AN: Here it is, the much-awaited conclusion to Lily and Tailfeathers' story. Hope you all enjoy!

One Hundred Years

The cave they had chosen as their den for the time being wasn't particularly comfortable, but it was secluded and easily defendable. As vampires, though, they didn't really have to worry too much about humans or other creatures of darkness forcing their way into the caves; the caves were automatically warded against those kind of intrusions. They did have to worry about Eagles and other Light-born beings, though. But such creatures were unlikely to find them here.

Lily, the Queen of her small, mobile kingdom, rolled over onto her back. Dimly, she could hear the trickle of water a few feet away; the cave had been cut out of the mountain by the small river running through its center. In the heart of summer, as it was now, though, the river--which filled the snaking tunnel during the winter--couldn't even be called a steam, it was so tiny.

The grey stone was cool against her back and sturdy--most mortals would find it uncomfortable, and it was true that Lily generally preferred to sleep in a bed, but for the moment, she rather liked the solidness of the stone. Lately, she had felt so disconnected from the world around her that she enjoyed the sensation. In a kind of trance, she trailed her fingertips over the grey rock wall. The dim candlelight sent strange shadows over it, and she watched them dance for a few minutes.

At her side, one of her companions grunted in his sleep and curled closer to her, pale forehead pressed against her arm. She smiled and stroked his cheek, running clawed hands through his dark hair. As usual, he was the last to rise; the other two had gone off hunting before the sun had even finished setting, but Amiran would wait until the moon was high overhead and the humans had dropped off to sleep. He didn't like to fight, didn't like to struggle with his prey. He merely called them to him, while their minds were slack with sleep, malleable.

Davyn, she knew, liked to masquerade as an ordinary human. He hung around bars, picking up working girls or picking fights with men that had had just a bit too much to drink. And then he took what he needed from them. As per her rules, though, he always left them alive. At least, that's what he told her.

Nicoloa was not as aggressive as Davyn, and he fed almost exclusively from women. With his kind, if slightly mischievous, smile and his brown eyes that shone gold in certain lights, she didn't doubt that he had little trouble finding women to feed on. She was also fairly confident that most of the women he fed from also came away from the arrangement satisfied; Nicoloa was nothing if not fair. He had gotten into his share of fights, though--mostly with other creatures of darkness, not humans. Once, he had gotten into it with one of the Light-born. She suspected that he still had the scars from that encounter.

Of her three fledglings, Nicoloa was the one she worried about most--mostly because she feared his temper would get him killed one of these days. The only reason he had survived this far was the fact that he made a good vampire; he had mastered all the mind-tricks he was capable of at his age, he knew the limits of his strength and speed, and he knew how to make use of all three. When he reached his second century, she didn't doubt that he could weather the lifting of his bonds with ease. Davyn, too, would come through it mostly okay. Amiran might not, but she would have given him two hundred extra years of life in any case.

She looked down at the still-sleeping Amiran. He was attractive, in his own way--as was Davyn. Nicoloa was easily the most classically handsome of her small brood, but all of them had a certain appeal to them. Lily wasn't sure if this was true because she had been drawn to them for this reason, or if her blood had somehow subtly changed them.

As attractive as they all were, though, she had never taken them into her, at the moment, metaphorical bed--before or after their transformations. Nicoloa, at least, had clearly expected her to do something those first few years. He had never moved to act on his suspicions--had never even kissed her, nor had he, alternately, gone out of his way to set up any barriers to her wishes. If she had wanted him, he was there. But she hadn't.

Smiling slightly, she wondered if he found that mildly offensive, or if he had eventually assumed that she preferred women. Her chosen humans were almost exclusively women now; she hadn't fed from a man in a long, long time--except to change her three fledglings, that is. But she had chosen them because they would have died without her, because something in their blood or in their features had drawn her to them.

Despite whatever reservations she had initially had about creating fledglings when she had departed the Shadowland those many years ago, she found now that she was glad for their company. She smiled slightly, silently laughing at her fear from long ago--how frightened she had been to let herself love anyone. She had been so frightened that she had allowed more than fifty years to pass with only herself for company, visiting Amala and Keir on those rare occasions the solitude became oppressive.

When first Keir and then Amala had died, though, she had realized something. She was okay. She had loved them in the way one loves old friends, people that have seen you at your best and at your worst, and it had hurt when they died--particularly when Amala passed--, but…it hadn't crushed her. Those last few years, watching them age--so quickly, it seemed--, she had felt new fear grip her, twisting her heart. Fear that she would finally break, that she wouldn't be able to bear this last death.

But…her heart had come away renewed. Yes, it had hurt. She would never forget either of them, and she suspected that there would be times in her future that she would miss them terribly…but she had come away with the realization that she would be alright.

It was only after that that she finally realized what Melantha had hoped to teach her.

She was a vampire. A mortal made immortal. No matter what she did, the years would pass. Change would come. Friends would die. And if she was truly a vampire, then she would have to survive it all. With both her sanity and her still-human heart intact.

She suspected, now, that she could.

After that realization, she finally had the courage to begin renewing her race. Nicoloa had been the first. Twenty five years after, she had found Davyn and then Amiran a mere five years later. Twenty years had passed since then. It was a far cry from the former grandeur of her species, but it was a start. And, soon, the boys could start having fledglings of their own--once she lifted them from their bonds.

Delivering a light kiss to Amiran's forehead, she rose and stretched, loving the way her muscles felt as she reached for the ceiling, just out of reach. From the small pack she kept, she threw on a pair of dark pants and a loose blouse. Like Amiran, she preferred to wait for full dark to hunt, for her prey to sleep. She wouldn't go hunting just yet, but it would be nice to take a walk outside. The mountain range they were cradled in was rather pretty, and the plant life was lovely this time of year.

Lightly, she pressed a toe to Amiran's side, waking him. He looked up at her curiously. "I'm going on a walk," she said simply, "Don't get into trouble while I'm gone. Tell your brothers when they return."

He nodded and twisted on his side to return to sleep. She shook her head at his laziness, and started down the long tunnel, toward the mouth of the cave. Before she was even halfway down, though, she heard footsteps coming fast. She froze, her muscles tensing. Davyn came into view a few minutes later, his face in shadow but his shape unmistakable. He was the brawniest and tallest of her fledglings--a difficult figure to miss.

Panting, he came to stand a few feet in front of her. "There's a-a man," he gasped, "He got in somehow. Past the threshold."

Her blood turned suddenly icy. A Light-born. "Where's Nicoloa?"

"Fighting with the man." Instantly, she started down the tunnel, her feet carrying her quickly. "Mistress," he burst, stalling her, "The man--he…he's got wings."

For just a moment, she stood there dumbly, but then she started sprinting down the tunnel, as fast as her vampiric body would allow. The only thing she could think was: Eagle.

That's what it was last time. An Eagle. She had been out hunting, and Nicoloa had been all alone in the small, broken down mill that they were staying at. For some reason, Eagles and other creatures of Light were able to pass the threshold without an invitation. And this one had decided to do some 'good' by destroying her fledgling.

Thankfully, it had been Nicoloa and not Amiran or Davyn. She didn't doubt that either of the other two would have been killed, but Nicoloa had managed to keep himself mostly intact before she arrived. Their combined strength had been enough to chase off that last Eagle. Hopefully, they could do the same for this one.

Not for the first time, she wondered if it might be better to return to the Shadowland. As it had been since the Prince's death, the portal was open; she could go back at any time. None of the Light-born chose to enter into that dark world. She and her fledglings would be safe from them. But whenever she started to seriously consider it, she always rejected the idea. They belonged beside the humans that they fed from, and the Light-born could kiss her pale ass if they felt differently. Besides, it wasn't as if they did any real harm to the humans. Not anymore, at least.

Wrapping an invisible cloak of dark, vampiric power about her, she burst from the tunnel into the mouth of the cave, her hands twisted into claws and her fangs extended. What she saw, though, made her pause, her power fading away slowly.

Nicoloa was, indeed, fighting with a winged male, but his wings were a sleek black, not golden. Crow's wings. Furthermore, the man didn't seem to be trying very hard to hurt her fledgling--a sword hung at his side, untouched. Instead, he seemed focused on turning the young vampire's blows aside, returning only relatively light taps to keep him at bay.

He did it pretty well, too. If Nicoloa made a good vampire, then this man made a good Crow. Over the course of his life, he had mastered his body, bulky wings and all. So, even though Nicoloa was probably stronger than him--there were few creatures that could match a vampire's physical strength--, the Crow had thus far managed to avoid any kind of injury. It appeared that he had been careful to keep himself from harming Nicoloa, too; neither had so much as a scratch.

Apparently believing that this meant the winged man was teasing him, Nicoloa was battling with double his usual fury. If she didn't do something, either he or the Crow was going to get hurt soon, despite the Crow's efforts. "Nicoloa," she called, her voice cutting through the sounds of their fighting. The vampire was instantly at her side, panting hard. He looked to her gratefully, and she could tell that he was waiting for her to give him some kind of mental instruction, to tell him the plan.

She only laid a hand on his forehead and said, "Peace. Stay with your brothers in the cave. Wake Amiran, tell him we have a guest."

His brown eyes--golden in the fading sunlight--widened. "But-"

"Peace," she reiterated, adding a bit of power to the word so that it became a command. His limbs began to relax against his will. A flicker of irritation colored his features, but he bowed after a moment and disappeared into the dark tunnel at his back. Later, she vowed to explain to them the differences between Crows and Eagles. Until this moment, she hadn't even thought to do that; she had believed the difference to be obvious. Apparently, this was not so.

She turned her attention to the Crow standing just inside the mouth of the cave. She wasn't entirely sure how he had managed to get past their threshold--the only thing that seemed plausible was the possibility that the threshold didn't begin until deeper into the cave, closer to the area they slept in. After all, a vampire's presence didn't ward the whole house; just the room she slept in. Yes, that must be it.

Unlike the majority of his species, his skin had a warm, sun-kissed glow; he, like her, had chosen to live in the human world and risk the wrath of the Eagles rather than live in the Shadowland. She didn't blame him; though it had been her home for two hundred years, she had no great love for it. His dark hair came down past his shoulders and was tied back in a loose horsetail. Small, dark feathers gathered at his temples. He was tall, too--about Nicoloa's height. To support his wings, his shoulders were broad, his upper body well-formed.

Despite herself, Lily felt arousal touch her. It had been a long time since she had felt that, and she had to grin. Though, some distant part of her sarcastically quipped, Of course you'd find a Crow attractive….

Ignoring the voice, she stepped forward, resisting the urge to sway her hips. He was a Crow, and she had first-hand experience with Crows' rather obstinate sexual morality. Seduction would not be the proper route to take with this particular male.

She cocked her head to the side, slightly disappointed that she still couldn't make out his face from this vantage. The setting sun was right behind him, and his face fell into shadow--not even her vampiric eyes could make his features out. Drawing herself up, she put on her best 'I'm the Vampire Queen, bitch' face and eyed him coldly. "Is there any particular reason you're here, or did you simply want to spar with my fledglings? If it's the latter, I'm sure they would be willing to oblige you--after I've had my turn, of course."

She smiled coldly, letting him see her fang-tips. Though her kind had been greatly reduced, she knew that most Crows still viewed them with a kind of reverence, and other creatures of darkness were still slightly frightened of them.

This one, though, didn't seem to share those traits. His wings shook slightly, and she realized that he was trying not to laugh.

Irritation welled up in her, and her eyes narrowed. Still, her eyes couldn't help but travel to his wings. They were truly magnificent. Fully extended, she suspected that they would span more than twenty feet. As they were, the arched double-bow rose about a foot above his head. His wingtips crossed behind his knees, the feathers resting on the ground. Except for those feathers sullied by dust, they were all a shiny ebony. Part of her longed to reach out and run her hands through them.

She shook that part away, opting to instead follow the vein of irritation his silent laughter had inspired. "What's so funny, Crow?" she demanded, "I warn you, at this time I do not consider you a threat to me or my fledglings and I have no reason to harm you, but if you don't show me some respect, I will not be so…lenient."

The wings expanded, the feathers ruffling. To her surprise, though, the Crow swept them backwards and bowed at the waist. "Forgive me, princess. I forgot myself." It still sounded as if he was trying to keep from laughing.

Further irritated now, she stepped forward, growling. "I am not a princess--"

She cut herself off, staring at the figure in front of her. Her mouth went dry, her stomach seeming to fall away suddenly and violently. "Turn your head," she ordered, "so that I can see your face."

She sensed rather than saw his smile, but when he turned, the sun's light confirmed its presence. Her breath hitched in her throat. Beneath her left breast, her heart hammered against her ribcage. The face had aged slightly--just as the body had grown and changed slightly--but she knew him. Gods, she knew him.

"Tailfeathers," she whispered.

He spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, 'Yeah?'

For a few moments, she felt adrift. It was as if the last hundred years hadn't happened; all the emotions she thought had left her those many years ago returned in that instant. Time slipped away from her and her voice failed her. She drifted for those few moments, lost. When she returned to herself, and to this time, the world around her seemed to shift. The stone beneath her feet felt suddenly icy, the sun at his back was too bright. Everything was sharper, clearer.

Shaking off the feeling, though it left her trembling, she asked quietly, "What are you doing here?"

He didn't answer immediately. Instead, he made his way across what she considered the entryway until he stood just a few feet in front of her. He was close enough now that she could see his face despite the glow of the dying sun. For a few seconds, he just stood there. She watched him swallow, could practically sense him gathering his courage before he dipped down to take her hand. The heat of his palm surprised her, made her take a sharp breath.

His scent flooded her sensitive nose. Sweethearts and featherdust. She hadn't precisely forgotten it--some evenings she had woken with that strange scent in her mind, her body taut with longing. She had simply refused to remember who it belonged to. She doubted she would ever be able to forget again.

He covered her hand with both of his; on the smallest finger of his left hand, she saw her emerald ring. Turning her eyes from it--ignoring the memories it brought back of Melantha, of that day one hundred years ago when her world had transformed so violently--, she met his eyes. In this light, they looked more gold than yellow. "To ask if you are ready to take me as a mate," he said simply.

She was frozen, paralyzed. Even her mind seemed to stop working.

"If you are not…" He offered another slight shrug, "…then I will return in another fifty years, to ask you once more."

She could tell that he had tried to say it nonchalantly, but that wasn't how it came out. His voice shook toward the end, and his feathers made soft whispery noises as they twitched with agitation or nervousness. Probably the latter.

"Lily?"

Swallowing past the lump in her throat, she asked again, "What are you doing here?" There was more than a little desperation in her voice. She didn't like it. It made her sound weak; it made her feel weak.

His hands tightened over hers. "I told you-"

She yanked her hand away, summoning anger to cover her imagined weakness. "No!" she snapped, "I left you behind--I never wanted to see you again! I-I made my choice!"

Hurt flickered in his eyes, and he flinched slightly. He didn't turn away, though. "And what choice was that, Lily?" His voice was so soft, so sweet.

Before the Shadow's fall, when she had taken men eagerly and easily into her bed, she had always chosen men with rough, gravely voices. She had picked men with eyes that hinted at violence. She had chosen men that weren't worried about hurting her, men that didn't want to make love--men that wanted only to fuck. Men that would take what they wanted, regardless of her feelings. She wanted that, because it allowed her to do the same without guilt. She could take what she needed from them and leave dried out carcasses behind without a second thought.

Tailfeathers wasn't like that--she had always known this. From the moment she saw him, she knew that he wasn't like that. Everything from his voice to his eyes to the way he closed his hands over the top of hers told her that. She didn't want that. She didn't want that.

"I made my choice," she repeated, stepping back.

He sighed again, heavily. But he wasn't willing to let her go just yet. He stepped forward, catching her hand. "Lily, stop. Don't run from me."

"I'm not running, gods-dammit! I'm telling you to leave me the fuck alone!" She couldn't help but lean forward as she said it, her lips drawn back in a snarl.

Her fledglings were smart enough to get very, very far away when she got like this. Tailfeathers apparently didn't have their intelligence. Either that, or he didn't have their instinct for survival.

He pulled her closer, until they were only a foot apart. His eyes glittered brilliantly. With his other hand, he caught her chin, and stared down at her. "Fine. I'll leave. I told you I would, if you weren't ready, but you have to do one thing for me first, princess."

She growled at the nickname.

He paused, waiting for her to finish. Then, he named his request: "Kiss me. Just once."

She froze. "What!"

He shrugged again. "I can't have sex until you either find another mate or accept me. I think it's the least you could do, really."

She just stared at him for a few moments, stunned. First of all, he had managed all of that without blushing, and second of all, who the fuck did he think he was? What the hell kind of request was that anyway? Was he teasing her or-?

No. He was serious. Somehow, that made it worse.

Taking a calming breath, she gave him her sweetest smile, and said in her most alluring voice, "Why don't you bite me instead, Feather-butt?" Her smile turned from sweet to triumphant, but he returned it with a mischievous smile of his own.

"If that's what you'd prefer, princess."

Then, before she could gather herself, he tilted her head back and drew close, until his entire body was pressed against hers. He cradled the back of her neck with one hand; the other was wrapped around her waist. His wings had closed around them, flooding her senses with that sweethearts-and-feathers scent. The combination of touch and scent was enough to hold her for a few precious seconds. Then, he bit her.

It wasn't the kind of bite that she delivered to her victims. It was a gentle lover's nip. His teeth scraped against her pulse-point, his tongue flicking out to touch her flesh briefly. Like the rest of him, his tongue was warm--no, hot against her cold skin. Near the nape of her neck, one sharp talon scraped against her flesh teasingly. It didn't hurt--far from it--but it set her nerves on edge, made her skin seem ultra sensitized. Her skin had tightened and puckered into gooseflesh, while her heart thrummed rapidly in her chest.

She couldn't help it. She moaned.

As if waiting for that very sign, he pulled away, leaving her suddenly and completely alone. He was far enough away now that she couldn't even smell him--only the faintest trace remained on her clothes. The sun had fallen away behind the horizon, though, so she could see his face even at that distance. A small smile touched his mouth, and he was blushing.

If not for that last, she would have wondered if he was truly her Tailfeathers. But, sure enough, his cheeks had darkened and he was having trouble maintaining eye contact. Still, he managed to keep his eyes on her as he said, rather daringly, "If you want to find me, I'll be in Chiron. It's-"

"I know where it is," she snapped. His smile widened slightly at her tone. Then, he turned his back on her and threw himself from the mouth of the cave, his wings unfurling with a loud snap! An updraft carried him off, and he performed a quick barrel-roll before he swung up and out of sight. Unable to help herself, she rushed to the mouth of the cave to watch him fly away. He rode the wind masterfully, neither trying to force it to his will nor passively drifting along. Instead, he used its currents to his advantage, navigating with an expertise that was, admittedly, rather impressive.

Leaning against the rock, she sighed. "Showoff."

Still, she had to wonder--had he always been that graceful? No. She was sure he hadn't, just as he hadn't always been that confident in a fight, so in control. The years had changed him--not completely, but the mark of age, maturity, was on him. Without her knowledge, he had changed from a boy and into a man. She had thought him grown all those years ago--after all, he was only fifty years younger than her in terms of actual years--but seeing him now, she knew. He had been little more than a child then.

"Mistress?" a voice suddenly enquired.

She turned to see her fledglings watching her cautiously from across the room. "Yes?"

Nicoloa, their spokesman, stepped forward, his eyes bright. "Who was that?"

Inhaling, she turned to face them fully. "His name is Tailfeathers, and he…he wishes for me to take him as a mate."

They froze, eyes wide. Clearly, they hadn't expected that. Before they could ask her anymore questions, though, she leapt from the mouth of the cave, jumping from various outcroppings until she reached the base of the mountain. Looking up, she glimpsed her fledglings staring down at her from far away. They showed no inclination to follow her, which was good

She had some thinking to do.

xXxXxXx

This far above ground, the air was colder and thinner, but Tailfeathers had trouble with neither. The magic in his blood kept him warm and ensured that he got enough oxygen. Crows didn't have a lot of magic, but what they did have was highly specialized and gave them abilities most creatures of darkness--or of Light, for that matter--simply didn't have.

Eagles being the exception, of course.

At the moment, though, Tailfeathers wasn't thinking about Eagles or the magic of his blood. Right now, he was thinking about Lily, his mate. He had hoped, of course, that she would accept him tonight, that she would be as thrilled to see him as he was to see her. But no, she had to make things difficult.

He sighed, doing a lazy roll to bring himself down lower. Truthfully, he hadn't expected anything different, which is why he had decided to give her three nights before he gave up and left her for another fifty years. When the unspoken deadline had passed, he would know that she wasn't coming, and he could return to his Murder. More than anything, though, he hoped that she would come to him. Probably not tonight, but she might come tomorrow or the next night.

He sighed, tucking his wings in for a short dive. Chiron rose before him alarmingly fast, but his heart rate didn't even rise. When he was about one hundred feet overhead, he snapped his wings open, catching air that made him rise nearly fifty feet before he stabilized himself again. From this height, the city looked small, but it was actually one of the larger cities of the north. In this area, small farming communities and tavern-towns were more common, leaving this city as the epicenter for culture in the north.

Lazily, Tailfeathers circled overhead, eyeing the houses and shops spread out below him. He wasn't really watching the houses, though, or the people. He was watching for guardians. A city this size had to have them. They weren't Eagles--he knew that as surely as he knew his own name--and they weren't Crows either, which left a myriad of other options, both Light-born and Dark-born. In circling overhead, he was giving them what he considered fair-warning, and also giving them a chance to reveal themselves to him.

It didn't take long before two figures suddenly appeared in the sky at the edges of his vision. Spotting them, he banked left and flew toward them; not head-on--that might have been seen as a threat--, but a little to the left, so that they could drop in behind him as he passed.

As he got closer, he had to resist the urge to grimace. Flares. Withholding a sigh, he continued in his path, hoping to get this over with quickly. Flares were, as far as he could tell, Light's answer to Shadows. Unlike Shadows, though, Flares were considered relatively weak. Also, they didn't inhabit living creatures; instead, they usually chose to possess statues.

They were not actually weak in their pure form, but they spent a lot of energy animating the inanimate. Also, they didn't draw power from their hosts as Shadows and Incubi did--they couldn't. Instead, they rested motionless during the day, absorbing the light from the sun. Ironically, they had the reputation of being creatures of the night, though they were Light-born.

They were also considered some of the ugliest creatures of either Light or darkness. Not in their natural form--they had no actual form, but existed as beings of pure Light--, but because the statues that they invariably chose to possess were the guardian-statues humans made to protect their cities and places of worship. Accordingly, most humans called them gargoyles or golems.

As he knew they would, the two Flares dropped in beside him, their stone wings extended but unmoving. Tailfeathers studied first the one on his right, then the one to his left. They had a vaguely human shape--two legs, two arms, two eyes--but their faces were distorted by, respectively, a beak and the maw of what might have been a lion.

The more more avian gargoyle had talons on the ends of its toes and fingers, to make Tailfeather's own talon-like fingernails look essentially normal. The other barely had hands or feet. Instead, it had what could only be called paws, claws hidden away for the moment. The bird-like creature had a lighter, thinner appearance, though the long beak looked particularly sharp and wicked, and Tailfeathers didn't doubt that it would be a formidable opponent if he chose to make it one. The other was meatier, brawnier--very much like a malformed lion.

Both of their eyes glowed with a brilliant golden light that hurt his eyes to look at for more than a moment or two. When the lion-gargoyle opened its mouth, more of the golden light shone from its mouth, making it look almost as if it were burning on the inside. Tailfeathers had to resist the urge to twist his body and shake his wings: their proximity made it feel like he were flying through a thunderstorm. "Crow," it addressed him, voice surprisingly smooth though it issued from a stone throat, "what brings you to Chiron?"

The veiled question: 'are you here to help or to harm?' "I am not here as a member of my Murder, if that is what you ask."

Over the past hundred years, his kind had grown more numerous; certain plants in this world made it much easier for their females to conceive and bear children. There were several Murders now, most spread out over the human world, though a few had remained in the Shadowland. Those that chose to remain in the human world, however, had also chosen to act as humanity's protectors. That job had kept them very busy for the last hundred years.

When the Shadow had died, more than just the portal to the Shadowland had opened. For some reason, shortly after the creatures of darkness had started making their homes in the human world, the Light-born had also deigned to come from their lofty existence and live among the humans.

Like their dark counterparts, not all of the Light-born had humanity's best interests at heart.

However, with their characteristic desire for simplicity, humans had simply assumed that those creatures that intended them harm were of darkness and those that aided them were Light-born. Most couldn't tell the difference between an Eagle and a Crow; both had sought to help humanity, and therefore all winged-creatures were automatically Eagles.

Neither species had been entirely happy with that designation--despite their common goals, neither Crow nor Eagle had ever shown any desire to aid the other or foster better relations--but they had let it lie, knowing that it would be impossible to correct the humans' opinion. So far, at least, fighting between the two winged species had been kept to a minimum. Tailfeathers, personally, didn't think that it would last.

Oddly enough, the gargoyles seemed disappointed with his answer. He studied them a moment before asking, "Why? Is there some kind of trouble in this area?"

The two nodded. "Farmers on the outside of the town have been experiencing some difficulties. An inordinate number of livestock have been gutted and eaten in the past three months, their carcasses found in the forests."

Tailfeathers raised a brow. "I'm a Crow, not a hunter. If you're having trouble with wild animals, why don't you gather some of the men together and stage a hunt?"

"We did," the bird-creature answered, "And they found what had been taking the livestock--or, two of them, at least--but…. It wasn't an animal. Not entirely, at least."

"Excuse me?" he asked, disbelieving.

"Before they could catch it, it transformed into a…." It seemed to be struggling for words. "Into a--something else."

"What kind of 'something else'?"

They looked at each other. It was the lion-thing that finally spoke. "It had a mouth full of sharp teeth, and a pair of horns. Its skin was grey, and its eyes were yellow."

Tailfeathers blinked. From the first two, it would have guessed a shapeshifter--but the shapeshifters were all dead. Those that had survived the burst of Light Amala had let loose had been hunted down afterwards. They had got them all. Besides, Tailfeathers had never seen a shapeshifter with yellow eyes, and the gargoyle hadn't said anything about scales. But something was nagging at him, so he asked, "Did either of you actually see this creature? Did you go with the men on this hunt?"

They shook their heads. "No. We remained behind. It would have been better, though, if we had gone. Several of the men that went didn't return. We found their bodies a few days later--eaten, just as the animals had been. Since then, two children, a woman, and three more men have been taken and eaten as well. We have tried to find the creature, but that is not our specialty. If they were creatures of Light-" it shrugged, "-then we wouldn't have any problem finding them."

The other one chimed in, "We had been planning to fly to the nearest city and see if we could find an Eagle or a Crow, but since you are here…."

They looked at him questioningly. He sighed. "I'm not here as a member of my Murder," he repeated, "I was actually here to…speak with my mate."

They gave him a funny look. "Mating season lasts through fall. You can help us now and 'speak' with your mate at a later time."

He returned the look. "Mating sea- What are you talking about?"

"Is that not how Crows mate? It is the way of Eagles. They have a mating season once a year. Eagles that wish to further their line will take a mate for the duration of the season, in the hopes that the female will become pregnant. At the end of the season, they part if the female is not with child, but they will remain together to raise the child if she conceives. It is a very efficient system."

The gargoyles nodded solemnly, showing their approval for the 'efficiency of the system'. Tailfeathers just stared at them, his mouth slightly open. "Wait--they only couple if-if they want children?"

They stared at him blankly. "Why else would they bother? The entire process is rather messy, if I understand it right," the lion-creature said, "Why trouble yourself with that if you didn't want something out of it?"

"Our way is much better, really," the bird-like gargoyle added, earning another nod from its companion, "None of that mess; no gender. All we need is to collect a human soul with sufficient Light in it and tweak it a bit. That's even better than the way the Shadows do it--all that emotional turmoil is so…chaotic."

Shaking his head, Tailfeathers looked back down on the city below him. "Well, creatures of darkness do things differently. We aren't bothered by the 'messiness' of the 'process'. In fact, we find it rather enjoyable. In any case, if things work out between my mate and I we won't even be able to have children--she's infertile."

He could feel their burning eyes on him. Then, one of them burst out, "But--why bother, if you can get no progeny?"

Tailfeathers looked up, raising an eyebrow. "Because I love her."

They looked at each other first, then at him again. "Love?" one of them ventured, "What…what is that?"

He sighed and shook his head, looking up at the night sky. Light-born, he thought, exasperated. "That is not something that I can easily explain to you. And, anyway, I think you would find it all too 'messy' and 'chaotic' anyway. I am a being of darkness, and I find it rather aggravating, to be honest." At least, for the moment. With any luck, they could move past the frustrating part and onto more pleasant matters soon.

Before the Flares could reply, he looked down, his yellow eyes alighting on a place to land. "Perhaps I can help you, though. I will be here for a few days anyway, and I suspect I will spend most of my time simply waiting…. Are any of the men that went on this hunt still alive? Is there anyone I can talk to?"

Silently deciding to let go of the 'love' issue, they nodded, looking slightly relieved: emotions were not something most Light-born could easily understand. "Yes. Several of them returned. I can think of one that would be willing to talk to you."

He nodded. "I can make no promises--this may be beyond me, but I will see if I can do anything to help."

They didn't grin, didn't thank him. They just nodded and dropped, their wings tucked close to their bodies. As he looked on, they landed hard, a cloud of dust rising around them.

Tailfeathers shook his head, rolling his eyes as their landing, before following them. He threw his body into a vertical posture, using his wings to slow his descent, though he was still essentially falling. When he was close enough to the ground, he beat his wings mightily, slowing his fall further. His feet touched down lightly. It wasn't as fast as the gargoyles' quick descent, but then again, he wasn't made of stone and Light, either. He had tender flesh and brittle bone to worry about.

Wordless, they turned as soon as he landed, walking down the near-empty street. Since the otherworldly beings had arrived on their home world, most humans chose to stay inside after dark. Tailfeathers didn't blame them. He was also rather grateful for that now; walking down a crowded street filled with curious onlookers was not comfortable, especially with a large pair of wings on his back.

Even more uncomfortable, several people generally took it upon themselves to reach out and touch him--or, more specifically, his wings. It never used to bother him when people touched his wings, but now it made his skin crawl. The comfort and security it had once represented had been replaced with unease and a vague fear: too many humans had given his feathers a swift tug, wishing to dislodge one or two of his long feathers. Crow or Eagle feathers could fetch a good price in certain company. Tailfeathers liked to think that most of them just didn't realize how much it hurt, but part of him knew that most of them just didn't care.

After dark, though, he was free of such fears. Besides, he rather enjoyed the night. It reminded him of the Shadowland--which he still regarded as his home. Not as it was now, though; as it had been one hundred years ago. Now…it felt empty, deprived of the magic that it had once contained. He had no sense of purpose in that world anymore. No, his place was here, in this world--for the time being, at least.

The two gargoyles led him to what was clearly a tavern. Warm light spilled from the windows and from under the door, a muffled strain of folk music following on its heels. The bird-like gargoyle pulled the door open and stepped inside. Tailfeathers followed him, while the other gargoyle waited outside.

As usually happened when he stepped into a human-made establishment, Tailfeathers' feathers instantly pressed themselves flat against his wings, and his wings themselves pulled close to his body. He was intensely aware of the roof pressing down on him and the walls to either side. Though he had spent one hundred years in the human realm, he spent most of his time in places built by his own people--places with high roofs and wide rooms. Places that didn't seem so claustrophobic.

Pushing his feelings back, he followed the gargoyle as they made their way across the room. Tailfeathers' personal feelings aside, it truly was a small room. This was not one of the larger, richer taverns that would undoubtedly rest closer to the middle of the city. This was the kind of place where you brought your own mug--it was doubtful the staff would bother to clean their mugs--and expected to find grit in your ale. Only a few small, circular tables stood in the middle of the room. To the right of the bar, a trio of players stood--the source of the folk music. Only a handful of gloomy-looking patrons resided within. A few stared at the newcomers, but most just glanced up before turning red-rimmed eyes back to study the bottom of their mugs.

The gargoyle led him to a man seated by the fire. He was alone and a mug rested by his feet, but it didn't look as if he had touched it for some time; his eyes were focused intently on the fire, and his cheeks weren't red with drink. When he turned to look at them, his eyes were clear and focused on them readily. Like almost everyone else, though, he turned back to study the fire after only a few seconds.

Even when both Tailfeathers and the gargoyle pulled up chairs to sit in front of the man, he didn't look back at them, just continued to stare into the fire. The Crow found this disconcerting, but apparently the Flare thought this normal. It turned to Tailfeathers and said, as if the man weren't sitting across from them, "This is Jarah. He went on the hunt; he will speak with you."

Tailfeathers had watched the man as the gargoyle spoke; he didn't miss the slight way the human shuddered at the mention of the hunt, and he silently told himself to go about this delicately. "Jarah?" he asked, voice soft.

The man gave a minute nod of his head. "Aye, I am Jarah." His eyes were wide and kept flicking in Tailfeathers' direction; it looked as if he were getting ready to run.

Slowly, the Crow nodded, spreading his hands before him in an entreating gesture. "I have been told that you were one of the men brave enough to hunt for the beast that had been killing livestock. Would you like to tell me what you found?"

The man snorted bitterly, and swept his mug off the ground. He drank from it before letting it rest by his chair leg again. After, he raised a hand to wipe the foam from his beard. His hands shook. "It wasn't bravery that made us do it, Eagle; it was stupidity."

Tailfeathers managed not to flinch when the man called him 'Eagle'. "You had no way of knowing what you were up against. The attacks looked like those of an ordinary animal. It wasn't your fault. Now that we know that these creatures aren't normal, though, we can do something about it, but I need to know the nature of this creature. If you cannot tell me, then I will be just as unprepared as you and your friends were."

The man shuddered, but he nodded. "Yes. Yes, I can tell you. But don't expect to like what I say." He took another swig from his mug before finally fixing his eyes on Tailfeathers. "We cornered it near the river. It looked like a wolf--an ordinary wolf. Before we could get it, though, it-it changed. It-it shrank a little bit, and it rose from four feet to stand on two.

"It was naked and hairless and damn near the ugliest thing I've ever seen. We-we laughed at first. The-the thing was tiny--barely three feet tall. It looked awkward and ugly, with a pair of stunted horns and completely hairless. Before we could finish laughing, though, the thing started to cry. Not-not like a human child cries, but to howl like a wolf that's been hit with an arrow. That just made us laugh harder.

"Until-until its mother showed up." The man gulped, still eyeing Tailfeathers. "She looked just as ugly as the child, but a whole lot bigger. And-and she had none of its awkwardness. Her teeth were sharper than any blade I've ever seen, and her eyes glowed with an-an awful light. She-she was fast, too. Before we could do anything, she-she had taken one of our men out."

The man had started to shake more violently now, eyes wide and focused not on the present, but on that not-so-distant past. He tried to continue, but Tailfeathers pressed a hand on his shoulder and said gently, "Peace. I don't need to know that part. Just, tell me this; when you tried your weapons against her, were you able to draw blood."

It took a moment for him to gather himself, but he finally shook his head. "Yes, but it didn't slow it at all--like it just didn't care. We were lucky to escape with our lives."

"Those of you that did, anyway," the Flare added unhelpfully.

Tailfeathers shot it a look, but said nothing. Instead, he stood and laid a hand on the man's shoulder again. "I swear that your friends won't have died in vain. I will do what I can to avenge them and get rid of these creatures."

The man nodded, but he didn't look very comforted. There was nothing more that Tailfeathers could do for him, though, so he turned away and led the gargoyle out into the night to join its partner. Once outside, it asked him, "So, you will help us?"

Leaning against the tavern, Tailfeathers sighed. "I cannot refuse to aid you in a matter like this. But, I will need help."

"We are here to assist you. This is our city. We protect it." It was, possibly, the most emotional sentiment that either of the Flares had ever uttered.

"Thank you, but I'll need more help."

"Will you go back to your Murder?"

He shook his head. "No, they're too far away to get here quickly enough. I think…I think my mate might want to help with this, though. If nothing else, she'll want to hear about these…shapeshifters." Besides, in a fight, Lily was probably better than five Crows--especially against shapeshifters of any kind. He didn't know exactly what these creatures were--the shapeshifters that he knew didn't have yellow eyes or grey skin--, but he knew that they were somehow related to the shapeshifters of his youth, and they had to be taken care of. He had chosen to act as one of humanity's guards those many years ago; this was part of his job. He really had no choice.

He shook his head. It was a long way to Lily's current hideaway--at least an hour on wing, though it would take half a day on foot--, and she wouldn't be happy to see him again so soon. But she would be even more unhappy if he waited to tell her about these strange shapeshifters; this was the kind of thing she would want to know immediately. It would be best if he left now.

Looking to the gargoyles at his side, he said, "I'll be back," and started running. Once he had picked up enough speed, he threw out his wings and flapped to get into the air. A burst of magic was required to lift him, though, the dark energy running hot through his blood. Taking off from the ground was difficult, and he knew that he wouldn't have the energy to fly back tonight. Hopefully, Lily would be sensitive to his case and allow him to sleep with her and her brood. Otherwise…he was walking.

He sent a silent prayer to the gods of the air--having no illusions about Lily's sense of compassion--before turning back toward the mountains he had just come from.