Adventure Books by Ricky Sides & Kathy Young

Adventures in reading.

Brimstone Book 3

 

 

 

Brimstone and the Companions of Althea. Book 3.

by Ricky Sides and Kathy Young

 

 


 

ã  Copyright 2005 - 2006,

 


 

Prologue.

 

     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.

     On the island of Sic Dalar, the insane god Dalghard had prepared to wage all out war on the other gods of Althea and their followers for one thousand years. Finally the day had 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 took matters in hand as she assisted her husband in an all out effort to gain an understanding of what they were going to be up against in the coming war of the gods. Deeply disturbed by what he learned when Damia took him back in time to observe the first war with Dalghard, Brimstone commited himself to finding a means to stop the demented god before he could annihilate all of the gods and their followers.

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

     Shinobi’s plan was successful. Sufficient forces of the invasion fleet were destroyed to make the war on Stoneheim one that Brimstone and the Companions could help the other Gods win.

     In a final confrontation with the insane God Dalghard, Brimstone, his father Artherk, his father-in-law Ogrimar, and his wife Damia, did battle with the immensely powerful God. When Dalghard slammed Damia through a defensive wall Brimstone, in a rage,  invoked a spell of such power that the weakened God Dalghard was slain.

     Months after the war of the Gods, Brimstone and the Companions traveled to Sic Dalar in an effort to see what could be done to help the people of that isle live in harmony with the rest of the population of Althea. They also investigated the rumored Pirate Prince who controlled the pirate fleet which had been plaguing the seas since the death of Dalghard.

     When Captain John Trueblade, himself a former member of the pirate band, kills the Pirate Prince Captain Gryfalcon the Companions defeat the pirates who refused to turn over the captive women whom the Companions had set out to rescue. The pirate band was broken up.

     Most of the remaining pirates decided to follow John Trueblade to a cove on the eastern side of Sic Dalar where they would build a city. On ship loaded with die-hard pirates was banished. Those pirates sailed right into the waiting minotaur fleet. The minotaurs made short work of those pirates.

           

 


 

Synopsis

 

     On the north eastern coast of Sic Dalar a new city is founded. The city is named Paradise Cove by the people who build it, for surely such a perfect location deserves that name. There they find game plentiful and fruit ready to be picked. The fishing is wonderful and all seems perfect. Still they wonder why the Goddess of the sea ordered their homes built on stilts but obediently they follow her wishes in the matter.

     All seemed perfect in Paradise Cove until the first hunter was found torn to pieces. A large search party is sent out to learn what they can and the mystery deepens when some of them are also slaughtered but when a large group of guards is found slaughtered Ziona has had enough. She calls in Brimstone and the Companions to ferret out the mystery deaths that are plaguing the city. During the process of this investigation, the inhabitants of the city learn that an invasion is imminent. The Bre, an ancient menace from the sea, are about to invade the peaceful city of Paradise Cove. Unless Brimstone and the Companions can muster an army to fight this menace the people of Paradise Cove are doomed to horrible deaths. But Damia the goddess of neutrality has taken an interest. Will she break the accords of the gods to ensure the survival of the new city?

  


 

Chapter 1.

 

     On the fourth day of their voyage from Harvest Moon, Ziona got her first view of Paradise Cove. She marveled at the clear blue waters teeming with the fish that seemed to thrive here, and laughed as many a sailor cast lines into the water and hauled in the fish quite rapidly.

     Once beached the men and women of the forty-ship fleet went about their business. The cargo ships were unloaded well above the high tide line. That took all day, even with everyone pitching in to assist with the work. The lumber, glues, and nails were all staged together in neat rows. The food stores and water were also brought ashore.

     Ziona and John walked around the area. As they did so they recalled the vision of the city which Shinobi had shown them. The houses would be single story, raised up on sturdy piers, for storms and heavy flooding. Wide porches would be on all four sides of the houses, with large windows to catch breezes. Storm shutters to close them up for storms would be the rule for all the homes. All furniture and furnishings needed to be of light, airy designs and fabrics. Wicker weavers and furniture makers were about to experience a boom in their industry.

     After examining the area carefully, John showed her the spot he had in mind for their house. The front of the house would face the sea, and the rear would face the forest. This would give them variety in their views as they sat on their porches and rested from the days activities.

     Finally he paused and waited expectantly. Ziona smiled shyly at him and said, "I think I can live here John."

     He swept her into his arms then and kissed her passionately. "Never will I give you cause to regret this decision Ziona."

 

***

 

     That afternoon, as the sun was sinking, a great feast was held in honor of the coming wedding of John and Ziona. Fresh fish were served, along with other items gathered near the settlement. Potatoes served fried, apple pies, peaches, and fresh dates.

     The search party who had been sent out to forage for food had located a large patch of potatoes. A great number of the pirates, some of whom had been farmers who had fallen afoul of Dalghard’s minions and fled their homes, spent hours harvesting this crop. Eventually these men had become pirates.

     It was these men who had recognized the potato plants and began the harvesting of the tubers at the height of their readiness for harvesting. Shinobi had seen to it that their first harvest would require no planting, but all knew that the next crop would come from their toil in the earth. A great many looked forward to returning to that life. One man of such a disposition literally sat in the rich dirt of the patch and ran his hands through the soil. He spoke to the earth saying, "We will see what you and I can make together soon."

     One farmer voiced the question foremost on the minds of the majority of the farmers when he asked, "How is it possible that this tract of land is rich soil and not sand as is the rest?" Shinobi had spoken then answering, "This land I have made as needed by the farmers. In the course of time it will become too small to support your city. As that happens plow west of this tract. The sand will become soil for any follower of mine who has faith in that promise and willing hands to till the soil."

     One of the pirate ships was utilized to hold the potatoes. It was a cargo ship. The newly gathered food was spread across the deck to dry in the sun, then as the potatoes dried they were dusted with lime and stored in waterproof wooden barrels which John had insisted that they bring along for just such an eventuality.

     There was also a great abundance of fruit to be had for the picking. Apples were the most abundant but there were also other fruits such as dates, peaches and pears to be had. Several pirates who had been hunters reported signs of wild pigs near the fruit trees. They had followed the tracks until they had come upon a large number of the creatures. Several had been killed and were also being served at the feast.

     Several pirates who had in their past lives been pig farmers had been overjoyed to see the animals. Already they had begun working together to build pig pens to house the animals which they could capture. Hunters would help them in that endeavor. They wanted to capture the youngest of the animals in the hopes of domesticating them.

 


 

Chapter 2.

 

     John and Ziona sat at a table constructed by the carpenters. They sat on benches made hastily for the evening meal. At their table sat Damia and Brimstone, Fawnn and Veksar, Mystyka and Tarn. Captain Barnes and his seamen were sitting at other tables with the other men of the sea swapping tales as such men are want to do. The rest of the companions had returned to Stoneheim.

     The talk at the table was excited and revolved around the prospects that were apparent at the site of what was soon to be the city of Paradise Cove. Brimstone did question the decision not to build a wall around the city, but was assured by John that Shinobi had made it clear that no wall was to be built for reasons that she had not explained.

     Ziona spoke to Damia and asked her if she would do the wedding ceremony. Damia agreed to do so if it could be done soon. They settled on the next day for the ceremony and John smiled in anticipation of being wed to Ziona.

     The talk then turned to the immediate plans for the new city and time lines for the construction projects, which led to a discussion between Fawnn, Mystyka, and Ziona about where she and John would spend their wedding night. Ziona had said aboard his ship in his cabin. At that point Damia had surprised them all when she asked, "Why not stay in your new house?"

     Brimstone had at that point interceded saying, "Beloved there is no way we could have that house ready for their use tomorrow night. Even with all hands helping and tripping over each other. Mistakes would be made and it would be a disaster."

     Damia let him tick off detail after detail which could and probably would go wrong on such a rush job. All the while she just smiled at him. Finally stopping to catch his breath Brimstone noted the smirk on her face and said, "You disagree don't you?"

     Smiling up at Brimstone, she shook her head and replied "Oh no, my husband. Every point you made is valid. But the house is built already." She shrugged and grinned, then said, "I was bored, and I have never built an entire house before, so I indulged myself."

     Ziona leapt to her feet followed by John. The companions joined them and they all walked toward the location selected for their house.

     Soon the house came within sight and it was delightful to behold. John and Ziona marveled at the simple beauty of the house. It was everything that they had envisioned. The walls were white with large wood trim of dark brown.

     John and Ziona both thanked Damia profusely for the splendid job that she had done on the home. Damia smiled and said, "When I finished building it something seemed to be missing." She began opening cabinets in the kitchen area and soon they all saw that the cabinets were overflowing with foodstuffs, cooking pots and pans, plates and bowls. Another cabinet held glasses, goblets, and mugs.

     Brimstone looked at the food cabinet suspiciously, and then on a hunch he took out half the contents, set them upon the table, and closed the cabinet door. He waited a few moments and smiled at the confused expressions on the faces of the companions. When he opened the food cabinet door again the items that he had removed had been replaced.

     Laughing he said, "Ho, I thought so wife! This is like the cabinet on the training isle that you took me to!"

     "Of course it is,” she said with a wry grin. "That's the only kind daddy taught me to make."

     Brimstone roared with laughter and said to Ziona, "My friend you will never starve here."

     Ziona looked at Damia and blinked. She liked the Goddess so much that at times she did forget that she was a Goddess and considered her a personal friend. That was a trait of her personality that endeared her to Damia. Humbly she said, "I can never thank you enough for this Damia."

     Damia looked at Ziona quite seriously and said, "That you consider me a friend means much to me. Let us speak no more of the matter."

     They examined the rest of the house with John marveling at the craftsmanship. It was everything he had dreamed of and more. There were even two large guest rooms should he have the need, and he would. Damia knew this, which is why she’d added them.

 


 

Chapter 3.

 

     The next day was spent preparing for the wedding. They had decided to have the wedding in the afternoon just a few hours before sunset.

     Fawnn and Mystyka had fussed over Ziona all that day, bullying John unmercifully to stay away from the bride-to-be until it was time for the wedding. They were her bridesmaids and they took the role seriously. Therefore Ziona stayed out of sight in the cabin on John's ship where she had spent the night.

     He had slept on the beach with his men, but had insisted on a guard detail to safeguard the ships. Another guard detail was stationed between the sleeping men and the interior of Sic Dalar, just in case.

     One incident of note took place that day before the wedding. Some of John's crewmen were sent to take the bed in the cabin of the ship to the new house. As rough seamen sometimes do, one of those men made a rude comment concerning the bed and it's potential use. Fawnn and Mystyka became livid with anger at the comment and were about to severely chastise the speaker when John's first mate stepped forth and knocked him to the ground. "Keep a civil tongue in ur mouth whelp, or face John's anger at the dishonor ye do his bride-to-be."

     The severely chastised seaman apologized profusely for his lack of manners then scurried away with the mattress, glad to get out of the area.

     Ziona thanked the first mate for his courtesy and said, "I see now that I am going to have to get John to encourage women to move here and settle down some of the sailors."

 

***

 

     Finally the time for the wedding arrived. Damia stood at the appointed spot which had been lavishly decorated by the men of John's crew.

     Damia spoke saying, "Captain John Trueblade and Lady Ziona, please come forth." The couple stepped forward, revealing Ziona dressed in a short gown of spider silk dyed blue as the sky, adorned with only the whitest feathers, and wearing a wreath of baby's breath upon her head. Her long wavy auburn hair flowed loosely down her back. A quick glance revealed her to indeed be barefoot. She held a large bouquet of fragrant flowers, gathered from the forest before the ceremony, for the ladies to catch. 

     John was wearing shiny black leather boots, Gray cloth pants with the legs tucked into the tops of the boots, a long sleeved gray shirt, and a black vest to match the boots. To add a splash of color he was wearing a blue groom's sash around his slim waist that matched the color of the bride's dress, with the trailing end hanging down beside his right leg. His sword was in its usual place at his left side. His head was bare to the sun and his gray green eyes danced with joy in anticipation of the coming wedding.

     As the couple stood before Damia, she smiled and said, "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, and with but a very brief pause continued, "First I ask you John, 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-to-be John thought of the love he had for her. "I do with all my heart and soul,” he replied. 

     Turning to Ziona with a smile, Damia said "I ask you Ziona, 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 John's gray green eyes, with a pretty smile Ziona replied "I do."

     Damia then asked for the rings to be brought forth.

     Looking again at John, Damia said "John, place the ring upon Ziona'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 Ziona's hand gently he placed the ring upon her finger and John repeated the vows.

     Damia turned to Ziona and continued, " Ziona, place the ring on John'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.’" Ziona placed the ring on John's finger and repeated her vows, her green eyes misty with unshed tears of joy.  

     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 the bride!"

     John took Ziona in his arms and kissed her gently, almost chastely as though afraid that he might embarrass her. Ziona was having none of that. She had waited too long for this moment to settle for a chaste kiss and so returned his kiss with vigor, much to the  delight of the onlookers, not to mention John himself.

 

 


 

Chapter 4.

 

     The wedding celebration had been going on for hours. It was now dark and a great bonfire had been lit to illuminate the area. Finally it came time for the wedding dance. John had prepared Ziona for that Sic Dalar ritual. Since Dalghard had outlawed the institution of marriage, many of the traditions had been forgotten. But the people of Sic Dalar under the guise of a courting dance had preserved the wedding dance.

     The musicians assembled. There were two lute players, a drummer, and two flutes. When the band started playing a slow haunting tune John stood up and led Ziona onto the dance sand. She said, "John, I don't know this dance."

     "You're not supposed to dear,” he replied with an easy smile. "That's my job." Then in further explanation John said, "The old folk have passed down this dance from generation to generation. Traditionally it is the groom's responsibility to know this dance. The brides are supposed to have never seen it. By the traditions only married women were supposed to witness this dance so that the bride was always surprised and could react naturally."

     "Just react as you will dear. No matter what you do I am prepared." Without another word he began to dance to the slow beat of the music. Around her he danced and she spun a slow circle always facing him as he danced, sometimes near her, sometimes a bit farther away.

     Within a few moments the music and the beat began to vibrate into her soul. Happier than she could ever remember being in her life she began to dance in a counter beat to his dancing. Smiling in approval John then deftly untied his Groom's sash and whipped it around her body snagging her around her slender waist. Then the dance began in earnest as she danced inside the sash maintaining the same distance from him.

      The tempo of the dance music increased and as it did so they found themselves dancing faster to keep pace with the music. Then a deeper drum sounded to the beat of that music as a ship's cadence drum added its bass tones to the wedding dance.

     The music was vibrating in their souls now and they danced without thought of the friends gathered around them. For them, there was only the music, the beat and each other. Ziona moved closer to John and placed both palms on his shoulders. He deftly took up the slack in the sash holding her snugly near him.

     Then another ship's cadence drummer joined the music, and another and another until finally every ship beached was adding to the music. Yet still the lutes and flutes filled the air and were not drowned out, nor overwhelmed by the louder drums. Damia was seeing to that detail. She was having a marvelous time. By the traditions of Sic Dalar the bride had just surrendered her soul to her soul mate husband.

     Then John whipped the sash away from Ziona's waist and they continued to dance to the cadence. John then gently moved Ziona's hands from his shoulders and placed the loose ends of the sash in her hands and let go of the sash. Instantly she understood that this was a test to see if she would wrap it about him or leave him free. She understood then the symbology of this dance. Smiling prettily she whipped the sash expertly around his waist pulling him in close as they danced.

     For his part, John danced as well captured as he did being the captor. He placed his palms on her shoulders and they danced. As they danced the cadence slowed gradually to the original beat. One by one the accompanying ship's cadence drummers dropped off the tune.

     The groom had just surrendered his soul to his soul mate. Not all wedding dances ended thus. Indeed, according to legend the majority do not. It was said that only those blessed by the gods did.

     When the music ended John bent his forehead to touch Ziona's. "I Love you wife,” he said simply. "I love you husband,” she replied.

     The crowd of spectators seemed awed. There was a moment of stunned silence and Ziona looked around at the people gathered near. She was astonished to see tears in the eyes of some of the men. John whispered an explanation in her ear saying, "Until tonight none of these men have ever seen the beauty of this dance played out genuinely. Only mock dances have they witnessed." He finished by saying, "They grieve at what they have missed all these years, and fear they will never experience it. Many will not,” he added soberly.

     Then to the assembled crowd he said, "Rejoice friends, no doubt soon there will be many more such dances here for soon women will come to join the settlement." With that said the crowd cheered loudly. They knew that John had contracted with several agents to locate women of child bearing age willing to move to Paradise Cove. In the course of time many would be the weddings here.

     John bid all a good night then swept his wife off her feet. She laid her head upon his shoulder and snuggled her face next to his neck as he carried her away to their wedding home. Once there, away from the eyes of the rest of the settlement, there would be other  surrenders this night.

                                           

 


 

Chapter 5.

 

     Over the next two weeks construction on the city began in earnest. A temple was built for the followers of Shinobi. A mayor's office was built and John was elected to be the first Mayor of Paradise Cove. He ran against several other popular captains but in the end he won with a comfortable margin.

     The mayor’s office was staffed with scribes and clerks, many of whom were hired in Harvest Moon and contracted to stay in the new city for at least two years. These scribes and clerks tracked the city population which seemed to be growing by the day. They made lists of the names of the settlers and which tracts of land that they had been granted by the settlement Charter which they had hammered out. Paradise Cove was now an official city.

     During that two week period another twenty ships had arrived in groups of two. These ships contained more building materials and of course people. Many women had decided to accept the offer to settle in Paradise Cove. The offer of a home of their own and an opportunity to be among the first women there was too great a temptation to resist for many adventurous ladies. They knew that there were almost as many men available in Paradise Cove as were to be found in some portions of Harvest Moon and that there was nearly no competition for the affections of those men.

     It should be understood that the war of the gods had left Sic Dalar once more with a severe imbalance in the genders. The ratio was nearly ten to one female to male, so by the shipload they came. Slowly at first then in a rising surge they came for the opportunity of peace, prosperity, and happiness with a spouse, should that work out.

     Homes were being built at a rapid pace. John had brought in more workers to speed that construction. Some workers came from as far away as Stoneheim. Several times he had to put down squabbles between those who knew the vision of the city shown to them by Shinobi and the newly arrived carpenters who wanted to do things their way. But John was adamant that the vision be adhered to. Threatening to have them shipped back to their homes unpaid if they deviated from the plans always solved that problem.

     By day the people of the city went about their business of the construction of that city, farming, hunting, and fishing. By night they would meet on the beach in community gatherings and socialize. Damia presided over two more weddings before the first Priests of Shinobi arrived and took over that task.

     By the end of the second week there were already nearly one hundred married couples. Very few had performed the wedding dance as well as had Ziona and John.

 

***

 

     Three weeks after the wedding, Brimstone and the companions bid farewell to their friends and set sail for home. Ziona was sad to see her friends leaving and spent as much time as possible with them the day before they departed.

 

***

 

     Three months after the companions had left Paradise Cove the trouble began. Some of the hunters opened up a new leather trade. They had found that the area had an abundance of small creatures whose hides, when dried and worked like leather, became the supplest of leathers. It was very light, durable and seemed to be fire resistant. Many of the hunters were already wearing boots made of this leather and the demand was growing, spurred on by samples sent to Stoneheim for study.

     A hunter had been found in the woods west of the cove. He had been torn to pieces by some beast. A strong group of fifty hunters spent the day seeking the creature that had slain the hunter but found nothing beyond a few tracks of some four footed three toed animal.

     The hunters split up into twenty groups of five and spread out over the area searching for anything that might be a threat. When the sun went down all but one of these smaller groups of hunters returned to Paradise Cove. The people of the city waited for word of this group of hunters which was unaccounted for, but the night passed with no word.

     At sunrise John organized a group of one hundred armed men to go out and search the area again. All had orders to return to the city well before nightfall if they became separated.

     Two hours into the search the five hunters were found. They were dead. They had been torn to pieces by something savage. Some of the men noticed that none of the men were wearing their new leather boots made from the animals native to the area and the scribes noted that curiosity as they filled out the death rolls in the Mayor's office.

 

***

 

     The dead hunters were buried and the night watch was doubled. Great bonfires were lit through the night in the hopes of keeping away potential predators. The new day found no further incidents to worry the people. The watch was maintained for a week, again with no attacks.

     As folks are inclined to do in the absence of danger, they relaxed their vigil the second week. Three nights later a dozen men were killed all along the city perimeter where they had walked their lonely sentry duties.

     Ziona called on her companions for help the next morning.

 


                                           

Chapter 6.

 

     Damia teleported Brimstone, Veksar, Fawnn, Mystyka, and Tarn to Paradise Cove. There was no time to wait for the Gryphon to get them there. It was at sea sailing for that Cove with a large contingent of Tarn's mercenaries. 

     Ziona greeted her friends with hugs all around and turned her worried face to Brimstone. "Thank you for coming to help. We are at our wit’s end."

      Brimstone soberly nodded his head in acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation. "I wish better circumstances had brought about this reunion."

     John's once merry eyes now looked sad. He seldom smiled and seemed eager to leave to hunt the creatures. He stayed just long enough to be civil, and then excused himself to go lead the daily hunt.

     After he left Ziona frowned and said, "He takes this situation very seriously."

     "We do as well friend. And we are here to help you,” replied Fawnn. Ziona smiled her appreciation at her friends and said, "It is so good to see you all again."

     They spent the rest of the day getting settled in at the new Tavern which rented rooms. The tavern was by necessity one of the earliest buildings constructed. It was needed to give visiting merchants a place to stay and transact their business. It also housed many of the men brought in as carpenters, but most of those men opted to build their own shelters since the city supplied the materials, within reason. When their contracts were up they would then sell that house at a set rate to the city. This permitted the carpenters to double their money while working in the city.

 

***

 

     John joined them in the tavern that afternoon. From the expression on his face all knew that the news was not good. "Another day and no sign of what is stalking us,” he said tiredly.

     Ziona placed her hand on his arm in sympathy for his plight. That prompted a smile from John and he leaned toward her and kissed her gently.

     Brimstone politely waited for John to sit back in his chair again, then asked, "Is it true that every attack has occurred after dark?"

     John nodded his head and said, "As far as we know yes, that is the case. It is definitely the case for the attack here at the city perimeter. It is assumed that it is also the case in the woods."

     "Then you need to hunt the animals at night,” Fawnn suggested.

     John nodded his head and said, "A hunting party will leave at sunset tonight."

     "Good,” said Brimstone. "We will be joining that hunting party."

     "Thank you friend, I appreciate that. If they are as savage as they seem to be then we will need all the help we can get, and Ziona has told me of your adventures fighting unknown animals."

 


 

 

Chapter 7.

 

     Fifty hunters went out that night. Brimstone feared there might be too many. So many hunters made a lot of noise, not to mention that if the animal hunted by scent, that many hunters would be putting out enough scent to warn any wary animal of their presence. This was John's hunt, so Brimstone left his concerns unvoiced.

     All night long they patrolled as quietly as possible. But they never noted anything out of the ordinary.

     The next night Brimstone did it his way. He led the hunt with Tarn, Mystyka, Veksar, and Fawnn at his side. John and Ziona were also present of course. Damia was unable to join them because it was against some obscure rule in the accords of the gods.

     Brimstone had studied maps of the area and questioned John intently about where the different attacks had occurred. This narrowed down the area on which they should focus their attention.

     The hunting party glided through the woods as silently as ghosts. Brimstone was in the lead position followed by Fawnn, Veksar, Mystyka, Tarn, Ziona, and John. They had been on the hunt for hours moving up and down the three trails which went through the target area. Several times they had passed a deep trench, the remains of an old river bed. Once, long ago, a river had flowed across the land here, but that river had long since dried up. Its course had been diverted by an earthquake.

     High moon found them once more near that old river bed when they finally found one of the animals that they were seeking. It came out of the river bed and moved onto the trail they were on which ran parallel to the river bed in this area. Brimstone saw it immediately and halted the hunting party.

     It had four legs and moved on four feet. It was about as large as a Skraug but thicker in the body, which was heavily muscled. It had pointed ears and the face tapered to a pointed snout. Its skin had a leathery appearance.

     As it moved it sniffed the ground and laid back its ears. Brimstone assumed it had picked up their scent since they had passed this same spot more than once during their hunt.

     Brimstone silently called Ziona to him. She spotted the creature and nocked an arrow. As she drew the string to her ear one of her bow limbs gave the smallest of squeaks and the animal whirled in their direction and charged. Ziona fired her arrow and immediately launched another at the charging animal, then she was knocked aside just in time by Brimstone who met the charging creature with bared blade.

     Ziona's arrows struck home true as usual. But they barely penetrated the hide of the animal. Brimstone's sword fared better, but not by much. He fought a retreating battle with the monster who seemed content to ignore his attacks and press home its own.

     Mystyka and Fawnn saved Brimstone from a severe mauling from the enraged creature with their spell entangle. Time after time they entangled it as it sought to close with Brimstone. Then Tarn and John were with him fighting the creature. Tarn ran a boar spear through its side and into the earth while it was concentrating on Brimstone,  then held on for dear life as the animal thrashed about in agony.

     Mystyka screamed in fear and the entangle spells stopped hitting the monster. Veksar leapt into the battle, slamming the creature with powerful bursts of the manaburst spell. He could not use his best fire spells with the companions so near the monster for fear of hitting them with the backlash.

     Then John's sword was hitting the monster again and again. Brimstone redoubled his own efforts and Tarn managed to dig the tip of the spear into the earth to anchor the animal. Soon the monster fell dead at their feet.

     "Veksar!" shouted Mystyka. "Something is wrong with Fawnn!"

     The companions gathered near Fawnn who lay crumpled on the ground unconscious. Veksar held her head in his hands and examined her. There was no visible sign of anything wrong.

     "Perhaps she fainted,” suggested John. "After all, it was a rather gruesome fight."

     That was the wrong thing to say. Veksar stood immediately to confront John, insulted that he was implying his wife fainted at the first hint of danger. Brimstone stepped between them and said, "John you don't know Fawnn well, so we will try to overlook what you just said. But for the record, if this woman fainted at the hint of danger, none of us would likely be here today. She has saved us all at one time or another."

     Mystyka nodded her agreement as did Tarn and Ziona.

     "My apologies friends. I meant no disrespect to her or any of you. I sometimes forget the women of the rest of Althea are not the same as those of Sic Dalar."

     "If the women of Sic Dalar had not been so abused by the men of this isle they too might be as we are today,” said a very angry Mystyka. That comment hurt John who turned away from the companions and moved over to look at the animal they had just killed.

     "That was not called for Mystyka,” said Ziona. "John never believed in Dalghard's edicts. That is why he became a pirate in the first place."

     "You are right Ziona and I am sorry for blurting that out, but he made me mad." She smiled and hugged her friend and said, "I'll apologize to him later, hun."

     Fawnn groaned and stirred. Moments later Veksar had her sitting up.

 

 


 

Chapter 8.

 

     "We must stop attacking these creatures Brimstone!" were the first words out of Fawnn's mouth, shocking everyone.

     "What?!" exclaimed John. "These animals have slain eighteen of the men of our city,  and you say we must leave off killing them? Woman, are you daft?"

     "Hold on John,” said Brimstone. "Let her explain." Brimstone was trying to keep the party from falling apart at the seams. Veksar was ready to challenge John now and Brimstone sent a silent plea to him for patience.

     "The animals didn't start this war, Brimstone. The humans did,” Fawnn stated calmly.

     "That's a damned lie, Fawnn,” said Ziona without thinking.

     Fawnn looked hurt at that and gathered herself up in quiet dignity. Brimstone and Mystyka looked stunned. Never would they have believed it possible that these two could have reached such a situation in their relationship. They were like sisters.

     When Fawnn spoke next she was looking directly at John. For the moment she ignored Ziona entirely. "Is it true John, that humans have killed the children of these creatures? That those same humans have skinned those children and worn them as trophies on their feet and then walked through this area to flaunt that fact?"

     John stared hard at Fawnn and replied, "Some of the hunters have located animals that have a fine leather hide when cured. You mean those were the offspring of this creature?"

     "Yes, of this one and others,” stated Fawnn. "They are attacking you in retaliation for the murder of their children."

     "By the way Brimstone, these creatures have a name. They are Torlags."

     "How do you know all this Fawnn?" asked Brimstone quietly.

     "I know this because I heard the Torlag speaking in rage at the torment humans had inflicted upon its kind. It was the creature’s pain and the desperate loss of its children which overwhelmed me."

     "But we didn't know that they were intelligent creatures Fawnn,” John said by way of explanation. "At any rate we must defend ourselves, so these creatures must die."

     "No John, you cannot continue to attack these creatures. We must make peace with them and explain our error."

     John stubbornly shook his head at that and said, "Peace will return to Paradise Cove when these creatures are all dead and not before." He then turned and walked down the trail a bit to be away from her.

     Fawnn looked pleadingly at Ziona who shook her head and said, "You judge us harshly Fawnn. You didn't really know the men killed, but John did. I did too. The twelve men that died at the city boundaries were John's men. He sailed with them for years. We buried what was left of them shortly before you arrived. And that was precious little. You didn't see what those animals did to his men, but I did. You didn't hold him as he cried like a babe over their loss, but I did."

     Shaking her head Ziona said, "You cannot understand his need for vengeance, but I can. I feel it too." Having said all of this she moved down the trail to join her husband.

     Fawnn looked at the other companions and tears rolled down her cheeks. It hurt her to be at odds with her friend Ziona. But in her heart she knew that she was right.

     As Tarn pulled the spear from the body of the Torlag he heard Fawnn's tormented whisper, "She was mother to two of the children murdered."

 

 


 

Chapter 9.

 

     On the walk back to the city Mystyka kept her word to Ziona and apologized to John for her outburst. Ziona seemed pleased at the gesture and John told Mystyka to think nothing of it. He went on to explain that he had always loathed the way that women were treated on Sic Dalar and had done what he could to make things right for them.

     The tension between Ziona and Fawnn was almost electric as they walked along the trail. Veksar noted it and was saddened to see the pained look in Fawnn's eyes when she glanced at her friend.

     Ziona would have given anything to soften the words she’d said to Fawnn. She had been angry when she’d said those things, but in the core of her being she believed that the people of Paradise Cove had every right to avenge the deaths of their friends.

 

***

 

     When they reached the city they split up. John and Ziona went home and the rest went to the tavern. Damia was waiting for them when they arrived, and to put it mildly she was furious. She was aware of what had transpired and sided vocally with Fawnn.

     Looking pointedly at Brimstone she said, "You helped kill a torlag mother."

     "Aye wife that I did,” said Brimstone, then he added, "I helped to kill a creature that was attacking us and had already killed other humans."

      "That creature attacked you only after Ziona targeted her with her bow. The sound from the bow alerted her and she reacted."

     Sighing Brimstone ran his hand through his hair in frustration and said, "Wife, would you prefer me in that animals gullet to standing here now?"

     "Brimstone,” Damia said warningly, "You know better than to try that with me." Damia fixed her eyes steadily on his face and continued, "The fact is that you ordered Ziona to kill her. And don't call the torlag an animal. They are a sentient species as intelligent in many ways as man. They think differently than man, but that in no way diminishes their intelligence or their awareness of their environment."

     Damia sighed and said, "And of course I don't want any of you hurt. But to the Torlags, what the people here have done is an atrocity. As far as they know the people here plan to wipe them from the face of Sic Dalar."

     "They do,” replied Brimstone.

     "Then they will just have to change that conviction, husband,” she said crossly, then kissed him lightly on the lips to let him know she wasn't entirely furious with him.

     Facing the companions she said, "As soon as you all left the torlag I went there and resurrected her. She is back in her home now."

     This statement made them all feel much better. Tarn looked visibly relieved. His spear thrust had finally ended any hope of the Torlag surviving the conflict. All felt a weight lifted from their shoulders.

     "No one wants to debate that decision with me?" asked Damia, almost hopefully.

     "No Damia. We are all glad that she is whole and hale again,” replied Veksar. "Had we known what had caused the conflict we would have reacted differently."

     Damia visibly relaxed then and sighed, "I apologize for my fit of temper. You will understand that anger when you meet the torlags tomorrow night."

 

 


 

Chapter 10.

 

     Damia went on to explain that representatives of the torlags would be coming after sunset the next night. They would come seeking the return of the remains of their children, and an understanding between their race and that of man. That understanding was that they were not to be hunted nor molested by man. In return they would not kill men.

     Brimstone pointed out that some of the skins had been sent to Stoneheim according to John. Damia nodded and said that those skins had already been returned to the torlags. She had taken care of that detail herself, which was the reason that the torlags were willing to send in emissaries.

     They broke for the night and each retired to their rooms for some much needed rest.

 

***

 

     At sunset Brimstone and the companions moved out to meet the torlags where they were to enter the city. He had convinced John that they needed one more night before he sent in the hunters again. That had been a very difficult matter to arrange but he had persisted until John had yielded.

     Ziona and Fawnn had spoken briefly, but there had been no break in their impasse. Ziona was still intent upon the revenge of the lost citizens and Fawnn was simply unable to convey to her what she had seen when her mind touched that of the torlag.

     An hour after dark they were met by the torlags. There were three of them. Fawnn stepped to the front to greet the Torlag Emissaries. She spoke to them in greetings and Brimstone was surprised when one of them replied, "Greetings Fawnn, Greetings all."

     "Thank you for coming,” Fawnn said politely. "I truly hope that this meeting will be a success."

     "As do I Fawnn,” the torlag replied. "I have no desire to fight you all again,” she finished.

     "That was you?" asked Brimstone.

     The torlag twitched her ears and said, "It was indeed me. I was startled when I heard the bow. That is the weapon that was used to slay the children. I am afraid that I reacted without thought. Not all who wander our land have slain our children. We have no wish to slay innocents." Then pausing a moment she continued, "But your archer was about to kill me, was she not?"

     Brimstone was stunned. He had expected nothing like this. Damia hadn't even told him torlags could speak. Breaking that momentary reflection he responded, "I see now that what we assumed to be a monstrous animal stalking and killing our kind was the wrong assumption. I apologize for the misunderstanding and for the loss of your children. My kind did not know that you are a people. If they had known they would not have killed your young."

     "I pray that you are right Brimstone, but I fear that you are wrong. Too much blood may have been shed for us to step back from this precipice." The torlag paused, and then said, "My name is Versha. Let us then journey to your city and speak of peace to the people there.

 

***

 

     Brimstone led them all to the beach. Damia appeared beside him there and amplified her voice. She spoke then to the people of the city. "Come to the beach. Come to the fire there now." In every corner of the city the people heard her and were compelled to go to the beach. On the beach they saw a magical fire of blue. Damia had used blue fire to lessen the discomfort to the torlag's eyes. A normal fire would have driven them from the area, for they are by nature nocturnal, and their eyes are extremely sensitive to light.

     John and Ziona were at the front of the ranks of men and women. They saw the companions standing there and headed out across the sands to meet them. They stopped, surprised when they saw the three torlags, and John reached for his sword.

     "Hold!" Damia commanded, and every human facing her froze in place. She went on speaking, "These three before you are Emissaries of the Torlag nation. They have come here tonight with a promise of safe passage given by me. You will hear their words and see what they have to show you. Then and only then will I free you from the hold of my will."

     Thousands of angry eyes stared hard at the companions and Damia. The torlag  spokesman walked forward to face the assembled settlers and said,  "My name is Versha, and I am the dominant female of my people.  I have been granted permission by our elders to speak in all things binding between our peoples this night." She paused and stared at John and Ziona. "You two may speak for your people?" she inquired.

     "I can aye,” spoke John.

     "Hear then the message I bring you,” replied the Emissary. "Return to us the remains of our children at once, and pledge to never again hunt us. This is not negotiable. These two things we require. In return we will not hunt any of mankind that neither hunts us nor desecrates the remains of our kind by wearing them as trophies of conquest. Further we will be your good neighbors and allies."

     John sat his jaw firmly and tried to shake his head. He couldn't move of course so he spoke instead saying, "I care not for the hides, but peace there cannot be between us. You have slain innocents of my city."

     "Not one man was slain who did not wear the remains of our children,” replied the emissary.

     John was stunned at that news, and devastated by it as well. It had been his idea for the sentry's to be equipped in the new boots to improve their stealth as they patrolled. "They were innocent. They did not kill your children. Others did."

     "We knew only that they desecrated our children's remains. For that they were punished."

     Then the torlag grew impatient and said, "This speaking is too slow and cumbersome. Allow me to speak to you as we speak to our own kindred."

     "Agreed,” said Damia before anyone else could reply.

 

 


 

Chapter 11.

 

     The speech that the torlags used among themselves was images that flashed by with remarkable speed and clarity. Those images also carried the emotion of the torlags and the scents that they had smelled. All of the citizens of Paradise Cove beheld those images and were stunned by them.

     First they saw a torlag female looking for her children. They saw her travel across many trails until finally she came upon blood on the forest floor. Sniffing that blood she realized that it was the blood of her children and she whimpered in terror. The people present didn’t just smell the blood. They also experienced the mother's heart stopping fear.

     Running blindly along the blood trail she soon came upon them, or what was left of them. Her two cubs had been hung upside down from a low tree branch and skinned. Sniffing the two bodies she moaned in anguish at the horror of the female cub’s scent. She had not been dead when she was skinned. She had been mortally wounded but she had lived through most of that skinning too weak to even move. The smell of fear and terror was so great on that small body that the people of Paradise Cove felt an insane moment of fear themselves.

     Then they saw a lone human hunter wearing the remains of those two cubs. One upon each foot. The female was worn upon the man's right foot. The torlag mother had found the remains of her children worn as trophies by the man who had killed them. In a rage she attacked that man and tore him to pieces. Then she reverently removed the remains of her children and carried them back to the sacred place for the ritual.

     There was a pause in the visions for a moment. Another of the three torlags stepped forward and the images began again from this torlag. He had warned his cub to stay inside the den. He warned that danger was outside, especially in the day, and then he had licked his cub clean and gone to sleep as the adults did by day. Later he awoke and knew immediately that his cub had left the den. His scent was old. Frantically he moved out of the den and picked up the scent of his cub.

     Following the scent he came upon his cub, dead and hanging from a tree, his beautiful hide stripped away, his life blood upon the forest floor.

     Then they saw five hunters all wearing the remains of torlag cubs. Those hunters were attacked by several torlags who killed them and carried away the remains of the children.

     There was another pause and the last torlag stepped forth to give her message. That message was confusing at first, but then the images began to make sense.

     The people of the city saw the beach at night. Nothing stirred there for moments but the ever changing sea. Then from the water emerged a huge crab-like creature that stalked out of the water and up the beach until it reached the city. There it climbed the steps to a house and seemed to peer through windows. Moments later that monster walked back down the steps and moved toward the sea again. On the way there it encountered a lone sentry and scuttled over to the man with lightning speed.

     Catching him in one giant claw the monster broke his back when it closed that claw, then bit off his head and carried the body with it into the sea.

     There was the briefest of pauses and a voice spoke saying, "This next that you will see happened in the past before man came here to dwell." One final vision flooded their awareness.

     It was high moon and there was a full tide. In the moonlight they saw untold numbers of the sea crabs coming ashore and heading up the beach in search of food. Then a massive army of torlags fell upon the creatures with amazing speed. The battle was stunning. Both the crabs and the torlags moved with such speed that few men could ever match them. The battle raged for minutes and then the images stopped.

     Once more the dominant female spoke to the humans of Paradise Cove. "The monsters that you saw are the Bre. They come here to feed. Every three years they come. They are the enemy of my people. They will be your enemy. To the Bre you are nothing but meat. For three nights they will come ashore here, returning to the sea with the coming of the sun. For three nights they will come then they move on to other feeding grounds."

     Looking pointedly at the steps leading to the houses the torlag then said, "You were wise to build your homes upon the sticks, but foolish to make a path to get to that airy place. Tear down your paths."

     Everyone in the city had been shaken by the images which they had seen, the scents that they had smelled and the emotions that they had felt.

     A shaken John spoke then, "We will tear them down, and thank you for the warning." He swallowed hard and said, "About your children I am so very sorry. We did not know that they were of a people. We thought them simple wild beasts."

     "I understand. That is why I am here as emissary tonight and not your mortal enemy. Our Shaman's can resurrect them if their remains are returned, but that must be done before one moon passes. Beyond that it cannot be done. That time is soon upon us."

     One by one men came forward then and surrendered either skins or boots. As the pile grew higher the men and women of Paradise Cove saw something that they had not expected. The three torlags knelt in reverence before that pile of hides and boots and cried. Briefly one of them transmitted that grief to the human's who were nearly  overcome by it, then mercifully that vision ended.

                                          

 


 

Chapter 12.

 

     Ziona and Fawnn stood by the sea the next day and talked. Ziona had to know the truth so she asked Fawnn. "Did you see the visions when we first encountered the torlag that we saw last night?"

     "I saw the first one yes. I was trying to understand why anything would be attacking people. Maybe that is why it sent me that image even as it fought and I entangled it."

     "Then I can well understand your reactions Fawnn. That image hit me hard too." Ziona smiled at her friend and hugged her. "I am so sorry we had words over this."

     Returning the hug Fawnn said, "So am I friend. It vexed me to no end that I could not explain to you why I felt as I did. How do you explain that vision to a person that has not seen it, smelled it, and felt it?"

 

***

 

     Brimstone sat alone with Damia and asked her a question that had been foremost in his mind, "How is it that the Torlags can resurrect their dead after so long a time when we cannot be resurrected after a short span?"

     Damia smiled at her husband. Now that things had been settled her anger was gone. She said, "What she refers to as resurrection we would call something else entirely. Their Shaman's don't actually resurrect their dead. She used that word for lack of an equivalent word in our language. Basically what will happen is the Shaman's will summon the spirits of the dead children, and then those spirits will return to their mothers. The mothers then rebirth them, or give birth to them a second time, with full memories of their past existence except the events leading up to and including their deaths. The elders forbid that, wisely feeling that it would cause problems."

 

***

 

     John met with Brimstone shortly before the Gryphon left for Stoneheim with the companions. He wanted to let Brimstone know that in the week since the meeting with the torlags all the stairs had been destroyed and hinged gangplanks had been added to the buildings. All gangplanks were to be raised at night.

     He further stated that the first of the torlag cubs had been reborn that morning and that the torlags had sent word that the Bre would be here in three moons.

     Brimstone thanked him for the update and wished him well. He could tell that something else was on his mind and said, "Ok John tell me what's really on your mind."

     John leaned forward and whispered something to Brimstone. Brimstone's eyes flew wide open and he said, "Really?!" John nodded enthusiastically. "She is?!"

     "Shush" John said. She wants to surprise her friends, but I just had to tell you."

 

***

 

     They set sail for Stoneheim promising to return for the Bre invasion.

 


 

Chapter 13.

 

     Brimstone stood in the bow of the Gryphon as it sailed north for Sic Dalar. With him stood Veksar, Fawnn, Mystyka, and Tarn. They were all eagerly scanning the horizon for their first sight of Sic Dalar in months.

     It was their plan to spend the night in Harvest Moon. Mystyka wanted to go over the books with Darien, the shopkeeper whom they had hired to run their Harvest Moon shop. Brimstone wanted to check on the local farmers and see how the breeding program was going and if further assistance was required. Fawnn and Veksar had heard that a mapmaker in Harvest Moon was now selling maps of the island that reportedly pinpointed many caves. Tarn just wanted to be near Mystyka who was making that fellow work very hard for her affection.

     There was plenty of time for all of these pursuits because it would be a full two weeks before the Bre invasion of Paradise Cove was scheduled to occur.

 

***

 

     The timing of the invasion was based on the information supplied by the torlags who insisted that they had never missed the date of the invasions. Some few scouts would of course come ashore during the nights preceding the real invasion. But they never did so in great numbers and the torlags had agreed to post their own guards near the beach to warn the humans of imminent danger.

     They claimed that they always detected the presence of their hereditary enemy even before they broke the surface of the sea. In any other race that might be considered bragging. For the torlags it was just stating the facts. They seemed incapable of bragging. They just spoke their piece and if you believed them fine. If you did not that too was of little consequence to them.

     Their plan was to spend two days in Harvest Moon, and then they would set sail for Paradise Cove.

     Aboard the ship they had supplies which might be desperately needed by the citizens of Paradise Cove in their battle with the invading Bre. For weeks they had all collected potions that abound within the realms of Althea. Now the Gryphon was loaded with enough healing potions to fight a fair sized war, and enough mana prisms to satisfy even the most inefficient of mages.

     They had worked out a battle plan with the torlags in the intervening months since their last visit to the beach side city. John had grown to respect the torlags as had the rest of the citizens of the city. He had worked tirelessly with Versha and together they had formulated what the companions believed to be a very good battle strategy. The people of the city would watch as the torlags first engaged the Bre. The torlags would thus educate the humans as to the weakest points on the Bre to attack.

     The Bre as a species of monster can be a formidable adversary to the unwary, but the torlags had battled the Bre for more generations than the torlags could recall. Their expertise in battling the monsters would prove invaluable soon.

     Once the torlags had demonstrated the best means of dispatching the Bre, the humans would be better equipped to deal with any Bre that might slip through the torlag battle line. If any did slip past them then the humans would be responsible for defending their homes. The torlags would assist if they could, but the primary responsibility would rest with the humans.

     John had organized a small army which would face the onslaught if need be to defend the city. They were comprised primarily of archers, for it was deadly to attempt to fight the monsters with swords. Only a few warriors of the city were good enough to have a fighting chance against the Bre. Those brave souls would comprise the small warrior element of the army. Mage volunteers would be arriving soon to help flesh out the defense of the city. Fawnn, Veksar, and Mystyka would be fighting with that group. Tarn would be present with a large contingent of fifty mercenaries who would join the archer and warrior ranks of the defenders.

     The only serious problem had come not from the torlags or the small army which would defend the city but from the farmers. Working with the hunters the farmers had amassed a considerable herd of wild hogs and enclosed them in hog pens.

     The torlags had warned that such a concentration of potential food was almost certain to attract the Bre once they came ashore. Bre always take the most direct path to any food source and that path would lead them straight through the heart of Paradise Cove.

     Finally in exasperation the torlag Versha had led John and Ziona to a large cave situated about a mile inland from the city. She pointed out that there was one way in and out of the cave. The cavern was large enough to accommodate the herd of pigs, and there was even a small underground spring located inside so that defenders would have a supply of water. Most importantly the cave entrance was so small that no Bre could gain entry and at worst could only reach inside the cave with it's claw and drag out the unwary that foolishly ventured within reach.

     In this cave a mere handful of men could protect the farm stock from the Bre. Stock it with food for the animals and the defenders and they would be able to withstand siege indefinitely. All that need be done was erect a fence to partition the cave so that the hogs would not be able to roam at will and wander within reach of the entry.

     John had ordered all the stock moved to the cave at once so that their scent would have time to dissipate in their current holding spot, but the farmers had protested vigorously. The time spent walking to and from the cave to see to the herd would hinder them in the fields. Finally tired of the bickering John pointed out that this was only a temporary measure to be implemented until the emergency was past and that as far as he was concerned they could simply post hog tenders there on a rotating basis.

     Versha assisted in convincing the reluctant farmers by showing them the vision of the hapless guard being killed by the Bre and then the vision of the full invasion. The chagrined farmers then settled on a sensible plan to deal with the emergency.

 

 


 

Chapter 14.

 

     Darien met the companions at the city dock and led them cheerfully to the shop. As they walked he spoke with great enthusiasm with Mystyka about the business and the success they were having in aiding the community while at the same time managing to eke out a modest profit.

     At the shop Darien and Mystyka excused themselves from the rest of the companions and spent several hours going over the books. Fawnn and Veksar went in search of the famed new mapmaker. Tarn accompanied them to watch their backs so that they could devote their full attention to the maps. Harvest Moon was a much safer city now. Safer than even a few months prior, but there was still a violent criminal element that made it unsafe for unwary strangers.

     Brimstone decided to go to the tavern where he had first met John Trueblade just to see if the atmosphere of tension was beginning to lift.

     Inside the tavern the smell of good food being prepared reminded Brimstone that he hadn't eaten in several hours, so he ordered a bowl of stew and some cheese. Sitting at his table nursing a mug of ale he unobtrusively observed the patrons of the tavern. It was early afternoon and the place was far from full. It was too early in the day for any farmers to be there, they'd still be tending crops or stock animals. The people present were largely of the merchant class and a scattering of female warriors and city guards who had completed their day’s work already.

     One of those off duty guards was a giant of a man who seemed to intensely dislike foreigners. This man was heavy in his drink and speaking quite loudly about the war of the gods and lamenting the cruel fate that had deprived him of the opportunity to participate in the war. Just how he figured his presence would have altered the outcome of that massive conflict he never clarified. The tavern patrons didn't press the issue because of his rather intimidating appearance.

     He said, "Why if I'd been there I would have challenged Brimstone myself and stopped the man cold in his tracks!" As he said this he made eye contact with Brimstone for the first time. His face grew flushed in anger and he stood up and pointed his finger at Brimstone. "Well foreigner. What do you have to say about that?!"

     Brimstone knew that his clothing had given him away as a foreigner. He had changed into a light mithril armor when they had sighted Sic Dalar and that armor was rare on Sic Dalar with only a few sets being owned by the inhabitants. Belatedly he realized that he should have opted for an armor more common to the isle so that he could have blended in.

     He looked at the man and smiled. Speaking in a respectful tone of voice he replied,  "A man as large and obviously skilled in the ways of war as you must surely have given Brimstone an excellent fight." He was hoping to diffuse the situation without having to resort to violence, for in truth he was here only to enjoy a light meal and get a feel for the city again.

     Brimstone's tactic almost worked. For a moment the man appeared pleased by the praise, then he frowned and said, "Are you trying to make sport of me stranger?"

     "No I spoke in truth of my opinion of you good sir,” replied Brimstone quite seriously.

     "Well see that you keep a respectful tongue in your head when addressing me,” the man replied belligerently.

     Brimstone smiled sardonically. The man was beginning to make him angry. "Yes sir I'll do that,” he said, then continued, "Is there anything else?"

     "I reckon that about covers it,” replied the belligerent guard. Then he asked, "Why?"

     "Because I see the serving girl coming with my food and I was going to ask her to take it back to the kitchen until we are finished."

     "Why is that? Why would you want it taken back to the kitchen?" he asked in curiosity.

     "Because if you insist on fighting me I figure that's going to take a while and I don't want my stew to get cold,” Brimstone replied with a smile.

     The stranger guffawed at that and seemed to relax. "You know I think I like you stranger,” he said. He walked over to the table and said, "My name is Eric Glenfield."

     Brimstone nodded seriously and replied, "Well met Eric Glenfield." He extended his hand to shake. When Eric took his hand he continued, "My name is Brimstone."

 


 

Chapter 15.

 

     The tavern went silent at that introduction. Eric's eyes flew wide open and he snarled, "You!" He tried to remove his hand from Brimstone's but Brimstone had a firm grip on it and refused to let it go. He began to apply pressure to it building up the pressure gradually.

     "Now Eric,” he said as he increased the pressure on the man's hand. "I didn't come in here looking for trouble. Eric attempted to jerk his hand free, but Brimstone's arm refused to budge and he increased the pressure on Eric's trapped hand. He could feel the bones in Eric's hand beginning to be stressed to a point near breaking.

     Eric drew back his fist to strike Brimstone. Brimstone waited until Eric threw his punch and intercepted the fist with his free hand. Keeping a tight grip on both hands Brimstone slowly stood and kicked his chair away from him so that it wouldn't be in the way. He applied pressure to the fist, once more slowly building up the pressure. Now Eric had both his hands trapped.

     Eric stood a full head taller than Brimstone and was nearly twice as broad in the shoulder. Never had he been bested by any man in a contest of strength. But Brimstone was no ordinary man. His years of training with weapons had increased the strength of his hands incredibly. And his Demi-god heritage gave him a strength often belied by his ordinary appearance.

     Brimstone said, "I'm going to let you go now Eric. If it's a fight you want it's a fight you'll get. But you remember that I just came in here for food."

    He released Eric's hands and Eric stepped back away from him warily. He eyed Brimstone angrily and massaged his sore hands to restore the circulation which had been cut off by Brimstone's incredible grip.

     "I reckon you caught me by surprise,” Eric said, but with a budding tone of respect in his voice. "Now I’ve just got to know if I can take you in a fight. It's nothing personal."

     Brimstone nodded his head in understanding. "A man's pride can lead him to such situations Eric. Bare hands or weapons?"

     "Bare hands. I don't aim to kill you, just beat you down a bit,” Eric replied with a smile.

     Brimstone  removed his sword and scabbard as Eric did the same. They also striped off their armored chest pieces. They met in the middle of the room. Some of the male patrons had moved several tables out of the way to make a twenty foot circular ring for the fight.

     Brimstone let Eric make the first attack. He stood impassively waiting with his arms at rest at his sides. When Eric threw a punch at his face, Brimstone twisted his upper body as he grabbed the attacking arm. Moving with the direction of the punch he pulled hard on the arm and threw Eric several feet across the room. He landed face down and his body skidded a foot and a half across the floor.

     Eric bounded back to his feet rapidly and charged Brimstone like a bull with his head lowered. With expert timing Brimstone waited until the last possible second then he shifted his body to the left, leaving his leg in the path of Eric. The hapless Eric didn't see this because he had his head down intending to ram Brimstone. He stumbled into Brimstone's outstretched leg and fell face first into the floor again.

     This time he heard laughter from some of the patrons when he fell. Leaping to his feet he stared hard at the patrons trying to find out who had laughed. He returned his attention to Brimstone when all he could see was somber faces greeting his stare.

     "You're good at dodging that's for sure. But when I get my hands on you I’m going to find out how tough you are." He gave a mighty leap and closed his hands around Brimstone's throat intending to throttle him, but something was wrong. He kept moving when he should have stopped.

     Brimstone moved with the force of Eric's attack. As he felt Eric's hands close around his throat he threw his body backwards and drew his feet between their bodies. As his back touched the floor he gave a savage thrust with his legs and once more launched the hapless Eric into the air.

     Eric couldn't hold onto Brimstone's throat and this time when he landed the laughter was louder. Leaping to his feet his face turned scarlet red. Glaring at the patrons this time he saw a few smiles, and nodding his head committed those smiling faces to memory.

     Turning to Brimstone he angrily said, "You aim to fight like a man or just play these games all day."

     Brimstone nodded and said, "Alright then, let's get to it, my food is waiting."

     This time Eric approached him with upraised fists cautiously. Warily he closed with Brimstone who continued to stand with his arms relaxed at his sides. Eric threw a right jab at Brimstone's face which Brimstone blocked with ease. Simultaneously he struck with his other hand. His punch took Eric on the chin. Brimstone punched him again in the eye and a third time in the nose in the space of two heartbeats.

     Eric's nose began to bleed and his eye began to swell. The power of Brimstone's punches was amazing to Eric. Never had anyone hit him so hard. Eric threw a series of lightning fast blows at Brimstone's torso.

     Brimstone felt the power of Eric's blows as they began to get through his guard. The man hit like the giant he was. He parried several attacks and slammed his fist into Eric's other eye. Eric stumbled backwards and almost fell. He caught his balance and renewed the attack.

     For several minutes they fought furiously in the tavern. Eric gave a good account of himself, but Brimstone was just too fast and too strong. There was no way that Eric was going to win this fight and he knew it. For the first time in his life he had met a man he couldn't beat.

     Brimstone broke off his attack and stared not unkindly at Eric. He said, "You are one tough fellow. I have hit you harder than I have ever hit anyone before and still you refuse to stay down. It has been quite an experience and I thank you for it, but I think I'm ready to eat now." Then grinning he said, "Care to join me? I'd like to talk to you about a job."

     Eric Glenfield knew when he'd been beat, and he found himself genuinely liking this man. "I think I'd like that Brimstone,” he said with a sardonic grin.

 

 


 

Chapter 16.

 

     The next day Brimstone met with the other companions and introduced Eric to them all. They all noted the apparent beating that Eric had taken and wondered what had happened to him. Brimstone explained what had transpired and told them that Eric would be joining their party when they left for Paradise Cove the next day.

     Eric thanked Brimstone again for the opportunity to join in the adventure. He also said, "I'm glad that you decided to tell me about the adventure, but why did you decide to invite me and take me along?"

     "Because the ship sails tomorrow at dawn,” Brimstone replied as if that explained  everything.

     Confused, Eric scratched his head and said, "I don't get it. What's that got to do with me?"

     With an absolutely serious expression on his face Brimstone replied, "The way the fight was going I do believe you'd have kept at it until tomorrow night. Don't you ever get tired?"

     Throwing back his head Eric laughed uproariously.

 

***

 

     Mystyka briefed the companions about her meetings with Darien. The shop was thriving now and indeed was making a small profit. Darien had been bringing in items that were rare on Sic Dalar and in high demand. The people of Harvest Moon and the surrounding countryside were benefiting from the business transactions in that they were seeing an overall improvement in their lifestyles. Darien was also hiring dependable teams to take carts of items into the countryside to reach other inhabitants who did not frequently come to Harvest Moon. Those inhabitants bartered items such as precious metals, gems, and furs to the store for the items the peddlers carried.

     This caused Brimstone to focus on the honesty of the men being hired and the need for them to deal fairly with the public. Mystyka assured him that she had questioned Darien most pointedly on that and that he had assured her that he was very carefully screening the men and women he was employing.

     She added that Darien had also leased a ship from the Harbor Master to ferry trade goods northeast to the small communities located along the inland sea most of which were too small to even be considered a village.

     All in all she concluded, the shop was an amazing success and she felt that Darien was perfect for the job. There was no need to worry about him wanting to return to Stoneheim because he was now in love with a local lady and they were seriously contemplating marriage when he amassed gold sufficient to support a family.

     Brimstone removed a pouch of gold from his pack and tossed it to Mystyka then he instructed her to give it to Darien as a wedding gift from Damia and himself. He further asked her to convey his approval of a job well done in helping to assuage the suffering of the people of the isle.

     When her briefing was done Mystyka almost shyly excused herself and departed with Tarn to see Darien, then they planned to head into the city to spend a few hours together.

 

***

 

     Fawnn and Veksar spent an hour going over the maps they had acquired with Brimstone and Eric. That giant of a man didn't like caves too much. A result of his massive frame being stuck in crawlspaces in a few too many caves. But he was extensively knowledgeable on the subject and was able to confirm the accuracy of several of the maps. That still left many which were a complete mystery to him.

     They left the city proper about noon and headed into the farming communities surrounding the city. Brimstone still wanted to check on the stock that had been seeded. They visited many farms that afternoon. The story was the same at each. The stock was prospering and soon they would be able to make good their pledges to the store.

     Brimstone asked Fawnn to remind him to tell Darien not to press the matter should any default on the deal. He was trying to help the people of Sic Dalar. He would be disappointed if any broke their word, but he'd not be pressing them if they did not. The main thing as far as he was concerned was that the citizens would not suffer famine should a crop fail.

     During all this, unnoticed by Brimstone, Eric studied him carefully. Here was a foreigner who had helped to topple the power of Sic Dalar. Yet he appeared to love its people enough to go so far out of his way to help them. Indeed all of the companions did. Eric found himself reviewing his opinions of foreigners and to his chagrin revising those opinions to reflect his greater knowledge and experience with them. The truth was they were good, decent, and honorable people. Yes they had helped to break the power of Sic Dalar under Dalghard, but they were also helping tirelessly to rebuild the lives of the citizens.

 

     For the first time since the war Eric Glenfield was glad that he had missed it due to an unfortunate accident that left him unable to accompany the army. He'd come to realize that Dalghard's priests were most likely lying about how vile the people of the rest of Althea were. Bah, he'd never liked those priests much anyway.

 

 


 

Chapter 17.

 

     A few days later the Gryphon landed at Paradise Cove.

     Just before they landed Damia appeared on the ship beside Brimstone. They greeted each other warmly as was their custom. Eric was stunned by her beauty and bowed low to the Goddess when Brimstone introduced him to her.

     "Greetings Goddess,” he said to her, then without preamble he continued, "I would very much like to pledge my loyalty and devotion to you and would become a follower if you will permit it."

     Speaking with rare formality Damia said, "Greetings Eric Glenfield. I have been waiting for you to make this decision. You will be welcome among my Knights on Sic Dalar and will be among the strongest of my Paladins."

     Noticing the damage that had been inflicted upon Eric in the fight with Brimstone she said, "Kneel my good and Loyal Knight."

Immediately Eric knelt before Damia and bowed his head at the bidding of his Goddess. She then gently placed her hands upon his head and probed with her powers the mind of this giant of a man. Even kneeling he was as tall as Damia. For moments she studied him, noting his battered face and chastised. "I do hope that you have learned not to pick fights with my husband."

     To Brimstone's utter amazement Eric trembled in what he took at first sight to be fear, then the man guffawed and he realized the man was actually laughing quietly. Eric said, "May the Goddess give me better sense than to ever be such a fool as to fight him again, aye!"

     Damia spoke again with the same formality in the tone of her voice, "Then be well my good servant." The wounds on his battered face were instantly healed and Eric smiled his gratitude.

     "Thy sword Sir Eric,” she said still quite formally. He drew the sword carefully so as not to bring its cutting edge near the Goddess, then offered it to her hilt first with the blade lying across the forearm of his other arm. Damia took the sword in her hands and closed her eyes. A moment later a tear formed at the corner of her right eye. She delicately captured that tear with the index finger of her left hand and touched it to the blade near the hilt.

     To the amazement of all present that single teardrop spread all over the sword for a moment then was drawn into it. "Sir Knight," she said with the utmost formality and seriousness. "Thy blade is now forever changed. It will serve you well in battle. It will never dull, never break and it has other properties that you will discover in the fullness of time." Handing it back to Eric she smiled at him when he noticed that the very heavy blade was now as light as most daggers.

     She then touched the shield he had strapped to his arm. The plain shield changed on the spot. Now the Gryphon that Brimstone had arranged to have placed on the sail of their ship adorned it. It too seemed light on his arm and Eric smiled his gratitude to the Goddess.

     "The shield also has special properties that you will in time discover." Then looking into his eyes, Damia the goddess of neutrality said, "Arise First Knight of the Order of the Gryphon. Arise and know that you are pledged to me. You will follow the path of neutrality and seek always a balance. The order of the Gryphon Knights will be given a mission to protect the innocent at all times. It is known to me that in the past many things vile have been done in the names of both good and evil. It is your duty to stand with the innocent and not be swayed by the words of either good or evil."

     Eric stood and Damia's head tilted back to meet the eyes of this giant of a man and Brimstone was surprised when she addressed him still quite formally saying, "Brimstone my Husband, son of Artherk and Evelyn, I thank you for being the hammer and anvil that has tempered my sword."

     Brimstone smiled and nodded, not at all sure what he should say, but say something he must to such a formal statement so he said, "It is ever my pleasure to be of some assistance to thee Damia, Goddess of Neutrality and beloved of my life."

 

***

 

     So it was that a new Order was founded that day. The Gryphon Knights of Althea with Eric Glenfield the first Knight of that Order.

 

***

 

     When they stepped ashore, they were greeted by John and Ziona. Fawnn and Mystyka both stared in wide eyed delight at their friend of many battles and hastened to her side. "You are with child!" Fawnn exclaimed as she hugged Ziona only to be replaced by Mystyka who smiled at her friend as she hugged her and said, "I am so happy for you!"

     Damia walked up to the group of women and smiling added her blessing upon the health of both mother and child. "May your childbirth be a gentle one my sweet friend,” she said, and then added, "I too am pleased to see you will soon bear a child."

     Ziona laughed and said, "Yes a girl from what Versha says. She talks to her you know. She says the child is most inquisitive and eager to be born. She also says that the child is the first human who can truly speak the language of her people properly."

     John was beaming with joy as Veksar and then Brimstone congratulated him. He added to Ziona's information by saying, "I think maybe our child speaks their language because she was exposed to it as she developed inside her mother."

     Damia nodded her head and said, "Yes John you are uncommonly wise in that assessment. Most men know little of such things." Then looking at Ziona she said, "Have you selected a name for the child yet?"

     Smiling at Damia she answered, "Nessarose is the name of our daughter." Giggling a bit she added, "Versha says that she likes the name."

 


 

Chapter 18.

 

     Days later they sat in a council of war in preparation for the coming invasion of the Bre. In two nights time the full invasion was due. Brimstone had gone over the battle plans meticulously with Versha and John. The changes that he recommended to them were quite minimal and he congratulated them on the soundness of their planning. Especially in moving the herd of livestock to the cave.

     Versha said that the time had come to post guards and volunteered torlag guards for each home. She said that the torlags would come with the darkness and stay beneath the homes of the citizens of Paradise Cove. Each home would have its personal guardian in this manner. She recommended that the humans leave the guard duty to the torlags tonight as this would be the most dangerous night prior to the invasion with scores of Bre scouts coming ashore.

     Brimstone advised John to accept the advice of Versha and pull back his guard squads so that they could observe the battle. John agreed and asked the companions if they would like to join in the observation of the conflict with a group of his men.

     It was mutually decided that all should sleep a while in preparation for the long night’s vigil.

 

***

 

     The companions stood near the home of John and Ziona. Near them stood a well armed band of archers from Paradise Cove's small army. Versha was with them, as were several other torlags. All of the torlags were facing the sea. Unlike the humans present, their attention was riveted singularly upon the nearby sea. Humans get bored and look elsewhere in sheer boredom. The torlags didn't. As a race they knew what was coming. Most living torlags knew what to expect from personal experience as they had survived several invasions. The rest of their race was aware because of the unique teaching abilities of the torlag elders.

     Versha spoke briefly saying, "They come."

     The humans present tensed and waited in anticipation. In moments the surface of the sea was disturbed as huge shapes began to emerge from the water and walk toward the shore. The Bre were crablike and extremely large. They varied in height from six to eight feet and were wider by far than their height, not even counting their legs.

     The torlags let them get a few yards up the beach before they charged the shapes.

     There were dozens of Bre scouts on the beach when the Torlag battle line fell upon them. The Bre were fast, but to the human eye they were moving in slow motion when compared to the smaller more agile torlags. The torlags worked together, sometimes as many as four or five to a single Bre.

     Brimstone had wondered how in the world the torlags could possibly hurt the Bre with their heavy armor. He got his answer when he watched the battle from his position with the others.

     The Bre had vulnerable eyes which protruded from their crustaceous shells. The torlags had to time it perfectly to evade the monstrous sized main claws of the crablike creatures, but apparently that was no major problem for them because in moments they had blinded the Bre. Then they concentrated on the weaker legs to the rear and sides of the creatures and methodically disabled them. Once they had a bre down off its feet they worked together to attack it from the rear away from the massive main claws. Using their claws the torlags would hammer at the tough outer shells until they had opened a hole in the armored shell. Once they penetrated the outer shell they would reach inside with their muzzles or claws. In more than one instance Brimstone saw torlags burrow inside the shells and disappear inside the bodies of the Bre. When this happened the Bre went into spasmatic fits thrashing about on the sand and the torlags would scramble out of the way. Moments later the torlag inside the Bre must have hit a vital organ because the Bre invariably died soon after these ferocious Torlags penetrated their shells and entered the cavity.

     Soon it was over. All of the scouts were dead.

     Later Versha pointed out that they should not be deceived by the ease with which the torlags had dealt with the Bre this night. Tomorrow night their ancient enemies would come ashore in massive numbers. Then it would be much more difficult to control their enemies.

     "You must be prepared to defend your city when some Bre get through our lines, and some will. They always do,” Versha said.

     "We'll do our best,” said John.

 

 

 


 

Chapter 19.

 

     The next morning dawned as a beautiful day. The sky was clear and the air held the promise of a beautiful day to come. But the inhabitants of Paradise Cove knew that this was the day the torlags swore the Bre invasion would begin with the setting of the sun. The torlags had warned them that when the light of  the day was no longer visible even on the horizon the Bre would come.

     John had the fleet of ships ready to set sail early. He wanted them well out of harms way before the invasion began. He had considered evacuating the city by ship but the population had grown so much that this was no longer feasible. They could have evacuated all that they could by ship and moved the rest of the population several miles inland leaving the torlags to deal with the Bre as they always had, but they had just built their city and were not willing to abandon it to an enemy.

     An hour after the city fleet disappeared over the horizon with skeleton crews of only ten men each, sails were sighted heading in toward the cove. At first it was thought that some of the ships were returning for some reason. A few minutes later the ships were close enough so that it was possible to know for certain that they were not the ships of the city fleet but warships.

     John hastily called out the city army to defend the city from a possible human invasion. But when the ships got within hailing range a voice called out that they were friends of Paradise Cove and not raiders.

     Moments later the four ships landed. In disciplined ranks four hundred archers formed up on the beach. A man in the robes of a city clerk of Harvest Moon presented himself to John on the beach. "Greetings John Trueblade. I have been instructed to bring assistance to our brothers and sisters of Paradise Cove. Harvest Moon wishes it known that any threat to your city will be regarded as a threat to all of Sic Dalar."

     Cheers from the citizens of Paradise Cove filled the air. Speaking formally on behalf of the city John replied, "The people of our city thank you. It is my hope that never will Harvest Moon suffer a threat, but know that if it does our city will remember this generous gesture and we will act in kind."

     Thus as simply as that was born the mutual defense pact between the two cities.

     John was pretty busy the rest of that day. The army of Paradise Cove who greeted them happily took the archers of Harvest Moon in hand. All of the men and women who would be participating in the defense of the city were encouraged to try to get as much sleep as possible that day for it was certain to be a long night. The four warships which had delivered the archers set sail with skeleton crews as had the city fleet.

     Three hours before sunset, Damia opened a portal to Paradise Cove from Stoneheim so that volunteers could join. Through that portal stepped dozens of volunteers who would be joining in the defense of the city. Oga and Jedi were two of the first to step forth and BluByU, Cougar, Corey, Genkaku, and XconX, Noughtinhill, Frusty, Psychost, Pig Killa, Tarkenstar, and MetalHead followed them. Also stepping through the portal were dozens of archers. The last man through the portal was Lord Malachi.

     When the portal disappeared Tarkenstar stepped forward and acted as spokesman for the volunteers. He spoke to John saying, "The islands of Stoneheim and Brach Dalar offer their aide in this time of danger for your city. Though small in number every volunteer is very powerful in their class."

     These volunteers were also added to the growing army of Paradise Cove which was now a moderate sized and powerful fighting force.

     Brimstone made certain all of the mages and the archers knew not to use fire spells or flame quivers during the battle as it would blind the torlags whose eyes were very light sensitive. Blinded, they'd be at the mercy of the Bre. The archers and mages all made adjustments to their quivers or spells based on this information.

    


                                       

Chapter 20.

 

     The sun was setting. Already the citizens of the city of Paradise Cove viewed sundown differently than any other population group in the world. After tonight the survivors would never again view a sunset in the same manner as even this dread one was viewed.

     The torlags arrived in massive numbers. Never had the citizens seen so many at one time. They moved through the city and stationed themselves between the city and the sea. The newly arrived volunteers who’d never seen a torlag were astonished to see them when they appeared, moving ghostlike through the gathering darkness.

     The human army took up positions to the rear of the torlags. The mages were mixed as evenly as possible among the archers and the few warriors who would participate in the coming conflict. The mages were to try to protect the archers and warriors with spells when possible but their primary job was to use their magic to slay any Bre that got past the Torlags.

     The archers were to try to hit the eyes of as many Bre as possible when they first emerged from the water but, the moment the torlags entered the battle, they were to stop their attempts lest they harm their allies.

 

***

 

     Several of the mages had created a bit of a problem for John earlier in the afternoon. They had proposed using the spell chain lightning on the Bre when they began to appear in the water just off the beach. They theorized that the spell affect would be intensified by the water and that many would be killed where they stood. Possibly the rest would just go away.

     Damia had popped in and settled the dispute by pointing out that what the mages said was true and it was possible that the Bre could be driven away by such tactics. Then she pointed out that the Bre would then find another place to come ashore in their search for food. Shrugging she had said, "Perhaps Harvest Moon, or maybe they'd even migrate south to the other isles. Imagine them coming ashore on Arakas or Raven's Dust."

     That thought sobered the mages quickly. Shaking her head Damia said, "No. The Bre must be permitted to come ashore here as they have always done. On land you may slay them. In the sea leave them be lest you threaten the balance of things."

  

 

     


                                     

Chapter 21.

 

     As darkness began to descend upon the cove, Brimstone gave the order for all to equip their light sources. No light spells could be permitted while the torlags were in close proximity. The bright flash of light would blind them.

     As the last light of day faded to be replaced by a blanket of black and a field of stars, the surface of the cove began to churn. Beneath the surface the Bre were heading for the beach. As the water became shallow enough for their bodies to affect the surface the torlags did a peculiar thing. The sat on their haunches and began to trill. It was an eerie thing to hear and raised the hair on the back of the necks of many a brave soul among the humans.

     "It's their death songs they sing,” Ziona told Brimstone. "Versha told me that they would sing it when the time for the battle was nigh." Looking at Brimstone with sad eyes she said, "Many will not survive this battle."

     "Then why do they do it? They could easily move to a spot the Bre could not reach,” Brimstone said.

     "This is their ancestral land. They love it as we love our homes,” Ziona said, as if that explained everything. Actually, it pretty much did. Brimstone could relate to fighting for your home. The people of Stonecrest did so daily against a mélange of monsters. Nodding his head he accepted the answer and prepared to do battle.

     Soon the first of the Bre broke the surface of the water. At first sight of the torlags stopped singing and calmly prepared for the ancient dance of life and death which they had fought here for untold generations.

     The moment that the first wave of Bre made the beach a great wave of arrows swept over them. Instantly they were blinded and a few lucky shots found thin spots in the creature's shells and penetrated. But for the most part the arrows bounced off the tough shells.

     There was time for one wave of arrows only, and then the torlags were attacking the Bre. In a solid wave they swept over them, recklessly disregarding their own safety. The blinded Bre fell in moments but already another wave was near the shore.

     The torlags returned to their line and regrouped to permit their allies another volley of arrows. Again they blinded the Bre and again the torlags slew their enemies. This technique worked two more times, then the waves of Bre were coming in too close to each other to permit the torlags to retreat and they were on their own.

     The torlags fought with great courage. Their valor in battle amazed the humans. In sorrow many a human watched helplessly as the Bre slew several torlags. Then an amazing thing happened.

 

***

 

     Eric Glenfield had watched in frustration as the Bre began to take a heavy toll on their allies the torlags. He prayed to the Goddess Damia to give him the strength and courage to fight this battle with the valor that he saw in the Torlags. Her answer was simple. "Then go my sword. I am with thee."

     Leaping into action he charged the Bre where they pressed hardest on the torlag line. Seeing him do this Brimstone charged also but Damia spoke to him saying, "Husband do not. This is what he is destined to do. This man must do this."

     Reluctantly Brimstone returned to the battle line and stopped other warriors who also wanted to enter the fray. "Not yet,” he told them. "Damia has said that Eric must do this alone."

     So they watched as Eric entered the fray praying to his Goddess to give his arm strength for the battle this night. He reached a Bre that had trapped a torlag with two of its lesser legs and was about to kill it with its main claw. With a blinding speed his sword struck true and the Bre's claw went sailing through the air. Another stroke of his sword cleaved through the tough outer shell and the Bre fell dead.

     Bounding to its feet the torlag thanked him then bounded away once more to join the battle.

     Eric turned to another Bre and blocked its descending claw with his shield. When the claw struck the shield a wave of ice leapt from it. The ice seemed to freeze the monster and make it sluggish. In moments Eric had another kill.

     Brimstone noticed that the Gryphon emblazoned on the shield was glowing softly in  the darkness.

     Smiling in satisfaction Eric attacked Bre after Bre, slaying all in the path of his fury.

     "Now husband,” Damia said, "Let loose the warriors."

     At Brimstone's signal the warriors charged to join the torlags in battle. Jedi being true to form was hooting in pleasure at such a battle to be had. His frostbane wasn't as sharp as Eric's blade, but what it lacked in the keenness of its edge it made up for in speed. He struck the line of Bre to the right of Eric killing one Bre in a few moments then turning to another.

     Lord Malachi who was using his Runed Halberd for the reach and extra armor penetration quickly followed Jedi. He too fought with wild abandon and seemed to have little regard for his personal safety. His weapon killed a Bre that was fighting two torlags. Those two torlags more or less adopted Malachi after that incident.

     John Trueblade fought valiantly near Jedi. He managed to kill many a Bre though his sword lacked the penetrating ability of some. Often Ziona, who was shooting Bre eyes as fast as she could draw her bow, aided him.

     MetalHead joined the battle line to the left of Eric. He hacked and hacked at the crustaceous casing of a Bre being mauled by three torlags. The Bre grew irritated at MetalHead's attacks and slashed at him with its primary attack claw. MetalHead dove under the attacking limb and, twisting his body in a rapid twirling motion, his frostbane struck the attacking arm at a joint, slicing the arm through so that only shreds of shell held it to the creature. Instantly a torlag leapt upon the claw and bit through the small section holding it to the Bre.

     Brimstone fought near MetalHead. He was using his own frostbane sword. He had considered the problem in-depth for months and thought that he had worked out a means to use his fire spell talent. It would take very precise timing and of course a lot of luck, but above all it would take all the control he could muster.

     With his amazing strength Brimstone penetrated the shell of a Bre and sank his sword in to the hilt. Focusing his fire spell through the blade of his sword he made it erupt inside the Bre. The results were quite demonstrative. The Bre toppled over dead in seconds cooked from the inside. The light from the spell was contained within the shell. It wasn't a very large fire spell, but trapped inside the shell the affects were intensified.

     He fought on slaying many more Bre, then for a moment, there was a pause in the battle. Brimstone called for the warriors to return to their lines so that the archers would have a clear shot at the Bre as the next wave came from the sea.

     When Eric turned to follow those instructions Versha walked beside him. She thanked him for saving her from the Bre and promised to return that favor if ever she could. Eric politely replied that it had been a pleasure to be of assistance and stated that the Goddess Damia was the one she should thank as it was she that gifted him with the weapon and shield.

     Versha expressed her appreciation with a short bow. Torlags bow by folding their front legs beneath them. After the brief bow she bounded off to see to her people.

                                           

 


 

Chapter 22.

 

     The torlags and human warriors managed to hold the Bre through many waves. Finally the inevitable occurred. Several Bre broke through a weak spot in the battle line and headed for the city proper. The mages and archers let loose several volleys of spells and arrows. Within moments, all of the Bre were killed. A cheer went up from the ranks of the humans, but that cheer was short-lived. The torlags were retreating en mass and the Bre were charging the humans.

     Shouting to the humans Brimstone chastised, "I said do not use fire spells! You blinded the torlags!"

     Several mages had in the heat of battle forgotten the warning not to use those spells. Two female mages stepped to the fore of the mage group and raised their hands. They launched wave after wave of boulder into the nearest group of Bre. Brimstone noted that they were Fawnn and Mystyka. He saw Veksar step beside Fawnn and release a torrent of manaburst at the Bre. Tarn joined Mystyka to guard her should any Bre reach her.

     Thus rallied, the other mages and archers unleashed a very deadly barrage into the Bre and beat back all but a few. Anpu Sandstorm entangled a Bre with an arrow and three torlags took it down in a blinding rush by leaping into the air and slamming into it at full speed.

     The battle was winding down when Tarn's foot slipped and he went down. A Bre's lesser leg penetrated his armored chest piece and stabbed his left side, pinning him to the ground, ironically as he had once pinned Versha the torlag.

     Before the Bre could slay the hapless man three torlags hurtled out of the night and crashed into it knocking it off its legs. Some of Tarn's men leapt to the fight and soon the Bre was dead.

     Mystyka stood over Tarn healing him. Quickly she saw that her powers of healing were not going to be enough. She could tell that the wound might well prove fatal and was desperately trying to think of a way to save Tarn.

     Fawnn and Veksar looked at each other sadly. The wound was mortal and they knew  it.

     Brimstone had seen more than his share of wounds. He also knew that the wound was mortal. So vast was the injury that there was no way Tarn could survive. He was about to tell Tarn's men to take him to safety when Versha walked over to the injured Tarn.

     Versha stopped beside Tarn and asked, "Why do you not help this man?"

     Ziona had tears in her eyes when she answered. "I fear there is nothing that we can do for our friend. His wound is beyond our ability to heal."

     "We heal such wounds,” said Versha simply, then she added. "I can try, but it may not work on a man."

     "Do it please,” said a tearful Mystyka.

     "I will try,” said Versha, "But our ways are not the ways of man."

     Without another word she put her muzzle over the wound and regurgitated on it. One of Tarn's men became furious and drew his sword but Eric reached a hand out of the darkness to stop the mercenary.

     Tarn screamed as if in dire agony. The mass of congealed mess that Versha had regurgitated was bubbling violently. Mystyka fought to hold him still as Tarn thrashed about for a full minute. Then he stopped screaming and fell unconscious. The vomit from the Torlag was now dried into a seal that stopped the flow of blood.

     Versha placed her snout over the wound once more. A moment later she said, "It is working. He will live but will sleep until sometime tomorrow. That varies from creature to creature. He should be taken from this place though lest the Bre find him a tempting morsel."

     Mystyka smiled at Versha and thanked her for the help. "Get your man off the beach lady. He is a brave man and should not die in his sleep," the torlag said.

     Then it was that Frusty the archer gave a yell. "Here they come. Be ready!"

     Six of Tarn's men took him from the beach to the house where he was staying. "Guard him well!" Mystyka shouted at them as they hurried him to safety. "With my life!" replied one valiant soul.

                                          

 


 

Chapter 23.

 

     Ten more waves of Bre came ashore that night. It had been quite a learning experience for all involved. The torlags learned to appreciate their human allies and the humans were amazed at the effectiveness of fighting the Bre alongside the torlags who healed several humans terribly wounded that night.

     They had refined their strategy greatly. The mages had learned that earth spells were fairly good against the Bre. Fire seemed best, but that hurt the torlags. Air was also a detriment as they learned when a mage unleashed hurricane on the Bre. It hurt the eyes of the Torlags as much as fire. Water seemed best next to fire. This surprised the mages. The Bre were creatures of the water. You'd think them immune to ice oriented spells but they were not.

     As the first rays of the sun broke the spell the moon held over Althea the Bre stopped coming. At the height of the battle the Bre were coming ashore in waves every five minutes. Toward the end it was every ten minutes. The final wave seemed the largest of the night.

     When that battle was over the Bre were all dead and the torlags were beating a hasty retreat in a race with the sun. A few torlags were wounded too badly to make it to their dens. As had been agreed early in the planning stages, the human's helped those torlags to get to emergency dens built by the torlags just outside the city.

     The citizens of the city came forth when the ringing bell signaled the end of the danger. They helped to drag the crablike Bre away from the beach so that their bodies would not be a hindrance when they battled the Bre tonight.

     More than one Bre was added to the city's cooking pots that day when it was discovered that they tasted just like crab. It was considered funny by some that the Bre came looking for food but ended up in the cooking pots of their intended victims. The torlags heartily approved of this. They held the belief that if the Bre didn't invade their lands they'd have to learn to breathe water to find that delicacy.

     As the citizens of Paradise Cove went about the work of cleaning up the bodies of the Bre, the men and women who‘d fought so valiantly all night long slept. Some slept well and some fitfully, but all were overcome by the exhaustion of the night’s battles and slept.

     Mystyka checked on Tarn. He was still asleep in the bed where his men had put him. She sat down in a chair and stared worriedly at his sleeping face. He seemed to be breathing normally so she hoped that was a good sign. Exhausted from her night of battles she felt her eyes growing very heavy and decided to lean back and close her eyes for just a moment.

     An hour later Tarn awoke and saw Mystyka sitting in the chair asleep. He was touched by her presence and the concern for him that it implied. Apparently she was warming to him. He'd claim that girl's heart yet.

     Getting up quietly, Tarn dressed. He felt wonderful other than being very hungry. Softly he walked over to Mystyka and stood beside her a moment. When she did not stir in her sleep he lifted her gently and placed her on the bed. He removed her boots for her comfort then covered the sleeping woman with a light blanket, for it was a cool morning.

     He briefly considered stealing a kiss while she slept, but the thought of how she would most likely react should she awaken at that moment horrified him. Mystyka was a special lady and not some tavern wench to be treated thus. Ashamed of his thoughts he moved away quietly.

     Seating himself in the chair she had occupied he settled down to wait for his love to awaken. Touching his side where the wound had been he felt only healed flesh. He remembered it all. The Bre which had pinned him, the torlags who had saved him, Mystyka weeping and trying desperately to heal him, Versha offering to help, and the terrible agonizing pain. That vomit she produced had burned the wound like a hot brand pressed to flesh. It was however better than dying, and he'd known the wound a mortal one.

     Most of all he remembered the terrible fear in her eyes. At that moment he had felt it might just be worth dying to discover that Mystyka had feelings for him. Until then he had not been sure how she felt.

     Leaning back in the chair he decided that he would sit here and guard her sleep. Thirty minutes later the remnants of the healing substance produced by Versha hit him and slowly his eyes closed. He had been asleep for a few minutes when Mystyka's eyes fluttered open. She took in her surroundings at a glance and looked around the room until she spotted Tarn. Satisfied that he was safe she lay her head back down on the pillow and closed her eyes again. A smile lingered on her face even as the deep rhythmic breathing of sleep once more filled the room.

     Outside the room three of Tarn's mercenaries stood guard. A mercenary leader made enemies; therefore a guard was always posted when Tarn slept. The guards knew that Tarn loved the woman Mystyka. They didn't know how she felt about him, but they knew that no man would enter the room they guarded while the two slept and none did.

 

 


 

Chapter 24.

 

     Brimstone strode across the sand on the way to the beach. The first night of the war with the Bre had been encouraging but Versha had repeatedly warned them that each night the raids by the Bre would bring greater and greater numbers of the monsters.

     Brimstone wanted to refine the battle plan. It had worked well last night and that was true. However if the Bre increased in the numbers that the torlags assured would come, then they needed to alter the battle plan.

     There were numerous things that could be changed if the goal were simply to keep the Bre from the city. That was not the case. They must be permitted to come ashore and not simply be killed in the sea, lest they leave this place for another. Therefore any plan to combat them must encompass permitting them to have the beach.

     He had learned a lot last night from the many waves of raiding Bre. One of the most interesting lessons was just how well the torlags worked with humans in combating their ancient menace. Tonight he planed to actually organize this and take advantage of this strength.

     He met with all of the warriors on the beach and explained his plan. Many had benefited from just such a pairing the night before and enthusiastically agreed to such a planned pairing with the torlags.

     Later when the torlags arrived Brimstone spoke of the plan to Versha who readily agreed. It made sense. The human allies brought something unexpected to the fight. For generations untold the Bre and torlags had struggled with each other on this beach. The torlags knew everything there was to know about how the Bre fought. The Bre also knew what to expect in the way of battle tactics from the torlags. The humans added an element of surprise to the conflict. This gave the torlags an advantage over their ancestral enemy.

     Brimstone also mentioned what he'd seen the night before when Anpu Sandstorm had entangled a Bre and three torlags took it to ground quite easily. Versha agreed that the tactic was indeed a good one and requested that Brimstone pair the archers with that ability with the torlags as well.

     Brimstone asked Anpu to personally see to that detail then went in search of the mages. A consultation with them revealed that they were simply too low to fight effectively without endangering their allies. Mages fight line of sight. Anything blocking their view was a disadvantage. Half the time they could not cast their spells for fear of hitting their allies.

     Brimstone quickly considered letting mages stand on the porches of some of the houses but quickly rejected that concept because of two disadvantages. The most important disadvantage was that the tactic would draw the attention of the Bre to the houses and that was something they wanted to avoid. The other was that the angle was wrong for the mages to fight effectively.

     So they improvised. There was a small sand dune nearly eighteen feet tall slightly behind the battle line they had maintained the night before. Last night a few archers had clambered to the top of it for better shots with their bow. But most of the archers could not penetrate the shells of the creatures. It was decided that a group of mages should be set up in that position for this fight.

     It was a dangerous plan. The mages would be very exposed to a counter attack by the Bre if the line faltered in their area. Brimstone would counter that danger by having Tarn and his mercenaries placed there at the foot of the dune to act as guards.

     Brimstone had also consulted with Versha about one other thing. If all else was failing, then the most powerful of the fire mages would be instructed to unleash their fire spells. Therefore if defeat seemed imminent the torlags should be prepared to race away from the area to protect their eyes. He assured Versha that this would be resorted to only if imminent defeat seemed likely.

     Versha didn't like this, but conceded that it was wise to plan for the worst and hope for the best. She added one last sobering bit of information before leaving to organize her people. "Many Bre are coming this night, more than ever on a second night of their incursions in my memory, more even than some third nights. They are coming. I feel their presence in the sea beneath the waves." Then she added, "Prepare your plans well Brimstone, husband of Damia, for this night will be worse by far than you have seen thus far." 

 

  


 

Chapter 25.

 

     Brimstone consulted with Damia and told her of Versha's revelations. She advised that a signal be set that would warn the people of the city to flee in the worst case situation that the army was completely routed.

     Brimstone apprised John of the updated situation. It was agreed that the signal bell would be rung nonstop for the emergency evacuation.

 

***

 

     The Bre arrived on schedule. The first three waves were about the same as the waves the night before. The warriors and torlags made swift work of those. Then the Bre numbers increased dramatically so that they were coming ashore almost non stop.

     Anpu Sandstorm led a group of archers to the forefront of the battle line. They entangled the legs of dozens of the monsters and kept them entangled until the torlags could bring them down.

     Spells from the mages were flying over the heads of the defenders in an almost continuous barrage. Manaburst and boulder, soul steal and tsunami slammed into the Bre. But such was the press of their brethren that no sooner were a dozen killed than they were replaced.

     This time there was no end to the wave as was the case on the previous night. This time they just kept emerging from the sea relentlessly.

     The human warriors that had been paired with torlags struck, trying to break the attack. Dozens and dozens of Bre were killed by the efficient torlags and human partners. In more than one instance torlags stood over fallen humans until they could regain their footing or be carried away by other torlags. The humans reciprocated. If a torlag went down they rescued it from the attacking Bre.

     The press of the Bre was unbelievable. They were in a grim situation and Brimstone was well aware of that fact. He ordered the signal given for the Torlags to retreat and protect their eyes. As soon as the last Torlag cleared the battle zone the fire and air spells annihilated the front ranks of the Bre. Again and again volleys of fire, air and ice struck the Bre. Veksar was atop the dune with the other mages. His meteor was savaging the Bre and he accounted for many that night.

     The earth mages added their spells to general assault. Brimstone saw Fawnn and Mystyka firing their boulder spells as fast as possible. It was a non stop rain of boulders as they swept the ranks of the Bre. They were using prisms to supply the mana.

     Brimstone added his fire spells to the fray. He used firestorm and meteor to great effect. He did not use his personal fire spells developed by him as they were too powerful. Had he done so the Bre might have left for other places to hunt. He could not expose unsuspecting seaside villages to this menace. That had to be avoided at all costs.

      Archers who had quivers of flame changed to them and added their fire arrows to the onslaught of spells. Ziona might have been pregnant, but her aim was as true as ever. Her bow shot with an uncanny accuracy as she fired arrow after arrow into the Bre while they advanced. For twenty minutes the battle raged and finally the Bre attack was broken.

     The torlags were recalled to the battle line and Brimstone gave the order that once more no fire or air spells were to be used.

     Throughout the seemingly endless night this same series of events repeated many times. The torlags and warriors fought furiously to slay the Bre. When they became hard pressed the archers would entangle the Bre to give their friends a bit of breathing room. Through it all the mages attacked from the height of the dune. Several times the torlags had to leave the area so that the human mages could unleash their blinding but effective fire and air spells.

     Finally during a brief lull in the fighting Versha spoke to Brimstone saying, "There is but time for one more wave and then the sun will rule the sky."

     Brimstone nodded grimly. He was glad to see this night end. Some of the mages were nearly out of mana. The warriors were getting low on healing potions and if not for the regeneration potions would have perished to the last man long before this.

     Then the Bre were coming again. This time Brimstone saw Eric striding out onto the sand of the beach. With him strode three other knights. Blinking in surprise he noted all four men were carrying the signature shield of the Gryphon Knights. Smiling to himself Brimstone guessed accurately that both Eric and Damia had been busy, but when had they had the time to recruit and induct more men? It didn't matter. They had and if those three recruits were of the same mold as Eric they would be formidable indeed.

     And now the Gryphon Knights were four.

     The Bre charged up the beach. All along the battle line they were met by the warriors and torlags. The fighting was savage. The Gryphon Knight's shields were almost constantly aglow as the Bre stubbornly hammered away at them. Those four men fought as if they were a squad of warriors. They decimated all in their path and often turned to assist torlags or humans in need of a hand.

     The Gryphon Knights fought so well that the line held much longer than it had during the previous waves, but eventually even they were forced to retreat before the massive push of the assembled Bre.

     The signal was given to unleash the archers and a rain of arrows covered the retreat of the warriors and torlags. As they had done several times, the archers succeeded in blinding the Bre. The archers were very good at that. It seemed that they anticipated the movements of the Bre so well that they fired their arrows where the Bre's eyes would be before the Bre were in that position. Oga stood with them and fired as effectively as the rest of the archers. Pig Killa was there as well and he accounted for more than his share. Ziona looked very tired. Brimstone was concerned for her well being and that of her unborn child. But her bow was as accurate as ever and he had to admit it was a comfort to see her firing her bow.

     Then the torlags were clear and it was time for the mages to take on the brunt of the assault. At that critical moment the Bre surged forth in a burst of speed. The healthy Bre often knocked aside their blinded brethren in their mad dash to reach the mages.

     The mercenaries guarding the mages steeled themselves for the impact. The Gryphon Knights stood with them as did the other warriors. Brimstone moved to stand in the center of the battle line.

     The mages unleashed hell upon the charging Bre. So intense was the massed fire attack that the front ranks of the Bre were obliterated in moments, but the Bre kept charging. Brimstone's firestorm was awesome. It looked just like any other mage’s firestorm, but the damage dealt by it was significantly higher. In point of fact it killed Bre with one hit. But the Bre were so numerous that they were replaced almost immediately.

     Throughout the battle the rhythmic thud of boulder rained down upon the Bre. Water spells and air spells sailed through the sky in a veritable mélange of killing spells. Then the Bre struck the battle line. The fighting was savage.

     Brimstone received a mental message from Versha advising him to stop the fire spells so that they could rejoin the battle. Brimstone complied.

     In moments the torlags rejoined the fray. So savage was the fighting that many warriors were down in moments and torlags had to drag their allies to safety and heal them with their special abilities.

     The Gryphon Knights fought as if they were demons. They seemed able to withstand attacks that would kill most warriors, and all the time they were killing their attackers.

     Brimstone had just pulled his sword from the body of a well cooked Bre when someone shouted, "The sun comes!" In moments the surviving Bre broke off the attack and retreated back into the sea.

     Looking around at the scene of so much battle, Brimstone saw Mystyka leaning on Tarn. She was exhausted from the long night's battles but seemed to be in good shape. Veksar and Fawnn were hale as well. Lord Malachi had a leg nearly severed by a Bre and two Torlags were healing him. Ziona and John stood nearby. Ziona was looking very sick at the moment. He asked if she was alright and she said, "I'm fine. A bit sick from the smell is all." That was the only concession Brimstone ever saw her make to fighting while pregnant. The smells of gore made her sick to her stomach then. That smell got to many a seasoned male warrior. There was no shame in that.

 

 


 

Chapter 26.

 

     Damia agreed to open a portal to Sic Dalar so that the mages could use their spell Word of Recall to go for mana supplies and have a quick way to return. Warrior volunteers made potion runs back and forth between the isles that day as well. Three hours after sunrise the potions and mana needed for the coming battle were once more in place and all slept until one hour before darkness. That was pretty late but they were all exhausted.

 

***

 

     Ziona stood at the top of a small sand dune. In front of her the Bre surged at the battle line of the defenders. Torlags darted past her by the score and leapt to the attack. Human warriors raced with them. Working in tandem the allies wrecked havoc among the ranks of the Bre. Still many Bre came on. Though fewer in number now they pressed home the attack and soon the battle line was fully engaged.

     Mages’ spells were going off all around her and archers’ arrows darted out of the night. She saw her husband John leap to intercept one of the three Bre closing on her position and begin to engage it. Then she had no time to spare for anything save the eternal struggle to survive.

     One, two, and finally a third arrow she sent flying into the charging Bre but it seemed unharmed. It continued in its relentless charge with its attack claw held at the ready. A fourth arrow she sent into it that penetrated its shell and then it was on her.

     The Bre snapped it's claw and the upper bow limb was sliced through. It toppled to the ground and her bow was now useless. Dropping the ruined weapon Ziona pulled her dagger and desperately tried to fend off the attacking claw, but she might as well have tried to block a mountain. There was no way that her dagger could impede that massive attacking claw.

     The claw snapped shut in front of her and Ziona felt a sickening pain in her stomach. In horror John saw that claw slice open Ziona's abdomen and their unborn child fell forth in a gush of blood. One of the Bre's lesser legs impaled the child as it scrambled to attack Ziona. Raising its claw a bit the creature snapped it shut and decapitated Ziona.

 

***

 

     John awoke bathed in sweat with his heart racing. The vivid images of the nightmare still so fresh in his mind that he could smell the blood, going back to sleep was out of the question. He reached out and touched Ziona and was reassured that she was indeed here with him unharmed. It had all been a dream.

     John lay there for a several minutes to allow his heartbeat and respiration to return to normal. A few minutes later he got up and dressed. It was early and he should sleep more to prepare for the coming night, but sleep was now the last thing he wanted. He eased the bedroom door shut so as not to disturb Ziona and moved away from it to the door of his house.

     John left in search of Brimstone. He was hoping to find him awake.

 

***

 

     "Husband awaken,” Brimstone heard Damia's voice and it pulled him from a deep sleep. "Yes beloved?" he responded.

     "John needs you. He is coming to see you on an urgent matter. Please do not handle this matter lightly husband," Damia said speaking softly in his mind.

     Brimstone was instantly alert to the serious tone of Damia's mental message. "Count on me dear. I will do my best."

     A wave of warmth and love and the scent of Damia filled his mind and nostrils for a moment. "I know you will beloved, and thank you." Then she was silent. Hastily Brimstone got up, dressed, and prepared to meet with John.

     John arrived outside Brimstone's door and knocked softly once so as not to disturb him if he were still sleeping. The door opened almost instantly and Brimstone stood framed in the doorway. "Come in John I've been expecting you."

     John entered the room and Brimstone answered his unspoken question. "Damia" he said with a laconic smile. He offered John a chair and the two men sat down to talk.

     John related his dream to Brimstone meticulously leaving out none of the details. When he had finished he settled back and waited for Brimstone to comment on what he had said.

     Brimstone was horrified by the dream that John had related to him. He asked Damia if the vision was prophetic or just a nightmare. When Damia answered her reply was evasive and aggravating to Brimstone. She said, "It can be both or neither. Much depends upon what you do about this my husband."

     He instantly retorted that she was being difficult and she tartly replied that she was coming close to breaking a rule of the accords as is. "Use that marvelous mind of yours my husband. I am sure that you will do the right thing. You always seem to do so."

     That exchange took milliseconds. John was never aware of it or the contents of the conversation. Brimstone stared hard at John for a moment. In that moment he made John a promise with his eyes that his voice confirmed a moment later. It wasn't necessary though. John had seen the promise in his eyes. No Bre would harm Ziona tonight so long as Brimstone lived.

     Brimstone's reply was simply this. "Let us pray that it is just a bad dream. But so vivid a dream as that should not be ignored for I do dearly love my friend Ziona. If at all possible I will not stray far from Ziona this night. No Bre will touch her lest it first slay me." Then smiling at John to lighten his mood Brimstone added,  "And I'll be damned if a simple crab is going to do to me what a cult of professional assassins could not do. Ziona saw me through that tribulation. I can do no less for her if, indeed, this is to be her moment of greatest danger."

     John felt much better after that and soon headed home to Ziona.

 


 

Chapter 27.

 

     While the defenders slept Damia met with Versha the torlag. She had teleported Versha to her inside a cave for the sake of her eyes. "Thank you for coming Versha,” Damia said politely.

     Versha bowed and said, "Only a cub would balk at the chance to meet with you Goddess."

     Smiling Damia said, "Thank you. I wanted to ask you if you think it is too dangerous for you to continue to send me the images of the battle."

     Versha considered this question quite seriously then she said, "There is an element of danger in it for me yes, but if your plan is to work that danger must be braved." Cocking her head inquisitively Versha asked, "Do you still foresee the outcome even with the changes that you and Brimstone organized in the defenses?"

     "Sadly yes I do. The outcome is not the same entirely. The severity is of course impacted, but yes. The city will be lost unless our plan works."

     "Then there is no legitimate option. Dangerous or not I must proceed. I do thank you for your courteous concern Goddess."

     "It is I who owe you thanks. The visions that you sent of Eric helped to build the order. If all goes well that order will one day unite Sic Dalar and end for a millennium any need for concern that this island will seek to conquer the others."

     "May I ask what it is that you do with those visions?"

     "I amplify them and send them to the people of Sic Dalar." Damia smiled warmly and continued, "The three men who joined Eric last night were recruited to the order after they saw the vision of Eric battling the Bre the first night. Eric was surprised when those three stepped through a portal." Grinning impishly she said, "He may be surprised again very soon."

     Turning serious Damia said, "Be careful Versha. If you need to withdraw to give me the visions do so, or stop sending. Above all you must live. The cub you carry is vital to your people."

     Versha sat back on her haunches and stared at Damia. "I don't suppose you'd care to share that information with me."

     "Sorry Versha, but that is forbidden by the accords of the gods."

     "I understand that you have occasionally broken the accords,” replied Versha simply and to the point.

     Damia nodded her head and said, "I have when they made no sense and that's the truth. In this case it makes perfect sense. Telling you the future would alter it in this case."

     "I see,” said Versha letting the matter drop. She was wise enough to know that if it involved her cub then Damia was more than likely correct. She would act differently if she knew the future of her offspring and in the doing possibly change that future to one  less preferable.

 

***

 

     When Eric stepped outside the house where he was sleeping he had the shock of his life. One hundred men and women were waiting for him in ten rows of ten. Each warrior was armed with a sword and a shield. The shield was emblazoned with the Gryphon. These Knights had been accepted into the Order of the Gryphon Knights.

     Damia appeared before them all and said, "And now you are one hundred and one. Fight well tonight and represent well your leader Eric who is First Knight of the Order of the Gryphon."

     The assembled Knights fell to one knee before their Goddess and Damia knew the heart of each of them. One hundred and one brave souls of noble heart knelt in the sand that afternoon. Each man present had some military experience. The women had trained hard after the fall of Dalghard and were equally skilled at arms. Tonight they would put that experience to the test.

     Damia spoke to them for five minutes giving the incredulous Knights some very specific instructions. She answered a few questions and then left.

                                           

 


 

Chapter 28.

 

     Fawnn and Veksar walked out onto the sand near the beach. They saw Noughtinhill, Tarkenstar, Mystyka, and Tarn, along with several other people waiting for the assembling forces preparing to battle the Bre for a final night.

     Fawnn was concerned about Ziona. Not the pregnancy, she knew that would be fine, and her friend was still able to fight well. But still she had a sense of dread for Ziona. She'd had a bad dream as she slept, but could not recall it at all. She had a vague feeling that it must involve Ziona. She'd discussed it with Veksar and jointly they'd decided to fight near their friend this night.

     Fawnn pulled Mystyka aside for a hurried consultation. She intended to tell her of their plan, but Mystyka interrupted her saying, "Fawnn, I'm worried about Ziona. I think we should fight near her tonight."

     Fawnn said, "You too? I was going to suggest that very thing. I had a dream."

     "So did I,” replied Mystyka,” then she added, "But I can't remember it. I just have a sense of danger for Ziona."

     Then Fawnn noted Tarn's sad eyed expression as he looked at Mystyka from thirty feet away where he stood with a group of his men. She asked, “What is wrong with Tarn? Did you two have a falling out?"

     Mystyka smiled at Tarn and blew him a kiss causing him to smile. His lips smiled but his eyes still conveyed an unmistakable sadness. "He has been assigned to guard the mages on the dune again tonight, so he won't be able to join me during the battle."

     Fawnn nodded her understanding. "Yes he'd not like that much."

 

***

 

     The battle plan for the third night of the war was the same as the one utilized on night two with one exception. Eric approached Brimstone and asked that the Knights of the Order of the Gryphon be permitted to take on the first wave of Bre alone.

     Glancing behind Eric, Brimstone noted one hundred Knights. "Damia must have been very busy," he thought to himself. "You are a brave man Eric. It shall be as you wish."

     "Thank you Brimstone,” said Eric. He extended his hand to shake. Brimstone smiled when the irony of that hit him as it did Eric. They shook hands and then embraced in a warrior’s embrace in which the warriors tend to pound on each others backs like a war drum.

 

 


 

Chapter 29.

 

     Most of the mages occupied the same sand dune as they had the previous night. But Fawnn, Veksar, and Mystyka along with Brimstone stood to the right of that dune near Ziona who was herself standing atop a smaller dune for a better vantage point from which to direct her arrows.

     Brimstone noted the peculiar sick look in John's eyes as he tried to get her to change positions, but laughing at him she'd said, "Dear I am an archer. You suggest the low ground and I'll not be loosing many arrows from there."

     Brimstone sent John a mental message to let it be lest he inadvertently put her in worse jeopardy. Reluctantly John accepted the logic that it is better to face a danger you were prepared for than one unknown.

     As the sun began to set the Gryphon Knights marched down to the beach with military precision and they formed up on the beach facing the defenders with shields interlocked. Many spectators wondered what in the world they were doing. Then Eric stepped forward and in a booming voice proclaimed, "To the citizens of Sic Dalar, we the Gryphon Knights fight and die here this night if need be so that you need never face this threat in your homes. People of Sic Dalar, we salute you!"

     Then he remained silent and an air of expectation filled the air. Suddenly one hundred and one shields were thrust forward in the combat ready stance and every Gryphon emblazoned on them began to glow. Softly at first and then a deep scarlet red.

 

***

 

     Versha the Torlag was transmitting the images to Damia. Suddenly all over Sic Dalar every man woman and child experienced that vision and marveled at what they saw. They heard the words of Eric and smelled the sea. Many a brave heart, both male and female, was filled with a sense of pride in their people and longing to be selected one day to join this order.

     The Gryphons glowed for a full minute then the glow died away. Eric gave the command which turned the line of defenders to face the imminent threat from the sea. Moments later the first of the Bre emerged.

 

***

 

     The people of Sic Dalar, and this time Stoneheim as well, experienced the visions Damia broadcast as she received them from Versha. They'd never seen a Bre and most were amazed at the monsters. Then the Bre attacked the line of Gryphon Knights and the true size of the monsters became apparent.

     The first wave was trapped against the shields of the Gryphon Knights and all across the line Bre began to die from the ice spells being cast by the shields and the swords that hammered at them when the occasional opportunity presented itself.

     For an hour they fought, killing the first four waves of Bre before being pressed back by the sheer numbers of the monsters. During that hour Versha captured dozens of acts of heroism and bravery as the Knights fought valiantly, defending each other and attacking the common enemy.

                                           

 


 

Chapter 30.

 

     The Gryphon Knights retreated to the rear for a badly needed rest and the rest of the warriors advanced to face the Bre with their eager torlag allies. They met the wave with gusto tearing into the Bre with a ferocity that amazed the citizens of Sic Dalar and Stoneheim as they continued to see the visions transmitted by Versha.

     Long and hard was the struggle that these teams fought. Again the warriors often saved their torlag allies and the reverse happened frequently. Wherever they happened to be watching from, be it their homes or deep in the woods, the people who were watching this vision were amazed at this unlikely combination.

     Then the teams had to retreat. The Bre were sweeping up the beach in vast numbers heretofore unseen during this invasion.

     A battle line of archers formed to slow the advance while the torlags raced away at the signal to unleash fire spells. Corey, the brother of XconX and Genkaku, was in the center of this line firing his bow in a rapid methodical manner.

     Pig Killa and Cougar raked the Bre from their positions on the archer line as did Oga. These three archers shot with great accuracy and devastated those Bre in the path of their arrows.

     Psychost fought from the main dune occupied by the mages. Beside him fought Noughtinhill, the realm sheriff. They prepared to unleash their fire spells upon the invading Bre as Veksar did the same from his position at Ziona's dune.

     Tarn spared a moment to look at Mystyka. She was staring thin lipped and determined at the approaching Bre. He could tell that she was preparing herself for the casting soon to come. A man yelled his name and Tarn's attention was returned to the battle area around him.

     Tarkenstar was blessing the archers from his position on the main dune. Beside him XconX healed the archers as Tarkenstar blessed them. Genkaku had stationed himself at the base of the dune to assist in defending the mages. His brother Corey had spoken with him briefly just before joining the archer's line to hold off the Bre and was directly in front of him.

     The Bre attacked the archers who fired until the last moment, then turned to retreat. Corey was well on his way to safety when he heard a scream of pain. Turning he saw an archer who had stumbled and fell. The man was being held down by a Bre which was about to kill him. Corey fired his bow and blinded the Bre in one eye. The wounded Bre forgot the trapped archer and charged Corey who stood his ground and fired arrows in a dazzling display of dexterity.

     Corey killed that Bre, but he never saw the one charging him from the left. Genkaku screamed a warning and charged the Bre that was attacking Corey. He killed that Bre, but could do nothing for Corey whose head had been half severed from his body. Two torlags scrambled over to assist but sadly told the warrior that there was nothing that they could do for a wound of that type.

     From the top of the dune beside the other mages XconX saw his brothers below and raced down the dune to help. He arrived as the Bre were leaving that particular area. Corey died in their arms as they struggled to take him to a spot where the Bre could not get at him.

     An enraged XconX and Genkaku returned moments later and entered the fray once more. In ten minutes they slew an incredible twenty Bre fighting side by side, often surrounded by the Bre. With no regard what-so-ever for their personal safety, they vented their rage on the Bre. Witnesses later reported that each kept saying, "This is for Corey!" as they killed and killed and killed.

     Such was the ferocity of the brother's battle that Lord Fatman, MetalHead, Tarn, Lord Malachi and several Gryphon Knights had to fight their way to them to escort them to safety lest they see such brave men die.

     Noughtinhill, Psychost and from his different vantage point Veksar all added their powerful fire spells to the battle as did Pig Killa from his. Brimstone once more used his firestorm and the Bre were dropping by the dozen.  The problem was they were being replaced by the score.

     Fire, water, and air spells lanced through the night unerringly killing Bre. Archers’ arrows did the same. Ziona, Frusty, Pig Killa, and Cougar accounted for a dozen Bre each. The archers of Harvest Moon added dozens more kills to the list of dead Bre.

     Fawnn and Mystyka were savaging the Bre ranks with their earth spells, sometimes weakening them for the archers and warriors.

     Then the warriors and mercenaries guarding the mages grew hard pressed. The Bre were forcing them to retreat.

     Brimstone ordered that fire and air spells cease so that the torlags could return to the fray and help either push back the Bre near the mages or kill them thus giving the mages time to withdraw to a safer spot. Then he saw several Bre coming directly at his group of companions.

     Ziona's bow was singing a deadly song as she sent arrow after arrow into the Bre. Then John intercepted a Bre which was charging her and killed it quickly with several well placed thrusts. Mystyka and Fawnn saw another charging at Ziona and they turned to rain boulder on it together. Between their spells and Ziona's arrows the creature died.

     Brimstone saw another Bre charging Ziona and intercepted that one himself and killed it with his burning blade tactic.

 


 

Chapter 31.

 

     The people of Stoneheim and Sic Dalar saw the battle raging in Paradise Cove. They marveled at the bravery of the defenders and it did not go unnoticed by the citizens of Sic Dalar that many of the combatants assisting the city were from off island.

     Many archers of Althea saw Corey make his last stand. They felt his final triumph as if it were their own, then his agony as he was attacked. Many an angry archer grabbed his bow and best quivers. Noting the exclusion of fire arrows at times some carried two quivers.

     Damia had just announced that she was opening two portals to Paradise Cove should volunteers wish to go there. One portal would be opened in Stonecrest and one in Harvest Moon. Already lines were forming as people stood impatiently waiting for the portal to appear.

     Mages of Althea saw the few mages present about to be overrun and forced to retreat. They joined the ranks of waiting archers as they continued to experience the visions of flashing spells, pain and in some cases the smell of death.

     Warriors of Althea saw the mercenaries bolstered by the warriors and torlags fighting a rear guard action as the mages retreated through the city, fighting as they withdrew. They too, in many cases, moved toward the growing crowd to await the portals.

     All heard the constant ringing of the city bell announcing the need to evacuate as the army of defenders was routed. All saw the citizens fleeing and helping each other as they stumbled to escape the onslaught of the Bre.

     Then everyone awaiting the portals stood stock still in mute anger as they saw the first of the houses come under Bre attack. The Bre quickly realized that they could not get inside the homes. Unexpectedly they moved under the houses they were attacking. When enough of them were underneath the homes they literally tried to lift them off the stilts but that was no good. They were attached properly to the stilts and the only way to lift the houses was to also lift the stilts.

     Unknown to anyone Shinobi had caused the stilts to grow roots so that the Bre could never muster a force sufficient to uproot the homes. But they could violently shake the homes and given time they could literally shake the homes apart joint by joint.

     The Bre did succeed in causing some few inhabitants too slow to evacuate to panic with their attacks. Those who panicked foolishly tried to jump to the sand and outrun the Bre. They were caught almost immediately and eaten.

     Then the portals appeared on both isles and the citizens of Harvest Moon and Stonecrest poured forth through them.

     That was the last of the visions to be seen for a while. Versha had to rally her people to give the retreating humans any hope of surviving this night. They fought valiantly alone against the Bre for half an hour while the humans managed to withdraw and form another battle line near the center of the city. Their action gave the humans time to get ready. Thus did the torlag race save the defenders of Paradise Cove from near annihilation.

 

***

 

     Brimstone and the companions had retreated in the same general direction as the mages. The humans were routed. Brimstone saw the Bre attacking a home and cursed in frustration. There was no way that he and the companions could reach that house because there were about one hundred Bre between them and the home under attack.

     Ziona was hard pressed to maintain the pace. Her bow arm was still all it had ever been. But pregnant ladies far into that condition run poorly. John was beside her keeping pace. He noted then what he had noted earlier. Ziona was bracketed by the companions. Smiling briefly at the love this group expressed for one of its members in a weakened and vulnerable state he approved.

     Then up ahead he heard the thunder of earth spells being cast by a ranking mage from the sound of it. Nodding to the companions as they ran he indicated that they should head in that direction.

     Moments later they reached the new battle line being formed by Tarn the Mercenary and Eric Glenfield of the Gryphon Knights. Their warriors stood shoulder to shoulder with interlocked shields. The Gryphons were once more scarlet red on the shields as the companions scurried through an opening in the line left there for retreating combatants to enter.

     John and Brimstone saw the other companions safely through to the area where the mages were assembling. Brimstone suggested strongly that they make their stand there and fight with the mage element of the defenders. He asked Fawnn and Mystyka to use their healing spells as much as possible to save the warriors on the battle line as they fought to give the mages time to regroup and organize an effective counterattack. They were to spread the word to other mages with great healing capability to spell the warriors.

     He and John joined the warriors’ line to hold back the advancing Bre and give the mages and archers time to prepare a defense.

     Then it was that Brimstone realized that they were too many. He knew the number of defenders and there were more now than a moment ago. Then smiling he saw the portal located to their rear and the people rushing through it to join the defenders.

     Warriors were rushing to join the line of warriors. Mages went to seek out the mage element and the archers found their positions beside other archers who greeted the support as warmly as the rest of the defenders.

     Suddenly the Gryphon Knights began to chant "Gryphon, Gryphon, and Gryphon over and over. The emblazoned Gryphons on their shields turned a deep orange color and all at once a shape materialized in the air near the line of Gryphon Knights. It was a Gryphon, but such a Gryphon as this surely had never lived for it was of tremendous size. Easily the size of a large house, it pounced upon the Bre in ravening hunger eating first one then another.

     To the Bre the Gryphon was a predator to be feared and for the first time the defenders saw the Bre run from an enemy.

     The Gryphon Knights marched forward keeping their shields interlocked. Several times Bre sought to run them down as they struggled to escape the ravening Gryphon, but those Bre were killed by the massive bolts of ice that devastated them when they touched the shields.

     On they marched with the newly arrived warriors at times replacing exhausted defenders that had fought all night. The archers ravaged the Bre when they could and the mages used their earth spells to savage and weaken them. Torlags worked the flanks and brought down the wounded Bre.

     Through it all the mages also healed the line of advancing warriors and kept them spelled up for the battle thanks to the organization of that detail by Fawnn and Mystyka. Veksar fought beside them firing his manaburst in a constant punishing wave at any Bre he spotted.

     Ten minutes after it had appeared the Gryphon, along with the defenders, had pushed the Bre back to the original battle line. Once there the Gryphon leapt into the air venting a piercing war scream and disappeared.

     It was at best estimate one hour until dawn. The defenders fought with renewed vigor as did the torlags. When the sun finally drove the few surviving Bre away for another three years the defenders stared incredulously at the carnage.

                                            

 


 

Chapter 32.

 

     Damia appeared on the beach beside Brimstone who greeted her warmly. The battle over, they watched as the citizens of Paradise Cove went about the now familiar task of clearing away the Bre dead. Noticing some of the Bre being dragged into the city Brimstone said, "They are going to boil a few Bre dear. Would you like to join me in a delightful Bre claw meal?"

     Frowning Damia said, "No thank you. I don't think I'll care much for seafood for a while."

     Smiling cleverly at his wife Brimstone suggested, "For about three years?"

     Glancing at him Damia noted his expression and said, "Now why would you think that, my husband?"

     "No reason, beloved,” Brimstone said slyly. After all a Goddess must have her little secrets.

     Changing the subject he said, "Your plan worked out well Damia."

     Damia smiled at her husband and responded, "I'm not sure I know what you are referring to."

     Brimstone smiled warmly at the beautiful woman. She was a Goddess and that was the truth, but to Brimstone she was first and foremost a beautiful woman. "I'm fairly sure that you do dear,” he replied glibly.

     "First I discover Eric and pound some sense into him for you, then he immediately becomes your follower and you made him the head of the Order of Gryphon Knights on the spot. You then used a torlag's images to recruit more assistance for this city and simultaneously recruited more Knights, quite capable Knights, for your Order."

     "Versha supplied the images,” Damia replied with a smile.

     "You instructed that the evacuation plan be set up and saved many lives. You created a sense of national unity which will in time lead the people of Sic Dalar out of the despondency that so many endure after the crushing of their people during the war of the Gods."

     "At the same time you have shown them that the rest of Althea is not their enemy and indeed would be their friends and help them in time of peril. Last but not least, you created the Order of Gryphon Knights itself. Run properly that Order will become a stabilizing influence for Sic Dalar."

     "Did I miss anything?" he asked with a smile.

     "Ziona and John, Nessarose and Tersha, dear,” she replied.

     "Ah yes. John's dream was a vision from you?" Smiling, Damia kissed her husband. He realized that she wasn't going to answer. "Why would the Bre single her out that way?"

     "They didn't really. There were just three Bre whose destines had the potential to cut hers short. John killed one, you killed another, and the three ladies killed the last." Smiling impishly Damia finished, "Ziona just has some very good friends who were destined to make a stand with her."

     "Nessarose is her unborn child I know, but who is Tersha?"

     "Tersha is Versha's unborn cub."

     "What is it that they must do?"

     Damia spared a thought for the accords for a moment and then told him, but gravely cautioned him not to speak of it to anyone, lest their destinies be hopelessly fouled.

 

 


 

Chapter 33.

 

     The battle of the Bre, as it was to become known, was costly. Some fifty torlags died. Forty humans were slain with ten of those being the hapless citizens who had panicked when their homes had been attacked.

     The torlags were happy though. Versha had confided to a stunned Brimstone that loses of up to half of their people were not unheard of during the Bre invasions.

     Corey was dead, but his brothers had protected his body when they moved it. Sadly, a resurrection wasn't possible because of the nature of the wounds.

     The Gryphon Knights lost eight of their number on the final night of the war. Those eight were replaced the next day as Damia inducted another one hundred and eight, bringing their number to two hundred and one.

     It was ordered that some of the Knights be stationed in Paradise Cove, a plan to which John heartily approved. Others would be stationed in Harvest Moon and many outlying communities. Their mandate was simple. Protect the weak and innocent, seeking neither personal gain nor fame.

 

***

 

     The exertions of the war with the Bre put Ziona into premature labor shortly after the induction ceremony for the Gryphon Knights. Damia, Fawnn, and Mystyka were with her through that.

     Veksar, Tarn, and Brimstone kept John company during the long wait, having been chased out by an angry Damia when they made too much noise and woke a fitfully sleeping Ziona who had dosed off a moment between labor pains.

     Late that night Ziona gave birth to a healthy but small baby girl she named Nessarose.

     Staring at the child with a worried expression Damia spoke saying, "Father I need you." He appeared a few moments later. She held the babe up for the god to see and said, "She is too little father."

     "Yes daughter she is premature," Ogrimar confirmed.

     "Would you fix this please father? I don't know how yet."

     Looking uncomfortable Ogrimar said, "Damia that is against the accords and you know it."

     Damia looked at her father and said, "Oh I think I know how after all." The child in her hands glowed briefly. 

     Ogrimar snorted in irritation. "You did that wrong girl. You blessed her hair." Glancing slyly at Fawnn and Mystyka he said, "Ahh two of my most devoted followers. “Greetings ladies. Is there a boon I can grant you?"

     With delicate curtseys the two ladies explained that there was indeed a boon they'd have if he'd be after the giving. Fawnn repeated Damia's request. Ogrimar immediately complied and made the baby a full term baby with all the subsequent benefits. Mystyka requested that he heal Ziona and make her hale again. Once more Ogrimar complied and she was healed.

     Damia delicately kissed her father's cheek just as he disappeared.

     He sent her a mental message saying, "Nessarose is special. She has a mission to fulfill."

     Damia sent back, "More than one father, and thank you again."

     "Anything for you girl. Since my followers asked the boon and I owed them each one there was no transgression of the accords," he replied.

     "That's why I called you and not Artherk, father,” replied Damia smugly.

     In his realm Ogrimar threw back his head and laughed at the antics of his daughter. But she was right about the baby.

     A smiling Damia understood that at times the accords could be circumnavigated by utilizing the will of the people of Althea without breaking the accords so long as they did not tamper with that will and they had not. Fawnn and Mystyka had genuinely wanted those boons because of the great and unselfish love they had for Ziona and her child.

                                           

 


 

Chapter 34.

 

     Versha lay in the birthing den surrounded by the shamans of her people. Her cub was to be born now. Torlags, unlike humans, had the survival trait of being able to put off a birthing in times of danger. Once the Bre invasion threat had passed she could birth her cub and that is exactly what was transpiring now.

     Once the female cub was cleaned she named it Tersha. A strong name for an  important cub. The shaman's worked their arcane magic and pronounced Tersha to be a healthy torlag

     The shaman's also pronounced that Tersha would become close companion to Nessarose, the child just born of Ziona. Tired from the war and the birth of her cub Versha thought the shamans were stating the obvious and wished they'd get to the point. They did.

     The shaman's gave the dominant female of their people a prophecy that involved her cub and Nessarose. As a result of that prophecy several decisions would have to be made.

 

 


 

Chapter 35.

 

     The Priest Valarion walked out onto the riverbank where the three captives were being held by his men. They had been captured when they'd entered his territory trying to trade or sell their wares to the people of the many small villages that dotted the cost of this inland sea North East of Harvest Moon.

     It had been almost a year since the war of the gods. In that time Valarion's power had risen dramatically above and beyond the power that he had held during his official duties in the service of Dalghard.

     In a last ditch effort to recruit soldiers for his Army, Dalghard had sent the priest Valarion up the inland sea to capture and send south men to wage his war. Dutifully he had done so with the aide of one hundred of Dalghard's best men at his side. Those men had been selected due to their ruthless nature. Not one of them was apt to feel sorry for the villagers and let a fit man remain behind.

     Then a week before the war the Priest had fallen ill with a fever common to the region. In his fevered delirium he had informed the men that Dalghard had instructed them to stay with him and nurse him to health. Actually he'd never consulted Dalghard about his illness fearing that the ruthless god would order him slain because he wasn't able to continue the mission.

     Much too busy with the invasion plans Dalghard gave little thought to the overdue priest and his small band of warrior escorts.

     The men had dutifully stayed with the priest and nursed him back to health. Then word came that Dalghard had been defeated. His army annihilated and the power of the Priesthood broken. As the priest saw it, they could return to Harvest Moon and give their pledge of loyalty to Shinobi or stay away from the city and make a life for themselves in this region.

     For once in his life the priest resorted to honesty. He gave the men their options and then they all discussed it. In the end they'd elected to remain in that region and carve out a small empire for themselves.

     The priest set himself up a kingdom. He had the cunning and the intelligence to form the kingdom with himself as the king and his small but well trained army the enforcers of his will upon the people.

     At first some of the villagers along the coast offered resistance. Three times his men had to raid villages and slaughter the people who opposed them. After that they received little to no opposition. The word had spread through the region that these men could not be defeated by the villagers and must be obeyed if you wanted to live.

     Reluctantly fifteen small villages paid tribute to the would-be-king and his men. The tribute consisted of food and anything of significant value that came to the priest’s attention. He was careful not to take too much. Men with nothing left to lose often do not fear death. No, he kept them poor, but always left more than enough for them to realize that they had too much to lose if they resisted and their village was destroyed.

     Now the priest saw his comfortable little kingdom threatened by outsiders for the first time. The men from the ship had been surprised and captured as they slept onboard their beached ship near one of the villages that paid tribute to Valarion and his men. Of the six man crew these three had survived that attack. The other three had been slain ruthlessly when they'd fought the attackers.

     Valarion interrogated the men personally, and then had them tortured to see if their stories changed. He was not surprised when they died with their stories unchanged. He'd known that they were telling the truth, but his men liked their sport and better these strangers than productive villagers. He had their bodies dumped in the sea and the ship burned; the fragments that didn't burn were buried in the sandy soil beside the inland sea.

     Then Valarion and his men loaded the stolen cargo and gold and boarded the two ships they'd used in the service of Dalghard and headed to their new home. A days’ journey more easterly than north brought them to their home. It was an island at the northern end of the inland sea.

     An extinct volcano stood in the center of the small isle. In fact that small mountain occupied the vast majority of the surface of that isle. They had a fortified camp there on the western side of the volcano which had sheared away during some long ago eruption leaving a level space some forty feet higher than the surface of the island away from the mountain. This was a perfect spot to build a fortification. It had the high ground, a mountain beside them and was difficult to approach unobserved.

     There on the isle they were relatively safe from attack. Some of the men had even built good catapults with which they could sink the ships or boats of would be attackers.

     The island can be found on a map of Sic Dalar quite easily by tracing the inland sea on a map to its northernmost end or by locating Paradise Cove. The Island is due west of that beach city.

     In their fortified base Valarion addressed his men regarding the killing of the traders saying that he doubted anyone would ever trace the killings to them, but that if they did there was no real cause for concern. After all what merchant could amass sufficient force to threaten them?

     He also spoke to them about a cross country trip he wanted some of them to make. There was a city to the east rumored to be wealthy beyond compare.

 

 


 

Chapter 36.

 

     Brimstone and the companions Fawnn, Veksar, Mystyka and Tarn walked to Ziona's house in Paradise Cove. As they approached the house they saw Ziona playing with a little girl who appeared to be about six years old. She was a pretty child with marvelously lovely hair for one so young.

     Ziona spotted the companions and flashed them a warm smile. Followed closely by the little girl she ran toward them. Ziona greeted the companions warmly. The little girl stood shyly behind her. Fawnn and Mystyka took turns hugging Ziona then immediately took in the little girl’s appearance. Each had gifts for the girl and presented them to her as Ziona watched and smiled. Nessa took to her mother’s friends immediately and won their hearts with the warmth of her personality.

     Brimstone said, "She is big for her age but well developed." Ziona knew instinctively what had concerned Brimstone ever since he'd heard that she was aging rapidly. He was concerned that her mind might not keep up with her body. Frankly it shouldn't have been able to do so. It is the experiences one has throughout their lives that shape the mind. But a god had brought about this aging and somehow by a means that she'd never understand that god had seen to it that her mind would keep up.

     Smiling gratefully at her friend Brimstone she said, "Your concern for Nessa pleases me friend. She is fine and thank you for your concern."

     "And Tersha?" Brimstone inquired.

     "Asleep in their room. She too is doing well and seems quite well developed though she shares Nessa's rapid aging." When she had agreed to take Tersha into their home she had tried her best to give the torlag her own room, but the girls would have none of that. Instantly attracted to each other the pair had bonded and refused to be separated. So it was that Nessarose and Tersha shared a room.

     "Damia says not to worry about it because she will stop aging at the appropriate time." Looking sadly at Ziona he added, "But you are missing her childhood years and for that I am sorry."

     Ziona knew what he meant. When she'd first noticed the aging she'd been furious at Ogrimar for taking those precious moments from her and she'd voiced her complaint rather loudly to the god of evil.

     The God Ogrimar had replied that he'd tampered with her age because if he had not she would not have seen her first birthday. Then he'd informed her that he didn't expect her gratitude for what he'd done but he did expect her silence and indeed if she voiced one more complaint he'd guarantee that silence by taking her voice for a month.

     Privately Damia had consoled her that what he'd done had been for Nessarose's benefit and that what he hadn't told her was that he'd offset that loss by adding to her intelligence and skills that she'd have when she needed them.

     "Nodding her head at Brimstone she said, "There is that loss, but I have gained a remarkable daughter. If it was necessary to lose those moments with her to ensure her safety I can bear the loss."

 

***

 

     That night on the beach Nessa sat on the sand and watched the waves coming in. Something was bothering her but she couldn't quite figure out what it was. As she sat there she watched her mother and father entertain the companions beside the small campfire.

     Her friend Tersha nestled near her with her head resting on the little girl's leg. Nessa stroked her head and complimented her on her wonderful hide. "Surely she must be the most beautiful torlag that ever lived,” the girl thought.

    Tersha raised her head and stared into Nessa's eyes. "What a nice thing to say,” Tersha replied politely to Nessa's unspoken thought. "And you my friend have the loveliest hair of any of your kind that I have seen."

     Nessa hugged the torlag and thanked her politely. She loved the mental contact that she had with her special friend. They considered themselves sisters though they were of different species. In the months since their birth they had been together since the second week of their lives.

     The torlag's dominant female Versha had asked Ziona if Tersha could live with them when her Shaman's had insisted that, according to their visions, if she remained with the tribe many of the torlags would die. To ensure the safety of their people Versha had been compelled to send her cub to live among the humans.

     Soon the night air grew chilly and the breeze from the sea a bit uncomfortable. Ziona saw that Nessa was getting cold. She couldn't sit near the fire because Tersha's eyes were too sensitive to the light of the fire. She excused herself from the companions to take Nessa home and put her to bed. The ladies Fawnn and Mystyka accompanied her as she escorted the pair to their home.

     As she slept that night Nessa had a bad dream and whimpered in her sleep, but Tersha consoled her friend that she was awake and all was well. Tersha watched over her friend alertly all through the night. Her dream had indeed been bad. Strange men had come into the city attacked several people.

     Tersha sent a message to her mother relating the dream that the child had experienced. Alarmed the torlag had dispatched scouts to see if indeed men were approaching the city from inland but no evidence of any such incursion was found. She put it off to the dreams of the young and promptly dropped the matter.

 

             


            

Chapter 37.

 

     Brimstone had briefed the companions on his meeting with Darien concerning the missing ship and men from Harvest Moon. He told them that a search party of several Gryphon Knights had gone to seek out the ship and had returned with word of the men. They had indeed been to many of the small villages along the coast of the inland sea according to witnesses at several of the villages. But they had reached an area where they'd found the remains of three burned out villages.

      From there on they had found no evidence of the merchant ship having been sighted, according to the witnesses. But one of the sharp eyed Knights had noted that there was some armor there in the village that was not native to Sic Dalar. Questioning the owner he'd been given the story that the owner had traded furs for the armor in a village south of their location.

     Brimstone suggested that they return to Harvest Moon after the visit with Ziona and take the Gryphon north along the inland sea to do some looking around of their own.

     Ziona and John both wanted to accompany them on that adventure. The city had a new Mayor now and John had the time needed for such adventures once more. Brimstone was concerned about taking Nessa on such an adventure but Ziona felt sure she'd be safe enough onboard the Gryphon in one of the cabins. She won out by reminding Brimstone that Tersha was a formidable torlag already. Torlags grow fast the first few months of their life, but Tersha's growth was accelerated like Nessa's and she was nearly full grown. And no one would be able to harm Nessa with her friend along to guard her.

     They made plans to leave the next morning and the companions talked well into the night. Nessa and Tersha were excited by the proposed trip. They talked long into the night about the adventure they were about to set upon as they rested in their room.

     The next morning Nessa awoke before dawn. As she sometimes did Tersha joined her for a walk outside to explore the darkness.

     Alarmed by that habit at first, Ziona had been reassured that Nessa was safe with the torlag in her company when Tersha killed a snake that attempted to attack her daughter. Paradise Cove was a relatively peaceful city. Not like Lighthaven where the monsters sometimes walked the city streets. The main danger here had been from the Bre, and no Bre had been spotted in months. So Ziona had come to accept her daughter's wandering good naturedly. She had done the same in Lighthaven herself as a child.

     Nessa took the lead with Tersha following right behind her. For fifteen minutes they wandered the small trail in the nearby trees then they crested a dune that marked the boundaries they had here-to-fore not crossed. They crossed that boundary on this walk. Nessa rationalized that since she was going on a grand adventure with the companions then she might as well behave as an adventurer now.

    Tersha had been walking along with her friend attuned to the darkness and in the familiar surroundings she exhibited no extra precautions. The moment they crossed into unexplored territory her demeanor changed and her perceptions intensified. Without realizing she even did it, she took the lead and stalked off through the forest like the predator she was.

     Nessa loved to watch her friend when she was this way. So graceful were her movements through the woods that without consciously planning to do so she mimicked them herself. She moved through the dark woods with stealth that not even the elves could match.

     Suddenly Tersha stopped and laid back her ears as she lowered her body to the ground. Nessa had seen her do this only when danger was present. She crouched beside her friend and spoke to her mind. "What is it you sense, sister?" Nessa asked.

     "Men. Strange men,” replied an agitated Tersha who remembered Nessa's dream all to well. Nessa had no recall of that dream. A side affect of her relationship with Tersha was that when Tersha soothed her from bad dreams they literally fled her memory.

     A now nervous Tersha bespoke her mother warning that men were near then said, "We go back now Nessa, quietly and with stealth."

     Normally Nessa was the dominant of the two, but in times of danger Tersha gave the commands if the danger was one that she understood. Nessa silently agreed to do as Tersha instructed, bidding her to lead the way.

     "I will as soon as you tell your mother,” Tersha replied to the silent communication from Nessa.

     Obediently Nessa spoke to her mother sending her the silent message that Tersha sensed strange men in the area. Ziona was asleep when she got that message and at first she was slow to respond. When Nessa repeated it and asked if they should return to the house Ziona sat bolt upright, instantly alert. "Come home unless you spot the men, in that case hide dear. I'm on my way."

 


 

Chapter 38.

 

     In moments Ziona was up and dressed for battle. John was as quick to prepare and they headed out in search of their daughter knowing only that some strange men were near and not that the city was about to be raided by fifty men.

     In his room at the Inn Brimstone was shaken awake by Damia. "Husband there is danger near. Ziona will need you. Go to her house with the others as quickly as you can." Brimstone started to question her but Damia shook her head and said, "No time for questions now, make haste." Then she disappeared.

     Within five minutes Brimstone had the companions awake and running for the door of the Inn. They sprinted to Ziona's house just as Ziona and John lowered the ramp and ran down it to the sand below. Thus it was that Ziona found her friends waiting when her foot touched the sandy soil.

     Ziona said, "I'm glad you are here,” then she related what she'd been told by Nessa. Brimstone added that Damia had woken him and if she was involved the danger must be real. They headed out immediately in search of the pair.

 

***

 

     Versha sent out the word that strange men were reported near and for her people to beware. Remembering the prophecy of the shaman's she didn't send her people forth to investigate as she had the night before for fear that this involved that prophecy. Instead she went herself and she went alone in search of her cub.

 

***

 

     Nessa and Tersha moved like ghosts through the night. Tersha didn't mention it, but she was concerned. In less than an hour it would be daybreak. Then she would have to keep her eyes closed and let Nessa lead her. She hated being blind in the presence of danger.

     Nessa heard her unspoken thoughts anyway and soothed her by saying, "We are together. If need be I will help you as you help me now."

     They were halfway back to the house when Tersha warned of men near headed in their direction. They crouched amidst some brush and concealed themselves as one by one a group of men moved past them.

     They avoided another group five minutes later and then their luck ran out. They were just rising from concealment after the last of the men had disappeared down the trail when a straggler spotted them. He gave a whistled alarm and attacked. Tersha leapt at the man and knocked him to the ground shouting for Nessa to run. But Nessa saw that the man had a stranglehold on Tersha and was slowly throttling her.

     Nessa leapt onto the man's exposed arm and sank her teeth into it causing the man to cry out in pain. Then she was being lifted into the air by a man. She turned on that man fighting him furiously but it was her father John.

     Tersha was clubbed on the head with the pommel of a dagger by the man with whom she was struggling. She was still young and inexperienced when it came to fighting but Veksar wasn't. He walked forth and kicked the man repeatedly in the groin.

     Ziona shouted for Nessa to leave off trying to claw her father's face and the little girl instantly ceased struggling and hugged John.

     Then the sound of the boulder spell filled the night air. The companions were being attacked by a large group of men. Soon to Nessa's young mind utter chaos struck. Veksar unleashed a powerful fire spell and blinded Tersha. He switched over to manaburst when the torlag squealed in pain at the presence of the bright light.

     Tarn and Brimstone were fighting several men with swords. The fighting was heavy but such was the skill of their blades that in moments the battle was over and seven men lay dead near the companions.

     John alerted the city watch that a band of men had attacked them and sent them to double the guards just in case. Then Fawnn noted the dress of these men. Some were wearing the uniform of the soldiers of Dalghard. Others were wearing armor not native to Sic Dalar.

     A moment later Versha arrived and saw the bloodied head of her daughter. She tended that wound torlag style and then turned to face the man who had wounded her.

 

 


 

Chapter 39.

 

     Around the city perimeter small battles took place as the now alert city guard located and confronted several groups of armed men. In many cases the strangers melted into the woods and left the area without a fight. But in three cases a pitched battle was fought. The city guard was much different since their battles with the Bre. They fought the strange men fearlessly. Once you've faced the Bre, a lesser opponent can't easily intimidate you.

     The companions let Versha interrogate the prisoner when he stubbornly refused to answer any of their questions. He seemed terrified of her and was much more willing to talk to her than the humans. In an hour she had the truth from him including what had happened to the poor traders that Darien had sent out to help the people of Sic Dalar.

     The man explained that in five days marching they had arrived here and confessed that the men that had escaped the city during the raid would be returning to their fortified isle. There had been fifty men in the raid. The city guard reported a total of twenty had been slain counting those killed by the companions. They took the prisoner off their hands and locked him away in the city jail.

     Versha promised that her people would help guard the approaches to the city from the inland side. By day there was nothing that her people could do, but they ruled the night. 

     The companions promised to see to the fortified isle personally and boarded the Gryphon for the trip to Harvest Moon and from there the inland sea.

 

 


 

Chapter 40.

 

     The Gryphon made port at Harvest Moon early in the afternoon two days after the raid on Paradise Cove. The companions were met at the dock by Eric Glenfield and Darien both of whom had been contacted and apprised that they would be needed for a meeting when the companions arrived. The two men boarded the ship and were escorted to the cabin by Captain Barnes. Inside they saw the companions seated at a large table.

     After the greetings were exchanged they all sat down for a meeting.

     Brimstone laid out all that had transpired in Paradise Cove and what they had subsequently learned from the prisoner. The captain produced a map of the inland sea which they all examined. The island at the end of that sea was marked, but the map lacked much in detail. How wide was the sea around the isle? Were there any water hazards along the route? If so, where? They'd just have to seek out the answers to these questions as they got deep into the territory defined on that map.

     Eric informed them that the Gryphon Knights who had investigated the missing ship had reported easy traveling for the most part, but they had ventured only half way to the isle before turning back when they'd lost the trail of the traders activities ashore.

     Eric then leaned back in his chair and said, "I can have fifty Knights of our Order ready to sail tomorrow morning. If you'd give us a ride up the inland sea, we will put a stop to these villains right and proper."

     Brimstone thanked him and agreed to give them passage on the voyage, and then they settled down to battle plans. Of course there was only so much pre planning that they could do until they actually arrived at the battle site, but they did cover much of the basics.

     Brimstone was concerned that some of the murderous men on the isle might escape and melt into the forest to become a thorn in the sides of the villagers indefinitely. Eric gravely considered that matter then suggested that an additional fifty Knights be taken on another ship, a war ship that could swiftly sweep around the eastern side of the isle and beach there. These fifty men could then move in and spread out thus blocking the most likely escape routes.

     Brimstone liked the plan. "Darien does the Harbor Master have any war ships left to sell?" he inquired.

     "Several, there is simply no demand for those ships now,” replied Darien.

     "Then the price should be quite reasonable,” Mystyka said with a smile.

     "Quite so,” Darien replied with a chuckle.

     A bit later the meeting was concluded. Eric, Darien and Tarn left with Mystyka to negotiate the purchase of a war ship for the Gryphon Knights.

     Three seamen were dispatched by the captain to purchase food stores for the voyage to supplement the supplies Darien was furnishing.

 

 


 

Chapter 41.

 

     Nessarose and Tersha sat in the cabin waiting for the meeting to end. They were both excited because John had said they'd go ashore when the meeting was over. They were very much looking forward to visiting the city of Harvest Moon.

     Tersha didn't like the port. To her sensitive nostrils the smell of the place was awful and she asked how it was that the humans could stand the place. "Because dear, we cannot smell a dream as you can,” was Nessa's clever retort to which Tersha merely grunted.

     Later on shore with John and Ziona they walked to the shop run jointly by the companions. On the way to the shop, many people they encountered stopped and stared at the torlag. They'd never seen one before except for the visions of the war with the Bre and they were fascinated by Tersha. Tersha took it in good stride when she commented about the people staring at her and Nessa replied that of course they were staring. She was the most beautiful torlag who ever lived, so naturally they'd stare.

     Inside the shop the two friends marveled at the many interesting items they saw there. Nessa's eyes lit up when she saw the bows. She stared wide eyed with wonder and desire at the rack of bows that ranged from those for beginners to the very best of bows.

     With a trembling hand she reached out and caressed one bow. Her mother was watching and said, "Dear that's an Oakwood composite bow. They are very hard to draw and I'm afraid you'll be years in the waiting to draw that bow." She pulled an ashwood flat bow from the rack and said, "Try this one."

     Obediently the girl did as instructed and pulled the bow smoothly to full draw. Smiling in pleasure at her daughter's ability she replaced that bow and skipped a few in the rack. She handed her a hickory bow. Again the girl pulled it to full draw quite easily.

     "Mother I want to try the oak bow."

     "Dear it is too much for you. It is much too long anyway. Even if you could draw it you couldn't possibly use it for it is as long as you are tall."

     "Can I try it to see if I can draw it at least?" inquired the girl. "I'd just like to know mother. Please?" the girl finished.

     "No harm in the trying,” John said supporting her desire to know.

     Ziona replaced the hickory bow in its slot in the bow rack and handed her daughter the oak composite bow that had so enchanted her. The moment the bow touched her hand a marvelous thing happened. The limbs began to contract, causing the bow's overall length to diminish. In a few moments the bow stopped contracting and Nessa held a perfectly proportioned oak composite bow which she examined from limb to limb looking for signs of stress or minute cracking of the wood.

     Ziona wondered how she knew to examine the bow with such a practiced eye.

     Staring in shock at what they'd seen her parents were even more surprised when Nessa drew the bow to full draw. Unaccustomed to the resistance she did it clumsily on the first attempt. Then easing the tension off the limbs she rested for a moment and seemed to be lost in thought.

     Her parents waited to see what would happen next with surprised expressions on their faces. In a moment they were shocked when she once again drew the smaller than normal bow to full draw. This time the movement was fluid and graceful, her stance more self assured and stable.

     Ziona stared at her daughter standing there so young and holding the bow like a seasoned archer. Even her footwork was right as she sighted down an imaginary arrow.

     As she stared at her daughter the god Ogrimar spoke to her mind saying, "What you see before you is a promise kept. I have taken much from you by rapidly aging Nessarose. As I said, what I did was for her benefit. But now she must seek other paths. That bow should be her last bow. To survive the things that she will encounter she needs it, but she also has need for other instruction as well. You will teach her the craft of archery. See to it that her Uncle Veksar has a say in her fire, water and mental magics. Her Aunties Fawnn and Mystyka the arcane magics of the earth and spirit. See to it Ziona. As you love your daughter, see to it that she learns those things and more. Brimstone must instruct her in unarmed combat and her father the sword, for she will prefer the bow but have need of the knowledge of the blade. My daughter will teach yours about other things that she may tell you about in good time."

     The god had spoken and brooked no argument. Ziona had tried to interrupt him several times but found her mental voice frozen. When he had finished the instructions he paused for a moment, and then said, "You may speak now."

     "I see the wisdom in your words, Ogrimar, and it shall be as you say, for if my daughter is to face grave peril I can think of no others better suited to prepare her, but shouldn't Brimstone teach her the magic of fire? His fire spells are more powerful than Veksar's."

     "Brimstone is a Demi-god. As such his power of magic is divinely influenced. He cannot teach her the human limitations of the mage because he has never suffered that frailty. He cannot teach her how best to conserve her mana for he has never had the need and lacks experience in that aspect of spell casting. He cannot teach her what spells most perfectly work on the different breeds of monsters because his spells work on all, due to his divine power. Veksar is the one. His knowledge of the craft is superb and his knowledge of the limitations of man is nearly complete. But Brimstone's ability with unarmed combat is a different issue. Also his silly love of those hidden blades of his is unique to Brimstone."

     "I understand now, Ogrimar, and thank you. It shall be as you say."

     "Of course it will, Ziona. I never doubted that."

     "One more question if I may?" inquired Ziona.

     "If you must,” replied Ogrimar rather rudely.

     Ignoring the grumpy god of evil's reply Ziona asked, "Is it not best to settle upon one means of attack, as she will lack the skills and time to master all? For it is said by the wise that, 'A man may follow one path to excellence or many to mediocrity.?’"

     "Did I not give you my word that your daughter would be granted the intelligence and skills she needed to make up for your loss of her childhood?"

     "Aye, Ogrimar, so Damia informed me."

     "Fare thee well, Ziona. You are not the only person worthy of my attention so bother me no more this day."

     Ziona felt the presence of the god leave her mind and blinked as she noted the blanched white expression on her husband's face. Apparently he too had heard the words of Ogrimar.

     Nessarose was still practicing with her bow while Tersha seemed enchanted by the whole thing and stood frozen, staring in rapt attention. She turned to John and Ziona and startled them by saying, "I will instruct her in night stealth and the ways of the nose. I will teach her to hide her scent from those in pursuit, how to track an enemy by the faintest of trails and to move through the forest unheard and undetectable. I will do these things for my sister because I love her dearly, just as the companions love her."

     Ziona's eyes filled with tears of gratitude and she nodded her head at Tersha, then thinking better of that she curtsied in respect to the torlag. A lump in his own throat John bowed. The torlag bowed in return to the parents then turned her attention back to her friend Nessa.

     Ziona bought Nessa that bow and several quivers, then John guided her to the swords, but she saw nothing that caught her eye. He was about to give up on a sword for the moment when the clerk offered to take them into the back room where Darien kept some special weapons under lock and key. In that room Nessa selected a frostbane. John had his doubts that she'd be able to use that weapon but, remembering the bow, he quietly bought it for her. He also bought two training swords with blunted tips and dulled edges.

 

 


 

Chapter 42.

 

     The next morning the Gryphon headed North East up the inland sea. A warship sailing under the Gryphon flag immediately followed. As dawn was breaking, one hundred Gryphon Knights had marched to the docks and boarded the two ships which had been provisioned the previous afternoon.

     The Harbor Master had sold them a good ship at a reasonable price much to his disgust. Not that he was a bad fellow; he simply hated losing the negotiations to Mystyka. Mystyka had learned much about ships due to the amount of time she had spent onboard them the past year. She had ruthlessly pointed out every flaw in the warship with a practiced eye and, point by point she had driven the price down.

     As they sailed up the sea the companions saw to it that they followed Ogrimar's will. The hardest problem to solve was the magics he wanted Nessa taught because the mage teachers were not available onboard the ship. Damia had solved that problem by teleporting Nessa and her parents to those teachers where she learned the spells and meditate skill needed to become a mage. While in the appropriate areas she also learned the battle skills needed for both archery and swordsmanship. When that was done they were teleported back aboard the Gryphon.

     Veksar worked with her tirelessly, explaining the concepts of mana management in combat. For her part Nessa was a brilliant student. Often she grasped complex strategies before he had even completed the explanations. And he never had to repeat himself. Once she heard his information, she seemed to absorb it like a sponge and correlate it into an overall battle strategy.

     Her father worked with her teaching her the ways of the sword that night. She was a good student there as well and before the class was over she could block his attacks quite readily, though she lacked the physical size to combat him to full effectiveness.

     The second day Fawnn and Mystyka took over her instruction in the arts of earth and spirit magics. When stealth was needed and the enemy was the undead they taught her to use turn undead as it was a much quieter attack than boulder. When the enemy was flesh and blood they taught her how to most effectively use the magics of the earth in combat. They also taught her the effectiveness of using the earth spell entangle to combine with her sword play. She demonstrated that skill quite well when she trained once more with her father in the use of the sword that night.

     The third day Ziona concentrated on her bow training for hours then turned her over to Brimstone who began to teach her as much as he could about unarmed combat and the use of concealed blades. He did not neglect to teach her the tricks that he'd taught the rest of the companions about escaping from bindings.

     To Nessa the training was delightful. She excelled at all the training and delighted in the attention the adults were giving her.

     Tersha also spoke to her long into the nights about the ways of the forest. She covered complex scenarios in which Nessa was the hunter and the hunted. She factored in the winds and even what Nessa's diet was composed of, teaching her that what you eat affects your scent and that a person in dangerous situations needed to maintain a neutral odor. She taught her how to do this and how to hide from an enemy, though in truth that was difficult aboard ship. She promised she'd teach her friend more when they had the opportunity to train in the woods.

     Nessa learned much during that voyage. Though she actually mastered nothing she got a fundamental foundation in all of the strategies that she could build on as they were needed.

     Aside from the training, the companions refined their attack plans as best they could and waited as the ships sailed ever nearer the island at the end of the inland sea. By night they anchored at sea, afraid to brave the uncharted waters, for fear of unknown dangers.

     They could have made better time. The entire trip could have been made in two days, but Brimstone wanted to give the men who had attacked Paradise Cove time to make the return trek to the isle. He wanted all of the men there when they attacked. Since some of the men had been wounded on the raid he wanted to give them a full seven days to make the return trek to their fortified isle instead of the five they'd needed to reach Paradise Cove. So it was that they maintained a slow and stately pace up the inland sea under half sail by day and anchored by night.

 

 


 

Chapter 43.

 

     The fourth morning of the passage up the inland sea the companions were seated in the main cabin room about to eat breakfast. Ziona called for Nessa and Tersha to join them and Tersha walked out of the cabin she shared with Nessa. She stunned them all with her appearance.

     Tersha was now a full grown torlag. She had fully matured overnight. Ziona caught her breath as the realization hit her that Nessa might also have changed. Tersha's first words confirmed that dread fear when she said, "Ziona, Nessa needs you."

     Leaping to her feet Ziona headed to the cabin with John at her side, but Tersha blocked his passage. "I'm sorry John,” she said politely, then continued,  "But you should wait a moment. Nessa needs help with her clothes."

     Fawnn and Mystyka looked at each other, frowned, and got up. They walked past Tersha and entered Nessa's cabin. As the door was closing behind them the men heard Ziona crying in the background and Nessa's calm voice saying, "It's ok mother, I am fine." That voice sounded different. It sounded mature.

     A trembling John walked back to the table and sat down hard in a chair. Placing his head in his hands he waited. Tarn poured him a goblet of wine which he drained in appreciation.

     A moment later Mystyka and Fawnn left that cabin and entered their own respective cabins. The men assumed correctly that they were getting articles of clothing for Nessarose.

     Moments later Fawnn exited her cabin and headed back to Nessa's with several articles of clothing. A few moments after that Mystyka also returned to that cabin similarly laden. Ziona came out and went to a chest where her clothes were kept.

     John and Ziona had a small bed set up in the main cabin and were sleeping in this room. She saw John's distress and when their eyes locked he saw the redness of her eyes and the pale countenance of her face. He went to her and took her in his arms. Sobbing she lay her head on his shoulder a moment and said, "John, we've lost our little girl. She's a woman now. I hate Ogrimar for this."

     Startled John warned, "Have a care wife! I don't want to lose you!"

     "What can he do to me that he hasn't already done? He has already taken my little girl from me!" a very angry Ziona replied defiantly.

     Damia appeared beside her then. The expression on her face was full of compassion when she said, "You are angry and hurt Ziona. You feel that you have lost much. Maybe too much but beware thine own wrath Ziona. My father is not known for his patience or forgiving nature."

     Staring hard into Ziona's eyes she continued, "My father has done what he has done, not to torment or punish you, but to save Nessa's life, for she has an important destiny to fulfill."

     "So you say, aye and so does he,” Ziona retorted. "But at what cost?"

     "Don't do this Ziona! You should stop being so selfish and thinking only of your loss. Nessa hasn't lost one minute of her lifespan. She will still live every minute of her life that she is destined to live."

     "How can that be if she has lost years?"

     "She has lost nothing. She has aged. The time that you are destined to live is not a set age, but the total number of minutes that you exist. If you skip a few years and age instantly you still have that total number of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years to live."

     Ziona blinked in amazement. That was a complex concept to wrap your mind around, but Damia thought she saw understanding dawning in the mother's eyes.

     "Come now Ziona, Nessa needs us."

     Ziona retrieved the articles of clothing she'd come for and let Damia lead her back to the cabin.

     This time Tarn poured them all goblets of wine which the men sipped quietly in contemplation of all that Damia had said. From inside the cabin they heard women's voices arguing at first and then calmer as Ziona interjected a shout for quiet.

     The men were working on their second goblets of wine when the women emerged from the cabin. A suddenly shy Nessa followed them into the main cabin. She was dressed in a cloak of the archer at the moment. She was now about sixteen or seventeen years old by her appearance and fully grown as the men had expected. Her hair was magnificent and she had it tied behind her head. She was beautiful.

     She took her accustomed seat at the table and Tersha joined her there and curled up beside her chair to sleep. She wasn't hungry and would eat later. Nessarose was hungry and ate with such good appetite that the rest followed suit and soon the awkwardness of the moment was forgotten.

 

 


 

Chapter 44.

 

     Three hours after they had concluded breakfast, the companions stood on the deck of the Gryphon. Lookouts had reported that they were now within sight of the island. The deck was crowded with Gryphon Knights and seamen. They were surprised by the change in Nessa's appearance, but not even that miracle could hold their attention in the face of the isle that loomed ahead.

     An extinct volcano that rose steeply into the sky dominated the island. They could see the fortified camp on the west side of the mountain. The eastern side of the isle, that portion away from the base of the mountain, had dense vegetation. The mountain itself was dark and foreboding. From where she stood on the deck, Nessarose felt a dangerous presence when she looked at that mountain. She said, "Versha, the mountain..."

     Versha was standing beside her with her front paws on the ships railing staring at the isle. She turned her head and looked Nessa in the eye then she said, "I know. I feel it too."

     The companions had all drawn together subconsciously around Nessa in the face of that isle. Most stared at the fortified base of the raiders for a few moments then shifted their gaze to the mountain as if their attention was drawn to it by some vague sense of danger. All sensed danger emanating from that mountain.

     "How could men live near that mountain?" wondered Nessarose. To her the sense of danger was pervasive. She knew, without knowing how she knew, that there were monsters associated with that mountain.

 

***

 

     The warship, loaded with Gryphon Knights, moved out on its mission to secure the eastern side of the island. The raiders in the base were aware of their presence. A fact that was obvious from the beehive of activity near the three catapults that they could see perched upon the mountain fortress. Load after load was launched at the two ships. None of those loads came close to hitting the ships which were still out of range.

     Brimstone had no intentions of permitting the two ships to come within range of those catapults while they were capable of hitting the ships. "Rake the catapult crews with your spells,” he instructed, then raised his hands to release a spell of his own at one of the crews.

     As one the magic users of the company released a massive volley of their spells at the catapult crews. Bombarded by meteor and boulder those crews were soon decimated.

     The warship moved in then at full beat. Soon they had successfully landed unmolested and spread out to prevent any of the raiders from escaping, as planned. The Gryphon beached well out of arrow range of the base. The Knights formed up on the beach and awaited the command to advance on the base.

     Brimstone and the others stepped ashore as well. Eric Glenfield thanked them for the ride then requested that they leave the rest to his Knights. Brimstone and the companions understood that this was a matter of importance to the Gryphon Knights. They had pledged themselves to maintaining the peace on the isle of Sic Dalar. John protested that the raiders had attacked his city, but agreed to hang back unless he was needed when Ziona pointed out that they owed the Gryphon Knights a debt of gratitude for what they'd done during the Bre war. Eric had insisted that there was no debt and that he was just making a request. John saw no way to object with honor so he reluctantly agreed.

     It was decided that the companions would secure the two ships belonging to the raiders which were beached about halfway between their own ships and the fortified base. That was also a very important duty and not without its dangers, as they'd be within arrow range of the base. They couldn't permit the raiders to escape to their ships even if it meant losing them. Brimstone hoped to save the ships for the Gryphon Knights if possible, but was quite prepared to destroy them if necessary.

     As agreed during the planning sessions Brimstone blasted a large hole in the fortified log wall. The Gryphon Knights rushed toward that hole.

 

***

 

     One of Valarion's men alerted him that two ships had been sighted heading for their isle. He ordered his men to stand ready for battle inside the fortress. With any luck at all, the trap he'd set for them would see to the attacking force.

     He walked to a vantage point inside the fortress that was actually higher than the surrounding wall. Below and to the east their two ships waited on the beach. Smiling in anticipation he thought, "With just a little luck the islands inhabitants will do the work  for us and slay our attackers."

     When they'd first arrived here on this isle it had been a safe and peaceful place. They'd managed to get their fortified base constructed unmolested. Then one day while exploring, some of his men had located a sealed cave opening. There was an arcane symbol on the stone seal that held the steel doors bared shut. There was also some archaic script on it which read:

 

 

     This cavern I have sealed to hold inside that which I wished placed here. Disturb it not on pain of Death.

 

Dalghard

 

 

     The men had thought it a treasure vault of Dalghard's. Dalghard was dead now and they did not fear his warning. They broke that seal, something they could never have done had Dalghard been alive and his power unchecked. When they opened the doors, they unleashed that which had been contained in that cavern for a millennium.

     They had managed to fight their way back to safety as the first few monsters came forth from the caverns. Later, as the days went by, more and more monsters came forth from that cavern, but they were never able to broach the defenses of the fortress. Now the forests of the isle were crawling with monsters.

 


 

Chapter 45.

 

     The Gryphon Knights were just beginning to rush the wall when the monsters began to stream out of the encroaching vegetation. They were a mixed assortment of monsters. The undead ran beside the living. All had one thing in mind and that was killing these people who had come to the island.

     From the east the sounds of battle reached Brimstone's ears. Already the Knights from the warship were engaging the monsters. The companions stepped forth to meet the onrushing horde of monsters even as the Knights rushed through the hole in the wall to attack the waiting raiders.

     Brimstone contacted the Knight in charge of the eastern force and ordered them to fight their way to the fortified base so that they could combine their forces. The Knight replied that they were already fighting their way to them and should be there soon.

     Veksar fired volley after volley of meteor into the onrushing horde, slowing the advance a bit. Fawnn and Mystyka added their boulder spells as did Nessa. Tersha stood beside her friend, prepared to defend her should the need arise.

     Brimstone added his fire spells to the defense of the party. They were able to keep the monsters at bay with some difficulty. Onboard the Gryphon, Captain Barnes organized the seamen in the ships defense. The few monsters that avoided the spells of the companions were killed when they attempted to board the ship to get at the men there.

     Ziona added her bow to that fight and picked off many monsters about to attempt a boarding. Then she noticed other arrows flying from near her position. A quick glance revealed Nessa firing her Oak Composite bow. John stood between the two women prepared to defend either should a monster get too near. Tersha looked positively fierce beside Nessa. Tarn was standing guard beside Mystyka, prepared to defend any companion who might be reached by the monsters.

     Moments later the Knights from the eastern landing arrived. Half joined in the defense of the three ships beached there. The other half rushed to reinforce the Knights within the fortress.

     Inside the fortress the fighting was heavy at first. The Gryphon Knights fell upon the men inside relentlessly. In less than fifteen minutes it was all over. The raiders had died to a man. Valarion was one of the last to fall. He died in disbelief that his kingdom could fall so easily. His men had been tough when it came to dealing with defenseless villagers, but they were no match for the Gryphon Knights. The year they'd spent on their own had ruined their combat effectiveness and they had degenerated into little more than lazy and out of condition bullies.

     Outside the walls of the fortress the fighting was also winding down. The surviving monsters were slinking away and melting into the forest to nurse their wounds.

     Nessa was hugging Tersha and talking to her excitedly about the battle she'd just participated in. Unseen by her or any of the companions, a giant spider just within the encroaching vegetation cast a magic globe of purple light at Nessa. The globe struck Nessa and engulfed her and Tersha. In a flash of light they were gone.

     Ziona had seen her daughter disappear and shouted in fear. "That was a teleportation spell,” whispered Fawnn, for she had seen such spells in the forest of no return.

 


Chapter 46.

 

     The Companions and the Knights organized several strong search parties to cover the entire island but no trace of the missing pair was found. With the coming of darkness they were forced to retreat to the ships where they could anchor offshore for safety during the darkness.

     Onboard the ship Brimstone called to Damia who appeared beside him in moments. Without preamble he said, "Nessa and Tersha are both missing."

     "I know my husband. I just came from where they are."

     "Ahh then you can teleport them here to us,” exclaimed a relieved Ziona.

     Damia looked very uncomfortable at that suggestion. A sad expression on her face she replied, "I am sorry Ziona, but I cannot do that."

     In stunned disbelief Ziona and John stared at Damia.

     Facing the bewildered companions, Damia lifted her chin and replied, "Nessa is where she is meant to be, where her destiny has led her. My father has helped as much as we Gods dare to help."

     Speaking rapidly before the others could interrupt Damia continued, "Nessa was destined to be teleported by that spider as a young and helpless toddler. Once there she would have been attacked by a monster near that area. But father interfered. He made her age to six, manipulated things so that Tersha came to live with you and the pair bonded. That ensured Nessa would give Tersha a hug at that critical moment the spider cast its spell. When they arrived at the teleportation spot, the two were able to kill the monster that would have attacked Nessa, thanks to father ordering you all to train her and once more aging her to the age of seventeen."

     Pausing a moment to catch her breath Damia was interrupted by Ziona, "Where is she now? I will go get her myself,” she said forcefully.

     Shaking her head sadly Damia replied, "Shortly after they killed the monster the pair of them fell into an invisible hole to an underworld. I walked invisibly behind her until she crossed a threshold into an area far from here. You cannot get to her. Even if you found the invisible hole that she fell into she is far beyond that spot. She exited that cavern system by the only means possible which is a portal that leads to random locations on Sic Dalar."

     "Why Damia? Why can't you bring her to us?" demanded John.

     "Because now Tersha needs her help. Tersha's destiny is also involved, and alone Tersha will fail and die. The destinies of that pair are entwined. We dare not separate them."

     "What is Tersha's destiny, beloved?" asked Brimstone quietly.

     "That I can tell you,” replied Damia looking at her husband with a grave expression on her face. "She is to travel the underworld until she encounters the King of the Werewolves. It is her destiny to kill him and stop an invasion of the torlag lands by that unnatural breed of monsters. If she is unable to kill him, she will die and they will most surely invade and annihilate the torlags, and then destroy the people of Paradise Cove, simply because they are there. Alone she will surely fail."

     "So the torlag Shamans’ visions didn't mean that Tersha would bring danger to the torlags? The visions meant that she would keep the danger away from them if she was sent away?" asked an intrigued Fawnn.

     "That is correct,” replied Damia.

     "But you said Tersha was sent to live with Ziona so that she could help Nessa,” interjected Mystyka. "If not for that she wouldn't have been in the caverns. How then can it be her destiny to encounter the King of Werewolves?" she asked.

     Lowering her eyes for a moment before she spoke, Damia replied "There are other hidden entrances to that cavern system that Tersha would have eventually fallen into, alone. I stopped following them when they reached the area that she was destined to fall into beneath the torlag lands near Paradise Cove."

     "You manipulated their chosen path?" inquired Veksar.

     Hesitating for only a moment, Damia looked at Veksar and replied, "Yes. I had to ensure that they returned to the proper thread of destiny."

     "Then we can return to Paradise Cove to assist her once you show us the entry there?" asked Fawnn hopefully.

     Shaking her head Damia said, "That path is closed to you. If I do that then Nessa and Tersha will surely perish. You won't mean to, but your very presence will endanger them and in the end bring about their deaths."

     "You can't know that, Damia!" shouted Ziona angrily.

     Raising an eyebrow Damia said, "Can't I?" Staring hard at Ziona, the Goddess of Neutrality continued bluntly, "I see the paths of destiny the way you see your arrows flight path. Just as you can understand and comprehend where an arrow will strike as you release it, I can follow the paths of destiny. Alone that pair have a good chance of succeeding. If you interfere they will die and the Werewolves will invade. Most of the torlags will die. And the citizens of Paradise Cove could not last more than three days."

     "Then there is nothing we can do to help them?" a distraught John questioned.

     Looking at the companions facing her, frustration and anger upon every face, Damia responded with one word "No." With compassion in her eyes, she continued, "There is nothing you can do to aid Nessa and Tersha now, but you can alert the torlags that the time of the King of Werewolves is upon them. They will know what that means and understand what they must do. You should also return to your city and prepare to either defend it or" with a challenge in her voice, Damia concluded, "abandon it."

 

 


 

Chapter 47.

 

     The battle was won. Nessarose was thrilled and exhilarated by the experience and knelt on the sand to hug her best friend, Tersha the torlag. As she embraced Tersha, a purple globe of power enveloped them and they disappeared.

     They reappeared northeast of the spot where, only moments before, they had stood their ground against the onslaught of the monsters in the woods near the base of the mountain. That mountain now loomed forbiddingly over them.

     Tersha crouched and laid her ears back. Nessa recognized those actions as a sure sign that danger was near. She nocked an arrow and stood still, staring in the direction that had captured Tersha's attention. Moments later she saw a shadow move beneath a tree. Waiting to identify her target, she spoke mentally to Versha asking, "What is it beneath that tree?"

     "I don't know exactly what it is, but I smell decay. It is undead."

     Moving slowly so as not to attract attention to them if the monster had not already spotted them, Nessa returned the ice arrow to its quiver, and then she drew an arrow from the quiver of spirits. Seconds after she had that arrow nocked, the undead creature attacked her. It was a magic user and cast the spell drain upon her. She could feel her health draining away even as she let her arrow fly. It struck true and she struggled to get another arrow nocked.

     Tersha charged the monster the moment it cast drain at her friend. Moving with incredible speed she darted to the monster and leapt into the air just after Nessa's arrow struck the beast. She hit the creature hard in the center of the chest and her forward momentum knocked it off its feet. She grabbed its throat in her viselike jaws and clamped down. Her four legs were scrambling, seemingly trying to run on the creature's body, but she wasn't running. She was raking it with her four sets of claws, doing incredible damage to it within moments.

     Nessa couldn't get a clear shot at the zombie for fear of hitting her friend. She charged the pair. As she ran she slung her bow across her back and drew the sword her father had trained her to use. When she reached them she carefully placed the tip of the sword near the creature's horrid face then plunged it down. The desiccated creature moaned horribly then expired.

     Tersha released the creature's throat and stepped away from it spitting the foul gore from her mouth. "Thank you Tersha. I wasn't prepared to deal with that monster," said Nessa.

     Looking at her friend Tersha replied, "Well I certainly wasn't prepared for the taste of it. Those things are horrible. Remind me not to bite them again if I can avoid it."

     Smiling at her friend Nessa assured her that she would indeed remind her.

     They looked once more at their surroundings and settled on a seemingly foolproof way to get back to their friends. They would head south until they came to the beach, then go west along the shore. In that way any attacking monsters would have to cross a wide open space to reach them.

     Tersha took the lead, her every sense alert for the slightest sign of danger. They were about halfway to the beach when disaster struck. Tersha simply disappeared before Nessa's eyes. One moment she was there and the next she wasn't. In another three steps Nessa also disappeared.

 

***

 

     Neither of the pair knew where they were. It was obvious that they were in some sort of cavern but that was all they knew for certain. Behind the pair an invisible Damia stood watching them with compassion in her heart. Poor Tersha was half blinded in this stygian darkness. She had adjusted the Torlag's vision so that she could do battle with the creatures on the surface of the isle during the daylight hours. Now it was time to return that vision to normal, for this was the environment in which her eyes were meant to function.

     A moment later Tersha said, "Ahh now I can see quite well. It must have taken my eyes time to adjust to the darkness."

     Nessa could see quite well in the cavern. She'd made it a habit to carry a light source with her ever since Tersha had come to live with them.

     They began to follow the cavern wall, keeping it to their right, hoping to find a way out. Nessa could have used the spell word of recall to return to the temple in Lighthaven, but that would have meant abandoning Tersha. That was unthinkable to her and not even considered as an option. Together the pair walked through several passages seeking an exit.

     As they wandered through the caverns they found three chests which Nessa opened. She was thrilled with each find and recalled the look of yearning in her Aunt Fawnn's eyes when she spoke of finding such chests. Fawnn had a great love for exploring caves and locating the chests placed in them by the Gods. That memory gave her the courage to explore the cavern without the crippling fear of the unknown. Unknowingly, Fawnn was able to aid and strengthen Nessa.

     Inside the chests she found mostly junk items. She did find a High Metal Short Sword and gratefully slid that through a makeshift belt she made from a piece of rope in her pack. At least she had another weapon with her now. She had left her frostbane within her cabin on the Gryphon during the battle.

     The cavern was literally swarming with bats and rats. Several times the rats attacked them, but Tersha made short work of them. The bats were a different issue. They attacked with a drain spell and Tersha could not reach them no matter how hard she tried to jump and pull them to the ground. Nessa's bow could reach them and she held them at bay quite efficiently. Those too stupid to avoid them died a few moments into their attacks.

     They'd been in the cavern system for perhaps an hour when they were forced to a halt at a dead end and at that dead end stood a gleaming portal. Staring at the waves of color which seemed to oscillate within the portal, Nessa thought it a thing of great beauty, but Tersha thought it too bright and it hurt her eyes.

     The pair stared uncertainly at the portal for a long moment considering their options. When Nessa decided it was best for them to return to their starting point in the cavern, Damia intervened. She placed the directive to go through the portal in both of their minds without their knowledge. Without a backward glance they did just that.

                                          


 

Chapter 48.

 

     The companions stepped through the portal Damia had set up for them. One moment they were aboard the Gryphon and the next they were in Paradise Cove. They had met with Eric Glenfield and explained the situation to him. He had agreed to place some of his Knights aboard the Gryphon to see it safely back to Harvest Moon. His Knights would take the three warships to that city as well. Once there they would rally more Knights for the passage to Paradise Cove. If an all out battle with werewolves was to come at that city, the Gryphon Knights would go to the aid of the humans and their torlag allies.

     Once they were in the city by the sea, Brimstone sent a message to Versha, the dominant female of the torlag race and mother of Tersha. He requested that she come to Paradise Cove and meet with them as soon as darkness came. As Damia had instructed, he told her that the time of the King of Werewolves was upon them.

     Versha's reply wasn't long in coming. She said that she would be there with several of her tribe to discuss that grave news as soon after dark as possible. She then inquired about Tersha and Brimstone replied that she was well last he'd heard and that Tersha was also the reason he needed to see her. Versha did not like the sound of that and again said she would be there shortly after dark.

     John and Ziona went to the town hall to organize a meeting with the mayor and the sheriff now in command of the city guard. They were both competent men and agreed to call a city meeting on the beach for that night, that all who wished to do so could attend.

 

***

 

     As darkness fell, the people gathered on the beach for the emergency meeting. Brimstone and the companions were there as was Versha and the torlag delegation. The companions had already passed on all that they knew to Versha and she had agreed to represent the torlags at the meeting.

     The people of the city listened with growing alarm as the news of the coming of the werewolves was foretold. Versha filled in much of the information that was not known to the companions as she related this series of events to the assembled citizens.

     A millennium ago during the first war of the Gods, Dalghard had sought an alliance with the King of the Werewolves. That King had long borne a hatred for the torlag race, and agreed to an alliance with Dalghard only if the god would agree to look the other way when the king invaded and slaughtered the torlags. The torlags had always been neutral when it came to war among the humans, therefore Dalghard saw nothing to lose by permitting the Werewolves to slaughter them on his isle.

     The Werewolves invaded the torlag lands and a war ensued. Versha then grew frustrated with the verbal communication and asked if she could communicate in torlag fashion what had happened as the verbal language of the humans left out much detail.

     Receiving permission, Versha gave a brief explanation saying, "What I am about to show you has been passed down from leader to leader among our people for one thousand years." Then Versha began to show the people of Paradise Cove the vision.

     They first saw a vast open field, and then a line of hundreds of torlags standing in what appeared to be a battle line. They saw a golden skinned torlag in her prime directing instructions to the battle line. Then there was a dead silence and a waiting in which a sense of anticipation began to build. Something was coming and they could feel it.

     Moments later a wave of movement began far out in that field. Hundreds of creatures were moving across the field in the direction of the torlag battle line. Some of the distant figures were simply running toward the torlags. Others were running a few steps then leaping into the air with great bounds.

     At the center of the charging horde was a great black werewolf. The citizens viewing this vision realized at once that they were looking at the King of the Werewolves. He ran on all fours as did the rest of his kind. A giant wolf with the intelligence of a man, he was covered in a thick coat of long black hair everywhere except right around his golden eyes, and that area was gray. He had a narrow chest and powerful hind quarters. He was the only werewolf of that particular coloration. The rest were varying shades of gray with a few white ones mixed in.

     Then the charging werewolves stopped about fifty feet from the torlags. When they stopped their bodies altered. They seemed to ripple and shift. The shape shifting took about four seconds and when it was over the werewolves stood on newly defined hind legs that were more manlike though still covered in the coat of hair. Their chests had also altered and were now huge. The manlike wolves were a head taller than the average man and were very heavily muscled. They retained the same coat and coloration and if anything their jaws seemed even larger and more powerfully developed. Their paw like hands ended in razor sharp claws.

     The King of the Werewolves addressed the leader of the torlags in the most insulting way a torlag can be addressed. He urinated in her direction. This is terribly offensive to a scent oriented society. Two male torlags darted in his direction but were stopped short by the dominate female who called them back to the battle line. "The insult was to me my children. Only if I fail can you take up the challenge, as is your birthright my sons."

     Returning to the line the two males bowed to the will of their mother and watched as she bravely moved to the center of the open space to meet the King. The King advanced on the torlag leader, barking his laughter at her as he advanced. She waited calmly. The citizens of Paradise Cove could feel that calmness and many marveled at her courage.

     She did not have long to wait. The werewolf leapt at her and gouged a gaping furrow across her left side as she sought to avoid his lunge. She retaliated by biting savagely into the wrist of the arm that had attacked her. The werewolf fought on, giving a howl of anger as he struggled. With his free hand he struck her a terrible blow to the side of her head in an attempt to make her let go. She held fast and actually rolled with the punch, rolling onto her back.

     Thinking his opponent defeated, the King leaned in to rip out her throat with his massive jaws. He used his trapped hand to shove her head back as he leaned in. That was when she struck with her four paws. Her sharp claws dug into his soft belly and groin, ripping and shredding with amazing swiftness.

     Howling in pain he tried to jerk his hand free, but the Torlag refused to release his wrist. He bit her then, taking a gaping piece from her shoulder as he struggled to reach her throat. At that moment she released his wrist and grabbed his throat with a viselike death grip.

     The desperate pain of the werewolf lent extra strength to his massively powerful body and he stood erect, dragging the torlag with him, still clamped to his throat. He beat at her with both fists in a panic trying to dislodge her but she held on and began to rake his torso and legs with her four clawed feet. Wheezing, he struggled on raking her body with his claws, shredding the once beautiful golden hide.

     For a full five minutes they battled, now in silence, until finally the King of the Werewolves toppled over backwards. A sickening, crunching sound announced the end of his life. The torlag stood defiantly facing the werewolves in victory.

     The torlags charged the werewolves en mass then. Some few werewolves stood their ground to fight it out, but most fled. Their king dead, they were now more interested in who would rule them, rather than an alliance with Dalghard. The torlags soon overwhelmed those few who stood to fight. Even so, many torlags were slain. Had the torlag leader not killed their King, the werewolves would have won that day.

     When the battle was over the victorious leader of the torlags stood facing her two sons, standing before the assembled torlag survivors. "I have been bitten,” she stated that fact calmly. "There is no cure,” she added still calmly. "You know what you must do,” she finished, and then lifted her head to the sky exposing her throat. "Strike well my son."

     A wave of sorrow and loss overwhelmed the citizens as her eldest son took her throat delicately in his jaws and snapped his powerful jaws shut. Shaking his head vigorously he broke her neck.

     That same scene was repeated a dozen times more as one by one the bitten torlags surrendered their lives for the good of their race, for it is written that the moment a werewolf lives among the torlags, that race is doomed. Stunned silence greeted the end of that vision.

     John stepped forward and said, "Our allies came to our aide in the Bre war. Now an ancient enemy is coming once more and this time the torlags are the targets." Looking into the faces of many of the citizens he continued, "Who will stand with the torlags against this menace?"

     There was a contingent of twenty Gryphon Knights present. They stepped forward and formed a symbolic ring of protection around Versha to give their answer. The Gryphons upon their shields momentarily pulsed with a soft, glowing red to acknowledge the commitment.

     Most present agreed immediately to assist the torlags in any way they could. Some were frightened by the vision they had seen and wanted no part of the coming conflict, but the majority were willing to aide the torlags.

 

 


 

Chapter 49.

 

     Inside the caverns Nessa and Tersha continued to search many hours for an exit. The cavern system seemed vast and often they passed running water. They drank their fill if Tersha's nose said the water was safe. If not, they passed the water without touching it.

     As they traveled the caverns Nessa and Tersha found many chests which thrilled her friend so much that Tersha, who otherwise had no interest in the chests, began to seek them out, just so her friend could open them. Much of the treasure from those chests was useless junk, plain and simple. But there were some odd bits here and there that she'd never seen before. Strange potions and a set of silver claws, apparently designed for the Torlag race. Also in more than one instance, Nessa found a common leather chest piece.

     They took a rest period near the chest that had yielded the second chest piece and Nessa worked with them for an hour. She fashioned a pair of makeshift packs from the two chest pieces so that Tersha could help carry the gathered items when she expressed some concern that Nessa was carrying too much weight. She accomplished this by turning the chest pieces inside out and punching a set of holes in the bottoms. She took some spare bowstring cord from her pack and laced it through those holes tying off the ends in large knots that could not slip back through the holes. Smiling at her handiwork she giggled and told Tersha that she bet Brimstone had never thought of that when he was teaching her about knots.

     Tersha had complimented her cleverness and watched fascinated as Nessa then turned the chest pieces right side out and proceeded to punch a set of holes through each of the arms. When that was completed she laced the four arms together and had a makeshift set of two packs which could ride comfortably across Tersha's powerful back. They soon discovered that the loads needed to be balanced and that the pack had a tendency to slip a bit, so they settled in to making a harness of other pieces of leather that Nessa had discovered. Tersha talked her through that. Her mind held many memories of such harnesses that her mother had told her about.

     In the end they had a pack system rigged for Tersha that was secure and stable. Tersha experimented walking about with the load and pronounced the gear acceptable. It was then that she noted the smell coming from Nessa's pack.

     "Nessa there is food in your pack?"

     "Nay good friend I fear not,” replied the young woman.

     "Perhaps you should look inside, for I can smell food and I am hungry."

     Nessa dutifully opened her pack and inside she did find food, much to her surprise. Cold ham and bread and cheese they shared beside that chest and ate their fill. They wondered where the food had come from and decided in the end to simply enjoy it for it might have to last them a long time.

     *On her isle Damia smiled as she watched the pair eat the food and her smile  broadened as they speculated on how long they could make that food last.*  They needn't have bothered. As long as they had need of food, that pack would yield it until they were out of the caverns.

     Nessa spoke bluntly then saying, "Tersha I cannot reach my mother's mind. I fear that if we are to get out of this, it is up to us to do so alone."

     Tersha said, "And I cannot reach my mother, or any of the others. If we get out, yes it will be on our own merits." As she spoke those words she studied her friend carefully and noted that she was very sleepy. She lay down herself and said, "I think we should sleep a while now. We are safe here, for I can sense nothing to disturb us, and if anything should come, I will smell it and awaken."

     So they curled up to go to sleep. But long after Tersha's breathing indicated she was sleeping, Nessa lay awake. She hoped her mother was not terribly worried about her, and wished she could tell her that she was safe.

     The light from her light source kept her awake. She wasn't accustomed to that much light when trying to sleep. Finally, an hour after Tersha went to sleep, Nessa slipped that ring off and placed it beside her hand. Minutes later she was asleep. As she slept, a brown rat came along and saw the ring. It darted over, seized the ring in its jaws, and fled the chamber with the prize.

 

***

 

     Hours later Nessa awoke. She immediately remembered where she was and reached for the ring so she could see in the cavern. When she couldn't locate it she assumed she must have moved it a bit in her sleep and began to feel about on the ground with her hands searching for it.

     "What is it that you seek Nessa?" inquired Tersha.

     "My ring. I took it off so that I could sleep and now I can't find my ring,” she replied.

     There is no ring on the ground,” replied Tersha. She was silent a moment, then she said, "A small rat was here. It walked up beside you, then left. It may have taken the ring. Rats are attracted to such things."

     Nessa was in a bad spot and she knew it. With no light source available to her she would be blind in the caverns and totally dependant upon her friend Tersha. Being blind was bad enough, but being a burden to her friend was the worst of it.

     Apparently Tersha was aware of her thoughts because she said, "You could never be a burden to me. I will help you to see." Then without another word she transmitted to Nessa what she was seeing.

     Nessa saw herself sitting up on the floor of the cavern. "Thank you,” she said politely. It was rather disorienting to see and hear herself from Tersha's perspective, and more than a little distracting.

     Instantly Tersha looked away and Nessa saw the chest they had camped beside while they slept. She walked over to that chest and opened it. Inside she found two more of those strange potions that seemed so prevalent here and another set of the silver claws that appeared to be designed for Torlags, but she found no ring of light.

     "Perhaps we will find one in another chest,” suggested Tersha.

     "They are very common. Hopefully we will,” replied Nessa, then she asked, "Does sending me what you are seeing put a strain on you?"

     "It is difficult, but I can manage. Hopefully it will get easier with practice."

     "You must let me know if you need to stop and rest or something,” Nessa replied. "There are always torches, but that would mean having to separate, and I refuse to even consider that option. If we became separated and I lost you..,” shaking her head, Nessa could not complete that horrific thought. There was no need to do so. Tersha felt the same way.

                                           

 


 

Chapter 50.

 

     For several hours they searched the caverns trying to find an exit. This was a huge cavern system with many twists and turns and more than a few dead ends that forced them to retrace their paths. Tersha would tire after about an hour of transmitting the things she was seeing to her friend. The two would then rest, allowing Tersha time to recover from that daunting task.

     Nessarose was becoming very accustomed to those visions and as long as Tersha didn't look at her she did well enough. However she quickly learned that traveling companions look at each other quite frequently, often without conscious thought to do so. Rather than complain incessantly to her friend about it she learned to just close her eyes for a moment when she did not want to see herself through Tersha's eyes. Of course that didn't block the mental visions being transmitted by the Torlag, but somehow it did filter out the unwanted images as if her mind was turning off the images when she closed her eyes.

     There was no way she could explain how it worked. It should not have worked, but the fact was that it did. She also learned to hold onto Tersha's harness and have her stop transmitting images to her when her friend grew weary of the mental exertion. At least in that manner they could make better time.

     They tracked their time inside the cavern system by their sleep cycles. A day to them was the time it took to explore for several hours eat and sleep. Frequently they encountered monsters in the caverns and fought vigorously to defend themselves. Nessa found out to her disgust that she couldn't hit her target using a bow when using Tersha's visions to guide her. The reason was simple. She was aiming at the targets from Tersha's position and not her true relative position. She rightly suspected that the same would happen should she attempt to use her sword. Her spells still struck true and she was glad that she'd learned to use magic to defend herself.

     The third day of Nessa's dependence upon Tersha for the visions she awoke to a marvel. She could see inside this cavern. The images were dim, but she could definitely make out details of the cavern. She noticed some lichen clinging to the stone walls of the cavern. These lichen seemed to be glowing softly, thus providing a bit of light.

     Excited by the incident, she informed Tersha of the discovery as soon as she awoke. Tersha informed her that those same lichens had been present for days. They speculated that her eyes must have adjusted to the dim light that the cavern lichens emitted. She wanted to try walking that day without the aide of the visions. She felt a wave of relief wash over Tersha at that point and felt terribly guilty. The strain she had been placing on her friend must have been terrible for that sense of relief to be so powerful. Tersha realized belatedly that Nessa was aware of that emotion and was ashamed of her weakness and selfishness.

     "It's ok Tersha. I knew it was a strain on you but I didn't know that it made you quite so uncomfortable." Then she added, "You have been wonderful through all this and I am truly grateful for your company. If I have to be lost in a cavern I am very lucky to have you by my side."

     The two friends talked amiably as they ate a breakfast of chicken, bread and cheese. They'd long since given up wondering where the food came from and simply enjoyed it. Now the pack reminded them of Ziona's kitchen cabinet. Just last month they had discovered that cabinets little secret and Nessa had entertained Tersha for an hour as she would take out food items and close the door. When she reopened that door the items were always completely restocked magically.

     After their breakfast they headed out through the caverns once more. The going was slow at first, but soon Nessa was able to maintain an almost normal pace as she learned to interpret what her eyes were seeing in the dimmer than normal light of the cavern. Tersha encouraged her saying that she was doing quite well and might possibly one day see as well as a torlag.

     About midday they came upon a chest that yielded something so amazing that they stopped for hours. What they had found was a set of silver chainmail armor designed for Torlags that also appeared to have magical properties. It was incredibly light. Much lighter than should have been possible. Excited by the find Nessa wanted to strip off Tersha's packs and harness and help her try on that armor. They discovered the other magical properties after they had it properly equipped. The armor was skin tight yet as supple as her skin. It also grew once it was strapped on. It literally expanded to cover her entire body from the neck down leaving only her head and feet exposed. Tersha reported incredulously that it was as if she were not wearing armor at all. It did not restrict her movements and was as light as a feather.

     They did have to alter the harness system a bit. The armor might be skin tight and weightless, but it did take up space and the harness was a bit too short to secure as it had been before. On a hunch Nessa pulled the silver claws from the pack and helped Tersha equip them. That took a bit of time because they had never figured out how the claws could be held in place since there were no straps. Finally Tersha suggested they just try putting them on regardless of the missing straps. They did so and the silver chainmail reacted instantly. It spread again until it merged with the claws, forming to all intents and purposes a one piece armor and claw set that left only her head exposed.

     An hour later they encountered the first of the werewolves.

                                        

 


 

Chapter 51.

 

     Ziona dreamed of a huge cavern maze. She saw passage after passage flash by as she soared through them at a faster than normal pace. Eventually she came upon her daughter and Tersha. Nessa was helping Tersha to equip some silver armor. She observed her daughter closely. She appeared to have lost a bit of weight but otherwise she appeared healthy.

     She marveled at the armor as she watched it grow to fit the torlag. She saw the two working with the claws and was as confused as they were as to how they should be equipped. She was as stunned as they were when the armor grew and formed a link that held the claws in place as securely as if they were real claws.

     Ziona could see and hear the two friends but they were unaware of her presence. She followed them as they walked through another three caverns in that underground labyrinth. She saw them battle several monsters and approved of their teamwork. She watched as they discovered several chests and the items within them. Most of those items were of the junk variety, but there were a few good finds. She rejoiced when Nessa found a silver chainmail chest piece that she equipped to see if it fit. She also approved when her daughter took it off and replaced her Cloak of the Archer for she had no leggings to go with the chest piece she had found.

     Ziona was still following them in the dream when they encountered a Werewolf.

     Nessa and Tersha were just entering a small cavern when Tersha stopped and lowered her body to the ground. Nessa immediately sensed danger herself and instinctively prepared for imminent battle.

     They proceeded into the cavern proper with every sense alert for the first sign of danger. In the center of the cavern was a large boulder. The danger that they sensed was coming from that direction. Giving the boulder a wide berth they stayed near the wall of the cavern and tried to get to the exit on the far side of the cavern chamber.

     They were one third of the way to that exit when they heard a menacing growl coming from the area near the boulder. Halting immediately they put their backs to the wall and stood facing that boulder. They waited a full three minutes but nothing happened so they resumed their attempt to leave that cavern in peace. As soon as they moved a loud howl erupted from the boulder. Nessa nocked an arrow and Tersha bunched her legs beneath her to spring at any potential attacker.

     Their reactions were fast, but still they were barely set in time as a dark form hurtled from the top of the boulder and landed halfway between them and that boulder. It was a werewolf in it's more human like aspect. Instinctively Nessa used the entangle spell and fired two arrows at the attacker in rapid succession.

     Tersha was charging the monster even as Nessa entangled it again. She timed her leap superbly and knocked it to the ground. She attacked it with her claws, raking it savagely from neck to stomach. The weapons sliced the creature open and caused it incredible pain. She was leaping aside to give Nessa a clear shot at it as the werewolf retaliated. It shot a clawed hand at her side but the silver chainmail stopped the claws from harming her thus limiting the attack to an impact only. Howling in frustration the werewolf sat up and Nessa's arrow hit it squarely in the chest. She entangled it again as Tersha hit it from the side, once more knocking it to the ground.

     Ziona was impressed with their teamwork. Time after time Tersha knocked the creature to the ground and Nessa shot it as it tried to stand. Then she would entangle it and once more Tersha would dart in. But eventually the werewolf was ready for one of Tersha's charges and caught hold of her in mid leap. It used her forward momentum to its advantage and flung her away from him where she crashed into the boulder. Stunned Tersha sank to the floor of the cavern momentarily disoriented.

     Nessa was outraged. That beast had hurt Tersha! She then cast the spell manaburst and sent punishing waves of power into the creature. Furious at the human for daring to attack, the werewolf ignored the pain and charged her. Nessa managed to entangle it again, but mere feet separated the two now. Dropping her bow she drew her sword to face the creature with steel at this close range.

     The creature shot a clawed fist at her face that she blocked with her sword almost severing the werewolf's hand from its body. She was preparing to fight savagely for her life with the blade when a snarling Tersha attacked it once more from the side. Her leap at the werewolf this time was so powerful, and so savage that she took it to the ground with amazing force.

     The werewolf hit the ground so hard that the side of his head slammed onto the rock floor with sufficient force to stun it. Grabbing its throat in her powerful jaws Tersha locked her teeth into it and held fast.

     Nessa ran to the other side of the two battling creatures and drove the tip of her sword into its right eye pushing with all her might, stopping only when she felt the tip of her sword strike rock.

     The werewolf shuddered, then died.

     Nessa had to speak to her friend Tersha to get her to let go. She said, "Leave off now, Sister. The creature is dead."

     Almost reluctantly Tersha let go of the werewolf's throat. Looking into Tersha's eyes she saw a fierceness, an anger that she had never seen there before. "I was afraid it would harm you,” explained Tersha.

     "And I was afraid it had harmed you my dear friend,” replied Nessa almost in tears, her voice choked with emotion. She dropped to her knees and hugged her friend.

 

***

 

     In her sleep Ziona wept. John heard her weeping and awoke alarmed. He gently shook her to wake her. She related the dream to him in excitement, then insisted that he immediately get the others so she could speak to them of it while it was fresh in her mind.

     While John was dutifully gone to gather the companions, Ziona bespoke Versha and asked her to come at once to their home stating that she'd had a dream about the missing girls.

     She must have been close, because Versha was the first to arrive. Ziona greeted her warmly and knelt to hug her. Versha was familiar with that human custom and tolerated it as the diplomat she was. She did inquire, "What was that for?"

     "Your daughter just saved mine from an attacking werewolf,” Ziona explained. Then in her excitement she launched into a description of the battle she had witnessed in her dream.

     "Are you sure that it was real?" inquired Versha.

     Damia appeared beside them and stated, "It was real. I felt it was time for Ziona to see some of what is going on."

     Before anything else could be said the others arrived, excited by the news.

     Ziona started at the beginning of the dream and left nothing out. At the end of the dream Versha asked fearfully, "Were either of them bitten?"

     "No they weren't. Tersha's armor wasn't even penetrated as far as I could tell." That led to a greater detailed discussion of the silver armor and claws that the girls were finding.

     Finally Ziona faced her three friends Fawnn, Veksar, and Mystyka. Hugging each fiercely she thanked them for the lessons that they had given her daughter and assured them that those lessons had saved her life in the battle with the werewolf. The three ladies got a bit misty eyed at that point.

     Versha added her thanks to them all and bowed to them in respect for as she'd heard the battle described Nessa had also saved her daughter Tersha.

     Ziona turned to John next and kissed him soundly. "Those sword tricks you taught her helped too dear,” she said by way of explanation.

     Grinning happily he said, "You know this is the first time I've seen you smile since the girls went missing."

     "This is the first time I have really believed that they could come out of this whole and hale."

     On that somber note Brimstone interjected, "The Gryphon will be here in two days with volunteers from Stoneheim. Captain Barnes says that they have had unusually good luck with the winds and are making record time on the voyage." He looked suspiciously at Damia as she calmly regarded her beloved husband. A tiny grin and a quick wink as she turned back to the companions was her only response. 

     "We will be ready for a battle should it come to that,” he concluded smiling at his wife Damia the Goddess of Neutrality.

 


 

Chapter 52.

 

     Nessa and Tersha searched the cavern carefully avoiding any contact with the slain werewolf. On the back side of the boulder they located a treasure chest. Inside that chest they found silver chainmail leggings and a silver helm for Nessa. At Tersha's advice Nessa changed into the silver chainmail armor that she had gathered so far. She found her set to be as magical as Tersha's. At first it was too large for her, but in moments it contracted until it was a perfect fit that did not limit her mobility in the slightest.

     When Nessa was dressed they continued their search for an exit from the cavern system. They encountered lesser monsters aplenty but no more werewolves did they encounter that day. They stopped to rest and eat after several hours of fruitless searching. They had found out that this section of the cavern system was a dead end and they would have to retrace their steps to a turn located several chambers back, on the other side of the one in which they had encountered the werewolf.

     Tersha stoically commented that it was just as well, as the treasure chest was sure to be full again. Grinning, Nessa had agreed that this was most likely the case.

     They discussed the battle with the werewolf as they were resting. They decided that the techniques that they had used in that battle had been effective against a lone werewolf, but they were concerned about what might happen should they encounter several at once. Tersha advised that Nessa resort to fire spells as those alone might drive off a pack of werewolves.

     Nessa was concerned about that option and pointed out that it would cripple their vision leaving them defenseless. Tersha considered that long and hard and said, "But if we are about to be overrun by the werewolves it seems to me the better of the options. It is better to be blinded for a bit than to be dead."

     Tersha surprised Nessa then by asking her a pointed question, "Nessa are you feeling well?"

     "Yes my friend I feel fine why do you ask?" she replied.

     "Because I sense a disturbance in you, a disquiet of the spirit that is growing."

     Sighing Nessa thought about how she should reply for a few moments. "It is true Tersha, I have something eating at my soul."

     "Perhaps we should discuss this disquiet then?" offered Tersha.

     Nodding her head in agreement Nessa answered, "Yes perhaps we should." She paused and gathered her thoughts for a moment before beginning. Tersha watched her friend patiently knowing she would continue once she was ready.

     "Tersha I feel abandoned. We have been lost in these caverns for so long that to me it feels like no one cares. There has been no word from our family or friends. It is as if we are truly on our own."

     "We are own our own friend,” the ever practical torlag pointed out.

     Sometimes the torlag tendency toward seriousness and practicality irked Nessa just a bit. This was one of those times. "Yes I know we are Tersha, but we needn't be."

     Tersha was perplexed and admitted it when she asked, "What exactly do you mean?"

     "I thought that Damia was our friend. She could teleport to us at will if she chose to do so. She could even teleport us home to Paradise Cove."

     "Yes, as a Goddess she could do that,” replied the torlag.

     "Then why hasn't my mother asked her to do so?"

     "Why do you assume that Ziona has not asked Damia to rescue us?"

     "The fact that we are still here lost in these caverns,” replied Nessa bitterly.

     Tersha considered what Nessa was saying for a moment. Her response astonished Nessa. "You are basing your feelings in this issue on an the assumption that Damia may do anything she pleases."

     "She is a Goddess, so why can't she?"

     "The Accords of the Gods,” replied Tersha as if that answered her question without the need for further explanation. But Nessa had no idea what that meant and said so. "Your parents never told you about this set of Accords?"

     "I guess there was never time for that,” Nessa replied.

     "Well torlags are born knowing some things. The Accords of the Gods is one of those things. They are rules all the Gods agreed to follow long ago. One of those rules is that the Gods not interfere directly in the destiny of the people of Althea at certain times when they are facing their destiny."

     Tersha then went into a detailed explanation of the Accords of the Gods and why they had been forged. Nessa listened to the explanation deeply interested. "So if Damia has not rescued us there is a reason for it? Most likely it would violate the accords?"

     "That is what I think yes,” replied Tersha. "And Nessa, I am certain that Ziona was frantic when we disappeared and is no doubt still gravely concerned for she loves you dearly." She went on to point out that the food they found daily in Nessa's pack came from a God or a Goddess. Most likely that was Damia's doing. Therefore in her opinion Damia was doing all that she could for them and was due a thank you for that.

     Hanging her head, now ashamed of her doubts, Nessa answered, "I am being silly then am I not?"

     "Just a bit friend,” replied Tersha.

 


 

Chapter 53.

 

     Nessa and Tersha decided to sleep where they had discussed the serious issues at hand. They were very tired and knew they would have to sleep soon, yet the thought of sleeping near the chamber where they had killed the werewolf was appalling. They ate a hearty meal then lay down to sleep. They didn't know it, but this was to be the last night both slept at the same time.

     The next morning they retraced their route to the cavern where they had slain the werewolf. The body was gone. They found that disturbing. The chest yielded Silver Chainmail boots and gauntlets which Nessa equipped immediately.

     "Well the bad luck of being lost here aside, we have been lucky in our finds,” said Nessa.

     "Yes we have been lucky haven't we?" observed Tersha.

     Nessa thought she detected a bit of humor in that reply. "Ok, Ok Tersha,” she said with light laughter, "You were right. This has been very lucky. It would seem that we have a bit of divine help in this area too." She paused for a moment with a thoughtful expression on her face, then continued, "Wouldn't that help also be considered a violation of the accords?"

     Tersha considered that question and its full implications for a while before answering. "No I think not. It is up to us to find and open the treasure chest is it not?" She hurried on without expecting an answer. "Treasure chests were set up by the Gods to aid all the intelligent creatures of Althea. If Damia is influencing what items we are finding, then she is using the system agreed upon by the Gods themselves to aid followers of the Gods."

     "Aye, sister, that she is,” agreed Nessa, feeling much better about their predicament.

     They began retracing their path, once more seeking the turn they had passed by the previous day. As they walked Nessa made a decision. She spoke of it to her friend saying, "When we get out of here I think I will speak to Damia about becoming one of her followers."

     "She does seem a kind Goddess,” replied the Torlag.

     "Yes I think so too. Then you approve?"

     Stopping in her tracks Tersha turned to face Nessa who almost bumped into her. “Who you opt to follow is your decision to make Nessa, but why wouldn’t I approve? All torlags follow Damia.”

     "You do?"

     "Yes we do,” acknowledged the torlag. "It was Damia who intervened and helped bring about the cessation of hostilities between torlags and humans. It was Damia who resurrected my mother Versha and it was Damia who retrieved the hides of torlag cubs so they could be reborn. There have been other things that she has done for our race. Never for any reason other than love of us as a people. How can you not love and follow a Goddess that is so inclined to love you?"

     "I didn't know torlags followed any God,” Nessa said, then she added, "I don't remember having ever heard it mentioned."

     "My people are a very private people when it comes to emotions. We must be, for we are true empaths."

     "You can sense emotions and transmit your own, aye that I know." Nessa knew better than any human how well this worked with torlags for she had been in contact with the torlag race prior to her own birth.

     "Yes that is true. If we so chose we could have an unfair influence over the population around us because of our empathic abilities. Therefore we restrict that talent severely. By doing so we do not exert an undue influence on the free choices of our neighbors, or each other for that matter."

     "I see. Thank you for explaining that Tersha, That explains much about why you behave the way you do at times."

     "Oh?"

     Nodding her head Nessa noted, "Often when I seek your counsel you seem most reluctant to give input into which path I should choose."

     "Ahh now I see,” replied Tersha. "We torlags place a very high value on ideals such as free choice. I listen to you and give you input as to your options. That is all that I can do. To actually tell you what to do would be unethical from the torlag point of view."

     They began walking once more in the direction of the turn they sought. Twenty minutes later they arrived at that turn. "This is where we turn Nessa. But before we proceed I would like to speak to you of a grave matter that weighs heavy upon my heart."

     "Then let us speak my friend, for what is of importance to you is also of importance to me,” replied Nessa in a formal manner. During their time together Tersha had spoken to Nessa at times of torlag ritual phrases and their meaning. She had also spoken of the proper responses to those phrases. Tersha had just initiated a torlag custom of asking for help when they were troubled. She had responded with the ritualistic answer without conscious thought to do so.

     Tersha looked deeply into her friend’s eyes and liked what she saw there. She began to speak slowly, almost shyly and reluctantly, for she feared the consequences of this matter and what they might do to her friend. "There is a ritual performed when a torlag dies." Nessa started to protest that but Tersha stopped her by saying, "Please friend hear me out. This is hard for me."

     Nessa nodded her understanding.

     "When a torlag dies it is the custom of our people to come together for a ceremony. At that ceremony the torlag is remembered by someone very close who speaks of that Torlag and shows the people what they can of the torlags last days. In this way the torlag is remembered and honored. In times of grave danger sometimes a torlag chooses to prearrange who that speaker will be."

     Nessa had a good idea what Tersha was about to suggest. She delicately pointed out that she lacked the ability to communicate adequately in the Torlag form of speech. None of her race could.

     "That doesn't matter to me. You communicate it as best you can should it become necessary. That is all I could ask of you."

     Nessa considered that gravely then nodded her acceptance of Tersha's will. "Should it come to that then aye, sister. You can count on me, but I fear I am woefully lacking in talent and will not do you justice."

     "Thank you, Nessa. Your best is all I ask. Tonight I will tell you of the death of a torlag, so that you may gain an understanding of what is involved in the telling."

     They proceeded then through the caverns at a cautious pace.


                                       

Chapter 54.

 

     Brimstone and the companions met the volunteers arriving aboard the Gryphon. Lord Malachi was there as was Jedi, XconX, Genkaku, Noughtinhill, Anpu Sandstorm, MetalHead, Yane, Dark Arrows, Psychost, Frusty and many others. Summoned by Tarn, a large contingent of his mercenaries had also arrived.

     Eric Glenfield and three ships loaded with two hundred-fifty Gryphon Knights arrived shortly before nightfall that same day.

 

***

 

     That night Versha met with the volunteers on the beach. She wanted to personally thank all who had arrived to help defend the region from the impending werewolf invasion. Once more she spoke of the last invasion. Once more she showed all present the vision that she had already shown the citizens of Paradise Cove and the Gryphon Knights stationed there.

     Versha also went into some detail about where the werewolves would come from. She explained that they lived far to the Northwest and would be coming from that direction. They would travel mainly by night. She said they would have some warning, because when they traveled en mass numbers they had a tendency to make a great deal of mental noise as they bickered back and forth among themselves. The torlags could hear that mental noise and would be alerted to their coming.

     Already Torlag scouts were in position far to the north west awaiting the first sign of the approaching werewolves. Once they began the trek to Paradise Cove those scouts would sound the alarm and retreat to fight alongside their race in this area.

     Versha then shared a vision with the assembled humans. A vision of a vast field they recognized as the same field they had seen in the other vision. "Once again in the field of woe we will make our stand. If our race is conquered, the werewolves will then move to this area and slaughter every living creature here. That is their way. That is their nature."

     Looking at the assembled humans she considered her next words most carefully before proceeding. When she spoke she spoke honestly saying, "It is better to fall in battle to these brutal creatures than to be captured by them. They do unspeakable things to captives. Things that I could show you, but I will not for some things are best left unspoken in the torlag speech form for the sake of the listener's mind."

     "Let all of you understand this. Expect no honor from them, they mock the concept. Expect no mercy from them, they have none in their hearts. Expect no truth from them, for they deal in lies."

     "They revel in blooding their prey then setting it free for sport. Then they hunt it down and slay it brutally after running it half to death and they always bite their prey before freeing it."

     She concluded on this somber note, "Let each of you search out your true feelings in this. If you are not prepared to fight to the death it is better to board your ships and flee this city. For the werewolves will not offer quarter unless it is for the sake of their blood sports which they do cherish."

     "Above all else you must remember this," she said with a solemn tone of voice. "If you are bitten by them and survive you will become as they are. A werewolf. There is no known cure. Therefore you will have to be slain by your comrades in arms, lest you turn on them and attack them as you yourself become lost to the lycanthropy. The legends say you have until the next cycle of the moon before the change overtakes you. From that moment on you will become lost to humanity, just as any bitten torlags will be lost to our race."

     With that somber thought hanging over them the meeting ended.

 


 

Chapter 55.

 

     Nessa and Tersha explored the cavern system throughout that day without serious incident. For the most part the monsters they encountered were the bats that cast drain. Nessa's bow made swift work of those. They never did find a ring of light in a chest but they did find a silver chainmail protector that completed Nessa's armor set.

     They decided to camp near that chest for the night in the hopes that in a few hours it might yield something else of value to them. Nessa expressed the hope that they might find the missing helm that would complete Tersha's armor set.

     Nessa was in the process of opening her pack to pull out their evening meals when Tersha spoke to her mind saying, "Be still, sister. Something comes."

     Nessa tensed for a moment at the unexpected warning, and then she slid her hand slowly to the hilt of her sword. Her bow was just out of reach, leaning against the cavern wall where she had set it to free her hands to open her pack. She brought an attack spell to mind and prepared to defend herself with spell or steel, whichever seemed the most effective.

     Tersha was facing the tunnel that exited this cavern. That told her that whatever was coming would be coming from that direction. She had been squatting to open her pack when Tersha issued the warning. Now as the minutes slid slowly past her legs began to ache severely. She was unaccustomed to this position and the strain maintaining it was taking a serious toll.

     Just when she thought she would have to ease herself to a standing position the three werewolves charged into the chamber running full speed at them. She saw them charging and entangled two of the three stopping them in their tracks.

     Tersha charged the remaining werewolf and met it with tooth and claw. The werewolf tried to rake her with his claws but the armor protected her. The impact of her body knocked the werewolf off its feet, but it quickly lurched back to a standing position. Tersha bit him from behind then. Her razor sharp teeth severed the Achilles tendon in one leg causing him to lose control of that leg and it buckled beneath him. Leaping upward she caught his neck in her jaws and bit down savagely crushing its throat.

     Nessa saw her friend fighting one of the werewolves as she fought to keep the other two at a distance with the spell entanglement. She was in a predicament. She had two of the creatures to try to control and they were closing the gap with her. The spell lasted moments only and when it expired they managed a step before she could recast it on them.

     So it was that step by step they were advancing on her. Snarling in rage the werewolves struggled to reach her. She decided if she was going to survive this encounter she was going to have to take a more direct approach to this situation. She drew the sword and advanced across the open space closing with her enemies. As she advanced she maintained the entanglement spells keeping both werewolves semi paralyzed by the spells affects.

     She faced one major problem. The moment she struck with the blade she might lose control of one or both of the werewolves. But that was a chance that she was going to have to take. She recast the spell on both werewolves then struck a blow at one of them.

     The creature attempted to block that sword strike with its forearm. The force of Nessa's strike severed the hand from its body and it howled in rage and pain.

     Leaping backwards to escape the reach of the other werewolf she entangled it then its partner. Desperately Nessa backpedaled across the cavern floor casting the entanglement spell repeatedly as she went. She was trying to get clear of them for a moment to see how Tersha was doing in her battle.

     She needn't have worried. Tersha had learned much in her first battle with a werewolf. Seeing Nessa retreating before the two werewolves she dropped the dead werewolf to the floor and attacked the uninjured werewolf which was attempting to reach Nessa.

     She struck from behind as she had against the first werewolf. Once more she severed the Achilles tendon effectively hamstringing the monster. That combined with Nessa's entanglement spell caused the creature to topple forward onto its face. Tersha didn't hesitate. She leapt onto its unprotected back and sank her jaws into the back of its neck puncturing its spinal column at the back of its neck thus paralyzing it. She killed it there where it lay

     Nessa barely had time for Tersha's attack to register on her consciousness when the spell entanglement that she was using failed to cast. She tried again and again it failed. She was out of mana and used a manastone to recover half her mana. By then the werewolf was too close to even attempt a spell. Its blood spewing into the air, it tried to ram the stump of its arm into her face.

    Nessa countered that strike with her sword instinctively, taking another four inches off the monsters arm with that strike. It lurched backward a half step in pain. Nessa followed up on that advantage and stepped rapidly in the werewolf's direction. Swinging her sword in a vicious arch she struck it in the neck.

     Its neck half severed the monster fell to its knees with Nessa's sword trapped in one of its vertebra. Nessa stepped a pace back away from the werewolf not even attempting to retrieve the trapped weapon just as her father had instructed her. She launched her attack with spells once more slamming the monster with manaburst. Even mortally wounded the werewolf was tough. It took a full thirty seconds for it to die.

     Tersha broke the silence that followed that battle. She said, "From now on I strongly recommend that we not sleep at the same time."

     Nodding her head soberly at that suggestion Nessa asked, "Are you alright? You weren't injured?"

     "I'm fine. They never touched me." Then she asked, "And you Nessa? Were you injured?"

     "I was lucky. Not a scratch,” she replied.

 

 


 

Chapter 56.

 

     Working together the two friends pulled the bodies of the three werewolves out of that chamber. They covered the blood spots with dirt for it had an offensive odor, even to Nessa's less sensitive nose. Tersha just flat refused to stay in the area of such a smell unless they covered it with earth.

     They could have left that area and moved on, but they were exhausted from the day’s activities and the battle with the werewolves. Also Nessa felt it important to open that chest one more time. She reasoned it odd that werewolves were in the vicinity of the better yielding chests. It seemed to her that it was almost as though they had been stationed to guard the chests. She gave voice to that guess as she talked to Tersha while they ate their evening meal.

     "That is possible I suppose. We have gotten some really good items from the two chests where we encountered the werewolves. But what of the chests that yielded my armor and claws? They were unguarded."

     Smiling Nessa said, "I think maybe that was Damia's doing. Perhaps she placed those items in a set of unlikely chests?"

     Tersha considered that quite likely, since werewolves seemed to guard other chests that yielded the silver items. The silver armor seemed immune to their claws. She hoped it was also capable of stopping the werewolves from biting them. So far they had faced four werewolves and slain them all without being bitten. That was incredible luck.

     "Perhaps she did indeed do just that. I don't think I would have survived the first werewolf without the armor. At the very least I would have been seriously injured."

 

***

 

     They took turns sleeping that night. One would stand guard as the other slept. When the guard grew too sleepy she would wake the other and talk to her while she prepared to stand her watch to ensure that she did not drift back to sleep once more.

     Nessa discovered that night what sentries throughout the ages have learned. Guard duty hours alone were some of the longest hours a person could ever live. It was terribly boring, and sleep became an enemy which must be understood and fought. Sleep, that wonderful balm that creeps over the unwary. It deadens the senses. During one of her turns at guard duty she found herself so sleepy from inactivity that she caught herself falling asleep. Startled she awoke and vowed to herself that she would not again endanger her friend who trusted her to guard her sleep.

 

***

 

     The next morning they opened the chest again. They were rewarded with a Silver chainmail helm for Tersha and a Silver Scimitar for Nessa. They immediately equipped Tersha's helm which managed to merge with the rest of her silver armor. Nessa was troubled by the helm, for a portion of it seemed wrong. Tersha's eyes were also covered and there were no eye holes present. But Tersha said that it did not impede her vision in the slightest and that she could see right through it as if it were not even there.

     A torch had also come from that chest. On a hunch Tersha asked Nessa to light it. She prepared to run down the corridor to the next chamber if she needed to do so. Nessa lit the torch, and just as Tersha suspected the light from it did not bother her eyes in the slightest. Indeed even Nessa found that the light didn't bother her eyes and it should have since she had not been exposed to a light source for many days. But the light from a torch might give them away to a waiting enemy, so they wisely buried it in a corner of the cavern.

     Together they headed out, still looking for an exit out of this massive cavern system. Unknown to them they were now entering the territory of the werewolves. They had traveled many days through the labyrinth of tunnels and were now beneath the ground of the far Northwestern portion of Sic Dalar. They were also rapidly approaching a date with destiny. A date that could well end in their deaths.

 

***

 

     In another cavern a massive black werewolf stood and snarled at an underling who had delivered a report to him. Some of the guards had failed to report in from the caverns. Also there were signs of torlags in their territories on the surface.

     The King of the Werewolves snarled out orders to his underling.

                                          

 


 

Chapter 57.

 

     Vraklar was a torlag male who served as a scout for the torlags. He had volunteered, as had all of the scouts presently deep inside werewolf territory. He watched the trail he had located for any signs of werewolf activity beyond the normal. On any given night the werewolves traveled this trail to hunt. Usually they traveled alone, but occasionally they traveled with a mate. It was very rare to see three werewolves leaving to hunt together unless they had a prisoner they wished to blood hunt.

     This night had been no exception yet still he was on edge. He sensed a great danger in the air and could not isolate the cause of that unease. He scented the air constantly and noted that the breeze was still in his face so he need not worry about his scent crossing the trail and leading enemies to him.

     Too late he heard a twig snap behind him and whirled in time to see three werewolves pouncing at him. He died in moments, overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the werewolves. Yet he did not die alone. He took one werewolf to the grave with him even as the other two tore him to pieces.

     He did not have a chance to sound a warning to the other scouts in the area, let alone send a message to Versha.

 

***

 

     Traklar was brother to Vraklar. He volunteered when his brother had done so. He too was deep inside werewolf territory watching a trail that he had located. Like his brother, he had made certain to keep the wind in his face as he watched the trail. Like his brother he died without giving a warning when three werewolves attacked him from behind.

 

***

 

     One by one the scouts of the torlag people were located and slain until only one remained. That scout was a master at the craft. It was he who had taught the rest of the scouts. He was old even for a torlag who were a long lived race and the other scouts who had traveled to the werewolf territories together as a group revered him. They had even maintained a slower than normal pace so that the ancient one as they referred to him might be able to keep up without over taxing himself.

     His name was Braklar and he was great grandfather to Vraklar and Traklar. Braklar was so old that his eyes were nearly useless to him, therefore he chose differently in his selection of ways to track the comings and goings of the werewolves. He dug a tunnel to within a few feet of the trail he was observing and lying there beneath the earth he smelled their comings and goings through a tiny hole he had dug so that his nostrils were the only portion of his body above ground. The ground foliage concealed even that from any observation.

     He had hidden his affliction from the rest of the torlags for a year now. Braklar was almost blind. What little he could see was of scant worth to a scout. His nose still worked though. Indeed he was one of the best scouts the torlags had ever produced. Thus it was that only he survived the night’s slaughter. Of the twenty scouts sent to warn of the beginning of the invasion only he lived through that night.

     The next day he began to find what remained of the slaughtered scouts. By the time he'd located the fifth victim of the werewolf purge of the area, he knew instinctively that none had survived. He also knew that soon, very soon the werewolves would begin their march to the torlag homeland.

     Braklar never returned to his tunnel. He knew it was time to select another spot. He moved to a small hill that overlooked the main trail out of the werewolf lands. There he spent the day preparing another tunnel almost identical to the last. His selection of this spot was ideal. He had taken advantage of the natural tendency of the wind to follow the contours of the land and flow up that hill. The enemy wouldn't see him in his hidden hole, nor would they be able to smell him.

     Therefore it was no accident that he was in position to bear witness to a mass exodus of the werewolves from their lands that night. He sounded the warning the werewolves had so cleverly sought to stop. He slept that night, for he planned to run at his best pace the next day. His affliction was now also an advantage because the sunlight no longer bothered him as it did all torlags.

     Braklar would nearly kill himself running back to his people, but he would also beat  the invasion force by nearly a full day.

 

 


 

Chapter 58.

 

     Once again an underling was reporting to the King of the Werewolves. His soldiers had departed for the torlag homeland on schedule. He had also reported that a torlag and a human had been seen in the cavern system heading in their direction.

     The King ordered the underling to issue his orders for the army to move at best speed for the torlag homeland. He would join them as soon as he had dealt with the torlag and the human woman heading for their caverns.

     In point of fact he was looking forward to a blood sport. It was his intentions to capture them, bite them, and then set them free so that he could hunt them for sport along with a few of his favored subjects.

     He issued orders that no further attacks were to be made. "Let them come to me,” he commanded. "It has been too long since I have enjoyed the blood sport."

 

***

 

     Tersha and Nessa moved cautiously through the many tunnels and chambers of the cavern system. Though they encountered no more werewolves Tersha often scented them and knew that they were keeping their distance. She could literally smell their frustration, but also something else that she interpreted as a sense of anticipation. Tersha suspected that a trap was being set and said as much.

     Nessa continued to gather those odd potions that she had been finding in the chests. She couldn't read the labels because they were not of her language. She thought that the language was Elven but she wasn't certain of that suspicion. Since she'd never seen or heard of them she collected them in the hope that they would be of some use one day.

     They stopped when totally exhausted. Both had been reluctant to stop this day. Oddly both had the feeling that the exit was near. Eventually they were forced to stop. It was simply too dangerous to continue when they were so tired.

     They ate and Tersha showed Nessa a vision of the ritual ceremony to remember a Torlag who had died. Nessa found the ritual moving despite the fact that she had never met that particular torlag.

 

***

 

     The King of the Werewolves listened in anticipation as his underlings reported the progress of the approaching females. He was delighted. The next day he would have his blood hunt. He ordered all of his subjects between the approaching females and his personal chamber to withdraw to the caverns closest to his. In that way he limited the possibility that the two would die before reaching him.

 

***

 

     In Paradise Cove the companions were attending a meeting with Versha when the scout Braklar reported the commencement of the invasion and the loss of the other scouts. He had waited to inform Versha of that loss until he could report the invasion for he feared that she would order him to retreat due to his age.

     The companions confirmed that they would be ready to move out to the field by sunrise. It was a good day's march to that field, but by nightfall they could be there. That would give them the time needed to set up the battle lines and prepare a few nasty surprises for the werewolves.

 



Chapter 59.

 

     Nessarose awoke to one of those mornings when you just are not ready to get up. She felt as tired as she had when she last lay down to sleep after her turn at standing watch. Glancing at her friend she said, "Was there any activity during your watch?"

     Tersha was staring down the tunnel that exited this chamber of the cavern system when Nessa addressed her. She continued to regard that tunnel when she replied, "Once I heard a small noise but I never saw a thing."

     Nessa got up and secured her weapons properly. "Hungry Tersha?" she asked.

     "Not really,” replied the Torlag.

     "Then we can move out whenever you are ready,” replied Nessa. "I have a feeling that today we will find an exit to this cavern system."

     "So do I Nessa, but I also feel that we will encounter grave danger this day."

     Nessa considered the warning carefully. Tersha was not given to flights of the imagination. Torlags weren't affected by those the way humans were. Torlags were gifted with an intellect which could analyze information coming in to their senses and correlate that into a projected future event. Those projections were remarkably accurate therefore she took that warning quite seriously. "I'll be vigilant friend and thank you for the warning,” she replied.

     They had camped near a chest again as was their habit. Last night it had held two of those odd potions she had been collecting. She now had quite a supply of those, having accumulated twenty over the past week in that cavern system. She opened that chest again hoping to find something useful and was astonished when she picked up the Silver quiver filled with arrows that the chest had yielded this time.

     Tersha stared at those arrows with great interest. Finally she said, "Have I ever told you that I had a dream our first night in the caverns?" Nessa said that she hadn't mentioned it to her. "I did have quite a dream. In that dream I saw you firing those arrows and also using that sword you got recently."

     Nessa was fascinated. She said, "Tell me more please."

     "Whenever you hit the werewolves in the heart they died instantly. But if you hit them elsewhere they screamed in agony as smoke issued from their wounds." Pausing and gathering her thoughts she considered her next words carefully. "Nessa I think you should consider heart shots with the bow and when you have the opportunity you should take their heads with the sword."

     Nessa knew that, for Tersha, to outright give such advice was very costly. In a way it violated her belief structure to so explicitly counsel anyone. This puzzled her so she asked, "Why are you giving me such instruction now when you normally will not?"

     Tersha was silent for a moment pondering whether to answer or not. Finally she replied, "I so advise you now because in the dream I saw you fighting them as I just mentioned, but that is not all that I saw. I also saw you being dragged down to the ground by a werewolf whom you had wounded as you backed away from another group charging you. After that I awoke." Tersha regarded her friend silently for a moment, then concluded, "So if fight them we must, I think you should strive for a kill shot with each attack."

     "It shall be as you counsel, sister, and my thanks,” replied Nessa. She knew that dreams could be quirky things. Sometimes prophetic, sometimes just junk thrown together by the mind of the dreamer. She also knew her friend Tersha would not lightly reveal that dream unless it was for Nessa's own good. Therefore she decided it best to follow her friend's advice.

 

 


 

Chapter 60.

 

    In the early afternoon hours Brimstone and the Companions arrived at the field they had all seen in Versha's visions.

     Other torlag scouts had been dispatched to replace the slain scouts and monitor the approach of the werewolves. One reported having encountered Braklar along the way and was escorting the exhausted torlag back to their lines. He had run night and day and should arrive at the field an hour after dark for they were very close and waiting until sunset before proceeding.

     Versha sent a mental message that the torlags would join them as soon as the sun set as they were near the field in temporary dens awaiting the setting of the sun. She requested Brimstone to instruct the human army not to build great fires as this would blind the torlags. Brimstone assured her that such instructions had been relayed to all present. A fire in this circumstance would not aid them in any way in the coming conflict, but would ruin their own, poor by comparison, night vision.

     One of the Gryphon Knights was a former catapult man from Dalghard's army days. He had convinced Eric Glenfield that they would have need of a catapult this night and had worked long and hard the preceding days to get a catapult to this field. Fifty men had been assigned to that detail. They had gathered several wild horses and tamed them sufficiently to pull that catapult to the location for the battle. Then they had gathered stones for the loaders to use in the attack. They had also brought in hundreds and hundreds of silver tipped arrows that would be loaded in bundles of fifty to fire en mass at the werewolves.

     The  Knight had carefully experimented with the catapult to find the ranges he would need in the coming battle for the various loads and was confident that his one catapult would more than pay for the work involved.

 

***

 

     Brimstone was inspecting the waiting army. They were spaced as prearranged with the torlags. As he walked down the line of warriors, archers, and mages he greeted those he knew warmly. He was at the midway point of his inspections when the torlags arrived.

     Versha found him moments later. She said, "Our scouts tell us that the werewolves are near and heading this way as we expected."

     "All that can be done in advance has been done,” replied Brimstone. He added, "Our plan is sound."

     "Then let us prepare our people,” she responded.

     Walking down the waiting line of the army Tersha gave the command for the torlags to take their places. Silently the disciplined torlags moved into the gaps left for them in the human battle lines. Versha and Brimstone had agreed that the humans and torlags had fought so effectively together during the Bre war that they should combine their talents for this conflict as well.

     Learning much from the Bre war they had a strong contingent of torlags with the archers and another with the mages. Tarn's mercenaries were on the right flank of the battle line. The Gryphon Knights held the left flank and the center as well. The archers and mages were interspersed in all three of the afore mentioned positions. The warrior volunteers from Stoneheim were near the center.

 

***

 

     Ziona was concerned about Nessa. The fact that the werewolves were coming must mean that they had failed in their mission. When last she'd seen Damia the Goddess had assured her that Nessa and Tersha were both whole and hale. But that had been yesterday. She knew only too well that a lot could happen in a day. Especially when confronting droves of monsters.

     If Nessa could have heard her mother's opinion of that at that particular moment she would have whole heartedly agreed.

 

***

 

     As the combined armies of the torlags and humans stood waiting, Braklar and the scout escorting him slipped into view. They stopped and consulted with Versha briefly before the aged Braklar went to find some food.

     Versha walked to Brimstone's side to tell him what she had learned from the scouts, but before she could speak the night air erupted with the sound of howling. The werewolves had discovered they were here.

 

 


 

Chapter 61.

 

     The two friends traveled cautiously through five cavern rooms without incident. Nessa even managed to add another two of the odd potions to her supply from the chests in one of those rooms. In the sixth chamber they encountered five werewolves who immediately moved to attack them.

     Nessa's bow whispered two times in rapid succession. Two of the werewolves died with her arrows in their hearts. Then a third werewolf closed with her raking at her sides as it attempted to grab her. She let her bow drop from her hand and drew her sword. She attacked the werewolf as she drew the blade slicing into its torso just as her father had taught her. A foul smoke erupted from the wound and the werewolf went insane with rage. She jumped back away from it to gain some distance to more effectively use her sword.

     Tersha had seen the opening moments of the battle raging out of the corner of her eye but she was engaged with two of the werewolves herself and could not assist Nessa at the moment. Darting between the two werewolves she slashed at the calf of one of them with her right fore claws as she passed.

     Both werewolves turned to face her even as she spun about to face them. One on one a torlag was a match for a werewolf, but two against one was bad for the torlag. Werewolves fought in their more human form. That placed their vital organs higher than the torlag could easily reach from the ground, thus forcing them to either bring the werewolf to the ground before attacking vital organs or leaping into the air to reach them.

     Tersha considered her options, and then made up her mind as to the best course of action. She darted between them once more, but this time as they attempted to turn with her she bit solidly into the groin of one of the werewolves and savagely shook her head from side to side tearing and ripping with her sharp teeth.

     The other werewolf struck her a glancing blow that her armor deflected and she darted out of his reach. The werewolf she had maimed was bleeding profusely and howling in rage. It darted at her and she savagely slashed its throat with her right front claw even as she scrambled to avoid him. That wound smoked in the same manner as Nessa's sword wound.

     Nessa set her feet as the wounded werewolf charged her. Three times she had attempted a killing strike. Three times the werewolf had darted out of sword reach. This time she waited a bit longer before committing herself to a strike. That patience paid off when her sword tip slid through the neck of the werewolf and it toppled over headless. 

     Tersha leapt into the face of the uninjured werewolf clamping down on one ear as it turned its head to protect its vulnerable throat. She shredded that ear and bit off the upper half. Landing lightly she followed up on that attack by leaping at the werewolf's unprotected back. Her front claws dug into the heavily muscled shoulders. Her hind claws scrambled as if trying to climb up the backs of his legs. Everywhere the claws struck a smoldering wound was left behind.

     The werewolf threw himself backwards attempting to stun the torlag. The impact jarred her so violently that for a moment Tersha lay stunned. The werewolf ran then, fleeing the deadly pair of females the king had sent him to capture.

 

***

 

     The werewolf king was furious. He had planned to be with his army by now. But the pair of females had evaded his hunting squad when they had reached his area of the cavern. Worse than that they had actually slain several of his most favored subjects when they were finally cornered in a chamber.

     Snarling he killed the cowardly werewolf who had fled the battle. Lifting his head high with the dead werewolf's blood flowing down his bestial jaws and neck he howled as he hadn't howled in years. The few werewolves who had remained in the caverns to accompany their king on his march to join the army heard that howl and answered it with their own.

     Three cavern rooms away the two friends Nessa and Tersha had finally found an exit from the cavern. They were just about to walk through that exit when the king howled. They hurried out of the cavern and began the run of their lives.

     In the caverns they had just left behind the werewolves had found their scent and were tracking it to the exit.

 


 

 

Chapter 62.

 

     Numerically the werewolves had the advantage over the allies by about two hundred. But the allies had some of the best warriors, archers, and mages that Althea had ever produced. They also had Brimstone and the Gryphon Knights fighting on their side. Most importantly they had the torlags who could match the speed of the werewolves’ attacks.

     They also had the catapult which they put to work in the opening moments of the battle. The werewolves had never before encountered that weapon, so when the first volley released its load of silver tipped arrows they ignorantly stood watching the flight of arrows, fascinated,  as they arched through the air.

     Twenty of the tightly packed werewolves died in that first attack. After that they knew to run when the catapult fired. The human archers and mages soon added their fire to that of the catapult. Thus the werewolves who fled one form of death often found another as the archers and mages killed them.

     The first fifteen minutes of the battle the allies were winning handily. Then disaster struck their right flank. A group of some fifty werewolves charged the line in that region attacking savagely. Tarn's mercenaries fought with valor, but the werewolves managed to drag several of them from the line and carried them into the concealing darkness. The torlags with that element of the defenses had fought to try to counter the attack but had been unable to keep the men from being taken.

     Tarn was outraged at the loss of the men. He wanted desperately to go after them. But Tarn was a leader and knew well that to attempt a rescue in the pitch black night would cost more men than he could possibly hope to save. He swallowed bitterly as he gave the command to stand firm. He had to physically restrain one man whose brother had been taken. Shaking the man he said, "I know you want to help him, but your brother is lost."

     Moments later terrible screams began to drift across the intervening darkness as the werewolves attempted to draw some of the allies into their area by tormenting the captives whom they had already encircled in an inescapable ring of hundreds of werewolves. One by one the men were bitten by the werewolves who also clawed their legs to make them scream.

     Their screams of agony rocked the night. Then a lone man stepped forward commanding all to maintain their places. Versha ordered the torlags to cover their eyes and keep them covered. A moment later the black night erupted in flames as the fire mages unleashed their fire spells into the mass of werewolves packed around the human captives.

     Such was the terror of the captured men that when they saw the fire attacks sweeping toward them they did not struggle to escape it. To flee that fire was to rush into the waiting werewolves’ claws and teeth. No, they did not seek to escape the fire. They rushed toward it flinging themselves into the path of those cleansing flames.

     Brimstone, Veksar, Noughtinhill, and several other fire mages concentrated their spells in that region and in moments a hundred werewolves died or were maimed by that cleansing fire. The captives died to a man but that death was merciful compared to what the werewolves had been doing to them.

     The werewolves retreated momentarily and the mages ceased their attacks. Tarn released the man he had restrained. "You let them kill my brother Tarn,” accused the grieving man.

     "Aye son that I did for it was the merciful thing to do,” replied Tarn. Then he said, "If I'd been out there with them that's what I would have wanted for myself." Then staring hard into the man's eyes he said, "Now focus your anger. Direct it at yon beasts when they come for you and they will. Be ready. Make them pay for your brother's death."

     A look of determination came upon the man's tearful face and he said bitterly, "Aye Tarn. My brother adored you and considered you his friend. I will make these beasts pay for taking my brother. But when this is over you and I have business to settle among us."

     "So be it son if that still be your wish when this night’s work is done."

     Tarn walked away from the man then to see to his wounded men.

 

***

 

     Fawnn, Mystyka, and XconX stood beside Veksar. They watched as the catapult sent a wave of stones, each the size of a man's fist, at the werewolves forming for a charge at their line. Veksar added manaburst to the assault when some tried to flee. Fawnn, Mystyka, and XconX added their boulder spells thus the four mages formed a temporary trap that caged the werewolves.

     Laughing at the werewolves’ predicament Cougar fired her bow so fast that her third arrow was at times in flight before the first one struck a target. Psychost and Frusty added their bows to the effort. But two archers stood out that night above most and they were Ziona and Anpu Sandstorm.

     Ziona was taking her frustration out on the Werewolves. The events she had been forced to endure the past two weeks had made her furious. Until tonight there had been nothing she could do to effectively release that rage. Tonight was a different issue. She could and did punish the werewolves by killing so many that she quickly lost count.

     Anpu Sandstorm stood near her occasionally pausing in his own deadly work to observe her technique. He found that they had similar styles though Ziona's was instinctive and natural. It was almost as if she selected one target and her mind forgot it. As her body did the actual labor involved in the killing her mind was already concentrating on the next recipient of her rage. This allowed her to kill so efficiently that soon the werewolves were pointing in her direction and a group of fifty charged that area of the line to kill her.

     Fawnn and Mystyka raked the charging werewolves with their attack spells. Cougar, Frusty, Psychost, and Dark Arrow fired their bows into the charging pack as well. When the werewolves were within ten feet of the line, the warriors stepped forward to meet the charge as did their torlag allies.

     Lord Malachi, MetalHead, Jedi, Genkaku, John, and several Gryphon Knights met that charge. The battle raged intensely for a few moments with swords, claws, and fangs doing their deadly best to kill their enemies. When the last werewolf fell the night grew silent but for the labored breathing of the now winded warriors.

     Moments later the night was shattered by howls from all around the army of the allies. Versha had warned that this might happen and the army had practiced a maneuver to counter just this sort of development. Instantly the order was given and the flanks marched until the army formed a circle facing outward.

 

 


 

Chapter 63.

 

     Nessa was tired. She had been running for an hour, but she could still hear the howling of the pursuing werewolves. She could barely breathe and she had a stitch in her side from the labored breathing.

     Glancing at Versha she noted that the torlag was not even breathing hard. "Of course she isn't. She is not running full speed because she would leave me behind,” thought Nessa.

     "Perhaps it is because I have no wish to face that pack alone,” Tersha responded to her unspoken thought.

     "I wouldn't care to do that either, sister,” Nessa said mentally by way of a reply. "But soon I will be forced to stop to catch my breath or collapse on this trail."

     Tersha sent back, "Then we should stop now while we are both able to fight and gather our strength for the battle."

     "Then let us reach an open space, so that we can see them coming at us,” replied Nessa.

     Five minutes later they came to a clearing in the forest. It wasn't a large clearing, being only about fifty feet in diameter, but would have to do. They stood waiting in the center. Tersha advised Nessa to open the battle with meteor when she saw the enemy.

     Cold sweat ran down Nessa's body as it cooled down from the effects of all that running. Her bow was in her left hand with an arrow nocked. Her silver sword was loosened in its sheath. They didn't have long to wait. Less than ten minutes after they had halted to make their stand the werewolves came upon them in the clearing.

     Following Tersha's advice Nessa unleashed the spell meteor into the faces of the twenty werewolves who accompanied the king. In rapid succession the waves of meteor pounded into the pack of beasts killing several of them.

     The werewolves charged the waiting pair of friends. Nessa fired her bow much as her mother was firing hers at that same moment in a field far away near the torlag homeland. Instinctively she sought out her targets and then forgot them as her mind sought the next while her body handled the last. In the first minute of the battle Nessa had killed half of the werewolves. Her meteor spell had been unexpectedly strong. A small benefit granted by the Goddess she already served, though she was unaware of the service.

     Tersha saw a werewolf trying to circle behind Nessa and in a rage leapt upon its back, clawing and slashing. The werewolf turned its head to see what was upon him and she raked both her front claws down its face shredding it and blinding him when his eyes burst open, smoldering from the wounds inflicted by the attacking silver claws.

     Nessa dropped her bow as the last four werewolves closed with her. With amazing speed she drew her sword and struck at the gray werewolf nearest her. At the last moment that werewolf saw the blade streaking for its neck and tried to block it with its forearm. The blade seemed to glow as it streaked through the air and sliced through the forearm as if it wasn't even there and continued through the hapless creature’s neck, severing the head from the body.

     Tersha ripped out the throat of the wounded werewolf then leaped away to join her friend Nessa in battle. She ran full speed straight toward two werewolves. Timing her leap she twisted her body in midair and collided with both werewolves. Such was the severity of that impact that she knocked them down to the ground. Her hind claws raked the face of one as her jaws clamped down on the throat of the other. Giving a savage twist of her head she ripped out that creature’s throat and spun to finish off the other.

     That werewolf had lost one eye already and had no intentions of permitting Tersha to inflict further damage upon him. He clamped down on her left leg with his jaws. His fangs could not penetrate her magical armor, but the force of those jaws did break that leg. Snarling in rage and pain Tersha struck the werewolf's throat with her right forepaw ripping out most of its throat.

     Now only the huge black werewolf remained. Nessa knew instinctively that this must be the leader of the werewolves. She saw that Tersha was hurt and  tried to heal her but the werewolf lunged in to attack her as she cast the healing spell. She was forced to use her sword to keep the monster at bay.

     Tersha ignored the pain of her broken leg and tried to get back to Nessa's side, but hobbling on three legs was slow. The werewolf noted her injury and darted at her with the intentions of finishing her off quickly then renewing the battle with Nessa.

     Nessa wished desperately that she had her bow, but it was upon the ground. She knew that by the time she could pick it up and ready an arrow the werewolf might well be upon her friend. So she forgot the bow and sprinted after the werewolf hoping to catch it before it could harm Tersha.

     Tersha crouched low and waited for the werewolf to attack. The king circled her warily. He'd seen well enough what her lightning fast claws and jaws could do to a werewolf. He kept Tersha between himself and Nessa, circling and staring his hatred at them both.

     If Nessa had been armed with her bow she could have ended the conflict at that point. As it was she resorted to magic and proceeded to drain the werewolf, but that had little effect. The monster was very resistant to that spell, and he mocked her with his guttural laughter.

     Tersha made her presence known to him again by the simple expedience of springing at him from her crouched position. She fell a bit short of where she had intended and had to settle for raking his foot with her uninjured forepaw.

     The werewolf howled in outrage and stomped down on her head with his foot. Nessa's blood ran cold then. He had hurt her friend. In a cold and calculated rage she advanced on the werewolf oblivious to the danger that he represented. She took a swing at his head.

 

 


 

Chapter 64.

 

     When the werewolves came for the allies they came from all sides at once. Their howling and charging bodies were met by flights of arrows and magic spells which barely slowed them as they charged. This battle would be a battle of warriors and torlags for the most part.

     The advantage they'd had with the catapult was now gone. The enemy no longer massed against them in one location so they no longer had a target for it to be used against. Some few of the archers climbed upon the now useless catapult and used its elevation to gain a clear field of fire for their arrows. But the available space there was limited, so most archers were forced to fight at point blank range when the werewolves closed ranks with the allies.

     The mages were in the same predicament. Once the werewolves closed ranks with them their spells had to be used at point blank range. But they also had personal shield spells such as fire and ice and electric shields. Alas they could not utilize most of those personal shields as it had a debilitating affect on the torlag’s vision. They needed their torlag allies much worse than they needed those shields.

     Yane the paladin made many a friend that night as he alternated between slaying the werewolves and healing those in need of it. He fought with distinction and valor.

     Fawnn, Mystyka, and Veksar also fought with valor and it should be noted that they sealed a break in the lines when four men were dragged away by the werewolves. They sealed that break by stepping into the positions and blasting away with spells until the line could be reinforced by Gryphon Knight reserves.

     Lord Malachi, Jedi, MetalHead, and Genkaku did something so insane that XconX later threatened to leave his brother Genkaku at home the next time a war was in the works. Several werewolves dragged three Gryphon Knights away from the line. Lord Malachi leaped into the breach in the lines then darted after the werewolves which were dragging the hapless men away. Jedi followed without hesitation as did the rest. They fell upon the werewolves with a fury. The mages rallied to assist them by healing the crazy warriors and spelling them with armor spells.

     In triumph they returned with the three Gryphon Knights. Lord Malachi winked at Fawnn and Mystyka and thanked them for their healing spells as he walked past them.

 

***

 

     Tarn was fighting in the line near the man whose brother had been lost. He fought bravely and noted that the other man did as well. He hoped that it would not be necessary to kill that young man. Tarn didn't see the werewolf leaping at him from his left, but the other man did. He leapt to intercept that werewolf and beheaded it with a downward sweep of his broadsword. Tarn nodded his appreciation and said, "I thank you, but your action surprises me."

     "I am sorry Tarn. I was angry about my brother's fate,” the man sounded nearly exhausted. "I took that anger out on you. I know you would have saved him if it were possible."

     Tarn nodded that this was so and thrust his sword at the werewolf attempting to grab the man. They spoke no more, but continued to struggle to survive this night, but they had reached an understanding,

 

***

 

     Brimstone frowned. They were losing the battle and he knew it. He could have slain the werewolves himself but Damia had forbidden that because there was something that must happen in relation to this battle. If he won the war blatantly for the torlags he would cause irreparable harm to a thread of destiny.

     He didn't really like it, but he had to concede her point. He was doing everything he could to help his allies. The rest was up to Tersha and Nessa.

 


 

Chapter 65.

 

     Tersha was half dazed by the blow to her head. Groggily she saw Nessa advance and swing at the werewolf who leapt back. Struggling to her feet she hobbled in the werewolf's direction on her three good legs. She was terribly afraid that he might kill Nessa. This was no ordinary werewolf. This was their king. As such he would be amazingly good at fighting. She knew that werewolf kings always got that position by killing all of the competition for the throne in personal combat. Therefore this was no ordinary werewolf. This was a champion.

     As she hobbled at him she sent a mental message to Nessa, "Back off him, sister. I will distract him. We need your bow."

     Reluctantly Nessa complied with the wishes of her friend. She backed off and, keeping her eyes on the werewolf, tried to get to her bow. Tersha attempted to distract him by snarling at him and issuing a challenge. "Fight me if you dare wolf! Even injured your blood will spill to my fangs and claws."

     The werewolf king growled menacingly at Tersha and then without any warning bolted straight at Nessa. Leaping past her he grabbed her bow and flung it away from the clearing into the woods. Nessa darted in to attempt a sword strike but he danced away from her. He was playing with them now, enjoying the sport.

     Nessa considered using the spell meteor, but the werewolf slid immediately behind Tersha. He was too close to her friend for her to use that spell. If she did so she would also gravely injure Tersha.

     "He hears your thoughts, sister,” Tersha said. "Use your spells."

     Nessa tried. She tried manaburst, shatter and weaker fire spells that were not area spells. Nothing seemed to work. This werewolf was protected from her magic. At least from the lesser spells, and she couldn't use the better spells without killing her friend too.

     Tersha saw Nessa's problem and used the werewolf's distraction to her advantage. Springing once more at the king she succeeded where earlier she had failed. Her jaws locked down on the werewolf's groin and shredded it.

     Nessa bolted toward the werewolf as soon as Tersha sprang at him. She saw him grab Tersha's armored helm and pull so violently that he broke the links that had magically sealed the helm to the chest piece. She somehow knew that she would be too late to stop the blow that he would use next but she tried valiantly. Leaping into the air she swung her sword in a vicious arc as his clawed fingers descended toward Tersha's eyes. Her sword intercepted one of his descending hands and severed it, but the other continued its descent.

     Too late to stop that hand she saw the clawed fingers rupture Tersha's eyes and sink into the sockets. Then her body crashed into his knocking him to the ground. She scrambled to rise and felt something slam hard into the back of her head forcing it down into the werewolf's leg.

 

***

 

     Tersha felt the terrible pain as the werewolf blinded her. Then she felt the pressure in her eye sockets leave as the hand abruptly withdrew. She sprang then for the werewolf. Tersha was nearly insane with the pain but she meant to kill that wolf and using her nose she went for his face. She felt something beneath her stomach as her jaws snapped shut on the king’s throat. Locking her jaws in a death grip she never even felt it when he jammed his fingers once more into her eye sockets.

 

***

 

     Nessa was stunned when Tersha accidentally struck her while attacking the werewolf. Moments later she came to her senses and crawled from beneath the torlag. She stood transfixed in horror as she beheld the scene that met her eyes. The werewolf king was dead. Tersha had bitten so hard that she had nearly decapitated him. Tersha had also died. A claw had penetrated her brain killing her instantly.

     She threw back her head and screamed a piercing cry of shock and loss. Great tears spilled down her cheeks in a torrent of misery.

     Damia appeared beside her and saw what had happened. She disappeared a moment later. Seconds after that Nessa, Tersha and the werewolf were all teleported inside the circle of allies fighting at the field.

     The fighting stopped instantly when they arrived as the werewolves sensed the presence of their king and backed off in some confusion.

     Nessa was in shock and said nothing to anyone. She knelt beside her friend and sister Tersha and wept. Versha, Ziona, and John joined her there. Versha mourned the loss of her child even as Nessa wept.

     The body of the king of the werewolves was lifted invisibly into the air and floated above the allies where it disappeared into the darkness. Soon a great howling could be heard and fighting erupted out in the darkness as the body of the king was discovered. Gradually the howling moved away to the north as the werewolves returned to their lands to fight out the leadership of their people.

 

 


 

Chapter 66.

 

     The companions moved to stand beside the grieving woman. Ziona and John both embraced Nessa. Ziona tried to console her but had no luck in that endeavor.

     A few minutes later the ancient ritual began. The torlags who had been bitten came forward to preserve their race and surrender their lives. Nessarose snapped out of it then. She stood as the first torlag was about to yield her life to the jaws of her family. It was Versha.

     "No!" she screamed coming out of the paralyzing numbness that she had felt. Then she added, "Hold, I say!"

     The assembled torlags paused out of respect for who she was and what she had done for their race but they would not hesitate long. Nessa opened the packs that she had made for Tersha. She pulled forth many bottles of the strange potions that the two had found. Versha had insisted she would carry them as they were quite heavy.

     She could not explain how she knew, but Nessa knew the strange potions they had found might stave off the need for the slaughter she sensed coming. "We found these potions in the caves of the werewolves. These might help!"

     Walking over to the potions Fawnn read the elven inscriptions on the bottles. They were potions of Cure Lycanthropy. An excited murmur erupted among the assembled allies.

     "Can this be?" questioned one old torlag who'd always heard there was no cure.

     "It is true,” Damia replied softly, and then added, "It would seem that the girls found that which the werewolves guard. The chests that yield those potions." She added that for the potions to work they must be taken before the rise of the sun. They were distributed to those that had need of them. Two of the potions remained.

     That the potions worked was proven when the bite wounds miraculously healed  within moments of drinking them.

 

***

 

     Nessarose stood and faced the torlag people who had gathered in their hundreds to pay tribute to Tersha. Looking at the assembled torlags she felt a great pang of loss once more. She said, "It was the wish of my friend and sister Tersha that I speak to her people if she should die. It was her wish that I speak with you of her last days."

     Nessa had planned to give an oral representation of those days, but when the time came, without conscious thought she reverted to the way she used to speak to Tersha. When she began the assembled allies saw the visions of Tersha fighting courageously to hold off the werewolves and give Nessa time to kill. They saw her fearlessly defend Nessa in times of danger. They heard the sounds of battle and smelled the foul stench of the werewolf blood as it spilled. Then they saw Tersha counseling Nessa when she was in doubt. They saw her guarding her sister as she slept. They saw Tersha running not at her swiftest pace, but at what was to her a leisurely pace as the werewolves closed on her and Nessa. They saw that and understood that she had nobly chosen to stand with her friend.

     They saw her with a broken leg still attack the king and do him grievous injury. They witnessed her maiming as the king blinded her. Then they saw her, blinded and in terrible pain, still defend her friend and attack the king. They saw his death and hers. They mourned the passing of a great torlag hero.

     She was finished. With her promise to Tersha honored, she knelt beside the body of her sister. Tears streamed down her face as she reverently removed the Silver Chainmail armor and claws from her sister and handed the items to Versha for safekeeping. "It was Tersha's wish that her armor and the weapons be given to you, to safeguard for a time of future need for your people."

     Bowing Versha accepted the gift and thanked her for giving them the vision of Tersha's last days. Then she said, "And now we must take her to the Shaman's to be resurrected."

     Stunned by that revelation, Nessa said, "You mean you can resurrect her?"

     Damia spoke then, "Not in the sense that you are thinking Nessa but yes, she will live again but this time as a cub, to live out her lifespan as she should."

     "You mean it wasn't her destiny to die now?" asked an incredulous Nessa.

     "I mean it is her destiny to be reborn after the werewolf war,” responded Damia.

     Nessarose rejoiced. Her friend would live again!

     Versha did something then that torlags seldom did. She resorted to humor when she said to Nessa, "I wouldn't be so happy about this if I were you. Cubs get into all sorts of mischief, and you my dear are going to be my baby sitter."

     Laughing at that Nessa knelt on the ground and hugged the torlag. Then her eyes teared up and with her voice almost choked off by the emotion she said,  "I wouldn't have it any other way. I Love Tersha."

     Her own voice a bit emotional Versha responded, "I know you do dear, and she loves you. Even now I hear her spirit clamoring to speak to you."

 

 


 

Chapter 67.

 

     Damia walked into the room where her father Ogrimar was sitting. "It is done father,” she said without preamble.

     "Greetings to you my daughter,” Ogrimar said warmly to her. "The secret is safe?" he asked.

     "Aye father that it is,” Damia acknowledged. "The torlags won't tell because they are too ashamed of it. The werewolves are too brutal to be interested in the telling of the secret."

     "That's good. The people of Sic Dalar should not learn that once the torlags and werewolves were one species. That knowledge would cause hatred to grow for the torlag race. An unfair hatred considering the torlags rejected the dark and malignant path the werewolves eventually went down, and sought to follow another path, one that would lead them to be a benefit to all."

     "I agree father, but if the werewolves had succeeded in their plans to capture female torlags and force them to breed with them, the resulting offspring would have had the torlag's fearsome abilities but still dominated by the vile manners of the werewolf."

     "Aye, daughter. Imagine a werewolf able to influence emotions with the empathy the torlags posses. They could simply use those empathic powers to cause their victims to lay down their arms and not even fight as they slaughtered them. Magnify that to an army of such talented werewolves and you can see how they would soon overrun all of Sic Dalar."

     "Yes father, but the torlags once again rejected the forced union the werewolves would have accomplished by conquering them."

     "Was Brimstone difficult about the matter? I know by his very nature he would have wanted to slay the attacking werewolves and prevent the loss of life among the allies."

     "That was difficult aye, but I explained that he would cause damage to the thread of destiny and he yielded to my counsel."

     "You did not weaken and tell him the secret?"

     Lifting her chin, Damia looked steadily at her father and said, "You dare think I would weaken? Nay, father. I understood the danger in revealing the secret to anyone lest that secret be discovered through the use of mental probes."  

     "Aye and many priests have that talent."

     "Fortunately, the werewolves cannot mount another attack on the torlags anytime soon. They lost hundreds in the war and many are still dying as they fight among themselves to see who will be the new king. They have their answer now and know the torlags still reject a union with them. Their races will not again merge. At least not in the near future."

 

                                         

 

Thus Ends Book 3.