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Chapter 8

The huge black dragon beat his mighty wings, banked sharply and glided toward the green oasis nestled at the foot of the eastern mountains. This was the Kingdom of Cenchrea, home of Duke Malycon. Spiraling downward, it headed for the castle’s highest tower.

Malycon, Duke of Cenchrea, watched the dragon approach. He was thrilled as always at the sight of the giant reptile and with the knowledge that he, of all Mystra’s inhabitants, could demand obedience from the mighty creatures. There was no love between the dragons and the duke. They served him because they must. It was a point of honor for them.

Dragons possessed no elementals among their kind and rarely associated with the other races on Mystra. They made their homes in caves high in the mountains to the west. Unaware of the danger, they had built their hatchery above a major fault line in the earth. Malycon used the dragon’s mistake and ignorance of the outside world to his advantage. He allowed Tyr to aid the dragons and, in exchange, the dragons provided him with rapid transportation and communication across Mystra. Dragons were extremely swift. His spies’ reports were in his hands hours after they were written. It was an invaluable service, which he was not about to lose.

Malycon had a dream to rule Mystra and turn her into a technological paradise. Keeping tabs on the various kingdoms and societies across the planet was important to his goal of ultimate rule. It was an advantage few knew he possessed. So far he had been able to keep the truth from the dragons. The Elemental High Council was pledged to provide assistance to any community in need of an elemental’s help. They evaluated the needs of a community and dispatched an elemental with the appropriate powers to rectify the problem. Fortunately for Malycon, the council cared little for the politics of the ungifted. They existed to train and monitor elementals, nothing more. Since an elemental rarely left their assigned sector, the council depended on reports from their agents to keep tabs on the land and to assign assistance when needed. This isolation among the elementals played nicely into his plans.

He had purposefully kept the knowledge of the council’s existence and purpose from the dragons. All message drops took place at night in remote areas where encounters with other lifeforms would be limited. A careful planting of stories and rumors led the dragons to believe that they were hated and feared by the other citizens of Mystra. They had no choice but to form an alliance with him. Without Tyr’s help, their eggs would be destroyed. To survive, they must serve him, but it was an uneasy partnership. The dragons would serve him until he made a mistake, then they would destroy him. The duke gave a sardonic smile. Fortunately, he did not make mistakes.

The king dragon came to rest on the edge of the balcony wall and primly folded his immense leathery wings. Fixing Malycon with one enormous eye, he nodded his head. “Greetings human. What is it you wish of me?” The dragon’s voice was gravelly and rumbled up from deep in his broad chest.

“I have need of your help, Lord Dragon. My spies have located a visitor to the Kingdom of Aquilla…a very talented and intriguing visitor; but my spies seem to have lost him. I want him; find him and bring him to me.”

“That is not part of our agreement. I provide you with dragonlings to transport your men and messages. I did not agree to kidnap unsuspecting beings for your amusement. I have little interest in the affairs of humans. What is in it for me?”

Malycon fumed. The wily lizard never did anything for free, and bullying and force were out of the question. It was going to cost him a great deal to secure the dragon’s aid, but if the creature delivered, it would be worth it. “Very well. Bring me the human known as Jasen and your debt to me is paid in full. Tyr will still be available to assist you whenever she is needed, but you need serve me no longer.”

The dragon studied Malycon with interest. This human must be valuable indeed for the duke to make such an offer. Oh well, that was no concern of his. He had little patience for the antics of humans. This was a chance for his people to be free. “Very well. Describe this human and how I will find him. I will bring him to you.”

“He is tall with black hair and eyes of gold. He will be traveling with two companions. One is unique; a man with long white hair and silvery-blue eyes slit like a cat’s. His movements are graceful and swift. He is unlike any being you have ever seen. Beware, the white haired stranger is a shapeshifter. The other companion is a woman with auburn hair and green eyes. She possesses the elemental’s mark on her right arm, four colored. Also be wary of her.”

“And what of the companions? Do you wish them as well?”

“They are of no importance, just bring me the dark haired stranger.”

“I will send out searchers immediately. Your quarry will not elude us for long. I will bring you the human then our alliance is ended.” With that, the dragon unfurled his wings and took flight. Soon he was a distant speck in the sky.

Malycon turned and left the balcony heading for his private sanctum. He hated losing the services of the dragons, but somethings couldn’t be helped. If what he knew of the stranger was true, it would be worth the price. Entering his private chamber, he secured the door and seated himself at the desk in the far corner of the room. Picking up the letter lying on the desk, he read it through again for the hundredth time. Gaius was one of his most valuable and trustworthy spies. If what he reported was true, his dreams were about to become reality. A technology that worked on Mystra!

The duke threw the letter down in disgust. Rising from his desk, he began to pace nervously around the room. Gaius had sent that letter weeks ago…since then nothing. Oh, he continued to make his scheduled reports; but so far he had not been able to uncover anything new about the strangers. Could they have caught on to him? The king was trusting and unimaginative. He would never suspect that Malycon had been spying on him in his own castle. Could the strangers somehow have uncovered the truth? It made no difference. Gaius was reliable and he trusted his initial report. The dragons would find the visitors, and then he would get his answers.

Malycon stopped pacing and gazed about the room. It was his personal laboratory. Here, he concocted drugs and potions, which assured him the loyalty and obedience of his people. His troops were the best and fiercest on Mystra. They knew no fear and would obey to the death. Soon, he would rule Mystra as he ruled Cenchrea. In the very near future, this laboratory would turn out machines which would make him ruler of the world. Yes, his bargain with the dragons had been worth it. In time, he would again control the proud, independent creatures, as well as the fiery, beautiful daughter of King Arcus. She would regret spurning his love. He would have made her Queen of Mystra; now he would make her his slave.

Smiling to himself and humming a tune, the duke left the room to continue his duties. Yes, it wouldn’t be long now. His dream was about to be fulfilled. A new Mystra was dawning, a Mystra where he ruled and others obeyed. He could hardly wait. As Malycon gloated, dozens of dragons took to the skies. The hunt was on.

Turning in her saddle, Tivonna gazed one final time at the walls of Castle Aquilla. Swallowing the lump that had suddenly appeared in her throat, she turned back around. That was the past. Searching the trail before her, she fixed her eyes on Jasen. He was her future now; where he went, she would follow.

Thoughts of Jasen brought with them a new source of pain. Things were different between them now. Oh, he was polite, even friendly, but the camaraderie, the closeness they had shared, was gone. Even the bond was closed to her. No trace of his feelings reached her. It was as if he had erected an impenetrable wall around his heart, shutting her out.

“Hey Red! Snap out of it. This is an adventure not a funeral march.” The Filidae’s words snapped her out of her reverie. She had not heard him ride up beside her.

“Red? My name is Tivonna.” Tivonna entered good‑naturedly into Hawk’s teasing. He had become a good and trusted friend. She had a great need for friends just now.

“And a right pretty name it is too; but a bit long for adventuring. Why, by the time I yell, ‘Tivonna, look out!’ a whole mountain range could fall on your head. Much better to just say, ‘Red, duck!’”

Tivonna could keep a straight face no longer. Clutching her sides, she burst out laughing. “Oh, Hawk! What am I going to do with you? Don’t you take anything seriously?”

“Between you and Jasen, there’s more than enough seriousness in this group, thank you. Besides, can I help it if I’m charming and witty?”

“And modest.”

“That too. It’s good to see you smile. You’ve been awfully gloomy lately.”

“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just that I have not had much to smile about.”

“You regret leaving home?”

“No, I will miss my parents, but you and Jasen are my family now.”

“So, it’s Jasen then.”

Tivonna sighed and nodded, “I just can’t seem to reach him anymore Hawk. For a while, I really thought we were becoming close; that I was getting through to him. Now...” Tivonna shrugged. “I don’t know what to do.”

Hawk reached out and patted her shoulder. “I know it’s tough, but don’t give up. Even Jasen can’t fight nature forever. He was hurt, Red. You did get through more than any woman ever has. You touched a part of him he never knew existed and feared never could. He started to hope, then that hope was snatched away. Oh, I know.” Hawk held up a hand to forestall Tivonna’s angry denial. “I know you don’t hate or despise him. But, Jasen believes you do. You have to prove him wrong, and believe me it won’t be easy. He has all his defenses raised against you. You’re just going to have to get out your hammer and chisel and start whacking at that wall of his. It’s going to take time and effort. Are you game?”

Tivonna’s eyes were shining. “So you think that deep down he still loves me? He’s just afraid of rejection?”

“Count on it.”

“Then sir, just watch me whack away. Whenever he turns around, I’m going to be there, loving him, and nothing is going to shake me this time.”

“Good girl, Red, and if you need any help, I’ll be happy to sit on him while you pound away.”

“Hawk, you’re a rogue.”

The Filidae flashed her his radiant smile, which had broken hearts across the galaxy. “Yes, but I’m a lovable rogue.” Suddenly turning serious, he looked her straight in the eyes. “Remember, Red, I’m on your side. If you need me, I’ll be there. Jasen needs you as much as you need him, only he just doesn’t realize it yet. Jase is my dearest friend, my brother, but it wasn’t always so. It wasn’t easy for me to gain his trust. He’s hard to win over, but believe me, he’s well worth the fight.”

“I’ll remember and thanks.”

With a cheery wave, Hawk spurred his steed forward to catch up with Jasen. Watching the two riding side by side, Tivonna felt a pang of jealousy at their easy, relaxed relationship. She quickly squelched the unkind thought. Jasen trusted Hawk. One day, she vowed, he would trust her as well and she would never again violate that trust.

Tivonna lifted her auburn head. So, it was a fight then. Well, she was her father’s daughter. She could wage war with the best of them. Let Jasen beware; he was hers and she would never surrender him to another, not even himself. Her mind made up, Tivonna galloped forward to join the other two. She might as well start now.

Watching the girl riding beside him, Jasen could hardly believe his eyes. She appeared completely relaxed. She laughed and joked with Hawk, and even dragged him, in spite of his intentions otherwise, into her and the Filidae’s antics. It was almost as if the night in King Arcus’s chamber had never occurred. She did not shy away or try to avoid his gaze. If he had not known otherwise, Jasen would have thought that she trusted him completely. Only he knew the truth. He had felt her terror, her horror, at what he had done and had seen the loathing in her eyes. No, he must not forget that. It would be all too easy to allow himself to care for this lovely, spirited creature. That would be a fatal mistake. He would have to be very careful not to let himself be swayed. She was open and friendly now, but he had to keep his guard up. When she remembered what he was, the loathing would return. Jasen knew he could not face that rejection a second time. It was better not to risk being hurt than to experience such pain again.

Hawk watched Tivonna as she began the process of piercing Jasen’s armor and smiled. He had to give the girl credit; she was a trooper. Good, she would need all her strength for the task ahead. Poor Jasen, he needed Tivonna, but was too blind to see it. Love was blocked by pain and fear. Whether or not Tivonna’s love could pierce Jasen’s protective wall, Hawk didn’t know, but he would do everything in his power to help. Maybe the two could use some time alone together. When they stopped to make camp, he would try to find some way to leave the two alone for a while. Nature would have to do the rest.

As they rode through the fields and dells which lay between the castle and the forest, Jasen could not help but notice how happy the people were and how much they loved their princess. Aquilla was indeed a prosperous kingdom. The forest was a good half day’s journey from the castle. Night was just beginning to fall when the trio arrived at the edge of the Painted Forest. Deciding to wait for daylight before penetrating the dense woods, the three set up camp for the night. The first rays of dawn found them preparing to enter the forest. Once inside the woods, they quickly located the winding trail which would lead them to the northern most border of the Painted Forest and the territories beyond.

The three rode along in companionable silence, gazing in awed appreciation at the wondrous beauty of nature surrounding them. Mystra was indeed a lovely world. Jasen remembered little about being in the forest before. He was amazed at the variety and combinations of colors displayed by the enormous trees. It was the most breathtaking ride he had ever taken. Every bend in the trail uncovered a new and previously unseen wonder to amaze and delight the eye.

Riding in this fairy tale forest, some of his stress began to ease. Ever since uncovering and dealing with the spy, he had lived under a subtle but draining tension. True to Hawk’s words, the king and queen had done everything they could to assist them in preparing for their journey. They had provided mounts, supplies, and native clothing for the two off-worlders. The monarchs had been gracious and hospitable to them in every way. They had even gone so far as to provide money for the journey. Yet, underneath their polite exterior, Jasen sensed wariness. He made the rulers uncomfortable. They were unsure of how to treat him and were cautious not to offend him. Jasen appreciated their efforts. They were trying hard not to let their fears rule them, but deep down he still made them nervous.

It was a relief to finally be away from people. Jasen had not been aware of the tension he had been under until it lifted. He suddenly felt light and carefree. The cool, crisp air was invigorating. It was as if he had been liberated from a heavy burden. Unconsciously, he began to hum a merry tune. A moment later Hawk joined him and the two began to amuse Tivonna with a series of lively songs from a hundred worlds. Soon, Tivonna began to pick up the words to some of the simpler ballads and joined in the fun. The three rode along the brightly colored trail singing and laughing in the brisk morning air. The easy camaraderie continued throughout the coming days as the trio made their way through the Painted Forest.

On the first day of their second week of journeying, the trio came upon a small clearing. Nearby a bright, bubbly stream flowed serenely through the trees. The water cascaded over a small waterfall and formed a still quiet pool before trickling over a large sunken tree and continuing on its way.

Jasen called a halt. “It’s getting late. This looks like a good place to make camp.”

Dismounting, the three began to set up camp. In no time, they had a cheery fire going and sleeping mats arranged around it. Hawk looked up from straightening the last blanket on his bedroll and glanced toward the stream. “Say, I wonder how cold that water is. I’d love a swim. How about it?”

Tivonna turned from the fire where she was preparing the evening meal. She had grown tired of bland trail rations and had gathered roots and herbs along the trail. Tonight, she had volunteered to make something special for their evening meal. “I’d love a swim. If the stream is too cold, I can always heat it. Why don’t you and Jasen go check the water, while I finish up here? I’ll put the stew where it will stay warm and join you shortly.”

Jasen finished tending to the mounts and joined the others at the fire. Grabbing their cloaks, the two men made their way to the nearby brook. Reaching the stream, Hawk pulled off his boots and stuck one toe into the pool. He quickly drew it out with a startled yelp. “Yow! That’s freezing. We definitely wait for Tivonna.”

Suddenly, Jasen and Hawk stiffened and gasped. In the center of the pool, a long flume of water began to rise from the still surface of the basin. The two men watched in amazement, which quickly turned to alarm and outrage, as the watery column bent toward them and dumped a stream of freezing water on their unsuspecting heads.

Shivering and half drowned, they turned to find a giggling Tivonna standing behind them. Tivonna tried to control her laughter; but seeing them standing there like two drowned rats, she couldn’t help herself. “You should see the looks on your faces.”

Between chattering teeth, Hawk growled at the gleeful elemental. “You wouldn’t think it so funny if it had happened to you. I’m freezing!”

Jasen stared silently at Tivonna, a small smile curving the corner of his mouth. Tivonna had a brief instant to register alarm as an invisible force suddenly seized her and, her arms pinned tightly to her sides, swept her off her feet. In a flash, she found herself hanging two feet above the freezing pool unable to move or summon her powers.

“Well, what do you think we should do with our merry little prankster? Maybe a taste of her own medicine?” At Jasen’s words, Tivonna plunged toward the water then halted only inches before hitting.”

“No way, I think she owes us a drying out and a nice warm swim. After all, people who play practical jokes and then allow themselves to get caught deserve a stiff fine.”

Hawk and Jasen were both grinning at her now. They were not really mad. They were treating her as one of them. Here was another chance for her to show Jasen that she trusted him and did not fear him. She had no doubt that it was his power, which held her so securely. He had momentarily forgotten to hide his gifts from her, and was reacting naturally by turning her joke back on her.

“I see I still have a great deal to learn about practical jokes. If you two are quite finished, I think it’s time to get on with our swim or we will miss the chance. If you would like to swim in warm water instead of ice, I suggest you let me down and I will think about it.”

Jasen’s smile grew wider. He gently drew her toward shore, and set her down on the bank beside them. “Apology accepted. Now about that swim?”

True to her promise, Tivonna heated the pool, turning it into a luxuriating spa. Diving in clothes and all, the three frolicked and swam in the relaxing waters. Finally, much cleaner and refreshed, the three left the pool, hunger winning out over fun. With a wave of her hand, Tivonna drew the water from their hair and clothing leaving them completely dry.

“Say, you’re pretty handy to have around. Now how’s your cooking? I’m starved!”

Jasen shook his head and glanced at his friend. “Her cooking can’t be worse than yours.” Turning to Tivonna, he extended his arm. “May I escort you to camp, my lady? I’m looking forward to sampling your excellent cuisine.”

Taking Jasen’s arm, Tivonna joined in his light mood. “I would be honored, sir. But what about your companion?”

“Let him get his own date.”

Arm in arm, Jasen and Tivonna walked back to camp leaving Hawk to follow. “It’s not fair, you always get the girl.” Watching the couple before him, Hawk smiled. This was more like the old Jasen he knew and loved, and Tivonna was fitting in nicely. Her reaction tonight was perfect. Jasen had treated her like a friend, and she had responded to his teasing with a brand of humor all her own. Yes, it was turning out to be a lovely night.

Jasen banked up the campfire and glanced over at the two sleeping figures rolled up in blankets nearby. He couldn’t remember when he had enjoyed a more relaxing evening. Tivonna had turned out to be a pretty fair cook, and they had enjoyed a sumptuous meal. Hawk and Tivonna had decided to turn in early; but Jasen found it hard to sleep.

He felt so light and carefree. The last time he had been this relaxed was when he had visited Hawk’s world. The two had hiked deep into the lush forest of the Filidae homeworld far away from civilization. It had been one of the best weeks of his life. Far from the thoughts of others, he had been able to let down his guard. This night had been much like then.

Jasen was amazed that he felt this easy with Tivonna. He wasn’t really sure when he had stopped regarding her as an enemy. She now seemed a natural part of the group. He ached to take her in his arms and declare his love for her, but he still couldn’t bring himself to believe that they could have a life together. A life of fear and secrecy was not something he wished for the beautiful elemental.

Looking upward, Jasen studied the night sky. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. Flashes of bright colors shot through the inky black expanse. Stars glimmered faintly in the blackness beyond Mystra’s skies as if shrouded from view by a silvery mist. Mystra was a world of surprises and she hid her secrets well. Glancing over at Tivonna, Jasen sighed. Some surprises were more unexpected than others.

Studying the sleeping girl, Jasen felt a stab of tenderness for this amazing person. Lying there with the fire sending highlights of gold and red through her auburn hair, it was hard to believe that this lovely woman could literally level mountains, or that she would choose to love him and share his life of danger and exile. Jasen shook his head in resignation. His life always seemed to be out of his control. Why should he be surprised that fate had thrown him another curve? Jasen looked over at Hawk. He remembered another who had decided to love him in spite of himself.

Jasen sighed. Tivonna was turning out to be full of surprises. Over the past few days, she had slowly chipped away at his belief that she hated and feared him. She took every opportunity to prove otherwise, like tonight. He still couldn’t believe that he had pulled such a stunt, or that she had responded favorably. It had never even occurred to him that she might fear his powers. He had just responded naturally to her teasing. The elemental had demonstrated her love for him in a thousand ways during their time together. The mental link they shared had grown stronger, as well revealing the truth of her feelings for him. So why was he so afraid to admit that he loved her too? He still couldn’t make himself believe that she wouldn’t vanish one day as all the others had in the past. He knew he was being unreasonable and that Tivonna accepted him as Hawk did, but he still felt it would be unfair to tie her down to him. She would have to give up her whole world to face a universe that would only be too glad to kill them given half a chance. She was better off on Mystra, no matter how much he wished otherwise. They would find a way around this kiosan business. Then, she would be free to live the life to which she was born. She deserved better than to be exiled on a strange world with a man hunted and loathed by the rest of the galaxy. Jasen gave up trying to sort out his conflicting emotions. Rising from his seat beside the fire, he stretched and headed for his own blankets. Tomorrow would be another demanding day. If he didn’t get some sleep he wouldn’t be any good to anyone. A few moments later he was fast asleep.

Jasen came awake to the sounds of birds and animals moving cheerfully through the forest around him. Turning his head, he saw a smiling Tivonna coming toward him bearing a steaming cup of fresh brewed coffee. “Good morning.I thought you might need this.”

“Thanks.” Bracing himself on one elbow, Jasen accepted the cup. Taking a careful sip of the hot liquid, he gazed around the clearing. The animals were all loaded and, except for his blankets and the cooking gear, everything was ready to go. Hawk and Tivonna had been busy. The Filidae was nowhere in sight. “I see you and Hawk have everything under control. By the way, where is Hawk?”

Tivonna shrugged. “He said something about stretching his wings and seeing what lay ahead. He turned into a bird and flew down the trail.”

“What!” Jasen sat up in alarm. “You let him go off alone!”

“I did not let him do anything. Relax, there is no danger in the forest.”

“You don’t know Hawk. If there is a way to get into trouble, he’ll find it. He attracts disaster.”

Seeing Tivonna’s worried expression Jasen relented. “Don’t worry. It’s not your fault. Hawk can be impulsive sometimes. You’re probably right anyway. He should be safe enough within the forest. I’ll just check on him to be sure.”

Closing his eyes, Jasen formed a mental image of the white hawk and sent his mind outward along the trail it had taken. After a few moments, his mental probe encountered his friend’s thoughts.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?”

Hawk jerked as Jasen’s thoughts flowed into his mind, then sighed. He had thought to give Jasen and Tivonna some time alone together, but it seemed his plan had backfired. He should have known Jasen would be concerned that he had gone off alone in strange territory.

“Oh, just having a look around. Getting some fresh air and exercise.”

Jasen’s mental chuckle sounded in Hawk’s mind. “Yeah, you really need the exercise and the forest air is real stuffy.” He had no illusions as to what his friend was up to. “You make a lousy Cupid. Well, as long as you’re out there, what’s the terrain like?”

“Why not have a look for yourself?”

At Hawk’s invitation, Jasen linked his eyes to those of the hawk. There was a moment of vertigo as he adjusted to the new perspective, then his sight cleared. He had forgotten what it felt like to fly. In their youth, he and Hawk had often practiced this maneuver. By linking with the Filidae while he was in animal form, Jasen had experienced what it was like to be many types of creatures. But of all the experiences, flying had been his favorite. Using the bird’s keen eyesight, he scanned the ground below.

Hawk’s flight had taken him out of the Painted Forest and over a vast grassy plain.

“How near is the plain?”

“Very near. We camped just inside the edge of the forest.”

“Any sign of life or water?”

Before Hawk could answer, a lance of pain shot through his right side where the wing joined the body. With a cry of anguish, the hawk plummeted to the ground to lay stunned and unmoving. As awareness faded from his mind, he seemed to hear the roar of distant hooves, then blackness took him.

Back in camp, Jasen slowly became aware of someone speaking to him. Swimming up through the blanket of fog, which seemed to be wrapped around his mind, he stirred and opened his eyes. Tivonna was shaking him by the shoulders and calling his name. It was her voice he had heard.

“Jasen?” Seeing sanity return to his eyes, Tivonna released him and sat back down beside him. “What happened? You were quiet, then you screamed. After that, I couldn’t wake you. I was so worried.”

Shakily, Jasen lifted a hand to his aching head. He had been talking to Hawk, then pain. “Something happened to Hawk! We have to get to him!”

Jasen quickly climbed to his feet then swayed as a wave of dizziness swept over him.

“Easy, you cannot help Hawk until you help yourself.” Tivonna reached out and steadied the reeling telepath. “Where is he?”

Recovering, Jasen filled Tivonna in on what had happened. “He is somewhere on the plain north of here. I don’t know what struck him or how badly he’s hurt. The sudden pain severed the link.”

Climbing aboard Midnight, Tivonna looked at Jasen, a worried expression marring her face. “I have an idea what could have happened, and it’s not good. We have to hurry.”

Turning Midnight onto the trail, Tivonna sped toward the plain with Jasen close behind her. As they broke from the cover of the trees, Jasen began receiving faint thoughts from Hawk. Using them as a beacon, he guided them to the wounded Filidae. After what seemed an eternity, they spotted the white hawk lying on the ground with an arrow sprouting from its right side. They weren’t the only ones to spot the downed bird. In the distance, a group of large creatures were bearing down on the wounded hawk. Spurring his mount forward, Jasen reached Hawk and dismounted just as the first of the creatures arrived on the scene. Placing himself between the wounded bird and the newcomers, Jasen studied the apparition before him.

The being was huge. From the waist down, it resembled a large roan colored stallion but above the waist the creature resembled a human man. The skin was tanned a light golden brown by the sun, and his hair was the color of sun-ripened wheat. Bright blue eyes looked out from a handsome face. The face and torso of an Adonis on an equine body…Jasen had heard of such creatures in myth and legends. The creature before him was a Centaur, and if everything legend claimed was true they could be deadly. As he studied the Centaur, Jasen gently probed his mind. It was as he feared; the being before him was quick tempered, rowdy and violent. He would not easily give up something he considered his, but he was also a being of honor. He would not break his word once given. The Centaur had one weakness; he was vain. He was the greatest marksman in his clan and took great pride in his skill. Jasen could use that pride against him.

“Ho, human. I am Chauras, master warrior and hunter. You stand between me and what is mine. Be gone or face the consequences.”

“I salute you Chauras, mighty hunter, but you are mistaken. What you claim as yours is rightfully mine.”

“What; a petty human would dispute with me? I will crush you like the insect you are!” The Centaur moved forward, only to be stopped as a huge lightning bolt struck the earth between his two front hooves. All eyes turned to Tivonna. She stood behind and to the right of Jasen. The Centaurs had been concentrating so hard on Jasen, they had not seen her approach. They certainly noticed her now.

“I am Tivonna. He is my kiosan. Touch him and you die.”

Seeing her standing there, power leaping and crackling between her outstretched palms, no one doubted that she was capable of carrying out her threat. Chauras studied the two humans. No one with any sense would harm an elemental’s kiosan. Especially an elemental as powerful as this one appeared to be. Yet, he could not let the man have his prize. He would lose face before the tribe.

Following the Centaur’s thoughts, Jasen offered him a way out.

“Chauras, no one needs to get hurt. The hawk you felled is not an ordinary bird. He is a shapeshifter and our friend.”

“So? What I bring down is mine. Either food for the pot or a slave for the clan, it makes no difference.”

Jasen scanned the being’s mind. Chauras was implacable. His code of honor would not let him give up the bird. Surrendering his catch to a weaker foe would discredit him before the others. Time was running out. Hawk’s thoughts had faded to a faint whisper. If something weren’t done soon, they would lose him. He had one chance.

Quickly Jasen sent a message to Tivonna. “I have a plan but it’s a long shot. Stand by and be ready to back my play.”

Tivonna stiffened slightly as Jasen’s words formed in her mind. She slowly moved to stand beside Hawk and faced the Centaurs. Glancing at Jasen, she gave a faint nod. She was ready for whatever came.

Jasen looked at Chauras. “Well, I have no desire to see Tivonna destroy all of you, so I’ll tell you what. We’ll have a contest. Whoever can hit the farthest target wins the bird. What do you say, think you can outshoot me?”

The Centaurs pranced and howled with laughter. Outshoot a human?

Following Jasen’s lead, Tivonna cut through the Centaurs’ merriment. “Perhaps the mighty Chauras is afraid to shoot against a mere human.”

Chauras’s laughter died at the words. Sobering, he turned to Jasen. “Come, little man and I will show you what archery is all about; then I will claim my prize and the two of you as well.”

Quickly, the Centaurs produced a bow for Jasen and fashioned a target from hide. The bow was strong and it took all of his strength, plus a little applied telekinesis, to string it. The Centaurs murmured when they saw the strung bow. It belonged to one of their strongest. Few hunters in the tribe could pull it. Chauras stepped forward and positioned himself on the firing line. “We will shoot for both distance and accuracy.”

As Chauras readied to shoot, Jasen studied his opponent. The Centaur’s upper body was well muscled and his bow seemed to be even heavier than the one he had been given. In a fair contest, Jasen knew he would stand little chance of beating the Centaur. But, then, who said he was going to shoot fair? Jasen glanced over at Tivonna. She stood tensely watching the two young warriors position the make‑shift target in the proper spot. Jasen had to admire her; she had handled herself beautifully. She had no idea what he was up to, but had backed him unquestioningly.

Jasen’s thoughts were interrupted as the two young warriors galloped back to join the others. They had finished securing the target some 200 yards away, and the contest was about to begin. Sighting carefully, Chauras pulled back the bowstring to full extension and let fly. The arrow left the string with a loud twang and flew unerringly to the target. Bull’s‑eye. The Centaurs cheered. The smiling Chauras turned to Jasen. “Ready to admit defeat little man?”

Returning the smile, Jasen took his place on the firing line. Reaching out with his mind, he grasped the bow and arrow firmly with his power. Probing the target and flight path of the arrow, he calculated the force and angle he would need to equal Chauras’s shot. Using his telekinetic abilities, Jasen bent the huge bow and shot. The arrow streaked from the bow and flew as if by magic to bury itself in the target next to Chauras’s shaft. The two arrows were so close the fletching on their shafts interlocked. The Centaurs stared at him in stunned silence. Then, everyone started talking at once. It was impossible. No human could shoot so well.

Chauras was livid; no puny human could equal him! He ordered the target moved back and again shot. Once more Jasen matched his shot. Three, four times Chauras had the target moved and each time Jasen echoed his shot. Finally, in desperation Chauras ordered the target moved back to 1000 yards. There was a murmur among the Centaurs that such a shot was unheard of. Chauras readied himself, shot and missed the arrow, falling just short of the target.

Silently all eyes fixed upon Jasen as he prepared to shoot. This was the moment of truth. If he could make this shot, he would win and Chauras would be honor bound to hand Hawk over to him. With a silent prayer Jasen shot. Aided and controlled by the power of Jasen’s mind, the arrow flew swift and sure to bury itself deep in the center of the target. Jasen turned to face Chauras. “I believe the bird is mine.”

Tivonna tensed. This was it. Either Chauras would honor his word and give them Hawk or he would attack. She was ready to back Jasen either way.

Chauras stood staring at the puny human who had bested him. The emotions mirrored on his face ran the gamut from anger and humiliation through fear to humor. Jasen waited to see which emotion would win. Finally, Chauras threw back his head and laughed. “You win human. I don’t know how you bested me, but I honor my word. The bird is yours; none of my people will bother you.”

Jasen dipped his head in salute. “You are as wise as you are mighty, great Chauras. I thank you.” Turning, he handed the bow to a young warrior standing next to him. “Please return this to its rightful owner with my compliments. It is an exceptional weapon.”

Leaving the still stunned Centaurs, Jasen made his way to where a nervous Tivonna stood guard over the injured hawk. Giving Tivonna a reassuring smile, Jasen dropped to his knees beside his friend. Cradling the wounded bird with both hands, Jasen carefully probed for any sign of life. The hawk stilled lived, but not for long. The arrow had penetrated deep into the bird’s small body causing severe damage. Unless Hawk returned to his own form, he would die. Shock and pain had shaken the Filidae’s hold on the bird spirit within the form he wore. He was unable to regain mastery of the body he now inhabited and change. Jasen would have to help him reestablish control and shift shapes before it was too late.

Looking up at the worried elemental, Jasen explained the problem. “Hawk’s trapped in this form. I have to go in and try to help him change. Keep an eye on our new friends for me. Once I make the mind-link, you probably won’t be able to reach me. If there’s trouble, do what you think best.”

Tivonna gave a nervous nod and looked over to where the Centaurs stood watching them. She did not like having both Jasen and Hawk helpless, but there was little choice. There was no way to judge how Chauras would react to Jasen’s work. Right now, the telepath needed her support, not more worries. It would take all of his concentration to help Hawk. She would guard them both. If the Centaurs decided to make trouble, well, she could handle that as well. She gave Jasen a reassuring smile. “You take care of Hawk. Leave our new friends to me.”

Returning her smile, Jasen prepared himself for the task ahead. Trusting Tivonna to handle any trouble, he cleared his mind of all distractions. Gathering his strength, he reached out and joined with the bird’s mind.

Immediately, he was assailed with fear, panic and waves of pain. It was worse than he had thought. The animal spirit of the bird form reigned supreme. There was no sign of Hawk’s presence. Calming the frightened mind around him, Jasen began searching for any sign of his companion. Reaching out with all his senses and power, he called to his friend’s spirit. Finally, after what seemed like hours, he detected a faint pulse of awareness. Locking onto the faint trace, he followed it to its source. Pushed far back into the bird’s mind was Hawk. He was lying huddled on the ground. His mental image pulsed from Filidae to bird form. He was trying to regain control of his shape, but the bird’s terrified primitive instincts were too strong for him to control in his wounded state.

Grasping the struggling mind, Jasen supported it with his own. Adding his strength to Hawk’s, Jasen fought to subdue the wild spirit running amok through his friend’s mind. Finally, the mental image of Hawk stabilized and grew clearer and the Filidae form gained dominance.

“Jasen?I s that you?” Hawk’s thoughts, weak but clear, flowed through Jasen’s mind.

“I’m here. Everything is fine. Hawk, you must change forms. You must resume your natural shape now.”

“Can’t. Can’t focus.”

Jasen had been afraid of this. The shock and the fall had left Hawk too stunned to concentrate clearly. He probably had a concussion as well. “It’s OK. I’ll help you.”

Deepening the mind-link, Jasen integrated himself fully into his friend’s mind. He had to make this fast or risk being permanently bound in Hawk’s mind. Sensing the mind and body around him, Jasen located the proper commands and thought patterns to trigger a transformation. Fixing Hawk’s Filidae form clearly in his mind’s eye, he triggered the proper responses.

The mental landscape around him tilted and blurred then steadied. There was a subtle difference to the mind around him. The terror and panic were gone, now only the pain and a great weariness remained. They had done it. The bird essence was gone; only the Filidae remained. Feeding Hawk his strength, Jasen slowed the flow of blood from the arrow wound in his right shoulder. Soothing the frayed and stressed nervous system, he attempted to lessen the shock gripping mind and body. Finally, he sent his friend into a deep, healing sleep. Surveying his handiwork, Jasen sighed. Hawk was stable for now; it was time to go. He was profoundly weary. The battle for the Filidae’s mind and life had taken more energy than he could spare. He had to get back to Tivonna. There was no telling how the Centaurs had taken this episode. Separating his mind from Hawk’s, he severed the mind-link.

Opening his eyes, Jasen gazed at his friend sleeping peacefully in his arms and smiled up at the worried Tivonna. “He’s going to be all right.”

“But are you?” Tivonna frowned at the sound of Jasen’s voice; it was dangerously weak. Seeing the puzzled, dazed expression in his eyes at her words, Tivonna sighed and turned to Chauras. “He’s exhausted. We’d better get them both to bed. Is the tent ready?”

“Aye, will he let us aid him?” Chauras studied the telepath intently. He was everything Tivonna had claimed and more.

Tivonna saw the awed expression on the Centaur’s face and laughed. “He’s so far gone he probably will not even notice.” Turning, she motioned to a young warrior standing nearby, then turned back to Jasen. “Jasen, you must let us have Hawk now. We must treat his wound; give him to me.” At her signal, the warrior carefully lifted the sleeping Filidae from Jasen’s arms.

Jasen watched bemusedly as Hawk was carried away. He was so tired. What was he supposed to do now? He couldn’t seem to remember. Suddenly, the choice was taken from him as Chauras swept him up in his powerful arms. Chuckling, the huge Centaur carried him as he would a child toward the large tent set up nearby on the plain. “Sleep now my friend; all is well. There will be time for explanations later.” Nestled securely in the Centaur’s strong arms, his head resting against the broad chest, Jasen’s exhausted mind and body finally won out and he drifted off into a deep healing sleep.

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