Playing the Hero's Role

by Watts Martin

Copyright (c) 1988, 1993 by Watts Martin.
This story has been authorized for inclusion on The Belfry.
Redistribution by any means in any form, is prohibited.


A brief introduction:

"Playing the Hero's Role" is the second Ranea story written, and the first to both define the way the world is set up (or to begin that definition, at least) and the first to be published, in "Furversion" issue #10. Knowing this may, of course, be of no interest to you at all - but as of this writing, the story is some five years old. I don't know how well it stands the test of time (I consider it pretty fluffy, all other things being equal), but here it is anyway.

Donthen had to shake me several times before I realized he was speaking to me. I was staring into the ale I had just poured, gripping the mug's handle so hard the metal was bending. "What happened?" he repeated, prying my fingers away from the drink.

"She came in and stabbed herself," I mumbled. When my grip on the mug broke I lost my balance; Donthen kept me from falling across the bar. I don't remember much else that evening: the Raneadhros Guard coming, clearing out the few customers left, the captain snapping at Donthen, "Sidhe don't suicide! Ever!" They don't. But one of the faerie people, a tall, fair elf with nature-magic singing through her being, had ripped open her stomach with a knife and bled to death on the floor of the Wyvern's Den Pub.

The next night the blood was gone but even after I cleaned and scrubbed the stain was there, the rich oak floor scarred permanently. No matter what I did, the stain was still there.

We only spoke of it once again. Donthen was bringing a keg of ale from the storeroom out to the main tavern. Without looking at me, he said, "She was either driven to suicide--and in three hundred years of Ranean history, that's never happened to a Sidhe--or she was under an enchantment." Then he disappeared to his office behind the bar.

It was about a week after that when Juka ran into me. I was coming back from a specialty shop on 53rd Street. Personally, I never liked the Achoren district, but I never liked the country of Achoren, either. But that was where the closest shop that carried yulinn extract was, and the Den was the only tavern in Raneadhros that made an Apricot Headslammer correctly. You can't get the right slam without yulinn extract.

I was returning through one of the many back alleyways crisscrossing Raneadhros, the little paths and passages that run behind, around and sometimes even under the streetfront stores. This particular passage was rarely used, especially around dusk, and so I wasn't expecting to round a corner and smash into someone coming the other way.

She was a fox. Yes, extremely pretty in a way, but I mean: a fox.

I raised my eyebrows as she dusted herself off. Non-humans weren't generally welcome in Achoren parts even if they looked human. "You should be more careful," I said.

"Yes." She had a curiously blank voice, matched perfectly to her expression. Her dress was outrageous, a flaming red silk wisp cut low in front and slit shoulder to thigh, only covering enough to be legal. It stood out too brightly from her silvery fur to be as attractive as it obviously wanted to be, but it more than succeeded in showing her off.

"Where're you going in such a hurry?"

She pointed down the way I had come. I sighed. "Look, miss, I'd watch your hide in these parts--" I broke off as she started examining herself methodically, combing through her shoulder-length hair, searching her arms, earnestly examining her legs. "What in God's name are you doing?" She stopped and looked up at me, her blank expression modified with a note of confusion. "Watching my hide," she replied.

The air of complete seriousness about her stopped me from cursing. I realized she was drunk. "Stop that," I said, sighing. "Look. You shouldn't be out here, like this, especially around here at dusk. I think you should go back home and sleep it off. Really."

I stepped gingerly past her and continued down the alleyway. "Where is home?" she called after a moment.

Shit. I yelled furiously, "I don't know, lady! Climb up the wall for all I care! Just be careful!" I walked on, quickening my pace. After a few hundred feet I slowed down and glanced back.

She was trying to climb up the wall.

I turned around and walked back to where she stood trying to propel herself up the brick with her paws. "Stop," I said. She instantly stopped. I thought for a moment. "Put your right hand on your head and spin around three times to the left," I said suddenly. She did. "Sing 'The Roses of Spring.'" I stopped her halfway through the second verse.

As an apprentice to a wizard (albeit a retired one) I should have seen it sooner, but it took me almost five minutes to think of checking her skin. It only took a few seconds of combing through her hip fur to find the tiny puncture. "Follow me," I said, and I headed straight back for the Pub. I didn't have to look to know she was right on my heels; she didn't have any choice.

Donthen confirmed my guess. She wasn't drunk, she was drugged--with quaiavii. The magical narcotic was definitely illegal, incredibly addictive, and more dangerous than a drunken swordsman. It shut down your memory and volition while you were high on it; you'd do anything you were told, follow any suggestion, and when it wore off, you wouldn't remember what it had made you do. We wouldn't be able to find out anything from her, not even her name, until she came down. "Give her this," Donthen said, handing me a bottle. "It'll clear up her mind, keep withdrawal symptoms away for a while--and let her remember what she did while she was spaced." He shook his head. "I'm getting too old for this stuff."

I set up a mattress on the floor of my "apartment," one large, reasonably well-furnished room adjacent to the Den's storeroom, and had her go to sleep there. After we closed for the night I came back in and went to bed myself.

When I woke up, she was already awake, sitting on her mattress whimpering softly. She glanced at me, but remained quiet. "Welcome back," I said. She looked away. I frowned thoughtfully. This was a rather subdued reaction for someone waking up in a strange house to have. "This isn't the first time you've woken up this way, is it?"

She shook her head, and winced. "Can I leave?" she asked softly.

"That depends," I said. "If you're going to go back and get dosed again, that might not be such a good idea."

She rose to her feet. "It's the only thing that keeps me going."

"Last night, it had you going through the alleys behind 53rd street at dusk. While you're on it, it has you doing whatever anyone tells you."

"That's not true."

"How much are you paying for it?" I said. She refused to look at me. "You know quaiavii costs over one thousand golds per dose just to produce?" Now she did look at me, doubt on her face. "And per dose someone would be lucky to get it for under five times that. And if you were paying that much, you wouldn't be able to afford clothes like that."

"It's not my dress," she said.

"Where'd you get it? Steal it?"

"I'm not a thief," she flared. "I don't know where I got it. And I get my dose for free."

"Well, that cute dress you barely have on must have been paid for by somebody. And if you don't know how you got it on, that raises a few more questions." She glared at me. "Somebody's paying a hell of a lot to keep you doped up, furry lady, and I hope you're not stupid enough to think he's doing it because he has your best interests at heart."

She growled, but I pressed on. "The only reason you're getting quaiavii is to make you do something they don't want you to know about. Doesn't that bother you?"

"What do you think they do?" she spat. "Give it to me so they can make me go out and kill people? Or use it to rape me?"

"They wouldn't have to rape you. All they'd have to do is suggest it to you, and you'd do it. You're being mentally raped every time you use it."

I will pause for a moment and reflect on the shortcomings of being human in the Empire of Ranea. The drojaar are hardier, better workers and live longer. Wild elves are cuter, faster and live longer than drojaar. The Sidhe are taller, more graceful, inherently magical, achingly beautiful, and virtually immortal--enough to give a demigod an inferiority complex. And the various furred races usually have natural weapons in claws and teeth, and are often proportionally stronger than humans. Humans, though, are the only native race; this world seems to act as a joining point for parallel dimensions, and over the ages, a lot of odd creatures wound up establishing their own populations here. However, knowing my ancestors were here first offered small comfort when the fox grabbed me by the neck with both hands and lifted me straight off the floor.

"Shut up, damn you!" she hissed, baring distressingly sharp-looking teeth.

"Urf gurple blek...." It was the best I could do under the circumstances. After a moment she relented and let go. When I recovered enough breath to speak, I gasped, "Please. Wait here." I went over to my dresser and picked up the small black bottle Donthen had given me. "Drink this."

"Why? What is it?"

"It'll keep the withdrawal from hitting you as hard."

"I don't plan to be here long enough to suffer withdrawal," she snapped, turning to leave.

"You don't believe what I'm telling you? Or you just don't want find out?" She was silent. "If you stay doped, you won't ever know, will you?"

It was a standoff. I tried not to rub my neck, hoping her claws hadn't drawn any blood. Finally, she took the bottle and sniffed it cautiously, then downed it. "I don't feel any better."

"It doesn't work immediately," I said. It would provide relief from the pain of not having quaiavii, but the memories it would trigger might be worse. "You haven't told me your name."

"Juka." She walked slowly around the room, sitting down on my bed, her grey-blue eyes locked on me warily. "You brought me here?"

"First I told you to climb up a wall. When you tried to, I figured something might be wrong."

She looked at me skeptically. "Where is this?"

"We're under the Wyvern's Den Pub. I'm Xonzoff, the assistant barkeep."

"This is where the Sidhe killed herself."

A connection sparked in my head somewhere. "She was on quaiavii, too!"


"A Sidhe wouldn't ever kill herself. Unless she were literally out of her mind."

Juka stared at me. "Someone dosed her and then told her to go into the Wyvern's Den and kill herself? That's crazy."

"Yes, it's crazy. So is putting your right hand on your head and spinning three times to the left, then singing 'The Roses of Spring' just because someone told you to."

She looked confused, then wide-eyed, seeming to search for something. Then she screamed, her fur bristling in terror. I sprang over to her. "What is it? What's wrong?"

She drew away, her ears laid back, and started to cry. "I didn't want to know," she whispered. "You made me remember."

"Don't tell me anything you don't want to," I said carefully, "but do you remember why you were out there last night? Did someone send you?" She nodded. "You don't remember who, do you?"

"I was delivering something," she said. "I don't think they told me what."

"Do you remember where you took it?"

"Why do you care?"

"Because whoever sent you is using you, and who knows how many others, to smuggle something to somebody. Couriers who deliver everything when they're on quaiavii can't be traced back to him. And whoever he sends this stuff to not only gets whatever it is, but can make the courier do anything he or she wants. I care because you're addicted, and if nobody helps you, your need will drive you right back to them, and you'll be used again. Maybe you'll be the next one to kill herself when whoever you make the next delivery to wants a laugh."

I couldn't be sure what Juka had been made to do last night, but I saw the shadow of it in her eyes. "I can take you there."

"You're sure this is it?" She looked at me crossly without replying. It was the fourth time I'd asked.

I couldn't fault Juka on courage. If our places were reversed I don't think I'd have the nerve to go back and risk facing the person I'd delivered contraband to, someone who had me in his or her power while I was under the quaiavii's influence, to go back to... a church? I shook my head again.

The Achoren denominations of the Church of the Creator were notoriously speciesist; a liberal Achoren was one who didn't mind sharing the planet with nonhumans as long as they were on the other side of it. The conservatives were continually on the verge of schism, refusing to accept the mainline Church's stance of human-nonhuman equality. Even so, I knew the cleric in charge of this church, and he never seemed too put off by nonhumans, even furries. Even more rare, Father Siry was one of those few people possessed with sincere belief; I didn't agree with all of his ideals, but I respected him for trying to live up to them.

"It was through a different door," she said, heading around the building into one of the omnipresent alleys. "Maybe this one."

The door opened to reveal a dark storeroom, with a single torch for light. A priest sat at this table, his back to us. Juka stared around, eyes narrowed. "This was the room."

"Let's go talk," I said. She stared at me as if I'd lost my mind. "Right now we don't know anything. We don't know what you gave them, where it is, or what they're going to use it for. Unless we get some evidence, it's just your word against theirs, and if the Guards are brought in on that alone, anybody with said evidence will have more than enough time to get rid of it." I extended my hand to her. She looked almost as if she was blushing under her silken fur, but then she smiled and took it. I strode boldly forward.

"Good morning, sir," I said loudly. The priest looked up at me, startled. "I'm Inspector Xonzoff." He looked blank. "From the Greene & Dalton Stone Quarry," I clarified. "This is the day of the biannual inspection. Isn't it marked on your calendar?" I chided.

He shook his head, looking bewildered. "...Inspection?"

"You know, inspecting the foundation, walls, ceiling, checking for cracks, that sort of thing. Have to make sure our products withstand the test of time, all that." I beamed at him ingratiatingly.

"If you'd like me to show you around, sir," he said, rising slowly to his feet, "everything's in perfect shape. Well, there is one hairline crack...." His eyes passed over Juka.

"My assistant," I offered. He nodded assent, but I had caught the flash of recognition when he saw her: he was here last night. As he described the crack, I carefully positioned myself in front of the inner door. Juka had recognized him, too, and was fighting her own impulse to either flee or immediately attack. The priest might assume she couldn't remember anything she had done while high. Or he might realize that normally she'd already be entering withdrawal.

"Well, if you just wait here, I'll go get Father Devore." He started towards the door, his eyes flicking back to Juka momentarily.

I threw out a quick empath charm as he approached. I could read confusion, nervousness, and deception. I guessed he was going to get Father Devore to tell him about Juka, not about me. I stuck out a foot, saying contritely, "Whoops! So sorry, sir!" as he fell. "Here, let me help you up." I pushed him back into the room. As he rolled over, I heard a "clink" from beneath his vestments. "Fall on your dagger, Father?" I inquired.

He said something most un-priestlike and produced a small metal something from his robes. Whatever he was planning to do after that ended abruptly as Juka tackled him, sending the object flying towards me.

I picked it up curiously. It was a cylinder a bit shorter than a short dagger, and the "pommel" at one end was a hand grip with a small lever on it. I remembered seeing one like it before, a time when Donthen and I were traveling off-dimension. Then it clicked. "I don't think priests are supposed to be in possession of guns, Father," I said. "In fact, unless the law's changed recently, nobody in Ranea is supposed to have any off-plane weaponry."

He was silent, so I continued for him. "This is what you smuggled here last night, Juka. This one, or one like it. Isn't it?"

He mumbled something under his breath, trying to push away from Juka. "Answer him," she said in a dangerous tone. He twisted away from her muzzle. "Get away from me," he muttered.

She growled and yanked his arms behind his back. "Are those--guns--dangerous?"


"Do we go to the Guard now?"

"I'm not sure," I said. "Father, right now, I've caught you with an off-plane weapon. I have a witness. Furthermore, I have witnesses who'll back me up when I say that at least one gun was delivered to you and others at this church by Juka here, and that someone dosed her with quaiavii to get her to do it."

"You can't prove anything except my possession," he spat.

"I can reasonably establish she was on quaiavii. That she was in this area when I found her. And she can back me up herself."

He craned his neck back at her, looking more alarmed. "Oh, it's true. Quaiavii isn't foolproof, you know. If you happen to know a wizard who's good enough to make quaiavii, he'll know how to make something that restores a victim's memories. And how to help break the addiction. And I work for one good enough to make quaiavii. So," I concluded, "you can help me a little by telling me and the Guard the rest of the story. Who your supplier is, who's working for you, why you need guns, that sort of thing. It'll make your sentence a little lighter."

"And if I don't?"

"Well, then I don't have to take it to the guards at all." He brightened a little. "I could just leave you here with Juka for a few minutes." The blood drained from his face. I laughed a little, kneeling next to him. "You know, I don't think you like furries very much at all, do you?"

"I want them out of my country. Out of my church. Out of all the churches." He giggled nervously. "I don't like fur anywhere near me."

Juka wrenched his arm viciously, twisting him back against her. "Your friend seemed to like fur an awful lot," she hissed.

"Devore isn't... my friend," he gasped. "All I want is... segregation. But he... wants subjugation." He caught his breath. "He doesn't deserve to be a priest."

"And it's perfectly all right for you to get illegal weapons through somebody who's creating zombies through illegal drugs because you draw the line at rape," I said. "I see."

He didn't reply, but offered no resistance as we led him to the Guard post.

Apparently, Father Devore and some of his friends decided that if the Church wouldn't grant their demands for complete segregation, they'd force it. For a main player our gun-toting priest knew pitifully little about what Devore's "revolution" would entail. Three priests and five followers were arrested; it was all somewhat anticlimatic. Father Siry was not involved, and in fact, might have been one of the planned targets.

The day wasn't even out of late morning yet, but it was time for me to open the Den for business. Juka came with me; she had nowhere else to go.

"Sure you're all right?" Wezip asked Juka again. She nodded miserably and took another drink.

Donthen had disappeared for the night, as he often does, and the counterdrug he had made for her was wearing off. Wezip and I were trying to keep her distracted.

Wezip was another fox himself, one of the Den's regulars. I'd known him since I came to work there. He'd been talking to Juka most of the evening, while I was busy being a bartender.

"Excuse me," Juka said, heading towards the lavatory.

"So, you think she's cute?" I asked Wezip.

"She's stunning," he said in a dreamily smitten tone.

"You seemed to be hitting it off well."

He barked a short laugh. "Not nearly as well as you did." I looked over at him, eyebrows raised. "She was talking about you all the time."


"Every sentence was what Xonzoff said, what Xon did, what's Xon like, do you think he likes me?" He laughed. "Damned if I can figure what she sees in a lunatic barkeep. A furless one at that. Do you like her?"

"In what way?"

He rolled his eyes. "Are you attracted to her? Would you like to become closer friends?"

'Close friends' between races were not unheard of; in fact, Human-Sidhe relationships were reasonably common. However, human-furry matches were usually things you only heard about. Interspecies unions could never produce children (unless one of the two was a Sidhe, who seem to have the uncanny ability to produce children with humans, furries and anyone else you can name), and while Sidhe, drojaar, elves and the like were readily accepted by most of us, the less humanlike ones tended to make some uncomfortable. There were a lot of places in Ranea where the suggestion of a human and a furry finding one another attractive would be the same as a suggestion of bestiality. "I'm not sure I've really thought about it," I finally said, knowing it wasn't true.

"You obviously care about her."

"Yes. I suppose I do like her. I mean, from what I know of her. It isn't much."

"And do you think she's cute?"

"Yes, she is, but...." I fidgeted a little. But what?

"Hate to interrupt," a gruff voice said from a few stools down the bar. A dour-looking drojaar (not that any other kind exists) sat nursing a mug of dark ale. "But since you're both yappin' about that fox girl, thought you might want t'know she just walked out the door."

"Take over bar for me," I yelled at the dwarf, throwing my bar keys down and leaping over him. Wezip was already halfway to the door.

"Humans, furries, elves," the drojaar grunted from behind me. "All crazies."

"Damn," Wezip breathed. "I don't like this."

"Come now. Can you think of anything better to do with an afternoon than follow a quaiavii pusher and his victim back to his supplier?"

"You want the full list, or just the first thing that comes to mind?"

We shouldn't have let Juka out of our sight; I knew the increasing withdrawal pains would draw her back for another dose eventually, but she seemed to have been handling it well. When we had talked earlier I was sure I had convinced her to stay off quaiavii for good. Whatever her intentions had been, now she was docilely following the pusher through an alley.

"I don't like this," Wezip repeated. "The supplier'll know that she was responsible for blowing the cover on the little revolution he was arming." I motioned him to be quiet; I was well aware of that. The boss had to be fuming, and looking for someone to take it out on. I didn't like the hero's role, but if Juka was taken to him--especially in the condition she was in now--she wasn't likely to live the night.

The sound of the pusher's footsteps more than covered our own; Wezip moved almost silently, and I had learned how to walk quietly enough to get by most furries, much less the average human. Suddenly, he and Juka cut to the left, following an alley which led below street level. By the time we got to the junction, the two were nowhere in sight. "Damn," I said aloud.

"If they were still in the passage we'd be able to see 'em," Wezip said. "They must have gone through a door." There were three such doors visible from where we were standing. "Now, if I were somebody who pushed quaiavii, where would I hide out?"

"The door on the far left is under a magic shop," I said.

"You mean Bink's?" He looked at me curiously. "You think Bink is the supplier?"

"He's a powerful enough wizard to be able to make quaiavii," I replied, "and that's the only way he could keep even a few couriers doped. If he was buying the drug for them, he'd be out of money damn quick."

"The door's locked," he said. "Got a spell for this in your Junior Mage book?"

"No, but I have a lock pick set in my pocket."

"Close enough."

Luckily, the door opened onto a hallway. "This is it," Wezip whispered. "I can still scent them." He led me down to another closed door. "Behind here."

We both knelt at the door and listened. The growling voice was unmistakably Bink's. I could hear one or two others, as well as Juka's own, laden with fear. "She's aware already?" Wezip said.

I nodded. They had given her enough of the drug to compel her to come here, but they wanted her fully conscious of whatever they were going to do to her. I pulled a dart out of my pocket and began to lay enchantments on it. Wezip looked at me curiously. "I know a little magic, but if Bink drew me into a duel with him I'd be dead. So I'm preparing in advance."

"Do you have a plan?"

"Actually, I was hoping you had one."

"How about we fling the door open, charge in like idiots and hope they're stupid enough to think we know what we're doing?"

"Sounds good to me," I said, opening the door. This saved Wezip the trouble of kicking it in, so when he launched himself at it a second later he kept going.

"What the hell...?" The pusher had enough time to step back before Wezip ended his charge by bouncing onto the man's chest.

Juka lay on the floor at Bink's feet. Her clothes had been ripped, but she didn't seem to have been hurt. Yet. "Xon?" she whispered, lifting herself up on her arms and turning towards me.

Bink kicked her in the face.

The typical picture of a wizard is a short, frail-looking old human wearing blue or black robes with cute little stars embroidered on it. Bink missed this picture on all counts. He wasn't human; he was a bear, standing about eight feet tall, extremely well-muscled, dressed fashionably. Gulping a little, I raced over to Juka. She hugged me weakly.

"We didn't invite company," Bink growled.

"I'm just rescuing her," I explained reasonably, starting to drag her away. "Don't worry, we'll be gone in just a few seconds." I glanced behind me. The pusher was still out of the picture, but someone else was coming down a rope ladder from a hole in the ceiling. This one had a crossbow.

A massive paw reached out and lifted me up by my shirtcuff. "You'll be gone in a few seconds," Bink agreed, encircling me with both arms. I fumbled in my pocket for the dart; one good squeeze and my ribcage would be driven through my lungs. I found it just as the crunch started, and I rammed it as hard as I could into his thigh.

"What?" he said, loosening his grip. I grabbed onto his chest and kicked off from his groin. "Shit!" he squealed, stumbling backwards. Grabbing Juka, I scrambled away, dragging her with me. Bink blinked in confusion, torn between the pain in his leg and the one in his balls.

As he reached for the dart, it exploded.

The explosion was brilliant but almost silent, and when my vision cleared I could see Bink was on fire. I don't think I had meant the flame spell to do that; it was the only offensive magic I knew that could be placed in an object, but I hadn't realized what its full effect would be. The stench of burning fur was gagging.

I stood up and helped Juka to her feet. She looked at me a moment, then hugged me again, much more strongly, resting her head on my shoulder. Hardly daring to breathe, I kissed her lightly on the neck. She hugged me tighter, crushing my face into her fur.

It felt wonderful.

We broke up when Wezip cleared his throat meaningfully. I let go of Juka and turned around; the man with the crossbow was still there in a standoff with Wez. I moved towards him slowly, readying a sleeping charm. Without warning, he turned and fired.

I remember seeing the crossbow bolt coming towards me and then a blur. I was on my back, with a great weight on my chest. I heard a noise I assumed was Wezip slamming the bowman into the wall.

Juka was on top of me, and I realized that she had thrown me to the ground when she saw the man turn in our direction. "You saved my life," I said a little dazedly.

"You... saved mine," she coughed, and smiled weakly.

"Well, that was... Gods!" Wezip said, his voice suddenly panicked. "Roll her back off you, Xon. Gently, you ass!"

"She took the bolt." I fought back my own panic. The shaft had entered below her left shoulder and kept going; almost half the length was sticking out a small, ragged, bloody hole in her chest.

"Can you heal this?"

"I'm not good enough." My throat was tight. "I can make the pain better, maybe stop some bleeding."

"Do it," he said. "If we move her, she'll probably die of blood loss before we can get her to someone who can help."

"Should we pull it out?"

"If you do it'll just bleed faster." He examined the wound gingerly. "This may have hit her heart, Xon." Tears formed in his eyes, and he shook his head angrily. "Wait here with her. Do what you can. I'll go get help." He shimmied up the rope to the magic shop.

I used what magic I had; the bleeding slowed a little and her expression eased. "You never said you were a wizard," she whispered.

"I'm not a very good one," I said. The fur around the wound was matted and wet, stained deep red.

"I didn't think I could fall in love with a human." She smiled, trying to grip my hand a little tighter.

I tried to heal her again. I sent myself into the wound, feeling the shattered bone and ripped tissue as if it were my own, trying to pull the shreds back together, push the pieces back in place. She moaned softly. I could feel the stain growing larger as more of her life seeped past the crossbow bolt. No matter what I did, the stain was still there. "Hold on," I stammered. "You can't leave me now. I love you."

"I know," she said faintly. "I love you too." She closed her eyes. I held her hand in silence.

Eternities passed before a grunt came from above. Donthen lowered himself down the rope ladder, landing on the floor and wheezing. He knelt beside Juka, Wezip hurrying over to my side. I heard others preparing to come down, but my attention was on Juka.

"Let go of her and take my hand," Donthen ordered. I did. He gripped my left hand with his right, placing my other hand over Juka's wound. Then the old wizard looked me in the eye. "This is a fatal wound, kid. The only time I tried a healing like this before, I nearly killed myself. That was a long time ago. If I tried it alone now, neither of us would make it. So you're gonna have to help."

"I can't," I said. "I tried before. I can't help her."

"Try harder, dammit," he growled. "You're gonna have to put your life on the line with mine, or we pull the sheet over her now! You with me or not?"

I nodded. "I'm gonna guide you," he said. "But the brunt of it'll be on you." He placed his free hand over the wound, pressing my own against it. There was a loud crack, and the bolt disappeared. Blood started gushing from between my fingers. "Steady." I couldn't tell whether Donthen was speaking to Juka or to me.

I feel another warmth growing under my hand as Donthen begins to work the healing, drawing me into it and then into Juka. Then, the torrent of pain overwhelms me, becoming my own. The bone has been shattered, and the pulmonary artery is torn almost in half.

I am drawn in a circle around the blood filling my chest cavity, driving it back inside, trying to keep it from pouring out over my fur. Until the artery is repaired, I must be the vessel's walls, channeling the fluid back in place. The pressure is unbearable and increases the tighter I draw the blood in.

Then I begin pulling the walls of my artery together again, fighting to keep the blood in place while I work. Each bone chip burns like the sun, trying to wrest my attention away. I can no longer sense what I do, where I am.

Without warning, I am back in my own body, but the pain is still there and increasing. "Shit," Donthen says aloud. "Kid, you...."

Then I collapse.

I woke up to find Donthen and Wezip staring down at me. "How are you?" the fox asked.

Most of the pain was in my chest, but it lanced outward to every part. Muscles I didn't know existed ached. I tried to answer Wezip, but only a croak came out.

"Easy," he said. "I didn't know if any of you were going to make it."

"Didn't," I finally wheezed. "Failed. Left too soon."

"Yep," Donthen agreed sourly. "When you bailed out you nearly killed both me and the furry."

I think I started to cry.

"Look, kid," Donthen said, a little less gruffly, "You got enough done that I think I was able to save her. The shoulder probably will never work very well, and the fur won't grow back over where the bolt entered and left, because without support"--he coughed--"I had to pull out before I could try to prevent scarring."

"Where?" I said, trying to sit up.

"Turn left."

Juka was on a mattress beside the bed. If she was going to make it, you couldn't tell by her appearance; the blood had been cleaned off most of her fur, but the hole in her chest was an angry gap, oozing blood and pus. I winced. "Clean it," I said weakly.

"I have," Wezip replied crossly. "You don't have any bandages in this entire damn bar, and Donthen only woke up a few minutes ago himself. If the Guard hadn't been there I would have had to carry all of you back myself."

"How'd they get there?"

"I was bringing them along," Donthen said.

"I didn't run all the way back here for help," Wezip explained. "I ran into him and the Guard on the way."

I coughed. "But how'd you know where...?"

"I figured you wouldn't have left the bar alone unless there was big trouble," Donthen said, looking away. "So I cast a locate spell on you."

"Thank you."

"You're just damn lucky she was dying," he said. "You left the bar for anything less I'd have had them arrest you for desertion." He turned and left the room.

Wezip and I both got awards for bravery from the Ranean Guard, so he tells me. We'd uncovered a plot against the church, killed a man who was responsible for off-dimension smuggling and pushing quaiavii. As far as they were concerned, yesterday's little outing was wildly successful.

Except for nearly getting the person I was trying to rescue killed, and then nearly killing her myself. Donthen and Wezip tell me I'm not to blame, but every time I think about how close I came to losing her, I start to cry.

When Juka woke up I apologized to her. She only smiled, and whispered, "Now you've saved my life twice."

In spite of myself, I'm a hero to everybody, the good guy of the month, who foiled the villain, saved the girl, and lived happily ever after. At least as far as most people are concerned. Once the adventure's over, the hero is supposed to live happily ever after, but you never really know, do you? That's where the story ends.

I don't think I want to play the hero again. Next time, I might not be so lucky.



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