MK: Dance of the Tiger-Woman

by Volk-Oboroten'


[Note: This is a Metamor Keep story whose name has now been changed to "Night of the Tigress". I have used Volk's final text of the story here, but have kept the original name he used when he submitted it for the contest. --RB]


A quiet rustle came from the underbrush, hidden by
the mists of the forest. Kazrakh straightened up and
put a hand to the scimitar at his belt, an uneasy
feeling gnawing at his gut. His feline ears twisted
this way and that, trying to focus in on the source of
the noise, as his keen night-vision scanned for any
sign of what might have caused the noise.

"Rarksha," he whispered, glancing over at the other
guard standing a few paces away. "What was that?"

Rarksha sniffed the breeze, no doubt hoping to gain
more insight into what had made the sound. "I ain't
sure," he said. He paused, ears twitching, as the
rustling continued. "But it's gettin' closer."

Somewhere in the distance a wolf howled, an eerie,
mournful sound that caused the fur to stand up on the
back of Kazrakh's neck. As a Karuvati, a hybrid of cat
and lutin forged through the magic of the Black Claw,
Kazrakh had no love for canines of any sort; but the
wolves of the dark forest filled him with absolute
dread. They were massive beasts, dark and terrible,
and some of them were said to be shapeshifters. If
they were here, now, on a hunt . . .

Kazrakh's train of thought was interrupted by more
rustling and the sight of a shadow moving through the
midst. Something was moving along the far side of
the brook, nimbly climbing through the branches down
to the water. Rarksha moved closer to the trees,
seeming almost eager to spot the intruder. Kazrakh
followed more tentatively, a few paces behind him.

"Look!" exclaimed Kazrakh, seeing a flash of black
and orange. "Down by the water . . ."

Rarksha ignored the statement of his fellow guard,
for he was entranced by what he saw standing on a
mossy log, stretched just above the water. A naked
woman? But humans weren't supposed to have stripes.
Perhaps it was a trick of the light, a shadow cast by
the setting sun. He pressed forward through the
thorny gorse, eager to eye the mysterious stranger.

"By Karu!" swore Rarksha. "I'm sure she's got a

By this time, Kazrakh had also spotted the mysterious
female. Her tail, tipped with black fur, swished
back and forth, as she gazed up at a red light on a
nearby hill. Then, she slowly knelt down from her
branch and began to lap water from the stream.

"Is that fur?" asked Kazrakh, looking at the orange
and black stripes that were becoming more and more
prominent on the woman's body. Spreading. Fanning
out across her pale skin. He also noticed claws
extending from her feet, allowing her to balance
better on the slippery log while she drank from the
stream. "Does the Master use humans in his
experiments now?"

"Get down!" said Rarksha, as a beam of red light shot
down from above. "He's watchin' right now!" As the
Karuvati guards dropped to the ground, the enigmatic
tiger woman returned to her perch, standing upright on
the log. She looked up at the hill, seductively
smiling into the red light, which lingered on her
striped body for a few moments before fading into the

A minute later, the guards got up, badly shaken by
their experience. What had happened? Had the woman
deliberately gone there so she could be spotted?

"She's gone," muttered Kazrakh, hearing movement in
the trees again. "Must have run off once she knew His
eye was on her. . ."

"They can't say we let her through, not even Captain
Ulthar" said Rarksha, "Though I wouldn't mind seein'
some more of her. Do you think she'll be back?"

"I dunno," replied Kazrakh, "But we gotta be careful
tonight. Some special folks are comin' up the hill to
see the Master, so we have to watch the road. Can't
let anyone in who wasn't invited."

The guards resumed their watch reluctantly, peering
into the dark trees for any sign of the tigress-like
woman. But they couldn't see anything, even with
their keen eyesight, for she was far away. Placing a
black and gold-edged tabard carefully over her orange
gown, the woman rested in a large oak tree, not far
from a path leading into the mining town.

Below the tree, Bertolf prepared to return to the
mines. He'd intended to watch the road, for it was
rumored that strange cultists would soon be going up
to the hidden valley for some arcane midnight ritual.
But now it was getting too dark, too dark to see

As he turned to walk back, Bertolf felt a rush of air
behind him. Surprised not to hear much sound, he
soon found himself face-to-face with an odd woman.
Her piercing yellow-brown eyes looked directly at him,
while her orange-red hair shone the same color as the

"Who are you?" he asked. "Are you one of the . . ."

"I'm here to see the Black Claw," the woman stated
forcefully. "I've traveled many miles, all the way
from the lands east of the Forest of Darkness. Take
me to him!"

Looking at the woman's feet, Bertolf wondered how she
could have journeyed such a great distance. Instead
of normal boots, she wore oddly toeless shoes, made of
a shiny black material. She had similar apparel on
her hands, black gloves ending at the palm, having no
fingers. "I'm sorry I can't help you, but I don't
know much about things up in that valley. The Black
Claw's real secretive . . . You'll have to talk to one
of his cat lutins."

"So, you're not one of the Malachites," she said,
looking at his rough clothing. "Not surprising, as I
doubt if they employ many human miners. But perhaps
you could help me complete my mission . . . Something
was taken from a temple by the Black Claw's minions, a
precious jewel that must be restored."

Bertolf considered her request for a moment,
wondering what she really wanted. Then, a brief gust
lifted her long hair revealing large, cup-shaped ears,
covered with light fur. She must be a supernatural
being! Hadn't the burgomaster met a woman like this
once, back when he was merely a simple miner?

"I'd sure like to help you," Bertolf said hastily.
"But I'm not sure what I can do alone. Even a pack of
dire wolves would be stopped by the guards before they
reached the Black Claw's valley. They won't let you
just walk in. Especially not tonight, when they've
got some weird festival going on. You see, the
shortest night of the year . . ."

"That's why I'm here," said the woman. "They stole
the Tiger's Eye from us, and want to use the jewel's
magic for a sinister scheme. We must recover it when
the Black Claw's power is weakest, before darkness
begins to return to the land. Every human in your
town will be in danger if he's able to tap the
mystical energy found in the Tiger's Eye."

"But I'm no mage," protested Bertolf. "I'm just
Bertolf the miner. How can I help you get this jewel
back? Even Valaric couldn't face the Black Claw in
his own fortress."

"So, this is the town guarded by the dire wolf lord,"
said the woman, looking closely at Bertolf. "Hasn't
he had trouble with the Malachites before? I've
heard stories."

"Oh, yes!" exclaimed Bertolf, "Lots of trouble!
I've heard that they tried to bribe him, hoping he'd
desert our Queen to serve the Black Claw. But none
of their ploys worked, so they tried to go after his
pack. But Valaric made sure that none of the Karuvati
entered the forest."

"So he wants wolves now," said the woman, after
glancing up at the red light shining through the
shadows on the mountain above. "It may be easier for
me to bring you up there than I'd planned. Has
Valaric told you anything about shapeshifting?"

"Shapeshifting?" the miner's brow furrowed. "Well,
Valaric is able to change shape whenever he feels like
it. Or at least _I_ think so; not everyone agrees. No
one is really sure."

"In the east, we know a great deal about
shapeshifting," interrupted the woman. "I am an
enchantress, one who has studied such magic for many
years. But my power is somewhat limited . . .
certainly not enough to subdue the Malachites by
myself. I'll need your help, Bertolf."

"What do you want me to do?" asked the miner, hearing
people approach on the road. He couldn't see them in
the twilight, but could hear horses whinny in the

"Quick! Follow me into the trees!" ordered the
enchantress, as she hastily darted away from the path.
Bertolf reluctantly stumbled after her, worried that
he might trip over a root in the dense forest, for it
was getting quite dark. He also wondered why she was
so alarmed about the group of strangers coming from
the north.

"I'm sure the Black Claw will let me into his
fortress," said the woman, after they had moved a safe
distance away from the road. They could barely hear
the muffled sound of the horses' hooves plodding down
the path. "But I need to have someone with me, one
who can recover the Tiger's Eye after I distract the
Malachites. If they want werewolves, I'll give them
one. Let them think that Valaric's pack is ready to
serve the Nameless One."

"I'm afraid Valaric is out of town tonight," said
Bertolf. "He's guarding one of the caravans through
the Tauremorna, but should get back by dawn.
Perhaps you should wait until then. He's been
suspicious of the Malachites for weeks, so he'd be
happy to help you."

"I can't wait," murmured the woman, anxiously
listening to the traffic on the road. "If the Black
Claw is able to amass enough power, he could become as
strong as the daedra. His evil will consume your
entire town if it's allowed to grow. I must get the
Tiger's Eye back now!"

"Destroy Lik? I knew he was bad . . . but that bad!
What can I do? You want me to snare one of
Valaric's wolves? I've done a little hunting in the
past, but I wouldn't dare consider that," observed
Bertolf. "Besides, it would anger the Queen! She's
been good to us, bringing peace and plenty. We even
found some mithril this spring! I couldn't . . ."

"I don't need you to hunt anything. I just need you
to come with me, up to Cirith Morgul," insisted the
woman, carefully pacing her words. "Voluntarily, of
course. And it's not permanent, as I only have
limited power. I'm not sure the spell would even
last until dawn."

"What's not permanent?" asked Bertolf, feeling
somewhat nervous. "I've heard of men in the village
who went out into the Black Forest and never returned.
At least not in the same form. They accepted the
Queen's embrace, and after they were kissed . . ."

"I wouldn't want you to make that sort of sacrifice."

"I didn't think you would, even though I don't know
your name. But you're so beautiful, just like the
vampiress . . . Ummm, I didn't mean that. It's just
that people are uneasy about the folks who joined
Eternal Brotherhood. You see, they're not exactly
human any more. Even though they look alive after the
kiss . . ."

"You want a kiss?" asked the woman, as she slowly
leaned forward. "You'll know much more about
shapeshifting after tonight. Perhaps you'll even
understand Valaric better. Just say that you're
willing to help me, and I'll be ready to start."

"Start what? You think I'm a shapeshifter? Just
because I've worked for Valaric, doesn't mean I know
how to change . . . even though I'd like to be able .
. ."

"Just say yes."

"To helping you. I don't know if I can help, but
I'm willing to try. Yes, I'd be . . ."

The woman abruptly kissed Bertolf, while she held a
glowing purple crystal in her left hand above his
head. Surprised by her action, he pulled back, only
to feel that his face was changing. Stretching out.
Elongating into a muzzle!

"Rrrrrrmmmmmffff!" he mumbled, noticing black claws
erupting from his heavy boots. Looking down, he saw
dark pads forming on his hands, which were starting to
contort, shifting into the shape of wolf paws. But
then, watching more closely, he realized that he still
had thumbs, so his hands only looked partially lupine.
They were still basically human, but for their black
pads and claws.

"Don't try to talk," said the woman. "It would take
far too much magic to allow you to speak with a canine
muzzle. Besides, I can let you understand my

Rubbing his hands, or rather, paws, against his head,
Bertolf felt pointed, furry ears. She was turning
him into a werewolf! How far would this go? Would
she make him drop to all fours. He abruptly became
aware of the scent of people on the road, sensing a
feline odor somewhere in the distance. But the
woman's smell was far stronger, making him think of a
tigress from the snowy woods.

As Bertolf began to move his arms forward, nervously
watching at the fur thicken on his fingers, he
realized the woman was speaking directly to his mind,
"Don't worry," she assured him. "It's only for
tonight. All you have to do is move when I'm ready.
And don't worry about becoming an actual wolf. I
think the Black Claw's more into half-human creatures,
so he'd be more likely to let you in like this.
Besides, you can't help me very well if you don't have
hands. Then, once I rescue the Tiger's Eye you'll be
free to return to your normal life."

"Rrrrroooohh . . . mmm . . rrrr" Bertolf barked,
forgetting that he couldn't speak.

"You'll know something that none of your friends
share. Something no miner in Lik has experienced
before. Something that you'll have in common with

Relieved that the changes had stopped, Bertolf moved
forward, uneasily balanced on the sharp claws
portruding from his feet. He was surprised to find
that it was relatively easy to walk in a dog-like
manner. Perhaps it was part of the spell cast by
the enchantress? Also, he had no trouble seeing
objects in the dark woods, although he couldn't make
out any colors. He began to wonder if he would
actually find this enjoyable, especially if it was
only for one night. Maybe there was a reason why
Valaric liked to be partly lupine instead of fully
human . . .

"We've got work to do," said the woman. "Just follow
behind me, and try to be convincing. They'll think
that you're a wolf from Valaric's pack, recruited by
me to become a servant of the Black Claw. Act like
one of them. It shouldn't be too hard to be

A few minutes later, the woman arrived at the edge of
the road, near a motley group of Malachites heading up
the mountain path to the Black Claw's valley.
Draconian reptile-men, feline Karuvati, humans wearing
dark robes, and other guests milled about at the gate,
waiting to be admitted inside. The enchantress moved
into the crowd, beckoning Bertolf to follow her.

Striding forth from the forest onto the road, Bertolf
bared his fangs. That's what a werewolf should do,
he thought, for the Malachites would surely want only
a terrifying monster to join them. The Karuvati
moved to either side, staring at the bipedal canine
who'd unexpectedly appeared into their midst. Others
studied him intently, surprised to find a lycanthrope
at Cirith Morgul.

Although he couldn't see the enchantress, Bertolf
found it easy to move through the throng, for he could
sense her feline smell. It wasn't like the Karuvati
at all, for he could sense her magical power on the
air. But there was something else, something which
reeked of evil.

Nearing the gate, guarded by three Karuvati armed
with sharp swords, he saw a woman with furry, catlike
ears. She made him think of a lioness, full of
feline fury. He edged back, as a cat-lutin guard
moved forward to greet the leonine woman.

"We've been expecting you," said the Karuvati leader
at the gate. "Have you brought the manticore along
as you promised, Beruthiel? The Black Claw was
looking forward to . . ."

"Didn't you get my message, Captain Ulthar?" she
complained. "I was sure he'd join us, but . . ."
She suddenly stopped speaking when she saw Bertolf,
glancing at his odd clothers. "A werewolf dressed as
a miner? What's this supposed . . ."

Bertolf growled at Beruthiel, attempting to look
menacing. She hissed back at him, but then stared at
another new arrival. "Who is that? Why wasn't I
told that another feline sorceress had been invited?"
Beruthiel snarled. "I'm supposed to know everyone .
. ."

The enchantress ignored Beruthiel's questions and
walked up to the gate, looking straight at the
Karuvati guards. "I don't have an invitation, but
I'm sure the Black Claw will want to me join your
little party. I'm very entertaining. Also, I've
brought my wolf friend as my guest . . . He's a new
recruit for the Malachite Order."

"Who are you?" said Captain Ulthar, rubbing the
spotted fur on his greenish arms. "I can't even
consider letting you in without knowing your name."

"Call me Ulthenia," said the enchantress, flashing
her long eyelashes at Ulthar. "The Black Claw has
seen me before, so I'm sure he'll let me in."

One of the Karuvati guards standing next to Ulthar
immediately recognized her. "Captain, that's the
woman I told you about . . . The one Rarksha and I saw
. . ."

"Yeah," said the other cat-lutin, "Kazrakh's right.
She's got all those stripes, just like I told you.
You see, she's a tiger lady. An' I think the Boss
saw her too . . ."

"That woman!" said Ulthar, looking somewhat askance
at the enchantress. "The one who was naked earlier
today? I'll have to find out what she's . . ."

"Don't worry yourself," sighed Ulthenia, looking
deeply into Ulthar's eyes, "If you want to find out
more about me, I'll show you more later. Everything
you want to see."

"If you put it that way," replied Ulthar. "But I
need to know more about you. I never heard of a
were-tigress seeking to join the Malachite Order
before. There aren't that many . . ."

"I'm unique," replied Ulthenia. "Really special.
After all, was anyone else able to bring a wolf-man to
your little party? I heard the Black Claw was eager
to get canine recruits, so I thought I should join you
tonight. Especially, as I'm sure he'd like to see
more of me."

"What insolence!" exclaimed Beruthiel, unsheathing
the claws on her leonine hands. "How dare you
suggest the Black Claw has any sort of interest in
you. Gorthaur is an emissary from the Nameless One
himself, so he couldn't possibly care about a
third-rate tramp. Get away from here before I make
you leave."

"Who made you queen?" asked Ulthenia. "Are you a
special favorite of the Black Claw? I can't see
why, after your failure. Weren't you were supposed
to bring a manticore here? . . . But I don't see
anyone with you tonight . . . I guess, he'll just be
very disappointed . . ."

Beruthiel prepared to leap at Ulthenia, when Captain
Ulthar held out his spear. "Remember," said the
Karuvati commander. "There is to be no fighting here
tonight. The Black Claw himself said that visitors
are not to bring any weapons. All felines are too
keep their claws retracted inside the gate, in order
to avoid any unforseen incidents."

Beruthiel sullenly moved away, allowing her sharp
claws to recede back into her fingers. As she stalked
off, Ulthenia stroked the fur on Ulthar's arm, "I love
to meet a man who's forceful. Or even a lutin. But
you're really intriguing, as I find your black and
yellow spots so enticing. They're just a perfect
match for your green skin. Perhaps we can talk more
after the meeting."

"Of course," said Ulthar, "I may have some time free
after midnight . . ."

"You're just going to let her in?" asked a man in an
incredulous voice. "I'm Fortinbras of Caralore, a
loyal servant of the Nameless One for many years. I
know most people in the Order . . . and I've never
heard of an Ulthenia! Who is she? And who is this
dog with her?"

Bertolf moved to the side, a bit concerned by the
ominous presence of Fortinbras. Even though he still
wasn't used to his new lupine senses, Bertolf could
tell that there was something odd about this man.
Something just didn't smell quite right.

"No answer? I'm not surprised," said Fortinbras,
staring at Bertolf's muzzle. "Maybe this a trick,
something concocted by the burgomaster to infiltrate
our meeting. And I'm especially suspicious of this
werewolf. Why is he stuck in an intermediate form
like this, neither wolf nor human? The only place
I've heard of creatures like this is Metamor Keep.
Well . . . are you from there? What's your name?"

"He doesn't talk," replied Ulthenia, as she brushed
some fleas off Ulthar's fur.

"Oh . . . a mute? You expect to be rewarded for
something like that? Why would the Emissary want a
brute with no intelligence? He would hardly further
our cause."

Ulthenia ignored Fortinbras, removing her right glove
to display the striped fur on her arm to Captain
Ulthar. "Don't you think the Karuvati would look
good in orange and black? Humans just don't
understand the sense of style cats share . . ."

"You haven't answered any of my questions,"
complained Fortinbras. "I'm an important man in the
Order! Where are you from? What gives you right to
come . . ."

Ulthenia began licking the fur on her arm with her
tongue, but abruptly stopped, looking directly at
Ulthar, "It's soooo tiresome having to deal with
humans. They smell so bad, that I just feel soo
dirty around them. Makes me want to give myself a
bath. Mrrr . . ." After licking her fur again, she
said to Ulthar, "I bet you feel the same way. Maybe
later tonight we could . . ."

Meanwhile, Fortinbras glared at Bertolf, carefully
studying his features. "What manner of wolf are
you?" said Fortinbras. "I can sense the magic about
you, but it's clearly not from Metamor, for it's very
shallow. In fact, it must have been cast not too
long ago . . ."

Bertolf tried to ignore the guttering torch
Fortinbras held over his head, but became increasingly
nervous, fearful that the flames would burn his fur.
He could feel the heat singe the hairs on the tips of
his ears. But then, Fortinbras suddenly withdrew,
stopping his inspection in order to greet a newcomer
from the Black Claw's lair.

"I didn't expect to see you until midnight. Weren't
you with the Emissary . . ."

Fortinbras was talking to a tall draconian, a reptile
man with green scales mottled with red on his right
arm. This unusual color caused the Malachites to
call him Fire Claw' after he'd joined them, months
after being rejected by Lilith's mages. He'd proven
himself in the service of the Black Claw, and was even
said to know the thoughts of his master.

"I needed to lock the pen for the spidersss. Such
unpredictable creaturesss," said Fire Claw as his
green eyes glittered in the torch light.

"Perhaps you could help me find out who these people
are," said Fortinbras. "There's a tiger woman over
by the Karuvati . . . um, the one who is licking
Ulthar's whiskers . . ."

"A tigresss? The master told me to find her, for he
wants to know . . ."

"Good! I'm glad you came so quickly. I think she's
some sort of spy. You see, she brought this so-called
werewolf with her. "

Fire Claw glanced at Ulthenia for a moment, but then
looked more closely at Bertolf, "The Master always
wanted to get wolvesss. But Durcarak wouldn't come
. . . he turned down all of our offersss. Now, she's
brought one of the pack. The Black Claw will be so
pleased . . ."

"You don't understand," protested Fortinbras.
"Beruthiel wanted to send this false enchantress away
. . . get rid of the witch and her dog, but then she
put a spell on Ulthar . . ."

Fire Claw's eyes immediately locked onto Fortinbras,
showing a look of steely determination. As they began
to brightly glow with a golden hue, Fortinbras winced,
afraid of the power behind them. "My eye has been on
her before. I want to see more! Send the woman and
her wolf up the path at once." Fire Claw's voice
abruptly seemed deeper, edged with darkness and
malice. Bertolf thought it even had an eerie echo,
like its sound was somehow layered.

Ulthar promptly unbarred the gate, for he regarded
such words from Fire Claw as equivalent to the voice
of the Black Claw himself. Ulthenia and Bertolf
promptly walked up the steep path, eager to get away
from Fortinbras. They found themselves on a trail
lined with torches, leading through the shadows up
into a mountain valley.

Bertolf found himself unable to see much beyond the
road, as thick mist seemed to cover the land. Was it
magic? Still, he could tell there were things moving
through the shadows, watching his every move.

"It's that accursed Beruthiel," said Ulthenia,
allowing Bertolf to mentally perceive her words.
"She's sent her black cats out to spy on us. I'll
have to delay until she's not watching. When we go
inside, just keep quiet, and do what I tell you,
Bertolf. I'll only attempt to recover the Tiger's
Eye, when I'm sure they're not on guard."

Before long, they came to a cave mouth, leading down
into a darkened chamber. Turning left, they reached
a wide tunnel, which soon opened up into another pit,
lined with stairs, descending further and further down
into the mountain. Finally, they reached the end of
their journey, the deepest pit in the nethermost

Looking around, Bertolf saw large numbers of
Karuvati, carrying weapons of various sorts: pikes,
spears, and strange metallic objects beyond his ken.
Torches lined the edge of the cavern, displaying
skulls stacked upon racks along the opposite wall from
the entrance. In the center of the cave, a fire
blazed before a pit, which periodically erupted with
blasts of steam.

Directing Ulthenia forward, Fire Claw said, "It's
time for you to meet the Bosss."

As she walked toward the fire, Bertolf cautiously
moved at her side. He quickly noticed that something
large was rising out of the flames. A black shape,
ascending up from below, balanced on some sort of

A few minutes later, the smoke cleared enough for him
to see what was there. A ferocious-looking cat-man
sat on the throne, glowering at Ulthenia. His black
fur nearly matched the dark walls of the cavern. On
his right arm, he wore a bracelet decorated with a . .

"The Tiger's Eye!" Bertolf heard in his mind.
Uh-oh. Did Ulthenia want him to fight this monster?
With what? He hadn't brought any weapons. Besides,
there were so many Karuvati guards here. "I'll take
care of them. Gorthaur won't know what hit him . . .

Uncertain what to do, Bertolf continued to look at
the panther-like being seated in the center of the
tavern. "Sit!" insisted a voice in his head. As he
dropped to the ground, wondering if he should go on
all fours like a dog, he heard Ulthenia's thoughts
again, "Don't even look at the Black Claw! I can't
risk having him probe for psychic links, even for a
second. Bow your head to the ground, for he expects
all to worship prostrate before his throne."

Worship? Bertolf felt distinctly uneasy about this,
but decided he must follow Ulthenia's advice if he had
any hope of getting out of here. Nearby, he could
hear the Karuvati chanting, as they pressed their
heads to the ground. Out of the corner of his eye,
he spotted Fortinbras kneeling before the left foot of
the feline demon. As Fortinbras uncovered his hood to
reveal his bald head, Bertolf thought he saw flames
hover above his face, just below the Black Claw's arm.
But then he turned away, not daring to look any
longer, as he recalled the warning to avert his eyes
lest the Malachites discover his mental contact with

"I see you have remembered proper respect for the
Bosss, Fortinbrasss," said Fire Claw, standing on the
right side of his feline master. "All should
genuflect in his honor! No one else knows the mind of
the Nameless One in such completeness!"

"All hail the Emissary!" murmured the Malachites
gathered in the cave.

"You may stand now," stated Fire Claw, "for
Fortinbras has been selected for a great honor. He
may now wear the Shepherd's Cap as a sign of his
service to the Order."

As the Karuvati slowly rose to their furry feet,
Bertolf gradually edged away to the far side of the
great room, keeping his eyes low to the ground.
Finding himself near the skull rack, he slowly rose on
the balls of his feet, but kept his arms down, as if
he'd prefer to stay on all fours. Ulthenia winked
at him, presumably approving of his effort to look
more wolf-like.

"Spiral Horn shall present the award now," declared
Fire Claw, gesturing to another draconian standing on
the far side of Fortinbras. As the other reptile
lifted a fleece-covered hat with his claws, Fire Claw
continued, "The shepherd who founded the Malachite
Order dedicated his life to the service of the Giver
of Freedom. One can only show true dedication by
giving away his life, offering blood for our cause."

"All glory to our Lord!" shouted the Karuvati. "May
He soon claim His own!" Meanwhile, two human
Malachites, who were presumably acolytes of
Fortinbras, moved to the center of the room. Even
though Bertolf couldn't see them too clearly, he could
tell that they had bowed heads like the others, being
careful not to behold the eyes of the Black Claw.

"When the shepherd returned to his flock after first
meeting the Master," continued Fire Claw. "he vowed
to sacrifice a lamb to the Nameless One. But none of
the ewes had borne lambsss. How could he please the
Master? He stabbed his knife into a pregnant ewe."

"One life is not enough for the Prince of the World,"
chanted the feline guards.

"He tore the unborn lamb from the womb, spilling
blood on his handsss, as he took its life as well.
He tore the white fleece from its body, finding the
true wool of darknesss."

"Two must die to honor the Master of Shadows,"
intoned the Karuvati.

As Spiral Horn placed the hat on Fortinbras, Fire
Claw reached into a sheep's skull flagon. He lifted
his right claw to reveal that it was covered with
fresh blood, causing some of the Karuvati to begin
licking their whiskers with hunger. Next, after
allowing drops of blood to drip from his claw onto the
Shepherd's Cap, the draconian continued the ritual by
letting the two acolytes drink from the flagon. As
they knelt below the skull, he solemnly recited "All
who drink the blood of the lamb may find true life in
the service of the Giver of Freedom."

"We shall always serve him, until the Sun fails and
the Moon is dead!"

After sipping the blood, the acolytes withdrew to the
side of the cavern, walking backward as they dared not
turn their backs on the Black Claw. Fortinbras
grimaced as blood dripped from the cap onto his
cheeks, nose, and eyes. How could there be so much
blood, Bertolf wondered? He'd only seen a small
amount fall from Fire Claw's talons. It was as if
the cap was full of blood, oozing red from every pore.

"All hail the Devourer of Worlds! We await the day
when he descends from the clouds, blotting out all
light. His mighty flames will scour the world,
leaving a desolate wilderness."

Fortinbras then bowed his head before the Black
Claw's throne, letting blood stream down onto his
hands. In a steady voice, he proclaimed to all,
"When the Master comes, the light shall fail! Nothing
shall escape us! Every head shall bow before him!
All shall call him Lord!"

"The triumph of shadow is near! He shall lift his
hand over dead sea and withered land."

Bertolf then saw Fortinbras hastily retreat back
toward the wall, as two mighty clawed feet rose from
the throne, standing before the assembled Malachites.
It was the Black Claw! Gorthaur, Emissary of the
Nameless One. The feline demon growled deep in his
throat, as a ball of flame materialized above the
skull rack.

The fireball hovered in front of Bertolf for a
moment, making him fear that it would burn him with
its intense flame. But soon, it drifted into the
center of the room. Before it reached the dark
throne, a black claw swept down into its midst,
blotting out its red light.

Then Bertolf heard a strange sound from the ceiling,
a grinding of gears as stone slabs slid to the side.
Then, he looked up, seeing a shaft open, pointed
toward the southern sky. A red light? Yes, it was
one of the wandering stars. One that the astrologers
said was a sign of evil. Bertolf noticed that all
were staring upwards, imitating Gorthaur, whose gaze
seemed fixed on the distant blood-red light.

Then, Gorthaur bowed his head, murmuring strange
sounds in a tongue Bertolf couldn't understand. The
miner guessed it was a prayer to the Nameless One, or,
more correctly, a curse, judging from the snarls and
growls interspersed with Gorthaur's words. Whatever
it was, there could be nothing good in it.

Gorthaur's invocation ended with a rumbling roar,
causing all to shudder. For a moment, the torches
lining the walls failed, plunging the entire room into
total darkness, save for the light of a few stars
dimly shining down the shaft from above. As the
light slowly returned, Bertolf wondered what sort of
dark magic could have been used. What had he gotten
himself into? Not only was he some sort of werewolf,
but he was surrounded by evildoers! He felt only a
little bit more confident when he glimpsed Ulthenia,
sitting on the ground below the throne. As two
terrible black claws moved once more into view, he
could tell that the throne's dread occupant was once
again seated

Fire Claw slowly began to speak, "We have a guest
here tonight, a feline sorceresss. She has honored
the Black Claw by bringing a new servant, one taken
away from the Daedra Queen."

A gasp came from one of the acolytes, as Fortinbras
looked intently at Bertolf. Unnerved by the eyes of
the Karuvati, Bertolf let his ears fold down and slid
in front of the skull rack, hiding his eyes.
Dropping his front paws to the ground, he bowed before
the throne.

"Soon, we shall have an army of wolvesss." Then,
noticing looks of concern from some of the guests,
Fire Claw added, "We shall not fear the wrath of the
vampiresss. No one shall prevent us from claiming
the wild beastsss! A place of hiding is prepared in
the mountainsss, so we may build our force free from
prying eyesss, far to the east, hidden in great

Ulthenia then rose to her feet, dropping her belted
tabard upon the floor. Bertolf knew this, for he
turned his head upon hearing the sound. What was she
doing? Taking off her dress? He couldn't believe
it, blinking in surprise as he raised his head.

No! He was now looking right at the Black Claw.
Surely the feline demon would know what had happened.
But Gorthaur was interested in other things, bending
his gaze solely upon Ulthenia. His leering gold eyes
seemed full of fire, their slit pupils showing his
lust for her.

"Our guest will now dance for the Bosss," said Fire
Claw, lowering his head before Gorthaur's throne
before retiring to the wall. "I'm sure you will all
find her entertaining. He told me that he hasn't
seen such an entrancing female for ages and agesss."

Ulthenia dropped to the ground and began to gyrate,
spinning all of her naked limbs before the Black Claw.
Bertolf wondered if perhaps she turning into an
actual tigress. She moved silently like a shadow
through the darkness of the night, partly on all
fours, but partly standing. A perfect mixture of
human and feline predator.

Drums? A strange sound rose from the ground, a
percussive noise shaking the floor of the cav.
Ulthenia continued to dance, moving her arms and legs
to the rhythm. Bertolf thought even the walls were
trembling as the drum-beats throbbed and rolled.

Doom-boom. The sound kept rising from below, from
the stones at the root of the mountain. Doom-boom.
Or was it somehow emanating from the center of the
room? It was growing louder and louder. Bertolf
suddenly had to drop to the ground, as a sheep skull
levitated from the rack, floating above him toward the

Ulthenia snarled as the skull drifted down toward the
ground. But was it just a skull? Bertolf noticed
bits of flesh clinging to its empty eye sockets.
Spots of red appeared on the floor as red fluid
dripped from the raw bones.

The drum beats became louder and louder. Doom,
doom. What was going on? Bertolf noticed the
torches lining the room were shaking, quivering with
each vibration. The Karuvati seemed entranced,
staring at the center of the room as Ulthenia began to
whirl around the skull, waiting for it to reach the
floor. Like she was guarding her kill.

Thud! With a sudden crash, a great shadow covered
the ground. It was the Black Claw! He jumped from
his throne to join Ulthenia, crouching in the same
part-feline, part-human posture. As the skull
landed on the floor, he growled at Ulthenia's
muzzle-like face, prompting her to respond in the same
manner. The two felines glared at each other,
panting wildly.

Is this what Fire Claw meant by a dance? Bertolf
wasn't sure what to make of this. He'd never been to
the east before, but had heard stories about what
tigers . . .

Wait a minute! There's the bracelet! It had spun
free of Gorthaur's furry arm when he'd moved forward
to face Ulthenia. Perhaps Bertolf would have a
chance to grab it. The orange light from the Tiger's
Eye jewel beckoned to him, shimmering in the torch

But not now! A blur of black fur blocked his view
as the Black Claw began to whirl about Ulthenia,
spinning about the room. Chasing his tail perhaps?
Bertolf could see him move wildly, reeling and
pivoting, sometimes on all fours, sometimes on two
feet. The insistent sound became louder. Doom.
Doom! And faster, as the entire room started to
spin. The only thing which seemed to still were the
orange and black stripes at its center, as a cloud of
black fur thrashed in a circle about Ulthenia, like a
mill wheel that was about to break.

Bertolf felt incredibly dizzy, unable to keep his
eyes in one place. Then he remembered being warned
not to look. He closed his eyes and focused on the
pure darkness.

As he slowly awoke, Bertolf recalled his horrible
nightmare. He'd gone with a seductive sorceress to
regain her lost jewel from Gorthaur, a feline demon
also known as the Black Claw. They'd traveled into
the midst of his lair, surrounded by evil Malachites.
But now he'd forget about it, for it all must have
been a dream. A dreadful, harrowing, dream!

As he opened his eyes, Bertolf was stunned to see
that he was in a darkened room, lit by only a few
torches. His sight seemed incredibly keen despite
the lack of light. There were all the Karuvati
guards, lying asleep against to the walls, stretched
out so he could see their patches of yellow fur and
green skin.

To the left, he spotted Fortinbras, slumbering on the
ground next to some of his acolytes. The Shepherd's
Cap had slid off his head, marking his face with a
trail of blood as it dropped down to the stone floor.
Red pools could be seen next to his feet.

So . . . it had really happened! Bertolf looked down
at his hands and spotted claws where he should have
fingernails. His fingers also ended in black canine
pads, but were otherwise largely human. Lifting his
right arm, he felt his muzzle . . .

"Wake up, Bertolf!" said an insistent voice in his
head. "I told you not to watch me while I danced!
Or Gorthaur! I'm not sure how long the spell will
last, for my power . . ."

Turning his lupine head toward the center of the
room, Bertolf saw a massively-built black shape
sprawled across the ground. It lay at the foot of a
dark throne, with its furry black tail stretched out
toward Bertolf, ending near a bronze armband. The
cat demon! Bertolf promptly grabbed a short dagger
from a shelf on a rack of sheep skulls.

"You can't kill him," advised the voice. "The Black
Claw isn't mortal. Also, I'm afraid my power is
nearly spent. He'll wake up if you get too close . .

Oh great, thought Bertolf. Now, what should I do?
Looking at the armband, he saw gleaming gem at its
center. The Tiger's Eye - the gem Ulthenia had
desired! Perhaps he could use the dagger to pry it
out of the armband.

Moving forward, Bertolf heard a snort from the
sleeping feline. Puffs of smoke rose from Gorthaur's
nostrils, uneasily evoking the image of a sleeping
dragon in Bertolf's mind. His eyes were still
solidly closed while his face seemed to show signs of

"I didn't do anything with him," insisted Ulthenia's
voice. "Well . . . at least not anything that wasn't
absolutely necessary. I'll be guarding the escape
route so you can get away quickly. Once you get the
Tiger's Eye . . . Run! Run as fast as you can!"

At least that should be simple, thought Bertolf. He
dropped to all fours, leaning over the armband. He
just needed to push the dagger against that notch, and
the jewel would drop . . .

Thwack! A massive black tail hit the ground next to
Bertolf, brushing its fur against the end of the
bracelet. He jumped back, feeling a blast of intense
heat. He brushed the unfamiliar fur on his arm,
putting out small embers of flame.

Gorthaur's tail continued to thrash back and forth.
Every few seconds, it would pound the ground near the
armband. Was the cat demon waking up? Perhaps.
Even worse, Bertolf could see the feline monster's arm
quivering, displaying the sharp talons which had given
him his other name: The Black Claw. He'd have to act
now, or never.

Holding the dagger in his right hand, Bertolf made
sure he was on the other side from the twitching tail.
He then prepared to place his left hand on the
armband to steady it. Then, reaching down . . .
Ouch! It was burning hot! The mere touch of a few
hairs from Gorthaur's tail made it feel like the
bronze had just been in a forge.

But he could not be afraid. If the Tiger's Eye was
truly as powerful as Ulthenia said, he couldn't let
the Black Claw keep it. If the demon possessed such
power, he could enslave Lik. Then, he'd force
everyone to obey him. Every head must bow. Bertolf
vividly remembered the awful words of the Malachites
during their hideous ritual.

Stabbing forward, Bertolf knocked the gem smoothly
out of its holder. As it rolled away from the
bracelet, he dropped the dagger in his cloak, and
grabbed for it with his right hand, pivoting his left
arm for balance. Then, a black cat hissed next to
him, scratching his feet with its sharp claws.
Holding the gem, he moved his other arm to brush the
ferocious feline away.

Aaaghh!! Intense pain! Burning! Gorthaur's tail
had just flicked across the palm of his left hand.
Somehow, Bertolf started running, finding the strength
to ignore the pain. It was like his hand had been
plunged into molten iron! He no longer noticed the
hell-cat clinging to his right leg, slashing away with
its claws.

Rushing out of the chamber, he smashed the cat into
the side of the stairs, making it lose its grip.
Behind him, Bertolf could hear the Karuvati grabbing
their scimitars. The Malachites were all waking up!
He must get away!

Surging ahead, Bertolf found he was able to run
faster than he could ever remember. Perhaps it was
from Ulthenia's wolf spell? Or from the magic of
Tiger's Eye? His strength of will allowed him to
ignore the deep cuts on his leg. Bertolf clutched his
left hand to his side, now covered with blackened
hairs where it had been burnt.

An enraged roar echoed from the pits below. He
must flee! They were all after him. He could hear
the Karuvati running, coming closer every minute. If
only they were just lutins. But although the
Karuvati had been created from the green-skinned
goblins, he knew that the feline warriors were much
fiercer. Much worse to face in combat. He must get

Finally, reaching the top of the buried fortress,
Bertolf darted outside. "I'm sorry I couldn't help
you, but I've been looking for Beruthiel," said
Ulthenia, who had somehow escaped the cave ahead of
him. How had she moved so quickly? "She sent one
of her pets into the tunnels to wake up Gorthaur.
Your leg . . . Did her cat . . ."

Seeing Ulthenia's look of concern, Bertolf tried to
say "Just a scratch," but all that came out of his
wolflike mouth was "Rrrr . . . Arrooo . . . rrrr."
The feline sorceress leaned forward, and aimed a green
gem at his foot. A beam of light shot out of the
center of the crystal, and Bertolf suddenly felt his
wounds healing, deep fissures torn by cruel claws
fading away. He noticed that Ulthenia was once again
fully clothed, although her dress was missing stripes
of cloth, ripped off in narrow strips.

"It's the least I could do for someone who's helped
me so much. I only wish I could do something about
your hand, but that's beyond my skill." Then,
Ulthenia hurled a red rock, which looked like a ruby,
at the top of the tunnel wall behind them. Bertolf
hurried away, sensing danger.

The red stone exploded when it hit the rock face,
causing slabs of stone to crash into the opening. As
the boulders tumbled, Bertolf heard Ulthenia's voice
in his mind again, "I'm afraid that my power is all
spent. The Tiger's Eye won't be any good until dawn."

Looking back, Bertolf saw that the cave-in had
blocked the exit from the tunnel. But he was sure
that there were other places where the Malachites
could erupt from the ground to pursue him. Also, he
imagined green, clawed hands tearing away at the
stones, hurling them to clear the tunnel. Only one
thought must be in the Karuvati's minds - the wrath of

Rushing forward, Bertolf joined Ulthenia on the
mountain trail. He nearly stumbled over a metal
rail, but then jumped over it, finding renewed energy.
He could see Lik! Down there, in the valley, where
a few fires could be seen near the ancient guild hall.

But Ulthenia seemed very tired, unable to run. Why
hadn't she saved some of her magic? She must have
spent it all escaping from the cave. At this pace,
the Karuvati were sure to catch her. Already, he
could see their dark shapes near the valley walls,
growing larger every moment

He just couldn't leave her in this awful place!
Bertolf imagined what tortures the Black Claw would
devise for someone who had dared to entrance him.
He must ensure that they escape together. Once they
got past the gate . . .

"Miaauuuww . . . hissss . . . ssss!" What was that?
Nine cats! Eight black and one white, all guarding
the gate. The felines hissed and spat again as he
looked down. Even worse, their foul mistress was
standing behind them, holding some sort of stick. A
magic staff?

Ulthenia paused for a moment to catch her breath, but
then saw Bertolf's unexpected obstacle. She
nervously moved her orange-and-black hands and
muttered something, as if performing an incantation.
"You have no power now, false tigress," said
Beruthiel, making a sinister laugh as she stared back
at her adversary. "I'll get you both!"

"Let us go," pleaded Ulthenia. "Do you have any idea
what he'll do with the Tiger's Eye? Can't you tell
that the Black Claw will no longer need you once he
has enough . . ."

"Your mind tricks won't work on me," insisted
Beruthiel. "I saw right through them from the start.
That's why the Malachites value me, for my superior
. . ."

Bertolf tried to lunge forward, but found himself
suspended in mid air. More magic? Yes, Beruthiel
was doing something with her staff to block him. If
only he could reach the gate!

"How foolish," muttered Beruthiel. "You really
thought I'd accept him as a werewolf! This miner's
nothing like Valaric. No real power. Far too small.
Just a little dog."

"Let him go," insisted Ulthenia. "If you just want
revenge, take me as your prisoner. I'm willing to
face whatever fate the Malachites have prepared. But
don't punish Bertolf. I should have never gotten him
into this. You see . . ." She suddenly fell to the
ground as a yellow blast of energy shot out of
Beruthiel's staff.

"Enough!" declared Beruthiel. "I could leave you for
the Karuvati, but I find their methods to be too
crude. Not entertaining enough for my taste."

Bertolf found himself on the dusty path again, one
leg propped against the strap rail lining the length
of the track down to Lik. Beruthiel's spell must
have just dropped him there. Perhaps there was a way
to get around her. Getting to his feet, he ran up
the hill toward Ulthenia, relieved not to find himself
airborne again.

"What an idiot!" exclaimed Beruthiel. "Your pet
must have forgotten all about the spiders. At least
this will make it easy for them to catch both of you."

"No! Leave me here," pleaded Ulthenia. "Save
yourself, Bertolf. Just make sure that the Tiger's
Eye is safe."

Bertolf ignored her pleas, scooping up Ulthenia in
his arms. He could see the Karuvati rushing down the
hill, ready to drag them back to the Black Claw.
Almost anything would be better than that. Another
bolt of energy smashed into the hillside, causing him
to stumble.

"You can't escape!" insisted Beruthiel. "Your
deaths will honor the Nameless One!"

As Bertolf struggled to hold onto the rail, his feet
fell into the gaping maw of an abyss. The spider
pits! He could hear arachnid legs scurrying below,
ready for a meal. Meanwhile, Ulthenia clung to
Bertolf's side, desperately trying to avoid falling .
. .

"Never anger a lioness," snarled Beruthiel. "Did you
think you could steal the Black Claw from me? He's
destined to be mine! All mine! He'd never desert
me, like the manticore . . ."

"Please, just let Bertolf go," said Ulthenia,
struggling to maintain her grip. Bertolf leaned
back, pulling the tiger woman back from the fast
eroding cliff. Somehow, he'd make sure that they
both survived. He must save the Tiger's Eye from
the Malachites!

"Bertolf? You're using a name for that thing? Why
he's nothing more than a dog! Your little pet,
brought here to fool us. Your magic might work on
some Malachites but . . . "

"You ugly hag!" exclaimed Ulthenia. "You're even
more cruel than your master."

"Ugly?" snorted Beruthiel, while rubbing her
whiskers. "You won't be so pretty when the spiders
are done tearing the flesh from your bones."

Bertolf found his footing and prepared to bolt toward
Beruthiel. Maybe if he broke her staff he could get
through the gate. But was it too late? He could
see the Malachites gathered above, Karuvati guards
glaring down at him with intense anger. Baring her
leonine fangs, Beruthiel hissed, as she fired a
barrage of energy down at the trail. The rail
suddenly broke as the fireball hit it, snapping off as
it plunged down the hillside. As the rest of the
path gave way, Ulthenia and Bertolf both tumbled into
darkness, falling down, down, down toward the pits of
the hungry spiders.

Where was he? Bertolf couldn't tell, for everything
had gone black. His left arm was entangled in
something sticky, but at least his right arm was free.
Not that his left arm would have been good for
anything, as it felt like it had been burned by an
iron brand.

Reaching into his vest, Bertolf felt for his dagger,
the one he'd grabbed from the sleeping Karuvati in
Gorthaur's lair. The Tiger's Eye was still there
too, deep in the pocket where he'd stashed it.
Perhaps he could use the dagger to free himself from
this trap.

Grabbing the blade, he slashed at the cord which
bound his left hand. What was it? A net? No, it
resembled a huge cobweb. Fortunately, his legs were
already free, as the lower threads had been smashed by
falling metal, too heavy to be held by the silken

Getting to his feet, Bertolf wondered where Ulthenia
was. He sensed that she couldn't be too far away,
but worried about whether the spiders were
approaching. How many were there? He recalled that
Lilith's servants had delivered two to Cirith Morgul,
but wasn't sure if any more might be hidden in this
dank abyss.

Groping and fumbling in the dark, Bertolf saw a light
shining from far above. Torches? Yes, the Malachites
were all up there, gloating over the imminent demise
of their prey. He could see the scowling faces of the
Karuvati, as well as Beruthiel's grim gaze. She no
longer looked remotely human, for her visage now
closely resembled that of a ravenous lioness.

"Shouldn't we bring them back to the Black Claw?"
asked Captain Ulthar, as his feline soldiers peered
over the edge of the pit. "He wants to personally
punish . . ."

"All in good time. All in good time," muttered
Beruthiel. "One way and another, they'll be
punished. I'll take the Tiger's Eye back from her
dry bones!"

Bertolf tried to ignore the Malachites' foul plans,
for he was resolved to rescue Ulthenia. She must
still be alive, for he could sense her thoughts in his
mind. There . . . wasn't that another web, tied to
a branch from a fallen tree? He struck the thread
with his dagger.

"You think you can help her escape? Hah!" exclaimed
Beruthiel, looking to the east. "Look at that! The
first rays of light are shining over the mountains.
That's how much longer you have to be alive! Our
spiders like to feed at dawn."

Why didn't the web break? The thread he tried to
cut, just bounced back, like a bowstring after an
arrow had been fired. But there must be some way to
shatter the web, Bertolf thought.

From out of the darkness, he heard a long venomous
hiss. One of the spiders? It must have been drawn
to him when he struck its web. He could tell it was
approaching him, climbing down the threads on its huge
web. In the dim darkness before dawn, Bertolf
realized a cluster of eight abominable, glowing eyes
staring down at him.

The monster must be tremendously heavy, Bertolf
thought. How could the threads bear both it and
Ulthenia without snapping? Maybe he should aim for a
cord near . . .

"Throw something to distract it," ordered Ulthenia,
who'd evidently regained her wits. Bertolf knelt
down and grabbed something near his leg. A skull?
Holding it up, he could see bits of green skin still
adhering to bloody clumps of flesh on the bones. It
must have once been an unfortunate lutin, used by the
Malachites as food for their arachnid pet.

After hurling the skull at the glowing eyes, Bertolf
tore at the web with his dagger. He heard a
screeching sound, as hairy legs scuttled down the web.
The giant spider's forelegs moved back and forth,
tearing chunks of bone from the lutin's skull in its
frenzy to feed.

She was free! As Bertolf expected, the massive
thread broke, as it could no longer support the weight
of Ulthenia once the spider's bulk also rested upon
it. Even better, he was also loose, for the entire
web unraveled. Tearing the remaining threads from
Ulthenia's arms, Bertolf prepared to run, looking for
an exit from this hellhole.

But no! Another spider was coming. The creature
scurried along the ground, moving on its clawed legs
closer and closer. Not far away, the first spider
freed itself from the broken fragments of its web,
preparing to pounce on its prey.

"Bertolf, throw the dagger at its eyes! If you blind
one, maybe we can evade the other."

It was almost upon them! Completely untangled from
the strewn strands of webbing, the spider loomed over
Bertolf, its remorseless eyes full of menace. What
could he do? It had so many eyes! Even if he struck
one, wouldn't that just make it more aggressive?

Throwing the blade, Bertolf thoughts turned to
despair as he saw that he'd missed. The dagger
dropped just short of the spider's out-thrust head,
plunging into one of its hairy legs. The mighty
arachnid brushed aside the minor annoyance, hurling it
away with hairs that stuck out like steel spines.
However, as it threw its leg out, the claw at its tip
struck the other spider.

Greedy for food, the second arachnid had lunged
forward, eager to devour Ulthenia and Bertolf. But
now, it forgot them entirely, flailing its limbs
against its neighbor. Both spiders soon began to
grapple, throwing their creaking legs at one another.

"They're getting away!" screeched Beruthiel, in a
piercing, shrill voice. "Seize them! Get the
tigress! And her mangy little dog, too!"

Bertolf and Ulthenia stumbled forward, heading for
the light at the far end of the pit. A gate!
Bertolf found that it was open, for Beruthiel had left
it ajar when she freed the spiders earlier that night.
Running outside with Ulthenia, Bertolf could see the
southern gate to Lik.

"No!!!" cried Beruthiel. "How could they destroy my
beautiful wickedness? Now, I won't be able to see
the spiders rip the flesh from their bones. But,
perhaps it's not too late. Ulthar, head down to
Lik with the draconians. Quickly! There's no time to

Meanwhile, Bertolf saw Ulthenia looking toward the
forest. "I'll take you into Lik, where you'll be
safe. The burgomaster has no love for the

"No," she replied softly. "You'll never be safe if
the Malachites know you have the Tiger's Eye. I must
take it back with me, back to the temple where it

"But they're coming!" exclaimed Bertolf. "If you
join me in Lik, Recared will protect us. Out in the
forest, the Karuvati and draconians will hunt for

Taking a broach out of her torn cloak, Ulthenia said,
"Put the Tiger's Eye here. Its magic will allow me
to elude all of the Malachite minons. They'll never
catch me."

Removing the gem from his pocket, Bertolf placed it
in the necklace chain. The ends suddenly snapped
shut and he saw a bright glow around Ulthenia. The
light steadily became brighter and brighter, causing
him to close his eyes against the glare.

When he opened them, he saw a large tigress, wearing
a collar decorated with the Tiger's Eye. The great
cat suddenly turned away, darting off into the forest.
After she vanished, he heard Ulthenia's voice in his
mind. "I'll never forget what you did, Bertolf. Some
day, I'll come back for you."

Moments later, Bertolf started to run for Lik's gate.
The Malachites were coming! He'd been spotted by
the Karuvati, who were running down the mountain path
at a feverish pace. Beside them, angry draconians
carried spears, intent on seizing Bertolf as their
prisoner. A few were already airborne, gliding above
the steep cliffs to swoop down on their prey.

Could he make it? At least it was light now, for
the sun was ready to rise. Ahead of him, Bertolf
could see a number of people on horseback, gathered
around the gate. Several were staring up at the
mountain, watching the Malachites pursue him.

He must run faster! But something was wrong now,
for Bertolf's feet felt odd, like they were
contracting, returning to a more human form. The
spell was wearing off! He felt his claws recede,
shrinking every second as the sun's first rays began
to shine.

If only he could get inside the gate! But it was too
late, for the fleet-footed draconians were gaining on
him. He'd never manage to outrun them, not while his
feet were undergoing an awkward transformation.
Bertolf felt his right hand contort, as canine pads
faded into his palm.

A figure on horseback galloped in front of him and
dismounted, followed by a number of men. Who was it?
Spotting a badge, Bertolf recognized Captain
Dagobert. It must be the group from the Tauremorna,
back from escorting the caravan last night.

Who were the others? The dismounted warrior walked
rapidly toward him, pulling back his hood to reveal a
wolflike face. It was Valaric, Lik's lupine guardian!

Bertolf lurched forward as a draconian grabbed his
arm. Nearby, two draconians and a Karuvati soldier
brandished their weapons, ready to drag him back to
the Black Claw's fortress. "Release him," growled
Valaric. "He's from my pack! Get your stinking
claws off him right now, you filthy lizards . . ."

The draconians reluctantly obeyed, moving off to
either side of Bertolf. The Karuvati soldier, less
respectful of Valaric's authority as one of Lilith's
servants, snarled and waved his scimitar at Valaric.
Then, observing the reactions of the other Malachites,
he also withdrew.

The sun was now fully above the horizon. Bertolf
felt his muzzle melt away, as his features resumed a
normal human appearance. But one thing didn't change
as he expected. His left hand was still dark,
covered with thick hair. Turning it over, he looked
at his palm, seeing a canine palm upon which rested .
. . Cat hair? Black tufts of hair from a huge cat's

"He attacked our Massster," hissed a draconian,
pointing at Bertolf. "We mussst take him back to
Cirith Morgul, for there are many questionssss . . ."

"Spike Tail, you should know better than to try to
arrest someone here," said Dagobert, as several of his
soldiers walked next to Valaric. "The Black Claw has
no authority in Lik. We serve the Queen, not your
feline overlord."

"But he's a thief! A nasssty thief!" cried Spike
Tail. "Him and the tigresss! They stole our
preciousss jewel! We must bring it back to the
Black Claw!"

As a draconian grabbed Bertolf's vest, Valaric
unsheathed his sword. "Didn't you hear me? He's
from my pack! You won't do anything . . ."

The reptile-man retreated, as Bertolf declared, "I
have nothing. I swear that I don't have any jewels.
I'll be happy to prove it."

"What have you got in your pocketsss? Show usss!"
demanded Spike Tail, baring his fangs in anger. "No
one steals from the Malachitesss! It took us so long
to get the gem . . . "

Bertolf then used his right hand to pull his pockets
out, revealing that nothing was hidden there. Livid
with rage, Spike Tail yelled, "Cursesss! Where did
you hide it? The tigresss . . . where is she?
The Black Claw will be furiousss . . . "

"You won't ask any questions here, not unless you
show that something's actually been stolen," said
Dagobert, looking at Bertolf's lupine left hand with
surprise. "The burgomaster doesn't take kindly to
false accusations of crime. This man, umm . . .
Bertolf, has done nothing wrong. You'll have to
present evidence . . ."

"Nothing?" asked Spike Tail. "Nothing! He took it
from the Black Claw's own throne room! With that
rotten tigresss, who put a ssspell on our massster!
We hate them! Thievesss! Liarsss! We hate them

Valaric again clutched his sword, standing on the
right side of Bertolf. Flicking his tail in
annoyance, Spike Tail turned around and stomped back
toward the mountain path. The other draconians
followed him along the iron rail, with heads hung
down, for they were quite despondent. How could they
explain the loss of the Tiger's Eye to the Black Claw?

Valaric took the cat hairs from Bertolf's hand,
noticing that they were still warm to the touch.
Looking at Bertolf with great admiration, he asked,
"You actually went into their fortress? This
tigress must have been a powerful sorceress."

"I had to do it," explained Bertolf. "You see, the
Malachites had stolen the gem from her. I just
helped her get it back. That's all. If the Black
Claw had kept it . . ."

As the draconians continued to walk away, one of
Dagobert's men looked carefully at Bertolf, "But I
don't understand. You're a werewolf now? How'd that
happen . . ."

Bertolf continued to explain his story to Valaric.
"The feline demon wants to deliver the whole world
into the hands of his evil master, the Nameless One.
They would have started with Lik, if he'd used the
Tiger's Eye. The Malachites are already feeding
their spiders with lutin . . ."

"Let's discuss this inside the town, in the guild
hall," suggested Valaric. "I'm sure Recared will
want to hear all the details. The burgomaster's
never trusted the Malachites, but now he'll be fully
aware of their foul plots. Perhaps we'll get the
Queen to intervene."

Bertolf then followed Valaric, Dagobert, and the
others into the town. Many of the men stared at his
hand, evidence of the strange adventure he'd just
finished. Bertolf wondered if the change was
permanent. Had the mere touch of the Black Claw's
tail somehow frozen the spell on him? Would he turn
back into a wolfman at sunset?

On the path leading to Cirith Morgul, Spike Tail
wondered where the tigress had gone. There was no
trace of her, anywhere. He craned his neck, hoping to
spot an orange or black stripe in the woods below.
Perhaps Beruthiel could help, using her feline sorcery
to help track down the foul temptress who'd defiled
the sanctity of the Black Claw's own cavern. But she
was too busy now, employing magic spells to get the
feuding spiders to go back in their pens.

Deep in his fortress, the Black Claw brooded,
dreaming of the day when the Nameless One would escape
from his prison. How had he allowed himself to fall
prey to a simple spell? But it had been so long . .
. ages, since he'd met anyone so beautiful . . .
Someone with such strength spirit. If only the
tigress had been a true servant of the Lord of

Then, his anger was rekindled. Revenge! Gorthaur
swore that he would get the Tiger's Eye back. And
something else . . . the wolf. Was it a servant of
Lilith? Had she turned on him? Would even she dare to
do such a thing? He was the Black Claw, the true lord
of all Wild Beasts!

Not being mortal, Gorthaur resolved to bide his time
until he had enough strength. Then, he would strike
forth, making every head bow to the Malachite Order.
All would become slaves of the Nameless One!




Copyright 2002 by Volk-Oboroten'. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.

Back to "Thousand Words" Results
Back to Stories