Thomas wasn’t a big fan of the ocean. He never had been, and truthfully, believed he never would be. It was just too much water, all in one place, for his taste. Not to mention the way it keep moving. That, he felt, was simply wrong of it to do. Made a man queasy just looking at it.
Regardless, he was hardly surprised when he was called upon to actually board a ship, and set sail for Lansing. In a way, he had known it was coming, if simply because his life had gotten too easy of late, too quiet and peaceful. Gods knew, we couldn’t be having that, now could we?
With a sigh, he sealed his letter to Untar, King of Lansing, confirming that he had received the summons, and would depart immediately. Some trivial matter that had called for an expert in matters most arcane. Untar was well known for distrusting Sorcerers, and his Clerics had been unable to resolve the issue for him.
As such, he had sought, and found, the most well reputed Blessed of Linnar in the Middle World, one Thomas Giardi, resident in good standing with the Empire of Isnar. Not that Thomas would agree with this assessment of himself, not in any way. King Mantubo, though, had assured his good friend Untar that Thomas was the one man he always knew he could go to for anything, and so it was that Thomas had been summoned.
Had it been anyone but Untar, Thomas knew he could have refused, claiming prior engagements as a way of avoiding having to step foot anywhere near the ocean. He had moved all the way to Isnar from Balekirk just to get away from that very object, after all. What better place than the middle of the desert to make certain one never had to get his feet wet?
But it was Untar, and Untar was a Blessed as well, a Blessed of Grannax, no less. To refuse would have been beyond rude. It would have been down right impertinent. Not to mention that Mantubo would have frowned on this heavily, especially after all the trouble he went through to speak so highly of Thomas in the first place. Thomas was in no hurry to get on Mantubo’s bad side, leaving him little choice in the matter.
So, with much ado, Thomas was sent on his way to the port town of Paxda, where the Great Desert met the ocean. Mantubo himself, knowing his trusted aide’s hesitance to go anywhere near anything remotely resembling an ocean, put Thomas on the boat, promising him a safe voyage, and a swift return home.
Naturally, the ship sank.
Not within sight of either coast, though. No, it went down right in the middle of the ocean, with nothing but water as far as the eye could see. When it happened, Thomas was certain he was going to die, drowning in the midst of his greatest fear, buried forever under tons of that damn ocean. He could even imagine all the little fish that would come to call his skull home.
The last thing he ever expected was to wake up again, with firm, if sandy, earth beneath his body. He was not dreaming, nor was he dead. He was very much alive, and, as he soon discovered, shipwrecked on an island located somewhere near the center of nowhere at all.
Surrounded by the bloody ocean.
Thomas sat on a log, staring at the ocean, for a very long time, trying to understand why this was happening to him. As Blessed went, he may not have been as great as some, but he had managed to carve out a little, respectable, niche for himself. Never mind that it was as far from any actual Demon Seed as one could possibly get without leaving the Middle World entirely, it was still respectable.
“Be a jack of all trades, Thomas, and you will never go hungry,” he mumbled to himself. “Great advice, Dad. Look at how far its taken me.”
Like his father, Thomas had indeed been a jack of all trades, well versed in many areas, and had never gone hungry even one day in his life. He had been good enough at it, in fact, he had drawn the attention of Linnar, the Falcon God of Knowledge. Now he was literally well versed in any area he could possibly imagine, all thanks to the falcon head tattoo on his brow, and his Divine Gift.
Simply put, Thomas Giardi could know as much about anything that he wanted to know, just by activating the Gift bestowed upon him when he had been touched by Linnar. While most of the knowledge would fade after a few hours, he always managed to retain bits and pieces of it, forever expanding his already extensive repertoire.
Wild thrashing in the jungle behind him drew Thomas from his reverie. Glancing over his shoulder, he watched intently until the crashing sounds quieted. His heart was pounding in his chest as he tried to imagine what could possibly make that kind of noise. Several creatures, both natural and not, came to mind, but none of them seemed friendly to him.
Turning his eyes to the heavens, he whispered, “If this is some kind of test, Linnar, I think you would already know as well as I do, that I am likely to fail it very miserably.”
When no answer was forth coming, he sighed, and began scavenging around for some sort of weapon he could use to defend himself. In short order, he turned up a wooden plank with a long nail in it, likely from the ill fated ship that had been carrying him, against his better judgment, to Lansing. He snatched it up anyway when the thrashing began again, very close now to the edge of the jungle.
Easing back towards the ocean, he watched as the underbrush moved violently, the whatever drawing far too close to the beach for his liking. Thomas hefted the plank, made sure the nail was turned outward, and waited for the human eating monster to emerge.
What stepped onto the beach was a werewolf. A very large, black furred werewolf, with an armload of coconuts. Thomas raised his plank higher, very familiar with the savage and human unfriendly ways of werebeasts from the many tales he had listened to in taverns.
The werewolf stopped in its tracks, staring at Thomas in surprise. Thomas stared back at the werewolf. They went on like this for several minutes. The plank began to get very heavy as Thomas weighed man eating monster against seawater. The seawater was winning, but only by a hair.
“Okay,” Thomas said at last. “Since neither of us are moving, maybe we should try to reach some kind of agreement.”
The werewolf cocked its ears, but still said nothing.
“I’m going to put down my plank, and you put down the coconuts,” Thomas offered.
The werewolf looked down at the coconuts in its arms for a moment, then back at Thomas. “I don’t think I could really kill you with a coconut.”
Thomas had to think about that one for a minute, but he could find no real flaw in the werewolf’s argument. Odds are, it could, but he wasn’t going to correct the beast on that.
“So, okay then,” he said at last. “I’ll put down my plank, and you promise not to eat me.”
Again, the werewolf looked down at the armload of fruit, then back at Thomas with a mild expression of humor on his canine face. “What, precisely, do you think the coconuts are for?”
“Ah. Right then,” Thomas said, lowering the plank.
“Besides, you look a bit fatty for my tastes,” the werewolf added. “Not to mention half drowned.”
Thomas stared at the creature for several minutes in mute shock. “Well, for starters, I am half drowned. What, you think I swam here for the sheer joy of it? But that fatty bit was somewhat below the belt, wouldn’t you say?”
“Looks more above the belt, if you really want to know,” the werewolf replied, giving Thomas’ belly an appraising look.
“You know, when I think werebeast, I tend to lean more towards man eating monster, rather than ego shredding fiend,” Thomas snapped, dropping the plank entirely now. Not that it ever would have done him any real good in the first place.
The werewolf managed to look indignant, even with an armload of hairy fruit. “Hey, I’ll have you know I’ve never eaten a man. My share of women, if you catch my drift, but never a man.”
Again, Thomas could do nothing more than stare in shock for a long moment. “Where the bloody hell have I washed up? The island of the mad?”
“Nah, that’s a few islands over,” the werewolf replied, carefully setting the fruit down, save one, which it then used a massive talon to breech. This, it offered to Thomas.
Thomas eased over to take the coconut, sniffed at the milk inside, and drank it eagerly. Once it was empty, he stood there holding the thing while he considered the werewolf before him, which was considering him back. The werewolf was easily eight feet tall, towering over Thomas by almost two and half feet. Considering the creature gave him an ache in his neck, so he stopped, and sat down. To his surprise, the werewolf sat down next to him and helped him stare at the ocean.
“You aren’t quite right, are you?” Thomas asked at last.
“I guess that would depend on your definition of right, now wouldn’t it?” the werewolf asked back.
Thomas could find no way to argue that point.
“Ruff,” it said suddenly, holding out a massive hand.
“Beg pardon?” Thomas was a little startled by the swiftness of the action.
The beast rolled its eyes. “Me Ruff.”
“Oh,” Thomas said. “There’s no need to be sarcastic. I’ve had a bad day. Thomas Giardi.” He shook the huge hand, not missing the fact that it swallowed his own completely.
“Hello, Thomas,” Ruff said. “What brings you here?”
“Terrible things, those.”
“Yes, they are.”
“You eat pork?”
“Um, yes, if it’s smoked properly.”
Ruff nodded his head slowly. “We have some back at the village.”
“Yeah, it’s back there.” Ruff jerked his thumb back at the jungle.
“And there are more of you at the village?”
“About three dozen or so.”
“A couple. Odd assortment of werefolk, really. Couple tigers, handful of bulls, few foxes, some other cats and rats.”
Thomas had been forced to revise his opinion somewhat since the conversation had begun. He was now very certain he was quite dead. There was no other explanation for it, at least, not that he could think of, not that made any kind of logical, rational, Thomas Giardi friendly sense, anyway.
“So, are you hungry?”
“Yes, I am. Very.”
“Well, we should get moving then. You can help me carry the coconuts, if you want.”
Thomas took an armload and followed Ruff back into the jungle. Under normal circumstances, he would have told the fruit toting werebeast that he was in no hurry to delve any deeper into this particular form of insanity at the moment, but these were not normal circumstance. Thomas figured it wouldn’t hurt any, seeing as how he was already dead. Or mad. Either one, or both.
The village turned out to be several miles inland, far enough that one didn’t have to look at the ocean if one did not wish it. Ruff turned out to be a very talkative werewolf, as well, chatting endlessly with Thomas about any topic that happened to pop into his furry head. His favorite seemed to be sheep, though, which somehow did not surprise Thomas any, may Ramor forgive him.
As soon as he saw the village, though, Thomas knew he had utterly and completely lost his mind. A large multitude of thatched roof huts were arranged loosely around a mill, which sat along side a stream, its makeshift paddle splashing in the little brook merrily. A smith sat next to that, the smell of hot iron wafting to him from the open sided hut. Beyond that was a large open area, lined with fences and as many different kinds of livestock as Thomas knew existed.
Then there was the farmland. He almost had to sit down as he stared at the long tracks of tilled land, filled with half grown crops. Scattered through that were werebeasts, all different and assorted kinds, working the fields, like they were normal people.
The last thing to draw his eye was the castle. Some part of him felt certain he should have noticed that first, just due to the size. It sprawled across the side of the only mountain on the island, built right into the damn thing. While Thomas felt that calling it a mountain might have overblown the big hill a bit, it was certainly mountainish. With a castle on it, which overlooked the entire village.
“What the bloody hell,” he muttered to himself.
“Home,” Ruff intoned, smiling widely, his teeth showing. To Thomas, it looked more threatening than happy. If the big werewolf hadn’t been wagging his tail, it would have been impossible to know for sure.
Thomas only had a few minutes to take it all in before a very large weretiger spotted he and Ruff. Immediately, the towering bulk of orange and black stopped what he was doing and stalked towards them, tail twitching in a fashion Thomas knew was irritation from his brief flirtation as a pet owner.
“Kase,” Ruff said softly, nodding at the weretiger.
Thomas hoped Ruff meant that was the weretiger’s name as it came to a stop before them, glaring down at Thomas with green eyes full of some emotion Thomas didn’t care to name. He stood there for a long time, just glaring, as if waiting for Thomas to do something. Thomas sneezed a bit, but stayed very still and quiet otherwise.
“Ruff, is this what I think it is?” Kase asked at last, not taking his eyes off Thomas.
“Well, since he ain’t got a tail, I’m figuring he ain’t a monkey,” Ruff replied.
Kase looked at him funny for a minute, ears laying back against his head. Thomas was very sure that was a bad sign.
“It followed me home,” Ruff said suddenly. “Can I keep it?”
The irony was not lost on Thomas at all, and he couldn’t help but snicker. Kase however, did not seem to find Ruff at all humorous. Thomas stopped his snickers when those big green eyes turned back his way.
“It’s a human, Ruff,” Kase said slowly.
“Are you sure?” Ruff managed to seem honestly shocked. “And here I thought it was a really weird fish.”
“Excuse me…” Thomas said.
“You know how humans treat us, Ruff. Why did you bring it here?” Kase snapped.
“I admit, this is a pretty good sized island, but odds are good he would have found his way here on his own eventually.” Ruff didn’t back down even a little, despite Kase’s bigger size and obviously greater muscle mass.
Kase mulled that over for a moment, encountering the same problem Thomas had with the werewolf’s logic. “Perhaps, but that still does not explain where it came from. How do you know we can trust it?”
“Pardon me…” Thomas said.
“He said he was shipwrecked,” Ruff explained. “And I sniffed him real good.”
“Shipwrecked, huh?” Kase mulled that for a minute as well. “What’s a ship?”
“Beats me,” Ruff shrugged. “But apparently, they wreck and leave humans washed up on beaches just willy nilly.”
“Okay, stop there,” Thomas cut in. “How can you not know what a ship is?”
They both looked at him like he was babbling in gibberish for a minute. Slowly, the answer came to Thomas’ over shocked brain all on it’s own.
“Unless, you’ve never been off this island, in which case, you would have never seen a ship would you? But that doesn’t explain how you came to be here in the first place. I mean, you had to get here in some fashion or the other, and a ship would be the obvious means. You seem to have a fairly self sufficient system here, but the livestock and grain had to be transplanted somehow, and that, too would require a ship. None of this makes any logical sense at all, which means I must be utterly mad.”
“Does it always talk so much?” Kase asked Ruff.
“Not really. He was pretty quiet on the way here.”
“Make it be silent.”
Ruff laid a hand on Thomas’ shoulder, putting a finger to his muzzle and making a shushing sound. Thomas stopped talking instantly. While all of this was insane, he was still in no hurry to anger the big black werewolf.
“We must decide what to do with it,” Kase mumbled after another long moment spent glaring at Thomas.
“It has a name,” Thomas cut in, ignoring Ruff’s attempts to keep him silent. “I am Thomas Giardi, advisor to King Mantubo of the Isnarian Empire, Blessed of Linnar, and just a little grouchy after nearly drowning in an ocean I didn’t want to go anywhere near in the first place. Now, if you talking animals would be so kind as to take me to the person in charge around here, I’d like to make arrangements to get off this island of lunacy before I come unhinged completely.”
Kase flattened his ears against as head, growling. “I don’t care what your name is, and I don’t even know what the rest of that means. I’ve never heard of Mantubo, Isnar, or Linnar. As far as the person in charge around here, that would be me, and there is no way off the island.”
“So, that would be your castle, then?” Thomas was tired, scared, and sick of being both.
Kase looked back over his shoulder, then dropped his eyes to the ground. Ruff took a step back from Thomas. They exchanged a brief look of fear before Kase cleared his throat gruffly.
“That is the Master’s Keep. Only the Master lives there. You are either a friend of the Master, or very foolish, to want to go there.”
“Well, perhaps I am a friend of the Master,” Thomas said boldly. “Then wouldn’t you be very sorry for treating me shoddily?”
“No,” Kase snarled. “I would kill you if that were the case. Are you a friend of the Master?”
“Never met the fellow,” Thomas said, changing directions as fast as he could.
“Then you are a fool?”
Thomas sighed. “Apparently, yes, I am.”
That set Kase back a bit. His harsh expression softened slowly. “Ruff says he sniffed you. I trust Ruff’s nose. Perhaps, you are harmless. Time will tell. I must think on what to do with you. Until then, make yourself useful.”
“That I can do, I assure you.”
Kase nodded, then motioned for Ruff to follow him. They only took a few steps before Thomas realized they were just going to leave him where he stood. He had no idea what he should be doing, or for that matter, if he should be doing anything at all.
“Pardon me, but can I ask you something before you just leave me standing here?”
Kase looked at him in irritation, but nodded his head anyway.
“Who is the Master up there, and what should I be doing?” Thomas wasn’t sure why he asked about the mysterious Master, but something in the back of his head had seemed to find this bit of information important, so it had come on out of his mouth on its own accord.
“You can make yourself useful by finding Rayna, and asking what she needs done,” Kase rumbled. “As for the Master, he is a Demon, and that is all I will say of that.” With no further ado, the big weretiger stalked away, Ruff trailing after him, taking a brief second to jab a finger off to the east for Thomas’ benefit.
Thomas barely noticed. A Demon was up there in that castle. The depth of this irony was not lost on him by any means. Truth be told, he was positively wallowing in that very irony at the moment. The odds were simply impossible to figure that a Blessed of the High Gods would wash up on an island ruled over by a Demon. Simply impossible.
“This is not funny. Not even a little,” he snarled under his breath, giving the sky a very angry look. When nobody said anything back, Thomas headed off to where Ruff had pointed, wondering just how he was going to pick this Rayna from the other talking animals on this bizarre island.
“Ruff, I hope you have thought this through fully,” Kase said slowly, watching Thomas head off towards the fields. “I do not think bringing him here was wise.”
Ruff shrugged. “Perhaps not, but it was either bring him, wait for him to find us on his own, or leave him on the beach to die.”
“Leaving him to die is the option I would have chosen.”
“You do not see what I see, then, Kase.”
Ruff paused, looked towards where Thomas wandered. “He did not simply fall from the sky, Kase. He had to come from somewhere. This Isnar place he mentioned, perhaps. Regardless, he came from somewhere, a place that is not here.”
“Off the island,” Kase said slowly.
“Yes, meaning there is something across the ocean. Perhaps a lot of something, big enough we could get lost in it.” The werewolf grinned, looking feral as he spoke.
“Big enough the Master would never find us, should we escape to it,” Kase whispered. “We long suspected he lied to us about the nature of the world, but this is proof of his lies.”
“There is more, Kase, that you have yet to see.”
The weretiger’s eyes cut back to the werewolf in curiosity. “Such as?”
“Where ever he comes from, he seems to be a man of importance. Advisor to a King sounds important anyway. He is likely to be missed, and sought after. People will come to find him.” Ruff’s eyes glittered with that possibility.
Kase caught on easily. “If we are his friends, he will possibly take us with him when he leaves.”
“If not, we can easily overpower those who come seeking him, and escape regardless,” Ruff added, his voice heavy with meaning.
Kase leaned against the edge of the smith hut, mulling this. “Our days of service to the Master are coming to an end soon, my friend. You have done well. I am greatly pleased with your vision.”
“Thank you, Kase,” Ruff said, meaning it. Approval was important to Ruff. “Now we just have to wait, and be ready to make good the opportunity fate has handed us.”
“That we will do, Ruff,” Kase agreed, eying Thomas with new found appreciation. “That we will do.”
Finding Rayna turned out to be far more difficult than Thomas had ever imagined. None of the weres would even talk to him, instead shying away from his approach as if he were some sort of diseased zombie or something. He knew he wasn’t at his most presentable at the moment, but there was a principle to be upheld here.
Said principle being, mainly, civility. He was new to their village, and the least they could do was show him a tiny bit of courtesy. It wasn’t as if he were asking for their firstborn child, or blood, or anything. Just to have Rayna pointed out to him so Kase wouldn’t eat him for being useless.
“Yes, and in all civilized societies, that’s how things are done,” he groused to himself. “Get a firm hold, now, Thomas. These are not people, they are overgrown animals with the audacity to be chatty.”
Standing in the middle of a field of young wheat, surrounded on all sides by werebeasts with the nerve to act as if he were abnormal, Thomas discovered he had never felt so terribly out of place in all his life. It was the first time, to his memory, that he had no idea what to do. He wanted nothing more than to be back home, in his nice safe bed, with all his most prized possessions surrounding him.
In fact, he admitted to himself, he felt like doing nothing more than lying down right there in the dirt and crying.
“Dammit! What are you doing, Petta? That’s all wrong!”
Thomas, at the moment just one more shock from sitting down and regressing to thumb sucking, turned towards the authoritative nature of that voice like a compass turns to north. Stepping through the wheat, he soon saw two weres crouched in the dirt, examining a piece of copper pipe that had been pulled up from where it was buried.
One, a fox with dark red fur, and a body Thomas thought was easily better than any human woman he had ever met, was holding a makeshift brush coated in tar, while the other, a slender cheetah girl with supple curves, watched her.
“If you don’t get the tar down into the fittings properly, too much water will come out here. The plants down the line won’t get enough and we’ll lose half the crop.” The fox demonstrated as she spoke, dabbing the brush along the pipe, making sure to get all the way around the fittings.
“Oh, I see,” the cheetah replied.
“Go ahead and get this one buried and move down to the next fitting. I want all the irrigation pipes checked and repaired by nightfall,” the fox said as she stood, brushing her hands off on the leather pants she wore.
“I’ll get it done,” the cheetah said, smiling brightly. “Don’t you worry.”
The fox nodded and headed off. Thomas gaped after her, certain he could not have seen what he had just seen. Advanced irrigation techniques had to be beyond these brutes, and that was all there was to it. Activating his Divine Gift, Thomas made himself an expert in agriculture, and received the shock that should have sent him back to just shy of the womb.
The fox girl was right. Not only was she right, she was very right. At a loss, Thomas turned and trailed after her, his mind struggling to accept what was happening here. The stories the bards had told in the taverns back home had never included werebeasts that had a green thumb.
A few feet down, the fox had stopped again, instructing a hulking bull to be more careful with his weeding. He didn’t want to yank the plants out, causing the soil to lose precious nutrients. Again, she was right, making Thomas’ mind boggle.
She moved on, pausing with a rat, showing how to not tie the twine too tight around the tomato vines, giving them room to grow as they climbed the stakes. Thomas began to entertain the thought that he was having some kind of nervous breakdown.
The fox headed off again, and Thomas trailed after her absently, fascinated by this creature. She continued to examine the work of those in the field, giving pointers here and there, until she reached the low fence that ringed the area, where a were lion was doing repairs to the gate. She watched him for moment, and despite what Thomas knew about the relationship of lions and foxes in the wild, he was certain the lion looked nervous under her gaze.
“Daada,” she said slowly. “Why are you working on the gate?”
“It needed to be done, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” the fox drawled. “But you are suppose to be feeding the livestock. I make these work rosters for a reason, you know. It ensures that everything gets done.”
Daada gave her a nervous glance. “Well, Rayna, I finished feeding the animals, and thought I’d get a jump on tomorrow’s duties.”
Thomas felt faint. This ingenious fox woman was Rayna? Whatever was his world coming to?
“You fed them out of their respective bins, didn’t you? The sheep got their regular feed?” Rayna continued to give Daada that appraising look that obviously made the lion antsy.
He nodded quickly. “Yes, Rayna. That’s why you marked them. Sheep feed to sheep, cow feed to cows, chicken feed to chickens.”
Rayna nodded her head slowly. “All right then. Don’t forget to oil those hinges when you’re done. And no playing with the bells on the gates, Daada. I mean it. Those are alarms, not toys.”
Daada looked crestfallen. “Yes, Rayna.”
Thomas fell into a crouch, his mind working furiously to grasp all of this. Advanced agricultural techniques, oiled hinges, alarms against wild vermin, and worst of all, work rosters! It was too much for him, and as he huddled in on himself, wrapped in his sand filled, seawater soaked clothes, he chewed his lip in consternation. These were wild beasts! Man eaters, dammit! This was not right!
He became suddenly aware of Rayna staring at him, Daada peeking around her, tail switching in wonder. Her eyes were dark blue, and deeply critical of him as he crouched there among a row of carrots. He hadn’t received such a gaze since he was a child, and that had been from his mother!
“If you need to shit, there are places to do it. The field is not one of them,” Rayna said at last, her hands falling on her hips.
Thomas stood up quickly. “No… I mean, I wasn’t… I don’t have to…” He realized he was stammering, like a child with his hand in the cookie jar. For no reason at all, this infuriated him. Jabbing a finger at Rayna, he declared, in a very adamant voice, “You can’t know all this.”
Rayna cocked her ears, gave Daada a look, then turned that appraising gaze back on Thomas. “All what, exactly?”
“This!” Thomas bellowed, waving at the field furiously. “Agriculture! Irrigation! Tomatoes! Feeding! Hinges! Rosters!”
The fox crossed her arms under her breasts, staring at him now as if he were a lunatic. “And why can I not know all this, if you don’t mind telling me?”
Thomas stalked towards her, waving his finger imperiously. “Why? Why, you ask? I’ll tell you why! Let me tell you just why it is!”
“Okay, tell me.”
“Because you are nothing more than a damn overgrown chatty animal, that’s why!”
Rayna nodded her head slowly. “Is that so?”
“Yes, dammit, that is so!” Thomas was huffing now. “And don’t give me that condescending look, missy! I know what I’m talking about. I am a Blessed of Linnar. I know. And I know you can’t know, because you’re a chatty animal!”
“It’s kind of funny, though, if you think about it,” Rayna mused, rubbing her chin.
“I see nothing funny about it,” Thomas snapped.
She shrugged. “I suppose not, but if you were to think about it, you’d realize that humans are nothing more than chatty animals themselves.”
Thomas lifted his finger to tell her just what he thought of that, stopped, raised it again, then realized he had no argument against that. None at all. She was right, again, as she had been where ever she had gone so far. Not just right, but dead right.
“Close your mouth, dear,” she said. “You’re letting the flies in.”
Deflated, Thomas simply stood there. Rayna watched him, and he stood there, not even able to look her in the eye.
“I want to go home now,” he whined at last.
Rayna sighed. “Can I ask, where did you come from? I’m certain I’ve not seen any humans on the island before today, and you didn’t just pop up out of the ground.”
“Opposable thumbs!” Thomas shouted, wiggling his thumbs at her.
Rayna returned the gesture.
Thomas sighed. “I was on this ship, which I didn’t want to be on. There was a storm, and the ship turned over. I washed up on the beach. Ruff brought me here. Kase said to find Rayna, and be useful. Can I please go home now?”
With a shake of her head, the fox gave a world weary sigh. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up. You seem to know a thing or two about a thing or two, so maybe you’ll be of some use to us till we figure out where you came from.”
“Ship,” Thomas offered.
Rayna patted his head and ushered him back towards the village. Daada watched them go, then shook his head as he turned back to mending the gate. Of all the weird things Ruff had brought back over the years, this had to be tops.
Thomas stood in Rayna’s hut, watching as she bustled about, digging through a big trunk full of clothes. After a few minutes, she produced a wool shirt and leather pants. The pants had lacings on front and back, as well as up the sides, while the shirt was a simple pull over.
“Here, hold these for a minute. You’re only a few inches shorter than me, so you should be able to wear them without too much trouble. I don’t think I’m going to be able to save what you’re wearing, I’m afraid.”
He took the clothing obediently as she went back to lift a huge copper kettle. This she placed under a pump and began filling with water. Once it was full, she slung it over the fire pit in the middle of her hut, so it could boil.
“Here in a bit, we’ll have you in a hot bath, and back on the road to decent smelling,” she commented.
Thomas suddenly begin to grin. This grin spread into a full blown smile quickly. In very short time, it had turned somewhat devilish.
Rayna spotted this, and paused in her activities. “What are you smiling about?”
“I know something you don’t know,” Thomas replied, singing it a little bit for sarcastic emphasis.
“I really doubt that, but I’ll play along. I was pretty sure your head was going to pop back there, and that’s a mess I’d rather not clean up,” she snorted, arms lacing under her ample bosom.
Thomas set the clothing aside. “Would you have a few pieces of parchment on hand, and some ink. Perhaps even a quill, or two?”
“Oh, I’ll need them while the bath water is heating,” he told her, waving his hand at the kettle with disdain.
Rayna frowned, but produced the requested items from a makeshift desk in the corner of the room. Thomas seated himself at her table, activated his Divine Gift, and began sketching immediately. It took a while to complete, and Rayna watched him with curiosity the entire time, but as the water in the kettle reached a boil, he had finished his diagrams.
Rolling them up, he followed the fox into her bathroom, waited until she had dumped the kettle into the wooden tub, then handed them to her. She took them, gave him a patient look, and left him be. Smug in his own sense of accomplishment at having finally gotten one over on the fox woman, Thomas happily stripped and eased into the water.
He hadn’t realized just how bad off he was, until the heat began soaking into his stressed muscles, easing the tension with loving fingers. He rinsed himself thoroughly, getting the sand and grit from his hair and body, until he felt human again. He even began to whistle as he bathed, feeling much more like his old self.
Rayna burst in, holding the diagrams. “What is this?” she demanded.
“Hey! Naked here!”
“Yeah, I know, but about this. Where did you come up with this. You don’t look smart enough to have designed this on your own.” Her finger tapped the diagrams impatiently.
Thomas sighed. “It’s not my design. It’s a replica. That water heating unit was designed by a great Isnarian named Monama Ferip, some forty years ago. They are in common use all over the Middle World.”
“So, you didn’t create this?”
Rayna’s mind worked quickly behind those blue eyes, her gaze darting back and forth furiously. “You can build this?”
“Yes, I can.”
She jabbed the diagram at him. “Build this.”
“What? Now? I’m taking a bath!”
Slowly, she relented. “Of course. It will have to wait. It’s almost time for dinner. But you will build this for me, yes?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “Tomorrow. I’ll show you how to build it tomorrow.”
Rayna grunted in satisfaction. She started to leave, paused, then glanced down at him again. “If that’s all you have to be ashamed of, you really ought not worry about it so much.”
Thomas covered himself quickly, glaring at her as she left him alone again.
“Damn chatty animals.”
Thomas crawled out of the tub only once the water had gone stone cold. Out of the tub, there was a world that made no sense at all to him. The tub was safe. It made sense. He didn’t have to think about anything while he was in the tub.
Sadly, though, the tub was cold. So, Thomas got out, dried himself with the towel Rayna had left him, and put on the clothes she had provided. He felt a bit silly in them, especially when he noticed the gaping hole in the butt of the pants. Bad enough they were women’s clothes, but did he really have to hang his ass out, too?
Stepping out of the bathroom, he found Rayna preparing a meal, several candles already lit in the gathering gloom. He stood there for a long moment, watching her as she seasoned the stew she had cooking over the low fire, trying to comprehend just how such a creature could possibly exist.
Seeing him, she smiled. “There you are. I thought you might have drowned yourself in there. I see the clothes fit well enough.”
“There’s a big hole in the butt of these pants,” Thomas told her.
“Well, yeah. I mean, how else are you going to stick your tail…” she stopped, made a face, then smiled sheepishly. “Maybe, if you just don’t tuck the shirt in, I can sew up the hole?”
“My thinking exactly.”
“Ruff stopped by while you were in there,” she said after a long and uncomfortable silence between them. “He wanted to check up on you. I think he may be a bit fond of you.”
“Great,” Thomas said as he sat down at the table. “Just what I need. To be a dog’s pet human.”
“Actually,” Rayna replied, dishing the stew into bowls. “Kase has decided that you will be my responsibility.”
She sat the bowls down on the table, fetched some spoons, then sat across from him. “Oh, come on, Thomas. It’s not that bad, is it?”
“I don’t mean to offend you, Rayna, but when I imagined shacking up with a fox, this isn’t what I had in mind,” he told her.
She sat quietly for a time, eating the stew, watching him eat as well. “This isn’t easy for you, is it? Being here, like this, I mean.”
“You have no idea.”
“I guess not.”
Thomas sighed, looking up at her. “I don’t mean to be a bad guest. I’m trying very hard to cope with all of this, but it just isn’t something I have any real ability to handle. I mean, I’m sitting here a little surprised I’m not in this stew.”
“Thomas, have you ever met any werefolk before today?”
“Well, no, I haven’t. But I know the stories the bards tell. Man eating monsters and so forth. I’ve heard all about the savage werebeasts.” He paused, looking at her with a bit of shame. “You aren’t what I was expecting.”
She smiled. “You aren’t what I was expecting from a human, either, if it makes you feel any better. You’re not a monster at all.”
“Seeing as how you’ve never met any humans before, that’s not saying much.”
“Well, you’ve never met any werefolk before, either.”
“Yes, but I heard stories.”
“As did I.”
Thomas frowned. This was going nowhere. “Where did you hear these stories, if I may ask?”
“The Elders. They came before us. They built the village, and taught us how to use everything in it.”
Thomas nodded his head slowly. “And where could I find one of these Elders?”
Rayna lowered her eyes to the table, her voice dropping to a whisper. “They have gone to serve the Master now.”
“The Demon in the castle?”
Thomas mulled that for a bit. “Then that’s where I need to go.”
“No!” Rayna cried. “You mustn’t, Thomas. None who go to serve the Master ever return. Stay here, with us, where you are safe. It’ll get better, in time, you’ll see.”
Thomas couldn’t help but laugh. “I wish that was the case, but if there is a Demon up there, then I have to go. It’s why Linnar brought me here. I’m a Blessed, and stopping the Demon Seed is what we do.”
“I don’t know who Linnar is, or what a Blessed is, but Kase will never allow you to go to the Keep, Thomas. It is forbidden, except during tithing. Only then may the Keep be approached.”
Thomas stared at her in surprise. He had heard Kase say it before as well, but his mind had not really grasped it, until now. “How can you not know who Linnar is, Rayna? He’s the Falcon God of Knowledge. Even children know Linnar’s name.”
“Yes, like Ramor, the Wolf of War, or Hepheron, the Bull, and Grannax, the Divine Tiger. The Gods, Rayna, come on. You must have heard of them. At least Asdrid. I know you’ve heard of Asdrid.”
Rayna shook her head slowly. “I do not know these names, Thomas.”
“But, they are the Gods.” He realized how he sounded when he said it, but he simply could not accept that she didn’t know who they were.
“There is only the Master, Thomas. He is the only God.”
He stared at her, unable to speak or even think. “I don’t know who or what this Master is, Rayna, but he’s no God, that I assure you.”
“Let us not speak of it anymore, Thomas,” she said quickly, gathering their bowls and taking them to the pump to be cleaned. “Tell me about this machine of yours, that pumps water and heats it.”
“It isn’t mine,” he said.
“No, of course not,” she replied slowly. “It belongs to an Isnarian.”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “From Isnar. You do know Isnar, don’t you?”
“No,” she told him, her voice soft.
Thomas stood up, moving to where she stood, trying to see her face. “Rayna, what do you know about besides this island?”
When she looked at him, her eyes, which had earlier held such intelligence and stern appraisal for everything around her, showed only fear. “There is nothing but the island, and the Master. Nothing beyond the Great Water. Just this, and nothing more.”
“No,” he said, grasping her arms. “No, that’s a lie. There is a lot out there, Rayna. A whole world out there! Isnar and the Great Desert, for one. Savacal, and Isel’s Lake. The Sistian forest, and the Elves who live there. So many kingdoms, Rayna, and different people. Not just humans, but Dwarves, and Trolls, and Ogres, too! Entire continents, full of forests, and rivers, and lakes, and everything you could possibly imagine!”
“Stop!” she cried, pulling away from him. “Please, stop, Thomas. I can’t hear this. It’s against the Laws.”
“To hell with whatever edicts some damn Demon put down! I won’t lie and say that this is all there is, when it isn’t!”
“Please, he’ll hear you,” she whimpered. “Thomas, please. He’ll hear you and punish us all. He’ll sink the island.”
Thomas stopped, shocked. “What?”
“If we don’t obey him, he’ll sink the island, and we’ll all die,” she said. “We must obey him.”
“I know you don’t know what it means, Rayna, but I’m a Blessed of the High Gods,” he told her slowly. “Linnar saw fit to Bless me, to put this mark on my head, and give me his Divine Gift. I cannot, and will not, bend to the will of a Demon. It goes against who and what I am.”
“If that is so, I respect that,” she replied. “But do not risk our lives for your convictions, Thomas.”
She brushed past him, entered her bed room, and shut the door, leaving him alone.
Thomas did not broach the subject of the Master again the next day. Rayna had made it clear to him that neither she, nor the others on the island, wanted any part of standing up to the damn Demon. Like it or not, he had to respect that, and in some ways, he was a bit glad. He was no warrior, and had no idea what kind of Demon he was even up against.
He considered using his Divine Gift, but he knew it wouldn’t be able to tell him anything. There were too many different kinds of Demon Seed out there. Without any more information than he had, his Gift would never be able to pin point any thing useful.
So, with no other real ideas as to what to do, he kept his word to Rayna and used his Divine Gift instead to become a master smith and begin work on the water tank. They already had the paddle at the mill to power the water pump, so that wouldn’t be too difficult to work with. The tank, though, would require several days of work.
By the time Rayna showed Kase the design for the tank, she had made several alterations to improve the overall efficiency of the device, impressing Thomas even further with her keen intellect. To his surprise, Thomas was assigned a work crew, which included Rayna, to build and test the tank.
Petta, the cheetah he had seen the day before, was assigned, as was a bull named Hern, a panther named Silka, and positively lovely minx named Jay. Thomas rolled his eyes a bit, but decided to give them a chance after Rayna nudged him in the side.
The next week was spent in hard labor, the hardest of his life, as they drug the ore from the mine on the other side of the small mountain, to the forge, smelted it, and began the long process of building the pipes and tanks they would need.
Thomas used his Gift more in the course of that week than he had in a month before coming to the island, jumping from designer, to smith, to mechanic, to plumber at a moment’s notice. Weight fell off his body quickly, the small belly he had grown shrinking quickly, though he barely noticed it.
To his surprise, the crew he had been given worked hard, following orders without question, and learned quickly. He never had to show them how to do anything more than twice before they had it, especially Rayna. Her mind was like a sponge, soaking up everything she saw instantly.
Hern, true to his nature as a bull, worked from early in the dawn to well into the night, never complaining, never stopping for any longer than it took him to eat a meal. His questions were always direct, and to the point, just as his conversation was.
Petta was the complete opposite. She never stopped talking, about anything and everything. Her ongoing monologue was often interrupted by questions that routinely struck Thomas as being from far a field, yet dead on target at the same time. She reminded him of a child at times, exuberant and hyperactive, always on the go, forever needing to at least twitch or explode.
Silka was a totally different matter for Thomas to adapt to. The silver tongued, seductive panther had the eternal need to find a better way to do things, ways that involved him working less. Much to the surprise of the lone human, the panther often succeeded in this, too, cutting the time it took to get work done in half with his ingeniously lazy approach to everything. The only thing about Silka Thomas found he did not like was the panther’s keen interest in Rayna, something he couldn’t even explain why bothered him.
Jay, the final member of his crew, turned out to be Thomas’ true lifeline to sanity. Her compassionate nature, eternal smile, and overwhelming optimism kept him going from one day to the next. He wasn’t too surprised to discover she was Ruff’s special friend, and often had to run the werewolf off if Jay was to get any work done at all. Regardless, Thomas quickly forged a strong connection with the tiny little wereminx, and learned a great deal about the island from her.
By the end of the week, their test model was ready, and functioning. With Kase watching, eyes hooded, Thomas turned the tap that let the water flow, hot and steaming, from the tank. It worked, just as it should, pulling water from the stream to the tank, heating it with the fire kept burning there, and then on, amazing the gathered werefolk to no end.
Kase nodded his head, declared it good, and cheers went up. To his surprise, Thomas felt a surge of pride as he watched the onlookers pat his crew on the back, congratulating them profusely.
Then they had turned to him. His crew first, led by Rayna, shaking his hand, followed by the others, pumping his arm until he had been certain it would fall off. Finally, there had been Kase, towering over him, a mountain of weretiger, looking down at him with those ever guarded eyes.
“Nice work, Thomas. You’ve proven yourself most useful.”
A massive hand on his shoulder, and Thomas found all he could do was smile, and offer his thanks.
Thomas lay on his back, checking the fittings one last time. All seemed well, and Rayna had already gone over it, but he wanted to give it a final inspection personally before he let her sign off on the job. This was his project, after all, and his reputation riding on the success or failure of it.
Satisfied that everything was solid and sealed, he crawled out from under the tank and brushed his palms off on his pants. Rayna offered him her hand, and he took it with a smile. On his feet, he nodded, and she began stacking the firewood for the tank.
“Last one,” she commented.
“Yes it is,” he replied.
“Every hut in the village will have hot water on demand if this works the way we plan,” she said, setting back on her haunches for a moment to light the small fire.
“More or less, anyway,” he agreed. “Then we can get on with replacing these thatched roofs with something more solid.”
She looked over her shoulder at him. “Not bad for three weeks work, wouldn’t you say?”
Thomas paused for a moment. “Gods, has it been that long already?”
“I lost track of time,” he told her with a laugh. “I just completely lost track of it altogether.”
Rayna eased to her feet, eying him in a way he wasn’t sure how to define. “So, it hasn’t been all that bad, then?”
“No, I guess it hasn’t. It’s nice to feel useful, especially for someone like me,” he told her, smiling at the whole thing.
Slowly, almost timidly, she slipped her arms around his waist, drawing close to him. “You are happy here? With us? With me?”
Thomas felt dizzy all of the sudden. “I… Rayna, I…”
A heavy gong sounded, resounding through out the entire village. Rayna gasped, eyes going wide with fear as the gong continued to sound, four times in all. Pressed so close to him, Thomas could feel her heart hammering in her chest, a wild and frantic thing, like a caged animal seeking escape.
“What was that?” he asked cautiously.
“It’s time for tithing,” she told him. “Come, we must go.”
Taking his hand, she led him from the hut and into the village square, where he saw that all of the werefolk had begun to gather. He nodded to Hern and Petta as they moved to join he and Rayna. Across the square, he saw Ruff and Jay, waved at them, but only got a brief nod from Ruff. Something about that nod bothered Thomas deeply. His friend, normally very jovial, seemed almost frightened as he clutched Jay close.
“What’s going on? Why is everyone so tense?”
Rayna put a finger to his lips as Kase moved to the center of the square, a long staff in his hands. The staff was tipped with a magnificent crystal, and Thomas was certain he had never seen the item before today. Nor had he ever seen Kase look so tired as he did now.
“The time for tithing comes again,” Kase said slowly. “As always, the Master will select the bearer of the tithe. As it has always been, so shall it be now.”
With that, Kase stamped the staff on the ground firmly. The crystal atop it began to glow, soft at first, then more brilliant with each passing second. As Thomas watched, a small finger of light reached out, moving slowly among the crowd, before settling on Jay.
The little minx made a stifled sound as Ruff’s face grew painfully grim. Slowly, Jay pulled free of the werewolf, stepping over to where Kase stood. As soon as she had, the crystal went dark again, and Kase sighed heavily, looking down at Jay as she trembled before him.
“You have been chosen, Jay, to bear the tithe. Will you accept this responsibility?”
She nodded slowly. “Yes, for the good of all, I will bear the tithe.”
Kase nodded his head. “Very well.”
A large basket of fruit and grain was brought into the square and set down. Slowly, Jay picked it up and, with a final look around, started walking towards the keep. The werefolk stood, watching her go, until she reached the door. It swung open, she entered, and vanished from their sight.
Thomas moved to stand next to Kase as the crowd began to break up, each going back to their respective duties, save Ruff, who continued to stare at the keep with forlorn eyes. The lone human present, Thomas wasn’t certain that he had any right to speak up, still not entirely in the clear about the customs and habits of his friends, but chose to anyway.
“So, about how long until she comes back?”
Kase looked at him, the sense of weariness heavy in his eyes. “She will not be coming back, Thomas. She has gone to serve the Master.”
Thomas felt like he had been hit in the stomach. “What?”
“Jay is gone from us now, but she will be remembered always, for serving the village as a whole,” Kase told him.
The past month went through Thomas’ mind, time spent building something with his crew, with Jay. Her perpetual smile, eternal optimism, and eagerness to get the job done had become one of the reasons he enjoyed getting up in the morning. She had never frowned, never hesitated at any task given her, and no matter the set backs, she had always believed they could succeed.
She had been, to Thomas’ mind, one of the most wonderful people he had ever met in his entire life. Now, just like that, because some damn fucking Demon in a castle had said so, she was gone. Just gone, like that cheer that never faded had never existed at all.
“Bull shit!” Thomas exploded.
“Thomas,” Kase said, lifting a hand.
Thomas stepped back from him, no longer afraid of the weretiger, but not willing to be silenced either. “No, Kase! No, this is utter bull shit! You just sent her to die!”
“We have no choice!” Kase bellowed.
“The hell you don’t!” Thomas felt dizzy with rage, found he could not remember ever being so angry, then stopped caring about such trivial matters. “There is always a choice.”
“The choice is between living and dying,” Kase said, his voice a measured tone. “We have chosen life.”
“Really? And Jay chose to live too! Now, for that, she’s been sacrificed to a Demon! Tell me where this is the right choice, Kase! Tell me, damn you!”
Kase said nothing, lowering his eyes slowly, unable to meet Thomas’ gaze. Behind him, Rayna watched, a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide. A few feet away, Ruff cried softly, a sound that tore through Thomas more powerfully than any blade ever could have.
“This stops today,” he declared darkly, leaving his friends in the square, heading for the forge.
Kase watched him for a moment, then called after him, “And what do you intend to do about it, Thomas? Fight the Master alone?”
“If that’s what it takes,” Thomas snapped back. “I’m going in there, and I’m getting Jay back. You can either come with me, or cower down here like children. Your choice.”
“How dare you?” Kase snarled. “Do you not think we have tried to fight back, Thomas? Do you not think we have tried to escape?”
“Not hard enough!” Thomas yelled, stomping back to where Kase stood, meeting the tiger’s eyes, unflinching, unafraid.
“You have no idea how hard we have tried, or how many lives were lost, due to our attempts to be free of this Demon, Thomas. Do not think to question the burden I carry, the faces that haunt me every day. You were not here all those years, you did not have to make the decisions. You don’t have to come out here with this damn staff, and send one of your people to their death!” Kase was roaring now, but discovered the small human would no longer back down from him when he did so.
“None of that justifies human sacrifice,” Thomas replied.
Kase laughed at him, a harsh and bitter laugh. “Human sacrifice, Thomas? How have we arrived at that? As I recall, it was you who declared us nothing more than chatty animals! What do you care what becomes of us?”
Thomas nodded his head slowly. “Yes, I said that, and I won’t deny it. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong. I do care, Kase. I do care what becomes of you, of all of you. You saved my life, and gave me something to do, to keep me from going insane when I got here. I care what happens, because these are my people too, and if you can’t see that I love them as much as you, then you’re a bigger fool than I thought.”
Suddenly, Ruff was on him, tackling Thomas from nowhere, knocking the smaller human to the ground with considerable force. “Damn you!”
Thomas yelped as Ruff slammed him against the ground. “Ruff! Stop!”
“Where are they Thomas? Where are these Isnarians of yours? Why didn’t they come for you? Why didn’t they come save us? Tell me, you son of a bitch, where the fuck are they?”
Kase seized the werewolf by the nape of the neck, hauling him off the human as Rayna rushed to Thomas’ side, checking him for serious injury. Ruff struggled for a moment against Kase’s grip, the collapsed into a pile of misery.
Thomas pushed Rayna away gently, assuring her he was well, before crawling over to Ruff, wrapping the big werewolf’s head up in his arms. “I don’t know, Ruff. I don’t know where they are. I don’t know why they didn’t come. Maybe, they just didn’t need me as much as I thought they did. I swear this to you, though, my friend, in the name of Kalis, that I will set this right.”
“What can you do, Thomas?” Kase whispered. “There is a magical barrier around the keep that only comes down at tithing time. We cannot bypass it, and even for your ability to know great things, nor can you. So, tell me, what can you do?”
Thomas looked up at him, realizing distantly that Hern, Petta, Silka, Daada and all the others had returned, watching this with wide eyes. He looked to them, one by one, meeting their gaze without fear, seeing not monsters, but his friends, people he had grown to care for so much he couldn’t imagine how he had lived without them before.
“I will teach you,” he said. “I will teach you how to build weapons, and armor. I will teach you how to fight, like the army you are. I will teach you how to kill this Demon.”
“Madness,” Kase snarled.
“No, Kase,” Hern said, stepping forward. “I would learn.”
“As would I,” Silka purred.
“Me too!” Petta chimed in.
“And me,” Rayna added, standing to look Kase in the eye.
Kase looked at them each in turn. “You would put your life in this human’s hands? Why would you do this, knowing you could condemn us all to death?”
“He is our friend,” Hern said. “He will not take us down the wrong road.”
“Hern, listen to me. You know as well as I that the Master owns us. I would seek this freedom as quickly as you, if I did not have to think of the community as a whole. We cannot defy our maker.”
Thomas passed Ruff to Petta, who consoled him tenderly. “You are not property, Kase. He didn’t give you life. He doesn’t own you.”
“Are you so certain of that, Thomas? Tell me, with this Gift of Knowledge you possess, that you do not know the truth about what we are?” Kase looked at him now with those hooded eyes again, his emotions unreadable. “And if you did, that you would see us the same as you do now?”
Thomas was silent. He had not used his Gift to discern the origins of these people, but knew it would not change how he saw them. Bards be damned, he had lived with them, worked with them, and knew them better than any traveling minstrel looking to fill his belly ever could.
“Let’s find out,” Thomas said, activating his Divine Gift to learn the secret of the werefolk.
Knowledge flooded his mind, but not in the way it usually did. In the past, when Thomas had used his Divine Gift, he had simply known the things he sought to learn. Now was different, unlike anything he could have ever been prepared for.
Brilliant light flooded his mind, taking him far from his body to show him the answers he asked for. His intellect, the essence of him, was flown from the island, back across the ocean, over the Great Desert, all the way to Qur, seat of power for the Masters of Sorcery.
There, in that kingdom, did he see the birth of a werefolk. Alone in his study, a Sorcerer laid out the runes on the floor, runes Thomas found he could read, stating that from blood did life begin, end, and exist in between.
Blood it was the Sorcerer used to write the runes as well, human blood. In a circle they were placed, covering most of the stone floor. In the dim candle light, Thomas watched the Sorcerer place the dead body of a fox in that circle.
“Born of blood, born to serve,” the Sorcerer chanted in runic words. “Wrought of magic, wrought of blood. Rise now, neither man nor beast, breath of one world, I summon thee!”
The blood and carcass began to glow, the light spreading out until Thomas could no longer see either. When it faded, the carcass and blood were gone, replaced by the still form of a werefox. It did not breathe, though, a form and nothing more.
Then he was gone from the Sorcerer’s chamber, pulled away again, high into the sky, taken so far into the heavens he could see the entire world laid out below him. There, his essence left the Middle World completely, taken into the myriad and complex echoes that were the Shadow Realms.
Created when Grannax separated the One World into three, the Shadow Realms were what might have been, possibilities of futures only dreamt of by the Divine Tiger himself. Thomas had heard rumors of them, stories told by Wizards and Druids who claimed to be Shadow Travelers, passing from one world to another.
He was brought by his Divine Gift to one of these worlds, commonly referred to in the Middle World as the Savage Realm. He suddenly knew that it was a world where werefolk were the dominant people, existing in complex societies, commanding a grasp on both magic and technology that made the Middle World seem infantile.
Thomas fell towards the kingdom of Jyr, an empire floating in the sky, pulled from the sea in ages past to protect it from the Demon Gods. He was taken into the capital city, to a home where a werefox struggled to give birth to her child. He saw the father standing near by, watching with eager expectation as the werejackal nursemaid worked frantically.
Thomas watched the spirit of the child be torn from the mother’s womb, hauled away by magical forces he didn’t grasp at first. The child, when it was finally delivered, was still born. He witnessed the mother’s grief, the father’s pain, and the nursemaid’s overwhelming sense of failure. He saw, and suddenly understood exactly what had happened here.
Regardless, he was pulled in the wake of the infant spirit, followed it closely as it was pulled from one world to another, and infused into the still form the Sorcerer had created. Slowly, the newly made werefox stirred, sucking in air harshly, crying out in pain as it was brought to life.
“Get up,” the Sorcerer snapped. “Stop you belly aching. There’s work to be done.”
Thomas saw the confusion, the fear in the werefox’s eyes. Then, he was spiraling back, swept across the Great Desert and the ocean, back to his body, where he slammed home with force. But he knew, he now knew something he already understood would be one of those things he would never be able to forget.
For the first time in his life, he wished he could forget something his Divine Gift had showed him.
Thomas gasped, back on the island once more. Rayna held him, his head resting in her lap. Kase and Hern towered over him, watching him intently. Even Ruff had pulled himself back from his sorrow to see if his friend was well. Thomas stared back at them for a long moment, his mind blazing, trying to deal with what he had been shown.
“Thomas,” Kase said softly. “What happened?”
“I saw,” he replied. “I saw the truth. I know everything now.”
Kase sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. “Then you know what I said was true.”
Thomas couldn’t help but laugh, absently seeking and grasping Rayna’s hand. “You don’t know half as much as you think you do about yourself, Kase. None of you do. This bastard, he may have made the bodies you live in, but he didn’t create you. Not really.”
“What do you mean?” Rayna asked.
“I’ll explain everything,” Thomas told her, sitting up, but still holding her hand firmly. “First, I need to know if Kase stands with me, though. Will you help me fight this Demon?”
Kase met his gaze, the tiger’s green eyes wide with surprise. “You would still fight for us, Thomas? Even knowing how we came into this world?”
“I’d fight even harder than before, my friend. Slavery, no matter who it is practiced on, is wrong. In this case, it’s a lot more than wrong, it’s damned evil. That Demon up there, he is going to die, and that’s my oath. I want you by my side when I do it, Kase, but I’ll do it even if I have to do it on my own.”
“Then you will have me at your side, Thomas Giardi, and that is my oath,” Kase told him.
Thomas nodded. “How long until the next tithing?”
“Four weeks, give or take a few days.”
“Then that’s how long we have to prepare,” Thomas said darkly. “If we cannot save Jay, we will avenge her, and all those who came before her.”
Climbing to his feet, taking Rayna with him, he looked at the werefolk of the island. Each of them, meant for another world, another life, had been ripped away to feed the ego of a Demon Sorcerer. Now, Thomas saw, they had been sent him to end their suffering.
“I’ve been a Blessed of Linnar for ten years,” he told them all. “It’s time I started acting like one. We are going to kill this Demon, my friends, together. I will show you how. Then, I pity any Demon foolish enough to come here and pick a fight with us, because we will be free, and they will not stop us!”
They cheered him, raising their voices in hope for the first time in many years. The time had come for the werefolk to go to war.
Thomas set to work the next day, training Hern to forge armor. He decided, since the materials were present, to avoid iron and forge steel, which required time spent showing Hern the details of crafting the new metal. Fortunately, Hern took to it with the same speed and aptitude he took to all things, and was quickly training others.
Rayna set to work making sure each of the werefolk on the island would have armor that fit properly, her skills as a seamstress turning now to steel plate. Chest plates, gauntlets, helms and leg bracers were designed with the speed and efficiency Thomas had come to appreciate from her.
With the armor side under way, Thomas and Hern turned to weapons, building swords, maces, hammers and axes of a size the werefolk would be able to use. As soon as the werebull had a grasp on these, Thomas was free to turn his attention to the final problem.
Training them to kill. Never in his life had Thomas found need to use his Divine Gift to understand the concepts of battle, and in a way, he found the process distasteful. He set that aside though, and thought instead of Jay. It came easier then.
Ruff took to it quickest, a fact Thomas wasn’t surprised by. The werewolf had a reason to fight, but beyond that, was the nature of what he was. Ramor was the Wolf of War, after all, and Thomas had hoped that might pass down into Ruff and the other wolves on the island. He was not disappointed.
Though it took almost the entire month to get it done, in the end, as the time of tithing drew close, Thomas began to feel certain that the small army of werefolk would be ready. They already understood the basics of hunting, and he used this to train them, bringing them along faster than any human trainees would progress.
He could not rule out their burning desire for freedom from the harsh demands of the Demonic Master, though. They had been terrorized by the monster in the keep for many years now, their entire lives in the case of those he knew. He couldn’t guess how long for those who came before them, but possibly for longer than he cared to think.
As their deadline drew close, he watched them practice, and felt a sense of pride flow through him. One way or another, he knew, they would all soon be free.
Kase carried the staff into the village square, holding it loosely in his hand. In the other was a poleaxe, a weapon he had found great favor with. His vest and pants were covered with steel plate, a helmet resting on his head. Around him, the gathered werefolk were dressed similarly.
“The time for tithing has come again,” Kase told them. “May it be our last. For all our lives, we have believed the Master knew our every word and act, but we now know different. He has shown no signs of knowing what we plan, and that bodes well for us, my friends. Let him now choose who will lead us into his keep, and destroy him.”
With that, he planted the staff firmly on the ground. The crystal atop it glowed, searching out the one who would carry the tithe. Finally, it settled on Rayna. She stepped forward, defiant rather than fearful as the crystal went dark.
Thomas felt his stomach turn into a knot. If they had not been ready, or if he had been unable to convince them to follow his plan, she would be going up there to die. Something about that made him feel sick, and he had to push the thought from his mind quickly.
“It is done, and somehow fitting,” Kase said. Setting aside his poleaxe, he snapped the staff in two on his knee, casting the broken pieces aside. “Now, we live free, or die trying.”
Rayna led the way, walking with purpose to where the magical barrier had always held them at bay before. Reaching out a hand, she found the way clear. She hesitated a moment, looking back over her shoulder at the three dozen werefolk, girded for war, behind her.
With a yell, she led the charge up the hill. They fell in behind her without hesitation, brandishing their weapons as they made for the great door of the keep. With each step, their sense of purpose grew, their grim faces turning more to anger, and finally letting the long years of oppression they had suffered show in their expressions of hate for the one who had forced them to serve.
Reaching the door, they found it standing open, and burst into the keep, ready for battle. To their surprise, they found nothing but dust and cobwebs. The old tapestries that hung on the wall were molding, as were the rugs on the floor. The showcase armor had turned to rust, the furniture beginning to rot.
“Okay, this isn’t what we were expecting,” Thomas said softly, motioning for them to spread out. “Fall into your assigned groups and begin searching the keep. He’s here somewhere. When you find him, do not attack him alone. Give the signal and all units will converge to take him out. We are obviously dealing with a powerful Sorcerer here, and no chances should be taken.
The werefolk nodded and did as they were told, moving to join their fellows until there were four groups of nine. The first three headed off, two going up the wide staircase in the entry hall, the other setting off into the south wing of the keep. Once they were gone, Thomas turned to his own team. Hern, Ruff, Silka, Petta, Rayna, Kase, Daada, himself and wererat named Bobba.
They moved swiftly, Petta taking the point with her short sword in hand, Hern following her closely, massive hammer at the ready. Thomas and Rayna brought up the rear guard, the one detail of the mission Kase refused to bend on.
They had only crossed a few rooms when they encountered the first defensive wave. In a long corridor, werefolk shambled towards them, their coats matted and greasy, their eyes glazed. Something about them unnerved Thomas greatly, but nothing more so than their uneven gait, or the fact they were led by Jay.
“Jay!” Ruff yipped, shoving past Hern and Petta to run towards her.
“Ruff, stop! Back away!” Thomas yelled, but his friend ignored him.
Reaching her, the werewolf held out his arms to embrace her, and the minx settled against him. Ruff had a moment to feel overjoyed before her fangs closed on his neck, biting deep and ripping. Screaming, Ruff tried to push her away, but she had fastened onto him, and the others with her were already groping after him.
“Move!” Thomas yelled, setting his team into motion. He knew they were in shock, seeing their former friends act this way, and he would have been too had his Divine Gift not shown him what was happening.
Hern was at Ruff’s side quickly, hammer back to swing as Petta defended his side. The hulking bull hesitated only a moment before bringing the weapon down on the little minx, shattering her skull and splitting her head open. She fell away from Ruff, who collapsed, blood pouring from his wound.
“Aim for their heads!” Thomas bellowed, swinging his own sword hard at a jackal, slicing into its throat.
His comrades fell to the job, hacking away as best they could, while Rayna fell to her knees and tried to stop the flow of blood from Ruff’s neck. Thomas soon had to join her, the larger werefolk too powerful for him to fight effectively.
“He won’t stop bleeding,” Rayna whined.
“His throat’s been ripped open,” Thomas told her. “It isn’t just going to heal on its own.”
“That isn’t how this works,” Thomas said, wondering when she had last seen a serious injury. He knew these people were hard to hurt, but they weren’t indestructible.
“It always has in the past,” she cried. “I’ve never seen anyone bleed this much, Thomas!”
Regenerative abilities, his brain informed him distantly. Remember their ability to heal quickly? Why isn’t Ruff doing that now?
“Zombies,” Thomas muttered. “Were-zombies, I guess. I don’t know, there isn’t anything for me to relate this to.”
“Thomas,” Kase called. “We have more company.”
“Hold them off,” Thomas said, shrugging out of his armor and removing his shirt. Wrapping it around Ruff’s neck, he tried desperately to stop the blood, but it seemed to do very little good. “Damn! What I wouldn’t give for a healer!”
“Then be one,” Rayna said softly.
Thomas looked at her in surprise, then nodded his head. He changed the direction of his Divine Gift yet again, knowing everything he could possibly know about field medicine, and saw what needed to be done.
“Rayna, please tell me you have your sewing needle on you.”
She nodded, producing not just the needle, but thread as well, from the satchel she carried. “I thought the armor might need mending. The straps, you know, or something?”
“Good girl,” Thomas told her, setting to work.
The sound of battle began to ring again as he worked, fighting desperately to save Ruff’s life. He could see where Jay had severed an artery in the werewolf’s neck, and understood what needed to be done, just hoping the makeshift tools he had at hand would do the job.
“Thomas!” Kase bellowed. “We need to be quick about this!”
Thomas nodded, finishing his work. He had no more moved his hands back than Ruff’s eyes opened and the wound to his neck began to close itself. He wasn’t sure he understood why, but he was glad to see the werewolf sit up, rubbing the spot on his neck that was now little more than a sore muscle.
“What happened?” Ruff asked.
“Thomas just saved your life,” Rayna told him.
“Guess I owe you one, buddy.”
“Call it even. Can you walk?”
Ruff stood, unsteady for a moment, then was fine. “I bet I could run this mother fucker down if he ran.”
“Good, because I think we’re on the right track here. The Master has surrounded himself with guards, one wave after another, and from what we now know, their bite can be lethal even to you guys. We have to be careful here,” Thomas told him as he slipped his armor back on.
“Got it. No more hugging the undead,” Ruff said, the look of pain in his eyes belying his joking tone. He still hadn’t looked down at Jay, and Thomas was glad of it.
“Let’s go kill a Demon,” Thomas said, slapping his friend on the shoulder.
It took several hours, but Thomas and his unit finally reached the Master’s lair, at the farthest end of the north wing of the keep. The werefolk with him had seen many faces they had known, turned to undead werebeasts, and many more they did not recognize. They all sported light wounds, their powerful regenerative abilities struggling to heal them against the Demonic claws of their former friends.
They entered the dining hall with grim faces, ready for the worst, and found instead an old man seated at the table. Of all the chambers they had seen, this one alone was cleaned and free of the ravages of time. A candelabra sat upon the table, shedding light into the room, and upon the Master as he watched them enter.
Ruff gave a loud barking cry that echoed throughout the keep, alerting the other units they had found their prey. The rest of the team moved to block any possible escape as Thomas stopped on the other side of the table from the Demon, who regarded him with mild curiosity.
“This all ends now,” Thomas told him.
“And you would be?” the old man asked.
“Thomas Giardi, Blessed of Linnar.”
The old man shrugged. “Never heard of you.”
“Now you have.”
“Do you really think this is going to work? I mean, certainly, you’ve taught them how to hold weapons, and dress like soldiers, but do you really think that any of them are going to be able to kill me?” The old man said this with a bit of a laugh, looking at the werefolk with disdain.
“I do,” Thomas replied. “Even vampires have their weaknesses.”
The Master looked at him in surprise. “Well, more observant than you look, aren’t you?”
Thomas stepped back as the Master rose. “Take off his head. It’s the only thing that will kill him with the weapons we have.”
The Master moved with impossible speed, coming across the table at Thomas, fangs bared. As fast as he was, though, Petta was faster, moving to intercept him, her sword raised. The vampire batted her aside like a child’s toy, continuing his advance on Thomas.
Petta struck the wall and fell into a crumpled heap, not moving. Thomas felt a lump rise in his throat as the vampire stalked him, murder in his eyes. In a flash, he understood that the undead Sorcerer had been surviving all this time on the blood of werefolk, and was stronger than any vampire he had ever heard tale of, maybe even too strong for them to kill.
“How dare you come in here and upset what I have put in place, little mortal. This is my island, and my livestock. Perhaps after these upstarts see you ripped in half, they will remember their place.”
The vampire got no further, impaled suddenly on Kase’s poleaxe. The weretiger lifted with all his might, hurling the vampire back over the table, crashing him down with a bone jarring thud. Across the room, Petta stirred, as Daada and Hern circled the table to catch the Master between them.
“Bobba, get Petta. Make sure she’s okay,” Thomas directed, sending the small wererat away from the worst of the fighting. The bigger werefolk were better suited to it, and from the look in Ruff’s eyes, Thomas doubted Bobba wanted to get caught between the werewolf and his prey.
“We are not upstarts,” Kase snarled as he leapt onto the table. “We are taking what is rightfully ours, Demon. Our lives.”
The vampire had time to roll away before the poleaxe hit him, but only barely. Even then, he found himself before Hern, who swung his hammer hard, sending the undead creature flying across the room. Daada was ready for him, and his axe bit deep, severing the vampire’s arm with brutal speed.
Howling, the vampire staggered away, trying to regain some kind of control of the situation, exerting his vampiric powers to no avail. The werefolk continued to close on him, Ruff shouldering his way past Hern, lifting his sword before him.
“What’s wrong, there,” the werewolf snarled. “We go and slip our leash?”
The others began to arrive then, pouring into the room, weapons raised. The vampire looked about him, seeing that he was outnumbered to a degree he could not win. His back to the wall, all he could do was watch as they closed in around him, murder in their eyes.
“I’ll sink this island!” he cried. “I swear it! If you do not return to the village, I’ll kill all of you!”
“It’d be worth it,” Kase growled, ramming his poleaex through the creature, pinning him to the wall.
“Besides,” Thomas added. “It’s kind of hard to work magic without a head.”
Ruff pulled back and swung without mercy or hesitation, killing the beast in a single strike.
Thomas looked out over the island from his vantage point atop the keep, watching his friends as they worked in the village below. A lot had been let go as they had trained for their assault on the vampire’s lair, and now had to be taken care of lest they loose half their food supply.
A soft sound next to him alerted him to the presence of Hada, the falcon winged Ascended he had not seen in over two months. She leaned out as well, resting against the stone railing, watching the werefolk at their daily chores.
“It’s about time you showed up,” Thomas said. “I was beginning to think you had abandoned me.”
“Not a chance, Tommy,” she replied with a wink. “But Linnar felt it was time for you to stand on your own two feet.”
“He could have just said so,” Thomas groused. “Did we really have to go to such extremes?”
“You know Linnar. Grand is his fashion of choice.”
Thomas smiled, nodding his head. “I suppose. Still, he could have just asked me to come here and kill a vampire with an army of werefolk.”
“Yeah, it would have been so simple,” Hada laughed.
Thomas said nothing for a bit, just watching as life went on in the village. “So, have you come to take me back?”
“That’s up to you,” she answered.
He nodded his head, understanding all to well. Behind him, Rayna slipped up the steps, stopping short as she spotted the Ascended with him. After a moment’s thought, she held back, letting Thomas be alone with the winged demi-god.
“But,” Hada said. “I noticed you didn’t ask if I had come to take you home.”
“So did I,” Thomas said. “Wonder what that’s about.”
“They could use you here, Tommy.”
He didn’t answer.
“They need you, truth be told.”
Thomas still said nothing.
“The choice is yours, though. I can have you back in Isnar in a blink if you like.”
Hada frowned. “Their place is here, Tommy. They wouldn’t exist well out there. You know this.”
He sighed. “Yeah, I know. Guess that’s all I really need to know, too.”
Hada waited, but he didn’t seem in any hurry, so she let the silence stand. Behind them, Rayna felt like she might explode if one of them didn’t say something soon.
“Give Mantubo my regards, would you?” Thomas asked at last, straightening up.
Hada grinned. “Already did.”
“Hey, Tommy, mind if I ask you a question?”
He laughed. “Would it stop you if I did?”
“Doubtful,” she replied. “But, if you could, who would you take with you?”
“All of them,” he said.
Hada watched him walk away, until he saw Rayna. Thomas stopped for a second, realizing she had overheard, and opened his arms to her. She flew to him, holding him tight, nuzzling against him as he hugged her.
“But one more than the others,” Hada whispered, returning to the High World in a flash of light.
Thomas Giardi went down to his village, with his people, and made himself useful.
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani