By Will Frankenhoff
Night had fallen over Mistport. The twin moons of Pale and Prosper hung low in the cloudless sky, their light casting shadows along the narrow streets of the city’s Dockside. Home to the taverns, brothels, and gambling parlors which lined the bustling waterfront, the Dockside also housed other, less reputable businesses. Drug dens flourished within its dark alleys. Underground slave markets operated night and day. Stolen goods from a dozen kingdoms were fenced in the Dockside’s shops and cellars. Renegade magicians offered curses to slay the living; defrocked priests hawked potions to raise the dead. Anything and everything was for sale in the Dockside, provided you could pay the price. For the unwary, unwanted or just plain unlucky, the price was often their lives.
A woman stood in an alley, facing a trio of wolflings. She said, “You don’t want to do this.”
Two of the lupine warriors laughed, swinging their axes in slow, menacing arcs. The third Forest Lord didn’t move. Unlike his younger companions, Swiftrake was a veteran, his black pelt scarred by decades of battle. The woman’s confident tone unsettled him and the old wolfling trusted his instincts. He growled a command; his companions fell silent. “Maybe, maybe not,” he replied. “Maybe we think the information will cost you an extra fifty crescents.”
“You named the price. I paid. I don’t renegotiate.”
Swiftrake stroked his whiskers, studying the human. The woman was small, a full head shorter than the Forest Lord, with hair so fair it looked almost white. Her eyes were grey, her face lean and marked by a thin scar on (its/the) right cheek. She wore dark green garments woven of Dalian spidersilk, including a knee-length cloak fastened by a diamond brooch. Swiftrake thought the woman had seen the better part of thirty winters, but appearances meant little in the Dockside. Flaring his nostrils, Swiftrake tasted the woman’s aura, searching for the scent of an illusion spell. He found none. The discovery did little to quiet his unease.
Seeking to regain control of the situation, Swiftrake gestured at the woman’s elegant clothes.
“What are fifty silvers to you?”
“Very little,” the woman acknowledged. “It’s a matter of principle.”
Swiftrake tried a different approach. “Carrion—the person you seek—is one of the deadliest men in Mistport. We risk our lives talking to you.”
“That’s not my concern.”
The other wolflings snarled, their tufted ears going flat with anger. One of them turned to Swiftrake and demanded, “Why do we talk with this thin-skin? I say we kill her and take the silver from her corpse.”
Swiftrake winced. That was indeed his plan, but one he was rapidly reconsidering. He glanced over and found the woman watching him with amusement. Swiftrake didn’t know what disturbed him more—the fact the human read his mind so easily or that she didn’t consider three Forest Lords a danger.
The woman spoke, her eyes locked on Swiftrake’s. “We had a deal. I expect you to honor it.”
“And if we do not?”
“That would be…unfortunate.”
“You dare threaten us?” Before Swiftrake could stop him, the youngest Forest Lord, his clan tattoos barely healed, leapt forward. Grasping his axe in both hands, the warrior aimed a savage cut at the woman’s head. The woman ducked and the steel blade bit into the wall of the alley, sending wooden splinters flying. The wolfling wrenched his weapon free and swung again. The woman dodged and took two quick steps back.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Son of the Forest,” the woman said. “You can still walk away.”
The wolfling charged, axe held high. The heavy blade swept down and the woman danced aside, slamming a kick into the warrior’s knee. Even as the leg buckled and the warrior began to fall, the woman pivoted on her left foot, her right knee coming up to smash into the wolfling’s unprotected face. The blow catapulted the warrior backwards, blood spraying from his shattered muzzle. He tried to rise, but his eyes rolled up inside his head. He slumped down, his weapon clattering to the cobblestone street.
A roar reverberated off the alley’s walls. Swiftrake’s remaining companion raged toward the woman, axe whirling. This time, the woman didn’t wait. A black-gloved hand dove under her cloak, emerging with a fistful of objects she threw in the warrior’s path. The wolfling couldn’t stop in time and a howl of pain split the air as the metal fangs of the caltrops punched through his leather sandals, impaling his feet. He hesitated and the woman moved in fast. The warrior slashed at the green-cloaked figure, but the one-handed blow lacked power and the woman darted inside the swing, blocking the axe to the side. Grasping the wolfling’s wrist, she twisted counter-clockwise, forcing the arm behind the Forest Lord’s back. The warrior struggled, refusing to release his weapon. Clenching his fist, the woman swung a hammer blow against the trapped arm, snapping the forearm. The wolfling’s face went white, the axe falling from his nerveless fingers. The woman stuck again, a precisely-placed strike to the temple, knocking the warrior unconscious.
Swiftrake stood rooted in shock, looking down at his companions. His instincts had warned him the human was dangerous, but this…He looked up and found the woman watching him, arms once again folded beneath her cloak. “You could have killed them.”
“But you did not. Why?”
“Let’s just say I’ve always had a…fondness for the Erdei Testverae.”
Swiftrake’s ears twitched in surprise as the woman spoke his people’s true name. “You speak the Forest Tongue?”
A smile ghosted across the woman’s face. “Oh, yes. I’ve known your people a long time.”
Swiftrake waited for the woman to say more. When she didn’t, the Forest Lord shrugged. “Whatever your reasons, I thank you for the lives of my companions. They are young, convinced of their own immortality, and deaf to the teachings of their elders.” Swiftrake sighed and raised his axe to the guard position. “But they are my den-sister’s cubs, members of my Pack and family. They are my responsibility.”
A small crossbow appeared in the woman’s hand. “You don’t have to do this.”
“They are my responsibility.” Swiftrake repeated. His golden eyes met the human’s grey ones. “Honor must be satisfied.”
The woman nodded. “I understand.” The crossbow spat. The bolt hummed through the air and the tip of Swiftrake’s left ear disintegrated. Before Swiftrake could move, the crossbow whirred and a new bolt appeared, ready to be loosed.
“Is honor satisfied?”
“Quite.” Swiftrake reached up and gingerly felt his ear. “The formalities have been observed. First blood has been drawn, and Vadassa’s Code recognizes there is no disgrace in being bested by a worthy opponent.”
“And if I wasn’t a worthy opponent?”
The wolfling’s face hardened. “Then I would have died trying to kill you.”
“It’s rare to find a thief so concerned with honor and worth.”
“Who said I was a thief?” Swiftrake asked, bristling.
“Your young friend did—when he suggested killing me and looting my corpse.”
“Among Forest Lords, it is not considered thievery to profit from the death of a dishonorable person.”
The woman smiled faintly. “And you considered me dishonorable?”
“May I ask why?”
“Because of your interest in Carrion,” Swiftrake snapped. “He is a bloodmage, an eldritch assassin dedicated to Chaos. He sells his services to the highest bidder and kills without mercy, using his foul arts to capture the souls of his victims.” Swiftrake gripped his axe so tightly, the tips of his claws emerged from their sheaths. “More than one member of my Pack has perished at his hands; their chained spirits denied entrance to Vadassa’s Eternal Woods.” The old wolfling looked away, fighting to control his anger. When he continued, his voice was quiet. “All too many people make use of his skills. We thought you might be one of them. We were mistaken.”
“And I should have known Forest Lords wouldn’t sink to back-alley thievery.” The woman said. “It seems we’re both capable of misjudgments.” She holstered her crossbow, the deadly weapon vanishing beneath her cloak as quickly as it had appeared. “Perhaps a truce is in order?”
“Agreed.” Slipping his axe into the leather harness slung across his back, Swiftrake padded over to check on his companions. Both were still unconscious, but neither looked to have suffered any permanent damage.
“They should be fine,” the woman observed. “Nothing a couple of healing potions can’t fix.”
Swiftrake snorted. “There will be no expensive potions for these two. A little discomfort will be good for the cubs—teach them the dangers of underestimating an opponent.”
“I’m glad I could be of assistance,” the woman said dryly. “Now, honor our agreement. Tell me where to find Carrion.”
“Why are you so interested in the bloodmage?” The woman’s eyes narrowed. Swiftrake felt the fur on the back of his neck stiffen. “Not that it is any of my business.”
“You’re right. It’s none of your business.” The woman was silent for a moment. “But I do feel a sense of regret about your companions, so I’ll answer your question. My name is Allegra Kane, a bounty hunter out of Almaren. Carrion is my prey. The Matriarch of Aldatia has offered fifteen thousand gold orbs for his head.”
Swiftrake’s ears went flat. “You are the one they call the Huntress?”
“Among other things.”
Turning his head to the side, Swiftrake exposed his throat in a gesture of utmost respect. He said, “Please accept my apologies for any unintended insult, Allegra Kane. I never expected to see the most famous bounty hunter in the Untamed Lands prowling the Dockside.” He gave a bark of laughter. “You are going to make a lot of people nervous.”
Kane shrugged. “It’s an occupational hazard.”
Swiftrake laughed again. “I suppose it is.” He stared at the woman curiously. “The last time a bounty hunter dared walk these streets was close to thirty years ago. His body was found nailed to the city gates the very next day. He had been skinned alive. What makes you think you will not suffer the same fate?”
“Call it…intuition.” Kane’s smile didn’t reach her eyes.
“I hope you are right. The City Watch has not set foot in the Dockside for decades. Over half the outlaws in the Untamed Lands can be found here at any given time. They will be unhappy about your presence, Huntress.”
“Their happiness is not my concern, but I appreciate the warning.”
“Think nothing of it.” Meeting the woman’s gaze, Swiftrake said, “Carrion conducts business out of Eliabar’s. It is a restaurant in the eastern part of the Dockside. He has a meeting there later tonight.”
“Thank you for the information,” Kane said. “I’ll put it to good use.”
“You are going to kill him, are you not?”
“I certainly plan on it.”
Swiftrake bared his fangs in a savage grin. “Good. I would like to help.”
“That’s very generous of you. May I ask why?”
“Because Carrion is rossz-zuzava, and such a being needs to die.” Swiftrake growled.
Kane nodded in understanding. Rossz-zuzava—roughly translated into Common as “a defiler of the natural order”—meant a being too inherently malevolent to be capable of living in harmony with others. It was the deadliest insult in the wolfling language. For Swiftrake to label Carrion, “rossz-zuzava,” showed the depth of the Forest Lord’s anger. It also committed him to the bloodmage’s destruction, even at the cost of his own life. “Why haven’t you killed him yourself?” She gestured toward the silver and black patterning of the wolfling’s kilt. “I recognize those colors. Warriors of the Moon Stalker Pack aren’t known to shy from a fight.”
“My companions and I are the only members of our Pack in Mistport. We are warriors, not shaman.” He shook his head. “Without a way to counter Carrion’s magic, it would be suicide for us to face him.”
“I’m not a mage,” Kane said.
“No, you are the Huntress. You have killed more than sixty beings, many of them more dangerous than a bloodmage.”
“Then why would I need your help?”
“You probably do not,” Swiftrake conceded, “but you have the reputation of being a woman who leaves little to chance. The Dockside is an unpredictable place. It could not hurt to have someone watching your back.”
“Provided I could trust that person.”
Swiftrake raised his hand. Burnished claws gleamed in the moonlight. He clenched his fist, and then opened it. Blood welling from his punctured palm, Swiftrake said, “By my blood and my honor, I will not betray you, Allegra Kane.” The look he gave the woman held a note of challenge.
Kane said nothing, merely handed the wolfling a strip of cloth to wrap his hand. The Forest Lord had just sworn Eskuss-Aletah, an oath that bound him and his entire Pack to ritual starvation if he broke faith. “You’ll need time to make arrangements for your friends,” Kane said. “I’ll see you at the restaurant when you’re done.” She turned and strode from the alley, disappearing into the night.
Watching her go, Swiftrake realized the woman hadn’t bothered to ask his name.
Less than two hours later Swiftrake stood in the doorway of Eliabar’s, surveying the large, well-lit chamber. The oldest restaurant in the Dockside was surprisingly elegant. A flight of stairs led down into the rectangular room where tame fire elementals danced in a fireplace wide enough to roast an ox. On the left side of the chamber, opposite the fireplace, a mahogany bar ran the length of the room. Serried ranks of bottles lined the shelves behind the bar, their polished glass reflecting the light of the mage globes that hung from the dark-beamed ceiling. High-backed stools fronted the bar, and oaken tables were placed throughout the room, each far enough from its neighbors to allow private conversation. Liveried waiters glided silently among the tables while a six-armed Arachnorite played a harp in the corner, filling the air with a haunting melody. Most of the tables were occupied by humans, but Swiftrake saw members of a half-dozen other races scattered around the chamber. Spotting Kane at a table in the back, the wolfling made his way across the blond hardwood floor to join her.
Kane inclined her head in greeting as sat Swiftrake down beside him. The woman was smoking a thin black cigar. A glass of wine rested on the table before her.
“Carrion is not here,” Swiftrake declared.
“I know, but I expect he’ll be along soon.”
“What makes you think so?”
Kane nodded toward a table near the entrance where a pair of sallow-faced women sat, staring around the room with hard eyes. They were dressed in identical sets of black leather armor. One carried a battered greatsword; the other had a bandolier of throwing knives strapped across her torso. “There are bounties on those two. They call themselves, ‘the Sword and the Dagger.’ Kane didn’t bother to hide her amusement. “They work for Carrion.”
Swiftrake eyed the women with distaste. “Doing what?”
“They’re his bodyguards. Carrion hasn’t survived this long by taking risks. Bloodmages have many enemies, not the least of whom are other bloodmages intent on advancing within the ranks of their Order. Carrion won’t walk into a place—even one he knows well—without having it checked out first.” Kane nodded toward the women. “That’s where those two come in. They’re here to look it over, make sure it’s safe.”
“Are you not worried they will realize we’re after their boss?”
“No. There’s no reason for them to be suspicious of us. And if Carrion’s supplied them with a mind-stone, they won’t be able to read our thoughts.”
Swiftrake looked at the woman sharply.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve picked up a few tricks,” Kane said.
The Forest Lord decided not to ask. Instead, Swiftrake gazed about the room, studying its inhabitants. “I wonder who Carrion is meeting.”
“One of his employers, no doubt,” Kane replied. “Carrion needs to meet with his clients to receive the names of his targets and collect his fees. What better place than a restaurant where people come and go without notice?” Kane puffed on her cigar. “I imagine Carrion works out of six or seven similar establishments around the Dockside, varying the times and locations of his meetings. It’s another way he limits the possibility of an ambush.”
Just then a man entered Eliabar’s. He was a huge man, well over seven feet tall and weighing close to four hundred pounds, none of which was fat. His head was bald and covered in arcane sigils that seemed to shift and slither in the firelight. Similar sigils were etched down both sides of his face, drawing attention to his deep-set eyes and the cruel mouth filled with sharp, filed teeth. He wore a crimson robe adorned with the emblem of a barbed whip; it was cinched at the waist by a belt of human hair. His fingers were sheathed in rune-inscribed iron.
Swiftrake could smell the stink of the man’s magic from across the room. It coiled restlessly in the air, reeking of caked blood on cold stone and dead things in dark corners. “That’s Carrion,” he whispered.
“Interesting fellow,” Kane said. “A bit ostentatious for my taste, but bloodmages aren’t known for their subtlety.”
Carrion descended the stairs, moving lightly for a man of his bulk. He sat down at the table with his bodyguards and signaled to a waiter, who brought him a bottle of chilled Triesan ambrosia and a plate of mushroom-stuffed venison.
“He’s definitely a regular,” observed Kane.
“I told you he worked out of Eliabar’s.”
“I know, but I like to confirm these things myself.”
Carrion sat motionless as the bodyguards prepared his meal. Propping her greatsword up against the table, the tall one sliced the venison into bite-sized portions. Her smaller companion opened the bottle of ambrosia with a deft flick of one of her knives, poured a glass and offered it to the bloodmage.
Swiftrake snorted. “Are they bodyguards or serving wenches?”
Kane didn’t reply. She looked around the room thoughtfully.
After a moment Swiftrake said, “We could kill him now.”
“Because we’d be falling into a trap,” Kane said. Her gaze returned to the bloodmage. “Carrion’s smarter than I thought.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the ladies seem to be strangely incompetent bodyguards.” Seeing Swiftrake’s puzzled expression, Kane explained, “The first rule of being a bodyguard is to keep your hands free. Free to draw a weapon, raise a shield, or simply to push your client out of danger. Yet those two have their hands full serving him food.”
“Maybe they are bad at their jobs.”
Kane regarded the wolfling as a teacher would regard a particularly dim student. “Carrion wouldn’t hire second-rate muscle. Which means—“
“—which means they are deliberately being careless. But why would they do that. . .” Swiftrake’s eyes widened. “They’re decoys!”
“Indeed. And Carrion has other men nearby, ready to strike if someone falls for the bait.”
“How do you know?”
“See the man seated at the end of the bar? He stopped drinking the moment the bloodmage arrived. Same with the Zanbian at the table over there. Each man checked his weapons, but didn’t draw them. That tells me they were on his payroll. That…and the fact both men wear rings engraved with the symbol of a barbed whip.” Kane nodded toward the bloodmage’s emblazoned robe. “Carrion’s symbol. The ladies wear similar rings.”
Swiftrake stared at the men. “Should we spring the trap? Try to turn it to our advantage?”
“No, the restaurant is too crowded. There are too many variables, too much room for error. Innocent people could get hurt.”
“Innocent people? In the Dockside?” Swiftrake snorted. “Half our fellow diners probably have prices on their heads.”
“Probably so, but I’m not here for them. I prefer to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”
“That is a strange attitude for a bounty hunter.”
“Not at all. It’s a matter of professional pride. I’m here to kill Carrion. If I’m forced to kill his bodyguards as well, I will. Any bloodshed beyond that would reflect poor planning on my part.” Kane’s eyes were dark. “I don’t intend to let that happen.”
“So, what is the plan?’
“I’ll take him outside. There’ll be fewer people around, less chance some poor fool could stumble into the line of fire.”
Swiftrake leaned back in his chair. “If the bloodmage is as smart as you think, he will have other men stationed on the street.”
“Most likely,” Kane agreed. “That’s why I feel the need for a quick stroll.” She got up. “Make sure to order something. Carrion might notice you aren’t drinking and become suspicious. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
It was closer to twenty minutes before Kane returned, enough time for Swiftrake to order a glass of ambrosia, finish it, and order a second. The waiter arrived with the second glass just as Kane sat down.
“What happened?” Swiftrake asked after the waiter moved away.
“There were a couple of Ssylarians sharing a bottle on a stoop down the street.”
The wolfing frowned. “Lizardmen do not drink. Alcohol is poison to them.”
Kane placed a pair of rings on the table. Each bore the emblem of a barbed whip. “They refused my suggestion to leave.”
Swiftrake bowed his head, whispering, “Vadassa bekea hos amikos lelshae.”
“Vadassa’s Peace rest upon their souls,” Kane said. “An appropriate sentiment.” She studied the wolfling, her eyes intent. “You are a follower of the Mistress of the Hunt?”
“I am a warrior of the Erdei Testverae,” Swiftrake said simply. “Vadassa is my Goddess. Her Code is my Code. It is to her I pray.”
“Has she ever answered?”
“Not that I am aware of,” Swiftrake replied with a quick grin. “But that is not surprising. According to my wife-mate, I am quite dense. Not to mention utterly incapable of understanding the female mind.” His gaze drifted to the rings on the table and his grin faded. “Won’t Carrion realize his men are dead the second he steps outside?”
Kane shook her head. “The Ssylarians were stationed near the end of the block. Carrion won’t expect to see them immediately. It should give me enough time to surprise him.”
“For us to surprise him, you mean.”
“No. I want you to stay here and watch my back.”
Swiftrake started to protest, but Kane cut him off. “When Carrion leaves, I’ll follow him. I expect he’ll have the Sword and the Dagger with him. I can handle them, but not if I have to worry about the Zanbian and his friend coming out after me. I need you to make sure they don’t.”
“And if they do?”
“Kill them,” Kane said. “Cut them down before they know you’re there.”
“A warrior does not strike without warning! It is dishonorable.”
“It’s not a matter of honor or dishonor. It’s a matter of survival. These people aren’t warriors. They don’t fight fairly and they’d slit your throat as soon as look at you. Don’t give them that opportunity.”
“You gave the Ssylarians an opportunity to surrender,” Swiftrake protested.
“You’re not me. I’m not risking my life in the hopes you’re as good as you think.”
Swiftrake stared at her. “You are a hard woman, Allegra Kane.”
“It comes with the job.”
“I do not think I would like being a bounty hunter.”
“It has its compensations: the money is good.”
“Somehow I do not think you do it for the gold,” Swiftrake said.
Kane smiled. “Perhaps not.” She glanced past the wolfling. “Speaking of gold, it appears Carrion’s employer has arrived.”
Swiftrake turned to see a man descend the stairs, walk to Carrion’s table and sit down. He spoke with the bloodmage briefly, handed over a purse, got up, and walked out. The entire encounter took less than a minute.
“Time to get ready,” Kane said. “Carrion’s business is done. He’ll be leaving soon.” She signaled and a waiter brought over the bill. Kane paid it, adding a generous tip.
“Are you sure you will not need my help outside?” Swiftrake asked.
“I’m sure. Carrion will be dead before he knows I’m there. If the ladies are smart, they’ll walk away. If not, they’ll have gotten to live for a few seconds longer.” She looked at Swiftrake. “Just keep their friends off my back.”
“It shall be as you say, Allegra Kane.”
“Good. Now, we wait.”
They didn’t wait long. Less than five minutes later, Carrion finished his meal. The blood mage rose, tossed a handful of coins on the table and headed for the exit. As Kane had predicted, he was accompanied by the Sword and the Dagger.
Swiftrake glanced across the room. The man at the bar and the Zanbian remained seated. The Zanbian had already ordered a drink. “Looks like they consider themselves off-duty,” he said.
“Make sure it stays that way,” Kane replied. She got up and moved quickly toward the door, exiting the building not ten seconds after Carrion. The bloodmage strode down the street, heading toward the corner stoop where the Ssylarians had sat. The Sword walked five paces in front of him; The Dagger trailed behind, guarding his back.
Kane closed the distance, her boots silent upon the cobblestoned street. At twenty paces, the Dagger happened to glance back. Her eyes widened in alarm. Before she could move, Kane’s arm came up and the crossbow spat, whirred, and then spat again. Carrion pitched forward, a pair of bolts buried in his skull.
The Dagger swore, her hands darting toward her knives. Kane shook her head and put a bolt in the woman’s shoulder. She gasped and fell to one knee just as her partner rushed up, greatsword drawn. She halted at the sight of the leveled crossbow.
“Your job is finished, ladies,” Kane said. “No use throwing your lives away over a dead man.”
“Easy for you to say! We have our reputations to consider,” replied the Dagger, her face tight with pain.
“Reputations are no use to dead women.”
“Just who in the Nine Hells are you?” Her good hand inched toward her daggers.
“I’ve many names, but the one you might recognize is the Huntress.”
The woman froze. Slowly—carefully—she moved her hand away from the knives.
“I’m glad you’ve decided to be reasonable,” Kane said. Her eyes flicked to the Sword. The woman’s face was pale. “Help your partner up, then both of you start walking. If I see either of you again, I’ll collect the bounties on your heads. Understand?”
The woman nodded. Sheathing her sword, she pulled her friend to her feet. They backed up, keeping their hands well clear of their weapons. When they reached the corner, they turned and quickly walked away.
Kane scanned the area. The street was deserted. Satisfied, she holstered her crossbow and strode over to Carrion’s body. She looked down at the dead bloodmage. “Rossz-zuzava, indeed,” she growled, “daring to enslave the souls of Erdei Testverae.” Kane’s eyes were no longer grey, but gold and ablaze with power. “I could take your soul as easily as you took theirs and condemn you to wander the Eternal Woods forever. Not as an honored guest, but as prey for the spirits of the Forest Lords who reside there.” Her power beat at the air, filling the street with the scent of dark earth and sun-dappled glades. She heard a faint gasp from behind her and smiled. “But I won’t. Such an act would make me rossz-zuzava myself, and force a beloved son to act against me.” Kane released her power and it faded into the night. Without turning her head, she said, “I thought I told you to watch my back, Swiftrake, son of Winterden.”
“And I thought you said you weren’t a mage,” the wolfling replied, emerging from the shadows.
Swiftrake looked at Kane with suspicion. “Then what are you? And how do you know my name?”
She sighed. “Honestly, Swiftrake, your pack-mate is right. You are about as perceptive as a rock. Perhaps this would help.”
Between one heartbeat and the next, Kane’s figure vanished, replaced by a female Forest Lord of impossible proportions. Standing twelve-feet tall on back-cantered legs, she had broad shoulders and a thick, powerful chest that tapered down to a narrow waist, all of which were covered by a silken pelt of the purest white. Her sharp features boasted a pair of blazing golden eyes set above a long muzzle displaying a formidable array of fangs. Clad only in a bejeweled harness, a glowing quarterstaff held loosely in one clawed hand, she was Power Incarnate.
“Vadassa?” Swiftrake whispered.
“Yes.” The mind that touched Swiftrake’s was vast and infinitely complex.
The old wolfling fell to his knees, bowing his head. “You honor me with your presence, Goddess.”
“No, Swiftrake. It is you who honors me. You have lived your life faithful to my Code and always been a staunch defender of your Pack. You are a true son of the Erdei Testverae. I could ask for nothing more.”
Swiftrake’s ears flattened in embarrassment. Desperate to change the subject, he blurted, “Why are you here?”
“Because you were right; Carrion needed to pay for his crimes against the Erdei Testverae. You were also right you would have died facing him alone. I could not let that happen.”
“But why pretend to be Allegra Kane?”
“I am not pretending to be Allegra Kane. I am Allegra Kane. Or, to be more precise, Allegra Kane is a part of me.”
Swiftrake’s head started to ache. “What?”
Vadassa smiled. “The issue is…complicated. Let us just say the Gods are governed by rules that limit our interference in the mortal realm. As Vadassa, I could not aid you directly, but as Allegra Kane, a mortal avatar of the Mistress of the Hunt, I could.”
“Why choose a human avatar?”
“Humans are everywhere. They can pass unnoticed where the Erdei Testverae cannot. It is a useful trait.” The Goddess’ mind-voice became gentle. “Swiftrake, I have as many avatars as there are races upon this world. How else can an immortal understand the lives of mortals? Some—“ Vadassa’s thought broke-off in mid-sentence and her great golden eyes grew distant, listening to something only she could hear. After a moment, she nodded. Turning back to Swiftrake, she said, “I must go. My manifestation on the earthly plane has not gone unnoticed. To stay longer would have unpleasant consequences for us both.” Vadassa reached out with her glowing staff and touched Swiftrake gently between the eyes. Power flooded through him and the old wolfling felt the years drop from him. He knew without looking that his scars had faded as well. “Be well, Swiftrake, son of Winterden. Know that I am well-pleased with you.” With those final words, Vadassa vanished.
Swiftrake stared at the empty space where his Goddess had stood, tears trickling down his face. After a while, he composed himself and looked around. The street remained deserted, but he knew it wouldn’t be for long. Rising to his feet, Swiftrake made his way over to Carrion’s body. He stared down at the corpse thoughtfully, then reached down and slung it over his shoulder. Vadassa’s Code commanded the Forest Lords to “waste not, want not,” and Allegra Kane had said the Matriarch of Aldatia was offering fifteen thousand orbs for Carrion’s head. Who was he to disobey a command of Vadassa, especially when he and his wife-mate were expecting another litter? As he padded off into the night, Swiftrake gave thanks to his Goddess for this, her final gift.