festival?”

“A legacy of my youth here,” Kob sighed, starting to secure their own possessions back onto the lizard they’d set out with. As the others lent as much help as the space allowed, he went on, “When I still lived here, I was more of a regular temple-goer. The Triumph Festival happens every year; usually it never leaves the Temple of Jakebi, and even within, people get a bit drunk, maybe a bit high, and pair off – more or less – and generally celebrate being alive.

“My eighteenth summer, though, was… a little different.”

He paused to balance the lizard’s burden, frowning; then, reaching for the lead-line, got the little procession in motion as he continued. “I’d already been at the Festival for four years, mind – since I was old enough to know what the faith entailed and truly swear to it, not just go through the motions. Old enough to know my way around my own body. But I’d never had more than a ceremonial mouthful of wine, never anything more than a stray breath of the smoke in the air. Didn’t smoke then, either, but I was old enough to be initiated as a full-fledged lay member of the faith, old enough to have as much wine as I desired.”

He snorted, his expression somewhere between a smirk and a grimace. “Except that the wine was stronger than everyone was used to. It had been a tough year, everyone was glad to get through it in one piece, so nobody felt strange about celebrating harder than normal… but it spilled into the streets. By the time the night was done, not only had I been very much on display as a celebrant, I had, er,” his ears flicked back, “made a rather personal sort of mess on Captain Renthall’s tack. He’d only stopped by to tell us all to tone it down a little… he didn’t really approve of finding three of us in the stableyard. His lizard didn’t seem to mind, but she was an old, placid beast anyway.” He chuckled, shaking his head.

“From the number of hangovers the next day, we were fairly sure someone had spiked the wine with brandy. But since there’d been no real harm done – just those hangovers and a bit of embarrassment – it wasn’t thought worth scrying for an answer.”

For a moment, Tasven was lost in thought about just what Kob and two others had been doing that had stained riding tack. Still on the lizard. And then he was struck by the realization that Kob was several years older than he. It wasn’t that he hadn’t known that already, but knowing it and feeling it were two different beasts altogether…

“This Festival,” the not-quite-familiar voice of Ssithros broke in. “What is it about? From the way you tell it, not the wine. Or the sex.”

“Or the food,” Kob said with a nod, giving the yuan-ti a speculative look. “Though some people only see those three things… It commemorates one of Jakebi’s last battles as a mortal. Everyone said it was hopeless – that he and all his forces were going to be slaughtered.” He shrugged. “So they might have been, except that Jakebi didn’t feel a need to fight like the enemy was expecting him to. In the end, he won. Toppled a tyrant king in the process. But what the people remembered was that they were alive, against all odds, and they wanted to make the most of it. So they set to enjoying themselves.” He chuckled. “Over time, that became the Triumph Festival. Here in Sharktooth Bay, it happens – usually in a much more modest form – after the storm season ends.”

“The weather being the closest thing the city has to a regular enemy,” Varyn concluded.

Kob smirked. “Exactly. A merchant city in a defensible place, but one without that much in the way of its own natural resources… it’s always been more profitable to be a friend and partner to Sharktooth than to try to take it over. War would drive away much of what makes it wealthy.”

“Which,” Ssithros concluded, “leaves it that much more vulnerable to the sort of attack it was lately under.”

“Mmm. They might be a greedy lot, but I don’t think the city’s Lords really understand the notion of an enemy that just wants them broken. Wants what they have, sure. But not to just ruin them for ruin’s own sake.”

“I’m not so sure I’d want to understand such,” Varyn admitted. On that remark a quiet consensus fell.

As they walked, or in one case slithered, Tasven mused on how quickly word must have spread. Ssithros attracted glances, yes, and a few people went so far as to stop and stare, true; but nobody sought to interfere with them in any way. Not after Kalinda’s endorsement.

“Where are we going?” the yuan-ti asked at length.

“The Roosting Gull,” Kob replied. “I have an arrangement with the innkeeper, so – oh, hells.” The cheetah came to an abrupt halt. “I’m sorry if this is a stupid question, but can you manage stairs?”

Oh. Stairs would be troublesome without actual feet, wouldn’t they?

“I’d rather not do so often.” Ssithros always had something of a dry voice, but this time it was especially so. “But so long as they are wide enough or have something to grip, yes.”

“Ah.” Kob resumed walking, but grimaced as he did. “Maybe she can direct us to something a bit more suitable. Gods. I’m sorry, I should have thought of it sooner…”

“I’ve dealt with stairs often enough. I might prefer to get all of a day’s tasks done at once,” Ssithros shrugged, “but it won’t be a great hardship.”

Kob still looked rather repentant, but subsided with a nod.

Charissa accepted Kalinda’s letter of credit with no more than a quick nod, and didn’t even bat an eye at the addition to the party. Whether she was well-informed or just unflappable, it was hard to say. She did note that she’d never served his species before, and asked Ssithros if he had any dietary or other special needs her staff ought to be aware of; when the reply was negative, she nodded and produced her keyring.

On upstairs they went. Ssithros leaned much more heavily on the handrail than any of the others, but his undulating progress was smooth enough; a bit slower than usual, but he otherwise gave no sign of having difficulty.

The extra body did get them assigned a slightly larger room than the one they’d used previously, this one with two beds and still with its own direct exit. Once she had them settled there, Charissa bustled off to do whatever it was she did when she wasn’t personally dealing with her “special” clients.

So businesslike, her; no hero’s welcome to be had here, it seemed. Ah, well; it wasn’t as though he lacked for attention.

Kob slid his pack onto a free spot of floor, then took a breath. “I… should go talk to a few people,” he said. “They’ll want to know what’s happened in detail, rather than through the rumour mill.”

More of Kob’s mysterious contacts, presumably. Tasven nodded; then Varyn said, “To be honest, I’d like to show these fruit to some people at the temples before they lose their potency. Will you two be all right?”

Tasven considered that. He had nothing that really needed doing, nothing that couldn’t wait; and it might be best to not leave Ssithros unaccompanied – to vouch for him, keep others from accosting him, but also to help if he found the unfamiliar city a bit much. He was about to acquiesce when he saw the look the yuan-ti was giving him.

Whatever meaning was behind it, that he still couldn’t decipher, but whatever it was, it was intense.

Then the gaze broke. “I think,” Ssithros declared to nobody in particular , “I will be well enough for the time being.”

Kob glanced from one of them to the other, then gave a crisp nod. “Very good. I might as well take care of some other business, too – probably be a few hours. If you need me sooner than that, ask Charissa; she can probably get a word to me.” Varyn started to draw breath, but the cheetah grabbed his arm. “Come on, you. I can think of a few good places to start with your little mystery, and guide you to them on my way.”

The look on the wolf’s face, just before the door shut on it, was speculative. Tasven didn’t blame him.

“Apparently Kob thinks we should have some privacy, hm?” he said into the ensuing silence.

Ssithros didn’t look his way. “You would know his thoughts better than I, no?”

“I’m not sure of that, these days.” Tasven leaned against the edge of a sturdy desk. “He’s been spending a good deal of time with you since we met – not surprising, in the circumstances, but intense study like that must have given you some chances to get a glimpse of him. And even I have learned more about his past in the last few weeks than ever before that. I’m not saying he’s chosen to confide in you more than in Varyn and myself,” it’d be an insult to Kob and to the bond they shared to make that kind of insinuation, “but you might have more insight into him than you think.”

“Speaking of insight.” The yuan-ti cocked his head. “I’ve often heard sorcerers and wilders dismissed as impulsive hotheads who act first and rarely bother trying to fix it later, but you don’t seem under-endowed with insight yourself.”

Tasven shrugged. “I’ve lived a fairly intense life. I like following impulse, but if I didn’t learn to keep it in check I wouldn’t have lived this long.”

“Impulse,” the snake repeated, a bit of humour creeping into his tone. “Perhaps living on impulse isn’t so foolish as I’ve been led to believe. Those who told me so seem to have been wrong about a great many other things, after all.”

“And what,” Tasven enquired, “does impulse suggest you do next?”

Ssithros drew a deep breath, then fixed Tasven with another intense gaze. “Something,” he said quietly, “about which I’m not certain how to proceed.”

Tasven gazed back into those gold-rimmed eyes. Was it just wishful thinking, or did he see a spark of longing there? “The sort of something I was offering last night?”

Now the gaze broke; the yuan-ti looked aside. ::You have the right of it.:: There was no need to guess anymore; the tone of his thoughts was heavily laden with wistful desire.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious,” Tasven admitted. “You are very different, after all. And not only physically. New things have an allure all their own.” He took a step closer, reaching out to grip his newest companion’s shoulder. “But it’s not just that. We’ve already fought together – you certainly saved my life, very directly. When we’ve had to trust each other like that, I don’t see why we shouldn’t know each other as closely as possible, too.” He couldn’t help but smirk. “In every feasible way. Besides, I enjoy it, and I like getting others to do so, too. Nothing to be ashamed of about it, hm?”

“What you say is true,” Ssithros replied slowly, “but it remains something of which I’ve little knowledge. Especially for its own sake. What physical experience I have had was fleeting, and mostly I could see schemes behind it. Where I couldn’t, perhaps they were there still, or perhaps it was simply a bout of physical pleasure.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t until last night that I could appreciate enjoying someone else’s pleasure for its own sake.”

And that would be Kob’s handiwork. “I didn’t want to pry,” Tasven noted, holding up his hands.

“You’ve not. But your curiosity is palpable all the same. As I gather he would not mind you learning of it, and for the sake of orientation, I will say that he and I… enjoyed each other’s touch. Nothing more than hands in play, but it was…” He trailed off into silence for a moment, and shivered. “Much more satisfying than anything before. I begin to appreciate why you seek the experience… but there is still much I do not know.”

Gods. It’d be almost like being with a virgin – and even if Tasven and his friends didn’t place any particular value in chastity, the first time for anything was special. “I’d be glad to help,” correct, no, “change that,” he said, a grin stealing over his muzzle.

“So I’ve learned, and it seems we have some time to ourselves while your – our – companions are otherwise occupied.” Now those eyes focused on him again, and the reptilian muzzle quirked into an actual smirk. “Perhaps, in specific, you could give me the experience of being the receiving party, hm?”

Tasven took a moment to parse that, and then blinked. “Oh? Not everybody likes it. And I, ah, I think Kob would be an easier introduction…”

A snort. “I’m large of body and have a high tolerance for discomfort. So long as you’re not outright brutal, I should be well able to give warning before any harm is done.”

Large of body… hmm. “I don’t really know how your body’s put together,” Tasven admitted. But he did start loosening laces.

“Beneath the surface, not so differently than anyone else’s,” Ssithros replied, shrugging out of his vest and hanging it off a peg, unwinding his wrap and setting it, too, aside. “A few things are tucked away that in others are above the surface, but the parts are much the same.”

“I guess that’s not completely unfamiliar.” Though, looking over the smooth sweep of colourful scale, Varyn didn’t have that to nearly the yuan-ti’s extent. “I’ll have to coax it into the open, hmm?”

“That should not be too difficult.” The snake slithered closer to him; the way his upper body swayed as he did so was, Tasven admitted, not entirely without appeal. And if his hands, helping to loosen Tasven’s clothing, were neither so deft nor so experienced in the task as, say, Kob’s… well, it was still a bit of a thrill to have that sort of help.

And it did cut down the time it took him to be down to his fur by at least a little bit.

The yuan-ti’s touch was tentative, but continual; once clothes were out of the way, his fingers ran through Tasven’s fur, splayed over his body. And there was a look in his eyes that was clear even through his unfamiliar features – a look that wanted, needed.

Being the object of a look like that was a thing that never lost its thrill.

And unfamiliar though it was, there was some appeal in the smooth, sleek shape before him, too. The scales, for all they looked hard and unyielding, were fine enough to yield under Tasven’s stroking fingers, and their wearer arched into the touch with uncommon fluidity and with a very pleasing sound low in his throat.

His hand, curling around Tasven’s swelling length, felt unusual – smooth scale instead of fur and calloused pads – but every inch a lover’s.

Tasven sent his own fingers roving lower, questing about for the other male’s endowment in turn. It was nigh impossible to tell where the body stopped and the tail began… but then his fingertips found a seam in the scales, and Ssithros writhed against him with a rumbling groan that needed no translation.

Or so he thought. “I think,” the snake hissed over his ear, “you’re farther down than you intended. But that sensation… bodes well enough.”

A moment’s thought made the situation clear; Tasven grinned. “So it does.” Obligingly, he shifted his fingers higher, and felt some firmness lurking under the scales; then he found another place where those scales didn’t quite meet, and this one he ran his fingers along. That hidden spot of firmness grew a little more prominent, and then the scales parted, bare flesh pushing into the open to meet his touch.

The yuan-ti’s free arm wound around his shoulders, the snake squirming against him with a growly sort of moan. It wasn’t a very helpful motion – almost knocked him away and onto his back, actually – but the urgency in it was unmistakeable.

“If I didn’t already have some idea of your past,” murmured Tasven, stroking that smooth skin, “I’d never believe this was almost your first brush with sex as I know it.”

“Momentum,” Ssithros hissed against his shoulder. “Anything difficult is easier with a bit of momentum.”

Like getting a run up to batter a door down, he supposed. “Just don’t misjudge your limits and get yourself hurt,” Tasven cautioned. Curling his fingers around the other male’s flesh, he couldn’t help but grin. “You’re warm.”

A toothy grin met his. “As I said – not so different beneath the surface.”

“That’s fair,” the weasel chuckled, “but even with that in mind, you’re a furnace.” He hadn’t really thought about it deeply enough to be expecting cool or barely-warm flesh, and only saw the possibility in hindsight; just as well, because apparently the snake’s body ran hotter than did his own.

Which was always a delight, but maybe one that ought to be explored from a more stable ground.

“Let’s get on over there, hmm?” Grinning still, he nodded towards the nearer bed. “You may have a broad base and endless flexibility, but I’m a little top-heavy.”

The way that tongue danced over his ear was novel, but definitely pleasing; he was shivering a little by the time Ssithros unwound himself, murmured, “Very well,” and wove his way toward the bed.

Tasven bent to slip a hand into a side pouch of his pack, a small glass vial meeting his fingers. As he rose, working the cap free, he watched the snake settle himself. He was very long – easily his height again was in those coils as he slithered across the floor. Despite his natural fluidity, getting onto the bed was a graceless affair – not because it couldn’t be graceful, but, Tasven gathered, because it had never needed to be. Then he got into place and stretched out, twisting to watch Tasven in turn, propping up on one arm.

The pale pink of his arousal jutted out from one of the broad red bands on his body, just barely reaching the narrower yellow stripe above it. It’d take respectable but hardly unusual force, Tasven reflected, for any spatter to reach the black band above that… Grinning still more at the thought, he took a breath, relaxed his spell resistance, and tipped the vial over his own waiting length. Amber oil flowed over his skin, caressing it all over, then thinned until it left nothing more visible than a gleam in the light coming through the shuttered window.

Turning his full attention back to the waiting male, Tasven sauntered over to the bed himself. One thing that was a bit unusual was that Ssithros had a very round body; Tasven leaned toward the tubular himself, but the snake was even more so. Below the flare of his shoulders, there wasn’t much to distinguish any one part of his body from the coils that spilled over the foot of the bed. And with his manhood marking a boundary about half as far from his head as the ground normally was, those coils looked even longer than usual.

Still, even if that was thicker than any tail he’d encountered before, it wouldn’t be too thick to get his legs around. Just as well, though, that the snake was lying on his back.

Tasven lowered himself into place, forcing his grin back in favour of a gentler smile. He couldn’t see any nervousness in the snake’s features, but something about the way he waited so still gave the weasel pause. It was hard to have much momentum when you were waiting like that.

But he wouldn’t make it any worse by asking if the snake was sure this was what he wanted to do. He just swung a leg over and eased onto his knees, sitting astride the snake’s body and wrapping a hand around that waiting shaft.

It was, he figured, a reasonable piece; a few fingers’ widths longer than, say, Kob’s, but on the slender side of average. And though it was close in profile to his own complete with a definite head, that head was a little more tapered than usual; not coming to a point like Varyn’s did, but getting there. It’d be a nice one to learn with, if Tasven were the one learning. And it felt nice in his hand, and its owner felt nice pushing up into the touch, sounded nice letting out a soft sigh of breath; but none of those things was in any way a surprise. Most men he’d known intimately did all of them, where Tasven was concerned.

He leaned forward a little, enough to run his fingers along the yuan-ti’s jaw. “Shall we?”

“Please do. My nerve is not without end,” replied Ssithros, though his voice didn’t betray any waver in that nerve.

Still, Tasven wasn’t about to do this with no preparation. So the weasel sat back a little and felt his way lower down, to the other gap in the ruby scales, the one he’d found first. This time he let his fingers linger, first stroking, then rubbing a little more firmly. The muscular coils twisted under him as the snake writhed, body arching; and when Tasven bore down and eased a fingertip in, Ssithros shivered from one end to the other, his breath slipping free with a faint whisper of a groan.

The second finger was easier. The third was more difficult again, but mostly because of the difficulty in getting more than two fingers to sit nicely against one another; the snake stretched open without difficulty, warm and yielding once past the fine scales.

Well, then.

He drew his fingers free, instead curling his hand around his shaft, steadying it as he leaned into place. Even knowing about where he needed to go, the angle made it hard to see any distinguishing marks amid the scales; much easier, instead, to note the surge of tension under his thighs when his tip nudged at about the right spot. From there, getting the fine detail of position right was straightforward enough.

He bore down. The scales felt peculiar against his bare, sensitive skin, a little harsher than fur or hide, but not unpleasant; just enough to lend a new sort of thrill. Then he was pushing past them, and snug, familiar heat enfolded his glans.

He would have paused there, given both of them a bit of time to adjust, but the snake’s hands found his hips and hauled him in.

The body under his thighs might feel different, but the body wrapped around his shaft, warm and snug and smooth, did not. With that first tug as his cue, Tasven wasted no time starting to move – gently, at first, but as he got used to the angle he both quickened and lengthened his stroke. Fur slid on scale as he pistoned inside the other male, leaning forward and sinking his fingers into the sheets to get his weight into the motion. The heat of the snake’s arousal pressed against his stomach as he flattened down; hands roamed his back and sides, exploring him, before one of them slid in between their bodies to wrap around naked flesh.

What followed was very to-the-point; a quarter-hour or so of thrusting, squirming, undulating together. It was not without its pitfalls: they weren’t used to each other, and Ssithros, unsurprisingly, not very coordinated at this sort of thing at all. Twice, their bodies moved a little too far apart, and Tasven slipped out entirely, his shaft skidding over scales on the forward stroke; but both times he just shifted, gripped it, got it back and place, and pushed in again with only a moment’s pause, before continuing with even more vigour. It wouldn’t last forever – clumsy or not, the snake felt good under him, and hardly less so for being in some ways different – but he held on as best he could, hoping to give his partner a chance to hit the peak first.

He was just starting to feel the building tension of inevitable release, still a ways off but approaching, when a surge of pleasure ripped through him.

It was incongruous. He’d had climax sneak up on him before, no doubts there, but this wasn’t like that; he’d been feeling it off in the distance, and suddenly it was there. He had just enough time to parse the sudden gasp and shiver under him, to realize that it wasn’t his climax he was feeling, when his own rather swiftly caught up; even as he was shoving in deep, that burst of orgasm from without triggered his own. And he was flat against the yuan-ti’s body, shoved in balls-deep, groaning against the snake’s shoulder, while the scent of spilled seed filled his nose and his own essence coursed out of him.

A minute or so later, his breath slowing to something near normal, he lifted his head. “That was… unexpected, at the end.”

“Truth. I rather lost myself in the moment.” Ssithros brought a finger along Tasven’s muzzle. “That was not my intent.”

“Don’t worry.” Tasven nuzzled past his wrist and at his jaw. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

After that exchange, they lay together in silence, savouring the feel of each other. It was Ssithros who remarked, after another quarter-hour, that Tasven didn’t seem to be getting much softer; the snake’s own arousal had already ebbed and retreated under his scales.

“Well, you feel good around it,” Tasven said, and couldn’t help but laugh.

“Truly, it feels good to have you there,” the yuan-ti replied, sounding slightly… not surprised, exactly, by this turn of events, but maybe finding it more true than he’d expected. “Does its persistence, then, mean that you’d be capable of another effort?”

“If you don’t mind the feel of it now, and don’t mind it being a little one-sided.” Tasven brushed his fingers across the hiding-place of the other male’s length.

Ssithros let out a soft breath, but didn’t object, didn’t even tense; if anything he just relaxed more. “Hardly,” he crooned. “Perhaps this time I could focus more attention on your response, hmm?”

So, chuckling, Tasven picked himself up and started rocking his hips. There was really nothing subtle to it this time; the snake’s motions were much less wild, almost careful, but he did still move against Tasven’s thrusts, did keep both hands roaming the weasel’s head and body. And this time, Tasven didn’t have any need whatsoever to hold himself back; he just let the pleasure rise with each stroke along his still-sensitive length, until it welled up and bubbled over in a fresh orgasm, this one wholly his own.

He drew free once it had faded, his manhood almost gratefully subsiding. But he had no particular want to go very far. Crouching over the snake, he asked, “Do you mind if the other two know?”

Ssithros paused a moment, head cocked; he glanced down, and Tasven followed his gaze to the spatter that had, in fact, streaked over yellow scales and onto black. Then, though, the snake relaxed. “No. Kob is… already known to me, and I will trust that Varyn would not object either.”

“Definitely not.” And with the snake’s answer given, Tasven swung over and lowered himself to the bed beside the yuan-ti. Ssithros blinked; apparently cuddling up wasn’t on his usual post-coital agenda.

But he got the idea soon enough.


Days passed, and many of their notable happenings could also be phrased as things that didn’t happen. Varyn did not, in fact, mind coming back to discover Tasven and Ssithros still curled up together. Kob didn’t mind hearing about it, either, and neither was slow to express their approval.

The city guard didn’t have any trouble getting to the yuan-ti camp, and the remaining bandits had not returned to move or destroy the sacks of grain. The next caravan to leave the city didn’t encounter any trouble on the roads, coming or going, and the ships didn’t stop for storm season before a healthy land trade was again assured.

The people of Sharktooth Bay didn’t exactly grow warm to Ssithros, didn’t come to understand him, but they didn’t hassle him. The group didn’t have difficulty securing new equipment; Kob wound up with a ring of elemental endurance much like Tasven’s, a Handy Haversack ditto, but, though Tasven was expecting him to replace or upgrade his lost kris, this in fact he did not do. He’d mentioned getting something else after those two things, but they were all on such different tracks that Tasven didn’t immediately hear what it was. Varyn opted for modestly-enchanted armour and commissioned an upgrade to his mace of disruption, with a mild striking enchantment in addition to its undead-slaying quality; part of the arrangement called for his old mace to be left with the Temple of the Seven for another user, once the new one was finished.

Tasven’s first pick, of course, had been arranged before they even left the city. He did check in on its progress, which, Perri reported, was proceeding well; while there, Tasven also picked up an amulet – like the one he’d bought for Varyn that made the wearer shed water, only this was the version that did allow the wearer to breathe underwater, and granted some swimming ability to boot. The pendant was silver, with a stunning gold inlay of a diving otter man – naked, like the other one, faithfully rendered with the fine details scored into the silver in lines thinner than a strand of fur.

For the artistry alone, he’d have been tempted by the amulet even without its enchantment.

Beyond that, Tasven did pick up a ring with a minor ward on it, one that’d help turn blows aside; he also called on the city’s leatherworkers to make scabbards for his punch-daggers that better fit their enchanted status and their distinguished history in combating evil than did the plain leather they’d rested in so far.

Ssithros wasn’t exempt from the city’s gratitude. He, too, picked up a Handy Haversack, as well as a staff with a minor striking enchantment; he was very careful to get one with a crook at the end, though, and presently the crystal which had been lashed to his old staff nestled in the crook of the new one. He said little about it, but did explain that it was a psicrystal, and that it helped him in his craft; how, he didn’t say. But much of his share of the reward was in supplies for that craft-work, and vanished into his pack.

Shortly thereafter, a messenger from Perri advised Tasven that his commission was complete.  He had, in fact, worked in a minor enchantment to make the thing stay in place unless it was deliberately removed; there were also a half-dozen other customers in his shop, mostly seamen whose ships had already battened down for the season, so he was vague on the details and exquisitely polite in his regrets that he couldn’t spare the time to help Tasven be sure it was to his liking, but of course he could come back if there was any trouble.

Four days after the last ship made port, Tasven was enjoying the last of a meal of baked cod when Kob came by his table. “Do you have any plans for the afternoon?” he asked.

Tasven shook his head. “Why?”

“They’re expecting the first storm to hit today,” the cheetah explained. “There’s a little place I used to sit and watch them arrive, each season, sheltered from the worst of it…” A shy smile. “I always found it to be something of a thrill. But it’d be nice to have company, too.”

Well, at least neither of them needed to worry about being cold, now. And Nature’s fury could be impressive to watch when one didn’t actually need to challenge it. “Certainly; just give me a few minutes to finish?”

Presently, he met Kob just outside. Winds were already whipping through the streets as they made their way along, but those winds were their main obstacle; traffic was light, with most people already shutting themselves away from the weather’s worst. With the rising wind howling around them, conversation wasn’t really practical; Tasven followed wordlessly.

Kob led him down to the docks and, from there, out through the Low Gate and along the peninsula. They picked their way along, coming at last to a little nook in the side of the bay, a cleft where boulders had fallen together and left some natural shelter. The shape of the ground would keep water from building up, the high-tide line was quite some distance off, and there was shelter overhead, but they were still offered a good view of the harbour, and of the wind-tossed sea beyond, all the way out to the horizon where the gathering clouds met the ocean.

“It’s been years since I was able to see this,” Kob mused; he had to speak up over the wind and crashing surf, but it was a different sort of noise than the wind had stirred up on the city streets, and his voice cut through it with only a bit of effort. “It used to be a tradition of mine. Glad the rock hasn’t shifted yet.”

“You never said much about your earlier life,” Tasven noted. The reverse, well, Varyn and Kob had been in town during Tasven’s last and biggest row with his father – the man had not approved of the things Tasven had been doing with the bard who was teaching him to sing once lessons were done – and he’d seen no reason to be shy about his past; it just didn’t often come up. “You said you were a locksmith’s apprentice…” And Tasven did want to believe that was true, but it alone didn’t explain how many strings Kob seemed able to pull. Unless every last one of these people was somehow associated with the Locksmith’s Guild or something.

“I was.” Kob’s chest rose and fell in a heavy sigh, the sound of which the wind stole away. “But I started out on the streets. The people who took me in saw that I had quick fingers and good reflexes, so they got me an apprenticeship… so long as I used my skills with them later.” He shook his head. “I’m out of it now; not much point in keeping a secret anymore. Some of Sharktooth’s Lords think the law works too slowly, or doesn’t reach some people it should; a few generations back they got together and founded a group that… kind of helps the law along. Good people, and working with people like Kalinda helps be sure of that, but the guard wouldn’t always approve of their methods.”

“Why are you out of it?” Tasven asked when the cheetah fell silent. “I’d think this latest adventure was right along those lines.”

“That kris was… sort of a badge of office.” Kob stared down at the pebbled shore, nudging a stone with his toes. “Now it’s gone. And… I’ve been away from the city so long. It’s not really home, anymore. I’ve paid my old debts, and I think I’ve left the city a better place than it was. And I’ll probably always have friends, especially if I keep sending little contributions to support the cause, whether it goes to charities or to arranging for incriminating evidence on traitors to not go missing. Or simple bribes. But I need to move on.”

“With us?” Nothing he’d said suggested otherwise, but…

Kob smiled up at him. “I should hope so,” he said, so softly that the wind almost masked it. “Wherever you are is where I’d most like to be.”

“I’m here, now,” Tasven pointed out.

Kob’s smile took on a rather more energetic manner. “So you are.”

They went on without words for a time; it was getting harder to speak anyway, with the wind rising, tugging at their clothes despite the sheltering cranny. They sat side by side, Kob curled up slightly under Tasven’s arm, gazing out at the churning sea. Magic kept them from being truly cold, but it was cool enough to prompt pressing close together.

Which was not without its further consequences. The cheetah turned his head, his breath hot on the weasel’s neck. “I want you, Tasven,” he growled. “It’s been days.”

So it had… they’d been bustling about so much, getting their equipment-reward sorted out, that they hadn’t had much time for more than a quick liaison here and there, and that usually subdued to keep from disturbing the neighbours and getting in trouble thereby. “Here and now?” Tasven asked. The rising fury of the storm all around them, nobody nearby to interrupt… there were worse thoughts. Worse thoughts by far.

Yes,” Kob hissed, quivering. He started tugging at Tasven’s clothing.

Responding in kind, Tasven’s fingers encountered a silver chain under the collar of Kob’s shirt. Once he had the latter out of the way, he wasn’t entirely surprised by what he saw, and it was certainly familiar: a silver pendant with gold inlay, a diving otter man… not the same design as Tasven’s own. The one on Kob’s pendant was, for one thing, quite visibly aroused.

In spite of the cheetah’s urgency, and his own rising to meet it, he had to laugh. “Somewhere in the city,” he said, “there is a jeweller with a very interesting life.”

“I’ve met her,” the cat replied with a dismissive shrug. “Got one of these for yourself, hm? We don’t need to worry about being rained on…”

He did not, Tasven noted, suggest actually getting into the water to put the amulets through their paces. Tasven glanced over his shoulder at the clouds. The sky was slate-grey, but a darker front was gathering… storms, just so. Well, even wet, they ought to be safe enough on land, with the bluff rising over them… “That we don’t,” Tasven granted, wondering what was on the cheetah’s mind.

Their mutual distrobing continued. At the last, it was Kob’s turn to laugh, running a fingertip along the band that encircled the base of Tasven’s length. “That’s new.”

“A bit more convenient than fussing with vials,” Tasven purred, rolling his hips as the cheetah’s fingers slid along his shaft. “At least when I’m not receiving.”

“Interesting.” Kob curled his fingers around, giving Tasven a warm squeeze, then a few experimental quick strokes; his fingers slid along a bit easier than they would have done unaided, yet not so much so that he couldn’t feel the stroke.

Tasven let a sigh waft over Kob’s jaw, nuzzling in its wake. “Plans, dear one?”

“Nothing fancy.” Kob’s fingers danced on Tasven’s glans. “Haven’t felt yours against mine since that ridge over the Brightwood…”

And it was about time, Tasven agreed. He didn’t bother saying it aloud; he just grinned and nodded.

Their little nook didn’t really offer enough room for what they had in mind – not without being bent into a very uncomfortable shape. With their clothes off and stashed, and the realization sinking in that the wind and rain were now less a bother to them both than were the physical constraints of the space, they wound up leaning against one of the boulders forming that little hideaway, with the rock blocking out the sight of the city. The wind tugged at them, stronger with each passing moment.

But it wasn’t stronger than the grip they had on each other.

Kob, being shorter, was the one arched against the curve of the rock, with Tasven stretched out in front of him; it more or less made up for the height difference. Close enough that, while Tasven braced against the stone, Kob’s fingers spread around both their shafts and kept them close, sliding against one another with each shift, each breath, and their hungry mouths could stay against each other with only a bit of a twist to Tasven’s neck.

The new ring did its job wonderfully; Tasven could feel every little shift of the cheetah’s flesh against his, but the skin never bound. The rising wind made conversation implausible even if they’d been willing to let their muzzles part; it even drowned out whatever nonverbal sounds Tasven’s lover was making, but the hot breath over his whiskers, coupled with familiarity, was enough to let him imagine those sounds. Their tongues danced against one another, alternately darting far enough forward to find each other’s front teeth; and as the wind tried to pull them apart, Tasven dug his toes into the gravel and pressed in closer, and Kob’s free arm wound tighter still around him.

He could feel the tension rising in that lean, wiry body, and a thrill of his own excitement rose to meet it. Yes. Here was a lover, a true kindred spirit, and that was all that mattered; the noise of the storm shut out the rest of the world rather effectively. All he knew, aside from the heavy beat of his own lust, was Kob, nestled with him in the grip of the tempest.

The noise around them gained a new edge, a sharp hiss; he had just enough time to parse it as rain hitting the water before it poured over them both as well. Wind-driven drops lashed through his fur, hammering against his back like sleet; a grunt slipped from his mouth to Kob’s, and he bucked forward in sudden tension. But though the force of it stung, the chill that ought to have accompanied it, that his body expected to feel, was absent; the sting was just another note in the welter of sensation.

And then Kob’s muzzle broke from his, the cheetah’s head pressing back against the stone as he cried out, just barely audible over the wind and rain – and the intoxicating scent of his seed filled Tasven’s lungs with his the next breath he drew.

Twice, thrice more his hips churned against Kob’s before the familiar, exquisite rush swept through him. He muffled an unheard groan against the side of Kob’s neck, trembling from the intensity of it as his own seed rushed out of him, jetting onto Kob’s fur, flowing over both their flesh, mingling with the cheetah’s own, only to be washed away by the torrential rain.

Doing it like this, here, plainly had been a good idea; his climax was dizzying, even disorienting, in its intensity. His head was still spinning from it some minutes later, when he became consciously aware of Kob’s fingers running along his jaw.

He lifted his head to see a smile on Kob’s muzzle, playful yet intensely fond; feeling a thrill of warmth, he returned it in kind, brushing his lips against the cat’s.

The din would have it hard to speak, if they’d had any need to do so, but words weren’t really necessary. They stood there a while longer, flesh against softening flesh, as the wind and rain swept over them both. Only when they were both soft – or mostly so, anyway – did they part, and duck back into the crevice to get their trousers and boots on; their shirts, they didn’t bother with.

They picked their way across the rocky shore, and a rather perplexed guard let them through the gate before huddling back under cover; insulated from the cold and the wet alike, they sauntered through the streets, going uphill against the water rushing over them, Tasven’s arm draped over Kob’s shoulder’s and the cheetah’s arm, in turn, curled around the weasel’s waist.

Nor did they speak once they’d got back to the Roosting Gull. They stopped in the vestibule to get what water they could out of their clothes; their fur needed no such effort, water sluicing over it without even pausing. Back in their room, they hung the sodden things up to dry and settled in front of the fire, Tasven on his back with Kob face-down atop him, nuzzling into his shoulder. They did lift their heads when Varyn, with a quiet smile, offered a goblet of mulled wine; that warmed the body nicely, even if they’d never got truly cold. Ssithros wound up joining them as well, on the other side from Varyn, and fed them spiced meatballs on his claws. It was all wonderfully domestic, and none of it needed a word spoken.

In time, they’d probably part ways now and then. But in time, Tasven was sure that at least he and the slender feline atop him would find each other again.

And right at the moment, the warm presence of friends in front of the fire was endlessly preferable to the wind and rain hammering on the window. Friends, lovers… Tasven wouldn’t have given them up for an emperor’s ransom.

He let his eyes slip shut, his head sink back against the rug, and his breath slip out in a contented sigh. Outside, the storm howled with still-rising force, Nature doing its best to assault the intrusion of civilization.

But in here? Life was good.