For the company he kept, the ermine was surprisingly young. The Broken Blade’s usual clientele were hardened, veteran fighters, devoted clerics, and experienced wizards in their late twenties and up; Tasven was still in his late teens. He was taller than most, but slender, even gangly, and, despite a degree of muscle that was uncommon in his kind, still looked somewhat unfinished.

But he moved with confidence and grace, trading smiles and the odd wave with those he knew, as he sauntered up to the bar, swinging his pack off his shoulders and holding it in one hand while the other arm leaned on the bar. There was something intent about his expression that drew the old lupine bartender over to him.

“Vardeniri,” the wolf greeted. “The usual?”

“Nothing to drink today, Kenji,” the ermine replied, twitching his cloak free of his boot sheath so he could prop his foot on the stool. “I heard from old Berma that there’s been some trouble at night, lately. From that old tomb to the west?”

Kenji started to scowl, but under the silver fur of Tasven’s hand was a glimmer of gold. He bit his lip and nodded slowly; Tasven nudged the coin across the bar with his clawtips, and the aged wolf pocketed it. “She told you right,” he whispered, “though if she don’t stop her gossiping, she’ll send more people to their deaths, and our troubles will only get worse. Some people say it’s bandits holed up in there, but these’re bandits that’ve already been killed once, and that didn’t stop ’em from killing and robbing some more. Some good people tried to put ’em down, now they fight on the same side instead. Two others have been through here already, not half an hour ago, askin’ me ’bout the same thing. Think they got it in their fool heads to try an’ deal with it themselves,” he finished, shaking his head.

Tasven’s black eyes were, for once, quite attentive, and he nodded at the end of this narration. “Not too many of that sort will get back up if you kill them again, so maybe those two have a chance. Two questions, Kenji. First, how do I get to the tomb?” Grudgingly, but aware of the heavy coin in his pocket, Kenji gave directions. “All right. Now, what did those two look like that you mentioned?”

A snort. “Young ‘uns. One of ’em had one of them seven-pointed stars hanging from his neck. A white wolf, not quite your height but twice as big all the same, looked like he had some winter wolf blood to him. He had on scale mail and a grey cloak, had a nasty-looking spiked mace, too. The other was shorter, only a bit broader than you. Some sort of warm-weather cat, had black spots, marks around his snout like tears. Creepy guy – I swear I never saw ‘im moving around, but I’d look for him and there he’d be, somewhere else. Had this weird looking dagger that he was cleaning, with a wiggly blade.” He traced a serpentine design in the air. “Sheath had a snake on it.”

To the wolf’s surprise, Tasven actually laughed. “Varyn and Kob. Who’d have thought I’d run into them here? Last I saw them was weeks ago in Tarnsville. Don’t worry about them, Kenji; they may be young, but they’ve been through a lot, and so have I. We make a good team… Did you see which way they went?”

“Yeah, they were heading to Jeren’s to stock up.”

“Good enough.” The weasel extracted a few silver coins from his belt pouch and placed them on the bar. “Take care, Kenji.” And with that, he sauntered out the door. More than a few heads turned to follow his progress, and a few of the patrons sent inviting looks his way, but this time he was not to be distracted.

Tasven sang to himself as he sidled up the lane. Varyn Mordanol was a cleric of the Faradhi, Kob Lightfoot a former locksmith’s apprentice who’d found other uses for his skills and turned into quite the trapmaster as well as lockbreaker and pickpocket. The three of them had some successful and lucrative dealings together, before Varyn and Kob went one way and Tasven went another. Mmm, and some of their nights together had been so sweet, so warm…

And there they were at the outfitter’s stall, evidently just wrapping up a deal. Grinning, Tasven ambled up to them. Jeren, the middle-aged wolverine who owned the stall, was first to see him since he was facing the right way; as Varyn and Kob whispered over one particular item, the merchant gave a nod and said, “Afternoon, Master Tasven.”

The rod in Kob’s hand fell to the counter with a clatter.

“Tasven?” he said, slowly turning, green eyes looking the weasel over. “Tasven Vardeniri? Jakebi’s Blood, Varyn, look who’s here!”

The wolf had already made his own appraisal while Kob was talking, and didn’t say anything at first; he just took a few steps forward and threw his arms around Tasven, squeezing him in an embrace so tight that Tasven squeaked, awkwardly hugging him back and nuzzling at his cheek. “Try that without armour, next time,” he said with a chuckle.

Varyn let go with a hurry. “Sorry,” he murmured. “But by the Seven, Tas, it’s good to see you! I never thought we’d see each other again anytime soon – we went west and you went east, and somehow we both wound up north!”

Tasven grinned. “Well, I didn’t actually come up to delay you with a reunion. Kenji told me you’d been by, and I was wondering if you needed an extra pair of hands.”

The other two exchanged glances. “All business?” Kob said slowly. “Who are you, and what have you done to Tasven?” But he was grinning.

“Of course we could,” was Varyn’s reply. He poked Kob in the ribs with his elbow. “We tried asking at that place, the Broken Sword – “

“Broken Blade,” Kob corrected.

“But none of them seemed willing to take us seriously,” Varyn went on as though the interruption never happened. “How much do you need to get, Tasven?”

“Already got it this morning,” the weasel replied, shifting his pack. It wasn’t heavy – it never was – but Varyn’s greeting had wrenched it around a bit. “It’s quite a trip, so as soon as you two are ready, we might as well get started.”

Kob looked apologetically at the smokestick he’d dropped, then up at Jeren. “Err, you wanted seventeen for this, right?”

Within an hour, they’d passed through the palisade around Dregen, the sun high overhead and slightly to the left. Snow blanketed the ground. Kob was huddled in his cloak, since the cheetah wasn’t native to a climate like this. Varyn did indeed have some winter wolf in him and could’ve been frozen in ice without harm so long as there was a hole to breathe through. Tasven, while not quite so hardy, still would likely have barely noticed the cold even if it weren’t for the ring around his left ring finger, which suffused him with gentle warmth.

Anyone else might have been irritable about being the only one affected by the weather, but Kob was irrepressible, telling tales and cracking jokes as they strode on with snow falling all around. The evening found them on the other side of a broad ridge with Dregen hidden from view, and Tasven put his pack down, setting himself and reaching into it with both hands. A large bundle of canvas and wood greeted his hands, and he pulled it out.

Kob studied the pack, studied Tasven, studied the tent that he was unrolling. “You’ve been busy,” he observed. “That’s a Handy Haversack, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Tasven replied, hunting for the right pole to start with. “Sure makes provisions easier to deal with, and lets me carry whatever nice stuff I might find, too.”

“And by ‘nice’ you mean ‘shiny’,” Varyn teased, bending to help. “That’s a new necklace I see, isn’t it?”

“Do you like it?” Tasven inquired, pausing to rub the bronze-mounted garnet with his thumb.

“I’ll tell you what I’d like,” Kob said, hefting one of the poles, “and that’s to get out of the cold. Not all of us were born in the north, you know.” He poked Tasven in the side, and the weasel guiltily went back to work.

The tent went up without much fuss, Varyn set an alarm ward around it, and as they moved their gear inside, Tasven said to Kob, “D’you want to borrow my ring for the night? Might be more comfortable than wrapping up in that cloak, and I’ll be fine without…”

“I’ll manage, but thanks,” Kob replied, and pulled a bedroll out of his pack.

Well, to call it a bedroll would be like referring to a vorpal greatsword as a pointy bit of metal. It was lined with amazingly soft fur, its exterior something like silk but more so, very finely embroidered with gold and silver thread in a complex pattern that Tasven found almost dizzying.

“You and your shiny objects,” Kob jibed, reaching up to ruffle between the weasel’s ears. “Perri’s Comfortable Bedroll. Inside, it’s like that ring you’re so fond of, except it also ensures restful sleep. Easily sleeps two, as well.”

“Might work with three,” was Varyn’s contribution, “though I don’t know about much sleep being done in that case.”

Tasven grinned. It seemed they’d be renewing their acquaintance quite nicely indeed. “And here I was looking forward to warming you up myself.”

Kob grinned, undoing the clasp of his cloak. “You could still do that, you know.”

They all exchanged glances. Varyn had already shed his armour and was clad in loose, fur-lined trousers and a padded gambeson. Beneath his abandoned cloak, Kob had on a fur coat and thick-woven clothing, while Tasven still wore the entirety of his black acrobat’s garb. As they looked at one another, Tasven grinned, loosening his shirt and tugging it up over his shoulders. “We’re in no real hurry tomorrow, right?”

“Best to go at an easy pace and be refreshed,” Varyn agreed. “Arrive there morning after next, rather than late tomorrow night.”

“Then let’s get you out of these before the snow melts and gets you wet, Kob.” Tasven leaned up against the cheetah, reaching around to slide his coat off his shoulders, then up to hang it over a pole. Kob let out a soft sigh and stroked Tasven’s ear, delicately fingering the gold rings that pierced it, making the weasel tremble at the rush of sensation as he opened the locksplitter’s shirt. Kob shrugged out of it from there, leaving Tasven free to undo his belt and reach into his breeches. Hard flesh met his touch, its heat undeterred by the cool air.

Strong arms wrapped around him, and he spared a glance over his shoulders as he eased Kob’s breeches off. Varyn had stripped down while they were thus engaged, now wearing only his bronze heptacle. His long snout tilted up to nudge the base of Tasven’s ear, and sharp teeth grazed its edge, sending an electric thrill down his spine. Whimpering, he pressed back into the cleric’s muscular body with a shudder, reaching back with his left hand to grip the wolf’s rump while his right curled around Kob’s maleness.

“I thought it was this poor sun-cat we were warming up here,” he breathed, tightening his grip as the cheetah pressed into it.

“Just getting you ready to do so,” Varyn murmured, lips brushing his ear and sending another shiver through him. The wolf’s strong hands tugged his belt open and pulled his trousers off his hips. For a moment they caught on his swelling hardness, but that was swiftly enough dealt with, and soon it swung free, briefly chilled by the open air; and whether it was his ring or his own heat that drove the chill away, it really didn’t matter.

Kob drew away from his grasp, undoing both the weasel’s boots and his own and slipping them off, in Tasven’s case with some slow stroking of his feet. Then the cheetah finished stripping while Tasven kicked his pants off and across the canvas floor.

Varyn released him, though not without getting a feel in first. “Got something in mind, slinky?”

Tasven had not, but within moments of the question being asked, he grinned. “Yeah… Kob, you think this would help warm you up?” He gave an exaggerated wiggle of his hips.

Following the bob and sway of the weasel’s member, Kob licked his lips. “Oh, yeah, I think that’ll do nicely.”

“And you,” Tasven twisted around to press his snout against Varyn’s neck, “it’s been all too long since I had a taste of you.” He stepped away, and lay down on Kob’s bedroll. Even the top of it was warm and deliciously smooth, and almost seemed to be trying to embrace him, but the other two didn’t give him a chance to enjoy that. Kob drew something out of his pack – a vial of golden fluid that clung to the glass as he approached from past Tasven’s feet. Varyn knelt by his head, stroking his muzzle. After pressing his snout into Varyn’s hand and licking his palm, Tasven tried to get a glance at what Kob was doing.

The cheetah was crouched down beside Tasven’s hips, loosening the stopper of his vial. Once he’d pulled it out, he slid callused fingertips along Tasven’s growing length, down from tip to base and back up again; after a few seconds he started to bring the vial over.

“That feels nice,” Tasven confessed, turning his head to nuzzle at Varyn’s thigh. Slightly muffled, he asked, “What have you got there, some kind of oil?”

“With a capital O,” Kob replied, chuckling. “Little cantrip a certain friend of mine whipped up. Perri’s Minor Lubrication; it’s like a localised, harmless, and long-lasting version of the Grease spell. Supposedly he made it to shield things from water – it won’t even soak into parchment – but it has some other uses, too. It’ll make things nice and slick. Let it, okay?”

Tasven nodded, somewhat reluctantly delaying his muzzle-search of Varyn’s leg to close his eyes, deliberately relaxing, keeping reflex at bay. Then Kob presumably tipped the vial right over Tasven’s shaft, for thick, warm fluid slid over it, wrapping around, causing a shockingly erotic tingling sensation as it embraced his sensitive flesh. Moaning in spite of himself, he thrust his hips up, half-expecting the stuff to stroke him as he did so.

Kob chuckled, leaning over the weasel. Flesh met bare, slick flesh, the cheetah’s long, strong fingers curling around both, squeezing them. Tasven could feel every vein on Kob’s shaft as it slipped and slid along his own, yet the movement was almost effortless, teasing every inch of exposed skin without binding.

“I’d forgotten what you were like down here,” the cheetah breathed, his breath hot on Tasven’s neck. “Gods, it’s been too long…” His hips drew away, and the parting drew a whimper from the weasel’s throat, his hands darting out, questing and clutching; but even before they could find purchase, strong fingers gripped his shaft, tilting it upward. Fur slid over his broad tip, which then met a tight ring of muscle. Mewling, Tasven buried his face in Varyn’s thick white fur, his hands finding and grabbing Kob’s hips. A musky smell mere inches away drew his attention, and he blindly quested for it, extending his tongue, feeling hot, taut skin beneath it.

Varyn rumbled, fingers rubbing behind Tasven’s ears. “That’s right, stud,” he breathed. “Mm, you want a taste, I’ve got plenty to give you tonight.” Kob uttered nothing but a low groan, letting his weight bear him down, his body resisting, then giving way to Tasven’s manhood, folding tight around it, softer than silk as it slid in.

Tasven twisted to prop himself up on one elbow, the other hand briefly fondling Kob’s ears, then reaching down between Varyn’s solid thighs, cupping his sac, deliciously heavy. The wolf let out a soft yip, then a lower, purr-like sound from deep in his chest, as Tasven’s fingers slid upward, gliding along shockingly red flesh, up and over his pointed tip, and back down to curl about and squeeze the swelling that was already building at the base. Tasven flicked his tongue over that tip, tasting Varyn’s salty slickness, licking his lips to ensure he’d got all of the delicious stuff. He trailed kisses down the cleric’s length and licked his way back up, twisting his neck around to ensure every musky inch was thoroughly bathed, his fingers petting and stroking wherever his mouth wasn’t presently attending.

Kob’s thighs settled against Tasven’s hips, and the cheetah leaned forward again, wrapping his arms around the weasel’s body and pushing his face into Tasven’s chest. “Gods,” he whimpered, his rough tongue stroking Tasven’s breastbone. “You feel so good, Tas, so big, so warm. By all the good gods, I missed you, friend.”

Tasven’s mouth was occupied, his lips sliding around Varyn’s tip and drawing it in, but he reached down, splayed his hand over the back of Kob’s head, and pillowed it against his chest. Trembling, Kob shifted to the side, licking some more, and Tasven gave another shudder of his own, gasping around his mouthful of Varyn, when those tongue-spines dragged across his firm nipple. The cheetah sealed his lips around it, tugged on it, grazed it with his teeth, and licked it some more, rather randomly, as he started rocking his hips against Tasven’s, groaning into the weasel’s breast at the shifting this caused inside him.

Tasven closed his eyes, briefly pressed his head up against Varyn’s fingers that fondled his ears, and sank down farther, chest heaving as he sucked the wolf’s member into his mouth, curling his tongue against it. Varyn’s groan was almost a growl, and he arched up, fingers gripping Tasven’s skull as his tip rubbed against the roof of the weasel’s mouth, heading inexorably back.

Tasven swallowed a few times, breathing deep through his nose, filling his lungs while he could. He pressed deeper, forcing himself to stay there when the wolf’s tip nudged at the back of his throat, then pushing down farther still, feeling it slide in, swallowing around it and drawing an appreciative moan, a caress to his cheek. Kob had seized his nipple with his teeth and was gnawing upon it, sensation streaking through the weasel’s body with electric thrill to rival a wizard’s lightning. He started pushing up under the cat’s tail, then settling back down, and Kob matched him move for move, making the motions that much deeper, more intense.

Soon he was pistoning into the cheetah with an urgency to make up for their weeks apart, Kob’s silky insides trembling and clutching at his shaft. He bobbed his head on Varyn’s length, swallowing around the considerable portion lodged in his throat, feeling warm, thick pre sliding down his gullet. Two pairs of hands roamed his body – one set massive and strong, the other slender but still quite able to apply force to all the right places. Then the wolf started shifting around, turning to put a leg on the other side of Tasven, and the weasel turned as he moved, letting Varyn crouch over him and thrust right into his mouth, sucking hard on the wolf’s shaft. His lips strained around Varyn’s swelling knot whenever they got the chance, his now-free hand stiffening a few fingers and probing under the wolf’s bushy, swaying tail, while the other released Kob’s head and squeezed the rest of Varyn’s knot, hard.

That was all it took. The wolf cried out, bucking his hips and slamming Tasven’s head against the tent floor. His shaft pulsed and throbbed in Tasven’s mouth, the knot ballooning against his fingers, and thick, hot spunk shot deep down his throat. Squeezing his knot with each thrust, Tasven pushed him up a little, just enough to get a taste as the musky stuff poured over his tongue. A tingling feeling spread out from his throat and from his maleness, a charge ready to release, and when the feelings met, they flared up to suffuse his entire long body. He gasped around his mouthful of flesh and semen, and would have screamed in pleasure were they not in the way, his own essence rushing through his manhood and into Kob’s hot, willing body. With the haze over his senses, it was as though from a great distance that he heard Kob’s yowl of ecstasy, felt the spasming around his shaft, smelled the heady aroma of their shared orgasm as the cheetah’s seed splattered over his belly.

Varyn was first to recover, lifting out of Tasven’s mouth with a sigh. He lay down beside the other two with his long snout against Tasven’s neck, licking gently, his arm draped over Kob’s back. The cheetah nuzzled at Tasven’s chest, licking his breastbone and collarbone, and gradually, Tasven felt ecstasy fading into soft, sweet bliss.

None of them said anything; none of them needed to. They simply remained there, Kob kept warm by the weasel beneath him and the arm over him, all of them basking in each other’s pleasure and their own as sleep moved in to conquer.

It was just a few hours later that Tasven was shaken awake, disrupting a rather nice dream in which the night’s fun hadn’t stopped after one round. The sun hadn’t yet started to rise. Groggy, he started to protest, but the hand on his shoulder gave a squeeze. “Something’s out there,” Varyn growled.

Even newly wakened, Tasven knew better than to ignore that tone. He sat up. Kob was beside him, tugging on breeches and trying to shrug into his cloak at the same time. Tasven glanced down at himself. His dream had left him in a predictable state, but he ignored it, finding his boots and stuffing his feet into them. They fastened themselves of their own accord, adjusting to fit perfectly and making his legs feel like coiled springs, ready to leap.

A black-and-silver streak dashed in from the tent flap and rubbed up against his legs, fur bristled despite the affectionate gesture. He reached down to scratch behind the tabby’s ears, frowning. ~What’s out there, Drevin?~ The cat wouldn’t have tripped Varyn’s wards, he knew enough to include Tasven’s errant familiar when setting them… and besides, Drevin was plainly irritated, too.

Varyn observed their brief conversation as best he could while slipping into armour. “Well?”

“Zombies, maybe ghouls,” Tasven replied, strapping his knife-sheaths to his legs. “Drevin has trouble with the exact details. Actually, they’re probably ghouls, they moved pretty quick.”

“Lovely. Stay on your toes, those things are cunning.” Abruptly the wolf wrinkled his nose. “He didn’t mention the stench, did he?”

Tasven sniffed, and now that he tried, could smell a definite rank odour in the air. “I hadn’t known he meant anything more than would be expected of a walking corpse, but now that you bring it up, that’s pretty strong.”

“Yeah, well, ghasts are a bit nastier than plain old ghouls, and not just because they stink more. C’mon, let’s clean up.” He grabbed the ball of his mace and tossed it up, snatching the hilt in mid-air.

Tasven grabbed his chain, each hand gripping firmly between two of the many barbs along its length. The ornate metal spikes on each end seemed to gleam with a light all their own. “Let’s do it,” he confirmed. “But first, some extra hitting power.” Letting one loop of chain fall, he concentrated, feeling arcane energies crackling around him. He let them flow through him, coursing along his arms and guiding his gesticulating fingers, bringing words to his tongue.

He reached out to touch Varyn, then Kob, and finally let the unleashed power sink into himself. It flowed through him like a rush of warm water, collecting in his muscles, amplifying them. It bathed his companions as well, heightening their reflexes and giving speed to their limbs.

Kob smirked, tossing a dagger up to twirl in the air, catching it on the way down. “Pity it’s undead we’re fighting, Tas,” he remarked. “Otherwise you might be a nice distraction, fighting like that.”

“I’ll give you a distraction,” Tasven shot back. “Later. C’mon, they can’t be far.”

They weren’t. As soon as the trio got outside the tent, they could see the ragged figures stalking closer. The things made no sound beyond a soft shuffle, advancing on them through the snow with eerie focus. Piebald skin wrapped tight around their gaunt bones, the occasional patch of mangy fur still clinging to it. All in all, an utterly hideous bunch.

Six on one side, three on the other. Tasven met the gaze of rather less than twelve sunken eyes and hefted his chain. Varyn stepped forward a pace, standing with feet apart and shoulders squared. One hand shifted on the handle of his mace; the other fingered his heptacle. Kob was hindmost on Varyn’s other side, crouched down low and gripping one of his knives by the blade between finger and thumb; then his hand snapped down, steel blurring as it spun through the air.

The knife struck true, embedding itself in the throat of an undead canine. The thing lurched, stumbled, but kept coming, shrugging off an injury that would have slain a living being on the spot. Now, as the whole shambling crowd drew near, Varyn took one more step forward, holding his mace at his side and his heptacle before him, bellowing at the whole dead mob to be gone.

The bronze symbol glinted in the false dawn, seeming for a moment to gather the moonlight to itself. Life energy filled the air in a sudden surge that made Tasven’s skin tingle. This proved to be more successful than the knife – the foremost pair of ghasts stumbled, turned, and ran into the night, not making the slightest attempt to be stealthy as they lurched away.

Four left, and now it was Tasven’s turn. The weasel lunged forward, flinging his chain before him. The far end slapped against the one Kob had wounded, just as Tasven yanked back. Cruel barbs dug into undead flesh as though with their own will, tearing away several disgusting chunks and spraying foul ichor onto the snow. Overcome, the ghast tumbled to the ground and was still, its unlife spent.

Varyn charged forward with a hunting howl, turning a foul claw with a parry from his mailed fist as he brought his mace down on another’s misshapen skull. Another throwing knife whistled through the air, then Kob danced around, his kris darting forward to cut deep into the arm of Varyn’s assailant. The remaining monstrosity leaped toward Tasven, claws first. He threw himself to one side, chain swinging in his wake and tearing into a gaunt leg. The thing stumbled, but stayed upright even with its leg flayed to the bone.

Movement caught his eye, too late – while the other pair was busy finishing off the ghast Kob had marked, the last of them, half its skull missing from the impact of Varyn’s mace, had lurched instead toward Tasven. Even with his heightened reflexes, he didn’t have enough time to twist out of the way.

The puncture of those splintered claws was bad enough, but at the touch, an incredible chill poured into his body, the touch of the grave sending a violent shiver through him. He choked back a scream of pain and pulled himself away, diving toward open snow and tumbling.

The other two had just dispatched their assailant. With a shout of warning, Kob moved to engage the one with the injured leg. Varyn roared in rage, bringing his mace down with both hands on the one that had marked Tasven.

The crunch of bone filled the air – that hard a blow had probably splintered every intact bone in the thing’s spine, and its skull shattered with a sickening explosion of decay, a thunderclap lingering in the air from the discharge of the weapon’s magic. It fell to the ground instantly, shortly followed by the fourth as Kob’s kris pierced deep once, twice, thrice.

The original pair, recovering from the influence of Varyn’s holy power, charged back across the snow. Tasven forced his mind away from his stinging arm, touching the power within himself. With arcane words he dictated its substance, and directed its form with sweeping gestures of his good hand. A globe of blue-white energy leaped from his palm, splitting into three darts of power that arced through the air, slamming right into the chest of one of the ghasts and knocking it back; a knife cast from Kob’s hand tipped it over the rest of the way, and it lay still. The last, undaunted, kept coming, only to be nearly knocked apart by repeated blows of Varyn’s mace.

Stillness settled over the clearing, the only sound the rapid breathing of the trio. Tasven dropped his chain and let himself sink to the snow, cradling his wounded arm, pressing hard on the injury in spite of the pain. Varyn rushed over toward him; Kob started that way as well, but seeing Varyn already on his way, instead went to collect his daggers. Knowing what to expect, Tasven forced himself to be calm, to lower his instinctive defences.

Varyn wasted no voice on reassurance; the words that spilled from his tongue were not in any language of this world. He gestured with his free hand, intoning what sounded like a prayer; then he laid that hand upon Tasven’s shoulder. Positive energy – the very driving force of life – touched him once again, this time not merely charging the air, but pouring into his being. It was warmth in the winter, water in the desert, sweeter than the finest wine. Pain ebbed and dwindled beneath it, and vanished entirely.

Tasven’s gleaming pelt was marred now with bright red blood, but a quick flex of his arm confirmed that he was healed, the wound vanished as though it had never been. He heaved a sigh. “You’re a godsend, Varyn.”

The wolf shook his head. “I’m sorry, Tasven. I should have finished with that thing, made sure it stayed down – “

“Relax.” Tasven brushed Varyn’s cheek with his fingertips. “We just made a thorough mess of some fairly serious undead, and it hasn’t even cost us a bit of ripped cloth, just a few spells and some time to clean up. I’m fine.”

“Those things were tougher than such chewed-up corpses had a right to be,” Kob agreed. He tucked the last of his daggers into its sheath. “As a warm-up, things could have gone a lot worse. Things will probably be easier in the catacomb where they won’t be able to surround us.”

“We’ll probably find more of the simple sorts, too,” Tasven pointed out. “Skeletons, zombies, ordinary ghouls. Ghasts are smart enough to patrol on their own, but at least they’re not common.”

“Right, right.” Varyn sighed, shaking his head, and Tasven was fairly sure he’d keep on castigating himself, but such was the priestly life. Faradhi, at least, was a god who recognised mortal pleasures and had his followers embrace them, rather than refuse them, but he still had his own rules, and Tasven couldn’t argue whether or not Varyn had followed them properly.

“Let’s pack up and get away from the stink,” Kob suggested. “A short day’s travel, then a proper night’s sleep – we’re all awake anyway, so we might as well get an early start.”

Now that he was up and moving, Tasven had to agree. He wouldn’t be able to reclaim his lost spell energy even if they did crawl back into bed until dawn, and he was rested enough to move. Besides, the stench of the ghasts seemed even worse now that they were properly dead; he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep around it. “Sounds good to me. Varyn?”

“Let’s,” the wolf agreed. He glanced at Tasven with a smirk. “I don’t suppose I’d be so lucky as for you to travel like that, hm?”

Tasven laughed. That was more like the Varyn he knew. “I don’t think we’d get much travelling done like that,” he pointed out. “Sorry. We shouldn’t stretch the trip out too long here.”

“There’ll be plenty of time to celebrate when we’ve cleaned house,” Kob pitched in. He wrinkled his nose. “Jakebi’s Tears! You’re a mess, Tasven. Why don’t you take the time to wash up while Varyn and I break camp?”

Between his own blood and the fouler remnants of the ghasts, Tasven was only too eager to agree.

The morning was a quiet one. Despite their jokes, the pack of ghasts had reminded them all that the danger here was very real, and they exchanged no more than occasional remarks while they trudged along. Kob was twenty feet in the lead, taking point, and Varyn was ten feet behind Tasven, watching their sides and rear; they were too spread out for any real conversation.

Around midmorning, they paused to munch down some rations for breakfast, and for Varyn to spend some time in prayer; then it was off again. The terrain was hilly now; Kob picked out a course that kept them more or less on level ground, but that meant they were winding their way toward their destination.

As the terrain grew rougher and the sun neared the western horizon, they came upon one of the landmarks: the place where the Fesdrin River passed over the sharp ridge known as Cardin’s Bluff. The bluff was only twelve feet high at this point, but its sheer face made a distinctive landmark indeed.

What Tasven hadn’t expected was that it would be so beautiful. The bluff ran due east and west at this point, and they were approaching from the east. The sun had thus been in their eyes for some time, and now the nuisance that had been didn’t seem so important any more. Golden light sparkled within the waterfall and fractured into a thousand colours in the mist that swirled all about, lending the place an almost heavenly appearance.

Varyn evidently saw that literally; he gazed upon the sight with wonder in his wide blue eyes and stroked his heptacle, murmuring a quick prayer. Even Kob lingered a few moments to enjoy the view.

The cheetah was first to break the stillness. “Well, according to that innkeeper, we’re only a short climb and walk away. This looks like as good a spot as any to camp for the night – hopefully the cliff will keep some of the clumsier undead from finding their way here.”

Tasven watched the swift, clear water as it tumbled over the bluff and raced southward. Gods. Wading into a lazy brook was one thing; to truly feel clean, sometimes one just needed the touch of running water. And here was a ready source of it, not a minute’s walk from their chosen camp. “Yeah,” he breathed, “this spot should do fine.”

“Indeed,” Varyn rumbled, eyes half-lidded now as he, too, contemplated the possibilities of that waterfall.

Kob burst out laughing. “Jakebi’s Tears, you two are impossible. Even thinking about that water is making me cold. Don’t expect any help if it freezes around you, you hear?”

Tasven laughed, reaching over to hug around Kob’s shoulders, nice and hard to be sure the cheetah felt it through his thick winter clothes. “I think you’re just jealous that you can’t join us there, kitty,” he murmured.

Varyn flicked an ear at him and grinned, shifting his feet, tail a-wag. “Quite a pity, that,” he agreed. “There looks to be plenty of room for three in that pool. Perhaps we should come back this way in summer?”

“If that’s what you call ‘summer’ around here,” said Kob with an exaggerated shudder. “Spring-fed streams like this one are still far too cold for any sensible person.”

“And when have you ever called me sensible?” Tasven inquired, his eyes lingering on Varyn. Even a padded shirt and stiff mail couldn’t disguise the wolf’s broad shoulders and muscular arms and legs; from there it was all too easy to fill in the rest, to picture each firm muscle that stood beneath the pale fur. And on such a big man, even an “average” manhood was quite a parcel for someone smaller to receive…

Their eyes met, and Varyn gave him a knowing grin. Yes, the wolf had been thinking along those lines as well.

Kob flung up his hands and laughed. “Can you two at least help me set up camp so I can cook a hot meal while you freeze your tails off?”

Laughing as well, Varyn reached over and hauled the tent out of Tasven’s pack. “Bless you, Kob. Somewhere with a view,” he gestured around at the slight rise on which they stood, “or no?” The wolf indicated the sheltered depression to one side.

“Oh, definitely with,” said Kob instantly. He chuckled. “If I’m going to miss out, at least I’ll have the pleasure of a show.”

“Hopefully you’ll stick with the usual ingredients when you’re cooking,” Tasven put in with a smirk, sweeping off a good flat space for the tent.

The cheetah snorted. “You think I’d risk missing out for evermore just to season your food? It’s cold enough as it is, thanks, I don’t need to get frostbite there even if it would give me an excuse to have Varyn fondle me a little.” He waggled the fingers of one hand in imitation of a spell. The other hand made a very lewd stroking motion.

Unrolling the canvas bundle, Varyn laughed. “Why do I suddenly need an excuse, then?”

Kob laughed, gave up, and started looking for firewood.

This close to the tomb that was at the centre of the whole mess, they dared not be unprepared for trouble. In Tasven’s case, that meant that he left his pack and his spiked chain behind but made sure his katars were loose in their sheaths, strapped snugly to his lower legs. Varyn came along still wearing his armour and with his mace at his belt; only when they were actually beside the pool at the base of the waterfall did he start extracting himself from the mail suit.

By the time that was done, Tasven had already stripped, put his dagger sheaths back on, and waded in. The bottom of the pool was smooth, the rocks polished, yet kept free of moss, by the force of the water. After the day’s travelling, the cool of the water soaking into his calves was quite welcome, and the magic of the ring he wore made him feel the water as no more than comfortably cool.

Right beneath the waterfall, there was a bit of a shallow ledge, the pool just a bit above his knees; even with the water pouring down upon him, he had no trouble staying upright. He stretched up tall, turning under the cascade of water, letting it wash over every part of his body. It was such a relief – all day he’d been thinking he still smelled ghast ichor on himself, but now he could almost feel it washing away.

Varyn, now naked save for the holy symbol hung around his neck, watched him with a smirk, toes in the water. He muttered something to himself – the roar of the falls covered the words, and he wasn’t speaking clearly enough for Tasven to read his lips – and waded in as well, though rather than making for the waterfall right away he crouched down and pushed into a shallow dive, slipping beneath the churning surface. He broke the surface in the middle of the pool, floating face-up with closed eyes and a look of utter contentment on his face.

The wolf only stayed still for a few seconds before opening his eyes, looking over at Tasven with a grin that the weasel readily returned. Then Varyn got back up to his feet and strode over, joining Tasven under the waterfall.

It wasn’t that big a waterfall; the two of them had to press close together for both to fit under it entirely. Neither of them minded that in the least.

There was a tenderness in Varyn’s embrace that was unusual even for the kind-hearted cleric. Perhaps it was the time they’d spent apart; perhaps he was still feeling guilty about the morning’s events. Whatever the reason, he cradled Tasven close, and the ermine was only too glad to be thus held, stroking the powerful arms that encircled him and leaning back against the wolf ever so slightly.

Varyn’s snout pressed against Tasven’s neck, a spot of shocking warmth amidst the chill. The wolf’s big left hand splayed over Tasven’s chest, the right sliding down his belly, giving a firm squeeze to his thigh, both pulling him close against the wolf’s muscular body. The palpable urgency in those hands made Tasven’s breath catch from anticipation, to flutter out in a sigh when the right hand shifted inward, wrapping around his flaccid shaft.

Excitement coursed through him, sending a pulse of blood through his length. In that moment, Varyn was his only need. He squirmed in the cleric’s embrace, grinding back against him, shivering and letting out an unheard moan when he felt the ridge of Varyn’s stiffening maleness against his rear. Varyn’s body tensed, his hand squeezing around Tasven’s swiftly-swelling member, sliding smoothly along it. The weasel’s moan turned into a whimper, and although the crash of the waterfall kept it from being heard, Varyn’s hand moving up to stroke his throat let him know that the wolf understood his need and shared it.

It seemed at once an instant and an eternity before he felt Varyn’s arousal full and hard against him, and the wolf drew back, just one hand remaining on Tasven’s hip. It was time, more than time. By leaning forward just a little, Tasven could brace himself against the rocky face of the cliff and still have the water cascading over his whole body, missing only his forearms. Varyn patted his rear – Tasven could almost hear the throaty chuckle that would accompany that gesture – and squared himself. The wolf shifted his hand to the base of Tasven’s tail, gripping it hard, pulling up a little.

Tasven gasped, almost choking on a mouthful of water. It wasn’t painful; he was flexible enough for far greater contortions. But it was as though Varyn was reading his mind, seeing exactly what he needed – to be taken, made someone else’s. As the wolf’s tapered tip pushed into his rump, he knew that was what was going to happen.

Varyn didn’t disappoint. After just a moment to be sure his tip was squarely against Tasven’s tight opening, he pressed forward, his stiff rod demanding entry. Only a moment of reflexive resistance impeded him; then the weasel felt that part of his body relax and give way, stretching wide as Varyn’s tip slid in.

That done, Varyn paused for only a moment, letting go of Tasven’s tail and his own shaft, instead taking hold of the weasel’s hips. With that leverage he drew Tasven toward him, hauled himself forward, shoved his length into his lover’s lithe, welcoming body.

There was no more hesitation. No sooner did Varyn sink in to the hilt than he pulled back, leaving an emptiness that was more than merely physical, only to fill it again with a swift thrust that made Tasven’s body rock. Expertly, he made use of that natural rhythm, matched it, his swift thrusts feeling that much deeper as they met the automatic motions of Tasven’s own body.

Whimpering, Tasven closed his eyes, lifting up his chin and feeling the water drum on his outstretched throat. He shoved himself back each time Varyn thrust in, aching to be filled, then wanting only more. He clenched down around the wolf’s pistoning manhood, desperately craving the feel of that hard flesh resting inside him, yet needing to feel it pounding him as well. Surrounded as he was by the chill of flowing water, the cleric’s maleness was the only heat he felt, hard and hot as new-forged steel, not to be quenched by even the icy cataract that flowed over them both.

The wolf’s thrusts became shorter, sharper, as he leaned into Tasven’s back, gripping the weasel’s bobbing arousal, squeezing, stroking it, his left arm wrapping tight around Tasven’s chest. Wonderfully pinned, Tasven wriggled and squirmed, straining to make those thrusts as long as they could be, pressing forward into Varyn’s powerful grip, then back onto his rigid length.

How long they strained against each other like that, he really couldn’t say. It could have been a minute, it could have been an hour, he didn’t care; it fulfilled a need inside him that had long gone unsatisfied. And as Varyn suddenly shuddered and shoved in to the hilt, his arm clamping so tight around Tasven as to limit his very breath, the last missing element slipped into place. The wolf’s hot seed jetted into him through that throbbing shaft, his ring stretching against Varyn’s knot. He quivered on the razor edge of ecstasy for several timeless, eternal seconds, and then the wolf’s strong fingers tipped the balance, sending him crashing down into the cool waters of release.

For a few precious moments more, he savoured the mix of sensations – the cool water all around, the weight of Varyn’s body, the hot hardness of his shaft, the warm, liquid pressure of his seed. Then the wolf stirred, drawing back, pulling out of him, and sending a renewed frisson of sensation through his body.

And then they were apart, Varyn’s massive hands running along Tasven’s sides, coaxing him out of the tumbling water. It was with mild bemusement but no real surprise that Tasven found ice crystals on his arms, out of the water as they had been; indeed, as they picked up their gear and started back toward camp, one or both of them crackled with each step.

“We truly should do that more often,” Varyn observed, brushing at his muzzle to keep his eyes clear of frost.

“That’s the truth,” sighed Tasven. “One of these days, I should just tell my father I need to broaden my horizons, and travel along with you.”

“Or at least in much the same direction.” The wolf grinned. “If you’re not right along with us, I won’t need to know how many other people you’re seducing.”

Tasven couldn’t help but laugh. “Would you really mind so much? Besides, I doubt you and Kob have lacked for other company in my absence.”

“Perhaps not, my beautiful sorcerer, but why risk getting at all bored with each other?”

That, the ermine couldn’t reply to. Varyn knew him too well indeed, him and his wanderlust; and while Tasven wouldn’t ever think it warranted apology, some things just didn’t befit joking around, either. He just smiled and walked the rest of the way in silence. Varyn smiled as well, understanding, as he usually did.

Kob looked up as they neared the fire, and flashed them a crooked smile. “You know, on the one hand you two look kind of neat all glistening like that. On the other – just looking at you makes me feel colder than I already am!”

Varyn laughed as he stowed his belongings in the tent. “Perhaps you should take Tasven up on his offer to borrow that ring sometime, hm? You might enjoy it that way.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. Come on, now, you’re just in time to eat!”

The joking waned as the night drew closer. All of them were on edge, always craning their necks to watch for any sign that noiseless undead might be approaching. It was no cozy huddle in bed tonight; Varyn and Kob split the watch, giving Tasven the full night’s sleep he needed to replenish his spell power. Thankfully, the night was just as uneventful as the day’s travel had been.

It was a sober group that broke camp the next morning. Each of them kept their weapons at hand, and Tasven’s familiar took the place atop the weasel’s pack that he usually did when trouble might be afoot. Once they’d negotiated the steep, narrow path up the cliff, their destination lay before them: a patch of black amidst the white mound ahead.

It was not unguarded, but the sentries were merely a handful of skeletons that had likely found their way outside as much by accident as anything else. Mindless and unco-ordinated, they didn’t pose any significant threat at all.

That was a lucky break, and they all knew it. They wasted no time. Varyn enspelled his mace to glow bright as a torch, and they headed inside. Once more, Kob took point, his sensitive feline eyes better able to pierce the gloom, and Varyn held the rear.

They did not speak; even their breathing sounded too loud amidst the dead silence, much less the rattle of Varyn’s armour. When they needed to communicate, it was by hand signal.

They’d been searching for an hour when the scrape of metal alerted them. Varyn and Kob instantly moved inward, toward Tasven. The weasel was already concentrating, touching his power. Arcane syllables shaped themselves on his tongue and drove the gestures of his hand. Seconds later, all of them were endowed with speed.

As shambling, skeletal monstrosities charged out of the darkness, Varyn let out a roar and charged forward, mace swinging. The glow that surrounded the weapon seemed to surge as it neared its first target – then it struck with a thunderclap, the thing falling apart, its unlife banished. The wolf swung on the rebound; again the mace connected, again the magic smote its target and cast it into oblivion.

It gave no special skill to its owner; it trailed no aura of flame. But powerful charms wreathed Varyn’s mace all the same, and its merest touch was often enough to send undead to their interrupted rest. The cleric charged into battle, turning blows on his darkwood shield or his mailed arm, then responding with deadly force. Kob swung his kris with all his might, hacking a mace-wielding skeleton until it finally clattered to pieces, then taking up the fallen mace as better suited to this foe.

Tasven, meanwhile, was at something of a disadvantage. These mindless skeletons were clumsy enough that he could, for the most part, stay out of the way, but he wasn’t so effective in a melee such as this; neither his chain nor his punch-daggers were well-suited to fleshless foes like these. He stayed on the edge of the battle, using his chain’s reach to advantage; occasionally the enchanted metal would tangle so thoroughly amidst a skeleton’s bones that it was ripped apart and vanquished when he yanked back, but for the most part he was harrying, watching for an opportunity.

A hiss of pain caught his attention – Kob, beset on all sides, hadn’t quite been able to evade the blow of one rusty sword, and it had marked his leg. Tasven picked out the one that would be hardest for Kob to deal with, and let his chain fall slack for a moment, drawing upon his power. A bolt of shimmering blue force leaped from his hand, splitting into three miniature comets that streaked toward his target.

Raw force did what a fine knife-thrust could not; even as the skeleton raised its ax for a blow, it shattered, bone dust filling the air as falling metal clanged on stone. Free to face both his remaining opponents, Kob ducked away from one and brought his borrowed mace upon the other’s skull. Varyn’s weapon quickly dispatched the last.

As suddenly as the attack had started, it was over. All lay still around them, their hoarse breathing the only sound. Varyn glanced at each of them, saw Kob clamping a hand on his leg, and moved his way, already intoning a spell of healing. Kob shivered and sighed as life energy poured into him, and stood upright once more.

“Thanks,” the cheetah said. “…But I don’t like this. Sure, there’s a lot of them, but even this many skeletons wouldn’t have posed that much trouble to that size of town. There’s got to be something worse in here – and something even worse controlling the first something.”

“Too right,” Varyn sighed. “And spells are at a premium. Until we find out what’s going on here, we’ll have to assume getting out will be worse than getting in.”

“I hate it when you’re right about things like that,” Tasven muttered, crouching so Drevin could hop onto his pack again. “Come on, then, let’s do it.”

Weapons at the ready, they moved onward.

They were not surprised again. They advanced with even more caution, making sure that each small nook and cranny was empty before moving past it. A few undead creatures lurched out to challenge them now and then, but they were ready, and needed not a single spell to dispatch them. They swept over the first floor of the tomb, and finally descended to the next.

The floor above had plainly been built for relatively common folk; the graves were small, sometimes jumbled together in a mass, and only a few sarcophagi were to be found. This was another matter. The halls had once been grand, and individual tombs were the rule, with platforms around the sarcophagi that had once borne treasures for display. A few small things still remained, but none of them was here to loot; they moved resolutely on.

A few of the animated skeletons they encountered, however, bore the treasures they had worn in life, and those little things found their way into Tasven’s pack.

Suddenly, as they crept along a broad hall, Kob held up his hand. The other two stopped, listening; moments later, they could hear it too – a sonorous chanting, in a language that felt like a rasp on bare skin.

If the source of that voice was undead, this was very, very bad.

Kob moved his hand in a wait-please gesture, creeping toward the corner in an eerie silence that the other two couldn’t have hoped to match; then he motioned them over, moving back to meet them halfway.

“There’s light through a door down there,” he hissed. “I think the voice is coming from there.”

“Magical?” Tasven asked.

The cheetah shook his head. “Flame.”

Varyn relaxed. “Liches don’t need light to see by,” he observed. “And I haven’t heard any seriously threatening spells. It’s all been Animate Dead.”

“Your mace is just a mace to the living,” Tasven hissed back.

The cleric answered with a grim nod. “I’ve two castings of Silence,” he whispered. “One to get us there. One for the enemy.”

It beat trying to sneak. Tasven nodded, and just as when he had been healed, made himself relax.

At least one of those castings, evidently, the cleric had prepared with more energy than normal, saving him from the need to speak a spell; he merely concentrated, making a series of sweeping gestures.

The sound of chanting cut off as though slashed by a knife. The scrape of bone on stone was audible no more. Even the whisper of wind through the crypt was gone.

Varyn looked between the other two, mouthed “Let’s go,” and started around the corner.

They made no attempt to sneak now; it was not necessary. The light coming from within the doorway was brighter than that cast by Varyn’s bespelled mace, and just as no sound permeated the zone of silence, they could be quite certain that no noise from within would be heard without. As they neared the door, Kob edged forward again, peering past it with one eye. His hand came up, closed in a fist.

Then he extended one finger, closed it again; waited a moment; spread all fingers wide, closed them, and immediately opened all but his thumb.

One major opponent – that would be the cleric they’d heard casting spells earlier. Nine lesser – no doubt skeletons and zombies raised by that same casting.

It was time. Varyn hefted his mace; Tasven gripped his chain, holding words of dispelling on his tongue. The cleric made a quick gesture, and the sounds of chanting moved in upon them once more. At least their approach hadn’t given any warning.

They charged. Kob was in first, raising a knife to throw even as he swung around to the side; Tasven rushed in after, moving the other way to size up the situation, with Varyn on his heels. They were in a large tomb, with sconces on the walls all bearing torches – real torches, guttering and spewing smoke into the air, without the clean glimmer of unending magical fire. The massive sarcophagus at the center of the tomb lay open, and a grey-cloaked figure on the near side of it was just turning to face them.

A crocodilian muzzle lined with teeth, repulsive, slimy skin, beady-black eyes – a troglodyte stared back at them, those gleaming eyes now narrowing in malevolence. The creature wasted no time, but made a sharp gesture – and now the mass of animated corpses and skeletons that occupied the room surged forward.

It quickly became apparent that Kob had misjudged; hidden in the remotest shadows, bodies that had otherwise lain still now rose from their coffins and biers, shambling forward to join the fight. There was no time to assign blame for that, though: things were plainly about to get nasty.

Varyn raised his heptacle over his head, shouting words of banishment. The very room seemed to brighten for a moment as it flooded with life energy. A half-dozen or so of the advancing things simply ceased to be – zombies fell motionless, skeletons collapsed into dust. But that still left a good several more undead to fight.

The trio set themselves to their task, swinging and dodging. Varyn bore the brunt of the assault, his mace flaring as it dispatched one horror after another back to its rest. But still they kept coming. Kob danced about the edge of the melee, his kris darting in for great effect against the fleshly opponents, and Tasven’s chain rattled and whirled, ripping through rotting flesh and entangling bone.

Finding himself some ways apart from the bulk of the action, the ermine paused to catch his breath and assess the situation. He’d been conserving his magic up to now, but if anything warranted its use, this was it. He considered – and saw Kob beset by a tangle of skeletons. Even half-shaken-apart, the things could still swing their rusty swords.

He acted without thought – he simply reached out with his power, twisting the fabric of the planes ever so slightly, creating a rift that opened on a vast well of positive energy. A beam of incandescent light lanced forth from his pointing finger, squarely striking the abomination that was about to strike at Kob’s unprotected back.

It was a mere sliver of energy, nothing like that bestowed upon Varyn’s mace – but it was enough. Damaged and weakened, the skeleton wasn’t able to withstand even that glimmer of positive energy; it collapsed into a heap of dust and bones.

An angry hiss brought his attention back to the dark cleric, who had up to this point been busy managing its undead minions. Now it reached into its cloak, drawing out a wicked flail. “Meddlersss!” it shrieked. “You ssshall pay for your interferenssse!” It tossed its cloak aside, revealing a studded leather jerkin beneath, bedecked with grim fetishes and bearing a twisted glyph on the breast.

As soon as that symbol was exposed to view, it suddenly flared, glowing with magical radiance. That glow sank hooks into Tasven’s soul – on that instant, a horrific agony gripped him. He staggered against the wall, not quite biting back a yell of pain.

A symbol of pain – one of the nastier things in a cleric’s bag of tricks. This one had probably been triggered by the very act of seeing it – though there’d be no point in looking away now; once activated, they simply kept radiating pain toward anyone who wasn’t either specifically protected from it – like its creator – or otherwise immune, as was the case with undead. It did not, however, do any actual damage itself. He focused on that thought: Painful though it might be, it could not hurt him. Tasven gritted his teeth and tried to think through the pain. He gathered his will as best he could, focusing magic in an attempt to shatter the symbol’s power.

He’d almost finished his spell when, fuddled by the pain, he missed a step in his weave. The tangle of half-formed magic evaporated in an impotent shower of glimmering motes.

He stumbled back with a curse, and the trio bunched together. “There’s holy ground somewhere – close,” Varyn hissed – and he, of course, would be the first to know. “Back into the hall, turn right – let’s go!”

That was a sentiment that didn’t need repeating. Pain might have been a major problem for the delicate work of casting spells, but it didn’t keep any of them from fighting against their clumsy opponents. Tasven kept his chain whirling while Varyn’s mace cleared a path.

Then they were out in the hall, and running. Bone clattered on stone behind them as the seemingly endless tide of undead gave chase, but the pain lost a bit of its edge as they put distance between themselves and that awful symbol. Blood left a trail on the stone, though – Varyn and Kob had both taken wounds in the skirmish, and Kob especially was struggling to stay upright. They couldn’t run forever – and if they stopped, Varyn would barely have time to cast a single spell before the fight was upon them again.

“That crypt, there!” Varyn pointed at a carved archway, which, alone of all the rooms they’d passed, still had a sturdy-looking wooden door across it. Kob was already pulling out a pick as they dashed up to the corner; he hit the wood with a gasp, tried the latch, and already had his pick jammed in before Tasven came to a halt by his shoulder. Drevin jumped down from Tasven’s pack, huddling by the cheetah’s side.

The ermine turned, words and gestures of haste springing to his mind. This time, his concentration held against the lingering pain, and magical energy flowed through him without interruption. He reached over and laid a hand on Varyn’s shoulder as the energy came to a head and discharged, once more lending them speed – a speed of limb that wouldn’t help Kob’s delicate task, but let the other two face the oncoming horde with a bit of an edge.

Tasven kept his chain whirling, snapping against bone and ripping through rotting flesh. Another burst of Varyn’s holy power dropped the front rank into a mouldering heap, and then he kept his mace at the ready, swinging hard at anything that breached the perimeter set by Tasven’s dancing chain.

Even if the mace’s enchantment didn’t come to life, the power behind the wolf’s blows was enough to knock the things back and out of the way.

At last there was a click behind them, a barely-audible creak as Kob pulled the door open. Tasven shouted at Varyn to get through first; then, with one final sweep of his chain, he dove through the opening himself.

The door slammed shut behind him, and Kob slid the bar back in place and latched it down. The din of battle subsided, leaving, once again, only their own breathing. Yet, somehow, the silence was not oppressive, but comforting – a stillness that was not of death, but of peace.

Sconces around the wall of the crypt held globes of carved quartz, each sheathed in the blue-white glow of unending magical fire, making this place far better-lit than any they’d encountered since leaving the surface. The stone had cracked in a few places, and dust had settled upon it, but for the most part it was white and pristine.

Varyn glanced at the door. “They’re not coming after us,” he observed. “Only that awful priest in person could make them do that – and I think he’d be reluctant to come until he’s had some time to prepare.” He straightened. “Rest easy, Kob, this will just be a moment…” He started intoning the words of a spell.

Tasven took the opportunity to look around. This had obviously been the burial-place of someone important. A pedestal fountain, now dry, stood at the center of the vaulted room; beyond, on a raised dais, was a sealed stone sarcophagus, complete with a heavy metal effigy, presumably of its occupant. Standing over that sarcophagus, carved into a niche in the wall, was a stone statue of a lean yet imposing fox, arms crossed over his chest.

Metal glinted from his hands.

“Who was that?” Kob breathed, coming up by his shoulder. “There’s writing all around the crypt…”

“Not a language I can read,” Varyn murmured, joining them.

Tasven looked a little closer at the inscription around the rim of the sarcophagus. It… resisted the eyes, somehow; it did not want to be looked at closely.

That, right there, told him what he needed to know.

“It’s magical,” he declared, stepping forward. The trick to deciphering such writings was something every neophyte wizard knew; most sorcerers, Tasven included, picked it up early on as an essential skill. One simply had to read it under a sort of… magical illumination.

He reached into one of the side pouches of his pack, and felt something small, hard, and angular under his fingers; he pulled out a prism of quartz, and used that to focus a small tendril of magical energy.

The runes seemed to writhe before his eyes, settling into a more familiar pattern. “Jezin the Witch-slayer,” he breathed, tracing the runes with his fingers. It was a bit unusual, that magical writing – usually a guide to the forces of magic itself – should be used for a mundane inscription, but somehow the meaning came across.

“Yes, of course,” Varyn whispered. “One of the greatest necromancer-hunters this part of the world has ever seen. No wonder he was laid to rest in holy ground; the first necromancer to pass through would have gladly taken the opportunity to raise his remains, otherwise.”

“That’s about it,” Tasven confirmed, still reading. “‘May his memory not be profaned by foul unlife, and his tools remain ready should the need for them rise again.’ His tools…”

He glanced up at the statue. The hands were shaped to keep a loose grip on what they held – in this case, a pair of cross-braced grips, each sporting a metal blade, jagged-edged and with a split down the middle, the steel seeming to gleam a little more than the light should make it.

“Jezin’s Shadow Claws,” he whispered. “These must have been the very weapons he wielded in battle.”

“Punch daggers?” said Kob. “Seems a bit of an odd choice for a fighter.”

“Jezin was a shadowdancer,” Varyn corrected. “His calling-card was that he turned the enemy’s darkness against itself. Oh yes, he quite often got up close and personal.”

“‘Should the need rise again,'” Tasven repeated. “Well, we certainly need any edge we can get.”

Kob stiffened. “You can’t be thinking – “

“They weren’t entombed with him,” Varyn pointed out, cutting him off. “They were… left behind, for another generation.”

Trying to keep his fingers from trembling, Tasven reached up. Dust had made a slight weld over the years, but with barely a wiggle, the hilt came free, sliding upward with the rasp of metal on stone. First one, then the other; his hands slid around the grips, the weight feeling somehow comforting, right.

He stepped back and whirled, slicing at the air. The blades moved as extensions of his arms, exquisitely balanced, gleaming razor-sharp despite their age, seeming to cut into the air itself. He dropped into a low stance, one blade forward, the other held high and back, at the ready; they were balanced perfectly.

“These will do quite nicely,” he declared, grinning. A bit more of a punch behind the blow would probably help against the sort of things they’d been fighting – but these were of far greater quality than his old blades. Probably enchanted, to boot.

“They are nasty-looking things,” Kob observed. “What’s with the gap in the middle?”

“Makes them more flexible,” Tasven explained. “The tips actually squeeze together a bit on the way in. When they’re pulled out, though…” He traced a finger along the hooked edge of one blade. “These tines dig in, and the blade pulls apart to dig in even more.”

Varyn grimaced. “Unpleasant. But then, that’s the idea.”

“Exactly.” Tasven carefully set the daggers down, and reached once more into his pack, this time pulling out a few spare lengths of cloth. He loosened his old daggers in their ankle sheaths, wrapped them in cloth, and tucked them away. The fine metalwork of the new weapons looked almost out of place against the plain leather of the scabbards as he sheathed them.

Kob sat down heavily, shuddering as he leaned against the sarcophagus. “Damn it. How long do those symbols last?”

“The symbol itself? At least an hour and a half, depends on how powerful its creator was.” Varyn draped an arm around the cheetah, hugging him against the wolf’s side. “I’m afraid we’ll be feeling it for an hour or so. Awful things.”

“Let’s try to sleep it off,” Tasven suggested. “Those things aren’t cheap to make; if we can outlast it, and get our spells back at the same time, we’ll be at an advantage next time.”

Grimly, Varyn nodded. It was an unpleasant prospect, but they really didn’t have any way to get rid of the affliction other than that.

Varyn kept first watch, while the other two slept, fitfully at first, given the stabbing pain that lingered for the next while. Then, presumably, Kob took over; when Tasven was shaken awake, a stiffness in his body let him know he’d slept a good long time. In silence, he started his meditation. He hadn’t used that many of his spells, so it didn’t take long; he’d just finished clearing his mind, though, when he noticed Kob was getting uneasy.

“Something’s close,” Kob whispered. “He knows we’re in here – probably try to smoke us out.” He jerked his chin toward the door.

“He’s probably restored his own spells as well,” Varyn mused. “Hopefully, though, he won’t have a chance to use them.” He grinned.

“I can cast most of my spells in silence,” Tasven observed. “It just takes a bit more time, and a bit more power, to focus.”

Varyn nodded. “I’ve prepared some of my spells similarly. So. First – Tasven, speed us up. Then I’ll center a zone of silence on you.” The weasel nodded. “Then we unlock the door and charge forth.”

“Actually, hold on,” Tasven murmured. “I’ve got an idea. Our clerical friend out there won’t be as effective if he can’t see. A bit of Glitterdust should dazzle him.”

“And depending on what foul excuse for a god he worships, he might even be invisible,” Varyn noted. “All right. Once you start fighting, then I’ll put on the Silence. Expect it.”

“Right,” Tasven agreed. “Okay. Ready?”

The others nodded.

The first thing Tasven did was to boost his own strength. Then he sheathed himself in protective force, and once again lent the three of them with heightened speed. Once that was done, they had no time to lose; as Varyn threw the bolt aside and shoved the door open, Tasven was already starting his next cast.

A mob of shambling monstrosities shuffled around outside, staying back a few feet from the door; doubtless at the border of the consecrated ground. The cleric was nowhere to be seen – but he thought he saw a gap in their ranks.

That gap was where he flung his spell, an orb of energy leaping forth to the spot he indicated, then bursting – and everything in the area, every skeleton and zombie, was instantly covered with a bright, glimmering dust.

Including the now-clear outline of a robed lizardfolk cleric.

That cleric recoiled with a scream, clutching at his face. The undead milled in uncertainty, and Tasven stepped into the gap, katars at the ready, relaxing his innate magical guard.

Once more, sound ceased to be.

Tasven charged, hacking once, twice, three times at the nearest zombie. The first two blows each took off an arm; the last drove straight into its chest and ran it through. As he drew his hand back, the thing collapsed, its unlife broken.

Varyn stepped through behind him, occasional flares of light signalling the potent enchantment on his mace. And, no doubt, Kob was there as well, darting here, striking there, making a thorough nuisance of himself.

Tasven didn’t want to waste time on these impotent things, though. Bobbing and weaving, he focused on another spell; the strain of keeping his spell intact without devoting all his attention to it would previously have seemed nigh-impossible, but compared to the searing pain of the now-vanished symbol, it was hardly a challenge at all. Shimmering globes of force streaked forth, pummeling the cleric’s outline even as he was starting to recover his balance.

The advantage this time was clearly theirs. They ploughed through the undead ranks, and, still blinded by the glimmering dust, the fell cleric could only thrust in all directions around him; by the time the glitter faded about half a minute later, even though the trio had also lost their preternatural speed, they’d hacked their way to a clearly superior position.

The lizardman cast a glare of pure hatred their way, and gestured.

The thing that lurched into the fray was much better-preserved than a typical zombie; instead of rotting, its flesh had dessicated, pulling tight to the bones. Its eyes gleamed with evil cunning, and it seemed to radiate evil as it raised clawed hands to attack.

Varyn charged forward, deflecting the first blow of the ghoul’s claws with the haft of his mace; while he kept it busy, Tasven cut down one more animated skeleton and found himself face-to-face with its master.

The lizardman had no small amount of skill with his flail, but even without magical speed, Tasven was still quite agile, and the pure strength which still flowed through him bolstered his ability, allowed him to smash through defences that would otherwise have turned his blows aside. Sparks flew as their weapons met again and again, all in the eerie, magical silence.

More than once, that flail came close to smashing into him; he just barely managed to turn each attempt into glancing blows. He was tiring – but so was his opponent, burdened by armour and swinging a much heavier weapon.

Finally, just as Tasven was making ready to swing, he saw that the flail was low and off to the side.

He turned his swing into a stab, putting his whole weight behind his arm. The tips of the blade’s tines struck leather, not one of the metal studs, and with barely a lurch the weapon sliced through the tough jerkin, driving into the flesh beneath and slamming between the lizard’s ribs.

Its final expression, before all intelligence left its eyes, was one of shock.

Their controller’s will had been keeping the undead together, but it wasn’t all that kept them animate; they still milled around, striking mindlessly at the living. But a flare from Varyn’s mace signalled that the ghoul had been undone, and he raised his heptacle again, a burst of life-energy shattering a good number of those that remained. After what they’d just been through, destroying the last remnants of the undead mob didn’t present a particular challenge.

All three of them had some scratches and bruises, but they’d escaped without debilitating injury. Varyn dismissed the supernatural silence, and the sound of hoarse panting suddenly filled their ears. But beyond that, all was still.

Varyn’s healing magic left them revitalised, and they finished their search of the place. Some of the things the dead cleric had collected were truly vile, but Varyn assured them that the Church would still pay well for them to be turned in and properly disposed of; and, of course, the lizard had amassed a fair bit of material wealth, mostly in various gems to power his dark spells, which as yet were just mundane but valuable rocks. Those, and a few rolled-up parchment scrolls whose contents were as yet unknown, went into Tasven’s pack.

The sun was rising as they reached the exit of the tomb, shining in their eyes as they hiked east along the cliff. They were triumphant, but they were also tired; their journey back toward Dregen was marked by much less banter and play than the start of their trip out had been.

No walking dead interrupted their journey; not even any hostile wildlife crossed their path. And when they trudged into the gates of Dregen two days later, the town already knew something had changed; there was much more bustle and livelihood in the streets, and there was an almost festival air to the place.

In the Broken Blade, it seemed that “happy hour” had expanded to include the entire afternoon; the laughing and singing and shouting could be heard halfway up the road, and by the time they got up to the door, all three of them had their ears flat against the noise. They exchanged glances, and shook their heads; there’d be time enough later to drop in on old Kenji. Instead, Tasven lead his companions across the village, to a place called the Root and Bough, where none of the libations served were alcoholic and the main attractions were books instead of bards. Tasven had never stayed there; it was quite a bit more expensive than his usual fare. But today, that peace and quiet seemed to be worth the price.

The publican, a sleek and young-looking ferret whom Tasven knew as Dimella, smiled as they entered, bowing over the counter. As she straightened, her expression waxed sympathetic. “Hard journey, men? I told Kenji you’d be in no shape for carousing when you got back.”

“It’s been a busy couple of days,” Tasven sighed.

“No doubt.” She glanced down at her register, flipped a few pages, then drew an inkwell and quill toward her. “Perhaps you’d like some comfortable beds for a night or two? On the house, of course; it’s the least I could do.”

Kob groaned, and managed a stiff bow of his own. “My lady, you are surely a gift to this world from the gods themselves.”

Varyn bit his lip. “I really should take care of those things we found,” he murmured to Tasven.

The ermine laughed. “Do that, then you can come back and sleep with a clear conscience, hm?”

“Do drop off your things here first, though,” Dimella invited.

She left her steward in charge for a while, and they all trooped upstairs. Kob staggered into the first room at her invitation, and collapsed right onto the bed with a groan; he was just kicking off his boots as the landlady tactfully shut the door. Varyn paused at the next one to drop off his pack, and took Tasven’s instead. “This may take a couple hours,” he said to the ermine, and with a bow and a word of thanks to Dimella, went downstairs again.

The ferret leaned against the next door, fingers tapping on the handle. “You seem to have a fair bit more energy than your companions, Tasven,” she observed with a soft chuckle.

There wasn’t much point in denying it; Tasven shrugged. “Poor Kob’s taken a fair bit of punishment over the past week, and Varyn’s had to keep all of us patched together. I don’t blame them for being tired.”

“Well, it’s good that you got back here in one piece. The rest of the town is counting eggs before they’re hatched, but I gather you were successful?” She started down the hallway, not stopping at the next room as he expected, but leading him onward in a swirl of skirts; he scrambled to catch up.

“So it seems,” he replied. “There was a troglodyte cleric in the tombs, doing the things they do. Won’t be bothering us any longer. If it caused enough of a lull that people noticed so soon, I guess it worked – there are probably still some out there, but at least they’re not being driven.”

“Nobody else has been so bold as to take credit,” said Dimella, fishing a key out of a pocket Tasven hadn’t known her dress had – maybe she carried it in her sleeve. “So it’d be my guess that what you three did has saved the day. The town guard might not be happy about being outdone.” Coming to a halt, she pursed her lips and gave her head a shake. “But they did what they needed to. There were a few attacks over the last few days – they were pushed back easily enough, but how many could the guard have spared? They had no way to know.”

“That’s true enough,” Tasven said. “They’d have had to act sometime, though.”

“Yes. Oh, but where are my manners?” She let out a soft peal of laughter, unlocking the stout door she’d paused at and pushing it open. “Do come in for a while, Tasven, and tell me of your adventure. And others that came before, maybe.”

“I’m not sure how much there is to tell,” he replied. The suite he followed her into was larger, but also more lived-in, than the ones his friends had occupied. It was decorated in the same tasteful manner as the rest of the Root and Bough, in greens and earth tones, the furniture well-carved but not ornate, including the sturdy desk that looked quite well-used, parchments scattered across it, mostly but not entirely in neat piles. “Most of the time it’s quite boring, and the moments of action I rarely have time to pay close attention to.” Certain details he simply had no intention of sharing. He would admit to being proud and vain, but his lovers deserved better than being carolled across the land as conquests.

“Come now,” Dimella laughed, reaching up to brush her fingers along his chin. “No exciting, epic moments come to mind?”

The touch had caught him off-guard, and brought with it a puff of scent wafting from her sleeve. He didn’t pretend to know flowers, but whatever she’d chosen was a nice blend of them indeed – not too sweet, but a subtle interplay that went quite well with the faint tinge of her natural musk.

He couldn’t really be about to claim his life had been boring and leave it at that, could he?

He smiled, tilting his muzzle to plant a soft kiss on Dimella’s palm. “Well, I suppose I could think of a few things.”

They sat down in front of the fireplace, the embers radiating a warm red glow. He slid off his boots and set his feet on a hassock; she produced a bottle from a side cabinet, filled a few glasses with deep red one, and placed one of them in his hand as she sat in the next chair over, hands tucked into her sleeves. It was, he discovered, very good wine.

He told her of their flight through the catacombs, wracked by the symbol of pain, their steps hounded by the walking dead and their stinking master. Of how Varyn had sensed the holiness in one tomb among many, and guided them toward that safety. Of their desperate defence while Kob worked his art under the most pressure he’d done so to date. Of how they’d taken refuge in that crypt, and found themselves in the resting place of one who had dedicated his life to hunting down the very sort of threat that had driven them there – and of how they had discovered the tools that one had used, dedicated to the next generation.

“And are those the ones?” she broke in, one slender hand gesturing toward his ankles, the blades still strapped to them, but tied to their sheaths before entering the town.

“That they are.” He bent over to undo the straps around his right leg. A soft murmur, a gesture, a moment of concentration was all it took to unravel the knots, and he carefully drew the katar out of its resting-place. “I need to get better scabbards commissioned for them, really…”

By the way she’d looked at the sheathed knives, he’d figured she was not shy of weapons, as some folk – especially some “well-raised” ladies – were. He was right; her eyes lit as she looked over the fine craftsmanship, even as a caution lingered there in respect for their lethal intent. Her hand reached forward, then paused. Carefully, he shifted his grip to hold onto the guard, easing the handle into her palm; she hefted it inexpertly, but with that same respect and appreciation.

“I’ve heard of Jezin, of course,” she said, passing the weapon back to him and watching him lash it back into its scabbard. “But to hold the Shadow Claws themselves…” She laughed, reaching over to pat his knee. “And to think you were going to pass this off as uninteresting?”

“Can’t imagine what came over me,” Tasven laughed, setting his hand atop hers.

She turned hers over, squeezing his. “Tasven… I draw, from time to time. I wonder if you might model for me, with those?” He was about to reply when she added, “And nothing else?”

He blinked. Had he, somewhere along the line, made a very big error in his assessment of the upstanding publican Dimella? Specifically, on the pastimes she enjoyed? “You mean, without…” He tugged at his shirt with his free hand.

She laughed. “Or the rest, yes,” she purred. “Just those two scabbards and the knives they hold. I’m sure I could come up with suitable… compensation, for the dashing hero of the day.” She leaned toward him, dark eyes sparkling as her thumb rubbed along his.

Apparently he had. “Dimella, I don’t know what to say.” His surprise was such that he almost had trouble even keeping his voice steady. Almost. “I mean, I’m – what? – half your age, if that.”

“And you speak not of my age, but yours,” she mused. “That tells me, Tasven, that you don’t think I’m too old – but that you’re too young, maybe?”

He shrugged. “I suppose that’s what I was thinking.” It certainly wasn’t that he’d object to her; he just hadn’t seen it as something that’d happen.

Another laugh. “And what does it matter? You’ve lived well enough to make up for the difference. You’re very handsome, Tasven, and I’m sure there’s a very sweet man under that roguish image you try to show. I’m not asking for your life – just a tiny little portion of it.”

She’d moved over to sit on the arm of his chair at some point; how silly of him to not have noticed it. He turned his muzzle up a little bit, leaning in to nudge his nose against hers. “I wouldn’t have many lovers if I kept making them want better,” he chuckled.

So did she. “That’s more like it.” Her hand squeezed his again. “So will you sit for me? Or shall we just move on to other things?”

“Tempting as those other things are, I assure you,” he laughed, “if you want to see me naked for a while, and to have a physical record of it, who am I to complain?”

She rose and tugged her chair back from the fire; curious, Tasven followed her lead, and stayed out of the way while she went to a closet, pulling out of it a fur throw rug bigger than she was.

He wasn’t sure what beast had supplied the fur, but it was thick, lush, and, as he ran a hand along it, smooth as silk. “This must’ve cost a bundle,” he murmured. Even his well-to-do family hadn’t had the like.

“I knew the person who got the fur, so not really,” Dimella laughed, laying it out before the fire. “It probably could, but it’s not for the value that I keep it.”

That was fair enough. Tasven nodded, starting to loosen the laces of his shirt.

She brought a hand up to his to stop him. “Allow me?”

So he did. He let her finish unlacing his shirt, straightening his arms so she could slide it off him, leaning in close as she did, her breath warm on her chest. Encouraged by that closeness, assured that this was going to be more than just a modelling session, he ran the tip of a claw behind her ear as she crouched down, head tilting into the touch while she tugged at his belt. Once she’d got that open, rather than working on his trousers any more yet, she moved her hands down along his leg; catching her aim, he lifted that foot up, making it a little easier for her to loosen the straps of his scabbard.

She set that aside almost reverently, then did the same for his other dagger. Only then did she bring her hands back upward, loosening his trousers and slipping them down. For all the casual contact that had come before, now she was almost professional about it. She did smile up at him as she undid his breechcloth and drew it away, but she didn’t touch, didn’t let even a slight wisp of her breath wash across his groin.

That didn’t keep him from being at least somewhat aroused, but he took it in the spirit in which it was apparently meant. She didn’t want to tease him too much when she’d be leaving him alone – and expecting him to sit still – for quite a while.

He wouldn’t have minded, but he did appreciate the thought.

She offered him a pillow, but it turned out that the fur was more than soft enough – and thick enough – for him to do without. A quick spell cleaned off the grime of travel and left his pelt shining; it wasn’t as satisfying as an honest bath, but it’d do for now.

She had him sit with one leg bent, the other out to the side for balance. He held the blades in his hands, wrists crossed and resting atop his bent knee. His familiar clamoured for some attention of his own; in the end Dimella had the cat lying in the slight crook of Tasven’s outstretched leg, stretched out on his side in even more overt relaxation than his master.

Of course, the cat would stay in that sort of position for hours a day anyway. Tasven’s was a little more demanding, though relaxed enough that it wasn’t troublesome. And once she’d set her easel up to one side and started sketching, she was good about letting him know where she was working so that he could fidget somewhere else and keep limber.

In a far shorter time than he expected, an hour at most, she announced that she was done.

He blinked. “That’s it?”

“I just wanted a sketch,” she laughed. “I’ll fill it in properly later. I don’t think I need to worry about forgetting you.”

“Careful.” He grinned. “I could get used to flattery like that.”

“Oh, you!” She laughed again, settling a cover over the easel and sauntering toward him. “It’s true, though. You do stand out a good deal. This, for instance.” She slid her fingers under his garnet pendant, lifting it up from his chest for a moment. “And here.” Her delicate fingers gave a caress to the rim of his ear, stirring the rings that pierced through it. “You do shine a great deal.”

He closed his eyes, took a breath, and swallowed. “Has anyone told you,” he husked, “that you have very nice fingers?”

“Oh, so you like this, I see.” She chuckled, fingers gliding along his collarbone. “Mmm, very much indeed. Is that why you wear these things, then? To call attention to those spots?”

“Makes for a good excuse, wouldn’t you say?”

She laughed again – he never really got tired of hearing her do so. “At any rate, from the dust you slid off your lovely fur earlier, I’m imagining, even if you are clean, you’d still enjoy a warm bath?”

“Have you been training to be a telepath in your spare time?” he teased, smiling up at her.

“Because I’ve so much of it, after all?” She smiled, ruffling the fur between his ears. “I recognise it because I feel that way myself, is all. So why don’t you go into that room there, and draw yourself a good, warm bath? Not too much, though…” The tips of her claws dragged behind the base of his ear, making him shiver. “I’ll be joining you presently.”

“That’s almost the most welcome thing I’ve heard all day,” he replied, stretching a little. His leg nudged Drevin, the tabby making a great show of scrambling to his feet, glaring at him, and taking a few slow, deliberate steps to stretch out on the hearth.

“Pampered little fleabag.” Tasven smiled, shook his head, and got up to his feet.

Dimella’s bathing chamber was not particularly large or ornate; it, in keeping with the rest of the inn, was tasteful and well-equipped. The dark woods suggested opulence without ostentation; the shelves had towels that looked soft enough to drown in themselves; and the tub…

Well, the tub was definitely the room’s focus, and with good reason. It was finely built, but that wasn’t all. It was large – certainly some slender people like himself and the ferret would have no problem sharing it. It bore inlaid runes about its surface, traceries that didn’t spell out words as such, but evoked images to a magical eye. He didn’t bother to decipher it; just by seeing its form, he could find images of water, of warmth and cold, of purification.

He dragged his finger along an inlaid strip of jade, and the tub was half-full of water; another strip, this one a glass tube that apparently contained a mix of turquoise and cinnabar dust – mostly red at one end, mostly blue at the other – responded to his touch by making the water steam slightly.

This sort of convenience was part of the Root and Bough’s price tag, though perhaps this was slightly more sumptuous than those available to the guests.

There was no longer any dust for the water to lift off of his pelt, but even if there were, he knew, the water would be purified and cleaned almost instantly. It wasn’t just the tub – it had been built into this room, and invocations were woven into the very architecture; the tub was just the focus. Impossible to take on the road – but it meant that an otherwise potent enchantment was relatively cheap to make. Relatively.

Cheap or otherwise, it did its job very well indeed. A bit of fiddling got the water at a perfect temperature, hot but bearable, and he slid in the rest of the way, letting a soft moan slip out of him as the water welcomed him, sliding up his legs, caressing his balls and the bare skin of his shaft, wrapping around his chest in a fine embrace.

A musical laugh came from over by the door. “I gather you needed that,” Dimella murmured, sidling over to the tub, clad now in only a dark grey robe.

He couldn’t help but laugh in turn. “Did you send me in here just so I wouldn’t see the secret to how you manage that intricate puzzle you call clothing?”

She chuckled, dipping a hand in the water and splashing some up to tickle his whiskers. “I had to make arrangements not to be disturbed for a while,” she explained. “For one thing, someone will show your friend back to his room once he gets there, and both will have food available when they wish. My steward will handle anything out of the ordinary for a while. So for now,” she paused, sliding the robe off her shoulders and letting it flutter to the floor, “we’re alone.”

He grinned up at her, sinking a bit lower in the water as she stepped into place above him. She was lovely – not, perhaps, in that lush, curvaceous way favoured by some races. Hers was a sleek, understated sort of beauty, her curves almost hidden by her pelt, traced by his hands as he slid them up along her body, her breasts modest, easily fitting into his palms as she settled into the water with him.

There was no more need for banter. Their muzzles met, heads tilting so that they might seal tight together, tongues dancing with one another, exploring each other’s mouths. Her hands slid up under his shoulders, his arms wrapping around her, drawing her down against him, his swelling maleness pressing against her thigh.

He disentangled one of his arms, chuckling to himself as she beat him to the thought, one of her hands sliding down along his back. Each roving hand took its time, taking the opportunity to feel the warm, slender body under it. Her hand reached hip height first, but stalled there, kneading his rear, teasing under his tail and making him shiver and moan – oh, yes, she knew full well he enjoyed male company as well. Not knowing her own tastes along those lines, and not wanting to risk spoiling the moment, he let his hand circle around front, venturing between her thighs, caressing her folds.

She gasped against him, whimpering into their tight kiss, her other hand clenching so tight on his shoulder that claws prickled at his skin. So he let his fingers dance there a little longer, stroking up and down, caressing the sensitive button just above. She squirmed atop him, her leg rubbing against his shaft, teasing the flare of his aching glans with her coarse fur. She wasn’t content with that, though, drawing back just a little, giving her enough room to wrap her fingers around his manhood, squeezing it, stroking slowly from base to tip and back.

He could have been happy enough keeping to that. Judging by the way she suddenly stiffened, whimpering into their tight kiss, panting over his cheek and squeezing her thighs around his hand, to say that she enjoyed it would be gross understatement indeed. But she wasn’t content with that; she’d barely calmed down from that moment before she shifted against him, rising up a little, tilting his shaft toward her and sinking toward him again.

He broke from the kiss with a gasp. By all the good gods, she was tight around him – and warm, so very, very warm. He wrapped both arms around her, trembling as her heat slid down around his length, inch by inch. It was a good thing they’d had the bit of warm up they had; even as it was she had to pause a few times on the way down. But she never drew away; she kept going, a bit at a time, until her thighs pressed against his hips, his length buried to the hilt in her warm tunnel.

“Tasven,” she whispered, planting a kiss in the hollow of his collarbone. “Beautiful Tasven. If I could keep you here, we could have such wonderful times.”

He brushed his lips against her brow. “I know we would,” he murmured. At this moment, as he rested inside her, he couldn’t bear to say what they both knew; that come morning, he would have to move on, to walk down that road, crest that hill.

Her muzzle tilted up a little, her breath warm on his throat. “Try to visit sometimes?”

“Whenever I’m in this part of the world,” he breathed over her ears. To have something like this to return to, now and then… it’d be worth a long trip indeed.

They said nothing more; words, at this point, would only kill the mood. They rocked against each other, bodies and sexes rubbing together in a constant, fluid caress, all the while the hot water suffused their fur and wrapped them together.

She shuddered against him, muffling a whimper into her shoulder, fingers clutching at his shoulders again. This time, her claws pushed in hard enough to sting – but even that bit of pain was drowned out by the way her tunnel squeezed around him, stroking him with a touch smoother than the finest velvet, yet strong as a fist, caressing every inch of his taut skin.

He squeezed her close against him as his climax rushed over him, his breath wafting out over her ears, somewhere between a sigh and a moan. He knew he was trembling but couldn’t bring himself to do a thing about it; he just held her, let her hold him, and let jet after thick, hot jet of his seed shoot into her depths. Even when it was done, still he held her, the warmth of her body – against his chest and around his member – making him dizzy.

She, too, seemed quite content to stay there, even as his length softened somewhat, resting a little more comfortably inside her. She brought a hand up to his cheek, brushing her lips against his jaw. “I’ll miss you, you know. Especially after this.”

He shook his head, rubbing gently behind her ear. “I’ll remember you, Dimella,” he promised, brushing his lips against her brow again. “If you can put up with me saying that of so many others… I’ll remember you quite fondly indeed.”

She laughed, patting his cheek. “I don’t think I could keep up with you anyway. Just know that you’ve a place here whenever you want it, for however long you need.”

He smiled, tilting his head down and lifting up on her chin, nudging his nose against hers. “I just might hold you to that,” he murmured.

They parted sometime later – she to return to her work, he to go to his own assigned room and follow Kob’s lead. He woke sometime during the night, feeling uncomfortably hot; a fire had been laid in the room’s hearth earlier, and though it had since burned down to ash, it had still left the place very warm. He strapped on his daggers – even in the middle of town, one could never be too careful – and stepped onto the balcony.

There was still a festive mood in the town, even this late; the sounds of laughter and of untrained but enthusiastic singing drifted up to his ears, interspersed with the occasional raucous laugh or titter. The people were safe, and for that they were happy.

That was not Tasven’s way. He wanted more challenges, craved the thrill that came from looking death in the eye and getting away in one piece. He needed to move on and face something bigger than he had these last few days.

He drew his daggers, gripping the handles tight, angling the dark metal blades so that moonlight glinted off them. With such as these, he was a little better-equipped to handle such challenges.

They would wait for another day, though. For now, he and his friends had earned their rest, and he for one planned to enjoy it.