Adventure Books by Ricky Sides & Kathy Young

Adventures in reading.

Brimstone Book 2

Brimstone

 and the Companions of Althea

Book Two


 

ã      Copyright 2004

by Ricky Sides and Kathy Young


 

 

 

Part 1

About Althea
The Gods of Althea.

 

 

In the celestial realm dwelled several gods. There was Artherk, the god of light and goodness, Ogrimar, the god of evil and chaos, Gluriurl, the god of corruption and Lothar the Just, who was the god of justice. Other gods reside within the celestial realm, but these four gods are the principal gods that influence the history of the world of Althea to the time of the disappearance of the dwarven race.

 

***

 

After the fall of the dwarven race, humanity became the chosen race. In the wake of the fall of the dwarves, the wisest among the humans gathered and they discussed the problem for several weeks. Finally, they reached the conclusion that to fulfill the mandate of the Harbinger, humans needed to try something new. Something that neither the Elves with all their wisdom, nor the Dwarves with all of their strength at arms had thought to try.

The wise men and women of the time realized that both the Elves and the Dwarves had failed to maintain the balance between good and evil because they had tried in vain to work within the alignments of good and evil to maintain that balance. They concluded that this approach wouldn’t work any better for the human race than it had for the other races. They further concluded that if they were to succeed where the other races had failed, they needed to form a third alignment dedicated to the base philosophy of maintaining the balance between good and evil.

For the balance to be maintained, at least some portion of humanity needed to remain neutral. This meant that some should favor neither good nor evil. It also meant that those neutrals would work actively to see to it that the other two alignments remained balanced.

In those days of the first generation of neutrals, they had no deity. The founders of the path struggled daily along the path, always doing what they could to maintain the balance. But their struggles did not go unnoticed.

The celestial realm is the birthplace of all gods. It exists in another dimension. The goddess of the sea and neutrality took notice of the struggle of this first generation of neutrals. That Goddess is named Shinobi. Seeing the plight of these men and women who struggled so valiantly to maintain the balance, she decided to come to Althea and assist them along that path.

Shinobi was the first goddess of neutrality. She was also a goddess of the sea. But now Damia has taken Shinobi’s place as goddess of neutrality and Shinobi is primarily the goddess of the sea.

Damia is the daughter of the goddess Shinobi and Ogrimar the god of evil. Both Shinobi and Ogrimar had visions that warned them that unless they had a daughter, a great calamity would befall Althea. This seemed impossible because Shinobi loathed Ogrimar and would not suffer his touch. Yet the gods found a way to accomplish this seemingly impossible task without ever touching one another.

Shinobi raised Damia until she was six years old, and then she turned her daughter over to Ogrimar as agreed. It broke her heart to do this, but it was the only way that Ogrimar would agree to the plan. Ogrimar yearned in his heart for the daughter of his visions. This might seem a cruel fate for the young goddess, but Ogrimar doted on his daughter and she led a happy life. Later, when Damia came of age, her mother, Shinobi turned over the responsibility for the neutral path to her. Shinobi is now primarily the goddess of the sea, though she is still neutral, and Damia is the official goddess of neutrality.

 

***

 

And then there was Dalghard, god of fertility.

 


 

The races of Althea.

by Gunter Quickquill

Chief Librarian of the Great Celestial Library.

 

In the beginning, the Supreme Being created all worlds. Some few of those worlds were populated with animals, plants, and intelligent species. But the first intelligent race that he created were godlike in their own rights for they had been created with portions of the powers of the supreme being. These godlike beings dwelled in the celestial realm until a world caught their attention and they decided to take an interest in the intelligent beings who inhabited their chosen worlds. In some cases, the gods then dwelled upon those worlds. In other cases, the gods would visit a world, walk among its people, but then return to the celestial realm, and watch their people from their celestial homes.

Zeus was one such being who briefly interacted with one of those worlds, but there were several others. This missive will deal with the gods who chose to live on one world among its people. Though they can depart that world and return to the celestial realm, they more often than not spend most of their time on their chosen planet. The name of that planet is Althea.

Althea formed as a water world interspersed with islands. One of those islands is known throughout the recorded history of Althea. That island is Arakas. Other islands are known as well. The island of Raven’s Dust was discovered after Arakas. In the fullness of time, the island of Raven’s Dust became the seat of power for the human kingdom of Goldmoon. Raven’s Dust was known as greater Goldmoon and Arakas became known as Lesser Goldmoon to the population. Still later, Stoneheim was found and settled. Yet Stoneheim never became an integral part of the Kingdom of Goldmoon. Once there, men learned of the higher calling of the gods Ogrimar and Artherk. They were called into the service of the gods by making the great sacrifice of being reborn as seraphs to help in the eternal battle between good and evil.

Yet on all three isles, the humans found evidence that they were not the first race to walk the land. Indeed, there was substantial evidence that humans were the third race to dominate the isles. The first race to dominate Althea was the elven race, which had a thriving and advanced culture that was old while the other races were still in their infancies. The second race to ascend to cultural domination was the dwarven race and the third was humanity. This missive will chronicle the events as they unfolded during the history of the three races of Althea. It will reflect upon the interaction between the gods of Althea and the races that followed those gods.

The elven city of Anwynn was the peak of elven architectural achievement on the isle of Arakas. The city was located on a small isle on the southeastern side of Arakas and was linked to the mainland by two graceful bridges. Anwynn sat in the same location as the present day human city of Lighthaven.

Anwynn was the center of the Elven Kingdom, which was ruled by a king. There were other lesser elven cities on the three islands of Arakas, Raven’s Dust and Stoneheim, but none rivaled the intrinsic beauty of Anwynn. Elven villages dotted the countryside on the three isles that made up the Elven Kingdom. Originally, travel to these isles had taken place by the conventional means of utilizing ships for exploration.

Later, the Elves had developed the means to use magic to travel between the isles, thus making it possible to safely travel from one isle to another in moments. The magic of gateways and portals, later rediscovered by humankind, was first discovered and utilized by the elves. To this day human scholars still pour over the elven and dwarven books in the Great Library on Raven’s Dust in an effort to rediscover the knowledge that disappeared with those two races.

Evidence found in the Great Library does confirm that the Elves flourished for several millenniums perfecting their arts, literature, architecture, and of course their weapons and warfare. The elves are best noted for their prowess with the bow but they were also adept at many other means of conducting warfare.

The elven race was a long-lived race. Their average lifespan was three times that of the dwarves and six times that of the humans.

When the civilizations of the dwarves and humans were still in their infancies, the elven race had advanced their society to domination by any standard one could reasonably apply.

The dwarven race was a race of short but stout men and women. The males had long beards in which they took great pride. Such was the pride of the dwarves in their beards that it was death to insult the beard of a dwarf. It is believed by many that the dwarven women also possessed the full magnificent beards of the race. The evidence would seem to indicate that this is untrue, as the scholars of the Great Library have known for a many years.

Ancient books exist with the drawings of dwarven families and only the males depicted in those drawings had the long and flowing beards for which their race is most noted. Of course, I should report that several of the books found within the Great Library indicate that the dwarven society was a male dominated society and the females could well have had the same full and flowing beards. It is a matter of some heated contention among the scholars of the library. Some maintain that being female their beards were most likely much more beautiful than those of the males and as such in the male dominated society they were forced to cut them down to the short stubble represented in those drawings. Still others maintain that the dwarven female’s beards were left intact, and that the artist was told to represent the male beards with detail, but to depict the women as near beardless.

My personal opinion on the matter is irrelevant, but since many will no doubt ask me, I will reveal it to you. Since all scholars agree that it was death to insult the beard of a dwarf, I consider it unlikely that the males could have done so by having the female’s beards depicted as insignificant stubble or forced the females to cut them. After all, the males have to sleep sometime, and the females could exact a wicked revenge at that time of vulnerability.

The dwarven race is best noted for their achievements in building cities and in crafting superb weapons with special rare metals that they located during their exploration of the subterranean areas that they had a passion for exploring.

The humans were present through the time of the domination of the elves and later through the time of the dwarves, but having the shortest lifespan of the three races; it took them longer as a race to advance their society. In addition, there was little need for them to advance their own society, because they had the trade with the elves and later the dwarves to sustain their limited needs. It was only after the elven and dwarven races disappeared that our ancestors, the humans, had a genuine need to begin to advance their own societies. Prior to that, it was much easier to simply trade with the other societies who were always generous in their dealings with what they considered a disadvantaged race.

The humans of Althea are telepathic, and can send their thoughts to one another across great distances. These thoughts can be sent to the individual of their choice. They can also be sent to all humans who are receptive to such mental communications from strangers. Many do not enjoy the mental clutter that accompanies such a receptive state of mind. These individuals can and do close their minds to the messages of any save those people they know. But exercising this option does not come without risk for there are times when a general warning is given that can save the lives of the people of Althea. This is just one example of such a warning:

“The goblins are massing for a raid on Lighthaven! They overpowered the guards and are pouring over the bridge! Prepare to defend the city!”

As you can imagine, not knowing that the city is about to be attacked can cost the citizens of Lighthaven their lives. For this reason, most of the people of Althea remain receptive to the general mental messages. They have learned to filter out the trivial, but are instantly alerted to certain keywords used during the mental contact. They can and do become irritated if a person abuses the common mental network. Fights over this are common and at times, they are vicious.

It is known that the elves also possessed this mental skill. References to royal pronouncements being distributed to the Elven Kingdom in a matter of moments abound in the ancient tomes written by elven scribes.

The dwarves also possessed the talent. There are references that allude to the capability in the scant dwarven writings that are available. In the case of the dwarves, they apparently utilized the talent extensively in coordinating their building projects.

Some monster species also seem to have the ability to communicate mentally with members of their own species. It is the consensus of my colleges that the talent in monsters is crude by comparison to the skill level of humanity.

 

The Monsters of Althea

 

Althea is populated by many species of monsters that are both prolific and dangerous to humanity. The monsters universally hate mankind, and will attack people on sight with no provocation needed.

There was a time when the monsters were not so prolific. Indeed, there was a time when there weren’t even as many species of monsters as those that exist today. Ancient texts found within the Great Library, indicate that several species of monsters prevalent today, did not even exist during the reign of the elves or the dwarves. Those texts also refer to a time when the lowly goblins of Arakas were both few in number and reclusive. The texts insist that during the time of the elves and dwarves, the goblins would flee from contact with man, even if they outnumbered the man twenty to one. Of course, that is hard for us to believe today. Who among us hasn’t seen the aggressive goblins attempting to raid Lighthaven?

The different species of monsters located on the isles of Althea are numerous. There are several tomes residing in the Great Library that provide detailed information concerning the names, strengths, and weaknesses of the various species. Therefore, it would be redundant to go into detail on those matters here. There are two main divisions between the monsters. There are the living monsters and the undead.

The gods of Althea reward humanity for battling the monster species by making the men and women stronger in their chosen classes. The mage grows stronger in magic by battling monsters, just as the warriors and archers grow stronger in armed combat. Even the priests of Althea must do their part by combating the common foe. The monster species respect no alignment. They would as quickly attack an evil alignment as they would a good or neutral.

Perhaps the most irritating of all the monster species are the skraugs that infest Stoneheim. Their tendency to insult humans as they attack can be most infuriating. These monsters are variants of rats that sprang up overnight, sometime after the third coming of the Harbinger.


The magic of Althea

 

Magic abounds on Althea. It is known that the elves were great in their magic, and the dwarves had lesser magical abilities. Humanity is also talented when it comes to the use of magic. Humans fall between the elves and the dwarves in their use of magic in most respects. However, when it comes to battle magic, the humans are second to none of the three races that have been dominant on Althea.

Unfortunately, while humans seem to have a great capability at battle magic, many of the other applications of magic died with the elves, whose magic was said to rival that of the gods in some respects. For example, the gods can summon items and food by focusing their thoughts on what they desire and utilizing their magical energy to produce the items. This magical skill was routinely documented in the elven tomes, though to be sure, not all elven magic users possessed the skill level required for that high magic. There is no documentation of any human possessing the skill level necessary to summon items.

Teleportation from one geographical location to another was accomplished with ease by the elves, but such spell casting leaves humans drained of magical energy and thus helpless until they recover. Furthermore, they are physically frozen in place for some few moments. For this reason, human teleportation spells always take the caster to their sanctuary, which is the temple in the cities where they have arranged with the priests to place their safe haven. That teleportation spell is named Word of Recall.

Gateway spells similarly leave the human drained of magical energy and vulnerable to attack. But those spells can take the caster to a variety of locations on the three primary isles of Althea that are utilized by the followers of good and evil. This vulnerability caused the mages to create scrolls to accomplish the same goal. Utilizing a scroll does not cause the negative side affects of vulnerability and the total loss of magical energy. These scrolls can be purchased, but are expensive. Warriors and archers are forced to purchase the scrolls because they lack the magical aptitude to learn the spells.

Some monster species are talented in magic and have potent battle magic.

In the human language, the word for magical energy is mana. The amount of mana available to the spell caster is dependent upon several factors, the main factor being the intelligence level of the spell caster. A higher intelligence level equates to a larger mana pool available for utilization by the mage.

When their mana is depleted, the spell caster cannot utilize magic. They must first replace a portion of their pool of mana sufficient for the spell to work. There are many ways to accomplish this. Potions are sold in the cities, and manastones can be found, though they are rare. The druids teach spell casters to meditate, but to meditate, the spell caster has to remain perfectly still and do nothing. Therefore, to negate that vulnerability, spell casters augment their mana supply with potions and manastones. Mana prisms also greatly aid in replacing lost mana. But such prisms are extremely rare and difficult to locate. Powerful monsters that are attracted to the location by their presence generally abound near them. But if a mage can obtain mana prisms, they are a very good source of mana. These prisms are highly prized by mages who encourage warrior friends to save any they might find for them.

Many items are imbued with magic. Quivers are self replenishing. As long as the archer can retain his or her quiver, they will never run out of arrows. Melee weapons, such as swords, axes, war hammers, and daggers can be imbued with magical properties that permit them to inflict more damage when they are used in battle. Such weapons are sold on Althea, but they are expensive. There are also magical rings, bracelets, and necklaces that are imbued with many magical properties. Even the poorest of souls usually owns a ring of light, which permits them to see in the dark as if the sun is shinning.

Armors and mage robes are often imbued with special magical properties to make them resistant to elements. Some even boost the attributes of the wearer to increase their efficiency in battle.

Magical potions can heal you, replace spent mana, increase various attributes, and even make you stronger. Scrolls, imbued with magic, can teleport people. Others can cast spells that shield the user in battle, make them stronger, resist elements, and a host of other uses.

Magical shield spells can increase your resistance to physical and elemental attacks.

Then there are the magical chests of Althea. The gods admire an adventurous spirit in their followers. In order to encourage that spirit, the gods long ago set magical chests throughout Althea. These chests replenish themselves once they are opened. The time required for replenishment varies from about an hour to several hours. One never knows what these chests might yield. One time a chest might yield an item worthy of a king, and the next that same chest might yield an item that even the poorest of souls would disdain. Many adventurers can and have spent their lives in pursuit of the treasures yielded by these chests.

Every human on Althea is directly touched by magic in one way or another on a daily basis.


Prologue

Book 1

 

Born of the union of Artherk, god of good, and Evelyn, a mortal warrior woman, Brimstone was destined for great things. The followers of his father rejoiced on the night that Evelyn gave birth to Artherk’s son but other, more sinister forces did not share in that joy. Those forces conspired against the newly born Demi-god and his mother.

A professional assassin killed Evelyn, but a powerful mage retainer loyal to her opened a portal and cast the infant Brimstone into it to save him from the assassin. The mage then did battle with the assassin. On the other side of the portal, followers of Artherk were waiting. They took the child to safety as he emerged into the Stonehenge near the city of Lighthaven, on the island of Arakas. Later, Artherk joined his followers and gave them their instructions. An elect group of his followers were charged with the safety of his son. It would be their task to train him in the path of the warrior and safeguard him until he came of age.

When Brimstone came of age he met Damia, the beautiful goddess of neutrality, who is the daughter of the god of evil named Ogrimar and the lovely goddess of neutrality Shinobi. Working together, Damia and Brimstone work to maintain the balance between good and evil as they fight for the cause of justice. Soon they are joined by mages, warriors, paladins and archers in their eternal quest to right the wrongs of the world of Althea. This group of companions is a mixture of all alignments. Eventually they became known as, simply, The Companions.

 


Synopsis

On the island of Sic Dalar, the insane god, Dalghard, has prepared to wage all out war on the other gods of Althea and their followers for one thousand years. Finally, the day has come to set sail for Stoneheim with his massive fleet filled to capacity with highly trained soldiers, intent upon conquering the other gods for their demented deity.

The goddess, Damia, takes matters in hand as she assists her husband in an all out effort to gain an understanding of what they are up against in the coming war of the gods. Deeply disturbed by what he learns when Damia takes him back in time to the first war with Dalghard, Brimstone commits himself to finding a means to stop the demented god before he can annihilate all of the gods and their followers.

The Goddess Shinobi takes a more active role in heading off the imminent disaster that is about to befall humanity. Leading her followers, the minotaurs in an effort to assist the other gods, she embarks on a perilous plan to narrow the odds so that the rest of the gods and their followers have a fighting chance to survive this war of the gods.


 

 

 

Part 2

The first war of the gods
Chapter 1

 

Damia teleported Brimstone to the island where he’d trained the paladin Bill six months earlier. Once there, she created the same time enchantment that she had for that previous visit, and then she bid him enter the house. Together, they entered the house and went into the small kitchen, where a meal fit for a king was sitting in wait for Brimstone. She then bid him to eat his fill and quench his thirst, for the journey they were about to take would be trying to his body.

Upon the table sat roasted antelope, ham, sausages, fresh bread, cheese, fish, apples, and a bowl of fried potatoes cooked just the way Brimstone loved them. Brimstone had a taste for potatoes fried slowly with an onion and several spices added. It was a dish that Damia had produced for him during the first week that they were wed, and he relished that dish. Nowhere in Althea had he ever found it. He had asked some taverns to attempt to prepare it, but never could they duplicate the flavor that Damia produced in hers be it conjured up or prepared by hand.

Brimstone teased his wife by asking her if she had prepared the food. Arching an eyebrow she said, "If by preparing, you mean did I summon it, then yes. If you mean did I cook it, then the answer is no."

It was an inside joke. Brimstone had learned very early in their marriage that Damia had little love of cooking. It wasn't that she couldn’t cook. She could and had upon certain occasions. Upon those rare occasions that she had prepared a meal for him, it had been delicious, and Brimstone had often wondered why someone who could cook so well loathed the actual practice. But it was something that she preferred not to do.

Eating with relish of the fine foods that weighed heavily upon the table, he asked her to explain what it was that they were about to do.

Damia ate, but sparingly. Brimstone knew that a goddess didn’t need to eat at all. But she could if she chose to, and often did nibble at some food, because she knew that her husband wasn’t comfortable eating in front of her when she didn’t eat. Between her nibbles of food she explained to Brimstone the task that they were about to undertake.

"Dalghard stirs, beloved. Already his minions awaken and prepare for his return. Therefore, our fathers have decided it’s time you were shown what we will soon face. In order to comprehend the scope of what is to going to come about, you must first understand what happened one thousand years in the past."

Brimstone took a small sip of fine elven wine and waited patiently for her to continue. With a thoughtful expression on her beautiful face, she said, "Several times, I have taken you in your sleep to witness events that were to come so that you could stop something terrible from happening. This will be much the same; only this time you will be seeing what occurred a millennium ago. As in the earlier cases, you will not be able to interact with the people and events there. You will witness those events so that you know what happened, and can therefore be ready for what is to come."

"But this will take a long time to accomplish. It could indeed end up taking weeks. Therefore, I have brought you here where I have stopped time for us both, until we can return to real time in Althea once more. I am feeding you this feast so that your body won’t suffer over the prolonged sleep that I will soon cause you to experience. Even so, it might be necessary to awaken you before we have completed this step, so that you can eat to ensure that your body remains strong. Therefore, love, I urge you to eat and eat well past the normal stopping point."

Brimstone did just that. Long after his hunger would normally have been sated, he continued to eat. He suspected that Damia had tinkered with his appetite, because he was able to eat most of the meats on the table and nearly all the bread and cheese.

When even the conjured hunger was sated and he could eat no more, Damia smiled and said, "It’s good to see that my dinner was appreciated."

 

***

 

Brimstone slept peacefully. Damia waited until he fell asleep naturally, then she put a spell on him to enchant his slumber. He would not awaken until a god woke him.

 

***

 

As Brimstone slept his enchanted sleep, Damia entered his dreams with the ease of familiarity, just as she had upon other occasions. She led him back in time a full one thousand years to a different era in the history of Althea. Many things were different then.

Brimstone was surprised to see a far different Althea spread out before him. He immediately knew that in this time there had been six major isles populated by the people of the gods. Arakas, Raven's Dust, Stoneheim, Brach Dalar, Ethia, and Sic Dalar.

There were also four gods in this time. The gods were Artherk, god of good, Ogrimar, god of evil, Shinobi, goddess of neutrality, and Dalghard, god of fertility.

In those days, the gods had their followers on all six isles. Artherk and Ogrimar had the most followers, followed by Shinobi then Dalghard.

Brimstone's attention was drawn to Sic Dalar. It was an agricultural island, with vast tracts of land devoted to crops. In a city by the sea named Harvest Moon, stood a temple to Dalghard, god of fertility. This isle held the majority of his followers, but many there also worshiped the other gods. He also noted that Sic Dalar was the largest of the six isles.

Another thing that Brimstone noted was that in that time, the monsters that roamed the land were rare compared to his time.

On Ethia, there were no major cities. Just small villages here and there scattered about the isle. Like Sic Dalar, it was an island devoted to agriculture, but on a much smaller scale. There was a simple temple there, which was dedicated to Shinobi. The inhabitants of that isle were all very devoted to following her.

Brach Dalar was sparsely populated. Those that did dwell there lived in harmony with nature. Those people were primarily followers of Artherk.

Temples on Stoneheim were devoted to Artherk and Ogrimar. The isle was heavily populated, and evenly split in followers of the two gods with only a few followers for the other two gods. He also noted that the people there were preparing for war.

Raven's Dust had a temple to Artherk, but the people there were near evenly divided in their allegiances. Like Stoneheim, the inhabitants of Raven's Dust were preparing for war.

On Arakas, Artherk reigned supreme in followers, though Ogrimar had the next highest number followed by Shinobi. There also, the people were preparing for war.

 

***

 

Brimstone walked through the city of Lighthaven and listened to the talk of the war that most felt was coming soon. Artherk and Ogrimar were on the brink of all out war. Here and there, he saw small groups of evil followers staring intently at larger groups of Artherk's followers who were assembling to discuss the latest events in the escalation of the conflicts. As he listened, he gradually pieced together what had happened.

In Windhowl, several followers of Ogrimar had raided Artherk’s temple. They had beaten the temple priests and desecrated the temple.

In retaliation, Artherk had found those responsible in the forest, where they were about to worship Ogrimar. He had killed the three men who’d beaten his priests and warned the rest never again to desecrate his temple.

Ogrimar had retaliated on Raven's Dust by killing three of Artherk's priests.

On Stoneheim, Artherk ordered his followers to break all ties with evils and to prepare for war. 

Brimstone noted all this and wondered what had become of the accords of the gods, for what he was witnessing was in full violation of those accords. Damia answered his unspoken question by saying that this was a time before the accords of the gods had been adopted.

 

***

 

Moments later, Brimstone was back on the isle of Sic Dalar. He stood inside the temple of Dalghard in the city of Harvest Moon. Inside the temple, he saw the god Dalghard for the first time. He listened to the reports being given to the god by his priests.

Dalghard had the appearance of a pleasant god to be around. He seemed to exude a good spirited nature, as if this was a god you'd want to be your friend. He seemed deeply saddened by the various reports of the escalation of the conflict between Artherk and Ogrimar. As Brimstone observed Dalghard, he noted that the God desperately wanted to stop the escalation before it reached all out war. He ordered his priests to act as mediators whenever possible to help settle disputes between the good and evil followers.

When the reports were concluded, he retired to a back room of the temple where he sat at a massive desk and took a quill in hand. For an hour or longer he stared at the blank parchment before him and seemed lost in thought. Then he began to write with the quill. He wrote so rapidly that the words almost seemed to appear on the parchment by magic.

For three hours, he wrote at this fantastic speed, filling parchment after parchment. When he was finished, he read the stack of parchments one by one. He made three minor corrections by willing the wrong words off the parchment, then writing in the correct words.

When he was finished, he called out to Shinobi to come visit if she had time. Moments later, she arrived and together they discussed the impending war. He explained that he felt he’d found a way to prevent that war and showed her the document that he had just written.

Shinobi read that document. At first, she’d had little hope that it could actually work. But as she continued to read it, she began to realize that it just might work. When she finished reading the document, she looked up at Dalghard with amazement. "I think this just might work,” she said. Then she asked, "How can I help?"

Brimstone watched as the historic meeting took place the next day. It took all of the skills of persuasion that Dalghard and Shinobi possessed to keep Artherk and Ogrimar in the same room long enough to read the accords of the gods. But by the time they had finished it, both gods realized that this instrument left them a way out of the coming war without the loss of their followers, which would reduce their power base.

Of course, there were setbacks. They almost came to blows over who had to sign the documents first. Dalghard settled that when he signed it first and offered the quill to Shinobi. Shinobi signed it, and then she handed it to Ogrimar who laid it back down on the table and crossed his arms obstinately. Artherk then took up the quill and signed the accords with a smile at Shinobi. Finally, Ogrimar signed the documents and thus, due to Dalghard, and to a lesser degree to Shinobi, the war of the gods was stopped that day.

 

***

 

Brimstone heard Damia speaking his name and slowly he awoke from his deep sleep. He was immediately aware of a deep hunger and thirst. He got up to stretch his muscles a bit to ease the kinks from the prolonged sleep he had experienced.

A bit later, Damia summoned him to the house. When he entered, he immediately smelled food and headed straight to the small room to eat. Damia was there waiting with a meal similar to the one he had last eaten.

While he ate, she explained that he had just seen the accords of the gods being signed and the reason for the necessity for those accords. More importantly, he had seen Dalghard as he was in those days. The next trip would be some two hundred years after the accords had been signed. She warned that this trip would be a longer trip, and that he should eat every morsel he could this day to prepare his body.

When Brimstone asked how long the last trip had taken she replied, "Two days, but this one may take three or four, so eat, beloved. Eat hearty for thy body will need the strength."

Once more Damia accented his hunger enough to make him eat sufficiently for three men his size.

Just before he fell asleep, Damia reminded him, "This trip pay close attention to Dalghard. Note the changes." Moments after he fell asleep, she once more enchanted Brimstone so that only a god could wake him.

 

***

 

Brimstone found himself once more over Althea hundreds of years in the past. This time he visited Arakas first and was surprised to see many priests of Dalghard walking the streets of Lighthaven. The Priests of Artherk and Ogrimar were now in the minority on Arakas. The same was true for Raven's Dust and Stoneheim. Only on Brach Dalar did Artherk maintain superior numbers. Ethia was still firmly under Shinobi's dominion, but Sic Dalar was now nearly totally devoted to Dalghard.

Brimstone entered Dalghard's temple and witnessed a meeting between the god and his high priests. Immediately, he noted changes in the god Dalghard. Gone was the appearance of friendliness that he had noted before. Gone was any semblance of a god that he might like. The god standing before him now seemed a tyrant. When a priest could not answer a question that he asked him he slapped him with the back of his hand and the man crumpled to the floor with his jaw broken and in pain.

Brimstone was stunned. It was as if he were seeing an entirely different god. This one bore scant resemblance to the one he had seen on the previous trip in time. He continued to observe as the God turned to another priest and inquired, "How goes the recruiting of Artherk and Ogrimar's followers on our isle?"

Nervously the priest lowered his eyes and said, "We now have seventy percent of their followers committed to you, Dalghard."

"And the other thirty percent?" inquired the god in a near whisper.

 The priest audibly gulped then, and said, "My god, I would not tell you what they say for fear that you would believe I mean their sentiments myself."

"Speak, fool!" demanded Dalghard.

Bowing humbly the priest said, "Dalghard, they said you could go jump into the ocean for all they care. They serve their god."

The temple went deadly still then. All the priests stood rooted to their spots, not daring to move a muscle, lest they draw their god's angry attention at this critical moment in time. It was the reaction of the priests more than Dalghard's own reaction that told Brimstone what he needed to know. Dalghard must now be known for outbursts of temper.

But when he spoke again Dalghard calmly asked, "Is the fleet near completion?"

Smiling now that he had good news to deliver to his god, the same priest that had earlier delivered the bad news said, "Aye, my god. The fleet is very near completion. By month's end, they should be ready for the sea."

Smiling in anticipation, Dalghard said, "That is two weeks away. You are certain?"

"Aye, my god. This is certain fact,” replied the relieved priest.

"Well done then. Have the crews ready to sail in two weeks." He stood thoughtful a moment, and then the god continued. "Have all of Artherk and Ogrimar's remaining followers and their families taken captive. Lock them up and give them one last opportunity to convert to me."

"And if they refuse?"

"Then kill them. But kill their families first, and only after they are dead should you kill the men."

"As you will, my god,” said the priest with a bow as he backed out of his god's presence.

Brimstone was stunned. Horrified, he saw the followers of Artherk and Ogrimar herded together and marched through the streets of Harvest Moon to the temple. Once there, they were asked one last time to convert to Dalghard. Some few did, but very few. The rest refused, and they were put to death. Fathers saw sons, daughters, and wives butchered before their very eyes before they themselves were put to the sword.

The air was split by the outrage of Ogrimar and Artherk over this. Brimstone heard both gods proclaim that this meant war with Dalghard and his followers.

In his temple Dalghard smiled as he studied his charts of Althea and considered where first to send his fleet.

 

***

 

Brimstone returned to Stoneheim to see the preparations there. Ogrimar's followers had worked with Artherk's to take captive the worst of Dalghard's minions and followers on that isle. The Gods had then sent them to Sic Dalar and warned them not to return on pain of death. Ogrimar wanted to kill them, but Artherk said no to that. Since the alliance with Artherk was tenuous at best, Ogrimar relented. He needed Artherk's help to defeat Dalghard now, and he knew it. Artherk insisted that so long as they remained on Sic Dalar they should be left unharmed. He stated that it was not their fault that their god had gone insane for power.

The same was done on the other isles until finally all of Dalghard's followers were confined to Sic Dalar.

 

***

 

Two weeks later, his fleet left the bay at Harvest Moon and headed for Arakas. The fleet consisted of two hundred ships with fifty men aboard each ship. They had a single sail in the center of the ship, and thirty oars with fifteen to a side to assist in propelling the small craft upon the ocean of Althea.

This invasion fleet thus had ten thousand heavily armed men, and was headed for Arakas.

Dalghard intended to take the weakest isles first, and then proceed to the stronger isles. It was his thought to make captives and convert as he went to replace followers that he lost in the war.

Leaving Sic Dalar with so many men left that island nearly bereft of men. Only the very young and the very old males were left behind. And the women of course. There were about ten thousand females left on the isle, because Dalghard had no use for women fighters and outright rejected their swords if any dared try to volunteer.

Brimstone saw that the fleet was making good time. He returned to Stoneheim to check on the preparations there and saw that both Ogrimar and Artherk were preparing every able bodied soul to meet the invasion force. These two gods had no problems with women fighters and the female warriors, mages, and archers flocked to their standards along with the men.


Chapter 2

 

Brimstone awoke to the sound of Damia's voice calling him. Once more, he awoke famished and very thirsty. This time he headed straight to the kitchen for water. Once his thirst was quenched, he headed outside for his exercises that he needed to perform to keep his body from atrophying from the prolonged inaction.

Damia gave him two hours for some serious training in order to once more limber his body. She had been concerned when she’d seen how stiff he was from an enforced four days of inactivity. She didn't like having to do this. There was little danger in it for Brimstone, but there was some. However, she knew that the risk was necessary.

What she had not told Brimstone was that their fathers had both agreed that when the time came, Brimstone would command the armies of the two Gods to combat Dalghard. As the commander of the armies, it was imperative that he know what Dalghard was capable of, and study firsthand for himself the battle tactics favored by Dalghard.

Once more, she loaded the table with food for her husband and when she summoned him, he ate with great relish of the foods that she so generously provided. She scarcely needed to enhance his appetite this time, but she did so in order to ensure that he ate enough.

 

***

 

Brimstone found himself aboard Dalghard's flagship as it sailed south. He watched as Dalghard received reports from his priests.

The priest reported to his god, saying that the armies of Artherk and Ogrimar now numbered fourteen thousand, and were preparing to meet them no matter which isle they chose to land the invasion fleet.

Dalghard studied the situation a moment then smiled sardonically. "Then I suppose I really must give them something else to worry about for a bit.

 

***

 

Dalghard appeared on the island of Arakas. Moments after he appeared there, Brimstone appeared beside him. He knew that he needed to see what this god was doing. He went to a small lake near the center of the isle and picked up a small green snake that was common to Arakas. Breathing on that snake, he willed it to grow and grow. When it reached giant proportions he released it from his will, caught another of the opposite gender, and did the same with that serpent. He then blessed the pair with fertility, and made the female heavy with the eggs of this new monster species. He also put a hatred of humankind within the monsters’ hearts. Then he released them.

Dalghard proceeded to do the same thing with many other common creatures at that lake. Then he sought out the rare and elusive goblins that inhabited Arakas. Normally shy of man, the creatures were seldom seen. But he changed that forever when he visited them. He caused the same hatred toward humanity that he had with the other creatures at the lake. He then blessed them with fertility and made females pregnant, near full term.

On Raven's Dust, he did the same things as he had on Arakas, setting nearly every creature there against mankind. Even some of the trees he tampered with. much to the Druids' great sorrow. He created a species of demon trees that would forever plague that isle.

On Stoneheim, he did what Brimstone considered to be the worst of his tampering deeds. He called rats to him in two locations. He caused them to grow to human size and in some cases larger. He also increased their intelligence many fold and blessed them with fertility. Every female he made pregnant, and as on the other isles, he made them hate mankind with a passion. These creatures he called skraugs, and he gave them the ability to speak. One set he made red, the other set he made green.

He also went to the gentle giant spiders that inhabited that isle. Normally reclusive, he gave them a taste for mankind and set a great hatred of humanity in their hearts. He then blessed them with fertility and made every female pregnant with multiple eggs.

On Brach Dalar, he did much the same thing turning nearly every creature against the people that inhabited that isle.

Brimstone followed him back to his flagship and watched as the god concentrated the night through. The next morning the isles that he had visited had seen a tremendous increase in the monsters that he had produced. He had magically caused the females to deliver their young by the threes and fours or lay their eggs by the dozen, which hatched almost immediately, and then he had magically aged these young to adults overnight.

Other creatures he made that night from his imagination. Those creatures he made in the image of the dragons, but smaller and easier to conceal. All these creatures he set against his enemies, the followers of Artherk and Ogrimar.

Brimstone noted that he never tampered with Shinobi's isle, and he wondered why the deranged God left her lands alone. Damia spoke, and said, "He expects her to remain neutral, and does not yet seek to anger her."   

 

***

 

All over the four isles that Dalghard had tampered with, the monsters began to attack mankind.

The former caves of the dwarves, never very numerous as a race and extremely reclusive, were invaded by the new creatures that Dalghard had made from his imagination.

 Ogrimar and Artherk had to split their forces to protect the cities of man from the ravages of the monsters that Dalghard set to raiding those cities. Humanity fought valiantly, but even so, thousands died in the weeks prior to the arrival of the fleet.

Ogrimar himself tried to exterminate the creatures but found to his great disgust that what one god created another could not easily undo. Dalghard just made more to replace those Ogrimar slew.

On his flagship, Dalghard smiled as he took the reports of his priests. They praised his plan and truly admired the brilliance of his strategy. It never occurred to them to wonder what would happen when they encountered those same monsters.

 

***

 

Sailing around the northeastern tip of Arakas, Dalghard's ships headed south toward Lighthaven. What Dalghard did not know, because he could not see what Shinobi was doing, was that she had left her isle two days before with her own small fleet of twenty ships. It was her intention to come at his fleet from the rear as they attempted to take Lighthaven. Though her fleet was small in number, her ships were crewed by minotaurs.

Damia explained to Brimstone that in those days, the minotaurs were a seafaring race known for their aggression, seamanship and their ability to sink the ships of their enemies. Their ships were equipped with catapults with which they launched burning bundles at the ships of their enemies. They were also equipped with ramming prows, which the minotaurs used to ram and sink other ships.

It was said that one minotaur could out row any three men ever born, and Shinobi's small fleet had forty oars with twenty to each side. Her ships, like Dalghard's, were equipped with a single sail in the center, but one hundred minotaurs manned her ships, giving her a small army of two thousand minotaurs to throw into the sea battle. Though her fleet was smaller, the ships were larger, faster, and better manned by these superb seamen. Their sails depicted the lovely image of the barefoot goddess Shinobi.

The minotaurs followed Shinobi. No one but Shinobi knew why. These were the only monster class that existed before Dalghard's tampering that followed any god. Shinobi had always seen to it that the minotaurs left alone the honest merchant fleets that sailed the seas. They were permitted to attack only those few pirate types that preyed upon the merchant vessels sailing with trade among the isles.

So it was that they were eager to attack the large fleet of Dalghard's men.

 

***

 

Brimstone awoke again. He went through his normal routine, while Damia prepared the meal that he must eat to sustain his body. This time she added fresh vegetables to the table as he was beginning to show signs that his body needed that. In addition, she noted that he needed sunlight and promptly willed the roof of the room away. When he entered the room to eat, he smiled at her gratefully and said, "I was going to suggest that we eat outside for I fairly miss the sun, love. It seems I haven't seen the light of day in so very long."

Smiling at the man she loved, Damia bade him eat and eat well, for this next trip would be the longest by far. This time when he ate, she made him ravenous. He ate enough for five that day. And when he could eat no more, Damia tricked him into eating a branch of fresh grapes by teasing him as she held them between her teeth, one at a time. Unable to resist her charming behavior, he gratefully accepted each grape and the kiss that accompanied it.

 

***

 

Brimstone found himself aboard the flagship of Dalghard once more. The city of Lighthaven was in sight. On the shore waiting, he saw an army of warriors, mages, and archers. Already the mages on shore were attempting to set fire to the ships, but Dalghard was canceling their spells as soon as they were cast. His own mages tried to attack the army onshore with the same results, as Ogrimar and Artherk cancelled their spells.

Next, he was aboard Shinobi's flagship. The huge hulking brawn of a wet minotaur went walking past him and he noted the unpleasant odor they exuded. Then the ship was on the attack. Twenty ships headed for the rear of Dalghard's fleet. He was astounded to see the speed with which these ships cut through the water. He had spent hours aboard Dalghard's flagship, and had grown accustomed to the speed with which they moved. But this was an entirely new experience. He guessed these ships were twice as fast as Dalghard's.

As he watched, the minotaurs attacked. Twenty catapults slammed their cargos of burning bundles soaked in oil into twenty of Dalghard's ships. He marveled at the accuracy of the minotaur catapult crews. Continuing to observe he noted that the fire spread rapidly and soon the crews were leaping into the sea, forced to abandon their ships. Many of those jumping over the side of the ships were on fire and sizzled as they struck the water.

Like sharks, the minotaurs circled the ships of Dalghard, sinking many with their catapults. Then they began to ram them and sank even more. The bravery and daring of these creatures astounded Brimstone. Often he saw lone minotaurs leap aboard enemy ships and lay havoc among the crews with their war axes. The crews cut many of those minotaurs down, but many more were able to cause Dalghard’s crews to abandon ships still seaworthy, rather than face these ferocious monsters that leapt so daringly aboard their ships. When that happened, the minotaurs would leap aboard and chop holes in the bottom of the ships to sink them, and then leap back aboard their own ships.

Once more, Brimstone found himself aboard Dalghard's flagship. A priest in apparent terror was addressing Dalghard. "My god, the fleet of Shinobi is wrecking havoc among our fleet. Already fifty ships have been lost and another twenty will soon sink."

Dalghard glared at the priest and struck him dead on the spot with his will alone. Enraged, he left his small cabin in the rear of his vessel and went on deck to see for himself just what was happening.

He took in the carnage being wrought upon his fleet in an instant. Raising his hands, he spoke aloud, "Minotaurs, you dare attack me from the sea that you love? Very well then, I banish your race from the sea for all eternity! From this day forward, you as a race will dwell far from the sea in a cave in the desert of Raven's Dust!"

Brimstone was back aboard Shinobi's ship. Staring at the ships of her fleet, he saw not one minotaur remained. A very angry Shinobi now controlled the ships with her will. She sent all twenty into one last attack upon the vessels of her enemy, and rammed them hard just below the waterline. When she backed her ships up the enemy ships filled with water and sank rapidly.

Brimstone witnessed the death of twenty more of Dalghard's ships even as he saw Dalghard set fire to Shinobi's smaller fleet.

Brimstone was astounded. Shinobi, with her small fleet had removed forty-five-hundred of Dalghard's fighting force before her small fleet was sunk.

Needless to say, Dalghard was furious. Shinobi disappeared as her flagship went down. She reappeared onshore beside Artherk and Ogrimar and was greeted with the cheers of the army waiting onshore.

The gods congratulated her on a battle well fought. Still furious at the banishment of her minotaurs, Shinobi said, "I have barely begun to fight!"

 

***

 

Brimstone found himself onshore, waiting with the army for the approaching ships, which were now within arrow range. He saw hundreds of archers fire arrows at the ships. Those arrows had burning rags tied to them. But Dalghard was still on deck and he created an invisible wall that the arrows couldn’t penetrate.

Cries of alarm began to sound at the rear ranks of the defenders as Dalghard caused the new monsters to swarm into Lighthaven and fall upon the rear of the army waiting on the beach. Brimstone saw every form of monster that Dalghard had tampered with attacking the army. As he watched helplessly, he saw hundreds of men and women pulled down by the savage beasts before Ogrimar and Artherk could drive them away.

This distraction was all that Dalghard needed to make a landing. Their attention divided by the ships of the enemy and the monsters attacking from the rear of the city, the defenders were unable to mount a successful attack upon the landing ships. Within minutes, they found themselves facing enemies both before and behind them.

In frustration, Brimstone reached for his sword. He desperately wanted to aide the defenders. Tears flowed from his eyes as he saw the enemy swarm over a group of young warriors who died to the last man and woman under a terrible wave of the attackers. He noted Their valor through tear stained eyes as their blood soaked the sand.

 Damia whispered in his mind, "I know, love, but these events we cannot alter. I am sorry that this hurts you, my love. But see this you must for the sake of the future."

"I understand, beloved,” replied a troubled Brimstone. Then Damia's deep love for Brimstone overrode her better sense and she said, "Perhaps you have seen enough. We can leave now."

Brimstone adamantly said, "No! I must see what is to come, if I am to battle this god later."

Next, Brimstone saw a remarkable thing. He saw the three gods Shinobi, Ogrimar, and Artherk raise their hands and speak words that he couldn’t hear. But suddenly every weapon held by the defenders began to glow with godly power, as did the arrows of the archers. Also the spell holding the mages in check was cancelled.

The warriors and archers cheered and attacked the enemy with renewed vigor, as did the mages. Soon the tide of the battle began to turn. With their weapons enhanced by the gods, the defenders fell upon the attackers and were amazed to see their weapons penetrating even the best armor worn by Dalghard's men. The spells of the mages seemed incredibly strong for they too were enhanced by the power of the gods.

Dalghard sought to do the same for his army, yet he found that he could not match the combined power of the other three gods. He had already lost much power with the death of so many followers and now his army was being cut to pieces. With the fall of each follower, he grew a bit weaker.

One hour later, the battle ended. The beach was littered with the dead and dying of both armies. The remnants of Dalghard's armies, some two thousand men, were taken captive. Ogrimar wanted to slay them all, but Shinobi and Artherk, sick at heart of the death that they had witnessed this day said no to that and instead banished them to Sic Dalar.

Dalghard stood before them defiantly. His army was broken, and his powers severely depleted by the loss of so many followers. Yet, he was still a god, and the gods must deal with him.

"We should slay him,” Ogrimar stated.

"Perhaps you are right,” Artherk agreed, but then added, "But think of the precedent that would set. Never before has a god slain another god on Althea."

Shinobi agreed, and after much argument, some of it quite bitter, Ogrimar realized that he must yield for he was not sufficiently strong to slay Dalghard alone now that he too had lost so many followers.

So it came to pass that Dalghard was banished from the lands of Althea and forced to live forever only upon Sic Dalar with what was left of his followers. But he was under severe restrictions. The three gods combined their power and took away certain powers that he had possessed. No longer would he be able to tamper with creatures or cause them to multiply magically, though as god of fertility he was left with the means to make fertile the lands and the followers that remained to him.

   

***

 

Brimstone was a bit surprised to find himself once more in the city of Harvest Moon on the isle of Sic Dalar. "There are some things that you must learn here, love,” Damia answered his unspoken question.

As he observed, he saw proclamations posted by the priests of Dalghard. The institution of marriage was banished. There was a very great shortage of men now, and it was the duty of every follower of Dalghard to produce children. Therefore, every man was to spend three days a week with a different woman who was not pregnant, and then move on to another. It was forbidden for any woman not pregnant to refuse any man on pain of death.

Brimstone saw outbreaks here and there as some men and women resisted these proclamations. He also saw their beheaded bodies impaled upon the walls of Harvest Moon as a lesson to the rest of the population.

 

***

 

Then Brimstone was again in Lighthaven. Here too he saw proclamations. The isle of Sic Dalar was now a proscribed isle. No one was to travel there. The isle was to be removed from all charts and maps, and no one was to speak of it in the future. The gods wanted to forget that war and move on.

Oddly, when the scribes removed the isle of Sic Dalar they also removed the isle of Ethia without realizing it. That was Shinobi's will, for that was the homeland of her lost minotaurs. She wanted it removed out of respect for them as a race, and for one other reason that Brimstone could not see. Damia said that she had no idea why herself when he inquired.

As far as the gods were concerned they wanted it forgotten that Dalghard or the people of Sic Dalar ever existed, lest another war erupt, for so great was the slaughter during the war that no man or woman was unaffected. All had lost someone dear. The gods wisely feared revenge from their followers. One night not long after the war, the gods themselves removed the memory of the war from the people of the islands under their control. They forgot the people of the isle Sic Dalar and of course the god Dalghard. In the minds of the people, it was as if they had never existed.

   


Chapter 3

 

Brimstone awoke stiff from inactivity and more hungry than he had ever been in his life. His throat was so dry that he found it impossible to swallow. Damia lovingly gave him water to sip and helped him to sit up. She fed him there on the bed with her own hands at first. Later, as his strength returned, he fed himself.

Damia was worried. This was taking a terrible toll on Brimstone's body. Never had she seen him so weak. He was weaker now than right after his resurrection in Silversky temple. But, there was one more trip Brimstone must make.

She decided that it would just have to wait a few days. This time she insisted that he fully recover for four days before they again made a trip back in time. Thankfully, this trip would be much closer and not so long in duration. But it would also be the hardest on Brimstone's mind.

She insisted the first two days he just eat, drink and rest. The last two days she watched over him protectively as he struggled to regain his strength and flexibility. But his natural stamina and the stone of light combined forces to renew Brimstone's body.

The stone of light had arch words with Damia over Brimstone's physical condition, and truth be told near had her in tears once, for she dearly hated what this was doing to the man she loved. But she knew that if there was to be any hope of victory in the coming war, he had needed to see that which he had witnessed.

What he must see next really hurt her, but that too was unavoidable.

The last day of his training to restore his body, Damia went all out for Brimstone. With her own hands, she made bread and cooked the foods that he so loved, taking special care with his favored potato dish.

Staring at him intently as he ate her delicious food with great relish, she pondered what was to come, and her eyes filled with tears. Brimstone noted those tears and stopped eating. He caressed her cheek. "Careful, love,” he admonished. "Your tears will crack the world."

Wiping her eyes, Damia replied, "Here we are removed from the flow of Althea, to a degree. But there is that danger."

Only partially understanding her, Brimstone inquired, "What is it that so vexes you, my beloved?"

Struggling with her emotions Damia replied, "It’s the next trip that you must take, husband. Please know that I would spare you this if I could, but it is a vital necessity that cannot be avoided without risking the future of all Althea."

Brimstone had never seen his wife this upset over him. It bothered him to cause her grief on his account and he sought to console her by saying, "Beloved, whatever it is I will face it with you by my side, and be glad of your sweet company."

Damia felt even worse now for what she was about to do would wound her husband deep in his soul. Perhaps leaving him forever scarred in ways that not even a god could mend. Openly weeping now, she cradled her head in her hands.

Then Brimstone was beside her. He took her lovely face in his hands. Gently, he kissed away her tears and bid her to speak to him in truth of the matters that so vexed her spirit, and she did.

Reluctantly at first, but as the words came forth and she told him what he must see next, they came forth in a rush. And again she cried as she related what was to come.

Brimstone visibly paled as she spoke of it to him. By the time she had finished he too had tears in his eyes. But he took her tiny waist in his hands and lifted her from her chair. Cradling her small body next to his he said, "Together, my beloved. Together we will face it. Alone, I don't think I could. But with you at my side, I can and will. Just don't leave me there alone. Let me see you by my side at that event."

"That I can and will do, heart of mine,” she assured him and snuggled closely next to his cheek. Brimstone inhaled deeply of her lovely scent and noted the smell of Jasmine behind her left ear. He smiled as he saw the sprig there that he had given her so long ago.

 

***

   

Brimstone appeared beside Ogrimar who was having a vision of a future event. Oddly, he could also see the vision. He saw a beautiful daughter, Damia, given to him by Shinobi. Ogrimar also saw that daughter as an adult. She was fighting beside Brimstone as he fought against Dalghard. He further saw that Brimstone was the son of Artherk, and that his daughter was destined to marry him. This made him almost reject the vision, but he knew from what the vision had shown him that if he did not comply with destiny, then there was a very good possibility that his enemy, Dalghard, would slay him.

Self-preservation foremost in his mind he contemplated the things that were to come and eventually made up his mind that he must live.

 

***

 

Brimstone found himself beside Shinobi, and she too was having visions. As before, with Ogrimar, Brimstone could see that vision.

She saw two ends. The first, Dalghard is victorious and the stalwart defenders mortally wounded, or slain. The second showed victory to the defenders, but at a price. She had always known her powers came with a price, but until now, she had never been asked to pay so greatly.

She could master the new powers that would be needed to defend her realm, but to do so she would have to withdraw from her duties until the time came to once again defend her lands. The study would be arduous and her attention could not be divided. She must also provide a successor for her followers. At long last, Shinobi would have the daughter of her dreams. But the cost was dire. To provide the needed powers and strength to take her followers through the trials to come, the father must be Ogrimar.

Stunned, Shinobi asked, "Can there be no other way?"

"No," was the response, yet pity was taken upon her, for the next vision showed her the solution to avoiding the taint of Ogrimar. "What of my daughter?" Shinobi whispered. She then saw six years of joy and happiness, teaching her daughter all she was able, for the time was all too short. At the end of the six years, the child was placed in Ogrimar’s care.

"And your choice?" she was asked.

With a defiant toss of her head, she replied, "There is but one choice. Her name shall be Damia."

 

***

 

Brimstone stood beside Artherk who was having visions. As with the other two gods, he could see what his father saw.

Artherk saw the birth of a son named Brimstone. He also saw the coming of Dalghard. He saw Dalghard overrun the isles and slaughter nearly all of the inhabitants. In the end, he saw his son Brimstone making a last stand against the forces of Dalghard with a few friends and the three gods. In that vision, the three gods were defeated and Brimstone and his friends were slain.

Then he saw another vision. Again, his wife Evelyn gave him the son Brimstone, but this time shortly after that birth, Evelyn was slain by an assassin. Brimstone went on to become a legend as a fighter and a mage. When Dalghard came this time, the gods were ready. The goddess of neutrality, Shinobi, played a huge roll in that event. Brimstone and a very strong company of companions were also ready. Valiantly they did battle with the forces of Dalghard, and when the vision ended, it looked to Artherk as though the gods could win that war.

Alone in his private realm he fell to his knees and wept bitterly at what was to come. Here he could weep. Upon Althea, he could not for that would devastate the land.

 

***

 

Brimstone appeared beside his mother Evelyn. She too was having a vision. In that vision, she saw Brimstone grown, and to her mother's eyes, her son was incredibly handsome. Beside him stood a lovely woman, she immediately knew as Damia. She saw with a mother's knowing eyes the love for her son reflected in Damia's eyes, and that love returned by her son many fold, and she was happy for him.

Then oddly, she saw Damia looking straight at her, as if she could see her. She saw a look of deep sorrow come over the lovely girl's face, and tears began to fall. Then she saw that if this was to come to pass, she must die soon after her son was born.

 

***

 

Brimstone appeared once more beside his father Artherk and observed as his father related his visions to his mother. He saw his father permit her to choose which path they would take and he also saw Evelyn bravely choose to save her son.

As Brimstone watched the pair together, he saw the love and pain in his father's eyes as he had never seen it before. As he had at the age of seventeen, he again felt a wave of sorrow that he had ever felt his father didn’t care that his mother had died. He realized now how utterly wrong he had been. He had realized that at seventeen, but that feeling was stronger now that he had seen this. Stronger now, because he had Damia and could relate to just what his father must have experienced when he permitted his wife to make that dreadful choice.

 

***

 

Then Brimstone saw Shinobi and Ogrimar together discussing the visions that they had seen.

Finally, they agreed upon a means to bring that child into the world, which was not easy for Shinobi steadfastly refused to permit Ogrimar to touch her.

Brimstone continued to observe. This time he witnessed an event to come after his own birth and the death of his mother.

Shinobi dreamed one night that she wandered through a forest so beautiful, so green, and so full of life. As she came upon a clearing, she saw the basket. Stained black as the night, the only color was a soft green blanket, covering an infant. As Shinobi approached the basket, Ogrimar appeared at the edge of the glade. "Do not forget. In six years, she is mine."

"I may place her in your care," Shinobi stated, "but she will always be my child. Harm her not, Ogrimar!"

And at the end of the six years, holding back tears she dared not shed, Shinobi returned to the enchanted glade, Damia at her side. As Ogrimar appeared once again, Shinobi took Damia in her arms. "I love you, daughter of mine. Never forget that. And now, I want you to go with your father, and be a big girl, but remember that I am with you always."

Ogrimar was delighted with the child and spoiled her outrageously, for not only was she enchanting in herself, she also represented power to him. He...Ogrimar...  had the teaching and training of that idealistic Shinobi’s child, the child destined to marry that half-breed son of Artherk’s. And his child was a true god. He chuckled darkly as he wandered away to his study.

 

***

 

Then Brimstone was outside a house. Somehow, he knew that his mother was inside that house. His professional eyes quickly spotted what his father's guards missed that night. A stealthy shadow was moving near the house. He witnessed as several guards were murdered.

Then he was inside the house in his mother's chambers. Damia appeared beside him as she had promised. She took his hand in hers and led him to the small cradle where he lay as an infant. It was odd looking at himself, and he thought himself a homely infant. But Damia would have loved to have picked up that adorable infant and held it.

Then Brimstone shifted his attention to his mother. He saw her glance at the door as Grizwaldy came in and reported what he suspected. As she commanded Grizwaldy to take her infant son into the next room, he saw steel determination in her eyes. He witnessed as Grizwaldy pleaded with her to permit him to defend them, and saw her rise in regal command of the situation and convince Grizwaldy to obey her wishes.

Moments after Grizwaldy went into the next room with the infant and sealed the door, he saw the assassin who entered the room.

Stepping in front of his mother Brimstone prepared to defend her. Damia stepped beside him and spoke softly saying, "Beloved, you know that you cannot." Brimstone stood immobile a moment then stepped aside sobbing as the assassin closed on his mother.

He stood transfixed as his mother fought her last battle, one that she knew she had to lose if her son was to have a chance to survive a future conflict, many years removed. Even so, his mother fought superbly. Die she must, but by the gods she made that assassin work hard to achieve that vile goal.

Time after time as they battled, Brimstone found his hand upon his sword hilt and the bitter tears of frustration in his eyes. But Damia was beside him and cautioned him not to try to interfere because he could not.

As they battled, he noticed something and thought that perhaps he was mistaken, but a moment later it happened again. His mother could have slain the assassin two times. He was certain of it. Yet she had pulled her stroke at the last instant. This assassin didn't beat his mother. His mother permitted him to win, so that her son could live. This was something he never expected. Always he had thought that the assassin had defeated his mother, probably because she was weak from his birth. Never had it occurred to him that she had deliberately lost her final battle.

His mother fought superbly, but eventually she slipped and fell and then, Shinobi was there. He witnessed the exchange between them, as did Damia. This time it was Damia who almost moved to speak to her mother. But she caught herself at the last moment and watched.

Then Shinobi was gone, and the fight resumed. When Evelyn fell to the assassin's blade Brimstone openly wept in pain and frustration, and Damia squeezed his hand. Then he saw Grizwaldy, enhanced by the power of his father, slay that dread assassin. He saw Grizwaldy listen intently to Evelyn as she gave him her last message for her son, and then he saw Grizwaldy throw back his head and scream. Kneeling beside his mother's body, he wept. Damia knelt beside him and tried to console him.

Then an odd thing happened for beside Brimstone stood his mother's ghost. Looking at him she smiled and said, "I have to tell you something, my son, so listen carefully for my time is short. “My son, you have grown well and true. Damia, you are good for my son. I thank you for that." Looking at her son one last time, she said, "Son, what I did, I chose to do. End this pain and guilt today. None of this was your fault or your doing. Now I must go. My time here is at an end."

A tearful Brimstone bid his mother farewell with words too private to relate.

But for Brimstone, an odd thing had happened. All his life he had carried a feeling of guilt that his mother had died so that he might live. But as he stared at his mother's ghost with adoring eyes, he saw the love in hers. Somehow, that guilt was gone, and for the first time in his long life, he felt truly at peace with himself.

For him this trip had been painful, but it had also been a healing experience.

 


 

 

 

Part 3

The second war of the gods
Chapter 4

 

On the isle of Sic Dalar the god Dalghard was in his temple receiving reports from his priests. "My god, the fleet is now ready. The men are ready to board ship when you give the command. The supplies are already aboard ship"

"All five hundred ships are ready? We are short none?"

"All five hundred are ready to sail, my god. Each able to hold one hundred of your men,” was the quick reply.

"This time, the catapults are installed on the ships and we have fifty oars for battle maneuvers?"

"Yes, as you commanded, my god,” replied the priest.

Laughing, the god said, "Then let Shinobi interfere again, if she dares. We sail in two days. Have the men man their ships tomorrow."

The god walked to the front entrance of his temple and looked out into the courtyard. There in the large field three thousand men of his army drilled with their weapons. This army was far superior to the last, which he had used a thousand years ago to challenge the other gods. It was five times larger, better trained, and eager to conquer Althea for the greater glory of their god. He noted all this and was pleased.

 

***

 

Shinobi stood in the trail overlooking the cove on the northeastern side of Ethia. She stared at the fleet of two hundred ships sitting there, and marveled at the skill of her followers, the minotaurs. Eight hundred years earlier, she had gone to Raven's Dust and sought out the minotaurs there. She had offered to return all who wished to their ancient homeland. Many had chosen to stay because they were accustomed to life in their new home. But many had jumped at the opportunity to return to the homeland of their forefathers.

Two years ago, she had commanded them to prepare this fleet, for the time would soon come when they would be needed.

 

***

 

Shinobi put her fleet into action before Dalghard's armada ever left the harbor at Harvest Moon. She knew from her visions that this time he would head straight for Stonecrest, so she sent her flotilla on a course that would intercept any of Dalghard's fleet as they made for Stoneheim. It was her wish to reach Sic Dalar before Dalghard's task force left harbor. If she could accomplish that goal then she stood a good chance of severely damaging his great convoy as it left its safe harbor.

 

***

 

Brimstone was having thoughts along those same lines. He discussed that issue with Damia, even as Shinobi's fleet set sail. Damia squashed that idea immediately. She pointed out that the island was off limits to all but its inhabitants and that the gods had taken steps to prevent travel to that isle. She also pointed out that the visions had clearly shown a fleet attacking Stonecrest. Therefore, that would come to pass. She further pointed out that her mother was going to have some surprises for Dalghard as he sailed to  Stoneheim, and they should probably stay out of her way.

Damia was right.

 

***

 

Shinobi stayed with her fleet until it was just past Stoneheim and well on its way to Sic Dalar, and then she said goodbye to the minotaurs, promising to return when they reached Sic Dalar.

She stepped over the side of the ship and stood on the water. Walking a short distance from her ship, she turned and waved to the stoic minotaurs who had seen her do this many times. After waving goodbye, she slowly sank beneath the surface of the sea. Deep beneath the waves she changed her form and moved rapidly through the sea, leaving the fleet far behind.

She went seeking her underwater allies that she had spent years getting to know. Creatures of the deep, they were many and varied. Some were small and some were quite large. All were devoted to Shinobi to some degree. She found them all easily enough, and made good her promise to rejoin the minotaurs just before they reached Sic Dalar.

Taking her own form, she rose from the sea and floated into the air beside her ship. When she was level with the side of the deck of the ship, she just walked on air across the railing, then descended as if she were walking down a short flight of stairs.

The minotaurs on deck noted that and snorted in amusement. There was a time when they had fallen all over themselves in their amazement when she did that, but now it was routine to them.

Shinobi wasted no time on pleasantries. She said, "Dalghard has a five ship scout group heading in this direction. They will be in this area in two hours."

The minotaurs instantly leaped into action. They knew what to do. Shinobi had drilled them for two years in preparation for this battle, which was rapidly approaching. They split the fleet, half went due west, and the other half went due east. They were to stay on these courses for two hours then, ship their oars, and wait until Shinobi gave the all clear.

One hour after they had shipped their oars, Shinobi said that it was time to move back on course. She sent two ships of her fleet to stalk the scout ships with orders to sink them once they were within sight of land.  

 

***

 

Dalghard stepped aboard his flagship of the invasion fleet as the sun was setting. He planned to spend the night aboard the ship so that all would be ready for the fleet to leave at first light the next morning.

He was concerned about Shinobi. He had a feeling that she was preparing some rather nasty surprises for him. However, he could not see what she was doing. One of the powers that he'd had stripped from him at the end of the last war with the other gods, was the power to see what they were up to. This act alone caused his hatred to grow deeper and deeper.

Therefore, he had to rely on other means. He had sent his scout vessels out to detect any approaching enemy ships. So far, they had reported no sign of any other vessels, and they were now within one day of arriving off the coast of Stoneheim. They had orders to bypass Stoneheim and sail for Silversky on Raven's Dust. Once there, they were to carry out a secret mission. It was Dalghard’s hope that the mission would cause the defenders to rally their forces on Raven's Dust, thus leaving Stoneheim nearly defenseless when the main attack group landed.

It could work, but even if it didn’t work, Dalghard was confident that this time the outcome would be much different from the outcome of the last war. He was correct in that assessment.

 

***

 

Brimstone sat brooding about the vision of the first war of the gods which he had seen. The details of that war were etched permanently into his mind. One thing in particular kept nagging at him. The attackers had beached their ships in the first wave of the ships to land, and then they had used their ships as miniature forts from which they fought. That gave them significant protection from the defenders. It also gave them the high ground as they were above the defenders, thus making attacking them difficult. It also permitted the enemy to leap down upon the defenders struggling to repel them.

He stared at the sea as he sought some means to prevent that from happening again in this war. He noted that it was low tide and casually watched the debris trying to wash ashore. As he watched he saw a small log bumping the beach in the surf. The ocean waves were trying to push that log ashore, but it kept hitting a stick buried in the sand. He noticed that the stick was leaning toward the sea at a forty-five degree angle and every time the log tried to get past the stick, it was hung up on the obstruction.

Leaping to his feet Brimstone let out a shout. He ran immediately to the city mayor to discuss his idea. The Mayor was dubious at best, but he liked Brimstone and considered him a hero. Therefore, he granted Brimstone permission to see to the beach defenses as best as he saw fit. He also hired several men to assist in that endeavor at the expense of the city.

 

***

 

Three days later the beach defenses were ready.

The first day, working at low tide the defense team buried small logs at a forty-five degree angle in the sand. The upper end was sharpened to a wicked point and burned to toughen it. A simple fisherman walked by, took one look at the preparations, then laughed. One of the workers was offended by the laughter and called the man to task on his behavior. The fisherman soberly said, "I am sorry, friend. I had no wish to offend you, but I just think it is funny that you men worked so hard on this and the ocean will collapse it tonight when the tide comes in."

The next day most of the stakes had indeed collapsed and were lying uselessly flat on the beach. As the workers stared and cursed, the same fisherman walked up to the group. In his hands, he held a small wooden platform with three small stakes fastened to it on a forty-five degree angle. They were braced together to support each other and were fastened to the wooden base. "This is what you need,” said the simple fisherman. Then he walked to the waters edge, waited until the water had receded, and then he quickly buried the base of the platform in the wet sand. Brimstone and the workers watched as wave after wave struck the model. Yet it remained erect and in the proper position.

Laughing at the man's ingenuity, Brimstone thanked him and tossed him a pouch of gold. The fisherman, who was very poor, returned the pouch and said, "Sir, you intend to defend my city. I will take no gold from one trying to protect my worthless hide. But I thankee." Then he said, "But if the city is hiring folk to work here, I could use the work. Looks like there’ll be no fishing for me for a bit."

And so it came to pass that Brimstone hired most of the local fisher folk to assist in the beach defenses. He marveled at their simple ingenuity and hard working ethics. With the work crew thus supplemented, they had the beach defenses ready by the third day. If the enemy tried to beach here, they were in for a nasty surprise.

 

***

 

Shinobi's fleet arrived off the coast of Sic Dalar one hour after the first of Dalghard's armada began to emerge into the open ocean. Already, one hundred ships stood guarding the entry to that harbor. She ordered her minotaurs to attack the ships waiting for the rest of the flotilla. In a pitched sea battle that lasted an hour, both sides inflicted damage on the other. Shinobi's minotaurs sank sixty of Dalghard's ships, but lost twenty of their own.

Shinobi ordered her followers to withdraw. It was time for the second part of her plan. Four hours later, they were shadowing Dalghard's fleet as it headed for Stoneheim. When darkness began to fall, Dalghard's task force furled their sails and prepared to halt for the night. Shinobi was hoping that this would be the case. The crews on Dalghard's ship were professional warriors, but as seamen, they lacked much in the way of skills. Therefore, they sailed by day and lay to by night.

Shinobi's minotaurs grinned at the sight and laughed as they prepared for a night that the warriors of Dalghard would not soon forget. Striking their own sails, they laid to as well. No doubt, Dalghard's lookouts would so report. But when full dark came, these professional seamen took their places at their oars and quietly rowed the ships on a circular course that would bring them at Dalghard's fleet from the port side.

When their sharp-eyed lookouts passed the word that they were close enough for the plan, they all halted. Some few ships had to maneuver a bit to align themselves properly for the attack. Then, when all was ready, Shinobi gave the signal to attack. One hundred seventy-eight ships launched forward as if propelled by a mighty wind. But it was the muscle and sinew of the minotaurs that propelled their ships. They were sitting two to an oar and working with great skill. By the thirteenth sweep of the oars, they were at ramming speed. By the fifteenth sweep of the oars, they struck Dalghard's fleet amidships.

Sweeping their oars with all their might, they began the hard part. Now they had to back their ships off the crippled vessels that they had struck. Several minotaurs onboard each ship used long wooden poles to push against the enemy ships to help disentangle the two fleets. Gradually the two fleets separated.

Dalghard lost another one hundred ships in that battle and another forty were severely damaged. Ten more of Shinobi's fleet was lost when they could not back off the doomed enemy ships in time to avoid being swamped themselves. Most of their crews were saved by other minotaur vessels, but many were lost to the sea.

Shinobi ordered her minotaurs to row quietly away.

 

***

 

In his flagship, Dalghard was furious. Shinobi could hear his enraged screaming as they rowed safely away into the night. Shinobi just smiled.

Dalghard overreacted to the attack, just as Shinobi had hoped that he would. He ordered the fleet to set sail at once. He also ordered full oars. Soon his forty crippled ships were left behind to the mercy of Shinobi's fleet.

Shinobi pulled up alongside the lead ship of Dalghard's doomed ships. She offered the men aboard one opportunity to turn back to Sic Dalar and sit out the fight, much to her minotaurs’ disgust. She had amplified her voice so that all in the smaller fleet might hear her words.

Some few ships did turn back, but only a few. The rest sat silent. Finally, her answer came in the form of a rain of fire arrows directed at her flagship from several enemy vessels simultaneously. Shinobi waved her hand and the arrows hit an invisible wall, and then fell harmlessly hissing into the sea. Shinobi ordered her crews to attack. Ruthlessly, the remainder of the small armada was sunk within minutes.

 

***

 

Near Stoneheim, the five scout ships of Dalghard's fleet finally spotted the two Minotaur ships that had followed them for days. They turned to fight the two ships, thinking to best them easily with their greater numbers. One hour later, only one scout ship remained, and her captain had it rowing at full beat away from the lone minotaur ship still afloat. It was nearing darkness then, and a fogbank rolled over the sea. Wisely, the captain of the scout ship ordered the crew to lie to for the night, and remain silent on pain of death.

Thirty minutes later, the crew heard a ship rowing quietly past them. It passed by them upwind and they could smell the minotaurs that manned her. That was followed by a tense hour when most of the crew expected to hear the sound of rowing again as the minotaurs returned to finish them off. But that sound never came. The minotaurs had assumed that they would head for Stonecrest and shifted their course to pursue them in that direction.

The next morning the crew of the scout ship followed their orders and headed for Raven's Dust and the city of Silversky.

 

***

 

Shinobi's fleet followed Dalghard's for a day more before the next attack came. It was just after nightfall when Shinobi heard her allies the sirens begin to sing. At a signal from her, the minotaurs all packed their ears with wasps wax and covered them with strips of cloth as they had been trained to do.

Aboard their ships, many of Dalghard's crewmen began to steer their ships towards the sound of the singing. Shinobi knew that there were atolls nearby, and that the sirens were luring Dalghard's crews onto those rocks. Dalghard lost another twenty ships to the sirens before he got control of his vessels by simply having anyone who tried to steer them off course killed by his priests who were unaffected by the Siren's song due to his protection. He struck his crews temporarily deaf and they rowed away from that danger, much to the disappointment of the sirens, who had just begun to sing.

 

***

 

The next morning Dalghard's armada met more of Shinobi's underwater allies when a school of giant fish, shark-like in appearance, broached the surface amongst the fleet. Sixteen more of his ships were sunk by the huge fish that would leap from the water and crash down onto the sea often taking a ship to the bottom when they did. Dalghard ordered his ships to row away at full beat, leaving the men from the doomed ships to flounder in the water. The giant fish took the ill-fated men in a feeding frenzy, as Dalghard knew they would. But their deaths bought the fleet time to make good an escape.

To prevent the minotaurs from picking off his ships a few at a time, Dalghard had ordered the flotilla brought close together in one huge battle group. That was why the giant fish took such a heavy toll on his fleet. To correct that error, he ordered them spaced out in a long line. Now the monsters of the deep could not attack his armada en mass, but it was vulnerable to the waiting minotaurs.

All that day, the minotaurs attacked his ships one and two at a time. By nightfall, they had taken another twenty of his rapidly diminishing fleet. They had severely damaged several more that now had trouble keeping up with the rest of the fleet. Dalghard ordered them to follow at their best speed then left them to the mercy of Shinobi's fleet.

This time Shinobi's offer to permit the fifteen stragglers to return to Sic Dalar met with more success. Eight of the ships turned and sailed for home. The rest were sunk when they foolishly tried to fight their way out of the blocking minotaur ships.


 

Chapter 5

 

In Silversky, Mystyka and Fawnn were waiting in the tavern for Ziona. They had agreed to meet here and have dinner together. They wanted to discuss the coming war and their plans regarding that conflict. Veksar was in Stoneheim helping with the city defense planning.

While they waited for Ziona, they sipped a glass of good elven wine. Outside the tavern, they heard people shouting and got to their feet to see what was going on. They were heading for the tavern door when a group of heavily armed men barged through the tavern entrance. One held a young woman tightly with a knife at her throat. The apparent leader spoke to the patrons of the tavern, "If anyone tries to leave, this girl dies. You mages can leave we know. But if you do, she dies."

They were dressed in black and gray seaman's garb. They were also armed to the teeth. They took everyone there prisoner. The men were beaten unconscious and the women were herded together in a small group. Several times during the beating, they were all warned if one mage attacked or escaped, all would die. The women's hands were bound tightly behind them and then they were shoved outside the door and down a walkway toward the small beach in Silversky. They saw other groups of armed men escorting women prisoners. 

Fawnn had contacted Veksar, who was now on his way to Silversky with many men to rescue the people taken captive. She didn't know it, but Mystyka had also contacted Tha Don, and he was also on his way. Unfortunately, for the women, help would arrive too late.

Rapidly and efficiently, they were herded onto the ship beached on the fine yellow sand of Silversky beach. As they were being forced to board the ship, many began to resist as they realized that their captors were taking them away from their homes and families.

Fawnn nodded to Mystyka and together they began the work of casting spells. Apparently, the seamen were watching for just that, and both women were clubbed unconscious the moment they began to try to cast a spell.

They were thrown onto the ship, where waiting hands dragged them unceremoniously to the center of the ship. They were tied to other women already aboard. Just as the man binding them tied his last knot, he heard screams on shore

 

***

 

Ziona watched from concealment as the women were herded aboard the ship. She had arrived just as the raid had begun and had tried to make it to the tavern, but had been forced to hide from the large groups of men rampaging in the streets.

She saw Fawnn and Mystyka clubbed, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. Nocking an arrow, she waited until the girls were out of danger, and then she shot the man who had clubbed them in the back of the head.

In rapid succession, she shot six more men as they frantically tried to get aboard their ship. Then the ship backed off the beach and headed out to sea. Desperately, Ziona looked around for a solution to the problem. She saw a small fishing boat. Leaping aboard the boat, she set out to follow the ship.

Ziona was woefully unprepared for this journey. All the supplies she had with her were what few meager bits of rations and water her pack held, and that was precious little. It was all she could do to keep the ship in sight, and it seemed to her at times that she would not be able to keep pace with them. As darkness fell, she began to worry about losing the ship during the night. It was a cloudy night and it seemed to her a storm was brewing. Off in the distance she saw lightning. Too far away for the flash of light to illuminate her area, the thunder sounded ominous. But the thunder gave her an idea.

Ahead of her, she saw that the ship had stopped with the fall of night. Taking a long coil of rope she found in the fishing boat, she tied one end to an arrow and the other to the bow of her small boat. She carefully coiled the rope so that it would uncoil effortlessly, and then she quietly paddled her small fishing boat toward the stern of the ship. As she did so, she heard the rumble of thunder many times. When she judged the distance close enough for the shot, she nocked the arrow with the rope attached and drew it to full draw. Ziona waited for the rolling thunder to repeat itself. Ten seconds into her full draw, she heard it. She released the string as the thunder reached a crescendo. The arrow buried itself into a thick rudder assembly in the stern of the ship, just above the waterline. The thunder had concealed the sound of the arrow thudding into the wood of the ship.

Paddling her small boat backward away from the ship, she let the rope uncoil until it was stretched taunt between the two vessels. Now if they sailed away during the night for any reason she would stay with them.

 

***

 

Two hours later, the storm was getting closer to the ship. Ziona thought that soon the crew might make for shore, rather than face the coming storm at sea. She was pondering what she would do if the raiders elected to go ashore when the rope abruptly snatched her boat, and the ship began towing her. As she suspected, they were headed for shore.

Half an hour later, she cut the rope as the ship was beached. Paddling away from the ship some distance, she beached her own small craft, and melted into the forest. Ziona approached the ship silently.

She saw the guards posted to watch for anyone who might chance upon the ship, and silently bypassed one, and then another. The third was a problem. He was facing in her direction and seemed content to face that direction all night. She solved that problem with an arrow to his throat.

Moving rapidly but silently, she made her way to the ship and slipped over the side. Crouching on the deck, she got her bearings. Ziona noted at once that the deck was full of sleeping men. Like most warriors, these slept when they could. Still, she thought it odd that they would leave so few guards. Ziona couldn’t know that the men had spent the previous night wide awake, waiting for the minotaurs to find them and were exhausted. She saw another guard about fifteen feet away from her, but he was facing the other direction. The man was watching the approaching storm. She eased across the deck until she was standing crouched behind the guard. Taking her dagger in her right hand, she reached around, covered the guard’s mouth, and then stabbed him in the back. Her dagger slid between the ribs and penetrated the man's heart. He died instantly.

Taking his weapons, she moved away swiftly and located the twenty women captives. She freed Fawnn and Mystyka who were both alert and ready for a little revenge. Together, they freed the rest. Three of the women were warriors, and the rest were mages. Ziona armed the warriors with her dagger and the weapons taken from the slain guard. The women hastily consulted in whispers and decided to slip over the side. Once off the ship, they would melt into the forest and then attack the ship from the cover of the nearby woodland.

Fifteen minutes later, they were all in the forest near the ship. Ziona and the warriors had killed the guards as they made for the forest. It was done silently, so as not to alert the men aboard the ship.

The women spread out in the forest, so that when they attacked the ship it would be from one end to the other.

A cry went up onboard the ship. The dead guard had been found. The women attacked at once. From one end of the ship to the other, the ship and men aboard her were raked by spells of many descriptions. Among those spells were fireball, meteor, boulder, rain of fire, and manaburst for the occasional foolish warrior who showed his face. The warriors aboard the ship could do little against this massive magical attack. The archers tried, but were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming spells.

Five minutes into the attack, the battle was over, and the warriors of Dalghard were all dead. The women cheered this victory and sent messages to their loved ones. Veksar answered Fawnn's message immediately. One of the mages opened a portal to Silversky and the warriors darted through. Ziona, Fawnn, and Mystyka used their word of recall spells, as did the remaining mages.

 

 


Chapter 6

 

With the beach landing issue settled, Brimstone now concentrated on the second major concern he had over the coming war. Dalghard had summoned the monsters to attack the defenders from the rear in the last war. Therefore, he knew that the defenders would be fighting on two fronts this time with the monsters behind them, and Dalghard's men in front of them. He thought about it, and thought about it, but seemed stumped as to a means of effectively dealing with that crisis. Then a very innovative idea occurred to him. Laughing, he called his father to him to consult on the plan. Artherk said that it could be done, but that it was not easy. He would need help.

Artherk was excited by the idea. He left Brimstone standing on the beach as he went seeking Damia and Ogrimar. Ogrimar liked the notion so much that he sent Brimstone a mental message. Laughing, Ogrimar said that it was a plan worthy of a god, and that he should have thought of it himself.

Damia also sent him a message saying, "Very well thought out, beloved." Laughing, she continued, "I do believe that Dalghard is going to hate you when you two meet."

Brimstone grunted by way of reply.

 

***

 

Shinobi had one last attack planned for Dalghard's armada, which was now within a day's sailing of Stoneheim. As the sun rose over the sea, Dalghard found to his astonishment that Shinobi's fleet had placed themselves directly in the path of his flotilla.

Shinobi stood at the bow of her flagship. A warm sea breeze fluttered playfully through her hair and ruffled the sail of her ship. Raising her hands, she cast a spell that no man had ever seen. It was a water spell that she thought of as deep freeze. It hit the front half of the fleet with full affect. The ships were deluged with water, then that water instantly froze rock hard. Seventy-five ships and crews succumbed to that spell. So heavy was the accumulated ice that they were swamped and sank into the depths of the sea. Mercifully the men aboard were dead before the ships sank. Their bodies frozen so hard that even their blood was frozen solid.

Shinobi knew that another such attack would not work. Now that Dalghard knew about that spell, he could and would block it.

The goddess of the sea gave the command for her minotaur fleet to proceed on a course for Ethia. They had done their part in this war. She complimented their courage and thanked them for their devotion. Then she left them to take on her last task in this war.

Dalghard was stunned. So many ships were gone in moments. He had lost so many followers during the voyage that he could feel his power weakening. Thankfully, he still had his followers on Sic Dalar. They alone should give him the power that he needed to win this war, even if he lost every man of this fleet.

 

***

 

Shinobi smiled as she stepped into Harvest Moon. She walked directly to Dalghard's temple and called to the priests to come out. They did so, accompanied by one hundred of Dalghard's fanatical elite guards. Glancing at the heavily armed guards, she told them that they would not need their weapons. The guards had no idea who this woman was, and more than one thought to take her, as was his right as one of the elite. Several moved to take her captive, but Shinobi waved her hand negligently and they froze in their tracks.

Addressing the priests she said, "Dalghard's power is broken. For too long he has reigned here, and as a result, the innocent people of Sic Dalar have suffered. This ends today." The priests began to look confused. She continued, "I am Shinobi, once goddess of neutrality, and now goddess of the sea. I offer the people of Sic Dalar their freedom to follow any god they choose of their own free will or even none at all."

The priests began to look extremely uncomfortable and the elite guards attacked, or attempted to. They found themselves suddenly standing on the ocean far from the shore of Sic Dalar. They also quickly discovered that they couldn’t walk on water. Their heavy armor pulled them down, and they drowned to the last man.

"Renounce Dalghard now or join those who just departed,” said Shinobi sternly.

For a moment, it looked as though the priests would refuse. They had long been oppressed by Dalghard, and lived in constant fear of his murderous temper. One young priest slipped the necklace of office from his neck and dropped it on the ground. Placing his foot upon the necklace, he said, "I renounce Dalghard, and will decide which god or goddess I will follow."

"That’s fair enough. Thank you,” replied Shinobi.

When they saw that the young priest was not struck dead on the spot, one by one the other priests followed suit. Shinobi ordered the priests to take down all of Dalghard's proclamations, then she addressed the people of Sic Dalar saying, "For too long you have suffered Dalghard's tyranny. Today that changes." She repeated what she had told the priests, and then told the people of Sic Dalar that now they were free to choose among any of the gods or choose to follow none. All that they had to do for now was renounce Dalghard.

People from all over the city converged on the temple. Many accepted Shinobi on the spot. Almost all renounced Dalghard. They were only too happy to do so. Most had suffered in one form or another from that abusive god. By nightfall, the people of Harvest Moon had burned his temple to purge it of his awful presence. Some of the priests were among the people who burned it. More than one had tears of gratitude in his eyes, as he finally felt free of that god.

 

***

 

Onboard his flagship Dalghard screamed in rage and killed five of his priests when they ran to see what was wrong. His power was severely weakened now that his followers were renouncing him en mass, but he was still a god and a very formidable opponent, as the defenders of Stonecrest were soon to learn.


Chapter 7

 

Veksar and Fawnn approached Brimstone the morning before they expected Dalghard's fleet to arrive. They wanted to speak to him privately, so they all walked away from the bustling activity near the beach.

They sat beneath a tree near Mithanna Snowraven's house and Brimstone waited for Veksar to speak his mind. Veksar took Fawnn's hand and smiled at her. The smile that she gave him in return looked shy and a bit nervous to Brimstone. Veksar said, "Three times in the last few months, Fawnn has been taken captive. I almost lost her three times, Brimstone." His voice was emotion packed as he said that last sentence. "Rumor has it that tomorrow Dalghard's fleet will arrive."

Brimstone nodded his head, and said, "That rumor is true."

"I have asked Fawnn to marry me. She has agreed. We would like Damia to perform the ceremony for us this afternoon or tonight, if she will."

Brimstone smiled and clapped Veksar on the shoulder. "Congratulations sir!" he said enthusiastically. "May you be as happy as I am with Damia."

"Then you will speak to Damia for us?"

“Of course," said Brimstone. Then without further pause, he called urgently, "Damia! I need you!"

Damia appeared seconds later, and Brimstone told her what was going on. She chastised Brimstone for startling her with his urgent summons, then flashed Veksar and Fawnn a dazzling smile. "Of course I will do the ceremony for you."

"You don’t think it unwise of us to marry at a time like this?" Veksar asked.

"Are you trying to get out of the wedding now, sir?" asked Damia with laughter in her eyes.

"No, No of course not!" replied a flustered Veksar.

"Good, because I can't think of a better time than this for the two of you to make official what I have seen coming for so long."

Brimstone laughed and assured Veksar that Damia was teasing him. Veksar grinned and said, "Yes, I just came to that same conclusion myself.”

Damia linked arms with Fawnn and led her away so that they could discuss the wedding plans. They stopped a short distance away and Damia teleported Mystyka and Ziona to them, then all four walked away laughing and planning.

Brimstone grinned at Veksar and said, "I think they intend to make all the wedding plans without any input from you, my friend."

Veksar grinned good-naturedly and said, "As long as it ends with me marrying Fawnn, I am happy."

 

***

 

The women decided that they would wait until full dark for the ceremony. That way the torchlight and beach bonfire would provide excellent lighting for the wedding.

The people of Stoneheim were out in mass to attend the wedding. Many realized that this might well be the last happy event for quite some time.

Stern faced guards stood watching the guests to ensure that no one made off with the wedding gifts being laid out on a soft cloth near the wedding party.

Ziona and Mystyka were the bridesmaids. They were dressed in white robes for the event. The bride was also dressed in a flowing white gown of incredible beauty and delicacy. Intricate lace adorned the gown, and her hair was beautifully decorated with small flowers.

Brimstone recognized Damia's touch in the bride's appearance and approved. Never had Fawnn appeared more beautiful. Nudging his near speechless friend, Veksar, he said, "Your bride to be is exceedingly lovely, my friend."

"Veksar stared at Fawnn with adoring eyes, and said, "You know, my friend. I think that I am a very lucky man."

"As do I, Veksar,” agreed Brimstone.

Then it was time for the wedding ceremony.

 

***

 

Damia walked to the front of the assembled people and raised her hands for quiet. As the noise died away, she said, "Sir Veksar and Lady Fawnn, please come forward."

As the couple stood before Damia, she smiled and said, "There is but one thing left to do before the invaders arrive. It is an honor for me to be asked to join this man and this woman in matrimony. If anyone knows of any reason why these two should not be married, speak now, or forever hold your peace." Damia looked around, daring any to object. With but a very brief pause, she continued, "First I ask you, Sir Veksar, do you take this woman to be your beloved wife, to have and to hold, for richer, for poorer, through raids and through peace, and do you swear to love, honor and cherish her for as long as you are both in the realm?"

Staring at his lovely bride, Veksar thought of the love he had for her. "I do with all my heart and soul,” he replied.

Turning to face Fawnn with a smile, Damia said "I ask you, Lady Fawnn, do you take this man to be your adored husband, to have and to hold, for richer, for poorer, through raids and through peace, and do you swear to love, honor, and cherish him for as long as you are both in the realm?”

Gazing into Veksar's eyes, with a gentle smile, Fawnn replied, "I Do."

Damia then asked for the rings to be brought forth.

Looking again at Veksar, Damia said "Veksar, place the ring upon Fawnn's finger, and repeat after me. 'With this ring, I thee wed. I promise to be true to you and to love you for as long as I am in this realm.'"

Holding Fawnn's hand tightly, Veksar repeated the vows.

Damia  turned to Fawnn and continued, "Lady Fawnn, Place the ring on Veksar's  finger, and repeat after me. 'With this ring, I thee wed. I promise to be true to you and to love you for as long as I am in this realm.'"

As Fawnn placed the ring on Veksar's finger and repeated her vows, a tear of joy escaped her and fell upon his hand.

Damia then asked the couple to turn and face their friends. Lifting her voice so that all might hear, Damia announced, "By the powers vested in me by the gods of Althea, I hereby declare you husband and wife. You may now kiss your bride!"

Veksar did just that, and with great passion and fervor.

All around the newlyweds, mages began to cast spells to celebrate. Joining in the fun, Brimstone sent a pillar of fire into the sky that could be seen over most of populated Althea.

Aboard the ships of Dalghard, many of his men saw that mysterious pillar of fire flaming into the air and wondered what in the name of the gods it portended.

 

***

 

And so it came to pass that on the eve of the arrival of the invasion fleet in Stonecrest, the city rejoiced at the union of two of the local hero's, named Fawnn and Veksar.

 


 

Chapter 8

 

The next morning, Brimstone organized the defenders who would face the invasion armada. The word had been spread to all of Althea controlled by the three gods that they needed help to fight a war with a fourth god named Dalghard. From Raven's Dust and Stoneheim, they came, and when they arrived, Brimstone organized them.

A rather large band of mercenaries joined these brave souls. The mercenaries had been hired by Brimstone and the city of Stonecrest to assist in the city defense. They were led by Tarn the mercenary, a professional soldier of noble deeds who sold his sword to protect those in need, provided that they were worthy of his service.

Brimstone made certain that everyone knew his or her part in the coming battle. If they were to have any chance at all of success, it would only be through working together as a team with each team member enhancing their chances by optimizing the skills available to the entire group of defenders. When this was settled to his satisfaction, he left to seek out Damia.

 

***

 

Brimstone found Damia by the sea staring out at the waves. He asked, "How long before they arrive?"

Turning and smiling at Brimstone, she took his hand in hers and once more faced the sea.

"Six hours give or take a few minutes, dear." Then she added, "But that is if we don’t meet them while they are still at sea." Grinning impishly she said, "We are going to a small atoll that his fleet will pass near on the way here. There, you and I will see what we can do to diminish his capacity to make war."

Brimstone smiled at his lovely wife, and said, "Whenever you need me just say the word and I’ll be ready."

Moments later, Brimstone was talking to a group of priests that would be there to heal all who needed it during the battle. He was arguing with them because they wanted fees for their services. Finally, Artherk himself had to chastise them, and after that, they agreed to comply with Brimstone's wishes on the matter. If they lacked zeal for the mission, they wisely kept it to themselves.

That settled, he turned his attention to the needs of the defenders. He saw to it that plenty of potions and mana were placed in strategic locations. He also saw to it that food and water were stored in the same locations. From here on, the defenders would eat and drink on the battle emplacements. Those battle emplacements consisted of a strong wall about four feet high that would offer some protection to the defenders. That wall was some thirty feet beyond the high tide mark.

Brimstone had considered a second wall for the defenders to fall back to, if the need arose, yet he had discarded that notion as far too dangerous. He was certain that Dalghard would summon monsters to attack the defenders, just as he had in the first war. The very thought of the defenders being trapped between those two walls and swarmed by monsters gave Brimstone cold chills. Even though they had plans to send them to Dalghard's ships, the fact was that the defenders would be under attack until that could be accomplished, and no one, not even the gods were sure how long that might take.

Brimstone had warned the defenders to be prepared for the monsters to be summoned as the enemy tried to make it to shore. They were as well prepared as he could make them. The mages would try their best to deal with the monsters until they were removed from the area. They had also been warned that when the fleet first attacked, in all likelihood Dalghard would cancel their spells when they tried to attack his army. Therefore, they were instructed at first to bolster the warriors and archers with their spells.

He was going over the list of defenders with the mayor when Damia called him saying that it was time for them to go to the atoll.

 

***

 

Brimstone appeared on the small atoll beside Damia. She pointed to the approaching fleet that was just now coming into view. Damia warned Brimstone to wait until there were plenty of ships in the line of fire of his spells before attacking, because any spell that he used would only be effective one time. After that, Dalghard would be able to block that spell.

Shinobi's fleet was no longer an issue, so Dalghard once more had his fleet massed into a very large battle group.

Brimstone carefully considered which spells to use and when to use them. He knew that he had three that would be of use in this situation. His pillar of fire spell, the ultimate technique that employed his sword, and one other that he had never attempted. That spell was a variation of meteor, but he thought that he had worked out a means to cast it at multiple targets at once. This was possible because he was half god and not an ordinary mortal.

Damia had a few tricks up her sleeve to use as well. She had carefully studied Brimstone's ultimate technique, and now Damia thought that she could do something similar but with a twist. Being a full god, she planned to use another variation of meteor when Brimstone used his technique.

As they watched, the fleet came closer and closer. Brimstone consulted with Damia and said, "My pillar of fire spell has the most range, so I will begin with it and try to hit as many as possible. I do have a question for you though."

"Ask, and I will answer if I can,” was her reply.

"You said I can only use the spell one time. That I understand. But is there a limit on how long I can use it before he stops me?"

"Aye, love, I am afraid so. Work quickly. I would say you’ll have twenty seconds before he blocks it, maybe more if he is sloppy. But twenty seconds would be the fastest that he could stop your spell. Therefore, I would target the largest number of ships possible in that time and move it left or right to affect more ships. Remember, you don’t have to totally destroy them before moving on to another section of the fleet. That spell will set fire to his ships, destroying or crippling them. Not to mention what it will do to the men aboard."

Brimstone nodded his understanding and thanked Damia for the information.

 

***

 

Back in Stoneheim, the defenders stood their posts as instructed.

The warriors stood directly behind the walls in a solid rank. Their primary duty was to repel the invaders if they breached the defenses. 

Behind the warriors, stood the archers who were to lay down a barrage of arrows to slow the advance of the enemy as they landed.

The mages stood to the rear. They would attempt to use offensive spells, but Brimstone had explained to them that at the outset in all probability their spells would be blocked or cancelled by Dalghard. Therefore, at the outset if their attack spells failed they were to keep the rest of the defenders spelled up to the best of their abilities. The mages were also responsible for holding off the monsters when Dalghard summoned them. At the moment that happened, the priests were to slip inside the line of mages for their protection and the mages were to hold the monsters off until the gods teleported them away.

Behind the mages stood Artherk's priests who were to heal all who had need of healing, thus freeing the mages to attack once their spells would work again.

The line of defender's was thin. Very thin. With the mercenaries assisting, they had nearly three hundred defenders to repel what they understood might be thousands. This was a sobering thought for the defenders, but the gods had assured them that they would not be fighting alone. The three gods would also be involved in the battle.

Artherk was to stand in the middle of the line of defenders and cast a shield spell that would halt any magic attacks and the flights of arrows expected.

Ogrimar was to stand to the left side of the line and force the ships to land in the middle of the defensive line if possible. He would accomplish this by using godly spells to destroy anything not coming in the desired direction.

Damia was to do the same thing on the right side of the line.

Naturally, the defenders were a bit nervous. They were going up against overwhelming odds and they realized that. But they also realized that with three gods assisting them, it was entirely possible that this plan could work.

Then there was Brimstone. He was on their side. Most of the defenders had seen Brimstone in battle many times. They knew that as warriors went, he was beyond compare. As a mage, he also stood tall among men. Brimstone alone was worth a company of defenders. Naturally, he never thought of such matters, but the defenders did and it gave them comfort to know that he would be there fighting too.

 

***

 

Brimstone was ready. The fleet was now well within range of his pillar of fire spell. He warned Damia that he was about to attack, raised both hands, and pointed them at the center of the fleet, where the ships were packed the closest.

Aboard the ships, the men saw the atoll they were nearing but gave it no thought. Then they saw a strange sight. A pillar of flame erupted from that atoll and headed directly for their fleet. In horror, they saw several ships burst into flames as the powerful fire spell struck them. In amazement, they saw the first few ships hit by that pillar of fire burned to the waterline in five seconds. Then to their dismay, the pillar of fire began to move to the right seeking out more targets.

Twenty-three seconds into the attack, the pillar of fire disappeared. As quickly as it had began it just stopped. The men about to be incinerated were profoundly grateful.

Dalghard ordered his fleet to disperse at once, but Damia countered that maneuver when she opened two massive whirlpools on either side of the fleet thus boxing them in. A few ships were sucked down to the ocean bottom as they attempted to comply with Dalghard's orders.

Brimstone used his until now theoretical meteor spell, as it had the next best range. Ten separate meteor spells hit ten different ships. By the third hit, they were all destroyed and he moved to another section of the fleet. He managed to hit those ships one time before Dalghard countered that attack.

Next, Brimstone drew his sword as did Damia. By now, the fleet was beginning to pass the atoll. The first ten ships were already rowing past them at top speed.

Standing several feet apart, they began to swing their swords in the familiar figure eight in unison. As they did so, Brimstone's sword made the flaming figure eight before him and Damia's did as well. Then they launched the spells.

Brimstone's spell sent out fireballs in all directions to the front. Every ship in the fleet took damage and many men aboard each ship died in flames. Several ships took so many hits that they were burned to the waterline in seconds.

Damia's spell launched meteor at the fleet. But being a full god, she was able to generate forty. They struck two times, and forty ships went to the bottom, devastated by the fury of her fire spell. She moved to attack another section of the fleet, but by now Dalghard had blocked their spells.

They could hear Dalghard screaming in rage as his fleet rowed away at top speed, but they smiled at each other. Working together, they had taken another eighty ships from Dalghard's fleet. More than half of the one hundred fifty that they had seen in the beginning of this battle had been destroyed. They were pleased. Though Dalghard still had seventy ships, they well knew that he had lost men aboard all of the ships during Brimstone's last attack.

Brimstone estimated that Dalghard had six thousand men left. "Actually he has six thousand three hundred, love,” Damia corrected.

"A good start then,” was Brimstone's simple reply.

 

***

 

Damia and Brimstone returned to the beach defenses and reported to Artherk and Ogrimar what had occurred. The gods were pleased. Now the odds were looking much better.

 

***

 

Brimstone walked among the defenders and encouraged all to be of good cheer. Though the battle would be one sided he promised to save some of the enemy for each of the defenders. This unusual levity on his part brought a smile to the faces of several of the defenders, some of whom had been near certain that this would be their last battle.

As he proceeded down the line, he saw several familiar faces that he had shared many adventures with during the past several months. As he walked through the familiar crowd, he tried not to think about how many of these friends might not survive the coming conflict. It was his fervent hope that all would survive. But realistically, he knew that the odds against that outcome were astronomical.

Walking down the line of defenders, he spotted Kats and Thor Justice standing beside Kittie and Raist Justice, quietly talking about the battle to come. Further down the line, he saw Tink and Dime standing confidently among the other defenders.

Ziona stood near her friends Fawnn and Mystyka, as did Veksar, Tha Don, XconX, Corey, Genkaku, Lord Malachi, Frusty, Jedi, BluByU, and MetalHead. These people had shared so many adventures together that it seemed natural to see them man the defenses together. Yane the Paladin was also standing near them and seemed well prepared for the battle to come.

Farther down, he saw Cougar, Tarkenstar, Pig Killa, Lady Gia, Lord Fatman, Lady Cammy, Zedar, and Noughtinhill.

A bit further down the line, Brimstone spotted SuperDude-KoH with Salamander and several other members of that famed guild.

He saw Nathanael standing near Psychost. Tipher was next in line and standing near him were Rean, Scamma, Oga, Budokan, and Anpu Sandstorm.

As he had walked down the line of defenders, he had assured all that victory would be theirs, but privately he feared the cost of that victory. He was afraid that it would be high.

 

 


Chapter 9

 

Mordenthal paced the floor of his castle. He was considering what he wanted to do. Ogrimar had ordered him to report to the defensive line to help win the war against Dalghard. Yet Dalghard's promises to him were hard to overlook. He would be second only to Dalghard in power. He would have a free hand to do as he wished, so long as it did not displease Dalghard. He would also have all the women of the realm that he wanted, riches beyond compare, and the life of any man who offended him.

His thoughts took him back many years to the first time that Dalghard had contacted him. His mind reflected back to the time when Evelyn had been pregnant with Artherk's child, Brimstone.

 

***

 

Dalghard had experienced a vision at the same time that the other three gods had experienced theirs. In his vision, he foresaw two paths. In one path, Brimstone was slain prior to the battle and he won the war against the other gods. But down that other hated path, Brimstone was there at the battle and due to his actions during that battle, Dalghard lost again and this time he was slain by the gods.

To prevent this second path of the vision from occurring, he had worked hard to subvert Mordenthal's will to his own. Using his godly powers, he bent and twisted Mordenthal's will until he had created an unreasonable hatred in Mordenthal for Brimstone. Then he caused Mordenthal to crave the death of Brimstone.

The rest is now the history of Brimstone's past. Mordenthal had hired the assassin clan to slay Brimstone's mother, and Brimstone as well. But fate had stepped in at every twist and turn, and somehow Brimstone had survived. Indeed, he had thrived, while the assassin clan had all but ceased to exist as a direct result of the contract to kill Brimstone.

Now only four members of that assassin clan remained and today they would act at the crucial moment to slay Brimstone, just as the fleet came within sight of the beach. They had assured Mordenthal that at that particular moment, his attention would be riveted upon the approaching fleet, and that for precious moments, he would be off guard and thus vulnerable to their attack.

But Mordenthal was having second thoughts about Dalghard's promises. For one thing, it was really beginning to look as though he would lose this war. But primarily he remembered Ogrimar's promise the day that he had been tortured to death many times. There was no doubt in his mind that Ogrimar would keep that promise.

He almost called on Brimstone to warn him of the coming attack, but at the last moment, he convinced himself that if they succeeded then it wouldn't matter, and if they failed he could always claim no prior knowledge of the attack. Perhaps it would even be blamed on Dalghard. Dalghard's insistence on not using women in battle could be explained away if the four assassins were slain. He could always say that Dalghard had sent the female assassins for just that reason. Who would suspect that he had overnight changed his mind on utilizing women in battle?

Mordenthal's mind was made up. He would wait and see what happened. Dalghard had done his work well. Very well indeed.

 


Chapter 10

 

Brimstone stood before the defensive wall near his father. It was his plan to fight from the center of the defensive line, so that he could react in any given direction that he was needed. Far out to sea, he saw the ships of Dalghard's fleet sailing into view, and he knew that the time had come for the final conflict in this war. They should be in range in half an hour.

Behind the wall waited four women, cleverly disguised so that no one would recognize them from their time as cooks in the taverns of Althea. Brimstone stood within easy reach, beside his father Artherk, and they were certain that this time their clan would not fail. Then a mage named Raistlin Justice came forward to stand directly behind Brimstone. He was in their way.

He was asking Brimstone some questions regarding the timing involved for the defensive plans. The time to strike was now. Drawing her poisoned dagger the leader of the assassin cell struck Raist Justice in the back. He fell instantly, and then a sword was at her throat. Thor Justice stood with tears in his eyes as he faced the deadly assassin. Behind her, she could hear Kittie Justice beginning to scream in fear that her husband was dead.

The other three assassins moved to slay the warrior holding the blade at their leader's throat. But suddenly Brimstone had vaulted over the wall and was there at his side sword in hand. Behind them Kats nocked an arrow and drew her bow to full draw.

Kittie was at Raist's side moments later and she turned his dying body over to face her. "Love you wife,” he said softly, then, as his eyes began to glaze over he said, "always will,” very weakly. The last words he uttered were, "Kiss me."

Kittie kissed Raist's cooling lips softly and in anguish hugged his body to hers. Crying and moaning she swayed there grieving.

Thor cried with her, but his sword never wavered, nor did his wife's arrow. Brimstone stared with hard and knowing eyes at the four assassins.

Then Ogrimar was there. He touched Kittie's head and eased the pain a bit by taking  most of it into himself for she was one of his most loyal followers. Then he bid her to rise and stand clear of the body. Artherk shook his head sadly, as Kittie looked at him with pleading eyes. "I am sorry Kittie. Raist was my follower, yes, and a good one. But I cannot resurrect him now. If this battle were not upon us, I could. But resurrections are hard on a god. They leave us severely weakened. To do that right before a war of this magnitude would bring us defeat this day."

Kittie understood intellectually what Artherk was saying. But her heart did not. Bitterly she turned from the god and faced her husband's killer, eyes blazing. "Thor,” said Kittie calmly.

"Yes Kittie?"

"Step aside."

Thor hesitated, reluctant to let Kittie face this cold blooded killer.

"Now Thor,” said Kittie insistently.

Brimstone nodded his head and Thor lowered his blade and stepped back a pace making room for Kittie. Kittie faced the assassin who stared at her unafraid. Just as fearlessly, Kittie took her revenge.

Firing manaburst into the assassin's face and then her torso, Kittie let loose a withering barrage of that dread spell. The assassin tried to retaliate with her dagger but Thor blocked that blow with his sword. She tried again and this time Brimstone grabbed her knife hand just behind the wrist with one hand and pried her fingers loose from the handle of the blade with the other. Thus disarmed the assassin had nothing left to fight with but her hands.

She did just that. Leaping upon Kittie and raining many blows upon her lovely face. A dozen mages healed her at once, as Kittie ignored the assassin’s attack and maintained her withering fire. Then it was over. The assassin fell dead at Kittie’s feet.

Brimstone faced the three remaining assassins. He told the defenders to make way and open a circle around them. He stood there then with sword bared and said, "Ladies make your move or drop forever this quest for my life. The choice is yours. But if ever again you come at me you will die.

As one, they drew their blades and launched themselves at Brimstone. Brimstone had no time to waste. He knew this was costing them precious moments that could not be spared; therefore, he met them head on. His sword blocked two blades as his right foot slammed into the outside of the knee of the third attacker. A loud popping sound told him that he had broken the woman's knee.

A moment later, he penetrated the guard of one of the assassins and gutted her. Then he faced the remaining healthy assassin and parried a strike at his face with his sword while his left foot kicked out and slammed into her stomach. The woman doubled over in pain and her head fell off. Brimstone's stroke with the frostbane had been so fast that no one actually saw it swing. They only saw a faint blur just before the woman's head fell to the ground.

Facing the last woman, he offered her one last chance. "You are severely injured. Let it go." But the woman threw her dagger at Brimstone's face. The stone of light reacted as it had once before. The dagger struck an invisible wall and fell harmlessly to the ground, then a beam of light flicked from the gem to the assassin and she began to turn to stone.

This time Brimstone did not admonish the gem. He had indeed seen that there were worse ways to die since the time that he had first admonished the gem for such a grisly death. He would never forget the grisly scene inside the Lighthaven tavern where every soul who’d eaten had perished. He briefly wondered if this assassin had been the one who’d been responsible for that atrocity. As sometimes happened, Damia perceived his thoughts, and answered his unspoken question. “Yes, beloved. Indeed that woman worked in Lighthaven, and was responsible for the massacre. I saw it in her mind,” Damia said, speaking directly to her husband’s mind. 

Fifteen minutes later the fleet was just offshore.

 


Chapter 11

 

Dalghard's fleet was within range of the mages’ spells now and was rowing at full beat for the beach. The mage defenders launched every attack spell in their considerable arsenal. But as expected Dalghard had stopped the magical attacks by erecting an invisible barrier that their spells could not penetrate. The impacts of a multitude of attack spells slamming into the invisible barrier created quite a spectacle. At one point during the opening moments of the massed mage attack, the invisible barrier actually became faintly visible due entirely to the visible spell affects.

Dalghard’s own mages were casting their spells, but the gods pretty much ignored those spells as an ineffective nuisance, and conserved their power for when it was truly needed.

During the past one thousand years, significant gains had been made in magic and armors. Cut off from the rest of Althea, the mages of Sic Dalar were woefully behind in their spell development. Because of this, the magic resisting armors worn by the majority of the defenders easily absorbed the spells cast by Dalghard's mages.

The warriors stood and mocked the weak mages of Dalghard, taunting that they were as weak as their god. Those few pure mages that wore no armor simply stood behind their companions wearing armor and were quite safe.

The taunting of the warriors enraged the nearly demented Dalghard. He ordered his fleet to ramming speed and the tempo of the beat increased. Onshore, Brimstone smiled thinking of the three days spent readying the surprise that was about to be tested.

Dalghard should have sent in a portion of his fleet to make the first landing. Instead, he sent them all en mass. The first line of his ships hit the submerged defensive blockades, and their bows were trapped on the sharpened logs. Within moments, the trapped ships began to fill with water. To make matters much worse, the next wave of ships slammed into the stricken ships sterns and punctured them with their ramming prows. The doomed men in the first wave of ships struggled to get off their vessels before the floating debris and the crashing masts could trap them. The double impacts to which they had just been subjected, had the masts crashing down onto the decks like trees falling in a forest. Many who escaped their ships were crushed between the hulls of the milling vessels.

What few men made it to shore from that doomed first wave of ships were easily cut down by the archers and mages, who found to their delight that their spells worked fine when they were not targeting the ships of Dalghard’s fleet.

Brimstone watched amazed as the ships just kept coming and colliding with those already at the jammed area, some thirty feet from shore. The beach there was steep, thus making the water some ten feet deep out where the men were thrashing about in the surf. Their armor and weapons weighing them down, most drowned.

Dalghard lost a full twenty ships in that first attempt to beach his armada. Brimstone was now content that the hard work involved had been worth every bit of the toil.

Dalghard ordered the remaining ships to back away from the beach. He then manipulated the water, causing the tide to go out, thus revealing the submerged barriers.

With deliberate disregard for any survivors who might still be aboard his doomed ships, he used his magic to set the vessels ablaze in order to get them out of the way. The terrified screams of burning men filled the air. In five minutes, nothing was left of the ships but hot ashes.

Onshore the other three gods calmly regarded the events taking place. The defenders were not so calm and some whispered that this was bad, really bad.

Dalghard had twenty of his ships beached on the now lowered tide, and the men swarmed off the ships with axes to destroy the defensive works that had destroyed their ships moments ago.

When the men were hard at work on the blockades, the three gods struck back. Using their combined power, the three gods caused the tide to return thus drowning many of the men working there. A few tried to make it back to their ships but were pulled under by the tide, which was becoming a rip tide due to the battling of the gods.

 

***

 

Dalghard was furious, but this time it was a cold and calculating fury and he did not overreact. He was down to around three thousand men now. But as best he could tell, he still had the defenders outnumbered ten to one. The deranged god carefully considered the situation, and then decided to give the other gods something to think about besides his army.

Summoning his will, he closed his eyes and concentrated.

What Brimstone had prepared for came to pass. Suddenly, there were hundreds of monsters behind the defenders. The priests slid through the lines as they had been instructed, and the mages turned to deal with the monsters. Those mages with entangle tried their best to hold back the monsters. For this to work, every monster that could be spared in the minutes the gods needed to teleport them would become an ally once onboard the enemy ships.

Of course many monsters had to be slain as they were simply too close to hold back. Then the monsters began to disappear, only to reappear on Dalghard's ships. Dalghard's men had never encountered monsters of these types. Indeed their experience fighting monsters was almost non-existent. There were a few on Sic Dalar, but for the most part, they stayed well away from mankind there. As a result, the soldiers of Dalghard were woefully unprepared for the savagery that they were now facing.

Staggered by his losses, Dalghard dispersed the monster raid that he had called into being. But he had lost another fifteen hundred men. Fully half of his remaining army had died during the minutes of the failed raid.

But the raid had achieved his goal. While the gods were busy teleporting the monsters to his ships, Dalghard had again pulled the tide out and this time he personally caused the defensive works to disappear. It weakened him, but if this worked, he could regain his strength as the army attacked the defenders.

 

***

 

Dalghard released the sea, but this time the tide did not return. He stared hard at the sea, and then looked at the three gods on shore. They were holding back the sea now. Cursing, he ordered his men to beach once more on the now lowered tide. He prepared to hold back the sea himself for he knew the gods would release the ocean to drown his men the moment they felt sufficient men were vulnerable.

It should be noted that the remaining men were less than enthusiastic about leaping to the sand this time. They had seen too many of their fellows drown this day for their liking. But such was their fear of the mad god Dalghard, that jump they did.

The defenders opened fire on Dalghard’s army with arrows and spells. This time, their weakened god could not help them. He was struggling to hold back the sea, which the gods had released. And each follower that fell left the deranged god a bit weaker.

The superior mages of the defensive team were slaughtering the onrushing soldiers of Dalghard, as were the archers.

Noughtinhill accounted for a score as did the mages Veksar, Zedar, Fawnn, XconX, Lady Cammy, Lady Gia, Lord Fatman, Salamander, and SuperDude-KoH. Mystyka and Tink killed eighteen each and Tha Don got an incredible twenty-five. Tarkenstar and Oga each killed twenty-three. Even the comparatively younger and weaker mage, Psychost managed to kill ten of the swarming enemy.

Kittie seemed to disregard danger and stood her ground as she killed the rapidly advancing horde of warriors. In her grief at the loss of her husband, she unleashed her considerable power as a mage against other humans in a way that she had never thought herself capable. She killed thirty as she disregarded the arrows, which were coming closer and closer to her. As she killed the enemy, some of the defenders near her heard Kittie mutter, "For Raist."

Then Thor tackled her just before an arrow passed the spot her head had occupied only a heartbeat earlier. "Be careful, sister of my wife!" he shouted angrily. He was frightened by her apparent disregard for her own safety and that fear made him speak in harsher tones than normal. He leapt to his feet to face the advancing enemy.

After that incident, Kittie felt a bit better and fought more reasonably.

The archers were having it nearly as much success as the mages. Ziona, Anpu Sandstorm, Corey, Vlassic-TGL, Pig Killa, BluByU, Cougar, Frusty, and Kats Justice also accounted for about a score each.

 

***

 

Dalghard lost hundreds of men as they swarmed up that beach. But they did make it to the defensive works. It was at this time that the warriors of Tarn's mercenaries really served their purpose, and each fought well against the horde of attackers. The warriors MetalHead, Jedi, Lord Malachi, Thor Justice, Nathanael, Genkaku, and Budokan killed so many of the enemy at close range that soon it became impossible to count them all.

The Paladins Tipher, Rean, Scamma, and Yane all fought superbly as well. They killed near as many of the enemy as the warriors did, but they also managed to heal their companions. Indeed, when Lord Malachi was struck down, severely wounded, Yane leaped to his aid, killing the attacker who had wounded Lord Malachi and healing the fallen warrior sufficiently for him to continue the battle.

It seemed an eternity to the defenders before the forces of Dalghard broke off their attack and retreated to the sea and the relative safety of their ships. They left a full five hundred of their army dead or dying on the battlefield that the beach had become.

Dalghard had recalled them and was preparing another surprise. It wasn't long in coming.

As the defenders watched there was a bustle of activity onboard Dalghard's ships. Then the first catapult released its load and burning bundles fell upon the defenders. The water mages used their spells to put out the fires and the fire mages retaliated with their spells. But Dalghard again blocked their attack spells.

Brimstone studied the situation carefully. He attempted his own spells, but the god blocked even his. Something had to be done or the ships would soon force the defenders from their defensive works. If that happened, the city itself might also soon fall.

Ogrimar settled the issue a moment later by causing it to rain. The rain fell softly at first, and then in a deluge. After that, the bundles of rags and wood did little to harm the defenders. Indeed, the rain made them more uncomfortable than the attacks of Dalghard's forces.

When the catapult bombardment began, Brimstone had wondered why the god had not used this tactic at the outset. Now he had his answer. Dalghard had realized that the gods could easily counter this attack.

 

***

 

Brimstone and many of the defenders were getting tired of waiting for the attackers to make their move. Apparently, Dalghard was regrouping his forces. It had been a full hour since Ogrimar had stopped the attack of the catapults and still they were waiting. Mercifully, Ogrimar had stopped the rain.

Behind the defensive wall, the defenders had taken turns eating and resting. The priests treated the serious wounds.

Brimstone consulted with Tarn the mercenary leader and some of the warriors. Then he called over the archers and consulted with them. A plan to counterattack was conceived.

 

***

 

Brimstone consulted the gods to see if they would provide a distraction for the planned counterattack and they readily agreed.

Returning to the center of the line, he had the attackers disperse along the defensive wall. Then he commanded everyone to get down below the wall so that they were out of sight. The moment the last head disappeared behind the wall, the gods summoned one hundred monsters near Dalghard's ships.

His men who had survived one monster raid earlier nearly panicked at the sight of the monsters, some of which headed for the defensive works. The panicked screaming and wild firing of arrows and spells caught their attention and they turned their savage minds to the ships.

When the attention of the men aboard the ships was focused on the monsters, Brimstone led a charge at the ships. The moment that the men involved in the counterattack were within fifteen feet of the monsters, the gods removed the beasts from battleground.

Brimstone and company fell upon the ships with a vigor and set fire to many with pots filled with burning coals. They accomplished that by throwing them into the ships along with pots of oil.

The counterattack that Brimstone expected to come immediately was slow in coming. They were able to destroy many ships with few losses to their own forces. So far, they had lost ten mercenaries under Tarn's command.

Lord Malachi had been wounded, again, and Jedi had taken an axe blow to his helm that had dented it and his head beneath. Currently he was unconscious behind the defensive works where the priests were tending to him after Yane had carried him to safety. Yane immediately returned to the battle, disregarding the arrows that tried to take him on the return run.

Nathanael and Budokan were fighting near Brimstone and he saw them both take arrows in their shoulders. Tipher and Rean helped them from the field of battle and attempted to return as Yane had done moments earlier. But the men aboard the ships laid down a heavy barrage of arrows, forcing them to dive behind the defensive wall.

Genkaku killed a warrior who had jumped off his ship to attack him and turned to grin at Corey. Corey tried to scream a warning but it was too late. A battleaxe thrown from the ship had struck his brother in the shoulder, wounding him terribly.

XconX saw his brother fall from the defensive works and leaped over the wall at a dead run. He scrambled in a zig zag pattern and made his way to his brother's side where he healed him as best he could until they could get him back to the priests.

Dalghard's men were beginning to take a heavy toll on the attackers. They had succeeded in destroying most of the remaining ships when Brimstone ordered the retreat. The archers were ready. Wave after wave of arrows made the men onboard the few remaining ships duck down out of sight while Brimstone and company made their way to the relative safety of the defensive wall. The survivors aboard the doomed ships joined their compatriots aboard the few remaining ships of Dalghard's fleet.

 

***

 

Brimstone stared morosely at the bodies of the slain mercenaries. They had died well, but it made him sad that they had died at all. Tarn stood beside him also sad at the loss. "They fought well," he said, and then he continued, "I will see to it that their families get the gold they were promised for this war."

"You’re a good man, and a good leader as well,” Brimstone said softly.

"Coming from you, sir, that means a lot,” said Tarn simply, and then he walked away to check on his men.

Brimstone turned to stare at the ships on the beach. Only ten remained. He estimated that maybe one thousand of the enemy was still present onboard those ships. It was hard to get an accurate number. First, he had slain some with his sword spell, then others had perished in the attacks on the beach, and then the survivors had reinforced them. It was enough to know that the defenders were still badly outnumbered and getting tired.

He ordered that everyone try to eat and rest in shifts while they could.

One hour later, darkness fell.

 

***

 

The night passed uneventfully. The defenders had prepared for a night attack that never came. They ate and slept when they could. The priests and mages fought hard against death and saved several people who would have died had the battle continued that night.

 

***

 

The next morning, at sunrise the enemy was formed up on the beach and waiting for sufficient light to attack the defenders. With a roar, they charged madly up the inclined beach toward the defenders.

The archers and mages fired volley after volley of arrows and spells, taking down the attackers in droves. BluByU stood valiantly during that few moments, and with amazing dexterity, he killed thirty of the enemy in two minutes.

Brimstone, sick and tired of this war, leapt over the wall and charged the enemy. Several mercenaries who respected Brimstone joined him, as did Jedi, Lord Malachi, Yane, Scamma, Tipher, Genkaku and many others, just as they had planned it.

Tarkenstar, Fawnn, Mystyka, XconX, Lady Cammy, Lady Gia, and Zedar concentrated on healing the defenders, who were even now charging the enemy.

The mages attacking the enemy switched over to manaburst to try to avoid hitting the defenders.

The opposing forces met halfway to the waters edge in a clash of arms. If not for the archers and mages on the defensive line, the small group of defenders would have been overrun in moments. But such was the withering fire from their comrades behind the defensive wall that the enemy was only getting through a few at a time.

Brimstone fought like never before. Many warriors who witnessed the battle that day swore that on the spot, the son of Artherk invented techniques that they had never before seen used in battle.

Jedi fought like a man possessed by demons. Many of the defenders had seen the warrior in combat. They knew his skill at arms. But on that day, he surpassed even his reputation for skill.

Anpu Sandstorm killed so many of the enemy with his bow that some of the other archers near him marveled at his skill. Tarn the Mercenary, noting the archer’s skill, would later invite Anpu to join his mercenary band, if he ever needed a job.

Tipher seemed to be wherever he was needed. He killed and he healed with equal skill. Yane and Scamma stood back to back surrounded by the enemy and many did they slay who thought foolishly to make a quick end of them. Lord Malachi and Genkaku fought their way to them and helped them battle their way out of that engagement.

Brimstone ordered the retreat. Calmly and orderly, the men began to fight their way back to their defense works. When they were within fifteen feet of it, they all dropped to the ground at Brimstone's command, just as planned. The archers and mages were ready and unleashed a terrible rain of spells and arrows.

The enemy was forced once more to retreat. This time only a few hundred managed to reach the ships.

 

***.

 

Dalghard's power was now severely weakened. Brimstone decided to test it. He stood and pointed his hands at the ships directly in front of him and summoned his pillar of fire spell. Dalghard blocked it, but Damia spoke in his mind saying, "Continue, my husband! He is weakening. You may yet break through."

Brimstone did just that. He concentrated harder and sought to break through the barrier that Dalghard had erected to block his spell.

Damia ordered all of the mages to assist in the assault, and suddenly a lone fireball got through, then other spells began to join in, but still Brimstone was blocked. He might not be able to use his spells yet, but the other mages and archers could and did. They launched an all out attack on the remaining ships and soon all were in flames save for Dalghard's flagship.

The survivors of the burning ships had had enough. They threw down their weapons and surrendered to the defenders. A large group of Tarn's mercenaries took nearly three hundred prisoners and escorted them to the temple where twenty stood guard at the two doors to the temple. The rest of the mercenaries returned to the defensive line to see the conclusion of this war.

 

***

 

Brimstone looked at the tired defenders and smiled. It was nearly over. All that really remained was to deal with Dalghard and any men he might have aboard his flagship.

 

***

 

The three gods stood together in the center of the defense works, just outside the wall. Brimstone stood beside them. They were ready to confront Dalghard at last.

Ogrimar called out to Dalghard saying, "Dalghard, your army is broken. Your powers are broken. Come out and face me if you dare."

Dalghard appeared on the beach fifteen feet from the other gods. As soon as he appeared, he attacked Ogrimar. He hammered at him with spells of many types, but Ogrimar shrugged them off.

He struck back, but although Dalghard was weakened, Ogrimar alone still could not slay him.

Dalghard faced the three gods and Brimstone defiantly. Gone was any resemblance to the god whom Brimstone had watched writing the accords of the gods. What stood before him now seemed utterly corrupt and vile. There was nothing of decency or goodness left in this being.

This bothered Brimstone on a deep level. "If a god could so slip into corruption," he thought, "then what of man?"

He stared sadly and with pity at the once great god. Reading his heart, Dalghard became enraged. He launched a savage attack at Brimstone. The stone of light responded with a glowing white protective shield. Brimstone raised his hands in the god's direction and pointed at him.

Then in his mind, he heard the voices of his father and mother both speaking at once. "Now son!" they both exclaimed.

Brimstone unleashed a spell he had never realized he knew. He called it nova. It looked like pillar of fire except for the color. Where pillar of fire was a deep red, this was a bright white hot pillar.

It struck the god, flowed around him, and then struck the ocean. When it hit the sea, the fire spell caused a vast billow of steam to rise. The god screamed in pain as his clothing erupted into flames. Then his hair was singed from his head.

A man can suffer and that is the truth. But ponder this. A man is accustomed to pain. From birth until death, a man deals with pain on a regular basis. A god, on the other hand, never knows physical pain. Imagine then, a god's suffering as he first feels pain after many millennium of existence with none experienced.

Brimstone somehow felt that pain and regretted the necessity. Damia spoke in his mind then. "No, husband! Do not falter!"

Then Dalghard struck back. This time the power of his attack was stronger. Brimstone felt cold suddenly as the ice attack from Dalghard threatened to overwhelm him. And then the other gods joined the battle.

Damia hit Dalghard with an ice attack that melted when it contacted Brimstone's Nova, thus creating a super steam that served to broil Dalghard's body.

Ogrimar used a dark spell that was a version of drain that took not only life, but drained the power of the target as well. The god of evil had developed that spell just to deal with Dalghard’s immense reserve of power.

Artherk used a super version of boulder that shook the very ground with each impact.

Together, they beat Dalghard to his knees and he screamed in agony from the combined onslaught.

Again, Brimstone felt pity for the god and wished that he could stop. At that moment, Dalghard struck back and this time at Damia. What he hit her with, Brimstone never knew. But it was as if a giant club had struck his wife. She was swept off her feet and hurled backwards into the defensive wall. The sheer impact with that wall broke it and her body plunged through the gaping hole in the defensive works.

Brimstone went berserk with rage. The power that he had been pouring into the nova spell tripled instantly to a level he never knew himself capable of achieving. He said one word, "Incinerate." and a red pulse flashed down the white pillar of fire and struck the god.

Dalghard screamed one last time in agony, and then he died.

 

***

 

Brimstone found Damia being cared for by the priests. Ziona, Fawnn, and Mystyka  were beside them watching over the goddess that they had come to admire these past few months.

Ogrimar and Artherk shouldered their way through the crowd and stood at her side. Brimstone was kneeling with her head on his knee staring at her face with a worried expression on his face. She was still breathing, and he was pretty sure that she would be alright, but he wasn’t certain.

Ogrimar smiled at him and said, "She'll be fine son. She just had the wind knocked out of her a bit."

Artherk nodded his agreement and said, "Ogrimar, there are a few that we can resurrect."

Ogrimar nodded and said, "Yes if we hurry."

Together the two gods walked away to locate the newly dead to see how many they could save.

Moments after they departed, Damia's eyes fluttered and then opened. She smiled at Brimstone and he told her that Dalghard was dead, and that the other gods were resurrecting all the defenders that they could.

Tarn the mercenary yelled Brimstone's name. Brimstone helped Damia to her feet then kissed her quickly. He turned and darted back outside the defense wall. Tarn stood with a group of his men who had surrounded some thirty survivors of Dalghard's flagship. Brimstone ordered those men to be placed in the temple with the rest of the prisoners.

 

***

 

Later that afternoon, it was decided that the prisoners would be returned to Sic Dalar. This time even Ogrimar agreed. There had been enough death.

 

***

 

There was some confusion about the death of Dalghard, and it took the three gods to get it settled. Most of the witnesses believed that Brimstone had slain the god. They were congratulating him and already the term god slayer was being used. When he heard that, Ogrimar snorted, and then laughed. He said, "Only a god can slay a god."

Artherk nodded agreement, adding, "The three of us were attacking him when he died. Brimstone's spell did indeed weaken him. Such was the power of his spell that it took much from Dalghard to resist it. But at the same time, Ogrimar and I were attacking." He concluded by saying, "Though it may have appeared to you that Brimstone killed Dalghard, I assure you that such was not the case. Ogrimar or I killed him."

Damia agreed, adding, "I take nothing away from my husband's contribution to that final battle. He did weaken him greatly. But our fathers are correct. Only one of them could have killed Dalghard."

Speaking mentally to Brimstone she said, "Sorry, love, but this is for your own good as well as ours. If the people of Althea believe a man may kill a god, then they might be tempted to try. Also, if Althea believes that you killed a god, some will be tempted to slay the god slayer." A moment’s pause went by, then she finished, "It is best to always deny it, beloved. Best for you, and best for us."

Brimstone readily agreed. The thought of people attacking Damia was more than enough incentive to convince him.

 

***

 

Ogrimar entered Mordenthal's castle and dismissed his servants just as he had done months ago. He found Mordenthal waiting for him just as he had on that other visit.

He began without preamble. "Explain yourself now."

Mordenthal did as his god bid him. He confessed all in the hopes that Ogrimar would simply slay him and be done with it. He knew it to be a very slim hope. But he was grasping at any hope what-so-ever.

Ogrimar listened intently. Now many things made sense. It all tied together.

He raised his hands and used his power to examine Mordenthal. As he began to see what had been done, he began cursing. Mordenthal waited in silence prepared for his fate.

Ogrimar delicately began the task of fixing the tampering that Dalghard had done to his once loyal servant. It took an hour to repair the damage done. When it was over Mordenthal bowed his head in shame. He said, "Ogrimar I have betrayed you. It was not my intent to do so, but I have. I await your judgment."

Ogrimar was faced with a dilemma. He could not have his servants betraying him, and he had warned Mordenthal about continuing the attacks on Brimstone. Had he succeeded it is entirely possible that Dalghard would have defeated the gods, for he had been an immensely strong god. But a god had tampered with his servant, and it was not truly his fault.

Ogrimar settled it by having Mordenthal renew his oath of allegiance to him and warned him that he would be watching him. He made it clear that this was his last chance and then the god of evil left.

As for Mordenthal, he was under no illusions that the god of evil was mellowing with age. He knew without a doubt that had he not been so critical to numerous aspects of Ogrimar’s seraph quests, he would now be in the hands of the god of evil’s torturers. The seraphs of evil alignment were a buffer between Ogrimar’s lesser followers and the forces of Makrsh P’Tangh. Since the number of followers affected a god’s power, any threat to those followers was also a threat to the god’s power. Without a steady influx of evil seraphs, the forces of Makrsh P’Tangh were likely to pour forth from his realm and attack the lesser followers of the gods.

Put most simply, killing Mordenthal would diminish the god of evil’s power, until the evil cleric could be replaced, and that could take years.

 

***

 

Two weeks after the war, trade was officially opened with Sic Dalar. The minotaurs found that their services were in demand to escort the rich merchant fleets that would sail between the isles. Already small pirate fleets were being formed to rake in the profits from the new trade. The minotaurs welcomed the action and stayed true to their oath to Shinobi to leave the merchant fleets alone.

The people of Sic Dalar were happy. For the first time in known memory, they were enjoying their free will. The institution of marriage was immediately reestablished. They also selected among the gods, which they would follow, if any. Shinobi got the most followers, but all gained new followers.

 

***

 

Three weeks after the war, Brimstone and Damia were in the Stonecrest tavern. There was a gathering of the heroes of that war. Unfortunately, many could not attend.

Fawnn and Veksar were there, laughing and talking with Mystyka and Ziona. Tha Don and XconX were discussing issues of mage craft. Genkaku and Jedi were discussing the many battles that they had survived in the war of the gods as it was now called. Anpu Sandstorm was sitting near Cougar discussing the many archery items that could improve an archer's skill in battle. BluByU agreed on some of the items but favored others as well, so before long the three archers were in deep discussion on the matter. Lord Malachi was sitting beside SuperDude-KoH and Lady Gia. They were discussing some of the battles that they had seen and participated in that day.

Brimstone and Damia smiled at all their good friends and watched as they ate the fine meal that the tavern keeper had ordered prepared for this event. They listened to the idle chatter going on for a long time and contemplated how much they had all been through together.

Finally, Damia laid her hand upon Brimstone’s arm and whispered. "It is time, love. Speak what is in your heart, as you have planned these past two weeks."

Brimstone smiled and patted her hand in appreciation for her support, then stood and addressed the assembled heroes. "Friends, hear me if you please."

The entire tavern grew silent and not just his group at the large table. All of the people in the tavern, which was full to overflowing, paused to listen intently.

"We have asked you all to come here to express our deep appreciation to you for the support that you have given us over the past months. Without your support, none of the grand adventures that we have seen could have come to pass as they did."

Holding out his hand to Damia, he helped her to stand beside him. They bowed reverently to the assembled group of heroes in a gesture of their respect for them as warriors, mages and archers, but also more. It was also a gesture of respect for them as individuals.

 

 


 

 

 

Part 4

Sic Dalar
Chapter 12

 

Several months after the war of the gods, a male passenger stood in the bow of a cargo ship in the early morning hours as it sailed north for Sic Dalar. He was dressed in supple leather armor and a red cape. His head was bare and a soft sea breeze ruffled his hair. At his side, he wore a sword. He liked the sea, so he visited that spot on deck for a few minutes every morning. This was the third day of the voyage north. He was well aware that the ship was now in known pirate waters, but he was not overly concerned about that. The captain seemed competent, the crew disciplined, and they had an escort.

The ship was under full sail and making good time with the wind at her back. The escorting minotaur war ship was not under full sail. If that had been the case, it would have left the cargo ship far behind. At full sail, the minotaur vessel slipped through the sea at twice the speed of the cargo ship.

The merchant vessel was well on the way to Sic Dalar, carrying a load of items that the people of Sic Dalar would pay a fortune to possess. Mage items of any sort were in high demand. The people of Sic Dalar were nearly one thousand years behind in the development of magic compared to the rest of Althea. Therefore, any mage robes and items that had been created by the gods in the interim were in high demand there. The ship was loaded to capacity with robes, elemental dirks, rings, wristbands and other various mage items. Once it reached port, those items would be delivered to the seller's agent, who would in turn sell them to the people of Sic Dalar.

The captain of the merchant ship was being paid to deliver these items by the seller. He would find a grain merchant in Harvest Moon who was eager to ship the fine flour, for which Sic Dalar was becoming famed, back to the rest of Althea. Therefore, the return trip would be as profitable as the trip to Sic Dalar. Just four such trips were enough to pay the cost of a good ship.

It was a very profitable time for the merchant fleet. The minotaurs were doing a good job of sinking the lone wolf pirate ships that plagued the trade routes. But there were some foul rumors being circulated these days. According to the rumors, a pirate prince was organizing the pirates into battle groups that sailed together. It was said that he had a fleet of pirate ships, and was ranging the trade routes, and that this fleet had already sunk a small fleet of the Minotaur vessels.

The lookout in the bow of the merchant ship cried, "Sail to the northwest!" The small crew rapidly prepared for battle, should that become necessary. The escorting minotaur ship went to full sail and applied their oars to the task of getting between the merchant ship and the new arrival. Then the lookout called, "More sails to the northeast!" Now three more ships were bearing down on the merchant vessel from the northeast. The minotaur ship turned about and returned to the merchant ship.

The captain of the merchant ship was nervous. He turned to his passengers and said, "This could be bad. I suggest the women retire to my cabin while we see how this turns out. Smiling at the captain, Brimstone turned to the three ladies and winked at them. "Fawnn, Mystyka, and Ziona, do you three want to seek shelter in the captain's cabin?" Beside Fawnn, her husband Veksar grinned and waited for the outburst to come.

Before that outburst began, Brimstone said, "My, good sir, these three ladies are all veterans of the creature wars and the war of the gods." Smiling he said, "They are not accustomed to taking shelter in times of danger." Winking again at the ladies, he added, "And I am not brave enough to suggest it to them."

The captain laughed uproariously at Brimstone's assertion that he was afraid of anything. He knew Brimstone's reputation. Bowing to the women, he said, "Then may the gods protect you, and thank you for the help. This could get very bad."

 

***

 

The ships were pirates and as soon as they were within range, they began firing arrows at the crew of the merchant ship. They wanted the cargo, so they wouldn’t damage the ship severely if it could be avoided. They also took the vessels when they could and added them to their fleet to use as their own merchant fleet.

The minotaur ship sank one pirate ship in the opening minutes of the battle, but was severely damaged by the rest of the pirate fleet when they concentrated their fire on the escort vessel.

Brimstone asked the captain to sail between the minotaur ship and the pirates. Reluctantly the captain agreed, though it went against all his instincts.

Brimstone decided it was time to take action himself. He nodded to his friends to prepare, and then pointed one hand at the nearest pirate ship as his ship sailed nearer. "Target the masts,” he instructed, and then he fired a short burst of his pillar of fire spell at the mast of the nearest ship. It was incinerated along with the sail.

Ziona targeted the mast of another ship with her flaming arrows. They were working. The mast and sail soon began to burn. Mystyka aided her with her own spell boulder, which she dropped on the heads of the crewmen attempting to put out the fire.

Fawnn did the same on the remaining ship. As Veksar set fire to the mast and sail with meteor, she prevented the crew from putting out the fire.

The captain of the cargo ship turned toward the minotaur vessel to take on their survivors. There was a sense of urgency because their ship was now sinking.

The three pirate ships were out of the fight for the moment while their crews tried to contain the fires to the masts and sails only. The crew of the cargo ship jeered at the pirate crews as they formed lines and passed bucket after bucket of water toward the men nearest the flames.

By the time the last of the minotaurs had boarded the cargo ship, the crews of the three pirate vessels had succeeded in putting out the fires.

The captain ordered his ship to set sail for Sic Dalar, but the pirates were not finished yet. Their crews manned their oars and headed at full beat for the cargo ship. The minotaurs eagerly awaited a chance to battle the pirates. They were infuriated that they had lost their ship, and were more than ready for the battle to come.

Fifteen minutes later the three pirate vessels overtook the heavily laden cargo vessel. Brimstone considered just using his spells to destroy the pirate ships. But he needed information if he was going to solve the mystery of the pirate prince, therefore, he resisted the urge to destroy them outright.

Two of the pirate ships rowed up beside the cargo ship with one to the port side and the other to the starboard. Their archers fired a wave of arrows at the mixed crews and passengers aboard the cargo ship, forcing them to drop below the rails of the ship. Several crewmembers were wounded during the archers’ attacks, and then the grappling hooks were used to pull the pirate ships up alongside the cargo vessel.

Moments later, the archers stopped firing and the boarding began with waves of pirates boarding the cargo vessel from both of the pirate ships. 

The minotaurs and crew of the cargo ship met the pirates head on as they swarmed aboard. Brimstone and his friends assisted in the defense of the ship and soon the pirates saw that they were overmatched by the sheer skill of the defenders. Only half of the attacking pirates made it back to their ships as they fought to retreat. The defenders had fared much better with only a few severely wounded and none killed.

Brimstone and friends let the pirates escape and assisted the defenders in cutting the ropes attached to the grappling hooks that tied the three ships together. But the minotaurs had other ideas. As one, they all leaped aboard the ship on the port side and ruthlessly attacked the pirates there. So vicious was the attack that many pirates threw down their weapons and leapt into the sea rather than face their wraith.

Moments later, the minotaurs had taken down the black pirate sail and replaced it with their own white sail with the picture of their goddess Shinobi, which they had saved from their own ship. Then they moved to rejoin the battle. But the two remaining pirate ships had picked up their companions in the sea and were rowing away at top beat.

The minotaurs followed them for a few minutes, but then returned dutifully to their escort duty.

 

***

 

Brimstone had seen enough. He had all the information that he needed now.

That night he met with his friends to speak privately with them. He asked them all about their observations during the battle with the pirates. Fawnn noted that they did not abandon the men in the sea from the ship that they lost, and suggested that this was a good indication that there was more to their relationship than just three independent pirate ships joining forces for a single battle.

Veksar noted that there was no insignia on their sails but that they had indeed worked well together. He was certain he had seen some men from the starboard ship escape to the portside ship when the battle went bad for them.

Mystyka confirmed this, pointing out that she had also seen some of the reverse.

Ziona also confirmed these observations, and she summarized it well when she said that the crews seemed interchangeable, showing no inclination to rejoin the proper ships.

When they asked Brimstone what his plans were, he said, "We sail to Sic Dalar as planned. Once there, we will gather information on the streets and in the tavern of Harvest Moon." Then he grew very serious and he added, "Ladies, there are foul rumors of women disappearing in Harvest Moon. Once there, you will not be traveling in that city or the countryside alone."

He stared into the eyes of each of his friends to see for himself that they understood the seriousness of this threat. Veksar summed it up for all, when he asked, "Do you suspect some die hard fanatics of Dalghard’s are continuing the practices that ruled Sic Dalar for a thousand years?"

Brimstone nodded with a grave expression on his face. "Sadly, not all have adjusted to the new life of freedom for all on Sic Dalar. Many would like to return to the old days of male domination of the females on that isle."

Fawnn's eyes narrowed dangerously when she said, "Well, if they try to take us, we’ll teach them that there is a difference between the women of Sic Dalar, and the women of the rest of Althea."

Mystyka grinned impishly at this statement and drew her dagger to accent it. Ziona just smiled and fingered her bowstring.

Brimstone made a decision. If the women were going to be exposed to the danger of abduction in Harvest Moon, he had some special training that he wanted them to undertake.

 

 


Chapter 13

 

They landed in the bay of Harvest Moon without further incident. The captain of the cargo ship thanked them for their part in the defense of his ship. He made a mental note to hire a couple of mages and archers to join his crew in future voyages. He had seen for himself their effectiveness against the pirates.

The captain sent one of his men with the friends to act as a guide for them and bid the companions farewell. The crewman led them to Artherk's small temple in the city and left to return to his ship.

Inside the temple, the companions met with a priest who immediately recognized Brimstone. He agreed to lead them to a man who would rent them a house for the duration of their stay in Harvest Moon. On the way there, they stopped at the bank where Brimstone made a withdrawal.

 

***

 

The house they rented had belonged to an officer in Dalghard's army. It had several bedrooms and a large training room for practicing the skills of warfare. A wall, meant to ensure the privacy of the occupants, surrounded the house.

This would do adequately for the training that Brimstone wanted to give the other members of the company. The house was situated close to a large tavern that they could visit for meals and information. In addition, there was a large open-air market not too distant from the house. It was his hope that this market might also yield information.

Brimstone liked the house so much that he met with the owner the following day and bought it outright for one and a half million in gold.

Brimstone and company left the house, and headed for a local weapons shop that they had seen near the tavern as they’d walked to the house. Inside the shop, Brimstone ordered several slim dirks of quality steel. He had the shop owner make a few refinements to the blades and they waited while the work was completed. In twenty minutes, the twelve blades were ready. Brimstone paid for the purchase, and then they returned to the house.

They were all getting hungry, and some of the companions wanted to go visit the tavern to eat, but Brimstone insisted that the company be properly equipped before they went anywhere else in the city. Having been captives too many times for their comfort, the ladies agreed to the delay graciously.

Inside the training hall, Brimstone showed the company the three places to hide the customized blades. The shop owner had removed the handles as requested leaving the blades with a full tang but no oversized handles. One went in each member's right boot, one in a secret pocket of their robes in the case of the mages Fawnn and Mystyka and Veksar. Another was hidden in the small of their backs beneath their sashes.

Ziona was different in that she wore armor. Her three blades were a bit harder to conceal, but they managed.

When Mystyka asked why Brimstone was getting none himself, he smiled and started producing concealed blades from three different locations on his person.

They were now ready to go to the tavern to eat, but Brimstone warned them that they had some training to attend to when they returned.

 

***

 

Inside the crowded tavern, they took a table near the corner where they could watch the door and settled down to try their first meal on Sic Dalar.

The crowd seemed peaceful enough. A few patrons seemed a bit rowdy, but for the most part the crowd seemed well behaved. The tavern customers were largely female. There was still a shortage of men on this isle due to the war of the gods.

When the meal arrived, they were all pleasantly surprised. There was roasted antelope, which had been cooked to perfection, a fantastic vegetable stew in rich thick gravy, fresh bread served hot with butter, a wonderful cheese, potatoes fried the way Brimstone loved them and a nice wine.

Savoring the best meal that they had eaten in many days, the companions ate in the comfortable silence of long familiarity.

As he ate, Brimstone carefully noted the surroundings. The few men in the tavern seemed to have adjusted well to the changes in the male and female relationships that were long overdue. None seemed the pirate type. Most of the men seemed to be merchant class with a sprinkling of hunters and one lone warrior.

Rumors had it that the mages had almost en mass gone to Stoneheim to develop their magic spells which were so far behind the rest of the mages of Althea. There wasn't a mage in the place with the exception of his party.

As the companions finished their meal, the talk turned to their plans for their stay in the city. Before they could get into any real detail, Brimstone saw five men enter the tavern. These men looked different from the merchants and hunters present. They looked more self confident and appeared to be able to defend themselves. They moved like warriors.

The other companions noted Brimstone's gaze and glanced quickly in the direction of the door. When they looked at Brimstone again, they noted his almost imperceptible nod and prepared themselves mentally for what might come.

The five newcomers took a table next to Brimstone and company. The three ladies of the party noticed that some of the men were openly leering at them.

“Ignore them, friends,” said Brimstone, loudly enough to be heard by most of the tavern patrons. "I’m sure that they mean you no disrespect."

Some of the men at the other table glared at him, and a tavern girl came over to take their orders. One of the men rudely placed his hand on the woman's backside, and a moment later three other women joined the now angry serving girl.

Brimstone slid his chair back a bit from the table. Just in case they needed help. However, the women seemed pretty much in control of the situation, as was proven by the exchange that took place.

A woman of about forty confronted the five men. She said, "My name is Nambi. I own this tavern. There will be no man handling of my help. The days when a woman could not refuse a man, unless she was with child, are gone." She leaned toward the men and continued, "There's a new god here now. The goddess, Shinobi will punish you if you offend her. The last men who offended her are still washing up onto the beaches of Sic Dalar."

Some of the men began looking around the tavern to see how the other patrons were reacting to this. They seemed to sense that the patrons were solidly in Nambi's corner.

The offending man apologized at a nod from their apparent leader and the other women returned to their duties as the serving girl took the chastised men's orders.

 

***

 

Back at the house, the companions discussed all that they had thus far observed. They concluded that there were still some elements of the population that hadn’t adjusted to the banishment of Dalghard’s edicts.

 

***

 

When Brimstone was twelve years old, he had been instructed in the techniques that he was about to teach his companions. He smiled fondly as he remembered the old warrior who had taught him those lessons. He had excelled at it and often frustrated that teacher to no end.

He began by explaining the basic concepts of the lessons to his companions. "What you are about to learn was taught to me by a devoted follower of my father's when I was a youth. It involves escaping capture. The first lessons involve simply escaping from ropes when you are tied up."

He grinned and nodded at Ziona. "You go first, my fine archer friend." Grinning impishly, she readily agreed.

Brimstone had her to sit in a chair, and then he had her cross her wrists behind the back of the chair and tied her hands behind her back. He also tied her arms at the elbows and ran a length of rope to the back legs of the chair, thus totally immobilizing her arms. Then he tied her legs to the front legs of the chair at the ankles and thighs just above the knees.

Next, he had the companions draw near so that they could see what he was teaching her. Then he walked her through the wrist and finger manipulations designed to loosen the ropes. In five minutes, Ziona had freed her hands, and then she untied her legs.

One by one, Brimstone put the rest through the same training drill. They all managed well. Then he stepped up the training by progressing to the more difficult positions from which to escape. He put them all through fifteen of the most common positions in which captives are usually kept bound. By the end of the lessons, they all had raw wrists, but every member of the company had adequately passed the course.

Next, he taught them how to incorporate their concealed blades when bound. Mystyka asked, "If we are going to be carrying these blades why bother with the unarmed means of defeating the ropes?"

“Hidden weapons can be located by professionals." He smiled at her and asked, "Are you really willing to bet your life on your enemy's stupidity?"

"A point well taken,” agreed Veksar.

 

***

 

Two days later, they had completed the training to Brimstone's satisfaction. Fawnn had pointed out correctly that it was actually easy once you understood the basic concepts.

Only one set of tying methods had really given them trouble. Methods that incorporated choke knots, which tightened if the victim moved too much were the most difficult to counter. Brimstone taught them to counteract that by moving extremely slowly, limiting movement to the minimal necessary and by having them to work together whenever possible. But to pass the tests to his satisfaction, each had to free himself alone at least once.

To their credit, they all did.

 

***

 

Now Brimstone felt that it was safe for the companions to seek out information. In a meeting with them, he suggested that they try the open-air market first, and then they would try the tavern. Veksar and Fawnn had another idea that they had been discussing privately, and they brought it up at that meeting. They wanted to try a more direct approach and seek information at the city dock, down by the bay.

Brimstone agreed that it was quite possible that they would have to try that, but explained his reluctance by pointing out that if the pirates had spies at the dock, then they would be exposing themselves to great danger.

Fawnn settled that matter by asking innocently, "More danger than the battles with the creatures or the war of the gods?"

Brimstone looked at Veksar and said, "Is she always right?"

"Pretty much,” he replied with a chuckle.

"That must get awfully tiresome,” said Brimstone with a smile, but he patted Fawnn on the shoulder to take the sting out of his words.

"Ok all, then we start at the docks. Chances are best to get the information we seek there anyway." He paused for a moment, and then he added, "Besides, I need to buy a ship."

 

***

 

An hour later, they were at the city docks. Brimstone located the harbormaster’s office and inquired about ships for sale. He was informed that there were many ships for sale now. Dalghard's personal fleet had been broken up after his death. The harbormaster had ended up with a large percentage of that fleet, and had been systematically selling the ships in the months following the war.

Mystyka proved a valuable asset at this point. She began to haggle with the harbormaster before Brimstone had even selected a ship. Before they even left his office, she had him down two hundred thousand gold pieces on whatever ship Brimstone selected.

Finally cursing in frustration, the harbormaster said, "Let’s go to see the ships before this woman has me owing you to take my ship." He led the party down to the dock where his small fleet stood waiting for prospective buyers.

He could see that Brimstone was a warrior, so he thought the companions would want a warship. But Brimstone refused to look at the war ships. He insisted that he was only interested in a cargo vessel. "I want this ship to carry cargo to Stoneheim,” he explained, and then he added, "I want one with a large capacity. The more cargo we can haul back to Stoneheim the richer we will all be."

The harbormaster led them to the largest of the three cargo vessels birthed at that part of the dock. "This ship is probably what you will want then. It belonged to one of Dalghard's generals. That fellow liked to entertain his friends in style. He died in the recent war of the gods. The fellow must have had bad feelings concerning that war. He sold me this ship, which was his pride and joy, just before they left for Stoneheim." 

The cargo ship was shorter in length than the war ships by a good thirty feet, but it was wider by ten. It also had the largest cabin that Brimstone had ever seen on a cargo ship.

They went aboard the vessel and examined it closely. The interior of the cabin was broken up into four smaller rooms. The first room that they entered was apparently meant to be a large common room with a large table and several chairs. There were three small doors leading to other rooms at the back of the main room. Brimstone examined them and found that they were sleeping quarters. Each contained a bed and a small sea chest for holding the occupant's belongings. One of the rooms was a good bit larger than the other two. That room contained a desk and a chair in addition to the other items found in the rest of the rooms.

"This was the general's personal cabin,” explained the harbormaster.

This ship would do nicely Brimstone thought, but he still made a detailed study of the vessel. He personally climbed the mast and inspected it. Back on deck, he noted that the ship had been meticulously maintained and was satisfied that this ship would serve the purpose that he had in mind.

Then the real haggling began. Brimstone was stunned at the low asking price for the ship. The man asked three million in gold for the ship. Mystyka seemed outraged at that price. They haggled for fifteen minutes before settling on two and a half million in gold with the harbormaster throwing in a new sail for the ship.

Before they left, the harbormaster offered Mystyka a job working for him, but she declined.

Brimstone promised to return in an hour with the man's gold. He also asked about local artisans skilled in artwork in cloth or canvas. The harbormaster gave him directions to a shop, which should serve his needs. As he was leaving Brimstone said in an offhand way, "Oh, I also need to know where I can buy a safe to carry some very valuable items back to Stoneheim."

The harbormaster stood stock-still and stared hard at Brimstone. When he spoke, he spoke softly in a low tone of voice saying, "Son, you don't want to go advertising such matters. Just stick them in a bag and toss it on deck as you board to set sail. That way folks will think it worthless and you won't be after attracting the wrong kind of attention."

Brimstone smiled at the man and said, "We can take care of ourselves, sir, but thank you for the advice."

The harbormaster shook his head in exasperation and said, "Well get a good crew then, because if you keep talking in public like you’re talking to me, you’re going to need a good crew. Otherwise, pirates will be on you long afore you see Stoneheim."

"Oh, we won't be needing a crew, sir,” Brimstone replied. There are enough of us to handle the sail just fine."

"In Shinobi's name man, are you insane?!" replied the now agitated harbormaster in a louder tone of voice. "Look man, at least let the women use magic to return home and hire three men to take their places. I'll pay their wages if you are too low on gold."

Brimstone was glad to see that some of the men of Sic Dalar were so honorable, but he remained silent pretending foolish stubbornness.

The harbormaster looked all around as if checking to see if anyone was within earshot, and then he said, "The pirates will be after those women, son. They are low on women in their little kingdom. He smiled at Mystyka and added, "I'd hate for that girl to become a pirate's wench."

Touched by his concern, Mystyka smiled and thanked him, then assured him that she would indeed be quite safe.

In resignation, the man then told Brimstone of another shop that sold safes of a sort. Not the best quality, but a decent deal was to be had.

 


Chapter 14

 

In the next three days, Brimstone and company saw to the ship and its cargo of flour. That cargo was in fifty-gallon barrels. The harbormaster assured Brimstone that the bay was deep enough for the ship to be fully loaded at the dock without fear of bottoming out before reaching the open sea.

When they bought the flour, just as she had for the ship deal, Mystyka negotiated a lower price.

They watched as hired men loaded the fifty barrels of flour. The men lashed the barrels down snugly so that they could not move even in rough weather. That flour would bring near a million in gold back on Stoneheim. Here, it had only cost three hundred thousand in gold. 

The barrels were coated with a waterproof substance that was, according to the harbormaster, quite good at protecting the contents so long as the barrels were not broken in transit.

According to the harbormaster, there was no need to worry about thieves stealing the cargo at the dock. It was common knowledge that the pirates preferred to get the cargos at sea, and that they tolerated no thieves picking over their targets. Indeed, since the pirate prince had begun organizing the pirates, there had been several thieves found killed on the docks. In each case, a note was placed on their bodies warning that this was the fate of all thieves that preyed on the ships at the dock.

The cargo secured, Brimstone next concentrated on the sail. He was delighted to see that it was now ready and he paid the artisans well when he saw the results of their labor.

Their last day in Harvest Moon was uneventful. Brimstone had the food stores for the voyage delivered to the ship. He also had the safe delivered, and went to the expense of hiring a full twenty heavily armed guards to escort his company to the ship with a simple black chest carried on a litter in the middle of the guards. That chest was quite heavy, as it should be considering the fact that it was full of stones. But the crowd that gathered to watch the procession didn’t know that.

Between the safe, the show of guards, and the chest, a crowd had begun to gather dockside and much speculation erupted concerning what it was the strangers had in that chest.

The harbormaster shook his head in sorrow as he thought, "The damned fools are dooming themselves."

The twenty guards stood at attention facing the gathering crowd with weapons bared as Brimstone and Veksar manned two oars and began the laborious process of moving the ship away from the dock. Laughter erupted from the dock as the onlookers realized what a terrible struggle it was going to be for the small crew to get the ship to sea.

When they were well out of sight of the harbor an hour later, Brimstone stopped paddling, and said, "Time to set the sail."

Veksar grinned and rubbed his aching arms. "None too soon for my part,” he said good naturedly, as he wiped sweat from his brow.

The crew had practiced lowering and raising their sail the day before, much to the amusement of the citizens of Harvest Moon. They had stoically ignored the jeers and worked at it for two hours. This time, when they raised the sail, it went much smoother, and soon they were sailing at a brisk pace over the gently rolling waves of the sea.

Ziona was standing in the stern of the vessel having the time of her life, as she held steady to the course. She had always enjoyed boats and often spent time sailing small fishing boats as a young woman. Therefore, she was the most experienced of the crew at handling the ship. She had pointed out that she was woefully inexperienced when it came to vessels of this size, but Brimstone had overruled her, pointing out that she had more experience than any other crewmember.

Brimstone decided it was time to call Damia. He sent a mental message to her, which she immediately answered. A moment later, she appeared on the deck beside her husband. Brimstone smiled and kissed her, and then he pointed to the sail.

The artisans had done an excellent job. The sunlight filtering through the sail only enhanced the majesty of the gryphon pictured there. It was a twenty-five foot picture of a gryphon in full battle stance. With the sun behind the sail, the gryphon glowed.

A matching glow was in Damia's eyes as she remembered the night she had told Brimstone of the bodyguard she’d had as a child; of his intelligence, his devoted protection of a tiny girl prone to getting into mischief as well as danger; of the bond that had been forged between two beings of different species. And how devastated she was to learn he would not be with her when she became Althea's goddess of neutrality. 

Standing behind her, he wrapped his arms lovingly around her and whispered in her ear "Now he will always be with you. I vow to protect you as well as he did, or die in the attempt."

With tenderness evident in her gaze, she gently kissed him. Caressing his cheek she whispered with a laugh in her voice, "I would prefer it not come to that, my husband, for I find I love thee even more than I would have thought possible."

 

***

 

Brimstone had the sail lowered and secured for the night so that the entire crew could have a meeting.

He had explained the basic plan to Damia with mental messages days ago. Now they discussed them in detail in the common room. "The trick should work,” she said. "Did you see any ships leave port just before or after you did?" she asked.

Fawnn answered, "A warship rowed past us fifteen minutes after we left port, Damia. The crew aboard it was rowing at top beat." The others nodded their agreement.

Damia looked at Brimstone and said, "Well the crew is ready to come aboard whenever you wish. The seamen are devoted followers of mine, as you requested, so there can be no doubt as to their loyalty. They are all experienced seamen, and one is a captain. Beloved, I suggest you yield to his judgment when it comes to battle at sea. He is an experienced captain, and has often survived encounters with pirates as he sailed the trade routes between the isles of Althea."

Smiling at his wife, Brimstone said, "Good, for I am a novice at sea battles and the ways of the sea. I’m afraid that I would make some ridiculous mistake that could cost lives."

Damia nodded her head in understanding. "It is an entirely new environment for you, love. There is no shame in needing experienced help to deal with battles at sea."

"Is Tarn the mercenary ready to come aboard with thirty men?" inquired Brimstone.

"He is, beloved,” said Damia.

"Then by all means, dear, please bring them aboard at your convenience."

 

***

 

Damia went on deck and began to teleport people onto the ship one at a time. First, she brought the captain and ten crewmen.

The captain bowed deeply to Damia in greeting, and then immediately ordered the crewmen to see to the cargo lashings, some of which had loosened during the voyage that day. Then he noted the way that the sail was secured. He scowled at the amateur job the companions had done. He ordered two crewmen to fix the sail before it was lost.

Brimstone and company grinned sheepishly and Brimstone shook hands with the captain.

"I'm sorry, sir, but as you can see, we are not experts at the ways of the sea."

Smiling at the company, the captain said, "You have done quite well to get this far out to sea with no experienced help. But please leave the rest of the sailing to my crew. They are good lads all."

He yelled at one seaman and pointed to the stern of the ship. "See to the rudder lad,” he boomed in a loud voice that would have been heard over a typhoon. The seaman scrambled to the stern without question. Lastly, he set a two man watch to ensure that any potential enemies did not catch them off guard.

Damia began to bring the mercenaries aboard. Tarn was the first to arrive and Brimstone greeted his old friend. "Thank you for agreeing to help out on this mission,” he said.

"Thank you for the work, my friend. Work's been slow since the war of the gods, and we would have come for half the pay you offered."

Hearing this Mystyka stepped up, and with an impish grin, she said, "Perhaps we can renegotiate the deal then." Laughing, Tarn said, "I don't think so milady, but thank you for offering."

Brimstone said, "Please post a watch schedule as soon as possible. We put on a good show for any pirate spies back in Harvest Moon, and we are expecting trouble at any moment."

"Consider it done, friend,” said Tarn and he turned away, seeking his second in command.

Locating the captain, Brimstone led him inside the cabin to his quarters. He showed him the charts that he had obtained from the harbormaster. The captain was overjoyed at the charts and said, "Long have I wished for charts of these waters. May I have my man who has a skill at these matters make a copy of the charts for me?"

"Of course, Captain."

Then Brimstone led the captain to the former general’s quarters. The captain approved of the room as he had approved of the entire ship. But he said, "Damia tells me there is a married couple aboard. Please put them in this room. I can sleep on deck. But if they do not need the desk, I do for the charts and such. It can be placed in the common room."

Damia had joined them a few moments earlier. She smiled and teleported the desk into the common room saying, "The walls were built after the desk was placed in here and the door was too small to get the desk out. You will also find another set of charts inside the desk. I made another set for you."

"Thank you, my goddess,” said the captain bowing.

Brimstone said, "Very well, Fawnn and Veksar will have this room, but I insist that you take one of the others. I will sleep on deck. Mystyka and Ziona can double up in the other room."

Before that matter could be settled, they all heard the booming cry of a lookout shouting, "Ship off the port side!"

 

***

 

Outside the cabin, men scrambled to their posts. The seamen knew their duties from long experience. The mercenaries had been assigned battle positions by the ever-efficient Tarn and they stood stoically at the ready.

It was the early morning hours now. That time of the day when night is fading and a new day is dawning. Off to port in the distance a ship was sailing on a course that would intercept their ship.

The captain spoke beside Brimstone, "Do we fight or do we run?"

"We fight, Captain Barnes,” said Brimstone, and then he gave a rapid set of orders which everyone onboard the ship hastened to carry out.

Damia kissed him goodbye and left. By the accords of the gods, she could not be personally involved in the battle to come.

 

***

 

The pirates aboard the ship expected little resistance. They rowed at full beat bearing down on the cargo ship. The captain of the pirate ship spoke to his crew saying, "Remember our orders. We take the women and the ship. We kill the men. We need the ship intact so we will board her." 

The crew of the pirate ship thought that they were taking their victims by surprise. So far, there was no sign of anyone on the deck of the ship. Some speculated that all of the fools were asleep.

 

***

 

Brimstone was crouched down near the bow, next to a port side oarlock. Thus concealed, he observed the pirate ship approach. The pirates were rowing with great skill. There was very little noise from their oars as they slipped into and out of the water. As they rowed, they dropped the cadence of their oars and were now on a slow approach at one-quarter beat. Of course, their drummer was not beating the cadence for this surprise attack. That would have alerted their potential victims.

They stopped rowing their ship when they were within about one hundred feet  of Brimstone's ship and let their ship drift alongside what they thought was their sleeping victim. Agile ship hands tied the two ships together. But before the first man could board, Brimstone gave the order for the mercenaries to begin their assault. 

Brimstone, Tarn, and his thirty men leapt up from concealment, and to the utter shock of the pirates, they jumped aboard the pirate vessel. The pirate ship had a crew of some sixty men, but the element of surprise was in Brimstone's favor. In the first few minutes of the battle, the pirates lost half their crew.

The pirates tried to rally a counterattack in order to force Brimstone and the mercenaries to return to their ship. But Veksar and the ladies were waiting, as were the captain and his crew. Between Ziona's bow and the spells of the three mages, they accounted for another ten pirates. So savage was the companion's defense of the ship that the mercenaries were not forced to return to their ship to defend it and were able to maintain their attack on the pirates. The captain's crew guarded the cabin and made sure that no pirate made it inside.

A horn sounded and the pirates still aboard returned to their ship. At an order from Brimstone, Tarn and his mercenaries leapt back aboard their own ship with the captured sail of the pirate vessel.

Brimstone and Tarn were the last men back aboard. They tossed a wounded mercenary to waiting hands, and then leapt back aboard the ship themselves.

Acting on Brimstone's orders, the mercenaries jeered at the pirates who were cutting the lines that secured the two ships. With their own oars, Brimstone's crew pushed the pirate ship away from their ship.

The now diminished pirate crew cursed loudly as they surveyed the damage to their ship, the loss of their fellows and the loss of their sail. They knew that thus diminished and without a sail, the return voyage to their isle would be a struggle at best. To make matters worse they were returning completely defeated.

Their captain called them to order. In moments, they manned their oars and headed away at less than a third their normal speed. 

 

***

 

Brimstone's boarding party had been unable to capture the pirate ship captain's charts as they’d hoped. The counterattack of the pirates had stalled that effort. But overall, it was a complete victory for Brimstone's crew. The mercenaries had taken some casualties, but none were seriously wounded.

The ship captain Damia had brought onboard had his crewman who was experienced in treating battle wounds tending to the wounded mercenaries. Mystyka and Fawnn were healing all those in need. Brimstone noted that Tarn was staring at Mystyka in admiration and smiled but said nothing.

It was full day now, and the pirate ship was growing smaller by the moment. Hastily, Brimstone consulted with the captain, asking him if he could follow the pirates at a distance and remain unobserved. The captain said, "No one can do that, sir. We can but try, but such men as those will keep a grim watch to be sure."

They followed the pirates all that day and into the night. They lost them in the darkness though. The captain studied the charts at his desk in the common room with Brimstone and Tarn waiting near. Finally he said, "There are isles near this spot, but there is no way to know which isle could be the stronghold of the Pirate Prince. It could be either or none."

Veksar spoke up saying, "I considered suggesting that we use the pirate's sail to mask our appearance but that idea is no good. It is too small to fit this ship."

"That wouldn't work for long if it worked at all, friends,” replied the captain. "They signal each other with flags, and we don’t know their signals."

"Then we seem to be at a loss for what to do next,” said Brimstone. Then he added, "Very well, Captain. Set sail for Stoneheim at first light. We will deliver the cargo of flour and pick up more trade goods for Sic Dalar. I also need to bring a few more men onboard."

The captain nodded his understanding and said, "I'd estimate we can be in Stoneheim in three days, baring incident."

 

***

 

The captain's estimate was good. Three days later, they made port in Stoneheim. Brimstone laughed when Mystyka volunteered to handle the selling of the flour for him. He also smiled when Tarn insisted on sending a heavy guard detachment with her to protect her when the transaction was made.

A few hours later, Mystyka returned with her guard detachment and she was smiling radiantly. "It went really well,” she explained. "Two merchants got into a bidding war over the flour and I sold it for one million five hundred thousand in gold."

Brimstone thanked her and took the gold. He paid Captain Barnes and his crew the agreed upon price, and paid Tarn what the mercenaries had coming, with a comfortable bonus to each of the wounded men. He quietly asked Tarn if he wished to continue in the endeavor. Tarn leapt at the chance. Brimstone encouraged him to bring onboard another twenty able men to bring his force to fifty. "Men you are certain have no ties to the pirates please. Bring your most trusted only."

"Of course, friend,” Tarn replied.

 


Chapter 15

 

The next day, Brimstone handed Mystyka a pouch of gold, instructing her to ask the other ladies to join her for a shopping spree to gather items that they felt the women of Sic Dalar might like. "We may as well open a small shop there to sell our items as we investigate,” he explained. "That would bring us in contact with many more people.

Tarn was quick to appoint a hefty guard detail once more. Veksar joined Brimstone as the three Ladies were walking away to make the purchases. He smiled at the presence of so many armed guards and said, "Do you really think that is necessary here?"

"Not really,” replied Brimstone, then he added, "But you never know. Somehow, the pirates seem to know when a ship with a good cargo is leaving for Sic Dalar." Shrugging he finished, "At any rate it is good practice for the guards and the ladies. In Harvest Moon such precautions might well be necessary during our next stay there."

Veksar gravely nodded his head. "Well, it lets the ladies become accustomed to the guards. Maybe in Harvest Moon they won't raise a fuss."

 

***

 

The women and their guards returned a few hours later. What they had elected to purchase took Brimstone and Veksar by surprise. They had purchased a large supply of crowns of visionary, sausages, and hams.

The crowns of visionary were Fawnn's idea. She explained that the women of Sic Dalar had been repressed for so long that in her opinion the crowns would be a boon to their self-esteem. "Let them think of themselves as special, like royalty. That's got to be better than remembering their past and thinking of themselves as breeding stock for Dalghard's army,” she put it simply.

The hams were Ziona's idea. She had noticed that Sic Dalar had no pigs or at least that there were no pork products for sale. Mystyka delighted at the prospect of selling rare foods to the people of Sic Dalar and promised to keep the prices reasonable. She had discovered that she missed the ham when on Sic Dalar.

Mystyka reported that the merchant she bought the food items from would be sending the rest in a few hours. They had all but emptied his shop and he was sending the rest by hired men from a local storehouse.

 

***

 

There was one incident of note that occurred when they returned with their purchases that should be mentioned. Most of the guards had assisted in carrying the purchases back to the ship. Tarn frowned when he saw that, and Brimstone said, "I hope they don't do that on Sic Dalar."

Tarn looked at his friend with understanding in his eyes. "So do I, Brimstone. This was very careless of them. If they had been attacked, it would have been bad."

"Well Sic Dalar has horse drawn carts,” said Brimstone. "They have trained the wild horses to pull carts as a result of their heavy agriculture. Hopefully, the guards will arrange for those carts to carry the items."

"They will, sir. You can count on that."

Brimstone smiled. He was sure that Tarn would discuss the matter in detail with his men later when they were alone.

The hams and sausages from the shop were all stored in the large common room. Those delivered later from the local storehouse were all neatly packaged in wooden crates that were pretty much waterproof unless they were submerged. Mystyka dutifully inventoried all the items being brought aboard. Tarn volunteered to assist her with spot-checking the crates. He would open some at random and she would check the contents.

When all of the cargo was aboard she reported to Brimstone that all the items were present and accounted for. "Captain Barnes has his crewmen securing the cargo. He warns that if we are to leave at first light tomorrow, then we should all stay aboard tonight."

 

***

 

They set sail for Sic Dalar with the tide the next morning.

Captain Barnes was thrilled with the new charts that Damia had made for him. They were copies of charts Brimstone had obtained from the harbormaster in Harvest Moon. By using them, he could take advantage of the prevailing winds and travel back and forth between Sic Dalar and Stoneheim much more efficiently. Before, it had been necessary to use the prevailing winds until they hit unknown seas then trust to luck or row when they lost the wind. Now he could see the prevailing winds carefully charted in the unknown areas that were new to him. By comparing the two charts, he was able to determine the most efficient course to take that would maximize the use of the wind.

For half a day, they sailed west from Stonecrest where they encountered a very strong southern wind. From there, the ship headed northeast for Sic Dalar.

 

***

 

A day later, the men on watch gave the alarm. Two sails had been spotted heading for their ship.

Brimstone stood on the deck beside Tarn and Captain Barnes, who was using a brass spyglass to observe the two ships approaching them. Captain Barnes lowered the spyglass and said, "They are pirates and apparently they are attempting to intercept us."

Brimstone nodded his head and said, "Very well, Captain, let them come. Tarn, prepare the men to repel borders, should it come to that."

Tarn left to see to the defenses immediately. Brimstone turned to the rest of the companions and smiled. "Prepare yourselves. This time we hit the ships at once if they move to attack us. Inflict as much damage as you can."

"We are giving up on following a surviving ship or capturing their charts?" asked Fawnn.

"I’m sure that they’ll be prepared for boarders this time,” replied Brimstone. "By now, surely the survivors of our last battle have warned the others." He grinned at the companions then added, "And I have recently come to believe that we will uncover the location of the pirates, not on the sea, but in Harvest Moon."

"What makes you believe that?" asked Ziona.

Brimstone answered with only one word, "Damia."

 

***

 

The two pirate ships stood off at the extreme edge of their catapult range and attempted to set fire to the ship with bundles of burning rags soaked in oil. Captain Barnes' crewmen promptly smothered out the first two flaming bundles, and then Ziona and Brimstone began to take care of the flaming projectiles. Ziona used ice arrows. The impacts with the flaming bundles sometimes knocked them off course, but also often put out the flames as the ice melted while the bundles were still in flight. Brimstone used a fire spell of his own and incinerated the projectiles in midair upon contact.

At Tarn's urging, Captain Barnes had crewmen row them within bow range so that Tarn's archers could attack the pirates.

Veksar fired his meteor spell at the masts of the pirate vessels, but the pirates had taken the precaution of removing the sails and watering down their masts with buckets of seawater. The masts steamed a bit but did not ignite.

Mystyka and Fawnn were firing boulder spells at the enemy in an effort to keep them from becoming well organized. Veksar gave up on the masts and concentrated on the small cabins on both ships, which were blocking his view of the catapults.

Some of Tarn's archers joined the fray, shooting fire arrows at the enemy ships. Here and there, small fires broke out. The pirates quickly dowsed those fires with seawater.

Brimstone gave the order to raise sail and attack the two pirate ships. The wind was at their stern when, abruptly, the mainsail shot up to the top of the mast. A moment later the sail snapped taunt with the wind filling it, and the ship surged toward the pirates.

The pirates had to rely on their oars since the wind was in their faces. Distracted by the mages and the archers, their attempts to row to a better defensive position were clumsy at best. Sluggishly, the two ships began to make some progress in their attempts to escape the coming attack.

The catapult crews attacked the sail of the Gryphon and found out to their great disgust that the sail would not burn. The seamen put out the fires the burning bundles ignited when they fell to the deck.

 

*Somewhere on a god isle, Damia smiled. No man would burn her Gryphon.*

 

As their ship sailed between the two pirate ships, the archers and mages raked the men and ships with a barrage of fire arrows, fire spells, and boulder. They had the satisfaction of destroying the two catapults. Their victory was not without a price though. Two seamen, and three of Tarn's mercenaries were wounded when they were struck by pirate arrows as they sailed between the two ships.

Brimstone ordered, "All fire to the cabins now!"

Immediately every archer fired at the two cabins, as did Veksar. Soon both cabins were engulfed in flames. As they sailed away, Captain Barnes laughed, and said, "They'll be lucky to save both ships now. There is no way they will be able to follow us anytime soon."

"Very well, Captain. Please consult your charts and change our course to one not likely to be guessed by the pirates, even if it puts us a day or two off our scheduled landing in Sic Dalar,” ordered Brimstone.

"That’s a good idea, Brimstone” replied the captain, who went into the cabin to study the charts. He was beginning to have a deep respect for Brimstone and his companions. They were most remarkable people. Brave and competent, these people were not fools when it came to survival on the open sea.


 

Chapter 16

 

Several days later, the harbormaster was standing on his dock when a ship sailed into view. He stared hard at the Gryphon on the sail. He wondered who was sailing the ship that he had sold to the newcomers a few weeks ago. It never entered his mind that they would still own that vessel. They had made every conceivable mistake prior to departing, despite his heartfelt advice and protests.

He sent an assistant to bring the city guard. It was his intention to have the crew of the Gryphon arrested. It was the least he could do for the nice people to whom he’d sold the ship to a few weeks ago.

 

***

 

Twenty minutes later, the Gryphon docked. Brimstone walked down the gangplank and greeted the stunned harbormaster. "Good day to you, sir, and well met."

"You are alive?" said the harbormaster in disbelief.

"Yes, sir, that I am. We did have a bit of trouble though. A pirate ship attacked us on the way to Stoneheim. On the way back we were attacked by two."

The harbormaster stared at the mercenaries and seamen that lined the rail of Brimstone's ship. "Well I see you decided to take my advice and get some help. Good for you." He assumed that the companions had narrowly escaped the encounter with the pirate ship on their voyage to Stoneheim and had wisely hired more help for the return voyage to Sic Dalar.

Mystyka yelled out a greeting to the harbormaster and ran down the gangplank to give him a hug. "Hello, friend!" she said, and then she added, "Selling anything good today?"

Smiling at the outrageous young woman, he said, "Not to you, I'm not. I'm still stinging from the loss of gold I had from our last deal."

Growing serious, she asked, "Have there been any more recent disappearances in Harvest Moon?"

The harbormaster was caught off guard by her abrupt question, and replied without thinking. "Unfortunately, yes, several young women have gone missing in the past week."

"What area of town were they in when they went missing?" she asked.

"Several different areas,” he answered. "Nambi, the tavern owner, disappeared three days ago, and she had just stepped out to check on supplies in a storage building in back of her tavern. There were others near the market that also went missing."

He wasn't sure why he was telling the companions so much, but he felt that he should.

 

*Damia smiled as she gently manipulated the harbormaster’s will a bit more.*

 

"There is talk of a cult of Dalghard. They believe that their god will return. They are taking women to serve as breeders for their cult,” He finished by saying, "Rumor has it that they recently established a strong base here in Harvest Moon. If that be true, they are becoming a powerful enemy."

 

*Damia released the man's will.*

 

"Thank you for the information, my friend,” Mystyka replied. "We will be careful."

The harbormaster was confused. He hadn't intended to be so generous with information. That could be quite unhealthy, especially in public. He was now a bit concerned that he might have said too much in front of the wrong people.

He needn't have worried. Damia erased the memory of the conversation from the minds of all but the companions and the harbormaster. The man had tried his best to protect Brimstone when he thought that Brimstone didn't know what he was doing. That fact endeared the man to Damia and she wasn't likely to forget his attempts to protect her husband and the companions. Not even Brimstone knew to what extent Damia lovingly watched over him when she felt that he was in a potentially dangerous situation.

 

***

 

Tarn posted several guards outside the house and a patrol that walked the perimeter around the outside of the fence. Inside the house, the companions prepared to go investigate a few things. They needed a bit of privacy for a few minutes, because Brimstone wanted to call on Damia for her help.

When she appeared in the house with Brimstone, he kissed her, and then said, "I have missed you, beloved."

"And I have missed thee, husband." She smiled and continued, "The harbormaster was quite forthcoming with his information, was he not?"

"Ahh, I did wonder at his openness with Mystyka," Brimstone replied smiling.

Growing very serious, Damia said, "The cult is growing worse. They are so bad now that they are taking women in broad daylight, not just under the cover of darkness, and they are growing in the number of hardcore fanatics."

"So I have surmised, dear. I think it’s time to bring in a bit more help. I have spoken  with Mystyka's brothers and they are more than willing to come here to assist. So is Sol Justice. Would you be so kind as to teleport them here?"

"You want XconX, Genkaku, Corey, and Sol?"

"Yes please,” was Brimstone's reply.

Five minutes later the four men were there.

 

***

 

Inside the tavern, the companions who had previously visited that establishment immediately noticed the difference in the atmosphere. The same serving girl was there. The three women in the party all noticed that she had apparently been beaten recently. The left side of her face was swollen.

Two other women who worked in the tavern also appeared to have been beaten.

The patrons of the tavern were different as well. An overall rowdy atmosphere now permeated the peaceful and serene haven that they remembered from their previous visits.

Fawnn immediately bristled at the obvious signs of abuse that the women were enduring. When the serving girl reached their table, she asked in a loud voice, "Where is Nambi? And how is it that she tolerates the abuse you girls are obviously taking?"

The serving girl went utterly pale in an instant, and tried to silence Fawnn with a pleading look and a silencing gesture.

But Fawnn was not to be silenced. She was furious that the women were being abused and that they were meekly submitting to it. She continued, "Speak girl. No one will harm you. I guarantee that."

"And just who are you woman, that you make guarantees to my servants in my business,” responded a gruff male voice.

Brimstone and Veksar stood up as a big man walked with a swagger toward the table. Behind him were three other men. Fawnn remained calmly seated as did Mystyka, but Ziona stood and took a step behind her two friends to guard their backs.

"My name is Fawnn, and when last I was here Nambi owned this tavern. I am here seeking her,” replied Fawnn fearlessly.

Many of the patrons of the tavern had stopped what they were doing and were staring at the unfolding events centered around the companions. Unlike their earlier visit, Brimstone noted that most seemed hostile and eager to see the man chastise this bold woman.

He prepared himself mentally for what was almost certain to come. He immediately sent mental messages to Mystyka's brothers waiting outside near the tavern with Sol Justice. He also sent a message to Tarn to prepare, just in case they had more trouble than they could handle.

"Nambi sold the place to me and moved away,” the man lied. "Now get out of my tavern while you can still leave on your own feet, wench,” threatened the man.

Without a word of warning Fawnn launched an attack at the man from a quite unexpected source. She kicked the seat of the chair directly before her on the other side of the table, causing it to slide backwards across the floor. It slid the eighteen inches separating it from the man in an instant, slamming solidly into his groin.

The man bent over clutching himself in severe pain. Veksar slammed his right fist into the left side of the man's face knocking him to the floor and warned, "Never threaten my wife."

The other three men leaped instantly into action, but Brimstone was ready for them. His right foot slammed into the groin of one man, causing him to vomit on the spot. His right fist struck another man so hard in the solar plexus that he slumped down to the ground unconscious.

Veksar grabbed the last man by the hair as he tried to dart past him to get to Fawnn. Holding the man's head by that useful handle, he slammed his face repeatedly into the tabletop. After three such slams, he let the man go and turned to face the rest of the people in the tavern.

It was a good thing he did, because from all over the tavern male patrons were converging on the companions. Brimstone sent two mental messages in three heartbeats then prepared to defend his friends.

Three men dove at Veksar, and Brimstone waded in to assist his friend. At the same time, Fawnn dodged a plate hurled at her face by a male patron two tables over. She retaliated with manaburst into that man’s face.

Mystyka felt someone grab her hair from behind and yank her backwards overturning her chair. Glancing up she saw Ziona struggling with two men attempting to reach Fawnn. Standing over her, she saw a brutish man in studded leather armor, his fist raised to strike her.

She also heard things. She heard the doors to the tavern crashing open and a bellow of rage. A moment later Tarn was standing beside her. With his left hand, he grasped the man about to strike her by his throat and lifted him off the ground. Holding him up thus, he drew back his right fist and then thrust a punch into the man's groin that would have him walking oddly for days to come. He tossed the suffering man aside as one might a child's toy doll.

XconX, Corey, and Genkaku were also there battling it out hand to hand with several patrons. Several of Tarn's mercenaries were there as well. By now, it was a full-scale brawl.

A hooded man in a gray cloak stepped up behind the two men that Ziona was still struggling with and expertly smashed their heads together, causing them to collapse. Ziona glanced up into what she considered remarkable gray green eyes.

Smiling, the cloaked man nodded at her then turned his attention to another burly patron who seemed intent on trying to hit him with an ale mug. A moment later, that patron was sleeping fitfully with a rather large lump on his head.

Sol Justice had picked up a small three-legged stool and was using it to block dagger thrusts by an obviously drunken man. Finally growing tired of the clumsy attacks of the man, he slammed the stool into the top of the patron's head laying him out on the tavern floor.

It ended as abruptly as it had begun. One moment it was a madhouse of brawling men and women, and the next it was dead quiet in the tavern.

Fawnn went to the man who claimed to be the owner of the tavern and poured an ale in his face. Sputtering, he awoke and she said, "I'll ask you this just once more. Where is Nambi?"

The man was now afraid. Most of his friends were in the tavern, and they were all down nursing various injuries from the combat with these strangers. "She’s at my house,” replied the man.

The serving girl spoke up and said, "That piece of filth took over Nambi's home, M'Lady."

"You know where it is?" asked Fawnn?

"Yes I do,” was the quick reply. "I can lead you."

"Please lead my friend Tarn to that house if you will,” interjected Brimstone. To Tarn he said, "Take men with you, but leave a couple here with us."

 

***

 

Brimstone had the city guard summoned while he was waiting for Tarn to return.

When Tarn and his group of men left for Nambi's house, several of the locals who had attempted to help the men the companions were fighting attempted to leave. Brimstone ordered them to sit down until this was all sorted out. Several complained but those complaints died out when Genkaku smacked a few men on the top of the head with his sword pommel.

Half an hour later, Tarn returned with Nambi and fifteen other women. The man claiming to be the new owner of the tavern and his friends had systematically abused all of the captives. The mercenary also had several male prisoners with him who had been guarding the females.

When Tarn escorted the women inside the tavern, many of the men tried to hide their faces from the women. Brimstone noted that and smiled. With a bit of luck they just might seriously damage this new cult tonight.

The city guard lined the men up and asked the women to point out those of the men who had abused them. Nambi and the rest of the women indicated that almost all of those men present in that line had abused them. Some had abused them daily.

While this was going on, no one noticed the gray cloaked man take a woman by the hand and smile at her. He then released her hand and moved to stand beside Brimstone. The woman joined the rest of the women. When it came her time to indicate those who had abused her, she cried as she had indicated the tavern owner, who seemed to be the leader of these men. Her description of the abuse was quite graphic. By the time it was finished the gray cloaked man had pulled his cloak aside to reveal a sword in a scabbard.

The gray cloaked man spoke to the captain of the city guard in a quiet voice saying, "This is my sister. I claim family right to vengeance." The room grew deadly quiet and he continued, "But I will not kill an unarmed man. Someone give him a sword so he can defend himself."

The captain of the guard nodded his head gravely, "That is within the law,” he said simply.

Brimstone thought to intervene, but Damia spoke to him in his mind saying, "Nay beloved, let this come to pass. It is necessary to set this example now or the cult will flourish. This will cause it to diminish to nearly nothing after tonight."

The captain of the guard ordered one of his men to give the villain a sword.

The gray cloaked man pulled back the hood of his cloak and smiled at the villain. When next he spoke, it was with a deadly seriousness that belied his pleasant smile. "Touching my sister was a most grievous error on your part. Now you will learn the consequences of that folly."

Without another word, he attacked.

Tarn, Genkaku, the mercenaries, and Brimstone all knew a superb swordsman when they saw one. One moment this man had been talking calmly to the villain with his sword in its scabbard and the next moment, his sword was attacking with lightning speed.

Methodically he cut the man seven times, as he attempted to defend himself. Finally, he mercifully killed the hopelessly outmatched man who had barely been able to parry even his slowest strikes, which were still amazingly fast.

The gray cloaked man cleaned his sword on the tunic of the dead man and sheathed it. He then turned to his sister and said, "Did anyone else harm you while you were their captive."

The pale faced girl shook her head indicating that none had. He turned to face the assembled villains and said, "I will remember every face here. If ever again another woman disappears, here or at sea, then I will seek you out one by one and slay you all."

He turned to Brimstone and said, "Thank you and your friends for helping to free my sister. I am in your debt."

He turned and walked away. Taking his sister's hand, he led her outside the tavern.

The captain of the guard turned his attention to the other men who had abused the women. Then he turned his attention to the women. "What punishment do you seek?" he asked.

It was decided that four others deserved death, for they had systematically abused all the women, often brutally. Consulting with Damia, Brimstone confirmed this. The captain of the city guard consulted his deity, Shinobi, asking if the accusations were true. She replied that they were true and that the men were guilty of much more that had not yet become known. She finished by saying, "They are not redeemable. So vile is their spirit that they will corrupt even your guards if you permit them to live."

The captain then had each of the four men put to the sword.

The harbormaster entered the tavern as the last of the villains died.

The captain of the guard eyed the remaining men. Turning to the women he asked, "And what punishment for these?"

"Exile,” was the reply from Nambi. The other women nodded their heads in agreement.

"Won't they just join the pirates and continue to be a threat?" asked Brimstone.

"If they do that we will deal with them at that time,” replied the captain of the guard eager to have this unpleasant business concluded.

There were audible groans from some of the men condemned to exile and suddenly the punishment seemed appropriate. "Done!" Damia said to Brimstone in his mind.

 

 


Chapter 17

 

A week had passed since the cult of Dalghard had been broken in the tavern of Harvest Moon. It had been a busy week. Brimstone had purchased a small shop in the market area and set it up with the different items they brought from Stoneheim.

The crowns of visionary were well received by the women of Sic Dalar. They were quite the fashion rage at social gatherings from what they overheard from the eager ladies purchasing them.

The hams and sausages were also a good seller. The women were happy to have something different to add to their meals. It had been quite a long time since they had enjoyed such a treat. A farmer had revealed that Dalghard had ordered all pigs slaughtered and salt cured during his preparations for the war of the gods. When what the farmers supplied fell short of his demands, he had several brought before him. During their interrogations, he learned that the farmers had reserved their breeding stock from the slaughtering. He immediately sent troops to every known farm on Sic Dalar with orders to seize all the stock.

The farmers had been helpless to stop the slaughter of their breeding stock, so there were no domesticated pigs left on Sic Dalar.

After learning this, Brimstone sent word to an agent whom he had retained in Stoneheim to purchase a large supply of breeding stock. Preferably, the sows should already be pregnant whenever possible. Two days after commencing the arrangements, he received word that three shiploads of breeding stock would leave Stoneheim in another day and be in pirate waters in three days.

Brimstone sent word back for the agent to hire six minotaur warships to act as escorts. This shipment to Sic Dalar would relieve a lot of stress on the people and every safeguard would be taken to see to its arrival.

Next, he sent word throughout the farming community that help was on the way. A day later, many farmers arrived at the shop to see if the word they were hearing was true. Brimstone assured all that it indeed was true. Then one poor farmer broached the subject that was on the minds of most of the farmers when he asked, "How are we supposed to pay for the stock? Most of us went broke when Dalghard took our stock."

Damia had prepared Brimstone for this moment and offered the perfect solution that would appeal to the farmers.

He said, "We will make a record of every farmer who takes stock. When it comes time to slaughter your stock you will deliver one processed hog here for every one that you take as breeding stock. If you take a pair you return two processed at slaughtering time every slaughtering season for three seasons."

One old farmer spoke up and said, "That is fair." But a younger farmer said, "You call that fair? He gets six processed for two breeders."

The older farmer spat on the ground in disgust, and then he said, "Young fool. Any breeding pair is worth fifteen processed animals and you'd be after knowing that if you hadn't spent your whole life with your head up Dalghard's rear."

Boisterous laughter greeted that comment and the young farmer slowly grinned and said, "You are right of course. Well, about the hogs anyway. The rest is your old age talking. You know full well I never cared for Dalghard."

Grinning at the younger man, the old man nodded and extended his hand to shake with the younger man. They shook hands and the talk instantly returned to the coming deal. Before they left, many of the farmers pre-registered for a breeding pair so that they would be reserved for them. They were warned that any animals not claimed the first day of the transactions would be released the second day. All those who heard that laughed and assured the companions that they would indeed be there on the first day of the transactions.

 

***

 

A few days later, the ships sailed into view of the docks. Before the first ship had even been secured, anxious farmers began to arrive. The farmers present at dockside got their pick of the stock. Brimstone was happy to see that the old farmer was there with the younger man beside him and both got a pregnant sow and a boar.

By nightfall, every animal had been claimed. Several disappointed farmers went home empty handed but their more fortunate neighbors had promised to give them some animals from their first litters.

But a strange thing happened. Every farmer who walked home without breeding stock encountered a young woman standing on the road. She was standing beside a large wagon loaded with adult sows and boars. "Take two as you need,” she would tell each farmer she met. "Thank you lady,” most replied simply. She would smile and say, "You’re welcome, but remember your deal with Brimstone. Return two as agreed every season for three." The farmers happily agreed to do so.

That night the farmers slept, dreaming of the rebirth of their farms, and with hope in their hearts for the first time in ages. Damia did one last thing that night.

The next morning the farmers noticed Damia's handiwork. Excited by the knowledge that they had acquired new animals many rushed out to see them as the sun came up. They found the hogs in the pigpens with a new litter of piglets. No new litter ever had such tender loving care as that first litter that Damia caused to be born overnight on Sic Dalar.

 

***

 

Brimstone put the word out that he was seeking the base of the Pirate Prince. The first few days nothing happened. Not one person came forward to give any information regarding that base. Then they had their first real break.

A gray cloaked man appeared in the companion's shop. He spoke to Ziona whose turn it was to be at the counter, saying, "I would like to speak to Brimstone. Is he here?"

Ziona smiled and greeted the man, then called to Brimstone to come out front.

Brimstone greeted the man and said, "May I help you in some way?"

"I would like to talk to you privately, if I may,” replied the man.

Brimstone stared hard at the newcomer and said, "I remember you from the tavern. Of course, we can talk. Please follow me." They left the front of the shop and entered a small room used as the business office. Inside the room were a desk and three chairs. Brimstone indicated a chair for his visitor then took a seat himself.

The man in the cloak appeared to gather his thoughts a moment then he said, "My name is John Trueblade, and I have a tale for you."

John spoke at some length of two young men who had been forced into service in Dalghard's military. He spoke of their rigid training and their loathing of the god whom they both considered vile. He spoke of the friendship that they had formed and the trials that they had faced together. He then spoke of troubled times. A high ranking officer had formed a dislike for the two friends and made their lives unbearable. Then one day John had been forced to kill that officer to save his friend whom the officer was about to kill. They had been forced to flee together to save their lives.

For days, they had hidden along the dock in first one place, then another. Finally, they boarded a ship heading for sea. It was a warship of Dalghard's. Once at sea, the captain of that ship had discovered them, as they lay hidden among the food stores. The captain had them chained to oars and forced them into slave labor until they could return to port.

The third day of their servitude, a pirate ship attacked the warship. The warship captain was an inept fool and he lost that battle in an hour. Most of his crew rebelled in the end, sick of his ineptitude and cruelty.

The two friends were freed and were given two options. Join the pirates or walk on water. Since neither had that useful skill, they opted to join the pirates. Both friends were natural leaders and gifted in battle skill. At the end of two years both had risen to the rank of captain. They raided Dalghard's ships whenever they could.

Two years after they had gained their captaincies, his friend Gryfalcon was chosen as the leader of the pirate band that consisted of many ships.

A year later, Gryfalcon began to change. Those changes came about slowly over a long period. Friction developed between the two long time friends and eventually open hostility became the norm for them. Then one day Gryfalcon ordered a change in the pirate's orders. No longer were they to prey on Dalghard's fleet exclusively. Now they were to attack any ship at sea. The ultimate goal was to secure women for the crewmen and to secure gold as rapidly as possible.

These changes appealed to the natural greed of most of the men, but a few, like John Trueblade, held to the old codes of honor and decency. Several men approached him and asked him to lead them in Gryfalcon’s place. Gryfalcon learned of this and assumed that his old friend was about to betray him. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He had flatly rejected every suggestion along those lines. But Gryfalcon sent men against him. He defended himself and his supporters joined him in that defense.

But they were vastly outnumbered. Finally, to save themselves they were forced to flee aboard his ship. That was a year ago. Now Gryfalcon was becoming as bad as the god Dalghard, whom they had once both loathed. He and his band were enslaving men and women at an alarming rate, and murdering entire crews that dared to resist them.

"Try to understand, Brimstone. I never killed a man who wasn't in Dalghard's service. Not a one. Gryfalcon was like that too at first. He changed. I didn’t." He finished by saying, "They must be stopped and their slaves rescued." He paused a moment then added, "To that end I want to place my ship and crew at your disposal in this war."

Finishing his tale, John reached into a pocket and pulled forth a folded piece of parchment. He opened it and spread it on the desk. With his finger, he pointed to an isle marked on that map.

 

 


Chapter 18

 

As usual, Damia had been right. She had told Brimstone that they would locate the Pirate Prince's isle through information obtained on Sic Dalar in the city of Harvest Moon.

They sat in war council aboard the Gryphon. Brimstone and the companions were there, as was Captain Barnes, and Tarn the mercenary. John Trueblade was briefing the companions on what sort of resistance they could expect. He explained that as best he knew Gryfalcon had about twenty ships with short crews of about fifty to sixty men each. He seemed surprised that this did not alarm the companions until Captain Barnes reminded him that they had faced tens of thousands of Dalghard's troops recently and therefore the prospect of twelve hundred pirates did not excessively alarm them.

He went on to explain the layout of the isle that the pirates used as a base. The island was relatively small. He estimated it at about two miles long and one mile wide. The pirate base was on the east side of the isle, located near the beach, about one mile up the length of the isle. There was a large beach on the east side of the isle, which was why they had selected that site for the base. On the west side of the isle was a small beach located somewhat south of the beach on the east side. But the beach there was bad due to submerged rocks in the area. It was very dangerous to try to land a ship there.

He further explained that the island had a prominent hill behind the settlement. On that hilltop, a watch was kept over the smaller west beach to prevent potential enemies from taking them by surprise. Also, three pirate ships were kept at sea at all times patrolling the waters surrounding the isle.

"It would seem impossible to take the pirates by surprise,” John pointed out with a grin on his face. "But I know a way that it can be accomplished." He then pointed out that there were two yearly events that all of the pirates attended. One was the time of reckoning. All pirates were required to attend that. It was a traditional event, which was held to give any pirates who disagreed with their leader an opportunity to voice those concerns or even challenge him to combat for the right to lead. The other was a celebration. A time to rejoice at the good fortune with which they had been blessed. That event had passed many months ago, but the time of reckoning was to take place in three weeks.

During that event, only a few guards would be at the hilltop lookout station. All of the ships would be beached because every pirate of rank was required to attend the ceremony. The event would be held after sunset. All ships would be beached well before sunset.

"And the captive women? Where will they be?" asked Brimstone.

For the first time John Trueblade appeared to become very uncomfortable with a question. He answered, "Probably mixed in with the men at the gathering. They like to show them off as trophies to the men who don’t have a woman there."

He looked very uncomfortable when Ziona glared at him, and said, “Then perhaps I can give them something more to think of than trophies."

"We will do our very best to rescue them all, my friend,” said Brimstone simply. "Now please, John, give us your thoughts on the best means to achieve this."

Tapping the map with his finger, he went into detail as to what they would need to do. "A ship with brave souls can maneuver to the west beach under cover of darkness, beach with a landing party and send a few men to the hilltop lookout post. Once that post is no longer a threat, we can make our way to the beach, and fire the ships. There will of course be a few guards on the beach."

"Can you see the beach well from the hilltop?" asked Brimstone.

"Very well indeed,” replied John.

"Then I can fire the ships. Leave that detail to me,” said Brimstone with a smile.

"That won't be very easy, friend. It is well out of spell range, and there is no way archers could do it from there."

Most of the companions began to laugh and John wondered what they thought so funny.

Finally, Ziona asked, "Did you perchance happen to hear of a pillar of fire many months back that was seen firing into the sky?"

"Actually, I saw that with my own eyes while at sea,” replied John. “I have wondered what that was ever since."

Ziona grinned and nodded at Brimstone. "It was our friend here. He was upset."

"You mean that was him?" John asked incredulously.

Fawnn nodded and said, "I was there. It was Brimstone, and yes, he was very upset. Someone had just killed his wife, or so he believed at the time."

"Well if he can fire that spell from the hilltop he should be able to destroy the ships on the beach easily,” replied John.

 

***

 

Brimstone called on Damia later that night. He wanted to discuss the battle plans with her. She appeared beside him in his room. He kissed his wife in greeting and told her that he had missed her. "Soon beloved, your task here will come to an end. You are close to solving the problem of the pirates."

"Then you are aware of John's plan?"

"Yes I am, and it can indeed work. There is one major weakness though. If for any reason a few ships aren't there on schedule, then the entire plan could fall apart. Therefore, I have spoken to my mother. She will help you." Frowning, Damia said, “Mother is really angry with the pirates. They have taken some of her devoted female followers and slain many of the males. So she is sending a fleet of minotaur ships to guard the waters there at the isle. If any stragglers are late, they will meet the minotaurs. Should a few put to sea, the same will happen to them. Only your ship and John Trueblade's will be safe in those waters that night."

"She knows of John?"

"She should. He is one of her most devoted followers. Indeed his entire crew follows my mother."

Brimstone said, "Then he is indeed trustworthy. I thought so myself, but it is nice to have confirmation from such a high source."

 

 


Chapter 19

 

Brimstone sent a mental message to his agent in Stonecrest that he needed a reliable man to work the new shop for him. He further explained to that agent that the shop was in reality a business whose primary interest was in gathering information and passing that on to him. He asked the agent to locate a man skilled in the merchant craft, but equally skilled in the handling of information.

When the agent replied that it sounded as if he needed a good smuggler, Brimstone smiled and thought, "A smuggler would most likely do, but would rob me blind." He replied to the agent, "Just send me someone I can trust who possess the other two qualifications."

Soon they would be leaving Sic Dalar, but Brimstone wanted to keep the shop open to gather information. So pleased was he with the success of the venture on Sic Dalar that he was determined to keep the shop open.

It should be noted that one of the reasons Brimstone became a champion of justice was because he loved to assist people in need of help. People that had nowhere else to turn for desperately needed assistance. Therefore assisting the farming community, and by extension all of the people of Sic Dalar was extremely gratifying to him. This is why he placed such importance on keeping the shop open. With the shop providing information, he should know if there was anything that he could do to further assist the people of the isle as they made the transition to life, post Dalghard.

 

***

 

A week later, the new shopkeeper, named Darien, arrived. He seemed to be a likeable fellow who was soft spoken and gentle mannered. The strength of his grip gave evidence that he was indeed a strong man, and his questions about the shop indicated he was no stranger to the business of running a shop. But it was his queries concerning the population of Sic Dalar that convinced Brimstone that his agent had indeed appeared to select wisely when he had chosen Darien.

Mystyka went over the shop records with Darien. He had brought along another shipment of hams and sausages. He also brought several items to see if the market took an interest. There were two spices grown exclusively on Brach Dalar and some magic potions that were indeed rare on Sic Dalar. Mystyka advised him on the local prices for the items that she had a basis to compare, the rest she advised him to make it affordable so long as the shop did not lose money.

She pointed out that making money here was of secondary interest. The primary concern would be gathering information on trouble that needed to be addressed before it became too big a problem to handle.


 

Chapter 20

 

The afternoon before they set sail, Brimstone had another shipload of flour loaded aboard the Gryphon. As far as the people of Sic Dalar were concerned, he was returning to Stoneheim to sell flour, and then return with more goods for the shop.

John Trueblade had left the day before. It was agreed that they would meet at an isle two days sailing time from the isle of the pirates. Before he left, he spent an hour with Captain Barnes going over details of the voyage to come. Captain Barnes was confident that he could locate the two isles on his own should the need should arise.

When they were well at sea hours later, Brimstone consulted with the captain to see if the cargo should be thrown overboard to lighten the load for the landing on pirate isle. The Captain replied that alas it would be necessary to do so. The weight of the cargo would cause the ship to ride lower in the water. That increased the likelihood that they would strike one of the submerged rocks John had warned them about as they tried to make landfall.

Brimstone and the mercenaries threw all the flour barrels overboard. They sank immediately, leaving no evidence of their passing.

 

***

 

Next, Brimstone called out to Damia that it was time for her to come to them. Once there, she began to teleport the other volunteers to join in the effort to free the women prisoners. She ordered the captain to stop the ship because you cannot teleport people to a location that was moving. When the ship came to a complete halt she began the work and she teleported them one at a time to the Gryphon.

Once aboard ship, the new arrivals were all briefed as to exactly what was going to happen. Tarn asked for and received another twenty-five of his mercenaries. Thus it was that the Gryphon now carried about one hundred-twenty souls as she sailed westward to the meeting with John Trueblade and his crew of eighty.

Two hundred would stand against twelve hundred. In a conventional battle, there would be little to no chance of success, but this battle was to be anything but conventional.

 

***

 

That night, Ziona stood alone on the bow of the ship staring out to sea. There was a full moon and the sea was calm. In the darkness, the moon was reflected off the mirror like surface of the sea so that it gave the observer the illusion that the ship was drifting on the current toward the moon.

Ziona felt a bit of a chill as a stiff breeze began to stir on the night air. That breeze caused the surface of the sea to ripple and the illusion of the moon riding on the surface of the sea was broken. But that beautiful scene had never truly captured her attention for she was thinking of something else. In her mind's eye, she saw a pair of gray green eyes looking into hers, and she heard John's voice speak the words that he had spoken before they had parted. "I shall miss you, dear lady,” he had said and then he had bowed with a flourish and taken her hand in his and kissed it.

On impulse, she had taken her kerchief and handed it to him. "Then take this token with you to refresh your memory of me,” she had said, blushing slightly.

John's reaction to this had taken her completely by surprise. He had taken the kerchief as reverently as one might take a religious icon and held it to his nose inhaling its fragrance. "My profound thanks, gentle lady,” he had said simply as he folded it quietly and placed it inside his pocket. But his eyes said so much more as they looked at her with a yearning that almost frightened her, for she also felt the tug at her heart that she had just realized he felt.

A woman's light laughter broke her reverie and caught her attention. Looking over her shoulder, she spotted Mystyka standing beside the rail on the port side of the ship. Standing beside Mystyka was Tarn who was speaking to her friend in quiet tones.

The deck was crowded with the sleeping forms of mercenaries and companions of old. Most slept, but a few stood guard duty as always to ensure that no danger could take them by surprise. Moving quietly, Ziona returned to her small cabin that she would be sharing with Mystyka aboard the ship tonight. Tink and Lady Gia would be staying in the other room.

In their cabin, Fawnn and Veksar spoke quietly of the events to come and their concern for the women captives. Then their conversation turned to Mystyka and Ziona. "I think Tarn has fallen for Mystyka,” said Veksar.

"Oh yes, I'd say you are right there dear,” replied Fawnn.

"Does she know yet?" her husband inquired.

"It would be pretty hard to miss, but she has said nothing to me regarding the matter,” replied Fawnn.

Then she said, "It also seems that John Trueblade and Ziona may be in love, though again she has said nothing of it to me."

"I did note the way he looked at her and wonder,” replied Veksar with a smile.

Smiling in return, Fawnn hugged her husband and replied, "And I have seen a look of yearning in her eyes of late."

In her room, Ziona heard the voices of her friends speaking quietly. She could hear the murmur of their voices but not the actual words being spoken. A bit later, she drifted off to sleep and dreamed of gray green eyes staring into hers and melting her heart.

 

***

 

Standing on the deck of his warship, John took the kerchief from his pocket as he stared at the moon on the calm surface of the sea. His mind filled in the rest. Beautiful Ziona standing with her bow at full draw with the limbs of her bow curved to form the same curve as the left side of the moon. A stiff breeze came up causing the sea to ripple and the illusion on the surface of the sea vanished. Sighing, John returned the kerchief reluctantly to his pocket and walked toward the stern to check on the crewman there.

 

***

 

The next day they sighted John Trueblade's ship and closed with it so that they could have one last meeting before moving against the pirates on their isle.

Bringing his ship alongside the Gryphon, John bowed to Captain Barnes and said politely, "Captain, may I have permission to come aboard?"

"Of course, sir,” replied Captain Barnes.

Stepping aboard the Gryphon, John spotted Ziona and smiled. "My Lady,” he began with a smile, "I think that this belongs to you."

Smiling shyly, Ziona took the kerchief then held it to her nose and inhaled the scents he had imparted to the cloth. Removing another kerchief from her belt, she presented it to him with a smile saying, "An exchange then, sir."

He accepted her gift and bowed low. Taking her hand in his, he once more he kissed the back of Ziona’s hand. This time, he let his lips lingered there and Ziona felt her heart once more tug at her.

 

***

 

They met in the cabin. Brimstone, John, Fawnn, Mystyka, Ziona, Veksar, Tarn, and Captain Barnes were there.

John was very serious when the discussion opened. He said, "We have a serious problem. It looks as if there isn't going to be a reckoning meeting this year."

"Why is that?" asked Brimstone who added, "I thought you said that they are held every year."

Sighing, John said with regret, "It appears that Gryfalcon has already murdered or had murdered any that would dare to oppose him at this reckoning."

He paused to let that sink in for a moment, and then he said, "But I have a plan that will guarantee a reckoning meeting."

Ziona felt a dread feeling sweep over her as he spoke.

"I will challenge his leadership myself. Publicly in such a manner that he cannot refuse."

"No, John, don't,” Ziona spoke softly.

"If I don’t then there is no way to even guarantee that he will be on the isle himself,” replied John sadly for it caused him discomfort to refuse her anything.

Brimstone noted the interplay between the two and understood. He said, "Then we will just formulate another plan." Shaking his head he added, "What you suggest would be too dangerous."

John stood very still for a moment, and then he answered calmly, saying, "I will be in no more danger than the captives every day of their captivity." He paused a moment and added, "I can't help but remember how frantic I was when my sister was taken in Harvest  Moon, so I can relate to this situation."

Ziona stared hard at the floor thinking about the implications of what he had just said.

John then said, "I see no better way to ensure that we have the opportunity to rescue all of the captives. Otherwise most would be at sea with their owners."

The use of that word turned the tide in favor of John's plan. The pirates owned the women captives. What their lives must be like was too horrible to contemplate.

Sadly, Brimstone nodded his agreement. The others one by one did the same. Finally, only Ziona remained to give her opinion. She stared defiantly at John and said, "If you insist on doing this, then I’m going to be there too."

John shook his head indicating that she would not be going with him, but Ziona just smiled sweetly and walked out of the cabin.

 

***

 

After Ziona walked out of the cabin, John Trueblade bespoke the Pirate Prince Gryfalcon mentally. But he did so in such a manner that all of the pirates would also hear his words. He condemned him for his actions and called him a coward who was afraid to face his blade in a fair fight at the reckoning. He implied that Gryfalcon had canceled the reckoning to avoid a fight with him.

Gryfalcon found himself the recipient of many stares from his men and answered that the reckoning had been cancelled because there was no one qualified to challenge him who wished to do so.

John's answer to that was simple. "I am qualified, and I hereby challenge your right to lead."

Gryfalcon’s answer was curt and to the point. "Then bring your ship and face my wraith. If you think our one time friendship will cause me to spare your life, you are mistaken. Be there in four days."

"I will be there, but I seriously doubt I'll find you or any captain who sails under your command. You have already murdered the brave and noble among the men. Those left will not dare to face a real leader of men."

 

***

 

A furious Gryfalcon dispatched word to every captain in the pirate fleet. They were to be present and show their support for him at the reckoning. He also dispatched a small group of men on a special mission.

 


Chapter 21

 

When Ziona told John that she was going with him and he shook his head, the goddess Shinobi spoke to her in her mind saying, "Take your bow and walk out now. Smile as you walk."

Ziona sent back this message. "I am rather busy at the moment talking to John."

"You will be going with him. Now smile and walk out at once,” replied Shinobi.

Therefore, it was at the behest of the goddess that Ziona had smiled sweetly, and bow in hand, she had walked out of the cabin. John saw this and was troubled, but Shinobi sent him this message, "Be not troubled my loyal follower. Ziona is following my will at the moment."

Trusting his goddess implicitly, John then relaxed and went about the business of challenging Gryfalcon.

 

***

 

Ziona walked boldly to the rail, vaulted over it, and landed on the deck of John's ship. Surprised crewmen stared at her curiously but she just smiled and said, "I have been ordered to accompany you on the coming voyage.” She was stretching the truth a bit.

The crewmen returned to their duties. John was their captain. If he said she was going, then she was going.

Ziona strolled along the deck examining the ship. It was scrupulously maintained. She saw immediately that John ran a tight ship. Everything was neat and orderly. The deck was freshly swabbed and clean. There were coils of rope with grappling hooks attached to one end placed beside the rails on both the port and starboard sides of the vessel. These were used when the warship needed to pull up alongside an enemy to board her.

Thirty minutes after she boarded the ship, John and the companions walked out of the cabin onto the deck of the Gryphon. Fawnn and Mystyka spotted her immediately and waved. She yelled across the intervening space and asked Mystyka to get her travel bag for her. Mystyka grinned and ran back to the cabin before John could intervene.

John stood stunned a moment and opened his mouth to speak. He stood that way a few moments, then bowed his head and said, "My goddess tells me that you are indeed going on this voyage with me M'Lady."

Mystyka returned with the traveling bag and handed it to Tarn. "Please take this to Ziona for me. I am not dressed for leaping across ship rails."

Grinning, Tarn leaped over the rail and deposited the bag at Ziona's feet. He bowed, and then leapt back aboard the Gryphon.

One of the seamen came forward and picked up her bag. John said, "Take it to my quarters. The lady will be staying there for the voyage. I will sleep on deck." Frowning, he stared hard at the faces of some of the seamen, who had begun to grin knowingly. "Treat this lady with respect or you deal with me. Our goddess Shinobi has ordered that she accompany us. I'll not have her bear the brunt of any ill placed humor."

The suddenly serious crew went about the business of preparing to make sail. The seaman with the bag carried it to the cabin. Ziona smiled at her friends. She would miss them all and told them so, but her heart told her that she must accompany John on this voyage. When Shinobi also said so, that settled the issue for her.

John shook hands with Captain Barnes, Brimstone, and Tarn then he returned to his ship.

As the crews used their oars to push the two ships away from each other, Ziona waved to her friends and promised to see them soon.

John walked over and stood beside her. He gave the order to set sail and the ship's sail billowed as it filled with air. They stood there together watching as the Gryphon grew smaller and smaller.

John politely said, "Let me show you the cabin. I need to get some of my things out then it’s all yours."

Ziona nodded her appreciation, then said, "Thank you, John." She didn't argue the point of putting him out of his cabin. This was a warship, and there was only one cabin. A lone woman on deck at night was an invitation to problems, and she knew that to be a fact.

The cabin was neat and well kept. John opened a small sea chest at the foot of the bed and took from it several items of clothing and a couple of daggers.

He then turned to the desk and unrolled a scroll. Ziona could see that it was a sea chart. He tapped a spot on the chart and said, "This is where we are at the moment." Moving his finger several inches along the chart to the west, he added, “And this is where we are going. It’s two days sail from here. We have a day or two to waste. We must be there in four days. Therefore, I intend for us to sail to a small isle about one day’s sail from pirate isle. There we will beach and hide the ship, and then I will practice for two days."

 

***

 

That night, Ziona left the cabin and walked on deck amidst the crewmen. John's ship had a crew of eighty, and most of those crewmen were sitting cross legged on the deck watching and listening to John, who stood in the prow of the ship.

He spoke to them of the coming battle at the reckoning. He spoke of their valor in the past and of his confidence in their valor in the future. As she observed the proceedings, it was easy for Ziona to see that his crew loved him, and that they were ready to face anything should he say the word.

He explained that the pirates of Gryfalcon were now holding one hundred-fifty women captive. These women were virtual slaves to the pirates and were treated extremely harshly. "If we don’t rescue them, then who will?" he asked his men. There was an angry murmur of agreement from many of the men.

"Can you remember the faces of your mothers?” he asked sadly, and in a soft voice. He took a deep breath struggling to control his emotions. But when he continued, the raw emotions were evident, as he said, "Many of the women captives have children they haven't seen since they were taken captive. Those children remember the faces of their mothers now. But those memories will dim in time as our memories of our own mothers’ faces dimmed when we were forced to serve Dalghard."

Ziona noted the impact that this had on the sailors present. Many a rough and ready man wiped at his eyes, and nodded their head in agreement, as this observation was related to them.

“Dalghard is dead and gone now, but men have taken it upon themselves to once more separate good families of Sic Dalar for a vile purpose.” Pausing for emphasis, John lowered his voice and added, “And in time, the children will forget the faces of their mothers. Aye, just as surely we have forgotten ours, they will forget the faces of their mothers.”

Staring fiercely at his men John placed his hand upon the hilt of his sword. Speaking in a louder tone, he asked challengingly, "Will we let those children forget the faces of their mothers by our inaction?"

A rousing no greeted that question and in her heart, Ziona's emotions soared to match those of the crew. She found her feminine voice added to the chorus of male voices shouting, "No! No! No!"

 


Chapter 22

 

On pirate isle, preparations were being made for the reckoning. The combat was held ritually in the center of the village of thatch roofed huts for the common sailors. The captains had wooden homes but of poor design. The only decent home on the isle was that of the leader.

Their own captured crews had painstakingly dismantled several captured ships. These ships furnished the raw material for the home of the leader. The house had a large common room that could hold as many as forty people comfortably. It also had a huge dining table and chairs that had been built by a carpenter captured by Gryfalcon on one of his excursions.

The house also had many bedrooms built for the leader and his favored company.

Inside the common room, a group of fifteen captured women worked diligently to clean the room from top to bottom. They had learned the hard way that anything less than perfection would get them all beaten severely, or worse.

Still they were excited. They had heard the rumors that John Trueblade was coming to the reckoning to challenge the pirate Prince Gryfalcon. It was said that should he be victorious, all the women captives would be freed.

A burly guard with a whip walked up and shoved one of the women brutally in the back causing her to stumble toward the table where her stomach struck the hard outer edge. "Work faster woman,” he said.

The young woman cried out in pain and clutched at her distended belly, now swollen in the latter months of her pregnancy.

Angry that the woman was ignoring his commands the guard let the whip uncoil and flicked the free end behind him in preparation for striking the woman with the whip.

Another woman stepped between them. "If you must beat a woman then beat me. She is with child and you will kill her." She stared hard at the man's face memorizing every detail.

"Woman,” he said. "Why do you stare so hard at me?"

Boldly, the woman answered, "If John Trueblade wins I intend to speak to him of this incident. Therefore, I wish to remember your face so that I do not condemn an innocent man to his blade."

The guard blanched a bit. Pressing her advantage she continued, "It is said that John hates men who abuse women and kills them at every opportunity."

Licking his lips, the guard turned and walked away from the women leaving them to their own devices.

The pregnant woman smiled gratefully at the small woman standing in the plain white dress of cotton and thanked her. Then it occurred to the woman that she did not know who this woman was. "Beg pardon, Ma'am, but who are you? I don't think we’ve met."

"We haven't,” she replied. "I am new here. Call me Damia. All my friends do,” she said and winked. "I have to go clean the house now,” she said, leaving the women there with the impression that she had been taken recently by one of the pirate captains.

 

***

 

In the common sailors’ area of the community, a woman in a plain white dress walked softly on the sandy earth. She heard a woman cry out in pain as she was thrown through the open door of a thatch shelter hardly worthy of the word house.

"You call this food?!" demanded a rude male voice. He emerged from the shelter and grabbed the woman's arm, then drew back his fist to strike the terrified girl. But he stopped when he saw the woman in the clean white dress watching him.

She was so clean that he immediately assumed she was a captain's woman and quickly became careful. He had enough powerful enemies already. He routinely informed on the captains to Gryfalcon, if he heard rumors of them holding out on his rightful cut of the treasures acquired from their depredations.

That was how he acquired his woman. She was a gift from Gryfalcon in appreciation of the tip he gave him that greatly enriched his private treasure stores. But that gift had betrayed him. Now almost all the others loathed him and knew that he must have betrayed someone to Gryfalcon to receive such a gift.

To make matters worse, the woman was useless to him. She couldn't cook anything edible, and she never willingly granted him any affection.

"Get back in the house, wench,” he said to his captive. When she was back inside he said, "Now, woman, what can I do for you?"

All the time she was staring at the man she felt there was something familiar about him, but she couldn't place it. A quick touch of his mind with hers caused her to withdraw her will instantly. He was a vile and malignant man.

"I was sent to warn you. The others know of your treachery and will be coming for you after dark."

"Sent? Who has sent you?" asked the man.

"I was told not to tell you that. If you are taken alive you will betray my master."

"Then I need to leave the house and return tomorrow."

"Then they will kill you tomorrow."

Cursing the man said, "Then what does your master suggest?"

Handing him a piece of parchment she said, "Go to the cave marked on this map. Wait there until after the reckoning. He will come for you then, and smuggle you off the isle as he sails to Harvest Moon. You do know that he cannot leave now?"

"Aye, that is the truth. No captain can. Say thank you to your man for me. I'll just take the woman with me."

"No, that you cannot do. My master fears she is a spy for Gryfalcon. He says take her and die of your own foolishness."

"I'll kill the wench then afore I leave,” snarled the man.

"You are a brave man. Alas, that action will also end in your death. She is to report to Gryfalcon on the morrow. If she does not, then he will have the isle searched and you will be found. My master says leave at once with the clothes on your back. Do not even enter the house. Food and water are waiting in the cave. If you ignore his advice then you are on your own."

"Damned be my fate then." Shrugging, he walked away in the direction indicated on the map.

Smiling, and privately agreeing he would be damned, Damia had one last stop to make. She had already saved the two women who would have died before the reckoning had she not intervened. Now this next was to punish the vile man that she had sent to the cave. For his heart was indeed vile and cruel. His crimes against humanity were too numerous to note.

Smiling as she walked, she went to a rather poor excuse for a wooden house that stood near Gryfalcon’s. Once there, she knocked at the door and dropped a piece of parchment on the ground in front of the door. Then she made herself invisible and waited to observe.

The captain, who had lost much treasure due to the vile man's treachery, opened the door. He saw the parchment and bent to pick it up. Unfolding it, he read the contents, his face turning crimson with anger. He headed down to the beach to get some of his most trusted crewmembers.

The note that he had read was purportedly from a friend advising him that the traitor who had already cost him so much was about to cost him more, as he had located his private stash of treasure and was even now heading there to loot it all. The captain briefly wondered who left that note, but his primary concern was catching the thief.

An hour later, the man was caught inside the treasure cave. The greedy fool had stuffed his pockets with gold and gems in preparation to betray the man who he thought was trying to help him.

The captain had his tongue cut out for his treachery, and then his hands chopped off for daring to take his gold. Only then did he have the man's throat slit to end his miserable existence. His body was dumped in the sea.

 

***

 

"Done, mother,” said Damia.

"Thank you, daughter. Those dratted accords seemed such a good idea at the time. But now they tie my hands."

Damia giggled and said, "Anytime, mom."

"Now be a dear and come here, Damia."

Damia teleported herself to her mother's side and found her mother standing over the body of the villain. She had reattached his hands and sealed the throat wound.

"Mother, what are you doing?"

"You don’t recognize this man? Well, why should you. What has happened to him changed his appearance. He is Lord Fatman, once one of my most loyal followers. During the war of the gods, he was wounded. While he lay unconscious on the field of battle, Dalghard tried one last thing to turn the tide in his favor. He tried to corrupt the followers of the other gods. Those awake just shrugged it off. But Dalghard's will found a niche inside Fatman's soul and festered."

"After the war he took to sea. Dalghard's influence had corrupted him and he was driven to seek out others of evil and vile intent. Eventually, the ship he was on was taken by the pirates and he joined them."

Shinobi stared sadly at the man and continued, "I need my servant back, daughter. In another time to come, he will be instrumental in assisting me in an effort of great importance."

"And the accords won't permit you to resurrect one of your own who has betrayed his alignment to you unless you yourself had him slain."

Smiling Shinobi said, "You always were the quick one dear."

Damia raised her hands above the body and focused her will. As she concentrated,   she saw the man's chest rise and fall once with a great heave, and then his breathing became normal.

Shinobi thanked her, and then she focused her will on his mind. It took a bit of doing, but eventually she rid the man of the influence of Dalghard.

Eventually, Lord Fatman awoke and struggled to rise. He was confused and disoriented at first, and then the memories flooded back into his awareness. His actions of the past months devastated him and brought him to his knees in abject sorrow. With head hung low, he apologized to the two goddesses, and pleaded with them to judge him and punish him now, lest he do harm to more innocents.

When she spoke, Shinobi spoke with a soft voiced kindness that Damia had seldom heard used with any save herself. Shinobi said, "Arise my servant. Yes, you have sinned, and sinned greatly. You have offended me to my very core with your behavior. You have harmed innocents with your transgressions. But none of that was your doing. Dalghard corrupted you."

Hanging his head in shame he admitted all when he said, "I know, yet and still 'twas I that did these things."

"That is true, yet your mind was not your own at the time. Still you made enemies, so keep a wary watch when you travel, my servant. Now, as an act of contrition, I have a job for you."

Shinobi explained that in three nights, a ship would land on the west beach and men were coming to rescue the women captives. "Your task," she explained, "will be to see to it the guards on the hill give no alarm that night. There will be three guards. You must prevent them from lighting the signal fire calling out the men to battle."

"Thy will be done goddess. No signal fire will be seen from the hilltop that night."

 


Chapter 23

 

Onboard the Gryphon, the companions beached their ship on the small isle where they were to hide for the next two days. Captain Barnes' men supervised the concealment of the ship. He assured them that they should be far enough outside the normal shipping lanes that accidental discovery would be nigh on impossible. Even so, he stated that the vegetation used to conceal the ship would need to be changed each morning so that the dead vegetation would not give them away, should anyone actually pass near them.

Inland, Brimstone and most of the men met and planned their part in the coming conflict. John had given them drawings of the isle, its major landscape features, and trails. They repeatedly went over the plans. The archers were to go in first, the warriors, and mages five minutes behind them. If they encountered a patrol, they were to send word back to the column of men making their way behind them.

Damia had told him of Lord Fatman and his pledge to stop a signal fire, but he was going to be sending a small patrol there anyway, since he was to use his spells from the hilltop should they be needed.

By night, they drilled and practiced, moving together over the trails of the isle. By day, they slept and rested for the coming conflict, and to adjust their bodies to being awake and alert late into the night.

 

***

 

On a different isle, Ziona watched as John practiced with his sword. He was undeniably a superb swordsman. His men watched in awe as he often defeated five or six men at a time.

But she was concerned about Gryfalcon. From all she had heard of that man, he would not fight fair. She searched her mind for what he might attempt in order to ensure his victory and she kept coming back to the same conclusion. A concealed archer might strike John at a vulnerable moment.

Therefore while John trained, so did Ziona. She had some of the men stuff together a dummy by sewing together a pair of pants and a shirt. These she had stuffed with leaves. When it was completed, she had it stood in the middle of a clearing.

Then she spoke with some of the pirate archers and had them conceal themselves around the clearing. Next, they simulated the lighting that would be present at the reckoning by placing torches all around the outer edges of the clearing. John gave them permission to do so; saying that they were so far off the trade routes that it was unlikely that anyone would see the glow on the night sky above the forest.

For two nights, she practiced for hours at a time. She would stand ready and try to locate the archers in their concealment. If she did, she fired an arrow over their heads to simulate a kill.

The first night, four of the ten arrows fired at the dummy struck home true. The rest flew wild as the archers rushed their shots and dove for cover as she fired at them, or were intercepted by her arrows. Two times, she made that fantastic shot, to the amazement of the pirates.

But it was not good enough. Four times John would have died.

The second night only one arrow got through to strike the dummy. Five times her arrows had intercepted those of the archers. Still she was not content. John was happy with the results and kissed her lips in gratitude saying, "I'll take five out of six odds Ziona." His gray green eyes smiled into hers, and he said, "I do have some battle sense myself, dear, and should feel the attack coming." He was gently reminding her that his fate was also in his own hands, and not her responsibility.

Wrapping her arms around his neck before he could move away she planted a fierce kiss on his lips. Looking at her with a stunned expression on his face, he said, "Oh."

Holding on to his neck with her hands gently she leaned her head against his chest and said, "John, dear, if you get yourself killed at this event I am going to get Damia to resurrect you."

"Why thank you, Ziona. That is a comforting thought."

"Then I am going to nag you for two full weeks about being so careless that you got yourself killed."

The pirates around them roared with laughter for they had already seen her nag him about the coming event and knew she meant every word.

John smiled and said, "I have no doubt in my mind that you'd do just that, Ziona. In fact I have found that there is only one way to stop your nagging when you set off on a round."

"And just what might that be,” she asked pertly, beginning to feel anger. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a tight embrace, and then he kissed her soundly on the lips, gently, but with passion.

A moment later, a near breathless Ziona said, "You know, John, that just might work for you, if I’m not too angry."

"Shall we take a walk down by the sea?" he asked. He wanted to be alone with her to speak to her of their possible future together.

"I'd like that, John,” she replied.

"We'll go in a moment. I have to give the men a few instructions first." He turned and hurried away to give the order to clear all sign of their presence on this isle.

Ziona strolled around the perimeter looking for anything that someone might miss in the cleansing process. She was near some dense vegetation when she heard the sound of voices murmuring quietly. Thinking that it was some of John's men, she parted the foliage and stepped through into a small clearing. Six men were there, and they were not John's crewmen. By now, Ziona knew all of his crew on sight, and these men were strangers.

She had surprised the men when she stumbled onto them, but now one of the men lunged at her with a bared dagger. Functioning on instinct and training she took a step back with her right foot and fired an arrow before the man could reach her. The arrow took him in the throat and he fell to the ground thrashing about.

Two more men charged her. Ziona shot the first in the heart with an arrow, then parried a sword lunge with a limb of her bow. She dropped her bow at that point and pulled one of her daggers, as she yelled, "The enemy is among us!"

Ziona parried the enemy's sword with her dagger, and then rough hands grasped her from behind. The man that she had been battling took that opportunity to slam the flat side of his blade against her head. The blow to her head rendered the archer unconscious.

Quickly the surviving four men took her body and lifted it into the air. They ran toward their small sloop beached a distance from John Trueblade's ship.

Behind them, they could hear the sound of John's men scrambling through the foliage. They knew that if they were captured, death would be their fate, so terror added speed to their feet.

Behind them, they heard a scream of rage. Someone had found the bodies and the bow. They no doubt realized that the woman had been taken captive.

They rounded a bend in the trail they had been following and saw two of the men guarding the sloop. The men were hastily dragging away the vegetation, which had been used to hide the small ship. Her captors threw Ziona roughly into the bottom of the sloop, and then shoved it off the beach back into the sea. In moments, they were quietly rowing for the darker regions of the night, away from the isle.

Ten minutes later, John and some of his men found the spot where the sloop had been hidden. A cold anger gripped him. Tersely he ordered his men to return to their ship and make ready to leave the isle. They rushed off to heed his commands.

Gripped in his right hand was Ziona's bow. He stared into the night and thought of her. He realized that Gryfalcon had most likely sent the men to kill him, but Ziona had stumbled into them in the darkness, spoiling their plans.

"Ziona," he said aloud. "I will find you, and if they have harmed you, I will kill them all."

Walking briskly to his ship he thought of the two bodies that he had seen where she had surprised the men. "What a woman!" he thought. "She surprises a group of killers and kills two in moments." He was proud of her, but he was also extremely concerned for her safety.

 

***

 

Brimstone was contacted with a mental message from John. He explained what had happened to Ziona and said that he was underway now for pirate isle. It was his fervent hope to overtake that sloop.

Brimstone told the companions what had occurred and ordered the Gryphon to be made ready to sail at once. Mystyka and Fawnn were both very concerned and added their strength to clearing the vegetation from the ship.

Brimstone assured the women that they would try their best to locate that sloop.

 

***

 

Ziona awoke with a splitting headache. Her hair was matted with dried blood, some of which had gummed up one of her eyes, but she was alive. She was bound hand and foot, as she soon discovered when she attempted to roll over into a more comfortable position.

One of the men noticed her movement and said, "The wench is awake. Remember not to hurt her. She is John's woman, and Gryfalcon will want her alive. With her in his control, his victory at the reckoning will be assured."

Her vision obscured by the gummed up eye, Ziona could see little of her surroundings. She felt rough hands check her bindings and then heard a man say, "Soon we’ll be at our isle. Then we have nothing to fear from John."

Ziona thought quickly. The men had tied her, and they may have searched her, but if they had done so, they’d missed at least one of her blades. She could feel it pressing against her body where it was hidden beneath her armor.

Suddenly a man shouted, "Sail to stern!" She sensed all eyes looking in that direction and wished to the gods that she could see what was happening herself. But she couldn't, so she settled for using the distraction to ease her tied hands near the concealed blade.

"By the gods, that’s John Trueblade's ship!" exclaimed one of the men.

Then a sound that had been creeping into her consciousness for several moments came rushing into her awareness. John's cadence drummer was drumming at full beat. She felt the small sloop lurch a bit in the water as the men began to row to try to escape from John.

She focused her mind on the problem of escaping the ropes and began the techniques Brimstone had taught her. Soon her hands were free. Next, she slowly retrieved the concealed blade being careful to make as little movement as possible, just as she had been taught.

When she had that blade in her hand, her spirits soared and she felt ready to take on the men in the sloop. Carefully, moving with infinite patience, she contorted her body to reach the bindings on her ankles. With the blade, she severed those bindings, and then just as slowly moved back into her original position.

As near as she could tell, all of the men were forward of her position which seemed to be near the stern. She could see a portion of the sail with her good eye, so she had to be near the stern. Then she remembered that all vessels had to have a man on the tiller to control the direction of the ship. Therefore at least one man had to be positioned behind her.

Moving carefully she located her other knives and pulled them from concealment. She held two in her left hand and one in her right. She was ready now, and there was nothing to do but act.

The insistent drumming was louder now and she knew that John's ship was closing. This caused her to smile as she drew her body erect in a smooth fluid movement. The man at the tiller was ten feet from her looking back over his shoulder at the pursuing ship. She threw the blade across the intervening space and it slid into the man's torso between two ribs and punctured his heart.

The hapless man fell onto the deck without uttering an outcry.

Ziona was lucky, and she knew it. She doubted that she could repeat that throw if her life depended on it.

Looking around the ship hastily, she saw six men manning oars forward of the sail. Their labors produced but a small portion of the forward momentum of the ship. As John had explained, "Take the sail of an enemy and you can take his ship at sea."

Smiling she decided the best thing she could do was take their sail. She located the rope that secured the sail and deftly cut it. She leapt backwards as the sail came crashing down and the forward momentum of the ship slowed to a crawl.

She heard the cadence of the drummer increase the beat behind her to an attack beat. But she had no time to risk even a hurried glance in their direction. The six enraged men were leaping to the sail attempting to get the sail raised before it was too late. For the moment, they were ignoring her. That was their mistake. With a dagger in each hand, she wadded into the men. She killed three of the men in three heartbeats, then the other three attacked her and she was hard pressed to defend herself. The element of surprise gone, she found herself facing three vengeful men.

Onboard his ship, which was within fifty feet of the sloop, John urged the men on, calling, "She is free! She fights! Hurry lads or there will be none left for us!"

Backing away from the men, a battered Ziona was forced back step by step. Then she saw an amazing thing. John's warship was darting past them, and as it passed, men were leaping aboard the sloop. John was the first aboard and he gave an enraged battle cry as he charged the three remaining men.

Foolishly, they turned and tried to kill John. Ziona threw her blade into the back of one man, and moments later John cut down the other two.

John stood before her then. He wrapped his arms around her. There were tears of joy in his eyes when he whispered in her ear, "Ziona, I was afraid I had lost you." Then he saw the caked up blood all over her head and face, causing him momentary fear. 

Ziona had been fighting for her life on pure spirit and force of will. Now that the danger had passed, her body said it was time to sleep and heal. Slumping in his arms, she slept.

"By the gods, what a woman." John said softly.

The crew had returned with his ship and stood off the port side of the sloop. John noted a remarkable thing then. In the pirate culture, it was a profound gesture of respect for a crew to take their hats off to a person not of their crew. Yet lining the rail of his ship stood many of his men, hat in hand.

"Is she ok John?" asked one battered old seaman.

"She is injured somewhat. With all this blood I can’t say how badly." Lifting her as one might carry a bride, John walked to the rail where waiting hands took her small form reverently, holding her until John could board his ship. He took her to his cabin with the ship's healer in tow.

He stayed long enough to be certain she was in no immediate danger then returned to his men. 

"Some of these men are still alive captain. What do you want done with them?"

"They hurt, Ziona,” John said simply. "Search the sloop for any letters or such, take what you will from it, and then scuttle that sloop with them aboard."

 

***

 

John sent Brimstone another message, assuring him that Ziona was now safe. He related the details of the battle to him and spoke proudly of Ziona's conduct onboard the sloop. He said that his healer had treated the wound, and was certain of a complete healing.

He informed Brimstone that they were now on their way to pirate isle and would wait well at sea until it was time to make landfall.

Fawnn and Mystyka were now joking about Ziona having all the adventures, but they had been frantic about their friend.

Brimstone sobered that joking when he said, "Tonight there will be adventures aplenty for all."

 


Chapter 24

 

They were coordinating their landing with John. They would need to land at least an hour before John in order to give them the time needed to get into position before the battle. It was their hope that when John defeated Gryfalcon he could peacefully free the women captives, and thus avoid mass bloodshed. But John and Brimstone agreed that it was next to impossible that the pirates would agree to that.

It was a moonless night and pitch black as the Gryphon headed toward the western beach. Captain Barnes had his best landing man working the prow. He said that man had an uncanny ability to locate submerged rocks that would be a threat to the ship.

Already he had located three rocks and given instructions that got the ship safely around those obstacles.

On the deck, the small army was preparing for the night's work. Gear was being examined, weapons were given a last minute check, and the mages were giving last minute thought to spell usage during the battle.

In the prow of the ship, the seaman cursed and yelled instructions for them to follow. They backed off the submerged rocks that threatened to sink the ship and rowed around that obstacle. Fifteen minutes later, they beached.

Before the ship stopped moving, even as it was being beached, Tarn had a squad of mercenaries leap onto the beach to act as guards just in case. Quickly, the rest of the mercenaries and Brimstone's companions formed up on the beach in the positions that they had practiced on the little unnamed isle they had visited.

Brimstone thanked Captain Barnes and his sailors, then Tarn and several of his men pushed the ship back into the sea. They were to sail around to the east side of the isle to pick them up at the pirate base when the fighting was over. Captain Barnes was aware of the minotaur fleet which would be at sea on the east side of the isle and had been told that if he chanced upon any pirate ships at sea, to lead them to that fleet.

Brimstone walked up the line of men and women making sure that all had their light sources equipped for there could be no torches used this night. They had all been given a simple ring of light to wear. Finally assured that all were ready, they headed out. The archers took the lead as planned.

 

***

 

On the east side of the isle, Ziona stood on the deck with John. She was nervous and more than a little afraid of what tonight's events might lead to for John, and for everyone involved. For the first time, she truly understood what Fawnn went through every single time she went into battle with Veksar. She made up her mind that when next she had the chance, she would seek out a private conversation with her two friends about how they dealt with the stark fear of losing someone you love in battle.

Their ship was rowing at a slow and steady beat toward pirate isle, which was visible as a small bit of light in the gathering darkness. Half of John's men were rowing their ship. The other half stood on deck in two rows. They stood as near the rails as it was possible for them to stand and still be out of the way of the men rowing.

They were there for the ritual approach of the challenger. Soon the men would light the torches that they held at their sides. The purpose of the approach with so many torches was to demonstrate that they were not attempting to move with stealth against the men of the isle.

John turned to Ziona, taking her hand and saying, "Soon the ritual that leads to the battle will begin. I want you to know how I feel about you before that battle begins."

Ziona stood at his side and listened intently as he described his love for her, and the fear that he had felt when she had been captured. He wanted her to stay with him when this was over. He told her that there was land aplenty for the taking on Sic Dalar and that he knew of a place northeast where there was a good beach. There, they could build a home and in time a small city. The beach was important because trying to bring goods overland there could take weeks. With a ship, it could be done in days.

Having explained all that, he waited for her reply. Outwardly, he was calm, but he felt his heart beating so hard he could not believe that Ziona didn’t hear it.

"I'll not abandon my companions, John. We’ve been through too much together, and if they need me I will go to their aide." John nodded his understanding. He had expected no less and had been ready for that. "But if you will have me under that condition, then tell me about the home we would build, though bear in mind I want to see the land there before agreeing to anything, for in point of fact I might hate that land and that would spoil my affection for you in time." She smiled sweetly and he kissed her.

John smiled. It wasn't a commitment on her part to a marriage, but it was pretty close to that. He was certain that she would love the land. The beach was lovely. Game was plentiful for the hunters, fish nearly leapt into the ships that sailed those waters. The land was a paradise, unspoiled by the incursions of mankind. There they could build what they wished, unmolested by the teeming crowds of Harvest Moon.

 One of the men broke his reverie when he said, "Captain, it’s time."

"Light your torches boys. It's time to show our courage."

Forty torches burst into flame along the ship. From the shore of the rapidly approaching isle, an answering fire was seen.

John sent a message to Brimstone that they were about to make landfall. Brimstone replied that they were now about halfway up the hill and from their position they could see his ship approaching. He also said that the V-shape that the torches formed was quite impressive from his vantage point.

 


Chapter 25

 

Twenty minutes before Brimstone sent that message to John, a lone warrior stood near the hilltop. He was dressed as a pirate and began singing a pirate song to attract the attention of the guards and alert them to the fact that he was coming.

The three guards heard his singing and assumed that it was one of the men bringing special instructions to them, or better yet a bit of wine to drink. Gryfalcon was a peculiar fellow. He had been known to have men beaten half to death for drinking on watch. But he had also been known to send wine to guards himself, when he felt their duty was more or less ceremonial. With hopeful hearts, the three guards waited there for the approaching pirate.

Lord Fatman stopped at the hilltop and set the three wine flasks down on the ground. "Damned things are heavy after a rough climb,” he said. Wiping his sweaty brow he paused a moment for affect, and said, "The wine is courtesy of Gryfalcon. He expects no trouble this night other than the trouble John Trueblade represents." Pausing and licking his lips, he said, "You fellows wouldn't mind sharing a drop or two of that wine with me would you?"

"Get you back to the reckoning, man,” said one greedy guard. "There you can have wine aplenty, but for us, there is only what you have brought and that not enough for a grown man."

Grinning Lord Fatman said, "Well I reckon that be the truth of the matter."

The three guards each grabbed a flask and pulled its cork stopper. They drank deeply of the wine. By the third gulp, they fell backwards in a drug-induced sleep. The grinning Lord Fatman produced rope from his pack that he had acquired on the beach that day as ship after ship made landfall. Taking the rope, he tied the guards hand and foot. Then he gagged each guard and headed back down the hill.

He had a final act of contrition that had not been assigned to him by the goddess, but it was very important to him that he do this. He made his way quickly down the hill and headed cross-country to his old home of thatch.

Inside that humble home, the poor woman he had so often brutalized waited fearfully. She had told no one of the man's absence, as she had no desire to be given to another man. She wanted her freedom, and in a dream the previous night, a lovely young woman had told her that her freedom was near.

He entered the house and saw her waiting in the rickety chair where he had so often sat as if a king in his home. She saw him as he entered, but she did not recognize him. The change to his features brought on by the corruption of Dalghard had been reversed. He said, "Woman, I am here to protect you. This night, you will be rescued by a group of men and women coming to rescue all prisoners."

The woman had been terrified when the man entered the home, but now she felt a wave of relief that caused her to swoon in the chair and she would have toppled to the floor if not for the quick reflexes of the warrior. Gently he caught her body and held her upright. More gently than he had ever touched her in their relationship, he realized with a deep sense of guilt. Tears of contrition for the brutalization that he had put her through threatened to blind him.

She spoke at last saying, "Thank you, kind sir. It has been long since any man treated me gently."

He had to look away at that. He moved away and cracked open the door. Looking outside he saw that no one was near, and said, "Come, dear lady. We must leave this village now for soon it will be dangerous to be here."

She got up as quickly as she could and hobbled over to him. By the candlelight in the room, he saw that her legs were covered in bruises that were in various stages of healing. Noting his stare she said, "A gift from my former master, because I cook poorly for him."

"You are safe now from that brute M'Lady,” said Lord Fatman. His heart was in anguish at the cruelties he had inflicted upon this woman. "Please permit me to carry you then, for we must flee this place with all haste."

Thus, it was that he carried her across the threshold of their former home as one would carry a bride. Quite the contrast from the boot to the rear he had given her when first he brought her to this hovel.

He walked briskly away from the village into the countryside west of it. As he walked tears of contrition fell from his eyes. His heart was breaking. The woman felt his tears strike her face as they fell and she asked him, "Kind sir, what so disturbs you that causees your tears to flow so freely?"

Choking back his emotions he answered, "That you have been so vilely treated M'Lady. That would wound the heart of any decent man."

Reaching her small hand up, she touched his cheek where the tears were drying and rubbed them away gently. "That was in the past. Now I have you to protect me, and I can tell that you would not permit my old master to harm me so again."

"That man is dead lady. Never again will he violate another." He realized that this was a true statement. Never again would he treat another human as he had treated this poor woman.

Softly the woman cried, and buried her face in the shoulder of this good man who was carrying her to her freedom. Unknown by her, his own tears flowed just as freely as hers. As he continued to carry her to safety, he heard Shinobi in his mind speaking to him. "Now, my good servant, your contrition is complete. But do not reveal to this woman that you were him. She would not understand."

"Aye my goddess I do hear you. I am not sure I understand myself. How could I have been so cruel?"

"It was Dalghard's wish, and he was a god. You are a good and strong man, but a god is more. Be at ease, my beloved follower. She needs you whole now for you are near some guards on patrol. Stop now and set her down. You need your armor and weapons."

Stopping obediently he set the woman on her feet and said, "One moment. My goddess calls."

Shinobi appeared before them and healed the woman's near crippled body. The woman thanked her and said, "Greetings my goddess."

Smiling at her, Shinobi said, "Too long have you suffered, and I am sorry that it twas so. This man is also my follower and will protect you, but he needs now the trappings of his cast." With that said, the clothes that he had been wearing disappeared and in their place was a set of fine armor. Strapped at his side was a gleaming and wickedly sharp frostbane sword.

Bowing in gratitude he said, "My thanks to you. Now I can truly protect her."

Smiling and wishing them well, Shinobi disappeared.

 

***

 

 Brimstone reached the hilltop along with several companions. SuperDude-KoH, XconX, Jedi and Pig Killa were there. They located the sleeping guards and checked their bindings. They were very well secured, and should be no problem to them during the next few hours.

Looking down and to the east a short distance they saw the pirate village illuminated here and there by torches. On the beach was a small bonfire that was beginning to die down. Some distance from that bonfire was a neat row of ships. Brimstone counted them. There were twenty ships presently beached. That left one unaccounted for, which presented certain problems.

Quick mental contact with John confirmed it. One of the pirate ships was indeed missing. He thanked John, who reassured him that his information was very reliable.

Next, he contacted Captain Barnes to warn him that one ship was out there somewhere. Captain Barnes thanked him for the information then told him not to worry, because the Gryphon now had an escorting minotaur ship that had intercepted them as they rounded the southern tip of the isle and headed north. He was being led to the minotaur main fleet, where they would be protected until they were needed.

When the mental messages were completed, Brimstone gave the signal for everyone to proceed to the main body of their small army.

He had studied the lay of the land carefully, and he was certain he could destroy most, if not all, of the ships from any position on the march to the coast. Therefore, he was altering the plan just a bit and going with the main body to the village where they would stay in the shadows until after the reckoning duel was held.

The trip downhill went considerably faster than the walk uphill. They found the rest of the army waiting when they arrived. Brimstone sent the archers out first followed by most of the warriors. The mages and a few rear guard warriors went last, much to the disgust of some of the mages.

There was a reason for this as was explained to a mage who protested being in the rear of the column. Brimstone had patiently explained that stealth was called for this night. The time would most likely come when they would be discovered and then they could make all the noise in the world. But during the opening movements of this night's work, if death was to be dealt it must be dealt silently to prevent an all out alert on the isle. Meteor is deafeningly loud, and boulder is almost as bad.

Brimstone went to the rear of the column as it moved out. He was seeking Fawnn, Mystyka, and Veksar. He found them with XconX, Tha Don, and SuperDude-KoH. He spoke to them briefly of the plan that they had previously discussed and they assured him that they were ready. If a large concentration of the women prisoners was spotted they were to make their way as close as possible to those prisoners and be in position to defend them if it came to war.

XconX immediately volunteered to join that detail, as did Tha Don and SuperDude-KoH. Brimstone thanked them all for their courage, because if things went bad, they could be cut off from the main body of the small army. The small detachment of Tarn's mercenary warriors currently at the rear of the column would be going with them. Brimstone was a firm believer in class teamwork when it came to war. Anpu Sandstorm and Pig Killa would also be joining them on that mission, as would Dark Arrow.

 

***

 

Lord Fatman and the woman he was guarding were almost to the relative safety of the woods when they encountered the patrol that Shinobi had said he’d soon encounter. There were five of the pirates and they stopped the fleeing pair. Fatman stood his ground and told the woman to stay behind him.

Speaking to the pirates he said, "Step aside and let us pass. I have no desire to kill you."

One of the pirates snorted at the suggestion that this man could kill them all. He pulled his sword and died on the spot. Fatman's sword was fast and sharp. It decapitated the man where he stood.

Instantly, the other four moved in to attack, but two dropped immediately with arrows in their backs. Fatman's sword took another and then a third arrow took the remaining pirate.

From out of the darkness a voice spoke softly. "Fatman? Is that you?"

"Yes, I am Lord Fatman,” he replied.

From out of the darkness Vlassic-TGL and Dark Arrow approached the pair. They checked the bodies warily but there was no need for concern. All of the guards were dead.

"It’s good to see you, friend. I didn't know that you were here,” said Vlassic.

"I was sent here by Shinobi,” replied Fatman. That was true enough. There was no time to get into anything that required long explanations.

"Well, we have a small army behind us. Who is that with you?"

Fatman explained that the woman had been a captive of the pirates and that he was trying to get her to safety before the attack.

"Take her to the column then,” suggested Dark Arrow. "That should be the safest place for her at the moment."

The woman captive was taken before Brimstone who immediately had her taken to Fawn and Mystyka. When she saw the women present in the column, she spoke to Fawnn asking, "Are you free women or bonded to these men?"

Mystyka and Fawnn looked at each other and blinked. It seemed to them a most odd question. Fawnn answered her saying, "We are free women. We are here to attempt to rescue the prisoners."

The woman said, "I’m sorry if I gave offense, but I haven’t seen a free woman in a long time."

Fawnn frowned and said, "Then be of good cheer, for tonight you will see many more."

Mystyka voiced her support for that notion, and then seeing the wretched condition of the woman's garments; she opened her pack and took out a new blouse and skirt. Then she had all the men present turn their backs as she and Fawnn helped the woman quickly change into clean clothes.

Brimstone sent a mental message to Veksar asking if they were ready to move out and Veksar relayed that to the women, then answered saying that they were.

"Lord Fatman will be coming down the column to join you. He insists on seeing to that woman's welfare this night,” he said to Veksar.

"Great, we can use his help,” Veksar replied.

 


Chapter 26

 

When John's ship arrived at the beach, a group of heavily armed pirates met them, and escorted them to Gryfalcon. They met in the center of the clearing, just as John had described the ritual. Gryfalcon nodded to his one time friend and said, "I see you have brought my newest slave with you." Sneering, he said, "How very thoughtful of you."

Ziona's anger flared but John turned the insult on Gryfalcon when he laughed uproariously. As if on command, every seaman of his crew joined in that laughter. John said, "This woman is too much for a man as weak as you have become. Once you were a man among men. But those days are gone. Now you are just another weak man who must prove your strength by conquering women."

Ziona thought that last sentence a bit insulting to women, but she had to admit to herself that the rebuke appeared to have stung Gryfalcon deeply. Now many of Gryfalcon’s men were silently staring at the pair of leaders. There was an air of expectation in the clearing.

Looking around carefully, Ziona spotted two archers partially concealed in the foliage of two different trees. She spoke to John then in a loud and clear voice, asking, "Is it customary in this ritual of yours for the sitting ruler to have concealed archers overlooking the battleground?"

Stunned silence greeted that question. John replied, "That would be craven indeed."

Gryfalcon snarled, "There are no concealed archers here, woman."

"Then you won't mind if I have a bit of target practice?" she asked. Before he could reply, her two arrows killed the two concealed archers.

Gryfalcon was outraged, and moved to strike Ziona down with his fist, but John grabbed his arm and roughly shoved him away from them. "You coward," he accused. "You are afraid to face me in a fair fight."

Many of Gryfalcon’s men were now staring hard at him with disappointment evident on their faces. He was beginning to lose some of his men and he knew it. He said, "Why would I fear you, John? I taught you to use the sword remember? And never in all of our mock battles have you defeated me."

"You won those battles, aye, and they were mock battles as you said,” John replied with a shrug as if to say, so what? Then he added, "And, old friend, most of those times that you won, I let you win because winning those matches made you so happy."

Gryfalcon's face flamed crimson at that.

"If you refuse to free the prisoners then let us do battle. I contest your wisdom, your courage, and your right to lead real men."

Stung by the insults, Gryfalcon drew his sword in a long, slow, ritualistic movement, which John repeated. The swords made a grinding sound as they emerged from their sheaths.

The pirates backed well away from the two combatants, leaving a wide open space around them.

 

***

 

John sent a two word mental message to Brimstone. "It begins."

Brimstone sent back, "Good luck. We are in position and ready."

Gryfalcon fought with great skill. His opening five strokes with the sword were a blinding blur of intricate movement. John's defense against those moves was nothing short of superb. Those watching the duel knew that they were witnessing two sword masters in a battle that could only end in death for one if not both of them.

John suddenly broke away from Gryfalcon and twirled his sword in a blinding move to the left. An arrow bounced off his blade and struck the earth not far from him. Angry shouts erupted from his men, and from many of the men around the two combatants.

Immediately Gryfalcon pressed his advantage by attacking John savagely. John narrowly evaded the blow that would have opened up his entire chest, but he didn’t escape unscathed. Blood began to trickle down his chest from a five inch cut near the left shoulder.

As soon as she saw the arrow, Ziona mentally calculated the trajectory it would have come from and searched in that area. She saw nothing but continued to watch with arrow at the ready. A few moments later, she felt the attack was coming. She set her bow and drew the string to full draw.

She shifted her aim a bit until it felt right to her, and then waited for the moment that she knew she should release the arrow. It wasn't a long wait. When she released the string, she knew that her arrow flew true. Immediately she fired a second arrow and saw the archer's body tumble from a tree.

There were gasps of astonishment from the watching men. Her first arrow had deflected the archer’s arrow and then she had shot him in the space of three heartbeats.

Many of John's crewmen took off their hats in a spontaneous gesture of respect for her. Several of the other pirates did the same.

Repeatedly John closed with Gryfalcon. For his part, Gryfalcon was now playing a waiting game. His three archers were lost, but John had been wounded and the loss of that much blood weakens a man. Already, his sword was slower. He would soon have a distinct advantage because of the weakness that must surely be growing by the moment.

They fought well, but finally Gryfalcon's right foot slipped just a bit, but it was enough to throw him off balance for just a moment. In that moment, the tip of John's sword was at his throat but he paused there. "Yield and I will spare you,” he said.

Panicking Gryfalcon said, "Kill him!"

Ziona turned her bow to the crowd of men facing the combatants, but there was no need for concern. Not one man stepped forward to obey that order. The pirates had their own code, which they adhered to, and what Gryfalcon had just ordered, violated that code.

John shook his head sadly, and said, "See what this man has fallen to? Follow me now. Forsake this path of taking women captive, and killing the innocent merchants at sea. I offer you a new life in another place. A life of freedom and prosperity that can be gained without the murder of innocents. There was a time when most of us became pirates to resist Dalghard's depredations. Are you now content to be as vile as he was?"

With a bellow of rage, Gryfalcon tried to bring his sword up under John's guard. Without thinking, John pushed the blade into his throat and Gryfalcon died gurgling in the sand.

Dead silence filled the night. For a moment no one moved. Then John spoke. "Have all the captive women gathered here now. Tonight we will free them."

Some few of the men were ready to agree, but many more refused outright to surrender their women or leave off the pirating of the innocent merchants.

"Those of you willing to change, stand behind me and you will live to see sunrise. Those of you unwilling to accept my terms, prepare to die."

About three hundred men moved to stand behind John. His own crew stood there as well. But not one man came forward to surrender a woman.

"You can’t defeat us, John,” said one captain with a sneer. "Even with the scum that just joined you, we have you outnumbered near three to one."

 

***

 

Brimstone and his small army moved with stealth through the pirate village. BluByU, Cougar, and Frusty moved swiftly and silently through the village, checking for signs of the women captives. Apparently, John was correct in his assumption that the women would be at the reckoning.

Lord Malachi, Rean, Tipher, Scamma, and Psychost went inside and searched Gryfalcon's huge home, thinking that perhaps many of the women captives would be there, but alas, there were none.

At that point, Brimstone got the message from John that the battle was beginning. He answered that message then called his companions together. Swiftly but silently they made their way to the west of the reckoning circle. They came up behind the gathered circle of men and waited patiently.

When John won the battle and gave the pirates the ultimatum, the small army shifted their positions a bit to the left and right of the men that had agreed to support him.

Then a man spoke to John and said, "You cannot defeat us, John. Even with the scum that just joined you, we have you outnumbered near three to one." Brimstone gave the signal to advance.

On both sides of John's newly enlarged group of men others began to appear out of the darkness.

The pirates were surprised at the sudden appearance of the men and began to wonder how many were out there in the darkness. One pirate captain that had been most loyal to Gryfalcon shouted, "Treachery!"

Soon the assembled pirates began to shout in outrage. To quiet the mob Brimstone raised both hands into the air and launched his pillar of fire spell straight up into the air. He held that position for ten seconds then he released his will on that spell and it died.

The stunned pirates stared in awe. What in the name of the gods was this man? Surely only a god could possess such power.

Brimstone then spoke, saying, "Release the women now. If you don’t release them, I will destroy your ships, this village, and then you."

Several men walked forward and surrendered their women, then returned to stand with the pirates. Brimstone estimated that fifty women were now with the army. Fawnn and Mystyka led them to the rear and relative safety, and then swiftly returned to the front lines.

"I see some of you need a further demonstration,” he said. "Are the ships empty?"

One of the captains ordered his men to put their blades to the throats of the women in their control and seven men complied with that order. A moment later those seven men collapsed with arrows jutting from their skulls, placed there by Ziona, Cougar, Dark Arrow, Corey, BluByU, Pig Killa and Anpu Sandstorm. Seven arrows again flew out and struck the captain who had given that order.

A few more men released their women who were greeted by Fawnn and Mystyka. They were escorted to the safety of the rear, and then the two women again returned to the front lines.

"This is your last chance before I start burning ships,” Brimstone warned again.

Suddenly a group of twenty or so men charged in John and Ziona's direction, screaming and brandishing their weapons. Lord Malachi, Jedi, Tha Don, Dime, Genkaku, Lord Cal. MetalHead, and Oga met the attacking group of men with weapons and spells. In moments, the pirates in that small group were dead.

Brimstone was getting tired of waiting. His voice booming, he yelled, "Behold!" and launched his very strong rain of fire spell at a ship on the end of the row. In a moment, the vessel was fully engulfed in flames.

This time about one hundred pirates charged Brimstone, intent upon slaying him. Tink, Fawnn, Mystyka, and Lady Gia fired boulder into the rushing mob, as did Tarkenstar, XconX, and Tha Don. Noughtinhill used the spell meteor to good affect, as did Psychost and Oga. The archers all released a volley of arrows, then the mages and archers had to hold their fire or risk hitting the warriors and paladins rushing out to meet the approaching pirates. They met in a clash of arms about halfway between the two groups.

Jedi was hooting in pure pleasure at the thrill of battle as he hacked at pirates with abandon. Tipher shook his head at those antics and parried a sword thrust to his heart. He killed that pirate and another as he took the first's place.

Lord Malachi fought as bravely and effectively as ever. Soon, the pirates began to retreat from his runed halberd, leaving behind a trail of bodies as he steadily pressed them back.

Lord Cal fought near him and it seemed at times that his fighting style left pirates gaping in amazement, instead of preparing to meet him in battle. Genkaku was a blur of movement, often leaping in amongst a group of pirates and with consummate skill, slaying all within reach of his wickedly sharp blade.

Finally, a few pirates broke and ran back to the others. Those too stubborn or too intent on attempting to kill the companions were slaughtered to a man. When the last man fell, Tipher helped Lord Malachi return to their battle line for he had been wounded as the battle had died down.

"Release the women,” Brimstone ordered and once more several were released. Though the walk was long, none of the women regretted making it.

John spoke then, saying, "It’s time to stop this insanity. You can’t defeat these people. Release the prisoners now."

A few more men released their prisoners, but not many. By now, they had about two thirds of the prisoners in the relative safety of the rear.

"Time grows short,” he continued. "If you wish anything of your way of life to survive this night you must release the women." Pausing, he then said, "Speak of it among yourselves for a moment. But know this to be true. If you continue to resist and hold the women prisoners, Brimstone will keep his word to you. He will destroy all of your ships, then all of your homes and finally all of you, a few at a time. If you try to kill the prisoners, the archers will kill you, along with any man who orders the killing. Now speak of it amongst yourselves but time and patience are both very short."

 

***

 

Ziona looked to John's wound while the pirates argued among themselves over what to do. The bleeding had slowed somewhat, but it was still enough to concern her. Tarkenstar was called over and he healed John, but warned that the wound was still taking his health and added that the wound needed to be treated.

Brimstone noted the intense argument that seemed to be raging in the assembled group of pirates and hoped that they would surrender the women. To him, this was a slaughter. The pirates were simply outclassed.

His companions all had one insurmountable advantage over the pirates. They were all very strong seraphs, and as such were much stronger than the strongest of the pirates. Stronger in every way and that is why every time they had been forced into fighting the pirates they had so easily defeated them. Their isolation under Dalghard's domination had prevented them from ever following the paths that would have lead to their progression that they might become seraphs. He made a mental note to speak to Damia about this inequality for the citizens of Sic Dalar. That should be addressed.

Finally, the arguing stopped and three men stepped forward to represent the pirates. One of them demanded, "If we surrender the women to you, will you then leave us in peace?"

"If you swear to leave off the attacks on shipping yes then we will leave you in peace. If not then no,” responded John at once.

"John! You yourself were a pirate. How can you demand that we stop what you  yourself did?"

"I never attacked any innocent merchant ships. I only attacked the ships serving Dalghard. That was a war against a corrupt god."

"And if we leave off the attacks, how are we to feed ourselves? A man must eat you know,” called a voice from the back ranks.

"You have the opportunity to join a new settlement on Sic Dalar. It will be a seaside settlement. Those of you that miss the sea can become fishermen. The fish abound there. Those of you prepared for a land adventure have new country to explore, plentiful game to sustain us, and verdant fields to plant. We can live as men should and that is by the sweat of our labor and not by slaying innocents to take their hard earned riches."

"But you cannot stay here no matter what,” John added.

"And why is that? We can fish here, can we not?"

"No,” John said, "You cannot. The minotaurs know the location of this isle. Even now, a fleet of their ships wait at sea. The only ships that will leave here will be those led by the Gryphon."

This caused a stir among the pirates. Some felt they should take John's offer. A few holdouts wanted to fight it out, but they now seemed to be in the minority. There was one more hasty consultation among the pirates and then their representatives came forth again. This time they led the rest of the women prisoners to the companions.

Fawnn and Mystyka returned once again, after leading those women to the rear to join the rest.

John said, "There is one more thing. Any man who has abused these women must step forth now. You will be exiled. We will not kill you. But you will not join the settlement that we will build."

Only a small handful of the pirates were bold enough to step forth. "Come now, all I need do is have the women come forward and identify the guilty. Save us all the waste of time." Reluctantly another fifty or so stepped forth.

John pointed to a small warship, the smallest of the fleet and asked, "Whose ship is that?" 

"It belongs to no one now. Her men were all in the last group killed,” replied the same spokesman who had talked to John earlier.

John consulted Shinobi, asking if these were all of the guilty men. A few moments later, she replied that they were all indeed accounted for.

With steel in his voice John said, "You men board that ship and leave now before I change my mind. Sail south till you are well past the isle or you will wish you had."

The guilty men left and pushed the ship out to sea, then boarded her. One of the men yelled back at the companions as they rowed away. "You think we are fools? You send us south into a minotaur trap. So westward we sail!" His parting laughter floated on the night air as the ship vanished from sight.

John and Brimstone stared at each other and laughed. "Why do you laugh?" asked the pirate spokesman.

"Brimstone answered, "Because there is a fleet of minotaurs to the west. John spoke true, as I know he always does." The spokesman shook his head and walked away.

Brimstone contacted Captain Barnes and asked him to come pick them up. He also warned him to beware the pirates who had just left, stating that they were exiled and probably very desperate men, apt to make trouble. Captain Barnes also reported that the minotaurs had sunk a single pirate ship earlier when it tried to slip past them.

Ten minutes later, as the crews were preparing to leave the isle, the night sky to the west began to glow an angry red. One older seaman looked at that sky and said, "Catapults. A lot of catapults. Their flaming loads light up the sky like that at night. But so much light is surely odd. Must be twenty or more ships firing their catapults."

"Forty,” replied John. "Shinobi says that the men attacked the Gryphon and her escorts defend her."

"Forty minotaur ship escorts?!" the man exclaimed.

"Aye that is so. Soon she will be carrying her most precious cargo ever,” John replied looking at the one hundred-fifty women slowly walking down to the beach.

 

 


Chapter 27

 

Ziona stood on the deck of the ship in the cool morning breeze and watched the coast as they sailed north for Paradise Cove. Yesterday they had turned north after reaching the southeastern corner of the isle. She was amazed at the size of Sic Dalar. It was such a large isle that you could sail for days without sight of a decent place to beach a ship, and nothing to see but the dense vegetation that grew near the sea.

According to the maps that she had seen there were only three major beach areas. The island of Sic Dalar is roughly rectangular in shape. Harvest Moon is located on the southern side of the isle, Paradise Cove the eastern side and on the northern side is the third large beach area.

Behind their ship sailed the Gryphon and eighteen other ships loaded with the former pirates who would settle in Paradise Cove. In the wake of the fleet followed the twenty cargo ships carrying building materials and crews of carpenters who would build the new city.

 

***

 

Ziona had been surprised to learn that one of John Trueblade's greatest adventures had been the taking of one of Dalghard's treasure ships at the outset of the war of the gods. Being a modest man, he had never bragged of that deed, but when she had asked how they would acquire the materials needed to build the small city, he had smiled and explained to her that Shinobi had told him that it would come to pass if he had faith. He then explained how his faith in that goddess had developed.

Dalghard had ordered a treasure ship heavy with gold to accompany his fleet on the journey to Stoneheim. That gold would have been used to literally bribe the followers of the other gods into following him. Thus, he had hoped to weaken the gods and gain the upper hand. Shinobi had been aware of that, and countered it by ordering John to be at a specific location at an appointed time. He had followed the will of his goddess and she had caused the treasure ship of Dalghard to become separated from the fleet one night. The following day, John's ship intercepted it and captured the treasure.

For a thousand years, the god Dalghard had hoarded gold in preparation for the next battle with the gods, and the ship was heavily laden with that gold. Once captured, he had reported to Shinobi that it was done. She had told him to take one chest of gold for their efforts but to leave the rest and sail away from that ship.

Some few of the men aboard his ship had debated that order, stating that there was enough gold aboard that ship to make all wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, but John was obedient to his goddess and put down the argument by saying, "Our goddess has made her will known to us. I follow that will. Therefore if any wish to challenge that decision, then step forth now." He had drawn his sword at that point.

Several pirates had then moved to stand in front of John. Turning their backs to him they bared their blades making it clear that any who wished to challenge the captain, would also have to fight them.

" That’s not needed, John,” said the man who had been most vocal about keeping the gold. "Never would I bare my blade against you, Captain." He was joined by a sea of voices proclaiming their loyalty to the captain, and the will of their goddess.

This had confused Ziona who knew the history of the war and knew that Shinobi hadn't had followers on Sic Dalar until she had returned to that isle after devastating Dalghard's fleet. She questioned John about that detail and he had shrugged and explained that Shinobi had approached him shortly after he had been driven from the pirates by the depredations of Gryfalcon. She had walked across the surface of the sea one day and boarded his ship. Once there, she had won the hearts and minds of the crew and John had served her will ever since that day.

"So you and the crew were the first of the people of Sic Dalar to follow Shinobi?"

"Aye, darling, that is the way of it I guess,” replied John.

"What became of the treasure ship?" she inquired curiously.

"Shinobi sent it to the bottom of the sea,” replied John. "She said one day she would have need of that gold."

As they’d sailed for Sic Dalar, Shinobi had spoken to John and told him to cast overboard all the food and water stores aboard his ship at once. He had ordered his men to follow the wishes of the goddess immediately. This time the crew obeyed without hesitation. As soon as this was accomplished wet treasure chests began to appear on the deck of the warship, one after another. If they hadn't dumped all of the food and water overboard, they would have been sunk by the sheer weight of the gold. As it was, the ship settled dangerously low into the water under the great load.

In their wake, the other fleet captains wondered at the activity aboard John's ship and closed ranks around it.

Then Shinobi appeared on deck beside John. She commanded him saying, "This treasure I grant you to build the city of your heart. But build it wisely for the day will come when I have need of that city and its people. Take no gold for yourselves,” she warned. "This is for the city." She then planted a vision of the city completed in John's mind, and the minds of all present.

 

***

 

So it was that they had the wealth of a god to build a city. John had paid for the twenty shiploads of materials and hired the carpenters to begin the task of the construction of that city. A vast sum of gold that took, but it had barely diminished the wealth of gold aboard his ship.

 

 

Thus Ends Book 2