Adventure Books by Ricky Sides & Kathy Young

Adventures in reading.

Brimstone Book 5

 

 

Brimstone

Book Five.


 

  Copyright 2006, by Ricky Sides and Kathleen Young


Chapter 1.

 

     Zadykiel stood beside a mountain looking up at the rocky ledges situated along its eastern face. His ally the King of the Gargoyles was being difficult, so he had arranged a simple demonstration of his power. The King stood beside him with no inkling of what was about to happen. He saw the hundreds of reanimated Gargoyles that stood upon the rocky ledges of the barren mountain. Their absolute stillness unnerved him. It wasn't natural for a Gargoyle to remain so still for such long periods of time. Gargoyles shift their bodies, flex their wings or otherwise move about almost constantly. Their statue-like appearance spoke volumes to the King about how different these Gargoyles actually were.

     Zadykiel looked at the King and said, "I have heard that you question whether or not I can actually control these reanimated allies of mine so I have arranged a little demonstration."

     The King said nothing to this. He simply stood still waiting to see what was about to happen. He had no sense of danger to him personally and trusted his instincts.

     Zadykiel pointed to three Gargoyles standing on the edge of a precipice of a four hundred foot drop to the rocks below. "Behold my command of my allies." he said and sent a mental message to one of the Gargoyles standing there as still as a statue.

     The Gargoyle raised his talon to indicate he had heard and would obey, then allowed his body to fall forward off the edge of the precipice. As he fell his body tumbled once then settled into freefall face first to meet the ground. Never once did the Gargoyle utter a sound or even open his wings to arrest the fall. A moment later it struck the ground with a sickening thud. The Gargoyle King heard the sound of bones breaking. The King was astounded. Using his wings in that situation would have been instinctive. To override that instinct implied total control over the Gargoyle. But he said, "I could soften the will of my subject with certain potions and create the same affect."

     Zadykiel laughed then. He wasn't bothered by the observation because he was prepared for it. He had actually planned for it. He sent a message to another of the Gargoyles. This one also waved to indicate his understanding then launched his body over the side. This one added the power of his mighty wings to the fall and accelerated all the way to the ground where another sickening thud greeted the ears of all present.

     The King blanched a bit but stubbornly insisted. "A mushroom known to me can create the same suicidal affect."

     This time Zadykiel just smiled. He didn't bother to reply. He just waved at the last Gargoyle standing atop the precipice and sent a mental command. This Gargoyle launched his body out into the open air and spread his wings. With powerful sweeps of his wings this Gargoyle began to climb higher and higher. When he was but a distant speck in the sky overhead he turned on his flight path and began a dive.

     Zadykiel stood incredibly still. He knew what was coming but the King did not. Moment's later the King's guards began to chitter among themselves in their own language and point toward the onrushing Gargoyle. Seven of them leapt into the air and tried frantically to intercept the descending Gargoyle. They believed the descending Gargoyle was on a collision course for their King and were trying to intercept him.

     Zadykiel said nothing as he watched the guards beating their way upwards toward his servant. The King was eyeing him strangely and prepared to dodge aside should the need arise. Soon he gave the descending Gargoyle his entire and undivided attention.

     The King's guards never had a chance of stopping that descent. The Gargoyle shot past them a moment later and crashed into the ground face first ten feet from the spot where the King and Zadykiel were standing. Zadykiel had remained absolutely still, but the King had dodged aside at the last moment.

     The King was angry. He had been made to appear more craven than the human, and that made him furious. So were the seven airborne guards. They quickly landed and approached their King. Zadykiel was ready no matter how this turned out. As the seven guards and their King strode with obvious fury in his direction the five death mages stepped in front of Zadykiel who pointed to the ledge once more.

     In fury the King and his party stopped and glared at the death mages who stood impassively ready to defend their master should the need arise. Then the King noted Zadykiel was pointing to the mountain and he turned his head to see what was happening.

The reanimated Gargoyles all stood their ground on the mountain with wings outspread in preparation for flight. Then as he watched them the King saw the three spies he had slipped into their ranks. They were dragged to the precipice struggling with the reanimated members of their own species. Once they had them there the reanimated Gargoyles slit their throats with daggers and then threw them off the ledge.

     "This is the price all pay when they betray me." Zadykiel said in anger. Never think me a fool. Never underestimate me." Then on a silent command from the arch mage the Gargoyles on the mountain all took wing and glided down to form a circle around all those already present.

     The King ordered his bodyguards to be still. He hated Zadykiel but he had to admit, if only to himself, that the mage was a good leader. What Brimstone brought to the Companions, Zadykiel brought to their enemies.

     The King bowed and went to one knee before Zadykiel then. "I swear an oath of fealty to you Zadykiel for the duration of this war against Brimstone and the Companions." That move saved his life, for Zadykiel had fully intended to slay the King for his treachery. Instead now he accepted his oath and reminded him that any further treachery would not be tolerated.

     The King breathed easier then. He knew he had been a fool to come to this meeting with so few of his people, but he had been counting on being able to control the undead Gargoyles too. Now he knew this would never have happened. He had survived this day only because he swore fealty to Zadykiel. He would not again place himself at the man's mercy.

 

                                                                    ***

 

     Zadykiel watched as the King of the Gargoyles flew away with his guards. When they were no longer visible on the horizon he commanded the Gargoyles to come to him with the mercenaries. The magic that had reanimated the mercenaries had healed their burns and they looked much as they had in life save for a certain pallor to their skin.

     Meeting with the Gargoyles who would transport them and the mercenaries, Zadykiel issued his orders. Then, leaving nothing to, chance he covered the various things that could go wrong and what his servants were to do in the event these situations occurred.

Finally he was satisfied that all of the preparations which could be made had been made and he sent them on their mission. Now having arranged the deaths of many people he could lie down and sleep well. Arranging the death of enemies was soothing to his spirit.

     Just as he was drifting off to sleep he heard a flight of his Gargoyles arriving. Moments later, there were screams of terror from men and women. "Ahh." he thought, "The Gargoyles were lucky in their hunt and found food for my death mages." The dying screams of the innocent victims of his minions acted as a lullaby to Zadykiel and he slept well for hours.

 

                                                                    ***

 


Chapter 2.

 

     The little passenger sloop sat at anchor at the predetermined location within a few hours sailing time of Paradise Cove. Onboard the sloop a man and his daughter organized the four sailors they had recently employed as they scrubbed the ship spotless. The gold from this trip would pay off the sloop and they would then be in a position to make some serious gold on their voyages.

     The passengers were due to arrive soon and the father and daughter team wanted the sloop to be ship shape to receive them. Then one of the sailors spotted the flight of Gargoyles with their harnesses as they flew directly to the ship. The Gargoyles landed and delivered the nine Mercenaries. Seeing the four additional sailors who cringed in terror by the little cabin on the ship, the Gargoyles pounced on them and quickly drained every drop of their blood, wasting none. In some cases as many as five Gargoyles were feeding on the men at once.

     The daughter's screaming was abruptly silenced by a clout to her head by one of the mercenaries. The father was dragged to the tiller and told to make way for Paradise Cove at once. He was assured that both he and his daughter would be released once they delivered them to Paradise Cove. His daughter was dragged before him to confirm that she still lived. In terror the man witnessed the Gargoyles throwing the bodies of the four sailors overboard.

     He explained he needed his daughter to assist in setting the sail and she was promptly released, but everywhere she went aboard ship one of the mercenaries followed. The Gargoyles left as per Zadykiel's instructions and soon the little sloop was well out to sea. Three hours later the sea side city of Paradise Cove was spotted. One of the mercenaries then moved behind the owner of the sloop and slit his throat then threw him overboard at once. The daughter was at the sail preparing to take it down when her father gave the command. She was unaware he had just been murdered. The mercenary who stepped behind her to slit her throat did so with a pang of regret.

     She reminded him of his own wife of many years ago in the past. He took her body aft where the water was closer to the side of the ship and gently lowered her into the water where she sank. As she sank face up, a trick of fate made it seem as if her right hand moved and pointed the index finger at him. "Aye Lass you have the right of it." he said in sorrow. "Damned I be and damned again, for before this day is over I must strike down my own kin, just as I struck you down."

     As per Zadykiel's instructions, the people he had hired to transport the mercenaries to the city had been murdered before they made landfall. There was to be a huge party this night on the beach and the mercenaries were to get near the selected targets and slay them at all costs. 

 

                                                                  ***

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                              Chapter 3.

 

     Lady Ru approached Brimstone late in the afternoon. All day long she had felt a sense of foreboding and anticipation. She found him on the beach observing the preparations for the coming wedding of Mystyka and Tarn. "If you have a moment I would like to speak with you." she said quietly. "It is a matter of some importance."

     Brimstone noted the seriousness in her tone of voice. He also noted her usually calm expression was missing and in its place was one of concern. Smiling to put her at ease he said, "By all means please tell me what so disturbs you."

     The Lady didn't really know where to begin, but before she could tell him what she feared, she knew she must explain to him something of her own history. "I pray thee please bear with me a moment as I explain something to you before I tell you what has me apprehensive."

     Brimstone pulled up two chairs and sat them facing each other in the shade of a palm tree. Gesturing at one chair he bid her to sit. When she had done so he followed suit and gave her his full attention.

     Lady Ru took a moment to compose herself, for what she was about to reveal she had never told another. She began, "You realize that some people have what are apparently mystic abilities? As in the ability to foresee danger to their friends?"

     Brimstone nodded his head and said, "Aye and I've met a few such in my time."

Smiling Lady Ru said, "Well now you've met another." Then hurrying on she said, "I seldom speak of it. In fact I only speak of it when I feel a moral obligation to warn someone. When I do this I warn them and leave the matter be, for I have done my duty to the ones in danger."

     Looking at the lady with a very serious expression on his face Brimstone replied, "Yes like the others that I have met. That seems to be more or less the way such gifted people handle their gift."

     "Well I have to tell you that I sense danger to some of the Companions. I cannot tell you what form the danger will take. I can only tell you that several are in grave danger, and that they will be shocked at the source of that danger."

     "Can you narrow the time frame down? When is the danger most imminent?" he asked.

     "Tonight. I am fair certain it will be after sunset. I get the impression of a huge bonfire ablaze and a crowd of people dancing in its light."

     "Now think carefully and try to tell me who you perceive the danger most affects." said Brimstone leaning forward in his chair.

     Without hesitation she answered, "Tarn, Mystyka, Fawnn and Ziona."

     "Do you feel morally compelled to tell them?" asked Brimstone willing to leave the decision to her if she wished.

     "That is where I am torn." she replied in frustration. "A part of me does, but another part of me says this is Mystyka and Tarn's wedding night." she let that hang in the air a moment.

     "Well, would it content you if we warn Fawnn and Ziona and the rest of the Companions but not Tarn and Mystyka? Surely the rest of us could adequately guard them."

     Lady Ru considered that gravely for a moment and then replied, "Yes I think that would do. I would loath to spoil their day."

     Brimstone agreed and a few minutes later he had summoned all of the Companions save Mystyka and Tarn to a brief meeting. Mystyka tried to approach the meeting but was warned off by a smiling Brimstone who said, "Now Myst, you can not be here for the planning of your wedding surprise, nor can Tarn, so go warn him off of this little gathering for me."

     Trusting Brimstone implicitly Mystyka went off happily to locate Tarn and warn him not to venture near the meeting on the beach. When she was well out of earshot he smiled and nodded at Lady Ru. "Please begin."

     So the Lady gave them a bit of her history as a Mystic and then warned them of the dangers she felt drawing near. The Companions had been through so many adventures that they had been exposed to premonition and the like many a time. They were not apt to disregard such direct warnings as these.

     Veksar and John both stared at their wives and determined then and there to stay very close to them this night.

     Lady Sparks smiled shyly and said, "It seems it is my destiny to watch after my sisters in the Companionís circle." Thus she volunteered to be near the ladies as well. Lady Ru added her sentiment to that and also joined the guardians. The brothers XconX and Genkaku also swore to defend their sister Ziona and their fellow Companion Fawnn. Nessarose spoke up saying she would be there and probably Tersha also, though she would have to wear her armor to keep the light of the fires from harming her eyes.

     Lord Malachi, Jedi, Pierrot, MetalHead, Caval, and Fatman stated that they would guard well the Bride and Groom. Brimstone asked the archers to watch over both parties and suggested that Fawnn and Ziona sit near the Bride and Groom to maximize the effectiveness of everyone's protection. But no one, under any circumstances was to venture off alone this night. They were to go two or preferably three strong, even to answer natureís call.

 


 

Chapter 4.

 

     Mystyka found Tarn sitting on the log with his back to her watching the sea. She was about to walk up to him and took a half step to do just that when she noticed that something was wrong. She could see his shoulders heaving and hear his sobs. In a moment she realized that he was crying. Speaking his name softly she saw him jump in surprise. She could tell he was hastily wiping his eyes by the motions he was making and she gave him a moment. Tarn was a proud man and he'd not want her to see him weep. She could respect that to a degree.

     A moment later she walked to his log and took a seat beside him. "Would you like to talk about what so troubles you?" she asked in a soft voice.

     When Tarn spoke his answer surprised Mystyka. "I wish my father could be here for the wedding. I miss him. I miss him terribly." Tarn replied in misery."

     Mystyka knew very little about Tarn's family. A very private man he almost never spoke of himself. So she had to ask, "Is your father alive Tarn? If so maybe Damia can teleport him to the wedding for us."

     Sadly Tarn shook his head and said, "Mystyka this is complicated. I'm afraid I'll have to give you a bit of the family history so you can understand."

     Mystyka politely waited for Tarn to begin. He stared at the gentle waves of the sea and for a moment seemed lost in thought. Just as she was about to nudge him to begin, he said, "My father was a warrior. A mercenary much as I became. My mother was a seamstress. As a boy, I saw him when he came home between missions. He loved my mother. Loved her true. Then one day a sickness took mother while father was away on a mission. I was fourteen at the time. The neighbor ladies washed and dressed her as I dug her grave. It's still there, marker and all, in Lighthaven cemetery."

     Tarn's voice broke on the word cemetery and Mystyka took his hand in hers gently. She let him think in silence for a moment and then he took up the tale, "My father returned when the campaign he was fighting ended. He was mortified to learn mother had died. He thanked the neighbors for their kindness, gave me gold to live on, and disappeared inside the tavern in the city. He stayed there drinking, all day every day, until the gold he had made was all spent, then left seeking work. It became a pattern. For three years he did this until the summer I turned seventeen. He must have considered me a man then, for he stopped returning."

     Tarn turned to face Mystyka then and smiled ruefully. "It was a hard life at first. I took my father's trade to heart. I struggled with the skills needed and eventually became a mercenary myself. It took me many years but finally I found him last year. He was a broken down man when I found him. A village drunk. By then I was a leader of a band of mercenaries. We bound him hand and foot and carried him with us. For a month he raged at us, demanding wine or ale. We refused to give either and he began to sober up. By the end of that month he was completely sober."

     Smiling for the first time Tarn said, "When the month ended I had him freed and tossed him a sword. I told him he could return to his old lifestyle if he could defeat me, or he could join his son as a mercenary. That was the only time I ever saw my father cry. He knelt on the ground in tears and pledged to follow me. He further pledged that if he were man enough to remain sober for a full year he would reclaim his right to be my father. Until that time he would be known only as Tarn's mercenary." Sadly Tarn looked down and whispered, "The year would have been over by now. He could have stood beside me as my father at the wedding. That was something I truly wanted."

     A flash of insight suddenly hit Mystyka then. She said, "You mean he was with your band on adventures at times?"

     Nodding his head Tarn sighed. That sigh turned into a sob and soon his tears flowed. Sobbing he said, "He was with me during the war of the Gods. He was with me on Pirate Isle, The Bre war and the war with the Werewolves." Taking a deep shuddering breath he continued, "He was with me when we encountered the mage who killed my mercenaries and sold me into slavery." He broke down at that point again and Mystyka held him close to her and comforted him as her own tears mingled with his where their cheeks touched.

It occurred to her in a passing thought that Tarn had been waiting for his father's pledge to be fulfilled before he wed her. In sorrow she wished things had turned out differently for Tarn and his father.


 

Chapter 5.

 

     That night when the Bride and Groom presented themselves to the guests they were surprised when they noted the couple wearing black as if they were in mourning. One old grizzled mercenary standing at the rear of the crowd noted it himself and for just a moment he managed to see his son not as his potential victim but as a father should see a son, with pride in his heart. Pride in the man his son had become. Then the magic of the ring dug deeper into his soul and stamped out that bit of personality being exhibited and the old man's eyes went from reflecting pride to reflecting no expression at all.

     The mercenaries had their orders. They knew who to strike and when to do it. They also knew what to do if something went wrong. His task was laid out for him well. Upon learning that Tarn had been set free Zadykiel had ordered the mercenaries to kill him and his new bride on their wedding night. Other's they were to slay if they had the chance, but Tarn and Mystyka must die.

 

                                                                    ***

 

     Damia appeared on the beach promptly at the appointed time and took in the decorations. Fawnn, Ziona and the rest of the ladies had done a truly wonderful job of decorating the wedding area. Brimstone had communicated with her about Lady Ru's warning and she had thanked him for the information but declined to comment on it. She had then asked him what precautions he was taking. He told her of their plans and she had said, "Good. It seems to me you have wisely taken adequate precautions."

     That was all that she would say in regards to the matter. Sometimes the limitations of the Accords could be quite irritating to Brimstone. Reading his thoughts, Damia laughed and stood on her tiptoes to quickly kiss him then she darted away lest he wrinkle her dress.

     When the time came for the wedding Mystyka stood there in her black dress with a thin black veil concealing her face to some degree. Tarn looked solemn in his black pants and shirt. The only splash of color on him was the Groom's sash of blue. He had decided not to wear a sword for the ceremony but at the last moment Brimstone had noticed the lack and told him to wear his sword. Tarn had blinked in surprise and been about to ask him why when Damia had appeared beside them and added, "Yes Tarn do wear the sword. 'Tis the current trend for grooms now, and even mages tend to don one nowadays for their weddings."

     Brimstone grinned and said, "See I told you." Privately he thanked his wife who smiled at him and disappeared.

     "That Lady sure gets around." Tarn said and laughed nervously. Looking at Brimstone he asked, "Were you nervous on your wedding day?"

     "Oh my, yes I was." Laughing Brimstone said, "I was scared to death I'd say the wrong thing when it was time for me to say my lines."

     "Lines? I have lines to say!?"

     "Relax Tarn you'll do fine. Damia will say repeat after me and then she will say your lines. You just repeat them when she stops speaking."

     "Ahh that's different then." Tarn said visibly relaxing.

     "Now Tarn you act as though you've never been to a wedding."

     "I have been to dozens. But I was a guard. I was supposed to be guarding the gifts and making sure no one ran off with them. I wasn't supposed to be listening to the ceremony."

Laughing again at his friend Brimstone said, "You better listen to this one."

     Tarn turned serious then. He said, "I see an awful lot of weapons at this wedding. The Companions are armed to the teeth and the mages packs are heavy with mage supplies. The archers are placed strategically too and not mingling as they normally would to swap tales of their best shots."

     Brimstone turned serious then. "Tarn my friend you are just too good at your job for your own good today."

     "I'm getting married. I haven't gone blind you know."

     "Then I'll tell you what's going on. There is a possibility of trouble tonight. That's all I'm telling you. We are ready to deal with it should an issue arise. Your job in this adventure is to say your lines, preferably correctly and on time."

     Nodding his head Tarn said, "Thank you for telling me that much. I guess you folks didn't want to spoil the wedding. I thank you for that. Maybe Mystyka hasn't noticed."

 

                                                                    ***

 

     Mystyka pulled Fawnn and Ziona aside for a moment shortly before the wedding. "Ok, what is going on?"

     "Why, you are getting married dear." replied Fawnn.

     "Yeah and then you get to do the wedding dance with Tarn." finished Ziona. Grinning she added, "And after that you two go and make a little Mystyka or Tarn. Do you need instructions dear?"

     Mystyka laughed and said, "I think we can figure out such things." Then she grew serious and said, "The Companions are at full combat readiness, and sweet Caval almost gutted some fellow too far gone in his wine when he bumped into me."

     Fawnn laughed then but Mystyka said, "I'm serious. It was as if he thought the man meant me harm."

     Looking at each other Fawnn and Ziona nodded at the same time. They had already come to an agreement on what to tell Mystyka should she realize something was afoot. Ziona spoke up saying, "There is a possibility of trouble tonight. We are ready just in case. And that is all we are going to say on the matter. You need to concentrate on your wedding. Leave the rest to us."

     Mystyka smiled at her friends. In truth she trusted their judgment and if they did not think she needed to concern herself with the matter, odds were she didn't. "Well, I hope Tarn doesn't hear of this. Maybe he hasn't noticed." she said.

     Damia appeared beside them at that moment and said, "Ladies it is time to begin the ceremony."


 

Chapter 6.

 

     Damia walked to the front of the party of wedding guests on the beach in Paradise Cove and raised her hands for quiet. As the noise died away, she said "Tarn and Lady Mystyka, please come forward."

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

     Staring at Mystyka, Tarn thought of the love he had for her and how, as a slave aboard ship, he had despaired of ever seeing her again and how terribly sad that thought had made him. "I do take this woman Mystyka to be my Beloved Wife. I do so swear to Love, Honor, and Cherish Mystyka until the end of my days and beyond." he replied.

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

     Staring at her roguishly handsome husband to be Mystyka smiled as she replied "I do take this man Tarn to be my adored husband. I do so swear to Love, Honor, and Cherish Tarn with all my heart until the end of my days and beyond."

     Damia then asked for the rings to be brought forth.

     Looking again at Tarn, Damia said "Tarn, place the ring upon Mystyka's finger and repeat after me. 'With this ring, I Thee wed. I promise to be true to you and to love you for as long as I live and beyond.'" Holding Mystyka's hand gently in his, Tarn repeated the vows.

     Damia turned to Mystyka and continued, "Lady Mystyka, Place the ring on Tarn's finger and repeat after me. 'With this ring, I Thee wed. I promise to be true to you and to love you for as long as I live and beyond.'" Mystyka slid the ring on Tarn's finger and repeated the vows.

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

     Tarn kissed Mystyka then. He attempted a chaste kiss, but this was her wedding day and Mystyka would accept no chaste kiss. When they released each other there was a fire in their eyes that spoke loudly of their need and love for each other.

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

 

                                                                    ***

 

     To the west of the city of Paradise Cove the arch mage Zadykiel saw the pillar of fire rise into the night sky and smiled. He sent the mental command for the mercenaries to attack immediately then turned to the hundreds of Gargoyles and werewolves standing at the ready.

     One hundred werewolves were secured in harnesses to stout ropes that led to harnesses attached to the Gargoyles. Two Gargoyles would fly each of the werewolves into the city where they were to wreak havoc among the celebrants. They were to attack for ten minutes, then break off their attack and return to this spot to report their success or failure. For Zadykiel this was a test of the system he had devised to deliver his troops into the midst of his enemies. If they managed to infect or slay large numbers of his enemies, so much the better, but tonight was but a field test of the transportation system.

     Zadykiel stood motionless watching the large flight of Gargoyles take wing. The Werewolves didn't like the transportation system. Most had a fear of heights and for them this was unnatural but the thought of dropping in on a city unannounced and fresh for battle made the means of getting there worth enduring the effort.


 

Chapter 7.

 

     Lady Ru approached Brimstone during the wedding ceremony. In whispered tones she informed him that she had the pervasive feeling they were being watched by hostile eyes and that she felt that the attack was imminent and could come at any moment, though she was almost certain it would be soon after the wedding kiss.

     Brimstone nodded his understanding and asked her to try to pinpoint the source so she could give him its location. Closing her eyes she sought with her mind to focus on the dangerous presence she had detected. A moment later she opened her eyes and looked at Brimstone with a startled expression on her face. "Near the back of the wedding spectators. Many sources. I cannot say how many. Some are close and merge together, but there are four separate spots that I can detect."

     Brimstone whispered an exclamation and bespoke the minds of several of the Companions warning them that the threat was near the rear of the spectators.

Moments later, Pierrot, bespoke him saying, "I see one of Tarn's mercenaries, but I thought he was killed at that village."

Then Jedi bespoke him saying, "What is this?! I see one of the mercenaries who died at the village with Tarn!"

     He didn't understand what was happening but Brimstone had heard enough to put some of the puzzle together. He warned all of the Companions to be wary of any of Tarn's mercenaries, as something odd was afoot. Naturally he didn't interrupt the wedding couple. They were busy and the rest would cover them.

     A few seconds later, Shalmain reported that he had moved behind one of the men he recognized from the celebration on the beach. Brimstone ordered all to stay their hands until they knew what was going on. For all he knew Damia may have worked out a means to resurrect the men as a wedding gift for Tarn. He felt that highly unlikely as too much time had passed for a resurrection and Damia would surely have told him of such plans.

     And then the bridal couple kissed. As the mages set off fantastic displays of spell pyrotechnics to celebrate, Brimstone joined in with his Pillar of Fire spell. A moment later reports came in from all over the area as Companions reported Tarn's mercenaries were moving in.

     Tarn was a warrior and had a warrior's instincts. He sensed danger closing in on him and his new wife. Stepping between her and the press of spectators he braced himself for immediate combat. His every sense was screaming at him that danger was near. Then by the light of the great bonfire already burning to illuminate the wedding he saw something that made his heart stop. His father stood there looking at him with dead eyes that reflected no emotion. His father then drew his sword and advanced upon him. Tarn could see no emotion on his face as he advanced. Then his father struck down a man whom Tarn recognized as one of his mercenaries that had died at the village. "To your left, boy!" his father shouted.

     Turning to the left Tarn saw one of his men attempting to target him with a bow but even as he watched, Tersha the Torlag barreled into the bowman knocking him to the ground where she mauled him.

     John and Veksar escorted Ziona and Fawnn to the wedding couple at that moment. John joined Tarn to form a warrior line to meet the threat that seemed to be drawing closer to them. Moments later, the warriors Jedi, Lord Malachi, MetalHead, and Genkaku joined them.

     "Behold, Son!" shouted Tarn's father to get his attention. He saw his father grappling with the same man he'd just seen him run through with his sword. That was impossible for the wound would have been a mortal one. Then his father, in a great feat of strength, lifted his struggling opponent above his head and threw him into the bonfire. A moment later he turned to face his son. "Watch and learn, my son. And remember that I love you. I go now to join the love of my life, your mother."

     Without another word the man stepped into the bonfire himself. In anguish Tarn screamed, "Nooooooooooooooooooo!"

He tried to run to the fire then but Genkaku and Lord Malachi seized him and would not permit it. "Look at them!" shouted Malachi. They suffer no pain as the fire consumes them. They are already dead!"

     Fawnn began to cast her spell Turn Undead upon anyone in their vicinity. It had no affect on the living, but when she chanced upon one man who had escaped the notice of the defenders he reacted as if in pain. Seeing this Mystyka joined in as did XconX. Soon that man fell to the ground dead. But the ring on his hand reanimated him again a moment later and he rose to his feet once more. Seeing this Jedi attacked him and with a strong blow of his sword lopped a hand off the approaching monstrosity. The moment the hand was separated from the body the man fell and was dead for the last time.

     In the bonfire Tarn could see what remained of his father struggling blindly, his eyes already boiled from their sockets, as he struggled to keep the other man in the fire with him. "For the love of the God's, man, look away." Lord Malachi pleaded. Then Mystyka said sharply, "Tarn! I need you!"

     That shook Tarn and he wheeled about just in time to see three mercenaries charging Mystyka's side of their party. The mages were firing their Turn Undead spells in rapid succession but Tarn could see that the men would reach them. Then from out of nowhere Tersha charged them from their flank and bowled into two of the men knocking them off their feet. A moment later Nessarose was beside her hacking at the downed men.

     The one remaining man who was charging Mystyka met Tarn sword to sword. Then tragedy struck. An arrow pierced Tarn's heart and he fell before his foe. The mercenary quickly slid a ring on Tarn's finger and then he headed for Mystyka.

     Somewhere Lady Ru screamed for Brimstone to get to Mystyka. There was a note of terror in her voice for she knew what was coming. But Lord Malachi and Genkaku got to the mercenary first. Jedi's voice in the background was urging everyone who would listen to strike the hands from the enemies bodies as that kept them down. But Ru was screaming Tarn's name.

     Then to everyone's surprise Tarn stood up and removed the arrow that had pierced his heart. At that moment a furious Damia appeared beside Mystyka who was pale and confused. She was just standing there now unsure of what had just transpired. She was sure an arrow had slain Tarn. This was all happening so fast. And now he had stood and removed the arrow. The blood along the shaft giving mute testimony that it had indeed penetrated deeply.

     As Tarn stood, the battle was dying down. He saw Lord Malachi and Genkaku strike both hands from the man he had just battled. Then he saw his wife Mystyka, and Zadykiel's orders were delivered in a message welcoming him to the camp of the winners. He was then told to prove his loyalty by slaying his wife Mystyka.

     Damia raised her hands then, prepared to strike Tarn down should he approach Mystyka. But Mystyka grabbed her arm and said, "Goddess, Hold! I have pledged my Love to him through life and beyond as he so swore to me." Looking at Tarn tears rolled down her cheeks as she continued. "If he strikes me down then do us both the favor of cremating us. But I do not believe that my man will harm me."

     Tarn was in the worst struggle of his life. He loved Mystyka more than life itself. Yet the power of the ring was pervasive. And Zadykiel was master of the ring. That meant his will was inviolate. As Tarn struggled, what was left of him, of the man that he was, began to fade away and diminish.

     Damia held her power in check as Tarn stood there struggling. Then he raised the sword and took a step forward. On some level he now comprehended how difficult his father's resistance to the orders of the arch mage had been. He took another step and Tersha mewled in concern.

     Lord Malachi shouted, "Tarn, think man.

This is your wife." Brimstone joined in, "Fight it, Tarn. Your father beat it. You can too."

     Tarn took another step. He now stood within striking range of Mystyka.

Mystyka spread her arms wide then, exposing her unprotected torsoe in surrender to her fate saying, "Strike me if you must, Tarn, but know that I love you. I loved you in life and I will love you beyond life."

     Tarn blinked then. The purity of her love got through to him and not even the vile ring could prevent it from happening. Brimstone was right. His father had shown him the way to defeat the ring. He dropped the sword, turned toward the bonfire, and ran as fast as he could toward it.

     "Tarn, Nooooooooooo!" screamed Mystyka.


Chapter 8.

 

     Shalmain waited until the mercenary moved forward and tried to attack Fawnn, who was being escorted by Veksar as she moved to join Mystyka. He struck with his boulder spell. The man turned on him unharmed and charged. Confused Shalmain entangled him and held him in place until Lord Fatman and Caval arrived and those two cut him down. They were about to follow Fawnn when the man got up off the ground after receiving three mortal wounds. He was heading with bared sword for Lord Fatman's back. Shalmain yelled a warning and entangled the man again. This time Caval completely dismembered the man with his war axe.

 

                                                                    ***

 

     Psychost and Pierrot were watching two mercenaries who were edging around the crowd attempting to get to the wedding party from the other direction. Seeing there were no innocents near the two men, Pierrot and Psychost attacked them with fire spells. This enraged the two mercenaries who turned to charge them. The two fire mages maintained their onslaught of fire spells which seemed to hurt the mercenaries but not quickly enough to suit the mages. Then Brimstone stepped beside them and added his own Meteor spell to the attack. In two hits the mercenaries were completely annihilated. Nothing remained of their bodies save two small piles of charred ashes and some bits of molten metal.

 

                                                                    ***

 

     Ziona saw the archer who had targeted Tarn and then slain him with a shot to the heart. Her own arrow hit the man in the eye but he turned to face her and would have shot a return arrow at her had Lord Fatman not relieved him of his head at that precise moment. Caval then dismembered the man and Shalmain threw the smaller pieces into the bonfire. The stench of charred flesh was pervasive on the night breeze. Ziona had but a moment to reflect on the grizzly events unfolding before Tarn stood and approached Mystyka.

     Fawnn and Ziona both gasped as they saw Tarn remove the arrow and begin to approach Mystyka. Ziona nocked an arrow as her eyes teared up at what she must do, but she would put arrows through both Tarn's eyes before she saw him harm Mystyka. Then she heard Mystyka's words and her shoulders slumped in despair for she could not intercede against Mystyka's wishes. It was her right to decide her own fate.

     Then she heard Lord Malachi and Brimstone pleading with Tarn to resist and not harm Mystyka. As Tarn won that battle of wills and dropped his sword, Ziona saw the true love the man had for his wife as he turned and sprinted all out for the bonfire. Mystyka's screams followed him as he ran. Then from out of the darkness streaked the Torlag Versha in her full magnificent prime. Running so fast that she was a blur she threw her body into the air and tackled Tarn ten feet from the roaring bonfire. Her silver armor reflected the light in majestic beauty as she stood with her front paws holding Tarn to the ground until his friends could join her and secure him to prevent him from harming himself.

     Mystyka joined the men who held Tarn to keep him from leaping into the bonfire. Her calming voice got through to him as she said, "Tarn stop struggling. Let us help you."

     He immediately relaxed then but in his mind the battle for his will still raged. "You don't understand. None of you do. I love you Mystyka. But Zadykiel says I must slay you. It is taking everything I have to resist that. I won't be able to resist it much longer."

     "You won't have to, Tarn." Lord Fatman said as he stepped up to Tarn. Holding his hands over Tarn he detected an aura that apparently only he could see. He then muttered a prayer to Shinobi and a ring on Tarn's finger glowed a malignant reddish purple in color.

     "Remove that ring, Tarn." he instructed.

     Tarn moved to comply but stopped before removing it. Shrugging Tarn said, "That I cannot do for any reason. It won't let me."

     "We could remove it as we did the others." noted Jedi. Mystyka gasped and paled at that. Tarn stood stoically awaiting his fate.

     "We can simply remove it for him." replied Brimstone who then tried, but Tarn fought him like a wounded animal then.

     From the background Brimstone heard Fawnn say, "I have an idea that should work." She called XconX, Shalmain, and Lord Fatman to her side. They held a hasty consultation and then moved to surround Tarn. Tarn eyed them warily as did Mystyka for she had no idea what they were about to do. She knew she didn't want her husband's hand amputated. She still had hope that whatever had been done to him could be reversed. She was about to question Fawnn when the four struck simultaneously as if on que.

     They attacked Tarn with their Turn Undead spells. In effect they were killing him. Tarn, held by the warriors Lord Malachi and Jedi could not escape. "Stop! You are hurting me!" he screamed hoarsely. Mystyka paled then but she knew there was no other way. "It burns, Fawnn!" pleaded Tarn causing her to weep in abject sorrow as she continued to cast her spell as rapidly as possible. "Malachi, let me go! Jedi! Help me."

     Shaking their heads in sorrow both warriors held fast for time was rapidly escaping them. If they were to save Tarn it must be soon. Still his pitiful words struck the hearts of both warriors and when he at last fell to the ground they were visibly pale and shaking.

     Lord Fatman bent then by Tarn's body and quickly removed the ring as the others continued to cast their turn undead spells.

As soon as the foul piece of jewelry was removed, Damia approached and said, "Note its appearance well and then cast it upon the fire."

Brimstone himself took care of that detail.

     Moving to Tarn's side she called then upon her power to resurrect him but it was difficult. She detected remnants of the demon spell within him and called upon her father. "Father, I need thee at once!"

     Ogrimar appeared then beside her and scented the air. "Demon magic!" he announced angrily.

     "Father, help me rid him of it so I may resurrect him." Damia demanded.

     "He is not my follower, child. You know what the Accords say in this as well as I."

     "He is my husband, Ogrimar. Please help him for my sake."

     "Mystyka, you are favored of my followers. I will do as you ask. But there will be a price at some point in time that I will demand of you. Is this acceptable?"

     Mystyka knew well that the god of evil meant what he was saying. At some point in time there would be a price for this favor. Probably a heavy price. With no regrets she said, "It is acceptable, my Liege." for she would pay any price for the return of her husband.

     Ogrimar then knelt beside his daughter and ran his hands over Tarn's body. A moment later he said, "Ahh here it is. Watch, Daughter, and learn how to do this for it is very rare to have the need of this skill but current events may require you to master it." He then demonstrated to Damia the appropriate means of extracting the demon spell from Tarn's body.

     Three minutes later they were ready to resurrect Tarn. Ogrimar stopped briefly and said, "They are near. We must hurry."

Damia nodded and together father and daughter resurrected Tarn.


Chapter 9.

 

     Tarn got groggily to his feet and smiled at Mystyka. Keeping his eyes on his wife's beautiful face he thanked the gods Damia and Ogrimar for resurrecting him and freeing him from the influence of Zadykiel then he opened his arms and took a tentative step toward Mystyka. She met him halfway and they embraced.

     Fawnn stepped up as the couple parted and said, "I'm sorry we had to do that to you, Tarn."

     Smiling at her he hugged her and said, "It hurt like hell, I'll say that, but it also led to my true resurrection. I thank you for having what it took to take on that unpleasant task."

Turning to face Jedi he continued, "It beat the alternative some warrior I know suggested."

     Jedi grinned sheepishly and said, "Now, Tarn, better a hand lost than an entire man."

Fawnn rolled her eyes at that and said, "Leave it to a warrior to try to fix a broken man with a sword." Jedi grinned at her and winked.

     Versha interrupted then, "Beware, all! Gargoyles are near and they carry werewolves with them!"

     "Your scouts report this?" inquired Brimstone.

     Versha showed them the communication that she had received from the scout then. It took them all by surprise for normally she asked permission first. They saw hundreds of Gargoyles flying in pairs. Each pair carried with them a werewolf dangling from a harness.

Moments later, the vision was gone and she said, "I have summoned our magic users to test their new mage skills. We have minutes only before the enemy arrives."

     John ordered one of the city guards to sound the Bre alarm that would cause the population of the city to prepare for combat. So it was that when the flight of Gargoyles arrived with their Werewolf cargo they found the citizens of the city prepared to meet the threat.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     They came in low, just above the tops of the trees in the area and deposited their Werewolf allies on the sandy soil at the outskirts of the city. Then as the Gargoyles began to take to the air again they were hit by the spells of the Torlags and human mages. They quickly found that only Turn Undead and fire spells had much of an affect on the Gargoyles but the Werewolves were vulnerable to all elemental attacks.

     Psychost and Pierrot were firing their fire spells into the mob of Werewolves almost non stop. Lady Sparks, Lady Ru, and Shalmain fought near them adding their own spells to the attack. Veksar and XconX fought to the right of them and their powerful spells created a death zone which went right to the edge of the spells of the others.

     The Torlags concentrated on the Gargoyles but their spells were too weak as yet to bring many down. Then they learned to fight as a team with several Torlags hitting the same Gargoyles to intensify the damage done by their still young and relatively weak spells. This cooperative effort was made possible by their means of communication which, compared to human speech was infinitely faster. The Torlag race learned much about battle magic that night and some found that they were thrilled with that form of combat.

     The warriors made a flanking maneuver and blindsided the Werewolves at the height of the battle, cutting through them as if they were straw training dummies. Again and again the Werewolves tried to break out of the circle of humans and Torlags which had them surrounded, only to find there was no escaping the death zone by land.

     Then the Gargoyles who had escaped the mages vicious attacks returned to land and try to fly out the remaining Werewolves. Anpu Sandstorm and the other archers, Ziona, Nessarose, LenapeSue, Yane, and Dark Arrows hampered this effort when they began to blind the Gargoyles by targeting their eyes.

     Then Damia appeared on the field of battle in her own Chain Mail armor with Frostbane in hand. Behind her stood a detachment of Gryphon Knights, the Gryphons on their shields ablaze with her power. They marched directly into the middle of the battle zone, killing with no hesitation any Werewolf or Gargoyle too stupid to flee their wrath. Damia was furious. Zadykiel had spoiled a wedding she had officiated and she was determined he would pay a heavy price for such insolence.

     Laughing as she struck the head from a Werewolf with her sword she silently communicated with her father. "So, since I was officiating the wedding I was personally insulted and thus I am taking my revenge on Zadykiel's minions. There is no break in the Accords, Father."

 

                                                                  ***

 

*In his own realm observing what was transpiring Artherk threw back his head and laughed. "No wonder my son loves this girl so." he thought. He sent a message to Ogrimar then saying, "Thy Daughter is most upset. She was sorely insulted by the mage. I agree there is no break in the Accords that I can see. She has every right to punish the man for insulting her, as long as it ends with that one battle."*


Chapter 10.

 

     So severely did the defenders of Paradise Cove chastise Zadykiel's minions that only a very small group of them escaped and make it back to Zadykiel. The bodies of his minions were incinerated once the warriors gathered them all in a single pile. It was a total victory for the defenders, who had not lost a single man, though several were severely wounded. Lord Fatman's services were in great demand as he went about healing the wounded.

     Shalmain was summoned to bear witness to something special for the Torlags. The werewolves had bitten three Torlags. He was shown by Versha what the law required in this matter when she placed the visions of previous battles in his mind. He watched in amazement as the three Torlags bowed to him and thanked him for their lives once they drank three of the potions he had secured for Damia.

     Shalmain was deeply touched by it all.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     One other thing of note occurred that evening. As the fires burned the remnants of the enemy bodies, a pompous city official arrived to complain that the Companions were causing too much trouble in the city of Paradise Cove and should consider moving on.

     Brimstone strode forth across the sand to confront the man then and there, but before he could reach him someone far more dangerous than he intercepted the pompous man.

     Mystyka took in the man's appearance with contempt and stepped forward to confront him. "Let me tell you something, little man. Today is my wedding day." she explained poking the man in the chest with her index finger. "I've seen my new husband die twice today and be resurrected once." she continued and poked him again, this time harder.

     "I have seen my friends kill my husband and save him." she said and poked again. "I've seen those same friends and my husband defend your city while your soft rear end sat safely in some house, no doubt." she poked again, this time so hard the man's eyes widened in fear.

     "I have seen monsters attacking your city. Yours not ours, mister!" she said loudly as she poked him again. "And I've seen the Gryphon Knights and the Brave Men and Women of your city, and of course your Torlag allies, fight side by side with my companions and win against those monsters." she continued to emphasize her points with her index finger several more times.

     "The one thing I have not seen today is you lifting a finger to help your city!" again her index finger stabbed into the man's chest. Somewhere she heard Jedi cackling in laughter followed quickly by Ziona's and Fawnn's more delicate laughter.

     "Now I intend to go to the room we rented for our wedding night. I expect to remain undisturbed, or as Damia is my witness I will strangle you with my bare hands." she finished and stood staring at the man.

     "So noted." Damia replied promptly.

     The pompous little man hated the Gryphon Knights who had rejected his application for membership and had used his office to harm one whenever he could. Now he turned to them and said, "Justice! I demand justice! This woman attacked me and has threatened my life. You saw and heard it all! I want her jailed for this! Gryphon Knights! Do your duty!"

     The commander of the Gryphon Knights solemnly instructed, "You heard the man. Do your duty!" That said he turned his back on the man as the entire detachment did the same. Lord Malachi then drew his sword. He'd had enough of the vile little man and was going to end the problem. Winking at Brimstone he strode past him with sword upraised.

     The little man shrieked and turned and ran away to his house where he bolted and locked his doors and windows and spent a sleepless night waiting for imaginary mobs to drag him out of his home. Dozing off once toward dawn he awoke in moments screaming. He had dreamed that Mystyka had gotten disturbed and was outside his door. Huddling by the fireplace with a blanket around him the man waited miserably for the Companions to leave town.

     When the official had gone Brimstone asked Malachi, "You wouldn't have really harmed him would you?"

     Snorting laughter at the thought Malachi said, "I'd not likely sully my blade on one such as him."

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Zadykiel was furious when he received the news of his loses. He grew even more angry when he learned that the attack hadn't even resulted in the deaths of any of the defenders. Also, the Companions were now aware of his rings and their power and would be on guard.

     One other thing had him very angry. He had felt the presence of her mind as she had sought out his minions. She had warned the Companions, set them to guard against what should have been a complete surprise attack at the wedding. For that Lady Ru must pay and pay dearly.

     Pulling his cloak closely around his body he retreated to his inner sanctum in the small temple to Dalghard. Studying the map on his table intensely for a few moments he made a decision. He immediately summoned his death mages who would work the night through seeing to the details.


Chapter 11.

 

     Zadykiel sat in the small room in the back of the small temple of Dalghard he had been using as a temporary headquarters. He waited patiently for his Gargoyle guard to bring the death mages to him.

     When they arrived he went over the plans with them, often consulting maps he had available. He instructed the death mages to get the different factions ready to move out within the hour.

     "And what of the couple you wanted killed? Do you want us to send others to slay them?" asked one of the death mages. Seeing his master's frown he added, "I only ask because it seemed important to you before. I seek to better serve your desires."

     Mollified by this Zadykiel explained his reasoning. "No that was just a passing fancy that I had. Just when they felt safe I would show them they were not as safe as they thought. It isn't really important in the large scheme of things. It was just a whim that I indulged."

     "But there is one that should be slain if at all possible. Her name is Ru. She is something of a Seeress. The exact extent of her powers I have yet to determine, but she was good enough to warn the Companions prior to the attack and I sensed her mind probing and searching for the threat that she felt was near."

     "So you want us to go slay her?" asked the death mage hopefully.

     "No I need you all with me at the moment. I have a surprise in store for the Companions anyway. With any luck the Lady Ru will fall into my hands soon."

Pointing to the map spread on the table before him he indicated a village depicted as nestling beside a river that was a dayís march west of their current location. "Take 100 of the undead Gargoyles. Scout the village and take it. Once you have taken the village then secure the villagers in one location."

     Zadykiel gave a complex set of instructions then he gave them a second time. When he finished, he asked if the death mages had any questions. They indicated that they did not, so he asked them questions of his own pertaining to the instructions he had given. To his delight, the death mages were able to answer every single question correctly. There was something about their transformation into demonic vampires that had seemed to improve their mental abilities. He had already noted that they seemed much more intelligent now than they had in life. This was not the case with the other reanimated creatures under his domination.

     Minutes later the death mages left on their first mission in command of the Gargoyles. For Zadykiel, this was a test of their leadership abilities. If they worked out as he hoped they would, then the death mages would become his Generals as he formed a massive army to defeat the Companions and all of their allies.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     He knew where he had made mistakes in past battles with them. He had not fully utilized the monsters which had been created solely for that purpose. He swore an oath to himself that never again would he make the same error.

     With a sigh he turned to an old document he had written ages ago. Reading over that document he found the quote he was looking for. Leaning back in his chair he was lost in thought for an hour, and then taking quill in hand he began to write a letter to the gods on a fresh piece of parchment. So fast did he inscribe the words with the quill that it seemed as if the words were appearing on the parchment as if by magic. Noting one minor error he tried to will that word away. Sighing in frustration he had to do it by the mundane human method. When the letter was completed he made several more copies.

     Zadykiel got up at that point and walked to the door. He opened it and addressed the three Gargoyle guards standing outside his room saying, "I am not to be disturbed for one hour. There will be no excuse acceptable. Do not knock upon my door, enter the room, or otherwise disturb me for that hour. If this happens you will be tormented by unspeakable horrors." The guards froze in position. They didn't even blink their eyes.

     Zadykiel closed and locked the door. He walked back to his chair and sat down once more. Then he reached inside his garments and opened a secret pocket. He pulled a scarlet colored piece of silk from the pocket and reverently laid it upon the table. A moment later he began to unfold it. Within moments a gem lay revealed. "Master I have prepared the letter as you instructed." he said speaking quietly to the gem as fingers from both of his hands rested upon it.

     The gem remained silent but for a moment and then it began to whisper to Zadykiel. "Yes Master I need help delivering the letters to the gods." Again the gem whispered and this time Zadykiel felt a new power surge through his body. Turning to the letters, he held his hand over the first of the four, spaced inches apart. He whispered a word and the letter vanished and appeared on Ogrimar's desk. Ogrimar noted its arrival immediately and picked it up.

     Working quickly now Zadykiel immediately sent the other three letters to Artherk, Shinobi, and Damia. Then reverently he wrapped the Darkstone of Dalghard once more and returned it to his inner pocket.

     Just as Olin Haad had once been seduced by the Darkstone of Gluriurl before him, Zadykiel the mage was in the thrall of the Darkstone of Dalghard


Chapter 12.

 

     Later that night the four Gods met to discuss the letter they had all received, and the demands stated therein.

     "Only Dalghard himself would be aware of that clause." stated Shinobi. Frowning in consternation she added, "But he is right in his assessment that if we personally and actively oppose him then we yield a percentage of our powers to his vessel." Sighing she concluded her opinion. "Our followers may move against him, but it must be without our aid. Failure to comply with this will lead to a loss of power by the offending god or goddess." this last she said looking pointedly at Damia.

     An angry Damia said, "I had every right to punish his minions for ruining the wedding I was performing!"

     "That may be the truth Damia, but the Accords are not about right and wrong. They are about balance between the paths of good and evil." Staring into her Daughter's eyes she saw resistance still there and she added, "If another such event happens be warned that you will indeed yield a portion of your powers to the arch mage Zadykiel. You may not like that, but there is nothing you can do to prevent it. The moment you signed the Accords you became just as bound by their rules as the rest of us. Now that Dalghard has officially announced that Zadykiel possesses his Darkstone and is his servant we cannot touch him or his minions personally lest the power imbued in the Accords take our powers in retaliation for breaching the contract."

     Bowing her head Damia acknowledged that her mother was of course correct. From now on the Companions and her Gryphon Knights would have to face him on their own.

     "What precisely are my restrictions then mother?"

     "Put simply you cannot use your powers in regards to the issue at all. You cannot resurrect anyone that falls to Zadykiel's minions. If you do so then he will be given that power at the cost of your ability to do so. Every godly power that you utilize to oppose him would then be stripped from you and given to him. Can you imagine a Zadykiel with the ability to resurrect the dead or open portals at will?"

     "Then we are powerless to oppose him in any way beyond our followers?" inquired Damia. Thinking a moment she said, "When I created the Order of the Gryphon Knights I imbued their shields and weapons with special properties. What of that?"

     "That is permissible if it was the standard prior to the beginning of the confrontation. But the rules for their use may not now be changed to permit a broader range of people to use them. Any restrictions placed upon them at the opening of hostilities must remain in place for the duration of the conflict." stated Ogrimar.

     "Well at least the Gryphon Knights will remain adequately supplied then." Damia responded. Thinking for a moment she said, "But I opened portals for the Companions prior to the conflict as well."

     Shaking his head Artherk said, "The portals give your allies a distinct military advantage and are among the worst of the infractions. You can open a portal in a settlement of your followers to permit them to escape danger, but you cannot open one for your forces to move against his or for your fighting forces to flee. Only non combatants may be assisted by portals." Shaking his head Artherk continued, "Damia you have to be very careful lest you weaken yourself and strengthen Dalghard's servant. Make him strong enough and Dalghard may possess him. If that happens the results will be catastrophic. Frankly I would be very careful of opening a portal at all. You may mean well and only intend for the defenseless population to use it, but if just one warrior steps through it to escape danger then the contract is breached and you yield that power to Zadykiel."

     "We do have one advantage though." Ogrimar said with a smile.

     "Brimstone." said Shinobi.

     "He never signed the Accords because he isn't a full God." said Artherk with a smile.

     "Thus my husband is not subject to the rules of the Accords." said Damia with a smile.

     "We also have another advantage. My Paladin can resurrect the dead though it will leave him weak. I'm glad now that my Paladin Lord Fatman was granted that ability prior to this maneuver of Zadykiel's."


Chapter 13.

 

     The little village was a peaceful and semi prosperous hamlet devoted primarily to agriculture, as were most such villages on Sic Dalar. The people of the village were just rising to begin their morning routines when the Gargoyles descended upon the hamlet. They offered token resistance but were easily subdued. The vampiric death mages made examples of five men whom they drained of every drop of their blood.

     The death mages had the captive population of the village taken to a large community barn the villagers used to store wheat from the harvest. Grain barges came upriver from Harvest Moon to transport that grain to the city for market every year. Once in this barn, the prisoners were told they would be kept safe here only as long as they obeyed the commands of their captors. They were told that their enemies had driven them from their last safe haven and this village was to become their new residence until it was safe for them to leave.

     One huntsman caught the attention of the death mages. He alone seemed unafraid and gave them the impression that he was simply bidding his time until he could find a means of escape. A search of the huntsman performed by one of the death mages revealed that he carried a concealed knife upon him. The death mage, acting upon Zadykiel's instructions, pretended to miss the knife. They took him outside and tied him to a nearby tree then one of the death mages stood before him and said, "Our hunger is sated now. But you have the honor of being chosen for our first meal tomorrow morning. We will take the blood from the people of this village as we need it until we can move on. Once Brimstone and his Companions leave the Paradise Cove area we should be able to return to our former lair."

     The Huntsman had witnessed the death of the five men earlier and the threat the death mage had issued caused chills to run up his spine, but he wasn't dead yet and the fools had missed his hidden skinning dirk when they had searched him. He also realized that the answer might lie in escape and returning with the ones who sought these monsters so he asked, "Paradise Cove? The new city by the sea east of here?"

     Smiling grotesquely, his fangs showing, the vampire said, "Yes little man. The city by the sea which you will never see." They fed him then under the pretense that they wanted him well fed to improve the quality of his blood. In actuality they wanted him well fed for the attempted escape. They laid out a table loaded with sacks of food. He was kept tethered to the tree by a rope around his neck but his captors left his hands free, that he could feed himself. All that day a Gargoyle stood guard watching his every move but as night fell the Gargoyle left to go find prey, thus leaving the huntsman unguarded. The Huntsman seized the opportunity to escape moments after the Gargoyle had left.

     All that day the Huntsman had taken great pains to put together a food pack to take with him when he made his escape. To escape the notice of the guard he did this little by little by seeming to rummage through the various bags of food deposited on the table. Yet always he was stocking the one bag he would be taking with him. So it was that when he fled toward Paradise Cove to get help for his village he went well provisioned.

     "I thought he would never leave." said one death mage as he stared out the window of one of the village homes. "It is time to begin the next phase of our mission." replied one of the others. Summoning the Gargoyles they issued firm instructions and began to carry out the next part of Zadykiel's plan.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     The Huntsman alternated between running and walking all that night. The next morning he hid himself in a small cave where he ate ravenously of the supplies he had brought with him and drank water from a flask. He slept then for a few hours and began his journey once more. All that day he ran east and late in the afternoon he arrived inside the Torlag territories. A mile inside that territory he was intercepted by scouts and escorted into the city of Paradise Cove. He had of course seen Torlags during the Bre war. He had seen the vision Damia had broadcast to all of Sic Dalar, but this was his first encounter with them. He found that he admired them.

     Soon the man stood in the presence of Brimstone. He related the facts as he knew them and asked if the Companions would assist his village. Brimstone called the Companions together to hear what the man had to say. While waiting for the Companions to assemble Brimstone also had food brought for the man who looked hungry. As the Huntsman fell upon the huge bowl of stew he thanked Brimstone explaining as he ate that his food had run out earlier in the day and all the running had left him weak from hunger.

     Once the Companions arrived the man stood and repeated what had transpired at his village and then waited to hear their response.

     The only debate at that meeting was about when they should leave. Some wanted to leave at once while some wanted to wait for morning. They knew they could expect no portal from Damia. She had already appeared before them two days ago and informed them of the events that had transpired. Therefore this would be a two day march through the interior of Sic Dalar to reach the village. Reluctantly Brimstone said, "I'm afraid there is no real option. We must leave at first light. It will take some of us that long to prepare for the journey. We have to arrange supplies for an overland journey this long. "

     Even those in the biggest rush had to admit it would be foolhardy to leave on such a journey ill prepared. They had survived enough adventures to know that proper planning paid huge dividends on such expeditions. Mystyka and several volunteers left to see to the supplies they would need for the trip. The rest were told that they should try to get some sleep and be prepared to leave the city at first light.


Chapter 14.

 

     As she slept that night the Lady Ru dreamed. She dreamed she was running down a path seeking an enemy. As she ran, she came to a place where the path forked, with one branch remaining on the present course but the other angling off to the right. At the intersection stood a dark robed figure with hood raised to conceal the head. The entire figure seemed to be shadowed and very dark. When she drew abreast of the figure he spoke to her saying, "Stop. You will not be permitted to pursue this course any longer. Take the left fork and live. Choose the right fork and you will surely die."

     This statement caused Ru to become indignant. Seeing her quarry slipping away down the right fork she turned to the dark figure and said, "No one tells me which paths to choose. I decide my own destiny! I reject you. You have no power over me."

     Then boldly did Ru begin to run down the right path, but some inner sense warned her. Turning her head in the direction of the dark figure she heard it say, "You are wrong. I have power over all." as it rushed toward her. In an instant the thin veneer of her self confidence in her ability to resist the mysterious figure was stripped away. Replacing that veneer was a sure and certain knowledge that if this creature wanted anything from her it would be able to take it. Yes, she was strong enough to pursue the running man and could handle that one when the need to do so arose, but this creature was vastly beyond her mortal ability to oppose. The worst of it to her was that she knew that this creature would not settle for simply slaying her physical body but would destroy her soul. In mortal fear and despair that her very soul was about to be destroyed she threw back her head to scream.

     She awoke screaming, her body rigid with fear and sweating profusely. Her breathing accelerated and her heart beat dangerously fast. Several Companions from adjoining rooms awoke at her scream and rushed to her room. Inside they found her still under the affects of the dream vision. So acute was this affect on her that Brimstone was summoned because the Companions present feared for Ru's health.

     When Brimstone arrived he asked the Lady Ru to explain, if she could, what she had seen. She tried her best to explain it but was frustrated, as words did not describe it adequately. Then Tersha spoke up and said, "With your permission my friend, I can show them for you. I see in your mind that which you cannot convey."

     In gratitude, Lady Ru said, "That would be wonderful, but please cut the emotion level to half and let me leave the room first. I have no wish to experience it again."

     So it was that Ru left her room as many of the Companions waited for Tersha to begin. Moments later, it began. The Companions saw Ru running down the path attempting to overtake a running man. They then saw her encounter with the dark robbed figure and felt the mental attack as the creature leapt at Ru. Inside the room Ru heard muffled screams and shouts. A few moments later, the door opened and a pale Fawnn asked her to return.

     "By the gods if that was half strength I can't see how you survived the full dose." stated Ziona with feeling, her own heartbeat, and respiration much higher than normal.

     Still feeling more than mildly upset herself Lady Ru said, "We have been warned. We will be permitted to pursue Zadykiel only to a certain point. After that point is reached it is death or worse to proceed."

     "Worse as in we become undead?" asked Brimstone.

     Ru thought that over for a moment and replied, "There is that possibility. The one certain thing is even more disturbing. We will risk losing our very souls, for the entity I encountered was about to take mine. I know that. I cannot tell you how I know it. But I do."

     They all agreed that trying to go back to bed would be pointless. It was just an hour before they would need to be up anyway. An hour later the Companions left Paradise Cove for the journey to the Huntsman's village.


Chapter 15.

 

     The Companions arrived outside the village three days later after an uneventful trip thanks to the Huntsman, who had turned out to be an excellent guide, for he warned them away from the dangers he was aware of during the course of the journey. One of those dangers was a swamp that stood directly in their path a few hours from the village. Brimstone had been about to lead the Companions through the swamp to save time but the Huntsman had stopped him. "I know it looks firm enough but this place is known to me. There is quicksand all through it. A man can get across it if he is very lucky but many who thought themselves such lucky men rest at the bottom of the quicksand pits. If they even have a bottom. For all I know they may still be sinking."

     It had taken them two days longer to reach the village than it had taken the Huntsman to reach Paradise Cove, but there was no way the entire party could have maintained the killing pace he had set on his trip.

     On the outskirts of the village in the early afternoon hours the Companions waited and rested, hidden in the woods while their scouts Anpu and Tersha, along with the Huntsman, scouted the area for signs of the Gargoyles.

     The scouts returned with news that the Gargoyles and their vampiric masters had apparently left the village for they were nowhere to be seen. They reported seeing many villagers apparently going about their normal routine as if nothing were amiss. "Maybe they already left." the Huntsman suggested hopefully.

     Brimstone and the Companions headed into the village then to make certain that the Gargoyles had indeed left and to learn for themselves what had transpired after the Huntsman had made good his escape. They were greeted by the villagers who seemed friendly enough to strangers. The villagers were preparing a celebration feast. The raiders had murdered ten members of their community but they had left quietly this morning.

     Lady Sparks thought it odd that the villagers would have celebration feast after losing so many of their people to the raiders, but the Huntsman said, "When you fully expect not to survive such a raid, just living through it can become cause to celebrate, but among our people here it is a way to thank the gods for sparing us."

     Taking no chances Brimstone called Tersha aside and said, "They say they buried the ten dead villagers here in the cemetery. I need you to use your wonderful nose to sniff out the truth of that for me."

     Tersha understood and went with Anpu and Nessarose to check out the truth of the matter. When they returned a few moments later, she quietly confirmed that there were ten men buried there as they had been told. All had been drained of their blood she reported. "You mean you can tell that from their scent?" he had asked. The Torlag had replied that she could indeed tell that from the scent and more.

     That night the villagers invited the Companions to the feast. The food was as ample as it was simple, but it was very good after days of trail food. The village had a potent ale they made from their own barley crop. They saw to it that the Companion's cups were never empty and the Companions ate and drank much that evening. Lord Malachi and Jedi competed for hours to see who could dance with the most girls and had the time of their lives at the feast and party which followed it as they danced to the music of the village musicians.

     At the height of the celebration in the village cemetery there was a rustle just beneath the dirt of one of the fresh graves as the mound of earth shifted. A moment later a hand emerged from beneath the surface. Soon there was activity at all ten of the fresh graves there.

     Anyone who didn't know any better would have believed that the Companions were completely off their guard and indeed some few may have been, but all of them were not off guard and so it was that when the trap was finally sprung on the Companions many members of the group responded with stone cold sober reflexes.

 

                                                                  ***

    

Lady Ru had voiced the first warning when she had advised Brimstone that she sensed great danger in the village as they were first entering it. Tersha had also privately informed Brimstone that the bodies, though buried, were buried very shallowly, as if the villagers expected them to arise from the earth. Also she had said that something was odd, for the bodies weren't decaying as they should.

     Brimstone had quietly informed the Companions that he suspected a trap but that they would play along. He had warned them all not to over indulge in the ale as it began to circulate among them. Jedi and Lord Malachi were the exceptions to this. He wanted those two to make quite a show of drinking large quantities of the potent ale to make whoever was baiting the trap think they were completely off guard. The two warriors did their best to drink even their friendsí shares in their enthusiasm for doing their part in this adventure.

     Near the height of the party, and just before the trap was sprung, Lady Ru had a distinct impression that danger was gathering all about them. She privately warned Brimstone and then set out with her mind to seek the source of danger, just as she had done at his request in Paradise Cove. This time when he requested that action she had already initiated it prior to the request. Thus it was only moments later, that she was able to respond that the danger was all around them and getting closer by the moment. Also, she reported another danger high in the sky overhead.

     Brimstone quietly ordered the Companions to come together and they immediately stopped what they were doing to comply. Brimstone was a bit surprised when the Huntsman joined their circle as they came together. "Something is wrong with the people of my village." he stated without preamble.

     "You sense it too?" he inquired.

     Nodding his head the man said, "I have almost from the beginning. They are not right. At first I put it down to grief. Many of the village were lost, but now? No I must be honest with you Brimstone this is not grief. My people are wrong. Something has happened that has changed them."

     "It's the rings, Huntsman." A more than slightly intoxicated Lord Malachi stated. "I am sorry to say that the people of your village are all dead as near as I can tell." he added, giving the first true hint that, though he may be intoxicated he was no fool, and he had noted the rings upon the hands of the many maidens with whom he had danced.

     Brimstone sadly nodded his belief that this opinion was the truth. "Probably since right after you left to get us. They arranged for your escape to bait a trap for us."

     The people of the village suddenly began to back away from the proximity of the Companions.

     "Can you fight your people Huntsman?" asked Brimstone. "If you would rather not then leave now, but we will defend ourselves."

     "I'll not be a coward sir. I may only be a Huntsman and no fine warrior or mage but even a Huntsman can have honor. I have a sword aye and I will fight." Hearing these words reminded Tarn of the scribe whoíd said the same thing to him once in the Minotaurís underground lair.

     "Beware. They keep coming back to life unless killed by fire or they lose the hand that wears the ring." Jedi mentioned and then the attack began. The Companions found themselves surrounded by ten vampires fresh from their graves. Brimstone gave the command for the Companions to form a circle with their backs to each other, and then he launched his fire spell Meteor at two of the Vampires who were instantly slain. By the third hit of his spell only ashes remained.

     Brimstone's attack was the signal for the rest to begin. The mages opened up on the Vampires. These were more dangerous to the party as they were the closest. Veksar's Meteor merged with Psychost's to kill two more Vampires in a hellstorm of flames. Lady Sparks and Lady Ru, together with Pierrot, used their fire spells on another pair of the Vampires to great affect.

     Using their spells Turn Undead the mages Fawnn, Mystyka, and XconX, aided by the Paladin Lord Fatman, killed the remaining four Vampires. They had to keep casting their spells on them until the fire mages could help dispose of the bodies for the rings kept bringing them back to life.

     They had been quite fortunate in dealing with the Vampires who hadn't been able to close with them, but luck had run out. Soon stones began to rain down on the party from above as the Gargoyles entered the battle for the first time. Then the villagers rushed them en mass.

     Brimstone directed his Pillar of Fire spell into the packed skies above them while directing the other mages to hold the villagers at bay if they could. His spell struck many Gargoyles as he directed the massive pillar of fire this way and that into the more densely packed skies overhead, always seeking more prey.

     The archers let loose a volley of arrows. LenapeSue's arrow struck one Gargoyle in the spine breaking its back and paralyzing it. The hapless creature plummeted to the earth below with a crunching sound of breaking bones.

     Anpu Sandstorm's arrow struck a Gargoyle in the eye causing it to veer wildly in flight. It flew directly into the beam of Brimstone's Pillar of Fire and was vaporized.

     Ziona's arrows struck true to her wishes and another Gargoyle was blinded. That Gargoyle avoided Brimstone's fire spell but collided with another uninjured Gargoyle fouling both of their wings. These two fell to the ground directly in front of Jedi and Lord Malachi who pounced on them with their swords.

     Yane's arrow struck yet another Gargoyle in the neck. The arrow penetrated the vertebra and this Gargoyle was also paralyzed. It landed on the ground beside Caval and Lord Fatman, but Caval's battle axe made swift work of it.

     Then the Gargoyles withdrew their attack for the moment. Between Brimstone's fire spell and the archersí deadly rain of arrows, they had already lost a full half of their number.

     Next came the villagers themselves. Armed with everything from brooms and pitchforks to kitchen knives they rushed upon the defenders. These villagers were not trained warriors and most of the Companions grew sick of the slaughter, but there was nothing else that they could do. Lord Fatman openly wept and cried out to Shinobi for vengeance against Zadykiel when he was forced to put to the sword a young girl who couldn't have been more than six years old when she attempted to stab him with a kitchen knife.

     The Huntsman fought grim faced against former friends and neighbors. At one point he dropped his sword and covered his eyes when his own Mother ran toward him with a kitchen knife. Muttering a prayer to Shinobi he vowed to die himself before striking down his own Mother. Hearing the prayer Shinobi sent her warrior Caval to save the Huntsman, instructing him to strike the hand from the woman only and not be overly zealous in desecrating the body. When that unpleasant but necessary deed was done Shinobi instructed the Huntsman to pick up his sword and live, for she had a purpose for him when this nightís work was completed. Obediently the Huntsman did as his Goddess bid him.

     Between the mages, archers and the warriors most of the people of the village were slain in minutes. Then it was that one of the death mages stepped out into the street to confront the Companions. With him was a group of ten Gargoyles that herded before them a group of very young children and two young women who had been spared to watch the children for the death mages until they were needed.


Chapter 16.

 

     The death mage raised his hands and pointed to the captives. "Surrender the Lady Ru to me now and I will spare these innocents."

     The air was heavy with a stunned silence for a moment, then Lady Ru took a step forward, prepared to surrender herself for the sake of the children. But Brimstone would have none of that. He said, "Hold, Lass! You will not deliver yourself to these creatures." Then without another word he fired his Meteor spell at the death mage.

     As he was preparing to attack the death mage, Brimstone sent messages to XconX and Fawnn with instructions to pass it on. They were to spell and heal the hostages if the mage attacked them. So it was that the moment he attacked the death mage some of the most talented mages of Althea were casting beneficial and life preserving spells on the hostages. The death mage's spell did hit them, but they never came near death as they were constantly healed by the mages of the Companionsí party.

     For his part Brimstone was stunned. Already his fire spell had struck the death mage six times and yet he was still on his feet trying to slay the hostages. He switched then from the spells of man to his Demi god spell Pillar of Fire. That spell incinerated the death mage in seconds. The Gargoyles that had been with him attempted to slay the hostages then, but the warriors rushed upon them and hacked them to pieces as the mages continued to heal and spell the hostages until the warriors could finish off those ten Gargoyles.

     In the sky overhead the remnants of the Gargoyles flew away with the four surviving death mages suspended beneath them.

     Moments later, the battle was over. Brimstone asked John and Ziona to take the children inside a house nearby and to keep them away from the windows. They had grim work left to do this night as the dismembered bodies needed to be gathered up and burned. "Yes of course. They shouldn't see that, the lil ones." Ziona said and moved to shepherd them inside with her husband and the two young ladies.

     But one little girl broke away from that group and ran crying full tilt for the Huntsman with her little arms outstretched in supplication pleading for him to take her. Stooping he picked her up as she reached him. Holding her up to his own sorrow filled eyes he stared into hers and saw a fear there that he could understand all too well. "Please, mister. I know you. Can you come with us inside the house. I am so afraid. My Da said I could trust you once. My Da is dead now though. The winged things ate him I think."

     Tears flowed from the Huntsman's sorrow filled eyes and his voice was choked with emotion. He looked at Brimstone but said nothing. Brimstone nodded compassionately and the Huntsman hugged the little girl and said, "You know what, sweetie? Your Da was right. You can trust me." Saying no more, he took the little girl inside where she wouldn't have to see her parentsí dismembered bodies being thrown upon the growing bonfire and he wouldn't have to see his Mother meet that same fate.

     Then the really bad work began in earnest. Each home and building of the village had to be searched house by house and thoroughly. Six more of the reanimated undead were located before the night was through. Their bodies were added to the bonfire which the mages had to keep going with their meteor and firestorm spells until the bodies were nothing but ashes and the foul rings were destroyed.

     At the end of that nightís work one thing remained to be settled. Brimstone approached the Huntsman and offered to escort the lot of the village survivors to Paradise Cove if they wished to go there. The Huntsman said, "I think it best that we do go there, for a while at least. There are too many memories here and there is always a chance that the monsters will return. So yes Brimstone and thank you. We'd like that escort back to that city. I'm sure I'll find work there to feed the children and young ladies."

     Brimstone smiled and said, "You are more than welcome. I just wish we could have saved your village." He exchanged a look with Mystyka and she silently signaled her understanding by nodding her head once. When they reached Paradise Cove Mystyka would be going to the bank and making a substantial withdrawal from the Companion's fund that she had set up with the profits from their diverse investments in shops and trade. The Huntsman might indeed need to work to help feed the children someday. But that day would be a long time coming thanks to the generosity of the Companions.

 

     Four days later, the Companions had delivered the survivors of the village to the relative safety of Paradise Cove.


Chapter 17.

 

     The second night after their return from the village Brimstone was awakened by Damia in the middle of the night. Before he could even greet her, Damia said with a twisted smile, "Get dressed husband. You've been promoted and you have things to do as a result."

     Brimstone got dressed as rapidly as he could and soon he stood ready for what was to come. Damia kissed him and said, "In a moment I will teleport you to our special isle." Saying no more she disappeared and a moment later he appeared on the isle beside her near the house where he had trained Bill and later spent time as he went back in time to study the signing of the Accords of the Gods and the War of the Gods that followed.

     "Damia, what's going on?" he asked in some confusion. "What's all this about a promotion?"

     Patiently Damia explained the situation with Zadykiel again. At the conclusion of that explanation she added, "Since we gods cannot address the situation personally with our powers it now falls to you to use your powers more actively in pursuit of the defense of Althea against Zadykiel who is under the thrall of Dalghard."

     Not understanding her Brimstone protested, "But, Damia, I already use my power over fire spells and strength of arms against him."

     "Yes you do, dear, and a very nice job you do of it too, but don't you think it time to fully develop your other powers? You have only scratched the surface of your capabilities you know." Damia replied with a sardonic grin.

     Brimstone blinked in surprise. "You mean I have other abilities that have yet to be learned?" he asked in surprise.

     "Yes, dear, quite a few as a matter-of-fact. You are not a full god so your powers and abilities are not quite as great as those we command, but you are a Demi god and you have many more latent powers that as yet remain untapped within you. And by the way your command of fire spells is actually greater than ours because you have relied upon it so heavily and developed it to such an extent beyond that which we had the need to develop ours. That is not to say that we could not develop our own to match or exceed yours if we felt the need to do so."

     "Where do we begin?" he asked.

     "At the beginning of course." replied Shinobi as she appeared beside him. He greeted her warmly and she added, "I will be assisting Damia in your training."

     "Thank you, Shinobi." Brimstone said and then he asked, "How long do you expect the training to take?"

     "Just a few years I expect, Brimstone." she replied. "Of course, here time is suspended and you will be returned to your room on the same night you left after only a few minutes have passed in real time there."

     And so began Brimstone's period of learning to become the true Demi god he held the potential to become. Between Damia and Shinobi they taught Brimstone to bring every bit of his latent powers to the surface where he could utilize them. The adventures that those three had along the path of that learning process would fill an entire volume. But for now suffice it to say that in the seven years his instructions took, Brimstone grew in power and finally accepted his full role as a Demi god.

     One conversation that the three of them had early on in his training may be of some historical interest. Brimstone asked them why they were training him and not his Father since he was devoted to the good path. Damia and Shinobi had looked at each other and then Shinobi had said, "You are aware of the Harbinger and his three comings to Althea?"

     Brimstone laughed then and said, "You have no idea how many times my early trainers drilled me on that bit of history."

     Nodding her head Shinobi said, "Yes they would have. Artherk was preparing you, for your destiny is to act as a balancing agent between the light and dark paths. Damia's destiny is the same. This is why the two of you were drawn to each other from that first meeting."

     "Well, to answer your question, Artherk's use of godly powers is based upon the path of goodness. Ogrimar's use is based on the path of evil. Ours is neutral and combines elements of both." Pausing she looked closely at Brimstone and said, "I see that you are beginning to understand. Humanity will also be judged by the Harbinger at some point in time. Now Brimstone, please quote the Harbinger's standing instructions to humanity."

     "Maintain the balance between good and evil." Brimstone said simply.

     "If you are to be the instrument by which we fulfill the Harbinger's instructions then you need to be neutrally trained. You can still follow the path of goodness, but use your powers as a neutral, otherwise you upset the balance of power between good and evil. Do you understand?"

     "Well it sounds so simple when you say it that way." Brimstone said with a laugh.

Shinobi was very serious when she responded, "Brimstone. Nothing related to the Harbinger is ever really simple. At first glance yes the instructions seem very simple. But the actual execution of those instructions is not a simple task."

     "The Elves thought it disdainful and didn't try hard enough and then they were betrayed by their King Oberon who later was transformed into Makrsh P'Tangh. The Dwarves tried diligently but when the Harbinger arrived for the third coming they mistook him for Gluriurl resurrected and attacked him. He transformed the lot of them into atrocities to be scorned by all for that transgression. Now it is Humanityís turn and we await the fourth coming of the Harbinger."

     "Dalghard began with good intentions with the Accords of the Gods. But he went insane for power and turned from neutrality to chaotic evil, thus he upset the balance of power between good and evil and we had a war to reestablish the balance. Actually he may have been insane when he wrote the Accords. He left a loophole in it, concealed very cleverly, that permitted him to escape the loss of his godly powers under the contract when he violated the Accords. After we defeated him in the first war we had to strip certain of his powers from him ourselves lest he undo all of our work."

     "Bear that in mind, Brimstone. Bear that in mind every single time you use the powers you are developing. Power is seductive. It can and will alter your personality if you permit it. That is why the first year of your training was devoted entirely to mastering yourself. That took Damia two years."

     Behind Shinobi Damia smugly said, "I was an infant at the time." and stuck her tongue out at Brimstone and he smiled at her playful insult. Shinobi smiled herself and still looking at Brimstone she said, "Stop that dear before you accidentally bite your tongue."

     "Yes Mother." Damia said with a smile and an affected contrite reply.

     Laughing Shinobi turned and hugged her daughter. "Some things never change do they, dear?"

     Damia smiled herself and replied, "I never could sneak anything past you could I, Mother?"

     "Well there was that time you put that frog in my desk drawer."

     "Mother! I was only three at the time." Damia replied somewhat embarrassed.


Chapter 18.

 

     Two days after their return to Paradise Cove the Companions and Versha the Torlag were called to a meeting with Brimstone. Damia was there beside her husband when they all assembled. They greeted her cordially and took seats around a large table. They were meeting in the command post for the contingent of Gryphon Knights garrisoned in Paradise Cove. Outside the door two Knights stood guard to ensure they were not disturbed, for what they were about to discuss was being treated with the utmost secrecy at the moment.

     Damia began as soon as the Companions all took their seats. "I thank you all for coming on short notice. I met with you and explained the complications that have occurred to limit what the gods can do to oppose Zadykiel's activities. Since then there have been further developments that require our strictest attention." Nodding at Brimstone she said, "The map if you please."

     Raising his hands in the air he snapped his fingers and a breathtakingly beautiful topographical map of Sic Dalar appeared in the air directly over the table. Depicted on that map were the cities of Harvest Moon, Sic Dalar, and a large number of small villages. Rivers flowed and an apparent breeze made the waters of small lakes seem to ripple. Mountains were clearly defined and their comparative heights delineated in superb detail. Small clouds drifted across the map casting portions of it in shade at times. Snapping his fingers again blue dots appeared on the map that floated in the air. "The blue dots are Gryphon Knights, Torlags and of course you Companions." The blue dots were concentrated near Harvest Moon, Paradise Cove and up the inland sea around the villages there.

     Snapping his fingers a third time produced red dots. "The enemy is represented by the red dots and they are the Werewolves, Gargoyles and Zadykiel's private army of reanimated creatures."

     By now many of the Companions had caught on. Damia wasn't making the map. Brimstone was. This resulted in an explosion of questions and answers. Finally Brimstone explained what had happened and why it had to be done. He finished by stating, "There will be plenty of time on the voyage to discuss all of this. For now let us return to the meeting at hand."

     Pointing to the red dots on the map he set them in motion. They moved westward. As they moved westward they passed by three small villages depicted on the map. As they did so the villages literally caught fire and were burning on the map. "As you can see Zadykiel's forces are burning the villages as they pass them. They slaughter the males and take the females and children captive."

     Pointing to the far western side of Sic Dalar near a large mountain range Brimstone made a partially built super fortress appear. "Take us in closer dear." Damia requested. Brimstone focused and the image of that area was magnified until they could easily see the men and Minotaurs walking about the site. Men using whips to goad the Minotaurs to greater labor caused Caval to rumble deep in his chest and his eyes to blaze.

     "This is the fortress we have heard the rumors about in the past." Brimstone said. "As you can see, the rumors were true." Pulling back, away from the fortress, he reached the point where Zadykiel's forces were located then caused a dotted line to form. It led from Zadykielís forces to the Fortress. The Companions noted that the forces of Zadykiel would bypass another dozen or so villages on their projected path.

     "We have to warn those people somehow." Ziona stated.

     "Yes of course we do." replied Brimstone. "But this will be an extremely dangerous mission. In fact it is so dangerous that the odds are not all of the volunteers would survive it. Such a mission requires a minimal number of people so they will be able to move fast and hide in very small places. Even then as I said the odds of survival are terrible even with scrolls to use for escaping."

     All present knew that scrolls that teleport the user to a different location can quite easily give a person a false sense of security. All too often you can be captured or killed before using such scrolls. "All right, I need three volunteers for that mission."

     There was an immediate scraping of chairs as every person present shoved their chairs back and stood to volunteer. Versha spoke up saying, "Don't overlook us Torlags just because we were already standing. We volunteer for the mission."

     Smiling at the Companions and the Torlags, Brimstone noted that every single member of the company was standing, prepared to volunteer. "Very well, Tersha, Nessarose, and Shalmain it shall be then. You three have proven in the past that you are quite capable of surviving deep inside enemy territory alone or, as in the case of Tersha and Nessarose, with a very small team. Your survival chances seem to be the best. I'll open a portal for you and put you here." he said indicating a spot on the map. "Note that it is close to the enemy. The reason for that is that I want you Tersha to see what they are doing to the villages. Then, when you have seen enough, I'll open another portal and transport you to this village." he said indicating a village on the map. "You three will then warn the villagers. If they need convincing Tersha, you know what to do. From there on you three will be on your own. As you make your way west, warn every village to leave their homes and travel south."

     Pointing to another location on the map south of the path of Zadykiel's forces he said, "A strong contingent of Damia's Gryphon Knight's will be waiting here. They will protect the villagers once they reach them."

     Looking the three volunteers in the eyes he asked, "Any questions?"

     "When do we leave?" asked Shalmain.

     "Please make your preparations to depart immediately." he replied. "You will be leaving immediately after the meeting. I'm sorry, but you shouldn't stay for the rest of the meeting."

     Tersha said, "Since the possibility of capture is so great, we should not know more of the plans to battle Zadykiel. A wise precaution."

     Nessarose nodded and said, "I'll go get my bow and sword."

     "Don't forget your backpack, dear." Damia said. Smiling she added, "I don't think I ever took that enchantment off it so it will continue to replenish itself with food."

     "That won't break the Accord rules?" asked Nessarose.

     "No because that was done long before they applied in this adventure. You'll not go hungry this trip." Damia finished with a smile.

     Moments later, the three volunteers left to see to their preparations.


Chapter 19.

 

     Brimstone said, "Please, everyone, be seated and we will continue."

     "Now on to other matters." Brimstone waved his hand over the map and it rearranged itself significantly. Depicted on the map now was a close-up of the island of Ethia surrounded by the ocean. Barely detectable was a series of tiny dark dots on the ocean not far from the isle. Zooming in for a closer look Brimstone showed the Companions a large fleet of Minotaur warships. "The King's rescue fleet." Brimstone supplied. He made a motion with one hand and a dotted line appeared on the sea. Zooming the view back out allowed the Companions to see the projected path of the fleet. They saw that the fleet would sail to Sic Dalar and then take a course that would skirt near Pirate isle and head north. They would come at the fortress being constructed with Minotaur slave labor by beaching their warships on the west coast of north western Sic Dalar and then marching east to the fortress. "The problem is, they will be outnumbered two to one and the enemy will hold their fortress while the Minotaurs must try to take it. Even with the fortress incomplete the Minotaur loses will be horrific."

     "My people do not fear death." Caval, the Minotaur, said with pride. "We must teach these people that they cannot enslave us and expect no retaliation."

     "I agree with you, Caval. That's why I am going to help the Minotaurs. This mission will also be very dangerous and the odds of survival are bad here as well. Anyone who wishes to bow out is free to leave now and I'll think no less of you for it." Brimstone stated.

     "Since when do we need to be persuaded to join one of your missions, Brimstone?" inquired Pierrot.

     "Yeah can we get on with this? I'm starting to get hungry." Jedi interjected.

     Smiling, Brimstone said, "Thank you all, but seriously, this is a very dangerous mission." When no one objected to the mission he went on, "All right then, here's the plan. We will come at the fortress from the north. We'll take the Gryphon."

     Brimstone altered the map once more zooming in on the fortress. Then he shifted the map slightly and zoomed out a bit. Now they could easily see the entire North western corner of Sic Dalar. "We will sail around to the northwestern area in the Gryphon. Once there we will beach her and head for this small fishing village just a few miles south of the coast by this river." Again the map zoomed in. This time on a small fishing village by a river. "We get transportation south along the river from the people of this village who have no love of the former forces of Dalghard stationed at that fortress. They periodically raid the village for whatever they can get."

     The map shifted again. This time they saw the place where the river ended maybe 15 miles north east of the fortress. "From there we walk to the fortress and perform our mission."

     "And that is?" asked Yane.

     Damia stepped up then and said, "The map of the fortress layout please, husband." Brimstone created the map at once. It was a pulled back view that depicted the fortress and the area surrounding it. They could all see the stockade where heavily armed soldiers guarded hundreds of Minotaurs.

     Damia said, "The army of Dalghard made a mistake when they set up the slave holding area."

     "Yes they did!" Lord Malachi said in excitement nodding his head.

     A moment later the rest saw the error. They had placed the slave holding area inside the walls of their fortress. "Now, if there was an uprising inside there at the precise moment that the walls were under attack by the Minotaurs the results would be extremely chaotic. They would have to split their forces to deal with both threats." Damia concluded.

     "Compound that with our mages assisting the attack to liberate the Minotaurs and there is a good chance we will free our allies and at the same time strike a crippling blow at one of Zadykiel's potential allies, for they are almost certain to join forces." Brimstone finished.

     "But the entire plan hinges upon us being able to get the word to the Minotaurs inside the slave pens."

     "I'll do it." Caval said, not waiting to be asked. He knew that he was the logical choice. He could slip inside and explain it all to the Minotaurs.

     "Thank you, Caval. I didn't want to ask you. You do realize that it is extremely likely that you will be abused by the knights of the fortress and that you cannot start an uprising early? To do so would doom the prisoners." Brimstone asked.

     Nodding his massive head somberly he said, "I understand. I will wait for the proper moment and then I will avenge my people on the hides of those that have abused and tormented them."

     Turning to Versha, Brimstone said, "We have grown accustomed to working with your Torlags. With Tersha on a separate mission that leaves us without a good ally. Can you send us one of your people to assist us? On that trail south I can foresee many times that a Torlag would be a definite asset to the team."

     "I know just the one to send." replied Versha.

     "Good then there is one other order of business and the meeting can adjourn." Brimstone stated. "Everything said in this room stays secret. We have recently learned that Zadykiel has spies in the city. We don't know who they are, but it is possible that they were actually victims of the mercenaries who were then reanimated by one of the rings. We only know that he has eyes and ears here. We do not know who or how many. So it is imperative that our plans remain absolutely secret lest we inadvertently give away our plans to Zadykiel."

     On that sobering thought the meeting was adjourned and Ziona and John rushed off to say their goodbyes to Nessarose privately.


Chapter 20.

 

     Brimstone opened a portal and Tersha stepped through immediately followed by Nessarose and Shalmain. A moment later he stepped through it himself then he closed the portal. They were on the outskirts of a village that was under attack by Gargoyles and Werewolves. They could smell the smoke in the air mingled with the smell of burning flesh.

     Tersha was taking it all in. There were waves and waves of Gargoyles circling the village in the sky above it. The Werewolves were rampaging on the ground and here and there were some few human warriors who had flocked to Zadykiel's standard. As she watched she saw a flight of Gargoyles sweep low to the ground and almost immediately fly back up into the open skies. Those which had grabbed men dropped them to their deaths below. The children and the women were taken captive and flown away.

     Werewolves pounced upon men attempting to defend the village with pitchforks and knives and tore them to pieces. The carnage was awful.

     "Brimstone." asked Shalmain hopefully.

     Sadly, Brimstone shook his head. "What you are seeing happened in the past. We cannot interfere with it. They can neither see nor hear us. I felt it best to do it this way. Safer for you three, as I knew that you would want to try to rescue the villagers and die as a result."

     "I have seen enough Brimstone. This should convince even the most foolhardy to flee."

     "Whether they listen or not, you must do your part and then leave." He stared each volunteer in the eyes and added. "You have fifteen villages to warn. If you become embroiled in arguments at the first, and wait too late to leave, then the other fourteen will fall victim to the ravaging horde of Zadykiel as well." Looking particularly hard at Shalmain Brimstone continued, "Shalmain, this goes especially for you. If they refuse to leave you must leave them to their fate. Try to stay and help them and you will doom your sister's in arms to failure."

     "I do what?" Shalmain asked startled.

     "I foresee two threads here. In one you three stay together, most of the villagers survive. In the other Shalmain, you decide to stay at one village. Nessarose and Tersha stay too late attempting to convince you to leave. They are captured." Staring hard into Shalmain's eyes he bespoke Tersha mentally, "Tersha."

     "Yes, Brimstone?" she replied in his mind.

     "Show Shalmain what I foresee as a result, but do not show this to Nessarose, nor speak to her of it." he replied to her mentally again.

     A moment later Tersha flinched as if stricken by a blow to her head, and then she whimpered. But the affects on Shalmain were much more pronounced. He saw in his mind the results of his failure to heed Brimstone's warning and that vision of what became of the two drove him to his knees in abject sorrow. A moment later the vision passed and Brimstone placed a hand upon Shalmain's forehead. Instantly his mind was soothed and his soul less troubled, but he would never forget the things that he had just seen.

     Shalmain wiped his eyes on the back of his hand and Nessarose said, "That was a cruel thing to do. What did you do to Tersha and Shalmain?" she demanded angrily. She was shocked to silence when both looked at her and told her to leave the matter alone.

     "I'm glad he did it," Shalmain stated. ďfor to be forewarned is to be forearmed. The villagers heed us or they don't. They live or they die by their own free choice. One thing is certain. We warn them and then we leave. No exceptions."

     "That's a cold outlook, Shalmain." replied Nessarose.

     "Cold it may be, sweet one." Tersha stated, "But that is the way it must be this journey."

     "You too, Tersha?" asked Nessarose in disbelief.

     "Aye, sister, me too. Now please drop it, for the conversation has me ill at ease." stated Tersha, coming as close as she ever had in her life to telling her best friend and adopted sister to shut up. The memories of the vision were fresh in her mind. A Nessarose chained to a post living for days while her body is savaged by Gargoyles and Werewolves for sport. Living but wanting to die, and when she did finally die her body was enslaved by a ring put on her finger by Zadykiel himself who wanted to torment her mother and the Companions with images of her doing his bidding.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Brimstone opened another portal then and they stepped through it. Moments later, they were standing near a village. "This is the first of the villages. You are well ahead of the enemy. If they get too close to you then use your recall spells or scroll. Do not get captured." Brimstone stated, this last almost a demand. His eyes lingered on Nessa's as he said this.

     "We won't." assured both Shalmain and Tersha. Nessarose just stared calmly at them all slightly miffed that they seemed to be aware of something that she wasn't.


Chapter 21.

 

     In Paradise Cove, the Gryphon was loaded with supplies and the Companions boarded her. They left claiming that they were heading for Stoneheim. Once far out to sea Captain Barnes changed their course and headed on their true course for northwest Sic Dalar. They would sail north and then follow the coast westward until it was time to head south and beach.

     The Gryphon sailed well and made good time. The Companions having never been this far north spent much of their time on deck admiring the view. Many strange creatures of the sea they saw on that journey from birds to fish and some creatures for which they did not have a name.

     Brimstone spent much of his time showing Ziona a map so she could see where Nessarose and the other two Companions were at the moment. They had managed to warn two villages already and saved many people in the process. He knew this but he cautioned Ziona not to send mental messages to Nessa, for Zadykiel might detect those messages and send scouts out seeking her daughter. That stifled her mother's curiosity well enough.

     Two days later Captain Barnes beached the Gryphon at the desired location. The Companions disembarked quickly and the crew put the Gryphon back out to sea. In seven days time the Gryphon was to be off the western coast of the island where it would link up with the Minotaur fleet and come ashore as they did so, to give the Companions a ride home when this was over.

     "I don't see why we need to do all this walking and riding ships and such when Brimstone could just open a portal for us into the area we need to be in at the appropriate time." stated Pierrot as he swatted at an insect.

     "We walk in so that we get a better concept of the lay of the land, and the people of the area." Brimstone stated. "In this way, if we have to retreat, at least we have an idea of what the terrain we are running to might be like. Such little advantages often mean the difference between life and death."

     "Well that makes sense I suppose." Pierrot said.

     Up ahead a Torlag stuck her head out of the brush and said, "The way is clear here, and there have been no humans here in the recent past. I smell only wildlife."

     This was the same Torlag that had once been the captive of Zadykiel. Versha had sent her to replace Tersha on the mission. She had better reason than most to want to avoid capture and her senses were heightened by that dread. Her name was Mersha.

     "Very well then, let's get to that village and see if we can't get a ride south to the river's end." Brimstone said.

     An hour later they arrived at the village and found the villagers mistrustful of them at first. Then the Torlag Mersha showed them the Companions as they battled the Bre during the Bre war and the villagers recognized them from the visions they had seen in the past and welcomed them. They pleaded with them to help rid them of the menace to the south that periodically preyed on their village.

     Brimstone assured them they would do what they could and persuaded them to supply boats and men to ferry them south to the riverís end. Once there, the villagers would drop them off and return to their village. The chief of the village grinned widely as Brimstone assured him that the raiders would be made to pay a heavy price for attacking the innocent village.

     Late that afternoon they arrived at the riverís end. They thanked the villagers for the ride and watched as they paddled back toward the village. "At least this time they are going downstream." noted John. "They'll probably be back in their village before full night."

     Brimstone nodded. The trip upstream had to have been difficult for the villagers, paddling hard for hours, but they had voiced no complaints. "They seemed like nice people to me." he observed.

     They moved away from the river to get away from the thick concentration of insects that inhabited the area. Later that afternoon they made camp some five miles from the fortress. It would be a cold camp. There would be no fire and no cooking. This close to such a fortress it was reasonable to assume that there might be patrols in the area.

     Brimstone summoned a large pot of a hot, thick stew and the Companions enjoyed a hot meal despite the cold camp. They lay down to sleep that night in their camp with an anticipation of what the next day's adventures would bring when they approached the fortress. Several guards were posted. They were, after all, in unknown territory with the enemy nearby.


Chapter 22.

 

     Shalmain, Nessarose, and Tersha entered the fifth of the fifteen villages they had been sent to warn. By now they had worked out a system that seemed to be the most efficient means of going about the notification system. They would go to the center of the village and then Tersha would broadcast a snippet of what she had been shown by Brimstone at the doomed village.

     As soon as she stopped that vision, people invariably began rushing out of their homes to see if the monsters were attacking their village. Then the Companions would gather the population and explain that the monsters were indeed coming to this village, but there was time to escape if the people would only hurry and flee to the south.

     Sometimes it was necessary for Tersha to show more of the vision, but it was seldom necessary for her to have to show it all. The fifth village turned out to be a problem. There was a pregnant lady there that the villagers said could not be moved as she was in labor. She was their chief's daughter and beloved by the people of the village.

     Shalmain instructed the men of the village to take blankets and make a litter and carry her on that. They declined. Looking at Tersha he asked her to show the leader of the village the vision she had shown him. But show it to him only. So it was that Tersha showed the man the vision of Nessarose's fate should they delay. When the vision ended the village chief began shouting immediately for the men of the village to do as Shalmain had said. He privately thanked them for the warning, for if such could be the fate of the confident looking warrior woman, then his people stood no chance.

     Nessarose told the people to head south as fast as they could go. "Walk south for two days then turn and go east until you come to the great inland sea." She knew that long before they reached that sea, patrols of Gryphon Knights scouring the countryside for refugees would find them.

     And so another village was spared the ravages of Zadykiel's minions, much to their frustration.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Zadykiel entered the third empty village. He was frustrated that the people of the villages were all escaping. This was definitely hampering his plans. By now he had planned to have many more women and children with him. Pointing to one of his death mages he ordered, "Take the food and anything of value. Burn the rest." The death mage passed on the orders to the men and watched as they systematically looted the village.

     This looting took too much time and hampered their progress, but the humans that were joining their ranks were doing so for the spoils of war. If Zadykiel didn't permit them to loot the villages, they would desert and return to do so anyway.

     He caught one of the death mages attention as the man was walking past and ordered him to take a dozen of the fastest Gargoyles and fly ahead of them to the next village and report whether or not it was deserted. If it was then they were to proceed to the next. His plan was to bypass that village if it was deserted and move on to the next, thus saving precious time that would be lost in the looting of another village. The women and children were critical to his plan. Already the Gargoyles were becoming a problem. The live ones wanted to feed on the prisoners, but he needed them alive. So far he had been able to bully them into obedience but if he didn't locate humans, or, failing that, pigs, for the Gargoyles to feed on soon they would soon demand a share of the prisoners.

     Zadykiel's plan was to use the prisoners to form an alliance with the army at the fortress who would want the women for obvious reasons. The children were part of his long term plan to reestablish an army strictly devoted to him. In the years that followed they would become the core of his military elite and warriors who had been indoctrinated in his belief structure at an early age would once more serve Dalghard. The female children would be indoctrinated in the belief that it was their duty to bear many strong sons to serve their god. As he grew in power, he would once more make fertile the mothers of his armies and they would bear sons by the twos and threes. The current women were useless for that. They had not been properly indoctrinated and foolishly believed they had a right to decide matters of childbirth.

     Zadykiel was just getting the army to leave the burning village when he heard from the patrol he had sent in advance to the next village. It was also deserted. Cursing, he altered the course of the army under his command to bypass that useless village, but a moment later he heard from the scout again. The village had been abandoned by the people, but it contained a very large number of pigs and the Gargoyles of the scouting party refused to leave until they had fed. Sighing, Zadykiel once more adjusted the course of the army and headed for the abandoned village. The pigs would serve to feed his army. The Gargoyles would take the blood and the human's and Werewolves could eat the meat. It wasn't everything he wanted, but it was good.

     So it was that the herd of pigs abandoned at that village gave Shalmain, Nessarose, and Tersha a full twenty hour lead as the Gargoyles and humans, full beyond their ability to march or fly, slept for many hours after feasting. Naturally, the human's demanded that they be allowed to loot the place before leaving.


Chapter 23.

 

     Anpu Sandstorm and the Torlag Mersha spied on the fortress in the valley. It was formidable indeed and Anpu could see at a glance why the location had been selected. The valley below looked as if it had been blasted from the rock by some huge explosion, carving a bowl shaped depression into the rock. It was dominated by three features. The escarpment that encircled it almost entirely, leaving only a narrow passageway in that could be defended by a few good men, was one of those features. Another was a very large lake of crystal clear water that had formed and was an effective barrier which helped narrow the entrance. The third feature was the fortress itself. It was huge and situated far enough away from the escarpment to prevent an enemy from rolling boulders down on top of it, though he did concede that catapults up here could make life bad for those inside the fortress.

     However, catapults here were hardly feasible, for the men of the fortress had, over a long period of time, rolled every stone of decent size down to the floor of the valley. There was simply nothing of significance here to fire down on the fortress in sufficient quantity to make the effort worthwhile. The enemy had also dragged the stones away from the edge of the escarpment in the valley below and piled them near their own massive and well kept catapults. Anpu was no expert on such machines, but he was fairly sure these would be capable of launching stones all the way to the sea to defend the fortress from any vessel's landing there.

     Anpu asked Mersha to give the catapults a good look, as Brimstone was sure to want information regarding them. Before the Minotaur fleet arrived off the coast, those catapults would need to be disabled, lest they sink many of the ships attempting to land.

The fortress itself was amazing. Situated well away from the escarpment stood a massive structure of stone that was surrounded by a wall complete with ramparts for guards to walk and a large bastion projecting out on either side of the gate from which the defenders could protect the main gate. Though unfinished, the army had forced their slave labor to complete the front portion of the wall first. It was thirty feet high. In other areas along the side and back the wall was about fifteen feet high.

     Inside the walls they saw the stockade for holding the Minotaurs for the first time. It was a large structure, apparently designed only for the purpose of containing the Minotaurs. It was made from the remnants of the Minotaur warships which had been captured. The stripped down keel of one warship that lay nearby gave mute testimony to the fate of many more in the past. The Minotaurs had no shelter and every scrap of wood from their ships had been used to bolster the walls that contained them.

     Men with whips savagely beat Minotaurs to goad them to greater labor as they struggled to move the stones required for completing the walls. Away from the unfinished walls stood the main portion of the fortress. It looked for all the world like a skull of some enormous beast to Anpu. There were three large openings in the approximate area that eyes and mouth would be located. The lowest of these apparently contained doors for entering the fortress proper. The upper two that simulated eyes had massive bastions projecting outward. From those bastions the catapults that rested there would be able to launch rocks or other material at the beach with ease. Similarly, any attacking force attempting to get to the walls would be vulnerable to attack from those catapults and Anpu suspected there would be hundreds of archers if the defenders were wise.

     Attempting to storm this fortress would cause the deaths of hundreds of attackers. Anpu was certain of that. The defenders certainly had the manpower on hand to mount a good defense. Thousands of soldiers worked or guarded the hundreds of Minotaur prisoners that did the heavy lifting involved in the construction.

     What amazed Anpu was that he could see no apparent seams on the fortress itself. The walls were made of individual stones and the seams where they joined were readily apparent, but the fortress itself appeared for all the world to be fashioned from a single stone that had been hollowed out where needed and stretched in other places such as the bastions.

     In short, it was a very impressive fortress. He was fairly certain that the Minotaur rescue attempt was doomed to failure unless the Companions could find a way to assist them from the inside as Brimstone proposed.

     They had seen enough. It was time to return to the Companions with their report. The two scouts slipped away from the edge of the escarpment


Chapter 24.

 

     Nessarose's sword tip stopped an inch from the throat of the village bully who was mocking the people attempting to listen to the three Companions. He had gone too far when he had kicked an elderly village man attempting to hear their words. She stared into his eyes, her own eyes hot with anger and she said, "Friend, you don't have to heed our warning if you choose not to, but kick that man again and I'll cut you down where you stand."

     Like most bullies the man was basically a craven coward and cold fear had shown in his eyes as he felt the tip of her wickedly sharp blade prick the soft skin of his throat. One of his friends glared angrily at Nessarose and took a step toward her back, but Tersha stepped between them, her head low to the ground, staring at the man. "I would step back if I were you, friend." Shalmain advised. "When she carries her head that low she is about to bite someone's unmentionables."

     Staring at the Torlag in alarm, the man hastily moved back and away from the confrontation taking place in the seventh of the fifteen villages the three Companions had been sent to warn.

     Nessarose spoke to Tersha while keeping her eyes fixed on those of the bully. "Thank you, sweet one."

     Focusing entirely on the man at the tip of her sword she said, "Now back off, sit down and shut up. We have important matters to discuss with the people of this village and we do not have time for this foolishness." Glaring at her, the bully backed away and did as she had instructed.

     "Tersha, please show them what is coming." said Nessa, as she continued to observe the bully and two other men of the village who seemed like minded. Tersha did as she was asked. Moments later, there were gasps and cries of fear as the people of the village saw the attack on the doomed village far to the east of them.

     When the vision concluded the village elders came forward. One wrinkled old man acted as spokesman for the group. He asked, "Are you certain that the army of monsters you just showed us will come to this village?"

     "We are certain." replied Shalmain, then he added, "I wish it were not so, but it is. You must flee to the south at once. Every moment of delay increases your danger."

     "Can you lead us on this long journey to safety?" asked the old man.

     "Nay, grandfather that we cannot do." responded Nessarose who then added, "There are eight more villages we have sworn to warn. You will be fine if you leave immediately and go to the south. Head due south for two days then turn east."

     Glancing at the bully the old man said, "I understand and you must of course warn the rest, lest their fate be that of the poor souls in the vision you have shown us. But as you have seen for yourself that man will hinder us and attack us if we do anything he doesn't approve of."

     Glancing once more at the bully with contempt Nessarose said, "I see a man with human weaknesses." Bending to the ground she picked up a stone that fit neatly in her palm. Placing the stone in the old man's hand she continued, "He is just a man and must at times sleep. If he and his friends hinder the flight of your people in any way pick up stones such as this one when they sleep. Creep up on them and bash their heads in like this." she gestured as if slamming a rock into an imaginary man's head.

     "I am old and weak and may not be able to strike hard enough to end his life painlessly." the old man said apologetically.

     "Good." said Shalmain. Sitting on the ground the bully gulped hard and blinked his eyes. Staring at the bully Shalmain added, "I have witnessed the horror of what is coming. If any man hinders your flight they deserve to die and die badly. And I warn you, grandfather, do not leave them alive. If the monsters find them they will question them before they eat them."

     Nodding his head the old man said, "And he would betray his people."

     Shivering in horror at some of the things he had seen Shalmain said, "Grandfather. From what I have seen I am forced to believe that most men would do that just to stop the horrors they were enduring."

     Many of the village people picked up rocks at that point and looked at the bully as if he were a passing nuisance that would soon be dealt with. That bully spent many a sleepless night after that conversation. In the end he found it within himself to change his ways and become a useful and helpful member of the community.


Chapter 25.

 

     Anpu and Mersha gave Brimstone and the Companions a detailed briefing on everything that they had observed. Mersha's visions helped immensely. The company was hidden in a small copse of woods about a half mile from the fortress.

     Caval bristled noticeably when the abuse of his people was depicted by the visions. Lord Fatman assured him that soon his people would be free and the rest of the companions agreed to do their part to make that happen.

     Brimstone was a bit perturbed. The bastions had not been depicted on his map, nor had the catapults. Privately, he wondered what else his powers had not revealed but there was nothing that he could do about it. He wasn't a full god and he was lucky to have even this much detail at his disposal.

     Looking at the assembled Companions he noted their expectant expressions and knew they were waiting for him to tell them how they were going to take the fortress. Smiling at them he said, "All right, let's hear suggestions on how to accomplish our mission. Remember, we only have to liberate the Minotaurs so they can fight their way to the gates and escape, and cover them as they exit. We aren't here to take the fortress. That mission will require an army."

     Veksar asked, "Can you put up your map so I can point out something that occurred to me as I watched the vision?"

     "Of course." replied Brimstone, who then made the map appear in the air just above the ground in the middle of the group.

     Veksar studied it a moment and then walked around to the side of the map. "Yes, I was right. From these two points," he said as he pointed to the top portions of the escarpments to the left and right side that would have a frontal view of the fortress, "mages would be able to strike the catapults and archers on the four bastions."

     "Yes." agreed XconX. "We might not be able to destroy the weapons but we would definitely be able to harass the crews and ruin their aiming ability."

     "Archers?" asked Brimstone.

     "Out of effective range from those positions Brimstone." Yane advised. "We could shoot high enough to lob the arrows in on the enemy, but there would be very poor results doing that."

     "Aye, but the catapult crews on the catapults to the rear of the fortress would be well within range." Anpu stated. LenapeSue and Yane agreed, as did Ziona. Dark Arrows just grinned. He liked what he saw.

     Lord Malachi said, "And what of the warriors? Do we take the gates alone?"

     "I'll take care of the gate, or rather I'll make an opening near it." Brimstone stated. "Remember the vision of the fortress wall? Well the gate is reinforced so much that it is many times stronger than the wall beside it. It will take critical timing but I will blast a hole through it with my pillar of fire spell." Looking to Caval he said, "You must warn your people not to touch the edges of the hole. They will be extremely hot." Caval nodded his understanding.

     "And the Warriors?" Jedi asked.

     "The Warriors will stand here." said Brimstone, indicating the mouth of the entry into the valley. "Your part in this will be to stop any patrol sent out to attack the mages and archers. It will be dangerous. You'll be alone until the Minotaurs arrive from the sea, but the passage by the water is narrow. If they send archers, we mages will deal with them. If they send warriors alone, then our Warriors should be able to hold the entry for fifteen minutes."

     "Fifteen minutes. Is that how long you think it will take to accomplish the mission?" asked MetalHead.

     Shaking his head Brimstone said, "That's the longest I think we can survive in this conflict." This stunned the Companions. He continued. "There are literally thousands of warriors in there. If they break out in sufficient numbers then we won't last more than fifteen minutes. If our Warriors can bottle them up inside the valley then we stand a good chance of accomplishing our goals, and then we board ship and head to sea." He looked pointedly at the archers then. "You archers will be farthest away from the ships. If you can do so, I want the catapults burnt and then I want you to head for the Warriors so you will be close to the sea when the Minotaurs arrive. Everyone try to stay together at that point and don't get lost in the fog."

     "There will be fog that day? You see this with your godly power?" asked Lady Ru.

     Smiling Brimstone shook his head and said, "I'll make it." The map scene shifted a moment and upon the escarpment stood a lone figure who pointed his hand at the crystal lake near the entrance. A moment later a perfect replica in miniature of the pillar of fire spell beamed down into the lake. Huge clouds of steam rose immediately and were carried inland to shroud the fortress in a veil of fog. But some of that fog also extended out to the beach.

     "A clever use of that spell if ever I saw one." Veksar conceded.

     "It has its bad points though." Brimstone stated. "Visibility will be terrible unless we get really lucky and there is a strong breeze that day."

     "I hope they are bringing enough ships to carry everyone to safety." Pierrot said. Privately Brimstone hoped there would be enough of them left to worry about overcrowding the ships.


Chapter 26.

 

     The Gryphon Knight Commander, Eric Glenfield, stood at attention on the parade grounds of their base. Behind him stood five hundred Gryphon Knights. As expected, Damia appeared before them at the appointed time. She addressed her Knights and spoke of the days to come and what their role in that war would be. She also told them that they were about to be besieged by requests to join their ranks, and reminded them not to be overly hard on the new recruits, but to see to their training well for the time was coming when they would need every sword and shield.

     Twenty new recruits were then brought forth onto the field to join the assembled Knights and their Goddess. The recruits knelt before their Goddess and pledged their loyalty and the strength of their arms to the Gryphon Knights. Then, one by one as she had since the inception of the Knights, Damia personally handed each man and woman their own sword and shield.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Later in a private meeting with Eric Glenfield she discussed the issues at hand in great detail and together they worked out plans for the coming confrontation. At the end of this meeting Eric informed her there were problems beginning to arise in the camp set up to house the villagers. Food was in short supply and the villagers were in some cases going hungry. Damia took a moment to consult with her Mother and Shinobi assured her that she would see to that detail. She then assured Eric that Shinobi would see to the food required as most of the people there were her followers.

     Eric then reported that there were some incidents of violence as a few of the tougher villagers bullied the weaker ones. Frowning Damia said, "Put a stop to that at once. We aren't removing them from one danger zone just to place them in another. Go into the center of the camps and place five stakes into the ground. Have it proclaimed that those abusing the weaker villagers will occupy these stakes. Have one of your men dressed as a villager step forward and ask why there are only five stakes. Say then that they will be judged by the gods of Althea. If they are found guilty they won't be there long. Leave it vague. If the people assume that they will be killed as punishment for their crimes so much the better. Call me when there are people occupying the stakes. I will personally see to their fate."

     Eric nodded his head in agreement and said, "It shall be done, my Goddess." Then, hesitating to question her he paused for a moment. Finally his curiosity got the better of him and he asked, "Will they be executed?"

     Damia grinned. "No, Eric. I'll take them to a small isle and provision them with food. They will remain there until the crisis is over. At least there they will only be able to abuse each other and not innocents. Just make an effort to verify that the accused are guilty Eric. I'll verify their guilt when I come for them, but I'd rather not have innocent men or women falsely accused chained to those poles."

     "And if we find cases where some are falsely accused?" he asked.

     "Chain their accusers to one of the poles. Make it a matter of public knowledge that false accusations will be treated as a crime."

     Grinning Eric said, "I think that covers the crime issue then."

     "Not quite, Eric." Damia replied, and then she continued. "If there are murders we will want the murderers executed publicly, but I will judge all such cases. No man or woman shall be put to death without a god or goddess verifying that they did indeed commit the murder. We can easily do that."

     "And of the other capital crime?" inquired Eric.

     Damia's eyes blazed fiercely for a moment at the mention of the other capital crime. "Treat it the same as murder. I will judge their guilt or innocence. If they are guilty their life is forfeit."

     "All right, Goddess, it shall be as you say, but bear in mind that these villagers are somewhat behind the times. Many of them have an attitude that Dalghard's laws are still in place and already there have been instances where some few men have been insistent about a few of the women and the men of that woman's village have had to defend them."

Damia stood then and said, "I'll go to the camp now, Eric."


Chapter 27.

 

     Moments later, Damia and Eric appeared in the camp. It was a large sprawling camp where already the combined population of nine villages formed a fairly large city of temporary shelters. Damia, followed by Eric, immediately moved to the center of the camp where the command post was located. As they made their way there, several Gryphon Knights who had noted their arrival fell in behind their Commander. There was a feeling of ominous tension in the air and a disturbance was taking place in the center of the encampment.

     The camp Commander was mediating a disagreement between a man and a woman. When Damia and Eric arrived they moved to stand beside the camp Commander and Eric said, "Report."

     The camp Commander replied, "This man wanted this woman. He made advances. She said no. He became insistent. She defended herself. Now he wants her to be punished for attacking him when he was only following the mandates of Dalghard."

     "He wants what?!" demanded Damia with ice in her tones? Turning to the man she glanced at him as though he were an insect. Then she turned her regard to the young woman who had fought to preserve her dignity. Seeing a large bruise on her cheek she reached out her hand and touched the girl's face. Instantly the bruise healed, leaving her face unmarred by the man's attack. "Art thou injured elsewhere, girl?" she asked in compassion.

     "My ribs, Lady." replied the girl, not understanding that she was addressing a goddess. Damia reached out her hands then as she had once done when Brimstone was injured. Gasping in surprise as she examined the girl's body with her mind she located and healed three cracked ribs and several broken bones in the girlís hands. The girl had broken them trying to defend herself as the man apparently attacked her. Probing further she located bruises to her internal organs as well and healed those. The man had concentrated his attack where it would least show in an effort to conceal his abuse. The girl had fought back hard, as hard as she could. Probing still further she discovered the truth. She had lost the fight to preserve her dignity. She healed those wounds too but kept the girl's secret. Bespeaking her mind she soothed her and told her no one need ever know if that was her desire. The girl replied that this was her wish and, still unaware that Damia was a goddess, thanked the healer for healing her.

     Then Damia turned her attention to the man. "I have healed the girl's injuries. You hid them well, but I found and healed them all. She is whole again, no thanks to you."

The man stared at her, unconcerned by her anger or her opinions as she continued, "It is wrong of you to believe that you can do as you wish. The edicts of Dalghard are no longer in effect. They died with him."

     Then the man made a mistake as he said, "Shut up, woman. I was within my rights and everyone here knows it."

     The Gryphon Knights, to the last man and woman present, drew their swords then and took one step toward the man but Damia said, "Hold, Knights. His insult was to me. I will redress it personally."

     Eric Glenfield's face was a livid red. He was furious that Damia had been spoken to in such a manner and he wanted to deal with the man, but Damia bespoke his mind and said, "Control yourself, Eric. This is my opportunity to teach not only this man, but all men present an apparently much needed lesson."

     "Sheath your swords, Knights," he commanded and did so himself.

     Turning her attention to the man once more, Damia said, "You prefer the edicts of Dalghard to the just laws of the land now in place?"

     "Under Dalghard's edicts, the men ruled and women made children. That is as it should be. It is as our god decreed."

     "Dalghard was insane when he made that edict. If you think that it will continue, you are equally insane."

The man made his second mistake. He struck out at Damia, intending to backhand her across the face.

Damia caught his attacking hand and turned with the force of the blow. She threw him through the air and he landed with a thud. Laughter erupted from the assembled crowd and Eric blinked in surprise. Damia giggled. She had often seen Brimstone training and knew many of his fighting methods. In fact he had upon occasion worked with her to help her learn such things. He had felt it important, and in her love for him she had humored his desire to teach her such things, though in point of fact she would never need to be able to physically defend herself. Now she was glad that she had learned the methods. It was satisfying to be able to do such as this to the man who taunted her.

     He leapt to his feet at once and glared at the armed Knights. "You are lucky that the Knights are here or your fate would be the same as that girl's." he stated in anger.

     "Oh really?" Damia asked, smiling sweetly. Then she countered, "Do you think yourself man enough to have your way with me then?"

     "Inside five minutes the deed would be done." stated the man with quiet assurance.

Damia laughed then and addressed the assembled Knights. "Let none of you interfere. This is between me and this man."

     Eric bowed and said, "It shall be even as you say." Glancing at the other Knights, he saw that they all understood and none would interfere. Damia was about to administer some Justice.

     Damia stood passively waiting for the man to attack. When he remained frozen in place for a full minute she taunted, "What's the matter, little man? Do you need to work up the nerve?"

     Thus goaded, the man ran at her. Waiting until the last moment she shifted her body to the side leaving her outstretched leg for the man to trip over.

Eric laughed as he saw the man sprawl face first in the dirt. Well he remembered his own similar experience with Brimstone upon their first meeting.

     "Oh my, are you hurt? You aren't very good at this are you?" she asked thus taunting the man and wounding his ego.

     The man leapt to his feet and said, "If you'd stand still and fight like a man this would be over in a moment."

     "But I'm not a man, am I? If I were, we weren't be fighting now would we? But nevertheless, I shall honor your request and fight without tricks."

     Laughing, the man lunged out and wrapped his fingers around her throat. True to her word, Damia had not sought to avoid him and had permitted him to grab her. His fingers closed viselike around her throat. Reaching up with her two small hands Damia pried the little finger of the man's left hand away from her throat. She bent it backwards until there was an audible snapping sound. She'd broken the bone. Enraged, the man redoubled his efforts to choke her. Her face had already begun to change colors from the throttling, but she was calm and confident in her ability to deal with the man. In rapid succession she broke the little finger on his right hand, then using her hands she grasped both of the broken fingers and tugged at them. In agony the man snatched his fingers from her throat and took a step back, intending to nurse his wounded hands.

     Damia followed him as he stepped back and with incredible force she slammed the palm of her right hand into his nose, breaking it. Blood sprayed from his injured nose.

The man went berserk then and swung wildly at Damia. Shifting her body, she caught the wrist of the man's attacking limb and twisted it, thus locking the elbow joint and holding his arm fully extended. She stepped around and with just one step she was in position to deliver the follow up blow and the heel of her free hand slammed into the backside of the vulnerable elbow with force sufficient to shatter the joint. The man's left arm was now useless.

     "Had enough, little man?" she inquired? "I really don't think you are going to be able to take me. You simply aren't man enough." All around her the onlookers were stunned. Many of the ladies present stared at Damia with open admiration. Several of the women present had been the victims of men in the past as they carried out the edicts of Dalghard, but most of those men were long gone now having been taken to war by their God.

     "You are lucky that I have no weapon, wench. The Knights made me weak with their treatment of me, and that is why I am having trouble with you. If I had a sword, you'd be at my feet now weeping in shame at my conquest of you."

     A furious Eric then drew his sword and advanced upon the man.

"Eric." Damia said quietly. He stopped and she said, "Give him a sword, but not one of the Knight's swords. I'll not have one of their blades sullied by his touch.Ē

     Obediently Eric left and got a sword from a tent and returned with it. He stabbed the sword tip in the ground two feet from the man and said, "Here is your blade. Let us see if you can take her now. Or do you want us to bind her for you first?"

     Stung by the implied criticism the man took hold of the sword.

Damia said, "I appear to have forgotten to bring a blade. Would someone loan me theirs?"

     Smiling Eric drew his sword and handed it to Damia hilt first with the blade lying across his arm.

Gently, Damia took the sword, being careful not to drag the edge across Eric's arm.

     The crowd that had gathered close to witness the fight took a few steps back to make room for the deadly blades.

     "You expect me to battle you with broken bones and joints, woman?"

     Damia smiled and healed the man's broken bones and elbow joint. It didn't matter to her one way or the other and the crowd would see that she had given him every opportunity to win the fight. That was important to her. Indeed, it was very important.

     The man strutted around the clearing the people had made for the fight. He felt good now, and he had a sword in his hand. "I see that you secretly desire me to conquer you, woman." he taunted, then smiling at her, he continued, "Put your mind at ease, my beauty, for I am no simple villager. I was once in the service of Dalghard. A swordsman and a recruiter for his army I was. You are about to be conquered in Dalghard's name."

     Damia stood there with sword in hand, looking at it as if she had never held a sword before. "Do you swing it thusly?" she inquired as she took a few practice swings in the air, flailing wildly with the blade. There were groans from some of the women present when they took her for a novice with a blade.

The enemy laughed at her then. He didn't note that Eric Glenfield, who had seen her wield a blade, was also laughing uproariously at her antics.

     The man closed in then, feeling confident that he would have the wench disarmed within moments and claim her for his own. She managed to counter his first probing thrusts, seemingly at the last moment, and then she darted back out of reach. He advanced again and produced a stronger attack designed to disarm her. He could already see the vision she would make lying conquered at his feet. Seeing her apparently off balance, he pressed his advantage. Sliding inside her guard he closed with her, attempting to knock her blade aside and grab her.

     Damia skirted just out of reach of his groping hand and with a practiced flick of her wrist twirled her blade which flashed downwards in a blur and severed the offending hand from the man's body. Squealing in pain the man tried his best to behead her then but she ducked under the blade which passed harmlessly over her head.

     Darting upright, her blade flicked out and scored a hit across his right cheek which bled profusely. His blade flashed downward toward her head, but was parried by her own sword as she maneuvered her body for her next attack, which seemed to go wildly over the man's head. Damia's reversed her blade's direction then and with a powerful two handed stroke she decapitated the man.

     Stunned silence fell upon the spectators as Damia cleaned the blade on the dead man's garments. She turned then and addressed the people of the camp. "Let me make this clear to all of you. The women of this camp are under my personal protection and that of the Knights of my Order. Abuse them as this man intended and the price shall be death."

     Glaring at the assembled people she continued. "Dalghard's insanity motivated his edicts. Perpetuate them if you will, but know this, the price for doing so is death." Turning and pointing at the dead man's body she continued, "This man sought to abuse his fellow refugees. It has reached my ears this day that there are others among you who also abuse your fellows. Know this then. There will be a price for that abuse."

     Saying no more she walked to the command post and entered it, followed by her Gryphon Knight Officers. Once there she spoke with them about maintaining order in the camp. They had been meeting for some ten minutes when there was a knock upon the door. Eric opened the door and spoke briefly to a guard. He returned and said, "Damia I think you should see this."

     Damia walked to the door not knowing what to expect. The battle with the man had been distracting to her. She had deliberately squelched her godly powers for the conflict and used only her mortal abilities. So it was that she was surprised when she stepped outside into the light of day and saw hundreds of men and women lined up in neat rows. "They want to join our order. After seeing your demonstration they now believe that there are other ways to live."

     Looking at the assembled men and women, Damia noted that many bore the scars of the ravages of Dalghard's edicts. The collective sadness of those women stirred her empathy. Raising her hands in the full majesty of her Goddess state, she said, "Blessed be thee all, sons and daughters of the Gryphon." and a mass healing spread among the assembled volunteers. Gone for the first time in years was the sense of pain and misplaced shame many had endured for a very long time. They collectively knelt on one knee and bowed their heads.

     The Knights already inducted into the Gryphon Knights also received the blessing, and wherever upon Sic Dalar that they stood at that moment, they too, knelt on one knee and bowed their heads when they heard her benediction.


Chapter 28.

 

     Nessarose was furious with the village elders of the twelfth village who adamantly refused to heed the warnings Tersha was giving. One of the men was acting as spokesman for the group and he seemed completely at odds with the realities of the situation. He said, "Our village has always observed the rites due to Dalghard. His minions will not harm us. It may be that they require something of our village to aid them on their journey, If that is the case then they shall have it and freely given with our good will."

     "And when you find that what they require is your women for breeding, your children for the gods only know what, and the blood of your men? What then, old man?" asked Shalmain.

     Shrugging the man said, "We have only your word for those accusations and no real proof of that."

     "But Tersha has shown you the other village that fell to Zadykiel and his army of monsters." Nessarose said in frustration.

     Again the man shrugged and said, "The Torlag could show me doing vile murder if she chose to do so. Does that make me a murderer?"

     Stung by the insult the man had just cast upon her friend, Nessarose angrily took a step toward the man. Tersha spoke then and said, "Hold, Nessa." Turning to face her friend, Nessa mentally asked why she stopped her, for the man had just called her a liar. When Tersha responded to that query she did so mentally and spoke so that only Nessarose and Shalmain could hear her thoughts. "Men are moving to get behind us. We must leave this village now. They intend to take us prisoner for Zadykiel. We cannot save those who wish to work with Zadykiel and many of the people of this village wish to do so. If we are captured, the remaining three villages go unwarned and will be lost."

     As she warned them, the other two Companions glanced around and saw that indeed several men were moving to their rear. Shalmain addressed the village elders at that point saying, "Good sirs, we have warned you. The choice is yours to make. You shall live or die by that choice. We will leave you to your chosen fate now.

     Tersha emitted a warning trill and Nessarose, recognizing that warning, drew her sword and turned to face the men who had closed their growing circle. "We came in Peace to try to help you and your families. We will leave in Peace if permitted, but know this to be a fact. If you attack us, many of you will die this day."

     Shalmain began cycling his defensive spells as did Tersha and Nessarose. That seemingly trivial detail caused the men who had been edging closer to halt. "Magic users all!" said one of the men. The village elders looked frightened then. They had heard of magic users but had never met one, other than a mage of Dalghard's army who had once stopped in their village. The popular belief was that magic users were very formidable in battle.

     It must be remembered that Sic Dalar had been cut off from the rest of Althea for over one thousand years. As a result, the only magic users seen on Sic Dalar for the overwhelming majority of that time frame were those few whom Dalghard himself had somehow managed to teach magic. Cut off from the rest of Althea as they were, those magic users fell behind during the expansion of magic which had taken place, especially during the last four years. The population of Sic Dalar had heard many tales of the magic users from others of Sic Dalar. Those rumors had it that the magic users from the rest of Althea far surpassed Dalghard's and if they respected nothing else regarding the trio they did respect their strengths.

     The spokesman said, "Leave us in Peace then. We do not want you here. Nor do we care to listen to your lies." He had decided it best to let the trio go rather than risk an all out battle with them, and a battle with three magic users was more like a war in his mind.

The three Companions started to leave then and for a moment it appeared as though they would be able to get away from the village without a problem. But as they were leaving, several women with young children stopped them on the outskirts of the village. They wanted to flee the coming monsters but were afraid of the men of the village.

     "We can take them with us to the next village. From there they can escape with those villagers," suggested Nessarose.

     "They will slow us down considerably." Shalmain pointed out.

     "What choice do we have? We cannot leave them here knowing what is in store for them. Not if they ask our help." Nessa replied.

     "The men of the village may fight us if we try to take them. But I agree with Nessa, we should try to help them. But if we are to do so it must be immediately, before the men have time to organize." Tersha advised.

     Nessarose addressed the women then saying, "We must travel quickly. The next village is several hours walk west of here. Carry the children too small to walk with speed. Stay together. Call out if someone falls behind."

     The women nodded their understanding of the situation and headed out toward the next village. Twenty minutes later a large group of men appeared on their backtrail, and heading in their direction at a rapid pace.

     Stopping Shalmain said, "Run with the women and children. I'll catch up. I will just persuade the men that there are better things to do than fight a magic user." Seeing the hesitation on Nessarose's face he added, "You are wasting time. I have to buy you time to get them to safety."

     "Use your word of recall spell if you have to then. I want that promise." Nessa responded.

     "If I see that I cannot escape capture then I will do so. Now run." Shalmain turned away, not waiting to see if they would comply, and began to trot toward the approaching men who stopped, confused by his approach.

     Tersha said, "We must honor his courage, Nessa. He is right that it is best for one to deal with those men while the rest escape. Let us speed the women and children to safety."

     Nessarose did not care for Tersha's choice of words but she understood the situation. Reluctantly she turned to the frightened women and children and said, "We run for a while. Our Companion will buy us time. We must leave now."


Chapter 29.

 

     Anpu watched the trail leading around the escarpment and counted the men returning from their patrol of the surrounding area. Nodding his head in satisfaction that all of the men from the patrol were accounted for he waited until they had entered the bowl that contained the fortress and then timed their approach to the fortress from the mouth of the bowl shaped depression. This was the second time he had made this observation. Anpu had talked to Brimstone and discussed the need to know such things. Brimstone had readily agreed that such knowledge was important and asked Anpu to put his entire Ranger training to good use.

     Right now he was timing the patrol to get a sense of how long it should take the Minotaurs, once outside the gate, to reach the mouth of the fortress valley. Of course the Minotaurs would be running, but they might also be fighting every step of the way. The fog created by Brimstone would also hamper their progress out of the valley to some extent but that couldn't be helped. The cover it provided would protect the Minotaurs to some degree from the arrows of the enemy. Of course they could always just fire waves of arrows into the fog but the mages of the company would try to prevent that.

     As the gate opened to admit the patrol, Anpu noted the time. It had taken the men of the patrol ten minutes to make it from the mouth of the valley to the fortress proper just as had been the case in his first such observation. Nodding his head in satisfaction he mentally noted this and returned to the rest of the Companions.

     When he reached the Companions he gave a detailed report of what he had learned and a review of the many preparations he felt should be made. He had meticulously mapped the region in his mind and devised a plan to lay out traps shortly before their planned assault on the fortress to free the captive Minotaurs. Those traps would be laid on the ground approaches to their rear to guard against the possibility that Zadykiel might arrive just prior to or immediately after they had begun the battle. In this manner they would have at least some protection from such forces, and more importantly some notice that there was a problem to their rear. Signal traps would alert him to the presence of the enemy. They would be simple traps designed to release a thick cloud of colored smoke. He had designed them himself for just such a need. He had tested the components of that trap design many times in the past and the traps when sprung always released a cloud of reddish smoke that could be seen up to a mile away. All of the Companions knew if that smoke was spotted it indicated trouble behind them.

     Naturally it was too early to begin laying the traps lest the soldiers from the fortress stumble upon them and be made aware that others were in the area. For now there was a standing order to avoid any contact with them whatsoever.

     The assembled Companions nodded their approval of his dayís work as they met in a secluded grove of trees about half a mile from the fortress. Brimstone nodded gravely and then said, "Now give me your opinion as to our weaknesses."

     Anpu had anticipated that question and he had those answers ready. He replied without hesitation. "We will be wide open to observation from the air. Our traps will be useless against a force of Gargoyles and we will have little to no warning if they enter the picture. The biggest weakness that I can foresee would be the possibility of a large scale attack to our rear at the critical moment of the battle to free the Minotaurs."

     "Not to mention the fact that we are going up against a thousand to one odds." Brimstone finished. Then he smiled and added, "But you are the Companions. I'd say that makes it pretty fair."

     "Well, we do have you with us." interjected Pierrot. "And you are a fully trained God now at that. This shouldn't be that hard to pull off."

     Staring at Pierrot thoughtfully Brimstone sighed and said, "You know friends I am still the same Brimstone as before that training. Granted I can now use some of the godly powers but there is nothing fundamentally changed inside me. I am the same Brimstone you have always known. I am not invincible." Then smiling to take the sting out of his words he added, "Ok I take a bit of effort to stop when I get the notion to do something. But I believe that some of you are beginning to assume that you are no longer as vital to our effort as you once were because of the training I underwent. That, my friends, is a misconception."

     "How so?" asked Lord Malachi. Then he went on to clarify his question when he added, "Brimstone you can teleport yourself inside that fortress, blast open the walls, and free the Minotaurs alone if it came to it."

     Shaking his head in disagreement Brimstone said, "Now you see what I mean? That's just the sort of misunderstandings that I feared." Looking at the assembled Companions he sighed and said, "I see now that it is time we had a serious discussion about me and the ramifications of the training that I underwent."

     Many of the Companions were keenly interested in that discussion and had been since his admission of his new training and status. Leaning back against the trunk of a tree he said, "Let's take Lord Malachi's example that he just gave us. That would fail because there would be no preparation of the Minotaurs who, in the confusion of the assault, would have no idea what was happening. Of course I could teleport in amongst them, tell them who I am and what we were going to do then break them out of their holding area. But how many would die because I can't hit all of the enemy at once."

     "You could use that special sword and the fire magic trick you used in the Gargoyle's cave and again during the war of the gods." Fawnn interjected.

     Shaking his head Brimstone told the Companions something that took them completely by surprise. "After the war of the Gods I was summoned to a meeting with the four Gods, Damia, Artherk, Ogrimar, and Shinobi. It was the opinion of those gods that the spell was too dangerous for a Demi God to possess."

     "What!?!" demanded Ziona. "You mean they stripped you of the power to use that spell?"

     "I wouldn't put it exactly in those words." Brimstone said with a wry grin. "Let me explain if you will."

     "Aye Brimstone please do. I'm sorry for the interruption."

     "No apology needed, Ziona." he said, and then with a warm smile he continued, "It's just that my mind is slow and hard to get rolling in one direction. When I have to stop it then it can take some doing to get it moving again."

     "Mystyka's light hearted laughter was soon joined by several others and she said, "Slow mind my foot."

     "All right, where was I?" asked Brimstone playing the part of a slow minded fellow teasingly.

     "Telling us about the spell being stripped." offered Mersha who tended to take everything said quite seriously.

     "Ahh, yes that's it. Thank you, Mersha." responded Brimstone. "At the meeting, the spell was discussed in great detail. The concern of the Gods was that it was so powerful that I could slay an entire army alone within mere minutes. Giving the matter grave consideration I was forced to agree with them and asked them to combine their power to take that ability from me."

     "You did what?!" exclaimed Jedi.

     Smiling at the high strung Warrior he nodded and said, "That's right. They summoned me to discuss the matter, but it was my idea to have the spell taken away from me."

     "In the name of the Gods why!?!" exclaimed Mystyka.

     "Because if I ever went insane, or turned out like Dalghard, then I could have annihilated the combined armies of all of the gods with that spell and that's too much power for one man, even if he is a Demi god."

     "You'd never do that though." someone observed from the back of the crowd of Companions. But others of the Company had to admit at least privately that they weren't so sure.

     Brimstone shook his head sadly and replied, "I already have. Many of you were there at the wedding when I thought Damia had been slain. I killed the men responsible and then let the power of my spell roam free. It took three gods to subdue me that day, and it was only Damia's voice in my mind that stopped me. If I had been using the other spell? Half or more of the wedding guests would have been killed."

     A stunned silence greeted that revelation. It grew quieter still when he added, "They agreed that the Pillar of fire spell could stay as it is a limited area attack, but that massive area spell in their opinion was horrifically dangerous."

     Looking at the Companions gathered near him he confided, "Yeah, I'm not perfect. Not by any means. I am a Demi god with some few special abilities, but I am also a man with all the failings of a man. So please stop treating me differently. Nothing with regards to our relationship as a team has changed." Then laughing he said, "Well, if I warn you now, then you might want to heed that warning. It might be based upon my new abilities."

     Leaning back against the tree trunk once more he said, "The point is, I need each and every one of you. Yes, our chances are greatly improved now that I have a few new abilities, but just because I didn't sign the Accords of the Gods doesn't mean that I don't respect what they intend to accomplish. So it is a mistake to believe that I can use the powers without regard to the accords. If the balance between good and evil will be threatened by their use then you can be sure I won't use them. In the case of Zadykiel I cannot see my use of the powers as unbalancing, for I won't be threatening the balance, but acting to preserve it."

     Looking directly at Lady Sparks he added, "And lest you all forget, I can be killed. Assassins on Ravenís Dust killed me once. They took my sword." Patting the trusty Frost Bane he had carried ever since then he added, "Lady Sparks bought me this fine blade as a gift after my resurrection when she learned that the assassins took my old sword."


Chapter 30.

 

     Inside the fortress the Commander of Dalghard's western army studied a map of Sic Dalar and made a note of the location of Zadykiel's army which was coming to meet him regarding an alliance to take back Sic Dalar for Dalghard. Since he was in command of the largest segment of Dalghard's forces, he considered the plan a means to achieving his own conquest of Sic Dalar. He had of late begun to consider how he would look in a crown.

     Zadykiel seemed to be the motivating factor that could lead him to that conquest for the troops under his command would follow him only as long as they believed he was acting upon Dalghard's wishes. Since Zadykiel claimed to be representing Dalghard, and would offer proof of that at their first meeting, this could be a benefit to him.

     The Commander's name was Klevon Blackman. He was a career officer who had risen through the ranks of Dalghard's officers because of his reputation for accomplishing any mission assigned to him. The secret of his success could be stated in one word and that word was brutality. No act was too brutal for him to authorize in order to accomplish a mission. During the buildup to the War of the Gods, two years prior to that war, a group of seven villages located in south western Sic Dalar had decided that the levies on their food crops were ridiculously high and they weren't going to pay that price. They set aside ten percent for the forces of Dalghard and hid the rest. Blackman was at the time a Captain in the army and he had been sent with a force of two hundred men to address the issue with the villagers.

     The first day of the negotiations went poorly so that night he led his men on a raid of the village hosting the negotiations. The next morning before the representatives of the seven villages he had the females of the host village systematically abused before the now captive representatives until that village agreed to comply with the edicts of a much harsher levy against their crops. The other six villages capitulated at that point also, much to the disappointment of Blackman's soldiers.

     As a result of that mission he was granted a promotion to the rank of Commander and given command of this army on the western coast of Sic Dalar. It was reasoned that the Commander of that army would have to be able to make hard decisions on his own with little input from the upper level generals and Captain Blackman had proven himself quite resourceful.

     Walking to the door of his private living quarters he moved down the halls of the fortress noting the condition and appearance of the fortress as he went. Well he remembered the day Dalghard himself had come to this fortress and sealed the seams of the stones to form a very nearly impregnable fortress.

     The history of the fortress went back twenty years. Some of the best stone masons of Sic Dalar had built it but those masons had died out during the process of the building and the walls had never been completed. Whisked away, often in the middle of the night, the stone masonsí apprentices never completed their studies in the craft and as a result masonry came into decline on Sic Dalar. Dalghard didn't care because he fully intended to restock the isle with craftsmen from the other isles.

     The Commander paused at the sleeping quarters and noted that they seemed to be in good order. Three men who took turns sleeping in shifts shared each bed in the sleeping quarters. At any given time a full one third of the twelve thousand men occupied those quarters. The men slept in shifts. That was the only way the fortress accommodations could house them. Once the walls were completed the Commander had made tentative plans to have the Minotaurs construct additional barracks to house the troops more comfortably. Unfortunately those Barracks would have to be located outside the main structure of the fortress, but there was plenty of space within the walls.

     He descended a flight of stairs and made his way into the courtyard outside. Turning toward the Minotaur holding area, he walked there and spoke to the guards stationed near the gate. He found that there had been no more instances of Minotaurs attempting to revolt since he'd had the last three impaled a week ago.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Zadykiel listened to the report from one of his spies and smiled. So the Companions were about to weaken the army at the fortress. "Good." he thought. A weakened and embarrassed Commander would be easier to deal with, and if there were dead bodies available when he arrived so much the better. He could always use more of the reanimates.

     He carefully studied the timeline and estimated that he would be able to arrive just as the battle was beginning. He immediately decided to hold his forces for one day at the next village so as to arrive the day after the assault. This wasn't out of fear of a confrontation with the Companions. He had no fear of them. No, he wanted the Companions to weaken his potential ally to make him more agreeable to the terms Zadykiel had in mind, for a man who had just suffered a defeat stood to be more tractable than a man at the pinnacle of his power. And from what his spy had related the Companions only intended to free the Minotaur slaves and had no intention of an all out war with the fortress. He could always gather more slaves, and a few dead soldiers there would add to his power when he reanimated them.

     Pondering his situation a bit more he counted his own forces. He now had one hundred and forty human volunteers who were trickling in to join his army for the plunder to be had. They were a bit of a problem. They lacked discipline, would stall the army while taking a ridiculously long time as they looted and constantly complained, and wanted the women prisoners. Those females were his bargaining pawns to be used to gain the alliance with the massive western army and as such held significant value to him. So to expedite his march, stop the complaining, and ensure discipline in his command, he was taking steps to correct that problem even as he sat there.

     A moment later cries of fear and battle could be heard outside his command tent. Next came shrieks of terror as the death mages and the live gargoyles drained every drop of blood from the human volunteers. His death mages had been instructed to take five men each so they could create a small unit of vampires. Those fifteen vampires would be used for special missions. The rest of the volunteers would also be reanimated and serve him at his pleasure in whatever missions he deemed appropriate. And if there came a point in time when he needed the rings they wore for better quality fighters he could always have them chop off their own hands and retrieve the rings for another's use.

     Smiling to himself Zadykiel lay down on his makeshift bed to sleep a bit while the terrified screaming was still filling the air. His last thought before drifting off to sleep was, "It would be a shame to waste such a lovely lullaby."


Chapter 31.

 

     Shalmain continued to run toward the approaching men who had stopped in some confusion. He assumed they didn't quite know what to make of his turning and running to meet them. Shalmain stopped while still quite some distance from the approaching men and stood with a slight wind in his face. The moment he stopped, the heat built up during his run caused him to begin to perspire. The breeze felt cool and refreshing against his skin. Without thinking of how the men he was facing would view his transformed appearance he removed his cape and caused his wings to appear so he could fan himself with them.

     The appearance of his magnificent white and gold wings had a profound affect on the large group of men. They began pointing at him and talking animatedly to each other. Shalmain didn't know it, but the oral history of the villagers of Sic Dalar was loaded with tales of seraphs and their great powers. Until that moment they had not known they were dealing with a seraph.

     Shalmain was smart enough to recognize an advantage when he had one. He flexed his wings and brought his hands up to cast a spell. He had no real desire to slay the men, but he knew he needed a spell that would impress them. He settled on the spell Fireball. Though he had specialized in the other elements of earth and air he had still learned the spell, for it could be useful at times. But as spells go his Fireball was weak, therefore it was not likely that he would slay them with one hit.

     The group of men saw the seraph mage raise his hands and a moment later a great ball of fire hurtled from him toward them. They could see it spinning like a great molten ball as it shot through the air with deadly aim at them. When it hit amongst them, lesser bits of fire leapt all among the party. Few and fortunate were the men untouched by that fire. Mercifully the Seraph held his hand and his anger in check and did not again smite them with his great spell or surely half of their party would have died.

     They heard him shout to them then saying, "Return now to your village. Tell your elders that they have angered me. In three hours I will return to your village and I will slay you all. Leave immediately lest I slay you now and arrive at your village with no warning. Your only hope is to flee my wrath. I will seek you north east and west. If you wish to live tell your elders to flee south."

     The men felt an incredible sense of relief. They were mortals and could fight other mortals well enough. But something seraphs tend to forget is that their power is many times greater than that of mortals. Very few mortals can win in battle against seraphs who possess a stronger life force, larger mana supply and an aura that strikes back at the enemy attacking them. They are also granted the right to select specialized powers over the elements, resistances to elements, attributes, health or mana or any combination of those.

     The men fled at once. When they entered their village they were confronted by the elders who demanded to know where the prisoners were. The villagers gathered around to see what had happened to the large party of men, most of whom appeared to have been burned to one degree or another. The men revealed their shocking discovery and then gave the elders Shalmain's warning. Growing pale the elders defiantly demanded that the people stay in the village but the men of the party, having experienced battle with a great seraph, assured the elders that they could forget their desires in the matter. They turned at once and ran to their homes and gathered what they could to take with them.

     Thus began the mass exodus of the one village which had refused to leave voluntarily. The other villagers seeing this soon began to organize for departure as well. One hour before the deadline the elders watched as the last few stragglers were ready to leave and the people of the village headed out en mass. The five elders remained alone.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     It took Shalmain a good two hours to catch up with Nessarose and Tersha. He had waited and watched as the men had fled, and then waited a while longer to make sure they would not return. Shalmain laughed when he explained to Nessarose and Tersha what had happened. "And so I learned, quite by accident, that the villagers are apparently terrified of fighting with seraphs and well they should be. Even my weak Fireball spell almost slew the lot of them with one hit."

     Nessarose frowned. She had never taken the time required to become a seraph herself. She promised herself that she would do so at the earliest possible opportunity. "Perhaps you should wear your wings the rest of this mission." she suggested.

     "Thatís a very good idea. I think I will. It seems to save so much time in dealing with these people." Shalmain observed thoughtfully.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     A few hours later they entered the next village with the women and children from the last. The villagers there were at first fearful of the approach of a seraph, yet soon the children of the village, seeing him with the children from the other village, came forth and stared in wonder.

     Moments later, the village leader approached and they delivered their warning. Tersha's visual presentation of the doomed village left the man pale and shaken. This leader was more sensible than the elders of the last village had been. He immediately ordered the village abandoned and agreed to take the women and children the trio had been escorting with his people.


Chapter 32.

 

     The Scout Anpu Sandstorm lay concealed among some brush near the edge of one of the escarpments. He had been there for two hours when he saw a large war party leave the fortress and head for the mouth of the valley. He quickly did a count of the men in that war party and sent a message to Brimstone that a group of one hundred-fifty warriors were in the process of leaving the fortress. He was asked to shadow the war party and give a warning if they appeared to be coming near the Companion's base camp. He readily agreed to do so and Brimstone sternly told him to take no chances and to be very careful.

     Anpu understood Brimstone's concern. It was late in the evening of the day before they were supposed to begin their rescue attempt. He assured Brimstone that he would be exceedingly cautious, as he had no desire to miss the coming conflict.

     Anpu's study of the habits of the patrols had paid off in many ways. He now knew approximately how long it would take the group of men to reach a spot near one of the places he had selected as an ideal hide. A hide is a ranger term for a place to remain concealed from the enemy. From some hides you can still see and hear the enemy. From some you can neither see nor hear them but they cannot detect you either. The one that interested him at the moment was one of the former. From there he might possibly be able to overhear something useful.

     Anpu moved with practiced stealth from that location to his hide. Ten minutes later the first of the soldiers walked into view. Five minutes after that, they began to march past his location. Within two minutes of that he had learned what these men were planning. Several of the soldiers were speaking of a raid. They were being sent to raid the village of the people that had helped the Companions get to the riverís end. He reported this to Brimstone along with the fact that they appeared to be carrying food and supplies with them for a mission of some few days.

     Brimstone told Anpu to shadow them but reminded him to use all caution. He turned to the Companions and related what was transpiring. Their attack on the base was scheduled for the next day. Since the party wouldn't be expected back for a few days it was reasonable to assume that they could deal with the threat to the villagers and not risk exposing their presence prior to the time of the attack on the fortress provided they could get them all and permit none to escape and sound a warning.

     Ever since his encounter with the villagers, Brimstone had given thought to the best means of dealing with the patrol of raiders. The villagers had said they always came by boat. But the Companions had seen no boats as they had landed. Brimstone had been sure the boats had to be concealed near the river and logic dictated they would be on this side of the river. Two days ago Anpu had located those boats. The Companions hastily left their camp and headed for the location that they had selected for an ambush, should the opportunity arise. They would be able to get there well ahead of the approaching group of soldiers.

     Their plan was simple. Get downriver from where the men would launch their boats and wait until the enemy arrived at their location. Then they would spring their surprise attack. Brimstone estimated that they would just barely make it to the selected spot where arrangements had already been made for just such an eventuality. It had given them something to do for a few hours the day Anpu found the boats.

     They got into their positions some few minutes before Anpu notified Brimstone that the men were boarding their boats. Brimstone had instructed him to observe them and make sure that all boarded the boats. If a few decided to return to the fortress for some reason then they couldn't attack the boats for the noise was bound to reach the boat landing area and thus jeopardize their primary mission.

     A short while later Anpu reported that the boats were heading in their direction and he was running to join the Companions. He further indicated that all of the men had boarded the boats. Brimstone didn't bother to tell Anpu to stay out of sight. Such stealth was part of who he was.

     The Companions settled down to wait for the arrival of the boats. Jedi offered to bet Lord Malachi that Anpu would reach them before the boats arrived but Lord Malachi shook his head and said, "I'd not be so foolish as to bet against Anpu."

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Onboard the boats the soldiers were roughly joking about the beatings that they would administer to the villagers and what they would do to the women of the village when they entered the gorge. Here the sides of the canyon rose steeply to either side of them and a strong wind flowed through it traveling in their direction. The gorge wasn't a long one. Already they could see the other end of it. They were still laughing and joking when the lead boat in their small flotilla of boats slammed to a halt at the exit of the gorge. Soon all of their boats were packed up and jammed together at the exit to the gorge. Then the attack began.

     The Companion's trap was simple. They had strung a stout rope across the channel just beneath the water level. Ziona had fired four arrows with cords attached to them across the channel and Brimstone had teleported himself across the river at this narrow but deep exit to the gorge. He had then pulled the ropes which were tied to the cords across the channel and secured them on that side of the river. The first rope trapped the lead two boats which was the signal for the warriors to pull the other three ropes out of the water where they had been concealed. By the time the men in the lead boat had cut the first rope to free their small vessels the other three were blocking their exit.

     By now the rest of the flotilla was also jammed against the simple but effective barriers. Men from the boats tried to cut the rope barriers but suddenly arrows from LenapeSue, Yane, Anpu, Dark Arrows, and Ziona began to strike the warriors attempting to free the boats and they fell into the water. Then the attack spells began to strike them. It was a slaughter. Many of the Companions felt sick at heart for the men aboard the boats had no real chance of surviving or fighting back effectively. Most died without even seeing their attackers as the spells and arrows slammed into them. But the villagers would be safe for the moment.

     The warriors untied the ropes that had been blocking the boats and walked downstream with them, paying out more line as they went. This permitted the boats to drift with the current in the direction of the bank of the river that the Companions occupied. It was a somber group of Companions who pulled the bodies from the charred and battered remains of the boats. They were placed in a pile and Brimstone cremated their remains with a fire spell that was so hot it was smokeless. But before they were cremated, Lord Fatman stripped the uniform from one of the men who was his size. He had a need for the uniform. He had volunteered to enter the fortress with the Minotaur Caval that night.

     Anpu had every right to be proud of his work. He had made this all possible. He was glad the villagers would be spared, but like the rest of the Companions, he felt somber about the way they had accomplished the annihilation of the raiders.


Chapter 33.

 

     Zadykiel entered the village with his forces and was greeted by the five elders who had remained there. The elders reported what had happened at the village and pledged their loyalty to the forces of Dalghard.

     Speaking on behalf of the god, Zadykiel then asked them what value their loyalty held when they had let the villagers leave after being told to hold them there until he arrived.  The five old men didn't notice the ring of fifteen men slowly drawing closer around them. "If you are truly loyal then the least that you can do is feed my men." Zadykiel said with a smile.

     Encouraged that there was something that they could do the village elders offered to lead them to supplies of food. "That won't be necessary." Zadykiel had replied. "The food they need is inside your bodies."

     Belated comprehension shown in the eyes of the elders then as for the first time they noted the tightening ring of men gathered about them. Their screams of terror and agony filled the night air for a while but ended all too soon to suit Zadykiel.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Nessarose, Tersha, and Shalmain exited the last village of the fifteen they had been sent to warn. They stopped outside the village and discussed what they should do next. Brimstone had warned them against sending mental messages over long distances because of the possibility that Zadykiel might be able to overhear such if they were near him. They wisely decided this would still apply and Shalmain used a scroll while Tersha and Nessa used their Word of Recall spells to return to Paradise Cove.

     Once in the city Shalmain contacted Brimstone and reported that the mission had been accomplished. He asked if Brimstone could teleport them to his location so the three could join them there. Moments later, they arrived at the camp in the secluded grove.

     The Companions somber mood which the events on the river had induced was greatly alleviated by the arrival of the trio who had undertaken such a difficult mission alone. For hours they swapped tales of the adventures the two parties had experienced since their separation. Many were fascinated by Shalmain's explanation of what had happened when he had permitted the men of the village to see his wings.

     "Yes I suppose we do tend to take our seraph status for granted." replied Lord Malachi.

     "Well, I need wings." said Nessarose quite seriously.

     "When this mission is over I'll help you seraph if you like Nessa." Lord Malachi volunteered.

     "I have seen the effect that seraphs have on the people in the remote areas of Sic Dalar. I think that might be a good idea." replied Nessa.

     "You do know that after the rebirth you will lose all skills and spells, don't you?" he inquired.

     Nodding gravely Nessarose said, "Yes. Shalmain explained all that in great detail one night as we rested between villages in a small cave Tersha had found. I know it will require a lot of work for me to achieve the goal but I think it is something I would really like to do."

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Two hours later Brimstone stood when Lord Fatman entered the circle of Companions wearing the uniform of the army of Dalghard. "I'm ready whenever you are." Lord Fatman said with a grim expression on his face.

     "You are sure about this? If you get in trouble in there you'll have to use Word of Recall to escape. There is no way we will be able to assist you."

     Nodding his head Lord Fatman replied, "Yes I am sure. These are the followers of my God and I have a responsibility to help them. I can help those inside escape the stockade when the moment comes." He didn't add that in some ways he was uniquely qualified for this mission. The spirit of Dalghard had influenced him once and he knew all too well how to emulate their behavior and mannerisms.

     Caval indicated that he was also ready and eager to go and do his part in this nightís work.


Chapter 34.

 

     Brimstone teleported Caval inside the wooden enclosure that contained the Minotaurs and a moment later Lord Fatman appeared inside the fortress in a darkened corner of the grounds. For both these Companions a very long night was just beginning.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Damia met with the volunteers in Stoneheim tavern. Cyric the warrior was there with his Vampire axe. Cyris, the twin of Cyric, was there as well. Cyris was a mage who specialized in dark and fire spells. Asmodee the dark mage was there as well. His drain spells and fire spells were potent. Kwenchi Kao was an extremely powerful mage who specialized in the element of water. Flood was his preferred attack spell. Silver Fang was a strong mage who specialized in earth spells. Being recently seraphed himself, Silver Fang's earth spells were not yet complete, but the spells he did posses were quite strong.

     Damia thanked the five for coming to meet her and volunteering to assist. "Be prepared to leave on a momentís notice." she advised. "It will be very dangerous. When you are teleported have your weapons or spells to hand for it is possible that you will be attacked the moment you appear at the location. Naturally we will try to avoid that if at all possible. But the possibility does exist."

     Cyric smiled and said, "Then my brother and I will need to go and get supplies. How long before we are to be summoned?" he asked.

     "It will be tomorrow probably very near high sun. The exact time depends upon three elements which I cannot discuss. But I would say high sun, give or take an hour at most." Damia replied.

     Asmodee said, "Then I think I'll join the twins on that trip to the shop." He planned to pick up mana only, for his dark spell Drain would supply all the health he needed.

Seeing that thought in his mind Damia replied to his unvoiced opinion, "I would rethink that Asmodee. Your drain spell hits only one enemy at a time. That would be fine against a handful of enemies but where you are going there are thousands."

     "Thousands you say?" he responded. "Then I suppose I had better rethink my supplies at that. If that many are attacking I may need a few heal potions so I can use my fire spells to attack several at once. Thank you for the information." he finished.

     Kwenchi Kao said, "I have several potions of regeneration stored. I will get those and mana for the trip. Can you tell us where we are going?"

     Shaking her head Damia said, "Zadykiel has established a spy network. We don't know where all of those spy's are located. Therefore it is best not to know until you arrive."

     "What we don't know cannot be overheard when we think we are alone. I understand Goddess." replied Kwenchi Kao.

     "Thank you for understanding. It is not a lack of trust. Truly, that is not an issue. For all we know the spies can pick information right out of the minds of their targets. Indeed I have reason to suspect that at least one can do so. If one can, then it is reasonable to be cautious, for others could as well."

     "I agree." stated Cyris. "And what we do not know we cannot reveal. There is wisdom in waiting until we arrive to learn our destination. It is enough that you have warned us of the odds we may face and to be prepared to fight the moment we arrive."


Chapter 35.

 

     Caval located the leaders of the enslaved Minotaurs by traveling to the center of the stockade. He knew they would most likely be there so they could observe the entire population of Minotaurs. He introduced himself to the guards who stepped up to block his path and asked to speak to the leaders. When the guards demanded to know what he wanted he said, "I am sorry but that is for the Leaders to tell you or not at their whim. I must report to the leaders and let them decide who they will inform."

     Nodding his head the lead guard said, "It had better be important."

     "Oh, it is very important." Caval stated.

     The guard snorted then as if he heard that every day, which he probably did. Turning to the group of Minotaurs in the center of the clearing he approached them and relayed the news that a Minotaur wished to address them. Moments later, he returned shaking his head and said, "Try again tomorrow night. They are busy now and will be the rest of the night."

     Caval grew angry at this point. So many were going to be facing death tomorrow to help these Minotaurs and he couldn't even get them to meet with him. Standing there facing the guards he said, "Inform them that they are refusing to meet with a messenger of the gods. In Shinobi's name, I call upon them and it is their responsibility to hear my words." Glaring at the guards he said unto them what Lord Fatman had once said to him. "If you can hear Shinobi, then ask her yourself."

     This questioning of their faith and obedience to their god angered the Minotaur guards. The spokesman said, "Aye, I will ask my god. For your sake, you had better be known to her." Then the guard's eyes glazed over for a moment. He was communing with his goddess. The exchange took so long that Caval began to become concerned. At the end of the communion the lead Guard shocked all present when he knelt before Caval and bowed his head.

     Then it was that Shinobi addressed the Minotaurs imprisoned in the stockade personally. Only the Minotaurs could hear her voice, for she would not have the men guarding her followers hear and understand her. She spoke loudly when she said, "Hear me my faithful followers. My chosen Warrior is among you. He has been sent by the gods with our words for you to hear. Delay him further at your own peril and my displeasure. The hour of your freedom is approaching. Do not anger him for he is not known for his patience, nor am I."

     Caval was among the first of the Minotaurs to hit his knees when Shinobi addressed her followers. Soon every Minotaur present was also on their knees as a token of their respect for their Goddess. The guards outside the stockade saw this, but the customs of the Minotaurs were strange to them. They put it down to another of those inexplicable customs.

     Moments later, Caval rose to his feet and was led to the leaders by the now contrite guards. He explained in detail what was going to be happening the next day and what their part in all of it would be. He pointed out that the Companions were here and would strike the moment the rescue ships were about to appear. The Minotaurs must get free of the stockade and make for the front gate amidst all of the chaos that their friends combined attacks would bring about. Once the wall was breached they must be ready to escape through that hole. He did not neglect to warn them that the edges of the hole would still be very hot and take care going through.

     Caval went on to explain that the Companions would have their warriors and, if possible, some of their archers as well, stationed at the mouth of the valley and that they were to make their way to them. He also pointed out that it was possible large patrols of the human warriors of the fortress would be attempting to break out of the valley at the same time to counter attack the Companions. He explained that a very dense fog would, in all probability, be present as they made their way to safety. He finished by stating that the Minotaurs must run to the mouth of the valley and then on to the beaches and freedom. "We cannot stop to fight every man that challenges us lest we all be recaptured."

     For their part the leaders discussed the normal routine of the Minotaurs in the stockade. By night they were locked up inside the stockade but at first light the men would come for them and escort them to the places where they would work that day. They were marched back to the stockade about one hour before high sun to have their midday meal. They were fed twice a day and those feeding times were midday and just after dark.

     Security was very tight on the Minotaurs. While they were out working on the walls a squad of soldiers delivered their food in large pots inside the stockade. This arrangement kept the less capable fighting men who served as cooks away from the prisoners. They found bowls and spoons waiting beside the food pots when they entered. These had to be returned before the humans opened the door to the stockade again. There was a slot that slid aside at the bottom of the gate. The Minotaurs yelled they were ready to return the spoons and bowls and the slot was opened. The Minotaurs then pushed the bowls and spoons through the slot. Those bowls and spoons were meticulously counted. If even one was missing there was a recount. If the count was still off, heavily armed squads of the soldiers then entered the stockade and the beatings began until the thief gave over the spoon or bowl.

     "Are the squads of guards just outside waiting at each meal or are they summoned if the count is off." Caval asked

     "They are summoned. It is a rare thing for one of us to make that stupid mistake. Usually it is a new arrival who has not yet been warned. We do try to warn all, but sometimes we may miss one or be ignored." the Minotaur shrugged as if to say, "You know how Minotaurs are."

     "And the food pots?" asked Caval.

     "Picked up when the feeding squad returns with the next meal."

     "Well let us hope that the fleet arrives just as we are exiting this stockade after the meal then." Caval said, "If it comes during the feeding it is unlikely the soldiers would remove us from the stockade."

     Caval sent a message to Brimstone explaining the situation with the meals. He also bespoke Lord Fatman who promised to do what he could to assist them when the time came.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Lord Fatman walked the fortress grounds examining everything with a practiced eye. He was beginning to relive his time under the sway of Dalghard's spirit and that made him uncomfortable. The casual cruelty he beheld in the soldiers of Dalghard reminded him all too well of his own behavior during that period of his life. But those past experiences gave him a pool of knowledge to work with. He felt it important that he be here for this escape.

     He had already made a careful survey of the guard positions and realized that at any given time a full fifty guards surrounded the wall. But the guards were all warriors. There were no bows among them. That was a blessing. The archers at the Bastions would be the only archers that need concern them for now.

     As he walked about surveying the fortress he from time to time met officers who barely spared him a glance as he acted as if he were hurrying on some errand. Late that night he found a darkened place amongst the stones that the Minotaurs cut from the escarpment to place on the walls. He considered it unlikely that any patrols would venture there as it was very dark and from Anpu's reports the guards usually avoided that area. When he accidentally slammed his shin into a stone block he hadn't seen in time to avoid he silently cursed to himself and swore that the next time he had to infiltrate a fortress he was going to take along a ring of light. He dare not cast the spell for the explosion of light would contrast to the stygian darkness of his surroundings so much that even a blind guard would spot it and he'd find it hard to explain his presence.

     He lay down to sleep a while at high moon. He would awake with the first light of the new day.


Chapter 36.

 

     Tersha came to Brimstone late in the night. He was awake going over his battle plans in his mind as he sat with his back to a tree looking out into the night. Scenting the air Tersha knew no one was near them so she sat on her haunches facing Brimstone and said, ďWe have a problem."

     "We do? Please tell me the nature of the problem and we will find a solution." replied Brimstone.

     ďZadykiel is aware of your plan. He is also aware that we are here and the entire list of people who are here." Tersha explained.

     "Is Dalghard telling him these things?" Brimstone inquired.

     "No, Brimstone, though he may hear things from that one as well. But we have a spy among us. I just detected her sending some information to Zadykiel."

     "Who is the spy among us?" asked Brimstone stunned that they had a traitor among them.

     "Before I reveal that information to you there is something else that you need to know." stated Tersha.

     "And that is?" asked Brimstone who was somewhat irritated that she hadn't answered his question straightforwardly.

     "She doesn't know it."

     "What?!" he asked. "How is that possible?"

     "She sends the messages in her sleep. She has been tampered with by Zadykiel."

     "Mersha?" asked Brimstone incredulously.

     "I'm afraid it is so, yes, though as I said she is unaware of it."

     "Can she be helped to free her from that tampering?" he asked genuinely concerned for he liked the Torlag.

     "Yes, my people have ways but it is a very slow process. But that isn't the biggest problem." she stated matter-of-factly, and then she continued. "He told her that when she awakens she is to kill the first Companion that she sees and then she is to run and leap off of the escarpment."

     Stunned Brimstone asked, "Can you keep her asleep?"

     "No, nor would I if I could, Brimstone. That goes against everything we Torlags believe in. To use one's mind to subdue another is a crime amongst our people. It has to be, otherwise think of the abuse with which we could plague our neighbors."

     "I see your point, but that leaves our options very limited. But I know a way to handle it. Please wait here. Your presence may confuse the issue when we act. Don't worry, we won't harm her."

     Brimstone went to the mages quietly alerting them to the situation. They formed a ring around Mersha when they found her and Brimstone woke her when he spoke her name. Immediately, Mersha leapt to her feet taking an aggressive stance as if she were about to attack Brimstone. The mages used their spells then and entangled her nonstop, as per Brimstone's instructions. Moments later, Mersha's instructions having been seemingly acted upon, she returned to normal.

     Mersha stood still then and stopped her wild thrashing and struggling. "Hold the spells a moment." Brimstone said. The mages Fawnn, Mystyka, XconX, and Shalmain held their spells but stood ready to cast them again at the slightest sign that Mersha was attempting to attack one of the Companions or leap for the edge of the escarpment.

     "I'm sorry, Brimstone, I don't know what came over me." Mersha apologized.

     "Zadykiel tampered with you." responded Brimstone. ďHe had you sending him reports about our activities when you were asleep. Tersha intercepted one of your communications to him."

     Mersha hung her head then. "I am so sorry, friends. I had no idea that this was happening." she said in sorrow.

     "We know it was not your fault." Brimstone replied. "No one here holds you responsible." he assured her. Many of the Companions present nodded their agreement.

He then called Tersha to him. Addressing her he said, "Please contact your mother. If it is possible to do so, then do it in such a manner that Zadykiel cannot hear you. Ask her to prepare to receive Mersha and inform her of the tampering and subsequent events of this night. Tell her the Companions bear her no ill will, but under the circumstances she should be with your Torlag healers. For all we know Zadykiel may be able to follow up on his attempt to use her to slay others or harm herself."

     "Of course, Brimstone. I understand completely. I think that I can send it in such a way that no human could receive it or understand it if they did."

     She stood immobile for a few minutes and then she turned to Brimstone and said, "Versha wishes to apologize to the Companions for this incident and assures you that Mersha will be healed by our healers before she is permitted outside the Torlag home den again. She has guards with her as a precaution and requests that you send Mersha to her location."

     Brimstone said, "Please tell her that I will be glad to do so and to please keep me informed as to Mersha's condition. I think I speak for us all when I say that we have grown rather fond of her."

     Tersha passed on Brimstone's message and said, "They are ready to receive you now, Mersha. Be well, friend."

     "Thank you all, and again, I am so sorry." Mersha said sadly.

     The Companions all said their goodbyes. Anpu particularly felt for Mersha. They had worked together extensively and established a relationship of mutual admiration based upon their appreciation of each otherís skill in the woods. He knelt beside her and said, "May I hug you, friend?"

     Mersha mewed then. The Torlag equivalent of crying as they had learned in the Gargoyle caves far to the east. She said, "I thank you for being kind to a traitor for I have betrayed you all even though I knew not what I was doing."

     Anpu hugged her, "Traitor is the wrong word my friend. You were being used as a puppet without your consent. To be a traitor you have to give that consent. I will take issue with any who names you traitor. That includes you, Mersha." He smiled at her then to let her know his regard for her was still high. He hugged her once more and then stepped back away from her so Brimstone could teleport her to the safety of her people. "Fare thee well, my friend." he said.

     "Fare thee well, Anpu Sandstorm." she said in parting. "Good luck to you all." A moment later, she disappeared.


Chapter 37.

 

     The next morning, Caval and the rest of the Minotaurs were taken to work on the wall. Caval got his first taste of the whips of their overseers then. He bore the punishment stoically. If his brothers here for months could tolerate it and not lose control then he would do so for the few hours required.

     As he worked on the wall a Minotaur beside him said, "Stop that. You are using too much mortar between the stones. Here let me show you how to do this properly. Standard beat." the Minotaur said and applied a thin layer of mortar just around the edges of the stone. He quickly lifted the next stone into place and tamped it down to conceal the inferior work. "Rapid beat." he added and then properly placed the next stone.

     Caval carefully began to watch the Minotaurs working on the wall and noted that many were using less than enough mortar to properly build the wall. He also noted that when the guards began to make their way down the line of working Minotaurs there was a difference in the tempo of the tamping of the stones. He almost laughed when he realized what was happening. Some clever Minotaur had devised a plan. They were sabotaging the wall right under the noses of the guards. They were using the rowing beat. A slow and steady tamping was used for using less than enough mortar. A rapid battle beat for when the guards approached. Thus warned the Minotaurs down the line would then use the correct amount of mortar until the guards doing their inspection tours had passed well beyond their positions.

     The entire wall wouldn't be weak, but most of it would be. A few good hits with the catapults placed on the wall would bring entire sections of the wall crashing down. Shinobi bless them, his people had found a way to passively resist the enemy who had enslaved them and at the same time help bring about their eventual defeat.

     At about one hour before high sun, just as expected, the guards took the Minotaurs back to their stockade for feeding. Alone inside the stockade many had to be told to eat. There was an air of growing excitement and the leaders had to send word to all to maintain their discipline lest the calves give them all away to the guards. The orders were to do everything exactly as they had every other day they had been in the stockade until the allies launched their attack.

     The Minotaurs settled down then. But soon their hot blood would race again and when that time came there would be no reining them in.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Lord Fatman was watching when the Minotaurs shoved their spoons and bowls through the slit in the gate. Five minutes later the count was complete and it was verified that all of the eating utensils had been returned.

     The gates opened and the Minotaurs began their march back to the wall where they were working today. Shadowing their guards Lord Fatman kept pace with them. He carried his own Frost Bane sword sheathed and in his hand he carried Caval's great battle axe. Soon the time would come for them to make their move.

     Brimstone bespoke Lord Fatman at that moment and said, "The ships are off the coast and heading in. It is time. In one minute we strike."

     Lord Fatman replied, "I am ready."

     At that precise moment an approaching officer noted his presence and said, "You there. What are you doing here?"

     Lord Fatman turned to face the officer who was striding rapidly in his direction with an angry expression on his face.

     "Well!?!" the officer demanded. "Don't just stand there, answer me man." the furious officer continued.

     With a firm grip on the handle of the battle axe Lord Fatman prepared to kill the man, but at that precise moment the first of the magic attacks on the bastions began. The officer spun his head, wide eyed as the combined magical attacks of some of the strongest mages on Althea slammed into the two bastions located on the front gate, wrecking havoc with the crews that manned the catapults there. The officer sprinted off forgetting the stubborn warrior who refused to tell him why he wasn't with his unit.

     Moments later, the other two bastions located on the front of the fortress proper began to receive a barrage of spells as well.

     Lord Fatman had bespoken Caval earlier and they had arranged for Caval to be at the end of the line as he mounted the stairs to climb to the top of the wall to work. When the attack began Caval vaulted the rail of the steps and dropped the ten feet to the ground. Lord Fatman was beside him a few heartbeats later saying, "Here Caval, take this heavy weapon of yours. I have been carrying it long enough."

     Immediately the fifty guards moved to surround the pair and contain them but before a battle could begin, Minotaurs began raining down around them. The Minotaurs attacked the guards with the full fury of their vengeance. Many of the Minotaurs came down head first using their natural weapons against an enemy who had enslaved and tormented them. Within two minutes, all fifty of the guards were dead or dying, as were three Minotaurs. But they had died well. "Certainly a more fitting death than being impaled," remarked their leader.

     All over the fortress bedlam was the rule as magical attacks were joined by a massive bombardment of rocks that had been hurled at the fortress from the sea. The Minotaur fleet had arrived.

     "Remember the plan!" Caval yelled. "Head for the front wall!" Caval and Lord Fatman led the charge for the wall. They were followed by nearly three hundred Minotaurs, fifty of them now armed with weapons seized from the dead enemy.


Chapter 38.

 

     Anpu, Ziona, Yane, LenapeSue, Dark Arrows, and Nessarose waited for the mages to open the attack as agreed. The moment the mages began their attack the six archers of the company stepped to the edge of the escarpment and began firing at the crews who manned the catapults behind the fortress. It had been agreed upon that the best arrows for that duty would be flaming arrows. It was their plan to shoot each of the two giant catapults as many times as necessary to get them burning well and stop the crews from manning them to attack the Minotaur fleet.

     They fired their bows as rapidly as they could but the catapults seemed to be fire resistant to some degree. "Target the ropes that work the mechanism!" shouted Ziona who realized they were running out of time as crews rushed toward the catapults, pointing angrily at the archers as they did so. The archersí arrows had better affect when they concentrated on the ropes and soon those parts of the catapults were merrily ablaze. The heat from these fires seemed to defeat the fire resistance as well for soon the catapults were burning in multiple places and the ropes were a total loss.

     Archers were sprinting onto the scene behind the fortress and they fired their arrows from bows which were weaker than the bows of the seraph Companions and had to travel almost straight up to reach their intended targets. Few of the arrows were even capable of reaching the top of the escarpment and those that did so missed the Companions. The rest of the arrows stalled in flight as they went up and started to fall back down to the ground. As they dropped the air pushing against their feathers made them flip in flight and soon they were coming down with the business end of the arrows pointed toward the archers. Nessarose laughed at the sight of the archers dodging their own arrows and as one the Companions fired their own bows. Their arrows hit the ground just inches from the feet of six startled archers and the group of archers left the field of battle.

     As they ran toward their fortress one of the archers paused and turned to salute the team at the top of the escarpment. It was not lost to him that they could easily have killed some of his men. He was grateful that they had been chivalrous enough to make their point bloodlessly.

     "It's time to move to the mouth of the valley." stated Anpu. "Brimstone says our bows are needed there if the mission here has been accomplished. I told him it had been." He led the way as he had meticulously studied the routes and knew the fastest way to get there while avoiding being sighted by the men in the fortress below.


Chapter 39.

 

     The mages were split into two groups. One took the north escarpment and the other took the south escarpment. They were situated about halfway between the front wall of the fortress and the mouth of the valley.

     Group one consisted of Brimstone, Veksar, Psychost, Lady Sparks, and Fawnn. This group took the north escarpment.

     Group two consisted of XconX, Mystyka, Lady Ru, Pierrot, and Shalmain. This group would take the south escarpment.

     Actually it made little difference which escarpment from which the mages fought. They could easily have hit the targets from either side. The reasons for splitting the attacking mages into two groups were tactical. Brimstone hoped that by seeming to be attacked from all directions at once the commanders might issue conflicting orders during the critical opening moments of the confrontation. Also, by splitting the defendersí counterattack into multiple directions, they by necessity weakened it. The final reason was to make the attack as chaotic as possible in the hopes that during the added confusion the Minotaurs would be able to make good their escape.

     The catapults were the primary targets of the mages. Following that were the archers who would be a deadly threat to the fleeing Minotaurs.

     Brimstone signaled Lord Fatman that the attack was about to begin and opened the assault with a blast of his Pillar of fire spell at the lead catapult on the north gate bastion. The catapult literally burst into flames when the deadly beam struck it.

     Seconds later the south gate bastion catapult took a serious hit when XconX and Mystyka both added their earth shattering spells to the mix and soon the catapult there was disabled.

     Then the Companions saw the first of the rocks come sailing in at the fortress. The Minotaur war fleet was now within range but they were firing blind with no way to really judge where they should place their loads beyond a general area. Brimstone asked Fawnn to communicate with the Minotaur fleet commander and help direct their fire. Somehow Fawnn must have managed that task because soon the rocks from the catapults were slamming into the fortress proper which slowed the exits of the men who had been charging from it.

     The Companions Veksar, Psychost, Lady Sparks, and Fawnn waited for Brimstone to attack the first catapult and then they opened fire on the north fortress bastion catapult. Veksar, Psychost, and Lady Sparks used the spell Meteor while Fawnn used her earth shattering spell to break up the catapult the fire mages were weakening with their element.

     Brimstone's Pillar of fire spell then slammed into the remaining fortress south bastion catapult in a quick pulse that set it ablaze and he took a moment to signal all the mages that the archers were beginning to arrive and to concentrate on eliminating that threat while he opened the wall and created the fog.

     XconX and Mystyka both used their earth shattering spells on the last catapult that Brimstone had set ablaze and completely destroyed it, then shifted their attack to the archers who were pouring out onto the bastions.

     Now the mages, who hadn't been able to help disable the catapults because they lacked a spell to attack inanimate objects, were able to do their parts in the conflict. Lady Ru, Pierrot, and Shalmain added their spell power to that of Mystyka and XconX and soon the two south bastions were a hellish nightmare for the archers attempting to retaliate. "Withdraw damn you!" shouted Shalmain who was sick of the carnage. Nevertheless, he continued to attack the archers because if he did not then they would slaughter the Minotaurs when they made their run for freedom.

     Brimstone focused his power and launched his Pillar of Fire spell at the wall just north of the front gate. He was shocked when a large section of the wall seemed to crumble immediately. A large gapping hole was opened in the front wall. He asked Fawnn to redirect the Minotaurs targeting toward that wall as soon as she saw the Minotaurs pass it.

The Minotaurs wasted no time in making their break for freedom. Two minutes after the wall section collapsed under the assault of Brimstone's spell, they were pouring through the hole in the wall and running all out for freedom.

     Fawnn waited until she was certain the Minotaurs were out of the danger zone and then she redirected the fire of the Minotaur fleet. Moments later, a massive salvo of rocks came hurtling into the front wall of the fortress and there were breaks in dozens of places.

Then the front gate opened and what must have been two thousand enemy soldiers came rushing forth to do battle with the attackers. Brimstone decided it was time to make the fog. Pointing his hands at the crystal clear lake near the mouth of the valley his pillar of fire spell lanced into it causing the water to boil and great volumes of steam to erupted from it as hundreds of gallons of water were instantly converted to steam.

     Brimstone thought he had made enough fog and stopped his spell but the superheated water continued to generate a fog that was growing thicker and thicker. Alarmed he hoped that it stopped soon or the visibility down there would become a serious problem not only for Dalghardís forces but for their own as well.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Lord Fatman and Caval ran near the rear of the Minotaurs with the fifty armed escapees. They were the buffer between the unarmed Minotaurs and the forces of Dalghard within the fortress. But already they were halfway to the mouth of the valley and some of the unarmed former prisoners were quite near it.

     Lord Fatman saw the Pillar of Fire spell lance down into the lake and the great fog that began to develop. He urged the Minotaurs on to greater speed as he saw the fog beginning to obscure the mouth of the valley and then it seemed to rush toward them, like a thing alive. He realized it was the wind from the sea pushing it inward to fill the bowl shaped valley.


Chapter 40.

 

     Anpu led the archers unerringly to the mouth of the valley without incident. They formed up behind the Warriors waiting there. Turning to take a quick look at the Minotaur fleet, he saw dozens of ships staying just offshore and firing their catapults like mad. He turned back to face the fortress just as Brimstone's Pillar of fire spell lanced into the lake and great plumes of steam arose from it to form a billowy fog that drifted slightly south and then was pushed into the valley by the sea breeze at his back.

Two minutes later, the Minotaurs began to arrive and run through the opening left by the defenders. Three minutes beyond that the last of the Minotaurs came staggering in out of the now impenetrable fogbank.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     The Minotaur fleet stopped firing and began to head for shore to pick up the stranded prisoners.

     Brimstone ordered the mages to withdraw to the mouth of the valley as the ships were heading to shore and it was now or never for them.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     The warriors were fighting a desperate battle down at the mouth of the valley. The soldiers of Dalghard had made good use of the concealing fog and disbursed so that random areas attacks from the mages on the escarpment had missed most of them. They had reformed near the lake and marched on the Companions attempting to hold the mouth of the valley during the critical moments needed for the Minotaurs to pick up the prisoners.

     Jedi fought near Lord Malachi at the very edge of the fog that still seemed to be forming inside the basin. One after another the two warriors engaged and defeated the enemy as they emerged from that fog. To their left and right stood Lord Fatman, Caval, MetalHead, Genkaku, and the armed Minotaurs. Such was the press of the enemy that they were about to be overrun but at that critical moment Brimstone opened a portal behind them and out rushed five men.

     Lord Malachi saw that one of the new arrivals was an axe man and smiled as Cyric took his position in the line holding Dalghard's men at bay. The rest were mages and lined up next to the archers already present who were firing arrows rapidly into the fog just over the heads of the warriors attempting to hold the mouth of the valley.

     As one the mages Cyris, Asmodee, Kwenchi Kao, and Silver Fang raised their hands. They aimed above the warriors heads and launched a salvo of attack spells into the fog. The spells missed the first few dozen of the enemy but slammed into the main body packed near the mouth of the valley. Meteor, Flood, and Boulder spells lanced out with deadly effect, slamming into the enemy and slaying them by the score.

     Lord Malachi blocked a sword stroke descending toward Jedi's left wrist. Spinning about Jedi struck down the man Lord Malachi had blocked. He turned to thank him for the help and thus it was that he saw the sword lancing out of the fog that pierced Lord Malachi's side. Lord Malachi staggered backwards grievously wounded. For him this battle was over. The sounds of the battle seemed to be growing dim as if he were now a great distance away from the battle and he felt a chill that soon passed. He heard Lord Fatman shouting his name but a moment later he neither heard nor felt anything.

     Caval caught Lord Malachi as he fell. The huge Minotaur scooped his companion up as if he were a child and hurried away from the battle with him to the Gryphon which had just been beached. Able bodied men of the sea reached out eager hands to help and Lord Malachi's body, his arms outstretched, was passed up reverently to the deck of the ship where healers stood ready to assist the wounded. Mystyka, Fawnn, and XconX who were there to treat the wounded stared incredulously at Lord Malachi. The hero of a hundred and more battles lay before them. In tears, Mystyka knelt beside him and gently closed his unseeing eyes.

     Brimstone joined the mage line. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the other mages and opened fire down into the mouth of the valley. His Pillar of Fire spell passed harmlessly over the heads of the warriors fighting so valiantly there in an attempt to gain time for the rest to escape. The spell lanced through the fog vaporizing it immediately and the fog in that area was gone and they could see the enemy packed below. Kwenchi Kao used flood, Veksar, Psychost, Cyris and Asmodee used the Meteor spell. Fawnn, Mystyka, and XconX used their Earth Shattering spells from the deck of the Gryphon. Shalmain, Lady Ru, Lady Sparks Used a combination of Mana Burst, Fireball, and Boulder.

     The archers used everything from fire arrows to entanglement arrows which they used to slow or stop those men attempting to flee the onslaught of the mages.

     Finally sick of the carnage Brimstone called a halt to the attack when the last of the attackers had been dispatched by the warrior line. "Withdraw, Damn you!" He shouted to the men that remained alive inside the bowl near the lake. "You cannot win and you are throwing away the lives of your men." He told the commander of the attacking enemy.

     The Captain gazed at the dead and dying men all about the floor of the valley. He had lost a full one half of his men at the very least. "I thank you for sparing some of us. May we assist our wounded?"

     "Yes, of course, but do it quickly."

     The Captain ordered his men to pick up their wounded and retreated to the fortress.

Turning to face the Minotaurs, Brimstone expected to be greeted with their outraged cries of anger but they too had little stomach for the great slaughter that had been taking place and were satisfied with the punishment that had been inflicted. The fortress proper remained intact but the front wall had been destroyed in the attack and very nearly two thousand men had died in the combined attacks of the allies upon the fortress bastions, the wall, and the men that had sallied forth to do battle with them.


Chapter 41.

 

     Onboard the Gryphon the Companions gathered around Lord Malachi. Nessarose sat beside his body, weeping disconsolately, while Tersha crooned to her in an effort to comfort her.

     Jedi was grief stricken and sat beside his long time friend and sword companion with his head in his hands. He was muttering to himself over and over, "Why didn't you just look out for yourself. If you hadnít worried about me then you'd still be alive."

     Brimstone walked to Lord Malachi and knelt beside him with his hands outstretched over him. But try as he might he could not resurrect his friend. He was a Demi god and not a full God. Some godly powers would never be his.

     Then Lord Fatman boarded the ship and the rest of the Companions stepped aside to give him room. He had once resurrected Pierrot, but he had said that Shinobi had done that and that he was just the instrument used to deliver that power of resurrection. Shinobi could not resurrect Lord Malachi for that would violate the accords and she would forfeit the power to Zadykiel. So it was that Lord Fatman knelt beside Lord Malachi to try to resurrect him but with no assurance whatsoever that he could do so.

     Praying fervently he extended his hands over the body of Lord Malachi and tried very hard to resurrect him. As he communed with his Goddess and tried to resurrect his friend, he relived the many times when, under the influence of Dalghard's spirit, he had abused a poor woman taken captive by pirates and given to him by the Pirate Prince Gryfalcon. As these thoughts entered his mind, he began to doubt his worthiness as a Paladin of Shinobi. That doubt blocked any possibility of his ever succeeding in the resurrection of Lord Malachi. Deep inside his soul a battle was being fought, not just for the life of his friend, but also for his own identity. Was he the man who had so atrociously abused that unfortunate woman or was he the sterling Paladin of Shinobi? Was he a man worthy of such powers and abilities? In the final analysis, he answered himself and the answer was no. He was not worthy.  

     Shinobi appeared on the deck of the Gryphon then standing near Lord Fatman. Caval immediately knelt in respect as did every Minotaur who saw her. Soon other Minotaurs of the fleet saw the rest kneeling and they did the same.

     For once Shinobi paid no heed to her Minotaurs. Her attention was solely on Lord Fatman, her favored Paladin. "Why do you hesitate? Thy friend lies before thee in need of thy assistance."

     Looking up into the eyes of his Goddess he said, "Please, Shinobi. I'm not worthy. You know the truth of my past. You know the wrongs and sins that I am guilty of committing."

     "Aye, my Paladin, and I have forgiven thee for thy offenses although they were many and vexing. Yet, you have not forgiven yourself. Thy friends stand waiting for you to do that which they cannot. Bring back thy friend before it is too late. If you could not do this, if you were truly unworthy, then I would not ask it of you. Yet if you refuse to aid thy friend in need then perhaps that vile man that you speak of is the greater of the two men that you have been. I do not believe that. If I did, then you would never have been granted the powers of a Paladin."

     He looked then into the faces of his friends and saw the hope and expectation there.

Closing his eyes for a moment he thought for the last time of that cruel man who had so abused a frightened woman in the past. In his mind he saw the Paladin Lord Fatman face that twisted evil Lord Fatman and do battle with him. In the end the Paladin vanquished the vile one and he departed for the last time from the presence of Lord Fatman, chosen Paladin of the Goddess Shinobi. He forgave himself at last and found peace.

     Looking once more into the face of his friend Lord Malachi he reached down and grasped his hand folding his fingers around those of Lord Malachi. "Lord Malachi, hero of many battles, return to us and live once more, for thy friends have need of thee. I ask this in the name of your friends and in the name of my Goddess, Shinobi. Live warrior. Live. Arise, and see the faces of thy friends once more for you are sorely needed."

     As Lord Fatman spoke these words his body began to glow with a golden aura which moved out and covered Lord Malachi's body.

     Lord Malachi heard a voice calling to him telling him to arise and that his friends needed him. He opened his eyes to see his friends standing with sad eyes staring down at him. Nessarose was openly weeping and had her head bowed as if in grief. Glancing at his friend Jedi to the left he noted that his friend had also been weeping and was hastily wiping his eyes. He pretended not to notice so as not to embarrass his sword brother of so many battles. Nessa's sobs brought his eyes back to her and he reached up with his left hand and stroked her head. "Here now, Lass. What so ails you as to cause you this grief? Is your mother hurt?"

     A surprised Nessarose then threw herself on Lord Malachi smothering his face with kisses and embarrassing him to no end.

     "I'm fine," said Ziona. ďBut I think I might just kill you," she said then laughed when Lord Malachi protested that it was Nessa doing the kissing and not him.

     "Well done, my Paladin. Rest well for you have earned it." Shinobi said and disappeared.

Lord Fatman, exhausted from the resurrection, slumped down to the deck and slept like a baby. Caval picked him up, gently, and took him inside the main cabin of the Gryphon where he laid him on the floor to sleep out of the sun.

     Lord Malachi attempted to get to his feet and staggered. Nessarose and Jedi caught hold of his shoulders. "Here now, friend, inside the cabin with you and lie down to rest a while. You'll be good as new tomorrow." Jedi said solicitously as they escorted him to the main cabin to sleep near the Paladin.


Chapter 42.

 

     Klevon Blackman, the Commander of the fortress was furious and people were paying the price for that fury. The Captain in charge of guarding the Minotaurs had already been executed as had the chief engineer who had overseen the construction of the walls. For months those two men had been a thorn in his side, having grown pompous in their demands for priorities to be given their needs. Immediately following the defeat of the fortress by the Minotaur fleet and their mage allies the Minotaur sabotage had been discovered.

     The guard Captain was hanged for dereliction of duty in permitting the Minotaurs to accomplish that sabotage under the obviously lax eyes of the guards. Every surviving guard member of that detail was tied to a post and given fifteen lashes for their slothful approach to their work. The Engineer was hanged beside the Guard Captain because he was responsible for verifying that the work of the Minotaurs was adequate. The men assigned as his apprentices received fifteen lashes each just as the surviving guards, for they were with the guards inspecting the work as they made their periodic rounds.

     Now he confronted two more of his Captains in his office with heavily armed guards beside him as a precaution. These two officers were extremely popular with their men. He started with the archer Captain Aspen Longleaf. "Captain, it has been reported to me that you withdrew prematurely in fear of the archers upon the escarpment, thus permitting the destruction of the two main catapults stationed behind the fortress. What do you have to say in your defense?"

     The Captain stared straight into the eyes of his Commander keeping his facial expression neutral. When he answered he spoke in a normal tone of voice and keeping any hint of anger out of his reply, he said, "The report that you received is inaccurate Commander. When we arrived upon the scene the catapults were already engulfed in flames. My men fired a volley of arrows at the archers upon the escarpment. They had to dodge their own arrows when they stalled midway up the escarpment and returned toward our position. The archers upon the escarpment fired a volley of their own inches from the feet of my men. I then ordered the retreat. My men could not touch the archers there, but they could have surely slain my men if we had continued to pursue that hopeless course of action. We covered the retreat of the catapult crews and then withdrew for the battle there was lost before we even arrived."

     Grunting at the reply the Commander said, "So you say the report I have is a lie?" Not waiting for an answer he continued immediately, "I suppose it is also a lie that you stopped and saluted the enemy archers."

     "Oh no that is quite true. I most certainly did."

     "Is it your habit then to salute those that militarily defeat you?"

     "It is my habit to salute an enemy that spares my men from needless slaughter yes. Those archers could have easily killed dozens of us before we were out of range of their bows. They elected not to do so. I was grateful and acknowledged that gratitude."

     "During the battle on the Bastions you also attempted to order the withdrawal of the archers and had to be overruled by me personally. Is this not so?"

     "That is true, yes. I did so to preserve the men who could not fight back effectively against the mages upon the escarpment. They were being slaughtered. Your order countermanding mine cost us a thousand of our archers and a thousand men their lives."

     "You presume to blame me for their deaths?"

     "I presume to tell the truth. You do not win battles, and certainly you can not win wars, when you throw away the lives of the men in your command. Their situation was untenable. They could not touch the enemy yet the enemy was annihilating them."

     "I wanted them there to stop the Minotaurs who were attempting to escape, you fool!" shouted the Commander losing his temper.

     "And yet not one Minotaur was stopped by the archers because they were annihilated by the attacking mages before the Minotaurs made their bid for freedom. That is why I wanted them repositioned to the gate. Had they been there they could have intercepted the fleeing Minotaurs and stopped most if not all of them before they managed to exit the hole in the wall from the relative safety of that area."

     Turning to the Guards present the now furious Commander ordered, "The Captain of the archers is to be taken out, and executed at once. But it must be done discretely; otherwise his men will probably revolt. They admire him for some reason."

     "Commander, you will do as you will, but the men admire me for a very simple reason. I don't throw their lives away. Yes, I've ordered men on missions that cost them their lives and would do so again if they had a hope of success. But I do not throw their lives away on senseless attempts that are doomed to failure."

     Ignoring the archer, the Commander then turned to Captain Marc Trumaine, the commander of the two thousand men sent to counterattack the enemy during the battle. "Captain, your orders were to engage the enemy and destroy them. Instead, you lost half of the men under your command and have nothing, not one dead enemy, to show for it. Do you have anything to say in your defense?"

     The Captain glared at his commander. Unlike the Captain of the archers, this Captain made no secret of his contempt for the Commander. "Oh yes, I have a lot to say." he replied. Then counting off his points on his fingers as he made them he said, "I warned you that we should garrison men at the top of the escarpment two years ago but you overruled me. If we had garrisoned even three hundred men there this attack could not have taken place as it did. I warned you at that same time that we needed an alternative exit to this cul de sac and that it would be a matter of when, and not if, this would cost us in battle. Again you overruled me. What do I have to show for the battle? Half my men live because I withdrew when the enemy offered us the chance. It was impossible to get past the lake, just as I warned you it would be, in sufficient numbers to effectively counterattack the enemy."

     "You dare to blame me for this defeat?!" the now livid Commander exclaimed.

     "I dare to speak the truth, Commander." the man responded in anger that nearly matched that of his commander. "I lost friends out there, Commander! To you they were nothing but numbers. To me they were friends and men I had known since childhood. I've seen such men die before, but never have I seen their lives thrown away as you ordered. I told you before I left the fortress with them that it was insane to throw them against the mages at the cul de sac but you overruled me again for the final time. I resign my position as Captain of the security forces for this base."

     "Do you think your mere resignation will save you from execution?" asked the Commander in fury, his face turning a livid scarlet color.

     "No it won't. But it will get me out your presence a few minutes sooner, and the sight of you sickens me. You are a disgrace to our army. That Dalghard favored you is every bit as big a mystery to me now as it was the day you were first given command of this Fortress. If Dalghard's judgment was that skewed, it is no wonder we lost the war!"

     There were gasps then from the assembled military men of the command. The Captain had gone too far as many saw it. It was one thing to defend one's self to the Commander in stringent terms, but it was quite another to openly doubt Dalghard and criticize him.

     "Take this man with the Captain of the archers. Escort them into the woods north east of here and execute them both immediately." ordered the Commander smugly, knowing full well that not a single officer would dare to protest this action after hearing what the Captain had just said.

     Several of the officers looked at the condemned men sadly but made no effort to speak in their defense, lest they appear to side with the Captain in his opinions about Dalghard.


Chapter 43.

 

     The two officersí hands were bound with rope. One end of that rope would serve as a lead for a guard to hold. They were hooded to conceal their identities and then escorted out of the Commander's office. They were led through the fortress and outside into the light of the late afternoon sky. As the two walked to their deaths they noted many things that might have escaped their attention were they not so attuned to everything around them in the final moments of their lives. As they walked they heard conversations stopping at their approach. In their minds, both could see the men stopping their conversations and following the progress of the prisoners with their eyes.

     It was hot inside the hoods and they soon became disoriented, but both men could tell when they exited the gate and began the walk to the mouth of the valley. Around them they could hear crews of men working together to gather up their dead. These teams of men seldom noticed their passage as they went about their grim duty, occasionally sobbing when they located the body of a friend and spent a little extra time handling the men they had known personally.

     They felt the moisture off the crystal lake, now contaminated by the blood of the warriors who had perished in battle, pressed so close to its shores that they fell in. Here too crews worked as rapidly as possible to fish the men from the lake. This lake supplied their fresh water through an aqueduct which led to a large fountain inside the fortress. Dalghard had created this system the same day he had sealed the stones of the Fortress. It would be days before the water was pure enough to drink safely. Until then it would need to be boiled and even then there was some danger in drinking it.

     They walked in silence for a long time. Soon Aspen the archer knew they were walking near the escarpment for he could feel the breeze that always played around the edges. A fickle breeze, it sometimes seemed to dart this way and that as the combination of heat, humidity, and sunlight acted on it, each according to their own whim. The men of the fortress knew from grim experience that it was dangerous to venture too close to the edge of the north escarpment as the winds there had been known to literally reverse their course and sweep unwary soldiers over the edge.

     Anpu Sandstorm, Ranger of the company that called itself the Companions had several harrowing experiences with this wind along that escarpment and that had played a role in his suggested location for the mages to make their stand. In the area they had selected, the fickle wind was much less pronounced. It was almost as if the wind itself, near the fortress, sought to avoid it and thus this frenzy was added to the chaos of the winds there.

     Soon the hooded men could smell open fields of grass even through their hoods and knew they were now traveling cross country to the grove of woods selected for their execution.  

     All too soon they arrived at that grove of woods. They could tell when they left the sunlight of the fields for the cooler shade of the trees. Moments later, the archer picked up signals being passed back and forth around them. It was the battle signals of the scouts whom he had personally trained. The signals were the mimicked trills of the birds that inhabited this region. Shocked at his discovery he trilled a query. A moment later, keeping to the code, an answer arrived. He trilled one short burst of orders in response then smiled inside his hood when he received the standard response that indicated that his orders were received and understood.

     Three minutes later a voice spoke from the woods. "Hold, Warriors of Dalghard. You are surrounded." There was the sound of an arrow striking the ground near them and the same voice continued. "Do not draw your weapons. You won't be harmed but we will have your prisoners. Return to the fortress and report that you were overpowered by us, and live to see sunset. Enough of our men have died this day. Do not add yourselves to that list needlessly."

     One of the guards near the archer Captain spoke up saying, "The Commander will not believe us. He will assume that we freed the prisoners and have us executed."

     "Then tell him you carried out his orders. We will be leaving and it may be that he never need know the truth. But one thing is certain. We will have the prisoners even if it means slaying all five of you. I would rather not do that."

     One of the guards near the Captain gasped and whispered. "Dozen's of archers!" as men walked from concealment all around the smaller party.

     Captain Longleaf spoke then saying, "You are right to fear him. The Commander is in a murderous mood today. Tell him what you will, but I advise telling him that you executed us and buried our bodies lest our men see what was done."

     There was no real choice to be made. The five man escort was as good as dead if they touched their weapons and they knew it. Wisely, they opted to free the prisoners and report them executed.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     The archers explained that one by one they had slipped out of the fortress when they had learned that the two Captains had been summoned. They couldn't explain why they knew where to go but they had been drawn here to this location. In the chaos of the bodies being recovered outside the fortress and inside as well it had been fairly easy to slip away. Most of the men weren't sparing a lot of their attention for the living at the moment. They were concentrating on the dead.

     "So what do we do now Captain?" asked one of the archers.

     "I have been a military man all my life." he replied. "I prefer that life to any other. Therefore I suggest that we consider the Gryphon Knights if they will have us. If not then we can always form our own band of adventurers."

     This shocked the men. The Commander had forbidden the discussion of the Gryphon Knights. The men had all seen the Bre war broadcast by Damia. Their hearts had raced as they had watched the battles and many had felt a great desire to fight beside these men and women of the Gryphon Knights. As for Captain Marc Trumaine of the fortress security, his eyes took on a dreamy cast at the mere mention of that Order of Knights.

     They moved out immediately and traveled all night long, first east and then south for many hours. Sunrise found them many miles to the south and east of the fortress, and well to the south of the route that Zadykiel's forces were taking to the fortress.


Chapter 44.

 

     In her realm Damia pondered this development with frustration. Seventy-three archers for her Gryphons, and she had never created or altered gear for archers. Now it was too late. By the terms of the Accords she would forfeit the power to Zadykiel if she did so now. Brimstone could not do this, for it was beyond the scope of his abilities. Thinking further, it occurred to her that just as Sic Dalar was behind in advances of magic they were also behind in the advances of weapons and a bow was a weapon. Smiling she carefully and unobtrusively examined the men who sought admission into her Gryphon Knights. She discovered, to her delight, that they were using weak bows, much too weak for their skills. Studying them further, she selected the right bows that would be needed and then left to see Brimstone onboard the Gryphon.

     He readily agreed to summon the bows and quivers she needed and did so. She smiled when he asked her where she wanted them delivered and replied, "You must formally give them to me, Beloved. Then I may do with them as I will for I have not summoned them."

     Brimstone grinned and said, "Damia, please take these bows and quivers as a token of my Love for thee." Then he asked, "Is that good enough?"

     "That is splendid, heart, and yes I accept thy gift on the condition I may use them as I please."

     Grinning wider Brimstone said, "But of course, Love. Do with them as you wish."

     "Now please send them all to Harvest Moon to the Gryphon Knights headquarters there." she replied.

     "Would you mind going to the exact spot you want them delivered to? Then I can just send them to the area right beside you. That's the easiest way for me to do this."

     Kissing her husband goodbye, Damia replied, "Wait for me to tell you when to send the items. I shall make sure there is plenty of open space beside me. I wouldn't want your gifts to appear within a wall."

     Brimstone grew red-faced at that and Damia laughed. "It's all right, Love. No one is perfect, and after that incident you did master the teleporting skill."

During his training he had once teleported a cask of wine inside a wall and delayed his progress a considerable time, for Shinobi and Damia would not hear of him teleporting a person or creature until he had absolutely mastered it.

     Damia disappeared. Moments later, she contacted him giving him the word to send the items. She made plans with Eric Glenfield for the acceptance of the volunteers into the Gryphon Knights and told him to make ready to receive two officers of fine quality. One a brilliant military tactician and Warrior, and the other a fine Archer leader who understood well the best uses of that element in battle. She warned him to heed their advice as their last Commander had not and his loss at the fortress was a direct result of that omission.

     Then a busy Damia went to see these men who were interested in her Order. They were shocked by her arrival. She spoke to them in-depth on the matter and learned much from those discussions. These men had not abused the Minotaurs. Indeed some of them had stopped beatings of the Minotaurs on two occasions when they were in a position to do so. Nor did these men believe in the edicts of Dalghard concerning women. As she had already known, she confirmed that they would rather not be sent against their former fellow soldiers at the fortress because there were many men there whom they admired. But they were more than agreeable to other assignments. Considering Zadykiel's growing army that was acceptable to Damia.

     Damia also learned these men bore the Companions no ill will. In fact they admitted the Companions had spared what men they could during the battle. They might never be friends because the Companions had slain friends of theirs, but they bore them no animosity.

     Damia put that to the test when she called on Brimstone as he had done in the past with her. She spoke to him and said, "Brimstone, I need you." A moment later he appeared beside her.

     "Yes, dear?" he queried.

     She introduced her husband to the men assembled. "We need a portal if you please."

     "To Harvest Moon? The Gryphon Knights headquarters?" he asked.

     "The city square will do. The Knights wouldn't like the sudden appearance of a portal into their headquarters." Damia replied.

     "I should hope not." Marc Trumaine the security officer stated fervently.

     Brimstone recognized the man from the battle and said, "I'm glad you survived. You were a brave officer and fought well at the battle but your position was hopeless in the face of our spells."

     The Captain found himself liking this man despite the fact he had led the Companions on the assault that had cost him so many of his men. "My Commander seemed to think otherwise."

     "Was he on the field facing us?" asked Brimstone smiling.

     Snorting in derision the Captain said, "He was in the fortress polishing his make believe crown."

     Brimstone just smiled at that. The two men understood each other now. Both had contempt for leaders who ordered men to their deaths without sharing that risk.

     "The square it is then." Brimstone said to Damia.

     And so, moments later, a portal opened briefly in Harvest Moon by the square. When the new volunteers had all safely passed through that portal, it disappeared.

 

                                                                             ***

 

     In a ceremony at High Sun the new volunteers were formally accepted into the order of the Gryphon Knights. As she had done since the day the Order was founded, Damia personally handed each man his weapon. In the case of the archers, she handed each the bow he was most suited to use. In most cases that was an oak composite bow endowed by its makers with special properties that made them quite deadly. Each archer was also given a quiver of flames and a quiver of stability. Though the bows and quivers given to them held no new special qualities endowed upon them by Damia they were far superior to anything the men had ever had in their hands. The archers all marveled at the bows and could not wait to test them in target practice. Aspen Longleaf was named Captain of the archers and given charge of their training.

     Marc Trumaine did get the shield and sword that is the standard issue to the Knights of the Order. He was immediately made an officer in charge of the security of the city. Eric's apprehension that he might be a spy was soon put to rest by Damia who had sought just such subterfuge within the hearts of all of the volunteers. She personally guaranteed his legitimacy and cautioned her Commander to listen to the man, for he was indeed a gifted military tactician.

     Eric's only concern thus addressed, he welcomed them all as Knights and Archers of the Order of the Gryphon Knights.


Chapter 45.

 

     The soldiers in the fortress were shocked when wave after wave of Gargoyles flew over their fortress early in the morning the day after the attack there. The Commander himself stepped outside the fortress to watch the arrival of Zadykiel and his army.

     The Commander was shocked when he saw the special harnesses being employed to carry the Werewolves into battle. Zadykiel had made a point of having the Werewolves flown in just to demonstrate that had he been present with his army there would have been numerous options to the defeat they had suffered yesterday. The Commander was no fool. He saw the raw potential in both the flying monsters and the ability to carry his warriors into battle through the air, even if that ability had limitations. He decided then and there to accept Zadykiel into his command structure and absorb his army into his own where it would be integrated as he saw fit. If Zadykiel didn't like that, he would be dealt with.

     Ironically, Zadykiel was thinking the exact same thing with the roles reversed. He liked what he saw of the army below him. So many men to carry out his plans. He would absorb them into his army despite their superior numbers. If their Commander had problems with that then he would be absorbed too. Or rather his blood would be. He could always wear a ring.

     Then Zadykiel spotted something that angered him. The bodies of the dead soldiers were being cremated thus wasting them. Only a few hundred remained laid out near where the giant funeral fire was burning.

     Landing immediately beside the men tossing the bodies on that fire he ordered them to stop at once. Confused by his seeming anger at the necessary work the men stopped and looked to their Commander who was angrily stamping his way in their direction. "What is the meaning of this Zadykiel. You don't command my men." he said in anger when he arrived.

     Zadykiel put on his best smile and said, "Commander they are destroying your men." Then leaning forward conspiratorially he whispered. "I have hundreds of rings of resurrection with me." Seeing the impact of that lie he added, "I can and will resurrect them for you if we can come to an agreement."

     "Demonstrate this ability and then we will discuss the terms of our agreement." The Commander said in disbelief, but if this mage could do as he claimed then he was definitely interested. The loss of those men had severely weakened his command.

     Zadykiel smiled and snapped his fingers. One of his death mages appeared beside him with a ring. "Pick one Commander. Make it a good man though. I am not sure I have enough rings to accommodate them all."

     "They are one time use then?"

     "Aye sadly this is so." lied Zadykiel who was delighted at this turn of events. He had fully expected to have a difficult time persuading the Commander to let him reanimate his men. The lie that they were rings of resurrection had been a last minute thought that bordered on genius. Still he wanted the Commander to know little of the truth regarding those rings. There would be time aplenty for him to learn that truth in their meeting.

     The Commander had the men's faces uncovered and walked down the line of bodies examining the men. He stopped beside one and said, "This is a good man. A sound officer he died well following my orders to remain on the bastion."

     "Ahh a fool then." thought Zadykiel. To his death mage he said, "Put the ring upon the man's finger. Let us resurrect this brave man."

     A moment later it was done and to everyone's stunned surprise the man opened his eyes and got to his feet. As the crowd of soldiers gathered near watched, the man's wounds healed and he became whole again. Zadykiel mentally gave the man his orders. He was to behave as naturally as possible and answer any questions put to him by the Commander.

     The Commander was completely taken in by this ruse. Ten minutes later he had teams of his own men hand picking the best of the available men to resurrect while he and Zadykiel walked to his private office to discuss the terms.

     "The fool." thought the Commander. "Within a couple of hours I will have a large portion of my army restored and he will have lost the rings. Then when I refuse to concede any point to him there won't be a damned thing he can do about it."

     Zadykiel read his adversary like a book. "So he thinks to cheat me does he? Well, within two hours it will be too late. It will cost me all but a handful of my rings but I will gain hundreds of professional soldiers. And once they are reanimated they are mine and there won't be a damned thing that he can do about that."

     Stopping the Commander on the stairs leading to his personal office he asked, "Commander, is it possible for my aide and me to meet with you alone for half an hour?"

     The Commander didn't like that idea at all. He hadn't lived this long in Dalghard's army by being a trusting soul. He shook his head and said, "That's not the way I do things, Zadykiel."

     "Ah, tis no matter. I had thought that perhaps you might wish a gift of one of the remaining rings which you could then wear, thus guaranteeing your resurrection should you fall in battle. But the words that activate the ring must be spoken by the wearer when they are gifted to the living. They are secret. Perhaps a ring will remain should you begin to trust me more in the weeks to come. Alas, they cannot be given away to the living lest they disappear if the magic phrase is not said, and it may not be uttered before the uninitiated lest you risk the spells charm not working when you need it." Zadykiel said working the Commander like a professional.

     The thought of waiting for weeks to acquire such a gift was too much for the Commander to stomach. At the rate men were dying these days, they might all be gone by sundown. "My friend, forgive me. Of course I can arrange a private meeting for you and your aide. Forgive me my suspicious nature."

     "My friend, there is nothing to forgive." said Zadykiel soothingly. "You just endured a horrible experience. You would be a fool to be less than cautious, this close on the heels of yesterday's battle. It's just that there won't be enough to accommodate all of your senior officers and they might perchance come to desire yours, but I am sure none would betray you."

     That alone settled the issue in the Commander's mind. He trusted no one, least of all his senior officers, after yesterday's battle. "Come, friend, let us begin our meetings with this private meeting first."

     Inside his office the Commander dismissed the heavy guard detail he had stationed there in expectations of the meeting to come with Zadykiel. As Zadykiel's death mage closed the door to the office, many of the guards noted his smile. He seemed a happy man they thought. He was happy. He was very hungry and was about to drink his fill.


Chapter 46.

 

     The Companions could have used a portal to get to Harvest Moon, but Brimstone thought that the ocean voyage would be a good break for them. They had all been through a lot of trials in the past few weeks and the voyage gave them time to reflect upon all they had endured.

     The Gryphon had sailed south with the Minotaur fleet whom they intended to accompany as far as the turn north to Harvest Moon. They were now into the third day of their voyage and nearing the turn north to that city. Captain Barnes was pleased with the performance of the Gryphon. Altered as she was he hadn't even needed to use the oarsmen to keep pace with the Minotaurs who eyed the ship with wide eyed wonder. Normally Minotaur vessels have to furl part of their sails to pace a slower cargo ship. In the case of the Gryphon the role was reversed. Captain Barnes had to furl a portion of his sail lest the Gryphon leave the escorts behind.

     Brimstone had summoned extra beds that were lined up inside the main cabin for the ladies of the company. It was quite crowded in the cabin but it was better by far than a night spent on the ground in the woods. To adventurers accustomed to such hardships the cots in the cabin were a lavish luxury to be enjoyed while they could.

     Brimstone noted Lord Malachi standing by the rail talking with Nessarose. He was explaining to her the trials and difficulties of becoming a seraph. She stared with wide eyed intensity hanging onto every word Lord Malachi was saying. Smiling to himself, Brimstone suspected that she would be just as attentive if he were discussing the most trivial and insignificant subject in the world.

     Staring out at the sea, Brimstone reflected upon the battles they had fought and the battles to come. He was aware that Zadykiel had joined forces with the men of the fortress now and that they had invasion plans. Sighing he turned and addressed the Companions on the deck. "It's time for the meeting. Nessa please check the cabin to see if it is all right for the men to enter."

     Moments later, Nessarose returned and reported it safe for the men to enter and they all filed inside and took seats around the table. It was crowded but they all managed to fit in. Captain Barnes had picked up additional chairs his last time in port.

     Brimstone called the meeting to order by summoning a map of Sic Dalar. The companionable chatter among the group drew to an abrupt end and everyone stared at the map with keen interest. He stood and pointed to the fortress on the map and the view zoomed in to a view similar to what they had experienced from the escarpments around the fortress. In the bowl shaped valley below hundreds of gargoyles could be seen in flight. Below them on the ground a mass of men were marching out of the fortress and across the grounds that lead to the mouth of the valley. The men were all carrying heavy packs loaded with food and supplies for an extended march. At the head of that column of men ranged hundreds of Werewolves in their ghastly bipedal form. These creatures did not march with the discipline of the soldiers but rather seemed to roam at will randomly in the general direction that they were traveling. Zooming in on the faces of the soldiers nearest the Werewolves, Brimstone froze for a moment the faces of the soldiers. They were staring intently at their monster allies with distrust and loathing.

     "Note if you please that not all of the soldiers are happy about the alliance with Zadykiel's forces. Our next task is to attempt to siphon off the decent men left among Dalghard's old army." There was immediate response from the Companions present as several tried to ask questions at once. "Please, friends, one at a time and I'll do my best to answer all of your questions." Brimstone said with a smile.

     "Do you really think that we can turn some of the men to our side?" asked MetalHead.

     "I think that Zadykiel's forces will do that for us." Brimstone replied with a grim expression on his face. Turning to Tersha he asked, "Would you please show us the message sent by Braklar? Confine it to those of us in this room so we do not unduly alarm the sailors."

     A moment later the Companions saw the vision. It was viewed as if from the top of one of the escarpments. The image was crystal clear. It was late on a moonless night as was evidenced by the lights of the fortress, but the image was still clear and detailed. They saw a group of forty soldiers walking a patrol outside the fortress in the bowl shaped valley below. Suddenly the patrol encountered a group of fifteen men who stood in their path. A moment later those fifteen men moved to surround them and closed with them. The warriors drew their blades to defend themselves but they never had a chance for from the air dived a group of gargoyles. They pulled half of the men from the ground and flew upwards with their prey as is the habit with their kind. The uniforms of the men could be seen clearly as the Gargoyles flew upwards and past the observer. Their terrified faces were noted well as the Gargoyles sank their fangs into their prey and drank their fill.

     The scene returned to the men who remained upon the ground and the Companions saw them, now twenty strong, face the fifteen men with their weapons drawn. Slowly the fifteen dark strange men closed with the remnants of the patrol trapped within their circle. Moments later, and as if on cue, they attacked in a blur of motion and withdrew almost immediately. The Vampires had the ability to move much faster than a man can move and even unarmed as they were, when they withdrew five of the men of the patrol lay dead. Several had been disarmed by the fifteen dark figures that now began to circle the fifteen remaining men. A moment later the patrol attempted to break out of the circle and run for the fortress but they were immediately set upon by the vampires who easily caught them. Those who retained weapons were overpowered. All were drained of their blood. Then Zadykiel walked out of the darkness and congratulated the men on their work. Next a wave of Gargoyles landed and gathered up the dead men and flew out to sea. The vision ended with the distant view of the bodies being dumped at sea.

     When it ended there were gasps of astonishment from the assembled Companions. "How did you get that vision?" asked Fawnn.


Chapter 47.

 

     "You all remember Braklar?" asked Brimstone.

     "The old Torlag Scout." Anpu replied. He admired the Torlag who had accomplished so much despite his infirmities during the Werewolf war.

     "Yes that's the one." Brimstone replied.

     "But the vision was so clear and he was half blind." responded Mystyka.

     "Did he make it out of that area alive?" asked Anpu.

     "He is fine. He contacted me and I teleported him to his den immediately after he witnessed that attack. His mission had been accomplished. As to his vision, I'll get to that in a moment. I knew that there were atrocities taking place. Don't ask me how I knew. It's one of those Demi god things I learned during my training. The problem was to be able to use that information I needed a Torlag witness who could then transmit that image along with the associated emotions, sounds and smells. Armed with that vision we can broadcast it to the soldiers and hopefully many will abandon or turn on Zadykiel."

     "I approached Braklar about the mission because he alone survived the conflict with the Werewolves deep in their territories. He agreed to go on the mission. I teleported him to the riverís end and he crept to the escarpment when he felt it safe to do so. Last night he witnessed the attack you just saw."

     "But how is it that the Gargoyles that flew by him didn't see him?" asked Jedi. "I mean he seemed so close they must have been able to see him. I sure smelled them well enough."

     Anpu said, "I can answer that for you if you don't mind." Brimstone smiled and nodded his acceptance of the offer. Anpu then said, "Braklar spoke to me about his mission to the Werewolf territories and when I asked how he survived he told me about his tendency to make a hide where he could observe the enemy yet remain undetected. It was some of those tactics that I employed on our last mission, though my hides remain properly above ground. He tunnels into the earth and creates a hole barely big enough to see or smell from."

     Nodding his head Brimstone added, "In this case that tiny hole was situated some ten feet below the top of the escarpment."

     "By the gods what daring courage that old Torlag has." replied Lord Malachi.

     "Oh he isn't that old anymore. I haven't gotten to that part yet."

     Ziona laughed and asked, "Did you make him a young Torlag Brimstone?"

     Shaking his head he laughed himself and said, "That is way beyond my ability. I didn't but Damia did."

     "But the Accords!" exclaimed Lady Ru.

     "Aye but this was prior to the announcement by Zadykiel that he was Dalghard's surrogate and before Zadykiel allied himself with the Werewolves, M'Lady," Brimstone said with a serious expression on his face. "You see, his trip to the Werewolf territories took a heavy toll on Braklar. His old body was giving out on him. About a month after his return from that mission Versha asked Damia to be near him at the moment of his death."

     "May I, Brimstone?" asked Tersha. Then she said, "I'm sorry it was rude of me to interrupt."

     "Not at all, friend, please do show us all what happened that night." Looking at the assembled Companions he said, "What you are about to see is considered sacred to the Torlags. Make no mention of this beyond this circle if you please." The Companions nodded their assent and Tersha began the vision.

     Damia appeared in a large cavern chamber reserved for ceremonies. In the center of that cavern lay Braklar who among his people was now called a hero of the Werewolf war for his contributions to the battle against that menace. Surrounding Braklar were hundreds of Torlags who were producing a low pitched almost musical chant that was conducive to a peaceful setting. The chant was a litany of the accomplishments of Braklar composed by a Torlag historian and taught to the others via their unique mental teaching methods.

     A solemn Versha approached the Goddess and said, "Goddess it is the custom of my people to honor the last request of a brother or sister near their final death." Glancing at Braklar with compassion in her eyes Damia nodded her understanding. "He has requested one last time to see his Goddess before he enters the great void beyond this life."

     Damia moved to stand before the Torlag whose labored breathing touched her heart. As she moved closer Braklar raised his old head feebly and turned unseeing eyes in her direction. As he did so his head bobbed up and down a bit as if it took all of his strength to move it at all and he had not the strength within his failing body to control it properly. Valiantly, the old Torlag then struggled to rise. Damia resisted the urge to tell him not to rise, for that would shame the Torlag. Three times he tried and on the third attempt he succeeded in standing to honor his Goddess. On trembling legs he stood and Damia thanked him for the courtesy shown. With her little finger she captured a tear of compassion from the corner of her eye and said, "It is said that you are near your journey into the great void beyond this life. Is it your desire to begin that journey now?"

     "It is my wish to be a young Torlag chasing my chosen mate during the mating season." the old Torlag responded to the utter astonishment of the Torlags present.

     "Braklar! Remember yourself! You address a Goddess!" admonished Versha.

But Damia was not insulted. Instead she smiled and said, "Chastise not the heart of one who remembers love with fondness in his latter days, for that is the soul of one not grown bitter in life."

     Versha bowed before the Goddess and replied, "Thy will be done, Goddess."

     Turning to the aged Braklar, Damia said, "Braklar, the gods are grateful to you for a service you have rendered us. I was told that you wished to see me one last time. Yet you are blind. Are you ready then for the gift of sight that you might see me?"

     "Aye, Goddess. That would please me for I have never seen you, my Goddess. I have settled for your scent, but that alone seems little to take with me into the void."

     Damia reached out then and touched the Torlag with her finger still wet from her tear of compassion. "Then so mote it be, young Braklar. Chase well thy chosen mate during the mating season with the eyes of youth."

     By the will and the magic of his Goddess, the Torlag Braklar, hero of the Werewolf war, was then transformed. His sagging legs and weak neck grew strong. His coat filled out and gone was the gray of his advanced years. In its place was a golden tan coat, sleek and radiant with health. He stood there in his prime before the assembled Torlags of his tribe. With clear eyes he saw his Goddess for the first time and he bowed before her, thanking her for this moment. He did not yet understand what was happening for he had gone from near death to his prime in heartbeats.

     Smiling, Damia said, "I'm afraid you missed something, Braklar." Turning to Versha she said, "Would you please explain it to him, dear? I have to go now." Still laughing she disappeared.

     Versha's ears twitched in amusement when she spoke to Braklar saying, "You young fool, you have been granted the favor of your Goddess. You aren't going to enter the great void today or any other day in the near future."

     Tersha's vision ended then. "That was so kind of Damia." said Kwenchi Kao. "The old Torlag seemed noble."

     Ears twitching in amusement Tersha replied, "That noble old Torlag ran one of our fleetest female scouts near to death during the mating season." Then realizing what she had just said she apologized to the Companions for such an inappropriate reference.


Chapter 48.

 

     "So our mission will be to get as close to the approaching army as possible and then broadcast that vision and see what happens?" asked Tarn seeking clarification.

     "Essentially yes that's the next step of the plan."

     "Well not to second guess you or anything, but isn't that a two or three man mission? So why would we all be committed to that enterprise?" asked John.

     "We will need a strong party to help those who wish to break away from Zadykiel. The exact nature of the plan I won't reveal now because of the spy network Zadykiel has working for him. But trust me, there will be plenty for everyone to do on this mission."

     There was a somber moment while everyone remembered what had happened to Mersha and all knew that it was probably best to keep their plans secret even from their own party in general until the last moment.

     Once more Brimstone summoned the map of Sic Dalar. This time he caused two yellow lines to form. Those lines led from the fortress to the city of Harvest Moon. They would have to adjust their course a few times to avoid natural obstacles such as rivers and mountains. He also added a third yellow line, a sea route but discounted the sea for Zadykiel lacked the ships to make that happen and not even Dalghard could summon a ship. That was why he always had them built by his followers.

     "So we intercept them, as soon as we know which route that they will take?" asked Veksar.

     "They will take the Southern route." Brimstone said with a smile.

     "Another of those Demi god things?" asked Fawnn with a smile.

     "Yes, but in this case I really didn't need it. You see Zadykiel is clever and ruthless, but he is also predictable. I knew before checking which route he would opt to take. The Southern route offers the advantage of saving a lot of time because it is the shorter route, and Zadykiel is impatient."

     "When do we head out to intercept them?" asked Cyric.

     "We'll wait until they reach a specific area that I have in mind. Once they do I'll open a portal and we will step through it to an area a good distance from them. We'll have time to prepare for their arrival."

     Looking at the Companions in concern he added, "Once the message has been broadcast we will try to assist any who want to leave Zadykiel's army with all the means available to us. I will open a set of portals to a neutral safe area, certainly not to one of the cities or villages. Once there we can weed out any potential hard core Zadykiel supporters. We'll be among the last to enter the portals. When we exit, be ready just in case some of the bad guys get through with the good and decide to turn on us immediately. If for any reason you are unable to get to the portal then you must use a scroll or word of recall to escape that area. It is my intentions to remain and be the last man through the portal, but in the heat of battle mistakes are possible. Therefore, it is imperative that everyone understand what you should do in the event anything goes wrong."

     All of the adventurers present understood the seriousness of such a situation and gravely nodded their understanding. Seeing that understanding in their eyes, Brimstone concluded the meeting when he said, "We'll arrive at port within a few hours. Everyone have fun tonight if you like. Tonight, I have some things to take care of so I won't be in the city. Just be careful and try to stay together, just in case Zadykiel has an assassin or two lurking about."


Chapter 49.

 

     Earlier that morning as the sun was beginning to rise Zadykiel had stood before a group of fifty Gargoyles and fifteen men. He addressed them all explaining in minute detail the mission he was sending them to attempt. He explained to them many of the things that could go wrong and what to do should those examples occur. When he had finished, thirty of the Gargoyles flew away carrying the fifteen men. The twenty unencumbered Gargoyles flew above those and kept pace with them.

     This time Zadykiel had overseen the training of his team personally. He was leaving nothing to chance. This team had a very good chance of at least partial success.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     The Companions spent a few hours in the tavern that night. It had been a long time since they had relaxed and just talked without having to constantly watch their backs on a mission. They had fun just eating and chatting together and lost all track of time. Thus it was that it was very late that night when they departed from the tavern and headed for the large home that Brimstone had purchased in the city on their first visit. Brimstone had left it up to them but cautioned that the tavern might not be safe and invited them to use his house if they wished.

     Walking down the streets of the city they made their way toward Brimstone's home in the darkness. They rounded a corner and started down another street. They saw a group of men standing in the street and assumed that they were also out late and returning to their homes. The Companions continued on their way giving the men little thought until, as they drew near the men spread out and moved to encircle them. It was only then that they realized they had walked into a trap.

     The Companions were so accustomed to fighting together that they reacted without the need for conscious thought. The warriors and archers formed an outer ring with the Mages in the center. Veksar and some of the other mages were scanning the skies overhead watching for the Gargoyles that they expected to attack in conjunction with the Vampires. Belatedly they realized that what they had seen in the vision wasn't just a random cruel attack upon that hapless patrol but was instead a training mission for just this sort of attack.

     Moments later, the circle of Vampires began to move in. Lord Malachi shouted, "Beware overhead!" He too remembered that this was the moment that the Gargoyles struck in the vision. A moment later the fire mage Veksar launched his Meteor spell overhead at the approaching Gargoyles he had just spotted and the results were spectacular. The night sky above the city was illuminated by the spell as it struck amidst the Gargoyles. The color red dominated the other colors but there were also splashes of yellow and orange.

     Several streets away a patrol of Gryphon Knights saw the fire in the sky over the city and moved to investigate the source.

     The other fire mages added their attacks to their overhead defense while the wisdom oriented mages used their Turn Undead spells against the Vampires who had surrounded their party. The archers let fly with their fire arrows moments before the Vampires closed with the warriors of the party and soon the battle became an insane medley of spells, weapons, arrows, and claws.

     Near the combatants several Gargoyle bodies struck the cobblestones of the city street slightly dampened by the night dew which had formed. The burning bodies made a brief hissing sound as they evaporated the moisture collected amongst the cobblestones.

Cyric fought beside his twin Cyris and Cyris was the first to see him dragged outside the Companion's circle by the Vampires. He was about to leave the circle to assist his brother when three blazing arrows slammed into the Vampire about to bite his brother. Suddenly more arrows flew in out of the night and the Companions renewed their attacks upon the Vampires who now faced enemies on two fronts.

     The chief danger from the Vampires seemed to be their speed. Jedi had never fought any creature that could move so swiftly. It seemed to him as if he were moving in slow motion compared to them. Finally in desperation he changed tactics with the Vampire who seemed to be playing with him. He struck not where the Vampire was, but where he thought it would be three seconds later. Just as he had done in Paradise Cove, Jedi struck the hand from an animated enemy who fell at his feet dead. "Damn, is Zadykiel trying to reanimate the world?" he wondered, and then he yelled, "They are reanimates! Strike the hands from their bodies!"

     "You have a singled minded nature my friend." Lord Malachi grunted as he launched an attack at the Vampire he was fighting.

     Jedi sent him a message then, "Strike where he will be, not where he is. He's too fast for that." A moment later Lord Malachi yelled victoriously when he anticipated the Vampire's move and lopped off the creatures arm at the elbow joint.

     Overhead the air grew dark with a boiling mass of Gargoyles attempting to break through the mage's spells, then from out of the darkness dozens of fire arrows lanced into that boiling mass time after time and soon the battle was over.

     The Companions stood still and examined the dead and unmoving bodies about them. Those that had both hands soon began to stir and tried to get up but the warriors leapt upon them and struck their hands from their bodies.

     From out of the night dozens of archers approached the battle zone. They wore the insignia of Gryphon Knights. Their leader stopped before the Companions and said, "I am Captain Aspen Longleaf of the Gryphon Knights. I see we were in time to assist you after all. I had begun to fear we would be too late."

     Anpu stared at the man and then smiled. He remembered Brimstone talking about the additions to the Gryphon Knights and now he was seeing those Knights. "It was indeed fortunate for us that you decided to join the Gryphons." Anpu replied. "If you hadn't this might have had a more tragic ending here tonight."

     The archers recognized the men and women who had graciously spared them during the battle at the fortress. They would probably never be friends, or if they were it would take a long time, but they did respect each other.

     They counted the bodies and not all were accounted for. There were twelve dead Vampires which meant that three had escaped. There were thirty-six Gargoyle bodies. Thirty of those wore the vile rings. John and Tarn saw to it that all of the rings were collected and then, placing them in a pile, they asked the fire mages to melt them down to slag.

     Just as they were completing this chore Marc Trumaine arrived with a detail of Gryphon Knight Warriors. Aspen explained what had transpired there on the street and Marc sent a messenger with several escorts to the headquarters to report the incursion and send out squads of Knights to search the city for the three remaining Vampires, just in case they were still within the city. He warned the men to keep one eye on the ground for Vampires and one to the sky for their allies the Gargoyles.

     Jedi was talking to Lord Malachi and Marc overheard him say that the attack was just like he'd seen in Tersha's vision of the fortress. Naturally his curiosity was aroused at that and he wanted to see that vision himself. So it was that Tersha showed the vision of the fate of the doomed patrol to the recent converts to the Gryphon Knights.

     When it was over many of the men were furious. Marc said, "It would seem that our former Commander is a bigger fool than even I thought if he has allied himself with such as these."

     Fawnn asked an important question then when she asked, "Do you think that many of his men, having seen that vision would wish to break away from the alliance with Zadykiel?"

     Aspen and Marc both nodded their heads and Aspen said, "Yes there would be a large number who would want to. But would they be able to do so without losing their heads?" And then the Commander would point out that you are the enemy and the vision you have just shown us is a lie and a simple enemy trick to divide his army."

     Several of the Companions bristled at that but he held up his hands defensively and continued, "I'm just telling you how he would respond. I have seen these creatures with my own eyes and I do believe the vision to be legitimate. I also believe the attack that we saw in the vision was in truth a training mission for the attack we just saw with our own eyes here."

     It was decided that the Gryphon Knights would supply guards to watch the house where the Companions would sleep. The circumstances being what they were, John and Tarn privately decided that they would also post their own guards. The battle at the fortress was too fresh in everyonesí minds to simply set aside at that point.


Chapter 50.

 

     Zadykiel listened to the report of his three surviving Vampire minions with great interest and learned where his plan had gone wrong. "So the Gryphon Knights wish to oppose me do they?" he stated with a sardonic smile. "Well then I must of course give them a bit of my attention, but for now let us concentrate on the Companions and what went wrong. You were trained to use the innate abilities of the Vampire against the Companions because your warrior skills were negligible. So, Vampire abilities of speed in hand to hand combat alone were not enough. I need Vampires with superior warrior skills. If we combine that with their innate abilities then we should be able to defeat the Companions."

     Turning to Commander Blackman he asked the man to locate twenty of his best warriors, "I want twenty of the best regardless of the type of weapon they specialize in. Gather them for my inspection. The Commander obediently turned to do his bidding.

     Thirty minutes later the Commander returned. He had gathered the men. Zadykiel inspected them and then asked to see them demonstrate their abilities with their weapons. The twenty men were so dangerous with their swords that they were issued blunted training weapons for the mock battles they staged to demonstrate their abilities. They had to fight two and sometimes three men at a time. Even so as they faced two and three opponents with blunted training swords there were several incidents of broken bones as the men mock killed their enemies. Zadykiel was delighted by their abilities with the sword and these men should do nicely, but still he was curious. "Why is it that only swordsmen stand ready to demonstrate and no other weapon is represented?"

     The Commander explained that in Dalghard's army all of the men fought with a standard weapon. Individual choice in weapons was discouraged for several reasons. The most important reasons were that it was simpler and cheaper to stock only one weapon type.

     "Then there are no other weapons to be represented here?" Zadykiel asked.

     "The sword is the only official weapon recognized for this army replied the Commander."

     "But there is an unofficial weapon in use?" asked Zadykiel his interest now aroused.

     "There have been incidents with one of the cooks. He insists upon carrying a staff with him anytime he isn't cooking. He has injured warriors several times with that weapon."

     "Please explain why he would do that." Zadykiel directed.

     "The cooks are regarded as the bottom of the barrel among the fighting men of the army. This young man is no exception. His swordsmanship is loathsome. Yet he has beaten several armed swordsmen with his simple wooden staff when they insulted him. He has a terrible temper and I have almost had him executed three times for attacking my soldiers because of their insults."

     "Have him brought here." Zadykiel instructed.

     While the Commander was gone to get the staff wielding cook Zadykiel approached three of the soldiers standing nearby. They had been part of the crowd that formed to watch the mock battles between the twenty best swordsmen and their opponents. "Your Commander is bringing the cook who carries the staff. When he arrives I want you three to mock and insult him."

     One of the men said, "Sir he becomes violent then. He would attack us with that staff of his."

     "Good. If he does kill him."

     Wide eyed one of the men said, "Sir the Commander will have us hanged for that."

"I'll tell him you are acting under my instructions. He may be angry with me, but you will not be punished."

     Moments later, the Commander returned with the cook who carried his staff. As soon as he arrived the three soldiers began to taunt and insult him. His face growing an angry shade of red the cook twirled his staff expertly and slammed one end of the staff into the ground beside his right foot. Then he spoke his challenge to the warriors when he said, "You men are under the Commander's protection and I cannot deal with you now. But have a care. You won't always stand in his shadow. The day will come when you have to answer for every insult."

     The men looked eagerly to Zadykiel who mentally instructed the Commander to authorize the fight. The Commander obediently complied, "Just try not to kill them all. We are at war you know and I need every available man." he admonished the cook.

     Stung by their Commander's apparent lack of confidence in them the three attacked the cook savagely. They met the equally savage attack of his staff. He twirled it in a dazzling horizontal figure eight. So fast was the twirling motion that the ends of the staff seemed to become invisible and a slight humming sound emanated from the area of the weapon as it sliced through the air at a fantastic rate of speed.

     The three attacking swordsmen separated and moved to surround him thinking that he could not adequately defend all sides at once. A moment later he proved just how wrong they were when the man behind him attempted to close with him. The cook twirled the staff around his neck and one end of the twirling weapon impacted the right temple of the man behind him. That man fell to the ground as if he were dead. He was just unconscious but when he awoke, he would have the mother of all headaches and the bruise would take a full week to heal.

     The two remaining swordsmen then attempted to circle their opponent, looking for a weakness in his defense and waiting for an unguarded moment. The Cook changed his tactics when he stopped twirling the staff and with a leap forward, he slammed the upper tip down onto the soft instep of the man's foot. Raising the staff immediately, he then slammed it into the other foot and then onto the ground between the man's spread feet. Next, he snapped the tip of the staff upward into the man's groin.

     The warrior behind the cook saw the staff dart out and attack the other warrior. He took advantage of that attack and closed with the cook. He had his sword held high in both hands intending to cleave his blade through the cook's head. Then the cook did something very unexpected. The staff shot backwards towards the remaining warrior. The tip struck the rushing man squarely between the eyes and he was propelled backwards from the force of the impact. Straightening his body, the cook almost casually flicked the end of his staff around and struck the remaining warrior, who was gagging and struggling not to vomit. That blow struck the man in the temple as well.

     It had lasted barely two minutes and the three swordsmen were down. The cook wasn't even sweating. "They will all live Commander, but the man I struck between the legs may wish that he had not. I fear I may have struck him too hard on that strike."

     "He will do nicely." Zadykiel told the Commander and then asked if all of the cooks fought that well."

     "No this is the only one. He would have made a fine soldier if he could use a sword half as well as that stick."

     "Order the twenty-one men selected to wait here and come to my tent when their name is called by my aide. Tell them that there is paperwork to fill out." Zadykiel instructed.

     Overhearing this one of the twenty-one men said, "Bah, more paperwork! The only bad thing about the army is all of the stupid paperwork we have to fill out." He was about to find out just how wrong he was.

     One by one the men were lead into a tent. Once inside, they were immediately seized by the remaining three Vampires and gagged. Moments later, they met one of the original death mages. For only the first generation could impart the special attributes of the Demonic Vampire branch. The other Vampires created by the death mages could not do so. Their victims just died.

     As the men underwent this processing Zadykiel thought and thought about the cook. It seemed to him that much of the cook's fighting ability stemmed from his attitude. He was having second thoughts about reanimating the man, because the process would subdue that attitude greatly. In the end he decided against the reanimation for that man unless he became troublesome.


Chapter 51.

 

     Brimstone returned to his house in Harvest Moon the next day and learned all about the attack the night before. The Companions hadn't sent him a message concerning the attack because they hadn't known where he was. They knew only that he was seeing to a detail concerning the impending invasion.

     He looked tired and battered and was also quite dirty. He assured them all that he would be fine. He just needed an hour to prepare and then they must leave for the time was almost upon them to use Braklar's vision. He told them all to eat and make ready, for in an hour he would open a portal to their destination. Once there he assured them that he would reveal what he had been up to the night before.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     The portal opened onto a beautiful valley. Around the Companions stood a mountain range to their left and a lake to their right. The distance between the mountain range and the lake was about one hundred yards and they stood just beyond the imaginary line that connected the lake and mountain. Beyond that line, far in the distance, they could just make out the approaching army.

     Brimstone called out to Anpu, "Please use your Ranger skills here and see what you can detect. No, don't walk around." he said when Anpu began to walk toward the lake. "Just examine the place from where you are. For my purposes that is sufficient."

     Anpu examined it carefully and noted nothing out of the ordinary. He reported that saying, "If there was anything or anyone here in the recent past I see no sign of it."

Nodding his head, Brimstone thanked Anpu and said, "And if I told you that more than two hundred Torlags were here all night?"

     "Then I'd say that they must have been underground for that many would have left some sign of their presence." Anpu said.

     Brimstone smiled and said, "You are a clever man, Anpu. Now walk to the shadow of the mountains if you please, everyone." They did so and soon Anpu discovered dirt that did not belong there. It had been concealed well but he could spot it.

     He reported that and Brimstone asked a critical question. "Will the Gargoyles spot that from overhead?"

     Shaking his head Anpu said, "No it blends in well enough. It is the texture of the earth that gives it away. But that texture will not be discernable from above fifteen feet. Now if they get closer than that." Anpu shrugged as if to say, "Who knows?"

     "Thank you, Anpu. That will be quite good enough for our purposes." Then pointing his finger to the land between the lake and mountain he said, "This is a trap. Cleverly concealed and laid by our friends, the Torlags. It leads to within a foot of the lake and proceeds to the mountain. It is about ten yards wide and twenty feet deep. It comes to within a foot of the surface and there are support timbers wedged in place here and there to keep it from collapsing under its own weight. I put those in place for the Torlags myself." Brimestone said in answer to their unspoken question. Pointing to a white rock sitting by the shore of the lake he said, "Fawnn, do you see that rock by the shore?"

     "I do Brimstone." she replied.

     "At the appropriate time, can you target that rock with your Earth Shattering spell?"

     "Where will I be positioned?" asked Fawnn.

     "You cannot see it from here. One moment." Brimstone opened another portal and instructed to Companions to step through and watch their step on the other side. He closed the portal when the last Companion had stepped through and teleported to them. Looking around he spotted Fawnn and said, "Ahh, there you are. Can you spot it and hit it from here?"

     They were near the summit of the mountain. Spread out below they saw the lake which from this vantage point seemed quite close to the mountain. They were standing inside the cave opening, near the mouth of the cave. It was a shallow cave and only went inside the mountain a few yards before the ceiling lowered to within a foot of the floor. While some of the Companions were examining their surroundings Fawnn was examining the valley below. "I can see it yes, and I can hit it from here. Whether or not I can break through the earth to let in the water I have no idea. I assume that is what you want done."

     "It is indeed what I want done Fawnn. It is imperative to my plans." Turning to look at the other Companions Brimstone said, Mystyka and XconX you two can both see the rock from here as well? They both nodded that they could. "Very well then. At the appropriate time all three of you use the spell to let the water flow into the trap."

     "And what of the warriors Brimstone? Where will we be during all of this?"

     "Here, defending the mages from the Gargoyles. They will be vulnerable to them as they try to fight off those not willing to change sides in this war or at least withdraw their support from Zadykiel." Looking to the archers he said, "That is your primary job as well, though if no Gargoyles are in the vicinity by all means let fly your arrows to assist the mages. But remember, this time the mages will need all of their attention focused on attacking the right party of warriors below. If their attention becomes divided, the chances increase dramatically that they will make mistakes and kill the wrong men."

     Turning to Tersha he said, "Tersha be ready to show the vision to the enemy. I will boost it so that it carries to all of them. I cannot show it to all of Althea as Damia did during the Bre war, but if I can see them I can broadcast it to them for you. Also be prepared to show them this message after the vision of the fate of the doomed patrol."  Brimstone then stood facing Tersha and said, "Any man who wishes to part company with Zadykiel and his minions enter the portals now. You will not be harmed by us. Those wishing to remain with Zadykiel let those who wish to depart do so in peace and you won't be attacked. But attack them and we will most certainly attack you to defend them."

     Looking to the rest of the party he said, "I'll open the portals while Tersha is sending the first message. I'll place them near the trap on the enemy side of the line. The portal will lead to a neutral area where we can meet and talk with the men who leave the army."

     "But I thought we would be near the portals to defend them." MetalHead said.

     "You are correct. That was the original plan before I found this cave in the mountain. I think we can accomplish much the same without exposing you all to the chaos of the portal areas. There will still be plenty to do with hundreds and hundreds of Gargoyles on the wing out there."

     "Speaking of which, they are closing in on this mountain even as we speak." Anpu stated. Then he added, "I think we should step back into the shadows for a bit as the flights pass us by."

     And so they did. In silence the Companions observed several flights of Gargoyles sweep past their location for a full three minutes and then they stopped coming. Anpu crept to the opening of the cave and, keeping his head and body near the entrance, slowly crept out far enough to observe the entire area. "It appears as if the Gargoyles are scouting ahead of the army for the time being." he reported from the cave entrance.


Chapter 52.

 

     Brimstone and Tersha stepped near the cave entrance and Brimstone nodded to her. "Anytime you are ready, please begin."

     And began they did. In the valley below, the army came to an abrupt halt as the vision slammed into their awareness. The Gargoyles in flight were also hit by the vision. That had an unexpected consequence as many became confused by what they were seeing in their minds and what they were truly seeing with their eyes and several actually flew into the ground as a result.

     The Gargoyle King ordered his Gargoyles to land at once but after seeing them continue to slam into the earth, he immediately changed the order and instructed them to hover in place.

     As the human warriors below saw the doomed patrol fighting for their lives against the Vampires and Gargoyles, many became enraged and began shouting in anger. When they saw the ultimate fate of their fellow soldiers many more began to shout in anger and hostility. Then Tersha showed them the message from Brimstone. At that precise moment in the valley below five portals appeared spaced about fifteen feet apart near the trap area. Moments later, there was a dead silence in the valley below. For the space of thirty seconds, no one moved. Then a warrior near the front of the ranks took a step toward the portals and another. Soon a trickle of men were walking in that direction.

     The Commander of the army, spurred on by Zadykiel, yelled for the men to stop and return to their places, but many of the men refused to heed him and continued to walk toward the portals.

     Zadykiel then made a mistake. He so seldom made mistakes that this one took Brimstone by surprise. Zadykiel ordered his Werewolf allies to attack the men attempting to leave in an attempt to stem the flow of troops he was losing. When the waves of Werewolves charged the men attempting to flee, Brimstone and the Companion mages opened up with their impressive arsenal of spells.

     The attack had another result Brimstone did know would follow. That was why he assumed Zadykiel wouldn't order the attack. Many men who had been torn between staying with the army and leaving with their friends had their minds made up for them when the monsters began attacking their fellow soldiers. Brimstone saw the entire archer element of the army turn as one on the Werewolves. Within moments, between the Companion's spells and the arrows of the archers of the army below, most of the Werewolves were annihilated. The few that remained retreated to the area near Zadykiel.  The archer element of the army then marched with precision onto the field where they joined the men who had decided to leave the army.

     And then the Gargoyles began to arrive. They darted at the Companions in great numbers and the archers were hard pressed to hold them at bay. A small wave of five Gargoyles actually landed inside the cave to the left of the mages, and the warriors darted to intercept them as they charged the mages. Within moments the warriors had killed all five.

     In the valley below, hundreds of men had already marched through the portal and still more were leaving the ranks of the army by the moment. Then Zadykiel ordered the Gargoyles into the battle against those men fleeing. By now the first of the archers had arrived at the portals, but to Brimstone's surprise not a single archer entered a portal. They stood their ground and battled the waves of Gargoyles sweeping in toward their warrior elements.

     "By the gods they are brave men." stated Anpu with admiration. "They are covering the warriors, just as we would do." At that moment he wished fervently that he was beside them adding the strength of his bow to their efforts. That was a sentiment shared by the other archers of the company.

     Brimstone agreed with Anpu's sentiments and fired his firestorm spell that struck a wave of some fifteen Gargoyles about to dive down upon the archers. The warriors leaving the army had broken into a run now. Seeing the archers attempting to cover them they ran as fast as they could for the portals. By Brimstone's estimates a full half of the army must have decided to call it quits.

     Kwenchi Kao fired another blast of his Flood spell which struck a wave of gargoyles in flight. Already he had slain several and was now working on a full wave that he hoped to slay.

     Veksar's Firestorm and Meteor spells struck among the Gargoyles and then he yelled, "The men of the army that mean to stay are charging."

     Psychost launched a wave of his firestorm amongst Gargoyles still attempting to attack the archers. Shalmain, Lady Sparks, and Lady Ru all fired their main attack spells at the leading edge of the pursuing army.

     "Now, Fawnn!" Brimstone yelled. "Strike the rock now you three!"

In moments the three who had been designated assaulted the rock area with their Earth Shattering spells. The impact area of their spells was far enough away from the portals that they posed no threat to the men there. Moments later, a plume of water shot skyward as the remaining wall between the massive tunnel and the lake gave way.

     Brimstone then opened a portal and told the Companions that they had done all they could here and to exit the portal. He then teleported himself down to the portals below on the floor of the Valley and personally assisted the archers there as the last of the warriors entered the portal. The archers then began to calmly file through themselves. When the last of the archers stepped through the portals he closed them and the one in the cave above as well. Then calmly Brimstone strode across the trap that was weakening even as he walked across it.

     When he was well away from the trap area he stopped and turned to face the approaching army. Holding up his hands he magnified his voice and spoke to the army saying, "Soldiers of Dalghard. One last opportunity I will give you. Break away from Zadykiel, and stop your plans to invade the peaceful city of Harvest Moon. Stay with him and die.

     But the remaining troops were the fanatics of Dalghard. They lived to conquer in their god's name. They rejected Brimstone's offer and began to charge him in a massive wave that soon filled the area between the lake and the mountain.

     Brimstone sadly stood his ground and did nothing. The men would defeat themselves. When the leading edge of the men had made it halfway across the trap it began to buckle under their weight, sinking and sagging in places. Attempting to stop they were pushed deeper into the trapped area by the men running behind them.

     Moments later, the trap began to cave in and hundreds of men were buried beneath the earth and water of the tunnel. The men behind those doomed men continued to run for they could not see the trap before their army. So it was that a full fifteen hundred men were slain by the trap before the men of the army finally became aware of it and stopped their useless charge.

     It was a sober Brimstone who joined the Companions on the plains near the assembled men who had quit the army of Dalghard. The trap had bothered him. It was a bad way for warriors to die. But sparing those men that fate would have doomed allies in the battle to come. Sometimes it is hard to lead and be responsible for such decisions. This was one of those times.


Chapter 53.

 

     Brimstone turned to the assembled warriors and archers with the intentions of addressing them, but Tersha surprised them all when she stood beside him and said, "I have messages for these men from Aspen and Marc. They seem harmless enough to me."

Brimstone having met both men trusted them. "Please go ahead Tersha." he said. Tersha then began to proceed with the messages. A moment later everyone present saw the image of Aspen Longleaf standing before them. He was wearing the tunic of a Gryphon Knight Archer. He smiled and said, "Greetings, my archers. If you are seeing this then it means some of you have decided to abandon the vile arch mage Zadykiel and that incompetent Commander of ours. I just wanted you to know that if you love the military life then you may wish to consider the Gryphon Knights. I am a Captain in their ranks and command the archer element. I need good experienced archers." He then turned and faced a target that was on such an angle that the men watching the vision could also see it. The target was so distant that the men watching thought that there was no way Aspen could possibly hit it. Drawing the bow to full draw he released the arrow which flew from the bow with incredible speed. As soon as the arrow cleared the bow it erupted into flames that resembled the spell rain of fire. The arrow flew true, striking the target dead center. Holding up the bow for the archers to see he said, "In the Gryphon Knights you draw the string of the bow that you are capable of drawing. There is no standard bow that some must struggle to fire while others can fire it with ease and waste their talents. Give it some thought men." and that image faded away.

     A moment later another image flooded the minds of the men present and Marc Trumaine addressed the Warriors, "Greetings, old friends, and fellow Warriors. If you are seeing this then you have decided to abandon the arch mage and that idiot Commander and forget the plan to attack Harvest Moon. The Gryphon Knights seek warriors willing to defend the decent citizens of Sic Dalar." Lifting his shield for the crowd to see he held it proudly and the Gryphon emblazoned on its surface began to glow a golden color. Then he drew his sword and approached a straw dummy. With three strokes of the sword he chopped off the head, an arm and a leg. Holding his sword in one hand and shield in the other he struck the classic On Guard pose and smiled as he said, "Standard issue to every warrior accepted into the Gryphon Knights."

     That image also faded and Brimstone moved to address the assembled men once more. "I am truly sorry, Brimstone, but I have another message from Damia as well." Smiling, Brimstone took a step back once more. Damia appeared then in the minds of all present. She said, "Greetings, gentlemen. You have just seen two of your former Commanders speak of the Gryphon Knights. Know this. The Gryphon Knights will welcome you and none of you will be asked to fight against your former brothers in arms. I know that thought distresses many of you. But know this as well. I will examine the heart of every applicant personally before you are accepted. Do not approach us to join unless your heart truly desires it. Honor and loyalty do I require of my Gryphon Knights." That said her image faded.

     Brimstone started to step forward again but paused and looked expectantly at Tersha. "Is that all Tersha?"

     Twitching her ears in humor, Tersha said, "Ahh, yes I'm sorry, Brimstone. That is indeed all."

     Facing the men for the third time, Brimstone said, "All right, men, those of you that want to go to Harvest Moon to join the Gryphon Knights please step over to the left. Those of you that wish to remain here where food will be provided for your journey to the area of your choice, please step to the right."

     Only a very small number of men moved to the right. Thousands went to the left. Every single archer did so.


Chapter 54.

 

     For three days Damia worked almost day and night interviewing the prospective Gryphon Knights. Of the thousands that applied only about forty proved to be unfaithful and were subsequently rejected. They left peacefully under the watchful eyes of the true Knights.

     The single bad incident occurred when during the interviewing process three Vampires standing in the line waiting to be interviewed sought to kill Eric Glenfield, the Commander and head of the order. Leaping from the line the three charged Eric who was standing near the front of the line with his back to them. Marc Trumaine, the head of Gryphon Knight's security stepped forward personally to block their progress as they charged the Commander. Beside him were Aspen Longleaf and another Knight who was a recent inductee. They met the Vampires with blades and arrows. Within moments the three lay dead. One was a smoldering pile of charred flesh and ashes, and the wickedly sharp blades of the Gryphon Knights had beheaded the other two.

     Later that night Marc and Aspen met on a street in Harvest Moon. Both had been making their rounds checking on their men and their meeting was quite accidental. Marc posed a question to Aspen that night during the chance meeting that later kept Aspen awake long after he lay down to sleep when he asked, "Do you really think we will be able to remain neutral in the fight that is coming?"

     "I honestly don't know, Marc. I suppose much depends on how the battle is fought. If the two opposing groups meet on the field of battle and never enter the city and begin to pillage it, then yes I think so. But, frankly, I doubt it will happen in that way. I fear if Zadykiel and our former Commander enter the city at all it will be as conquerors, and they will pillage the city."

     Nodding his head with a serious expression on his face he said, "I'm afraid you are right Aspen. That's exactly how I see it if they enter the city."

     Aspen said, "I'll tell you something else. The men that were left there during the confrontation tried to stop our men that wanted to leave. Zadykiel put his monsters on them but the Companions killed many and then my Archers turned on the rest."

     "So my men have told me. The archers were brave indeed and helped the warriors out of a bad situation during the Werewolf charge."

     Nodding his head Aspen said, "My point in mentioning that matter is that five minutes prior to it the archers had no idea they were about to turn on their own men and the monsters."

     "Yes." Marc stated, "I understand the reason that you mentioned it." Shrugging he added, "It really doesn't matter what we say right now. It's what we do during that moment of truth that will ultimately matter. But I'll tell you this outright. I have come to like this city. I take my responsibilities for the safety of its people seriously."

     "Nodding his understanding Aspen added, "And as the Commander of the warriors in charge of security you are in a bind when it comes to defending the city and the population. I already suspect I know what you will do. I can sympathize with your conflict of interest."

     "As Commander of the Archers I think that I know what you will do as well. Aye, I can sympathize with your conflict of interest too."

 

                                                                  ***

 

     To say that Zadykiel was angry was a gross understatement. He had lost fifteen hundred or so men to the trap, most of his Werewolves who had accompanied him, half of the living Gargoyles and almost all of his reanimated Gargoyles. To make matters worse almost five thousand men had left the army and even now, according to his spies, were joining the ranks of his enemy the Gryphon Knights. He had been forced to backtrack for hours in order to get around the trench trap the Companions had somehow managed to leave for his forces. He had considered letting the Gargoyles ferry the men over but that in itself was also a problem now. The men wanted nothing to do with the Gargoyles and drew weapons at the mere approach of one. They had all seen what his Gargoyles had done to that patrol. Never again would they trust the Gargoyles.

     On the night that Aspen and Marc had their fateful meeting by chance on the streets of Harvest Moon, Zadykiel sat encamped with his forces just three days north west of Harvest Moon.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     By the light of the same moon that shone on Marc and Aspen in Harvest Moon and Zadykiel in his camp, Brimstone and the Companions stood north west of the city and observed as their Torlag allies dug rows of shallow tunnels side by side on the approach that Zadykiel's forces would have to take to the city. These traps weren't designed to kill the enemy as the one at the lake had done. These were meant to cause fear in their hearts and make them dread every step that they took, thus making them approach cautiously.

Other Torlags made mounds of dirt further to the south where the Companions and the Gryphon Knights, not formerly of Dalghard's fortress unit, would fight. The Companions were under no illusions. This was going to be a bloody war. The Gryphons could field one thousand men and women to defend the city. The thousands of new recruits would be staying inside the city because of their conflict of interests in the coming fight. That left them outnumbered five to one. Even with Brimstone and the Companion's spell power that was a terrible odds disadvantage.


Chapter 55.

 

     Brimstone teleported to Damia in answer to her call. He found himself before both Damia and Shinobi. Looking around he noted that he must be on the island of Ethia, for he saw Minotaur guards in evidence all around.

     Damia smiled at her husband and said, "Yes, love, you are on Ethia. The King wishes to send Minotaur warriors to assist in the battle to come with Zadykiel and the remnants of Dalghard's army."

     Smiling in return, Brimstone said, "They will be a welcome addition, for we are fairly outnumbered in terms of fighting men and women."

     "There is a problem though." said Shinobi frowning. "King Gorath Boronon wants all prisoners taken during the fighting handed over to the Minotaurs for punishment for raiding the Minotaurs ships and enslaving his people."

     "No," Brimstone stated flatly.

     "I knew he'd say that, Mother." Damia said smugly.

     Glancing at her daughter in irritation, Shinobi said, "So did I, Damia, and I agree with his decision. Yet, the Minotaurs are needed to defeat those forces and the King is adamant."

     Brimstone saw the problem and understood it. Shinobi wanted her followers to be in the battle, but the King's demand was unacceptable to Brimstone and to the Goddesses as well, for all three realized those terms would perpetuate the hostilities between the races that they wanted to see end. Shinobi could of course command it of the King, but she wouldn't. That went against her core philosophy.

     "I'll talk to him." Brimstone stated calmly.

     "Thank you, Brimstone." said Shinobi. She knew that Brimstone would appeal to the Minotaur King in ways that she could not.

     Moments later, they were admitted to the King's presence. Brimstone bowed respectfully and said, "Greetings, King Gorath Boronon. I hope that you are well this day."

     The King was an amazing Minotaur specimen. Strong and large even by Minotaur standards he was an imposing figure sitting on his throne. "Greetings, Brimstone, Husband of Damia, the Daughter of our Goddess, Shinobi. I am well this day, thank you," he replied formally.

     "Your Majesty, I understand that you are considering sending Minotaur warriors to assist in the war against the remnants of Dalghard's army. Therefore, I come before you to plead with you to reconsider."

     Stunned, the two Goddesses looked at Brimstone as if he'd lost his mind. The King was also surprised and leaned forward at this unexpected development. Even his royal guardsí ears seemed to twitch in eager anticipation of his answer when the King said, "And just why would you wish to see us stay out of the fight, Brimstone?"

     "Because the warriors that you will face have trained for years in anticipation of this coming war, and they are very angry at the Minotaurs right now."

     This outraged the King who leapt to his feet in anger. "They are angry at us? They enslave my people, beat them like animals, and force them to build the walls of their fortress, and it is they who are angry at us?"

     "Aye, Sire, it is unfair I know, but they hold your people responsible for the great slaughter of their people at the fortress. I fear it may be too dangerous for your men to fight these men in their current state of mind, for they will surely give no quarter in battle."

     "You assume that we would ask it!?" demanded the King as his eyes narrowed to dangerous slits and his nostrils flared.

     Calmly Brimstone said, "Nay Sire I know full well that no Minotaur would ask it." Looking around the thrown room at the guards he added, "But their Champions may issue personal challenges to your people. Would Ethia risk the loss of her best?"

     Sitting back in his throne, the King said, "Brimstone, you need to explain to me exactly what is going on."

     Shinobi bespoke Damia then and said, "Brimstone has manipulated the King into genuinely wanting to send a portion of his army against the remnants of Dalghard's. His original plan was to send two hundred warriors. A token force to win the concession that he wanted. Now he is thinking a full one thousand warriors, and the demand of prisoners is about to be dropped in favor of another demand." There was a momentís pause and then Shinobi said, "I didn't think Brimstone capable of such manipulation."

     Damia replied, "Neither did I, Mother. I just hope he doesn't overdo it."

     Brimstone was hoping the same thing. He replied to the King saying, "We have among our party of Companions a Lady Ru with the gift of foresight. Her talent has already forewarned us and helped us to avoid planned attacks upon our party more than once. The Seeress has advised us that there are a score of Champions among the army that are not normal. They are superb swordsmen all, but they are also Vampires with amazingly fast reflexes. It is her opinion that, during the battle, Zadykiel will seek out our best fighters, and then have his Champions challenge us. We humans can mock that challenge and decline it. Can the Minotaurs?"

     The King leaned forward in serious contemplation of that question. Finally he had to give the honest answer. "No. My people accept such challenges. It is bred into us."

Nodding seriously, Brimstone continued, "Then you see why it is that the Minotaurs have to stay out of this fight."

     Leaning back laughing, the King said, "No, Brimstone. Now I see that we must surely be represented by our best fighters and not the more common warriors that I had in truth planned to send." Turning serious the King said, "There is one other issue I wish to discuss."

     "Here it comes." Brimstone thought. The King continued, "I want the prisoners."

Brimstone shook his head and said, "That would destabilize Sic Dalar, King Boronon. The Gryphon Knights have absorbed large remnants of the former army of Dalghard. If they see their friends turned over to the Minotaurs, many will have bitterness festering in their hearts, and that would foment trouble."

     The King understood such matters as he often had to deal with malcontent Minotaurs stirring up trouble in his realm. But in truth he no longer considered the demand for the prisoners to be his primary interest. Now he had another. "Then I yield that request in favor of another. Well, two actually, but they are both smaller than the first."

     Brimstone stood listening attentively. "I want my Minotaurs to have the freedom to answer personal challenges from the enemy and I want them to lead the first counter attack against the enemy."

     Smiling with genuine amusement, Brimstone said, "King Boronon, I am glad you mentioned that. I have a plan you see...." Brimstone proceeded to describe the plan and as he did so the King's heart hammered within his chest in excitement as he pictured in his mind the daring plan Brimstone outlined.

     "By the gods, Brimstone, that plan is magnificent." The King then noted that several of his guards had gathered and were talking amongst themselves. Scowling at their lack of discipline he shouted, "Do you guards need to be excused from my presence so that we do not interrupt your conversation?"

     The guards then turned and faced their King. One Minotaur acted as their spokesman and said, "Your Majesty, we would like to go on that mission. We are eager to blood our weapons on the men who dared enslave Minotaurs."

     "And so you shall, all of you. For if that is to be the way of it, your King will lead that attack."

     "Your Majesty, that is not prudent. If you fall the Minotaurs lose their King." Brimstone countered.

     "Brimstone, this is not negotiable." the King said with a laugh. Then he added, "If I fall then another strong Minotaur will take my place. But if I fall in that charge, my death will be glorious."

     Brimstone had to admit that there were worse ways to die.


Chapter 56.

 

     The defenders of Harvest Moon had set up their defensive line wisely, taking into account the natural obstacles that would force the invaders into a narrow attack corridor. The only other approach from there would require the enemy to backtrack for a day and turn east to take another trail into town. Naturally, should they opt to do that, the defenders could easily shift their positions to cover that route in, for there were several trails leading in that direction behind their lines.

     The Companions stood on their battle line watching, as they had for the past twenty minutes, the arrival of Zadykiel's army. The Gargoyles had arrived first but they returned to the army when they saw the defenders. Next had come the Werewolves and a group of hundreds of Warriors. The Companions didn't know it but those were the reanimated warriors under Zadykiel's control. These elements of the army stopped about one thousand yards from the Companion's position. Soon they were joined by the rest of the army and twenty minutes from first sight of the Gargoyles the main body of the army arrived.

     Ziona, Mystyka, and Fawnn were gathered together whispering conspiratorially causing their husbands to smile. They knew what was about to happen. They had come up with an idea for a surprise for the invading army and worked with their allies the Torlags extensively the night before to help prepare it.

     It was late afternoon but Zadykiel had no intentions of delaying the battle. He strode to the front ranks of the army and ordered them to charge the enemy. The front ranks of the army moved out to follow that command. A few moments later, they encountered the concealed traps of the Torlags. Men fell through the shallow layer of earth above the tunnels of the Torlags just as planned. At first this caused a panic in the ranks of the army, for they had seen the trap that killed so many of their number just days ago. But this one seemed harmless. Here and there men dragged themselves from the traps and moved out toward the enemy once more, only to fall victim to other trapped tunnels. Then the men who were still stuck in the traps began to scream in pain and terror. Some began to die and soon others followed. Some of the soldiers pulled a few bodies from the traps to discover tiny serpents had bitten them. In some cases those serpents struck the men who pulled the bodies from the traps as well. Soon no man would even attempt to assist those trapped, for fear of the deadly little serpents.

     Brimstone had the mages hold their spells. He had developed a battle strategy for eroding the army of the enemy a bit at a time. He did this in the hopes that at least some of the men would flee the battle. Every man who quit this fight was one they would not have to kill. Though Brimstone and the Companions killed with efficiency when it was necessary to do so, they never took another life when there was a viable option. They had all agreed that the odds against many leaving the battle were slim, but that it was their moral obligation to spare lives if they could.

     Zadykiel's death mages dealt with the traps when they used their fire magic on them. They would walk up to a hole, jump down into it, and fire their spells in first one direction and then the other in the tunnels. They killed many men still trapped but that did not matter to them. Since this spared the loss of more soldiers the rest of the army didn't care either. By now the remnants of Dalghard's army were the hardcore fanatics.

     By sundown Zadykiel's death mages had cleared the traps and the army could proceed. But it was growing late, and Zadykiel preferred a daylight assault, so he ordered the army to hold their position for the night and rest as best they could.

     That first night some few dozen of the semi intelligent little serpents that the death mages had missed in their extermination attempts had their revenge on the army of Dalghard. In the middle of the night they slithered out of the trenches where the struggles of the rescuers had caved in the shoulders of the trenches, thus creating a means of escape from the otherwise steep shouldered trenches. On the surface and free of the confines of the trenches, most proceeded to Dalghard's army of sleeping men and by dawn nearly three hundred more soldiers had died. Some few did head toward the army of the defenders as well, but the Torlag guards, who had expected this development, killed those.

     Needless to say Zadykiel was furious. He was down to his last dozen rings and didn't dare use them for fear he would have greater need of them later. "Damn the Companions." he thought. "They whittle away at my men as if they are theirs for the taking at a whim." In retaliation for this, Zadykiel ordered fifty Gargoyles to take clay pots filled with charcoal embers and fly around the army of defenders and then head for the Harbor, where they were to drop their pots onto the decks of the ships there and return for more.

     The defenders noted the departure of the Gargoyles but they had no idea where they were heading. The first clue they had that the Harbor was under attack came when the city bells began to ring the fire alarms. The Companions had no idea what that those bells meant but the Gryphon Knights did. Eric reported to Brimstone that the Harbor was under attack.

     In the city, Marc Trumaine and a heavily armed group of Gryphon Knight Warriors saw smoke rising from the harbor area of the city. Moments later, they saw the Gargoyles dropping pots onto the ships in the harbor. Those ships manned by crews were easily saved, but there were a great number of ships in the Harbor whose crews were not present. Marc Trumaine found the Harbor Master organizing fire fighting crews from the volunteers streaming into the harbor. The volunteers were pouring aboard the ships at the docks and watering down the decks to make firing the ships more difficult. Marc sent word to Aspen Longleaf to get to the Harbor with a detachment of his archers to defend the ships. If Harvest Moon lost its merchant fleet, it would spell disaster, for the town relied heavily upon trade and was growing into a prosperous city as a result of that trade.

     Aspen arrived ten minutes later with a detachment of some three hundred archers. By then the Gargoyles had dropped their pots and returned to their camp for more. The Commander of the archers reported to Marc that he had also sent hundreds of his men throughout the city where they would guard against attacks of a similar nature upon the city proper.

     Fifteen minutes later, a second wave of Gargoyles flew in and dropped their smoldering pots upon yet more ships and the main warehouse for incoming and outgoing goods. The Gryphon Knight archers earned their keep that day. Of the flight of fifty Gargoyles only fifteen made it back to their camp. The ships were saved, but the warehouse suffered heavy smoke damage.

     Brimstone knew it was time to get Zadykiel's attention focused upon the battle front and off the city, before he opted to send the hundreds of Gargoyles he still had into the city and burn it down. He contacted the Minotaur King and briefly told him what was transpiring and asked if he and his warriors were ready. The King replied that the last group of warriors he wanted had just made port and the warriors were running to get to the assembly area at that very moment. "They should be here in another ten minutes." he finished.

     Brimstone thanked him and used that time to prepare. He had a hasty discussion with Eric who darted off to make preparations, laughing as he ran. True to his word, ten minutes later the King contacted Brimstone and said that all were now ready and eager to begin. On Ethia the King told his men, "Remember to keep your weapons sheathed until after we exit the portals so that we don't slaughter half of our own men as we exit. Fight well my people!" he finished with a shout brandishing his own massive war axe.

A moment later five portals appeared. The five rows of Minotaurs, led by their King, got a running start. As the King entered the center portal the five rows of two hundred Minotaurs each entered their own portals at a dead run.


Chapter 57.

 

     Brimstone had made the portal exits on Sic Dalar invisible, thus no one knew anything was amiss until suddenly Minotaurs began to appear. Even then it was a full twenty seconds before the army of Dalghard noted their appearance. By then the majority of the Minotaurs had exited the portals. One moment the area to their rear was free of the enemy and the next there was a raging Minotaur army bearing down upon them. The Minotaurs struck the center of Zadykiel's army like a hammer against a soft rock. Hundreds of the enemy fell to Minotaur war axes and swords as they sliced through them as a scythe through ripened wheat. Moving, always moving, the Minotaurs sliced through the enemy ranks. The enemy was taken completely by surprise and was unprepared to face the fury of the Minotaursí angry attack.

     Two minutes from the time King Boronon appeared, he had reached the trapped area laid by the Torlags. These lines of traps were now clearly marked by the activities of the day before and it was no real feat for the Minotaurs to easily leap over those trapped lines midstride and never break their pace. Minotaurs loved such athletic performances and often held races in which they had to leap over obstacles on the dead run. In short, the Minotaurs were perfectly suited to that portion of their charge. Even so, there were some few incidents when Minotaurs misjudged the distances involved and sank into the traps, where they would be vulnerable to the attack of the enemy.

     As the Minotaurs crossed those trapped lines, a handful of them fell into the traps. The enemy, seeing this, began to run towards them with the intentions of slaughtering them where they struggled to escape the traps. It was at that point that Eric Glenfield, Commander of the Gryphon Knights lead two hundred of his warriors onto the field. Running to the trenches they stopped just short of the traps prepared to protect the trapped Minotaurs while eager Knights pulled them from the traps.

     The charging enemy, seeing the Gryphon Knights, sought to get at them. During the process many fell victim to the traps but were spared a fate similar to their fellow soldiers since the snakes had, by now, all been slain.

     When the last of the trapped Minotaurs had been freed, the Commander ordered a withdrawal of his forces. They withdrew a step at a time as they battled those of the enemy who had succeeded in reaching them. The Companionsí mages healed those of the Knights in need and gave them the benefit of their spells as well. Soon the enemy was forced to retreat lest they draw too near the enemy line without benefit of a full attack force.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     A furious Zadykiel sent one of his Champions onto the field. Things had been going entirely too well for the defenders and it was time to change that. The reanimated Vampire had specific instructions and he followed them to the letter. He walked calmly to the trapped area alone, armed with nothing but a sword. Leaping across the traps he moved near the midway point between the two armies. He stood there then and shouted his challenge to the defenders. "I seek the Minotaur Caval. I come to claim his head, as is my right by the might of my sword. Come, calf! Come to meet your doom if you dare!"

     There was a stir among the Companions and Caval emerged from their midst with nostrils flaring in anger. "Caval, you be careful!" Lord Fatman said as his friend walked boldly out to meet the challenger.

     With his great war axe in hand, Caval approached the Vampire champion. He had been warned, as had all of the Companions, about Zadykiel's champions. But he had been challenged and he had answered that challenge. Now he just had to figure out how to survive it.

     In the opening moments of the duel, a series of attacks, parries, and blocks took place so rapidly that if an observer blinked they missed an attack and response. Then the Vampire scored a hit with his sword tip and drew blood from the Minotaur's arm. Soon he scored another hit on one of Caval's legs. It soon became apparent that the Vampire was deliberately blooding the Minotaur and prolonging the duel to punish him.

     Then Caval went into a Berserker rage and his axe glowed briefly as it cleaved through the air. The Vampire expertly blocked the down stroke with his sword but such was the power of the blow that the enchanted axe slid through it as though it were made of paper. The axe caught the Vampire full in the face, cleaving through it. There was an inch gap between the two sections of the Vampire's head. He fell to the ground but Caval saw the magic of the ring begin to pull the two sections of the head back together. Using his axe again, Caval struck two more blows. One decapitated the man's ruined head and the other took the hand that bore the ring.

     Bending down, Caval picked up the hand of the now dead Vampire and walked back to his lines, cut and wounded in a score of places. As he walked back to the lines, the assembled Minotaur army cheered wildly. Lord Fatman healed Caval's wounds with his Paladin powers. Brimstone took the ring and tossed it onto the ground before the army and burned it.

     Seeing his first Champion defeated Zadykiel sent the next. This one picked up the body of the first and threw him into the hole created by one of the traps and returned to the same area. He threw back his head and issued a challenge. "I seek the human warrior Lord Malachi. Step forth, Malachi, and meet your doom."

     Looking at Brimstone Lord Malachi shrugged and said, "I know you don't want us to answer these challenges but..." shrugging again he headed out onto the field with sword in one hand and shield in the other.

     "Malachi!" shouted Nessarose. He paused and half turned toward the young woman as she raced out to meet him. Then surprising them both she kissed him full upon the lips and winked as she said, "For luck."

     Lord Malachi smiled and said, "I should make it a point to accept challenges more often then. Reaching out with his shield arm he pulled her near and kissed her soundly. "For fun." he explained and winked. He turned then and approached the waiting Champion.

     As he drew near, the Champion began to taunt him saying, "What a sweet looking young lady. Perhaps I'll make her mine when this is over."

     "Trust me Vampire." Lord Malachi said smiling genially, "When this is over, you won't be making any problems for anyone ever again, unless it be your grave digger."

     The Vampire launched a set of attacks designed to test Lord Malachi's guard. Lord Malachi's reflexes were superb and his guard very nearly impenetrable to the ordinary warrior. But his opponent was no ordinary warrior. He was one of the best swordsmen of Dalghard's army and he was a Vampire, with a Vampire's accelerated reflexes. So rapid were the Vampire's attacks that Lord Malachi barely had the time to counterattack at all. The few counters he managed to launch were always too late.

     On the defender's side of the battle line Jedi shouted, "Remember the trick, Malachi!"

Lord Malachi heard him and knew that he was referring to the battle with the fifteen Vampires near Brimstone's home. He calmed his mind as he struggled against the superior speed and reflexes of the superb swordsman he fought. Lord Malachi knew that the Vampire was quite well trained and he didn't make many mistakes. But he had spotted one. Every time he rammed the Vampire with his shield the vampireís neck became exposed for a very brief moment. It was dangerous, as his shield arm would become exposed by the maneuver, but Lord Malachi decided upon a desperate course of action.

     Circling his enemy in a crouched fighting stance Lord Malachi set his plan in action. He thrust his shield at the Vampire, tilting it so that the top edge struck the Vampire hard in the bride of the nose. The Vampire's head snapped back, but a moment later Lord Malachi felt a sharp pain in his shield arm, even as he swung his sword for the killing stroke. His blade struck the left side of the Vampire's neck a heartbeat after the Vampire's sword severed Lord Malachi's left arm halfway between the elbow and the shoulder.

     The Vampire lost his head but Lord Malachi had lost his arm. He fell to his knees in agony then and almost passed out. On the Companionís side of the line Nessarose and Jedi had to be physically restrained to keep them from running onto the field to Lord Malachi. Brimstone shook Jedi until his teeth rattled and said, "Look at the trap man!" Looking across at the enemy, Jedi saw some twenty men with bows waiting for some of the Companions to try to get to Lord Malachi. "We'll send the Gryphon Knights. Their shields will protect them from the archers better than ours."

     "Where'd he get archers anyway? I thought they all joined us."

     "Most likely they are dead men from the fortress battle." Brimstone replied then ran to see the Gryphons.


Chapter 58.

 

     Zadykiel perked up his interest. Here was an opportunity if he reacted quickly enough to capture one of the Companions. "Now that Warrior is worth the loss of a ring." he thought. Turning to the young man who used his staff so well he said, "Go and bring that man back to our lines."

     The cook looked at the opposing army and grinned. "If I succeed do I get a uniform tunic and a raise in my pay?"

     Zadykiel looked at the man in consternation and said, "You seek to bargain at a time like this?"

     "Will there ever be a better time?" asked the cook simply.

     Laughing Zadykiel said, "No I suppose not. Very well then. Bring me that man and you'll get that which you crave."

     "Well, tell those stupid archers not to shoot me as I run for the man."

Narrowing his eyes Zadykiel said, "I like your spirit but have a care. You can be replaced you know."

     Laughing, the man turned and began to run toward the wounded Companion. He leapt across the first of the traps effortlessly and continued to run for Lord Malachi.

     Brimstone now had the Gryphon Knights prepared to send a group to retrieve Lord Malachi but their concern was that the archers would shoot him as they approached. He was about to teleport three Knights to Lord Malachi so they could defend him when the cook began his fateful run.

     Just as the cook was about to reach Lord Malachi, Ziona let fly an arrow. The cook's staff whipped around and deflected that arrow and the Companions stood amazed. Ziona didn't dare fire another arrow, for it was quite possible the young man would deflect it into her friend with that staff of his. The cook bent and helped Lord Malachi to his feet. "It's time to go warrior. Your friends are waiting."

     In a daze Lord Malachi got to his feet. The cook took a moment to wrap the stump of his arm with a strip of cloth. Using a stick he twisted it, forming an emergency tourniquet. "That will do for now." he said with a grin.

     Brimstone held off sending the Knights for fear the cook would kill Lord Malachi if any appeared beside them or were seen heading in his direction. While there was life there was hope. But he was angry. Very angry. And that anger was directed at himself. He had been so upset by what had happened to Lord Malachi that he had momentarily forgotten his ability to teleport people. Even after deciding to teleport Gryphons to his friend he had failed to realize his error. He could have simply teleported Lord Malachi to them, but now it was too late.

     The cook stared sadly at his staff then dropped it on the ground. He had carried that weapon for years and now he had to abandon it. He supported Lord Malachi with one hand and reached to pick up his arm. The hand was locked onto the shield handle. The man cursed when he realized that he would have to carry the heavy shield as well. Looking at Malachi's pain filled eyes he said. We have to run now warrior. The archers won't immediately fire at us, but they won't hold their arrows for long once Zadykiel realizes that I am betraying him."

     Lord Malachi nodded his understanding and said through gritted teeth, "Thank you."

Smiling the cook said, "Let's go." Together the two men ran toward the defender's line.

Zadykiel was furious. The cook was betraying him. It took him several seconds to countermand his order to the archers not to fire at the cook. By the time he had those orders reversed, the fleeing pair was out of range of their bows, and the arrows fell short of their targets, even when launched for the greatest distance possible.

     When the pair reached the lines they found eager hands waiting to assist them. Nessa and Lord Fatman immediately took charge of Lord Malachi, laying him down on the ground to begin healing him. Jedi thanked the cook and turned to his friend.

     Brimstone approached and held out his hands for Lord Malachi's arm. The cook handed it to him and turned to stare at the spot on the ground where his staff lay. "You won't make it." Brimstone noted and pointed to the archers who had been ordered to move closer to the fighting so they would be within range.

     Turning to Ziona he said, "Get our archers together here. Eliminate their archers."

     "With pleasure!" she said sprinting off to find all of the archers available.


Chapter 59.

 

     Brimstone thanked the cook for what he had done and turned to Lord Fatman who was healing Lord Malachi. Squatting beside Lord Malachi he said, "I can reattach your arm, but there will be a great deal of pain. Do you want me to do it?"

     Lord Malachi responded, "Just make it as quick as possible."

    "That's the problem, friend. It cannot be done quickly if the arm is to be restored to full function. I can fix this for you, but it will take time."

     Nodding his understanding, Lord Malachi said, "Do it."

     "Can't you make him sleep while you fix his arm?" asked Nessarose.

     Brimstone shook his head and said, "For the arm to be restored to full function he has to be awake so I can see the effects instantly as I manipulate the healing process, and can make corrections accordingly. Otherwise it is pure guesswork on my part and he would probably lose thirty percent or more of the function of his arm."

     Looking at Nessa with compassion in his eyes, he added, "I wish there was another way. A full god could reattach it instantly with no pain, but alas, if they did so they would forfeit that power to Zadykiel. Imagine him with that power."

     "I know you will do your best, Brimstone. You always do," she replied.

     Nessarose cut a strip of leather from her pack and knelt beside Malachi. "Let me put this between your teeth."

Lord Malachi obediently opened his mouth and gently bit down on the scrap of leather, being careful to avoid her fingers.

     Brimstone instructed Lord Fatman to remove the tourniquet. When this was done he laid the arm beside the stump and held his hands over it. As the healing power radiated through his body the pain began and Lord Malachi's eyes widened in shock. He bit down hard on the scrap of leather as sweat broke out all over his body. Lord Fatman's excellent healing had diminished the pain to a large extent. But when the joining of his severed limb began, that pain was rekindled and soon rose to a threshold well beyond anything that he had ever endured. He began to toss his head from side to side violently.

     "Malachi you have to stop that or you'll undo my work," Brimstone warned. He'd had to stop the process lest he end up ruining the arm. He glanced at Nessa. "Try to hold his head still, please." She knelt beside his head then as he lay upon the ground on his back. Placing her hands on the side of his face she whispered, "I'm ready."

     Brimstone began the restoration process again. This time when the pain slammed into his body, Nessa waited to help. She was staring into his eyes when the pain hit him and she saw him fighting and resisting it.

     Nessarose was special in many ways. She had been in close proximity to Torlags all of her life and was able to communicate with the Torlags to a degree that no other human could as a result of that close association. She had also been exposed to the Torlags prior to her birth, while still inside the body of her mother. As a result of this close relationship with the Torlags, she had developed an empathy much akin to that of the Torlag race. When she saw Lord Malachi's pain reflected in his eyes, she reacted in an unexpected manner. She took large portions of his pain and drained it out of him. Her body rocked slowly as the pain was drawn into her and her face grimaced as if in agony. Lord Malachi saw what was happening and with a muffled gasp said, "Nessa! No!"

     "Malachi, yes." she replied firmly. Looking at Brimstone with tears of pain in her eyes, she said, "Continue."

     Tersha sat beside Nessa. As usual she was close to her friend. "She is Mamu!" Tersha stated in wonder and joy as if that explained everything. Then she sent the message to all of the Torlags in the area, "Nessa is Mamu! She needs us!"

Moments later, Torlags from all over the area converged on the scene and formed a crescent around Nessa and whimpered in shared pain, as every Torlag present reached out and made mental contact with Nessa and shared a portion of the pain she was experiencing, to help alleviate the pain of one they now considered a full sister.

     When the restoration was complete, Lord Malachi sat up and flexed his left arm, then he thanked everyone. Turning to Nessa he asked, "What did you just do?"

     Nessa said, "Among the Torlags there are special Torlags whom they call the Mamu. Tersha told me about them. They take a patient's pain into themselves to ease the patient's suffering, while other Torlags heal them. It prevents the patient from injuring himself while being healed. I knew that such was possible and decided to try it when I saw you suffering so much."

     "Nessa is Mamu now. Among my people Mamu are honored because they are so rare. Less than two percent of our population have the capabilities required. Most of those lack the resolve to do what Nessa just did." Tersha said and bowed to Nessa.

     Nessa was shocked to discover that every Torlag present also bowed. She bowed in return and said, "Thank you all for sharing the pain. I fear that it was too much for me and I would have failed alone."


Chapter 60.

 

     Though it seemed an eternity, the healing and restoration of Lord Malachi's arm had only taken seven minutes. Ziona and the archers were walking onto the field to deal with the Zadykiel's archers as Brimstone left the circle of people and Torlags near Lord Malachi.

     Joining the archers, he waited as they drew their arrows. Anpu, Yane, Ziona, Dark Arrows, LenapeSue and Nessarose, who'd just joined the line, drew their bows to full draw. Across the battlefield, the enemy archers thought themselves safe for they were well beyond the range of their own bows and they well knew that. But they had never gone up against the high powered bows carried by the Companions. With only a little elevation applied, those bows could easily send an arrow into their position, as they learned moments later when six flaming arrows struck six of their number. They had been ordered to maintain their positions by Zadykiel who was stunned when they held their ground for two volley's of arrows. "Move damn you." he ordered the archers who instantly turned tail and sprinted for their own lines. Even on a dead run Ziona, Dark Arrows, LenapeSue, Yane and Anpu all accounted for one more archer each as they sprinted for safety.

     Only three of the twenty archers managed to return to Zadykiel's army. Behind the Companion archers, the allied army cheered wildly and shouted insults to the opposing army.

     Brimstone ordered the archers back to their lines then he amplified his voice and issued a challenge of his own. "Zadykiel, your Vampire sword masters are good, but as you have seen we are better. I challenge the remaining eighteen to fight me. I'll fight them one at a time and use only my sword, or I'll fight them all and use my magic."

     Zadykiel, at a considerably lower volume, yelled back, "Behold my answer, Brimstone!"

     Puzzled by this Brimstone stood waiting for moments until he saw flights of Gargoyles taking to the air. Hung suspended below them were men and Werewolves. Zadykiel was sending the remaining sword masters and about forty Werewolves into the city of Harvest Moon.

     Eric Glenfield sent messages to his officers in the city to prepare for what was coming. He told his men to kill all of the enemy with no mercy, for they were about to attempt a slaughter upon the hapless citizens of the city.

     Brimstone and the Mages all along the battlefield opened fire upon the Gargoyles and their cargos. In some cases they had the time to destroy teams but most escaped when they flew behind a mountain situated to the right of the battlefield.

     Eric warned his officers that most had made it safely away and that he dared not withdraw with his forces to assist the remaining Gryphon Knights inside the city, for to do so would invite Zadykiel's forces to attack the weakened allied army. The officers replied that they understood and would see to the defense of the city.

     Privately, Eric hoped that they would. But the remaining Gryphon Knights in the city were almost entirely comprised of the new recruits who had defected from Dalghard's army. Frankly, he didn't like this situation one damned bit!

     But Zadykiel hadn't ordered an immediate attack as the allies had feared. He wisely understood that a daylight attack was doomed to heavy losses. The losses he expected anyway, but he wanted maximum carnage for the lives of the monsters and reanimates he was sending into battle. Thus, he had ordered them to fly to a spot some five miles distant and wait for full dark. Then they would attack under the cover of darkness.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Eric needn't have worried. Marc Trumaine and Aspen Longleaf took the coming monster raid quite seriously and hastened to make preparations. When the attack failed to materialize in the first hour, Marc contacted the Commander to report that they had as yet not arrived and that he suspected they would wait for the cover of darkness to attack.

     Eric replied that this was what he would do in their situation. He then ordered Marc to strategically place men at key points of the city and to be ready for the attack. Marc replied that this maneuver had been accomplished within fifteen minutes of the alert the Commander had issued. He then detailed the list of positions and asked if there was anything he had missed. Eric then inquired as to the numbers of men left to guard their headquarters. Marc answered that question and Eric said, "Pull them out of the headquarters. Lock the place up and send the men there to the residential area of the city. The people of the city come first. If we lose the nice headquarters then we lose it. Better that than the lives of the citizens we are sworn to protect."

     Marc agreed to have the orders carried out immediately. Turning to Aspen he said, "It's nice to serve under a proper Commander for a change." Aspen smiled by way of reply. He also admired the Commander and respected the man.

     "My archers are located all over the city at the strategic points you requested. I'll be making my rounds until the fighting starts. If you need me at that point then seek me where the fighting is worst for that is where I intend to go."

     Marc nodded his head then reached out his hand to shake with the archer. "Good luck to you this night, old friend."

     "May Damia be with us all this night." replied Aspen as the two shook hands.

     "May that ever be the case." replied Marc politely. All Gryphon Knights were followers of Damia. But not all were strictly fervent in that following. Whereas Aspen was becoming a devout follower, Marc considered Damia more as a Supreme Commanding officer than a deity. Intellectually, he knew she was a goddess, but he revered her more for her leadership ability than her godhood. Damia knew and understood this and did not disapprove. Both thought patterns led to the same result, which was adherence to the precepts of the Order of Gryphon Knights. To her that was what was most important.


Chapter 61.

 

     Zadykiel had ordered his men to advance to the trapped ground closer to the defenders. He had them fill in the holes created by the traps. They did this by dumping the bodies of their dead from the Minotaur charge into the holes and covering them with a layer of dirt. By nightfall they had completed this operation. Zadykiel let the army rest then. Come morning, he planned an all out attack after a night of terror was visited upon the citizens of the city.

     An hour after dark Mystyka quietly made herself invisible and slipped away from the allied army camp. Moving with great stealth she walked onto the battlefield and located the cook's staff. She had heard about his sacrifice of the weapon to save her friend and decided that she would retrieve it for him. Though how people could become attached to a weapon was beyond her understanding.

     The moment she touched the staff it too became invisible. She picked it up and returned to camp. Becoming visible again she located Tarn beside a campfire talking with Lord Malachi about the day's events. She handed the staff to Malachi, and then sat down beside Tarn.

     "What's this?" asked the confused warrior.

     "That is the staff that the man who rescued you carried with him. He had to abandon it to bring back your arm and shield. I retrieved it for him. Now you can return it."

     "You did what!" both men exclaimed simultaneously.

     Shrugging she said, "It was safe. I was invisible." Then turning to Malachi she said, "I hear the cook is at our camp cooking area helping with the cooking. I think you should pay him a visit to properly thank him."

     Standing Lord Malachi said, "Yes, I think I will. Thank you Mystyka."

     Tarn wrapped his arm around Mystyka and pulled her close. He said, "That was a nice thing you did, but it was too dangerous. Next time, let me in on the plan and I'll go with you."

     Mystyka smiled at her husband and said, "Tarn, there was really very little danger. The nearest enemy to the position was quite some distance from the staff. They pulled back to bed down for the night. Besides, we owe the cook for what he did."

     Tarn remembered the pale and shocked visage of his wife when she had seen Lord Malachi's horrible wound. He understood her desire to do something for the cook in return. Smiling he said, "He is a brave man. He seems to dislike warriors though. Yet, from what Lady Ru says, he may well become one of our Companions."

     Mystyka was about to reply when her eyes widened and she exclaimed, "Oh my! Is the city burning?"

     Spinning around to face the direction of Harvest Moon, Tarn noted a red glow in the sky. "I hope not." he said in alarm.


Chapter 62.

 

     When darkness fell upon Harvest Moon, the Gargoyles took wing for the city with their cargo of allies. With the city lights in sight they separated into two groups, as planned by Zadykiel, with some few remaining where they diverged. The rest flew on to encircle the city. Finally, about an hour and a half past darkness, the time had come for them to make their attack. Some flew to the outskirts of the city and landed to allow their wingless allies to walk in on foot. The Gargoyles carried smoldering pots with them and after dropping off their allies flew to the scarcely populated areas of the city, such as the market and warehouse areas. Once there, they dropped their pots onto the buildings to create panic and draw out the residents of the city, to make them vulnerable to an attack.

Others flew their allies to heavily populated areas and landed them in places such as rooftops or back allies. Once free of the harnesses these Gargoyles flew off to seek prey. Their allies went on a rampage throughout the city. It was extremely difficult for Marc to keep up with the reports coming in from all over the city. Over and over, he assured the Gryphon Knights that this was not a full scale invasion of the city and that the enemy numbers were miniscule compared to those of the defenders. Time after time he assured them that they would soon put a stop to the depredations of the monsters and men who had dared enter their city, but that they must remain focused. Deal with the enemy nearest them and let the other groups of Knights go after the rest.

    Thus reassured by the competent officer, the Gryphon Knights hunted down the Werewolves and swordsmen, calmly and efficiently. There were dozens of battles that night. The Vampiric swordsmen were the worst of the dangers and several Knights fell to their swords before they learned to decapitate them when they had them down. They learned this the hard way when a group of Knight Warriors surrounded one and killed him by sheer force of numbers, with every Knight attacking at once. Then, as they turned to leave, he leapt back to his feet and killed three Knights in as many heartbeats. The Knights, in a fury, killed him again and this time they dismembered the body to prevent him from reanimating. They were angry with themselves for forgetting to behead all of the enemy, because some were reanimates. Marc had specifically warned them about that in the briefing but in the heat of the battle they had forgotten that detail.

     Aspen Longleaf and his archers dealt with several Gargoyles intent upon burning the city. Their flaming arrows brought down better than a score in the first forty-five minutes of the fighting. The Gargoyles were elusive and tended to fly away at the sight of the archers, so they actually had to be concealed from view and be lucky enough for a Gargoyle to pass within bow range to get a kill.

     The citizens of the city rallied to put out the fires raging in several places, only to meet the swordsmen or Werewolves of the enemy. Several citizens were slain but the people of the city fought back. Armed with nothing but torches a group of two dozen or more citizens cornered a Werewolf in a small storage building and burned it down with him in it.

     In the tavern Brimstone and the Companions sometimes visited the owner, a woman named Nambi, organized her staff and when a Vampire swordsman entered and attacked a patron they descended upon him, tossing mugs of some flammable oil on him from all directions. This confused him momentarily until a serving wench tossed the candle at him. Too late, he realized what had happened and was consumed in flame. This act almost burned down the tavern as well, but the patrons and staff managed to contain the damage to the area immediately surrounding the burning swordsman. A huntsman who was there for supper ended it when he beheaded the burning swordsman. "T'aint proper to let a man burn to death." he said by way of explanation.

     The Harbor Master once again organized the defense of the warehouses and ships located at the dock. It was there that several Gargoyles attempting to burn down the main warehouse flew into a trap. Aspen Longleaf had stationed two hundred of his archers inside that warehouse. A dozen Gargoyles flew into it through the massive front doors which had been left open. They planned to set multiple fires inside so that there would be no way the humans could put them out before the warehouse was destroyed. They were just a few feet inside the warehouse when they saw the army of archers waiting. Too late, they saw the archers draw their bows as one and let fly their arrows. Most of the Gargoyles were dead before they hit the ground. Each had been hit by dozens of arrows. The archers then rushed to put out the few fires that had been started by the burning bodies, making sure that the fires were completely extinguished. Aspen smiled and congratulated his men on a job well done. They then sprinted out into the night, moving to the next hot spot of enemy activity down by the docks.

     Marc Trumaine led a group of thirty warriors in a charge on a position held by five Werewolves. They had cornered the Werewolves in an alley which ended in a cul-de-sac. There was simply no way out. The buildings there were tall and there were no windows facing the alley. Grimly, the Knights charged into the alley and the fight was on. The Werewolves fought with all the fury of a cornered animal. They succeeded in tearing two Knights to pieces before Trumaine and the rest were able to slay them all.

     There were numerous acts of selfless heroism that night on the part of the Gryphon Knights. One Knight messenger had just delivered his message and was running back to Marc Trumaine's position when he saw a Vampire Swordsman and several Werewolves stalking a weeping woman and several children. He turned at once in their direction, yelling at the top of his lungs, "For Damia!" The distracted enemy turned to face him and he attacked them all with a flurry of sword thrusts. "Run!" he yelled to the frightened woman who then gathered the children and ran away into the terrifying night. Moments later, he was torn to pieces by the Werewolves. But he didn't die in vain. The woman and her children made it to safety thanks to his courage and selfless sacrifice.

     Three Knights escorting a group of Ladies to their homes saw a group of Werewolves coming and ushered the Ladies into a house. They calmly waited to protect them after sending word for help. The Werewolves eventually tore all three Knights to pieces but as the last man fell their reinforcements arrived and the Werewolves fled only to run into a group of Gryphon Knight archers who did a splendid job of avenging their fallen brothers, as not one Werewolf left that encounter alive. 

     The Gargoyles fired one of the smaller Inns that night. It served primarily the very poor. Five Knights rushed into that burning Inn to rescue people inside. They got most of the people out and to safety but went back inside when they heard screams for help coming from within. The roof collapsed killing all five of the Knights and the doomed patron.

     It took three hours to hunt them all down, but finally the Gryphon Knights managed to clear the city of the enemy. All of the Vampiric swordsmen and Werewolves had been slain, as had many of the Gargoyles. The surviving Gargoyles had flown to safety.

The Gryphon Knights had managed to save the city and its inhabitants, but at a heavy price. Twenty-three Knights had paid the ultimate price for their valor. It was a somber Marc Trumaine who reported to their Commander that there had been fourteen citizens killed, five buildings destroyed and twenty-three Knights lost in the fighting.


Chapter 63.

 

     In her realm, where her emotions were no threat to Althea, Damia wept. When she had composed herself she went to the Gryphon Knight headquarters, where her dead Knights had been laid out beside the headquarters building. It was an emotional moment for the Knights when their Goddess arrived. Both of the Captains were there. Aspen knelt in respect and devotion to the Goddess and Marc bowed. Damia nodded to all of the Knights present and said, "Well done, my Knights. Tonight you have served well the precepts of your order and acted with valor." Looking pointedly then to the twenty three bodies on the ground she added, "Some of you paid the ultimate price for that valor."

     Moving quietly to the bodies she knelt beside the first. The cape of the Gryphon Knights had covered each Knight. Reaching out her hand she gently folded back the top portion of the cape revealing the face of the dead Knight. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw the horribly mutilated face of her Knight. Reaching up she captured a tear with her index finger and gently touched the forehead of her dead Knight. "Be whole." she whispered and her magic restored the body of her Knight. Staring in amazement her Knights felt the power radiating from Damia as she moved to the next Knight in that line of amber shrouded forms. One by one she examined their wounds and wept a single tear with which she restored their bodies.

     All during this process Marc stared in amazement at the Goddess. More and more Knights arrived during this process. It seemed that every Knight within the city was drawn to the tableau unfolding. As they arrived many knelt in respect and devotion for their Goddess. Others, like Marc bowed and remained standing. Soon thousands of Knights surrounded the area. The quietness was almost absolute as they listened to the Goddess when she whispered the two words, "Be whole." Each time she said those words, more Knights joined those who knelt, for it stirred the soul to behold the compassion Damia evidenced for the Knights of her Order. She adored them and they adored her in return.

     Marc wasn't sure what was about to happen, but he felt certain that something was about to happen. Something really big. Somehow, he knew that when it happened it would be wonderful.

     Damia arrived then at the last five bodies and Marc walked rapidly to her. She noted his approach and paused. "Goddess, with all due respect, I don't think you should examine the remaining men. They were burned horribly and there isn't much left to see."

Touched by his concern Damia asked gently, "If my followers can endure such a death for the precepts they fight for, can I not endure their sight? To do less is to dishonor their sacrifice." She knelt then beside the body of the first of the burn victims and gently pulled aside his make-shift shroud. Horrid were the burns that covered his body and as before her breath caught in her lungs. Her eyes brimmed with tears as she gently whispered, "My poor Knight. What have they done to you?" Then she said, "Be whole," and touched his forehead as she had his fellow Knights.

     Marc stared in awe as the horribly burned and disfigured Knight's features returned to normal. He knelt then himself in devotion to the Goddess who cared so much for the Knights of her Order. Dalghard he had served because he had to. Damia he had served because it suited him to do so. But during the events there that night, he came to serve the Goddess Damia not because of her military prowess, but because of her unshakable love and compassion for every single Knight of her Order.

     One by one the remaining bodies were made whole. And when that was done Damia stood and asked all to stand well away from the men's bodies. Not knowing what was transpiring the men moved back a bit. She told them to move further back and caused a glowing yellow line to form around the bodies that extended well away from them. She advised all to stand outside those lines and waited until the last man had vacated the designated area. Closing her eyes she summoned as she had never summoned before.

     Before the startled eyes of the assembled Gryphon Knights a massive Mausoleum formed. It was made of gray marble with veins of blue running through it. Twenty-three fluted columns graced the front of the structure. One column stood for each of the men slain that night. On the front of the structure were engraved the words HALL OF HEROES.

     Walking inside the structure, they found Damia standing beside a row of twenty-three free standing sealed black marble vaults. The vaults stood four feet tall. Upon each vault was engraved in gold the name and rank of the man within and a few words about his passing. Marc noted the size of the structure and knew there was room for hundreds more such vaults. Speaking privately to Damia he asked, "Why is the Mausoleum so large? Surely we won't need that much space."

     Just as privately Damia responded, "This war ends tomorrow." That was all that she would say on the matter.

     Stunned, he struggled with that revelation.

     Damia turned then to her assembled Knights. Spreading her hands she said, "My Beloved Knights of the order of the Gryphon. I salute you and your courage. I bless you all during these dark hours ahead. May you all find the courage of these twenty-three who were lost to us this night. Blessed be the Gryphon Knights, great and small. Blessed be you, each and every one."

     That said she gathered the remnants of her tears and tossed them out with both hands toward he assembled Knights. The tears went high into the air and divided and divided again and again, until when they fell, every man assembled there was touched by a tear of their goddess. But they didn't stop there. Just as she had said, she had blessed them all. No matter where they were upon Sic Dalar the Gryphon Knights felt a tear from their goddess that night and as they had once before, they heard her Benediction. On the battlefield the Gryphon Knights heard the Benediction and felt the tears of their Goddess and were instantly refreshed. They knelt in devotion. In Paradise Cove the assembled Gryphon Knights heard that Benediction and knelt in devotion. They then used the scrolls to Harvest Moon that each Knight was required to carry. Their Paradise Cove Commander had decided that they should join their brothers and sisters in battle since it was now apparent that no attack would come to Paradise Cove in the near future.

     The one hundred men and women arrived in Harvest Moon and walked immediately to the Mausoleum. The contingent from Paradise Cove stared in awe at what they saw.

"Thank you for coming." Damia said. "Tomorrow, your brothers and sisters will sorely need you."

     The contingent from Paradise Cove visited the crypts of the heroes and paid their respects. Then they filed quietly out of the Mausoleum. These were the older Knights of the Order and not of Dalghard's former army. Yet to the amazement of the newer Knights they reacted as if they had known the fallen Knights quite well. Anger burned in the eyes of the men and women who filed out to march to the battlefield where they would reinforce the Knights on the line.

     Then it was that an odd thing happened. Several of the new Knights stepped forward asking their Commanders for permission to leave with the group of departing Knights. The Commanders turned to Damia and explained that many wanted to go. "I cannot ask you to participate. I gave my word that you would not have to do so." Damia replied.

     "Then I'll ask them," Aspen Longleaf said boldly and turned to face his archers. "Men, our fellow Knights face the battle tomorrow. They are hopelessly outnumbered. They have excused us from the need to fight this war, and none of us need do so. They understand our conflict of interest, and in their compassion they excuse us from that duty. The Knights departing go to reinforce our Knights standing on the battle line there. I for one can not stand by and let others fight and die to protect me. I am going with them. Those of you that do not wish to go, stay in the city and protect the citizens, should the need arise."

     Saying nothing more Aspen briefly knelt before his Goddess and then turned and strode away to catch up with the departing detachment. Seeing him leaving, the original band of archers who had freed the two Captains fell in behind him. Soon, there was a great exodus of the archers.

     Marc Trumaine stepped to the forefront then and said, "All right, men, we cannot abandon the city. We have a duty to protect the citizens should the battle go badly or the enemy launch other attacks against the city. I need one thousand volunteers to stay behind. That should be more than enough to accommodate those of you not wishing to fight our former friends in Dalghard's army."

     Seeing two officers attempting to follow the archers he shouted for them to return. They did so reluctantly and he said, "I am sorry, but you will have to stay and command the defense of the city."

     That said he asked that those who wanted to stay to move to the right. Very few took that opportunity.

Damia smiled and said, "Leave two hundred. That is more than enough." Then she looked at her Knights with admiration and said, "Blessed be you all."

     The Hall of Heroes emptied rapidly then, for the last two hundred Knights would have to remain behind to defend the city.


Chapter 63.

 

     The following morning Zadykiel stepped from his tent and stared in anger at the reinforced Gryphon Knights across the battlefield from him. The day before he had outnumbered the defenders by a margin of four to one but now they were close to being evenly matched.

     He sent a message to Commander Blackman telling him to come to his tent and went back inside to prepare for what was coming. When the Commander arrived, Zadykiel issued his instructions. He was to lead an assault wave against the enemy immediately. The Commander left and began to organize that attack.

     Zadykiel then ordered his death mages to surround his tent and see to it that he was not disturbed. Walking to his small camp table and chair he sat down and pulled the Darkstone of Dalghard from his inner pocket. Laying the silk wrapped bundle upon the table he reverently unwrapped the Darkstone. He sat staring at the Darkstone for a full minute and then he reached out his hands and gently touched it with his fingers. Communing with the Darkstone which contained the essence of Dalghard he said, "The time for the attack has come. We stand upon the verge of the battle. The moment we have been waiting for has arrived and I await your aid to defeat the enemy."

     There was a mad rush of power from the Darkstone then. Dalghard rammed his way past all of Zadykiel's defenses and possessed his body. Zadykiel's hands reached down and wrapped the Darkstone once more and secreted it within his garments, but it was not Zadykiel's will that operated those hands. It was the will of Dalghard. He stared about the tent and marveled at the physical sensation of human sight once more. It had been a long time since he had experienced that sensation. Then he thought of Zadykiel's plans to manipulate a god to gain power and laughed. The death mages heard the laughter inside the tent but remained where they were as they had been ordered.

     Zadykiel walked to the tent entrance and stepped through it. He would permit the army to try to break his enemy of course, but if they could not then he would personally take them on. This body was not as good as his last body, but it would have to do until he gained enough followers to collect the energy required to form a new godly body. Deep inside the body of Zadykiel his mind struggled in abject terror that the god would keep his body. This caused Dalghard to laugh again.

 

                                                                  ***

 

     Brimstone and the Companions had rested as best they could and were preparing for the coming battle. They had decided to fight together as they always did during the battle and not separate into the various elements of the army. Therefore the warriors and archers remained near the mages.

     The arrival of the huge army of Gryphon Knights had greatly cheered the morale of the allied army. There had been a meeting of the leaders for the various fighting elements and a plan had been agreed upon. The Gryphon Knight warriors all had the benefit of the magic shields which would inflict ice damage upon any enemy who touched them. Thus the shields wore down an enemy by attrition and were well suited to repulsing the charge of any enemy committed to a prolonged engagement. Eric Glenfield, Commander of the Order of the Gryphon Knights, had just ordered the changes in the battle formation when the enemy began to mass for the attack. Gryphon Knight Officers began to rush the Knights into their new positions and soon they stood shoulder to shoulder before the army. The warriors of their element stood at the front of the battle line three to ten deep depending upon where one looked in the line. They were strongest in the center and weakest on the ends of the line.

     The Gryphon Knight archers numbered nearly one thousand and stood in the center of the battle line of the allied army so that their arrows could be employed against the entire front of the enemy. Their addition alone gave the allies a great advantage in the coming conflict, provided they could be employed early on. Once the combatants merged they would be effectively out of the fighting as a force until the forces separated. Not to say that individual archers wouldn't be able to use their bows, but as a large scale fighting force they would not be able to use them. For this reason the battle plan called for them to be utilized at the first sign of an impending attack. The Minotaurs stood to the right of the archer contingent and the Companions stood to the left. The Companionsí mages stood upon small hills made by the Torlags so that their upper bodies were above the heads of the defensive line. In this way they would have a clear view of the battlefield and could cast their spells over the heads of the defenders into the attacking enemy. The Warrior lady Skan and the lady mage Namid had joined the Companions. Their addition was welcome, as both were formidable fighters.

     As the enemy formed their ranks for the attack, it was a race to see who could reach their battle positions first. It was close, but the allied army managed it a bit before the enemy was quite ready for their charge. Aspen Longleaf drew a deep breath and followed his orders. He had been instructed to have his archers fire their first volley the moment that they were ready. He issued the command which caused the front ranks of the Knight warriors to kneel to one knee thus opening the field of view for the archers. Across the center of the battlefield, the Warrior ranks all kneeled to the ground on one knee. He gave the second order and his archers drew their bows to full draw. The archers among the Companions, not about to be left out, did likewise. Then he gave the command to fire and more than one thousand arrows shot into the sky on a thirty degree angle bursting into flames as flew. At a little past the halfway mark to the targets the arrows reached the summit of their trajectories and began their descent, still traveling forward at great velocity.

     The warriors of the enemy raised their shields and tried to take shelter under them from the deadly rain of flaming arrows. This worked for many who managed to block the arrows. But often those deflected by one man slid under the shield of his neighbor striking him. Many arrows also found small breaks in the overhead shield wall and through those small gaps struck the men below them. Hundreds of men were killed or wounded by the first volley of arrows and the second volley was in flight before the first even hit the enemy. As each wave struck, the gaps in that shield wall widened and it became easier for targets to be found. Four volleys of arrows struck the enemy, accounting for nearly one thousand men, before they began to slam into an invisible wall protecting the army of Dalghard.

     Grinning maniacally, Zadykiel stepped to the front of his army. Brimstone knew there was no way Zadykiel could have used that magic. That was god magic and he knew it.

Aspen ordered his archers to hold their fire for a moment. Then he ordered the entire archery element to target Zadykiel. "Let's see if we can overpower his shield." he said. "Fire by ranks now!" he commanded and the first rank of archers fired their arrows, and then knelt to one knee making way for the second rank to fire. The second rank was followed by the third and so on. They used that method rather than send one thousand arrows at once because of the probability of hundreds of arrows bumping into each other on that single target trajectory and deflecting their flights. In this manner such incidents were minimized and most of the arrows flew true to their target. But Zadykiel's shield spell held.

     Brimstone fired his pillar of fire spell directly at Zadykiel's face. It didn't penetrate his shield, but Zadykiel shrank back as if struck a physical blow. Dalghard well remembered that spell. He should. It had killed his godly body. Fearing the power of that spell, he contracted the shield to strengthen it, thus leaving the army unprotected, and the pillar of fire spell was deflected into the packed army to his left. A hundred soldiers of Dalghard's army perished as the spell slammed into their packed ranks.

     Seeing this, Aspen immediately ordered the archers to resume firing and the mages all joined in the attack. Hundreds more of the enemy perished and then they were charging the defenders. Aspen professionally had his archers maintain their deadly barrage until it was time to let the warriors stand and brace themselves for the impact then he ordered them to hold their fire. Immediately Marc Trumaine ordered his warriors to their feet. As they stood and braced themselves for the coming attack, the Gryphons on their shields glowed briefly.

     The mages used their Armor Class spells on the defending warriors and blessed and healed them as best they could but there was no way to help all. They settled for the areas where the men seemed pressed the hardest. For the moment that was about all that they could do, other than harass the enemies rear flank with their spells.

     The Torlags stayed to the left and right flanks of the allied army. Their job was to reinforce the lines if there was a break and to guard against a flanking maneuver by the enemy. Their inherent speed made them the logical choice for that mission.

     At one point the line near the Companions was battered aside and a group of the warriors made it through to attack them. The warriors stepped to the forefront to guard the mages as the archers Yane, Ziona, Anpu, Nessarose, LenapeSue, and Dark Arrows fired arrows into those of the enemy they could target without endangering allies.

     Skan intercepted two warriors who were charging Mystyka and Fawnn. She parried a blow aimed at her head with her wicked dagger and slipped inside the enemy warrior's guard to stab him in the armpit where his battle armor was thinnest. Spinning in place she deflected another blow to her face by the second opponent and slashed his throat.

     Jedi fought two warriors himself. Using his sword he decapitated the first, who seemed dazed and confused by the battle going on around him. Then he used the flat of his blade to slap aside the other man's weapon and rammed him in the face with his war helm. The man fell backwards landing flat on his back and Jedi stabbed him through the heart with his sword. "You're really not very good at this." he muttered as the man died.

     Lord Malachi, fighting near Jedi yelled, "Look out!" and slashed his blade into the neck of the warrior about to slam a warhammer into the back of Jedi's head. He killed three more warriors as they fought the next few moments.

     Cyric fought directly in front of his twin Cyris. He killed a warrior attempting to dart around him to get at the mages.

     Genkaku fought with a frenzy and killed so many of the enemy that they began to turn away from him seeking an easier approach to the mages. They had the misfortune to run into three more of the Companions.

     MetalHead, Lord Fatman, and Caval killed several of the warriors each as they struggled to hold the line against the packed mass of enemy warriors. John and Tarn stood as the last line of defense between the enemy and the mages who were concentrating on helping to keep the Gryphon Knight line bolstered.

     And then the Torlag reserves arrived and with their superior speed decimated the enemy warriors pressing hard against the Companionís side of the line. Moments later, a fresh detachment of Gryphon Knights marched in to take over the position. The Companion warriors cleaned their weapons but kept them in hand for the line could fold again at any moment.

     The first attack lasted some twenty minutes and then the enemy withdrew to regroup. They had succeeded in breaking through in three places along the line. The first was the area near the Companions. The second was near the Minotaurs who leaped at the chance to face them and in moments had properly reinforced the line. The last was near the center of the line where the Commander himself was striving to break through to reach Aspen Longleaf. When the Commander managed to break through Aspen fired two arrows into the man's eyes killing him but then to his surprise the Commander stood and drew both arrows from his ruined head and his wounds began to heal. Marc Trumaine stepped forward then and decapitated their former Commander and some of his men dismembered the body. They had been present the night before when the dead swordsman had slain three of their fellow Knights.


Chapter 64.

 

     During the brief lull in the fighting, the Commander of the Gryphon Knights ordered the front line rotated, with fresh warriors taking the places of the tired front ranks and their dead were carried to the rear of their lines. The enemy dead were piled up as makeshift breastworks behind which the defenders would fight. Sadly some fifty Knights had died in the hand to hand fighting but hundreds of the enemy had perished attempting to break through their shields and swords. The Gryphon Knights had borne the brunt of the attack and paid for that with their blood. The Minotaurs had lost a handful of their people. Lord Fatman left to see if there were any whom he could resurrect but came back, sadly shaking his head. To resurrect a man he had to also be able to heal their wounds. All of the dead had been hacked to pieces in some cases suffering dozens of wounds. He simply lacked the ability to heal that many wounds during a resurrection. Frankly he doubted that a full god could have done it. There were simply rules that applied to the process, be the practitioner god or man.

     Zadykiel stepped up to the front of his army. He raised his hands and fired a very powerful fire spell at the center of the Gryphon Knight lines directly in front of the archers. The Knights there saw the attack coming and lifted their shields to cover their upper bodies. The makeshift breastworks protected their legs. The shields protected them for moments though they could feel the terrible heat beginning to get through their defenses. Then their archers released a volley of arrows once again into the army of Dalghard and he had to break off his magical attack in order to maintain his shields so he could protect his men from the flaming arrows.

     Eric launched his counter attack then. Five hundred Gryphon Knights charged the left side of the enemy lines while five hundred of King Boronon's Minotaurs charged the right. Aspen Longleaf ordered his archers to fire continuously so that Zadykiel would not be able to use his attack magic against the two charging elements. The mages who had earth shattering and boulder used those spells in conjunction with the counter attack, blasting away at the enemy to obscure their vision as the allied forces closed ranks. Fawnn, Mystyka, Namid, Lady Sparks, XconX, Shalmain, and Silver Fang all participated in that support detail and did a marvelous job of keeping the enemy on their perspective sides of the conflict half blinded to the coming attack.

     The fire and water mages used their attacks on the front ranks of the enemy to soften them up for the charging elements of the allied army. Veksar, Psychost, Kwenchi Kao, Lady Ru, Asmodee, and Cyris concentrated primarily upon area attack spells hoping to inflict as much damage as possible upon the front ranks so that their attacking warriors cut through them with ease. They meticulously stayed ahead of the attacking warriors as did the mages using their earth attacks.

     And so it was that the two counter attacking forces of five hundred, with their mage support, were able to slay some fifteen hundred of the enemy before being forced to retreat to their own lines. They had lost another thirty Knights in that offensive, but the victory was so clear and one sided that they were greeted by thunderous cheers when they returned to their lines which opened to permit them a well earned period of rest, brief though that respite might be.

     Dalghard ordered the bodies of the dead Knights to be desecrated and several of his men moved to comply with those orders but they found to their consternation that the bodies had all disappeared. Brimstone had teleported them to his side of the line during the celebration. For the moment, the bodies of the fallen Knights were safe.

It was now near midday. The fighting had taken its toll on both forces but the day was far from over and soon the enemy charged again.

     Dalghard was furious. If that fool Zadykiel had only given him the use of his body a day earlier he would now command much of the magic that had once been his to command. It takes time when possessing a body to reassert all of the powers you had in life. He ordered his men into an all out attack this time forbidding them to retreat on pain of death.

     The charge held a hint of desperation that surprised the Gryphon Knights. It seemed to some of the officers as if the enemy were just charging with no hope of victory. Their assessment was quite correct. The remaining soldiers had by now consigned themselves to their fate. They had elected to remain with Dalghard and now that the mad God was back among them they recalled all too well the way he had of throwing away the lives of his men.

     Seeing this dilemma for the enemy, Brimstone opened five portals and amplified his voice. "Leave this place and never return to plague the citizens of Harvest Moon. I offer you one last chance to live." he said addressing the remnants of the army of Dalghard.

Many of the men remembered the last time he had offered them a chance at life and deeply regretted not taking that opportunity. Now, being offered that chance a second time, they bolted for the portals. As they fled so did a portion of Dalghard's returning power. "Noooooooooooo!" he shouted enraged. He raised his hands then and fired at his own men striking those who had not yet made a move for the portals.

     Brimstone retaliated by attacking Zadykiel and forcing him to use his shields, thus making it impossible for him to attack his own men. "Leave now damn you!" he shouted to the remaining men. They began to run for the portals en mass then. Hundreds and hundreds of men left the field of battle. Finally, all that remained were the few remaining Gargoyles, a handful of Werewolves and Zadykiel's reanimates.

     The Gargoyles took one look at this new development and their King led them in a mass exit. The Werewolves seeing this also fled into the countryside. They'd had enough of Zadykiel as well.


Chapter 65.

 

     Brimstone made the portals disappear and turned to face Zadykiel. "It's time, Dalghard. Leave the mage's body or die with it."

     Reaching inside his concealed pocket Zadykiel pulled forth the Darkseed of Dalghard. Focusing on it he drew within himself a vast amount of power and prepared to launch a crushing attack at his hated enemy, Brimstone.

     At that moment Brimstone heard the voice of the Stone of Light inside his head for the first time in a long while. In fact, a portion of his mind remembered then that the Stone had been oddly quiet ever since the battle with Zadykiel had begun with the enslavement of Tarn. Now it called urgently to him and told him what he should do.

     Not understanding why he was doing it, but trusting the Stone of Light, Brimstone removed the necklace that contained it from his neck and held it up in his hand. He held it dangling in such a manner that the Stone of Light was clearly visible. It shone then with a brilliant white light. Zadykiel recoiled as if struck with a physical blow.

     A brilliant beam of white light burst forth from the Stone of Light, striking Zadykiel full in the face and moving to engulf his entire body. Zadykiel dropped the Darkstone of Dalghard as his body was flung to the ground by the force of the beam. The beam lasted but a moment longer and then it stopped.

     Acting on the instructions they had received just the day before, the two death mages who had survived the battles went to their master and assisted him as he tried to get groggily to his feet. Zadykiel said, "Let go of me you fools. He's gone now and we must flee. Use your scrolls." That said, he used one of his own and disappeared. The death mages followed. The remaining reanimates stood frozen in place for moments with no instructions. Apparently Zadykiel corrected that oversight, for a moment later the remaining reanimates charged the allied army in a suicide charge.

     Brimstone opened fire on them with his Pillar of Fire spell and the other mages followed suit. A vast cloud of arrows rained down upon the reanimates and within moments the majority of them had fallen. Then began the gruesome task left to the warriors. They had to dismember the bodies to ensure that the dead stayed dead. On Brimstones orders the rings were collected and destroyed.

     Brimstone teleported himself to where the Darkstone of Dalghard lay upon the ground but before he could touch it the other Gods of Althea appeared beside him.

"Do not touch it, Beloved," Damia warned beside him. "It is the Darkstone of Dalghard and as such its touch influences the person who touches it." Looking to the other gods she said, "Let us hurry and perhaps we can resurrect some of my Knights."

     The four gods of Althea stood in a circle around the Darkstone. As had happened once before, with the gem of Chaos, they summoned a rock, scooped up the darkstone with a shovel summoned by Ogrimar and placed it upon the rock. Ogrimar made the rock grow until the Darkstone was concealed within it and then the Gods combined their powers to lift it into the sky.

     During this process the allied army had of course noted their arrival and most were kneeling in respect in the presence of their gods. They were amazed when they saw the boulder lift skyward and disappear into the sky overhead. The boulder flew unerringly toward the sun and disappeared inside it and the Darkstone of Dalghard was destroyed forever.

     Artherk looked oddly at his son and almost said something, but Damia said, "Now to my Knights. I could really use your help, everyone."

     Smiling, Artherk said, "Yes, let us see what we can do."

     Of the eighty Gryphon Knights and ten Minotaurs that were slain that day the gods were able to resurrect seven Knights and two Minotaurs.


Chapter 66.

 

     With Dalghard banished from the world of Althea, Damia's hands were no longer tied. She promptly took advantage of that fact and summoned azure armor for her Knight Warriors and archers. Over the chest piece each man and woman wore tabards emblazoned with the Gryphon. This became the standard attire for the Gryphon Knights.

 

***

 

     In the Hall of Heroes now rested ninety-six black marble vaults. The restored bodies of the Gryphon Knights who had died in the defense of the city lay inside those vaults. As in the case of the original twenty-three, each vault was engraved in gold with the name and rank of the man within and a few words about his passing.

     It was the day after the battle and the Companions were visiting the memorial building to pay their respects to the fallen defenders. Their role in the actual battle to defend the city had taken on a support aspect as the circumstances had dictated that the Gryphon Knights be the ones to take on the lead role in defending the city. Yet in a way that was appropriate, for the Order of the Gryphon Knights had been created for just that purpose.

     The Companions stood back for a while and watched as many of the citizens of Harvest Moon filed through seeking the names of specific Knights who had died assisting them. They saw a woman leading several children file through and stop when she came to the vault of the Knight messenger who had faced the Vampire swordsman and several Werewolves giving her the time to escape certain death with her children. She knelt in respect for the man and bowed her head. The little children, emulating their mother, did the same. When she rose to her feet a little boy about six years of age asked her, "Mother, is this where the Knight who saved us is buried?"

     Choking back tears the mother answered, "Yes, son. He is buried here."

Thinking hard for a moment, the little boy stared at all of the crypts in the huge Mausoleum and said, "All of these Gryphons died defending our city?"

     "Yes, dear, they did." she replied wondering where her child's mind was heading, and praying that he would not embarrass her in public with anything foolish.

     The child's face then beamed as he smiled and he said, "Then, Mother, when I grow up I want to become a Gryphon, if that is all right with you."

     The mother sobbed and knelt by her child. She hugged him and said, "Son, if you become a Gryphon, I will be very proud of you." At that moment she was already proud of her son.

     Standing beside Brimstone, Damia bespoke him, saying, "He will grow up to become a fine Knight, you know."

Brimstone had noted the sincere look in the child's eyes and replied that he would bet on the boy.

     The Companions were also present when a group of some ten citizens came through and stopped beside the five vaults of the Knights who had died in the fire at the small Inn. These were the people whom the Knights had rescued that night. They had been sleeping when the fire broke out and would surely have perished had the Knights not awakened them, alerting them to the danger. Though poor and having lost everything in the fire, these people had pooled their gold and bought flowers to place in the vases set at the foot of each vault.

 

***

 

     Later that day the Gryphon Knights were shocked when a large patrol marched through the city streets on their way to the outskirts of the city on a routine patrol. The streets of the city were lined with citizens waiting for the customary patrol to walk past. They cheered every Knight as they marched down the street and tossed flowers in their path. Young ladies darted into the street to kiss the warriors who had protected them. Marc Trumaine and Aspen Longleaf were with that patrol. Staring at the adoring citizens of Harvest Moon, they couldnít help but contrast this reception with the receptions they had both seen when they were members of Dalghard's military, despised and loathed by most of the citizens. Both men were proud to be Gryphon Knights. Marc said it best when he said, "It is good to belong to a military order not devoted to insane personal ambition and cruelty."

 

***

 

     Earlier that morning three heavily cloaked figures had booked passage aboard a cargo ship headed for Stoneheim. They had paid extra for the use of the Captain's cabin and once inside none of the crew saw them emerge until they reached port in Stoneheim. Their meals were delivered to the cabin.

     The voyage took eight days. On the fourth night of the voyage two sailors disappeared. The Captain noted in his logs that they must have fallen overboard during the night, for no trace of them was ever found.

     In Stoneheim the three went to the city of Stonecrest and rented rooms in the tavern. They would remain there for a few days, keeping a low profile and then move on. Zadykiel had a lot to think about and there were plans to be made.

 

***

 

     Brimstone went to the valley where the portals had deposited the twelve hundred or so men who had abandoned Dalghard at the end. They had all left, but his experienced tracker's eyes told him what he wanted to know. They were returning to their fortress.

Brimstone and the Companions had one piece of business left to attend to before they would be finished with this adventure. He opened a portal and the warriors went through first, followed quickly by the archers and mages. He stepped through himself and together they moved out to confront the few men who had remained behind in the fortress to guard the women and children captured by Zadykiel's forces as they moved west to link up with the last standing army of Dalghard.

 

 

Thus Ends Book 5