MoboReader> Adeventure > Maldene: Volume Two

   Chapter 22 Interludes

Maldene: Volume Two By Mark Anthony Tierno Characters: 82538

Updated: 2018-04-10 12:02


An ice-covered vista, soaring far below their feet as they flew through the death-cold air. Winds whipping at their fur-covered faces like large icy fists. The empty feeling one gets in one's stomach at a sudden thousand-foot plunge; adrenaline and exhilaration as one rides the scattered downdrafts and updrafts. Banking around high peaks, soaring over frozen valleys and through miles of frozen clouds of ice. Riding the winds of Life as it courses through your veins.

"This is great!" Eldar shouted, face into the wind, as the snow dragon carried them over ridge after ridge of snow and ice covered mountains.

"At least it beats walking, " Quickfoot agreed cautiously, as he tried not to look down.

They were all bundled in multiple layers of fur, an invisible barrier of Mauklo's blocking out the worst of the fierce winds around them. Below them endless snowy drifts caressed their way over the peaks and through the ravines, as winds the color of snow majestically wafted their way through the mountains. Bronto rode up at the front of their large mount, near the creature's long scaly neck as he talked to and caressed it. Kilgar sat just behind the big man, tied, as were the others, to each other and to the body of the dragon, so no one would slip off in mid-flight to a messy and frozen death below.

The flight seemed long and endless, but still much preferable to the climb that had awaited them on the ground. They had little option but to sit and talk; Sabu and Sindar often spending the time to practice some new spells, Quickfoot quickly growing bored, Eldar just enjoying the ride, while Sheil-Bor(h) spent the whole time meditating. Occasionally, food supplies would be passed along as the need arose. Waste removal was another problem however, especially since there was no safe place to land even if their mount had wanted to. They finally settled upon a scheme of Sabu or Sindar using their powers to conjure the needy ones back and forth to their faraway island. They flew on like this for a couple of rises, sleeping as they sat upon the dragon's back as it glided on along. They were flying through the tallest of the mountains of the entire range.

Perhaps a hundred miles they flew on thusly.

Suddenly the tall peaks ended, dropping away like an immense cliff edge, with naught but an ocean of frozen clouds and mist expanding on below. Down to half the height of that one fifty-thousand-foot peak they suddenly swooped, a fast accelerating drop at a steep angle that threatened to peel Quickfoot off the dragon's back.

Eldar just whooped in delight.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!" the elf screamed on their way down the four-mile plunge. "Someone should charge admission for a ride like this!"

"Some of us have different ideas of amusement, " Mauklo shouted above the rushing wind.

"Speak for yourself, " Candol said, as he held onto his robes, "the elf is right; such unrestrained flight makes one feel closer to Indra!"

"Soakoth says that the field of ice is below us, " Bronto shouted back to the others, voice rising above the rushing wind. "He'll take us to its edge, but after that he has to return to his territory. He says it gets too warm for him around here."

"Too warm?!" Lindel exclaimed. "It's almost cold enough to freeze one solid!"

As they dropped below the layer of clouds, plunging through the barrier of cold, the land below them started to come into view. Through the mist they could see an immense sheet of ice, stretching on for miles, away towards distant frozen mountains on its other side. Like a large flat frozen ocean it was, as they dropped rapidly down towards it.

"It's a glacier, " Sabu observed, "and it seems to stretch on for quite a distance."

"Indeed, " Sindar nodded, "we should make better time on such a more horizontal stretch than on our previous vertical travels."

"One of these rises, " Quickfoot commented, "those two are going to learn to speak a language that everyone knows."

As they came down to the ice sheet, the dragon changed his flight into a more gradual glide, skimming down to but a few scant feet about the surface of ice. They watched as the ice raced by but a dozen feet below them, watched as clouds of frozen vapor seemed to rise up from the ice itself as they passed over. Finally, when it had slowed enough, the dragon swooped in a sudden upwards climb for several feet, rounded out his flight at the top of his arc, and then dropped straight down to the ground, large clawed feet first. It landed upon the ground with nary a jolt.

"Now that's a graceful creature, " Bronto said, patting Soakoth's neck as it lowered itself close enough to the ground for its passengers to dismount.

"Maybe not all dragons are like Traugh's brood, " Shong admitted. "Some, at least, appear friendly enough."

Sheil-Bor(h) came out of his meditative trance as the others started to untie themselves from the dragon's back; collecting up their rope and supplies as they jumped down to the ground.

"Dragons are indeed like most sentient peoples, " Sheil-Bor(h) observed as he slid down off the large scaled back, "they vary as much in personality and tendency as they do in numbers."

"Ah, but that would also imply, " Mauklo countered, with a crafty smirk on his face, "that even the good among them can be corrupted, making them no better than people and no less able to be enslaved; even by one as untalented as my humble self. Would this then not make them no more graceful and stately then the lowliest street bum?"

"I will not see this noble race insulted while I am about, " Bronto said sternly, as he stood upon the ground collecting up the supplies.

"I am indeed sorry, " Mauklo bowed his head with almost mock humility. "I did but seek to make an observation."

"Enough of this, " Eldar said, "let's not ruin such an exhilarating trip with quibbling."

"And besides, " Kilgar pointed out, "we still have this ice field to cross."

"That may be a bit harder than we thought, " Quickfoot said, as he strove to keep his balance on the slippery surface.

Bronto was caressing the dragon's head as he said farewell to his large friend in their own silent way. The others had by now gathered themselves up and were some small distance away from the beast making ready for their journey. The snow dragon finally shook its large head as Bronto nodded to it in return. He backed away from it as it started to spread out its large wings.

"He says farewell, " Bronto said, as he came up to the others, "and says thank-you for freeing himself and the others from the domination of Saknoth."

"Noooo problem, " Eldar said as he hefted his own travel-pack up onto his shoulders, "just tell him he's welcome."

"I did, " Bronto said, as Soakoth started to slowly flap his large wings. "He says that he hopes we find what we're looking for at Th?r T?orca, but to be careful if we do."

"An astute observation, " Sheil-Bor(h) nodded.

"If somewhat vague, " Lorel commented, "but then, since traveling with you all, I should be used to that by now."

A sudden gust arose as the dragon lifted itself off the ground. It rose up several feet before it started to climb forward, soaring out over the icy plane and then veering upwards. It arced upwards, climbing high as it circled back towards them; looping around overhead of them, each time climbing higher. Three times did it thus loop, at the end of which, distantly high up above them, it bent its head down towards them and let out with an icy roar that echoed throughout the large icy field. It then faced away and bulleted upwards, quickly disappearing into the thick ever-present white clouds.

"That creature does have a sort of grandeur about it, " Shong admitted as he watched it depart.

"It's time that we started off, " Candol suggested, "for even a humble servant of Indra tires of so much ice and snow."

"Agreed, " Bronto said, as he took the lead.

"Waaa-"

They looked back towards the source of the scream, and saw Quickfoot on his back on the ground.

"This ground is slippery, " he said.

"Maybe you should learn how to walk better, " Eldar grinned.

"No, the small one is right, " Sindar agreed. "It could pose a problem for more than a few of us, born, as we are, to the need for traction."

"Suggestions?" Eldar asked around, as Quickfoot got to his feet.

"If I may, " Sheil-Bor(h) stepped forward. "A simple solution for a simple problem."

He then closed his eyes and concentrated. Moments later, there were several soft popping sounds. When he opened up his eyes, everyone had on tall boots with several metal spikes affixed to their bottoms.

"An ingenious solution, " Sabu nodded.

"A solution often used by the inhabitants of Norlan, " Sheil-Bor(h) explained.

"Good enough, " Bronto said as he started onwards.

In single file they trudged along, striking off along the frozen sea. High winds greeted their journey with large icy fingers striking through their furs. Wide white gusts continually drove at them, almost blinding them in their efforts to keep to a straight line of travel. The continual white of snow, ice, and wind was their world. Only the divinatory powers of Sheil-Bor(h) kept them on course, moving as straight as they could across the icy wastes.

The wind howled about them, at times almost seeming like the thunder of hundreds of clawed hoofbeats, and other times seeming to be the screech of winged demons. Never could they be certain, although Sindar tried to assure them all as to the impossibility of having been followed on such a journey as they have had.

But, always there was that doubt.

They were traveling across the middle of the immense sheet of ice, the only view through the icy mists being that of distantly high mountains on all sides of their far flat horizons. At nights they stopped, sleeping in what makeshift structures that magic could conjure up out of the surrounding ice. But always there was the white. They were traveling through a world of white.

"Will this glacier never end?" Kilgar asked through the cold.

"Don't worry kid, " Bronto answered, "just think of how much better that nice hot sun will feel when we get to it."

"I'm not good with cold, " the boy said, "I was born to a much hotter place than this."

"You and me both, " Bronto chuckled.

They heard another distant wail upon the winds, this one nearer than most.

"Will those sounds never stop?" Shong said, walking up to them. "It weighs upon the soul to hear them so."

"I think that's the idea, " Bronto acknowledged.

"Then we are being chased?" Kilgar asked.

"Only by sounds, I think, " Bronto answered. "Perhaps by some magic designed to darken our souls and test our resolve, but not by any creature."

"Fake sounds to make us afraid, " Kilgar nodded, his boyish features appearing stern and resolved, "then I shall ignore them."

"That's the spirit, " Bronto grinned.

The wail came again, louder this time.

"Sorry, " Kilgar said above the noisy winds, "it won't work now."

"Right, " Shong agreed, talking into the winds, "so go bother somebody else."

The wail came again, this time almost forming words that got swept away by the winds.

"Boy, whichever spell was sent after us sure is persistent, " Shong shook his head.

"Agreed, " Bronto said.

The wail came yet one more time, this time forming words screaming upon the wind.

"IIIIII sssaaaaiiidddd. . . geeeeet mmmeee dddooowwn frrrrom heeeere!!!"

The three looked a question at each other, then looked straight up above them.

There, tossing about in the snowy gusts, perhaps fifty feet above their heads, was Quickfoot. He was being tossed around in the white gusts like some large ball. Bronto stopped his march and turned swiftly around to the others.

"Sabu, " he shouted, "we've got a problem!"

The others looked up to where Bronto was pointing.

"I see it, " Sabu answered as his staff materialized into his right hand.

"Well I'll be, " Eldar chuckled, "now that's what I call an updraft."

"No problem, " Sabu said, raising his staff, "although one wonders at the physical parameters needed for such lift."

"SSSSSSSaaaaabbbbbuuuuuuu. . ."

"Okay, " Sabu replied, "I'll just let you down gently."

Sabu raised up his staff. A windy hand grew out from its tip, reaching out towards the small one, to gently wrap itself around him.

A sudden gust of wind jerked Quickfoot away from the reach of Sabu's help, tossing him even higher up into the air.

"Hmm, " Sabu muttered, "let's try that again."

Once again he thrust out his staff, this time a more solid palm of wind leapt out to quickly seize the small Quickfoot. But the wind responded again, this time putting up a hard wall of wind between Quickfoot and Sabu's own conjured wind.

"That can't be natural, " Lindel frowned in puzzlement.

The wind tossed Quickfoot around, wrapping him up in silvery and white bands of snow and wind, spinning around him like some maddened maelstrom, with Quickfoot suspended safely at its center. The maelstrom then seemed to grow a face; vague and windy of features, it hung there in the air, regarding those below it.

"It isn't natural, " Sabu said, face brightening as he realized the answer, "it's some sort of elemental. A small one from the looks of it."

Quickfoot continued to scream through his windy prison.

"It likes him, " Sindar said. "I sense feelings of fondness coming from it."

"Oh, he'll be glad to hear that!" Eldar said mischievously, and then turned to shout up at the small one. "Hey Quickfoot, I think it wants you as a pet!"

"GGGGrrreeeaaaatt, " came back the windy reply.

"It's only a small elemental, " Sabu said, "I can handle it."

He once again raised up his staff, but this time a windy hand came swiftly down from the almost-face in the maelstrom. It wrapped itself around the staff and quickly yanked it out of Sabu's grasp, juggling it high up overhead.

"Hey, that's my staff!"

"You said something about having no problem, " Mauklo calmly cocked an eyebrow.

They watched as the wind playfully tossed both Quickfoot and Sabu's staff up around in the air. The face then seemed to once again form in the wind, this time grinning down at them.

"Well, " Eldar said, "anymore ideas?"

"Yes, " Sabu said after he paused, thinking, for a bit, "it's still my staff."

As Eldar puzzled over his friend's answer, Sabu reached up a hand into the air, clenching his fist as he muttered a few quick magical words into the air.

"Intonautey Electris Vairus!"

Suddenly, streaks of lightning leapt out from the head of his staff, arcing out in several directions as the long electrical fingers licked out to several points in the strange wind, neatly missing the frantic form of Quickfoot. The windy maelstrom glowed with electric life as the windy face howled in pain. The wind then just dropped Quickfoot and the staff, hurtling down towards the ground.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. . ., " Quickfoot screamed on his way down.

Sindar's mind reached out and gently cushioned the small one's fall, carefully depositing him upon the ground, while Sabu just snapped his wrist and his staff disappeared and reappeared back in his hand. Overhead, the elemental made angry swirls as it worked out its pain.

"Good, now we can get rid of it, " Mauklo nodded.

"Hey, I don't want to hurt it, " Sabu said. "It's just playful, is all."

The silvery wind whipped around angrily, as if deciding what to do. Then it blew down at them, seeking to pick up another victim as it aimed for Kilgar. Kilgar dived aside as Bronto tried to take a punch at it, but hit only air. It swerved around and started for another pass.

"I think this is getting annoying, " Mauklo grimaced as the elemental's wind tossed his robe and furs about his legs. "You get one chance at getting rid of it or I blow it to the far corners of Maldene."

The elemental made another windy pass, this time lifting up Kilgar and Lindel. Kilgar slashed about with his curved knife as they both dangled there in the air helplessly. The windy form seemed to laugh once again, like some weird child at play.

"Kinda looks like fun, " Eldar shrugged, "but if Mister Personality here is so impatient, I guess something should be done."

Eldar reached a hand into a hidden pouch as Bronto was trying to pull Kilgar down out of the sky. Windy laughter could actually be heard coming from the elemental as it dropped Kilgar and next went for Candol. Soon, the priest's dignity was abused by being tossed around, about thirty feet above the ground.

"This should slow it down a bit, " Eldar said, pulling something out of his pouch, "at least until we can get off of this glacier."

Eldar held a small red ball in his palm, gripping it tight with his warm hand. Then, with a grin, he tossed it high up into the air. When it hit the icy chill of the elemental's wind, it exploded into several fast-moving fiery sparks, whirling around like hundreds of annoying fireflies. The windy voice seemed to giggle, as if tickled by the small trickles of flame dashing throughout its airy mass, while Candol and Lindel each batted at the small fires as they came near. The wind dropped its unwilling passengers as it swirled around to chase the numerous small sparks. Sindar's mind gently deposited Lindel and Candol upon the ground as they fell.

"A little cold-activated toy I came up with in my alchemy research, " Eldar explained. "Now, let's get going while it's having fun."

Indeed, the windy creature seemed to be having fun chasing the hundreds of flying little sparks about. Sindar looked through the thick white mists at the still far away peaks and then over at Sabu.

"Sabu, " he said, "think you're rested up enough from the last time?"

"I think so, " Sabu responded, "that flight on the dragon gave me a chance to rest up a lot. Do you think that you can get me a good enough fix?"

"It's far away, and the mists are thick, but I think I can manage, " Sindar nodded.

While the windy creature chased around the now-fading dancing sparks, Sindar clasped his hand to Sabu's shoulder as Sabu raised up his staff. Sindar fixed his gaze upon their intended destination, as the tip of the staff then glowed, spreading its incandescence to every member in their group. Everyone briefly glowed as if with foxfire and then vanished. When they reappeared, the far mountains were but a few feet in front of them and the glacier was behind them.

"Hey, warn us next time you do that, " Quickfoot said, as he stumbled into an icy boulder that hadn't been there a moment before.

"Now, why didn't you do that earlier?" Lorel asked.

"You try climbing a hundred miles of frozen mountain and see how much energy you have left over for spell casting, " Sabu said as he lowered his staff. "Besides, I'd never been on a glacier before, so I thought I'd catalog any indigenous life that we came across. Disappointing really."

"You were what?!" Quickfoot asked, more than rather miffed, as he picked himself up.

"What'd you expect from a flat ice ball?" Eldar said to Sabu as he started up towards the mountain. "Now, come on."

They once again found themselves climbing up a mountain. This one, though, wasn't nearly as high as the tall peaks behind them. They trudged on up it for a while before finding a ravine going through it. Then through snowy passes and down ravines littered with icy rubble, through cold blizzards and over steep climbs. For an entire rise they climbed, finally making their way around to the other side by nightfall. When morning came, they looked down at the vista spread out before them.

The early morning dawn brought with it a view of more tall snowy mountains, but of gradually decreasing height. In the far distance they could even see lower altitude mountains with no snow upon their green peaks.

"Ah, hope!" Quickfoot exclaimed happily as they all eyed the distant green.

"Yes, but it will still take us several more rises before we get down there, " Lorel observed, "unless there be some way of shortening our journey."

"All this snow does get depressing after a while, " Lindel sighed. "I long for the vibrant colors of a good forest."

"I begin to wonder if maybe Kor-Lebear and Kilinir were right in not coming along, " Shong commented.

"Well, you can see that green peak over there pretty clearly from here, " Eldar cocked an eyebrow in Sabu's direction. "An almost perfect view for one to fix his gaze upon."

"Who cares about the view, " Quickfoot complained, stomping his foot, "I just want out of these mountains."

"Quickfoot, " Sabu grinned, winking at Eldar as he raised up his staff, "consider yourself warned."

"What?" the small one turned around.

The scenery around them seemed to blur with colored lights, the glow of foxfire, and then it suddenly changed. No longer were they on a snow and ice covered mountainside, but on top of a chilly, although definitely much warmer, snow-free mountain peak, the snow-covered peaks of their journey being tall and distant behind them. Before and below them ranged more mountains, but these were tall and with the colors of life. It was cold and brisk, but a paradise compared to where they'd just come from.

"Ow!" Quickfoot said as he stumbled against a rock. "No fair!"

The small one began sneezing at the sudden shift in temperature, while the others began to divest themselves of some of their furs. Bronto looked around at their warmer surroundings.

"Ah, a definite improvement, " he said as he breathed in deep of the brisk air.

"There's still more mountains through which we must travel, " Sabu said, bringing down his staff, "but I think we can walk it from here."

"So, how come you don't just hop us across the mountains with those teleports of yours?" Lorel asked.

"Well, first, " Sabu answered, as the others dressed down a bit, "I need to either know where I'm going or I need to have a line of sight. Second, it's getting really tiring teleporting all of us around repeatedly. Besides, the walk will do you good."

They gathered their extra furs through Sabu's portal and then started on their way. On through the rough terrain they traveled, through trees free of snow, and over ground warmed by sunlight, a slight cool breeze blowing in their faces. Bronto once again found reason to pick up his singing of old bar tunes, while Quickfoot soon found himself scampering over the cool pine-needle strewn ground, happy at not having the hair on his feet frozen off anymore. Lindel breathed in deep of the fresh mountain air, delighted at once again being surrounded by such an abundance of life.

Several rises they spent traveling down the mountain slope, around treacherous cliff-sides and along steep ravines. Their journey gradually leveled out, the crisp air at eight thousand feet of elevation sweeping against their faces. Their journey was relatively smooth and uneventful.

Except, that is, for the nagging suspicion in the back of Lindel's mind that they were being followed.

On one of their usual mid-rise rest stops, Kilgar came over to Lindel to find the elf kneeling down beside a tree, sifting through the soil with his hands.

"Something wrong?" Kilgar asked as he stood beside the elf.

Lindel looked up at the boy, the noontime sun haloing the young Destir's sandy-colored hair. The boy always looked so stern and serious and acted so adult, that it was easy to forget he was still a young boy, with many rels until his manhood. Lindel tossed back his long golden locks as he answered.

"The moss behind this tree has been crushed in two places, " Lindel explained.

"We're being followed then?" Kilgar asked.

"Bright boy, " Lindel answered. "Yes, someone was standing behind this tree before we stopped here; someone standing on two legs- which leaves out any animals."

"In the desert I can track as good as you can here in the woods, " Kilgar boasted.

"Well, then maybe I can teach you a little about tracking outside of your desert home, " Lindel said, as he turned back, pointing, to the moss. "Look here; the footprints seem to be clawed, perhaps meaning that our spy here could be either some sort of mutant or one of those demons we encountered a while back. So, which one would you guess it to be?"

Kilgar glanced around at the ground surrounding the moss, then bent down for a closer look at the ground.

"It didn't have wings, " he finally said. "If it did, the leaves and ground near it would have been blown around."

"Good boy, " Lindel smiled, "That leaves a mutant of some kind. Now, what types

rkai.

"Sotüva! You sure know how to pick exits, " Quickfoot complained. "Next time why don't we just jump into the black pit and get it over with!"

"That can quite easily be arranged, " Mauklo scowled at the small one, "if you don't let us solve this next problem."

Quickfoot cowered behind Candol as the others quickly pondered their problem. Schanter, meanwhile, was looking more like Lorel with each passing moment.

"Close the tunnel, " Lindel suggested, "or at least enough of it to seal off those creatures."

"I'm afraid that won't do any good, " Shong observed, pointing up above them.

High up on the cliff above them were several more of the orkai, climbing out from innumerable holes and caves, coming slowly down towards them.

"That doesn't make it much easier, " Lindel admitted.

"They do appear to know this mountainside better than we do, " Sindar observed.

"A word if I may?" Bronto asked, face alight with sudden inspiration.

"We're open to any suggestions, " Sabu said, "what is it?"

As the orkai got nearer, Bronto faced out towards the wide openness before them. He heaved in a great breath and shouted out a single name.

"Masouda!"

The shout echoed and re-echoed throughout the mountains before them. Nothing answered his call.

Lorel turned to the big man, head shaking.

"Nice try, but I am afraid that we are a bit too far away for that noble bird to help us, " Lorel said, "but I'm sure the thought is appreciated."

"That's not who I was calling, " Bronto grinned, "Look."

From over the hills and mountain peaks, through the air like they were born to it, flew hawkmen. More than a score of them.

"This is the other tribe that Masouda spoke of, " Bronto grinned, and then turned to shout up at their swiftly arriving assistance. "We are friends of Masouda and enemies of the orkai, who now chase us!"

The hawkmen looked to see orkai crawling around the cliffside like a swarm of ants, with the small group upon the ledge as the sugar. With nary a word, they came swooping down, each passing hawkman picking up someone by the shoulders. By the time the orkai came pouring through the tunnel and over the cliff, they were all airborne, flying high upon the twisting winds of the mountains. The one holding Bronto looked down at him, as it half-whistled half-spoke out its greeting.

"You are friend of Masouda and of the old blood, " it said, "the rest we shall sort out later."

"I would give one last gift to the orkai, " Sabu said as they looked down upon the distancing mountain.

As the small ledge swarmed with angry orkai shouting curses and two dour-faced tezars waving their large swords, Sabu pointed down his staff. His own Earth Gem glowed, giving forth its energy at his will. The mountain began to rumble, rocks to fall, as the orkai lost their footing. Several went plummeting to the ground far below, screaming out their fierce animal cries of defiance as several tons of rock and dirt soon followed them down. The tezars were dexterous enough to avoid the deep plunge, but even they weren't nimble enough to save themselves when the entire ground beneath their feet gave way. Before they flew out of sight, the ones rescued by the hawkmen had the satisfaction of watching the entire cliffside fall into a ravine far below, several tons of mountain crashing down out of sight as half of the peak slid away, burying orkai, tezars, and the black pool with it.

Sabu gave a satisfied smirk as the hawkmen flew them away. Lorel, though, once again himself, couldn't help but think of all those innocents changed into the horrible orkai, their lives twisted to vile designs.

In the end, he hoped that the landslide put an end to their unnatural existence.

"So, then I just took a chance that we were far enough through the mountains to be near the other tribe of hawkmen that Masouda spoke of, " Bronto was saying, as he took another sip from the golden chalice. "I figured we didn't have anything to lose."

The hawkmen's nest was in the side of a mountain; a series of open caves, their sheer cliffsides facing out towards the open mountain air, each cave a home. The mouth of each cave looked almost suggestively like the open beak of some large bird, rocky overhangs shaped somewhat beak-like, vague stone eyes peering out over the mountainous domain, no two cave mouths carved in quite the same way. Like balconies overlooking some scenic view, these caves littered the top of the mountain. Cool air flowed lazily in through the wide cave mouths, ruffling feathers and hair alike as it made its passage. Many of the winged birdfolk fluttered around outside the caves, coming and going as they wafted their way down over the mountains. Colorful patterns of feathers coursed through the air, landed upon their cliff-like landings, and strutted around their caves. Musical twitterings and distant calls sounded through the hills, such was their language; bird-like in origin but with almost human-like overtones.

They sat upon short rocky seats, near where their own cave's edge poked outside, overlooking the panoramic view before them, while their beak-faced hosts sat upon their own peculiar seats. Several short stone pillars, each no more than about three feet tall and but wide enough for a single person to stand on, stood around the ledge and just inside the large cave, making a circle of themselves around the perimeter of the cave's mouth. Each pillar was ornately carved with varied images of flight upon their sides: large feathered birds in suspended flight, dragons taking wing, and aerial swirls of clouds lacing around the pillar's surface. The top of each pillar lengthened out to a large carved bird's head, stone feathers swept back, beak pointing towards their common center. Upon each of these short pillars rested a hawkman, squatting down upon its flat top, taloned feet curling around the stone's edge, wings folded neatly around behind them. Atop one of the pillars squatted Eldar, trying to mimic the way their new friends perched on their stone seats. The hawkmen were silent and attentive as they listened to Bronto's telling of their journeys.

"Your chance was well chosen, " one of their hosts sang back, "for Masouda had told us of your coming."

"But, how?" Shong said, puzzled and somewhat shocked. "Surely a journey over those ice-covered mountains must be long and hazardous, even for ones with your power of flight. No messenger could have-"

"No messenger was sent, " a hawkman with blue streaks through his wings explained. "There are sometimes those born among us with the power to speak one mind to another; every nest has such a Sender. Masouda had his Sender send a message on ahead of you."

"We had been waiting for your arrival for the last few rises, " another one continued, "we are glad that you have made it through."

"So are we, " Bronto chuckled.

"Your race, " Sindar asked with interest, "psychic powers are inherent within you then?"

"Perhaps more so than with humans, " the blue-streaked one answered, "but still not frequent enough to be considered as commonplace among our kind."

"Hmm, " Sindar wondered, "it should be possible to enhance both the frequency and potency of such powers. Mental powers would be of a great benefit to any race."

"These chalices, " Sabu broke in, turning his own chalice around in his hand, "do they date from the old Kingdoms?"

"Yes, " the blue-streaked hawkman nodded, "they are from the very few remnants of a time when Th?r T?orca was once a great power. Perhaps all that is left."

"Our people were more wide spread back in those times, " another of the hawkmen stated, "trading with the Humans and traveling about in their cities. Now, we are thought of as strange beasts, to be avoided or attacked. Thus, do we make our homes far from those of the ground-dwellers."

"If you were so numerous and well liked, " Sabu pondered, "I wonder what caused people to so change their minds about you. Surely not just the fall of the Kingdoms?"

"It is said, " the blue-streaked one said in his half-whistle of a voice, "that it was with the consort of demons that the old Kingdoms fell. When Beltor marched with his armies of undead and demons, before the final fall, that was taken as final proof of a demonic accord. Such demons were often described as being large feathered creatures that roamed the skies; it was then only a matter of time before they accused us of being such creatures."

"Wait a tid, " Eldar interrupted, squatting forward as he turned to face Sabu, "you didn't say anything about that Beltor guy having hordes of undead and demons under his control."

"I didn't want to worry you, " Sabu shrugged. "Besides, would it have made any difference?"

"Not really, " Eldar tossed back his silver hair after a moment of thought, and then squatted back down upon his rocky seat. "Continue."

The blue-streaked hawkman sat up straighter, ruffling out his wings a bit, smoothing back his multicolored feathers against the high mountain breeze, as it continued in its almost-whistle of a voice.

"When the humans turned on us so suddenly, " it continued, "they attacked us almost as much as they did the minions of Beltor. We lost many of our kind in those dark times. We were forced to retreat back from our friends, never to mix with human-kind again. It's a pity, really. For we would have assisted our friends of Th?r T?orca; perhaps it would never have fallen if we had been allowed to help."

"Fate didn't seem to be with you, " Sindar nodded sadly, "if not for a random turn of events, the great city may not have been lost."

"Fate can take but many forms, " Sheil-Bor(h) said, as he walked over to them from across the cave, "not all of them need be the frailties of Man."

"Anyone want to translate that?" Eldar asked around.

From the opposite end of their ledge, Mauklo, who'd been silent up until now, began laughing quietly, but audibly, to himself. Heads turned in curiosity at the dark one's mild outburst as it echoed about the cave.

"Okay giggles, " Eldar asked, somewhat unamused, "what's so funny?"

Mauklo looked over at them, reducing his mild laughter to an amused smile, as he leaned back and answered them.

"I laugh in appreciation of such a masterful job of manipulation, " he answered. "Sheil-Bor(h) is right; his words have the sound of kleum to them. Do you not recognize his hand?"

Puzzled looks were his answer.

"All he had to do, " Mauklo continued, "was to but whisper a few words and point a finger or two and Th?r T?orca was robbed of its greatest ally. To but use their own fears and faults against them, make enemies of their allies, and then sit back and watch their society and th?rear disintegrate in one of the great calamities of history- that is truly worthy of admiration."

"You're saying then, " Sabu said, eyes looking up as he caught on to what Mauklo was saying, "that Miro's hand did reach even the old Kingdoms?"

Mauklo just smiled.

"I thought you said that Miro didn't have anything to do with their fall, " Eldar put in, "that it was the one place that fell of its own accord and that's why we came here?"

Silence reigned momentary supremacy as the implications of Mauklo's words sank upon them all. Finally, Sindar sighed and rose to his feet, pacing his way over to the edge of the ledge and then stopped.

"I can see now that Miro is indeed trickier than we'd figured, " Sindar said, as he gazed out over the mountain view, "and subtler than we might fear."

"But, why then did he cause Th?r T?orca's downfall in the first place, " Sabu wondered.

"Perhaps, " Mauklo smiled, his grin hiding much, "he did it for our benefit."

Something about Mauklo's smile, or perhaps about just the way he said it, made everyone pause in thought. The group's reverie, though, was interrupted by a high-pitched voice come walking in from the interior of the cave.

"It smells like a chicken coop in here, " Quickfoot said, wrinkling his nose. "It stinks!"

The others looked at the small one and then up at their unperturbed hosts. Several faces looked at him as if he'd just committed some social faux pas.

"What'd I say?" Quickfoot whined. "I'm just telling you it stinks in here."

"Forgive our small companion, " Bronto said, standing up, "the sensitivity of his nose is matched only by the size of his mouth."

"Actually, " the blue-streaked one said, twitching its beak, "he's right. This cave should have been cleaned out a motab ago, but we never seem to get around to it. Forgive us for presenting our guests with such unclean surroundings."

"See, " Quickfoot shot back, "I was right."

"Truth is appreciated, " the hawkman said, turning its beak down towards Quickfoot, "but not discourtesy."

The small one looked down at his feet, kicking at a small pebble, downcast at the sudden reprimand. Bronto grinned and tousled the hair on the top of Quickfoot's head with his large hand.

"It's okay, little one, " he chuckled.

As Quickfoot looked up, feeling a little better, Kilgar came walking out from the shadowed interior of the cave, his skinny boy-frame striding confidently out.

"All our supplies are checked out, " he said, coming up to the others, "we can leave anytime."

"I am afraid the boy is right, " Bronto sighed as he turned to the blue-streaked hawkman, "it is time for us to go and see of what the lost city holds for us."

The big man put out a large arm, his host taking it in a feathered forearm grip of farewell. The hawkman, at least as tall as was Bronto, looked him in the eye, pointed beak whistling out his reply.

"As my name is Narudwa, so shall you have an ally, " the blue-streaked one said while it shook hands. "Nobility flows through the veins of both you and your companions. In the times of the Old Kingdoms, our Human friends had named us K?ecian; those times may be long trilenium past, but I sense a new type of Kingdom rising from this small group, and it is to that new hope that I now pledge my people."

"Gladly accepted my friend, " Bronto shook arms with Narudwa, "for you and all K?ecian."

"We shall fly you all as far as the next range of mountains, " Narudwa said, nodding its beak out in the direction of a distant hill. "From there just travel straight North and East and you shall find the valley within a short span of rises."

"Good enough, " Bronto smiled.

"Our friend definitely seems to have a way with people, " Eldar whispered over to Sabu, as he leapt down from his stone perch. "I begin to wonder if there is anywhere that he cannot find friends."

"Maybe you should take lessons, " Sabu quipped back.

The cool wind blew over their faces as they were gently carried over the living greens, blues, and orains of the mountains. Mountain streams and tall pine trees swept away below them. When they were finally deposited upon the next mountain, it was with mixed feelings that they waved good-bye to their hosts. As sad as they were to see their winged hosts go, also were they excited by the nearness of their destination, so close at hand.

For three more rises did they travel over the mountains, in a gradual downward plunge in elevation. Through mountain passes and over hills grown thick with the vegetation of life; down tall grassy hills and over large streams; across rocky ravines and along animal trails older than most countries. As fast as they could travel did the terrain and flora seem to change. The weather too seemed to be changing more rapidly, the winds to grow warmer, the sun to get hotter upon their skin.

Towards the end of their third rise of travel, they walked down through a final ravine and came out on a final tall hill, to see what lay before them.

R.K.: 9, 990, 54 Arüdwo:

We have made it at last! The Valley Of Many Lights lies spread out before us in all its beauty. Tomorrow we go down.

We have arrived just in time for the celebration of the three rises of Kilio.

The rising sun greeted the ones walking down into the lost valley, kissing its rays of light upon the first outsiders to enter there in thousands of rels. Three large white hawks circled around three times overhead, watching with interest at those that walked down into the valley, on this, the first rise of Kilio.

The three white hawks dove, the bright morning sun reflecting off their feathered backs, as they flew down towards the travelers.

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