Jurnia opened her eyes, knowing that her body was still lying in its deep trance somewhere; that what felt like such solid, real flesh was partly imagination and partly pure spirit. She seemed to be wearing a loose robe, rather like a sleeping robe, made of black silk. Over it, surprisingly light on her shoulders, a splendid cloak of black feathers swept to the ground, a chain of what looked like tiny bones holding it at her throat. It felt warm, almost alive.
She was standing in a grassy meadow under a clear sky. The grass was soft and cushiony under her bare feet, rather than having the somewhat rough texture of real grass; the sun shone down, warming her, but she could look directly at it without hurting her eyes. This was not a place, but rather an idealization of a place, without all the inconveniences of reality.
At one edge of the meadow stood a magnificent estate house; the other three sides were bordered with lush forest. A splash of bright color halfway down one edge caught her eye, and she turned to move in that direction. The cloak swirled and rustled around her as she went, a visible symbol of her birth clan. When she was finally close enough for the color splash to resolve itself clearly, she had to stop and stare.
It was Karavasu, lying asleep on what appeared to be a heap of pillows covered with tumbled sheets of deep honey-gold silk. He was on his stomach, both arms folded around a cushion to pillow his cheek, and he wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. Only his bright hair blanketed him, silky strands wisping over his back. He was different, somehow, the lines of his body subtly changed, become almost impossibly perfect; in profile, his face seemed just slightly sharper, shedding a little of its deceptively soft appearance. The light coming through the leaves of the apple tree he rested under dappled his skin in shifting patterns.
The major difference was so odd that for a moment, Jurnia didn’t even recognize what she was looking at. Her mouth actually dropped open when she did realize what she was seeing.
A pair of pointed fox ears poked out of the tousled hair at the sides of his head. They were redder than his hair, edged with creamy white and backed with a dusting of black. In addition to the ears, a magnificent fox’s tail draped over his hip, that same rich red, tipped with a splash of white. The end of it twitched a little.
The overall effect managed to be sexy and adorable at the same time. Jurnia continued to gape.
“Isn’t he cute?” a strangely familiar voice said from not far behind her. She jumped as if stung, whipping around to face the voice’s owner.
He was quite tall, well-muscled though leanly built—it was easy to see his body, since he wasn’t wearing anything more than a gold-and-blue sash knotted elaborately around his hips, giving him an ounce of modesty. He had a long fall of platinum-blonde hair that reminded her a great deal of Arjunayazu, though he clearly wasn’t her father-in-law; he seemed to be a younger man. His face and body were certainly mature, but there was a certain playfulness in his golden eyes that made him seem hardly older than Kara. He, too, had a fox’s ears and fluffy tail, almost pure white in his case, with a slight silvery cast.
“Who are you?” Jurnia demanded, forcing her eyes up to his face rather than stare admiringly at his body.
“What, you don’t know?” he asked, sounding amused. His tail swished. “Who did you come here to find, little Raven?”
“I came here to search for Lopayzu in hopes that he might be able to help us get Kara back to normal. Arjunayazu came with me, but I don’t see him anywhere around here.”
“He’s in there,” the man (?) said, casually pointing a thumb at the elegant house. “You came here looking for Lopayzu, hm?”
“Yes, and I want to know where he is right now. I see Kara here, but he’s not waking up, and Kara would wake up if he heard a feather hit the floor, and I want to know exactly what’s going . . . on . . .” She trailed off, staring up at the gorgeous silver-haired man, who was grinning openly. His teeth looked very white and sharp.
His voice was familiar, indeed, but she’d last heard it arriving directly in her head without passing through her ears while having conversations with a small toy fox.
“You’re Lopayzu,” she said stupidly.
He widened his eyes, gasped dramatically, and looked down at himself. “Ye gods, I think you’re right!”
“Stop that,” she snapped, going directly from stunned awe to irritation. “Since you’re here, you can tell me what happened to Kara and how we can fix it.”
The Fox Spirit folded his arms, still grinning. “I recall thinking that it was fortunate you’d never had ambitions to enter the priesthood. I see that you still haven’t got the proper amount of reverence.”
“It’s hard to revere someone who persists in behaving like a dolt.”
“See what I mean?” he said, apparently to the air. He studied her for a moment, then looked down at Kara. “As you can see, he’s not hurt. He’s quite comfortable.”
“What,” she said very carefully, pointing a trembling finger at Kara’s head, “are those doing there?”
“His ears? You make it sound like there’s something wrong with them,” Lopayzu replied, flicking his own ears proudly. “It’s quite appropriate for him to have ‘em.”
“I haven’t got wings! Why has he got fox ears and a fluffy tail?” she demanded.
A long-fingered, graceful hand touched her shoulder and slipped partway down her back, smoothing the feather cloak. “Well, you’re not the product of a direct liaison between Kaykolu and a mortal woman. That stuffy bird hardly knows how to have fun.”
“You can’t say something that disrespectful about a clan totem!” she flared furiously. “You take that back, you overgrown brat!”
“Would you like to examine your last remarks for minor inconsistency?” he asked, seemingly fascinated.
“How dare you say something . . . like . . . that . . .”
“Ah. I see that my subtext finally got through.”
She stared at him, wide-eyed, her mouth hanging open. He put a hand under her chin and lifted gently until her mouth closed.
“You . . . Kara . . . you’re . . . you’re his father?”
“Who is really a man’s father?” Lopayzu said philosophically. “The one who sired him, or the one who raised him? Arjunayazu’s his father, for all practical intents and purposes. If you’re asking me if I impregnated Kara’s mother, then yes, that was me.”
“What . . . why . . .”
Lopayzu sat down comfortably cross-legged on one of the cushions. “It was necessary. My clan was in danger of real extinction, and I wanted at least one of the survivors to be as pure-blooded as possible to reestablish the clan from a strong root. Arjunayazu’s bloodline is strong, but I wanted to hedge my bets. So I took on flesh and lay with a mortal woman, and she bore a son who couldn’t be more pure of blood without actually being me.”
Jurnia sat as well, though in her case it was almost a fall. “What did you mean, a direct liaison?”
“Mm. Kaykolu holds himself more aloof. He didn’t think it was very proper for one of us to ‘impose’ on a mortal, as he put it. But since he and I had an agreement that he would help renew my clan, he was obliged to live up to his end of the deal. Since Chaiya knew she couldn’t have Iryasitru himself, she chose to have what he alone could give her. Her choice coincided with our needs. Iryasitru really did lie down with Chaiya of his own will and hers, but Kaykolu’s spirit infused him and guided the conception to ensure a daughter would come of it.” Lopayzu reached over and stroked the feather cloak again. “I think he did a fine job, to be truthful.”
“Are you telling me,” she said through her teeth, “that ultimately Kara and I had no choice in this? That we’re together because it was decided for us even before we were born?”
“Would it really be so terrible if I said ‘yes’?” Lopayzu asked curiously. “You’re happy, aren’t you? You love him, don’t you?”
“Did I choose to love him?” she demanded. “Or did someone else choose that I would love him?”
“No, Jurnia,” he said firmly. “We don’t do that. We can arrange circumstances, but ultimately, the choice is always yours. The gift of free will came from the Goddess Herself—none of us can change that. I saw to the birth of a male child, as Kaykolu saw to the birth of a female one, and we gave certain gifts to each. That was our agreement. Everything else has been the result of mortal choice.”
“How do I know you’re telling me the truth?” Jurnia said, her throat tight and her eyes burning with tears.
“You have to decide if you believe me, Jurnia. I can’t force you to accept what I’m saying. I know that you hate feeling as if you have no control, and that you’re angry and frightened by what I’ve just told you because of that. Kaykolu and Lopayzu may have seen to your births, but it’s been Jurnia and Karavasu who’ve chosen the path beyond that.”
She looked at Kara, her eyes drifting over his graceful body, the bright spill of his hair, the face so sweet and innocent in sleep. “Did Kara choose what happened to him on the road?” she asked.
Lopayzu looked faintly embarrassed. “All right, that wasn’t exactly his choice. I did have to intervene.”
“You intervened!” she shrieked, leaping to her feet.
He spread his hands placatingly. “He’s a mess, Jurnia. He fights himself, hates himself. You’ve seen the other two sides of his little triangle now. Tell me, do you think it’s good for him to remain so divided?”
She remembered the Wanderer, bright-eyed and sweet and deliberately innocent, a carefully crafted mask to hide what was beneath even from Kara himself. She remembered Khuradasu, crying almost silently in her arms because she alone had understood and accepted him, naming the Wanderer as part of the chains which kept him bound.
“No,” she whispered.
“He has to accept himself, to become a whole person. A time is coming when the lives of many people will depend on him, and one can’t prop up a wall with a dry-rotted board. If he isn’t whole and sound, he won’t be strong enough to do what needs doing. I’ve had the opportunity to teach him personally here, and that’s a benefit.”
“You hurt him on the road,” she accused.
“Not directly. He fell and smacked his head. I’ll admit that that happened as a result of what I did to him, but I certainly didn’t hit him.”
“He could have died in the rain!”
“No, he couldn’t have,” Lopayzu said with absolute sincerity. “I wouldn’t have allowed that. I knew that Khuradasu would take control and get him safely home. If I hadn’t known, I wouldn’t have done what I did until he was already someplace safe.”
“He’s so beautiful,” she whispered, staring again at the sleeping young man.
“Takes after his mother in a lot of ways, though certainly he shares my own good looks,” the Fox Spirit remarked complacently.
“And you’re so humble, too,” Jurnia said scathingly.
“Why isn’t he waking up?”
“I didn’t want to have this conversation when he could hear. He doesn’t need to know what he is, Jurnia. It’s best if he knows himself simply in mortal terms—he won’t be constantly worrying that I might be disappointed. He’s still afraid of disappointing Arjuna. Let’s not add to his trouble.”
She reached out almost involuntarily, and stopped her hand short of touching Kara. “How long will he be like this? How long will I have to wait to have him back?”
“Not very much longer at all,” Lopayzu reassured her. “There was a major change a few days ago, when you made the Demon’s Claw cry. You were right—he never has been allowed to grow up. Deep down, that part of him has always been a cocky teenager, reveling in his own fearsome image. But he’s beginning to grow up now, since he’s been let out of his cage to interact directly with the world that Karavasu’s been keeping him locked away from. He has to handle responsibilities that a cocky teenager just isn’t equipped to handle, but he’s got a sense of duty that’s forcing him to face those responsibilities. And he doesn’t want to hurt or upset you, so he has to grow up.” Again he touched her, a fleeting brush of his fingers across her brow to sweep a stray wisp of hair out of her face. “If there’s one thing that all aspects of him share, it’s his love for you. The Wanderer worships the ground you walk on; Khuradasu would kill or die to protect you; Karavasu will do anything to make you happy. If he’s going to heal, he needs you.”
“I’m not going to leave him,” she said fervently, softly. “I love him, too.”
“You do everything with so much passion, Jurnia,” Lopayzu murmured. “You cry and laugh, hate and love with every ounce of your being. There’s no real falsehood or deception in you.”
“So?” she challenged.
“I didn’t say that was a bad thing,” he said hastily, getting to his feet. “I think I’ll go have a talk with Arjuna and leave you and him alone.”
“You do that,” she suggested ominously, and watched—with a certain amount of admiration—as he walked away. The sash and his fluffy tail conspired to conceal a fair expanse of his posterior, but possibly the only thing that could have completely hidden Lopayzu’s magnificent hindquarters was a foot-thick brick wall.
She pushed the feather cloak behind her shoulders, kneeling down on the silk-draped cushions. Kara rolled over in his sleep, sprawling indolently on his back, one arm still tucked behind his head. Without even a hint of shame, Jurnia savored the sight of him; it was even more enjoyable than usual, given that he bore no scars here, his fair skin smooth and perfect. He also seemed taller than usual, perhaps pushing closer to six feet than his normal diminutive height, everything still in perfect proportion. He was gorgeous and graceful, the almost girlish face altered just a little by the slight sharpening of his features, turned into something more masculine without sacrificing its appeal. His long lashes cast faint shadows on his cheeks, and his lips looked fuller than usual, a bit redder, far too tempting for her to ignore. Jurnia leaned down and kissed him, one hand sinking into the tumble of his sunset hair.
Like the magical kiss in a fairy tale, it stirred him when the noisy discussion hadn’t. His hand came up to touch her cheek, sliding back under her ear and curling gently at the nape of her neck to keep her from pulling away. When he did finally let her go, she watched from close range as his eyes slowly opened. As rich and deeply gold as ever, those lazy amber eyes focused on her as he smiled. It was a slow, wicked smile, one that wouldn’t have been out of place on Khuradasu.
A moment later, his eyes went huge and confused as Jurnia gave in to the impulse that had been plaguing her ever since she saw him and reached up to grab his ears.
“Ara?” came the plaintive, baffled voice from somewhere around her collarbone level. “Jurnia? What are you doing?”
“They’re so cute!” she giggled, rubbing. They felt rather like thick folds of deep-plush velvet, warm and fuzzy.
“What are? What is? Jurnia?” He yelped as she wedged a hand under his side and rolled him over so she could play with the fox-tail, which was every bit as enjoyable to touch as the ears that were now flattened in confusion. It seemed like a very normal and natural outgrowth of his spine just above the cleft of his buttocks—which also got an appreciative pat as Jurnia rubbed the end of the tail against her cheek.
“It’s so soft and fluffy,” she said happily.
The white tip of that tail flicked against Jurnia’s face in agitation; she could feel the flesh and blood appendage twitching under the shaggy fur. Ears still flattened, Kara pouted up at her, it finally dawning on him what it exactly was she was doing. Apparently he’d accepted the vulpine additions to himself as normal for here, wherever “here” truly was. “Maybe it was a bad idea to have let you have Lopzu for so long, that it was,” he murmured, his sulky tone indicating that he now believed his wife would be disappointed that he had no such ears and tail in the mortal realm.
Jurnia giggled as the soft fur tickled her face, then looked down at her husband with a grin that went from merely delighted to downright naughty as she registered his tone. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, letting go of his tail. She unbelted her silk robe to let it fall open, framing her body, and lay down to slide her arms around him, pressing herself provocatively close. “You might be at least as cuddly as he is.”
“Ara,” he said feebly, staring at the view she’d just offered. For a split second, she feared that the Wanderer had somehow intervened and shut his brain off, but judging from his dopey smile and the fact that he immediately put his arms around her as she cuddled up, Kara was focusing exclusively on admiring her body instead of being embarrassed that she was showing it off.
“We already spend a lot of time in bed, you know,” she murmured against the side of his neck. “If you had those features all the time, we would get even less done because I’d be cuddling you whenever I wasn’t doing more interesting things to you. At least I can carry Lopzu around without being too encumbered.”
“Ara,” he mumbled in what seemed like agreement, as he was now distracted by the warm, soft, bare skin that was pressed up against him. He ran a hand up her back under the cloak, and seemed surprised. “I thought you had wings . . .”
“No, it’s just a cloak. Isn’t it nice?”
“Yes, but if I got the ears and the tail, why wouldn’t you—araraaa . . .” His eyes rolled back in his head and he stopped talking coherently as she slid one hand down his abdomen and started petting him very intimately. Lopayzu had said that it would probably be for the best if Kara didn’t know his paternity, so steering him away from anything which might make him too curious seemed like a good idea. She’d missed him, and it seemed that he’d missed her too; while she’d at least had the company of Khuradasu and the Wanderer both in and out of bed, he’d been completely bereft of her presence in any form. Judging by the immediate reaction he had, it seemed that he’d really, really missed her. When she stopped him from making faint meeping noises by kissing him, he responded enthusiastically.
He really was taller, which made for some delightful side exploration as they both adjusted to the difference. The tickle of feathers and fur caused intermittent bursts of giggling as they touched and kissed and caressed. There was no mistaking Kara’s touch. If pressed for details, Jurnia would have had trouble explaining the differences, but she recognized them even if there weren’t words to describe them. It was as if the Wanderer’s gentleness and Khuradasu’s dominance blended seamlessly, his hands warm and sure and reverent on her body. The fact that they were in what was essentially Heaven didn’t cause any hesitation at all; if their actions had been forbidden, they surely would have known. If anything, the very atmosphere seemed somehow approving.
When he finally gathered her to him, sinking himself into her with one smooth thrust, it seemed both too soon and too long-awaited. Their need for each other was impossible to ignore, and yet there was the lingering thought that perhaps they could have waited just a little longer, spent a little more time just touching. Not that it caused any hesitation—as always, the joining brought almost more pleasure than they could bear. Jurnia was wearing nothing now but the black cloak that spread itself like a puddle of ink over the silken sheets and cushions; the brush of Kara’s fluffy tail against her thighs made her shudder and gasp, caught between a moan of pleasure and a giggle at the tickly sensation. He was powerless to resist her allure, to draw things out as long as possible, and her obvious enjoyment made the notion unnecessary at best.
In the dappled sun-and-shadows that fell through the leaves of the apple tree, the moment was perfect. The lovers seemed to meld together, joined so much more intimately in this realm of the spirit than it would ever be possible to do in the mortal world. If there had been any lingering doubts on either part, they were forever banished by the raw touch of soul against soul, a communication that could create no lies or misunderstanding. Kara and Jurnia knew one another, each of them revealed to the other with all their human flaws and virtues, and that more perfect understanding somehow made their mutual climax all the more consuming.
When they finally collapsed—more out of sheer overwhelmed exhaustion than any physical weariness, for it seemed that the spirit had a great deal more stamina than the body—Kara rolled onto his back, pulling Jurnia over him, blanketing himself with her dark-fire hair and the opulent cloak. She sighed, pillowing her head on his shoulder, and he smiled at the contented little sound.
“Am I interrupting?”
The voice was unfamiliar—deep, rough-edged, filled with a condescending amusement. Kara’s head popped up over Jurnia’s shoulder as she almost twisted her own head off trying to see the speaker.
He was tall, taller than Lopayzu, and more heavily muscled, wearing rugged, simple hunter’s garments of well-tanned leather. His face was all long knife-bladed planes, with deep-set eyes that gleamed like old amber. His long thick hair, bound in a warrior’s topknot, was very dark, tipped with a paler shade that created a silvery sheen over the heavy mane; the color carried over to the alert ears and brushy tail of a wolf.
“Lord Verku,” Jurnia whispered, not entirely certain how she knew his identity. The feral, magnificent creature could surely only be the Wolf-lord.
“I like the way you say my name,” he remarked, reaching down. “You’ll say it more in the future.” His hands closed on her shoulders and lifted her away from Kara with seemingly no effort at all, despite their attempts to hold onto each other.
“What?” she squeaked.
“I like the look of you, Raven-girl.” He chucked her under the chin. “So, if your spineless Fox suitor can’t defend his claim, I think I’ll take you for myself.”
Green eyes flamed with outrage, and Jurnia immediately lashed out with one foot. Verku caught her ankle and pushed lightly, tipping her off-balance and sending her down onto her backside in a flurry of feathers on the heap of cushions. Reaching down again, he caught a fistful of Kara’s hair and hoisted the smaller man to his feet.
“Stay there like a good girl,” he instructed. “I’ll be done with this weakling in a minute or two, and then I’ll show you what real passion is.”
Her mouth dropped open in speechless fury as she rolled up onto her knees, preparing to launch herself at the Wolf. He sighed, shook his head, and gestured with his free hand. Rather than slamming into his powerful form, she bounced off the iron bars that had formed out of thin air.
“Jurnia!” Kara shouted, stumbling as Verku pushed him roughly away. The cage was surprisingly artistic, a delicate-seeming lacework of black bars surrounding Jurnia and the pillows. It was, however, very solid, as he found when he grabbed one of the bars.
“Don’t get distracted, boy,” growled the deep tones of the Wolf behind him, and a powerful kick flung him face-first into the cold bars. “That’s always been your problem. You get distracted too easily. You worry too much about too many things. You have no focus!” A backhand spun him half-around to face his attacker. “You’re too afraid to have any focus! You question your own nature beyond the point of reason!”
“I’m not an animal,” Kara snapped, trying to watch Verku’s hands and feet. “Only animals react solely on instinct and fail to question themselves!”
“I said that you question it too much. You’re so afraid of yourself and what you’re capable of that you can’t bear to move in any direction. You mistrust yourself.” A stunning blow rocked Kara back on his heels. “That is a mistake, little boy. Foxes are predators. If a fox is hungry, he does not stop to ponder the morality of killing something to feed himself.” Another blow sent the smaller man sprawling. “If a fox’s mate is in danger, he does not waste time worrying about the feelings of the attacker. He does the job which needs to be done!”
Verku was playing with Kara; Jurnia could see that plainly. The Wolf-lord was essentially slapping the slender redhead around, as if he held Kara in such contempt that the Fox wasn’t even worth a close-fisted punch. Kara was trying to fight back, but the skill that she knew he possessed even without a weapon in hand seemed to have deserted him. He was too slow, too clumsy, to oppose the bigger man with any sort of efficiency.
“Stop it!” she shouted, clenching her fists on the bars. “Leave him alone!”
“Your devotion speaks well of you, even if it’s focused on an unworthy target,” Verku mused, leaning back to evade Kara’s wild swing and answering it with a resounding slap. “But it’s the duty of a male to protect a female. Not because she’s incapable of protecting herself, but because she should not have to do so—and because what one male cannot defend, another will take from him.” He slapped Kara again, hard enough to knock him back a few steps.
It seemed to go on forever. Verku might be treating Kara with absolute contempt, but it was clear that this was no joke and he was not playing. Jurnia was certain she had heard bone crack a few times with a blow to Kara’s side and another to his arm. And all throughout, Verku taunted the small man, goading him into wild attacks and turning them aside without effort.
Kara stumbled back against the bars that confined Jurnia, his breathing ragged, a trickle of blood running from a split in his lower lip. The fury that Verku had stirred in him raged helplessly within his mind, unable to be expressed through true action; he simply was no match for the Wolf.
I’m going to lose. I’m going to fail Jurnia. The thought burned like acid, stronger than the ache in his arm or the stabbing pain he felt with every breath; Jurnia’s soft fingers touched his back through the bars, and he shuddered. Khuradasu isn’t here to protect her.
“Giving up already?” Verku inquired casually, pacing closer. “I’m surprised you’ve lasted this long to begin with, boy.” He cracked his knuckles and drew an arm back. “I suppose it’s time to finish it.”
Kara glared from under the tangle of his hair, his chest rising and falling in long, rapid breaths. I am Khuradasu, damn it. I will protect Jurnia. I don’t have to take this, even from a totem . . .
Verku’s fist blurred around.
There was a solid smack of flesh on flesh as something interposed itself between the two men. Jurnia stared, her hand still touching Kara’s back.
Khuradasu was a translucent shape cut out of the air, a hazy shimmer that had somehow caught Verku’s fist in one hand. With a twist of the same hand and a stiff-armed blow from the other, he sent the Wolf-lord back a few steps before turning around. He still looked like a seventeen-year-old, a boy just shy of becoming a man, dressed in the Ruby Dragon Army’s uniform . . . but there was no blood on him. He was clean, his hands and clothing unstained by the visible evidence of his sins. Rather than the fierce, deadly glare of a killer, his expression was alert, calm, golden-glowing eyes revealing far more depth than any opponent had ever seen—not a cold, flat stare of controlled fury.
You’ve never said the words to me.
I love you. It’s all right . . . you’re not bad . . .
Kara heard it as a faraway echo, a voice much like his own and his wife’s familiar whisper. There was a tight, deep ache in his chest that went far beyond the pain of the cracked rib—an emotional knot that somehow felt good.
Jurnia’s voice, Jurnia’s touch, Jurnia’s love and acceptance. Surely there was nothing else so pure that it could wash away the blood and guilty self-hate. Somehow, she had reached the part of himself that was Khuradasu and made such a profound change . . .
I am Khuradasu, he acknowledged silently, staring into mirror-image golden eyes. The only true divisions are the ones I’ve put in place. This is who and what I am.
With the thought, Khuradasu’s hazy form blurred and changed, somehow condensing itself down. Kara reached out automatically and caught the cherrywood sheath of his sword as it fell toward the grass; the familiar weight was comforting. There was something different, though.
A golden chain entwined the weapon, binding the grip and guard to the scabbard; Kara tried to draw the weapon, and found that he could not. When his fingers brushed the chain, he saw for a split second an image of wide, innocent eyes, a clueless smile . . .
The Wanderer. What he held was an all-too-vivid reflection of what he had done to himself—using the harmless act of the Wanderer to bind up that part of him that was Khuradasu, to render it incapable of hurting anyone.
Or helping anyone.
“Well, now,” Verku sneered, “looks like the pathetic kit’s finally remembered he’s got fangs.” The Wolf Spirit smirked, settling his powerful, muscular form into a charging stance. “But you hate those fangs so much you’ll refuse to use them.”
Kara’s grip tightened on the elegant weapon. Verku was correct. This wasn’t his edgeless sword despite its appearance; this blade was keen, sharp, and entirely capable of killing. But if he didn’t loosen the chain and draw it, he would possibly lose his life and certainly lose his true love. There was no doubt in his mind that Verku was quite sincere about taking Jurnia away from him.
This is what I always truly have been, the vulpine-featured warrior heard that part of him called Khuradasu murmur within, not a monster but only a tool of your will. I am merely the blade. You have always been the living essence of the sword.
The Soul of the Sword. It was the literal meaning of his name, and took on a deeper significance in that moment. The Wolf-lord’s taunting words rang in his ears and Kara realized the menacing totem was correct. “No more,” Kara panted, lifting his gaze up to meet the threat of the lupine totem.
The golden chain wrapped tightly around the sword loosened enough to fall past the hilt and guard, freeing the sword. His breathing slowing down, steadying, Kara finally found his focus as all he’d separated from himself as “Khuradasu” flooded back into its proper place. His rage and his desire to protect his mate and himself were no longer an unchanneled storm within, but now a well of strength and potential from which to draw.
With a faint whisper of sound, clothing formed itself around him—the red shirt, brown trousers, and vivid yellow sash of the Ruby Dragon Army. Kara straightened, sliding the chain-wrapped sheath through his sash and gripping it confidently in his off hand while the right tightened its grip on the hilt.
“Hrmph. Pathetic hypocrite. Yapping kit,” Verku spat. Crimson light coalesced around him, solidifying into a sheathed sword every bit as fine and elegant as the one at his Lopayzom opponent’s side. “Let’s see just how good you truly are, hm?” He drew his weapon and charged.
The answer seemed to be “better than you expected”. Kara’s sword whistled out of its sheath to meet Verku’s attack with a clear, bell-like ring. All of the coordination, speed, and power that had made Kara such a fearsome opponent on a battlefield had returned, and he was meeting the Wolf Spirit on equal terms now.
Lopayzu had prepared him for this during the time he’d spent here, learning from the Fox-lord; Jurnia, unknowingly, had prepared Khuradasu with her acceptance and love. The fusion of his fractured self was clean, no traces of guilt or fear marring or weakening it. At long last, Kara accepted what he was, and that gave him strength that he had never thought himself able to achieve. Verku was a warrior of vast prowess, but he was facing an opponent who fought to protect something dearly cherished. The music of steel on steel became a rippling cascade of sound, shards of light flashing over the trampled grass.
It was both beautiful and terrible to watch—a dance of breathtaking grace and power, yet the hurricane of sharpened steel threatened death in the midst of the dance. Jurnia’s knuckles shone white beneath the skin as she clutched the bars with both hands, her mouth stone-dry as she watched. Unable to break through Kara’s defense, Verku fell back a few steps, readying himself for a lunge. The vulpine-eared warrior drew back as well, unblinking, never taking his eyes off his opponent.
They passed each other in a near-blur of speed, and the clash of metal was almost painfully sharp. The sound ended in a sort of snapping twang, and half of Verku’s blade spun away, scything a lock of the Wolf’s hair off as it went past him to bury itself in a tree. He glared briefly at the broken-off weapon in his fist, then threw it like a spear at his younger opponent. Refusing to move his sword and give the Wolf Spirit an opening, Kara slapped the shattered sword aside with his left hand. Crimson stained the skin as Verku charged, once again bare-handed.
It would have worked before, but the Wolf was suddenly on the receiving end of a harsh lesson—that to close into fist-fighting range with someone as skilled as Kara brandishing a sword was an exceedingly bad idea. A slash nearly took off one lupine ear; another opened a long slice across the Wolf’s chest; a thrust bit into the meaty part of his shoulder. He couldn’t smack Kara, not with the young Fox defending himself with a wall of razor-edged steel and striking out from behind it with pinpoint accuracy.
Verku touched one ear and glared at the dark blood that marked his fingers. Old-amber eyes narrowed in displeasure before the Wolf-lord roared and leapt forward. Even now, Kara felt no desire to kill. The young Lopayzom was in control of the fight; there was no need to kill. And despite what he had always believed about Khuradasu, he sensed no want or need to slay from the shining blade he held. Kara stopped, perfectly still, blade ready. At the last second, there was a flash of metal as he deftly flipped the weapon over in his hands and struck in the same motion.
The sound of the pommel hitting Verku between and slightly below the eyes was reminiscent of someone kicking a coconut, accompanied by a distinct cracking-popping noise.
The Wolf-lord sat down very hard in his tracks, both hands coming up to his face. He blinked, dazed, as blood started to trickle out of his nose, which had a distinct bend in the bridge of it. He didn’t have time to recover from his surprise; Kara’s kick landed squarely in the middle of his chest, and he pitched over backward as the Fox dropped down on him.
“Do you yield?” Kara whispered, the edge of his sword hovering at Verku’s windpipe. Dark gold eyes glared back at him for a moment before Verku lifted his chin up and slightly to one side, wordlessly exposing his throat.
For a moment, it seemed as if all of this part of Heaven held its breath, waiting. One of the most powerful totems lay bested by a mortal’s spirit, submissive with throat bared to a keen, deadly blade. If there would be any time the monstrous sword Kara had always believed “Khuradasu” to be would thirst for blood and strike on its own, it would be now. But the sword remained only a sword, a mere tool like any other blade.
The smaller man nodded a little. The conflict was settled, and the Wolf Spirit could be trusted to honor the outcome. Kara gracefully rose and stepped away, then offered a hand to help Verku up. Ignoring the other’s gesture, the Wolf-lord rose easily; he brushed dust from his clothes and smoothed his hair within a sort of self-absorbed wall of dignity. He touched his nose gingerly, then put his thumb against the outer curve of the bend and pushed. There was a crunching noise that made Jurnia wince, but Verku’s nose was straight again—albeit somewhat red and puffy.
“I suppose you’ll do after all,” the Wolf said in tones of unconcerned loftiness—marred only a little by the damage to his face, which added an entertaining nasal note. As he turned to walk away, only the swishing of his tail indicated any irritation whatsoever.
“Where are you going?” Jurnia shrieked, yanking at the cage bars. “Wait a minute, you mangy, moon-loving, flea-bitten, walking fur rug! You can’t just leave me in here! Kara won!”
Verku halted mid-stride. “I must be imagining things. I could have sworn I heard the sweet song of a bird in a gilded cage,” he exaggeratingly mused, the tone of his temporarily-nasal voice one of deep sarcasm; it was obvious the words “sweet song of a bird” really meant “annoying caw of a crow”. He looked over his shoulder, fixing Kara with his dark-amber gaze. “A shame, really. I see why you consider her worth defending.”
“Stop ignoring me and get me out of here!” the dark-cloaked Kaykolom demanded while again yanking fruitlessly against the unyielding iron.
“She’s very beautiful when her feathers are all a-ruffle,” Verku stated, fangs showing in a lupine grin.
Kara’s cheeks reddened in a blush. Unable to deny the truth of the Wolf Spirit’s observation, the Lopayzom flicked back his fox’s ears and said, “She’s got a point. You really should release her.”
“Oh, very well,” Verku sighed in mock exasperation, “if I must.” He shifted his gaze forward again, then casually waved a hand. The bars faded away, leaving Jurnia clutching twin handfuls of thin air.
“You weren’t serious about this,” she said in a tone that was half question and half statement.
“If you say so.” Verku flicked his ears in a sort of lupine smirk before strolling away, ignoring the irate stare that Jurnia was burning into his back.
“The nerve of him!” the young woman growled, still glaring as she rose to her feet and shook the feathered cloak smooth. Then she turned her attention to Kara, who stood nearby with the sword in one hand and the sheath in the other. Once the Wolf-lord began stalking away, the vulpine-featured redhead had turned his gaze to the objects in his hands. The golden chain entwining the sheath shone warmly in the sunlight; the sword was breathtaking, flawless. She’d never seen a sword so perfect, a work of art that was still unmistakably a weapon of war. “Kara? Are you all right?” She reached out hesitantly to touch his shoulder.
Such a simple question, but so hard to answer in that moment. For the first time in a very long time, he was whole, accepting as himself all he was. “I’m fine,” he murmured, his voice lost in wonder. Though he ached all over and every breath hurt from the beating he’d taken, the pain paled in comparison to the sense of well-being that embraced him. He lifted the chain-enshrouded sheath slightly. “What remains of my childhood innocence, my maturity and the expectations and responsibilities I have as a member of society,” he explained; as he spoke the words, the objects in his left hand faded away. Only the faintest image remained behind of the Wanderer lying asleep or dead on the grass before Kara.
The Lopayzom frowned slightly, aware of a sense of loss. Even knowing they were only parts of himself, he’d come to see them as also somehow their own identity, like the invisible friends that children create. In claiming them, they would be forever gone. No, only in that manner. It’s long past time I met life on my own.
He stared next at the sword; even now the blade remained clean and bright, unstained though it had recently drawn blood. “And my strength of will, my passion, my skill as a swordsman and a warrior.” Like its companion, the weapon dissolved with the words. The ghostly image of Khuradasu appeared next to that of the Wanderer, as still and inert as the other form.
Jurnia was astonished to hear herself give a tiny little sob, low in her throat, as her eyes clouded with tears.
“Jurnia? What’s wrong?” Kara looked at her, startled by the sound and the sight of her too-bright eyes.
“I . . . it’s just . . .” She stared down at the faint images lying on the soft grass. “I’ve always known they were both part of you, but lately . . . while you’ve been . . . away, they’ve been with me. Keeping me company. This is for the best, but it . . . it feels like . . . losing them.” She rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes. “Doesn’t that sound stupid?”
He turned, putting his arms around her, gathering her against him for a comforting embrace. He nuzzled against her cheek; her presence helped ease the sense of loss he felt seeing the inert ghosts lying there. “No. I feel . . . much the same way.” After all that’s happened, it seems like a shame that their only fate is oblivion.
“It doesn’t have to be that way.” Again, a voice from behind them—but at least this time, it was familiar and unthreatening.
Lopayzu, wearing elaborate, formal Court clothing, stepped up to stand beside them, looking down at the two translucent shapes on the ground. He indicated them with one elegant hand. “This was an unexpected development, but not exactly an unwelcome one. By claiming them, they should have disappeared completely, but it seems something outside of you yet remains.”
Kara frowned, puzzled, then glanced back at the translucent forms. “I don’t understand how . . .”
“Well, apparently you’ve kept these two aspects of yourself separate in your mind for so long that when you came to Heaven, they were left behind to deal with the world,” Lopayzu began.
Jurnia eyed the Fox Spirit, tempted to point out that he had expected that part, but opting not to do so. He probably had some reason not to explain it to Kara.
“The Warrior and the Wanderer came to realize that some semblance of you was needed—both by the clan and by your wife—so they did what they could to live your life for you, not knowing if you would ever return or if they had been abandoned to their own devices. As a result, they began to gain a unique life force of their own.”
A solemn expression on his handsome face, Lopayzu stretched out one hand, palm-up. The two forms on the grass thinned, fading further, becoming a misty glow; then they coalesced into a pair of faint stars—one red-orange, the other a soft sunlit yellow, rather like an ember’s final spark before fading out of existence. Yet these “embers” of existence drifted over to the Fox-lord. He caught them protectively between his hands. “There are truly only two choices, Karavasu: let them fade away, or let them grow into full souls of their own.”
Kara stared at the tiny firefly glows that flickered in the shadow of the Fox’s hands. “I . . . would like them to be able to exist separate from me, if that is possible. To have real lives.” Beside him, Jurnia nodded in agreement.
“It’s possible, Kara. They could be born into the Lopayzom clan—as twins, of course, as they’re so accustomed to being together.”
Jurnia gave him a long stare. “Born how?”
“I thought you’d at least know the mechanics of it. Heaven knows you’ve practiced them almost religiously. All right, conception is—”
“You know what I mean!” she flared.
Lopayzu grinned at her. “They’d be your sons, obviously.” He watched Jurnia turn slowly red, and added, “But all they would ever recall would be a deep connection to their father and a deep love for their mother, devoid of any carnal overtones. All their memories rightly belong to Kara, after all.”
“I’d like them to have a chance to truly experience life for themselves,” Kara murmured. “I can’t think of a better reward, and the thought of just casting aside those tiny sparks seems too cruel to me.”
“Done, then.” Lopayzu lifted his hands to his face and exhaled gently, as one would do to stir up a banked fire. The motes of light brightened and grew, no longer seeming faint and on the brink of extinction, until they were intense enough to cast faint yellow and orange-red glows on the Fox Spirit’s skin. When he opened his palms, the twin lights spiraled up, flitting over to circle Kara briefly, then moving on to orbit around Jurnia like besotted fireflies. With a hiccupping little laugh, she raised her hands as Lopayzu had; the little flecks hovered over her palms, then dropped downward, making her skin glow briefly as they seemingly merged with her. She gasped, her skin tingling, and looked at Lopayzu questioningly.
“They’ll be safe where they are,” he said calmly, patting her shoulder. “When you’re ready, they’ll be the new life you carry—and part of the brighter future I see for our clan.” He smiled at the married couple standing before him for a long moment. Then the Fox-lord’s expression turned sober once more. “One question now remains, another choice you must decide since you do have free will as mortals.”
“What choice is that?” Kara asked, arm tightening protectively around the feather-cloaked figure of his wife. Red vulpine ears flicked back as his tail swished in mild agitation.
“What will you remember of this, especially the origin of your sons’ souls?” Lopayzu queried. “All of this, and one day letting slip to them that they were once pieces of you that Jurnia especially got to know so well?”
Kara would have asked what he meant by that, but a glance at his wife’s suddenly scarlet face suggested that it was a question better left unasked, at least for the time being.
“Perhaps some of this, as if a dream, and the details hazy? Or none of this consciously, only on the level of the soul, and only there would you know the truth of your sons’ origin?”
Jurnia bit her lip and looked uncertainly at Kara. “I . . . I don’t know.”
Kara looked thoughtfully at Jurnia’s palms, as if he could still see the tiny sparks. “I think that perhaps having it remembered as a dream might be the best idea. Having some knowledge of it would make their births even more joyful as a reunion of sorts, but knowing too much of it might only be disturbing or worse, if we told them. At least this way, we’d know something but consider it the result of a wild imagination.”
Lopayzu smiled faintly as Jurnia nodded in agreement. “Very well. When you leave this place, the knowledge of this will fade. The other lessons will remain, though—they’re far too important to lose.
“As for Kara’s odd behavior of late, it will all seem merely the result of the head injury. Is that acceptable?”
“Yes!” Jurnia responded as her husband nodded in agreement. “So we can go now?” she inquired eagerly. Her face lit up as Lopayzu nodded his head slightly.
“I have one last gift for each of you.” As the two young souls stared at him in surprise, Lopayzu held out a hand to each of them. Golden light shimmered, then solidified into a pair of weapons. The one near Kara was a short sword made to look just like the edgeless weapon waiting back home for its owner; the sheath and hilt were smooth, polished cherrywood and gold glimmered at guard and ends. To Jurnia was offered what appeared to be a Herald’s traditional wooden sword branded with the insignia of the Lopayzom. Faintly, though, she could see a line in the wood where hilt and “blade” were separate; Herald’s swords were supposed to be of one piece save for the guard. “A time is coming when we gods can only observe, and I see a storm on the horizon. This is why I brought you here, Kara, in order to lay the foundation of a sword-art even stronger than before.”
They both tugged open their gifts; the gleam of an unearthly bright steel along a keen edge greeted their sight. Both stared up at Lopayzu, startled, puzzled.
“Foxes of either sex have sharp teeth with which to defend themselves. I fear a time when the office of Herald is no longer respected, and so choose to give mine the right to shed blood if needed. As for your oath, Kara, accepting yourself and this blade still will not violate the spirit of it. Carry the edgeless sword in honor of the oath, but carry this as well for those times when the taking of human life becomes necessary.”
“So that’s why you focused so much on two-handed techniques with a long sword in the right and a short sword in the left,” the orange-haired warrior murmured, slipping the smooth sheath under his sash.
“Yes. And now . . .” The Fox-lord closed the distance between them. Resting a hand on each one’s shoulder, he murmured, “Sleep. When you awaken next, you will be home in your bodies in the mortal realm, and this but a vivid dream . . .”
Kara suddenly yawned, his eyes wanting very much to close. Every breath remained painful, and he still ached all over—especially his upper left arm—but sleep tugged at him like the cure to all his ills. With the help of Lopayzu and an equally sleepy Jurnia, the orange-haired warrior stumbled over to the pile of fluffy, soft pillows. He stretched out on them, sighing happily. For her part, Jurnia knew her husband was hurt, and she wanted desperately to heal him, but she was just too sleepy to do so; she knew, also, that the spirit damage should not carry over into the mortal realm.
The young couple quickly succumbed to the overwhelming impulse imposed upon them by the Fox Spirit. A faint smile on his handsome face, Lopayzu watched in satisfaction as the two slumbered in one another’s embrace, Jurnia’s cloak tucked around them. Nor did the Fox-lord stir as a shadow fell across him; a new presence appeared from seemingly nowhere to stare down at the couple with black-irised eyes.
The newcomer was as tall as Lopayzu, but somber where the Fox was merry. A large, pointed, wide-brimmed hat—said brim narrowed in the front to form a slightly curved, beak-like point—obscured the dark-clad spirit’s handsome features, and a voluminous, floor-length cloak made entirely of raven feathers covered the whole of his form. Under the hat and across his shoulders tumbled locks of wavy, gloss-black hair that fell to the middle of his back, while the hilt of an apparent longsword poked out from under the cloak just to the left of the nape of his neck.
“She’s quite the work of art,” Lopayzu said.
“Of course,” the somber totem replied. He stared down at the couple for a moment more before adding, “As is he, now that he’s finally accepted himself.”
“Do you find him worthy at last, Kaykolu?”
The Raven-lord faintly smirked. “My opinion never mattered. She did as she chose. I warned her in what limited ways I could, but she never did listen to me or to her mortal sire. But she is truly happy. I am at peace with the result.” There passed another long pause before Kaykolu broke the silence again. “A bit desperate of you, was it not, to ask for Verku’s assistance?”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Lopayzu replied, sounding a bit defensive.
With the coming of dawn and the morning calls of the birds, amber eyes opened slowly. For some reason Kara expected his breathing to hurt, but he was pleasantly surprised to find it was as easy as ever. All that seemed wrong was a bit of a headache and a pressing need to relieve himself.
Headache? he questioned while pushing himself upright in bed. Wait, that’s right . . . I thought I saw something on the road in the storm, drew my sword, and that’s when Tarb spooked and threw me. I don’t clearly remember anything else, so I must have hit my head when I landed. He reached up and massaged his temples for a moment, gathering a bit of Avatar focus to try to will the throbbing ache away. There was an odd scent in the air—not unpleasant, just odd, a sort of thick sweet fragrance reminiscent of sandalwood and pine.
Jurnia shifted beside him, murmuring something indistinct. Her slender arms reached up, nudging his hands aside to touch the sides of his head as she sleepily focused herself. The warm ripple of healing power moved over and through him, erasing the discomfort, and her hands slid lightly down his chest as she relaxed back into the tumbled covers.
He looked down at her fondly, smoothing her dark hair back from her forehead and closed eyes, and blushed a bit as he realized that she was completely naked—just as he was. Looking around, he finally located their sleeping robes, which lay in two different places on the floor next to the bed as if they’d been removed and discarded without a thought to neatness. The rumpled sheets and haphazardly strewn pillows indicated that a certain amount of activity had taken place in the bed. His blush deepened as hazy memories filled his head, of his being somehow stuck in the mind-set of the warrior while trying very hard to just be himself while making his wife writhe and moan in pleasure. Or stuck as the innocent, harmless wanderer, content just to cuddle up to Jurnia and shower her with gentle affection.
Odd indeed had been the past few days. His memories were hazy, indistinct, but always filtered through either the warrior or the wanderer masks he showed the world, while at night he dreamed of being taught swordplay by the Fox Spirit himself. Now, however, whatever effect the head injury had had upon him seemed to be gone. His thoughts were clear and sharp; he felt as if he were finally truly awake.
Kara softly groaned as he climbed out of bed. Stretching a moment, he then leaned over and grabbed his sleeping robe from where it lay crumpled on the floor. The servants should be stirring as well, and he wasn’t inclined to be showing off his nudity to them even by accident. He was shrugging into the soft silk when something lying on the end-table near the bed caught his eye. Startled, he felt a bit lightheaded as he gazed upon the two weapons there. One was a short sword made to look like a smaller version of the edgeless blade leaning against the wall in its customary place. The other was a Lopayzom-marked Herald’s wooden sword; somehow he knew without handling it that it held a concealed blade every bit as deadly as the cherrywood-sheathed weapon lying next to it. Beside the weapons, a small brass incense dish still held powdery ash, the source of the scent he had noticed.
“Kara?” Jurnia murmured drowsily, turning over, running a hand over the empty sheets beside her with a discontented sigh. She opened her eyes, yawning softly, and smiled at him as she stretched. “Is it morning already?” She glanced absently at the small table, noting that the incense had burned itself out. Surely the stuff had worked, loosening her spirit from its mortal encasement, but she was having difficulty remembering just what had happened after she and Khuradasu collapsed in pleasant exhaustion.
“Yes, that it is, beloved,” responded her husband. He turned and faced her, a smile on his face.
For a heartbeat she felt a sense of deep disappointment; it seemed as if the silly Wanderer faced her once again in one of the few times he’d been granted control. But then she flicked her gaze up to her husband’s amber eyes.
They were different, somehow, even different than she remembered them being before the accident on the road. It somehow seemed as if both the Wanderer’s sunshine and Khuradasu’s steel stared back at her at the same time, with no shadow of self-loathing in their depths.
Kara’s smile faltered in the face of Jurnia’s prolonged, wondering stare. Puzzled and a bit alarmed, he knelt down on the edge of the bed in front of her. “Are you all right? Is something the matter?”
She reached up to touch his cheek softly. “Are you all right?”