Heart of the Lion

Heart of the Lion was my first post to Usenet way back in 1994, and the first appearance of Wulf the Freelance in the wild world of online erotica. It was written out of a perceived need for backstory, and out of my lifelong fascination with the Zulu War of 1879, which began back in 1964 when my mother (after an argument with dad, if I recall correctly) took me to my very first motion picture, Zulu, starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker. For months thereafter I was obsessed with Zulus and British pith helmets, and the scene where the Zulus drum on their shields, chanting their war songs while the Welsh defenders of Roarke’s Drift sing Men of Harlech remains fresh in my memory (never mind the fact that this incident never really happened and that the regiment was actually the 2nd Warwickshire, not the 24th Welsh Borderers; it was still a cracking good yarn). It also doesn’t hurt that strapping amazon warrior babes feature prominently in my fantasy life, or that the king of the African nation of Dahomey actually kept a regiment of them as his personal bodyguards (check out George MacDonald Fraser’s Flash for Freedom for another interesting portrayal).

Wulf’s transformation into a n’doro or lionman also turned out to be more significant than I’d expected. I had always liked humanoid aliens in science fiction (Niven’s Kzinti, for example), and the idea of humanoid lions roaming the veldt was quite intriguing. I was only vaguely aware that I was tapping into a huge fanbase in the form of the furries — aficionados of so-called “anthropomorphic” fiction and art that features humanoid animals — usually mammals of the order carnivora. More on those guys later. Suffice to say, my inclusion of Wulf’s transformation (and the veldt orgy with the n’doro females) attracted enough attention that my stories ended up embraced by furries everywhere, and are still on several “best furry fiction” lists.

That wasn’t really intentional, but I was (and am) ready to accept kudos regardless of their source. Later on, I actively pandered to this segment, including numerous anthropomorphic characters and chronicling their sexual proclivities in unabashed detail. Though furries are often looked down on by other fan-types, I have no issues with their enjoyment of these stories, and welcome anyone who likes them. And, well, some of my best friends are furries anyway.

And with that caveat out of the way, enjoy Wulf’s first published adventure, Heart of the Lion

____________

Decent folk call it the Middle Sea or, less frequently, the Inner Sea. But the treacherous body of salt water that stretches from the Demon Lands in the south to the White Empire and Litharna in the north is known by another name by people like me, who sail on its storm-tossed waves. When we think of this watery region and its blood-soaked history, we call it the Crimson Sea.

The Crimson Sea has been my highway for almost as long as I remember. I’ve traveled it as soldier, slave, merchant, pirate and simple wanderer. I’ve seen war and storm and treachery there, and every time returned home in one piece. Now at last, decades later I’m finally getting around to telling my adventures. So stick around, buy me a drink, and I’ll tell you every one. It’s okay, really — I’ve always worked cheap.

I have several names, but my favorite is Wulf, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I joined the White Empire army. Admittedly, things had gotten pretty hot in Godshome, especially for a freelancer (read “thief”) like me, who made his living by relieving wealthy, decadent nobles of expensive items that they didn’t even know they had, and that they never really appreciated in the first place. I found myself beset on all sides by the legal authorities of the Imperium who, for reasons known only to themselves, finally moved off their well-padded bureaucratic posteriors and started cracking down on the city’s “criminal elements” — that is to say, those unwilling or unable to fork over a portion of their incomes in the form of bribes to keep the hounds at bay. As this included yours truly, I was forced to find employment sufficient to keep me alive long enough to blow the White Empire, and head off for another land more suitable to my chosen profession.

Now, in any “traditional” profession, I’d probably stand out like a Xeshite whore in a Kyborist church choir, but the armed forces of the White Empire were notorious for accepting virtually anyone into their ranks, so when I saw a handbill carelessly posted on the wall of the Dragon’s Rest, I read it with interest.

ATTENSHUN SITIZENS!

IMPERIYUL ARMEE SEEKIN NU REKRUTS!! MENNY BENIFITS!!

JENERUS PAY!!! B RISPECTED AN FEARD!!!

JOYN THE IMPERIYUL ARMEE TUDAY!!!!

Now, besides the fact that there were a grand total of two words correctly spelled on the entire flyer, it interested me on several counts. The army would be a safe haven, I rationalized, and would provide room, board and regular pay sufficient to finance my planned exodus from the empire. All I would have to do was bide my time for a few weeks, then go AWOL with a pocketful of silver.

I was younger then, mind you, and somewhat naive. I figured that, given the Empire’s extreme age and decadence, the chances of actually having to fight were pretty minimal. As usual, I was dead wrong.

As soon as I signed up and received the Emperor’s copper, I realized something was up. I was billeted with a motley collection of wastrels and professional soldiers, issued basic equipment of fair to good quality, and actually drilled regularly by a sadistic half-elf sergeant named Rhalatha. She was a scarred veteran who had lost one eye in a fight with a manticore, but had proved too mean to die. She drove us like a daemon whip-master and earned our undying hatred in the process. I had to admit she was good, though. She regularly beat me in sword drill, but at least went so far as to grudgingly admit that I was less of a complete fuck-up than the rest of my squad. I was made corporal in short order, a position which I neither asked for nor wanted, but which I was well advised to take.

My platoon would have made a Litharnan sellsword vomit. There was me, a smattering of rugged human mercenaries and career soldiers, a couple of elven outcasts who kept to themselves and were really, really scary, a bunch of individuals with varying degrees of orcish ancestry (is there any such thing as a pure-blooded orc anymore? I doubt it), a centaur named Rose, a cyclops, two wolfen, three throgs, a nymen and a dwarf by the name of Sigurd Hillcleaver. Although he was a bit rough around the edges and drank like a fish — both of these being time-honored dwarven virtues — Sigurd and I got along well. He was the first to break the bad news to me.

“Rumor has it we’re shipping out soon,” he said one night over a game of Lords and Harlots. “The Emperor seems to have gotten it into his head that he wants to conquer the Veldt Lands.”

I gaped in astonishment. I knew His Imperial Majesty was a few arrows short of a quiver, but this was beyond insanity.

“The Veldt Lands are a thousand leagues away,” I said, “and full of hostile locals who won’t like White Empire armies tromping through their back yards.”

Sigurd shrugged and started loading his pipe. “Tell it to the Emperor. All I know is that he’s heard about the gold mines and the rubies lying around for the picking. He also seems to have developed a somewhat patronizing attitude toward the Veldt Lands’ inhabitants.”

I grunted. I knew that there was a hell of a lot of misinformation and smugness going around in regard to the Veldtlanders. It’s probably because their skin was black and ours was white, which the people on our side of the equator seemed to feel made us better. The truth is, and I’ve known many from the Veldt Lands, that they are every bit as cunning, intelligent and resourceful as we are. They can also be as violent, treacherous and cruel, mind you, but this is simply further proof that we’re all the same regardless of our skin tone, height, mass, strength, longevity, or relative pointiness of our ears.

With my advance intelligence in hand, I was determined to light out of the camp as quickly as possible, with Sigurd if possible. Unfortunately, the Emperor’s good subordinates had seen to doubling the guard and keeping everyone carefully in camp. No further opportunities arose over the next three days, and we were soon loaded onto vast, leaky transport ships for the long journey overseas.

I don’t remember much of the trip. Both Sigurd and I spent most of our time abysmally seasick, and when I was healthy that pointy-eared bitch Rhalatha had me at work oiling leather, polishing swords, and cleaning out the bilge. During the voyage, I saw considerably more of the inside of our worm-infested ship than of the sea.

Things went poorly from the start. Our outdated vessels were not equal to the task of sailing such a distance, and nearly a third sank or were forced to turn back. Our fighting force was reduced by more than a quarter before we even arrived. We stopped at a filthy port city called Vang several days before reaching our destination, far to the south. It was the last outpost of civilization I remember.

Once we debarked in the hot, arid atmosphere of the Veldt, disease struck, laying low another quarter of the survivors. The region had no decent port facilities, and our supply lines were stretched to the limits in any event, forcing us to forage almost from the first day. The locals, a coastal tribe called the N’jara, fled before us, leaving their villages empty and useless. The riches of the Veldt Lands were anything but apparent.

I did my best to command my squad. Rose the centaur was a great source of help, lending her strong back to hauling, and carrying anyone who fell ill. Nevertheless, our platoon was hit particularly hard — throgs seemed especially susceptible to local illnesses, and all died within a week of our arrival. Even Rhalatha felt the strain, collapsing from heat exhaustion and leaving me to manage the platoon. Again, I didn’t want the job, but I scented disaster on the wind, and realized that if I didn’t keep our unit together we’d all be dead.

Both Sigurd and I knew that it was only a matter of time. We left those incapable of travel behind at Fort Nathra, the stockade we’d built upon arrival, and began our march inland. Out of a force of 30,000, we had fewer than 12,000 remaining.

Our commander, Lord Heatham, hoped for a quick campaign against the Sholanti, the most powerful of the local tribes. From here, he hoped to establish a stable base of supplies, utilizing the free labor pool he anticipated obtaining from his wealth of Sholanti prisoners. His main problem was that the Sholanti had no intention of cooperating.

We crossed over into Sholanti territory after about three days’ march. Our army, despite its problems, was a sight to behold. In the vanguard marched the Imperial Knights, one of the few units without either supply or illness problems, this due to the fact that they had first pick of the quartermaster’s stores, coupled with the high percentage of priests and healers, who tended to their own unit only. At their head rode a high priest of Kybor, bearing the sacred image of Saint Orlan. The knights wore white lacquered armor with plumed greathelms and shining blue and white tabards, carried gleaming lances and rode proudly barded white warhorses. I got a headache if I looked at them too long.

Lesser cavalry came next — mail-clad nomad mercenaries, horse archers, lancers. We marched in the middle — the endless companies of infantry, equipped and led in a bewildering variety of styles, so disparate as to give even the most skilled commander twitching fits. Finally, the supply train followed, a crowd of wagons and pack animals that raised a cloud of dust which could be seen for leagues around, a fact which was not lost on the Sholanti.

On the day we entered their lands, we also met our first Sholanti. He was a tall, muscular specimen, a long, leaf-bladed spear clutched in his hands, a leopard skin cloak thrown over his shoulders. He wore a lion mask which hid his features, and addressed us in heavily accented, but quite intelligible Imperial common.

“Why have you come to the land of the Sholanti?” he bellowed. “Why do you come here with spears and bows and the weapons of war?”

Lord Heatham saw fit to answer, spurring his charger forward and bellowing back. “We bring the lawful rule of the White Emperor to this land! We bring the force of his justice, and the power of his swords, and demand your immediate submission!”

I cast a withering glance at Sigurd. “Oh, he’s sure to score some points with that one,” I said.

“Respectful he isn’t,” Sigurd agreed. “We’ll have a fight on our hands in a day or less.”

The Sholanti herald barked a brief laugh, then turned and vanished into the yellow grass. Heatham looked nonplussed, as if he had expected his stupid ultimatum to actually work. Then he turned, spurred his horse back, and urged us onward.

We marched through the day, then made camp on the low slopes of a craggy mountain, near a broad, slow-moving green river. Heatham was intelligent enough to have us dig in and build a palisade, but by the time this work was finished, we were all so exhausted that all we could think of was sleep. I crashed to the ground without pitching my tent and simply curled up in the long grass. I slept like the dead, with ants and various other insects crawling all over me through the night.

I awakened to urgent bugle calls and leapt to my feet, diving into my breastplate and helm, and grabbing my sword. As I cast frantically about, I saw Sigurd, in full armor, looking grim and determined.

“The battle Lord Heatham so longs for has finally come to pass,” he said, a trifle formally, like a man carefully selecting his dying words. When I saw the Sholanti, I understood why.

The plains were black with them. They came on like an inexorable tide, rank on rank of tall, dark-skinned warriors. They carried great hide shields and spears like the herald we’d seen. Each unit represented a different warrior society, and wore the mask of a different animal. As they advanced, they chanted, and pounded spears on shields in unison, creating a rumble like oncoming thunder. On the flanks of the infantry came the Sholanti cavalry — there were several different units, including slim riders with elaborately lacquered hair and long, iron-tipped lances, riding tame zebras, and — most interestingly to my eyes anyway — several bands of strapping woman warriors, dressed in leopard-skin cloaks and mounted on sturdy black veldt-cats. I didn’t have long to admire them, unfortunately, for the battle had started even before I could urge my squad to the palisade

I took a quick stock of our situation. We were fortified, behind an improvised stone and stick palisade and a shallow ditch. Our rear was secure, anchored against the rounded mountain behind us. So far, so good. The problem was that the oncoming enemy seemed every bit as determined and professional as we were, if not more so, and outnumbered us by at least three times.

Heatham was clearly rattled by the size and discipline of the Sholanti horde. He had probably expected a bunch of jabbering savages who would flee the moment the imperial knights charged, but it was rapidly becoming obvious to everyone in our army that we were both outnumbered and outmatched. In the back of my mind I could only take grim satisfaction that these veldt-warriors, who most imperials considered cowardly primitives who didn’t even have their own language, were about to give the White Empire a lesson it would never forget.

Lord Heatham, astride his charger, his blue and white plumes waving proudly in the stiff breeze, pointed toward the enemy with his sword.

“Archers!” he cried. “Archers!” His command was instantly transmitted down the line by trumpet, and in an instant the air was full of arrows, arcing up from our skirmishers and down into the oncoming Sholanti. Warriors fell or stumbled, but the holes were instantly plugged and the volley had about as much effect as flinging pebbles at an oncoming ocean wave.

Our archers kept it up, however, raining volley after volley on the Sholanti. When they got close enough, our crossbows opened up, and several wizards chanted and cast spells. Gaps in the earth opened up beneath the Sholanti, swallowing up dozens. Liquid fire shot from a wizard’s finger to envelop a unit of hawk-masked warriors, who then fled shrieking. Rocks hailed down on a shark-masked band, recoiling them. Another unit, all in masks in the shape of lizards’ heads, fell back in terror, assailed by invisible illusions.

The Sholanti advance faltered, their front ranks milling in confusion. Heatham saw his chance.

“Knights forward!” he thundered. “Forward at the charge!”

With that, we opened ranks to allow the gleaming knights to thunder forward, all gleaming metal and waving banners. The earth shook and dust rose up in billows as they passed. Forward they charged, Saint Orlan’s banner at their head, against the milling vanguard of the Sholanti army.

But the Sholanti were not to be counted out. Heatham had made two critical mistakes, possibly out of some lingering arrogance regarding our imagined “superiority” to the Veldtlanders. First, he had ordered the charge when the enemy was too far away. The horses, hot and sweaty to begin with, bore heavy burdens of armored riders and clumsy steel barding, and would be blown and exhausted by the time they reached their targets. Second, he had sent the knights, our best and most important unit, into battle unsupported.

The Sholanti were quick to catch on. From their flanks, relatively unmolested by our missile volleys and magical attacks, the Sholanti cavalry countercharged, barreling down on the knights’ exposed flank.

Oh, gods — I knew I was probably going to die in the next hour. But what a sight, I thought... The zebras were fastest, and bore slim, lightly armored Sholanti men with long, wicked lances. Individually, they would be no match for our knights, but in a body they were truly terrifying, galloping hell-for-leather across the plains, zebras whinnying and screaming, calling out a deep-throated war cry: “Uuuuusuuutuuuuuuu!”

The cat-cavalry came behind, slower but more methodical, bounding over the high grass trampled by the zebra-riders’ passage. These were even more magnificent. All women, they were, and the sort of women that keep me up at night, sweating and sighing. Tall, muscular, fine-boned, armed with curved swords — I was glad that I didn’t have to face them.

Not yet, at any rate.

The fight in front of us was vicious and short. Heatham realized his mistake and ordered more cavalry into the fray to keep the knights from being wiped out, but he was too late. Unarmored but still deadly, the zebra-riders plunged their lances into our knights. Some broke on armor, but others hit just right and plunged through bodies, both horse and human. The cat-riders were worse, however. The great black mounts swiped with heavy claws and bit with saber-fanged maws, effortlessly seeking out gaps in armor, rendering knight after knight to a bloody, twitching corpse, then moving on to the next.

The rest of our cavalry arrived just in time to be butchered in short order. Through the dust I could see a handful of our riders fleeing back to the relative safety of the palisade, but I knew that our fate was sealed.

“Ready...” I shouted. “They’ll be on us in a moment!”

But the Sholanti cavalry did not pursue. Showing admirable restraint, they returned to station, and allowed the infantry, which had reformed during the engagement, to continue its advance.

This time they had their own magic. Bone and charm covered shamans advanced, shaking rattles and pointing feather-bedecked staves. Now we were forced to deal with supernatural forces. Grassfires burst out in the middle of our camp. The ground shook, throwing many of us off our feet. Weapons softened and turned to water. A horde of stinging scorpions swept over my squad, and half of them ran screaming, only to fall a few feet away, black and bloated.

I scrambled up a nearby rock outcropping, shaking off a half-dozen scorpions which had tried to crawl into my boot. Sigurd was beside me, along with the survivors of my squad. All looked exhausted and terrified, and we hadn’t even gotten to sword-blows yet. A tide of black scorpions surged up the rocks after us.

I grabbed a fetish from my pouch and mumbled a counterspell, hoping that it would work in this gods-forsaken country. I cast a hand over the advancing tide of scorpions and was surprised to see them vanish or scuttle away. Damn — I was genuinely shocked.

“Good job, corporal!” Sigurd shouted. “I’m afraid it won’t save us for long, though!”

I drew breath and realized that he was right. The Sholanti were only a few paces away, spears glittering, hide shields like an impenetrable wall. In a moment they’d be across the ditch and at the palisade

“Back in line!” I ordered furiously. “If we break now we’re all dead!”

Reluctantly, but with the strength of fatalism, we returned to the palisade

The Sholanti were on us immediately. We fought a unit of insect-masked warriors who came at us with almost suicidal bravery. I killed three at the palisade, and still they came. As I hacked down warrior after warrior I realized that they were sacrificing themselves, keeping us busy as their fellows hacked at the wooden palisade nearby. I could do nothing, I realized as another insect-warrior impaled himself on my sword and I pulled it free just in time to parry a spear-thrust from yet another.

It was only a matter of time. Overborne by dozens of screaming warriors, hacked at by innumerable spears, the palisade collapsed with a cracking crash, and the Sholanti poured through the gap, their dark eyes clouded with hatred and vengeance.

I knew what they wanted. We had come to steal from them, to take their land, and make them slaves. This was their land, not ours, and we were to pay the full price for our arrogance. The Sholanti kings were determined to send us back to the Empire, awash on a sea of our own blood.

“Every man for himself!” I bellowed. “Save yourselves if you can! I’ll see you in hell!”

“Well said, human,” Sigurd bellowed back. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

The line was breached everywhere. It had degenerated into a furious hand to hand struggle, with each of our soldiers facing at least five Sholanti. There was no doubt to the outcome now. I saw Lord Heatham, beset on all sides by spear-wielding Sholanti, swinging his sword this way and that, killing at least a half-dozen until he was finally pulled from his horse and vanished under as tide of muscled black bodies. The Sholanti spears rose and fell in unison, and I heard their war-cry once more.

I threw down my sword and ran. Sigurd was beside me, puffing along on bandy legs. Speed is not a dwarf’s strong suit, so I was determined to help him. He weighed a ton, but I was able to heft him over my shoulders and run along, albeit at reduced speed, through the carnage as Sholanti warriors dragged down our soldiers, slit their throats or bellies, and left them to die. Ahead, a band of Sholanti was ripping apart tents and plundering the baggage train.

I stumbled on a rock, sending both of us sprawling. Sigurd rolled in a tight ball and was on his feet, while I rolled on my back, wondering if this was the end. A Sholanti stood above me, spear poised for a downward thrust. Our eyes met for an instant, and I saw the depths of hatred in them.

“Kweeeeeeeeeesh-haaaa!” he cried, and thrust down.

I rolled at the last second, and the spear plunged into the hard earth. I looked again and saw Sigurd throw himself at the Sholanti, his axe whirling.

“Run, you bloody gods-cursed human!” he shouted back at me, his face red and streaming with blood. “I’ve no chance here. Get the hell out! Tell my clan how I died!”

I hesitated for a moment, long enough to see a second Sholanti slam his spear into Sigurd’s face. He fell without a sound, blood geysering.

Gods...

I ran. I ran as fast and hard as I knew how. My army was gone. My commander was gone. My friend was gone. All I had left was my own life, and that was in considerable peril. The lower slopes of the mountain were ahead of me, strewn with bodies, broken weapons and fallen banners. I stripped off my breastplate and arming coat and ran naked but for my breeches, making for the slopes and the river beyond. My heart hammered, and each breath burned like fire, but I kept running, because I knew that to stop was to die.

I made the crest of the slope, pounding down toward the rocky shores of the river. A few other stragglers ran with me, but as I watched an elf went down with a spear in her back, and a band of a dozen or so Sholanti appeared twenty paces to my left. Ahead lay the river.

A shriek sounded behind me.

“Kweeeeeeeeesh-haaaaaaaaa!”

The spear buried itself in the soft riverbank beside me. With the last vestige of my strength, I hurled myself into the deep, green waters. Just as the cold waters enveloped me, a heavy blow crashed down on my head, and I slipped into darkness.

***

I swam up from darkness only with great difficulty. My head felt as if a team of orcish squat-ball players had just had a scrum on my cranium, my tongue was the size of the White Emperor’s throne room, and my body ached with the sort of pain that makes you sorry you were ever born.

Oh, did I mention that I was alive? It didn’t seem to matter too much.

With effort I managed to wrench my eyes open, and waited a few moments while everything came into focus. I was lying on a low cot, in a cylindrical chamber with plastered, whitewashed walls and a thatched roof overhead.

I was covered with a rather scratchy blanket, and realized abruptly that I’d been relieved of all my possessions, including my clothes. I was a strange patchwork of red, brown and fishbelly white, where my vest and breeches had covered me, but otherwise I seemed relatively intact.

Beside the cot was a bowl of water and a wooden platter containing several exotic-looking fruits and some kind of porridge. After briefly wondering what the porridge was made of, I decided that I didn’t care if it was mashed fruit flies and termites, and devoured it with a vengeance, not pausing to even bother tasting it.

At this point, as you might guess, I was beginning to suspect that I would live after all, when my hopes were suddenly shattered.

The doorway was covered in a colorful, striped blanket, which abruptly parted to reveal one of the tallest and most muscular Sholanti spearmen I had ever seen. I met his gaze, my heart racing. When he saw I was conscious, an inscrutable expression flashed across his face, and he retreated through the door.

Outside I heard shouting and footfalls. My heart was racing. I jumped out of bed, abandoning the blanket, desperately searching for a weapon or something to defend myself with. I was in the hands of the Sholanti, the people we’d just tried to conquer, and who had just impaled the White Empire’s collective asses on one of their broad-bladed spears. I could only think that they’d kept me alive just so they could polish me off in some slow and excruciating fashion once I had returned to health. Unless I could get out of this mess, I was as dead as a Slaerthist at a Saint Orlan’s Day rally. I was doomed. I was ruined.

The entrance of a second Sholanti through the curtain ended my fatalistic reverie and brought my scrambling to a screeching halt as I gaped, open-mouthed and dumbfounded.

She was beautiful. A statue carved of gleaming mahogany would not have done her justice. She was my height, with a serene, high-cheekboned face, dark brown heavy-lidded eyes and full lips. Pale bone rings hung from her ears, and several heavy necklaces of multi-hued trade beads lay piled on her shoulders. Her body was a picture of lean muscularity — deep brown and smooth as glass — her arms slender but wiry, her legs like a Xeshite wrestler, her stomach flat as a windless sea.

None of this is to suggest that she was in any way unfeminine. Her hips flared alluringly, and her bare breasts were ripe and rounded, projecting in a way that made me consider becoming religious again. Beyond the jewelry — earrings, necklaces, carved anklets and silver bracelets enough to choke a dragon, she was alluringly close to total nudity — just a hide loincloth and — this I noticed with sudden shock — a leopard skin cloak. Further inspection revealed that she carried twin curved swords, one on each hip.

I stared for a moment, then finally made the connection. the cloak... the swords...

“You — You — “ I blathered, not realizing that she probably didn’t understand a word I said. “You’re a cat-rider.”

A smile graced her exquisite countenance.

“Good boy,” she said in flawless Imperial common. “You win a prize.”

“You speak Imperial?” My astonishment was building with each passing moment.

“That should be obvious, paleman,” she replied. “I spent some time as a mercenary in the barbarian lands — that’s what we call your part of the world, by the way — and I learned how to speak that gibberish you call a language.”

“I’m grateful,” I replied. “Uhhh, can I be so bold as to ask what I’m doing here?”

“Sit, boy,” she said. “This could take a while.”

I complied, grateful for every moment I remained alive with all my major organs intact.

She planted herself before me like one of my instructors at the Magic Academy. The main difference was that she was much more fun to look at.

“You were in that pathetic excuse for an army we butchered three days ago?” she asked.

I sighed. Lying would not only be stupid, it was likely to be suicidal. “If you mean the White Empire expeditionary force under that wanker Lord Heatham, the answer is yes. I’m sorry to say that I’m just a minor functionary. If it had been up to me, I’d have stayed home and left you people in peace.”

She tapped her forehead, a gesture which I later found was the Sholanti equivalent of nodding in agreement.

“As far as we know,” she said, “you are the sole survivor of that unfortunate expedition.”

It came as no real surprise, but it still hit me hard. All dead — Sigurd, Rose, even the contemptible Rhalatha and the vainglorious Lord Heatham. Damn all kings, I thought. And damn all generals.

“What about the people we left back at our stockade?” I asked, “Did you wipe them out, too?”

“No,” she replied contemptuously. “We’re not butchering barbarians like you people. We sent them the head of your Lord Heatham and told them to sail home and tell your Emperor never to come back.”

“It probably won’t work,” I said. “The Emperor and his entire court are bugfuck crazy.”

“It’s of no matter. If he sends another army, we’ll kill them, too.”

“That’s encouraging.” I took a deep breath. “Exactly what are your plans for me, by the way?”

Her gaze took on a distinctly wicked cast. “That’s a little complicated... Excuse me, but I didn’t get your name.”

“I’m usually called Wulf,” I said. “I picked it myself because it sounded so dramatic.”

She bowed, an act which did amazing things to her breasts.

“Ushandra Kalundi,” she said. “Of His Majesty’s Maiden Guard.”

I frowned. “Maiden guard? The cat-riders?”

“The same. We’re his majesty’s personal bodyguards. Since only men can be king, I guess he figured we were less likely to try and overthrow him.”

“Are you maidens in the sense of...”

“In the traditional sense?” Ushandra snorted. “Hell, no. It’s just an affectation. We have to quit if we get pregnant, but we have ways of getting around that restriction.”

I didn’t bother to ask. I was more concerned about my own skin.

“So you never did say what was going to happen to me,” I said.

“Well...” she began, choosing her words very carefully. “The consensus among the shamans and King Uzu’s advisers is that you have a sharpened stake hammered up your ass, be hung from a tree for three days, then hacked apart while you’re still alive, and your separate pieces burned and buried.”

This last didn’t go over very well. I stared in horror.

“I’ll be damned,” Ushandra said in amazement. “I didn’t think you people could get any whiter than you already were.”

“I’m full of surprises,” I said. “So I’m going to be tortured and killed horribly? Is that what you came here to tell me? Or did you come to ask if I had any last requests?”

“‘Not really.” She looked contemplative. “The fact is that the shamans are telling the king that your army was composed entirely of zombies, and that impaling you and cutting you into small pieces is the only way to make you stay dead. We’ve treated all your other soldiers that way.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but they were really dead. I’m not! Why in the hell did those blasted witch doctors get it into their heads that I was a zombie?”

“Isn’t it obvious? You’re so pale you must be dead.”

“Troll crap!” I spat. “You’ve been to the Empire. You know we’re all this color!”

“Sure I do,” she agreed, “but my opinion doesn’t hold much weight with the shamans. They seem to feel that wisdom resides only in those Sholanti with testicles.”

I made some incoherent, frustrated noises. I was on the verge of tears. “How the hell do we prove to them that I’m not a zombie?”

She tilted her magnificent head back. “Ahhhhhhh,” she breathed. “The crux of the matter. Well, my dear Wulf, there are several ways of telling if someone’s a zombie, at least according to those rattle-shaking frauds.”

“Any that I can use?”

“Well, they claim that when you throw a zombie in water, he floats, while a living man will drown.”

“Big help, cat-rider,” I said bitterly. “But if that’s my choice, I’d rather drown than be buggered and dismembered.”

“There are a couple of other signs,” she continued. “The most important one, given your current dilemma is the common notion that zombies can’t... Oh, what’s the word...?” Her dark eyes fixed me like a goblin impaled on a knight’s lance. “Fuck?”

Before I go on, I should say a few words about myself. Sometimes I honestly do not know whether I am being rewarded or punished for the sins of a previous life. Given the rather — shall we say — colorful nature of my life, one would be justified in thinking that I actually sought out all the exciting things that have happened to me. The truth is that I have never gone looking for money, women, sex or adventure — it has all just happened. When life throws a deep pit in my path I seem to unerringly move toward it and plunge down into the darkness. This was just one more such incident.

“Are... you... saying...” I blathered, realizing at last, and with considerable discomfort, that I was stark naked, and that Ushandra was nearly so.

“I am saying, my dear Wulf, that I knew you weren’t a shambling undead monstrosity, I thought you were on the cute side, and when the elders were debating what to do with you, I volunteered to prove that you were really alive.”

“Just doing your patriotic duty, were you?”

“Oh, yes,” she declared with enthusiasm, moving closer and letting her leopard-skin cloak slid to the floor. “Now, you’d better be able to perform, white man. Your life depends on it, after all.”

Oh, yeah, I thought. Just what every man wants to hear.

She leaned down, placing her hands on my shoulders, breasts bobbing, dark eyes nasty and excited. “You do well, you’re free to go. We’ll provide you with an escort of warriors to the edge of our territory and send you off with food, water and the directions to the nearest port city. Otherwise, well... we’ve discussed it. Do we have a deal?”

I swallowed. “Do I have a choice?”

“That’s really the beauty of my plan,” Ushandra said. “No, you don’t.”

“Well then,” I replied, “take me, I’m yours.”

“I didn’t think you’d take much convincing.” She leaned forward and her soft lips embraced mine, tongue slipping into my mouth with burning eagerness.

“I picked up a few bad habits in your part of the world,” she whispered huskily. “Want to cooperate?”

At this point I would have said yes if she’d ask me to dress up like an Idrian monk and beat myself with a willow switch, so I could only nod wordlessly, and watch as she pulled her loincloth away, leaving her completely naked save for all those wonderful beads and bracelets, bright colors against her dark skin.

Gods, but my mind was racing. If ever there was a man who had to perform under pressure, it was me. As Ushandra had noted, my life depended upon rising to the occasion — this was no time for performance anxiety.

Fortunately, my battered body still had some reserves remaining. As Ushandra’s lips sought mine once more and our tongues thrust against each other, I felt a familiar tightness growing between my legs, a tightness which only grew more noticeable when her hand slipped down my thigh and encircled my cock.

“Oh, yes,” she breathed against my mouth. “You’re being a good boy.”

I responded by grabbing her head and shoving my mouth against hers once more. She moaned deeply, hands moving up my sides, nails scoring my flesh.

“You like that?” she hissed, eyes locking with mine, deep and wild. “You want more?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Give me more.”

“Tell me.” Her tone was urgent, a strange combination of a command and a plea. “Tell me what you want to do.”

I grinned like I meant it. “You look as if you’d love to have your cunt licked,” I said. “Is that what you want?”

Dark eyes locked with mine, urgent and feral as the jungle cat she’d ridden into battle.

“Suck me,” she said. “Suck me and I’ll suck you.”

“Happy to oblige,” I replied.

We rolled onto the cot, which creaked and swayed ominously.

I kissed her, nibbling down her face and shoulders, pausing to stroke and lick delicately at her heavy breasts, feeling her nipples stiffen beneath my mouth.

“Yes,” she breathed. “Bite my nipples. Bite them hard.”

Ah, so she was that kind of woman. I sank my teeth into the dark, delicate, swollen flesh and was rewarded by Ushandra’s deep intake of breath and groan of pleasure.

“Ahhhh, sweetheart...” She babbled briefly in Sholanti, forgetting herself, then continued on in common. “Oh, I want you to lick me. I want you to lick my cunt...”

“In good time, dearest,” I replied. I was starting to get the hang of this. “I’m nowhere close yet.”

She moaned again, and I felt an edge of frustration in her voice, which was fine with me. I moved, with hands and tongue, down the smooth expanse of her belly, noting a sheen of sweat had started, and feeling her buck and writhe beneath me. Between the carved ebony columns of her thighs lay the soft swell of her mons. I stroked her softly, feeling heat radiating from her. She writhed with almost back-breaking intensity- Sweat shone on her breasts as they rose and fell with her feverish breathing.

“Oh, please...” Her demanding tone had given way to mindless yearning. “Please suck it.”

I slipped down, positioning myself between her thighs, and touched my tongue to the delicate black flesh beneath her tangled pubic thatch.

It was as if I’d just cast a lightning bolt on her. A convulsive heave raced through her body, and I felt strong hands grab the back of my head and shove me violently against her cunt. She spread her legs wide as I did so, and my tongue met hot wet flesh. As her moans grew 1ouder I flicked tongue into her cunt, then hard against the swollen prominence of her clit. An idle notion flashed through my mind that I’d heard some Veldt-lands peoples cut off girls’ clitorises before they reached puberty. I was grateful that I wasn’t dealing with one of those groups, sure enough.

“Ohhhh.” Her grip tightened, and she ground herself against my face, riding my tongue.

“Make me come,” she groaned. “Make me come and I’ll suck you.” She went on in Sholanti some more, then switched back again. “I’ll make you come... I want to make you come...”

Not surprisingly, this spurred me on rather well, and I licked with renewed enthusiasm. I slipped a hand between her grinding thighs and slid two fingers into her. Damn, but she was tight...

My fingers only served to redouble the flames of passion that tore through her. She was covered in sweat now, and glancing upward, I saw her contorted face, .staring down at me from between the heaving, bouncing mounds of her breasts. “I’m coming...” she groaned. “I’m coming... Now...”

The explosion I caused in Lab C at the Magic Academy couldn’t have been any 1ouder or violent. She heaved up, her groans increasing to shrieks, then pounded down, only to rise again, her hands still locked behind my head, her sopping cunt clamped against my mouth. Down she came once more, and with a sudden crack, the bed collapsed, spilling us onto the earthen floor.

“Don’t stop, darling... Sweetheart... Make me come again...” She hadn’t even slowed down, so I kept at it, licking and thrusting fingers as hard as I could — she seemed to have an infinite capacity, and I wasn’t giving up until she told me to.

Eventually, after about her eighth orgasm, she collapsed like a limp, sweaty rag, stroking my head and whispering what I could only assume were endearments and various obscenities, in both Sholanti and Imperial.

“Oh, Nukali... oh, darling... Oh, you fuck me so well with your mouth... Mana hali godo... You make me come so well... Dena mahao... I want you... Djina kura shokali... I want your cock in my mouth... Nula bandi bishura kai...”

Mind you, Ushandra was a warrior, and didn’t know the meaning of the word “retreat.” A brief respite for her to catch her breath and she was on me again.

“I’ve got a favor to return,” she said, pushing me down onto the ruin of my cot. “We’ve still got to prove that you can perform all the requisite functions.”

I didn’t answer, not coherently anyway, but only moaned as her lips encircled my cock in a tight ring, sliding down with hot eagerness, enveloping me in the dark wetness of her mouth.

She seemed almost as excited about this as she had been about getting licked. She groaned and sighed as her head bobbed up and down, dark and heavy lips surrounding the pale flesh of my shaft. I obliged by thrusting up to meet her, an act which only seemed to increase her excitement.

We continued in this manner for some minutes, until I felt the unmistakable signs of approaching orgasm. She, too, seemed to sense it, for she removed her lips from my cock, and held it in her hands, looking up at me with that strange combination of vulnerable pleading and stern command.

“Fuck me?” she said, half way between question and demand. “Fuck me now?”

I didn’t need much more encouragement than that, but positioned myself as she rolled onto her back, knees bent, thighs luxuriantly spread, tender cunt-flesh exposed and open, pouting and damp, waiting for me to fill it.

“Fuck me now,” she said. “Godo malika. Put your cock in me.”

I was pretty much beyond words by this time, and replied with actions, rubbing the head of my cock against her sopping lips and distended clitoris, watching her writhe and meeting her pleading-demanding gaze with what I hoped was calm patience. Inside, of course, I was just as eager as she was, but I wasn’t about to give in, considering how important my performance was.

“Now,” she whispered. “Now, please. I can’t stand it anymore.”

I pressed on, playing with her lips and clit, my fingers stroking her sweat-covered thighs. Finally, when it seemed as if she would orgasm simply from anticipation, I thrust inside her with a single stroke, feeling the tight ring of her taunt cunt-muscles reluctantly giving way before me.

“Ohhh....” Her voice rose to a high-pitched squeal. “Godo malika. Shanki hutara, Wulf. Fuck me... harder...”

I thrust in again. She was still tight, and the pre-eruption energy of her coming orgasm was almost physically tangible, like a glowing corona around us. Her face contorted, mouth constricting into a compact “O” as she shook her head back and forth, her voice rising in register until it was completely inaudible.

Faster, now. I fucked her with increasing speed and force, feeling a tremor go through her body at each stroke. She was rigid now, hands clasping my shoulders, nails digging into my flesh, sweat gleaming from every part of her body, her imposing collection of beads and bracelets clattering and tangling, surrounding her exquisite face like the frame of a fine portrait.

“Yesssss....” she hissed at last, and I felt contractions squeeze my cock like a fist. She was coming, and I was suddenly concerned that she would hurt herself, so powerful were the convulsions which wracked her body.

Of course, I wasn’t going to hold out much longer, either. The small corner of my mind not completely lust-driven harkened back to her statement about having to quit her unit if she became pregnant, and I was wondering what to do about matters when she decided for me.

“Come on me...” she moaned. “You’ve got to... Take your cock out and come on me...”

I complied quickly, pulling out of the heaving, convulsing depths of her cunt, and she latched onto my cock with her hands, tugging and stroking.

“Come now,” she demanded. “Come for me. Show them...”

I didn’t have time to worry about that last statement, for orgasm washed over me, racing through me like a brushfire, and explosive contractions shot streaks of hot, white semen across Ushandra’s sweat-soaked belly, splashing onto her heaving breasts. Still in the throes of ecstasy, she rubbed my hot seed across her skin, then licked at her own fingers.

“Oh, yes,” she sighed. “Yes, Wulf. Mano lapano. You are alive, Wulf. You are alive...”

“Na. Godo muhad shikari, Ushandra,” said a voice from nearby, making me jump practically out of my skin.

In the doorway stood a wizened old man, bedecked in bones and feathers, carrying a decorated staff. Gods dammit! One of their creepy little witch-doctors! Gods, how long had he been there? I glared and started to speak.

“It’s all right, Wulf,” Ushandra cautioned, touching my lips with what seemed to be the last of her strength. “He had to be here. He had to witness that you were truly alive. Now he believes me.”

I stared wearily. This little interlude had sapped what little strength I’d recovered since the battle.

“Tell him that I’m honored that he acknowledges I’m alive,” I said. “But, for the moment, I’d like to go back to sleep.”

Ushandra looked at me with tender eyes. “You’re sweet, Wulf,” she said. “Nukali. That means `beloved.’ I’m glad you’re going to stay alive.”

“You’re glad?” I replied, still staring at the shaman. “I’m downright ecstatic.” I returned my gaze to Ushandra and felt an unexpected rush of tenderness and affection toward her. “I’m sorry. I should be kinder. You saved my life, Ushandra. I’m grateful. You’re very beautiful and very resourceful, and I think that I’m going to be extremely fond of you.”

I took a breath. “Nukali,” I said. “Beloved. I think you are.”

She smiled. “You’ll always have a beloved among the Sholanti.” She rose to her feet and picked up her few scattered garments. “Sleep now, Nukali Wulf. Dream of me.”

She swayed gracefully from the tent, none the worse for the hard fucking we’d just had, and then she and the shaman were gone.

I was asleep an instant later. I did dream of Ushandra, as a matter of fact, but I dreamed of lions as well.

Lions. It turned out to be prophetic.

***

I spent several days at that place, which I learned was called H’luru Kraal, recovering my strength. I suspect that I would have recovered a hell of a lot quicker if Ushandra hadn’t shown up every night or so to renew acquaintances, and explore a number of acts which she’d learned about in the Empire, but which her fellow tribesmen thought to be perverse and sinful (in this they were completely correct, of course, but we were perverse and sinful people), but I wasn’t about to complain.

After a week or so, Ushandra informed me that the shamans wouldn’t stand for me to be in the village any longer, alive or undead. I suspect that word of our antics was getting out to the local women, and they were demanding that their doctrinaire husbands and lovers show more initiative and imagination.

Whatever the cause, we set out for the Sholanti frontier a day later. Instead of the promised escort, I got Ushandra and her steppe-cat, a muscular black monster named Shuya who regarded me with cool contempt, not unlike the glances I got from the Sholanti shaman as we marched out of town. I also noticed a couple of furtive grins and winks from some of the Sholanti women, as well.

Since I’d spent the last few days worrying about whether the shamans would visit a plague of starving parakeets on me, I was as glad to leave as the Sholanti were to get rid of me. Not that I blamed them — I was the last survivor of an army which had come to reduce them all to penurious servitude, and as such I wasn’t going to win any popularity contests, so when H’luru Kraal faded into the distance behind us, a deep sense of relief swept over me.

I walked while Ushandra rode Shuya. She’d provided me with traveling clothes and weapons, including a Sholanti spear and a sword scavenged from the bodies of our soldiers on the mountain. The grassy plains stretched out ahead of us, broken by the occasional baobab or umbrella tree, sometimes folding into gentle ravines where shallow rivers crawled, crocodiles and hippopotami basking along their muddy banks. Herds of zebra, gazelle and water buffalo blackened the plains in the distance, while white clouds of birds swirled overhead.

“What’s beyond your territory?” I asked.

“The lands of the n’doro nuka, the lion people,” she replied. “They’re nomads, hunters. We fight them sometimes, but we usually leave each other alone.”

I considered this. “How should I deal with them?”

“I discussed it with the shamans,” Ushandra replied, rummaging around in one of Shuya’s saddle packs. “They weren’t inclined to help you, but I persuaded old Mokura to give me this.” She pulled out a small black stone and handed it to me.

It was about the size of my thumb nail, and had a small picture of a lion carved on it.

“When we get to the border, swallow this,” Ushandra said. “It will make you look like a lion-man.”

I frowned. “I thought they were just another tribe who called themselves ‘lion people’. You mean they’re actually another species?”

She tapped her forehead. “Solitary males wander the plains, and the other n’doro leave them alone. They have prides, the same as normal lions, with a single male and several females.”

“Some guys have all the luck,” I replied. I looked down at the stone again. “Uhhh... I’m not sure how to say this, but what happens when the stone... ummm... isn’t inside me anymore?”

She chuckled. “The magic will last for a week or so, even if you pass the stone. That will be more than enough time to get across n’doro territory.”

“You sure this isn’t some kind of trick — poison or something? I mean, Mokura probably wasn’t very fond of me...”

“Don’t worry, nukali.” A look of fierce determination crossed her strong features. “Mokura knows that if anything happens to you I’ll have his intestines for a necklace.”

“Good,” I replied. “Of course, I’ll still be dead, but...”

“But you’ll be avenged. Your spirit will rest.”

“That’s encouraging.”

***

By day, we walked slowly, at our leisure, living off the food Ushandra had brought, or foraging for springbok and other small game. At night, we made camp, I cast protective pattern-spells, and we made love by firelight with the stars shining down like a million gleaming gemstones.

On our last night together, we lay naked on Ushandra’s scratchy groundcloth, the reassuring bulk of Shuya curled up and sleeping nearby. I held her close, feeling her soft expanse of skin, staring into the dark pools of her eyes, now deep in shadow.

“I’ll miss you,” I said. “I’d like to promise that I’ll come back someday, but I can’t. We don’t have regular passenger service to the Veldt Lands from my part of the world.”

She sighed. “They want us to be strong and merciless.” There was a catch in her voice. “The king doesn’t like us to form permanent attachments. I think it’s because he wants to keep us all for himself. Not as if he doesn’t already have eighty wives, mind you.”

“Old deviant,” I muttered.

“It doesn’t matter. The fact is that I have a duty to remain here. Otherwise...”

I let the word hang in silence for a few moments.

“Otherwise what?” I asked at last.

“Otherwise, I’d ask if you wanted me to go with you.”

I sighed, too. “If you did, you know that I’d say yes.”

She was silent again.

“I was hoping you’d say no,” she replied. “That way I wouldn’t have any regrets, and we’d just go our separate ways.”

“Ah, well in that case, hell no, I never want to see you again. It’s been fun, but when ya gotta go, ya gotta go.” I smiled tentatively. “How’s that?”

“You’re a bad liar, Wulf.”

“Actually, I’m usually a damned good one. I’m only a bad liar when I try to tell someone I’m not in love with her.”

Ushandra reacted in that strange, dichotomous manner I had become familiar with. Part of her reacted as if I’d just struck her across the face, while the remainder melted like a golem in a wizard’s furnace.

“Oh, Wulf...” she whispered. “Nukali. Nukali manda. Best beloved.”

I kissed her deeply, holding her close. It seemed the right thing to do.

“Make love to me again, nukali,” she said. “Let me remember you.”

I did as she asked. The closeness of our parting added passion to the night, and we set to each other with an unbridled enthusiasm. Our hands and mouths roamed all over each other’s bodies — I toyed with her nipples, pinching and biting so hard that she cried out, but still asked me for more; I stroked her mons, then licked and bit my way down her belly, along her thighs, and in the moist, soft flesh between, sliding my tongue inside her, playing her with my fingers, thrusting my face against her hot, eager skin. She gave back, biting and scratching like her steppe cat, kissing me feverishly, then devouring my cock, lips moist and trembling. We lay locked together, my tongue laving her cunt-lips and clit, her mouth swallowing my member; she soared to orgasm after orgasm, while the heat inside me built higher with each passing moment.

Then I straddled her from behind, slipping my cock between her muscular thighs, shoving and thrusting, harder and harder as she urged me on. She came again as I did so, then lay on her back, knees drawn up, her gorgeous black cunt exposed to me, and I rubbed my cockhead against the wet lips. She begged me to fuck her then, but I waited, feeling her heat build, then slipped my cock into her, pulling out sopping with her juices, plunging in again.

“Yesss...” she moaned, so loud that I was afraid they’d hear her back in the kraal. “Oh, nukali... Oh, fuck me hard...”

I groaned loudly in response, prepared to pull out and come as soon as she had her final, gut-wrenching orgasm.

“Stay inside me, my love,” she pleaded. “Keep your beautiful cock inside me. Fill me with your come.”

Her own words seemed to excite her more, and she came almost immediately, back arching, breasts bobbing and straining, dark continents in the moonlight.

“Ahhh,” she cried again. “Stay inside me, darling. Share your seed with me...”

Of course, I complied. My love for Ushandra had become pretty much total, and I would have done anything she asked of me. I felt her hot cunt close around me, tightening and releasing, over and over, as each wave of orgasm crashed down on her, and I realized that I was tipping over the edge as well.

“I’m coming, too,” I managed, before I felt my cock explode inside her, pumping hot semen to mix with the damp secretions of her cunt. Gods...

“Fill me.” Another plea and demand combined. “Fill me with your hot sperm, darling. Godo malika, nukali. Godo malika...”

At length, our various convulsive climaxes had finally died away, and we lay, exhausted, in the firelight.

“Oh, my sweet Wulf,” she sighed. “I’ll remember you always.”

“Gods,” I replied, cradling her in my arms, “how could I possibly forget?”

We slept well, though the sorrow of our parting lingered in the back of my mind, and haunted my dreams.

***

We parted late the next morning. It was mercifully brief. Ushandra was a warrior, and had lost many friends and lovers over the years. She told me that she would miss me, and always nurse the hope that I might return, and I agreed.

She looked nervously at the ground. Shuya was a few yards away, stalking a white butterfly.

“Wulf,” she said, “I’m not one to be overly — what’s the damned word? — sentimental at times like this, but...”

“Yes?” I asked, feeling the heaviness of her heart.

“Wulf, I love you. That’s not a demand that you stay, or any kind of demand for that matter.” She paused again, and I saw a faint gleam of tears in her eyes; I was just managing to hold back, myself. “It’s a gift, Wulf. My love is a gift to you. Keep it with you, and use it when you need to be strong. I haven’t loved many men in my life, Wulf. It’s not a thing I do lightly.”

“I love you, too,” I said, and meant it. “Ushandra, I’ll never forget you. You keep my love with you, as well. It’s something that no one can ever take away.”

She tapped her forehead. “Now, swallow that damned stone so we can see if you drop dead or not.”

I shrugged. “Here goes.” I took out the stone and placed it in my mouth. Nothing out of the ordinary happened; so far, so good.

With effort, I forced the stone to the back of my throat and swallowed hard. It didn’t go down very easy, in fact it got stuck once on the way, but eventually it made it all the way.

There was no immediate effect. I was just beginning to think that the old man was having us both on, when I felt a sudden wave of dizziness. The grassy plains around us wavered, as if in the heat. I stumbled, briefly, and felt myself change.

It’s a hard process to describe. As it happened, I realized that the shaman had given me some powerful magic. This was no mere glamor, it was actually changing me into something else. Surprisingly, it wasn’t terribly unpleasant. My muscles and internal organs tingled and twitched as they changed, but the pain one would expect from such a radical rearrangement was mercifully absent.

I watched my flesh soften, flow, then harden into new shapes. My legs grew longer, stretching into a crooked semblance of a feline leg, forcing me to pull off my boots lest they damage me. Tawny hair sprouted from my arms and neck, growing into a bristly golden pelt and dark brown — almost black — mane. My face changed, elongating, teeth changing from my flat omnivore’s equipment to the rapacious fangs of a predator.

My clothes felt uncomfortable against my new pelt. An unfamiliar sensation tugged at my spine, and at last I realized it was a tail, now coiled uncomfortably inside my breaches.

Gods... There seemed to be lion-man senses coming on with the new body, as well. My sight remained good, though colors faded, and motion became more significant. Odors which were only dimly perceived hammered at me with harsh intensity. Sounds buffeted me — off in the distance I heard elephant and rhino snorting and bellowing, and another veldt-cat screaming challenges to other males.

I looked at Ushandra. She seemed impressed, staring at me with wide eyes.

“You smell wonderful,” I said. “Better than before.”

“I’m so glad you approve.” She tapped her forehead again. “Old Mokura’s outdone himself this time.”

I agreed, but also realized that my new body was downright uncomfortable. Strange instincts assailed me, and one of them was to shed these stinking human rags as quickly as possible. I stripped out of my clothes rapidly, inspecting my new body and its capabilities as I did so.

Outwardly, though I couldn’t see my own face without a mirror, I resembled a muscular hybrid of man and lion. I walked easily on two legs, but a tail bobbed behind me for balance, and my feet were mid-way between normal human appendages, and a padded lion’s paw. My toenails had elongated to claws, and I felt a barely restrained power in my muscles, as if they would take me springing off across the veldt without my permission.

My chest, abdomen and inner thighs were white, and a massive mane of black-brown fur covered my head and shoulders. My hands were normal, although, like my feet, they bore a wicked set of claws. My face, I determined with my fingers, was also leonine, with a short, heavy muzzle, wiry whiskers and a broad, moist nose. I was pretty far gone from Wulf the human. Fortunately, I noted, I still had my lightning-fast mind and razor-sharp wit.

I also noted, with some embarrassment, that nature had provided the lion-men with a surprisingly human-looking genital arrangement, one which I hastened to protect with an improvised loincloth.

This last didn’t escape Ushandra’s notice, either.

“I’d never really noticed lion-men’s cocks before,” she said artfully. “Now I wonder if they’re all as well hung as you, or whether you just got lucky.”

I didn’t say anything — what can you say to a remark like that? The fact was that I was equipped about twice as well as I had been as a human. What the hell kind of sex lives did these randy cat-bastards have, anyway? I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.

We packed my discarded clothes in my backpack, for use when I returned to my normal form. I kept the short Sholanti spear and a few pieces of equipment, which I hung from a belt. Besides this and the aforementioned loincloth, I was pretty much clad in nature’s garb, but it seemed only too natural for the form I had been squashed into.

“You are a magnificent sight, Wulf,” Ushandra said. “I’m almost sorry there’s a taboo against fucking n’doro nuka.” She chuckled. “Well, I’m sorry that my last memory of you will be while you look like this, but I have to admit you’re damned handsome.”

I grunted. “Maybe I should just stay this way.”

“Oh, no, Wulf. I wouldn’t want to deprive the world of your human self.”

We stood in silence for a few moments.

“Well,” she said, “I guess this is goodbye.”

I nodded, not wanting to speak for fear I’d burst into tears, lion-man or no lion-man.

We embraced and kissed as best we could (she decided that the taboo didn’t extend to tonsil-jousting, at least), then she mounted up on Shuya, who cast some suspicious glances at me, and rode off across the veldt.

I watched her go, waving my spear until I couldn’t see her anymore.

I sighed. So here I was, alone in the grasslands, in the form of some damned inhuman creature who looked more at home drinking milk from a saucer, and a very long trek ahead of me.

Overall, I told myself, it could have been worse.

The n’doro could have been the badger-people or something. Maybe the skunk-people...

It didn’t bear thinking about.

***

I spent the next few days getting used to my new body. The plains had become a place of renewed wonder for me, as my enhanced senses revealed an intricate place of smells and sounds, far beyond what I had perceived before. I was faster and stronger, too, bounding tirelessly through the grass, chasing down small animals and dispatching them with my spear, or my new predator’s teeth and claws.

That was another aspect of my new form — I had a hunter’s instincts, and shunned most of the supplies in my backpack, preferring instead to stalk and kill springbok, wild pigs, small antelope, and other cute, helpless little creatures. If I got too hungry, instinct took over completely, and I ate them raw, allowing the human side of me to get finicky and disgusted later when it was back in charge. When I had time or wasn’t too hungry, I cooked my meat like a civilized being.

The only thing I missed — and this was significant, given my chosen profession — was my vision. My colors were seriously reduced, as was my detail vision, though my motion sensors were such that I could see a mouse disturbing a blade of grass at a hundred paces. Although my strength and speed, as well as my enhanced senses were wonderful, I found myself looking forward to the day when I got my human body back.

My nightly routine was about the same. I made camp with a small campfire, set up a pattern-spell to protect myself (my magical abilities seemed undiminished), and slept like a log, dreaming about Ushandra and how much I missed her.

I thought about her during the day as well, since there really wasn’t a hell of a lot else to think about. My heart was heavy those days, with visions of her slipping through my mind, dark and alluring, always just out of reach. Sorrow and unhappiness tugged at me, but I went on as best I could, because I had no choice.

I never saw another lion-person. I assumed they were all being nomads somewhere else, and was actually quite grateful, since I didn’t know how to act around another n’doro.

Then, of course, it all changed.

***

Five days from the border I had reconciled myself with never seeing a lion-man in the flesh. I continued to take my usual precautions each night, setting up my campfire and magic circle, but I wasn’t terribly worried. This particular night I camped in the lee of a jumbled pile of gray rocks, strewn across this section of the plains like a giant child’s building blocks. I drifted off to sleep, listening to the steady drone of insects and gazing dreamily into the fire. I thought of Ushandra, and not for the last time.

I awoke with a start, my heightened instincts bellowing alarms. My heart hammering, I scanned the rocky terrain around me, warmly illuminated by my campfire, and the sliver of moon overhead.

What I saw wasn’t terribly reassuring. I was surrounded by at a half-dozen vague, man-sized shapes, lurking in the shadows, eyes reflecting a feral yellow-orange. As they slowly stalked forward, into the firelight, I realized that I was seeing my first n’doro nuka.

These, however, were not exactly what I expected. They were all female.

Gods, but there’s a grace in wild beasts that humans can only aspire to. Their purity of movement and singleness of intent, the focused intelligence gleaming in slitted animal eyes, the grace of the hunter and the hunted, unsullied by the greed and desires that foul the human soul.

These creatures embodied that simple and pure splendor, combined with the sensual beauty of the most self-assured human woman. They were lean, muscular creatures, sporting golden pelts and lashing tails like my own. Golden eyes gleamed, fixing me with intense stares that hovered between curiosity and hostility, staring from short-muzzled, triangular faces sporting whiskers and saber-fangs.

And, like me, they were nearly naked, decorated only with a few oddments such as bracelets, earrings, and leather bindings around ankles, forearms or tails. They each had two breasts (that satisfied one question I’d had about how close they were to real lions, at any rate), taut and supple-seeming, hanging enticingly over taunt, white-furred bellies. Gods, if I were inclined that way, I’d find them damned attractive...

Wait a minute... Was I inclined that way? Gods... My lion-man senses reached out and caught a whiff of a swirling, musky odor. It reached deep into my brain, touching places inside me, redoubling back upon itself, sending messages down my spine, into my chest and belly, touching at my loins and my new, until now relatively unused genitals. I felt a rapid increase in my pulse, and felt blood move from head toward loins in a sudden rush.

No... The human side of me still mourned over Ushandra. Admittedly, it had happened before and, to my regret I realized that it would probably happen again, but parting from a loved one, possibly forever, has a foul effect on one’s libido. Until this very moment, I’d figured that I wouldn’t be having sex for at least another month or two.

Now, though, those funny lion-man instincts were taking over, and part of me wanted to step outside my circle and fuck these lion-women senseless. Fortunately, my sensible human side was still in control, and I resisted for the moment.

The lion-women approached my circle, eyes still locked on me. They wove back and forth like the great cats they were descended from, cautiously advancing a step, then retreating, and advancing again. I began to notice individual differences. The lead female was the largest and, I suspected, the oldest, silver rings dangling from both ears. The next wore a woven leather necklace, bearing a rough crystal hanging down between her upright breasts. The third, now slowly stalking out of shadow and into my firelight, had black eyes, their pupils barely visible, and thin leather thongs strung with various colorful beads wrapped around her wrists and forearms.

They didn’t speak, but I could see them sniffing the air intently. The lead female finally reached out a surprisingly delicate and long-fingered hand toward me, only to encounter the invisible barrier of my magic circle. In a few moments, they were all at the circle, curiously touching it and testing its strength.

I doubt whether my circle could have restrained a bull elephant or a charging rhino, but it would probably hold this crew off for a while, at least. My problem was that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hold them off. Damned lion-man libido... Gods...

After a couple of minutes of testing the barrier, the females fell back, staring at me in a ragged group. The other three females were less heavily decorated, and harder to tell apart, save that one of them wore a jet-black bracelet decorated with silver banding, but it was hard to see in the dark.

Another tense handful of moments passed, then the elder female stalked forward purposefully, and addressed me directly. I wasn’t sure what surprised me more — that I understood her (probably my lion-man brain processing my new “native” language or something), or what she said to me.

“We walk the plains, seeking our lost mate,” she said in stilted, obviously formal language. “The night is dark, alive with the sounds and smells of prey. Just when we believe that we will never find our lost one, the scent of a male touches us. We investigate, and find a handsome young male, camped alone with a fire, in the manner of the hairless ones, sleeping, woefully alone, without the warmth of females to keep him safe. We admire the male, for it has been long and long since a male has given us the pleasures of his touch.”

She paused, touching the barrier, then continued.

“But alas, even as desire for this handsome male sweeps over us, my sisters and I are saddened to feel a wall of solid air around him, like the spells made by the rattle-shaking hairless dark ones. We wonder if he is a prisoner, this handsome young male, and whether we should rescue him, like the pride-females in ancient songs of valor. We wonder if he fears us, or if he fears the dark, and uses the spells of hairless savages to protect himself. Further, we wonder why he does not speak to us, why he does not approach us, or even show interest in our young, ripe bodies, our eager loins and our soft flesh.”

I remained silent, more out of astonishment than anything else. The lioness’ words had an effect, however, and the heart-pounding excitement I’d felt before redoubled itself. I felt my cock growing hard between my legs, rising up to unavoidable prominence.

The elder female bared fangs, and licked her lips with a pink, bristly tongue.

“My words bring a reply that is not words,” she continued. “My sisters see the male, his member growing ready for love, and they, too, grow excited.”

Instincts flashed through my mind once more, a racial memory implanted in my inhuman brain. I realized that this was a formal mating (or at least sex) ritual, in which females try to entice a male into sex, while the male feigned indifference. Fortunately for me, I had reacted appropriately, remaining silent and pretending not to be interested. The magical shield, which they apparently had never seen used by a lion-man before, only added to the apparent excitement of the ritual.

“Perhaps my sisters will show the male what it is like to pleasure them,” she went on, looking back at the remaining five females, who now huddled together in a close bunch, hands stroking each other. “Their desire grows with each passing moment, and if the handsome male will not relent, they will have to find their delectation in each other.” Two of the other females began earnestly licking each other’s face and shoulders, and in a moment all five had taken up the activity.

Dammit. I had stepped into it again.

The five remaining females slowly dissolved into a maelstrom of probing hands, breasts, bellies, tails and huge, pink bristle-studded tongues. The black-eyes lioness slipped between the tawny thighs of the necklace-wearer, grooming the golden pelt of her stomach with her tongue, moving lower and lower until the moist pinkness made contact with the other’s wet cunt-flesh.

I hoped that lion-women’s flesh was sturdier than that of human females — most of the women I knew would have reacted with screams of agony at that kind of treatment. But the necklace-wearing lioness took it with luxuriant grace, writhing and making a deep growling sound in her chest. Damme, but I think I actually heard her purring.

While black eyes devoured her companion’s cunt (calling it a “pussy” at this point would probably be redundant, I’m afraid), the third female, the one with the bracelet, began to play with her from behind, sliding fingers inside her companion, an act which met with approval, to judge by the unrestrained howls and tail-lashings which followed. Nearby, the two others lay in a close embrace, licking between each other’s muscular thighs.

My erection grew to painful prominence, and the instinct to rush into the fray raced through my veins, and my breath came in short, panting gasps.

“The male approves of the pleasure my sisters give each other?” the elder lioness asked, looking with what could only be a smile from me to the writhing bodies nearby. “Is this sufficient to arouse the handsome male to action? Is it sufficient to persuade him to share the long stiffness between his legs with an elder female and her sisters?”

I would say, right off-hand, that it was, but I still resisted, watching the yowling, licking orgy of excited female-feline bodies just out of reach, glowing yellow-orange in firelight.

“Oh, is there more we can offer the male?” she asked again, her voice still full of confidence that I would eventually relent. “Can we lick his body? Can we offer the softness of our breasts up to his caresses? Can we take that fine, thick organ in our mouths and suckle at it? Would this be sufficient for him to join us, to slip his great member inside our bodies?”

I sighed. It was inevitable. I muttered the dispel command, and strode out of the circle, my excessive erection (which probably would have scared the hell out of a human woman) bobbing uncomfortably.

The elder lioness’ face broke out in a grin of triumph.

“Ah, the male joins my sisters, at last. What would he like, we wonder? Of all the pleasures we describe, which would he most desire first?”

The two youngest females left off their frenetic licking and crouched in front of me, staring intently.

“Take him, sisters,” my narrator urged, standing behind me, placing strong hands on my shoulders. “Take his firm member in your mouths. Show him the pleasure you show each other.”

The two females complied, kneeling in front of me subserviently. The first took my cock in her hands and began to stroke it, while the second ran a raspy tongue up and down its length. Yes, it felt strange, but no, it didn’t strip off the first layer of flesh. My new skin was tougher, and held up to the sandpapering the females gave it just fine. In fact, the sensation was quite intense, running through my loins and into my chest like a rush of hot air.

Now, the second had commenced to lick, leaving my cock slick and shiny, and then enveloped me with her mouth, sliding the long, dark organ inside her, gently flicking her tongue along its length. She took my entire member, scarcely hesitating when it slid past the back of her mouth and into her throat. When she finally let it slide out again, the first female grabbed it with a petulant expression, and began to suck it herself.

“Now, now, sisters,” cautioned the elder, who still stood behind me, observing and, apparently, overseeing the others’ activities, “the male has graced us with his presence, and deigned to share his bounty with us. Though it may be difficult, you must share him gracefully.” The irony in her tone was unmistakable, but the two youngsters didn’t seem to notice.

The pace of the licking and sucking increased, and I felt intense sensations race through me, like my own impending orgasm, but deeper and different in an indescribable way.

“Ah, the male feels the tongues of the young females,” our overseer continued. “He feels heat build inside him, and will soon share his seed with my sisters. Who will receive it of the two, we wonder?”

I realized with something of a shock, that the other three females had broken off from their orgiastic pursuits, and were watching from nearby, mouths open, tongues protruding, panting, great streams of saliva trailing from their black lips.

The first female was sucking me with sincere enthusiasm, her dark brown eyes occasionally looking up at me, or at the elder female behind me.

“Give your sister a chance, now,” she suggested, and the second female took me in her mouth, running her raspy tongue up and down my shaft, swallowing the massive member entirely.

Then she released me, and the two of them licked me, stroking my cock with their long-fingered hands.

“They have learned to share,” said the female behind me. “Perhaps the male will reward them both equally.”

That did it. The building sensations finally shattered simultaneously, and I felt hot semen gush from my cock. No, it wasn’t too different from its human counterpart — passionate white spurting across the two feline faces, into mouths, onto tongues and hands, much to the delight of the two females, who immediately forgot about me and turned to licking each other clean and, a few moments later, were back to their mutual cunt-lapping as if I had been a mere pleasant interlude in their real pursuit.

I didn’t have time to feel left out, for the three watchers were on me in a moment. To my astonishment, no sooner had my erection collapsed in the wake of explosive orgasm, than I started to feel a rush of blood and rapidly-increasing stiffness. I began to wonder what the lion-men had that we didn’t. Perhaps it was something in the water.

The elder female continued to watch and provide commentary, which was fine with me, and apparently with the remaining females, who set to their work without speaking, but with a fine chorus of howls, snarls, purrs, and other animal noises. The first squatted astride me, purposefully rubbing my now-fully distended cock between her thighs, against what I could only guess was her clit. My suspicions were confirmed when a second lioness crouched above my face, spreading her cunt-lips for my inspection. I followed my instincts and began to lick, my huge pink tongue scraping at the moist flesh. I watched as her recessed button of flesh grew to prominence, and she whined urgently in response.

Eagerly, I grabbed her buttocks, pulling her down against my mouth, and licked as hard and with as much saliva as I could muster. This was all too much for the first female, for I felt her drop down, plunging my cock inside her, then rose up and lunged downward once more.

There was still one left from the trio which had been entertaining each other while the first two sucked me off. I glanced up to see the lioness I was eating out licking and biting at the distended pink nipples of the missing third, who squeezed the twin mounds between her hands, and luxuriated in the tongue-laving she received.

I licked still harder, while the first lioness bounced up and down, my cock alternating between hot wetness and the coolness of the air. The second one squeezed her thighs together around my face, nearly suffocating me and cutting off my lovely view of the third, but I was once more beyond caring.

When the first lion-woman went rigid, and her cries soared to a trailing shriek and beyond, I knew she’d reached her peak and was now plunging over into oblivion. I continued to give her my shaft, pumping into her even as she writhed and howled. Orgasm for me was miles away — I wanted these females to come and come again before I did.

At length, the first female slid off me, to lie in a warm heap near my feet (I couldn’t see her, but I could feel the heat rolling off her nearby body). At that signal, the last lioness gave up on getting her nipples tormented and took her place astride me.

Oh, we were magnificent... I know I can say that without being pretentious, because I hadn’t come by my great sexual stamina honestly — this was the work of some feather-bedecked savage shaman, and I was only along for the ride. But such a ride it was. I doubt that Finegal had a better one when he stole Myskallah’s sleigh and melted the glaciers (if you’re not familiar with that particular Lastlands legend, I suggest you check it out, by the way).

The second lioness finally slammed her way to body-wracking orgasm at the insistent rasping of my tongue, but I held her firmly against me, and kept licking her to a second and third climax. By this time, she had gone completely limp, and collapsed like an elf stuck full of dwarf arrows.

That left the last, who was still riding me, knees bending tirelessly, magnificent muscles tensing and releasing beneath her tawny hide. I sat up abruptly, looking into her wild eyes, throwing my arms around her and pounding away from a sitting position.

She stared at me intently, meeting me stroke for stroke, as if daring me to orgasm before her. An involuntary growl built in the back of my throat, and I pushed her backwards, rolling forward, my cock still buried deep in her throbbing, grasping cunt, pressing her shoulders down into the hard, grassy earth.

She whined, then growled herself, and I felt her claws rake my back. With a snarl, she sank her teeth into my shoulder, and pain raced through me. But, as my old professor Fimbagel or Marshal Herula my favorite submissive tandu girl would have said, it was good pain that fed on itself and sent tremors of pleasure through me. I plunged my cock inside her to the hilt with a deafening roar, the pain translating instantly to pleasure, and I came once more, contracting and spasming, pumping hot seed into her soaking wet depths.

I would have been loath to lose the contest of wills — she came at the same instant, shrieking and roaring hoarsely, claws digging once more into my back. I felt blood, but once more, I didn’t care.

I fell back, once more exhausted by the overwhelming rush of sensation, but in the back of my mind I realized that I had at least one session left.

And I suspected that I knew who it was for.

The elder female had remained largely silent through my moments with her three sisters, and when I looked up to find her, I realized why.

She lay in the grass not far away, knees raised and spread apart, fingers busy between them. She gasped softly, and her belly heaved when she saw me.

“Ah, you finish with the younger sisters,” she said, the edge of formality still in her voice. “The elder female must take her pleasure last. Such is the law, male, and we must all live by it. Still, she may pleasure herself, and wonder about the male. Are my thoughts made flesh? Will what I imagine become true? Is your organ risen one final time? Will it enter the softness between my thighs? Will it fill me with its hardness and make my body shake with pleasure? I have desired fulfillment lone enough, young male. Give the eldest female what she now desires more than any other thing. Give her yourself...”

With that kind of encouragement, who could resist, human or otherwise? In any event, Elder Female (I still had no names for them) had instilled a warm respect in me already, with her helpful commentary and willingness to share with her younger pride-sisters, so I was only too happy to give her what she wanted. She kept talking, too, which was a change from the others.

“The eldest female is grateful,” she whispered, encircling my once-more tumescent organ (which still seemed relatively the length of my forearm, but I suspected that my senses were exaggerating slightly) with dark-furred fingers. “She is grateful that the male chose to reserve so much bounty for her. She wishes to show her gratitude.” Gently at first, she began stroking, sliding soft fingers along the length of my cock. Slowly, she began to tug harder, pulling faster.

“Does the male approve?” she asked and, without waiting for an answer, continued, “Of course he approves. Of course.” Her pink tongue slipped out of her mouth, to scrape the underside of my cock. “The eldest female enjoys the male’s approval.”

Her lips greedily enveloped me, now, plunging my cock once more into hot, sucking wetness. Like her younger sister, she took it all, letting it slide deep into her mouth and down her throat, raspy tongue pricking at it all the way. She stroked and squeezed her own breasts, and sucked with all the enthusiasm of the young lioness, but with the skill and accomplishment of her years. In a few moments, I realized that I was tottering on the brink once more, ready to pump more of my apparently inexhaustible semen supply down her hot, willing throat.

But she had more in mind for me. She sensed how close I was, and let me go, holding the base of my cock tightly, shutting down my impending orgasm.

“The male wishes to give his seed to the eldest female,” she said, with appreciation so great it was almost sarcastic. “But she wishes to wait. Will the male wait for his female?”

Again, she didn’t wait for me to reply, but stepped back and positioned herself on hands and knees in front of me, dark-fleshed cuntlips displayed between white-furred thighs, tail lashing with building tension.

“Place your male organ here for your eldest female,” she husked, reaching back and spreading the moist lips with two fingers. “Give her what you gave her younger sisters.”

As my verbal participation didn’t seem to be required, I positioned myself behind her (and worried exactly how to deal with that tail), and began to rub my cock against her lips, then dipped down to touch her clit (once more thanking providence that our anatomies weren’t all that different).

“Ahhhh,” it was a sound part sigh and part purr. “Harder, please...”

Hm, I thought, with the part of my brain that wasn’t completely lost in the fog of endless fucking we’d created, she’s addressing me directly. Must be getting close...

I complied, rubbing her clit forcefully, practically battering it with my cock, and was rewarded with more deep moans and growls.

“Please...” she gasped. “The elder female...” Another growling sigh. “The elder female... requests you thrust your organ inside her...” Another. “And end her torment...”

Well, she’d certainly earned it, but I was willing to wait another moment or two. I took my cock away, to the sound of a frustrated yowl, then got on my own knees, bending forward, spreading her buttocks apart, and applying my tongue to her pink wet lips from behind.

“Ohh...” she spasmed heavily. “The male is... The male is kind to his female...”

It was a big tongue, I realized, and it was time to use it to good effect. I stiffened it as best I could (it didn’t work anything like a human tongue, but I think I was getting the hang of it), then slid it between her labia, pressing into her like a penis, sliding into the wetness of her cunt.

Oh, the reaction I got... She howled again, falling down onto her shoulders, hands grabbing her buttocks beside mine, spreading herself further, shoving backwards, grinding her cunt against my face.

“Oh, take me...” she whined, abandoning her formal language at last. “Oh, yes... No male has done such a thing... Never before... Oh, my cunt...” At least I think that’s what she said. My hybrid brain probably translated the local word for “cunt” into something I’d understand.

She came heavily, rocking and writhing, my tongue thrusting in and out of her like a heavy, pink cock. Nearby, the remaining females watched with rapt attention, sitting snuggled together in a tight group, fingering each other’s nipples and clits occasionally, but generally absorbed in my antics with their pride-sister.

In the middle of yet another heavy contraction, I pulled back, grabbed my cock, and plunged it into her, diving into the hot wet of her cunt, sending her into another series of contractions, screaming and roaring fit to alert the Sholanti, days distant across the plains.

“Give it to me,” she demanded between contractions. “Fill me with your seed, male. Fill your eldest female...”

It was fortuitous that I was coming while she spoke, for it looked as if I came on command, pumping another (and, I suspected, final) load into her, then pulling out and shooting my last hot, white streamers across her thighs and buttocks.

“Ahhhhhh,” she sighed, an edge of human pleasure in her voice, and collapsed onto her belly.

The other females broke their silence and bounded toward us, yowling and purring, and at last chattering in comprehensible sentences.

“Oh, you were wonderful, sister...” “I couldn’t restrain myself....” “I was so excited...” “You made him come so well...” “Did you see him come on me? I made him come...” “No, you fool, I made him come...”

Two of the lionesses took the task of grooming the eldest’s thighs and buttocks, licking up the come I’d splashed all over her, while the other three gathered around her head, stroking and massaging. Once more, I was pretty much forgotten.

Not that I minded, of course. The energy expended in fucking six females, and of another species at that, was enormous, and its absence suddenly overwhelmed me. I collapsed in the grass, and curled up to sleep, the females’ excited commentary echoing in my ears.

“You sucked him so well, you did...” “I like the way he felt inside me...” “How did I do? He was my first male...” “Oh, I loved how you licked my cunt, darling...” “He licked me, too. Did you see him lick me?” “Won’t you lick me again? I’m still so excited...”

Gods. Didn’t they ever get tired?

***

As it turned out, they did get tired — of sex, anyway. Later experience revealed to me that the lion-people seemed to believe in quality rather than quantity when it came to bonking. They only did it once every two or three months, but when they did it was a virtual orgy. Once that was over (I suspect they simply saved up their libido for weeks beforehand and spent it all at once) they had virtually no interest in sex.

My new body shared the sentiment, and when I awoke amid the sleeping lionesses the following morning, sex was about the farthest thing from my mind. Not that it wasn’t fun, mind you, lying with a half dozen massively muscled warm bodies, gently stroking and grooming each other awake, then lounging around in silence for an hour or so, each enjoying the simple presence of the others.

“I think,” Eldest Female said at length, “that introductions are in order. I’m Khurru.”

I nodded (a human mannerism which seemed to puzzle them). “Wulf,” I replied.

The others were Khasshra (the bracelet-wearer), Gandr’ssh (the necklace), Drhurr (black eyes), Hrakhll and Ghorra (the two youngest who had seemed so intent on each other). As I had noted the night before, now that they’d managed to satisfy their instinctive urge to get laid, the females pretty much went about their business and ignored me — sort of like real lions, I noted.

We stayed together for a few days, hunting, eating, sleeping, roaming the plains. It was not until evening reddened the sky over the plain nearly a week later that Khurru finally got to the heart of the matter.

“There are no other males on the plains, Wulf,” she told me. “You’re the first one we’ve seen in a more than a month.”

“What do you think happened to them?” I asked, secretly dreading the answer.

“We’ve asked the other females,” Khurra replied. “Like our male, they went on their pilgrimage to the Heart of the Lion, and never returned.”

“The Heart of the Lion?” I asked. “What’s that?”

It was a mistake. The females looked at me as if I was demented.

“You don’t know?” Khurra demanded. “How can that be?”

I mumbled and searched for an answer. “I’m not from around here...” I said, hoping that it sounded more sincere when I was a lion-man than it did when I was human. “My people... My people live on the other side of Sholanti territory. We don’t have... pilgrimages. At least, not since the Sholanti came.”

They looked doubtful, but the notion that I was a hairless one masquerading as a n’doro never seemed to cross their minds.

“The Heart of the Lion,” Khurra said slowly and carefully, “is the great stone which lies in the Alabaster Temple near the center of our lands. Each male must go there once a year to commune with our ancestral spirits and obtain guidance and advice for the coming year. We females have our own temple, as well, where we gain guidance, and males are not allowed.”

I frowned. “Who built the temples?”

“The spirits built them,” Khurra said casually, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Now, the males are not returning from the Alabaster Temple. Something is happening there. Females cannot go there, but you are a male. You can go, and see what happened to our males. If our males do not return, the n’doro will die. Perhaps not your tribe, but ours certainly will perish. We have discussed this among ourselves, and decided to ask you. Will you help, Wulf?”

Well, I suppose I wouldn’t be much of an adventurer if I turned them down, now, would I? Besides, I suspected that if I did I wouldn’t make it off the plains alive. Still, the notion of going alone to some ancient haunted temple, to find out why no one else had returned did not fill me with a great deal of enthusiasm. Throughout my career I’ve been nothing if not cautious, and this didn’t seem terribly cautious to me. All the same, there was a mystery to solve, and my curiosity had been aroused.

“Sure,” I said, trying to sound casual and brave in a noble, lion-man kind of way. “I’ll help. It’s the least I can do, given your kindness.”

“You know that if you find our male, he will take over the pride, and we will follow him.”

I shrugged (another puzzling mannerism, apparently). “Such is the law,” I said, “and we all must live by it.”

That seemed to satisfy them. We slept huddled together, in the assurance that at dawn I’d go off to find their vanished men-folk. Needless to say, doubts assailed me, along with images of the demons and monsters which awaited me in the horrific depths of the Alabaster Temple.

Gods, I’d stepped in it again.

***

The pride accompanied me until we were just in sight of the Alabaster Temple (it was apparently quite a violation for a female to even see the temple), and then I had yet another bittersweet parting — this entire journey was becoming a series of sad or tragic goodbyes, and I would have been only too glad if it ended as quickly as possible.

I carried a spear and my sword, hanging from an improvised leather baldric. Beyond that, I had little in the way of weapons, save the paltry collection of spells I had carried from my unsuccessful career at the magic academy. I was anything but sure of myself, but the lure of the Alabaster Temple and what lay inside drew me on.

The temple lay in a deep river valley, set about with greenery — low underbrush, succulents and lush thorn-trees — beautiful, sprouting pale white flowers, but bristling with spikes the size of my thumb. The structure itself was, indeed, white as alabaster, though I couldn’t be certain that’s what it was made of. A series of low galleries converged at a central nave, over which rose a weathered onion dome. Smaller structures surrounded the main one, most now in ruins. I knew, as if by some scrap of n’doro instinct, that the Heart of the Lion lay in the main structure, beneath the cracked dome.

I walked along the shallow ravine, where the river rushed and bubbled through red clay. The temple loomed before me, the doorless portal of the nearest gallery yawning like a dragon’s maw. After a quick glance overhead to see if any vultures were circling (they were), I decided that this was as good a place as any, and stepped over the threshold, into the dim, stifling interior.

Light shone but faintly through various holes in the roof, revealing a floor which was once richly inlaid with painted tiles, and walls once lined by proud white columns. The interior was hot and dusty, and the entire place had an air of antiquity and ancient abandonment. I had no idea who might have built the place — perhaps the lion-folk themselves, in some forgotten past era.

Whatever its origin, the place also exuded a tangible aura of menace, as if everywhere I went, eyes were watching me just beyond the limits of my vision. Though the place was silent as a tomb, my instincts told me that there was danger here, though I couldn’t say exactly what it was.

After a few minutes’ walk, I had reached the hexagonal main structure. This place was better preserved than the hallway; the tile was gleaming white and relatively clean, with only a few missing. On a low circular dais in the center of the room, a circle of white columns surrounded what I could only assume was the Heart of the Lion. It was a massive white, crystal, suspended about ten feet off the ground, hanging without visible support in mid-air. It glowed with a warm inner light, and my minimal sorcerous training told me that it was an object of considerable power. Exactly how much power, and what kind, I didn’t know. Whatever it was, I knew a good number of wizards who would give several major organs to possess it.

I stood staring at the Heart for some minutes before I heard it. From nearby, a sound scratched at my ears — a sound obviously made by a living thing.

How can I describe it? It was part moan, part plea, faint but insistent. And it was definitely originated in a n’doro throat.

I drew my sword, and kept my spear at the ready in my left hand, then moved carefully, at a crouch, toward the sound.

It grew louder as I approached the entrance to another hallway, yawning in dusty darkness. Cautiously, I entered, hugging the wall, all my senses jumping and tingling with anticipation. Ahead of me lay a crumbling opening, where a door might once have been. Heart racing, I stepped through, and saw what was inside.

There were two n’doro males there, hanging from the wall, wrists bound by manacles, attached to chains which were threaded through stout iron staples located nearly eight feet off the floor. As large as they were, the two males hung suspended, feet dangling. Both were in bad shape, tattered and bruised; one was unconscious, proud maned head lolling limply, while the other gazed at me through slitted eyes. It was this one which made the horrible sound.

“Please...” he muttered. “Help us... Or kill us, now... it is the same thing...”

I hastened toward the male, intent on setting him free, but his tired eyes widened suddenly, as if he had seen something else, just over my shoulder.

Instinctively, I spun around, sword whirling, only to strike empty air. There was nothing to be seen, but my senses registered a malign presence, somewhere nearby. I struck out again, hoping to strike something, but it did no good. I whirled again, desperately searching the dimness of the room for an opponent, and suddenly...

I saw it. A patch of deeper black in the darkness, an amalgam of serpent and human, with an impossible number of limbs, and — worst of all — twin, slitted eyes, which glowed red and raced toward me. I threw up my sword, but it didn’t work. Paralysis swept over me, and I felt myself wrapped in serpentine coils, and fell into darkness.

***

Mine was not an especially pleasant awakening. The constant pain in my shoulders tugged at me, and the dawning horror of my situation brought be to complete consciousness.

I was now in the position of the two prisoners I’d seen. I hung, naked and alone, from the wall of one of the temple’s grim, rubble-filled rooms, a few errant rays of light shining through cracks in the ceiling, illuminating columns of dust motes. I pulled feebly at my bonds, but I was held tightly, the weight of my body constantly dragging me down, seeking to dislocate both shoulders. Already I was in pain — a pain which would soon turn to agony.

The shadows nearby stirred, and with a hiss and a scrape of scales, my captor slithered into view.

Mind you, now — I’ve an eye for women of many different nations, races, and even species. Some might consider me a little out of the ordinary (I’ve been called a pervert by one or two, but they were Kyborist fanatics who call everyone else “pervert,” then go and bend over an altar boy, so their opinion didn’t hold a lot of weight), but I figure that an attractive woman is an attractive woman, whether she has skin, fur, scales or feathers.

This one stretched my limits, however. From the waist up, she was a slender, exotic-looking human woman with long, shiny black hair and an impish, triangular face, sporting tiny, pursed red lips and dark, almond-shaped eyes. She was naked, too, with a pair of substantial breasts and a slightly-rounded belly. She was done up nicely, with a silver circlet, fanciful ear- and nose-rings, a graceful necklace in the form of an inverted triangle of bangles pointing down into the dark valley between her breasts, armbands, bracelets and rings — the whole ticket. If it weren’t for the fact that she had four arms, she’s have been a perfectly normal human woman. A stunningly attractive one, but a human woman nonetheless.

Above the waist, that is.

Below the waist, she was something entirely different — nothing less than a massive, heavy-bodied snake, emerald green and black scales, wide white belly scutes and all. She moved with a sinuous grace, and her entire nature suggested a deep and sophisticated evil.

Overall, I was intrigued.

“I see you’ve awakened,” she said. No, wait — she didn’t exactly “say” anything. Her lips did not move, though her hot, dark eyes stared at me fixedly, and her voice echoed in my mind, soft, husky and honey-sweet. “I thought that all the lion-men were guests here. It’s a pleasure to have another.”

I didn’t respond, but returned her stare with as much hostility as I could muster.

Her lips curved into a voluptuous, scimitar-smile. “You needn’t speak, lion-man. In fact, the less you speak the better, for my purposes.” She slithered closer, and I could smell her. I had expected a stench like the basement of the White Emperor’s reptile house, but she actually smelled clean and spicy — not at all unpleasant. “You’re different, lion-man,” she continued, voice booming inside my skull. “You’re not like the others. I feel a different undercurrent in your soul. Not like a lion-man. Like...” she paused, and drew back, like a cobra about to strike. “No, you’re more like a human.”

She turned and slithered toward the crumbling doorway. She glanced back over her shoulder before she left, and sent me a parting thought.

“That’s good, I think. I like the taste of human. Don’t fret, my strange lion-man. I will be back. Sooner than you think.”

Oh, gods, I thought. I’m bound for her cook-pot. As it turned out, my fate was considerably more interesting.

I hung there through the day, as the sunbeams slanted and shadows lengthened. I heard a scream from a different part of the temple — a long, drawn-out shriek of agony, of the sort which one expects on the seventh basement level of the Temple of Slaerth on all ages night. It didn’t do my morale a bit of good.

Of course, I tested my bonds, tried to pull my hands free, tried to pull the staple from the wall, wear away a link — just about everything I had learned at the Stoneburg Thieves’ Guild (where I’d ended up after washing out at the magic academy). None of it did any good. My enhanced lion-man body was useless here, and I was as much a prisoner as the two wretches I’d seen that morning.

By the time my captor returned, I’d managed to wear myself out pretty thoroughly, a fact which was not lost on her as she slithered back into the room.

“Oh, my pretty!” The sound of her thoughts exclaimed in my mind, all mock sympathy. “You’ve tired yourself out. Now, how can you perform for me, your new lover?”

As I’d expected to simply be eaten, her words came as something of a shock to me.

“I see you’re surprised, sweet lion-man who isn’t entirely a lion-man,” she thought. “Oh, I intend to use you for nourishment — no doubt of it. I simply feed differently than you and your kind. Let me demonstrate.”

With that, she slithered closer, scales scraping dryly on the rough stone. Her snake-body sank down to where her face was at the level of my crotch, and she thought to me again.

“Oh, you are a fine one. I don’t think I have another lion-man with such a beautiful organ.” One of her four hands reached out and caressed my cock. “I think we’ll have some fun here, my little pet. Amuse me before I feed, my little toy.”

Despite my exhaustion, I realized that, whether I wanted to or not, I was growing stiffly erect at the ministrations of the snake-woman. In a few moments, my cock had sprung fully and uncomfortably upright, and she was stroking it enthusiastically with two of her four hands, gazing at it with loving, but hungry eyes.

“Oh, yes,” her thoughts sighed. “A fine, beautiful organ you have. With a fine, beautiful load of seed, I am sure. Would you like to show me?”

The hell I would, I thought, straining with what strength I had remaining, at my chains. I might as well have been trying to collapse the Rose Quartz Citadel by throwing pebbles at it — I was a helpless prisoner, and the snake-woman seemed intent on pleasuring me for her own enjoyment.

While her first two hands pumped at my cock with slowly increasing intensity, the snake-woman’s other two hands were busy, stroking my thighs, running up my side, and gently touching my nipples, sending shock after shock through my body. Despite my best efforts, I was growing increasingly excited, and a tidal wave of wanting swept through me.

“I’m having an effect, aren’t I?” she asked, her thoughts dripping with dark carnality. “You want to come for me, don’t you? You want to shoot your seed all over me, don’t you?”

A thin groan escaped my lips as she dug long nails into the delicate flesh of my nipples. My cock was tight as a drumhead, and her touch upon it was delicious agony. I was her prisoner, and she meant me no good, but I still wanted to come, just as she said.

“Come, lion-man,” she thought to me, hands moving in a blur, now, twin fists tugging, squeezing, caressing my hot, tight cock-flesh. “Come now and feed me.”

Another moan, and I felt blood and energy rushing toward my center. I couldn’t stop now.

“I feel you,” her thoughts echoed. “I feel your desire. Come now. Come now and feed me.”

Energy seemed to constrict into a tight ball at the base of my cock, then burst free violently, sending wracking spasms through my body, making me strain and heave against my chains, pain lancing through my shoulders. I came in a jetting fountain of hot, white fluid, streaking across her face and shoulders, into her open mouth, and across the taunt skin of her breasts.

A delighted grin spread across her face; I felt more than simple orgasmic energy draining from my body. With my explosion, part of my life force passed from me and into the snake-woman. I cried out in pain and terror, even as she wiped sticky white come from her breasts and licked it from her fingers, and smeared it all over her face, laughing out loud now.

“You feed me well, lion-man.” Her thoughts were blackly joyous, full of sadistic glee. “You do taste like a human. Your thoughts are like a humans when you come. I like this, my strange little pet. You will probably live a few more days — I will learn more of you then.”

She basked in the dark glow of my stolen essence for a few more moments, laughing and slithering about, then departed my chamber.

“Sleep, little lion-man,” she told me. “I will take you again tomorrow. I will take you so many ways before you die. I will take you in my hand, I will take you in my mouth, I will take you inside my secret orifices. You will see, lion-man. You will die, but in death you will know that you are feeding me, and you will love me for it. You will see.”

Then, she was gone, leaving me to hang from my chains in battered exhaustion, and wonder how to get myself out of this mess.

I’m sorry to say that I was unable to come up with any decent plans.

***

Snake Woman (she never deigned to share her name) came back to me again and again. I heard sounds from other parts of the temple which led me to believe that she was giving the other captive lion-men the same treatment, draining their life energies through various sexual gymnastics. Under her ministrations, the entire species was likely to become extinct, but she seemed driven by a pitiless wickedness, deriving apparently orgasmic satisfaction from the fact that she was, literally, fucking us to death.

And she seemed insatiable. No sooner had the groans — and, I was saddened to hear, death rattles — of her other victims subsided, than she slithered into my chamber, to take pleasure from my rapidly-weakening body.

She would rise up on her snaky body, thrusting firm breasts into my face, bidding me suckle at her nipples. Once, in a fury, I bit into her, sinking white fangs into demonic flesh, and tasting bitter black blood. I couldn’t tell whether I had plunged her into agony or endless pleasure — for her, the two seemed interlinked. Whatever the cause, she sucked me with rare enthusiasm and cruelty, bringing me to the edge of orgasm a dozen times before finally allowing me to come, jetting semen across her cheeks and onto her red, swollen lips and tongue.

“Ahhhhh,” she sighed — out loud this time — hot white come dripping from her chin. “You serve me well,” her thoughts echoed. She rose up again, breasts once more level with my face. Dried, black blood still clung to her white flesh. “You think you hurt me, lion-man? You think I feel pain when your sharp white teeth cut me? If you do, you’re wrong. Agony is pleasure to me, lion-man. I adore the pain you cause me, and relish every sting. Perhaps I’ll let you rake my flesh with your claws. Perhaps I’ll let my hot blood drip into your mouth. I’ll watch my blood splash across your tawny fur and it will make me come and come again.” She drew back. “A pity that you must die, lion-man. You’ve become quite my favorite.”

She came to me more often after that. Though up until that point she had only used her mouth or her hands on me, or rubbed my cock between her firm breasts until I came, licking them clean even as I felt more and more of my life essence drain away, now she truly fucked me. She paralyzed me with her gaze, and helpless I allowed her to chain me, spread-eagled, to a low stone altar. Then, her hands stroked my cock, thighs and nipples until I was erect, and she crawled atop me, the long, flat scutes beneath her human appearing belly and navel opening up like a flower to reveal a soft, pink cunt, where my cock slipped and lodged, sliding in and out as she rose up on me, plunging me in and out, gushing hot juices all over my stomach and thighs.

“This is the most exquisite of my people’s tortures,” her thoughts told me, breathlessly, as two arms supported her body and the other two held my head immobile, staring straight into her eyes. “It is how we take the lives of our most favored concubines and catamites.”

To my surprise, she began to actually speak. “You should see what it is like, lion-man. I am from far away, and someday I will return home, but for now, I will take what I want from your people. Oh, yesssssss.” An orgasm wracked her, and she shuddered heavily, breasts heaving, light sweat springing out across her forehead and her flushed, pink breasts. “Our palaces are places of death by the most exquisite pleasure. Not a slave or concubine dies unhappy, lion-man. We take what we want, but we give much in return. Yesssssss.”

After several orgasms, she released me, and slid back down, leaving a trail of hot juices along my legs, and finished me off with her mouth, swallowing my come as I pumped it down her throat, part of my life energy going with it.

She tongued the last drop of come from the end of my slowly-deflating cock and looked directly at me, slitted snake-eyes glittering and malevolent.

“Next time, lion-man.” Her thoughts sounded in my mind once more. “I will take it all from you next time. You will die to feed me, and your memory will live forever in my heart. The love of my people is like no other, lion-man, for with it you will become immortal, your memory living in the minds of my daughters, and their daughters’ daughters, as the memory of my ancestors’ lovers lives in me. Next time, lion-man,” she continued, slithering back to the floor. “Lie there, and think on it.”

After she was gone, I thought on it, sure enough. But I wasn’t filled with the joy she expected of me. Frankly, I was damned scared.

Is this how it was going to end, I wondered? Chained in a forgotten temple, my last dregs of life sucked from me by some hellish monstrosity who thought she was doing me a favor? And me not even in my own body?

I realized that, despite its limitations, I wanted my own body back. I wanted to be human, to walk on paved roads, ride horses, buy dinner in a decent tavern, sleep in a comfortable bed... I wanted those things now — perhaps I’d taken them for granted before, but now even those minimal comforts seemed more desirable than the palaces of kings.

I’d always been a failure, I lamented. Making my living stealing the fruits of another’s honest labors, running from the law when things got too hot, slipping quietly away whenever any kind of responsibility reared its ugly head...

Gods, I’d had a chance at the Academy, but I didn’t have the knack. Either that, or I was just too gods-damned lazy. I’d thought that I was trying as hard as I could, stretching to the limits of my abilities, but I’d been wrong. I had coasted all the way through the academy, causing trouble and then trying to avoid blame. Gods, even the dullest student had been able to turn lead into gold (mind you, the transformation isn’t permanent, which is why no one with any intelligence will accept gold from a wizard). The best I’d been able to do was turn lead into copper...

Blast it all, was there ever a more useless skill, I thought? Change one worthless metal to another... I might as well have changed iron to tin; it would have been as foolish...

Wait...

What remained of my mind finally caught something. Iron to tin... yes... The process would be identical, and if I could summon up enough basic magical energy...

But no. Good magicians draw energy from their own souls — unscrupulous ones from their apprentices. I couldn’t do it. I had nothing left. Unless...

Unless there was another source of energy somewhere...

You’ve probably already figured it out, but I think I can be forgiven for taking a few minutes longer. My mind was not terribly sharp or swift at this point, given my imprisonment and mistreatment, but at last it came to me, shining white in darkness.

The Heart of the Lion.

Nearby, it pulsed with untold magics, and enough energy to blow a Xeshite dreadnaught out of the water. It was so far away... If only I could reach it...

Again, my efforts fell short. I was too damned weak, and I might not have been able to touch the blasted thing even if I’d been at full strength. I was just never that good a wizard.

Despair tore at me. So close, I thought, so close. Now, it was all for nothing — my escape from the empire, the idiotic battle on the veldt, my capture, and the love I still felt for...

Ushandra!

Her image snapped into sharp focus in my mind. Oh, my dearest. Nukali.

“Wulf?” her voice sounded as if she was right beside me. “Is that you? Am I dreaming?”

“N-no,” I muttered. “Darling. It’s me. Help me...”

Her face grew distraught, then vanished from view, blurring out into nothingness.

My heart sank. Had she really been there, or was I just delirious? I prayed that, if nothing else, I could at least really speak to her before the end.

Then, she was back, appearing suddenly in front of me, a wavering, transparent overlay on the grim chamber. Beside her stood a tiny, wizened man — Mokura, the Sholanti shaman.

He recognized me immediately, despite my changed appearance.

“Wulf, the pale one,” he said, in perfect imperial common. I didn’t have time to be pissed off. “You are imprisoned. Ushandra tells me to help you, and I am pledged to help her.”

“Can you — “ I gasped. “Can you get me out of here?”

“No, Wulf. I can give you the energy you need, however. The Heart of the Lion is nearby. It was created over ten thousand years ago, and holds the essences of the n’doro’s ancestors. Use what I give you to reach out and take that energy into yourself.”

Mokura bowed his head, and I felt a sudden influx of strength, flowing through my battered limbs. Yes, I could do it...

“Take this, pale one,” said Mokura. “Destroy the evil one, or once she has destroyed the n’doro she will destroy the Sholanti. I must go now.”

“Goodbye, Wulf. I love you, Nukali,” Ushandra cried out. “Stay alive, darling. Please.”

Strength grew and multiplied inside me. “I will, Ushandra,” I said. “I love you. Goodbye.”

Then they faded away, and I was alone once more.

But it was different now. I was filled with the shaman’s energies, and I felt the Heart of the Lion, glowing and pulsing close by. I sent magical fingers out from myself, to touch the great white crystal. I saw legion upon legion of ancient lion-men and -women, standing around me, sending strength back to me. Yes. They knew that I needed help.

White-hot magic filled my heart and soul. The words I had learned at the academy formed on my unfamiliar, inhuman lips, and the images of transformation formed in my mind. Yes.

My chains began to weaken. Iron softened, thinned, grew bright. I tugged, and felt the once-iron, now-tin, give way metal links pulling, bending, tearing. One hand came free with a clang, and the other followed a moment later. With a single swipe of my claws, I shattered the links confining my ankles, and leaped to my feet, atrophied muscles protesting, straining, but holding the weight. I threw my arms up, hands balled into fists, and roared.

“Uuuuuuusutuuuuuu!”

It echoed through the empty chambers, and through the tiny rooms with their chained prisoners. It boomed back upon me, again and again, and I knew the Snake Woman must have heard it.

My hunch was confirmed a moment later, when black clouds suddenly rolled down the corridor, like ink boiling through still water.

“YOU FOOL!” the thought exploded inside my skull. “YOU ARROGANT ANIMAL! YOUR DEATH WILL BE ANYTHING BUT PLEASANT!”

I didn’t reply, but leaped away from the inky cloud, racing down the corridor, toward the central domed section, where the Heart of the Lion glowed whitely.

The clouds rolled after me, a tidal wave of blackness.

I sprinted up the shallow steps leading to the central dais, and stood with my back to the Heart of the Lion. The dark clouds billowed up the steps, and in an instant surrounded me.

I was plunged into blackness, and felt claws rake my chest.

“Little lion-man,” the voice dripped honey, now that she thought she had me at her mercy. “Your death could have been wonderful...”

The power of the Heart of the Lion surged through me. I saw images of hundreds of lion-men, long dead, and with their power I thrust a beam of light through the darkness.

The black became gloom, and ahead of me I saw a shadowy figure, surmounted by two glowing red eyes. I coiled to spring, then launched myself at the snake woman, my own claws finding flesh.

A pained hiss dragged out into a scream, and the blackness vanished. I held the snake woman in a death grip, my claws and teeth lacerating her foul flesh. She struggled against me, but the power in the Heart of the Lion was unstoppable.

“No!” she screamed, out loud, forgoing her mind-talk. “You cannot!”

I ignored her as denials became entreaties, and finally subsided into tearful begging. I hefted her writhing form over my head and flung her bodily against one of the white pillars. She struck heavily and fell, still writhing and moaning.

Behind me the Heart of the Lion flared to a new hot, white intensity. I turned to see the giant crystal opening like a flower, a glowing tunnel appearing in the side, leading to either the center of the crystal itself, or to some unimaginable realm beyond.

“Give the devil to us,” a thousand voices urged. “We will see to her punishment.”

Like a man in a trace, I complied, gathering up the snake woman’s feebly moving body and carrying her toward the opened crystal.

“No...” her pleas were far beyond terror. Her inhuman eyes showed a horrified realization dawning, that her crimes would soon be answered for a thousandfold. “Please... I’ll serve you... be your slave...”

“What kind of slave would a devil make?” I snarled. “You sought to kill me and my people. See how the n’doro nuka avenge themselves.”

She shrieked and fought to escape as I once more lifted her up, then flung her into the white-hot inferno of the crystal. A final, hopeless wail sounded in my ears, as the crystal closed itself and was once more whole.

“She will see what it is to suffer and never, never die,” echoed a voice in my head. “The n’doro are hunters, and we shall hunt her for all eternity.”

I shuddered as the Heart of the Lion returned to its normal warm, white glow. Evil she had been, and terrible her punishment was.

But, I wondered, did even the most wicked of creatures deserve such a fate?

I simply didn’t know.

***

I spent the remainder of the day seeking out the snake woman’s captives and setting them free, wrenching iron staples from walls and breaking manacles, sometimes softening them with magic if they proved too recalcitrant. She had taken over a hundred n’doro males, and of these only sixty or so survived. All were tired, starved, and virtually at the point of death, but I suspected that the grateful females of the veldt would see to their health once they returned home.

Our various possessions had been flung into a common room. Here, I reclaimed my sword, spear and other essentials, and returned to see to the liberated lion-men.

After a few discreet inquiries, I discovered that the male from “my” pride still lived, as well. His name was Chuma, and I told him I had seen his females.

“You have?” he grunted, some of his old territoriality returning. “Did you touch them?”

I held up a hand. “Perish the thought,” I replied. “They simply asked me to find you. I would never touch another male’s pride.”

It seemed to satisfy Chuma. I decided that my skill as a liar had survived my transformation, after all.

“We will remember you, Wulf,” Chuma told me. “We will sing songs of how you saved our people. Perhaps we will meet again one day.”

I hoped not, especially if his females spilled the whole story.

“I am on a quest,” I told him. “I must go to the land of the hairless ones. Perhaps someday I will return.”

Chuma grunted. He and his friends had decided I was some kind of wandering mystic or something, so my behavior was excused as understandable eccentricity.

“Good hunting, Wulf,” he said. “My females and I will sing for you tonight.”

I think they’ve already sung for me, I thought grimly. Hope I’m far away by the time you find out.

I bid the lion-men farewell, and set off across the veldt once more.

***

It was many days before I finally saw what I might call civilization. I hunted the veldt, brought down zebra and water buffalo, and once I was forced to flee from an angry elephant, but in general my journey was uneventful.

On the extreme northern tip of this scrap of continent, Ushandra had told me, lay the city of Vang, where our fleet had put in for supplies. It had seemed horrifically hot and filthy to me on our way south, but now it looked like a virtual city of the gods. I approached its outskirts with a light heart; a ship home was only hours away.

When a woman looked up from her wash, saw me and screamed, I realized that something was terribly wrong.

You guessed it — I was still in n’doro form; the old fakir’s spell still hadn’t worn off.

I tried to mumble an apology or explanation, but it didn’t come out anything close to intelligible. In an instant, the mud street was full of Veldtlanders, some with weapons, others with nets. Hopelessly outnumbered, I turned to flee.

Too late. A pair of bolos entangled my feet and I went sprawling. An instant later, a net fell over me and I was helpless.

Shit.

***

As usual, I was on the verge of safety, and the gods threw up on me. Typical.

I was thrown into a dank hole for a few days while the locals argued what to do with me. I tried to reason with my jailer, a mental defective with no tongue, but got nowhere. After an interminable period, eating boiled lentils and licking water from the rocks, I was once more bound, and shoved out of the cell at spearpoint.

Out into the blinding sun I was marched, pushed along by a squad of brawny local militiamen. They seemed to be of uncertain ancestry, and I let them know it in no uncertain terms. Though amused at a cat-man who could pretend to speak (my Imperial common didn’t come out very well), my captors were unmoved, and unceremoniously pushed and dragged me into an open courtyard, crammed with sweating individuals of a hundred different races and nationalities, and up onto a low platform.

Oh, gods, was this what I thought it was?

“Lorrrrrrdzzzz and ladeeeeeezzz!” declared an obnoxious voice in heavily-accented Litharnan from nearby. “Our next item up for sale is a real novelty! A virile, muscular lion-man from the far Veldt Plains. As most people know, these savages rarely submit to capture, preferring death to enslavement. This individual is apparently a somewhat cowardly example, as he has made no moves toward self-annihilation...”

I stared in stunned silence. A fucking slave sale! Now I’d seen it all...

“I’ll start the bidding at one hundred suns!”

I tried feebly to speak in imperial, but one of the guards cuffed me heavily and I shut up. It was all going too fast... I couldn’t think...

“One hundred suns!”

“One hundred and ten!”

“One hundred and fifteen!”

I was apparently a popular item. The two main bidders were a jaded-looking White Empire nobleman with a sneering expression, and a grizzled warrior of uncertain nationality — probably a gladiator master wanting an exotic fighter for his stable. Neither looked especially appetizing.

“Three hundred!”

“Three hundred and thirty!”

The auctioneer, a fat Veldt-lander man clad in a leather breechcloth and baldric, seemed pleased, and let the bidding go on without interference.

“Four hundred and ten!”

“Four hundred and fifty!”

“Five hundred!”

That last bid, from the foppish nobleman seemed to be the winner. The gladiator looked unhappy and shrugged.

“Five hundred is the bid!” declared the auctioneer. “Any further bids? Very well, then — “

“One thousand golden suns!”

A stunned hush fell over the throng. I sought out the source of the bid, and my jaw dropped.

She lay on a lushly-upholstered platform, held aloft by four brawny male bearers, who were secured to the sedan by gold chains around their necks. She was dressed in gauzy trousers and voluminous clouds of pink fabric, and gazed straight at me with red, gleaming eyes, their natural slant enhanced with dark kohl, in sharp contrast to her white, white skin. She wore a jeweled headdress, with a triangle of red gems in the exact center of her forehead, and coils of snow-white hair piled in an elaborate coif.

No one moved or spoke for a long moment, until the auctioneer realized what was happening and shouted, “Sold! To the Countess Xylara of Xesh!”

I sagged in my bonds. Sold to a Xeshite noblewoman... Gods, what horrors did she have planned?

And that is how I, Wulf the Freelance, sole survivor of Lord Heatham’s expedition to the Veldt Lands, came to be a slave on the jungle estate of the wicked and perverse Xeshite noblewoman, Xylara. As a trained team of hippocampi towed her sybaritic pleasure-barge out of the harbor the next day, under close escort by a squadron of Xeshite cutters, I realized that my Veldt Lands travels were over, for the moment at least.

What the hell was next?

Once more, and not for the last time in my life, I had no idea.

— END —