After three weeks of travel, Tymli and Jasinn had come to a fence.
It was a grand, intimidating fence, eight feet high, over two dozen closely-set strands of barbed wire strung between metal posts four feet apart. To the left, it continued down a slope until it met the river they had followed here out of the mountains. It ran across it, extending six feet above the water line and down below it. On the other bank, the fence continued up out of sight. To their right, it stretched to the edge of the field their horse stood in, turning a corner near the forest's edge and continuing in a zig-zag line.
Jasinn frowned, dismounting, and fished around in his pouch until he found a large, brown gemstone. Holding it as if it were an egg, he touched it to a strand of wire. The stone glowed for an instant, then produced a puff of smoke and a bright shower of sparks.
"Barbed and electrified," Tymli said, her thin, furred orange tail flicking gently.
"How do they keep the water from shorting it out?"
"Magic, perhaps. It's not a question we need to ponder." She started to walk toward the horse. "I think, dear student, we now search for a gate."
Jasinn nodded, returning the stone to its pouch.
They rode together, following the fence toward the forest. Shortly a beaten farmhouse came into view, with scattered buildings behind it. The weathered house and silo suggested this was one of the older towns. As isolated as it was, the people might not know of the new governments forming far to the south, in civilized lands. They might not care.
And, if luck, held, they wouldn't care about a few missing valuables, either. Pioneers couldn't spare the time to pursue justice beyond their fences.
They rode on, and the forest became thicker. To its left, the town became more densely settled. Or the buildings became more numerous, at least. The houses were quiet; the streets were empty.
Jasinn slowed the horse down to a shuffle and surveyed the land beyond the barbed wire. The houses were giving way to stores, all equally deserted. "I'm beginning to wonder if someone else hasn't gotten here before us, my lady."
"And stolen the villagers rather than their possessions?"
But as she spoke, a person came into view, walking slowly down a street behind a store, then another. Both humans, like Jasinn himself; in civilized territories, the dwarf-like drojaar, and the Melifen and Vraini--the cat- and fox-people--were at least politely tolerated. Out here, though, the tolerance was rarely polite, and all too often simply absent.
The prejudice was a pity. Jasinn had thought himself the best thief alive until he met the Melifen he now rode with and realized he was a very poor second. He had spent almost two years begging her to take him as a student. Let lesser thieves mock him for humbling himself before another, especially a non-human, most especially a non- human woman. Their arrogance was one of the many reasons they would remain lesser thieves.
In a few minutes the horse came abreast of a cobblestone road, leading from a small open square in the town up to the fence and beyond it, out to the edge of the forest, where it became an obviously disused dirt path. One of the fence's posts was driven straight into the roadway, wedged between two stones.
There was no gate.
Some people walked through the square. "Hello!" Jasinn yelled. One looked up at him, an expression of mild curiosity and unease on his face; the others continued in a listless plod, looking straight ahead or down at the ground.
"Hello, I say!" he tried again. This time a figure stopped and walked toward them. As the distance between them dropped, the figure resolved into that of a young boy; his clothes were nice, nicer than Jasinn's. It spoke well of the town's potential wealth.
The boy was clean, but thin and pale, and his movements suggested a tragic frailty for so young a child. He stopped about fifty feet away, his eyes growing wide.
"Ho there," Jasinn called. "Could you direct me to the gate of your town, child?"
He gaped in response, raising a hand and half-pointing at them as if they were the strangest things he had seen in his entire life. "Maybe you're making him nervous?" he whispered to Tymli.
She grunted, then smiled at the child in a human fashion. "We've been travelling a long way," she said to him.
The boy's eyes widened further. Then he ran back toward the square, wailing.
"There's something very wrong here," Tymli murmured after a moment. "I don't think it's just because our young friend has never seen a Melifen."
Jasinn nodded curtly, fingering his beard.
"What would you suggest, dear pupil?" The cat-woman curled her tail around Jasinn's waist.
He cleared his throat. "While I suspect it'd be easier to go through the fence in the long run, it might be more tactful to continue searching--at an increased pace-- for the gate."
"You're just looking for an excuse to sit in my lap a little longer," she purred teasingly, leaning close to his ear.
"I'd rather have you sitting in my lap, my lady." He nudged the horse into a trot.
Tymli held onto his chest tightly for a second. Then, with the lithe, agile strength that helped make her so accomplished in her profession, she vaulted over him, flipping around in mid-air to land with her nose pressed against his neck, her fluffy manelike orange hair cascading around his shoulders. "How's this?"
"More distracting that you can possibly imagine," he said, becoming far too aware of her warmth, of the shape of the body pressed against his. Which was, of course, exactly her intention.
This game had been going on for over a year; in their current travels--his "final exam"--her sweet torture had become unbearably frustrating. As she became not just a mentor but a trusted associate and, over time, a cherished companion, the flirting affected him more-- he was unable to tell how serious she might be, and too afraid of losing her trust to press the issue.
They soon reached the end of this side of the fence; it turned a corner and headed back toward the river. He trotted the horse along it to the bank. And still, there was no gate.
"Now what?" he said.
"There may be a bridge over the river on the inside," she said thoughtfully. "So there's just one gate in and out."
It took another ten minutes to follow the river to a point narrow enough to ford.
The buildings on this side were a more recent construction, perhaps forty years old instead of eighty. They reached the end of this side, too, and made a circuit around the fence like before, finally coming to meet the river again, just across the water from the point they had first started. The barbed wire remained unbroken.
"I've seen secure settlements before," he said, "but this is a bit pathological."
She laughed softly. "Well, we could go back to the road and break in through the fence in plain sight, if you feel we could convince the townspeople watching of our good intentions."
"On your theory that apparent openness is preferable to stealth."
"I think we've amply proved that 'theory,' dear pupil. Would you suggest we get a settler's attention and ask for two warm beds by nightfall?"
"Or just one?" he suggested, keeping his voice innocent.
She elbowed him in the stomach. "I thought you weren't comfortable with my lewd and lascivious comments, Jasinn."
He blinked. He had never mentioned his discomfort at them, but he should have expected her to have picked up on it--any true master thief could read someone's emotions as well as a divination spell with no supernatural "gift" (although the talent made running mindreading scams much easier).
"They encourage me to think lewd and lascivious thoughts, my lady," he said softly, keeping his voice as light as possible.
"You probably wouldn't want a fur-covered woman sharing your bed. The very thought makes most humans sneeze uncontrollably."
"I'm not most humans," he said, smiling a little. "But you may be right, my lady. I might be more than you could handle."
Tymli turned to face him, her eyes registering surprise. Then an endearingly evil smile crept onto her face. "Is that a...challenge, Jasinn?"
"Perhaps," he said, clearing his throat. "But, about the town. The evidence suggests they are not enthralled with outside visitors."
She nodded, still smiling, the mischievousness replaced by a thoughtfulness. "All right. We can, perhaps, break in here. Not that I'm sure the good townspeople would notice if we cut into the fence right at the road."
"I'm not sure they'd notice if we cut down a few trees and constructed our own gate."
Getting through the fence was not difficult, but it was tedious-- and, with power crackling off the insulated clippers, louder than desired. In a bit under five minutes, Jasinn had clipped out a full- sized doorway, seven feet high and three feet wide.
"Isn't this a bit large?" Tymli said, regarding his handiwork.
"It may be more obvious, but when we come back here we may be moving rather quickly. If that's the case, I prefer a hole large enough to pass through at high speed." He produced a stake from his own pack, pounded it into the ground and tethered the horse to it, then followed his mentor through the hole.
The first farmouse was barely a minute's walk away. But the first individual they encountered was not a farmer, but a cow.
Jasinn studied the animal. "I thought these were usually kept in pens."
"I believe you're thinking of pigs, dear. Cows usually roam around the farm."
"But this one came from inside the farmhouse."
"Maybe it's a pet cow," she said, a note of irritation creeping into her voice.
"You've trained me to notice the possibly unusual, my lady," he said, hurrying after her as she stomped forward.
"I suppose we'll wait until night, and simply strike as common burglars. This town can't be more than a few hundred people, which means you'll stand out as a stranger as fast as I will."
"Although they won't want me for my pelt."
"You say the most charming things sometimes," she muttered. "We can stay in the silo until nightfall."
But for the lone cow, the farm seemed deserted. They entered the silo to find bales of hay, loose straw and a fine layer of dust over everything. And nothing else.
"This is becoming disturbing," Tymli said, dropping down against a haystack.
Jasinn sat beside her, leaning into it. "Perhaps they're not farming this section now. Or perhaps the farm's owners are deceased." He sighed. "It should be about two hours until sunset. I don't suppose you brought a set of jacks, did you?"
Tymli made a show of rummaging through her pouch, then shook her head in sadness. "I'm afraid I didn't. Although there is something else, dear pupil."
She reached down to her belt and pulled her shirt loose, then lifted it straight over her head. "If I have a weakness, it's that I can never let a challenge go unanswered. Would you be so kind as to undo my bra?" She started unbuttoning his shirt without waiting for a response.
"Oh, my," Jasinn whispered, recovering enough to unfasten the requested garment, but not enough to keep from gaping stupidly at the sight revealed--causing Tymli to laugh evilly and increase the speed at which she undressed him. He shook himself and started to work at the rest of her clothing, his hands trembling slightly. If finding a zoomorph attractive made him a pervert, so be it; in his eyes, at least, Tymli's beauty could inspire not mere sonnets but great, sprawling epics. Or perhaps wars.
As their bodies met, she breathed in his ear, "I know I've warned you about this, dear pupil. Seduction is a classic way for a thief to take advantage of you."
"What could you want of mine, my lady?" he whispered, holding her close.
"I'm afraid you stole that long ago."
She pushed him down into the hay, eyes shining. "Then I want the rest of you, love."
A little less than two hours later, Jasinn was stroking Tymli's back, nestling his head against her neck. "I was wrong, Lady Tymli," he said softly. "You were more than capable of handling me."
She laughed, petting his side with the tip of her tail. "You did very well yourself. I suspect you know things I'd like you to teach me, dearest pupil...at your leisure."
Tymli had just pulled on her blouse when they heard a noise from outside the silo. No words were exchanged between them; they simply moved as one toward the door.
With no seeming direction, an old man wandered across the field. His clothes were dirty and tattered, his long, white beard matted with tangles and burrs. He approached the silo, then sat down a few yards from it, watching the cow with a glowering intensity.
"Should we ignore him?" Jasinn whispered.
Tymli shook her head. "There's just one of him, and either one of us could knock him out without trouble. He appears a little daft, which means he might not question our presence enough to warn the villagers of strangers."
"And if he is?"
She smiled, showing sharp teeth. "We still talk to him."
"Can you knock him out without hurting him?"
"Of course," she whispered, sounding mildly offended. One of her many strangely noble qualities was an intense dislike for unneccessary violence; in the time he had known her, she had only killed one person--another thief who had been in the process of strangling the Melifen when she drove her stilletto into his back.
"My loyal subject!" the man suddenly yelled, raising an imaginary glass in a toast to the cow.
"Although," Tymli continued in a louder whisper, "I shouldn't forget he might be nuttier than pistachio pudding."
Jasinn chuckled softly and walked out of the silo. "Sir," he announced when he was within six feet of the old man.
The man jumped and fell to his knees, turning around. Then he looked up at Jasinn, and his eyes furrowed.
Jasinn glanced down, pursing his lips. On the man's forehead was the tattoo of a crown.
"We're travellers from a far distance away--" Jasinn begin, but was cut off by an emphatic gesture from the man as he rose back to his feet.
"Strangers," the man said, shaking his head. "Oh. Oh." He laughed, then touched the tattoo. "The king."
"Of the cows?"
"Yes. Exactly." The man grinned a near-toothless smile, then half turned away. Then he saw Tymli and sucked in his breath. "No," he said, backing up a step.
"I'm not going to hurt you," she said gently.
"Cows and cows," he said, as if in reply. "It's all mine. The mage."
"You've lived here a long time then, have you?" Jasinn said.
"Long, long time." The man whirled back on him. "Do you know what you're doing?" His eyes were wild, his voice suddenly desperate.
"What?" said Tymli.
"We never do," he said sadly, almost whispering. Then, still looking at the ground, his voice low: "Do cows have feelings?"
"I've never really thought about it," Jasinn said, trying to hide his impatience.
"We never do," the man repeated, his eyes losing focus.
"Sir," Tymli said gently, "do you know of any...hostels that might be in the town?"
"Hostels? Leanthra and Ramos?" He cackled. "All Leanthra, now. All Ramos. Really." He licked his lips, then turned to look at both of them, and his eyes became sharp, his voice disquietingly lucid. "I don't know how you got here," he said clearly, "but leave while there's still light. Go away. Go as far away as you can get." Then his eyes lost focus again, and he started twitching.
Jasinn watched him for a moment, then walked back to Tymli. "What do you think?"
"What did you think of his crown?"
"It wasn't a tattoo. The skin was raised like a bruise."
"Like a birthmark."
She nodded. "I think, in the forty minutes or so before nightfall, we should see what the hell's going on here."
"And at nightfall?"
She scratched her nose, looking uncharacteristically nervous. "I'm not superstitious by nature, love, but I'm seriously considering our friend's advice."
Tymli had already started walking briskly toward the town; Jasinn hurried after her. "And our professional obligations?"
"Perhaps we should confine ourselves to the supplies sufficient to take us--as the man said--as far away as we can get. Our next target is but a week's journey away. Less if necessary."
He sighed, but nodded in acquiescence.
Covering the short distance to the town in a few minutes, Tymli lead Jasinn toward the nearest house, a comfortable wooden structure not unlike one he had lived in during his childhood. Lightly, he touched the door latch; it opened silently, and the door swung open. Tymli raised her eyebrows and joined Jasinn on the porch.
There was no light in the empty room before them but that of the open windows. The room was immaculately kept, dust-free, each sofa cushion placed precisely, every wall hanging just right.
"We could at least look for valuables," Jasinn pleaded softly. Tymli grinned, and they padded toward a door on the far side of the room, pushing it open as gently as a breeze.
Behind it, sleeping on a plush, richly ornate bed were two... two somethings.
They were zoomorphs, thin, black-furred foxes not unlike the Vraini. Except for the huge pointed ears, and claws as long as some folding knives Jasinn had used--on both hands and feet. And the wings.
He wasn't sure they were wings, but what else could they be? They hung off the arms, joined at the wrist, lying across their bodies. Each creature slept in the same position, flat on its back, a hand on each shoulder, arms crossed, wings covering their torsos like blankets. They looked as rigid as planks. Only the faint rise and fall of their chests suggested they were alive. Jasinn looked at their thin, delicate faces, and was not surprised to see the tips of razor-sharp fangs visible against the foreshortened muzzles.
He and Tymli backed out of the doorway, very slowly, then made their way out of the house as quickly as possible.
"What were they?" he asked softly when they were outside.
"I don't know. I've never seen anything like them before."
She nodded. "I think they were... bats...." She froze, then started shaking.
Tymli grabbed his arm and pulled him forward, almost hissing. "I want to find one of those humans. Fast."
He allowed himself to be led along by the Melifen, watching the sun's lower edge fall begin to touch the top of the forest trees.
The next house they entered had three bats in it.
As they left, one of the creatures unlocked his hands, lifting them straight up into the air as if doing a morning stretch. The two thieves literally ran out of the house, praying that the years spent mastering silent motion would offset the bats' obviously sharp hearing.
They didn't enter the third house, though. Instead, a human woman came out. She might have been in her early forties; her dress was nice, if unflattering, and her body was pale and thin. She saw the two stramgers and put a hand to her mouth.
"Be quiet if you want to see morning," Jasinn hissed, stepping forward and grabbing the woman, clapping a hand over her mouth in the same motion. She didn't struggle at all. He and Tymli ran on, heading for a small general store with a CLOSED sign in the window. Tymli already had her picks out, but the door was unlocked; they pushed inside and dropped down behind one of the shelves.
He let go of their captive; she merely slumped against a shelf, staring at them uncomprehendingly.
"Look," Tymli said, pointing at the woman's neck. A large, ugly scab ran across one side.
"What?" He looked at the Melifen. The human stared at up him incredulously.
"I can guess the answer," Tymli murmured. "We've come in through the fence," she said quietly to the woman. "You can get out that way."
The human smiled weakly, ruefully, and shook her head.
Tymli rocked back on her knees and ran her hand through her mane. "We need to get out of here now," she said, her voice tense.
Jasinn made it as far as the door before dropping down out of sight again. A bat was walking down the street.
He was about five and a half feet tall, and might be handsome by zoomorph standards. Except that his eyes were solid black.
And there were more bats coming out.
"What do we do now?"
Tymli watched out the glass of the closed door. It was becoming a parody of a normal street scene; bat-morphs waved to one another as they went about their business, and a group of them was forming in a square about a hundred feet away. One laughed, a sibilant hiss, and the fading sun glinted off frighteningly sharp teeth. "We wait and hope that little group breaks up, and make a run for it as soon as they do."
Jasinn stroked his beard, and knelt close to the woman. "I don't suppose you have any weapons on you."
"There are no weapons here," she said softly. "We're... not allowed them."
"Allowed," he repeated flatly.
"Lovely." He turned toward the door again.
Ambling up the street, ignored by the bats, was the old man with the crown mark. He walked past the store, then sat down on the stone street, kicking aside rocks. "My loyal subjects!" he yelled once more.
One of the bats left the group and walked over to the man. It was hard to read expressions in the fanged mouths and monochrome eyes, but Jasinn would swear the creature was amused. The old man watched as the bat approached, apparently unconcerned for his own safety. When they met, they spoke, more softly than Jasinn could hear. But Tymli sucked in her breath.
"What'd they say?"
"Our king told the bat it was evil; it said he was tired and stupid. Then he said it couldn't touch him, and it said, 'I know. And that is sad indeed, farrila.'"
The bat stroked the old man on the top of his head and moved off in a different direction, ignoring the rock the man kicked at his retreating form.
"It didn't look that evil," Jasinn whispered doubtfully.
Tymli closed her eyes. "Do you know the language of the faerie folk?"
Jasinn shook his head.
"Fa- is an affectionate diminuitive. Rila means...it means 'food.'"
He pursed his lips and turned toward the townswoman, who smiled back with a terrible resignation.
Tymli watched out the door; for the first time since Jasinn had known her, real fear filled her eyes.
The minues wore on. More bats joined the group in the square as the last light faded. And humans joined the group, too. They shuffled out of houses, sometimes the same houses bats emerged from-- some accompanied by small children, a few holding infants. All with gaunt figures and hollow eyes.
They were not on leashes, did not wear collars, talked freely among themselves. Some even laughed. A very few spoke with the bats, although the words they exchanged were brief and humorless. But when a bat looked over at a human, gestured languidly--there was only one way to describe the reaction. The human heeled. He or she obediently knelt beside the bat, to be given a command or just absently petted with a lethally clawed hand.
The "king" stood up and wandered about the square restlessly, waving his hands in front of him as if mimicking a wizard's spellcasting. The last of the sunlight faded, and the town's stonework glowed with the bluish whiteness of the full moon. Shortly the group of bats dispersed, walking down the street in twos and threes. But the square remained occupied with traffic of both species.
"We can't risk that," Jasinn said.
Tymli shook her head. "We're going to have to, love. I suspect this store will keep nocturnal hours, too, and if we're found in here when it opens for business...." She moved to the shelves, crawling so as to avoid being seen by the bats passing in front of the store. "No weapons," she muttered. "We'll be the only ones armed except for the bats."
Jasinn looked at their prisoner. "Do you think we could incite them to revolt?"
The woman started to cry.
Tymli hissed. "If they're all as scared as she is? We'd be lucky to incite one to raise its voice." She moved toward the door, then froze again, peering out.
Most of the humans were standing in the square by themselves, talking. A bat couple walked past, stopping for a moment. Tymli waited until the bats were out of sight, then pushed the door open.
She crawled out onto the pavement, Jasinn close behind. The "king" was the only person within fifty feet of them.
They stayed in the shadows, moving as silently as only they could, darting between the store and the next building. "Against the wall," Tymli breathed, with no more sound than leaves rustling in grass.
A new group of bats came into view, heading in their direction without having seen them yet. Jasinn edged toward the building's door, cracking it open and looking inside. Then he drew back, his breath hissing out a bit too loudly.
Tymli glared at him, then made the mistake of looking inside, too.
What she saw were bats, perhaps a dozen of them, and three times as many humans, all nude, sitting crosslegged in a fenced pen that ran the length of one wall.
One bat--a short female, dressed only in brief cutoffs--was walking up to the pen. She reached over the fence and picked up a human, a six-foot man who must have weighed at least twice what she did despite his sickly thinness. She carried him in her arms as if he was a rag doll, carrying him to another bat and dropping him roughly to the floor.
The seated bat nodded politely to her and pulled the unresisting human into his lap with one hand, then bit deeply into his neck, sending up a small spray of blood.
Tymli shut the door as quickly as she dared, then scurried away from the building.
"That one's seen us," Jasinn whispered as he followed her.
The Melifen looked over her shoulder. The bat they had seen a minute ago, heading toward the...diner, was now heading toward them. Tymli wailed out loud, a sound of unreasoning panic, and sprinted toward an alley. "No!" Jasinn gritted, but it was too late.
He caught up with her in the darkness of an alley behind the stores. Before he could speak, he saw the bat.
It was on a rooftop, on its knees and peering down at them. Tymli looked up, into its eyes, and whimpered. It smiled down at her, then leapt into the air and out of sight.
"Maybe they prefer their food already tamed," Jasinn muttered.
Tymli whirled on him, her eyes wide, and started to shake, little mewling noises coming from deep in her throat. He hugged her tightly. "Come on," he whispered in her ear. "You've helped teach me not to panic until the trouble is past."
She nodded, gulping, and drew back. They moved down the alleyway slowly.
The alleyway ended at another street, this one deserted except for the old man, wandering past them like an apparition.
Jasinn snarled and grabbed the man by the back of his neck.
"Hello," the man said loudly. "Do you like your room?"
"What's happened to your town, old fool?" he hissed.
"Not my town," the man replied, blinking. "Not now. I gave it away." He laughed sadly, then glared at Jasinn through slitted eyes. "I am the general. The mage. I fought the war."
"The river. It was all the river, you know."
"They're coming," Tymli said tightly, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. "I can hear them."
"You went to war over rights to the river," Jasinn said. "The town across the river isn't part of this one at all."
"Or it wasn't," Tymli murmured. "You're both fenced in now."
"Listen, old man. Are you special to them?"
The king blinked again.
Jasinn cursed and grabbed one of the man's arms, dragging him along as they moved toward the last building before the farmhouse. A huge, open field stretched in front of them--a minute's travel with no cover. And near twice that far to the fence hole.
And there were bats watching them. And humans, too. Watching as if they were circus performers. "Shit," Tymli said. Both of them could hear the leather glide of wings overhead. Neither one allowed themselves to look up.
"One last ritual after the last battle was lost," the king said. "Kamala. Stupid, stupid." He laughed wildly.
"Maybe they won't attack us if we keep him as hostage," Jasinn said hopefully.
"Kamala is a binding ritual," she hissed at the man. "It requires blood sacrifices. What the hell were you trying to control?"
"Faeries," the kind mumbled.
She stared at him open-mouthed.
"They could stop the war," he said, looking at the ground.
Jasinn tugged at her arm. "Let's move."
"You wanted to force them to destroy the other town," she said, narrowing her eyes.
"I wanted us to be equal. Look out."
"What--" Tymli and Jasinn whirled and ducked in time to avoid being landed on by a female bat. The Melifen hissed, which seemed to amuse the creature. She hissed back, baring teeth that made Tymli's look near-useless.
"What are you?" the bat said. Tymli backed away. "You do speak?"
"A Melifen," she whispered.
"I don't know what you might call me," the bat said softly, her voice unconcerned. "I've never...seen anything like you." She pointed at Jasinn with a clawtip. "Is he yours?"
The bat considered that response for a moment, then shot out a hand and grabbed Tymli's arm, yanking her to her knees. The cat screamed, her eyes brimming with tears of pain.
"Bitch," Jasinn said, drawing a stilleto and moving toward the bat almost as fast as the creature had attacked Tymli. The other hand caught his wrist an inch away from her shoulder, and the bat briefly favored him with a surprised, almost pleased expression.
"I see," it said mildly, letting go of Tymli's arm and caressing her chin gently, "you are not another predator, but just more prey." She released Jasinn, but kept her eyes on the Melifen. "I have fed recently--but I am very interested in tasting you. You will be a novelty, furred one."
"We're not your food," Jasinn whispered.
Her expression became condescending, and her smile broadened. "You will be fun," she said softly. Then she crouched, hurling herself into the air once more.
"Move now," Jasinn said. They sprinted for the farmhouse, dragging the old man with them as if he were a talisman; the bats watched from a distance, like spectators at a race.
When they reached the building, Tymli grabbed the king and pulled him down to the ground. "You killed your prisoners and summoned a faerie, didn't you? Did you really think you were powerful enough to bind one?" Her voice trembled with rage. "Did it create them for you to use against the other town, or did it just save time and send them on both towns at once?" She put her hands to her muzzle. "You drained their blood, didn't you?"
He nodded hesitantly. "Of course. To a faerie it would be perfect justice. You got your wish, didn't you, bastard? Everyone's equal here now. They're all fucking dairy cows!"
The old man started to cry.
"And the faerie gave you that mark to keep the bats from killing you," Jasinn said. "So you could watch what you were responsible for." He glanced around as they walked along the side of the house. Dozens of bats milled around now, watching and pointing. And laughing.
The cat-woman looked at their audience, eyes wild, then fished around in her pouch frantically. "Bastards." She pulled out a handful of florescent orange rocks, then started running away from the house.
"What?" Jasinn said. Some of the bats started moving closer.
Tymli started scattering a line of rocks between them and the bats. "Stay behind this line. Get in the house," she hissed.
Jasinn did, dragging the old man with him.
After a moment Tymli followed, leaving the door open. "They're all on that side of the house." She peered out. "Why are they playing with us?"
"They're fascinated by prey that puts up a fight," Jasinn suggested. "If we stay here, they'll come in and get us."
"But if we make a break for it they'll catch us."
She nodded again, looking miserable.
"I think I'd rather die running," he said after a moment.
Tymli shivered and leaned against Jasinn, trembling. "I'm not afraid they'll kill us. I'm afraid they won't."
Some of the bats were moving closer, walking toward the rocks; the Melifen sucked in her breath and stood up, pulling a large, red pebble out of another pouch.
"What is that?"
"All we have," she said, studying the pebble briefly. Then she smiled. "If you have a better plan than mine, this is the time to share it."
"What is your plan?"
"Cause a distraction and run like hell for the horse."
Jasinn looked at her sadly, then laughed.
"Do you still have that shooting gadget?"
He nodded, pulling it out. It was a small, magically-powered contraption about the size of a long dagger, with a fat tube instead of a blade, that shot pellets like a slingshot.
"All right." She looked out at the bats; one was within ten feet of the rock line, and thirty feet from the doorway. She tensed, and tossed the red pebble out onto the rocks. There was a spark.
Then all the rocks exploded.
Jasinn and Tymli were running before the entire line had caught fire, as their sight of the bats was obscured by flame. They were less than fifty feet from the farmhouse before it ignited; the rocks were still exploding, occasionally sending thin jets of flame hundreds of feet into the air.
They ran like they had never run before, the grass whipping past as the silo loomed closer in the distance. The hole in the fence was visible now.
Then the moon went out.
The sky was full of bats, dodging the flame trap above, swooping toward the silo at dizzying speeds.
As they reached the silo, half of the bats had landed on its other side. Jasinn and Tymli skirted to the left, away from the creatures, knowing they were being herded.
Barbed wire loomed before them all too quickly. They were far from the hole they had cut; Jasinn raised his weapon and watched the sky as he ran.
The only bats still in the air were young ones, laughing as they dived within feet of their heads. Tymli screamed. Jasinn was too terrified to. The adults had formed a rough line behind them, keeping pace, cutting off any retreat.
They tried to be prepared for the attack when it came. It wasn't enough. Jasinn got off five shots before a bat landed on his back, throwing him to the ground and sliding him along the rough grass almost eight feet. He was still spitting dirt out of his mouth when he felt two pairs of clawed hands wrap around his arms.
"No!" he screamed, struggling frantically as the bats pulled him into their laps. He had lost his shooter, and could only kick at the ground and air as the female braced him against her furred chest, one arm gripping him to her with crushing strength, clawtips sunk into his shirt. He could feel little rivulets of blood running along his skin where they pressed against it. The male let go of him and drew back, laughing.
Then he heard Tymli's screams.
One bat had pinned her legs; another was behind her, holding both her arms with one hand. A third sat in her lap, its arms around her neck. It leaned close, moving its nose within an inch of her face, and sniffed. Tymli's eyes widened as the two other bats began sniffing her, too, and the screaming became choking whimpers.
As Jasinn watched dumbly, the one behind her pulled her back and buried its teeth in her neck. She didn't scream until the one in her lap leaned forward and buried its teeth in her neck's other side. The third pulled her pants free as the screams grew frantic. Jasinn yelled and struggled with renewed, but still fruitless, force. But the bat didn't rape her. It bit deep into her thigh--
A clawed hand yanked his head back. He looked into the eyes of a the young female bat, bigger than the others. She lowered her face to his; he tried not to tremble. "You shot me in the wing," she said softly.
He opened his mouth, but even if he could have found something to say, his voice wasn't there.
Then she smiled. "I've never had a human who fights before." And she kissed him. She opened her mouth, pressing it against the sides of his own, and forced her tongue against his teeth. He yanked his head around in a panic, dislodging her; she looked genuinely puzzled. "You are still fighting?" she asked.
"Make them let her go," he whispered.
"They're already feeding," she said. "But you're going to be all mine." She wrenched his arm back viciously, and he screamed, falling to the ground. She straddled him. "And you can stop fighting now, farrila."
"No," he gritted, still struggling.
She laughed and studied him, then with one quick motion ripped off his shirt. He stared, trembling, as she lowered her mouth to his left nipple and caressed it gently with her tongue, then sank her teeth into the skin around it.
The bat only drank from one spot for a few seconds before lifting up her head, studying him, and dipping down to bite into another part, each time teasing him first as if they were engaged in foreplay. The sensation was a frightening mix of pleasure and terror.
He could still hear Tymli's whimpering sobs. He wondered if she was going to live.
"The children don't often get to really chase prey," a voice said somewhere.
"I think that one's enjoying it," another voice said, and he realized it was talking about him. Part of him laughed despairingly: would the next thing the bats said be that he was wearing a provocative dress? Showed a little too much thigh?
But they didn't say anything else before he passed out.
He woke up to heat against his skin.
Jasinn sat bolt upright. He was lying, shirtless, on the grass where he had fallen, and the sun was rising overhead. His torso was a mass of scratches, and his neck felt ravaged. He realized, numbly, that his pants were half-off, and the memory of being aroused by the vampire dominatrix in spite of his terror brought a new round of tears along with doubt for his own sanity. He might never remember if she had finished what she had evidently been starting--and that might be for the better.
Then his head filled with stars, and he moaned, lying back on the grass. How much blood had he lost?
Nearby, some six feet away, lay Tymli, her pants in a heap to her side. Dried blood was crusted on the pale fur of the thigh one of her tormentors had drunk from.
He crawled over to her, ignoring the pains. "My lady?" There was no response. "Tymli?" he whispered unsteadily, shuddering.
Shaking, he lowered his head to her chest. Was she breathing? He couldn't tell, but he didn't think so.
"No," he said, standing up and moaning again. He lookwed around wildly for their pouches. The bats had left everything where they had dropped them, including their "food." Arrogant bastards. Yes, there they were. He stumbled toward the pouches and fished around in his own, withdrawing a thick ceramic bottle.
He had expected it to be intact; the bottle itself was assuredly enchanted against breakage. It had been the biggest prize of his career--its contents were worth as much as he had stolen in the last five years put together. They said the elixir could heal any wound, no matter how serious.
Jasinn had planned to sell it and use half the money to buy his own mansion, and invite Tymli to live there. As his teacher, she would have been paid the other half anyway.
He took the bottle and crossed back to her body, dropping on his knees before her. "Please wake up," he said, almost whimpering. "Oh, please." He rubbed her shoulders, then picked her up and started to shake her, yelling, "Wake up!"
Suddenly Tymli coughed, and her eyes flew open, focused at some point far away. She began to scream.
"Oh, thank you," he whispered, holding her tightly. "Hush. It's all right now." She kept screaming into his tattered shirt for another minute. Then she sagged against him, moaning.
"Drink this," he commanded. Her eyelids fluttered and she started to faint. "No, dammit. Drink this." He popped open the bottle.
She tried to focus on the bottle. "That's... worth...."
"Hush," he repeated, pouring it into her mouth and clamping her jaws shut with both hands. "Swallow."
Tymli struggled feebly, glaring at him, but swallowed. Then she went into another coughing fit, collapsing into his lap.
Her wounds started to close.
Jasinn stood up, supporting her, and licked the last drops from the bottle, hoping it would at least keep his strength up. "Come on," he said, staggering along the fence.
"They'll have fixed the hole," she whispered. But they hadn't. There were two bats standing before it, surveying the damage.
Tymli whimpered when she saw them, beginning to shake.
"They're strong, but if we can get in the first hits--"
"If you try," a quiet voice said behind them, "I will rip out your hearts."
They froze, and the bat--the one that had spoken to them yesterday--walked around to face them.
"I could kill you now," Jasinn said flatly.
"Perhaps." The bat scratched her ear. "We don't know how to fix the fence," she said after a moment. "We'll be paralyzed when we touch it, and we don't know how to turn it off."
"You're too strong to be killed by it?"
"It doesn't kill. We wouldn't to lose any animals who tried to climb over it."
"We're not animals!" Tymli hissed.
"We are all animals," the bat returned. "I am a predator. You are prey." She turned away from them and started walking toward the hole.
"How can you do this to them?" Tymli said, her voice breaking. "To us?"
"We have as much right to live as you," the bat said. "It is what we must do. And the cattle the humans raised on their own led much worse lives than our humans. They had no freedom at all, and were always killed when their masters fed on them. You have no grounds on which to be morally outraged."
Then she turned back to them. "Some of us want to let you go."
"Why?" Jasinn said. "Because your humans don't fight?"
"Just let us go and leave us alone!" Tymli howled.
"That's not an option I'm giving you," she said calmly. "You may be part of our herd, or you may be hunted."
Jasinn took a deep breath and started walking toward the hole.
The two bats who stood by it watched with amusement as they approached. Their horse was nowhere to be seen.
As they passed through the hole, the bat rested her claws on Tymli's shoulder. "Will you let me taste you now?"
The Melifen shivered and almost fell through the hole.
The bat laughed and flew off, followed a second later by her two fellows.
Jasinn and Tymli made over forty miles before dusk, following a little stream that led deep under the forest canopy. If they could keep up that pace--which was doubtful--they had over two weeks before the nearest town.
They left the stream's course, plodding on in the waning light into the thickest glades, trusting their compass would allow their zig-zag course to still take them to civilization without being too obvious as targets.
When they stopped, they made love again, this time with a frantic desperation. When it was over, they sat huddled against each other in the darkness, daggers in their laps, and listened for the sound of wings.