MoboReader > Adeventure > Maldene: Volume Two

   Chapter 21 Mountain Hazards

Maldene: Volume Two By Mark Anthony Tierno Characters: 127694

Updated: 2018-04-10 12:02

R.K.: 9, 990, 29 Arüdwo:

The country has been rough-going the last two hundred miles since leaving Sydelburg, what with an almost complete lack of usable roads around here. Occasionally we'll find the broken remnants of some ancient stone road, but we're usually lucky if we find a horse path through these woods. The few paths that we have found are always going to and from some small town that we'd be passing.

Or rather, the remains of a small town.

So far we've passed through three towns, all of them deserted, with half of their buildings burned to the ground. All of them had obvious signs of heavy fighting, and char marks that were probably left by the swords that those animal-faced creatures carry. We've seen the slaughtered remains of both livestock and horses, pets and trained beasts, but there's one thing that we haven't seen.

Of people's bodies, there are none. Not child, adult, nor ancient; not human, elf, nor dwarf. Not one single body in any of the towns or the woods around them. Yet, the smell of death lingers strongly. Sindar says he's picked up several strong psychic impressions of many people being killed and dying in the streets, yet of physical evidence none can be found. What did the invaders do with the bodies? And why?

We have no answers to these mysteries.

The forest we travel through is quiet. Lindel tells me that the birds don't chirp as often as they should. Maybe even the birds know of all the death around here and mourn for it. The only other sign of life we've encountered as we travel are some distant sounds of thunderous hoofbeats. Faint hoofbeats, always distant, never closing. Sometimes we even hear them in our sleep. Perhaps the raiders are busy with some other unfortunate village.

It is a small comfort that they don't get nearer.

R.K.: 9, 990, 30 Arüdwo:

The mountains are getting closer; we should reach the foothills in a few rises. The hoofbeats get closer now. Perhaps they are raiding some small town nearer to us, or perhaps they lair in the very mountains that we now travel to. Sheil-Bor(h) says he can use his arts to divine their destination, so that we may avoid the needless difficulty of an accidental encounter.

Sheil-Bor(h) is a rather quiet individual; he tends to meditate a lot as we travel, although I didn't know you could meditate and ride a horse at the same time. We have exchanged stories of our travels and asked about his own encounters. He has been somewhat vague and unconcerned about his own feats, saying merely that the guardians for his own Hevon Gems that he encountered were as nothing to what we have gone through. He says that his own search for more knowledge about them had led him to us. Eldar wants to know if that makes us famous. Mauklo doesn't trust him, which, by Eldar's reasoning, means that he's okay.

R.K.: 9, 990, 31 Arüdwo:

We are on the run. Both Sheil-Bor(h)'s arts and Sindar's psychic sensings have confirmed of where the raiders travel. They travel in our direction and hunt for us! Perhaps they seek revenge over what we did to them at Sydelburg, or perhaps they are just hunting down every living thing in these woods and we qualify. Whatever the reason, we are now their targets. As such, we have quickened our pace, hoping to reach the mountains within a rise and gain some safety there. We even travel at night whenever our mounts are up to it. Sheil-Bor(h) says that about a hundred of those mounted creatures follow us. Maybe we can outrun them.

R.K.: 9, 990, 32 Arüdwo:

The raiders have apparently realized that we know of their pursuit, for their thunderous sound now increases much faster than it did before. They no longer trail us, hoping to catch us at whatever opportunity of their own, but travel straight to us. Sheil-Bor(h) says they have doubled their pace, while Sindar says he can see visions of their mounts being pushed to the point of dropping. We travel as fast as we dare through this tightly woven forest, hoping to get to the mountains before the raiders get to us.

R.K.: 9, 990, 32 Arüdwo, degrise:

The foothills are in sight; we may be able to make it. Unfortunately, the sound of their hoofbeats is near deafening as they close; they must indeed be numerous to be so loud but not yet in sight. We must hurry if we are to live.


Bronto's shout carried above the nearing thunder coming unseen through the thick woods behind them. Ahead of them loomed the foothills of the mountains of Catho; with snow-capped peaks that might reach close to sixty thousand feet high, it was the only thing they could discern through the thick woods cloaking about them. The ground trembled with the beat of the approaching menace as they spurred their horses to their limits. Lindel whispered in the ear of his own mount, as if to coax it on in its own tongue, while Mauklo's own horse just galloped on with glazed-over eyes, as if only the dark wizard's own will controlled it, his desires overriding the horse's own need to stop and rest.

"I see a pass over there, " Shong said above the rumble, "let's try that one."

"No!" Sheil-Bor(h) shouted back. "That way lies death; a dead end in which shall we be trapped. I think that ravine over there holds a way out."

"The ravine it is then, " Eldar shouted out for all to hear.

They headed for the crack in the mountains, looming no more than a mile away. Safety within reach.

Crack of thunder, blue-hot flame shooting through warm afternoon air. Sound of exploding kindling as a nearby tree rips asunder.

"I think they've caught up with us, " Lindel shouted as he glanced back over his shoulder.

Perhaps a hundred feet behind them, he saw the first few of the animal-faced riders coming up fast through the forest, their mounts frothing, a sheen of sweat on both mount and rider, determined to catch up with their quarry at all costs. They dodged through the trees nimbly, slowly gaining ground.

"Sabu!" Eldar shouted over to his friend. "A spell right about now would be nice."

Sabu had both his arms wrapped around the neck of his own horse, as if clinging to it for dear life, his rear end bobbing up and down with the pace of the horse.

"I don't think I can manage a spell and the act of staying on this creature at the same time!" he shouted back, his voice seeming to shake up and down with the beat of the horse.

"My hero, " Eldar grinned to himself. "Well, let's see if I've got a few tricks left."

As his horse carried him along, he reached a hand into a pouch, pulling out a few small round red pebbles. He then dropped his horse back towards the rear of their charging group, back behind Shong, and tossed the pebbles out behind himself, high over his head. They landed in the path of the riders as Eldar brought his mount up towards the middle of the group again.

The ground started to slope upwards. Eldar pulled up alongside Sabu as they entered the ravine.

"What was that you threw?" Sabu asked, from the crouched position on his horse.

As if in answer, behind them they heard several sudden explosions, interlaced with animal-like screams and the inhuman sounds that clawed mounts can make when suddenly flash-fried.

"Oh, just a little something for them to play with, " Eldar said offhandedly. "Now, how do we get up into those hills?"

I can discern a passage up ahead, Sindar's mind spoke to both of theirs, and Sheil-Bor(h) says that his divinatory powers tell him it leads up into the mountains and safety. The passage is up over to the left of the ravine, up near that clearing in the trees by the fall of rocks.

"Then that's where we're heading, " Eldar agreed, and then shouted out, "Bronto!"

When the big man turned to look, Eldar pointed out towards the direction that Sheil-Bor(h) had indicated. Bronto, in the lead of the group, nodded and spurred his horse in that direction. The rest followed as the sound of thunder once again started to draw near.

They galloped over the rough terrain, the horses having to slow down as the ground became rockier. Soon, their gallop had reduced enough for Sabu to sit upright in his saddle and look around.

"I fear our reduced speed may mean our doom, " Lorel said as he road up alongside. "Those vile creatures will surely catch us before we reach safety."

"Well, before you start telling me how many of them we can take with us when they kill us, " Sabu said, steadying himself on his horse as he reached his right hand up into the air, "maybe now that we are a bit slower, I can do something about it. Although, it may end up making targets out of us."

While Lorel gave a somewhat puzzled look, Sabu flexed his right hand. Instantly his staff appeared in his grip, his hand holding it about the middle. Sabu began shouting some mystical words into the air as his staff began to glow.

"Beefrey tygor oomfra, klidor!"

Suddenly Lorel noticed that the ground seemed smoother, as he bounced less on his mount than before. Eldar looked around as he too noticed how suddenly smooth the ride seemed to be. It also seemed to Lorel that the trees were getting shorter.

Then he looked down.

Lorel's eyes bugged out as he saw that his horse was now galloping through the air some twenty feet above the ground and climbing. His hands tightened around the reins as he started to realize that he may just be afraid of heights.

Eldar looked down at the distancing ground beneath him and then up at Sabu with a big smile and a raised fist over his head.

"The ooonly way to fly, " he shouted over to his friend.

They could hear the thunder below them as they flew through the air, soaring high above treetop height, a dozen horses galloping through the air as if it were just but natural. They flew towards the far left corner of the ravine, Sabu holding his glowing staff over his head. With their new vantage point, they could now see the riders, swarming swiftly through the woods like a hundred disturbed ants, their mounts pounding through the tall trees as they each waved their blue steel swords over their heads. A hundred riders with a hundred swords of flaming death. Candol looked down and swallowed hard as his mount carried him aloft.

"Indra help us if they spot us, " the priest said quietly.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Quickfoot asked from behind him where he clung to the priest, arms tight around his waist.

"Nothing, small one, " Candol said as he looked up ahead again. "I hope."

"That doesn't sound too good, " Quickfoot complained as he looked down fearfully, "why doesn't it sound too good?"

The thunder pounded down below them as they flew on, the horde of riders now having caught up to where they would have been had Sabu not sent them flying.

"We're almost there, " Eldar shouted out. "Ka'ru!"

Eldar's victory cry carried out over the hills, rebounding for all to hear, even above the thunderous hoofbeats below.

Below, several animal-faced heads turned to look up.

"Okay small one, " Candol said to Quickfoot, "now it's not good."

"Who told that rik to shout?!" Mauklo said angrily.

"Eldar never needs a reason to make life interesting, " Bronto shouted back to Mauklo. "He'd get too bored otherwise."

Several blue-steel swords aimed upwards. Perhaps a dozen bolts of hot blue flame sliced up through the sky towards them.

"Now we're in for it!" Shong shouted.

"Sheil-Bor(h), " Sindar shouted over to him, "Sabu's busy with the flying; assist me."

"Right, " Sheil-Bor(h) said simply.

The two wizards concentrated as their mounts, a hundred feet in the air and climbing, soared closer to the edge of the ravine, now but moments away. Two Hevon gems glowed as they concentrated. Below them a thin sheet of water appeared, stretching beneath them like a net, held in place by force of will alone. A dozen blue bolts hit it, their deadly fire getting lost within its thin watery extent. A dozen more then sliced up, turning parts of the strange wall to steam. Fifty more and the wall was no more, with blue flame soaring through the air all around them like mad fireworks, as sky riders sought to swerve their mounts aside.

"Well, that didn't last very long, " Sindar commented. "There's just too many of them to handle. Let's hope we're getting out of their range."

From atop his mount Lorel cringed in fear as he watched blue fire turn the entire sky ablaze. All he could do was mutter the word 'fire' over and over again to himself as his eyes glazed over.

"I fear your friend is in trouble, " Sheil-Bor(h) observed to Sindar.

"Indeed, " Sindar responded. "He seems to have this thing about fire. Maybe if it-"

But before Sindar could offer any help, a bolt of blue flame hit the bottom of the horse straight on. In a flash of fire, the horse was reduced to flaming bits of charcoal shot through the air. The sudden ball of flame obscured what happened to Lorel.

"He is gone, " Sheil-Bor(h) observed as he urged his mount on faster.

"No, " Sindar said, "his mind, such as it is, still lives."

Then a body was seen flying clear of the diminishing flame, up through the air. But, wear Lorel's clothes though it might, it was far too small to be him.

"Uh oh, " Quickfoot moaned, "it's Wacko again."

A screech was heard coming from Schanter as he soared through the air, looking for a place to land. Wicked glee crossed his face as the small leathery creature saw that there were a hundred possibilities below him.

"May Indra help us and send us aide in our time of need, " Candol prayed to himself.

Several more bolts of flame hit as Schanter made his downward descent. Shong was suddenly horseless, with heavy scorch marks throughout his entire lower body, while Kilgar had jumped off from his own horse just before it was vaporized. Eldar found himself screaming out his victory cry of ka'ru as he was suddenly plummeting down towards the trees below, while Candol looked down to see three bolts of flame shoot up towards him. Quickfoot clung tightly to the priest's waist, hiding his small face in his robes, as Candol looked at the approaching flame, hoping his mount could out-fly it.

Suddenly, Candol felt himself being lifted up by his shoulders, strong taloned feet swiftly flying him and Quickfoot up off his horse just as it exploded into charred bits beneath them. Quickfoot gave a high-pitched scream just as they were borne aloft, the flame biting at their toes below them. Candol looked up to see what creature he was now at the mercy of.

Humanoid in basic shape though it was, it bore no trace of having evolved from anything near human. Two legs with taloned feet, now wrapped around the priest's shoulders, and two arms ending in sharp claws. Great feathered wings grew from its back, now flapping rapidly as they sought to gain height quickly. The entire body was feathered, and had more the proportions and angles of a bird made to walk upright then just that of a man with wings and feathers. Feathers and a great plumage adorned its head, while much smaller downy-like feathers wove their way around its hawk-like eyes and beaked mouth. Candol guessed that it looked to be male, but only the creature itself could be certain.

Getting over his initial shock at still being alive, he looked around. Taloned feet came and plucked the falling Shong out of the air, as well as the elven figure of Eldar, now a bit disappointed that he wouldn't be able to die in so glorious a fashion as to fall onto one's enemies from a hundred feet in the air. Another one grabbed onto young Kilgar, while two more of the flying figures carried the struggling form of Schanter, who seemed almost angry at not having gotten hurt. Dozens of others of these flying creatures now swarmed the skies, dodging bolts of flame to soar down upon the beast riders, raining spears and rocks down upon them.

"Almighty Indra has saved us, " Candol smiled. "This servant thanks you, oh Great One."

The remaining flying horses now landed upon firm ground, as they finally reached a large ledge, high above the ravine, its trail leading back and up into the mountains.

"They are Hawkmen, " Sheil-Bor(h) said to Sabu above the now more distant thunder of hooves below. "I do not know the specific tribe or species, but they are known to be friendly."

"Hawkmen, " Sabu said. "I've heard of them, but I've never seen any. Offhand I'd say you're right about their being friendly, though."

Several of the Hawkmen landed, each depositing a carried passenger. Soon, between those still with a horse and those carried in by the sudden aid, all were up on the high ledge, Quickfoot still clinging to Candol, whimpering quietly. When Schanter was dropped down onto the ledge, he looked around desperately for something to hurt; seeing nothing, he picked up a small rock and began beating his own foot with it, crying in both pain and pleasure as he did so. Below, the thunderous hoofbeats quieted as the riders became occupied with attacks from above, in the form of fifty or so of the flying Hawkmen. Meanwhile, up on the ledge, a total of five of them had landed, folding in their wings behind them, regarding them with their unsmiling beaked faces, as the horses suddenly realized they could go no further and dropped.

"I wonder if they speak Selgish, " Sabu pondered as they regarded each other, "or maybe even Tradespeak."

"My friend, " said Bronto jovially, "there's one language everyone always understands."

And before anyone could stop him, Bronto walked up to one of the Hawkmen. He produced a large right forearm, and clasped it to the opposing arm of the stern-looking creature. Bronto gave a chuckle as they clasped elbow to elbow, pumping his arm up and down, looking at a strange creature as tall as himself like he was some long-lost brother. For long moments, his was the only voice that sounded forth from that ledge.

Then, the fine downy feathers around the corners of the hawkman's beak began to curved upwards into some resemblance of a smile around the expressionless beak. The creature then began to let out a shrill whistle from its beak, perhaps the sound a bird might make if it could laugh. This was soon followed by similar sounds from the other assembled hawkmen and, soon after that, by smiles and sighs of relief by the others on the ledge.

"Your large friend does seem to have a certain talent for social interaction, " Sheil-Bor(h) observed quietly to Sabu, "a most commendable trait."

"I don't think that there's too many people that he really hates, " Sabu agreed.

"We do speak Selgish, " finally came from the hawkman's beak when he'd finished shaking Bronto's arm, in a high-pitched voice with a few musical bird notes whistled here and there as it spoke, "from back since the time of the old human Kingdoms."

"Ah, you know of the Kingdoms and Th?r T?orca then, " Sabu said eagerly, stepping forward. "Perhaps you could-"

"Not here, " it half-whistled, half-spoke, "the orkai below are still a danger."

"Well, " Eldar brightened, "at least now we have a name for those animal-faced pieces of-"

"You will go down the path, " the hawkman interrupted, "while we keep the orkai busy. We will meet you where this path dips over the next ridge."

With that the five hawkmen flew off, leaving the others to gather themselves up and walk their tired horses down the path, while below them spears rained down on creatures that shot back with hawkman-roasting flame.

"Not much for speeches, " Eldar observed.

"It's action that counts, " said Kilgar, as he started to walked down the path, "and they've already proven their worth in that."

"The horses will have to rest for a few rises, " Lindel said as he examined their mounts, "we've pushed them too hard."

They were up on a forested ridge, Schanter having since changed back to Lorel. All around them were tree-covered mountains, far beyond them the snow-capped richness of Catho's inner mountains. They looked down at the small trail as it wove on through the mountains, and listened to the natural quietness, the sound of thunderous hoofbeats having been left behind.

"We'll have to leave them behind anyhow, " Sindar said. "They'll be useless for the trails and passes ahead."

"What do we do with them then?" Lindel asked.

Sabu smiled, got out a cloth sack, and laid it open upon the ground. A few quick gestures and the opening had elongated enough for a horse to step down through.

"Perhaps you could take them back to the island and see that they're tended to while we wait for our winged friends, " Sabu suggested.

Lindel took up the reins and began leading the horses down the makeshift portal. Soon after Lindel had left with the last horse down through the portal, a score of hawkmen came gliding into view, drifting out upon the thermals and air currents of the mountains, slowly spiraling down toward their ridge. The twenty soon landed around them, one walking up to Bronto, its blue and red feathers standing out from the others' green and yellow.

"Not that we're complaining, " Quickfoot asked, "but why did you help us?"

"I am flight-master of my nest, " the blue and red one said. "The bulk of my name is unpronounceable with your language, so you may call me Masouda."

"Our small friend has a point, Masouda, " Bronto said. "Our problem was not your own, yet you made it so."

"My people lived in these mountains when the Humans had their great kingdoms, " Masouda explained in his chirping voice. "We lived next to each other in peace; we patrolled the mountains and the skies for them while they gave us trade from far lands and protected our nests. It was a golden time for both races."

"Yeah, but-" Quickfoot tried to interrupt.

"Though that time is now long past, " Masouda went on, ignoring Quickfoot while he spoke to Bronto, "there is in you some of the blood of those people that my ancestors called friends. We never forget a friendship or a debt; those orkai have been getting dangerous the last few rels and you were in need."

"Well, " Bronto said, "you'll discover that I never forget a favor or a friendship either. Consider myself in debt to you for saving my friends."

Masouda nodded and chirped an acknowledgment. Eldar then took the opportunity to walk up and interject his own request.

"Perhaps you could help us in something else then, " Eldar said, silver hair blowing in the slight mountain breeze. "We seek one of the cities of those old kingdoms. Th?r T?orca."

The hawkman looked up at the elf and then around at the others, as if considering something. From one face to the next its sharp eyes went, before finally answering.

"Except for that dark one there, " Masouda said, pointing a clawed hand at Mauklo, "your motives would seem forthright."

Lindel then came back up through the makeshift portal, lugging several small backpacks of additional supplies, while Masouda spoke. When Lindel was clear of it, Sabu folded up the sack and put it away.

"We know of the once great city of Th?r T?orca, " Masouda said. "From where we now stand, it lies straight North and East of here. But be warned, for the route lies directly through the tallest of the peaks and past the lairs of several very dangerous dragons."

"Dragons haven't worried us too much lately, " Bronto replied with a grin, "and what's a little cold."

"You do seem as brave as were your ancestors, " Masouda observed, "this is good. When you get close to the valley, there will be more tribes of my people; seek out their nests and they will guide you the rest of the way to the valley. From there, you will be on your own to find what is left of Th?r T?orca. But be warned: there are dark forces that move about the valley."

"We thank-you, Masouda, " Bronto said, with a polite nod, "and may a new age of gold soon arise; one in which both our peoples may once again live as friends."

"That would be a time I would wish to live to see, " Masouda said, a slight grin at the edge of his beak.

Masouda spread out his wings, as then did the other hawkmen around them. Bronto backed off as, with a few flaps of his great wings, the blue and red hawkman lifted up into the air. Up he rose, until he was hovering ten feet above the big man, while the other hawkmen flew out into the deep purple sky.

"A good journey to you, " Masouda shouted down, "and may the winds be with you!"

They watched as the hawkmen flew off, over the mountains, out beyond a ridge, and out of sight. Lindel distributed the new packs of supplies he'd brought with him as they made ready to continue their journey, this time on foot. Eldar came up next to Bronto as the big man watched the last green wingtip disappear over the mountains.

"Bronto, you big lump, " Eldar said as he slapped the man on the back, "you never told us you had such a prestigious bloodline."

"I never knew, " he shrugged. "Anyway, we've got to get going."

The sky deepened to a light shade of purple as, in single file, they started on along the trail, winding their way further into the mountains, with only three white hawks circling high in the sky overhead to be of any witness to their departure.

It was slow-going through the rugged mountains, as they crept along narrow ledges through forest-lined passes, and over one cresting ridge after another. They went single file most of the time, in pairs the rest of the time. Bronto was at the lead, Shong the rear, with Lindel up front with Bronto to read the trails that they would travel down. The weather was pleasant, if a bit brisk with the fullness of mid-Fall. During the day, the orain-colored sky loomed brightly overhead, a slight trüb-colored haze around the bright-blue of the sun. Around them trees, bushes, and other plants abounded, their colors ranging the spectrum from the green-blues of the tall trees, to their orain and tairu colored needles and leaves, to the occasional narlu and green colorings of sage and berry bushes. Around them, birds warbled their high-pitched songs, while the occasional squirrel or rodent scampered along the tree limbs. The air carried with it the fresh scent of pine and sage, with a slight hint of the innumerable herbs growing wild upon the hillsides.

"We've been on the run so much, " Sabu was saying to Sheil-Bor(h) as he walked alongside of the other's taller frame, "that we haven't had much time to talk. For instance, you never said what specific field of magic that you study."

They were walking around a not too narrow ledge, tall mountainside to their left, steep fall into the bowels of a ravine to their right. Sheil-Bor(h)'s dark sandy hair tossed in the breeze as his green cape fluttered lightly. He seemed to be lightly meditating as they walked along the ledge, his eyes only partly noticing the terrain on which he walked. He blinked his eyes and breathed in deep of the mountain air as he came out of his reverie. Sheil-Bor(h) looked first up at the sky, a thoughtful look upon his face, before he answered the wizard.

"In my quest for knowledge, " he answered, in his ever quiet voice, "I try to never limit my studies. Thus do I study any field of the magical arts that I come upon."

"That would make you rather versatile, " Sabu acknowledged.

"Ah, but with the time and effort that such extreme studiousness takes, " Sheil-Bor(h) pointed out, "you are no doubt much more versed in the more specific fields that you study than I am in any of the several endeavors in which I now involve myself."

"The quest for knowledge hath its price, " Sabu smiled.

"Tell me, " Sindar said, coming up behind them, "how much have you encountered in your studies concerning that of Hevon?"

"Somewhat less than what you tell me you have found in that dimensio-book, I am afraid, " Sheil-Bor(h) sighed. "It is a mystery of which I still seek the answers."

"We've got enough intellectuals around here to start our own sage school, " Eldar's voice was heard to say from somewhere towards the rear of their marching line.

"I'll remember that when-" Sindar started to say.

Sindar suddenly stopped what he was saying as he stopped walking and just stood there, looking up into the sky, eyes distant. Sabu stopped and turned around to look at his friend.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Danger, " Sindar answered, his gaze still far off. "A winged threat comes upon us. They come from. . ."

He tilted his head upwards a bit, facing the mountainside soaring high above them, and then shot his arm straight out pointing.

"There!" he shouted, eyes suddenly no longer distant, body tense with adrenaline.

Everyone stopped walking, all looking up expectantly in the direction Sindar indicated, hands slowly drawing out weapons as they looked to see of what their companion warned. At first they could see nothing. The sky seemed to shimmer several feet overhead, as if from heat waves meeting. Then the shimmering coalesced.

Six figures materialized in the middle of the air, appearing seemingly out of nothing, flying down at them. They had thick rubbery skin stretched tightly over their unnaturally thin bodies. Whip-like tails sliced back and forth behind them, while large taloned feet reached out for targets. Their gaunt faces screeched malice at them from fang-covered mouths, as their large leathery wings carried them down on top of them.

Immediately, an arrow went bulleting through the sky, sent from Lindel's bow, straight towards the heart of one of the creatures. The thing deftly avoided it in a spiraling dodge as it arced straight for the golden-haired elf. Another one dived for Bronto, as the rest seemed to come straight for Sabu, Eldar, and Sindar.

Their screech pierced through the air like knives to the skull. Everyone grabbed at their ears, several of them collapsing to the ground in pain. A few small rocks came tumbling down from above, loosed by the high-pitched screeches. Shong collapsed to the ground, hands over his ears, as he thought his skull might split. Candol folded up into a heap upon the ground, while Quickfoot's eyes rolled up in back of his head as he too collapsed. Even Mauklo seemed overcome by the skull-splitting sound. Only Bronto stood tall as he swung his sword at the one swooping down upon him.

Lindel reached in his quiver for another arrow, this time taking out a gold-tipped one. He notched his bow just as one of the creatures came down upon him.

A whip-like tail snapped out at Lindel's bow, slicing it in two and sending its pieces flying through the air. A clawed hand then swiped at the elf, leaving a ragged claw mark ripping across his green tunic, blood dripping red, as the elf was sprawled across the ground on top of the huddled form of Shong.

"He broke my bow!" Lindel remarked angrily and then glanced up at the flying menace. "You owe me a bow! Turen!"

Meanwhile, the one up front power-dived at Bronto, just as the large man swung his big sword. Sword hit creature, just as the full weight of the creature charged straight into Bronto's chest. The creature exploded from the impact of Bronto's sword, but the momentum from its charge sent the big man flying back over the edge of the trail, out over its cliff-like drop and hurtling back and out into the deep ravine below, still holding onto his large sword. Like a slow backwards dive, he disappeared down out of sight.

The remaining four creatures swooped down upon the cluster of huddling mages at the center of the group. One dove straight at Eldar, sending him sprawling out towards the edge of the trail; only by his fingertips did Eldar stop his plunge out over the edge. One slashed at Sabu, ripping a deep gash across the young wizard's chest, while another picked Sindar up by his shoulders, as if to lift him high into the sky. Sheil-Bor(h) dived to the ground, with greater agility than one might think of him, as another tried to lash its whip-like tail out to where his head used to be.

"Ever get the feeling someone wants us real bad?" Eldar quipped from his precarious hold.

Lorel came charging up to the cluster of creatures, sword slashing out, as he grimaced from the pain of their screeching. He sliced out with his sword at the creature clawing away at Sabu, as it defended by slicing out with its sharp tail.

Tail met sword with a sharp crack, as half of the sword was sent flying off, severed off from the rest of it as tail sliced through steel like it was butter. The thing then turned it head full on towards Lorel and screeched at the top of its lungs. Lorel's eyes rolled up in back of his head as he dropped to the ground like a wet sack. It then turned its attentions back on Sabu.

And was immediately greeted by a sudden bright flash of light to its eyes. It screeched in sudden blind pain, as Sabu rolled aside, his quick spell having gained him a few moments more...

Sindar was five feet above the ground, in the talons of one of the creatures, when he suddenly stopped struggling and just calmly looked up at the creature holding him. The creature made ready to screech down at his victim, when suddenly its eyes rolled in back of its head, its body shook, and it fell to the ground, releasing Sindar en-route. Sindar managed to land without breaking any bones, but the creature just plopped down like a dead rag. Sindar looked over at the thing as he got to his feet. There was a thin grey liquid oozing out from inside of its triangular ears.

"That'll teach you to mess with a psychic, " he smiled satisfactorily.

Lindel finally got up off of Shong. He tried to get the fighter up also, but the high-pitched screeching seemed too much for him. Giving up on that, he looked over at his broken bow and grimaced. He thought a bit, and then started to glance quickly around him.

"There's got to be something, " he muttered to himself, "that I. . . Ah!"

He ran over to a tree growing out of the hillside and bent down to pick up a long branch that he'd spotted. This he held in his right hand, holding it about its middle. He then closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to ignore the noisy battle around him.

As he concentrated, the dead branch slowly began to reshape itself, growing straight and smooth, and then curving itself back into an arc. When Lindel opened his eyes, he was holding a new bow.

"Now all I need is something to be the bowstring, " he said looking around again.

The creature dived down at Sheil-Bor(h) again, feet talons forward, mouth open to screech once more. Sheil-Bor(h) lay upon his back, one hand covering an ear, the other propping himself up.

"I tire of your screeching prattle, " he said softly but firmly, as he pointed a hand up at the creature.

There was a series of snapping sounds, and then the mystified creature suddenly found itself with a thick rope tying its mouth shut, another one about legs and tail, and a third binding its clawed hands together. It fluttered around uselessly, hovering in the air.

"That should give you pause for thought, " Sheil-Bor(h) said as he started to get to his feet.

Meanwhile, pea-sized pellet of flame went shooting out from Sabu's hand, weak though he was from the blood oozing from the wound to his chest. It shot out and bathed the blind creature before him in a body-encompassing halo of fire. The thing screeched out angrily at the new pain, but otherwise appeared unharmed.

"Hmm, " Sabu said to himself, "the hide appears too thick for my flame to penetrate. Maybe if. . . I know!"

Staff appearing in hand, Sabu concentrated, the red Hevon Gem on the top of his staff glowing brightly. Then another, brighter, perhaps harder looking, fiery pea went flying out. Just as the creature shook its head with recovering sight, with a pfft it penetrated the thick rubbery hide and sank deep inside the creature's lean frame, leaving but a pea-sized hole to mark its entrance.

The creature looked down puzzledly at the minor wound, apparently no worse for its making. It then looked up at where the young wizard crouched as he slowly got to his feet. Sabu just smiled.

"Say good-bye, " he waved almost amiably.

The creature looked puzzled for a brief moment, then opened his mouth to screech one more time. He never made it.

From deep within the thing's belly, the pea detonated, exploding suddenly outward from within the confines of its body. Fire gushed out of the creature's mouth, flame leapt out of now-melted eyes and streamed out of its ears. Flame boiled up within it as, with a final death screech, it gave its all.

It exploded.

A tattered sheet of torn rubbery skin lay drifting upon the ground in front of Sabu, barely enough to make a proper coat out of, all that was left of the creature, steam still rising up from its cooked inner lining.

Sabu leaned upon his staff, looking at the others about him, as he strove to overcome the pain leaking from his chest.

The one over Sheil-Bor(h), meanwhile, was flapping about, trying to free itself of its bindings. Its hands were almost free when something came flying through the air, straight towards it.

It was small, it weighed ninety pounds, and it had a warty complexion that not even a mother could love. Schanter landed upon its back, biting and clawing at its wings, taking delight at the chance to torture such a bound and almost-helpless creature. The creature screeched out its anger, sending waves of pain through Schanter's skull as the small one grabbed for an ear with his hand.

"Ow! Schanter in pain. Schanter not like!" he howled, and then began to get a wicked smile on his face that only the truly deranged can manage. "Schanter love pain! Want more! More!"

He then plunged both of his clawed hands deep into the creature's back, straight to its spinal cord. Its wings quivered and went suddenly limp as, with a screech of pain and puzzlement, it went plummeting down to the ground, straight towards Sheil-Bor(h).

Sheil-Bor(h) nimbly leapt aside as the pair came crashing hard into the ground. The creature landed head-first, its skull twisting back at an unhealthy angle upon its neck, as it lay there very still. Schanter jumped up and down on its back, kicking it as he did so.

"Again! Again! Schanter want again!"

The screeching reduced, some of the others were starting to recover. Mauklo was looking up, as the creature that had smashed Lindel's bow was now bearing down on him. It screeched anger and malice at Mauklo as it swooped down upon him. Mauklo, anger forming upon his face, raised up a hand to cast a spell with which to defend himself.

But the spell was never needed. A golden point suddenly protruded from inside of its skull, sticking out of its forehead like some metallic growth. Its eyes stayed fixed as its flight arced limply to the ground. As it turned down, Mauklo could see the rest of the arrow's shaft sticking out from the back of its skull. He turned to see Lindel standing perhaps fifty feet down the path.

"He broke my bow!" Lindel said, stern expression on his face, as he held a new bow, tightly strung, its wood looking polished.

One more of the creatures was left, harrying around Eldar, after he'd finally climbed up from the ledge. He swatted at it with his sword, as it fluttered around him, deftly avoiding his attacks.

"Come down here you overgrown chicken!" he shouted at it.

It screeched at him again, as Eldar swung once more, ignoring the thing's cry.

"Haven't you caught on by now?" he mocked. "Your cry doesn't affect elves."

He slashed at it again, and again missed. It came diving down at him, all claws out, determined that this one elf at least shall die. Swiftly it closed.

Then it stopped, struck by a long curved knife sticking out from its chest, buried hilt deep. It doubtfully fluttered around from the shock.

"Bad bird, " Kilgar said from where he stood, readying a spare knife, "you'll pay for Bronto."

It looked angrily at the young boy, then screeched again. It turned and looked down at Eldar, regarding him, and then started to resume his plunge at the elf.

But he was stopped by another knife, this one not curved as was the first, but also buried hilt-deep in his chest. It screeched in pain, this time Quickfoot standing forward to claim the credit.

"You gave me such a headache, " the small hair-footed one said. "I hate that!"

It fluttered more weakly now, but was still determined to get to Eldar. It tried once again to fly down, claws out, to the elf.

And this time was toppled through the air by an unexpected jet of water, catching it full on in the face. Candol stood up, watery gem upon his forehead aglow, hand pointing towards it. It toppled down over the side of the path, down into the ravine.

"Those things take a lot of killing, " Sabu remarked as he used his staff to hobble over to Candol.

But the thing came fluttering back up, having recovered its flight. It slowly rose up level with the cliff edge, the two knives still sticking out of its chest, oozing green blood. But then it stopped. It screeched and flapped it wings as if to try again, but still it couldn't fly up any higher.

"I think it's stuck on something, " Eldar observed.

"I wonder what it's stuck on?" Quickfoot asked as the thing tried once again to rise up.

"I don't think it's a 'what', " Shong said as he got to his feet.

Shong, sword out, ran over to the cliff edge where the creature was flailing around. Eldar and Kilgar followed him, as, avoiding the thing's flailing claws, they all looked over the edge to see what held it down.

"We'll, I'll be, " Eldar smiled.

There, hanging onto the hillside, was Bronto. His right hand held a firm grip onto his large sword, which was now plunged three feet into the solid stone of the cliff several feet below them, while his left hand was holding onto the creature's whip-like tail as it tried to free itself from his grip.

"I don't even want to know how you managed that one, " Eldar chuckled.

"If one of you could manage a spare hand, " Bronto called up, "all this hanging around is getting a bit tiresome."

A smile crossed Kilgar's face as he saw that his friend was indeed safe and not lying a mile down on the rocks below. Shong looked over at the creature that Bronto had by the tail, regarding it casually.

"Well have to take care of that thing first, " he said.

"No problem, " Bronto shouted up.

The big man gave a strong tug on the thing's tail, jerking his arm swiftly down. The creature gave a yelp of shock as it suddenly found itself drawn straight down with enough force to send it plummeting quickly towards the ground far below. Bronto snapped it down, like one would a whip, letting go when the creature's torso had passed below his waist. They watched as it went spiraling helplessly down, screeching its way out of sight, to crash hard upon the rocks a thousand feet below.

"Now, if someone's got a rope?" he asked, almost casually.

They were assembled on a fair-sized ledge, just down the trail from where they were when the creatures attacked them. Candol was tending the wounded, with Lindel helping him out with his own herbal medicines. Sabu had a freshly healed scar across his bared chest, courtesy of Candol's tendings, while Quickfoot was nursing his still-tender ears. They were discussing their recent encounter.

"They were headed straight for me, Sabu, and Sindar, " Eldar was saying. "I think they were after our Hevon Gems."

"They were definitely sent, " Sindar agreed, as he sat down with the others, "I don't believe them to be among the normal denizens of these mountains."

"They were demons, " Mauklo said as he paced by them, "of a type given to surprising their victims and rendering them near helpless with their screech. Faerie Folk are immune to the effects of their voice, but they can still be rather annoying if you don't see them coming."

"Conjured resistance, " Sabu nodded. "Something either wants our Hevon Gems, or doesn't want us to reach Th?r T?orca."

"It would not be the Gems, " Sheil-Bor(h) shook his head. "If someone knows enough to know that we have them, then he would also know that they are more a part of our souls now, and not something that can be merely taken away."

"Then it's the valley that they don't want us to find, " Eldar said, leaning back upon a convenient boulder.

"Then it's the valley that we must find, " Bronto said, walking over. "This sounds like more reason for us to quicken our pace on towards our goal and find whatever secrets that valley has to offer."

"Agreed, " Sabu said. "We'll rest here for half a nev and then move on."

"We should be able to make that next ridge before nightfall, " Lindel pointed out from where he stood looking out across the mountains.

"Good, " Sindar nodded, "but we've got to be more alert for such ambushes in the future. I don't think they'll give up so quickly."

"Then that gives me some time for a quick nap, " Quickfoot said from across the other side of the ledge.

As the others went about the job of resting and repairing themselves, Mauklo sat and thought to himself, his devious mind at work trying to out-guess an unseen opponent.

As he watched the others ready themselves for an even faster push towards Th?r T?orca, he couldn't help but think how that attack was responsible for all this; that the sudden and almost deadly attack was the one thing that could hasten them along their journey.

The perfect thing. . . if someone wanted them to find Th?r T?orca.

The trail got narrower the farther up they went. Soon, the thin trail gave out altogether, forcing them to hike across the rough terrain. Up along hillside slopes they climbed, the air getting colder as they saw the snow-line getting closer. Through the thick trees they weaved their way, as they tried to push their pace to the limit. But trees and s?lva' slowed them down nonetheless. Steep ravines blocked their paths; some they would use a rope and climb across, others Sabu or Sindar would use their magic and fly them over. But always ever onward, climbing up steep inclines and over rough terrain as they strove northeastward.

Occasionally they could hear thunder echoing off the tall mountainsides, never certain if it were the orkai beast riders, come to hunt them again, or just normal thunder echoing from some distant storm. Not even Sindar's mental powers or Sheil-Bor(h)'s foretellings could be certain. Whichever it was, just that doubt was usually enough to spur them on for at least a few more miles before resting.

Bronto was their strength. His never-tiring frame was always at the front, never slowing, always happily whistling some old bar tune as he strode along as if he were going off to some picnic. The few times that young Kilgar would admit to being tired, Bronto just heaved him up on his shoulders, as if he were but nothing, and carried him on along until the next ridge.

"I think we've been marching for kevs, " Quickfoot said one afternoon, as his smaller feet scurried along to keep up with the others, "don't these mountains ever end?"

"Actually, " Sindar responded, "it's only been about four and a half rises. The illusion of expanded time is just due to your rash impatience and small stride."

"Hey, " Quickfoot said turning to Candol and tugging at his robe, "was I just insulted?"

Candol just smiled down at Quickfoot and kept on walking.

Lindel was towards the front, near Bronto, when he looked up to the sky and pointed.

"What's that over there?" he said. "I see something flying over by that peak."

Bronto looked in the direction indicated, squinting his eyes that he could see better. He could just make out a large winged form flying up around a snowy peak.

"Your elven eyes are probably better than mine, " Bronto answered, "but it does look kind of large. I can't quite make it out though."

"I wonder what it is?" Lindel asked.

"Well, " Bronto smiled, "they do call these the Dragon Mountains."

"That's all we need, is to meet another one of those things, " Quickfoot said from the middle of their marching group. "I don't like being dragon-kibble."

"I wonder what it would be like to ride one of those things, " Bronto mused as he looked out at the distant form.

"Ride?!" Quickfoot shook his head. "You're crazy."

"Don't worry, " Eldar said, "I'm sure that you're much too small a morsel for their large appetites."

Before Quickfoot could think up a good response, they heard a rumble of thunder echo off in the distance, trailing long and slow through the air. Several of them paused to look up into the sky.

"So, which was that then?" Shong asked cautiously.

"It sounded like normal thunder, " Lindel answered, "I don't think it was those creatures. Besides, these trails are too steep for their mounts."

"So it may be, " Sindar put in, "but I still feel that we are hunted nonetheless. If not by them, then by others."

"Maybe once we get up to the snow that'll slow down our pursuers, " Eldar suggested.

"If we don't then die of cold first, " Quickfoot complained. "It's getting chilly up here!"

"We near the snow-line, " Sheil-Bor(h) explained patiently. "Perhaps in a rise or two more we will reach the edge of the snow. Even now, the trees aren't quite as thick as they used to be."

"Oh, that's encouraging, " Quickfoot rolled his eyes.

"It could be worse, " Eldar suggested with a smile, "it could be winter."

Quickfoot just shook his head as they walked on.

"Actually, if I figure right. . ., " Sabu began.

"Which you usually do, " Eldar interrupted.

". . .then we should reach the valley of Th?r T?orca before winter comes, " Sabu finished.

"What about making it back out of there before winter comes?" Lorel asked.

Sabu just shrugged.

Lorel was about to ask Sabu to expand upon his shrug, but was interrupted. A swift hissing sound went flying through the air, just missing his ear, and landed buried in a tree. When the others turned to look, there buried hilt-deep in the tree was a long dagger, aflame with fire, even now still sizzling inside the wood of the tree. They turned around to see the source of the weapon.

"I am afraid that our pursuers have renewed themselves, " Sheil-Bor(h) said calmly, as he raised a hand and pointed.

Over through the trees, perhaps a few hundred feet along the slope in back of them, were two small figures, each ablaze with fire, wearing it as one would clothes, jumping up and down as if in victory at having found their quarry.

"Uh, Lorel, " said Eldar, suddenly putting an arm around the fighter and turning him away from the flaming sight, "why don't you check with Bronto and make sure that nothing's going to surprise us from up front."

"Uh, sure, " said the puzzled warrior as Eldar steered him away from the fiery sight.

"That's all we need, " said Quickfoot, "is him turning into Schanter right now."

"Hey, " Shong said as he pulled the knife out of the tree, "this blade may be red-hot, but the handle's cool to the touch. I think I'll keep it; if I can find a sheath that won't burn, that is."

As Shong found a place on himself for the burning knife, Mauklo turned to the others.

"They're minor fire demons, " he explained quickly, "they only appear if someone's summoned them."

"I guess they got tired of sending beast-faced riders and screeching birds after us, " Shong commented, as he finally found a fire-proof sheath for his new knife. "These must be our latest pursuers."

"If they get back to whoever sent them-" Mauklo began.

"Then they'll find us even in all these mountains, " Sabu finished. "We've got to get them."

Another flaming knife went whizzing through the air, just clearing the top of Candol's head as it went plunging off into the hills beyond.

"Their aim's getting better, " Eldar said offhandedly.

"Allow me, " Candol offered, miffed at the flaming weapon having come so close to his head, as he rolled back his sleeves. "Fire demons you say?"

A watery gem started to glow upon his forehead as he stretched out a pointed hand. From his finger there shot out a thin lance of water. Soaring through the air like a swift missile, it went straight between the trees and directly at the two small demons. It hit with an explosion of water and steam, the sudden cries of the creatures soon fading as faint echoes upon the mountains.

"I think I'm getting pretty good with this Hevon thing, " Candol commented as he brought down his arm.

"There'll be more, " Mauklo said grim-faced.

"And we probably don't want to see what will be sent against us once they find us, " Sindar pointed out.

"Then let's move it, " Bronto said in a commanding voice. "We can be over to the next mountain in about a nev."

"Right, " Lindel said, as they all went, once more, quickly on their way.

Through the forest they went, over more ravines and around tall mountain peaks. Closer they came to mountains so high their peaks were lost up amongst the clouds. When evening came and they had to rest, they could hear the cries of unnatural creatures roaming the night. From the mountain from which they'd come these cries came, perhaps sourced from strange creatures native to these hills, or perhaps from that which still hunted them. No one slept easy, on this, or the next several nights.

Dawn found them already on the move again, trekking higher still through the mountains. Early morning light filtered down over the peaks and through the tall covering of trees. The woods were filled with the sounds of birds nesting and small animals scurrying about. Occasionally, they would see another of the distant large flying shapes that Bronto had identified as dragons, a fact that didn't make Quickfoot any less nervous. By noon, Lindel's bow had brought down a deer for lunch, with enough left over to serve as trail rations as they moved along.

The air got colder the farther up they traveled, as they aimed themselves for those high snowy peaks. Chill winds buffeted them more frequently, making it seem even colder than it actually was. Of somewhat greater worry was what they saw along their trek. Two more sightings of dragons they saw over the next few rises, always distant and always in flight. Then of their pursuers, once did they hear distantly from behind them a rolling thunder they knew definitely not to be natural. To escape those that would find them, they then took to the narrower steeper trails, figuring that at least this would thwart the orkai and their clawed mounts.

A few more rises of determined travel brought them close to the snow-line, as even now they passed by the occasional small puddle of snow clinging to the branches of a tall pine tree. Trees too got fewer as they traveled upwards, the mountainsides now given more towards bushes clinging low to the ground. They traveled single-file all the time now, going along what few narrow trails that could be found, but having to make their own trails more and more often. Their heads would turn at the infrequent high-pitched screeches echoing throughout the mountains, unsure as to if the echoes were near or very far away.

"I'm not made for this kind of weather, " Quickfoot said as he shivered his way up along the cliffside.

"I think for once the small one's right, " Lindel observed, "we aren't dressed for this type of cold, much less the snow coming up ahead."

"What do you mean 'for once'?" Quickfoot asked angrily.

"Perhaps there is a need for more wintery clothing, " Sabu admitted, ignoring Quickfoot's outburst. "I could open the portal back to our island and find some-"

"No need, " Eldar interrupted, as he got out a small vial from inside of his backpack. "I have this potion I've been wanting to try out. . ."

"Not another one of his potions, " Quickfoot said in exasperation, "my stomach will surely rebel."

"I don't know, " Bronto mused, "the last one he gave me tasted kind of like cloves."

"I'm not sure that I have enough for everyone though, " Eldar said doubtfully.

"Thank the gods, " Quickfoot said, eyes gazing skyward, hands clasped together.

"Then give my portion to someone else, " Bronto offered, "I'll just tough it out with a few more furs wrapped around me."

"There shall be no need for anyone to go without, " Candol said as their trail started around a bend. "The power of the mighty Indra shall clothe you all in warmth if need be."

"Actually, " Sheil-Bor(h) interjected in his quiet voice, "if I remember the exact temperature that those mountain heights are said to reach, perhaps a combination of both potion and spell might be in order."

"It sounds like we can handle the cold then, " Sindar said, "although when we get up to fifty thousand feet-"

"I think, " Bronto interrupted from his lead point around the bend in the trail, "that we have a more immediate problem."

"What's that?" Eldar asked.

"I think you'd all better come and see, " Lindel said seriously as he rounded the bend from behind Bronto.

One by one they caught up with Bronto, each one rounding the corner, each one in turn showing concern at what they saw. Perhaps thirty feet or so in front of them, the trail gave out. . . along with half of the hillside. The trail ended at a sudden drop going down hundreds of feet below them. The rift went on for perhaps two hundred feet along the mountainside, the trail picking up again at the far side.

"It looks like this place saw quite a landslide, " Lorel said.

"Yes, " Sabu began, "I would estimate-"

"Please don't, " Eldar said with mild pain in his voice.

"A bit too far for a rope, " Shong observed.

"I'm not climbing across that!" Quickfoot quickly put in.

"We can always fly across, " Sabu shrugged.

"You could do that fly spell of yours on all of us?" Shong asked.

"I've been practicing, " Sabu answered, "and with Sindar's help. . ."

"I too might be able to assist you in such an endeavor, " Sheil-Bor(h) offered. "Among the many fields of magic of which I study, is that of the air."

Quickfoot started to open his mouth to once again complain about flight as a mode of transportation, but was interrupted. There was a loud rumble overhead.

Several pairs of eyes looked up.

"I'm almost afraid to ask, " Lindel began, "but does anyone-"

"S?lva' appears to be unquiet within this ridge, " Sheil-Bor(h) observed.

"And I do not see that rumble as boding us anything but ill news, " Sindar finished.

The rumble sounded again, louder this time.

"I would say 'run', " Eldar offered, "but I wouldn't know where to."

Some dust, small rocks, and bits of snow began to drift down on them from above.

"Wait, " Lindel quickly pointed with his right hand, "I saw movement up there."

"Sindar?" Sabu turned to his companion behind him.

Sindar concentrated only briefly before answering.

"I sense several minds, " he answered. "Beast-like and primitive, but they are the minds of orkai."

"Not them again!" Quickfoot whined.

"I thought their mounts couldn't follow us?" Kilgar asked.

"I don't think they are the same ones, " Sindar shook his head. "Perhaps a more primitive tribe that-"

Sindar's theorizing was interrupted by a loud rumble overhead, followed quickly by the sight of several huge boulders come pounding down towards them from the tall peak high overhead.

"Tell us later!" Bronto shouted. "Sabu, if you've a way out of here. . ."

"Uh, right, " Sabu raised up his staff. "Now, a good flight spell and- No, we couldn't fly out from under those rocks. Perhaps-"

"Sabu, " Eldar encouraged, "speed please?"

"Accounting for wind speed and rate of descent. . ."

The boulders, but a pounce or two away, came falling down straight at them.

"Sabu!!!" Eldar screamed above the deafening roar of the quickly approaching landslide.

Sabu looked up to see a particularly large rock falling straight for him. He quickly clasped his free hand to Sindar's shoulder, drawing additional magical energy from his friend, and simultaneously pointed his staff out towards a far mountain peak.

"That way!" was all he shouted in the way of magical incantations.

Not only did the staff glow but Sabu's eyes as well, so much did he flood himself with magical energy. Sindar gave a brief gasp at the sudden quantity of magical energy drawn by his friend but, considering the circumstances, let him have all he needed. There was a very quick flare of light encompassing the entire length of their trail, then a flash and a loud 'pop' that was drowned out by the roar of the landslide as it not only buried their trail but carried part of the mountainside down into a ravine a thousand feet deep. Rocks, boulders, dust, and large drifts of snow roared down with the sound of a hundred battles and the force of a thousand swords.

Meanwhile, on a snow-covered peak, many miles away and of significantly higher elevation, in a loud 'pop' and bright flash of light, they all appeared. Standing on a snow-covered field, feet sinking into the deep white cold, they appeared, standing exactly as they'd stood down on the trail. Quickfoot reeled with dizziness as several of the others also waited for their sense of balance to return.

"Sorry about the vertigo, " Sabu apologized, "but we were in a hurry."

"It's okay, " Bronto said, being the first to recover, "although I think we could all use something to keep us warm now."

"Aerg! It's really c-c-c-cold up here, " Quickfoot stuttered with freezing concern.

Frost began forming on their faces as Eldar quickly uncorked his potion, and Candol, touching each person in turn, bestowed the warmth of Indra on them. A quick trip through Sabu's portable portal also produced several furs and winter clothing. Soon they were all bundled up and ready for the cold winds that constantly whipped about their peak.

"Those primitive orkai probably caused that avalanche, " Sindar said after he'd finished bundling up. "Apparently the dark hand of Miro reaches even here."

"Well, that little trick of Sabu's probably saved us a rise or two of travel, " Lindel finally observed once he was warmer. "How high up are we?"

"About twenty thousand feet or so, " Sheil-Bor(h) answered, "and it will soon be cold enough to freeze alcohol."

"The bad news, " Bronto said as he came walking up in his three layers of fur, "is what's ahead of us."

They looked in the direction in which Bronto nodded. Ahead of them, beyond this tall peak on which they stood, loomed a large mass of snow-covered mountains, rising higher even than that on which they now stood. Frozen winds whipped around these peaks, peaks that dared to touch the sky. And, rising higher than them all, straight in the path to which they would travel, rose a peak that was twice as high above their own peak as their peak was above the distant sea. A snow-capped glory, it rose majestically in the distance, its top forever lost in the clouds.

"Shakoo; that's got to be the tallest mountain around, " Kilgar said with a bit of awe in his voice.

"Just look at it as another frontier to be conquered, " Bronto put a hand on Kilgar's shoulder, "a ha?kl to be crossed."

"Actually, " Sabu said as he closed up and put away his little portable portal, "I estimate that peak to be around fifty or sixty thousand feet high; the mountains on Frecaloth are said to reach over a hundred thousand feet high."

"Well, this one's plenty high for me, " Shong said. "How are we going to get around that thing?"

"With the grace of Indra, " came Candol's immediate reply.

"By perseverance, shall we prevail, " was Lorel's reply.

"Oh shut up, the both of y

ou, " Mauklo sneered, "and try thinking up something useful instead of religious euphemisms."

"How about another one of those teleports of yours, Sabu?" Quickfoot asked. "A queasy stomach is much better than being frozen food for the dragons around here."

"I would prefer to rest a bit before doing something like that again, " Sabu answered. "We were in such a hurry that I didn't have time to use my energy too conservatively, and you guys do weigh a bit much, you know."

"But perhaps a simpler spell, " Sindar suggested, "maybe one of flight?"

"Not with those winds up there, " Sheil-Bor(h) shook his head. "The winds of such high peaks can be fast enough to smash even a Roc upon the mountainside; and cold enough to freeze it solid within a diidlo."

"Well then, " Lindel said, pointing up, "someone tell that thing."

He pointed to what looked to be a tiny dust mote flying around the high peak. Sheil-Bor(h) waved a hand in the air in front of him, and immediately a much closer view of the peak appeared hovering in the air in front of him. They looked at the white-scaled form that they saw flying with ease through the frosty winds; winds that would have torn any other creature up there apart and dashed its bits upon the ice-covered rocks.

"It is a snow dragon, " Sheil-Bor(h) answered their unspoken inquiries, "even extreme cold does not bother it."

"Maybe we can go around it, over some other peak, " Shong suggested. "It'd add a few more rises to our trip, but Sabu's teleport just saved us a couple of rises anyhow."

"That would sound reasonable, " Sabu said thoughtfully, "and there's no reason for us to intrude upon a snow dragon's lair should we not have to."

"Yeah, I guess that would be safer, " Eldar said, with mild disappointment.

It was then that Mauklo noticed a far away look upon Sindar's face, as if his mind was letting him see that which normal eyes could not.

"Oh no, I know that look, " Mauklo said testily. "He's going to tell us that we need to go; for Fate or some such!"

"Now, don't go thinking it's bad news before he's spoken, " Eldar admonished. "So what is it, Sindar?"

"We have to go up there, " Sindar said, as he came out of his trance.

"See, I told you it wouldn't be bad news, " Eldar smiled. "I've never climbed up that high before."

"That peak holds something that we need, " Sindar continued, "something that one of us needs. I can not see anything else."

"Hmm, " Sabu pondered, "rather vague. Sheil-Bor(h); how good are your own divinatory abilities?"

Sheil-Bor(h) looked out towards the distant peak, icy wind blowing about his covered head, palms clasping together, as he cast forth his magic into the winds. He started to answer, voice coming out in a monotone, his gaze fixed on that distant peak.

"An item of power, long lost to man but made by his hand, " he intoned, "to be used by one of great strength, it must be; power over creatures of great power and nobility. A steady hand does its use await, as against evil does it rate."

He looked away from the peak, down at the others around him.

"That is all I know, " he finished, dropping his hands to his sides.

"He must be a soothsayer, " Bronto chuckled, "because I didn't understand a word he said."

"I do not interpret the meaning of what I divine, " Sheil-Bor(h) explained with calm patience, "I just tell of what I see that needs be done."

"The mountain peak it is, then, " Sabu sighed, "but we still have to plan how best to get up there."

"If you crazies are so insistent about getting up there, " Mauklo said, raising up a hand as he began an incantation, "then maybe I should do something."

He muttered a few magical words under his breath, moving his hand in a few swift but intricate motions. Suddenly, the frosty wind about them dropped down to nothing. Within thirty feet it refused to blow, though outside of the small circle of safety they could see the winds still blowing, taking the snow with it in wispy snowy hands. Mauklo looked up at them with vague smugness on his face.

"Well, I suppose that's part of our problem, " Shong observed, and then thumbed in the direction of the tall mountain peak, "but what about climbing that hill over there?"

"I shall invoke the hand of the mighty Indra to catch us should anyone fall, " Candol offered, "for if He would have that as our goal, then we must go."

"Let's get going then, " Bronto said as he started walking away towards the distant peak.

"I protest, " Quickfoot said, pounding his foot on the hard-packed snow. "There's dragons and cold up there, and I hate them both. I refuse to go on!"

"Objection noted, " Bronto said, as he came over and casually picked up the small hair-footed one by the back of his neck. "Now come on."

He carried Quickfoot, kicking and screaming, by the back of his neck as they started on along their long icy trek. Across the snow they went, holding close to each other, staying within range of Mauklo's protection from the icy winds. Up the mountain and through the snowy blizzards they traveled, holding on against the cold. But though they had Eldar's potion, Indra's warmth, and several layers of furs wrapped around them, still the cold bit through them like icy needles. Slowly they trudged the deep snowy drifts, going higher and higher still, until they came to where the snow was packed so deep for so long, that it was more like walking on hard dirty ice than on snow.

Treacherous their trail truly was, Bronto's solid frame up front led them through blinding white blizzards and across icy footholds. Sabu used his staff to maintain his footing, digging it into the ice with each step. Others used their swords or just heavy boots to make it across the slippery surface, while Quickfoot ended up riding atop Bronto's back, and Kilgar tried to prove that he could travel on his own. While the winds did steer around them, leaving them with nary a breeze to blow in their faces, the ground was still icy and the air cold. All it would take is for but one person to slip, sliding out of range of Mauklo's windy protection, to be at the mercy of the frozen winds, now blowing like a constant low-grade hurricane.

A seemingly endless amount of up and down travel finally brought them to the base of that immense peak, soaring fully thirty thousand feet or more above their heads, its wide base now being farther around then one could travel in an entire kev were it not snowing. They looked up at the mountain that they must climb.

"By the beard of Indra, that peak just keeps getting taller."

"And c-c-c-colder too, " Quickfoot shivered from atop Bronto.

"Naw, " Eldar said dismissively, "Indra probably doesn't even have a beard."

"We'll need ropes and climbing sticks, " Shong said, getting down to the practical aspects of the matter. "If we tie ourselves to each other in a line then we should be able to make it."

"Do we have to climb that thing?" Quickfoot moaned.

"Why don't we just leave the little one behind in that little portable portal of yours?" Lorel asked.

"Yes!" Quickfoot jumped at the idea. "Then I can see how Blag-ak is doing with his eggs. He probably has the whole island messed up."

"Now, that's not a bad idea, " Eldar said, an idea dawning on his face, "the weaker among us could just sit it out back at the island, letting the rest do the climbing for them. Then, just open up Sabu's portal when we get up there."

"And you would be among the ones staying on the island?" Mauklo said almost pleasantly.

"Are you kidding?" Eldar said in shock. "I wouldn't miss climbing something like this!"

"It would seem a practical solution, " Lorel said, "Quickfoot, the boy, and our priest could wait back on the island with half of our mages, while the rest of us climb on up with our greater strength and courage. Definitely a plan to ensure the survival of our weaker members."

"Are you saying, " Kilgar said, suddenly holding a curved knife to Lorel's groin area, as he tried not to shiver, "that I'm weak and scared? I'm nine; I'm not a little boy anymore."

Lorel looked down at the knife threatening to spill out his manhood all over the ground, unsure of what to do.

"I merely seek to protect the lives of women and children, " Lorel tried rephrasing.

The knife got closer.

"It's a good thing that Kilinir isn't here, " Mauklo grinned, "or she'd have thrown you over the mountainside with that 'women' remark."

"You haven't been with us too long, " Bronto smiled. "Kilgar can handle himself as well as anyone. We've learned not to underestimate him. That's something you don't do with any Destir."

"I see." Lorel looked at the serious expression on the young boy's face, and then at that of those around him. "Then just the small one, the priest, and-"

"You don't want to get into that, " Candol interrupted.

"Actually, " Sabu stopped the exchange, "the only one who's bound to want to stay on the island is Quickfoot. But, if he wants to, I can slip him through the portal before we go on."

Eagerness was on Quickfoot's face as he looked around at the faces of those around him. Disappointment registered on every face his eyes met. Disappointment and condemnation.

"But that mountain's fifty thousand feet high, " he protested, "and with dragons!"

"It's okay, " Candol patted him on the head, "we understand if you don't have faith in either Indra or your companions. It is only the very few that can make such a journey."

"But-, " Quickfoot began doubtfully. "Can any of you bright mages here guarantee a little safety? Otherwise, this is insane!"

"There would be an awful lot of opportunity for one to slide down a four-mile slope, " Lindel pointed out. "We must prepare for this climb, or Quickfoot's fears could turn out to be prophetic."

"Perhaps I can be of assistance, " Sheil-Bor(h) suggested humbly. "I know of a spell that can make one nearly weightless. Then, if everyone is tied together, should the worst happen, the lead person may still support our combined weight."

"We would still need enough traction against all that ice up there, " Sabu pondered.

"Wait a tid, " Eldar said, a thoughtful look on his face. "Isn't ice and snow just frozen water?"

"Of course, " Sabu answered. "Why?"

Eldar grinned, then held out his sword. He waved it about in front of him in a grand sweeping motion. As he did so, a watery-colored gem on its hilt glowed brightly, causing the sword to glow a dim watery blue. The blue glow seemed to fall lightly to the ground, like raindrops of light, absorbing into the snow as they plopped down upon it. With each such drop of light, the snow and ice under Eldar's feet seemed to get a rougher look to it, looking kind of like frozen sandpaper.

"Consider our traction problem solved, " Eldar smiled.

"Of course, " Sabu slapped himself in the forehead, "the Water Gems. We've more than enough of those to cover us for the entire slope. All we need now is the rope."

"Allow me, " Sindar said, raising up a hand to invoke a spell.

He gave a few quick snaps of his wrist and a couple of quick words. Moments later, there was a brief flash of light around everyone's waist. When they looked down, they saw that they were all connected at the waist by bands of light wrapping around them. All in a single line, Bronto at one end, Shong at the other, Quickfoot in the very middle.

"A variation on my light-bridge spell, " Sindar explained, "but I can rearrange our order if you like."

"Let's start climbing then, " Bronto said.

"You may have need of these first, " Sheil-Bor(h) interrupted.

He gestured to the ground and concentrated. Bronto watched as a rock outcropping reshaped itself into a number of short thick metal spikes, a pick-headed hammer, and some lengths of rope.

"Good enough, " the big man said as he picked up the gear, sticking it in various places around his belt, "let's go."

They started climbing up the mountain, occasional blue glows lighting the path beneath their feet as someone would use one of the Water Gems to put more traction beneath them. At first they walked steadily on up the icy slope, Bronto using his large sword as a staff to dig into the ground. But then the slope got steeper, forcing them to climb, Bronto using the pick-hammer and metal spikes that Sheil-Bor(h) had produced for him. Up they climbed, the frozen winds parting around Mauklo's shield, the snow and ice rough beneath their feet. Cold, such as no one there had felt before, started to creep through their furs, potions, and spells. Ice formed about their gloves and faces as they climbed single-file up the slope. But, always Bronto's strength kept pulling them up, while Shong was the physical and emotion anchor at their rear. Over ice-covered boulders the size of a small house, around cliff-like ledges, and through blinding snow flurries.

Then a third of the way up the mountain is when the tough climb really started.

A continual icy blizzard blew straight down from the top of the mountain, riding along the edge of the slope, carrying with it great gusts of snow and sleet. As well, the angle of their climb then steepened; they often found themselves climbing up a sixty-degree slope, sometimes almost straight up, Bronto climbing one slow handhold and iron spike at a time, the others dangling by Sindar's light-chain in midair below him. The wind blew down with a force that would have ripped loose their grips were it not for Mauklo's shield.

Quickfoot whimpered through most of the long climb, while Kilgar tried his best to push his half-grown body to the task. Time, though, soon found them with Kilgar clinging to the back of Bronto, while Quickfoot clung atop Lorel. The mages amongst them also found it hard, unused to such extreme physical exertion as they were, the edges of their robes sticking out from under all their thick layers of fur as they tried their best to keep up.

On more than a few occasions did someone slip, sometimes taking others with him, to go dangling out over a drop that was now lost in the clouds below. But always did Bronto's strength keep him pinned to the mountainside like he was part of it, allowing the others to regain their footing. Up they went, the winds forming an almost solid icy shell around the outside of Mauklo's barrier.

Climb, rest, and then climb some more; that was their life, sometimes just resting as they hung there in mid-climb, strung out along down the slope, passing rations down to one another as needed. At night would they rest, huddled upon a frozen ledge that neither plant nor animal would ever think of calling home. The break of dawn would see them climbing once again. Up through air so cold they each thought they might break if someone would just but hit them.

On occasion the constant blizzard might clear, allowing them a look at the icy world below them. All around this tall peak lay a ring of other peaks, far below them now. But this outer ring of peaks was tall in itself; thirty thousand feet in height worth of icy gloom, but dwarfed now by the climb they were still making.

They concentrated just on climbing upwards, always up; the slope was their world. Even thoughts of snow dragons left their minds as they just put their combined concentrations in each successive step. Sometimes it would take them an entire nev just to climb a few short feet. Rise after rise passed, the snowy winds even howling past them in their dreams, like icy hands come out to pluck at them. Time seemed to stretch to infinity.

Soon they could look down and see nothing but arctic clouds, not even the other tall peaks surrounding them being visible. The world was made of ice and slow white winds.

So it went. So involved were they with scaling such an impossible mountain, that not even Sindar's mind-sense warned them of the sudden danger that flew down upon them. A blast of sudden frosty cold cut through Mauklo's shield, almost freezing Quickfoot, Kilgar, and Candol solid. The blast completely collapsed Mauklo's shield, sending a sudden burst of arctic gale winds rushing down through their line. Wind with enough force to send most of them sailing out into the open air, fluttering like the tail of a kite as their chain of light held onto Bronto.

Bronto anchored himself to the ground, as the others fluttered behind him, the wind whipping them about like some dangling toy. Quickfoot's scream was lost to the blizzard, while Kilgar clung desperately to Bronto's back. Obscuring snow surrounded them.

"What was that?!" Kilgar shouted into Bronto's ear.

"I'm not sure!" he shouted back against the wind. "But it may have had something to do with that!"

He nodded in a direction off into the white air around over them. Kilgar looked into the wind, squinting his eyes against the glare of the frigid wind. In the midst of the flying ice and snow, he could just make out a large winged shape, its white coloring being almost one with the whiteness around it as it winged its way up and around.

"A snow dragon?" Kilgar shouted back.

"Yes!" Bronto shouted back. "And it's coming for us!"

Sabu watched the distant ground sail back and forth beneath him, as he fluttered helplessly in the wind. He found it rather difficult to concentrate on a spell while the wind froze off his eyebrows and tossed him around so violently. Twice he was almost dashed upon the mountainside, only to be sailed back out in time by the frigid winds. The others were just as helpless, as the winds tossed them about like leaves.

Sindar tried to concentrate, closing his eyes against the violent turbulence about him. He opened his mind to the others, now their only communication against the angry winds.

We shall be either dashed against the rocks, he thought out to everyone as he rocked through the air, or frozen within moments by this blizzard. We must do something.

We've got another problem, he picked out from Bronto's mind, that was a snow dragon that blasted Mauklo's shield, and it's still here.

Mauklo, Sindar thought out, how soon can you put your shield back up?

If the wind would just stop moving, Mauklo answered, then but a few moments. But that dragon will just blow it down again.

It's coming, came Kilgar's own thoughts, it's heading straight for me and Bronto.

They watched a large white shape fly effortlessly through the hurricane-force winds, angling in for the large man that was their only anchor against a fast drop of several miles.

I have an idea, Bronto thought out suddenly, Mauklo, form your barrier as a cushion of air around everyone but me; so none of you will get smashed into the rocks.

Fine by me, Mauklo thought back.

Mauklo's words of incantation were lost in the fierce winds, but their power still took hold, as wind seemed to circled around them like large cottony hands, bracing against impact.

Sindar, Bronto continued, extend my light rope by several feet. I want a lasso with at least an extra twenty-five feet of length.

Oh, this sounds fun, came Eldar's merry thought.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA, was all that came through from Quickfoot's mind.

Someone shut that hairy-toed pest up! came Mauklo's mind-shout as he finished his spell.

Bronto's chain of light suddenly lengthened itself, the extra length lying coiled in front of him, its end in a wide loop. He plunged his right hand into solid rock, smashing through it like paper, as an anchor against the winds, and grabbed up the extra length of light-rope with his other hand.

"Hang on kid, " he shouted back to Kilgar.

Kilgar ducked his head down behind Bronto as he clung onto his waist, his own light-band tethering him securely around the big man. Bronto began to swing the light lasso around over his head, its length seeming to be unaffected by the snowy gale blowing through it. The snow was blinding, the wind whipping around from all directions.

Suddenly, a large white reptilian face came right out of the blizzard, appearing as by magic. The snow dragon barreled down on them, large toothy maw open as it breathed out a second gust of frozen air. The white bolt pierced through the whiteness like a lit beacon through the night. Bronto braced himself for the impact, his one hand still held aloft while it swung the light lasso around.

The bolt hit with the force of a large frozen hammer, hitting him full in the face, as he used his own body to try and shield Kilgar from its effects. The blast crystallized the bulk of Bronto's furry coverings into icy bits blown into the winds, while the rocks around him were pounded into icy sand. The force threw him from the mountainside, as the rock in which he'd imbedded his hand was blasted into frozen bits by the cold force of the dragon's breath. Just as Bronto was sent sailing out into the air, he threw his lasso of light.

The wind tossed him far out into the air, the chain of light taking the others with him. Like a whip they cracked through the air, Shong and Lindel at its tail being cracked up against the mountainside. But, just as they saw the icy rocks get nearer, hurtling towards it with more than enough force to reduce them to a bloody mass, they bounced back, cushioned by Mauklo's cushion of air. Thus were the others braced against their wild ride, Mauklo's air cushions protecting them against the worst of their tumbling, but not from any nausea that it may have caused.

As Quickfoot proved, by heaving up quickly-frozen bits of his last lunch out into the air and all over Lorel.

Bronto was the only one not cushioned, as he went plummeting swiftly downward. He screamed defiance into the wind as he plummeted on towards the frozen depths far below.

But suddenly, his descent stopped with a jerk. The line of light on which he held grew taught, as he put both hands to holding it.

"Ha!" he shouted into the wind. "Got you!"

He started to slowly climb up the rope, hand over hand. The rope changed directions in sudden movements, but Bronto would not be deterred. He climbed up through the wind, dangling miles above any ground, climbing through the air. Kilgar looked up to see by what magic this strange rope hung in the air.

The whiteness cleared as they climbed up, at least enough for the boy to see what they climbed towards.

The lasso end of the light rope was looped firmly around the snow dragon's mouth. The weight of Bronto and the others kept it tightly closed, as it tried to claw at the ephemeral length, but light doesn't give way easily to that born of mere matter, even that of a dragon. The beast glared down at Bronto, flexing its claws as if it would go after him instead.

Bronto stopped his ascent when he was just out of reach of the dragon's claws. Then, he started to swing, back and forth, at the end of the light rope.

Hang on, he thought along Sindar's still-open mental channel, this is going to be the difficult part.

Did he say this is the difficult part? Quickfoot's mind wailed.

Like a pendulum, he swung back and forth, his arc getting wider and wider, the dragon trying vainly to claw at him. The winds whipped around him, threatening to freeze him solid, now that the bulk of his furs were gone. The dragon started to dive towards one of the peak's cliffs, aiming itself so as to catch Bronto hard up against the rocky surface. Bronto arced high, back towards the creature's tail, and then came back down and around towards its head. Just as he got near the top of his arc, in a sudden lurch, he swung his legs forward with the full force of his great strength. The dragon swooped on down towards the cliff.

Bronto's mighty form slowly swung up, the force of his sudden push taking his trail of friends with him. He arced slowly up over the dragon's head, the others behind him following along like a long slow whip cracking out behind him. He might not have quite made it over, were it not for the dragon's own swift flight; its rapid forward motion succeeded in suddenly whipping Bronto back over its back, carrying the others along with him just as the dragon swooped down a few scant feet above the rocks.

The dragon soared upwards, a light trail of people dangling from behind it like an extra tail. Shong cracked down, like the end of the whip, coming down fast towards the rocks. But again, Mauklo's windy cushion held, as he bounced harmlessly off its surface.

The dragon felt a lurch on the back of its neck, like a weight suddenly landing there. It tossed its head back and forth.

From where he rode, atop the dragon's neck, Bronto pulled tight on the loop of light encircling the dragon's mouth. Like some large mount, he reined it upward. Kilgar clung to the big man's back, as the rope of light trailed behind them. He held onto the rope with one hand, his strong legs squeezing tight against the scaled neck. With his free hand, he patted the beast's long neck.

"Okay there fella, " he shouted, "you be nice and give us a ride to the top of this mountain, and I'll give you a reward afterwards. What do dragons like?"

Several shouts came from behind them, as fists were raised in triumph, with several shouts of ka'ru piercing through the noisy gale. With a motion of his fingers, Sindar shortened the length on his line of light, bringing each person in turn within reach of climbing onto the dragon's long white back.

"I knew this was going to be a fun ride!" Eldar exclaimed as he climbed on board, "Lassoing a dragon in flight. Yes!"

Quickfoot just whimpered.

"I don't suppose that anyone can speak with dragons?" Sindar asked, as he sat down upon its back.

"It's okay, " Bronto said, "I think me and him understand each other pretty good. It's a magnificent creature, really."

He patted it on the neck, as if to show there were no hard feelings. The dragon responded with a toss of its head.

"Now, " Bronto ordered, "to the top of this mountain!"

Up they flew, soaring through frozen heights that would have taken them another kev to scale, assuming no mishaps. They clung to the dragon's back as Bronto guided it up through frozen gales, into icy clouds, and past a long and treacherous rock climb that they now would not have to make. Eldar shouted into the wind, his silver hair blowing back, as their winged mount carried them aloft.

"This is what I call a ride!" Eldar shouted out.

"A finer mount have I've never ridden, " Bronto shouted jovially. "But Lindel, you appear to be the expert with such creatures, of what would a snow dragon need that I could repay it with?"

"You would reward this creature?" Mauklo asked, disbelievingly. "It tried to kill us! If you have mastered it, then keep it enslaved and dispose of it when it's no longer useful."

"I would expect you to say something like that, " Candol said to Mauklo. "Dragons are still intelligent creatures in the eyes of Indra."

"Your point?" Mauklo asked with honest puzzlement.

"I know of dragons that dwell in the forest, " Lindel answered Bronto, "but of those of the frozen heights, I know naught."

"I know a little of such beasts, " Sheil-Bor(h) volunteered. "It is said that they eat crystalline forms: gems, and the like; especially snow-tear diamonds. They consider them a delicacy."

"They eat gems, " Quickfoot responded in horror, "how can they eat money?"

"To them it is food, " Sheil-Bor(h) answered.

"Well, gems it is then, " Bronto said as he held tight onto the light-reigns, "and a royal feast shall he have!"

"Not out of my share he won't!" Quickfoot exclaimed.

"Don't worry, small one, " Bronto reassured, "mine shall be the only pocket that it comes out of. It's only right. After all, we did invade its territory, and I did force us upon it. I would gladly repay such a noble creature!"

"Creatures of great power and nobility, " Sabu muttered to himself, "and one of great strength. Hmm."

The snow dragon finally rose to the very top of the fifty-thousand-foot peak, landing on a wide frozen ledge near its large top. Bronto held tight onto the reins while the others slid off, holding the dragon steady as it tried to toss its head back and forth and snap its jaws.

"I never want to play crack-the-whip with a dragon again, " Quickfoot moaned as he staggered down off the dragon, almost collapsing to the ground when he was several feet away from the head of the beast.

"And I never want to get vomited on in such cold, " Lorel commented as he brushed the last few frozen bits of Quickfoot's puke off his furs. "It's somewhat akin to shrapnel."

Bronto was the last to get off, taking a large pouch out from his belt as he slid off. The pouch he tossed down in front of the snow dragon, large gems spilling out at the creature's feet.

"There my fine scaled friend, " he said, patting it on the neck, as icy winds whipped around him. "I'd give you more if I had it. I hope it makes up for our intrusion through your domain. Sindar, unleash it."

"Are you crazy?!" Quickfoot exclaimed, ducking back behind Candol.

Sindar snapped his fingers, the rope of light disappearing in a flash. Everyone stepped back, ready for an attack from the large creature, except for Bronto. He just stood there, hands on hips, grinning up at it. The dragon looked down at the gems, sniffing at them the way a dog would his food. Its long tongue licked in and out, tasting the valuable crystals. Then it finally reached out with its mouth, and in a single bite, scooped up both the gems and some of the rock underneath them. Quickfoot cringed as it crunched down on the gems, reducing a fortune to crushed bits within moments. It swallowed and then looked up at Bronto, regarding him.

"You're free to go, my white-scaled friend, " Bronto said as he backed up to join the others, "no obligation for the gems."

It looked at Bronto a bit more, staring at him eye to eye. Then, with a single flap of its large wings, it leapt off the immense ledge and flew out of sight.

"I guess you have a way with dragons, " Eldar slapped him on the back. "Who needs the Dragon Lord for dealing with dragons!"

"Well, where to now?" Kilgar asked.

"How's about that cave over there?"

Lindel was pointing towards the very rear of the ledge they were standing on. Sure enough, there where the ledge met the mountain, was a large cave mouth, opening out onto the icy ledge, snow all but covering the front of it. Gale-force winds whipped around the ledge as they regarded the cave.

"Any port in a storm, " Bronto shouted above the wind, "come on!"

They trudged their way to the cave, hanging on to each other so as not to get blown off the large ledge. Eldar used his Water Gem to once again roughen up the ice beneath their feet, lest anyone slide off. Then, one by one, they made their way into the cave.

The walls were frozen eddies of color: blues, greens, reds, and some ultraviolets, swirling out along the walls, ceiling, and floor of the cave, their source lying frozen beneath the smooth covering of ice that permeated the entire cavern. Ten-foot long icicles hung from the top of the fifty-foot high ceiling, while frozen rock outcroppings littered the large floor. A dim light reflected throughout the cavern, reflected and colored by the painted walls, like several different colored mirrors flickering their message along.

"Shakoo, " Eldar exclaimed quietly, while Lindel readied his bow.

The curved entrance to the cave completely sheltered the inside from the freezing gale outside. All they could hear was a distant, almost melodic, echo of the freezing death. The air was even warmer in here, as several of the companions found themselves thawing out.

"Someone lives here, " Sindar said as they carefully walked along, "I can feel it."

They rounded a bend in the cavern, as it opened up to the main bulk of its size. It was there that they could see how truly large it was. The cavern sloped down to a floor ten feet below them, its length stretching on for hundreds of feet. Ledges of rock and ice adorned the upper sides of the walls, like natural catwalks. Large multicolored icicles caught the light, acting like strange icy lanterns hanging from the ceiling. A large rocky mound lay to one side of the far end of the cavern, while beside it lay a glittering pile of gems and shiny weapons. It was from a few of these weapons, one large sword in particular, that the cavern's light emanated.

"Money!" Quickfoot happily exclaimed, as he tried climbing down the ten-foot drop to the main floor.

"We came all the way up here, just for a bunch of old gems?" Mauklo asked, exasperated.

"Those weapons must be left over from the armories of the old Kingdoms, " Sheil-Bor(h) pondered, "but what are they doing up here?"

"Some of the weapons look to be in pretty good repair, " Shong noticed, "perhaps we can find some better swords among them."

"I see one I like, " Bronto pointed.

Sticking up in the center of the pile, emitting the brightest light of all the others, was a single large sword, point imbedded into the pile of gems, hilt pointed towards the ceiling. Even from this distance, they could see that its gleaming hilt was carved in the shape of an ornate dragon's head. The gems around it reflected and magnified its glow, turning it into a large beacon with which to light up the whole cavern. Shong gave a long low whistle in appreciation.

"That's one nice sword, " he agreed.

Quickfoot finally plopped down to the ground and started to scamper across the main floor towards the large glittering pile.

"Wait!" Sindar shouted out to the small one. "The rocky mound- it's alive!"

Quickfoot stopped halfway across the cavern. He turned around, putting his hands on his hips, his face looking mildly angry, as if he were about to scold a small child.

"Oh come on, " he said, "rocks aren't alive. You're just trying to get first pick at this treasure. Just trying to trick poor old Quickfoot."

It was then that he noticed the others were staring beyond him, drawing swords, with Sindar calmly pointing behind him. Doubt suddenly washed over him, along with an unexplained fear. He swallowed a lump in his throat and slowly turned around.

The large rocky mound had grown a pair of rather large eyes and was staring straight at him.

Quickfoot's legs shook in their fur-covered wrappings, followed quickly by the rest of his body. The power of speech seemed to leave him, as he stuttered and stammered in a vain attempt to speak.

The rocky mound raised up its large triangular-shaped head, small rocky wings unfolding out from along its sides. A long tail uncurled from around its body as it stretched out its four large legs.

"D-D-D-D-" Quickfoot started to say, "D-D-D-D-"

"It's probably been here for a long time, " Sabu said calmly to Sindar, pointing, "look at those wings."

"Yes, " Sindar agreed, just as calm, "much too atrophied to use in flight anymore."

"Dragon!" Quickfoot finally finished.

The dragon heaved in a large lung-full of breath, as it reared up its stone-like neck, pointing its large toothy mouth down at Quickfoot. Quickfoot stood paralyzed with fear, unable to move his feet, unable to do anything but stammer as the dragon's will locked him into place.

The dragon breathed out a large gout of flame. Quickfoot watched it come straight at him.

Suddenly, the small one found himself flying back through the air, watching as the cavern and the ball of fire quickly receded from in front of him. The ball of flame exploded on the ground that he'd been standing on, sending out great globs of flaming liquid, sticking on the ground and surrounding rocks as it continued to burn.

Quickfoot found himself landing beside Sindar, the latter's psychic powers plopping the small one down gently by his side. Quickfoot looked on at the flaming floor as he slowly began to come out of his initial shock.

"Next time, " Sindar admonished, "you'll wait."

The dragon turned its large stone-like head in their direction. When it opened its mouth to speak, a voice sounding like small boulders grinding together came out.

"Why do you intrude upon the lair of Saknoth The Invulnerable?"

The cavern shook with the rumble of its voice, the repeated echoes adding to its deep reverberation. Its look wasn't so much that of anger as it was annoyance; the same way a man might be annoyed by an ant crawling up his leg. Bronto came a step forward on their ledge to speak.

Lorel was staring at the flames.

"Friend dragon, " the big man rumbled, "we are merely passing through these mountains, searching for the lost city of Th?r T?orca. We would wish no harm upon the noble breed of dragons along our way."

"No one just passes through at this height!" it roared. "You come for my treasure!"

"I assure you that-" Bronto began.

"You said yourself, " Saknoth continued, anger now in its voice, "you seek Th?r T?orca. This hoard is from that place! And it's mine!"

"That's fine by me, " Quickfoot said quickly, as he scampered around behind Sindar.

"We appear to have a rather possessive dragon, " Eldar observed.

"If that stuff is from Th?r T?orca. . ., " Sabu pondered to himself.

"We'll leave if you want, " Shong suggested with a shrug.

"You have hungered me now, " Saknoth rumbled as it stretched, "you will be my supper."

"And if we object?" Eldar asked, his sword in his hand.

"There is no way down from here, except by flying, " Saknoth answered, "and the other dragons will not cross my will. Now, who's first?"

"Uh oh, " Lindel said with a bit of a groan, "it looks like we'll have to kill this one."

"But, I'm beginning to like dragons, " Bronto sighed.

"Not this kind, " Lindel assured him. "If a dragon is strong enough of will, it will sometimes dominate other lesser dragons, forcing them to perform its needs."

"Kind of like a king, " Shong suggested.

"Yes, but this one's also old and bitter, " Lindel went on quickly. "It happens sometimes when it's enough of a recluse; a sort of a dragon insanity."

"Then we'll just leave it, right?" Quickfoot asked hopefully.

"I am afraid not, " Sheil-Bor(h) shook his head. "Remember, these are called the Dragon Mountains. If that creature is dominating the others, then we will never make it out of these mountains alive."

"A dragon enslaving other dragons, " Bronto said a bit angrily as he drew out his big sword.

A sudden fiery explosion interrupted their little discussion. They looked up to see the whole area of the ground in front of them pasted with small mounds of sticky flaming liquid, the bulk of it having splashed back away from them. A fiery shield stood between themselves and Saknoth, the apparent source of their protection from the dragon's breath. Mauklo was standing in the middle of the large fiery shield, flame roaring up around him, his Fire Hevon Gem glowing a bright red.

"If you are all finished with your intellectual discourse, " he said testily, "I think it wants to kill us!"


Bronto was already jumping down to the main floor before he'd finished that one word. Waving his large sword overhead, he charged up towards the dragon. A bolt of white flame shot out as Candol pointed a hand out at the creature, combining his priestly magic with that of the Fire Gem. Sheil-Bor(h) raised up both his hands, muttering quick magic phrases to himself, to send down a rain of large heavy metal spikes upon the dragon. Sabu and Sindar both linked their powers together, sending a bolt of electricity towards it, instantly ionizing the air as it went swiftly along. Seeing the bolt of lightning, Eldar gleefully sent out a bolt of water from his sword, aiming it to hit the dragon just when the lightning did.

The bolt of white flame hit, blasting rock around it, reducing some of the gems to charred bits. A rain of a hundred heavy sharp spikes landed down upon its hide, hitting with the sound of a thousand steel bolts cutting through rock. The bolt of lightning hit with the thunder of a Funnel Storm, just as the stream of water struck it full in the face, sending electricity arcing over that entire side of the cavern. Bronto ran up to hit, swung back his sword, and hit it with the full might of his great strength, hitting with enough force to cleave through granite.

Saknoth just stood there and blinked at them, not even scratched save for a small bruise on its nose. It then swiped a rock-hard claw at Bronto, tossing him back across the cavern, smashing him into the icy colored walls behind them. Shong dove aside as his friend passed within inches of his head. Several large cracks exploded through the ice around Bronto, radiating out from him like a fan. Saknoth laughed.

"Well, now we know why he calls himself Saknoth The Invulnerable, " Eldar stated the obvious.

Shong and Kilgar ran over to the imbedded form of Bronto, while the creature glared down at them.

"So much for your strong man, " Saknoth said, "now for the rest of you."

Saknoth heaved out a wall of liquid flame, filling the cavern as it raced towards them. It blasted through Mauklo's shield of fire, sending liquid fire down upon them all.

Quickfoot rolled along the ground screaming, as he tried to douse the flames on his body, while Lindel turned his back to the flames, trying to shield his precious bow. Candol, Sabu, and Sindar dived aside, taking refuge behind a large rock, as the fiery liquid sprayed everywhere. Mauklo was flung to the ground, flaming from head to toe, but it was his own flame that still burned about him, protecting him from the flaming liquid as it passed over. Sheil-Bor(h) dived quickly to the ground, flattening himself face-down, as the fire passed by overhead. Using his sword, Eldar poked at a bit of flaming goo on the outside of their rock.

"Hey, this stuff's some kind of thick liquid, " he said, a bit surprised.

"Yes, not your ordinary dragon's breath, " Sabu nodded. "This stuff will stick to you and keep on burning. A rather ingenious adaptation."

"But it is liquid, " Eldar said, as he stood up.

As he held his sword, the watery-colored gem on its hilt began to glow. As it did so, a slick watery film seemed to ooze out from it and cover his body.

"And what's made of liquid, " he continued, "can slide off!"

"He does seem to get flashes of genuine intelligence at times, " Sindar commented.

"Apparently, " Sabu agreed.

"What do you mean 'at times', " Eldar said, somewhat miffed.

"Now all we need is a distraction, " Sabu said, as he, Sindar, and Candol repeated Eldar's act with their own Water Gems.

It was then that they heard an insane scream, as a small flaming figure came leaping over them, blue steel sword in hand, out towards Saknoth. It screamed its battle cry of pain and pleasure as it sailed towards the beast.

"I do believe that Schanter is developing a certain amount of timing, " Sindar commented as he watched the small wrinkled form shoot by overhead like a flaming comet, fiery goo sticking to his warty leathery hide.

Lindel came rolling towards them along the ground, trying to douse the flames on his back as he made his way towards them. In the distance, Quickfoot was still screaming as the hair on his feet caught fire.

"Allow me, " Candol said, rising up, "the rest of you figure out a way to take care of Saknoth."

Candol walked out from behind the rocks, while Eldar tried to help Lindel with the flames. The priest walked out into the open, burning bits all around him, Quickfoot on fire, Mauklo battling his own flames, Kilgar and Shong near the bend at the cave's entrance as they tried to help Bronto. Candol raised up both his arms and looked ceiling-ward, just as Schanter landed on Saknoth's head and began stabbing frantically at its nose and stone-like head ridge.

"By the Power of Indra!"

A small watery form glowed upon his forehead as an aura of light covered his body. . .

"By the power of Schanter, by the power of Schanter, " a demented voice rapidly echoed, as the insane-one continued to stab down at the huge nose, "by the power of Schanter!". . .Suddenly, a wall of water exploded out from Candol's body, filling the whole upper part of the cavern. Flames were doused as everyone and everything was soaked from head to toe. He then pushed his wall of water outward, until it formed a barrier between them and the main floor of the cavern.

"A bit drippy, but effective, " Eldar said to Lindel, his silvery hair now coming down in wet strands. "Are you all right?"

Lindel sputtered out a lungful of water as he grabbed his still-intact bow and sat up.

"Yeah, " he said, "I'll be fine. But, I noticed something about that dragon."

"What?" Sabu asked, as he and Sindar gathered around the elf.

A scream, like unto the sound an avalanche makes, filled the cavern as Saknoth tossed back his head. They looked up and saw, through Candol's wall of water, Schanter atop Saknoth's head, painful flames still dancing on his body, as he stabbed at the dragon's large nose. A large bruise was forming where Schanter stabbed.

"That confirms it, " Lindel said, as he checked out his bow. "I noticed that after all we threw at him, only his nose got so much as bruised; the rest was like solid rock."

"A weak spot, " Sindar nodded.

"Wacko over there just verified it, " Lindel continued, "but Schanter's still just an annoyance to him."

"It's like stabbing rock, " Sabu said, "a softer rock, but rock nonetheless. We need something harder."

"So, what do we do?" Lindel asked.

"We punch him in the nose, of course, " Eldar smiled. "Give me your best arrow."

Schanter came flying through the air, tossed back by a swipe of Saknoth's large paw. He bounced off a rock and landed upon the ground with a soft thud, flames finally going out as he passed through Candol's large wall of water. Saknoth looked up at the wall of water, anger and contempt on his stony wedge-shaped face.

"Looks like we've run out of time, " Sindar said, looking up.


The roar from Saknoth was loud and deafening, sending a few of the ten-foot long icicles plunging down towards the ground. Quickfoot sat up just in time to see a large one coming down straight for him. He rolled aside as it came crashing down, heading for cover behind Candol's robes.

"I wish there was a way to enslave that fine beast, " Mauklo said as, flames now gone from about his body, he came up next to Candol, "but I'm afraid that's just not possible now."

"Come to help?" Candol asked, arms still raised to keep up the wall of water.

"Something like that, " Mauklo said, as he thrust out a hand in the direction of the dragon, focusing his magical energy through that hand.

Saknoth gave another roar and breathed out another belch. This one impacted against the wall of water, turning it instantly to steam. It looked up through the superheated steam and rose fully upon all four legs.

It started walking toward them, each step a rumble.

Mauklo's beam passed on by it, missing it completely, as it landed behind it.

"I'm afraid that you missed it, " Candol observed.

"That depends on what I was aiming for, " Mauklo smiled.

Saknoth reared up, opening wide its toothy maw, as if ready to pounce upon them all.

A large icy boulder came plunging through the air, landing full in its mouth, hitting with force enough to send Saknoth reeling backwards with an earth-shaking crash. It crunched the boulder to bits between its teeth, as it tried to right itself on its feet.


"I dare!"

At the back of the cavern, standing in front of a cracked wall with a man-shaped imprint in its ice, stood the large form of Bronto, Shong standing to his right, Kilgar to his left. No sword did he hold, just his hands did he have as weapons.


"Okay, we got some time, " Sabu said, "Quickly now."

"This is my best arrow, " Lindel said, pulling out a long steel shaft, "made by an ancestor of mine. I was saving it for something really tough."

Lindel handed the arrow to Eldar, as Bronto walked across the open part of the upper cavern.

"No little love-tap like that is going to keep me down, " Bronto laughed, "I faced a Lesser Son of Traugh. You'll have to do a lot better than that!"

Mauklo left the open area between Bronto and the dragon, taking Candol with him, as he guided him over to where Sabu and the others were hiding. Quickfoot scampered in behind them.

They arrived to see Sabu, Eldar, and Sindar, each concentrating their magic over the single arrow, weaving complex spells, to store them about the very point of the arrow head.

"Just in time, " Eldar said, looking up. "Put what spells that you can upon this arrow. We're going to punch it in the nose."

"I hope you mean that figuratively and not just literally, " Mauklo sneered.

"Both, " Eldar answered simply.

Mauklo sighed as they went swiftly about their work.

Another rock went sailing through the air, but this time Saknoth batted it out of the way like a toy ball, sending its rubble flying out in all directions.

"Kilgar, " Bronto shouted out behind him, "you and Shong get over with the others; if I know Sabu and Sindar, they've got something planned by now, and they're going to need someone to guard their rear while they do it."

Kilgar just nodded acknowledgment as both he and Shong ran over to the others. Bronto faced back towards Saknoth, advancing towards the edge of the ledge as trickles of water sluiced over its edge like a small waterfall and steam fogged the air.

"I bestow the blessing of Indra upon this arrow, " Candol was saying when Kilgar and Shong arrived, "may it aim straight and true."

"Schanter bless too. . ., " a weak voice mumbled from one corner of the cavern before passing out.

"Bronto says you might have something planned, " Shong said as he squatted down beside the rest.

"I'll say we've got something, " Eldar said enthusiastically.

"That man sure has a lot of faith in us, " Sabu commented as he finished his own spell.

"Well, I hope it's justified, " Kilgar said, fingering his own dagger, "'cause he's out there facing off that beast, and he knows he can't win."

"There, " Mauklo said, finishing up his own spell, "I've put in what I could."

The arrow was now glowing a bright blue light; bright enough to light up their entire corner of the cavern.

"There is now, " Sindar said, carefully handing the arrow back to Lindel, "enough magical firepower in that single arrow to level half of this peak. It will detonate upon impact, but you only get the one shot."

"That'll be enough, " Lindel said confidently, "that spot on his nose is only as small as my fist; I can hit that from a hundred yards away."

"Well, you're going to get a whole lot closer than that, " Sabu said, as Lindel stood up. "Mauklo, ready one of your shields around us."

A few gestures from Mauklo produced a shimmering field of light about them. Beyond them Bronto was busy, now dodging swipes at him by Saknoth's large stone claws.

"What about Bronto?" Kilgar asked.

"We'll get him out at the same time as we move Lindel out from in front of it, " Eldar said.

"What do you mean 'in front of it'?" Lindel asked, the arrow half notched.

"Oh, didn't we tell you?" Eldar grinned. "You'll be shooting that thing from point blank range."

"Great, " Lindel said slowly, as he rolled his eyes, "I just love this silent communication thing that you three have going."

Bronto dodged another swipe from Saknoth just as Lorel came stumbling up to the outer edge of Mauklo's shield, his clothing and armor in torn bits around his shoulders and waist, blue steel sword still clutched in his hand. Mauklo gestured as he let Lorel walk through his shield.

"That must be some tough dragon, " he said, staggering on his feet. "You wouldn't believe the headache I've got."

"Just in time; now sit down, " Sabu ordered, and then turned to Lindel. "Okay, get ready."

As Lorel shrugged and sat down, Lindel posed himself as if he were taking aim: bringing up his bow, glowing arrow notched in it, bowstring drawn back, eyeing along the length of the arrow.

"Ready, " he said.

With a wave of his hand, Sabu made the elf vanish from sight.

Bronto leapt aside another of Saknoth's claws, pounding his fist straight into it as he did so. The dragon yowled with pain, but appeared otherwise untouched. It was now at the edge of the ten-foot ledge, looking down over at Bronto's large running form.


There was a sudden 'pop' on the other side of the ledge, away from where the dragon was facing.

"Hey! Luggage Face!"

Saknoth turned to see an elf, wet hair the color of spun gold hanging down to his shoulders, stance steady as he drew tight on a bow and a long steel arrow, its bright blue glow lighting up the elf, not ten feet from the edge of Saknoth's long rocky snout.

Before the dragon had time to even acknowledge the elf's presence Lindel released his arrow. The moment the arrow had left his bow, Lindel vanished from sight, along with Bronto. Swifter than the wind, perhaps as swift as lightning, the arrow sliced through the air, straight at Saknoth.

Lindel and Bronto appeared with the others, Lindel still in his stance, Bronto in mid-run as he bumped into Shong.

The arrow sailed up one large nostril, its hardened steel slicing through the softer rock like it was foam. Through the large sinus cavity, it made straight for the brain. It pierced straight through the inner skull and impacted inside of the soft grey matter. Saknoth howled with pain.

Then the arrow detonated.

As seen from inside the cave, Saknoth's head was rearing back and up, howling out the pain in his head, when his skull exploded. A sudden fiery flash, vaporizing even the bits of grey matter that went flying outwards. Fire, electricity, and ice; it was all there in the maelstrom that expanded from its head, filling the whole of the cave.

As seen from the cold snowy height outside the cave, one half of the very peak of that fifty-thousand foot tall mountain exploded, as if a volcano was suddenly going off. A white-scaled snow dragon drifted high upon the winds as it watched rock turn into exploding plasma, then half of that peak start to slide off from the rest of the mountain. Large flaming boulders tumbled down into the frozen abyss, followed by a large dragon-like form. Carved from stone, this dragon looked to be, its head a ruined mess of burned fragments, as it first teetered on the edge of the precipice, looking down into the frozen clouds far below, and then finally slid over the side, tumbling down with the rest of the rocks.

The snow dragon watched as the dead dragon's body plunged down to a drop tens of thousands of feet deep, carrying the weight of half of the mountain peak with him; a flaming shower of meteors, soon lost in the cradling clouds far below.

The snow dragon descended in long slow circles to the shattered peak below.

Inside the ruined cave, Mauklo's shield had dimmed to solid black, shielding them from not only the flame and power that they'd unleashed, but also from being blinded by what they'd unleashed. They looked around, surprised at still being there.

"It held!" Eldar said in shock.

"Of course it did, " Mauklo said, a bit indignantly, "you aren't the only ones who've been practicing."

"Is it dead?" Quickfoot asked timidly, as the blackness of the shield began to fade.

"Dead?" Bronto chuckled as he rose to his feet. "It couldn't be any more dead, my small friend. Look!"

As the shield cleared, they could see out beyond them the open sky. The cave entrance with the ledge and the entire half of the cavern opposite them was completely missing, reduced now to a steep slope of molten rock that was even now cooling in the freezing temperatures. Fierce winds started to blow cold wind in about them as Mauklo dispelled his shield.

"Oh, " Quickfoot moaned, "all that treasure; gone! What a waste!"

"He's right, " Sindar agreed, "I would have liked to have seen what those relics of Th?r T?orca might have told us."

"I would have loved to see that dragon-hilted sword, myself, " Bronto shook his head.

"Oh, I don't think that all is lost, " Mauklo smiled as he and the others stood up, and then faced Candol. "Like I said, it all depends on what I was aiming for."

The blackened shield now completely gone, they looked about at the back of the once-cavern; the only other intact part of this tall peak. There they saw a blackened globe of light, covering where the very rear of the cavern would have been. As Mauklo snapped his fingers, the shield faded away, revealing what lay under its protection.

A glittering pile of gems and sharp weapons, topped by a dragon-headed sword.

Smiles crossed several faces as they looked on at the intact find. Quickfoot jumped up and down with a loud shout of joy, and then huddled himself up as he realized that it was once again freezing. Eldar grinned over at Mauklo.

"This is great!" he exclaimed. "But you could have told us."

"I thought I just did, " Mauklo responded nonchalantly.

They carefully stepped along the thin ledge that led to the remainder of the cavern, climbing down the ten-foot drop to the lower floor, and then across the remaining half of the main cavern. Quickfoot ran across to the large pile, diving into the gems, squealing with pleasure, while the others examined some of the other weapons that lay there. Bronto went straight for the dragon-headed sword standing at the center of the pile.

"Some of these weapons are in excellent condition, " Shong remarked as he examined one of the blades, "good enough to outfit a few of the King's troops with them. If there's anymore of these at Th?r T?orca, then we might be able to help just by supplying these for use against the orkai."

"Or to give to our own troops, " Mauklo added.

"But, we don't have any troops, " Candol corrected.

"We could, " Mauklo responded, "or hasn't it occurred to you that, to fight Miro, it will take a lot more than the troops that even the King has. We'll probably have to raise our own just to survive."

"But, " Candol began, "to raise and lead an army-"

"This sounds like a discussion for another time, " Sabu said, "just pack them away through my portal and we'll sort out where they go later."

Bronto, meanwhile, carefully pulled out the sword from where it rested. It was made of a dark black metal, the blade fully four feet long, its hilt yet another foot. The hilt was indeed carved into the shape of a dragon's head, while the long dark blade was imbedded with carvings of long sinewy dragons. Its sharp edges gleamed in the cold light as he turned it over slowly in his hands, gazing wistfully at its workmanship. Sheil-Bor(h) came walking up beside him.

"A beautiful sword, " Sheil-Bor(h) said softly, as he walked up to his side, "one worthy of your talented grip. But, its intricate design and style of workmanship seem somehow familiar."

"It has perfect balance, " Bronto said, holding it by the hilt in his right hand, giving it a test swing, "feels light as air; looks like it could cut through solid stone. It's a beauty."

Bronto looked at the sword with almost loving eyes, as Kilgar and Sabu came up to also have a look at his find.

"The one who made that sword was definitely a master, " Sheil-Bor(h) went on, "one upon whom the gods would smile. But to what purpose? With such designs and workmanship, it must have been made for some specific reason."

"Agreed, " Bronto said as he held the sword aloft, gazing at it. "Just what are you, my lovely sword."

As if in response, the sword glowed brightly; bright enough to shine as a beacon from atop their cold peak. Then a low voice came out from its blade, ringing out loud and steady for all to hear.

"I am the Dragon Sword. For thousands of rels have I awaited a new master to wield me. Now, have I found that master."

Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked over in unexpected shock at the voice from the sword. Bronto gazed warily up at the sword he held aloft, and then spread a slow grin across his face.

"Now I know why that sword seems familiar, " Sheil-Bor(h) exclaimed, his quiet tone rising just a bit. "The Dragon Sword; I have heard of it. Long ago when the first of the old human Kingdoms first started to expand, they met with several flights of dragons roaming throughout the land. The sword was then made to combat those dragon hordes and protect the land, but with the fall of the last of the Great Human Kingdoms, it disappeared."

"This must be how Th?r T?orca was able to survive for so long in the middle of the Dragon Mountains, " Sabu said, brightening. "They must have used this sword to turn them all back."

"And when the Kingdoms fell, " Sindar finished for his friend, "the dragons must have found and hid it, so that it wouldn't be used against them again."

"Or rather, someone put it up here, " Mauklo whispered quietly to himself.

"It has great power over dragons, " Sheil-Bor(h) agreed, nodding his head a little, "although I am not sure if even this will hold off for long against one such as Traugh."

"All I know, is that I've found a friend, " Bronto said, waving the sword about, as its light dimmed back down to a low glow.

"And to think, " Eldar put in, as he came over, "Saknoth was using it as a nightlight!"

"Well, " Shong interrupted, "you may have a chance to test it, because here comes your friend again."

Looping down through the air, was the same snow dragon that they'd ridden up there on. It fluttered its large bulk down onto the new already-cooled slope, folding its wings back behind it. It looked up, regarding the crowd with its icy-blue eyes.

"Well, " Bronto said, walking over to the edge of the new cliff, "now's the time to find out."

Everyone watched as he stopped at the cliff's edge, looking down at the dragon on the lower slope. The creature stared eye to eye with the big man. Bronto then brought out the sword, holding it out towards the dragon in his right hand. The snow dragon stared at him for a moment longer.

The snow dragon bowed its head down to the ground, wings swept in back of it in supplication.

"That's okay there fella, " Bronto grinned down at it, dropping the sword to his side, "I don't plan on abusing this."

The dragon lifted up its head, and shouted forth its cry; a sharp roar that echoed over the peak. Bronto nodded his head at it, as if signaling understanding, and then turned back towards the others, sheathing his new sword through his belt.

"Hurry up and get all that stuff packed away, " Bronto said, waving a hand in the direction of the gems and weapons. "Soakoth here says that he'll give us a lift over the next range of peaks and down to the field of ice."

"You understood him?" Candol exclaimed. "By the beard of Indra, we may make it through these mountains yet."

"It looks like the Dragon Lord has some competition, " Eldar smiled, slapping Bronto on the back.

As they started to go about the chore of gathering the treasure back through the portal, and bringing back a new selection of warm furs while they were there, Sabu gazed on at Bronto and his new sword.

"'Creatures of great power and nobility, and one of great strength', " he quoted once again to himself. "It looks like Sindar, Eldar, and myself aren't the only ones here with a destiny."

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