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   Chapter 20 The Dragon Mountains

Maldene: Volume Two By Mark Anthony Tierno Characters: 104911

Updated: 2018-04-10 12:02


BOOK III:

In Search of Th?r T?orca

R.K.: 9, 990, 23 Arüdwo:

We have been traveling along Threegan Road for over a thousand miles now and are well into the interior of Catho. We have had no major incidents impeding our progress and so have been making pretty good progress, even despite the sorry state of our mounts. With Lindel's help, though, our horses have been improving a bit.

Along the side of the road we have been traveling, there have been the occasional old stone road-marker. I believe these to be ancient leftovers from the old Kingdoms. Their markings would correspond with the language of the times, and their placement consistent with the Kingdoms' habits of maintaining road systems throughout their domains. I would have loved to study them more carefully, but both Eldar and Lindel reminded me of our goals by physically pulling me away from the markers.

Rather rude of them.

Especially since the next time we came across one, Lindel urged my horse into a sudden gallop past it.

We have encountered a few other travelers along the way, more than a few coming from the interior. Several of them have been fleeing raids from tribes of beast-man creatures coming from the nearby hills and mountains. Apparently these raids have been severe enough to force several families to flee and entire small villages to be abandoned. Quickfoot may have been right about our walking into a little war.

We have passed by several small towns poking out from the woods alongside this road, staying in some for the evening, renewing our supplies, and moving on. From such places we have been picking up information on our possible destination. The mountain range of Catho is some six thousand miles long and over fifteen hundred miles wide. While not the largest range in the world, this would be more than big enough to leave us searching until we'd died of old age. The dimensio-book of history has given me some information with which to narrow down the search, but we still need to learn more. We are told that Threegan Road ends at a town up ahead called Sydelburg; maybe there we can learn more.

R.K.: 9, 990, 24 Arüdwo:

We are passing by some farms now, with Sydelburg just up ahead. I've seen some of the farms reduced to scorched plots of land, while others' crops grow but sparsely and weak, as if from poisoned ground. I've seen many people crowding both down the road and in from the countryside towards Sydelburg, their homes on their backs. As we near the edge of town, I see guards about in the streets in greater numbers than one would normally think sufficient. I've seen a makeshift graveyard with several freshly dug graves.

Definitely a city under siege.

The dirty streets were clogged with humanity; individuals who hadn't had time to wash in many rises of the sun, whole families carrying the remains of their lives with them, as well as the occasional rogue selling the necessities of life at over-inflated prices to the desperate. Bronto had to elbow his large frame through the refugees and the beggars, while Lorel had to wade through the needy as they pulled at him and begged for scraps of food. Lorel gave out what scraps he had on him as the dirty faces passed on by, but it wasn't enough; he realized that it wouldn't ever be enough for this horde of the dispossessed. He couldn't help even a small portion of them. Eldar, his instinct for cities never failing, led them through the crowds, down smaller side streets, and around the maze that was the town, and out into the more spacious town square, its cracked and faded fountain not having seen water for some time now.

"We've got to find someone that knows the area, maybe even a local mystic, " said Sabu as they walked past open-air cloth booths selling anything from fruits to personal ornamentation.

"Maybe I can speed up our search, " Sindar offered. "I haven't been idle in the practice of my mental powers, after all."

"Okay mister psychic, " Eldar mocked lightly, "which way?"

As Sindar concentrated, they walked out into the more open central area of the square, people buzzing about around them, as they held their own small island of safety next to the old cracked fountain.

"The east side of town, but a short walk from here, " Sindar finally said. "I've just spoken to him, and he's expecting us."

"That was fast, " Eldar remarked, "an appointment and everything."

"Then we're off, " Shong said.

"Good, " Lindel sighed, "this wash of refugees is a bit unsettling."

"Wait, " Lorel stopped them as they were about to leave, concern on his face, "there must be something that we can do to at least alleviate the needs of these masses."

"That would do little good, " Candol disagreed, "the raids will just produce more. The needs of Indra would have us onward to larger concerns."

"And does your Indra not care for the suffering of an individual, or of the impoverished masses before us, " Lorel said, face tight with anger.

"Touchy, aren't we, " Mauklo commented. "I think I'm going to like him."

Candol put a hand on Lorel's shoulder and calmly looked him in the eye before answering.

"Indra would have us look after the cause of all this about us, and not just cure its symptoms."

Lorel looked at the priest, gazed slowly out at the masses passing around them, then back at Candol, the truth of his words showing upon the priest's face. Lorel seemed to consider Candol's words, his face relaxing a bit.

"Still, " Lorel said, more calmly, the pain of emotion still showing in his look and his stance, "there must be something that we can do to lessen their suffering."

"The strong among them will survive, " Kilgar shrugged, "the rest should learn to fight better."

"You are so cynical for one so young, " Lorel said, looking down at Kilgar. "But maybe I shall teach them to fight; or at least how to survive. I must do something while we are here."

"Good, " Eldar interrupted, "then how's about you take Bronto, Shong, and Kilgar, and go work on that while we get our directions."

"That I shall!" Lorel brightened. "No help shall be refused while I am about."

"Then again, " Mauklo sighed, "I may have spoken too soon."

"Kilinir and myself have our own errands to seek after, " Kor-Lebear put in as he stood next to Kilinir, "maybe we'll join you later."

"One wonders what type of errands those two would have, " Lindel commented.

"Then we'll meet back here at nightfall, " Sabu said, "and leave tomorrow when the sun rises at mid morn."

A cloaked figure watched them from amongst the surrounding crowds as they left to their various errands.

The room they walked into seemed small, so crowded was it with all manner of books, vials, and odd implements of research and magic. Dust hung from the low ceiling in wispy cobwebs, the dim light leaking through the covered windows lightly illuminating them. The frail door slammed shut behind them, as they saw the only other exit to this room was a door-like opening on the opposing wall, covered over with a thin grey cloth. Sabu, Eldar, Sindar, and Mauklo had entered the mystic's small abode, the others with them having decided to stay outside. The mystic's place was at the very edge of the city's eastern side, being surrounded by a small slum area with a fair view of the outlying farms and the distant mountains beyond. It was an innocuous shack in an innocuous part of town.

"Are you sure he knows we're coming?" Eldar asked, as they looked around.

Before anyone could answer, a voice came from the area beyond the covered opening.

"Of course I know you're coming! I'm a mystic, aren't I?" came the irascible voice. "Sotüva, you young ones can be dense sometimes."

They looked over as, from behind the grey cloth, walked out the mystic. He was old and grey, his white hair coming down to his shoulders, his chin clean-shaven, his skin the white one gets from having seen no sun in too long a time. He wore a long night-shirt, its dingy off-whiteness coming down to his bare ankles. He walked with a slight stoop, and with small steps, but at a fast hurried shuffle that told of an energy that only true impatience can supply.

"I heard your friend's mind call, " he said rapidly. "Dangerous thing, broadcasting your mind openly like that; no telling who else could hear you. Sit down anywhere."

They looked first at the source of this rapid tirade, blinking at him in mild befuddlement, and then looked around for a place to sit. The old man went over to a dusty old chair and sat down, while Sabu and Eldar tried to find a place for themselves.

"Just move some of that stuff aside, " the old man said, "my name's Bathow."

Sabu gently moved some old books aside and sat down on what looked to be a chair, while Eldar just shrugged and, rather noisily, pushed a whole section of books, vials, and whatnot, off a table and sat up on top of it.

"My name's Sindar, and I think I'll stand, " responded Sindar, looking around doubtfully.

"I think I'll supply my own seat, " Mauklo said, walking over to an open space.

Mauklo pointed a finger at the ground next to him and, with a short pfft, a clean, small, leather-bound chair appeared.

"There, " he said, while sitting down, "definitely more dignified."

"Oh yeah, " Eldar smiled, "never mess with his dignity."

"My name is-" Sabu began, offering his hand out to Bathow.

"I know who you are, " Bathow interrupted impatiently, turning to shuffle through some papers on an old desk, "I'm the best mystic in Catho, so give me some credit. You want to know how to get to the Dragon Mountains and the Valley of Lights. A fool's errand if ever I heard one. Especially with all the raiding going on between here and there."

"The petty squabblings of some goat-herders and beast-men shall not deter us, " Mauklo said calmly.

"If you are truly as good as you say, " Sabu said, "then you should know why these raids will not stop us."

"I think he's just faking it, " Eldar said, dangling his feet off the edge of the table. "Sindar told him our names when he made mental contact. The rest, he doesn't know from horse flop."

"I know enough to keep shut in front of my elders, " Bathow growled.

"Ha, " Eldar smiled, "I'm probably older than you are. I just don't show it like you humans."

"Older and twice as foolish, " Bathow countered. "Yes, I have the information that you want, and it's enough to get you all killed. You should do what I do; hide from the forces of darkness and hope that they pass you by."

"I have little patience for cowards, " Mauklo stated calmly.

"You may call it being cowardly, " Bathow replied, "I call it staying alive long enough to pass my knowledge on to others, that it may not be lost."

"And then, what would you expect those others to do with the knowledge that you give them?" Sabu asked.

"Why, keep themselves safe and hidden so that they too may pass on the knowledge when their time comes." Bathow replied.

"But then, of what use, " Sindar interrupted calmly, "is having power and knowledge if you can't improve the world with it? If you have such knowledge, yet hide away with it, then you do even less than the peasants outside. By not using your knowledge, it is as if the knowledge had never existed in the first place. What then do you preserve your knowledge for?"

Silence came down with Sindar's words, spoken with the calmness of truth, while Bathow seemed lost in thought. Finally, he looked up, his grey eyes now showing a purpose. He raised up his right hand, rolled it tight into a clenched fist, and muttered a few quick syllables under his breath. A quick flash of light discharged from his fist, and then he relaxed his grip, letting down his hand.

"We are safe from unwanted ears now, " Bathow said more calmly, "and I can assure you, my young wizard, that I do what I can."

"Aside from acting so unpleasant, you mean?" Eldar observed.

"There are forces that seek after those who would boldly do right, " Bathow said, "and knowledge and power are useless if one is dead. So, I hide. I do what I can for the world around me but. . ."

"Just not too openly, " Eldar finished, taken aback. "I'm sorry."

"You seem kind of open to us." Sabu pointed out.

"Like I said, " Bathow replied, "I'm good at what I do. I've been waiting for you all for a good number of rels now. It has been for the likes of yourselves that my knowledge has been passed down through the generations; ever since the time of the old Kingdoms. Here are the maps that you came for."

Bathow reached amongst the papers he'd been shifting around on his desk, and produced some rolled up into a cylinder. These he handed to Sabu.

"Since the old Kingdoms, you say?" Sabu asked. "From what source did it originate?"

"My ancestor was a high advisor for one of the Kingdoms, " Bathow answered. "When the world collapsed around him, he sought to preserve some things for future generations, that his learning not be lost in the mists of time."

"Indeed some things worth learning, " Sindar observed. "Perhaps you could serve as our teacher, maybe even travel with us."

"No; time is short, " Bathow replied, relaxing back into his chair, "he hunts for you more than any. Be careful, for the game is his."

"Anyone know what he's talking about?" Eldar asked.

"Obviously, " Mauklo said, "he's giving us some precognitive advice."

"It is never what it seems, " Bathow quietly intoned, his eyes looking distant, "never. Don't spend a lifetime learning that the hard way; like I did."

"If you have been waiting for so many rels, " Sabu asked, when Bathow had finally stopped and was beginning to lose his distant look, "why now, do you seem so rushed?"

"It is good that you do not yet have any family, " Bathow said, seeming to ignore Sabu's question, "those that would be heroes should not have anyone close that can be threatened."

"I had a family once, " Bathow reminisced, "A wife and two stout sons, at an age when I sought to change things. I learned the hard way how one can be broken. Now, I have no one to pass on my learning to; my knowledge shall finally be lost."

Bathow looked thoughtful, then suddenly shook himself out of his reverie.

"Ignore the ramblings of an old used-up man, " Bathow said, a bit more briskly, "and pay attention to his advice. Time is short."

Before they had time to ask another question, the outside door flung open, a golden-haired elven figure standing in the doorway.

"A raid comes, " Lindel said, notched bow ready in his hands, "a cloud of smoke rising up through the farmlands. There looks to be a lot of them."

"That's the trouble with that spell, " Bathow said, getting up, "it not only protects one from being heard, but from hearing as well."

"Sounds like a reason to rumble, " Eldar said, hopping up off the edge of the table.

"So much for our dose of altruistic advice, " Mauklo said, standing up, the conjured chair disappearing in another short pfft.

"I'm sure we might be able to do something about this raid, " Sabu said as he got up, "we've faced worse."

Bathow just smiled as they all went outside.

It was afternoon outside, Bathow was the last to leave his small home. They walked down the street, towards where the city suddenly left off, overlooking the farms beyond. They were on a slight rise, Candol and Quickfoot there waiting for them, a large cloud of smoke rising in the distance.

"Sounds like we might get a little workout, " Eldar grinned. "After all, how bad can these beast-men be?"

Thunder, the sound of a hundred deep drums, come beating through the ground. Distant cracks of lightning, rumbling low and rhythmic.

"Someone tell me I don't recognize that sound, " Eldar said.

Quickfoot dived behind Candol's fluttering robes, his face peering out from behind.

"I remember them!" Quickfoot whimpered.

They watched as the distant cloud of dust got closer, along with the thunderous hooves.

"It certainly sounds the same, " Eldar said, looking less sure of himself than before.

"If you wish to have a look at our foe, " Bathow said, coming up next to them, "there is a way."

With a wave of his hand, the air in front of him shimmered and shifted, quickly forming into an image, floating up in the air in front of them. They all looked at what the image beheld.

"Chupek; it can't be!" Lindel exclaimed. "You mean there's a whole tribe of these things?"

A cloaked figure crouched atop a nearby rooftop observed them as they watched the conjured image. Horses danced through the vision, large horses, their hooves almost claws, long mangy hair covering their bodies, their breath snorting out angry dark smoke. On their backs were the beast-men, their twisted animal faces glaring out as their clawed hands tugged the reins ever tighter. Through the image their distant guttural cries could be heard as they swung their twisted swords out in front of them.

"They're just like the ones we killed back when we met Lindel, Sindar, and the others, " Candol said, peering at the image.

"That's okay, " Eldar brightened, getting out his sword, "we killed them before, we'll do it again. And now we're better at it than before."

"We'll need to be, " Lindel said, nodding towards the approaching cloud, "take a look at the size of that cloud."

Sabu bit his lip, looking at both the image and the cloud of dust, as if quickly calculating something. Finally, he turned to Sindar.

"Call the others, " Sabu said in a serious tone, "there's hundreds of them out there."

"It would be in the best interest of the local rich to help these refugees, " Lorel was saying as he, Bronto, Shong, and Kilgar walked up the street towards the large house. "If we could convince at least one of them to offer some assistance, then we will have helped."

"I guess so, " Shong said doubtfully, "but diplomacy isn't among my skills. I feel much more comfortable in battle than with words."

"You and me both, my friend, " Bronto chuckled.

"Words are a waste of time, " Kilgar said, clutching his long curved knife, "politicians use words."

"Don't worry, comrades; if need be, I shall do the talking, " Lorel said, as they went up to the door.

The door had a large ornate knocker, with which Lorel pounded twice, each thud echoing loudly throughout the large house beyond. Moments passed before the large door began to slowly creak open.

"We would speak with the good sir or madame of the house, " Lorel began speaking immediately, "about the plight of the poor refugees that you have surely noticed about town."

The door opened fully, revealing a lady. Definitely into old age, yet still walking with the straight back of vigor and youth, her white hair seeming to stand straight up on its own, radiating out in all directions from her head like they were trying their best to launch themselves outwards. Her white wrinkled skin suggested tiny stringy muscles underneath. Her rich-looking, if somewhat old, clothes hung around her like a small tent protecting its young, if such a structure could indeed have any. She looked out at them, wrinkled face expressionless.

"I am the owner of this house, " she said in a high cracked voice that sounded like broken glass.

"We would not trouble you, " Lorel went on, "but it weighs upon the soul to see such numbers in so desperate a situation. Now maybe, with your own fine fortune, you could at least help feed some of the desperate that have. . ."

While Lorel prattled on, her eyes looked at each of them in turn, finally wandering over to Shong, who just gave a polite nervous smile. The lady then smiled broadly, her wrinkles slowly moving out of the way of her expanding mouth, as she interrupted Lorel's speech.

"Well!" she almost shouted, in a screech of a voice that could compete with fingernails on a chalkboard. "Aren't you just the cute one! Why, come in, come in."

Shong turned his head to look behind him and see who, in his direction, she was talking to. Unfortunately, there was no one behind him.

She opened the door wide and motioned them in. Lorel led the way in with an offered 'thank-you', followed by Kilgar, Bronto, and Shong.

"I think she likes you, " Bronto whispered to Shong.

"Don't say that, " he whispered back.

The interior of the grand house looked richly furnished, or rather would be if someone had bothered to clean it the last several rels. The ceiling high overhead boasted a dusty and cracked chandelier with several old candles in it. A carpeted staircase wound up to a second floor at the rear of the large greeting room. Dusty carpets lay everywhere, and the tall windows were all covered over with thick layers of tapestries. The door closing behind them, the rich old lady turned to face them.

"My name is Margo Courtneed, " she said, staring directly at Shong, "but you can call me Margo. Do you know you're just the cutest young man to come in my home in a long while; ever since my fifth husband died."

"Miss Courtneed, " Lorel interjected, "about the poor refugees, surely you have noticed-"

"Oh, there's always refugees, " she said offhandedly, and then faced Shong again, smile on her face. "So, have you a wife?"

"Uh, no, " Shong said doubtfully, "I've never been-"

"Ah good, " she went on. "You know, you remind me of my third husband."

"Miss Courtneed, " Lorel persisted, "the raids are a danger to all, they deprive one of their homes and lives. That is why they so need your help."

"You look just sooo strong, " her voice screeched on, as she walked up next to Shong, putting a flirtatious wrinkled arm around his waist. "I bet you're pretty good with that sword. Care to show a mature lady how to use it?"

Her old dress hung loosely about her old skinny limbs. A smile cut through the crevices of her face as she batted eager old eyes at Shong.

"She scares me more than that first dragon did, " Kilgar whispered to Bronto.

"You and me both kid, " Bronto whispered back with a quiet chuckle.

"Uh, my friend here is right, " Shong said, trying to politely squirm his way out of Margo Courtneed's grip. "The needs of the refugees are much more important than any personal ones."

"Oh, if that's all that's stopping you, " she said, drawing her arm even tighter around Shong's waist. "I'll see that they're fed whatever I can spare. Will that make you happy?"

"Why may the gods of good thank you, my lady, " Lorel said, though Miss Courtneed seemed oblivious to the others, "an act that shall surely reward the giver."

"Now, with business done, " she continued, "how do you feel about large weddings?"

Shong looked imploringly at Bronto, helpless in the old withered arms of the assertive lady. Bronto grinned back at his friend's predicament before intervening.

"I am afraid that he already has a girlfriend, " Bronto said.

"Oh?" she responded, looking up at the others for the first time.

"Three as a matter of fact, " Bronto continued, "and he must already decide between them."

Shong looked like he had severe stomach pains, while Margo glanced back at him in surprise.

"Is this true?" she asked.

"Well, uh, " he hesitated.

Shong looked up at the wrinkled face looming over him, the rich old clothes, and the hair trying to still launch itself outwards. He came to a decision.

"Why, uh, yes, " he said, hesitantly, "there are these three young girls who-"

"Ha, is that all?" she said, resuming her smile and attempt at a seductive pose. "I can compete with any young girl. I can offer you anything they can."

"They're the King's daughters, " Bronto said.

"They are?" she asked surprised, and then looked a bit downcast. "I suppose that's a bit hard to compete with."

"And, if there's one thing I would never want to do is offend a King, " Shong said hopefully, as he squirmed his way out of her loosened grip, "especially the biggest King around."

"I suppose, " she replied despondently.

Shong was halfway to Bronto when he looked on at the poor woman, feeling sorry for her.

"And besides, " he added, "they're so young, if I were to refuse them all they couldn't take it nearly as well as one of your mature worldliness. You know how young girls are."

"Why yes, " she brightened. "The poor dears, I mustn't be so selfish. They could get broken-hearted so easily."

Shong looked relieved. Then, Margo got a bright look in her eyes and looked over at Shong.

"Maybe, in a few rels, when they're over their infatuation with you. . ., " she offered, in her cracked screech of a voice.

At that timely moment, Bronto's eyes got a distant look to them for but a moment. His face turned serious as he called out.

"Sindar, " he said, "he calls to us. The beast-men are making a raid on the town."

"Oh, then we must go to protect the town, " Shong said, grabbing out his sword as he mouthed a silent 'thank-you' to whatever gods may be listening, "and to see that no vile beast comes near your precious self."

They all rushed to the door before Margo could think to stop them. Shong was the first one out.

"Thank-you, my hero, " she called out after him, as Bronto and Kilgar quickly followed their comrade out. "I will not forget your gallantry."

"And thank-you, Miss Courtneed, for the gift to the refugees that you are to make, " Lorel said, still standing in the doorway. "The gods shall smile upon thee for being so-"

Lorel's speech was suddenly interrupted by a large arm grabbing him around the chest and quickly lifting him out through the door.

"Oh, " Margo Courtneed sighed, "it's always the cute ones that are so brave."

A hundred men were arrayed along the edge of town, each in his studded leather armor with his own sword ready for immediate use. Bathow stood with Sabu and the others at what seemed to be in the middle of their lineup, watching the cloud get ever closer. A dark-haired man dressed in metal scale armor approached them from the back ranks.

"No civilians in the front lines, " he said. "Get back to town; you too, old man."

"The officer in charge, I take it, " Sabu said. "Captain, we have fought these creatures before; we may be able to be of assistance."

"Now there's an understatement, " Eldar said under his breath.

"And Bathow here is a great mystic, " Sabu finished.

"I'll have no responsibilities for wet-behind-the-ears civilians and the local crazy man, " the Captain answered. "I'm sure you mean well, but this is work for professionals. And, as for Bathow here being a mystic, if he is then where's he been hiding it all this time?!"

"He's right about that, " Bathow said, his night-shirt flapping in the breeze, his white hair hanging about his shoulders, as the Captain shouted out orders to his troops. "I haven't been of much use in my life. Maybe it isn't too late to change that."

"In the eyes of Indra, it never is, " Candol advised.

"Okay now, " the Captain came back to them, "no priests, young pups, and old men at the front. They'll be here in moments."

"Since you refuse to listen, " Sabu said, "then let me put it this way."

Sabu faced out towards the oncoming cloud, now easily discernible as contorted figures riding atop their mangy mounts of death, swords singing through the air in anticipation of blood and death. He raised up his staff, muttering several indecipherable syllables under his breath. The Captain just shook his head and stepped towards him, but was blocked by the point of Eldar's sword.

"Not a good idea, " Eldar smiled, "just wait for it."

The top of the staff glowed a bright blue, as well did one watery-looking gem set atop it. Sabu pointed his staff at the oncoming horde.

Crack of thunder, ground splitting open. Sound of rocks tearing apart, the rumble of large masses of ground being moved aside as if by some large hand. The earth beneath their feet shook as the ground in front of the horde tore loose from itself. Mounts tumbled as the ground beneath their clawed hooves moved and buckled. Directly in their path, stretching all along their oncoming front line, a large crack opened up in the ground. Ten feet wide it opened, swallowing the first rows of screaming mounts finding themselves suddenly charging into its depths. But Sabu wasn't finished, for with the sudden bright glowing of the Water Hevon Gem, a wall of water soared straight up out of the pit, remaining as a standing wall of water ten feet thick, over a rent in the ground that still didn't know its own depth. Sabu lowered his staff, cocked his head to one side, and looked the Captain in the eye.

"Okay, " the Captain said slowly as he took in the scene, "I guess you can stay after all."

"I knew you'd see it our way, " Eldar said, lowering his sword.

"And you say old Bathow here's a mystic, " the Captain asked hopefully, "for if he really is, then we sure could use him."

"The best, " said Sabu, the hope and faith in his eyes staring straight at Bathow, as if by will force alone would he wake the old mystic up from his self-pity.

Bathow straightened himself up as all eyes focused on him. He straightened out his nightshirt as well as his stoop, raising his chin, a defiant look taking hold of his face. Time seemed to peel itself off of him like an old rind, as a new determination seemed to youthen his entire self. He looked at the Captain, dingy nightshirt flapping in the wind, the roaring sound of Sabu's wall of water in the background.

"Yes, I'm the best mystic in all of Catho, " Bathow said, in a voice more sure of itself, "and it's about time I started to act like it."

Bathow snapped his fingers, and his old dingy shirt changed into a deep purple robe, its dark color speckled with strange mystical symbols. Around his neck he now wore a glistening pendant, its purple gem set into a golden sunburst. The Captain's eyes opened wide with astonishment, several other nearby troops also staring at the wizards in their midst.

Bathow raised his hands up to waist level, palms upwards. He just concentrated a few moments, not even muttering a single syllable. Traceries of light seemed to flick across his palms then dance outwards, leaping first to the Captain and then outwards to each of the arrayed soldiers in turn, spreading like some bizarre wildfire of light. Bathow put his palms down and then looked up at the Captain.

"My powers are those of divinations and protections, as handed down my family line from the great Purple Wizard of the old Kingdoms, from a time now forgotten. You and your men are now protected from the bulk of what those beasts can deal out. But I suggest that you hurry."

The astonished Captain looked out at where the old mystic had nodded. Through the wall of water now, the hook-hoofed mounts and their nightmarish riders were leaping, most landing in a fallen heap, but all quickly getting back up again. They stayed there as more of them came through, as if waiting for their numbers to grow before charging forth.

"Okay men, " the Captain shouted, "come on, let's get them while they're down. Charge!"

As the Captain sounded his charge, the robed figure on the rooftop looked straight at the back of Bathow, a soft dry high-pitched cackle escaping from beneath the hood.

Bronto drew his immense sword from off his back as they ran down the crowded streets. The sounds of battle were in the distance as people scurried about to seek refuge in their homes and businesses. Shong was at his side as he rounded a corner to catch up with Kilgar and Lorel, also weaving their way through the panicking crowds.

"This city sure is. . . a lot bigger when you have to. . . run across its entire length. . . in but a few short diids, " Shong commented between breaths as he ran.

"As Eldar would say, what fun would a battle be if we didn't have to work for it, " Bronto said, without even breathing hard.

"How bad do you think it is?" Shong asked, as they rounded a corner, nearing the edge of town.

"All Sindar said was that we're in the middle of a small war, " Bronto said, "and that was good enough for me."

"Given the circumstances, " Shong replied, "having to rescue someone's pet cat would have been enough to get me out of there."

Bronto smiled at his friend's close escape from Margo as they finally came to where the buildings suddenly dropped off in favor of the surrounding farms. Kilgar and Lorel were standing at the edge of the small road, looking down the grassy slope at what lay below, when they finally caught up to them.

"I know not what type of vile creatures they fight, " Lorel was saying, "but we must help those men down there that fight them."

"We know what they are, " Bronto said, looking down over Lorel from half a foot higher, "and they're very dangerous."

"By the beard of my koren, " Shong remarked, "there's so many of them this time."

"How is it that the city troops hold out so well against them?" Kilgar asked. "They should be torn apart."

"That'll be Sabu's doing no doubt, " Bronto answered.

"We must fight by their sides to protect the city, " Lorel decided as he then ran down the slope, sword in hand, to join the battle.

"Wait, " Shong shouted, "you don't know these creatures!"

"Well, " Kilgar said, pulling his knife, "that's one more we have to protect."

"Come on, " Bronto said, as they all charged down the grassy slope.

The city's troops had met the creatures as they came through the giant wall of water, gaining the advantage as the beasts came plunging through. But the creatures were tough enough to still prove more than a challenge. The troops' swords had little effect on the creatures or their mounts, as the creatures in turn sliced through with their own steel-blue swords, shattering the troops' swords, slicing through their studded leather armor. But Bathow's magic was still serving its purpose: the troops were proving harder to kill than the invading creatures might have expected.

The weeds in the field became fiery tendrils, reaching up to grab at the clawed hooves of the creatures' mounts, as Sindar flexed forth his magic. Eldar was out in the field, his sword alight with deep red flame, slashing at nearby beast-men and their mounts. Lindel stood with Sindar, each carefully aimed dark-metal arrow sailing forth from his bow landing square between the eyes of an invader. Candol was with Bathow, lending the support of Indra in the protection of the troops, while Quickfoot had found a safe spot behind a wall from which to throw his precious daggers. Sabu was standing next to Mauklo and Sindar, lowering his staff after having just delivered a bolt of lightning at one of the creatures. Mauklo watched the battlefield with interest.

"We may be able to help them win this little war, " Sabu commented.

"It isn't a war, " Mauklo said, in a matter-of-fact voice.

"Maybe it's too small to be a war by your standards, " said Lindel while notching his next arrow, "but it's big enough for these people."

"That's not what I meant, " Mauklo said, "I meant that those creatures aren't fighting as if they're in a war."

"Sounds like you have an interesting observation to make, " Sabu said as he thought about what next spell to use.

"Notice how they change tactics, " Mauklo pointed out towards the battlefield. "They have no set battle or plan of attack. They try several different methods of combat, retreat, and then try again differently."

"I see what you mean, " Sabu said as he studied the battle below more carefully. "If not a war, what then?"

"It's a training exercise, " Mauklo said. "Some other force or commander of theirs has sent them on these raids, and at this city, in an effort to train them in combat."

"What would they be training for, then?" Sindar wondered, as he finished up his latest spell.

Lindel's arrow sizzled through the air to impact in the skull of one of the creatures while they thought this over, its pointed tip protruding straight out the back of the center of its deformed head.

Bolts of blue flame shot out from the swords of some of the creatures, roasting a few of the troops beyond what the protections of Bathow and Candol could withstand. Eldar slashed away with his flaming sword as one of the creatures took aim at his back. The tip of the sword flashed blue as Eldar battled away unawares.

"Eldar, look out!"

The shout had boomed across the field, attracting the elf's attention like a blow to the gut. He turned to see flaming blue death racing through the air towards him, but a few scant feet away, and closing. He saw within its flames the death it had caused back on the island where he had first met Sindar, the death of Thorlan at its fiery touch. Almost instinctively, he raised his flaming sword as if to deflect it. The blue flame hit.

Like light hitting a mirror, the blue bolt deflected off of Eldar's own fiery sword, to slice through the air and hit, instead, another of the beast riders. The unintentional target had but a brief moment of shock before he was reduced to a shower of black dust drifting upon the wind.

"Hey great!" Eldar shouted. "I didn't know I could do that. I'm liking these Hevon Gems better all the time."

Eldar turned around to have a look at the source of the bellowed shout that saved his life.

He was rewarded with the sight of one of the beast-men flying through the air, mount and all. It landed with a water-drowned scream as it went into Sabu's wall of water. The six-foot seven-inch source of both the shout and the flying horse came running across the field, large sword out in front of him.

"Bronto!" Eldar shouted out, as he raised his greeting.

Another figure came leaping down beside Bronto. Landing in the midst of several of the mounted fiends, he whirled his sword about with a speed and accuracy that most mortal men would never learn. He landed on the back of one of the mounts, quickly beheading its rider with his sharp sword, and jumped up again as another nearby rider slashed down at him.

The creature slashed down through empty air, instead hitting down upon the spine of the riderless mount, for Shong was now on the back of another rider. Its spine severed by the blow, the riderless mount collapsed to the ground in an unearthly scream of agony.

A high-pitched battle cry caused one of the mounted creatures to turn towards the source, just in time to have a long curved knife plunge straight into his forehead. As the rider fell wide-eyed onto the ground, Kilgar ran over to retrieve his knife.

"It's about time you guys came and joined the fun!" Eldar shouted as he slashed about with his own sword.

Another blond-haired figure came slicing down into the midst of the creatures, curses for the foe upon his lips, his sword singing out in front of him. From up on the hilltop, Sabu and Sindar watched while Lindel let loose with another arrow.

"Lorel looks to be brave enough, " Sabu commented, "but foolish."

"He doesn't know those creatures as do we, " Sindar agreed calmly, "he could get himself killed."

A bolt of blue flame shot down in front of Eldar. The elf leaped aside, looking up a bit angrily at the rider, several yards away, that had sourced it.

"Hey, cut that out!" he shouted, then brightened with an idea. "Okay, two can play at that game."

He pointed his flaming sword at the rider and briefly concentrated. A long tongue of red flame leapt out of the sword and towards the rider. Both rider and mount exploded into a screaming flaming mass, charging off through the battle.

"Ha! That'll show ya'!" Eldar exclaimed.

Lorel bravely chopped his way through the battle, as if trying to face off the entire small army by himself. He fought by the sides of the city's troops, his sword in front, as a rider's blue steel sword met with his own. Blue steel cleaved through normal steel, shattering Lorel's sword upon impact. Lorel took a few steps back, his eyes searching about for a new weapon.

"I shall smite thee with my bare hands, if need be, " he shouted out.

One of the city's troops slammed back against him, the body sagging limply to the ground, a large hole through his chest. Without a thought, Lorel quickly grabbed up the dead man's sword, brandishing defiance with it, as another body flung itself at his feet, dead. Lorel looked around himself.

The six or so city troops that he was fighting with were now all dead. Surrounding him were the grinning beast faces of the riders, all looking ready to sharpen their swords upon his bones. Lorel, not a frightened thought in him, continued to hold onto his sword defiantly.

"Okay, " he said, ready in his battle crouch, "let's see how many of you want to come down with me."

At that moment, the mount and rider that Eldar had turned into a living campfire came riding by at breakneck speed, past the backs of two of the riders encircling him, and straight towards the wall of water. Lorel looked at the flaming hand of death ride by, his eyes widening, his jaw quivering.

"Fire, " he said softly, "why'd it have to be fire. . ."

His voice trailed off as his sword dropped from his hands, eyes widening with the pure fear that only the truly fearful can have. The riders watched in puzzlement as Lorel dropped down to his knees and began to whimper.

"I hate fire, " he said quietly, as the flaming rider and mount finally hit the wall of water in an explosion of fire and steam, "fire,. . ."

He curled down into a crumpled heap, twitching spasmodically.

"I was afraid he would get himself killed, " Sabu said as they watched Lorel from atop the hill.

"He and your other friends who just charged onto the field, weren't protected by my spell, " Bathow said. "I had no warning."

"Well, Bronto and the others probably don't need it anyway, " Sabu smiled, and then frowned, "but Lorel,. . ."

The riders closed around Lorel, ready for some brief fun before they went back to the rest of the battle. Lorel began to twitch violently before he was closed off from sight.

"Too late now, " Sindar pointed, "they've got him."

"Now's when the fun starts, " Mauklo said to himself as he looked on.

Suddenly, one of the riders exploded from off his saddle, knocked from his saddle by some sudden force. It landed on the ground, clutching at his crotch and rolling around screaming. A small figure leaped up on top of its mount, blood dripping from its mouth as it looked at the screaming creature, chewing something. It swallowed and grinned out at the others around it devilishly.

It was short, little more than four feet tall and ninety pounds; green hair hanging down in scraggly lengths to its shoulders, dark green eyes looking out from a face dimpled with warts. Its tough-looking skin was green and leathery, with what could be either warts or old feather stumps, all encasing its shriveled looking body. Clawed nails tore off the last vestiges of once-clean armor and smooth cape, flinging them to the ground as it gnashed its fanged teeth in anticipation. Its eyes held the looks of an insanity far beyond even what the riders seemed to want to put up with.

It lunged at the nearest rider.

The rider brought his sword to bear a bit too late, as the small creature went clawing and tearing for the rider's throat. The rider's sword arm flung from side to side trying to ward the creature off. But the small one didn't seem to want to kill its prey, instead slashing at it, ripping the skin away in ragged lengths and spitting acid saliva into the wounds. The blue sword flashed brilliant with bolts of blue flame behind its back as the rider struggled vainly to stay conscious. The other riders nearby hurried out of the way of the randomly flying bolts of blue flame. Finally, the small one stood up on the mount, looking down at his handiwork, as the now dead rider started to slip off the mount. It spotted the blue sword and bent to pick it up by the hilt, then slashed with the sword a few times in the air while the mount under his feet bucked, sending him to the ground.

"Ow!" it said in a voice like unto gravel with a sore throat. "Pain! Schanter not like pain! Schanter love pain!"

It stood up, carrying its new found sword. It pointed the sword in the direction of the fleeing mount.

"Schanter no like shaggy horse, " it said.

A bolt of blue flame leaped out, hitting and engulfing the fleeing horse, as it exploded into bits of hot hairy charcoal landing upon the ground.

"Ow! Schanter don't like fire, " it said, leaping up and down in both fear and delight. "Fire! Fire pain; love pain!"

It started to aim the sword at other points in the battle, the look of madness in its eyes perhaps even more scary than the attacking beast riders.

"Our friend Lorel appears to have been keeping a secret, " Sabu observed casually from atop the hill as the small creature began chasing one of the mounted riders with bolts of blue flame.

"Yes, a rather serious case of insanity coupled with subconscious lycanthropic abilities, " Sindar responded, "and I can see in its rather twisted mind that, while Schanter appears to know of Lorel, Lorel isn't aware of the existence of Schanter. He appears completely ignorant of his condition."

"Well, let's not tell him, " Sabu advised, "I think it better that way. We'll have to warn the others about him too."

"It is kind of funny, " Mauklo said, smiling pleasantly.

"Funny?" said Quickfoot, coming up to the others. "He's seriously insane; that guy's wacko!"

"The humor, my little friend, comes in when you realize that Po-Adar saw this within him when we encountered them both. That was his joke upon us all; waiting for it to come forth unexpectedly. That was why he let Lorel live. Old Po must be somewhere laughing at us all by now."

"Well, joke or not, " Lindel interjected, "we have a battle to fight, and there's still too many of those creatures out there."

Sure enough, more of the creatures kept leaping out through the wall of water, and others had even found their way around the long crack in the ground. As great a help as the strength of Bronto, the sword skill of Shong, Kilgar's knife, and Eldar's attitude were, there were still more and more of the creatures. The city's troops were slowly backing up against the hillside, standing against the inevitable weight of sheer numbers.

"He's right, " Sabu said, "there's too many of them, and there's too many of the city guard down there for me to try any large scale magic without hurting them too."

"I may be of help." Bathow walked over, his purple robes flapping in the wind. "I have within me a spell, the likes of which no dark force may suspect that I have. I can erect a shield around this entire city, protecting it from these raids for good."

"Then just don't stand there, " Candol said as he too joined them, "in the name of Indra do it!"

"You appear to have been hiding a lot from your people, " Sabu remarked.

"Hiding I have been doing for far too long, " Bathow replied. "This spell shall take a lot out of me, but I shall try. I will need to concentrate for a while."

Bathow closed his eyes in concentration, raising his arms heavenward. They could feel the energy crackle around him as the winds picked up in force.

"Sindar, call the others back, " Sabu said, "we don't want anybody getting caught on the wrong side of this shield."

Sindar nodded and sent out his mental message as power rose around Bathow. The old mystic lifted his eyes towards the sky.

"I do for this town what I couldn't do for my own family, so long ago, " he shouted out into the winds. "To protect!"

Thunder crackled as a shell of air seemed to harden itself over the city. Everyone watched the mystic as he concentrated on the most powerful magic in his long life.

Sound of thunder clashing down upon one's soul. Red streamers, as life's fluid goes streaming out from outstretched hands. Old body shivering as purple robe stains red with the blood flying out from every pore. Thunder crackle quickly dispersed as a dying mystic loses hold of his spell, to collapse upon the ground.

"Bathow!" Sabu and Sindar both shouted as they leapt over to the fallen mystic's body.

Bathow coughed up blood as Sabu bent over him, young learned eyes searching for a reason. From up off the field, Eldar came running to join them.

"Hey guys, " Eldar said cheerfully, "I heard Sindar. What's-"

He stopped short as he saw Bathow lying there upon the ground, blood from head to toe, his skin as raw meat. The silver-haired elf quickly knelt down at his side, cheerfulness suddenly turned to concern.

"What happened?" he asked.

"We don't know, " Sabu answered, "one moment he was casting this spell, and then-"

A loud dry cackle interrupted them. From atop a nearby roof stood a robed figure, clawed hands peering out from its sleeves. The wind flung back its hood, revealing a face that could only be called female in the loosest sense of the word. Black hair hung down like dry rags about her deformed features, her eyes dark with hate. She glared down at them with dark intent.

"Loma, " Bathow choked out, "I might have known you were behind the raids."

"You reveal yourself too soon, old fool, " came Loma's dry cackle of a voice. "You should have stayed in hiding and let it all pass you by."

"Who is this hag?" Eldar asked.

"A witch, " Bathow wheezed out weakly, "the dark forces she serves are best left alone, but she-"

A spat of coughing up blood cut off what he was saying, while Loma just cackled joyfully. Candol came over to Bathow's side.

"I can help him, " Candol said as he knelt down, "it isn't too late."

"Touch him and die priest!" Loma yelled, as she pointed a clawed finger at them.

A red-colored bolt of lightning leaped out from her pointing hand. It sailed through the air, arrowing straight towards Bathow, the force of its passage knocking them all aside. Bathow's weak eyes just had time to see the rapidly approaching moment of his death before it struck. In a scream of agony, the red bolt hit, sending reddened chunks of flesh flying everywhere. The remains of the old mystic that weren't splattered all over everyone, were left as a withered husk of old meat, too beat up as to be recognizable as anything but a slaughterhouse leftover.

To say that Bathow was dead, would be putting it mildly.

"Now for all the other would-be heroes, " Loma's cracked voice called out.

"As if this brave man hadn't had a hard enough life, you have to have him end it this way, " Sabu said getting up. "I'm getting real tired of seeing this sort of thing happen all the time."

"Then you can die as did he, " she cackled, "that you won't see it anymore. Feel the wrath reserved for all those who cross the mighty Vold and his allies."

Suddenly the distant roar of Sabu's wall of water changed pitched as it collapsed back down into the crack from whence it came with a loud splash. Both armies looked on in puzzlement at the sudden change, as an entire army of riders was revealed, stretching out beyond the deep crevice into the fields beyond. Then the ground began to shake as a central portion of the deep crack began to close, the armies on the other side looking on in anticipation.

"Hey, who canceled my spell?!" Sabu said indignantly, as the others rushed to their feet.

Bronto, Shong, and Kilgar came rushing up over the hill to them, as they looked around for the source of the interference. Even Loma looked up.

Mauklo stood, facing out towards the crack, hands raised as he controlled the forces that were now closing the crack. Lindel angrily notched an arrow and aimed it in Mauklo's direction.

"Traitor!" he shouted as the arrow was sent flying.

As the crack closed and Mauklo turned around, lowering his arms, Lindel's arrow came straight towards him. At the last instant, though, the arrow seemed to lose its momentum and skittered to one side, to land harmlessly upon the ground. Mauklo smiled pleasantly as he fingered the amulet he wore around his neck.

"I knew this amulet of Torai's would come in handy, " he said, as he started to float up off the ground, facing towards Loma. "I've decided to join up."

Loma smiled, a wicked crack crossing her wrinkled fac

e. She pointed in his direction. Behind them all, the riders on the far side of the now-closed portion of Sabu's ravine started to spur their mounts into a gallop across. The riders already in battle began to rally, as what was left of the city's troops began to run back towards the city, reaching their legs towards the imagined safety of its, mostly wooden, walls.

"You betray your friends, " Loma cackled. "Do you find such betrayal so easy?"

"I imagine if I really thought of them as my friends I might, " Mauklo shrugged as he floated over to her rooftop, "I suggest that you kill the one with the staff first; he's the bright one."

Sabu glared up at Mauklo, clasping his hand tighter around his staff.

"If you're so eager to join with me, " she said, "why don't you do it? This could be some sort of trick."

Mauklo looked honestly shocked as he landed on the roof next to her. Below them, Sabu had his staff ready, while Lindel notched another arrow. Bronto, Shong, and Kilgar, weapons ready, were looking up at the yellow-skinned human. Beyond them the riders tore across the field, cleaving all in their path.

Except, that is, for a small area around a short leathery-skinned figure firing out random bolts of blue fire from a sword; firing, jumping up and down in glee as a rider is roasted, and then firing again.

"A trick?" he said with honest hurt in his voice. "Would I risk an entire city on some trick?"

He gestured to the battle field beyond. Riders poured across the ravine by the hundreds, a number of them now flooding into the city, fighting the city's troops in the streets.

"I guess not, " Loma smiled, "nobody's that rotten."

"But, if you must have proof, " Mauklo said, holding out his right hand, "then why don't we kill them together?"

"Don't do it Mauklo, " Sindar shouted up at the two of them, "she'll just betray you in the end!"

"It sounds like a delightful way to start a partnership, " Loma cackled agreement, as she put her hand in Mauklo's. "Let's fry them together."

"I so admire a woman of power, " Mauklo said, as Loma looked down at the rest, her eyes glowing a bright red, "especially one who can so organize such an offense against the rather lackluster defense of this town."

"Oh, well it helps when you have the local Mayor to assign them on the opposite side of town, " she smiled, as she pointed a glowing finger at Sabu.

Sabu raised his staff up defensively, Lindel aiming his bow.

"How deceptive of you, " Mauklo smiled evilly, "to have the Mayor on your side. But, to business."

"The Mayor is a cultist of Vold, " Loma commented, as she clasped tightly onto Mauklo's hand. "But now it's time for them to die. On the count of three. One."

Mauklo concentrated his energies, as Loma powered up her spell. The others below clutched helplessly at their various weapons, readied spells they may not have a chance to utter.

"Two."

Beyond them, the riders flooded across the field and on into the edges of the city. Mauklo readied to channel his own magic through Loma. Lindel carefully aimed his bow up at them.

"Three!"

Mauklo let loose his concentration, channeling it through Loma's tightly clasped hand. But, it wasn't assisting magic that came through. His hand glowed red hot, heat like unto fire. Fire shot swiftly up the inside of Loma's arm, turning her entire left arm a brightly glowing cherry red.

Loma screamed out in pain, but Mauklo held on tightly, smiling at her. Lindel let loose with his arrow.

"What's the matter, " he asked, as Loma started to double over, "don't care for my assistance?"

Her entire arm exploded in a blast of fire, disintegrating her arm and part of her shoulder. At the same time, Lindel's arrow impacted solidly into her right chest. She screamed as she was thrown over the edge of the building, Mauklo left holding the burned remains of her hand in his own.

"I guess not, " he shrugged, as he casually tossed the hand over his shoulder.

Loma's body never hit the ground. Sabu's raised staff sent out a wave of pure force, hitting the very target that he'd been aiming at all along.

The witch Loma disintegrated into a fine spray of dust.

"It's a good thing that we know you well, " Lindel shouted up, as he lowered his bow, "but one of these times that act isn't going to work."

"Maybe one of these times, I won't be acting, " Mauklo grinned back down. "But you actually shot that arrow at me. I might have been hurt."

"I'd noticed your little amulet several rises ago, " Lindel said, as Mauklo started to float back down to the ground, "so I played along. But right now, your little act may have still cost us the city."

"This was the only way, " Sindar said, "she would have killed us otherwise and enslaved the entire city. But we do have a difficult battle on our hands now."

"And a traitorous Mayor, " Eldar added, "what about him?"

"Consider him. . . taken care of, " Mauklo said as he landed on the ground, "there are those that will know what to do about him."

"Good, " Bronto said, swinging out his sword, "then we can do something about saving this city."

"What about Wacko out there?" Quickfoot pointed out towards Schanter, still gleefully chasing riders with his new found toy, leaving bits and pieces of limbs behind him.

"Put him on the end of a stick and set him loose against the rest of the riders, " Sabu shrugged. "I think he can handle himself."

"Come, " Shong said, starting down the street with his sword, "the battle's gone past us."

They raced down the streets, not knowing how or if they were going to save the town, but only knowing that they had to try.

The riders were everywhere, spreading throughout the city like a large swelling. Everywhere they went, they slashed with their blue swords and fired out their bolts of bright flame, cleaving down not only the city's troops but anyone else they saw as well. Sindar came running out of an alley with the others just in time to see a group of the riders slice down a shopkeeper, his patrons dead and burned around him, his store fast becoming a pile of burning embers behind him. In front of a neighboring building a young girl, perhaps no more than about nine, was screaming, trying to run down the street away from another rider chasing her. The rider caught up with her, his claw-hoofed mount galloping at full speed as it tore right through her, shredding her into several pieces with its hooves, flinging parts of her body in random directions as it galloped rapidly over her. The rider grinned with delight as he left mangled chunks of meat behind him. From elsewhere, the severed head of someone's mother came rolling to Sindar's feet, dead eyes gazing skyward in frozen wide-eyed terror.

Bronto and Shong went running into the fray, the big man's deafening battle cry of ka'ru giving momentary pause to the riders' destruction. Shong went diving in, rolling low in front of one of the shaggy mounts, sword slicing at its forelegs as he did so; when the mount fell onto its two severed legs, Shong rolled to his feet and sliced skillfully at the unseated rider. Eldar even went into the battle, chasing a few of the riders down the street with bolts of red flame from his sword. Sabu stood beside Sindar, watching the carnage.

"There are too many of them, " Sindar said, shaking his head in sad disbelief. "We can't get them all; at least not without harming innocents."

"Maybe I should start working on a way to get my spells to affect just select individuals, " Sabu pondered. "It sure would come in handy for a situation like this."

"That won't help these people now, " Sindar responded. "There's got to be something else we can do."

"It may be the will of Indra that we cannot be the heroes of every situation, " Candol said as he came up next to them. "We can't salvage every situation any more than we can be everywhere at once."

"We've got to try, " Sindar said quietly.

Two riders went sailing off into the distance as Bronto began tossing riders in random directions, sometimes flinging them across the city.

"How's Schanter doing?" Sabu asked Candol. "He still chasing down riders with his new sword?"

"Yes, " Candol replied, "although he's not too discriminate about it; he burned one or two of the city's troops as well. That creature is quite a contradiction; he seems to really hate fire, but he loves the pain it gives him."

"I wonder how we're going to turn him off when the time comes, " Sabu pondered.

"Put him to sleep?" Candol offered.

"That'll work, " Sabu replied, "but as for this battle right now. . ."

"They move towards the center of town, " Sindar said, "my mind sees their progress down the streets."

"Then the center of town it is, " Sabu replied, as he tapped his staff once on the ground.

Immediately they were in the town square, standing beside the old fountain. People were fleeing everywhere, most running west away from the invaders, but some not sure which way to go. The sound of distant fighting was closing. They saw Lindel on a nearby rooftop, readying his bow, waiting for the fight to come to him.

"Maybe we can at least stop them from going any further now, " Sabu said, "to save what we can."

"I wonder, " Sindar said as Sabu thought of what spell to use first. "If the witch Loma led them, and she's now dead, what General do they now follow? Why do they still fight in so organized a fashion?"

"They have another leader with them then, " Sabu agreed, "and if we can find and kill him-"

"Then that might turn back the army, " Sindar finished with just a trace of enthusiasm.

"How in the name of Indra do we find such a person though?" Candol asked. "I know you can seek out minds, Sindar, but among so many?"

"True, " Sindar admitted, "the battle might well be lost before I've found their leader. But I've got to try."

Their musings were interrupted by the thunderous sound of hoofbeats coming down one of the streets. They looked up and saw twenty riders stream out from one of the streets, plowing down townspeople as they went. From atop his rooftop perch, Lindel let loose with his arrow. Before it had struck a rider at the base of its neck, he'd already notched his next arrow. Candol turned to face them when he saw them coming out.

"We've got more immediate problems right now, " Sabu said as he raised his staff.

Before Sabu had his staff fully raised, there was a rupturing in the ground. A thin crack appeared in a straight line in front of the riders. Out of that crack grew a row of thin thorny branches. They grew all along the crack with an unnatural rapidity, until they were eight feet tall and half as thick. Thorns the size of people's fingers were what the riders suddenly ran into, as both rider and mount were suddenly caught up in the unforeseen bramble. The riders behind the first few, unable to stop their fast gallop in time, plowed straight into the one's stuck in the thorns, making it even worse for all concerned. Thus the pile of riders and mounts in front of the large bush grew.

"Now where'd that come from?" Sabu asked.

"I suggest that you make use of my little distraction, " came a calm and unassuming voice behind them, "while you have the time."

They all turned around to see from whence came the voice. Several feet behind them approached a man, tall and thin of limb, like unto a tall stick figure in traveling clothes, his dark sandy hair partially hanging down over his hazel eyes. He wasn't thin to the point of emaciation, but more like an average build that had simply been stretched out a bit. His white, somewhat pasty skin, spoke of one whose trade was not in the more physical arts. He wore a simple green cape overtop of his shirt and loose pants, and had a look of intellectual reserve about him.

"Who are you?" Sabu asked, getting to the point. "And how do we know who's side you're on?"

"If names be important, then mine is Sheil-Bor(h), " the stranger replied, pronouncing the guttural 'h' at the end of his name, "and we have something in common."

He held up his left hand, palm outward. In the center of the palm were two small crystals, one dancing red with internal flame, the other a watery blue. He put down his hand.

"We have the same quest, " Sheil-Bor(h) said, his soft-spoken voice denoting just a trace of humility, "if not the same reason."

"Good enough for me, " Sabu replied quickly. "Sindar?"

"He's okay, " Sindar nodded, trusting to what his mental senses told him.

"Good. Welcome to the group, " Sabu said, as he quickly faced back around to the battle at hand, "we'll talk later."

The riders were trying to hack their way through the thick thorny bush, Lindel using the opportunity to take a few out. Then from down one of the other streets, they heard the shouts of someone yelling 'fire' and 'pain' several times.

They looked over as Schanter came running out of the street, still brandishing his blue sword. He stopped when he saw the large thorny bush, riders piling high in back of it. He looked at the bush.

He looked at his sword.

He grinned dementedly.

"I think the little one's about to buy us some time, " Sabu smiled.

There was a whoosh of blue flame as Schanter pointed his sword at the large bush. Several sets of rider eyes looked at what was coming at them, as they struggled in the bush. They started to push each other aside when the flame hit.

Large screaming bonfire of flesh, bone, and bush, lighting up like some large cairn to the gods, engulfing all within it in a flaming cage of death. Burning clawed hands reaching out from the burning bush, trying to reach safety, but finally going limp with the burning death. Bones rapidly crackling under the heat as flesh cooked.

Schanter jumped up and down in glee at the sight, fear showing across his face at the sight of the hated fire, but also pleasure at his love for the pain it caused both himself and the others.

"Quickfoot was right, " Sindar observed, "he is wacko."

"We need to find their leader now, " Sabu said. "Any suggestions?"

"I may be of some assistance, " Sheil-Bor(h) volunteered, his quiet voice and calm countenance rising softly above the surrounding din of battle. "My humble arts help me in my quest after knowledge for its own sake, my talent that of finding such. My magic may be more specifically tailored than your own for such a search."

"Very well, " Sabu said. "Find him and then we'll get him."

Sheil-Bor(h) closed his eyes in concentration and clasped his palms together as if in prayer. As their new companion was concentrating, several of the others came running up to join them: Bronto, Shong, Kilgar, Eldar, and Quickfoot. Lindel stayed at his rooftop perch, plugging out arrows as fast as he could.

"They're all gone, " Kilgar summarized almost casually, wiping his bloodied knife onto a pant-leg.

"The entire east section of town is dead, " Shong elaborated, sweat from the intense fighting covering his brow and arms, as he caught his breath, "they've killed everybody."

"It was a slaughter, " Bronto added, a trace of anger in his voice, big sword in his hand, "there's not so much as an infant left alive back there. We did what we could, but those riders are everywhere."

"There's no more town guard left, " Shong said, his grip tightening around his sword. "If we don't hold them here, there won't be a west side to this city!"

"We're working on something now, " Sabu said, and then pointed at Sheil-Bor(h). "This is Sheil-Bor(h); he's with us now, and he holds two Hevon Gems of his own."

"The more the merrier, " Eldar said, "but what's he doing?"

Sheil-Bor(h) looked up at the elf, and calmly answered him.

"I have found their leader, " he said, spreading his palms apart, "and he comes from that road."

Sheil-Bor(h) pointed down one of the roads. Everyone arrayed themselves out facing towards the indicated road, while Eldar signaled up to Lindel, who then went to the other side of his building to line up his own shot down that street. They waited in anticipation, adrenaline surging, muscles tensed.

Thunderous hoofbeats, like lightning from the sky, roaring down the bloodied street. Pounding louder and louder. Muscles tense as thirty shaggy mounts come into view, each bearing its animal-faced rider. Blue steel swords slashing out in front of them, as they come out into the central courtyard, empty now of the city's normal residents. A circle of wicked flesh they make round the courtyard, finally stopping when but shoulder to shoulder. Wary human eyes looking around at the grinning beast eyes that glare at them mockingly.

"They're not attacking, " Shong said from his battle crouch. "Why?"

"It's not like we can go anywhere, " Quickfoot observed impatiently, "they're all around us."

"It just makes it easier to know what you're hitting, " Kilgar said calmly.

"Fortune may hold our answer, " Sheil-Bor(h) said, pointing down the street from whence the riders had come. "Their leader comes."

Walking down the street was a humanoid figure, walking with a tread that suggested it was the best there and knew it. It was seven feet tall, with smooth plastic-like skin, and small scales from wrists to elbows. Both its fingers and bare toes grew three-inch long razor-sharp thick claws, also green in color. Four fangs sprouted from the mouth, one set growing down, the other facing up from its jaw. It was hairless everywhere, but for the sickly green scraggle of hair atop its head, and sexless, having no sign of genitalia on an unclothed body. Its eyes looked as if they held the source of all fear within their terrifying orbs.

As it walked out into the courtyard, they could see that it held two swords, one in each hand, each one fully as long as Bronto's large six-foot sword, but carrying them as if their weight meant nothing. Each of the swords glowed with a pale amber light. It opened up its frightening mouth, gnashing its fangs at them.

Quickfoot crumpled into a shuddering heap, shaking with a fear he'd never known. Kilgar, brave young Destir though he was, just stood there, paralyzed with a fright he never knew he was capable of. Even the mighty priest of Indra was wide-eyed with fear. Shong's body shook as he sought to control his own rising fear, sword still at the ready. Eldar swallowed nervously.

"What is that?" Eldar asked.

"I don't know of it, " Sabu answered. "I've been studying magic more than nightmares that walk."

"I know of it, " Sheil-Bor(h) answered, concern on his calm face. "It is called a tezar. They are said to serve Miro, as his police-force as it were. That creature is perhaps more dangerous than its small army of riders."

"Hey, maybe if we can get Schanter to play with it, " Eldar suggested.

"That must have been some rough fight I was in, " came a voice from behind them, "it was all just a blur."

They looked to see Lorel walking up to them, tattered remnants of clothing flung around him, steel blue sword in his hand, tousled blond hair drifting with the wind.

"I don't even remember how I got this new sword, " he said, looking at his blue sword. "I assume it was in some battle against those fiends."

"Well, so much for that idea, " Eldar sighed, "we got Lorel back now."

"It looks like those vile scum have surrounded us, " Lorel said. "Well, no matter. We shall vanquish them nonetheless. Hey, what's that green thing over there?"

Lorel walked up to them and looked past them at the tezar. At his first sight of the creature, he just started shaking, quivering with fear, as he slowly collapsed down to the ground.

"Okay, you can rule out Lorel as well, " Eldar sighed, as he faced back towards the tezar.

A whizzing was heard going swiftly through the air, as Lindel's arrow lanced straight for the tezar's throat. They watched as the dark-metal shaft landed dead center to its throat.

And splintered. The arrow shattered upon impact, leaving the creature unconcerned. It looked up over at Lindel, long tongue going over its fangs in anticipation of a victim.

"Get it!" Eldar shouted.

Several fiery Hevon Gems glowed as bolts of flame shot out from everyone that had them. Bronto brought out a spare shortsword from his belt and tossed it like a dagger. The area around the tezar exploded in a wash of fire, enough to melt the flagstones beneath the tezar's feet.

But not enough, apparently, to melt the tezar, who stood unharmed. In a single swift move, it brought up one of its swords to block Bronto's thrown shortsword, shattering the small sword into several pieces upon impact. It growled its fangs at them and then leapt straight up into the air.

Thirty feet straight up it leapt, to come down sword-first on Lindel's roof. With a backhanded swipe from the flat of its sword, the tezar sent Lindel flying off the roof, to land with a sharp cry of pain in the center of the square, a leg and arm badly twisted. Before the rest could react, however, it leapt again, to land in their very midst. It worked its swords like a human-sized blender, cleaving a huge spine-snapping gash across Shong's back as the young fighter fell into a paralyzed heap upon the ground, bowling Bronto over on top of Candol, and nearly decapitating Eldar before the elf ducked almost too late.

Sabu sent a bolt of lightning at it, but to no avail. Sindar used his magic to try and encase it in a web of steel, but it just ripped its way out of it as easily as if through paper.

"Nothing hurts it!" Sabu exclaimed as he backed up with his staff.

"I think Shong's back is broken, " Sindar shouted back, "and Lindel's about as bad."

"We can't even escape, " Eldar said, looking at the surrounding riders.

"The Fountain of Knowledge may hold our answer, " Sheil-Bor(h) offered, his features ever placid as he pointed his left hand at it.

His palm glowed with the watery blue of his Hevon Gem, but no water came out from it. Instead, the ground rumbled under their feet while the tezar readied to launch himself at Sabu. Suddenly, the ground under the tezar's feet exploded into a geyser of water, towering forty feet up and three feet wide, as it swiftly carried the tezar up with it, tumbling it about as it fought to gain some sort of footing on its watery pedestal.

"That's different, " Eldar smiled.

"Well, " Sabu shrugged, "it is a fountain."

"One cannot jump if one cannot stand, " Sheil-Bor(h) explained, "but it still holds onto its weapons."

"I can handle that, " Sindar answered.

Sindar looked up at the tower of water. The tezar was fighting for some sort of control, its arms flailing around helplessly. Sindar aimed his mind up at the swords and the clawed hands gripping them. Suddenly an unseen force seemed to jerk at the tezar's hands. The tezar held on with a grip of steel, but the force pulled steadily. The water tossed the creature around, preventing it from getting any balance, or of properly holding onto the swords. One final jerk tugged at the swords in the loosening grip.

The swords tugged free, flying across the square to land imbedded hilt-deep in the chest of a rider, each sword to a different rider. The other riders nearest those two backed away from their fallen comrades a bit worriedly.

"Consider it disarmed, " Sindar said calmly.

"It is still dangerous, " Sheil-Bor(h) warned quietly, "even without its sting."

"Not on the way down, " Bronto said as he got to his feet, picking up his sword. "Just turn off the water works when I tell you."

Bronto walked over by the base of the pillar of water, readying his sword as water splashed down everywhere. He held his sword in both hands, arced its blade low over his shoulder, and looked up at the tezar.

"Come to mama, it's time for a spanking, " Bronto grinned.

With a motion of his hand, Sheil-Bor(h) turned off his fountain, the pillar splashing down all over the ground as its force suddenly left it. For a brief moment, the tezar hung suspended there, forty feet up in the air. Then it fell down, claws out, fanged mouth open, throat screaming out its hate. Bronto waited, and swung.

As seen from just outside of town, one would spy a seven-foot tall green humanoid hurtling up through the sky, high above the treetops. Then one would see its upper half slowly separate from the rest of its body as it started to arc downward, aiming its long plunge for a rather hard landing on top of one of the few stone buildings that a local farmer could boast of, a puddle of green goo being all that would remain left of him for anyone to see.

"I think you scored with that one, " Eldar said, looking up as the tezar arced away.

The riders too were looking up, their eyes following their leader through the sky. Sheil-Bor(h) then calmly walked out a bit from the others, facing himself in the general direction of the bulk of the riders. He raised up his hands, and as he did so, he seemed to grow in size, his features contorting into frightening ways. He looked down at the assembled riders and growled out a long and loud growl that could be heard all across the city. The riders reacted.

As fast as the riders had swept through this city, faster still did they leave. No leader, be it witch or tezar, to command them, and the appearance of a large giant in their midst, their morale broke. Their panicked retreat led them back through the streets as fast as they could, tumbling and riding over each other in the process. Fully a third of them were killed in their frightened retreat, their screams fading with distance.

Sheil-Bor(h) walked back to them, now of normal size and features, as Kilgar and Candol started to come out of their frightened reverie, and even Quickfoot started to whimper less.

"Nice illusion, " Sabu observed. "Cheap but effective, given the circumstances."

"Faw?r'mo, " Sheil-Bor(h) replied, giving a short bow with his shoulders and head, "I figured such an impetus would suffice."

Eldar started to giggle as Candol came to his feet.

"What's so funny?" Sindar asked.

"He just shouted 'Boo', " Eldar giggled.

"What vile creature. . ., " Lorel began as he started to come around.

"It's okay, " Bronto smiled tiredly, "you saved the day."

"I did?"

"Yeah, fought it off single handedly. Too bad you don't remember, " Bronto gave a weak smile, as he then thought about the death that had been wrought this day.

"Oh, well, glad I could help, " Lorel said, very much puzzled.

Sabu grinned at Bronto's little joke as Candol came over to him, having just had a look at Lindel and Shong.

"I can fix them both up, " the priest said, "but it will take most of the night before they can move on their own."

"Good, " Sabu replied, "then we can leave by mid morn."

"I'll have to cure the worst of it here before either one of them can be moved, " Candol said as he went over to Shong first.

"At least we saved half of the town, " Eldar said.

"In the long run, it will not change the fate of this wounded city, " Sheil-Bor(h) corrected, "those beasts will just come back when we have gone."

"We know, " Sindar said, looking sad and downcast. "There's nothing we can do to stop it."

"We can stay and fight!" Lorel protested.

"And what about the innumerable other towns that we aren't there to help?" Sabu asked Lorel. "What about the regions already under the rule of misfortune and evil?"

Lorel had no answer.

"No, " Sabu continued, "as hard as it may seem, we've got to move on and hope that our quest may solve some much larger problem."

A loud clang interrupted Sabu, one that almost shook the ground around them. All eyes turned to see Bronto, standing straight and tall, holding onto the hilt of his large six-foot sword as its tip was plunged a full foot into the hard stone of the city's open square. The grip of his strong hands was tight, the expression on his face hard, as he looked off into the distance of the now-quiet city.

"Are you okay?" Sabu said gently.

The big man just stood there for a few moments, neither breathing nor moving, as he gazed sternly into the distance, his hands closing vise-like around his sword. Finally, he sighed and relaxed his grip.

"Yes, I'm fine, " he turned his head to answer his friend, the sternness relaxing into a sad smile, "it just frustrates me that for all our vaunted abilities and foretold destinies, that there's absolutely nothing we can do for this city but leave and go on about our travels, knowing that what's left of this city may not even exist a motab from now."

"We all feel the same way, " Sabu answered, "but it's just one of the hard choices that Fate thrusts upon one."

"Yeah, " Bronto said, as he yanked his large sword free of the stone with his right hand, "I guess so."

"For good or ill, " Sabu finished, "we leave at sunrise."

"Maybe then Mauklo and those two assassins will decide to rejoin us, " Kilgar said. "They've been no help at all in this battle."

"So, what is this offer you would make?"

The man sat down at the tavern table, his straight reddish-brown hair coming down to his ears, his skin a light dirty tan, his dark blue eyes piercing. The almost five-foot-ten man didn't look too much the physical type, his medium build showing just a trace of a paunch. A long cloak with a decorative clasp hung over his old pants and nondescript shirt, his leather boots completing his outfit. He briefly scratched the unshaven stubble on his chin as he sat down with his drink, looking at the two seated figures across the table from him.

The room was dingy with dark smoke, the bulk of its patrons looking even dingier and less appealing. The tavern was one in a seedier section of the west side of town, the old wood of the table having several old blood stains and sword cuts on them. The two figures across the table were each dressed in identical dark robes, the hoods drawn partially over their faces, with just a bit of chin showing to suggest which be male and which female, the black robes obscuring all other physical details, black leather gloves covering their hands.

"You come to the point, " Kor-Lebear responded, the hubbub of the tavern covering their conversation, "that shows more intelligence than the last few we've interviewed."

"So, I've heard, " Bedor said, "although I don't plan on disappearing like the last three wizards you've talked to."

"They failed the interview, " Kor-Lebear shrugged.

"And one must keep one's little secrets, " Kilinir added in a pleasant voice.

"I can sympathize, " Bedor said, taking a sip from his drink, "I've had to keep a few secrets myself. But what is it that you need one of my talents for?"

"You are versed in the arts of alchemy and mysticism?" Kor-Lebear asked.

"As well as in conjuring up the occasional piece of supernatural help every now and then, " Bedor answered a bit impatiently. "I take it this is for long-term employment or you wouldn't be wasting your time and mine being so thorough."

"Oooh, and he's intelligent too, " Kilinir mocked.

"It is not for mere employment that we seek one such as yourself, " Kor-Lebear explained, "but for a long-term partnership."

"Ha!" Bedor snorted. "That's just another way of saying that you're broke and can't pay. Well, my services don't come cheap; when it comes to conjurations I'm among the best around here."

Bedor started to impatiently get up, as if to leave, but a lightly-restraining hand from Kor-Lebear pushed him back down into his seat as he spoke.

"If you were truly the best, you would have long ago swept the land with demonic hordes and carved yourself out a nice little kingdom, " Kor-Lebear observed.

"That is no test of ability but of folly, " Bedor shot back. "Such obvious conquests are a perfect way of making oneself a target; a practice I have no desire to perform."

"Come now, if you were already that good, " Kilinir added, "you wouldn't need us and your price would be too expensive."

"No, while not the best, " Kor-Lebear continued, "you do have the potential to some rise be so, and it is this potential that we seek."

"You are both rather observant for ones whose face I cannot see, " Bedor said, taking another sip.

"Consider it part of the mystique, " Kilinir smiled from beneath her hood.

"You have a reputation for being rather unforgiving with those who cross you, " Kor-Lebear went on in an emotionless voice.

"One must be ruthless in one's pursuits, " Bedor said. "But, okay; I may be open to a profitable partnership. Of what, then, would this partnership be for? And why don't you just use one of those other wizards that I've seen you with?"

"I told you he would be the right one when we saw him following us, " Kilinir remarked.

"You knew then, " Bedor said. "Well, not all of my observations were physical; I always use my own arts to check prospective employers."

"We know, " Kor-Lebear said simply.

Their conversation paused briefly as the tavern's serving girl came by and refreshed their drinks. After she walked away, Kor-Lebear came straight to the point.

"We would form a team, " Kor-Lebear said. "Our own skills are enough to handle the bulk of what we do. But, it is in magical support that we lack."

"And our associate Mauklo journeys to his own destination for now, " Kilinir continued. "A quest that we find doesn't suit our present needs. So, we need one whose destiny is not yet written."

"One whose reputation may grow with our own; one that may go where we go, " Kor-Lebear said flatly, and then a slim smile began to cross his lips. "We may not yet be the best, but we will be."

"Sounds intriguing, " Bedor gave an evil grin. "And in what would our little group become the best in?"

"Liquidations, " Kor-Lebear said. "The perfect combination of skills for the removal of the unwanted."

"Assassins?" Bedor asked. "That's it?"

"Not just assassins, " Kilinir elaborated, "but the best; that to be feared by its very name."

"Consider it a dream of ours; we even have our first contract, " Kor-Lebear added. "We have everything covered except for the magic."

"Even the best assassin's plans can be foiled by a street-wizard with the right spell, " Kilinir observed.

"And that's where I come in, " Bedor finished. "You need some help with magic, but you don't want it to be someone that could use you. You yourselves have no skill in magic."

"Yet, " Kilinir said very softly under her breath.

"An even cut on profit?" Bedor asked.

"Of course, " Kor-Lebear said evenly. "But with a few ground rules."

"Like what?" Bedor asked.

"Nothing too unreasonable, " Kilinir said with mild pleasantness. "Just that Kor-Lebear decides on which contracts we take and we never go back once an agreement is reached."

"Ethics?" Bedor sneered.

"More like practicality, " Kor-Lebear clarified. "An assassin that isn't known to keep to his contract and his word, will soon be a dead one."

"That part was my idea, " Kilinir said. "But, that isn't to say that we won't be rather direct and brutal to those that break their word with us. And we've heard that you're just so good at being brutal."

Bedor gave a short snort of laughter as he sipped from his drink. The dark smoke drifted between them as Bedor silently thought over the offer. Kilinir's robes hid the movements that her hand was making under the table; hid the dagger that she was so carefully unsheathing just in case. Finally, Bedor answered.

"I like it, " Bedor smiled, "getting paid for doing what I like."

Kilinir's hand discreetly eased her dagger back into her robes as a smile escaped from beneath her hood.

"But we shall need a symbol, " Bedor pointed out, "something to inspire fear when seen. A symbol around which to build a reputation."

"We've already got that covered, " Kor-Lebear said. "Our method of elimination shall be our symbol as well as our name."

"It's agreed then, " Kilinir said as she put a single gloved hand out on the center of the table.

Kor-Lebear's hand joined hers, followed by Bedor's; three hands clasping their agreement there on an old table of a nameless tavern in an unimportant town. An agreement perhaps born in the pits of Hades, but one whose effects would ever-after be felt.

They were assembled, with their fresh horses, at what was left of the east end of town, everyone ready for travel except for the absent Mauklo, Kor-Lebear, and Kilinir. In back of them empty and burned buildings stretched, evidence of the previous day's raid. Several mangled bodies still lay in the street, their dead eyes staring open at the ghost town around them. Char marks were scattered along the streets, the still-smoldering remains of both people and buildings littering everywhere, burned dreams smoking in the gutter. Everything east of the town square lay in silence and death, the townspeople still yet afraid to cross over into it, as if it were some feared line of death.

Ahead of them lay open farms for perhaps halfway to the horizon, and beyond that the ever-encircling forests of Catho. Several of the fertile fields lay burned and scorched; again testament to the deadly raid, the occasional farm house still smoldering, the occasional cow still mooing piteously to be milked by its now-dead master. Then, far beyond all this, rose the majestic mountains of Catho, their snow-capped peaks soaring far up into the clouds, over two hundred miles away. Lindel gazed wistfully out towards the mountains, while Lorel looked back at the desolate section of town behind them.

"I wish there were something we could do for them, " Lorel sighed from atop his horse.

"It is Indra's way, " Candol consoled. "Would you rather stay and die with them, or live long enough to stop the threat forever?"

"I would wish for a third solution, " Lorel answered. "I but wish that I could have fought more fiercely than I did."

"Oh trust me, " Eldar smiled from atop his horse, "you tore through them pretty good."

"We'll be riding through rough country after we leave the farms, " Bronto interjected, "that means we'll probably have to abandon our horses when we reach the mountains."

"Not entirely, we won't, " Sabu said. "When the time comes, I can just pull them through my little portal to our island."

"Will they fit through it?" Shong asked.

"They can be made to, " Sabu answered, "and with no harm to themselves."

"They'll be massacred when the raids start up again, " Sindar said, while gazing at the not-so-distant body of an eviscerated child lying dead in the streets behind them. "Within a kev the population here will be halved once again."

"Prophesizing again, Sindar?" Eldar asked.

"I hope not, " Sindar answered, "but if that Mayor continues to stay in power, then their fortune is told; otherwise, they might have a chance."

"Is there anything we can do?" Lorel asked forlornly.

"We can look forward to what is before us, instead of worrying of what already passed, " Lindel advised. "You Humans are always so concerned about what is past and unchangeable. Look instead towards those magnificent mountains ahead of us. They just seem to radiate possibilities."

"I guess so, " Lorel said half-heartedly.

"I'll have to agree with Lindel here, " Bronto said from atop his larger horse. "Let's let the past take care of itself, and work for the time when we can prevent such death and misery from happening again."

"I agree with the elf also."

That last voice came from down the dead street. All eyes turned to see from whom the familiar voice came. The lone figure walked up to them, towards an empty horse.

"Mauklo, " Sabu called out, "it's about time that you joined us. We've been waiting here almost a nev."

"Yeah, " Kilgar said angrily, "where were you during that fight?! We could have used the extra firepower that you and your two cowardly friends would have given."

"My dear young one, " Mauklo said as he mounted his horse, "I was out preventing any future raids from doing as much harm; surely something more important than fighting a battle that would have been lost regardless?"

"How could you stop them?" Quickfoot questioned, from on back of Candol's horse.

"I said I would take care of their Mayor, " Mauklo answered calmly, "and I have. Without his traitorous leadership, this town may live out the motab."

"You killed him?" Kilgar asked.

"Me? Of course not, " Mauklo said innocently. "A mere killing would not have prevented the other members of his greedy little administration from taking over and again using the citizenry as pawns for their power. No, I made sure that a more meaningful message was left."

"Sounds fun, " Eldar commented. "How'd you do it?"

"I did nothing, " Mauklo said, the ring of truth in his voice, "but I did hire ones who are rather proficient at what they do. Beyond that, I will say no more."

"Then we'd better leave, " Sabu said. "We waited long enough for you to arrive."

"Wait, where's Kor-Lebear and Kilinir?" Shong asked. "They aren't here yet."

"Oh, they've decided to stay on here for a bit, " Mauklo said. "They have their own little. . . business, that they wish to start up. Besides, the mountains aren't their preferred surroundings, cities are. But I gave them the means with which to communicate with me, should the need arise, as well as gain remote access to our island. So, we needn't wait for them."

"We know, " Sabu answered. "Sindar foresaw that they wouldn't be coming, so we prepared for it."

That's when several other pairs of eyes noticed that, while there had been a spare horse for Mauklo, there were none available for Kor-Lebear and Kilinir.

"I see, " Shong said. "I just wish that someone would tell me these things ahead of time."

"We leave then, " Bronto said, aiming his horse out towards the mountains. "We have a long ride ahead of us."

The others spurred their horses on behind Bronto, forming a double column of horses behind the big man, Shong bringing up the rear. Lorel gave one last look at the death they left behind and then faced towards the distant mountains rising high into the deep purple sky as they set a steady pace out across the fields.

"Mr. Mayor, sir, " the functionary came into the richly-decorated office, walking across the many rugs strewn overtop the floor, "the strangers have left."

"Good, " the rather rotund Mayor said, getting up from his chair. "They nearly wrecked my plans! As it is, I'll have to make due without Loma. Now I'll have to find another way to spirit people away."

"If I may sir, " the nameless functionary interjected, "perhaps the erecting of public shelters against the raids?"

"Then, when people go hiding in them from the raids, we get them, " the Mayor finished. "Good man, Tylok. We'll have to schedule a few smaller raids as soon as we can then. We need to replace the one's that the strangers cost us as soon as we can."

"Sir, " Tylok asked, "think the Master will be displeased with our performance?"

"Not if we're fast enough with transforming more of the townspeople, " the Mayor answered. "He needs as many from these out-of-the-way cities as he can get. Don't worry, we'll earn our way through the ranks yet."

"Good to hear, sir, " Tylok said with almost visible relief. "Oh, this package was left for you."

He brought up a small package that he'd been holding and placed it on the Mayor's desk. It was wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with a simple knotted string. The Mayor looked down at it.

"Who left it?" the Mayor asked.

"I've no idea, sir, " Tylok answered, "we just found it in the front room; we aren't even sure how anyone was able to get in to leave it there. But your personal magis says it holds no danger, be it from magic or trap.

"Very well, " the Mayor said, "you're dismissed then. See to those shelters."

The functionary clicked his heals together, turned on one toe, and left the room. After the door shut behind him, the Mayor looked down at his package and picked it up in one hand.

"So, " he said to himself, "from an admirer, perhaps? Or maybe the Master chooses a new way to communicate? Well, there's only one way to find out."

The Mayor tore off the string and ripped open the wrapping. He then opened up the simple wooden box that was revealed and reached in for its contents.

"A present maybe, " he mused.

He pulled out a dagger with a note tied to it. As he untied the note, he saw that this dagger was not of ordinary make. It was made from a single cut of black obsidian, flawlessly shaped, its edges keen and sharp to the touch. In the center of its hilt a tiny red gleam seemed to shine forth from unseen depths, reflecting balefully from no light source that the Mayor could discern.

"Hmm, I guess it is a present, " he said as he opened up and read from the plain block text of the note. "'With this very knife, shall your death be wrought; let this symbol be my name.' Is this some kind of joke?!"

The Mayor looked angrily at the note and dagger. He angrily crumpled up the note and tossed it across the room. Then, holding the dagger, he went behind his desk.

"This is outrageous, " he fumed. "The idea that someone could ever get into here, much less have the audacity to give me the very weapon they plan to use! Well, there'll be no getting it in here."

He opened up a drawer, tossed in the black dagger, closed the drawer, then took out a key and locked it. He smiled satisfaction down at the drawer.

"Let's just see that joker use it against me now!"

He looked up, smile on his face, happy with himself. But his smile suddenly froze as he looked at his desk. He frowned as he reached out and grabbed what he saw on it.

It was the black dagger.

He picked it up, looking at it in puzzlement. He then grabbed his key and quickly unlocked the drawer.

It was empty.

"By what. . .?" he sputtered. "That magis said it was harmless. Of what cruel joke be this?!"

He then put the dagger back in the drawer again, locked it, and held tightly onto the key. He looked up with grim satisfaction.

And stopped.

He walked around his desk and out into the center of the room. He looked down at the object on the floor.

It was the black dagger.

"How?" he was confused. "All the protections and guards posted, not to mention the magis; I pay him well enough for his magic. There's no way anyone-"

He stopped and stared at the dagger as he suddenly had an idea.

"That's it."

He bent down and picked up the dagger.

"I'll just have the magis have a look at this. And if he's responsible, then he knows what punishment the Master will bring."

He walked over to the door and reached to turn the knob.

It was locked. He tried it again, but the door still wouldn't open.

"That's impossible, " he said, fear starting to creep into his voice, "this door doesn't lock from the other side."

He kicked at the door a couple of times, but the solid wood wouldn't budge. He then cupped his hands and began to call out loudly.

"Tylok! Tylok! Where are you? Get me out of here or it's your hide!"

But he heard no response. As a matter of fact, he couldn't hear any outside noises whatsoever. He stopped his screaming and angrily tossed the dagger across the room.

He saw it drop down behind his desk, but heard it land a lot closer. He looked down at his feet.

It was the black dagger.

He screamed and jumped back a foot, one simultaneous motion of shock. Sweat now began to bead upon his brow, his breathing to become more rapid. He looked around himself quickly, nervousness now obvious.

"How? Who?" he shouted into the empty room around him. "What do you want? Why me? I'll pay you to leave me alone; twice what you've been paid!"

He spotted the window in back of his desk; facing out to the street, it was curtained off. He practically leapt across the room, over his desk, and ripped the curtains down, thinking now he could escape. Perhaps ten feet above the ground, but at least he'd make it out of here alive. He looked down at the window.

And screamed.

The window's brown wooden shutters closed the room off from outside view, but there, on its inside ledge, it lay.

It was the black dagger.

He backed into his desk, practically falling back over it. He then raised a foot and tried to kick the shutters open.

"Someone get me out of here!" His shout had more than an edge of hysteria to it. "Get it out of here! The black dagger, it's after me! Help!"

Repeated kicks had failed to open the window, its frail wood somehow easily holding against his two hundred and fifty pound frame. In frantic panic, he picked up the dagger, holding it as if he would stab someone, a mad fear in his eyes. He ran back across the room, black dagger in hand.

"If this knife's so indestructible, " he said, "then let it bring down the door!"

He stood in front of the door, grinning inanely, and raised his hand up high, black dagger gleaming over his head. He then came stabbing down hard on the door, the dagger biting hard into the wood.

He screamed, in pain and fear. He raised up the dagger again, and once again stabbed down with the blade. It bit into the door's wood and once again he screamed and cried out. Again he stabbed, and again he screamed, crying out for anyone that would listen. Again and again. Several times he stabbed at the door, each time screaming out his pain and fear, and each time no one answered his frantic calls. With each stab he seemed to get weaker, his scream fading a bit more, his breath coming harder and more ragged.

Finally, after stabbing at the door for the tenth time, he leaned heavily against the door, holding himself up with the dagger imbedded in the door. He was weak and could barely breath. He looked up at the black dagger that he now held himself up with, imbedded into the door.

"Why?" he gasped weakly. "I've obeyed the Master. I can pay you."

His grip weakened, as he started to slide down to the floor. He held onto the black dagger for perhaps a moment or two more, and then finally released his grip, sliding down against the door to land face-down on the floor.

He was dead.

They found him with a black dagger stuck through his back, the last of ten vicious stab wounds, delivered perhaps by someone of around two hundred and fifty pounds. There was no dagger in the door, nor was there any sign that its wood had even been chipped, much less stabbed at ten times. The shutters to the window were found fluttering open and the door unlocked. Beside the dagger was a note, formerly crumpled up, but now smoothed out for everyone to read, the only clue that the Mayor had been killed by the work of assassins.

Except for the one puzzling bit to this scene that the magis had found. Like any good mystic, he'd used his magic to determine who the killer was. By so doing, he'd determined the identity of the only person to have held and used the black dagger.

It was the Mayor himself.

How the Mayor could stab himself in the back ten times was even more of a mystery than why he would. But, mysteries they would remain, as the former Mayor's administrating aides gazed nervously at the scene of death and the note found on him. Few words were said, each afraid of what to say.

Later that same day, despite all precautions, the mysterious black dagger disappeared, no trace of it left, nor of where it went. Only the note was left for them to gaze at, and after a few rises, it too disappeared, dissolving into a pile of dust.

The next day, the magis, the functionary Tylok, and three others of the administration, left town, never to return.

It wasn't too long before rumors of The Black Dagger started to circulate on the street, of who or what it was, and of how one may hire it. No one ever found out anything about The Black Dagger.

Only the now-dead Mayor ever heard any clue to the identity of his assassin. In his last dying breath, as he slid down towards the ground, he'd heard it, faintly behind him, fading as his life gave up its last, its only witness.

The faint laughter of two people, one male and one female, as a gloved olive-skinned hand placed the un-crumpled note upon his back.

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