"I seek the essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood"

Prologue

"Turn them over, please," the first man said.

At a signal from the second man, the creatures were rolled onto their backs, their limbs dropping heavily to the floor as their unconscious bodies settled into the new position. The first man moved closer to look them over more carefully. He could detect no aspect artifice or illusion about them. They seemed like real, natural creatures. Something inside him stirred ravenously. Every trader longed for an acquisition like this; none so far had ever procured one. But he kept his voice carefully even, his manner appraising. "May I ask how you acquired them? Second Earth is so tightly warded."

"Actually, they are native to this world," said the second man.

"Really?" The first man's carefully neutral expression broke just enough for his eyebrows to shoot up a little in surprise. "I didn't think there were such creatures in this world."

"As far as I know - and I know a good deal - there are only six of their kind in the entire world. You see before you two of them."

"Ah. If only six, then how…" the first man let his voice trail off, leaving the many obvious questions hanging in the air.

"They were once animals. They were exposed to a –" the second man searched for a word that the other's unsophisticated mind could comprehend, "a potion, which gave them human characteristics."

"A potion," the first man repeated flatly, not bothering to hide his skepticism. His mind automatically began to look for a catch. He could think of no reason why the other would try to swindle him, yet still…A lifetime of being only as honest as his fortunes allowed him to be, and fortune had not always favored him, had made him watchful for dishonesty in others. He gave a gentle, patronizing smile. "I know of no potion even in my own world that could change an animal into this. I wonder how someone from this world, with it's…er…limited understanding of sorcery…could accomplish it."

The second man's voice was scrupulously polite, but his eyes turned as cold as a grave. "You are correct, it was not actually a potion. It was substance called a mutagen, a matter of science in my world. I merely used the word 'potion' to accommodate your… er…limited understanding of technology."

There was silence for a moment as they gazed at each other, each man quickly running through the various methods he could use to break the other's arrogance. If only they each weren't so profitable for the other. The first man suddenly smiled again, magnanimous, conciliatory. "Ah, well, what does it matter? I can tell my clients they came from Second Earth for simplicity's sake, and none will be the wiser."

"Then I take it you're interested in their purchase?"

Interested? He coveted them like a man would covet another's lover. The price for exotics like this would no doubt be high, but they would be worth a small fortune in his world. He only hoped he had brought enough currency to settle the deal today. "Well," he said, pretending to think it over, "if we can settle on a price, I'll take them both."

The second man bowed slightly. "You have always been a most exemplary client, I will give you an exceptionally fair price."

"You are most kind," said the first man, returning the bow. "If they can be prepared for shipping, I'll take them off your hands when I depart."

"As you wish. Come to my office and we can settle the details." The second man paused for a moment before leaving the room, as if debating whether or not to say something. "A word of advice," he said at last. "Keep them tightly bound, and keep them weak. These creatures are fast and powerful, and they have near human intelligence…and they will be desperate." He paused again, looking them over thoughtfully. Then he added, "The one in red is especially vicious."