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Becoming The Hawk

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BECOMING THE HAWK

By D'Nalia
******

They were only feet from the exit when the Voraxis demon opened the portal. Lightning cracked through the air, evaporating a couple of vampires who were trying to escape through the portal, but several others made it. The storm was getting worse and the foundation started to crack from the force.

Almost everyone had made it out of what was left of the Initiative. Only Buffy, Giles and the Scooby Gang remained. Giles could barely hear Buffy over the explosions and sound of buckling concrete. "Giles, how do we stop it?"

"Once the demon passes through, it will close by itself!" Giles shouted in return. It was then that the Voraxis demon got hit by one of the same lightning bolts it had released. Buffy turned back to Giles, "What were you saying Giles?"

Giles' reply was to the point. "Fuck."

Buffy's mind went into overdrive. There was really only one thing to do. "If I take what's left through, will that stop it?"

"No Buffy, you can't. You'll be trapped on the other side. We may never get it open again."

"We don't have any choice Giles. It's getting bigger. Besides, a bunch of vamps got through. We can't take the chance of them taking over a peaceful dimension. It could come back to bite us. Literally. Take the others and get out of here."

Xander heard everything Buffy said. She was too important to lose. He was just 'Donut Boy', so he was expendable. While Buffy was arguing with Giles he grabbed his bag full of ammo, added a couple of stakes from Buffy's stash and slung his M-16 over his shoulder. Xander headed for the portal at a dead run. Barely slowing down, he scooped up what was left of the demon's head and jumped through the portal. The last thing he heard was Willow and Buffy's scream. "Xander! No!" Then everything went black.

**********

Wintermoon K'Sheyna lay on his back, staring up at the stars. His bond birds, K'Tathi and Corwith, rested on a log near him. It had been a long day and it wasn't over yet. Since his brother Darkwind, Darkwind's mate Elspeth, Firesong K'Treva and many others had stopped the Mage storms, all of Wintermoon's time was spent hunting changed creatures.

Wintermoon was tired. He had been hunting for weeks without a break. Tomorrow he would be returning to K'Sheyna Vale. It would be good to be home again. As he started to drift off, he felt the unmistakable surge of an unstable gate going up.

Wintermoon was on his feet, bow in hand, before the first surge had died. He arrived at the gate terminus in time to see several strange looking men come through the portal. Wintermoon aimed at the closest and shouted a warning in the trade tongue. The change child, for that was all it could be, ran right at him, snarling. Wintermoon hit him with a heart shot and was stunned when the creature exploded into dust.

Before he could get another arrow from his quiver, the second was on him. Wintermoon dropped to his back and planted his feet in the creature's chest. Using it's momentum against it, he threw it up and over. Quickly rising to his feet, he drew his hunting knife. Corwith and K'Tathi swooped on two of the other creatures, trying to distract them from their bond mate. One of the creatures jumped into the air and caught Corwith in one hand. Laughing, it brought the owl to it's fangs.

There was nothing Wintermoon could do. The creature he was fighting was too fast and too strong. Trying to maintain his distance from his opponent, Wintermoon mentally braced himself for the pain that would come when Corwith died. Giving his bondbird one last look, he was once again stunned when the creature holding Corwith exploded into dust.

He had been so involved in the fight that he hadn't noticed the young man who crossed through the gate, or the fact that the gate had closed. The stranger ran to Wintermoon and shoved a pointed stick into his opponent. He then handed Wintermoon the stick and pulled another from a bag slung over his shoulder, but the other change children had fled.

Xander felt a shocking coldness and then he was on the other side. The last fading light from the portal allowed him to see a vampire pluck an owl from the air. He didn't even stop to think, he ran to the vamp and staked him before he had a chance to kill the bird. When the dust cleared, Xander saw a man, with hair Oz would have been impressed by, fighting a vampire off with just a knife. Xander ran towards the vamp and staked him. He gave the other man his stake and pulled a new one from his bag. He was glad he'd brought spares, but all of the other vamps had bugged out.

Xander saw the man run to the owl he had saved. A second was hovering over it, protecting it. The man was very gentle as he picked up the wounded bird. The man smiled at Xander in thanks. He smiled back and then his world went black again when he passed out.

**********

Cradling Corwith in his hands, Wintermoon went to the young man's side. It was too dark to see any injuries, so he tucked Corwith into his tunic and picked up the young man to carry him back to his camp.

Wintermoon laid the young man on his bedroll next to the fire. Pulling Corwith from his tunic he checked his bondbird over. He was fine except for a few ruffled feathers and a strained wing. Calling to K'Tathi, he sent him out to hunt for the wounded bird while he checked over their unconscious guest.

Wintermoon removed the heavy bag and odd looking stick from the stranger's shoulders. He pulled off his coat and the odd thin shirt from under it. It took him a moment to get it over the young man's head without jostling him too much.

He found small cuts and several large bruises decorating his chest, arms and back. There was some swelling under one eye, a cut on his lip and a deep one on his chin. That one would need stitches. Wintermoon was no healer, but he'd been on his own long enough to learn the basics.

Once he had cleaned and stitched the cut, he bathed the rest of the injuries. The young man never twitched. He was obviously exhausted. Wintermoon covered him and went to pamper his bondbirds while he waited for the other to awake.

**********

Xander was having a really strange dream. He had carried a demon's head through a portal like it was a football, saved an owl from a vampire, and then saved a man dressed like an Indian, with a punk hairdo, from another vampire. Xander groaned when he tried to sit up. He felt like he'd been hit by a truck. "That's it, no more cold pizza before bed. My life is strange enough. I don't need weird dreams too."

A deep voice, speaking a language he couldn't understand, finally forced Xander to open his eyes. Seeing the 'Punk Indian' and two owls staring at him, Xander said, "This is not a good."

Xander stared at the man sitting across the camp from him. "Uh, Hi. How ya doin'? Oh, that sounded good Harris, why not convince the nice man that you're a total loser."

Wintermoon listened to his 'guest', but didn't recognize a single word. He wished he were a better mindspeaker, then language wouldn't be a problem. An idea caused him to send out a call to Corwith, who was resting in a nearby tree. The young man seemed concerned about the young owl last evening, he'd gone out of his way to save him from the change child. Maybe Corwith could get through to him. Wintermoon desperately needed information about the change children they had fought.

Corwith landed silently on Wintermoon's outstretched arm. Pulling his bondbird close to his chest, he scratched his head while asking him to talk to their guest. Corwith was amazingly eager, he wanted to thank him for saving his feathers from the 'bad man'. Wintermoon gave him a light toss and he drifted over to Xander. Landing in front of the bedroll where the his rescuer sat, he walked up his leg with an odd little waddle. Owls were not known for their grace while on the ground.

Xander reached out a hand to touch the bird, but stopped before he could. He looked up at the bird's owner with a question is in eyes. The man nodded yes, and waved a hand at the owl. Xander decided that meant he had permission and touched the owl on the head.

Corwith hooted with distress when his mind was swamped with images he didn't understand and feelings he did.

Never enough food, no love, no help, no bond. Lonely. Always fighting, trying to survive. Ugly monsters trying to kill him, kill the others. Parents bad as monsters, always hurting with fists and words. Running through gate, not knowing to where. Worthless, ready to die to save others.

Wintermoon hurried to Corwith's side when he felt his distress. As soon as he touched the young man's shoulder he too was overwhelmed.

Xander didn't know what was wrong, but he knew he was the cause. Again. He gently moved the owl out of his lap and backed away from the man. Once contact was broken, he seemed to be okay. "Important lesson Harris, don't touch the natives. They're allergic."

Wintermoon was sadden by what he'd seen and felt from the boy. No one should have to live like that. Carefully, he reached out to touch the boy's hand. Prepared this time, he didn't become lost.

/Wintermoon/

Xander shook his head when he heard the voice, "Oh great, now I've gone crazy. What else can go wrong?"

/Not crazy, my name, it is Wintermoon K'Treva/

Xander finally understood what was happening, clearing his mind, he thought of his name as hard as he could.

/XANDER!!/

Wintermoon winced when that voice screamed in his head, he was amazed by how easily they were communicating.

/There is no need to yell, I can hear you. What is your name?/

Xander blushed and tried to think calmly, /Sorry. I'm Xander. Can you tell me where I am?/

Wintermoon guided them back over to the bedroll so they could sit in comfort.

/We are in the Pelagiris Forest, not far from my home./

/Okay, that didn't help much. What country are we in?/

/Country? We are in the lands of the Tayledras./

/What is a Tayledras?/

/I am./

/Let's try this. What planet are we on?/

Wintermoon looked totally confused. /What is a planet?/

/I'm a long way from home, aren't I?/

/I believe so, Xander. We will go to my vale. Maybe some of the elders there can help you./

/How long will it take us to get there?/

/A few marks, if we move quickly./

/How long until nightfall?/

/Many marks Xander, why?/

/Those vamps from last night can make more of themselves. But they can only come out at night. Sunlight kills them. We need to find them and destroy them before they multiply./

/The elders need to know of this. We will break our fast and then leave./

/I don't have any money for food or anything./ Xander truly began to panic. If he couldn't get back to Sunnydale how was he going to live? He didn't think there were too many jobs for pizza boys here. He'd have to find a place to live too. And clothes, all he had was what was on his back. Did it get cold here? Would he freeze when winter came?

Wintermoon picked up on his distress and tried to reassure him. /Xander, you saved my life and that of my bondbird. I will help you in any way that I can. There is food a plenty to be found and hunted here. And I will sponsor you before the elders, you can make a home among my people. I would not leave you here to fend for yourself./

Xander gave Wintermoon a weak smile, /Sorry for freaking out. I didn't mean to lay all that on you. It's just a little much to handle, you know?/

/You did not 'freak' me out. You are understandably upset. I doubt I would do so well if I found myself so far from home and unable to speak the language./

/Yeah, how are we speaking anyway? I mean, I know we're talking in our heads, but why can I understand you? And how are you doing this anyway? Is it a spell?/

/I am not doing it, you are. I am not a strong mindspeaker with humans. With animals, yes. Language does not matter when mindspeaking, or I would not be able to speak to my bondbirds./

/What do you mean, I'm doing it? I'm not a telepath or a witch!/

/I do not know where you gained the ability, Xander, but most are born with it. Most of my people can mindspeak to an extent, and all can speak with their bondbirds./

/Wintermoon, you keep saying 'bondbird', I know you're talking about your owls, but what does bondbird mean?/

Wintermoon called Corwith and K'Tathi to him. K'Tathi landed on the outstretched arm and then moved up to the padded shoulder, making room for Corwith to land.

Indicating the bird on his shoulder, /This is K'Tathi, and the one you saved last night is Corwith. When they were still fledges, they and their parents chose me for the bond./

Wintermoon struggled to find a way to explain such an elemental part of his life in a way Xander could understand.

/They are my friends, my companions. They help me hunt, and guard my back. They are larger than ordinary raptors and much smarter. They are my brothers, my people call them Wingsibs./

K'Tathi and Corwith showed their pleasure by fluffing up their wings.

/All of my people have bondbirds, but not all owls. There are many breeds, eagles, owls, falcons, and hawks. All are special. They are why others call us what they do./

Xander was curious, /What do they call you?/

Wintermoon laughed out loud, and in his mind, Xander liked the way that felt.

/They call us the Hawkbrothers./

**********

Xander and Wintermoon ate some jerky and what Wintermoon called 'travel biscuits. Xander called them hockey pucks, and then had to explain. Wintermoon laughed again, Xander really liked it when he did that. It actually 'tickled' in his head.

They broke down camp, Xander helping as much as he could. He'd never really been camping before, sleeping in the yard on Christmas didn't count.

Mindspeaking was getting easier for both of them. They no longer had to be touching to hear each other. This was a good thing since Xander didn't have enough breath to actually talk. He'd thought he was in pretty good shape, but the pace Wintermoon was setting was brutal. The Hawkbrother didn't even have the decency to break a sweat while Xander was swimming in it. The M-16 and bag of ammo were getting heavier with every step. Xander finally had to stop.

/Wintermoon./ He called. /I gotta rest for a minute./

Wintermoon immediately turned back to his young friend. /Are you all right Xander?/

/Yeah, I'm fine. I just have to catch my breath./

/I am sorry, I was not thinking of your injuries. We will rest here until you feel better./

Xander smiled up from where he was sitting. /Wintermoon, I don't think we have a week to spare. I just need a minute./

Wintermoon handed him a water skin and watched as he drank deeply. He was liking this young man more and more. Xander didn't complain, but neither was he foolish enough to push himself to the verge of collapse.

/How much farther do we have to go?/

Wintermoon sent up a call to K'Tathi and waited for a reply. /We should reach the outer markers within two marks. But it is still some distance from there until we reach my Vale./

Xander groaned but got back on his feet. /Let's get going then. But I have to tell you, after we dust those vamps, I'm going to sleep for a week./

Wintermoon gently pushed Xander back down to the ground. /Rest Xander, I have sent K'Tathi ahead to my brothers. They will bring mounts and we will ride the rest of the way. It will cost us no more time./

/Uh, Wintermoon, I don't know how to ride a horse./

Wintermoon smiled broadly, /Do not worry Xander, these are not horses./

Xander hung his head, /Why do I get the feeling I'm going to be sorry I asked? Okay, if they're not horses, what are they?/

Wintermoon smiled and took a seat next to Xander. He explained about the non-humans living inside and out of the vale. The dyheli, who were to be their mounts, the hertasi, the lizard people who cooked, cleaned and generally took care of their Hawkbrother friends.

Anyone catching sight of the pair would have seen two men, one young and one not so young, sitting in the forest, listening to the trees grow. The silence was broken by an incredulous shout. "Gryphons!"

Wintermoon grinned at Xander's reaction. He didn't think he'd smiled this much in years. /You know of Gryphons?/

/Yeah. Well, kind of. They're myths where I'm from. Half lion and half eagle. They were the guardians of royalty and you really didn't want to piss them off if you wanted to keep your face attached to your head./

A horrify thought occurred to Xander. /Huh, you don't have any dragons here do you?/

/We do have ice drakes, but they are usually only seen in the far north. We haven't had a problem with one of those in a very long time. Well before I was born. But there are other things here that are very dangerous. You must never go into the forest alone./

/Don't worry. Until I figure out how to get home, you're going to have to pry me off with a stick./

Corwith glided in and landed on Wintermoon's arm. He tilted his sideways, staring into his bondmates eyes. /Others come. Go home now?/

Wintermoon ran strong fingers through the feathers covering the owl's head and laughed when he leaned into the caress, blissful expression in his eyes. /Yes little one, we can go home now./

Wintermoon rose to his feet gracefully and tossed Corwith back into the air. Turning, he extended a hand to Xander to help him to his feet. /My brothers come, we will be in the Vale very shortly./ Wintermoon thought for a moment, unsure if he should say anything. But he owed Xander a great deal, and he didn't want the boy to be frightened. He'd been through enough.

/Xander. When we go before the elders, there will be many questions. Some will seem intrusive. They are not meant to harm. We seldom allow strangers in our lands, and precautions are taken for the good of the clan. Do not worry, I will be with you./

Xander was nervous, but determined not to show it. /Hey, I dealt with Snyder, I can deal with your elders./

Wintermoon tilted his head, looking a great deal like Corwith when he did so. /What is a Snyder?/

Xander grinned and told Wintermoon about the nasty little man who'd given him so much trouble in High School. Wintermoon burst into laughter at Xander's stories and his description of the obnoxious little man. So the scouts, when they arrived, were treated to the sight of Wintermoon, tears running down his face, laughing helplessly. They looked at each other in shock, neither had ever seen Wintermoon do more than smile slightly.

Xander spotted them first and stiffened, but relaxed slightly when he recognized their resemblance to Wintermoon. Laying a hand on his new friend's shoulder, he nodded his head at the approaching pair.

Wintermoon, still trying to breath, called out to the scouts. "Welcome. It is good to see you again."

Shadowstar and Winterlight slid off the dyheli they were riding and walked closer to Wintermoon and the young man beside him. Winterlight, the leader of the K'Sheyna scouts spoke first. "Heyla, Wintermoon. How was the hunt?"

The smile left Wintermoon's face. "Hard. There are many more changed creatures than we had originally thought. We shall speak of it before the elders. Plans must be made." Winterlight nodded his agreement.

Shadowstar had been studying the stranger standing beside Wintermoon. She wasn't sure she liked what she saw. A tall young man, muscled, his face covered with various bruises and cuts. But it was his eyes that bothered her. They were dark, almost black, and they appeared much older than they should. She wondered what had happened to age him so, and if he had brought it to the clans with him.

Wintermoon saw Shadowstar studying Xander and didn't really like the expression on her face. Speaking to both of the scouts, he said, "This is Xander. He does not speak our language, but is a powerful mindspeaker. He is lost, far from his home, I'm taking him before the council of Elders. There are things they need to know and plans to be made."

Pointing to the two scouts, Wintermoon made introductions. /Xander, this is Shadowstar and Winterlight, scouts of K'Sheyna Vale. They will escort us to my home./

Xander nodded his head in greeting, but didn't take his eyes off of the two studying him. /Didn't their parents reach them that staring is rude?/

Wintermoon sighed to himself, he had a feeling this was not going to be a pleasant journey. /They do not mean any insult. As scouts, it is their duty to protect the clans. As I told you, we do not often allow strangers among us. They will not harm you./

/Yeah, fine. But can you get them to stop staring at me? They're giving me the creeps./

Wintermoon sighed again, it was going to be a long day.

**********

Xander made the journey to K'Sheyna Vale in absolute silence. Perched uncomfortably on the narrow spine of the dyheli mare he was riding, he stared at the forest ahead, refusing to look at Wintermoon or the others. Winterlight was leading them while Shadowstar covered their back trail. Xander didn't feel comfortable with either of them. Not like he did Wintermoon. But the easy comradery they had shared seemed to have been forgotten, at least by Wintermoon.

Xander had tried once to speak to him when they first mounted up, but other than telling Xander not to use the dyheli's horns to steady himself, he'd had nothing to say. Xander had learned the hard way when to keep quiet, and he was going to do just that.

Unbeknownst to Xander, Wintermoon was under a mental assault from fore and aft. Winterlight and Shadowstar using their bondbirds to plague him with questions. Xander, of course, being the worry behind those very questions. Shadowstar was convinced the young stranger would bring them trouble, while Winterlight was willing to wait until he could hear what he had to say before making any judgments.

Wintermoon, while endlessly patient with animals and children, had never had too much of the same control around adults. He was a scout, but answered only to the elders, not Winterlight. Being the only hunter bonded to owls afforded him a small amount of special consideration. Especially when there was any hunting or tracking to be done at night. While others were as capable, their daylight loving bondbirds put them at a serious disadvantage. He was on the verge of telling the other two scouts what he thought of their endless questions when they were greeted by the outlying sentry to the Vale. Mentally sighing in relief, he urged the dyheli he was riding closer to Xander to speak with him.

/Xander, we are now inside the Vale markers. The entrance is just ahead. Once inside, stay close to me. The Elders have already gathered, we shall go them first./

Xander, his feelings still hurt, refused to look at Wintermoon. /Yeah, fine. Whatever./

Wintermoon didn't know why his young friend was acting so cold, but decided the questions could wait until they were inside.

Moments later they passed through the veil into the wonder that was K'Sheyna Vale. Xander tried not to stare, but he'd never even dreamed something like this could exist. Plants grew everywhere, flowers of every color and description releasing their perfume into the air. Several people stood waiting for them. At least Xander thought they were people. The scouts were easy to recognize, their clothing and hair enough like Wintermoon's to mark them.

But the others..., Xander had only ever seen anything like them in comic books. Xander thought this is what the high court elves of the Sidhe must have looked like in the fantasy books he'd read in high school. Long, flowing white hair and costumes in a riot of colors. And everywhere there were birds. Sitting on padded shoulders, or drifting by on wide spread wings. They were all staring at him intently. He flushed with embarrassment, not used to being the center of attention.

His unease was forgotten as soon as he slid off of the dyheli he'd been riding, physical pain taking it's place, the muscles of his legs and lower back burning. Sheer stubbornness was the only thing keeping him on his feet.

Wintermoon moved to Xander's side quickly. He knew the he had to be in pain, both from his injuries and the unaccustomed stretching of muscles caused by riding. He got a grip on Xander's arm, helping him to stand. He got a small smile in thanks, but Xander still wasn't talking to him. Wintermoon felt Xander stiffen in his hands and looked up to see Iceblade heading towards them. /Xander, that is Iceblade, leader of the mages and one of our Elders. He will not harm you./ Xander nodded in acknowledgment, but didn't take his eyes off the man approaching.

Iceblade smiled at the young man with Wintermoon, liking what he saw. Although young and obviously nervous, he met his eyes without hesitation. Those dark eyes slipped away for a second and then returned, keeping track of the others surrounding him.

Iceblade stopped before them, extending his arm to Wintermoon. When it was clasped by the familiar hand he pulled the scout into a rough embrace. "Heyla, it is good to see you again my friend. You have been gone too long." He pulled back from the hug, smiling at the sheepish look on Wintermoon's face. "A message would have been appreciated occasionally, but no matter. You are here now. And brought a friend with you I see." Iceblade raised a brow in Xander's direction, waiting for an introduction.

"This is Xander. I met him last night. Actually, he saved Corwith and myself from 'vampires' he had followed through a gate. He does not speak our language, or the trade tongue, but can mindspeak."

"An interesting tale, one I'm sure all would like to hear. Come, the Elders are waiting."

Leading them through the Vale to the Elders waiting at the Heartstone, Iceblade's mind was racing. They had all felt the gate go up, something none of them had the power to do any longer. And this young stranger had no power, he could not have put up the gate. The 'vampires' perhaps? Could they be mages? Iceblade took a deep breath, and forced his mind to clear. Speculating got him nowhere, he would wait until the questions could be asked.

**********

Xander sat next to Wintermoon in front of what he called a Heartstone. They were surrounded by what appeared to be the entire population of K'Sheyna Vale. Xander had the feeling that the next few hours were not going to be a whole lot of fun.

Iceblade stood in front of the assembly and waited for silence. Once the murmurs had died down, he explained their reasons for the gathering.

"Today, Wintermoon has brought before us a stranger. One whose tale has bearing on the safety of our Vale. He does not speak our tongue, so I would ask you to hold your questions until the tale is told." Several nodded while the rest remained silent.

Wintermoon asked Xander to begin, he would translate for the others.

/Begin where?/

/How did you come to be in the place where you found the gate?/

So Xander told him about Adam and the Initiative. And how the Slayer had defeated him with a little help from her friends. It took several minutes for Xander to explain what the Slayer was and even longer to explain Adam, but Wintermoon finally understood enough to tell the others.

/We had almost made it out when a demon opened the portal to escape. Lightning started coming out of the opening, but a bunch of vamps made it though. Giles told us that the only way to close the portal was for the one who had opened it to go through. But then the demon got hit by the lightning. There wasn't a lot left of him. Buffy was going to bring his remains through, but she's too important to lose. So I grabbed the demon's head and ran through the portal. You know what happened after that./

Wintermoon passed on all that Xander had told him. The clearing erupted with shouted questions. It took Iceblade several minutes to restore order. Iceblade and the other Elders conferred and then Iceblade came to sit in front of Xander. "Wintermoon, we think it would be better if I could speak to Xander directly. There are many questions and we fear what will be lost in the translation. Could you explain this to him?"

"I will try." /Xander, Iceblade thinks it would be better if he could speak to you directly. Many things do not translate well./

/I don't know. Remember what happened the first time you tried to talk to me? I don't want to hurt him./

/This will not be the same. Iceblade is an experienced mage and a powerful mindspeaker. He will not be overwhelmed. He will link directly to your mind, and see your memories for himself. Do not worry, he will not seek things of a personal nature./

/Uh uh. No way. I'm not going to let a complete stranger loose in my head. There's already too many things running around in there. Couldn't you do it?/

/I am sorry Xander, but I do not have the ability. I give you my word, he will not harm you./

/I'm more worried about me hurting him. No, they have to find another way./

Wintermoon looked at Iceblade, "He is not comfortable with the idea and will not allow a stranger to go through his mind in such a manner."

One of the younger mages, Autumnwing, had been silent until now, but could no longer hold his tongue. "What does he fear we will find Wintermoon? Perhaps he is working with the creatures and is simply here seeking a way to breech our defenses."

Angry murmuring could be heard throughout the clearing. Most agreeing with the mage. Xander may not have understood the words, but he understood the tone of them well enough.

/What did he say about me Wintermoon?/ /He wonders if you are perhaps working with those creatures./

Xander, tired and hungry, had finally had enough of this interrogation. His anger allowed him the strength to broadcast his mindspeech so all could hear.

/You think I'm working with the vamps? How stupid are you? You want to know what's in my mind? Fine. Go ahead and look, but if what you find bites you in the ass don't come crying to me. I tried to warn you./

Autumnwing was more certain than ever that the young man had something to hide. His bravado merely a cover for the destruction of his plans. He crossed to him and laying one hand on his head, dropped his shields. With a thought he set up a reflection so all could bear witness to what he might find.

Several gasped in horror. The descriptions of the events doing little to prepare them for the reality. Autumnwing dug deeper and deeper, determined that he was right. He knew the stranger was hiding something. Unfortunately, he found it.

They saw the solder, residing in the place where the conscious and unconscious mind meet. He tried to stop Autumnwing from proceeding, but his skills on the battlefield were no match for the mage.

Behind him, they saw darkness, ringed in steel. Something was hidden inside that cage, Autumnwing let it loose.

There were no hidden plans or conspiracies, but a beast. Fangs and claws, driven by a terrible hunger. They witnessed the possession and the young man's fight to control it. They also saw the lie. The beast had never left him, it was comfortable where it was and could not be driven out. So he caged it. Trapped it in a steel cage and covered it in darkness so it could not find it's way free. Until Autumnwing broke down the barriers.

Xander stumbled away from the mages and Wintermoon. He had to get out of there before he completely lost control.

Wintermoon tried to reach his friend but Iceblade held him back.

/Wintermoon, stay back. I don't know how long I can control it. I have to get out of here before I hurt somebody./ Xander felt the hyena ripping through his mind, trying to take over. He fell to his knees, screaming in pain. His eyes went completely black and his mouth twisted into a snarl. Wintermoon could not believe his eyes. Then, for a second, his friend looked up at him, /Wintermoon, you can't let me hurt anyone. Promise me./

/What would you have me do?/

/Kill me./ All the humanity in Xander's eyes faded away. Wintermoon drew his hunting knife, hating what he had to go.

Iceblade grabbed Wintermoon's shoulder and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "Hold him off while we try to contain him." Wintermoon nodded his understanding, hope rising in his chest. He didn't want to repay the debt he owed for his life by ending Xander's.

Xander/Hyena kept his eyes on the man before him, dismissing the others as prey, not threat. He crouched down, preparing to attack at the first opportunity.

Wintermoon slowly moved closer, keeping Xander's attention off of the mages. He was unprepared for the strength and speed of Xander's attack. He lost his grip on his knife as they rolled on the ground. It took all of his considerable skill to keep Xander's teeth from his throat.

Wintermoon drove one knee into Xander's ribs, knocking him away. Xander/Hyena rolled with the blow, ending up on his hands and knees. He lunged forward before the threat could regain his feet.

A mage blast struck him in the chest, pushing him back down. He rolled sideways and leaped up at this new threat. His hands landed on the woman's shoulders and he snarled into her face. She smiled at him but all he could see were the stars in her eyes.

Wintermoon used the seconds respite the mage blast afforded him to grab his knife out of the dust. He glanced at the mage at his side expecting to see Iceblade. He staggered back a step in shock when he realized the Star-Eyed stood beside him. He watched as Xander leapt at her, snarling. He saw the smile on her ageless face and felt the young man's whimper in his head when he collapsed.

Kal'enel kept a hold on her newest warrior as he fell, easing him to the ground. She sat in the dust with his head in her lap, idly brushing her hand through his hair. She looked up at Wintermoon as he knelt beside them. Seeing the worry on his face she spoke softly. "Did you think I would harm him after I went to the trouble to bring him here?"

Wintermoon stiffened in shock at her words. "Your pardon, Star-Eyed, it is not my place to question you. But please, why did you open the gate? Many evil creatures came through with him."

She sighed, it was time to tell them the truth. "Gather around my people, for I have a tale to tell."

"I did not open the gate, I merely redirected it's destination. Many things have changed, and we must change with them. Or we will die. The changes wrought upon the land by the Mage Storms are much more sever than you know. There are many more changed creatures than you realize. Most of them never seen on this world before. You have neither the skills or knowledge to fight them. Even I would find them a test for my strength. And they must be fought or they will take over the land."

She looked terribly sad for a moment, and cupped her hand around Xander's cheek, healing the bruise that marred it. "This young one, he has fought these creatures for years on his own world. He has the knowledge and the skills we need. We will aid him in what ever way that we can."

Iceblade had to ask, "Star-Eyed, could not one of our people be trained? Why an outsider?"

There was no anger at his presumption in her voice, "Because he is not of the people, he can serve all of the people. The Karsites, the Valdemarians, and our own people. All will give him aid, but will not interfere with what he must do."

Autumnwing found the nerve to ask about the beast. "What of the beast that possesses him?"

Kal'enel smiled, "It seeks only to protect, but he fights it's influence. I believe I can merge the two so the conflict is gone between them. The other, the warrior, he causes many problems. His knowledge we need, but his attitude is causing the beast pain, and so it lashes out. But not to worry, I know how to handle them."

Xander stirred slightly, he was beginning to awaken. Kal'enel watched carefully, she had caged the beast, but needed to talk to Xander without it's interference. The first few moments should tell if the cage in his mind could withstand it's fury.

Xander yawned and stretched, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He was suddenly wide awake when his pillow moved unexpectedly. He found himself surrounded by Hawkbrothers, one of them, a woman, was sitting in front of him. He'd obviously been using her as his pillow. He started to apologize, but then he got a good look at her eyes.

He scrambled back and got to his feet. Wintermoon came to him and placed one calloused hand on his shoulder. /Xander, this is the Star-Eyed, she is our Goddess./

Xander swallowed hard, /I've been using a 'Goddess' for a pillow? Oh shit, I'm dead./

Kal'enel hid a smile, the comic look of shock on the young man's face mirroring his thoughts exactly. /Do not be afraid young Xander. I in fact did not mind being used so./ Her face suddenly grew serious, /But I do have a boon to ask of you./

Xander felt his heart sink, he knew he wasn't going to like this. /Yeah, um, what did you want?/

/Merely to speak with you. There are many things we need to discuss. Not the least of which, how you came to be among us./

Xander shrugged, /I'll tell you what I know, but it isn't a lot./

/It is more what I need to tell you, young one. If it pleases you, could we go apart from this place? Much of this is private, and you may not want the others to know of it yet./

Xander nodded, /But, could Wintermoon come? He's already looked in my mind, I don't think there's anything you could say that would shock him./ Xander decided to tell her the rest of it, /And, uh, no insult intended, but every time a beautiful woman wants to talk to me alone, she usually ends of trying to have me for lunch or something./

Kal'enel nodded, the compliment not lost upon her. /Of course, Xander. He too has a part to play in this. Come, let us go./

She led the two men out of the clearing and into the shaded gloom of the darkening Vale.

**********

They had only walked for a few minutes when Kal'enel stopped beside a small stream. She sat on the mossy bank and gestured for them to join her.

Xander plucked nervously at a small hole in the knee of his jeans. /So..., um, what did you want to tell me?/

/First, what has Wintermoon told you of our troubles here?/

/He told me about the Mage Storms and the change children, if that's what you mean./

Kal'enel nodded, /Yes, that exactly. But the problem is far greater than he knows. Many people have become what you would call demons. And not just here in the Pelagiris, but scattered all across the land./

Xander was quick to volunteer, no one should have to live with demons, or die because of them. /I'll help you all I can, but I'm not really a very good fighter. Maybe it would have been better if Buffy had come through instead of me./

Kal'enel smiled, but still felt sadness at the young man's opinion of himself. /You are stronger than you know, and her destiny is there. You have the skills and the knowledge we need to fight back the darkness. That is why I brought you here./

/Whoa, 'you' brought me here? I thought the demon opened the gate?/

/The demon did open the gate, I merely changed it's destination./

/Do I want to know where I would have ended up?/ Kal'enel shook her head solemnly. /Didn't think so. So, why did you choose me? I'm not really a very good fighter, and you're a Goddess. Couldn't you take care of the demons yourself? Or at least tell you people how to kill them?/

/They are many rules that we Gods must follow. I can only protect my people, those who follow a different God or none at all would be helpless./ Kal'enel leaned forward earnestly. /But you Xander, you are not of this world and owe no allegiance to any one God or king. You would be able to serve 'all' people. And for the same reason, myself and the other Gods would be able to aid you more directly than one of our worshipers. There is also the matter of your special gifts./

Xander was now totally confused. /What gifts? I don't have any gifts./

Kal'enel smiled slyly, /Oh, but you do. You have the skills and knowledge granted you from your two guardians. The beast can allow you the ability to see in the darkest night, to track the smallest of signs with ease. The warrior's knowledge of weapons and strategy can prove to be invaluable. We just need to give you access to their gifts./

/Okay, that could help. But there are a lot of different kinds of demons. And what kills one usually just pisses another off. I don't have any of Gile's books, and since you've never had this problem before, I don't think you'd have any that would help either./

/You do not need those books. You already have all the knowledge you could ever need. Every word you've ever read, or fact you have learned concerning demons and their ilk, is still residing in your mind. You need merely recall them./

Xander scratched his head, trying to hide the embarrassed blush staining his cheeks. /Yeah, well, my recall isn't that good. Any of my teachers would be more than happy to tell you that./

/I think you will find I am a much better teacher than those you knew before./ Kal'enel rose to her feet, and helped Xander to his. /But for now, I have given you much to consider. You must be hungered and in the need of sleep. Rest your body for now and allow your thoughts to do the same. I will return on the morrow. But until then, a small gift from me./

She laid her hands on his head and he felt a wave of dizziness pass over him. When it was gone he realized there were new words floating in his mind. He closed his eyes for a moment to let them sort themselves out. He opened his eyes and smiled at her in thanks. "Thanks Kal'enel, all that 'mindspeech' was giving me a headache."

She smiled at the sound of his voice. Deep and soft. And so very young. "You are welcome young Xander. I shall see you with the dawn."

Xander turned to Wintermoon, "Dawn? Like when the sun comes up?"

Wintermoon turned curious eyes to his young companion, "Yes, dawn is when the sun arises. Why?"

Xander sighed, "Because I am so 'not' a morning person."

**********

Wintermoon led Xander to the Vale's community kitchen. There was always food of some sort left out for those who did not care to or were unable to cook for themselves.

They loaded up large bowls with a wide variety of items and sat down to eat. Wintermoon was slightly amazed at the sheer amount of food Xander managed to put away but refrained from teasing him. Xander's ego was fragile at best, even lighthearted teasing could wound him.

Several other scouts came in searching for food after they finished their patrols. Wintermoon spotted several people he hadn't seen in weeks. "Xander, I need to speak with some of the other scouts. They may have information we will find useful. Will you be all right alone for a time? I will not be far."

Xander paused eating long enough to answer, "Sure, go ahead. This food is really good, can I go get seconds?"

"Of course. Please eat your fill. I shall return shortly." Wintermoon went to renew several old acquiantences while Xander made serious inroads in his dinner.

Midway through his second helping, he felt eyes staring at him. Glancing up from under long lashes, he was surprised to see a little girl peeking at him from behind a pillar. He smiled at her and went back to his meal. When he looked back up she had moved several feet closer.

He kept a close eye on her while appearing to be involved with his meal. Her appearance bothered him. Her clothes were ragged and stained, and she was too thin. He guessed she was 5 or 6, too young to be wandering around on her own. No matter how safe the Vale was. She finally made it to the edge of his table. He saw her looking at one of the cookies resting next to his plate and offered it to her.

She took it shyly and moved a step back to eat it. Before long she was back, but this time she was staring at Xander and not at his food. We wiped his mouth on his sleeve and smiled at her. "Hi, I'm Xander. What's your name?"

/Ghost./

Xander's brows drew down and he replied with a question. /Ghost?/

The little girl's eyes grew wide and she stepped up until she was leaning on Xander's leg. /Yes, Ghost. You can 'hear' me?/

Xander shrugged, /Yeah, no problem. So why is your name Ghost?/

/Because I float around and no one can hear me. They say I'm like a little ghost./

/Oh. Where are your parents?/

/They died. The monsters got them, and they took my voice. I can only speak in my head now./

/I'm sorry about your parents, but I'm sure some of the other people here can hear you. They hear me okay and I just learned how to mindspeak yesterday./

/I tried when they found me, I can hear them, with my ears too. They just can't hear me. Can I stay with you a while?/

Xander held out his hands and she allowed him to pick her up and sit her on his lap. He fed her most of the rest of his dinner while they talked.

Both were unaware of the fact that several others had gathered in the dining hall when word had spread that the little Ghost had made a new friend. They watched in disbelief as the child they had tried to reach for so long took to the outsider and he to her.

When Wintermoon finally returned Ghost was comfortably leaning back against Xander's chest as if she had known him all her life. Wintermoon spoke quietly, not wanting to disturb the child. "Xander, if you will come with me I shall show you were you may sleep. Kal'enel will be waiting at dawn."

The mention of sleep suddenly made Xander very tired. "Yeah, that would be good. I'm beat."

/Ghost, I need to go to bed now. Where do you sleep?/

/Here sometimes, or under a bush in the Vale. Are you really going to see the Star-Eyed tomorrow?/

/Yes. She brought me here so I could fight the monsters. We have lots of monsters where I'm from and she thought I would be able to help./ Xander saw no reason to hide the truth from the little girl. She already knew first hand what he was talking about.

/Will you kill them all?/ she thought sleepily.

Xander hugged the little girl closer. /I'm sure going to try./

**********

Xander picked up Ghost and followed Wintermoon to the guest sleeping quarters. He tried to put Ghost down in the room next to his, but she wouldn't release the death grip she had around his neck. /Want to stay with you./

/Okay honey, calm down. You can stay with me./ "Thanks Wintermoon, guess I'm gonna stay in here with her. She doesn't want me to leave."

Wintermoon smiled at the pair. "It is good she trusts you. We found her three moons ago, her parents had been killed, we aren't sure by what. The strongest of our mindspeakers tried to reach her, but her mind is blocked."

"I don't have any trouble hearing her. She says her name is Ghost and that she lost her voice when 'monsters' killed her parents. Do you think they were attacked by change children?"

"It is very possible. Can she tell you what the monsters looked like?"

"I'll ask." /Ghost, can you tell me what the monsters looked like?/

/They looked like men at first. But then their faces changed and their teeth got very long and pointed. My mother pushed me out the window and I hid in the rocks. They found me, but they couldn't reach me. They left before the sun came up. I went home but Momma and Daddy were dead. The others came that same day and brought me here./

Xander brushed the tangled hair off her face and tucked the blankets in around her. /Go to sleep, Ghost. I won't go anywhere, I promise. Want to come with me in the morning to see Kal'enel?/

Ghost nodded shyly and drifted off to sleep. Xander turned to Wintermoon to tell him what he had learned. "It sounds like her family was killed by vampires. Guess the ones I followed through the gate weren't the first ones here after all. You'd better tell your friends about this. Tell them to always travel in pairs if they have to be outside the Vale after dark. And they should start carrying stakes like the ones I have in my bag. They have to put the stake in the vampire's heart, or cut off it's head. If they're really good shots, try to take them out with arrows. The farther away you can kill a vamp the better."

"I shall do as you say Xander. Now you should get some sleep. I will come for you before dawn to take you to the bathing pools. You will have time to bathe and break your fast before we met the Star-Eyed."

"Sounds good. I guess I am kinda grungy. Can I borrow some clothes? These are the only ones I have with me."

"Mine should come close to fitting, we are almost of a size. Later we shall see about getting some new ones made for you. You will not feel like such an outsider if you look like the rest of us."

"Thanks Wintermoon, for everything. I'm glad you were the one I ran into when I came through the gate." The last was broken by a huge yawn, the day's events finally catching up with him.

"You are very welcome Xander, now try to sleep." Wintermoon left to find the scout leaders to pass along Xander's advice while Xander settled down next to Ghost.

He tossed and turned, being careful not to disturb the little girl sleeping so peacefully beside him. He was about to give up the hope for some sleep when Wintermoon returned to check on them before he retired.

"Heyla, Xander, you should be sleeping."

"I know, I just can't get my brain to shut up long enough."

Wintermoon sat at the head of the bed and stroked his hand through Xander's hair. "Rest, I shall keep watch." Xander's breath slowed and deepened, he feel asleep thinking how nice that hand felt. He slept soundly throughout the rest of the night while Wintermoon kept his silent vigil.

At an hour before dawn, Wintermoon roused the two amidst much grumbling and rubbing of sleep filled eyes. Wintermoon took them to the bathing pools, allowing Xander to go in alone while he and Ghost went to round up some food and clean clothes. Ghost didn't want to leave Xander, but he finally managed to convince her that he wouldn't be comfortable undressing with them there.

They took their time, allowing Xander his privacy, and returned to find him wrapped in a towel, sleeping beside the water's edge. Ghost giggled and splashed water at him, making him sputter and cough. He caught her laughing, /Just wait, little girl. I'll get even later./ Ghost just laughed harder. Neither man made issue of the fact she could laugh out loud. They decided she would talk when she was ready and not before.

Xander went behind a bush to change into the clothes Wintermoon had brought for him. Incredibly soft doe skin pants and a laced up tunic over a cotton shirt. They fit like they had been made for him. He joined the others and modeled for them. "Well, what do you think?" Ghost smiled and clapped her hands, /You look very nice Xander. Much better than you did before./

/Thanks, I think./ "Well Wintermoon, how do I look? Good enough to meet with a Goddess?"

Wintermoon was having a hard time hiding his reaction to Xander's altered appearance. He swallowed hard and managed to reply. "You look very well Xander. I'm sure Kal'enel will be impressed." All the while the primitive part of his brain was telling him that Xander looked good enough to eat, wearing his clothes. He choked down the rest of his own meal while Xander and Ghost ate their own.

The sun was just breaking over the trees when they met Kal'enel in the clearing. She looked quizzically at the little girl and raised a brow in question. Xander glanced down at the tiny hand clutching his so trustingly and made his decision.

He looked Kal'enel in the eye, all doubts gone. "Let's do it."

Kal'enel looked at Xander with a deadly serious expression on her face. "Are you quite certain Xander? You may take more time to decide."

"Time isn't really something we have a lot of." He raised the hand Ghost was clutching. "This is Ghost. Her family was killed by vampires a couple of months ago, and now she can't speak. I can hear her mindspeech, but no one else can.The longer we wait, the more kids there are going to be without parents." He shrugged, "There's not really anything else to think about. I can do something to stop it. If I don't, them I'm just as responsible as the monsters. So let's just get this part over with."

"I am pleased Xander. You show a wisdom beyond your years. Very well then, let us begin. Make yourself comfortable. I need to take you out of your mind so that we may speak with your guardians face to face. Do not be afraid, nothing may harm you on the Moonpaths while I am with you."

Xander sat on the ground, holding Ghost on his lap. /You hear her Ghost?/ She nodded her head, dark eyes never straying from his face. /Okay, you keep an eye on my body for me while I'm gone. I might be a little different when I get back, but don't be scared./

/I won't be, I promise. I'll take good care of you while you're on the Moonpaths./

/Thanks Ghost. I knew I could count on you./ "Okay Kal'enel. I'm ready."

She laid her hand on his head and suddenly he was somewhere else. Everything was gray. There was no sky or ground, just a never ending gray. Kal'enel appeared before him and pointed to his left. He turned to see the soldier standing next to him. He looked like Xander, but older and harder. Xander started to speak to him, but heard a growl coming from behind him. He slowly turned to face the beast.

It was a hyena, but it wasn't like the ones he'd seen on TV or that fateful day at the zoo. This one was bigger, a lot bigger. The top of it's head came up to the middle of his chest. It's eyes were so dark he couldn't tell if they had an iris or were all pupil. The most shocking thing was the amount of intelligence in those eyes. This was no dumb animal.

He reached out one hand to it, wanting to touch the thing that had tormented him with visions of blood and violence. He stumbled back when the beast he'd feared for so long rubbed against him like a cat. All the while, making a rumbling noise deep in it's chest that he found oddly comforting.

Xander grinned and scratched it's head, almost falling on his butt when it tried to get even closer. The soldier caught him under the arms and pushed him back onto his feet. "Damned dog. Don't know why you keep that thing around."

Xander snorted rudely, "Same reason I keep you around asshole. I don't know how to get rid of you."

"Get rid of me? I'm not the one who makes you want to go out and eat people."

"No, you just want to go out and shoot guns or work out, usually when I was trying to have some fun with Anya. Do you have any idea how distracting it is to suddenly have the operating specs for an M-1A Bradley pop into your head when you're trying to get your girlfriend naked?"

The anger is Xander's voice caused the soldier to step back. He refused to look Xander in the eye. "I'm sorry. The Army is the only thing I know, when you do those things, it makes me feel funny. I can't control it."

Xander felt like he'd just kicked a puppy. "Hey man, it's no big deal now. Ancient history. We have bigger things to worry about, not whether or not I get lucky."

Xander looked down at the Hyena, happily drooling on his shoes. "And you. Why do you want to make me go out and hurt people, huh?" Shocked didn't begin to cover his feelings when he got his answer.

The Hyena looked him right in the eye, and spoke. "My cub, my pack. All others gone. Must protect. Must teach. Cub must learn to fight or die. No mercy for prey."

Kal'enel had been waiting patiently for just this opportunity. "It is good to protect and to teach. But not all are prey."

The Hyena interposed itself between Xander and Kal'enel. "Know you, Night Eyes. Cub is mine, not yours. Strongest and fastest leads the pack. Cub must learn before he makes new pack. All are prey for the pack."

Xander finally understood. The Hyena wasn't actually being cruel, it was just lonely without it's pack and wanted him to start a new one. It was going to get it's wish, in spades. He grabbed the Hyena by the jaws and forced it to meet his eyes. "These people, Her people, are not prey. They are part of the pack now. We will hunt the things that want to hurt our pack. Do you understand?"

The Hyena gave it's characteristic laugh, "Cub has grown, ready now. We will hunt the hunters, and make them prey to the pack. We hunt now?"

Kal'enel joined Xander, kneeling in front of the beast. "Not yet. Our pack is very large, there are many to protect. You must meet them, so you will know them. You will be able to hunt soon."

"No more cage? Can't hunt in cage."

Xander shook his head, "No more cage, ever. I promise."

"That's just great. What about me? I don't like that damned dog." the soldier snarled.

Kal'enel turned to him, hoping he would agree to her plan without a fight. "I can separate you from the others. Give you a physical form. But not as a man, as one of my Avatars. You will still be a part of Xander, but able to act on your own."

"But not as a man. What will I be then?"

"A hawk, one that befits one that hunts in the shadows. The sky will be yours and you will be like none before you."

"A hawk, huh? And I'll still have all of my memories?"

"Yes, all of them. Your form will not dictate your mind."

"Then I agree. Can you do it now?"

Kal'enel smiled. "I will merge Xander with the Hyena, and take them back to the physical plane. Then I will call you and you will be reborn."

The soldier fought back the urge to salute, instead saying simply, "I'll be waiting."

Xander's spirit returned to his body and he opened his eyes to a new world. Everything was brighter and sharper. Colors that before had been only 'green' or 'red' now took on all new shades. A slight movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned to see a hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a honeysuckle vine. The vine grew on the other side of the clearing, at least 50 yards away, but he saw every detail. The long tongue, ruby red feathers circling it's throat and the way it hovered and danced.

Sight wasn't the only thing affected. His hearing and sense of smell were greatly magnified. Processing all this new information came thoughtlessly. Every sound and smell recognized and filed away for the future.

Ghost's scent was immediately recognized as 'cub', his cub. Not his by blood, but by responsibility and duty. Maybe even love. Xander buried his nose in her hair, breathing deeply. Now matter where she went he would always be able to find her. No matter how she changed as she grew, he would always recognize her by this alone.

Ghost stared wide eyed at her friend, his eyes had changed, becoming mostly pupil and then shrinking down to pinpoints as the sun light hit them. She didn't move as he started smelling her, some part of her realizing that this was important. To both of them.

Xander finally raised his head, a rumbling noise coming from his chest. Ghost tucked her head under his chin to hear it better. The deep vibrations tickled and she giggled, smiling happily. /Xander./

/Yeah Ghost./

She looked up at him and shrugged, unable to tell him what she felt. He understood anyway. He smiled down at her, /Me too./

/Can I stay with you?/ she asked quietly.

/Yep./

/Good. Can we have our own house?/

Xander laughed and hugged her tighter, /I'll see what I can do./ He looked up at Kal'enel, who stood smiling down at the pair of them, "What do we do now?"

"Now we introduce you to the other Gods. The child should not be here for this. She may find it disturbing."

"You're the boss." Xander stood, still holding Ghost in his arms, and took her to Wintermoon. "Would you take her to our room for me?"

Wintermoon reached for the child and cuddled her against his chest, "Of course Xander. I am glad to be of service."

Xander was disturbed by the deferential tone in Wintermoon's voice, now wasn't the time to get into it, but he wasn't going to let it go. "Thanks, I need to talk to you later. You going to be around?"

"I shall stay with the child, you will find me there." Wintermoon nodded at Kal'enel and left the clearing, Ghost staring at Xander from over his shoulder until they disappeared from sight.

Xander turned back to face the Goddess, and squared his shoulders. "Okay, I'm ready. Bring 'em on."

Kal'enel said nothing, merely closed her eyes and raised her arms to the sky. "I, Kal'enel, the Star-Eyed, do summon the Gods to meet their Champion!"

A bright sunbeam caressed her face, growing brighter and brighter until Xander couldn't stand to look at it. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear the spots from his eyes. When his vision returned, he was greeted by the sight of what could only be a God. Tall, with golden skin and eyes that looked into him, more than at him.

Vkandis, the Sun God of Karse and Iftel, studied the one who would become their champion against the darkness. He was pleased by what he found. Skill and knowledge back by a stubborn determination and an iron will. This one would not fold, nor break under the pressure. He turned his eyes to Kal'enel, "You have chosen well Beloved." His smiled at his mate and chosen Consort, "I knew this task was best suited to thee."

Kal'enel returned his smile fondly, happy to see him once again, their duties keeping them too often apart. "Vkandis, I am pleased you agree, do you then grant him your blessings and aid?"

Vkandis once more gazed upon the young mortal, who stared back fearlessly. "I do." He approached Xander and laid his hand upon that dark head in benediction. "Well met, Champion. My aid and favor I give freely. My people will not hinder your quest, but will also grant what aid they may give thee. In thy service I place my priests, all will know you by my mark and my gift."

Vkandis reached out his other hand and caught a sunbeam as easily as a mother catches her child. The sunbeam grew bigger and stronger until it had taken solid form. In his hand, Vkandis now held a short golden spear. It was half of Xander's height with a four sided point on one end and a curved blade on the other. Draped around the shaft was a golden disk, suspended from a golden chain.

Vkandis placed the medallion around Xander's neck. "This, then, is my mark. Wear it always." He then held the spear out for Xander to take. A sensation of warmth ran up Xander's arm when he laid his hand on the shaft. "This weapon carries with it my power, the power of the Sun. Everyday you must raise it in my name and my honor, thus it's power will never fade."

Xander nodded solemnly, for once aware of the fact that he stood before a God. "Thank you. I will do as you say."

"Farewell then, Champion. If you need me, stand in the Sun and call my name. I will come." Vkandis turned to face his love once more, "Kal'enel, I miss thee. And long for the day when we may once again be as one."

She nodded once, watching him turn back into a shaft of pure light, but did not give voice to her feelings. It did no good for mortals to see a Goddess cry.

Xander recognized the pain on Kal'enel's face, he'd been there himself, too many times. "Are you okay?" he asked softly.

She gifted him with a tremulous smile, "Yes. It is an old pain. One I am accustomed to. We should continue, there is still much to do." She closed her eyes and reached out for the spirit that aided the Heralds of Valdemar. She felt it's presence move over her, *What do you seek Star-Eyed?*

*We have found a Champion to fight the Darkness threatening all of our lands. Will you grant him your aid?*

Xander started when he felt a foreign presence enter his mind. It examined him minutely, recognizing all of his faults as well as his strengths. He heard it tell Kal'enel what it had found. *We find him worthy of our aid. And with our blessings, a gift to aid him in his cause.* Xander felt it moving through his mind like lightening, changing and strengthening paths as it passed. All of his memories became clear. Every thought, every lesson he hadn't realized he'd learned, all were available to him as he wished. He also realized his mind's capacity, it was infinite. He could find no limits to his ability to learn.

And then came the knowledge. Who and what the Companions and their Heralds were, and the ties that bound them together. And languages, from every corner of this world. Even the languages of the demons who'd so recently came here. He could understand them all. He stammered his thanks, knowing there was no way he could ever repay this gift.

*You are welcome, Alexander Harris. And well come. Your fight against the Darkness is thanks enough. All of my children will know you and aid you. We will meet again.*

Xander felt the presence withdraw from his mind, leaving an incredible sense of wellbeing in it's wake. He grinned irrepressibly at Kal'enel, "That was a good. Got any more presents for me?"

The Star-Eyed nodded, "Yes, my gift and my mark. But it should be witnessed by the people."

She sent out the call, and every living being inhabiting the K'Sheyna Vale answered that call. The clearing surrounding the Heartstone was filled to the brim with people, Gryphons, Hertasi, Dyheli and what seemed to be hundreds of birds. Wintermoon and Ghost managed to push their way to the front to stand as close to Xander as they could.

Kal'enel's clear voice rang out, "Listen my people and heed my words. Alexander Harris has been chosen as the Champion of the land and all it's peoples. You will grant him your aid in his fight against the Darkness as you are able. All will know him by my mark."

She laid her hand on his shoulder and the buckskin clothes he had borrowed from Wintermoon turned as black as the night, while his hair grew down to the middle of his back. Kal'enel braided a strand of hair on each side of his face, binding them with small ceramic disks bearing the mark of all of the clans. Granting him free passage and aid where ever she held sway.

She stepped back, and lifted one arm to the sky, "And now for my gift."

The scream of a hawk shattered the silence and the soldier answered her call.

A hawk, fully the size of a bonded eagle, dove out of the sun and landed on her arm. None had ever seen it's like.

It's feathers were a dull black, as were it's hooked beak and talons. It's eyes were a reflection of her own.

She transferred the hawk from her arm to Xander's shoulder and told him, "As is the custom of my people, when one gains his bond bird, his name is changed to reflect his new status. From this day forward, you will be known to the people as NightHawk."

The expression on her face as she faded from view could only be described as a smirk.

**********

Xander felt the heat rising up from his face when Kal'enel gave him his new name. The last time he'd used that identity still fresh in his mind, and just as embarrassing. Flustered, he fumbled with Vkandis's Spear, the weight of the bond bird on his shoulder adding to his clumsiness. Something had to go.

/Um, Soldier? Is it okay for me to call you that?/

/Might as well, it's as good a name as any./

/Would you, uh, that is...oh hell. Could you get off of my shoulder before you dislocate it please?/ Xander sent to the bird in embarrassed exasperation.

/I'm not sure if I can take off from here. Let me move down and you give me a boost, Okay?/

/Yeah, just hurry. I can't feel my arm any more./

Soldier carefully side-stepped down Xander's arm, mindful of the inch long talons on the end of his feet. He made it about half way when the arm supporting him began to shake. Someone set a large perch directly in front of Xander and Soldier moved over to it. Both of them letting out a sigh of relief.

Xander's and Soldier's heads whipped around at the same time and in much the same fashion to see who their benefactor was. The elderly man laughed when he saw their matching moves and reactions. This was definitely a good bond.

"Heyla. I am Starblade, one of the mages of this Vale. My apologies for not greeting you earlier NightHawk, but you have had a busy few days."

The old man's smile was too hard to refuse, Xander had to return it. "Thanks for that." he said, pointing to the perch. "I thought my arm was about to fall off."

Starblade nodded in understanding, "I, too, have a very large bond bird, Hyllarr. I know the feeling, but I would not trade him for all the world. If it would be agreeable with you, there are things you should know about bond birds and how to care for them."

"That would probably be a good, he's only been a bird for a few minutes and I'm not sure he knows that much either."

/Not a lot, to be honest. But I am hungry. Hey, I don't have to eat bird seed do I?/ Soldier sent indignantly.

Starblade felt his brows rise up to meet his hair line when he heard the hawk mindspeak. "I am sorry, but I don't understand. He was not always a bird?"

Xander and Soldier shared a look, wondering how much to tell the old man, and deciding, that in this case at least, honesty was the best policy. So Xander, with Soldier's help, explained who he was, how he came to be a hawk and why.

Starblade shook his head, "The Star-Eyed's wonders are many, but I believe more practical help is needed here. Please, come to my ekele, I will give you both all of the help that I can. The fact that both of you mindspeak so clearly will be of great help." Starblade saw Wintermoon and a small child approaching, obviously heading for NightHawk. He smiled at his son, their relationship much better these days than it had been in the not so distant past.

"Heyla, Wintermoon. It is good to see you again my son. And who is your friend?"

Wintermoon hugged his father briefly, "It is good to see you also Father." He turned to urge Ghost up where Starblade could see her better. "This is Ghost. She is the child we scouts found three moons ago. Ghost, this is my father, Starblade."

Starblade smiled at the girl, remembering hearing about the attack and the fact the girl could not speak. "Heyla Ghost. NightHawk and I are going to my ekele for some lunch and so I can teach him how to care for his bond bird. Would you and Wintermoon like to join us?"

Ghost nodded shyly and ducked behind Xander, peeking out at the old man from her refuge.

Wintermoon smiled at Ghost's antics, the more time he spent with the child the more he liked her. "Thank you Father for your invitation. But it sounds as if you and NightHawk have much to discuss, I do not wish to intrude."

Xander reached around with his free hand and smacked Wintermoon in the chest, causing him to grunt slightly with the impact. "Don't be an ass Wintermoon. I can use all the help I can get. Like how am I supposed to get Soldier to your Dad's place? I can't carry him and I'm not sure he should try flying yet. I don't want him getting hurt when he tries to land." Xander smacked him again, a scowl on his face, "And don't call me NightHawk. It's Xander." Xander looked sheepishly at Starblade, a blush once again staining his cheeks, "I'd really like it if you would call me Xander too. I'm not really comfortable with that NightHawk stuff."

Starblade watched the Star-Eyed's Champion's interaction with his son with great interest. Wintermoon had been too long alone, and the Champion would need people close to him to aid him in his fight. He smiled, deciding to enlist his mate Kethra's aid in a little match making. "I would be honored to call you Xander, but I feel there is a story behind 'NightHawk' that would be interesting to hear."

Xander's face turned a deeper red, "Torture couldn't make me tell."

Soldier decided now would be a good time to open his mouth, or rather his mind. /I know all about it. And I'll tell whoever feeds me./ he broadcast, making sure everyone could hear him.

Xander sputtered, while Starblade, Wintermoon and Ghost laughed at the hawk's offer. Starblade laid his arm around Xander's shoulder, "First, let me tell you about how to deal with a trouble making bird."

**********

Xander and Ghost spent every morning for the next week with Starblade and Kethra, Wintermoon usually joining them for the mid day meal.

Ghost took to the older couple immediately, and after a couple of days relaxed enough around them to drop her shields and allow them to hear her speak. She even spoke to Soldier and Hyllarr, both birds competing against each other to see which could make her laugh the loudest.

It was one of the happiest times in Xander's life, but after he'd learned all he could from Starblade about caring for Soldier it was time for him to get to work. Wintermoon was going with him, so he had backup, that only left the problem of Ghost.

Xander didn't want to leave her, but there was no way he could take her with them. He wasn't really looking forward to telling her she had to stay behind.

Kethra found him sitting in the shade beneath the ekele, staring off into space. "Xander, what troubles you so?"

"Ghost." Kethra immediately knew what he was thinking, the closeness between the two was obvious to all. "I don't want to leave her here, but I can't take her with me. It's way too dangerous. But I don't think she's really going to understand why I'm leaving her behind."

"Starblade and I have discussed this Xander. We would be honored for the young one to stay with us while you hunt. But you are correct, as much as she likes us, she will be most displeased to be left behind when you go."

Xander plucked at the fringe on the edge of his tunic, knowing what he wanted, but unsure he would be allowed. "Kethra, do you think the Elders would let me adopt Ghost? I know I wouldn't be here much, but..."

Kethra smiled and patted his hand, "We have been expecting this and the Elders have already approved. To all concerned, Ghost is your child. She will always have a place among the people, and we will keep her safe until your return."

Xander felt the grin crossing his face slowly fade, "Yeah, that's a good, but I still have to tell her she can't go. This could get ugly. She's as stubborn as I am."

Kethra smiled at him fondly, "She does know her own mind, but it will work out in the end. Go speak to her now, spend the day together. You will need your rest if you are to leave with Wintermoon at dawn."

Xander groaned and thumped his head against the tree he was leaning against. "Why does it always have to be dawn? I am so not a morning person."

Kethra laughed and pulled him to his feet, giving him a small shove to get him moving. "Go, find your child and speak with her. We would like you both to join us for the evening meal."

Xander grinned and waved to her over his shoulder, heading off to find Ghost.

**********

Xander finally caught up with Ghost at the waterfall. She'd obviously just had a bath and was trying to brush the tangles out of her hair. Xander sat behind her and took the brush from her hand to finish the job.

/Ghost, we need to talk./

/About what?/

/Well, you know I'm leaving in the morning right?/

/Uh huh./ she sent, nodding her head in time with her thoughts. /I can't go can I?/

Xander's hands still for a moment, /No honey, you can't, it's too dangerous./

She pulled away from his hands and turned to face him, /What about you? Isn't it dangerous for you too?/

Xander pulled her into his lap, letting her head tuck in under his chin, her favorite position. /I'm the Champion of the Gods, remember? I'll be fine. Wintermoon and Soldier will be with me to help. But I need to know you're safe. Starblade and Kethra was hoping you'd stay with them until I come back./ Xander moved her back so he could look into her eyes, /And I will be back Ghost. Nothing will stop me. I promise. But I have to go take care of this. Okay?/

She nodded, tears swimming in her eyes, /You promise?/

/I promise. Besides, you're my kid, I have to come back./

Ghost's eyes grew wide at his words, /Your kid?/

Xander grinned and began brushing her hair again. /Yup. The Elders said as far as anyone was concerned you were mine./ He looked at her, his uncertainty clear, /Is that okay with you?/

He managed to stay upright when she launched herself at him, hugging him so tight he could barely breath. /I guess that's a yes./ He sent, returning the hug. /I want you to stay with Starblade and Kethra okay? Think of them as your grandparents. Then when I get done, we'll get our own house okay?/

She nodded, her still damp hair brushing against his cheek. /Does this mean you and Wintermoon are getting married?/

Xander sat her on the ground and looked at her in shock. /Where did you get an idea like that?/

She shrugged, /If Starblade and Kethra are going to be my grandparents, and Wintermoon is their son, then you two have to get married for it to be real./

/Sorry Ghost, but Wintermoon and I are NOT getting married./

/But he likes you. A lot./

/He's my friend, he supposed to like me. That doesn't mean we're getting married./

/He would like to be with you./

Xander was completely dumb founded. /Ghost, you're five. And you know how Wintermoon feels, how?/

She looked around, making sure no one else was near by, /It's a secret, you can't tell./

/Oookay... I won't tell. Now spill./

/I can feel what other people are feeling. That's why I liked you when I met you. And Wintermoon likes you, a lot./

Xander just stared at her for a minute and then shook his head violently. /Okay, not ready to deal. We'll talk about this later. Much later. Now, let's go have some fun. We have to be back at Starblade's for dinner./

**********

Xander crept out of Starblade's ekele as quietly as he could, Vkandis' Spear cradled against his chest to prevent it knocking into anything. Ghost had finally fallen asleep and he didn't want her to wake up. They'd said their goodbyes last night and he didn't want to go through that again any time soon. Actually, he never wanted to go through that 'ever' again. He wasn't sure who cried harder, him or Ghost.

Dawn was slowly creeping up over the horizon when he finally made it to the Heartstone. Wintermoon was already there with their packs and supplies, while Soldier, Corwith and K'Tathi dozed in the trees above.

Wintermoon smiled at Xander when he walked into the clearing but didn't speak. He took the spear and handed Xander a bundle of leather that matched the black leather pants and vest he was wearing. Xander looked it over and then had to ask. "Okay, I give. What is it?"

Wintermoon's voice was soft, "I made it for your spear, carrying it in your hands will be awkward. Here, let me help you with it." Wintermoon draped a leather strap over Xander's right shoulder and down across his left hip. One strap went around his waist, holding the quiver firmly in place. He put the spear in the leather sock and make sure none of the straps were binding anywhere. "How does that feel?"

Xander stretched and twisted, "Pretty good, it's not throwing off my balance at all. Let's see how fast I can get to it though." Xander grabbed the shaft of the spear just below the point and pulled. It slid out of the leather sock without a hitch. He put it back with the same ease of motion. Xander turned smiling eyes to Wintermoon, "Cool. Works great. Thanks Wintermoon, this will make my life infinitely easier."

"You are welcome Xander." A half smile on his face, Wintermoon shrugged, "Heyla. Even a weapon of the God's is of no use if you can't get your hands on it quickly." Wintermoon looked up, judging the time by the sun, "We need to move, everyone will be up soon."

"Yeah, okay. The last thing I want is to have to stand through some kind of ceremony or something. And I want to be long gone by the time Ghost wakes up."

Wintermoon hesitated, unsure if he should say anything, but decided it wouldn't hurt to ask. "Xander, my father told me that you have adopted the girl?"

Xander grinned, "Yeah. It seemed like a good thing. We're both strangers here, and she doesn't have any other family that she knows of. I asked."

"Should we go to where she was found first? Perhaps the ones that killed her family are still in the area. Seeking revenge for the harm done to your daughter will be understood by all. And maybe after they are gone she will be able to speak again."

"That is an excellent idea. You've been there, right?"

"Yes, I was with the group that found her. If we travel quickly we will be there before night fall."

"Sounds good." Xander stared up at his bond bird sleeping on a branch over his head. "Hey, Soldier! Wake up dude. It's time to go!"

Soldier opened his star filled eyes and stretched his wings, being a hawk wasn't bad. Not bad at all, at least not once he'd gotten used to eating raw meat. /Where are we headed?/

The smile Xander gave Soldier had nothing friendly about it, /We're going to go get the things that killed Ghost's family. You up for it?/

The thoughts Soldier sent back through the bond were just as blood thirsty as the look on Xander's face. /Let's do it, to it. Hard./

**********

Xander and Wintermoon pushed hard through the forest. Eating on the run and only stopping to refill their water skins. All three of the bond birds leap-frogged through the canopy, keeping watch fore and aft.

Both men were slightly amazed at how well Xander was keeping up with Wintermoon's ground eating lope. Only a little more than a week before Xander would have passed out from exhaustion after the first hour. They grinned at each other and sped up. Leaping over downed limbs and bushes, dodging around the huge trunks of the surrounding trees.

Xander was exhilarated. He'd never been this fast or moved through such a dense array of obstacles with such ease before. Both he and Wintermoon had done a little scouting outside of the Vale, but had never tried to actually travel any real distance at top speed.

Xander was busy gloating over his new found skills when an unexpected voice caused him to loose his concentration. He tripped over a small root and stumbled to his knees.

/Daddy? Can you hear me?/

/Ghost?/

Xander had to smile at the burst of pride and the sense of giggles he got with his daughter's thoughts. /Hi Daddy. Where are you?/

Wintermoon had seen Xander's fall and immediately turned back to check on him. When he reached Xander's side he was surprised to see an enormous grin covering his face. "Xander? Are you all right?"

"Yeah. Ghost is talking to me. I was so surprised I fell on my face. Guess some things never change." Xander laughed.

Wintermoon's snow white brows tried to find a new home higher up on his forehead. "Ghost is talking to you? She can reach this far?"

Xander shrugged, "Guess so. Cool, huh?"

"Amazing." Wintermoon agreed. "I know of few others that can reach this far. And none of them so young." Wintermoon reached down and helped Xander back to his feet. "What does your daughter have to say for herself?"

"She wants to know where we are. Think I should tell her where we're headed?"

"You know her best. As her father, that is your decision."

Xander felt a surge of pride at Wintermoon's words. 'His daughter, his decision.' "I think maybe we should wait. I don't want to scare her."

Wintermoon was busy checking Xander over for injuries and nodded absently. He was running his hands down Xander's legs when he felt the younger man stiffen. He looked up in confusion. Xander's cheeks were bright red and he looked nervous. Wintermoon looked back down at his hands. They were wrapped tightly around the top of Xander's left thigh. Wintermoon snatched his hands back as if they'd been burned. "I'm sorry to be so familiar Xander, I was concerned you might have injured yourself when you fell."

Xander swallowed hard. Those big hands running up the inside of his thigh had felt surprisingly good. "It...it's okay. I'm fine, really."

Ghost chose just that instant to demand to know why she was being ignored. /Daddy, are you still there?/

/Yeah Ghost. I was just, uh, I, well, I fell and Wintermoon was making sure I was all right./

Ghost felt the surge of emotion coloring her father's thoughts, she decided she shouldn't say anything. Yet. /Are you okay Daddy?/

/I'm fine, honey. Nothing to worry about. We're heading through the woods right now. I'll contact you again later, before you go to bed, okay?/

/Okay, Daddy. Love you./

/Love you too. Now go bug Rris for a while. I'm sure he has some stories you haven't heard yet./ Xander felt Ghost withdraw from his mind at top speed. Nothing got her attention faster than a promise of stories from Rris. He could make a fortune back home renting the Ky'ree out as a babysitter.

"She went to beg more stories from Rris."

Wintermoon shared a grin with the new father. Many parents in the Vale used the same tactic, and Rris loved every minute of it. "Are you ready to continue Xander? Or would you like to rest for a moment? We are a couple of marks ahead of schedule. You are doing very well, better even than most of the Vale's scouts."

Xander blushed again, this time at the praise from the older man. "Thanks, Wintermoon. I'm surprised too. It must be a side effect of the hyena. I'm good though, let's go. The more time we have to check things out in the daylight the better."

Wintermoon agreed with this plan heartily. The two men moved out, heading for the site of the attack.

**********

Xander and Wintermoon reached Ghost's former home a few marks before dusk. Situated just a short distance from the edge of the Pelagiris Forest, it was at least a days travel to the nearest village.

What had obviously been a carefully tended garden had become over grown with weeds, and many of the vegetables had gone to seed. A profusion of flowers filled the late summer air with their perfume. The drone of small insects was the only sound.

Xander pushed open the door leading into the small cottage. It hung drunkenly from one hinge, the other completely missing. Cobwebs and dust were the only occupants now. Xander felt a blind rage come over him at the sight of what must have been one of Ghost's dolls. One arm was missing, and blood stained the carefully painted cloth face. He searched the single room carefully, but there was no memento he could save to give Ghost some remembrance of happier times.

Furniture was smashed, and shredded clothing was strewn across the floor. Even all of the baked clay dishes were broken. He turned to leave and met Wintermoon coming in. "Let's go Wintermoon, there's nothing here worth saving."

"There is a root cellar and a small shed behind the house, shall we check there?"

"Show me." Xander said, following Wintermoon out into the last lingering rays of sunlight.

They were still several feet from the cellar when Xander stopped suddenly. "Wintermoon," he said in a quiet voice, "get ready. I smell something dead, I think there are vamps in that cellar. I'll open the door, you shoot what ever comes out."

Wintermoon quickly strung his bow and notched an arrow while Xander moved closer to the door covering the opening to the cellar. He got a good grip on the door and glanced back, Wintermoon nodded, ready for what ever happened. Xander ripped the door off of it's hinges, throwing it out of his way in the same motion. Vkandis' Spear was in his hands a second later. And none too soon.

Three vampires roared up out of the dank ground, clawed hands extended to grab their prey. Xander took a half step back, resting all of his weight on one leg, then lunged forward. The Spear passed through the vamp without even a hint of resistance to slow it. Xander shook the dust out of his eyes in time to see Wintermoon pick off the next. The short hunting arrow making no sound as is it buried itself to the fletching in the vampire's chest. It fell to the ground unharmed to lay in the dust that was the only remains of the vampire.

The third, being more interested in his survival than food at the moment, tried to flee. He never saw the black hawk that dove out of the darkness. An immensely strong beak tore through the spinal column, the body twitched once and then fell to dust.

Xander and Wintermoon exchanged grins, this was a good start. And now Xander had the added benefit of good news to pass to his daughter when they spoke next.

Soldier threw himself back into the sky, bitching the whole way. /I need a rabbit, that thing tasted 'nasty.' Remind me not to do that again. I'll stay up here with Corwith and K'tathi. They had the right idea, let you 'ground dwellers' deal with the dead things from now on. I am 'never' going to do that again./

**********

Xander squirmed restlessly, trying to get comfortable. He and Wintermoon had been traveling for almost two months now. They'd taken out a lot of vamps, three demons, and some change creatures he couldn't even begin to describe. All of that, and he still hadn't learned to sleep during the day.

He heard a small, contented sound and flopped over onto his other side. Wintermoon lay there, sleeping like a baby, a half smile curving his lips. Xander studied his friend, the last couple of weeks had been hard on both of them, and it showed.

The constant travel and fighting almost every night was wearing them both out. They'd lost weight, their clothes were definitely on the ragged side and they both looked tired.

Now, to top it all off, Autumn had arrived. It was getting colder every day. Wintermoon expected them to get snow any time now. They had decided to head back to the Vale, it was the closest place where they could get more supplies. And Xander really wanted to see Ghost. They talked every day, but it wasn't the same.

Xander rolled over onto his back, one arm covering his eyes to block the weak sunlight, and thought about their last conversation.

Ghost was getting pushy about him and Wintermoon. He'd tried to explain that he didn't like the other man in that way, but she didn't believe him. Claimed she 'knew' what they both felt and they were both being silly. She very calmly informed him that she needed two parents and Wintermoon was the other one she wanted. They needed to have a talk, a five year old had no business thinking about things like that.

Xander shivered, the temperature had dropped suddenly. He looked out of their tent and cursed under his breath. He shook Wintermoon, "Hey, wake up. We have a problem."

Wintermoon awoke instantly, going from sound asleep to fully alert in the blink of an eye. He joined Xander at the entrance to their small tent, the sight that met his eyes was not a good one. Snow, fat white flakes falling silently to cover the ground. "Xander, we need to tell our bond birds to fly above the storm and head back to the Vale. Autumn storms are notoriously bad. The snow may well be several feet thick before it stops."

Xander stared out at the whiteness obscuring his vision, even the huge trees only a few hundred feet away were no longer visible. "What about us?" Xander looked around their small tent, this was not a place to ride out a storm. "Will the tent stay up or should we move into the forest?"

Wintermoon shook his head, "No, we need to stay here. Visibility is almost completely gone, it is easy to get lost in such a storm. And if our clothing gets wet we could very easily freeze. This tent is small, but well constructed. It will hold, but there is not enough room for us and our birds. And they will need fresh meat, we only have dried food left. But it should last us for a week if we are careful."

Xander nodded absently, already reaching out to Soldier who was resting in the trees with Corwith and K'Tathi. /Soldier, wake up. You have to move, and now./

The bird's reply was sleepy and not really too coherent. /Xander?/ ::Yawn:: /What's wrong?/

/It's snowing, hard. You and the others need to get above the storm, now. Head back for the Vale, you weren't made to take this kind of weather unprotected. The tent isn't big enough for all of us, and you won't be able to hunt in this storm./

/What about you?/

/Wintermoon and I are staying here. We'll be fine, getting going./

/I don't like leaving you here, Ghost will pluck me if anything happens to you./

Xander laughed at the image of Soldier with no feathers, /Wintermoon knows what he's doing, I couldn't be in better hands. Head up through the canopy and get above the storm as fast as you can. The sooner you get back to the Vale, the sooner I can quit worrying about you./

Soldier headed up through the trees, Corwith and K'Tathi right behind him, /Ah, Xander, I'm touched. I didn't know you cared. Try not to freeze, blue is not your color./

/You always have to have to last word don't you?/ Xander sent, his bond bird had gotten a personality with his new body and Xander wasn't sure that was really a good thing.

/Have to keep you humble kid, we wouldn't want you to get a swelled head or anything./

Xander just shook his head and joined Wintermoon in rearranging their tent. Their packs went against the outside edge to block any drafts, and their bedrolls were piled in the middle of the small space remaining in the center of the tent.

Xander didn't say anything when Wintermoon laid their bedrolls together, making one bed out of two. Sleeping together would be a lot warmer, Xander thought to himself, and warm was a good thing.

**********

Wintermoon K'Sheyna was busy praying to the Star-Eyed. If they didn't want to freeze, they needed to share their body heat, but even thinking of Xander's body heat was pushing the limits of his control.

He pulled all of the extra clothing from their packs and piled them on top of the bed he had made. He casually pulled off his long sleeved shirt and added it to the top of the pile. He carefully arranged the clothing, using the task as an excuse not to look at Xander. "Xander, you need to strip down. If we wear our clothes to bed we will sweat and it is very easy to become chilled that way. The cold sickness doesn't give any warnings before it strikes."

Xander took a deep breath and began unlacing his tunic, trying to act like crawling into bed naked with another man was no big deal. "Cold sickness? You mean when you get so cold you go to sleep and don't wake up?"

Wintermoon nodded, eyes carefully averted. "Yes, exactly. We will be warm enough, but every so often we must redo the bedding to make sure it stays dry." He quickly undid his breeches, sliding them off and getting into the bedroll in practically the same motion. His prayer become more fervent when he glanced up to see Xander's long dark hair partially obscuring his bare chest. /Star-Eyed, please, let this storm end quickly. I am only human, I do not have the strength of a God./

He practically whimpered when he felt Xander's bare leg brush against his own as the younger man slid into the bed. He was being punished, there was no other explanation for this torture. He'd had many lovers since he had come of age, male and female, but none had ever suited him so well. He was cold, tired, dirty and hungry, but he couldn't remember ever being more content than he was just being with Xander.

He chided himself fiercely. *You are only a scout, he is the Champion of the Gods. You have nothing to offer him, and if you did, there is 'no' reason for him to be interested in you.* His heart jumped when Xander's hair slid down over his shoulder as the young man got comfortable. It was going to be a long day.

**********

Xander sighed contently, okay, he was in bed with a man. A naked man. But he was warm and finally comfortable for the first time in days. He snuggled farther down in the covers, feeling the heat from Wintermoon's body against his back. He yawned, suddenly extremely sleepy. He struggled to stay awake for a little longer, he wanted to talk to Ghost and tell her what had happened before he fell asleep.

/Ghost? It's Daddy, I need to talk to you./

/Daddy? What's wrong? You feel funny./

/I'm fine. But it's snowing really hard here. We sent the birds back to the Vale, ask Starblade to keep an eye out for them, okay?/

/Okay Daddy, but are you coming too?/

/Not yet. It's too hard to see and we're too far away to try to make it through the storm. Don't worry, we'll be fine. Wintermoon knows what to do./ Xander fought off another yawn, /I've got to go now honey, we were up all night and I'm exhausted. I'll talk to you when I wake up. You be good, okay?/

/I will Daddy. But are you sure you'll be okay?/

Xander sent a sleepy chuckle to his daughter, /Yes, Wintermoon is keeping me warm. Now go tell Starblade what happened. I'll see you soon. Love you./

/Love you too Daddy./

Xander gave up the fight to stay awake, letting the warmth against his back and the quiet sound of Wintermoon's heartbeat lull him to sleep.

**********

Ghost ran through the Vale heading straight for Starblade and Kethra, /Starblade! Kethra! Guess what?/

The elderly couple smiled at their young friend, her excitement obvious. "What is it Ghost?" Starblade asked.

/Daddy and Wintermoon got caught in a big snow storm and they had to send their birds back here. We're supposed to keep an eye out for them./

Starblade shook his head, the child could be confusing. "Why are you so excited child? Getting caught in a snow storm is not good, for anyone."

Ghost giggled and climbed up into Starblade's lap, /Daddy and Wintermoon were in bed together, he was thinking about how good Wintermoon felt against his back while he was talking to me. He said 'Wintermoon is keeping me warm.' When they get back, can we have the bonding ceremony? Then you really will be my Grandparents. And I like Wintermoon, he takes good care of Daddy./

Starblade looked over Ghost's head to smile into Kethra's dancing eyes. "I think we should wait a little while before we plan the ceremony Ghost. Give them both time to get used to the idea."

Ghost pouted, she really wanted a family again. If only Daddy wasn't so stubborn she'd have one already. A brilliant idea came to her child's mind. If Starblade and Kethra wouldn't help, she knew someone who would.

/Okay, we'll wait./ She jumped out of Starblade's lap and ran to the door, /I'm going to go see if Soldier is here yet./

Starblade and Kethra laughed at Ghost's antics. They'd become accustomed to her plans to wed her father to their son, and were all for the idea, but knew it wouldn't happen anytime soon.

**********

Ghost ran to a small clearing on the other side of the Vale. This was her special place, no one else ever came here. She sat on the ground and cleared her mind before sending out her request.

/Star-Eyed, can I speak with you please? It's about my Daddy./

*****

Kal'enel materialized in a small clearing in the K'Sheyna Vale. A small child was waiting for her there with an expectant look upon her face. She recognized her immediately, Ghost, the one her Champion had claimed as his own.

"Ghost. You are looking well young one. I see your new family agrees with you."

/I have my Daddy, but I don't have a family yet. Daddy won't listen to me./

Kal'enel raised her brows in surprise, "Won't listen to you about what child?"

Ghost cocked her head to one side, /You know I can 'feel' people, right?/

Kal'enel smiled, "Yes, it is a good gift to have. You will be able to help many people when you get older."

/Well, Daddy won't let me help him. I know he likes Wintermoon, and Wintermoon 'really' likes him. But Daddy doesn't think anyone could want him for himself. Wintermoon doesn't care if Daddy is the Champion, he liked him before. If they would get married, I'd have a family again, and they'd would both be happy. They're going to need each other when the others arrive./

"What others Ghost? I know you have true dreams of the future, what have you seen?"

/Kids, like me. Daddy will bring them here when he finds them. But it won't be for a while yet. He's going to need help, Wintermoon would be a good parent, but Daddy doesn't believe me when I tell him how Wintermoon feels./

Kal'enel sat next to the little girl, and tried to explain, "Ghost, adults do not always do what is best for them. And there are other things to consider."

Ghost started to cry, /But if Daddy doesn't marry Wintermoon he'll go back to the other place and he'll die. I'll be alone again and no one will find the babies until it's too late. The monsters will get stronger and everyone will die. Wintermoon can save him, but only if they're together./

Kal'enel rocked the child in her arms, "I will see what can be done. Do not fear little one, there is still time." Kal'enel waited until the child had cried herself to sleep and went to find her Champion. The future Ghost had seen must not be allowed to happen.

**********

Xander snuggled into the warm body next to him, listening to the strong heart beat under his ear. Strong arms pulled him closer as a deep voice murmured, "Xander."

Xander froze, wide awake now. He peeked up from under his lashes at Wintermoon. 'Good, he was still asleep, with a little luck, I can get back on my own side of the bed before he wakes up and I die of embarrassment.' Xander shifted carefully, freezing back in place when the arms tightened around him. The smell of arousal in the air grew heavier, and it wasn't just Wintermoon's. Xander closed his eyes, fighting for control. They were so tangled together the slightest movement sent a surge of pleasure through his body.

'This is not happening. I am not enjoying rubbing up against a naked man. Nope, I'm having a nightmare, that's what it is.' Xander bit back a moan of pure lust when Wintermoon shifted, causing their erections to brush against the other.

A shudder passed over his body when Wintermoon buried his face in his neck. A calloused hand ran over his back and settled on his hip, pulling him even closer. Wintermoon moaned in his sleep, and rocked against Xander, warm lips nibbling on the side of his neck.

Xander whimpered when Wintermoon threw one leg over his and thrust against him harder. That small sound was enough to wake the other man from his dreams.

Wintermoon awoke to find himself wrapped around a furiously blushing Xander, while his hips thrust mindlessly against the younger man. Wintermoon quickly released his hold on Xander and tried to move away. Even that aborted movement was enough to rub straining flesh together. Both man groaned at the brief contact and Wintermoon decided to take his life in his own hands.

He tilted Xander's face up to his, and looked into glazed black eyes. "Xander, you can end my life if you wish. It is your right as Champion, or you can have me banished from my Vale for all time, but I have to do this one thing. Just this one thing."

Wintermoon covered Xander's lips with his own, pouring all of his desire and need into that kiss.

Xander was beyond caring if Wintermoon was a man, he could be a wyrsa at this point and it wouldn't matter. All Xander knew was that this felt right. No one had ever wanted him this badly, not Anya and definitely not Cordelia. Only this one man.

Xander wrapped both hands around Wintermoon's neck and held on for dear life. He opened his lips to Wintermoon's questing tongue, giving as good as he got. Both men were panting when they broke apart, the need for oxygen finally becoming overwhelming.

Wintermoon took a deep breath and tried to calm his racing heart, "Xander, I..."

Xander put his hand over Wintermoon's mouth, he'd made his decision, it might not be the right one, but it was his. This might be his only chance to have someone who wanted him for him and he wasn't going to blow it. "Wintermoon, has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?"

Wintermoon kissed the palm covering his lips before he pulled it away. "There are ways of making me shut up." Xander laughed and rose up to cover those smiling lips with his own.

The cold and the snow was forgotten as they rocked against each other. Xander let out a muffled scream when he felt Wintermoon's hand touch his erection for the first time. The broad calloused palm gripped him tightly, and began pumping him with a relentless rhythm. Xander returned the favor, matching the other stroke for stroke.

Neither even tried to hold back, they were both too needy. They swallowed each other's moans of completion, then let their kisses slow and become comforting rather than arousing. They fell asleep, limbs tangled together, lips still lightly touching.

**********

Kal'enel returned to the Vale and sought out her Champion's daughter. Smiling, she brushed tears away from dirt streaked cheeks. "I don't think you need to worry anymore little one. I do believe they have managed to figure this problem out without our help."

**********

The snow storm lasted for three days, but the two men huddled together inside the tent didn't really care. They slept wrapped around each other, waking every few hours to eat some of their dried rations and drink the tea that Wintermoon made on their small brazier. The isolation and close quarters eased the awkwardness usually felt in the beginning of any relationship. For them, the outside world didn't exist. They only left the confines of their haven to relieve themselves and to brush the snow off the sides of the tent so it wouldn't collapse from the weight. It was after one such trip that Xander learned the meaning of true love.

Wintermoon pulled the wet clothes from Xander's frozen body and tucked him into their bed. After helping him drink a mug of hot tea, Wintermoon wrapped himself around Xander, never flinching from the contact of icy skin against his own sleep warmed body. The internal heat from the tea and the warmth of Wintermoon soon thawed the younger man's shivering frame. Then the older man added a new kind of heat.

He started by just kissing Xander's stubbled jaw, slowly moving up towards his lips. Slow, teasing kisses that made the younger man shiver and press closer. Icy blue eyes stared into dreamy black for a moment, then Wintermoon settled his long, hard body on top of Xander's.

Wintermoon pulled Xander's left leg around his waist and rested his weight on his right forearm. Leaving his left hand free to roam.

He slowly swept his hand from Xander's shoulder, down his side and leg to his knee, then made the return trip, all the while teasing Xander with quick kisses. Never letting them linger.

He flicked his tongue against the center Xander's upper lip then moved away before returning to swipe another spot. Xander never knew where he would strike next. He squirmed restlessly. He'd never been teased like this before, but quickly decided he liked it.

Xander arched up, moaning, when Wintermoon brushed his thumb across a nipple. The older man smiled and ducked his head down to latch onto the hard nub with hungry lips. He nipped and sucked, chuckling when grasping hands tangled in his hair to pull his head closer.

Wintermoon sat up suddenly, resting on his knees. He smiled down at the panting man beneath him, never braking eye contact as he ran his hands across the heaving chest, down the rippled stomach to rest on shaking thighs.

Strong thumbs rubbed circles on the soft flesh of the inner thighs, the sensation making them move farther apart to allow for greater access.

Wintermoon felt his blood thicken in his veins at the sight of Xander splayed out before him, face flushed and eyes glittering with desire.

Wintermoon bent down and ran his tongue up Xander's erection, lapping at the tip to collect the dew gathering there. He completely ignored the broken pleas and whimpers, totally lost in the taste breaking across his tongue. He mapped every inch with his lips and tongue, refusing to miss anything, lost in his own world, taking his time to learn this part of his lover.

Xander felt like he was dying. His heart pounded and he couldn't catch his breath. He begged and pleaded for more, but Wintermoon didn't stop his slow caresses. He finally snapped, lurching upright, pulling Wintermoon up with him. He latched onto those teasing lips and moaned when he tasted himself on that talented tongue. He broke free and rested his head against a strong shoulder, trying to regain control. His words were broken but their meaning was perfectly clear. "Wintermoon, please, no more. I can't, I need you."

Wintermoon ran soothing hands up Xander's back and whispered in his ear, "SShh, relax, enjoy. It will be all right." He laid Xander back in their bed, using one hand to hold him down. He took the leaking head of Xander's cock into his mouth, sucking strongly. He wrapped his free hand around his own need. Pumping strongly, he used the same rhythm on the hard shaft in his mouth. He bobbed his head, taking more in with every stroke until he had it all. He swallowed once, feeling the flood shoot down his throat at the same time he found his own release. He suckled the slowly softening flesh while continuing to lightly tug on his own spent cock. Xander was almost unconscious when he finally released him.

He settled into waiting arms, drifting to sleep himself, when he heard the soft words he'd waited his whole life for. "Wintermoon, I love you."

**********

Xander and Wintermoon broke down the tent, packing everything back into their packs. Xander slung his spear over one shoulder and the M-16 over the other.

Wintermoon had questioned the wisdom of bringing it and the ammo bag, but Xander was insistent. Vkandis' Spear worked better than anything else on vampires, but there were still alot of other things that a bullet would take care of.

They trudged through the deep snow, deciding to travel back to the Vale in the daytime. It would be too easy to break a leg on unseen obstacles. They hadn't traveled more than a few hundred yards into the forest when Wintermoon suddenly pushed Xander against one of the massive tree trunks.

"Wintermoon, what's wrong?"

The older man smiled, leaning against him, "Nothing." He bent his head to Xander's and kissed him until they were both panting for air. "Good morning."

Xander realized he had a stupid grin on his face, he just couldn't bring himself to care. "Yep. Good." He pulled Wintermoon's lips back to his and returned the favor. The other man was trembling by the time he was released. "Definitely good."

/Hey kid! Get a room! Guess we were all worried for nothing./

Xander groaned and buried his face in Wintermoon's shoulder. "Soldier's back."

"Are Corwith and K'Tathi with him?"

/Are the others with you Soldier?/

/They're on the way, along with a couple of scouts. In fact, here they come now./

Xander heard movement through the trees long before the scouts came into sight. A few brows were raised when they realized that Wintermoon and the Champion NightHawk were wrapped around each other.

Winterlight smirked, he was happy that his old friend had found someone. "Heyla Wintermoon! Should we leave and come back later?"

Wintermoon scowled, and tried to move away from Xander, but he wouldn't let go. "Ashamed to be seen with me Wintermoon?"

"No, never. But I don't not like being made fun of."

"They're just jealous." Xander looked over his shoulder at the smirking scout. "What's wrong, Winterlight? Jealous much?"

The other scouts broke into laughter when Winterlight's face turned red at the teasing.

Wintermoon chuckled, and leaned in for another quick kiss, "Love you."

Xander smiled, "Love you too. Come on, let's go home. If I know Ghost, she'll have all of the Elders waiting for us. Bonding ceremony already planned."

"My parents probably helped." Wintermoon tugged lightly on the thin braids framing Xander's face. "Would you wear my feathers for all to see Xander? Will you be mine?"

Xander grew silent, thinking of his friends back home and the family he'd made for himself here.

"Yes, I will. I love you." Xander smiled a wicked grin at his lover, "If that demon were still alive, I'd send him a thank you card." He then suddenly burst into laughter, "Hey Soldier!" he called. "Get your scrawny ass over here!"

/What is it Xander? And could the two of you please quit with the mating rituals? You're going to make me blush./

"Very funny, bird brain, Wintermoon and I are getting married."

The scouts burst into laughter and shouts of congratulations.

/I would hope so, kid. Congrats./

"Thank you. But Soldier, when people here get married, they wear each other's bond bird feathers in their hair."

/Cheaper than a ring I guess./

Xander was almost hysterical with laughter at this point, "You don't get it Soldier. When Ghost finds out we're getting married, she's gonna pluck you naked looking for the perfect feather."

Soldier let loose an indignant squawk, /Oh hell./

**********

Ghost stood flanked by Starblade and Kethra at the entrance to the Vale, bouncing impatiently. Daddy would be here soon and he said he had something important to tell her. She crossed her fingers, praying silently to the Star-Eyed, hoping it was what she'd asked for.

She saw a faint movement through the trees and strained her eyes trying to see in the gathering dusk. When she finally made out the figure of her father she darted away from restraining hands and launched herself into her father's arms.

/Daddy! You're home! What took you so long? What did you need to talk to me about? Did you kill a lot of monsters? Are you going to stay for a while? Can we have a house now?/

/Ghost, slow down. One thing at a time okay?/

Ghost nodded emphatically and hugged her father as hard as she could.

Xander choked out a laugh, /Not so hard, honey, I can't breath./

Ghost giggled and loosened her grip. /What were you going to tell me Daddy?/

/Well, uh,/ Xander sighed, there was go getting around it. /You were right and I was wrong. I love Wintermoon and he loves me. We want to get married if that's okay with you./

Everyone in hearing distance smiled at the high pitched squeal of glee that erupted from the tiny girl. She hugged her father again and then wiggled out of his arms to jump on Wintermoon. /Wintermoon, you're going to be my other Daddy now, what do I call you?/

Wintermoon was totally unprepared for the question, he looked at Xander with panic in his eyes.

Xander smiled at his lover and shrugged, "Love me, love my kid. You'll learn to deal."

Wintermoon swallowed, he'd never thought to have a child and Ghost's open acceptance of his new place in her life left him at a loss for words.

Ghost giggled, sensing his confusion, /Don't worry Wintermoon, you'll get used to me./ She tilted her head and regarded him curiously, /Maybe I should just call you Wintermoon for now. Having two 'Daddy's' would be confusing./

Wintermoon sighed in relief, "That would probably be for the best Ghost." He gave the child in his arms a small grin. "I've never been called Daddy before, I might not answer."

Ghost giggled harder and slid from his arms to take his large hand into her own tiny one. She drug him over to Xander and grabbed his hand too. Starblade and Kethra were hard pressed to keep their laughter in check at the sight of two large men being dragged relentlessly forward by a tiny child.

**********

Xander fidgeted impatiently, "Are you done yet?"

The Hertasi who was 'trying' to tailor Xander's new robes for the wedding ceremony hissed quietly, "For now. I believe I can finish the rest without you."

"Great!" Xander slid out of the black silk and leather robes with a sigh of relief. "Those things are heavier than they look. Not that they don't look great, they do!" Xander said hurriedly, not wanting to insult him.

The Hertasi wrinkled up his nose and let loose a laugh, "You just want to go practice for the wedding night! You humans! You never stop!"

Xander grinned, "Look who's talking, I saw you with your mate yesterday. You can't tell me you were just taking a bath, I know better. Besides, can you blame me? I mean, have you gotten a good look at Wintermoon?"

"Yes I have, I finished his robes this morning. No tail, no scales and no claws, he'd never win a mate among my people."

Xander clapped the Hertasi on the shoulder as he was leaving, "Lucky for me huh?"

"That is one way to look at it I guess." the Hertasi said to himself, "More likely, it is lucky for him."

**********

Wintermoon and Xander finally managed to sneak away from the Elders and the other people planning the ceremony. They both wanted something simple but if the rest of the Vale had their way the ceremony could take days to complete, if it ever got started.

Xander pulled Wintermoon into one of the shaded bowers decorating the Vale and snuggled into his arms, "I wish we could just elope."

Wintermoon smiled and brushed Xander's hair from his face, "I believe I made the same wish just days ago Ashke, but I also believe you told me that our daughter would hunt us down like rabid wolves if we did such a thing."

Xander sighed and buried his face in the curve of Wintermoon's neck, "And she would. But we haven't been alone together for almost three weeks. I miss you, I miss sleeping with you and I haven't had a kiss in hours."

Wintermoon chuckled and tilted Xander's face up to his own, "That is easily remedied." Warm lips covered Xander's with teasing kisses that soon turned needy. Both men groaned when Wintermoon pushed his hips into Xander's, their erections straining the laces of the their leggings.

Xander started pulling off Wintermoon's vest and shirt, murmuring between kisses, "I have to touch you, now." Wintermoon helped shed his clothing, and moved to divest Xander of the leather and silk that was keeping him from running his hands and lips over the younger man's warm skin.

Xander tumbled them both to the ground, never breaking contact with Wintermoon's lips, and shuddered when Wintermoon's leaking cock rubbed against his own. He wrapped both legs around the older man's waist, pulling them closer together, and thrust up with increasing urgency. The thoughts and feelings Wintermoon sending him making him hotter.

Wintermoon ran his hand down the back of Xander's thigh and up to his ass. One stray finger brushed the sensitive opening, and it was his turn to shudder when Xander whimpered. A gush of precome spurted from his rock hard cock when Xander began to beg. They had never gone this far before but Xander wanted more and he wanted it now. Wintermoon was more than happy to oblige.

He knocked over one of the covered pots always kept in the trysting coves and coated his finger with the thick, fragrant oil. He returned to the small ring of muscle and ran his finger over it in light circles, teasing it into relaxing enough to allow his finger to enter. He covered Xander's lips and swallowed the deep moan when he started thrusting into that tight opening, stretching the muscle to allow him inside. He took his time, enjoying every stifled sound Xander made. By the time he had three fingers inside, Xander was incoherent, thrusting mindlessly back onto those hard fingers, but it wasn't enough.

"Wintermoon, now. Please. I need you in me now." He muttered brokenly.

Wintermoon removed his fingers and carefully coated his cock with the oil before pulling Xander's legs up onto his shoulders. He slowly pushed the wide head inside, stopping every time Xander tensed to allow him time to adjust. They were both panting, sweating rolling freely down their bodies, by the time he was completely inside. He looked down into dazed eyes, the pupils so large they appeared black, "Are you all right?"

Xander nodded and shifted his hips a little, "Yeah, I'm good, really good. Just move. Now."

Wintermoon chuckled, "As you wish, Ashke, as you wish." He pulled back a little, and thrust back in, keeping up a slow, steady rhythm until the muscles clasping his cock relaxed enough to allow him to move freely. He leaned back, wrapping his hands around Xander's hips to hold him steady and moved in short, fast thrusts, the new angle pushing the flared head against the small node in Xander's body.

Xander dug his hands into the ground, desperate to hold onto something. His head thrashed wildly and his lungs screamed for air. Every pounding thrust causing a wave of pure pleasure to roll over him. He couldn't think, he could only feel. He screamed when Wintermoon began pumping his cock in time with his thrusts and came, hard, the evidence of his pleasure spraying up onto his chest. He was barely conscious when Wintermoon's grip on his hips tightened, and with a few hard thrusts reached his own completion.

Wintermoon let Xander's legs slide softly down to the ground. He rested his head on Xander's chest and let the strong beat of his heart lull him to sleep.

**********

Wintermoon and Xander sat and stared in stunned disbelief as their daughter did her impersonation of a field general.

Hertasi and Hawkbrother alike scurried about, her mind voice having the effect of Imperial commands and they being the servants subject to her every whim. She was determined that the ceremony bonding her two fathers together and finally giving her a real family again be perfect. Her ideal of perfect.

Xander tucked his head under Wintermoon's chin, trying to hide a grin, "You know, if we let her loose she could probably take over the whole world in no time flat. She'd even have the baddies doing what she wanted."

Wintermoon laughed, "It is quite probable. The next time the Vale needs to negotiate a treaty we should send her. No one seems to be able to refuse her anything." He frowned slightly when he remembered how much work was to be done to his ekele to make it suitable for the smallest member of their new family. "Even I am unable to say no to her. It is a good thing that she is on our side or we wouldn't stand a chance."

Xander giggled, remembering how easily Ghost had wrapped Wintermoon around her little finger, "Daddies are supposed to pamper their kids, but I think two whole extra floors on the ekele was a little much. Maybe we can convince her that one will do."

Both men looked up in time to see the mage Autumnwing rapidly agreeing with something Ghost wanted. They looked at each other and shrugged, "Guess two floors won't be too bad, she did say our family would be getting bigger." Xander said.

"She did, and she has yet to be wrong." Wintermoon agreed. What ever else he might have said was lost when Kal'enel suddenly appeared in the clearing.

Xander was up and had her in his arms before anyone else could even move. He carefully lowered her to the ground. Her skin was pale and a thin trickle of blood ran from her nose, he ignored everyone else gathering around them, instead concentrating on the Goddess who had become like a mother to him.

"Kal'enel, what's wrong?" he asked softly, cuddling her in his lap the same way he did Ghost.

She coughed weakly, a wet, gurgling sound, "A demon. He is tearing the magic of this world apart. He is trying to merge this world with his own." She started coughing again, unable to breathe.

Xander held her tighter and raised his face to the sun, he built up the energy inside his mind until he couldn't hold it inside any longer and let it loose in one scream, "VKANDIS!"

The Sun God of the Karsites appeared almost immediately and gently took Kal'enel from Xander's arms. He looked little better than she did. Dark, ominous bruises covered his chest and stomach and he swayed weakly for a moment before managing to bring himself under control.

The look upon his face was heartbreaking, "There is nothing I can do for her Champion, the demon has opened a portal and is merging our worlds as we speak. Once it is complete all of the God's of this world will be destroyed."

"Can I stop him?"

Vkandis shook his head, "I don't know Xander. First you would have to find him, I could not. The portal is shielding his presence from us now. But even if you could locate him, you would not be able to reach him. He has wings and seldom lands on the ground."

Kal'enel grabbed the front of Xander's shirt and pulled him closer. In a weak voice she said, "There is a way Xander, but it must be your choice. I can merge you back with Soldier, you would be able to meet him in his own territory. But you must decide quickly, the magic I used to create Soldier is unraveling, he'll be gone soon." Tears of blood welled up in her star-filled eyes. "Xander, this will change you, forvever. If we do this, you will never be the same."

Xander turned to look at Wintermoon who simply smiled and kissed his forehead, "I love you. I will care for our daughter until you return."

Xander returned the kiss and turned back to Kal'enel, "Let's do it."

She smiled sadly at him, "We must move out of the Vale, away from the Heartstone."

He helped her to her feet while Wintermoon steadied Vkandis. They moved through the crowd of people and left the Vale.

Standing in a patch of sunshine, Xander sent out the call to Soldier. /Soldier? Where are you?/

/Xander?/ the mind voice came back weakly, /something is wrong, I don't feel so good./

/I know buddy, but we're going to fix it. It's time for you to come home. We'll be together again./

Soldier read what was happening in Xander's mind and knew what he had to do. He sped as fast as he could through the canopy and headed straight up when he reached the clearing. He flew as high as possible before he suddenly turned, tucking his huge wings in tight to his sides, he dove.

Xander saw Soldier begin the dive and looked once at Wintermoon and Ghost. He smiled at them and turned back to watch the black hawk come down out of the sun.

Kal'enel and Vkandis held each other upright and gathered the power that dwelt in their souls together, holding it in check until the final moment.

Soldier was mere feet away when Xander threw back his head and raised his arms to the sky. He never made a sound when Soldier hit him in the chest at full speed, the magic from Kal'enel and Vkandis striking him at the same moment.

At the moment of impact, all the air and light in the clearing seemed to contract and then exploded outwards. Humans and Gods alike struggled to clear their eyes so they could see. When their vision cleared, they were struck silent by the being that stood in the center of the clearing, face still raised to the sun.

Xander could feel the sun on his face, he slowly opened his eyes, the nictating membrane protecting them until his vision cleared. He stretched out his arms and felt the huge black wings sprouting from his shoulders respond eagerly. He looked down at his hands and flexed the fingers. Inch long black talons extended and retracted with every movement. He ran his tongue over his elongated canines and smiled. But the smile soon faded.

He turned to face the others in the clearing, worry evident in his face, if not in his light spangled black eyes.

Wintermoon and Ghost walked quietly across the clearing to where Xander waited for them. They stopped just short of him and Ghost stared up at her father in awe. Her voice, when she spoke, was rusty with disuse. "Daddy, you're beautiful."

Xander snatched up his daughter and stared in her huge dark eyes. "Ghost, you spoke. You actually 'talked'!"

Ghost shrugged, carefully petting the soft black feathers covering her father's wings. "I didn't want to before, I do now."

Xander kissed the top of her head and turned his face to Wintermoon, almost afraid of what he would see in his eyes. What he saw made his heart beat faster and his lungs work harder. Love, lust, awe and desire battled for dominance on that face.

Wintermoon cleared his throat roughly, "Xander, she's right. You are beautiful." He smiled at the look of surprise on Xander's face. "Xander, I'm a Hawkbrother. I have spent my life surrounded by beings with wings. Until you came through the gate the two beings closest to me had wings. In fact, I'm a little envious. I've always wished I could fly."

Xander wound his free arm around Wintermoon's shoulders and pulled him in close. The older man shivered when Xander's wings curved up and around him, sheltering him in their embrace. They shared a heated kiss, Xander being careful to keep from biting, that was only broken when a sibilant voice said, "I've never ssseen a human with wingsss before."

Xander turned his head to face the owner of that hissing voice and found Gryphons. Lots of them. He'd seen most of them before, but for some reason they avoided him. He'd never actually had the chance to talk to any of them before.

He gently peeled Ghost from around his neck and handed her to Wintermoon, giving her a kiss before letting her go. The two men exchanged a look that promised pick things up later and Xander moved closer to the Gryphons, his wings automatically adjusting with every shift in position.

Tarlac watched him carefully, seeing how at ease he was with his wings and gaped open his beak in the equivalent of a Gryphon grin. "Tell me, Champion, can you fly?"

Xander returned the grin, his canines gleaming whitely and dropped into a crouch while spreading his wings wide. "Oh, I think so." Xander thrust up with his legs and at the same time snapped his wings closed. He was air borne in seconds.

Xander flew straight up until even to his sight the people below became specks. He arched and turned, his body shifting without thought to compensate for the lack of a tail. He made a few sweeping passes before finally settling lightly back on the ground.

Tarlac stalked over to him and those huge raptors eyes racked over his body, noticing how evenly he was breathing and the lack of trembling in his muscles. "I sssee that you can fly, and quite well. Tell me then, Champion, how may we assist you?"

"Why haven't you ever offered before?" Xander asked curiously.

Tarlac would have blushed if he could have. "We do not fly that well at night. And dessspite the word of the Ssstar-Eyed, we did not trust you. We have learned that many humansss ssee uss ass only a meansss to an end. We love our livesss ass much ass you do yoursss. We do not wisssh to wasste them needlesssly."

Xander shrugged, "I can understand that, but what changed your minds?"

Tarlac leaned forward and nudged Xander's wing with his beak, "You are more like us than any other human before you. We will do whatever we can to aid you."

"Thank you." Xander said sincerely. "I can use all the help I can get. Right now, I have to go take care of a little problem and I don't think you should be there. This demon can fly and you guys make pretty big targets."

Tarlac tilted his head in the way only a bird can, "But maybe we can ssscout him out for you. We Gryphons can ssensse magic and have the mage sssight."

Xander thought for a moment before agreeing. "Okay, but only scouting. If you find him, tell me. Don't try to take him on yourselves."

Tarlac bowed his head in agreement and called five of the others to him. They quickly laid out a plan and took to the sky.

Xander returned to Kal'enel and Vkandis' side. They were both pale and shaking and he tried not to show how worried he was. "Try to rest. We'll find him soon and he and I will be having a little talk."

Kal'enel stared into eyes so much like her own and smiled weakly, "Take care Xander. I have never actually had a child before and I do not care to lose you now."

Xander turned red and grinned, "Don't be such a mom, Mom. I'm the Champion aren't I? Demon boy is toast. He just doesn't know it yet."

**********

They had only been waiting for a few hours when the call came from the Gryphons searching for the demon. Valdemar.

Xander checked the Spear riding across his back and gave Wintermoon and Ghost a kiss goodbye. Then he was airborne. He saw a shadow to his right and turned to see Tarlac gliding along beside him.

/Tarlac, go back. You can't help with this./ Xander sent.

/I will show you the thermals that run to Valdemar, it will save you hours from your journey. And time is running out for the Star-Eyed./

Xander felt tears sting his eyes as he thought about the Goddess. Her skin had taken on a sickly gray color and her eyes had dimmed. She couldn't even find the strength to talk anymore. Vkandis wasn't in much better shape. The Sun God stayed with Kal'enel, holding her against his chest, trying to keep her warm.

Xander felt an incoherent rage sweep over him. They were part of his family, the parents of his new life. Next to Ghost and Wintermoon they were the ones he loved the most. And some low down slimy demon was trying to destroy them. /Where's the thermal, Tarlac? I want that bastard, and I want him *now*. He's gonna learn a thing or two about fucking with me and my family./

/Your anger is worthy of a Gryphon, NightHawk. But take care it does not control you./

The tone of Xander's mindvoice was colder than the breath of an Icedrake. /No problem, Tarlac. Nothing is gonna stop me. I take him out or die trying./

'That's what I'm afraid of', but Tarlac had enough sense to keep that thought to himself.

**********

Firesong threw another bolt of energy at the 'thing' hovering above the Palace, but it, like the others, was merely absorbed by the creature. Darkwind and Elspeth were busy wrapping shield after shield around the Heartstone, but they wouldn't be able to keep it up for long.

Firesong felt a momentary shiver of fear run down his spine, they might have finally met their match. He threw up glowing hands in time to deflect the mage lightening the creature hurled at him, the strength of the blow knocking him to his knees. He panted, struggling to regain his breath, long white hair dripping with sweat clung to his face. He heard an evil chuckle and raised his eyes to see the beast, hovering directly above him.

"Well, human," it snarled is a gravelly voice, "are you ready to surrender?" One huge gray hand stroked the equally huge erect cock rising up between massive thighs, "Maybe I'll let you live, if I find you entertaining enough. But probably not. Humans usually die screaming the first time I fuck them. Why don't we see how long you last, Mage."

Firesong scrambled backwards, trying to stay out of reach of those grasping hands, but the creature managed to get a hold on his hair. He pulled him closer, laughing at his struggles to free himself, he started pulling in all of his remaining power. A Final Strike might not kill the creature, but it would prevent what was about to happen.

Firesong raised icy silver blue eyes and stared the creature in the face, a small smile curved his lips when the unexpected occurred.

"Hey, you! Yeah you! The fucking ugly one! Why don't you let him go and try me on for size?"

The creature dropped Firesong and whirled in mid air to confront the foolish being who dared to speak to him so. Firesong saw a streak of black plummeting out of the sky hit the beast in the center of it's chest. The entangled pair slammed into the solid stone roof with the creature on the bottom.

/Darkwind! Elspeth! Come here! Quickly!/

**********

Darkwind and Elspeth completed the last shield and ran for the roof, fearing what lay ahead. The sight that met their eyes left their mouths gaping open in shock.

**********

Firesong saw the pair bound up the stairs and moved to join them. They watched as a fight the likes of which they had never seen took place before them.

**********

Xander saw the demon grab a man by the hair and start to pull him closer. The man was obviously a Hawkbrother mage, and that made him one of the pack. Xander tucked in his wings and dove for the demon, screaming insults at the top of his lungs. The ploy worked. The demon dropped the mage and turned just in time for Xander to hit him in the center of the chest.

They hit the stones with crushing force, Xander still on top. He extended his claws and racked through the demon's wings, shredding them down to the bone. He felt the blows hammering into his chest and back but ignored them, they were healing as fast as they happened. Something else to thank his parents for.

Xander grinned down at the demon, letting his canines show in a display of dominance, "You fucked with the wrong people asshole." He began pounded the demon, puncturing tough gray skin with his talons, each blow puncuating the steady stream of curses coming from his mouth.

"Fucking jerk. The Star-Eyed is my mom you dickweed. And you *hurt* her. And you hurt my dad. I'm gonna rip your heart out and make you eat it you low-life slimy piece of shit!"

The demon was no longer concerned with taking over this world, he just wanted to get away. Thick black blood ran in steady streams from his tattered wings and the tears in his chest. And still the blows continued. His struggles were getting weaker, but his assailant never slowed.

"I hope you had fun while it lasted asshole. You're toast!!!" Xander ripped the Spear out of it's quiver and slammed the point into the demon's chest. He felt it's heart quivering against the point and savagely twisted the shaft. He ducked away from the fountain of blood that erupted from the jagged maw.

Keeping one hand tightly clenched around the shaft, he used the other to rip open the front of his shirt, letting his medallion fall free. He raised his face to the sun and called out to his father. "Vkandis!! It is finished!!"

The medallion and the Spear both began to glow, steadily growing brighter until even he couldn't look at them. There was a sound like lightening striking and a wave of heat. It was over. Finally.

Xander staggered to his feet, grimacing at the greasy smear on the stones that used to be a demon. "That's fairly gross. I hope they don't expect me to clean that up. Eeewww."

He carefully checked the Spear, pleased to see it was as golden as always. He put it back into the quiver and jumped when a voice spoke directly behind him.

"Who are you?"

"Geez, scare me half to death why don't you? Couldn't you give a guy a little warning before you sneak up on him?"

Firesong and Darkwind exchanged confused looks while Elspeth tried not to giggle at the stunned expressions on their faces.

Their savior, tall, huge black wings and eyes just like the Star-Eyed was just a young man. A very young man. Elspeth moved past the two men and extended her hand in welcome. "Hello. I'm Elspeth." Pointing at the others she said, "The two statues of idiots are my mate, Darkwind, and our friend, the Healing Adept, Firesong. Thank you for arriving when you did."

Xander blushed, "No problem. I would have been here sooner but Kal'enel couldn't pinpoint the demon's location. Is everybody all right?"

A sudden gust of wind made everyone turn to see a strange Gryphon landing on the parapet. "NightHawk! I am impresssed! You are truly worthy to be Champion of the People."

Firesong turned to the 'boy' standing next to him, "You're the Champion?"

Xander felt his face get redder, "Yeah, well, that's what Mom says."

"Mom?" Darkwind asked.

"Kal'enel. You know, The Star-Eyed? She brought me here and changed me, so she's kinda my Mom now. And Vkandis is Dad. The Spirit that helps Valdemar changed me some too, so I guess it's my Uncle or something."

Hawkbrothers and Herald alike just stood and stared, they'd been told to aid the Champion, but they obviously hadn't been told everything.

Xander stopped talking and looked curiously at Darkwind, "You're Wintermoon's brother, right?"

Darkwind nodded his head, still unable to get his mind and mouth to work together.

"Cool. How fast can you get to K'Sheyna Vale?"

"I. I don't know. Why? Is something wrong with my brother?"

"No. He's fine. But he's getting married. I'm sure he'd like you to be there. All of you."

"Married? Wintermoon is getting married? Are you sure we're talking about the same man."

"Yep. The ceremony is in a few days. You better hurry. He'll be going on an extended honeymoon afterwards." Xander casually moved to the edge of the roof and prepared to fly home to his family.

"Wait! Who is he marrying?" Darkwind called.

Xander turned and gave him a huge smile, canines and all, "That's easy. He's marrying me."

**********

Xander was about to follow Tarlac off of the roof when Darkwind managed to get his mouth to work in conjunction with his brain. "Wait! Please!"

Xander turned to look at his lover's younger brother, "Yeah?"

Darkwind walked closer to him and held out a hand in entreaty, "Please, stay for a while." Seeing that the young man was about to refuse he quickly added "Just until we can get ready to go. I know we'll slow you down, but I'd really like to be there for the ceremony and traveling together will give us the chance to get to know each other."

Xander's desire to get back to his family warred with the need to make sure Darkwind made it to the Vale safely. He saw Tarlac circling above and told him to head back to the Vale, he'd be following later. Then he put out a call to his daughter, knowing she would be waiting to hear from him. /Ghost? You listening?/

His daughter's reply was interposed with giggles. /Yes, Daddy, I'm listening. You said bad words, Daddy./ Ghost's giggles made Xander turn red and he squirmed at the thought of what he'd said, he quickly moved to distract his daughter.

/I'm here with Wintermoon's brother and his wife, can you broadcast to them too?/

/Sure Daddy. Hang on a second, let me get Wintermoon and the others./

Xander waited impatiently for his daughter, he hated waiting. He didn't bother to hide his grin at the shock on the other's faces when Ghost's mindvoice rang out so clearly.

/Okay, Daddy, we're ready. I'll send for Wintermoon and Kal'enel too./ Xander could feel her frown when she sent /I think I can boost everyone so we can all hear. Is that what you wanted, Daddy?/

/That'd be great baby. Kal'enel, how are you and Vkandis doing?/

The Goddess' thoughts were weak but clear. /Much better now Xander. I am still recovering but I heal quickly and so does your father. We should be completely well by the time you return./

Xander's relief was obvious to everyone in the link, /That's good Mom, really good. I was getting worried./

/We felt the demon die, are you all right?/

/Yeah, no problem. He wasn't that tough./

Overtones of irritation colored Kal'enel's reply, /Tough enough Xander. Your father and I could not defeat him, and we aren't exactly weak./

Xander back tracked quickly, very quickly. /Of course you're not. But you guys probably tried to use magic right? Well I didn't. I just tackled him and beat him into submission, then I fried him with Dad's Spear. I told you he was toast./

Kal'enel read her child's memories of his encounter with the demon that had almost cost her her life. She became almost incoherent with anger, /You dive bombed him and fought him with YOUR BARE HANDS! Are you INSANE! You could have been KILLED! You will never, NEVER do such a thing again! Do you hear me Alexander?!/

Darkwind, Elspeth and Firesong winced at the Star-Eyed's thoughts, but Xander merely smiled. /Don't be such a Mom, Mom. I'm fine. Not even any bruises. Thanks for that by the way./

/Thanks for what Xander? I did nothing. And since you have chosen me to be your mother I will *be* your mother. And as your mother I have every right to tell you not to do something so dangerous./

/Okay, okay, whatever you say Mom. But if you didn't heal me, who did?/

/I do not know Xander, we will discuss it when you return./

Wintermoon suddenly jumped into the conversation, his mind voice wistful, /Speaking of your return, are you coming home now?/

Xander grinned at Darkwind's impersonation of a fish out of water, /Soon, but I met your brother and he wants to come to the ceremony so I'll be traveling back with him and Elspeth. I just wanted to let you know I'll be a little later than I'd planned. Is that all right?/

/Of course A'shke, I would love to have them here to attend our bonding. But I wish I didn't have to wait./

/Yeah, me too. But I'll make it up to you. Promise./

/I don't mean to intrude,/ Firesong sent, /but I would also like an invitation./

/Firesong, is that you?/

/Yes Wintermoon. I must say, I approve of your choice of a mate./

/I'm *so* glad Firesong./ Wintermoon's mind voice fairly dripped with false sincerity, causing Ghost and Xander to laugh, /Please, do come Firesong. I would like to see you again, it has been a long time. And besides, it wouldn't be a party without you./

Firesong sniffed indignantly, but then he smiled, /I wouldn't miss this for the world. I never thought I'd see the day when you married./

/Neither did I./

Ghost finally grew impatient and interrupted, /Daddy, how long will you be gone? I miss you. And everything is ready now./

/Soon honey. We'll leave in the morning and move as fast as we can okay? We'll talk everyday and you can keep track all right?/

/Okay Daddy. Love you./

/Love you too Ghost. Be good and I'll talk to you tomorrow./

**********

Xander followed the older trio down the stairs and out into the courtyard. He fought the urge to fly away when he came face to face with what appeared to be hundreds of people. Most of them armed with crossbows, all aimed right at him.

Firesong, Darkwind and Elspeth stepped in front of him, blocking their aim. Elspeth's voice rang with the authority she'd been born to, "Stand down. This is the Champion of The Star-Eyed. He killed the creature and saved us all." Her eyes glinted dangerously when her command wasn't immediately obeyed, "I said STAND DOWN!"

One of the guards in the front row unthinkingly said what was on all of their minds, "But he isn't human! He's a creature too!"

Up to this point Xander hadn't really considered how his appearance would make people look at him. He glanced down at his extended talons then over his shoulder at his wings. He'd never once thought people would see him as a monster now too. He swallowed down the pain the comment caused and spoke quietly to Darkwind, "I'm going to go. Being here is making these guys really nervous and I'd rather not see if my ability to heal can handle getting shot with an arrow. I'll wait for you outside of the city, but I won't wait much past dawn. I want to go home."

He launched himself straight up was quickly lost to sight before Darkwind had a chance to say a word.

**********

Darkwind watched as Xander faded from sight. He turned back to face the crowd in time to see Queen Selenay and Talia push their way to the front.

The Queen hugged her daughter to her for a moment and then held her at arm's length. "Elspeth, are you all right?"

"Physically yes. But the Guards just managed to insult the Champion of the Star-Eyed so much I'll be surprised if he ever comes to help us again."

Selenay frowned, "I heard. And I saw him leave. It is unfortunate, but I don't see how we could possibly make it up to him. We may not have a problem with his appearance, but the common people will. You know as well as I do that no matter what we say or do they'll continue to think what they want."

"I know that Mother, but I don't have to like it. Darkwind, Firesong and I will be leaving shortly. Darkwind's brother is getting married and we want to be there."

"Of course dear. I wish I could go too. Will you be back soon?"

"She may well be," Firesong said in a loud voice, making sure everyone in the vicinity could hear him. "But I will not. I will never willingly return to this land again."

Shocked murmurs could be heard racing through the crowd and the members of the Council who'd just arrived demanded an explanation for Firesong's statement.

"You *demand* an explanation from me?" Firesong said incredulously. "I owe you nothing. This is not my land and you are not my people. I have put up with you for far too long. But when you insult my Goddess, you go to far."

He looked at the crowd, his distaste evident even through the mask he wore. "You have no idea what that young man has been through. No idea at all. And still you judge him on his appearance."

Firesong pulled off the mask and let everyone see the scars that warped his once beautiful face. "I got these preventing the final Mage Storm, do you judge me unfit because of them?"

Only Talia could meet his eyes. Darkwind and Elspeth stood behind him, resting their hands on his shoulder, giving him their support. "If the Star-Eyed were not the compassionate Goddess that she is, this insult would be enough to declare war upon you. There may yet be consequences to this."

Firesong put his mask back in place and tried to move through the crowd. One of the Councillors grabbed his arm, "What do you mean consequences? Are you threatening us?"

Firesong plucked the man's fat fingers from his sleeve and glared at him. "The Star-Eyed considers the Champion NightHawk to be her son." Firesong waved an elegant hand at the cluster of people surrounding them, "These people insulted him, they *threatened* him. And by proxy; her. If I were she, there would definitely be consequences to this."

Firesong strolled through the crowd, head high and eyes forward. He would not miss this place or these people. Not at all.

Darkwind started after Firesong, stopping only long enough to look Selenay in the eye, "If it were not for the love I have for your daughter, I, too, would refuse to return to this place."

Selenay stared after the two mages who had saved her kingdom and wondered what this meant for her and her people. She shook those thoughts aside and went back to her duty. Protect her people, even from themselves if necessary.

Talia pulled Elspeth to one side and hugged her, "Are you all right Catling?"

"Not really." Elspeth scrubbed angry tears from her face, "Talia; Xander, NightHawk the Champion, whatever you call him, he's so young, hardly more than a boy really. How can I make this up to him? He saved us. He took that creature apart with his bare hands and destroyed it. We couldn't even slow it down. And what did he get in return? He got his feelings hurt, badly. He looked so lost. How can we make this better?"

Talia shook her head, "I don't know Catling, I don't know."

**********

Karal and Altra were waiting for Firesong when he got back to his ekele.

"Firesong, Altra and I would like to come with you. We want to meet Vkandis' child and thank him personally for his help."

"Do you know what happened?"

"Yes. Altra was watching the whole thing." Karal brushed his hand through the Firecat's cream colored fur, "Firesong, Altra thinks Vkandis might call me home because of this."

Altra rumbled a purr and rubbed his head against Karal's chest, /He will be angry Firesong. Very angry. He may well call all Karsites home. And the people of Iftel too. I have seen him angered before. And lived to speak of it. Others have not been so fortunate. It is possible he may decide to close the borders to our lands again. We came so close. So close to real peace, only to have some idiot ruin everything./

Firesong let go of his own anger long enough to consider what this could lead to. The war between Valdemar and Karse wasn't so long ago that it couldn't be easily rekindled. Against his nature and his own need for revenge against the insult to his Goddess, Firesong said the one thing Karal never expected.

"Let's talk to the Champion. Maybe we can stop this before it goes any farther. I may not really care for these people, but I have no wish for another war to break out."

**********

Ghost heard and felt everything. Her tiny body vibrated with anger. Those people hurt her Daddy! She stomped her way over to the cluster of people surrounding the Star-Eyed and rudely pushed her way through to where the Goddess sat on the mossy ground.

Ghost crawled into her lap and took the Goddess' face in her grubby little hands. /Those people are *bad*. They hurt Daddy./

/They hurt Xander? How?/

/They said he wasn't human, that's he's a creature just like the demon. And they pointed their arrows at him. He went away./

Kal'enel was by nature peace loving. The fury that raced through her being was new to her. As was the desire to wreck retribution on the heads of the mortals foolish enough to hurt her son.

She centered herself, reaching for the calm needed to decipher the direction her thoughts were taking. The reason behind her emotions quickly became clear. Xander was *her* son. No matter that she hadn't carried him in her body. At the moment of his transformation she had given him a piece of herself. As had Vkandis. Between them they had taken a human, gifted beyond all others but still mortal, and changed him. He was neither mortal or God now, but something between.

But knowing the reasons behind her rage did not ease it. Any mother would react in the same way when her child was hurt. And this wounding would not go unpunished. Not by her, and certainly not by Vkandis.

She rose gracefully to her feet and set Ghost aside. She looked into the child's heart and mind. She saw the same fury that raced through her veins glaring from her dark brown eyes. Quickly making a decision, she scooped Ghost up into her arms and vanished. Leaving the people of K'Sheyna Vale and especially Wintermoon wondering just what in her name was going on.

**********

Kal'enel appeared on the Moon Paths with Ghost still clutched in her arms. She sent her awareness out into the void seeking her mate. He appeared before them in seconds.

"Kal'enel, what is wrong?"

Words could not convey her anger or sorrow so she linked her mind with his and let him see what had occurred.

To say he was displeased was a vast understatement. Only the presence of the child kept him from venting his feelings.

"How shall we punish them for their impertinence my love?"

"We should go to Valdemar first Vkandis. We need to speak to the Spirit of the Companions before we act."

"Agreed. I cannot imagine it pleased with the people it has chosen to protect."

**********

Rolan stood in the center of the grove in silent communication. His father had at times in the past become angry with the people but Rolan had never seen him like this before. He nodded once in acknowledgment of his orders and left the grove to find his companion. His siblings followed. All of them hating what they had to do.

**********

Karal, Altra and Firesong met up with Darkwind on the path outside the ekele. The younger Hawkbrother was clearly distressed.

"Firesong, I..." Darkwind shook his head in disgust and then shrugged, unable to put his feelings into words.

"I know Darkwind." Firesong heaved a sigh and straightened his shoulders. "We'll talk to NightHawk, maybe we can prevent a catastrophe from occurring. But I am still leaving."

Darkwind hugged his friend for a moment and then stepped back. "Let's go find him. Hopefully he didn't go far."

The small group was headed towards the palace gate when they heard yelling and screaming. They ran towards the sound and stopped in dismay. Firesong put their feelings into words. "It appears we may be too late."

The Hawkbrothers headed for the crowd and the Gods who had just appeared, Karal stayed behind for a moment and spoke to Altra. The cat purred in approval and led his friend to Vkandis' side before disappearing.

**********

Kal'enel and Vkandis held a three way conference with the Spirit. It was as angry as they were, but not for the same reasons. /I am sorry your child was treated badly. It was uncalled for. But if they have a problem with him, what do they think of MY children? Most of them were human once. They voluntarily took the form of animals to aid the mortals who call this their home. But the people here seem to think they are better than my children. I would prove them wrong./

Kal'enel and Vkandis paused to consider what the Spirit had said. It was true, the mortals here held themselves above others who did not appear as human. It was time that they learned a lesson.

The three discussed their plans, but Ghost came up with the solution. /They're bad. They should be spanked and sent to bed./

The Gods and the Spirit stared at the child and them at each other. Grins slowly took over the angry faces and a plan was reached. Kal'enel, Ghost and Vkandis went to the humans while the Spirit spoke to his own children.

**********

Selenay and Talia were frantically trying to restore order to the crowd when the Star-Eyed, Vkandis and a small child appeared in the middle of the melee. The child immediately slid out of the Star-Eyed's arm and stomped over to the guard who had insulted the Champion.

She glared up at him for a moment, then kicked him in the shin as hard as she could. The man yelped and bent down to clutch his injured leg. As soon as his face got into her reach she slapped him across the mouth. Her mindvoice was so loud it drove many to their knees.

/You're BAD!!! You hurt my Daddy!/

The guard was reaching for the brat that had kicked him when inhumanly strong hands grabbed the back of his neck and pulled him off his feet. He stared into the blazing eyes of the Karsite Sun God and gulped.

Vkandis shook the mortal like a dog with a bone. His voice boomed out over the crowd. "You dare to touch my Granddaughter? Human, you're life could end here and now."

Ghost giggled and buried her face against Vkandis' leg. Her family was getting bigger all the time.

Karal laid a quiet hand on his God's arm, hoping to prevent the man's sudden demise. "Sunlord. Please."

Vkandis looked down into the sightless eyes of his youngest priest. He slowly set the human back on his feet and released him. "Karal. They deserve to be punished. What they did is inexcusable."

"I know that Sunlord. But it was a single man, not the multitude."

Ghost tugged on the pretty man's shirt. She frowned when she realized he was blind and couldn't see her. /The man said it, but they were all thinking it. They think Daddy is a monster. That he'll turn on them and destroy them. Right now most of them think that Grandmother and Grandfather made him to take over. They say Grandpa Vkandis and Grandma Kal'enel are savages and can't be trusted./

Karal reached out a hand and the little girl grabbed it, how he wished he could see her. "I know they aren't very grateful, but most people fear new things. The same way a child will fear the darkness under the bed. They must be proven wrong, but if they are destroyed they will never learn."

Ghost tilted her head and let her mind slip into the man's thoughts. He honestly believed what he was saying. Ghost immediately liked him and made a decision on the spot. He would be part of her family too.

**********

The Star-Eyed gazed impassionately at the Queen of Valdemar. Her voice was quiet but her anger was clear. "My son risked his life to help your people. He received no thanks. Only threats and insults. Tell me why I should let this pass unchallenged?"

Selenay looked to Talia for help but her young advisor didn't know what to say. The two women turned back to the Goddess and Selenay tried to reason with her. "We are very sorry. The situation is unfortunate but surely you wouldn't punish an entire people for one man's mistake."

"If he had insulted the son of a king you would be preparing for war. Instead, he insulted the son of the Gods." Kal'enel drew her power around her and passed judgment. "From this day forward, my people and yours are enemies. We will not aid you against the darkness and will destroy any that come into our lands. All of my people will be called home. Never to return to this place."

Selenay gasped in dismay, this could very well mean the end of her kingdom.

Darkwind heard the Star-Eyed's proclamation and felt his heart sink. He turned pleading eyes to his mate and something in him died when she stepped closer to her mother and slowly pulled the feather from her hair. She looked at the symbol of their union and let it fall from her hand to drift silently to the ground.

Firesong heard a pained gasp and looked at Darkwind. His face was pale. Firesong followed his friend's gaze and saw Elspeth break all of her vows to Darkwind. He looked at his former student with cold eyes. She paled at the strength of the hatred in his eyes and knew this would never be forgiven.

Elspeth staggered from a hard shove in the middle of her back. Her Companion stood behind, misery in every line of her gleaming white body. /Chosen. What have you done?/

/The Star-Eyed has called her people home. He can't stay and I can't leave. What else was I supposed to do?/

/You gave up too easily. There may still be a chance to prevent a war. But I'm afraid no one will be able to save your marriage. You shame me Chosen. And as much as it pains me, it will also make it easier./

/Make what easier?/ Rolan's mindvoice rang through every head in the courtyard. /Because of your actions here today, it has been decided that you no longer deserve us. All Companions across the land will refute their Chosen. Come my siblings, it is time to go home./

**********

All of the Heralds across the land fell to their knees. Most begging their Companions not to leave them. Talia was overwhelmed by the sudden rush of anguish. She felt a strangely warm sensation on her face and raised a hand to it. It came away bloody. The ringing in her mind became stronger and blackness overtook her. Strong arms caught her limp form and carefully lowered it to the ground. Star speckled eyes looked up at the suddenly quiet crowd and a harsh voice said, "What the FUCK is going on here?"

**********

Xander sat on a stump in the center of the clearing. He was just far enough outside the city to avoid people. He mindlessly snapped a stick into ever smaller pieces while his thoughts ran around in circles.

'Okay. People think I'm some kind of freak. I guess the wings and fangs are a little much.' He began the slide into total depression when his daughter's face rose up in his memories. The look of wonder and awe when she saw his wings and her rapt fascination with the softness of the feathers. He got warm inside at the memory of her voice, husky and soft, 'Daddy. You're beautiful.'

Xander purposefully went over Wintermoon's reaction to his transformation. The hot look of lust and desire tempered by love. And the intimate shiver when his wings had wrapped around his lover.

Other memories came then. The Gryphon's delight. The Hertasi scrambling to redesign his robes for the ceremony they were certain would still take place. The Dyheli Stag King's quiet comment, 'Now you will be able to see your enemies from above. Any advantage you can take in protecting your herd is an excellent thing.'

And the sheer reverence of the people of K'Sheyna Vale. They saw him as the Champion, the son of their Goddess, Ghost's father and Wintermoon's mate. They didn't see a freak or a monster.

Xander finally made peace with himself and his transformation. He relaxed and settled in to enjoy the quiet when the biggest cat he had ever seen suddenly popped into existence at his feet.

Xander jumped to his feet and scrambled backwards. "Whoa. Hey Kitty. Where'd you come from?"

Altra sniffed in disdain, /I am Altra. Not 'Hey Kitty'. I am of Fire Cat. I serve the Sun Lord Vkandis./

Xander immediately grew concerned, "Is Dad all right? I thought he was getting better after I destroyed the demon."

Altra sat down on his haunches, poise and calm radiating from every line in his body. /Your 'Father' is in excellent shape. But I can not say the same for the people of Valdemar./

"Valdemar? What's happened now?"

/Your parent's happened. They are extremely upset with the people who chose to insult and threaten their child. I believe your daughter is also there./

"Ghost?! What's she doing in Valdemar?"

Altra purred a laugh, /She was kicking a Guardsman and telling him he was 'bad' for hurting her Daddy. Vkandis was on the verge of reducing the man to ashes when I came to find you./

Xander groaned and buried his head in his hands, "I wanted a family. I 'asked' for a family. Guess it's true."

/What's true?/ Altra asked curiously.

"Be careful what you wish for. You might get it."

Xander rose to his feet and stretched his wings, "Well, come on Altra. Let's go see if we can prevent the 'rents from wrecking havoc on the mortals."

**********

Xander caught the same thermal he'd rode on earlier and quickly made his way back to the palace. His star filled eyes caught sight of a woman bleeding from her nose. He landed in time to catch her unconscious body before it fell to the ground. Even he could feel the pain coursing through her slim body. He raised angry eyes and said the first thing that came to his mind. "What the FUCK is going on here?"

********

Xander looked from his mother to his father, his expression clearly demanding an explanation.

"Xander, these people cannot insult and threaten you without accepting the consequences of their actions." Kal'enel said sternly.

The Gods moved closer and Vkandis pulled Xander to his feet. "You are our son. We cannot protect you from the demons you fight, but we can protect you from people such as these. They do not deserved your help and protection."

Ghost wormed her way into the middle of the tightly clustered group and clutched Xander's leg. /They were bad Daddy. They need spanked./

Xander picked Ghost up and settled her against his chest. He looked at the mulish expression on her face and the forbidding expressions on his parent's faces. He sighed and shook his head. Looking directly into his daughter's eyes he asked her seriously, "Do you love me Ghost?"

Her voice was equally serious, "Yes Daddy."

He rested his free hand on Vkandis' shoulder, "Vkandis, I've claimed you as my father, do you love me?"

The smile on the God's face made the bright sunlight seem dim. "Yes. You are my son and I do love you."

He finally looked at Kal'enel, "And you? How do you feel about me?"

"I don't see what my feelings have to do with these people's actions Xander."

"Just answer me Mom. Do you love me?"

Kal'enel kissed his forehead and then rested her cheek against his, "Yes my child. I do. More than I ever thought possible."

Xander grinned, "I *know* Wintermoon loves me. Wings, fangs, claws and all. And that's what's important to me. My family loves me. In the big picture, these people's opinion doesn't mean jack shit to me. They can say, do and think whatever they like. I'll protect them because that's what I do and who I am. Good guy, remember? I don't have time to ask who is and isn't my friend before I take out the bad guys."

Xander jostled Ghost, making her giggle. "If they don't like me, fuck 'em. Who cares? I don't."

Ghost laughed harder and nuzzled against her father's chest. "You said a bad word Daddy."

Xander feigned shock, "I did? No way. I'm the Champion, I don't use bad words."

Ghost laughed so hard she couldn't breathe. Kal'enel and Vkandis exchanged indulgent smiles and turned back to the crowd. Their voices said in unison, "Our son has declined any reparations for the insults you heaped upon him. Our people may stay or leave as they please."

Selenay heaved a sigh of relief, maybe this wouldn't end badly after all. She stepped closer to the strange young man. "Thank you Champion. That was very kind of you and we appreciate it."

Xander looked at them and shrugged, "I didn't do it for you. I did it for me." He smoothed back Ghost's hair and kissed her cheek. "This is what is important to me. You people can go blow for all I care. I don't have time for your politics or your games. I have a job to do and I don't need the grief. So, you do your thing and I'll do mine. And now, I'm going home. I have a wedding to go to. Mine." Xander walked away from the Queen of one of the most powerful countries in the world without a backwards glance.

The grin splitting Firesong's face had reached epic proportions. He turned to the young priest standing next to him and said in a gleeful voice, "I like him. I *really* like him."

Karal laughed, "You would. But I also find myself impressed with him. He has strength of character and a firm grasp on the important things in life. Vkandis made a wise choice making him the Champion."

Firesong's eyebrows rose up into his hair line, "Vkandis? I believe you are mistaken Priest. The Star-Eyed chose him. Vkandis merely went along with the wisdom of her decision."

The two men bickered cheerfully as they headed back to the ekele to pack for their trip to K'Sheyna Vale.

**********

Darkwind made it back to his quarters without incident. For which he was profoundly grateful. He was in no mood to put up with people at the moment.

He grabbed his packs from the closet and hurriedly shoved everything he valued into them. He looked over the rooms where he and Elspeth had been so happy together. It had all been a lie. That much was clear now. He tugged his wedding ring off of his hand and left it on the bedside table. He shut the door quietly behind him and headed down the back stairs. The sooner he left this place the better.

**********

Firesong hated packing. He hated it with a passion. He finally managed to weed through his belongs, only taking what couldn't easily be replaced. He looked around his home for the last time. He would miss this place. But not enough to stay here. He looked at Karal and made a sudden decision.

"Karal. Will you be returning here?"

"Yes. I believe so. Natoli is here and there is still much good I can do amongst these people. Why?"

"I won't be back Karal. I've been here too long. But I want you to take my ekele. It is much nicer than that drafty palace."

Karal felt the sting of tears in his eyes. The two men had become close friends over time. "I will miss you Firesong. But I understand why you are leaving. You will tell me where you end up won't you? I'd like to come visit occasionally."

"You'd better Priest." Firesong said in a threatening voice. He grew quiet for a moment, and then spoke again in a much quieter voice, "I will miss you too Karal."

Firesong led the young man to the door, "Let's go get you packed. I'm sure NightHawk will want to leave soon."

**********

Darkwind made his way to Firesong's ekele and met his friends on the path. Firesong immediately noticed the missing ring. "Darkwind. Are you sure about this? Maybe if you spoke to her..."

"No Firesong. She made this decision, not me. I'm not going to stay where I'm not wanted. Her position as a Herald is obviously more important than our marriage. It's better that it ends now." Karal listened to the conversation in confusion. He finally understood what was going on and groaned inwardly. He had to find Talia, and find her now. He sent his thoughts out to Altra, begging him to come to guide him.

The FireCat appeared immediately and linked his mind to Karal's, becoming his 'eyes'. The two made their way through the crowd and finally found Talia leaning on Rolan's shoulder. The Spirit had relented, allowing the Companions to stay with their Chosen. The feelings of relief flooding through Talia's link with Rolan were intense. It took a couple of tries but Karal finally managed to get her attention.

"Talia. We have a problem. A serious one. Elspeth has broken her vows to Darkwind and he is leaving with Firesong. We have to stop them from doing something stupid."

Talia groaned and buried her face in Rolan's mane, "Why me? I'm a good person. I don't ask for much. Just a little bit of peace and quiet. Instead I stagger from crisis to crisis like a drunken bard. I must have been a horrible person in a former to life to deserve this."

Karal gaped at his friend and fellow Sun priest and finally broke into hearty laughter. Once he started, he couldn't seem to stop. He finally had to sit down. He gasped for air and wiped tears of mirth from his eyes, "Thank you Queen's Own. I needed that." He finally managed to get himself under control, "Now. What shall we do about foolish friends?"

Talia sat next to him and casually leaned on his shoulder. "Karal. There are some things we shouldn't interfere with. And this is one of them. If they come to us, them we help. But if they don't ask for it, intruding could cause even more heart ache."

Karal hung his head, "I know you are right Talia. But I don't like it."

"I don't either Karal. I don't either."

**********

It took some fast talking, but Xander finally managed to convince Ghost to go home with her 'grandparents'. Mentioning the upcoming nuptials finally did the trick.

"Ghost, I'll be home in about a week. I promise. I need you to make sure everything is ready. The second I hit the Vale I want to get married before something else happens."

"Okay Daddy. But after you and Wintermoon have your honeymoon, can you stay home for awhile? Please?"

"Unless something really bad happens, I promise to stay for a week. At least. Okay?"

"I love you Daddy."

"I love you too honey. Now you guys better go before I change my mind and leave with you. I don't think Wintermoon would like it if I let his brother get eaten on the way to the wedding." Ghost giggled and jumped into Xander's arms for one last hug before climbing into Vkandis' arms. Xander watched his family fade from sight and sighed. He missed them already.

"Your daughter is a lovely child. And one of the strongest empaths I've ever seen."

Xander turned to see the woman he had grabbed earlier when she'd fainted. Small traces of blood still smeared her face. "Are you all right now? You looked really bad when you fainted earlier."

Talia blushed, "I understand I have you to thank for keeping my head from an unpleasant meeting with the ground. Thank you for that. And I'm much better now. The emotional upheaval was a little too much for me to handle. I'm Talia, by the way."

"I'm Xander."

"It's nice to meet you Xander. But I thought your name was NightHawk?" Talia said.

Xander turned red, "That's the name Kal'enel gave me when she named me Champion. But I prefer Xander."

Talia gave him one of her heartbreaking smiles, "Xander it is then. I understand Firesong, Karal and Darkwind are traveling with you back to K'Sheyna Vale?"

"Yes. But isn't Elspeth coming too? I know she wanted to." Xander said.

Talia led Xander over to one of the benches against the palace wall and took a seat. Xander remained standing, "I'd sit, but I haven't quite gotten the hang of the wings yet."

Talia frowned in confusion, "You haven't had them long?"

Xander laughed, "No. Just a couple of days. It's a long story. I'll tell you about it some time. Now, what's up with Elspeth?"

"When Kal'enel decided the alliance was over because of the way you were treated, I'm very sorry for that, some people don't handle the unexpected very well."

Xander grinned, "No biggee. I don't even want to know what my friends back home would say if they could see me now."

Talia grinned back, "I've 'got' to hear your story sometime." Talia sighed and her smile faded away, "Elspeth took Darkwind's bond feather from her hair and dropped it on the ground. Right in front of him."

Xander was shocked, he hadn't been around the Hawkbrothers long, but he knew what that meant, "Why would she do a thing like that?"

"She's the daughter of the Queen. She abdicated the throne when she became a Mage, but old habits die hard. She's always been taught that Valdemar came before her own happiness. Once the alliance was over, she had to choose."

"Did she talk to Darkwind first? See if they could work something out? Kal'enel would 'never' want them to break their marriage vows over something she did. They could have gotten permission or something."

Talia shook her head, "Elspeth was Darkwind and Firesong's student, she took the Wing Sib oath."

Xander groaned, "She broke her oath to Kal'enel too? That's something Mom will never forgive, Elspeth should have talked to her first. Or at least waited to see what would happen first. Man, this is 'so' screwed."

"That's an unusual, but completely accurate description of the situation."

**********

Darkwind sent Vree out to hunt while he waited impatiently for Firesong and Karal to return. He couldn't wait to get out of this place.

/Darkwind, can I speak with you?/

Darkwind stiffened when Gwena's mindvoice echoed in his head. "What do you want Gwena? Shouldn't you be with your chosen?"

/Darkwind, I'm so sorry. I don't know what she was thinking. I don't know if she was thinking at all. I wish I could make this better./

The misery in the Companion's thoughts finally forced Darkwind to face her. The mental anguish in Gwena's voice was painfully obvious in her body. Her head hung down between her fore legs and her once proud tail drooped limply. Darkwind buried his face in her mane, "I don't think there's anything 'anyone' could do Gwena. This was Elspeth's choice. We just have to live with it."

/I don't want you to leave Darkwind./

"I don't want to leave either, but I can't stay. You know that."

/I don't have to like it though. I wish I could go with you./

"You have to stay here and take care of her." Darkwind allowed a small hint of laughter to creep into his voice, "She'll be impossible to deal with for a while, but she'll recover. And so will I. Eventually."

**********

Xander spent a lot of time with Darkwind on their journey to K'Sheyna Vale. The older man wouldn't discuss the destruction of his marriage, but instead focused on getting to know the man his brother was going to marry.

Both were pleased when they got along so well. Darkwind laughed at Xander's jokes, while Xander appreciated Darkwind's common sense approach to everything from setting up their nightly camp to discussing demons.

Xander found it amazing that none of the three men had any doubts about the existence of demons and vampires. Karal especially. The young Karsite had seen what demons were capable of long before the mage storms had wracked the land.

The days passed quickly, but the nights for Xander seemed to last forever. He didn't sleep well at all. He missed the sound of Wintermoon breathing in his ear, and his wings were causing him all kinds of problems. He had to sleep on his stomach, which he hated with a passion, and every time he rolled over in his sleep the pain shooting through his abused wing would wake him up.

By the time they reached K'Sheyna Vale, he was exhausted. But the sight of Wintermoon waiting for him at the boundary still made him smile.

Wintermoon was concerned when he saw Xander. His lover's skin was pasty and he had dark circles under his eyes. Wintermoon kissed him gently, "Xander, are you all right? You look tired."

Xander sighed in relief when Wintermoon's arms closed around his back, and he rested his head on Wintermoon's broad shoulder. "I am tired. Being able to fly may be wonderful, but these wings are a pain in my ass when I'm trying to sleep. And I missed you. I'm never going to spend another night without you. Ever."

Wintermoon laughed softly, "I missed you too A'shke. But I believe I have a solution for your inability to sleep."

"God, I hope so. I don't know how much longer I can keep going without biting someone's head off."

"Try to remain calm for a little longer Xander. Ghost and the Elders are waiting for us at the Heartstone. Once the ceremony is over we can spend some time alone."

Xander nodded his head wearily and stood aside while Wintermoon greeted his brother.

Darkwind had asked Xander to not tell Wintermoon about Elspeth for now. He wanted to do it himself, after the ceremony. Xander had agreed reluctantly, he knew Darkwind was hurting, but he couldn't make him talk about it.

Xander hid a small smirk. Darkwind might be able to hide his feelings from his brother, but when Ghost and Kethra got a hold of him, he was toast.

**********

Xander dressed in his new clothes and had to smile, he couldn't wait to see the expression on Wintermoon's face when he took off his ceremonial robes. Two hertasi laid his robes open then helped him do up all the fastenings. They'd solved the problems of his wings by removing most of the back and adding fasteners over his shoulders. Once it was on it was impossible to tell where the robes ended and his wings began.

"You look wonderful Xander. Wintermoon will be most pleased."

Xander turned and smiled at Kal'enel, "I hope so. I'd hate for him to think I was ugly or something."

The Goddess laughed and pulled him over to a low-back chair. "Sit and I will do your hair." She brushed out the waist long hair and braided a section of either side of his face. "Something is bothering you Xander, what is it?"

Xander fidgeted and finally answered, "Elspeth broke off her marriage to Darkwind."

Kal'enel's hands stilled in his hair, "Why would she do such a thing?"

Xander shrugged, "When you cancelled the alliance she decided that their marriage was over and took off the bond feathers."

Kal'enel closed her eyes and fought back the urge to scream, humans could be so irritating at times. "Their marriage had nothing to do with the alliance Xander. I would 'never' ask someone to make that choice."

Xander put one of his hands over hers and said quietly, "I know you wouldn't Mom. I don't know why she would think that you would. But Darkwind is really hurting right now. She didn't even try to talk to him first."

Kal'enel sighed and kissed the top of Xander's head, "I will speak with him Xander. Maybe this can be fixed." She quickly finished the braids and stepped back. "You are ready Xander. At least your hair is. How are 'you' doing?"

Xander stood up and stretched, his wings flaring out at the same time, "I'm fine Mom. I just want to get this over with."

Kal'enel smiled, "Ceremonies can be nerve racking, but try to stay calm."

Xander smirked and headed for the door, "I'm not nervous Mom, I just want to get the ceremony over with so we can get started on the honeymoon."

Kal'enel's mouth dropped open for a moment, then she burst into peals of laughter, "You are indeed your father's son."

**********

Xander made all the appropriate responses during the ceremony, but later he couldn't have repeated the words if his life depended on it. Everything in him was focused on Wintermoon. The sound of his heartbeat, the feel of his hand and the smell of his arousal. Xander was quietly going insane. If the ceremony didn't end soon, the guests were going to get one hell of a show.

The tight leather pants Xander wore were beginning to inflict pain. Actually, it wasn't the pants, it was the stone hard erection inside the pants that was causing the pain.

Wintermoon felt Xander's hand tighten on his and sent a silent query out to his mate. /Xander? What's wrong?/ He was inundated with images of the two of them together in the most intimate of embraces. Wintermoon felt his heart speed up in response, and his face reddened when he felt his needy cock begin to leak inside his trousers. Xander's hand tightened around his once more and he heard a very faint whimper escape from his lover's throat. At that point Wintermoon stopped paying any attention whatsoever to the ceremony. He was too busy silently praying to the Star-Eyed for strength and a speedy conclusion to the Elder's long winded speech.

Kal'enel wore a look of supreme serenity, on the outside. On the inside she was rolling on the ground laughing. Her son and her soon to be son-in-law were praying to her at the same time and for the same thing. Xander's prayers made it clear that if he and Wintermoon didn't get out of the clearing quickly their sex practices would become more than common knowledge. Kal'enel's brow quirked up in surprise when Wintermoon's prayer become more of a steady commentary about the love the Elders of the Vale had for their own voices. She knew that she had to take steps, and quickly.

"Elders, you do your Vale great service in your performance of your duties. But as it is my son that is being wed, I would prefer to conduct them myself if you would be agreeable." The Goddess said.

The Elders fell all over themselves leaving the dais and Kal'enel took their place. She smiled at the looks of relief on the two men's faces, "We are gathered here to witness a formality, nothing more. Xander and Wintermoon are lifebonded, no ceremony can make their union more real or permanent. Therefore, today we will create a new ceremony for the blessing of the union of lifebonded pairs."

The Goddess blocked out the sight and sound of the others in the clearing and concentrated solely on the two men before her. "A lifebond is a rare and wonderful thing, but it can be a terrible thing too. One's anger or sadness becomes the other's also. The same is also true for the joy and laughter. Xander, my son, do you swear before me on this day to do whatever you can to make your mate happy and to keep him foremost in your heart?"

"Yes, I swear." Xander said in a very steady voice.

Kal'enel smiled and turned to Wintermoon, "Wintermoon, mate of my son's heart, do you swear before me on this day to do whatever you can to make your mate happy and to keep him foremost in your heart?"

Wintermoon's smile was one no one except Xander had ever had the privilege to see, "Yes, I swear."

"And do you both swear to comfort and aid your mate in times of sorrow and hardship?"

"Yes, we swear." the two men replied in perfect unison.

Kal'enel smiled, "Then my blessings on you both. In my eyes, and the eyes of the people, you are wed."

The clearing erupted into loud cheering, but the newlyweds never heard a word, they were too busy exchanging kisses to seal their bond to pay any attention.

Well wishers finally managed to force them to part and the hertasi waiting in the wings hurried forward to remove their ceremonial robes. Xander smirked when he saw Wintermoon's tight doe skin pants and sleeveless tunic. He held out his arms and let the hertasi release the fastenings on the shoulders of his robes. The embroidered black material fell away to reveal extremely tight black leather trousers that left 'nothing' to the imagination paired with black leather boots that rose up over Xander's knees. And that was all. No shirt, no vest, no tunic. Just a wide expanse of creamy white skin set against a backdrop by glossy black wings.

Wintermoon felt all of the moisture in his mouth go dry and he shuddered when one of Xander's braids fell forward and brushed against an erect nipple on the gleaming chest. Wintermoon surged forward and grabbed Xander by the hand. He pulled his willing mate through the crowd and actually snarled at the few hardy souls that got in his way. Xander's laughter at his mate's antics could be heard ringing through the Vale after they disappeared from sight.

Firesong's mouth dropped open when he saw NightHawk without his robes, he closed it with a snap when Darkwind nudged him with an elbow and said quietly, "You're drooling."

Firesong turned to his friend and hid a wince when he saw the sadness darkening the light blue eyes. He hid his concern behind forced joviality, "Did you see him? Even a saint would drool over that."

Darkwind laughed a little, trust Firesong to come up with a comment like that. "I admit, he did look good. My brother is a lucky man."

Firesong cursed under his breath as he watched his friend wander through the crowd and fade from sight. He felt a tug and looked down to see the Champion's daughter standing before him. She held up her arms and he automatically picked her up and settled her against his chest.

She smiled at him and lightly touched the mask he wore to hide his scars, /You don't need this with him you know. The scars wouldn't scare him away./

Firesong was stunned at the clarity of her mindspeech, but what he saw when he looked in her mind rocked him to the core. Hers was the most complex mind he'd ever seen. Convoluted paths twisted and turned, looping around each other before branching off in every direction. She had the gift of foresight, farsight, empathy, mindspeech, the healing gift both the mind, the body and the land. She also had one channel he couldn't identify. He just held her and stared into her dark brown eyes until she giggled, /You're funny. Are you going to go find him? He needs you./

/Who?/ he said stupidly.

/Darkwind. His heart is hurt and you can make it better./

Firesong smiled wistfully, /I wish I could little one, but he doesn't feel the same about me as I feel about him./

Ghost patted the side of his face before leaning in to kiss his cheek, /He will. He just hasn't been ready until now. Go to him, he needs you./

Firesong had set the child down and was half way across the clearing before he realized he'd been given an order by a 'child' and he'd obeyed without question. He looked back and found her staring after him with large grin on her elfin face. He shook his head and went to find Darkwind.

**********

Xander was still laughing when Wintermoon dragged him up the steps to their partially remodeled ekele. But his laughter died when his mate pulled him down onto the bed and proceeded to stick his tongue down his throat. Xander groaned deep in his chest and rubbed against the body beneath him. He let out a startled grunt when Wintermoon shoved him up onto his knees and slid out from under him. Xander started to ask what was wrong but his brain shut down at the sight of Wintermoon practically ripping his own clothes off. He reached down to untie the lacings holding him prisoner but when he started to push them down over his hips Wintermoon stopped him. "Leave them on." the older man said in dark voice. Xander shuddered and obeyed.

Wintermoon stared at the picture his mate made. Kneeling on his knees on the bed with his long black hair brushing over his chest, his wings flared slightly and his aroused cock rising up from the black leather. Wintermoon went slightly insane. He hurriedly removed the rest of his clothing and crushed himself against his mate as tightly as he could. The two men grappled for a moment, hungry hands and mouths making a meal of the other, but they'd both been on the edge for too long. It only took a few moments of thrusting against each other before they both erupted. Wintermoon swallowed Xander's groan and grasped the still spurting cock in his hand. He squeezed and stroked until it once again grew hard, enjoying Xander's whimpers and pleas all the while.

He reached back and grabbed the pot of oil from the bedside and pushed it into Xander's hand before turning his back to his husband and raising his hips, "Xander, please, I want you in me. Now."

Xander gulped and ran a shaking hand over the curved flesh in front of him. He and Wintermoon hadn't had sex very often before and never like this, but the need in his mate's voice left him no doubt that this was what the older man wanted.

He dipped one finger into the oil and lightly brushed it over the exposed opening. Wintermoon moaned and spread his knees farther apart. Xander panted, trying to get more air into his lungs as he oh, so slowly pushed his finger into Wintermoon's warm body. Time lost all meaning as he followed Wintermoon's commands for 'more' and 'harder'. Soon Xander had three fingers thrusting into the older man's body but it wasn't enough for either of them.

Wintermoon pulled away from the tormenting fingers and said, "Inside me now Xander, please."

Xander quickly rubbed oil down the length of his cock while reciting all he could remember of the Gettysburg address in his head to keep from coming. He finally placed the head of his cock at the opening and pushed forward gently. Wintermoon took over from there. He thrust back hard, impaling the rigid length of Xander's cock inside his body. He sat up and pushed his back against his mate's chest and felt strong hands grasp his hips while those incredible wings wrapped around him. Wintermoon rose up and then pushed back down, every movement causing the soft feathers to brush against his body. He leaned his head back and latched onto Xander's lips, thrusting his tongue into his lover's mouth. They tongues tangled and teased for a moment, then Xander broke away and pulled in a deep breath.

Star filled eyes stared into icy blue and a lecherous grin crossed Xander's face. "I know what you want." he said, "I know what you need."

He pulled Wintermoon's hands back and rested them on his thighs, leaving the front of his body completely exposed. "Leave them there." he said in a whisper. He tightened his grip on Wintermoon's hips and curved his wings in until they covered the front of Wintermoon's body. Xander thrust up hard into the willing body and heard his mate wail when the edges of his feathers brushed against his cock. Xander groaned and thrust faster, driving them both to the edge, but stopped before they could tumble over.

He slowed down his thrusts, lazily licking and sucking on the back of Wintermoon's neck. He fanned his wings, sending a light draft over their sweating bodies. He nipped the edge of Wintermoon's ear and whispered, "I love you." Then he thrust up hard, using short, fast strokes, the force of the movement pushing Wintermoon's cock against his feathers. Wintermoon screamed and thrashed as he came, the soft caresses of the feathers stealing away all his control.

Xander felt the muscles clasping his cock contract and then go into spasms. He gasped and thrust faster, once, twice, then came, howling loudly in his mate's ear. He slumped his head forward and rested it on the curve of Wintermoon's shoulder. They stayed that way for several moments, trying to catch their breath. Wintermoon finally pulled himself off of Xander and they both groaned.

The older man staggered across the room, he cleaned himself and brought a cloth back to his husband. While Xander removed the worst of the mess from his body and wings, Wintermoon got them both cups of icy cold water. They both drained the water in a single gulp. Wintermoon set the cups on the floor and settled back in their bed. When Xander stayed kneeling at the foot of the bed he grew concerned. "Xander, what's wrong?"

Xander shrugged, "I can't sleep on my back because of the wings, they get in the way. And I can't get comfortable sleeping on my stomach."

Wintermoon laughed and pulled his husband down onto his chest, "Sleep on me Xander, I think we'll both be comfortable this way."

Xander buried his face in Wintermoon's neck and sighed happily. "I could get used to this." he murmured and then fell right to sleep. Comfortable for the first time since he and Soldier had rejoined.

Wintermoon kissed his cheek and smiled happily, "I love you." he whispered, and fell asleep, comforted by the knowledge that Xander was his, and he was Xander's, forever.


the end.