Immortal Beloved
by John R. Plunkett

"Here you go, momma!" Glynhylde exclaimed, sliding a wooden tray in front of Azilka and whipping off the cover with a flourish. "I caught 'em myself just this morning." She smiled, clasped her hands behind her back, bounced on her toes, exuding pride from every pore.

"Ooh, darling, they look wonderful," Azilka declared, licking her muzzle in anticipation. The tray held two dozen tree-huggers that had been shelled, steamed, and basted with just a touch of fresh butter. "And they smell even better," Azilka added, leaning forward and inhaling deeply.

"Then you'll really like what I got for desert," Glyn added, positively vibrating with excitement. She brought out a basket and opened the lid.

"Oh, my," Azilka exclaimed, her eyes widening. The basket contained four earthworms. Which might not seem much, except that each of these worms was a good five feet long. "Dear, you are truly the best bug hunter there ever was." She pulled Glyn's face down and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

Glyn responded with an enthusiastic hug that left Azilka gasping for breath. Glyn stood a full two heads taller than her adopted mother and was as strong as an ox. That wasn't hyperbole, either; Glyn could swing a sledge one handed and drive a peg for the big top with two or three blows when even the most experienced roustabouts needed four to six. On top of that Glyn had four arms, which vastly magnified the effectiveness of her hugs.

"Uhhh," Azilka grunted. "Take it easy on your poor old momma's poor old bones, kiddo. She's too delicate for this kind of rough stuff." She ruffled Glyn's mane. "Now why don't you go help Falla with the dishes? She'll have something yummy for you, I'm sure."

Glyn snorted derisively. She'd seen her mother fight a Raw-and-Bloody Bones bare handed; Azilka was a lot tougher than she looked. Nevertheless she released Azilka and hurried off, ducking around a supply wagon and heading for the cookhouse. Falla's pastries were not to be missed. Especially by a growing girl with a well developed sweet tooth.

As she watched Glyn out of sight Azilka smiled, an expression that would have had Glyn blushing right to the tips of her ears if she'd seen it. Azilka couldn't get over how far Glyn had come from the sad, skinny, sickly child she'd been when Azilka had adopted her. It seemed like only yesterday; had it really been twelve years?

Glyn had been two, maybe two and a half when Azilka adopted her, so by now she had to be around fourteen. She looked it, too; she had that lean, rangy look kids get as they pass into adolescence and start shooting up like weeds. It was also the age when cute little girls blossom into gorgeous young fems, and Glyn was well along that road too. Being a rabbit she'd always had strong legs and a heavy pelvis; in recent years her hips and buttocks had rounded out considerably, as had her bosom. The young lads had definitely begun to take notice, especially since Glyn had an extra pair of breasts, just as she had an extra pair arms: two in the usual position and two more just below them.

Azilka's smile faded. Glyn was already taller than anyone else in the show, including Solvan, who was one of the tallest people Azilka had ever seen. And at that Glyn was still in the middle of adolescence; by the time she reached adulthood Azilka predicted that Glyn would be a lot bigger. Somewhere around eleven or twelve feet tall and she'd weigh as much as a full grown draft horse. Which actually wasn't so terribly unusual for someone who'd been Lashed. It explained the extra arms and breasts as well as the exceptional size and strength. Not to mention the strange circumstances under which Glyn had first come to Azilka's attention.

That had been while Azilka was still an independent performer. She'd found Glyn in a freak show; her mother- there was no mention of a father- had sold her to the show master. Azilka never learned any more than that, but based on her experience she could guess the rest. Glyn's mother had been one of those lucky few who was Lashed but didn't look it, or at least could easily hide it. She probably also belonged to fairly wealthy and influential family. Successful merchants or low level aristocrats; the sort who'd be most concerned with maintaining a "respectable" appearance, irregardless of (and most likely in spite of) the truth. Glyn may not have been unusually large at birth but her extra arms would be a dead giveaway. The fact that Glyn was visibly Lashed would call unwanted attention onto the entire family. The ancient fear and prejudice against Lashes persisted in Piedmont, even though a great many of them had settled there and lived lives as more or less normal as their conditions permitted. A Lash in the family would certainly ruin any hope Glyn's parents might have had for moving up in the aristocracy. So they got rid of the evidence, quietly and discreetly.

Azilka's eyes narrowed and her lips drew back in a snarl. Glyn was a sweet and wonderful child; that someone would throw her out like a piece of used clothing made Azilka see red. It could be argued that Glyn's parents weren't totally callous, given that a lot of Lashed babies- and ones people thought were Lashed, whether they were or not- were left to die or simply murdered outright. Nevertheless, it was perhaps a good thing Azilka had never managed to learn who Glyn's original parents were. Azilka might not have been able to resist the temptation to do something... extreme.

To turn her mind away from those dark thoughts Azilka picked up one of the tree-huggers and sampled it. She sighed happily; it was as delicious as to odor had promised. She worked her way through the batch, savoring each one.

Tree-huggers were small crustaceans about the length of a person's hand who, as their name suggested, were in the habit of clinging to the trunks trees. Their coloration made them very difficult to spot when they held still, especially against trees with highly textured bark. When not clinging to trees they scavenged for carrion or hunted for insects, worms, small animals, or anything else they could catch. They had claws, which could deliver a nasty pinch, but their prime method of defense was to flip their tails, which could send them shooting dozens or feet or more. This tactic was especially effective with a good surface to launch from, like the side of a tree. It also meant that hunting them took a certain amount of skill; one had to sneak up carefully without startling them. The less adventurous laid out basket traps, which he tree-huggers crawled into but couldn't escape. That method had the drawback that traps were often raided by other forest dwellers who also thought that tree-huggers made a nice snack, principally foxes and wolves.

With the last tree-hugger gone Azilka licked her fingers, then turned her attention to the basket of worms. Technically speaking she wasn't the only insectivore in the show but Rosten had taught himself to eat more conventional food. Most likely, Azilka suspected, so he could compliment Falla on her cooking. None of the other performers would say anything but Azilka knew that most of them found it disturbing to watch her suck down live worms as if they were noodles and munch on handfuls of beetles as if they were hard candy. So Azilka ate by herself, on a folding table set up outside her wagon.

In truth, however, Azilka's dietary preferences were only part of the reason she ate by herself. She was old; much older than she looked. Over the years she'd learned to live in the moment, to keep up with the current generation and act as if she were a part of it, even though she really wasn't. But for all that she cultivated friends and truly enjoyed their company, there were times she simply wanted to be herself. The period she chose was mealtime. It might seem strange to some that she chose something so prosaic, but over the years she'd learned that what people thought was important really didn't matter in the long run. What mattered most were the small, ordinary, human things. Life ended soon enough; far too soon for most. Great works were forgotten and turned to dust. Azilka didn't believe for a minute that her own great works would outlast her any more than had those of all the people who'd come before her. For which she was grateful; far too many of her great works had been decidedly unpleasant. Small, human kindnesses- like adopting Glyn- where what gave Azilka satisfaction.

That was the real reason Azilka dined alone. When she let herself be herself those old sins bubbled to the surface. Her dining companions would see them reflected in her eyes. Seeing them shocked and alarmed people far more that watching her eat live bugs ever could.

As she slurped down one of her worms Azilka suddenly felt a chill, as if a cloud had passed in front of the sun. Her head snapped up, her eyes intently scanning the scene before her.

The sky was brilliant blue and utterly cloudless. The sun shone brightly, making the air warm and balmy. From where Azilka sat, on the steps of her wagon, a field of grass stretched away to the trees at the edge of the clearing in which the circus had set up. The cages in which the ring stock were kept framed the view on the left and the wagons belonging to Lorsha, Solvan, and Shakiri did the same on the right. The grass had been trampled and rutted somewhat as the show set up, but not unduly. In short, there wasn't a single thing out of place.

Azilka's ears twitched. They were every bit as acute as their size suggested; several wagons separated Azilka from the cookhouse but she distinctly heard Rosten telling a joke. Solvan laughed uproariously along with everyone else, then cursed as he spilled a drink on himself. Glyn gave Rosten a hug; she didn't make any sound but the way in which Rosten's breath came out in a whuff was unmistakable. Falla shuffled dishes and flatware. Tiny, the elephant, placidly chewed his hay. Abelard turned a page of his latest book. Mei and Lei, the tigresses, nuzzled one another and purred contentedly. Prince Charming, the cougar, yawned and stretched. Abigor, the dragon-snake, was once again chewing on the bars of his enclosure. In other words, utterly normal sounds.

But one thing Azilka heard was not normal. Or rather, it was what she didn't hear. The woods at the edge of the clearing had fallen silent. Azilka rose to her feet and opened her Third Eye.

Despite its location in the middle of Azilka's forehead, most people didn't notice the Third Eye until Azilka actually made use of it. Open, it was quite striking: about the same size and shape as her regular eyes, and the same bright, vivid green, but the Third Eye utterly lacked any trace of a pupil or an iris. Moreover, such was its intensity that it almost seemed to glow with a strange, inner light of its own. People found its gaze unsettling to downright frightening, and well that they should; it couldn't see in the usual way but through it Azilka perceived a great deal that lay hidden to ordinary sight.

Under the gaze of the Third Eye the sky turned black. Not merely dark but completely black, like the roof of a cave. Even the sun disappeared. The grass and trees lost their color but remained visible, glowing faintly with a soft, warm light of their own. Wagons, tents, ropes, and other inanimate objects vanished entirely, except for a very faint glow emanating from cracks and crevices. People and animals also lost their color and showed up as luminous forms, but they glowed much more clearly brightly than did plats. Also, they showed clearly even through barriers that were, to normal sight, opaque. Zern and Rapp were practicing in the big top, warming up for the afternoon show. Voles and field mice moved through the grass, normally hidden but revealed to Azilka because of their glow. A family of them seemed to have taken up residence in Tiny's fodder.

Directly in front of Azilka, in the trees just past the edge of the clearing, blackness boiled from a point in the air that would be about chest height for a typical person. The shadow was as dark as the sky and not at all transparent; though it settled to the ground and flowed out across it like mist, nothing showed through it at all, even at the edges. The feeling of cold intensified.

Azilka leapt, spreading her wings to extend the distance. . The table fell over with a crash, spilling the basket of worms onto the grass. Azilka landed on all fours and took off running.

People who thought bats were ungainly on the ground had never seen Azilka in action. She did have wings where other people had arms, and compared to arms the limbs supporting the wings seemed very bony and attenuated. But that was because the wing limbs were much longer than arms; the wings were actually quite muscular but when fully spread spanned a distance more than two and a half times her height. That might seem to make them ungainly when not in use but in fact the membranes furled very snugly against the limbs and the members analogous to fingers in a hand folded back against the forearm, keeping them nicely out of the way. The length of the wing limbs was such that Azilka could move very easily and comfortably on all fours, walking on the equivalent of her knuckles after the fashion of a gorilla. In fact, she could move more quickly than could a someone of her equivalent size and build running on two legs in the typical fashion.

Once in the trees Azilka dropped to a crouch, almost on her belly, her legs drawn up under her and tensed for a spring. Even in that short time the mysterious shadow had spread a considerable distance.


No cloud had passed in front of the sun; the day was warm and balmy, the sky brilliantly blue without a cloud in sight. Nor was there anything the slightest bit unusual within her field of view; just an expanse of grass leading up to the edge of the clearing in which the circus had set up, framed on one side by the ring stock pens and on the other by Lorsha's, Shakiri's, and Solvan's wagons, parked in a line of which Azilka's was the last. The forest was not particularly dark or dangerous; woodcutters went out there all the time.

But something was most definitely wrong. The forest looked normal but didn't sound it. Azilka's ears were every bit as acute as their size suggested; what they heard now was... nothing. The circus was making all the sounds one would expect as everyone ate their lunch and prepared for the afternoon show. The forest, however, had fallen eerily silent.

Azilka opened her Third Eye. Like her regular eyes it was a bright, vivid green; unlike them the color was solid, with no trace of a pupil or iris. That didn't matter; it didn't need them. The Third Eye didn't see light, it saw life.

To the Third Eye's gaze the sky was utterly black, like the roof of a cave; the sun, the moons, and the stars didn't show up at all. Close to the horizon there was a very, very faint glow, like haze on an otherwise clear day. On the ground, all the elements of the scene appeared to have been replaced by glowing, translucent images of themselves, like sculptures made of glass and illuminated from within. People and animals glowed the brightest and formed very precise images. Plants glowed less brightly but were nonetheless distinct. Inanimate objects glowed only very faintly, revealed mostly by highlights clinging to their edges. Because of this


Moreover, with the Third Eye open the color of all Azilka's eyes seemed to intensify, as if they glowed with strange, inner light. The Third Eye didn't see in the usual sense but it did perceive; under its gaze the scene changed radically. They sky turned black. Not like night but completely black, like the roof of a cave, without sun, moon, or stars to relieve it. The grass, the brush, and the trees faded out, leaving behind ghostly, translucent images of themselves that glowed faintly with a warm, rosy light. People and animals left the same kinds of images but sharper and brighter. Tents, wagons, ropes, and other inanimate objects faded but didn't quite dissapear, as if they were made of glass that caught reflections from the glowing images around them. Nevertheless they were very much transparent;


dissapeared completely. People and animals which had previously been concealed sprang into view, revealed by glowing images Color faded from the grass, brush, and trees; instead they glowed faintly with a soft, rosy light. , replaced by a soft, rosy light that seemed to come from within , like at night, but without even stars to relieve it. Even the sun itself disappeared. Color faded from the grass and trees; instead they glowed faintly with soft, rosy light. Wagons, tents, ropes, and other inanimate objects faded from view; people and animals which had previously been hidden now sprang into view, illuminated by a bright internal glow to which the interposing objects were entirely transparent. And the forms themselves were translucent; Wagons and tents faded completely from view; people or animals within or behind them showed up as luminescent forms that glowed more brightly and distinctly than did the grass and trees but were otherwise not fundamentally different in character from the grass and trees. Animals lurking in the trees and brush sprang into view, revealed by their brighter glow which shone through foliage which had formerly concealed them.


In fact, it resembled nothing so much as a firey green opal, set in her brow like the centerpiece of a grown. It seemed almost to glow, flickering with a strange, inner light of its own. Though located in the center of her forehead it was otherwise much the same as her regular eyes in size Though located in the center of her forehead it was the same generl size and shape as her Located in the center of her forehead, it was the same general size and shape as her regular ones. It was the same color- bright, vivid green- but it lacked any trace of a pupil or iris. It was located right in the middle of her forehead; , even given that Piedmont was still something of a frontier; Harmon's Reach- the town by which the circus had set up- was near the coast and therefore relatively safe. There were still wandering undead and Aberrations to be found, but for the most part only on the far side of the mountains.


only beyond the mountains where prudent people didn't go.

Since the threat didn't yield to her normal senses Azilka opened her Third Eye. Given it's location right in the middle of her forehead it might seem difficult to hide, but the fact was most people didn't realize she had it until she actually used it. Like her regular eyes it was a bright, vivid green; unlike them it utterly lacked any trace of a pupil or iris. In fact, it resembled nothing so much as a firey green opal, set in her brow like the centerpiece of a grown. It seemed almost to glow, flickering with a strange, inner light of its own. It didn't see in the usual sense of the word but it didn't need to; Azilka's regular eyes were excellent. What the Third Eye did see lay far beyond the ken of ordinary sight. Under it's gaze the scene before Azilka changed radically. Wagons, tents, ropes, tools, and other inanimate objects also faded from view. The grass and trees lost their color but glowed faintly with a soft, warm light. People in wagons and animals in their pens, previously hidden from view, suddenly became visible, revealed by the bright glow of life that radiated from them and to which wood, metal, and canvas seemed entirely transparent. Even the glowing figures were somewhat translucent; where two overlapped the one behind showed through the one in front, as if they were made of glass.

Back in the trees, where

********** As Azilka turned it on the scene, the view seemed to change dramatically. The sky turned dark, as if at night, despite the sun's presence. Color faded from the grass and the trees, replaced by a cool, silvery, translucent glow. Wagons and tents faded completely from view; people or animals within or behind them showed up as luminescent forms that glowed more brightly and distinctly than did the grass and trees but were otherwise not fundamentally different in character from the grass and trees. Animals lurking in the trees and brush sprang into view, revealed by their brighter glow which shone through foliage which had formerly concealed them.

Against this pale, glowing backdrop Azilka saw a darkness appear. It welled out from a point in the air, about chest height for a typical person, back amidst the trees. The darkness sank to the forest floor and spread out across it like cold mist, with tendrils and eddies reaching out like questing fingers. But that's wasn't all; the darkness also flowed up the trunks of trees and over obstacles in its path, something no normal mist would ever do. Not to mention that the tendrils really did seem to be questing, like something alive. Lastly, and most importantly, Azilka couldn't see through it. However ephemeral the darkness seemed it was completely and utterly black, with absolutely none of the diaphanous nature of real mist. Besides, real mist would be invisible to the Third Eye, just as were rocks, the wagons, and other inanimate objects. The darkness was clearly animate and directed. But not alive.

Azilka spread her wings and leapt, her lunch forgotten. The folding table fell over, spilling the worm basket on the ground. Azilka used her wings to stretch her leap, gliding rather than truly flying; she landed in a run, quickly dropping to all fours. Though she was a bat her forelimbs were actually remarkably well suited to running on all fours; for one they were much longer than the arms of a typical person, and for another the wing membranes furled snugly against the spars, keeping them out of the way. The distal phalanges, which would be the fingers in a normal hand, folded under and lay against the forearms, so effectively she ran on her knuckles, like certain kinds of apes. Like those apes, Azilka could move a lot more quickly this way than persons unacquainted with that style of locomotion would readily believe. Certainly much faster than she could run on two legs. The flight muscles in her chest were actually much denser and stronger than the ones in her lower body. Once in the trees Azilka dropped to a crouch. Not for cover, but so she'd be ready to spring. People who thought bats were ungainly on the ground hadn't seen Azilka in action. She'd lived a very, very long time in a role in which she'd never been seriously expected to survive. Others- very, very many others- hadn't. So many others that she hadn't seen another of her kind for... years and years. Far longer than she cared to think about. For all she knew she was the last. Which was oddly appropriate since she'd also been one of the first.

The strange darkness had reversed its flow and was drawing back toward its point of origin. It slowly humped up in the center, as if something were rising from the pool of shadow. Azilka still couldn't see it with her regular eyes but she could smell it. Which might seem strange because really it had no smell. It was a cold and empty smell, like that of the eternally frozen tundra far, far away to the north. Which was appropriate, Azilka decided, because as the shadow drew back the warm glow of life did not return to the trees and brush the darkness had passed over. It drained life from everything it touched as thoroughly as did the arctic cold. More so, even, since even in the high tundra there were creatures who could survive. Where the darkness passed nothing survived, nothing at all. Even the soil itself was dead, utterly bereft of the teeming life that normally filled it. Azilka tensed; any moment now-

Something emerged from the darkness. Or rather, the exact opposite happened: the darkness retreated within an object it had apparently been covering. That object was a young skunk fem of somewhat more than average height and considerably more than average weight; her hips and buttocks were quite prominent and fleshy, her torso and limbs as soft as an overstuffed armchair. Her breasts were not merely large but unnaturally so; each one was conspicuously larger than her head and hung down to her waist. Even at that they were curiously firm and round; normal breasts that size should have sagged a lot more than these did. Despite their size, the breasts did not entirely conceal the presence of four ancillary nipples, arranged in a neat square on the fem's prominent abdomen, neatly framing her belly button. Moreover, from the fem's lower back sprang a pair of long, graceful wings. Not membranous, like Azilka's, but feathered. The fem held them canted slightly forward across her shoulders; nevertheless the tips of the primaries brushed the ground.

Azilka noted all that in passing but what really mattered to her was that the retreating darkness withdrew into the fem's body but remained, just below her skin. She was not the shadow's victim, as Azilka had first thought. She was it's vessel. Azilka sprang, spreading her wings to extend her leap. She'd never seen a creature like this before, nor anything even remotely like it, but that it was undead there could be no possible doubt. Therefore Azilka would destroy it, no matter what it looked like. Doing so was the only reason for her existence, at the heart of it.

A close examination of Azilka's wings would reveal that they were really nothing but arms that had been stretched out and had fleshy membrane added in order to form a flight surface. The structures analogous to hands had the usual five digits; the pinky, ring, and middle fingers were stretched out into spars that supported the outer ends of the wing. The index finger was only about half the length of the middle one and lay close to it, forming the edge of a narrow flap at the leading edge of the wing. The thumb was free of the membrane and very long- as long as a regular person's hand, from wrist to fingertip- and equipped with a large, hooked claw for aid in climbing. However, Azilka had an extra finger, essentially a second index finger that, like the thumb, was also free of the membrane. This finger was about the same length of the thumb and distinguished from it only in having a straight rather than hooked claw. As Azilka leapt the claws on her second index fingers turned from their normal black to shimmering green, then grew into long, glowing blades of light. If the Third Eye wasn't enough by itself she had other weapons at her disposal.

Then a very strange thing happened. The fem dropped to the ground, sobbing and quaking with terror, shielding her face with her hands. Instead of slashing with her claws Azilka landed short. In truth, she was confused. Nothing like this had ever happened before. In her experience undead were hateful creatures; they never hesitated to attack and they never showed the slightest hit of remorse. Above all they never showed any fear. It didn't make the slightest difference if they couldn't possibly win; they'd attack anyway simply for the opportunity to kill, even at he cost of their own destruction.

It came as a rather brutal shock to Azilka that right now she was acting in that exact same way. Her Third Eye, which was far and away her most powerful and effective weapon, could find no purchase on the swirling, amorphous darkness which seemed to be the core of this fem's being. Nevertheless Azilka had been ready to attack with her claws, without knowing or caring if they'd work. She'd fight until she won or was destroyed; nothing else mattered.

Even so, the entire purpose for Azilka's existence was the destruction of undead. To hesitate went against all her instincts, which had kept her alive when many, many others had died. Still, it was indisputably so that the Purity knew no fear, no pity, no remorse. Azilka had become very good at detecting dissembling; this fem's terror was as real as it could get. And what she feared was Azilka.

In her life Azilka had done a lot of terrible, terrible things. Most by far had been clearly necessary: for her own survival, for the survival of her friends, for the very survival of free life on Aerthye. But a few of them... they had seemed necessary at the time but with hindsight she wasn't so sure. As she grew older the number of those ambiguous cases grew. It was true that life forced her to make hard choices, but most of the trouble came from things she'd done long ago which had seemed simple and clear cut at the time but became increasingly less so in retrospect. How many times had she dispensed suffering and death simply because it was easier than trying to find some other solution? If she didn't care about the people she was ostensibly here to protect, how was she any different from the Purity?

Azilka was still shaking, but not from adrenaline. She swallowed, trying to force down a lump in her throat. It was very, very important to her that she not be like the Purity. She'd adopted Glyn primarily to prove to herself that there was still something good, something decent, something human left in herself. Over her life Azilka had come across many, many wayward children; she'd done what she could for them, mainly finding parents who would appreciate and look after them. She'd kept Glyn because Glyn refused to be parted from her. Glyn didn't want another momma; she wanted Azilka. That had happened before, but this particular time Azilka's will had failed at the moment of decision. Azilka had rationalized it by saying that finding parents for Glyn was taking too long, but the truth was that Azilka had needed a baby just as much as Glyn had needed a momma. And the twelve years they'd been together were far and away the best of Azilka's long, long life. Even knowing that they must inevitably come to an end didn't dim the joy in Azilka's heart. For the last decade Azilka had felt truly... human. In a way she hadn't felt in a long, long time.

"It's okay, baby," Azilka said softly, kneeling and stroking the fem's face and head. Azilka's Third Eye closed, vanishing once more into the fur of her forehead and the blades of light faded away. Azilka kept up the stroking and speaking a gentle, reassuring tone, until the fem stopped crying and shivering.

To Azilka's normal vision the fem's appearance was hardly any less striking than it had been to the Third Eye. The fem's pelt was pure white, like some albinos Azilka had seen. Except that albinos had pink skin, where it was visible; this fem's skin- on her hands, her lips, her nipples, and inside her ears, for instance- was not pink but bloodless white with a tinting of blue, like a drowning victim pulled fresh from the water. A mask of very pale lavender covered the top half of her face, outlining a white blaze running up the bridge of her nose and onto her forehead, which wouldn't otherwise be visible. Her mane was white, long and mildly wavy, hanging all the way down to her hips and somewhat irregular, as if it had never been cut. The pale lavender markings reappeared on the back of her neck, covering her back all the way from her shoulders to the tops of her buttocks and outlining a pair of white stripes running parallel to her spine from the back of her head all the way to the base of her tail. The entire tail was lavender tinted, except of a pair of white stripes around the periphery of the top, curving together at the base and tip. On top, the wings were lavender tinted on the coverets, near the leading edge, but with pure white primaries, secondaries, and tertials. Underneath, the wings were white with faint, lavender speckles. Structurally, the wings reminded Azilka more of a gull's than a hawk's, as the coloration- especially the speckling- might suggest. Another curious thing was the fem's feet, which were proportionally shorter and wider than typical, making them look somewhat more paw-like. In addition they sported enormous, non-retractable claws that reminded Azilka somewhat of a bear's. As to eye color and appearance Azilka couldn't say, because the fem didn't have any; her eye sockets were filled with folds of tissue as if she'd been born without them. Another curious fact was that the fem, though quite obviously undead, breathed normally. She even had a heartbeat and a pulse, which explained the color in her flesh, even though it wasn't lifelike. Furthermore, her body temperature was noticeably less than normal. Azilka didn't see the point of creating a creature that only partially mimicked being alive, but it reinforced her certainty that this fem was not of the Purity. It cared nothing for aesthetics; it's creatures were invariably frightful.

"Come along, darling," Azilka cooed, wrapping her wings around the fem and impelling her to her feet. "I have a daughter about your age. She'll love to meet you." That was, Azilka had to admit, a bit of a stretch; this fem was clearly an adult, albeit a young one: nineteen to twenty-one or thereabouts. Of course, being undead meant her actual age didn't necessarily equate to her appearance; she might actually be younger or much, much older. Azilka, for instance, looked barely old enough to have a teenaged daughter. If she'd looked her true age she would have been dead a long, long time ago. Here and now, the fem reacted to Azilka's presence more like a child than an adult, despite her appearance, but that didn't necessarily mean anything either. Severe emotional trauma could unman anyone; Azilka had seen it happen many, many times. "What's your name, dear?" she asked, escorting the fem out of the woods and toward Azilka's wagon.

The fem made a gasping sound.

"I'm sorry?" Azilka prompted, leaning close and rubbing the fem's shoulders.

"Uh..." the fem whispered. It sounded more like a word and less like a gasp but only slightly so. "Um.." she tried again.

"Shhh, it's okay," Azilka soothed. "Your voice is raw; you can barely speak. Come into my wagon and sit down. Nothing will hurt you there, I promise. Glyn won't mind a guest for as long as it takes for you to recover."

Just then Glyn burst back onto the scene, a quarter pole in one hand. She held it as casually as a regular person would hold a quarterstaff; the quarter pole was a good twelve feet long and as big around as the width of an average person's hand.

To Be Continued