It took Vernon longer than usual to find his name on the chore roster.

Granted, that was the result of habit. Different apprentices were at the Academy to study somewhat different things – all under the broad aegis of magic, yes, but there was little in common between a biomancer’s work and a pyromancer’s, say, beyond the very basic underpinnings. So, having seen his name confined to some sections of that roster for two and a half years, when the young man didn’t find his name there at first glance, he checked again – twice – before letting his gaze roam farther.

There it was. But…

He looked around. Off to his left was Rolund, the journeyman who taught the basic elements of conjuration; all things considered, that seemed like a good person to ask. “Pardon me, Instructor Rolund?”

The mouse turned his attention away from the line of apprentices filing out of the common room. “Yes, Vernon?”

The tiger drew a deep breath, composing his words. “About today’s chores – it says on the list I’m to collect hellhound essence…”

For a moment Vernon thought he saw a smile on Rolund’s face, but when he looked more closely it was nowhere to be found. Levelly, the mouse prompted, “Yes?”

“I’ve never summoned anything bigger than a quasit. Where am I going to find a hellhound that won’t tear me apart?” The old saw about demons feasting on souls was so much dung, but the denizens of the Burning Land all tended toward the vicious; they had to, to survive. “And what sort of ‘essence’ am I supposed to collect, for that matter?”

“Oh, is that all you need to know? Well, then.” Rolund looked around; the last of the other apprentices was just vanishing through the door. “Mistress Tandi keeps a few on hand to guard the lower vaults. Come; I’ll show you the way there, and she’ll explain the rest.”

For the first part of the trek, Vernon tried to be a good, obedient apprentice. Around the second flight of stairs, though, curiosity and anxiety combined to break through his silence. “Why, by all that is holy, does the Academy have hellhounds? Isn’t that a trifle… hazardous?”

“Oh, no,” Rolund laughed. “Actually they’re quite easy to deal with – intelligent enough to reason with, yet not so keen that they get bored. So far as anyone can tell, they like having something to guard.”

“And they don’t mind having this… essence… collected?”

“Not at all. In here, now.” Rolund stopped by a door through which Vernon had never been, three storeys down in what had once been the dungeons, back when this was a castle. The stone was old, long worn smooth, but the door was newer; good, solid oak and gleaming metalwork. It swung open in silence when Rolund worked the latch.

The next room had presumably been a guard room at some point; now it was more of a lounge, and, despite the low ceiling and the cool stone all around, actually appeared rather comfortable. There was a fine desk, a few comfortable-looking wing chairs, all arranged near a hearth whose fire had faded to embers – a hearth, in a dungeon? Well, even the guards had needed to keep warm, perhaps.

Behind that desk was a middle-aged panthress, full-figured but stern-faced. Vernon had only seen her a few times before, in all his time at the Academy, but he’d have recognized the Mistress of Treasures even without Rolund naming her. She eyed the pair of them as they entered, tipping her head to Rolund in recognition, then letting her gaze linger on Vernon.

Rolund laid a hand on the tiger’s shoulder. “Vernon here will be helping with the, ah, collection this time around,” he explained. “I thought I’d make sure he didn’t get lost on the way.”

“And so he hasn’t.” Tandi’s voice was cool, but not hostile; almost distant. “Very good, Rolund, I’ll explain matters from here.” The mouse bowed, and let himself out.

The ensuing silence felt so damnably awkward. Vernon bit his lip, and bowed his head. “Mistress,” he greeted. He shut his mouth before he could go on; he’d wanted to explain, or admit, that he didn’t know what he was doing here, but her remark sounded like she already knew that.

“You haven’t met our guardians, have you?” A conspiratorial smile touched the panthress’s muzzle. “No worry. Torstalgir is almost gentle, so long as you meet him on the right terms. Why, I think he’ll even like you.”

There was something about the look she gave him, saying that, which made Vernon feel… naked. He shivered, biting his lip. “And he, uh… doesn’t mind this?”

“Oh, now why should he mind in the least?” Tandi purred, still looking Vernon over, even as she fished in her desk for something. “You’ve never actually seen the stuff you’ll be collecting, have you?”

“No, Mistress.” Vernon swallowed. “If I may ask, what is it used for?”

“Oh, a number of things. Alchemists use it for solutions that imbue strength, enchanters use it to give resistance to fire. But the finest enchanters use it to instill independent life in their creations. For golems and the like.”

Vernon blinked. That was a wide range of applications indeed. “How will I… collect it?” Blood was straightforward; he knew numbing-spells and calming-spells that helped with that. Plant essence, too, was simple if often painstaking. But he didn’t even know what he was to be getting, here…

Tandi paused with a glass flask in hand, brow arched. “Come now, Vernon. What do you think would be most useful for seeding a new life?”

That choice of word made the truth hit home.

“Wait, I’ll need to…” Vernon’s hand twitched at his side, fingers curling, then clenching into a fist.

The gesture didn’t go unnoticed. “So you do know what’s involved, then?” was Tandi’s dry observation. “Good.” She held out the flask; almost automatically, his other hand lifted, and she pressed the flask into it. “I’ll introduce you to him, and I’m sure the rest will follow.”

Vernon blinked down at the container. It was fine crystal glass, tingling under his fingers with enchantments of preservation; the stopper, also glass, was held in place with steel fastenings, and the grip bore a rune for Strength. Far from the tiny vials he was accustomed to which vanished in the palm of his hand, this flask was as long as the spread of his relaxed hand, thumb to small finger, and his thumb and middle finger barely met around its middle. “This flask seems… almost excessive, for one day.”

“Oh, he’ll have more than enough. So don’t worry if it gets… messy. Just bring it back when it’s full to the neck.”

The tiger bit his lip. All of a sudden he felt horrifically inadequate.

He swallowed. “And he’s… intelligent?”

Tandi didn’t answer right away; she seemed to be studying him. Sizing him up? “Smarter than any hound of this world. Smart enough to know who not to bite.”

“So what if he just doesn’t take a liking to me?” Vernon himself had sworn to do what he must in exchange for the knowledge he was being given, but if neither of them desired this…

“Tandi.”

Both of them jumped; it was all Vernon could do not to send the flask sailing across the room in startlement. The voice had been entirely unexpected, but there was nobody at this Academy who wouldn’t recognize it in an instant.

“You are needed above. I will oversee matters here,” the new speaker went on. He was a small man, a bespectacled grey rat in simple robes that matched his pelt, and he was leafing through a leather-bound tome; he looked like nothing so much as a clerk. He wasn’t even looking directly at the room’s other occupants. But under the mild words was a stern edge.

The panthress’s ears flattened back. “That little snake…”

The book snapped shut; the rat lifted his head, the beginnings of a frown touching his muzzle. “Do not test me, Tandi.”

The Mistress of Treasures swallowed. “Y-yes, Headmaster.” She bowed, a sharp, jerky motion, and scurried out to the stairwell.

And Vernon was left alone with the most powerful sorcerer in the land, still clutching that damnable flask.

“Vernon, is it?” Without waiting for a reply, Headmaster Saeed went on, “There has been an… irregularity in the scheduling. This task is not supposed to be the sole responsibility of one who’s never done it before. If you wish to continue your studies of conjuration, this is a task that will be expected of you… but it does not need to be today, and it does not need to be done alone.”

Vernon swallowed. Part of him wanted to leap on the chance he’d just been provided to back out. And yet part of him was curious… “I-I-I’m…” Damnation. He took a breath and tried again; he couldn’t quite keep his voice steady, but at least he drove past the stutter. “I’m sure it won’t be that bad, Headmaster. I mean, farmers do this sort of thing from time to time, do they not?” Yes, vials with the same preservative enchantments as the one in his grasp had been fairly popular with breeders of fine bloodstock… far easier to transport than a restive charger.

There was a curious look in the Headmaster’s eyes. Respect? Surely not, for such a small thing. Besides, there was… something else. Some searching look that made Vernon wonder where he ought to put his feet, what he ought to do with his hands…

“Well. If you do carry out this task, in spite of your… lack of time to prepare, it will not go unnoticed, certainly.” A small smile. “The task itself is not difficult; the hounds are cooperative. The only challenge to it is in your own mind; its stress comes from its associations.”

“It’s just collecting a reagent, isn’t it?” Vernon shrugged, staring down at the flagstones. “So long as the hounds don’t mind…”

“So one might think. Before you commit to this, though, some words of caution: A single drop of hellhound seed is enough to endow a man with supernatural potency… and desire to match. In doing this, you would be exposed to far more than a single drop; enough that the scent alone is… intoxicating. You will have time after to deal with the consequences as you see fit, and the hounds will not mind if you indulge yourself then and there – indeed, Torstalgir especially seems to enjoy it. But that very fact is not without its own concerns.” His hand found Vernon’s jaw, forcing the tiger’s eyes up to meet his own serious gaze. “When dealing with the denizens of the Burning Lands, sometimes your will is not entirely own. Are you truly ready to set aside, for a time, your will concerning your own manhood?”

It should have been terrifying. Should have been a profound worry, a difficult thing to commit to even with so much power in the offering.

So why did Vernon suddenly feel like it was a chance about to be taken from him?

“I’ll do it, Headmaster,” he blurted.

Again, that look of respect-and-something-more. “You are brave, certainly. But then, I’d heard no less of you already.” Saeed released his jaw. “Under normal circumstances, I would offer to assist; if nothing else, to look on and be sure that all went well. In this case, however, I… should not.”

“Why not?” Vernon blinked. The man was Headmaster, and more, this land was his; on it, his word was law.

The Headmaster’s sigh sounded… wistful. “If, when you’ve made journeyman and can set out to make your own name, you are still curious… come to me then.”

Pieces settled into place. Vernon blinked.

Well, if the man would have had time to oversee some other apprentice at this task, maybe he’d be available afterward if Vernon tended to it promptly?

Mercifully, he was able to force his mouth shut before he actually spoke this ill-conceived idea. He swallowed, looking down. By all the good gods, though, why would the notion not leave him? Previously, he’d only recognized the Headmaster as the Headmaster, or as a mighty sorcerer. It was only in the course of his time here that Vernon had come to realize he found men of that build appealing, and only now that he’d consciously realized Master Saeed fell into that…

The rat drew a deep breath. “Well… perhaps it’d do no harm. I’d only expect more from your studies, though, mark my words!”

Vernon shivered. Oh, gods above and below, he was going to be dreaming about the man even without any kind of supernatural assistance… “I should… tend to this, for now,” he managed, tapping a claw against the flask.

“Mmm… wise.” Another breath. “Did Tandi say which of the hounds you were to collect from? If not, no doubt it’s on record…”

“The name you said was familiar,” Vernon managed, though he couldn’t quite bring the name itself to mind.

“Ah, Torstalgir. Very well. I’ll show you to him, and see to it that Rolund is on hand in case of any difficulty you may encounter.”

Gods. The mouse, heavier-set though he was, still had much of the look Vernon enjoyed… though he had never given any indication that such attention would be welcome, not from a man. “Yes, sir.”

Saeed led him down the corridor, into what had once been the cell block. Even Vernon’s untrained eye could see where newer construction had been done over the old stonework; doors bricked over, columns of newer work between them – several cells combined into one? The remaining doorways had all been enlarged somewhat, or at least, they all had new stonework around them and they were bigger than Vernon would have thought a cell door should be. Big enough that even a big man would have had no trouble fitting through one of them.

At the second door on the left – what had once been the fifth, to judge by the bricked-up archways – Saeed came to a halt. “In here,” he said softly. “I will stay long enough for you to introduce yourself, then I must go. Tell him your name, and offer him your hand; let him get your scent. He can’t speak, but he can understand a great deal; simply talk to him, explain why you are here, and he will cooperate.”

Vernon swallowed, nodded, but couldn’t muster the nerve to speak. He put his thumb to the latch, pushed the door open, and stepped through.

The cell had definitely been expanded from its original dimensions, indeed; still not exactly spacious, but big enough – if barely – for its occupant to tuck into one end of it, what had once been a separate cell, on a bed of tumbled rags. In some ways, that occupant was much as Vernon might have expected: short fur, so dark a brown it was nearly black in some places, with brighter marks here and there that were reminiscent of flame, and other patches that were black as soot. The body certainly fit the name “hound,” though it was quite a bit larger than any such Vernon had seen; the size of a small horse – it might fit through the enlarged doorway, but probably not with all that much room to spare.

A pair of red eyes considered him. Then another pair, and then another still.

Nobody had ever told him that hellhounds had three heads, but that was what he found himself faced with now. The necks that supported them were distinctly longer than a dog’s usual; long enough that one head might sniff at the ground, another held high to the wind, while the third focused on its prey.

That last thought was not precisely encouraging… Vernon gulped, taking a step forward. What was that name? He’d heard it thrice… “Ah… Torstalgir?”

The head to Vernon’s left tilted slightly, upright ears canting toward him. The hound’s tail thumped a few times against the bedding. It was such a… such a normal sort of gesture, on so otherworldly a beast, that Vernon almost broke out laughing.

Almost. He was still much too nervous to actually do so.

Recalling the Headmaster’s instruction, he took a step forward, extending his empty hand, palm up, fingers flat together. “I am Vernon. I’m to… ah… collect from you today.” His eyes couldn’t help but stray toward the hound’s haunches, though he wasn’t at a good angle to see anything in the gloom.

Torstalgir rose to its feet with fluid grace that defied its bulk. Its shoulder rose as high as Vernon’s chest, and muscle shifted under its hide as it took a few steps forward. The head on its left – Vernon’s right – tucked back and upwards, eyes like glowing coals considering the tiger; the middle head extended forward. A hot breath washed over his fingers as the dog’s snout came in close; it bore with it a smoky aroma – not sulphurous or otherwise unpleasant; more like burning hickory. Those powerful jaws could probably cleave through his arm at the shoulder in a single bite… but the hound just snuffled at his palm and gave it a warm, damp lick, all the way up to his wrist.

Vernon shivered. It was an approving gesture, for certain, but that just freed his mind to turn to the substance of his task. The sound of the latch clicking shut as Headmaster Saeed departed did nothing to soothe him.

He forced himself to draw a breath, heavily laden with that pleasantly-smoky aroma. “Would you, uh, would you be more comfortable on your bedding?” Vernon asked, gesturing toward it. How did one collect a dog’s seed anyway? He’d seen hounds mate, back before coming here, but it didn’t seem like quite the same thing… “Or would you stay standing?”

Torstalgir padded past him. His paws, Vernon saw, were deceptively broad for the apparent slimness of his legs; each one covered more of the packed-earth floor than would Vernon’s own spread hand. The tiger turned his head to watch the hound’s progress, only to find the left head pressing against the small of his back, gently nudging him towards the bedding.

Oh, dear. The hound probably wanted to stand, and was nudging him that way so he could be comfortable. A curiously touching gesture, considering the beast’s size, origin, and formidable natural weaponry… and it also brought to mind what Tandi had said about the, ah, volume he could expect.

“Ah… a moment,” he managed. He took a slow step toward the tumble of cloth, tugging at his brooch with trembling hands, working it free, sliding his cloak off his shoulders and draping it over one arm. He loosened the laces of his tunic and somewhat awkwardly wriggled out of that, too. By then, his slow strides had taken him to the edge of the cloth.

When he turned, Torstalgir was still standing there. His left head looked patient, the middle one expectant; the right was lifted high and peering back toward the door, on guard.

Swallowing again, Vernon bent to set his cloak and tunic down, and to loosen his boots. He undid his belt as he was slipping his feet free, and twisted to open the clasp over his tail, then finally slipped out of his trousers. All he left in place was a brief loincloth, and the bronze chain about his neck that marked his apprenticeship; even if he could open that enchanted clasp, right now the bronze disc weighing against his collarbone was strangely comforting. A reminder of why he was doing this.

Torstalgir’s middle head sniffed around his midsection; for a moment he quailed, thinking the hound was going to put its snout right in against – or under – his loincloth. But this did not in fact happen; the hound just looked up at him, slender tail swaying from side to side off at its other end.

Well, time wasn’t making this any easier. Vernon sat. The fabric was a bit on the coarse side, but soft enough to be comfortable; it wasn’t in any way scratchy.

Once he was settled, the hound turned, side-on to him, shuffling in close. Close enough for Vernon to run a hand over his flank, feeling the fine, silky pelt, the lean muscle beneath it, the radiant heat. Then he took a breath and slid his hand down and in.

Yes, he’d seen hounds mate; yes, he’d seen some up close. This was his first time giving this sort of examination to one, but even so, the sheath that enclosed the hound’s malehood seemed broader than he’d have expected. Warm and soft under his fingers, though; not unpleasant, and nor was the low, rumbling sound that issued from two different heads in a strange, warbling harmony.

Then his fingers moved on a little farther, down the other side of that warm ridge… and found another.

Biting his lip, he felt onward. Apparently heads weren’t the only thing the hound had three of.

Curious, he felt farther back. Only two testes, warm and plump – and the hound leaned into his touch more like he’d expect a lover to do than an animal. The smoky scent in the air was laden now with the heady odour of sex; fingers running forward again, he found all three sheaths to be plump and firm, and the left one, the one nearest him, to have a taper of bare, hot flesh jutting forth from it. At his touch, the left head uttered a hiss, jerking upward, ears tilting back; the sound shifted into something between a howl and a moan. Not subtle in the least – and not ambiguous, either. It was a sound that wanted.

In some ways it might have been easier if the hound didn’t enjoy this so much. If it – he – had just gone through the motions like Vernon might expect a rutting dog to do. But no; Torstalgir’s motions against his stroking fingers, the sounds he uttered, all of it made plain that the hound enjoyed sex, gained pleasure from it, as a thinking being might. Not just an automatic urge to breed.

Yes, it might have been easier if Vernon could have stayed detached and clinical. But he wasn’t; he was curious. He enjoyed the pleasure in the hound’s motions and utterances, savoured it, just as he enjoyed the feel of that heat under his fingers, and of the next one over brushing against the back of them. He let his touch dance from tip to base and along each member’s sheath in turn, and he kept it up until all three of them were standing proud. And then he shifted around and got his head down low enough to survey his handiwork.

Each of the hound’s members was about a foot long, from tapered tip to bulbous root. Those swollen lumps were as big around as Vernon’s fist; the shafts themselves were… all too appealing, actually; thick, smooth, hot to the touch, black with the faintest tinge of red. He licked his lips, fumbling one-handed to loosen the flask’s stopper. His own manhood was standing proud, pushing aside his now-useless loincloth, and he didn’t much care. He hardly even cared, anymore, that he’d come here as part of his chores; he wanted, he ached, to hear the chorus of howls that might emerge when this hound came.

He confined his atentions to one length, for now, paying just as much heed to the hound’s reactions as he might to a lover’s. Stroking was all very well – he’d be content to do that for an hour or more – but it was attention to the knot that made the hound lurch and shiver and moan; the firmer, the better. So, with one hand cradling the flask such that its mouth was over that taper, the other stretched around that knot and gave it a squeeze. At first he was tentative about it; but when Torstalgir shoved into his grip, he clutched tighter on sheer reflex. And then, as the ensuing whines reached his ears, he clenched around it more deliberately.

Thrice more the hound hunched against his hands, and then the left head jerked upward again, giving voice to a series of warbles and barks; the hard, hot length jerked against his grip, and the flask shifted in his other hand as a gout of thick fluid splashed against its walls. And another, and another, smearing the inside of the glass.

When the hound’s utterances had subsided into quick, voiceless panting and his member had fallen still, Vernon sat back and considered his bounty. A very generous measure of opaque white fluid rested in the glass; about a fifth of its capacity, or thereabouts. Far, far more than Vernon could have ever hoped to produce… and still the dog stood there, ready for more; the left head was drooping, doing most of the panting, but the other two were peering at him, alert, eager.

Well, he had been told to fill the flask up full, hadn’t he? Licking his lips, he rearranged himself, lying supine with his head under the hound’s haunches. Torstalgir shuffled around as well, standing over him, forepaws on either side fo Vernon’s feet. The tiger at first paid it little mind, just accepting that the position made it easier for him to reach the hound’s middle shaft. But with those hot, eager breaths washing over his toes and three prime specimens of masculinity bobbing in front of him, his curiosity only rose higher. The scent alone was making his head spin; how might one of them taste?

Somewhat awkwardly, he lifted his head to find out, a swipe of his tongue against that central shaft. It was exquisite; it filled all his senses and left him trembling, yearning for more.

The hound’s stance was firm enough that he could actually hold himself up by hanging onto the knot, squeezing it, even as he licked at the belly of that shaft. Holding the flask in place was awkward that way, though, and as the hound’s motions intensified, middle head lifting away and uttering an anxious whine, he drew back and concentrated on the work of his hands.

He didn’t quite pull back enough, though, nor did he have the flask firmly enough in place, to avoid getting a stray streak of hot seed on his chin.

His more active attentions had been rewarded; the flask was more than half full, now, he saw as he absently ran a finger along his jaw and sucked it clean. Torstalgir had definitely benefited from that personal touch… and it was only belatedly that Vernon remembered the Headmaster’s cautions about hellhound seed.

Well, too late now. Maybe he would linger here a time. Though as vigorous as he suddenly felt, he might risk missing not just lunch, but dinner as well. Maybe the hound would be willing to give him a few more mouthfuls once the flask was full?

Not wanting to be unfair, he set to work on the hound’s right-hand shaft. This time, his arm reached around the hellhound’s body, pulling himself up so he could lick his way along, from the tip dripping with clear, salty slickness, back along the hot shaft, over the firm swell of the knot, the short fuzz blanketing the sheath, right on over the dog’s balls – everything.

When a warm tongue bathed his glans, he shuddered, groaning over the hellhound’s balls, but did absolutely nothing to pull away. He licked his way forward again, squirming his way along, writhing as the hound’s middle head engulfed his length, warm, soft tongue bathing it whole base to tip – again, and again, and again. Panting and moaning, he worked the hound’s shaft with all his fraying focus. Keeping that flask from spilling wasn’t easy – especially not when the middle head lifted clear, and instead the two on either side dipped down, licking his manhood from either side. Nor when they took a break and the middle one resumed its work, licking him from glans to balls.

He wanted to be good and obedient. He tried to focus on pleasuring the great dog, on filling that flask the rest of the way. And he managed it, too; he held the flask up with one hand, mostly-upright now, while the other gripped Torstalgir’s right knot hard, tilting the shaft down toward the mouth of the flask. Gout after fierce gout splashed in with the rest – enough to fill it the rest of the way, enough to slosh over and onto Vernon’s chest. Plenty enough even after that for him to tilt the dog’s member down a little farther, letting it spatter his muzzle, course over his tongue, and flow, hot and rich, down his throat. And that was all he could take; with the hound’s middle head suckling on his balls, panting and lapping over them, his moans mingled with the right head’s howls, and a rush of unbelievable pleasure arced through him.

On and on his climax raged, keeping him tossing and squirming, tail lashing. Again and again his seed issued forth, arcing up over his body. Each spurt he gave now was more than he’d normally give through the full course of a climax, and far more forceful – and they just kept coming. More and more of it – even after Torstalgir had subsided, nuzzling at his balls and his thighs, Vernon’s orgasm held onto him, one jet after another spattering over his pelt.

It was impossible for him to keep anything resembling an accurate count; he knew it was well over two dozen. By the time his pleasure finally faded, his normally-immaculate orange-and-black pelt was a sodden mess from waist to shoulder; in the giddy rush of afterglow, he couldn’t help but notice that maybe he could’ve filled a respectable portion of that flask after all.

Speaking of which… He reached into the neck of the flask to wipe away some of the excess, then eased the stopper back in place with trembling fingers. Such a coordinated task as pulling the wire over the top of the stopper, hooking it into the hasp, and clamping it down felt at first like it should be beyond him right then, but he managed. The flask was full to the neck, as he’d been instructed; not just white, the substance within had a faint red glow to it.

Now, at last, he saw the far end of the room – were his eyes keener in the dark than they had been, or had they simply adjusted to it? Either way, he saw, tucked into one corner, a stock of clean rags, an everfull basin of water, and some other grooming supplies; and he laughed. He certainly needed those now!

Torstalgir nuzzled at his shoulder, but settled back into his bedding, spent; Vernon tottered across the cell, cleaning himself as best he could, not minding, for once, that he was still a bit damp as he pulled on his clothes.

What a morning this had been…

He felt steady enough to walk, after that, but was still glad to lean on the desk back in the lobby as he set the flask on it. Rolund looked up at his face, down at the flask, and back up again. “Good heavens,” the mouse said, “you’re burning with residual power. Do you, ah, have someone to indulge it with?”

“Not at present,” Vernon admitted, though his thoughts inevitably strayed to someone else. Fine grey fur, slender features, bewhiskered snout, bare, deft hands and nimble tail… He forced the thought out of his mind. “I should be able to manage on my own, though. That I’m no stranger to.”

“Mmm.” Rolund tapped a claw against the now-full flask. “You might consider that little basin to the east, where the stream goes over the cliff. Even that won’t cool that ardour,” he admitted with a rueful smile, “but it’s the only time you’re likely to enjoy that chill… and it makes for a surprisingly nice contrast. And it’s far enough off that you’ll probably not be disturbed. Either way, the rest of the day’s your own.”

“Thank you, Instructor,” Vernon said with a bow. “I will keep your advice in mind.” A thought came to him. “How often does this particular chore come up?”

“Once a week or so. It rotates through all four hounds.”

Oh, right, there was more than one. “And are all of them so, ah, friendly?”

“Mmm… Torstalgir likes people more than the rest. The others like people just fine, but they aren’t as likely to get, um, involved.”

Ha, check, Rolund had done this in his own turn. “Well, I don’t expect there to be a problem anytime I’m scheduled here in the future.”

Rolund’s brows rose. “We’re always glad to have some who enjoy the task, certainly.”

Vernon smiled, and let himself out. He took the stairs at an easy jog; far from being fatigued by his efforts, he felt vigorous enough to run straight up a mountain.

And it wasn’t even midday. Truly, life was good.