Cormaar's Rod
by John R. Plunkett

"Hey, Focault," Odegard called, dodging between patrons to reach Focault's table. "You'll never guess what I got."

"A dose of the clap?" Touissant ventured. He took a drink, then shook his head. "Nah. For that you'd have to get laid."

Grinning hugely, Odegard slipped a black velvet bag from inside his blouse and passed it across the table. He settled onto the edge of his chair, too excited to sit normally.

With deliberate unconcern Focault raised his tankard and took a gulp of cider, studying Odegard over the rim. A Terran, he looked typical of the folk living in and around New Ironburg: auburn haired, lean faced, pale complected. With nineteen years behind him he seemed childishly young to Focault but was already a man by the standards of his race. Better looking than average, fit but not muscular, trim and healthy. He'd cut quite a dashing figure in his gray blouse with slashed, green-lined sleeves and matching hose but both garments had a worn, oft-patched appearance that significantly dulled their impact. Focault took another swig, swirled it in his mouth before swallowing, and put down his tankard. Then he picked up the velvet pouch and opened it just enough to peer inside. At least Odegard had the sense not to wave what he'd found in front of everyone in the tavern.

People watched surreptitiously but they'd stare no matter what. G'nami weren't common around these parts and Focault was, by just about any standard, a striking example of the species. In fact he looked very much like a Terran... if one ignored his skin, as dazzlingly red as the shell of a boiled lobster, the black, cloven hooves that terminated his legs in place of regular feet, and the curled, ram-like horns sprouting from his temples. Most especially one would have to disregard the second pair of arms mounted near the bottom edge of his rib cage.

"What is it?" Touissant asked, leaning against Focault's shoulder. Though Terran like the locals, Touissant's ebony skin and tightly curled hair- which he wore in long dreadlocks- earned him as many stares as Focault.

"Something we don't want to talk about here," Focault replied, closing the bag and rising to his feet. He stood about a head taller than a typical Terran and his heavy, powerful construction made him considerably more massive. A smooth, hairless face with rounded, fleshy features made him appear young, not to mention quite handsome- if one didn't mind his black lips and golden eyes. Silky, wavy black hair a woman would envy spilled loose down to his shoulder blades. His ears stuck out somewhat from the sides of his head and tapered to sharp points. Curly fetlocks hung from his ankles and what could be seen of his calves looked quite hairy. His nails- all twenty of them- were, like his hooves and horns, jet black. He wore artfully tailored leather pants and a white, sleeveless tunic that bared the center of his chest. As on his chin, no hair grew there.

Touissant and Odegard followed Focault up the stairs to the tavern's second floor. Focault ushered his companions into his room, closing and locking the door behind him. He sat on the bed while Touissant took a stool and Odegard crouched on the floor. He opened the pouch and lifted out the contents.

"Whoah," Touissant breathed, eyes widening. Focault held an intricately carved ivory rod about half again the length of his hand from heel to fingertips and approximately two of his finger widths in diameter. Runes carved in high relief covered the shaft; the tip had been shaped in a strikingly realistic depiction of a male organ.

"That's Cormaar's Rod," Odegard announced proudly. "It's a powerful magic item."

"Bulldust," Touissant snorted. "What is it, a Wand of Coming?"

"I'll have you know-" Odegard riposted hotly.

"There's an easy way to find out," Focault interjected calmly. His brows drew together as he held the rod in his two upper hands, staring intently at it. He started to mutter, then speak aloud, his lower hands making strange gestures. Despite himself Touissant tried to listen but the sounds seemed to twist in his ears, as if they simply refused to yield to his understanding. Which, Focault said, was not far from the truth. The Secret Language revealed its mysteries only to those with the power- or the determination- compel it. Ordinary people called such folk wizards, warlocks, sorcerers, or witches. Focault was such a person- and when he commanded the ancient forces something came into his eyes, something that filled Touissant with an uncomfortable sensation. If Focault hadn't been his companion in long standing he would have called it fear.

Pale, green fire grew from Focault's fingertips and surrounded the rod. It highlighted the runes and seemed to lift them from the surface, limning them in flickering, sickly light. A voice that was not Focault's spoke from somewhere outside of what mortal minds called time and space. Then it and the glow was gone; the rod was just and rod and Focault once again just a man.

"Where'd you get it, Odie?" Focault asked.

"Blutarch's House of Thaumaturgy," Odegard replied. "And please stop calling me that."

"You lifted something from Blutarch?" Touissant's brows rose. "I am impressed."

"No, I bought it," Odegard muttered, his face coloring.

"For how much?" Focault prompted gently.

"Thirty Imperial trade bars," Odegard mumbled, his blush deepening.

"Then you got taken," Touissant snorted. "For that price it can't be magical. Or if it is, it's cursed."

"It's not cursed," Focault said.

In perfect unison Touissant and Odegard blinked. "It's not?" they asked.

"It's not cursed and it is a magic item," Focault pronounced.

"What does it do?" Touissant asked.

"It, um-" Odegard's blush deepened even more.

"It will transform its target into a beautiful and compliant female," Focault said.

Touissant's jaw dropped. For a moment he couldn't speak; he looked between Focault and Odegard. "But- if it does that why did he sell it? Good God, can you imagine the possibilities?"

"Surely," Focault agreed, regarding Odegard archly. Odegard looked as if he wanted to curl up and vanish into himself.

"Wait," Touissant cut in. "If it does that why did Blutarch sell it for a measly thirty trade bars?"

"Because it's magic power is exhausted," Focault replied.

"Just as I thought," Touissant humphed. "It's worthless."

"No," Focault contradicted. "It's power can be recharged... and you don't even have to be a spell caster to do it."

Both Touissant and Odegard looked up. "How?" Odegard asked.

"Cormaar was something of an eccentric, even by the standards of magic users," Focault explained. "He experimented with some... very odd forms of magic. One of them involved sex."

"Sex magic?" Touissant put in dubiously.

"Exactly," Focault replied. "But though he apparently achieved some success with it the discipline never caught on, except in a very limited way. If you had to have an orgy every time you wanted to cast a spell, well, it might be fun but it's hardly practical."

"I can imagine," Touissant commented, grinning broadly.

"So how do you charge it?" Odegard asked.

"You perform a simple Tantric ritual," Focault said. "These runes on the shaft describe it."

"Sounds easy enough." Odegard smiled happily.

"I suppose that depends on your definition," Focault commented drolly. "You recite the Tantric mantra, which is written here." his finger traced a sequence of runes. "While doing that you must simultaneously masturbate and slide the rod in and out of your anus in a sequence described here." He traced another sequence or runes.

Odegard's eyes widened until they seemed about to fall out of their sockets. His face flushed until it looked purple. His mouth worked but he said anything it couldn't be heard because Touissant had fallen off his chair and was rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically.

"Master Stane," the herald said, managing to sound disapproving without violating decorum, and bowed stiffly.

"Hello," Focault replied, smiling broadly to show his perfect, dazzlingly white, and slightly pointed teeth. For the evening's sport he wore hose that closely matched the color of his skin, a massive though only slightly oversized codpiece, a black blouse with lavender slashed sleeves, and a lavender doublet with gold froggings. His hair fell down his back in a neatly braided queue, shined until it gleamed with a light application of oil.

"Good evening, Master Stane." The speaker was one of the young ladies gathered in the arched portico of Madame Sagren's town house. She put a lot of feeling into her greeting.

"Good evening, gentle ladies." Focault bowed smoothly, turning his dazzling smile upon the lady and her companions. They tittered and whispered behind their fans, their eyes examining him hungrily. By now they'd no doubt all heard the story going around that G'nami men were hung like horses and trained from birth in how to pleasure women. They'd better have; Focault had spent a lot of time and effort spreading it. A couple young men hung out in the portico as well; judging from their scowls they'd heard the stories as well. Considering how a couple of them gripped the hilts of their swords they'd like to teach the foreign upstart a lesson. No doubt they told themselves that they didn't out of deference to their hostess, to whom Focault Stane, the G'nami prince, was an honored guest. Focault suspected that the fact that he loomed over them like a fleshy mountain had something to do with it as well. Focault didn't carry a blade other than a long knife hanging from his wide leather belt. His sword wasn't for show; he only wore it when he intended to use it.

Hanging lamps lit not with oil but mystic fire filled the house's main hall with cold, faintly bluish light. A group of minstrels played while servants in powdered wigs and bright livery distributed food and drink to the guests. As Focault entered the nomenclator thumped his staff. "Master Focault Stane," he sonorously declared. Focault crossed the floor in long strides, his brightly polished hooves clicking on the equally polished wood. Opposite the entrance a massive, silver chased throne stood on a dais draped with bunting. Upon it sat Madame Garla Sagren, owner of the townhouse and no small percentage of the town around it. Focault strode up the stairs, knelt, and bowed until his forehead nearly touched the floor.

Madame Sagren chuckled behind her fan. "Oh, Master Stane, there's no need to be so formal. You're an old friend."

"I am but your humble and obedient servant, Madame." Focault took the outstretched hand and brought it to his lips. Under cover of the motion he slipped his tongue between her fingers and licked her palm.

Madame Sagren was really too old for this sort of thing. The massive, coppery red, elegantly curled coiffure that almost tripled the size of her head wasn't composed of her own hair. Without her whalebone girdle her body sagged like a half-empty wineskin and without heavy makeup her skin looked as creased as old leather. Nevertheless, even if she'd been a warty old hag Focault would have courted her. She paid him five Imperial trade bars a night for his services.

A man whose bald pate, lined face, and wispy grey beard made him look more the age Madame Sagren actually was glared at Focault with baleful eyes already reddened by too much drink. He wore brightly polished armor too large for his lean frame and clutched his sword in a white-knuckled grip. Lord Alastytre Sagren knew how his wife spent her money and despised it- not to mention Focault as well- but making a scene would embarrass him as much as her. He had a title but no money; Madame Garla had lots of gold but needed a title to make herself respectable. Rumor had it that she'd been very firm with him about the conditions of their matrimony. But then no man liked watching another consort with his wife, even if the marriage was little but an administrative construct. Focault made sure to give His Lordship a smile and a bow before retreating back to the floor. If the fool thought Madame Garla would gratefully throw herself at his feet after she'd dragged herself up from almost nothing, well, he deserved what he got. Focault couldn't understand how Terran men just assumed that women couldn't think or act on their own, as if they had no native intelligence or ability. It wasn't like that in G'nami society, not at all. On the other hand, no G'nami lady would ever pay Focault for his services. A man with his looks and skills would end up in someone's harem, and if he didn't like it-

The gaggle from the portico had moved into the main hall. As Focault's eyes swept across them they pressed together, giggling hysterically behind their fans. In their fluffy chiffon, lace, and jewels they reminded Focault of a bunch of twittering birds. Perhaps it wasn't so surprising that Terran men saw their women as brainless ninnies. This lot certainly acted the part. He glanced at one of the high, leaded glass windows as if admiring it, mumbling under his breath and gesturing with his lower hands, concealing the action behind his torso. When he felt power tingling in his fingertips he knew the spell had taken; he was ready to make his move. He took a goblet of wine from a passing servant and approached the group in a casual, oblique way, apparently studying everything in the room but them. Only after she'd spent much of the evening holding court would Madame Sagren require his personal and undivided attention; until then he was free to take his pleasure as he saw fit. Not much of a selection tonight, though; not a one of the ladies came even to his shoulder and every one of them exhibited the trim, wasp-waisted figure that seemed to be the rage in these parts. Judging from some of their faces they'd achieved it not by fortuitous parentage or physical training but with whalebone corsets pulled so viciously tight the wearer couldn't hardly breathe. Focault paid particular attention to those; surely they'd be most grateful to escape their confining gowns... and they'd look pleasingly fleshed when they did. After all, if he had to avail himself of a woman no larger than a child- at least by G'nami standards- surely he didn't have to choose one who looked like one as well.

Focault stopped before a round faced, apple cheeked young woman with rusty colored hair that probably hung straight when not forced into curls by a complex array of pins and combs. Somehow she'd crammed herself into a gown noticeably too small for her ample frame; she looked about ready to pass out from lack of air. "My lady," Focault said, giving a quick bow, "Please forgive me, but I could not help but notice that you seem to have something in your bodice." In fact she had two somethings in her bodice, two large, fleshy things Focault longed to see freed of the mass of lace and chiffon currently imprisoning them. One nice thing Focault could say about the gowns popular in this part of the world is that they favored an open-necked construction that showed a lot of cleavage.

"S- sir?" The young woman pressed back against her fellows, her nut brown eyes wide over the lace rim of her fan.

"Yes," Focault replied, frowning slightly. "A little... I don't know... I think I can just reach it-"

The young woman could only stare in mute horror as Focault gently thrust his thumb and forefinger into the gap between her breasts, just above the rim of her bodice. Her jaw dropped as he drew out a red and gold silk scarf that twinkled like shimmering flame. Traces of powder clinging to the fabric spoiled the effect a little; the woman probably had freckles and used the powder to hide them. Focault didn't care; the pasty skin common to the local breed of Terrans reminded him of grubs that lived under rocks. The differences between what they considered attractive and not mattered not at all to him.

The girls laughed and clapped excitedly, then scrambled for the cloth when Focault tossed it into the air. They shrieked gleefully when one of them grabbed it and it vanished in a burst of flame.

"Do I have something in my bodice, Master Stane?" a taller but slimmer woman with pale gold hair exclaimed, thrusting her way forward.

"Hmm." Focault stroked his chin thoughtfully. This one was probably most beautiful by Terran standards but only passingly interesting to him. He reached out and gently caressed her cheek. "No... but you seem to have something in your ear." He produced a gold coin. She smiled; the girls laughed and clustered around, chattering excitedly. He held forth with a steady stream of tricks, allowing the ladies to fetch drinks and snacks for him. He produced baubles from their ears, mouths, and noses. He conjured faerie lights, which danced in the air and settled into various items of jewelry. From behind scarves and fans he drew tiny snakes, white mice, and doves. For a finale he enrsorcelled a platter of sweetmeats to sprout limbs and dance. Afterward he mimicked terrified cries in a squeaky falsetto as he and the ladies at them.

Time to cut the herd, Focault thought as he popped the last sweetmeat into his mouth. After passing the empty tray to a servant he turned to the pudgy redhead and bowed with a flourish. "Would m'lady honor my unworthy self with a dance?"

"Why, Master Stane, you aren't unworthy," the redhead exclaimed, rushing forward and offering her hand.

"M'lady is much too kind." Focault took her hand and touched her knuckles to his lips. She giggled. Behind her several of the young ladies glared hatefully at her back. The tall blonde looked particularly annoyed. Focault flashed them a quick smile as he led his charge out onto the dance floor. "You have me at a disadvantage, m'lady," he added as he guided her gently. Naturally he'd studied Terran dance styles; he moved carefully so as not to show her up.

"I'm Lady Milliwen, good sir," the young woman replied. "But... I'd be honored if you called me Orla." She glanced down shyly, giggling.

"Then you must call me Focault," he replied. As they twirled he saw young- and few older- men gathered in clumps at the room's periphery regarding him distastefully. Looking at them he couldn't suppress a grin. You're probably all telling each other how you'd never be caught dead making fools of yourselves like that big ugly red clown, he thought. But look who's got all the women. Orla thought the smile was for her and giggled, covering her face with a gloved hand. Focault chuckled gently in reply, taking her hand and placing it back on his hip. "Orla is such a lovely name," he said. "You must tell me how you came by it."

"It was my mother's mother's name," Orla replied, her eyes lighting up. Focault prompted her with appropriate comments and questions as she went on in a rambling discourse about her pedigree. Often she wandered off track to discuss juicy tidbits of gossip, most of which Focault already knew from more immediate sources but he acted as if he didn't, looking amused or scandalized as required. By the time the set ended she was gasping for breath; the combination of dancing, talking, and not being able to breathe properly because of her corset took their toll. Focault fetched her a goblet of wine and a plate of snacks, then fanned her with her own fan while she sipped and ate.

"Ready for another twirl?" Focault suggested as the minstrels struck up a lively tune.

"Oh, Master Stane... I'd so love to but... I can't seem to catch my breath..."

Focault dropped to one knee, snapping the fan shut and offering it to Orla butt first, as if it were a sword. "Then please, let me escort you on a walk in the garden. A little fresh air will settle your humors."

"Why thank you, I'd be delighted." Orla took the fan. Focault rose and offered his arm; she slipped her hand through it and walked with him to one of the hall's side entrances. A high wall bordered the property; the house itself fronted the street with open space behind it. Madame Sagren filled the space with an elegantly landscaped garden. Night had long since fallen over New Ironburg; tall poles supporting braziers full of mystic fire formed points of light without really illuminating the scene.

"Ahh," Focault exclaimed, drawing a deep breath. "There my dear. You're looking better already." Focault guided her to a stone bench and sat her down, resting his upper hand upon her shoulder and his lower one upon her hip.

Orla inhaled; her corset creaked and she coughed minutely. She tried to control it by taking small breaths but they weren't enough. When she tried deeper breaths her diaphragm spasmed again; her face reddened even through her powder. "S- sir-" she gasped, gagging and trying to rise. Her eyelids fluttered; she looked on the verge of passing out-

"You need to loosen your corset, dear," Focault said, restraining Orla gently as he moved quickly behind her. Even in the darkness his fingers found and untied the laces holding the back of her gown, opening them enough that he could get his hands on the laces securing her corset. As he relaxed them her waist thickened noticeably but her breathing came much easier.

"Oh- oh- sir-" Orla gasped, trying to stand.

"Just relax, dear," Focault said gently, restraining her with his lower hands upon her hips while he re-did the laces holding her gown. "It was just a passing spell. You'll be okay now."

"But- but-" Orla's eyes glistened; tears rolled down her cheeks, smearing the powder. She tried to dab at her face with a handkerchief, which only made things worse. "Oh, sir, I'm so sorry-"

"For what?" Focault inquired mildly, gently but firmly extracting the handkerchief from her grip and dabbing her cheeks in a less destructive way.

"I'm just a silly girl!" Orla exclaimed, clutching her hands to her face and bawling in earnest.

That's fore sure, Focault thought, but kept it out of his expression. "You are a lady in distress," he said seriously, tipping her chin back so she had to look him in the eye. "What kind of a gentleman would I be if I left you now?" He slipped a hand behind her neck... drew her close... and kissed her tenderly on the forehead. Then he laid her head against his chest and stroked her back.

Orla had stiffened suddenly when Focault bent his head toward her but she relaxed gradually as he held her. "Oh, Master Stane," she mumbled into his chest. "You... you aren't like the other men. You really care."

"M'lady's pleasure is my own," Focault replied, nuzzling Orla's hair. He let a few moments pass in silence. She was ready, he could feel it. Wouldn't do to seem too eager, though-

"Focault, is it true what they say about G'nami men?" Orla asked.

Jackpot. "That depends on what they say," Focault replied. What those dumb scuts inside can't get through their thick skulls is that women want it as much as they do. You just have to get them into a position where they're doing you- or themselves- a favor instead of being taken advantage of.

"About- about-" Orla couldn't finish.

"I have no secrets from you, my lady." Focault rose smoothly to his feet, bringing Orla with him. Keeping an arm around her shoulders and waist he led her behind the house to the back stairs. Some people hadn't bothered seeking out other quarters; Focault heard them grunting and gasping behind hedges and fountains. He and Orla mounted the stairs, coming at last to the town house's third floor. The servants hadn't posted lights but Focault knew the layout of the guest rooms well enough to find his way around even the dark. He opened a door and guided Orla through. The room beyond was nearly pitch dark; a lamp sat on a table by the door, though, just where Focault expected it to be. He mumbled some words and gestured, then snapped his fingers. A fat spark jumped to the wick and lit it. As the flame came up it revealed a large canopy bed surrounded by tall candle stands. Focault walked slowly around the room lighting the candles, then set the lamp on a table by the bed.

Orla was starting to look nervous. She kept glancing around and back at the bed, working her fingers.

"Sit here, my lady." Focault gently pressed Orla down on the foot of the bed.

"S- sir-"

"I am here to answer your questions, my lady." Focault gave Orla's chin a gentle squeeze and stepped back. He rolled his hips, laying his hands upon his belt. Turning slowly and continuing the slow, sinuous motion, he backed the tongue of his belt through the buckle. By the time he'd come around again he had the belt loose and let it slide off his hips. Next he attacked the froggings on his doublet, popping them apart one at a time. He arched his back and shook his shoulders so that the garment slipped off. Without the doublet to hold it the front of his blouse fell open, revealing his chest. Like his face it was devoid of hair; like the hair on his head it gleamed the candle light because he'd oiled it before dressing.

Orla stared, not making a sound, not moving, not even blinking. Thick bands of muscle moved beneath the oiled skin on Focault's powerful arms and broad shoulders. On his chest extra flesh softened the hard lines. His belly swelled enough to bulge over his waist and hips. He stepped forward, taking her hand and curling her fingers around the lace securing his codpiece. She gripped it, unable to tear her eyes away. He stepped back; the knot drew out and collapsed. The codpiece hung for a moment, then swung aside. Orla gasped. Her hand, still clutching the lace, shook violently. Focault wasn't literally the size of a horse but his peerless part was proportioned like the rest of him. Already more than slightly firm, it slowly lifted as it stiffened even more. He undid the rest of the laces, letting the codpiece fall away completely, then stepped right up to her. He tugged the lace from her fingers and curled them around his shaft. She gasped but didn't pull away. After a moment she started stroking. Fully erect his member was the length of her forearm and nearly as big around as her wrist. Suddenly she let out a shuddering gasp and leaned back, gathering up the hem of her skirt-

Focault caught Orla's hands and tugged her gently to her feet. Holding her close against him he danced, while undoing the laces on her gown with his lower hands. Once he got them loose he lifted the dress off over her head. Next came the corset, petticoats, and finally the under things. While she wasn't looking Focault allowed himself a brief scowl of annoyance. He couldn't understand why Terrans insisted on so much useless clothing. You'd need a bevy of servants to get this all on and off again. Thought he supposed that in itself was reason enough; rich people- no matter their species- always seemed to seek out ways to demonstrate that they could afford to waste money.

Without clothes Orla was everything Focault had hoped. Her breasts hung low on her chest, her belly bulged out over her crotch and formed love handles over her hips. Her buttocks and thighs were fulsome and soft. Once he wiped away the powder he saw that her cheeks, shoulders, and the tops of her breasts were indeed liberally freckled. He gripped her buttocks firmly and lifted, elevating her until he could kiss her on the lips without bending over. She wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist; he caressed her back and shoulders while they kissed, turning and lowering her gently onto the bed. He didn't let her lay back; he continued to kiss her, working his way down across her throat to her chest. He squeezed one of her breasts while caressing the other with his lips, flicking the nipple with his tongue. She gasped and mewled, gripping his horns tightly. Once he finished there he let her lay back, gripping her behind the knees and lifting her legs. He worked his way down past her belly button and applied himself to the curly, russet tangle in her crotch. She let out a sharp cry. After a while of that he felt she was ready. He pulled himself up onto the bed and lay on his back. She didn't need prompting; she straddled his thighs, gripping his shaft with both hands as she lowered herself onto it-

The door burst open with a crash. "I'll teach you to diddle my wife!" Lord Sagren screamed, his eyes wild with rage and wine.

Without consciously thinking Focault flung Orla toward Lord Sagren, using the reaction to fling himself away. The lord's gleaming, brightly polished blade slammed into the bed, its point cutting Focault across the shoulder blades. Orla and Alastytre both shrieked as they went down together. Focault dropped off the bed and scrambled to his feet, only a second before Alastytre threw Orla aside and gained his own footing.

I suppose there's no point in pointing out that I wasn't actually doing his wife, at least not at this precise moment, Focault thought. Alastytre still wore his armor; ceremonial perhaps but no less effective for it. Especially since Focault had nothing at all, not even his knife. He glanced at it, laying on the floor by the foot of the bed-

Alastytre let out a yell and charged. Focault plunged over the bed as Alastytre stabbed at the spot Focault would have occupied if he'd gone for the knife. The soft mattress wasn't good footing and Focault spilled headlong on the floor, knocking over several candle stands. He hissed as hot wax splashed his bare skin but it wasn't any worse than skidding on the hard, wooden floor. Alastytre whirled, raising his sword over his head, and charged.

Focault didn't have time to get up or dodge. Even as the words formed in his mouth he knew that blasting Lord Sagren with a magic bolt would be a very bad idea. At the last possible instant he changed the shape of the spell. His doublet leapt toward him; Alastytre stepped on it and flung his arms out as the crushed velvet slipped under his foot. He hit the floor with a tremendous crash; his sword stuck point first in the middle of the bed. Focault rolled to his feet and dashed through the broken door, heading for the back stairs. Behind him Orla wailed and Alastytre cursed. Heads poked up from behind hedges and planters as Focault dashed through the garden but he ignored them. He couldn't possibly scale the wall without equipment but a heavy wooden door opened onto a service alley. A massive padlock secured it, though. He shouted a word in the Secret Language and pointed; the lock blazed with red light and popped open. Focault tore it from the staple and flung it away, shoved the door open, and fled into the night at a dead run.

The Lusty Minstrel wasn't a bad place as taverns went. Nice enough that if a G'nami prince went slumming there people saw it as rakishly fashionable rather than odd. Dirty enough that Focault could easily consort with the type of people who provided most of his inside information. Because of that the city watch kept close tabs on the place. Most times Focault appreciated the attention; it kept things civilized. Tonight it represented a significant inconvenience; encountering a group of guardsmen in the middle of the night while wearing nothing but stained and tattered hose was not a prospect he relished. Fortunately he wasn't new to skulking around in the dark and did so with reasonable skill. With a few judiciously applied spells to provide fortuitous distractions he reached the tavern after a minimum of wrong turnings. Gaining entrance, though, could be a problem. The tavern occupied a block by itself surrounded by a high wall. Buildings lined three faces of the square with a gate on the fourth and a courtyard in the middle. Sleeping rooms were all on the second floor. At Focault's insistence Odegard had taken an outside room; if he'd followed instructions there should be a string trailing out his window that only a giant- or someone using a Mage's Hand spell- cold pull. But alas a careful search- even risking the use of a Mage Light- revealed no string. After a moment's thought Focault scooped up a piece of dried dung from the street. A less elegant solution would simply have to suffice. He broke the dung into pieces and lofted them at the shutters, one at a time. The eighth impact provoked a reaction. Someone tore the shutters open and flung out the contents of a chamber pot. Focault dodged aside; the noisesome mess merely splashed his legs.

"Well," Focault commented, rubbing his hands on his thighs. His hose was ruined anyway. Though sorely tempted he resisted the urge to swear. Not because he was a particularly moral person but because he understood that words held power. Speaking in a fit of emotion could invoke consequences a person didn't intend and probably wouldn't at all like. He pointed his hand at the window and spoke a command in the Secret Language. A ball of pure white, dazzlingly bright light leapt from his fingers and struck the shutters, blasting them out of their frame. "Odegard, I hope you're not thinking of shooting me," Focault added, not shouting but in a voice that carried clearly.

"Focault?" Odegard leaned out the window. He wore a night shirt and carried a cocked crossbow. "What are you doing here?"

"Standing around in my altogether answering stupid questions," Focault replied. "Throw down the ladder and get Touissant."

"Right, right." Odegard vanished briefly. A rope ladder clattered over the window sill. Focault scrambled up and drew the ladder in behind him. As he glanced across the street he heard shutters closing. This wasn't a bad neighborhood but it lay close to ones where you didn't want to know what happened in the dead of night.

Touissant hurried in from the next room while Focault cleansed himself with a spell. "What happened?" he asked, once Focault had finished.

"Lord Sagren decided to cut my head off," Focault replied.

"Which one?" Touissant wanted to know.

"Like it matters." Focault dressed quickly. Rough cloth trousers reinforced with leather, an un-dyed tunic, boots designed for his feet, and a leather belt holding a plain but very serviceable dagger. "Either way my life is over. I wasn't even doing his wife."

"Hadn't gotten to her yet?" Odegard ventured.

"Yeah." Focault donned a shirt made of finely crafted metal links that gleamed more like silver than steel. "So at least one good thing happened this evening." Over the chain shirt he put a leather jerkin that not only hid the armor but helped muffle it as well.

Odegard made a face. Perhaps he thought Focault wouldn't notice in the darkness.

"The fact that I'm a prostitute bothers you?" Focault inquired. He picked up a scabbard containing an enormous, two-handed great sword and slung it on one shoulder. A crossbow and a sheaf of quarrels went on the other side.

"Well-" Odegard shifted uncomfortably. "It's not- I mean-"

"I get more pussy in a single night that you have in your entire life," Focault pronounced, picking up the ladder. "And I get paid for it, not the other way 'round."

"Wait," Touissant hissed as Focault prepared to toss the ladder out the window. All three of them froze, listening intently. Even in the wee hours of the morning the city wasn't entirely silent-

"Guards," Odegard whispered. Focault nodded, hearing the sound of their booted feet on the cobbles a second later. The sound grew... and a four-man patrol hove into view, illuminating their way with a lantern.

"Any footpad worth spit would hear that lot coming a mile away," Touissant whispered as the patrol tromped past.

"If it scares them to ground, the patrol's done its job," Focault pointed out. Once the sound had gone he tossed the ladder out and climbed down. He went slowly and carefully; the ladder- and the window sill- creaked under the weight of his body and gear. Odegard came next; he wore a stiffened leather curiasse over his blouse, a long, slender sword belted around his waist, and a crossbow slung across his shoulders. Touissant unhooked the ladder and dropped it, then gripped the sill and slid out the window. With his arms at full extension he dropped, rolling when he hit the pavers. He made remarably little noise and came up apparently none the worse for wear. A jerkin made of stiffened leather and reinforced with metal plates protected his body; he carried a short sword at his waist and small bow on his back.

"Well, it was good while it lasted," Touissant commented. "Which way?"

"Docks," Focault replied. "We'll collect our horses at the barge stables and take the next boat out."

"Great," Odegard muttered, drawing his sword and concealing it under his robes. "At least we won't have to worry about running into the city guard."

Touissant didn't bother drawing his blade but he did check to make sure it slid easily in its sheath. The canal terminal lay in a particularly unpleasant part of town. He took the lead, with Focault second and Odegard bringing up the rear. They moved quickly but quietly, holding to the shadows as much as possible.

"Psst! Focault!" Odegard hissed.

"What?" Focault whispered back.

"How do I use this?" Odegard flashed the ivory rod.

"Hold it by the base, aim it at the target, and stroke like you're jacking off," Focault replied.

"Quiet!" Touissant snapped. "And keep that bloody thing out of sight, Odegard!"

The group moved along, briskly but quietly, sticking to shadows as much as possible and occasionally ducking into alleys when patrols ventured by. Focault caught sight of the barge terminal lighthouse. They were going to make it-

"Hss!" Touissant stopped suddenly, drawing his short sword. Without waiting for an explanation Focault drew his own sword. The blade gleamed like silver; etched runes, blackened for contrast, flowed gracefully across the smooth metal. Odegard squeaked fearfully and readied his rapier. Several cloaked figures emerged from the shadows, weapons glinting in their hands.

"Where's the guard when you need 'em," Focault muttered, gesturing with his lower hands and whispering. "We don't want trouble," he declared in a louder voice, drawing his finger along the edge of his sword. It left behind an eerie, blood red glow. "If you want some we're more than happy to oblige." He shifted to a ready stance, sword up. A ball blood red light sat in his lower right hand.

The footpads hesitated. After a brief muttered discussion amongst themselves they vanished back into the shadows. The party continued on its way, moving quickly now to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the ambush site.

"What does that glow on your sword do?" Touissant inquired once they'd travelled a ways.

"It looks pretty," Focault replied. "And it puts fear into the superstitious, not so?" he chuckled. Touissant shook his head; Odegard groaned.

Two blocks short of the barge terminal Touissant halted again. This time all three of them heard the clatter of hooves on paving stones. Two heavily armed and armored horsemen appeared in the square just inside the gate.

"Flames of perdition!" Touissant cursed, backing into a doorway. "What do we do now?"

"Hold still," Focault replied. "I'll turn us invisible. Just remember, we still make noise and leave footprints." He whispered the words and touched Touissant, who shimmered and faded out. Focault gripped Odegard's hand while he cast the spell on himself, then Odegard. Concealed at least from being seen the adventurers crept down the street. Just as Focault came abreast one rider he heard a muted sound followed by a grunt, as if someone had tripped. He froze as the rider turned, staring straight at him.

"What is it?" the other rider demanded.

"I heard something," the first replied.

"One of 'em's a sorcerer," the second exclaimed. "They might be invisible!"

The first rider spun his horse about and swept his sword in an arc that clipped Focault's shoulder but thankfully didn't penetrate his armor. Focault staggered out of the way and Odegard shrieked. The rider drew back his arm for another strike- and gagged, his sword slipping from his hands. Touissant appeared, his short sword driven into the man's kidneys. Focault leapt forward and swung just as the second rider lined up for a shot at Touissant. The man didn't fall but his strike at Touissant missed. He shouted in pain and surprise, gaping in shock as Focault appeared right beside him. Lastly Odegard appeared, loosing a crossbow bolt that missed, whizzing away into the darkness. The rider pulled back and attempted to ride Focault down; Focault dodged the thrashing hooves but took a blow across the shoulders that staggered him. He nevertheless managed to get off a spell with his lower hands; a sparkling ray flashed from his fingertips, striking the rider's thigh. He groaned and sagged in the saddle but didn't loose his sword or his seat. Touissant leapt forward and struck; Odegard fired and hit. The rider struck at Touissant but the blow lacked strength, as if the man couldn't hardly lift his sword. It struck glancingly, inflicting no damage. Focault swung and struck true; the rider tumbled out of the saddle. He lay on the cobblestones groaning; Touissant finished him off with blow to the neck.

"Was that really necessary?" Odegard demanded hotly.

"Would you rather explain all this to Lord Sagren?" Touissant shot back.

"Enough!" Focault cut in, wiping his sword and sheathing it. "Let's get out of here!" He rushed down to the docks. Keelboats and barges lay along the slip. He stopped at one and hammered on the deckhouse.

"I'm coming, I'm coming!" a querulous voice called from below. A hatch swung open and a aged, severely wrinkled Terran man with rheumy eyes and a scraggly beard looked out. "Oh, it's you. What'ca want?"

"To leave town," Focault replied. "As per our contract."

"Right, right." The man whistled shrilly. Hatches flew open all over the boat and people ranging from children to young adults older than Odegard boiled out. The man rattled off a string of orders in a patois that sounded similar to, but was not, the common tongue. The people leapt into action; Some of them grabbed up poles and prepared to get the boat under way; others boarded two other boats and prepared them. Moments later more kids arrived leading three horses: a big black, a slightly smaller and sleeker bay, and a rather tubby looking dappled gray. All three were quickly loaded onto the boat and secured in the livestock areas. "Now let's discuss my fee," the old man declared as he led Focault, Touissant, and Odegard into the deck house.

"You're already well paid," Touissant growled.

The old man shrugged. "Will I be able to come back here after spiriting you three away?"

"Ho much you do want if you can't?" Focault inquired, restraining Touissant with a hand.

"Forty trade bars," the man replied.

"What!" Touissant leapt to his feet. Unfortunately he forgot about the low overhead and cracked his head on a beam.

"All right," Focault replied calmly. He produced a money pouch and counted out the bars.

"Focault, are you actually paying this filthy bandit?" Touissant demanded, clutching his head.

"He could abandon us or call the guard," Focault pointed out. "As far as I'm concerned forty trade bars isn't too much to pay for my skin. Besides, if we killed him, who'd run the boat?"

Touissant grumbled but said nothing.

"Odegard, could you do something about this?" Focault asked, carefully taking off his sword and jacket.

"Doesn't look too bad," Odegard commented, inspecting Focault's shoulder. He produced a pipe from his backpack and played a tune. Sparkling blue light floated from the instrument's holes and settled on Focault's wound, which closed up.

"What about my head?" Touissant demanded.

Odegard glanced at it. "Oh, quit whining. You'll be fine in the morning."

Touissant growled but otherwise forbore to comment. "What do we do now?" he asked.

Focault settled his gear back in place, flexing his shoulder experimentally. "We'll have to leave the country for a while."

"Duh." Touissant rolled his eyes.

"Fortunately I happen to know just the place," Focault continued, pulling a message tube from his backpack. From it he extracted a roll of vellum. "We get out of the country and earn some money in the process."

"How?" Touissant wanted to know.

"Hunting animals for the arena," Focault replied. "The Emperor is holding a series of spectacles. Gladiators and wild animals, fighting to the death. The Emperor's agents will pay good money for suitably exotic beasts."

Touissant made a rude noise.

"Got a better idea?" Focault demanded.

"Just because I don't doesn't mean this one isn't completely stupid," Touissant groused.

"C'mon, man." Focault clapped Touissant on the shoulder. "It'll be a novel, exiting experience."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Touissant grumbled.

"Huh," Rafignar grunted, studying Focault's document closely. "Lesse if I got this right. You're a sorcerer, your pal here is a bard, and your other pal is a tracker?"

"Right," Focault agreed.

Rafignar's heavy brows drew together. "You don't seem like the type to take this sort of job, Magus Stane."

Focault shrugged. "I made some bad bets. I need money and I'd rather not meet the people I owe until I have the cash in hand."

"Huh. And your pals?"

"We all put up money for the bet so we're all responsible."

"Huh." Rafignar chewed on a thumbnail. "What'll the Prefects say if I ask 'em about you all?"

"Nothing," Focault replied with just a touch of sneering disdain. Imperial officials here in the capital would- correctly- see Lord Sargen as a pretentious little git from the sticks. He'd get a lot of runaround before the wheels of Imperial justice started turning. To make that period as long as possible Focault had offered modest bribes to several minor but strategically placed officials. They had two or three weeks before news of events in New Ironburg reached law enforcement officers on the streets. By then Rafignar's expedition should be well on its way.

"Huh." Rafignar rubbed his bulbous nose, then scratched it. "All right, then. One share for the tracker, one for the bard, and three for you. And that's my final offer."

"Come on," Focault cajoled. "Odegard's a healer as well as an entertainer. That has to be worth something." Rafignar glowered; Focault shrugged. "Our situation isn't so desperate we couldn't find another outfit more willing to appreciate our value," he commented.

"Faugh!" Rafignar snarled. "All right, then. Two shares for the bard. Don't think you'll be getting any more out of me, either!" He shook his finger at Focault, then spat on his palm and offered his hand. Focault did likewise and shook. "Come on, then," Rafignar grunted, slipping out of his chair. "I'll introduce you to the team."

Though a dwarf, and standing only about as high as Focault's chest, Rafignar looked like he didn't weigh a whole lot less. In fact he resembled nothing so much as a vertically compressed Terran who retained his mass and other dimensions. After dwarven fashion he wore a beard: long, curly, and bright, firey red, just the like the hair on his head, which explained why he was called Rafignar the Red. His clothing consisted of an embroidered tunic, leather pants, and boots.

In the courtyard in front of Rafignar's house three wagons waited, along with a handful of people. Rafignar summoned them together with a wave. Terrans, mostly, Focault noted. And one woman: short but incredibly well built, a fact which showed even through the cloak that covered her completely. She wore a composite longbow and a quiver slung over her shoulder and Focault noted how the cloak lay over a weapon, either a short sword or a rapier, slung at her hip. As she approached she lifted her face, pushing back the hood so she could see more easily.

Odegard drew a sharp breath, clutching Focault's arm in a death grip. "Focault!" he hissed. "She- she'd a dark elf!"

"Yes, I can see that." Focault replied calmly, prying loose Odegard's fingers. The woman had an oval face with features too fine, delicate, and perfect for a Terran. That in itself would have marked her but mattered little compared to her black skin. Not dark brown, like Touissant, but black like obsidian. Her full, sensuous lips were lavender, like her large, almond shaped eyes. Wavy, bone white hair framed her features; it was probably shoulder length or longer but she wore it tucked away inside her cloak. "So what's your point?" Focault added.

"The fact thatI'm a dark elf doesn't bother you?" the woman asked. Her voice sounded smooth and sultry and despite her size not the least bit squeaky or sharp.

Focault shrugged. "I'm a G'nami. Hardly the one to point fingers. Besides, if you were the sort to go around spreading death and destruction I doubt you'd be here."

The woman laughed. Her teeth were perfect and dazzlingly white. "How right you are," she agreed. A touch sadly, Focault thought.

"Callista is my chief hunter," Rafignar said. "She's in command. I hope none of you have a problem with that."

"Not me," Focault replied. As a G'nami he was accustomed to the idea of serving under women. On top of which he happened to know that all dark elves, male and female, received training in sorcerous and military arts. He didn't doubt for a moment that, despite her small size, Callista would be a formidable opponent.

"Focault here is a sorcerer," Rafignar began. "Odegard is a bard. And a healer." He cast a dark look at Focault. "Touissant is a tracker."

"A sorcerer, hmm?" Callista looked Focault up and down. "You seem much too good looking for this line of work, Focault."

A Terran probably would have taken the comment as a come-on. Focault almost did himself but sensed an undercurrent to the question. He also knew that dark elves, like G'nami, were matriarchal. Which meant, come to think of it, that one rarely- if ever- saw females out and about. "I have debts," he explained.

"I imagine you do," Callista replied.

"We're still provisioning," Rafignar said. "We plan to leave in five days or whenever the supplies arrive. You get in trouble, we leave you behind. Simple as that."

"Bet he'd bail the bitch out," Touissant muttered.

"You bet he would," Callista replied, one corner of her mouth quirking up into a half smile. "Because I'm worth something." She turned and walked away.

Focault found himself unable to tear his eyes away. Callista was much too short and skinny but she radiated an aura of power he found irresistible. He resolved then and there that before the expedition ended he'd have her.

"Guess I should have remembered that elves had good hearing," Touissant commented. He stared appreciatively at Callista's buttocks.

"Yes," Focault agreed. "You should." He didn't bother mentioning that Touissant had slightly less of a chance of bedding Callista than getting fellated by the Emperor.

"You bed in there," Rafignar directed, indicating a space that looked like it had until recently been a stable.

"Bed," Touissant said, still watching Callista. "Now that sounds like a good idea."

What is it with Terran men? Focault wondered to himself. They lust after women who'd never touch them except to run them through. When a compliant woman comes along they ignore her or treat her like shit. Then they whine about how they're not getting laid. He shook his head sadly.

"There can be no possible doubt that we are away," Touissant commented.

"For sure," Focault agreed.

The sailing ship Evening Star had carried them from the lush lands around the capital, across the wine dark sea, to the wild frontier of the Empire. As a testament to the Empire's vastness they'd sailed nearly three weeks and they still faced a long overland journey.

"Don't look very friendly," Touissant added.

"Nope," Focault agreed.

A rocky, forbidding coastline separated land from sea. Stands of odd looking trees with enormous, hanging leaves lined the shore. At the moment Morning Star made her way up a broad estuary; no sign of habitation marked the banks as far as the eye could see.

"Good afternoon," Callista said, walking up. She'd abandoned her cloak; her body was everything Focault had imagined, as perfectly formed as temple statue, her smooth, ebon skin textured by powerful, well defined muscles. A few dark purple scars marred her statuesque perfection but in Focault's eyes at least they only added to her character. He found it interesting that she apparently made no particular effort to conceal them. She wore armor consisting of a curiasse and kirtle made of stiffened leather reinforced with metal plates. One interesting feature of the suit was a cupped metal plate that covered only her left pectoral and breast. On a belt around her waist she carried a longsword; it looked a bit slimmer and lighter than usual but no less effective for it. Today she wore paired quivers on her back and her composite longbow slung around her torso.

"Good afternoon," Focault replied, giving a small bow. Touissant smiled a little.

"Where's Odegard?" Callista inquired.

"In his cabin," Touissant replied. "The sea doesn't agree with him."

Callista chuckled. "I don't much care for it myself. I prefer the forest."

Just then Odegard appeared on deck. Focault had always believed that Terrans turning green when they got sick was a poetic exaggeration but Odegard really did have a greenish cast to his countenance. He staggered to the leeward rail- he'd learned the hard way not to use the windward one- and threw up. Or at least retched some; he hadn't eaten in a while.

"Will we be setting out as soon as we land?" Focault inquired. Touissant found Odegard's discomfit amusing but that type of sickness could lead to serious problems if it went on too long.

Callista shook her head. "No, we'll lay over for a day or so." She leaned close to Focault, whispering conspiratorially. "Rafignar puts on a brave face but sea travel doesn't agree with him either."

"Is that where we're going?" Touissant inquired, pointing.

Up the estuary a settlement had become visible through the trees. Several jetties thrust out into the stream; a couple medium sized vessels, around the Morning Star's size, were already tied up.

"Yes," Callista replied. "That's Mys Dugar, which will be our base while we're in the field."

From his place by the tiller the captain bellowed orders. The crew scurried about, dropping and furling the sails. Morning Star drifted forward on momentum, slowed by the outflowing current. Focault didn't think they'd make it but the ship came to a halt just parallel to jetty. Crewmen tossed lines around bollards and made them fast.

Three people came up the pier. One was obviously an Imperial official, present to collect docking fees and taxes. The second-

"Omigosh!" Odegard exclaimed. He'd come up between Focault and Touissant; he looked remarkably better at the prospect of landing though he hadn't left the ship yet. "It's an Orc!"

The individual to whom Odegard referred stood about Focault's height, with massive muscles bulging through dark, hairy skin. Though otherwise humanoid the creature's face came forward into a pig like snout complete with protruding tusks. That it was a woman only made the image more striking; her scuffed and battered breastplate had cups to accommodate her enormous bosom. The rest of her clothing seemed to be made of cloth and leather stitched haphazardly together. The greatsword on her back, however, looked not only well made but well tended.

"Uruk," Focault corrected automatically. His mind wasn't on Odegard or the Uruk, though considering her height, ample breasts, and broad hips he might otherwise have found her worthy of attention. He only noticed the woman beside the Uruk. Because, quite simply, she was a G'nami.

The woman stood nearly as tall as her Uruk companion. Not as muscular, perhaps, and a certain excess of flesh softened even that; without her clothes she'd probably have a pot belly. She shared her companion's busty, hippy figure, but in a more refined, sculpted way. She shared Focault's soft, rounded features, right down to her black lips and golden eyes. Her straight, jet black hair hung down her back in a single braid. Like the Uruk she wore a breastplate- in much better condition- and a greatsword. In addition she carried a quiver and a composite longbow.

"That's Joanna and Urtha, two of our local agents," Callista explained as the gangway went out.

"Which is which?" Touissant inquired.

"Joanna is the G'nami and Urtha the Uruk," Callista replied.

"Urtha the Uruk." Touissant shook his head.

"She happens to be the granddaughter of my milk mother," Callista said with a hint of an edge in her voice. She added a glare that could have drawn blood.

"Oh." Touissant glanced at Callista as if she'd suddenly metamorphosed into a chimera. "Sorry," he muttered, edging away.

"What's Joanna's story?" Focault inquired in what he hoped was a casual tone.

"Urtha recruited her," Callista replied in an equally casual tone, but the look in her eyes indicated that she hadn't missed the byplay. "After a particularly successful hunt I took her to the capital. She wanted to-" Callista looked Focault and Touissant over thoughtfully. "She wanted to pleasure herself with a sweet, tender little Terran. Joanna was a guard at the brothel. In the fullness of time they became lovers."

Touissant opened his mouth. Focault gripped Touissant's arm, hard. "Not a word," Focault hissed. "She's baiting you. Even if it's all true, it's too late to back out now. Let it go, if you value your life." He glanced pointedly at Callisto. Touissant looked, and noticed that Callisto's

To Be Continued