Adventure Books by Ricky Sides & Kathy Young

Adventures in reading.

Brimstone Book 4

 

 

Brimstone

And the Companions of Althea.

Book Four.


 

 

γ  Copyright 2006, by Ricky Sides and Kathy Young


 

 

 

                                                      Synopsis

 

     The problems that Brimstone and the Companions face seem insurmountable.

 

  1. Pig Killa uncovers a plot to resurrect Dalghard. All that is needed is a thimble of Brimstone’s blood.
  2. The Gargoyles of Sic Dalar are discovered and the companions must deal with that problem for their queen is the sister of the queen that Ziona, Fawnn and Mystyka had slain and she thirsts for their blood.
  3. Tarn and his lieutenant are sold into slavery aboard a ship captained by an inhumanly cruel man after they lose a battle with Zadykiel the archmage.

 

     These challenges and more force the companions to work together as they never have in the past. Their company is severely tested at every turn.


 

 

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. 

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

     All seemed perfect in Paradise Cove until the first hunter was found torn to pieces. A large search party was sent out to learn what they could and the mystery deepened when some of them were also slaughtered, but when a large group of Paradise Cove guards was found slaughtered on the outskirts of the city Ziona had had enough. She called in Brimstone and the companions to ferret out the mystery deaths which were plaguing the city. During the process of that investigation, the inhabitants of the city learned that an invasion is imminent. The Bre, an ancient menace from the sea, were about to invade the peaceful city of Paradise Cove. Unless Brimstone and the companions could muster an army to fight this menace the people of Paradise Cove were doomed to horrible deaths.

     But Damia the goddess of neutrality had taken an interest. She created a new order known as the Gryphon Knights who would fight to defend the weak and innocent of Sic Dalar. The companions, the newly formed Gryphon Knights and the torlags combat the menace from the sea. But on the third night of the Bre war the city of Paradise Cove is overrun by the Bre. Damia, who had been transmitting torlag images of the war to the people of Althea opened a portal so that volunteers could come to the aide of the besieged city. From Stoneheim and Stonecrest the volunteers came to reinforce the defenders of the city. Together the people of Althea fight to save the newly constructed city of Paradise Cove.

 


 

                                                              Preface.

 

     This segment of Brimstone is dedicated to the memory of Pig Killa. Both Kittie and I wish to express our deep sorrow at young Australian man’s demise. We further wish to once again extend our condolences to his family and also to those special to him ingame.

     It should be acknowledged that Pig Killa's encouragement did much to keep this series of tales going from its infancy to this day. He was one of the early volunteers to permit us to use his character in the series. The name Pig Killa appears thirty-two times throughout this series prior to this posting. He had a critical role in many of the various battles. 

     This segment will profile him in the lead role. I'm afraid it won't do him Justice. He was that great an individual. But it is said by some that tales can be a lasting tribute to the person about whom they are written. It is our wish to try to create something in Pig Killa's honor that will be relevant to readers in the future. In that small way perhaps the greatness of the man will be felt by readers who never met him and his memory will become as timeless as his sense of humor, honor and compassion.

 

                               *Raises a glass of wine in a toast to Pig Killa*

 

***


 

Chapter 1.

 

     The tavern was dimly lit. A great fireplace in the center of the north wall provided the majority of the lighting in the room. Near that fireplace there was ample light, but away from it at the tables near the south wall the lighting was so dim that one could barely see what he was eating. Pig Killa thought that it was probably best that he couldn't see the food. If he could see it then he might not eat it and he was hungry.

     Eating the bland food slowly he unobtrusively studied the other patrons of the tavern, the majority of whom were minotaurs. The few humans in the tavern seemed drawn to the darker south wall area of the tavern where they tried to remain inconspicuous. The minotaurs tolerated their presence, but made no pretenses about their opinion of humanity. They regarded the humans as inferior beings.

     As he ate Pig Killa noted the meeting taking place several tables to the left. Several men sat in hooded cloaks and spoke in hushed tones. Beside their table stood four minotaur guards stationed there to ensure that they were not disturbed.

     Pig Killa thought it odd that the humans had minotaur guards. The minotaur race was generally reluctant to work for humans, but this was Ethia and the minotaurs who needed the merchandise provided by those merchants tolerated a few human merchants.

     He was in Ethia because Ogrimar had sent him there. The God hadn't told him why he wanted him to go to the homeland of the minotaurs. He hadn't told him anything beyond these cryptic words, "It is my wish that you travel to Ethia. Once there, you will seek out a tavern in that wretched village they call a city. In that tavern men meet to discuss business. You will be there to observe only. You will know when you have learned that which interests me. Once you have learned it you will board ship at once and return to Stoneheim. There you will seek out Mordenthal and give a verbal report to him in a face to face meeting. Do not send any messages. Those would be intercepted by a powerful group on that isle."

     That had been two weeks ago. Pig Killa had dutifully followed the will of his deity. This was his second night of lounging in the tavern. So far he'd seen nothing of interest beyond an occasional disagreement between humans and the minotaurs which generally ended with several minotaurs in the service of their king escorting the angry minotaur away from the vicinity. The king wanted trade with other isles. He was interested in that trade primarily because of the information that could be obtained from the merchants. To that end he offered protection to the humans while they were in this trade city of the minotaurs.

     Most of the tables and chairs in the tavern were large as they had been designed for the much larger minotaurs. Those tables came up to the neck of most humans and the chairs were so high that a man's feet couldn't touch the floor. But the tavern owner had made accommodations for the smaller human customers. There were several smaller tables and chairs in the room along the south wall. Whether by accident or intention the tavern owner had segregated his tavern. This made Pig Killa's task easier. Instead of having to monitor the entire room he need only watch the human area, a relatively small space. He concentrated on the humans because Ogrimar had stressed the words, "men meet" when giving him his instructions.

     He sipped his goblet of bad wine and watched as the men at the table talked quietly. Fifteen minutes into the meeting he learned that which he had been sent to learn. Without seeming the least interested in their discussion he managed to overhear enough to work out their plans. They were plotting to bring the god Dalghard back to life. They only needed three ingredients for an arcane ritualistic spell that they were convinced would resurrect Dalghard. Those ingredients were a strand of his hair, a sample of his blood and a sample of the blood of the god's killer. The first two they already had. Dalghard had left the samples with his most trusted sect of priests prior to the final confrontation with the other gods just in case the worst happened and he was slain. The third ingredient they would obtain from Brimstone, whom they were quite aware had slain Dalghard. The rest of Althea might believe that he had been slain by the other gods but they knew different. Dalghard himself had sent the name of his killer to one of them even as he had perished. They needed only a thimble full of Brimstone's blood to work their necromantic magic. The main thing they were discussing was the means to obtain that blood. Apparently one attempt had already failed.

 

***

 

     Pig Killa had heard enough and he made up his mind to leave at once as Ogrimar had instructed. He was rising from his table when one of the men at the other table said, "Leaving so soon friend?" He had spoken in a very quiet tone of voice. But his eyes were hard and cold. Pig Killa knew that the man meant to kill him.

     Pig Killa turned away from the man to leave. One of the minotaur guards moved to stop him but the man who addressed Pig Killa shook his head and said, "Let him go in peace." Without a word the minotaur stood aside and let him walk past unmolested.

     As Pig Killa headed for the door he noticed the king's guards at a table near the bar visibly relax and return to their drinks. They had seen the brief confrontation and had been prepared to intervene. He realized why he had been permitted to walk away. But he was under no illusions as to his safety. He'd seen the hate in the eyes of the man who had spoken. He realized that as soon as possible there would be a pursuit.

     Once outside in the fresh night air he cast the spell invisible upon himself and turned immediately to the darker alleys to the left. He hid there a moment and observed the front of the tavern out of the corner of his eye as he hastily scribbled a note. The party that he'd been observing came out within seconds. They looked to the left and to the right, then once again in his direction. One of the men pointed to the right while another was staring in his direction.

     He froze in place, barely breathing as the man continued to stare. He wondered for a moment if the man could see him. If the man had used the spell true sight or detect invisible then he would be visible. Finally the man looked the other way and stepped away from the door. Pig Killa watched until he had disappeared around a corner of the tavern then he finished the hastily written note and thrust it into a secret pocket of his cloak. He renewed the invisibility spell and then walked rapidly toward the dock and the ship that waited there to take him back to Stoneheim.

 


 

Chapter 2.

 

     Halfway to the dock he encountered the group searching for him. They were standing in the road waiting. He paused a moment to decide what to do. He was afraid to get too close to them for fear that one of the minotaurs might smell him for their race has an excellent sense of smell. Licking a finger he held it up into the air to test the wind. It was no good. His scent would definitely carry to the enemy and betray his presence before he could slip through their lines.

     He had made his way around them and almost succeeded in getting past them undetected when a large rat sensed his presence and decided to attack him. Reacting instinctively to the attack he killed the rat. Immediately he became visible and the searchers spotted him.

     He darted past them and ran at full speed toward the dock resisting the urge to kill some of them before fleeing. Ogrimar had been specific. He wasn't to do anything but return and submit his report. Ogrimar wasn't one to cross. Therefore when on a mission for him one followed the instructions to the letter if he regarded his health as an asset.

     There were four men and four minotaurs in the party chasing him. That was high odds against him so Pig Killa ran until one of the men fired the spell entangle at him. The spell stopped him dead in his track. Heart pounding in the excitement Pig Killa heard the sound of his pursuer's running feet.

     Spinning to face the approaching enemy Pig Killa let loose a barrage of meteor. Four times he hit the man who was entangling him. On the fourth hit of his attack spell the man died.

     The four minotaurs charged him en mass. Pig Killa stood his ground for a moment and fired his meteor spell several more times. The spell had a lesser affect on the minotaurs than it had the man, but he could tell that they were greatly injured when he turned once more to flee.

     Pig Killa was increasing the gap between himself and the enemy when once more he was stopped by the spell entangle. Pig Killa was getting mad now. Forsaking spells he used his bow this time. In rapid succession three arrows struck the spell casting enemy. The third arrow killed him, but the minotaurs were now all around him.

     There was no time to think. Instinctively he fired one more arrow into the face of the closest minotaur then he cast his fire spells again and again. Spotting an opening in the closing circle he darted out and sprinted for the ship that he knew must be very near.

     He was twenty yards ahead of the minotaurs and thirty yards ahead of the two remaining men in pursuit when a thrown war club struck him. The club hit the back of his head in a glancing blow. He knew that he was hurt but not too badly. The confusion that it caused his mind was of much greater significance than the injury itself.

     A now injured Pig Killa looked down the street he was traveling and saw several more minotaurs. He feared they were there to reinforce his enemies. Skirting around that group he headed back into the maze of alleys that was the city proper. Thus he had turned away from the king's men and the safety that they would have guaranteed.

     Behind him he heard the relentless sound of pursuit. He stopped with his back against a wall for a moment. Seconds later another minotaur ran into view. An arrow in the throat killed that beast and once more Pig Killa ran for his life.

     He was close to the dock now and knew it. Soon he'd have to cut back onto the main road. Sprinting all out he cut across two smaller streets then burst out into the main road to the docks within sight of his ship. Onboard that ship a lookout was posted. That man saw Pig Killa running and guessed rightly that there was trouble. He rang the alarm bell calling all hands to battle stations.

 

***

 

     Pig Killa was in trouble and he knew it. His head was hurting, he was winded, and barely had the strength left to continue to run let alone fight a pitched battle. He suspected that whatever had hit him had somehow poisoned him.

     He saw his ship ahead and heard the ringing of the alarm bells. He hoped that soon he'd be able to silence those bells for they made his headache worse.

     It looked to him as if he'd make it to the ship without further hindrance. Apparently his enemies had given up the pursuit as too costly for he no longer heard their pursuit. Moments later he learned why they had stopped.

 


 

Chapter 3.

 

     As he was nearing the ship Pig Killa saw four dark shapes step out of an alley between him and the ship. He never had time to defend himself. Their attack was vicious. Two more war clubs struck him just as the two remaining human enemies launched their own attack spells. One plagued him and the other used manaburst.

     He retaliated entirely by instinct. He killed the two remaining minotaurs then one of the mages with his bow before he collapsed. As he fell the remaining man fled the scene just as the crew of the ship flooded ashore to help Pig Killa.

     The crew carried him aboard ship and tried to heal him but it was too late. Pig Killa was beyond their ability to help.

     Some of the crew swears they heard him whisper, "Ogrimar I need you." Others say they heard nothing. All say that they saw the God Ogrimar appear beside Pig Killa and look upon him with compassion. They say with trembling hand Pig Killa lifted a blood stained note to Ogrimar and began to talk to him. What he said then to his God no man could say, for no mortal heard that conversation. Yet they did hear him say, "I'm so sleepy." and they heard the God say, "Well done my good and faithful servant. Sleep now for you have earned your rest. Rest in peace, my devoted follower."

     All of them saw Ogrimar gather Pig Killa in his arms. Ogrimar warned the crew to leave Ethia at once and then he disappeared.

 


 

Chapter 4.

 

     The atmosphere in Windhowl tavern was quiet. The patrons listened to a bard who played a gentle melody on his lute as he sang a song of the bravery of an adventurer whose exploits of courage, honor, and nobility were renowned throughout the isles of Goldmoon.

     When the song was finished most of the tavern’s patrons applauded the bard for his skill and choice of that particular song, but there were two exceptions to this. The first was a man of medium build and stature who sat alone at a corner table with the hood of his traveling cloak pulled up casting his face in deep shadow. Sitting in the shadows of the corner in this manner his face was completely concealed. The other was a giant of a man who stood head and shoulders above any other patron in the tavern. He sat at a table near the bar with two friends of average and nondescript appearance.

     While the former didn't applaud he did remain politely quiet. The burly man however stood and cursed the bard for spreading lies about the legendary hero. This angered the other patrons who shouted indignant protests. The burly man slowly removed his cloak revealing bulging biceps and faced the tavern patrons.

     Seeing trouble developing the quiet man interjected. "He is quiet right you know. Brimstone did not do all those things attributed to him in the bard's song."

     The crowd in the tavern now faced him. For a moment the burly man was forgotten as they faced yet another detractor to the tales of the exploits of Brimstone. Seeing the anger in the faces of the crowd the quiet man continued, "It was William Irongrip who sealed the cave that the song spoke of and not Brimstone. Fawnn and Veksar were with him. Brimstone wasn't even there. He was on the island of Raven's Dust fighting another group of the Gargoyles with another group of friends while those three fought alone on Arakas." Pausing a moment he stared at the faces in the crowd and settled on that of the bard before continuing. "Bill was my friend. Please don't attribute his noble act of self-sacrifice to another."

     The burly man then spoke up quickly, "You see? Even this man agrees that it wasn't Brimstone who sealed that cavern." Then the burly man rounded on the cloaked traveler and continued, "But you speak lies as well. It was another man that sealed that cavern and not William Irongrip. Irongrip was a coward who'd most apt abandon his friends in battle. Aye I knew him well I did."

     The quiet man stood for the first time during the encounter. When he stood a beam of light from one of the lanterns illuminated his face. Reaching slowly to his head with both hands he pulled back his hood revealing his face to the assembled patrons. Those who knew him on sight gasped but otherwise remained silent and waited to see what was about to unfold.

     He removed his traveling cloak and tossed it across his chair then he took a step toward the burly man. When he did so he stepped into the full light of the taverns chandelier. Now even more of the patrons recognized him and sat in stunned silence as Brimstone confronted the burly man. If his opponent recognized him at all he gave no indication of that fact. Instead he laughed as those patrons nearest him scrambled hastily to get out of his vicinity.

     "And the woman Fawnn that you speak of is a wench whose company is worth less than the price of a mug of ale. That she could do anything even remotely heroic is laughable,” the burly man concluded.

     Brimstone had heard enough. Faster than the eye could follow he launched himself at the burly man and hit him three times in the face in rapid succession.

     The burly man grunted as each blow landed then retaliated with several blows of his own to the Brimstone's mid section. He had every reason to expect those blows to end the fight then and there. They almost always had in the past when dealing with men of Brimstone's stature. But the man that he was fighting merely grunted once and continued to rain blow upon blow on the burly man's head.

 

     One of the burly man's companions flicked out his right hand and stabbed Brimstone underneath the forearm with an odd short bladed dagger and let go. The blade was tiny and Brimstone, occupied as he was in the battle, never felt the prick as it lodged in his arm. Moments later the blade dropped to the tavern floor and the man who had used it bent to scoop it up.

     Brimstone saw that movement out of the corner of his eye and thinking the man about to help his companion kicked him in the side of the head with his left boot knocking him to the floor unconscious. The burly man's other companion dove for the blade lying there on the floor hoping to retrieve it.

     By now Brimstone had noticed the blade himself and thought it odd that his opponent's companions should be so preoccupied with such an odd and apparently negligent weapon at a time like this. Then it was that the patrons who witnessed the conflict say that the strange necklace worn by the Brimstone shot forth a burst of light at the dagger. That burst of light struck it just as the man's hand locked around the handle. Instantly the dagger turned to stone. The man who held it stared in horror as his hand that griped the blade also began to change to stone which spread rapidly up his arm.

     Seeing this Brimstone broke away from the burly man and drew his sword. In a move that was faster than the eye could follow he sliced through the air with the blade and severed the man's arm from his body just below the elbow causing a huge gush of blood to spray the tavern floor. The severed limb landed with a heavy thud on the floor and the transformation continued until the entire severed limb had turned to stone within moments. Another flash of light erupted from his necklace and the man's severed arm was instantly healed and he collapsed unconscious.

     Flicking the blood from his blade with a quick whirl and snap of his wrist Brimstone sheathed it, and then turned his attention once more to the burly man who stood with a stunned expression of shock and disbelief on his face. He was shocked by the speed with which Brimstone had reacted and stunned by the power and skill of the man's sword arm.

     "Fawnn is also my friend. Make no mistake there. I'll not be taking your insults of her lightly. As to what you said about Bill, I don't think you ever met him. If you had, you'd know that he was no coward." Brimstone leapt again to the attack and pummeled the burly man again about the face.

     The burly man gave as well as he received, but Brimstone seemed oblivious to the pain that he knew he had to be inflicting.

     Finally breaking away from Brimstone he snarled, "You think that you have beaten us, but you are nothing. Your friend Pig Killa put up a better fight."

     Red hot anger surged through Brimstone at the mention of his friend. "What do you know of him? What do you know of his last fight?" he asked in a menacing tone.

     Smiling, thinking that he had finally hurt Brimstone the Burly man laughed and replied, "I know that he fought like a child and cried like a babe when he was defeated." He then attacked Brimstone again, hoping that his taunts would have Brimstone momentarily off guard or make him grow careless.

     Brimstone was anything but distracted.

     When the burly man had insulted Bill's memory Brimstone had grown angry and decided to teach him a lesson by giving him a sound beating. When he had insulted Fawnn, Brimstone had begun to administer that beating. But when he insulted the memory of Pig Killa Brimstone had gone stone cold and calculating inside. He met the charging giant with a cold and calculating efficiency. 

     Stepping forward to meet the giant halfway he intercepted the fist aimed at his face with his right hand and torqued his body in the direction of the blow. He slammed the giant to the floor much as he had once done the man who would one day become the head of the Order of the Gryphon Knights, Eric Glenfield. But that was where the similarities ended. He immediately followed up on the advantage and kicked the burly man under the chin as he tried to get up.

     Blood flew from the giant’s mouth as the kick caused his teeth to slam shut on his lower lip. With a snarl of rage, the giant attempted to get to his feet. Stepping toward the man who was now on his knees, Brimstone blocked a wild punch with his leg and closed with him. Placing one finger against the man's shoulder, he pressed hard on a group of nerves found there causing instant and severe pain.

     So acute was the pain that the giant thought that Brimstone had stabbed him in the shoulder and he found that he could not move the arm associated with that shoulder at all. He drew back his other hand to throw a punch and Brimstone caught that fist in midair with his free hand. It was as if he had tried to punch a mountain. The giant could not punch through that hand. Not only could he not punch through it, he soon found that now his hand was trapped and he could not free it.

     Sweat popped out on the giant's forehead as he pitted his strength against Brimstone's. To make matters worse Brimstone was smiling at him. Then he felt a pressure building on his trapped hand. Mild at first that pressure increased, and then it increased again, and again. Soon the pressure was unbearable and he gasped in pain.

     Brimstone relaxed the pressure on the trapped hand, but did not free it. Maintaining control on the giant he spoke, "Now you are going to tell me who sent you. Why you were sent, and exactly what you want from me."

      The giant of a man hawked up spittle and spat toward Brimstone's face. The spittle struck Brimstone's tunic on the shoulder as he shifted his upper body to the left to keep it from striking him in the face. In a diseased looking yellowish glob the spittle began to slide down the front of the tunic. Brimstone smiled and said, "That will cost you a bone."

     The giant wondered what that meant then felt the pressure on his trapped fist resume. Moments later he heard a snapping sound and realized that Brimstone had broken a bone in his hand. "Who sent you?" Brimstone demanded.

     "I don't know,” the giant answered angrily the pain in his hand now unendurable. The pressure increased again and another bone snapped. "I don't know! It was a man wearing a hooded robe in a darkened alley. I couldn't see him. He gave me a lot of gold to come with the others to this city and wait for you." Realizing that he had said too much the giant snapped his mouth closed and blood oozed from his injured lower lip.

     "Where were you when this man hired you?" asked Brimstone.

     Shaking his head in refusal the giant said, "You can break every bone in my hand and I'll not answer that question. The cost of answering that would be my life!"

     "The cost of not answering it might be worse,” Brimstone replied.

     He pulled his left index finger out of the man's shoulder and held it near his face. The giant stared at the finger confused at first and then he blinked as a tiny flame erupted from the fingertip. He felt the heat from that flame and blanched visibly.

 


 

Chapter 5.

 

     "Alright let's try this again. What were you supposed to do to me? Why did your friend stab my arm with that odd dagger?"

     The burly man was a brave man. He'd fought many men in the past and won almost every fight. Those fights he lost he took in stride as a man does when he has met his match, but he had never encountered a man the likes of Brimstone. Here was a superb swordsman, he'd already seen that and knew that if for nothing else the man could be famed for his swordplay. Yet he was also superb at hand to hand combat. He had the aches and pains to confirm that. He was also a magic user devoted to fire. If his fire magic was as potent as his sword and unarmed combat skills, the man knew that he had no hope of defeating him. He'd already proven that he was willing to maim a man to get the answers that he sought. With all of those considerations in mind the man spoke.

     "While I fought you the others were to obtain a sample of your blood with yon lil blood drinker. That's all I was paid to do. Fight you. Give them the opportunity to get the blood then leave. I can't tell you who hired me because I do not know who hired me. As to why they wanted the blood I didn't ask because I didn't care. It looked like an easy way to earn a lot of gold. They were to get the blood. I guess how the employer got the blood from the dagger was his problem. Now either use that fire or put it away if you please."

     The man wasn't a coward, but he was smart enough to know when there was no way that he could win. Brimstone knew the man spoke the truth. He was not at all surprised when the stone of light confirmed it speaking in his mind, "He speaks the truth. Now back away from this dark path Brimstone. Slay your enemy if you must but do not resort to torture. I'll not abide anymore of that nor another similar episode in the future."

     "Two more questions. Answer them and you are free to leave,” Brimstone said with a sober expression on his face. The words of the stone of light had stung him because he knew that the stone was right. What he was doing was despicable, but the fate of all Althea hung in the balance. "What do you know of Pig Killa and where can I find your employer?"

     The burly man hesitated before speaking and pondered his potential fate if he answered. Ultimately he was in more danger from Brimstone than from his employer at the moment. Once away from Brimstone he need only avoid his employer and his henchmen. Not an easy prospect, but Brimstone was here now and that fact must be dealt with. Besides he had a feeling that Brimstone just might put an end to that employer problem for him. "Ethia. Seek him on Ethia,” was his reply.

     "And Pig Killa?" asked Brimstone.

     "I know only that which I have heard those two say." With a nod of his head he indicated his two henchmen. "I heard them speaking quietly one night when they thought me asleep. Pig Killa fought with our employer and lost. From what they said he must have killed many of my employer's men. In truth that is all that I know. I said the rest to anger you and make you grow careless, but you don't grow careless do you.?"

     Ignoring the man's comment Brimstone extinguished the flame emanating from his index finger and released the man's hand. "Leave now. If I ever see you again I will assume that you have returned to finish this conflict with me." He left the consequences of that meeting unsaid. There was no need to specify that matter. All present knew what he meant. If those two ever met again Brimstone would kill the burly man. None present knew this better than the burly man himself.

     "Truth be told, if I never see you again I'll be dying a happy man,” the burly man retorted. He climbed to his feet and hastily left the tavern leaving his companions where they lay sprawled upon the floor. They were his employer's men and no friends of his.

     As soon as the door to the tavern slammed shut the burly man's two henchmen disappeared in a flash of light. They had left the tavern too. Brimstone realized belatedly that they must have awakened toward the end of the confrontation. Now they were gone, and with them any hope of gaining more specific information as to the whereabouts of the man who had sent them.

     Brimstone retrieved his traveling cloak and put it on, and then he took the cloak that the giant had left behind and laid it on the floor beside the severed limb that still clutched the stone dagger. The stone of light confirmed that it was now safe to touch it and he picked it up and placed it at one end of the giant's cloak, then rolled it up into a bundle.

     The patrons breathed a sigh of relief then, none of them having dared venture near it for fear the spell would be transferred to them.

     Brimstone left a generous amount of gold to cover the damages, bought the tavern patrons a round of drinks and left with the bundle.

     The bard was frantically scribbling the events he’d witnessed down on a scrap piece of parchment. Already the rudimentary elements of a melody were playing in his head as he penned the last of the events. The next day he would write the lyrics. Within a week he would be singing a new song about the adventures of Brimstone. At least this one would remain accurate for a few weeks before the lyrics were changed to portray the bard as the hero who saved Brimstone from a beating. This would go on for some few months until one night in a darkened tavern the bard met a drunken burly man and had to prove that claim. No one claimed the bard’s body. He was unceremoniously buried in Lighthaven cemetery.

 


Chapter 6.

 

     From all over Althea the companions heard the call to gather for yet another adventure. They were to meet in Lighthaven as it had a port closest to their destination and the Gryphon was already docked there. All of the companions could get to Lighthaven moments after they completed preparations for the journey.

     Jedi replied that he would be there mid swing with his sword as he killed a troll on Brach Dalar.

     Lord Malachi was also on Brach Dalar in the kobold's cave seeking a new type of battle armor. He confirmed that he would be there by nightfall.

     Fawnn and Veksar, along with his brother Yane, were inside a cave on Stoneheim exploring and mapping it. They confirmed that they would be there with time to spare.

     Mystyka and Tarn were off on a quest to gather gems on the Island of Stoneheim, but Mystyka glad of a chance to take a break from that lucrative but at times boring pursuit, was only too happy to agree to come to Lighthaven for a proper adventure.

     XconX and Genkaku were between adventures and Genkaku was spending his time in the city of Stonecrest pitting his sword against all comers in mock battle to test his worth. XconX was there watching his brother's back lest someone take the competitions too seriously as has been known to happen from time to time. He also amused himself by placing wagers on his brother's prowess from time to time. They readily agreed to go along for the adventure as they were quite bored.

     In Paradise Cove Ziona and John were sitting on their porch facing the sea watching Nessarose play with the rapidly growing cub named Tersha. It was odd that Tersha had all of the memories of her former adult self but the playfulness of a cub. Nessa was just content to have her friend back. She understood when her parents informed her that they had to leave to assist the assembling companions. She looked forward to the day when she could join them in those adventures, but right now Tersha was the most important thing in her life, much to the consternation of several young men of the city. Ziona asked Versha to watch over their daughter in their absence and she readily agreed. No one would invade their home by night until they returned. Six torlag guards saw to that. Ziona and John said that they'd be there on time.

 

***

 

     The companions assembled on the deck of the Gryphon which was then paddled away from the shore by the crew with the ever efficient Captain Barnes barking orders. Brimstone wanted them well out of earshot of the city before briefing them on the mission.

     He began with the death of Pig Killa. He explained Pig Killa's mission to Ethia and what he had learned. The companions were already aware of his death but knew nothing of the circumstances surrounding that sad event. The sorrow on their faces stood mute testimony to the affection with which they had regarded their fellow adventurer.

     When pressed as to how he knew this he responded, "Ogrimar and I had a meeting not long after that mission. He felt it of vital importance that I should be made aware of what was transpiring." Sighing Brimstone continued, "It was Ogrimar's original intention to keep me unaware of what was transpiring. Damia's visions made that impossible."

     Several of the companions spoke up then asking, "What visions?"

     Holding up his hands for silence so that he could explain Brimstone continued, "Ogrimar confided in Damia that it was for the good of Althea as a whole if I wasn't informed of the plot to resurrect Dalghard because that would keep me far from the conspirators and supposedly lessen the likelihood that the blood sample could be obtained. Logic would seem to dictate that this would be the case. I even volunteered to go into temporary exile if that is what it would take to prevent that cruel God's resurrection."

     A fiery storm of protests erupted from many of the companions at this suggestion. Once more Brimstone motioned for silence so that he could continue, "Better my exile from all than that resurrection which could cause the death and misery of untold thousands, but such was not to be. Again the visions dictated otherwise."

     "Once more logic is defeated by this situation, and the logical answer is the wrong answer, for Damia has seen several potential futures. Those included my exile, my attempting to let the companions go alone to confront this threat, a great army being formed to deal with it and simply doing nothing but secluding myself in some out of the way fortress and seeing no one but trusted companions which is pretty much the same as exile. Yet in all of those instances the enemy succeeds in gaining the blood sample needed to resurrect Dalghard. Much to Damia's disgust the only plan that she saw work was the plan I am about to outline. Therefore contrary to all logic I must confront this menace where it is based."

     "In her vision I fought a team of men sent by the enemy. The largest of those men would give a clue as to where I must go." Brimstone then spoke of the confrontation that took place in the tavern in the city of Windhowl. Veksar visibly reddened when he spoke of the insult to Fawnn.

    For her part Fawnn was furious at the slander aimed at poor Bill who had been entombed in rock to save the people of Arakas. He related everything, leaving out nothing and making no excuses for his use of torture to obtain the information.

     Several of the companions looked uncomfortable at that admission on his part, but Mystyka responded with a different outlook on the situation. She stepped forward and spoke as though speaking for the entire assembled group of companions when she said, "I know what that action must have cost a man such as you. I honor you for your sacrifice for the common good of Goldmoon for it is written that a hero is willing to sacrifice himself if needed for the good of the people. What larger sacrifice could you offer than your own good opinion of yourself and your reputation? Smell I self-loathing in the air this day sir? I suggest no pride in the action that you had to take, but I recommend rather satisfaction in that you were more than man enough to make the sacrifice." That said, she executed a profoundly elegant curtsey.

     Brimstone bowed formally in return and smiled his appreciation. Mystyka smiled smugly when Damia whispered in her mind, "I thank you for that friend, for the act did indeed disturb my beloved more than he will admit."

     Smiling at Brimstone Mystyka replied to Damia, "It seemed to me that he needed the cobwebs cleared out of his mind before we embark, and he did what he had to do for the greater good."

     XconX spoke up then and asked, "So what is the plan?"

     "We travel to Ethia and dock there. We may as well be open about our presence because there is no way to land a ship anywhere else on the shore of Ethia. We spend the night in town like normal visitors would. The next morning we make a big deal of needing supplies and local maps for the caves. We imply to the public that we are there to explore the caves of Ethia with the king's permission,” Brimstone concluded.

     "Will he give that permission?" asked Ziona.

     Smiling Brimstone nodded and said, "We have permission to explore aye, and remove what ever treasure that we might find. Of course that permission came at the price of many millions in gold to be paid strictly to the king you understand."

     "Bah a corrupt monarch,” complained Lord Malachi.

     "Is there any other kind?" asked Jedi with laugher.

     "What is the point of searching caves Brimstone? Do you suspect the enemy to be located in a cave?" asked John.

     Shaking his head Brimstone said, "No the enemy is in the city that much I know. But he has concealed the blood and hair of Dalghard in a cave. Now consider this. What is to keep our enemy from simply waiting for a better opportunity? He could wait us out and plan a strike when we are not prepared so my friends we will force him to move on our timetable by letting it be known that we seek treasure in caves. He will be afraid that we might find Dalghard's blood and hair and send his men to deal with us, or better yet come himself. Hopefully we will be able to locate those items and destroy them, thus ensuring victory in this crisis."

     "What is to keep him from waiting to see if we are even hunting in the right cave?" asked Genkaku.

     "Oh didn't I mention that? No matter. You see I know where the right cave is located. Even though Dalghard is dead the other Gods can sense a part of his power in those items. Damia told me where to search,” Brimstone said innocently.

     "Brimstone,” said the normally quiet Tarn.

     "Yes my friend?"

     "You might have mentioned that earlier in this conversation."

     Great guffaws of laughter greeted that suggestion and soon Tarn and Brimstone were laughing along with the rest of the companions.

     Finally Brimstone interrupted them saying, "Captain Barnes tells me that it is about a three day trip under good conditions, but he has brought aboard foul weather gear. He swears that the seas are in for a blow."

     This sobered the group instantly. Few had actually ever experienced a blow at sea themselves, but most had heard of those savage wind storms that can come on the normally placid high seas of Althea. They were rare, thank the gods, but they did happen. Captain Barnes was a fourth generation man of the sea. His father before him had also possessed the ability to know when a blow was coming.

     He had warned Brimstone at the outset that a blow was coming and that it might delay their arrival at port in Ethia. He had laughed when Brimstone had suggested that they delay their departure until the danger of the storm had passed saying, "I know the ways of the sea. The delay is unnecessary. Some of the passengers may get a bit seasick, but I assure you that I can handle this good ship in such a storm. I've handled worse ships in them several times. With this ship it will be quite easy."


Chapter 7.

              

     So it was that two nights later Brimstone found himself on deck at his customary place in the bow of the ship observing firsthand what a blow was like. He had already seen more than enough to know that Captain Barnes was quite insane when it came to storms. He seemed to be enjoying the challenge immensely. It was a challenge to his skill and the man treated it almost as if it were a game. They were running with the wind at their port quarterdeck with just enough sail exposed to give the captain the control that he desired. Captain Barnes would hold his course with the wind off the Port quarterdeck for a while then gybe the ship so that the wind would come from the starboard quarterdeck for approximately the same length of time.

     Brimstone being a novice to the ways of setting courses on the sea had once asked Captain Barnes why this was necessary. The Captain had taken a small model ship from his storage chest and set it upon a tabletop. The model ship was equipped with a small sail scaled to fit it. The Captain placed his finger on the starboard side of the model and pressed it against the sail. As he did so the small model moved forward but it also moved somewhat to the left. "As you can see Brimstone with the wind off our quarterdeck the ship moves forward but also to port. Essentially the wind is driving us forward, but at the same time driving us off course to the port side. To compensate for this we must gybe over, or bring the wind to bear off the opposite quarterdeck. This enables us to maintain a moderately steady course. No sailing ship can travel a true dead on course. They weave back and forth always returning to their desired course."

     He demonstrated this by drawing a line on the tabletop with a piece of chalk and pressing his finger against the sail from first one quarterdeck direction and then the other. The model ship would proceed along that line but it required constant change to maintain the desired course. "But why not simply run with the wind at our backs?" Brimstone asked.

     "Every man of the sea has asked that of the experienced seamen at one time or another Brimstone. The answer is that with the wind aft of us we run the very real risk of the sail gybing at any moment unless we have near perfect seas."

     Seeing the confused expression on his face Captain Barnes had smiled and demonstrated once more with the model. As he did so he described what he was doing. "Let's say the wind is aft of us and we are riding up a wave." He tilted the small ship’s bow upward to demonstrate. "Now the wind gybes our sail causing the ship to heel over on its side while pushing it back down the wave on its side." He then tilted the ship on its side at a perilous angle. With his free hand he simulated a wave crashing into the bottom of the tilted ship and rolled it upside down. "This is what happens,” he finished soberly.

     That had been enough to convince Brimstone that he had been very lucky to have Ziona aboard when he had first acquired the Gryphon.

 

***

 

     Brimstone watched as their ship started up a steep wave and noted the casual manner which Captain Barnes handled the rough seas with an impish grin on his face. He could tell that the captain was having quite a good time. Such was the confidence that the captain exuded that he inspired his men, who were not having as much fun as he was, to at least confidence that the ship was not in dire peril.

     Salt spray filled the air as the Gryphon crested the wave and started down the back side. Off in the distance he saw several spots of fluorescent foam whipped up by the wind. It was quite a ride. Hours later when they had at last sailed out of the storm Brimstone went to the cabin to check on the companions most of whom had not enjoyed the wild ride in the least.

 


 

Chapter 8.

 

     The Gryphon docked at the one port of Ethia without incident. In a private conversation with Captain Barnes, Brimstone had warned him to maintain a careful vigil and be prepared to leave port at a moment’s notice as he had some serious enemies here. The captain assured him that he would see to it that the ship was well guarded. He requested the right to use some of the ships treasury to take care of that detail. Brimstone assured him that he always had tacit permission to do that sort of thing. Captain Barnes then headed out to see to that detail himself. He'd been in ports before with hostile people about and knew just how to go about dealing with the potential troublemakers who might wish to board his ship.

     Whistling a sailor's ditty he headed at once to the Harbor Master's office. Once there he proved his good friendship to the Harbor Master by repaying the loan that he owed the minotaur whom he'd never seen in his life. The Harbor Master being too courteous to embarrass the good captain by pointing out this error took that gold as such high minded individuals are apt to do, then asked, "Now my good friend is there anything that I can do for you while you are in port?"

     "Why yes friend as a matter-of-fact there is. You see this fellow in town is angry with me over some affair with his sister. I am quiet innocent of course."

     "I hope not,” replied the minotaur with rough good humor.

     "Well maybe not totally innocent you see, but he has many friends and I fear he may board my poor ship you see."

     Laughing uproariously at this the minotaur said, "Say no more friend. Guards will be stationed on shore near your ship."

     "Ahh thank you, kind sir. On shore you say?"

     "Surely you have not been so bold as to expect him to come at you from the sea!" exclaimed the minotaur wide eyed.

     Casting his eyes down at the floor Captain Barnes replied, "Alas I'm afraid I am ever the bold one."

     "Then more of my guards will patrol the waters of the port at night and keep an eye out by day. Pray do tell me that you have not been so bold as to fear your enemy will come at you from the water beneath your ship or the air above it, for in that case I shall have no recourse but to station guards aboard your ship to preserve the peace."

     Grinning the captain replied, "I have the good fortune not to be that bold, kind sir." Winking and whistling the captain walked away to rejoin his crew on the Gryphon now content that the Harbor Master's men would safeguard their ship. Naturally he would post his own guards, but the minotaur's guards would form an outer screen of protection to augment his own men. And his men would also be warned not to trust the guards to do their work for them.

 

***

 

     Brimstone and the companions walked leisurely up the streets of the minotaur city. To the casual observer they wouldn't have appeared to have a care in the world, but these were all seasoned adventurers. There was actually nothing in the least casual about the way that they proceeded through the town. They were now following the plan that they had agreed upon in advance. As they made their way through town the companions were all memorizing the details of the city such as how many streets they passed on the way and where defensible positions might be if they had to fight a running battle back to the ship and were forced to stop.

     Soon they reached the tavern and Brimstone felt a pang of sorrow when he stepped through the door as he realized that this was where his friend Pig Killa had spent his last hours before fleeing for his ship with the information that he had learned. Shaking his head as if to shake the melancholy from his spirit Brimstone concentrated on the matters at hand.

     They secured rooms for all and then ordered their evening meal as it was late in the day. They took their meal on the human side of the tavern of course making note that very few humans were in the tavern this evening. Their meal was as bland and tasteless as any of them had ever encountered, but it was filling and no doubt nourishing.

     There were no incidents during their meal, nor were there any as they checked their rooms with careful deliberation. On Lord Malachi's advice they moved the beds which were in front of windows in two of the rooms. No sense risking an arrow in the night when it was easily avoided. They arranged a night guard which would stand watch on a rotating basis in the hall outside the rooms and retired for the night.

 

***

 

     Outside in the street a lone figure garbed in a dark hooded cloak watched as one by one the lights went out in the upper floor rooms of the inn. The mystery figure nodded its head as if in understanding then quietly melted into the night shadows.

 

***

 

     Near the dock a lone figure garbed in a dark hooded cloak carefully observed the guards disposition aboard the Gryphon and further noted the heavily armed minotaur patrols both dockside and out on the water near the ship. The mystery figure nodded its head as if in understanding then quietly melted into the night shadows and disappeared leaving an owl on a nearby rooftop wondering if it had really seen a figure there at all. The owl hooted the query of its species, "Whoooooo."

 


 

Chapter 9.

  

     The night in the tavern rooms passed uneventfully. Brimstone awoke early and checked with Captain Barnes to make sure that there were no problems at the ship. The captain assured him that all was well and wished him good hunting in his quest to find the items he sought.

     As he walked out into the hall he saw the two guards, Lord Malachi and Genkaku maintaining a vigilant guard. He was just about to greet them when a dark cloaked form appeared right beside him. Genkaku and Lord Malachi immediately rushed towards the cloaked figure but stopped when the mystery person drew the hood back from his face. It was Lord Fatman, brother to Pig Killa.

     He spoke then for the first time saying, "Good morning. Welcome to Ethia, homeland of the minotaurs protected by my Goddess Shinobi."

     Brimstone smiled in greetings and said, "Well met Lord Fatman." 

     Dispensing with the formalities Fatman said, "I am here to join your party in search for the items that you seek. I'll make no bones about it. If we encounter those responsible for my brother's death I intend to punish them as is my right by blood."

     When Fatman had first revealed his features Brimstone had felt certain that he knew what was coming. He didn't blame him in the least for wanting to avenge the loss of his brother, but he hadn't invited him because of his strong emotional ties to this endeavor. Passion driven fighting can and does lead to mistakes some of which can cost a warrior his life. Still there was no choice now but to accept him into the party. He was here on his own and would no doubt pursue the matter alone if rejected. At least as a member of the party he would have the assistance of friends readily available.

     "Sir you are most welcome to accompany us, however there is one stipulation." Nodding his acceptance Fatman stood and waited to hear that stipulation. "The mission is to acquire the blood and hair of Dalghard. All other considerations are secondary. If we encounter those responsible for what happened to your brother we deal with them. But if we acquire the items we get to the Gryphon and leave. Revenge will wait for another day. And when I say we leave I mean we all leave. That includes you. Agreed?"

     Fatman didn't like the terms. He didn't like them at all. In his mind revenge was his prime motivation. But intellectually he understood that preventing the resurrection of Dalghard must take precedence over his desire for revenge. Reluctantly he agreed saying, "Aye Brimstone and so it will be. But if it should come to pass that we must flee with the items before I have had my revenge know this. I will return. I will have my revenge. I won't be denied that. Is that answer acceptable to you?" he asked this last almost belligerently.

     "Well I don't know sir. It may be acceptable if you agree to let me come back with you. Pig Killa was my friend. I desire some revenge myself,” replied Brimstone with a sardonic smile.  

     Lord Malachi chimed in, "Hey I want in too so don't be making plans without me."  

     Genkaku added, "So do I."

     Hearing this support Fatman visibly relaxed and smiled for the first time. "Thank you. I'm sorry if I sound rude." 

     "Think nothing of it. We understand,” replied Brimstone.

     "Brimstone the guards should use truesight from now on. Had I been one of the murdering scum's minions I could have gotten to you to attempt to get your blood just now."

     "That is a very good point that you made quite effectively friend. From now on a mage will stand watch with a warrior and the warriors will be given scrolls. We certainly want to avoid every weakness in our defenses possible from here on in the course of this mission. The stakes are too high not to take every precaution."

 


 

Chapter 10.

 

     An hour later, the entire group was assembled in the common room of the tavern. They ate another nondescript meal and ordered several flasks of wine to take with them on their trip to the cave. The wine was Brimstone's idea. He wanted the party to convey the impression that they considered this a lark and would be easy targets away from the city and what protection the Minotaur King gave the visitors there.

     Several members of the group noted the two humans who left the tavern while they were waiting for their wine flasks to be brought to them.

     Next they made their way to the market. Like most markets, this one was an open air affair with the vendors hawking their wares to any potential customer who passed near. They were amazed at the amount of trade goods being sold in the city and Mystyka approached Brimstone about the possibility of purchasing some of the items in bulk for their store on Sic Dalar.

     Brimstone bespoke Captain Barnes with a mental query as to how much cargo they could take on and still have the speed they'd need if they had to leave the island in a hurry or race to outrun pursuit. The captain replied indignantly that the day his ship couldn't carry freight and still perform up to par on the sea he'd scuttle her himself. Brimstone smiled and told him to prepare to receive cargo.

     Noting the smile Mystyka asked, "Was the captain agreeable to taking on cargo?"

     He then told her of the exchange causing her to laugh. "I'll remember that the next time we send him for trade goods bound for Sic Dalar. Those trips cost the company gold. If he can haul more freight that will cut down the number of trips needed."

     Smiling Brimstone said, "Let's not load it so heavily it sinks friend."

     Thinking of that gold loss made Mystyka wince and she altered her mental calculations as to how much the ship could transport accordingly.  

    So it came to pass that the ladies sought out trade items which they felt the ladies of Sic Dalar might appreciate while the men sought out gear and items that might interest a man. They settled on what they felt could be of use in relatively short order and Mystyka negotiated the deals saving better than a million in gold on the cargo.

     She had been especially taken with the horse drawn wheat harvester that some worthy had invented and was selling with the claim that it could replace ten men in wheat harvesting. She had ordered the man's entire stock of four to be loaded aboard the Gryphon along with the other cargo. Such a labor saving device was bound to be in demand on the large agricultural fields of Sic Dalar, and for the price of one more such harvester she managed to get the man to sell her plans to the device.  

     Fatman bespoke Brimstone once and told him that they were being watched closely by two men who stood near a side street that branched off the main market street. Casually glancing in that direction Brimstone recognized the two men as the same men who’d left the tavern shortly before them. Thanking Lord Fatman for spotting the men, he asked him to maintain a careful vigil and they moved on through the market. "They are following at a distance,” reported Fatman.

     At many stops along the way the companions sought out maps and instructions to a cave said to be less than a day’s walk North West of the city. Most of the people that they inquired of stared blankly at them when they asked. They were not native to Ethia. They were just there at the behest of their merchant employers to try to sell their wares. However to a few the location that they were seeking did mean something. They would become evasive and deny knowledge of such a cave, but Brimstone knew that they were lying.

     They were at once such location when Fatman reported, "The two that follow us are now questioning the vendor we left a bit ago,”

Brimstone responded that this was good, then they were taking the bait.

 


 

Chapter 11.

 

     Brimstone was convinced now that the enemy had taken the bait. The group of companions left the market and headed out of the city for the cave they were seeking. The trip to the cave entrance passed without event, but by then everyone was exhausted and in need of rest. Fawnn recommended not entering the cave until after a rest as there might be traps laid for the unwary. Seeing the wisdom in that advice Brimstone decided it best to sleep outside the cave entry this night and then enter it the next morning.

     The countryside near the cave entrance was primarily grassy and windswept. Thus it was not the ideal spot to bed down for the night. Some suggested bedding down just inside the cave, but Brimstone didn't like that notion as they had no idea what might call that cave home. There was a small grove of perhaps twenty trees within eyesight of the cave entrance that others suggested might be a better option to spending the night in the open at the cave entrance. Brimstone had already considered that but pointed out that in the pitch dark of night it would be easy for the enemy to slip inside the cave and take the items stored there. In the end they settled down for an uncomfortable night spent there just outside the cave entrance.

     The decision was made that a campfire was called for. They'd made no pretenses about where they had been going anyway, so they might as well have a hot meal and the warmth of the fire to comfort them. A fire would also serve to discourage the wild beasts that might inhabit the area and prowl by night.

     Ziona and John both wished that they had a torlag with them. They were extremely good at scenting out animals and their excellent vision in caves was handy as well. It was surprising to them both how much they missed their association with the torlag race when they were away from their cove.

     Several of the men made numerous trips to the grove of trees and brought back a good supply of wood for the campfire, and as darkness settled over the companions they were well fed and prepared to spend the night there. Seeing one of the men about to sip from the flask of wine they'd bought at the tavern Brimstone shook his head. Frowning Jedi set aside the wine flask and Brimstone tossed him one that he had brought from Arakas. He warned everyone to pour out the wine which they had bought in town, pointing out that it  could well be drugged or poisoned.

     A moment later a sheepish Lord Malachi stood before him with a considerably depleted wine flask. "I'm sorry Brimstone but I was thirsty from carrying all that wood,” he explained. He was about to say something else when his eyes closed and he collapsed on the spot.

     The concerned members of the party gathered around Lord Malachi's now prone form. They discovered that he had been drugged and was now sleeping like a baby. The rest of the party hastily emptied their flasks of wine purchased at the tavern. Jedi grinned at the sleeping Lord Malachi and thanked Brimstone for keeping him from making the same mistake. They moved the helpless Lord Malachi into the center of camp so that he would be afforded the greatest protection should the camp be attacked. Jedi volunteered to guard him during an attack should the need arise. 

     A few hours past sunset they settled in for the night with their camp fire well fed. Brimstone instructed the guards to be sure that they had light sources available and settled down to sleep a few hours before his turn at guard duty.

 

***

 

     Brimstone's time sense told him it was three hours or so past high moon when he was awakened by something in the night. "Men and minotaurs come,” the stone of light warned. Brimstone alerted the guards that danger was approaching they began waking the rest of the companions as Brimstone got to his feet. Lord Malachi was awakened by Jedi who warned him to prepare for battle. Apparently the affects of the wine had worn off. Within five minutes all were ready for what might come.

     Now they could all hear the sound of the approaching men and minotaurs. They weren't making much of an effort to be stealthy. Apparently they thought that they had little to fear from the companions. Brimstone assumed that they most likely thought that all of his party was in the drug induced sleep of the wine. Smiling, he settled down to wait and thought of the surprise they had arranged for the enemy.

     Moments later the enemy fired the first shots of the battle when one of their archers let fly an arrow at Jedi. Thankfully the arrow didn't penetrate his armor and he laughed after yelling a warning.

     Three heartbeats after Jedi's shouted warning the approaching enemy felt the fury of the surprise that the companions had prepared for them as Ziona and Yane's arrows raked into their position. Then that unmistakable sound of both boulder and earth shattering added their carnage to the assault.

 

***

 

     The cave entrance area was dominated by the rock face of an escarpment that dominated the north western corner of Ethia. It was for the most part very steep, but Yane had found a way up that rock face to a ledge which was wide enough to accommodate several of the companions. The ledge was situated some fifty feet up the rock face. Such a position properly manned would make for a formidable offensive and defensive advantage, and the companions were quick to seize upon that advantage.

     When night had fallen they had waited for full dark and let their campfire burn low to embers. Then the selected members of the party, under the cover of darkness, had scrambled perilously up to that ledge. As soon as they had settled down upon the ledge the campfire had been built back up. Thus the light that radiated upwards cast their ledge in dark shadows by contrast and made them all but impossible to spot.

     The two archers Ziona and Yane were there and the two magic users Fawnn and Mystyka were as well. From that ledge they could heal or kill with their spells. This gave the warriors a distinct advantage because they could be healed by the mages as they fought when the enemy closed with them. The high vantage point of the healers made targeting quite easy when compared to an obscured ground level healer. This was a lesson that they had learned well during the conflict with the pirates and later during the Bre wars.  

     It would have been nice to have had Veksar up there as well. His firestorm spell would have been devastating from that vantage point, but four was a crowd up on that ledge. To even try to crowd five up there would have been out of the question, so Brimstone had elected to balance the attack and defensive elements of their surprise.

 

***

 

     During the first moments of the attack the four companions on the ledge slew fully half of the attacking force. When the mages Veksar, XconX, and Brimstone added their spells to the offensive, the battlefield quickly became a death zone for the attacking enemy.

     Then the enemy charged and Fawnn and Mystyka soon had to stop attacking the enemy and switch to healing the defenders when it was no longer possible to attack the enemy with their attack spells without hitting the defenders as well. Ziona and Yane were similarly hampered because from their position it was difficult to tell who was friend and who was foe when the melee began. They could however tell at a glance a minotaur from a man even from overhead. They concentrated their attacks on the minotaurs and gave up on trying to figure out which of the men were friend and foe.

     Fawnn and Mystyka had the same identification problem and more than once accidentally healed the wrong people, but at least their errors wouldn't kill their friends.

     Fatman was in his element now. These were the hirelings of the men who had slain his brother. For all he knew the men he was fighting had participated in that attack that had taken his brother Pig Killa from his life. Fighting as though he were a man possessed he slaughtered the enemy with wild abandon.

     Genkaku fought near Fatman and watched his back. He killed one minotaur even as the beast man raised a giant club over his head to smash it into Fatman's unprotected back. XconX shouted a warning to his brother and fired manaburst into the head of a warrior who was about to strike his brother. Genkaku turned at the shouted warning and gutted the man his brother's spells were hitting then turned to take on a minotaur that was charging him. He laughed when he saw the minotaur suddenly sprouting arrows from above.

     Veksar's meteor was slamming into a group of archers who were attempting to target the companions on the ledge. They had stayed away from the melee and remained at the outer fringes of the fight. Try as he might he could not target them. He shouted a warning to Fawnn, then realizing that she would never hear that warning over the sounds of the battle he sent her a mental warning. "I see them love,” she replied, and suddenly her earth shattering spell hit amongst those archers. "Thank you,” she sent as her withering barrage decimated the archers. Veksar's meteor spell had finally broken through and together the couple finished off the archers who were attempting to kill the defenders on the ledge.

     Jedi had his hands full. Three minotaurs had him surrounded and he was deflecting blow after blow from the group. He was doing a splendid job of defending himself, but scarcely had time to attack any of the enemy because of the need to parry so many attacks so rapidly. Then Lord Malachi was there attacking one of the minotaurs. This gave Jedi all the time that he needed to kill the other two. Together they charged a group of five humans killing and maiming with the bloodlust of berserkers.

     John and Tarn had their hands full. A group of ten minotaurs had doggedly driven them back by the shear weight of their numbers until they had been cut off from the rest of the defenders. Now they were surrounded by minotaurs. No sooner would they kill one than another appeared to take its place. It was only their superb swordsmanship that had kept them alive this long and they were being pressed now by about twenty minotaurs. Tarn cursed their luck as he battled for his life. They fought back to back against the tightening circle of the minotaurs. Both knew it was just a matter of time before one of them was either slain or grabbed by a minotaur. When that happened they would both be dead within moments.

     John heard Ziona scream a warning in his mind even as he saw a minotaur's war club descending toward his face. Suddenly he saw a shield intercept the descending blow and then Fatman was beside them. Unknown to Tarn and John, Mystyka had seen what was happening and surveyed the battlefield for help which could reach the trapped men in time. Her call to Fatman had sent needed help at that critical time. Moments later Brimstone joined that group followed by the rest. In less than two minutes the battle was over.

     The defenders were battered and bruised but otherwise unharmed. Once more their ability to fight as a team had seen them through another battle.

 

 


 

Chapter 12.

 

     As daylight was breaking over the scene of the battle the last of the corpses had been searched in the hopes of finding information which would lead them to the man or men who had sent them. Alas no evidence of that nature was discovered.

     The companions opted to enter the cave immediately. The prospect of eating in the presence of so much carnage was not a good appetizer. They settled for a quick meal inside the cave system, eaten cold of course, but these were all seasoned adventurers who were accustomed to that sort of thing.

     They fought their way past a myriad of monsters who would surely have slain lone hunters or even a lesser party of adventurers and finally after several hours they arrived at the chamber they were seeking.

     They had stopped at the end of a tunnel that lead into a large central chamber with only one way in and out. In the center of the chamber sat a simple unadorned wooden chest. Tarn made as if to step into the chamber but Brimstone stopped him. "Let Fawnn check it out first."

     Nodding her head Fawnn took a single step inside the Chamber. She cast the spell truesight but saw nothing out of the ordinary. There were no invisible monsters in the room, nor were there any hidden traps that she could see. Looking at the solid granite floor of the cavern carefully she detected no hint what-so-ever of the faint geometric lines that usually gave away the presence of  pressure traps placed in the floor of a cavern. Something was bothering her, but that something eluded her for the moment.

     Turning to Brimstone she said, "Please find me a rather heavy weight about the size of your head, preferably round so that it will roll across the floor." Brimstone backtracked down the corridor in search of something that might suffice. A few moments later Brimstone returned with a head sized rock that he had found protruding from the earthen wall of the tunnel. He'd had to do a bit of shaping to round it off in two places but it was now relatively round in shape. 

     "Thank you Brimstone, but I fear that I may need your assistance with this test as I lack the strength to perform the test myself."

     "Just tell me what you want me to do and I'll try,” Brimstone said with a laconic grin.

     Fawnn thought hard for a moment and then said, "I am missing something. I know I am. I feel it in my bones. I don't see any of the tell tale lines on the floor that usually give away the presence of pressure traps, yet and still, I sense danger. The next thing to do is test the floor with a heavy object. Please do the best that you can to roll that rock toward the chest. Get it as close to it as you can." 

     Brimstone did as she had requested and rolled the roughly round stone across the floor. He had misjudged the strength that he would need to use and the stone stopped short of the chest. When nothing happened he said, "Well Fawnn if you can detect nothing I will go and try the chest." 

     Shaking her head she said, "Brimstone there is something wrong. I know there is. I have this dread feeling but I cannot for the life of me tell you what it is that has me edgy."

     Nodding his head soberly Brimstone drew his sword and said, "Well there's only one way to find out." He started forward with every sense alert for possible danger. The rest of the companions eased out into the chamber and spread out on both sides of the tunnel entrance where they stood near the walls. 

     He had made it halfway to the chest when Fawnn finally realized what was bothering her. "Stop!" she shouted. Brimstone paused and looked back over his shoulder at Fawnn. "It's the smell Brimstone. Some creature resides here or visits regularly."

     Sniffing the air carefully he detected a faint smell of something unpleasant but nothing he could easily identify.

     "That is the smell of serpents,” Ziona informed them, and then she added, "The thing is, serpent scent is faint at best. For this much scent to be present in the absence of the serpents means one of two things. There are either a huge number that come here often or the one that does is of gigantic proportions. Beware all." 

     All of the adventurers looked around the chamber again. XconX finally spotted the round hole at the back of the chamber hidden behind a large boulder that rested on the floor of the cavern. If the size of that hole was any indication of the size of the serpent it must indeed be gigantic because a man could have easily entered the hole. 

     Fawnn spotted the hole in the ceiling soon after. It was located directly over the chest. "I see now,” she said, then continued, "The serpent waits at the hole above, probably alerted to our presence by the vibration of our activities and voices through the rock. I assume that when it sees a man at the chest it will show itself."

     Brimstone thought briefly of the best way to deal with the problem, then he told the companions to spread out along the wall of the chamber so that they would have the creature surrounded when it showed itself. He warned them to stay well clear of the floor level tunnel. If the serpent wanted to retreat he was willing to let the monstrous serpent leave. That said he made it clear that those closest to the serpent's exit should attempt to stop the creature if it should seize one of their party. He would open the chest when the rest were ready.

     Moments later all of the preparations that could be made, had been made. Brimstone strode to the chest and reached down to open it with one eye on the hole directly above his head. When the attack came it came so swiftly that he barely had the time to react. One moment the hole was empty and dark and the next moment the serpent was flying from it head first aimed directly at his face.

     Brimstone rolled to the right and leapt to his feet as the companions unleashed a barrage of attack spells and arrows at the huge snake. He smelled the creature now. The stench of it was amazing. He added his spell to the attack even as the creature sped around him twice thus encircling him in its coils. A good twenty feet long and two feet thick the serpent worked its way up Brimstone's trapped body in preparation for biting him, after which it would squeeze him to break the bones in his body so that it could swallow him whole.

     Brimstone found himself trapped within the coils of the serpent with his sword arm and indeed both arms trapped. To make matters worse the serpent was putting more and more pressure on him as it constricted its coils around his body. Brimstone struggled with all his strength to break free of the serpent and then the warriors were there to assist him.

     Fatman, Lord Malachi, Jedi, Genkaku, John, and Tarn all descended upon the serpent with a fury. Hissing loudly the serpent quickly bit and poisoned most of the warriors who had to retreat for a moment to let the mages cure them of the poison and heal them.

     The mages had been forced to cease their attack spells for fear of hitting Brimstone. The archers faced a similar dilemma. That left the fighting to the warriors at least until they could draw the great snake away from Brimstone.

     The battle raged for many minutes and finally Fatman saw the opportunity that he had been hoping would present itself. With a mighty swing he decapitated the serpent. The head dropped to the ground beside the serpent's body which went wild with spasms and thrashed about giving Brimstone who was still wrapped in its coils the worst beating he had ever received in his life as he was helplessly bashed repeatedly against the cavern floor. Finally, after what seemed an eternity to Brimstone, its coils relaxed enough that the warriors could pull him from the serpents embrace.

     Brimstone was battered, bloody and bruised from his ordeal. The stone of light healed him and the ladies taking rags wisely cleaned the blood from his now healed skin. These they tossed upon the serpent's body at Veksar's insistence and he burned them to ashes so that no one could obtain Brimstone's blood from them. Just in case.

     "A wise precaution my friend. One that I did not consider myself,” Brimstone admitted.

     "You just had your head bashed repeatedly against the floor. It's remarkable to me that you can still think at all,” returned Veksar.

     "Why didn't your necklace save you Brimstone?" asked Tarn.

     "Because the serpent was touching him?" guessed Ziona. 

     Nodding his head Brimstone said, "Yes if the enemy has physical contact with me then the spell that the stone of light uses would be transferred to me as well." 

     Brimstone walked to the chest then. Warning the others to beware lest there be another  serpent he opened the chest. Inside it he found a flask of Dalghard's blood and a lock of Dalghard's hair. Only the other Gods can destroy these items,” he said. He placed them in his pack. 

     "Wasn't this all just a bit too easy?" asked Fatman.

     Nodding his head Brimstone could do nothing but agree. He said, "The attack against us at the cave entrance could have slain us, but it didn't, still it was an all out effort. The monsters inside this cave have been formidable but we managed with relative ease. The hardest part was defeating the serpent in this room. But still something tells me that more trouble awaits."

     Thinking hard for a moment he suddenly remembered something that Damia had once said to him. He said, "I am going to try to use the spell Word of Recall with these items in my pack. I have a feeling that I can't use that spell with the items on me." He tried to use the spell but was unable to do so. 

     I was afraid that this would be the case,” he said, then continued, "Damia once told me something about the Gods. No God can be transported by means of magic to a place that they do not wish to go by another being." 

     Ziona asked, "What about the town scrolls for the Minotaur city? Will they work?"  

     The companions had all purchased the town scrolls while in the city. "It's worth a try. I'll try first, if I go then the rest of you follow me immediately." Looking around at the group before making the attempt he asked, "Does everyone still have their scrolls?"

     The companions all searched their packs and soon every member of the party held their scrolls. "Alright I'll give it a try." As soon as he used the scroll he disappeared. He sent a mental message back to Ziona, "It worked, I'm by a fountain in the city. Come at once."

     Moments later all of the companions were safely in the city beside Brimstone.


 

Chapter 13.

 

     The companions looked carefully around them to see if there were any unpleasant surprises waiting for them. They were in the heart of the city, far from the docks but this was preferable to where they had been by far. They detected no one taking any special interest in them so they held a very brief consultation and then headed out for the docks without further delay.  

     They were in an unfamiliar part of the city, but they could smell the sea and knew which direction that they should take. The mages all cast truesight. The warriors walked with their hands on the hilts of their weapons, the archers with their bows in hand. They walked at a brisk pace but did not run. 

     They were just beginning to think that they might make it to the ship unmolested when the trap was sprung.

 

***

 

     They could actually see the docks as they walked down the street. They were in a warehouse area now. On both sides of the street that they were proceeding down were huge warehouses that the minotaurs used to store grains and other items. The warehouses were so large that they covered the entire length of the street all the way down to the next intersection. They were halfway to that intersection when men and minotaurs erupted from small doors spaced along both buildings.

     Genkaku reported from the back of the line that the street behind them was now blocked. Looking toward the other end of the street the companions saw a man in a black robe standing there waiting.

     Within moments the men and minotaurs in the pay of the enemy had them surrounded. The warriors of their party all drew their weapons and faced outward in a circle holding the enemy at bay along with the archers and mages.

     The black robed man yelled out, "Let us be sensible men Brimstone. You have something of mine and I want it back. I also want a little something from you. Just a thimble full of blood will gain you and your friends safe passage. Give me what I want and I will let you all pass and board your ship in safety."

     "Turning to look at his companions Brimstone said, "Shall we give him our answer?"

     Ziona said, "Yes let's do that." and sent an arrow streaking for the man's face. One of his warriors blocked that arrow with his shield.

     The robed man shook his head as if in disappointment. "I had hoped that you would be smarter than this. So be it then." At a gesture from him, his minions who had the companions surrounded leapt to the attack.

     The companions were out numbered by about three to one odds, but their enemies were not as well trained in the arts of war as these companions that had fought and survived dozens of battles as a group. The warriors and archers wrecked havoc among the minions of the enemy, and then the mages opened up with their spells. Brimstone's fireball spell alone accounted for a dozen, while Fawnn employed earth shattering to great affect as did XconX. Mystyka used boulder and Veksar devastated any who dared approach him with his meteor spell.

     By now alarm horns were sounding all over the city and a large minotaur patrol could be seen in the streets behind them running toward their location. Looking back toward the docks Mystyka saw that the man in the robe with his personal guard had disappeared. She alerted Brimstone to that fact and the companions fought a running battle with the remnants of the attackers as they raced for the dock. 

     Ahead of them they saw the Gryphon at the dock. Ziona noted that the sailors were preparing the ship to set to sea and reported that to Brimstone who thanked her for that sharp eyed report. Captain Barnes was speaking to one of the minotaur guards on the dock and pointing in their direction. Soon those minotaurs guards at the dock opened up their ranks as the companions drew near. When the last of them had went past his men the minotaur guard commander ordered his men to reform their line. 

     Aboard ship Brimstone gave Captain Barnes the command to put to sea at once. That was unnecessary because even as he breathlessly gave the command the sailors were shoving the ship away from the dock with long poles.

     Brimstone did a quick count of the companions and discovered that they were all present and accounted for. Even Fatman was there as he had promised but he looked furious. He had been so close to the man responsible for his brother's death and that man had gotten away. He said as much to Brimstone. By way of answer Brimstone pointed his finger at a ship putting to sea behind them. It was a minotaur cargo ship and onboard the ship standing in the bow they clearly saw the black robed man whom they had encountered on the street.

     "I wonder why he didn't get a war galley,” Tarn interjected.

     "Those ships are kept strictly under the king's command and fly under Shinobi's flag,” replied Fatman.

     "Shinobi still retains the loyalty of the warships crews then?" asked Mystyka.

     "Always,” replied Fatman, and then he continued, "I doubt that the minotaurs working for the man know what he has in mind. If they did, they would turn on him. The minotaurs are loyal to Shinobi. These are just mercenaries. Minotaurs are bred to fight. They crave it. It's in their bones. If they cannot get places in the king’s service then many become mercenaries. It was such as these that we have fought. But mercenaries or not they love Shinobi and will fight for her."

     Ziona suggested, "Then perhaps we should let the minotaur crew know what is going on?"

     "Look at the crew,” suggested XconX laconically.

     She did so for a moment and then said, "Damn. The crew is almost entirely human."

     "Yes he'd want a crew he could count on not to turn against him in this venture,” Fatman observed.

     "Well what do we do, kill them now or run,” asked Mystyka.

     "We run,” said Brimstone in an authoritative voice that brooked no argument. Fatman's face grew red but he held his tongue as Brimstone continued, "Aye I could blast them now with my pillar of fire spell and slay them all. I could but I won't. We have Dalghard's blood and hair. Once we get back to Arakas, the other Gods can safely dispose of those items and the threat of his resurrection will be permanently gone. But I cannot kill men unless they are a threat. The men on yon ship are no threat to us. Notice that they are losing ground even as we speak."     

     It was true the inexperienced mercenaries were steadily falling behind the Gryphon as all could plainly see. Brimstone looked solemnly into Fatman's eyes and said, "If they close with us and become a danger then we kill them. Otherwise we run and return to avenge your brother another day as we agreed. But that punishment needn't take the lives of so many helpless men." 

     "And what of Justice for my brother!" Fatman had finally snapped. The anger that had simmered within him for so long had now reached the boiling point.

     "Your brother died in an effort to see to it that Dalghard was not resurrected. Would you dishonor his goodness, his sacrifice by asking me to become something as vile as that which he gave his life to prevent? Dalghard relished in the slaughter of men. I do not. Is your thirst for vengeance so great that you have lost sight of why your brother died and what he died fighting against?"

     Fatman began to tremble. He relived then the moment when he had first heard the news of his brother's loss and sat down hard on the deck of the ship experiencing once more the sorrow of his loss. Head in hands he sat there a sad and hurt figure. 

     "That was a hard thing to say to him Brimstone,” John said quietly.

     "But he was right to say it,” Fatman said from the deck. Kneeling beside him Fawnn took a handkerchief and handed it to her grieving friend. He took the cloth and wiped his eyes then sat there a moment. When he spoke again he said, "I pray thee forgive me Brimstone. I spoke in haste and anger. I know that you could not do that which I asked of you for it would, as you said, make you much the same as Dalghard."

     Reaching down to Fatman Brimstone helped him to his feet and said, "There is nothing to forgive. You spoke from passion. But know this my friend, once this Dalghard business is concluded you and I will seek out the man that has taken your brother from our good company. By the Gods I swear it on my honor you will have your Justice." That said he embraced Fatman. All around them the companions drew closer until in a tight circle many voiced the opinion of all when they said, "Aye and I too shall be present at that adventure."

 


 

Chapter 14.

 

     All that day they sailed for Arakas, but the winds weren't fair and their progress was slow. Still it was better than the mercenaries who were still in sight, but far far away. To make matters worse Captain Barnes had reported to Brimstone that there was another blow in the making and that it was most likely going to strike the next day if his bones were right and they usually were. 

     Shinobi, Goddess of the sea was angry. In his plot to resurrect Dalghard the priest of Dalghard had went to the homeland of her beloved minotaurs. Once there he had corrupted hundreds of her minotaur followers by hiring them as mercenaries to guard and protect him as he went about trying to make his dream of a resurrected Dalghard come to pass. As a result of that the companions had been forced to slay them to prevent that resurrection from coming to pass. But she was not angry at the combined forces of Good, Evil and Neutrality who had sought to stop that resurrection. She held the former priest of Dalghard solely responsible for the deaths of so many of her followers.

     As a result of her anger a storm at sea spawned to the north and east of Ethia immediately following the battle at the cave entrance. That storm moved south west and gathered strength as it did so. On the second day of their voyage, just as Captain Barnes's bones had predicted, they encountered the storm.

 

***

 

     As they encountered the first of the huge waves of a blow Brimstone went aft to speak to Captain Barnes. The captain assured him that the ship and crew were prepared for the blow but expressed some concern for the passengers. He said pointedly, "It took the crew days after the last blow to get the vomit smell out of the common room cabin. I have had several buckets placed in the room since early morn. Would you please see to it that they are used? Oh and I don't recommend many of them coming on deck during this storm. It will be a rough ride and easy for a man to be thrown overboard." 

     Brimstone promised that he would see to the captain's concerns and returned to the common room where he passed along the captain's requests. Grinning sheepishly Lord Malachi pointed to the bucket at his feet and said, "Yeah the rude fellow made a point of sitting one here beside me and telling me to have the good graces to dump it myself when the weather broke."

     Jedi guffawed at this causing Lord Malachi to chide him saying, "As I  recall you got sick that night as well."

     "Yes but I hung my head over the rail and didn't stink up the room,” replied Jedi with a smirk.

     "Well this time use the bucket. Apparently the captain thinks that this storm is going to be worse because he just asked me to make sure you all stay in the cabin. He's afraid you'll be thrown overboard. " 

     There was a yell outside, "Sail Hooo!" Out on deck the sailors scrambled to their battle stations. 

     John was the first of the companions to dart through the door with sword in hand. Being the most experienced seaman among the companions he understood better than most the implications of a sail sighted at sea. The rest of the companions followed closely behind with all taking their cue from John and taking their weapons.

     John ran to the man holding the spyglass and asked, "What flag does she sail under?" He turned pale when the man replied, "Dalghard's and she is a warship."

     "John, organize the defense if you will. Make sure we have plenty of buckets of water on deck in case they hit us with the catapults."

      "Consider it done." He turned and was shouting orders to the companions as if he were still a captain of his own ship. The companions good naturedly went along with him. He had experience at this sort of thing and they knew it. His presence among them was always welcome, but at this particular point in time it was actually comforting.

     Captain Barnes had his men as prepared as they could be to deal with a warship. When Brimstone approached him he said, "Brimstone I'm starting to feel a bit cornered. We’ve got a warship in front of us and a storm on the way and our shadow which is suddenly gaining on us." Glancing up in alarm Brimstone saw that the enemy which had been following them at a distance had indeed closed the gap. Apparently he had been maintaining a distance until they could meet his allies on the high seas. "Do we fight the warship or run?"

     Brimstone said, "Take us right down their throats captain. Just be prepared to avoid the sinking ship if we need to."

     "Right you are, sir,” said the captain with a wicked gleam in his eye. He was tired of running and it looked like they were about to do some hunting. 

     Returning to the foredeck Brimstone informed the companions that the enemy to the rear was now closing on them. "This situation changes everything. Prepare to destroy that warship. We take it first as it is the largest threat. If the other ship gets within range fire your spells and arrows at their sail and mast to cripple their ability to maneuver. Those men are mercenaries and without a sail their ship hasn't got a hope of keeping up with us. Warriors prepare to repel borders should the need arise."

     The companions sprang to action. The warriors spread out all over the ship to repel borders. The mages and archers prepared to deal with the second threat, that of the pursuing ship.

     Meanwhile the Gryphon sliced through the sea with grace and efficiency. The gap between the oncoming warship and their own had narrowed drastically by the time that Brimstone assumed his position in the bow of the ship. He bespoke the captain to hold the course steady for a moment so that he could target the enemy vessel and then he summoned his pillar of fire spell.

     Targeting the sail on the warship he unleashed his spell. The great pillar of fire formed in front of him and flew outward toward the target. As the spell hit the canvas sail it incinerated it. It also incinerated the rigging and the mast, not to mention several warriors that happened to be standing up at the time.

     In moments the warship was dead in the water and a cheer went up on the deck of the Gryphon. That cheer was premature though, for moments later the oars were out and sweeping the war galley on a collision course with the Gryphon.

     Brimstone cursed as he once more targeted the vessel. He heard John scream at the men on the galley, "Lay off you fools! He doesn't want to kill you or you'd be dead!" Some of the crew responded and stopped rowing. Brimstone waited to see what would happen. There was still time, and in truth he did not want to kill them. Then someone, an officer most likely, cut the throat of one of the men who had refused to row. This caused the rest to row.

      Brimstone sighed, "You tried John. Thank you for that." 

     "They are following orders. If they had a choice..."

      "I know. I wish that I had one myself, but we are running out of time,” Brimstone said sadly.

     Once more raising his hands Brimstone targeted the man who had cut the throat of the resister. Before he could fire his spell Ziona and Yane's arrows struck the man and he toppled overboard. "Try again, dear,” Ziona said.

     Brimstone nodded. "But hurry. We are almost out of time. 

     "This is your last chance. Ship oars you swabs and we will spare you!" There was a mutiny on the ship then. Several men pounced upon the remaining officers of Dalghard's army and threw them overboard.  

     "Set your course south and away from us men and away at five beats!" The remaining crew obediently complied with John's orders leaving behind the officers who had sought to keep a dead God's war alive long after it was finished. Many of those officers were already dead, devoured by the creatures of the sea. 

     Brimstone clasped John's arm in the traditional warrior manner. "Thank you my friend, for in truth I had no desire to slaughter them."

     John said, "That's why I admire you Brimstone. You are so very powerful, yet so damned reluctant to use that power. I cannot conceive of you abusing it." 

     Ziona hugged her husband and said, "Well done, my husband. You saved many lives this day."

     "Nay, lass it was your good arrow, and that of Yane, which made this possible."

She kissed him soundly then and raced aft with Yane to confront the approaching cargo ship if need be.

 

 


 

Chapter 15.

 

     Apparently having witnessed what had befallen the warship had not much dampened the desire of their enemy to close with them. The enemy ship was getting close enough now to make out the men on deck. But Shinobi's storm took a hand in the matter. The waves were growing increasingly steep. The experienced crew of the Gryphon was doing well, but the crew of the enemy ship was struggling to control their craft. Their minotaur helmsman was attempting to set the sail to right himself since the crew seemed incompetent to do so. As he moved to secure a lashing the mercenary helmsman let the ships sail gybe unexpectedly and the swinging yard arm swept the minotaur from the deck.

     One of Captain Barnes’ men saw the minotaur fall overboard and informed the Captain. Captain Barnes looked at Brimstone, the unspoken question in his eyes. "One pass, but don't stop. We will throw him a line." 

     Smiling in gratitude Captain Barnes issued commands and soon the ship was heading back under both oar and sail to rescue the abandoned minotaur. The captain hated the idea of abandoning a brave seaman who was just doing his job. They had the time to spare. The mercenary helmsman was so inept that it took him a very long time to change his ship’s course.  

     As they got near the minotaur, they saw him fighting off a sea creature that had decided to eat him. Ziona and Yane's arrows once more went to work and soon the minotaur had hold of the rope and was being dragged through the sea. 

     Brimstone, Fatman, John, Jedi, Genkaku, and Lord Malachi labored strenuously to haul the half drowned minotaur aboard. Once aboard, the minotaur was immediately surrounded by the warriors. Lord Fatman said, "What is your name, minotaur?"

     "My name is Caval, human,” he answered.

     "Do you know that yon priest has been using you to bring about the resurrection of Dalghard?" asked Fatman.

     "That is a lie, human,” stated the angered minotaur with nostrils flaring.

     "Is it? Then ask Shinobi if I lie, minotaur, or has your service to Dalghard's man rendered you unable to hear the Goddess of the minotaurs?"

     The angry minotaur closed his eyes and muttered a prayer. Several moments later he ripped open his tunic and tilted his nose to the sky. "Slay me, paladin of Shinobi, for I have sinned against my Goddess and am unworthy to live."

     Fatman started at that reaction. He hadn't expected it at all. "Why do you call me a paladin of Shinobi? I am but a simple Warrior,” he replied stalling for time to figure out how best to respond to the minotaur.

     Then Shinobi was there on the deck beside him. She said, "He says it because that is what I told him. But you will not slay him. Instead, I charge this minotaur to redeem himself for his transgressions, much as once I charged you to do the same my paladin."

     Sinking to his knees and bowing his head in acceptance Fatman said, "Thy will be done, Goddess."

     Turning to the minotaur she said, "If these companions of so many battles will have you, then you will join them on their adventures for their fights are often my fights and in my interests."

     Caval the minotaur sank to his knees before the Goddess and bowed his massive head. Even thus genuflected he still stood taller than the Goddess. "Thy will be done, Goddess. I swear my allegiance to these companions so long as they will have me and it is your will for me to do so."

     Then turning to the paladin Fatman she said, "Thy heart is still wounded by the loss of thy brother. Know then that the vengeance you crave will come this night, but not by thy hand. It shall come by mine. For as great as thy pain is, mine is the greater. You mourn the loss of one, yet I mourn the loss of hundreds. That man has caused the deaths of hundreds of my minotaur followers."

     "Now a paladin must have power to represent his faith. Know then that I do grant you powers. Those powers you will discover in the course of time." She touched his head then and it was a healing touch. Gone was the heartbreaking sorrow that he had felt at the loss of his brother. The pain was still there, but now it did not override the good memories that he had. For the first time since word of his brother's death he could think of him and smile at a good memory.

     Turning to the rest of the companions she asked, "And will you accept this minotaur among your company?"  

     Jedi spoke brashly saying, "If you vouch for him then I guess that's good enough for me."

 

 


 

Chapter 16.

 

     Two hours later the storm was raging. Thirty foot waves were not uncommon. The captain had ordered most of the companions into the cabins for their own safety reminding them to use their buckets. The minotaur remained on deck to assist the sailors. The captain even let him take the helm from time to time while he checked other things on the ship but he always returned to take the helm. Seeing the captain doing this John asked, "Do you think Captain Barnes doesn't trust Caval? He seems a competent helmsman. A very good one actually."

     Laughing Brimstone said, "Oh he trusts him completely. He believed Shinobi. He just loves to be at the helm in a storm. I think he is competing with the sea."

     John nodded his head in understanding then left to go find Ziona. She didn't much care for the rough seas though she adored the fair seas. 

     For hours the captain battled the sea managing to skillfully keep the Gryphon afloat in what even the minotaur Caval said was the worst storm he'd ever witnessed.

     In the cabin Lord Fatman heard Shinobi's voice speaking to him. She told him that the time of her vengeance was at hand and that he should go to the starboard side of the ship to witness that vengeance. He stood up immediately and walked to the door. Jedi asked him where he was going and he told him what he had been told. Soon all of the companions had filed out onto the deck and were holding onto the foul weather ropes to steady themselves on the pitching deck.

     They didn't have long to wait. A moment later they saw the other ship come charging down a wave from their starboard side under full sail. Apparently the priest of Dalghard was making one last attempt to attack their ship. 

     Caval grunted as he saw them and shook his massive head in disbelief. "The fools,” he said. 

     Captain Barnes shouted the commands and gybed his sail so that the wind was coming off his starboard side thus increasing the distance between the two ships as they started up a huge wave. The other ship under full sail with the wind at her aft made better time and overshot the Gryphon pulling ahead of her. Then it happened.

     Brimstone remembered the lesson that Captain Barnes had once given him on sailing with the wind aft as he watched the priest of Dalghard's ship go soaring up the wave. Halfway to the top of the wave the ship's sail gybed and she heaved heavily to starboard presenting her broadside to the wind. The ship heeled over and then capsized. A heartbeat later the wave top crashed over it. All present that day swore that they then saw what appeared to be a giant woman's hand and arm come up out of the water and grasp the ship as if it were a model and pull it down below the surface of the sea. It did not come back up. 

     Fatman and Caval then knelt on the deck and said a prayer to their Goddess. "Thy will be done,” they prayed in unison. When they stood the sea began to calm. Fifteen minutes later it was as if the storm had never been.

 

***

 

     The Gryphon landed on Arakas the next day. The companions went immediately to the city Stonehenge. Once there the Gods all appeared and asked Brimstone to place Dalghard's remains in the center. He did as commanded then stepped back to join his friends. Then the gods formed stone around the items, just as they had once done with the gem of chaos. Then working together they lifted that boulder into the air and sent it on a course that would impact their star where not even a dust speck of the remains would survive. 

     Turning to face the companions the four deities thanked them for their service for the good of all then three of them disappeared.

     Brimstone walked to Damia, kissed her gently and told her how much he had missed her while he had been away.

 


 

Chapter 17.

 

     The Gryphon Knight stopped and stood dead still listening intently for sounds of pursuit in the cavern. At first it was hard for her to hear anything beyond the thudding of her own heart and the ragged breathing as she panted for her next breath. With a hand that trembled from exhaustion she reached up and wiped grimy sweat from her forehead as she waited another moment for her heartbeat and respiration to return to normal so she could listen for the sound of her pursuers.

     "Maybe this time I have lost them,” she thought, but with fading hope. She had thought that several times, only to have her hopes dashed when once again she detected the sounds of their relentless pursuit. This time she had doubled back on her own trail and walked through a standing pool of water to exit near another passage hoping to throw her pursuers off her trail. The walk through the pool of water had been horrifying to her. She couldn't swim and there was no way to know exactly how deep the water would become. Muttering a prayer to her Goddess she had bravely faced her great fear of the water and managed to make it across the chamber without drowning.

     Emerging from the water slowly she stood near land and allowed most of the water to drain from her body. This left as little as possible on the floor of the cavern next to the pool.

     She had then fled carefully down the new chamber being careful to walk upon rock floor whenever possible so as to leave less sign her enemies could use to follow her. Ten minutes later she had stopped to listen for sounds of pursuit. Two minutes into the wait she heard a distant howl in the cavern behind her. A chill went down her spine as the howl undulated through the cavern, rising and falling in both volume and tone.

     "Damia give me strength,” she prayed in desperation as she began to flee once more. She was concentrating intently on what she was doing and didn't notice at first that her Goddess had heard and answered her prayers. She ran smoothly now, like a seasoned athlete she sprinted effortlessly. Unknown to her she actually gained quite a bit of distance between her and the pursuing werewolves.

     As she ran she mourned the loss of her companions. She had been a member of a small party of Gryphon Knights sent to map out the territories of the werewolves. This had gone well at first. Her small party of three Knights had carefully skirted and mapped the territories of the werewolves without incident for several days. Then one night a werewolf had come across their scent and followed it until he had located them.

     He had then returned to the king of the werewolves to report the presence of humans within his domain in the hopes of gaining favor with the new king. He had been clever enough to say that he had spared them for his majesty's pleasure. Pleased, the king and several of his royal court had accompanied the werewolf back to where the three Gryphon Knights had concealed their camp.

     The werewolves had instantly slain the man on guard and then fallen upon the two sleeping Knights. One of the Knights had managed to break free of the werewolves and draw his dagger. In a brutal fight he had killed the werewolf who had originally located their party. Moments later he had been dragged down by a number of werewolves and was torn to pieces. She had tried desperately to assist the fallen Knight, but many strong werewolves had held her immobile.

     Taken captive she had been lead into the caverns of the werewolves and spent days in their captivity. They had fed her bread, cheese and a foul soup, but they had given her no meat. This pleased her because she would have refused any meat offered for fear that it might well be a portion of one of her fellow Knights. Unknown to her, the king was planning a hunt for her and that was the reason she had been kept alive and fed.

     Now she found herself renewed and running well. She muttered another prayer thanking Damia and continued to race through the cavern. Far behind her the werewolf king was frustrated. Somehow the human woman was managing to stay ahead of him. Enraged, he savagely bit another werewolf who had been stupid enough to get in his way as he raced full tilt on the scent of the woman. Turning his head to attack whatever had attacked him, the wounded werewolf had his throat ripped out by the bloodthirsty king who barely broke stride to do so.

     Far ahead the lone human sprinted into a cavern. As soon as she entered it she detected a foul odor that permeated the cavern. Listening a moment for the sound of pursuit she heard instead a chittering from somewhere in the cavern. Standing very still, moving only her eyes, she searched the cavern. Moments later, having seen nothing, she continued through the cavern. She walked carefully through the chamber and headed for another pool of water.

     At the edge of the water she hesitated, then a sound reached her ears that she could not identify at first. Then it was that she heard the voice of her Goddess saying, "Enter the pool of water. Wade to the center and dive to the bottom. Do as I say and do it now!"

     Obediently the girl did as commanded. She sensed great danger near her and trusted her Goddess. Working her way quickly towards the center of the pool the lady Knight soon found herself in water up to her chin. Standing there immobile, afraid to take another step lest the water cover her head, she took several deep breaths then dove toward the bottom as instructed by her Goddess.

     Her head had just disappeared below the surface of the water when a blackness entered the cavern. Malignant, it issued forth chittering and screeching. An endless wave of blackness issued forth and followed the caverns on her back trail heading unerringly toward the creatures who followed her.

     Beneath the water in the middle of the pool the knight had found a hole in the floor of the pool. The hole was a good two feet in diameter. More than large enough for her to enter and she did so at the urging of her Goddess. She heard Damia's voice in her mind saying, "Enter the hole and follow it. Follow it quickly and you will be fine. The exit from the water is near and in a safer place."

     She could not swim but there were handholds available in the rock tunnel. Though not very large, they were adequate for her to grasp and pull herself along until finally she emerged from the hole and stared upward toward the surface.

     Growing desperate she felt her head growing lighter as her body screamed for another breath of life giving air. Struggling clumsily, she tried desperately to reach the surface but her skill at swimming was so poor that she could not. Her struggles became weaker and weaker until finally she stopped moving and began to sink. Shaking her head violently in terror, the Knight’s mouth gasped open and water flooded into her mouth and nostrils and finally her lungs as she involuntarily tried to breathe water. To protect itself, her esophagus went into a spasm and closed to prevent more water from entering the airway. Shaking her head once more weakly her hair fanned out about her head and drifted upward as her body, now still as death, sank deeper and deeper. Her eyes glazed in death, she didn't see the bodies that jumped into the water near her as she sank.

 


 

Chapter 18.

 

     The werewolf king stopped running and scented the air. He sensed something he had never sensed before. The female's scent was still strong, but he detected something else. An odor which he could not identify. Also, just barely perceptible to his hearing was a faint chittering sound. He decided to drop back and let his minions move ahead of him.

     He had survived hundreds of battles by trusting his instincts and right now his instincts were telling him to flee. But as king he could ill afford to display any weakness. So he pretended to drop back just to encourage the werewolves who had fallen behind, all the while urging those that passed him to continue the hunt but save the kill until he was present. Thus encouraged his minions sprinted off to find the girl they were hunting.

     He had just urged on the last of his minions when he heard the distant howl of a werewolf cut off in mid howl. Moments later another such howl was heard, and then another and another. Each howl was quickly terminated mid howl. The king knew that only fierce combat or death could cause his minions to break off their howls in that manner. The hackles on the back of his neck and shoulders lifted and he snarled.

     The werewolves had been hunting in their near true wolf form for the sake of speed. Now his form shifted becoming bipedal. Up ahead of him he saw other werewolves and commanded them to transform as well. They raced ahead hunting the source of the mystery. Now a bloodlust filled the king and his earlier premonitions of dread were forgotten. Somewhere ahead battles were being waged.

     Moments later the werewolves saw a black wave roll through the air of the tunnel ahead. In seconds that wave overtook them and the battle was on. All around him the king heard the sounds of war being waged as his minions fought to the death against seemingly countless monsters. The winged creatures fell upon the werewolves with a ravenous hunger. Out of the corner of his eye the king saw the leader of his personal guard go down with several of the winged creatures biting him. That was the last thing that he had time to observe. After that it was one desperate battle after another.

     The werewolf king had been formidable in combat. He had never lost a battle. After the death of their last king he had returned to their caverns along with the other werewolves to see who would be the new king. He had fearlessly stepped forward to claim the position and killed every challenger in combat. Thirty of his species had tried him before the rest had yielded to his supremacy.

     His experience served him well in this battle. He killed the Gargoyles with ruthless efficiency. He didn't bother to count the kills. He surrendered to the bloodlust and fought all within reach of his fangs or claws. But the king was doomed from the outset. His party was hopelessly outnumbered and soon only he remained. Then the Gargoyles all leapt from the ground and took to the air. They began circling him.

     In their own way they were honoring his prowess in battle. He snarled savagely as he stared around at the dead Gargoyles he had slain and sought a way out to escape what must surely be coming. For a moment he was proud of his kills and reveled in the slaughter. There was no way out. The monsters had him completely surrounded. Then the Gargoyles attacked by the score diving at him from the air. Even thus hopelessly outmatched the king still managed to slay another dozen Gargoyles before he himself was slain.

     Thus died the reigning king of the werewolves who was the only living werewolf whose destiny contained a thread which would have permitted him to conquer the torlags.

 


 

Chapter 19.

 

     Fawnn, Veksar, Mystyka, Tarn, Ziona, and John were deep in the caverns of an unknown cave system on a mapping expedition of their own. Veksar's hobby of map making often led them to such adventures and he had recently learned of this cavern system. Having heard rumors of fantastic treasures to be had from these caverns Fawnn, Mystyka and Ziona were only too happy to give it a go. And where their ladies went John and Tarn went also.

     They were near a pool of water when Damia appeared before them and said, "One of my followers is near." She nodded her head at the pool of water in the cavern near them. "She will come from beneath the surface. She will be in trouble. Due to those nagging accords of the Gods I cannot save her."

     "Those accords must be pretty annoying,” Veksar observed dryly.

     "You have no idea,” Damia said with a smile.

     "Well we aren't under such restrictions,” said Fawnn with a smile.

     "She cannot swim and the pool is very deep there,” Damia advised, then she added. "She is drowning." This shocked the companions who had believed that the problem was of less urgency.

     Startled the companions ran to the water. They raced to drop packs and strip heavy armor and weapons so that they could save the drowning girl. The ladies were ready first as they were not wearing heavy armor and simply had to drop their backpacks and Ziona her bow and quiver. Impatiently they scanned the water for signs of the girl. They saw a shadowy form briefly then it disappeared, swallowed up by the waters below. As one the women leapt into the water and dove for the shadowy form they had briefly glimpsed.

     They stayed together, swimming down deeper and deeper into the pool gaining on the form of the woman whose hair floated about her head like seaweed as she drifted down into the depths of the pool. Ziona reached her first followed quickly by Mystyka and Fawnn. Each took hold of the girl with one hand and used their free hand and feet to swim back upward for the surface. It was difficult work with their water soaked garments threatening to pull them down.

     Moments later they broke the surface of the water and gasped for air. Continuing to work together they made their way to the shore where the men helped to remove the girl's body and pulled them from the cold water.

     Once there John took over. Being a man of the sea he was wise in the ways of reviving the drowned as are most seamen and he worked diligently on the woman until he had the water out of her airways. Moments later she coughed and opened her eyes. 

     Damia used her magic to dry the shivering women. She thanked them for saving her follower and warned them all to leave this cavern immediately. "There are gargoyles near," she warned. She looked the three ladies, Fawnn, Mystyka, and Ziona in the eyes and added, "They know of you and will seek you three in particular."

     The three ladies were surprised by this turn of events and would have asked Damia many questions but Damia raised her hands and said, "I know you would ask me to tell you more, but know that I cannot."

     They realized then that Damia was probably already skirting the Accords of the Gods and let the matter drop.

     Veksar reacted differently. He was already rushing to help Fawnn equip her pack. He remembered well the way the gargoyles of Stoneheim had singled out the ladies, and his dread fear that he would be too late to locate his beloved Fawnn as they had raced to find the ladies. Veksar fully intended to get Fawnn out of these caverns immediately.

     Tarn and John unaware of the complete history of that adventure were somewhat confused by his reaction, but they were infected by his sense of urgency and soon found themselves also rushing the ladies.

     Staring at her follower with a kind expression on her face Damia said, "Well done my Knight. You have served me well this day." Noting that her follower was unarmed she held out her hand. Suddenly a sword appeared in her hand and she handed it to her Knight. "Take this weapon as a token of my gratitude to you."

     The Knight took the weapon and marveled at it and her good fortune to receive the sword from the Goddess. "But I have done nothing Goddess. I failed in my mission to map the kingdom of the werewolves."

     "Think not that you have failed me, my Knight. For in truth you have succeeded where an army might have failed. You lured the werewolf king into a trap that cost him his life. That king was a threat to the stability of Sic Dalar. That is all that I can tell you."

     Stunned the Knight bowed her head and accepted the limitation of the knowledge that the Goddess could impart.

     "Leave soon. There is great danger here,” Damia warned. Then she placed a scroll in her follower's hand. "Use that. It will take you to Paradise Cove,” she said, then she disappeared.

 


 

Chapter 20.

 

     The city of Paradise Cove had many taverns which ranged from the small dimly lit places that accommodated the fishermen to the large and well lit places that accommodated the Gryphon Knight contingent garrisoned within the city.

     At one of the larger taverns the Gryphon Knights often used, a group of adventurers sat taking up several tables. Several days had passed since the encounter in the caverns and Brimstone had sent out the word calling for volunteers to come to Paradise Cove once more to do battle with monsters. They were meeting there because Damia had warned Brimstone that if the gargoyles were not dealt with soon then they would begin to leave their cave at night and seek out the three ladies Fawnn, Mystyka, and Ziona. She refused to overly elaborate on it, but maintained that they would be driven by their Queen to do so. This meant that they would in the end begin to slay innocents as they encountered people in their quest to locate the three ladies.

     Brimstone sat at the largest table in the room talking quietly with John about the need for increased guards. They were studying a map of the area and he pointed out that it would probably only take the gargoyles a few hours flight to get to the city from the cavern system. Turning to Nessarose he asked, "Has Tersha informed the torlags of the problem?"

     Nodding her head in acknowledgement Nessarose said, "Versha told me that she is going to be sending torlag volunteers to assist us with the night watches. Since the torlags are nocturnal by nature as are the Gargoyles that seems to be a good idea."

     Smiling Brimstone said, "Thank you, Nessa. That is good news indeed. With their superior vision and other senses, that will greatly improve the chances of detecting the approach of the gargoyles prior to an attack."

     "Do you really think that the monsters will come here to Paradise Cove?" asked John.

     "I certainly hope not,” Brimstone was quick to reply. Then he added, "But we do know that their preferred diet is swine, so if I were you I'd get the farmers to put the pigs in the caves with a very strong guard presence."

     Blinking John said, "I hadn't thought of that Brimstone. I'll see to it at once." He kissed Ziona lightly and darted out to go find the men he would need to get that precaution underway.

     Lord Malachi leaned forward and asked, "Will we wait here for any possible attack, or is it your intention for us to go route out these beasts and slay them in their caverns?"

XconX and Genkaku spoke up with excitement evident in their tones adding that they were eager to be off in search of the beasts.

     "We will go to the cavern in strength of numbers,” replied Brimstone who added, "We cannot in good conscience wait here for the monsters to finally locate us. That would endanger too many innocents all over Sic Dalar for Damia has warned me that when the creatures hunt they may well do so in a spiral and not fly directly here first."

     That was a sobering thought and for a moment the companions went silent. So it was that when the alarm bells began ringing they were clearly heard by everyone in the room. It was the Bre alarm. Startled Gryphon Knights dropped their cups and sprinted for the doors. Nessarose leapt to her feet and said, "There is a Bre incursion. Tersha is at the beach." That said she sprinted out followed closely by the rest of the companions.

     On the run to the beach Brimstone noted that the citizens of the city were prepared. They saw husbands kissing wives a hasty goodbye and shoving children inside their homes, then running down the ramps to the sand below where they joined a steady stream of men and women heavily armed to do war with the Bre. The wives raised the ramps with the pulley systems and made sure that they were secured properly before heading inside to safeguard the children during the absence of the men. In other cases where there were no children to be concerned about, the wives went with their husbands to do battle with their enemy.

     As they ran for the beach they encountered John who joined them but by the time they reached the beach the incursion was finished and all of the Bre had been slain. Only three Bre had come ashore this night. The Bre occasionally raided the city but usually in small numbers of one to ten. Nothing like the mass invasion of the Bre wars. Rather than cause a great deal of consternation among the citizens this was treated as an opportunity to harvest a rather delicious meal, albeit a very dangerous one. Such incursions were not frequent, but none-the-less a torlag and human guard contingent was always posted at night just in case. It was this guard contingent, along with a few other citizens nearby who had dealt with the Bre this night.

     Nessarose found Tersha on the beach and went to her, to see if she was alright. She was cleaning her front paws of Bre gore.

     That night on the beach, the citizens of Paradise Cove held a huge celebration as the Bre were cooked in dozens of cooking pots. It might amaze some that this was already considered a tradition by the inhabitants of the city but it was so considered. Many torlags also came to share in the feast which was supplemented by fish and other delicacies. But the center of all such feasts was invariably the Bre. Everyone from the smallest child to the oldest adult ate a small portion of the seafood. Some of the companions who had never before tasted Bre swore that it tasted remarkably like the crab they sometimes ate in Paradise Cove. Rightly it should because a Bre is nothing but a gigantic crab with a rudimentary intelligence.

     On the beach, the companions continued their discussion well into the night and it was decided that they would leave for the caverns the next day.

 


 

Chapter 21.

 

     In a huge cavern a gargoyle queen sat brooding. Well did she remember the warnings her sister had sent her from the island of Stoneheim. Three human women had managed to slay her sister. In the final moments of her life, she had sent her sister the identities of her killers and asked that she avenge her one day.

     Between gargoyle queens there is little love, for they compete viciously for that position among their kind. Some queens of ancient times were even said to have slain any female gargoyle who appeared capable of threatening their position. But she had never gone that far. The worst she had ever done was to have them beaten to mar their beauty. She had not dared do worse for fear her sister would pounce on that activity to ingratiate herself with the members of the tribe by approaching the king and condemning her actions.

     Her remaining sister was still her chief rival, but she could do nothing about that, for her king and mate had a fancy for that female. Even the queen had to admit that her wings were exceedingly lovely and she flew superbly with a grace unmatched. This angered her when she considered her once graceful wings now nearly useless for what set of wings could lift her bloated body which was so full of eggs.

     With a chittering equivalent of a sigh she turned to the young warriors of her tribe standing before her in untold numbers and continued to brief them on her wishes. She did so by utilizing a pair of ancient teaching verses.

 

                                    "The Blood of three the Queen doth sip.

                                    The flesh of three the King's talons rip.

                                    The entrails of three the maidens lay,

                                    In the Queen's nest for another day."

                                    "When Fledglings walk the nest so great,

                                    The King and Queen forever mate."

 

     This she recited to the warriors and commanded that they repeat the verse until they knew it well. Then she placed the images of the three women her warriors were to capture in their minds. "You are to leave our caverns tomorrow in search of these three. Let nothing stand in your way. Bring them to me. But do not slay them. It is better to die in battle than slay one of these. If you slay one of them I will make you wish that you had never hatched.

     This was the ancient rite of formally cementing the mating. Prior to that ceremony, by the laws of their tribe, the King was free to choose another Queen at will to replace the current Queen. Once this ceremony had been conducted the King was forced to retain his Queen no matter how shrewish or ugly she became for not even the King could disregard the ancient rites of her people. To do so invited his immediate death at the hands of any and every warrior among the tribe for he has forsaken the ancient laws of their race.

     Lately she had noticed her mate eyeing her sister. Furious, she had thought long and hard of the means to cement her status as Queen. There was only one way. So it would be then. She would see to it that the ceremony was held. It was her right as queen to request it, and she would see to it that the king was in a state of such bloodlust when the time came to suggest it that he would be powerless to refuse. That this ceremony would also avenge her dead sister was just a matter of family pride. No one but her would slay her family with impunity.

 


 

Chapter 22.

 

     Moving quietly up the trail, the companions carefully regarded their surroundings. Anpu Sandstorm and a torlag volunteer were scouting ahead to ensure they were not walking headlong into danger. Next came Lord Malachi beside Brimstone and they were followed by XconX and Genkaku and then came Nessarose and Tersha who was wearing her battle armor, so she could see by day. Ziona and John, Veksar and Fawnn, Mystyka and Tarn who were in turn followed by Lord Fatman and Caval followed them. These two had been charged with the duty of watching over the three ladies whom the gargoyles would be attempting to take prisoner.

     They took the duty quite seriously and vowed that nothing would spirit the ladies away. Caval took the issue especially seriously for the minotaurs were well versed in the lore of the gargoyles and hated them with a passion. Once, in the ancient past, a nest of gargoyles had flourished on the island of Ethia without the knowledge of the minotaurs.

     When gargoyles nest they stay primarily away from sentient enemies until they feel that they are strong enough to win a conflict with them. When that moment comes they raid them. There were five such raids on Ethia before the minotaurs finally located the nest and destroyed it. Meanwhile the Gargoyles had annihilated entire families lines of minotaurs. So it was that the minotaur race hated the gargoyles with a passion. Anything that threatened their tribal families they took quite seriously, often exterminating it.

     Behind Fatman and Caval followed Jedi, Psychost, and MetalHead.

     Their battle plan was to get to the caverns and explore them until they located the nest. When it was located, they would exterminate the gargoyles. It was admittedly a very simple plan. Brimstone disliked intricate plans because something almost always goes wrong. One of his primary rules when it came to planning was to keep it simple. If you weren't trying to follow intricate plans there was much less that could go wrong.

     Even as simple as their plan was, something went wrong early into the first night out from Paradise Cove. The caves were located a hard day’s march west of Paradise Cove in the mountains situated there. Their plan was to march near the cave entrance that day, then conceal their camp for the night. The next day they could enter the caverns when the sun was well up and all of the creatures would be sleeping, with the exception of the guards.

     Unfortunately the gargoyles began to emerge very early into the night. Almost as soon as the sun was below the horizon they emerged in a vast wave of flying monsters. So it was that before true dark the gargoyles had been spotted winging their way in ever increasing spirals outward from the cave entrance. Brimstone knew that they were in a bind. The spiral search pattern of the gargoyles would soon bring them within sight of the hunting party.

     There was simply nowhere within sight that they could conceal themselves before the spiral of the gargoyles overtook them. So it was that Brimstone instructed the companions to form a defensive circle with the three ladies in the center.

     Standing with feet wide spaced Brimstone grimly faced the closing ranks of the gargoyles. He intended to teach them a lesson about fire magic. He waited patiently for just the right moment then raised his hands and commanded the power of his spell, as only he was capable of doing.

    Immediately his pillar of fire spell swept into the closest gargoyles and burned them to ash upon contact. Dozens died the first few moments, then the rest scattered so the powerful spell could not hit them en mass.

     He had managed to kill dozens but now they knew where the companions were located and winged rapidly toward them. The other fire mages, Veksar and Psychost, added their fire spells to his and they decimated many gargoyles as they flew to the attack.

     Ziona's bow took its toll on many as did Mystyka and Fawnn's earth spells. XconX added his own earth spells and sometimes used manaburst. Nessarose added her bow to her mother's to help take out many of the monsters.

     The warriors waited patiently for what they knew must surely come. Tersha waited with the patience of a torlag near her friend. Her claws and jaws at the ready. Privately she feared that her friend Nessa might be taken if the gargoyles could not take one of the other ladies. She was determined that her friend would only be taken over her dead body.

 

 


 

Chapter 23.

 

     Brimstone was a bit frustrated. He had been so hopeful that they would be able to catch the gargoyles in their caverns. There they found it quite difficult to scatter and avoid the attack spells which his party could use to slay them. Here in the open they could scatter to the four winds and render the attack spells much less effective. They were doing just that. He was still slaying them in great numbers, but nothing like the numbers that he could have achieved within the confines of the cavern tunnel passages.

Beside him Lord Malachi spoke. "They are almost upon us." Grunting by way of reply, Brimstone stopped firing his magic attacks and drew his sword with a smooth and fluid grace.

     Behind them Fawnn, Mystyka and Ziona shouted as the first of the gargoyles darted in their direction and tried to grab them. Then Nessarose was beside her mother, sword in hand. She struck the feet from one Gargoyle who was attempting to grab Ziona. Ziona was showered in the creature's blood as it flew away from the circle of defenders. She retaliated with three arrows which brought the creature down hard.

     Caval fought with a battle axe. He struck the feet from two creatures with one swing of the great axe. Being significantly taller than the rest of the party, he used his height to advantage and struck out at creatures still beyond the reach of either Lord Fatman or Nessa.

     Lord Fatman killed a Gargoyle diving at his face, feet first. Taking a step back, he plunged his sword into the creature's stomach as it desperately tried to reverse directions, frantically beating its wings.

     Fawnn fired manaburst directly into the mouth of a Gargoyle who had strayed too close. Enraged, the monster dove straight at her face. Then a blur shot through the air beside her. Tersha intercepted the creature in mid air and bore it to the ground. Her claws dug furiously into the back of the creature's head and in moments it was dead.

     Mystyka was firing her manaburst at any of the creatures that ventured near. She hit several that fluttered away in anger, only to see them replaced with even more. Ziona's bow accounted for two creatures in rapid succession before one darted in from her blind side. Its clawed feet scored a cut on her face as she turned to face it. Once more a blur shot out from the side and the gargoyle was taken to the ground by Tersha who had discovered she liked this battle. She was still young enough to have some cub-like ways. She shredded the creature's back and wings to a lesser extent even as her jaws clamped down on the back of the Gargoyle's neck.

     Around the circle, the majority of the gargoyles had landed. They were not as graceful when fighting upon the ground as they were when airborne. They charged the circle of defenders. Hooting with enthusiasm, Jedi met their charge with a frostbane sword. In a dazzling display of skill he killed three gargoyles in a matter of moments.

     Lord Malachi was fending off a gargoyle with his runed halberd when he suddenly whipped the butt of his halberd upward, smashing it into the groin of the creature. Doubling over in pain the Gargoyle never saw the follow-up strike that cleaved his head in two.

     MetalHead's frostbane was weaving a deadly dance among the three Gargoyles which were probing his defenses. He seemed to almost be playing with them. Genkaku shouted a warning saying, "Finish them, man, or you will be hard pressed. Here come more!" 

     Genkaku expertly decapitated a gargoyle then turned toward the next one charging his position in the defensive circle. XconX blasted that one with his earth shattering spell, weakening it severely. Genkaku finished it off with three strokes of his sword.

     Psychost fired his firestorm spell among the horde of gargoyles attempting to get through his side of the circle. Seeing the monsters weakening under that attack, Veksar added his own firestorm to the general attack against the packed horde. Moments later a wide opening appeared when about twenty gargoyles died within moments of each other.

     Leaping into that void another horde of gargoyles charged the defender's circle. John Trueblade's skill with the sword was severely tested for the next ninety seconds as six gargoyles, determined to break through to the ladies, attempted to get past him. Then Tarn was at his side and together they broke the back of that attack.

     Abruptly, the gargoyles appeared to withdraw en mass. They scattered in all directions as they took to the air. Anpu Sandstorm fired arrow after arrow in rapid succession into several gargoyles, dropping them. His torlag partner leapt upon any still showing signs of life, efficiently dispatching them.

     Ziona's bow added its deadly barrage to Anpu's attack, as did Nessa's. Once more the mages opened fire with their best attack spells, slaying a score more gargoyles before they were out of range. Even then Brimstone's spells cast further and he continued to harass some few gargoyles. But their retreat had been so scattered they had effectively limited the carnage the defenders could inflict.

      The party had survived the first round of the fighting. The mages began healing all those in need. XconX began blessing all, as Fawnn and Mystyka aided him.

     As the gargoyles disappeared in the distance, Brimstone frowned in the growing darkness. "Soon they will return. We should move to a ground not littered with their corpses, lest we begin to trip over them."

     XconX spoke up then saying, "Or we could just pile them up around our circle and use them as a make-shift barricade."

     Brimstone nodded. "A sound suggestion."

     Then Fawnn spoke up quietly as she asked, "Do you think they would see us if we were invisible?"

     "They will smell us if they are close enough." Brimstone shrugged. "But it is certainly worth attempting."

     It was decided that the mages would cast invisible upon the party and they would then run for a thin strip of trees nearby. Once under that cover, the mages would recast the spell and they would try to get closer to the cavern system of the Gargoyles.

 


 

Chapter 24.

 

     The companions were now running the third leg of many that might get them out of the immediate area. They had used invisibility to make it to the thin strip of woods. There, under the cover of the trees and free from observation by the Gargoyles, they had recast the invisibility spells which momentarily made them visible again. From there they had managed to get to a shallow dried out creek bed that offered momentary concealment from any enemy save those far above them. As soon as the spell was recast they again moved out on the next stage of their attempted escape.

     This time was going to be bad. There was simply nowhere to hide within range of the next leg. The spell would expire long before they could even hope to reach a safe spot. The closest cover was the wood line that began near the mountain range they needed to reach.

     "We can't stay here. It's just a matter of time until one of the gargoyles spots us while we are being spelled,” Brimstone stated the obvious. He continued, "And when we are spotted here they will have the advantage of the higher ground for any fighting. That places us at a decided disadvantage."

     The warriors of the party nodded their understanding and agreement with that assessment. Brimstone continued, "We set the spell once more here, then we sprint for the woods. Fifteen seconds before the spell expires we all stop to get respelled, then run again. We follow that pattern until we reach the woods, agreed?"

     The companions all nodded their agreement. The mages were about to begin casting the invisibility spell when Tersha spoke softly but with urgency, "Hold!" When the mages stopped she said. There is a gargoyle circling above."

     "How long has it been there?" asked Fatman.

     "It just arrived. It appears to be just circling in a spiral search pattern and may leave on it's own soon,” replied Tersha.

     "We don't have time. Ziona can you hit it with a kill shot? If it raises an alarm..,” Brimstone left the rest unsaid. He didn't have to finish that statement. All knew the consequences of discovery.

     "There is another way Brimstone,” The other torlag said. He elaborated, "I can place an image in the creature’s mind. He will see us running but running the wrong way of course. That should lead him away."

     Smiling at this unexpected assistance, Brimstone said, "Do it."

     Moments later the gargoyle circling above gave a chittering shriek and headed rapidly away in the wrong direction. "We must move quickly. The others won't see what he is seeing. Sadly my talents are not that advanced,” stated the torlag.

     The mages quickly recast the spell and then the companions darted from their make-shift sanctuary and sprinted full tilt for the forest, maintaining the pace of their slowest member. They followed the plan to the letter. Fifteen seconds before the spell expired they stopped. Each mage knew whom they were charged with casting the spell on and the plan worked well. This time no gargoyle seemed to have spotted them, even though they had been fully exposed while casting the spell.

     Again they ran. Once more at the pace of their slowest member. But at the next pause, one of the mages ran out of mana before she could cast the spell. Another mage noted her inability, finished her circuit and then spelled her and himself. A single gargoyle seemed to have spotted the mage. It dove in their direction, shrieking.

     "Run,” Brimstone commanded. It was unfortunate, but they had been almost too lucky. Something was bound to go wrong soon.

     The male torlag said, "Run all. I will lead him away with another vision and then catch up. I can run much faster than you." He said nothing more but moments later Brimstone noted that the Gargoyle was now headed in the wrong direction.

     They stopped one more time as the spell was about to fail. Moments later they were inside the forest. The plan had worked, or so they believed. The first sign of trouble came when both torlags stopped and hissed a warning. Nessa spoke up softly, "Tersha says that there are gargoyles all around us."

     Noting the terrain, Brimstone directed the companions to head for a small hill near them. If fight they must, he wanted to select the spot. Hopefully the gargoyles would hold off their attack a few more minutes. Halfway up the hill the male torlag of the company spoke up, "A cave! There is a cave here!"

     Brimstone moved over to where the torlag was standing. He still didn't see any cave entrance. "I don't see it,” he said.

     "It is concealed,” replied the torlag. Immediately he went to the side of the hill and sniffed the ground. A moment later using his front paws he pulled open a cleverly camouflaged door set in the hillside on a forty-five degree angle. As the door swung open, Brimstone could see the bottom and noted that it was made of wood. The topside portion of the door was cleverly camouflaged with leaves and twigs. When the door was closed it was all but undetectable, but not to a torlag. He had smelled the raw earth walls of the cave, even through the closed door.

     "The gargoyles are closing in around us, but so far Tersha hasn't spotted one. She just smells them,” Nessa reported.

     Brimstone made his decision. For better or worse they were entering this cave. "Inside everyone. I'll go last and secure the door."

     Obediently the companions entered the cave rapidly, making space in the first room for others. The two torlags went first. This was their natural element and they were best prepared to deal with danger there. Brimstone came last and shut the door noiselessly behind him.

     All of the companions were seasoned campaigners. No one need mention they should remain quiet. For this company, it was assumed that all knew to do so in hostile territory. So it was that they stood silently, listening and waiting to see if the gargoyles had spotted them going into the cave. If they had then the door would no doubt be ripped open within moments. Brimstone stood ready to launch his fire spell. Lord Fatman, Lord Malachi and Jedi stood at the ready with swords drawn, prepared to back up Brimstone should any gargoyles get past him.

     The rest of the companions spent their time silently studying the room from wherever they stood. They knew to remain still that they not unduly alarm their guards posted at the door. They saw what appeared to be a natural cave system. The first room was small, maybe 20 feet in diameter and roughly oval shaped. They saw nothing in the room of interest. No tracks on the earthen floor appeared remotely fresh. What tracks they did see were human and old. Very old according to the torlags. But a torlag's time sense isn't quite the same as a human's. To a torlag very old most likely meant that there was no accompanying scent associated with the tracks. For their purposes even that would be good enough.

     There was another passage on the left wall of this oval chamber. MetalHead and Caval the minotaur stood nearest that passage. Both stood with weapons at the ready. Caval sincerely hoped that the ceiling grew higher in this cavern as his horns were nearly scraping the ceiling already. He imagined that if he took a small leap that they would indeed scrape the ceiling. Pointing to the ceiling he brought his weapon up near it. MetalHead nodded his understanding of the warning. The ceiling was low enough to give them problems fighting if they neglected to remember its restrictions.

 


 

Chapter 25.

 

     The companions waited a full fifteen minutes before Brimstone silently walked to the other exit. Squatting down he silently called Tersha to him. When she stood beside him he pointed into the next corridor and nodded his head. She surprised him by nodding her head and heading into that corridor. The male torlag fell in behind her. She was the daughter of the dominant female of his race. He would accompany her to safeguard her.

     A few minutes later they returned and, speaking softly she said, "All is well in the passage ahead. It leads to another, larger chamber a short distance down the tunnel."

     Making as little sound as possible the companions moved down the passage and soon found themselves in a chamber approximately half again larger than the last. The chamber was bare. This time Brimstone nodded to Anpu Sandstorm and MetalHead and pointed to the next passage in the far end of the chamber. They moved out to scout the passage ahead.

     Five minutes later they returned and Anpu reported in saying, "The passage leads to another chamber that is slightly larger than this one. It contains two treasure chests but they contained nothing but potions."

     The companions moved out as a group again. This time when they got to the chamber Brimstone motioned for Caval and Lord Fatman to join him. They went down the passage acting as scouts. A few minutes later they returned. This time their weapons were bloodied.

     Lord Fatman said, "We found a Gargoyle guard." With a wry grin, he remarked "Well, actually, he found us." Catching Brimstone's eye he continued, "We silenced him though. No alarm was given."
     “Well done,” Brimstone said. This time, when they arrived at the next chamber, Brimstone nodded to XconX, and his brother Genkaku. Fluidly the two moved down the next passage, making no more sound than a ghost.

     A few minutes later they returned and Genkaku reported, "Another chamber with two more chests."

     "Manaprisms,” his brother finished with a laconic smile.

     Again the group moved out. This time when they entered the next chamber, John and Tarn walked to the next passage unbidden. They returned a short time later and once more the weapons of the scouts had been bloodied. "Two guards this time. We took them by surprise,” said John.

     "They won't be alerting anyone,” Tarn supplied with a grim smile.

     At the next chamber Veksar and Brimstone headed out to scout the next passage. Silently and with great stealth they made their way to the next chamber, but it was empty save two chests. Veksar looked his question at Brimstone who nodded his head. He then checked the chests and got a mysterious black helmet from one and a pair of matching black gauntlets from the other. He offered one of the items to Brimstone as he was willing to share but Brimstone declined and pointed back down the passage they had just exited. Nodding his understanding, Veksar moved in that direction and the pair returned to that chamber. They quickly made their way to the waiting companions. Once there Veksar quickly showed the rest the armor he had located, and then they were on their way once more.

     This time Fawnn and Mystyka moved to check the next passage and Brimstone was about to stop them when that matter was taken out of his hands. Tersha stood before them barring their way. "I'm sorry my friends, but I cannot permit you to act as scouts,” she said softly. Seeing the expressions on their faces she added, "The enemy wants you. Therefore you must be protected by the entire party."

     She didn't wait for their replies. Instead she turned and padded softly to the passage accompanied by the male torlag. He stopped and turned a moment and said, "I'm sorry friends. But she is daughter to a dominant female. Being bossy comes naturally to her." That said, he turned and hurried to catch up. But he did so making no more sound than a mouse.

     "She was right you know,” Nessarose spoke up. "It is unwise for you three to scout."

     "Indeed she was right,” agreed Brimstone. Then he added, "She was also right when she recommended to me that you not be allowed to scout either."

     "She didn't!" Nessa said in surprise.

     "Just did,” Brimstone responded pointing to his head. "You are also a human female. Tersha rightly pointed out that you will serve the unholy purpose of the gargoyles as well as any of the other three ladies."

     None of the four women liked this turn of events, but they could not argue the logic of the matter.

     Minutes later the two torlags returned. "There is a problem,” Tersha said. Then she continued. "This next chamber has three gargoyle guards. One at the end of the passage and two at the beginning of the next. In the center of the chamber is a large chest."

     Brimstone nodded his head and motioned for Lord Malachi and Jedi to join him. They did so and then as an afterthought Brimstone called Anpu Sandstorm to him as well. "You three will have to take out the guards. Jedi and Malachi, you two take the one at the end of the passage. Try to hold him up if you can. Just long enough to keep the other two guards unaware of your presence a few moments. Give Anpu a chance to get into position to take the other two from a distance. If something goes wrong, take them out if you can. If you can't, come back and let us know."

     Jedi hooted with pleasure and would have bolted for the passage if Lord Malachi hadn't grabbed his arm. "Wait for us friend,” he said with a grin.

 


 

Chapter 26.

 

     The trio was gone perhaps twenty minutes and Brimstone was starting to become concerned when they finally returned. Smiling amiably Jedi said, "It is done. It took us a while because the guards there seemed skittish and kept turning around looking down the passages behind them."

     "Yes we had to wait for the right moment to make our move, but none escaped,” added Anpu.

     "That's due to your marksmanship,” interjected Lord Malachi, then he added, "One attempted to flee down the next passage. Anpu put an arrow into his brain, even as it was leaping to take flight."

     "Aye a great shot that was,” added Jedi with admiration.

     Anpu modestly said nothing but did smile as his companions spoke well of him.

     "And the large chest in the room?" Inquired Fawnn. Her interest was not motivated by greed but by curiosity. The chests replenished by the Gods could be charted to some extent. Their contents varied but they always yield one or two items of significance. Of course you might have to open that chest many times to get that item.

     "A black armored chest piece and leggings,” replied Lord Malachi.

 

***

 

     In her nest, the queen took the report of the warrior most loyal to her. She listened intently to his detailed report and then replied, "So the three women are inside the caverns and headed this way with their escorts. How nice of them to bring me that which I seek. And they are even bringing a fourth female? Good. Then if one of the others is slain I have an alternate nearby. You have done well, warrior. You were wise to halt the pursuit once they were within the caverns. Let them come to us. Once they enter the large inner cavern, take them by force of numbers."

     The warrior bowed to the queen and said, "There is one other thing my queen."

     "Speak it then,” replied the queen impatiently. It seemed to her that there was always just one more thing.

     "The company that is coming is dangerous. So far they have slain every guard in the normal guard positions. They kill with ruthless efficiency. The guards are getting nervous, for word of this has spread."

     "In their time in the caverns, how many have they slain and in how much time?" inquired the queen.

     "Six so far my queen, in less than one hour,” responded the warrior fearing her wrath.

     "During that same time frame how many of my warriors would they have slain in pitched battle?" asked the queen.

     "My queen there is no way of certain to know that."

     Staring at the warrior she sensed that he had no stomach for leaving guards to be slain in the presence of this threat. "You think me a fool, warrior?"

     "No my queen!" the warrior exclaimed as his eyes widened in shock.

     "Very well then,” she responded, then paused a moment before adding, "How long was your battle outside the caverns?"

     "Less than fifteen minutes,” the hapless warrior replied.

     "During that fifteen minutes how many of my warriors did they slay?"

     "We are still counting the dead my Queen. It is difficult because many were totally consumed by the fire magic of the leader of their party." 

     The queen’s eyes narrowed dangerously. For a moment she almost summoned other warriors to slay this fool. But he was a tool that she needed. With a rasping sigh she calmed herself and said, "Give me your best guess then."

     The warrior realized belatedly that he was treading on dangerous ground. He straightened himself and reported truthfully, "At best guess one hundred and seventy. We have that many unaccounted for my queen."

     "I realize that for the warrior class the higher arts of math are not strongly pursued so I forgive your ignorance. The loss of a handful of guards is preferable to the slaughter of hundreds. Leave the guards in place. Wait for the humans to enter the trap, then spring it. Now leave me,” This last the queen fairly hissed.

     Backing away the warrior turned and strode away, now convinced that the queen was right. The loses were considerably less this way. Besides, he had a few enemies that he could place in the guard positions. And there was that lovely female mated to one of the guards. The very idea of caressing her wings sent chills down his spine. That guard was needed at one of the guard positions that the humans would encounter. Oh yes, he was needed there badly! With an evil chuckle, he went to give the order himself.

     Smelling his musty odor even from her nest the queen trilled her laughter. She thought, “So the warrior had an interest in a female does he? Well chances are he will have a new mate soon if that is what he wants.”

     When the guard was well away, she turned to a darkened corner of her chamber and summoned the gargoyles waiting there. The three approached her and she gave them their instructions. "When the humans gain access to the central cavern you will take my sister and hide her in the spot marked on this map. There you will protect her with your very lives. No harm must befall her."

     "It shall be done my queen,” spoke one of the guards.

     "Do not move her until they enter the caverns lest you take her by accident into danger."

     "I understand. It shall be as you command."

     "Leave me,” she commanded imperiously. Without hesitation they departed. When they were gone she spoke to another darkened corner of the room and one lone gargoyle approached her. When they arrive at the chamber you will kill them all,” she said to her assassin. And that includes my dear sister."

     The assassin nodded his understanding. "It shall be as you desire my queen,” he said, then left to go to the cavern room designated earlier in his discussion with the queen.

     Smiling her satisfaction, she reflected it was well she had kept that old lover of hers near the center of power. That fool still loved her and would deny her nothing. He kept her secrets well, and all it ever cost was a flutter of her wings and a sigh at the right moment.

 


 

Chapter 27.

 

     The companions moved on through even more chambers. Chamber by chamber they advanced into the heart of the Gargoyle territories. Always careful to send scouts ahead so they didn't lead the ladies into a trap. Brimstone estimated that they had been in the caverns for three hours. He realized that all were nearing the point of exhaustion. They had been up late at the feast then marched all day with every intention of camping to rest for the night before proceeding into the caverns. The early departure of the gargoyles from their caverns destroyed that plan. Since then they had been in several battles and were now almost pushed beyond their endurance.

     Taking all that into account Brimstone made his decision. The companions must rest if they were to fight a pitched war with the gargoyles. He called the members of the company together inside the chamber they had just entered and expressed his concerns. It was agreed that they would hold up in the chamber in which they were currently situated. Guards would be posted at both entrances to the chamber. The ladies would be exempt from guard duty and were to remain in the center of the chamber so all of the companions would be able to lend them their aid in the event of an attack. Once again the ladies didn't like that precaution, but they had to concede that the gargoyles were indeed fast enough to grab one on guard duty near the entrance.

     The torlags volunteered to station themselves near each entrance, just beyond the guards, where they would sleep when they weren't on guard duty. They assured Brimstone that the scent of the gargoyles would wake them if any ventured near. Since the guards would be between the torlags and the passageways, Brimstone deemed that a very good suggestion and readily agreed.

     The companions had a quick meal of bread and cheese then guard schedules were set. They stayed in that chamber for six hours of undisturbed rest. Everyone got some sleep and all felt refreshed when, once more, they began to penetrate deeper into the gargoyle's caves.

     Since entering the caves they had slain twelve guards. But in the past few chambers they had encountered none at all. This gave Brimstone and the others pause for thought. They believed that they were either going the wrong way or that they were walking into a trap. Since they had passed no tunnels that didn't terminate in a dead end they knew that there had to be more gargoyles in this cavern system because they had not encountered the nesting area. They knew from past experience that gargoyle caves contained nests.

     It was their general opinion that they were indeed heading into a trap. They were right.

 


Chapter 28.

 

     Tersha was standing nearest the next passageway they would enter as the rest of the companions stood waiting for Brimstone to give the word to proceed. As usual the male torlag waited patiently near her. He was unobtrusive about the matter. He made no issue of it and never crowded her, but he took his responsibility to keep Tersha safe very seriously.

     He shocked everyone when he suddenly bolted straight at Tersha and slammed into her, knocking her rolling across the floor. Nessa drew her sword in a rage and ran toward him but before she could close with him several gargoyles came winging into the chamber and dove upon the dazed male torlag.

     The torlag had stunned himself when he knocked Tersha out of harm’s way. One of the gargoyles ripped out the torlag's throat spilling his blood upon the cold cavern floor. Bravely, the mortally wounded torlag retaliated by leaping upon the Gargoyle and locking his teeth into the creature's throat. The gargoyle toppled over on his back with the tenacious torlag still savaging his throat. He added his claws to the attack as soon as the creature fell upon its back.

     Brimstone shouted a warning to Nessa but it was Ziona's arrow that stopped the gargoyle about to sweep her off her feet as she stared at the male torlag battling the gargoyle. Then John grabbed her arm and pulled her back to the relative safety of the center of the chamber. The gargoyles were now entering the chamber en mass. Soon the sheer number of gargoyles would overwhelm them.

     At that moment Psychost stepped forward and began firing his firestorm spell into the passageway. Then Veksar was beside him doing the same. They were joined by Mystyka and Fawnn who finally had a chance to participate in the adventure and were wasting no time in doing so. They each added their earth shattering spells to the attack. The gargoyles trapped inside that passageway had to fly through a hell ground of attack spells concentrated within the enclosed space of the tunnel. The few who made it out were fully engulfed in flames. Ziona and Anpu sent arrow after arrow into those.

     The warriors confronted the five gargoyles who had made their entrance along with the one which had attacked the torlag. Soon all five were dead. XconX and Brimstone dealt with the gargoyles who had gotten through after the initial flight of six and before Psychost and Veksar had stepped forward to block the passageway. Nessarose and Tersha also launched attacks on that group.

     Tersha fought almost insanely. At one point she leaped off the ground and brought down two gargoyles with her forepaws. The claws attached to those paws embedded themselves deeply into the skulls of those creatures. Nessarose looked after her friend, firing arrows into any gargoyle that approached her.

     Within moments the battle was over. No more gargoyles attempted to come through the passageway.

     Tersha went to the male torlag. She nuzzled his body, and then she sat on the floor and produced an odd mewling sound. "She's crying,” Nessa said softly. "I've never seen her do that,” she finished.

     "Then how do you know she is crying,” asked Jedi innocently.

     "She described it to me once when I asked her about torlag emotions and such."

     "Oh,” said Jedi simply. Then he added, "Well he can be resurrected like Tersha was so that should fix things."

     Tersha turned to face Jedi. As she regarded him he saw the sorrow in her soft brown eyes and felt a wave of her pain. "He has been resurrected once already, friend. He cannot be resurrected again."

     Jedi was normally among the most carefree members of the companion's party. Most thought that he seldom entertained serious thoughts. So it was that he shocked them all then when he responded, "He was your father wasn't he?"

     Blinking in surprise Tersha replied, "Aye, he was, Jedi. And now I must tell my mother."

     But that was not necessary. At that moment Damia appeared beside Tersha. A moment later Versha appeared also and turned to her mate instantly. She sat on the floor mewling, even as Tersha had moments before. Walking to her mother Tersha sat and cried with her. Nessarose, closest of all humanity to the emotions of torlags sat on the floor near them and cried with them. Minutes later Tersha licked her mother's face and for long moments they communicated with mental images as the torlags do.

     Brimstone wrapped his arm around Damia's waist and hugged her. "We will take his body back to the torlags,” she whispered quietly. "You are nearing the end of your search for the nest. Beware my husband. There are many dangers here. Not all are as obvious as one would assume."

     Turning to the torlags she said, "I will return you to your home now. Tersha, will you be returning with us?"

     Both Versha and Tersha spoke up then. "No,” they said in unison. Damia nodded her head in understanding. She had felt certain that Tersha would stay to avenge her father. But pointing to the dead gargoyle Damia offered a suggestion, "It seems to me that he has avenged himself."

     "Aye that he did, and did it well Goddess," they replied still in unison. Then Tersha spoke alone adding, "The vengeance I seek now is my own. They have deprived me of my father. Mother understands and wishes me well. If I fail she will return to seek a vengeance of her own. It is our way."

     "So mote it be then,” Damia said somberly.

     She turned to her husband and kissed him with surprising passion and tenderness. Then turning to the others she said, "Beware all. Grave danger awaits here. I will tell you this much. Normally you stand together and will not leave a battle unless you can all leave together. If you behave in that manner here some of you will perish. I tell you this because we Gods have agreed that we owe you all a debt for past service." She waved her hand and said. Each of you now has a scroll upon you. That scroll will take you to Paradise Cove. If you are severely wounded use it, for if you do not you will die or cause death to your companions who will stand and die rather than abandon thee. That goes for all of you."

     One by one she looked them all in the eyes. "That especially goes for you XconX. I warn you fair."

     Blinking in surprise XconX nodded his understanding and said, "Goddess I hear you."

     "I wish you all well,” she said. She exchanged a lingering look with her husband then disappeared. A moment later the body of the dead torlag male disappeared. Versha exchanged words in private with her daughter, and then she too, disappeared.


 

Chapter 29.

 

     The events within the chamber left the companions with much to ponder. They were a quiet bunch when Damia and Versha had departed. Brimstone thought it best to get underway at once. Nothing good could come from delaying their own departure from this chamber which had seen the death of Tersha's father. They headed out en mass without their customary scouts this time.

     At the next chamber Brimstone reverted to the scouting system that had served them so well during their time in the cavern system. Chamber by chamber they continued to advance with no opposition. On the fifth such scouting expedition the scouts returned with word that the next chamber was a huge one. They also reported that it was impossible to count the gargoyles waiting there.

     "Waiting?" inquired Lord Malachi.

     Anpu and Psychost were the two who had been the scouts. Anpu replied, "There is no other way to describe what we saw. They were standing in rows. Just standing there. It is a huge cavern. Bigger than any cavern that I have ever seen. There were hundreds of gargoyles in that chamber. Maybe as many as a thousand."

     "An unnerving sight,” stated Psychost. Then thinking that the companions might mistake his meaning he clarified. "I've never seen a cavern chamber that large. I wouldn't even believe one could exist that was so huge. It made me a bit nervous. How can the ceiling of such a big room hold up all that weight?"

     Fawnn spoke up then saying, "Sometimes an underground lake can drain due to fissures opening and releasing the water. Some of those chambers can be immense. It should be safe though. Usually such chambers are wrapped in thick, really thick layers of rock."

     Nodding his head in agreement Veksar added, "Other times an immense pocket of gas is trapped between layers of rock. Over a very long period of time that gas can be released, just like Fawnn's water example, and leave a huge cavern when the gas seeps out of it into other areas."

     "Well whether it be water or gas let us hope that it stays out of the cavern when we do battle,” Psychost said, and then continued, "Please Brimstone. None of your massive fire magic at the ceiling of that cavern. All that open space this deep in the ground gives me the chills. I'd hate to think what might happen if you smashed into the ceiling with your pillar of fire."

     Smiling at Psychost Brimstone replied, "I too am uncomfortable in overlarge underground chambers my friend. I actually find myself walking softer for fear that my own footfalls might disturb the balance of such a room." He was exaggerating of course, but Brimstone had often found that a bit of good light hearted banter in times of danger often worked wonders to soothe the soul and set the company more at ease.

     Turning very serious Brimstone said, "Alright all, I have a plan." Listening intently, for their lives would depend upon their understanding the plan perfectly, the companions all stood there expectantly. "Let's go into Psychost's immense chamber and kill them all."

     Some of the companions smiled at that comment. They remembered Brimstone making a similar comment right before they attacked another tribe of gargoyles. That memory association comforted them, for they had survived that ordeal. But none of the companions reacted as spontaneously as did Caval the minotaur. Throwing his great head back Caval laughed and laughed until finally he regained his composure and said, "Brimstone if I didn't know better I'd swear that you were a minotaur in disguise. That comment sounds so much like a minotaur's battle ideology that for a moment I found myself seeking thy horns."

     Brimstone smiled at Caval. He was pleased that the newest companion was finally opening up and seeming to be more comfortable with the rest of the team. There had been little frictions here and there because of the species differences, but in battle he defended all as they defended him should the need arise.

     So it was that the companions spent their last moments of peace together before a major battle which could see them all slain, not in fear or trepidation, but in good spirits with laughter ringing in their ears. A gargoyle scout sent to check on them fled back down the passage and reported to the warrior leader what he had heard. The gargoyle commander sneered and said, "Then let us take their laughter from their throats the moment that we see them."

 


 

Chapter 30.

 

     Just before the Companions entered the final passageway to the immense chamber, Brimstone had everyone check their scrolls and renewed Damia's warning. If any were severely wounded they were to use those scrolls without hesitation, lest their failure to do so cause disaster. All soberly agreed to do so, but Brimstone had his doubts. Would Veksar be able to leave Fawnn if the situation demanded it? Could John leave Ziona in such a case? Or Tarn. Would he leave Mystyka's side? It went on and on. Would Nessarose be able to leave her friend Tersha? Or would any of these examples of his concerns work if it was the other way around? Would the ladies and Tersha be forced to leave? Could XconX, who had been singled out for reminding by Damia, flee to safety and leave his brother Genkaku?

 

     Outwardly calm, Brimstone was anything but relaxed. He hid his concerns well. Few of the others seemed aware that he was troubled about this turn of events, but he suspected that perhaps one or two of the companions might be conscious of his concerns.

     Added to this mix was his own growing sense of guilt. He was a demi-god himself. As such he didn't truly share the same dangers as the men and women, and now torlag and minotaur, of the company. Yes he could be slain. But the doing of that would be infinitely harder than the labor it took to slay any of the others. Therefore his chances of survival were significantly higher than the rest. He consoled himself that so far the companions had cheated death hundreds of times. Sighing, he made last minute equipment checks before they headed out.

     The five ladies of the party stood together checking their own equipment and chatting amiably. Fawnn said, "Brimstone looks concerned."

     "Yeah he gets that look before battle quite often,” observed Mystyka.

     "Perhaps he is afraid of what might happen,” Nessarose observed.

     "Yeah to us,” quipped Ziona.

     Standing near them Tersha interjected, "Guilt can be a terrible burden. Perhaps we should speak of it to him someday."

     "Guilt?" Mystyka asked then she continued, "He feels guilty for leading us here?"

     "He feels guilty because his odds of survival are so much higher than ours,” replied Tersha.

     "Oh that again,” noted Fawnn. "Yes, we really should remove that concern from his mind."

     "What concern dear?" asked Veksar who had walked over to join her, just as she had made her statement.

     "The same one, hun,” she replied. "Brimstone feeling bad that he can't die as easily as us."

     "Oh, that again?"

     Laughing, Fawnn said, "That's what I said." She kissed her husband and together they fell into line along with the rest of the companions.

 

***

 

     This time Anpu and Psychost led the entire party to the entrance to the immense chamber they had referenced earlier. When they reached the entry they found the gargoyles still standing, just as before. Apparently waiting for them. Staring hard at the vast chamber Brimstone noted that there were many tunnels leading to it all around the chamber. He also noted that this was the only ground level entrance that he could see.

     As if on cue the gargoyles parted ranks down the center of the chamber. On the far side of the immense room stood a large Gargoyle whom Brimstone immediately realized must be their king. Having fought one gargoyle king he knew what they looked like. Larger than average and deadly in combat, he would also be magic resistant and hard as hell to kill.

     Beside the king stood his mate the queen. She was bloated and swollen with the eggs of the king. The queen stood staring at the companions malevolently. Ah, but inwardly this was a happy moment for the queen. By now her sister was dead and soon the bloodlust would take her mate and he would kill rather than deny her the ceremony she craved, to cement her status as queen. She stood on the threshold of having her every dream come true, and she was also going to get to avenge her sister who had been slain by the companions.

 


 

Chapter 31.

 

     Brimstone took a step forward and stood at the ready. He had no intentions of leading the companions into the middle of the chamber to meet the king. At least here at the entrance they could put their backs to the wall, if they needed to do so, in order to keep the gargoyles from surrounding them. Also, the wall itself would limit the ability of the gargoyles to dive at them. They would by necessity have to approach at slower rates of speed for fear of a collision with the wall.

     Brimstone yelled out to the king in a loud voice, "I understand that your tribe is seeking some of my friends. We came to express our displeasure at that idea."

     Momentarily confused the gargoyle king said, "Do not think that you can come here and frighten me as if I were a fledgling with untried wings." Saying that he spread his wings to their full glory.

     Brimstone had to admit that they were magnificent wings. Fully extended they must have been fifteen feet wide at the tips. All the same, he was determined to slay the king if that was what it took to prevent this menace from full fledged infestation of Sic Dalar. If that came to pass no farmer or peasant would ever be safe.

     "I am not here to frighten you,” Brimstone replied. "I am here to do one of two things. We will forge a peace treaty with you and you will abide by those accords, the main part of which is that you will keep your hunting to non sentient species only."

     Loud mutters from hosts of assembled gargoyles greeted that suggestion. The king himself was contemptuous and simply laughed at the suggestion. "And if we refuse?"

     Brimstone smiled then, but it was a cold smile. "Why then we will kill you. Every last one of you. We will burn your queen, and when the eggs from her body erupt from her charred ugly carcass we will burn those and trample them underfoot. We will seek out your nest and cleanse it from the earth. We will trample underfoot your fledglings as if they were the common rats that they feed upon."

     This time a chorus of angry chittering erupted all over the cavern. Some of the companions wondered why in the world Brimstone was trying to incite and infuriate the gargoyles. Tarn and John both knew why he was trying to anger them. He believed in an ancient principal of warfare. If you can do so, drive your enemy insane with anger. In such a state the enemy seldom fights as effectively as when they are more rational and calm. Both Tarn and John had used similar tactics successfully more than once.

     The king was rapidly succumbing to bloodlust. His great wings beat heavily against the air and he flew upward some ten feet. Almost without effort he hovered there in position. Moments later he spoke to his tribe saying, "Slay them, but save the women for a ritual. Slay all others."

     Instantly, a vast wave of Gargoyles leapt into the air with beating wings. Fully one half of those that attempted a takeoff came crashing back to the ground, unable to gain wing clearance in the packed environment of the cavern. Brimstone didn't hesitate. He pointed his hands in the direction of the king and released one of his fire spells. It was pillar of fire. The fire spell instantly incinerated dozens of Gargoyles between Brimstone and the king. But the king himself survived by doing the unpredictable. Seeing the fire spell coming he folded his wings and dropped like a rock to the floor below. The heat from the spell singed the short oily hair on his back but otherwise he was unharmed.

     All over the chamber there was a hellstorm of spells. Fire and earth spells launched and landed among the packed gargoyles as they attempted to take to the air. Veksar, Psychost, and Brimstone all used the spell firestorm on any gargoyles in their immediate area. The earth mages, Fawnn, Mystyka and XconX used earth spells so rapidly that their earth shattering spells were overlapping in first one zone and then another. The gargoyles trapped in those kill zones were annihilated.

     The archers, Anpu, Ziona, and Nessarose added their arrows to take down any Gargoyles attempting to fly past the mages kill zones. They also fired into the packed crowd of Gargoyles at every opportunity. Such was the skill of those three archers that they killed several dozen gargoyles the first three minutes of the conflict.

     Things were going well for the companions until that moment. The warriors of the party hadn't even bloodied a sword as yet and already the companions had to have slain better than one hundred gargoyles. Glancing upward Lord Malachi spotted a tunnel entrance directly over their heads some twenty feet up the wall. It was quite large. He was just about to yell a warning to Brimstone when he saw gargoyles beginning to emerge from that opening. He just had time to shout, "Above us!" before the first of those gargoyles landed among them.

     Hearing the commotion behind them the mages didn't dare halt their attacks on the gargoyles. Well they understood that the moment that they halted their onslaught of spells, the enemy would sweep over them. It was their area spells keeping the monsters somewhat at bay. They had to trust the warriors and archers of their party to take care of the problem at their backs.

 


 

Chapter 32.

 

     Lord Malachi twirled his runed halberd expertly, bringing the blade upward toward the horrified gargoyle who had the misfortune of seeing the blow coming but was unable to arrest his descent to avoid it. The wickedly sharp blade bit into his groin and traveled upward until it lodged in his sternum. Try as he might, Lord Malachi could not free the weapon trapped within the body of the now dead gargoyle.

     Jedi struck the head from a gargoyle that was about to slam into Lord Malachi as he struggled to retrieve his weapon. The body of the gargoyle flew past Lord Malachi missing him by an inch. "Forget that weapon!" warned Jedi. Then with a grunt as he hacked the arm from another gargoyle he added, "They are on us!"

     Lord Malachi reluctantly drew a sword himself. He would have preferred the reach of his halberd for this battle, but it seemed fate thought otherwise. Jedi slew the monster he was fighting, and then turned to Lord Malachi grinning. "See a sword works just fine,” he said. He went down then struck from behind by a glancing blow.

     Lord Malachi moved to stand over his friend. He saw blood flowing profusely from the side of his head where the rigid claws of the gargoyle had struck him. He could see an inch of Jedi's skull exposed by the ragged tear in his scalp. Then Lord Fatman was there muttering a prayer. He reached down and touched Jedi on the head and instantly the wound was healed.

     Jedi got to his feet quickly, instantly alert once more. "Thank you friend,” he said, then stabbed a gargoyle through the stomach. Caval decapitated the wounded beast and Fatman moved on still praying.

     MetalHead and Genkaku were hard pressed for a few minutes. All about them the gargoyles were landing and attempting to attack the companions. With wild abandon those two warriors fought. Seemingly oblivious to any danger which might threaten them, the two men  killed and killed with deadly efficiency. Then a huge gargoyle seized MetalHead. He was lifted up into the air and would have been carried out over the rest of the gargoyles into the center of the chamber but for Ziona's arrow which pierced its skull. Immediately the dead gargoyle dropped the hapless warrior. The twenty foot fall was easily survivable but as he landed, he broke his right ankle and toppled to the ground in agony with gargoyles closing all about him.

     "Use the scroll!" shouted Ziona frantically as she fired arrows into the gargoyles trying to reach her friend. A moment later there was a flash of light and MetalHead was gone. He had been forced to leave because of his crippling wound. There was no way the others could have gotten to him before the gargoyles reached him. Thus hampered by his injury he would have died in heartbeats.

     Moments later Jedi was grabbed by the shoulders by two Gargoyles. They rose rapidly into the air with him. His sword gutted one of the gargoyles and that one let go of him as it spiraled to the ground. The other continued to hold him by his shoulder and carried him to the center of the chamber far far from his friend. With a triumphant shriek the gargoyle dropped Jedi from a height of some thirty feet. In horror his friend Lord Malachi watched him plummet toward the floor of the cavern and the hundreds of eagerly waiting gargoyles. At the last moment, just before he reached the waiting hands of the gargoyles, he vanished in a flash of light.

     Anpu's arrow lanced out striking the gargoyle who had dropped Jedi. Ziona and Nessarose both placed arrows in its chest as well. It fell dead to the cavern floor below, striking three gargoyles standing on the floor of the cavern.

     Caval and Lord Fatman killed and killed as they did their utmost to fend off the seemingly never ending stream of gargoyles dropping amongst the companions from the passageway above them. Brimstone shouted, "Close with us! Forget that position!"

     The warriors and archers moved to close with the mages. As they did so, Anpu was suddenly knocked to the ground by a gargoyle which had dropped a rock on him from above. The head sized mini boulder had struck his shoulder, breaking it. He was blinded by pain and almost passed out, but Fatman, still praying, found a new talent granted him by his Goddess Shinobi. He healed most of the wound with only one cast of his healing spell. A second cast would have healed it entirely, but he was not granted the time needed to do so. A gargoyle attacked him at that moment and he had to parry as its claws almost removed his face from his head. Still in pain, Anpu was forced to use his scroll as a dozen gargoyles dove head first toward him.

     Lord Malachi was fighting a rear guard action as the warriors and archers tried to close with the mages. Too late, he noted that he had been cut off from the others and he was valiantly attempting to chop his way through several gargoyles to regain the relative safety of his place among the companions when a rock dropped from above struck his helm, crushing it into his head. Dazed, he began to fall. He heard Tersha's voice inside his head saying, "Scroll Now!" Somehow he managed to use that scroll and, in a flash of light he was gone.

 


 

Chapter 33.

 

     Fawnn was in a bad way. The continuous barrage of her earth shattering spell was taking a toll on her available mana supply. She was at the point now where her supply of mana prisms was nearly exhausted. She began to sacrifice her shields in an effort to maintain her withering attack on the gargoyles. It was a gamble, but her spells were devastating rank after rank of the monsters. She was doing well until a head sized rock fell from above and struck her shoulder. She was knocked to the ground with a broken collar bone and a dislocated shoulder. In agony, she saw Veksar race toward her and scream her name. Distracted, he didn't see the gargoyle diving for him. But Ziona did. She shot it in the head and it crashed to the cavern floor.

     Fawnn was in agony. She was more tormented by the prospect of leaving Veksar and her dear friends than the pain of her wounds. But she knew she had to or Veksar could die trying to defend her. It hurt her to do so, but she used the scroll. Moments after the flash that signaled her departure, Veksar resumed his place in the mage line.

     John fought valiantly behind Ziona now. He killed any Gargoyle who ventured near them. Ziona fired arrow after arrow into the packed gargoyles. She was a seasoned archer. Some said one of the best Althea had ever produced. Yet even she had never participated in a slaughter of this magnitude. Her bow string twanged incessantly as she killed and killed and killed. She was caught in a frenzy of pull, sight, load, pull, sight, load, over and over. Suddenly she felt something bump into her back. Turning she saw John. The left side of his face caved in from the impact of a rock, he was slumping to the ground. As he fell, somehow he got the scroll in his hands. As his eyes threatened to close and he was losing consciousness he whispered, "I love you,” to his wife staring sadly at him. Then in a flash he was gone.

     Caval blocked a rock that almost struck Ziona with the flat of his battle axe. Then he was blind sided by three gargoyles that took him down to the ground. Moments later he stood upright thrusting a struggling gargoyle up over his head then throwing the hapless creature away from his body. Two arrows from Ziona's bow slammed into the Gargoyle as he sailed through the air.

     Now Caval's battle axe began to glow. Then he seemed to go into a berserker rage. The minotaur waded into the gargoyles nearest him and chopped his way through them in moments. Turning his raging eyes toward the center of the chamber, the valiant minotaur then proceeded through the monsters. His glowing battle axe cleaved through them as if they were made of paper. He was doing well. He had slain a full score of the enemy before a rock slammed into the top of his head. That blow would have killed any of the other warriors. It cracked his skull but didn't kill him outright. But the moment that he fell Fatman was beside him and laid a hand upon him as he prayed. The power of Shinobi was channeling through him and instantly Caval was healed. Together the two made it back to the companions.

     Nessarose battled with her bow until a rock dropped from above broke her upper bow limb. She dropped the now useless bow and drew her sword. Tersha, fighting beside her as she had been from the outset, suddenly leapt in her direction and knocked her aside. The rock that she had seen falling toward her friend instead struck her a terrible blow in the spine. She fell to the earth with her back broken. Nessa stood over her friend and said, "Use the scroll sweet one. Flee to safety so that you can be saved."

     Tersha obeyed, but only because she was aware that she was distracting her friend. In a flash she was gone.

     In the next moment Ziona was forced to use her scroll when a rock slammed into her, breaking her bow and her arm as well. Ziona cursed her luck even as she scrolled away.

     Mystyka was fighting with her back to Tarn's. Her spells had devastated better than seventy of the enemy, but now she was running out of mana as had Fawnn before her. Early in her relationship with Tarn he had learned to carry extra mana prisms for his lady. Being a warrior it was no bother, for he had the strength to spare. So it was that when she ran low on mana it was natural for Mystyka to say, "Tarn. Mana!" He thrust a dozen prisms into her outstretched hands and gazed momentarily into her eyes. "Look out!" Mystyka yelled, but it was too late. Two gargoyles scooped up Tarn and raced away over the center of the chamber where they dropped him. For a terrifying moment Mystyka was afraid that Tarn wouldn't use the scroll. There wasn't time to yell at him to do so. For Mystyka, time seemed to stand still as he fell. Two feet from the floor there was a flash and Tarn was gone.

     Angry gargoyles chittered their rage. Every time they had managed to severely wound a member of the raiding party or drag them out to the center of the chamber that person had disappeared.

     XconX fell next. His mana finally exhausted he had stopped casting all of his personal shields and even stopped healing himself. All he had been doing the past few minutes was attacking the gargoyles. Finally when his mana was completely exhausted the unthinkable happened. A huge gargoyle flying at top speed slammed into him. Dazed he attempted his attack spell and it did fire. Yet in one strike his mana was once again gone. The enraged gargoyle came back and struck him again. This time the wounds across his chest gushed blood and he fell to his knees. He summoned once more his attack spell and struck at the gargoyle which was killing him. The gargoyle fell dead at his feet. He fell across the foul body but pushed himself up with one hand. Looking around desperately he spotted his brother Genkaku who was shouting at him. "Use the scroll, damn you! Don't you die on me and leave me alone with no brothers!" an enraged Genkaku shouted at him.

     Smiling at Genkaku even as he remembered Damia's warning, he used the scroll. Just before he vanished he called out, "Look out behind you brother." Turning to see what was coming, Genkaku missed seeing his brother depart. But he heard the sound of the departure and was able to concentrate once more on defending himself.

     Veksar fell to a dropped stone himself. He had a compound fracture of his arm. Fatman healed the compound fracture, sealing the torn flesh, but had to stop the healing to defend Veksar from two attacking gargoyles. Veksar saw Fatman's right foot about to trip over him and he would then fall under the onslaught of many gargoyles. He used his scroll rather than trip his friend.

     Psychost and Mystyka stood, one to either side of Brimstone. Psychost had been struck by several rocks but his shields had prevented overly serious harm. But like the rest of the mages, this mad war was draining his mana. Soon, like Fawnn and XconX before him, his mana began to fail and he lost shields. So it was that when a fist sized rock hit the top of his head he was felled as surely as if he had been hit by a warhammer. As he collapsed with blood flowing profusely from his scalp Fatman touched him briefly and he struggled to rise.

     “Scroll Psychost!” shouted Brimstone desperately as he saw another rock, this one head sized, falling toward the still groggy man's head. At the last moment Psychost used the scroll.

     Then Mystyka went down hard. Something, most likely rocks dropped by the swarms of gargoyles overhead, had struck both her arms breaking them above the wrists. Caval himself helped her get her scroll and put it in her hands. With a weak smile of gratitude she used it.

     Nessa fought valiantly beside Fatman, Caval and Genkaku. They did their best to keep the gargoyles off Brimstone's back, but they were losing ground steadily. They were hopelessly outnumbered. Brimstone decided that they would move and ordered them to stay near him. By now they were nearing the center of the cavern anyway as they had been forced time after time to shift their positions to avoid falling rocks. The gargoyles had learned this was their best way to achieve victory. They were beginning to pull away from the wicked blades of the warriors and try to slay them all with stones from above, out of harm’s way of the warriors.

     Brimstone fired a sustained volley of his pillar of fire spell, which instantly vaporized the gargoyles before them. Then he led the way on the run. The companions stayed on his heels all the way as he scrambled to enter the only other ground level tunnel he had seen.

     The king and queen were nowhere to be seen. Brimstone suspected they had entered the passage. He darted into it, the path temporarily opened by the power of his spell. The warriors and Nessa, following on his heels, entered also. Immediately they were almost deafened by the outraged shrieking of the gargoyles in the nest. They had found it!

     Brimstone opened fire with his firestorm spell. Nest after nest erupted into flames and any gargoyle unfortunate enough to be sitting in it did also. Spotting the queen on her nest with the king beside her, Brimstone raised his hands to fire at them. "Hold, human!" the king shouted.

     Brimstone paused a moment. Somehow he seemed to know that the panic in the gargoyle's voice wasn't due to fear for its life. "There is a gas pocket in the wall behind us. The rock is thin. You will collapse the entire cavern, fool!"

     Deciding instantly Brimstone turned to face his remaining companions. "Scroll now,” he commanded in a voice that brooked no argument. "Do it or we all die,” he concluded. Then he turned to the king. The three human's obeyed Brimstone and used their scrolls thinking that he would do the same in a moment. But Caval was no human. He thought that maybe, just maybe Brimstone was more minotaur-like than the rest of the companions suspected. If he was right, Brimstone was about to collapse the cavern and eliminate the nest entirely. It was a good plan. A plan worthy of a minotaur. They had slain hundreds of gargoyles. Possibly nearly a thousand. Yet more and more came as the minutes had dragged on. This seemed to be the only option to bring victory.

     A moment later Brimstone raised his hands once more and fired his pillar of fire spell at the nests and then eventually at the king himself who had thought himself safe at the wall he had warned Brimstone not to hit. Caval would have stayed with Brimstone until the very end, but his Goddess had other plans. He heard the voice of Shinobi command, "Scroll now Caval!"

     Obedient to his Goddess, Caval wept as he used the scroll. The surviving companions were on the beach in Paradise Cove. They were shocked when he arrived openly weeping. "What is it Caval? What so ails thee my friend?" Lord Fatman asked.

      "Brimstone ignited the gas to kill the gargoyles."

     "Gas?" asked Damia who was standing on the moonlit beach. Nessa quickly explained what had transpired while Caval composed himself.

     "What of my husband?" Damia asked. "What of Brimstone?"

     Taking a shuddering breath Caval said, "The last thing I saw was a great explosion when Brimstone's spell hit the wall then the ceiling of the chamber was collapsing in on Brimstone as I disappeared."

 


 

                                                              Chapter 34.

 

     The moment that the king mentioned the gas pocket an idea formed in Brimstone's mind. He immediately followed up on that idea by instructing the remaining companions to use their scrolls then turned to face the king once more. It was his plan to use the gas pocket to destroy the cavern and scroll out at the last possible moment.

      He resumed the attack on the gargoyles listening for the tell-tale sound of the companions using their scrolls even as he launched his spells. He heard multiple people vanishing and thought that all of the companions had complied. When a person uses the spell word of recall or a scroll to teleport them to another place there is a sound like a small clap of thunder as the air in the spot that they just vacated is superheated then cools.

     Thinking that his friends were all safely away from the kill zone Brimstone unleashed his pillar of fire spell at the wall behind the king. The king was an incidental target who just happened to be standing in front of the wall that he thought would guarantee Brimstone couldn't use his powerful fire magic. The king's fire magic resistance prevented the spell from incinerating him on contact, but the force of the spell’s impact swept his magnificent wings backward breaking them. Opening his mouth to scream in pain the Gargoyle's mouth was filled with fire and his eyes began to boil in their sockets. It would have been better for him had he not been resistant to fire. Then he would have been incinerated on contact which would have been much less painful.

     As for the queen sitting on the nest near him, she had nowhere near the fire resistance of the king. The residual heat from the spell washed over the nest setting it instantly ablaze and her along with it. Screeching in agony she thrashed about in the nest.

     For a full five seconds the king was tortured by the pillar of fire spell as it slammed into him with relentless punishment. Just behind him, the spell burned into and through the wall getting closer to the gas pocket by the second. As the spell washed over him, his magic resistance was overwhelmed by its sheer power and his body began to be consumed by the heat. First the hair burned away from his body and then his wings began to turn to ash.

     Moments later, the attack spell burned through the wall and reached the gas pocket that the king had known was there.

     The explosion was horrific. The rapidly expanding superheated gas, flames, and rock debris shredded the king killing him instantly. The queen was similarly slain and her eggs in the nest were destroyed where they lay. Brimstone thought that he heard the sound of someone else using a scroll behind him even as he tried to use his own, but it was too late. Before he could use it the ceiling above him collapsed downward upon him and he was encased in an earthen tomb as all went black.

 


 

Chapter 35.

 

     Throughout the labyrinth of tunnels that made up the cave system used by the gargoyles, there were residual collapses here and there. Hundreds of gargoyles were crushed to death under the weight of collapsing ceilings. Still hundreds more were trapped in chambers where there was no hope of escaping before the air supply ran out and they suffocated.

     But there were survivors of the catastrophe which had befallen their domain. The companions hadn't known it, but this was the original nest of the gargoyle species. Created by the God of Fertility to become a threat to his enemies, they were a prolific species. In time, as their numbers had grown, Dalghard had met with the gargoyles and sent some few to the lands of his enemies. Eventually they had been transplanted to every significant land mass on Althea. But this was the oldest and most developed of the nest domains.

     To accommodate their proliferation Dalghard himself had expanded their caverns several times. He had also stocked them with a good supply of pigs to keep them well fed. It wouldn't do to have them preying on his followers thereby diminishing his army. As a result of his intervention there were literally miles of tunnels in this cavern system. Only about half of those tunnels were collapsed. Unfortunately for the gargoyles, the majority of their population was within the radius of that death zone. Unfortunately for the rest of Althea, not all were within that radius.

     Inside a small chamber that was close to the edge of that death radius the queen's sister cowered next to a wall. The four male gargoyles present stood over her to protect her from the falling debris as the entire cavern system seemed to shake and heave. When the dust finally cleared those five gargoyles stared at one another in wonder. The assassin stepped forward and addressed the female saying, "I will go and see what has happened." Looking at the three males he said, "Guard well the sister of the queen until I return. Remain here."

     Fearing him none of the three dared argue. They wished to know immediately what was transpiring, but the assassin was known for his ruthlessness and none doubted that he would slay them if they did not obey. They had no hope of killing him. He was second only to the king in power and had in the past killed as many as ten gargoyles who had challenged him. Alone, he had fought and conquered them all.

     Flying through the cavern system the assassin thought that it had been wise to wait before carrying out the queen's orders. He had suspected that the battle against the intruders might not end as the queen envisioned and he had opted to stay his hand until he knew the outcome of that conflict. If the king and queen were dead, then their tribe's laws dictated that a dominant male would take the king's place as leader of their domain. He had prepared for just such an event well in advance. He had established himself as a dominant male several years in the past. He had also used his cunning and battle skill to eliminate any who might one day stand between him and the king's position.

     An hour after he left the three males and the queen's sister in the chamber he returned leading dozens of gargoyles to them. From there they flew on to another cavern chamber some distance from the small chamber where they had waited. He instructed all of the females present to wait there. He left a dozen male guards to warrant their safety then the rest of the other males flew throughout the cavern system. Every time they met groups of gargoyles, they were led to the chamber that the assassin had selected as a meeting place. There the females joined the others. Other males were added to the guard detail as well, and some were sent to check on the pigs.

     This went on for several hours and finally new arrivals stopped coming. Scouts returned cursing that few of the pigs had managed to escape the catastrophe. This was reported to the dominant male when he returned. He had a group of fifty males sent out into the night sky to seek out the wild pigs that also roamed the land, but warned them to avoid being seen by humans. They were too weak and disorganized at the moment to withstand an all out attack. Only scouts would approach human settlements for now.

     The dominant male took stock of their situation. Of the estimated ten thousand gargoyles that had populated their domain prior to the attack, only about fifteen hundred survived. To his dismay, he noted that of those fifteen hundred only about one hundred were breeding females able to produce eggs. That was going to be a problem. He immediately doubled the guard on those females and issued a proclamation that any gargoyle striking a female would be put to death. The breeders were now sacrosanct.

     One female seeking to exploit that advantage by berating and striking the males soon found herself dragged before the dominant male. He had all of the females brought to bear witness to his decision, and then he reminded her that she could produce her eggs with or without her wings. To illustrate that point he shredded a three inch section of her right wing, marring its beauty. The female then dropped to her knees pleading for the punishment to end there. Mercifully he granted that wish and had her taken away. Glaring at the assembled gargoyles he said, "Know this. The very survival of our tribe is at stake. I will not tolerate the abuse of the females by the males, but nor will I tolerate the females using this protection to abuse the males." The assembled gargoyles got the point. This king would rule with an iron will.

     The new king sent the females back to their area with the instructions to begin new nests and prepare for the moment of their time when it was that they could produce eggs to ensure the survival of their people. He noted that the queen's sister stayed behind as the other females departed under the watchful eyes of their guards. "You wish to speak with me?" he asked her, not unkindly.

     Unconsciously the dominant male was flexing his wings and the female marveled at their strength and beauty. "Yes I do want to speak with you,” she replied. Then boldly she continued, "You will need a queen."

     "That is of course assuming that I am selected as king,” the dominant male replied formally.

     The gargoyle female chittered her laughter then. "Of course you will be selected and confirmed."

     Staring at the female the king in all but name already said, "I agree with your thoughts, and yes I do need a queen. One of good blood."

     "I am of good blood,” the female stated simply. Then she continued, "It would be best to settle this matter before the females decide to compete for the queen's nest. Not even the king can interfere in those rituals."

     The king nodded his understanding. Often the competition between the females left dozens dead. That was a loss that they could ill afford under the current circumstances. The males by tradition could not intervene, for it was seen as the males seeking to influence the matter.

     "There is always the option for the king to declare his desires for a queen of his choice,” the female reminded him. The male didn't like that. This was another way for a queen to secure her position permanently. This was a clever female. As clever as her sister. Possibly more so. She continued, "If you do so then there will be no competition among the females. There cannot be, as you will have decided the matter."

     Grunting by way of reply the king then said, "Very well then. My queen you shall be." Pleased with herself the would be queen turned and walked away to begin a nest. At the king's gesture her guards paused a moment to hear the king wishes. "See to it that she is not harmed, but if she abuses the other females overly then report to me privately. No one, not even our queen, will be permitted to harm the breeders." They departed in haste to follow his orders.

     Soon the hunters returned with wild pigs. The king ordered half placed in breeding caverns to restock them and the tribe shared a meal as best they could. No one had their fill of blood. They were going to be hungry for a while. The females must be sated or their clutches would suffer for it. Their shells would be thin and most of the unhatched would perish within the egg.

     Later that night one of the gargoyle scouts returned to the king with word that he had seen literally hundreds of pigs being kept near a human city on the coast. Thus it was that Paradise Cove came to the attention of the near desperate gargoyles.

 


 

Chapter 36.

 

      The companions slept on the beach in Paradise Cove. One by one the paladin of Shinobi, Lord Fatman, had healed the worst of their wounds. They were waiting for Damia, who had left to consult the other Gods. They slept despite their worry about Brimstone. Seasoned adventurers all, they well knew that one rested when one could. And Damia had assured them all that Brimstone was not dead. She was certain that she would have felt his death as would his father Artherk. He was in trouble yes, and he would need their help, but they needed rest before they could help.

 

***

 

     Damia was meeting with Artherk and her father, Ogrimar. She told them everything that she knew of the battle and what she had learned of Brimstone's fate from Caval. Artherk said, "My son is not dead. I would know it if that were the case, yet I cannot reach him."

     "Nor can I,” replied Damia. She reminded them both of the time an assassin's poison had afflicted Brimstone and pointed out that she had been able to contact the stone of light in that situation. But she could not find it either.

     "Most likely the stone is using all of its considerable power to preserve Brimstone's life as we speak," replied her father Ogrimar. Looking at his daughter calmly he replied, "I am afraid that there is little that we Gods can do to assist Brimstone."

     "Then how am I to locate him and free him?" inquired Damia, frowning slightly. She still had confidence that no matter what it took, she would find a way to see to it that her husband was rescued.

     At that precise moment in Paradise Cove, Versha arrived with a group of torlag volunteers. Tersha had reported to her mother what had transpired and Versha had immediately realized that her people were uniquely suited to assist them in this need. They were accustomed to tunneling. They were tireless diggers and would be able to greatly assist in that regard alone, but they had yet another talent which would be invaluable in a rescue mission. Their sense of smell was highly refined. They could smell out a human easily. Even when the human was buried if they came within range they would smell him.

     Versha bespoke Damia's mind when she had been told that the Gods were meeting to discuss Brimstone's fate. She informed Damia of her volunteers who were gathered at the city to assist. Then she made a request to Damia.

     Troubled, Damia thanked Versha and told her that she would consult with the Gods and see what could be done.

     Turning to the other Gods, Damia informed them of the developments and the torlag Leader's request. The torlags would have to march by day if they were to get to the area in a timely fashion. Sadly, both of the Gods shook their heads. "Damia you cannot adjust the vision of the torlags. Not even to save Brimstone,” Artherk said.

     Ogrimar agreed with his counterpart and added, "We know that you have tampered with Tersha's vision in the past. We overlooked that one instance because of the dire need for her to accomplish her mission and because you returned it to normal promptly. But you must find another way that isn't in violation of the Accords."

     Artherk added, "The ‘no tampering with the species’ agreement exists for a very good reason."

     Smiling at Artherk sweetly, Damia replied, "I know Artherk. I promise I won't do that." She hastily kissed both on the cheek. Her giggle surprised them both as she said, "Besides I thought of a way to do the same thing that will not involve the Accords at all!"

     Smiling, Ogrimar said, "Ah, you have remembered the poison antidote." Laughing in relief Damia vanished.

     Artherk smiled at Ogrimar and said, "A clever child."

 

     "Yes she can be,” responded Ogrimar, unable to keep a smug note of pride from his voice.

 


 

Chapter 37.

 

     Damia appeared on the beach beside the waiting volunteers. She went immediately to Tersha and said, "Tersha my dear I need your silver armor."

     "Then it is yours Goddess,” stated the torlag without hesitation. Nessarose helped her remove the armor in short order. As an afterthought she had Nessa help her to remove the claws as well. These items Nessa handed to the Goddess who thanked them both then closed her eyes in concentration. A moment later several large chests appeared on the beach beside her.

     Each of the chests contained a specific armor piece and one contained the clawed weapons. The torlags and humans spent a great deal of time equipping the armor and claws onto the volunteers. Damia returned the originals to Tersha thanking her for their loan.

     Versha said, "Goddess we thank you for the armor. With this we will be able to travel by day as well as night and our vision will not be impaired by day."

     "You will also need to make sure the city torlag contingent has the armor,” Damia responded. She was referring to a group of torlags that assisted the city by sharing guard duty with the human defenders.

     "It will be as you say Goddess,” replied Versha. Then she added, "One of our guards just spotted a lone gargoyle flying just north of us. He says that the gargoyle circled over the pigs for a moment and then departed."

     They discussed the rescue mission for a few minutes. Damia told them what she had suspected and had confirmed by the other Gods. In their opinion there was nothing that the Gods could do directly to save Brimstone. There was no way that they could utilize their powers to find him. Therefore, it would be up to the companions and all of the volunteers they could muster.

 

***

 

     Brimstone lay buried beneath tons of dirt and rock. As the ceiling had collapsed and the debris had begun to fall on him the stone of light had reacted to save Brimstone. It had forced him into a catatonic state to slow his breathing and surrounded him with a white globe of power which held the falling dirt and rock at bay until the catastrophe had swept by them. Then the stone of light had attempted to reduce the force it was using to hold up that debris but the moment the force begin to drop the debris moved in closer. So the stone had maintained the power draining shield for hours as it sought out a solution to the problem. Finally it settled on heat as the answer to the problem. It reinforced its shield to protect Brimstone from the heat and then it generated a massive amount of heat that liquefied the soil and rock around them, then it let that material cool naturally. That took some few hours, but when it was completely cooled Brimstone was surrounded by a rock ball about two feet thick. The stone of light probed the surrounding area seeking, ever seeking. Finally it located the closest tunnels still intact.

     Using still more power from its dwindling supply the stone of light drilled two holes about six inches in diameter. These holes drilled through the rock chamber surrounding Brimstone and then the earth and rock between Brimstone's chamber and the other tunnels fusing the circular walls of the mini tunnels as it went. In this manner the gem drilled two ventilation holes into two separate tunnels that would create a ventilation draft through Brimstone's small chamber. The air coming through reduced greatly the need for the stone of light to continue to expend power in providing Brimstone with air, which was good because now the stone was almost completely drained of power. Never before had it expended so much of its power.

     It checked Brimstone carefully one last time, then seeing that his charge was as safe as possible the stone put itself into a kind of sleep. It would not stir again until it was brought into the sunlight. For in truth that was where it derived its power. As its awareness dissipated into slumber, the stone regretted that it lacked the energy needed to contact Damia.

     At that precise moment Damia was finishing up the planning session with the companions. The moment that the stone of light thought her name Damia heard that fleeting thought and then immediately lost the contact. But her mind had narrowed the search area in that millisecond and she knew approximately where the gem was located.

     Excitedly, she shared this knowledge with the torlags and humans who eagerly greeted this welcome news. The companions surrounded the Goddess and asked many questions at once. Finally they stopped and waited for her to address them. "I know approximately where he is. But not exactly. I do not know his condition. The thought from the stone of light was incredibly weak. I can only hope that it has preserved Brimstone in some manner from death. How long it can continue to do so, I do not know. I do know that my husband still lives. How much time we have I do not know.”

 


 

Chapter 38.

 

     Damia opened a portal from the town of Stonecrest on Stoneheim to Paradise Cove. The word had gone out and several volunteers were waiting there to join the expedition to attempt to rescue Brimstone. Lady Ru was the first volunteer to step forth from the portal. Pierrot, Juz, Lady Sparks, LenapeSue, Dark Arrows, Yane, and several of Tarn’s mercenaries followed her quickly.

     Smiling her gratitude, Damia greeted the new arrivals and thanked them for coming. One of them asked if she would be opening a portal to the location they would be searching. Damia replied, "As I suspected there are gargoyle survivors. Therefore, it would be foolhardy to open a portal to the location. The gargoyles would be attracted to it and most likely attack anyone as soon as they stepped from the portal. We could do it yes, but there would be loses. For that reason my husband would not permit such a risky endeavor to be undertaken to retrieve him."

     "Oh, come now Goddess,” replied Juz, "They can't be that dangerous."

     "Yes they can,” responded Tarn calmly, as he remembered the way the gargoyles had nearly annihilated the companions. "But for Damia's scrolls, several of our party would have died. Actually, only four were relatively uninjured during the battle."

     "Three," corrected Caval. "I had my head bashed good, but Lord Fatman fixed that."

     Looking around the assembly of volunteers Juz replied, "Well, it looks as if we have a strong company to mount the search."

     "Yes and it is good to see that more archers have arrived,” Ziona responded nodding at the new arrivals. "I'll tell you how the gargoyles disabled our bows on the trip. Hopefully we will be able to avoid that if we are attacked this trip."

     "You will be," Damia replied with certainty. Then she continued, "And this time they will be much more aggressive." Smiling at the companions she added, "You folks have them quite stirred up."

     Versha stepped forward then. She spoke the words in everyone's heart when she said, "If we are all here now, I suggest we all get ready to begin our journey. It will take several hours to reach the Cavern. With a party this large, most likely all day and part of the night."

     The sun was beginning to rise over the sea as she said that.

     "There is one matter left to settle,” Damia stated. Looking at them all she continued, "You will need to decide on leaders for this trip."

     Surprised by this, the companions looked at one another uncomfortably. Always in the past Brimstone had led them. It hadn't even occurred to them that this might be an issue. Seeing their hesitation, Damia intervened saying, "Tarn and John are both accustomed to command. They will jointly command the human element of your party. Versha will lead her people. Tarn and John, work out the rest. Mind you protect the torlags if the gargoyles stand off and attack your party."

     "Of course Damia," replied John.

     Tarn settled for smiling and nodding his understanding of the situation.

     The two men would compliment each other well. Tarn was the more experienced leader in conflicts on land but John was an amazing strategist, especially when dealing with foes that outnumbered his men. He was able to instantly seize upon an opportunity and exploit any weakness in his enemy's defense.

     Damia bid them farewell then and told them to call her when they had news.

     Juz asked, "She isn't going with us?"

     "If she did, she would end up breaking the Accords of the Gods,” responded Fawnn, smiling in remembrance of the fine line Damia had walked in the past, when her desires and the Accords of the Gods had clashed.

     "She cannot slaughter or make extinct the creatures created by another God," Mystyka supplied.

     "I thought Dalghard created them," Lady Ru said entering into the conversation.

     "That wouldn't matter," replied Fawnn. "The rule is still in place, and the other Gods will enforce it."

     "So this is why we were needed?" LenapeSue asked. Smiling she answered her own question when she said, "Of course. Otherwise all she would need would be her godly powers."

     "You mean even the God's have to follow a lot of rules?" Juz asked astounded.

     "You have no idea how many times we've seen Damia frustrated by the Accords," Ziona said with a smile as she thought of a few temper displays that she had seen when Damia's will ran afoul of the Accords. "Actually they restrict the actions of the God's in many ways."

     "Well, if I were a God I'd do as I pleased and the other Gods could just like it or not,” Juz said.

     "Another God tried that approach. It led to the war of the Gods,” stated Lady Sparks quietly.

     Versha spoke up then saying, "It is time we left. If we hurry perhaps we can get to the cavern before nightfall."

     They headed out then. Marching at a good pace the large group made good time the first hour of their journey.

 

***

 

     Deep underground in his tomblike cavity Brimstone lay deep in a slumber induced by the stone of light. He lay there oblivious to the world, unaware of the danger that his friends were about to encounter on his behalf.

 

***

 

     In the main cavern now used by the remnants of the gargoyle tribe, the newest gargoyle king stood victoriously over the body of the lone gargoyle who had dared to challenge his right to become the king. Standing there with his magnificent wings spread, he raised his head proudly and announced, "As king I choose to select a queen of my choice and forgo the usual rituals of the selection." Beckoning to the former queen's sister he signaled her to join him.

     She strode forth proudly and without hesitation. There were murmurs of approval and more than one gargoyle said, "She is of the blood." She joined her king then and together they drank of the blood of his rival who lay dead at their feet.

     Moments later they were interrupted when a scout flew in to report that a very large party from the human settlement by the sea was heading in their direction. Calmly the king raised his hand for silence during the pandemonium that ensued. Finally, when silence and order were restored in the cavern he said, "Let them come. This time they will face a different king." He then ordered his warchiefs to his side and began to plan an attack.

 


 

Chapter 39.

 

     The first hours of their march toward the caverns were uneventful for the companions, who settled into a ground eating pace early on. By highsun they had managed half the distance to the cavern system. They stopped briefly then for a cold meal of bread and cheese. They had some pig meat with them prepared a special way by one of the city cooks who had devised the cooking method. It was cooked slowly over a controlled heat and enclosed in a box so that wood smoke permeated the meat. So thorough was the cooking that the meat literally fell to pieces into thin strands. Taking forkfuls of that meat they added it to their bread and cheese and topped it all off with another slice of bread.

     Mystyka found the flavorful meal enticing and speculated that they might need to speak to the cook about the preparation and eventually open a shop to sell the concoction in Harvest Moon.

     Juz spoke up then saying, "Nah, the stuff would never sell. Who'd buy this when they could buy a ham?"

     "Fawnn interjected, "I don't know about that Juz. It travels well. It's compact and quite good."

     Mystyka just smiled as she ate and planned for the future.

     After the meal they headed once more for the caverns. The mountain was now visible in the distance. Refreshed after their break and meal they picked up their pace a bit. They were anxious to either reach the caverns before dark or locate a suitable spot to camp for the night. It was simply too dangerous to travel in the open at night near the gargoyles’ territory.

     Some hours later, the column of companions halted and everyone moved to the front of the line where John, Tarn, and Versha waited. Glancing with growing concern at the sun, now low on the horizon, Tarn said, "We will never make the cavern system before dark." Pointing to the north about a mile away from their trail to the caverns they saw a large copse of woods which could easily conceal them all. "That is where I think we should stay for the night."

     The other two leaders agreed and said as much. Summoning the mercenaries who had joined them, Tarn sent them along with ten torlags to scout out the woods. They waited ten minutes then followed at their normal pace thus giving the scouts time to check out the area prior to their arrival.

     When they entered the woods Versha sent her torlags to seek out any possible secret entrances which might be near them. A bit later they reported back that there were none. Then Versha did what was natural for the torlags, but surprising to the humans. She ordered a shelter for the night constructed torlag fashion. The torlags dug in teams of three, replacing the teams every few minutes. They dug with amazing speed. An hour after it was begun, the crude shelter was completed. It was a torlag made cave of sorts. There wouldn't be enough room for real comfort. Most of the humans wouldn't be able to stand completely erect. They would have to bend over to maneuver through it then sit down on the ground when they got to a place to rest. But if they needed to do so they could all fit inside the shelter for the night, and the torlags could dig an escape tunnel if one were needed. Versha ordered such an escape route begun just as a precaution.

     The mound of soil left from the digging was spread throughout the woods by volunteers who made sure it was covered by dead leaves. It wouldn't pass a close scrutiny, but then it didn't have to. All it need do was avoid notice from above as any potential gargoyle searchers winged overhead.

     John stated the obvious. There'd be no fire this night. He encouraged everyone to eat and prepare to rest in shifts.

 

***

 

     The guards noticed the flight of gargoyles circling the still distant mountain well before true sundown. They circled there for about ten minutes, seemingly waiting for others to join them. Using his spyglass John noted that there must be well over two hundred gargoyles in the flight he was observing. Then, as if on cue, the gargoyles broke away from their circling pattern and headed toward Paradise Cove. 

     John and Tarn took turns studying the flight as it winged toward the city. John planned to send a mental warning to the city if it became apparent that the gargoyles intended to stay on that course. But when they reached the point where the companions had detoured for the woods, the fliers suddenly changed their flight path and winged straight for the woods.

     Versha ordered the work resumed on the escape tunnel then. She warned the torlags not to break through to the surface but to get within a few feet so they could rapidly complete it should it become necessary.

     "But how could they know?" a perplexed Tarn asked. "We left no sign of our passage."

     Versha answered the question saying, "They apparently have a highly developed sense of smell. If they smell as well as torlags they would easily smell us, even from the air."

     They decided to fight the gargoyles near the shelter. There was no point in hiding within the shelter. Their scent would lead the gargoyles to them in moments.

 


 

                                                              Chapter 40.

 

     The companions had fought together through so many battles they automatically assumed the formation Brimstone most often utilized. The mages and archers at the front of the battle line and the warriors, paladins and torlags ready to act when the battle reached hand to hand directly behind the front rank. Tarn asked Caval and three of the mercenaries to hold the entrance to the shelter to prevent Gargoyles from entering it and depriving them of their shelter should they need it in an emergency. Versha also ordered two of her torlags inside the shelter to hold the entrance from the inside. Just in case a gargoyle got past the other guards.

     The newcomers, not being accustomed to fighting with the companions, were quickly told where they should fight to maximize the groups’ effectiveness. Lady Sparks, Pierrot, Lady Ru, and Juz quickly slid into the mage line as did the archers LenapeSue, Ziona, Nessarose, Yane, Anpu Sandstorm, and Dark Arrows.

     The preparations took four minutes. They were barely set when the first of the gargoyles flew within sight of them and shrieked defiantly. Lady Sparks fired the first attack of the battle. She fired her boulder spell into the leading edge of the oncoming gargoyles. Juz fired his fireball spell, adding his firepower to her earth power. Then Pierrot joined in with his boulder spell and Lady Ru added her fireball to the fray.

     Permitting the newcomers to open the battle, the rest of the companions joined in. Mystyka and Fawnn's earth shattering spells rocked into the leading edge of the attacking gargoyles. XconX added his spell to theirs and Veksar, with Psychost beside him, added their fire spells.

     The archers added their arrows into the fray. Ziona's shot seemed to signal the rest and quickly Yane, Anpu Sandstorm, Nessarose, LenapeSue, and Dark Arrows joined in. The leading edges of the attacking gargoyles were decimated within moments and the first attack was broken.

     The companions waited expectantly for two minutes but no other gargoyles flew within sight. Then a torlag hissed and faced the woods behind the shelter. Versha spoke quietly saying, "He says they are in the woods to the rear and possibly to each side as well."

     Jedi hooted excitedly and drew his sword as he turned to face the threat. Lord Malachi stepped solidly to his side, prepared to hold off the threat should they emerge from the forest before the mages could be repositioned.

     But it was Genkaku who met the first of the attacking gargoyles as several rushed from the trees near them. His sword twirling in a vicious horizontal figure eight he wounded two gargoyles before being bowled over by a third. A torlag leapt upon the back of the gargoyle that held Genkaku pinned to the ground for a brief moment. The silver claws flashing so rapidly as it attacked the Gargoyle that the eye could not follow nor count the strikes. A moment later Genkaku was once more on his feet battling his foes. He politely thanked the torlag for the assist.

     Jedi got his wish and was soon battling his share of the gargoyles.

     Lord Malachi lamented the loss of his runed halberd even as he struck the hand from a gargoyle which was reaching for Jedi's arm. "Maybe we will find it as we search for Brimstone,” Jedi panted.

     John fought near Ziona. He blocked the path of a gargoyle attempting to get to his archer wife and killed it in short order. Ziona's arrow struck a gargoyle leaping through the air in an attempt to tackle her husband as she shouted a warning. The arrow killed the gargoyle but John had to leap aside as the body flew at him.

 

     Fawnn and Veksar launched their attack spells into the surrounding woods as shadow after shadow turned out to be gargoyles. Psychost added his spells to theirs, then one by one the other mages joined in. The woods all around the companions were now a hellish mix of attack spells and arrows. The companions had successfully countered the gargoyles second attack.

     Then the third began. With no warning at all a large rock fell from the sky, striking Juz on the shoulder. He fell to the ground in pain. Lord Fatman went to his aid healing him but soon the falling rocks were hitting others. The archers and mages shifted their attacks to the skies above them now. This permitted the gargoyles in the woods to once again close in and attack. One of Tarn's mercenaries was dragged away when three gargoyles jumped him. Moment's later his body fell from the sky and landed among the defenders.

     For three minutes more they fought. They had slain a large number of gargoyles, but their position was rapidly becoming untenable. To make matters worse they had never encountered gargoyles who fought using such sophisticated strategy. When another mercenary was dragged away, only to fall among them, John ordered, "Inside the shelter now!"

     Fighting an orderly retreat they entered the shelter. The torlags went first to immediately work on the escape tunnel. The weakest mages and mercenaries went next. The strongest mages and warriors were the last to enter with XconX and Genkaku being the last two to enter.

     They braced themselves expecting an immediate attack. It had been very difficult breaking away and getting inside the shelter. They had been extremely hard pressed and most had wounds to prove it. Therefore they expected an immediate attack on the shelter. Oddly, none came.

     Then the torlags began to growl and stare at the ceiling above them. "They are digging in over us. They apparently intend to dig us out. Most likely they will attack the entrance once they have a few other entry points,” Versha said. Adding softly, "That's what I would do."

 


 

Chapter 41.

 

     Lord Fatman and XconX healed the injured members of the party as they calmly entered the escape tunnel. Half of the torlags remained in the rear of the tunnel to act as a rear guard should the gargoyles enter the escape tunnel before they could escape. The gargoyles might rule the sky but torlags ruled small tunnels. They were best suited for dealing with the gargoyles in this environment.

     The torlags reported they were nearing the surface and called for quiet within the tunnel. Listening intently they then reported that they believed there was nothing above their exit area. They could neither hear nor smell a gargoyle. Moments later they broke the surface and scrambled out. Soon all of the companions were outside the escape tunnel with their torlag allies.

 

     Then they heard a chittering coming from the tunnel they had just vacated. Veksar would have cast his fire spell inside the tunnel but Versha said, "Save your spell, friend. Just wait a moment."

     Confused by this Veksar waited as she had instructed and a moment later he heard the ground rumble as did the rest of the companions. Seconds later they saw the ground sinking where portions of the tunnel had been.

     "You trapped the tunnel?" he asked.

     "Yes we did,” she replied smugly.

     "Great idea!" Jedi said.

     "It is dangerous to enter a tunnel after a torlag,” Versha said fiercely.

     "That won't stop the rest,” replied Tarn. We need to find another place to make a stand or hide."

     "Actually we should attack them now,” John said. "At the moment we would have the advantage of surprise and we might be able to catch them inside the shelter and be able to attack them as they emerge."

     Tarn smiled at that suggestion and said, "Then let's get to it,” indicating his approval of the plan. He sent Anpu along with one of his best mercenary scouts ahead with instructions to warn them of danger if they saw a trap.

     They made their way back to the main shelter entrance without incident. Once there they saw only a handful of gargoyles standing near the entrance. Using hand signals Tarn instructed the archers to take out the gargoyle guards. Moments later the gargoyles were all dead. Several torlags darted in and dragged their bodies away from the entrance.

     Veksar entered the shelter first with two torlags at his side to act as guards while he was casting the fire spells. He immediately encountered a large group of gargoyles just emerging from the escape tunnel and they rushed him. His firestorm and meteor spells killed many but soon some of the gargoyles managed to get through to him and would have taken him down if not for the two torlags that defended him tooth and claw. They fought as they retreated back out of the shelter.

     Outside Veksar found the companions waiting to assist him. MetalHead, Lord Malachi, and Jedi stepped past him to meet the gargoyles in the mouth of the shelter. Then Lord Fatman and Caval moved in to assist them. A score of gargoyles were killed as the enraged creatures attempted to escape from the entrance of the shelter.

     Then mage spells began to dance in the air as some of the gargoyles escaped from the shelter by way of the holes the creatures had dug to enter the shelter.

     Versha shouted for the warriors to stand away from the entrance. They heard her and moved aside. Ten of her torlags darted past them in a blur heading inside, hoping to catch gargoyles attempting to climb through the ceiling of the shelter. Moments later Jedi hooted with glee when he heard the shrieks of dying gargoyles. "I'm glad the torlags are on our side,” he said with feeling.

     Moments later the battle was over. The remnants of the gargoyles gathered in the sky and circled for a moment, even then harassed by the arrows and spells of the companions. Shrieking defiantly they flew away back toward their caverns.

     Damia appeared beside the companions then. She walked straight to the two dead mercenaries and shook her head in sorrow when she saw that they were mutilated beyond her ability to resurrect them. "We will avenge their death Goddess,” Tarn spoke softly.

     "Brimstone would be heartbroken that men are dying to attempt his rescue,” she replied sadly.

     "We all knew the risk Damia. We undertook it willingly to fight for a just man, as he would fight for any of us,” Juz surprised them all by saying. So far his comments had tended toward the snide, and several of the companions were finding him abrasive. Yet at the core of the man seemed to be of good heart, and he had fought fearlessly defending others when the need arose with no murmur of complaint.

     Damia thanked him for putting the matter into perspective, and then said, "I'm afraid there will be little rest for you this night or tomorrow. I cannot help you fight the gargoyles because of the Accords. But I can do this." Saying nothing more she cast healing on all present and their wounds were healed. Then she summoned a table laden with a hot meal.

     Blinking in astonishment at the heavily laden table Jedi sat down to eat. Laughing, the rest joined him. The torlags had their own food that Damia supplied as well. They ate well of the food provided. While they ate, Damia refreshed their bodies and minds using the power of the Gods. By the time they had finished their meal they all felt refreshed as if they had slept a full night and were ready for action.

 


 

Chapter 42.

 

     At the height of the battle with the gargoyles at the entrance of the shelter, Jedi's innocent comment to Lord Malachi that perhaps they would find his halberd as they searched for Brimstone was overheard by one of the gargoyles.

     The gargoyle who had heard the comment was one of the more intelligent warchiefs. He recognized the importance and significance of the information and immediately left the battle zone. Rising gracefully into the darkening sky he flew unerringly back to the caverns. There he sought out the king and reported what he had overheard.

     Immediately the king dispatched hundreds of Gargoyles to search the caverns near the former central chamber. Within an hour scouts returned to report that they had located only one passageway that came anywhere near the desired chamber. They further reported that it was blocked far short of that chamber.

     "You saw nothing out of the ordinary?" queried the king.

     One scout reported finding an odd, small, and perfectly round tunnel that appeared to be newly formed and most likely led to the old nest chamber. He described what he had seen in detail.

     "Very well then,” the king had responded. "Check the levels above and below this level. Find a way to locate the nest chamber if a way inside it exists. Remember to bring the man to me alive if you find him."

     The leader of the scouts said, "That may be impossible. I have already dispatched several scouts above and below us to seek out the closest path to that chamber. All reports so far confirm that all tunnels leading into the area have collapsed."

     "If that is the case then find a new way into the chamber area. Dig a new tunnel into it if you have to. Start one beside the small tunnel that your scout just mentioned."

     The scouts left then to see to it that the king's latest orders were followed. A new tunnel was begun at the small ventilation tunnel. The gargoyles began to dig into the earthen wall of the old corridor and used the newly formed tunnel as their guide. As they dug they sometimes encountered giant boulders in their path. The boulders had not impeded the progress of the stone of light as it had drilled the hole, but they did cause the Gargoyles considerable trouble. They had to detour around, over or under such obstacles. The progress was slow, but by the time the companions were setting out once more for the caverns, the gargoyles were well on their way to digging out the chamber where Brimstone lay comatose.

     In the main chamber now used by the gargoyles, the king discussed the companions with his warchiefs who had returned from the battle defeated. "So, in the open they defeated you. We will see how they fare inside our caverns," the king stated, and began to lay out a strategy for the gargoyles to follow once the enemy was within the caverns.

     No more open air attacks would be prosecuted against the companions. They were simply too good at fighting on the surface. And to enter the shelters of the companions was a death trap. They had learned that the hard way. Therefore, the gargoyles would wait for the companions to come to them.

 


 

Chapter 43.

 

     Damia wished the companions luck as she left them at the site of their meal. She said, "I have something of importance to take care of. I wish you all luck in your mission and thank you for helping in the quest to rescue Brimstone."

     She then disappeared and reappeared in Stoneheim beside Shalmain. "Greetings to you Shalmain,” she said to the surprised mage.

     "Greetings to you, Goddess,” Shalmain responded politely.

     "I have need of thee, my friend and I know from your heart that I can count on you, for your soul is close in alignment to my own," Damia said.

     Nodding his head cautiously, Shalmain stated "It is true I am neutral and a bit chaotic as well. I too like change. It is good for the spirit. But I am also devoted to the cause of good." Seeing the concerned expression that she permitted him to see, Shalmain was startled and asked, "Can I help you in some way?"

     Damia spoke to him at length then about what her latest visions had shown her. The gargoyles had learned that Brimstone was trapped inside their caverns and were actively seeking him. She told him they had located a ventilation tunnel made, by the stone of light, to provide Brimstone with the air he needed to live, and that it was quite possible that they would get to Brimstone before the companions could do so.

     Shalmain spoke then with a lack of understanding of all the rules the Gods had agreed upon to govern their actions when he asked, "Can't you just pop in there beside them and obliterate them?"

     As patiently as was possible for her, Damia explained the constraints that she had to deal with and then she said, "You, my friend, are uniquely qualified to handle this situation. In visions I have seen all of the possibilities. If you do not go, the gargoyles will discover Brimstone before the companions can reach him. If you do go then you will do something that slows down the gargoyles, thus giving the companions time to get to him first."

     "Then I am ready to depart, Damia,” Shalmain replied calmly.

     She thanked him for that and disappeared. A moment later Shalmain found himself in a small cavern deep within the confines of the gargoyle’s territory. Damia unrolled a map scroll and pointed a delicate finger at a spot on the map. "This is where we are." Tracing her finger along the tunnels and chambers of the map Damia added a thin green line to trace the path that he should take to get to the inner sections of the gargoyle's territories. "Once there you will find most of the center collapsed." Moving her finger chaotically around the center of the map she made the lines move and reorganize themselves into a jagged circle with a rough, uneven surface. All of the tunnels and chambers depicted on the map ended abruptly at that center circle. "Beyond that point I cannot see the path, for that area is protected by the God Dalghard's powers, spells and wards put in place against the prying eyes of other gods long ago."

     Shalmain understood and said as much. He swore to do all that he could to help. Damia waved a hand over his back pack and he staggered for a moment as the weight changed. It was now quite heavily loaded, but he could handle the weight well enough. "Mana and potions and food for the journey,” she said answering his unspoken question.

     Growing serious she warned him, "Do not reveal your presence to the other companions. I have seen the outcome of that. It is unpleasant." She disappeared before he could ask her what she meant, but he had a pretty good idea that someone would die if he revealed his presence to the others.

     He studied the map a moment, fixing the path he needed for the first few turns firmly in his mind, then he rolled up the map carefully and stored it in his backpack. Without much worry he headed out along the path Damia had indicated. He had walked for about ten minutes before it occurred to him that he had not asked Damia if her vision had shown his fate in this enterprise. Stopping momentarily he was about to send her that mental question when, in the tunnel up ahead of him, he heard the sound of wings beating the air.

     He knew that the path behind him offered neither shelter nor a place to hide. So it was that he had no choice but to fight when the three gargoyles flew rapidly into view before his slightly unprepared eyes. Seeing him in their path the three monsters dove immediately at his upturned face. Without hesitation he attacked them. His boulder spell smashed into their bestial faces even as they attacked.

 


 

Chapter 44.

 

     The companions entered the caverns through the same entrance which they had used on their previous trip. A lone gargoyle scout lying still as death observed them from his vantage point of a rocky ledge nearly one hundred feet up the mountain. His mottled hide blended in with the rocks splendidly, and he was as carefully concealed as if he were invisible. He waited until the last of the enemy had entered the cavern then stood and took wing. Moments later he entered another cavern entrance further up the mountain and flew rapidly to report to the king.

     The enemy was now within the caverns. The king then dispatched gargoyles to arrange the first of the attacks. This time things would be different. He wasn't the old king and he had no intentions of permitting the humans to slaughter what remained of his tribe. Where strength of numbers had failed before it was this king's intentions to use the strength of his guile. He intended to use other means of destroying the enemy.

 

***

 

     Anpu Sandstorm crept with great stealth through the tunnel leading to the next chamber. He was so silent that his passage made less sound than a butterfly in flight. Few men or women could hope to match him in his stealth. Yet compared to the torlags walking beside him he felt as if he were clumsy and loud.

     Anpu and the two torlags were scouting. It was their turn to take that dangerous duty. Tarn and John had decided it best to use Brimstone's tried and true method again as they entered the cavern system and made their way toward the center and hopefully, Brimstone. Versha had agreed that it was a good plan and some of her people went on each scouting expedition.

     They proceeded uneventfully to the next chamber and examined it carefully. Satisfied that all was well they returned to the main group of companions who had remained in the last chamber. Moments after they left to return to the other companions, the gargoyles entered the chamber with three chests which they placed upon the floor. They never touched the ground as they did this so they left little of their scent in the chamber. They had carried the chests in their powerful feet and set them down carefully. Then they flew from the now trapped chamber back in the direction of the main chamber.

     Five minutes after the gargoyles had departed, the companions slid cautiously into the chamber. Many of the torlags noted the scent of gargoyles in the air, but their scent literally permeated the caverns. There was no scent to indicate that they were lying in wait upon the floor of the cavern, and they could see the ceiling and that none waited there. So it was that no torlag mentioned the scents they detected.

     Anpu and the torlag scouts all noted the presence of the three chests which had not occupied the room before. But before they could voice their concern regarding that sudden appearance, two mercenaries and Juz opened the chests and set off the traps within.

     The companions had entered the caverns with full shields in place as was the usual procedure. But when the traps were sprung they unleashed a hail of elemental assaults upon the unsuspecting group. The three chests each contained an elemental area attack spell. One was fire, one was water, and the last was air. Spells crackled and sizzled all over the chamber as the forces from the various spells merged to torture the party members. When it was over, two of the torlags lay near death. If not for their armor all would have died. Three mercenaries had also almost died and Juz lay dead on the floor of the cavern. When he had opened the chest he had selected the center of the three chests. Caught in a whirlpool of spells from his chest and both of the other trapped chests, he had died in heartbeats.

     The torlags tended to their wounded in torlag fashion regurgitating on the wounds, which healed them rapidly. XconX, Mystyka, Fawnn and Pierrot healed all the members of the party who had need of healing as the rest of the mages tried to heal themselves. It had been close. Too close. The chests trap spells had been exceedingly powerful. When combined they had almost killed over half of the party.

     Fawnn sent Damia a message telling her about the death of Juz and Damia appeared next to Juz's body. She turned to Tarn and John and spoke swiftly. "I can resurrect him, but it will be draining for me to do so. I'll take him to Stoneheim and help him there. He would be unable to fight for hours, as the resurrection process leaves people disoriented. For him, this adventure is over."

     Saying no more Damia vanished. A moment later Juz's body vanished as well.

     Thirty minutes later the companions were once more ready to move out, thanks to the wonderful healing ability of the torlags who had taken the brunt of the damage, for the mages could not spell them up as they maintained spells on the rest of the party. This led to a discussion between Fawnn, Mystyka, and Versha about the possibility of the torlags learning magic. Versha had expressed her opinion that she thought that at least some of them could do so, but that it would require them to go to the various teachers.

 


 

Chapter 45.

 

     Shalmain managed to kill the three attacking gargoyles and penetrate deeply into the territory of the gargoyles. Sometimes he heard the telltale sound of their approach as they patrolled their territory and he managed to hide from them. Other times they took him by surprise and attacked. Luckily for him, when this happened they had never exceeded three in number and he rapidly discovered that he could handle three at once. Just barely, for these gargoyles were exceedingly strong. But he could manage it and stay alive.

     Now, hours had passed since he had been brought to the caverns and he was entering another chamber when he made a surprising discovery. Inside the chamber he encountered several fledglings. Unknown to him these were the last remaining fledglings of the prolific tribe of the gargoyles. They had been sitting there on the ground as if stunned. They must have been very young for they were still tiny in comparison to the adults. His presence changed that and in an instinctual hatred of humanity they began to screech outrageously their protest at his presence. He stared at them in concern, worried that their screeching would attract the adults.

     Further down the cave system sharp eared gargoyles heard the screeches of the fledglings and instinctively took to wing to locate the young ones. All adult gargoyles protect the young of the tribe. A gargoyle's worst enemy among the tribe would die fighting to save his fledglings. The gargoyle culture combined with their natural instincts bred that reaction into them.

     One scout returned to report the good news to the king. Fledglings had been heard in the caverns! They had thought them all lost in the cave disaster.

     Meanwhile poor Shalmain was faced with two options. Slay the gargoyle fledglings or flee. Intellectually he knew that the fledglings would mature into adults who would be a danger to humanity. But right now they seemed so helpless that his soul was moved to pity them and he acted with mercy. He shook his head and backed away. He should kill them. He knew that, but he was reluctant to do so while they were so helpless. He spared them, and that mercy saved his own life when the ten adult gargoyles found him backing away from the fledglings. Had he been attacking the fledglings they would have slain him without a thought, but as he was not attacking them they hesitated to slay him thinking this might be the human the king had ordered taken alive.

     They swooped down on him from behind and knocked him to the ground. His head hit the cavern floor knocking him unconscious. They then took him back to the main cavern, along with the fledglings they handled with infinite care and patience.

     When he awoke from his knock on the head he stared into the face of the king. "Greetings Brimstone. I see that you are finally awake. How nice of you to join us so that we could stop digging that useless tunnel."

     Shalmain was at first disoriented and confused. The results of being knocked unconscious. But he remembered his mission. If the gargoyles thought that he was Brimstone then naturally they would halt the search. He decided to lie and pretend to be Brimstone, hoping to buy time for the companions to reach Brimstone. He reasoned that he could always use the spell word of recall if the gargoyles seemed intent upon his demise. He further reasoned that the longer he could pass himself off as Brimstone, the more likely it was that the search would not be resumed before the companions arrived. He also noted that he was tied hand and foot. Tied so snuggly that fighting even with magic was not an option.

     "Greetings gargoyle. You have me at a disadvantage. You know my name, but I don't know yours."

     "I am the king of this tribe, human. That is all you need to know about me," the king replied. Then he added, "My Scouts tell me you spared our fledglings. Know then that this act on your behalf has spared you from instant death."

     Shalmain noticed the king glance behind him and make a motion with his hand. Suddenly he was seized and lifted into the air by several gargoyles, who carried him to a nest some distance from where he had met the king. Beside the nest waited several of the smaller gargoyle fledglings that he had seen earlier. He was unceremoniously thrown into the nest. Once there the fledglings began to move toward him clumsily on shaky legs. They stood barely a foot tall at best.

     "They hunger and right now blood is in short supply,” said the king watching what was unfolding. "Therefore, human, you will serve their needs for now. Be glad of their presence or you would already be dead."

     A moment later Shalmain felt the tiny fangs of a gargoyle fledgling sink into the soft flesh of his thigh. Seconds later he felt another bite on the upper arm and in heartbeats he felt another at his neck. Soon eight tiny fledglings were feeding on his blood.

     "You won't die. They are small and cannot yet drink enough to slay you,” the king said as Shalmain threw his head back to scream. He screamed then and the thus far gentle bites turned savage and insistent. "I wouldn't agitate them. They are young and easily excitable. They are also more aggressive when agitated."

     Shalmain struggled within himself for calm. He could still use the word of recall spell, that was the one spell that mages can use even when bound, but if he did the gargoyles might then learn that he wasn't Brimstone. He fought an inner battle for a moment fighting off the panic that threatened to emasculate him. He knew that it was possible that the gargoyles knew of Brimstone's reputation. Brimstone would not use an escape spell when confronting an enemy. To maintain the ruse, he must permit the gargoyles to feed on him for as long as possible. "Time!" he thought to himself over and over. "I have to buy the companion's the time needed to reach Brimstone."

     "That's better,” said the king smugly. "See? Even now they become docile again. They understand that they feed on the blood of a demi-god and they yearn for the powers you are reputed to possess. Perhaps by feeding on your blood they may well do so. If that is the case, I will finish you myself to gain some portion of your powers."

     "You are using them to test me?" Shalmain said in disgust.

     "Yes I am. The fledglings will be watched most carefully."

     Staring at the king of the gargoyles Shalmain regained control of his emotions. This creature wanted to see him show fear and terror. It expected that. It longed to break him, thinking it had Brimstone in its clutches. Well, Shalmain wasn't Brimstone, but by the Gods, he was a man and he could behave with the dignity of a man, even if he wasn't a demi-god like Brimstone. Besides, he could always escape later. He stared hard at the Gargoyle King in silence for a full minute and then he said, "When I get free of these ropes, you and I will dance."

     Seeing the perplexed expression of the gargoyle's face he smiled and added, "Come on gargoyle, release me and face me. What's wrong? Don't you want to dance with me?"

     The gargoyle's curiosity was roused. It asked, "What is this dance that you speak of?"

     "If you release me I will show you,” Shalmain stated hopefully.

     "You will tell me now!" demanded the gargoyle in growing anger.

     "Well we stand and face each other. Then I put my hand on the back of your neck and shove your head into the wall of this cavern,” replied Shalmain laughing.

     In anger the gargoyle king cuffed Shalmain drawing blood from his nose. "You seek to anger me into ending your suffering early," the king said as his anger changed to amusement. "For this insult to my intelligence I will see to it that you feed the members of this tribe for a very long time." Then, seeing the blood trickling down the captive's face from his battered nose, he leaned forward to lick it away. "Not bad human," the king said. "A sample then of the feast to come when the fledglings are fat and sated with your blood and ready for weaning from their frequent feedings."

 


 

Chapter 46.

 

     The companions headed out as soon as the entire party was ready. This time, the scouts were to carefully note any changes between the time they checked out a cavern chamber and the time they returned with the main party. But that precaution wasn't necessary, as it turned out. The gargoyles tried something completely unexpected in their next assault on the party.

     Jedi and Lord Malachi, along with several torlags, had led the party to a small chamber with a very high ceiling. They had all reached the center of the chamber when they heard the sound of something light hitting the cavern floor behind them. Spinning about they saw small snakes dropping from near the ceiling. At first they saw nothing but a small hole near the ceiling, and then they saw a gargoyle's clawed hand as it dropped several more of the small serpents. Then they heard the same sound again. Once more the sound came from behind them. Tarn shouted, "Warriors, the rear!" Reacting to the simple command the warriors spun to face the new threat at the rear. Versha split her torlags, half to the front and the balance to the rear.

 

     The small snakes seemed at first harmless. They were about a foot and a half long and a mottled brown in color. They were also very thin, being no more than two inches thick at their broadest. But the moment that they drew near the companions Versha shouted a warning that she smelled deadly venom.

     The mages opened fire on the snakes then, killing many with their spells. "Archers cover the holes!" shouted John as the gargoyles to the front and rear of the party were dropping more snakes. A moment later several archers released their arrows and a Gargoyle's hand and arm was hit by multiple arrows which pinned his injured limb to the cave wall. The same thing happened behind them when the archers also pinned that gargoyle's limb to the wall. Then there were shouts of warning as more serpents began to drop past the pinned arms to the floor of the cavern below. Apparently, the gargoyles had others with them who had taken over the task of dropping the serpents. Soon the floor was crowded with the aggressive snakes which were angry at the rough treatment they had received, and looked to take their anger out on the assembled companions.

     The mages killed and killed. Lady Ru and Lady Sparks killed efficiently and silently. Fawnn and Mystyka used their spells both offensively and defensively by casting their protective shields on the fire mages whose protective spells were not as effective as were theirs.

     XconX and Veksar decided to take the fight to the snakes by attacking the rear of the serpents while the rest attacked the front, thus containing them in a killing zone of mage spells. Psychost saw this and opted to assist them. Still some few serpents got through the mages offensive spells. Pierrot was bitten by a serpent and fell. Such was the potency of the venom that he was dead before he hit the floor. A torlag snapped its jaws shut on the serpent which had killed Pierrot and killed it. The other torlags rushed the serpents then. Their battle armor made them effective at dealing with the menace and the mages held their fire as the torlags finished off the threat before them.

     The warriors battled on their side as best they could and that was very well indeed. Lord Malachi, Jedi, MetalHead, John, Tarn, Genkaku, Lord Fatman, Caval, and several mercenaries faced that threat. The warriors, with the exception of Caval, were in armor that offered some degree of safety from the bite of the serpents. Still it was not exactly safe for the warriors since, given time, the serpents wickedly sharp fangs could penetrate even plate armors. The warriors had no intentions of giving the feisty serpents that much time. They wadded into them hacking and slashing at them.

     As they fought, Lord Malachi heard Jedi ask, "How is it that such small serpents have such long fangs?" Lord Malachi just grunted and kept fighting, but he had to admit that Jedi had a point. Those fangs were disproportionately large for the reptiles’ bodies. It occurred to him these might just be a product of Dalghard's manipulations.

     The archers proved their worth when they began to pin serpents to the walls as the Gargoyles were dropping them. This was a very difficult feat on a moving target that was two inches thick at its broadest. Soon the walls were covered by serpents in their death throes, pinned there by the archers Yane, Ziona, Nessarose, LenapeSue, Anpu Sandstorm, and Dark Arrows.

     Veksar and Psychost, joined by Lady Ru, decided to concentrate their fire power into the small holes which the gargoyles were utilizing to drop the serpents. Moments later the gargoyles pinned to the wall of the cave shrieked and died where they were as the flames consumed them. Their help must have fled the flames because the snakes stopped dropping after both holes were targeted.

     Lord Fatman walked over to Pierrot and laid a hand upon his head. Sadly he shook his head. Removing his helm he knelt beside the dead mage instinctively and began to pray to his Goddess Shinobi. Again he laid a hand upon the man's forehead and continued to pray. The rest of the companions watched in amazement as his skin began to turn scarlet red. Fatman was drawing the poison from the body of the fallen companion. As he did so he was literally taking the poison into his own body. As he prayed his own skin color returned to normal. Moments later he was heard to say, "Arise Pierrot, follower of Ogrimar." As he said that there was a flash of soft radiant light from the body of Pierrot and his chest heaved. He breathed once more.

     Lord Fatman collapsed. A concerned Caval leapt to his friend's aid, holding his head in his massive hands as the Lady Sparks washed his face with a section of her cloak that she had dampened with water. Soon he was awake and alert once more and he thanked Caval and Lady Sparks for their assistance, but when he stood he almost toppled over. Caval swept his friend off his feet, carrying him like a child. "He will return to strength soon. He is weak from his paladin work. I will carry him."

     The companions helped Pierrot to his feet. "What happened?" he asked.

     "You died, but Lord Fatman, paladin of Shinobi, resurrected you,” replied Tarn.

     The paladin shook his head and said, "Shinobi did that. I only asked her to."

     "My gratitude, friend,” said Pierrot gratefully.

     "Companions,” said a suddenly sleepy Lord Fatman.

     "Aye, that we are friend,” replied Pierrot thoughtfully. He staggered himself then. Fawnn and Mystyka, who were standing near him, each reached out to grab his arms and steady him.

     John and Tarn walked up to Pierrot. Acting as spokesman Tarn said, "You should use your spell and return to Stoneheim. You heard what Damia said about being weak and disoriented after a resurrection. You can barely stand now."

     Reluctantly Pierrot said his goodbyes. He emptied his backpack to share his supplies of mana and healing potions with the companions. "I'll get more in town" he said, then vanished in a flash of light.

 


 

Chapter 47.

 

     Shalmain was weak. He didn't recall ever feeling this weak in his life. He had begun to think that the king had underestimated the hunger of the fledglings and was possibly wrong. Perhaps they could indeed kill him. Several times already they had fed on his blood. He estimated that he had been captive for about eight hours now. No matter what, he could not let the little monsters feed on him again. Soon there was the very real risk that he would be too weak to summon the magic he needed to escape this torment.

     These things were in his mind as he watched the last of the little gargoyle fledglings stagger off to join the rest in sleep. If they followed the previous pattern they would return in two hours. So far he had not been fed. He had been given water to replace the moisture that his body lost to the feeding, but nothing more. "I hope they find Brimstone soon because these creatures will make me so weak I cannot escape,” thought Shalmain with growing concern.

     He closed his eyes. He was desperately tired. The affect of losing so much blood. He slept then, but in his dreams he saw hungry fledglings staggering toward him with their little mouths working in anticipation. He woke up screaming.

     The King threw his head back and laughed. "Here lies the vaunted Brimstone, crying out in terror like a week old fledgling."

     Prior to this, Shalmain had never hated any sentient being. He had of course had his disagreements with some. But never had his emotions bordered on hatred. At this moment though, he knew what it was to hate a being. And he hated the gargoyle king with every fiber of his being. Then and there, Shalmain found a reserve he had not known he possessed. Drawing his dignity about him, he stared into the eyes of the gargoyle king. He just looked at him. But something about his calm face and the stare of his eyes made the king uncomfortable. For a moment he felt afraid of this human. Then he remembered that it was his prisoner, weakened by the feedings, and bound hand and foot.

     "Soon, Brimstone. Soon I shall feast upon your blood myself."

     He should have remained silent. It was foolish to taunt a being who holds your life in its hands. But Shalmain was angry. It was a cold anger though. Looking at the gargoyle calmly he replied, "The moment that you try that will be the moment of your death."

     Surprisingly the king walked away at that point, troubled and angry with himself. He was in control here, yet deep inside his soul he had to admit something to himself that he would share with no other living creature. He was afraid of this human. Something about him screamed a warning to him that this creature held the potential to slay him.

 


 

Chapter 48.

 

     The companions were getting close to the area Damia had zeroed in on when the stone of light had thought her name. Seven times now, the gargoyles had attacked them using traps or monsters they had captured and released upon them. They had used giant wasps whose stings paralyzed the warriors and archers and left them helpless. The torlags were also greatly affected by those wasps and equally helpless, which reinforced Versha's commitment to having at least some of her people trained in magic. The mages, whose attacking ability didn't require physical movement, made short work of the creatures.

     They also found many trapped chambers in which the gargoyles had dug pit traps filled with snakes of the type encountered earlier, but the torlag's marvelous sense of smell detected those traps and, much to the disgust of the gargoyle king, his carefully laid plans were ruined when the mages and archers safely annihilated the serpents in the pits.

     Then they entered a chamber the scouts had seen empty moments before, only to find themselves confronted by a giant wild boar. Larger than any the companions had ever seen, the great boar stood as tall as a man at the shoulder. Hooting with pleasure Jedi charged the animal. The boar gnashed its great tusks and lowered its head to meet the charge. When it did so, Jedi grabbed it by one ear and, using the boar's ear to arrest his momentum, he leapt upon its back.

     The moment he landed on its back, the boar went berserk. It threw back its head grunting and began to run straight at the packed crowd of companions. As it ran Jedi was methodically chopping away at it with his sword but alas he couldn't get much power behind his thrusts and swings as the animal darted toward his friends.

     Lord Malachi and Caval stood before the monstrous boar's charge, prepared to meet it with their weapons, as arrows darted past them to strike the beast in the chest, but at the last moment Jedi's flashing blade severed the creature's spinal column and it collapsed, throwing Jedi across the cave where he banged his head into a wall. Lord Malachi noted that the impact compacted the soil of the wall and left the distinct, rounded impression of the top of Jedi's helm. Shaking his head he muttered, "And he calls me hard headed." as his friend got shakily to his feet.

     Caval finished off the wild boar by lopping off its head with his great war axe. Versha politely asked if her people could share in the food from the kill as they were now getting hungry. The companions naturally granted their permission and, turning their backs on the at times unpleasant eating habits of the torlags, they ate a meal themselves.

     An hour later the companions found the tunnel which had been started by the gargoyles. They were seen entering the tunnel by one of the gargoyle scouts which had been following them for an hour. That scout returned to the king to report his findings.

 

    


                                                           

Chapter 49.

 

     Shalmain struggled patiently against the last knot that stood between him and freedom. For hours he had worked patiently on the knots as the Gargoyle fledglings slept. Now just one more knot and his hands would be free. Moments later, he had that knot undone.

     Keeping his hands close to his body he rotated his wrists to restore the circulation. It hurt as that circulation was restored but he bit his lip against the pain and continued to work his wrists. He was so close to freedom now that he could taste it. If he died now then at least he could die fighting and not trussed like a common criminal.

     Shalmain was secretly glad that he had resisted the temptation to contact the companions to see if they were near. He had been tempted to do so many times when the fledglings were feeding on him, but he had remembered Damia's warning and resisted the weakness as best he could. He would do his part in the rescue. It was important to him that he do so without endangering the others.

     His circulation was almost restored when the fledglings began to stir. Moments later the first of the fledglings began to waddle toward him on unsteady legs flexing their miniature wings for balance as they walked. He let them get halfway to him before he raised his body to a sitting position and smiled at the little monsters.

     "Want to dance?" he asked. He unleashed his boulder spell on them then. They died in one hit each. For the first time since his capture, Shalmain felt good. A rush of adrenaline flowed through his veins and invigorated him. He cast shields upon himself as the gargoyle adults began to pour in his direction. He killed eight of the adults before they closed on him and then he used his word of recall spell.

     What a sight he presented when he appeared in Stoneheim inside the temple, his armor stripped and dozens of small wounds on his body, his ankles still firmly bound together.

     Moments later the enraged king realized what had happened. The intruder had not been Brimstone or the enemy wouldn't have gone to that tunnel begun by his tribe. He sent a large war party to attack them.

 


 

Chapter 50.

 

     The torlags were excited. They could smell Brimstone now. They dug efficiently, beginning where the gargoyles had stopped. Versha twittered her species version of laughter and explained, "My people say that gargoyles do not know how to dig properly. They were clumsy and missed a shortcut. But now they were closer than the shortcut could make it for us, so we will follow their plan."

     Moments later the gargoyles attacked the companions from the rear, but they were hampered by the confines of their own tunnel which they had dug. It was too small for them to attack properly and they were forced to land and attempt attacks on foot where they were the most vulnerable. Ziona was near the rear guard and her bow took many of the gargoyles as she unleashed a punishing torrent of arrows upon them.

The other archers soon joined her at the rear guard position and in five minutes the attack was broken. When it was over, the tunnel behind them was choked with the bodies of gargoyles that had died in a vain attempt to reach the companions.

 

***

 

     The king studied the numbers and didn't like what he saw. The damned humans had slain so many of his tribe that they were now down to around elven hundred. Reluctantly, he ordered the retreat of the tribe to the oldest of the chambers. The females were sent with hundreds of guards along the long route they would use to the cavern chambers. That was the safest route to use because it completely avoided any close proximity to the intruders. The rest of the warriors were to gather the food animals and ferry them to the caverns where they would be kept.

     Frustrated at what he was about to do the gargoyle king then went personally to the entrance of the tunnel his tribe had began in the attempt to locate Brimstone. Once there he stood at the end of the tunnel and shouted, "Humans! I am the king of the gargoyles. I want to speak to your leaders! I am alone and will not attack you."

     After a hasty consultation John, Tarn and Versha walked forth to speak to the king. They stopped well short of the entrance. They didn't trust the gargoyle at all. Behind them stood three of their best archers, Ziona, Yane, and Anpu, who stood at the ready. At the first sign of treachery the leaders were to drop to the floor of the tunnel leaving a clear field of fire for the archers.

     "We hear you!" shouted John who had agreed to take on the negotiations. He was the natural choice to take on that assignment, as he had frequently negotiated with enemies as a pirate. He had the most experience at this sort of thing.

     "It is said that Brimstone offered the last king a peace treaty. If we agree to hunt only non sentient creatures, your team will leave us alone."

     "Aye that is the truth of it,” John replied firmly, then he added, "But your leader said no, as did your people en mass."

     A moment's silence ensued and then the king replied, "I am king now. You have slaughtered so many of my tribe that only bare handfuls remain alive," he lied. "We attacked your party because we thought you were returning to slay what few of us remained alive after the collapse of our caverns," he lied again. Then speaking slowly he finished, "I will take the peace treaty with your race and that of your allies if you will still swear to stop the attacks on my tribe."

     John didn't hesitate. He answered. "Agreed then. We will leave your domain as soon as we have that which we came for."

     "And what exactly is that?" questioned the king.

     "That is our concern. Leave us now or the treaty is off,” replied John.

     "Very well, humans. I will lead my tribe away from this area for a day. I give you my word the tribe will attack no sentient creature that does not first attack us," he lied a third time. "But we will attack anything within these caverns after tomorrow. We reserve the right to defend our domain."

     "He is lying,” whispered Versha.

     "I know,” John whispered back, "But we aren't here to finish them off. We are here to rescue Brimstone. If they break the treaty we will deal with them then."

     "Agreed on both points,” Versha whispered. Tarn nodded his agreement when they both looked at him.

     "Very well then, King of the Gargoyles, we have an agreement,” John intoned in a formal tone of voice. But there was no answer from the king. Apparently he had left during the brief conversation of the leaders of the companions.

 


 

Chapter 51.

 

     The companions maintained a careful guard as the torlags continued to dig in an effort to reach Brimstone. Six hours into the digging process they reached the stone barrier created by the stone of light. They tried hammering at it, but were stopped from doing that when their hammering dislodged earth in places along the tunnel. It was too unstable for them to break through the barrier in that manner.

     "I think it's time to call Damia,” Mystyka stated. "There are no gargoyles attacking us now so there shouldn't be a problem."

     Before anyone else could voice their opinions in the matter Damia, who had been waiting for one of the companions to mention her name appeared beside Mystyka. "Ahh, he is behind this stone wall!"

     "Aye, Damia,” replied Versha. "His scent is coming from behind the wall."

     Walking to the wall Damia placed her hand against it and whispered to the stone. A small hole appeared beneath her hand and continued to grow until a door shaped entrance formed before the Goddess. Stepping inside the mini chamber she found her husband Brimstone, still lying comatose. Kneeling beside him she caressed his cheek and said, "Soon my husband you will be returned to me."

     Assured that he was indeed still alive, Damia stood and said, "Caval, I need you."

     Moments later the minotaur entered the tomblike chamber and saw Brimstone. "Please, carry my husband from this room for me."

     Nodding his head as he stood crouched in the small chamber he picked up Brimstone and made his way outside the chamber.

     Damia opened a portal and bid Caval to take Brimstone through it. He did so and stepped into the noon sunlight on the beach in Paradise Cove. Rapidly the rest of the companions emerged. The torlags followed and a moment later Damia appeared beside them.

     She thanked them all and then knelt on the sand. "Lay him here Caval with his head upon my lap," she instructed. Obediently he did so. She then took hold of the necklace that contained the stone of light and drew it forth from his garments. She laid it gently upon her husband’s chest in the full light of the noon sun. Moments later the stone of light spoke to her saying, "Greetings Damia, Goddess of Neutrality, daughter of Shinobi, daughter of Ogrimar, and beloved wife of Brimstone."

     "Greetings to thee, Stone of Light, Guardian of Brimstone my beloved husband,” Damia replied just as formally, then continued "And thank you for preserving my husband's life." As she said this, a single tear of happiness escaped her left eye and flowers blossomed all along Paradise Cove. All over Sic Dalar the flowers bloomed and crops burst to full harvest readiness.

     The stone of light vibrated a moment in empathic understanding and in that moment much knowledge was exchanged between the Goddess and the gem.

     Brimstone stirred. The stone of light had awakened him. Looking about, he saw the companions smiling down at him and then he saw Damia's face above his and lifted a hand to the back of her neck. He gently pulled her down and their lips met in a kiss.

     In her moment of happiness at the reunion, Damia's emotions of joy were such that the fish in the sea leapt from the water spontaneously in a great leaping arch. The torlags, being as empathic as they were, shared in that joy and leapt about playfully on the beach like cubs.

     All over Paradise Cove people stopped what they were doing in wonder at the wonderful feeling that they suddenly experienced and the companions who had lovers near them exchanged tender looks.

     Brimstone wanted to get up and stretch his legs, but Damia insisted that he eat something first. She summoned a large banquet table, and then fully stocked it with food for the companions. She fed the torlags separately as their normal diet was vastly different from that of the humans, though they could eat human food if necessary.

     Damia teleported Shalmain to the cove to share in the victory banquet as he deserved recognition for the sacrifice he had made to buy the companions the time they needed to locate her husband. Pierrot as well was brought for the celebration and he marveled at the tales of the others.

     Brimstone needed rest and the stone of light needed the sun. So for a few days Damia intended to see to it that he did nothing more strenuous than lounge about on the beach.

 

***

 

     In the Gargoyle's caverns they went about rebuilding their tribe. Order was being restored and the king saw to it that the food animals lost in the disaster were being replaced as rapidly as possible. For the time being, he intended to keep his word about the peace treaty. But already his scouts were seeking out another lair to which the tribe could relocate. A lair not known to the companions. Once his people were relocated they would be free to live as they pleased.

 


 

Chapter 52.

 

     Tarn kissed Mystyka tenderly as he said his goodbyes. He was about to board ship and sail for Harvest Moon with ten of his mercenaries. His mercenary band had been hired to defend a small village from a few mages who had returned from Stoneheim, drunk with the power of their new spells. They seemed intent upon making the villager's lives miserable. Darien, the shop keeper in Harvest Moon, had sent word to the companions that the village had sent representatives to Harvest Moon seeking aid.

     Ordinarily, the Gryphon Knights would have handled the trouble but they were away on a journey to investigate rumored monster activity far to the northwest of Harvest Moon. Not knowing what to expect, the leader of the Knights, Eric Glenfield, had sent all but a small garrison of Knights to handle the monster issue. The few remaining Knights had to remain in the city to help maintain order. The Knights sent to the northwest weren't expected to return for weeks.

     Brimstone had encouraged Tarn to wait a few days and give him time to recover. He was still a bit weak from his entombment. The stone of light was able to shield him to protect him. It had even able to provide air for him to breathe as he lay comatose, but it could not create the food and water needed to sustain him. As a result of that deprivation he was still weak.

     Tarn thanked him for the offer but he saw no real difficulty in taming a few renegade mages.

     Brimstone realized that Tarn was accustomed to commanding his own team of mercenaries and that his recent return to command, even a shared command with John and Versha, had reminded him of that duty and responsibility to his team. He wisely dropped the matter, understanding this was something his friend Tarn needed to do for himself.

     So it was that Tarn boarded ship with his men, intent upon settling the matter and returning to Paradise Cove and his lady Mystyka in a few weeks. The ship was a former pirate ship that now ferried people and supplies between Paradise Cove and Harvest Moon for a reasonable profit.

     Mystyka would have gone with him, but she was committed, along with Fawnn and Ziona, to assist the first group of fifty torlags who were going to learn magic on the isles of Arakas, Raven's Dust and Stoneheim. They were still unknown to most of the people of Althea though all had seen them fighting when Damia sent the images of the Bre war to the rest of Althea. Unfortunately, there would most likely be incidents if they weren't really careful.

     Nessarose and Tersha were going along to help out. Nessa was encouraging Tersha to learn a few spells and also to learn and train her melee combat skills. This definitely interested Tersha who had not been aware you could train combat skills. Torlags were born with their fighting skills which were based upon instinct. Frankly, she was not very interested in combat magic for she preferred the traditional torlag melee combat, though some magic did seem quite useful to her. The spell word of recall fascinated her. There would be no more walking home for her. Bless, protection, barrier, mana shield and earthen strength also interested her. She could see how all of those would enhance her ability in melee combat.

 

     Others of her race less capable as melee fighters welcomed the opportunity to learn offensive magic.

     Mystyka had offered to share the expense of the spells with the torlags, but Versha had revealed a torlag secret to Mystyka that, even though her race had little need for gold, they had collected it for millennia. They had a horde of gold at their disposal that would make even a dragon envious. Mystyka was shocked to hear this and cautioned the torlag leader not to allow that information be known to many people. "If word of that horde slips out, some fool is bound to get greedy and try to get it."

     Versha trilled her equivalent of laughter and replied, "Thank you sweet friend for your concern, but all of my people know this and guard carefully their words among mankind." Then she turned serious and said, "Our first encounter with mankind here in the cove reminded us of the greed of some of your species."

     Mystyka felt a terrible sadness then. Well she remembered the frictions between her friends Ziona and Fawnn. Before that melancholy could take root, Versha said with great sympathy, "I see in your heart this subject grieves you. I apologize for bringing the matter up."

     Mystyka looked Versha in the eyes and said, "I wish with all my heart that horrible tragedy had not occurred. It is truly regrettable we began with such a poor start with your people."

     Thinking a long moment before replying Versha then answered, "Had we not seen that side of humanity, then we would never have seen the contrition your species is capable of when they learned what they had done, and then backed away from it in loathing."

     Oddly this comforted Mystyka, who thanked Versha for seeing the good side in humanity as well as the bad.

     Damia opened a portal in Paradise Cove that led to Lighthaven a few hours after Tarn departed for Harvest Moon. The companions Mystyka, Fawnn, Ziona, Lady Sparks, Lady Ru and Nessarose led the first group of torlags ever to leave Sic Dalar. Damia closed the portal immediately after the last of the torlags had entered. When they wished to return they could use their new spells to do so, for they had made the city of Paradise Cove their sanctuary by speaking to the priest in the temple of Shinobi and paying him a fee to do so.

     As expected, the torlags caused quite a stir when they entered Lighthaven. They found, to their utter delight, they could indeed learn magic and soon they all had learned the base spells they desired to learn in that city.

     From there they moved on to Windhowl. Again they learned their spells without problems. Next, they had to seek out their quests to fulfill all of the requirements demanded of them by the next set of mage teachers on Raven's Dust. By the fourth day of this endeavor, all were ready to go on to Raven's Dust. Some had been ready for two days, but Versha insisted that they all wait and go together. The companions with them agreed this was the wisest course and worked diligently with them.

     Lady Sparks and Lady Ru seemed especially captivated by the means of torlag communication with the empathic images that transmitted the senses of sound, sight, smell and touch and tried valiantly to learn that special skill. They were able to do so to a very limited degree, which pleased them both. It did not matter to them that they spoke the language like day old cubs. They should not have been able to do so at all this quickly. Nessarose was the most adept human at this form of communication and she spoke like a torlag yearling, only lacking in the finer tones of the speech.

 


 

Chapter 53.

 

     The same day the companions escorted the torlags to Raven's Dust, Tarn surveyed the village just ahead of him. Behind him, his mercenaries waited patiently for him to formulate his plan. They watched from a small hill to the east of the village. From this vantage point they could look down into the village and observe what was going on in the community.

     Looking at the scene through his brass spyglass, a gift from John which he truly loved, Tarn saw several mages walking the streets of the village. Each time one of the mages saw something he wanted at any of the shops, he simply took it, despite any protests from the owners. Most of the owners said nothing and did not try to fight back. They could not stop the mages and they knew it. But, as Tarn observed them, he did see one villager protest the practice.

     The mages had walked up to a potter's business and gone inside. There, one of the mages saw a beautiful set of plates he wanted. He took the stack of plates; despite the potter’s protests they were to be a gift for his daughter on her wedding day. Tarn could not hear what was said during the dispute, of course, but he could see well enough when the mages dragged the man from his shop and surrounded him. There they attacked him with spells until he was near death. They walked away laughing as the man lay moaning in the dusty street of the village.

     "Let's go,” Tarn instructed his men. He had seen all he needed to confirm that he had heard the truth. Ten minutes later his band approached the man who still lay where he had fallen. Tarn's healer did what he could for him, healing the unfortunate man enough so he could be taken from the street back inside his shop, where time itself would eventually complete the healing process.

     They moved off down the street toward the tavern they had seen the mages enter. Tarn led the way with his men behind him. When they were closer to the tavern, he motioned for two men to break away from the main body of mercenaries and head for the left and right sides of the tavern. Moments later they were back and shook their heads. Without a word being spoken, Tarn had sent two men to investigate the area beside the tavern's outer walls and received their reports that no enemies were lying in wait.

     They moved out on Tarn's lead again. He entered the tavern, stepping to the left away from the door, and his men filed inside in his wake. As they entered, they moved to the left and right of the doorway and stood facing the men who occupied the room.

     As taverns go this one wasn't much. It was only one room, dominated by the bar to the left of the door as a patron enters. The room also contained several small tables for the customers. The apparent owner of the tavern stood behind the bar looking very nervous. The only other people in the room were the six mages they had seen enter it and one terrified serving girl who lay sprawled upon the floor face down with the foot of one of the mages resting on the back of her neck.

     "The next time I say hurry up woman you had best heed me. I have little patience with fools,” the man said this last as he twisted his foot into the back of the girl’s neck, causing her to cry out in pain. So intent were the mages that they hadn't even noticed the entrance of the mercenaries.

     The man behind the bar spoke up then against his better judgment, but he felt he had to say something. "Alright that's enough of that. Let the girl up and leave her alone."

     The mage stared hard at the man behind the bar and smirked as he saw the fear in the man's eyes. The tavern owner was a shop keeper. He was not an experienced fighter, as some tavern owners in the larger taverns tended to be.

     Tarn didn't wait to see what would happen. He walked the twenty feet that separated him from the mage and grabbed him by the collar of his robe. Yanking hard, he pulled the man out of his chair and with a back handed slap knocked him across the room into another table. The mage went down in a tangle amongst two chairs. His companions leapt to their feet, but Tarn's men were on them in a moment. Before the mages could get off a spell they found themselves in the midst of a brawl. Within two minutes the six mages had all been defeated and the mercenaries found themselves standing over their unconscious bodies.

     The shop owner surveyed the damage with despair, but decided against trying to get the rough mercenary band to pay the bill. It was worth the cost to him to see those mages beaten to a bloody pulp. Noting the man's expression, Tarn gestured to one of his men, who tossed the tavern owner a small pouch of gold. The tavern keeper caught the pouch of gold in midair and said, "Thank you sir. And thank you for helping my serving girl."

     Tarn nodded his head and was about to say something when the door to the tavern opened and in strode another mage. This mage looked different from the rest. The other six mages all had the look of bullies, but this mage had a hard and dangerous look about him. He took one look at the six mages on the floor then said, "You men did this to my men?"

 


 

Chapter 54.

 

     Tarn took a step forward to address the mage but found himself entangled. His men reacted to that attack and attempted to charge the mage. Immediately, waves of the spell meteor slammed into his men. So great was the power of the spell that several mercenaries were slain by the third wave of the attack. Tarn struggled to reach the mage who seemed to be playing with him. He managed only one step before the entanglement spell hit him again and he stood helplessly as another of his men went down for the last time under the attack of the man's meteor spell.

     They were only a minute into battle with this mage and Tarn's mercenary band had already lost half of their number.

     Tarn desperately drew a sheath knife on his belt and threw it at the man, hoping to distract him long enough for his men to get to him. The knife flew true but the mage was wearing azure armor beneath his cloak and the blade did little damage. Laughing, the man struck yet again at Tarn's men and more died.

     Now only Tarn and one of his men remained alive. Tarn was devastated by the loss of so many of his men. He hardly felt it at all when the mage shifted his attention to him and lashed out with another spell. Tarn and the remaining mercenary both fell to the floor of the tavern gravely wounded.

     Ignoring them the mage walked to the bar and spoke to the tavern keeper. "Give me a pitcher of water." Nervously the tavern keeper set a pitcher of water on the bar within easy reach of the mage whose hard stare caused him to drop his gaze to the bar.

     Saying nothing else to the tavern keeper, the mage walked to his men and upended the pitcher of water onto their faces. They awoke coughing and spluttering. "Get to your feet men,” he said without sympathy. "Two of the enemy still lives. I want you men to take them to Harvest Moon. Sell them to a sea captain as rowing fodder."

     "I'd sooner kill them than take them to Harvest Moon,” said one of the mages.

     The mage leader looked him in the eye and said, "Is this the way of it then? You are going to start doing the thinking?" Before the man could even answer him the mage leader opened fire on him with his meteor spell. In moments he was dead. Sighing, the mage turned to confront the rest of his men and raised his hands.

     "Hold, Lord Zadykiel!" one man shouted frantically. "I'll take them by myself if need be!"

     Zadykiel stared hard at his men. For a moment, just a moment, it appeared he would kill them anyway. For a moment he was indeed tempted to do so. "Get the animal,” replied Zadykiel, resisting the urge to slay his own men.

     Grateful to have escaped his murderous leader's wrath, and eager to be of service to him, one of the men darted to a darkened corner of the room and dragged forth what at first glance was some sort of animal bound with many stout cords.

     Tarn was barely conscious when he saw the animal being dragged across the floor by one of the mages. "By the Gods! A torlag!" he thought as he saw the creature just moments before he slipped into unconsciousness.

     Kicking the torlag in the side the mage leader said, "Wake up beast." He frowned when he elicited no response from the torlag and got another pitcher of water from the tavern keeper, which he poured over the helpless creature. The torlag awoke then. She had been captured by the mage who kept her drugged to more easily control her. Her once beautiful hide was now a filthy disgrace that told a tale of her abuse at the hands of the mages. Then her eyes fell upon the face of a human she knew from the shared communications of her race. It was Tarn, friend and companion of Brimstone. In shock she noted the many dead mercenaries in the room and understood that these must be Tarn's men.

     "Good. You have seen all this. I want you to send this information to some of your people who can then inform Brimstone of his friend’s fate. I also want you to send him a message from me. Now listen carefully."

     The Torlag listened intently as the mage continued, "Tarn and his remaining man will be taken to Harvest Moon and sold to a sea captain. This is the price the companions pay for opposing me. Hunt me again and the price will go up. I am tired of the companions thinking that they can run roughshod over the rest of Althea, forcing their concept of right and wrong down everyone's throat. I intend to organize a force just as powerful as they are to counter them. It would be easy, very easy, to slay Tarn now. But I want to punish him indefinitely." Staring hard at the now unconscious man he added, "Being a slave to a ship captain will punish him much more effectively than immediate death. That is a fate worse than death to men such as Tarn and his lieutenant."

     The torlag grunted and tried to speak. Zadykiel wished to hear what she had to say so he ordered one of his men to water her. Once she had drunk her fill the torlag looked at the mage Zadykiel and said, "When do you want me to send that message?"

     "Immediately, foolish animal!" responded Zadykiel.

     "Have you forgotten that the drug you use on me prevents me from communicating with my species?"

     "No I haven't forgotten. That is why you will be fed and watered to gain the strength to send that message." Then he surprised her by adding, "And when you have sent that message you will have served your purpose and I will leave you here. Still tied of course. The villagers can release you in the morning. You will serve a more useful purpose to me alive."

     He turned to his men then and said, "Load them in a horse drawn cart and take them now. We will meet at the appointed spot tomorrow morning two hours before first light." The five men hurried to comply with his orders.

     Turning to the tavern keeper the mage said, "After this is over you may release her tomorrow morning, but I warn you. If you release her sooner than that she will come after me. When she catches up with me I will kill her, for she is very weak. Then I will return to this village and slaughter every man woman and child here."

     Nodding his understanding, the frightened tavern owner said, "It shall be as you say."

     "I never doubted that for a moment,” Zadykiel said with an arrogant smirk. Then turning to leave he stopped once more beside the torlag and said, "I'll be leaving now. In an hour or two you should be able to send that message, for you haven't been drugged today. If this fool does release you early remember my words. If you seek me out then I will know he released you early. I will kill you, and then I will return here and keep my pledge to him. Maybe not tomorrow or even the next day. But one day I will return here and slay them all. Do you believe that torlag?" he asked.

     The torlag stared hard into his eyes and saw the truth of it. This man was an evil man. He would return and slay the entire village just as he had said. "I do believe you mage." Zadykiel rose to leave them then, but before he did he added the ultimate insult to the captive torlag. He urinated on her defenseless body.

     When he was gone the serving girl went to the torlag, more than half afraid of her. She had never seen a torlag until the mages had arrived with this one, but her compassion for the creature overcame her fear. "Do not release her!" exclaimed the tavern owner.

     Ignoring the tavern owner, the girl took a bucket of water and carefully bathed the helpless torlag whose faith in humanity was partially restored by the tender ministrations of this gentle serving girl. First she washed away the accumulated grime and filth, then tenderly ministered to the wounds caused by the ropes as best she could, without actually freeing her. Then the girl hand fed her bits of half cooked meat to help her regain her strength.

     When this was done the torlag thanked the girl for her kindness and settled down to wait for the remnants of the drug to leave her system so she could communicate with her people.

 


 

Chapter 55.

 

     Tarn was still unconscious when they arrived in Harvest Moon. It was growing late in the day when he and his lieutenant were sold into the service of a cargo ship headed for Lighthaven. He awoke as water was poured over his face and one of the mages healed him. He immediately noted that he was shackled to an oar onboard a ship. Looking to the next oar he saw his lieutenant, also similarly shackled.

     The five mages laughed as they left the ship and Tarn to his fate. Tarn committed their faces to his memory, but above all he remembered the face of the mage Zadykiel. He then swore an oath to himself. Someday he would see that mage dead for what he had done to his mercenary band. This was what he was thinking when the whip bit cruelly into his back. Three times the whip struck him and then he saw his lieutenant similarly attacked.

     Then the cruel captain of the ship stepped into his field of vision and growled, "You are now onboard my ship. Do as I say, when I say, and you just might survive the trip to Lighthaven. Disobey me in the slightest and I'll toss your body to the fish when I am finished with it." Glaring at both mercenaries the captain asked, "Do you understand me?"

     Tarn nodded his head in anger as did the lieutenant. "Good. Then man your oars and let's get underway."

 

***

 

     Brimstone heard a commotion in the distance as he sat on the beach in Paradise Cove with several of the Companions. Moments later several torlags could be seen racing across the darkening beach, headed in his direction. Concerned, several of the companions got to their feet and waited for the torlags to arrive. They didn't have long to wait, for the torlags were running full out.

     The torlags stopped just short of the companions and their spokesman said, "Brimstone we have a message for you." Not waiting for a reply the torlag began relaying the message from the captive torlag immediately.

     Before the message was even completed he stopped the torlag saying, "I need to summon the others." He called Damia first, then rapidly contacted Fawnn and told her to spread the word for all of the companions to return at once to Paradise Cove. He refused to elaborate, adding that it would be much simpler if they were present to hear the reason. Moments later the companions began arriving on the beach not far from Brimstone, the rest of the companions and the torlags.

     Damia arrived as the ladies were running toward Brimstone. The torlag spokesman reported, "Versha says they are on their way, also." The torlags had used their word of recall spell and had arrived in the city temple. Damia addressed the spokesman mentally then disappeared. A moment later she reappeared and another torlag appeared before them all. This happened so quickly that by the time everyone who was needed was present, Damia was back with the captive torlag. Looking at the ropes which bound the torlag, a furious Damia waved her hand and they disappeared.

     The torlag was in sad shape. The ropes had cruelly cut her hide and in many places left open sores that bled or worse, drained a yellow pus. She stank despite the serving girls efforts to help her. The Torlags present were shocked and immediately ministered to the poor mistreated Torlag. Moments later their medicinal bile was doing its work on her wounds.

     Versha arrived then and the other torlags stepped aside as their leader strode with purpose to the injured torlag. The suffering torlag tried to give her leader the message but was so weak she could not again communicate it. Damia put the torlag into a deep sleep. "She will awaken tomorrow, completely healed in body. Her spirit is a different thing. She has been defiled and abused by her tormentor."

     "Thank you Damia,” replied Versha. "We have ways of dealing with injuries to the spirit. In time she will be whole."

     Damia nodded, still furious. Turning to the original spokesman she nodded her head and said, "Please show us the message that she sent to you earlier."

     Soon all of the companions saw a tavern. They actually saw more than the mage Zadykiel had intended for the torlag had not really been asleep during the attack in the tavern. She had only feigned sleep as she had learned from experience that when the humans thought her asleep they often let her alone and did not torment her. Therefore, her message to the torlags had included the original fight between Tarn, his mercenaries, and the six mages. The companions saw as Tarn and his men defeated the six mages with apparent ease. Then they saw Zadykiel enter the tavern and began his own attack on the mercenaries.

     Mystyka was horrified as she saw Tarn frozen by entanglement and struggling against it as his men died all around him. Her heart was in her throat when he was finally knocked to the ground semi-conscious. Her anger raged as she saw Zadykiel announce the fate of the man she loved.

     Fawnn saw her friend's face as she witnessed these things. She saw the torment there as Tarn fell. She saw the anger at what was to be his fate. Then she saw silent tears begin to fall down her beautiful friends face as Tarn and his lieutenant were roughly dragged away by the mages. Fawnn and Ziona went to Mystyka and each took a hand to comfort her. They stood with her then as the empathic communication continued.

     They saw the message of warning from Zadykiel directed at the companions and hot anger flushed their faces. Then they saw the abuse of the torlag. The torlags as a whole bristled at the final insult and mewed in sympathy for their tortured friend. A few began to look at the companions oddly at that point. Then they saw the compassion of the terrified serving girl, herself abused and bruised, as she did the best she could for the abused torlag, and their suspicions of humanity as a whole were dispelled, in some cases with a sense of shame, for these men and women had proven their devotion to justice many times over.

     When the vision ended Mystyka spoke calmly when she addressed Brimstone saying, "When do we leave to find Tarn?"

 


 

Chapter 56.

 

     "The Gryphon is in Harvest Moon, isn't it?" he asked Mystyka, who had arranged for a shipment of hogs to be delivered from Harvest Moon to Paradise Cove, to improve the city’s wild breeding stock.

     "It should have arrived sometime today yes."

     "Damia we need a portal. Would you mind?"

     Damia immediately opened a portal. "I wish I could just bring him to you Mystyka,” Damia said with a profoundly sad expression on her face.

     "I understand Damia,” Mystyka said with stiffness. "The Accords of the Gods forbid that type of help." Then seeing the hurt expression on Damia's face her anger melted and she said, "I'm sorry Damia. I know it isn't your fault. You couldn't even go get your man until we had found him and removed all of the opposition so the Accords wouldn't be violated."

     Damia smiled then and said, "You will find him, Mystyka. He is aboard a ship that is heading for Lighthaven. That much I can do for you."

     Mystyka hugged Damia in gratitude then broke down and cried at that point. She was pretty sure Damia had hedged on the accords by telling her that much. Damia opened her arms then to accept the other ladies into the circle and they all gathered closer to Mystyka to comfort her. The emotions transmitted to them by the empathic torlag form of communication had touched them all deeply.

     Brimstone organized the team then. He asked Versha if they wanted to return to Raven's Dust for spells, but she declined saying they had been many days away from home and she needed to see her people now that this had happened. Besides, they already had the spells they could get there. Next they would need to do the quests to get to Stoneheim and learn those spells.

     It was agreed that Tersha would accompany the companions and they immediately entered the portal to Harvest Moon. Brimstone was the last one to use the portal. Before leaving he kissed Damia and said, "We will find him, beloved."

     Damia hugged him tightly and said, "Yes you will dear, but Tarn may be a changed man by then. Now, go quickly. You have to leave within the hour or you will lose an entire night when the tide turns."

     When they stepped from the portal they were on the docks. The Gryphon sat beside them. Captain Barnes already had his sailors preparing to leave port. He'd seen the portal appear and assumed rightly that Damia had opened it for Brimstone and the companions who would need sea transportation.

     When he boarded the ship Brimstone asked, "Do we have provisions enough on board for a trip to Lighthaven?"

     "Alas, not really Brimstone. But we can always fish for food. I wasn't expecting this many for an extended voyage."

     "Damia says we have to leave within the hour,” Brimstone replied.

     "Aye, to beat the tide changing,” replied the captain.

     Mystyka, who had overhead the conversation said, "Leave it to me. Be ready to leave port in twenty minutes." Walking away with purpose she shouted, "Caval, Jedi, Malachi, MetalHead, Yane, all you men with me now!"

     The startled men hastened to her side half running to keep up as the woman strode purposely to the Harbor Master's office. He was working a bit late and was still at the office when she arrived. "I need supplies for a lengthy voyage and I need them now,” she said without preamble.

     Seeing she was in a rush, he led her to an adjoining warehouse and said, "Take what you like, we will barter the price. Rushing through the selection process, Mystyka organized the men. Caval carried four Hams in his massive arms, the rest of the men carried various items they were likely to need.

     As they filed out, the Harbor Master ran up a total. Then he added fifteen percent just to tweak her bargaining sense a bit. Doing business with Mystyka was a pleasure to the aging man. He had never met a woman as good at bargaining as she was.

     Mystyka paid the price without a word of protest and left the stunned old Harbor Master standing there in confusion. Never before had he seen her make a bad deal. Something must be terribly wrong. He hastened after her and said, "Mystyka darlin', what be ailing ya?" when he caught up to her.

     Without breaking stride she replied, "Tarn has been sold into slavery aboard a cargo ship heading for Lighthaven. We have to catch up to them."

     "Then you'll be seeking the Logan,” replied the Harbor Master causing Mystyka to stop in her tracks. "And I'm sorry about your man,” the old man continued.

     "Come with me to the ship and explain what you know to Brimstone please,” Mystyka requested.

     "Of course girl,” replied the old man kindly.

 


 

Chapter 57.

 

     The Harbor Master greeted Brimstone warmly. Mystyka said, "He thinks he has information that we might need."

     "The Logan is a ship run by a former captain of Dalghard's fleet that used to ferry supplies for the army. His name is Otto and he is a cruel man. Rumor has it that he often shanghais his oarsmen. He has been investigated for this more than once, but he has never been caught with a shanghaied oarsman. Some think he murders them and throws their bodies overboard just off the coast of his destination."

     Noting Mystyka's face he said, "Here now Lass no need for tears. It has to be that ship for no othern left port today bound for Lighthaven, nor would the rest that left port today use shanghaied men. And I can help ya cause I know the course that black hearted scoundrel sails."

     "Captain Barnes! You and Caval come here!" shouted Brimstone, then as an afterthought he added. "Bring your charts to Lighthaven!"

     "Aye and best to be quick! Soon you must leave,” added the Harbor Master.

     Captain Barnes and Caval arrived moments later with the sea charts. The Harbor Master quickly drew a course on the chart by the light of the ship's lantern. When he had it finished, Captain Barnes said, "Thank you for showing me this," and then he asked, "You are sure of the course? I'd have thought he would have gone further north here,” he finished pointing to a line on the chart.

     "Nay, he'd not brave those waters. He has an enemy who sails them too much for his comfort. He avoids those waters whenever he can. If you cut across here,” he said indicating a spot on the map with his index finger. "Then you will gain hours on him." Raising himself to the upright position he finished by saying, "His crew drinks a lot and they talk even more. He left port three hours ago."

     "Thank you for the information. You've been very helpful,” said Brimstone.

     "Anything for the lass, my boy,” replied the man with a warm smile. Then he thrust Mystyka's gold back into her hands and leapt from the ship to the dock a few feet below, still spry for his age. "Sail well captain. Good luck to you lass. I hope you find your man hale and full of vigor,” finished the old man, and then he turned and strode away into the night.

     "But your gold!" Mystyka shouted to him.

     Turning to face her he continued walking backward, as if he wanted to put distance between himself and her. "One day I'll beat ya in a deal fair and square lass. But it won't be 'cause your heart be breaking over a shanghaied man. Fare ye well lass."

     "There goes a good man,” spoke Lady Ru beside Mystyka.

     "He does seem sweet,” agreed Lady Sparks.

     Laughing, Ziona said, "You should see him bargaining with Mystyka. That old man can really curse when Mystyka is getting the better of him."

     Fawnn added, "I don't think he really cares about the gold as much as the competition with Mystyka." She smiled warmly at the Ladies Ru and Sparks. She appreciated their attempts to help cheer Mystyka. Sadly, she feared it would be all they could do to keep her spirits up in the days ahead.

     As the ship moved away from the dock, Captain Barnes ordered his sailors to man the oars. This was no ordinary trip. They would need top speed all the way. They settled into a steady rhythm with the Gryphon making excellent speed.

     Caval then spoke to him, saying he knew another shortcut the minotaurs used, if the captain was interested. Naturally he was.

 

***

 

     Damia found Shalmain in Stoneheim. She popped in beside him and said, "I have something that needs to be done." Tilting her head to one side she continued, "How would you like to visit a quaint little village west of Harvest Moon?"

     Shalmain bowed formally to the Goddess and replied, "I'm bored to death right now so I'm the man for it. What is the mission this time?"

     "A mage named Zadykiel has decided to oppose the companions. He has single handedly attacked and slaughtered several of Tarn's band of mercenaries. He then sold Tarn and one of his men into slavery aboard a ship bound for Lighthaven," Damia replied, as she watched Shalmain's face to see his reaction.

     Shalmain nodded his head in understanding. "He is an evil one, and that's the truth of it."

     "Once there at the village, your mission is to seek out all the information you can obtain about his stay in that village. Learn, if you can, what his plans are, then return here to Stoneheim and call on me. I will come to you to hear your report."

     "Will I be needing battle supplies? Is Zadykiel still in that village?"

     "He left it earlier today so you shouldn't, but take some anyway. For all I know he might return to that village. But remember this, Shalmain, your job is to gather information. Zadykiel has several mages with him. I'm not sending you to fight him. Just gather information. If you encounter them then use your recall spell at once."

     Bowing with a flourish Shalmain said, "It shall be as you wish, Goddess." He seemed obedient enough but Damia had a feeling that he was being a bit disingenuous. She suspected that Shalmain was hoping to find Zadykiel there so he could do a bit more than simply gather intelligence.

     "Shalmain,” Damia warned, "Zadykiel killed eight of Tarn's best warriors while holding Tarn and his lieutenant at bay. Don't take it on yourself to take him on alone. I would hate to have to create a new dress."

     "A new dress?" asked Shalmain in confusion.

     "For your funeral,” stated Damia flatly.

     "You mean you would attend my funeral?! Thank you, Goddess!" Shalmain exclaimed.

     Shaking her head, Damia had to laugh at his antics. She then grew sober and finished, "Be very careful, Shalmain. I am not sending you out there to die all alone. Call me when you are ready and I will send you to the village,” she said before disappearing.

 


 

Chapter 58.

 

     Tarn surveyed the scene as unobtrusively as possible. Captain Otto of the Logan was an uncommonly cruel man. Just hours into the voyage he had already beaten one man to death for protesting that he had been shanghaied and refusing to row. This forced one of his regular crewmen to have to row and that man constantly tormented those near him, causing them to lose the beat in the rowing and getting them lashed for their errors.

     One of the men thus lashed was Tarn's lieutenant. Tarn looked at the crewmen responsible for that and quietly said, "Do that again and I will kill you." Something about Tarn's voice deeply disturbed the crewman. Also, there was a hardness to his eyes. Tarn had looked at him as if he were already a dead man. The unnerved man decided to pick on some of the others for a long time after that and left the lieutenant alone.

     Thankfully, they were soon out to sea where the winds picked up, and they could ship their oars when the sail billowed full. They were left shackled to the rowing benches. They would spend all of their time aboard this ship thus secured.

     It had taken him hours to study the ship and everything aboard it within his range of vision because he could only look away from his place at the oar at risk of a lashing, as he had found out the first hour of the voyage when he had been caught looking around and been given an extra lash for the trouble. He had taken to stealing glances around the ship when he was sure the captain wouldn't see him. The captain ran a tight ship. She was clean and well maintained. Everything was stored where it was supposed to be and not so much as a bucket of water was permitted to be placed on deck without good cause.

     The crew was another thing. They appeared to be lazy and good for nothing onboard a ship. He later learned these were former soldiers in Dalghard's army who had been aboard this ship when Dalghard's fleet had sailed. Cut off from the fleet by fog, they had arrived late for the last battle and turned back as word of Dalghard's defeat went round the world soon after he had died. Once back in Harvest Moon, most of the soldiers had then gone ashore and back to the land of their birth, but many had been too lazy to begin a strictly civilian life and had gratefully accepted Otto's proposal that they become merchants, using the ship within their possession.

     Tarn was just about to drift off to sleep when he saw the troublesome sailor get up quietly and move with stealth toward the lieutenant. He shouted a warning when he saw the man held a small club in his hand. The lieutenant spun around in place and saw the descending hand and club. He intercepted it as it descended and smoothly snatched it from the would be attacker's hand. He was drawing back his hand to strike the assailant with the club when the whip wrapped round his neck and yanked savagely backward. The lieutenant was drawn tightly between the whip and his shackles.

     The would be assailant seeing this grabbed the club from his hand and beat him with it repeatedly. Over and over Tarn saw the club rise and fall, each time landing upon the body of his long time companion of many campaigns with a sickening thud. He struggled against the shackles, grabbing them with his bare hands and trying his best to pull them free of the deck, but he could neither break them nor pull them free.

     Shouting erupted and soon men were around him and he was beaten repeatedly until he sagged to the deck of the ship where they continued to kick and pummel him without mercy until a voice cried out, "Hold I say! Slay him and you'll take his place at the oars when needed."

     Tarn had a cut over one eye from one of the numerous blows he had received. Blood from that cut flowed into one eye and partially obscured his vision, but he saw Captain Otto standing on deck near him bathed in the light of the ship’s lantern. His next words made Tarn's heart sink when he said, "The other man is already dead, and now one of you will have to take his place."

     Glaring malevolently at the assembled men he continued. "You rotted fools don't know the first thing about punishing a man proper. You can put a man through agony and not cripple him and prevent him from serving you with his labor, or you can kill him like yon fool did this man's friend."

     Great sorrow overwhelmed Tarn then. The ten men he had lost were the core of his mercenary band. They had been with him the longest. For an insane moment he was tempted to attack Captain Otto who had, during his tirade, ventured a bit too close to Tarn. Then his mind filled with a picture of Mystyka standing on the beach in Paradise Cove in a wedding dress. She was so beautiful he gasped in shock. Then to his amazement he saw himself standing near her with the blue Groom's sash that was now the tradition in Sic Dalar.

     A calm washed over Tarn as he lay there bleeding and battered. By the Gods he'd live to see that vision become a reality someday. He wanted revenge yes, and he swore an oath to his dead men that he would get that revenge, but he also wanted to live to see Mystyka in that dress. He regretted now that he had not already asked her that all important question. He resolved then and there he would do that properly, and dressed as a gentleman when he did so.

     Captain Otto noted the smile on Tarn's face and shook his head thinking the men must have struck him too hard on the head. "Lay the fool out on his bench and see to it that he lives, or by the gods you'll each take a turn at his oar."

 

***

 

     Damia leaned back in a chair and breathed a sigh of relief. What she had just done was morally questionable, but Tarn was about to die in a vain attempt to avenge his lieutenant. An attempt that was doomed to fail. Then she smiled when she thought of his mental picture of his plan to propose to Mystyka. Damia was a Goddess after all. She could see how that proposal would really take place and she saw Mystyka's shocking answer. She never would have believed Mystyka would react in that manner. At least she hadn't crushed his hope in that regard. There were limits to her meddling.

     Ogrimar sent her a message then. "I'm glad to hear that, Daughter, because I have yet to see those limits," he said with a trace of humor.

     "Hush, Father. Now you have,” Damia replied with a trace of good humor herself.

 


 

Chapter 59.

 

     The six mages waited beside the mountain. Their leader Zadykiel expected something to happen here soon, but he had not told them what exactly to expect. He had only warned them in no uncertain terms that they were not to attack anything this night without his approval. They had been here for two hours waiting, but just what they were waiting for they did not know.

     One of the mages shouted a warning, "Ho in the sky above us!" The mages looked up and saw several winged forms overhead as they flew past the full moon and disappeared again into the dark skies past it. One of the mages raised his hands in preparation to launch an attack spell but Zadykiel grabbed his arm. "Didn't I tell you not to attack?"

     "Aye, Milord, you did, but surely we must defend ourselves from those monsters,” the startled mage replied.

     "We are here to speak to them,” replied Zadykiel.

     Shocked, his team of mages remained silent and observed as the Gargoyles circled lower and lower. Each time they flew past the moon they seemed a bit larger. Finally when they seemed close enough to hear him the mage leader shouted, "Ho gargoyles! My name is Zadykiel. I came here to speak to your king or failing that to send him a message."

     This had an immediate affect on the gargoyles who stopped circling and spiraling downward, and hovered in place while they seemed to communicate with one another. Finally, they appeared to make a decision and glided downward, where they landed about twenty feet from the mages. One of the gargoyles came forward a few paces and stopped. "I am the King of the Gargoyles, human. What is it that you wish to discuss with me?

     Zadykiel strode forward a few paces to match the gargoyle. He stopped well out of reach of the monster. "An alliance against Brimstone and the damned companions,” he responded without preamble. He didn't know it, but he had just said the one thing that could prevent the gargoyles from attacking him and his band of mages. He went on, "There are a growing number of people who are discontent with the way Brimstone and his companions do things. I propose that we combine our efforts and coordinate them to maximize our effectiveness."

     The Gargoyle King thought this over for a moment then he said, "Allies against them would be useful, but only if you can bring something besides yourself to the alliance."

     Boldly Zadykiel laughed then. "I was thinking the same about you and your gargoyles. But never mind that. I am sure you will prove yourselves useful to our alliance."

     The Gargoyle King then noted the strange odor that had been very faint only moments ago. "Werewolves!" he shouted and leapt into the air as forty werewolves came rushing upon his group of ten gargoyles guards.

     One of the human mages moved to attack the Werewolves but was knocked to the ground by another mage who did not intend to die in the backlash of Zadykiel's powerful fire magic when he punished the man for disobedience.

     Of the king's personal guards, only two managed to get airborne. The rest were tackled and held at bay by the werewolves. From his vantage point in the sky the king saw that his guards were not being slain but were held prisoner. Furiously he glared at the human mage. "What is this about then?" he demanded.

     "A simple demonstration of what we have already accomplished which is an alliance with the werewolves." Then he looked at the werewolves present and said, "Release the gargoyles." At a nod from their apparent leader, the werewolves did as commanded. The eight outraged gargoyles flew into the sky where they joined their king's party hovering there.

     The king slowed the beat of his wings and allowed himself to settle to the ground, leaving an open space equidistant between the three races. A moment later the guards joined him there while they glared malevolently at all present.

     "Let us discuss this alliance then,” said the King of the Gargoyles.


 

Chapter 60.

 

     Mystyka awoke with a scream. She'd just had a terrible dream about Tarn. He was being beaten to death onboard the ship. The door to her cabin flew open and in rushed Brimstone, Fawnn, Ziona and the ladies Sparks and Ru.

     Seeing their startled faces she said, "I'm sorry, it was just a dream. Oh gods let it be just a dream!" she sobbed.

     Brimstone nodded his head in understanding and quietly left the room to go back on deck and discuss their pursuit of the Logan with the captain. The ladies stayed with Mystyka a while until she was calm. They tried their best to reassure her that all possible steps were being taken to overtake the Logan.

     "Caval is going to show Captain Barnes a minotaur shortcut that can shave off another hour or two on the pursuit and that minotaur is an excellent seaman,” Fawnn reassured Mystyka.

     "And we are preparing our archers for the moment we are within arrow range. We have a plan to locate Tarn and put an arrow into any of that ship’s crew who draws near him during the fight,” added Ziona helpfully.

     Mystyka smiled then and took her friend's hand. "I thank you my friend,” she replied. "That has been of grave concern to me."

     Lady Sparks said, "XconX and his brother Genkaku plan to board the ship if possible and fight their way to his side where XconX will heal Tarn if he needs healing and Genkaku will guard them both until Tarn can be healed and set free."

     Lady Ru added, "And John, Brimstone, Lord Malachi, Jedi, MetalHead, Caval, and Lord Fatman will be the boarding party that takes the fight to the ship’s crew. The mages, including us, will remain aboard this ship and heal the warriors and the paladin and XconX if need be. Brimstone decided that to risk attack spells with Tarn aboard the enemy ship was out of the question. There is the possibility we could sink the ship with him aboard."

     "And Tersha has volunteered to slip aboard the ship during the fighting to act as an additional guard for Tarn. Since I can use a weapon well I will join her there. We have plenty of great archers with us,” stated Nessarose quietly from the door where she stood with Tersha.

     No one understood then why Mystyka suddenly broke down into a torrent of tears. It was as if her heart were breaking, and the women present didn't understand. Tersha showed them what was in Mystyka's heart and they gasped in agony at the acuteness of the emotion. Then Tersha adjusted her empathy and the level of the disturbance decreased dramatically.

     What Tersha showed them was the image of Tarn the warrior slaying Versha with a spear when they had first met. Then they saw his remorse when he had learned the truth about the torlags and the reason for the attacks on the citizens of Paradise Cove. They saw then that Tarn had never forgiven himself for what he had done to Versha and that Mystyka was aware of this but didn't know what to do about it. They saw Tersha, from Mystyka's vantage, volunteering to protect the man who had once slain her mother, whom Damia had resurrected. They felt the wave of grief again, but this time the subdued empathy did not permit them to feel the entire power of the emotion.

     Now Tersha walked calmly to the bed where Mystyka sat and placing her front paws on the bed she stared deeply into her eyes and then gently she licked Mystyka's face to show her love for the woman. It was the way of her species. Mystyka had often seen her do this with Nessa, but she had never experienced it herself. Then, still permitting the others to see the visions, she informed Mystyka that her mother had forgiven Tarn long ago and this would be addressed to relieve his tortured soul once he was safe. Had her mother been aware of it she would have long ago dispelled that crippling emotion, for she actually admired Tarn.

     Mystyka cried again then, but this time they were tears of gratitude to Tersha. Many of the ladies in the room shed tears that awful night as they sailed at top speed with the sailors and warriors taking turns at the oars to increase their sailing speed. Thus did they gain on the Logan.

 


 

Chapter 61.

 

     The next morning the wind died down and the Logan's crew had to man the oars to make forward progress. Captain Otto himself applied the whip to any slackers. There was no rest for the battered and bruised Tarn. He was tired. So dreadfully tired. But with a mental discipline born of years of warrior training he applied himself to what must be done. He knew that the moment he became useless to Captain Otto he'd likely as not be slain at once.

     The food he was given was a terrible slop of ground grain half cooked and fish just barely above the spoiling point. He ate it. He'd eaten worse during his mercenary career. But it had been a long time since he'd had to do that.

     He saw the sailor who had killed the lieutenant walking past and felt the cuff to the side of his head the man cruelly delivered. He shocked the man when he responded to the cuff with laughter. "What is so funny to you,” the man demanded.

     Tarn knew damned well he should keep his mouth shut. This man had already proven he had the temper to beat a chained man to death while he was helpless to defend himself. But Tarn was a man who seldom spoke unless he had something he really wanted to say. Right now saying what was on his mind to this man was important to him. So it was that he replied, "I was just thinking about what will happen when I am free of these shackles and you try that. I think I'll break both your arms then your legs and drop you over the side of the ship with a few cuts."

     Tarn had been aboard enough ships to know that this was the customary means of dealing with the vilest of crimes aboard ship. At sea the captain was the law. What happened at sea was under his discretion to deal with. And what transpired at sea stayed at sea. Crews never mentioned the occasional murderer that was dealt with in this traditional fashion.

     The sailor blanched at this threat, and then he became very angry and dove at Tarn beating him about the face, chest and ribs. Thirty seconds into the beating, sailors pulled him off Tarn who slumped to the deck semi-conscious. But he had made his point. He had suffered two cracked ribs, and they hurt like hell, but it was worth it. Looking at the man through eyes that were swelling and would soon be black he smiled and spit blood on the deck from lips that had been cut on his own teeth. "Soon, little man,” he muttered and then lapsed into unconsciousness.

     Captain Otto almost had him thrown overboard at that point, but he was even angrier at the sailor. "You have already killed one oarsman this voyage. Attack one more man and I'll dump your body into the sea myself." He then had one of the sailors dump a bucket of water in Tarn's face to wake him.

 

***

 

     Damia got the call from Shalmain that she had been anticipating for the past several hours. She teleported to him and saw he was healthy and whole. Without preamble she asked, "What have you learned?"

     "Zadykiel is forming an alliance. The tavern keeper was of little help, but the serving girl heard much of the plans. He planned to seek out the enemies of Brimstone and the companions. She thought he intended to speak to two different monster species but only one was mentioned. She said one of the mages mentioned a meeting with a werewolf. That was about the extent of the girl's knowledge. She knew nothing of the other species, as it was never mentioned in her presence and..." Stopping in mid sentence Shalmain, who had just noted Damia's startled expression asked, "Damia? Are you alright?"

     "I don't know Shalmain. How would you feel about a trip to the werewolf caves?"

     "What do you need there?" Shalmain asked curiously.

     "Potions of cure lycanthrope,” Damia said. "And that is the only place where they can be obtained."

     "I get to keep any other treasures I locate then?" he asked curiously.

     "Yes of course, they would be yours to sell or do with as you please. I just need the potions. But beware Shalmain. That cave is exceedingly dangerous and the werewolves of Sic Dalar are more dangerous than those of Brach Dalar. The cave system is much more extensive and dangerous."

     "Then I'm the man for the job,” he responded. Winking at Damia he added, "At least it won't be boring."

 


 

Chapter 62.

 

     Deep in a cave hidden in a remote location on Sic Dalar a mage opened an ancient tome of Necromantic magic. His hand trembled a bit in eagerness to surrender himself to this spell he was about to invoke. Taking a deep breath he forced his mind to a calmer state. He had spent months preparing to attempt to master this spell. It had taken him a dozen attempts just to make one of the powders required for this combination ritual and spell. The other ingredients were also quite rare and one was priceless. Once that ingredient was gone there would never be any more to replace it, for it was a flask of Dalghard's blood one of his minions had safeguarded for an attempt to bring the God back to the land of Althea.

     Thinking of that, Zadykiel carefully placed the bowl he was holding down on the ceremonial alter. When it was safely set aside, he stepped back out of the circle of runes there to protect him when the moment came to begin the magic. He looked at his five Mage henchmen and smiled. Then he began to laugh in earnest as he pointed to the flask of blood on the alter. "Those foolish companions only thought they had secured all of his blood. It was so simple to deceive them. Dalghard put a ward on the flask so the other gods could not detect the blood within it. But the moment I use the blood, they will know, and they will be afraid. Imagine that. The gods will tremble at what I boldly do."

     One of the mages asked, "How did you come by that rare item?"

     Zadykiel looked at the mage as if he were deciding whether to kill him or answer him. He decided to answer him, for he needed the mages at the moment. "I paid a fortune teller to tell me where I might find the blood. She was such a pretty girl. It is such a shame she died screaming and in agony that night when her house caught fire and burned her alive." Zadykiel closed his eyes and smiled as if reliving a particularly good memory. The mages stared at each other but held their tongues.

     "Anyway, I went to where she informed me it would be found and located a former priest of Dalghard. That man had long since given up on the possibility of Dalghard's return. The men assigned to guard him and keep him safe had abandoned him. I talked to him about the blood. Of course he denied it was Dalghard's and squirmed like the worm he was."

     "Then how did you end up with it?" inquired the same mage.

     "The old fool fell on a knife. He managed to fall twelve times before he died. Well, that's what I told the city guard who found me with his body." Smiling maniacally he continued, "That fool fell on a knife a few times, also."

     The mages chortled like fools at that comment.

     Zadykiel grew grim then. The mages instantly stopped laughing. It was dangerous to laugh around Zadykiel when he had that expression on his face. He stared hard into the faces of his men. "Soon I will see who is most loyal,” he thought. He said, "And now the time has come for our band to greatly increase our power. But before we take that step I have to ask you all a question. Just to be certain of your loyalty. I'm sure you understand."

     Glancing at each other nervously the five mages waited for him to continue. Staring into their eyes a moment longer, Zadykiel prepared himself for what was about to happen and then he asked his question. "Are you men prepared to die for our cause?"

     "If needs be, aye,” replied one of the men.

     Zadykiel smiled at the man. "First to respond, you will be honored above all your brothers,” he replied somewhat ritualistically. In a rush then, the others responded that they, too, were willing to die for their cause. Zadykiel smiled benignly at them all. "Well spoken,” he said.

     Zadykiel returned to his spot beside the altar and beckoned for the first man to join him there. He did so eagerly. He was about to be rewarded for his loyalty to Zadykiel! When the man stood with him before the altar, Zadykiel lifted a small mug and held it above his head. He uttered a strange incantation none of the other mages had ever heard, then he turned to his henchman and said, "This mug contains an elixir that will prepare you for the power you are about to receive. You must drink it quickly then drop the cup to the floor and raise your hands above your head. Do not hesitate. The timing is critical. The duration of the elixir is mere seconds. Waste it by moving too slowly and you can forget ever receiving the power you are about to gain." Looking into the man's eyes with great concern he continued, "You really deserve this. But if you would rather yield your opportunity to one of your brothers?"

     "No!" the man stated emphatically his eyes betraying the greed of his spirit.

     "Then you understand what you must do? There isn't enough of the elixir left for a second try,” he finished, sounding terribly disappointed, and concerned that his friend might lose the opportunity.

     "I do and I will do exactly as you have instructed,” the mage responded, now quite eager to gain the power Zadykiel was offering.

     Almost reverently Zadykiel handed the man the cup. Taking his cue from Zadykiel the mage reverently took the cup and drained it. Opening his hands he let the cup fall to the floor, then raised his hands high and tilted his face toward the ceiling of the cave chamber.

     Zadykiel reached out and gently placed his left palm behind the neck of his henchman. With his right hand he then stabbed him in the chest with a special dagger that, until that moment, had remained concealed within his garments. Working quickly he cut open the chest then completed his work. Dropping the knife to the floor he reached inside the man's chest and drew out his heart. "Face me quickly!" he said almost breathless with excitement.

     The man lowered his gaze and saw a beating heart in Zadykiel's hand. Confused and disoriented, he just stared for a moment. He had felt nothing and was unaware that the heart in Zadykiel’s hand was his own. The elixir he had swallowed killed all pain and even gave the person drinking it the ability to survive a mortal wound for about three minutes. He trusted Zadykiel. He was a friend. He remained calm despite his confusion.

     "Repeat after me quickly,” Zadykiel said with a concerned expression on his face. "I give thus freely to the power of necromancy!"

     The man uttered the words as his face grew a ghastly pale. A moment later he collapsed dead onto the floor of the chamber.

     Zadykiel turned and stared at the other four mages. They stood frozen in place inside the containment runes he had activated with the incantation. Their faces were transfixed with horror. "Good,” he thought. "I see the spell has worked or no doubt some of you would have fled already,” he said with a friendly smile. Then he continued, "Fear not, for before this work is done more of you will have the opportunity to die for our cause."

     The spell holding the mages transfixed also prevented them from speaking. They could do nothing but stare in horror as the archmage took the still beating heart and placed it reverently in a bowl. One of his incantations had been to preserve the heart. Then he added the special powdered ingredient and several other spell ingredients. Muttering strange incantations the entire time he continued the necromantic ritual and spell. Moments later the entire contents of the bowl vanished in a burst of blue flame. Soon the cavern seemed to tremble and then a Demon appeared before Zadykiel. It was trapped inside the runes and wards drawn on the floor of the cavern, out of reach of the necromancer.

 


 

Chapter 63.

 

     The demon stared at Zadykiel and the dead mage. Turning his malevolent head the demon saw the terrified prisoners who awaited their fate. The demon hissed like a serpent. He stood seven feet tall with horns that curved back behind his head. He had the upper body of a man but the trunk of that upper body merged into the form of a giant snake from the waist down and was about twenty feet in length. He appeared a grayish green in the light of the many torches Zadykiel had placed in the chamber.

     Facing Zadykiel again the demon said, "You have summoned me mage. You seek the power that is mine to grant?"

     Boldly Zadykiel answered. "I do seek that power."

     "Then you have the three sacrifices required?"

     "Take your pick. There stand four. It is no great loss to me even should you take all four. In fact, you can have them all."

     Glaring at the former allies of the archmage Zadykiel, the demon beckoned with his hand.

     Obediently one of the men approached the demon, completely under the power of the monster. When he was within reach the demon seized the man and savagely bit his throat. The demon was also a vampire! Trembling, the doomed man uttered a strangled moan. Zadykiel laughed as the vampiric demon drained every drop of blood in the man's body then threw him aside.

     Staring at the three remaining men the demon once more raised his hand. In horror, another of the doomed men walked forth. "Odd,” observed the demon. "They usually scream and carry on a great deal at this point."

     "I used the containment spell from an arcane book of magic. I do so hate my meals being disturbed by a ruckus and thought to be polite to you,” Zadykiel responded solicitously.

     "Human, I think I like you,” replied the demon as he seized the second victim.

     When the fourth dead mage was cast aside the demon said, "Now for my part of the bargain. I can affix my magic which will awaken the dead and make them your slaves into any items which you desire. They will be your slaves for as long as they have that item upon them. They will not be able to remove it themselves nor will they be able to ask another to do so or even reveal its power."

     "Thank you. That will be fine,” replied Zadykiel who had known quite well how this worked from his months of studying the arcane book he had taken from the body of Dalghard's former priest.

     "What items have you selected then?" asked the demon.

     "Golden rings. I have a small chest here filled with them." Having said that Zadykiel opened the chest and revealed an amazing supply of golden rings. The demon realized the chest contained several hundred of the rings if not a thousand and more.

     "So many? You ask too much for the sacrifice you have given,” thundered the now angry demon.

     "I expect to pay more,” replied Zadykiel calmly.

     "For that many rings you had better have the blood of a God to offer," the outraged demon demanded in anger.

     Zadykiel smiled then. "Will Dalghard's blood do?”

     Amazed, the demon froze and watched the human mage intently. He was speaking the truth, or at least he believed so. Doing his best to contain himself, the demon fought to regain his calm. If this were true then he would become the most powerful demon of the underworld when that blood imparted its benefits to him.

     "Very well mage. If the blood is Dalghard's then you will get that which you seek. But if it is not, you shall join your friends, whom you have betrayed."

     Smiling pleasantly at the demon, Zadykiel took the special flask from the top of the altar. Opening it, he tilted it ever so slightly and a single drop of the blood dripped from the mouth of the flask and fell toward the floor of the cavern.

     The smell of that drop of blood confirmed to the demon the mage was telling the truth. His tail whipped around and intercepted that drop of blood, then brought it to the vampire's lips. His eyes widened and trembling visibly he said, "Give me the blood, mage. You shall have that which you wish."

     Zadykiel smiled and replaced the stopper in the mouth of the flask. "It is yours demon. The moment I see your work is done."

     This angered the demon, but a moment later the thoughts of what he would be able to do to his enemies in the underworld made him laugh. "You are a wise little man. Very well then, but know that the moment that you attempt to cheat me you free me from this charmed holding cell I am trapped within. The magic depends entirely upon the user's honesty to work."

     "I am not such a fool as to disregard that fact. The blood shall be yours, assuming the other gods, who by now no doubt know it exists, do not arrive and take it first."

     Alarmed the demon immediately did his part in the plan. He enchanted all the rings within the chest. Breathing rapidly from the magical exertions he demanded, "Place rings upon the hands of your former friends. Hurry lest the gods arrive!"

     "No need to test you. I know you have acted in good faith,” replied Zadykiel, for he had heard the magic tone the arcane book had said would accompany the completed deal with the demon.

     He tossed the flask of blood to the demon who caught it easily and opened it immediately. He drank it in five seconds and disappeared laughing, reveling in the torment he was about to unleash on his enemies.

    Taking five rings from the chest, he placed them on the hands of his former mage colleagues. Moments later, with groans and moans, they became animated. "Arise, my death mages. You have earned your new powers."

     Obediently the five reanimated mages got to their feet and stood ready to do his bidding. They had gained powers, for now they too were vampires. But a demonic vampire cannot be slain by mere sunlight. These were incredibly strong vampires of the demonic branch. Stronger than any normal vampire and with fewer of their weaknesses. They were also slaves to Zadykiel. Their will was no longer their own. They were like all of the animated beings he was going to create. They would be able to carry out orders, but would not be able to think independently and rebel against his will. The demon's spell guaranteed immediate and complete domination of the will of the victim.

     "Take nine rings and go into the next chamber. There you will find the nine mercenaries I recently killed. Place a ring on the hand of each of them, and then return to me.

     The first thing Tarn's mercenaries heard as they were reanimated was the sound of Zadykiel's laughter. For a moment they struggled to remember who they were. Then in a flash they remembered. That memory caused them anguish, for now they were the slaves of the man who had slain them, and in despair they knew that if he demanded it of them, they would slay anyone within their reach. Even Tarn himself, for they had no will of their own. Moments later the spell was complete and they thought nothing of their own volition anymore.

 


 

Chapter 64.

 

     Tarn lay exhausted on his bench. He had rowed the ship for ten hours that day, eating only a small bowl of the horrid food the prisoners were fed. His hands were bleeding again and he did the best he could to clean them with the remnants of his once fine brown shirt. Once he had the bleeding stopped, he glanced around the deck.

     Checking out of the corner of his eyes to see if he was being watched, he noted that the ship’s crew was busy eating at the moment. Moving slowly and as little as possible to escape detection by anyone, even the other prisoners, he snaked a hand into his pants pocket and pulled out Mystyka's kerchief. Still moving ever so slowly he brought the kerchief to his nose and breathed deeply of her scent, which still lingered on the bit of cloth.

     Just before he had left on the mission, she had given him the kerchief. She was saying goodbye to him when she noted a small cut on his hand which he'd gotten handling some equipment earlier while he had seen to the equipment being loaded aboard ship. Tying the kerchief around the injured hand she had told him to be more careful in the future. Later, he had taken it off and slipped it inside his pocket. His hand hadn't been bleeding, but she hadn't wanted him to get dirt in the cut. It was still a serviceable kerchief so he'd saved it.

     Now it brought him peace of mind to smell that simple cloth and to remember her. By now she might think him dead and that worried him to no end. That he would cause her pain disturbed him deeply. Closing his eyes he once more inhaled the scent of the lady he loved and smiled to himself.

     "What have you got there!" demanded a harsh voice unexpectedly.

     Startled Tarn's eyes shot open and he stared into the face of Captain Otto. "Just a rag I was cleaning my hands with,” replied Tarn.

     "A mighty clean rag it is, if it were used for that purpose, you lying lout."

     "Well I was just getting started,” replied Tarn flatly.

     "And why were you smiling?" demanded the captain.

     "Because it feels so good to rest,” lied Tarn who knew he couldn't let this man know the rag was anything special to him. If that happened the man would surely take it from him. He tossed it on the deck of the ship. A calculated risk, for he might have misjudged the captain, but he wanted him to believe the kerchief had no special value to him.

     Enraged the captain demanded, "Pick that up now!"

     Obediently he did so and received a lash with the whip to help him in the doing. "My ship is no pig's sty. See to it you remember that!" Glaring at him a moment, the captain then turned away and walked back to the rest of the crew.

     Tarn's back hurt terribly. But he had managed to save Mystyka's kerchief. To him it was worth it. He took the kerchief and wiped a tear of agony from his eyes, lest the others see it. "Mystyka" he thought. "Will I ever see you again?"


 

Chapter 65.

 

     The Gryphon sailed the sea slowly. A foul wind had sprung up unexpectedly and slowed their progress. Captain Barnes and Caval both swore in frustration. "Well, we are moving slower, but then surely the Logan will be slower as well,” stated Brimstone in an attempt to cheer them up.

     "That's why we are so angry Brimstone,” said the captain. "They were past the headland and well at sea before the wind changed."

     "Meaning they still have the wind at their backs?" asked Damia who had appeared beside Brimstone. Startled, the good captain apologized for his foul language and answered yes to her question.

     Damia sighed and said, "Well, I've been meaning to upgrade the Gryphon anyway. I may as well see to that now. Captain, would you and Caval explain to me exactly what modifications will make this ship faster and still be seaworthy?"

     She spoke to them both for some fifteen minutes. Then she set about altering the ship. That was quite an achievement, since it was at sea and under full sail. She made it look simple though. First she trimmed the lines of the ship, and then she added another twenty oars to her. She lightened it considerably by replacing the wooden hull with a seamless azure hull so that even adding the extra oars she hadn't ended up with a net weight gain. She had been adamant that the cabins stayed on the ship, as she loved them. She had tapered the bow of the ship to a sharper line. When she was finished, the Gryphon cut the water smoother and was considerably faster than before. Captain Barnes and Caval both hooted with pleasure. They swore she had doubled their speed under sail alone.

     Caval went to the deck to help organize the available men at the oars. "I wish we had experienced oarsmen,” Captain Barnes said.

     "You will have them soon captain,” said Damia refusing to elaborate. She kissed Brimstone and went to see the ladies.

     "What do you suppose she meant by that?" the captain asked Brimstone. Before he could voice his opinion the lookout yelled, "Sail Ho off the Port Bow!"

     "Already!" exclaimed Damia as she reappeared beside Brimstone. Turning to the captain she said, "Take that ship."

     "Is that the Logan?" he asked after he ordered the sailors to max beat on the oars.

     "No" she replied with a smile. "Take her anyway. The rest of your crew is there."

     Confused, the captain moved away muttering under his breath. Damia tilted her head and arched a brow. "Did you say something good captain?" she inquired.

     "Ahh no Goddess nothing at all,” he said hurrying away to take care of the pursuit, lest his big mouth land him in hot water with the Goddess.

     Laughing, Damia exchanged a knowing smile with her husband. "Stop teasing the man, Beloved," he said as he smiled at her.

     "But it is so much fun,” she said. Then noting the confusion at the new oars as the landsmen tried their best to work together she frowned and called, "All of you, away from my oars." Then, using her powers as the men scrambled to get out of the way, she made the oars work in unison just as her mother Shinobi had once done in the battle with Dalghard. By the tenth sweep of the oars Captain Barnes and Caval had both returned to her position on the ship. By the twentieth sweep of the oars the Gryphon was leaving a wake of white water aft as she pursued the other ship.

     "By the Gods she is a fast ship!" exclaimed Caval. Then noting Damia's presence he said, "Sorry, Damia."

     Laughing Damia said, "By the Gods indeed, or at least one Goddess." Turning to Brimstone she said, "Did I ever tell you that mother made me a small ship like this when I was a child? She did, you know. She taught me then how to make the oars work together as we played in the bath."

     Brimstone was amazed. Surely Shinobi hadn't known that one day Damia would need that skill. He smiled when Damia winked at him and replied to his unvoiced opinion. "Think you not, my husband?"

     Shaking his head he laughed and said, "No, not at all."

     "Best prepare the boarding party. And be careful. Tell the men not to injure the prisoners."

     Brimstone was about to question her in that regard but she shook her head and said, "You will know them when you see them." Trusting his wife, he sprinted across the deck to a band of men already being organized by John, who knew from his pirate days what was coming.

     The speed of the ship, with Damia powering the oars, was amazing. The enemy vessel had been a tiny ship on the horizon when first spotted. Now they could already make out details of her deck. Captain Barnes, looking through his spyglass exclaimed, "By the Gods there are minotaur prisoners aboard her!"

     Caval's head snapped up then. "Shinobi, grant me strength!" he pleaded as he raised his great war axe above his head. There was a momentary glow from the axe, and then Shinobi's disembodied voice spoke to Caval and Lord Fatman saying, "The captain of that ship will order the prisoners slain when he is boarded. Please defend my helpless followers." Both Lord Fatman and Caval went to their knees on deck pledging to defend the prisoners with their lives."

     John and Brimstone organized the rest of the boarding party. The warriors would all board the ship. The archers were to remain on the Gryphon. Brimstone insisted they use the very same plan they had drawn up for the attempt to rescue Tarn. This would give them an opportunity to put that plan to the test. Therefore, Nessarose and Tersha, XconX and Genkaku would be joining Lord Fatman and Caval in the defense of the prisoners.

     Moments later, they were within arrow range of the fleeing ship. Brimstone could clearly see forty minotaurs on the deck of the ship with their hands chained behind their backs. He heard Caval scream in rage even as he saw a line of swordsmen approaching the prisoners.

     "Archer's, take them!" Brimstone yelled then a moment later he added, "Mages! Manaburst!" when he saw the archers alone would not be able to prevent the swordsmen from reaching the prisoners in time.

     There was a flurry of arrows and manaburst for a moment and then the advancing line of swordsmen broke and ran. Thirty seconds later the Gryphon pulled alongside the enemy vessel and the warriors leapt aboard her with Brimstone and John at the front of their ranks, followed closely by Lord Malachi, Jedi, and MetalHead. Their mission was to take the fight to the enemy. They were few in number, but many of the enemy had already been slain, and they would have the aid of some of the best archers of Althea.

     Nessarose and Tersha fluidly leapt to the deck of the slightly lower ship, right behind XconX and Genkaku. Caval and Lord Fatman were just ahead of them as well. They reached the prisoners then spread out to face any enemy intent upon harming them.

     From the corner of his eye Lord Fatman saw an arrow streak past his position and strike a warrior who was rushing at him from his blind side. Turning his head in that direction he saw two more arrows strike the man directly in the chest and he toppled to the deck. Looking back at the Gryphon he saw Yane, LenapeSue and Ziona standing with their bows. They smiled and waved then prepared to fire again should they be needed.

     Caval stepped up to the minotaur prisoners and greeted them. With his war axe held high he said, "Shinobi, grant me the strength I need."

Slashing downward with the great war axe he severed the main chain that ran through the chains that bound the minotaurs’ wrists, thus forcing them to remain seated on the deck of the ship. Their wrists and ankles were still chained together, but now the minotaurs could at least stand and defend themselves to some degree. They scrambled to their feet and prepared to face the enemy with nothing but their horns if need be.

     XconX and Genkaku fought in the middle of the defensive line. The enemy once more organized a skirmish line of warriors and tried to rush the few defenders of the minotaurs, but the arrows and spells of the mages aboard the Gryphon once more beset them. Soon very few of them remained. Genkaku swore in frustration. Every time it looked as though one of the warriors might get through to challenge him an arrow or a spell would take the enemy down. XconX laughed at his brother's frustration saying, "Let them have their bit. Before all of this is over I have the feeling we will all be drenched in the blood of battle." Having said that, XconX nodded his head at the second line of warriors forming up to challenge them.

     Moments later, they rushed en mass. This time they ran full tilt instead of the cautious advances previously employed. As a result, the archers and mages were unable to stop the advancing line. To make matters worse Brimstone and the warriors were fighting the last of the ship’s warriors on the far side of the prisoners who had been located in the center of the ship's deck. The few defenders were on their own. But they had unexpected help. Unexpected that is by all but Caval. The bound minotaurs were still quite formidable and more than one attacking warrior was slain on the horns of the enraged minotaurs.

     Nessarose used her sword to block a descending flail that would have ripped the skin from her face. From the corner of her eye she saw Tersha leap upon the back of a warrior who was about to behead a downed minotaur. Her forepaw claws dug into the man's trapezius muscles in his shoulders and her hind claws shredded the back sides of his upper legs. He dropped his sword as he fell to the ground in acute agony. Nessarose ran her sword through the flail wielding man and turned to face another.

     Caval used his axe as if it weighed nothing. Plowing into the attacking warriors he struck left and right, and when he struck, warriors lost limbs or their life.

     Lord Fatman beheaded a warrior who was trying to gut a minotaur prisoner and then turned to see if Genkaku and XconX needed a hand.

     Genkaku swung his sword a third time, this time he managed to penetrate the warrior's guard and his sword bit into the man's side. He fell immediately to the deck screaming in pain. Mercifully Genkaku severed the man's head from his body, ending the man's pain. It had been a mortal wound and it was a very painful way to die.

     "That was kind of you brother,” XconX stated.

     "A man shouldn't have to die from the fever brought on when his entrails have been cut open,” Genkaku stated dispassionately. "That is no way for a man to die,” he finished.

    XconX fired his manaburst past Genkaku's head catching a warrior, about to strike Genkaku's unprotected back, full in the face with the withering spell. Spinning around, Genkaku swung his sword in a great arch that ended at the man's throat. The tip of his sword cut through the man's throat and he fell backward in a pool of his own blood.

     Then it was all over. John had killed the captain of the ship and the companions had slain the rest. Walking toward the prisoners, Brimstone twirled his bloody sword, slinging the blood from the blade as he whipped it expertly to a stop. Sheathing the sword he turned to look for each of the boarding party who had come aboard the ship. He noted that all had survived and nodded his head in satisfaction. Several had minor wounds, but already Lord Fatman and XconX were healing those injuries.

     Walking up to the minotaurs he said, "My name is Brimstone."

     A minotaur walked over to meet him. He towered over Brimstone but treated the man respectfully when he said, "Hail, Brimstone. I am captain of this ship. We were taken prisoner when we stopped to assist what we thought was a ship in distress. It turned out to be a trap which we learned too late and much to our disgust. Thank you for delivering us from these men."

     "Who were they?" Brimstone inquired.

     "Former warriors of Dalghard from what I heard them saying to each other. It seems there are thousands of them in western Sic Dalar at a large camp there. They have been taking minotaurs prisoner. They use us as slave labor in building a fortress they are constructing there."

     The companions present were speechless at this news. Brimstone asked, "Why were thousands of his warriors in western Sic Dalar? And why haven't they disbanded?"

     “They were stationed there to guard the western portion of Sic Dalar from possible invasion once the war of the gods began. They were fanatics. Their leader believed in the war. When it was over, instead of disbanding, he opted to remain in western Sic Dalar.” Nodding his head toward the leader whom John had slain he continued, "That one said they have a fortress there that can withstand any attacking army. They planned to take us there to continue the work on it. He says there are hundreds of minotaur slaves there. It may be true, too. Many ships have disappeared without a trace in recent months. The ship they used to trap us was a minotaur ship. That is why we walked into the trap like week old calves."

     "Well, Captain, the ship is yours once more."

     One of the minotaurs unlocked the shackles holding the minotaur captain's wrists at that point. Nodding his head the captain said, "So I see, and Shinobi says you have need of half my crew."

     "That we do, Captain, if you can spare them that is."

     "Spare them or not, they are yours for Shinobi has said it is to be so. But in this case, yes, the remaining crewmen can get us home. We will report this incident to our king. He may wish to order a rescue mission to that fort."

     "Will losing some of your crew delay you too much?"

     "Nay, Brimstone, for the winds will be in our favor on that journey and the wind itself will provide the muscle needed."

     "Then I thank you. We seek a friend aboard the Logan. He too is captive of some of Dalghard's former forces."

     "It makes you wonder just how many more such bands of his men exist,” responded the minotaur.

     "Only the gods know for certain,” Brimstone replied.

     "And we cannot say,” Damia interjected then, as she appeared beside Brimstone. Her arrival had an amazing affect on the minotaurs who, to the last man, knelt in the presence of the daughter of their goddess as a gesture of respect. Caval, who had been told to stop doing so and had just gotten out of the habit, smiled at Damia as he too knelt on one knee.

     "Oh, stop that!" Damia said in exasperation.

 


 

Chapter 66.

 

     Deep in the werewolf cave system Shalmain wandered through yet another passageway as he searched for the chests he knew from his conversation with Damia contained the potions she wanted him to recover. He had found nearly a dozen already. Alas, they seemed hard to locate. He had also found silver armor similar to that which Nessarose wore, but he had found to his disgust that he could not wear it. He also found a quiver of silver arrows and several silver daggers.

     He was moving down the passageway on the way to the next chamber in the cavern system when he heard a scraping sound ahead of him. He cautiously stopped and listened, but could hear or see nothing. Eventually he moved on again but this time his every sense was alert and striving for the first hint of trouble. He was sure something was ahead of him somewhere, just out of sight.

     Looking down the passageway he saw the next chamber and a massive rock formation that was blocking his view of the rest of the chamber. Cautiously he entered the chamber. Giving that rock formation a wide berth, he circled around it to the left. He had gone but a few steps in that direction when he saw a werewolf crouched there, waiting for him to possibly walk right by it. As it just so happened the werewolf had its head turned toward the other direction and failed to see Shalmain. He had moments to act before the werewolf became aware of his position so Shalmain reacted instantly.

     He used the spell plague on the werewolf then he entangled it and began attacking it with his boulder spell. The werewolf was incredibly fast. As soon as the entanglement spell wore off it darted toward Shalmain who entangled it again. He alternated his spells then. One entanglement and then two of boulders. Even so, the werewolf almost got to him before he managed to slay it.

     Breathing heavily, Shalmain moved past the werewolf, keeping his distance as he did so. That had been close. He had only been ten feet from the werewolf when he had first attacked it. If he had started the battle at five feet the outcome would have been different. He determined that if he encountered any closer than five feet he had best use his recall spell.

     Shalmain didn't know it, but the reason he had encountered so few of the werewolves on this trip was because they were elsewhere at the moment, participating in a training exercise with Zadykiel and some Gargoyles.

     He searched the cave for three more hours, moving quickly but with great stealth. Three more times he encountered the powerful werewolves, but each time he managed to defeat them. He had been lucky not to chance upon more than one at a time. During that time he collected more of the potions Damia wanted and a bit more of the treasures for himself.

     He was doing well and was becoming confident in his ability to face the dangers of the caverns, when he finally encountered a large party of the werewolves. He had made his way halfway across a chamber to the next passageway when five werewolves stepped from that corridor. Stunned, he froze in place. The werewolves charged.

     Reacting instinctively, Shalmain used his entanglement spell on a werewolf in the lead then he hit it with boulder. He did the same to the next. Rotating the spells, he used entanglement and boulder over and over in rapid succession. The small area affect of the spell often weakened further werewolves he had already attacked.

     When the werewolves had first entered the chamber they had been approximately thirty feet from Shalmain. By the time they were within fifteen feet three were dead, and by the time they were within five feet only one remained, but he was healthy.

     Shalmain fired entanglement at that werewolf nonstop as he stepped backwards to gain some space between them. When they were ten feet apart he began to alternate his spells between boulder and entanglement. Then the unthinkable happened. As he was taking his last step backwards his foot slipped on some loose stones and he lost his balance. During the moment that it took to recover his balance the werewolf lunged at him. He saw the enraged monster's clawed hands reaching for his face from just inches away.


   

Chapter 67.

 

     Deep inside the caverns of the Gargoyles, Zadykiel met with the king. "How much longer do you think it will be before your people can have the cavern opened?" he asked the king.

     "My scouts tell me that it should be any hour now,” the King replied.

     "Good. Then I will be ready when it is uncovered. You must then summon me and I will enter the cavern with my death mages. Together we will reanimate the warriors of your tribe who died of suffocation in that chamber. Then, once more they will serve your tribe. If nothing else they can ferry the werewolves on that special mission we have groups training for even as we speak."

     The Gargoyle King thought this plan preferable to losing an equal number of his surviving warriors and so he had agreed to the plan. But the more he thought about the plan, the more it seemed to him that the mage would gain gargoyle slaves who might be obedient exclusively to him. Now the king was having second thoughts about the entire idea.

     Zadykiel sensed the king's mood and said, "You are doing the right thing you know."

     "Do you believe that or is it in your interest to flatter me?" replied the gargoyle sourly.

     "Every Gargoyle we reanimate adds another follower to our cause. It might also save a living gargoyle from death in battle. Therefore yes, I mean it. In my opinion you are doing the right thing. You are doing this in the hopes of saving more of your living tribesmen, are you not? Is that not the responsibility of a king? To look after the welfare of his subjects."

     Grudgingly the gargoyle had to admit the mage had a point. That was indeed the responsibility of the king. "But will they obey my commands?"

     "They will obey you so long as you do not tell them to do anything that would conflict with their orders from me yes."

     The king was about to say something else but was interrupted when a messenger flew into the chamber and hovered near them for a moment before gently settling to the ground. "The Chamber has been opened my king. I am afraid that it was worse than we feared. There are many hundreds of our dead inside the chamber."

     The king scowled at that news but Zadykiel was pleased. The more the better as far as he was concerned. He was gaining allies. That was what mattered to him. Together they hastened off to the chamber, but walking was too slow. The king ordered two of his gargoyles to equip the special harnesses Zadykiel had adapted for their use. Quickly they did so and soon he was dangling from the end of the harness secured beneath his arms and attached to the pair of gargoyles as the they flew at a breathtaking pace through the caverns.

     Zadykiel sensed that they were deliberately pouring on the speed and letting him get close to the floor or boulders at times to test his nerve. If he found it frightening he hid it well, for most of the flight he spent laughing and apparently having a grand time of it. When they landed moments later, all three of the gargoyles were scowling at him in disappointment.

     Bowing with a flourish he thanked the gargoyles for the ride. Turning to the king he said, "Shall we enter?" Grunting by way of reply, the king entered the chamber. Inside he found hundreds and hundreds of bodies of the dead gargoyles who had perished in this cavern. Their bodies were not marked, as they had died of asphyxiation.

     Looking at the bodies of the dead gargoyles Zadykiel said, "Yes they will do quite nicely." He then asked the gargoyles to all leave the chamber, claiming the magic would not work with them present. Once they had departed, he gestured to his five death mages standing in an out of the way corner in the immense chamber. They came at his summons. One of them carried the chest which contained the rings. Such was the strength of the death mages that one could easily handle that chest, where before it had taken two of them to do so and they had struggled with it even then.

     The death mage placed the chest upon the ground before Zadykiel and opened it. "Place one ring upon the hand of every Gargoyle in this room,” he instructed, then settled down to observe the results. The death mages were not like zombies. They did not move with clumsiness, nor were they in a state of decay. Their bodies remained as they had been at the moment of their deaths, with the exception of the wounds. The magic which animated them had also healed those wounds. Now they would be very hard to slay, for they were already dead. Thinking of the warnings issued by the book, the mage remembered they could be consumed by flame or their spirits forever freed by a sufficient amount of turn undead. Other than that, it would take a lot to slay one of the reanimated beings who were to be the core of his followers. That would be true of all of them and not just the death mages.

     Soon the reanimated gargoyles began to stand and flex their wings. Zadykiel decided to test them by having six of them fly about the cavern. They did so quite easily. "Magnificent!" he exclaimed with enthusiasm. Soon the cavern chamber was filled with five hundred reanimated gargoyles, all of whom would serve his will.

 


 

Chapter 68.

 

     Shalmain saw the werewolf's clawed hands inches from his face and realized it was time to leave the cavern. He had done his best and hoped it would be good enough. He used his word of recall spell then and appeared in the temple on Stoneheim. When the effects of the spell had worn off he left the temple by the back door and walked to the Stonehenge in the city. There he quietly spoke her name and the Goddess Damia appeared beside him.

     "I have the potions for you Goddess,” he said and tried to give them to her.

     Damia held up her hands and said, "Hold Shalmain. I cannot touch them lest I violate the Accords of the Gods. You must take those potions to Paradise Cove and wait there for the companions if you wish to be of further service."

     "What is to happen there?" inquired Shalmain.

     "I fear I cannot reveal that to you Shalmain. If you do not wish to stay, then send for Versha and give her the potions when you arrive. You have served me well and deserve to rest, for what is to come will be fraught with danger and not all will survive."

     "And I am now supposed to be able to walk away from that danger?" asked Shalmain in good humor. "Surely you know that now my curiosity is aroused."

     "You should beware that trait, Shalmain. It truly can lead you into trouble,” replied Damia.

     "My mum used to say that as well, Damia,” he replied with a laconic grin, then he asked, "Will you be teleporting me there?"

     "Not this time. You have a scroll in your pack. Use it. I have to leave immediately. Thank you, Shalmain," she said and disappeared.

     "Anytime, Goddess,” he said, after she had left. Using the scroll, he found himself on the beach in Paradise Cove. A guard immediately came to him. They were becoming accustomed to such arrivals and realized it usually meant something was about to happen. Shalmain sent the guard on the run to speak with one of the torlags who were a part of the city guard detachment. He was to summon Versha to come to the beach.

     Shalmain waited patiently, enjoying the view of the cove and the warm breeze upon the air. He didn't have to wait too long. Soon Versha appeared running up the beach in her silver battle armor. He gave her the potions Damia had suggested he deliver. A guard ran to get a pack specially designed for torlags that could hold the items.

     Versha thanked him for obtaining the potions and said, "Is Damia expecting werewolf trouble then?"

     "I don't know, she might be. She just told me to stay in the city and wait for the companions if I wanted to be of further service. She couldn't say why because of the Accords. Otherwise, she said to leave the city if I wanted to rest and that I had earned it."

     "Which will you do Shalmain? You have indeed earned a rest. These potions will mean life to any torlag bitten by a werewolf. Did you know that? Otherwise we are put to death. It is our law." Versha made a show of counting the potions. "I see twenty-three potions here. At great risk to your own life you have provided the means to save twenty-three of my people at some point. And you did this alone. I thank you, Shalmain."

     Shalmain blinked as he stared at the potions. "You mean I did that?" he asked in great surprise. Frankly he'd had no idea his trip was of such importance. Now he felt slightly guilty for thinking the rest were getting the good jobs while he got the menial tasks.

     "Yes, Shalmain, you did that."

     The torlags present all followed their leader’s example when she bowed in acknowledgment of Shalmain's contribution to the safety of her people. Shalmain was shocked and belatedly bowed in return. "Thank you for your kindness. It was nothing really,” he said in embarrassment.

     "Twenty-three of our lives is a great deal more to me than nothing my friend."

     Embarrassed at his gaffe, Shalmain stammered, "I didn't mean it that way, you see I..." Then he noted the torlag form of laughter being exhibited by all of the torlags present. He smiled easily then, for it was said that torlags only laugh before a true friend. They had accepted him as a friend. That was no small matter to the torlags. Nor was it a small matter to Shalmain.

 


 

Chapter 69.

 

     Onboard the Logan, Tarn was trying his best to eat the slop they fed the prisoners. He had barely managed to gag down a quarter of the contents of the small bowl when the crewman who had murdered his lieutenant walked by and jostled his arm violently, causing him to drop the bowl and spill the contents on the deck.

     Leaping to his feet a furious Tarn retaliated, for the man had made a mistake. He had stopped within reach of the warrior. Tarn grabbed him by the throat and began to throttle the life from the man. He choked him thusly for several seconds before he felt the first strike of the whip upon his back. Then, such was his fury, he managed to ignore that pain and continue to throttle the man for three additional strikes before other men grasped his wrists and pulled them away from his tormentor's throat. Retching violently the man fell to his knees and rubbed his bruised throat as he gasped for air.

     The captain came to Tarn then, pointing his finger at him. Tarn savagely tried to bite that finger, but the captain snatched his hand back out of the way in time. "I have had enough of your behavior,” he screamed at Tarn. Then he kicked the sailor who was still on his knees, recovering from being severely choked. "And that goes for you as well, you sorry excuse for a sailor."

     The captain pointed to the ships mast. "Chain him to the mast for punishment."

     Tarn struggled against the crewmen and received a clout to the back of his head from the captain with the metal capped butt of his whip. Soon he found himself thus bound to the mast, helpless to defend himself from the flogging. The captain administered it himself. Fifteen lashes with a leather flail.

     When it was over Tarn's back was a bloody mess. A link of his chain slid over a spike high above his head was all that was holding him up. He had passed out from the intense pain by the thirteenth lash of the flail. His back, already a bloody mess from the multiple whip strikes administered by the captain, was now almost a ruin. The captain expertly surveyed the damage and decided he could still row a few more hours. He hated to waste a strong man at the oar. But one more whipping would be the man's undoing. Even if he survived it, he'd be a physical cripple, unable to perform any serious physical labor.

 

***

 

     Aboard the Gryphon, the minotaurs at the oars heard Mystyka's shrill screams and wondered what in the name of the Gods was going on. Caval explained about Mystyka and frowned as he saw the Ladies Sparks, Ru, Fawnn, Ziona, and Nessarose, accompanied by Tersha as always, rush into the cabin to see to their friend.

     They found her in her room, sitting on the bed, sobbing. When they asked her what was wrong she related to them she had fallen asleep and dreamed of Tarn. He was being flogged aboard ship as his body slumped against the ship's mast.

     Damia appeared beside them then. "Damia, something is odd here,” interjected Lady Sparks. "Mystyka keeps dreaming of Tarn, and she believes the dreams are real and he is being tortured."

     Lady Ru spoke up quietly then. "Some people have the ability you just described. Sometimes it occurs only once or twice during their entire life. It is usually said to be brought on by great stress, or concern for the person they dream of."

     Damia nodded her head in agreement, and then looked at her friend in compassion. "I can take that ability from you if you wish. It can be restored fully after this is over. You need not be so tormented."

     Mystyka fought down the tears and stared at Damia thoughtfully. When she spoke it was with conviction, "No thank you, Damia. When I see him thusly, I get hints about things that might aid in his rescue." Shaking her head she added, "It is just disquieting to me. I would not have those dreams removed."

     Smiling at her friend Damia said, "You are a strong woman Mystyka." Then turning serious she warned, "But be warned, your strength will be tested soon on a personal level." Seeing that Mystyka mistook the meaning of the warning she hastened, "Now, I did not say Tarn would perish. I could not reveal that to you, even if I knew it to be the case, which I do not."

     "You mean even you cannot see that far or that event?" asked Fawnn.

     "I could, aye, and that is a certainty. I will not. That too is a certainty."

     "But why?" Mystyka asked. "Not that I am arguing, mind you."

     Thinking briefly Damia answered her saying, "You recall the empathy of torlag visions?" With the recent experience with Tersha still fresh in their minds the Ladies nodded. "When I see a vision, it is like that. I see, smell, hear, and taste them. As a girl mother taught me how to block out certain visions, for they were leaving me bedridden. I was emotionally crippled by them."

     "Ahh, I see,” said Nessarose. Damia just smiled, knowing that nothing could be further from the truth. It was one thing to comprehend such a vision intellectually. It was quite another to actually experience one. Few could do that and retain their sanity.

     Moments later they heard a call from on deck. "Sail Hooooooo,” cried the lookout.

     Scrambling to the deck they all saw Captain Barnes and Caval encouraging the minotaurs to greater efforts at their oars. For their part, the minotaurs well knew what the watch cry meant and had already increased their beat at the oars in perfect unison. 

     Damia produced a fan and fanned herself. "Is it unseemly hot to you girls?"

     Looking at the Goddess, a bit perplexed, none of the ladies had the time to respond before, with a flick of her wrist, Damia caused the wind to accelerate in their area which was, by chance, near the sail. The sail billowed and strained against the restraining ropes and the mast fairly creaked under the strain. Captain Barnes howled with glee as he took the tiller to ride this unexpected breeze. For a full five minutes the breeze maintained its power and then Damia flicked her wrist again and the disappointed Captain Barnes relinquished the tiller to his steersman.

     But the breeze had accomplished its desired affect. The Gryphon was now within easy sight of the Logan. They could now make out the ropes of her rigging.

     Damia winked at her when Mystyka thanked her. Damia said, "The breeze had to go, though. Tampering with the wind can create some really bad storms. I held it long as I dared then had to let it die before it took on a life of its own." She disappeared to reappear beside Brimstone, gave him a tender kiss and disappeared once more.

                                                                   


 

Chapter 70.

 

     Onboard the Logan, Tarn was once again rowing. This time things were different. There was a sense of urgency about the crew as men ran about the deck, preparing to repel boarders, if he was correct. The captain had ordered maximum beat on the oars and forced the men to an even faster emergency beat when his lookout reported the ship they had just spotted was gaining rapidly on them.

     The Logan was a cargo ship. As such it had only six oars with three to each side. Tarn was seated on the starboard side of the ship with his back to the bow. From his position he could see the other ship as she grew nearer by the moment. Soon he could make out the distinctive pattern of the of the Gryphon emblazoned on the sail. A fleeting smile touched his lips. His friends had come for him!

     He decided, then and there that he would bide his time until the perfect moment, and then he would foul the oars of the other two rowing on his side of the ship. The port side would thus pull alone, and the ship would want to turn against the tiller. This would cause momentary confusion on the deck and should permit the companions to more rapidly close with their ship.

     Ten minutes later that opportunity presented itself when the Gryphon was close enough that he could easily identify several of the companions standing on deck. His eyes found Mystyka and he immediately and instinctively smiled. She saw him and gasped as she put her hand over her mouth and trembled. He stood and snapped his oar back and then rapidly throwing himself backwards he slammed his oar into the one of the man in front of him and fouled the oar. In two seconds he had totally fouled the rowing on the starboard side. The ship heeled briefly to the starboard side, bringing her closer to the ever gaining Gryphon.

     Moments later Tarn lost sight of what was happening, as the captain reached him and began laying into him with his whip. The strangers in the odd ship might board him but, by the gods, he'd beat this troublesome prisoner to death for what he'd just done.

As he laid into that task, peeling the hide from Tarn with every stroke, he heard someone scream.

 

***

 

     Mystyka saw Tarn as he recognized her and smiled. She was finally close enough to make out his features well and she gasped in shock at what she saw, and then covered her mouth as tears threatened her eyes. "Oh my god! What have they done to you Tarn,” she thought in misery. She saw numerous cuts and bruises all over him. He seemed to be covered in them.

     She watched Tarn bravely foul the oars on his side of the ship and a moment later she saw a man run down the deck to Tarn and begin beating him with a whip. She saw the whip flay the skin from Tarn's right forearm as he tried to protect his face and eyes from the whip. Her involuntary scream at that point caused the man to look in their direction. His eyes widened as Brimstone and the warrior boarding party leapt aboard, with XconX, Genkaku, Nessarose, and Tersha boarding from a different position on the Gryphon, which put them in the immediate vicinity of Tarn as soon as they boarded.

     Nessarose and Genkaku cut down two sailors who tried to engage them in combat. XconX and Tersha swept past them. They knew they had to reach Tarn immediately, for they had also seen the captain beating him with the whip.

     Mystyka boarded the ship then. Captain Barnes saw her as she boarded the enemy ship alone and started to challenge that, but she did not remain alone. Fawnn and Ziona leapt aboard, followed immediately by Lady Sparks and Lady Ru. As one, the three mages and the archer moved in Mystyka's wake. They shot, with arrow or manaburst, any man who attempted to harm Mystyka who seemed oblivious to anything going on around her, with the single exception of the man who had beaten Tarn.

     She saw him beside a sailor now. They were near the mast. She headed in their direction. As she walked she heard the victorious cries of the men from the Gryphon who had boarded the ship. As she walked the last few feet she drew her twisted dagger. She had every intention of cutting this man's throat.

     XconX used a key he had kept for such occasions and freed Tarn from his shackles. He picked up a sword dropped by one of the combatants and handed it to Tarn with a smile. Tarn smiled in return and then he winced as the smile made his face, cut by the whip, hurt atrociously.

     The captain saw disaster at every turn. Most of his men had already died trying to repel the strangers. He was cut off and alone save for the sailor who had caused so many problems this voyage. Then he saw Mystyka as she stepped up to him with a drawn dagger.

     Mystyka caught the captain completely off guard and soon had him backed up against the mast with her dagger at his throat. Then above the noise of the dying battle she heard Tarn's voice ringing loud and clear when he shouted. "Hold Mystyka! I'll not have the woman I intend to marry committing cold blooded murder!"

     Mystyka turned to face Tarn then, not sure she had heard him correctly. The captain, seeing her turn, thought to escape but found three sword tips placed at his throat by MetalHead, John, and Genkaku.

     Nessarose held the remaining sailor at bay while Tersha stood growling with her muzzle near his groin. The terrified sailor didn't know who to fear the most, the strange animal or the warrior woman in the glinting silver chain mail armor. "Stop teasing the man, sweet one, lest he urinate himself,” Nessa spoke to the torlag in her version of their language.

     Tersha replied, "If you had half my nose you would know he already did that,” she replied with a sniff and walked upwind of the man.

     Mystyka stared at Tarn with an odd expression oh her face. "What did you say Tarn?" she prompted.

     "I said I'd not have a wife who commits cold blooded murder,” Tarn said and gulped when the consequences of that statement hit him.

     "Yes Tarn,” Mystyka said demurely and blushed as she lowered her gaze. She smiled then and went to him. Searching his face in anxious concern she found a spot that wasn't wounded and kissed him a chaste kiss on his right cheek.

     Tarn wrapped his arms around the woman he loved and kissed her then, despite the pain it caused his wounded face. For his part he didn't bother being chaste at all. When he stepped back away from her she said, "That was hardly fair. I didn't want to hurt you."

     "Being away from you is what truly hurt me. This?" he said gesturing at his multiple wounds. "This will heal. The pain in my heart, at the thought of never seeing you again, was more painful than all of these wounds combined."

     He pulled her kerchief from his pocket then. Smiling at her he said, "This helped me more than you will ever know. You can have it back if you want it dear." Yet Mystyka could see he had treasured the kerchief and somehow, in some way, it had helped him through his ordeal.

     Mystyka said nothing. She stepped forward and gently placed her hands over his hand that held the kerchief and folded his hand around it while staring into his eyes. She saw a deep and passionate love there. Her eyes filled with tears and she stepped into his embrace. This was the man she loved. She had at times thought he didn't love her as she loved him, because he was so quiet and guarded with his emotions.

     Mystyka had experienced one other dream she had not shared with the companions. She had seen Tarn in that dream as he held her kerchief and she knew what it meant to him. More importantly, she knew what she herself meant to him on a level he would never be able to vocalize. During their separation, as he was held prisoner, she had come to realize he just did not express his emotions often. For him to be so candid now, before all of the companions, must have been terribly difficult for him. Never again would she assume he didn't feel deeply his love for her simply because he did not vocalize that love often.

 


Chapter 71.

 

     Tarn stood at the ready. He would be facing the captain and the surviving sailor who had so plagued him during his captivity. Each held a sword and seemed to know how to use it. They stood ready. They knew there was little likelihood they would survive this day, no matter the outcome of this duel, but they were determined to kill Tarn.

     John had begged Tarn to permit him to act as his second and fight the two men in his stead since he was in such bad condition. Brimstone had also offered. In point of fact, at some point in the past few minutes, all of the warriors had done so. Lord Malachi had all but insisted and Jedi had insisted. But Tarn had been adamant, and in the end, Brimstone had intervened saying, "He may be in bad shape, but Tarn is one of the best men with a sword I've ever seen."

     Tarn drew his own sword and advanced on the two seamen. He had plans for this battle. He wanted to take the captain first and then the sailor. He had a promise to keep. He advanced to within seven feet of the two men then stopped and waited for them. He smiled at the captain, knowing the man hated it when he smiled, and hoping for a small advantage to come from it.

     The captain darted forward, intent upon wiping that smug smile from the warrior's face, once and for all. But he was a wily one himself and knew well the ways of distracting an enemy. As he made several experimental attacks designed to test Tarn's ability with a sword he said, "At least I now know why you were always smiling when you were my captive." Tarn said nothing. He just continued to parry the probing attacks of the captain. "If my wench looked as homely as yours, I'd be happy away from her, too."

     The insult to Mystyka didn't quite have the desired affect. Tarn didn't overreact and wildly attack as he anticipated. Instead he said, "For that insult you have just bought a crueler death than I had intended."

     Tarn began to attack then. He tested the captain's guard just as the captain had tested his own, but with much more power and efficiency in his sword arm. So rapid were the attacks that only the trained warriors could keep the count of them and comprehend the difficulty of the techniques. Jedi hooted in appreciation and Lord Malachi literally applauded the display of swordsmanship he was witnessing. Brimstone just smiled, for he had seen it before.

     Time after time Tarn bloodied the captain, who raged at his remaining sailor to take an active part in the battle. But the sailor was a craven coward and refused to help him. He thought there was always a chance the captain would slay Tarn and he wouldn't have to fight him.

     Tarn had the captain bleeding from a dozen small wounds. Now he concentrated on the next part of his plan. He rotated the sword in his hand to use the flat upper portion of the blade. The warriors watching gasped. Some had an inkling of what was about to happen. John knew exactly what Tarn was about to do and leaned forward to watch closely, whispering to Ziona as he did so. "Observe dear. Tarn is about to begin the real punishment."

     Tarn battled the captain in earnest then. Gone were the probes and feints he had used earlier. He waited until the captain had committed himself to an attack and then he struck the captain's free arm just above the wrist a terrible blow with the flat upper portion of the single edged weapon.

     The captain screamed in pain. His free arm was now broken just above the wrist. In a fury he wildly attacked again. Thirty seconds later Tarn saw the opening he was waiting for and lashed out with the sword again. This time he broke the captain's sword arm just above the wrist.

     The captain cried out in despair then and dropped the weapon from his now useless hand. He stood there breathing heavily then. "End it now warrior."

     Instead of slaying the man then Tarn asked, "How many prisoners have you beaten to death or otherwise murdered at sea and thrown overboard?"

     The captain must have guessed then what Tarn planned. His eyes grew cold and hard and he spat at Tarn who easily avoided the spittle. "Not nearly enough,” he replied defiantly.

     Tarn attacked then. He advanced toward the captain and struck low at the man's legs. The captain darted out of the way of the first attack but Tarn spun and attacked again. This time the captain couldn't dart away fast enough and the flat of Tarn's blade impacted the side of his knee breaking it. In the blink of an eye, and before the captain could fall, Tarn spun his body again and broke the other knee in the same manner. The captain fell to the deck then.

     "Had you not been so murderous you would not have earned this punishment. You know the law of the sea. Murderer's earn this fate,” Tarn said with no emotion evident in his voice.

     Caval and John then stepped up to take care of the rest of the punishment. They grasped the captain and threw him overboard. Turning John saw the shocked expression on his wife's face. "Take a look at his log book Ziona,” he said tossing the book he had found hidden in the captain's cabin to her. "That captain murdered dozens of men to save a bit of gold on the hiring of honest seamen. Aye I dumped his hide overboard, and will this other man as well, for he is named in the logs as being almost as vicious as the captain."

     A moment later they heard the captain scream as some great fish of the sea took him.

     Tarn turned to the other man then and said, "Your turn."

     The man gulped, dropped his sword, and dived overboard then. He'd be damned if he died in the manner of the captain. He swam desperately out to sea away from the ship.

     "Anpu,” Tarn spoke quietly. A moment later Anpu did as Tarn had requested, should this man jump ship as Tarn had feared. He targeted the swimming man and put an arrow in each arm and leg through the bone. With those four wounds inflicted he stopped firing. Tarn nodded, "Well shot friend,” he said.

     Anpu nodded his head and said, "Let this justice bring peace to the souls of the men he so foully murdered."

     They watched then as the wounded man screamed and thrashed about in the sea and the waters around him turning red with his blood. A few moments later they saw a large dark dorsal fin break the surface of the water and head for the man. The sailor saw it coming and screamed. He was still screaming when the great fish broke the surface of the water and clamped its jaws shut on the man and dove below the surface.

 


 

 

Chapter 72.

 

     The Gryphon sailed back for Harvest Moon where it was to pick up the hogs needed to improve the stock in Paradise Cove. The twenty minotaur volunteers had taken the cargo ship Logan and headed home for Ethia. Once there, the ship would be taken out to sea and burned. The minotaurs were a superstitious people and believed it was more than likely the murdered men's souls would haunt the ship.

     The paladin Lord Fatman and XconX spent time with Tarn healing the worst of his wounds. Then Mystyka insisted he eat, for he looked dreadfully emaciated from his time in captivity. Tarn ate his fill but he felt full all too soon for Mystyka's comfort. His stomach, deprived of real food for so many days, had shrunk to half its size. She tenderly ministered to his needs, seeing that he lacked neither food when hungry nor water when he suffered thirst. Between those times, she saw to it that he rested. By the end of the return voyage to Harvest Moon he was more or less back to normal, though still he seemed thin to her.

     In Harvest Moon, Mystyka, acting on Brimstone's instructions, went to the bank and withdrew funds from an account set to handle the Gryphon’s operating expenses and returned with it to Captain Barnes. He was to use that gold to secure a team of experienced oarsmen to man the ship’s oars. He pointed out rightly that such a large crew was going to require much more in the way of provisions and he'd best see to that detail also.

     Mystyka smiled and said, "Leave that to me captain. You get the men, I'll deal with the Harbor Master." Smiling, the captain thought she would probably have the best end of the deal, if he knew her at all.

     The companions all went with her. The Ladies Sparks and Ru wondered why most of the veteran companions were smiling so much. Five minutes into the bargaining for the provisions, they heard some of the most imaginative cursing they'd ever heard in their lives, as Mystyka and the Harbor Master exchanged reasons for why the items should cost this or that.

     In the end Mystyka got her way and the old Harbor Master hugged her and shook Tarn's hand. "You've a lovely lady here, son. I'm glad to see her back to her old self. She was so sad when last I saw her as she was about to leave to find you. I'm glad you made it outta that situation. Many a good man didn't."

     Mystyka smiled at the old man and hugged him. She kissed him on the cheek causing his face to turn blood red in embarrassment. To cover that embarrassment he made a show of checking to see if she had taken his gold pouch. Laughing at his antics she said, "I'm not a thief you know."

     "Well you might as well become one, lass. Doing business with you I always feel like I been robbed anyway."

     Smiling she kissed him on the cheek again and pressed a small pouch of gold into his hands. "For the supplies last time."

     "I said it were free lass. Besides I beat you out of fifteen percent in that deal."

     "You will find that fifteen percent isn't in the pouch,” she said with a sniff and a twinkle in her eye.

     "Nice doing business with you."

     "Then why I always feel robbed after the fact?" the old man inquired. But the smile on his face gave lie to his comment. The old man loved Mystyka like a daughter.

 

***

 

     The new crewmen had all been hired and provisions stocked for the trip to Paradise Cove. Forty young pigs had also been brought aboard to be taken to Paradise Cove for the breeding improvements that so concerned the farmers of the community.

     The companions were sitting down to dinner in the main cabin when Damia appeared in the room. She took in Tarn's condition and smiled. "You should eat more. You look positively thin."

     "That's what I keep telling him,” Mystyka said with a look of smug satisfaction on her face as she glared at Tarn.

     "I eat till I feel full Damia,” he said as he had frequently told Mystyka over the past few days.

     "Do ya now?" asked Damia, who then fiddled with his appetite the way she had done with Brimstone's when he had needed to eat plenty for his trips through time to witness the signing of the Accords of the Gods and the first War of the Gods.

     Tarn was amazed at what he ate that night. Damia obligingly returned his stomach to its normal size. Tarn would need his strength for what lay ahead. They all would. But there was time yet and no need to spoil the wonderful atmosphere of companionship present onboard this night as she had originally intended when she had popped in.

     The Gryphon was now nearly three times faster than she had been prior to the modifications Damia had made. The trip to Paradise Cove normally took about three days, depending on the winds. Now she could make that voyage in about a day, so they would arrive in Paradise Cove about this same time tomorrow night. That was soon enough for what was going to happen.

 

***

 

Thus Ends book 4.