Friday, July 17, 2009

"The Tiger and the Hare" -- Act I

This batch of The Children of Gods stories has, thus far, been the most challenging to organize. This week I meant to start posting the epic "Tournament at the Peony". Then I realized a lot of other things need happen before that tale be told. As a result, you'll not be reading "Tournament" yet, but instead you'll be reading "The Tiger and the Hare" over the next few weeks.

Apologies for any confusion.

Enjoy "The Tiger and the Hare"!


"The Tiger and the Hare" copyright 2009 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


CHAMPIONS OF DEATH: Wherein Katakasee Becomes Elkhorn the Vile; Ketsueki Sato Enters a Home; Elkhorn is Recruited by the Eternal Empress; An Old Winged Fiend Returns; Ketsueki Sato and Elkhorn Meet



In cliffs bordering the oceans, high above the waves with the songbirds and seabirds that made there nests there, lived the people of Pazi. They were an industrious people if not a struggling people. They had not yet learned agriculture, least of ways not in the sense of planting vast fields. They instead grew ridges and rows of lichen along the cliffs overlooking the sea outside the caves they carved of stone and molded of clay for themselves as homes. Once they had been nomads, outcast from tribes and sent without their yurts to fend for themselves. The purpose of their outcast had been lost with the passing of elders, but many whispered of murder and cannibalism. The younger generations, however, could not believe such rumors.

They harvested seaweed, traded stones unique to their cliffs with traveling merchants or made jewelry with the stones to be traded for food and goods. They were a thin people, though not starving. They were a decent people, though without clean hands. They were a peaceful people, though suspicious of every outsider, even those they knew well and called friends.

Came to these people a child named Yaxtzel, a beautiful girl born into their midst from true love. She grew into a beautiful woman, a peaceful woman. So great was her beauty that some spoke of her beauty as to rival that of the Eternal Empress, though many disagreed. And like the Eternal Empress, though beautiful, her heart grew empty with ugliness.

After she had lived and graced the cliffs for sixteen years, Yaxtzel met and fell in love with a traveling merchant named Abaddon. He was young, though older than she and foolish as a man. He drank heavily, caroused greatly with women on his travels, gambled, cursed, spat and fouled everything that he did. He soon became known as Abaddon the Foolish or, more often, Abaddon the Reckless. He took to sneaking about the cliffs at night when all the Pazi people were asleep so that he may visit with Yaxtzel. There were together many nights like this and, without their knowledge, sowed the seed of life within Yaxtzel's womb.

One such night, after Abaddon had quaffed many drinks and had made love to Yaxtzel, he stumbled out of her cavernous home, slipped upon a bed of bedewed lichen and fell into the sea to crack his skull open against a jagged stone, making him slip from unconsciousness and drown as he floated atop the sea.

Yaxtzel cried out his name, watching her love fall to the sea, unable to help him.

Many of the Pazi tried to help Abaddon, but he was already dead.

They gave him a proper burial with their people.

Yaxtzel cried for many days until she realized Abaddon had given her a gift of child. She was happy once more, but then - realizing her son would never know his father - cried for many days more.

She brought a son into the world. A strong son. His shoulders were so wide he broke her pelvic bone passing through her. He was born with a few scant hairs on his chest and shoulders, his eyebrows already heavy and thick. His hands and feet were, to the surprise of many, of slightly darker tone than his body. He was a powerful boy and, some whispered, an ugly boy despite his mother's beauty. His face was a perpetual grimace.

Yaxtzel lost much blood during birth. She remained alive a few day only, long enough to hold her child once and to give him the name Katakasee.



Katakasee grew into a strong man. As both his parents were dead, he had no family to tend him. All of the Pazi tried to care for him, but so rebellious was he that he was a difficult child. He had been born with his father's hardness and recklessness and little from his mother. He caroused with passing merchant, played pranks on the harvesters of seaweed, tied knots in the ropes of others so it took all day for the ropes to be unraveled. As he grew, his pranks grew more thoroughly wicked. He would often catch the seabirds nesting nearby, breaking their necks and leaving them at outside the caves of people he did not like. He liked the warning jest, liked the power of fear it invoked. He was a cantankerous, mean young man. And at the age of fifteen he left Pazi, hiding beneath the carriage of a traveling merchant.

When he was discovered a day's journey from his home, the merchant thought him a thief and challenged him at the point of a short sword.

"Come out!" cried the merchant.

Katakasee crawled from under the carriage, smiling. "It was all in jest," he explained.

"Is this why my food's disappeared today?" demanded the merchant. "Have you been sneaking off with it?"

Katakasee rubbed the back of his head. He nodded, "Sure, I suppose I've been eating your food."

"Crook!" cried the merchant. "Thief! Well, you'll not have my coffers!"

"I don't want your coffers!"

"We are much too far from any city for there to be law here, so I must be the law," explained the merchant. "And I find you guilty of theft! I must protect my goods from your vile hands! And, besides, who would miss such an arrogant, ugly boy as you? Your body would not be found for days!"

The merchant lunged with his short sword.

Katakasee, though scared, stepped sideways but left his right foot sticking out so as to trip the merchant.

The merchant fell upon his own blade. He rolled over to his back, his eyes wide and staring at Katakasee. "Please!" he begged. "Help me! Run for help!"

Katakasee shook his head. He drew the sword from the fallen merchant's body. The merchant gasped in pain. Katakasse said, "I'll not lend you aid when you've accused me falsely. Oh, with my apologies, you've not accused me falsely. I have taken your food, as you have accused. I, a child, was hungry and I apologize for my hunger. I apologize for living!"

"Please! I need an alchemist!" begged the merchant.

"What you need is the law. But way out here, I am the law," Katakasee circled round the dying merchant as a hawk hovers, circling its earthbound prey. "And I find you guilty of your own ugliness!"

The merchant cried out as Katakasee brought the short sword down upon his neck, separating his head from his body.

Silence fell upon the land all around. A dark, powerful silence. Only the merchant's horse at the fore of the carriage could be heard breathing. But soon a new breath came to his ears. He looked about, spying an elk watching from some distance before bolting in horror.

"Run! Coward!" Katakasee called after the elk. "Run or I will behead you next! I'll snap your neck like that of a seabird!"

Katakasee then considered his handiwork, picking up the merchant's head. He wondered at the fragility of the neck. Once this head had been the lama of a man's body-temple. Now, separate, both were useless.

Katakasee threw the head into a nearby bush. He rested the short sword on his shoulder, spat on the beheaded body lying in the road. He mounted the carriage, took up the reigns and traveled onward.

He became a merchant, and a successful one, over the next few years. But curiosity of the mortality of men infected him. He became ill with obsession until one night, on a drunken rampage, he murdered a whore at an inn. He had beaten her, strangled her. He eyed her lying dead atop a bed. he ran to his carriage to retrieve his sword, intent on her beheading. But their fight had been so loud, so raucous that others raised alarm and he had to saddle his horse quickly before running through the night without his carriage, without his clothes.

Katakasee rode for many days. He stole clothes drying out in the sun, a bow and a quiver full of arrows from a hunter sleeping in the shade. He taught himself to hunt. He starved. He ran. And at last he claimed with the bow a great and might elk. He ate from it for many days, cut from off its head the antlers.

He rode into a town one day and there met with a blacksmith that took interest in his antlers.

"Where did you get those?" asked the blacksmith.

"I hunted the beast myself," explained Katakasee.

"I can make them into a fine helmet of leather or fur or steel."

"Would you? Could you?" Katakasee enjoyed this prospect.

"For a price," explained the blacksmith.

"No price is too great for I am the son of wealthy merchants, traveling as a journeyman," Katakasee lied.

The blacksmith welcomed Katakasee into his home for the few days it would take to make the helmet, introduced him to his family and asked, "What is your name?"

Katakasee hesitated. He feared his name be known for the death of the whore. He said, "I call myself Elkhorn."

"A fitting name!" said the blacksmith. "Welcome to my home."

Over the next few days, Katakasee-now-Elkhorn became as an uncle to teh blacksmith's children, as a brother to the smith's wife. And on the third day when the helmet was done, the blacksmith brought it to Elkhorn after they had eaten supper.

The antlers had been mounted on steel, the bases of which were surrounded by soft rabbit fur. The inside of the helmet was lined with soft leather that descended into two straps to be used to secure the helmet to the head. Upon the front the smith had etched the image of an elk.

"It is beautiful," said Elkhorn the Ugly as he gazed upon it. "As beautiful as my mother might have been."

"Might have been?" asked the blacksmith. "I assumed your mother was yet living?"

Elkhorn scowled. With furious movement, he plucked from the table a sharp knife he had used for his supper and plunged it into the chest of the blacksmith.

The blacksmith's eyes grew wide. His mouth worked, but no words came forth.

The wife and children screamed.

Elkhorn dawned his new helmet, tying it at the chin. He stared at the family. He said to the wife, "Take your children into the room. Make no sound."

Afraid, hoping to at least save her children, she ushered them into a separate room where her and her husband had once slept.

When they were gone, Elkhorn removed himself from their home to retrieve his short sword. When he returned, he beheaded the blacksmith, completing his death. He then went into the room with the children and wife. As he stared at them, the blacksmith's head yet in his hand and dripping blood onto the floor, he said, "This is your last night of living. Pray to whatever gods you may have."

The wife screamed out in terror for her children.

Elkhorn cut her down.

The children clasped to their mother's headless body.

Elkhorn turned his blade onto their innocence. He then gathered supplied from the cupboards and ran from the home. He ran through the night. He ran from the murders he had done.

And he was not stopped until, after many murders terrorizing a small town in the land of Bizo, he was surrounded inside a home he had filled with trinkets of his sport - ears and heads mostly.

The Eternal Empress' imperial guard surrounded the home.

Elkhorn emerged, wearing his helmet.

"Who are you?" asked one guard.

"I am your death, come to collect payment," said Elkhorn.

The guards lunged. Elkhorn defended himself, though only briefly, before he was overwhelmed by the number of guards and pushed to the ground where he was bound, taken into custody and transported to a jail near the Empress' palace. He had a trial, or something like it. The trial had been rushed and much evidence was given, despite its validity. The people of Bizo wanted justice from the mass murderer.

When asked of his innocence, Elkhorn spoke thusly, "I am no more innocent than those of you that preside over this trial. But if you ask me whether I've killed these people or not, I must acclaim that I have. And I enjoyed it. I've enjoyed beheading you softened fools! I've enjoyed mocking your mortality! I've enjoyed the sport of hunting your trust, gaining it and then betraying it! I've enjoyed your blood flowing over my flesh! I've enjoyed killing you all! From the merchant in the woods to the blacksmith's family to you damned fools here in Bizo, I've enjoyed it all! And if you do not put me down, I swear to the gods of the Many Heavens and the demons of the Many Hells, I will continue to revel in it until I am put down!"

And so Elkhorn was found guilty of the crimes he confessed to. He was placed into a holding cell, stripped of his helmet and weapons, given a last meal. He was sentenced to die at dawn as Etain flew over the far horizon. Katakasee, Elkhorn would finally be put down. One thing and one thing only could save his life: the Eternal Empress could grant a pardon. But no one suspected she would.



A horse rode into Bizo and atop the horse rode one of the Empress' soldiers, a soldier that had been wounded in the foot. He was granted passageway to the Empress herself. He limped to her side, his foot infected and needing attention. He knelt before her, in pain but determined to do his duty.

"What is your name?" she asked, eying the foot whose wound broke open once more, trickling blood onto the golden honey-white marble floors of her palace.

"I am called Tu, My Empress," he winced as his foot bled.

"I am told you have news for me."

"Yes, My Empress. I was a member of the Imperial Guard you sent forth after your daughter."

"Have you returned with her?"

Nervous, hesitant, his head remaining bowed and looking at the floor, he said reluctantly, "No, My Empress. She has made friends with gods. We fought them in a village and they slaughtered everyone but me." He lied, not wanting to admit a few of her men were too frightened to fight.

"And why would they leave you alive?" asked the Empress as she got up from her grand pillows upon which she lounged.

"To bring to you this message: -" the soldier faltered, his body shaking nervously.

"Why do you hesitate?" asked the Empress as she drew near him.

"For the message I am to deliver will offend My Empress! I care not to offend her!"

"Dear one, you already offend me as your foot now bleeds across my floor, staining it with your impure and unworthy blood."

The soldier gasped. "My Empress! With apologies!"

The Empress gestured to have a rapier brought forth to her. One of her guards did so and she drew it from its scabbard. She placed the tip of the blade beneath Tu's chin and raised his head with it. He looked at her briefly, then lunged forward, prostrating in respect and fear.

"Tell me this message and have no fear," commanded the Empress.

Tu's voice shook as he spoke. "I was told to say this: that Alecto is now under the care of Comet Fox; that I witnessed our defeat at their hands and weapons, that Comet Fox travels with three others, including another fox-god; th-that," Tu's body shook.

"Go on," urged the Empress.

Tu breathed deep. "That if you continue your hunt, Comet Fox will do to you what he did to your captain!"

"And what was done to my captain?"

"He is dead, My Empress!"

The Eternal Empress drew deeply a breath. She slid the rapier in between Tu's armor, the blade slipped through ribs and by bones, piercing through to the heart. She pulled the blade free and threw the sword to the ground, but not before blood dappled her fine silk turquoise and white dress. More blood came from teh foot, reaching out to clasped at the foot of her long dress.

Tu's body remained in prostration, frozen in service.

The Eternal Empress stood near death, her visage stained by blood. She eyed her guard, ordered them strip her naked and bathed right then and there, order them to clean the floor and replace the marble that had been stained, ordered her wisest councillors to her side.

When she was freshly dressed in a light gown of deep reds and embroidered golds, she lay one more upon her lounging pillows and she was joined by her staff.

"My daughter has seen fit to league herself with gods," she informed. "This is not an unwise course of action. We must assume she will only find more to join with her. We must assume she is attempting to build an army to challenge my authority here in Bizo and, in that, we must assume we are now at war with my daughter."

This unsettled all around her. They murmured a moment, then fell silent.

"First and foremost, we must replace the captain of my Imperial Guard and send the new captain forth to find her once more. But this time, we must find a vicious warrior, one not so unused to death and killing, one that not only knows of killing, but revels in it. We must find one who will gain all payment simply in the act of killing. We must find such a foul man quite swiftly lest we raise our own army's alarm against that of my daughter's."

"My Empress," stepped forth an elderly man that had long been in her council. "There is just such a man in Bizo and, dare I admit, he might be willing to help for the mere chance to kill once more. Though his suggestion may cause my name be labeled with madness, he is such the man you speak of."

"Who is this man? This killer?"

"He sits in your cells now. His trial recently garnered mass attention. His name is Elkhorn and he is mad with the lust for death."

The Eternal Empress considered this. She said, "This is the wisest choice. Take me to this Elkhorn, I've a matter to discuss with him."



The cell smelled of filth and manure and rotted hay. It was late in the night when a team of Imperial Guards carried the Eternal Empress on a lounging pillow into the jail and set her before the cell Elkhorn was kept in.

One of the guards banged on the cell's iron door. He called out, "Hey! Ugly! Wake up! The Empress comes to see you!"

Elkhorn, asleep on a bed of filthy hay, his back to the door, said, "Shut up. I'm sleeping. Can't a dying man rest?"

"You dare insult the Eternal Empress? Get up or I'll come in there and get you up!"

"I'd enjoy it if you came in here," said Elkhorn, smiling to himself.

The Empress placed a gentle hand onto her guard's arm, calming him. She spoke in soft tones, tones of pure mystic wind. She said, "Elkhorn, I am Sulia Laree the Eternal Empress and I am ruler here in Bizo, the land you are now a captive of."

"Oh? Is that so? Well then, that's good for you."

"Please," said the Empress. "Don't be a brute. I've come to offer you your freedom."

"My freedom?" at this Elkhorn turned round and sat up to face the Empress. He eyed her a moment before saying, "You must be the Empress, your so clean! And the tales of your beauty do you no justice."

Sulia Laree blushed. "You do me great kindness to say such things. How can you be a murderer of the kind they claim you to be?"

"They do not claim it. It is true and I admit to it. I enjoy killing. It rouses in me a power like no other thing can. And I enjoy it. It's true. I am truly a madman."

The Eternal Empress smiled sweetly. "How would you like to kill again?"

"If I were immortal like you, I would spend every day for all eternity killing."

"Then kill for me. Commit yourself as my servant and I'll give you the job of killing once more."

"Oh? And who would you have me kill?"

"My daughter for one."

"That's quite the request, killing a daughter for a mother. It is foul and twisted in its thinking. I like it. It's a tale to be told in a traveling opera. Who else? I cannot kill merely one person. If you set me free for one murder alone, I'd rather not do it at all. Give me more to kill or end my life now."

"What about a god?"

"Kill a god?" this intrigued Elkhorn. "I would love to do so, but a mortal cannot kill a god nor a Blessed One such as yourself."

"They can with the proper weapon."

"And you'll give me such a weapon?"

"I'll find one."

"Which god would you have me kill?"

"The god that travels with my daughter. He is called Comet Fox. Have you heard of him?"

"Perhaps, I care not for the affairs of the gods, however, so I generally do not pay them much attention. They have eternal life whereas we mortals are made to suffer and die. To the Many Hells with the gods. But I would like killing one. And if Comet Fox needs killing, then I shall be the one to kill him."

"There may be others for you to kill, as well. But that all depends on how well my daughter amasses others around her."

"More gods?"

"Gods, Blessed Ones and mortals."

"Then you will have my service," promised Elkhorn.

"Then I hereby pardon you of your crimes, Elkhorn, and install you as captain of my Imperial Guard," said the Eternal Empress. She then commanded of her guards, "Set him free."

Elkhorn was freed. He stood, his massive shoulders and frame towering over the Eternal Empress. He smiled and said, "Thank you, My Empress."

His short sword and bow was returned to him. He was given a fine quarterhorse and the golden armor of the Imperial Guard and ten soldiers to ride with him. He immediately thought of killing them, one by one, as they rode from Bizo, but thought better of it. All his life he had enjoyed killing and now was given death as his task. He would not risk losing that.

He and his ten men rode through the lands, heading south, following the dying path of Alecto and Comet Fox. On rode Elkhorn, murder on his mind.



South of Bizo, in a quiet farming community, at a farm far from any other home, cries of terror lifted into the air. Three children screamed in fear as a wooden demon entered their home. A lone father challenged the fiend with a hot fire poker. A mother corralled her children in a far corner of the home and held them fast.

"What are you, demon?" demanded the father.

"I am just that," spoke Ketsueki Sato. "I am truly a demon."

"Why have you come here? Stay back! leave our children alone!"

Ketsueki smiled a wooden smile. "I've come to proffer unto you a chance at winning a game."

"A game? Whatever game you bring into our home, we refuse it! Leave this house! By the gods, leave this house!"

Ketsueki grimaced. One of his long roots smacked the poker from the father's hand as he grumbled, "Do not mention any of the gods in my presence!"

"This is my home and I'll do as I please! May the gods curse you!"

"They already have!" Ketsueki raged as he closed near the father, towering over his mortal frame, his wooden, thorny head scraping at the roof of the home. One of his roots wrapped about the father's throat. Fear filled the father and this soothed Ketsueki as he knew he controlled the home.

His voice was softer now, "My game is a simple lottery. There are no losers. All will be winners. let me look at this handsome family," Ketsueki dragged the father to the corner where his family cowered in fear. "How many of you have we here? Three children, a mother and a father. That five in all, yes?"

The father nodded, afraid.

"Then here is how the lottery works: you good people will choose which of you three will die, leaving two to remain. I assume the parents will give their lives for their children and perhaps even the eldest will follow suit, but then you leave the two youngest as witnesses to the horrors I will commit here tonight. Now ask yourselves, would you like them to live out their lives with such memories? Or will you instead choose to spare your children such spiritual injury and request they be killed, leaving the parents to suffer the rest of their lives with their choice? Which shall it be?"

"We cannot make such a choice!" cried the mother.

"And we will refuse to make the choice!" defied the father.

Ketsueki considered this. His roots reached out to caress the youngest, a girl. She squealed as he gently touched her.

"Keep your filth from her!" cried the father as he batted away the roots.

Ketsueki knelt low, smiling his demonic, toothy, wooden smile and asking softly, amiably, "How old are you, darling?"

The girl answered him with only shrieks of terror and tears.

"How old are you?" he growled, yelling loudly, grabbing at her with his roots.

"She is five!" cried the father as the mother batted at the roots.

"Five?" asked Ketsueki as he stood, his roots retreating. "Five years is hardly enough time to know life. She should not be allowed to die this night. Conversely, if you do not choose, she definitely will be the first to die tonight."

"Don't you touch her," demanded the father. "If you touch her, by the gods, I will do everything in my power to banish you to whichever Hell you come from."

Ketsueki laughed, amused. "You would banish me? A mortal would banish a demon? How droll, dear man, how very droll." Ketsueki brought his face close to the father's. The father could smell dry, aged wood and dust on the demon's breath as Ketsueki spoke.

"Once I came from the Many Hells. Once I plotted all the Hells rulership, but I was slaughtered by your precious gods. Now I am," he backed away and held out his arms for the family to see him in full, "I am this weak thing you see before you. I am but filth crawling across this land."

"All demons are filth!" spat the father.

Ketsueki smiled. He disregarded the comment. He instead said, "Your youngest's life or three others."

"We'll have none of it!" cried the father.

Ketsueki's roots whipped out at blinding speed. They cut through the air, parting flesh from bone as they sank into the youngest girl's body. He pulled her away. Four rooty tentacles latched themselves onto her, into her, each pulling in separate directions until she was pulled apart in bits. Ketsueki drew those bits close to him, letting ripping blood fall into his mouth.

He discarded the pieces of flesh and demanded, "Two more, you must choose two more as my victims."

Shocked by the horror of what was happening, the family could not speak. They cried out. At last, the father gathered himself to say, "Me! If you must kill another, kill me!"

Ketsueki's roots lashed out. Once again flesh was torn from flesh, limbs fell away, blood spattered throughout the home and Ketsueki drank deeply. He grew with each swallow so that he now had to lean a little to fit in the home. His limbs grew more supple, more allow, more wet with life.

"One more," said Ketsueki. "Just one more."

The mother hugged her children. She then stepped out before the demon and said, "I will be your third and last."

And Ketsueki killed and drank of the mother's blood, as well.

He eyed the two remaining children. He crouched. He said, "How old are the two of you?"

The eldest stepped forward, a girl, and pushed her brother behind her. "I am fourteen... almost."

"And your brother?"

"He is ten and a half."

"And do you know why I have done what I have done here tonight?"

The girl shook her head.

"Because I am a demon and demons make deals with other creatures, especially with mortals. It is our task in life. We demons see life for what it is and refuse to ignore the suffering in the world. Hear me now, child: demons themselves suffer and demons are suffering. To ignore suffering is to ignore life. To run from suffering is to ignore us." Ketsueki's face turned into grimacing ugliness. The home seemed to fill with darkness as he yelled his next words. "And we demons refuse to be ignored!"

He smiled once more. The home lightened and the girl thought she might smell sweet jasmine flowers on the air. Ketsueki asked, "Do you understand now?"

The girl nodded, not truly understanding but hoping her understanding would cause the demon to leave.

Ketsueki lowered himself to sit cross-legged before the girl. "Now, I've a problem," he said, "I have to decide whether or not to keep my bargain with your family and let you live or to kill you and your brother anyways."

"There is no reason to kill us," the girl found herself saying.

"Perhaps," said the demon, "I suspect, however, you will grow up resenting me and living this night. That would encourage you to some day hunt me down and I'd only have to kill you then. So the true question for me to ponder is this: do I wish to kill you now or at some time in the future after you've suffered many years of loss and loneliness?"

The girl thought of another possibility and spoke it thusly, "Or someone could kill you before then."

Ketsueki frowned. He stood and said, "Thank me for another few years of life, mortals," before leaving the home.

He stepped outside into the night.

It is well known as illness breeds illness within a home, so ill deeds attract evil.

In far lands, the smells of fresh blood came to an old foe, an old creature of evil. Ketsueki's murders came to the attention of Neboshazaar and the winged beast lifted into the air, following the scent until he came to fly circle over the demon stretching his back outside the farmers' home. Uncertain of the wooden demon, Neboshazaar remained circling a moment before descending into the night to land near Ketsueki Sato.

Ketsueki eyed the bird-creature. He squinted with memory and said, "Once I knew you."

Neboshazaar squawked. he smelled the wood demon, smelled the blood within, recognizing the taint of the Ruby Bug that once filled the demon-dog Yaska Selith. The bird-beast hopped closer to his old friend.

Ketsueki put out a hand to pet him. He thought a moment and said, "I think, perhaps, I could use you as a mount. Would you allow this?"

Neboshazaar looked at him nervously.

Ketsueki stroked the bird's bald, black neck. he then pulled himself up onto the burd. Neboshazaar could hold him easily enough, but found it rather awkward to take off and fly. Once in the air, however, Neboshazaar spread out his wings and screeched so loudly the lands below trembled with the fear of fates worse than death.

Ketsueki laughed at his new and old friend, joyously riding on the air.

The two soon caught sight of a cloud of dust pricking up on the dark horizon of night, kicking up under horses' hooves. Ketsueki wondered if anyone had heard the cries of the family and were now coming to their rescue. He decided to remain hidden behind a nearby cloud, watching.



Elkhorn and his ten men rode on, drawing nearer the farmer's home Ketsueki had just left. As they slowed, they heard a great shriek from the sky and looked to find a horrible bird-beast flying down at them and a demon of wood laughing maniacally as they passed by overhead. When Neboshazaar landed, Ketsueki called out, "You'll not be able to help the farmers there! I've killed them all and now I will kill you!"

"What matter are farmers to me?" challenged Elkhorn. "I could care less about such worthless people. I ride with these men to kill Comet Fox."

"Comet Fox!" Ketsueki cried, almost as if in fear of the name.

"If I am to judge your reaction, I would say you know the fox-god. Are you in league with him?"

"Bah!" spat Ketsueki. "Hardly! He is mine own enemy! Once he ousted me from my chamber in the Many Hells. Now I hunt him and his friends Wu Chan Chu and Xiao-tep."

"I know not these other two. be they gods?"

"Xiao-tep is," informed Ketsueki. "Wu Chan Chu is his demi-goddess sister. Tell me, mortal, why do you hunt Comet Fox?"

"He is in league with Alecto, the Eternal Empress' daughter and the Empress herself would have me kill them both."

"I have been told of this Empress once before," Ketsueki said as he thoght back to his conversations with Loki after he had been resurrected. "I was told perhaps I should seek her out."

"It is no matter to me. I am to kill Comet Fox and Alecto and whichever other god or mortal rides with them."

Ketsueki smiled at this. "Then I would help you."

"Who are you, creature? You mentioned a chamber in the Many Hells. Am I to believe you a demon?"

"I am," Ketsueki's chest swelled with pride as he sat straighter, taller on Neboshazaar's back. "I am Ketsueki Sato, once the master of the Cottonwood Chamber, and I wish to help you, but first I feel I must seek out your Empress."

"I am called Elkhorn. If you must see then Empress, then go to her. Her palace is half the night's journey from here by horseback and cannot be mistaken, though I suspect you would make the trip in half that time upon your winged beast. If she should have you join me, then fly after me."

Ketsueki smiled. He desperately wanted to go with Elkhorn then, but knew he should find the Empress. He said, "A good hunt to you, then, Elkhorn. If you and your Empress would have me, I'll be at your side as swiftly as my friend here can carry me."

The two parted ways. Elkhorn rode with his men to the south. The demon Ketsueki Sato rode Neboshazaar to the north. And from out of the farmer's home peeked tiny, wondering, fearful eyes.


Well, that's it for Act I of "The Tiger and the Hare"! I hope you enjoyed, dear readers! Check back next week for Act II!!!

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