by Christian O’Kane
©2008 Christian O’Kane

Home -=- #18 -=- ANTHRO #18 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   Greed and destruction: Those two seemed to go hand in hand with wizards. Wherever there were wizards, there was destruction caused by the lust for more and more power. The Hall of Malzarun in the city of Athral was a classic example. Falrick walked carefully amidst the rubble and debris that had until last week been the largest and grandest Guild Hall in the city.
   Until the week before, this had been a four-story hall made of the brightest, whitest marble, occupying six full acres of ground in the center of the city. From behind its gold doors, the Grand Order of the Magi had ruled the city and a good portion of the surrounding countryside.
   But with great power, it seemed, came great greed and paranoia. Not satisfied with ruling the city as a group, the mages had started squabbling among themselves over who controlled the Order. Those conflicts had resulted in the wreckage he was walking in now.
   Falrick stepped cautiously around a stone torso that was half-buried under a mound of rubble fifteen feet high. He wasn’t sure if the torso was from a statue or a petrified mage; either way, he gave the stone corpse a wide berth. One could never be too careful when it came to magic.
   Although he walked upright like a human, Falrick was anything but. Instead he had the hard, compact body of a wolverine. The only changes the sorceress Halsandrun had made to Falrick’s body were to let him walk upright, and alter what had been his front paws into hands. Giving him full human-level intelligence had been almost an afterthought for the mage.
   As usual, Falrick was dressed in little but the fur he’d been born with. He didn’t even carry any weapons; those weren’t really needed. Even though they were no longer paws, his hands still bore the long, razor-sharp claws of a wolverine, and his muzzle was full of teeth that were just as long and sharp. His only concession to human modesty was a loincloth, held on with a dark leather belt and a gold buckle. Not that the lack of clothing bothered him. The crisp, cold air was easily held at bay by his thick, wolverine fur. His former mistress (may she rot in Hell!) had always made him dress in such outrageously expensive clothing that now, he couldn’t even wear a shirt without all the old memories of… that female… flooding back.
   He looked around at the ruins. All that was left of the grand edifice was shattered stone and metal, a pile of wreckage totally unrecognizable as a man-made structure. The entire six acres was covered with rubble to a depth of twenty feet. Falrick examined the debris beneath him. He kicked a blackened lump of stone with his right paw, and it crumbled into dust. The wolverine was reminded of a piece of bread left too long in the oven and burnt to a crisp. It was hard to imagine that blackened, heat-cracked mass had once been hard marble, colored as white as snow.
   Falrick looked up at the dark-skinned woman walking beside him. Her name was Maria, and even though he was over five and a half feet tall, the wolverine morph was still a foot shorter than she.
   Maria wore her hair cut close to her head and tied in tight braids that bounced when she talked. She was dressed in a long, flowing, blue gown that went down to her ankles. It was covered with the gold and silver emblems that marked her as a member of the nobility. Maria was the governor-general of Athal, a title which signified that she held as much political power as the Grand Order had deigned to allow any non-mage to have.
   “What did this?” the wolverine asked, waving his arm around at the rubble.
   “An explosion,” she answered. “Or several that were too close together to tell apart.”
   “That must have been an impressive explosion,” he said. Falrick looked toward the edge of the mage’s land… and noticed that the rubble stopped abruptly. There was a plainly visible edge to the devastation. Where the mage-owned property ended, so did the wreckage. The ground beyond was clean and pristine, as if someone had very diligently removed all signs of the explosion. He could clearly see a small tree growing against a stone wall, some twenty feet from where the main doors to the hall had stood. It was undisturbed: Not a single leave or twig had been bent or singed.
   Maria must have noticed where the morph was looking. “Only their property was touched. Even the smoke didn’t wander off the Tower grounds. It doubtless saved the whole city.”
   The wolverine gave her a doubtful look. “These mages were concerned about the safety of mundanes?”
   Maria smiled without humor. “Hardly. They erected a sorcerous shield, true—but only to protect themselves from any dangers outside their precious Hall.”
   He nodded. “And now they know that a wall can keep things in, as well as out. How many died?”
   She shrugged. “We’re not sure. No one outside the Order knew exactly how many members it had, so it’s hard to tell just how many were killed. Barely twenty survived, all of them novices or very junior members. Two are like you were once…” She paused at that moment, as if searching for the right words. “…servants?” she finally said, but her voice betrayed doubt.
   The wolverine didn’t speak for a moment. “What will become of them?” he asked.
   “The novices will be held for punishment,” Maria replied. “As for the servants, they will be helped. They will both stay in my household until they can fend for themselves.”
   “How many city-folk died?” he asked, changing the subject to avoid bad memories.
   “None,” Governor-general answered as she gingerly walked around a shattered metal beam. “As I said, the damage was limited to mage property.”
   “And the only people there were mages,” he commented. “They never let any lesser people in the hall, did they?” It was more a statement than a question.
   Maria nodded her head and a disgusted look crossed her face. “I was governor-general for ten years, and never once saw the inside of the hall—nor even who gave me my orders. All I ever got from them were written messages delivered by various creatures.”
   “Why did you send for me?” he asked. “I don’t deal with the dead, and I am no one’s servant to clean up this mess.”
   “The surviving mages are all in my prison, and their lackeys in the city are dead or in prison as well,” she said. “We are carefully searching the rubble for the remains of the wizards. Already we’ve found many.”
   “But you think some may have escaped,” the animal man noted. “So I am to hunt them down?”
   “Yes. Many of the surviving servants mentioned a contingency spell that certain Order members had used before.”
   “How many escaped?” Falrick asked coldly.
   “Five that we know of. Four were foolish enough to have safe-houses in the city itself. Two of them we found and put to death before they could recover,” she smiled, and her face brightened up considerably. “Of a second pair, one attempted to buy her life with knowledge of the other’s location. So we killed them both.”
   “That leaves one left,” the wolverine noted.
   “Yes,” Maria said. “The Order’s leader—”
   “‘Leader’?” he interrupted. “So my target is an Archmage? Very well, but my fee just doubled.”
   The governor-general nodded her calm acknowlegement and went on: “Her name is Britomartus, and we fear she escaped. We found her soulless corpse; the priests think she may have cast a spell to ensure that her spirit remained on this plane of existence.”
   Falrick pondered that news for a moment. “She may have. There are spells that could move a soul from one body to another. She would need a prepared body to inhabit, but that’s easy enough to do. Mages have been growing and manipulating bodies for a long time. I’m living proof of that. Where did she hide this new body?”
   Maria frowned. “We don’t know. Britomartus obscured all traces of her spellworking, which makes finding her difficult. We have only one clue. All the priests could say was that her soul was near the town of Greensward, some two hundred miles from here. I want you to travel there and kill her,” she said in a cold and angry tone. “Your methods are your own affair; we care only that you guarantee her death. Her kind no longer have a place here. We cannot risk her ever returning.”
   Falrick nodded. “And my fee?” He did not need to remind Maria that his services were expensive; no mage-hunter ever came cheap.
   The woman produced two large pouches from her robe and handed one to the wolverine. A quick look inside revealed a sizeable collection of various gems. “When her final destruction is confirmed, you will get the other as well.”
   “Fair enough,” Falrick answered.
   “All of her possessions must be retrieved and brought back as well. The dangerous ones will be destroyed, but you can keep the rest.”
   “You mean, you get the powerful artifacts and I get the trivial magic. A dagger or a few arrows, perhaps,” the wolverine countered cynically.
   “No!” she countered angrily. “Don’t mistake me for a Grand Order Mage. What I said, I meant. The priests will be able to tell what possessions are safe. Unless you want to discover that yourself?”
   He shook his head. “No. What I cannot bring back, I’ll destroy there.”
   “That’s acceptable—but be careful. As its leader, Britomartus was one of the Order’s most powerful mages,” Maria warned, waving her hand towards the ruins around them. “We don’t want this happening again somewhere else.”

   It was the time of the spring festival; the town of Greensward was abuzz with activity and excitement. It had been a difficult winter, and everyone was eager to celebrate the long-awaited arrival of spring. The weather was warm and the sunshine had finally dried up the last of winter’s mud. The town’s Commons was covered with thick, lush grass. The farmers had already planted the seeds that would grow into wheat and grain. For these two weeks all thoughts turned from farming to the Greensward Faire, a time to relax, meet with old friends, compete in all manner of contests and celebrate having survived another winter.
   The town itself was well made, its stone and thick-timbered buildings set around a crossroads where t wo great thoroughfares passed each other. The Commons was usually occupied only by grazing sheep or cattle and children playing, but for the fortnight of the Festival it was filled with all manner of tents and canvas pavilions. Those spaces that weren’t covered by tents were filled with people walking, chatting, eating, selling, buying or competing against each other.
   This fair was an important event for the entire area, and not just as a break from work. It was also a chance to sell items made over the long winter for needed cash, and to replace items worn out or used up over the winter. Merchants came from a long way off to sell and to buy. Even the dour and clannish Dwarves of Caer Duneagn were here; theirs was a massive pavilion, with tables, smithies and even a forge whose flames glowed day and night.
   Not to be outdone by the dwarves, the Wood Elves of Thringenheim had also come, intent on selling all manner of wondrous plants and goods. They had set themselves up in one corner of the Commons—the one furthest from the Dwarves—under a tremendous oak tree whose massive branches shaded everything underneath them and protected the Elves from the weather. What was most unusual was that tree had not even existed the day before the Elves’ arrival, and would disappear the day after they left. The townsfolk had simply woken up one morning, and it was there as if it had been growing in that spot for centuries.
   In a humble side alley, halfway between the Dwarves and the Elves, was a small, green tent, tucked neatly in between a woman selling gloves and a half-Elf who dealt in clothing and boots. This tent was about ten feet wide by fifteen deep. Its front curtain was thrown open, revealing a large wooden counter behind which stood a young hedge-mage, a girl who dealt in simple charms and potions. Behind her was a green and blue curtain that blocked off the back twothirds of the tent, concealing whatever lay within.
   With all the hub-bub and goings-on, nobody had given Falrick a second glance as he traversed the lanes of the Festival. The Governor-General had given him a talisman that was supposed to help locate the mage; its glowing light had pointed faithfully to Greensward, but now that he was close to his quarry, the talisman was nearly useless. Although its brightening and darkening had guided him to the festival grounds, it now could not manage more then a faint glimmer when he passed a certain green tent. Had his own divinatory skills (such as they were) not agreed with the talisman’s readings, the wolverine would have considered searching elsewhere than Greensward.
   He’d spent six days surreptitiously searching the Festival grounds, and another three watching this tent in particular. During all this time, the hedge-mage hadn’t once opened her rear curtains, merely parted them just enough to slip through when she had to retrieve something from the back of her tent. Falrick hung back, out of sight of the woman and her tent, and pondered what to do next. He had carefully examined every inch of the exterior of the tent and what little of the interior he could see. He’d even used the few detection spells at his beck and call, to no effect. It wasn’t that his minor magics were blocked by the sort of wards an Archmage could easy erect; quite the opposite, in fact. The tent had no magic whatsoever on it—not even a simple waterproofing spell to keep out the rain! At least, there were no spells that he could detect. That puzzled him. The locating talisman continued to faintly but steadily announce that his quarry was inside the tent. But if that was so, why the lack of any warding spells? All mages of such power as Britomartus were constantly protected by powerful magic. And if the archmage truly was using the tent as a refuge, by rights it should have been protected by the strongest spells she could cast. Such magic was powerful, but rarely subtle. It was usually easy to detect.
   There were spells that were both protective and inconspicuous, but he could not imagine a haughty archmage of the Grand Order of the Magi behaving in such a subtle or stealthy manner. These mages had been proud of their power, and loved to flaunt it at every opportunity. There was a kind of logic to it; if someone had brains enough to recognize powerful magic for what it was, they’d be smart enough not to attack the one who cast it. Unfortunately, this logic was flawed. Recognizing a magical deathtrap for what it was, an enemy could quietly surround it, waiting for the mage within to emerge into a lethal ambush It was a remarkably effective tactic, but it required time that the wolverine simply didn’t have. The Festival would end in a few days, and then the tent would come down. Britomartus would surely have known this; she would doubtless be ready to leave at that time, most likely she would be fully healed and rested and at her most powerful, Falrick didn’t have a dozen mages, priests and scores of troops to help him fight the mage. He had to strike—and soon.
But what of the woman? What was she? As a lowly hedge-mage, the woman could be an apprentice or servant; most likely, she wasn’t human or even mortal. There were many vile things that could disguise themselves as an innocent person. Indeed, the woman might actually be the mage herself, hiding in that form, biding her time until she regained her full power!
   Falrick pondered his next move. He needed more information about the tent and the young woman, but spying from a distance only went so far. If he could get close enough to her without his real intentions being discovered he could find out more about the lady—but how? He couldn’t just walk up to her and say hello. Or… could he? She was a merchant of sorts; many strangers had come to her small tent to buy things from her. He could simply pretend to be just another customer.
   Falrick stood up straight as he walked calmly around the corner. He was dressed in a loose-fitting pair of pants and a vest, both of which had seen better days. Across his back was strapped a tough, leather case that contained a powerful bow and arrows. He usually wore neither shirt nor weapon, but both would help him in the role he’d soon be playing.
   Weaving slowly through the crowd, he made his way past the booths and tents that made up the small alleyway. He passed a family of seven, a husband and wife who rode herd over a gaggle of children who were laughing, shrieking and racing all over. He laughed as the two parents tried desperately to control their brood with little success.
   “Good morning, sir!” a woman’s voice said, breaking Falrick’s concentration.
   Turning to the voice, he found that having been distracted by the family, he’d almost walked into the woman’s counter—literally. He was now less then a single pace from the woman.
   She wore a light blue dress, edged with wide ruffles of white that stopped just below her shoulders. This left her neck, shoulders and the upper part of her chest bare, revealing soft, smooth skin that was devoid of any blemishes. Her face was warm and open, glowing with good health and good cheer. A handkerchief of black covered her light brown hair and kept it out of her face. Her only jewelry was a pale blue crystal that hung from her neck on a leather thong.
   “Can I help you?” she said, in a tone as soft and pleasant as a summer breeze.
   Caught off guard, Falrick’s wits fled him and everything he had planned to say was forgotten instantly. All he could do was look into that lovely face. “Ah… ah,” he stammered.
   She laughed, her voice sounding like the soft tinkling of silver bells as her face brightened even more then it already had. “Perhaps a potion to help with stuttering?” she suggested.
   “Uhm,” he managed. Falrick took a deep breath and steadied himself. “What do you sell here?”
   “I sell all manner of potions and spells,” she said. “For home, trade or whatever you need.”
   “I… am Falrick, ranger and hunter,” he said unsure of how to continue. “What’s your name?”
   The woman rested her arms on the counter and leaned forward. He couldn’t help but notice the excellent view of her cleavage that move gave him. “I am Gwynedd Findon of Tadworth,” she answered cheerfully. “And you’re a hunter. A hunter of what?”
   “Orcs, wyverns, dragons. Whatever needs to be hunted,” he said with a shrug.
   “Does ‘whatever needs to be hunted’ include humans?” she asked.
   He shook his head. “I limit myself to animals and monsters.”
   “Not all monsters are orcs or dragons,” the woman pointed out. “But this is farm country; wehave few such creatures here. So what brings a dragon-hunter like you to the Greensward Faire?”
   “Curiosity,” Falrick answered. “I was traveling to the Wyrmspine mountains to hunt manticores when I heard of the Faire.”
   She smiled even wider. “Manticores are dangerous creatures. I think you’ll find that my potions and spells can help you.”
   “Magic? I don’t care for it,” the wolverine countered. “I prefer to depend on my own strength and skills.”
   “A good spell can save your life. Make you faster, stronger even enhance your skills. Why not use something that will help you?” she said with a trace of annoyance in her voice.
   “Spells can fail,” he answered flatly, leaning towards her.
   “And mundane weapons and armor can’t?”
   “Not if they’re made right,” Falrick answered. The faint smell of jasmine came to the wolverine’s sensitive nose, along with the scent of a young, human woman in good health. It was a pleasant smell and it brought back many fond memories; now that he thought of it, not all the time with his first mistress had been bad…
   “Well, then it all comes down to trust, doesn’t it?” Gwynedd asked. “You trust the weaponsmith to make you a proper blade, and you trust a mage to cast a proper spell.”
   They were very close now. Close enough to kiss each other, had they wanted to. Looking into her sea-green eyes, Falrick saw the warmth and humor of youth, with an honesty and openness he’d never seen before.
   He pulled back from her, but not far. “Trust is something I find hard to give,” he admitted honestly.
   “Do you trust me?” she asked—and softly kissed him on the muzzle.
   “Yes,” he answered without thinking, too surprised by her actions to lie. “I… I… I mean…” he stuttered. “I’d trust any potion or spell of yours.”
   “Then I have what you need. Potions of strength and speed. And a scroll to harden your skin to the toughness of stone,” she said and ran her finger along his muzzle. As soft as her touch was, he was yet very aware of it, feeling it all through his body like a warm drink flowing through a body half-frozen from a winter’s storm.
   “I’ll take four of each potion and two of the scrolls,” Falrick said as he stepped back, unnerved by the closeness.
   She smiled again and nodded. “The potions I have ready now, but you’ll have to come back later for the scrolls. I haven’t had any call for those in months.”
   “Fair enough,” he said regaining some of his composure. “I’ll be back tomorrow.” Then he turned on his heels and stalked away, leaving the tent and its lovely occupant far behind.

   Whatever the girl had done to Falrick, it wore off soon after he left her presence. If he’d learned nothing else, Falrick had confirmed that Gwynedd was most certainly a mage. And, more, she was not at all averse to altering people’s minds with her magic! It was clear that she’d cast a spell on him—and equally clear that it had only a spell of infatuation, not a true love-charm. Did that make her the lowly hedge-mage she appeared to be, a simple woman with a taste for the exotic? Or was she a disguised Archmage, toying with him before she struck a lethal blow? Either way, he still didn’t have enough information…
   The wolverine came up with a plan, a dangerous gamble: He would see how Gwynedd behaved when he suddenly appeared next to her without warning.
   Her response to the surprise would tell him what she really was. Catching people off guard like that usually provoked a reaction. If she was the friendly young woman she seemed, she might jump in fright or be startled; if she hid a secret, she might lash out and attack him; if she was a bodyguard or warrior, she might strike at him with a sword or dagger. But if she were what Falrick feared she might be, the girl would surely lash out with powerful spells.
   Sword and dagger fighting he could handle, but spells were a different thing. He did have a couple of protective amulets, but the wolverine was far from certain how much good they might do. A mage of Britomartus’ power, an Archmage, might well be able to cast spells his shields would not guard him against. If Gwynedd truly was the missing Archmage, his best hope was that she would still be unaccustomed to her new body. If so, she would be slow to react, giving him time to strike before she could finish casting a spell. That would be all the edge he needed. But many mages had spells already cast that lashed out at any attacker; even just touching her could see him enveloped in a fire ball, or electrocuted in an instant…
   A dangerous gamble, indeed! He didn't much care for it, but days of watching and casting detection and scrying spells had gained him nothing more. Not even talking to her had helped. He had to provoke her.
   At last her back was to the counter; then the wolverine moved swiftly, but with all the stealth and silence he had learned over the years. His passage made no noise, other than the faintest whisper of grass moving. He had already tied down every loose, dangling thing that could make even the slightest sound; he’d even taken off his vest and tied down his pants to be sure there was no rustle of cloth to warn her.
   Silently he approached her tent, reaching it without her seeming to notice. She was bent over a small crate that stood near the back of the tent. He quietly crept around the counter, moving with a care and skill would have amazed anyone seeing it. Falrick had crept up on deer and elk this way, bringing the massive animals down with just teeth and claws. He was less then an arm’s length away… and still she didn’t react. He raised his left hand, extending it with claws bared. He gingerly tapped Gwynedd on the shoulder, his sharp claws just brushing her soft, tender skin.
   Surprised, Gwynedd jumped up straight. She brushed her blouse nervously for a moment, then smiled at him. “You’re back early,” she said, sounding a little unnerved. “You startled me.”
   The was not the reaction he had expected. No spells, swords or daggers—nothing! She wasn’t even carrying a dagger!
   “I’m sorry. I didn’t meant to,” he said. “I’m a hunter; moving silently gets to be a habit. All the more so when you’re out in the wilderness, all by yourself.”
   Her face grew serious for a moment. “True. It can be a sad world.” She stepped closer to him. “We’re two lonely souls, aren’t we?” Gwynedd ran her hand down his chest, tracing her fingers along a old scar that was plainly visible through the thick fur. “What did that?” she asked.
   “A sword wielded by a half-Elf,” he explained. The woman’s touch was soft, and he could feel her warmth on his skin. More reason to believe that Gywnedd was not his target: Mages usually avoided such close contact at all costs, since it would prevent them from casting a spell. Some of them avoided any personal relationships, even from family or friends as a matter of simple self protection. It left most magic wielders cold and distant.
   “What do you think of half-Elves?” she asked calmly.
   “You mean that one, or all half-Elves?”
   “Half-Elves are the result of an Elf and a human breeding. Two separate kinds.”
   Falrick laughed; if he hadn’t already know what interest she had in him, that would have revealed the secret. “Breeding? You make it sound like a farmer breeding cattle! You take all the fun out of it. Besides, Elves and humans can’t be too separate if they can have children.”
   “They’re a lot closer than humans and Furs,” she commented as she rested her hand on his chest. “I’ve never known of a half-Fur.”
   Their bodies were very close. She was leaning on him lightly and he could feel her breasts pressing lightly against his chest.
   “I’ve heard of them,” he answered, trying to concentrate on Gwynedd the mage and not the beautiful woman who had her body pressed against his. “I actually met a half-Fur once. Her father was a human and her mother was a Fur.”
   “Really? What type of Fur?” she asked and rested both hands on his chest. “A wolverine like you?”
   “No, a wolf,” he answered and deliberately stepped backward. Then, deliberately changing the subject, he said, “I was wondering, aren’t you worried?”
   “Worried? About what?”
   “Trouble. Every mage I’ve ever met had a guard—usually several—and here you are, all alone.”
   “Why would I need a guard?” she answered, looking genuinely puzzled. “I’m just a simple journeyman mage.”
   “Of course, but there are those who hunt mages no matter what they claim to be.”
   “True,” she answered as she trailed her fingers through the fur on his chest. “Perhaps I should hire a bodyguard. Perhaps… someone brave and strong, like you?”
   Again, Gwynedd confounded his expectations. Falrick stepped backwards, more confused than ever. “I’m…” he stuttered. “I’ll be back later,” he managed and fled the tent and it’s puzzling occupant.

   Falrick would have preferred to be in a quiet tavern, but the only one in town was closed for the Faire. Instead, its owners had set their tables up under a bright red tent that bustled with people. In one corner, Dwarves, Elves and some local farmers were involved in a loud, boisterous drinking contest. The rest of the tent was only slightly quieter, with everyone drinking, laughing and celebrating. Falrick sat quietly at a table in a corner and nursed his wine as he pondered everything that had happened between him and Gwynedd.
   Who was that woman? She had some connection to Britomartus—all his clues and magic said so—but she didn’t fit the pattern, didn’t behave as an Archmage’s lackey ought to. Could she be the mage in disguise? Hardly—especially not when she didn’t even carry so much as a dagger!
He tried to concentrate on his job, but Gwynedd kept intruding. His mind filled with the idea of drinking in her wonderful scent again, of talking with her. He could picture the two of them walking in some secluded place, laughing and revelling in each other’s company. Perhaps they could find some quiet place to be alone and to enjoy some carnal pleasures… Yes, he knew exactly what sort of spells Gwyn had used on him, and they were emphatically not the kind an Archmage, suspicious of everything, would employ on a potential threat. He didn’t mind; he had been alone for quite some time now… Reluctantly he brought his mind back to the task at hand. He wasn’t there to enjoy some bedsport with a lovely, young woman. He was there to kill an older one.
   By now, Falrick was convinced that the Archmage’s soul had not found a new body. Rather, it must be inhabiting an object of some sort. Britomartus wouldn’t want to stay there, of course; if the object were destroyed, so, too, would be the soul it contained. So the Archmage’s spirit would be looking for a suitable living vessel. But without proper eyes or ears or senses, the soul could only do so through the use of magic. That was the key to the puzzle, it had to be! The talisman Maria had given him could only detect Britomartus’s soul when it was exerting magical effort of whatever kind; when the soul was resting, inert, there was no ‘spoor’ for the talisman to detect.
   Whatever the object was, Falrick had to find it and destroy it before Britomartus got herself a new body. Killing a mage was never easy, and trying to kill one as powerful and paranoid as a Grand Order mage was very dangerous. Falrick’s strengths and skill lay with his own razor sharp teeth and claws. But he also had a bit of magic; someone who was grown, tutored and subservient to a mage for years picks up some skill in the arcane arts, even if that mage did not intend it. His spells were few and relatively weak, mostly designed to temporarily enhance his physical abilities—strength, senses, reflexes, and such. Minor tricks, useful in hunting, stalking and fighting, but no good against a mage of Britomarus’ level of power. Which is why the wolverine had no intention of fighting a mage with magic. That would be playing up to the wizard’s strengths.
   No, Falrick intended to exploit the one weakness shared by all spellcasters: Combat. No matter how subtle or powerful a mage might be, a dagger through the heart left them just as dead as anybody else. The problem was getting close enough to use that dagger. Stealth and surprise were a mage-hunter’s best allies; with them on your side, you had a decent chance to kill a mage before they even knew that they were in danger.
   But first he had to find the object that housed the Archmage’s soul. It had to be in Gwynedd’s possession, probably something she didn’t even recognize for what it was. The obvious course of action would be to burn Gwynedd’s tent, destroy everything she owned or carried—including the clothes she wore and that pendant of hers. And whatever survived the flames could be smashed with a blacksmith’s hammer. This would ruin Gwynedd’s livelihood, but as much as Falrick didn’t like that idea, he also knew it was necessary. And he’d be a wealthy Fur when he reported back to Maria; he could pay her enough to replace all that he’d destroyed.
   Falrick waved a paw towards a harried and overworked waitress and she came over to him. He ordered a full meal but no more wine. He had to remain clear-headed for the work ahead. The wolverine waited for his food and for the Moon to set.

   It had been a long day for her. Up before dawn to eat breakfast and set things up, then standing all day long at the counter trying to sell potions and spells to farmers and townsfolk who really didn’t need them. She wondered if centaurs always had tired feet from standing all the time. They even slept standing up!
   Still, the strength potions had sold well, earning her a nice, tidy little sum. She’d have to spend the night making more. And she did owe those four to Falrick… Gwynedd paused for a moment in her task of storing away her potions and smiled.
   Falrick was the brightest point of her day. Gwynedd remembered when she saw him walking towards her: His head erect, his body moving with supple grace, his strength and masculinity made all the more powerful by the fact that it was natural and not enhanced with any spells. Each step he took, each movement of that strong body made his powerful muscles ripple under the fur, showing all the world just how powerful, handsome and virile he was. He exuded sexuality, and every woman’s head turned in his direction with a dreamy and hungry look in their eyes.
   Not that he noticed all those stares; in truth, Falrick seemed oblivious to the attention he was getting from the women. He’d been so distracted by those children that he would have walked right into her counter if she hadn’t said hello!
   Quietly Gwynedd finished putting the last of the potions in a strongbox and locked it for the night. She wondered what had brought the wolverine here by himself. Folk like him, sorcerous creations all, were almost always in the presence of their mage or going about some task for that wizard. But Falrick was alone. She detected no spells of any kind on he, himself; just a few magical trinkets, such as his bow. This was odd, for the making of Falrick’s kind required a significant investment of magical resources, and a wizard would usually protect it with wards and spells. But Falrick lacked any such wards! That was a distinct point in his favor. And his claim to be headed to the mountains to hunt could be true; from a manticore’s carcass, one could harvest a variety of items for which mages would pay large sums of money.
   She’d gotten such a wonderful reaction from the charm spell! It was a trivial spell that any apprentice could cast, but the wolverine had opened himself and lowered his guard instantly. That had been a pleasant surprise, for the spell couldn’t make bitter enemies fall in love—indeed, it wouldn’t work at all unless the target already felt some attraction. Gwynedd laughed to herself. Most people used it to help seduce someone for a single night of sex and romance.
   Gwynedd remembered how it felt being so close to him, the warmth of his body against hers. It had been a very long time she had let anyone get that close to her. She’d forgotten how good it felt. But she felt attracted to him as much as he was obviously attracted to her. Perhaps the spell had worked a little too well?

   She never heard him coming. One moment, she was lowering the curtains at the front of the tent, all alone with her thoughts; the next, Gwynedd felt strong limbs wrap themselves around her, binding her arms tightly to her side. There was a moment of panic and confusion before the strong, musky scent came to her. Turning her head, she recognized the strong, sleek form of Falrick. Even in the dark he was hard to mistake for anyone else.
    All the plans she’d rehearsed raced through Gwynedd’s mind: She could cast a shock spell with enough power to kill him; a paralysis or a sleep spell, to merely remove the threat. Or she could just punch him hard in the groin with a fist enhanced with magic—if that didn’t kill him, it would surely leave him in too much pain to hurt her.
    But Gwynedd did none of those. Falrick hadn’t really attacked her; his powerful arms merely held her tightly, and his sharp claws did her no harm. Even her dress was undamaged! Whatever his intentions… they weren’t hostile. She ran her hands along those arms, enjoying the texture of the soft fur overlying such powerful muscles. Gwynedd felt the warmth of his strong, firm body seeping through her dress and onto her own form. She felt the powerful muscles of his chest and stomach pressed hard against her own soft flesh. In spite of the situation, she couldn’t help but enjoy the feeling.
    “Falrick,” she said cheerfully. “You’re late.” She kissed him softly on the muzzle. Then she kissed him again, with more strength this time and for a lot longer. She felt a sudden onrushing of warmth from under his fur. If he’d been as fair skinned as she was, he probably would have been blushing beet red. The arms encircling her softened their grip, but she didn’t try to escape. Instead, Gwynedd turned wrap her own arms around him and lay her head on his chest. Breathing in deeply, she filled her nostrils with his scent. It was a sharp smell, with deep undertones of the untamed wonders of the woods. It was a strong, masculine scent and it spoke of strength, power and the unknown dangers of the savage wilderness. The scent seemed to fill her head, reminding her that he was wild, full of life and sexuality—and that he was all hers for the taking.
    “You frightened me for a moment,” Gwynedd said finally.
    “I’m sorry,” he answered in a tone filled with uncertainty. “I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to surprise you.”
    Gwynedd laughed and she felt the tension leave his body.
    “You did surprise me, but I’m glad you’re here. I have to admit I’ve been thinking about you all afternoon,” she confessed.
    “You have?” he said, the surprise clearly evident in his voice. “I’ve been thinking about you too.”
    “Is that good or bad?” Gwynedd asked.
    “I’m not sure…”
    Hesitantly he leaned towards her and softly nuzzled the side of her face, his powerful muzzle brushing her cheek. Falrick’s fur was surprisingly soft and sensual and it made her whole body tingle. Then it moved down to her neck and she lifted her head to make it easier and closed her eyes to enjoy fully the soft warmth of his strong body as he gently caressed her sides and back with his arms. His muzzle traveled down her neck and onto her chest and slowly caressed the curve of each breast making her shiver with excitement and ecstasy.
    With her left hand, she softly stroked his head and ears while her right traced his hard, lean, masculine body, just barely making contact, rewarding him for the delight he was giving her. And pleading for more. She gasped as his touch reached one of her nipples. Slowly his powerful arms lowered her to the ground; their caresses and embrace continued, unimpeded.
    All her worries and cares faded away as she reveled in Falrick’s presence and the two lovers lost themselves in each other.

It was rather late when Gwynedd finally stirred from the small bed they shared. With the spryness of youth she untangled herself from Falrick and stood up.
   The wolverine watched her move about the tent, his eyes catching every motion of her soft and supple body. “Even without a tail, you have a beautiful behind.”
   She blushed, smiled and quickly pulled on her dress.
   “Must you?” he asked from the bed. “I was enjoying the view!”
   “I can’t sell my potions and spells nude, you know,” she said, lacing up the front of her bodice.
   “Good. Less selling, and more lovemaking,” Falrick said and patted the blanket.
   “An excellent idea!” Gwynedd walked over to the bed to kiss him, long and passionately—but she didn’t lay down. “Unfortunately, I need to earn some coins.”
   “Earn?” Falrick said, sitting up. “I thought you mages could simply conjure up gold and silver.”
   “And some of us do,” she agreed. Then, for the first time, her face turned sober. She shook her head. “But… nothing comes without a price. Not gold, nor power.” Then she turned and left the little room quickly.

   The sun was already up, and people moving about, when she finally raised all the curtains around her counter. Someone was already waiting for her: A neatly-dressed man in dark blue pants and a light green shirt. Both were of expensive silk, trimmed with silver and gold; to Falrick’s sensitive nose, both carried the distinctive taint of magic. Two soldiers whose armor bore scales of gold and silver scales stood behind him. Each guardsman carried a broadaxe whose blade was gilt, edged with mithril.
   “Good morning to you, Sir Mallory,” she said is greeting. While her tone was light and friendly, her thoughts (had Mallory been able to read them) were disdainful, perhaps even hostile. Why must all mages flaunt their wealth with gold and expensive clothing? she asked herself. Too many wizards seemed to be obsessed with the trappings of power instead of how to properly handle the power itself. Was that the reason for Grand Order’s downfall? Had they been too concerned with the things which came with power, and not enough with the power itself?
   Her thoughts were interrupted when Falrick suddenly wrapped both arms around Gwynedd and rested his head on her shoulders.
   She stroked the side of his face with her right hand. “I’d like you to meet Falrick.” Gwynedd kissed the wolverine morph on the muzzle. “My dear, this is Sir Mallory, senior mage to Baron Albrun.”
   The mage nodded his head stiffly. “I expect you to keep tight control of all your…” He paused for a moment. “Servants.”
   Falrick uttered a deep growl and pulled back his lips to reveal a set of large, wickedly sharp teeth. “I am no one’s servant or pet!” he snarled. “I am—”
Gwynedd reached up to cover his muzzle with one hand, cutting off the wolverine in mid-sentence. “He is my… friend,” she explained. “And here of his own accord.”
   Mallory, unnerved for a moment, took a step backward. “My apologies, sir. I did not mean to insult you. We’ve had problems in the past with other…” he again paused gauging his words carefully, “visitors… and I do not intend to see that happen again.” There was a firmness and strength in his voice that was unexpected for someone so wrapped up in finery.
   “I understand,” Gwynedd said. “I’ve heard the stories about what happened four years ago. I can assure you Falrick isn’t a fire hound in disguise.”
   The wolverine gently removed Gwynedds hand from his muzzle. “I mean no harm to anyone here, as long as they do not harm me first,” he said in a surprisingly calm voice.
   “Good!” Mallory answered. “Then we all can enjoy the Faire this year with no injuries or fires.” Then he slowly walked away.
   “He’s no fop. Fine clothing or no, there is a strength about him,” Falrick observed. “There’s more to him than just silk and arrogance.”
   “There is,” she answered. “He is only one of four people to turn down a request to join the Grand Order.”
   “He did?” the wolverine asked, surprised and pointed at the fast disappearing form of the mage. “In that case I am impressed. Few have the power to refuse an invitation from the Order.”
   “He killed six Grand Order mages and over thirty guards before they finally left him alone,” she said in an oddly cold tone of voice.
   “Why did he turn them down?” Falrick asked, nuzzling her softly. “Most wizards would do anything to get such a request.”
   She shrugged in reply. “I never understood why before. But now, I think I do.”
   Gwynedd felt Falrick’s body tense for a moment then relax. “Oh?”
   “Here, he is a free man—not bound by the Order’s laws and restrictions. And he’s certainly a lot safer here then among those deceitful, backstabbing fools back in Athral. Here he can concentrate on his magic, and not have to worry about some rival deliberately contaminating his potions.”
   “You sound like you were a member of the Order yourself,” Falrick said, trying to sound nonchalant with little success.
   “No, I’m not!” she answered more forcefully than she intended. She paused for a moment. “I once knew someone who was… but she’s dead now. Dead and buried,” she said truthfully, more to herself than to her lover.
   Falrick looked deep into her eyes with an intensity that both surprised and frightened her a little. “Who are you?” he asked solemnly.
   “I am Gwynedd Findon,” she answered. “And that’s all I ever want to be.”
   The wolverine was as still as stone for a long moment. He was judging her. Deciding what to do or say next. Suddenly he licked the side of her face and then hugged her tightly. “Don’t be anything else. I love you just the way you are, Gwynedd.”

   Gwynedd and Falrick lay together on the small folding cot that was her bed. Somehow their entwined, naked bodies fit easily into an impossibly tiny space. His massive head rested on her chest, and she was lightly enfolded in his arms.
   Gently she stroked the soft pelt on his head and neck, enjoying the sensation of the fur tickling her skin. She could tell Falrick was asleep by the slow, steady rhythm of his breathing. Tenderly she stroked his back, feeling the powerful muscles that were hidden by the black fur. Even sound asleep, his body was strong and supple and seemed to exude a masculine strength. She smiled at the memory of the passionate lovemaking. It was hard to imagine that someone so strong and wild could be so gentle.
   Looking up from her lover she saw the blue crystal that rested on the small table next to her bed; abruptly, the warmth and delight left her. She’d worn that small rock since her awakening in the cave, so many weeks ago. The exact details of her death before then were hazy; all the she could remember was casting spells amidst chaos and madness.
   She could remember everything else about the Grand Order: Her initiation, her rise to power and the powerful magic she’d used. The thrill of controlling so much power. Being able to make a whole city quake at her merest glance. The memory of it still excited her.
   She remembered the Order, alright; she remembered the squabbling and politicking. She knew what factions had been responsible for the final conflict, how many years their machinations had consumed, and the plans she’d laid to take advantage of the chaos that would surely follow. Knowing that the Grand Order would destroy itself, leaving a vacuum of power and influence, she’d chosen to evade the destruction so that she could fill that vacuum herself.
   The concept was simple enough; separate her soul from her magical knowledge, storing each in its own distinct vessel, in an obscure land far away from the Grand Order. Her empty body would satisfy mundane enemies of her death, and dividing her essential self in that wise would alter her soul enough that sorcerous enemies would find it exceedingly difficult to locate her by magical means. And when the Order’s final day arrived, she’d cast the spell that gathered up her soul, sending it to the safety of the cave where this new, younger body had been waiting, and deposited a hundred years of total dedication to magic into the crystal. So it was that as Britomartus the Archmage died… Gwynedd the young hedge-mage was born.
   Lying in bed, Gwynedd looked at the enticing blue radiance of the crystal on her table. Hidden in that deceptively plain gem was all her knowledge and power, stored safely for just such a moment as now. All she had to do was touch the gem and pronounce certain phrases and all her mastery of magic would flood back into her. It was childishly simple to do but she hadn’t done it. But why? It was a question she couldn’t answer. She should have been eager to return to her old status and power… but somehow, she wasn’t. With her power restored, she could easily return to Athral, regain control of the city and rebuild the Grand Order of the Magi as she, Britomartus, saw fit. But she hadn’t. The idea of doing that just didn’t appeal to her anymore. Instead, she’d wandered into Greensward, claiming to be an apprentice newly graduated and seeking adventure in the world.
   All this time, she’d worn that crystal and never used it. At first, she told herself it was merely for the sake of prudence; as Gwynedd, she was safe. No spell or prayer would detect her, and she didn’t have to worry about assassins. Even this far from Athral, the stories of what had happened were being discussed. The city was diligently tracking down and killing any Order-member they could find. She was impressed by how successful they had been; there was the distinct possibility that she was the last living member of the Grand Order.
   But as the days passed, that line of thought went stale—she knew it was just a lie she was telling herself. Not a day passed when she didn’t think about the Order, the power and her old life. But still… she did not use the crystal. She liked being Gwynedd! More and more, her thoughts were about Gwynedd and Gwynedd’s petty, trivial problems. She enjoyed talking with people, gossiping with the young women and flirting with all the young men. She found her thoughts straying to the crystal less and less. Perhaps something had gone wrong and her soul had been altered and twisted in the transfer?
   Then a sudden thought occurred to her. Instead of being twisted and clouded, perhaps her mind had been straightened? Perhaps she was seeing clearly for the first time in a century. Certainly, being a young woman again brought back to her all the pleasures of life. Things she’d denied herself during her previous existence. In her youth, Britomartus had little time for lovers and partying; she’d devoted herself to studying magic and little else. Magic was all that mattered. Knowing what she knew now—knowing what Gwynedd had taught her—she wondered what delights of youth she’d missed…
   The Grand Order had controlled everything—the city, its people and the entire countryside for leagues in any direction—and lost it all. How? Simple greed: They did have it all, but they wanted more. She’d tried to stay out of Order politics and concentrate on increasing her sorcerous skills, but after a while no one could stay out. What was the old adage—‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’? Yes, Britomartus achieved the power she sought… but that power had come at a steep price. When she wasn’t studying magic, she was casting spells to defend herself and to keep all other people away. She’d been afraid (and rightly so!) that any person might be a spy or assassin. Britomartus would never have allowed Falrick to get so close. But as Gwynedd, when Falrick had surprised her like that, she felt no fear or suspicion! None whatsoever! Only excitement and delight. Those were emotions that Britomartus had not felt in many decades. Gwynedd was free and had no worries; neither was true of Britomartus. And now she could enjoy all the simple joys of life and living she’d denied herself the first time, not least an evening of passionate sex with a stranger, revelling in each and every gentle touch. Was that so bad a thing?
   If she used the crystal, the power would come—and so, too, would come the dangers and the old enemies. And worst of all, she would lose Falrick! The idea of not being able to be with him made her heart twist with grief and anguish. She liked the wolverine, and she liked being Gwynedd. She no longer wished to be a prisoner of her own power, wary of all threats, real or potential. But with that damned crystal…
   Gwynedd picked up a small iron hammer from her toolset and brought it down on the crystal, instantly shattering the blue gem. There was a bright flash and a loud pop, and its stored magic and knowledge were permanently lost.
   Falrick awoke with a start. “What’s wrong?” he asked and looked around sleepily.
   Gwynedd kissed him on the muzzle. “Do you love me?” she asked.
   He laughed quietly and nuzzled her face tenderly. “Silly question. Of course I do. Why do you ask? Is something wrong?”
   “Everything is fine, my furry one,” she said. “In fact, it’s all better than it has been in years—and I owe it all to you.”
   Falrick smiled. The two lovers snuggled even closer than before and fell asleep.

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