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Jansen Tanner: The Chess Master

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    Jansen Tanner: The Chess Master

    Fanfic Hero presents
    a Ratseye/Pouchlaw production

    in association with
    The Legacy

    Jansen Tanner: The Chess Master


    Darrel James Vanwinkle

    This novel was started on March 16 2003


    Act Index

    Act I: Eye am a Detective
    Act II: The Wrong Place at the Right Time
    Act III: Forget the Obvious; This is Real
    Act IV: Of Imps and Lions
    Act V: The Magic Touch
    Act VI: Demonstrations and Matchmaking
    Act VII: Moonlight Marathon
    Act VIII: What You Should Never Know
    Act IX: Eldritch Pips and Unicycles
    Act X: Tale of Two Werewolves
    Act XI: Who the Hell Are You?
    Act XII: Body Double Times Two
    Act XIII: Laurel and Hardy
    Act XIV: Were-Sin City
    Act XV: CHESS Versus PSI
    Act XVI: Out of the Black...
    Act XVII: White Bishop
    Act XVIII: Honor and Duty
    Act XIX: Howling Commandos
    Act XX: Savage Connections
    Act XXI: Forest Lords and Witches Covens
    Act XXII: We Three Kings of Glory and Fire
    Act XXIII: Were-Sin City; Moon Phase Two
    Act XXIV: The Were-Beast Sanctuary
    Act XXV: Diabolical Aberration
    Act XXVI: Chess and PSI Junior Edition
    Act XXVII: Waz Real; Was Knot
    Act XXVIII: Taur Tar and Skammer Jam
    Act XXIX: The Savage Tanner Way
    Act XXX: The Truth About Homecomings
    Act XXXI: This Isn't Your Life
    Act XXXII: The Secret Origin Of Infinity Vale
    Act XXXIII: New Moon Over Were-Sin City
    Act XXXIV: S'taur Gazing
    Act XXXV: Tyrs Of A Bard
    Act XXXVI: Cartoon Calamity
    Act XXXVII: Abominable Sheets of Shiva
    Act XXXVIII: World War Skam
    Act XXXIX: Scions of the Once and Future Tanner
    Act XL: Paranormal Agents of The Harvest Stallion
    Act XLI: Red Tape in Were-Sin City
    Act XLII: Collision of the Titanic Three
    Act XLIII: The City That Saw Too Much
    Act XLIV: Where in Time is Jansen Tanner?
    Act XLV: Never Bluff a Tanner
    Act XLVI: Checkmates and Morals


    The following document is a code red top secret classified dossier. Viewing this document without permission is punishable by disappearance, transformation and/or other unknown occurrences that this organization cannot be held accountable for.



    Nervous African-American fingers on the keypad. She knew she shouldn't be trying this. But gaining accidental access to this organization's main agent electronic library server was too great a temptation to pass up. Password. What could it be? There were thousands of possibilities. Millions. She knew if she didn't type something in fast, the organization would be alerted to her unauthorized access. She made a quick decision and decided to type something. It was worth a try. She would just disconnect her computer if it was wrong.


    She hit enter and hoped for the best. Secret organizations usually had a fascination with using sea creatures as passwords. She hoped this time they were just as predictable.

    Welcome to the Chess Agent Library


    She smiled. Dumb luck got her in. Or maybe they wanted her in. Her heart was racing but she couldn't stop now. She was in. It was asking for a name that could be in their files. A stupid hacker might try their own name, but she wasn't stupid nor a hacker. She had an idea.


    She hit the enter key and hoped she was right about this. Jansen Tanner had been missing since he went to San Francisco. It was like he just dropped off the face of the Earth. She was getting more nervous as she waited for a response.

    Name: Jansen Dominic Tanner
    Nationality: United States
    Family Home: Tanner Family Horse Farm
    Locale: Rocky Falls Missouri
    Date of Birth: January 5, 1966
    Height: 6'3"
    Weight: 175#
    Family Members:
    2 Parents, Garret James Tanner and Rachel Marie Savage, deceased;
    3 Sisters, Leia Marie and Sallee Jane, older twins; Jocelyn Rae, youngest
    Local Contact: Sheridan "Shane" Wayne, United States Marine Corp.
    Last Known Location: Athens Greece
    Chess Rank: Chess Master

    She thought, "Shane knew about this? That bastard! I'll kill him! Greece? So that's where Jansen was. Chess Master? What does that mean?" She smiled. "This should be good. Now, I'll find out what no one else knows."

    Agent History:

    Act I: Eye Am A Detective

    While attending the university in Phoenix, Arizona, with my two friends, Canon Stephens and James Moriarty, I quickly surmised what my ending major should be. While Canon was heavily into photography, James and I were heavily into solving mysteries and studying old police cases. We sort of took some pride in the work we did, and often, ended up helping the police solve a few crimes. What we did wasn't intentional; it simply ended up that way. We befriended the police inspector in charge of the local precincts. His name was Gideon "Thor" Langston. God, he hated that nickname, but it was well earned. He was an avid Marvel Comics "Thor" fan. In fact, he sorta looked like Thor from the comics. James and I refrained from making the reference. Most times, Canon came with us on police jobs. His photos sometimes revealed things the official police photos would miss. We were given medals lots of times, as well as a private warning from Gideon to stay out of future cases. But we were good. There were times we would just happen to be somewhere near where a case was occurring. And you couldn't mistake Gideon from anyone else at a distance. That "Thor pony-tail" was very obvious. Gideon eventually gave in and would contact us when he was stumped on certain cases. It was a very strange relationship.

    Then, we graduated. Suddenly, the world was turning in whole new directions. James had his detective degree and was on his way to Washington, D.C., to set up shop as a private detective. Canon had similar plans, though he was planning a road trip to photograph all of the United States, in a process to hone his skills. Our threesome was breaking up. Breaking up is always a sad time, but it was the benchmark for the good times to come. As well as the unknown hardships ahead. I too had my detective degree and had plans similar to James' plans. But he and I both agreed that we should tackle separate coasts, so we didn't step on each other's toes. He was going to Washington, D.C., and I decided to make my home base in San Francisco, California.

    I was surprised that Gideon offered to help me get a place set up. He didn't make the offer to James. I figured it had to do with the old Tanner luck. Leia Tanner was usually the one blessed with this kind of luck. But I wasn't Leia. God, I missed her. She was about the only sister I had who was intelligent enough to keep up with me. Sallee Tanner, Leia's twin sister, was the crazy one. Well, not really crazy, but she was always involved in stage shows and production events. Leia and I often joked that Sallee would end up in Hollywood in some weird scandal. Then there was my younger sister, Jocelyn Tanner. Hoo-boy, she hated that name. Calling her that was a sure way to get immediately killed. She preferred the tomboyish abbreviation of simply "Jo".

    The place Gideon got me set up in was surprisingly comfortable. The shop was on the ground floor, and there was an apartment on the upper floor. Turned out that Gideon owned the building. He offered me a job as the building's caretaker. I could run whatever legal business I wanted in the shop as long as I took care of the property, with the exception of Earthquake damages. I was quite pleased that Gideon was helping me get set up this way. Then he told me that he got his start this way. I laughed. It was funny, but I was glad he was on my side. I told him that he wasn't "Thor"; he was "Odin". We both laughed, then he lightly punched me and winked an eye.

    After Gideon set me up with a housing fund with a set monthly limit, he departed for Phoenix. Suddenly, I was on my own. It felt strange being there by myself. But I knew I'd be hearing from Gideon again soon. Gideon was just too curious to not check up on me from time to time. I wandered around the shop in a near daze. My first business. Of course, I had to inform Leia of where I was and about the housing fund. She was the mathematical one. Plus, mom and dad would want to know where I was. I found it odd that I didn't miss them as much as I missed Leia. Little did I know how that would change years later. But this was the present.

    When Gideon told me that the phone lines were still hooked up, I almost questioned him as to why. But I figured that he had them up kept for the times he was in San Francisco. I picked up the phone and dialed the number for the Tanner Family Horse Farm in Rocky Falls Missouri. It rang a few times before something strange happened. An answering machine activated.

    "You have reached the Tanner Family Horse Farm. No one is in the house at the moment, but if you will leave your name, phone number, and a message, we will get back to you. Oh yeah, wait for the beep."

    I waited and heard the beep. Then I exclaimed.

    "This is Jansen Tanner. If there is someone near the phone, pick it up right now."

    I paused for about thirty seconds, then continued.

    "I guess I missed all of you. I am in San Francisco with my first private detective business."

    I then gave my phone number and hung up the phone. I was sort of disappointed that no one was there to answer the phone. Even that rogue, Jocelyn, should have been nearby at that hour. I sighed, and began cleaning up the shop for business.

    Of course, I knew I had to advertise my being there, as well as make contact with the local authorities. It was the polite thing to do and hopefully the right thing to do. I remembered what Gideon's first reaction to our interference had been, so I wanted to avoid that if I could. After I finished cleaning up the shop, I headed over to the local precinct, which was located on the edge of San Francisco's China Town district. There was a high school nearby as well as a Marines recruiting office. Getting suckered into the service was not one of my goals, so I noted the building's location and continued.

    I spoke directly to the head of the precinct. I told him what my business was, and how I didn't want to step on their toes. I presented myself pretty well. I remembered Leia's business lessons and Gideon's advice on how to gain another officer's trust. I guess it worked. Detective Kiir Lou-Fu seemed to be impressed with me. He told me that we'd be in touch and suggested I go to the Foo-Ching Martial Arts Studio nearby and take some lessons there. Kiir told me that sometimes a gun will be useless against things I may encounter. I was puzzled that he used the word "things" instead of "people", but he was the local expert of his precinct. So I told Kiir that I would head over and take some lessons.

    As I was coming out of the precinct, I collided with someone. He was a Marine officer, by the looks of him. I smiled when I read his name plate.

    "Sheridan Wayne."

    He stopped and had an immediate reply.

    "Never call me Sheridan! Call me Shane!"

    I couldn't help but to chuckle.

    "You sound just like my younger sister. She hates her name too."

    Shane grabbed my shoulders and actually lifted me off the ground.

    "If I wasn't in a hurry, I'd mop the streets with you."

    He dropped me and entered the precinct. I was glad the encounter was over. This Sheridan Wayne certainly qualified as a "thing". Of course, Jocelyn Tanner also qualified as a "thing". I hoped that the two would never meet.

    I headed over to the Foo-Ching Martial Arts Studio. This is where I met Kara and Lou Foo-Ching. They looked young, but were obviously very married. I approached Kara and asked about taking some lessons. She was polite, but told me that she had a full class. When I told her that Kiir suggested it, she became friendlier about the request. She agreed to give me some private lessons, after hours, to help me prepare for what I might encounter in San Francisco.

    After leaving the Foo-Ching Martial Arts Studio, I started walking back towards my place, but I didn't get far. Someone grabbed my shoulder rather forcibly and turned me around. It was Sheridan Wayne. He was sort of smiling.

    "Hey! I'm sorry about earlier. I don't want you to go away with the wrong impression. Come on. I'll buy you a meal. By the way, I am Sheridan Wayne from Texas, but please. Call me Shane. I like it better."

    I smiled. Sheridan was evidently more a gentleman than I first thought.

    "Pleased to meet you, Shane. I am Jansen Tanner from Missouri. I just set up a private detective shop nearby. And don't worry about it. I hear the old 'don't call me that!' spiel from my sister Jocelyn all the time. She demands to be called Jo."

    Shane chuckled.

    "With a name like that, I'd be mad too. I'll bet she's a rebel. Put her in the Marines. That will fix her right up."

    I shuddered at the thought.

    "My sister in the Marines? You really 'do' want the Marines to be destroyed, don't you?"

    We both laughed. Shane turned out to be okay. We both had lunch at a quiet little cafe in China Town, then saw some sights together. We came back to my place where Shane was pleased to see a guest bedroom.

    "You don't mind if I crash here on occasion, do you?"

    I grinned.

    "As long as you don't crash all the way through to the basement. I haven't looked down there yet. You might land in just about anything."

    We both laughed again.

    "As long as it's not a big pile of horse or cattle dung, I don't mind landing in something. I am a Marine, after all."

    After that, I pretty much gave the guest bedroom to Shane. I also soon found out that Shane could be bribed with beer. Hot food and cold beer. Shane was a classic good old boy.

    That evening, I left Shane watching TV as I headed out for my first private martial arts lesson. I had actually hoped that I wasn't putting undue stress on Kara Foo-Ching. She was pretty nice, after all. I arrived at the studio and knocked on the door. Her husband, Lou, let me in, and helped me get prepared for Kara's lessons. I stood barefoot on the training mat wearing what I first thought were white pajamas. Kara walked out on to the mat and bowed to me. I bowed in return. Lou sat down nearby to watch. Little did I know how beat up I was about to get.

    Kara pushed me through some simple moves, primarily, then she asked me to try to mug her. I told her that would be improper. My sisters would kill me if I treated ladies like that. Kara then suggested that I pretend that she was no proper lady. I shrugged and decided to tackle her, Tanner style. That took Kara off guard and at one point, I had her down on the mat preparing the truss up her wrists to her ankles. Then she pulled some sort of maneuver that turned my world upside down. And that was the first night I knew real pain. A lesson well learned.

    After it was over, Kara grinned at me, panting.

    "You fight well. I guess with three sisters, you had to learn something."

    I was also panting. But I was also hurting. She didn't pull any of her punches. I had been afraid of hurting her. That was the only mistake I would ever allow to slide out.

    "I pulled my punches."

    Kara patted my shoulder.

    "I could tell. Here. Let me pop you back into shape. Martial arts also trains you to know where all the pleasure centers are, as well as the pain centers."

    Lou came over and helped Kara alleviate my pain. I had certainly learned a lot on the first night. And the future lessons would only improve my reflexes. They served me some tea and we talked casually about various subjects. I was never really interested in law enforcement; I merely liked solving cases and mysteries. The Foo-Ching's told me that I was in the right place for mysteries. Finally, they announced they were heading to bed. I got back into my normal clothing and departed the martial arts studio, heading back to my place.

    While I was making the trip, I saw movement near some trash cans. One was a fast moving shadow-like human. The other tried to make the same maneuver and tripped, hitting the sidewalk pretty hard. I rushed forward and knelt to make sure he was okay. He never allowed me to see his face, but he muttered that he was hungry. I don't know why I did what I did. I guess he struck me as a needy person. I emptied my wallet and pressed all of my cash, a good $200, into his ragged gloved hand. I told him to go buy himself as much food as the money would allow. He thanked me and asked my name. I told him. I had no reason not to. I even told him where I was staying.

    I got up and when I looked to offer to help him up, he was gone. I was surprised that he had left so quickly without my noticing. $200 poorer, I returned to my place. I let myself in and locked the door behind me. There are moments when a simple kind action gets you the kind of notice or respect that you don't count on. This turned out to be one of those nights. I headed to my bedroom, undressed, and hit the sack. I was asleep almost immediately.

    The following days sort of reflected the first day, with the exception of meeting the shadowy stranger. But somehow I knew he and his friend were around. Little hints. Footprints on my fire escape, just outside my bedroom window. I didn't have anything to imply extreme wealth, so who ever peaked through my window couldn't possibly see anything of value. But it wasn't my valuables that the stranger was watching. It was me, personally. I guess he thought he owed me or something. I often checked over my shoulder in the upstairs apartment whenever I felt like I was being watched. But I never caught him at the window. I was enjoying the game.

    Shane noticed my actions one evening and suggested that I install a closed circuit security camera. I really didn't want to do that. If I couldn't catch the stranger looking, then using a camera to do it would be cheating. Shane called me a nut. But I didn't care. Cameras were Canon's specialty, and I refused to use one just to catch a vagrant. There was no law being broken, as far as I was concerned. Shane didn't agree, but it was my place. I got him to be quiet by buying him a lot of beer. Beer: America's Bribery Alcohol.

    One rainy morning, I caught Shane packing his gear. I asked where he was off to and he replied that he had to ship out again. He didn't look very happy with having to ship out on a rainy morning. I grinned and told him I'd keep a cold six-pack in the fridge for him. That perked him up. He remarked that he might just sink the ship to get back to claim that six-pack. We both laughed. Then I helped him get his bags out to the awaiting Marine transport cab. Shane hugged me, then got in and the transport drove away. I was alone again. Six weeks without Shane.

    It was still raining that night. Raining hard. I really hoped that my friendly stranger wasn't out in this storm. I unlocked my bedroom window and opened it just a crack. If my shadow friend showed up tonight, I didn't want him getting soaked on the fire escape. I brought some dry towels into the bedroom, then left the room, closing the door. I decided that I would sleep in the guest bedroom tonight. I wasn't sure if anyone would take advantage of an available dry room or not. But it was better than catching one's death of pneumonia. I undressed and went to bed.

    The following morning, I was awakened by an odd dull crash. I got up and went to look into my bedroom. The window was fully open. The storm was still raining on the entire area. Then, I saw the two figures from the other night. The quicker one must have smelled my scent or heard me open the door. He started to go for the window. I just as quickly asked him not to go. He stopped, but he didn't turn to look at me. Now that I had a better look at the two, I saw that they wore black outfits covering their very slender bodies. The smaller one was lying on the floor with a towel over his head. I noticed that his hood was lying on the bed. I had the opportunity to see who they both were finally. But did I really want our game to end just like that?

    None of us moved for several minutes. Finally, the one on the floor sneezed and sniffled a bit under the towel. His partner seemed to lower his head, muttering,

    "You've caught us. What happens now?"

    I was surprised that his voice sounded so young.

    "Gee, I don't know. I was rather enjoying the game of trying to get a glimpse of you guys. I hadn't thought about catching you. I even turned down Shane's idea to video tape the window every night. Um... Do either of you need any further aid or money?"

    He lifted his head, keeping his face hidden.

    "You're a good person, Jansen Tanner. Our clan can always use aid. I am Jael. He is my brother Xim. We cannot show you our faces or our deaths are assured. That doesn't mean you cannot earn the right to see us for what we are. You'll be given some chances later to help us. But for now, I only ask that you turn your back and not watch us leave."

    I hummed. Jael and Xim. Now I knew their names.

    "You're going to go out in this storm? You are both welcome to stay until the rain passes on to the east."

    I grabbed my wallet from the nearby table and took out another $200. Then I tossed it so it landed on Xim's hood on the bed.

    "Please take it. I'll manage. I look forward to Round Two."

    I then turned my back to face the upstairs hallway. There was a dark painting with a glass covering. It barely acted like a mirror. What I saw was Jael turning and kneeling to help his brother up from the floor. When Jael turned, I saw a very distinctive black-nosed muzzle in the painting's reflection. At first, I thought he must've been wearing an animal mask, but when he asked Xim if he was okay, the muzzle open and closed, lips moving, as if it were real. That got my attention immediately. But I kept from turning to look at them. Xim then got up and stared at the back of my head. I could see his vague reflection clearly. He looked like a young slender wolf man. He then grabbed his hood and put it on. He hesitated in grabbing the money. Then, Jael grabbed it, pocketed it and helped his brother out the window. Then Jael glanced at my back.

    "Thank you for letting us go. You will be given chances to earn the clan's trust. Speak nothing of this encounter to anyone. We may return. It would be in your best interest to get the basement cleaned up and set up as a simple living quarters. When you clean it, you will find a hidden door. Do not block that door. Leave it unlocked. Do this and you may see or rather sense our return."

    In the reflection, I saw him grin, showing his sharp fangs and teeth. Then, he turned and went out the window. Jael and Xim were then gone. I turned again and walked over to look out the window. I caught a small glimpse of them entering an alleyway across the far street. I then closed the window and picked up the wet towels. It seemed as if I had a basement to clean up.

    It took me several days to get the basement cleaned out and a week more to make it livable for who ever might be using it. I was still surprised that I was doing all this. And yes, I did find the hidden door. And I left it unblocked. I returned upstairs to the shop. Still no detective jobs, and Shane was due to return in four weeks. This was very rough. I really hoped that James was doing better than I was. I decided to head to the corner market and get some groceries.

    In the following weeks, Kara Foo-Ching continued my night-time martial arts lessons. Some nights, I sucked. Other nights, I showed real progress. Through her private tutoring, I soon earned my green belt. Kara said I was a quick study. I suppose that was meant to be a compliment. I took it as such. Then, Kara told me that in order to advance further, I'd need in the field training. In other words, I was on my own again. The only people who were possibly better than I that I could think of, were Jael and Xim. But they were conveniently staying away from my place. It was kind of sad. The game ended when I caught them. This was the downside to my luck. Unlike Leia who seemed to have everything fall her way, I'd gain a little, then lose a little. Like a biorhythms chart. I was reaching my all time low. But I tried not to let this get to me. At the bottom, the only logical path leads up.

    However, reminding myself that things would get better was not easy. Shane was already a week overdue. I was no longer receiving martial arts lessons. I still had no job offers. And Jael and Xim seemed to have dropped off the face of the planet. I was at the bottom. I wasn't hurting for money, but the lack of having something to do was causing me to become depressed. The family hadn't returned my one call that I had made. It was becoming very frustrating. I stared at the telephone until I finally picked it up and dialed home one more time. I mentally begged for anyone to pick up the phone. Anyone. I needed someone to talk to.

    It was on the last ring. As I was about to hang up, someone answered the phone. It was a male's voice.

    "Hello? Tanner Family Horse Farm. Mr. Tanner speaking."

    I smiled and lifted the receiver back to my ear.

    "Dad? This is Jansen."

    There was a pause, then I heard him call mom into the room and evidently my sisters were all home too. Then, I heard the speaker phone activate and my dad spoke again.

    "Jansen? Where are you?"

    I sighed and trembled as I answered.

    "I'm in San Francisco. I set up a detective shop here. I called weeks ago when I first set up here and I got an answering machine. When no one called back, I assumed no one cared where I was. You don't know how happy I am to hear your voice."

    My mom spoke next.

    "Your rebel Einstein sister, Jocelyn, erased all the messages on the machine. We spanked her, but you know that a spanking means nothing to her."

    I heard Jocelyn pipe up suddenly.

    "Never call me Jocelyn! I am Jo!"

    My mom responded immediately.

    "You'll always be my little Jocelyn and you'll like it."

    Then, Jocelyn replied,

    "...and there will be a lot of dead people lying around too!"

    Then, I heard Leia say,

    "Oh be quiet, Jo! How often do we get to hear from Jansen? You been making lots of friends out there, Jansy?"

    I blushed at the mention of the name "Jansy". Leia was the only one who ever used that name.

    "Actually, yes. The first person I met is someone who hates their name as much as Jocelyn does. Only he's a Marine. He suggested that you guys send Jocelyn to join the Marines."

    That produced a lot of laughter, as well as Jocelyn growling that it wasn't funny. Then, Sallee piped up.

    "Think there is room there for a cute caring sister who has never been to San Francisco, dear brother?"

    I grinned as I responded.

    "Well, gee... The only cute and caring sister I have is Leia. All the rest usually want something for themselves."

    That got more growling and laughing. Leia seemed amused as she replied,

    "Anytime you want your big sister out there, let me know. Of course, I'd have to bring the -common folk- too..."

    I heard the sisters fighting in the background. Then, I spoke to mom and dad.

    "How are things on the farm?"

    Dad responded readily.

    "Well, we doubled our horse herd, and we had a birthing from Skywanderer and Torrent. And of course, Jocelyn has been begging us to buy her a full grown stallion. Getting her a car would be cheaper. The Savages were over yesterday for a barbecue and Joe ShadowWing changed the name of his bar to... the Come As You Are Bar. The first night, someone came in naked. Jocelyn was telling us about it. Of course, she got grounded for being in a bar without adult supervision. Sallee is currently rehearsing some lines for another play and Leia got promoted last week. The only reason Sallee and Leia are here this evening is because their apartments are getting reupholstered."

    I heard Leia add,

    "...and refurnished!"

    Then, I heard Sallee add,

    "...and new carpeting!"

    I needed this talk with my family. I wasn't aware of how long it would last. We talked for over two hours. Then, I gave mom and dad my phone number and the address of my place. I was quietly crying by the time I hung up the phone. I really needed to hear from them. As familiar as they were, it was a necessity to have heard their voices. How little did I know that it would be the last time I'd ever hear my parents' voices alive.

    Remember what I said about the biorhythm chart? Well, evidently I was on my way up now. I was getting ready for bed and I heard someone enter the basement. How did I hear them enter? I rigged up an electric eye-beam that would activate an upstairs bell whenever the hidden door was opened. The bell wasn't loud, but it was a familiar sound. When I heard it, I smiled, and quietly headed downstairs. I listened to the basement door and heard Jael talked to someone other than Xim. I knew it wasn't Xim from the gruffer voice. I cracked open the door and both voices fell quiet. I expected that. I didn't bother turning on the lights.

    "Jael? Is that you?"

    It was quiet for a moment. Then, I heard a reply.

    "Yes, Jansen. Please don't come down here."

    I smiled. Another voice I was pleased to hear. I continued.

    "I won't, Jael. Near the bed, embedded in the wall, you'll see a white cabinet door. Inside, you will find dry rations, a few medical supplies, and some money. I check it during the daylight hours, and can replenish anything that gets used."

    I sighed. It was obvious that I wasn't going to get to visit with Jael. I added,

    "I'll be going to bed now. Good night."

    I started to get up to leave, when I heard Jael speak up.

    "Jansen... please stay where you are."

    There was a silent pause.

    "Are you well? You sound depressed."

    I hung my head a little. Jael must've had good hearing. I responded quietly,

    "Yeah... I am depressed."

    I explained all my problems to the darkness of the basement. When I finished, there was silence. I was afraid they had left. That would've been par for the course. Then, I heard the gruffer voice speak up.

    "You've had a rough time, for a human. Even with allowing Jael to use this room, it's not been easy for you. Were you considering suicide?"

    That caught me off guard. I had been thinking about it before breaking down to call my family. Now, I was just depressed. I calmly answered as best I could.

    "I had been thinking about it. But what would that solve? My dream would die with me. My luck cannot simply be all bad. I still have a roof over my head."

    The gruff stranger hummed. Then, I heard the two whispering. Finally, the gruff stranger spoke once again.

    "Come on downstairs, Jansen."

    That also caught me off guard. I didn't want Jael to die because I saw his face. Of course, I'd already seen his face. Xim's too. They were both handsome, for wolves. But the gruff stranger was being insistent upon it. So I got up and proceeded down the stairs. At the bottom, I turned to my left and saw two shadowy figures. One was standing, though obviously facing a dark corner. That was definitely Jael. I smiled upon realizing that. The other was sitting on the bed. He looked a lot older and didn't bother wearing a hood. A werewolf. A real werewolf. I could see his red eyes glowing in the darkness. I paled when I realized what he was. I was afraid.

    The gruff old werewolf grinned, then became calm again. His red eyes changed to yellow eyes.

    "Now you know what we are. Now you know why you were being spared from seeing us. Most humans can't handle it. But you aren't screaming or begging for mercy. And Jael has told me about your generosity. You've helped the clan twice. You look like you want to ask something."

    I gulped.

    "I don't see Xim. Where is he? I kind of liked him."

    I heard Jael sigh at the mention of Xim's name, his head lowered to gaze at the floor. The gruff old werewolf replied for Jael.

    "Xim is dead. He was slain by a human werewolf hunter named Hogan Slade."

    I cried openly. I -liked- Xim! I growled under my breath. Then, I released an oath.

    "I'll hunt him down and make him pay... no matter how long it takes... he killed one of my friends..."

    Jael lifted his head suddenly and pivoted his muzzle at me.

    "Do you mean that? You are swearing a blood oath for Xim?"

    I nodded my head, panting raggedly.

    "I swear it. Hogan Slade will pay for this."

    Jael came over to me and hugged me.

    "Xim never stopped talking about you. Even when he died. He said that he was going to see you one more time. One more time. Then... he was gone... On Xim's behalf, I accept your blood oath. Find this hunter... and make him scream..."

    I hugged Jael back.

    "If I cannot make him scream, I am sure there are women who can!"

    That was an important night for me. Xim was gone. Never to return. Jael escorted me to where Xim had been rededicated to Mother Moon. I spent most of the night there. I reaffirmed my blood oath for Xim to hear... where ever he was... I would also find a way to grant him his last request: to see me again, one more time. Before sunrise, Jael took me back to the apartment. I hugged and kissed him again. I told him not to be a stranger. Jael departed with his older friend. I crashed in bed. I slept until the following afternoon.

    What awoke me was the sound of heavy knocking on my bedroom door. Yeah, that got me up fast. It only meant one thing. Shane was back. I threw open the door and there he stood. Shane was indeed home! I tackled him and hugged him tightly!!

    Later, after Shane had unpacked, he was sitting in a chair drinking a cold beer. I was seated nearby listening to Shane's Marine stories. I, of course, showed him my green belt and updated him with local, non weird, news. He could tell I was holding back some info, but he just grinned and drank his beer. Then, I told him about news from home in Missouri. He chuckled at the Jocelyn mentions. I also updated him with some news from Texas that I had dug up out of the news. Shane was pleased that I was keeping on top of events. Then, Shane asked me if I was working. I had to sigh at that. I told him I wasn't. No one had even come by to ask if I'd do a job. My first business venture was turning into a flop. I wasn't sure what to do to change it.

    The following day, Shane went out and bought me a high-powered police band scanner. He set it up in my office and instructed me on how it worked. Shane also provided me with a code book so I would know the difference between an armed robbery in progress and an officer taking a potty. The next thing Shane bought me was a registered handgun, with an ammo clip and several boxes of extras. Then, Shane and I hit a clothing store, where he bought me a new wardrobe to change my image. I admired myself in a mirror.

    I stood six feet three inches tall, weighing 205 pounds. I had short brown hair and hazel eyes. My skin was lightly tanned. I wore wire frame glasses, and a more casually acceptable gray suit and black tie, white t-shirt, and white sneakers. Shane wanted me to wear dress shoes, but I adamantly refused. Later on, I would be glad that I made that choice.

    Finally, Shane took me to a car lot to buy me a car. Every detective needed their own wheels, Shane explained. I was surprised that Shane had so much money. I told him that I'd pay him back, but he merely stated that I could repay him by becoming a good detective. We headed home, where I parked and locked up my new car, then the two of us sat inside and listened to the scanner. Shane explained that whenever an event popped up that sounded important, I should head over to the scene and offer my help. It sounded simple enough. It sounded a lot like my days at the University of Arizona.


    She blinked her eyes.

    "So that is where he met Shane! I wonder why Shane didn't tell Jansen they were related? I wonder why Jo erased the messages? Shane had wads of dough? This is getting juicy."

    She looked to the page to resume reading where she had left off.



      Act II: The Wrong Place At The Right Time

      A few days later, Shane and I were listening to the scanner. We heard several small time events announced. I wanted to act on all of them, but Shane said no. He said that I'd be remembered more at a larger event. Then we got lucky. The important announcement was made.

      Shane nodded his head, telling me that this was the one. He wrote down the address and we hopped into the car and drove over to the scene of the crime. We arrived about the same time as three police cars and the chief of detectives had soon arrived afterwards. Shane and I emerged from our car. The chief was about to complain, then shut his mouth upon seeing Shane. Something about Shane had changed the chief's attitude. I thought this was suspicious, but I didn't pursue it. Instead, I introduced myself and offered help in the form of casual observer. He thought that was an odd request, but he OKed my being there. That's all I needed. The ambulance was the next to arrive. While they were being briefed, I quietly walked gingerly around the scene, taking note of the scene. It was an apparent murder. The victim was a private detective. I hadn't ever heard of him. His body was simply skin wrapped over bones. It was like something had drained all of his fluids out of him. But there was no bloody mess around the body. It looked like he ran and simply fell at this spot. I carefully backtracked his footprints where I found another set of footprints. These were strange, but I knew from the shape on what I was looking at. I called the chief over. I showed him the footprints and told him what they were. A woman's high heel shoes. The chief was impressed by the find and the observance. He asked for my name again and I gave it. He wrote it down in his contacts book. He also got my phone number.

      Later, Shane and I were driving back home. Shane asked me what I thought of the scene. I told him that nothing human committed this crime. Shane arched an eye at me and asked me what I meant. I explained that a normal female standing that close to the victim would have been horrified by the simple appearance of the body, regardless of whether she was the perpetrator or not. The true culprit was something else. And I stressed the word "thing" exactly as Detective Kiir Lou-Fu had stressed it. Shane smiled. I wasn't sure why he smiled, but that worried me. He too knew more than he was letting on. But what did he know?

      We got home, had a dinner, and hit the sack early. In the middle of the night, I heard the basement bell ring once again, but I was tired. I was going to give Jael some needed privacy this time. I was quickly asleep after that.

      The next morning, Shane and I found a hastily scrawled note taped to the refrigerator. It read:

      "Jansen. If you value your life, do not pursue the Ys O'dora killer. She will kill you like the rest. Her favorite prey to hunt are detectives who know too much. Remember your oath."

      There was no signature. One wasn't needed. I knew who had written the note. This bothered Shane quite a bit. He was about to call it in, but I stopped him.

      "No, Shane... This is my case now. If you call it in, the others will take it away from me and I need this chance to succeed. But I appreciate your concern."

      Shane blinked his eyes.

      "Are you sure you want to handle it? This is a cop killer, Jansen. Your life will be in the deadliest of danger."

      I turned to Shane and smiled.

      "I am a Tanner."

      That was all that needed to be said. Shane took the hint and offered to help me. I accepted it. Two sets of eyes are better than one set. And of course... when one has clan help, you have a whole city of eyes. I didn't tell Shane that part though. I was going to keep my silence on that exactly as I had promised Jael and Xim. Late that night, after Shane had gone to bed, I met with Jael and two others in the basement. Jael was pleased that I wasn't going to quit the case.

      Jael agreed to have the clan keep their eyes and ears open, and get back to me with any information. I smiled, then told Jael that I almost couldn't get Shane to sleep in his own bed. The beer guzzling boob wanted to sleep in the same bed with me. That was all I needed: beer breath. Jael chuckled and hugged me, then he and his friends departed. I returned upstairs.

      The following morning, I overheard Shane talking on the telephone in the next room. I listened to what Shane was saying. He seemed to be talking to a contact somewhere in the area. He specifically mentioned the Ys O'dora killer and of the mystery warning note. He also informed the mystery person that I was not going to quit the case. Shane said his goodbyes, then hung up the phone. I was worried now. Who was Shane working for? I finally came out of my room. I immediately hit the bathroom. Nature calls often, you know...

      Shane had breakfast fixed by the time I emerged from the bathroom. I sat with him and ate, glancing at him on occasion. Shane never looked at me once. He simply ate. I finally asked him who was on the telephone this morning. He looked up at me with a smile.

      "I have my secrets and you have yours. When you tell me about the midnight bell and who wrote the note, I'll tell you who I called. Until then, it is a need to know status only."

      He continued eating. I commented,

      "I'll just call Ma Bell and ask them where the phone call was placed to. I do own the phone line."

      Shane looked at me again, and replied,

      "You don't own the phone line. It is owned by a Detective Gideon Langston, as is this building. You are merely his hired building caretaker. He gave you permission to use the shop as you saw fit. Have I left anything out?"

      I blinked my eyes.

      "How did you find out all that? I never told you..."

      Shane grinned.

      "I have connections."

      Now I -knew- Shane was more than he appeared. I was very tempted to start calling him Sheridan, again. He must've sensed that and gave me a warning glance, by tightening up a fist in plain view. And that ended breakfast. He had his secrets and I had mine. And I was -glad- that I had some secrets that he didn't know about.

      The next few hours were pretty tense. Shane and I kept watching each other. This lasted until the police scanner made another important announcement. Shane grinned saying that we were needed. I suppose it was a welcome break from our suspicion contest. We both hopped into the car and drove over to the new crime scene. It was almost local. We arrived in time for me to catch a glimpse of a shrouded female departing the scene. Then, all the other police cars arrived. The chief arrived last. He was almost upset that we had arrived first. Almost. He rolled his eyes, then told me directly to "do your thing". He then directed his attention to the scene itself.

      I did my primary exam of the grounds, but I quickly turned my attention to where I had seen the shrouded female slowly striding. I found what I was looking for. High heel footprints and something more. A tattered piece of cloth. I called the chief over and revealed what I had found. This was taken as evidence. Then, I quietly confided in the chief about what I had seen when Shane and I had first arrived on the scene. The chief paled a bit. I knew I had struck a nerve. His attitude turned sour after that. He told me that I was officially -off- the case. If I showed up at another scene, he'd have me arrested as an accomplice. That ticked Shane off.

      I got back in the car. I could see Shane quietly arguing with the chief across the lot. The way Shane spoke to the chief had some effect. Must be that "I have connections" thing that Shane mentioned earlier. I turned my head casually to look around the scene at other things. And I saw her again. And worse: she saw me. Then, she was gone. I couldn't discern any facial features, but it was obvious that each of us knew the other had seen the other. I was getting scared.

      Shane and I drove back home. He was still ticked off about the chief. I was glad he was being quiet. I also remained quiet. I stopped by a gas station and refueled the car. I checked the tires and the oil, and gave the windshields a good cleaning. I then went and paid for the gas, and hit the bathroom. In the bathroom, I heard a familiar gruff voice.

      "We found out something for you."

      I smiled when I heard his familiar voice.

      "What did you learn?"

      The gruff stranger did not make himself seen as he continued speaking.

      "The woman you're seeking is a vampire countess. She's been active for the past 150 years. Please use extreme caution if you plan on going after her. No one has -ever- taken her down."

      After that, my gruff friend was gone. I never saw how he left. The clan was obviously good and entering and exiting without notice. The only clumsy one was Xim. Poor Xim. My heart still hurt for the kid. I exited the bathroom and got back into the car. Shane had gotten himself a soft drink, and looked calmer. We drove back to the shop. I parked and locked the car, then we both entered the shop. We both stopped at the door. Sitting inside was a knock out drop dead gorgeous black haired woman applying red lipstick to her lips. Her complexion made her appear Spanish. She wore a 1950's style navy blue dress with white frills, and she had white gloves and red high heel shoes. She stopped applying the lipstick when we had opened the door and slowly turned her head towards us. When she spoke, her voice was slightly deep, yet had a regal tone to it.

      "Which one of you is for hire?"

      Shane and I both gulped. Fortune was finally shining my way. My first customer. I cleared my throat and replied,

      "I am Jansen Tanner, private detective for hire. This is Shane Wayne, a Marine friend of mine. And you are...?"

      The lady slowly stood up. She had been sitting in such a way that her legs had been showing more than intended. I hoped Shane hadn't been looking there. If he had, shame on him! She brought her purse up in front of her, just above her belly button and held it with both hands.

      "I am Isa Victoras. I need your help. I recently inherited a rather large estate from a wealthy relative. I checked the place out and it was a very nice estate, but when I spent a night there, I heard noises and saw spooky people prowling around. I will pay you well if you can investigate the haunting of my estate. Can you help me?"

      I was taken by her beauty. Shane was being awfully quiet. I sneaked a glance at him. He was apparently in shock. I nudged him in the chest pretty hard; almost knocked him over. Shane blinked his eyes and finally exhaled a slow breath. I smiled to Ms. Victoras.

      "I accept the job. Where is your estate, Ms. Victoras?"

      She smiled, seeming very relieved that I was taking the case.

      "Please. Call me Isa. I can take you there right now, if you want. I'll be waiting in my car."

      She kissed me on the cheek, then slowly walked outside. Shane recomposed himself pretty fast. He patted me on the back of my jacket collar.

      "You go with her. It -is- your first big case. You don't need me to hold your hand. Besides, she's quite the lady. I'll baby sit the shop and drink some beer."

      I nodded my head, then dropped my car keys into my desk drawer. I then headed out and joined Isa in her vintage Studebaker. I was impressed by the vehicle. I felt like I was moving into the fast lane. I found out later that after I had left with Isa, Shane had gotten on the phone and had contacted his "friends".

      The "estate" was one of those old vineyard properties that no longer saw the production of wine. There were plenty of good hiding spots, as well as a mansion with many hallways and unused rooms. Isa gave me free access to explore the estate as much as I wanted. I got out of her car and proceeded to do just that. Of course, my methods weren't like other detectives. Isa noticed that she couldn't keep up with me. I was gone pretty fast. She was pretty impressed by that, as she parked the car and entered the mansion to get an evening meal prepared.

      In my search, I couldn't find the signs of anyone being on the property, but I did find some wires connected to tin cans and a well placed chain and some tap-boxes rigged to an old clock. It definitely looked like someone was trying to scare Isa away from the estate. My only question was "why?" Nothing seemed to suggested that this place was even worth haunting. I searched around for another hour, but came up empty. I finally entered the dining hall and smiled when I saw all the prepared food. Isa also smiled and invited me to have a meal with her. I accepted.

      After the dinner ended, I burped, then blushed. I normally don't eat that much, but this was -good-! Far better than anything than I ever had before. I smiled and thanked her for the meal. That's when I noticed that her eyes were glowing. I blinked my eyes and was up from the table pretty fast, slowly backing away. I uttered a statement.

      "You're Countess Ys O'dora!"

      She arose slowly, and smiled, showing her fangs.

      "Yes. That is who I am. Not many know that I am a countess. But you aren't like the other fools. You are dangerous. For that, I cannot allow you to live. But... I have to be fair. I like giving my prey a sporting chance to evade me... by running... You see, I love the chase... I'll give you a five-minute head start. Starting now..."

      I didn't need a second invitation to run. I was out of the mansion in under two-minutes. Unlike the other fools, I memorized the layout of the estate when I explored it. In the next minute, I was out of the estate grounds. In the following minute, I had crossed a graveyard. Of course, I wasn't just running. I was looking for something. Within the last minute, I saw my goal, and ran that direction. I knew my five-minutes were up. I could sense her rapidly closing in on me from behind. I skidded to a halt and turned with both fists held outwards. I caught her right in the eyes and she hit the ground. I didn't stop to watch and resumed my flight.

      She was infuriated. No one had ever struck her before. And she wasn't going to let me be the first. She was up and came again. She noticed me round a corner up ahead. She too rounded the corner and... she slammed right into a sharp metal spear that was attached to a statue of a saint that I had accidentally toppled as I rounded the corner! She howled the unholy wail as she was impaled on the metal spear. I had reached my goal. We were on holy ground. I panted.

      "Welcome to God's estate. May the lord sort you out."

      She screamed as she realized that she allowed herself to be tricked. Then, I watched in semi horror as she aged rapidly and disintegrated into dust on the spot.

      That spooked me plenty. I panted and slowly headed back to the estate. Once there, I gave the estate a more thorough searching. This time, I found the secret entrance to the countess' inner chambers. It was right out of a horror show, only more ghastly. There were fresh bodies here spiked to the walls. It was all I could do to keep from vomiting. Then, I came across her coffin, and that's when I noticed that I wasn't the only one here.

      You've heard of Men In Black(tm)? Well, these were the Men In White! And not just men; of the two, one was a woman. They had white full helms over their faces. My immediate thought was that I had found more vampires. I raised my gun and fired on them. They didn't even flinch. That spooked me even more. I backed up a step. Then, I was hit from behind.

      I wasn't sure how long I was out. When I came to, I was securely tied to a chair under a very bright light. It was near blinding. Then, the interrogation began.

      "Who are you?"

      I squinted my eyes under the light. The rest of the chamber was dark.

      "I am Jansen Tanner, a private detective."

      Another question was given.

      "Who told you that the countess was a vampire?"

      I growled a little.

      "I am a Tanner. My secrets are my own."

      They repeated their question. I repeated my answer. I had promised the clan that I would never reveal them. Now or ever. I kept my mouth shut about how I knew what I knew. This, of course, must have pissed them off. Though the tones of their voices never changed, I continued giving the same answer. Finally, they turned the bright light off and departed the chamber.

      Now I was in the dark again. I wasn't sure what was going on. But I knew that I wasn't being held by the police. They wouldn't have used the word "vampire" in such a way that made it sound like they had believed in their existence. Whoever these people were, they were special. But I wouldn't reveal my sources. I was under an oath, after all.

      Suddenly, someone else entered the chamber. He never activated the bright light. He approached me and gave me a sip of water. Then he moved a chair over close to me and sat down.

      "When you accepted this case, I'll bet you never thought you'd meet a vampire, did you?"

      This was indeed a different approach. Now, it seemed that they were going the "gain his trust" route. I took a breath and replied cautiously,

      "No, I didn't. And if you're trying the old trust route to get me to reveal my sources, you're wasting your time. My secrets are my own."

      He seemed to smile at this.

      "We -were- going to try that... but you strike me as being an individual with more promise than the average detective. You seem as if you would like to be doing more with your time and your life than you're currently doing. I won't ask you to reveal your sources again. However... I would like to offer you a special deal."

      I blinked at that. I was even more surprised when I felt my bonds fall away. Someone had freed me. I wasn't sure if I was to be suspicious or pleased.

      "What sort of special deal?"

      He stood up, and helped me stand up. Then, he escorted me out of the dark chamber into the semi-lit hallway. There were two guards at the door. One had a white castle tower emblem on his jacket. The other had a black castle tower emblem on his jacket. Their faces were shielded by full helms of both white and black. The man standing with me was an African-American, in appearance. He wore a dull green business suit with a black shirt, black dress socks, and black designer shoes. His name plate read "Master."

      "I am Danath Gaul. I am offering you a chance to join my organization. You'll be given special training and be sent on high paying missions around the world. You'll, of course, be given the options of accepting promotions in the organization. The only catch is that you cannot tell your family what you are doing. We are good because we are secret. Are you interested?"

      I had to stop and think about it. So they weren't vampires. They were special agents. Really special. They had to be special if they hunted vampires. And believed in their existence. And now, I was being offered a one time chance to join them. The high pay factor was definitely a motivator. I certainly wasn't getting any income where I was. My first job turned into a trap. I was lucky that I wasn't killed. Sheer Tanner luck saved me again. Saint Leia Tanner... it had a nice ring to it. She'd, of course, blush from the reference. I looked at Danath Gaul once again.

      "What is your organization called?"

      Danath smiled.

      "So you are interested. I run CHESS. That stands for Central Headquarters of Ethereal and Supernatural Studies. I am, of course, the Chess Master. Those you met in the countess' lair were Elites. The other agents are named, by rank, for each piece on the chess board. Black is the low end of the scale; white on the high end. The lowest ranks are the recruits. We call them Pawns. They have no color designation. They merely are. Outside of the organization, we refer to ourselves as Special Forces Units. You aren't the only inductee from this region. There is another. He had the misfortune to encounter a crossfire between a demon and some of our other Elites. Like you, he helped our side win the battle. So, we gave him the chance to join us. Now... do you want to join us?"

      I blinked my eyes. So I wasn't the only one. If I did join, maybe I could befriend this local guy and maybe form a friendship in the organization. I suddenly realized something.

      "Shane Wayne is involved with you people in some way, isn't he?"

      Danath gave me a surprised look.

      "Yes, though he is a Contact. Someone we can rely on for out of organization information. It pays to have good contacts on the outside."

      I beamed. Now I knew who Shane had called the other morning. He was letting his Chess buddies know about the "Ys O'dora" event. I still had to handle the countess on my own. But it was comforting to know that I had backup that night. I turned to Danath and held out my hand.

      "Where do I sign up?"

      Danath smiled, and lead me through the hallways of the "bunker" and into a waiting room. Another young adult male was awaiting us there. Danath introduced me to Luke Masaki.

      Luke Masaki was a rather normal looking person. He appeared to be on half-Asian decent, though looking more European than Asian. He was rather thin, almost lanky, and appeared to be about 19 or 20 years old. His dark black hair was sort of wild, and seemed to never lay down the way it was supposed to. He had a pair of sunglasses perched on his forehead, which currently were not covering his nice brown eyes. He wore a pair of khaki cargo pants, a white t-shirt, and a slightly worn looking green camouflage colored jacket that fit rather loosely on him. One sleeve of his jacket was currently shoved up, revealing a blue star burst shaped tattoo. On his lower wrist, he wore a Timex wristwatch with an elastic band, which was fortunate, thankfully, as Luke was often seen trying to find things he had misplaced.

      Luke greeted me and I greeted him. Danath then swore us in and proceeded towards helping us fill in the paperwork. It seemed that I was finally moving beyond being a simple detective.


      She yawned and entered her kitchen to get some caffeine. She then returned, and sat down at her computer again.

      "Wow... Jansen could have been killed. Jo would have thrown a fit over that. She has that -protect the family- air about her."

      She looked to the page once again to continue reading Jansen's agent history.



        Act III: Forget The Obvious; This Is Real

        A few days later, Luke and I found ourselves in Chess' home headquarters in Athens, Greece. We both wore the training outfits of Pawns. Neither of us liked that reference, but at least we were getting along. Over the next few weeks, the training courses were grueling. Then there was the martial arts classes. It was all I could do to keep from smirking out loud. I finally revealed to the instructor that I had already earned my green belt and I told him about the Foo-Ching's private tutoring. I was surprised that he had heard of the Foo-Chings. After that, I was moved into the green belt classes. Now I realized why Kara had said that someone else would have to further my training. This was hard! Fortunately, the rewards were a hot shower, a good meal, and some time off in Athens. I got to learn the city during my training months.

        The regional and political classes were surprisingly different. I hadn't expected these classes to be taught in the way they were presented. They taught us that for Chess agents, borders didn't exist, but the laws still applied. I took note of the subtle suggestions given here.

        The classes covering mythical creatures and fantastic reports were also unexpected. It seemed like there was a class covering every species. When taking the werewolf class, I noted that their information seemed incomplete. Jael certainly was an exception to the rule. He didn't attempt to rip me to shreds. And Xim... Someday Xim... someday...

        There were other classes too. Each one covered topics that you would not expect a detective to study. I took as many classes as I could. Luke was often in the same classes with me. I think he was impressed that I aced so many of the offered classes. The only one I had not aced was the green belt martial arts class. As I said before, that one was very hard. But I was trying.

        Also as I said, Luke and I spent a lot of time sightseeing Athens. We eventually decided on a few places as being favorite dives. The Parthenon was one such place. I just felt at ease there. The marina was another such place where I felt at ease. The final place we both felt at ease was an establishment called Nicodemus' Tavern. The owner was built like a Greek god. He may have been one for all I knew. But he served good food and tasty drinks.

        During one such outing into the city, Luke and I got separated for a period of about three hours. I eventually found myself in a small gift shop. I must have forgotten one of the Chess rules that day. I purchased a post card and filled it out with the following message,

        "Dearest Leia. Having the time of my life on this extended vacation in the Mediterranean. I hope everything is well for you and the others. I should be back at work in a few weeks. I love you, Leia. Your loving brother, Jansen."

        I purchased the appropriate air mail postage and dropped the card into a postal box. Then I promptly forgot about it. Another hour later, I re-teamed up with Luke. He had purchased a new shirt. It looked good on him. We returned to headquarters and got cleaned up and uniformed in our Pawn outfits once again. What was to happen next would prove to be a day I would not forget.

        During the evening's dinner, I was approached by a White Knight named Jesse "the outlaw" Vanya. He sat at my table and chatted with me about witches. I had already taken the appropriate class and finished it among the top ten students. Finally, I turned to Jesse and asked why he was talking to a Pawn about witches. He replied that he was about to go on an important mission and needed a Pawn who knew the subject well enough to be a partner with. Jesse grinned at me. I blinked my eyes. It suddenly dawned on me what Jesse was implying. I was being given a chance to work on a mission with an upper class agent of Chess. I smiled back, asking when we were to go.

        Luke wished me luck before I left, then I proceeded to the debriefing room where Jesse asked me to meet him. When I walked in, I saw Danath Gaul speaking to Jesse. Then Danath turned to look at me. He had a thoughtful look on his face.

        "So, you're the Pawn Jesse chose... Let's get down to it. The mission should be a simple one. You both will be flown to Germany, then you will report to our Chess bunker there. You'll be assigned a jeep and given further instructions and directions. You're to be tracking down and capturing a bad witch named Thalia Saturnyne. Her clan contacted us to report her rogue nature. I am sure there are other problems there, but always remember your primary mission. Also... never abandon your partner. I don't know how many times I stress that statement only to have someone return without their partner. Aside from that, I know you'll both do your best. Have a safe flight."

        Danath left the chamber, and Jesse looked to me with a grin.

        "Ready to gain some spurs, Jansen?"

        I glanced sideways at Jesse.

        "As ready as I'll ever be."

        Jesse grinned again. After that, he and I proceeded to Chess's private motor pool, and we were given transport over to the Athens airport. We boarded a private jet and the flight began. During the flight, Jesse quizzed me on witch facts. A few times, I caught him in a mistake and corrected him. If Jesse objected, I would quote the page number from the text book, and together we'd look up the reference. He was pretty impressed. Then, Jesse closed the book and told me something that I'll never forget.

        "Regardless of what is written in the Chess text books, never expect your subject to totally obey what you've been taught. They are people just like we are. They can think and they can react to any situation that changes their normal lifestyle."

        I nodded my head, taking in this in the field lesson. How true this would prove to be! The rest of our flight was uneventful. Jesse told me about his family, his life, and a few of his past missions. The way he was talking led me to believe that he thought he was going to die soon. That sort of spooked me, but I tried hard to remain optimistic.

        Our jet finally landed in Besel, Switzerland. Then, we boarded a transport and were driven to the Chess bunker located on the southern edge of the Black Forest in Baden-Wurttenberg. Upon arriving, Jesse and I reported to the bunker's commander to receive the rest of our instructions. We were assigned a jeep and given directions to a place deep in the Black Forest.

        Soon, we were on our way. Jesse was driving the jeep while I took careful note of the route and landmarks. I kept having this ominous feeling that something bad was going to happen. Plus, I got the distinct feeling that we were being watched from the very second we drove into the Black Forest. And it was not a good feeling. It was more a "you're not welcome here" feeling. I kept my mouth shut about it.

        During one of our scheduled stops at a gas station, I overheard two local woodsmen talking about missing children. This must have been what Danath Gaul had suggested back in Athens. We would learn of other problems. Once on the road again, I mentioned the missing children to Jesse. He remarked that it was probably the work of a child labor smuggling ring. He said we'd tackle it if we were to encounter it. That sort of perked me up a little. But I was still on edge as the "you're not welcome here" feeling returned. The further into the forest we went, the more defined the feeling became. At one point, it felt more like "Jesse isn't welcome here but you are". I looked around casually, then noted that Jesse had a clip in the glove compartment filled with silver bullets. I asked what the silver was for and he said that we might have to shoot Thalia. That bothered me a lot. I didn't like having to shoot anyone unless no other way were available to solve the problem. We continued driving.

        It was getting late in the day when we both heard thunder. Just then, a bolt of lightning barely missed the jeep. Jesse took evasive action. I started looking around to see where it had come from. Then I saw her. Thalia Saturnyne. And she was riding a flying broom stick. I took some notes about her. Thalia appeared to be about 70 years old, overweight, easily being about close to 380 pounds. It was a guess, not the facts. She was probably about five foot eleven, had long messy black hair, with a ruddy complexion. She wore a sickly chartreuse green dress, which barely covered her plump sagging breasts. She firmly held the broom with one hand, and had a glowing wand in the other hand, taking another aim at our jeep. I yelled for Jesse to swerve again. He did so, and another lightning bolt just barely missed the jeep.

        I could see that Thalia was becoming impatient with her shots. She fired again and we were lucky to avoid the lightning blast, yet again. That must have pissed her off royally. She changed tactics and started chanting a huge spell. Jesse tried driving out of range, his foot smashed heavily on the gas pedal. Then it happened. Just ahead of us, a huge cube of liquid fire appeared. Jesse shoved the gun and ammo into my hands and had me shoved out of the jeep, where I landed, rolling in the forest pine needles and moss. I was lucky I wasn't killed. But Jesse was not to be so lucky. He drove the jeep straight into the cube of fire! There was a terrific explosion! I knew Jesse had been killed instantly. But I had no time to grieve.

        Thalia was making an arc to check on her handiwork. When she was within range, I fired the silver ammo straight through the bristles on the back of her broom. That surprised her so much that she almost crashed. But somehow, she was able to keep her elevation. Then she glared my way. She obviously hated loose ends. And I was fast becoming one of those loose ends.

        She leveled her wand at me now. I was starting to think that I should've became an Olympic athlete instead of a detective. I was on the run once again. She gave chase, of course. Just as she got a clear view of me, I heard her shout.


        She fired the wand just as I dived behind a boulder. The boulder changed it's shape, becoming a perfect statue of a horse. I yelped, then tore off running again. Her aim sucked and I know that I shouldn't have taunted her. But it was too tempting.

        "Lose weight, you ugly traitor!"

        She aimed at me again and fired the wand, yelling aloud once again.


        The blast just barely missed me as a thick bush transformed into a bush-shaped rabbit. I was getting pretty cocky. She was obviously the worst shot I had ever seen. Even my own sisters had better aim that that old crone.

        "Your aim stinks, you smelly old harlot!"

        She audibly growled and did not bother aiming with the next shot. She fired the wand with a shout.


        She had caught me off guard as I had tried jumping out of the way of the incoming wand blast, but I had let her catch me unaware. As I hit the ground, my clothes fell to the ground and I was on all fours. I had become a skunk. Thalia cackled and began flying my way rapidly on her broomstick. I quickly dashed off through the brush, Thalia hot on my tail.

        As I emerged from the other side of the bushes, I immediately went over a sudden drop and saw the pool of water beneath me approaching fast. I curled up in a ball, and "cannon-balled" into the water. As I splashed into the cold pool, the water from my splash rose straight up and caught Thalia as she cleared the bushes.

        She immediately splash landed into the deepest part of the pool. She died immediately by melting the way a hot wax candle would. The instant Thalia had died, I immediately was transformed back to my normal unclothed human form.

        I dove down and claimed the Saturnyne wand, then proceeded to pull myself out of the forested pool of water. I made my way back to where my clothing had fallen and put them all back on. Then, I sat there trying to catch my breath, reflecting on the whole encounter. I panted raggedly as I recalled every detail of the event. Then I remembered Jesse.

        When I was rested enough, I got up and located Jesse's body. He was dead from the fire blast, of course. I wrapped up his body in the space age blankets that had been kept in the jeep. Then, I began the long hike back to the local Chess bunker. This was -not- a fun hike. All the while, I carried Jesse's charred and burnt human body. I no longer felt the unwelcome feeling from the forest. I sensed a form of pity. I still had no idea what was watching me, but it never attacked. That I was thankful for.

        The hike took me several days. But I never once abandoned Jesse's body, regardless of how it smelled. I finally arrived back at the bunker, exhausted, and in a bad need of sleep. But I knew everyone would want to know what happened. As the others took Jesse's body to the Chess morgue, I sat down at a desk and began writing up the report. I made sure to mention that this was Jesse's mission at the top of the report. Then I filled in the rest of the information. I didn't leave anything out. Poor Jesse. If he hadn't pushed me out of the jeep, I'd likely have been killed too. I noted all points of information before handing in my report to the commander. He called it in to Athens and I lay myself down and fell instantly asleep.

        The next morning, after a casual breakfast, I attended the official cremation ceremony for Jesse Vanya, White Knight of Chess. I actually mourned his passing. His ashes were sealed into an urn and given to me to transport back to Athens. The mission was at an end. One loss, one win. The price seemed to me to be far too high. I wasn't feeling all too hot myself.

        Several hours later, via private jet, I was once again in Athens at the base Chess headquarters. I carried the urn as I reported in to Danath Gaul. I set the urn on his desk, then presented my report. Danath listened to me as I recited forth on what had happened. When I finally finished, Danath stood up and came around the desk. He folded his arms across his chest, then casually gazed down at me. I didn't bother to look up him. I was sure that I had failed.

        Then he placed a hand on my shoulder.

        "You did all you could do, Jansen. Even more important... you didn't leave Jesse behind."

        I sighed out a slow breath, still not looking up at Danath.

        "She ambushed us. We didn't have a chance. If Jesse hadn't pushed me out of the jeep..."

        Danath petted my shoulder.

        "Dry your eyes, Jansen. You wouldn't want Luke to see a Black Rook crying, now would you?"

        That made me glance up at Danath.

        "Black Rook?"

        Danath smiled a little.

        "It was a successful mission regardless of the losses. You're not a Pawn anymore. You're a Black Rook. You're an official Chess agent now. You're dismissed, for now. Go spend some time with your friend."

        Danath winked at me, then walked back around his desk to begin processing my promotion. I didn't question it, nor did I turn it down. A Black Rook. I was a Black Rook. That felt important to me. It was cheering me up. I stood and headed out of Danath's office. I then proceeded towards finding Luke.

        Luke was pretty impressed by my promotion. We celebrated it by going out to Nicodemus' Tavern. By now, Nicodemus was getting used to seeing the two of us and gave us our own table. But this time seemed a little different. Nicodemus sat at our table with us. He looked at me directly and slid an envelope across the table to me.

        "Don't expect me to play messenger like this again."

        Nicodemus stood again and resumed serving the other customers. Luke and I opened the envelope, and pulled out the letter inside. The writing was very elegant; almost in the style of ye olde English script. This puzzled both of us, but I loved a good mystery.

        "Jansen Tanner. I will not reveal myself to you yet, but I have been watching your efforts these past few days. I saw how you handled yourself in Germany. If you sensed that you were being watched... that was me. There were others watching as well, but for your benefit, I was the one who took the most interest in you. Let me say now: you've impressed me. It is not often that someone of your caliber catches my attention. To make a long story short... from now on, I will follow and watch you on all your missions. It is a shame that Jesse Vanya died. He was a great man. At one time, he too impressed me. He wasn't supposed to have died. His passing saddens me greatly. Now I watch you. May you become as great as Jesse. You are all I have."

        The letter wasn't signed. But the feeling of the words had it's effect on me. I wasn't sure how to take this. Someone had been watching Jesse for years and now, this someone would be watching me. Luke too wasn't sure how to take it. He suggested that I report it in to Danath Gaul. I suppose I should have heeded Luke's suggestion. Why I didn't, only the Greek gods know.

        During the next few weeks, Luke got a chance to go on his first mission. When he returned, he too was promoted to Black Rook. A few days later, Danath Gaul approached the both of us. He had another mission for us. Both of us. Luke and I were pretty excited that we were to go together this time. Danath Gaul spoke to us in our own room.

        "Jansen. Luke. This time you both are being sent to Kentriki, Makedonia. You will be joined by someone in Thessaloniki. Then, the three of you will head northwest to Giannitsa. From there, you'll head due north for about two days walk. There have been reports of a centaur in that area. You're to find out the facts about the sighting. Above all, if the centaur is friendly, you are not to interrupt his lifestyle. If he attacks you, then you are to defend yourself. You have your orders. Good luck."

        Danath Gaul departed our room. Luke grinned at me.

        "Our first mission together! This is so exciting!"

        I grinned back.

        "Yes. Together... plus one. I wonder who is being shackled into baby sitting us?"

        Luke hummed at that.

        "Oh yeah. The contact we're supposed to meet. Whoever it is, I hope it is someone we can get along with. Otherwise, we might have to double team him."

        I laughed at that. Whoever it was would have their hands full. Luke and I started packing up for a camping trip in Kentriki Makedonia. I kept wondering who was having to be our partner.

        Luke and I took a private jet to Thessaloniki. Upon arriving, I almost choked on my breath. Standing near a black transport was Shane Wayne. And he was actually wearing civilian clothes for a change. And here I thought his only wardrobe consisted of Marine uniforms. Luke and I approached Shane, then I grinned at him and shook his hand.

        "Shane! What are you doing here?"

        Shane grinned.

        "I am to be your escort, so I was told. If you don't mind, that is..."

        I brightened up and patted his shoulder.

        "Are you kidding? I've missed you more than I miss my sisters! By the way... Luke Masaki, this is Shane Wayne."

        Luke grinned, and shook Shane's hand.

        "Pleased to meet you, Shane. So you're the one who is easily bribed by beer."

        Shane laughed out loud.

        "Jansen told you that? He should know that I only like American brewed beer! I can tolerate the rest, as long as it's not mixed with cattle swill."

        Luke and I both laughed. I turned to Luke.

        "I told you Shane was cool!"

        Luke grinned again.

        "Shane is really like you said. At least now we know who our contact is."

        Luke and I got into Shane's black transport vehicle, then the three of us drove northwest on E86 to Giannitsa. The transport was parked at a Chess-owned garage, then we started hiking north into the Kentriki wilderness. There was plenty of game and the weather seemed to cooperate with us as we traveled. On the second evening, we arrived at a sturdy lodge-like building in the hills. We entered and proceeded to make camp right there. We needed a good rest.

        Shane soon had a nice fire going in the fireplace and started preparing the evening's meal. The food was soon ready to be served, when there came a knock on the door of the lodge. Shane grabbed his gun and cocked it, before replying.

        "Who is there?"

        The gentle male voice that replied sounded tired.

        "I am the owner of the lodge you three have made camp in. I don't mind you staying here, but could you please unlock the door for me. My arms are full."

        I glanced at Shane and he nodded back to me. I arose and approached the door slowly and unlatched it. Then I slowly pulled open the door. My eyes went wide. Standing there with his arms full of deer meat, was a male centaur. He was tall and stocky, having the head and torso of an elven man and the body of a draft horse. His horse's back had several cords of wood tied in place. He had shoulder-length sandy blonde hair, tied behind him in a pony tail, and his eyes seemed to sparkle with turquoise. His skin was a tone of pure creamy tan. The draft horse portion of his body was a dark chocolate brown, his fetlocks and tail were the same color as his head hair. His solid one-toed hooves were solid black. He slowly blinked his eyes at me and smiled. Then, he clip-clopped into the lodge slowly. Shane quickly uncocked his gun, and put it away, into his holster. The tall centaur continued into his kitchen where he put the deer meet into a freezer unit camouflaged to look like an old trunk. Then he returned to the main room where we were and proceeded towards stacking the wood he had brought in. We all helped him with that. Then we settled down, and shared our dinner with the centaur.

        After dinner, the centaur, who introduced himself as Duffan "Duffy" Arlyn, entertained us with a choice selection on his sitar. Afterwards, the mood was mellow and Duffy spoke with us.

        "So you're with Chess. I was hoping that I could avoid their notice."

        I arched an eye at that statement.

        "May I ask why? I mean, we were given orders to find out information about the sighting of a centaur and if you were friendly, to not interrupt your lifestyle."

        Duffy seemed relieved over that admissible statement.

        "Oh good. I was afraid you people were sent here to bring me in. You see, I've heard horror stories about Chess. But if what you tell me is true, then I really have nothing to fear from you or your organization."

        His statement made me begin to wonder why Chess was so feared. I hoped to find out soon enough.


        She blinked her eyes.

        "Witches and centaurs are real? That cannot be true. This must be a misprint. But... what if it is true? An organization that searches out for the truth, then covers up their findings?"

        She again resumed reading Jansen's agent history.



          Act IV: Of Imps And Lions

          Come the following morning, Duffy packed us some fresh venison and beef jerky. Then, Shane, Luke and I bid Duffy goodbye and headed back towards Giannitsa to the south. All during the trip, I pondered over what Duffy had said about the Chess horror stories. He had even divulged a few of the stories he had heard. Listening to some of these stories pissed me off. I wasn't happy about the tales that were being spread around about Chess. But I had to give Duffy the benefit of the doubt; these stories might be based on fact. I had no way of knowing how good the other agents of Chess were. Their actions may warrant these tales of terror. I kept my thoughts to myself.

          In Giannitsa, we retrieved our transport and drove to Thessaloniki. Once we had arrived at the airport, Shane announced that we were to part company once again. That sort of bothered me. But he was a Marine. He had to go where they shipped him. Luke and I bid him farewell and we boarded the private jet enroute to Athens. Luke and I chatted casually on the trip back. Neither of us understood the purpose behind this mission. We met with Duffy and got his story. Then, we were to let him be and return to Athens. That was a mission? I began to think that Danath Gaul needed Luke and I out of the way while something major was taking place.

          We had been gone for about a week on this trip. Our jet landed in Athens and we caught a transport back to Chess headquarters. We filed our report and handed it in to Danath Gaul. Danath processed them in the usual way. Luke and I headed back to our room. When we got to the door, we were met by a female Elite. She explained that because we were no longer Pawns, we were being moved into the officers quarters. That made sense to the two of us, but we really liked the room we had as Pawns. Luke and I followed the Elite out of one building and into another.

          Luke and I now had connecting rooms. And these rooms were easily twice the size of the Pawn's bedrooms. I had no idea what I would do with all the extra space. Each pair of bedrooms had their own living rooms, while each individual bedroom had their own bathroom. That was fine by me. I hit the shower immediately. I could hear Luke doing the same. Not that we were really dirty, but we had just gotten back from a mission, so a shower was in order.

          Over the next few days, Luke and I conducted separate activities. I spent my time attending refresher courses and studying in the Chess library. When I wasn't studying, I was working at the marina. There was one scooner that I was quite fond of and I worked on that boat the most. After a week's time, Danath Gaul surprised me late one evening as I was taking down the sails aboard the scooner.

          "I am quite pleased that you take such good care of this boat."

          I glanced up and grinned. By now, I didn't jump a mile whenever Danath just showed up.

          "What do you want, Danath?"

          He folded his arms over his chest and relaxed on one leg. He gave me a perplexing look.

          "Do I have to want something whenever I come to see you?"

          I grinned again.

          "Not always, but usually... whenever you show up, it's because you have a job that needs an agent. Are you going to tell me that you're only here now to admire the work I've done on this scooner?"

          He unfolded his arms and smiled.

          "I am going to have to change my tactics. You're right; there is a mission that's come up. You don't have to accept this one, but every mission helps your score towards another promotion."

          I finished with the sails and stepped off the scooner to the dock where he was standing.

          "I don't have to accept it, but you know I won't say no, either. And for the record, I'm not doing this for the promotions; I am doing this because I sort of dislike being idle with nothing to do. Call it a Tanner thing. Now... what is the mission?"

          Danath actually laughed. That surprised me. Shane must be rubbing off on Danath, or something like that. Seeing Danath laugh is spookier than being chased by Ys O'dora. A laughing Chess Master is not a good sign, usually.

          "This time, you're going solo."

          That also made me blink my eyes in surprise. Danath almost always insisted upon having Chess agents partner with someone. This was either a very delicate mission, meaning that it was near dull and boring, or it wasn't very dangerous.

          "Solo? Me?"

          Danath nodded his head.

          "I would have allowed Luke to go with you on this one, but a Black Bishop asked Luke to accompany him on a mission as of yesterday. So, you'll be doing this one solo. It's not life threatening, from what we know, so you should be able to do this. Now, as for where you're going... You'll catch a private jet from Athens to Tabuk, Tabuk, Saudi Arabia. Once there, you'll report to our bunker and acquire a transport jeep. You'll drive southeast to Al Ahdar. In Al Ahdar, a local by the name of Yaseel will give you further instructions. Make sure you pack accordingly, Jansen. Good luck."

          I nodded my head and watched Danath walk back up the marina to the Chess complex. So, I was being sent to Saudi Arabia by myself this time. This seemed odd that I was being sent solo. Maybe Danath wanted to see how I could handle being on my own for a change. At any rate, it gave me something to do. I proceeded back to the headquarters to make preparations for this mission.

          I went to bed early and awoke around 3:00 A.M. I gathered my prepacked bags and water containers, then headed over to the airport to catch my private jet to Saudi Arabia. During my three hour flight to Tabuk, it dawned on me that Danath had not told me what I would be facing. This struck me as odd. He only said that the mission was not life threatening to me. I began wondering if I wasn't being set up for something that could be more dangerous than Danath thought. I again kept these thoughts to myself.

          My jet landed in Tabuk and I headed over to the local Chess bunker to get a jeep. The local Chess contacts here were far nicer than most of the others I had encountered in other places. I guess the Arabian contacts were just better people than most of the others. I got my jeep and loaded up my provisions. Then, I was on my way to Al Ahdar to the southeast.

          I arrived in the late afternoon. It was a nice place as far as small villages went. Either that, or I arrived in the wrong place. It only took me twenty-four minutes to locate Yaseel. Yaseel turned out to be a local teenager, roughly twelve to thirteen years old, with medium-length black hair, deep blue eyes and darkly tanned skin. He wore sandals and an off-white tunic and hooded cloak. Yaseel joined me in my jeep, and directed me to drive west to his camp near some caves in the Harrat al-'Uwairid foothills near the northern end of the al-Higaz mountain range. We arrived in his camp as the sun was setting.

          Yaseel offered to share his tent with me. In return, I offered to share what food and drink I brought along with me. Yaseel thanked me and led me into his tent. Inside the very large tent, I saw two donkeys longing near the back of the tent, a dromedary camel lounging an another area of the tent. Two hounds were also here in the tent. Yaseel greeted each of them in Arabian, then invited me to break bread with him. I gladly did so.

          After the meal ended, I glanced around the tent at all the animals. Yaseel was walking around to each one, making sure each were fed. I also checked out each of the animals, one by one. When I got to the hounds, I noticed that one of them had a tooth filling. This intrigued me as animals are not generally given fillings. The hound turned his gaze up at me and nudged my hand. The hound seemed to be trying to tell me something. But I didn't speak dog.

          After the feeding of the animals, I got undressed to get comfortable for the night.

          "Yaseel? I noticed that one of your hounds has a tooth filling. Seeing that canines rarely ever get that type of dental work, how did this hound get a tooth filling?"

          Yaseel was also getting undressed. My question slowed his progress.

          "You noticed. I thought you might. Chess would not send a non-observant agent. The hound was once a friend of mine. A human."

          That got my attention. I looked at the hound again. The hound nodded his head, then relaxed on his spot once again.

          "How'd he get like that? Were all these animals once humans?"

          Yaseel lay his head on a soft pillow, and slowly gazed at me.

          "Yes. They were all human once. How they got that way is why I called for your help. You see, the caves near here are haunted by a strange tiny creature that softly laughs. When you hear the laugh, someone is getting enspelled. I haven't seen the creature myself, but I know it is only a matter of time before I end up like my friends."

          I huh'ed. This was pretty hard to believe. But the animals seemed to be the evidence. I kept looking at the hound, who in return was looking back at me. His eyes were so deep. That was sort of spooky. But he was such an adorable hound.

          "A tiny laughing creature with magical powers."

          That sounded so familiar. I tried hard to remember why. I knew I had read about them somewhere. As I was trying to remember, the hound got up and moved over and lay right beside me. I petted him gently while trying to remember what it was that I had read. I was soon asleep after that.

          When I awoke the following morning, the hound was nuzzling my face with his nose. I smiled at him and scritched him behind the ears and down along his neck. His tongue lolled out and he panted as I scritched him. Then, I remembered that he was once human and I blushed a bit. I looked to the hound gently, and nuzzled him back, whispering,

          "You can lead me to the creature, can't you?"

          The hound slowly nodded his head. Then, the hound gently tugged on my shorts a little, and pointed his nose toward the tent opening. I took this to mean that the hound wanted me to follow him. So, I got up while Yaseel still slept and followed the hound out of the tent. He led me to the closest cave entrance and slowly entered, leading me all the while.

          The hound kept me in sight at all times as he led me deeper into the twisting caves. Then, he stopped at what appeared to be a sudden drop off. Yet, there was something over the edge lighting up this portion of the cave. I crept up beside the hound and peered over the edge. Over the edge, about fifteen feet down, there was a cavern lit with glowing orbs. And playing together amidst all the orbs of light, there were several six-inch tall goat-headed naked humanoids, with three-fingered hands and cloven hooves. They were covered in a fine scales all over their naked bodies, they had leathery wings as long as their bodies, and they had long scaley prehensile tails. The were well-endowed, like an adult would be, yet their voices and dispositions were almost childlike.

          Currently, the small creatures were simply playing with one another. They took no notice of the hound and I up on the overlook. I suddenly knew what they were. Imps. Wizards and witches often summoned them to do tasks for them, then they would disappear back to where they were summoned from. Somehow, I got the feeling that this place was not their normal home. But they were so carefree, that they didn't seem to mind where they were.

          The hound nuzzled my side and glanced over his shoulder. That bothered me. I too looked over my shoulder. Floating there was an imp. He had a smile on his muzzle. He landed and hugged both the hound's neck, then mine. Then, he sat between us and spoke.

          "You're a new face."

          I had to carefully measure my words so I didn't upset the little guy.

          "I'm new around here. I was told about one of you guys that plays mean tricks on people who only want to be friends."

          The imp tilted his head then nodded his head.

          "Oh yeah. He doesn't play nice anymore. He used to be fun like the rest of us. Then, he disappeared for awhile. When he showed back up, he had a glowing thing around his neck and was talking all mean and stuff. Then, he said that he was going to make his own zoo. After that, he laughed and moved into his own cave. We try to avoid going there. But we go anyway."

          I hummed.

          "So, he's got a glowing thing around his neck that is forcing him to not play nice anymore?"

          The imp smiled and nodded his head.

          "You come to make him be nice again?"

          I smiled and petted the imp's head. He felt pretty scaly, though very slick and warm.

          "I'll make you a deal. If I get the bad thing off his neck, will you change all my animal friends back into humans? Pretty please?"

          The imp thought on that for a moment. Then, he grinned and petted me back.

          "You play with us for a whole day and you got a deal. We'll change your friends back into humans... after you get rid of bad neck thing. Deal?"

          I smiled and shook his cute paw.

          "A deal. Now, how do I find this used-to-be-fun imp friend of yours?"

          The imp hugged me tightly and sat on my shoulder, wrapping his tail around my neck.

          "I show you. Then, you get bad thing off of him, we change all your friends back, and you play with us for a whole day."

          The imp led the hound and I back through the caves and into another cave. Then, we went a bit further, until we reached a cave that opened up into a larger cavern. In the center of this cavern, there was an imp wearing a glowing red collar around his neck. The imp did not look fun at all. Fortunately, he was asleep. That made things easier.

          I charged into the chamber towards the imp. My approach woke him up, but he wasn't fast enough to cast any spells, as I clasped one hand over his muzzle and the other around his neck, with his body pressed to my own chest. He felt hot and sticky against my skin. He struggled fiercely to get free. He extended his wings and wrapped his tail around my genitals and squeezed them.

          I winced, but kept to the task at hand... removing this collar. The imp kept trying to get loose, but I never relented my grip. I knew if I let go, I'd end up as some kind of animal or worse... I kept working at the collar, until I was finally rewarded with a small clicking sound and the collar came off his neck in my hand. At the moment, I released him. But he forgot to unwrap his tail from my genitals and fell flat on his tummy, panting raggedly.

          I whewed as I looked at the glowing collar. Whoever made this knew their craft. Unfortunately, whoever made this was now my enemy. I really hated people that forced other people to do their bidding through coersion. I put the collar into a nearby pouch and secured the pouch to my waist. Then, I looked to the imp that was lying on his tummy. He slowly turned over and smiled. His former childlike disposition had returned. I turned my head to the imp on my shoulder.

          "I kept my promise, my friend. Now please... change all my animal friends back into their former human selves."

          The imp nodded his head and kissed my nose.

          "And afterward, you play with all of us for a whole day. Right?"

          I grinned and tickled the imp's tummy.

          "That's what I promised."

          And so, the imps escorted the hound and I back out of the caves to the tent. The hound entered the tent, then the imps cast the release spell upon the whole tent. In other words, everyone who had been changed magically were restored to their original forms. Yaseel emerged from the tent and saw the two imps sitting on my shoulder. He hesitated, at first, then thanked me for my help. Then, I told Yaseel that I was going to be out here for a few days to keep a promise I had made to the imps. Yaseel told me that he would await my return in the tent.

          The following twenty-four hours were spent in the imp's cavern. I was their guest and I played all manner of games with them. The time seemed to extend past the original twenty-four hours, as I found myself enjoying their company more and more. However, on the third morning, the imps all suddenly reminded me that it was time for me to go. They all had a semi serious look upon their muzzles. It was almost as if someone powerful had told them that I should be allowed to leave.

          The one imp who befriended me originally escorted me out to the entrance of the caves. Before he left, I kissed him on the muzzle and told him that as long as he was good, he could pop in and visit me whenever he liked. No matter where I was. That perked the imp up and he hugged me tightly, nipping my neck in the process. It stung a little, but he explained that he needed a small taste of me in order for him to be able to find me later, no matter where I was. Then, he departed back into the caves and I headed back over to Yaseel's tent.

          Yaseel and his friends thanked me for my help and threw a small party for me. I noticed that a single hound was still in the tent. When I asked Yaseel about it, he told me that the hound that led me through the caves was him. And this hound was the Yaseel that escorted me from Al Ahdar to this camp. That made sense to me. Everyone in the camp had been enspelled. Now they had been restored. In a way, I kind of missed talking to the other Yaseel, but I enjoyed myself into the night, anyway. It was late when we all cuddled together and fell asleep.

          Early the next morning, before anyone was awake, I was nuzzled awake by the Yaseel-hound. He grinned at me and licked my cheek. Then, to my surprise, he spoke.

          "This will be our secret."

          I blinked my eyes as I grinned and petted the hound.

          "You can still talk?"

          He grinned again, nodding his head.

          "I am a djinni hound. As long as you keep this a secret, you and I will be friends. And... we'll talk again someday. That I promise."

          I grinned and nuzzled the hound back, scritching his tummy.

          "Do you grant wishes?"

          The hound murred from my petting hand.

          "I can. Do you have something in mind?"

          I smiled and kissed his nose.

          "Not currently, but I'd like to reserve one for a later date. You'll see me again on the day that I need the wish. OK?"

          He nodded his head and licked my mouth.

          The hound and I played together until the others began waking up. Then, we all got dressed, had a hot breakfast and then, I was given a cheerful farewell as I drove off in my jeep. I retraced my route and dropped the jeep off in Tabuk at the Chess bunker. Then, after I took a shower at the bunker itself, I went to the airport, boarded my private jet and flew the three hours back to Athens. When I arrived, I caught a transport back to Chess headquarters, and filed my report.

          As Danath Gaul was reading over my report, he glanced up at me and asked where I got my "hickie" at. I blushed at that and explained that one of the imps that had agreed to help me had nipped my neck playfully. I further explained that I had it checked out by a Chess doctor at the bunker in Tabuk. Then, Danath resumed reading the report to himself. He had not dismissed me, so I remained standing where I was. Suddenly, a White Knight named Byron "the bull" Lyman entered Danath's office and asked what he was needed for. Danath glanced up at Byron, then glanced to me, as well. He sat back in his chair and folded his arms.

          "Byron. You and Jansen are teaming up this time."

          Byron growled a little.

          "I can handle a mission by myself, Danath!"

          Danath shot a look across his desk at Byron. Byron closed his mouth immediately. Danath then continued.

          "You're both being flown down to Kenya. There is a construction site owned by Vulcan Industries that is being ransacked and sabotaged each and every night by some sort of creature. We at Chess have reason to believe that it might be more than just a normal creature. This creature can bend solid steel beams and leave gashing claw marks in solid stone. You'll both be armed with special ammunition as well as special outfits. This trip is classified as a dangerous mission. I need not remind you that you may need an extra set of eyes on this trip. Good luck."

          Byron and I looked at each other. I knew he didn't want me along, but perhaps Byron and I could strike a deal of some sort. He looked like he might be a reasonable person. The two of us reported to the stock room for our equipment. We suited up and I noticed that the bullets were made of obsidian. When I asked Byron about it later, he would only say that it was a "cat thing". Then, I joked about taking along a supply of catnip. The joke died in my throat when I noticed that one of the supplies we were given was indeed catnip. This made me nervous.

          The flight to Kenya was quiet and uneventful. Byron evidently didn't want to talk to me. I finally outright told him that I would stay out of his way once we were in Kenya. Byron nodded his head, then replied that he wasn't normally this disagreeable. He was nervous about going on a mission with a partner because a lot of partners were dying off for no apparent reason.

          Our jet landed in Wajir within North Eastern Kenya. We reported to the local Chess bunker, then acquired a jeep and drove out to the construction site on the Woyamdero Plain. We were met by the head of Vulcan Industries, Cassander Vulcan himself. There was an immediate dislike between me and this Cassander Vulcan person. Something about him simply set off my "red flags" warning.

          I was glad that Byron also disliked Mr. Vulcan. That made my life a little easier. Byron could vent his anger on a civilian instead of me. We spent the rest of the day checking out the site itself. While Byron was distracted, I noticed some lion tracks in the dirt and quietly followed them for a ways outside of the site's camp. Then, the tracks simply vanished. I knew we were dealing with a werelion at this point. Now I knew what the obsidian and catnip was for. I was afraid.


          She hummed as she popped the muscles in her neck.

          "Imps. It is a wonder that Jansen had not arranged for the imps to drop in on Sallee. She is the weird one. Obsidian bullets? And catnip? They must have been very paranoid back then."

          She looked for her place and resumed reading Jansen's agent history.



            Act V: The Magic Touch

            Byron Lyman and I regrouped on the south side of the construction site. We compared notes and he grumbled when I showed him the tell-tale lion tracks. Byron said that I have a good eye for observing things. He actually smiled when he said that. Maybe Byron was starting to like me. But for now, Byron suggested that we pitch our tents on the south side of the construction site. Byron and I had dinner together, then turned in for the evening to our separate tents.

            It was getting late into the evening. I had undressed to my mid length briefs and I could see the moonlight cascading across the top of my large tent. For some reason, I couldn't sleep or wasn't tired. Then, I heard the quiet but heavy breathing. It wasn't near, but was loud enough for me to hear it. Byron's tent was more toward the side of the trail, but I had pitched my tent directly on top of the lion tracks. I had mainly pitched my tent here so I could study the tracks in the safety of my own tent.

            But the ragged heavy breathing was getting closer. Then, I heard the heavy padding on the ground itself, getting closer and closer. I was nervous to say the least. Then suddenly, the breathing and padding seemed to simply cease. That got my curiosity going. I grabbed my flashlight and a pouch of the catnip, then very cautiously stepped outside of my tent and walked towards the construction site. I shined my flashlight around the site for a few minutes, but nothing was out of place. Then, I turned back towards the tents and did an inspection around my tent. Directly at the back side of my tent, I found enormous lion paw prints.

            I followed the tracks down the winding trail, and as I rounded the bend, what I saw almost made me lose control of my bodily functions, forcing me to came to a sudden stop. About 150 feet before me was the biggest male lion that I had ever seen in my life, and the lion saw me, as well. The lion growled something fierce at me, but I didn't speak lion. That's when I noticed the slight foaming around the lion's mouth and fangs. A mad lion. That wasn't what I wanted to see. The lion again growled something at me. It hadn't approached me yet, but it seemed to be trying to tell me something. Of course, I didn't get the message.

            I accidentally shined the flashlight into the lion's eyes and his response was to start padding at me. I fumbled with my pouch and just as the lion was within seven feet of me, I bombed his nose with the entire contents of the catnip. But instead of the lion becoming complacent, he growled angrily at me. I threw my flashlight into his face and started running back up the trail. I must have hit him because I heard him growl once again, then I heard his heavy pounding paws on the ground coming after me.

            I was screaming as I rounded the bend of the trail. Remember what I said about me becoming an Olympic athlete? Well, those thoughts were again on my mind as I tried to get Byron's attention while running. But the lion was much faster than I was! The lion tackled me faster than the football players had always done to Canon Stephens and myself back in college.

            The damned lion raked my briefs off of my body, then clawed my legs and torso in his attempt to overpower me. He thumped my body into the dust on the ground beneath me and almost smothered my body in his hot and soaking wet chest and tummy fur. Then, he growled loudly as he took several deep bites into my shoulders and neck. I was bleeding and crying for help. Where was Byron? Surely he wasn't sleeping through all my screaming!

            I was about gone, nearing unconsciousness... when I barely saw something appear. It wasn't Byron, but instead, it was a non anthropomorphic glowing white creature with antlers. The glowing creature charged my attacker and knocked the lion off of my body. I was still bleeding as I watched the glowing white creature fight the giant mad lion. Then, in a final antler charge into the lion's chest region, the lion dropped down dead on the spot and immediately changed back into his native African human form. The white creature then approached me slowly and seemed to glow brightly. The light seemed to do something to my wounds; I felt a tingling sensation all over my body. Then the glowing creature smiled and vanished right before my eyes.

            Byron finally emerged from his tent in a rush and did his best to clean my wounds. When he saw the dead native, he knew that somehow, I had defeated the were lion. Byron picked me up and loaded me into the jeep. Then, he pulled down both tents as quickly as he could and packed them into the jeep. Afterward, Byron wasted no time in getting me back to the Chess bunker and aboard the private jet back to the base headquarters in Athens, Greece.

            By the next morning, I awoke in total body bandages in Chess' private hospital. Danath Gaul and Luke Masaki were in the hallway listening to Byron's version of the story, which was very vague. Danath was sure I'd not make it through surgery. But when I pulled through, he was actually surprised. Any other agent with the wounds that I had received would have died.

            But I had lived.

            Surprisingly, Danath did not visit me to ask what had happened. What was worse was my three week hospital stay. Talk about boring. An idle Tanner is a dangerous Tanner. I was already plotting my escape. But what bothered me the most was my night-time flashback dreams of the mad lion and the white creature. Then, there was the doctors total lack of being able to explain why my wounds were not healing quickly. It was the longest and most boring three weeks of my life.

            Finally, I was released from the private hospital and allowed to return to Chess headquarters. I had to report to Danath Gaul first. He was very curious to find out how I had defeated the were lion and how I prevented the were lion from infecting me. I recounted the evening in the most detail that I could, including how the were lion seemed to try to warn me about something before losing his mind and attacking me. I also explained the mysterious white creature that fought the were lion and killed it, before bounding away into the night.

            I then noticed that Byron was standing in a dark corner of the office. His eyes seemed to suggest that he believed me. There was no other explanation that could explain how I survived the encounter. The only thing I could not explain was how I prevented infection. So, I suggested that perhaps Byron had cleaned my wounds in time, preventing any infection from occurring. I knew that wasn't the case and I could tell Byron didn't believe it either but Danath bought it. And that's all Byron and I needed. Danath offered Byron a promotion for his fast action, but Byron surprisingly turned it down offering me his promotion instead. Byron turned to me and winked, mouthing the words, "take it, Jansen." I silently gulped and accepted the promotion. I was now a White Rook. I still had no idea why Byron did what he did but evidently, I had earned his trust on this mission. Danath proceeded toward processing my newest promotion. Byron and I headed out of the office, and down to the recreation chambers.

            "Why did you pass up the promotion, Byron?"

            Byron turned to me and grinned.

            "Jansen, after what you've gone through, you deserved the promotion more than I did. You spoke some nice words to Danath, but you know as well as I that I didn't save your life. That white creature saved you. As for the were lion, there is no way you could pull through what he did to you without infection. No amount of cleaning on my part would have purged the infection from your body. The only explanation I can give is that you experienced a miracle."

            I blinked my eyes at that.

            "Do you really think so?"

            Byron smiled and patted my shoulder.

            "Yes, I actually think so. And that lion tried to warn you about something. Several times. I may be wrong, but there may be something special in you that animals and other creatures recognize. And when they encounter you, they try to help you. I think the were lion tried to warn you about something and you didn't get the message, so he advanced on you. There are too many what if's in this line of work. Sometimes you'll know the answers; other times you'll need prodding."

            I ran my hands over the all too familiar reminders that the were lion had given me.

            "Well, the giant lion certainly gave me a good prodding, but evidently, I still didn't get the message. That sort of upsets me that he tried to warn me and I didn't get it. Too late now, I suppose. But at least I learned one thing..."

            Byron grinned.

            "And what is that?"

            I smiled.

            "...that I've earned your trust, maybe?"

            Byron nodded his head and proceeded to play some billiards. I left him to his game and returned to my room to fully check out my scars. Battle scars might be a good term to call them. However, once I had undressed and looked in the full-sized mirror, I was shocked to see that my scars were almost entirely healed over. Only minor marks remained where I had been raked, clawed, and bitten. I hummed, then went to bed. While sleeping, I could have sworn that I could still smell the were lion, as strong as ever. That sort of bothered me, but the scent didn't prevent sleep.

            When I awoke, I showered, got dressed and set out to work on my favorite schooner. Three days later, Danath Gaul came down to the marina to find me. He smiled when he realized where I had to be. He stepped up on to the schooner and located me below deck, where I was working on the schooner's emergency engine. I glanced up at Danath and merely grinned as I shook my head.

            "What mission do you have for me this time, Danath?"

            Danath blinked his eyes.

            "What makes you think I have a mission for you?"

            I again grinned.

            "Because you're the boss and you never come down here to this boat unless you're specifically looking for me."

            Danath chuckled a little.

            "I really -must- change my tactics. Actually, I was wondering what you thought about attending a bull fight in Spain?"

            I blinked my eyes. This was certainly different.

            "What is the danger factor?"

            Danath released a breath of air.

            "There is no fooling you a bit, is there? Well, there is a reason for Chess to be there. A local matador in Muniesa, Aragon, Spain, reported a ghost to us. You'll catch a flight to Zaragoza, report to the bunker there, get a Chess jeep, then drive southeast to Azaila, then west to Belchite, and finally south to Muniesa. Once there, you're to meet with a young matador named Tino Hernandez. He will fill you in on the ghost. If you can lay the ghost to rest, you'll succeed in your mission. And this time, take in the sights while you're there. Tino has offered to show you a good time. Good luck, Jansen."

            Danath departed the schooner and I exhaled a breath of air. So this time I was being sent to Spain to tackle a ghost, yet at the same time, enjoy myself. I got the feeling that Danath wanted me to take it easy. But taking it easy was not something that a Tanner was ever at ease doing. I finished up the repairs on the emergency engine, then headed back to my room to bathe and get packed for the trip to Spain.

            I checked around for Luke before I headed out, but he was off on a mission of his own. I prayed that he would return safely. I was beginning to get attached to Luke. Then, I packed my gear, and headed over to the airport, and caught a private jet en route to Spain.

            After making the now all too familiar stops, I drove my jeep along the route that was provided to me. The area had a lot of cattle and bulls all along the roads. That wasn't so unusual, I surmised. This was a bull fighting nation. Finally, I arrived in Muniesa and was met by Tino Hernandez. Tino was a young male standing five foot ten inches tall, weighing 165 pounds. He had short black hair and brown eyes. His skin was light brown, and he dressed in local, yet comfortable, clothing. He wore boots appropriate for working on a farm.

            Tino greeted me with a smile and escorted me to his farm located just outside of Muniesa. Once we were there, he showed me the bulls that he raised on his farm. A bull farm. That was appropriate, I suppose. It was still early, so I offered to help Tino around his farm to pass the time until the sun would set and he would fill me in on the ghost report. It was hard work, but the bulls were friendly enough. Some were too friendly, leaning and nuzzling on my legs. Tino just laughed when he saw how they were acting.

            That night, Tino and I bathed, then sat down for dinner. Then, we retired to his bedroom where we sat down and Tino began his tale about the ghost bull. Tino told me that he was asked to clean up a local arena for a grand opening bull fight. He worked all of the first day and partly into the night. Then, he had seen the ghost bull. It was guarding a particular chute and holding pen. Tino got so scared that he began to feel sick and weak. Fortunately, Tino was able to pull himself away from the ghost bull and escaped the arena to report the incident.

            I listened to Tino's story entirely, then I patted Tino's shoulder. I told him that I would handle it. Tino looked grateful. I headed out that night toward the arena. I entered the spooky old complex and searched around the place from top to bottom. As I was walking down an inner corridor, I heard a lonely mooing noise. It sounded like it was inside the building, so I began following the sound. I ended up in a chute leading deeper into the complex and emerged within an enclosed semi sealed holding pen. And standing before me was the ghost bull. He was glowing with an eerie light. I began feeling as if my life was being siphoned out of my body. Then, he turned his gaze on me and mooed out a very lonely sound. His spirit image appeared to be shackled in heavy chains that were connected to the far wall. The ghost bull mooed again and I felt another wave of weakness wash over me, almost forcing me to my knees.

            Suddenly, the ghost bull's eerie light dimmed and pulsed. Then, I was gaining my energy back. I looked to the ghost bull and asked if he wanted me to free him. He nodded his ghostly muzzle. I proceeded over to the wall where the apparent chains were and noticed that the bones of a bull were chained tightly to one wall. It looked like the bull had been secured here, then forgotten. That sort of pissed me off. I spent the next few hours breaking the chains and metal collar from the skeletal remains, then I carefully loaded the ghost bull's remains on to a tarp, and carefully pulled the bones out of the arena complex, with the ghost bull following me.

            Once we were outside under the moonlight, I gave the bones a proper burial and recited an old American Indian prayer over the grave granting the spirit safe passage into the spirit realm. The ghost bull approached me and mentally thanked me, nuzzling his muzzle against my body, leaning into my body in an affectionate manner. I stayed with him until sunrise, then he seemed to smile as the sun rose. Finally, he mooed happily as he gradually faded away. I knew that I had brought peace to his lonely spirit. But what made the ghost bull suddenly decide that I was there to aid him?

            I returned to Tino's farm, exhausted and tired. I undressed and hit the bed, falling asleep instantly. Tino was polite enough to let me sleep. It wasn't until the following morning that I awoke to the were lion's scent again. That was really starting to bother me. I quickly dismissed it from my mind and took a nice shower. Then, I got dressed and had breakfast with Tino. He was very pleased when I told him that the ghost bull had been taken care of. Afterward, Tino worked on cleaning the arena, while I worked with the bulls on the farm. This continued for a week. That weekend, Tino entertained me to several events. We watched a bull fight, then had a Spanish meal, and finally, saw several sights around the area.

            Soon, Monday morning had arrived and I bid Tino farewell. I drove back to the bunker in Zaragoza. When I arrived there, a White Bishop named Mark "the wonderland rabbit" Jolson was waiting for me. He asked me to file my report and wire it back to headquarters. I did so, then Mark explained that he was passing through the area on his way to a current mission in Saulieu, Bourgogne, France, and heard that another agent was in the area. So he had decided to wait around to see who arrived. I then asked what his mission was about. Mark told me that it involved a gargoyle sighting. I arched an eye at that. A real gargoyle. I smiled and agreed to accompany Mark on his mission. We caught a train in Zaragoza and rode by rail to Dijon. Then, we acquired a Chess jeep and drove out to Saulieu to search for the gargoyle.

            The two of us climbed up to a vine covered cavern entrance and entered the cavern. Mark and I explored for about four hours, before we suddenly became face to muzzle with the large gargoyle. The gargoyle had apparently just woke up and to his surprise, finding humans in his lair startled him. He roared at the two of us. Mark started to pull his gun but I stopped him quickly. Then, I held my ground in front of the gargoyle. He started to roar again, then quickly stopped, his complexion turning pale for a moment, then he settled down and spoke to us.

            "I apologize for roaring. It isn't often I get people in my lair."

            That surprised Mark quite a bit. The gargoyle was speaking civilly, with a french accent, but in a language that we could understand. Mark gulped as he tried to respond.

            "Are you... the... only gargoyle... in these caverns?"

            The gargoyle nodded his head.

            "I would say that I am. Here. Let me light my lanterns."

            The gargoyle reached over to three locations and ignited the lanterns on the three main cavern walls. Once there was light filling the chamber, we got our first clear view of the gargoyle. He was elderly, but appeared to be both dragon like and skunk like. He was totally coated in fine black scales, with a pair of stripes extending down the scales of his back, from the top of his head, down his back, and down the full length of his tail. He stood about eleven feet tall, and I estimated his weight to be about 1300 pounds. He had violet eyes surrounded by dark pools of black tar. His whole body seemed to exude a sticky black substance that also smelled like both tar and skunk, but discerning either was extremely hard to tell. He had kangaroo like footpads that ended in sharp grasping claws, while his clawed hands were more dexterous. From his back sprouted an extremely large pair of leathery black scaly wings.

            Mark and I admired the gargoyle. I then commented on the gargoyle's handsomeness.

            "You are perhaps the most handsome gargoyle that we've ever encountered."

            The gargoyle seemed to blush, as a slight reddening appeared briefly in both cheeks.

            "You are both too kind. My name is Saul du Morvan."

            Mark and I introduced ourselves by name in return. Now that the ice had been broken, the three of us spoke for several hours on who he was, how long he had lived here and why he had been seen lately. What we found out was that gargoyles, once hatched from their eggs, have the potential to live for literally thousands of years. Saul also explained that gargoyles tend to hibernate for years at a time and he recently awoke feeling the need to seek a mate. But to his dismay, there were no other local gargoyles within range for him to mate with. So, Saul's current outings had been to locate food to placate his mating urge. The rest of his time was spent in a semi sleep like state, though easily awakened if approached. Saul explained that a gargoyle's nasal organs were far more capable than a blood hound's nose. A gargoyle was not likely to ever forget a scent. Once scented, you were not likely ever forgotten.

            Mark and I spent a few days with Saul, helping him get food at times and at one point, I gave Saul a nice body rub. He really enjoyed that. By the time Mark and I left, we understood gargoyles a lot more than we had before going in. Mark and I headed back to Dijon, where we caught a private jet to Athens, once again. When we arrived, we reported to Danath and filed our report on Saul. Danath just grinned and rolled his eyes a little.

            "You got lucky, I think. The last gargoyle Chess encountered killed three of our agents. How you got this one to cooperate and freely give you information on his species is beyond me. And concerning the ghost bull... you wrote that he was about to drain you of your life-energy, then he suddenly restored you and allowed you to help aid him in his freedom. As strange as this may sound, you seem to have the magic touch when dealing with these supernatural creatures."

            I growled at that reference. It sounded lame. Not exciting, like Mark's nickname, or Byron's nickname.

            "With all due respect, Danath, I honestly don't know why these creatures become peaceful and complacent around me. But as long as it keeps me alive, why should we question the results?"

            Mark then spoke up.

            "Danath... With your permission, I would like to become Jansen's full time partner and help groom him towards the higher goals of the organization."

            Danath hummed.

            "Very well. You can be Jansen's full time partner, but only if Jansen allows it. He seems to work well with partners or without partners. Keep in mind, Mark... You are a near top rank agent. That means you get assigned to missions that are considered to be extremely dangerous. If I had known that you intended to convince Jansen to accompany you on this last one, I would've stopped you. That is why I said you got lucky. Gargoyles seem to dislike intrusion. Except for Saul, who revealed a lot of information that we were previously unaware of. Therefore, what I am going to suggest is that Jansen alternate missions. After a dangerous mission with you, he will receive a moderate mission that either he himself can handle, or with a partner other than you."

            Mark humphed, but reluctantly agreed. But I could tell that Mark really liked working with me. And I sort of enjoyed working with him. Of course, Mark wasn't the one who body massaged the gargoyle; I was. So, I knew more about Saul than I revealed in our report. Even gargoyles deserve some secrets of their own.

            Danath dismissed Mark, then turned to me and grinned.

            "Are you ready for another mission?"

            I grinned back and nodded my head.

            "Of course. Where are you sending me this time?"

            Danath pulled out a telegram and opened it. Then, he gazed at me and explained.

            "This time, you are being sent to Alta, Norway. From there, you'll head south to Masi on the Altaelva river. From there, you'll head east into the wilds of the Finnmarks-vidda. About two to three days hike, you'll come across some ruins that was reported to us. All you have to do is check out the ruins and make a report on all you find out about the location. We don't expect anything dangerous, but you should pack accordingly, just in case. And dress warmly. You'll actually be north of the Arctic Circle. Good luck, Jansen."

            I grinned and headed out of Danath's office. So this time I was heading far to the north. I knew it would be colder than a witch's tit, but at the same time, he had said that danger was not expected, but I should pack accordingly. What was I to be encountering? Snow men with machetes?

            I headed back to my room and took another shower. Then, I got dressed in fresh clothing, and packed my gear once again. I was beginning to get the feeling that the higher in rank you became, the less time around headquarter you were allowed to spend lounging. If this was true, it seemed to prove why a lot of the higher ranked agents stayed away from headquarters as much as they could. In my case, I just liked watching Danath's facial expressions every time I returned from a mission. I chuckled, then took a long nap in my bed. I slept all night.

            The next morning came with that all too familiar scent. I sighed when I thought about the were lion that had tried to tell me something. That encounter kept nagging me. I knew that someday soon, I would have to return there to find out what was up. I got up and lugged my gear off to the airport where my lengthy flight to Norway would begin. I settled back into my seat aboard the private jet, and prepared for the fifteen hour flight.

            She pondered for a moment about Jansen's missions to this point.

            "Jansen got mauled by a were lion, but did not become one. Then later, he calms and frees a ghost bull in Spain, then befriends an elderly, yet dashing, gargoyle in France. Leia would be jealous for not being able to go to all these business locations throughout Europe. Now Jansen is being sent to Norway for reasons unknown. Ruins? Give me a break. I am sure that even Jansen knows better than that."

            She grinned as she resumed reading Jansen's agent history.


              Act VI: Demonstrations and Matchmaking

              When my jet finally arrived in Alta, Norway, I immediately headed off to find the local Chess bunker. To my surprise, there wasn't one there. Chess had evidently never been assigned to this region before. That sort of irked me, but I needed transport of some sort to Masi, south of Alta. After staying the night at a hotel, I luckily got a lift from a local who was heading down to a place just south of Masi and on the east side of the Altaelva river. That suited me fine. At least that way, I'd know how to cross the river. What I was not looking forward to was the hike further east for two to three days to the strange ruins.

              After we crossed the bridge just south of Masi, the local dropped me off and wished me luck, before driving further south along the river. I clipped on my skis, unpacked my poles, and began my cross-country trip. The journey was long and boring, although little wildlife appeared within view. The nights were spent inside my thermal tent and thermal sleeping bag.

              By the fourth day, I was beginning to believe that I had missed the ruins or was simply lost. Then, by the late afternoon, I came to an icy downward flowing slope, lost my balance, and slid all the way to the bottom. I slammed into something solid. I shook the stars out of my eyes, then looked around. I had found the ruins. I was fortunate that the area I landed in blocked the wind almost perfectly. It was still cold here, but I wasn't hurting for ways to make heat. I pitched my camp and set up my tent. I headed inside the thermal tent and wrote in my portable journal about the time it took to arrive at the ruins. Then, I got into my thermal sleeping bag and drifted off into a warm slumber.

              All of the next day, I studied the ruins. Several times I could have sworn that I had heard hoof sounds on the stone walkways in the ruins, but whenever I looked, nothing could be found. I knew something alive was around, but I always missed whatever it was. I was lucky that whatever it was left me alone at night. So I figured that if it went away at night, then I could study the ruins at night, without interruption. And so it was...

              The night came and I stepped out of my tent and began exploring the ruins for anything useful or simply out of place. I found a controllable circular stone slab blocking the entrance to the only intact building in the ruins and I slowly pushed the stone aside enough to allow me entry. I slipped through the opening and clicked on my flashlight.

              The chamber inside felt a lot warmer than it had outside in the ruins themselves and I thought that was odd. In the center of the chamber, a large round flat stone table stood, with some sort of sundial knob in the center of the table. I approached the table and attempted to turn the "knob" thing. I smiled when it did move. I frowned when the stone slab I was standing on also moved. I screamed when I fell down into the darkness beneath the stone slab.

              I am not sure how long I was unconscious in the darkness under the ruins, but when I came to, I found that my flashlight had been broken in the fall. I tested my arms and legs, and smiled to myself when I realized that I was lucky that I hadn't broken my limbs in the fall. But now what? There was obviously no way I was going to be able to get back up the way I had entered.

              I blindly walked through the darkness of the cavernous passage that I had landed in. I was beginning to get angry at Danath Gaul for sending me solo to this region. Especially to a place where Chess did not have a bunker. But I stopped my anger pretty fast. An angry mind is not a free mind. I had to remain calm if I was to get out of this situation.

              After a small break, I resumed my blind journey. What I wouldn't have given for night vision right about then. But on the other hand, what if seeing was a bad idea currently. I might be walking through a place that, if I could have seen it, I would never have chanced coming this way. With that thought in my mind, I continued my trek through the darkness. I had to find a light source eventually. There was air down here, so there must have been a way for the air to get in before I fell in. I traveled on hoping to find the opening where the air was coming through.

              I continued until I about fell over something. I knelt and felt the item with my hands. I smiled when I realized that it was a wooden wheel. A wooden wheel here could only mean that there was an entrance nearby. But where was it? I felt around on the ground for wheel tracks. If it had been rolled in, surely it would've left ruts or something. At this point, I was desperate for any helpful sign to get me free of the darkness. What my hands found was not wheel ruts, but a solid cloven hoof. What's more, was this cloven hoof seemed to be attached to something. I felt slowly up the hoof to the fur-covered leg. I frowned when I realized that the leg was warm. Whatever this creature, it was still alive. And chances were, it could see perfectly.

              I continued feeling up the leg. After a foot, I reached the hock joint. That worried me. This creature had to be at least four to five feet tall, at the shoulder. I continued feeling up the leg to the knee, then further up to it's inner thigh. That's when I detected a long fur-covered tail, and it seemed to be prehensile. Well, that ruled out cattle, horses, deer, sheep and goats. So, what was this creature? I had to slowly stand as I felt further up his thighs, and my hands bumped in the ball sac and large sheath. I carefully worked around that, then my hands touched the stomach. I almost stopped feeling at that point. This creature was standing up like a person. That made the hair on the back of my neck rise.

              I continued feeling up his buff fur-covered stomach to his fuzzy muscular chest region. At this point, I was standing up straight. I was glad I couldn't see now, otherwise, I'd likely have fainted. I continued feeling upwards further as my hands worked over his neck muscles, to his bovine-shaped head. Now, I was sure that this was a minotaur. It was the right size, and the right shape, but that tail was all wrong. Minotaur tails were not prehensile. Then, the creature seemed to flex what sounded like wings. Wings on a minotaur? My heart began to sink as I had the full realization that I was standing in front of a demon and I had just groped him all over.

              "You're a demon, aren't you?"

              Then, I saw two pinpoints of eerie red light open at about where his eye sockets would be.

              "By the great seal, you're a human! I haven't seen a human in over 1500 years. But..."

              The demon sniffed me over and ran his hands all over my body.

              "'re not like the others. You have no armor nor any weapons and you smell fresh and clean, instead of vile and filthy. But where are my manners? You're lost, hungry, and in need of rest. And being human, you need light. I apologize for keeping it so dark here, but my people lie further along this passage. We've been down here since Loki tricked us into attacking Forseti and Forseti sent us directly into the heart of the mountain. Come, I'll build us a fire and prepare you something to eat."

              After an hour, the demon had built a very bright fire and had some meat from a cave dwelling animal cooking on a spit over the fire itself. When my sight had returned enough for me to see, I took another look at the so called demon.

              Though sitting, he was probably about nine to twelve feet tall, from his large cloven hooves to the top of his head. Judging from his mass, I hazarded a guess of his weight to be about 900 to 1400 pounds. There was no way to know for sure without the proper tools. He was indeed shaped like a minotaur for the most part, yet he was also very goat shaped in other regards over various parts of his body. His prehensile tail is what intrigued me the most. It was about half his height in length and had a spade shaped wedge on it's end, though the whole tail was covered in soft rusty red fur. Then there was his wings. Large leathery wings, like a dragon, though covered in a very light rusty red coat of fine fur. In this region, being fur covered was probably expected. He had muscles all over most of his bovine body, though his genitals were shaped like a goat's, being long and slender within it's sheath, though still, very muscular in mass. His ball sac was very large, like the bull he was.

              "Your people have been in these tunnels for 1500 years? Where are you originally from?"

              The demon raised his head to look at me, an intrigued look on his muzzle.

              "We hail from Wazriel. It is a desert region surrounding the great garden of 'He Who Makes The World'. We never try entering his garden. What is his, is his, and what is ours, we share. About 1600 years ago, roughly, we lost an artifact, and were ousted from Wazriel to wander the world. We entered this region. At first, the humans welcomed us due to our size and strength. They called us Jyantz. But after they saw our wings, they called us Demoons and sent us further to the north to make our way. We found a nice area, with much greenery, a nearby river with much fish and began building our home from the stones themselves. Our pride was the magical sundial that we had created to keep track of time. It was to also house the chamber for our stored treasures. The sundial was also a doorknob, of sorts. You turned it and the opening to our vaults became clear."

              I blinked my eyes at that statement.

              "I saw that building. That's how I entered these tunnels."

              It was his turn to blink his eyes.

              "You came in that way? That means we can leave this place at any time. Will you lead us back to where you entered? Please, if you aid us, powerful allies you will have whenever you call on us. Do we have a deal?"

              I stood up and walked over to his side, and shook his large paw-like hand.

              "You have a deal. I am called Jansen Tanner. What can I call you, other than 'demon' or 'hey you'?"

              He shook my hand firmly.

              "Among my people, I am called Mykaelic. Come, we eat. Then, I rally my people and you lead us to where you entered from."

              Mykaelic and I ate the meat and he shared his drink with me. I was grateful for the meal, and thanked him as best I could. Then, he sounded a horn he had with him and his people, a good herd of 800 plus demons of all ages, approached the two of us. Mykaelic explained to them that this human, me, was going to lead them out of the tunnels. Freedom was at hand.

              Then, the return trip began through the dark tunnels. I was allowed to carry a lit lantern to light my way. Following my tracks was easy now. Soon, after a few days, we reached the spot where I had left my broken flashlight. It was a good thing that I had left it here. I stopped, then shined the lantern up towards the ceiling. Sure enough, there was the still open slab where I had fallen into the tunnels. I called Mykaelic over and pointed to the opening above.

              Mykaelic placed a coil of sturdy rope around my neck, then held me and flew, or rather, hovered straight up to the opening. Once we were there, he pushed me up through the hole, and had me tie off the rope to something solid. That part was easy. I coiled the lasso portion of the rope around the stone table in the building, then tossed the remainder of the rope down the hole. Then, I stood back and watched as Mykaelic climbed up out of the hole.

              Once Mykaelic was free of the tunnel, he went over to the stone slab door, and rolled it completely out of the way, allowing moonlight to enter the building. Then, he directed me to step out of the building, to assure my safety. I did so and watched from a distance as he began widening the opening in the floor or so it seemed. What I came to understand later was that Mykaelic had used some of his magic to cause the entire chamber to become a spiraling staircase down into the tunnels. Though in doing so, the effect of a vault was now gone, to be replaced by a permanent spiral entryway into those mountainous tunnels.

              The demons began slowly ascending the stairway, as Mykaelic stepped outside of the building to access the damages that time and weather had caused to their home. He sighed when we realized that the central most building was the only structure still standing.

              But I had kept my word; I had led them out of the tunnels.

              "Mykaelic... What will you do now?"

              Mykaelic turned to face me, and rested a paw-like hand on my shoulder.

              "We rebuild, if allowed. Though from what you tell me, demons are misrepresented in your world because they do not know what we are really like. If there were only a way to set things right..."

              I hummed and started getting an idea. Danath Gaul would certainly flip out over such an idea, but the ends would benefit both the demons and Chess.

              "Maybe there is a way to set things right, although... it will be slow, at first. That is, if you're willing to trust me once again."

              Mykaelic looked at me fully. He was beginning to trust me. I did free them from the tunnels, after all.

              "I am listening, Jansen. What is your idea?"

              After explaining my idea and gathering his people for the journey, Mykaelic, with me riding on his back, led his people via flight through the night time skies. We were heading southwards. Flying by this method was sure to take at least three to four days, but there was no way I could explain their presence when trying to get them on a cargo plane. So, we journeyed through the nightly darkened skies and rested during the days in caves, barns, and other abandoned structures. We were damned fortunate to only be seen by a very few, though most of those few were teenagers, and mainly, were male humans, at that. And their reaction was not fear, but a friendly wave and smile. The demons politely returned those waves and smiles as we continued our journey southwards, then southeast. Soon, we arrived in the base Chess headquarters, within the entryway to the Chess cafeteria.

              Once Mykaelic and I had all of his people within the cafeteria, I used a wall phone to call Danath Gaul. I asked him to come to the cafeteria. Moments later, he entered the cafeteria. His jaw literally bounced off the floor when he saw all the demons in the cafeteria. And I was standing there with them. This was going to be a tough explanation to make but I was ready.

              I explained calmly that the ruins that were found belonged to the demons. Then, I gave my entire report and explained the plan. The demons would live in the sub levels of Chess' headquarters, and would share their knowledge of things with Chess in return for being allowed to stay here, towards the eventual goal of properly representing Mykaelic and his people in the world.

              Danath Gaul had regained his composure during my report and during my telling, other agents came and were listening from the door, most were afraid to enter; others simply came on in and got some dinner. Finally, Danath looked between me and Mykaelic, and spoke.

              "You're a real card, Jansen. What kind of card, I don't know. And I must be crazy for even agreeing to this plan, but they are all already here, so we can't really throw them out now, or the whole region would be screaming about demons. Mykaelic? Your people can stay. You can make use of the lower levels, from Section C through Section G, however you like. We of Chess will provide you with educational material, so you may learn about the current world. I am trusting you to keep your people out of serious trouble."

              Danath then turned fully to Jansen.

              "And here I thought that ruins would be a safe, non creature place to send you. And you dig up a whole tribe of time lost demons..."

              Jansen noticed that Danath was smiling. So, he either he wasn't fully upset, or he saw advantages to this deal. Whichever the case was, Jansen knew he wasn't going to punished for bringing the demons back to the base.

              Danath continued.

              "You're crazier than this whole organization. I have half a mind to send you back to San Francisco, but... instead, I'm going to promote your sorry ass and hope you can deal with the increased ranks."

              I blinked my eyes. Did Danath just say 'ranks'? As in more than one rank?

              Danath continued.

              "I'll process your new White Knight rank immediately. But if you ever pull a stunt like this again and I'll tie your shiny ass down and let Mykaelic use you as a breeding tool. Now, lead your demon friends down to their new quarters. I've got to somehow explain this to all the other agents."

              Danath turned and left the cafeteria. I chuckled once he was gone. I was now a White Knight. I wasn't doing any of this for a promotion, but the ends of the plan seemed to drop it in my lap.

              Of course, I did lead Mykaelic down into the sub levels. They were all impressed by the artificial lighting and the non magical way the lights could be controlled. They also loved the enormous head room and wing span length of the hallways and doorways. I showed them how the doors worked and explained how the bathrooms worked and gave explanations on just about everything else we encountered. They especially loved the elevators. I knew some agents were going to get a shock when they encountered a demon elevator operator.

              I finally got Mykaelic's people settled into the hundreds of rooms throughout the C, D, E, F and G levels of the complex. Mykaelic and I settled down in the final chamber on G level and he hugged me very tightly and began to show some affection for my aid in getting his people here.

              My next mission wasn't for several weeks. This was because Danath Gaul had a devil of a time locating me. *snickers* I wasn't at the first place he looked. The people on the scooner hadn't seen me since before the trip to Spain. That got Danath worried and he spent almost every moment trying to find me. *snickers* When he finally did locate me, I was sitting naked with Mykaelic in the center of Mykaelic's chamber reading some history books. Yes, I had to teach them -all- how to read and write in English, but I was fortunate that they were quick learners.

              Danath cleared his throat getting both our attentions. I hugged Mykaelic, grabbed my clothing, then stepped out into the hallway. I got dressed as Danath exhaled a long breath with a smile.

              "Jansen... had I known you were down here four weeks ago, I could have saved myself a -lot- of searching. But I finally found you. And I won't ask why you were naked. I don't want to know. I have a mission for you. This is something I think you can handle. You'll be traveling with another White Knight named Byron "the bull" Lyman. He actually volunteered to accompany you."

              I grinned when I heard the name Byron. He was one of my favorites.

              "What is the mission, Danath?"

              Danath handed me a White Knight jacket, then continued.

              "This time, you're being sent to Austria. I am not sure how this ties in with our line of work, but anything is possible. Male teenagers had been vanishing from a village. There were no signs of foul play, though someone reported seeing a black winged creature carrying someone in it's claws. That is reason enough for Chess to get involved. You're to take a private jet to Innsbruck, Austria, hop on board a west bound train to Landeck. In Landeck, a local boy named Karl Raab will meet with you both and be your escort into the Tyrol Alps. Karl will lead you to the now deserted village. Karl is a goat shepherd and works his flock throughout that area. If you and Byron leave in the next fifteen minutes, you can arrive in Innsbruck in the next nine hours. Now, get going and good luck."

              I rushed off to team up with Byron. I was glad to see him all packed up and awaiting me at the transport station. We rode to the airport, then boarded our private jet and were on our way to Austria. Byron handed me my gun with silver ammo and went over the check list of things he had packed for us. I listened astutely and asked about various things when he gave me the chance to ask. Then, we sat back and chatted casually about various things. Byron was pleased to see that I had made White Knight. He was still amused by the way I had acquired the rank.

              Nine hours later, we arrived in Innsbruck and headed over to catch the train to Landeck. The train trip was very quiet, and allowed us both to catch up on our sleep. We arrived in Landeck about three to four hours later. Byron and I carted our gear off the train and then, headed off to find Karl Raab in the south part of Landeck.

              After gaining some pretty precise directions from folks, we finally located Karl in an eatery on the very southern edge of Landeck. Karl Raab appeared to be eleven years old, with fair skin, short black hair, and brown eyes. He stood around four feet ten inches tall, and weighed about 80 to 90 pounds. He dressed in a shirt, light jacket, cloth pants, and hiking shoes. He carried with him a simple shepherd's crook, and also had a light-weight cloak with hood, though he kept the hood down. Karl greeted us, then finished his meal calmly. Afterward, Karl led us out of Landeck and into the Tyrol Alps. After an hour, we arrived at a small vale where Karl gathered his goats, and herded them onwards towards the abandoned village.

              We arrived in the abandoned village just as the sun was setting. Karl allowed us to stay at his place. A simple one room shack with a doorway leading into the connecting barn where his goats were bedded down in the fresh hay. We ate a simple meal, then, while Byron sat with Karl in the shack, I headed off to the outhouse. This was a trip that Byron wanted no part of. That suited me just fine. What I didn't tell Byron was that after I finished in the outhouse, that I planned on exploring the village for clues. Well, he didn't ask, so it's his loss.

              I finished my business in the outhouse, then cleaned myself and redressed. I emerged from the lone little building and headed off through the now abandoned village. It was while I was peering in a shop window that I noticed something white in a broken mirror's reflection. Whatever it was stood almost directly behind me. I decided this time to not try to see it, but instead, just talk to it.

              "You're my guardian angel, aren't you?"

              The voice that presented itself back to me was calm, soft, understanding, though very male.

              "If that is what you want to call me, so be it."

              I leaned on the window a bit with my forehead.

              "What happened to me in Kenya?"

              The voice replied without emotion.

              "If I solved your problems for you, no knowledge would be gleaned from the mystery. Otherwise, I prevented you from being infected."

              I closed my eyes. Byron had been right. It was nothing he did that saved me. This creature saved me.

              "Why are you here now?"

              The voice replied with the same non-emotion as before.

              "The creature you seek this time is a female gargoyle. I only ask that you do not kill her. She is in heat and seeks a mate. You will know what to do when you meet her."

              That surprised me a little. I couldn't stand it anymore. I quickly turned around to face the white creature. Nothing was there. No tracks, no scent, nothing.

              "I am losing my mind."

              The voice speaks from the air itself.

              "I am protecting you but you must never try to see me. The day you do, you will lose the protection that I offer you. Now go. She is on the prowl and will soon fly into view."

              And at that very second, she flew into view, and boy, did she ever. I recalled seeing Saul in flight, but I wasn't prepared to see a female gargoyle in heat flying. She landed right in front of me and started to grab me, then stopped short. She sniffed the air, then, sniffed my hands.

              "You've been with a male gargoyle."

              I exhaled slowly.

              "Yes, I have. His name is Saul du Morvan of Saulieu, Bourgogne, France. He was very kind to me then and was thankful of the aid that I gave him."

              The female gargoyle, who was extremely similar in appearance to Saul, smiled at me.

              "I would very much so like to meet this Saul."

              I stepped back a step.

              "I understand that you kidnapped several teen aged humans recently. If they are still alive, I would like for you to release them unharmed. Do this and I will personally see to it that you meet Saul in France."

              She lowered her head, then glanced to one side. Byron was standing there. He had apparently caught the last part of the conversation. Yet, Byron remained silent. I was pleased that he had not pulled his gun. The female gargoyle turned to me again.

              "They live and I will release them. My time in heat made me want to mate immediately. And they were convenient. But they couldn't satisfy my urges. I suppose it was wrong to kidnap them. I am called Astraea Tirzal. Wait here. When I return, the teenagers I shall release."

              Astraea took flight again and whipped off into the night. Byron shot a glance at me.

              "You are as crazy as Danath said. And you're not even carrying your gun."

              I said nothing. When Astraea returned quite slowly, she carefully lowered a very large cage to the ground, then landed beside it. She then unlocked the cage and opened the door widely. Astraea then walked over beside me and sighed.

              "What I did was wrong, but you said you'd escort me to see Saul. We can go right now. Please?"

              I looked to Byron once again.

              "Maybe I am crazy, but if people like Astraea offer to help us in the future, we will know that it is because of the effort that I made when encountering them. Yes, Astraea, we can go now. My friend will see to it that these teenagers get back to their families."

              I climbed up on Astraea's back and she took flight to the west, allowing me to direct her path.


              She was startled when her telephone rang. She picked up the receiver.


              There was a pause as she listened to the person talking.

              "I have not forgotten. I will bring the decorations to the church on Saturday. Thank you for reminding me."

              There was another short pause.

              "You too. Goodbye."

              She hung up the phone and exhaled a breath of air.

              "Raechel about scared me to death. But not as deathly scared as Jansen was when he fell into that dark hole. He was lucky to survive that fall and not break his neck. And it is good that he is being a gentleman to Astraea Tirzal. But I am wondering why he was naked with the demon..."

              She grinned and continued reading Jansen's agent history.



                Act VII: Moonlight Marathon

                Astraea flew effortlessly with me riding on her back. It intrigued me that she was so much in appearance almost identical to Saul. What really impressed me was the gargoyle's speed of flight. They were fast. Maybe not as fast as a dragon, but I had not encountered any dragons, so this was pretty fast to me. We were in no time out of Austria, and skirting the southern edge of Switzerland, in our flight to France. She could almost fly as fast as our private jet.

                Still, I was worried that I had left Byron behind in the Tyrol Alps. I just knew he was going to report this to Danath. And I was fast beginning to not like seeing Danath's reactions to my feats in the field. Fortunately, Astraea cleared her throat getting my attention once again, as we crossed the French border. Now, I directed her towards Saul's cavern lair near Saulieu, France.

                After landing outside the cavern entrance, I called out Saul's name into the opening, followed by announcing who was calling. I was pleased when he did emerge from the cavern. Though he blushed quite darkly when he saw Astraea. I could tell by his snuffling nostrils that he knew that Astraea was in heat. Saul winked at me as he led Astraea into his home. Then to me, he shot a "you really don't want to watch this" glance and I nodded my understanding and set off back towards Saulieu itself. I knew once I returned to Athens, Greece, there would be Hell to pay.

                Fortunately for me, as I arrived in Dijon, I encountered a Black Queen named Locke "the rududu" Radson, a native born Australian Chess agent. Locke told me he had just turned in a report at the bunker and was heading home for some R&R. Locke then invited me to come see Australia with him. I really wasn't wanting to see Danath's face just yet and I figured that a Black Queen knew more than I did, so I accepted Locke's invitation and the two of us boarded a jet en route to Paris, where we would catch a commercial flight to Perth, Australia, a good fourteen hour flight. I slept for most of the flight, but Locke woke me up when we were landing in Perth.

                In Perth, Locke and I boarded a plane that he owned, and we flew northeast to Wiluna, an hour's flight for Locke's special little plane. Once in Wiluna, we transferred into a Dodge Ram Pickup, and drove northwards to a station just east of Paroo, Western Australia. That's when I saw them hundreds of red kangaroo. Locke told me the group was called a "mob", though they were the friendliest little buggers you could ever meet. Locke owned a kangaroo farm.

                After we were settled in, I soon found out that Locke's idea of "R&R" meant "Rompin' With Roos", for he was stripped down to his shorts and outside playing with his "buddies". I watched Locke and the others play for awhile, at first. Then, Locke invited me to "join in fun" with him. So, I stripped down to my shorts, as Locke had done, and headed on out to join them. Well, I was not only a new face, but a new scent too. I got pounced by almost the whole mob. Locke just laughed and laughed. But once they had my scent, they let me play with them just like Locke was doing.

                To make a long story short... (Too Late!) Locke kept me on his kangaroo farm for about thirty days. Then, we bathed, redressed, and headed back on the return trip to Athens. To Locke, a worthwhile vacation. To me, a replenishment of lost energy. I had welcomed the break. Though having to face Danath Gaul put me on edge, but I knew it was unavoidable.

                Once we had arrived back in Athens, Locke escorted me to Danath Gaul's office and explained where he had taken me and why... the poor guy needed some rest. Locke winked his trademark Australian wink and grin at Danath. Danath didn't seem very upset this time. That scared me.

                "Evidently, some of my agents have a brain in their head. Thank you for kidnapping this Tanner. Byron told me what happened and how you escorted that female gargoyle to France. If Locke hadn't grabbed you, your ass would've been shackled in the deepest part of the headquarters in solitary confinement. But fortunately, Locke saved you from being forced to take a rest. Maybe now, you'll take necessary breaks on your own after a mission. Unfortunately, there is another mission that you seem to be keyed for. I don't want to send you, because you're crazy. But other than Locke..."

                Locke was wisely no longer in the office. His feet were heard running away down the hallways.

                " You're the only agent who is available."

                I was sort of upset that Locke had fled leaving me to face Danath, but still, there was obviously something to not accepting missions from Danath Gaul.

                "Okay. I'll try not to act crazy this time. Where are you sending me?"

                Danath seemed to smile at my saying I wouldn't act crazy.

                "Remember how you met Chess originally?"

                That made me back up a step.

                "Ys O'dora."

                Danath nodded his head.

                "Word reached her people that you had killed her. They are preparing to hunt you down. We got wind of this plan and are sending you into their nest to stop them before they permanently stop you. I don't need to remind you that you'll be on their home turf. This is why you cannot perform any crazy acts this time. This is a serious mission. If you have any favors from anyone powerful, now would be a great time to cash them in. Otherwise, you're in for a pretty hot time. Do you have any questions?"

                I had paled from hearing this.

                "I assume that the other agents are conveniently away on other missions? Hiding, as it were? Don't answer that. Okay, I'll need a special set of equipment."

                And I began reciting off a list of the items and weapons I was sure I'd need. Many of the items were expected, but a few were strange. Danath merely recorded the list and paged the list to the supply division to be fulfilled. Then, Danath turned to me and hummed.

                "Of all the supernatural creatures we deal with, vampires are one of the few that believe they are superior to all other species on Earth. They will always believe they are better than you, and will not think you capable of defeating them. This is what we are hoping. That they will be too vain to properly handle you. You're to leave in the morning from Athens, aboard the private jet, to Budapest Hungary. Once there, you'll report to our bunker and get your heavy duty ATV Jeep Cherokee. Ask them to load the jeep with A34s, about fifty of them. They come with instructions. You'll find them useful. Then, drive southeast to Bekes near the Romanian border. To the east of Bekes, you'll see the O'dora castle. One word of warning: the people in Bekes are loyal to the noble family of O'dora, so whatever you do, do -not- spend the night in Bekes. The people will turn you over to the O'dora family without question. Once you're in that area, you'll truly be on your own. The castle is said to be right on the border between Hungary and Romania. I needn't tell you how vital it is to put down this threat. Should you return alive from this mission, you'll receive a much deserved promotion whether you like it or not. Now go, and Jansen... good luck. I really mean it this time. This is not a family to take lightly."

                I exited Danath's office slowly. It had begun. The O'dora family had been informed of their kin's defeat. And they knew that I was the one who killed her. I was very afraid. Vampires were the one thing that I did not like to handle. After dealing with the countess, I was not looking forward to seeing the rest. I headed down to ask Mykaelic for a favor.

                Hours later, I was arriving in Budapest, Hungary. I reported to the bunker and requested my jeep and special supplies. The contacts there helped me stock up, but they were more eager to get me out of the bunker as fast as possible. I couldn't blame them, to be honest. The whole O'dora vampire family was mad at me and it was better to not be traveling with me, than be caught with me when the vampires appeared. I signed out officially and drove the jeep off to the southeast towards Bekes.

                My troubles started when I got within ten miles of Bekes. Someone shot at my jeep with a rifle of some sort. I was fortunate enough to be missed, but my windshield wasn't so lucky. Now, I had a better idea on what Danath meant when he said that the people of Bekes were loyal to the O'dora family. They obviously didn't want me to arrive in one piece. What bothered me the most is that they seemed to know that I was to be arriving today. They were ready for my arrival. This meant that someone else had to have alerted them. But who?

                When I reached the Bekes off ramp, I decided to make the people of Bekes think that I wasn't going there. I stayed on the main highway that bypassed Bekes and kept driving. By doing this, I got a good glimpse of the O'dora castle on the far forested hill. It was ominous and spooky. Straight out of Bram Stoker and Anne Rice. If the two had ever married in a joint writing venture, that castle was the result. And there seemed to be a constant storm around the castle itself. That indicated to me that these people had power. I continued driving. A back door entrance was fast becoming my main concern for entering the O'dora estate.

                I continued on along the highway, past Bekescsaba and across the Hungary-Romania border. It was nearing nightfall when I pulled into the town of Chisineu-Cris. I was pleased to see a roadway, E671, running north and south at this location. I knew I would be able to see that castle from the back side. I parked my jeep at an inn and registered a room for the night. Danath had told me not to sleep in Bekes. Well, this was certainly not Bekes and I needed a place to stay. Then, I walked across the street to a pub like restaurant to get some dinner. It was late when I entered, but there were a few patrons here. The waitress took my order and after I was served, I was joined by an elderly man dressed somewhat importantly. My internal red alarm went off.

                "This certainly is not Bekes, is it Mr. Tanner?"

                I glanced up at the elderly man.

                "Not all journeys end where the map leads one, do they? You seem to know me, therefore you must be one of the O'dora nobles. What do you want?"

                The man props his elbows on the table and rests his chin on both of his hands.

                "I want to know why you came here."

                I ate and drank some more before answering.

                "My mission is two fold. First, I was to investigate a werewolf sighting. Secondly, I was told to investigate a charge against me made by your family. Not necessarily in that order. But seeing as how one of the people of Bekes tried to kill me before I could reach Bekes, I decided not to grace their streets with my presence. I came here. Now, what are you really wanting?"

                He blinked his eyes and leaned back a bit.

                "You really aren't like the rest. No wonder Ys got killed. She was expecting what she was used to. Not a wild card, like you. Let me say this only, it is in your best interest to avoid Castle O'dora. If you go there, we'll fight you to the death, and furthermore..."

                At this point, the discussion was interrupted. Another man wearing a cloak and hood, placed a hand on the elderly man's shoulder and gripped quite painfully.

                "Silas O'dora. Is this a casual visit or have you forgotten that the O'doras are not welcome in Romania? You will stop threatening this man and return to your castle with the knowledge that you were inches away from death this night. A permanent death."

                He released his grip and Silas O'dora stood up, glaring at the new man. Then, Silas looked to me again.

                "Avoid the castle, if you value living."

                He glared at the other again and departed the pub restaurant. The other man asked the waitress to sanitize the chair that the vampire had sat in and he snagged another chair and sat at my table.

                "If you are their enemy, good sir, then you are likely welcome here. May I ask what plans you have?"

                Something about this man also set off my red alarm. I reached into my coat and pulled out two items... a bottle of holy water and a blessed wooden cross made to also be a wooden stake. I set them on the table between myself and this man. I noticed that he backed up considerably.

                "I was right. You're also a vampire. You're not an O'dora, so you must be a Romanian vampire. At least you're not trying to get me killed. My orders are simple... slay the O'dora family before they can kill me. I accidentally killed their American relative. Ys O'dora."

                The male vampire seemed to smile when I said that.

                "So, you're the one who did that. You don't look that powerful. Or she was simply weak. Do not worry. As long as you're not in Romania to kill any of our vampires, you might gain our aid. I overheard part of the conversation. You seek a werewolf here in Romania? I know where one is, if that is helpful to you. His name is Sebastian. Last name unknown. He has a small home north of here just off of E671 on the east side, along the river there. I'll warn you now, good sir, he isn't a man who becomes a wolf. He is a wolf who becomes humanoid. He's lived in this region for as long as I can remember. He claims that he was once Poseidon's favorite. Use caution if you plan on seeing him. Though if you seek further help from my family, everyone in Chisineu-Cris knows me as Octavius Flavian von Hammer."

                He took something from his cloak and lay it on the table.

                "If you wear this clasp while in Romania, no member of the von Hammer family will ever attack you."

                I looked at the golden clasp of a wolf embracing a phoenix while both held a hammer in their claws and paws, then back to Octavius.

                "I am Jansen Tanner, a White Knight of Chess. And while no missions of mine involve your family, I can't help but wonder why you are helping me."

                Octavius seemed to smile within his hood.

                "Perhaps it is because I can see the long range picture. Beyond tomorrow, as it were. Helping you now will earn a valuable ally in the future. Also, my aiding you has the effect of helping you stay alive, as well as, ridding this portion of the Slavic Nations of a blot of tainted blood that has passed it's importance and usefulness to the noble families of the chosen."

                I finished my meal and put my items back into my coat. Then, I pick up the clasp and clipped it unto my coat, as well. I glanced up at Octavius as I stood up.

                "I'll be setting off in the morning. Please inform your family that I mean them no harm. I really don't need a second vampire family attacking me while I am removing the blot, as you put it. If you need a bit of swearing on my part, I can give that. Upon my soul, your family is not even within any mission that I am to handle. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need my rest."

                Octavius walked with me to the payment counter and he payed for my meal. Then, he and I walked outside. Standing there beside a white Rolls Royce was a female, also dressed in cloak and hood. She nodded to Octavius as soon as she saw us.

                "Is everything OK, Octavius?"

                Octavius nodded his head.

                "Indeed, June. Our friend Jansen Tanner has no contract on our family. He is here to take out the O'dora family. I have offered our family's aid whenever he needs it."

                June nodded her head and stepped back into the car, awaiting Octavius. Octavius shook my hand, then also got into the white car. The Rolls Royce pulled away, heading off towards the nearby castle of whitewashed stone. I released a slow breath then headed back to my inn room.

                The next morning, I had breakfast then hopped into my jeep and headed north on E671 towards Sebastian's solitary home. The werewolf wasn't exactly on my mission list, but if the werewolf knew that I wasn't hunting him, then I could better trust that I wasn't going to have a wolf man stalking my trail. At least it was pretty country; Romania had that going for it.

                I finally reached the road leaving the highway down along the east. I parked my jeep and looked around the area. The first thing I noticed was the wolf staring at me from the treeline. He wasn't advancing, but it seemed more like his goal was to let me know that he could see me. I nodded my head as if to understand and the wolf vanished into the forest.

                I made sure my gun and silver ammo was in my possession. The last thing I needed was being attacked by a confused werewolf. I walked along the trail, following Octavius' directions. After an hour, I finally came across Sebastian's home. Fortunately for me, he was chopping wood in his front yard. Unfortunately, the wolf I saw from earlier was also here. That meant Sebastian knew that I had come to specifically see him.

                "Sebastian, I presume? Before you get the wrong idea, let me explain why I am here... I am Jansen Tanner, a White Knight of Chess, but I am not on a mission against any wolves... I have been assigned to defeat and slay, if necessary, the O'dora family. I was going to approach their place from the back side and I wanted to make sure you knew I was in the area and to make sure you didn't back attack me while I was working."

                The large burly hairy man turned his gaze to me and chuckled.

                "I am Dominic Payne."

                He indicated the wolf behind him.

                "That is Sebastian."

                I blinked my eyes, as I noticed that the wolf was smiling.

                "Somehow, I should have known that. At any rate, the message is still the same. If there is nothing else, I'll be on my way now."

                Sebastian tilted his head and shifted into his humanoid wolf form. That's when I noticed the gills in his neck. What the heck was this wolf? Sebastian then approached me.

                "I know... a path... if you... will trust... an old... sea wolf..."

                I looked into the eyes of the sea wolf.

                "A good path is better than no path, Sebastian. I won't ask you to aid me. Like I said, you're not on my mission orders. And I can promise not to shoot at you but if you've dealt with humans as long as I think you have, then my promise is empty words."

                Sebastian the wolf laughed.

                "If you are... truly hunting... the O'dora family... then I will... help you... kill them... They are... no longer... the nobles... their line... once was... You have... yourself... a sea wolf... soldier of Poseidon..."

                Sebastian held a paw out to me. I shook the offered paw. Sebastian grinned, then released my hand and shifted back into his wolf form once again. Sebastian led me back to my jeep, then looked up at me.

                "Jeep... no go... where I... will... lead you... Take... from jeep... things... you need..."

                I nodded my head and started rearranging my camping gear. There was no way I was going to leave behind the A34s. I ended up looking like a mountaineer. But I needed every item I had packed. Sebastian then rolled his eyes as he saw my pack. But he didn't complain. We headed west.

                When we were within a mile of the O'dora castle, Sebastian turned to me, nuzzling my leg.

                "We wait... for daylight..."

                I blinked my eyes, and looked to Sebastian.

                "Why do we wait for sunrise?"

                Sebastian kept nuzzling my leg.

                "You want... an advantage... over them... don't you? If you... attack them... at night... they will... be at... full strength... We wait... for the sun... Our ally... They will... be in... their coffins... We can... kill them... as they... slumber in... their coffins... They will... not sense... you here... once my... scent masks... your scent..."

                I nodded my head and sat down, allowing Sebastian to rub his wolf scent all over me. This proved to be very fortunate. Sebastian was barely finished when a vampire bat flew over our location, seemingly not even noticing our position. Sebastian just gave me look that seemed to suggest, "see, I told you so." Then, Sebastian and I curled up together and slept.

                Sebastian nosed me pretty hard right in the groin the next morning. One on hand, it sorta hurt; on the other hand, it felt pretty exciting. I had awoken with a "morning wood". I looked at Sebastian, who seemed to be giving me a wolf grin.

                "The weather is... cooperating... with us... this day... Though if... we are successful... I will... help you with... your blooming... manly phallus..."

                I blushed. It was pretty obvious. I sort of liked Sebastian; werewolf or not. But, I was on a mission. I was pleased that the sky was very clear and the sun was very bright. I slowly got up, and with Sebastian, we proceeded towards the castle.

                Once inside, my mission was as simple as Sebastian had said it would be. Instead of dealing with vampires, Sebastian and I had to take out loyal villagers; who soon became dead villagers! Sebastian had no qualms over tearing their throats out. I commented that I would brush and floss his fangs later. Then, by early afternoon, we located the coffins. While Sebastian kept watch at the door, I rigged all the coffins and windows and doors with the A34s. Their timers were set for fifteen minutes. When the last one was in place, I quickly tagged Sebastian, and we fled the castle. Some of the villagers gave chase, which was fine by me. That only meant that they would not know what we had done. Sebastian and I ran and jumped off the backside of the castle's plateau. Sebastian shifted forms in mid-fall, and grabbed me in one arm while he began grabbing at tree tops and secure branches with the other claw. While it did slow our descent, it didn't stop us. Then, we hit the river water! Good thing the river was deep.

                For those who don't know, a Chess issue A34 is a liquid nitrogen firebomb, and I had set all of the fifty firebombs in the main coffin chamber. Just as Sebastian and I hit the water, every firebomb detonated at the same time! The entire O'dora plateau, castle and all, including villagers who were still within range, were engulfed in an inferno of melting degree temperatures, as the entire castle just ceased to exist. As did most of the mountain, for that matter. And what the bombs didn't finish, the exposure to the sun did.

                Sebastian pulled me out of the river water at Dominic Payne's home. I awoke the next morning in a goose-feather quilted bed, with Sebastian sleeping on top of me. Sebastian's bed. He had guarded me all through the night. I found it strange that my white guardian angel wasn't around to keep me alive this time. I shivered when I realized that the white creature wasn't always around. Sebastian awoke and licked my face. He then grinned and proceeded to help me as he promised the night before our raid on the castle. I didn't have much choice.


                She blinked her eyes after reading that section. She could feel the chase and the flight in her own bloodstream. She pondered for a moment about Jansen's success.

                "Jansen really got lucky that time! Who would have thought that other vampires and that handsome old werewolf would have lent Jansen all that free aide. Without Sebastian's help, Jansen would have been killed for sure."

                She smiled as she wondered if Pamela Worthington was going to make it on time this Saturday.

                "Pamela has quite the gift, at times... It is a wonder she was not recruited by this organization. And I wonder if Octavius and June Von Hammer are the same ones that we know of?"

                She grinned as she resumed reading Jansen's agent history.



                  Act VIII: What You Should Never Know

                  About a week later, I returned to Athens, Greece. I had wisely used my week's stay in Romania to make sure that the O'dora family were indeed gone. I didn't want any surprises cropping up later. Sebastian and the von Hammer family helped me make sure the O'dora family were indeed gone. Afterward, the von Hammer family entertained Sebastian and I like heroes of old. During the last day of my stay in Romania, June von Hammer drew me aside and explained to me that her family weren't vampires, but they did hold some great power. The females were evidently sorcerers, while the males were akin to druids, specializing in animal spirit magic. Wizards. This didn't really surprise me, but at least now I had encountered some safely. My flight back to Athens was pretty peaceful.

                  When I walked into Chess headquarters, I was surprised to see so many of the other agents gathered. Mykaelic was also in attendance. Danath Gaul smiled at me and shook my hand.

                  "Welcome back, Black Bishop. Somehow, yet again, you return to us alive. Our contacts in Hungary and Romania told me about the annihilation of the O'dora holdings. I knew you would return soon afterward, though you are later than I expected. But now you are here and we can conduct this ceremony properly."

                  I was kind of in shock. A ceremony for defeating a vampire family? This seemed unusual to me. Surely not all vampires were like the O'dora family. They couldn't be. But I had not encountered any others. So far, every vampire I encountered had tried to kill me.

                  "It really isn't that big a deal, Danath. I did have some help. And my return was delayed because a local family of power in Romania was entertaining me for defeating the O'dora family."

                  Danath grinned and patted my shoulder.

                  "...And he's modest too. Jansen, long have you moved up through the ranks, rarely taking any time off between missions. Now that you have reached the rank of Black Bishop, it is a great pleasure to award you with your own complex. But there is more! You are one of the few agents without a nickname. All of our best agents have a nickname. I would like you to choose one now."

                  I blinked my eyes and blushed somewhat. Though, I was smiling too, it was finally happening: I was getting a nickname. But what nickname should I choose? It had to be cool sounding, like the others, yet dignified enough to show that I was serious. Suddenly, I knew what to say.

                  "I thank you, Danath, and the rest of you as well. I am surprised you all took a chance to gather like this knowing that Danath could send you on a mission at any second. My nickname is simple, yet honorific. To understand it's value, one would have to know my life before Chess. I have not forgotten vows I took before meeting with Chess. From now on, I am Jansen 'the oath taker of Xim' Tanner. This may be shortened to 'the oath taker'. Be it known from here on out, when a Tanner gives their word on something, it is chiseled in stone. I may not like what I have promised, but it will be performed to the letter of the agreement. I also thank you for the complex, though I would prefer not to have this complex here in Athens. This is not to imply that I do not want to be here; I merely have roots elsewhere and seek to continue sowing the seed that I have started in that region of the world."

                  Danath and the others blinked their eyes at the nickname that I had chosen. Most were looking at each other, not sure what to make of it. Then slowly, an applause began. I was pleased to see that Mark and Luke had started the applause. It's good to have friends in Chess. I was also pleased to see Luke alive. I hadn't heard from him in ages. I had feared the worst.

                  Danath then handed me my new jacket. I was now a Black Bishop. Danath smiled at me.

                  "Jansen 'the oath taker of Xim' Tanner. Chess will build your complex where ever you like. Yet, you will still have an official bunker of sorts here in the base headquarters. Where would you like your complex built?"

                  I grinned. The area I was going to choose was a location that Jael once told me about. It was a lycanthrope's training region. I haven't forgotten you, Xim. You deserved a better monument.

                  "My complex will be in northern California, in Humboldt county, just south of Eureka, which has an airport, by the way. The exact location is to be just southeast of Capetown in the Rainbow Ridge mountains. I want the place to be officially named as The Xim Complex. Publicly, it will appear to be a privately owned museum dedicated to the actual game of chess. Beneath the surface, it will be my own American facility of the Chess organization. Open to agents and others of my choosing at any time. And there will be others there almost constantly. And they will not be molested, interrogated, or threatened. Do I make myself clear?"

                  I was glaring at Danath what I asked that last part. He seemed to get the message. He didn't cringe, but I could tell that he understood what I was implying. I knew he and I would be speaking later about this. I then continued.

                  "My long overdue vacation is to begin immediately. I will lay out plans before my departure on how the complex should look on the surface. It will be built to my specifications. I fully expect the roof to be able to conduct a giant-sized chess game at any time. The rest of the complex, connecting via elevator, will be underground, and parts within the range itself. An escape tunnel, of sorts, needs to be constructed, as well. This tunnel is to be left open at all times. If I find blockage later on, I will personally rip the blockage out. Thank you all for gathering here today. It means much to me."

                  I started off towards the offices, literally dragging Danath with me. It was the first time I had been so rough with him. I was in a mind to state some changes in Chess. And I wanted to make sure Danath was forced to listen to them before my vacation started.

                  Many hours, of discussion and ranting, later...

                  I put the finishing touches on the blueprints of the Xim Complex. I smiled, as I heard Danath just behind me exhale a sigh of evident surprise. I could tell that he liked the design. It was interesting, yet official. The tournament hall was probably the best added touch. I signed and dated each level of the complex blueprints, then turned to Danath and smiled.

                  "When will this be ready?"

                  Danath was still in awe over the blueprints.

                  "...We can get it started immediately. Any preferences on a contractor?"

                  I almost growled.

                  "Anyone except Cassander Vulcan! I don't want that bastard anywhere near that place! If I find out that he's been there, I'll hunt him down and kill him myself!"

                  Danath snapped out of his awe when I said that.

                  "You suspect him of something?"

                  I was barely able to keep from growling.

                  "He was up to something fishy in Kenya. That were lion tried to warn me about something and I just know that Mr. Vulcan is somehow involved in that warning. But what?"

                  Danath collected the blueprints in their numerical order. Then, he started out of the office.

                  "Jansen. I know you're supposed to be taking a vacation, officially, but I won't say anything if you happen to be in places you've already visited."

                  Danath walked out of the office. I lifted my head and turned around, watching him walk away. Well, he was giving me a kind of permission to pursue some things that I wanted answers to. This was certainly not the time to turn down a given permission. I headed to my room to make preparations for my return trip to Kenya.

                  I was surprised when Mark "the wonderland rabbit" Jolson offered to come with me. He didn't have to come, but he was volunteering. I really didn't want someone with me, but I did like Mark. So, the two of us finished making preparations, and headed to the airport. Once we were on the private jet, I told him that this was not an official mission. This was a Tanner thing. He just chuckled and patted my shoulder. He said that he knew that. Tanner things were somewhat fun, from what he had heard.

                  Then, he broke the news to me. My parents had died a few months ago while I was on a mission. Mark told me that he attended the funeral and photographed the services. I was pretty choked up and cried upon learning this. I guess I missed my parents more than I knew. Mark showed me the collection of photographs in order, allowing me a last glimpse of my family. It pained me to see my sisters wearing black. Jocelyn hated black, but she was wearing it anyway. Her expression in the pictures were like I had been towards Vulcan earlier.

                  Our jet made a stop in Cairo, Egypt, Africa. Mark and I took a much needed walk to allow me to regather my thoughts. I had been delivered a shock, after all. The beautiful black-haired fair-skinned woman that was selling the Egyptian mythology jewelry was very attractive. She seemed to catch my eye immediately. I approached her and purchased an amulet of Ra, a necklace of Isis, and some bracers of Anubis. I also purchased a few Anubian statuettes. Then, I offered to buy her dinner, and she accepted, though her male dark-haired black slender friend would have to come along. I didn't mind, as I explained that Mark would also have to come along.

                  I discovered that her name was Felbas Al-Kitar, and her handsome male friend was called Nubis Al-Jakal. Nubis was my age, and very interested in being my friend. Felbas was more Mark's age. We had a pleasant meal, then afterward, the four of use toured some places around Cairo. When the evening ended our day, I gave Felbas and Nubis some of my business cards. The cards gave my name and my personal phone number in Athens. A toll-free number. Danath never explained how we could afford international toll-free phone numbers. I explained that my answering machine would likely take any messages phoned in. They both hugged Mark and I, then they departed back into Cairo. Mark and I boarded our private jet once again and resumed our flight to Kenya.

                  After we had arrived in Wajir, the contacts at the Chess bunker were very surprised to see me back in their region. Mark and I got ourselves a jeep and some supplies and headed out to the Woyamdero Plain. I was going to find out what the heck was up with that area. Why would Vulcan choose a place in the middle of nowhere? It couldn't have been by accident. There was something here. He had previously told Byron and me that there was oil here. From what little geographical survey records I had researched later, I knew that Vulcan had told a bald faced lie. So, if it wasn't oil, what had he really been after?

                  When Mark and I arrived at the site, we discovered that there was now a small native village built around the site itself. I had recalled that some natives lived in this region, but their village wasn't anywhere near here. My internal red alarms were going off. Mark and I spoke with the village chieftain about the Vulcan site. The chieftain scowled at the Vulcan name. That made me relax quite a bit. I was glad that I wasn't the only one who disliked him. Mark played translator between us as we spoke. The chieftain was likewise pleased that I didn't like that Vulcan bastard either. I then confided my suspicions to the chieftain about the previous events when Chess was here last. About the were lion, his apparent warning and the like.

                  That night, Mark and I had set up our tents along the same trail where I had my encounter with the were lion before. Mark entered his tent and I entered mine. I had made sure that our tents were at the precise same spots they had been before. I wanted everything to be exactly as it was before. I had a hunch and wanted to see if I was going to be right or it was all a trick of my mind. I checked my watch; it was a little after midnight. Perhaps I had been wrong. I exited my tent wearing only my shorts and took a slow walk down the path toward the watering hole.

                  The moon was full as I rounded the bend in the path. I walked up to the edge of the waterhole and knelt down to get a drink of the cool water. I had barely tasted the water, when a large paw settled down on my shoulder. I froze instantly.

                  "Are you a were lion like the last one?"

                  There was a moment of silence before the reply came. A rich baritone yet sensual voice in accented English.

                  "He was my friend. I know you were not the one who killed him. Why did you come back?"

                  I remained where I was.

                  "I wanted to know the truth. I wanted to know what that bastard Vulcan was doing here. Your friend tried to warn me but I didn't understand him. So he attacked me instead. Perhaps it wasn't an attack. There could have been someone watching that night, so he had to make it look like he was attacking me. Too many what ifs. I just want the truth. If I could bring your friend back to life, I would."

                  The rich baritone sensual voice continued. His paw was still on my shoulder. I could feel his breath on my bare back.

                  "You would? Perhaps you deserve to know the truth after all."

                  He removed the paw from my shoulder, then padded up beside me and drank from the water. He was in full lion form.

                  "I am called Lorian Ngiro. Lori for short. I live to the south of here with my pride of were lions. The one your white guardian killed was called Merti Wodero. He was this area's protector. He couldn't speak English, like I can, so when he tried to warn you that night, you couldn't possibly understand him. What he was trying to tell you was that this site was an animal burial site."

                  I almost cussed. Okay, I did cuss. And it was pretty vulgar too.

                  "Ivory. That bastard was after the ivory. He better hope he never crosses my path again."

                  Lorian nuzzled me and gave me a lick.

                  "You're not like the rest, Jansen Tanner. You'll always be welcome in our area. I will make sure my pride king knows about you. I am sure he will like you as I do now. You have your truth. But know you this: Vulcan never completed his construction here. He turned in a claim to his insurance company for millions. The claim was industrial sabotage."

                  Lorian suddenly nudged me so hard that I fell into the watering hole. When I surfaced, Lorian was gone and so were my shorts. That sneaky were lion! I climbed out of the water, soaked to the bone and cold. I shivered as I headed back to my tent. Hey! At least I had my bath for the week.

                  When morning came, Mark and I packed up and headed back to Wajir. Mark could see that I was smiling. That meant that I had some fun during the night. Mark also noted how clean I was. I merely told him that I took a midnight bath in the nearby watering hole. Okay, it wasn't the truth, but Mark didn't need to know about the other were lions.

                  I wasn't like the rest. I was a Tanner.

                  Back on the private jet once again, I told Mark that someone stole my shorts while I had bathed at the waterhole. For the most part, it was true. I was wearing my shorts at the waterhole, but not after I emerged from the water. I could only guess that Lorian had taken them off of me as we talked, then pushed me into the water so I didn't see him leaving with my shorts. I could only guess that the were lion wanted to retain my scent for his pride's king's knowledge. That sorta bothered me, but I had many more shorts to wear. Maybe Lorian needed a pair of shorts.

                  We again stopped in Cairo. Mark told me that he needed to check in at the bunker. So we parted company. I was alone again, which suited me fine. I then went off to find Felbas and Nubis. When I reached the place where Felbas' stand had been, I was disappointed to see that it wasn't here. I then asked around about the jewelry stand, but turned up few leads. I sighed and leaned up against a wall. Suddenly, a young boy tugged on my shirt and said he could show me where Nubis was... for a fee. I smiled and petted the young boy. I pulled out a hundred dollar bill and told the boy that the money was his if he led me to Nubis Al-Jakal.

                  The boy led me through the streets and into some dark alleys, and finally, into an older stone temple like place. The boy whispered to me that Nubis Al-Jakal was attending the priest at the altar. I glanced that way and saw it to be true. I gave the money to the boy and he smiled and departed. I then slowly approached the priest's altar. The priest, dressed in the garb of Anubis, noticed my slow approach and nodded his head to me.

                  "Welcome to the Anubian Guardians, noble traveler. Are you here for a blessing or to make a donation?"

                  I smiled almost pointedly towards Nubis.

                  "I can make a donation to the cause, noble priest. But in truth, I came to see Nubis Al-Jakal."

                  The priest glanced to Nubis, then to me.

                  "He is currently attending to my services. If you wish to wait, his room is through those curtains and down the left hall. Fourth curtained doorway on the right."

                  I smiled again, and made a sizable donation on the altar. Then I bowed and headed off to await Nubis in his room. As I entered Nubis' room, I saw the near humanoid hounds lounging all over the chamber. They merely nodded to me and smiled, then resumed their lounging. I walked across the chamber and sat on some pillows near one of the hounds. I noticed that they were almost perfectly defined and seemed to take handsomeness to an all time high. The hound nearest to me reached over and began massaging me, soon having me all sprawled out on the pillows getting a full body rub.

                  It wasn't until the late evening that Nubis arrived in the chambers. All of the hounds gazed his way and bowed like those who were owned by their master who had just returned home.

                  "I see you've met my servants. They seem to like you, Jansen. What brings you to me this time?"

                  I smiled and scratched the servant hound in return.

                  "I am on vacation. Plus, you were so nice the last time, I decided that I wanted to see you again. If I came at a bad time, I apologize and can leave, if you wish."

                  Nubis smiled.

                  "No, you may stay. I didn't think I made that much of an impression on you. My friend Felbas was sure she had you eating out of her hand, yet you seek me out."

                  I grinned.

                  "As nice as Felbas was, she is more Mark's age. You are more my age. Plus, you did say you wanted to be my friend. Where did you get these wonderful hounds at?"

                  Nubis' eyes seemed to flash for a moment as he grinned.

                  "I created them."

                  I stopped scratching almost instantly. I was now looking directly at Nubis.

                  "You what?"

                  Nubis' eyes were still glowing. I was starting to feel a tingling sensation all over my body.

                  "I said, I created them. I am Anubis, after all... and you're in my lair. Not many get to see my hounds, without a price..."

                  I gulped as I felt myself changing in appearance and size. I felt a pain in my tail base, and in my legs, in my groin, and within my neck and head. I quickly started getting out of my clothing.

                  "You don't have to change me into a hound. What other price do you want?"

                  Nubis smiled to me, as I continued to change, more rapidly now.

                  "I want you to stay with me as a hound for the length of your vacation. When your vacation ends, you will be restored to normal and I will repay you for any indignities you had suffered in this time. At any rate, I will have you instead of Felbas. She is actually Bast."

                  I lost consciousness as the pain and contortions continued. Whatever I did as a hound is not known to me. No memory of these events would ever surface. I would only remember later that it was extremely enjoyable and that my brother hounds took extremely good care of me.

                  My next conscious memory was almost a year later to the day and hour of my change. I awoke naked and human in a shared kennel pen with another of Nubis' hound servants. The servant hound licked me, then signaled his master with a soft howl. Nubis arrived with a bath robe and helped me out of the pen. He escorted me to a bath tub and helped me get cleaned up. I smiled as it felt like I had been totally rejuvenated. I felt limber, rested, and extremely energized.

                  After I was dried by the servants, they helped me get dressed in some pretty cool clothes, topped with my Black Bishop jacket, with von Hammer clasp, and another clasp... this one of the Nubian Cult. It was an ebony clasp depicting a near-humanoid hound with it's paws around a small pyramid. I sort of liked that one. Then again, I liked pretty items. I kissed both hounds who were helping me, then I was escorted to the main chamber where Nubis and the priest were at. Nubis and the priest bid me a fond farewell, as I left the temple, returning to the Chess bunker.

                  When I arrived there, the contacts were surprised to see me. It was as if I had fallen off the edge of the planet, then resurfaced as mysteriously as I had vanished. I checked in, and finding no apparent missions, I then caught the private jet to Tabuk, Saudi Arabia. I got a jeep and supplies at the bunker there, then drove southwards to Al Ahdar. Then, I turned to the west and parked my jeep at the camp of my friend, Yaseel. I was surprised to find only he and the genie hound at the tent. Yaseel told me that the others joined a caravan a few weeks after my visit, and he had not seen them since. But Yaseel was happy to see me again now. The genie hound was sure I was there to ask for my wish, but in private, I assured him that it wasn't time just yet. I shared my supplies with Yaseel and the hound and we had some enjoyable fun.

                  While I was visiting this location, I stripped down to my shorts and went to visit the imps in their cavern. When I got to the main cavern where I had met them before, I was disappointed to find them all gone. I lowered myself into their cavern and searched around for any clue as to where they had gone. I finally found a scroll lying on a rock. The script on the outside clearly had the words "To Jansen Tanner." I opened the scroll immediately.

                  "Jansen. Wizard in wilds just west of Skipton, England, and near the Yorkshire Dales National Park is summoning all of us imps. Don't know why. We need your help. We pay you anything. Help!"

                  I growled as I read this. My vacation was obviously over. Some damned wizard had my friends. And you don't get on a Tanner's bad side and get away with it. I took the scroll and departed the caverns, returning to the camp. I got dressed and apologized to Yaseel for having to cut the visit short. I promised him that he would indeed see me again soon. I got into the jeep and headed back to the bunker and caught the private jet. I had to make a stop in Athens to let Danath know where I was going. This mission took a greater precedence over all others. If Danath Gaul didn't like that, then he could go screw himself. This was definitely a Tanner thing.

                  In Athens, Danath read over the scroll as I packed up for the trip to England. He surprisingly seemed pleased that I was going to help those I had befriended before. And Danath was acting a lot differently. I didn't question it; I was in a hurry. Finally, Danath handed the scroll back to me.

                  "Jansen, I know this isn't a Chess mission, but I've been watching you. The one thing I have learned is that you'll never be a normal Chess agent. You likely have a higher calling. This is all just practice, I am guessing. I think you've reached the position where you can make your own missions. You are a Tanner, after all. Therefore, all I ask is that you let me know what your missions are so I can give you info about those places in the world. Now, there is no airport in Skipton, England, so instead, you'll be flying to Leeds. Report to the bunker there and request 'Emergency Pack B'. It will contain all the items you'll need for combating a mage. It's happened before. That's why we're prepared against wizards now. Instead of a jeep, you'll be getting a sports car. Jeeps are not stylish in England. From Leeds, you'll head northwest to Skipton, then west as far as any road will allow you to go. Once you finish your mission with the imps, take some time to explore England a little. You need all the rest you can get between missions. Good luck, Jansen."

                  I was surprised that Danath was -helping- me for a change. Little did I know what that was to mean in the months to come. I headed to the private jet and began my mission to England.


                  She about jumped out of her clothes as the phone rang again.


                  There was a pause as the other person spoke.

                  "I know, Brittany. Raechel already told me. Of course I'll bring the decorations this Saturday."

                  There was another pause.

                  "Yes, I'll make sure ding-dong brings the wine too. Okay, Brittany. Bye."

                  She hung up the phone, her heart was literally in her throat.

                  "Damned! Brittany didn't have to check up on me. At least she isn't getting changed into a hound or fighting a wizard or getting her lingerie stolen by a sexy were lion. Who am I kidding? Brittany would probably love it."

                  She resumed reading Jansen's agent history.



                    Act IX: Eldritch Pips and Unicycles

                    A little over twelve to fifteen hours later, my jet landed in Leeds, England. I reported to the local Chess bunker and requested Emergency Pack B, as well as a sports car. I sat in the sports car looking over the pack to see what was in it. The checklist helped me confirm a lot of magic protection devices, and explained what such items could not stop. I was glad that I had read the instructions first. I used the sports car's private Via Satellite phone to call Danath. This was certainly a change. I was checking in. I told Danath where I was and what I was doing. He was pleased that I had called to verify my position. We spoke for awhile, then I hung up.

                    Soon, I was driving towards Skipton, in the left-hand side lane. In England, you drove on the left side of the road. It wasn't long until I drove through Skipton. It was a very pleasant place, though nothing noteworthy for me to take notice of. Fortunately, I located a road heading west out of Skipton. It was an unpaved roadway, and quite bumpy. As I got out of sight of the town, the unpaved road suddenly became boggy, and my sports car quite literally became stuck in the mud. I called in to Danath one last time and explained my general location and what had happened. I was now going to be on foot. I hung up, hefted my gear, and got out of the car.

                    I set off further to the west, entering the wilds, a mixture of woods, streams, bogs and overgrown fields. I had traveled about an hour and a half, when I got a good view of something unusual. It was a male foxtaur. I smiled and approached him. He suddenly flicked an ear and pivoted his head directly at me. When he did this, I got to see how handsome he was. But only for a moment. He bolted and vanished into the treeline. I sighed. They must be skittish creatures. I got to where he was sitting and found a broken leather shackle and some sharp stones. At least I understood what he had been doing. He had been freeing himself from a restraining device. I merely nodded toward where he went, then I turned to the west once again.

                    Soon, night was settling in and I pitched camp, starting a campfire. It was good hunting territory, and I soon had a wild boar roasting over my fire. That is when I had my first bit of company. The handsome foxtaur entered my camp and sat down at the fire. I had to surmise that when I had not given chase, that made him curious. And now he was close enough to speak to.

                    "Are you hungry, my friend?"

                    He sat quietly, at first. It seemed he was warming himself next to my fire. Then, he nodded to me and held out his wrist. It had another leather shackle on it. I nodded in understanding, gently grabbed the shackle, and proceeded to slice the thing off of his wrist. I was careful so as not to injure him. Then, it was off and I tossed the thing into my fire. He smiled to me.

                    "Yes, kind sir. I am famished."

                    I smiled in return and shared my meal with him. Afterward, I gave him space inside my tent and gave him some warm blankets. He covered himself nicely, then, he lay himself directly beside me.

                    By the following morning, I awoke feeling stiff, and my curious friend was gone. I wanted to ask him some questions, but... oh well. He was gone now. I packed up my camp and continued my trek to the west.

                    I didn't make much headway on the second day. The weather decided to be a bitch, and it began to rain. I got pretty soaked. Fortunately, I found a dry cave and went inside to wait the storm out. I set up my camp first, then after I got my campfire going, I got out of my wet clothing, strung up a makeshift clothesline, and hung them up to dry. I had only been in the cave for an hour, when I was joined by several male foxtaurs. I found it odd that they chose the same cave to take shelter in. Then, I noticed my handsome friend from the night before. He padded over to me and hugged me, introducing his friends to me. They gave me a good snuffling and hugging.

                    After another shared meal with my guests, I tagged my first friend's furry arm lightly.

                    "I want to ask you some questions. I am looking for a wizard's dwelling. He has captured several of my friends from far away. I want to free my friends. Can you tell me where the place is?"

                    The foxtaur shivered noticeably.

                    "You don't want to go there, kind sir. He is a bad person."

                    I frowned.

                    "But I need to save my friends, like I did when I freed you of the leather shackle. Please tell me where it is. I will give you anything in return for your telling me."

                    He looked to me and smiled, patting my rump with his paw. That sort of got my attention.

                    "You want to sleep with me?"

                    He nodded his handsome face.

                    "That is what I want. Then, I will tell you where the place is."

                    I decided to grant him the request. I needed to know where the wizard's place was. Next time I would know not to say the word "anything" when bargaining with a foxtaur. He snuggled with me, and we both slept. At least, I hope he slept.

                    The following morning, I awoke stiff again and he was lying there with me, a happy little smile on his muzzle.

                    "I will tell you now. You passed the place yesterday. It was slightly south of where you walked. It is partly surrounded by a sticky bog, while the remaining side is flush with the trees. When you first lay eyes on the place, you will assume that it is a simple farm with horses, cattle, dogs, chickens, goats and sheep. The main building is more than it appears. You may find it about two and a half hours walk back to the southeast of this cave. Because it is still raining, and your clothes are still damp, it would be wise to remain here with us, until the rain stops."

                    The foxtaur gave some good directions, though also, he had a point. I didn't like traveling in the rain. So, I lay back down with my friend and snuggled his body some more. He returned those snuggles, and was soon asleep with his paws around me. The other foxtaurs chose this moment to make a huge foxtaur pile all around and on the two of us. I did manage to get some sleep in.

                    I awoke the next morning feeling stiff yet again. I was well rested, but couldn't explain that stiff feeling. The rain had ceased falling, and my clothing was dry. I got up and got dressed in my clothing and gear. Then, I packed up my camp, and headed off to the southeast. I was hoping that the foxtaurs info was correct.

                    I followed my handsome foxtaur friend's directions. It had dawned on me that I had not asked him his name, but there are times when not knowing is better than knowing. It was odd that I could still smell him on my skin. A required bath would be in order after this mission ended.

                    Finally, I came within view of the partially secluded farm. It was set up exactly as the foxtaur had said. Thick trees lined the back of the the entire property. A sticky bog surrounded most of the surrounding sides, except for a small thin path that led in to the front door of the house. Behind the house were the actual pens, stables, and corrals. I could see the animals clearly enough. Using my binoculars, I could see that all of the animals wore glowing collars. These were not like the one I had cut off of the one imp that I helped save years ago. They glowed with a blue light, though the fencing around each enclosure also glowed with the same blue light. I took this to mean that anything wearing a blue collar could not pass a blue barrier.

                    I approached the house, remembering what the foxtaur had said about the house being more that it appeared. At the front door, a small sign read "knock first; if no answer, then ring bell; if still no answer, skirt house to back yard and repeat procedure on back door." I thought this sounded plausible if the owner was too busy to answer the front door. So, I knocked on the door, then waited for a reply. I allowed ten minutes to pass. No one answered the door. Then I rang the pull-rope bell, and waited another ten minutes. There was still no reply.

                    At this point, I started skirting the house, avoiding the sticky bog as best as possible. Around the side, a small gate to the back yard had a small sign on it that read "do not feed the animals." I pushed open the spring gate and entered the livestock area, which was evidently the back yard. I satisfied my curiosity by walking around looking at all of the animals without touching them, then I approached the back door. I knocked on the door and awaited the ten minute time frame. When there was no answer, I pulled the rope to ring the bell. During this ten minute wait, the door slowly opened. Standing just inside, wearing a simple tunic, was a urisk.

                    A urisk was a Scottish water fairy that normally frequented lonely pools in near secluded locations. It appeared to be a male satyr in appearance, with a goat's or donkey's head, and was usually slender and quiet. He sported cloven hooves, a tail appropriate to the head's species, and likely, the genitals to match. The urisk was covered in fine fur, and had little scent, unless highly aroused. Urisks were solitary creatures, and were not known to herd together. Nothing else was known about them.

                    This particular urisk smiled when he saw me. I could detect a rather pungent aroused scent emitting from the urisk's body. He had the head of a donkey, with very long rabbit-like ears.

                    "May I help you?"

                    His voice was calm, almost child-like, though seeming very assured in it's speaking. I smiled back, glad no wizard answered the door.

                    "I am Jansen Tanner. I was told that I could find a wizard living here. Is he home? I have a matter of business that is very important to discuss with him."

                    The urisk never stopped smiling.

                    "He is a little preoccupied in a task, but you may come in. You must have traveled a long way to see the master. He rarely gets any visitors. Please, come in."

                    I entered, then noticed the wall where the front door should have been. So that was the game. If you knocked on the front door and rang the bell, no one would answer. If your business wasn't very important, you'd go away. Otherwise, you'd go to the back yard, where you would see the animals. And likely, some idiots would try feeding the animals. And likely, be magically trapped there in some way. I smiled to the Urisk, sort of scratching his head and neck fur.

                    "What do you do for your master, young friend?"

                    He really liked getting scratched!

                    "I do any chore he asks, though my usual job is to keep the bog fresh, deep and sticky. The master likes his privacy. Though on occasion, he gives me permission to entertain special guests. Like yourself, Jansen Tanner. If you will follow me, I will take you to where my master is working."

                    I nodded and scratched some more before stopping. The urisk's scent was a little stronger now. I followed my cute little friend down a hallway, then into a stone descending stairway. That is when I got the full gist of this place. It was literally a sunken castle with a farmhouse and fake farm positioned directly on top of it. A nice disguise. Guaranteed privacy to anyone working on things where solitude was necessary. I almost envied the owner.

                    We descended several floors, each time getting to see a whole section of the castle. The place was huge. A lot larger than I would have first thought. Finally, the urisk led me into a small five foot by five foot foyer and peeked through the obvious wooden door. He called out.

                    "Master? We have a visitor."

                    The urisk withdrew to stand beside me, within reach of my scratching fingers. He really really liked getting scratched!! And I obliged and scratched the urisk, while waiting to see who emerged. The wooden door eventually opened. Standing there in wizard's robes was a huge almost ogre-like beast, only he wasn't an ogre. He was like a jigsaw puzzle of various animals, all thrown together and given life. He had the head of a kangaroo, the neck of a boa constrictor, the torso of a bull, the left arm of a lion, the right arm of a wolf, the hands of a young human, the prehensile tail of a spider monkey, the rump of a warthog, the genitals of a stag, the left leg of an elephant, the right leg of a giant squirrel, and the cloven hooves of a goat.

                    The wizard simply stood there evaluating my reaction. My reaction was not what he expected. I extended my right hand and smiled.

                    "Forgive me for bothering you, sir, but I am on a mission to find some friends of mine. I was led to believe that the wizard living in this region of England could help me. My name is Jansen Tanner."

                    The beast wizard couldn't help but to smile as he shook my hand in his own hand.

                    "It is a pleasing change to see courage over abject screams of terror. I am Kobocobu Liwohu Mowastel Quirgo, though most people cannot say that. So, I allow the usage of the nickname of 'the beast wizard'. I see you've met the only friend I have that is not afraid of me. His name is Dumimoor. He seems to like you. Perhaps you'll spend a night with him. Please. Come in."

                    Kobocobu led me and Dumimoor into his workshop, closing the door behind us. Inside, the lab was huge. There seemed to be experiments going on simultaneously on every table. I couldn't help but to be impressed. It would take a very stable calculating mind to know what was happening on each and every table. Then, I noticed a large glowing pit-like hole in the central floor. I peered into the opening. Inside, standing on a mesh grid, was all of my imp buddies. Under the mesh grid, was a large kettle about one quarter full of a pungent fluid. I couldn't tell from here what it could be. I then spoke to Kobocobu, while still knelt down at the pit.

                    "Kobocobu? These imps are friends of mine. They are who I came to find. What are they doing here?"

                    Kobocobu came over and stood almost behind me.

                    "As you may know, a wizard can summon an imp to perform a service at any given time. My need for your friends is no different. I needed all of their help. One imp alone could not do this task."

                    I looked up at Kobocobu, then back at the imps.

                    "What service are you having them do?"

                    Kobocobu smiled.

                    "I am creating a potion for undoing unwanted transformations. The recipe calls for a whole kettle of imp urine. As you can see, the kettle is only one quarter filled. They need to produce three quarters more. The instant the kettle reaches that amount, every imp will instantaneously be sent home to where ever they normally live. Their summoned task completed. You must be a good friend to come all this way to find them. I respect loyalty in friends."

                    I turned to him again and saw that his facial expression was serious. He meant his words.

                    "Pardon me for suggesting this, but it may take a very long time for them to produce that much urine, unless aided. I suggest that you allow them to imbibe mass quantities of ale and beer. This will cause them to have to produce more urine than they normally would and you would not have to wait for such a long period of time. The end result would still be imp urine."

                    I couldn't imagine anyone wanting imp urine. But wizards are strange people. If they think that a given potion will work, they'll go out of their way to gather every ingredient. Regardless if the potion works or not. They do these things to prove or disprove what is written.

                    "That is a good suggestion, Jansen. By the orb, I have been waiting a long time. I will do as you ask. Thank you."

                    I looked down at the imps again.

                    "Is it okay if I spend some time with my imp friends? I have come a long way to see them. And I want to make sure they are well."

                    Kobocobu hummed, then smiled.

                    "I see no problem with that. They cannot leave the space they are in, though anyone else can come and go from there at will. Spend as much time there as you like. I will fetch the liquor."

                    Kobocobu left the chamber and I lowered myself into the pit to the mesh where the imps were. Of course, when they saw me, they all pounced me and hugged all over me. I explained to them what Kobocobu was after and how they'd instantly be free afterward. They were very understanding and would do anything for me. When Kobocobu returned with the liquor, I helped feed each of the imps mass quantities of the liquid. After a few hours, the imps were producing like mad. I was sort of afraid that they had drank too much. Suddenly, in mid producing, a bell at the kettle rang and all the imps vanished, mid producing. I couldn't help but to grin. They were likely back in Saudi Arabia now, wetting down their caverns.

                    Kobocobu helped me out of the pit, then lifted the mesh, then the kettle. He carried the kettle over to a cooking fire and set the kettle in place. He turned to me and smiled, giving me a great big hug. He also kissed my forehead while holding me.

                    "Thank you for your aid, Jansen. I really must reward you. Please. Stay a few days with me and Dumimoor. I promise to make it worth your while. Dumimoor will show you to our room."

                    I smiled, surprised by Kobocobu's forwardness and gentle affection to me. Then, Dumimoor hugged me too, and began leading me off to a bedroom. Inside, I noticed three beds. Two smaller beds and one very large bed. It was to be expected that they shared the same room, and expected me to also share their room. Dumimoor showed me to a bed, and asked me to get comfortable. He then departed. I smiled and started changing out of my clothes to get some sleep. I was tired from keeping my imp friends entertained. I was pleased that Kobocobu had kept his word.

                    I don't really remember much about my stay with Kobocobu and Dumimoor. On hindsight, it was all a blur. I do recall that they hugged me a lot and were always polite. Must be a code of wizardry to keep promises given. When I was allowed to pack up and leave, I was given a magical orb, which could, according to Kobocobu, allow me to speak to him no matter where I was in the world. It would only fail to work if I was in another dimension. I packed it into my gear and bid him farewell. I gave Dumimoor a good scratching and a friendly kiss on his muzzle, then departed.

                    On my way out, I camped in the wilds one last time. I was joined by the foxtaurs who were surprised that I had survived the encounter. I played with them for a good portion of the evening, and learned some things about their lifestyle and history. I remembered to ask my handsome friend's name this time. It was Yorkley. We all slept in a pile that night too.

                    The foxtaurs escorted me back to my car and helped me get it free from the bog. That was extremely nice of them. Then, after they all hugged and kissed me, we parted company. They vanished back into the treeline. I smiled and got into my car. I called Danath to make an update. The old Tanner luck seemed to hold out once again. I filed my report over the car phone. I told him about the foxtaurs, Kobocobu and Dumimoor, and how the issue was resolved. I wrapped up the call by saying that I was going to explore England a little before returning to Athens. Danath thanked me for calling, then we both hung up. I drove the car back into Skipton.

                    After spending a night in the Chess bunker in Leeds, which included a most thorough bath and a hot meal, I got back in the car and began my tour of England. I saw many many sites and attractions, including Stonehenge, a staged Celtic druid's ceremony, and lastly, attended a medieval fair. It was at this "ye olde faire" that I tried my luck at an archery booth. Out of ten shots, I scored six bullseyes. It was a new high score. My training in Chess seemed to pay off pretty well. When asked what prize I wanted from the top shelf, I considered carefully, then finally chose a foxy looking plush unicorn. It stood as high as my waist and was extremely soft to the touch.

                    I was approached soon after by an elderly woman of long graying black hair, fair wrinkled skin, and emerald eyes wearing gypsy clothes and carrying a homemade wooden cane. She asked me if I fancied unicorns, to which I replied that I didn't disbelieve in them. Something about this woman set off my internal red alarm. I pulled out my ID badge and showed it to her.

                    "Jansen Tanner, Black Bishop of Chess. Who are you?"

                    She seemed to smile when seeing the badge.

                    "Ah good. You are one of them. I am Selena O'dale, a local gypsy woman and storyteller in these lands. I have lived here a long time and have quite a tale you might be interested in. If you are willing to listen to the rantings of an old woman..."

                    I put my badge away and escorted Selena via my car back to her home within the Dabenshire Forest. I helped her out of the car and into her home. After we were both sitting with tea and tarts, Selena thanked me then pointed to the painting of a very masculine unicorn stallion.

                    "I asked you if you fancied unicorns because I was concerned that you might become victim to one. Though now that I know that you are one of Chess' finest, I believe I can divulge a tale to you that you may find interesting."

                    I nodded for Selena to continue.

                    "Long long ago, during the age of knights, dragons and maidens... unicorns dwelt over much of the United Kingdom and Europe. The early peoples mistook that these creatures were a devil creature sent by the great serpent to beguile their children into the throes of evil and debauchery. It was soon discovered that the so-called devil creature, which Latin scholars dubbed as the unicorn, meaning creature with one horn, was highly attracted to virgin maidens. And the knights and hunters used this knowledge to murder the creatures as they were hypnotized by the maidens alluring scent. The unicorns that remained begged their leader, who is called the great forest lord, to request a magic that would make them immune to the maiden's scent."

                    I hummed and nodded my head.

                    "That was kind of foolish, wasn't it?"

                    Selena grinned.

                    "You seem to know much, Jansen Tanner. It was a foolish request; but they were desperate. Many were being slain by the foolish humans. The great forest lord contacted the greatest magician of all time and repeated his people's request for the magical immunity. The great magician knew that this was a foolish request and knew what the results would be, but... he reluctantly granted the request, and taught the great forest lord the magical ceremony that would ensure that all unicorns living within their main forest would forever be immune to the maiden's scent. The great forest lord returned to his home forest, and under the cover of night, performed the magical ceremony, exactly as the great magician had taught him."

                    She sipped her tea, then continued.

                    "Then, he gathered all of his people, and had them repeat the Latin oath of magic that would grant them the immunity. Accepting the oath also enforced the unicorn speaking it to join the great forest lord's herd. Many joined the herd during the coming weeks. And true to the great magician's word, the maiden's scent no longer interested them. However, no female scent interested them from that time on. As the great magician knew, if you lost interest in a female scent, you would be forced to enjoy the male's scent more. The unicorns were soon befriending young lads and knight's squires, all with the same eventual results: the boy would ask to join the herd and become a unicorn. When enough boys had vanished, the kings asked the great magician to make it so the devil creature could never leave their accursed home forest, or suffer great internal pains, and eventual death. Again, the great magician reluctantly granted this foolish request. Soon afterward, the great magician vanished, tired of being bothered by people."

                    I grinned when I pictured the great magician finally getting fed up with the stupid people.

                    "His name was Merlin, wasn't it?"

                    Selena giggled and grinned also.

                    "Indeed. Though you are likely to never see a unicorn yourself, know you that they are real and still live to this day. And yes, they still seek young lads and squires to befriend, though in this day and age, there have been fewer to find that they would like. They quickly discovered how rash their decision had been all those centuries ago. I feel sorry for them, but I have made it my business to warn handsome males, like yourself, about the unicorns within this forest."

                    I hummed, a thought crossing my mind.

                    "Are the unicorns in other parts of the world unaffected by this curse, as it seems to be?"

                    Selena smiled to me.

                    "No, they have retained their normalcy. Though today, you can find unicorns all over the entire world. Even in Antarctica and in the wilds of the North Pole. Even in the great deserts of the world. They live everywhere. Though, you'll only see them if they wish you to see them."

                    Selena and I talked into the evening, then I was given a guest room to sleep in, though it was literally a room right next to a horse's stall. I didn't mind. Selena had been very kind and told me a good story. But that is all it likely was. A story. She had said from the start that she was a storyteller. I settled down and slept.

                    The following morning, I had breakfast with Selena, then after a friendly farewell, I began driving down the winding forest road. As I was rounding a bend in the road, standing there in all his glory was the great forest lord. I stopped the car and rolled the window down. He was like most unicorns, just very large and ghostly white. He smiled at me.

                    "A single glimpse, Jansen Tanner of Chess. What are dreams without discountenance? What are stories without a view of reality? If you wish to see unicorns again, return... and I will show you my herd."

                    With that, he licked my face, then turned and entered the forest. He was gone from sight in no time. I was pretty shocked that he chose to reveal himself. Then I smiled. He had been kind of handsome. But I was a Tanner. I had work to get back to... though the offer was tempting... I rolled the window back up and resumed my drive back to the Chess bunker in Leeds.


                    She smiled as she could just imagine Jansen and the unicorn together. Then she thought about the mogrelman wizard and his cute little urisk servant. And she chuckled about the foxtaurs too.

                    "So he ended up having fun in England. Speaking of fun, I will have to call Madame Blue and purchase some more decorations for this Saturday. The ones I have are sort of ratty looking, and I have to make a good impression to the others."

                    She again resumed reading Jansen's agent history.



                      Act X: Tale Of Two Werewolves

                      When I arrived at the bunker in Leeds, my car phone rang. I picked up the receiver.


                      It was indeed Danath Gaul.

                      "Jansen? Good. I'm glad I caught you before you returned to Athens. Another mission has popped up, and you're the only one who can handle it. Before you complain, listen closely. This call came in from Romania. He said his name was Octavius. He also said you'd know who he was."

                      I blinked my eyes as I rubbed my fingers over the von Hammer clasp Octavius had given me.

                      "Yes, he and his sister entertained me the last time I was there. What's the mission?"

                      Danath continued.

                      "Octavius told me to relay this message to you. Some cattle in Romania were recently killed and the tracks at the scene suggested a wolf. Not long after that, a mysterious hunter showed up offering to hunt down and kill the wolf responsible for this. Octavius said that the hunter's name was Infinity Vale. That sounds like a fake name to me. Perhaps to disguise his real name."

                      I hummed.

                      "You're right, Danath. That does sound fake. But I don't see how a wolf killing cattle is any of our concern."

                      Danath continued on.

                      "Octavius told me to tell you that this hunter tried to kill Sebastian. He said you'd know what that meant. What does it mean?"

                      Danath got to hear me growl some pretty nasty language. Then, I took a breath and exhaled.

                      "Sebastian is the werewolf that helped me defeat the O'dora family last year. Without his help, I'd never have gotten as close to that castle as I did. I'll catch the jet to Romania immediately. We're dealing with a non Chess werewolf hunter. And it's my guess that he personally killed the cattle himself and lay the wolf tracks around so his being there could be explained away without suspicion."

                      Danath actually growled over the phone.

                      "Okay, Jansen. That makes this a priority one Chess mission. Damned amateurs show up and think they know everything. Byron, Mark and Locke will rendezvous with you in Arad, Romania. They'll be at the local Chess bunker even if we have to -build- one! Team up with them and lead them north to Chisineu-Cris. Octavius said he'd meet you and your team at the Pub Restaurant. And Jansen, you're in charge of this little skirmish. The others will follow your lead. And I expect a full damned report on this mess. In your handwriting! Good luck, Jansen."

                      Danath was heard slamming the phone down.

                      I sort of grinned. This was the first time I had ever heard Danath really lose his cool. I guess he really hated Chess wannabes. I checked the car in, though I kept the emergency pack. Something told me that I was going to need it. I headed to the airport and caught the private jet headed to Arad, Romania. I was soon underway. This mission didn't have a place for fooling around. This was serious. More serious than I knew. Serious as in a threat to my life.

                      Some time later, the private jet was flying over southern Germany and had just radioed the Munchen, Germany, airport, when suddenly, something seemed to collide with our right wing. I looked out a window and saw that the whole wing was completely gone. As if it had been ripped off of the jet. I scrambled to get into my parachute. This was one part of my training I hated: abandoning your vessel. The pilot told me to go, while he tried to get the jet away from any populated areas. I hated leaving anyone behind, so I knocked him out from behind and hurriedly carried him to the emergency exit and blew the hatch. Then, I jumped while holding onto the pilot. There are certain nightmares involved when doing something like this. My primary nightmare happened. The pilot slipped out of my grasp and vanished into the dark clouds below.

                      I cussed as I pulled the rip cord. My chute opened and I slowly began descending. I never heard the jet crash. All I could think of was how I lost a fellow Chess agent. Then, the damned wind decided to play unfair. I was pulled down through the clouds pretty rapidly and I saw the ground approaching pretty fast. I closed my eyes and prayed.

                      When the ground didn't make me into a pancake, I slowly opened my eyes to see why not. Sitting on a hovering broomstick was a pretty young witch. My parachute was draped over the end of her broom. She had long luscious blond hair and sparkling green eyes. She wore dark red robes over her extremely shapely feminine body. I surmised that she was about five foot nine inches tall and perhaps weighed 135 pounds. She wore shiny black heeled shoes. There was a black cat with violet eyes draped over her neck. She smiled when she saw that my eyes were open.

                      "Bad night for flying. I'm Rosa Saturnyne. This is my cat, Tabor Talbot."

                      Tabor lifted his head.

                      "Charmed, I am sure. Rosa, we're going to be late. Drop this guy off somewhere and let's go."

                      Rosa gave Tabor a look.

                      "In a minute. We just saved this guy. Plus, he's kind of cute. Like you used to be."

                      I blinked my eyes.

                      "Did you say Saturnyne?"

                      Rosa looked to me again.

                      "Yes. Has my family gotten in trouble again?"

                      I exhaled a breath.

                      "I am Jansen Tanner, Black Bishop of Chess. Your family hired us a few years ago to stop Thalia Saturnyne from doing further harm. I only regret that I lost my partner during that mission and that Thalia was slain by a pool of cold water."

                      Rosa seemed surprised.

                      "Oh. So, you're with Chess. I'm sorry about your partner. We were never told what happened. Only that Thalia had been stopped."

                      Rosa set me down on an open pathway in a deep part of the Black Forest.

                      "This will have to do for now. There is a Chess bunker to the south of the forest. I regret that I cannot afford to take you there. I am already horribly late for a coven meeting. My sisters will be angry enough."

                      I smiled and gave her my card.

                      "Show this to your sisters and tell them the truth. You saved a Chess agent from a horrible accident. Now you better go. Good luck at your coven meeting."

                      Rosa waved at me, and was quickly on her way northwards, over the trees. I started my long walk south. Danath would never believe this. What had caused the jet's wing to be removed?

                      I was glad I took that French and German language class back at Chess now. I got tired of having to have a translator telling me what people said. I continued walking. Somewhere along the journey, I suddenly realized that I was no longer walking on the path. I looked around and grumbled to myself. Now, not only was I going to be late, but I was lost in the Black Forest at night. I decided to keep walking towards what I hoped was south. I thought it odd that with all the roadways in Germany that I had not heard a single vehicle during this walk. That worried me. Where was I at?

                      Finally, I emerged into a clearing with an east to west dirt track. There was an inn and tavern here, with connecting stables. The old sign over the inn door read "The Charming Goat." I heard horses in the stables, and there were lights on in the tavern. I entered the tavern and sat at the bar on one of the stools. The innkeeper, wearing outdated medieval-styled clothing, greeted me and served me an ale. I looked to him and asked,

                      "Please. Can you tell me where I am?"

                      The innkeeper arched an eye at me.

                      "You're in the Charming Goat Inn and Tavern."

                      I grumbled at that.

                      "No, I mean where is this place close to. I'm trying to get to Besen, Switzerland."

                      He looked me over.

                      "You must be lost. You're in the Barony of Gott'schlecht and if the Baron catches a stranger in these parts, you'll likely be arrested for being a spy. Just drink your ale and go. And don't bother telling me who you are. Just go. I don't want your blood on my paws, er, hands."

                      The innkeeper quickly left the room. Did he say "paws?" Something about this area was really starting to worry me. I finished my ale and left a quarter on the bar. I had to pay for it. I turned to the door and saw a map on the wall. Ah, now I could find out where I was. I blinked my eyes at the odd names on the map. And the bizarre borders and province names. It was like I had landed in a totally forgotten part of the world. I walked out the door and sighed. Now what was I to do? I was tempted to take a horse, but that would be stealing and no Tanner was ever a horse thief. I sighed again and considered letting the Baron find me. But that "paws" statement still bothered me. I decided to head east along the dirt track. When the sun rose, I could get a better idea on where I was. I set off.

                      Though that was the plan, nothing ever goes as planned. I came upon a strange congregation of people all wearing out of date clothing. It seemed to be a small farming community secluded by this forest. The mob of people were all chanting the words, "Burn the wolf! Burn the wolf!" I sneaked around and finally saw what they were doing. The villagers had a young male werewolf tied to a big wooden cross and were preparing to burn it. I had to act fast.

                      I opened the emergency anti wizard pack and pulled out an item called, "the fear of god." I then crept up behind the cross and set off the "item." It created a humongous flash and the illusion of an angry archangel with flaming sword raised at the villagers. They fled the area like crazy! I then used my knife to cut the bonds on the young werewolf, telling him that I was saving him.

                      Once he was free, the werewolf and I fled the scene back into the forest to the west. We both ran for quite a ways. When we both stopped, he finally turned and looked at me, sniffing me, and panting raggedly. I offered him some of the water from my canteen. He was reluctant to accept it, at first, until I showed him that it was safe, by drinking some myself. He then took his fill of the water. Cool and refreshing. He grinned at me and hugged me tightly. I could tell that we was grateful for the timely rescue. He continued to sniff me, then started removing my clothes from me. That surprised me. I obliged the odd request and was soon nude before him. He resumed sniffing me all over. I felt this was strange; I had saved his life. This maneuver made no sense. Nothing in the werewolf books at Chess even mentioned this.

                      Suddenly, he pushed me over on all fours and tried to mount me. I started to object, but then, I heard something that sounded like, "my lord is watching; submit and you will live to see another day." I looked around for that quiet something but saw nothing. Then, I felt the impaling sensation of the werewolf as he began riding me in the darkness of the forest. This went on for several hours, until I felt a sudden pain, heard an audible popping sound, and he howled loud and long. I passed out at that point.

                      When I did reawaken, I was lying in the hay of the stables at The Charming Goat. The werewolf I had saved was in bed with me and there was an enormous non anthropomorphic black wolf the size of a triceratops in the room. He gazed upon me with his calm green eyes and spoke in German.

                      "So you're a Chess agent. I had long wondered what your people were like. What brings you to my barony?"

                      I explained the whole ordeal to the wolf, telling the truth. How the jet had developed trouble, how I had to bail out, how the young witch saved me from dying and how I had saved this young werewolf from being burned at the wooden cross in the east village. I then explained my mission to stop a werewolf hunter in Romania and how I felt that I was going to be too late.

                      The large wolf pondered this.

                      "You will not be too late. A night has not passed, as yet. I will en gift you with a wolf trick to make ridiculously long journeys to and from any location where an allied wolf calls you a friend, without any time passing at all. You will always be able to return to The Charming Goat as an allied location. You did save one of my citizens. You are not like other Chess agents."

                      I grinned at the wolf.

                      "No, I am not like the others. I am a Tanner."

                      The large wolf grinned back.

                      "And I am the Baron."

                      Somehow, that didn't surprise me.

                      "For the record, I don't like killing beings and people of mystery and magic. I try to find peaceful methods of solving a problem."

                      I then told the Baron about my blood oath to Xim. It still pained me to talk about Xim.

                      "Ah, so you're the one that Jael told me about. Yes, you will forever be welcome in my barony. At any time. And yes, I do know Jael. I knew Xim too. You must have liked Xim a lot."

                      I cried a little as I remembered Xim. The Baron and the werewolf comforted me. An hour later, after a long hot bath, getting dressed, having a hot meal and getting my gear together again, the Baron showed me how to do the wolven travel magic. This was my first magic spell. This was showing great trust to allow a Chess agent to learn wolf magic. I hugged the Baron, then kissed the young werewolf and groped him, then used the wolf magic to transport myself to Arad.

                      When I walked into the Chess bunker in Arad, my fellow agents were already there. I told them what happened to the jet and how a young witch and a local baron in Germany helped me get here. Then, I and my friends held a meeting. Byron, Locke and Mark all listened to my instructions on my knowledge of the area. I told them to carry no silver ammo on this trip. They were all very reluctant to give it up. I told them to give it up or go back to Athens with their tails between their legs. Locke thought that was funny. They all surrendered their silver weapons.

                      We then rode in a jeep to Chisineu-Cris and went to the Pub Restaurant. Octavius was waiting on us as we walked into the room. He greeted me and I introduced him to the others. Then, I had Octavius fill us in on Infinity Vale's most recent activities. Octavius gave us a full report on the bastard's whereabouts and activities. He also commented that the man was using both silver and poison. The others saw me growling fiercer than any wolf, werewolf or otherwise.

                      I then announced that I was going to go look for Sebastian. The others wanted to come along, but I told them to hunt down and kill Infinity Vale. Not maim, but kill. An eye for eye. They all saw how serious I was. I turned to Octavius and told him to keep an eye on the three and make sure the hunter was slain. I then headed out of the building. Mark caught up to me and begged me to let him come with me. I kind of liked Mark and grumbled, granting him that privilege.

                      The travel magic surprised Mark as we both were instantly transported to Sebastian's caverns. We both heard the warning growl immediately. I stepped in front of Mark, shielding him.

                      "Sebastian! It's Jansen Tanner. From last year. Your friend."

                      The growling stopped and there was a shifting motion as Sebastian emerged from the shadows. He was in his anthropomorphic wolf man form. From his eyes, I could tell that he was glad to see me.

                      "Jansen! Thank Poseidon it is you! Who is this?"

                      I moved aside, revealing Mark Jolson.

                      "Sebastian, this is one of my agent friends, Mark Jolson. Mark, this is the last scion of Poseidon, Sebastian. Captain of the Sea Wolf Brigade."

                      Sebastian grinned when he saw that I had remembered his title. Mark shook Sebastian's paw, then stepped back to let me talk.

                      "Sebastian, I have reason to believe that the hunter is a werewolf hunter. You're his target; not the so called wolf who supposedly killed the cattle."

                      Sebastian hummed quietly.

                      "I believe you, Jansen. He uses silver bullets and almost got me. I have been in hiding ever since I told Octavius about this event. I do remember one detail about the hunter: he said that this hunt was easier than his kill that he made in San Francisco, California, a few years ago."

                      I growled some really vulgar things that only a wolf could decipher. Mark was starting to fear me. Even Sebastian stepped back from me.

                      "Hogan Slade... at last... this is for you, Xim... that bastard is here in Romania... he won't get away from me... his blood will flow like an over ripe tomato..."

                      Mark and Sebastian thought I had lost my mind. I was talking to the air itself. But I was on a vengeance streak now. Hogan Slade was here. And so was I.

                      The next few days was spent with Mark trying to keep up with me as we hunted for that bastard, Hogan Slade. I didn't let any rumor or sighting of him escape me. Finally, I had him in my sights. It was a late evening and I had a very clear shot. I was blinded by rage. I pulled the trigger on my long range sniper rifle. I must have nicked his ear, as he went down on the ground with a scream. I quickly unpacked an A34. Mark yelped when saw me activate the thing in my hands with a 30 second timer. I slid the A34 into a rocket launcher and fired the thing into the middle of Hogan Slade's camp. He must have recognized what it was, for he leaped up with rifle in hand and tried to get out of the camp. But he was a little slow as the A34 detonated in a huge blast of a fiery inferno of liquid nitrogen! The whole camp was totally destroyed, as was Hogan's lovely little motorcycle. The blast had blown him off a cliff into the far raging river below. For the next few hours, we all, Byron, Locke, Mark, Octavius, Sebastian and I searched the entire length of the river from impact point on for several miles.

                      Back at Castle von Hammer, Sebastian and I were locked into a very private room. Sebastian was using every trick he knew to help restore my mind to it's normal rational self. This took a few days. The others were honored guests in the von Hammer castle during this time.

                      When I finally snapped back into my usual self, I wept over how insane with vengeance I had become. Somehow, I knew that I had failed Xim. That bastard somehow got away from us. But he had to be very very injured from the things I had done to him. I cried in Sebastian's arms and slept with my large Wolfy friend. Sebastian held me tightly and slept with me.

                      It wasn't until three days later that Sebastian and I emerged from the bedroom. Sebastian always looked great. I looked like a mess. I needed another long hot bath and it was given too!

                      Afterward, I sat down at a roll top desk and picked up a quill and dipped in into the inkwell. I began recording my report. But this time, the report was very different and very moving... the way I wrote it seemed to assist the reader in feeling like they were there... right there with us during every action and reaction. Again, I made Sebastian out to be the hero. He helped restore me to a more rational state of mind. I ended it by writing that not all supernatural creatures were menaces to mankind and under unusual circumstances, could be relied on for support and friendly team work when facing something even more dangerous to the land they lived in. I smiled and let the others read the report. They agreed with me and we all signed the report. I felt like something special had occurred between myself and my Chess friends.

                      We spent a few more days with the von Hammers and Sebastian, then it was time to return to Athens. My friends and I drove back to Arad and reported to the bunker where I had them retrieve their silver ammo. Byron looked at me and hummed.

                      "You were right about the werewolf. We didn't need our silver ammo. But how did you know?"

                      I smiled as I remembered Jesse "the outlaw" Vanya and the words he told me before his fatal mission with me in Germany.

                      "Regardless of what is written in the Chess text books, never expect your subject to totally obey what you've been taught. They are people just like we are. They can think, and they can react to any situation that changes their normal lifestyle. Jesse told me that on my first Chess mission... the mission he never returned from..."

                      The others lowered their heads and closed their eyes. We all felt the same way about Jesse.

                      Hours later, we were all back in Athens. I turned my report in to Danath Gaul. Then after being dismissed, we all visited Jesse's memorial within the Chess Hall of Fame. We held a prayer vigilance in Jesse's honor. I was sure that he would not have expected such from his fellow agents. This lasted for several hours. Then, we departed for a meal at Nicodemus' Tavern.


                      She sighed as she too felt as if she had been there with Jansen and the others.

                      "They almost had that bastard. Poor Jansen! That must have torn him up a lot to have had to accept the fact that he failed to catch the guy. Speaking of serious guys, I wonder if I should call Josh Savage and let him know where Jansen is?"

                      She continued reading Jansen's agent history.



                        Act XI: Who The Hell Are You?

                        The next day, Mark and I were relaxing in Athens. I was still in a slump over having lost track of that damned Hogan Slade. Someday I knew his luck would end. I almost had him. Almost. Mark and I were shooting photographs at the Parthenon. I was actually starting to enjoy myself and become relaxed. But you know that something -always- screws up a peaceful day.

                        Mark and I were beginning to walk to the next photo view, when suddenly, some distance ahead of us, from around the corner of one of the columns, Shane Wayne stood. He was wearing some sort of strange white uniform. But it was undoubtedly Shane Wayne! I rubbed my eyes when I saw him.

                        "I must be overworked, Mark. That looks like my old friend Sheridan Wayne."

                        Mark blinked his eyes.

                        "But it can't be. He's in the Pacific with his Marine buddies."

                        Shane growled before he could stop himself.

                        "NEVER call me Sher-"

                        He stopped mid sentence. I blinked my eyes again.

                        "Oh my god, It -is- Sheridan! But why is he wearing that strange white uniform?"

                        Shane slowly approached us, then stopped again.

                        "Jansen. Mark. I realize this is unorthodox for me to be here, but we need to talk. And you may not like what I have to say. But I wouldn't be here otherwise."

                        Mark arched his eye at Shane. Something was just not right about what Mark was seeing. But he couldn't figure out what it was. I nodded my head at Shane.

                        "Okay Sheri-, um, I mean Shane. You've came a long way to find me and you rarely do anything of this nature unless it's very important. Where should we talk?"

                        Shane didn't smile.

                        "I am not here alone, Jansen. My team is awaiting me just around the corner. Like I said, you won't like why we're here."

                        I glanced at Mark, then back to Shane.

                        "I am already not liking this. You usually smile and joke around. Even when being serious. This must be life threatening."

                        Shane glanced off to one side, then back directly at me.

                        "It is life threatening. Your life."

                        Mark and I both gaped in some shock. Then, we followed Shane back around the column into an alcove where Shane's team was waiting. Shane took a small breath and gazed directly at the person who seemed to be their leader.

                        "I brought them."

                        Their leader was a man dressed all in black with dark secure leather gloves and dark sunglasses. He stood six foot four inches tall and weighed about 280 pounds. His short-length hair was brown and he had fair skin. He stood there looking very serious.

                        "Mr. Tanner? I am Dominic Vanlyone. I cannot reveal as to who we serve, but it recently came to our attention that a threat on your life was apparent from a transmission we intercepted. The contract on your life is to end at midnight in exactly two weeks. We are not here to protect you, as we have knowledge that you would not agree to be protected. Therefore, all we ask is that you allow us to travel with you on any missions during this two week period of time. Do you have any questions?"

                        I smiled.

                        "You've certainly done your homework if you knew that I wouldn't agree to be protected. Yet you still came. I must know, however, what is it to your mystery employer for me to stay alive?"

                        Dominic didn't smile back.

                        "I am afraid that information is likewise classified, Mr. Tanner. Were we meeting under more casual terms, I could tell you much. But for now, our goal is to capture the assassin; not to protect you. When we accompany you on your missions, we will not interfere in your affairs. Our presence publicly must remain as a touring group. You, publicly, are our guide. Your current employer, Danath Gaul of Chess, must likewise not be advised as to what our actual significance to traveling with you is. Surely I need not remind you about the need for secrecy."

                        I hummed to myself. Something stunk here. And something about this Dominic person reminded me of myself. This so-called team was just too haphazard a group to be a serious organization of secret agents. Or they were better at their jobs than they appeared. Besides Dominic and Shane, there were six other people, male and female, as well as a large draft horse.

                        "Very well, Mr. Vanlyone. Your team may accompany me. But don't think for a second that I won't be wondering who you people really are."

                        Dominic nodded his head.

                        "Rest assured. If we are successful, after two weeks you will never see our team again. Nor will we be traceable. Although the rest of us may not be locatable, I am sure you will be able to find Shane."

                        Dominic smiled at Shane.

                        "I happen to know that your next mission starts tomorrow morning, and you're to take the private jet from the airport here in Athens to Dikson Airfield in Gory Byrranga Siberia Russia. From there, you were to travel eastwards approximately 280 kilometers to the village of Helaliturku."

                        I stepped back, my eyes were wide. I hadn't told anyone about this mission. Not even Mark knew where I was being flown to.

                        "How... how... how...?"

                        Dominic remained calm.

                        "Our employer has infinite contacts, Mr. Tanner."

                        I was getting pretty mad. I started growling again.

                        "By rights, I should kill you for prying into my affairs."

                        Just at that moment, one of his party was just simply behind me with a beaded hand over my throat, and with a blade of some sort pointed into my back.

                        "Do not threaten my employer, Jansen Tanner. Or the assassin will not need to kill you, for you will be dead already."

                        I was released quite suddenly. When I turned to see who had been there, the person was somehow back in Dominic's group. Neither Mark nor I knew how the person had done it.

                        "I see. Your team's appearance -is- misleading. You are all evidently better at your craft than you appear. I am impressed."

                        Dominic nodded his head again.

                        "I am sorry, Mr. Tanner. I do not like to have to make threats. It is in your best interest to not try to avoid us come morning. Although I would be disappointed if you didn't try."

                        I hummed at this apparent challenge.

                        "Very well. I'll meet your team at the airport come the morning. Now if you'll excuse me, Mark and I have a schedule to continue."

                        I led Mark away from the annoying group of people. For some reason, they had literally pissed me off. Mark could see it in my eyes. We resumed our photo shoot, then we met two local girls, and did some sight-seeing. Mark and I ended our day by having an early meal at Nicodemus' Tavern.

                        Back at Chess headquarters, I confronted Danath Gaul, with Mark as my witness, and told him about the strange encounter in the city. Danath look genuinely innocent. That made me calm down a lot. The three of us then accessed Chess' world population database and typed in the name, Dominic Vanlyone. Then, we waited for any matches. About forty seven minutes later, the computer spit out a response on the main screen. "Name: Dominic Vanlyone Status: Non-Existent"

                        We were all agape at the results. Now I was pretty mad. Who was this bastard? How come he knew so much about my mission? And why was Shane with them?

                        Danath did a confirmation search for Sheridan "Shane" Wayne and the results verified beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was in the Pacific Ocean with both the Marines and Navy on a joint training exercise. I hummed, then announced to Danath that I was going to leave tonight. It didn't take me long to get packed and even less time to get on the private jet headed for Siberia. Soon, I was on my way. This jet was a newer one, so I felt more at ease. I slept good.

                        With good weather, such a flight would have taken eleven hours, but there were delays due to snow and blizzards. My jet finally arrived in Siberia at the Dikson Airfield at 1:35 P.M. local time. When the jet finally stopped, I was pleased to see the clear weather. I had just barely departed the jet and had started towards the hangars, when Dominic Vanlyone and his party emerged from the hangar. I stopped in my tracks. There was -no way- they could be here ahead of me. Unless, they departed last night expecting me to try to outsmart them. A calculated risk, but they guessed right. In a way, I was pleased to have the company. But at the same time, Chess couldn't find out any information on the Vanlyone name at all. The man didn't exist. Yet, here he was. I smiled, grabbing my travel pack, and began walking over to Dominic and his party.

                        "Okay. I admit it. You guessed my actions correctly. Glad to have you here."

                        Dominic grinned.

                        "I am also pleased that your flight was uneventful. Hopefully we are still one step ahead of the man wanting you dead. We prearranged some transport for the team before you arrived. There are snowmobiles for all of us. And enough fuel for a round trip."

                        I smiled at that.

                        "In my eagerness to try to outfox you, I hadn't thought about how to get to the village. I just assumed my luck would hold out. In a way, it has."

                        Dominic nodded his head, then introduced me to his team by first names only. Shane, Stellea, Jago, Jonie, Diane, Damon, Gotaki, Garla and Brand.

                        "We will be able to cover the 280 kilometers in about four days. I have been to the village before, so I do know the way, making me the guide. But the village isn't that hard to find, so even without a guide, you would arrive at the village within a week, at least."

                        I hummed.

                        "You certainly seem worldly traveled, Dominic. Four days, huh?"

                        Dominic nodded his head.

                        "Four days."

                        The next four days proved uneventful, yet interesting. Diana and I both kept to our separate selves for most of the trip. Jago and Jonie took pictures of the landscape and monitored how the snowmobiles moved over the terrain. Stellea and Shane shared one snowmobile, while Damon and Garla shared another snowmobile. I was impressed with the short yet endurable Brand who continuously scouted ahead without a snowmobile. Brand seemed to never tire and always returned with wild game to feed the team. Gotaki was -never- seen, yet Brand often commented that she chatted with him during his scouting excursions. My most common quest during this trip was to try to get a glimpse of Dominic without those damned sunglasses on. Every time I got too close to getting a good look, one of the team members conveniently got in my way. At the end of the fourth day, the team arrived in the abandoned ruins of Helaliturku village. I blinked my eyes as I panned my gaze over the ruined village.

                        "Is this the right place?"

                        Dominic refolded his mini-map and pocketed it.

                        "This is Helaliturku. Or rather, what's left of it. Seems there was a battle here. But this is your case, Jansen. Can you tell us what fought here?"

                        I glanced over at Dominic.

                        "Something with extraordinary claws. The marks on several of the buildings clearly show that the slashes were not stopped by either the wood or the stone it struck."

                        Dominic tsked at me.

                        "That's all you can see? And you call yourself a Black Bishop?"

                        I flinched. This Dominic Vanlyone seemed to know how to push my buttons, in all the worst ways, and it was annoying me. I took a breath and released it.

                        "I am just getting started. There are two distinct kinds of claw marks here. I'd say all this was done by two creatures. Both with sharp claws, and both seeking food. The only thing I can't figure out is why they fought. Their scent is strong all over the village."

                        What I wasn't revealing was that the scent was arousing me and that in itself was making me slightly blush.

                        "Two creatures. Seemingly both male, but I cannot verify that yet. I'll have to track them down and find out from them why they did this."

                        Dominic nodded his head.

                        "That's a better evaluation. Here's the plan... My team will remain in the village and secure the perimeter as well as our food and fuel supplies. Jansen, you will search for the two creatures in your own special and lucky way. Any arguments about this plan?"

                        I arched an eye at Dominic.

                        "You're not coming with me?"

                        Dominic grinned.

                        "This is your mission, Jansen. I think it would be detrimental if I accompanied you. I cannot explain why. I do know that you won't die on this trip. You -are- a Black Bishop, after all."

                        I grinned at the timely praise.

                        "Yes, I am. But to travel totally alone seems odd seeing as how you've came this far with me and now, hang back while I travel onward."

                        Dominic hummed.

                        "If they are willing to go with you, I can spare Shane, Jago, and Jonie. But only if they wish to accompany you. Furthermore, they will not accompany you to answer questions. They will be your aides; nothing more."

                        I irked. Dammit. Dominic always seemed one step ahead of me. How was it that he always seemed to know what I was thinking?

                        "I would appreciate some company during this trip. And I promise... no questions about you or your team."

                        This time, I thought.

                        Jago and Jonie smiled. Jago started getting the equipment ready.

                        "We'd be glad to help him out. Someone has to carry equipment..."

                        Shane also spoke up.

                        "In that case, I better come along. If anyone gets infected, you'll need me to cu-, er, carry people back to base."

                        Shane got immediately quiet. I refrained hard from turning to look at Shane. I just knew that Shane had slipped up and revealed something but I really needed company on this part of the trip.

                        "I would surmise that our search should be conducted at night. That way, we can see the fires here in the main camp no matter where we are out in the wilds."

                        Suddenly, Diana stepped forward.

                        "I will accompany them."

                        Dominic nodded his head.

                        "I think that may be a good idea. Sometimes, a woman can discern things that a man cannot."

                        Diana smiled.

                        "Thank you, Dominic."

                        Diana turned to the others and I.

                        "Shall we begin?"

                        I nodded my head. I also had not expected Diana to volunteer to accompany us. Dominic had not specified her as one to come along. Yet, for some reason, I felt at ease having Diana along with us on the search. We were soon trekking outwards from the village under the cover of a cold and chilly night. I wasn't exactly sure what we would find, but I was glad for any moment away from the watchful eyes of Mr. Dominic Vanlyone.

                        After two hours, our team located an injured Siberian were tigress. She lifted her head at our team's approach, and almost immediately, our team was surrounded by several Siberian were tigers. Although they growled threateningly, they did not advance. Something seemed to keep them at bay. I showed my open hands to the were tigers and spoke to them in Russian.

                        "I mean you no harm. I am Jansen Tanner, Black Bishop of Chess. I am investigating the unusual activities in this portion of Siberia. I realize that this is your home territory and your own presence here is normal. But judging from the ruins of the nearby village, I have to assume you have been fighting a war against another species that is not native to this region. Is there any way I and my friends may help your tribe?"

                        The main were tigress settled down and nodded to her warriors to pull back and they immediately obeyed. Then, she lifted her head and replied in Russian.

                        "You have offered your help. This we will accept. I have been injured by a weapon that I cannot pull free from my hide, using neither claw nor fang. This weapon is small, foul smelling and was proceeded by a mysterious yet loud lightning sound, yet no heavenly bolts were seen. The people who used this weapon accompanied the other creatures we have been fighting. They speak a language unknown to us."

                        I glanced to Shane.

                        "Think you can remove the bullet from her wound? She's been shot and cannot heal properly. As for the other half, they are at war with non Russians working in unison with the other creatures. And if you already know what they are, I'd appreciate it if you told me ahead of time."

                        Shane sighed, and glanced to each of the others. Then, he turned back to me.

                        "This is the only time I am going to reveal something. Werewolves."

                        Shane approached the were tigress and knelt beside her. He opened his medical kit and began the process of removing the bullet. I sighed and turned away from everyone, then blinked my eyes at the odd shadowy image off in the night. It appeared to be a large caribou. Then, it simply vanished. I blinked my eyes again. "What the hell was that?", I thought. Diana placed a hand on my shoulder.

                        "Question not that which chooses to ally itself with you. Better on your side than against it."

                        I glanced at Diana.

                        "What is your involvement with this bunch? I noticed that you spaced yourself from all the others for most of the entire trip."

                        Diana grinned.

                        "I thought you promised Dominic not to ask those kind of questions..."

                        Jansen humphed.

                        "Don't give me that, Diana. I can tell you can't stand following Dominic's orders any more than I enjoy being badgered by his ever burning gaze."

                        Diana chuckled.

                        "The last time I heard that tone of voice was from Dominic. I think you deserve to know why I came along with Dominic and his team."

                        Jansen smiled. "Now we're getting somewhere.", I thought. Diana smiled.

                        "I am the fail safe of the team. If something goes wrong, I am the just in case modifier to pull the team out of the frying pan. Now be a good boy and don't ask anything else about -any- of the team members."

                        Diana affixed a dark gaze on me.

                        "Or else..."

                        I suddenly got the feeling of being neutered. -That- made me flinch. Leave it to a woman to get the 'point' across. I turned my attention to chatting with the were tigress about the werewolves and the weapon carrying associates of the werewolves. Soon, Shane finished retrieving the bullet from the wound, then showed it to the were tigress. Shane began applying a secure bandage to the were tigress' wound, being gentle just the same. The were tigress smiled and licked Shane's face; Shane smiled back. The were tigress turned to me and spoke in Russian.

                        "Tell your friend that I thank him. Also tell him that he tastes good."

                        I blinked my eyes and repeated the information to Shane. He grinned.

                        "Tell her that as a friend to most weres worldwide, that I thank her. Also tell her that I look forward to seeing her at an upcoming Tranquility Moonrise."

                        I gaped.

                        "What is the Tranquility Moonrise?"

                        Shane glared at me.

                        "You'll find out later. Just tell her please."

                        I again repeated the information to the were tigress, in Russian. The were tigress grinned and licked Shane again, hugging Shane somewhat tightly. Shane hugged her back. She released Shane and resumed telling me the rest of the information concerning the werewolves. Soon, I and my team were traveling northwards away from the were tigers. I turned to Shane.

                        "She told me what the Tranquility Moonrise was. I know I promised not to ask about your team, but how did you happen to learn of such a gathering?"

                        Shane grinned.

                        "Some of my Navy buddies are were otters."

                        She grinned as she started wondering who these people were.

                        "They sure know a lot about Jansen! That must have drove him crazy trying to find out who they were. And how did they get to Siberia before him? They remind me of Linda Star. We haven't seen her in forever. I wonder if she's still performing stage magic."

                        She placed a pillow into her office chair and resumed reading Jansen's agent history.


                          Act XII: Body Double Times Two

                          I decided to veer the party back towards the camp. It was late, and I was looking forward to a warm bed. When we arrived back in the village, I noticed that the campfires were burning a lot brighter than usual. Also, securely tied up near one campfire were obvious German soldiers. By the other campfire, Stellea and Garla were roasting marshmallows. The others were not in sight. I simply stared, but could guess what probably happened from the way the village and scene appeared. There was apparently another fight, and this time, Dominic's team were the winners. As I was looking at the camp, I noticed Shane leading the werewolf to speak with me. How did Shane get from behind me into that building? The werewolf explained, in German, his side of the story to me. How he had been captured by these soldiers and forced to come here and do as commanded.

                          "I regret attacking fellow weres, Jansen Tanner. Now that I am free of that control collar, you may take these soldiers in to the authorities. As for me, Dominic has promised to help me return home to my pack."

                          I was not exactly happy on the return trip to Athens. Dominic's team accompanied me on the jet, this time. Dominic seemed to totally seclude himself this time. Stellea and Shane were arm wrestling and Shane was losing. When our jet reached the airport at Murmansk, Kola Peninsula, Russia, Dominic together with Gotaki, Damon, Jago, Jonie and the werewolf left our jet to catch a plane bound for Besel, Switzerland, then, make a short trip across the German border into the Black Forest within Baden-Wurttemberg. The rest of the team stayed with me. I was pretty upset that Dominic placed that 'Stellea Rae' woman in charge of making sure I arrived back in Athens.

                          We finally arrived in Athens without incident. We departed the plane and were just exiting the terminal building, when Dominic and the others approached us. I irked upon seeing Dominic.

                          "How did...? No, I don't want to know how... I have to report in and see about my next mission, but I assume you already know what it is. Right?"

                          Dominic remained calm.

                          "If you're going to assume, why should I verify? And you're right... you need to report in; my team will regroup with you tonight at the marina."

                          I had started off, but stopped in my tracks.

                          "What makes you so sure I'll be there?"

                          Dominic seemed to start to reach for his sunglasses, then he lowered his hand.

                          "You'll be there. If nothing else, but to see what we're up to. Even if you don't talk to us."

                          I growled and marched off to Chess headquarters. This farce was beginning to drive me crazy. All the other crap I could deal with. But not this! I wanted answers and I wanted them days ago. I reported to Danath, explaining what had happened. In precise detail. Danath helped calm me down, then I asked him if I had another mission. He was not surprised that I already knew. Danath explained that Infinity Vale had cropped back up... in Egypt. That got me to grinning again, then I slapped myself hard. I couldn't give in to vengeance. The last time, it allowed Hogan Slade to escape. Plus, I still had to deal with Dominic and his friends. I returned to my room, took a hot bath, got dressed, then joined Mykaelic for some dinner.

                          That night, I arrived at the marina wearing a dark trench coat and an old fishing hat. Of course, Dominic and his team were there. And it appeared that they hadn't been there long. I stopped when I noticed that Dominic was -not- looking at me for once.

                          "Well, you were right again. My mission has brought me down to the marina. Go ahead and gloat so we can get going."

                          Dominic murmured.

                          "Where we going, Jansen?"

                          I was caught off guard by that comment.

                          "Surely you already know.........don't you?"

                          Dominic spoke without facing me.

                          "I am beginning to wonder if keeping you alive is worth it. I didn't ask to be assigned to this mission. I was chosen because..."

                          Dominic turned to face me. He wasn't wearing his sunglasses this time. He looked identical to me, except that he was a little older.

                          "...I know the victim intimately."

                          I gasped silently and took a backward step.

                          "Who... who are you?"

                          Dominic sighed, removing his gloved hands from his coat pockets.

                          "Jansen... I am you... from the future... three years from now..."

                          Dominic darted a glance at Diana.

                          "Not a word. This is my call."

                          Diana straightened up now.

                          "Chronos was right... you'd tell Jansen eventually. Looks like I lose a bet with Chronos. When you slapped me, that took guts. You're lucky I didn't personally kill you with a single mental shot that second. And you and Damon were right about something else... I don't know how you operate. But I had always wanted to accompany you on just one mission. Just once."

                          Diana's visage shimmered away and Artemis was standing before them.

                          "Just once I wanted to travel with you as a mortal. What a sting that was! You slap pretty damned hard, Dominic Bastian Vanlyone. I ought to save Hogan Slade the time and just kill you both."

                          I blinked my eyes again.

                          "The goddess Artemis? THE Artemis? All right... I want answers! WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE??"

                          Dominic glanced to his friends.

                          "Okay, you can drop your illusions. We shouldn't need them any more."

                          The illusions fell away and Stellea piped up immediately!

                          "About DAMNED time! Jansen Dominic Tanner, you're damned lucky I don't contact my past self and tell her where the fuck you are! They've been worried sick, and I know my past self would storm over here in a second to give you a beating that even Hogan Slade could only dream of giving you!"

                          I yelped!


                          I clamped a hand over my mouth, but it was too late. Jo growled demonically.

                          "NEVER EVER EVER CALL ME THAT!! I AM JO!!"

                          Damon grinned at Jo's impressive growl. He seemed impressed. It took an hour for the ranting and bitching to subside. During this time, Dominic apologized profusely to Artemis for striking her face earlier. Jago and Jonie remained a safe distance away with Brand and Garla. Finally, Dominic introduced everyone properly to me and explained exactly why they were truly here. I quietly took all this in. Then, I smiled.

                          "I must admit. You certainly pushed my buttons. Had me going all throughout the secrecy. And, it's not often that someone can meet themselves within their own lifetime. You and your team have certainly impressed me. And now that I know that you're the future me, that tells me that I live to return home. I've been kinda worried about that. The missions get more and more dangerous."

                          Dominic smiled.

                          "Now you also realize why we were trying so hard not to reveal things. The past is set in stone. I can prevent your death by an assassin from my time, but I cannot prevent you from being hurt by people in this time. So, what is our next mission?"

                          I became serious.

                          "An old enemy of mine called Infinity Vale has cropped up in Egypt. He's after a magical relic called the Gemini Deleon. If he gets his hands on it, he will have the power to be in two places at the same time. I've been assigned to stop him."

                          Suddenly, Jonie spoke up.

                          "Did you say Infinity Vale?"

                          I glanced over at Jonie.

                          "Yeah. Why do you ask?"

                          Jonie pulled out his laptop and started searching for something.

                          "Where is it? Where is it? Ah, I knew I'd seen that title before."

                          Jonie tapped a few more keys on his laptop. He looked up at everyone.

                          "Infinity Vale. Real name... Hogan Slade."

                          Everyone except me gaped. I already knew that bit of information.

                          Dominic hummed.

                          "Of course. No wonder we can't find Hogan Slade here in Athens. He's not here. He's waiting for Jansen to arrive in Egypt to kill him there. Something about that encounter caused the Gemini Deleon to vanish and it was never recovered. Infinity Vale blamed me and swore revenge. He escaped being transported to prison and I never saw him again."

                          I blinked my eyes.

                          "So, we do defeat him. That's comforting to know."

                          Dominic glanced at me.

                          "You don't understand. This time, the future Infinity Vale is going to be sniping for you. He wants you dead. If he succeeds, you and I both will cease to exist and my whole present will be eradicated. Every mission I've completed back in the United States will be as if I'd never done anything."

                          Dominic panned his gaze at everyone.

                          "I don't have to tell you the consequences behind that."

                          All of Dominic's friends seemed to get the message. Their expressions were heavy and dark. The marina rendezvous was quickly days behind us. The private Chess sea cruiser soon arrived in a small Chess-owned port near Sidi 'Abdarrahman. From the port, our team acquired several jeeps and headed south into the Qattara Depression and towards the Great Sand Sea. Once again, Dominic was acting as a guide because he had been here before. Egypt was it's usual hot temperature for the trip. Damon was enjoying the heat greatly. This time instead of exuding heat, Damon was absorbing heat. And he was loving it. He was also nearly undressed for the trip. Jo was driving a jeep with Damon and was getting quite a show. Jo was beginning to get ideas for her stallion, Lightning Crest. Shane rode in the jeep with Jago, Jonie, and Brand. Artemis drove the final jeep with the other women. Dominic found it odd that Artemis could drive. I finally turned to Dominic.

                          "How much further?"

                          Dominic kept his focus on the route.

                          "Another few hours until we reach the camel camp. The jeeps cannot go where we will need to go. And I am sure you will like the camel mistress. She is something else."

                          I turned to gaze directly at Dominic.


                          Dominic smiled.

                          "That's right. But remember... I can't reveal her name prior to your meeting her, otherwise, the time stream might be damaged."

                          I nodded my head.

                          "I understand that more now than I did before. I can finally see why your mission is so vital. So much could change if you failed."

                          Dominic hummed.

                          "I think it's safe to say that in my time period, Chess is still a major part of my life, even though I don't live in Athens anymore. Yet, my missions take me all over the world, and beyond."

                          I blinked my eyes again.

                          "Beyond? But there isn't anything beyond... is there?"

                          Dominic grinned.

                          "That I cannot reveal, but you will discover these things for yourself as time progresses. And you won't be sorry that I didn't reveal anything. Not knowing is the greatest part of the adventure. Look at my assortment of companions, demons, furs, and gods... and ask yourself this: how could they exist if there wasn't anything beyond? And the longer you think about it, the more you will discover about this world we call our home... and more..."

                          I smiled.

                          "I only wish I had such loyal companions and friends like yours in this time period. But years from now, I will earn them, so you say, and I will enjoy the effort."

                          Dominic smiled again.

                          "I may add that most of the companions I have are due to your efforts now. Without your current adventures, I would be alone in my time period. So your efforts are extremely important to complete. And that is why your being kept alive is so important."

                          I hummed.

                          "I'm sorry you had to tell me now. But I have a question. Now that you've told me all this, do you recall revealing this information?"

                          Dominic blinked his eyes and slowed the jeep.

                          "Now that you mention it... I don't recall it."

                          I continued my line of thought.

                          "So, if you don't recall the explanation, then something must happen to cause me to forget parts of your visit and the explanations."

                          Dominic nodded his head.

                          "When there are gods involved, there is always a chance of being forced to forget times of adventure, no matter how good those times are."

                          I hummed at this and fell into a quiet pondering. Dominic continued driving onwards to the camel camp, leading his companions. Upon arriving, Dominic's friends resumed their disguises, and I approached the camel mistress, Sijhikara. After some negotiating, our team resumed our journey southwards on camels into the Qattara Depression itself. Brand decided to walk at this point. The jeep was tolerable. But riding an animal... No. Brand refused to do it. He was a scout first and foremost.

                          I exclaimed.

                          "Sijhikara told me that two other people rented camels recently. She said it was odd because they appeared to be related, yet were near identical in appearance."

                          Dominic sighed.

                          "That's a bad sign. Hogan has already teamed up with his younger self. And I can guess where they are headed."

                          Jo put in her two cents at this point.

                          "Is there some way we can take a short cut and get ahead of them?"

                          Dominic hummed.

                          "There -is- one way, but we'll have to blindfold and muffle Jansen's hearing if we choose to go that way. The person who lives there is someone Jansen is slated to meet many months later, so it would be ill-advised if Jansen met and heard him early."

                          I nodded my head and pulled out a blindfold and earplugs.

                          "Whenever you want to bind me, I am ready. We have to chance the short cut."

                          Dominic frowned at me, then nodded to Jo.

                          "Do it."

                          Jo proceeded to blindfold and plug my eyes and ears. That is the last thing I remember. I wasn't sure how much time had passed while I was out, but I became aware of Garla removing the blindfold and earplugs from me. I yawned and looked around.

                          "Wow. Are we here already?"

                          Dominic smiled.

                          "Yes, you evidently passed out after being blindfolded and had your ears plugged. We decided to let you sleep."

                          I stretched his arms and legs.

                          "I feel stiff. You should have woken me up sooner."

                          Dominic grinned.

                          "We'll know next time, won't we?"

                          I smirked.

                          "There won't ever be a next time, Dominic. After we succeed here, I'll likely never see you again."

                          Dominic nodded his head.

                          "True. Shall we go in?"

                          I nodded my head as well, and began the trip into the temple, with the team following. Inside the temple, we quickly saw the younger Hogan Slade reaching out for the Gemini Deleon, an onyx amulet with glowing gold trim. Dominic blinked his eyes as he rapidly pondered something. He reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out an onyx case with gold trim, and opened it. Dominic grabbed the amulet out of the case and hurled it as hard as he could at the Gemini Deleon, giving a shout.


                          The younger Hogan Slade turned and glared at our team as the hurled amulet struck the floating amulet. And when it did, there was an immediate blast of power that rocked the whole temple, causing the older Hogan Slade to fall down from where he had been positioned. The blast of power became brighter and brighter, until...

                          Suddenly, everyone who had been in the temple were now at another location. It appeared to be a temperate forested setting with a not so distant sea crashing in the distance. The older Hogan Slade recovered first.

                          "DAMMIT! You just had to show up and ruin everything! Well, I'll settle this once and for all."

                          He drew aim on me and started pulling the trigger. Dominic yelled and leaped in front of me.


                          The gun fired and I blinked my eyes as Dominic fell to the ground, at my feet, in a pool of blood. Jo growled nastily and pulled her gun and started firing at Hogan Slade. Both of them! The two Hogans dived in separate directions, retaliating with gunfire. Shane joined Jo in the firefight, while Damon and Garla pulled me out of harm's way to where Jago and Jonie were hiding behind a large boulder. Gotaki and Artemis were oddly not present. Brand somehow had Artemis' vorpal arrows and her bow, and was using them, though not hitting any of the Hogans. Suddenly, a bright flash engulfed Dominic's body, and a giant white male lion was standing in the body's place. It leaped at the older Hogan, defying bullets as if they were nothing. A scream was heard. Then it was quiet. Jo whispered to Shane.

                          "What happened? Neither Hogan is firing anymore."

                          Shane hummed.

                          "They either ran out of bullets or..."

                          Shane gulped.

                          "...Dominic 'got' both of them."

                          Suddenly, Artemis, Gotaki and Circe emerged from the forest. And Circe's dress had a bullet hole in it. She looked, to say the least, upset. Circe growled.

                          "OKAY! WHO STARTED THIS MESS?"

                          Jo yelped.

                          "The older Hogan Slade started it. He tried to kill Jansen and Dominic jumped in the way and was... killed... HEY! Where IS Dominic?"

                          Circe looked towards the heavens.

                          "Dominic got killed -again-?"

                          Circe then walked over into the forest where Dominic the lion was lying on the ground. He looked up at Circe and mewed. The others and I emerged from where we were hidden. Gotaki grinned at me.

                          "What King Lion starts off to do, he finishes."


                          She huh'ed?

                          "Dominic and Jansen are the same person? But... that can't be right. If that's true, then who is Josh and Luke off searching for? They were supposedly looking for Jansen! Something way fishy is going on. I am glad I found this file now."

                          She hummed and read more of Jansen's agent history.



                            Act XIII: Laurel and Hardy

                            I sighed.

                            "He took the bullet meant for me. Will he be okay?"

                            Circe called out from the bushes.

                            "Dominic will be fine, as soon as I figure out how to change him back to his human self. I just wish I could take credit for reviving him."

                            I looked to Artemis.

                            "One second we were in the temple. The next, we're all here. Where are we exactly?"

                            Artemis sighed and studied me a little.

                            "You should phrase that as 'When are we exactly?', shouldn't you? We're on Circe's Island in Dominic's home time period."

                            After Circe restored Dominic to his human form, we boarded the Chess sea cruiser, and were soon on our way back to Chess headquarters. Chess in Dominic's time period. This felt very very strange to me, being able to get a glimpse of the future. I kept wondering what the catch was. Though forgetting everything later certainly loomed heavily in my mind.

                            We entered the strangely quiet Chess headquarters. It felt like a tomb to me. Where was everyone? No one could be heard anywhere. This bothered me a lot. I stole a moment to look into Danath's office. To my surprise, it was empty. This glimpse of the future was scaring me. Surely Luke Masaki survived. And Byron and Mark and Locke and the others. I was silently hurt by seeing all this. Then, we entered my unofficial complex. I saw the name on the door. Jansen Tanner: White Bishop. So this was it. Chess was going to be dealt a huge blow sometime after my next promotion. I'd give anything to prevent this part of the future. Anything.

                            We spent a night in my so-called complex. I used this time to return to the main computers and check to see what Danath's last recorded notes were. I found what I was seeking and played it.

                            "Nile Delta Mission data. Danath Gaul speaking. Whoever contacted all the agents claiming to be me and having them all gather there should be killed. It was a total massacre. We lost about 98% of the organization. Jansen Tanner and the Oath Taker somehow survived. Must be that Tanner luck thing again. As much as it pains me to do so, I am going to disband Chess so that no more humans get killed. After all this ends, I will return to Gladsheim and join my alehouse brothers there."

                            The message simply ended at that point. I hung my head and sighed silently. No... I couldn't let this happen. I was just starting to like Chess. Danath was beginning to see things my way. I knew I had to do something. Then, I lifted my head... I replayed the tape. Suddenly, I was grinning. I knew what to do. I returned and joined the others once again, then slept.

                            Come the evening in Athens, we awoke, and walked through the Portal Gateway to Dominic's Mansion in Rocky Falls, Missouri, in the United States. It was morning there. I was pleased to see that Dominic had such a wonderful place. Dominic introduced me to Reed Huxley, who arched an eye at me, yet said nothing more. It was like he recognized me. But we hadn't ever met before. Had we?

                            Dominic led me into a secluded part of the mansion. Gotaki Riverclaw and Circe watched onwards while Shane Wayne and Jo Tanner also awaited within the room. I glanced around at all of the others, then to Dominic again.

                            "What happens to me now?"

                            Dominic hesitantly replied.

                            "Now you go back. You will forget all about your journey to this place and you will do your job as I know you will be able to succeed at. Without your efforts then, I cannot exist now. Do you understand?"

                            I took a breath, then sighed.

                            "Yes, you are right. It's a shame that I can't stay, but I shouldn't be here. I belong in the past. Thank you for saving me. How soon will I forget about this journey?"

                            Circe now spoke.

                            "Athena has informed me that upon your return to your own time, all of this will be like a dream, and in time, you'll not remember many details about it."

                            Dominic nodded his head.

                            "It is for the best, Jansen. Although the possibilities of having a twin brother... It's time for you to go now."

                            Dominic concentrated on creating the time gate. The air in the back of the room began to shimmer. I managed a smile for Jo and Shane.

                            "Jo... I'm sorry I wasn't more honest about my work... Shane... thank you... take care of Dominic for me..."

                            I turned to Dominic.

                            "I wish I could team up with you again some day... By the way, may I control where in the past I'll pop out? I want to go visit my imp buddies in Saudi Arabia."

                            Dominic smiled a little.

                            "After you enter the time gate, just focus on where you want to appear and you will appear there. Until Terath, Jansen..."

                            I turned and walked into the time gate... and was gone from Dominic's time period...

                            I emerged in Yaseel's camp almost immediately, the time gate vanishing behind me. I quickly located my genie hound friend and said,

                            "This is it. It's time."

                            The genie hound nodded his head.

                            "Will you ever visit again after this?"

                            I smiled and scratched the genie hound.

                            "As often as you let me. Besides, you can always grant me more wishes. I am not greedy. This is simply an emergency. I wish for an exact identical twin of me to appear unconscious on the ground unharmed with any memory loss magic you can detect on me to be placed fully upon him."

                            The genie hound concentrated hard and my twin appeared as requested.

                            "You were right. There was some sort of forget magic on you. It is now on your twin."

                            I grinned and snuggled and hugged the genie hound fondly and kissed his muzzle. I promised him again that I would return. Then, with my imp friends' help, I and my twin were teleported back to Chess headquarters in Athens. I placed my twin in the infirmary then explained to Danath Gaul why I had him created.

                            "Danath? Meet Dominic Bastian Vanlyone. The reason we couldn't find any data on him is because I hadn't had him created yet. Now listen closely. When he awakens, I want you to call him Jansen for a short period of time. Then later, suggest that he think about becoming Dominic Vanlyone. Also suggest that he change his nickname. I will still be around, but you're to never call me Jansen when he is around. Plus, I need a new nickname. My oath has been fulfilled. So I cannot be the 'oath taker' any more."

                            Danath smiled.

                            "So what will you be?"

                            I grinned.

                            "I will now be 'the harvest stallion'. Think that sounds good enough?"

                            Danath rolled it over his mind a few times.

                            "It's easier to remember and is certainly a Tanner sounding name. So, where will you be at if you're not here?"

                            I patted Danath's shoulder.

                            "Gladsheim in some alehouse?"

                            Danath gave me a hard stare.

                            "I don't want to know how you learned about that, but it's in your best interest to keep it between us."

                            I grinned.

                            "We all have our secrets, Danath. Besides... I like you. Now, I plan on being in my Xim Complex in California. I have some business there, but will still be on call to do missions for you. But don't expect me to walk in while -he- is here. We'll stay in touch by the Via Satellite phone service. I really liked using that. Also, I'd like to request for the demons to move to the Xim Complex. They're being here is sort of my responsibility. One last thing... Make it mandatory for all agents to re-contact both you and me before accepting -any- weird missions to the Nile Delta. Trust me on this. Any agents who go there will be killed. I am not kidding, Danath."

                            Danath listened to my requests and statements, then recorded it entirely into the Chess mission database. I was then dismissed. My next order of business was to get Mykaelic and his people to California. There was really only one way to move that many demons. A cargo ship. So, I commissioned a Chess cargo ship and loaded all of the demons and their belongings aboard. Mykaelic joined me on the bridge as I raised the anchor and set the engines in motion on course across the Mediterranean, through the Red Sea, into the Indian Ocean, and eastwards to cross the Pacific Ocean. It was while we were in Pacific that we were radioed by a Navy Cruiser.

                            >> Navy: Ahoy Chess Champion!

                            >> Chess Champion: Ahoy Navy Cruiser!

                            >> Navy: Where you headed?

                            >> Chess Champion: Capetown, California, just south of Eureka. Where you headed?

                            >> Navy: Boring old maneuvers. What's your handle? Mine is Stuart Watterson.

                            >> Chess Champion: I am Jansen Tanner, Black Bishop of Chess.

                            >> Navy: The Jansen Tanner?

                            >> Chess Champion: Do you know any others? I'm the only Jansen Tanner I know about.

                            >> Navy: Awesome! Me and some of my buddies have been wanting to meet you.

                            >> Navy: Do you need an escort?

                            >> Chess Champion: What about your maneuvers?

                            >> Navy: Screw those!

                            >> Chess Champion: Ha ha ha! Okay, you can escort me.

                            Now, I had Navy escort across the Pacific Ocean. I chatted with Stuart over the radio from time to time. The journey itself was pretty quiet. Eventually, both ships pulled into the Xim Complex's private sea docks. Those on the Navy Cruiser were pretty impressed by the the subterranean sea docks under the complex itself. I lowered the anchor and began unloading the demons. The Navy boys watched from their own dock. Most were pretty shocked, but they knew to keep their mouths shut. This was Chess business.

                            After all the demons were housed in their new homes, I returned to the docks and was greeted by six slender navy boys. I announced to the other Naval people that they could get some R&R while here. Then, I walked with Stuart and his five friends to a secluded indoor swimming pool. I sat down on a lounge chair and chatted with Stuart and his friends. Then, they showed me their secret. They were were-sea otters. I grinned and played with them in the swimming pool.

                            After the afternoon's romp, I took a shower, then dried myself, and got dressed. I then rode the elevator to the top Chess floor, and sat down in the mission briefing chambers, and flipped on the main screen. Danath was sitting there in his office chair.

                            "Hiya Danath! We just arrived in Capetown. How's it going?"

                            Danath grinned.

                            "Well, well... if it isn't the little lost bishop. Any problems, Harvest Stallion?"

                            I laughed at Danath's greeting.

                            "We got a Navy escort by some were-sea otters. Navy Seals. Funny, huh?"

                            Danath smiled.

                            "Yes it is. We hadn't heard from you in two months. So, how is the Xim Complex? Is it to your specifications?"

                            I winked and threw Danath a kiss.

                            "I love it! It's super nice here. I'm surprised you haven't set up a vacation room in here yourself. At any rate, the demons are all settled in and I thought I'd check in to ask if you had any outstanding missions for me. If not, there are two tasks that I need to do while in California."

                            Danath hummed.

                            "Believe it or not, there is something you can look into in Las Vegas, Nevada. Well, it's not exactly -in- Las Vegas, but you'll do your best to locate it. There is some kind of lycanthropy sanctuary in that area. While they haven't done anything wrong, I'd like you to go there and offer Chess' services to them. And maybe befriend a few of them, while you're at it. You can do this after your California tasks. Good luck, Harvest Stallion."

                            Danath actually turned off his screen first this time. That must have meant that Dominic was getting ready to enter Danath's office. I was glad Danath and I had prearranged this deal. I got up and headed to the cafeteria to search for food.

                            I got in a good night's sleep, and awoke the next morning. I had breakfast, then hopped into a Chess sports car. God, I loved these cars! I then set off down the coast for my first destination. A tiny little town called Shelter Cove. When I got there, I asked around for the natural herbal cures shop. I was given directions and I drove to the place. The cute little sign over the door read, "Huxley's Natural Cures." I parked my car and walked up and inside the shop's door. The bell rang as I entered.

                            A smooth male Australian accented voice called out from somewhere.

                            "Be right with ya, mate."

                            I wandered around the small store looking at the odd assortment of natural remedies and more unusually named products. "Bat Blink Drops", "Mule Molasses", "Cheetah Extract", and "Badger Berry Jam". I was amazed at the selections of products. Then, I turned and was almost immediately face to face with the store's owner.

                            The Australian male appeared to be in his mid thirties, standing about six foot five inches tall, and looked to weigh about 215 pounds. He had short black hair and brown eyes. He was wearing designer elastic waistband shorts, a short-sleeved solid green shirt, and a pair of open thick rubber sandals. His body was of an athlete who worked out from day to day.

                            "'ello mate. 'ow kin Ah 'elp yas today?"

                            I smiled to him and pulled out my card, handing it to him.

                            Reed Huxley looked over the card, then sighed.

                            "So... you're with Chess. Ah suppose yas came to take me in?"

                            I stepped back.

                            "No. I came to offer you our services and maybe a friendship, to boot. I am Jansen Tanner. I know what you are, but I am not here to take you any place. I just wanted you to know that I am living up near Capetown and can be called on, occasionally, to help you do things."

                            Reed smiled at that.

                            "Blimey, mate. Ya gave me a good scare. You're really not 'ere to arrest me?"

                            I shook my head.

                            "I have way too many were-friends to turn on a handsome were-roo now. I honestly came by to offer my services, whenever you needed them. And as you know, Chess can keep it's mouth shut."

                            Reed grinned and hugged me tightly. Then, he sniffed me.

                            "Were-sea otters played with ya recently, didn't they?"

                            I grinned and hugged Reed back. Then, I sniffed him.

                            "You smell like a wild stallion."

                            Reed laughed!

                            "Been creating a new cure. It uses breeding stallion sweat. Though, Ah don't need your services currently, maybe Ah kin 'elp ya with something."

                            I hummed.

                            "Can you tell me anything about the Lycanthropy Sanctuary in the Las Vegas area?"

                            Reed hummed.

                            "Yas will want ta talk ta Sterling 'awk. The owner of the Manhole. It's an all-male strip club. But there is an undercurrent to the place, mate. All the strippers there are weres."

                            I blinked my eyes at this information.

                            "Thank you, Reed. Maybe on my return trip, I can stop by and just be friendly."

                            Reed smiled and licked my face.

                            "Ah'd like that a lot, mate."

                            I let Reed keep my card and I headed out to my car and drove away. My next stop would be San Francisco, California. I had to deliver Jael the news about Hogan Slade.


                            She said, ah ha!

                            "Jansen created Dominic with a wish... then Jansen came to the United States? That runt! Wait until his sisters find out about this. And now, Jansen is on a lycanthropes mission. The Manhole? Ding-dong has been there."

                            She grinned and continued to read Jansen's agent history.



                              Act XIV: Were-Sin City

                              San Francisco, California. It had been quite a while since I had been here last. But while it felt good to be here again, I really only had one destination in mind for stopping here. Xim's burial site. It didn't take me long to find it. I walked over to the spot and knelt on all fours and let loose a guttural howl that Sebastian had taught me. Then, I whispered softly.

                              "Xim. The hunter isn't dead, but he isn't human any more either. He's been changed into a chipmunk by that beautiful sorceress Circe for shooting a hole in her lovely dress. Every time I try to kill the man, he seems to slip through my fingers. How you must hate me for failing you so often. I have no idea what to tell Jael. I know I promised to spill his blood. In a way, I did spill his blood. Though, my twin killed his future self, while his past self later became a chipmunk. The only thing I have left is to grant you your last request. To see me one last time. How can I accomplish this? I am only mortal, Xim. There must be a way."

                              Just then, a furry wolf claw petted my shoulder. It was Jael. He had heard everything I had said. He knelt with me and hugged me.

                              "Dry your eyes, Jansen Tanner. Xim would be proud that you ran Hogan Slade down. True, he may yet live, but he will never heft a gun again. As for seeing Xim again, I too wish for that. The pain I felt to have him pass away in my arms... but that is the past."

                              Jael turned to me and licked my face.

                              "You look good in that Chess jacket. I've been hearing how you've been treating beings of supernatural power. And the things I hear are all good."

                              I turned to Jael and hugged him.

                              "I was awarded a complex of my own to built anywhere in the world, Jael. I had it built in the Rainbow Range. I named the place the Xim Complex."

                              Jael smiled and nuzzled me again.

                              "I think Xim would be very pleased. It is good to see you again, Jansen. What was the howl you let off earlier? It sounded masculine."

                              I grinned, explaining who taught it to me.

                              "By the way, may I be privileged enough to consider your clan as allied wolves?"

                              Jael hugged me again.

                              "You were our ally when you swore that oath for Xim."

                              Jael and I spent the rest of the day together. We watched the moon rise, then eventually, Jael heard the clan call and licked me again, before leaving. I smiled and returned to my sports car. It was time to head to Las Vegas. From San Rafael, I drove up 101 to 37, then arced around to Vallejo, where I merged unto 80 going to Reno, Nevada. This took me about three hours. After passing through Reno, I drove on 80 to Alt 50, then at Fallon, I pulled my sports car unto 95 South, which would take me all the way into Las Vegas, Nevada. This took four more hours.

                              Once I was in Las Vegas, I took in some shows, did some sightseeing and did a little gambling. Note that I said a little gambling; we Tanners try hard to keep some manner of purity in our lives. While I was having fun, I looked up the address of the Manhole Nightclub. It was in an area of Las Vegas where most people would hardly go, yet findable enough for the truly needy. When I arrived there, I was pleased to see that they also served meals. I was a little hungry.

                              While I was having my meal, I almost choked on my steak. The stage show had begun. The Manhole was an all-male strippers club. Well, to say the least, I was shocked. I mean, this is the sort of place I'd imagine my sister Jo coming to. I never thought I'd be watching something like this. I did my best to finish my meal. I was in Las Vegas for a reason, after all.

                              After I finished my meal, I approached the bartender and asked him if I could speak with Mr. Sterling Hawk. The bartender looked at me carefully.

                              "You want to see Sterling? Funny, you don't seem like his type. I'll go see if he's busy. Wait here."

                              The bartender was pretty serious about his statement. That almost surprised me. The bartender disappeared through the curtain in the back. I decided to watch the show a little. I was already here. After ten minutes, the bartender returned.

                              "Sterling will see you. He's a really nice employer. Go easy on him, okay? Through this curtain and up the stairs to the left. If you go down the stairs to the right, you might see things you don't want to see."

                              The bartender winked at me, then resumed his work. I was indeed curious, but I wanted to talk to Sterling Hawk first. I passed through the curtain and found the stairs to my left. I proceeded up the stairs, and knocked on the door. There was a response to the effect of inviting me in.

                              With a name like Hawk, I was expecting Mr. Sterling Hawk to be a Native American of some tribal nationality. I wasn't expecting the obvious. When I opened the office door, I saw a one were-hawk making love to a younger were-hawk. This seemed to me to be a private affair.

                              "Have a seat" grunt "and I will" moan "get to you" thrust "in a moment."

                              I was little shocked, but being the proper guest, I found the only available seat, Sterling's own office chair. I wasn't about to sit on the bed where he and his friend was.

                              "I didn't mean to bother you while you were sowing your wild oats, but this is a business offer. I am Jansen Tanner, Black Bishop of Chess. You are not being arrested or..."

                              The rest of my statement was lost as I started really watching the intercourse between the two were-hawks. And to say the least, it was interesting. I couldn't tear my eyes off of the scene. I started thinking that whatever was in the basement could not possibly be more shocking than this. This particular scene continued onwards for about another forty-five minutes.

                              The office clock chimed midnight just as Sterling gave his friend a warm and wet present. Then, he slowly released the other were-hawk, who got up and left the office with a warm smile. Sterling glanced over at me and patted the edge of the bed.

                              "Come on over, Mr. Jansen Tanner of Chess. I caught the part about my not being arrested, but you sort of lost your voice after that. Come on, I don't bite..."

                              I got up and moved over and sat where he indicated. Then, Sterling added more words.

                              "...Unless you ask me to. But I won't now that I know you're not here to arrest me."

                              I exhaled a breath of air. Sterling about made me go totally defensive.

                              "Like I said before, I didn't mean to interrupt your playtime... Um, you're quite the guy. A lot of stamina there."

                              I was blushing. What was wrong with me? Sterling smiled and patted my leg.

                              "So, why are you here? I normally don't mate with humans and you said that this was business."

                              I took a breath and exhaled it slowly, regaining my composure a bit.

                              "I was asked by my employer to come offer Chess' services to you and your were-sanctuary. Other than that, I have no intention of causing you or those you protect any harm what so ever."

                              Sterling stopped petting my leg and grinned.

                              "You see, that wasn't so hard. So you're offering your services... this is surprising to me. We do so well currently that we really have no need to hire or use Chess for any reason. However, that isn't to say I won't make use of you at a later date. If I may be allowed to with hold that option."

                              I smiled and petted his leg in return. Sterling's leg was a little sticky, but I didn't let that bother me.

                              "That's all we're offering, Sterling. You can contact me at any time."

                              I handed him several of Chess' business cards, with my name and pager number inscribed on the card. He took them and smiled. Then, he gave me a little hug and released me.

                              "Just so you know, Jansen Tanner, not all were-beasts infect through biting and scratching. A few infect through magic and/or sexual intercourse, and usually via willing participants. Though accidents do occur. Those that wish to remain as were-beasts we take to the sanctuary. The others... we put in contact with Reed Huxley. He's a good herbal doctor."

                              I turned to gaze at Sterling.

                              "Why are you telling me this?"

                              Sterling patted my leg some more, then got up and entered his shower booth and started bathing.

                              "If I were you, I'd wash my hands; You can use the sink over there. I am telling you this because you were nice enough to make your offer and you were polite enough to wait through one of my intercourse matings with a client. Some were-beasts can infect via simple contact. I am not one of them, but why take chances? Oh, and never drink a were-beast's semen or you'll be infected instantly. The viral juices are that powerful. Even a drop would leave you howling."

                              I blinked my eyes and got up to wash my hands. In a way, I was pleased that Sterling was giving me all this free information. This was something that I had not known before, and it was good knowledge to know. Even our Chess study books didn't reveal that information. Sterling Hawk was indeed one of a kind. He was placing an awful lot of trust in me. Or was planning something.

                              "Anything else I should know, Sterling?"

                              He continued cleaning himself.

                              "All of our performers are were-beasts. They give the normal show by day, and give a special transformation stripping at night. The customers love it. I let my boys keep whatever tips they get and I pay them a fair wage, along with providing them with a place to stay, as well as dental and medical benefits. I have to protect my boys, after all."

                              I finished washing my hands, and dried them on a paper towel. Then, I walked over to stand near the door.

                              "Any other words of wisdom, Sterling?"

                              Sterling emerged from the shower and grabbed a towel. Sterling was in his human form once again.

                              "Just this: I don't control or protect every were-beast in Las Vegas. There are a few who choose to deal with their lives on their own. There are a few families who are pure-breeds who occasionally infect someone they love. But mostly, you'll occasionally see a few who think that their gift is a means to commit crimes. I don't go along with that train of thought. Any who commit crimes then seek me out for sanctuary will quickly find themselves either turned away, or turned over to the authorities. Chess could come in handy in those cases."

                              I nodded my head, and watched Sterling get his clothing back on. I had to admit: Sterling Hawk was one of a kind. He really seemed to care about his people. I then got to see another transaction take place. One studly white-furred panther man wearing a bathrobe entered the office and dropped a large money bag on the desk.

                              "Here is tonight's profits, Sterling."

                              Sterling smiled at the panther man.

                              "Thank you, Adonis. You may go now."

                              Adonis turned and started out. As he was directly in front of me, he pushed something into my shirt pocket and then, proceeded out of the office. I couldn't help but to smile and watch his tail swish back and forth. Sterling took note of that as he sat at his desk to count the profits.

                              "You might be careful watching that tail, Jansen. Adonis Rhoades, the white rose of beauty, is one of those types who can infect through sexual intercourse."

                              I turned back to Sterling.

                              "Oh. Thank you for the warning."

                              Sterling winked at me and grinned.

                              "Perhaps you better get going, Jansen. The Manhole is about to close. I'd hate for anything sexual to happen to you on purpose..."

                              I didn't need another warning. I nodded to Sterling and headed out. It didn't take me long to get back in my car and head back over to my hotel room. Once I was securely in my room, I looked that the thing that Adonis put into my pocket. It was a small note with Adonis' name and phone number on it. Adonis was probably being a very naughty boy! I chuckled and dialed the number on the hotel phone. The phone only rang once, then there was an answer.

                              "Adonis Rhoades speaking."

                              I smiled.

                              "Jansen Tanner here. You gave me your name and phone number. What do you need?"

                              Adonis seemed to exhale.

                              "Good. It's you. Are you a private detective like I was hoping?"

                              I was surprised by that question.

                              "You might hang up once you hear exactly what I am. I am Jansen Tanner, Black Bishop of the Chess organization."

                              There was a pause of silence.

                              "That will have to do. I want to hire you."

                              I blinked my eyes in astonishment.

                              "You're having a problem? What is it?"

                              Adonis sighed.

                              "My younger brother has been kidnapped. He's a were panther like me. The people who have him contacted me once already. They said that they knew our secret and unless I paid them one hundred grand, they would end my brother's life with an ebony dagger. Jansen... please... I can pay you whatever you ask... please take my case... I love my brother... his name is Quillan."

                              I considered this for a moment. It only took a moment.

                              "Adonis? I'll take your case. But I can't charge you anything to do this. I am a Chess agent, after all. However, I can't stop you from paying me either. Where shall we meet?"

                              Adonis seemed relieved. He gave me directions to his apartment located nearby to the Manhole. I told him to wait for me. I then hung up and left the hotel room. I was soon in my car again and once again driving back over into that area. I parked my car and activated the Chess security system as I locked up my car. Then, I entered the building and headed up to Adonis' apartment.

                              Adonis' roommate let me in. He was a very large were kangaroo. He was exceptionally different, to say the least, for he had a full sized pouch. That surprised me, but I wasn't about to draw attention to his pouch. That isn't why I had come. He introduced himself as Ozzy Duguru, and then, had me sit on the couch. Ozzy then fetched Adonis from the bathroom.

                              Adonis walked in and showed me the ransom note. It was pretty simple. One hundred grand to be delivered by a plain clothes detective to the address given. I pondered this, then looked to Adonis. His facial expression was very telling. Adonis wanted his brother back. I nodded my head and went to make a special phone call. A long distance phone call.

                              The phone rang twice before it was answered. I was pleased to hear the voice on the other end.

                              "Hello. Inspector Langston here."

                              I smiled.

                              "Hello Gideon. How are you?"

                              There was a pause of shock.

                              "Jansen Tanner? Where the hell are you? Everyone thinks you're dead!"

                              I chuckled at that remark.

                              "Gideon, I am in Las Vegas, Nevada, and I need your expert help here. When can you arrive?"

                              I heard Gideon close his office door.

                              "Las Vegas. And you need my help. Okay. I can probably be there in a few hours. Are you going to tell me what's going on now or when I get there?"

                              I smiled again.

                              "I can't tell you over a public phone. But I will promise that you'll be fully updated once you arrive."

                              I then told him what hotel I was staying at, and to tell the desk clerk that Mr. Tanner was expecting him. Gideon could tell there was something serious in my voice's tone.

                              "Jansen... You're not in financial trouble, are you?"

                              I chuckled again.

                              "Gideon, this is semi police business. I cannot tell you any more. Just be here by tonight."

                              I hung up the phone quickly. Gideon would've badgered me for more information had I let him. Gideon "Thor" Langston was a good man, but very suspicious. Though I wondered who had started the rumor that I was dead, I had my suspicions, but they were only suspicions. Now, however, I had to await Gideon's arrival. I returned to my apartment and waited there.

                              Within a few hours, there came a knock at my door. I peeked through the viewing hole and was relieved to see Gideon. But then, I saw the tall female with him. This was not going as planned. I pulled my gun and opened the door, my gun fully viewable.

                              "Both of you, inside. Now."

                              They both obeyed as I closed and locked the door behind them. Then, Gideon was relieved when I put my gun away. But he raised an eye when I pulled out an electronics detector and scanned his and his friend's bodies.

                              "Remove the tracking beacons and place them on this table please. And don't give me a hard time about it."

                              Gideon almost snarled, as he proceeded to placing the items on the table. The woman hesitated, but only until Gideon told her to comply. Once I was satisfied, I placed all the trackers into a device that blocked tracking signals. Then, I pulled out my badge and flashed it to my guests.

                              "Jansen Tanner, Black Bishop of Chess. Thank you for accepting my invitation, Gideon. Who is your friend?"

                              Gideon's eyes went wide when he heard me say "Chess". Then, he turned to the woman.

                              "Jansen, this is special agent Krystal Silverly of the FBI. She's been aiding us in Phoenix, Arizona, these last few months. When she heard I was heading to Las Vegas on business, she insisted upon coming along."

                              Krystal placed her hands on her hips and studied me. I likewise studied her, but only for a moment. I then pulled out a Chess Via Satellite Cordless Video Phone.

                              "Danath? What can you tell me about a Krystal Silverly? United States. Supposedly with the FBI."

                              Gideon and Krystal both looked at me, then at each other. Then, Danath's voice answered.

                              "Ms. Krystal Silverly was born in Indiana, attended high school in Ohio, then attended MIT. After graduation, she did join the FBI..."

                              Krystal smiled at that point, but she was about to frown...

                              "...for about five months. Then, she was recruited by an organization called PSI. Psychic and Supernatural Investigations. They are the American version of Chess. Though I have nothing to do with them, we have clashed together before. They are trustworthy, though..."

                              I grinned as Krystal's composure seemed to dwindle.

                              "Thanks, Danath."

                              I deactivated the phone, then nodded my head.

                              "I won't ask why PSI is in Arizona. Now, listen carefully... we're on a schedule here."

                              I explained the situation about the kidnappers, who they had, and what the victim was. That really got Gideon's attention. He wasn't expecting a were panther. Krystal took it all in stride. Of course, Krystal was about to get a taste of dealing with a Tanner.


                              She blinked her eyes, as she read this section.

                              "Another new organization? Knowing Jansen, he probably enjoyed meeting another special agent. Though... he did handle himself quite well with the lycanthropes there in Las Vegas. Were-beast strippers? Now ain't that a twist and a half? Now I know where I can send Wendy Gliddle next month! I am sure she'd love it. Though, she'd probably kill me for sending her to a all-male strip club."

                              Just then, the phone rang.


                              There was some general speaking.

                              "Um, yeah... I was mentioning your name. I was just thinking about where I can send you on a vacation to next month. I found a cute little club that has male strippers."

                              There was some pretty loud laughing. Then a tone of seriousness.

                              "Right. I'll talk to you later, Wendy. Goodbye."

                              She hung up the phone and shivered. How did Wendy know that her name had been mentioned? Ah well... she grinned and resumed reading Jansen's agent history.