May 15 - June 6, 2000
Category: Fantasy/Dark Elf
Author: Lledrith RavenWolf

[Disclaimer]

Werewolves - Being a Treatise on Monsters and Love

Prologue
Part 1: A Pool of Wolves
Part 2: A Chatter of Riders
Part 3: A Howl of Clashes
Part 4: An Interlude of Thought
Part 5: A Curiosity of Occurrences
Part 6: A Fight of Instincts
Epilogue


Prologue

The sentry gripped his sword more tightly when a knock sounded on the worn door, and dropped into an offensive stance, but made no move to answer.

After an intermineable period of time, there was a heavy, wet sound of something dropped on the snow-sleet outside, then the wet crush of snow as the would-be visitor walked away. The sentry listened thoughtfully to the foots steps - too even, and the visitor may just be making the motion outside the door.

As it was, the footsteps faded naturally away, and the sentry waited for another period of time before cautiously stepping to the door. He flipped a lever on the hinges, allowing the door to swing out instead of in, unlocked it soundlessly then kicked the door open, swords down.

There was no sign of anyone outside. Then the sentry looked down, blanched, and corrected the statement to no one living outside.

The sentry turned on his heels and rushed indoors to sound the alarm, carelessly leaving the door open.

Something slipped down from the roof, shook off snow, and padded soundlessly into the house. It did not seem to impact the ground at all, as if walking was a mere, unnecessary act, as unnecessary as combing one's hair in front of every mirror that one sees.

***

The two depressed-looking Talon guards straightened when a rider clattered outside the large, sturdy gate to the Citadel. One was dressed in a heavy cloak that covered his probably freezing chainmail, with the other in a plain and thick mage robe. Bands proclaimed them of the Dragon and Saur Houses respectively. They clung on to their standard-issue, serviceable spears, and looked annoyed.

"State your business," the warrior student from Dragon House said gruffly. His breath formed little white clouds in the chilly air.

The rider did not answer, dismounting from the snorting piebald horse and catching hold of the reins, before turning to the gate and lifting up the hood of his cloak to show a classically villanous face. An ornately stitched eyepatch, day-old stubble, and a mischievous grin further enhanced this image.

"It's Kurent," the mage said ungraciously, seemingly trying to waste as little words as possible. "He's fine."

"We still have to report," the warrior said stubbornly.

"This is your first gate duty?" Kurent spoke up, in a pleasant voice. The cold weather did not seem to be bothering him very much.

"Yes," the warrior said cautiously. The mage nodded sadly at Kurent in the corner.

"I wouldn't bother," Kurent continued, in a bright, cheerful voice that begged to be strangled, "I mean, I doubt Zak..." both students winced at his careless shortening of the Master's name, "will care. It's probably very warm inside where he is..."

The two students, if possible, looked even more miserable. Gate keeping in winter, or in any other climate, was tedious.

"All right," the warrior said at last. He put out one hand, palm facing the gate, and the mage did the same. The gates opened easily, and Kurent pulled his horse inside.

"Thank you," Kurent pulled his hood back over his head. "My, it's cold."

He allowed himself a smile when the students glared at him. Magical influxes concentrated on the city had resulted in an oddball climate, with cold winters and hot summers, instead of the smaller temperature fluctuations of old.

Kurent led the horse over the snow towards the imposing Talon buildings, meaning to get inside more quickly. The buildings were heated with a sort of piping system that the Thieves' guild lacked, and he always made it a point to visit frequently in the winters.

It did irritate the Master, but Kurent was used to that. Sometimes his very appearance seemed to irritate the fellow.

One moment he was striding alone to the stables to deposit the nervous piebald, and the next, an imposing, immense black horse trotted easily next to him. Or at least horse-shaped, with red slits where the eyes should have been, and ivory white, sharp tusks extending from the mouth.

The piebald, predictably, panicked, nearly dragging Kurent from his feet, squealing in terror.

The black stopped, planted his feet in challenge, and snorted derisively. If anything, the piebald began to have hysterics.

Kurent glared at the new horse. "Go away, Diablo," he told it firmly, "What are you doing in the snow, anyway?"

Diablo snorted again, and shook vigorously. Snow fell onto its coat, and disappeared a finger mark or so above it. It kneeled down, and rolled on the snow happily. Kurent watched sourly as it got up, apparently not the least chilled by its act.

"I get the hint," he sighed. "Nightmares. Huh." He turned his back on the black, and continued to pull his piebald towards the stables.

Diablo watched mildly as the pair moved off then reared, bugling a cry of challenge, which had a stallion's harsh scream and undertones of a predator's snarl.

The half-nightmare radiated satisfaction as the piebald bolted, dragging Kurent in the snow behind it.

***

It found its first victims in the next room, engrossed in some activity involving flammable, uniform-sized materials with symbols on them.

They reacted quickly. Sharp, shiny things seemed to jump into their hands, and without wasting breath to cry out in their birdlike sounds, they had thrown several of the things at it.

It wasn't there already. Humans reacted slowly, painfully slow, and fatally so as well. Whiplike, slender appendages flickered out, the small sub-mouths on each end gaping open.

It didn't take long to dispose of all four humans, and finish with them. The creature picked them up with furred, clawed arms, and dumped the remains neatly on their playing tables.

There was a commotion upstairs and it promptly alotted a section of its sentience to paying attention to it. Another section caused some appendages to stretch forward and pick up one of the sharp, shiny things. It held the thing closely to what could broadly be called its eyes, and examined it curiously.

Strange, these humans were, to place so much confidence in the playthings. He brought it closer, then thrust it experimentally into an arm before withdrawing it. The thing drew no fluids, and on a mere whim he bent the sharp part easily with his appendages, laying it neatly on the ground, then moving out of the room.

It'd never understand humans.

[top]

Part 1: A Pool of Wolves

Kurent waited with an ill temper as the guards to the door of Zak's study looked him slowly up and down, lingered disapprovingly on the rapier, then one finally deigned to open the door quietly and announce his presence. The other emanated a fussy, deep-seated displeasure, as if he, Kurent, was just about to rudely disturb the sleep of a baby for no particular reason.

Sometimes Kurent felt that the feeling of the Talons towards their Master verged on overprotectiveness. He kept from making any snide remarks, while the guard turned back to him. "The Master appears to be..."

Kurent rolled his eyes, then quickly pushed through before either guards could stop him, pointedly closing the doors behind him, and then taking a few more prudent steps into the room before looking around.

Zaknafein's Study, or the main office of the Citadel, was oddly and richly furnished. The entire room was carpeted in the fur of some unknown creature, and was soft and warm and dark-colored. A table stood sullenly at the far end, sturdy and yet ornate, with several stacks of papers piled on top of it. Some were yellow with age, and yet ignored. Someone had surreptitiously mixed the yellow and white papers, as if to disguise the fact that most of the paperwork had not been done for ages.

There was a leather couch against one of the few windows in the large room. Some more paperwork had been dumped carelessly on one side of it, with a pillow propping the entire thing up. The curtains of the windows were a woman's touch, brightly colored against the general dark highlights of the room, standing out incongruously.

There was a large painting next to the door, of several wolves running with the backdrop of the moon, and in this Kurent recognized the unmistakable work of one of Zak's talented offspring. The other side of the door held another painting of the first Lieutenants standing behind their Master, seated in a chair with a posture that suggested he had been impatiently squirming while being painted, such that the painter had just substituted an imagined pose.

Kurent's sharp eyes saw no suggestion of any piping system, yet the room was warm and filled with a wild, fragrant scent. This came from the large fireplace on the right side of the room, as someone had placed pine needles and vineyard cuttings inside to burn along with the dry logs.

The most eye-catching feature in the room, however, was in front of the fireplace. A large pool of fur shifted and shuddered occasionally, like a small plot of mixed colored, shaggy turf. Looking closer, Kurent made out individual shapes - here a muzzle, there a pair of pointed ears, and a few tails curled up tightly against the owner or draped languorously over another.

It was a large puddle of wolves, wild creatures contrasting with the messy yet civilized surroundings of the room, snoring gently in tandem, stretched or curled before the fire. Kurent also made out seven cats among the pile, apparently not the least bothered by the large canines around them. A part of Kurent's mind absently tried to count all the animals then gave up after a few seconds. He settled for clearing his throat loudly.

Several wolves opened their eyes to regard him with amber eyes, but the rest continued sleeping. The sound of the door opening behind him alerted Kurent to the fact that the guards had irritably entered the room, and were about to drag him out, head of the Thieves' Guild or not.

As Kurent hoped, a tawny-gold she-wolf shook off several of her kindred, stood up gracefully, then bounded over happily to him to plant front paws on his chest and lick his face wetly. The wolf regarded the sheepish-looking guards, and made a chirping, dismissive sound at them.

"But my Lady..." one of them attempted to protest.

The wolf made a more insistent sound, and the guards grudgingly left the room.

"Hello, K'yanne," Kurent grinned broadly, hugging the wolf to him. "Thanks. I think they might have hauled me out of here and dumped me in the snow..."

The wolf got off, and made an amused sniff, then a questioning growl.

"Yes, I'm looking for your father," Kurent said dryly. "Now. Which wolf in that mess is him?"

The tawny-gold looked curiously at the pool of wolves, then padded into it, inciting a few irritated whines and growls as she stepped blithely on some of those that had been sleeping. She pushed her nose into the ear of one of the white-gray wolves in the mess of wolves. The particular wolf made an annoyed, sleepy snarl. To Kurent, it sounded as though the wolf had said, "Hgoe Awaye."

She sighed, then barked softly before padding back to her spot and lying down. A few male wolves put their muzzles over her enthusiastically, and she had to snap at some of them.

"Thanks a lot," Kurent said drily. He had no particular wish to wade in and pull out the white-gray - Zak might just decide to let the wolf bite him, and he had no wish to be adversely affected by moonlight.

To his relief, another she-wolf got up from where it had been sleeping next to his target, this time russet red. She gave him a sympathetic glance, then turned her attention to the inert form next to her. If anything, the white-gray whimpered at the gust of colder air, then snuggled more closely to the wolves beside him.

She growled at the white-gray, but he apparently decided to ignore her, relaxing slowly back to sleep. The russet growled under her breath, then reached over and took hold of the white-gray's ruff firmly in her teeth, pulling up. The white-gray ignored her. She snarled a muffled snarl, then bit, hard enough to hurt, but not hard enough to draw blood.

The white-gray yelped, jumping to his feet, then provided the russet with an injured glance before giving Kurent a murderous one that spoke volumes. The red nudged him pointedly in the direction of the adjoining room to the study, and the white-gray reluctantly stepped out of the pile, followed by the red. Both disappeared into the adjoining room while the gap in the wolves closed slowly.

Kurent stepped over to the sofa and reclined easily on it, closing his eyes to breathe in the scented woodsmoke. A wet nose pushed into his palm, and he lifted one eyelid a fraction, then moved to allow K'yanne's wolf form to clamber up next to him and rest its head on his lap. He patted the soft fur abstractly twining it around his fingers, and the wolf made a contented mewling sound.

Still, he felt vaguely nervous about his position. He was surrounded by wolves, inside relatively hostile territory, and the Master of the territory was in all probability annoyed with him.

True enough, Zak emerged first from the room, dressed in a robe which he was still tying around him, finger-movements jerky with annoyance. Kurent glanced at the drow covertly.

The passing of years had, as usual, failed to touch the leader of the Talons. White hair that seemed to have been bleached with snow and stark sunlight fell carelessly to his shoulders. The tangle had been touched by a comb, not wielded by the owner of the white mane, for Zak had quite obviously usually just pushed the rest his hair behind his ears, that were stretched at the far edge to end in a sharp tip as all elven ears were.

Zaknafein was tall for an elf, but still shorter than several humans. This gave him a compact appearance and an irritated feeling (he confided with Kurent) whenever he stood next to someone several heads taller than he was. This, apparently, also made him understand why dwarves adored the axe as a weapon - standing in the midst of people about twice your height made you think of trees.

He was also, on the uptake, unfairly fit and well-muscled, but opposed to muscle-bound (Kurent had to admit to himself on days that he was developing some flab) even though he seemed to spend most of his time asleep or complaining, or glaring at people. Zak himself did not believe in regular exercise, and tended to view running around the courtyard to keep fit as a pointless and brainless activity, a view that most of the students enthusiastically held.

As with many elves, his nose was sharp and his face was rather long, his eyes slightly slanted, though in this case his pupils appeared a brilliant wolf amber in bright light. Zak gave the impression of a being with a sardonic, cynical outlook towards life and the world in general, as well as overtones of a martyred air as if he had taken everything that life had thrown at him, picked up the debris, and then learned how to dodge. Kurent had, however, seen elves handsomer than Zak was; though none of them seemed to exude such a conflicting aura of dissoluteness, boredom, a predator's coiled spring, and a well of iron nerve and will. And pride, of course. Zak never covered the fact that below every other mask he displayed to the world, he was just about as good a warrior as one could get.

Kurent watched silently as Zak stalked over to his desk and sat down there, folding his arms stubbornly over his chest, leaning back, then proceeding to fall asleep. Kurent let out his breath in a thwarted gust as the elf's regular breathing showed that he had, in fact, re-entered wherever werewolves went when they dreamed. On his lap, K'yanne's wolf form chuckled.

Baldur's Gate's Master thief waited patiently until Neira, the russet wolf, stepped out of the room. She too, was dressed in a plain white robe, that contrasted vividly with her rich auburn curls. Her hair, unfortunately, was the most beautiful thing about her, and it danced and crackled at her every move with a life of its own.

The rest of her nearly paled in insignificance - she had a face that could be called attractive but not beautiful, and had a modest figure, though this had filled out somewhat over the years. Her hands were aristocratic, but callused over the use of a bow, though they still looked soft and gentle. Her eyes were also amber, though this time nearly defiantly so. Neira, Kurent decided, was just about the most queenly person he had seen, as she floated over and inclined her head in greeting.

Neira frowned, and looked around for her husband and mate before locating him triumphantly at the desk. She padded over and cleared her throat. This time, he responded, opening his eyes and yawning hugely before ungraciously following her to Kurent. They seated themselves on the rest of the couch, with Neira between Kurent and Zak.

"Now," Zak cut in before Neira could say anything, "What's this about barging into Talon headquarters and waking me up? I'd have you know that it is bloody..."

"Dear," Neira said firmly.

"Cold here," Zak ignored her, "And I need to sleep. In fact, even the wolf is asking me why I am not throwing you back out of the gates now." He cocked his head as if listening to something. "Or your corpse."

"I appreciate that fact," Kurent said, hiding a smile, "Actually, the matter is quite serious. It involves the string of recent murders in this wintry, frozen city."

Zak grunted. "Cut the poetry. You come all the way here and wake me up just to give me the latest street gossip? Why..."

"I have a perfectly good reason," Kurent said calmly. "The murderer...or murderers...have started picking on thieves."

"That is none of my damned..." Zak started.

"Dear," Neira said warningly.

"Business," Zak didn't look at her, "The less of you, the better."

Kurent passed over that remark. "Normally, the guild will try to solve this themselves. However, if you've been paying attention to 'street gossip', as you put it so well, you'd know some singular things about the murders that the Flaming Fist have been covering up."

"What, all the corpses get up and walk five minutes later?" Zak asked sarcastically.

"No," Kurent said, looking grimly serious, "In all the cases, there have been a lot of bite and claw marks on the body. And..." he shot Neira an embarrassed look. "Well. The next detail may not be appropriate in front of ladies..."

K'yanne chirped, sounding amused. Neira grinned wickedly. "You're forgetting that this lady is also a werewolf, Kurent."

"Get on with it." Zak growled.

"Fine. In all cases, something has crushed the victim's head in its mouth...and eaten the brains," Kurent said, rattling off the details in morbid relish.

Zak appeared to think about this, and some of the wolves from the fire, Kurent noted, peered at them.

"You suspect werewolves?" Neira asked finally, bluntly.

"I suspect nothing as yet," Kurent said truthfully, "But I hope you get what I'm implying."

"Commoners," Zak agreed. "Stupid, superstitious people who jump at conclusions as quickly as they'd jump at money. Soon we may have silver crosses and whatnot pushed into the gates...and maybe a riot thrown in for good measure" He looked rather glum as he continued, "I suppose I will have to look into it."

"That's as much as I hoped for..." Kurent whirled as the door swung open dramatically to show a bloodied personage. "Blaze," Kurent recovered first, "What are you doing here, and what happened?"

Blaze, a member of the Thieves' Guild, was certainly in bad shape. His eyes were wild and frightened, and his hair stained scarlet from a scalp wound. There were curious circular marks on his arm that bled dully, but the worst was his left arm, which had been laid open savagely to the bone. The skin of the horrid wound gaped open like an open bag, showing the grisly red mass of flesh and worse inside.

"He needs medical aid," Neira said decisively, standing up. Some of the wolves immediately got up and slunk into the adjoining room.

Blaze's wild gaze settled on the curious wolves, and he let out a yell of fear. His legs, however, gave up on him, and the guards caught him as he fell.

"They're friends," Kurent said quickly, then felt incredibly stupid for saying it, and hated himself.

"He wanted to speak to Kurent, sir," one of the guards said apologetically, "And seeing he demanded his way up here in this state...well, we didn't want to refuse."

"Forgiven," Zak said dismissively. "Right. Kurent, do try to get some sense out of your minion..."

Blaze was babbling, trying to claw away from the wolves. Kurent stood up, pushing K'yanne off his lap, and knelt down beside the thief. "Blaze. What is wrong? Last I left you, you were in the Guild."

"It got in," Blaze said thickly. Blood trickled down the side of his mouth where he had bitten through his lip in pain. "Everyone who could run has run...it caught me while I was trying to go...stopped by Lillian...she's dead, I think." With this last, nearly matter-of-fact pronouncement, Blaze fainted.

"Blood loss and shock," Zak observed mildly. "Maybe he'd die, but he's bleeding all over my carpet..."

"Sometimes," Neira said, glaring at him from where she was inspecting the wounds gingerly, "You really annoy me."

Zak sighed. "All right, I'm sowwy..."

"You don't need to use that voice either," Neira informed him, "It's very childish, I'd have you know..."

"Can we quarrel later?" Kurent asked quietly. "He's going to die..." Again, Kurent felt very stupid.

"Of course," Zak said drily, "Telin and Tristan, pick him up..."

"No you don't," the rather formidable figure of the Verdana, Neira's aunt, appeared. "We must not move him. He may have internal injuries. Now. Let him down slowly... that's good."

The two talon guards looked surprised that they were obeying the black-haired werewolf, but they did anyway.

"My carpet," Zak wailed under his breath.

[top]

Part 2: A Chatter of Riders

Kurent grimaced as Zak's Diablo glowered at his piebald again. As expected, his steed flinched, and would have cowered if it could. The thief tightened his grip on the horse's reins as it threatened to bolt.

Zak rode unconcerned on the nightmare, dressed more fittingly in a heavy, oddly textured cloak (nearly scale-like, when it caught the light), which was stitched in the style of the Black Talon (namely dark, with an intricate insignia, and totally for the purpose of armor), comfortable travelling boots and leather gauntlets.

Now and again, the suggestion of mithril-adamantite chain mail gleamed under the cloak. He rode bareback, the scabbards of two swords strapped on his belt bouncing at Diablo's every stride. One was a standard issue Talon sword, with a fine blade, and the insignia carved neatly on the hilt, and the other was Zak's favorite Khazid'hea. The sentient blade glowed faintly through the jeweled scabbard. A crossbow was slung over his shoulder, as well as a small bag of crossbow bolts, both unremarkable, but well made.

Kurent studied the city as they headed towards his guild. A light dusting of snow covered open surfaces like icing on a muddy gray-brown cake. The steady rhythm of the hooves on the snow was a lulling sound that invited the thief to still and listen, but he continued to keep alert. The good thing about it being winter was that there were few gawkers on the street if any at all. Frost had drawn his soft-white patterns on glass and frozen water, and gently traced the sewer grilles.

Some errant sea breeze blew in from the harbor, bringing with it the scent of salt, snow, and a hint of decay. The wall dividing the two parts of Baldur's Gate still loomed over the houses, as did the prominent landmarks of the largest city on the Sword Coast. Kurent's geography of the city was minutely accurate, and he could close his eyes now and point out any place in the city. Unfortunately, ever since he had stopped wandering Toril, his map of anything outside was sketchy at best.

Several times he attempted to strike up a conversation with the reticent dark elf, but was only treated, if that word would be appropriate, to monosyllabic replies or grunts. Then Zak seemed to relent when they passed the last row of warehouses lining the harbor, and Kurent straightened expectantly when the drow turned to him.

"I," Zak said, slowly and firmly, "Hold you entirely and personally responsible for the loss of my sleep."

Kurent, who had been expecting some neutral and politically correct comment on the weather, was taken off balance, but only for a few seconds. A thief who could not recover from surprise was a short-lived one. "Well..." he said, then grinned broadly. "I doubt you need that much sleep, or you'd run to fat."

Zak quirked an irate eyebrow at that then fell to a petulant silence. Kurent had to admit that the elf was not the best of company when aggravated.

"I wonder," Kurent said, grasping hopefully at any conversation topic, to take his mind off the chill that permeated his Shadow Thief armor, "Why does your wife, or mate if you want it that way, allow you to sleep all day and do nothing."

For a moment he thought this quite inane thread of speech would bounce sadly off Zaknafein's acrimonious, self contained wall, then had to hide a smile as the elf turned to him.

"Neira has learned quite a while ago that attempting to make me do something is quite impossible if I do not wish to do it," he said coldly. "Now, do you have anything else to say?"

Kurent did not mention that Neira had also grown quite adept at manipulating Zak to do what she wanted him to do, but felt stung by the last remark. "Look, if you're upset..."

"Upset doesn't cover it," Zak said rather shrilly, "Rather, I am exasperated, rankled, aggravated, bothered, and annoyed. Do you always have to..."

"That's quite a vocabulary for a mercenary," Kurent murmured. "Do go on."

Zak ran out of steam metaphorically at that outrageous comment and he gaped at the thief, before starting to laugh.

"That's better," Kurent commented. "Now. Can we talk about something to keep my mind off my freezing toes?"

"You start," Zak said smugly, "My toes aren't freezing."

Kurent glanced sourly at the elf's boots, decided that some of the red-thread embroidery on them were runes, and sighed. "I suppose you're lucky you have a wife," he commented. "You don't seem the sort who would bother with stitching runes on your boots, or any magical implements."

"You like that subject, don't you?" Zak's eyes twinkled merrily. "Get married yourself, if you like."

Kurent shuddered. "There's all sorts of stories about girls marrying old men, elf," he said, "And all of them end predictably."

"Stories are stories," Zak retorted, "And they're hardly ever like real life. If you're worried about that, marry someone as old as you are, perhaps with straggling hair and a nose as crooked as your soul."

"Poetic," Kurent bantered, "But I'm not as surely to fall in love with that sort of person."

"In love?" Zak said the last word mockingly, derision in his voice, "Who says you have to marry because of love? And I'm sure a lot of heiresses in this world, if it's money you're after, whom are not as comely as artists they pay make them out to be."

"Neira and you..." Kurent voiced, but Zak interrupted.

"I never said we loved each other," he grinned as Kurent blinked. "I married mostly to ally myself with the werewolves, and also because she is quite easy to live with, and I like her and trust her, which is not a very easy thing to do. And because I am quite sure one of the Dukes here would have contrived to marry me to one of their daughters if I wasn't already 'taken'. Until today I'm not sure if I like you or trust you."

"You're certainly not going to marry me," Kurent flung back, "Neira will flay me if anything. The both of you still seem...well...does she love you, then?"

"Neira?" Zak laughed. "She is not as innocent and unworldly as she may seem. She has a great heart, but no, you wouldn't say she loves me. And don't give me that look, Kurent. I've spoken about this to her before. Love's not eternal, thief, not this type of love, anyway. It flares up, and then it burns to ash just as quickly. Perhaps that would suit humans, whose lives are short enough..."

"Thank you," Kurent murmured.

"Short enough," Zak continued with a wink, "To die still loving, but I am still going to live for a long time, as will Neira, it appears. What we are, are best friends. I can share secrets with her that I would not if I 'loved' her, because if I did love her, I may be afraid to turn away her love or speed up its burning, and this is the same with her. Friendship is a greater thing that love, Kurent, because it's seldom fickle, and it does demand more trust and understanding and mutual feeling than love."

"How are you to know how love is?" Kurent challenged, "You've never mentioned any..."

"If you're thinking that since I've never had any experience of love, I will not recognize it, you're wrong," Zak said seriously, "I have felt love before, and I'd tell you that it is quite alike to what I've already told you."

"Really. With whom?" Kurent asked, then hesitated when Zak glared. "Well, if this touches a nerve..."

"I suppose there's no harm now," Zak shrugged. "I was young then...or relatively young. I loved, and thought I was loved by a drow female. Matron of a House, and so on - well, 'love' lasted for a short few years, and when it burned out, it was quite painful." Zak paused at this. "Well, it was, at that time. Now when I think about it, I've never really liked that Matron. Love's not the same."

"This somehow seems...less," Kurent attempted. "Friendship, I mean."

"You're a fool for thinking so," Zak said bluntly, "Very few people or beings can or have found true friends. Friends whom you calculate what your every move may do to them or will do for yourself aren't true friends, as are friends whom you keep secrets from, or lie to, or speak to just to seek approval. Neira is my friend as I am hers as that we have no secrets from each other...yes, Kurent, I'm very sure she knows exactly what I do when I close the doors and sneak some wine into the study. When I seek judgement from her I am not looking for approval. I am looking for what she thinks about it, and what she feels about it, and heartfelt advice."

"Love," Zak observed, "Doesn't always work this way. Sometimes two may love each other even though they are exact opposites, while friendship demands at least a modicum of mutual alike. Love demands a lot of approval of each other from both...participants, I would say. As for friendship...I know Neira doesn't approve of me quite a bit of the time. She thinks that I shouldn't wear armor indoors, I should drink only a small cup of wine after dinner, and I should sleep early and wake up early." Zak rolled his eyes to the sky, and Kurent let out a bark of a laugh.

"So you're saying I should marry a good friend?" Kurent asked.

"I didn't say that," Zak protested. "You're short-lived enough to love..."

"Thank you," Kurent said pointedly.

"And anyway, it's your own life." Zak said dismissively, then pondered. "My word. Did I say all that? I must be getting garrulous."

"It's been instructive," Kurent said comfortably, "And it did serve its purpose. We're here." He pointed ahead to the cluster of dilapidated back-to-back terrace houses that were the headquarters of the Thieves' Guild.

When they reached the first house, Zak slipped off the nightmare and whispered something at it. Diablo nodded, then trotted off, as the dark elf waited for Kurent to dismount.

Kurent clapped his hands, then when no stablehand appeared, sighed and tied the reins of his piebald to a pole, then raised an eyebrow at Zak. "Where's Diablo going?"

"Patrol," Zak shrugged, "He may or may not help the injured, but he'd tell me if he sees anything...out of the ordinary."

"It'd see him first," Kurent muttered. "Big, black horse against white snow."

"Oh no," Zak smiled, his hearing sharper than Kurent had given notice for, "He's had lots of practice of staying unseen. Comes from patrolling a large open space for several years."

"Yes, well," Kurent sighed, "I suppose we had better go inside."

***

The thieves' entrance room, out of many particular entrance rooms, was bare and cold. Kurent stared at the table in the center of the room with macabre fascination.

Something had killed...no, slaughtered three thieves, and then propped the remains on the table as if the three were sleeping on each other. Two were incongruously clasping hands, but in such a haphazard way that it was quite apparent that this had been arranged after they had died. All had a red depression where the top of their heads had been, and there were crimson, small bite marks on their bodies.

Zak was already peering closely at the bodies in a detached fashion, then at the fatal wounds on their heads. Finally, he sniffed the room. "Whatever did this wasn't a werewolf," he commented calmly, as if he was talking about the weather, "No wolf I know will be powerful enough to crush the skull in one bite...or have teeth spaced so closely together. Now, if you'd excuse me for a moment..."

The dark elf walked quickly outside. Kurent glanced at him in concern, and saw he was taking deep, measured breaths. "Something wrong?" he inquired.

Zak turned to look at him. "The blood," he said shortly. "Makes the wolf restless...and a doubt a berserk wolf inside the building will help you very much."

"Oh." Kurent said, biting his lip as his stomach belatedly attempted to heave up his breakfast. "Er. So..."

"Just turn around and wait a moment, will you?" Zak waved a hand vaguely at the door. Kurent did so, stared full into the room, then turned again to resolutely face the wooden doorframe, that seemed rather reassuring at this point of time. He could hear Zak muttering to himself outside, then stepping back into the gruesome room. "It's fine now," the elf said. "Right. Let's see if the thing is still in the building... or if it left any clues."

***

The creature heard the footsteps of the intruders...yes, the place was now marked and taken over by him...into the building. It meditated on a table in the largest room it could find in the houses, hairy, taloned legs crossed under it, heavy claws resting on the knees, fanged tentacles drooping.

It was not, to set the record straight, from the Abyssal plane or any of the higher Daema regions. It was a creature of this plane, though one would not have believed it at first sight.

The human who had pulled it here through some sort of force had attempted to hold it inside a chalked circle with odd symbols. Quite ineffective, when it had recovered its shock and attacked. It had been rather afraid of the human at first; having never seen it before, until it realized how easy the creature had been to kill. It had first suspected some sort of deadly defense and offensive mechanism, given the hairless, soft creature's total lack of talons, claws, wings or suchlike, and even a lack of proper sharp teeth, but the creatures didn't seem to have anything other than their sharp, shiny objects.

Still, that first human, when it had taken the root of the human's soul, had memories that proved quite instructive - as to how they lived, ate, felt, and died. It was mildly surprised that there had seemed to be two types of human - 'female' and 'male', and they...cooperated in some way to form young humans, instead of budding directly. Messy, and definitely primitive.

It did not eat hearts as the first human had thought it would (Apparently he was classified under something called 'Monster', and many monsters of blood magic ate hearts). Hearts, as it saw it, were merely tough muscle and stringy flesh and tendon. Nothing significant, and certainly no power at all. Brains, however, were the roots of souls, and through them, if taken at the right time, it could eat the soul itself. It was also the storehouse of knowledge and power (for it is the brain that directs and commands to give rise to magic, rituals, or simple customs), and for this it was the true source of energy that it craved.

And it found that these 'humans', for all their faults, were veritable powerhouses of brain energy, even though they seemed mewling and pathetic. It had started by picking off the lowest of them, that did not wear fine, bright removable skins, and which would not be noticed. In this their two societies were alike - the highers were 'protectors', but seldom noticed the lowest.

It was happy here. It had a low share of such foods in its land, where it held a low position. It would eat here, grow, then finally bud, and rule its own brood of creatures.

Still, it had smelt and found markers in the city. The city was already ruled by something, it knew, already owned, but not by the humans in the large, colorful building in the center of the city. The city had been claimed territory by some kind of carnivore like itself.

It knew the rules. Perhaps it was a ravening, disgusting monster, but it followed rules. It never crossed its head that it could break them. It would seek out this leader of the territory when it was strong enough, and kill it, in the leader's rules, if need be. That was only fair. In the meantime, it was intruder, and it knew it. It would keep a low profile, and only take the lowest prey... and wait.

[top]

Part 3: A Howl of Clashes

Zak watched on as Kurent dully named all of the remains that they saw on their way. The thief seemed on the verge of going into shock, but Zak couldn't think of anything to say in the circumstances.

The Thieves Guild was an amazing twist and turn of corridors and rooms. Some traps along the rooms had been sprung, and discarded bolts and darts and broken tripwires lay forlornly on the ground, as if they had been mere mosquitoes to the affected creature. Kurent shivered at one trap, where there was a dull hissing in the woodwork still. "That was Rhayten," he said slowly. "From here." He pointed to a barely concealed (even after springing) nozzle in the top right corner of the wooden frame.

Zak frowned. Rhayten was a new (and fashionable in some circles) form of poison. It was deadly in a few seconds - thirteen, if one counted - and it only required a fingernail's width of amount to kill. It could be eaten, or the victim could come into contact with it, and it came in liquid that was not very volatile.

The poison must have hit the creature when it sprayed out, but it didn't seem to have affected it much. Strange, because a fraction of what had apparently hit it would have had been enough to kill a herd of horses.

"Immunity?" Zak suggested.

"I don't want to think about it," Kurent said simply. "I'm starting to feel sorry that I asked you along."

"Where did you get this much Rhayten from?" Zak stepped quickly through the seething woodwork. "It's not available anywhere on the Sword Coast - to my knowledge."

"Trading relations with Calimport," A ghost of a smile played on Kurent's lips, "Are just fine, thanks indirectly to you."

Zak made a sour face. K'yanae, his eldest daughter, was Head of the sub-faction of the Guild in Calimport, and was to all reports doing very well. Still, he was glad that Kurent was not going to relapse into a 'it's all my fault' routine which many humans were occasionally prone to.

"The Guild will be having a hell of a time recovering," Kurent said grimly. "I won't know how many survived until we finish this...if we do, and make a general announcement."

"What, climb to the highest peak of the city and yell for all thieves to report?" Zak grinned in spite of himself.

"There are other ways," Kurent ignored that remark. "The real...brunt of the matter, if I choose my words correctly, was that since it is winter, all thieves except a damnable few are inside the Guild. Too cold to steal - the fingers numb, you see, and too cold to beg, since a precious few customers are out in this sort of weather."

"K'yanae has many," Zak shrugged. "Poach some from her."

Kurent sighed. "Not only from her. I'd probably require some from many other factions...elsewhere," he glanced at Zak.

"I am just as good at espionage as you are," Zak retorted, looking relieved that this room, at least, was totally lacking in dead thieves. "I know precisely where every Thief faction is."

"Good for you," Kurent currently couldn't bring himself to care very much. "Damn. I think the creature's headed to my office." The thief was shaking now, and his face was very white.

"Kurent," Zak said finally, "You won't be much use to me if you faint up there. Why don't you get out of here? I think I may manage..."

"Not a chance," Kurent replied firmly, "Thanks, but this creature invaded my Guild, and ate up most of my thieves, nearly half of which were close friends. I'd go."

The elf didn't say anything, but laid a hand on the thief's shoulder firmly.

***

Neira returned to the Study to speak to her mate about some of the babbling of the injured thief, and found that he was gone as well as Kurent, with none of the wolves or Talons inside any wiser. She frowned, followed their scents to the stables, and found that Kurent's piebald was also missing.

Neira snarled to herself. The idiot! He should at least have taken some Talons, or at least a few wolves...instead he'd gone to face the thing himself. She loped quickly to the gate to see if they had gone far, and to her dismay, she knew that they had.

The two guards blinked at her, then the mage bowed awkwardly. "My lady... the Master left a note. Er."

"Hand it over, then," Neira said impatiently. The warrior fumbled with his belt pouch, before carefully taking out a creased bit of parchment and giving it to her.

It was written in Zaknafein's careless, barely legible handwriting:

Neira,

This creature that we are about to face will be very dangerous. In which case, if the both of us do not return, you are to get the mages to seal in the Thieves' Guild entirely, for it may not be affected by any weapons in this Plane. Do not send anyone after us, as I do not wish the creature's attention to be turned to the Black Talons. If I require help at any time, you will know it by the signal, and tell Natyar to do what he has to. He will understand.

-- Zaknafein

P.S. If any Talons are reading this, note that you are not to follow until otherwise commanded. And no impulsive action in this case.

Neira cursed, thrust the paper into her dress pocket and considered ignoring orders to call the entire Black Talon contingent to battle.

"My Lady?" the mage asked again, tentatively.

"Yes?" Neira growled.

"The Master... that is to say, he told us that we weren't to let anyone out after him. His orders, my Lady. And he said he's told the Lieutenants, too." The guards straightened and looked important. Their Master had given them a job... and Neira knew with a sinking feeling that all Talons similarly worshipped Zaknafein, even the two other Drow members.

Tlargenral and Silaran accosted her at the entrance block. Tlargenral wore he robe for an instructor in the warrior's section of the Citadel, and Silaran was already a lieutenant. There hadn't been any grumbles about favoritism, since the two of them were also very good fighters, and Silaran did have a few unique ideas now and then.

"Bad?" Silaran asked.

"Yes," Neira said shortly. She handed him the note, which he peered at. Tlargenral looked over his shoulder curiously.

"So technically," Tlargenral said slowly, if he dies, we seal in the building, and this dying thing is a very big possibility now?"

"Yes," Neira looked hopeful. "Maybe if the Lieutenants were to..."

"It's his writing," Silaran said, "And his signature. And that's his order there - sorry, my Lady, but orders are orders."

Neira cursed them, snatching back the note and bringing a small smile to their faces, then stalked off in a huff to find Natyar. Natyar was a mage, and a werewolf, so he would be somewhere in the Study.

***

It looked unblinkingly at the only door to the room. It had lost all sense of where its targets were already - it could only sense-scry for a short period of time.

And therefore it was taken quite by surprise when it felt a jarring impact in its body, and looked down to see a length of thin, gleaming metal protruding from its chest. Behind, a human cried out in its birdlike voice, and the creature blinked as blue, stinging tendrils of something curled over its body. It turned, reached behind it, and pulled out the metal. Another of those shiny sharp things, it saw wryly, and tossed it away.

It was alert now, and the two invader's next attack was dodged. Crossbow bolts splintered the wooden walls, or were knocked out of the way by its tentacles. Then it gave its first look to the new arrivals.

One was a rather-stunned human, which it decided had probably thrown the long shiny thing. The other was different - it had black skin instead of the normal flesh colour that the humans had, and it smelt of two things in one - and it was a carnivore and a leader. The leader, the creature realized in surprise. Why, that small thing ruled this large expanse?

Still, it was fair. The creature had learned some words from the pickings it had had in this house, and it said some now in a hesitant voice. "Combat... fair," it attempted.

The Leader snarled in an un-human like voice, and drew two sharp things while leaping at it. It avoided easily, tentacles striking towards the Leader, but instead of recoiling and screaming like some of its victims had, the Leader deftly swung one of its sharp things.

The creature felt a brief burst of pain as some of its tentacles were neatly shorn off, then concentrated as it leaped onto the table again when the Leader lunged. The tentacles grew back in the blink of an eye.

This wasn't very fair, the creature thought. The Leader wasn't supposed to be able to use its shiny things - for a moment it felt a red burst of rage, and it roared. It felt another hard pressure, and turned around, backhanding the human with one immense hand and the blow flung the sorry creature hard against the wall with an audible crack. It looked down as it tried to free its leg - the human had driven the sharp thing deep through the limb and into the table.

The Leader was then upon him; having somehow avoided many of the tentacles while the creature was occupied with the human. It roared, and lashed out with all the tentacles - scratching the Leader and smashing him onto the ground. It pulled out the long shiny thing, and tossed it into the wood before picking up the stunned Leader, all this in a matter of seconds, then repeatedly smashing the Leader into the closest wall, hearing things break with a satisfied rictus of a smile on its long-muzzled, canine face.

The Leader snarled, and the creature's eyes widened for a moment as its opponent's feature became blurred and indistinct, lengthening and changing in seconds into one that closely resembled his own. Then sharp, crushing jaws closed shut on its own, causing it to bite through its tongue.

With a cry of pain and rage, the creature backed off a few steps, dropping the Leader. It put a clawed hand up to its jaw and felt some fluids running down from the mangled tongue, and red rage filled its eyes. A strong force jarred it backwards - it turned its attention to the human again, which had miraculously found another, odd weapon, and was firing small shiny things at it. It started forward then stopped when the Leader howled, then blinked as the Leader threw one of his swords away from him, but not towards it.

It sounded like a howl, but was much more different than that which the creature knew - this howl was longer, more haunting, and deeper and more expressive in timbre and quality. The Leader was back to its first shape, and its face was pointed up towards the ceiling as it howled again.

Then there was a crackle of static and a roar as air gushed in from some other place, and the creature found itself staring into another room, filled with creatures on four paws and faces that resembled its own, as well as some more humans. The door to this other place hung directly over the 'discarded' sword.

The four pawed creatures snarled, nearly as one, and leaped over into its room. The one that led them was red-furred, and this one leaped straight for its throat, but it managed to hurl it aside. The Leader somehow managed to throw himself forward, breaking the red-furred one's fall. Still more of the creatures flowed in, and it hesitated for a moment before calling up its greatest speed, and fleeing. As it expected, none of the creatures could ever manage to keep up with something that ran as fast as sound.

***

The russet-haired wolf glared up at Zaknafein then seemed to concentrate. It was wearing a collar with a silvery coin attached, and this flashed brightly for a moment, until Neira sat in the wolf's place, wearing only the collar and a simple dress. She pulled out of his arms, then proceeded to look at him closely.

"That... creature," she said slowly, "Managed to break half of your ribs, if I see correctly." Neira prodded his chest without compunction, making him wince in pain.

"Yes, well, it hurts. And thanks," he added to the wolves and a few Talons milling around the room. K'yanne was commiserating over Kurent where the thief had fallen.

"Right," Neira said, with a dangerous gleam in her hair, "You must have broken a few more catching my fall...though I thought you knew that the wolf shape takes a bit more breaking."

"Instinct," Zak shrugged. He didn't have much other explanation.

Neira took a deep breath. "What have you to say for yourself for running off like that? I'd have you know you nearly scared me to death when I couldn't find you..."

"Later, please?" Zak asked, wincing as his body saw fit to remind him of the damage, "That was a good spell, Natyar..." he commented to a Talon mage standing respectfully close by.

Natyar only wore shorts in the cold, and his amber eyes twinkled at the praise. "Merely an adjustment to the popular Dimension Door," he said modestly. "Keying it to your sword was quite an idea, however."

Verdana's formidable figure rose out of the ranks of wolves, shooing them all back through the portal before gesturing to some of the Talons to pick up Kurent and Zaknafein carefully.

[top]

Part 4: An Interlude of Thought

The white-gray wolf raised its head, and looked around it sleepily. It appeared to be in a plush human-pine-grape scent room...

This is my Study, said its partner, peering out from behind its eyes. The wolf pushed him away.

It tried to stand up, and lapsed back onto the soft place. It hurt, and dimly wondered if it had been transformed into a giant bruise. At least the lying-nest was soft.

Divan, the partner corrects absently, insistently watching. The wolf snaps half-heartedly at him.

The wolf felt tempted to force a Change back to the dark elf that appeared to share his soul with it. Let the endlessly talking one deal with the pain, perhaps? However, it would heal faster than its partner would, and it settled into a more comfortable position. It noticed movement in its peripheral vision, and it pulled itself slowly on weak paws to the end of the divan.

The white cat Morikan and the Grey one, GrayWolf, faced each other. GrayWolf crouched low, claws sheathed, tail tucked under his body, ears flat on his head with an ingratiating expression on his face. Morikan, on the other hand, was bristling, tail lashing, baring sharp teeth.

This could get interesting. The wolf inched closer to peer at them. Its mate had shooed all the other wolves from the room, and it was feeling bored.

GrayWolf must have done something wrong, its partner said, rather unnecessarily. From what the wolf understood, the cats were... incarnations or avatars of seven spirits who went around creating worlds. It didn't need this information, and so it pushed it quietly somewhere to store.

Nothing but practical, its partner comments dryly, noticing this. The wolf growls.

Morikan hissed, smacking GrayWolf smartly across the head with a large white paw, knocking the smaller gray onto the ground. Then he snarled again, and padded over to sulk on the top of the divan, leaping lightly up and ignoring the wolf. The wolf noticed that Morikan was now a very big cat, the biggest of the lot, though his fur was more silky than fluffy.

Morikan's Kano, or chief. I looked that up once. Did you know Kano also means an opening? Silly, isn't it? The wolf watches irritably as its partner rambles on.

As it watched, the black cat N'avsh padded down to GrayWolf, and mewled a question. The gray cat shook its head, and padded quickly away, presumably to avoid more confrontations. The wolf turned its attention mildly to the white cat, which was now washing itself furiously.

It made a sound between a yip and a growl, asking (in general terms) with due respect what was happening. The cat ignored him for a while, before relenting and turning to stare at the wolf. The wolf noted that Morikan's eyes were all pupil, deep black, pinpointed with white that twinkled silver and gray.

Morikan appeared to consider something, then leaped lightly down onto the wolf's back. It grunted, but made no other protest. The cat hesitated, then purred, the wolf feeling the vibrations on its spine. The hair on the back of its nape bristled slightly.

Morikan stretched - a painful experience for the wolf as cat paws pushed into its already aching back - then leaped off lightly, making irritated, curt sounds that would have been inaudible to human ears. It padded off to curl up on the wolf's partner's chair. The wolf grinned as it felt, rather than heard its partner sigh.

Then it blinked, and stood up, shaking itself, marveling quietly as all its aches seemed to flow away. It shook itself again, and the last of the pain slid off, as if it had been water dewing its coat.

It winced as it felt its partner clamoring for release, but obligingly let go.

Zaknafein rolled easily up into a cross-legged position, tying up the robe he had induced from the collar that he wore loosely around his (and the wolf's) neck. It had long ago stopped chafing.

He stared blankly into space for a moment, gathering his thoughts, then clambered off the divan and wandered towards his table. Shooing Morikan off the chair, he randomly selected a piece of paper and started to read.

Zak had long found that attempting to do something you didn't like to do helped you to think constructively about other matters at hand.

In a view of the recent business venture paid to Black Talon...

So - one, the creature was partly GrayWolf's fault. Zak deftly grabbed the white cat while it was trying to skulk away, and dumped it on his desk. "Talk," he said firmly.

The cat purred innocently.

"You know I know you can," Zak said tiredly. "Hurry up. This creature's GrayWolf's, isn't it?"

:Since you're so clear on that point, don't ask.: The voice of Morikan commented in Zak's mind, amused, annoyed, soothing.

"I'm not clear on that point," Zak nearly snarled, trying not to lose his temper. "What I do know is that something entered Baldur's Gate, killed off the Thieves' Guild, and then nearly managed to break enough bones in my body to keep me out of action for a month."

:Right,: Morikan said patronizingly. :Full marks so far.:

Zak growled involuntarily, then had to struggle for a confused moment to stay in control of his shape. "Do you know how to... well, get rid of the creature?"

:It's from around Faerun. Yes, it is a product of one of GrayWolf's experiment to evolve humans, or human-like creatures, from wolves instead of apes as is the norm. Apparently it worked rather well, except that it was an unauthorized experiment.: Morikan's voice now had overtones of irritation.

"Well then. How am I supposed to get rid of... wait, are there more of them?" Zak inquired rather nastily. "If your lordship would deign to reply."

:Not here. This one is here because one of your city's magi summoned it somehow. It wants Baldur's Gate as its territory.: Morikan blithely skipped past the last phrase.

"Uh huh. And inside the territory it'd eat all the humanoids?" Zak said dryly.

:Eat some, keep some. Sort of like cattle.: The cat somehow managed to appear as though it was grinning.

"Be serious," Zak said sharply. "Come on. How do I kill it?"

:It also thinks you're the leader or owner of this territory here, and it certainly wants to kill you.: Morikan continued, ignoring the question, :However, it wants to do this in fair combat.:

"Fair? If I had the strength of ten and its agility it'd be fair," Zak groused.

:Too bad.: The cat licked one large paw. :Figure out how to kill it yourself. It'd be waiting.: With that last curt statement, the cat leaped lightly off the table, looked pensive for a moment, then disappeared. A moment later, there was a small thunderclap.

"Show off," Zak accused dismally. He peered at the piece of paper again.

...and forasmuch as the trading regulations would permit...

Still, the monster had cried out when he... that is to say, the wolf bit it. Maybe it wasn't invulnerable on the subject of teeth. Which may make sense.

So. The next time he met the creature, he would have to somehow kill it as a wolf. If it didn't keep dodging out of the way. If breaking all the wolf's legs wouldn't hamper it that much.

Maybe a broken neck killed werewolves. But Zak didn't feel like finding out.

There was a small commotion at the door, and Zak looked up, thankful for a distraction, and fastidiously put away the paper. Two Talons and Lieutenant Laradar walked in, the former two holding on tightly to Kurent, who looked decidedly limp. Occasionally a whimper would escape from his direction.

Zak grinned. This could get interesting.

Neira strode in after them, also complaining loudly, though not about why Kurent was being held, but apparently on disturbing him - didn't his own Talons know that he needed rest? She took a look at him, blinked, then said, "You're not hurt anymore."

"That much is obvious," Zak said with a gently, standing up. "Morikan decided to pay a small debt. Now, Laradar, what is going on here?"

"Some Talons caught Kurent sneaking out of the vault, sir," Laradar said accusingly. The Talon who was once the youngest of the first Lieutenants now had strands of gray hair - and the oldest Lieutenant after Silaran. "He had some of the... stuff with him." The Lieutenant ended lamely, looking sideways at the Talon guards.

"Which stuff?" Zak asked automatically.

"You know," Laradar waved one hand vaguely. "Er." Zak watched with interest as the hand motions became more pronounced, then relented.

"Right. And he got past all the traps?" Zak inquired with some astonishment. He had thought of most of them himself. "Which one stopped him?" he added as a professional afterthought.

"Er. He got through all of them, sir," Laradar said, ignoring a groan from Kurent. The two holding him looked impassive.

"Even the magically animating steel panthers?" Zak asked.

"Even them, sir." Laradar said uncomfortably.

"It isn't any reflection on yourself," Zak said dryly, "What didn't he get past?"

"Er, I just told you... with all due respect..."

"You caught him," Zak said impatiently. "And he's nearly out cold. What got him?"

"A textbook, sir," Laradar said with a perfectly straight face.

"Really." Zak raised one magnificent eyebrow.

"Er yes. Healer Tlakva saw him coming out of the vault area." Laradar said.

"My word," Zak murmured. "Which textbook?"

"Herbs and Potions through the Ages," Neira cut in, snickering.

"Ah, right." Zak said, recalling. He had tried to look inside that once. Though it did have helpful pictures, the book itself was nearly thicker than the length of a spread hand from thumb to little finger. He walked closer to peer at Kurent, shrugged, and then pointed wordlessly at the recently vacated divan.

Neira was already scrutinizing him suspiciously, as if expecting him to collapse any moment. He grinned at her, then leant down to shake Kurent roughly.

"I'm awake," Kurent groused. "What hit me, a house?"

"Nearly," Zak smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. Normally, when Zak smiled like that, his Lieutenants got faintly worried and his Talons began to back off...and non-Talon people involuntarily checked if they had weapons, or even better, a hiding place handy. "What did you think you were doing, trying to steal from me?"

"Habit," Kurent protested. "Look, I was going to return everything anyway."

Neira snorted. In that simple sound was untold volumes of sarcasm.

"And you don't have to look at me like that," Kurent said irritably. "Fine, I'm sorry. But those traps you have were really pathetic - the guild could set better ones anytime."

"Knowing your guild," Zak said sardonically, "They'd build up a way to get in themselves with a minimum of inconvenience. No thanks."

"Do we kill him, sir?" Laradar said politely.

Kurent's eyes widened.

Zak sighed a little theatrically. "I still need him, Laradar, though that suggestion certainly has...ah, merit."

"You wouldn't!" Kurent managed. Neira was sniggering openly now. The two other guards, having let go of Kurent, stood behind her, biting their lips.

"Why not?" Zak grinned wickedly. "There's always a chance, with the home guild here decimated and Calimport being the biggest outpost, that my daughter... incidentally head of Calimport's post, eh? May end up as Master. Think of the possibilities open to Black Talon."

"Should have known not to trust a dark elf," Kurent said sourly.

"Any other dark elf would have killed you by now," Zak pointed out. "I feel merciful today, however..."

"Ha!" Kurent murmured, rather worriedly, however.

"Maybe I could get Laradar to cut off your hands. Instant cure, eh?" Zak winked at Neira, who had to stifle her laughter.

"Just say the word, sir," Laradar had a decidedly wooden expression as he half-drew his sword.

"Not... over the carpet," Neira gasped, then collapsed into giggles.

"That's also easily solved," Laradar said earnestly. "We just have to tie up his hands really tight, and when they go all white from lack of..."

"I'm shocked at you, Laradar," Kurent said in an injured voice. "Zaknafein, stop it. I'm sorry, okay?"

"This may add towards a certain fee for...ah, services provided." Zak said innocently.

"What services?" Kurent asked suspiciously. "You promised to do the other one free of charge."

"Services withdrawn, then." Zak said, unperturbed. "Service notably being the cutting off of your hands, with respect to the carpet and furniture, of course."

Kurent was uncomfortably aware of several wolves slinking into the room, tongues lolling out in mirth. "You're joking, aren't you?" he said hopefully.

"Do you want me to cut off the hands at the wrist or after the joint, sir?" Laradar asked, "I mean, it's really difficult to get a clean cut at the joint..."

"Oh, all right, you old crook." Kurent scowled. "We'd discuss this later."

"Very good," Zak positively beamed. "Now everyone - out. I have to speak with him."

Neira rather pointedly sat down on the edge of the divan.

"Fine, everyone else get out, then." Zak sighed.

"Women, eh?" Kurent winked.

"Careful, Kurent," Neira smirked. "I can ask Laradar here to cut off your tongue on account of being rude to a superior."

"Superior?" Kurent raised an eyebrow.

"I'm not the one on the verge of seeing whether the morals I've followed were the right ones to end me up in Paradise, am I?" Neira smiled. "Besides, I have support. Men, eh?"

Zak put an arm around her shoulders in quiet emphasis, then waved the rest of the curious Talons out of the room with the other.

***

The creature sat in one of the drier rooms it had found in the... sewers, and thought. The Leader had come at him with sharp shiny pointy things...ah, weapons, while it had held none. The Leader had also changed suddenly into a wolf, and he couldn't.

Technically, the Leader was cheating, the creature knew. But maybe this was a custom here. However, it also remembered an old maxim that it would be better to fight on one's own terms than on that of others.

Still... maybe it hadn't made it that clear to the Leader. It'd only managed one word before being attacked, so it wasn't its fault, was it?

Maybe it was. The creature didn't like being on the wrong side of the moral spectrum, and twitched uncomfortably. Perhaps it was its fault, in which case this would justify the Leader's... pack suddenly appearing in the room and rescuing him. The appearance of a few dozen howling wolves had been suitably unnerving to send it running. And it had nearly been brained by a black hooved fury apparently waiting for it outside, too. Fast, but not fast enough, it added mentally. It had managed to slip away.

Next time it'd make it clearer, the creature decided. That should satisfy rules on all sides. They were so slow, the inhabitants of this city. Humans were weak creatures without even decent teeth or a turn of speed or anything but an oversized brain and several horribly long... fingers. It would have to see about that.

[top]

Part 5: A Curiosity of Occurrences

Kurent tagged unhappily behind as Zak stood up to walk out of the room. "Look, Zak," he said slowly, "No bad inflection on your part, but don't you think your plan is a bit exposed? You only have one 'source's' word that the creature wants to fight fair. And even if it wanted to fight fair, how do you know what its conception of fair is?"

"And besides," he continued more hastily, "I doubted you were one to care about rules, were you? Just get a few of the best mages - maybe you could even ask from Halruaa - and blast the monster with fireballs. End of problem."

Zak turned and raised an eyebrow. "Do you think I lack...honor to that extent?"

"I've always been of the idea that your honor was whatever you wanted it to be at convenience," Kurent said seriously.

"Then I would truly be no more common than a normal dark elf, would I?" Zak said sardonically. "Because honor is merely another aspect or word for self respect, and self identity. Both thieves and mercenaries have honor, Kurent. It's why the guild thief only steals what he is paid to steal, and why the mercenary would only take pleasure in a clean, quick kill, or a neat job with little bloodshed. The creature wants to fight fair. So will I."

"I never thought that you really cared whether people thought of you as a dark elf," Kurent continued. "Which is actually a moot point now. When someone on the known world sees you, they will think of the leader of the Black Talons, and not a dark elf. As for self identity, hardly anyone can mistake you for anyone else, Zak."

"Ah, but what if the monster has friends?" Zak argued. "Perhaps now they're just staying out of the fight because it's 'fair' to them. Would you like a dozen of those creatures overrunning Baldur's Gate?"

"None came out when all those wolves 'ported over to save us," Kurent pointed out.

"Perhaps they weren't close by," Zak shrugged. "The creature certainly looked as though it knew where it was running to. And it didn't smell frightened or cornered at all, just rather shocked. This won't work again."

"It appeared to know how wolves fight," Neira observed. "It reacted in the exact way to ward off a...wolf leaping for his throat."

"Very violently?" Kurent allowed a small smile.

"Wolves leap for the throat for a killing blow." Zak said. "Practical. If you don't break the vein or the neck, you can always suffocate them. Though we prefer to hamstring the...uh, victim first. Makes it easier to reach."

"I think that's more than I want to know," Kurent shuddered. "But how did you know that the way it reacted meant that it knew wolves?"

"Well, the best way isn't to try and run, since we'd land on your back, and the back of your neck is also still your neck. It's also not a good idea to step aside, since we can use landing momentum to tear up your ankles. The creature reacted before I was even halfway through my leap - it threw me aside, if you saw," Neira said. "It knows wolves."

"Well, we know monkeys," Kurent said dryly.

Zak shrugged, then continued for the door. Neira managed to catch hold of his hand. "Be careful," she admonished, suddenly having to blink rapidly. "If you do anything as foolish as this afternoon, I'm going to..."

Zak didn't say anything. Kurent saw that he knew, dimly, that words would just make this worse. The elf hugged his wife, then headed out of the door.

"Damn," Kurent muttered to himself.

***

The creature wandered slowly through the sewers, stepping a foot above the wet and slimy paths. Water ran sluggishly through the malodorous tunnels, and occasional unidentifiable sounds echoed through. Rats above and below stopped to twitch their noses when it passed, then scampered on their business.

The sewers of Baldur's Gate were rather notorious for their objectionable inhabitants. Sometimes the odd adventurer would come across dead bodies dumped inside the pools at tunnel junctions, and sometimes meet monsters like a waist-height, larvae-like carrion eater. There were even rumors of a small community of giant spiders.

In any rate, hardly anyone dared come down to the sewers anymore, except bold necromancers who wished bodies for their experiments since it was illegal to get them from graveyards. And even then, they usually were on the lookout for payable people to get these frightening components for them.

The creature found that as long as he switched concentration for the smell-sense to that of sense-scry, the sewers were bearable.

Then he stopped, looking up. Above was a welter of despair, rage, resentment and oddly enough - justice. Other smaller human emotions like boredom weaved in and out of the strange tapestry, but the creature also sensed strong individual humans among the others above.

So. Its original plan was to visit the only underground inhabitance on this territory, which was a rich mixture of depravity, pleasure, pain both physical and emotional, greed and lust. But this was better, it decided. It would give him more strength, even though it would be above ground.

After the death of their patron Duke, the Flaming Fists had nearly become forgotten as the Black Talons rose in power. Certainly they no longer tracked down outlaws as they dwindled in number. Now they were only a small 'peace-keeping' group in Baldur's Gate, ever since the Mage's Consortium took a strong view on illegal magic, and the Thieves Guild on unlicensed thievery. As for murder, on the more atrocious ones the Black Talons took exception, because they relied on Baldur's Gate's reputation as a safe city to get a steady stream of traders...and ultimately, business, since Zaknafein flatly refused to see any prospective employers for a large job like guarding anywhere but in his Citadel.

The Flaming Fists' ultimate use soon was reduced to only keeping a gaol for the other fishes in crime that they managed to hook out. Hence the resentment, the creature decided. It had sieved that much out of the memories it had eaten. Apparently the thieves guild kept their members well informed.

It tried to think of a way up that would involve the least physical exertion, then moved very quickly through several adjoining tunnels to a door, the wood mildewed and the hinges rusty. He opened it easily enough - the lock had rusted enough to be easily breakable, then stepped in.

It found itself in what looked like a dusty storage room. Possibly the Fists had forgotten the very existence of this door, as his exertions in opening it had spilled a few boxes that had been piled against it.

It closed the door self-consciously and peered around again. On closer inspection, the only other exit was a trapdoor at the top corner of the wall directly in front of it, with a ladder set into the wall; the rungs lightly dusted gray.

It waited, but the sounds of its endeavors had apparently elicited no response, so it levitated itself thoughtfully to the trapdoor, then heaved up. It needn't have bothered - the door was unlocked and not latched or closed in any way.

The sentry was very - and shortly surprised.

***

Zak stood unarmed in the middle of the Wide, which had been cleared for winter. Snowflakes drifted gracefully down on his uplifted face, and stung a little. He was, however, wearing mithril-adamantite armor, and hoped that the creature wouldn't know a set of armor when it saw one.

He hadn't said anything about not wearing armor.

Zak looked around, shrugged, then lifted his face up to the blue sky once more, and howled a long, drawn-out cry of challenge.

***

The creature stopped while holding roughly to another soldier as the Leader's howl cut through the air. It settled for breaking the neck of the soldier cleanly, and let itself drink in the sharp spiritual aftertaste of a kill before surveying the room. It had taken care of most of the soldiers already, but decided that the challenge was more important than running after the rest.

It slipped quickly out of the room, and was down the stairs and out of the large main doors in an instant, heading to the upper part of the city.

***

Zak waited a bit more, then suddenly smelled the presence of the creature, this time tinged almost overwhelmingly with blood's sharp coppery smell.

He bit his lip so as not to make his mouth water automatically, and nodded at the creature. "You took your time," he commented.

The creature looked surprised at this, then concentrated, as if in an effort to remember something. "I warss... busy," it said at last, in a guttural voice that just barely managed human voice.

"Fair fight?" Zak continued with a raised eyebrow.

"To therr death." The creature said firmly. "Noaar weapons."

Zak held out his arms to his sides. "Unarmed it is."

The creature nodded gravely, the large wolf-like head bobbing rather incongruously. The many tentacled back was wide; sporting strong arms and long fingers tipped with sharp talons. The feet were as muscular as the rest of it, though the feet were smooth and lightly furred due to a lack of contact with the ground. Even now, the creature floated a foot or so above the cobbled Wide. A bushy tail wagged slightly.

"Youar start," the creature said.

***

"Where do you think you're going?" Neira inquired of Kurent.

"To help Zak," the thief said. "I owe him... and I got him into this in the first place."

"Very noble of you," Neira said dryly as they entered the hall outside the study. "But listen to this - does Zak need your help?"

"What about you?" Kurent ignored that. "Don't you want to help him? Aren't you afraid he would die?"

"Zak is a survivor," Neira said rather philosophically. "But if it'd take your mind off things, I do not intend to let him get killed."

"And how are you going to manage that?" Kurent sounded annoyed. He realized rather belatedly that Neira was holding one of the cats - the white one.

"I have some insurance," Neira said smugly, petting the cat.

"I think I'd go check on him anyway," Kurent said quickly. "Oh, hello, K'yanne."

He tried to shake off the feeling that the white cat looked decidedly smug. He did notice that K'yanne had become one of the beauties of the city, however. Her wild, tawny gold hair tumbled down her slender neck onto slim shoulders, of a light warm brown tint, like a natural tan. Her heart-shaped face was flawless, with a perfect complexion, full, inviting lips and deep, expressive eyes, though these were a wolf's startling amber. A soft belt encircled her small waist, and her dress covered only enough of her long legs to show well-turned ankles, though her legs would never be able to let her walk properly.

K'yanne sat before the piano in the hall, playing a complex and lilting dance piece. She stopped and turned to face him, a wide smile on her face.

"You're so much better," she said delightedly, then to Kurent's astonishment, stood up unsteadily and flung her hands around his neck, giving him a deep and passionate kiss.

Well mannered, talented K'yanne was a guest at many parties. Indeed, a party was considered classy if she did attend, usually with a small guard of Talons in their impressive dress uniform. Zaknafein had protested vociferously against the use of a 'pretty coat' as he called the uniforms with a sneer, but had eventually been overwhelmed by the arguments and by the fact that everyone else except himself wanted a 'formal uniform'. As it was, he refused to have a suit made for himself, but Neira took care of that as well.

She played many instruments very well, though usually not as well as her brother Kaswain, and had an aptitude for literature, reading books voraciously. Most people generally ended up ignoring or overlooking her handicap, or automatically assumed she couldn't move without help at all, then helped her around just as automatically.

As it was, Kurent was caught off balance, and froze until K'yanne's tongue threatened to invade his mouth. He gently disengaged her and put her down on the seat, flushing in embarrassment.

He did not see K'yanne wink at her mother, but was trying to think of something appropriate to say.

"Would you like to keep K'yanne company for a while?" Neira said, as if nothing had happened. "I have to speak with the mages."

"Er... that is, Zak..." Kurent began in confusion.

"Father can take care of himself." K'yanne said with conviction. She was holding on to his hand very firmly. "You, on the other hand, can not. Don't you want to talk to me?" she smiled a dazzling smile. Kurent involuntarily sat down beside her, still feeling disoriented.

Neira chuckled to herself, scratched the cat behind its ears, then walked out of the hall to find the Talon mages.

[top]

Part 6: A Fight of Instincts

Zak Changed and shot forward, all in one move. The wolf made as though to run past the creature, movements slightly hampered by the mithril-adamantite armor it still wore, then turned sharply, allowing its momentum to rock it forward, jaws snapping for the creature's leg.

It had already moved, and swiped at the wolf with one powerful claw, apparently anticipating the wolf's hamstring tactics.

The wolf abandoned the move early, apparently knowing quite early that it would have been foiled. It leapt the swipe, and was narrowly missed by the other claw, but tried to bite the wrist of the claw. Some tentacles flashed forward, knocking it painfully to the ground.

It knows how a wolf fights. This time, the wolf made no move to push away its partner. Don't fight like a wolf!

The wolf reflected rather absently that this was easier said than done. It had given up dodging instinctively, and now just moved as randomly and as quickly as it could to avoid the tearing tentacles and the claws.

It was also aware that some humans were watching, albeit rather far away, with the air of spectators. How stupid. Still, Baldur's Gate would be better off with less nobility.

The wolf was able to get in some slashes, always leaping away immediately after, in hit-and-run tactics. Each time the creature anticipated this 'leaping back', and the wolf already suffered some stinging gashes on its flanks and on its forehead. It was also going to get tired soon if it kept up this pace, it knew.

It leaped forward then turned to the side as an afterthought, in time to avoid another heavy slash.

***

Neira was intercepted halfway to the mage section of the Citadel by a group of five anxious looking Lieutenants.

"Is he going to fight it alone?" Laradar was the first to speak up.

"He probably gave the lot of you orders not to interrupt, didn't he?" Neira said dryly. Zak's Lieutenants worshipped him along with the rest of the Talons.

"Well... when he said not to interrupt he didn't say interrupt who," Silaran said innocently.

"He was in quite a hurry, I recall," Vander agreed, then sneezed. Vander was a mage, but magic hadn't been much effect for him against the weather.

"Bless you," Danme murmured. She was the first and only Lieutenant so far, and a Healer as well.

"Still, werewolves don't die so easily," Caeran said confidently, a werewolf himself, and a distant nephew of Neira's. "I doubt that monster has silver-tipped claws."

"No one's managed to find out whether breaking said wolf's neck has any effect," Neira said dryly.

"He's a different sort of wolf," Caeran said. "Another world type, right?"

"Different?" Vander said, with interest.

"Zak was Changed on another world," Neira said. "You may in fact be right."

"But if the creature wins," Laradar said, persisting, "The city will be its territory, if I understood correctly."

"If the creature wins," Neira snapped, "I intend to use an earlier suggestion of Kurent's. I am not going to sit tamely and wait by the result if it is unfavorable. Vander, gather the mages."

The cat purred.

***

The wolf suffered yet another blow that sent it flying, smashing rather painfully down several feet away. It was acutely aware that it was bone tired already. Wolves normally have very high stamina, but try running as fast as you can for more than a few minutes and see how tired you get.

"Tired?" the creature seemed to commiserate. Try as it might, the wolf couldn't find a trace of malice in the creature's tone as it got exhaustedly to its feet, getting another painful blow for its efforts. It was lucky its partner had insisted on it wearing the mithril-adamantite armor, or it would be in a worse state by now...

***

"Looks like losing to me," Danme said worriedly. "Oh dear." She wrung her hands. Neira watched with a small interest - she had never seen someone wring their hands before.

"Now, my lady?" Vander said quietly.

"Not yet," Neira said, biting her lip as the wolf in the scrying mirror was knocked up into a frozen fountain, breaking the ice and landing with an unceremonious splash in the cold water.

***

Wet and rather demoralized, the wolf leaped out of the fountain, dodging yet another wicked blow, without even time to shake itself relatively dry.

Don't fight like a wolf...

The wolf lunged again at the creature, trying to cripple it, but it dodged impossibly quickly, nearly sending the wolf sprawling on the cobbles.

Fight like a dog?

The wolf snarled at that. It had a deep-seated contempt for dogs.

***

"He's tired already," Laradar said anxiously.

"That's obvious," Neira snapped. "Oh, all right. Now."

Vander nodded in satisfaction then called the mages together. Facing the mirror while the other Lieutenants and Neira backed away, they began to chant in a loud, steady voice.

***

The creature blinked as a portal whirred open in front of it, showing a very familiar landscape of dry grassy ground and rolling hills.

Fight like a fox... a rat... run up and jump...

The wolf could identify with that. Without even bothering to wonder where the portal came from, it ran straight at the creature, accelerating.

The creature jerked its attention away, and instinctively readied itself for a pounce; stretching out hands in front if it. It looked comically shocked, jaws gaping open, when the wolf ran on past any favorable point of leaping straight to its feet, not even trying to veer away to avoid collision.

Then the wolf leaped - nearly vertically upwards - less than a meter away from the creature, jaws gaping open and closing neatly on the creature's neck.

***

"That was clever," Silaran said mildly.

"That was Kurent's plan?" Laradar said with suspicion.

"No, Kurent's plan was if Zak failed," Neira said firmly. "Vander, can fireballs be cast from this distance?"

***

The creature roared, and bear hugged the wolf, muscles straining, distorting the armor. The wolf held on grimly, aware that the spectators appeared to be cheering it on. It managed to make the creature lose balance by scrabbling with back paws frantically on the creature, forcing it to support its weight, then twisting violently.

The creature fell over backwards, gasping as the wolf slowly tried to force it to suffocate. The wolf twisted again as they hit the ground, adding more crushing force into its jaws as it did so.

There was a satisfying sound as the creature's neck snapped.

***

"That was horrible," Danme said, shuddering. The scrying mirror did not emit sound, but it was very apparent what Zaknafein had just done.

"Why?" Caeran said simply.

"She's a Healer," Vander shrugged.

"Stop that, Vander," Neira growled. "Let's see if that kills it."

"I doubt," Silaran said quietly.

"Be optimistic for once," Laradar chided.

"I've just known a lot of creatures - humanoids included - that don't die when you do that to them," the elf said.

***

The wolf ignored the writhing of the creature, and shifted its grip upwards to crush the windpipe of the monster efficiently, then it shook itself off, sneezing slightly, padding unsteadily away from the still form.

***

From the mirror, Neira noticed a tentacle twitch as the wolf turned its back. "Vander, do something!" she snarled.

"A fireball will hit him," Vander wailed.

"I'm sure you have other spells..." Neira snapped.

The cat twitched its nose.

***

A wind swept suddenly over the wide, causing many of the spectators to hold on to their hats. It seemed to be focused on the portal, trying to suck everything inside. The wolf noticed this, and made a desperate leap towards the fountain, Changing in mid leap.

Zaknafein held on grimly to the side of the fountain's pool, as the wind grew fiercer and fiercer then stopped as quickly as it had begun. The creature had been sucked inside the portal, and the portal closed after it.

***

"That's odd." Caeran commented, then shrugged. "Let's go pick him up."

Neira peered at the cat in her arms, and it purred loudly.

***

Another of the creatures paused on its walk through the countryside of its world, and approached a prone form of one of it's own kind cautiously. Oddly, it looked as though the fallen one had been savaged by wolves, even know the creature knew for a fact that the few remaining wolves were only to be had very far away in the forests.

Even more strangely, there were... items lying near the fallen creature. The creature picked one up to look at it curiously.

It was a hat.

[top]

Epilogue

The first thing Zak saw when he opened his eyes again after sleeping off the fight in the Citadel was a document and a quill.

He recoiled instinctively, shaking away the vestiges of sleep. "What?"

Neira put down the document and twirled the quill around her fingers. "Ah, you're awake. There are some things that need settling."

Zak turned over in the bed pointedly.

"If you don't settle them now," Neira said pleasantly, "I'd do it myself. Duke Belt made it quite clear he wanted an answer as quickly as possible."

Zak mumbled something.

"I'd mention to him you're absolutely thrilled if you were to get the title, then," Neira said.

Zak sat up abruptly. "What title?"

"Duke," Neira said succinctly. "Got your attention, I see. Belt says that the palace is more or less fireproof, and you'd have to pay money with the rest of them for damages in the event that it catches fire."

"I didn't agree to any title," Zak said indignantly.

"You have to agree?" Neira said mildly. "Besides, Belt did mention that since most of the Flaming Fist are dead, the Black Talons, being the largest military group in the city, should take over their duties."

"I didn't agree to... wait a minute," Zak commented suspiciously. "Who says we have to?"

"Laradar says we have enough students for patrols in the city," Neira said blithely, "And Silaran said even if we didn't, we could use the first year graduates. With things as they are, we'd only need to do the murders, anyway."

"Are we getting paid?" Zak said cautiously.

"The Dukes say that having a safe city would be payment enough for you," Neira said, "But if you insisted, you can have a share in the trade profits."

"Ah?" Zak blinked, then his eyes narrowed again. "Now, about that title."

"Why do you object to it, anyway? It'd help you open some doors," Neira commented.

"More paperwork," Zak groused.

"Considering how you treat your paperwork..." Neira said with a raised eyebrow.

"And responsibility. And although it will open some doors, it'd close a lot more," Zak said. "People would think that being a Duke of a city would make me put the city above everything else, and they'd be uncomfortable about giving Talons tasks."

"There is that," Neira commented. "But..."

"And anyway, Dukes are elected," Zak said triumphantly. "Who'd vote for a dark elf?"

"Anyone who's afraid of Talons," Neira smiled. "That's reputation for you. Besides, the Talons will probably all vote for you as well."

Zak glared. There were a large number of Talons in the city as well as outside, and many of them were of Baldur's Gate citizenry.

"I'd cut their pay," he threatened, but even to himself, it sounded a little hollow. "I'd just not run, anyway," he finished lamely.

Neira smiled.

***

Kurent looked worriedly at his Study. Apparently there were still quite a few thieves left, though he recalled some from the other outposts. Much of the damage was restored, and the rest just cleaned up.

K'yanae had arrived as well. She was supervising the thieves downstairs, along with that large Griffin of hers. She had also introduced one of the group that had followed her over - Artemis Entreri, was it? Certainly his rank was new - K'yanae called him her trump.

The man was one of the more dangerous people that Kurent had seen, but Kurent had heard of him from reports from Calimport, even before K'yanae had 'converted' him. The man didn't look very upset about this anymore, though Kurent would have to take K'yanae aside one day and tell her to watch her back. If he could first distract Entreri... the man had latched on to her as if he was her default bodyguard.

Kurent looked out of his window in the Study at the night, and waited. He scratched his hand absently, feeling his body tingle strangely.

His last thought as the moon rose was whether werewolves could Change others by ways other than biting. Like a kiss...

***

K'yanae watched as the last of the corpses were carted out to be buried discreetly in satisfaction. S'vanarr, her Griffin steed and friend, watched mildly as others busied themselves by cleaning up the rest of the mess.

Entreri appeared to be attempting to watch everyone at once, and succeeding. He had refused to wear the normal thief-type of armor - light, hardened leather, and was probably wearing more weapons on his body than any thief in the room. Certainly the only thing that showed was a serviceable and ugly-looking short sword, and that only by a bulge in his cloak. His gauntleted hands were folded, and he radiated mild interest.

"A pity Namaen had to go back on Talon business," S'vanarr was saying. "He would have liked to return to Baldur's Gate."

K'yanae, who had secretly worded a letter to her Father to cause that very business, kept an admirable straight face. She found Namaen's attention stifling at times. She knew that S'vanarr always kept one eye on Entreri, however, even over time. The Griffin's only response to this was that a leopard never changed its spots.

K'yanae didn't really care. She liked the assassin, who didn't talk unless it was necessary, and (oddly) never said anything spiteful or cutting unless he had a good reason. And he never seemed to lie, or if he did, he did it well enough such that even she could not notice. Entreri was charming when he wanted to, something that always put K'yanae in mind of a chameleon, able to change its color to suit its background. Perhaps all successful assassins were that way.

He was also (rather reluctantly at first) teaching her, and she repaid the favor. Besides, there was that other matter which he was useful for. K'yanae allowed a small smile to play on her lips. Who would have known it?

Namaen wasn't aware of it, apparently, and S'vanarr did not approve but did not see any point in interfering. K'yanae watched a thief move the blood-soaked cushions away for washing, and shivered in the crisp air.

Entreri removed his cloak and put it on her shoulders, hooking it up deftly and letting his hands linger a bit longer than necessary on her arms. S'vanarr mantled a little, the Griffin's way of showing disapproval.

K'yanae chuckled. "Yes, I know you warned me. But I thought I would have been used to Baldur's Gate's weather."

"You've spent the past year or more in one of the hottest cities on this continent," S'vanarr said dryly.

"There is that," K'yanae admitted.

"How long are we staying here?" Entreri said. He had a pleasant voice, K'yanae noted.

"Until Kurent can do without us," K'yanae shrugged. "Or as long as we like. I believe we can get rooms in the Citadel. The Guild's a little chilly."

There was a small sound upstairs, as well as a thump of something hitting the ground.

In a flash, Entreri's hand was on his sword. "What was that sound?"

S'vanarr shrugged, cocking his head. But K'yanae smiled. "Poor Kurent," she said enigmatically.

"Should we help?" S'vanarr asked.

"He can manage," K'yanae shrugged, but her smile widened when a new howl rose in volume from the room above, startling some of the thieves in the rooms, a new serenade to the moon.

Lledrith RavenWolf

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