Portals of Infinity

 

Nikki's Origin

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published by John Van Stry

Copyright 2015 John Van Stry

 


Copyright John Van Stry 2015

 

 

No part of this eBook may be reproduced in any form without expressed, written consent from the author.

Any resemblance between characters in this story and people living or dead is purely coincidental. This is a work of fiction created by the author and the author retains all rights to the material in this story.

 

License Notes

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

P27694FW

 


 

 

One

 

 

"So, what do you think? The blue one or the red one?"

I sighed and glanced over at the client, Staci Christakos . She was a nineteen year old airhead with only two things on her mind, and right now she was indulging in one of them. I took in the outfit she was posing in front of the mirror in, she looked good in it, being blessed with rather impressive looks, and then turned to keep an eye on the people in the store once more.

"Do you want them to drool, or do you want them to beg?" I asked as I watched a pair entering the front, as the front desk clerk buzzed them in. The outfit she was trying on cost more money than I made in a month, so the management didn't let just anyone come inside.

"I think drooling would be fine for tonight!" She said with a giggle.

"The blue one." I said and kept my eyes on the new entries. They'd split up, almost immediately, the woman going over to look at the dresses, the man was heading over to the accessories.

She didn't seem to be paying that much attention to the styles, and he didn't look like the type who accessorized to me.

"Hmmm, I don't know, I think I liked the red one more," Staci said.

"Well you would know better than I would," I said watching the two of them, "your fashion sense is just so much keener than mine."

"You think so?" Staci said, and I could hear the pout in her voice.

"Why don't you go try the red one on again, just to be sure?" I said. I wanted her out of sight. Something was obviously about to happen here, and the last thing I wanted was Miss Airhead out in the open. It didn't matter which damn dress she bought, she'd be out of it an hour after the party started and in bed with whoever got her attention.

Alley cats in heat were more discerning than Staci was.

"Okay!" She said brightly and scampered back off to the dressing room. I saw the sales girl shoot me one of 'those' looks as she sighed and started to follow Staci back there, in case she needed help.

I grabbed her arm, and stopped her.

"Is there a phone in the back?" I asked softly.

"Of course there is," she said looking at me funny.

"Go call 911, tell them you're about to be robbed." I said keeping my voice down and moving towards the back.

"Robbed!" The girl cried out, and the man and the woman both turned and looked at her, and of course me.

"Aw shit!" I swore and dropped to the floor as they pulled out guns and started shooting.

The salesgirl fell next to me, the shocked look on her face was still locked on it, she'd been shot twice, and if she wasn't dead already, she would be soon. The firing stopped almost immediately, and the man started to order everyone to the back of the store in a loud accented voice.

I crawled into the dressing rooms, and looked to see who was here. Staci was on the floor, on her hands and knees, and she was peeking around the corner at me.

"Time for us to go," I said and getting into a crouch, I came over and grabbed her hand, helping her up and then heading for the stockroom. Hopefully there would be a fire exit or something.

"Shouldn't you do something?" Staci asked me. She was panting, and I got the strangest feeling that she was getting off on this.

"I am doing something," I told her. "I'm getting you out of here. Your father doesn't pay us to stop stores from getting robbed. He pays us to keep you safe."

"But the people in there, they could be killed!"

"Not unless they do something stupid," I said.

We came to the door, it had one of those door alarm units on it, so once I opened it, everyone in the store would know that someone just went out the back.

I looked around, I could hear that people were heading this way, I didn't know if it was the robbers, or the customers, but they'd already killed one person and it was likely that they'd kill all the rest to get rid of any witnesses. Trigger-happy idiots tended to do that these days, especially since the death penalty was taken off the books.

I pulled out my gun, grabbed an extra magazine in my other hand and looked at Staci. "Do what I tell you to, when I tell you to. Understand?"

"Okay!" She said and smiled, not filling me with much confidence at all.

I hit the door release and the alarm started to scream as I pushed it open and looked outside, and then ducked back in quickly. There was a man out there, and he had a gun, and he didn't look friendly.

"Aren't we going out?" Staci said confused.

"Quiet!" I growled at her. I couldn't hear much over the screaming of the alarm, I figured whoever was in front would be here soon, and I knew they wouldn't hesitate to shoot.

"Stay!" I yelled at Staci, then I dropped to the floor and stuck my head out, bring my gun around at the same time. The guy had his gun aimed high, and I shot him twice before he could move his aim down to the ground where I was.

I looked around quickly, as I scrambled to my feet, there was a dumpster and I grabbed Staci and dragged her over to it.

"Hey, this thing is all greasy!" She said as I pushed her down behind it, and behind me.

"Too bad,"

"But it's ruining my outfit!"

"Blood will ruin it even more," I growled and pushed her down again, taking cover myself. I didn't want to chance running down the alleyway, someone could come out that door and we'd be an easy shot.

Plus I had no idea how many other people might be involved in this. At least in this part of town gunshots should bring a pretty fast response. I switched magazines in the pistol, then swapped the used one with the other full one I had. It may only be two shots, but my forty-five only held eight. People kept telling me I should switch to one of the nine millimeters, because of the larger magazine size.

Maybe I'd check out one of the new Sigs when this was over. A girl could never have too much jewelry or too many guns after all.

I continued to check the alley and the door, trying to stay in cover as best I could. Staci at least was staying still and staying quiet.

There was a gunshot, and she yelped. The alarm on the door had stopped; I guess they had found it as annoying as I had?

"Jerry?" I heard a man's voice call, and the door started to open. I heard swearing then, so I pumped four rounds into the door, I was stacking hydroshocks with ball ammo, and I was sure one of those should get through!

Sure enough, I heard a scream, and they must have fallen back inside, because the door slowly closed again.

I looked at Staci as I switched magazines once again, her eyes were wide and she had her fingers in her ears.

The door flew back open then, someone must have kicked it. The woman from the store was in the entryway; she had one of the salespeople in front of her, and was holding her gun to their head.

"Come out, or I will shoot her!" She called out.

"You shoot her, and you'll lose your cover, and I'll shoot you," I called back. I really couldn't believe she was that stupid.

"I'll kill her!" she said.

"So? You'll kill her anyway, and me too if I surrender. What do you think I am, stupid?"

"We'll kill everyone in there!"

"I'm not giving you my client, so suck it!"

"I'll show you I mean business!" She said and shot the saleswoman in the leg.

The saleswoman screamed rather loudly as she was shot, dropping down to the ground. The woman who shot her grabbed at her to try and hold her up, so her gun was of course pointed down still from the shot and her eyes were watching the salesgirl more than they were watching me.

It was almost too easy. I got a clean target and took it, getting her in the left eye. I swore, I'd been aiming between the eyes, more range time I guess.

"Shouldn't we go help her?" Staci asked, motioning towards the screaming saleswoman on the ground, who was holding her leg where she'd been shot.

"No. You're safe, and you're staying that way. We sit here and wait for the police."

"But, she might die!" Staci said.

I glanced at her surprised, "You actually care?" I said and went back to scanning the alley for any more threats.

"Of course I care!" She said, sounding a little outraged.

"Wow, and here I thought you were what the guys in my old unit called a 'party girl'," I said and gave my head a shake. "Nice to know there's more to you than that."

"What's a 'party girl'?" Staci asked.

"Something rude," I chuckled. "I don't know how many of the bad guys there are, and they should have cleared out as soon as I killed one. She won't bleed to death from a leg wound, so let's just wait and watch."

"If you say so," Staci fretted and kept watching the girl.

 

The police showed up about five minutes after that, but they didn't do anything until the SWAT team showed up ten minutes later. I'd put my gun back in its holster by then, and I had my ID in my hand, and was holding it up in the air when they started to sweep the alley.

After that it was all just paperwork and after action reports for the police. Staci was released as soon as her father showed up with a pair of bodyguards, one for him, and one to replace me for her.

I got questioned, re-questioned, and cross-examined. It was two in the morning when they finally let me go. Someone from the company came and picked me up, and drove me back to the office, where surprise, surprise, my boss, Mister Dave Addison was waiting.

"Nikki," he said.

"I want a shower," I grumbled at him.

"You can shower after we debrief," he said motioning towards his office.

I pushed by him. "I'm going to take a shower and get in some clean clothes. You want to debrief? Fine, we can talk while I get clean!"

"Nikki!"

"Give it a rest David!" I said and started to unbutton my blouse. The 'nice' clothes we were required to wear were hot, and the local yahoo's had been keeping me in warm rooms all day while they tried to sweat me. I was hot, sticky, and I stunk. I pushed open the door to the women's locker room, then stopped and looked back at him.

"You coming?" I asked.

"I can't go in there!"

"Oh please, like you haven't see a naked woman before. Have Jefferson join you if you're so worried. I promise to keep my hands to myself."

"But Jefferson is ..." He sighed and shook his head. "I'll wait until I hear the water going.

I shrugged, "Suit yourself."

I went inside to my locker, got out a clean set of clothing, I always kept a backup set here, plus a towel and the usual soap and shampoo stuff and after stripping quickly I hopped into one of the stalls and turned on the water. Thankfully they had a good water heater here and within a minute I was letting the nice clean hot water wash over my face and clean all the grime away.

Something about a nice hot shower, it washes everything away, including all of the day's frustrations.

A couple of minutes later I heard my boss, David Addison come into the room.

"I don't like this, Nikki," he said.

"What, afraid I'll try and jump your bones?" I asked with a laugh and started in with the soap.

"Yeah, actually, I am. I know how shootouts affect most people."

I laughed again, "Good point, six hours ago I would have been asking you to come in here and help me get clean."

"So, tell me what happened."

I went over it all then, telling him everything that happened, including what went on with the police. By the time I had finished I was rinsing out my hair for the last time. I don't wear it all that long, though I do wear it longer now than I did in army, so as not to stand out too much.

"Hand me that towel," I said pointing outside of the shower when I had finished rinsing.

He handed it to me, and I started drying off in the stall.

"So, do you think it was a robbery, or a kidnapping attempt?" Dave asked.

"I have no idea. If the stupid salesgirl hadn't freaked out, we probably could have gotten out of there without any shooting."

"But they did follow you out, and had the back door staked out."

"Yeah, there is that," I agreed, "but half the clientele in there are rich, plus I never saw them scoping out Staci, so," I shrugged and stepped out of the shower with the towel wrapped around me. "So, I don't know. Now excuse me while I get dressed."

"I'll wait outside," David sighed and left the room.

"Damn," I said softly to myself, I was just about to ask him to help too.

 

 

I yawned and looked at the clock; it was late, ten in the morning. I hadn't gotten home until almost four a.m. and had hoped to sleep in later, but old habits died hard, so after six hours I was ready to go.

I had today off, because of yesterday's shootout. I stumbled out of the bedroom in my panties and looked around. The answering machine's light was flashing, I kept the bells turned off, so if someone called me, I wouldn't get woken up.

Heading into the kitchen I turned on the Mister Coffee and started a pot going, then rummaged around the fridge looking for something to eat.

Oh well, frozen waffles again, hard to believe you could actually miss the mess hall, but at least it was always there and you didn't have to cook it yourself.

I put them in the toaster, and went over to the front door of my apartment. I checked the peephole first, no one was out there, so I opened the door a crack and grabbed the paper and closed it again.

At least I didn't flash anybody this time.

Sure enough, the shootout had made the front page. I grabbed my coffee and headed over to the small table in my apartment's dining area, and sat down to read it.

The story confirmed that the first salesgirl was dead, and that the two people inside the store had both died. Apparently the one I had wounded through the door had bled out enough that by the time they got him to the hospital, he was dead.

There had been a fourth person outside the front of the store, but they got away before the police showed up.

There were interviews with several of the people who were inside the store, and another with the girl who had been wounded in the back. She had some very unkind words to say about me apparently, because I hadn't surrendered and I'd let her get shot. Fortunately she had no idea who I was, nor who I had been guarding.

I'm sure Staci's dad was making sure that no one found out about his daughter being there either.

No one was quite sure what the motive was, it didn't really look like a straight up robbery. There was some speculation that it might have been a multiple kidnapping attempt. There were several people in that store who were worth money, oh none of them were worth the kind of money Staci's family had, but they still had some.

I wondered if it could have been some sort of takeover deal, like I'd heard of pulled off in a few cities in Europe. Come in, take the place over and bunker down, then get lots of publicity for your 'cause' while demanding lots of money and other things. The people who did them rarely got away, but there were always a few more idiots who were willing to try, thinking that 'this time' they could do it 'right' and get away with it.

If there was one thing that I'd learned in the army, it was that human stupidity knew no bounds.

I shrugged, whatever, they were all just so much cold meat now.

I went and got my waffles and ate, then checked the messages on the phone. Dave wanted me to come into the office when I got up. Other than that, nothing important.

So I took a shower, did my hair, a little makeup, got dressed in something comfortable and got in my car and drove into the office.

 

"Nikki," Dave said as I walked in, "close the door please?"

"Oh that doesn't sound good," I said and shutting the door I went and took a seat across from his desk.

"I'm going to have to put you on the bench for a while."

"Why?" I asked looking at him.

"The guy you shot? The one outside? Turns out he and Staci were having a bit of a 'thing'."

I sighed and shook my head, "So she's all pissed that I killed her boyfriend?"

"No, her dad is pissed that she was sleeping with a small time terrorist and has shipped her ass back to Greece and enrolled her in a school that would make a convent look luxurious."

I looked at him surprised. "Say what?"

"It was a set up, they were going to kill a bunch of people, and take her to hold her ransom. She was told that they were just going to stage a kidnapping, and get a bunch of money so she and her new boyfriend could live away from her father. But Theo's men caught the one who got away and sweated them a bit.

"They're all members of some group called 'Red September', and they've had it out for Theo for some time now. Odds are that the next time any one saw Staci, she'd be on a slab. From what Theo told me, she wasn't very happy to find out what their plans for her were."

"Wow," I said and sat back.

"So yeah, I don't have any work for you, but Theo authorized a nice bonus for saving his stupid daughter's life."

"Who else knows about this?"

"The usual folks in the CIA as I understand it, but that's about it. Theo doesn't want the publicity, nor the blame for that poor salesgirl's death. Staci had set up going there with them, so legally she's responsible."

"Dear lord, what a stupid bint." I sighed shaking my head. I'd been working with her for almost two months now, and while I'd seen her do some stupid things, none of them had been this dumb. Hell, when she wasn't acting like an alley cat in heat, I actually could almost like her. She may not have been smart, but she didn't have a mean bone in her body, she was even nice to the servants.

"Exactly," Dave agreed nodding.

"So you don't have any other work?"

He shook his head, "Theo's pulling up stakes and going back home as well, he feels that as long as he's on this group's hit list, he'd rather stay someplace where he has a bit more control over things until he deals with them. So I've got a dozen senior people now out of work in line before you."

"Yeah, but how many female bodyguards do you have? Three? Surely there has to be women clients out there who'd rather have a gal for a bodyguard instead of a guy." I said and tried not to sound like I was grumbling.

Dave sighed, "Truth is, they all want men. They just don't think a woman can do the job."

"What?" I said surprised.

"The only requests we get for woman bodyguards is by fathers who are afraid that their daughter's bodyguard is going to end up in bed with her. Look at who Joyce and Fran are working for, spoiled rich kids, just like you were!

"I'm sorry, Nikki, yes, I know you're good, you're just as good as my best men are. But the clients here are all stuck in the fifties; they just don't think a gal can hack it."

I sighed and shook my head. "Somewhere out there, there has to be a better job than babysitting rich brats who just want to live life on their backs," I grumbled.

"I'm sorry, Nikki, I really am. But I already showed the headlines to four of my biggest customers, to show them just how much of a bad ass you are, but no dice. They still wanted men."

Dave stood up and stuck out his hand, so I stood up and shook hands with him. Yeah, it wasn't his fault, so I couldn't blame him.

Still it sucked.

"See Jessica on your way out, she'll give you your pay and your bonus. If anything comes up I'll call, but it'll probably be a few months before we can line up another major client."

"Sure thing, thanks Dave," I said and left.


 

 

Two

 

 

I packed up my things and shipped them home, not like I had a lot, and I sure didn't want to keep paying for an LA apartment when I wasn't working.

The drive from LA to New York gave me some time to think. The security business wasn't bad, but even if I had landed a top spot, it wasn't exactly what I wanted to do really. How often could I really expect to end up in shootouts with bad guys?

The only reason this one had happened was the bad guys probably figured that because I was a girl, that I'd be a weak link. I really wanted to be back in the military, but the ridiculous rules on women in combat really meant that I'd never get to do anything worthwhile, or have any fun, which was why I'd left in the first place.

I wondered about some of the mercenary corps out there. In the army you always hear stories of them, especially whenever you're attached to one of the special operations groups. Europe might just be the place to go; South and Central America were out, too much of the 'macho' culture there. Parts of the Asian sub-continent I could probably fit in, and Africa was always looking for fighters, though most of the groups there I don't think I could stomach working for, on either side.

I wondered if the rumors about the 'White Tights' were true? A group of Baltic women snipers who liked to prey on Communist soldiers. Now that would be fun, and while I wasn't Baltic, I bet they probably didn't care. Maybe I should look into that, of course I'd probably have to learn to speak Russian first.

 

A month later I was still trying to think of what I was going to do when my brother Will showed up unexpectedly. Mom and dad had said he'd left the country and was living in Asia or Africa or something. Apparently after he'd lost his job, he'd just gone off to 'find himself' or something. Considering how well he looked, and how happy he seemed, I guess he'd found whatever he'd been looking for.

We chatted a bit, I always got on better with Will then I had with my other brothers, probably because we were a lot closer in age.

As we talked I noticed he was avoiding the topic of just where he was living now pretty adroitly, which I found very perplexing. My brother was a terrible liar, I used to beat him at poker constantly, and he had never really been the best at keeping secrets, but he sure was keeping this one.

This reminded me of something strange I had come across not that long ago, when I was off playing OPFOR for the guys who actually got to go out and do what I couldn't. They always put me on the opposing forces team, because I was pretty merciless in my tactics, which no one ever expected 'from a girl'. The rather crude nicknames they had for me sort of proved how popular I was in a strange sort of way.

But, I had found something that I realized I couldn't tell anybody else, because they'd think I wasn't quite right in the head, and that made me suspicious.

So I snuck in a question right after he asked me about my love life.

"By the way, have you come across anything strange in your travels of late?"

Will laughed that bluffing laugh of his and I was pretty sure then that I was on the right track.

"Strange is a pretty easy definition when you're traveling out of the country." He said, trying to look like he was talking about something inconsequential. He really needed to work on that tell of his.

"I mean strange as in, not of this world strange," I replied and looked him in the eye.

"Tell me what you saw," He said, looking right back. Yup, I had scored all right!

"Better yet, I'll show you," I told him.

"What?"

"I need to show you, don't make any plans for tomorrow, it's a bit of a drive."

He nodded, "Sure, Sis."

 

The next day I drove the both of us out to the old air force nike missile base out by Montauk Point. They'd had nuclear tipped interceptor missiles here for years and only pulled the warheads out a few years ago. The base was no longer active, so it had made a great place for training missions involving attacks on nuclear weapons storage facilities. And because it was being decommissioned, if I blew up a few things, no one really cared.

Oh, did I mention how much the other team really hated me? While they couldn't use real ammo or explosives, my side often did.

“I was out here about a year ago; the Army borrowed the facility for a few specialist exercises, seeing as it was mostly abandoned at that point.” I told him as I pulled the car off to the side of the road.

William nodded, and I saw him look off in the direction we were going to head, I found that interesting.

I parked and we got out and struck off into the trees, I started leading the way. “Anyway," I continued to talk as we walked, curving away slightly from my objective several times to see what he'd do. "While I was playing opposing force for the trainees I came across something, I’m curious if you’ve seen anything like it. I asked a few guys in the unit if they saw something funny when I brought them by, but they thought I was crazy.”

“Okay,” He said.

“You know what it is, don’t you?” I said looking at him.

He looked back at me, “What makes you say that?”

“Because when I start to head away from it, you track back towards it.”

He laughed, “Guilty as charged.”

I would have kissed him if he wasn't my brother! “So what is it?”

“Exactly what you think it is. Now let’s take a closer look at it.”

We walked another ten minutes and we were there. I watched as Will went up to it and put his hand on it.

“What are you doing?”

“All portals have a feeling to them. The feeling is unique to what’s on the other side, and if it feels bad, don’t go through, 'cause you’ll probably die.”

“So where do they go?” I asked.

“Different places. Did you go through this one?”

I nodded, “Yeah.”

“Well this doesn’t feel like anyplace I’ve ever been, so let’s take a look,” and as I watched, he stepped through. It was interesting, his body disappeared as he moved through it, it looked like he had stepped through an invisible doorway.

I followed him through it next, and stepped out behind him.

“So where are we?” I asked looking around. Everything looked the same as when I'd been here last over a year ago. Short scrub pine and a strong smell of the ocean. The wind was blowing pretty well here as well.

“No idea. There are hundreds, if not thousands of these all over the Earth. They lead to different realities. All of which have even more portals that lead to other places. All interconnected in an infinite series of different spheres.” Will said looking around as well.

“Why?”

Will shrugged, “No idea. The gods call it ‘The Infinite’, well at least those I’ve met.”

“You’ve met gods?” I laughed; the idea of actual gods seemed pretty funny.

“And goddesses. If I get the chance I’ll introduce you.” Will said. “Well let’s go back.”

“Don’t you want to explore?” I asked.

“Not without weapons and supplies. Besides, we told Mom we’d be home for dinner and it’s a two hour drive back to the house.”

I nodded, he had a point, and this time of day it'd probably be more like three hours. He had me check the portal from this side, and then we went back through and walked back to the car.

“So, why could I see it, but not any of the others I brought by it?” I asked him.

“Well I was told only a very small percentage of the population can, and that it’s an inherited ability.”

“So does that mean Rob and Kev could see it?”

“Probably, and either Mom or Dad, maybe both. But I wouldn’t go telling them about it,” Will warned me.

“Dangerous?”

“Yeah, a lot of it is. Though sometimes that’s just because everything is different.”

“Different how?” I asked and looked at him curiously. How different could things be?

“A medieval type world with goddesses and magic? A place a lot like this, only women run everything and men aren’t even allowed to vote? Or maybe a place where the dominate race is that of large two legged cats?” Will shrugged. “Take your pick; if you can think of it, I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.”

I thought about that! Yeah, some of those were pretty different alright.

“Oh, tell me more about the one where women rule!” I laughed.

“You probably wouldn’t like it.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because only the men are supposed to fight,” Will grinned.

“Ah, spoilsport. So I take it that’s where your girlfriend is?” I asked, pretty sure I was on the mark now.

“Wife, we’re married. Two kids, an inn.”

That surprised me! My brother Will, with kids? Not what I would have expected!

“Whoa. Two kids? Does mom know?”

“I can’t very well take pictures; at least I don’t think I can. Plus it’s not like I can bring them here or vice-versa, it would be too shocking an experience.” He said looking a little disappointed about it.

I nodded and thought about it a while as we got into the car and drove back, eventually we talked about other things for the rest of the trip home and later that evening as well. But all the way home all I could think about was that this was it, this was my chance. Somewhere out there, there had to be a place where I could live the kind of life I wanted to live. To be able to fight and lead and prove that I could do it, just as well as anyone else could.

Yeah, I was a nut, so what? All my life I'd been proving to the guys that I could pull my own weight, and then when I could, that look in their eyes, once they got past the surprise and the disbelief was worth it. That look of acceptance.

Just before I went to bed, I went to Will's room and opened the door, sticking my head in.

"I want to go with you when you leave," I told him.

I watched as he considered it a moment, but I wasn't worried, he knew I'd kick his ass if he said no.

"Okay. Tomorrow we can do some shopping, then on Sunday we'll head out. Expect to be gone a while."

I nodded and left, heading back to my own room. I'd have to put my own affairs in order, I could probably stash my gear in the basement here, my folks wouldn't mind. I'd have to sell my car though, I wouldn't be here to make the payments on it anymore, but that wasn't a big deal.

I wondered just what of supplies we'd be going shopping for? And if I should bring any of my own weapons along.


 

 

Three

 

 

Stepping through the portal, I was surprised when my brother dropped his pack, tossed his cloak on to the ground, and started stripping.

"Let's get changed," he said.

"Here?" I asked looking around at the woods and the snow covered ground.

"Yup," he nodded, so I shrugged and changed into the clothing and gear that I'd bought when he'd taken me shopping. This was his turf after all, so I just followed his lead, even if it was cold.

After we got dressed, we both looked like a couple of those 'society for creative anachronism' friends of his; I bet they would love this place.

I looked around the woods as we walked; it looked to be about the same as the one we had just left. When we got to the road, which really wasn't more than a hard packed path, Will made me memorize the spot, that wasn't hard; there was a distance marker on the far side of the path at the spot. It was a rather wide path; you could get a deuce and a half though here pretty easily.

"How far is it?" I asked him.

"This time of the year, it'll be dark before we get there."

I knew we didn't have any flashlights or lanterns with us.

"How are we supposed to see once it gets dark?" I asked.

"Let me worry about that."

I shrugged, it was still his show, and he seemed pretty sure of himself. Obviously he had something planned.

We didn't really talk too much as we hiked along it. I had to admit to being surprised, when I last saw my brother, which was about four years ago, he'd never have been able to set a pace like this, especially not while carrying a heavy pack. I started to look him over more to see what other things about him had changed. His face definitely looked more mature, and he constantly looked from side to side, observing his surroundings, rather than just zoning out and being oblivious to them like most people.

And the swords he was wearing now were obviously not there for looks either; they looked used, not all shiny and spiffy like the ones the renfair groupies wore. It was also fairly obvious that he was used to them being there as he didn't get tangled up in them as he moved.

Eventually it got too dark to see where we were going anymore. William stopped and started to do something.

"What are you doing?" I asked, curious.

"Taking my boots off."

I found that to be rather curious. "Why?"

"So I don't ruin them."

I could see enough of his outline that I could tell he took his pack off for a moment, but not much else.

“Okay," he said, "I’m going to do something, my voice is going to change a lot when I do, so don’t panic. And if you see anything else different about me, just ignore it for now.”

“Why? What are you going to do?” I asked, really curious now.

“Nikki?”

“Yes?”

“Not now. It’s cold and I want to go home. So just grab the end of your staff and stick it out, and I’ll lead you along," William grumbled.

“But what’s going on?” I asked, still curious.

“Magic,” he said, and then suddenly I noticed that his shape seemed different now, larger.

I could see him fumble with the pack and put it back on, then he grabbed the other end of the staff and we set off again.

“So, how does your voice sound now?” I teased, just dying to know what he did, because it was obvious he could see, while I was all but blind now in the darkness.

“Hush,” he growled, and I mean really growled! His voice had gotten deeper and last time I'd heard a growl like that was at a zoo.

But he was my brother, and I did trust him. So I held on and kept following.

Not like I had much of a choice anyway.

“Yeah, that’s creepy alright," I sighed.

We walked for several more hours after that. With the trees overhead, and the clouds as well, plus the total lack of any moon, it was as black out as black could be.

Eventually I started to see a faint light source up ahead, I was fairly sure it was our destination; I doubted anything else would throw off that much light. When we came around a bend in the path, I could see the city or town we were heading too.

I could also see my brother Will.

He was bigger than normal; at least a good foot taller, and his general outline was different as well. It wasn't just wider; the shape of his head was different.

"Will?" I said.

"Yes?" He replied in that same deeper version of his voice, without the growl this time though.

"I think I can see you now."

"Good."

I watched as he dropped the pack and bent over. Suddenly he seemed to be back to his old self, and as I watched he put his boots back on, then readjusted his clothes and re-shouldered the pack.

"What are you?" I asked, I was just dying to know what in the hell my brother had just done, and wondered if I would be able to do it too some day.

"Your older brother," he just grumbled at me.

"Ha Ha," I deadpanned. "You know what I mean."

"I'll explain it to you later. Let's go," he sighed.

"Okay, let's go," I agreed. I was willing to wait, it was cold out, and I sure wouldn't mind some rack time at this point, as well. It was late; we'd gotten up early, driven for hours, and then had walked quite the distance.

We got to the gate in the wall that surrounded the city not much longer after that. It was pretty well made, stone obviously, and about twenty feet high. This was a pretty big town; I wondered how many people lived here? That wall must have taken years to build.

The gate itself was wood, and the guards there actually knew my brother pretty well, they let us right in and they didn't even ask who I was.

When we got inside I looked around surprised, this place was big alright, definitely a city, if a small one. It looked like something out of a fifties Hollywood movie about the medieval times. It had period architecture, cobble stone streets, people in garb like ours, wagons, carts, horses. It was even pretty clean just like in those old movies. Maybe cleaner. Not like our real history at all, I've studied enough of that to realize right off the bat this place was way too clean. Hell, it even smelled okay, and I've been to some pretty noxious towns in the M.E., and while those places were more modern than here, boy did they smell.

"Wow," I said taking it all in.

“Just remember, this isn’t home. Things are different here, especially the culture. Anything happens; you let people know I’m your brother. Tell them I own the White Swann if they don’t recognize the name.”

“Does that mean you’re an important man here bro?” I asked curious.

“Yes,” Will said to me as we walked down one of the streets. We didn't have far to go, because he stopped in front of one of the wooden buildings and led me up into the wooden porch.

"Home at last," He sighed, smiling. He was obviously rather happy to be here and went inside with me following him.

The second we got inside he dropped his gear and a woman who had to be at least five years younger than me, threw herself at him and it was probably a good five minutes before either one of them came up for air.

I had to admit, I was impressed. This girl made Staci and her rich friends look plain, and she was only wearing a simple outfit that I bet she'd made herself! My brother had really scored when he met her, and with the way she was clinging to him, no wonder he didn't come home anymore!

I coughed to cover up a laugh, and they both stopped and looked at me.

"Is this your sister?" She asked looking at me. Our eyes met and she smiled, there was some depth there as well, this girl was not a dumb bunny either.

"Darlene," William said rather proudly as he introduced us, and I couldn't blame him for being proud either. He'd definitely hit the jackpot here. "This is my sister Nikki. Nikki, this is my wife, Darlene."

"Hi, pleased to..." was about as far as I got before I found myself being soundly hugged and kissed on the cheek as Darlene welcomed me.

“Welcome to our home, Nikki! My husband’s family is my family! Please, take off your cloak; let me get your things! I’ll get you a room made up right away!”

Will said he'd get my things, and let her run off to make me up a room, which she did right after giving me another hug and a kiss. He pointed out Darlene's sister Sarah who was sweeping up.

"This is a pretty nice place," I said looking around. It reminded me of an old place up in Syracuse we'd all stopped in once, years ago during a family vacation, when we were all kids.

“I’ll introduce you to the original owners later; I suspect they’ve already gone to bed," William said.

“Original owners?”

“I bought them out, but they stay on to help Darlene since she is the one running it.”

“Nice to see you didn’t leave her hanging,” I said, still looking around as Darlene came out from the back.

“What can I say? I love her,” He said and then smiled at Darlene who smiled back. Yeah, it was pretty obvious that he did.

“Now go to bed, I’m going to bar the front door and go to bed myself.”

“Yeah, just don’t get too noisy,” I said and yawned, the idea of sleep sounded like a good one.

“Oh don’t worry, I put you in a room on the end of the hallway,” Darlene said, she smirked one of those knowing smirks at me. “I plan to keep my husband up much, much, later than this.”

I blushed at the thought of this woman abusing my brother rather thoroughly, and quickly followed Darlene back to my room.

 

 

The trip to the baths the next morning wasn't as much of a shock for me as Will thought it was. I'd been to Japan with the army, so communal bathing wasn't that big a shock anymore.

He continued to tell me more about the cultural differences here as we bathed, and when he got to the bit about woman often having to share a man if they wanted to have a family, that was a bit of a surprise! I'd already learned from Will by then that Darlene was from a dirt-poor family, and when she confirmed that the best she could ever have hoped for was to be some man's concubine, I could see why she loved my brother. He hadn't just married her; he'd treated her better than she's ever hoped to be treated.

Plus he did buy her an inn. Yeah, that was my brother alright, always over committing. I don't think he ever did anything halfway.

The temple however, that shocked the hell out of me! I was listening to my brother tell me about this Aryanna when suddenly this voice filled my head and said, “No, he’s not kidding.”

I stopped and looked around, instinctively I knew the voice was inside my head, in my mind, but I looked around anyway, looking for a source.

"Scary, isn't it?" Will said.

"Can she hear me?" I asked still looking.

Of course I can hear you, you’re in my temple,” the voice, Aryanna I realized suddenly, said rather humorously.

“Actually, she can always hear you,” Will said. “But you’re not guaranteed her attention. I really don’t have to come here to talk to her, but I respect Aryanna tremendously and I like her. So I make sure that I pay my respects when I’m here and go to services every week. And I would advise you to do the same, Sis.”

I nodded and glanced around, looking a bit stunned, I wondered if she could hear my thoughts?

"Of course I can," came the smug reply.

"Always?" I asked in my head.

"Only if you're in one of my temples, shrines, or churches, usually."

"Are they the only places you can talk to me like this?"

"Oh no!" Aryanna laughed in my head again, "With a few exceptions, I can talk to you whenever I want to, as long as you're in this sphere."

"So how would I talk back?"

"I can hear whatever you say out loud,"

"Wow." I looked around some more; Will was talking with her about some Janet person or something.

"Think you might be interested in a job?" Aryanna said.

"Me? A job? I'm not the religious type. What could you have that I might want to do?" I almost kicked myself after I said that, she was a goddess, I'm sure she'd have something. But still, while this was a nice place and all, it wasn't Earth. I doubted she'd have anything I could want. Especially not someplace where I might end up having to share my man when I finally settled down.

"Oh, I can give you something that you want," I heard Aryanna say in a very smug voice.

I wondered just what that could possibly be as my brother grabbed my arm and dragged me out of the temple.

"Validation."

I blinked a few times as we walked outside, and not just from the sun light. 'Validation?' I thought to myself, wondering, but deep down that word struck a chord. I wasn't sure what she was offering, yet. But maybe I should come back and talk with her again sometime, by myself.

"That was interesting," I said giving Will a look.

"Aryanna is one of the best I've met to date, and I honestly don't think I'll meet better," He said, and from the expression on his face, I could tell he meant it. I remembered when he lost that friend of his to that weird cult back at home on the island, it really turned him off on religion, so if she impressed him, that was saying something.

"So, do you often work for her?" I asked.

"Only when my god loans me out to her."

"Your god?" I asked surprised. This was getting interesting.

“Every god can have a champion if they want, champions get certain powers and benefits, but they have to do the tasks that their god assigns them. I’m Feliogustus’ champion.” He said to me.

“Feliogustus?” I said looking around. “Where is his temple?”

“In another sphere, a different reality.”

“If he’s there, why are you here?” I was curious about that, but then again, after last night, I think I knew why. When my brother commits, he really commits.

“It’s a long story, the short of it is, I had already married Darlene and bought her the inn....”

I noticed he was blushing, “You bought her that inn?” I interrupted, I wasn't surprised by it, but I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to tease him about it.

“Yes I bought her the inn,” he laughed, “don’t interrupt. Aryanna recruited me to work for Fel, Feliogustus that is, and I accepted the job. So I come here when I can and spend time with Darlene.”

“Wow, I can’t wait to hear the rest of this story,” I said shaking my head. “It sounds like you’ve been pretty busy, Will.”

“Yeah, the last four years have been something of a rush, but I’m not complaining.”

“So where are we going now?”

“I’m taking you to Master Burdon; he’s the best sword trainer I know.”

“Sword trainer?”

“Yup, and I’m going to teach you the basics on shooting a bow. If you’re going to be traveling around here, you need to know how to defend yourself.”

“I already know how to defend myself.” I said looking at him a bit peeved. Hell, I was the one that got him into martial arts, he knew I could kick ass!

“Yeah, with a gun or a knife. Trust me sis, you’ll be happy you learned them once you have. Besides, I’m paying for it!”

I laughed. “Well in that case.”

The place he took me too looked like pretty much every dojo I'd ever seen before. Wooden floors polished smooth by years of students moving across it. Wooden poles set in the floor at one end to practice against, weapons hanging on the walls.

"Master Burdon," Will said as we walked inside, "I'd like to hire you to teach my sister, Nikki, the sword."

Master Burdon was your typical instructor; he wore loose rough clothing, and looked at me like I had no right to be there. Again, typical.

"I don't teach women, William," He said looking back at him.

"I would be in your debt if you made an exception for her," Will said. "I think you will be surprised."

Master Burdon looked at me again, and I tried not to glare at him. If he was going to be my instructor, I didn't want to have him mad at me. But I also didn't want to be pandered to; I had my pride after all.

"I'll consider it," he said looking at William.

"Oh, there is one condition," Will said to him, looking serious and I could see Master Burdon roll his eyes, undoubtedly expecting the 'please don't hurt her,' line.

"And that would be?"

"I want you to go harder on her than you've ever gone on any student before!" Will said and grinned at me.

I laughed at the rather surprised expression on Master Burdon's face.

"Seriously, William?" He asked looking at Will, and then back at me. I was trying not to smirk.

"You go easy on her, and the first chance she gets, she'll kick your ass. This is my sister, Master Burdon; she's crafty, tricky, and mean as hell during a fight."

I watched as he pondered that a moment, then he looked at me, "What weapons do you already know?"

"Knife, staff, unarmed." I said.

"Grab those staves off the wall," he said and nodded at a pair that hung up next to each other, and then turned to Will. "I'll let you know tomorrow, after I've had a chance to evaluate her."

"Okay," he said and nodded to Master Burdon. "See you back at the inn, Sis!" and then he left.

I came over with the staves and handed one to Master Burdon.

"Ready," he said, and we both assumed our positions.

"Go!"

We clashed then, and he immediately went for the power strikes against me, after I blocked those and countered each time, he switched to a faster style and tried several speed moves, as well as tried to use his slightly longer reach on me. Again, I countered and tried a few moves of my own on him.

Then he went for finesse, and I was impressed. He was good; he was as good as my best instructors that I'd studied with. I was hard pressed a few times to keep up with him, but I managed, then suddenly he stepped back and raised a hand, so I stopped.

"I don't think we need to waste anymore time with these," he said and smiled, "let me get you a practice sword and I'll start teaching you the drills."

"Ugh, I hate drills." I sighed.

"Then I'll be sure to teach you twice as many!"

"Yes, Master Burdon," I said and bowed, smiling, I'd learned to use that trick on every teacher I'd ever had. I may hate drills, but they are the quickest way to get started, and the more you know, the harder you can work out each night after lessons.

"Oh, and I know that little trick too," he said walking over to the wall. "So I'm going to teach you every last drill that I know." He pulled what looked like a heavy wooden sword off of the wall, "I promise you'll barely be able to stand by the end of today's lesson."


 

 

Four

 

 

Master Burdon hadn't been kidding. He worked me until the sun started to set and told me to be there first thing the next morning. He had me there all day, every day; the only time I got off was to go to the temple on Sundays. When other students came for their appointments, he had me drill off to the side while he taught them. If I made a mistake, I'd get slapped in the face with the side of whatever weapon he was holding at the time, he obviously missed nothing.

Needless to say, I learned to block rather quickly, but he still got through my blocks more times than not.

I came back to the inn tired and bruised every night, and dragged myself back each morning. Will's only comment was to ask if I still thought I didn't need to learn sword fighting.

I had to admit that he was right about this; Master Burdon proved it to me every day. I did have the advantage of already knowing two other weapons, as well as unarmed fighting, so I was already used to a lot of the basic footwork, and the basic principles of fighting.

For the first month, I did nothing but learn drills, lots and lots of drills. When Master Burdon found out I was doing them at home with my off hand, he made me start doing them with each hand at his school. Sometimes with both hands at the same time.

The second month he started me on footwork drills while doing the sword drills, against him. I was surprised he went to one on one work so quickly, and he obviously could see it.

"Nikki," he said, "your brother, William, was right about you. You are not a typical student. You are not only starting at a higher level than any of my other students, due to your obvious experience, but you are also far more determined than any of them. I'm not going to insult you by going slow, nor shall I go easy on you."

He smiled at me then, the first time since I had started here actually.

"I believe your brother when he says that if I were to go easy on you, you'd try to punish me for it. Now, on guard, and watch your tip!"

He then thrashed me pretty hard, but it was worth it, he was showing me that he wasn't going to treat me like a woman, or even any of the men who trained with him. He was going to treat me like he would want to be treated, and he'd keep beating my ass until I was able to stop him.

I think it was the biggest compliment anyone ever paid me.

 

After the year's end celebration I came into the school and Master Burdon surprised me by handing me two dulled short swords.

"The time has come to teach you your first style," he said motioning me to the center of the room.

"My first style, Master Burdon?" I said. Since his compliment last month, I had decided that it was only fair that I honored him back. So I addressed him by his full title at all times, and did all the little things that you think are stupid when you're training, but which shows your instructor just how grateful you are for his efforts.

"You show great promise, Nikki, and I believe that it would be in your best interest to teach you your first style now, rather than wait until you can be taught the more traditional sword and shield work."

I nodded, "But why short swords? Why not something longer, like rapiers?"

"Because your greatest strength lies in your speed. Most men that you will face will be stronger than you, but none will be faster. The longer the sword, the slower you must move it. The short swords play to your speed, and as your reach is less than that of most men, the added reach of the longer weapon isn't going to help you enough to matter."

I nodded again, "I understand, Master Burdon."

"Good, now, let us start with the basic drills."

He drilled me for a week, and then he started to fight me, one on one.

By the end of the month, he was having me fight his students, two on one, then three on one. Many of them were embarrassed by being beaten by a woman. Master Burdon used that point to drive home to them that they should treat all foes with respect, because even the ones who looked least likely to kill them, still could.

 

When March came he took me aside after the day's classes. I was often helping him with his teaching, which was a surprise, not just because he trusted me enough to do it, but because I started to learn even more about what I was doing. I was surprised by that, I had no idea that by teaching someone how to fight, I learned even more about it.

"Yes, Master Burdon?"

"I want to start you on the basics of sword and shield, however, this will be in addition to the other work you're already doing."

I nodded, "That would be fine, Master Burdon."

"This means we will be training late each night. Therefore, I want you to move here, to the school."

I smiled, he really did like me!

"I would be honored, Master Burdon!" I said and bowed. Without television, evenings around Riverhead weren't the most exciting. Drinking or whoring was about the height of excitement for most folks, and while I did my fair share of both, mostly I spent my evenings practicing. I'd already talked to my new brother in law, Sergeant Chaucer, about taking a job with the guard. Apparently they didn't have a problem with women soldiers here at all, and once I finished my training, I was thinking of signing up and seeing just how far I could go.

"Bring your things with you in the morning, you can use the room you keep you gear in now."

I nodded, it wasn't a large room, but there was a pallet in there, and to be honest, I'd slept on worse. Yeah, it wouldn't be as nice as Will's inn, but the faster I learned, the sooner I could move on with my plans.

"Master Burdon, how many styles do you plan on teaching me?" I asked curious.

He shrugged, "After sword and shield, I want to teach you mounted combat, then the lance. After that, we can discuss what else you'd like to learn."

I paused a moment, that was a lot of things to teach me, I wondered just how long this was going to take.

"Nikki, I know you are thinking of joining the guard, you will need to learn sword and shield for that. I am fairly certain I can convince Captain Bersheres to train you for mounted combat after you join, as your first posting will be here.

"After that, we will see. Now go, I will see you in the morning."

I bowed and left. I wasn't surprised he knew about my wanting to join the guard, most of the students training here, were doing so for that very reason, to be able to join. The guard would train you, if you couldn't fight, but showing up already trained was a huge advantage, and you'd get a better rank and job than a completely raw recruit.

Before I had the chance to tell Will and Darlene that I was moving out Will told me he'd be leaving in the morning.

“So, where are you off to now, Will?” I asked him when we had a few moments alone.

“I have to go to Saladin where my god Fel is and get back to work," He told me.

“Is that all?” I asked giving him a sly look.

Will sighed, “Yes, I have a second wife, and yes I have a child with her.”

“Ah ha! So, buy her an inn too?” I teased.

He laughed, “Hardly, she’s the queen.”

“You married a queen?” I said surprised.

He nodded, “Yup. Make sure you stick with your lessons, don’t let anyone follow you if you decide to take the portal back home. If you want a real adventure, ask Chaucer if you can travel with one of the Caravans to Kingstown in the late spring or summer. It’s a lovely city.”

“Can’t I come with you?” I asked. I wasn't sure if I wanted to go right now, but still, it sounded interesting.

He shook his head, “Not this time, things are happening over there right now, and I have too much on my mind to add anything else to it.”

“I’m trained for combat, Bro, I can handle it.”

“The last place I want to see you is in combat, Nikki. It’s pretty damn brutal, and there’s a lot more nasty stuff involved with what I’ll be facing. Plus you still haven’t mastered the sword or the bow yet.”

I sighed, he was right. “Spoilsport. Maybe I’ll just follow you.” I teased.

He laughed, “You won’t be able to, trust me. But spend some time here and check it out. This is a pretty nice place with a lot to see.”

I nodded, it was pretty nice here, I really didn't miss TV at all, though I did miss having a radio to listen to sometimes.

“Is there anyway I can keep in touch with you?” I asked.

“Well if it’s important, go down to the temple, make a donation, and pray.”

I looked at him sideways, that sounded kind of weird. “You serious?”

He nodded, “Aryanna is friends with my god Feliogustus. They talk.”

I almost slapped my head. I'd forgotten about that!

Then I almost slapped my head again, how could I have forgotten about a god? Maybe because she hadn't said anything to me since I'd been to her temple that first time with William, I guessed.

“So why can’t I just ask her?”

He smiled, “Because first of all, she is a goddess, and she’s got better things to do than just ferry messages for you or me. Also there are rules, if you make a donation and say a sincere prayer, there’s a decent chance that she’ll grant your request.”

I nodded and recited it all back to him, “So go to church, treat Aryanna with respect, and don’t forget she’s a goddess. Sounds easy enough,” I smiled, and was glad I had continued to go to church, and had remembered to be respectful. I'd have to make a mental note not to forget. This wasn't home, after all.

The next morning, when I got up, Will had already left, so I let Darlene know where I'd be staying for now, and that I'd see her at church on Sunday, if not at any other time.

Training after that got even more intense, but I had to admit I was enjoying it immensely. I finally had a teacher who didn't give a crap about my sex, and wasn't afraid to push as hard as he could. Even in the army at times there would be some concern over just how far they could go. Master Burdon seemed to suffer from no such constraints.

 

§          §

 

"Ah, Nikki, so nice to see you again."

I looked around; I was sitting in a garden, in a rather comfortable lawn chair, with a small table next to me. Sitting in another chair, across from me was a rather lovely, older, no not older, that wasn't it, she was mature, and while I could tell she was old, she didn't look old, if that makes any sense.

"Who are you?" I asked and looked around again; everything had a sort of dreamlike quality to it, except that I could actually see things. They didn't just fade off into a mist, or defy attention, like things in a dream normally did. "And where am I?"

She smiled at me; it really was quite beautiful when she did that.

"I'm Aryanna," she said, and I stiffened, I didn't know what to do, then years of training took over and I jumped up and saluted.

She laughed, and it was a pleasant sound, and rather than feel embarrassed, I felt relaxed by it.

"No, please, please sit. This isn't the army, Nikki, and you don't have to salute me."

I think I blushed, but I wasn't sure, things still felt a bit, well dream like.

"That's because this is a dream," Aryanna said.

"I'm dreaming?" I said looking around again, "None of this is real? Then, wait, if this is a dream, you're not real either, are you." I thought about that a moment, "Are you?" I asked again, still confused.

"It's always the hardest the first time," She said smiling. "I am real, all of what you see here around you, is also real, however it does not exist in the world, it exists in the space between the world you live in, and the world of the afterlife."

I nodded slowly, that seemed easy enough.

"So, why am I dreaming about you?"

"Oh, I just wanted to talk to you for a while, learn more about William's sister."

"And you waited until after Will was gone too, didn't you?"

Aryanna laughed, "Yes, I felt this wasn't something that should involve him."

"You don't want me talking to him about this?"

"Not right now, when he looks at you, all he really sees is his little sister."

I laughed, "Yeah, you got that right. What do you see?"

"I see a warrior looking for a place to prove herself, looking for a chance to do all of the things she was never allowed to do before."

I nodded, "Once Master Burdon passes on me, I'm going to join the guard. Sergeant Chaucer tells me there's a good chance we'll be fighting with the Atolians to the south soon."

"Yes, Master Burdon is rather impressed with you; you're one of his better students."

I blinked, "Oh? He told you that?"

Aryanna smiled at me, it was the kind of smile that you saw just before someone let you in on the joke. "Of course he has, you see, he's not training you for the guard."

"What?" I said and leaned forward. If he wasn't training me for the guard, what was he training me for?

"He's training you for me."

"Whoa, how's that?" I said confused again.

"How'd you like to be my new champion?"

"Wait, a champion, me?" I remembered that Will had told me he was a champion, but I didn't really have an idea what a champion was, or what one did!

"I need to go now, just think about it, Nikki." Aryanna said and everything began to fade.

"Wait! What's a champion?" I asked.

"Your dream job, obviously," Aryanna laughed and I guess I fell back asleep, because nothing else happened until I awoke the next morning.


 

 

Five

 

 

I didn't dream about Aryanna again the next night, or the night after that. When I went to the temple for services three days later, there were no voices in my head, and because Will wasn't here, there was no one I could ask about it.

Master Burdon was working me hard alright, up long before the dawn, and we worked out until midnight every night. It wasn't that bad for me, nine months ago I'd been doing pretty much the same thing in the Army, though I did get weekends off. I felt a little sorry for him however, Master Burdon was old enough to be my father, I was sure this had to be pretty rough on him.

But honestly, it was a blast. He was telling me everything he knew about fighting, and teaching me all sorts of tricks. It wasn't all about weapons and one on one combat either, there were discussions on tactics, strategy, discipline, morale, motivation. On those at least, a lot of what I'd learned in the army still applied, but he gave me new insights on how to use what I knew, as well as the benefit of his decades of experience.

"Why are you here?" I asked him one day while we were taking a break to eat lunch.

"I thought it was obvious," he said with a smile, "I love to teach."

I grinned back at him, "No, I mean here, Riverhead. Why not in the capitol? Kingstown? A man of your experience and knowledge could do so much better there."

Master Burdon shrugged, "I grew up here, this is where my roots are. Besides, there are many good teachers in Kingstown, but here? They needed someone good to come out here and teach those that need teaching. So I came back, and I'm glad I did. Students like you are rare, yet I've been blessed by the goddess with several in my time here."

"My brother?" I asked curiously.

Master Burdon laughed, "Your brother is good, do not get me wrong, and it was enjoyable teaching him, but he is not in your class, you surpassed your brother weeks ago."

"Really?"

Master Burdon nodded while taking a drink of water. "Yes," he said setting the glass down. "Will is a good fighter, I have not trained many that I would say are better than him. But you are on a level with the best I've ever trained; you may be the best that I ever do train. Few have the discipline and the love of art that you do, very few have come to me with such a solid foundation on which to build."

I nodded slowly, "With your recommendation, hopefully I'll be able to get a good place in the guard then. I don't mind working my way up from the bottom, but I'd rather not start all the way at the very bottom, if I can."

"You would be wasted in the guard, there are far better places for one of your skills," he said and smiled.

"Now, back to work!"

 

I thought about what he said the rest of the day, a better place than the guard? I went back to what Aryanna had told me last week in that dream. Obviously I needed to talk to her again. I almost wished that Will was here, so I could ask him, but she was right about him still thinking of me as his little sister, with the accent on 'little'.

I also don't think he really expected me to stay here, either. Mainly because I was a big gun nut, and had a couple dozen rifles and pistols back home, and there were no firearms here at all. But then again, there weren't any swords back home really, and under Master Burdon's tutelage I was learning to appreciate a good sword, and the master craftsmanship that went into making one.

I'd sold all but one of the of the bows that Will had brought here, and I'd converted a lot of that money into daggers, swords, and a really high quality set of light armor. The bow I hadn't sold, I still practiced with, a half hour before bed each night, and paying heed to the pointers that Chaucer had given me, I was doing rather well.

 

§          §

 

"Hello, Nikki."

I looked around; I was back in the garden with Aryanna. It was a week to the day since I'd dreamt this last.

"Hi," I said sitting up in the chair and looking around. We appeared to be in a different garden now. I watched as she tended to some of the plants, several of which defied description.

"Where is this garden?" I asked motioning around.

"As I said before, it's between the real world, and the afterlife," Aryanna smiled.

"That doesn't tell me much," I said.

"Actually, it tells you everything, but you don't have the background to understand," She said turning back to the plant she was working on. "You see, there is the real world, which, as your brother told you, is called 'The Infinite'. It's made up of the many spheres that are interconnected, by the portals. There is that place you think of as 'The Afterlife', which is where those of you who are deserving go, after you have left the real world.

"And then there is the 'Realm of the Gods'. It is the place where the gods and goddesses live. From here we can watch over our people in the real world, have intercourse with our champions and our priests, send our power out in to the real world, and interact with it."

"Can't you just appear in the real world?" I asked.

Aryanna shook her head, "Not normally. The rules of most spheres do not allow it."

"What about the afterlife?"

Aryanna smiled, "Oh yes, we are always in the afterlife, it is where we commune with and reward our followers."

I thought about that a moment.

"So why the garden?" I asked.

Aryanna turned and smiled at me, "I have always had a love of living things, especially those that can be planted and grown. I started off as a farmer's daughter after all."

"Really? I thought you were always a goddess."

Aryanna laughed, "No, all gods and goddesses must come from the mortal plane. However, you were asking about my garden?"

I nodded.

"Well, here in the realm of the gods, there really isn't much to do, or look at, when you're not involved with your people. So I started my garden, using plants from home. As time went on, I added to it, trading with other gods, or their champions, for things to put in it, that were not natural to Hillshire. Different gods have different hobbies, this is mine."

I nodded again, the fact that gods and goddesses had hobbies was a bit hard to understand, but if they had started out as people, I guess it made sense.

Aryanna nodded, obviously hearing my thoughts, "Yes, it helps us to relate to our followers, which is why we keep these little hobbies."

"So, what does it mean to be your champion?" I asked

"It means that when I need something done, you go do it."

"Not your priests? Not the army?" I asked thinking about that.

"The priests and priestesses are not trained for combat; my order is not a militant one. The army belongs to the king, and while he will favor any requests I make, he is but a king, and I am of course a goddess. My needs and desires are not often things I wish to share with him," She said with a laugh.

"That's still a pretty general description, what kinds of things does a goddess need?"

Aryanna shrugged, and turned back to her plants. "Sometimes I need you to help the king by leading his armies. Sometimes I need you to defend the faithful and protect the clergy. Mostly though, it's a lot of taking names and kicking ass and traveling to different spheres to help my allies."

"That's still a bit vague," I said, but I had to admit I was curious now.

"Well, if you don't like it, you can always quit."

"I can quit? Just like that?" I said surprised. "There isn't a term of enlistment or something like that?"

Aryanna shook her head, "There are 'rules' to this 'game', as your brother likes to refer to it. I can't fire you, but you can always quit at a moment's notice."

She noticed my expression, even though she wasn't looking at me.

"Oh, there are some conditions on what you can and can not do, on what you must do for me, and what you will get from me. All of that is covered in the oath you must swear when you work for me."

"What do I get from you?" I asked, picking up on that one item she'd mentioned.

"Well, if you get killed, you get re-incarnated."

"I come back from the dead?" I said rather skeptically.

"Ask your brother, he's been killed over a dozen times at this point."

"How does that work?" I said, trying to wrap my head around it.

"Simple, you die, you show up here, and three days later you appear hearty and whole, back in my main temple in Kingstown."

"Huh. What else do I get?"

"Well, you'll be stronger than you are now."

"How much stronger?" Strength was always my one biggest failing. I was strong for a woman, but compared to a man my upper body strength wasn't as good.

"About as strong as your brother is now."

"Really? Well sign me up!" I joked.

"Okay, read this," Aryanna said and suddenly handed me a large piece of parchment, with something written on it.

"Wait, I..."

Aryanna laughed, "Would your brother still be doing it, if it sucked?"

I had to admit, she had me there. I knew Will, he could be as ornery as he was stubborn. If he didn't like something, he never stayed with it.

I looked at the paper and started to read it out loud. "I, Nikki Taylor ..." I went through the whole thing, it wasn't very long, and it really was pretty simple, I swore to follow her commands and do her bidding in all realities, until such time as I quit, and in return she'd take care of me. Pretty simple really.

"Okay, now what?" I said when I was done.

"Now you can go back to sleep, tomorrow you have another lesson, after all."

"Don't you have anything for me to do?" I asked surprised.

"Right now, I need for you to learn everything Master Burdon can teach you. If I need you I'll let you know, and you can either run down to the temple to talk to me, or you can take a nap and we'll talk here."

"You can't just talk to me in my head?"

Aryanna shook her head, "No. Now, off to sleep."

And I slept.

 

§          §

 

I noticed the changes the next morning, I was stronger alright, and Master Burdon noticed it too.

"You'll need to learn how to deal with that," he said to me, and left it at that.

I also noticed that when we fought, everything slowed down for me. Thankfully I quickly learned how to suppress that, though it took a conscious effort to do so. I could see how that would grant me a tremendous advantage in a fight, but while training, it was more of a hindrance, and if I learned to rely on it, not only would I stop learning what Master Burdon had to teach me, but if I came up against another one with the same abilities, I'd be at a disadvantage.

The next morning, when I got up bruised and tired as usual Master Burdon looked me over and shook his head.

"What?" I asked.

"You know you can heal yourself now, don't you?"

I looked at him incredulously.

"You have some of the same gifts that the priests have. They can heal, so you can heal."

"The priests can heal?" I said, rather surprised.

"You've never been healed by a priest?" he said looking at me curious.

I shrugged, "I'm more of the type to hurt others, not the one getting hurt."

Master Burdon laughed at that, "Just try it."

So I did, and wow, the bruises faded and I felt a lot better.

That is until he whacked me in the side of the head for not paying attention! And he didn't hold back either, I found I had to heal myself again, but at least I kept him from hitting me again!

After that training got even more serious. While my weapons were training ones, his were not, and he would injure me, sometimes pretty seriously, and I'd have to heal myself while I was fighting him.

It hurt, and it sucked, but it was a valuable lesson. I also learned there was a limit as to what I could heal, and we ended up having to go down to the temple, where the local head priest of the temple healed my wounds.

"Your power is limited," he told me, "It's considerably less than that of any of Aryanna's priests. However, if you are inside one of her churches or temples, you will find your power returns immediately. Even just standing on ground holy to our goddess will increase your power."

I nodded, "Thanks Father."

"Come early to the service this weekend, and I will teach you what I know," he said smiling. "I am always happy to be of service to our goddesses' champion."

I smiled back and left with Master Burdon to go back to the school. I even managed to block his attack when we stepped outside of the temple. Of course the way everything suddenly slowed down was a dead giveaway, but I'd already been expecting it, I was still wearing my training gear after all.

 

About a month had gone by before I saw Aryanna in a dream again; however this one was rather short and to the point.

"In the morning, I want you to gather your things and come to the temple," Aryanna said to me.

"What for?"

"I need you to come to the main temple for a while."

"Okay," I agreed. "I'll be there first thing."


 

Six

 

"Good, you're here. Let's get started," Aryanna's voice said in my head as I entered the temple. "I want you to concentrate on opening up a gateway to the main temple."

I almost went 'huh?' but she was in my mind as well, and she quickly showed me what to do, and I did it. A black circle like shape opened up in front of me then.

"That's the gateway, step into it."

I nodded and walked through the gate.

When I stepped out of the gate I looked around. I was in a small room with several doors around it, one of them was open, and through it I could see a large altar that was rather close. Past that I could see a very large room full of pews; obviously that was the main room of the temple. A priestess came up to me as almost immediately as I finished looking around.

"Greetings, Champion Nikki, I am High Priestess Katrina, welcome to Aryanna's main temple.

I gave a slight bow, "Please, just call me Nikki, High Priestess."

Katrina smiled, "You may call me Katrina as well. Please, follow me."

I nodded and followed her out the open door into the main temple room; the room I had appeared in was just behind the altar. She led me into an office, and motioned me to set my things down.

"Where's Aryanna?" I asked curious.

"I'm here, Nikki," the voice I'd heard in my head and in my dreams said out loud. "I'm always here."

I blushed, "I'm sorry, I thought that, well, that I'd see you when I came here."

"Don't worry, you will, soon enough." Aryanna said.

I nodded, "So, I take it I'm here to get to know everyone?" I said and looked at Katrina, as she was the only other person in the room with me.

Katrina nodded, "Yes, also there are some specific parts of your training that required your being summoned here. But we can start that later. Come; let me show you the temple and the grounds. I'll have someone take your things to your room."

"I have a room here?" I said surprised.

"Nikki, you're my champion," Aryanna's voice said, "you will always have a room here, and you are always welcome here. Katrina is my voice to my people, to my faithful. You are my will, showing the way to all."

"Um, you sure you wanted me for this job? I'm not the most pious out there, actually I'm a bit rude and crude most of the time," I said blushing.

"You should have seen your predecessor Stephanie," Katrina said grinning, "She could give lessons on crude!"

"Really now, Katrina!" "Aryanna's voice said with a laugh.

"What happened to her, anyway?" I asked.

"She moved on to something better," Aryanna said.

"There's something better than this?" I asked surprised, because from what I'd gathered so far, I thought this was as good as it could get.

"For her, yes, there was. Go with Katrina, I'll talk with you later tonight."

"Okay," I said and looked around the room, and then back at Katrina, "That must take some getting used to."

Katrina shrugged, "It's not like she doesn't see or hear everything you do or say wherever you are. Just here she can talk to you as well."

"Guess there's no hiding from the boss when you want to sneak off and have a cigarette, is there?" I laughed.

"No there isn't," she agreed. "What's a cigarette?"

"Something from back home," I said. "Any idea what this training I have to take is about?"

"Aryanna will be the one giving it to you, now come, let me give you the full tour."

I followed her out of her office, and she spent the next couple of hours showing me all of the temple, and the temple grounds. It was rather impressive I had to admit. When we finished we went back to her office and an acolyte, I guess, came into the room with some drinks. Katrina took them and handed me one.

Sitting down across from her I took a drink, "So what's it like working for a goddess?" I said leaning back in my chair.

"You get used to it," she said and smiled, "though I have to warn you, it can be rough at times, especially for a champion."

"Oh?" I looked at her, "Why's that?"

"Because you champions get sent off to die. A lot."

That bothered me a little, I had to admit, and I shifted a bit in my seat, feeling a little uncomfortable.

"I'm not crazy about that part," I admitted.

Katrina shrugged, "Stephanie, your predecessor, told me that you get used to it. I saw her get resurrected here over a dozen times."

"We really do get resurrected?" I asked a bit uncertain.

"Not 'we', you. Only champions get that. If I die, that's it, I go off to judgment."

"Well, that sucks," I said.

Katrina laughed, "Not for me! I only have to die once, and then I get to go to paradise! You however have to come back here and do it all over again! You don't get to go off to your final reward until you quit."

"Umm, I hadn't thought about it that way," I said and yawned. "Wow, I sure am tired."

Katrina nodded as I set the glass down and tried to sit up, "Where's my room?" I said and suddenly felt too tired to move.

"I'll see you in three days," Katrina said and stood up, taking my glass. "And I apologize for the poison, but Aryanna insisted."

"Wha...."

 

§          §

 

I looked around, I was in Aryanna's garden, and everything was crystal clear, not at all hazy like it was when I dreamed it. I could see all of it, even the parts of it that I couldn't see when I was dreaming, because they were obviously impossible and defied explanation by the rational mind.

"Hello, Nikki," Aryanna said and smiled. She was even more beautiful in person than she had been in my dreams, if such a thing were possible. She was the personification of womanhood that we all strived for, whether we admitted it or not, and motherhood in ways that we all dreamed of when we thought of our own moms.

"I'm dead, aren't I?" I asked looking down at myself.

"Yes, you're dead," Aryanna said.

"Why that sneaky little brat! I'll get her back for that!"

"Oh you will, will you?" Aryanna said in a warning tone, and I could feel a cold wind blow through my soul.

"She could have told me!" I complained.

"Would you have still drunk it?"

"That's not the point!" I grumbled. Senior officers and goddesses apparently, never got it. You don't gig your mates down in the trenches. It just wasn't done!

"Oh, we understand it, alright," Aryanna said in that strident tone, but then suddenly laughed, "And you're not an NCO anymore, Nikki, you're an officer now! And one of the highest ranking ones at that!"

"Aw come on, there's no need to insult me," I griped, but the moment she said it, I knew it. As a champion, I apparently ranked almost everyone.

"I'm still gonna get her," I sighed, "I'd get you too for making me an officer, but I don't think there are any gag gifts or practical jokes one can play on a goddess, are there?"

"Nope, afraid not," Aryanna said and smiled at me.

"So, why am I here? Why did you have me killed?" I really wanted to know, I mean, what's so important that your own goddess kills you, right?

"Well, it's fairly simple really. In order for you to have all of your champion powers, your body has to come from me. Plus there are a few changes I wanted to make."

"Changes?" I asked a little worried.

"Nikki, my champions are expected to look a certain way," Aryanna said, "and while you were a rather good physical specimen, I needed to fix a few things."

"Such as?" I asked warily.

"Here, look," She said, and suddenly I appeared in front of myself. Or a naked copy of me at least.

"Is that me?" I asked stepping forward, looking myself over.

"It's just a copy. Look it over."

I did. It's weird looking at your own self as a copy after years of only seeing yourself in a mirror.

"There's a mirror behind you if that helps."

I turned around, "Ah! That's easier," I said and as soon as I went to remove my clothing, it all disappeared, "Oh, that's handy."

"So what do you think?" Aryanna asked me as I looked myself over.

I had to admit, I liked what I saw. My nose was perfect now; it always had been just a little bit off, at least as far as I was concerned. I examined my face further, the faint scar just above my right eyebrow was gone, and when I ran my fingers through my hair, that small bald patch from where I got my head caught in the chain drive of my bicycle during a rather spectacular crash was gone, as well as the scarred tissue around it.

Looking down my body I noticed that all of the scars I'd picked up, both as a tomboy growing up in a family of boys, and then later as a soldier who wasn't in the slightest bit afraid to mix it up with guys twice their size were all gone.

But that wasn't all, not only had all of those things been fixed, but apparently by bust had gotten larger, and my hips were just a little bit more 'hippy' as well. At least I still had a flat belly, but I also was more muscular than I had been before. Not bulky, but there was some nice definition there.

Yeah, I liked it.

"I'll have to get used to the bigger chest," I said and moved my arms around, "at least you didn't go crazy on it," I said and turned to the side to look at myself.

"I like my champions to be attractive," Aryanna said and I turned back to look at her, "and I know that you've always wished you looked more like this."

I was surprised by that, "You did? How?"

"As my champion, I know your mind," she said with a smile, "and once you're in my realm, I know all of your thoughts completely."

I tried not to blush when I thought of some of the things I'd done, and some of the things I'd thought of doing.

Aryanna laughed and waved a hand at me, "Don't worry about it, you're normal, everyone does those kinds of things in their life."

"So how long am I here for?" I asked as the mirror and my body double disappeared. I was wearing clothing again as well.

"Three days. As your goddess I can hold you longer if necessary, but three days is the shortest time that it takes for me to bring you back from the dead."

"So where is everyone else?" I said and motioned around me, "The other dead people?"

"This is not the afterlife; it is but a stop on the way to your final resting place. Once you go there, you cannot come back. You can however, meet with those who are recently departed, until they have moved on they are out there," she motioned off to the distance, "outside my garden. If you have the time, you can visit with them later if you wish."

I thought about that, I wasn't sure I wanted to do that yet, I was still getting used to everything here after all.

"Now come, let's enjoy my garden and talk awhile, get to know one another."

I walked over to her, and took her offered hand as we started to walk. "But don't you know me already? After all, you know all my memories, right?"

She smiled at me, "It's not all that easy to judge a person just by their memories, and" she gave my hand a light squeeze, "I'd like for you to get to know me better as well. I don't like to change champions often, Nikki. Some gods like to only keep a champion around fifty or a hundred years, I however, prefer longer engagements, it helps to keep things stable, and everyone, you included, happy."

I nodded.

"Now, let me show you around."

 

We spent the next few days just visiting, really. We talked about me, and my past quite a lot, but Aryanna talked about herself a little as well. She'd been a goddess for over a thousand years, closer to two, and Hillshire and the rest of the world had existed in this current epoch of stability for the last thousand.

"I was just a farmer's daughter, well a very rich farmer's daughter," she laughed, "and I rose to a considerable height of power before I died. I won't bore you with the details, but I ruled the large river valley I lived in by the time I died. We were a much simpler people then, of course, but I founded the first Hillshire, and it grew from there. "

"So how did you become a goddess?"

"People prayed to me, after I was gone, for help with their problems, for help with their crops, to be granted wisdom, for leadership. They venerated me, and it called to my spirit and I became a goddess. A weak one at first, but over time, I grew in power and skill."

"But I thought you said once you go on to your final rest, you couldn't come back?" I asked confused.

Aryanna laughed, "But I haven't come back!"

That stopped me a moment, "But, you're here, next to me."

"Yes and no. Part of what was once me is here, a very small part that remains mostly unchanged. The rest of what was once me has become the goddess before you. Any other parts of what I guess you might call the original me, which are left are still there in the afterlife, only I'm a goddess there now as well."

"So, you're both here and there?"

"Yes, and none of me of course is in the world of the living, I can project an image and my voice, but not my real essence."

I shook my head, "Sounds confusing."

Aryanna nodded, "For you, yes. It's not something a mortal mind can fully comprehend, my explanation really isn't that accurate, but it is the best one that you can understand. Now as I'm a goddess I can understand it fully, the mortal part of me colors and flavors the goddess that I've become. It lets me understand my people and even commune with them. It gives shape and purpose to the goddess. Without that prior humanity, the power of a god or a goddess can do nothing. It just exists without purpose."

I nodded, I'd take her word for it, the part that made the most sense to me actually was that as a mortal I couldn't fully understand it.

"So tell me," I said relaxing in Aryanna's garden, "what do you think of my brother? Why did you choose him of all people to be a champion?" Aryanna stopped a moment and turned to look at me, she had been doing something with one of her special plants. "And be honest," I added.

Aryanna laughed, which was always a rather delightful sound. "I like him actually; oh he has his rough edges, or rather had them."

"My brother never trained for war, or even for fighting all that much," I said and took a sip of the tea I was drinking. The tea here was amazingly good, but then it would be, of course. "And you set him up to lead an army?"

"Oh he's a smart lad, and he's a lot more willing to do what needs to be done than you might think." Aryanna smiled and went back to taking care of the plant as she continued to talk to me. "In many ways your brother is a rather practical man. He sees a problem and he goes after it. I put your brother through a lot of tests you know, and he surprised even me with his behavior."

I shook my head, "But he's so, so innocent!" I sighed.

Aryanna laughed again, "And a little naive," she paused a moment, "well maybe a bit more than a little. But he learns fast and isn't into half measures. Your brother is committed to Feliogustus, and even a little to me. And there is what he did in order to help Feliogustus win his little war, so I wouldn't say he's innocent anymore."

"How about naive?" I asked with a soft chuckle.

Aryanna laughed, "It's one of his more endearing traits. It will be a sad day when he grows out of it."

I shrugged, "I guess there is that. I still just have a hard time with the idea of him leading people, especially fighters, and especially into combat."

Aryanna laughed again, "I think you are going to be surprised then."

"In a good way I hope!"

"Well, you're going to get to find that out sooner, rather than later."

"Oh?" I asked curiously.

"One of the reasons I interrupted your training to put you in your champion body now, instead of waiting until you were farther along is that it would seem your brother will need your help, and rather soon."

"He's having problems?" I asked concerned.

"It appears that he will be soon, however I'm not aware of the full extent of it. It's always hard to predict the future when other gods are involved."

"Excuse me?" I felt pretty confused now.

"All gods and goddesses can predict the future, to some greater or lesser extent. I myself am rather skilled at these things; it is a gift you might say. I have seen a problem approaching for Feliogustus, and have given him what consul I could, to help him prepare.

"But just in case, I will have you and two other champions, both of which are friends of your brother's, ready to intervene if necessary."

"It sounds like you're going to a lot of trouble to help this Feliogustus."

Aryanna nodded as she worked, "He is an ally of mine. His success is important to me."

I nodded and she stood up.

"Well, look at the time," she said and turned to smile at me.

"That sounds like what my mom used to say when it was time for the guests to leave," I said and got up out of the chair I'd been sitting in.

"And so it is. Time for you to rejoin the living, Nikki."

I nodded and taking a step forward, I gave her a hug. I figure if you can't hug your own goddess, you're screwed anyway.

"Thanks, Aryanna. I enjoyed our time together, though forgive me if I don't try to make a regular thing of it," I joked.

"Of course I do," She said smiling.

 

And then I was back in my own body, sitting up in one of the smaller chapels that were tucked away in the basement of the main temple. I was naked, and I looked around and found Katrina standing there, at the foot of the altar I was on.

"Your clothes are on the chair," She said, "However, I think you're going to need a tailor."

I laughed, "Maybe just a little bit." I swore then as I thought of something else.

"What?"

"I'm gonna need to get my armor altered as well," I sighed.

Katrina nodded, "I'll send a runner to let them know you're coming, I suspect that's probably the first thing you'll want to take care of.


 

 

Seven

 

 

Apparently when you're the Champion of Aryanna, and the temple tells you that they have a rush job, people actually rush. I walked in the door carrying my armor, and I was immediately shown into a back room, with an older looking man, three younger looking ones, a dozen different anvils, hundreds of hammers, and more tools that I had no idea what they even were for, hanging everywhere.

"Dump it on that table," the older man said.

I dropped everything where he pointed.

"Good, now strip," he said looking me over.

"Here?"

"Of course here! You want this done now, or don't you?" he asked looking me in the eye.

I stripped.

By the time I had my clothes off, the other three had my armor sorted out and they handed each piece to him. He held each of them up against me, made some lines on the metal with a grease pencil of some sort, then gave me a stick and asked me to run through a few of my attacks with it.

"Ah!" He said when I switched hands and did a few more, "Two handed! Good to know! Now, come back in a few hours."

I looked at him, "I can get dressed then?"

"Well, that depends on how many hearts you want to break today, doesn't it?"

The other three men all snickered.

I chuckled myself, got dressed and got directions to a good and fast tailor. Armor wasn't the only thing I was going to need replaced!

Three hours later when I came back, I had several new sets of clothing, with more on order.

"Ah, good!" The older man said. "Try these on."

I stripped down quickly, and donned my armor, I could see where he'd made changes to it, he'd had to add material in more than a few places, so it looked a little patch-like in some spots, but it fit better than it had before, I looked up at him impressed. He just smiled.

"Here, take a few practice swings," he said and handed me the stick again.

I did, and I was really amazed. All armor, unless you get it really well fit, affects your movement. Even the body armor I wore in the army was a hassle, and we all were constantly trimming and changing that. This stuff was almost like it wasn't there.

"Wow, you are amazing," I said looking back at him.

"If you weren't in such a rush, I could have made it look better," he said tapping on some of the new sections. I guess he was checking the fit or something, but right then if he had tried to cop a feel I wouldn't have said boo. It really fit that well.

"When I get back, I'll just have to order a set done right," I said.

"I've got your measurements and shape now," he smiled, "I can have it ready in a few weeks."

"Done!" I said and held out my hand, and we shook on it.

"What's your name?"

"Nikki."

He nodded, "Samson, I've made armor for Stephanie, Aryanna's previous champion as well. So had my father, and for previous champions, his father. It's nice that we'll be able to make yours as well."

I smiled and nodded. "Well, I need to go, until later," I said and headed back to the temple.

When I got back I was met first by one of the acolytes who had my backpack and my weapons.

"You'll be leaving immediately," Aryanna's voice said.

I nodded and put my weapons harness on and checked my backpack for the few things I'd need, handed my other purchases to the acolyte and walked over to the two other warriors in the room.

One of them was a gal who looked a bit like an American Indian, and was armed and armored like I was. She took my arm in greeting as soon as I walked up to her.

"Hi, I'm Dezba, a friend of your brother's. That's Joseph," she said and nodded to a guy who was also armed and armored.

"Let's go," And she led me through another gate that opened immediately.

"Where the hell are we going?" I asked as we came out in yet another temple. But this one was decidedly different. I was having trouble putting my finger on it; my head was still trying to catch up with events.

"Someone is trying to murder your brother's son," Dezba growled.

And that's when I put my finger on it; we were all two legged cats. As my mind processed that I noticed there were a lot of dead bodies lying on the ground, and quite a few wounded ones being tended to by what look liked priests.

"Then let's go!" Was all I could think of to say, as I started to re-check my armor. It still seemed to fit the same, though my bodily dimensions had changed slightly and I was now covered in fur. Oh, and I had a tail as well apparently. I could feel the weight of it dragging at my butt as I followed Dezba out of the building, noticing her own tail.

We ran full out, Dezba and Joseph apparently knew where we were going, so I just followed. The town around us was different, the streets were some sort of hard packed substance, not dirt exactly, but it wasn't stone either. The buildings were all made of stone, and had rather steep roofs. I guess it snowed pretty well up here.

We turned through a gate in a fence that was more ornamental than functional, and which was made of wood, and ran up to a rather nice looking mansion that reminded me of something that the Vanderbilt's would have lived in.

"Who's the enemy?" I asked as we ran inside, catching up with a group of soldiers who immediately spread out, different groups running down the hallways to search out the enemy I guess. A tall female was leading one of the groups at a trot, and we followed them.

"Anyone on offense," Joseph said as we ran by a couple of dead guards. I noticed their outfits, hopefully that would help.

We ran down that hall, turned once, ran down another, and then we came upon the fight. There was a large group of two legged catmen, trying to fight their way into a doorway. They were all armed and armored like the dead guards I had seen on the floor, but I had a feeling, which I guess came from Aryanna, that these were the bad guys.

Fighting to keep them from getting inside the door was an unarmored male, he was holding a chair in one hand, and a sword in the other, and you could see he had been wounded several times already. Behind him were two more males, both looking in bad shape as well, and apparently waiting for their turn to block the door after he died.

There were already a few on the floor, but I was impressed at his skill, he wasn't giving an inch, and he wasn't retreating from what he knew would be his last fight.

The female warrior lead us in attacking the group from behind, I watched as she laid into them, and Dezba, Joseph and I moved quickly to the front of the attack, with the soldiers spreading out as well to try and contain the enemy.

It was pretty tough going, there were at least fifty of them, maybe more, and the hallway, while wide, wasn't that wide. We were at a 'T' intersection, we'd come at the fight from the base of the 'T' and the doorway that the enemy was trying to get through was at the top of the 'T'. As the four of us plunged into the thick of things, the soldiers we brought with us were trying to spread around to the left and right, so we could bring more of our numbers to bear.

As soon as we joined the fight, the dynamics of the fight started to change, all four of us moved at the same heightened speed, which told me the other three were champions, like I was. The ones we were attacking however were not.

But they were tough, very tough. And they appeared to be able to heal their own wounds as well; I guess they had some kind of magic that they were using.

I was still able to kill two of them rather quickly, but I had to go for the more serious injuries, like hacking off a head, or cleaving it in two. I heard someone cry out then, and looking up, I saw the man who had been defending the door get run through. He managed to seriously wound the male that had killed him, but he was done and fell to the floor.

That was when I noticed that the male who had killed him not only healed himself, but when he attacked the next defender he was moving as quickly as we were, and I knew I had just found my target. The problem however, was that he was almost twenty feet away, and that space was full of fighters, who were now all fighting us.

"Charge!" I yelled out and dropping a shoulder I just sprinted with all my might into them, and knocked them out of the way like a linebacker going for the end zone. I was rather shocked that it worked! I got stabbed a half dozen times as I did it, but I got a nice clean shot at the back of the enemy's champion, and I took it.

He staggered forward, and got himself stabbed for his troubles by the guard in the doorway, who he quickly dispatched, leaving just the one, but he knew he had trouble behind him, and before I could get another shot he stepped to his left and spun to face me, putting his back to the wall instead of the doorway.

I feinted at his crotch with both swords and he slid a little further left, letting me kick the guy on my right in the shin, and put myself in front of the doorway. I started to heal the wounds that I had picked up, while fighting off two of the regular speed guys, as well as the guy who moved as fast as I did.

Thankfully the other three had taken advantage of my charge and were now standing back to back in the middle of the enemy and slowly cutting them down to size.

One of the things Master Burdon did when training, was have his other students throw fifty-pound sacks of grain at your feet while you were fighting. I'd always found that annoying and rather ridiculous.

Until the moment I almost tripped over the bodies lying on the floor behind me. My enemy saw my misstep and tried to press in and attack, but I bent my knees quickly, dropping down into a squat and lowering my center of gravity. At my height, that put my butt on the body of the person behind me, and I took the leg off the attacker on my left, while blocking the sword of the enemy champion to my right.

He pushed forward with his shield then, in an attempt to topple me over, but I flipped over backwards, bringing both of my feet up under and inside his shield, ripping it off of his arm and sending it flying as I completed my roll and regained my feet, coming back up and charging straight at him.

He looked lost for a moment; he had his shield arm out, as if there was still a shield on it, the leather straps only now starting to fall away.

So I cut his arm off.

He screamed then and took a step back, his eyes wide with shock.

I should have taken care of his buddy to my left, but I knew this guy was the key to the fight, and I had him! I had him good! So I charged him and went at him with both swords, he blocked my first strike, that I made with my right sword as I was closing, and blocked my second strike with my left sword as I stepped in close. But he couldn't block the third strike that came straight in as a stab, and not a swing, as my left sword was still being blocked by his.

He squealed as I gutted him, and stepped backwards, his stump trying to grab at his guts, and failing of course as they fell at his feet. He dropped his sword then and tried to grab them with his one remaining hand, but I took him under the chin with my left sword and killed him.

I got stabbed in the back myself then, but I jumped forward over the dead champion's body and spared myself from being killed as well. I was out of healing spells now, so I knew I wouldn't be effective much longer myself.

Turning back to the fight, I could see that several of the attackers were turning tail and running away, and Dezba, Joseph, and the unnamed female, were decimating the few remaining fighters rather quickly.

I dropped a sword and added a few well placed throwing knives into the mix to keep things lively, but it was all over but the shouting at that point.

"Nikki, this is Jane," Dezba said a moment later.

"Can we save it until after I've been healed," I gasped dropping to my knees. Whoever had stabbed me in the back  had gotten me good.

"Oh!" Dezba said and I guess she could heal people too, because she put her hands on me and the bleeding stopped.

"Is that all of them?" I gasped catching my breath. She might have healed me, but I still felt a bit weak. Probably blood loss.

"Yeah," Jane said.

"Let's go check on my brother's kid," I said.

Jane looked at me, "You're William's sister?"

I nodded, "Yeah, but I'm kinda' new to this champion business."

Jane smiled, "Hell, this is my first day!"

I laughed, "Way to rock it sister!" and we fist-bumped.

"Three cheers for the sisterhood," Joseph said and smirked, "Now let's go check on the kid."

We all nodded and moved inside, while Jane detailed the remaining soldiers to guard the door.

The living quarters were untouched, and there were quite a few servants, all female, waiting inside. There were also a handful of the castle guards who had been blocking the other approaches to the main living quarters, which fortunately had not been attacked yet.

"You three go watch the other entrances with the guards while I go check on my nephew," I said and motioned to the others.

They nodded and spread out to cover the other entrances while I turned to the group of servants, "Where is my brother's son?" I asked them.

"You are William's sister?" One of them asked.

I pulled off my helmet and nodded, "See the family resemblance?" I asked and smiled.

"Actually, yes, I do." She smiled, "Come with me, Baron is in the next room."

I followed her and in a small bedroom, with a guard standing in front of his bed, was my nephew. I was surprised that he was asleep.

"All that noise and he didn't even wake up?" I asked looking at the servant.

"He had a busy day," she said and smiled.

"Well, I'm not going to wake him," I said and left the room to join the others. I was surprised that Dezba and Joseph now looked clean and neat.

"What gives?" I asked looking them over. "Is there a shower around here or something?"

"I was about to ask the same thing," Jane, who looked as bloody and sweaty as I did said.

"Trade secret," Joseph said from the other side of the room with a smirk.

"Cantrips," Dezba told us.

"Cantrips?" Jane asked. "What's a cantrip?"

"Small spells that do helpful things," Dezba replied.

"Like cleaning you off so you look good for the civilians?" I asked.

Dezba nodded, "Exactly. There are a whole bunch of them, everything from cleaning you off, to helping to start a fire."

"So how's it work?" Jane asked.

Dezba explained them to us, and showed us how to clean ourselves off. In my case I'd used up all of my power on healing myself, so I'd just have to stay sticky and sweaty for a while longer.

"Any other tricks we should know?" I asked while we waited for the rest of the soldiers to scout out the castle, looking for any remaining enemy solders.

"There are a few, I can teach them to you later. Joseph, why don't you stay here with Nikki, while Jane and I join the soldiers and search the rest of the castle?"

"I have a better idea," Joseph said, and suddenly there was a huge wolf standing where Joseph had been standing! And I meant huge, he was the size of a pony!

"How about I go with Jane and sniff them out, while you and Nikki watch Will's kid?" the wolf said in a fairly growly version of Joseph's voice."

Dezba pondered that a moment while Jane and I stared. I think I heard one of the servants actually fall to the floor in a dead faint.

"What the hell is that?" I asked pointing.

"Oh," Dezba chuckled, "Champion's can assume their champion form, no matter what reality they're in, and that's Joseph's."

"Champion form?" Jane asked.

"The body your god gave you when you became a champion, it's more powerful than the one you have anywhere else, but Jo and I decided it would be safer to fit in, and well, Nikki doesn't know about it yet, and you're a champion here, so you're already in yours."

"I'll explain it to you while we go search," Joseph growled, "come on, let's go find them."

Jane shrugged and followed Joseph the wolf over to the doorway, warning the guards not to attack him as they went out into the hallway.

"So, that means I can turn into my human form here, if I want?" I asked Dezba.

"Yup, but your gear won't change with you, so make sure to check it first, though the difference between our champion forms and these forms isn't really all the great. Well, the tail, ears, and face are different." Dezba said motioning to the gear lying on the floor when Joseph had been standing before his change.

"Sounds a bit confusing," I said thinking about the fact that my armor had altered slightly to fit the local me, but it sounded like it wouldn't change to fit the 'real' me, even though it was originally made to fit the 'real' me.

"You'll get used to it. Just remember that everything has to change to fit the local rules, with few exceptions. When you shift to your champion form, you are violating that rule, but only you are violating it, nothing else will change with you."

"Got it," I said and nodded, "I think."

"So, you're Will's sister?" she asked looking me over again.

I nodded, "Yup, you a girlfriend, or just a friend with benefits?"

Dezba laughed, "The later, how'd you guess?"

"Because you're not the kind of woman who would take 'no' for an answer," I said and grinned.

Dezba laughed again and nodded, "None of us are. So how'd you end up with Ary?"

"I was looking for something different to do with my life, and well, she offered it."

"Well, welcome to the family."

"Thanks. So any idea what's going on here?"

She shook her head, "Not a clue. Will and his wife Rachel are off somewhere, and this attack was an attempt to kill their heir. I think Jane knows what's going on. We'll just have to wait until she gets back."

I nodded, "So tell me what you know about this champion business."

"Well, you know about the speed, and the healing, plus I told you about the cantrips. You know about the resurrection part, right?"

I nodded, "Yeah, Aryanna introduced me to that, still not sure I really understand it though."

"Yeah, the first time is always the roughest. But you should know that if you're outside of your own sphere, it takes a while for your soul to find its way back home." She shuddered, "That can be pretty nasty if you fall afoul of a god who's a sadist, or who hates you. But it's only for three days, so you just have to bear down and take it."

"Can I open a gate from anywhere?"

"Yup, but only to your goddesses' temple."

"Is that stuff she told me about being able to quit, but not be fired, true?"

"Yes, there are a lot of laws, or rules as your brother likes to call them, as to what gods can and can not do. It is some big competition between all of them, though I have no idea what they compete for. Some form alliances, like my god, Will's god, and yours."

She went on then to tell me about being the 'eyes and ears' for my goddess, Aryanna, and how all of that worked as well. While gods and goddesses could see and know almost everything in their world, there were areas that were blocked to them, especially in other spheres. Our using that ability would let them see there. Also, it would allow us to show them things that we thought were special or of merit. For some reason, that was important, but Dezba didn't say why it was.

She also told me that the gods couldn't see each other's priests or champions, or into their holy places.

"Why's that?" I asked.

"Probably to stop the older established gods from being able to easily hunt down the priests of any new gods." Dezba told me and shrugged. "On most spheres, the gods are all fighting to be the 'one' god of that sphere, or at least the most powerful. At least that's the way it seems to me."

I nodded, "Religious wars."

"Ever been in one?" She asked.

"Not yet, but I suspect that'll changed soon enough."

Dezba nodded, and we just talked a bit about our respective pasts while we waited for the others to come back. It took a few hours, and they did find a couple of the enemy trying to hide, but a couple of hours before dawn the all clear was finally passed around.

 

"So now what?" I asked when we finally all got back together.

"We need to take Baron someplace safe," Dezba said.

"I can take him home," I said.

"They know where you're from," Said a woman walking up to us. I didn't recognize her, but Jane did.

"Everyone, this is Narasamman, Feliogustus's high priestess here."

"I can do it," Joseph said. "No one here really knows where I'm from, and I know of a good place to go."

Narasamman nodded, "Feliogustus is agreeable, if the rest of you would go to the temple, I'll help Joseph get started."

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"Feliogustus wants you to join William before the sun rises; it is a long journey however, so you need to get started now."

I nodded, it sounded good to me, so we all jogged back to the temple we'd first started at.

"So, can he just gate us there directly?" I asked Dezba.

"No, he'll have to gate us to another sphere, one that has a gate nearby our destination."

"Is that easy to do?" Jane asked.

Dezba shrugged, "I have no idea."

"Ladies," a voice came out of the air as we entered the temple.

"Hi Feliogustus," Jane said and bowed. As she did that, a male suddenly appeared before us, his appearance was that of a tavern keeper. Don't ask how I knew it, I just did. He radiated power and seemed to glow softly from within; I could tell right away he was a god.

"Dezba, nice to finally meet you face to face," He said and shook hands with her, "Will has had much to say about you."

"I'm sure he has," Dezba laughed, I could see that she was quite at ease with Feliogustus, then again, I suspected that this wasn't her first time meeting a god.

"Oh, not all of it was bad," he smiled and then turned to me.

"Ah, Nikki," he said and I shook hands with him as well. I had to admit it was overwhelming to be shaking hands with a god; I'd only just started getting used to Aryanna after all.

"Oh don't worry, it gets easier with time," he said, obviously reading my mind.

"Your brother probably won't be happy that you decided to become a champion, wouldn't be surprised if he decides to go argue with Aryanna over it," he laughed.

"My brother would argue with her?" I said a little surprised.

"Yeah, he's a bit thick headed at times. But don't worry; even he will have to admit that you're perfect for the job."

"Thanks," I said.

"Now, I'm going to open a gate, with the help of Dezba's god Diannion, to a place in his sphere. It's pretty far from his territory, so it won't be easy, however it will put you next to a gate about two hours travel from where William and Rachel are, if you run it."

Dezba, Jane, and I all nodded.

"Off you go then," he said and a gate appeared and we stepped through.


 

 

Eight

 

 

We were running towards the castle where Will and his wife Rachel were staying, I had always had good endurance, but I was impressed at how much better I was doing now. Dezba and I had 'shifted' into our 'champion' forms, because we would never have kept up with Jane otherwise.

Other than having to take my helmet off, I was surprised to see that my armor still fit rather well. I guess my bodily dimensions weren't all that different here than they were back in Aryanna's sphere. Oh there was a slight draft from the tail hole in the armor at the base of my spine in the back, but there was a leather flap there, so it wasn't really all that bad.

Dezba said we'd shift back when we got closer, or the sun came up, whichever came first. In the twilight prior to dawn, we weren't that easy to see, so no one would notice us being different.

None of us had been here before, we were navigating more on the 'hot or cold' method, which was kind of freaky at first, but I got used to it pretty quickly.

When the towers of the castle came into sight, we slowed down and Dezba and I both shifted back to our local forms, caught our breath as we walked, and checked our equipment.

Both of the others had shields, I noticed. Dezba's was rather small however, and mostly round, though it had saw-like teeth around half of it's circumference. Jane's was more of a typical wall shield, but her sword was huge! Of course she was a lot taller than Dezba or I was, six foot I'd guess. She also had some kind of war hammer on her back, which was also fairly large, I'd love to see her use that in a fight, during our last battle I'd been far too busy with my own affairs that I really hadn't had the chance to really observe the other two fighting.

When we got to the castle, we were met by several of the Hiland soldiers, who were there with the local guards, apparently they were expecting us, and we were escorted inside.

It was weird when we ran into my brother, it wasn't just that he was one of these cat men, he was big now as well, probably seven foot tall with the body of a heavy weight prize fighter. He grabbed Dezba almost immediately and gave her a hug that surprised all of us.

“Dezba!” He said. “Thank you for saving my son!”

Dezba recovered quickly and smiled, “Anytime, Will, anytime.”

I watched as he went over to Jane, and smiled at her.

"Jane, I must say I am surprised to see you here. I thought you were being recruited for someone else."

Jane looked at him in obvious shock. I guess she knew my brother from someplace else.

You’re Feliogustus’s champion?” she said looking up at Will, “And when did you get so damn tall?”

"Fel did it to me. Actually I kind of like it," he said and gave her a hug as well. I noticed he seemed to be pretty comfortable with her. Guess my older brother really was finding his way with women after all these years.

"Welcome to the family. Fordessa seems like a nice goddess, I hope you'll be happy."

He turned to me next, "I should never have introduced you to Aryanna, should I?" He sighed.

I laughed back at him, "Hell no! She started telling me about the job the same day you left! She knew you’d be pissed, but she told me she wanted me for her champion the moment you took me to her temple."

Will shook his head, "Well, welcome to my world, I'll introduce you all to my wife in a few minutes. She wants to talk about what we're going to do about this."

"Really?" Dezba said looking surprised.

"She's a queen Dez, a queen of a bunch of tough buggers who live up in the mountains. Trust me; she's a bloodthirsty little minx. You and Nikki will just love her. Hell, Jane will probably like her too."

He led us inside and up some stairs to their quarters. Jane, Dezba, and I exchanged looks, I think all of us were pretty curious as to what Rachel was like.

When we entered the room, she was sitting at a table, putting some papers into a tube. She looked up and spoke to Will as we all checked her out.

Yeah, she was a queen all right. It wasn't just that she was absolutely drop dead gorgeous, or that her hair and coat were brushed out to perfection, nor the rings, necklace, and small crown that probably cost more than the castle we were in. She just radiated that aura of 'I'm in charge here', that I'd seen generals give off when you first met them.

She looked at us then and sighed, shaking her head and smiling at Will. "It figures. Okay, introductions please dear?"

I looked at Dezba who winked at me briefly, I guess she knew what that comment was about, I sure didn't.

Will introduced Dezba to Rachel first, Dezba touched hands with Rachel, Jane had told us earlier that shaking hands didn't work well with retractable claws, which I was still getting used to having.

“It’s nice to meet you Queen Rachel, but how he got to marry someone like you however is still a mystery to me,” Dezba joked with a laugh.

“He conquered an entire country for me and destroyed their god; do you think I’d be dumb enough to let that go?” Rachel said with a smirk.

We all turned and started at my brother, dumbfounded. Well maybe Dezba wasn't, but I was, and Jane's jaw had dropped in surprised. My brother, my harmless easygoing nerd of a brother conquered a country and wiped out a god? Oh, I had to hear this story! He'd obviously been holding out on me!

The way his ears went down, and his tail curled I could see he was embarrassed, but Rachel sat there looking like the gal who'd just married the star quarterback for the Giants.

I couldn't help it, I laughed, "He didn't!"

“They don’t call him William the Godslayer without reason. And you would be?”

Will jumped back in, “This is my sister, Nikki, Nikki, Queen Rachel, ruler of all she tells me to go out and get for her.”

I couldn't help giggling as I touched hands. “Pleasure to meet you, Sis!”

“I had no idea your sister was a champion, Will, why didn’t you tell me?” Rachel asked Will while looking at me.

“Cause he just found out,” I said still giggling.

Will introduced Jane next.

“Apparently he was sent to evaluate me for this job by another goddess,” Jane said turning to glare at him.

“Well you can yell at him later,” Rachel said. “Right now we have to decide just what we’re going to do about this attack.”

“Well what can we do?” Dezba asked.

“Take the fight to them!” I said.

“Exactly,” Rachel agreed nodding, “Let’s be proactive instead of reactive.”

“Well we can’t go to Barassa, Tantrus is too powerful, and Barassa’s army is too big.” Will said.

“Doesn’t Tantrus have a temple in Marland?” Rachel asked smiling.

“Ohhh,” Will said, “Yeah that would be perfect.”

“What?” Jane asked.

“Taking out a major temple like that would hit Tantrus with a pretty serious backlash, it would mess him up for weeks.”

“Jane?” Rachel said.

“Yes, Your Majesty?”

“Rachel will work just fine in private dear,” Rachel said and smiled sweetly. “Now, could you talk to your priests around here, see if any of them know if there is a church to Tantrus in this kingdom as well?”

Jane nodded, “Sure, if someone can tell me where my goddess’s local temple is.”

“Just relax and open up your senses,” Will said to her. “You’ll feel it.”

Jane blinked, “Really? Oh wait, yeah! There it is. Wow, that’s really something!”

“You get used to it,” Dezba said. “I’ll go with you,” and getting up she followed Jane out of the room.

“So now we have some targets, how do we get there?” I asked looking at Will.

“Oh you’re gonna love this,” he laughed, “The horse analog here is a wolf like animal.”

I looked surprised, “Really?”

He nodded.

Rachel sighed, “I’d ask what you’re talking about, but I don’t think I want to know.”

Will nodded and went over to sit with Rachel. I noticed they both unconsciously shifted until their bodies were touching. It was nice to see they really did like each other, though I wondered if she knew he had another wife and another child? I'd have to ask Will at some point, it wasn't my place to go shooting my mouth off about it.

Rachel said something to Will then that I couldn't hear, but I heard his response.

“Well my sister was a sergeant in the military back home, and she was a pretty good one, she knows how to fight. As for Jane, well she was in what we call a ‘street gang’ which basically means she ran with a group of thugs as a child, and spent her childhood years beating up other thugs.”

I filed that one away for future reference. Maybe that explained the big hammer Jane was carrying?

“Well she’s certainly going to be beating up a bunch more before today is through,” Rachel growled.

Will nodded, “The only thing that worries me right now is Tantrus’s champion, I’d love to know where he is right now.”

“Oh I wouldn’t be worrying about him,” I laughed.

“Why not?” Rachel asked.

“I killed him!” I said grinning. “Unfortunately we didn’t get there soon enough to save everyone, a few people did die.”

“Who died?” Rachel asked.

“Diament died defending Baron,” Will told her.

Rachel sighed, “I guess he really did change his ways.”

Will nodded, “I talked to him last night, and I made a few promises.”

“You talked to him?” Rachel asked surprised.

I was rather surprised by that too! How the hell did Will talk to a dead guy?

He nodded, “As Fel’s champion I can talk to the recently deceased before they pass on to the next world. I promised to make sure his son didn’t make the same mistakes he had, and to build his dam.”

Rachel nodded. “So with their champion dead, how long until he comes back?”

“Three days,” Will said. “Which is a huge advantage.”

“But we now have four champions.” Rachel pointed out.

“Taking out that temple will be tough. And if it takes us more than three days to get there, odds are we’ll be facing their champion as well.”

“Well, once Jane gets back with some information, we can make our plans." Rachel said with the kind of look on her face that made it clear that this was a female that did business.

I liked her already.

 

An hour later, after a quick breakfast we were riding away from the castle, towards a town called Erich. The wolves we were riding, Will said they were called 'Wolats' were pretty cool. They were about the size of a horse, but were a lot more aggressive. After mine tried to bite me, I grabbed the bridle and dragged his head down until we saw eye to eye and I growled at him and gave him a head butt.

He got the message and behaved rather well after that.

Riding them wasn't much different than riding a horse, though I'm not sure they understood the concept of 'walk', everything seemed to be a trot to them. However they didn't seem to have any problem with keeping it up for the trip.

"So, just how well do you know my brother?" I teased Jane as we rode along. We were up at the front of the column, with the local priest of Fordessa's who was guiding us from the back of Jane's saddle. We were currently riding well out of earshot of my brother and his wife.

"Too well," She growled. "I had no idea it was just a lark for him."

"Oh, that doesn't sound good," I told her. "But a word of warning," I said to her.

"What, you'll take me to task if I hurt your brother?" She growled.

I laughed, "Hardly, but my brother can be pretty clueless when it comes to the opposite sex. I'm not sure he'd even understand what a lark was!"

"Well he won her, didn't he?" She said and nodded back towards Rachel.

"Umm, I'm not so sure who won whom there. What's the one thing that you, she, and Dezba all have in common?"

"Other than your brother?" She growled.

"You're all strong, confident, dominate women." I grinned at her, and leaned a bit closer to her in my saddle. "Now tell me the truth, who really seduced who?"

Jane opened her mouth, then closed it, then looked at me rather embarrassed. "I dragged him home and spent a weekend using and abusing him like a rock star would with a groupie"

I sniggered, "You did what to him?" I had a feeling I was going to be able to abuse Will with this story for many years to come.

"Well, I had just won him in a fight," Jane said with a very guilty looking smirk.

I laughed so hard that Jane looked embarrassed and Will had to tell me to shut up or they'd hear us at the temple, not just the church we were going to attack.

Oh, this was definitely going to be a good one! I'd have to get Jane to tell me the story later, for now it looked like we were finally approaching our goal.

Will rode up in front of us, and detailed half of the group to stay and guard Rachel, the other half were going to come with us. While Jane had seemed a bit leery about bringing the queen with us, William had pointed out that no one knew where we were going, so it was the safest place for her to be.

I was impressed by his logic, but then my brother always had been a fast learner.

“Okay, real simple,” He said to those of us going with him. “We ride into the church, right in through the doors, Dezba will attack the altar, everyone else kill the clerics and anyone that looks like they might be one. As soon as the altar is destroyed, kill everyone and anyone that isn’t one of us in the room, set the place on fire, then we leave. Okay?”

We all nodded, sounded simple enough.

“Let’s ride!”

 

It was a classic example of an ambush. We rode into town, and of course no one here had ever seen the like.

We went right up the steps in front, in through the front doors, and right into the main room of the church. It was big, but then what church isn't? We got just about everyone and all of the wolats inside, and then the fun began. We all attacked the priests that were in the room, and anyone else who was near the altar. They went down almost immediately; I don't think they really even had the time to realize they were under attack. After that, Jane and I covered Dezba as she went after the altar with a large hammer, about the size of a sledgehammer.

While we were doing that, the rest of the soldiers, and all of the wolats, attacked everyone who was left. Now I know warhorses will attack people, it's what they're trained to do after all, but I think it's safe to say that a wolf the size of a horse does a whole hell of a lot more damage than a horse. Bigger muzzles, sharper teeth, and claws.

Yeah, it made a charnel house look neat by the time they got finished.

Dezba made rather fast work of the altar, almost as fast as the soldiers and the wolats had of the defenders. Then while our priests did their bit with whatever it is that priests have to do, to destroy the sanctity of another god's holy property, we gathered up our wounded, got them fixed up for travel, and then once the priests were done we torched the place and left.

I think we were there less than twenty minutes, a good solid hit and run strike, with maximum damage, and minimum loss. Yeah, it was a pretty soft target, but those were always the best for morale, which I was guessing we'd need a lot of when we hit the next one.

Much later that day we linked up with the rest of Rachel's army, which was waiting just outside of Holden, that was the name of the country we'd been in, and William handed her off to the rather large army group that was there, and sent them packing at full speed back to Hiland and the castle.

The rest of us then turned and rode off for Marland.


 

 

Nine

 

 

We were sitting on the outskirts of Marland, in the trees on the edge of town. As we were really a pretty small force, I doubted we'd attracted any attention yet. Will had made it clear that no one here really understood what cavalry was, or what it could do, yet. I was sure that was all about to change however.

Everyone checked over their mounts, and prepared for battle.

"Anyone got any bright ideas?" Will asked.

"Yeah, let's not go in through the front door," I told them giving both my swords a last check.

"Why not?" Jean asked.

"Because I'm sure they'll be expecting it," I said.

"I don't think the back door will be any better," Will said.

"That's why you have me here!" I said smiling. "Hey, Dezba, how high do you think these guys can jump?"

She shrugged, "Four, maybe six feet, depends on how heavy the rider is."

I nodded, "We have a few people draw attention at the front door, the rest of us go in through the windows."

"Assuming there are any windows," Will said.

"Oh, I'm sure there are. Though I'm sure we'll have to break them first so the Wolats will be willing to jump through them. We may even have to build up something like a ramp under them."

"They'll see you doing that," Jane said.

"Not if you keep them distracted."

Will quickly detailed a couple of his element leaders to attack the front door as a diversion, and to find some wagons to put under the windows to use as ramps.

We mounted up then and rode into town at a fast trot. The guards at the entry to the town took one look at us and wisely retreated out of sight until we had gone by, and we broke into a gallop as we rode past them and headed for the temple.

When we got to the temple, just as I had suspected the front door was heavily guarded by a number of soldiers and a hastily erected barricade. But, just as I had predicted there were windows along the sides of the building, all of which were completely undefended. They were about six feet off the ground, so everyone probably thought they were safe from attack.

I looked at Will and he looked at me and suddenly he smiled and I started to wonder if insanity ran in my family as he turned his wolat and charged the wall of the church, heading right for one of the windows.

When he leapt up onto the saddle and balanced I suddenly figured out what he was doing, and kicking my wolat into gear I aimed at the one next to his, and started charging it, as his wolat balked and slid to a stop and he jumped up into the air and crashed right through the window.

As ideas went, it wasn't my brightest, but I'd be damned if I'd let my own brother show me up in front of a crowd of pro's! Especially seeing as how I was one myself!

I jumped as my own mount balked and I crashed through the window without any trouble, other than getting cut in a dozen places from the heavy glass and the metal that they used to build it! I popped off a healing spell, as I twisted and turned my body to come down feet first. Everyone was still starting at my crazy brother as he got to his feet and started to attack, so I was able to use one of the soldiers inside to break my fall and cushion my landing.

Rolling to my own feet I killed two of them before they ever realized I was there.

After that, it was a lot of hard fighting, they had me completely surrounded, but like the old general once said 'they're not getting away this time!' and I laid into them with a will, as I used my speed and skill to keep them all guessing just who I was going to attack next.

Being shorter than most of my attackers actually was helping me for once, because the men directly around me were blocking the view of the men behind them, so as I cut one down and jumped past him, I was able to surprise those behind him, who couldn't see me coming.

The only problem was, those I was cutting down, weren't staying down. Someone was healing them, so unless I took off a head, or got an instant kill, they weren't out of the fight for more than a minute or two.

But still between the two of us we were generating a lot of confusion and when a number of soldiers and their wolats started to come in through the windows, I knew that the cavalry had arrived, literally.

"Nikki! To me!" I heard Will call from off to my left, so turning that way I charged into the midst of them, burning another couple of healing spells as I fought my way towards my brother. If he was calling for help, things must be getting desperate for him.

As I came up behind him, I saw Will take the heads off of two of the enemy, I had to admit, he was pretty good at what he was doing, but I could also see he was being forced back, there were a lot of soldiers attacking him, and I even recognized one, it was that champion I'd killed from the last battle.

I guess we hadn't gotten here fast enough after all.

"Hey, Bro! What's up?" I called out as I approached, so he'd know I was now covering his rear.

"Nikki," He said, and I could tell he was getting tired, "I believe you know Benjiman?"

Their champion, Benjiman, laughed. "I'll kill you both! My god reigns here! You will both die!"

I laughed and got the head of one of the soldiers on my left when he got a bit over confident.

"Didn't you say that the last time we met?" I teased.

"Benjiman, allow me to introduce my sister!" Will said and jumped forward. I quickly followed his lead and we almost got the SOB, and suddenly he was being forced to give ground.

"There are two of you?!" He yelled out shocked, and I could see it in his eyes as he noticed the family resemblance. This was a man on the edge of panic; obviously my brother and he had a history, all he needed was a little push to go over the side.

"Hey Dez!" I yelled out, "Come join the fun! Only fair you get to kill him next!"

The panicked look on his face as he lost it was amazing; I bet he was probably crapping his pants.

“Whatthehellisthis? A family reunion!” he screamed, and then, he turned and ran yelling "The hell with this! I quit!" as he fled the room.

We pressed our attack as the others were momentarily staggered by his defection. I could see the altar now, which was obviously what Will had been working towards. There was a priest up there, and he was casting all sorts of spells nonstop, which explained why so many of the wounds I was causing were healing almost as fast as I dealt them. This was going to be quite the slog uphill I felt.

It was slow going, and we were definitely paying for every inch we gained. I was picking up wounds almost as fast as my brother was, and I could tell when he ran out of healing and started to pick up some more serious wounds. I guess he was starting to run out of steam as well. I knew that I was sure getting tired!

Just as he got tripped up and started to fall, Dezba finally made it to us and she cleaved the head of the man who was trying to kill Will, and as he fell Jane took advantage of the opening and ran by, vaulting to the top of the altar and lowering that nasty looking hammer of hers onto the head of the cleric, killing him rather messily.

I could see that Will was having a hard time getting up, but there weren't that many defenders left around the altar now, and without that cleric healing them, Dezba and I were able to make short work of the remainder as Jane started in on the altar with that huge hammer of hers.

As soon as those were dealt with Dezba and I started in on the altar as well, Dezba still had the sledge from before with her, and I just picked up a war hammer that someone had dropped on the ground and went to work with that. The weird thing is that it sounded like someone was screaming every time we hit the altar, and then suddenly it started to crack and Jane screamed out her goddesses' name and then there was a loud explosion and everything went quite black.

 

I came too as Dezba healed me. Everything was blurry, and the room wouldn't stop swaying.

"What..." Was all I could say as I tried to pull myself together.

"The altar exploded when it broke," Dezba said helping me to my feet and leading me towards the door.

“And I thought you were the crazy one!” Dezba said to Will as he passed us, Jane helping him along.

“I’m not, not crazy, just deter... determined,” I said still a bit stunned.

She led me outside, and over to some clerics who healed me as best they could. I was still a little dizzy, and hurt from head to toe, but I wasn't bleeding anymore and I didn't think I was going to die anytime soon. I found a place to sit and rest and drink some water while I waited for our marching orders.

Eventually I got up and went over to join Jane who was talking with one of the clerics. Will joined us not long after that, and he looked like I felt.

"So now what?" I asked him.

“Well I’m heading home for now, you and Dez can either go home, come with me, or I guess do whatever you want.” Will said.

“I’m going home,” Dezba said giving Will a hug. “I’ve got things to deal with.”

Will hugged her back, “Thanks Dez, I owe you one.”

“Oh don’t worry, I plan on collecting!” She laughed.

“I’m going to go visit with my new sister,” I said and gave Dezba and Jane each a hug. "Until next time!"

I yawned and stretched a little while Will said his goodbyes.

"Time to go," he said we both turned and followed our troops out of town.

 

#

 

It took us about a week to get back to Hiland City, but only because we left the more seriously injured with the garrison at Rivervail to recover, which allowed us to pick up the pace for the last leg of the trip.

I visited with Will and Rachel for a few days, it was rather interesting. I'd never seen a queen before, and that was different. No one ever said 'no' to Rachel, they didn't even say anything that remotely hinted at 'no'. No one was her equal, and while she didn't flaunt it, she knew it, and lived it. The only person around whom she let treat her like an equal was Will, and even there, I could see the occasional power play going on. But with them at least I could see that it was a game.

In public, Will treated her like a queen, and never argued or disagreed. In private however, they'd both let their hair down and were just another couple who apparently were very much in love with each other.

"So, has anyone explained the rules to you yet, Sis?" Will asked me, he was about to ride off to track down and kill the traitor who had sold out Rachel and the kingdom. I was surprised at how calm he was about it, I think that right there made it clear to me just how much my brother had changed.

"Which rules are those?" I asked.

"The rules of being a champion," he said and started to saddle up his Wolat.

"There are rules for this?" I asked, half joking.

He shrugged, "I just know what Stephanie told me, back when I was starting out. It made sense to me, so I thought I'd pass it on."

"What happened to her, anyway?"

"She became a goddess," Will sighed.

"For real?" I asked surprised.

"Yup." he paused a moment to cinch the belly strap. "So, here are the rules: Rule one, don't think with your dick."

I laughed, "In case you haven't noticed, Bro, I don't have one of those!"

"The same sentiment applies, be careful of your romantic entanglements, because they all come with problems."

"Like having two wives?" I teased.

Will nodded and gave me a rather serious look, "Exactly, and that leads directly into rule number two: You love only yourself and nobody else."

"Seriously?"

"As far as you let anyone else know? Yes, definitely. I tell everyone that I hooked up with Rachel because she's the hottest bitch in the kingdom, and therefore it's my right as a champion to claim her and make her mine. Same for Darlene."

"So protect the ones you love from being targets."

"That's part of it, but also, think about this: I will never age as a champion, a hundred years from now, Rachel will be dead, Darlene will be dead, and all of our kids will probably dead. But I'll still look just like this.

"Don't get me wrong, I don't regret falling in love with either of them, or marrying them and having a family. But life would be simpler and easier if I hadn't."

"And a lot shallower and lonelier," I added.

Will smiled at me, "There is that too. Anyway, next rule, did anyone show you the 'eyes and ears' stuff yet?"

I nodded.

"Rule three is just don't bug your god with that, unless it's important or they've asked you too. They don't like paying that much attention to us, unless it's important, and if you bug them too much they'll break that connection and it hurts when they do that. Besides, whenever you're in your home sphere Aryanna will automatically know everything you say, see, think, or do.

"Rule four is the most important after rule two: If you don't like your god or goddess, quit and find another one. There will always be another one to pick you up; trained champions are at a premium supposedly. But if you can't give your god, or your people, your all, you're in the wrong place.

"I've heard that finding a god that you like, and a people that you care about, isn't easy, but if you do luck out and find one, stick with them as long as you can, because it's worth it."

"Like you and Fel?"

Will nodded, "I've already promised Rachel, that when my time comes, no matter where I am, I'll come back to Fel's afterlife, and be with here there."

That stopped me! "You can do that?"

He nodded, "Sure, you can pick whose afterlife you want to go to. Fel told me that if that was what I wanted, then that was where I go, no matter who I'd served, or where I was."

"And you told Rachel?"

Will laughed, "Well, I don't think it would be heaven for either of us, if the other wasn't there."

"Damn, Bro, when did you become such a sap?" I laughed.

"When I met Rachel. Now, I have to go, if I'm going to catch this scum before he leaves our territory. Say 'hi' to Aryanna for me, and I'll see you around."

"Later, Bro," I said and gave him a hug, then watched as he mounted up and rode off.

I'd already said my own goodbye's to Rachel, so I found a spot away from any prying eyes and gated back to Aryanna's home temple.


 

 

Afterword

 

A month later I was back in Riverhead, once again training with Master Burdon. We were primarily working on mounted combat, as the war with Atolians would be coming soon.

I was looking forward to the campaign, because it would be my first, I'd finally get to go into real combat with a real army. The fighting I'd done with my brother and the others didn't really count as combat; it was just a couple of hit and run raids, not a sustained effort in the field against a foe. I'd finally get to see just what I could do in the field and prove once and for all that I could indeed do the job I'd been training to do for years.

Overall, I felt pretty good about where I was, and what I was doing. I'd met with Captain Bersheres, who was in charge of the guard and Duke Lias, the local ruler, to discuss plans for the campaign. They listened to what I had to say, and took my questions and concerns seriously. They also valued my input.

Both of those things felt wonderful and I had to admit that I really enjoyed the respect that everyone was showing me.

I just had to make sure I lived up to their expectations and didn't let it go to my head, I was still new in this job, and if I wanted to be good at it, I'd best be sure to listen to the advice of the others and consider it before making my own decisions.

It helped that Master Burdon was always quick to take me down a peg if I started to put on airs. The man was a treasure.

As for Aryanna, well, I was still feeling my way with her. She sure seemed well enough, and Will's opinion of her helped set my mind at ease, but as a former NCO, I had developed an instinctual wariness to politicians and government types, and as a goddess she definitely fit that role. So I was still working my way through that as I got to know her better.

End


I hope that you enjoyed this novella, I wanted to write something about Nikki, Will's sister (and I may yet write about her in the upcoming war with the Atolians), and I wrote this background piece first, to help solidify her background and tell how she got to where she is today.

If you'd like to get alerts when my next novel comes out, or for when I put thing up online for free, please sign up for my mailing list at:

 

http://eepurl.com/2qrO9

 

As of the posting of this story, I'm not 100% certain on which story will be completed next, but I have a few stories that are not POI ones in the works and one of those will be out before the next POI installment. Sorry POI fans, but it does help me to work on other projects from time to time.

 

Thank you,

John Van Stry

www.vanstry.net (vanstry@gmail.com)

My Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/vanstry

 

If you liked this story, you might like my other stories:

 

Urban/Modern Fantasy:

 

Portals of Infinity, Book One: Champion for Hire

 

William is just your typical engineer fresh out of college with a stressful job, a boring life, and not a lot of prospects of anything better in the future.

Until one weekend while hiking in the woods he stumbles across a portal to another time, or perhaps another place. The more he investigates this new world the more he realizes that it may just be able to offer him a lot more than the one he's been living in.

However, there are forces at work beyond anything that Will has ever come across before and the local goddess seems to have taken a liking to him. Will may soon find himself getting an offer he cannot afford to refuse.

 

Portals of Infinity, Book Two: The God Game

 

Will’s life has definitely changed since that day he went hiking in the woods of Pennsylvania. He’s discovered that reality is a lot bigger and stranger than he had ever imagined. Learning about the portals that link the infinite number of worlds opened his eyes to that wider reality. Learning that he was being groomed to become the Champion of a God in one of those realities was an even more startling discovery.

But now it’s time for him to pay the bill for his ‘recruitment’. Just as the Gods on a single world fight and jockey for power and position, the older Gods from the many different spheres of the infinite play a much larger and more complicated game. The Goddess Aryanna has a quest she needs completed, and William and four other Champions are the ones tasked to do it.

What bothers Will however is what could a Goddess possibly need? And why would it take five Champions to retrieve it?

 

Portals of Infinity, Book Three: Of Temples and Trials

 

With the first of what he suspects will be many favors completed, William finds himself busy with important tasks back at his home on Saladin. Queen Rachel has several jobs she needs him to do, and Feliogustus has similar tasks in mind for him as well. All in all, it seems easy enough to Will, it’s not like he’ll be fighting in any wars, or traveling across the infinite on a strange quest after all.

But things aren’t always as easy as they might seem, and both politics, as well as the other gods, aren’t going to ignore Will, or the tasks he’s been set to complete. And is if dealing with that isn’t problem enough, when the time comes to do some serious diplomacy between Hiland and a neighboring Kingdom, a deadly problem comes from a most unexpected quarter, forcing Will to take immediate action to payback both his, and his God’s foes.

 

Portals of Infinity, Book Four: The Sea of Grass

 

With no otherworld tasks to run for Fel, Will has spent the last year mainly helping Rachel consolidate her hold on her expanded kingdom. Barassa has been set back, for now, but Will knows it’s only a matter of time until they’re at odds once more and Barassa still has the bigger army. So taking the time to learn more about their enemy seems like a good place to start, and of course, Rachel has more things she expects him to do, even if he has no idea just how he’s going to do them.

 

Fel also has things for Will to do as well, even if they are the more mundane jobs that a Champion of the faith must perform. Escorting missionaries isn’t the most exciting or glamorous job, but its one Will must do. At least the people are different, interesting, and friendly, and some perhaps a little too friendly. But that’s never gotten him in trouble before, right?

 

Portals of Infinity, Book Five: Demigods and Deities

 

Life can be complicated for those who the gods pick as their champions, and for William, it's no different. Between dealing with issues at home and abroad for his god, and helping Queen Rachel defend Hiland against the threat of Barassa, William has been busy.

 

With a trip back to Sireen to deal with one of the consequences of an earlier quest, William finds he has more to deal with than expected, especially when his youngest is kidnapped for unknown reasons by a god with a grudge. That leads to some further discoveries about one of his earlier enemies, as well as enigmatic instructions from his god about his child. A child that there is more to, than it would seem.

 

The Hammer Commission

 

Mark just watched his partner and best friend of ten years torn limb from limb by the kind of unholy horror which leaves most people gibbering in terror. Only a combination of luck and skill kept Mark from sharing his partner's fate and being killed by an abomination that by rights shouldn't exist in this day and age.

 

When asked, Mark tells people he works recovering stolen artifacts, and that's true. However he's also a member of a very old and secret organization that protects the world from devils and demons summoned here to do evil. A foot soldier on the front lines of the eternal war between Heaven and Hell, things had been favoring the side of Heaven for some time now. Until today that is, when someone discovered how to summon a devil that no one had seen since WWII.

 

Never popular with his boss, Mark finds himself sidelined as he tries to discover just what happened. Upset with being taken off the case, Mark does discover one thing rather quickly: whoever is behind this is now after him, and if he's not careful he'll be joining his partner sooner, rather than later.

 

Lost Souls   (Shrean Universe)

 

Jarith was exiled from Elsheval, one of the great Elvin kingdoms, eight years ago for political reasons. A powerful and loyal warrior who led the Queen's armies to many victories, he was angry and upset, but he followed his orders and left. Now, eight years later, he is being summoned back from his exile to deal with a problem that apparently the Queen believes only he can handle.

 

Despite his still strong feelings over this betrayal, his desire to see his home and family wins out and he decides to answer the call. But living an exile among humans for the last eight years has left its mark on him, having been forced to hide his Shrean form from those who wouldn't understand.

 

And what of the lover Jarith was forced to leave behind? The woman he once thought destined to be his? How will all of this affect her?

 

Science Fiction:

 

Children of Steel

 

Raj is just your average everyday genetically modeled and artificially created anthropomorphic worker for one of the many corporations of the future. Extensively trained and conditioned from birth he's now indentured for the next fifty years of his life; assuming he doesn't die first, or somehow manage to pay off his creation and training debts.

Created by the corporations to deal with the harsh labor shortages of the twenty second century when humans will no longer take on the dangerous jobs Raj finds himself now in the harsh world of space exploration, trading, corporate maneuverings, and sometimes the even more dangerous fanatics that hate Raj and his fellows. No longer in safe confines of the training academies he must learn how to live and deal with both his fellow workers and the humans he encounters and not get saddled with extra bills or fines because he's screwed up or worse yet, get 'put down' because he's lost his temper one time too many.

After all, it's not like he's human...

 

Interregnum (Sequel to Children of Steel)

 

The war is over, Raj and Cassandra are together, and everything should be 'happily ever after', and return to normal, right?

 

Well, they would be, but Cassandra still has issues to overcome after spending three years in POW camps where abuse and even torture were commonplace and many of the guards were sadists. Raj has gotten over most of his problems, after all, he did save his mate's life, but there are still issues from his past that are dogging him. And of course, there are just a few minor things that need to be cleaned up, leftover issues from the war, and some of those issues shoot back.

 

Interregnum is the sequel to 'Children of Steel' and picks up where it left off, continuing to follow the life of Raj, a genetic construct and wage slave to one of the major corporations that dominate Human explored space.

 

Danger Money

 

Jotun was born and bred to be a corporate assassin, back in the days of the Corporate Wars. Confined these days to life in a gilded cage, Jotun welcomes any opportunity to get out and lately he's been getting out a lot. But as a genetically designed and Laboratory bred animorph by a company that isn't quite sure if it trusts him anymore his choices are few: do the jobs that eventually will kill him, or refuse, which will also kill him.
Of course it isn't like he doesn't enjoy the work, but when everybody wants you dead you start to wonder if there isn't more to life.
When an unexpected betrayal kills the few friends he has and nearly him as well, Jotun realizes he has bigger problems than his lifestyle, namely finding out who betrayed him and paying them back, no matter what the cost.

Danger Money is a Science Fiction story that takes place in my Children of Steel universe, a future where genetically created animorphs serve as second-class citizens and handle all of the dirty and dangerous jobs that are part of humanity's extension to the stars.

Dialene

 

Dialene's Captain decided to play pirate, and one well placed nuclear torpedo later she finds herself prisoner of the Corporation whose ship they were attempting to raid; her friends and lover all dead. With no corporation to ransom her back she finds herself in the unenviable position of having to work off the debt assigned to her for her part in her Captain's actions. With concerns as to where her loyalties lie she has but two choices: Work in the mines on an airless rock where a small fem like her would not last long, or work in the company bar entertaining those very same miners.
At least working in the bar beats the alternatives, until one day an interesting character inserts himself into her life.

A Novella from my Children of Steel universe, Dialene is a foxmorph who until her capture was a highly rated shuttle pilot working a deep space trader for one of the more notorious corporations. Like most of her kind she had no choices in her employer who considered her nothing more than a disposable asset.

Shorts: The Furry Years

 

A collection of short stories that I wrote years ago for several of different anthropomorphic fanzines. Includes the following short stories:

 

Changes: The hero of the story wakes up in the morning to find his world has changed, rather drastically for him, hardly at all for others.

Old Business: This is from my ‘Children of Steel’ universe, it’s about the beginning of it all, the very first of the sentient animen (or animorph) ever to be created.

New Beginnings: Jack is the new bartender at a small pub, a nice quiet pub in the business district. The patrons tend to find his opinions humorous, as what does a bartender know after all? (More of a slice of life type story).

Fox Hunt: A joke that I just could not resist.

Easy Money: What happens to spies who come in from the cold? Especially ones who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks? Nothing good I’m sure...

 

Available in eBook format at Amazon, available in print from CreateSpace or Amazon.