Silvery moonlight streamed through the dark canopy onto the tall standing stone. Sculpted wood and earthwork shelters were silhouetted a short distance away, marked with many of the same mystical sigils as the stone at the broad clearing's center. A Druidic Grove.

By the standing stone waited a lone figure, the long dark robes of his office shifting in the nighttime breeze. He sighed heavily and glanced over his shoulder. "I know you're there, Atela."

The large felinoid melted from the shadows. Her black-striped white fur practically glowed in the pale illumination, interrupted only by the tight halter and loincloth she wore. She narrowed emerald eyes at him. "How'd you know it was me, Kren? A buck in his prime shouldn't have noticed me there."

"As you should know, initiate, our magic makes us one with the earth and grass. Unless you can learn to walk on air, I will always be able to feel you approach."

Atela crossed her arms and grumped. "You are no fun."

"We are not here for fun. Report."

She tapered her triangular ears back. "He's dead. I'm not sure what the hell got to him in that benighted place, but I heard his scream suddenly cut short, smelled his blood-lots of it. He lasted a little longer than the other, but he's dead all the same. Murgen and Wiam with him."

Kren rubbed the bridge of his nose in irritation. "As I expected. The Council will just send another and he, too, will end up just as dead. I only hope more of our foolish brethren don't end up dying with him."

"Is there anything we can do? Talk to Elrohir again, maybe?"

Kren's eyes gleamed angrily in the moonlight as his hood shadowed his features. "For all the good that would do. But it will take time for the Council to realize their Envoy is dead. Hm. On the next full moon, go to Linden and intercept whoever they send and tell them that all is in order, that their druid died exposing the danger, which we have taken care of."

Atela's long striped tail twitched side to side. "Could we not just..."

His hand slashed the space between them. "No! Do as I say, initiate! You cannot speak of what you know without courting death. Go to Linden to wait for the Council's new Envoy. Send them away if you can, and then return."

The large felinoid sucked her lip, searching into the night for something, perhaps an answer to the peril the Grove faced she could not quite see. Her eyes turned only briefly, fearfully, to the south, where just two dozen miles away awaited a nightmare she could not bear to even try to comprehend. "And if they refuse to leave?"

"Death."

The young Drow woman grumbled under her loose head wrappings at the sunlight slanting through the window shutters. The veil concealing her dark featured puffed with impatient breath. "That damned orb. When is it going to set?"

"Patience, daughter," Vinlesu said. "You should be like Pokra. He's adapted to the sunlight very well."

Upon hearing his name, the small Wyvern hatchling squawked and lazily flapped down from the ceiling rafters to alight on Angjra's slender shoulders, hoping for attention and maybe a treat. The young Drow nuzzled affectionately at the green winged lizard, giving him a small morsel of dried meat from her pocket. "Well, wyverns are stupid that way," Angjra said as she cooed playfully at her pet.

Vinlesu frowned and looked about the tavern while her daughter tended to her pet. Going by the unusual name of the Laughing Spider, the establishment was a fair size larger than the small hovel of an inn they were currently sleeping away the days in. But they couldn't expect any better accommodations. In the surface settlement of Linden, a walled town in the heavily-forested no-man's land between the two human kingdoms of Kasono and Arin, non-humans outside of the local clans of prissy Wood Elves were uniformly looked upon with suspicion.

Still, Linden was better than most. It was one of the few surface settlements that tolerated open trade with the Dark Kingdoms. Technically the town currently belonged to the kingdom of Kasono, but it switched ownership so much between Kasono's and Arin's frequent wars that most residents simply though of Linden as independent. It helped as well that there was a large, independent order of powerful Druids active in the area which usually kept major trouble-like invading armies-far away from the vast forest Linden was nestled in.

Vinlesu and her daughter had traveled with a trade caravan sponsored by the House Auvryant, carrying primarily spider silk, which was highly prized in the surface kingdoms for its strength and flexibility. Vinlesu had decided she and Angjra would stay behind when the caravan headed back to the Dark Kingdoms, to give her daughter a better education about surface peoples.

The elder Drow regarded her daughter's little winged creature. "Of the three of us, Pokra is the one who adapted to take advantage of his new surroundings the quickest. Who are the stupid ones here?"

Angjra rolled her dark eyes. "Mother, must you turn everything into a lesson?"

"If you were not so slow to learn, I would not need to. You do understand that Pokra himself is a lesson, yes?"

Angjra heaved the universal sigh of a martyred daughter. "'A lesson in mortality' you told me when you gave him to me. I still don't understand what he is supposed to teach me. Wyverns live twenty years or so. A long time."

Vinlesu shook her head. "It only seems long because you are young yet, a mere ninety nine years. But you must realize that as Drow we outlive all others on this world except the mongrel surface elves. This can be a source of strength for us, but like with all true strength it is only gained at a price."

Eight loud and boisterous human males burst suddenly into the tavern, interrupting her words. A number of them rewarded the Drow with hostile stares, but gave them no further notice as they settled into a large table not too far away.

"Let's move to somewhere...quieter," Vinlesu advised. Angjra flashed her eyes angrily at the humans, but moved obediently with her mother as they grabbed their drinks and gravitated toward the more sparsely-populated back end of the tavern room. They stopped at the bar to let the barkeep fetch them some stew and wine, and sat near a large female felinoid greedily shoveling her own helping of the stew into her mouth.

The felinoid looked up, her long tongue licking her chops. She spotted the two Drow and gestured at the empty bench at her table. "Tales and laughter are always welcome," the large female said with a toothy smile.

Vinlesu nodded at the time-honored tavern-greeting. Taverns in surface towns were usually considered neutral ground between races and factions. It wasn't uncommon for travelers from disparate backgrounds to exchange the two favored modes of exchange in taverns-stories and dirty jokes.

"Atela," the felinoid said by way of introduction as the Drow sat down and began eating.

"I am Vinlesu of the House Auvryant, and this is my daughter, Angjra of the House Auvryant." The younger Drow barely tipped her veiled head in acknowledgement, loosing a faint sniffle of haughty disdain. Vinlesu frowned but said nothing. In the Dark Kingdoms, in their own realms, such a response would be appropriate and even encouraged. But here on the surface, surrounded by many potential enemies, they had to show better restraint than that. Still, that was a reprimand for another time. She knew better than to lecture her daughter too much in a single day.

After the meal, the three females sipped their drinks, the baby wyvern lapping greedily at the empty wooden bowls. To Vinlesu's surprise, the large white-striped felinoid began purring.

"So what brings you to Linden, Atela?" Vinlesu asked.

"I'm here to meet with a representative of the Council of Druids. Their official Envoy, as a matter of fact. I'm to escort her to our Grove."

Angjra sniffed. "A nature worshipper!"

Atela tapered her high triangular back, her brows creasing. "Something wrong, night-skin?"

"It just seems to me a foolish path of magic. My mother here is a real sorceress, a necromancer..."

Atela's brow's shot high, then turned to Vinlesu and bowed in her chair. "I was unaware. I greet you with respect, Death-worker."

Vinlesu returned the bow. "As I you, Life-worker."

Angjra seemed incensed. "Mother!" How can you pay respect to..."

The cat-woman just shook her head and chuckled. "It's obvious that you don't follow in your mother's path of magic. If you did, you would know of druids and necromancers."

Before anyone could explain further, shouts and commotion drew their attention to the front of the room. The large group of human men had trapped one of the establishment's serving girls and was bending her over one of the room's rough-hewn wooden tables. A man on each of her arms held her down flat to the table, while the largest of them, a spectacularly hairy bear of a man, stood behind her. He lifted her long skirt and ran his hands along her exposed flesh, like a horse trader inspecting a prospective mount. The girl wept and begged, but there was little mercy in the men's hard eyes.

"I hope that sort of thing isn't common here," Angjra remarked. "I'll have a hard enough time holding down that coarse stew without watching humans rut..."

"I recognize that gang of pigs," Atela said. "Jorton and his toadies. They run a local 'protection' business, if you know what I mean. They tried something with me once, but I just smiled at them." She grinned broadly, showing off a mouth full of angular predator's teeth.

Vinlesu notices that despite the words of disdain, her daughter was drilling the proceedings with increasingly angry eyes. No doubt reliving in her mind the near-incident with her own father. But no matter what, they could not interfere. No matter how odious this Jorton and his gang may be, no one in authority in this town would choose to punish humans over a pair of alien Drow.

The barkeep, no small man himself, was trying to interfere, but he was just shoved back out of the way. He glowered, fists clenched, but ultimately could only back down before the wall of muscle formed by the five remaining men in the gang not engaged with the girl.

The leader of the men jimmied loose his breeches. The girl sobbed loudly as he spread her legs from behind and poised himself to enter.

Suddenly, impossibly, the leg of the table gave a loud tortured groan and shot up from between the girl's legs, slamming the man joltingly in his low-hanging sack like a sledgehammer.

The hairy man staggered back, his howl of shock quickly collapsing into a breathless mouse-squeak as the pain hit. He crumpled to the floorboards like a felled tree, hands on his groin, tears streaming down ruddy cheeks.

The table bucked and twisted like a wild horse, its surface flowing like water and its legs writhing like tentacles. The girl and her captors alike shrieked in terror. The men were thrown clear as the edges of the table snapped up, forming a shallow cup to trap the girl. As soon as the males were clear, the table ran toward the back of the tavern with its sobbing and confused passenger, toward the waiting innkeeper.

"You scum touch that girl again and I'll send you all howling into the next Path!" A pale-skinned elf woman, dressed in Druid's robes and carrying an intricately-carved staff, stood in the doorway. She threw the heavy hood of her gray robes back, prominently displaying the crest on her lapel.

"Aw, crap, a Druid!" one of the men said, obviously disappointed that their 'game' may be at an end.

"No wait!" another exclaimed. "Look at her crest! She isn't a local! We don't have to take her shit!"

Angjra laughed quietly. "Ha! Now this is much more entertaining! Eh, mother?" She saw Vinlesu's eyes widen in shock. "Mother?"

Vinlesu's breath caught in her throat, her eyes drilling the elf woman at the doorway. "Hilfy!" she whispered.

It was Angjra's turn to look shocked now as she looked from her mother to the elven druid and back again. She had heard of the Hilfy, of course. Her grandmother and a few of the long-serving elf slaves of the House had readily told the young Drow the story of her mother's great forbidden love. "That's Hilfy?" she whispered, confused. Wasn't Hilfy supposed to be dead?

The elf woman looked small compared to the tall human males, barely topping their shoulders. She had long flame-red hair tied back in two functional-looking braids. As she looked warily at her half-circle of opponents, Angjra could see that her right ear held three silver studs, marking her as a Drow slave-or former slave, in this case. In her left ear was an emerald-studded circlet that could be the ring mentioned in her grandmother's story, as well as golden circlet attached to it by a silver chain.

Atela sighed and shot to her feet. "The Envoy! Damn, looks like I'll have to bail that fool out. Thanks for the company," she told the two Drow. Without another word, she leapt up onto the table, sending the bowls and drinks clattering everywhere, and crouched very much like a real cat. Pokra, working steadily at the last bowl, squawked in annoyance. With a very feral snarl Atela launched herself onto the back of the closest of the gang, snapping and clawing through cloth and flesh alike.

Pure chaos erupted in the tavern after that, weapons and fists swinging, people shouting and scrambling to get out of the way.

"We have to help!" Vinlesu said, pulling her own weapons.

Angjra just nodded and smiled wickedly. Twin battle knives ghosted into her hands from seeming nowhere. Angjra had definitely inherited her father's talent with weapons.

"No killing!" Vinlesu admonished. "We kill, we bring the town guards down on us. We don't want that. Understand?"

Her daughter grumped, but nodded a split-second before she waded into the melee.

Jorton's men turned out to be more than the quick exercise Vinlesu had hoped they would be. Running a protection racket in a frontier town between two oft-warring nations required thugs who could frighten even hardened residents. The humans proved fierce and skilled fighters, and Vinlesu knew they were truly going to be trouble when she saw one gesticulating for a spell-casting.

Fortunately, Linden was in the middle of a lush forest, a source of power for a necromancer like her, though few outside her order would guess the reason why. It was one of those secrets every sorcerous order kept from the others, to gain whatever advantage they could.

The human spellcaster drew a portion of the central hearth fire up from its pit and shot it at Hilfy as a long sinuous tentacle of flame. Hilfy caught sight of it just in time. One of the small army of wooden chairs she had animated leapt up to intercept it. The splash of orange-red fire momentarily lit up the entire room.

The spell-caster was probably a fire-elementalist, then. Despite common wisdom, they were often welcome in forest settlements, their skills in controlling flame very useful in combating forest fires whenever they arose.

He readied another spell while one of his compatriots slashed a sword at Hilfy. Vinlesu had to act fast. She chanted a word of power, and outside dozens of birds and hundreds of insects fell from the sky, dead. The Drow sorceress pulled their life-force to her and used it to spark the spell she threw at the human wizard.

Blindsided and concentrating on his own spell, the human elementalist screamed and fell to his knees as his blood literally boiled in his veins for a brief heartbeat. Vinlesu couldn't let the spell last longer than that, for fear of killing him, but it was very pleasant to hear his choking screams of pure burning agony.

Sometimes the old cliches were best. Fight fire with...

Suddenly a large shadow loomed behind Angjra, who herself was smirking in triumph over one of the fallen thugs. Jorton, having recovered from his earlier blow, raised his meaty fists over the unknowing Drow.

Vinlesu was about to call a warning when a heavy earthenware pot slammed down on Jorton's head. Once again, the man crashed to the floor. Angjra turned to see the innkeeper grinning ear to ear with the jagged remnants of the jug in his meaty hands.

The serving girl the gang had tried to rape earlier emerged from behind the innkeeper, brandishing a heavy oak churning stick. She wasted no time in savaging her unconscious would-be attacker with it.

Vin looked around. The thugs were all down. The quartet of Druid and Drow females grinned at each other. They started as they heard a horn blow outside. Both Atela and the innkeeper cringed. "The city guard," the human said to Vinlesu. "You'd best go."

"You saved my daughter," she said. "We are in your debt."

"Mother!" Angjra spat, annoyed that her mother would say such a thing so casually to a human.

"Never mind that. Go!" he urged.

Vinlesu nodded and joined the other three women down the street just as a half dozen city guards descended on The Laughing Spider. Luckily they gave the foursome nothing more than a passing glance.

"Mother!" Angjra complained. "I cannot believe you offered your indebtedness to that...human." She said the last word like she was referring to a dung-worm.

She cut here eyes hard at her daughter and stalked up to her, snarling. "I did not offer my indebtedness, I offered yours! If you see that innkeeper or any of his family in trouble, you will help them in order to fulfill that debt! Just because we are on the surface among mongrel races does not mean you will not act like a Drow should! Understand?"

"But..."

Her eyes blazed through the small opening in her veil. "I said: Do. You. Understand?"

Her daughter set her lips defiantly for several heartbeats, but then heaved another of her martyr-like sighs. "Yes, Mother."

"Next time, fight better so you won't have to be saved by a human."

"That voice..." came a soft whisper. All three turned to regard Hilfy, looking askew at the veiled Drow woman. "Your daughter looks an awful lot like..."

Vinlesu heaved a sigh very much like her daughter's. She pulled down the veil, giving the Wood Elf a strained smile. "Yes, Pet. Its me. Vinlesu."

The four of them eventually made their way back to the traveler's Inn where it turned out Atela as well as the two Drow were staying, named the Moonlit Stable. It was a broad two-story affair attached to a large stable, and unlike the Laughing Spider it provided only utilitarian rooms to travelers, no food or drink or revelry would be found inside that guests did not bring themselves.

Hilfy was quiet most of the short walk, except to confirm that she was indeed the Envoy from the Council of Druids that Atela was to meet. She and the felinoid exchanged greetings courteously before the red haired Wood Elf segued into troubled silence again.

The felinoid was very talkative, however, recounting every gruesome detail in putting down two of their opponents. She hung closer to Angjra as she talked, clearly more comfortable around another warrior than the pair of experienced sorceresses. Angjra listened and even made some comments of her own, occasionally tending to the baby wyvern perched on her shoulder, the adrenaline rush of the fight still fresh in her.

Vinlesu could sense the almost palpable tension coming from Hilfy. What was going through her former body slave's mind? She had barely acknowledged Vinlesu's revelation outside of an initial stunned look and a curt nod.

When they reached the common room of the inn, thankfully mostly deserted except for a young boy sweeping up, Vinlesu tentatively laid a hand on Hilfy's arm. "Pet, maybe we should talk..."

Hilfy yanked her hand away and turned toward the Drow, her hand sweeping her robes wide. "Don't call me that! I haven't been your 'Pet' for a hundred years, Vinlesu!"

Vinlesu blinked, taken aback, and though she would never let it show, she was more than slightly hurt. "I did not mean it like that...Hilfy. Of course you're no longer my Pet."

The elven Druid crossed her arms tightly and harrumphed. Silence stretched.

Atela looked from one to the other, then tugged gently at Angjra's arm. "Come on, I have an aleskin in my room."

The younger Drow scrunched her nose at the invitation, but the felinoid just added, "There are some battles where you want an army at your back, and there are some battles that are best fought alone." She cast a meaningful glance at the past lovers.

Angjra thought it over, looking at the elder Drow herself. The tension building between her mother and Hilfy could be cleaved with an axe. "Um, perhaps you are right. I have been told I have to learn to get along with you surface-dwellers, so I might as well start with you. I guess."

"What of our business?" Hilfy asked the felinoid.

Atela shrugged her white-furred shoulders. "I imagine that can wait until morning, Envoy. I'll be on the second floor, in the room just to the right of the stairs." With that she led the younger Drow up the creaking wooden steps.

Silence stretched again. Vinlesu sighed. "Hilfy, I never expected to see you again."

The Druid thought about the words for several heartbeats, then threw her long braids back casually, her arms unlocking just slightly. "Or I you, Vinlesu," she sighed. "And I must admit I don't know what to say."

Vinlesu rubbed the nape of her dark neck, feeling the tension just building in her spine. There had been a time in her life when she'd fantasized about such a reunion almost daily, always envisioning it would be joyous, maybe even loving. Not this cold, sterile stand-off. Still, what did she expect? A century is a long time, even for elves. "We should go somewhere private to talk. My room perhaps?"

Hilfy tilted her head and frowned.

"Just to talk!" Vinlesu added hastily. "I swear, truly, that's all I want."

Her former body slave thought for a moment, then nodded.

Angjra slid down the rough wooden side of the Inn's outer wall after Atela. Having grown up in caves, Angjra was no stranger to climbing, but even she had been impressed at the Felinoid's casual ease at which she scaled to the ground.

The Drow initiate wiped her hands on her leggings as Pokra alighted himself on her shoulder and mewled softly. "I thought we were going to share a drink in your room," Angjra said.

The felinoid laughed and tossed Angjra a small aleskin after taking a swig from it herself. "Here you go. Actually, all I said was I had ale in my room, not that I wanted to stay there to drink it. Just an excuse to give your mom and the Envoy some room. It was obvious even to my addled kitty brain that they had something serious to sort out."

Angjra shrugged before cautiously taking a sip of the tepid brew. She winced at its acrid taste. "Hilfy was my mother's body slave for thirty years before I was born. I thought she had died killing my treacherous aunt."

"Body slave?"

"A special type of servant that satisfies an owner's sexual needs. They are fairly common among the elite houses, and are usually highly favored."

Atela laughed, snatching the ale back and taking another large drought from it. "Sounds very kinky. I wouldn't mind having some well-hardened males under me to ride whenever I wanted. Who knew you uptight Drow had fun that way?"

Angjra's cheeks burned. Ever since her near-rape by her father years ago, sex had been a subject she had studiously avoided, even when it brought snickers and cruel comments from her peers when they thought she was out of earshot. Not necessarily a bad kind of reputation for a future assassin to garner, but it still hurt nonetheless.

It was not as if she were asexual either. Often at night, in the furs of her own sleeping chambers, her mind would wander to boundless sensual fantasies as her fingers roamed over her most sensitive places. She could spend hours in the night before the wyverns called simply lost in ecstasy, roaming endlessly among her fantasies and caressing hands. But it was not a part of herself she was anxious to share. "We-we have fun a lot of ways," she found herself saying before she could stop herself.

Atela guffawed and batted her affectionately on her shoulder. "You're all right, night-skin. Look, I brought you out here for a reason. Want to make some money?"

Angjra perked her snowy brows up. The Matron of her house, her grandmother, had always taught not to let an opportunity for profit to go squandered. Too many great houses in the Dark Kingdoms had been undone not by machiavellian schemes or sorcerous intrigues, but by their own crushing debts. "I'm listening."

The felinoid smiled toothily and held out her furry hand. "Then I need all the silver and copper crowns you have."

Hilfy crossed her arms in a huff. "So talk."

Vinlesu frowned. Could nothing ever go easy? "I just want to know how you've been, Pe...Hilfy. I'm overjoyed to see you're doing so well. Envoy of the druidic order. I admit I was very afraid for you when you first escaped. The tunnel that I set you on was in a remote region both in the Dark Kingdoms and on the surface. And you had been sheltered for so long..."

"Is that what you call slavery now? Shelter?"

"That is not what I meant!"

Hilfy grumped, hunching her shoulders higher, until all at once she allowed them to droop, her demeanor relaxing. "I-I know, Vinlesu. I know. Its just taken me so long to put everything from that part of my life behind me."

Vinlesu blinked. "Every thing?"

The Wood Elf nodded. "Yes. I'm sorry. When I came back, I was quite a pariah for having been a Drow body slave. Few would talk to me or have anything to do with me. My old clan would not take me back. Thankfully the Druids were a bit more understanding, taking in such a used, unclean piece of trash like me."

"I tried to do right by you."

Hilfy sighed, long and heavy. "Yes you did...eventually. But I guess I can't blame you for acting like a Drow for so long. Might as well blame a dog for barking or a bird for flying."

Now Vinlesu could feel her own anger rising. "There is nothing wrong with being a Drow!"

Hilfy swept her hand angrily between them. "You Drow just take whatever you want, whenever you want it!"

"Well, I can remember a time you looked forward to that when you shared my bed!"

Hilfy opened her mouth for an angry retort, then shut it again as her cheeks burned bright red. The Druid shook her head. "Spirits, Vinlesu, what are we doing?"

The Drow sighed. "Taking a century's worth of hurt out on each other, it seems."

"Maybe. But I shouldn't be attacking you. You at least have a daughter and your family, still." She sat down heavily on the cot, hugging herself. "I have nothing, even after all this time."

After much self-conflicted hesitation, Vinlesu sat beside her. "No?"

Hilfy twiddled with her wooden staff idly. "My relationships have been one disaster after another. None seemed to last more than a few years. I tried a great many different partners, male and female, of many different races, but they all felt hollow. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn't make them work."

Vinlesu shrugged and tilted your head. "At least you tried. I've hardly had anyone since Angjra came into my life. It just wasn't the same."

Hilfy tilted her head at her former lover. "Well, you must have had at least Angjra's father."

The Drow grimaced like she had just tasted curdled blood. "Her father...is not the person I would have preferred him to be." She hung her head, snow white hair spilling over her eyes. "It was Jaelna."

Hilfy's eyes popped wide. "What? After all that happened? I didn't even think the Drow approved of such unions producing children."

"We don't, but it was not my decision. The Matron wanted an heir untainted by the conflicts between me and my siblings. But one of pure Auvryant blood. So she thought that the benefits outweighed the potential downsides. Thankfully, our gamble bore fruit. Angjra was born fully healthy."

The Wood Elf nodded. "So what now?" she asked after many awkward minutes of silence.

"Well, going back to what we were clearly isn't an option. Could we maybe be just friends instead?"

Hilfy sucked her lips. "I'm not very good at friendship either, Vinlesu."

"Well, I'm willing to try if you are."

The Druid chuckled. "How many people would believe I have a Drow in my room trying to be apologetic and friendly?"

Vinlesu drew a deep frown, then smiled herself. "Not many, I suppose. Even other Drow. But you are a special circumstance. Please, if you are willing to try and be friends, let's at least get caught up on each others' lives."

Hilfy pursed her lips and brushed back a long strand of her flame-orange hair. "All right. Where do we start though?"

"Well, just start with what happened after you finally made it to the surface so long ago..."

"You're cheating!"

Atela stopped mid-way through reaching for the current pile of coins, raising a furry brow. Towering over her was a gruff looking blacksmith, a well-worn iron hammer from his shop still tucked into his belt. His meaty arms were as thick as her waist. The men surrounding them didn't look that much smaller, or friendlier. "Um...what makes you say that?"

The blacksmith casually rubbed his shaved-smooth pate. "I begrudge no one an honest streak of luck, longtail. But your dice-they roll the same each time. Especially that one. Almost always shows a four before it tips over to a six."

Atela tipped her head back and laughed. She made sure her bosom jiggled in her small halter. Every bit of distraction helped when gambling, especially with males involved. Angjra, her veil up, watched anxiously from behind the felinoid. "Don't be silly," Atela said, lending a soft purr to her voice. "Where would a fuzzy little girl like me get dice like that?"

The blacksmith picked up the die in question and rolled it into the little stringed-off circle on the stable floor. It tumbled to a four, then rolled over onto a six. He rolled it again, with the same result. After that, he crushed the small bone-carved cube in his powerful fist. He snarled low at the felinoid and her companion, the other half-dozen males following suit. Some had their hands on their weapons. "I knew it! Cheaters!"

The blacksmith took a step forward, only to have a small winged green creature swoop by his face, slashing at his eyes. Pokra screeched in warning at the big male human, slashing and dodging the blacksmith's clumsy attempt to swat him away. The other gamblers jostled in confusion.

Atela wasted no time in taking advantage, snatching up the small pile of coins like a starving cobra, then grabbing Angjra's hand and running like mad out into the street. Cries of confusion back in the barn gave way all at once to cries of outrage. Within two heartbeats they had a mob bursting out of the building after them, crying for their blood.

Angjra pulled back from the felinoid's grip as Atela led them in a winding path through the town's streets. "Stop! Drow aren't supposed to run!"

"Its better than dying!" Atela quipped.

Vinlesu listened as Hilfy told of her life after her hasty liberation a century ago. The first few years were very rough for the newly freed wood elf. Just getting used to being free and on the surface was jarring enough, but she had made the mistake of letting people know that she had been a Drow body slave. That made her an outcast and a pariah among many, including her kin, who refused her entry into any of their lands after they learned the truth of her missing decades.

It did not help that she was emotionally devastated as well. A number of people told her that her feelings for Vin had been due to Drow conditioning, or to hostage syndrome. Had anything she felt toward her former mistress had been genuine, or just the result of her giving her captor what was expected so she could survive? Would there ever be a way she could ever know? Being so alone, with so few to comfort her, devastated her for many years. She drifted from town to town and kingdom to kingdom, lost and confused, drifting in and out of many beds trying to satisfy a yearning she couldn't name, and failing miserably every time.

Eventually she was welcomed by a sect of Druids, and found some modicum of comfort in their beliefs and magic. Nature and the deep woods, for all its complexity and cruelty, never judged her harshly for her past.

Her many failed relationships only kindled a growing anger in her toward all things intimate. She began just using lovers herself, treating them with disdain as soon as they tried to get closer than sweating bodies in a bed. Male, female, human, elf, it didn't matter. Then, about ten years ago, she stopped even trying anymore. It was simply too painful.

Vinlesu's tale was somewhat less colorful. Her life in the past hundred years had been taken up by her daughter and Drow politics. The Dark Kingdoms were a lot less politically volatile than their counterparts on the surface, but even in a hundred years some things changed regardless. Houses rose and fell, as they always did, and Vinlesu had worked tirelessly along with her Matron to make sure the House Auvryant kept crawling upward on the Drow food chain.

Formerly, the House had been a major water broker and supplier, a position of great influence in any case. But the Matron had wanted to make sure their holdings were solid and diversified, so she began quite a bit of speculative trading, even buying a few spider-ranches for the cultivation of spider silk. Vin and her daughter had come along on the caravan to the surface to make sure this part of the House's operations were running smoothly.

But Vinlesu's most important task had been raising the House's heir, Angjra. Her brother Jaelna had fallen into extreme disfavor, especially after his near-rape of his own daughter. The Matron and Vinlesu allowed him a small stipend to live on, but for the most part they and Angjra's father barely saw each other any more, despite living in the same ancient palace.

Angjra had turned out to be the one bright burning ember of joy in Vinlesu's otherwise coarse existence. Her daughter had grown up straight and strong and smart, a paragon of everything a Drow female should be. Including, unfortunately, headstrong and independent. Vinlesu had not wanted her daughter to take up the Assassin's path. Though by law Assassins were immune to reprisals after their job was finished, not all in the Dark Kingdoms took such laws seriously. And besides, it was inherently dangerous work, much more dangerous than even normal Drow society. Vinlesu had often found herself very conflicted between wanting her daughter to acquire the skills and cruelty needed for survival in the Dark Kingdoms, and wanting her daughter to remain safe and sheltered forever in the Auvryant palace.

Unlike Hilfy, she'd only had two lovers since they had parted. The Wood Elf who replaced Hilfy, called Jalithria, she'd treated very well while the body slave acted as a nanny while Angjra grew up. Unfortunately, Jalithria had died in an interhouse raid while the House Auvryant openly warred with the House Ineris fifty years before. Vinlesu's House had obviously emerged triumphant, but the conflict had left a number of their assets, allies, and slaves devastated or dead, including Jalithria.

"The war with House Ineris was harrowing," Vinlesu said. "Like us, they had a number of powerful sorcerers and allies. Fortunately, they hadn't counted on a number of hidden strengths we had."

"Like what?" Hilfy asked.

Vinlesu held up her finger and dug into her pack, pulling out a small, fist-sized sphere of pure darkness. "Like this."

Hilfy reached her hand out to touch it, then pulled it away hastily less than an inch from contact. "Gods, I can sense the power in it. Its dormant, but very potent. What is it? Where did you get it?"

Vinlesu smirked. "Remember what Sadra did to that skin shaper? Flayed him for his magically tattooed skin?"

Hilfy blinked in surprise, reaching out again, this time tentatively touching the orb. She shivered at its smooth, almost stone-like feel, but with some of the rough texture of skin still barely detectable. "You mean this is that?"

"Yes. I've molded and transformed it over the years. Much less...distasteful than its original form. I've also been trying to mold all the magic and protective spells in it into a more useful and potent source of general power. I've even added a great deal of my own magic to it."

Hilfy's fingers moving over the surface of the orb brushed Vinlesu's. They lingered there for just a brief heartbeat, both women suddenly looking each other in the eye. Something indefinable passed between them. Then Hilfy withdrew her fingers and looked away.

Vinlesu's heart hammered in her chest. For just a brief second there, she could almost swear she had seen the Hilfy she had known so long ago, in another lifetime. Say something! she derided herself. Don't let this moment pass!

Vinlesu swallowed in a suddenly dry throat. "Hilfy, I..."

The wooden shutters on the small room suddenly banged inward, two figures flying through the window to land on the small cot next to the two elf women. The bodies crashed together and all four went sprawling onto the floor.

"Angjra!" Vinlesu sputtered as her daughter lay across her torso.

The white-furred felinoid was first on her feet, rushing to close the shutters just as Pokra flew through. A heartbeat later, they heard the shouts of the angry mob crescendo and fade. She snarled at the younger Drow. "Dammit, you call that a levitation spell?"

"I told you I was just a novice at that sort of thing!" Angjra snapped as she disentangled herself from the other two elves. Angjra, despite her focus almost solely on martial skills, had been taught some minor magicks to help with her chosen career. "I've never had to levitate anyone besides myself! I was lucky to get us this high!"

"Shhh!" The cat girl was listening at the window. Finally, she relaxed and turned toward the others. "Okay, I think we gave them the slip."

"What are you two doing here?" Hilfy asked.

"Well, I was hoping for my room, but the crowd would have been on us if we went all the way around..."

Vinlesu felt her anger spark. "Get out!"

Angjra blinked. "Mother, we..."

She had been so close to getting Hilfy to open up! After so long! And the moment was gone, snatched away. "I do not care about your excuses! Whatever you and your new 'pet' were doing, you had no right to interrupt us!"

"But humans were chasing us, and you said we couldn't kill them, so we..."

Vinlesu's eyes exploded with dark flame and her voice sunk to a low, echoing growl nothing human could be capable of. "Out!"

The two younger women yeeped and scrambled to get out of the room. Within a heartbeat they found themselves rushing down the cramped second-floor corridor as the door to Vinlesu's room slammed loudly behind them.

Vinlesu seethed for a moment more, than heard a familiar, soft laughter behind her. She turned to see Hilfy throwing back her scarlet braids, chuckling deeply. "You taught your daughter to levitate, but you did not even teach her that simple illusion?" With a gesture, Hilfy made her eyes glow briefly with dark hellfire as well. It was one of the most basic magic user dweomers, used to impress easily-cowed mundanes.

"Well..." Vinlesu growled in her inhuman voice, startling herself. She dismissed the voice enchantment. "Well, a mother has to keep some secrets to keep her daughter in line." She found herself giggling as well. "They did look very funny, scared like that, didn't they?"

"I haven't laughed like that in a good long time," Hilfy said with a genuine smile. Vinlesu heart ached, remembering that sorely-missed smile, and easily returned one of her own.

The two girls slammed the door to Atela's room shut, leaning against it and gasping for breath. "I hate it when she does that!" Angjra said.

"I find I'm also not too fond of it," Atela admitted, suppressing a shiver. "Well, you can sleep here if you want, Night Skin. Hopefully your mother will be a bit more agreeable in the morning."

"Hopefully."

Pokra landed on the broad hay-laden cot and scolded the two females with squawks, over-excited and annoyed at all the fuss. Angjra went over to scritch him behind his head horns and feed him some treats to calm him down.

Atela grabbed up the small sack of coins and spilled them on the room's modest table. "Well, here, let's split this up before we do anything else."

"What? I am not going to take any of that! A daughter of the House of Auvryant has no need for stolen coins!"

Atela rolled her eyes. "First you couldn't eat with the mongrels. Then you couldn't run. And now you can't accept stolen money which you helped me steal! Great Earth Mother, Night-Skin, are you allowed to do anything that's fun?"

"Its not like that! I am an elite, from one of the Great Houses! I cannot besmirch my standing by..."

Atela nodded absently and finished counting the coins. "Well, here is your half. Five silvers and thirteen copper crowns. Not a bad bit of profit, eh?"

Angjra blinked, remembering what her Matron had taught her about money. She gingerly took up the coins, feeling their weight in her palms. It did give her a heady feeling, knowing what was once someone else's just a half-hour ago was hers now. And this day had certainly been exciting, much more interesting than any day she could recall in the Dark Kingdoms. She felt herself relax, letting go of tension she didn't even know she had been holding since coming into these alien surface lands. Perhaps things weren't so bad here after all.

"Good," The felinoid said with satisfaction. "And seeing as its just us girls now..." With one sinuous, casual motion, Atela shrugged out of her small halter top and loin cloth, then kicked off her sandals.

Angjra gaped at her striped nude form, for the first time really noticing Atela's smooth, sweeping curves, the soft texture of her fur. Her eyes were drawn despite themselves to the surface dweller's taut nipples poking through her thin breast fur. "What...what are you doing?" the dark-skinned girl asked.

Atela, unmindful of the Drow's attention, stretched and purred loudly, her long tail switching back and forth in satisfaction. "I couldn't wait to get out of those human clothes. I hate wearing them, I'd rather be more in touch with the feral side of my nature, as the Earth Goddess intended. But you humans and elves are always so whiny if I don't cover up." She blinked, noticing her companion's stare. "This doesn't bother you, does it?"

Angjra suddenly realized she was openly staring. She turned away quickly, a bright blush showing even through her coal black skin. "What? O-of course not!"

The Felinoid crossed her arms casually over her generous bosom. "Mm-hm, right. Well, don't expect any hanky-panky tonight, Night Skin. I'm exhausted from the past few hours."

"I was not thinking of that at all!" Angjra protested, still doing her best not to look directly at the taller female. Her deep blush had spread to her neck and shoulders, now.

Atela smirked. "Suit yourself." She stretched out on the cot, scooting over to one side before turning on her side away from the Drow. "Well, you can have that side of the bed. I really want to get some sleep now, okay?"

Angjra looked at the supine felinoid as she slowly undressed to her undergarments, a loose shift and a pair of leggings. She looked at the naked woman, the long graceful sweep on her flank, the soft moons of her backside split by her occasionally twitching tail. She imagined briefly her dark fingers sliding along that white-furred rump, wondering just how soft Atela's fur was...

She shook herself away from such thought and sighed as she slid into the cot and turned away from Atela. Pokra settled down next to her, murring at the warmth, oblivious to his mistress' tension. This was going to be a long night.

In the morning, another surprise. "We're going with you," Vinlesu announced to Hilfy and Atela.

"What!" the two younger women exclaimed together, but Hilfy seemed unsurprised.

Former Mistress and former Pet had talked long into the night until they could no longer stay awake. Hilfy insisted on sleeping on the floor, saying a Druid could make wood as comfortable as any bedding, and left the cot for Vinlesu.

Vinlesu woke in the middle of the night, and quietly watched Hilfy sleep by the moonlight slicing in through the room's shutters. Hilfy had slept thus in proximity to Vinlesu for a long time, huddled fitfully at the foot of Vinlesu's bed in her early years as a favored body slave. At the time it had made Vinlesu feel powerful and superior. Now, seeing Hilfy like that again, all it did was make her mournful for what had been lost between them. She indescribable urge to protect and care for the flame-haired Wood Elf with all her energy.

Which was silly, of course. What they had once shared was a lifetime ago-several lifetimes, as some races measured things. And from what she had seen the day before in The Laughing Spider, Hilfy was a long way aways from the near-helpless slave she had been in the Dark Kingdoms.

The last ten decades had been hard and lonely ones for Vinlesu. Jalithria had been pleasant enough, but had never come close to filling the void in her mistress' heart the way Hilfy had. But she had made up for it another way, by becoming a doting and favored nanny to Angjra. Too often while Angjra had been growing up, Vinlesu had caught herself wondering how her daughter would have turned out if Hilfy had been the nanny instead.

She owed Hilfy...something. And Vinlesu wanted to make sure that whatever that something was, that it was repaid. "You will be much safer in your travels with four instead of two," the Drow sorceress explained to the Wood Elf. "Besides, we stayed on the surface so my daughter could learn more about this world, and this seems like a good opportunity for that."

Hilfy nodded. "I see no reason why not."

Atela simply gave a dismissive shrug. "Well, whatever. It doesn't really matter if they come along, given that you vouch for them, Envoy. But we should get going. We'll have to buy a few extra supplies now, and we have quite a ways to walk."

Angjra tugged her lips downward as the Druids talked. "Mother, I am not so sure this is a good idea."

"Why not, daughter? Atela said most of the way is through shady forest paths, so we will not have to worry about the sun that much. And if we meet any trouble, that will certainly be a learning opportunity for you, won't it?"

"I..." Angjra began, then clamped her mouth closed. How could she explain that it wasn't the environment, but the company they would keep. She liked the idea of spending more time with Atela, but at the same time she could not dismiss the nervousness she felt now whenever she thought of the cat girl. Naked gray-on-white fur flashed through her mind whenever she closed her eyes for longer than a blink. "V-very well, Mother. As you wish."

Hilfy smiled at the Drow women as she and Atela finished hammering out the details of the journey. "Well, it seems visiting this Grove will be a much more pleasant task than I had first thought."

Atela pursed her lips. Damn, she had been so preoccupied by everything that had happened in the past night that it had slipped her mind that she was supposed to warn Hilfy off. Too late to do that now, apparently. Her trying to send the Wood Elf away now would only raise too many questions, not with just the Envoy but their two Drow companions as well.

Not that she really objected to a few more days with Angjra. Despite the younger Drow's stuffy attitude, Atela had to admit she found something very appealing about her. Still, there might be hell to pay from Kren when she got back to the Grove, but there was no helping things now.

"Fate is only as the Earth Mother wishes," she whispered quietly to herself, looking over her trio of odd companions.

The sun was at its apex, but thankfully hidden behind a thick forest canopy, before they finally made their way through the cultivated land surrounding Linden and into the surrounding deeps of the vast forest. Angjra was more than a little dismayed and angry at the role chosen for her. "I don't see why I have to look after this smelly beast! I don't even see why we have to have it along at all!"

"Four days hike to the grove, four days back," Atela pointed out, stroking the mule's neck as the younger Drow led it down the narrow path by its reigns. Hilfy and Vinlesu were ten or so paces ahead of them, Hilfy using her druidic magic to recruit some crows to scout the path ahead of them. "That's a lot of supplies for the four of us, plus all our tents and gear and such. Better the mule carries all of it than us." She gave a playful laugh and struck skillfully into the air with her staff at imaginary targets. "That leaves us free to do all the heroic stuff."

"Leading this oversized...dog?...is not heroic at all." To add insult to injury, Pokra seemed to love the mule. The small wyvern had curled up on a small patch of exposed fur near the neck of the animal and was fast asleep.

"Look at the bright side. In the forest here you don't have to wear your veil and squint so much."

Angjra tilted her head. "True."

"And the forest is good for something else too." Angjra gasped as Atela once again shed her clothes in only a few easy movements as they walked. The two older women heard the commotion and turned, stopping at seeing the naked felinoid. Vinlesu seemed as stunned as her daughter, but Hilfy just raised a reddish eyebrow. "You're a feralist?"

"Of course," Atela said. Ruffling her fur from her legs to her shoulder in one seeming unbroken wave as she stretched.

"I don't understand," Vinlesu said.

"I guess you could kind of call them a radical reaction to the Rakshasa Rebellion in the southern kingdoms about seventy years ago. The Rakshasas were corrupt felinoid tyrants who adopted the very worst "civilized" cruelties and decadence. I hear some of their baronies still survive."

Atela spat. "They are a great shame on our race. So we feralists think its better to follow the opposite path, to get back in touch with our animal nature, to more purely embrace the feral within us."

Vinlesu squinted at the felinoid. "And that means no clothes?"

Atela smiled toothily, hands on her canted hips. "Among other things, whenever we can get away with it. Why? Don't you like what you see?"

"I didn't say that," Vinlesu said with a laugh as she and Hilfy turned back to the trail. Atela laughed too, only to see Angjra frowning at her mother. If the felinoid didn't know better, she could almost swear the younger Drow was slightly...jealous?

They made good time. The weather was mild and fey, with white cottony clouds sliding lazily over the sun often enough to give the Drow even more relief from the brightness. That loud, smelly, obstinate animal they were using as a pack beast only balked twice, but thankfully Atela was able to get it going with just a whisper or two in its ear. Angjra was only slightly miffed that the others watched bemusedly as she struggled with the stubborn creature for nearly ten minutes, threatening to slay it and every overgrown canine like it, before the bemused and teasing felinoid bothered to help her.

The young Drow woman also had to wonder at how resentful she was of her mother when Vinlesu had been joking with Atela about the felinoid's nudity. Like she wanted to warn her mother off and manipulate Atela just for herself.

Angjra was not stupid. She was well aware she was attracted to Atela, and what she was feeling was honest jealousy. She was just surprised such emotions could be so strong! As an assassin, she had been taught to bury her feelings whenever possible, to function purely as an extension of her weapons and her mission. But this kind of emotional intensity was all so new to her.

The Felinoid walked a few paces ahead of her, talking almost constantly about this and that, occasionally looking back to get a terse response from the young Drow, just to make sure she was still listening. Angjra didn't mind being the last in their makeshift marching line, it gave her a chance to study Atela's nude form as she walked.

Angjra felt almost like one of the dirty-minded male elders, openly ogling a naked female. But Atela seemed unusually fascinating to the young Drow, almost oozing sexy confidence with every step. The swishing back and forth of her long feline tail as she walked, the taut rounded moons of her rump undulating rhythmically, was almost hypnotizing.

She regarded her mother and Hilfy. As Hilfy was an escaped slave, Vinlesu should by all rights have slain her on sight, as demanded by Drow law. But Angjra knew that would never happen. The fact that the two elf women had shared something special was so obvious even now, with the apparent ease they slipped into being around each other again. They still danced around politeness and kept their distance, but even Angjra, with all her inexperience in matters romantic, could tell that wall could crumble easily them soon enough.

But would that be a good thing? Hilfy could not return to the Dark Kingdoms with Vinlesu and avoid being executed on sight. Could her mother bear being separated from her great love a second time, especially if they become intimate again?

"I said, Night-Skin, did you want to talk about that now?" Atela was looking back at her, miffed at being ignored.

"Hm? Sorry, I was distracted."

The cat girl smirked, giving her hips an exaggerated wiggle as she walked. "I could tell. I said, did you want to talk about necromancers and druids now? You seemed curious about that back at the Laughing Spider."

"I still am, I admit. So is there a bond between Druids and necromancers?"

"That's it exactly," he mother chimed in, from only a few feet ahead of Atela. "Necromancy as you well know is about death and all its myriad facets. It is the basic source of our House's power. But Druidism, nature-worship, is about the protection and cultivation of life."

The four of them came into a small clearing. Hilfy, in the front of the line, called a stop so they could rest.

After tying off the mule and taking a swig of water, Angjra told her mother, "I know that. If you cultivate death and the druids cultivate life, I would have thought your two sects would be mortal enemies."

Hilfy's melodious chuckle filled the small field. "That's what many on both sides like people to think. But the truth is we're interdependent on each other. You can't have life without death..."

"...and you can't have death without life," Vinlesu finished for her. The two elf women smirked at each other.

"I don't understand. There are many more dead things in the world than living things. The rocks and caves of the Dark Kingdoms..."

Her mother smiled, shaking her head. "I'm afraid that's not the way it works, little shadow. Things that have never lived is the realm of the elementalists. Earth and wind and water shapers. A necromancer takes her power from the transition of life into something new. That is what death is, mostly. Not an ending, but a transformation. Animals die and become food for insects, and then mulch for plants. Plants die to become food for animals, or to feed other plants. The form and substance of their bodies are absorbed by other living things, becoming them."

"And when such as people die," Hilfy said, "we become something...other. A different kind of life than what we are now, following a different Path. But the important thing to understand is that this transition is absolutely essential for life to continue. Things must die and change so the great circle can go on. Life must always be renewed."

Vinlesu nodded. "Death is as natural as birth. Like birth and most of life, it is painful and traumatic, but your death will be just as important to the world as your life. Druids and necromancers are simply different sides of that same coin."

Angjra tilted her head as she often did, when deep in contemplation. "So where there's life, there's death also. Is that right? And where there is a great deal of life, there must also be a great deal of death. Hm. Is that why you said this forest was a place of power for you, mother?"

Vinlesu beamed a broad smile at her only offspring. "That's right! Truthfully, I can feel the death all around us even as our nature-worshipping companions can sense the life. Even now, if I concentrate, I can sense thousands of bugs being eaten, a squirrel dying in the jaws of a fox, a baby bird falling from its nest, even the horrific struggle of thousands of plants very, very slowly fighting viciously with each other for sunlight and water. And that's just what's close by."

Atela grinned. "So I can see why you two ended up together."

Hilfy and Vinlesu looked at each other, then at the at girl. "What do you mean?"

The felinoid laughed. "Isn't it obvious? You became a necromancer, Hilfy became a druid. Two sides of the same coin, as you said. Complimenting each other without even really being aware of it."

Both elf women suddenly blushed. They studiously avoided looking at each other. "Did I say something wrong?" Atela asked.

"Um..." Hilfy began, but decided to avoid the subject and all the complications that were sure to come with it. "The sun's getting low. I think we better set up camp. This clearing's as good as any."

The two older women took the first and second turns at a watch during the night. Angjra was glad for it. She was exhausted, and surprised herself by falling into a deep sleep almost as soon as she was in her sleeping roll.

Sometime later, Angjra felt something very warm and fuzzy sidle up to her in the night. A pleasant voice whispered in her ear that the night was cold. Angjra, still half asleep and very grateful for the warmth, simply snuggled back into the fuzzy body spooning hers.

She started awake a little later, with the realization that Atela was sleeping snuggled next to her, body molded against hers. The felinoid was soundly dozing, purring just slightly, with a three-fingered hand draped casually over Angjra's shift-covered waist.

It felt so...pleasant. The felinoid's soft body, her warmth, the gentle rise and fall of her bosom against the Drow's shoulder blades. She found herself catching hold of Atela's arm and sidling even deeper into the taller female's body, sighing despite herself at the feelings of contentment and affection that were washing over her.

Suddenly footsteps, and Atela being shaken awake. "your turn," her mother whispered at the felinoid.

The cat girl groaned softly and rose. Angjra pretended to still be asleep. Still, her bedroll felt very lonely, and just a little chilly, without Atela in it.

Angjra giggled as she felt a warm mouth nibbling her ear. She was about to mumble something playful when her ear was sharply bitten.

She sat up yelping, Pokra grumbling irritatedly at her shoulder for being so slow to wake up. "Wha-?"

"Shh!" Atela said a few feet from her, eyeing the dark woods around them with staff gripped in her hand. Her mother and Hilfy were already up, also quietly drawing their weapons.

The young Drow woman threw off her covers and was instantly on her feet. Her favored twin battle knives slid into her hands. "What is happening?" she whispered.

Atela tapped her nose. "I've scented a number of humans approaching," she whispered. "They're still a little ways off, but getting closer. I can't believe they were stupid enough to approach us from upwind."

"Or that they approached us at night," Vinlesu said. "Even Hilfy has better eyesight in the dark than they do."

"Are we sure they're all human?" Angjra asked.

"Oh yes," Atela said. "Not just any humans either. Jorton's crew, by their scent. They must have tracked us, looking for revenge."

"Idiots," Angjra hissed. She looked up and saw the silver orb of the moon hanging in the alien starlit sky. The humans must have thought that its dim light would put them on parity with their quarry. She stepped towards the woods. "I'll take care of them."

Her mother placed a hand on her arm. "Are you sure you're ready for this?"

She pulled her arm away, her eyes blazing in outrage at Vinlesu. "I'm Drow, aren't I?"

Her mother could only nod and lower her hand. Without another word, Angjra slipped into the darkness after her prey.

Vinlesu looked apprehensively into the darkness after her daughter, sucking her lip. Hilfy came up and lay a gentle hand on Vinlesu's shoulder, making her start. "I've heard its never easy, letting go of your children."

The night-skinned woman nodded shallowly. "I know she can do this. She was absolutely right that she is Drow and this is what she had trained so many decades for. But..." Her words died in her throat as conflicting emotions rose up.

"...But she's still your daughter," Hilfy finished for her.

She smiled thinly at her former body slave, thankful that someone understood.

Atela whimpered quietly in her throat. Vinlesu could see her tail swish anxiously behind her. The felinoid didn't seem afraid, exactly. Her animated ears twitched this way and that, following sounds both elf women couldn't perceive. Was the white-furred woman actually worried about Angjra as well? They had been snuggled up together in sleep...

Minutes passed, and they occasionally heard strangled cries of the dying, far off. Vinlesu counted the deaths she sensed. On seven, Angjra re-emerged from the forest, her hands bloody and blades dripping, but looking very smug and satisfied.

"Well?" Atela asked.

Angjra shrugged. "One got away. One thing humans can do with their longer legs is run faster than us, and I had no real chance of catching up to him. But the others all have their souls howling on their way to the Land of Shades."

The younger Drow whistled for Pokra. The baby wyvern bounded into view, and Angjra flicked him a dismembered eyeball, its long reddish tail of optic nerve trailing through the air. The wyvern snatched it mid-air, munching enthusiastically and murring near-orgasmically. "A little treat," Angjra chuckled.

Both Atela and Hilfy looked a bit unsettled by that, but her mother blithely returned to the business at hand. "Well done, daughter. I assume the spell-caster was the one you let get away?"

Angjra blinked in surprise. "I-I don't know. It could be. I wasn't really paying attention. All the humans looked pretty much alike to me."

Her mother glowered in anger. "I can't believe you! Didn't you pay attention about what to do with wizards? I hope you dismembered and beheaded him, or at the very least severed his major tendons!"

"But mother! They're only humans! Their wizards can't be that dangerous!"

"Are you joking? Humans are the most dangerous kind of wizard!" Her mother snarled, stabbing her finger back into the darkness. "No excuses! Now go back out there and make sure..."

She never got to finish her sentence as a bright orange flame burst to life a few hundred paces away in the dark forest. Dozens of trees surrounding it were instantly engulfed in flame, fifty-foot high torches in the night. They could all see a humanoid figure within the flames, coal-dark bones of his silhouetted skeleton in the dancing nimbus of flame. It took several agonized steps, lurching slowly toward them.

"Ooooh, crap," Atela said, ears hugging tight at her head, taking a few steps backward.

"But that can't be!" Angjra said. "I slit all their throats, stabbed half of them in their hearts!"

"Things are never that simple with sorcerers!" Vinlesu yelled. "I sense him dying...but he's using his death to fuel his spell!"

"A contingency spell! Many magic users have at least one that they spend years working on, an ultimate trump card. This one is using his to take his killer with him," Hilfy said matter-of-factly. "Even if he has to incinerate the entire forest to do it!"

The fire began surging ahead of the dying elementalist, entire trees bursting into flame one by one. The four women retreated, grabbing whatever they could, and were soon running through the forest, the grim flaming specter stumbling slowly behind them. For once their mule did not balk being moved swiftly. The very fire itself seemed to be the only thing keeping the grim specter of the dead elementalist mobile, giving unnatural energy to his charred bones.

After they put some distance between them and the fire-creature, they stopped to catch their breath. Even a few hundred yards away they could feel the heat of the rapidly-encroaching fire.

Atela turned toward the elf women. "Can't you two do something?"

Vinlesu, hands on her knees gulping air, shook her head. "Not directly. Fire has never been alive or dead. Its outside of our spheres of power. But I guess we have to try."

"Something's not right," Hilfy said. "I can feel it drawing on some external power from the forest. But its not the usual natural life force..."

"I can sense it too, " Vinlesu said. "But let's concentrate on the immediate problem, stopping it. Can't Druids summon rainstorms?"

"Not easily or quickly, even if I knew the spells for that. That fire will consume this entire forest before I could summon enough rain for it to do any good. And I won't be able to summon my power as the Council's Envoy until I reach the Grove."

"Damn." Vinlesu thought furiously. The two younger females fidgeted nervously, Pokra keening in naked fear. In the Dark Kingdoms, fires were rare but extremely deadly. Channeled and trapped smoke could kill and sicken many more in those vast caverns than the flames would ever touch. Thankfully, one of the few advantages the surface offered was plenty of open space for the smoke to rise out of the way.

She reached into her pack and removed the small black sphere. "Okay, Hilfy, I have an idea. But I'm going to need your help." She quickly outlined what she intended.

Vinlesu nodded. "It should work. I hope." She turned toward her daughter and the felinoid. "Just in case, you two will need to protect us from the elementalist in case he gets too close."

Both younger women nodded gravely, pulling out ranged weapons-a sling for Atela, throwing knives for Angjra-and holding them at the ready. All four turned to see the carbon-black skeletonized figure in the distance, outlined by orange flames, steadily stumbling closer.

Vinlesu held out the black sphere with one hand. Gingerly, almost reluctantly, Hilfy lay her fingers on it, no doubt remembering the object's grisly origins. The two magic-casters closed their eyes and began chanting. Quickly their arcane words synced together seamlessly, slowly building in volume.

Angjra felt the ground rumble, the trees surrounding the distant burning figure blurring and suddenly blackening against the bright orange-white of the flames, extinguishing them. Almost in a wave, the blackness spread, leaping from tree to tree and bush to bush.

The young Drow, and Atela watched with no small trepidation as the wave of magical transmutation washed over them. Thankfully, it seemed to have no effect on them, but instead seemed to writhe up and around all the plant life, trees and grass and foliage alike, shimmering momentarily with dark energies. With an electric crackle and powerful shudder, the plants transformed into grayish-black stone. The wave of transformation continued beyond them.

Angjra was no expert in forest or firecraft, but even she could see the strategy behind the spell. Transforming everything the fire could feed off into unburnable stone, choking it off from all sides. In another few breaths, she saw the flaming figure in the distance shudder and stagger, his licks of animating flame snuffing out one by one. Finally, all the fire keeping the skeleton mobile disappeared, and it crumpled to the ground.

Almost immediately afterward both elf sorceresses did the same, their chanting stopping as they slid to the now stony forest floor, gasping for breath. The black sphere slid from their hands to thud dully on the gray-black grass and leaves.

But their fingers still hovered near each other, and with another heartbeat they intertwined. Vinlesu and Hilfy glanced at each other, their eyes meeting. They grinned at in exhaustion and triumph, neither one wanting to withdraw their hand just yet.

Three days later they were approaching the edge of the Druids' Grove.

"I'm almost certain of it now," Hilfy was saying. "There was more going on with that fire-creature than just a contingency spell. I can still sense a faint but dark force permeating the forest around us, growing stronger the closer we get to the Grove. That human wizard must have been feeding on that."

Vinlesu nodded. "It is subtle, but oppressive. I think you're right. That spell was far too powerful for that human, even with his death fueling it."

"If he'd had that kind of power, he would have given us a much more serious challenge back at that tavern," Hilfy agreed. She turned back to the felinoid, just a few yards behind her. "Do you know anything about such a force in the forest, Atela?"

The felinoid pinned her ears back as if in fear. She hesitated just a bit too long in saying, "Um, you should ask the high druids. They would know more than I would."

The scrappy felinoid had many skills, but lying well was not one of them. The two elven women exchanged worried glances and by silent agreement chose not to pursue it just now.

The Drow sorceress could feel the barriers dropping between Hilfy and herself, the old familiarity they had once shared re-emerging. Hilfy's guard was slowly eroding around her former Mistress. Their former friendliness and warmth began re-emerging. Even after a century, they were still essentially the same people they had been in Hilfy's last few years in the Dark Kingdoms, their personalities still meshing well. More than once, Vinlesu had caught Hilfy watching her, and when their eyes met, the Wood Elf would only smile warmly before shyly looking away.

Such moments made Vinlesu's nostrils flare and heart swell as she could feel her emotions and body wanting to respond to such invitations. The way Hilfy moved, the way she talked and looked and hummed, as she used to while they lay in Vinlesu's bed in the Auvryant palace so long ago... There was definitely a pleasant sexual tension building between the two former lovers.

Yet, Vinlesu could tell the moment wasn't quite right yet for the final barrier between them to be breached. Hilfy still held back a bit, struggling with her feelings. Truthfully, so was Vinlesu.

Her daughter had been quieter than usual the last few days, acting dejected and moody. Not even Pokra's playfulness or the sight of Atela's admittedly enticing nudity could pull her out of it. She blamed herself for getting them all almost burned alive.

Well, Vinlesu reasoned, her daughter deserved to feel bad because of that. Not killing the human sorcerer properly had been sloppy. How many times had she drilled into that thick-skulled youngling how dangerous sorcerers could be?

The trail began to subtly change. The overgrowth on the deer path they followed slowly began to abate, opening up the trail wider and wider. Odder, the roots of the trees and plants lining the path began showing over the dirt, eventually criss-crossing to form a solid wooden carpeting for their feet as the walked. Within moments two huge oaks wove into view, one on each side of the path, crossing over each other high above to form a tall arch formed by twin yard-wide trunks.

"We're here," Atela announced, sidling ahead of the two elf women to take the lead. "The Grove."

Vinlesu thought it odd the Druids would have an arch to mark their settlement but no defensive wall. Then the Drow saw a wide but not very obvious barrier of intertwined bushes and trees and tall grass surrounding the settlement's wide clearing, a barrier that could conceal many varieties of traps both mechanical and magical. She was also a bit unnerved by the small army of crows and small mammals uniformly watching their approach from the trees with unblinking eyes.

Inside the settlement, Vinlesu was astonished by the homes and buildings she saw. All the structures had a flowing, organic look to them, made purely out of wood with few seams. Most of them had canopies of thick leaves, interwoven tightly like thatch roofs.

Vinlesu realized with a start that the houses actually were living trees, their trunks and branches and roots radically altered by druidic magic. Living houses. A few of the larger structures were multiple trees blended together to form large tube-like living structures that looked like they were used as storehouses and gathering halls.

She pursed her lips. Not quite as impressive as what Drow earth elementalists and stone shapers could do. But a surface dweller magic went, it was certainly did make an impression.

A number of the town's inhabitants nodded their heads in greeting, some even calling out Atela's name, but none approached as yet. Vinlesu noticed a number of the males staring openly at the tall felinoid, their expressions of bemusement and wonder hard to mistake. "Atela," she whispered. "Ah, perhaps it would be best if you covered up, unless there is some Druidic custom I'm unaware of"

Atela's eyes went wide. "Oh, crap! Its been just us girls for so long I kind of forgot."

"Atela!" called out a stern male voice. A tall dark-haired man approached them, carrying a staff more intricately carved than any of the others. The Druids of the enclave parted way for him.

"Kren," Atela hissed. "Look, this is not what it looks like..."

He regarded Atela's companions, frowning even more as he saw the two Drow. He turned back toward the felinoid, his expression souring like cream under a hot sun. "Its bad enough you bring ones such as these onto our most sacred soil, but do you have to constantly engage in such behavior as befitting a savage?" From the way his gaze dragged distastefully up her body, it was obvious her nudity was the subject of his derision. "Filthy, unwashed..."

Angjra had one of her daggers poised at Kren's throat between one eye blink and the next. A collective gasp went up from the surrounding druids, and both Hilfy and Vinlesu swore simultaneously in different tongues. Kren's eyes grew wide, sweat suddenly dotting his broad pale-skinned pate.

"You will not speak of Atela that way," the younger Drow said matter-of-factly. "Unlike you, she has proven herself worthy of my respect."

The arch druid's brows knitted in anger. He opened his mouth to speak when Hilfy quickly interjected, "Angjra, you shame the House Auvryant."

The younger Drow cut her eyes at the Wood Elf. "What? How dare you..."

"Look behind you."

Angjra glanced over her shoulder and paled. There, not a few feet away, were over a dozen long, thick tendrils of wooden roots that had somehow silently risen from the ground. They all tapered down to very sharp spear-like points, all aimed directly at her. They waved visibly like coiled snakes, ready to strike at any moment. The druids all around her drilled her with glowering stares.

"You shame your House by falling into such an easy trap. This is the Druids' place of power. Your threats really can't carry much weight here. You need to pick your fights more wisely."

Angjra grumped, then put away her knife. The wooden roots wavered for a moment, then retreated back into the soil. "Maybe. But it is not your place to reprimand me, Wood Elf."

Hilfy shrugged and moved to talk to the Arch Druid. Vinlesu came up to Angjra. "Wisdom is wisdom, no matter its source," her mother reminded her. "You would do well to listen to her. She just may have saved your life."

"Hilfy is not Jalithria," Angjra spat, referring to the Wood Elf slave who had been her nanny during her decades-long pubescence. Her daughter had been far closer to Jalithria than Vinlesu ever had been, even though Jalithria was her body slave for decades longer than Hilfy.

"If it had been my choice, she would have been," Vinlesu said, her expression unreadable. She went to go join the Druids in conversation.

"Hey, for what its worth," Atela said, reluctantly pulling on a shift, the hem of the over-sized shirt falling to her mid-thigh. "I appreciate you sticking up for me."

Angjra smiled at the felinoid. "I was glad to do it." Suddenly a bit self conscious, aware she was smiling dumbly at Atela, she went and joined her mother talking to the Druids.

"A misunderstanding," Hilfy was saying. "That's all it was. Angjra is still young, as her people measure such things. In the Drow lands..."

"These are not Drow lands, Envoy," the male said. "We will tolerate them for your sake, but any more incidents like that..."

Hilfy nodded. "I understand. I'll take full responsibility for my companions."

Kren frowned. "Very well. But there is really little reason for you to have come, Envoy. The problems that may have been reported to you were little doubt over-blown..."

Atela gave a disapproving grunt. Angjra glanced to see her biting her lip, wanting to say more, but holding back. What was being concealed here?

"And who are our guests here?" came a pleasant voice from behind the Arch-Druid.

All turned to see an older human, looking to be about sixty or so, approaching the small group. He was balding with a snow-white ledge of neatly-trimmed hair level with his ears. He was a bit plump, and when he smiled its split his ruddy features into a hundred laugh lines. Unlike the other druids, who wore robes of browns and greens and blacks, the newcomer wore robes of impeccable white.

Kren bowed perfunctorily. "Elrohir," he said with a courtesy he had yet to show any of the females. "I was about to take them to you, but there were some, er, complications. The younger Drow became threatening when I berated Atela for her lack of dress."

The white-robed druid laughed heartily. "Is that what the commotion was all about? Kren, you can be such a prude, sometimes. Most men would be very appreciative of such a lovely young thing wanting to share her beauty with the world." He grinned broadly and winked saucily at Atela.

The felinoid frowned, looking very displeased, but bowed as Kren had. "I, um, thank you for such a compliment, High Druid."

Hilfy stepped forth, bowing also. "I am the Envoy from the Council of Druids, sir. I hope I am welcomed in your Grove."

He nodded. Angjra noted that his eyes very rapidly roamed over Hilfy's body appreciatively. This was one nature-worshipper obviously too preoccupied with fertility. "By the sacred Earth-Mother, I welcome you to our hearth and home, Envoy."

Kren and Elrohir led them to one of the nearby lodges. Inside, a small group of female druids-the High druid's personal mistresses, from what Angjra gathered-quickly prepared them a filling meal. Afterward, after much small talk, they sat around the glowing coals of the central hearth fire passing a skin of sweet apple wine among them.

Formalities past, Hilfy settled down to business. "So tell me the problems your Grove here is having, Elrohir. Kren believes they are nothing special."

The white-robed man flicked a dismissive hand at his second. "Kren is a good man, but he believes we should be able to take care of our problems ourselves. But this current problem has become far more than we can handle. Which is why we had to call for help from the Council."

Kren grumped. "I am not sure we should be talking about this with outsiders present. Hilfy, of course, as she is of our order. But the Drow..."

"The Envoy has vouched for them. That is good enough for me. Be a little more trusting" The High Druid turned toward Hilfy. "The problem, miss, is our forest's Spirit Stone."

Vinlesu raised her snow-white eyebrow, intrigued despite herself. "Spirit Stone?"

"A focal point of magic Druids place at the center of a forest," Hilfy explained. "It gathers ambient magical energy from all the life around it, storing it within itself. The Druid community as a whole calls upon the Spirit Stone's magic at times to for great works, such as constructing this settlement you see, or extinguishing a forest fire, or changing the course of a river, and so on."

Elrohir said, "Ours has been corrupted by some unknown power. Its magic is denied us. We think something is buried near it, some unknown evil we were unaware of, and has been using the spirit stone to protect itself. Your two predecessors died trying to purify it."

"That's very curious," Hilfy said. "They were prepared the same as myself. I wonder what power could possibly have done that to them?"

Vin raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean, prepared the same?"

"An Envoy for the Council of Druids is empowered to act in their stead. As such, he or she is entitled to call upon certain spells and resources of the combined Groves under the Council's jurisdiction. Those spells were activated in me the moment I entered this Grove."

"Meaning," Kren interjected, "that if the situation warrants it, she has had spells cast on her that can call upon other druidic Spirit Stones in the world, even all of them if need be, to counter certain threats. But she can't use the power lightly. The Council can easily block the spells if need be, and misuse of the power carries grave penalties."

Vinlesu wondered, if the other Envoys had access to that kind of power, why didn't they used it to counter whatever was corrupting the stone? Perhaps they had been struck down before they could call upon it, or they had used it and it hadn't mattered. Either way, that was not a good omen.

From more talk with the High Druid, they learned that apparently the Spirit Stone's power manifested itself as an army of resurrected undead creatures that fanatically attacked anyone who got close enough. Finally the red-haired wood elf nodded. "Very well. Obviously, I need to go to this Spirit Stone and neutralize it with the Council's power. I'll need probably at least half a dozen of your men to escort..."

The High Druid sadly shook his head. "I'm afraid that's unlikely. We've already lost seven of our number helping the last two Envoys, as well as four others before that just investigating what was wrong. I don't think anyone here would be willing to try to brave that hazard again. But you might be able to find some mercenaries in Linden who could be persuaded to help."

"She won't need them," Vinlesu said. "I'll go with her."

Everyone turned to regard her with surprise. Elrohir blinked, taken aback. "That's very brave of you, but I don't think..."

"I am Drow necromancer, and a well-experienced one at that. Undead creatures are my specific sphere of influence. I might be able to deal with these undead much more easily than any Druid."

Elrohir looked her over with a critical eye. He seemed angry for a moment, but then his expression mellowed. Finally, slowly, he nodded. "Very well. You may accompany the Envoy..."

"Not for free!" Angjra interjected.

"Angjra!" her mother hissed at her.

"No, mother! I can understand you wanting to spend time with your old...friend...but if they expect us to risk ourselves for them than it is only fair that we receive compensation for it!"

Elrohir laughed. "Well, that's certainly true. I take it you expect to accompany your mother and the Envoy to the Spirit Stone, then? Very well. We had fifty gold crowns set aside for hiring manpower from Linden..."

"Five hundred!" Angjra demanded.

"What!" Kren shouted, outraged. "Even if we wanted to pay that ridiculous amount, we don't have that kind of coinage here!"

Angjra crossed her arms and tilted her chin up just a bit in a haughty expression. "We are Drow elite! Five hundred crowns is a bargain for our services!"

Elrohir frowned, but Kren was on his feet, balling his fists angrily. "If that what you want, than fine! Five hundred crowns it is! You probably won't live to collect it anyway! 'Drow elite' means nothing here, and it certainly won't mean anything to those monsters when they're gnawing on your 'elite' Drow entrails!"

"Kren!" Elrohir snapped. "Apologize!"

The arch druid cut eyes at his superior, but instead of answering, just stalked out of the lodge.

Hilfy turned toward Vinlesu. "Are you sure about this? You aren't obligated to help."

The elder Drow woman reached out and placed her hand on the Wood Elf's. "Its the least I owe you."

"And I'm going with my mother," Angjra asserted. "We Drow must stick together in these alien lands."

"And you're going to need a guide who knows the territory," Atela interjected. She laughed. "I guess we four are going to be together for a while yet."

That night the Druids threw them all a feast.

It was a large, open-air affair with a large central fire pit over which they roasted a wild boar. More than just the hooded Druids she had seen earlier, but their families as well, now that they knew the strangers were not a threat. The two Drow women seemed to be especially popular with the children, who kept daring each other to sneak up and touch them or their things.

Angjra was startled to see some representatives of what could only be races of the Fae. As a dweller of the Dark Kingdoms, such magical denizens of the deep forest seemed even more alien than the Druids. One was a burly and dangerous-looking centaur warrior. He wore highly stylized leather armor on both his human and horse halves, with bronzed gauntlets and a large sword sheathed over his muscular shoulders. On his back rode a half dozen slightly-glowing pixies, who seemed to be having some sort of verbal argument amongst themselves. To his side stood what Angjra at first took to be some sort of odd race of elf, until she saw the very deep green-colored skin and hair that looked to be made of strings of soft oak leaves. A Dryad, a very rare sight indeed for a cave-dwelling Drow.

Of course it made sense that the Druids would have contact with the Fae, if any contingent of the civilized surface races would. But it did make Angjra wonder at just the huge diversity of races that must exist on the surface. How could they all co-exist without killing each other? If that many rivals still existed in the Dark Kingdoms, the Drow would never rest until they were all exterminated or enslaved.

Her musings quickly died when Atela emerged from a nearby lodge wearing a skimpy dancer's outfit. Angjra had gotten used to seeing the felinoid nude, but appraising Atela clad only in a halter and a barely-there g-string, the young Drow could do little more than gulp air. The dark patches of shiny fabric on her friend's light fur seemed to draw the eye to her most naughty curves in a way nudity never could.

Kren caught the felinoid just at the lodge's entrance, and the two argued in low tones for a few minutes. Atela angrily pulled away from him, scowling, but instantly brightening when she spotted the young Drow. She deliberately slunk past the Drow girl without stopping to talk, but did give Angjra a very heart-melting, inviting smile.

Musicians began to play, lyres and drums and flutes, and other females joined Atela around the broad fire. The women began dancing and gyrating to the music, joyful rapture on their faces. Someone close to Angjra mentioned something about the dance representing the vigor of life that Druids worshipped, but all Angjra could see was Atela's sinuous body undulating in the soft orange light, the pretty felinoid smiling back at her the whole time.

Hilfy chuckled, watching Angjra. The Drow girl next to her completely ignored her when she had tried to explain the ritual importance of the dance. "Oh, she has it bad," she whispered to Vinlesu.

Vinlesu saw the look of naked desire and sexual wonder on her daughter's face, a first as far as she knew. Emotions struggled deep within the Drow sorceress, at once proud at seeing her daughter so grown up and also anxious at the pitfalls such desire could bring her only offspring.

Odd, that she had been far less worried about Angjra's first kills than about her daughter's potential first love. Why could motherhood never be easy?

"Angjra is coming of age," she quietly told her former body slave. "She may do as she wishes."

She felt Hilfy's gentle hand on the small of her back, rubbing softly, comfortingly. "And what do you wish, Vinlesu?"

She leaned into the hand, thankful for the comfort. "I wish my daughter could have stayed a little girl for another hundred years. How could she have grown up so fast?"

Pokra squawked, apparently catching the infectious energy of the celebration, and launched himself from Angjra's slim shoulder to Atela's broad furry one. Atela laughed and scritched the small wyvern under his chin without slowing down her motions at all. The pseudo-lizard squawked happily.

With the small wyvern wrapped around her shoulders, the tall Felinoid danced closer to Angjra, really going all out in the dance, shaking her hips provocatively. Many of the surrounding Druids, the males especially, whistled and cheered her on. Even the visiting Centaur joined in.

The music stopped abruptly, and Atela's movements ground to a halt with a flourish. Gasping heavily for breath, she smiled at the younger Drow. Angjra smiled back and when the felinoid held out her hand, she eagerly took it. They walked away from the firelight, chased here and there by whistles and light-hearted teasing from the crowd.

Vinlesu took a step forward to follow them, then stopped herself. What was she doing?

She felt fingers enclosing her own, very familiar in their shape and feel. "Come on," Hilfy said. "I think we should leave them to themselves."

Vinlesu nodded, surprised at how tightly she held the Wood Elf's fingers. "Very well. I suppose we could eat."

Hilfy shrugged. "I've arranged for some food to be brought to our cabin."

Vinlesu raised a suspicious brow. "'Our' cabin?"

Hilfy smirked. "Well, I am the Envoy from the Council, so I rate a whole lodge to myself for my stay here." She leaned in close to Vinlesu, and nibbled and licked at the Drow's earlobe. The Drow gasped in surprise.

"Besides," Hilfy whispered. "I think you'd feel better if we can make you forget a little about being a mother, just for a little while. And I know the perfect way to do that, if you're willing...Mistress."

She pulled back from Hilfy, the Wood Elf chuckling at Vinlesu's surprise. The Drow eventually nodded hesitantly and they left the celebration hand-in-hand.

Angjra wasn't even aware of how she and Atela had ended up kissing that first time. Atela had led them over beside a stream, spread a few blankets stashed under a nearby tree, and the next thing Angjra knew their bodies were sliding together, lips pressed tightly, tongues dancing, hands exploring everywhere. Pokra, confused by the constant interbody motion, flapped up to a nearby branch to wait out whatever the odd bipedal mammals were up to.

It was clumsy and awkward and delicious and supremely exciting all at the same time. Atela's scent, her soft femininity mixed with the taut steeliness of her muscles, even her larger size and the very slight roughness of her tongue against her smooth skin were things Angjra found herself hungering for.

Atela began kissing down her dark neck. "I've...I've never done this before..." the Drow warned.

The felinoid smiled. "We'll take things slowly, then." She pulled Angjra's open collar aside and nipped the soft charcoal flesh playfully, causing the young Drow to gasp aloud. She pulled the string tying it together, and with a few deft tugs the shift was soon lying on the dark forest floor.

Angjra shivered at the cold forest air on her bare skin, then shuddered in pleasure as she felt Atela's rough tongue rasp over her hardened nipple. The contrast between heat and cold was incredible. She wrapped her hands around Atela's furry head to press her closer to her modest midnight-skinned breasts.

Atela's hands circled lower on her body, over her tummy and down her legs, orbiting her thighs through the thick Wyvern leather of her leggings. When the felinoid finally cupped her sex, Angjra thought for sure her knees were going to buckle. Luckily, her taller, stronger partner held her up easily, an arm snaking around the small of her back.

She was lowered down to the blankets, Atela quickly stripping off her leggings. For the first time since she was a young girl, she was fully nude in front of someone who wasn't a slave. Self consciously crossed her arms over her breasts as Atela, on her knees, looked her over like a lion sizing up a gazelle.

Angjra could hear the felinoid's soft purr deep in her chest as she leaned forward to kiss the Drow lightly on the lips again. "You're my kitten now," Atela whispered. "And I'm going to take very good care of you, little kitten."

One of the felinoid's fingers slicked over Angjra's pink slit. The young Drow cried out, the sensation so intense on her sensitive flesh that she clamped her legs together hard, trapping Atela's hand. Atela licked soothingly at her ear even as she wiggled her digit ever so slightly on the girl's folds. Angjra's hips undulated up and down against the hand on pure instinct. "Oh gods..."

"Well, aren't you a sensitive little kitty," Atela cooed. "Just relax. Open your legs for me, and it will get even better."

Hesitantly, Angjra did so. To her surprise, Atela suddenly shifted down and she could feel the felinoid's long, agile tongue tickling her nether lips, feeling even hotter there than against her nipples. Atela's furry cheeks nestled against her inner thighs as the tongue began lapping at her sex.

Angjra writhed, filling her clutching fists with blanket cloth as she fought to stay still against the mounting fire deep within her. Intense tickle-sparks of pleasure shot throughout her limbs. All those nights by herself, pillow between her legs, had never been like this!

The felinoid's tongue spiraled into her depths, apparently anxious to taste every square inch of her inner walls. The Drow girl thrashed about, the feelings indescribable. When Atela worked her way up to her taut, aching clitoris, Angjra lost all conscious thought. She became nothing but a grunting sexual animal, climaxing hard against the tongue on the center of her sexual soul.

She gasped through her shuddering after shocks, barely having time to catch her breath when she felt her feline lover shift over her and furry thighs brush each of her long pointed ears. Atela mrowled loudly in arousal. "That was beautiful, kitten. But its my turn now. Lick me."

Atela's yowling cries in the next few minutes were the sweetest music Angjra ever heard.

Two feminine clefts ground together, pink lip to pink lip, the soft shushing sounds of their wet movements on one another intermixing with the soft, sweaty moans of their owners. One was framed in midnight-dark skin, the other by the pale pink of a surface-dweller.

Vinlesu and Hilfy lay on the hay-laden cot, their legs scissored together, their sexes kissing. They held each others' hands, as much as to hold the each other in position as for comfort, as they shimmied their glistening folds together.

Deep tremors started in Hilfy, building quickly, and seemed to transfer over to Vinlesu as if they were sharing one body. The heat within their bodies built until it was unbearable, until they both reached their climax all at once. Two voices cried out as one in shivering, writhing ecstasy.

They both puffed heavily afterward, neither daring to move just yet, their exposed flesh still pressed closely together. Hilfy smiled into Vinlesu's eyes from behind sweat-soaked, fire-red locks. "That was...incredible, Mistress."

Vinlesu barely heard her, an aftershock still tingling in the tips of her fingers and toes. Dark Spirits, it had been so long...that dalliance with that male harlot had been nothing like this. "Yes... Yes it was...Pet."

Hilfy shifted and lay her body alongside the Drow's, resting her head in the crook of Vinlesu's shoulder. The necromancer sighed contentedly. "Are you sure you don't mind me calling you Pet?"

"I thought I would," Hilfy admitted. "But it really sounds right. Just like me calling you Mistress. I guess if we're alone in bed together, its okay. In fact, I think I might prefer it."

"As do I," Vinlesu said, surprising herself with how much she meant it. It wasn't until this very moment, holding Hilfy in her arms, that she realized how much had been missing form her life for so many decades. She had thought she had been content, that being a mother and a sorceress were fulfillment enough. But Hilfy was showing her just how deep the chasm of loneliness in her had become.

After almost a century apart, was it possible to fall in love with someone again after only so short a time together again?

Hilfy snuggled closer, and Vinlesu gathered the blanket edge in her hand and threw it over them both. She tucked it close, wanting her partner to feel warm and safe.

Druid and Necromancer, Drow Elf and Wood Elf, Mistress and Pet. Forever at opposite ends but joined fast, like faces on the same coin.

She kissed Hilfy tenderly on her forehead. As it should be.

The next morning, sunlight pouring in through the trees, Angjra woke wrapped in blankets. She reached for Atela and a brief moment of panic ensued when she felt the felinoid gone.

Then she heard splashing, and turned over to see Atela by the nearby stream, dunking clothes into the water and wringing them out. The snow-furred female bent over low almost double, her feline-like flexibility readily apparent. Angjra leaned up on her elbow and smirked as she admired the view. The gates of paradise, she remembered some poet calling such a sight. Remembering the raw the night before, she finally understood the reference.

Atela looked back over her shoulder, not bothering to straighten as she smiled at the Drow. "Good Morning, kitten."

Angjra felt a warmth deep within her blossom whenever Atela called her that. "Good Morning yourself, Momma Cat," she teased with a light chuckle. Atela shaking her rump enticingly only made her laugh more, as well as spark a sudden surge of desire within her. The feel and taste of Atela's warm, yielding sex was still very fresh on her lips. Well, an new initiate or not to such practices, a high-born Drow does not subtly hint at her wants. "When you're finished with that, you can come here, and I can make you purr again..."

Atela smiled brightly, but shook her head as she hung the last of the cloth garments on a nearby tree branch. "I'd love that, kitten, but we promised to accompany Hilfy to the Forest's Heart. They'll probably want to set off as early as possible."

Angjra shrugged. "Perhaps. But those clothes will take a while to dry, will they not? I do not think we would do well to antagonize that Kren again, walking boldly naked about the Grove..."

The felinoid blinked at her, thinking, then nodded and slid next to Angjra in the folds of the blankets. White furred and dark-skinned breasts slid against each other, both females moaning low. "You're right. We should have time for at least something quick..."

"Where is that worthless excuse for a daughter?" Vinlesu growled, pulling the straps on the pack-horse tight. The horse was specially trained and enchanted by the Druids to be able to handle stressful situations well.

Vinlesu had also made arrangements for the Druids to look after Pokra during their mission. The baby wyvern had sought her out in the night, obviously bored with whatever Atela and Angjra were doing. Luckily, the Druids were highly experienced at tending animals, and Pokra took an instant liking to his temporary caregivers.

"Don't you remember what you were like with your first lover?" Hilfy chided. "You've told me about it enough. You and that Drow boy did it twenty times in just your first week..."

"We're not talking about me, we're talking about my daughter," Vinlesu hissed. "No one was depending on me back then for what could be a vital..."

"Here they come," Hilfy said. Atela and Angjra wove into view from out of the shadows of a thick copse of trees, hand in hand. They looked odd, the large white-striped felinoid so close to the short, dark-skinned elf. A truly unlikely pair.

"Good morning," Angjra said, with a happy lilt in her voice. "Sorry about being late, mother, but..."

Vinlesu scowled. "Just gather your things and let's get going. We want to be there by nightfall so the sun won't impede our vision. We wasted enough time already."

Vinlesu caught Atela alone for a moment while the other two elves were talking with Kren. Silently, with the felinoid watching, she bent down and grabbed up a small flower in her hand. She locked eyes with her daughter's new lover, glancing very briefly in Angjra's direction then back again. In an instant she leached the entire life-force out of the plant, reducing it to a blackened husk that she crushed to dust in her hand. Atela's eyes widened. The message was understood.

Vinlesu had been very tolerant and even friendly toward Atela since they had met. But under no circumstances would she tolerate the felinoid hurting her daughter. A Drow is dangerous enough; a Drow mother protecting her offspring had no equal in fury in the known world.

The stars twinkled brightly overhead through gaps in the canopy as they slowly, cautiously approached the heart of the forest. New intimacies and new tensions forged among the four the night before had made the trek during the day a mostly quiet and strained one.

An oppressive presence in the thick woods seemed to press down on them, dredging lurid tongues of putrefaction through their souls.

Even the younger females with their limited magical abilities could feel the growing alien power nearby. Their elders were clearly on edge. For the first time in many years, Angjra saw just a small glint of true fear in her mother's eyes. That only made her all the more nervous about their coming task, for she could imagine only a very few things in this world that could make her mother genuinely afraid.

"This is worse than I thought," Hilfy said quietly. "Look at those trees."

They all glanced nervously at the surrounding vegetation. The trees weren't dead, but they didn't look quite alive, either. Their leaves, if you could call them that, looked stunted and shriveled, and a number of them oozed a brownish-red sap very reminiscent of blood. Their trunks were twisted, the patterned weft of their wood warped wildly as if the plants were writhing very slowly from intense pain.

Angjra shuddered. Trees had been alien enough to her whenever she came to the surface. But to see them so perverted... "What's causing that? The magic..."

"Not just the magic," Hilfy said, holding her staff before her. Nothing had approached them yet, but the deeper they penetrated into the benighted forest, the more they saw shapes shamble about in the deep shadows of the night, just beyond the range of their night vision. "Normal magic would not affect the trees, not like that. This is an unnatural power, apart from life or death or perhaps even this realm..."

"Beyond the kingdom?" Atela asked.

"No," Hilfy said gently. "By 'realm' I mean the worlds beyond ours, the planes of existence alongside ours but whose nature we can only guess at. Only a few powerful wizards have ever dared probe such realms, and of those only a handful have come away with their lives and sanity intact."

The felinoid shook her head. "Um... Tell you what, just show me what to hit. I'll let the wizards worry about the magic and other-realm stuff."

They all felt a sudden shift in the unseen forces around them. The air turned chill, the night seemed to grow measurably darker. "It knows we're here," Vinlesu whispered.

Moans, angry and low, sounded throughout the forest of twisted trees. A wall of shambling, half-decomposed figures lurched toward them from out of the shadows.

"Undead!" Hilfy hissed. She turned toward her lover. "Vinlesu?"

The elder Drow woman unleashed several words of power. The cadaverous humanoids stopped in their tracks, but only for a brief heartbeat. Vinlesu tried again, with similar results. "Damn!" She hissed. "My necromancy isn't working! They're beyond my power!"

As the creatures came closer, Vinlesu could guess the reason for their immunity. They didn't seem like something that had once been alive, but rather patchwork humanoid creatures hastily assembled by a madman who stopped with only a skeleton and a few organs slapped into place here and there. They possessed a form of half-life, but one different from the one that necromancy had sway over.

Angjra's sword flew into her hand. Better to have a long-reach weapon against such foes, so her battle knives stayed sheathed for now. "Guess we'll just have to fight them the old fashioned way."

The two other elves just nodded, but Angjra noticed Atela with her tail tucked low between her legs as she stared at the coming wall of pseudo-zombies. Angjra and Vinlesu had been born into a family renowned for the necromantic arts, and Hilfy had spent decades in the Dark Kingdoms, so they were all used to seeing shambling animated corpses. But to Atela this was all very new, and more than a little frightening.

Angjra hovered closer to her felinoid lover. "Relax," she said casually. "Aim for their spines and hips and knees. They still need intact bones to move, so remove the support structure and they collapse."

Atela nodded, setting her lips in a grim line.

The shambling corpses came at them in staggered waves. Not quite at random, but not quite fully organized either. They were slow-moving and jerky, mostly easy targets if one avoided their clumsy lunges and swipes. But there were a lot of them and despite the living foursome's battle skills, fatigue threatened to become a real danger.

"We have to get to the Spirit Stone!" Hilfy called back to the others, expertly tripping one corpse back into another, then using two powerful thrusts with the end of her shaft to crack their spines while they were entangled.

"There's too many!" Atela yelled over the din of clashing weapons and unearthly groans. "There's no way to get through! Can't you two do some magic?"

"We were hoping to save that for the Spirit Stone-but you're right," Vinlesu said, dodging back after a few long-armed swiped. She pulled out her darkened magical sphere. "That will be useless unless we can get there."

She held the globe high, invoking inhuman words of power that were ancient when the first elf blinked his eyes at the sky. The dark sphere pulsed again and again, almost as if it were some otherworldly heart, then erupted into a wave of dark energy.

The magic left the elves and the felinoid untouched, but it had a devastating effect on the pseudo-undead nearby. When touched by the sorcerous wave, they froze for a moment, then collapsed into piles of immobile organs and bones.

Vinlesu gasped for breath and collapsed herself for a moment, Hilfy catching her at the last moment. "G-give me a second," the Drow sorceress said. "Channeling that kind of power can be draining."

"We can't afford to dawdle," Hilfy said. "You've bought us time, but I can sense reinforcements are already gathering. We need to get to the Spirit Stone now while we can!"

Angjra helped her mother to her feet, and soon the four of them were running through the sickly twisted trees, dodging and leaping over haphazard piles of bones. Hilfy was the first to spot their goal.

The Spirit Stone was a small rough-hewn rock pillar, much like the many elven standing stones seen throughout the civilized kingdoms, inscribed on all sides by dark, carved runes.

"That's it?" Angjra asked. The object seemed far too mundane to be causing so much trouble. She turned toward her mother and Hilfy, only to see the two women almost as pale as Atela's fur. "What is it?"

"You don't have the magic skill to sense it," her mother said. "But what the Spirit Stone is tapped into, the portal its opening-its beyond words. Inhuman. We have to end this horror now, while we can."

"Can it be that awful? You've looked into the afterlife..."

Vinlesu shook her head. "Those are the Paths into the Land of Shadows that are meant for us, daughter. But there are many Paths into the next life in this universe, some traversed by creatures we can barely comprehend. Sometimes, when a sorcerer of true power dies, he can avoid the usual Paths and travel...sideways, I guess you can say. Onto other Paths."

"It can't be that..."

"I can catch fleeting glimpses of the other side, momentary rents in the weave of creation to my sorcerous eye. The creatures on that other Path-they are these hideous giant reptilian-looking monsters. Like dragons, but also very insect-like. But they're being stolen away and forced into our continuum. Forced into vaguely human shells. Those were all the 'undead' we're fighting, our realm trying to force them into bodies that work in our continuum. Our world is as much a hell for them as theirs would be for us."

An inhuman roar shook the countryside. Trees crashed aside as a massive shape smashed its way through the forest toward them. All four women moved as one to face the new threat.

On the other side of the broad clearing emerged a vast creature out of nightmare. Measuring over thirty feet from snout to tip, it resembled, vaguely, the skeleton of a dragon, complete with lizard-like skull and the thin bone frames of wings.

But upon close reexamination, one could see the bones were black and chitinous, joined together in ways that seemed to make little sense. The flesh it supported in life must have been woven to it in ghastly ways, with a haphazard arrangement of organs that seemed barely held in by skinless connective tissue.

"What is that?" Atela hissed.

"One of the creatures from the other Path!" Hilfy said. "He must have made it through partially intact!"

The thing roared and launched itself at them. They scattered, just missing being crushed under it scabrous, scimitar-sized claws.

Angjra fought down the raw terror churning her gut and the instinct to flee headlong in panic. Instead, she dodged and weaved through the creature's wild movements, and stabbed at one of its legs with all the might she could muster. Her blades bounced off, barely nicking the onyx-colored substance of its bones. Atela leapt high, coming down hard with her staff at the base of the creature's neck. She did even less damage than Angjra did.

The creature flexed, batting Angjra to the side easily with a casual brush of its legs. She went sprawling even as she saw the bone dragon snap at Atela with a mouth full of serrated black teeth. The felinoid barely twisted out of the way in time, the bone-dragon's maw scraping away a line of fur and skin from her side. Her new lover screamed and crumpled to the ground in agony, holding her bleeding flank.

Before Angjra was even aware of her actions, she had leapt to her feet and was pulling Atela away from under the monster. But the felinoid was too big and in too much pain to move quickly. The creature loomed high over them, the glowing ember of its eyes sparking with murderous hatred.

The monster suddenly convulsed and screamed in pain as a wave of sorcerous energy enveloped it from behind. Angjra turned to see Hilfy and Vinlesu both in the midst of casting spells. The younger females had bought the sorceresses enough time to bring their magic into play.

The creature distracted, Angjra dragged Atela to the shelter of a nearby knot of trees. "Gods, that hurts," the felinoid hissed, the hand on her ripped side awash in crimson.

"Hold still," The Drow said, removing the Felinoid's hands to inspect the wound. The gash was long and ragged, but thankfully wasn't deep. "I know some healing spells. Don't move."

"But...your mother and Hilfy...we need to..."

Angjra shook her head as she lay an open palm on the bleeding gash. "You saw how useless we were against that thing. Let the magic-users fight it. We would just be in their way, now." She began chanting softly. Her hand glowed, slowly knotting the flesh and fur under it.

The healing spell only took a dozen heartbeats. Confident that Atela's bleeding had stopped and the worst of the pain was ebbing, they were able to turn their attention back to the battle. Things were not going well. Hilfy and Vinlesu stood back to back in the clearing by the standing stone, their chests heaving with effort. The dragon creature stalked warily around them in a broad circle, its chitinous bones cracked and hissing smoke from wounds, looking for an opening. Angjra could see the two elf women talking low to each other, almost arguing, desperate to hatch out a strategy.

Finally, Hilfy stepped forward toward the monster, her hands shooting forward. A sorcerous wave of destruction emanated from them like a lightning strike. Everything its path blasted into dust; trees, rocks, and corpses alike. Angjra gasped at the sheer raw power of the enchantment. The Druid must have been drawing upon the potent magic of the other Spirit Stones of her order, as she had said she had been empowered to do as the Council's Envoy.

Impossibly, the bone dragon resisted even such power. It snarled and dug in against the blast wave of magic, like it was fighting a strong wind. Outer flakes and granules of its cartilage flew off, but it stood intact as the spell died away.

Vinlesu hadn't been idle during Hilfy's assault. She took out her black sphere again, shouting words of power against the din until the ghastly orb began pulsing with an unearthly light. She screamed and threw it at the nearby Spirit Stone.

The sphere impacted and disintegrated into thousands of glowing particles that covered the Druidic artifact. The Spirit Stone fractured down its middle, glowing red hot as if it had just been removed from a forge. Then suddenly it faded from view, disappearing with a pop as if it had never existed.

All at once the bone dragon stopped roaring and collapsed into a large heap of inanimate bones. The groaning in the forest all around them ceased as well. The only sound was the foursome's own belabored breathing.

The two sorceresses also collapsed to their knees, holding each other, shivering in near exhaustion.

"That's what all of this was about?" Angjra asked, kicking at the bleached white bones sticking out of the ground.

"Somewhat," Hilfy replied. They had spent a good hour recovering and binding their wounds when Hilfy announced that she sensed the evil was not completely dead. It had just gone dormant. Vinlesu sacrificing her dark sphere had closed the doorway to the other Path, but the power that had opened it in the first place remained. After some searching, they found what looked to be a mummified skeleton, frozen in place as it had tried to claw its way out of the ground. Unlike the other pseudo-corpses, this one looked truly human, if not quite fully alive. "Its been here a long time, dead but not, working at building its power so it could rejoin the living."

Vinlesu nodded. "A powerful magic user of some kind. He opened the Path sideways when he died, to avoid whatever judgement awaited him in the life after this. He must have sensed that the power we carried was a real threat, so he tried to accelerate the resurrection process before we destroyed the Spirit Stone he was drawing power from."

Hilfy shook her head. "Not just any magic-user." She toed the hanging skull, bending it back to exposed the darkened sigils tattooed into its dried, leathery forehead. "A Druid. A dark one. But this body he was generating for himself would have been only a shell. I bet his soul still remains somewhere in this world, riding another life as an anchor.

"We can destroy this body but he'll remain a danger as long as his spirit holds on to that anchor," she continued. "He'll be trapped in that body for now, but as soon as he can work the proper magic he'll be able to move on to other vessels. We have to find it and kill it before that happens, to make sure this doesn't happen again."

"You mean that this, um, Dark Druid is possessing someone, like a ghost?" Angjra asked. "Who?"

Hilfy shrugged. "It could be anyone, really. But chances are the shell is close by, and they tend to stick within their own gender if they have a choice. So it will probably be male, judging by this skeleton. Someone in power in the local community would help, too."

They made a large pyre in the middle of the Spirit Stone clearing and burned what remained of the Dark Druid's mummified body, then pulverized and scattered the ashes on the wind.

Dawn approached. They were all exhausted and tried to get some sleep. But in that haunted, twisted place, so quiet now that they could not even hear wind whisper through the trees, rest proved very elusive.

The four eventually returned to the Druid's Grove weary but triumphant. The Druid community greeted them with cheers, and were anxious to hear what had transpired. Atela, very proud to show off her wound as proof of their ferocious battle, was more than happy to oblige.

Pokra, sad and miserable without his owner, perked up immediately at hearing Angjra's voice. He flew over to perch himself on her shoulder. Angjra cooed and petted him profusely as he purred at her attention.

But just as Atela finished her telling and the mood of the gathered community turned celebratory, Angjra spoke into the crowd, her eyes drilling the two head druids coldly. "What of our payment?"

Kren scowled. "There will be time enough later for..."

"Now, human," she said, pronouncing the last like an expletive. She stepped forward to angrily confront the two Druids in charge.

Hilfy stepped forward as well, but with the obvious intent to restrain the young Drow. She felt Vinlesu's hand on her arm, holding her back. The flame-haired elf looked at her former mistress. The Drow woman shook her head slightly, a signal to hold back for now.

She looked back at the Druids and the defiant Drow girl. What was afoot?

Kren and Angjra were arguing now, and the Archdruid admitted there were less than fifty gold crowns in the entire grove.

Angjra pulled back, her eyes narrowing. "You truly expected us to die, didn't you? Its why you were willing to agree to a price you couldn't pay. You must have known about the Dark Druid!"

A murmur of outrage and disbelief went up from the crowd at the accusation, and Elrohir and Atela both started at the words. She scowled at her felinoid lover. "You knew also?"

Atela opened her mouth to speak, but in the end only looked away and said nothing.

"Please," the elderly Elrohir spoke up. "I apologize for my comrade's ill-advised bargain. Still, young woman, we would make good on our payment if possible. We may not have much money, but items of value are another story. Pick anything in the Grove and we'll...hmm." He tilted his head at the felinoid. "You Drow take slaves, yes? You seem to have an affection for the felinoid. Take Atela."

A shocked gasp went through the assembled Druids. Atela seemed shocked most of all, looking with fear and uncertainty into the High Druid's eyes. She apparently found no pity there. In the end she bowed her head and said, "I-I bow to the High Druid's will. I'm yours, Angjra."

The young Drow stepped closer to the two human males, nodding at her new slave before sneering at the heads of the Grove. "Very well, but that is still not enough. Atela is worth perhaps 150, 200 gold crowns at most. We are still owed three hundred more."

Elrohir sighed. "Young lady, I'm sure we can work out some arrangem..."

Angjra's blades ghosted into her hand and she hovered them at Kren's throat. "I demand a life. His. He is the one who was willing to send us to our deaths. I'd say that's a Blood Debt."

"Angjra, no!" Hilfy called. To a Drow, a Blood Debt was taken very seriously. If Angjra swore to a Blood Debt, she could not go back to the Dark Kingdoms without spilling life's blood-her enemy's or her own.

Hilfy turned to Vinlesu for help, but the elder Drow was nowhere to be seen. What was going on?

"Blood Debt," Angjra repeated. The others in the Druid community murmured angrily, and many could be seen raising their staves to call the magic to defend their own.

Her eyes locked with Kren's. "Your fellows could probably take me down. But the question is, how many of them will go down with me? We took out the Dark Druid and its pets. Plus I am the daughter of a very powerful Drow House. My mother and Matron would avenge me with magicks you could not comprehend, much less match. Its your choice Druid. One person dies-you-or many die instead."

Silence stretched, beads of sweat trickling down Kren's half-bald pate. Elrohir spoke up. "Maybe you should do as she says, Kren."

The Druid second-in-command looked stricken at his superior, gulping into a dry throat. Fear danced in his eyes. But slowly, very slowly, he nodded.

"On your knees," Angjra commanded him. He sluggishly obeyed as the young Drow assassin walked behind him, twirling her blade in her hands expertly. A number of the lesser druids stepped forward to stop the proceedings, but were stopped by the High Druid's upraised hands. "Enough!" he called. "Kren has bravely chosen his fate. We will respect that."

The elder human turned toward his protege, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I will pray for your soul to the Earth Mother."

Suddenly Vinlesu appeared behind Elrohir, her own battle knife shuddering through the elderly man's back, blood fountaining as it broke through to his chest. His white robes spattered generously with hot crimson.

Oddly, Vinlesu was covered in a thin layer of frost, her breath puffing visibly into the warm night air. She shivered as though she had just stood naked in a blizzard, but her eyes blazed with determination. "A Blood Debt is a family obligation to a Drow," she said in a harsh whisper in Elrohir's ear. "And the blood we choose is yours, monster."

The High Druid slumped to his knees, giving a keening, wailing shriek nothing human could possibly be capable of. A dark, utterly black coruscation enveloped him, writhing around his body like a tentacled monster. One of the lesser Druids tried to approach, and was swept back by one of the ropy dark tendrils. He fell to the ground, dead.

"Back!" Vinlesu called. "Back, everyone! He is the Dark Druid's host!"

Elrohir snapped his head up, his mouth working in jerky motions, very much like a puppet that body obviously was to him. "The Path will not take me!" he shrieked, obviously fighting against forces unseen. "I will take the entire grove-this entire world-into other realms before I allow that!"

Suddenly dark spectral tendrils were lashing everywhere. Bodies flailed in agony and death.

"He's still too powerful!" Angjra called. Even after all that, they still couldn't put him down. "How can we..."

As if hearing her voice, one of the tendrils of darkness lashed out at her. She froze, horrified, knowing she could never dodge in time, that she had no defenses against such potent magic. Her life was over.

Suddenly, a small green shape dodged in front of the tendril, deflecting it, even as it plummeted immediately to the ground from the shattering blow. "Pokra!" Angjra cried.

A spear of light impaled the writhing mass of dark soul-energy enveloping Elrohir. An inhuman shriek bellowed into the surrounding countryside that nearly shattered every eardrum for miles around.

Hilfy snarled at the other end of the light beam, arms outstretched, howling at the strain of channeling so much energy. "I summon again the power of all the Groves of our Order! As the Council's Envoy, I call upon the energy of every forest and river and field in our influence, to drive this horror into the hell it should have gone to centuries past!"

A heartbeat later, the magic light completely overwhelmed the darkness writhing around the body of Elrohir. The form disintegrated into nothing, and was gone with a thunderclap and a bright flash.

Angjra breathed finally in relief, only to turn to see Hilfy and her mother both lying amongst many other bodies, seemingly lifeless.

Vinlesu hobbled up to Angjra, who was sitting beside the stream where Atela and her daughter had first made love, now two weeks in the past. The Drow sorceress leaned on a druid staff to help her walk. The confrontation with the Dark Druid had been a near thing for her.

She had needed to sneak up on Elrohir, and thankfully he was already distracted by Angjra's ploy. But even so, a magic user of such power would not be easy to take by surprise.

But since he avoided the usual Paths of the afterlife, Vinlesu used what remained of her power that day to enter the nearer of them and approach him from that venue, undetected. Unfortunately, any living person, even a master necromancer, transversing any part of the afterlife can find the journey extremely draining. Even the nearer Veils were freezing beyond measure, darker and bleaker than even the dankest and deepest cave. But the living in that realm appeared as ghosts do in the living world, and allowed Vinlesu to strike at just the right moment. She was only grateful she hadn't been beyond the Veil long enough to draw the attention of that realm's nastier inhabitants.

Her daughter sat with her knees drawn up, head bowed. Just as she used to do when she was upset as a little girl.

Vinlesu sat beside her on the broad log. "It would have been inevitable sooner or later, you know. We outlive wyverns by many centuries."

Angjra looked down at the young sapling only a few feet away that the druids had planted over Pokra's buried remains. A very different method of memorializing the dead than the Drow were used to, but it had seemed appropriate given their surroundings. "He died saving me," she said quietly, biting her lip. Others had died in the battle, but Angjra had not known them.

Vinlesu heaved a great sigh, leaning on the carved wooden staff. She fought with what to say for many long minutes. "Angjra," she said at last, "Atela will be like Pokra, you understand. Only far, far worse for you. Felinoids barely live as long as humans. She will shine bright for a short time, and then be gone."

Angjra thought on that a long while. After everyone had recovered from the confrontation with the Dark Druid, Angjra of course told her lover that she need not be her slave. But Atela had only laughed and said she did not mind at all, and in fact insisted on keeping her end of the bargain.

"I may have been under a geas spell," She had explained to the two Drow, referring to the spell that prevented her and Kren and others from speaking of Elrohir's deeds. "But it feels very right to belong to you, kitten. I have not felt a tug of destiny like this for too long in my life. It feels right, going with you. This must be the path the sacred Earth Mother wants me to walk, so walk it I shall."

Angjra had shaken her head. "You do not understand what it means, to be a slave of the Drow."

"But it is the only way I can be with you, isn't it?" the felinoid had asked. "You're certainly not going to stay up here, you'll go back to the Dark Kingdoms. And the only way I can come with you will be as a slave." She smiled, her maw full of predator's teeth. "Besides, aren't assassins supposed to be sneaky? So let's hatch a plan."

Her daughter had laughed and indeed for the past two weeks the two females had been conniving how they would handle things in the Dark Kingdoms, with Atela pretty much a slave in pretense only. They saw it all, as the young usually see everything, as a grand adventure.

In fact, back in the present, her daughter was smiling again, thinking of Atela. "Just because Pokra's life was short," the young Drow said, "does that mean I should never have taken care of him? That I should not have known him at all, or that the times we made each other happy somehow didn't count because he won't be there now? Just because a book has an ending, does that mean it is not worth reading?"

Vinlesu checked around quickly, making sure no one was watching, then laughed and hugged her daughter. Angjra squirmed, but chuckled herself. "Was that the lesson Pokra was to teach me?"

Vinlesu shrugged. "Close enough."

Another few days, and the Drow and their new slave were prepared to return to the Dark Kingdoms. But her mother had a surprise for her daughter when they stood on the path out of the Grove, pack animal fully loaded. "I'm not going back," Vinlesu announced.

"What?" Angjra said, dumbfounded at her mother. "But...But why?"

Hilfy stepped forward and clasped hands with Vinlesu. No further explanation was needed.

"But what will the Matron think?"

Vinlesu smiled. "I think she will be happy for me. I've wanted to do this-to explore, to wander free, away from House and responsibilities, my whole life. I've seen these past few weeks that you can take care of yourself now, and for a few years or a few decades at least, I want to see the world."

"But the House Auvryant needs you! Our vassal magic users don't have your experience! We-I..." Angjra's eyes shifted about, very aware of Atela and Hilfy and the small knot of Druids watching them. She sucked in her lip anxiously. "The House will not be as strong without you. The House will...will miss you."

Vinlesu tilted her head and crossed her arms. "Oh, will it now? Perhaps I should send a message back with you, reminding the House that it is Drow, the terror of the world. It will find the strength or it will not be worthy for me to return to."

Angjra blinked, and suddenly straightened. Her eyes, for moment on the brink of tears, were dry and lucid now. "Yes. Yes, of course, Mother. This time among the humans must have, um, well never mind. I assure you our House will be stronger than ever."

Vinlesu smiled, and mother and daughter clasped forearms in a final good-bye. Volumes were spoken as their eyes met. They parted as two Drow warriors, equals now that Angjra had passed her coming of age as few of her peers ever would.

"Mistress," Atela said quietly, but with a bemused smile on her lips. "The sun is setting. We best be going, if we want to make good time by dawn."

"Of course, Pet," Angjra said. "Let's get going." With a few more shouts and waves to others in the community, they turned and led their pack mule out of the Grove.

"Hold my hand tight," Vinlesu whispered at Hilfy. "Lest I run after Angjra and hug her to me and never let go."

"She'll be fine," Hilfy said quietly. "There's so much of you in her, I don't see how she wouldn't be. But this must not be easy for you."

Vinlesu watched her daughter disappear down the winding forest trail, a leaden weight tied to her heart. "This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," she said, her soft voice almost breaking. "I don't know when I'll ever see her again."

Hilfy bumped her playfully with her hip. "Did you notice how they addressed each other? Mistress and Pet. Like mother like daughter."

Vinlesu nodded, managing a smile, as the two of them walked over to their own pack mule. They too would be travelling quite a distance, but down another path, leading to the greater human kingdoms beyond Linden's forest. "Actually, Angjra will be stronger than I ever was. She's the acknowledged heir to House Auvryant, she'll have considerably more power than I did when you were my slave."

"Were?" Hilfy asked with a sly smile.

"Only in bed...Pet," Vinlesu laughed. She grabbed up the pack mule's reigns, and on impulse, kissed the back of Hilfy's hand.

Chuckling, Hilfy asked, "So, what human kingdom did you want to visit first?"

Vinlesu led her former slave, her Pet, out of the Grove and onto the moonlit forest path. "We're together. Does it matter?"