#2096

You are always the outcast, whether by choice or circumstance. Dead boy walking, wolf among the flock, they always sense something off about you. You’re not the mass shooter but you are the kid with the shiv, sharp little blade or shard of glass at the ready in your hand. I doubt you mind it, though; you took to tricksters’ robes easily enough, comfortable in a skin that lets you move swift and silent, to twist away from danger or around for a bite, and are tricksters not always on the fringes? They’re in our blood, too, that ancient herding instinct that cries alarm at the faintest scent of danger. And you are danger, they know that, though they don’t know how they know. A thousand dead generations in their DNA just scream run. Tell me, ghost, specter, beast, monster, what instincts rise up in you when you smell their fear?

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#2088

i’m toying with a half-dead metaphor, something about bodies as Ouija boards, dreams as planchettes, all these fragments of communication you toss me like scraps and expect me to weave into some magically divined whole, but it’s not coming out right and surely i must be one shitty fucking witch if i can’t even get the gods i bleed for and weep for to tell me where that stupid lighter is, let alone maybe not burn the house down while i’m gone, and yeah i know you don’t play by the rules and i know i’m an unconventional everything but sometimes i just want to be the regular kind of crazy, you know, crystals and tarot and shit, and not the legit crazy kind of crazy but i think i can’t have both, i gotta pick between you or the socially acceptable crazy and you know i will choose you every single time even if you burn my house down, but really please don’t

#2087

Top 10 Fiction Books with Feline Main Characters

If you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of a cat person. Next to queer literature, cat literature is probably the genre I read most. When it comes to cat fiction I’ve read a good number of the non-children’s books out there and so I know the genre has some real hidden gems. Therefore, I want to share my top ten cat books so other cat lovers out there can check them out!

10. Warriors – Erin Hunter

If the immensely popular cat series Warriors had existed when I was a kid it would have been my number one obsession. Even as an adult the books hold a certain charm despite being marketed to readers less than half my age. The first set of six books center around Rusty, a pet kitten who finds himself thrown into the world of the “clans” – tribes of feral cats who live in unsteady alliance in the forest beyond his home. Our protagonist desperately wants to leave his comfy “housepet” life and become a warrior, cats who defend their clans and are therefore respected and admired. But is there more to this majestic, adventurous life than meets our young hero’s eye? You’ll have to find out for yourself!

These books can feel a little formulaic after a while, but characterization and action keep them interesting and the first six, which compose the first main plot line, are quite worth your reading time. Despite being aimed at young readers, though, these books have some gruesome and painful moments. The life of a feral cat isn’t easy, and the books thankfully don’t sugarcoat this issue too much. They’re a good balance of whimsy, reality, and that special something that all animal books seem to share.

The first book in the series is Warriors: Into the Wild.

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9. Ghatti’s Tale – Gayle Greeno

Remember in the late 80s and early 90s when fantasy novels went through that popular phase of having human characters bonded with magical animals? And it was amazing because who doesn’t want to communicate telepathically with their animal BFF? Well, this craze produced the Ghatti series, which involves the bonding of humans stranded on the planet Methuen with alien creatures which look like very large housecats. These creatures, called ghatti, can read human minds in order to sense emotions, deception, etc. Bonded pairs therefore have become an integral part of society called Seekers, traveling from town to town to solve disputes and crimes. This first trilogy follows the human Doyce and her ghatta Khar’pern, who are being targeted by an unknown force hostile to the Seekers. Detailed world-building and loveable characters round out an interesting and well-executed sci-fi/fantasy concept in this series, one that fans of similar books like The Heralds of Valdemar with come to love as well.

The first book in the original trilogy is Finders-Seekers.

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8. The Incredible Journey – Sheila Burnford

Here’s a little factoid about me: Homeward Bound always makes me cry. Always. I can probably make myself cry just thinking about it, honestly. I can’t even watch the scene when Sassy goes over the waterfall, even though I know she’ll be okay. So I was a little nervous about reading The Incredible Journey, the book on which the movie is based. I’m pretty sure the book made me cry too, but it was so worth the read. The animals don’t talk like our trio in the movie, but the book still captures their personalities, determination, and the magnitude of their adventure. The Incredible Journey is a must-read for anyone who likes the movie, and is a powerful (if fictional) testament to the devotion of our beloved pets.

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7. Catfantastic – ed. Andre Norton

In the 80s and 90s anthologies called “[insert noun]+fantastic” seemed to be very popular in the sci-fi/fantasy community. Of these series, Catfantastic was obviously the best because it was about cats. The collection of five anthologies features sci-fi/fantasy stories from a variety of well-known authors who approach the feline subject in a myriad of ways. Unlike other anthologies, many of the stories in the Catfantastic books build on earlier stories, giving readers a chance to revisit favorite characters and settings. Like all good anthologies, the stories in these books run the gamut from humor to horror, hard sci-fi to high fantasy, and everything in between. They’re hidden jewels you’re likely to find in your local used book store; if not, you can get them off Amazon for real cheap. Totally worth the cost of shipping, I promise!

The first book in the series is Catfantastic: Nine Lives and Fifteen Tales.

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6. Yeshua’s Cats – C.L. Francisco

You’re wary of that title, aren’t you? You’re wondering why I, proud pagan and (newbie) witch, am reading Christian fiction. Well, obviously because it has cats in it and you can’t be too picky about your cat fiction. I’m so, so glad I have this series a chance though. The first book in the Yeshua’s Cats series is told from the point of view of a cat named Mari who is healed by Yeshua after a vicious dog attack. She then travels with him for many years, including the year of his crucifixion. Through her we see the (obviously fictional) origins of a lot of his teachings, and the Yeshua painted by C. L. Francisco is one of immense patience, love, and understanding. The book is beautiful, touching, and at times heart-wrenching, as are all of its sequels/prequels. There are currently five books in the series, some focusing on other cats whose lives have been touched in some way by Yeshua, and I’ve loved each one.

Before you ask, the books really aren’t that preachy. As a follower of Bast, I was highly sensitive to anything in the books that felt judgmental of pagan religions and was overall pretty satisfied with how other religions are handled in the books. The “mother goddess” believed in by the cats of this world is explained as simply a different face of the Christian god, instead of something fake or demonic. This is still Christian fiction, of course, so it’s not entirely free of Christian themes, but I think non-Christian cat lovers will still enjoy these books and appreciate this particular cat-loving depiction of Jesus.

The first book in the series is The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat.

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5. Tomorrow’s Sphinx – Clare Bell

Tomorrow’s Sphinx is a rare book, even when used, but so worth tracking down. I probably checked it out from the library a hundred times as a kid; some scenes from it are forever branded in my mind. The book is set on a far future earth and follows Kichebo, a black cheetah whose unnatural coloring causes her to become alienated from her family. When she discovers an abandoned human toddler and chooses to care for the creature, she’s thrown into a strange psychic link between herself and another black cheetah – one living during the reign of Tutankhamen. Kichebo must understand how and why this bond exists while protecting her new cub not only from other predators, but from the strange creatures in the sky.

Tomorrow’s Sphinx sounds super weird when you try to explain the plot, but it comes together masterfully in a strange, beautiful tale of the bonds possible between human and animal. If you get the opportunity, give this book a chance; you won’t regret it.

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4. The Named – Clare Bell

Clare Bell is on this list twice for a good reason: her books capture the essential wildness of big cats while establishing feline characters and societies as believable as our own. She is probably most known for her Named series, books set on an unspecified planet during a prehistoric age in which the top species are not humans but large, highly intelligent cats who call themselves the Named. The series follows Ratha, a young adult who is banished from her clan when she accidentally discovers how to tend and wield fire – what she calls her “creature”. Her journey will take her to very dark places, both physically and emotionally, but she will come to lead the Named into a new era. For a book about prehistoric cats, this series manages to touch on a variety of different issues such as xenophobia, PTSD, abuse, betrayal and forgiveness, mental illness, and what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself. These books are absolutely a must-read for any cat lover – but I’m warning you now, you’re gonna cry.

The first book in The Named series is Ratha’s Creature.

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3. Varjak Paw – S.F. Said

You know how you sometimes read a children’s book as an adult and think “this is way more disturbing than it should be”? That’s Varjak Paw. The book is aimed at third through seventh graders, but the content is creepy enough (including the illustrations!) to not only satisfy an adult reader, but to help it stand out among its competition. Varjak Paw tells the story of young Varjak, a kitten who lives with his family in an idealic house away from the rest of the world. However, when a threatening gentleman takes over the care of the cats, Varjak escapes the house to find help and winds up in the middle of a mystery bigger than anything he could imagine. He must use the newfound powers given to him by his ancestor and the assistance of an unlikely group of friends to save his family and all the cats who have been disappearing without a trace.

Varjak Paw is book one of the duology; be sure to check out its sequel, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, which is a direct continuation of the events in the first book. Varjak is an unforgettable protagonist who will have you cheering for him from page one.

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2. Tailchaser’s Song – Tad Williams

If you’re a cat lover, you knew this book would be on the list. And it deserves to be; it’s a beautiful, heartfelt story that masterfully weaves fantasy, horror, and adventure into a tale worthy of Tolkien or C.S Lewis. Fritti Tailchaser, our courageous young hero, goes on a quest to find his friend after she disappears. Much like Varjak, Tailchaser uncovers a mystery much bigger than any could have expected – one that will have him facing off with the gods themselves to save his very species.

Like many of the other books on this list, Tailchaser’s Song is partly so engaging because it builds us an entire world for our feline protagonists. The book includes vocabulary, religion, and social etiquette unique to the cats of this world that feel completely real. Despite being thrown into an entirely different society from the first page, the reader lands on their feet (pun intended) and becomes entirely immersed in the fantasy world Tad Williams is building.

I utterly love this book, but it does come with a warning: it has some seriously dark themes and several disturbing scenes. It’s a hard read sometimes, but one that will leave you in that perfect post-book daze.

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1. The Wild Road – Gabriel King

I’ve seen this book compared to Watership Down, which is fair in the sense that they are both sweeping epics focusing on the lives of everyday animals and both are astoundingly good. The Wild Road, however, employs fantasy elements in a way which Watership Down does not, making it more comparable to Tailchaser’s Song. Also like Tailchaser’s Song, this book is dark. Not just dark for a kid’s book, I mean DARK dark. It deals with the topic of animal experimentation, after all, and the villain known only as the Alchemist is as evil as they come. However, the blend of fantasy and horror, combined with an unforgettable ragtag group of animals who must band together to stop the Alchemist, makes this book beautifully heart-wrenching in all the right ways. Like Tailchaser and Varjak Paw, little Tag must leave the safety of his home to save a world he knows nothing about – and to do so he will grow and change in so many ways.

The Wild Road is my #1 absolutely must read cat book. Definitely read its sequel, The Golden Cat, as well to see how the story plays out.

Caution: Apparently two more books came out in the series last year, much to my surprise. They have no reviews on Amazon, though, and seem to focus on human characters with pet cats, so… read at your own risk, I guess. Seems fishy to me. The first two books are AMAZING, though, and you should probably end there.

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Honorable mention: The Unadoptables –  Margaret Chiavetta

I promote this fledgling webcomic on every social media site possible because it deserves so much more attention and acclaim that it receives. The story centers on a cat cafe where all the resident cats are up for adoption. The twist, however, is that the cats are what most people would consider “unadoptable” in some way; too sick, too old, too aloof, pair bonded, etc. The story follows both the cats and the humans who run the cafe, where all are hopeful that the next visitor will take one of the kitties home. The cats are all loveable characters in their own way, of course, but the human characters shine as well (and are some great POC representation, too) and in general the comic gives you a lot of warm fuzzy feelings. It has its tenser moments, though, as you’ll see if you check out the first story arc!

Check out The Unadoptables and consider supporting them on Patreon to get a sneak peek at new pages, character designs, and other cool behind-the-scenes stuff!

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Think another cat book should be on this list? Let me know, I want to read all of the cat books that ever existed!

#2084

He was the Lightbringer, Morningstar, how could I not love him beyond all else? His radiance lit all of creation; he was my very first sight, the beauty around which I shaped my understanding of faith and fealty. I could no more deny him than I could unmake myself, for it would be contrary to every heartbeat, every breath, every cell and atom and immortal particle within me. Glory, I sang, and glory did I mean. I do not regret my choice, therefore, only wish it be understood that to me it was no choice at all. Even the blood he shed in that great battle was liquid gold and just as searing, and when he fell his meteoric impact shook the universe itself. How could I not follow him down? There is no paradise without him.

#2077

I can’t believe I haven’t talked about all the fun (ie terrible) things Mage has done in our recent DnD sessions! As you may recall, our DM and I killed off my magical girl warlock Dhashi and resurrected my psychopathic villain Mage into her body. Mage is theoretically there to help the others complete their quest to defeat the evil god Bezos, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have some fun (and irritate her party members workplace associates) on the way. For example…

  • While fighting a horde of zombies, she ripped the arm off of one and used it to beat its head into a pulp
  • She has used Shatter and Eldritch Blast several times to make enemies explode
  • When the group found themselves trapped by a thieves guild, she used Misty Step to teleport behind their leader and cut her throat (specifically in such a manner as to incapacitate the woman but ensure she died a slow and extremely painful death, which my wife was happy to describe in great medical detail*)
  • She beguiled two guards into leading the group to a secret catacomb entrance, then forced the guards to come along in case they needed someone to “test” the traps and wards
  • After one of the guards burned to death doing just this, she cut his arm off and used it to continue safely triggering traps
  • She also might have looted a locket from him with pictures of his kids inside; too bad, so sad
  • She tried to fight another PC who is waaaay above her level and immediately lost, but got a sick sidecut in the bargain so no hard feelings there
  • She convinced the goddess of the ocean to defeat some enemies for them and in return told the goddess she could destroy a town full of innocent people
  • She bought a jug that can produce anything; she used it to produce BEES and then set them free in a tavern for funzies (and before you ask, it wasn’t even that many bees, thirty is not a lot of bees, please tell my DnD group that)

*Yes, I asked my wife the best way to cut someone’s throat and she answered immediately because she’s AMAZING

#2074

“You wanted to see us, ma’am?” Mage and Mercer stood before the Raven Queen’s throne, the gunslinger with his hands clasped respectfully behind his back and the witch using one of her smaller throwing knives to pick something from her teeth. The goddess nodded and gestured to the nearby scrying bowl. Its surface rippled and revealed three travelers: a goliath, a fire jenasi,and an aasimar in a hideously frilly dress. “Yes. I have assignments for you both. Bezos grows far too bold and I find his antics distasteful. I have seen that he will slay one of the cursed ones, the girl, and while I cannot stop this action I can at least counter it with one of my own. Mage, once the deed is done I shall place you temporarily in her body to act as my Champion on the mortal plane until Mercer has finished training her to take your place.”

“NICE,” Mage pumped the air with her knife and grinned triumphantly at Mercer. “Suck it, I get a body again.” Mercer rolled his eyes and retorted, “I didn’t say nothin’, did I?” and then more softly under his breath, “Be nice to have a little peace ‘n quiet ’round here anyhow.”

“Mercer,” the Raven Queen interrupted before the conversation completely derailed, “are you prepared to guide another through the training? And quickly?” The gunslinger touched the brim of his hat. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good. And Mage…” The goddess hesitated, considered the fact that Mage wouldn’t follow 99% of the rules and precautions given her anyway, then said only, “Just keep them alive until she’s ready. And try not to murder too many people while you do it, please. The paperwork is horrendous.”

“Murder everyone,” The witch flashed double fingerguns and a wicked smile. “Can do, boss lady.”

“You’re dismissed,” The Raven Queen waved them away and as her two Champions disappeared down the twisting corridor beyond her throne room, their bickering voices growing fainter, she rested her chin on her hand with a weary sigh. “Sometimes I wonder at the souls I choose to surround myself with,” she muttered under her breath. “This is a gamble, to be sure.”

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T̷̗̪͈̻̈́̎͛́̀͆̇̚h̵̘͕́̓̔͝e̸̡̲͎̪͇̹̖͂ņ̸̼̠̦̣͚͂̐̎͗͒̔̾̋̀̆͂͑ ̶̛͈̣̙̱̦̘̩͚̺͚̒̾͆ͅw̴̢͍̮̜̞̖͙̦̠̦͚͓͗͋̈́̂̏͝͠h̸̢̧̥̫̣͈̪̦̝͉̘͈͙͂́̃̍̉̌̔̑y̴̛͎̬̬͌̀̔͛̾̂͑̑͊͐̎͑̕ ̵̢̧̘̪͇͋̏̊͒̕͝͝n̸̩͓͎̮͙͕̩̮̤͖͉̱̓ȍ̷̬͕͇̖̮͉͍̜̊͑̾́͌͑̔͐͗͋̑̍͘͝ẗ̴̟̻̹̳̝̩͉̖̩̤̽̂́̍͜ ̸̱̣̺͉̖̣͓͉͝͠s̴̠̟̝͗̈́̿̈͐̌̓̌̿̉̕̕͠͠͝e̴̛̼̲̔͆̃͊̕̕n̸͔̤͔̣̭͂͊̃̾̏͛̌̌͑̎͝d̸̤̝͔͍̲̯͒ ̵̡̨̪͕̯̠̹͕̘͙̰̲͙̲̻̿͊̒̉̈́̂̅͗͘͠m̴̠̈͊̈̀́̌͑͗ę̵̛̱̜̫̦̟̹̞̦̯̩́͑̌̽̂̄̊͒̈́̈͛͘͠?̶̡̛̛̥͙̖͚̙̭͇͖͓̺̈́͒͑̀̕͘͜͠ ̶͚̲̙͎͙̦͚̓̋I̸̗̣̣̖̺̙̣͚̤̙̱͒̔̍̓̋͐̈ͅ ̶̜̫̀̽͗̃͌͛̄̎̍̒̚c̸̡͖͓̙͖̱̺͇̳̯̩̰̈̃̌̓͐́̈́̆͘̚̚͝o̶̺͉̬̞͕͠ṵ̴̺͇͌̏̄͌͒̏̀͘͝͠l̸̪̋d̶̡̡͍͖̲͔̱̘͍̣̹̣̗̗̊̐̓͆̈̀̉̓́̈́̚ ̷̘̍̽̃͌͑̈́̏͝h̴̛̫̥͖̙̤͙̲̪̣͊͌̒̊̔̄a̷̯̮͙̪͋́̏̾̌̋͌͒̋͂͛̆̈́̕͠v̵̨̡̲̪̩͚̲̥̩͉͈͊̍̔̍͋͊͆̏͐̕͘͝ẽ̶̡̧̡̢̨̜̰̝̯̝͓͎͓͐͠ͅͅ ̷͇̝̺͎͚͇̫͔̻̱̥̯̾̿̍ͅţ̶̧̨͍͔͉̼͇͚̟̞̥͛h̸̨̨͍̟͍͇͔̥͚̳͖̙̳̬̖̃̃̌̐̎̂̈́̉͝͠e̸̻̮̙̗͓̥͉̣̿̒ͅ ̸̡̢̭̫̥͓̯͚̘̱̰̞̦̩̊͂̋̈̔̄͜t̸̨̫̲̙̼̼̜̮͈̓̈́̅͌͒̎̍̐̂͆͠h̵̡͓̜̳̞̹͐̀̊̐̂͑̽͛͘͜į̵̞̯̙̝̰̮̬͓̦̄̽̓͌ņ̴̢̡̛̪̜̠̥͖͉̬́͝ǧ̶̡̢̧̛̣͕̪͉͔͈̰̞̝̳̾̔̑̐ ̷͔̲̻́̒̑̄͝d̵̰̠̦̱̼̟͈͔̯̃͐͘ö̸̳̻͎͖͙͍͖́͋̀̑̾̐̂͂̅͌̾̔͠͝͝ņ̶̛͙͉͍̟̭̲̱͚̖̜̯̀̋̿͊̓́́̒̕͜͝ë̶̢͉̮̱̝̬͖̹̥͎̣̈̔̓̍̓̓̆̏̓̅̔̕͠ ̷̛̳̬͉͚͕̼̰̘͕̑̿́͊̐̄̉̚ͅį̴̘͗̍̽ń̷̠̪̖͚̮̆̔̒̊̃͑̒̿̿̀͘̚͝ ̸̡̩̼̖͓͎̞̣̠͒̐́̂̽̈́͗͘a̵̡͕̗͛͜ ̵̨̞͕͙͔̰̫̺͖̥̮̞̃͐͂̄̂̌͗̓̋̊̚̕͝h̶̢̞̬̫̘̪̙̙͑͗͂̋̂̒̍̐͜e̶͚͉͎͕̠̱̟̪̣̰̘͓̐͐͒͒̓̀̑̂͊͛́͗̍͝͝ͅä̵̮̞̦̥̖̗̻̭̼̣̞̮́̈́̔͑̊͗̽͋r̶̢̛͕̦̝̽̔̃͒̊̈́̃̍̚̕̚t̵̡̢̛̹̱̬̥̞̖̱͇̬̜̽̿͐̓̂͌͂̕͠b̵̡̨̗̠̦̥͇̞̬̥̹̮̮͛͐͌͛͊ͅͅḝ̶̦̲̙̠̱̰̹̇̓͋͊̌̏̇̉̏͘̚͘ͅa̷̟̰̮̺̓̆̊̍̓͒͠t̶̢̛̮̖͓̳̪̜̙͕̱͓̭̠̄̽̌̉̄̏̔̕͝ͅ.̸͙̖̟̱̪͙͈͖̲͉͗̈́̀͒̊̒́͆̔́̑͂̎͒̈͜
.

The voice isn’t audible in the chamber, nor is it spoken into the Raven Queen’s mind; she hears it on some other, deeper level, and it makes her go cold. Her eyes flicker to the sealed door beyond which rests the locked, warded, and thrice-blessed coffin. “You know I’m not fool enough to set you free for such a simple task,” she replies to the empty air, feigning the same casual manner in which she spoke with the other Champions. “If they fail and Bezos is victorious… perhaps. Until then, you stay put.”

.

F̴̯̟̗̼̻͇̄̋͑̏͆̐̌̑̒͘̚͠͝ơ̸͔͙͉̖̦̅́͐̏̀̓͝r̵͓̤̱͎̺̥͎̘͙̲͚̪͔̹̈́̐̑̌̿̂̕ ̷̛͙͓͈̮͇͓̿̈́̀̾͆͐̐̆̾́̈́̀͜͠ņ̵͈̳̣̻̫̺͖̎̀̚͝ơ̷̡̡͖̼͚̗̈͛͛́̽̽̃̓͝w̵̖͋͆.̴̧͔͎̫̥̺̌͗̓
.

#2072

[ This follows the scene with Dhashi and the scrying bowl ]

“Hey there, little one. Yer Dhashi, right?”

“Oh!” Dhashi, kneeling on the cold stone floor, lifted her head from her hands and wiped at the steadily falling tears. In the doorway stood a tall man wearing the usual uniform of a gunslinger, complete with brimmed hat and sarape. If Overwatch existed in this universe, Dhashi would have noticed he looked extremely similar to McCree; but it doesn’t, so she didn’t. “Y-yes,” she replied, getting unsteadily to her feet. “Who are you? Where’s the Raven Queen?”

“The name’s Mercer. She sent me to show you around, get you settled and stuff,” He took a step into the room, figuring the girl had had enough scares for one day and not wanting to alarm or overwhelm her. “That okay?” Dhashi glanced back at the basin, her only link to the world she had just been ripped from. “But… my friends…” Mercer came a few steps closer and laid a hand lightly on her shoulder. “It’s okay, you can come back here any time you want.” The touch calmed her a little, and Dhashi managed a braver smile than she felt. She nodded for him to lead on and he steered her back out into the long, columned hallway, an arm resting around her shoulders.

“So this is the Raven Queen’s home?” Dhashi glanced up as they walked, eyeing the dark stone arches and the weak light filtering in from windows set high in the walls. “It’s so… spooky.” She shivered as a spider skittered across the marble floor. “And dark.” Beside her, Mercer shrugged. “It ain’t so bad once you get used to it. And you won’t be here often once you become a Champion.”

“Oh,” Dhashi’s feet seemed to stop of their own accord as her stomach flip-flopped. “Right. That.” Mercer stopped as well and knelt down so they could talk on level, his hand never leaving her shoulder. “Don’t worry, kid, you’ll do great.” He gave the aasimar a conspiratorial wink. “You have the best in the business to teach you.”

“You’re one of the Raven Queen’s Champions?” Dhashi’s look of surprise changed to one of suspicion and she eyed him as if he would transform into a monster at any moment. “But you’re not all scary and mean like the other one.” Her comment made Mercer throw back his head and laugh, and the atmosphere between them relaxed once more. “I assume you mean Mage. Yeah, she’s… intense, that’s fer sure. We’re not all like her, though. Think of us like special tools – you need the right tool fer the job, whether that’s somethin’ small and delicate,” he pointed at Dhashi, “or big and strong,” he pointed at himself, “or utterly terrifyin’ and almost certainly insane.” He laughed again, not noticing how wide Dhashi’s eyes had gone. “Are my friends going to be okay with her?” she asked.

“Oh yeah, they’ll prob’ly be fine,” Mercer climbed to his feet, then finally noticed the tears welling in the girl’s eyes. “Oh jeeze, wait, don’t start cryin’ again,” he pleaded, but it was too late. The tears fell in waterfalls. “Dangit,” he muttered, “I’m terrible at this mentorin’ thing. Uhh,” he glanced around desperately for a distraction, “look, birds! Look at the nice birds.” He steered Dhashi toward the nearby rookery, pointing up at the ravens of all sizes and ages that roosted or hopped from perch to perch in the airy room. He had no way of knowing how much Dhashi missed her own animal companion, Charlie, but either way he breathed a sigh of infinite relief as her tears ceased and her smile reappeared.

– – –

“Going well?” The Raven Queen appeared at Mercer’s side as he leaned against the open doorway. He nodded to where Dhashi sat on the rookery floor, birds already nestled among the folds of her dress, perched on her arms, and grooming her long, golden hair with their sharp beaks. She murmured to them as she smoothed their glossy feathers, and the ravens burbled and croaked in reply. “She’s got a big heart,” Mercer conceded. “And she’s braver than she realizes. Dunno if that’ll be enough, though.”

“It will have to be,” The goddess clapped him on the shoulder, then disappeared. Mercer stood watching Dhashi for a moment more, then went to join her. She smiled up at him as if they were old friends and began telling him the birds’ names.