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   Chapter 18 Journey To Catho

Maldene - Volume One By Mark Anthony Tierno Characters: 77785

Updated: 2018-04-10 12:02

R.K.: 9, 990, 8 Hevatlu?r:

It's our fortieth rise in the open sea, and we have finally rounded the far western end of Cenivar and are starting to turn north. Our trip thus far has been mostly uneventful. We have passed several ships as we sailed along the coast, but that is only normal for such well-traveled waters as are these. Some of them even sailed alongside for a small time to exchange news and supplies with the crew.

The weather is pleasantly warm here in the Northern Tropic, as we enter the second half of Fall. We sail near enough to the Equator to feel the occasional draft of wind blowing straight up around us, although no major storms have plagued us so far.

Boredom is our major problem. Everyone has plenty of time on their hands, each using it differently. Bronto is renewing his informal sailor apprenticeship, while Shong continues with his sword practice. Candol has been helping with the ship's Sea Mage in assuring us a safe voyage, although I think that if he invokes the name of Indra one more time, that poor Sea Mage is going to scream. Lindel has his target practice with his bow, challenging anyone that can throw or shoot a weapon to a contest; he says he needs the practice.

Quickfoot's boredom, however, has proven rather bothersome. It has gotten him into much mischief aboard our ship, from raiding food stores, steeling anything resembling a knife or valuable object, bothering sailors constantly, and generally getting underfoot. Lindel finally kept him occupied by challenging him to some target practice, bow against knife. The small one is holding up pretty good in that contest.

As for Sindar, Eldar, and myself, the three of us have taken to studying the dimensio-book of Magic, to learn some of its spells. We've turned this into a sort of a contest, seeing which of us can master some of its advanced magiks first. Eldar seems to have a certain talent for magic, which is only natural for Elves, though Sindar's own intellect gives him more of an edge. I myself take the challenge of Sindar's competition to be the impetus needed to drive me to greater effort.

As I now write this, a storm seems to be upon us; a Hurrical according to the Captain, so most of us are now below decks. Although, from the decreased rocking of the ship now, I believe us to be safely past the strong hurricane-wind part of the storm, and starting into the long period of the Hurrical's electrical activity and rains. This should go on for well into tomorrow, so I think I'll end my entry here, and perhaps take a look above deck.

Thunder roared as fingers of lightning peeled their way across the sky. A thin spray of rain blew past Sabu's face as he walked across the ship's top deck. It wasn't particularly cold, he thought, just some noisy lightning and a bit of rain. It was nighttime, dark except for green Gamro shining out overhead in half-phase, so, if nothing else, the lightning served to light up the night a bit.

He saw a few of the sailors scattered amongst their posts, although none of them high up amongst the sails; they probably didn't want to get hit by the lightning, he thought. On the starboard side of the ship he saw Eldar, leaning against the edge of the boat, looking up into the sky, admiring the night. Bronto was elsewhere on deck talking to some sailors, joking and laughing, while Sindar paced with his own thoughts towards the other end of the ship. Sabu went over to Eldar.

"Storm watching?" Sabu asked, as he came up next to his friend, taking a place alongside him by the railing.

"Just admiring Nature's fireworks, " the elf answered. "It's amazing how all that lightning can go on for the better part of a rise."

"Not really, " Sabu explained, "not when you take into account the prevailing conditions, including the present humidity, the capacitance of the local atmosphere, the-"

"All right, I believe you, " Eldar interrupted with a wave of his hand. "Boy, you sure can take the romance and adventure out of something."

"Sorry, " Sabu apologized, "I just have this need to explain and know and-"

"Run off at the mouth, " Eldar finished for him, grinning.

Darkness enclosed the port side of the ship. A Thirdocian sailor stopped to look out into the blackness beyond.

"Okay, " Sabu looked a bit sheepish, "I'll try to control it a bit."

"Just stop to admire life a bit more, " Eldar advised, "instead of explaining it so much. You know, there is art in things other than mathematics."

"True, " Sabu admitted, "but none nearly as precise."

Another sailor parted company from Bronto's little group of four, laughing to himself and strolling along the port side, casually glancing around as if looking for something. When he got to the ship's railing, he stopped, a bit puzzled.

"I could have sworn that I saw him go over here, " he said to himself. "Maybe he's trying to get out of that bet he lost."

Then the sailor noticed a small length of seaweed lying on the deck, trailing off over the side of the ship. He stepped over to the seaweed and bent down to examine it.

"That's funny, " he said quietly, "it hasn't been stormy enough in the last several nevs to toss this up on deck. I wonder how it got here."

He glanced around, as if seeking an explanation to a minor mystery, and then looked out into the black ocean.

His gaze fixed, his head not turning as he stayed very still, frozen in his squatting position, gazing outward.

Sindar, meanwhile, was walking over towards Sabu and Eldar. His face held a look of concern as he approached.

"Ah, the other brain around here, " Eldar said with relaxed amusement. "What's up?"

Sindar took up a place on the other side of Eldar, looking a bit distracted as he did so.

"Something's wrong, " Sabu observed. "What is it Sindar?"

"I think. . ., " he began, "the visions. More subtle this time, but I think they've started again."

"Same kind as before?" Eldar asked.

"Yes, " Sindar nodded, "but this time they're blending in with the reality around me. I'm having a hard time telling what's real and what's part of the visions. Even now, I have to concentrate to be sure that it's you two that I'm talking to."

"Let's try out that mind-link then, " Sabu said, as he straightened himself up. "Come on Eldar."

"Right, " Eldar said. He straightened up into a less relaxed stance, and stepped over to the other side of Sindar, putting Sindar between himself and Sabu. "I was getting bored anyway."

Sabu laid a hand on Sindar's right shoulder while Eldar put his on the left. Thus linked, the three began to concentrate together, as Sindar shared his visions with his friends, and they shared their strength with him.

Visions flooded across the three, centering on Sindar. Visions of invitation, visions of enticement. The ship seemed to turn into a boat filled with books, sailing on a sea of energy. The sky seemed aglow with a dim presence, a frail force, not seen, but almost felt.

"Wow, " Eldar remarked, "I see what you mean. This is strong stuff."

"I can see the temptations, " Sabu said calmly, "so much knowledge offered to be learned. But we'll help you resist."

"Faw?rsome, my friend, " Sindar said gratefully, as he began to concentrate on expelling the unwanted visions.

Sindar drew strength from his friends, as their will-forces united. He drew a deep breath as his mind began to build up a barrier against the intrusion.

"Hey, where'd T?ydel go?" Bronto was saying to the four sailors around him. "I thought he just went over to collect on his bet."

"Who knows, " one of the sailors shrugged, "maybe old Paete is trying to talk him out of collecting."

"That'd be just like him, " another agreed jovially. "He never could keep to an honest bet."

Stone by mental stone, Sindar erected his wall against the visions, as if building a dome around his mind. First, he shut out the image of the endless books, taking a mental torch to them all, the fires of his mind backed by the efforts of Sabu and Eldar. Pile by large pile the imagined books burned, until he saw only the ship under his feet. Then he started to work on the imagined sea of energy around them.

"Hey, I think it's working, " Eldar managed to gasp during his concentration. "It's starting to go away."

"Yes, " Sabu agreed, "but it's taking all our combined efforts. I can't move even if I wanted to."

Mental imagery fought dream imagery. The waters of the mind came sluicing down around the ship, striving to quench the sea of dreams. Focused mental force put a hand up against the darkness reaching towards him, tried to blot out the dim but persistent glow of a presence overhead.

"No, " Sindar said unmovingly, "it's no good. It's getting worse."

"How so?" Sabu said almost gasping with concentration.

"Now, I'm seeing a giant fifty-foot snake, " Sindar answered.

Indeed, looming over them now, from up out of the sea it seemed to rise, was the tall scaly form of a giant snake. Big enough around to easily swallow a horse, and taller than the ship's main mast did it rise. Seaweed and water dripped from the spine ridge that was its back, while it silently gazed down at them from just on the other side of their railing. It seemed to all but blend in with the darkness, draped about it like a coat, only its large eyes shining out, their dazzling slow swirl of colors seeming to invite tranquility.

"Ah, is that all?" Eldar said, glancing upwards, still not able to move because of the energy he gave Sindar. "Can't he think up anything more imaginative than that?"

The mouth opened up wide, long sharp teeth glistening with saliva, dripping down on them.

"Gee, " Eldar commented, as a large drop of saliva hit him on the shoulder, "I see what you mean Sindar; this feels pretty real. If I didn't know better. . ."


The battle cry sounded from across the decks, as a longsword sliced its way through the night. With deadly aim it soared over the deck, landing right in the center of the snake's head.

The sword bounced off, clattering to the deck with a loud rattle a few feet in front of Eldar. Bronto yelled at it at the top of his lungs, while sailors scurried to their swords. Several other sailors, as well as Candol and Shong, came rushing up from below decks.

"Uh oh, " Eldar said.

"It's real, " Sabu agreed.

But the three were unable to break from their concentration, or even to move, in their efforts to battle the deadly visions. The imagined glow seemed to pulse brighter and emanate humor and amusement at their predicament.

"This is a fine time for a giant snake to come visiting, " Eldar said, looking up helplessly.

The giant snake came rushing down, its mouth wide open, long sharp teeth reaching out, ready to receive them. Death came down swiftly towards them.

And bumped into an unseen barrier. It shook its head in puzzlement, as it tried again to get at its intended prey.

"That won't hold for long, " Candol shouted, "deal with it quickly!"

Bronto was already leaping across the deck, large sword in hand, as Shong was pulling out his own sword and running towards it. Several of the sailors were already poking at it with their own weapons.

"No giant snake's going to eat my friends, " Bronto roared into the rain, as he stood beside the three and swung back his sword.

Then, on the opposite side of the ship, another snake reared up its giant head out of the water, to stand even with the ship's mast.

"Okay, " Bronto corrected himself, "two giant snakes."

With a mighty swing, he slashed at the beast's long neck, just as Shong was thrusting at it from the other side of the three helpless wizards.

Bronto's slash bounced as Shong's thrust failed to even penetrate.

"Well, " Bronto said, "that's not going to work."

On the other side of the deck the other snake was gazing down at the sailors who tried to beat it back with their swords, none of the sword blows doing it any harm, one of the swords actually breaking upon its spiny back. Its eyes spiraled a multicolored gaze at them, catching one of the sailors as he glanced full on into its eyes. The sailor just stood there, his sword slipping from his fingers as the giant mouth came down at him. Teeth larger than a man's arm closed swiftly upon him, blood spilling out of its large mouth as it crunched down upon the upper body. It drew its head high up out of the other sailors' reach, its victim's lower body still sticking out of its mouth. But with another quick swallow, even that was fast gone, with only large drops of blood landing upon the deck giving any testament as to the sailor's existence. The snake then looked about for its next victim.

Lightning crackled loudly overhead as the Captain finally came out on deck, shouting for all hands to come topside, swords ready. Shong, when he saw that his sword thrusts were doing no good, backed up towards the Captain, sword still in front of him, while the first snake pounded away at the invisible barrier that Candol had erected.

"It looks to be a couple of large sea snakes, Captain, " he said over his shoulder.

"I'm afraid it might be worse than that, " the Captain responded.

"How's about this, then, " Bronto said, when his own slashes did no good.

His large sword in both hands, he turned it in his hands so that the wide flat end faced outwards, and drew back for another swing. With all his strength he swung, the flat of his sword landing with a loud crack upon the snake's body.

This the snake noticed, as it reared back from the impact, shaking itself as it shifted its gaze over towards the large warrior.

"Ah, got your attention, did I?" Bronto mocked the snake.

The snake gave a loud hiss as it drew back.

"Another good one ought to discourage you, " Bronto said, as he made ready for another swing.

Then was heard a loud crushing sound, followed by the shouts of several sailors. Bronto glanced over long enough to see what was going on.

A large octopus-like tentacle, several feet across, was reaching across the deck, crushing the railing, while another equally large one was wrapping itself up around a mast, doing a good job of crushing it.

"Let me guess, " Bronto said, facing the snake once again, "you aren't a sea snake."

The Hurrical flashed and raged about them, its lightning lending loud emphasis to Bronto's words.

"They're not snakes, it's a hydraswit. But it's the biggest one I've ever seen, " the Captain said to Shong, and then turned to shout out over the deck. "Don't look at the eyes; Sea Mage on deck now!"

Meanwhile, the mental battle involving Eldar, Sabu, and Sindar, raged onward as they stood off one image after another. So drawn into their own private battle were they, that they were unable to even move from the menace about them.

"We're sitting ducks, " Eldar gasped, while he sweated with concentration.

The giant snake-head lunged at them, once again bouncing off of the barrier, but this time causing a crackle of light as it did so.

"My shield's gone!" Candol shouted, as he raised up an arm.

The ship's Sea Mage, now on the top deck, was facing off the other snake-head, as he sent a stream of cold icicles at the snake's head. But now, fully eight large tentacles swarmed over the deck, as Shong and some other sailors tried beating them back with their swords. Shong somersaulted over a large reaching tentacle just as it smashed into another unlucky sailor, landing just after it passed beneath him, while simultaneously swinging around with a swift backward slash of his sword towards the waving appendage. Meanwhile, a loud crashing sound was heard as one of the masts was finally crushed to splinters by a large tentacle. Sailors screamed as they were crushed by the tentacles.

And all the while, Sabu, Eldar, and Sindar stood helpless in their own unseen battle.

"We've got to move them!" Bronto shouted, as he went over to the three.

But a large tentacle, as broad as the large man was tall, landed on him, flattening him to the deck with its crushing weight. The snake-head overhead looked down at its three victims, swirling eyes mesmerizing sailors near enough to help them. It reared back its long neck, opening wide its mouth, and then came down at them with the speed of lightning.

A shield of fire met its face, washing over its head and around its body. Fire hot enough to turn wood to ash in but moments. The snake-head stopped its plunge and looked for the source.

A dim red glow shone forth on Candol's forehead, coming as if from beneath the skin. He boldly stood in the center of the deck, facing it.

"Well, fire doesn't seem to affect it much, " he said. "Now what?"

It was then that he glanced over and saw the Sea Mage fighting off the other head, and a nearby tentacle, with blasts of cold.

"It's a real pity that Indra doesn't supply me with any cold spells, " the priest said, feeling a bit useless.

Sindar's mind looked about; he was dead if he didn't break his own struggle to help against the hydraswit, but most surely beyond help if he did break it off. He saw the great snake-head, high above him, readying for its final try. And this time, it would get them.

Eldar, Sabu, his mind suddenly spoke to the others, what's one of those Destir pieces of wisdom that Kilgar's always saying?

Well, Eldar thought back, just a few rises ago it was 'solve a problem with a problem'. Of course, that was in reference to how he'd beaten me at a game of cards.

That's what I thought, Sindar thought.

Hey, now's not a good time to be commenting on my card playing abilities, Eldar's miffed thought came back.

No, Sindar corrected, have your minds follow mine; we're going to solve one problem with the other.

Like we have a choice, Eldar thought back.

Sindar gathered up his strength, as if in one final effort against the unwanted images. The imaginary glow overhead seemed to laugh omnipotently. Sindar formed the channel of his thought, carefully but swiftly erecting his force of thought. The full effort of Eldar and Sabu joined his own tired mind, coming together for one final thrust.

The snake-head came down at them, no one near enough to stop it, sharp teeth heading straight for their target.

The visions came again at Sindar. His mind waited for just the right moment, then pounced.

A loud unearthly scream issued forth from both snake-heads, as the nearest one stopped its deadly plunge. Its tentacles thrashed about, releasing their grip upon the ship, as they plunged back into the water. Both heads weaved back and forth, snapping randomly at empty air.

The snake was now receiving the images meant for Sindar.

"So, what'd you do?" Eldar said, as he discovered that he could move again.

"I let my mind slip aside and redirected the images at the creature, " Sindar explained. "Apparently the nature of the images differ for others, because the beast doesn't seem to be enjoying them too much."

The Sea Mage sent a last blast of cold at the nearest head, just before it plunged down into the water. With a last scream, the other head went underwater as well, all of the tentacles now retreated back down into the sea.

"Did it run?" Shong asked as he and Bronto came running up to the trio from either side.

"No, " Sabu shook his head. "I sense the presence of Hevon Gems nearby. That thing's a guardian."

"It's coming back, " Eldar said, using his own special sense. "From there."

He pointed out towards a spot in the ocean. All eyes followed his outstretched arm as they looked upon the calm sea.

An explosion of water disrupted the momentary calmness as the creature rose up full into view. It rose higher and higher, until all could see it in full, its many tentacles coming out from the water beneath it.

It was high enough now that they could see that the long necks were connected at a common base that was its body, and that at the end of this long body, ten large octopus-like tentacles branched out from there. Dark green scales covered it from head to tentacle, swirling eyes now radiating anger as it gazed forth at them.

"That thing's got to be over two hundred and fifty feet long from head to tentacle, " the Captain said. "The largest hydraswit that I've even heard of was around a hundred and fifty. That mutant's a monster!"

Its two mouths opened wide, displaying several rows of long sharp teeth. Half of its tentacles swept around behind it to give it a mighty thrust forward through the water, while the others raised up in front of it as if to attack. It came at them swifter than they would think possible.

"That thing's moving faster than we could at full sail, " the Captain said, "and that's if we had all our masts intact. Sea Mage!"

Tattered grey robes fluttering about him, the ship's Sea Mage came up beside the Captain.

"I'm exhausted, " he said, "battling it wore me out. I'm sorry."

It came towards them, tentacles ready to break the ship into kindling, as its mouths gaped hungrily.

Blue flash of light, like a large cone, shining forth from the ship, impacting as if with force upon the hydraswit. Two reaching tentacles shattering into icy bits, stumps flailing uselessly. Water freezing to ice around the creature, like a giant hand clasping shut. Giant boulder of ice now weighing down like an anchor, sinking lower then bobbing back. Two snake-heads and several large tentacles flailing out from the cold grip as icy water slowed Death down to a stop.

"I also don't like my sleep being disturbed."

Several heads turned. Standing on deck now, at the top of the stairs that led to the below decks, stood a single yellow-skinned person in a night-robe.

Mauklo wasn't smiling.

"That man must live for timing, " Eldar smiled.

"That won't keep it for long, " Sabu said.

There was a brief groan as Sindar steadied himself against the railing. Eldar put an arm around him to steady his friend.

"I'm okay, " Sindar said, "just weak from all that psychic effort. I need to rest."

"I'll take care of him, " Eldar said, as he helped to steady Sindar, "you just finish that thing off."

"Right, " Sabu said determinedly, as he faced out to sea, "first thing's first."

They saw the creature flailing around in its trapping of ice. Then there was a loud crack and large chunks of ice began flying everywhere. With a loud double-scream, the hydraswit announced its freedom.

Sabu held out his right hand. Instantly, with nary a flash of light, his staff appeared in it. A look of concentration on his face, he held his staff purposefully, raising it up until its top was even with his head. He began to mutter a few incantations under his breath.

The hydraswit once again started towards them, now missing two of its tentacles and seeming a bit weaker, but coming nonetheless.

Sabu pointed his staff. Twin balls of cold blue flame flashed out from its tip, leaving a trail of icicles in its wake.

Two mouths hissed, wide open and ready to deal forth death, but a few scant yards away from the ship.

Two blue icy balls of fire impacted, each one going into one of the open mouths of the hydraswit, going down the twin throats as it was forced to swallow the burning cold.

er side of the street. He landed with a thump at the feet of two other elves, one male, the other female. Quickfoot looked around in puzzlement while Lindel looked up at the other elves.

"What's up?" Eldar asked, arm around the same female elf Sabu had conjured up earlier.

"You don't want to know, " Lindel replied.

"What'd I say?" asked Quickfoot, puzzledly.

Several sets of eyes all up and down the street looked on curiously as the smoke and fire cleared, colored flames dying down to nothing. Standing where the shop used to be was a blacked stretch of ground. In the middle of it stood Po-Adar, Jumpit at his side, all else dead.

Except for three other wizards clustered within the small protective shell around a single staff.

Anger raged on the ugly face, Jumpit jumping up and down in glee. The three wizards looked on doubtfully.

"Again master, " Jumpit said cheerfully, "do it again. More flames."

The tall figure looked around angrily. His gaze locked onto Quickfoot, sending waves of hatred through the air. Quickfoot swallowed as he tried to scamper behind Lindel, who was just getting up.

"You!" pointed Po-Adar, as he came forward a step. "You dare to-"

The sound of Po-Adar's foot crunching on something shifted his gaze downward. Quickfoot scampered further back behind Eldar as Po-Adar bent down to retrieve what it was, in all that charred rubble, that he'd stepped on. He plucked out a single un-charred root.

"Ah, " he said, suddenly smiling, calm as can be, all trace of anger gone from his presence, "the fel-root. I knew that I'd find it in this shop."

He straightened up as he examined the plant specimen.

"This just proves the incompetence of that old shopkeeper, " Po-Adar went on happily, "he had it all along and didn't even know it. And here I was willing to pay him a handsome sum for it. Oh well, his loss."

He turned around, pocketing the root, apparently about to leave, when he saw Sabu, Sindar, and Mauklo, still standing in their place, the shop now a black vacant lot around them.

"Oh, are you three still alive?" Po-Adar said, as if asking the time of rise. "My flames should have killed you. I can't have this, I've a reputation to uphold."

Po-Adar took a step forward as Sabu raised up his staff.

"So, " Po-Adar said amiably, "how do you want to die?"

"Of old age, preferably, " Sabu responded.

"Don't give him any ideas, " Mauklo hissed.

"Old age it is then, " said Po, bringing up his hands.

"I told you!" Mauklo said angrily.

Sabu held onto his staff defensively, while Po-Adar's hands came down in a stroke of magic. A red light seared through the air towards them, deadly aim, swiftly moving.

But it never got there.

A single shiny longsword swept through the air, intercepting the beam but inches in front of Sabu's face. Sabu watched, as the sword took the force of the ray, instantly rusting and turning to dust. The dust of sudden extreme age, crumbling down to the ground.

"Who did that?" Po shouted in anger.

"I did!"

Po whirled around to see the source of the voice. Standing in the center of the street, stood a single human, a shade over six feet in height, short blonde hair, blue eyes, his white-skinned well-built body dressed in metal armor that shone in the bright sunlight, a second sword in his right hand, raised defensively.

"I am Lorel, " said the human, "and you have no further argument with these people. Leave now."

All was silent save for the cries of three white seagulls flying by overhead. Po-Adar grinned as he walked out of the rubble and into the street. Behind him, Mauklo, Sabu, and Sindar scattered back into the street that was behind where the shop used to be, now presenting three separate targets instead of a single one. Po stopped in the middle of the street, twenty feet away from Lorel.

"You would stop me?" Po asked, amused. "I could turn you into a goblin, if I so desired."

"If that's what it takes for you to leave here in peace, " Lorel said bravely, "then so be it."

Po-Adar frowned as he looked down the street at the blond-haired man, standing so straight and tall, rooted to the ground with determination. Po took a step forward; the man stood his ground.

Po-Adar raised up a finger at him, its tip glowing with the red promise of death.

Lorel unflinchingly stood his ground.

Anger rose up on Po-Adar's face, his hand a deep glowing red, thunder rumbling in the sky overhead.

Lorel still stood his ground, locking gazes with Po, determination meeting anger down the length of road between them.

Po-Adar's hand flashed out with a sudden red light.

Lorel stood, sword out in front, not even flinching.

Lorel was suddenly buried.

Buried up to his neck, in a cascade of red flowers. Po-Adar was laughing heartily to the puzzled expressions of everyone watching. Lorel kept his sword ready, as if still expecting battle.

"What's this guy been smoking?" Eldar asked Lindel.

Po-Adar walked over to Lindel and Eldar, Quickfoot still hiding behind Eldar. The tall man looked down at the elves, grinning.

"You know, " he said, Jumpit coming to his master's side, "that man will do you and your friends some good. I like him."

Sabu and Sindar began walking over cautiously, Mauklo still staying back. Po-Adar stepped over and put an arm around Eldar's shoulder, as if the two had been friends for most of their lives.

"I've seen his soul, " Po-Adar said, "and I like it! Stick with him."

"Uh, yeah, " was all the puzzled Eldar could say.

"This guy is truly nutty, " Quickfoot said from behind Eldar's legs.

"Naw, he's just hard to understand."

Quickfoot whirled around to see who was the voice that came from behind him.

It was Tauzy-Ril.

"You know this goof-ball?" Quickfoot whispered the question, as Po-Adar walked Eldar out to the middle of the street.

"He's my friend, " said Tauzy, as he walked up to Quickfoot. "I came to Catho with him. There's always a lot of fun whenever he's in a town."

"Fun wouldn't exactly be the word that I'd choose, " Quickfoot said, facing out towards the street.

Lorel had shaken himself free of the flowers, as Po-Adar approached him, arm still draped around Eldar. Sabu and Sindar came up closer, in answer to the pleading look on Eldar's face.

"I really should apologize, " Po-Adar said in a friendly tone.

"Well, " Eldar began.

"But, " Po-Adar interrupted, "since I never do, why start now? I will take your own apology, though, for making me angry when I was clearly in the right."

"Apology?" Sabu asked doubtfully.

"Why, thank-you, " Po brightened, releasing his arm from around Eldar's shoulder. "Apology accepted!"

"But, " Sabu began.

Sindar put a restraining hand on his friend's shoulder, stopping him before he could say any more.

"Let's not push it, " Sindar whispered to Sabu, "he appears to be in a good mood, so let's just leave it."

Sabu kept quiet, withholding what he was about to say. Po-Adar, meanwhile, backed up a few steps from the others.

"Well, " Po said, "now that that's done, there something that needs this fel-root before sunset."

He brought his hood back over his misbegotten face and straightened out his robe, as Jumpit came up close to his master's side. He then looked over at them from under his hood.

"It's just so nice to have met you, " came the pleasant voice. "You can keep the flowers."

With a quick pfft both Po-Adar and Jumpit were gone. Only then did Lorel bring down his sword to put in his sheath. At about the same time, Quickfoot heard another pfft from behind him, and looked to see Tauzy-Ril also vanished from sight.

"That is one seriously insane person, " Eldar said, then smiled. "I think I kind of like him."

"You were pretty brave there, " Sabu said, coming up to Lorel. "Faw?r'mo. My name's Sabu."

"I was only doing what was right, " he said confidently.

"He's not only brave, but he can drink a whole mug of one of Bronto's concoctions and live."

Shong was coming down the street, Bronto at his side.

"We met him in a bar across town, " Shong continued. "He proved himself to be a fair fighter when a few others got a little too opinionated."

"I was only trying to protect the innocence of a young boy, " Lorel began. "There were others that didn't feel-"

"Little boy?" Eldar raised an eyebrow. "Let me guess."

Kilgar suddenly appeared out of thin air, standing beside Bronto, hand on the clasp to his cape, having just twisted it to deactivate its light-bending properties.

"I could have handled one of them, " the boy said matter-of-factly, "but there were three, so Bronto got involved, and then Lorel here-"

"Never mind, " Sabu said, and then turned to face Lorel, "we're heading for the mountains."

"If you wish to travel with us, " Sindar offered, "we'd be happy to have you along."

"I wouldn't want to put you out, " Lorel began, "although I would travel in that direction myself."

"Hey hey, " Eldar grinned, "a recommendation from old pus-face and then Shong. What more could one ask?"

"If there's no objections then, " Sabu said.

"I object strongly, " Mauklo said, walking up to them. "We know nothing about him."

"No objections of note then, " Eldar smiled, ignoring Mauklo. "It's unanimous."

Mauklo scowled as Sabu offered his hand to Lorel.

"Welcome to our happy little group then, " Sabu smiled. "I'm sure that you'll fit right in."

"More than one might hope, " Mauklo said to himself as he focused a careful eye on Lorel.

As the others introduced themselves to Lorel, from several feet away Mauklo looked carefully at Lorel. Deep into his soul, it seemed that he stared, remembering carefully the words spoken by Po-Adar. He stared until he found something.

Mauklo smiled, now appreciating Po-Adar's little joke.

"It was hard finding them, especially on such short notice. But here they are."

The dark-haired man slid the box across the counter. The room was dark, the evening outside giving little light, but one could still see the various swords, knives, polearms, and other weapons hanging along the walls and on counter-tops; evidence as to what this shop sold.

A gloved hand reached out of the darkness and opened up the box. The glove reached in and pulled out several daggers, each black and shiny, cut as if from some single smooth stone. The sharp edge of each one glistened in the dim light.

"They were expensive, and hard to make, but still of the best quality that I could manage, " the dark-haired weapons-maker said, "even if it did take me an entire rise. Although, I don't know what you need daggers cut from black obsidian for."

Another, more delicate-looking, gloved hand reached out and took one of the knives from the first hand. The delicate glove gripped the knife by the handle, tested its balance, and flipped it up in the air twice.

"Its balance is perfect, " came the female voice from out of the darkness, "just as we specified. You did good."

The delicate glove balanced the knife on the index finger for a moment before taking the knife out of sight. The other glove put the rest of the knives back into the box, closed the lid, and then drew the box away into the cloaking darkness. The weapons-maker looked over at his customers.

"Probably no other weapons-shop in this part of Catho could have made those knives the way you specified, " he said, "my best work ever. And only a hundred gold for the lot."

"Fine craftsmanship; definitely worth the price, " came a darker male voice.

"Thank-you, " replied the weapons-maker, now beaming with pride at appreciation of his work.

"Pay the man, " said the dark voice.

As the weapons-maker held out his hand in anticipation of forth-coming cash, one of the black obsidian knives suddenly appeared in the center of his chest, buried hilt-deep. His eyes widened as he looked down at the sudden protrusion, and then up at the thrower. He tried to mouth but a single word, failed, and collapsed down to the ground behind the counter.

"Yep, " came the female voice, "definitely perfect balance."

A stray beam of moonlight shone down on the delicately gloved hand, as another matching gloved hand reached out to take the glove off of the first hand. The tight-fitting glove was peeled off, revealing a young olive-skinned female hand.

"Come my sweet, " said the darker voice, as the original larger gloved hand reached out and clasped the olive-skinned hand, "we have some cleaning up to do before we leave."

"What about him?" the other delicately-gloved hand pointed over towards the counter.

"Leave him as is, including the dagger, " answered the male voice. "It'll serve as a symbol."

Little moonlight came in to show them at their work, cleaning up any trace of motive and means. When they had quickly finished up their work, they opened the door to take their leave; two dark figures outlined in moonlight, walking out through the door.

The next rise was bright with Fall light. The yellow orb of Gamra was passing overhead as they all assembled on their horses. A horse each they had, supplies being kept in a few of Sabu's special sacks. Some seemed natural to the saddle, while others had their own problems. Quickfoot, still afraid of being stepped on by the large creatures, was on the back of Candol's horse, clinging his hands around the priest's waist. Kilinir was managing to look dainty and cultured on her mount, like the frail young woman that everyone in this group knew that she was not. Sabu seemed to have come to some sort of agreement with his own horse, as if each promising to tolerate the other, while Bronto rode his own horse like they were both good buddies. Lindel seemed born to the horse, while Mauklo's seemed more afraid of making the dark wizard angry.

They were assembled at the edge of town, the dawn just breaking in their faces, its blue light shining down upon the wide stone-paved road in front of them. While but a dirt road, it was still wide enough to carry three large wagons abreast.

"Threegan Road, " Eldar said from the front of the group, gazing along the long road vanishing in the distance. "Those must have been some kingdoms to have built a road like this."

"Stories say that once, even this long road was paved with smooth stone, all along its twelve-hundred mile length, " Sabu began. "Why even in-"

"Never mind, " Eldar interrupted his friend with a grin. "We have a long trip for you to save your stories for. If we get started that is."

"Oh, I see your point, " Sabu realized.

Eldar waved his hand in the air, signaling for the others to get in line. They fell into a rough line along the road's beginning, two or three horses abreast, now thirteen in number. Warriors, wizards, brigands, and thieves; from the pure of heart to the darkest soul. All had survived hardships, deadly creatures, and the whims of Nature, wizards, and Fate. Survival alone had united this eclectic group.

Eldar gave another hand signal, which started the whole group to marching their horses down the wide long road. Voices conversed merrily amongst them as they settled down for the long journey towards their final destination. Bronto faced into the winds and expressed his defiance of the unknown dangers that lay ahead.

"Here we come Th?r T?orca!" Bronto shouted out cheerfully, as they started their horses along towards the rising sun.

This first Maldene novel concludes with "Maldene, Volume II".

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