Adventure Books by Ricky Sides & Kathy Young

Adventures in reading.

Brimstone Books 7 - 9.

Hi there,

I am going through the process of reediting the Brimstone books. As I complete them, I am creating individual pages for each book once more. The books remaining on this page are the ones I have yet to reedit.

Ricky

Brimstone

                                          

                                                  

                                  

 

  

               

                                   Map by Vircom.

                                                            
 


Brimstone Book 6.


 

 

 

           

 

 

 


ã  Copyright 2006, by Ricky Sides and Kathleen Young

 

 

Brimstone

And the Companions of Althea

Book Six.

 

 Synopsis

 

     Brimstone and the companions meet with men of Shafferland, a here-to-fore unknown island to most Altheans. They travel to the island of Shafferland where they set out to explore the island. As they are traveling from the port city of Cape Hope to the western city of Goodlund a fiery orb travels across the sky and slams into the earth near them injuring several of their party. A strange man in a dark cloak walks from the smoke and stops before them. Lady Ru offends the man and the majority of the companions are transformed into trees on the spot for Lady Ru has offended the Harbinger who has returned to Althea to judge humanity.

     The Harbinger spares six of their number from this punishment and splits them into two parties. Each party has a seemingly impossible quest to accomplish, but if they succeed the Harbinger promised to restore the companions.

     Zadykiel also ventures to Shafferland. Utilizing the residual memories of Dalghard from his time of possession by that insane god he decides to visit an ancient burial site of the dragons where he will attempt to gain the strongest minions ever to come under his influence.

     The companions face their biggest challenges to date as they struggle to perform the quests set for them by the Harbinger. Little do they realize that much more is at stake than their party of adventurers, for the companions are being tested by the Harbinger. If they pass the tests then humanity will likely pass the judgment of the Harbinger, but if they falter then all is lost for mankind on Althea and they will go the way of the dwarves and the elves before them.

     Complicating all of this is Zadykiel who manages to enlist the involuntary support of a race of giant ants who live on Shafferland. Soon two hundred thousand of these giants begin to march toward the cities of mankind on Shafferland.

 

Prologue.

    

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

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

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

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

     The Goddess Damia took matters in hand as she assisted her husband in an all out effort to gain an understanding of what they were going to be up against in the coming war of the gods. Deeply disturbed by what he learned when Damia took him back in time to observe the first war with Dalghard, Brimstone committed himself to finding a means to stop the demented god before he could annihilate all of the gods and their followers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     On the island of Ethia, Pig Killa uncovered a plot to resurrect Dalghard. All that was needed was a thimble of Brimstone’s blood. Pig Killa was killed by the agents of a priest of Dalghard. The companions traveled to Ethia where they foiled the plot to resurrect the insane god Dalghard.

     The Gargoyles of Sic Dalar were discovered and the companions had to deal with that problem for their queen was the sister of the gargoyle queen which Ziona, Fawnn and Mystyka had slain on Stoneheim and she wanted the three companion women dead. The companions carry the fight to the gargoyles but Brimstone was buried alive deep within the subterranean lair of the gargoyles. The stone of life saved him from certain death but could not remove him from the danger of being buried alive. The companions braved the lair of the gargoyles and rescued Brimstone.

     Tarn and his lieutenant were sold into slavery aboard a ship captained by an inhumanly cruel man after they lost a battle with Zadykiel the archmage. The companions board the Gryphon and pursue the ship while Tarn struggled to survive his captivity. When Tarn was finally freed from his captivity he settled matters with the captain who had so vilely mistreated many a man and made them slaves on the high seas of Althea.

     The arch mage Zadykiel consolidated his power and boldly moved to form an alliance with the last remaining army of Dalghard in western Sic Dalar. As he moved west to seek the commander of this army he had every intention of laying waste to the fifteen villages that he passed along the way. If he succeeded in his plans he would gain an army thousands strong and a fortress that nothing less than a huge army could hope to defeat. The captive children from the villages were to be indoctrinated to serve him in the coming years as fanatical warriors and the women would be forced to breed more and more of those fanatics.

     Three companions stopped the arch mage from the systematic slaughter of thousands of innocent men and the enslavement of the bodies and minds of the women and children.

     The rest of the companions had an equally daunting task. They took on the largest fortress ever to stand on Althea and freed the minotaur slaves despite the fact that there were twelve thousand of Dalghard’s loyal soldiers standing ready and willing to fight anyone who opposed them.

     The Gryphon Knights moved to protect the decent people of Sic Dalar despite the fact that the enemy had them outnumbered five to one and they did this without the magical aid of their deity for Damia had learned that if she used her godly powers during the conflict those powers would then be stripped from her and given to Zadykiel by the rules of the Accords of the Gods.

                                         

 

Chapter 1.

 

     The portal opened beside the fortress on western Sic Dalar. The companions emerged from that portal in rapid succession. The warriors came first. They fanned out to protect the others as they arrived, but they encountered no resistance at that point. Next to emerge were the archers and finally the mages.

     For this mission Brimstone had recruited more help to assist the companions. Hrist Oceane, Iffy, Tarl Cabot, Elrik KinSlayer, Deadlymozey, and BlkTygga were there to lend their mage abilities to the liberation of the prisoners. Hrist, Tarl and BlkTygga, Deadlymozey, Ladywolf, Schizm-KoU and Elrik KinSlayer were all mages who specialized in earth magic and their spells were formidable. Iffy and Dracconis were practitioners of fire magic. Wings also opted to go along on the mission to add her bow to the attempt to rescue the prisoners.

     The staff wielding former cook named Cody was with them as well. He knew the layout of the fortress well and was reasonably sure he knew where the captives would be secured. He led the way with Brimstone and the companions following closely behind him.

     The companions had actually entered the fortress before they encountered the first of Dalghard's men. Their security had been incredibly lax and the companions easily overpowered the three shocked warriors they encountered as they walked down the corridor of the fortress.

     Cody proved his usefulness as a guide by leading the companions deep into the bowels of the fortress. Upon several occasions they encountered small groups of warriors and in one such instance Cody took on three startled warriors himself. His staff streaking through the air easily disarmed the men and his follow up blows left them unconscious on the floor where they had fallen.

     Fifteen minutes after they had entered the fortress they reached the holding cell for the prisoners. The women and children were in bad shape. Apparently the guards hadn't bothered to feed them very often, and most appeared to be suffering from hunger. The children were the saddest sight. Their young eyes sunken and their expressions conveying a hopelessness that touched the hearts of the companions. The companions distributed the food they had brought with them to the starving prisoners.

     Brimstone opened a portal to the camp run by the Gryphon Knights where the people would be properly cared for. He personally led them to the camp commander and rapidly explained the situation, then returned to the companions waiting in the fortress.

     The companions searched the fortress diligently but apparently the warriors of Dalghard's former army had learned of their presence and fled. During the course of their search they noted the absence of the soldiers they had left bound.

     Brimstone decided there was no point in pursing the soldiers. They had accomplished their mission, which was to free the prisoners. He was inclined to punish the soldiers for their abuse of the prisoners, but he had another idea along those lines. He led the companions outside the fortress. They walked half the distance to the lake at the mouth of the bowl shaped valley surrounded on three sides by the sheer escarpments. Turning to face the fortress, Brimstone instructed the mages to use their most potent spells on the base of the fortress and its walls, and then he unleashed his own pillar of fire spell.

     The mages joined in with Mystyka, Fawnn, Namid, Hrist Oceane, Lady Sparks, Tarl Cabot, XconX, Silver Fang, Deadlymozey, Schizm-KoU and Elrik KinSlayer, Ladywolf, and BlkTygga used their best earth spells to weaken the foundations. Veksar, Psychost, Lady Ru, Iffy, and Asmodee applied their fire magic to help superheat the walls at the base. Kwenchi Kao cast flood at the base as well. The superheated walls, already stressed by the heating, couldn't withstand the added stress of the rapid cooling brought on by the water spell and soon cracks began to appear along the base of the fortress. From the ground up to about ten feet, the wall of the fortress glowed an angry red and took on a liquefied appearance. The water which struck the walls vaporized instantly, creating a huge cloud of steam. Where the water struck the walls they turned dark instantly. The incessant pounding on the walls by the earth mages served to widen any cracks that were forming.

     The seams of the walls of the fortress, once magically sealed by Dalghard, no longer held the magic which had once infused them. When his essence trapped inside the Darkstone had been cast into the sun by the other gods, the magic he had wrought had been severely weakened by the destruction of their creator. As they continued their attack on the structure, seams began to appear and mages shifted to target those seams.

     But still the walls of the fortress were incredibly strong. For a full ten minutes the companions applied their spells to the task of destroying the massive structure. A low pitched rumbling sound emanating from the fortress soon reached the ears of the mages attacking the structure. That sound grew into a rumbling that reached terrific proportions as the cracks, brought about by the superheating and cooling of the fortress, widened and portions of it began to cave in. The fortress was collapsing. Moments later the companions had to halt their spells. The cloud of dust and debris was now so vast they could no longer see the fortress to target it. Then they noted that the wall of dust emanating from the collapsing structure was coming in their direction and they turned and ran for the mouth of the valley. They knew that once there they could shelter from the dust around the edge of the escarpment.

     The companions didn't make it to the mouth of the valley before the cloud of dust overtook them. Brimstone amplified his voice and told everyone to protect his or her mouth and nose with cloth to filter the dust. He also ordered everyone to grab hold of the person next to them and the companions formed a living chain. Then he led them out of the billowing dust.

     They emerged from the mouth of the valley and turned to the north. Soon the wall of the escarpment completely protected them from the billowy chalklike dust still pouring out of the mouth of the valley.

     "I'm sorry about that. I didn't anticipate that happening at all,” Brimstone said referring to the wall of dust which had overtaken them.

     Brimstone nodded to Anpu and asked, "Feel up to scouting the ridge a bit and giving us a report?"

     Smiling Anpu nodded his head and headed out to see the results of the companion's labor for himself.

     The rest of the companions took a moment to beat the worst of the dust from their clothing and gear. Some of them went to the sea and returned with cloths which had been soaked in the sea. These cloths were used to rid them of the dust on their faces so they could at least breathe without inhaling dust.

     A moment later Anpu reported to Brimstone saying, "I see it. The fortress is now nothing but rubble. Portions of the walls seem unaffected but the fortress itself is gone." He added, "I also see the enemy. They are just past the eastern end of the escarpment heading south east toward the interior of Sic Dalar."

     "We will let them run. They are no villages in that direction that they can harass,” Brimstone replied, and then thanked Anpu. The companions all walked up to the top of the escarpment to get a good look at the place for themselves. Anpu's description was accurate of course. The fortress was completely destroyed. But the large segments of walls that remained would encourage some to attempt to rebuild a fortification here and Brimstone didn't want that to happen. Once more the mages concentrated their attacks. This time it was much easier. The minotaur sabotage of the walls saw to that. This time, within three minutes the job was completed. There weren’t enough of the walls left standing to shelter the companions, let alone a large army.

     Brimstone was about to congratulate the team on a job well done when Fawnn called out, "Brimstone! Ships are approaching!"

     The companions turned at Fawnn's exclamation and saw three ships heading to the shore. They were cargo ships, heavily laden from the looks of them. The companions moved toward the shore to meet the men who manned those ships.

 

 

Chapter 2.

 

     As the companions were approaching, they saw the ships beach and men aboard them began to hastily unload their cargos in an efficient manner. There was a sense of haste to their labors, as if they were in a great rush to get the job done and put back out to sea.

It was obvious that this was a food delivery. Cody stopped and said, "Ahh this must be the ships of Shafferland bringing in their monthly quota of food and supplies."

     This statement raised many questions and several of the party asked questions at the same time. Brimstone raised his hands signaling for the party to hold their questions. Looking at Cody with an amused expression he said, "I think maybe you should explain what that means."

     Nodding his head Cody replied, "Alright, I guess I should." With his staff he drew a circle. "The fortress." He drew a line beside that circle and said, "The seacoast." Then about a foot to the left of that line he drew another much larger circle and said, "Shafferland is the island that supplies this fortress with the food to feed the soldiers. Not all of the food required you understand, but a great deal of it."

     "What can you tell us about the island?" Brimstone asked curiously.

     "That they supply food for the fortress,” Cody replied with a shrug as if to ask, "What more is there to know?" Then he added, "Really that's all I know. The soldiers used to be rough on the crews if they got here before they put to sea. Bullying them amused the bored soldiers I guess. That's why they seem in such a rush to unload and leave."

     Brimstone now knew enough about the situation to meet with the ship’s captains and they continued on down to the beach to meet the men of Shafferland.

     The men aboard the ships paused in their labors to observe the approach of the companions. The expressions on their faces didn't convey fear so much as a resignation. It was as if they knew they'd been too slow to avoid contact with the people of the fortress and now they had resigned themselves to the unpleasantness that they fully expected to come. But as they drew nearer to the men of Shafferland an odd thing happened. First, a few men seemed startled by something and turned to others near them, talking animatedly. Then smiles broke out among the men present on the ships.

     The companions stopped a short distance from the ships so as not to unduly alarm the strangers. Brimstone noted three men begin to approach his party and smiled. These would most likely be the captains, he correctly surmised.

     The three men greeted the companions warmly. Brimstone was confused by their apparent recognition until one of the men said, "I don't recognize all of you, but many of you fought the sea monsters at the beach city."

     "Oh you saw that vision Damia sent to the people of Althea,” Brimstone said, belatedly remembering the vision. It turned out that this was indeed the case. The people of Shafferland had seen the vision and this was why these men recognized many members of the companions' party.

     "We would like to stay and talk with you but we must leave soon before the soldiers here become angry,” stated one of the captains.

     "That's not going to happen,” Brimstone stated, and then he added, "They are all gone now and if any return they will find that their fortress has been destroyed. I doubt that many would stay here."

     "So that was what we saw as we approached the coast? We feared that vast cloud of dust boded ominously for our arrival,” stated another of the captain's.

     Nodding his head Brimstone said, "That was the end results of the collapse of the fortress."

     Smiling amiably, the captains thanked the companions for ending their servitude to the cruel soldiers. This confused the companions and seeing this one of the captains explained, "You are aware of the history of Sic Dalar and Dalghard, but what you do not know is that in the beginning, when he went bad, all of the people that resisted his edicts were not slain. Early in his enforcements of those edicts he had many taken captive and transported to Shafferland. On that island our people were to spend their lives waiting for the day he called upon us to serve him. Many generations of people were born and lived out their lives in peace. Two cities were built upon the isle and the people prospered. Then one day a few years ago a fleet of ships from Sic Dalar arrived at our port city, named Cape Hope. Dalghard had finally decided to use us. We were to use ships they left in our care to transport food and supplies to this fortress on a monthly basis. To insure this, he created two great elementals, one of fire and the other of water. Those elementals guard our port city. Our ships must leave carrying the supplies and return empty or the Elementals will attack the city."

     Looking at the companions in gratitude the captain said, "We will still have to make the deliveries least we anger the elementals, but now we need fear no abuse when we arrive here."

     Brimstone asked, "Are you willing to give us a ride in your ship? Perhaps we can do something about those elementals."

 

***

 

     And so it was that the companions boarded the ships of Shafferland for the three day voyage to that island. During the days at sea they learned much about the island as they spoke to the crew of the ship. The two cities were Cape Hope and Goodlund, with Cape Hope being the eastern city and Goodlund the western city. Cape Hope contained the army which enforced the laws and protected the citizens of the isle in the event of monster trouble. There were quite a few monster species there, but for the most part Dalghard's power kept them in check. Brimstone found that disturbing and hoped that the death of Dalghard didn't have an adverse affect on the people of Shafferland. He was aware that the small fleet would have been at sea when the god was ultimately banished forever from Althea and would not know what happened immediately in the aftermath of his death.

     The eastern city of Cape Hope also contained the weapons smiths and other craftsmen. Some manufactured furniture while others specialized in other products. These products were sold in a large open air market on the north eastern side of the city, though several small shops also existed. There were some shops that sold items unique to Shafferland. The city also boasted several fine taverns, according to the sailors who seemed to spend a great deal of time in those taverns when they were on the island.

     Cape Hope also was home to an arena where combatants fought in competition to entertain the crowds of spectators who wagered on the winners. These competitions were strictly regulated by the city officials and battles to the death were forbidden. Even so, accidents happened in such a deadly sport, but when such occurred the families of the slain were compensated for the loss of their loved one by the generous city.

     A mountain chain on the western side surrounded the city of Goodlund. The western city of Goodlund contained the farming community. There were mills for grinding grain, storage houses for the agricultural products, shipping offices, bakeries, and shops to purchase some items unique to the island. A large garrison of the Shafferland army was also present to keep the peace and to defend the city should the need arise. The city also had its taverns and the food there was said to be better than the food in the taverns of Cape Hope, but the city was boring by comparison according to the sailors who complained that there were no games for entertainment in Goodlund.

     South and southwest of the city were the vast fields under agricultural use. Small villages dotted that region. When the distances to the fields had become so great that it simply wasn't feasible to live in the city, many had applied to the city for help in building homes for their farming families. As people tend to do, they congregated their homes near each other for mutual benefit and thus many small villages formed on the trek southwest.

     Far to the southwest were the deep forests of Shafferland. While it was true that northeastern Shafferland held magnificent forests it was said that they were tiny when compared to the deep woods of the southwest. These forests were said to be the home of many strange creatures and the sailors seemed to have an innate fear of the forests. They said that even the farmers of the villages near those forests avoided them.

     And then there were the mountains. Southwestern Shafferland was completely ringed by the mountains which, in many cases, were said to disappear into the clouds. Several of the sailors said that there were rumors that the mountains of Shafferland had once been the home of Dragons. There were even rumors of a cave high in one of those mountains where one could see the bones of dragons long dead. This bothered Brimstone for some reason but he couldn't isolate the reason for his unease at that news.

 

 

Chapter 3.

 

     Zadykiel looked solemnly at his two death mages. He had decided to take them with him, as they could always foster another band of Demonic Vampires. Yet that benefit was of more use to them now than to him. He lacked rings in sufficient quantity to reanimate enough of the vampires to justify their use. No he needed other minions. Stronger minions. Zadykiel could remember portions of Dalghard's thoughts he'd had when the god had possessed his body. One of those thoughts had been what he should do with the remaining rings. He saw the island where he needed to go and he knew the secret place to go to gain those new and stronger minions.

     Sighing, Zadykiel handed a pouch of gold to one of his death mages and told him to go and secure passage for them all aboard a ship bound for Sic Dalar. The vampire looked at his master with concern evident on his face. "No I haven't gone mad if that is what you think,” Zadykiel stated. He explained that once well out to sea the death mages would feast upon the crew and change them into vampires whom they could control. This newly altered crew would then take them to their true destination.

     "Where is it that we are truly going, master?" asked one of the vampires.

     "Shafferland. An island west of Sic Dalar,” Zadykiel responded impatiently and added, "Now off with you. The sooner we set sail the sooner the two of you can eat. And it has been a long time since I have slept soundly. I miss the lullabies and I am looking forward to a nice peaceful sleep as the two of you go about converting the crew to our purposes."

 

***

 

     Late that night, aboard the small passenger ship heading for Sic Dalar, the vampires gave Zadykiel his lullaby as they cornered the last three sailors next to the cabin where he laid awaiting sleep. Their protracted screams did indeed serve as a lullaby and soon Zadykiel enjoyed the best night's sleep he'd had in a week.

     The next day the newly assimilated crew set a more direct course for Shafferland.

 

 

 

Chapter 4.

 

     The third day of the voyage to Shafferland the companions noted a considerable difference in the sailors who began to glance at the sea about them, as if seeking some hidden danger. They seemed nervous and apprehensive. As the day progressed into late afternoon they grew even more nervous. The skittishness of the sailors had a dampening affect upon the companions.

     Just as the sun was setting, they encountered the first mists of a fog. The three ships closed ranks and lanterns were strung along the decks so that they would have a visual reference which might make it possible to keep each other within sight.

     The sailors were by now outright fearful. Half an hour later, full darkness had descended upon the ships and the fog had thickened considerably. Still the three ships managed to stay within sight of each other. The cadence of the drummers also served to make them aware of each others presence.

     Mystyka stood on deck near Tarn. She was very uneasy and couldn't tell if it was her premonition trying to warn her or the infectious fear that the sailors had demonstrated all that day. But every wave that slapped the sides of the ship alarmed her. Somehow she just knew that something bad was about to happen.

     The sea grew choppy soon after that and she was sure a storm was coming. The sailors rushed to secure the ships for rough weather as they penetrated deeper into the fog. Soon the fog was blown further out to sea and the waves became more pronounced.

     Bitterly cold spray drenched the occupants of the ships as they continued to row with all their might for the now visible coastline of Shafferland. Lightning flashed and for insane moments seemed to play upon the surface of the sea dancing from wave top to wave top. The ships now rode waves a dozen feet in height.

     Mystyka stared at the madness the sea had become with growing alarm. Something was out there. She could feel it. Lady Ru felt it as well and the ladies both found themselves studying the inky blackness of the vast sea around them, trying to pinpoint the source of their discomfort. Then, a brilliant flash of lightning illuminated the night directly ahead of their ships and Mystyka saw a gigantic form rising from the sea a hundred yards ahead of them. It was humanoid in shape but the size was far from human. It stood well above even the mast of their ship. The creature before them was a sea elemental.

     For a moment all present were frozen in place as they watched the elemental raise its foot and then stamp downward into the water. A great wave some twenty feet in height rushed outward toward the three ships. It was a miracle that none of them were capsized as they rode out the violent wave. Then the creature knelt in the sea and scooped up a vast amount of water in its watery formed hands. It flung this water directly at the ship beside the companions, half filling it with water and causing it to flounder in the rough seas. Mystyka saw the men aboard that ship frantically attempting to bail the water from their vessel. One more such attack would sink the stricken ship.

     Brimstone had seen enough. He raised his hands and summoned his power and unleashed his pillar of fire spell. The other mages with fire magic added their lesser spell attacks to the fray and Kwenchi Kao used ice magic. The earth mages struck with earth shatter. Moments later, under the combined attacks of all these spells, the sea elemental seemed to explode and vanish.

     A minute later fire streaked across the sky and seemed to hover over the sea beside the ships. Creating steam and a hissing sound from the close proximity to the water, the flames undulated as they hovered above the sea and headed for the ships. Thinking to use her earth magic to force geysers of water onto the fire Mystyka leapt to the prow of the ship. She cast her spells repeatedly into the sea forcing great geysers of water to erupt and spray the living fire. Surprised by her action the other companions moved to assist her, but before even one could reach her a great figure emerged from the roiling flames behind her. It had a serpentine neck and the head of a dragon. It folded wings formed of flame around her and touched Mystyka's wings in a fiery caress. A horrible smell emanated from the singed wings as a hot wind blew the charred fragments away, leaving their skeletal structure exposed. In horrible agony Mystyka stumbled and fell overboard.

     Kwenchi Kao retaliated with his flood spell, striking the creature full in the mouth and face hurting it and driving it back and away from their ship. Next the earth mages all emulated Mystyka's example and targeted the sea around the Fire Elemental. Elrik KinSlayer actually leaned perilously over the ships railing, the better to target the water near the elemental. These spells had a combined effect of dowsing the monster with hundreds if not thousands of gallons of water, further hurting it. Then Kwenchi Kao had a stroke of genius. He changed to ice spells and soon that elemental seemed to explode, just as had the water elemental before it.

     Tarn had seen Mystyka fall and leapt into the sea to try to get to his wife. By the time the companions had defeated the fire elemental he had almost reached her. He was struggling the last few yards to her when Shinobi appeared on the deck of the ship and leaned forward staring into the waves. She yelled Tarn's name and told him to stop. In confusion he stopped a moment then turned as Mystyka feebly floundered and headed once more for his wife. Shinobi stood then and worked her magic and Tarn appeared on the deck of the ship. He was furious and shouted in anger but Shinobi ignored him and leapt over the side of the ship herself. She transformed herself as she flew through the air, taking on the form of a mermaid. Her great tail slapped the surface as she struck the water and she disappeared beneath the waves.

     Moments later she appeared beside Mystyka and reached out her hands and touched her. A golden glow surrounded Mystyka and she ceased her struggles.

     The companions had by now hurried to the side of the ship to see what was happening to their friend. Tarn was still angry, but he could see that Shinobi was helping his wife so he shut up. Inside that golden glow they saw Mystyka's body begin to shimmer with scintillating light in a rainbow of colors that played over her newly formed wings. Mystyka and the goddess Shinobi began to rise from the water and float in the air above the waves. The crew of the ship moved the vessel so that they were directly beneath the two ladies and Shinobi eased an unconscious Mystyka down to the deck of the ship.

     Turning to Tarn, Shinobi said, "I'm sorry Tarn but had you touched the remnants of her wings they would have broken apart. The water supported the hollow bone structure and kept them together, but if they had broken apart, fixing that damage would have been much more difficult."

     Paling visibly at what he'd almost done to his wife Tarn said, "I didn't know."

     Smiling, Shinobi said, "Of course you didn't know dear. That's why I intervened. Your reaction was only natural." Mystyka moaned then and they both turned to join the Companions huddled near her.

     The flames of the Fire Elemental had burned away Mystyka’s clothing but someone had covered her with a cape. They were about to get her to her feet when the waves once more rocked the ship severely and this time Shinobi was the one to leap to the prow of the ship. She watched as once more the water elemental rose from the sea.

     Turning her face to the sky to see the face of the elemental she commanded the creature saying, "Return to your home now and rest evermore. What Dalghard has done to you may now be undone."

     Facing the goddess of the sea the Elemental nodded its head once and disappeared as the forces that held its watery form together released it, and as a great rain of water dropped for the last time into the sea.

     Turning to the companions she said, "I'm sorry you were attacked by a sea elemental. Alas, Dalghard thought it amusing to use an elemental of my domain. I came as soon as I felt the disturbance in the sea."

     "And the fire elemental that hurt Mystyka? Will it return?" asked Tarn.

     Shaking her head Shinobi said, "Your retaliation against that Elemental destroyed it completely. The power of your spells combined is formidable indeed when properly employed."

     This brought some measure of satisfaction to Tarn and indeed, to all of the companions.

 

 

 

                                          

Chapter 5.

 

     When they arrived in port at Shafferland, the companions said goodbye to the sailors and followed one who acted as their guide to the nearest inn, where they paid for rooms for the night. They were tired and didn't feel up to going out for the evening and decided to take the innkeeper up on the offer to send food and drink to their rooms at a modest price.

     The next morning all were refreshed and eager to see the sights of this new island. At Yane's suggestion they sought out directions to a map maker's shop and there they purchased copies of a city map, a map of Goodlund and a detailed map of Shafferland. Using the map of the city, they were able to navigate it with little difficulty. By late afternoon they had visited most of the shops of the city and bought several items of interest. They were somewhat surprised to see that where weapons were concerned the people of Shafferland seemed to have continued developing weapons after their exile to that island. Apparently, skilled craftsmen had also been exiled to the island and those craftsmen had continued to advance their crafts independently of the rest of Althea.

     Late afternoon found them near the arena used for the city games. They decided to enter the amphitheater and see for themselves something of the games played here on Shafferland. The atmosphere inside the amphitheater was filled with expectation. More than a thousand people already had seats on the hard stone seats that ringed the structure.

Brimstone studied the people present and noted that they all seemed happy and were excited. He saw several going to tables set up at the ground level and handing gold to officials guarded by several warriors wearing the livery of the city guards. He understood immediately that these people were placing wagers and that if they won, the officials would pay them when they presented the receipts that were given to them when they placed their wagers.

     He saw other men walking up and down the isles of the amphitheater. These men carried baskets laden with food which they sold to the spectators. Other men carried small casks of ale which they sold to customers who had brought their own mugs. Jedi and Malachi noted that and were immediately disgusted because they hadn't known to bring mugs themselves. Mystyka laughed uproariously at the sour expression on the faces of the two warriors and said, "Next time bring a vase and save the poor vendors some walking."

     She had said that in jest, but Jedi grinned and said, "I'll be right back." Getting up he sprinted down the steps of the amphitheater two and three at a time, causing many spectators to wonder if he would survive to reach the bottom steps. When he reached the ground level he walked rapidly over to a vender's table and purchased two rare bouquets of flowers, sold here for young lovers who might wish to present them to their ladies. He immediately upended the vases and poured out the water and the flowers and then returned to his seat. Along the way he stopped to purchase ale, paying enough to have the vases topped off. He grinned as he handed Lord Malachi his vase. Lord Malachi thanked him and said, "The next round I buy." Then he turned and smirked at Mystyka. "Thank you for the suggestion. You actually had a good idea there Mystyka. I'm impressed."

     Tarn smiled as Mystyka glared at Malachi. He knew they didn't really mean their little jibes and were actually fond of each other.

     A few minutes later, all of the tables were cleared from the arena and the games began. First there was an archery demonstration, with archers performing some very impressive shooting. This was followed by swordsmen demonstrating their abilities with the sword as assistants tossed apples at them. The swordsmen would stand with sword sheathed until the fruit was thrown at them and then draw their blades and try to cut the apples in half. The competitor that came closest to splitting the fruit into equal sections won. This event was judged meticulously with measurements actually being made of the separated halves of the fruit and compared. The competitors in this event were so evenly matched that it was impossible to tell who won without the measurements being taken. Brimstone and the other warriors of the party found that interesting from the perspective of the strike as you draw technique.

     Next they witnessed a mock battle between two warriors. The blades were metal but Brimstone could tell that they were heavily blunted. The swords were more apt to break a bone than actually cut the opponent. Still, there was danger in it. A careless blow could easily crush the windpipe. The local favorite was a man in blue livery. The man in red livery was clearly well below the favorite's skill level and Brimstone had the feeling this was staged more for show than actual competition. Still, many citizens had placed wagers, with some taking the red livered man on odds of two to one.

     The next event brought the crowd to their feet as a giant monster was goaded into the arena. It appeared to be an ant of some sort, but it was as tall as a horse's back and nearly twice as long. The sailors had mentioned such events. While men were forbidden to fight to the death, at times monsters venturing too near the city had been captured and were placed in the arena to do battle with men. Only volunteers were used in these events. Brimstone and the companions found this fascinating and many leaned forward in their seats, the better to observe the coming event.

     So it was that the tableau unfolding below them held their rapt attention when something went horribly wrong. The guards goading the ant into the arena were backing away to exit when the volunteers entered the arena. The blue livered champion was there along with two other men wearing nondescript black livery.

     The ant shifted its head in the direction of the new arrivals but then surprisingly turned and charged the retreating guards who, thinking themselves no longer the object of the monster's attention, had turned their backs on it. With a burst of speed the ant was upon one of the guards, picking the hapless man up in its mandibles. The other guards turned and tried to free the trapped guard from the ant’s mandibles but there was nothing that they could do. The ant snapped shut the mandibles and the razor sharp appendages cut the doomed man in half.

     The crowd leapt to its feet and the companions were forced to do the same to witness what was transpiring. It took them a moment to realize that when Brimstone shot to his feet he never stopped moving. Instead he made his way to the stairs and was sprinting down them Jedi fashion. He was near the bottom steps before they realized that he intended to enter the arena.

     Brimstone knew when he saw the ant turn on the guard that the men in the arena were no match for the monster. He vaulted over the low wall that separated the audience from the participants in the events.

     Brimstone landed lightly on his feet and charged the ant, yelling a war cry as he ran. In the stands the companions began to edge toward the isles, but the crowd hampered them to such an extent that getting down to the arena to help him was all but out of the question.

     As he charged the ant, the vibration of his running feet caused the creature to turn its massive head in his direction with its antenna twitching. The remaining two guards took advantage of the distraction to drag a wounded guard away.

     The warrior in the blue livery, aided by the two men in black, attacked the ant from the side. The ant whirled on them and immediately seized one of the men in black in its mandibles but before it could kill the man, the warrior in blue ducked under its body and stabbed upward with his short sword.

     The ant dropped the man in its mandibles and turned its head as it skittered around, looking for the source of its pain. Spotting the man, it swung its head sideways with a violent motion, knocking the man off his feet.

     The two men in black attacked it from its flanks, attempting to harry it away from the champion, and the ant spun once more to face its antagonists. Brimstone arrived then and slammed into the creature's side with such force that he knocked it skittering sideways for a distance of some few feet. Pressing his advantage, Brimstone relentlessly attacked the giant ant, driving it further and further away from the downed champion.

     "Help him!" he shouted to the two men in black who were staring with jaws dropped open at the battle before them. They darted toward the downed warrior then and helped him get to his feet. He was groggy from the blow to his head and they decided to take him to the safety of the guards and then they would return to help the stranger.

     But that wasn't necessary. Before they could return, Jedi and Lord Malachi arrived and together the three men faced the enraged ant. Methodically they worked the ant, taking no chances with the monster, as they were not accustomed to fighting them. The creature's exoskeleton was tough and tended to deflect glancing blows, but good solid slashes did open up wounds on it body.

     The three men didn't even hear the crowd cheering madly as they battled the beast. They only knew that they were in a fight as they had often been together in battle, and they fought this creature as they had often fought others together, using teamwork.

     The ant spun rapidly, angling its mandibles for Jedi's ankles, attempting to seize him, but Jedi leapt straight up into the air, slashing its left eye on the way back down. He landed safely and darted back away from the creature while Lord Malachi darted at it from the rear and opened a two foot long wound on the abdomen. Brimstone darted in from its right side and drove his frostbane in to the hilt then quickly drew it out of the creature's thorax.

     The enraged ant went wild, darting with amazing speed across the arena, as if seeking to escape and crawl into the stands with the spectators. A moment of panic ensued but Brimstone and his two friends had chased after the ant and their attacks turned its attention from the stands to the arena once more. The three friends fought a retreating battle, luring the ant back into the center of the arena. Finally Brimstone had the opening he had been waiting for. He struck with all his might at the comparatively thin section between the two nodes separating the thorax and abdomen.

     The ant lost its abdomen but kept right on fighting. Turning, it almost speared Brimstone with its mandibles, but Jedi chose that precise moment to attack a leg joint on the opposite side of the ant. Compared to the rest of the body, the ant's joints were weak. His attack lopped off the ant's leg and it toppled slightly toward that side before the other legs could stabilize its position. Thus encouraged, the three companions attacked the ant's remaining legs and one by one succeeded in crippling it so that it could no longer stand. They hacked it to pieces then. There was simply no way to easily kill the monster.

When it was finally over Jedi said, "Gods I'd hate to fight an army of those."

     "So would I,” replied Brimstone.

     Laughing Lord Malachi said, "That's one battle I'd not want to fight without our mages and archers to soften them up first."

     The crowd that had gone deathly silent at the ant's death began to cheer, wildly stamping their feet in enthusiasm. Looking about at the assembled spectators, Jedi raised his gore soaked blade in a salute to the audience, who cheered louder to acknowledge his salute. Brimstone and Lord Malachi politely waved to the crowd and then they headed for one of the gates leading back up into the stands.

     They had almost reached the gate when a door opened at the far end of the arena and men began running toward them. It was the blue livered man and his two assistants in black. They had bandaged a gash on his head and he still seemed unsteady on his feet but he nonetheless ran to them as best he could.

     When the men arrived the blue garbed man thanked Brimstone for his assistance with the monster and turned to the crowd. Making a show of it he held up a pouch for the crowd to see and then handed it to Brimstone. The pouch was filled with gold as Brimstone discovered when he opened it. He immediately closed the pouch and tried to hand it back to the man in blue but he refused to take it and turned to walk away. Shrugging Brimstone turned and headed once more for his seat in the stands.

     The companions left shortly after that. Three of their members had been soaked in ant gore and they wanted to rid themselves of the smelly mess.

 

 

Chapter 6.

 

     The next day the companions headed out of the city of Cape Hope. They'd decided to visit Goodlund and explore the countryside on the trip. The two cities were connected by a road of sorts that was depicted on the map as a brown line meandering around water and mountains until it eventually straightened out for the final leg of the journey to Goodlund. They had been told that they could probably walk there in three or four days depending upon how many times they stopped to rest and how fast they walked. If they were really slow then it might take five or six days.

     They were warned to camp near the roads and keep a good fire burning from sundown till sunrise once the road turned south and they crossed the first bridge. "Beyond that region the monsters roam at will,” the good hearted innkeeper had advised them. He had added, "The army patrols the roads but even they stop at night. I warn you now, stop well before dark and make a strong camp with plenty of firewood. Make your camps just before crossing the bridges for both camps. Many use those places and the monsters know it and they stay away for the most part. You'll see sign of the old camps there. Even camped there, sleep lightly with your weapons in your hands. There are also brigands to worry about, but given the choice of fighting them or fighting the monsters I'd take them."

     They found the first stretch of road they followed to be darkened even at high sun by the shadows of the trees which crowded near it on both sides. Vine like vegetation had taken hold along the tree lines and seemed nearly impenetrable in places, while in others the companions could see a good distance into the woods. It was in one of those more open areas that Dracconis spotted the first of the wolves that were pacing the companions on the South side of the road. He quietly alerted other companions and many saw the ghostlike forms of the wolves within the woods.

     Within the forests they heard many animal sounds. The bird population seemed in rare voice and their bird songs drifted peacefully upon the morning air. In contrast, the occasional snarl of some great beast at unexpected moments alarmed the companions a few times and stopped the bird songs for a bit. Once they saw an antelope dart across the road, followed closely by two wolves who chased the animal toward the pack of wolves which had been pacing them. They didn't see the pack wolves anymore after that and assumed that the creatures had found a meal suitable to them in the form of the antelope that they had seen in flight.

     The companions, being seasoned travelers, arrived at the first bridge well before dark but decided to heed the advice of the innkeeper and camp near it for the night. Near the bridge the forest had been cleared in both directions for about fifty yards. They did indeed see signs of many old camps. They also saw a sign on a post in the ground beside a large pile of firewood. The sign was crowded with small script that read, "Use if you need. Replace if you can. Stay out of the forest at night. Sleep in the light of your fire. Don't let it die during the night."

     Reading the message Brimstone said, "Alright that's twice we've been warned about the dangers of this road. Here are the rules for our journey to Goodlund. No one goes into the woods alone period be it night or day. No one ventures out of shouting distance in the woods for any reason. If we should be attacked do not pursue anything into the woods because you could be entering a trap. Everyone understand?" The companions nodded their understanding and he continued, "Good. Let's do this the right way as if we are expecting an attack at any moment. Tarn take some of the men into the woods. We'll gather our own firewood and leave this for smaller parties. I'll set up the tent."

     "Tent? We have a tent?" asked Elrik KinSlayer, then he said, "Oh I see." when Brimstone summoned a large tent which was conveniently already set up when it arrived. The tent was huge and could easily accommodate the entire party.

     Tarn selected Lord Malachi, Jedi, Caval, Lord Fatman, Tarl, John and Cody to help with the firewood detail and they were about to leave but Brimstone stopped him saying, "Take an archer and a mage with you, just in case and you all stay within eyesight of each other." Nodding his head Tarn asked Hrist and Ziona to accompany them.

     "Couldn't you just summon the firewood the way that you summoned the tent?" asked Schizm-KoU.

     Nodding his head Brimstone replied, "I could yes, and I will if it seems too dangerous to do it the ordinary way. But I think it's a bad idea to let the company become too dependant upon my summoning abilities. We did fine before I had that ability and such dependence would weaken the company."

     Before the conversation could progress any further there were shouts of alarm in the woods and the companions turned as one to go in search of the wood gathering party. Brimstone stopped them saying, "Hold! Fawnn you are in charge until I return. Keep the company here together. No one leaves till I return." Turning to those he wanted to join him he said, "Anpu. Veksar, Mystyka, Skan with me. Anpu, lead on." He sprinted for the woods behind Anpu then with Skan, Mystyka and Veksar close on his heels.

     Inside the woods they paused seeking the wood gatherers. There had been no other shouts since the initial outburst and they heard no sounds of battle coming from the woods but they proceeded with caution. Anpu followed their nearly invisible trail as easily as if it had been a clearly defined road and they proceeded in the search. They penetrated deeper into the woods and found the wood gatherers circled around something on the ground. They hailed them then and approached the circle.

     Some of the men gathered round that circle were pale and when Brimstone arrived he saw why. They had located the remains of three people who had apparently ventured into the woods and paid the ultimate price. Their bodies had been torn to pieces. Brimstone immediately contacted Fawnn and asked her to send Tersha, Nessarose and Namid to them. He then informed her of their discovery and added that he wanted Tersha to see if she could identify by scent what had attacked the three victims.

     The requested parties joined those already at the site a few minutes later with Tersha's sense of smell leading the way as easily as Anpu's Ranger skills had led him. She scented the area carefully and said, "They were killed by two monsters of the nature that you battled in the arena. It happened last night. The live ones will be long dead."

     "Live ones?" asked Brimstone.

     "Yes two humans were taken away by the creatures. They were still alive. Their fear scent left a trail into the forest that is mingled with that of the monsters. It is hard to interpret the scent of the monsters for they are not mammals, but it is my guess from their scent trail that they were hungry and taking the humans to a nest to feed."

     "By the Gods,” exclaimed Jedi.

     Brimstone knelt then and examined the bodies for any form of identification that they might have carried but found none. "I can't even tell what gender they were from what is left,” Brimstone stated sadly.

     "They were all males but the two that were carried away were females,” stated Tersha helpfully.

     Brimstone summoned several shovels and the companions buried the remains near where they had fallen. By the time that chore was completed Brimstone noted the sun and said, "Back to camp everyone. Forget the firewood. I'll summon that."

     Back in camp Brimstone summoned a dozen huge piles of wood. The party would surround their campsite with a dozen different fires that night and sleep in the tent with several guards with their backs to the fires facing the darkness.

 

 

Chapter 7.

 

     The night passed uneventfully and the companions made good time as they traveled to the second bridge along the road. This time a great portion of that trip had a magnificent view of the mountains on their right as they walked along the road. There was also a thin band of woods to their right, so they couldn't see the base of the mountains, but they could see the cloud shrouded peaks covered in snow. Once Wings thought she saw a large winged form darting between the peaks and disappear behind a mountain, so for a while everyone maintained a careful vigil.

     A few hours later they left that mountain range behind them and briefly entered another section of heavy forests on both sides of the road. These forests were eerily quiet, as though the wildlife there knew something stalked the woodlands and they were afraid to announce their presence.

     By early afternoon they found that once more the road was bordered by a mountain range. This time the mountains were on their left and they were significantly smaller mountains than the ones they had passed earlier in the day. A short time later they saw mountains on the right of the road as well. This mountain range was situated diagonally and in the distance they could see where the road came quite close to those mountains.

     They reached the second bridge in the late afternoon hours and Brimstone again summoned a tent and wood for the night fire. Noting a lack of firewood by the sign there that bore the same message as the last he summoned a huge supply and replenished that stockpile as well.

     That night also passed uneventfully and early the next morning they broke camp and headed across the second bridge out from the city of Cape Hope. This time the mountains were on both sides of the road once more and this time the mountain range to their right was also situated diagonally with the far end nearest the road as before. When they reached the end of those mountains, they entered the last section of the road that would be bordered on both sides by forest. This was a brief section, taking them only about an hour to proceed through.

     The companions emerged from the forest to find themselves in an open area ringed by mountains. The view was breathtaking. The land was flat out to the mountain ranges with many of the taller mountains being crowned with snow. In the distance, looking straight down the road, they could just make out the city of Goodlund with its mountains rising into the sky behind it. The crop fields to their left were magnificent in their own right. As far as the eye could see they saw fields of crops in the afternoon sun. The crops disappeared over the horizon. They also saw a few mountain peeks jutting upward on the horizon, and they saw what they thought might be a house, but that was at the extreme range of their vision and they weren't sure.

     They resumed their trek toward the city of Goodlund, confident in their ability to reach the city before nightfall. They were soon to discover that the distances on this amazing flat land were deceptive. For the better part of an hour they walked toward the city which didn't even seem perceptibly closer to them, though they could pick out a few more details of the mountain and the city itself.

     Lady Ru had been walking near Brimstone for the past few minutes. Something was bothering her. She sensed that something of great importance was about to transpire and she was considering mentioning it to Brimstone, but try as she might she could not pin down what that event might be. She was contemplating this when a great ball of fire came shooting into view from over the horizon. That fireball slammed into the ground a few hundred yards down the road between the companions and Goodlund. The impact sent out a shockwave of significant force that knocked the companions off their feet. Lady Ru saw Cody go down hard and flung herself over his prone body to protect him. She was trusting her seraph aura to shield them both to some degree from the searing heat and smoke that accompanied that shockwave.

     Moments later the dazed companions were climbing to their feet when a dark figure emerged from the blast zone. He walked toward the companions and Lady Ru saw that most were still disoriented from the impact of the shockwave. She bravely stepped forward, prepared to defend the companions from the mysterious dark figure approaching them through the smoke. She used her defensive spells on herself and then cast every defensive spell that she could on all of the companions near her. Oddly this caused the mystery figure to pause in his approach.

     The dark figure was carrying a large leather-bound book in one arm with it clamped tightly against his chest. His free hand rose as if to cast a spell and Lady Ru shouted a warning, "Hold your spells, or face the consequences."

     The dark figure then lowered his hand and for a moment silence reigned as the companions, now ready for action, faced the man. Then a deeply pitched voice issued forth and the mystery figure said, "Lady it was my intention to heal your wounded party members. It was not my intention to harm any of you. My arrival was unfortunately too close to your party."

     Lady Ru relaxed a bit then and Brimstone stepped forward to address the man, but the mystery figure wasn't finished with what he wanted to say. He continued, "You have insulted me when I meant no harm to any of you. Very well then, suffer the consequences for that."

     And the party did suffer the consequences. A moment later where the companions had stood a new grove of trees lined the roadside and most of the companions had disappeared. The few remaining companions were stunned. Of the original huge party only six remained. Ziona, Tarn, Fawnn, Lord Fatman, Lord Malachi and Mystyka stared incredulously about them. Then Fawnn turned to address the dark robed figure before them. "You have turned our friends into trees, yet you spared us? Why?"

     The dark figure replied. "Lady Ru insulted me. Just as the dwarven race once learned that it is unwise to insult the Harbinger, so too, must humanity. For her insult Lady Ru has become a statue and she is aware of her punishment."

     Fawnn's mind reeled with the implications of what the man had just said. She asked, "Are you truly the Harbinger of legend?"

     "If that were not the case I would not have said so,” replied the Harbinger. "I am here to judge humanity to see if you have heeded my warnings and maintained the balance between good and evil." Fawnn started to say something but he raised his hand for silence and said, "Hear me companions, for my time here in this place is short. You will be given tests, quests if you will, to perform. In each case there are multiple means of fulfilling the tasks, but only one path leads to the restoration of your friends. Fawnn, you will seek out two trees located on this island. You must take with you only two. Ziona and Tarn, you will accompany Fawnn. Fawnn you will seek out the tree of balance and the tree of wisdom. From each tree you will seek leaves. Bring back pouches of leaves and call my name when you have returned to this spot. I will hear you and I will come, but be warned, do not summon me unless you are here with those leaves on pain of death. Do you understand?"

     Fawnn trembled at the weight of the task before her but she knew that she must try. She replied, "I understand the task but know not where to begin such a search."

     "Seek Ishy the lady arch mage and Druidess far to the southeast of this isle. She will put you on the path if she believes you worthy. If not, then you will die."

     Fawnn opened her mouth to further question the Harbinger but again he held up his hand for silence. "Say no more woman. Ask no more of me. Your task is difficult but it can be done." Turning to Mystyka he said, "Mystyka your task is equally difficult. You must obtain the Darkseed of Ogrimar which never blossomed. You will take Lord Fatman and Lord Malachi with you. The three of you must seek out that Darkseed and return here with it. When you arrive, call my name. Do not call me unless you are here with the Darkseed. If you do so you will surely perish. Do you understand?"

     Mystyka was seething but she tried to control her tongue when she replied, "I do understand but why must Tarn and I be separated? Can't we travel together?"

     For a long moment it seemed as if the Harbinger would refuse to answer her and Mystyka's anger deepened, but then he replied, "I separate you as an act of kindness. In the thread where you and he are together in the task one of you dies. It is still possible that one or both of you may die, but that is a matter of random chance and is not the certainty that it will be if you travel together to retrieve the Darkseed."

     Mystyka wasn't sure she believed him but she had no choice but to accept his will under the circumstances. She replied, "Where do I begin the search?"

     "In the mountains there is a cave. Seek that cave where Dragons fly." Mystyka couldn't believe her ears. This isle was ringed by mountains and the cave could be anywhere. Seeing the expression on her face he added. "It is not impossible or I would not assign you the task. In fact, getting the Darkseed is the easy part of your quest. The difficult part follows for you must resist its influence long enough to return here and summon me. Seek a map maker in Goodlund. The rest is up to you."

     Turning to Fawnn he added, "I will send you south to the end of the fields, but there are tests that you must face in the wood as you seek Ishy. Do you wish to say goodbye to your friends before I send you to the crops end?"

     "Yes, thank you, I do,” Fawnn replied knowing that Mystyka would wish to say goodbye to Tarn.

     The remaining companions formed a circle and quickly said their goodbyes. Fawnn and Ziona quickly hugged Mystyka and wished her well then they stepped back to permit Tarn and Mystyka to say their goodbyes a bit more privately. That the parting was painful for both of them was evident from the expressions on the faces of the married couple.

Fawnn took that opportunity to address the Harbinger about her friends who had been transformed into trees and the statue of Lady Ru. She said, "Alone here and unguarded by anyone who can explain the situations I fear that our friends may come to harm."

     The Harbinger replied instantly saying, "No man can harm them for they are under my enchantment. There is a remote danger from the elements themselves but no man will touch them." Then surprising Fawnn he added, "Since you have not asked I will tell you. Your traveling companions were selected with care, for before this day is done you will see that your magic is unreliable now. My presence affects the magic of Althea. This is why you must travel with an archer and a warrior. Your magical items will still function as designed but spells cast by spell casters may or may not work as planned." Turning his head to face Mystyka he added, "Mystyka needs a paladin for her quest and a strong warrior who knows no fear." Facing them all once again, he finished, "Each of you will be tested in your own right. Should any of you fail that test, then your quest is doomed."

     "Oh my,” said Fawnn who felt more like cursing. A moment later, with no warning at all, Fawnn, Ziona and Tarn found themselves at the spot that must be crops end, for behind them stretched the vast fields of Shafferland and before them loomed a large forbidding forest that surprised them. They had expected the forest, but had assumed it would be flatland, as were the agricultural fields. But the forest before them was not flatland. The forest rose steeply before them for quite some distance then seemed to level off for a bit before beginning to climb upward again.

     Fawnn looked to the right and left, and as far as she could see in either direction she saw the massive forest stretching toward the horizon. Ziona and Tarn closed ranks with her and Tarn said, "Which way do we go Fawnn?"

     "You're asking me? Tarn, I have no idea where we are to go beyond seeking Ishy in the south west part of the isle."

     "We could travel east along the edge of this forest to the mountains and follow the mountains south,” offered Tarn.

     "The Harbinger said we had tests in the forest,” Ziona said. Looking thoughtful she continued, "I don't think he'd have put us here this far from the eastern mountain range if he intended for us to simply walk there through the grassy border. I think we are supposed to enter the woods."

     Fawnn nodded her head and said, "What Ziona said makes sense to me. We probably should enter the woods."

     Tarn nodded his head in acceptance and replied, "Then we will enter the woods." Looking at the deepening shadows of late afternoon he added, "But the hour is late. I suggest we locate firewood and select a camp site for the night. At least tomorrow we will have all day to become accustomed to this forest and know more about what to expect before full night overtakes us."

     And so the three companions located firewood for the long night ahead. A cool breeze drifting down the terraced forest made for an uncomfortable night.

 

***

 

     Mystyka, Lord Malachi, and Lord Fatman found themselves on the outskirts of the city of Goodlund. At this point in the quest their task was easier than that of the other group of companions. All they had to do was find the map maker's shop and get the information they sought. An hour into their search they stood on the street that housed small shops and stared in disgust at the three map makers shops situated on that street. There was no way around it. They would have to check in each shop and hope that only one held the answer they sought. Mystyka had a bad feeling that she just might be unlucky enough to get three different answers to the beginning location she needed for her quest.

 

 

                                                                 Chapter 8. 

     Zadykiel stepped ashore on Shafferland followed closely by the two death mages. They headed without pause for the nearest inn where they would take rooms and buy supplies for an extended inland journey. The seven vampires onboard the ship had their orders to meet Zadykiel on the outskirts of town the next morning. They were under orders to take victims to feed upon among the very poorest of the city inhabitants if they just had to feed. Preferably near the sea, so the bodies could be safely disposed of. 
     Zadykiel knew where he wanted to go. He could see the mountain in his mind. He was still in possession of many memories from his experience of being possessed by Dalghard. He knew the way to the cave and he was quite aware of the dangers involved. The giant ants would be a problem, yet he felt that given a bit of time he could work out the means to bring them under his dominion, even as he had brought the gargoyles and werewolves to his side on Sic Dalar. The primary problem where that was concerned was their diminished intelligence. Allies needed a certain intelligence level to realize that they even needed allies. Without that, they tended to attack on sight any potential allies. However, what he really wanted lay buried in a long sealed cave on that mountain where dragons used to dwell, before the Battle of Emanations. 
     The innkeeper was very helpful, and for a modest fee he saw to it that the supplies Zadykiel needed were delivered to the inn. As the sun began to rise, the next morning Zadykiel and his two death mages walked out of the inn and headed for the road to Goodlund. He linked up with the seven vampires on the outskirts of town and together they struck out along the road. Late afternoon found them at the first bridge where a party of five traders coming from Goodlund was already setting up camp. Late that night the death mages overpowered the two guards the trader's had brought along with them and then, one by one, attacked the sleeping traders. The last two awoke as the vampires drew near them and their shrill screams made Zadykiel sleepy. Those screams were abruptly cut off though, for the death mages had orders to kill silently this night, as it was possible that a patrol of the army just might happen along on this road. 
     Now Zadykiel had increased his band of vampire killers to fourteen. He took what he wanted of the possessions of the traders and had the rest dumped in the river. 
     The next morning they headed out with the now larger party. All that day they traveled down the road to Goodlund. In the early afternoon hours, they saw a ball of fire travel across the sky heading to the south. For a moment, Zadykiel felt an inexplicable dread pass over him, but the feeling passed quickly. A few moments later he thought he heard a distant explosion and guessed that the ball of fire had struck the ground somewhere quite distant. 
     Late afternoon found Zadykiel at the second bridge. They made camp there for the night and the next morning turned northwest and followed the shore of the river to a mountain. They circled that mountain and came to a lake so large he could not see the other shore from where he stood. However, he could see the mountains he was seeking and Zadykiel smiled. "Good,” he thought, "Almost there." Zadykiel and his party traveled north to the northern border of the lake and then headed almost due west to the mountains. The upper peaks were shrouded in mist and snow. It would be impossible to climb, but there was a way to reach its lofty summit where a cave sealed long ago existed. Inside that cave the remains of eleven dragons slept the eternal sleep of death.

     Patting his pocket, where he kept his remaining twelve rings, Zadykiel thought, "Well, not so eternal."

The death mages stared at his back as Zadykiel manically laughed and laughed. They did not know what he found so amusing. They did not care. They were accustomed to his odd behavior by now and considered it quite normal for Zadykiel. 

                                                                    *** 

     Fawnn, Ziona, and Tarn struggled through the forest. They had reached the snow line and the bitter cold seeped into their bones. They were unaccustomed to such extreme cold. It was rare on the other isles to see a night as cold as midday was in these altitudes, and the nights would be mercilessly cold and uncomfortable. Yet they had made good progress. At least Fawnn thought so. Tarn seemed morose and withdrawn. He hated the separation from Mystyka, but he performed his duties well and with the strict discipline of the veteran adventurer that he was. 
     Ziona was also upset. Having her husband and daughter turned into trees did not set well with her, but at least she was looking toward the successful conclusion of the quest and it never seemed to occur to her that they would fail, or that Mystyka and her party would fail. 

                                                                    *** 

     Mystyka, Lord Malachi, and Lord Fatman stared with deep interest at the map that depicted the location of the Dragon Mountain they needed to locate. The good news was that it was quite close to the city of Goodlund. The bad news was that it was on the other side of the mountain range and they would have to backtrack to the bridge, cross it to the other side of the river and then follow the river to the mountains and circle those to a lake. Once they were at the lake it was easy to get to the mountain, for they had been assured that they could see it from the lake. 
     They made plans to head out the next day and went to replenish their supplies. They had been advised to carry plenty of warm weather gear, as the mountains were said to be freezing cold. In that respect they would be better prepared for their adventure than Fawnn's party. The map maker had shown them a map of a little used trail, barely perceptible, that would eventually lead them to the summit. For a modest fee, he had traced that route for them in mere moments. The man was an outstanding map maker. 
     They slept in a city inn that night and headed out early the next day. 

                                          

                                                               Chapter 9. 

     The four gods of Althea were meeting on a neutral isle to discuss the coming of the Harbinger. Damia was furious about what the Harbinger had done to the companions and wanted the gods to try to speak to the Harbinger concerning the issue and get it resolved. She found that the other gods were opposed to speaking to the Harbinger at all. 
     "He had no reason to transform them into trees. That action was not justified so I fail to see any reason why we shouldn’t attempt to intercede on their behalf,” Damia said defiantly to her father Ogrimar. 
     Ogrimar looked at his willful daughter in consternation. He knew her well and because he knew her so well he was fearful that she might indeed confront the Harbinger over the issue. He cautioned, "Damia if you confront the Harbinger concerning his actions regarding the companions it is quite possible that you will be added to that grove."

     "So you are telling me that we should do nothing?" Damia demanded of her father as she stared at him in astonishment. 
     "I’m saying more than that Damia. I am saying that perhaps we should not even try to interfere. That might not be in their best interests."

     Stubbornly shaking her head Damia said, "That is where I have trouble understanding all of this. You keep implying that the Harbinger may have done them some sort of favor by transforming them. Shall I go to the Harbinger and thank him for transforming my husband into a tree?"

     Artherk spoke up then, before the father and daughter argument got too far out of hand. "Damia what Ogrimar is saying is that the Harbinger may well have transformed my son and the majority of the companions for a very good reason. We can’t see that reason anymore than mortals can see what motivates us to take certain actions in their lives, but that does not mean that reasons, good and valid reasons, do not exist. It is quite possible that they do." With this comment, he pointed out that possibility and at the same time reminded Damia that Brimstone was also his son. 
     "What reason could he possibly have for doing so? I see nothing in the threads of possibilities for any of them and I have just spent hours checking,” Damia responded. 
     "Daughter, the Harbinger is to us as we are to the men of Althea,” Ogrimar tried to explain once more. Then thinking hard on the matter he thought that just maybe he had found a way to explain it that she might understand. He continued, "Just as we can perceive potentialities and eventualities in the lives of men, the Harbinger can do the same on a much broader scale. He can perceive the eventualities of worlds. In that manner he is as far above us as we are above mortals, for our abilities fall far short of that, as you well know."

     "But his powers don’t end there Damia,” Shinobi warned. "In fact, that barely scratches the surface of his power." Looking at her daughter in concern Shinobi pointed out, "If the Harbinger so chooses he can easily enforce his will upon any god of Althea. Indeed even upon all of the gods of Althea combined."

     Damia blinked in amazement. "He is that powerful?"

     "He is more powerful than you can imagine, daughter,” Shinobi replied. 
     Ogrimar added, "Damia you are aware that we gods of Althea have a base power that grows significantly with a power that is added to that base by our followers." Damia nodded conceding that fact. "Well the Harbinger’s base power is several times greater than the combined power of the gods of Althea even with the addition of the power we gain from our followers. That in and of itself would be enough for the Harbinger to enforce his will upon the gods of Althea, but it does not stop there. The Harbinger can and does draw on other power sources from the entire universe to add to his base power."

     Ogrimar smiled seeing that what he was saying was sinking in. He continued, "Damia you know how much power is required to transform even one mortal into another object?"

     "Aye father. I transformed a man into a woman once. It left me weak for a bit."

     "The Harbinger transformed the dwarven race into atrocities in one night. The entire dwarven race Damia, and not just one individual. There were thousands of dwarves."

     "So that old legend is true?" Damia asked. 
     "It is true Damia. Your father and I were there when it happened,” Artherk responded. 
     Sighing Damia asked, "Then what are we supposed to do about this situation?"

     "I think we should stay out of the way and let the ladies go about the business of completing their assigned quests,” Artherk responded, and then he added, "We trust them to handle the situation."

     Damia appeared to think about that for a moment and finally a smile appeared on her face. She said, "Well if we have to wait for them to complete their quests I suppose that is all that we can do. If that is all we need to discuss I think I’ll…" 
     "Hold Damia!" Ogrimar shouted in anger, his face a scarlet red with fury as he took a threatening step toward his daughter. 
     Shinobi stepped between them and said, "Ogrimar please. You are too angry and you will say something that you are sure to regret to our daughter. Let me handle this."

     Ogrimar was stunned. Never before had Shinobi used the term, "our daughter" when referring to Damia. He was well aware that Shinobi loathed him and had only consented to bear his child when the means had been worked out to accomplish that without suffering his touch. So surprised and pleased was he with this unexpected comment that he relented and let her speak to their daughter of the things that worried him. 
     Turning to Damia her mother said, "You were about to leave to seek out the ladies Mystyka and Fawnn and offer assistance to them in the performance of their assigned tasks." It was not a question. "Know then daughter that if you interfere in any way the Harbinger is quite likely to become angry with you and punish the companions as a result."

     "Just as the god of corruption Gluriurl once tricked the Elven King Oberon and interfered with the destiny of the elven race, you will threaten the destiny of the human race if you interfere in this matter."

     Wide-eyed Damia said, "Mother I cannot believe you are comparing me to Gluriurl."

     Smiling at her willful daughter Shinobi said, "I can’t believe you were about to go out and interfere with the Harbinger."

     "So I cannot help them at all?" she asked sadly. 
     Artherk spoke up at that point advising, "Damia I wouldn’t even go to them should they call on you. Your presence near them might be misconstrued by the Harbinger as interference and he might further punish my son and the companions." Once again, Artherk had gently reminded Damia that Brimstone was also his son and that he also only wanted what was best for him. 
     Damia sighed and said, "They have both already bespoken me and I have told them that I would seek your opinions on the matter, as the Harbinger is far beyond my experience."

     Ogrimar put it much more bluntly when he said, "Just as Gluriurl once doomed the elven race you now threaten the human race daughter. I apologize for my anger earlier. Normally I really do like that rebellious streak in you, but in this case, the stakes are too high for you to act without regard for the consequences. 
     "I understand now father and I accept your apology. I will not meddle in the quests. But Father, yell at me like that just one more time and you will find out what a spoiled brat I really can be."

     Laughing at that suggestion Ogrimar hugged his daughter and said, "My dear I’ve known that since you were six years old."

     Returning her father’s hug Damia replied smugly, "I’m much worse now. I’ve had years of practice."

     Throwing back his head the god of Evil laughed. 
     Damia smiled at her father and then turned serious a moment later when she said, "There is one more thing that I think we need to discuss." Looking at the other gods she asked, "Why does the Harbinger want your Darkseed father? And what does he want with the two pouches of leaves from the trees of Wisdom and Balance?"

     Ogrimar frowned and said, "I can answer the first question. The Harbinger spoke to me about the Darkseed. He said that unless it was recovered Zadykiel would locate it within a month. I am to go to the grove if and when the Darkseed is recovered by the questers and not one moment before that time." Sighing her father continued, "As to the pouches, when I asked about them I was told to mind my own affairs."

     Damia blinked in amazement. That alone held significance for Damia. No one spoke so to Ogrimar if they wanted to live. That he did nothing about that shored up his argument concerning the powers of the Harbinger. Ogrimar added one final thought when he said, "I did offer to retrieve the Darkseed myself thinking to spare Mystyka the quest, but the Harbinger told me that she was to perform his required quest or the lives of the three questers would be forfeit and the companions would remain the enchanted grove." 
                                         

                                                              Chapter 10. 

     Fawnn, Ziona, and Tarn stopped on the trail they had been following all that day. Tarn was facing the trail behind them, studying the forest in that direction in consternation. Tarn had said earlier that he sensed something was following them, keeping pace with their movements. Fawnn trusted his instincts. Tarn had been a mercenary leader for years and was not given to overreacting to a twig snapping in the forest around them. Tarn was the sort of man that when he advised you that you were being followed, you prepared your spells or weapons to deal with it if you were wise. 
     Fawnn shook her head in irritation at the thought of preparing spells. Just that morning while walking down the trail, an antelope had wandered onto the trail before their party and she had raised her hands to cast a spell to slay it. They desperately needed the meat for their supplies were running low. Her spell had refused to function though. Ziona had then stepped around Fawnn to make the shot with her bow but the movement startled the antelope and it had ran away before Ziona could get off a shot with her bow. 
     Fawnn had tested other spells then. Some worked and others like her earth shattering spell did not. In addition, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to which worked and which did not. Some minor attack spells worked while some minor healing spells did not function at all. She had also noted during the experimentation that there was no guarantee that because a spell worked once it would do so again when needed. They had held a hasty consultation and decided it best to avoid the use of magic because it was so unreliable that dependency on it might get them all killed. 
     Tarn signaled that they should proceed and shook his head when Fawnn asked if he had seen anything. They continued along the trail for hours. They were cold, tired, and hungry. Several times one or the other of the trio felt the presence of their mysterious stalker but never once did they see anything. Late in the afternoon, they came to the perfect spot to dart off the trail and conceal themselves in the brush in an effort to catch sight of their stalker. They did just that and settled down to wait and see what was shadowing them in the forest. 
     For fifteen minutes, they waited there, cramped in their awkward positions. Finally, Tarn stood up and shrugged. "Whatever is out there is intelligent. It did not fall for that trick. He shrugged fatalistically and stepped back out onto the trail where he resumed the trek that they were making to the southeastern part of the island. 
     Fawnn and Ziona fell in behind him. Since Fawnn’s spells had failed, she was walking in the middle of their small procession. In this way the warrior Tarn or the archer, Ziona were more apt to face a threat first. This was the only rational step to take in view of her lack of dependable magic to counter such threats. She would assist as best she could, but her friends would face the assailant first. 
     Fawnn was disturbed by Tarn’s morose behavior. She had never seen the man appear so depressed and disheartened. He rarely spoke to either of them and never volunteered an opinion. If he spoke at all, it was to answer questions put to him by one of the two women of the party. Shaking her head again, she moved on in his wake. 


 

                                                              Chapter 11. 

     Zadykiel and his vampire accomplices located the concealed cave entrance he remembered from the time when Dalghard had possessed him. As they stood looking at the wall of solid rock before them, his vampires looked to him expectantly. He noted their gaze and thought to himself how childlike they were. In many ways, he regarded his vampire minions as his children since, in a manner of speaking; he was responsible for creating them. Smiling at them he said, "Behold my power." He proceeded to utter the incantation which would reveal the secret to entering the cave. 
     The incantation caused a stone lodged in the wall to glow but only he could see that glow. Zadykiel stepped to the wall and placed his palm against that stone. Pressing in and upward at the same time he had the satisfaction of seeing the vampire’s faces betray their astonishment as the concealed door revealed itself to all present when it opened soundlessly. 
     They stepped inside the cave and Zadykiel sealed the entrance. A close examination of the room revealed that the only thing it contained was a small treasure chest. Zadykiel opened that chest and reached inside to grasp the parchment case he found inside it. His hand startled a nest of spiders from two to three inches in size which had made the chest their home for many spider generations. They scurried to avoid his descending hand.   Turning away from the chest, he opened the parchment case and slid the rolled up parchment out of the protective covering. 
     One of the death mages reached inside and scooped out a handful of the squirming spiders. He popped several into his mouth and chewed industriously twice having to poke flailing legs back inside his mouth. Twice the spiders bit him but being dead already, this caused him no difficulties. His partner, the other death mage, joined him at the chest for this special treat. The lesser vampires were warned away by the glaring eyes of the death mages when they approached but one of the death mages offered Zadykiel a handful of the vermin. He politely declined and thanked the vampire, but he was much too absorbed by the map to bother with a snack. 
     The map showed him everything he needed to know to locate the lair where many dragons had been entombed following the Battle of Emanations. "Let’s go," he said to the death mages and headed for the chamber exit, a small corridor that led some few dozen feet deeper inside the mountain. They entered a small chamber that ended at the beginnings of a spiral staircase carved from the stone of the mountain itself. 
     Mounting the staircase Zadykiel took his time as he climbed, followed by his vampiric entourage. The staircase proceeded upward at a steep grade for a very long way. Looking upward, he could not see the upper reaches. Instead, he saw only a vast inky blackness awaiting him. He eagerly rushed on to embrace that darkness and make it his own. About ever one hundred feet, they encountered a landing where a man might sit upon the floor and rest. Zadykiel ignored the first three such landings, driven on by his great thirst for what lay awaiting him. Minions of a type he never dared dream possible. He was forced to rest upon the fourth landing though. His breathing had grown ragged from his exertions and his body was covered in a sheen of sweat. 
     He studied the map as he rested, noting that the staircase led to a small chamber that exited to the open air with a trail from that exit to another cave. The moment his breathing returned to normal, he led the way up the staircase. Now the staircase below him was shrouded in an impenetrable darkness that his eyes could not pierce just as it was above him. Even a couple of the lesser vampires seemed intimidated by their environment but Zadykiel was undisturbed. For him there was only the reward at the end of this journey. The rest was inconsequential to him. 
     Three times during that great and arduous climb up the steep winding staircase, Zadykiel forced himself to stop and rest. It was simply too dangerous to proceed when the sweat obscured the eyes, for there was no protective railing along the inner edge of the spiral staircase. A man could quite easily step off the right edge of the steps into a fall of titanic proportions. 
     At the third stop to rest, he actually fell asleep. His death mages stood nearby guarding him as he slept. That was fortunate for Zadykiel because one of the new vampires could stand the hunger no longer and crawled toward him when he thought no one was watching. The vampire could literally hear Zadykiel’s heartbeat and it was driving him mad with desire for the taste of blood. One of the death mages saw the vampire sliding stealthily across the floor toward his master and hissed a warning. However, the vampire was too far gone in his yearning for blood to heed that warning. The other death mage darted over, grabbed the starving vampire, and threw him into the open space inside the spiral stair casing. His screams as he fell caused Zadykiel’s sleep to deepen as surely as a mother’s lullaby can lull her infant into a deeper sleep. When he awoke hours later he asked, "How long have I been asleep?" The death mages shrugged. For them there was no need to note the passage of time. 
     An hour and a half later, they exited the staircase into a small chamber. Zadykiel opened the concealed door to this chamber and they all stepped outside into the night sky somewhere near the top of the mountain. They followed a narrow trail to another solid wall of rock. A third time the arch villain used the incantation and opened the secret door to the cavern within. This door was dragon sized to permit those massive creatures to enter and exit at will. 
     Once inside the cavern they almost immediately located that which Zadykiel sought. There was a row of dead dragons gone mainly to bones now. The only flesh remaining to them was the thin but tough leathery membranes of their wings. 
     Zadykiel used the last spell that he could remember from his time of possession by Dalghard and increased the size of one of his few remaining rings until it was large enough for him to slide over the toe bone of one of the long dead dragons. 
     Moments later the dragon which had been dead for over a thousand years stirred once more. Raising its huge skeletal body to its feet it stretched and flexed its wings. The dragon turned its skeletal head in Zadykiel’s direction. Large red glowing orbs now served as the dragon’s eyes, for there had been no flesh left for the magic of the rings to reconstitute. 
     Zadykiel tested his command of the dragon then. He ordered it to kneel down before him and he approached it and clambered up onto the dragon. He settled down onto the dragon at the base of the neck sitting between two vertebra located there where the neck joined the body. Dalghard had envisioned this as the most stable place upon the dragon to ride. He ordered the monster to rise to its feet carefully and began to walk him about in the cavern. Satisfied that he could ride there quite easily Zadykiel decided to take the beast outside and observe the true test of its use as a minion. Once the dragon reached the open air outside the cavern, he ordered it to stop and kneel. He dismounted to better observe the creature’s first flight. 
     Once he was safely out of the way, Zadykiel ordered the dragon to fly at will so long as it stayed within sight. The great creature squatted on its legs and gathered energy for the leap and all-important first strokes of its wings. Those wings were accustomed to carrying many times the skeletal dragon’s weight. Even though the dragon had no muscular structure to power those wings now, its wings would still be able to do what they had been able to do in life. The magic of the ring would warrant that this was so. 
     With the reduced weight, the dragon literally leapt skyward. Soon it was flying as it had flown in life. Zadykiel noted some of the hairpin turns the creature made and was happy that he had opted out of that first flight. Soon he had seen enough and ordered the dragon to return. Climbing once more to his seat upon the dragon’s back he instructed his new minion to fly around in lazy and careful circles avoiding any steep dives, climbs, or turns. 
     Zadykiel was thrilled with the flight experience. The pure exhilaration of the flight captivated him. He marveled at the view from the sky and imagined how his recent war with the companions and the Gryphon Knights would have ended had he had such marvelously powerful minions as these. 
     He ordered the dragon to test his magical attack spells on the forest below but the dragon responded that his spells were not working for some odd reason. Concerned by that development Zadykiel had the dragon return to the cave. 
     An hour later eleven reanimated dragons left that cave. Zadykiel sealed it once more and mounted his dragon. The death mages both rode a dragon each and the rest of the vampires rode as well. In some cases, the dragons carried two of these lesser vampires. 
     They flew westward over the mountains. The moment they cleared the mountains Zadykiel saw the lights of the city of Goodlund spread out below. He commanded the dragon to fly well past the city, skirting around it to land near the mountains. Once they had landed he gave one of his death mages orders to slip into the city and locate a leather worker who could fashion harnesses for them so they could ride strapped to the dragons and allow the dragons to utilize their impressive maneuverability during flight. He cautioned the death mage that he needed to return well before daylight so that they could fly to an area more remote from the city before the light of day revealed their position to the army garrison stationed there. 
     Zadykiel became concerned when about thirty minutes before sunrise his death mage had not returned and considered leaving without him. Even as he was making plans to do just that the death mage and a man bearing a heavy pack entered their circle. The death mage had found his leather worker and converted him to their cause. 
     Smiling Zadykiel greeted the newcomer and ordered the dragons mounted so that they could fly further away from the city before the garrison of soldiers saw them. They flew south and crossed a large river. From there they turned westward and followed the river to the mountains. They flew along the mountain range to the western end of the range where Zadykiel had the good luck to spot a small valley concealed by a narrow mountain range. The valley was situated just north of that narrow mountain range and was surrounded by mountains. It was the perfect hideout for him. It could not be spotted from the ground because of the mountain. 
     Zadykiel ordered his lead dragon to fly down into that valley. The floor of that valley was the same stone as the rocky mountains in that region. At the northern edge of that small valley were three caves. 
     The leather worker was excited. He had seen enough to know just what Zadykiel needed and said that he had everything with him that would be needed to make the harness system. 
     Zadykiel laughed as he thought to himself that things were coming along splendidly. He ordered the new recruit to begin making the harness systems at once and not to stop until they were completed. He wanted to be ready when the time was right to move on to the next phase of his operations. He did not know how yet, but he intended to recruit the giant ants to his cause as well, even if he had to anger them and lead them to Cape Hope and Goodlund personally. His ultimate plan was to conquer Shafferland and then utilize the population to form an invasion fleet which he would send to Sic Dalar. 
     His manic laughter filled the early morning sky as the sun rose over the mountains and illuminated the valley where he stood. He sent his minions ahead to check out the three caves and lingered outside until they reported that it was safe to enter. 


 

                                                              Chapter 12. 

     Lady Ru stood frozen in place. She had been transformed into a light blue marble statue as punishment for offending the Harbinger. She was aware of that just as she was aware that the grove of trees around her was actually a large number of the companions who had been transformed into trees at the same moment that she had assumed this cold form. She could hear the tree leaves whispering in the slight breeze. "Or are they talking to each other,” she wondered. 
     Lady Ru’s view was limited to a few of the trees and the road to Goodlund. She could not see the city, but she could see a great deal of the road leading to it. As she stood there frozen in place, she had heard the words of the Harbinger as he had given the ladies Fawnn and Mystyka their quests. She thought it odd that a statue could hear, see, and even feel a stray leaf which had fallen onto her cupped hands, carried there by the slight breeze. She had heard their replies and seen Mystyka, Lord Malachi and Lord Fatman walking down the road to Goodlund. As she watched them walk away, she felt a wistfulness that disturbed her. It was as if she was sad to see them go because it meant an opportunity of some sort was departing with them. 
     That was Ru’s first real encounter with the hunger. She did not understand it yet, but in time she would grow to understand that hunger and the horrors associated with it. In fact she did not have very long to wait for that growing comprehension of the true horror of her dilemma. As the trio of companions grew smaller and smaller Ru noted the flight of a small bird with feathers of a deep shiny black. It had waited for the humans to leave and then decided to visit the new grove with the blue statue near its center. The small bird flew to Lady Ru and perched on her shoulder. Lady Ru noted its presence and immediately she noted the hunger within her rise in a wave of lust. That hunger reached out to the warm body of the bird and caressed it. Alarmed the bird squawked once and spread its wings to fly away. It managed five beats of its wings, which carried it back into Lady Ru’s view, and then it fell to the ground dead. Lady Ru had only a moment to see it in flight but in that moment, she noted that the bird’s coloration was now different. Where it had been a shiny black, it was now a mottled gray. Somehow, the hunger had taken the creature’s life force and apparently aged it. She noted too that she felt different. The awful cold that she had felt had abated. Not by much, but the change was enough to register on her awareness. 
     As her understanding of the true nature of the hunger began to develop, she grew horrified at the thought that she might not be able to control that hunger and that it might be an automatic response to any living thing that touched her. The Harbinger spoke in her mind then saying, "You can control the decision to take a life or not lady. The hunger is there for a reason, but it answers to your will. It is an alternative means for you to escape your punishment. You must choose between waiting for your friends to complete their quests, thus freeing you, or use the hunger. Enough life force will free you from the marble prison. This is your punishment. This is your test."

     Ru was horrified as she began to comprehend the true reason that she had so intently regretted seeing Mystyka and the two men leave. With their departure went the opportunity to free her immediately from this prison of the Harbinger’s making. 
     "I will not feed on another creature to save myself," she vehemently stated. She waited expectantly but the Harbinger never replied, nor did he answer her when she called out to him. 
     Around her the trees seemed to whisper to each other again and Lady Ru wondered what they must be thinking or saying to each other. Then she mentally gasped when movement on the road to Goodlund caught her eye. A young man and a child were approaching. Ru prayed that they would pass the grove without stopping. When they were close enough to make out the details of their clothing Lady Ru realized that they must be farm children and not children from the city on a lark, for their clothes were of the same fashion as those of the farmer’s children she had often seen on Sic Dalar. 
     The young man knew well the road between his farm and Goodlund and was shocked to see the grove that had mysteriously appeared. He stopped to examine the trees and the little girl entered the grove. "Stay near sis," he cautioned the child and then stepped closer to one of the trees to examine it. 
     Ru saw glimpses of the little girl coming in her general direction. "Maybe she will come this way," she thought with yearning. Realizing what she had just wished for, Lady Ru felt so ashamed that if she had not been composed of marble her face would have gone a deep red with embarrassment. "Artherk, please protect this child from me," she pleaded, not expecting an answer. 
     She got one anyway when the god of good bespoke her mentally saying, "You can resist the hunger Ru. You must. I cannot interfere. To do so could doom the human race."

     Ru watched terrified as the girl drew ever closer. A portion of her mind trembled with the desire for the girl to touch her and bring her warmth to ease the ever-present cold which she endured. The rest of her, which to her credit was the greater portion, loathed such selfish and ignoble thoughts. She noted that the child had been gathering wild flowers, perhaps to adorn her dinner table at home. The little girl carried those flowers with her into the grove. 
     Lady Ru heard the child’s intake of breath as if she had gasped in surprise. "Oh what a beautiful lady to find here among the trees." Then the little girl shouted to her brother, "Come and see the pretty lady here."

     The little girl lifted her small hand and reached out to touch the statue that she thought was so beautiful. Deep inside Lady Ru a part of her exalted and prepared to feed, but the good in her suppressed that dark thing in horror. "No!" Ru’s mind screamed. She fought that dark hunger. With every ounce of her being, she resisted it and suppressed it. As she struggled against the conflicting desires raging within her Lady Ru seemed to hear the leaves of the trees whispering once more. This time it seemed to her that they were speaking to her in encouragement and telling her to resist the urge to feed.

     The little girl drew her hand away from the statue and Ru breathed a sigh of relief. She was a nervous wreck, but she had beaten the urge to feed. The little girl placed the flowers which she had gathered inside Ru’s cupped hands and said, "Pretty flowers for a pretty lady." Ru was touched by the gesture and her heart went out to this simple child. The girl placed her hand on the arm of the statue, the hunger surged once more, and once more Lady Ru fought it with all her heart and soul. To her horror, she found that this time it was more difficult to suppress the hunger. "No!" Ru said as the hunger reached out to caress the warm child standing before her. 
     A moment later her brother called and said, "Let’s go Sis, or we will miss dinner."

     The little girl said, "I have to go now pretty lady. I will bring you more flowers the next time I pass this way."

     Lady Ru was relieved when the little girl turned to walk away. She had beaten the hunger again but each struggle with it was more difficult than the last. She now had a profound dread of human contact of any sort. The little girl’s promise to return made Ru terribly afraid of what might happen should that come to pass. Around her the trees seemed to whisper their own dread of that meeting. 


 

                                                              Chapter 13. 

     Mystyka, Lord Malachi, and Lord Fatman stopped by the enchanted grove on their way to the mountain where they were to recover the Darkseed of Ogrimar. Standing beside the grove of trees, Mystyka admired their beauty. She stepped inside the grove and found Lady Ru standing near the center of the enchanted grove holding a small bouquet of flowers in her cupped hands. Mystyka smiled at her and reached out to place her hand upon the arm of the statue not knowing the torment that this gesture unleashed inside of Lady Ru or the danger that she faced in doing this. 
     All around them the trees seemed to whisper and urge Lady Ru to resist the hunger. Mystyka noted only the strange way the leaves of the enchanted trees seemed to rustle even though there was no breeze. 
     Lady Ru was in torment as she struggled desperately against the hunger that threatened to leech the vitality from her friend. She heard Mystyka say, "Fear not my friend. We know where to go now and we are on our way to fulfill our part in this quest."

     Mystyka only left her hand upon the statue for a moment, but time is relative to a person’s situation. A moment spent in joy is fleeting while a moment spent in agony seems an eternity. 
     She turned and walked away then and Ru was relieved that she did so without touching her again. 
     Mystyka stopped when she had rejoined Lord Malachi and Fatman. She spoke to the enchanted grove saying, "The Harbinger said that you were aware of what has happened to you. That might mean that you can hear and understand me. So know this my friends. We know where to go and what to do. We are on our way to accomplish the Harbinger’s required quest. We shall return in a few days with the Darkseed of Ogrimar or die in the attempt."

     Mystyka turned and walked away. Lord Malachi stepped forward and unsheathed his sword. He held it up with the hilt before his eyes in a warrior salute to the enchanted grove and said, "Companions, I salute you. Brimstone, don’t worry about Mystyka. I promise to watch over her and see to it she returns here in one piece. Jedi my friend, you watch over the rest until I return." He turned and hurried to catch up with Lord Fatman and Mystyka who were getting ahead of him. 
     The trees whispered to each other long past the time that the trio of daring adventurers had disappeared down the road in the pursuit of their quest. 

                                                                    *** 

     Fawnn, Ziona, and Tarn struggled through the forest. They were cold, tired, and hungry. Their food supplies had been low when they had encountered the Harbinger. Now they were all but exhausted. Fawnn knew that unless they soon found game that they could eat, they were going to be doing without food, at least until they reached their destination. 

                                                                    *** 

     Ishy watched them as they struggled through the forest. She admired their tenacity in the face of the many problems which beset them. As she observed them she had noticed what the women of the party had apparently missed. Tarn had stopped eating and was slipping his remaining food into the two women’s packs when they weren’t watching him. They seemed like such noble and unselfish people. This party deserved to live to at least reach their destination. Making a decision she smiled to herself and contacted her friend who had been following the three adventurers and made a suggestion. Her friend had agreed that it was a good idea and promised to do what he could to see her wishes fulfilled. Ishy turned away from her scrying bowl to attend to other duties. 

                                                                    *** 

     The three companions had stopped to rest in a small clearing. There they waited patiently for their strength to return. Fawnn didn’t like to admit it, but they were in desperate trouble. Unless they found food soon they would succumb to the bone chilling elements of this land. They barely had the energy required to make the trek through the forest even if the elements weren’t so harsh, but to attempt it in this environment without food was courting death. To make matters worse she had Tarn to deal with and he was being difficult. She thought that he had stopped eating and once she thought she saw him slip a small packet of food into Ziona’s pack when she wasn’t looking. 
     They had just climbed to their feet to resume their journey when an antelope came running into their clearing. Ziona’s bow spoke swiftly and her arrow flew true striking the antelope in the heart. It ran three steps and then fell in its tracks. 
     "Nice shot Ziona!" Tarn hooted and ran to the downed animal. He took a dagger and field dressed it on the spot. He then skinned the animal and cut two huge roasts from its hind quarters. They would roast one of them and have the other to cut into thin strips which they could smoke for their journey. Fawnn was pleased to see him so animated. Gone was the morose Tarn who’d been their traveling companion the past few days and he seemed his old good natured self. 
     Tarn rolled up the heavy hide and suggested they move well away from the kill area as predators might be attracted to the kill. He said, "We have all the meat that we can carry at the moment so let’s get away from here before something is attracted by the smell and comes to investigate.

     Three minutes after the companions left the area a lone figure walked into the small clearing. He saw the remains of the kill and turned his head in the direction that the trio had headed. Assured by his special senses that they had indeed left the area he set himself to the task of feasting on the remains of the kill. 

                                                                    *** 

     Ishy looked away from her scrying bowl filled with water. She had seen enough for the moment and had other duties requiring her attention. She hurried away to see to those duties promising herself that she would return in a bit to check once more on the companions. 

                                                                    *** 
 

                                                              Chapter 14. 

     Mystyka, Lord Malachi, and Lord Fatman spent the early part of the afternoon staring at the mountain in amazement. Mystyka had come to the conclusion that the map maker was insane. Yes there was a trail of sorts there but that trail was so bad that even a mountain antelope would hesitate to use it. Lord Fatman quipped that he had seen one actually refuse to use the trail, preferring instead to walk straight up the steep sides of the mountain. Never-the-less they had to do so. 
     They began their climb two hours before the sun set in the hopes of locating a suitable place to spend the night. The first hour the trail seemed very erratic and difficult to traverse. The second hour it got worse. Just as the sun was setting they arrived at a small level area barely large enough to accommodate the three of them. 
     Lord Malachi looked the spot over and decided that it would have to do for the night. He then opened his pack and removed several items he had bought in Goodlund. Since the level spot was so small it was easily conceivable that one of them could roll over in their sleep and tumble down the mountainside to their death. To prevent that he took three of the steel spikes he had purchased and drove them into the mountain then tied tethers to each. These tethers would be tied to their waists so that if they had a mishap during the night they would awake to find they’d only slid a few feet and not to the bottom. 
     None of the companions liked the concept of being tethered. If monsters attacked them during the night the tethers could quickly become a liability. But they liked the thought of rolling down the mountainside even less. 
     They talked for a while about the climb to this point and speculated on what the rest of the climb might entail. Then their conversation turned to the enchanted grove and their companions imprisoned there. Finally they began to speak of the other party of questers in southern Shafferland and of the trials which they were encountering there. 

                                                                    *** 

     Tarn had gathered wood while Fawnn had used a dagger to trim and prepare several forked sticks which they would need for the cooking process. Ziona had donated several arrows that could be used to smoke the meat and was industriously slicing the meat into thin strips. That meat would be smoked for their use in the days to come. It would be near tasteless but it would be filling and give them the strength they needed to carry on with their quest. 
     The ever present bitter cold seeped into their bones as they worked in the twilight that precedes true darkness, but the winds which had all that day been high were now dying down. Tarn was happy to see this development. The strong winds would have made cooking much more difficult. For thirty minutes he gathered wood until he was certain that he had accumulated enough in the small clearing to fill their needs for the night. 
     By the time Tarn completed the wood gathering Fawnn had a good campfire going and was letting it burn down to a suitable level for cooking. Tarn started two more fires which would be used to smoke the meat. He wanted it to smoke for hours and waiting until their roast was cooked to begin that task would give them much less time to smoke the meat. Like Fawnn, he let the fires burn down and then took the forked sticks that Fawnn had prepared and shoved them into the ground which had thawed enough from the heat of the fire to permit this. While they were thus engaged Ziona gathered leaves and pine needles both in abundance here and laid down a five inch layer of insulation for their sleeping comfort. They had learned immediately that sleeping on the frozen ground was next to impossible, for their body heat would be leached from them. She took advantage of their three fires this night and placed the bedding between them so that they could have the added warmth of the extra fires. 
     Tarn took four forked sticks for each of the two smoking fires and situated them so that straight sticks could be laid across two of the forked sticks thus forming a smoking rack for the meat. He loaded Ziona’s arrows of meat onto this make-shift rack. Next he turned to the rolled up hide and unrolled it. Taking a dagger he scrapped away all of the fat and small pieces of meat. He discarded these in the fire to make it smoke a bit more. Opening his pack he took out a large packet of salt and hand rubbed it into the flesh side of the hide. This would cure the hide to some degree. A hide cannot be cured overnight, but they didn’t have a week to waste in that process. It would have to do. At least it would serve to help keep the women warm. 
     When he was finished he stretched the hide out tautly and pictured in his mind the cuts that he needed to make. Taking his razor sharp dagger he traced the outline of the cut lightly. He was cutting the hide in half, keeping the forelegs on one half and the hind legs on the other. He took one last look at his proposed choice in the cutting process then changed one spot in the cut. Smiling to himself he then made the cut. 
     With a grin on his face Tarn approached the two women of the party and wrapped their make-shift hide cloaks around them with the hair side down. The cloaks came down to their waists. They immediately felt warmer and thanked him. He apologized for the smell but shrugged indicating there was nothing that they could do about that. 
     Ziona said, "We can live with the smell. It’s warm and I appreciate that. But Tarn where is yours? Why didn’t you make them a bit smaller and make three?"

     Tarn shrugged and lied, "I’ll make me one later."

     "Next kill?" Ziona asked. 
     "Sure Ziona. Next kill I’ll make me one," he lied again for the next kill he fully intended to make the women leggings and footwear to insulate their feet. Looking at Tarn Fawnn suspected that he was not being honest with them. But Tarn seemed almost his old self so she let the matter drop. At least the moroseness which had plagued him seemed to be banished for the moment. That was a good thing. 
     As for Tarn, he thought of their husbands, Veksar and John. He thought of the oath he had taken to protect the wives of his two friends on this quest and this is why Tarn seemed happy. He was finally able to take a positive step in the direction of fulfilling that oath. 

                                                                    *** 

     Ishy saw much of this in her scrying bowl and smiled, pleased with the trio. She too knew that Tarn would not make a garment for himself unless he had plenty of hides to work with. Ishy used a minor spell to make the fires burn long and hot. To her mind these people were proving themselves worthy. Even under the extreme hardships of their journey they were not at each other’s throats but were instead working together well for their mutual survival. She contacted her friend then with another request and again left the scrying bowl to see to her other duties. 
     Her home was a huge two story house with a Stonehenge and several groves of trees quite near it. The glen in which her home was situated was almost completely surrounded by the mountains. There was only a narrow passage between two mountain ranges to the southwest of her home. That passage led down into her glen. The glen itself was a magical place. Once there, the bitter cold and snows of the region that one must traverse to reach it were gone. The glen had a weather all its own. In fact one portion appeared to be perpetual spring while another appeared to be perpetual fall. 
     Ishy was an immensely powerful mage and she had a command of magic that was different from that of the other mages of Althea. Where their magic could be termed battle magic hers tended toward a magic to use in everyday life more than in battle. She could seal a house against the cold, double quantities, open portals, communicate with different species; extend the life of some plant species and a myriad of other practical magic applications. That is not to say that she was lacking in battle magic or the beneficial spells of other mages, for she could cast those spells with the best of spell casters. But her specialties did in truth lie in a nurturing magic. 
     Ishy was an immensely powerful mage, but she was much more than that. Ishy was also a druidess with deep ties to nature. It was Ishy who was the guardian of the glen and the secrets which the glen contained. If she felt for a moment that the approaching trio would harm those secret treasures she would let them die in the attempt to reach her. But Ishy had seen enough of the three companions to come to the conclusion that they were worthy of at least a visit to the glen. Whether or not they got that which they were seeking was a decision that was out of her hands. The two ancient trees would make that decision for themselves. If Fawnn survived their tests then she may well walk away with the two pouches of leaves that she sought. If she failed then all of their lives would regrettably be forfeit, for the trees guarded well their secrets. 


 

                                                              Chapter 15. 

     Mystyka and her two traveling companions got an early start the next morning. For an hour they made good time. Then they came to the first of three locations where the trail they followed had fissures which had opened up beneath them. Lord Malachi looked at the fissure critically and then announced, "We can do this. It will just take a bit of planning." He took off his pack and set it down on the trail. Removing a length of rope from the pack he tied it around his waist and handed the free end to Lord Fatman. "Just in case,” he said with a wry grin. 
     Lord Fatman stepped several paces back and wrapped the free end of the rope around his own waist twice. Nodding his head he said, "I’m ready."

     Judging the distance involved Lord Malachi backed up a few steps to get a running start at the jump that he must make. A moment later he bolted for the fissure and leaped across it quite easily. Lord Fatman tied the pack to the free end of the rope and Malachi hauled it over. Next he hauled over Lord Fatman’s pack and then Mystyka’s. He moved all three up the trail to make more space for the friends to land. 
     Next to make the jump was Mystyka who easily cleared the fissure. She untied the rope and gathered the loose rope into coils. Drawing her hand back she tossed the rope to Lord Fatman. 
     Now it was his turn and he was a bit concerned. Lord Malachi was wearing a lighter armor that his own and he feared that weight difference might well be his undoing. Mystyka was concerned as well, for the jump was formidable. She suggested that Malachi take a precaution and use one of his spikes to secure the rope on this side of the trail. He readily agreed to do so and moments later Lord Fatman got a running start and leapt across the fissure. His feet landed perilously close to the edge of the fissure but he was off balance and would have fallen into it if Lord Malachi hadn’t grabbed his out flung arm and yanked him further up the trail. 
     Rubbing his now aching arm Lord Fatman said, "Thank you, but you didn’t have to pull my arm out of the socket."

     "Better too much force applied than not enough,” Malachi replied with a sardonic grin. 
     They moved on then and soon came across two lesser fissures. They took the same precautions as they had with the first but there were no incidents in crossing those. 
     All that day they climbed the mountain along the trail that wound this way and that upon the eastern face of the mountain. Once they came to a sort of tunnel like place in the trail. It looked for all the world like a tunnel that had its right side sliced away by a giant blade. That exposed right side was a shear drop of several hundred feet. The tunnel was small. They could crawl through it if they removed their packs. They did so and Lord Malachi went first with a rope trailing behind him. The pseudo tunnel was only about forty feet in length. But getting through it was a painful and cramped experience. Pushing his pack ahead of him made the job that much harder, but pulling them through with a rope was out of the question. There was no way that they could accomplish that without the packs sliding off the edge.

     Once clear of the tunnel Lord Malachi yelled for the others to follow and waited patiently as they made their way through one at a time. He took that time to reattach his sword to his belt. He’d been forced to tie it to his pack to push it through as it kept banging into the tunnel floor. He shouted a warning to Fatman that his sword needed to be strapped to his pack and settled down to wait for the others to reach him. 
     Two hours later they stopped beside a small shallow cave. There was only about an hour of daylight remaining so Lord Malachi suggested they camp there for the night as this spot was sheltered from the wind and they would be able to sleep much more comfortably. With the terrible memory of the previous night spent on the mountain in mind the others readily agreed. 

                                                                    *** 

     Fawnn, Ziona, and Tarn ate their fill that night. To their malnourished bodies, the meat of that antelope roast tasted better than any meal that they could remember and Tarn encouraged the women to eat long past the point when they felt full. "Eat all of this that you can because it will be a sight better than the smoked meat we have for an alternative food supply." As an experienced mercenary of many years he knew well enough that the larder of plenty was all too often replaced by deprivation the next day. 
     They slept well that night for the first time since they’d entered the forest. Ziona’s bedding, the three fires and the large hot meal had a combined effect of making them all sleep as soundly as babes. Tarn had argued that he should keep watch for a few hours but Fawnn had insisted that he get some rest as he’d worked the hardest this day. She also said that they all needed a good nights rest and that if anything ventured near she trusted her companions to awaken. 
     During the night unseen eyes roved the small clearing where they slept. Once a small predator ventured near, having been attracted by the smells of meat emanating from the camp. The guardian who watched over their sleep stepped into the path of the smaller predator, emitting a bass toned low growl that seemed to come from deep within its body. The smaller cat like predator squatted on it’s haunches with its ears laid back and hissed. It then glanced to one side and darted away heading for safer areas to hunt. 
     The next morning as they were breaking camp the trio heard the sound of something breaking through the dense foliage of the forest near them. Ziona and Tarn prepared to defend them and stood at the ready. A moment later two antelope darted into the small clearing. Without thinking Ziona shot first one and then the other. Tarn rushed upon the first and slit its throat as it struggled to rise to its feet. 
     They delayed their departure long enough for Tarn to skin the two antelope and prepare leggings and boots to cover the women’s bodies in addition to their other clothing which was inadequate for the freezing temperatures. He also had enough left to make himself a hide cape and boots for himself. They took more of the meat with them for their supper, content that it would remain good until then in this freezing weather. 
     Fawnn gazed at the thickening clouds in apprehension. It looked as if a storm was brewing. There was a wet feel to the air that she didn’t like. As if somewhere near them a great deal of moisture were building which would soon be unleashed upon them. In the extreme cold there was little doubt in her mind what form that moisture would take. Fawnn feared a blizzard was in the making. Fawnn was right. 

                                                                    *** 

     Ishy stared into her scrying bowl and the view shifted from the trio of companions to the sky above the forest there. A terrible storm was building. They would require help this night or the travelers would all perish in the terrible onslaught of the coming blizzard. She sent a message to her friend following the trio and asked him to intercede lest they perish. He promised to help them as he was becoming somewhat fond of them. 
     Turning back to the companions in the scrying bowl she noted the hides were improperly cured and would smell. That might attract the wrong sort of attention to them. There was nothing that her friend could do about that. Pointing to each in turn she used her magical power to properly cure the hides. She then slowly altered them so that they fit better and would retain the body heat of the companions much more efficiently. Smiling to herself she turned again to other duties. She left in search of the other druids who lived in the glen to consult with them about what she had learned that day.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 16.


     Mystyka, Lord Malachi, and Lord Fatman had finally managed the climb to the summit of the mountain. They stood there in that desolate place cold, tired and disappointed. They had thought that once at the summit they might see the cave they sought. Yet now that they were finally there they saw nothing. Not a sign of a cave anywhere. 
     Lord Malachi was staring down at the trail which they had clambered up to reach the summit. Mystyka saw that he seemed to be absorbed by the view and said, "It looks as if climbing that terrible trail was a waste of time doesn’t it?" Then her eyes fell on something odd. There was a flat stretch carved into the side of the mountain that they hadn’t been able to see during their climb. From their position on the summit they could see it well. She pointed it out to Lord Malachi and Fatman then asked, "Why do you suppose that is there? It doesn’t look like a natural formation to me."

     "It isn’t,” Lord Malachi agreed with a excited smile. Studying the scene he added, "We couldn’t see it because the curvature of the mountain obscured it from the trail. It is hidden in plain sight."

     "In plain sight if you are a bird,” Mystyka said causing Lord Fatman to chuckle. Then turning serious she asked, "Do you think we can get to it from the trail below it?"

     Lord Malachi appeared thoughtful for several moments and finally he replied, "It looks as if we can. Or rather I can. Once on the flat section I can lower a rope to help you two." Growing more excited he took several steps to the left and leaned precariously over the edge of a cliff face. Laughing a moment he turned to his companions and said, "I thought that bulging side of the mountain looked familiar." Turning to his friends he explained, "Remember the tunnel like part of the trail" When they both nodded he added, "Well that flat stretch of ground is above the bulging cliff face near it."

     They headed back down the trail then. They would spend the night in the best place that they could find and head down to the flat stretch of ground early the next day. With luck they could reach it well before sundown. 
     As the three friends made the hazardous trip down the mountain trail Lord Fatman said, "I wonder how Fawnn’s group is making out."

     Pulling his cold weather cloak closer about him to conserve his body heat Lord Malachi said, "No matter how they are doing they have to be warmer than we are."

 

                                                                    *** 

     Fawnn was now genuinely concerned about the weather. It was snowing heavily and had been for over an hour. The wind had increased dramatically to a howling tempest which swirled the accumulating snow into drifts. 
     To make matters worse Tarn had once more slipped into his morose state. She observed him as he trudged through the swirling snow with the tip of his sword trailing in the accumulating snow. He had drawn his sword as a precaution when the wind had increased to the point that there would be little or no warning of an attack by a predator. In her thinking, a warrior who permitted his blade to drag in the snow had serious issue’s which needed to be addressed. 
     As if he could sense her thoughts centering on him, Tarn stopped and turned to look at the women. He said, "The storm is getting worse Fawnn. I recommend that we seek shelter early this afternoon. Unless we find a decent shelter for the night there is a very real danger that we might freeze to death in this storm."

     Fawnn readily agreed. Already the biting cold was penetrating even the warmth of the new hides Tarn had made for them. Noting Ziona’s hair Fawnn was surprised to discover that ice crystals were beginning to form in it where the snow had melted from her body heat. Reaching up she felt crystals of ice in her own hair and said, "Alright Tarn, I agree. I can’t see us surviving this storm after dark without a good shelter so let’s find one now."

     Tarn nodded his head and turned to lead on but Fawnn stopped him when she asked, "Tarn are you alright?"

     He turned back to her and replied, "Yes Fawnn. I’m cold just as we all are, but I’m alright."

     Fawnn had dreaded bringing up Tarn’s withdrawn and glum behavior but once she had opened the subject she pressed on. "No Tarn something has been bothering you for days. I think it is time we discussed it. Tarn are you upset because the Harbinger appointed me as leader of this quest? Because if you are, you can lead."

     Tarn stared at Fawnn incredulously for a moment, then realizing his hesitation might be misinterpreted he said, "No Fawnn. The Harbinger appointed you leader of this quest for a reason. I don’t know that reason. I don’t need to know the reason. For all I know it is the decisions that you make as the leader that will see us through this quest." Shaking his head he continued, "No Fawnn you are the leader and I bear you no grudge at all."

     Now that the topic had been opened she refused to let it drop without an answer so she pressed on, "Tarn something is eating at you. I need to know what that something is. I need to know that I can count on you in an emergency."

     Tarn stared sadly at the two women. "Have I been that bad on this trip?" he asked. 
     Ziona slowly nodded her head and said, "At times Tarn, yes."

     "Alright I’ll tell you both what has been bothering me." He grinned and continued, "But not at the risk of freezing to death. We find shelter and get set up for the night. Then there will be time to talk without endangering our lives." As he spoke the wind howled about them, swirling the snow in eddies. 

                                                                    ***


     Ishy stared at the companions as the snow swirled around them. She contacted her friend in the forest near them and was assured that they would soon reach the shelter that he had located. She thanked him and cautioned him to be very careful lest they consider his approach an impending attack and react violently. 


 

                                                              Chapter 17. 

     Mystyka and her two companions arrived at the spot on the trail where they would need to scale the mountain face to gain access to the incongruous area carved out of the mountainside. 
     Lord Malachi slipped off his pack and took his longest rope from it. He slung the rope over his head and shoulder effectively slinging it cross body. He undid his belt and ran that through the lower end of the gathered coils thus securing it so that it would be less likely to cause problems as he navigated his way up the mountainside. 
     Looking at the face of the mountain with a practiced eye he spotted the hand and footholds that he would need to make the climb. Fatman and Mystyka waited patiently. They knew that Malachi was the one to attempt the climb for he did such as this for sport. On Raven’s Dust he had been the volunteer who had scaled a mountain face to get the companions inside a gargoyle cave located there during what the companions referred to as the creature wars. 
     Turning to his friends he said, "This is a long and difficult climb but I think I can do it. I’ll climb up and secure the rope and lower it to you. Send up my pack first because I’ll need my sword in case there is something waiting in the cave." With that said he turned and began to make the climb testing each foot and handhold along the way before trusting it to support his body weight. 
     The climb up the rock face of the mountain took an hour. At one point he had to double back because there were no adequate handholds within reach. Cursing his luck he then doubled back on his course and took an alternate path to the target area. A few times he dislodged small showers of stones which pummeled the two companions waiting below who had long since given up watching his climb, as maintaining the unaccustomed angle with their heads was making their necks ache. 
     Twice during the climb projecting rocks that he felt he could trust suddenly gave way and caused him to almost fall. In both instances he had been transferring his body weight to that hand hold but had yet to commit his full weight to it. It was this slow deliberate caution which saved him in both cases. It might look to some as if he was taking obscene risks, but in his mind he was accomplishing the climb with minimal risk. The cold was his worst enemy. Between the strain on his fingers and the numbing cold he was beginning to lose sensation in his fingertips and that could have deadly results. 
     Finally he made it to the target area and lay on his back for a moment panting from the exertion required to traverse the last ten feet of the climb. When he caught his breath he stood up and looked down at the view. Alarmed to see that night was falling on the flatland below, he immediately set about the work at hand. He tied one end of the rope around his waste and then tossed the loose coils over the side. "My pack," he shouted down to the waiting companions. A moment later he felt a tug on the rope and Fatman yelled, "Go!"

     Five minutes later he had the pack beside him on the ground. He took out his small hammer and one of the last remaining spikes and drove that in the rock shelf upon which he was standing. He drove it in on a steep angle so that a rope couldn’t work its way off and over the top of the spike. He untied the rope around his waist and secured it around the spike. Now he was ready to assist the others in their climbs as soon as their packs had been brought up. 
     Fatman climbed up first. Unaccustomed to climbing he had a difficult time of it but he did manage the climb. Mystyka secured the rope under her arms and grabbed hold of it at about the level of her face to make the climb. Seeing this Lord Malachi yelled down, "You should tie it around your waist Mystyka. That’s going to make your arms ache."

     Mystyka waved up at him with one hand and yelled, "I can’t do that Mal. Just pull me up. It’s freezing down here."

     Shrugging Lord Malachi shouted, "Alright here goes." Nodding to Fatman they began to pull her up the face of the mountain maintaining a slow and steady rhythm. A few minutes later she yelled that she was just below the top and wanted a hand up the rest of the way. Lord Fatman wrapped the rope around his waist and secured it with a tight square knot and nodded that he was ready to support her weight alone. Malachi then went to the edge and reached down to pull Mystyka to the top. 
     She moved away from the edge of the mountain face rubbing her aching arms and shoulders. "I tried to tell you to tie the rope around your waist,” Malachi chided. 
     "And I told you that I couldn’t do that,” she replied primly. 
     "Why couldn’t you?" he asked in confusion. 
     "Where is the cave?" she asked letting him know that she had no intention of answering his question. 
     Letting the matter drop he looked around and saw no sign of a cave. "Well there has to be a reason for this spot to be here. Maybe we can see the cave from here." That caused Mystyka and Fatman to begin examining the mountainside again. Exhausted from the strain of the climb and pulling Mystyka to the top Lord Malachi leaned back against the wall behind him and fell flat on his back. Looking up he saw a ceiling over his head where the sky should be. Jumping to his feet he examined the room and then stepped into the portal beside him. He reappeared on the rock shelf beside the two companions who were searching frantically for him. They had missed him and were trying to figure out what could have happened to him. 
     "Where were you?" Mystyka asked. "First you were here, then you weren’t and now you just reappeared."

     "I found the entrance,” Lord Malachi stated simply. Then he added, "It’s invisible, like the desert entrance to Minos."

     A moment later the trio stepped through the apparently not so solid face of the mountain into a dimly lit small room that contained a portal and an exit to a passageway. 

 

                                                              Chapter 18. 

     The snow was almost blinding now. Fawnn struggled through the drifts which sometimes covered the trail they had been following. Looking ahead of her she could see Tarn stoically breaking a trail for them as they moved along the trail in the hopes of finding a suitable spot to stop and wait out the storm. The forest in this area was thin with the trees widely spaced and offered little protection from the raging storm. They were seeking anything that might afford better shelter. Even an overgrown thicket would do. 
     Glancing behind her to ensure that Ziona was still in sight Fawnn saw that she had stopped and was staring ahead of them down the trail. She bumped into Tarn then. Tarn had also stopped and was staring ahead of them in the same direction that held Ziona’s attention. Ahead of them, sitting on it haunches in the middle of the trail was a large gray wolf. The creature stared at them exhibiting no sign of hostility or fear. Then the wolf deliberately turned his head to the left of the trail and stared in that direction. He gave several yips and got slowly to his feet and walked off the trail in the direction he had faced. Stopping a few feet off the trail, the wolf turned his head and yipped again, then resumed his course into the woods. 
     “I think he wants us to follow him,” Fawnn said. 
     “It does seem that way doesn’t it,” Ziona stated. 
     “Shall we?” Tarn asked. When Fawnn nodded they headed out after the wolf which had stopped and was waiting for them to catch up. Seeing the trio now following him, the wolf headed out once more at a slightly faster pace. All around them the snowfall increased in intensity. Fawnn hoped that soon they would get to a shelter because at the rate the snowfall was increasing, visibility would soon be down to a few feet at best. 
     They had followed the wolf for only a few minutes when they arrived at a hill in the forest. Following the wolf they walked around the hill to the east side. A few moments later they came to a small cave entrance. The wolf stopped there and waited for the companions to enter. After they entered the cave they turned to look at the wolf once more, only to find that he had disappeared. Only his tracks in the fresh snow gave proof he had been there at all. 
     It was rapidly growing dark outside. The companions had to make preparations for the coming night if they were to survive, even in this shelter. They quickly got organized. Fawnn built a small fire first, from the few bits of wood that the elements had deposited near the entrance and just inside the cave. Ziona and Tarn scoured the area near the cave and brought back a good supply of wood. Tarn had brought back several branches he could cut up to use to feed the fire. He even found two small cedar trees which he had cut down to use to block the worst of the wind from the entrance of the cave. He left the upper portion unobscured for ventilation purposes. 
     Tarn then drew a cooking pot from his pack and went outside in the snow. He found a drift of clean fresh snow and filled the pot, compressing the snow as he did so. He took it back inside the cave, where he sat it on a large flat rock sitting beside the fire. In a few minutes the pot was half full of water. 
     Ziona and Fawn wondered what he was up to and watched with interest as he continued his preparations. Taking a knife and a plate he sliced several pieces of antelope meat into small bite sized pieces. When he had what he thought was the correct amount he added them to the large pot of water which had just begun to boil. Next he went outside again where he washed his hands in the snow and returned with a large glass filled with more fresh snow. He set that near the fire to melt so that he could add water to his stew as needed. 
     Rummaging about in the bottom of his pack he grinned as he found what he sought. He opened his hands and revealed a small paper-wrapped round ball about an inch in diameter. He unwrapped the round ball quite carefully as if he were afraid that he would drop it. When it was unwrapped he dropped the dark brown ball into the now rapidly boiling pot. 
     Unable to contain her curiosity Fawnn asked, “What was that Tarn?” 

     Smiling at Fawnn he stirred the pot for a moment and replied, “Well Fawnn that’s a long story. You see when I was visiting Silversky one evening I chanced upon a lady in need of a bit of help. I assisted her and when that task was completed she said, “Son, you look as though you haven’t eaten in a week. Come to my home and I’ll feed you your supper.” 

     Looking at Fawnn seriously he said, “You know how those grandmotherly types are. Always out to feed a person, aren’t they. But in this case she wasn’t off by much. It had been a few days since I’d had a real meal.” Shrugging he added, “Such is the life of the mercenary. Anyway, she watched me eat like a starving soul and noted the appetite that I had. I explained that a mercenary seldom ate well and never had decent food when away on a mission. She was appalled by that and told me to return to see her when next I was in Silversky.” 

     “A couple of weeks later I returned to the city and saw her outside her house. She insisted I come in as she had a gift for me. She gave me a sack full of those balls that she had made for me.” Leaning over the pot Tarn stirred it again to make sure nothing was sticking. He added a bit of water from the glass and continued, “She was a great cook you see. She had devised a means to cook down stews until they were a gummy paste. Then she would roll that paste in flour until it formed a ball. She told me to add one to water for stews if I had meat. Use three if I had no meat and simply drink it. Two if I had vegetables but no meat. It’s quite good actually. Many a night this was all I had with me to eat.” Nodding his head at the pot he added, “That was the last one I had with me. Truth be told I’d forgotten it was in my pack. I’ll get more the next time I’m in Silversky.” 

     “Hey!” Ziona said, “I think I have something too!” Rummaging through her pack hastily she searched for moments and laughed as she drew out a small package and opened it. Inside were dried sweet peas that she had purchased from a poor farmer in Sic Dalar who was selling such items by the side of the road. Ziona didn’t like beggars much but she always tried to help out the poor who were trying to earn an honest living. She tipped the man outrageously and left despite his protests that the kind lady had paid too much. 
     Smiling, Tarn gestured to the pot and Ziona happily poured in the dried peas. She took the spoon as Tarn offered it and began to stir the stew, lest it stick. Fawnn searched her own pack and frowned when she pulled forth a rubbery carrot which had seen better days. “It looks pitiful but I think the boiling water will reconstitute it for us,” Fawnn said. 
     “Yes it will and it will add flavor to the stew,” Tarn said. He then rummaged one final time through his pack and produced a small onion which he immediately peeled and chopped up. 
     As Tarn added the onion to the stew Fawnn grinned in appreciation. “It looks as if we will have a proper stew tonight.” Then gesturing to the large portion of antelope meat that they had left she said, “We should also cook the meat. It will go bad in this warmer environment.” 

     Tarn efficiently set up the meat to roast. He took a bit of the remaining salt he had with him and added it to the stew. The rest he would save to flavor their roasted antelope. 
     Fawnn turned businesslike then and said, “Alright Tarn you promised to tell us what is wrong when we were safely inside a shelter and settled for the night.” 

     Tarn’s demeanor changed instantly. Gone was the smile and in its place was an expression of concern. He said, “I did and I will. But this is complicated. I don’t really know where to begin.” 

     “Just begin if you please,” Fawnn said relentlessly. 
     Tarn spoke then of his childhood and the death of his mother. He spoke of a father that was never there and how alone and abandoned he’d felt during most of his early life. Fawnn and Ziona were aware of these details. Mystyka had confided in them concerning Tarn’s past. They said nothing of that but let him continue in his own way. He then shocked them both when he said, “You see I think maybe Mystyka is with child.” 

     Ziona almost fell over in surprise as she was reaching to stir the pot. Fawnn sat open mouthed in shock. “She didn’t say a word,” Fawnn said. 
     Shrugging Tarn said, “We don’t know yet. But she had reason to think it possible.” 

     “And you don’t really want children at this time?” asked Fawnn. 
     “I’d love children. That’s not it at all,” Tarn said in some frustration. He was having trouble voicing his true concern and Fawnn decided to wait him out and let him articulate it in his own way and in his own good time. 
     “You see I’m afraid that I will let my child down and leave the babe without a father to care for it.” Sighing in frustration he then blurted out, “I don’t think I will survive this mission and as a result of that my child will have to grow up without a father just as I did. That thought disturbs me. I don’t want my child to grow up thinking that its father didn’t love it and so abandoned it.” 

     Now Fawnn understood the nature of Tarn’s discomfort. Smiling at him she said, “Tarn, let me tell you about my wedding day.” 

     “Your wedding day?” he asked in confusion. 
     Laughing she said, “Bear with me please. It is relevant to the discussion.” 

     “Alright Fawnn,” Tarn said with a wry grin. 
     “As you know we were wed just before the war of the gods. Well a few weeks after the wedding Veksar confided in me that all that day as he was waiting for the wedding to take place he had a premonition that he would be slain before he could claim his bride. He laughs about it now, but on that day he said it was a serious concern. It so rattled him that it put a damper on what should have been the happiest day of his life.” Smiling she said, “Those are his words, not mine.” 

     Ziona spoke up and said, “John felt something similar during the Bre wars. He was afraid that he would die before his child was born and never have the chance to hold his child. That was very important to him.” A look of sorrow crossed her face and she added, “As it turned out neither of us got to hold her long.” This was a reference to Nessarose’s premature aging. 
     Smiling Fawnn said, “Aye but she’s a sweet young lady now isn’t she? She is skilled in magic, blade, and the bow.” Ziona smiled at that and stirred the stewpot. 
     Turning to Tarn, Fawnn said, “I think it is natural for humans to have such fears and doubts about the future Tarn. Now I don’t for one moment believe that you will die on this mission my friend, but if it would make you feel better, then know this. Should you fall on this mission I will speak with your child at length about the love and caring his father had for him and his concern that the child be well cared for.” 

     Ziona nodded solemnly and added her voice to Fawnn’s saying, “And so will I Tarn.” 

     Tarn looked at the two women in some surprise and asked, “You’d both do that for me?” 

     Fawnn said, “Of course we would Tarn. And know also that the child would never go lacking for the necessities in life. Veksar and I would see to that if something happened to you and Mystyka.” 

     “John and I would help as well,” grinning impishly Ziona added, “I think all of the companions would pitch in. The greatest danger that I see is that the child might become spoiled rotten, but Tarn, that child would never be alone as you were. This I vow.” 

     “As do I my friend,” Fawnn stated. Then on impulse she reached out her hand to Tarn and he grasped her. Ziona joined them and in that small circle of companions a vow was made and accepted. It was the right thing to do and it had an immediate impact on Tarn. Tarn was a mercenary and he did not fear death. What had terrified him was the prospect of dying and leaving his child alone as he had been as a child. He had always vowed never to abandon his child. Now that those concerns had been laid to rest he felt wonderful and the morose Tarn was gone from that day forward. 
     “Why hello there, please come in and join us by the fire. We will soon eat and you are welcome to join us in a meal,” Fawnn said looking in the direction of the small cave entrance. 
     Turning to face the entrance Tarn saw the wolf that had led them to the cave. The wolf turned to the cave entrance and grasped a branch of the small cedar tree that they were using as a make-shift door and pulled it firmly into place. He turned and walked slowly over to Fawnn and lay down on the floor of the cave near her. The heat from the fire caused steam to rise from his wet body. 
     Fawnn reached out without thinking to brush the snow from his body. The wolf saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and snapped his head around quickly. “Careful Fawnn,” Tarn cautioned. She had frozen with her hand outstretched toward the wolf. 
     Looking the wolf deliberately in the eye she said, “We won’t hurt you friend.” Then slowly she reached out and brushed the snow from the wolf. He stared at her as if puzzled for a moment and then lay his head down on his outstretched front paws. 
     “Food’s ready,” Ziona said. She filled four small bowls with the stew handing Fawnn the extra bowl to give to the wolf. 
     Fawnn took the bowl in her hands and stared into the eyes of the wolf as he once more raised his head to look at her. “This is hot. You will probably want to let it cool a bit before you try to eat it.” She sat the bowl on the floor of the cave in front of the wolf. 
     Next Ziona passed around four plates of the roast antelope. Tarn passed the remnants of the salt around to the others so that they could season their meat. “Give our friend a good serving of the salt. He surely earned it by leading us to this shelter,” he said. 
     Fawnn did just that and laid that plate beside the bowl of stew. The wolf lowered his head to taste the food but it was still too hot and he backed off it and turned his head to Fawnn as if in doubt that the food was edible. “It will cool in a moment friend. Give it a moment.” 

     The wolf laid his head on his paws again and waited. Five minutes later he tried the food again, tentatively at first and then, with growing appetite, he ate the stew and then the roast antelope, growing excited at the taste of the salt. 
     It was a delicious meal. Ziona pointed out that she thought there was enough stew for seconds all around. 

                                                                    *** 

     Ishy studied the small cave with its four temporary residents and smiled. If her friend trusted them this much, her opinion of them must be correct. Never had she seen her friend so taken by a visitor before. She shifted the view in the scrying bowl to the cave entrance and pointed her right index finger at it. She uttered the words to a spell that effectively sealed it from the elements. That seal would hold out the cold and wind but permit to exit the noxious gases created by the fire. She then cast a spell on their fire so that it would burn slowly and provide more heat than its size could account for. Staring once more at the companions eating ravenously, but sharing the last of their decent food with her friend the wolf, she uttered one last spell. It was a simple spell, simple to her, but the contents of the stewpot doubled. She noted the comical expression on Ziona’s face when she went to ladle another bowl of stew and smiled, pleased with the afternoon’s events. 
     Ishy turned away from the scrying bowl then to see to preparations for receiving guests. Other druids had come to assist her in those preparations. They would be received as honored guests. Whether or not they left the glen alive was out of her hands. That was for the trees to decide. But she would greet them warmly upon their arrival. 

 

                                                              Chapter 19. 

     Lord Malachi led the way through the passageway that exited the rear of the first room they had entered when they stepped through the invisible entrance to the cave. Mystyka followed and Lord Fatman brought up the rear. Mystyka had already learned as had Fawnn that her spells were hopelessly unreliable at the moment. As in the case of Fawnn’s team of adventurers, Mystyka’s team confronted potential danger with the magic user in the center of the party. 
     The tunnel passageway was short. Lord Malachi speculated that they had only traveled about fifty feet through the curving tunnel when they came to an ordinary appearing door at the end of the tunnel. Lord Malachi held his index finger to his lips gesturing for silence and motioned for Lord Fatman to take Mystyka’s place behind him. When they had shifted positions so that the paladin would face a potential threat before the magic user Lord Malachi opened the door and strode inside the next chamber. “Oh my!” he stated upon entering. 
     Lord Fatman and Mystyka entered the room behind him. It was a small room dominated by an arched window. Lord Malachi was standing there looking through the window at the night sky. The stars twinkled in the sky. Moving closer to the window Mystyka looked out at the panoramic view and saw the mountains stretching away in the distance in one direction and the lights of the distant city of Goodlund in another. Taking a step closer to the window she looked downward and saw what appeared to be the sheer side of a cliff face dropping to the floor of the valley below. 
     Lord Malachi said, “I wonder if it is an illusion. We haven’t gone far enough inside the mountain to have reached the far side.” Taking his sword scabbard he tentatively thrust it through the window a few inches half expecting that it was an illusion and that he would hit the solid wall. “It seems to be real,” he said in surprise. “How odd. It is freezing out, yet this open window admits no cold. He started to stick his head out the window then thought that it might be wise to return the scabbard to his belt so that he could use both hands to brace himself as he leaned out the window. As he pulled the scabbard back into the room with him the portion which had been outside the window was neatly sheared away as if it had been sliced off by the sharpest blade ever made. The severed end of the scabbard dropped to the floor of the valley below. 
     Mystyka said, “Try sticking the entire scabbard outside and then draw it back inside. Maybe that will work.” 

     Lord Malachi gave her a jaundiced look and replied, “No thank you. I’d lose my hand Mystyka.” 

     “Well when we free Brimstone he could reattach it for you,” she replied as if he were too simple to have thought of that himself. 
     “I’m sure that after being transformed into a tree Brimstone won’t feel up to such strenuous labor. It would be rude of me to even ask.” 

     “You always were the polite one weren’t you?” Mystyka stated sarcastically. Moving right along she continued, “If you are through playing with the trapped window do you suppose we could search for the Darkseed of Ogrimar now?” 

     “I think Lord Fatman may have found it already,” Lord Malachi said pointing his ruined scabbard at the paladin who was standing beside a small marble table. On the top of that table sat a small chest. 
     “Well, open it for me Malachi. “ Mystyka said impatiently 
     “No,” he replied and pointed at the paladin. I think he is the one best qualified to open the chest. He is the paladin and his paladin skills will better serve us in this task.” 

     Lord Fatman grunted by way of reply and muttered a prayer to Shinobi. He used several paladin spells which still seemed to be working reasonably well. One of those spells, a detect poison spell, caused red spots to appear on the outer casing of the chest. These spots grew and soon merged until the entire top and front of the chest were the reddish color. He could see this but the others could not. He explained what he saw and Lord Malachi speculated that it might be a contact poison. 
     Lord Fatman used his dagger to pry open the lid. When it had opened one inch a needle popped out of the lock area. The needle protruded one and a half inch from the mechanism. A blackish ichor dripped from it. Some of that ichor struck Lord Fatman’s dagger which sizzled from the contact and began to smoke. He quickly flung the lid to the full open position with the dagger and then turned to the window and tossed it out. The trio watched it burst into flames as it fell. 
     Looking at Lord Malachi the paladin said, “Loan me your dagger. I seem to have lost mine.” 

     “I don’t know, I’ve had this dagger for years and I don’t want to lose it here in this cave,” the warrior replied. 
     “Oh for goodness sake,” Mystyka exclaimed in exasperation. She drew her own slim bladed double edged dagger and expertly reversed her grip on it and handed it to Lord Fatman hilt first. He took the handle in hand and let her remove her fingers from the blade before moving it lest he injure her. 
     The paladin turned to the chest once more and called on his skills again. Muttering a prayer he used his entire list of paladin detection spells and then he tried the more common spells. It was the spell true sight which revealed the hidden danger. “Ahh a small serpent lies underneath the red fabric of the chest!” he exclaimed. 
     Moving to the other side of the table he said, “I’ll slip the tip of the dagger under the darkseed and flip it from the chest. Malachi, be ready to catch it.” 

     “I think it best that Mystyka catch it. The Harbinger assigned the recovery of the darkseed to Mystyka.” 

     Mystyka nodded her head in agreement and prepared herself to catch the darkseed. 
     Lord Fatman slowly lowered the tip of the dagger to a position quite near the glowing gem. His true sight spell permitted him to see the small serpent shift its body as it sensed the presence of a foreign object near the darkseed. Ever so gently Fatman worked the tip of the dagger under the jewel. The snake moved more vigorously then. Its tiny head emerged from a thin slit in the fabric. Its tongue flicked out tasting the air near the darkseed. Turning its body toward the dagger it continued to emerge from concealment. 
     “Ready?” he asked Mystyka without looking at her. 
     “Yes,” she replied. 
     Lord Fatman flipped the darkseed into the air. It traveled upward, tumbling as it went sailing through the air in an arc. 
     The little snake whipped its body around and followed the darkseed. It launched its body after the jewel, hissing as it flew through the air. 
     Mystyka caught the glowing darkseed and stood transfixed.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 20. 

     Lord Malachi’s gauntleted fist shot out and intercepted the tiny serpent which would have struck Mystyka’s face if not for his quick reflexes. The small serpent bit down on the gauntleted thumb. The gauntlet immediately began to sizzle. Lord Malachi yanked off the gauntlet and tossed it, with the snake still attached, through the window. 
     “Did it get through the gauntlet? Were you bitten?” asked the paladin in genuine concern. 
     “No but I think given time that vile little creature could have managed it.” 

     They turned then to stare at Mystyka. 

                                                                    *** 

     Mystyka saw the darkseed lying on the red fabric liner of the chest. The moment her eyes fell on the darkseed she began to feel its influence. She dimly heard the discussion about her catching the darkseed and agreed to it by route. She heard the paladin ask if she were ready and said that she was. She stood there, a lovely figure in her white robe and cloak with the hood drawn up. 
     Then the paladin had flipped the darkseed through the air. Her eyes were riveted to it as it flew unerringly in her direction. She reflexly caught the gem in her right hand and brought her left hand close to it lest she drop it. She stood motionless then as the darkseed entranced her and did its best to seduce her into doing its will. 
     It should be noted that a darkseed differs from a darkstone in that it has not yet blossomed and matured into what it was designed to become. As such, a darkseed operates independently of the god’s physical body on Althea. They have a will of their own and until such time as a darkseed matures they hold the potential to unleash havoc upon the world despite the god’s intentions. This is why the gods went to great lengths to hide their darkseeds to prevent creatures of intelligence from locating and using them. A darkstone is a matured darkseed and does answer to the will of the physical god. So it was that even though Ogrimar himself did not wish to see Mystyka seduced into using the power of the darkseed the item felt quite differently. Thus in a manner of speaking, a darkseed is much more dangerous than a darkstone, for not even the gods can control them. 
     The moment that she touched the darkseed Mystyka was enraptured by the gem. It promised her the world of Althea if she would raise the cause of evil to supremacy over that of good. It showed her visions, and those visions that she saw were as realistic as a torlag’s in that during those visions it was as if she were actually there witnessing the events. She saw the means to raise evil to supremacy. She saw great temples dedicated to evil decorated with statues of her likeness. She saw the temples of good and neutrality torn down in every city. She saw a great army of evil marching into final battle against the remnants of the armies of good and neutrality with her leading that army. She saw all of this and more. She saw servants answering at her beck and call. She saw powerful men bow at her feet in supplication as she achieved a status just below that of a god herself. She was second only to Ogrimar in power. She saw city officials greet her at the city gates and welcome her as she entered the various cities of Althea. And everywhere she went adoring crowds came forth to see her and welcome her to their cities. 
     Mystyka was almost seduced into accepting the darkseed’s offer, for the darkseed had offered her every secret desire she had ever experienced. The power that it offered would make her the most powerful woman to ever live. But that small part of Mystyka that had yet to be seduced asked a question of the darkseed. “At what cost?” she managed to ask. The visions flooded in yet again as the darkseed answered her question. 
     This time the visions took on darker overtones. She saw the same great army marching forth into final battle with the remnant forces of good and neutrality. At the center of that combined army of good and neutrality she saw the companions standing valiantly against overwhelming odds. They slew many of her army and enraged she called forth the power of the darkseed and unleashed it upon them. Then to her horror she saw that Tarn was the first companion to fall. Her own hand had struck him down as she wielded the incredible power of the darkseed of Ogrimar. Then she saw her best friends Ziona and Fawnn standing protectively near a child and she struck them down laughing in pure joy as the power of the darkseed flowed through her. Turning to the child she saw other companions leap to defend it and one by one she struck them down. Lord Fatman, Malachi, Jedi and more; they opposed her and paid the ultimate price for that affront to her power. Yet still the companions sought to defend the child. Finally there were no more companions left. Even Tersha the torlag had died, crushed by her use of the enhanced magic of the darkseed. 
     Finally the child was alone. “Strike down the child,” the darkseed whispered seductively. For a moment she hesitated. “Strike him down or I will take back that power which I have given you,” the jewel said more insistently. 
     “Who is the child?” asked that part of Mystyka which could still resist the darkseed as she stared into the child’s adoring and trusting eyes. 
     “He is your son,” the darkseed answered simply. “But he is a threat to your power.” 

     Horrified Mystyka heard the darkseed warn her to strike down the child or the power would be revoked. She resisted, but a moment later, to her horror, she saw her hand rise and felt the power building as she prepared to unleash the full force of the darkseed upon the child. Her defenseless child. A moment later it was over. The child’s broken body lay mangled almost beyond recognition beside the bodies of the companions who had died attempting to protect him. His little fingers twitched once and he lay still. “Mother,” he whispered through broken teeth and bleeding lips and mercifully his suffering ended as his little life fled. 
     “Noooo!” Mystyka wailed in anguish. 

                                                                    *** 


     Lord Fatman and Lord Malachi watched as Mystyka stared entranced by the darkseed. Her face reflected the glowing light of the jewel as she seemed to be lost in communion with it. At first she smiled as the darkseed showed her the rewards she would reap for becoming its servant. Then she began to frown and her face took on a pained expression. Soon tears flowed down her cheeks as she saw herself annihilating her husband and the companions with the power of the darkseed. 
     As they watched they saw to their amazement two locks of her long dark hair go prematurely gray. Those locks fell down beside her cheeks. Lord Fatman interceded then saying, “Mystyka, you are entranced by the darkseed and you must resist it. Resist the darkseed Mystyka.” 

     Lord Malachi reached out a hand and would have tried to take the darkseed from her hands but Lord Fatman grabbed his arm. “Don’t Malachi. Power is building in the darkseed. Touch it and we all die. Don’t ask me how I know that because I cannot tell you. I only know that is the truth.” 

     Lord Malachi backed off then and the paladin turned once more to Mystyka encouraging her to resist. 
     Mystyka heard the paladin and closed her eyes shutting out the sight of the jewel. That helped some and she felt a bit of her will return. “A container,” she managed to gasp. 
     Lord Malachi drew a leather pouch which contained his fire starting kit and dumped the contents on the floor of the cavern. He placed the open mouth of the pouch below her cupped hands allowing it to touch her. “A pouch below your hands Mystyka,” he said in grave concern as her face contorted and fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. 
     The darkseed, sensing that it was about to be once more concealed, resisted and punished Mystyka. Over and over it showed her the images of her slaying her family and friends in graphic detail. It took the greatest of efforts on her part but Mystyka managed to turn her right hand to the open pouch and drop the darkseed within the pouch. 
     A moment later Lord Malachi drew the pouch drawstrings taunt and sealed the pouch with a warrior’s strong knots and then he handed the sealed pouch to Mystyka who somehow managed to tie it to her belt. 
     A moment after that she collapsed and Malachi caught her in his arms before she could hit the floor. Picking her up as if she were a child he carried her in his powerful warrior’s arms out to the first room of the cave. When they arrived there Lord Fatman slipped the pack from her back and Malachi laid her out on the floor of the chamber using her pack as a pillow. She was trembling so Lord Malachi took off his cloak and covered her with it. 
     Facing Lord Fatman, Malachi said, “That must have been incredibly hard on her. Did you see the faces she was making?” 

     The paladin nodded soberly and said, “I expect it was harder on her than we will ever be able to imagine.” 

     Looking decidedly uncomfortable Lord Malachi said, “Yeah well don’t tell her I said this. But I really admire her for taking on and overcoming that challenge. I could feel the waves of seduction flowing from the darkseed. If touch makes such worse I cannot imagine what she must have gone through.” 

     “I felt it too my friend, and I suspect that you are right. None of us will ever really comprehend what she endured in that contest.” 

                                                                    *** 

     Mystyka slept the night through. When she awoke she steadfastly refused to discuss the experience of the day before and urged the men to haste so that they could return to the enchanted grove and call the Harbinger to take possession of the darkseed. 
     They made their way down the mountain as best they could that day and slept fitfully that night on a flat stretch of the trail. None of them were comfortable with the darkseed in their midst. 
     The next day they made it to the flatlands below the mountain, greatly relieved to be off that god cursed mountain trail. They had to camp there at the foot of those mountains for it was growing dark as they struggled through the last of the unforgiving trail. 
     The next morning they began their journey with lighter hearts, for that day they would arrive at the enchanted grove. 


 

                                                              Chapter 21. 

     Tarn followed behind the wolf, breaking trail for the ladies through the snow as they headed for the glen. Apparently the wolf had decided to stay with them. All that day he led them through trails they might have missed. Tarn confided to Fawnn that, in his opinion, the wolf was taking shortcuts through the forest that had already saved them miles in their journey. 
     Fawnn sensed that they were getting close to Ishy and was hopeful that the next few days would bring them to her location. 
     They stopped for the night in a thicket. Tarn gathered the firewood. Luckily the day had warmed enough for some of the snow to melt. That melting process exposed the shapes of items hidden beneath the blanket of snow and Tarn was able to locate enough firewood for the night fairly easily. It also helped that he was an experienced woodsman and could tell by looking at the trees where large branches had fallen, even from a distance. Locating several of those branches he dragged them back to the thicket and chopped them up. 
     They had each carried dry wood with them that they’d had left from their cave shelter the night before. Fawnn used that wood to build the starter fire as Tarn stacked the wet wood near the fire to dry as much as possible. To facilitate that he first stamped the snow flat where he intended to stack the wood then he placed several sticks on the bottom layer leaving gaps between them. This bottom layer of wood would support the rest of the stack. The gaps permitted the water to drip down to the bottom. 
     Soon they settled down for the night, sitting on the dead leaves that Ziona had gathered from Tarn’s wood cutting enterprise. They shared a meager meal of the smoked antelope. Fawnn held out a piece to the wolf, who took it gingerly from her fingers and chewed it up. The wolf then turned about and slipped out of the thicket. “Well it’s all we have left,” Fawnn called out defensively to the departing wolf. 
     Thirty minutes later the wolf returned to the campfire. In his great jaws he carried a large plump turkey. He brought it to Tarn whom he had observed cleaning the animals for the humans to eat. Tarn was understandably reluctant to reach out and take the bird from the wolf’s jaws. “Do you want me to clean it so that we can cook it?” he asked. 
     The wolf dropped the turkey beside Tarn and walked across to Fawnn. Turning to face the fire it lay down and placed its muzzle on its forefeet. Without thinking Fawnn reached out and laid her hand on the animal’s back causing him to turn his head in her direction. He decided to permit the contact and soon turned to his rest once more. 
     “That is a remarkable animal,” Ziona remarked. “He seems fond of you.” 

     “He has been very helpful,” Fawnn replied. “I’m glad that he decided to help us out.” 

     “So am I,” said Tarn. “This bird will be excellent.” He got up and went to work immediately. Ziona saved the feathers and laid them out for the additional insulation against the cold ground. There wouldn’t be enough to make a significant difference, but every little bit helped. 
     He took the bird well outside their camping area to gut it. When that was done he washed it out several times with clean snow and returned to the campfire. Ziona had already place the forked cooking sticks they would need in the ground. She also handed Tarn two arrows which they would use in the cooking process. Tarn stuck the shafts through the bird and held it up for Ziona who tied the wings and legs to the body with a thin stout cord to prevent them from falling off the body into the fire as the bird cooked. 
     Fawnn noted the automatic way that her companions worked together for their mutual survival and smiled. She was already considered the fire master because she could coax a fire to burn at just the right temperatures for cooking. She absentmindedly added a stick of wood to a place in the fire that was cooling too much. She never noticed the wolf as his eyes followed her every move as she worked with the element which it feared. Still the wolf loved the heat from the fire. It felt good to lie down beside a warm fire. 
     Later when the bird was fully cooked Ziona cut up four equal shares and handed Fawnn the wolf’s share as she had the night before. Fawnn took the plate of meat and set it before the wolf. “It may still be too hot for you dear. Try a small piece first. If it is too hot lay it back in your plate. The ground here is filthy you know,” she said and winked at the wolf. 
     The wolf gingerly tried a small portion of the meat. He immediately opened his mouth and let it fall back onto the plate. He looked at Fawnn who smiled and said, “It won’t take it much longer to cool enough to eat. We thank you for our dinner great hunter.” The wolf licked her face, surprising her. He then lay down once more and waited for his food to cool. 
     “That’s some wolf,” Ziona remarked again. 
     “He sure is,” Fawnn agreed.


                                                                    ***


     The next day the wolf urged them all on to greater speed. As they followed him they noted that the land now seemed to be descending. Several times that day the wolf increased his pace. Soon it became difficult for the humans to match his pace and they began to fall behind. By midday they had reached the southernmost mountain range. They turned east then as they saw the wolf running down into the glen. Soon they came within sight Ishy’s house down in the glen. 
     They saw the wolf a last time as a small figure disappearing over a hilltop heading in the direction of the huge house down in the glen.



                                                                    Chapter 22. 

     An hour later they were standing at the front door to the massive house. Fawnn knocked at the door and they waited a moment. The door opened and Ishy greeted them herself. “Please come in. I’ve been expecting you,” she said and stepped aside to permit them to enter. 
     They entered Ishy’s house and immediately felt self conscious about their appearance. They’d been in the forest for several days and they were filthy to prove it. Tarn felt so self conscious of the dirt he was tracking inside the immaculate home that he offered to wait outside in the open air of the glen. Ishy wouldn’t hear of that. Instead she said, “I knew you’d want to freshen up so we have prepared baths and clean clothing for you all. They await you in your rooms.” 

     “Our rooms?” asked Ziona feeling confused by the rapid sequence of events. 
     “Yes I have assigned you three bedrooms on the upper floor. They are side by side for your convenience. The water is hot now but it won’t stay that way long. I suggest we tend to that detail and then eat. You all look hungry.” 

     “Thank you Ishy,” said Fawnn. “I would like to get rid of some of this dirt.” 

     Smiling, Ishy led the way to a grand staircase with an intricately carved railing. It had been designed with a gentle curve to it to make the climb easier by spreading the steps out over a longer climb. Ishy led each of them to their own room. Just as she had promised, each companion found clean clothing and a magnificent bath awaiting them. “When you are ready please come back downstairs. The dinner will be waiting,” Ishy said and then turned to leave. 

                                                                    *** 

     Inside the rooms they each found clean clothing in their sizes. More importantly they also found the huge ornate bathtubs full of hot water. After days of bone chilling cold they enjoyed the warm soak. 
     An hour later the three companions assembled in the hall outside their rooms. They descended the stairs and found Ishy waiting for them at the foot of the stairs as if she’d known precisely when they would come down. She noted their improved appearances and smiled her approval. Leading them through the house she soon entered the large dinning room and the massive table which dominated the room. That table was loaded from end to end with foods of all kinds. 
     “Please help yourselves and enjoy the meal. Fawnn, we will talk about your mission after you have eaten.” 

     And so the companions had eaten and eaten well. As they ate, Fawnn couldn’t help but compare the meals which they had eaten in the forest during their journey to this marvelous meal. 
     “It isn’t mercenary stew, but I hope that you enjoy it as much as you enjoyed that stew,” Ishy said surprising the trio. Noting their surprised expressions she said, “I have watched you several times during your trip to see me.” 

     “It was you who sent the wolf to help us?” asked Fawnn. 
     Shaking her head Ishy said, “One does not send the wolf anywhere. Yet I did ask him to assist you. He is my friend. He thought about it and decided to help.” 

     Ziona asked, “Was that you who made the stew pot refill?” 

     “You all looked so hungry and my friend said that he would like another portion as well,” Ishy said. 
     “And the cave was unnaturally warm for the size of the fire we had that night,” Tarn noted. Ishy smiled and nodded. 
     “The antelope that kept running into us was the wolf helping us,” Fawnn guessed. Again Ishy nodded. Smiling warmly at the Druidess, Fawnn said, “It seems we have much to thank you for Ishy.” Then taking a deep breath Fawnn asked, “Will you help us to complete our quest?” 

     Shaking her head Ishy said, “That I cannot do Fawnn. You must succeed or fail on the merits you bring with you to the glen.” Seeing their disappointment she went on to say, “I can take you to the trees, but you will face them alone as all have faced the trees that sought them in the past.” 

     “You mean this has happened before?” Fawnn asked. 
     “Yes Fawnn. Yours is the third team to come seeking the trees. The first team was the elven team. The second team was the dwarven team. Your human team is the third. The arrival of each team has coincided with one of the arrivals of the Harbinger. The elves came during the Second Coming. The dwarves came during the Third Coming. And now you arrive during the Fourth Coming.” 

     “Were the Druids here for each coming?” Tarn asked curiously. 
     “Druids were here yes,” Ishy answered. “But during the Second Coming the Druids were not humans. They were elves. In each case where the questers arrived they found their own species waiting here in the glen.” 

     Seeing the confusion on their faces Ishy said, “I’ll explain. During the First Coming it is commonly known that the Harbinger warned the elves of their impending judgment during the second coming. There are other things that happened that are not commonly known. The wisest of the elves heeded the warning of the Harbinger and sought him out to ask what they could do to assist. He put the knowledge of this glen in their minds and sent them here. Thus began our order. When the elves failed the test of the Harbinger’s judgment and it passed to the dwarves to maintain the balance the elven people passed on their teachings to the wisest of the dwarves who were sent here by the Harbinger. When the dwarves failed their judgment and were transformed into Atrocities the wisest of the humans were sent here. The humans were trained by the dwarves.” 

     “We are called druids by some because of our affinity for nature, yet we are not as the other druids of Althea. Those people dabble in forces which they barely comprehend. We have an affinity for nature but we also have an affinity for magic. Much of the magic that I use is the ancient elven and dwarven magics, for here they were not lost as they were on the rest of Althea. Above all we have an affinity for the balance between good and evil. We are the guardians of the glen, for it is said that on the day that one faction, be it good or evil, takes possession of the glen and the sacred trees which dwell here will be the day that the balance is forever destroyed.” 

     Ziona’s curiosity was aroused and she asked, “What of the other two teams? Did they succeed in their missions?” 

     “Yes they did Ziona and they all passed the first of the Harbinger’s judgment tests.” 

     “What of the elven and dwarven Druids who resided here? What became of them once they had trained their replacements?” Tarn asked. 
     “They left the glen to the new caretakers. Beyond that there is no record. I assume they went somewhere and lived out their lives in seclusion, for there is no historical record of great advances in any of the fields which they could have influenced that coincides with their exit from the glen.” 

     “When do we begin the tests?” asked Fawnn. 
     “I can open a portal for you now if you like, or you are welcome to rest and sleep here tonight and begin in the morning,” Ishy replied. 
     “Now if you please. I appreciate your hospitality, but our companions have been transformed into trees and they await us. I wouldn’t feel right waiting while my husband stands transformed in an enchanted grove of trees.” 

     “I understand of course,” Ishy replied. 
     “I’d like to get my sword first,” said Tarn rising to his feet. 
     Ishy looked at him oddly as if he had disappointed her. “Is it your intention, Tarn the Mercenary, to attack the trees of the glen to obtain that which you seek?” 

     Tarn sensed that his answer to that question was very important but he had nothing to hide and spoke truthfully when he replied, “Nay good lady. I would not attack the tree of wisdom or the tree of balance to acquire the items we seek. But a warrior without his weapon is a sad thing.” Grinning he added, “I do not feel complete without my weapons.” 

     Looking at him with a solemn expression Ishy said, “Very well Tarn retrieve your sword if you must, but know this, not even a thousand men with swords could hope to slay or even seriously harm one of the sacred trees.” 

     Ziona stood and said, “And I need my bow and quivers.” 

     Nodding her head Ishy replied, “If you must.” 

     The two companions made their way to the staircase and climbed the steps rapidly. Fawnn asked, “Do you know why the Harbinger wants the leaves from the trees?” 

     Shrugging Ishy said, “No, I do not know for certain. I have opinions regarding that issue but no way to test the validity of those opinions.” 

     “I’d like to hear your opinions then if I may.” Fawnn grinned suspecting that Ishy’s opinions might be better than the so-called facts many people quoted. 
     “Very well Fawnn but remember that I cannot prove any of this,” Ishy stated. “I think that the Harbinger has the questers to come here to test them. The trip through the forest alone is an ordeal that takes the lives of many people who venture into the southern forests every year on this isle. Then there are the tests of the trees. If you can pass those tests then you are worthy for the tree of balance will test your balance and the tree of wisdom will test your wisdom. In other words Fawnn, for the first test of the Harbinger you represent the human race, but it is not you alone. Your companions are also being judged as indeed are I and the rest of the guardians of the glen. As to the leaves that you were sent to collect, I think that it is the act of actually getting the leaves that is of important to the Harbinger and not the physical leaves. For all I know the Harbinger will brew a tea with the leaves.” Ishy had smiled as she said this and Fawnn smiled in return. 
     Tarn and Ziona returned then and said that they were ready. 
     Ishy arose and said, “Very well, in a moment I will open the portal to the first tree. Remember that to attack the trees in any way is to die,” Ishy warned them sternly and searched the eyes of each of the three companions to ensure that they understood this. Seeing that they did Ishy then opened a portal and said, “After you.” and gestured for them to enter the portal. Tarn went through first followed quickly by Fawnn and Ziona. 


 

                                                              Chapter 23. 

     On the other side of the portal Ishy saw the companions staring at the landscape in which they’d found themselves situated. They were near a small hillock on which stood a tree decorated in the beautiful golden leaves of fall. Below that hillock was a small cultivated section of land the guardians of the glen used to grow some of their vegetables. 
     “The tree that you see on the knoll is the Tree of Wisdom,” Ishy said simply. "From here on you are on your own Fawnn. I cannot proceed with you.” Turning to Tarn and Ziona she warned, “The sacred tree will test your friend. I warn you that if you interfere at that point all of you will die, for the tree is protected by a strong magic that guards the tree and reacts whether the tree wills it or not.” 

     Fawnn blinked in surprise at that unexpected bit of news. Turning to her companions she said, “I will approach the tree alone. Do not interfere no matter what happens.” She didn’t give them time to argue the matter. Turning to Ishy she thanked her and headed out at once for the small hillock and the Tree of Wisdom standing there. 
     As she approached the tree Fawnn began to make out more and more detail. She was surprised to find the tree so small. She had expected it to be much larger. Then she made out the details of the face in the base of the trunk of the tree. The tree had eyes, eyebrows, a nose, and a mouth. It even had rudimentary cheeks. 
     Fawnn stopped near the tree and spoke to it in greeting. “Greetings to thee Tree of Wisdom.” 

     She waited expectantly for several moments. Finally the tree replied, “Greetings to thee, Fawnn of the companions.” 

     “You know of me?” Fawnn asked in surprise. 
     “I am aware of the companions, Fawnn. Many great works have the companions wrought. Many companions are wise.” 

     “My companions and I come to you on a quest assigned to us by the Harbinger. He has transformed the majority of the companions into an enchanted grove. He would have me gather a pouch of leaves from you and another from the Tree of Balance. If we accomplish the quest and our three friends accomplish another, then he will free our friends from the enchantment and return them to us.” 

     “Yes I am aware of the task that he has assigned you, companion Fawnn. But are you worthy?” 

     Fawnn paused and thought about that for a moment. Finally she answered as truthfully as she could when she said, “I’m afraid I don’t know if I am worthy or not. For to be worthy depends entirely upon the traits one seeks in a candidate. To some I may seem worthy, while others may deem me unworthy.” 

     The tree was silent for a moment after she had answered his question. Fawnn began to think that she had failed the test with the very first question but a moment later the tree said, “To acknowledge one’s own ignorance is a sign of wisdom, companion Fawnn. That was a very good answer. That was a very good beginning.” 

     Fawnn felt a moment of elation then but that elation was soon dashed when the tree said, “But I must know if you are worthy. Step close to me Fawnn but bring no blade near me lest the magic that protects me slay you out of hand. I would regret that but there is nothing I could do to prevent it.” 

     Fawnn quickly removed her dagger and then she removed the three hidden blades which Brimstone had taught her to carry for emergency use. She laid all these upon the ground and then stepped close to the tree. 
     Grasp my lowest branch with both of your hands Fawnn,” the tree instructed. 
     Fawnn did so. At first she thought that nothing happened. Then she began to envision every spiteful, petty, and hateful thought and deed she had ever committed. A great sorrow and regret filled her heart as she relived them all. Finally those visions stopped and were replaced by every act of kindness, charity, and love that she had ever performed. When it was over the tree was silent for long moments as if thinking about what her test had revealed. When it spoke the tree said, “Fawnn the companion, you have been judged by me and found to be worthy. While you have sinned in your own eyes you know remorse and regret for those transgressions, and the sins are outweighed by the noble acts that you have performed, more often than not anonymously.” 

     “Fawnn of the companions, so far you are worthy. Now you must answer a few questions for me.” 

     “I am ready,” Fawnn said nervously. 
     “Very well Fawnn. Answer this question for me. Is it so bad to be a tree? I ask because you speak of the companion’s transformation as though it were a terrible thing.” 

     Fawnn thought about that a moment and answered. “No it is not bad to be a tree.” 

     “Yet you have said you wish to free your friends from their enchantment. If it is not bad to be a tree, why then Fawnn, do you seek to revert them to their original form.” 

     “It is not bad for a tree to be a tree. It is bad for a man to be a tree if he wishes to remain a man,” replied Fawnn thinking that she must sound ridiculous. 
     “A very good answer Fawnn,” the tree said almost immediately. Then it said, “You have passed my tests Fawnn of the companions. You may have your pouch of leaves, but hear me well. Take them from the ground at your feet. Take none that still cling to my branches lest you perish.” 

     Fawnn thanked the tree and took a leather pouch from her belt. Opening the drawstrings she bent to the task at hand and filled it with the leaves from the Tree of Wisdom. 
     She thanked the tree one last time and then turned to walk to her friends waiting with Ishy. “Well done Fawnn,” Tarn congratulated her. 
     Ziona hugged her and said, “Well done indeed. I was worried when you spent that hour holding onto the tree branch.” 

     “An hour?” asked Fawnn amazed. 
     Ziona nodded and said, “Yes it was an hour. How long did you think it was?” 

     “For me it seemed only a few moments,” Fawnn stated. 
     Ishy spoke then saying, “There is still time today to see the Tree of Balance unless you would prefer to rest tonight and return tomorrow.” 

     “We should do it today,” Fawnn stated. 
     Ishy opened another portal then. This time Fawnn went first followed closely by Ziona and then Tarn. Ishy stepped through it and joined them.

 

 

 

                                                              Chapter 24. 

     Fawnn stepped from the portal near the bank of a river. The area was heavily forested. Directly ahead of her was a point of land around which the river flowed. At the end of that point stood a tree. Like the Tree of Wisdom, the Tree of Balance had a face which could be made out on the side that faced the river. It appeared to be some variety of a willow Fawnn had never seen before. Unlike the tree of Wisdom, which was in the fall cycle, this tree appeared to be in the spring growth cycle and new leaves abounded upon it. 
     Ishy stepped from the portal behind her and said, “That is the Tree of Balance. Good luck to you Fawnn, and answer any questions with great care.” 

     “It looks as though the river will soon claim the tree,” Tarn observed. 
     “It hasn’t moved a hairs breadth closer to the tree for three thousand years Tarn,” said Ishy with a smile. “At least that is what the older druids told me when I was a youngster beginning my learning process.” 

     Fawnn stepped toward the tree but stopped. This time she removed every blade from her person and laid them upon the soft grass which grew beside the river. Standing erect once more she headed out toward the tree. She heard Tarn and Ziona wish her luck and turned to wave to them. She smiled, turned, and then she walked forth to meet her destiny. 

                                                                    *** 

     Mystyka, Lord Malachi, and Lord Fatman walked rapidly across the bridge. Sword in hand, Lord Malachi was walking backward keeping his face turned toward one of the giant ants that dwell on Shafferland. 
     They had stumbled into its path when they approached the bridge on their trek back to the enchanted grove. They had hurried to the bridge and started across, hoping and praying that the ant wouldn’t see them and they would be able to get across the bridge and out of sight before the ant spotted them. 
     They had gotten about a third of the way across the bridge when the ant finally spotted the trio. Up until that moment it had been rummaging through the supplies left there by some travelers. Lord Malachi knew that the items being left there boded ill for the fate of those travelers. Now the ant abandoned the camp site and scuttled in their direction. “Run!” he shouted and turned to do the same thing himself. He knew that they couldn’t outrun the creature but he didn’t want to have to battle it on the bridge where they could be pinned against the railing by the very fast ant. 
     A moment later Mystyka reached the end of the bridge and darted to the river bank to the left of the bridge. Once there she raised her hands and fired her spell earth shattering. It fired three times striking the ant and causing it to run to the riverbank away from the bridge, thus giving Lord Malachi time to get off the bridge before the ant came after him. 
     After the third hit the spell stopped casting and Mystyka had to switch to boulder. That spell struck the ant two times and it stopped casting as well. Cursing she switched to her weaker attack spell fireball. Though she was an earth mage, many such mages also got the spell fireball because it was a versatile spell useful in many situations. The spell fireball struck the ant several times before it too failed and Mystyka shook her head in disgust. By now the ant had moved to the end of the bridge and started across. 
     Lord Malachi and Lord Fatman raced to the end of the bridge hoping to kill the ant quickly since Mystyka had softened it up with several magic strikes. They found to their disgust that though her spell had been casting, the power of it must have been severely reduced, for the ant was full of life. In frustration Mystyka targeted the ant again and fired her entanglement spell. That spell seemed abnormally strong and lasted much longer than it should have. She struck the ant with it multiple times and the men fell upon the trapped creature with a vengeance, being careful to keep their bodies out of reach of the creature’s head and the terribly dangerous mandibles. 
     Lord Fatman chopped through its thorax spilling a large amount of an ichorous substance. Lord Malachi attacked the abdomen slashing open great gaping wounds one after the other. Mystyka maintained her barrage of the spell entanglement. 
     Things were going well for the first two minutes of the battle, but then suddenly the ant lunged free of the entanglement spell and wheeled on the two men. Mystyka switched to her dark spell greater drain then and it too seemed overpowered, but she was under no illusions that it would last. 
     Lord Malachi saw that the ant was beginning to weaken. Boldly he dove between the creature’s front legs when he saw it distracted and looking at Mystyka. Scrambling beneath the monster he made his way to the joint that connected its thorax to its abdomen and crawled from beneath it. Taking his sword in both hands he struck the ant a mighty blow on that joint and separated the ant’s body just as they had done in the amphitheater in Cape Hope. 
     Mortally wounded many times over, the ant turned to Malachi butting him with its head and knocking him sprawling backwards. Lord Fatman intercepted it then. Hacking with his sword he chopped off a two foot section of the ant’s antenna further enraging the creature. Lord Malachi joined him and together with Mystyka draining it they finished off the ant. 
     “Gods I hate to think what an army of these things could do!” Lord Fatman exclaimed. 
     “So do I friend,” Lord Malachi replied. Then turning to Mystyka he paid her a rare compliment when he said, “Well done Mystyka. You made that much easier.” 

     “My spells kept malfunctioning,” she said. 
     “Don’t apologize. You did quite well under the circumstances. You did instantly change to other spells when they stopped working.” 

     “I wasn’t apologizing,” Mystyka said with a sweet smile. “I was going to say that if my spells had functioned properly I wouldn’t have needed your assistance, but they did and I thank you.” 

     Lord Malachi looked at the paladin in dismay. Then grinning he said, “You remember what I said in the cave when Mystyka passed out?” 

     “Yes of course Malachi,” replied the paladin. 
     “Well I take back every word I said.” 

     The paladin threw back his head in boisterous laughter. 
     Mystyka asked, “Alright Malachi what exactly is it that you said?” 

     “I’ll never tell you,” Lord Malachi said with a sneer and turned to walk away. 
     “Then Lord Fatman will tell me,” she stated with a grin. 
     “Ah I’m afraid that I gave my word that what he said I would never reveal to another.” he shrugged as if to say, “You know how paladins are when it comes to oaths.” 

     Mystyka cursed then and ran down the road haranguing Lord Malachi in an attempt to coerce him into revealing exactly what it had been that he had said and taken back just now. 

 

                                                              Chapter 25. 

     Fawnn walked calmly to the Tree of Balance. She stopped near the tree and said, “Greetings to thee Tree of Balance.”

     A moment later the tree spoke in reply saying, “Greetings to thee Fawnn of the companions.” 

     “I come seeking you at the instructions of the Harbinger. I am to collect a pouch of your leaves and return to an enchanted grove of trees that are the rest of the companions. If I succeed and gather pouches from the Tree of Wisdom and the Tree of Balance and three other companions succeed in their assigned quest, then the Harbinger will undo his enchantment upon my friends and they will revert to their normal form,” she said. 
     “If you are worthy and can pass my tests companion Fawnn, then you shall have my leaves to help in your quest. If you are unworthy or fail in the tests then you will surely perish. If this is not acceptable to you then leave.” With that said the tree’s dark eyes seemed to close as if the bark sections just moved together. 
     Fawnn waited some minutes and then grew to fear that the tree had gone to sleep or withdrawn. She said, “I await your tests.” 

     The tree’s eyes opened wide immediately. “What?! Oh it’s you. You still here? I would have thought that you would have left when given the opportunity to do so.” The tree stared at her a moment in silence and then said, “Well, Fawnn of the companions. Are you worthy?” 

     “Being worthy is in the eye of the beholder. Many would say that I am. Some would say that I am not. The Tree of Wisdom said that I was. I’m afraid that you will have to make that decision.” 

     “That was a balanced answer Fawnn. I like that. Touch then the lowest of my branches but take no leaves as yet and I see that you are a magic user. I warn you fair, cast no spells while you touch me. Even a light spell would trigger my magical defenses and you would die. I might regret that, but you would still be dead.” 

     Fawnn stepped forward and placed both hands on the lowest branch she saw. She expected the same rush and flood of memories but this did not happen. Instead the tree asked, “Tell me Fawnn, have you affected the balance of good and evil? Tell me truly for I will know.” 

     “Yes I think that I have. Along with the companions we have struggled many times to maintain the balance.” 

     “I see that this is true. Many times you have struggled with the companions to maintain the balance.” Pausing, the tree was silent for a time and then it said, “Tell me Fawnn, will the balance suffer if your friends remain enchanted?” 

     “Yes I believe that it will,” she answered truthfully. 
     “Are you suggesting to me that a tree does not affect the balance and only a man can do so?” asked the tree. 
     Fawnn suspected that this was a trap but she wasn’t concerned for she knew what she wanted to say. She replied, “All things, be they great or small, affect the balance. Few men understand how trees affect the balance and I am not one of them. But I do believe that trees have an affect on the balance just as I believe all things do.” 

     “Since you admit to believing that all things serve the balance, why then would the balance suffer if your friends remain the enchanted grove near Goodlund?” 

     “Because I believe my friends serve the balance better in their true forms,” Fawnn stated simply. 
     “Can you explain or prove that belief?” asked the Tree of Balance. 
     “Prove it? No. But I can explain that belief,” Fawnn stated. 
     “Please do so.” 

     “My friends and I have traveled widely on Althea. Always we have struggled to maintain a balance. Among our party are members of the evil, good, and neutral alignments. Our party is balanced. Yet if they remain trees there is no doubt in my mind that they will still affect the balance, but I believe it will be a diminished affect. If they are restored I believe that they will have a greater affect on maintaining the balance.” 

     “The Tree of Wisdom must have been very pleased with you Fawnn of the companions, for you are wise beyond your years. I am pleased with you for your answers are very balanced and true. You do not seek to be evasive when you do not know the answer. How could you know the answer to a question about matters that you could not possibly comprehend? Yet you are correct in your assessment of the situation. Your friends will indeed affect the balance much more in their true form.” 

     “I have judged you and found you worthy, Fawnn of the companions. Take the leaves that you need. Take no more than two per branch. Do not break a branch in the process. That would trigger my magical defenses and you would die. I would regret that, but you would still be dead, despite my lamentations.” 

     “I thank you for your contribution to the balance good Tree,” Fawnn said and curtseyed. 
     Pleased by this admission that it would be the gift of its leaves that aided the balance the Tree of Balance said, “Again you show such wisdom. It is remarkable to me that the Tree of Wisdom let one so wise leave without becoming engaged in conversation for a few decades.” 

     Fawnn blinked at that prospect and then the tree began to laugh. It had been ages since it had so surprised a visitor. Not since the dwarves visit had such an opportunity presented itself to the tree. Laughing herself, Fawnn said, “Thank you again. I will be very careful.” 

     “Please do. I find that I like you Fawnn. I really don’t wish to see you injured but my defenses cannot be turned off. Not even if I will it so can that be done.” 

     Fawnn took her time and picked the leaves. It took a long time to collect all that she needed. She was very careful to take no more than two per branch as she had been instructed. She even paused at the beginning to ask the tree if the process hurt. The tree assured her that it was mildly irritating but not truly painful. 
     It took her nearly thirty minutes to gather the pouch of leaves required by the Harbinger. When she had the pouch filled Fawnn thanked the tree a final time and returned to her friends. Tarn handed her the four blades that she had left behind. He’d picked them up during his wait to prevent her from forgetting and losing them. 
     Ishy opened a portal and they all returned to her house. You will want to return to the grove at once,” she said. Ishy pointed to their freshly cleaned clothing and gear. “I had those brought down for you. Everything is there, I assure you.” 

     The companions put on their packs in preparation to depart and Ishy opened a portal. “This opens between the enchanted grove and the city of Goodlund. I’m afraid that’s the best that I can do,” she said apologetically. 
     “That’s fine Ishy,” Fawnn said and meant it. “The trip here took us several days. The return to the grove can be made well before nightfall if we are lucky.” 

     Fawnn was about to step through the portal when she paused and looked around. A sad expression appeared fleetingly on her face and Ishy asked, “Is something wrong?” 

     “I had hoped to say goodbye to my friend the wolf,” Fawnn stated sadly. 
     “Aye as would I,” Tarn said. “He was a good guide, provider and traveling companion. 
     “That he was,” Ziona agreed. 
     Ishy smiled pleasantly. She was pleased that the trio thought so highly of her friend. A moment later they all heard a now familiar yip and turned to see the wolf come running across the floor to greet them. He stopped before Fawnn and butted her hand with his head, coaxing her into scratching his ears. 
     “Oh my, he does seem taken with you Fawnn,” Ishy said. 
     Smiling Fawnn squatted and hugged the wolf. “I am quite taken with him as well,” she said to Ishy. Then she leaned back on her heels and stared into the eyes of the wolf. “We have to leave now Great Hunter. We wanted to thank you for your help and say goodbye.” She hugged the wolf again and a tear trickled down her cheek. Standing she scratched his ears a final time and then stepped back. 
     Ziona knelt before him and thanked him for his help. She reached out a tentative hand to pet him and the wolf licked it. Thus encouraged she petted the wolf a moment and stepped aside. 
     Tarn knelt before the wolf and thanked him. He said, “You were a good pack brother to me. I will remember you. I will remember your speed and your prowess as a hunter my brother.” 

     The wolf looked Tarn solemnly in the eyes and then tilted his head back exposing his throat. “He is recognizing you as the leader of the pack,” Ishy stated. 
     “Fawnn was the leader,” Tarn objected. 
     Ishy shrugged and said, “By the ways of the wolf you were the leader. Our ways are not his ways.” 

     Tarn shrugged and reached out slowly to pat the wolf on the shoulder. “Be well my brother,” he said and stood to go. 
     Fawnn entered the portal then, followed by Ziona and Tarn. Immediately behind them followed the wolf. He walked over and stood beside Fawnn. Ishy stepped through the portal and said, “Wolf they have to go now. They have an adventure awaiting them.” 

     The wolf looked at Ishy and yipped. He ran to her and sat before her a moment staring into her eyes. A few moments later he returned to Fawnn leaving a bemused Ishy in his wake. 
     “He says that he is not abandoning me. He has learned much from his pack brother Tarn about how human’s feel about that and he will return to me in the glen in good time. For now he says he will travel with Fawnn.” Shrugging she added, “If that is a problem I can of course argue the point with him, but as I said before, one does not send a wolf anywhere. One asks a wolf. They come and go as they please.” 

     “He is welcome with us,” Fawnn said, “But there may be danger where we travel. We will do our best to protect him but....” 
     “His fate is his own just as yours is your own. My friend has the right to choose but not to impose himself upon you,” Ishy said. 
     “My brother the wolf is welcome with us,” Tarn stated simply. 
     “Aye that is so,” put in Ziona. 
     Fawnn knelt and hugged her newfound friend. “I thank you for accompanying me for yet a while longer.” 

 

                                                              Chapter 26. 

     Fawnn and her companions arrived at the enchanted grove in the late afternoon. They arrived before Mystyka and her party, but not by much. As they wandered through the grove near the road they heard the wolf yip. Looking around and up the road, they saw three figures heading in their direction. A moment later Tarn took off running in their direction. He’d recognized Mystyka. 
     Fawnn knelt beside the wolf and said, “They are friends who we have dearly missed. One is Tarn’s mate.” The wolf looked her in the eyes and lay down to wait at her feet. 
     A few minutes later the four of them arrived at the grove and the six friends were reunited. They exchanged hugs and handshakes and Fawnn said, “Let’s get the Harbinger here to fulfill our quests and free the rest of the companions. Then we can all have a reunion and discuss our adventures.” 

     And so they did. Fawnn and Mystyka both called on the Harbinger, saying that they now had the quest items he had asked them to acquire and were waiting to give them to him. A moment later the Harbinger arrived and stood facing them about fifteen feet away. 
     “You have the darkseed of Ogrimar?” he asked formally though he knew that she did. 
     Mystyka held out the pouch by the drawstrings. “Here it is,” she said. 
     A moment later Ogrimar appeared and took the pouch from her hand. Looking at Mystyka he said, “I see that it changed your hair. I am sorry Mystyka. If you like I will fix that.” 

     “No I think I’ll keep it this way but thank you,” she replied. 
     Saying no more Ogrimar departed at once. 
     Next the Harbinger turned to Fawnn. “You have the pouches of leaves from the Tree of Wisdom and the Tree of Balance?” 

     Fawnn held out the two pouches, one in each hand. The Harbinger raised both his hands and the pouches flew from Fawnn’s hands to his own. He secured them to his belt and said, “Very well. I have tested you strenuously and you have passed the first test. I will return the rest of your company to you now as promised.” He disappeared. A moment later the enchanted grove also disappeared and where it had been the companions now stood. 
     Ru almost fell and someone reached out to steady her. The ordeal of her battle with the hunger had disturbed Ru deeply. The lady, once so loving and demonstrative, could no longer abide the mere touch of another living being. She began screaming as if in agony and tearing at her hair. The Harbinger reappeared then and stood before her. Holding his hand before her face he stopped the screaming. “Lady Ru, I have tested you severely. Perhaps more severely than was justified. I have disturbed your balance. I will repair the damage. You will now forget that your test ever happened. Your memory of it is completely gone. If ever it is mentioned to you it will not affect you. You are insulated from that set of events by my will.” 

     Turning to Brimstone he said, “Brimstone, son of Artherk, touch the lady.” 

     Brimstone touched Ru’s arm tentatively and the touch broke her trance. She looked at him and said, “Yes Brimstone? Can I help you?” 

     Smiling Brimstone said, “No Ru but for a moment you seemed asleep.” 

     “For a moment I think I was. How strange.” 

     “Well we’ve been trees for a while so yes. I suppose things would seem odd.” 

     “Yes I recall us being trees except for six of us,” Ru stated. The Harbinger had given her a false memory of the time she had spent being punished. In her mind she’d been a tree as the rest of the companions had been in that enchanted grove. 
     Brimstone gave the companions a meaningful look. No member of that company ever said that Ru hadn’t been a tree along with the rest of them. What Ru would never know is that the trees had indeed been whispering to each other and to her. They could see and hear the battles that she waged with the hunger. They wanted nothing but peace for Ru who had been punished the most severely by the Harbinger. 
     Damia appeared beside Brimstone then. She slipped her arm inside his and pulled him aside for a kiss. 
     A few minutes later Brimstone said, “I don’t know about all of you but I’m tired of standing around. I have been standing as a tree for several days. He opened a portal into a location near Goodlund and said, “After you.” 

     Turning to Damia Brimstone said, “Come with us to the city. We’ll go to an inn for the night and eat and have a reunion.” 

     Damia smiled and kissed him again. “I’ll join you there in a bit dear. First I have a meeting to attend with the other gods. Go ahead and eat without me. I promise I’ll be there to hear the tales of the adventures by the time you finish eating.” 

     Brimstone kissed Damia again. He’d missed her when he’d spent time as a tree. “I’ll be expecting you beloved,” he said and darted into the portal behind the last companion to step through it. 
     “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Damia stated. 

 

                                                              Chapter 27. 

     Zadykiel and his dragon minions flew low over the croplands of southern Shafferland. As they flew the wind whistled through his hair and tugged at his clothing. 
     This was a test for his new minions. He wanted to fully test their capabilities and was intent upon doing so this night. For several nights he had chaffed at the delays as the harness system was refined. He wanted to kill the leather worker for his seeming inability to design a harness system which could withstand the full forces involved when his dragons flew to their full potential but the man was already dead. Already two of the lesser vampires had fallen to the ground below when the harness system had snapped under the strain of the incredible forces involved in some of the maneuvers. He’d learned on those occasions that it didn’t matter if you were already dead, such a fall could end your existence. There hadn’t been enough of the two vampires left to even scrape up when they fell upon the jagged rocks of the mountains below the test flight area. 
     So it was that his plans were delayed by several days as the leather worker experimented until he came across a system that would work. He had doubled every critical strap and increased the size of the main retainer strap to three times its original size. The all important leg straps he had doubled using two instead of one per leg. This system required several minutes to secure a rider and Zadykiel was unhappy about that. The leather worker had countered that he could design them for quick takeoff as they had originally been designed or for safe flight which Zadykiel seemed to want. He had then asked Zadykiel why the vampires couldn’t practice until they became very fast at equipping the harness system, or simply hook up half when they mounted and the other half in flight. 
     Zadykiel had thought about this and settled for a compromise. He gave the vampires a day to practice and when that day was over he instructed them to prepare to fly. Some few were ready in minutes; the others had to finish the preparations in flight. The dragons were instructed to check their riders before beginning any outrageous maneuvers. 
     It wasn’t a perfect system but it was a good compromise. He’d shaved ten minutes off the takeoff time. 
     Now they were flying to a small village of about sixteen homes and their accompanying outbuildings. Once there, he was determined to fully test the dragon’s capabilities. 
     Zadykiel had, over the past several days, spent much time considering the problem. The dragons could carry them into battle much more swiftly than the gargoyles ever did. Yet they were limited in number and bereft of their magical attack spells for some unknown reason. For days, as the leather worker toiled on the problems involved in securing the riders to the dragons safely, Zadykiel contemplated the problem. Then one day he saw one of his minions drop from the sky, pick up a large boulder in passing and fly over an antelope on the run. The dragon had dropped the boulder on the animal slaying it. 
     The dragon’s rider was one of his death mages and he’d done that for sport to amuse himself but it had given Zadykiel an idea. Why not use the dragons to drop very large rocks and boulders from above onto the settlements of the enemy. Since the dragons didn’t have to support their own body weight they were easily capable of lifting huge rocks in flight. 
     And so he tested his dragons the night the companions entered Goodlund and checked into an inn. They dove on the sleeping village at around high moon, dropping their deadly boulders onto the homes of the farmers. He landed the dragons near the village and let his vampire minions dismount and enter the chaos of the village to snare victims at will. They knew to stay well clear of the homes because Zadykiel intended a second and third wave of boulder attacks to train his minions. 
     He flew his dragons to the nearby mountains and at the foot of those mountains he found an area where an avalanche had deposited a field of boulders. His dragons rearmed immediately and returned to the village. The flight both ways had taken about fifteen minutes and the village was beginning to settle down when the second wave of attacks began. Zadykiel saw one boulder fall short of the intended target but it hit the ground rolling and smashed into one side of the house. It continued to roll even after striking the house and came out the other side. The house collapsed then, its structural integrity ruined by the damage inflicted by the giant rock as it smashed through the interior. 
     He also observed as some of the rocks completely missed the homes but rolled over and killed the citizens of the village who came pouring out of their homes. He saw his vampires working the fringes of the crowd harvesting victims. His two death mages would be converting a few to inflict terror in the region when they began to feed. 
     He noted that even when they occasionally missed a house with their boulders, the seemingly randomness of the attack appeared to terrify the villagers even more. They had begun to feel that they would be safe if they could just get clear of the houses. Also, he had the dragons swoop down and carry aloft several struggling villagers only to use them as projectiles against their neighbors. Carts, too, and farm livestock were utilized in this manner. Anything which could confuse and terrify the villagers was open for use. 
     After the third such attack Zadykiel landed the lead dragon with the other ten following closely behind him. The vampires quickly came and mounted the dragons, many with the blood of their victims still upon their lips. 
     They took to the air and flew first to the south just in case they were observed by survivors of the village and then to the east. Reaching the mountain range they followed it to the northeast until they reached their hidden base in the mountains. 
    During the raid on the little village the death mages had secured the food supplies that Zadykiel needed to stay alive. He was the only member of their party who required traditional food, so the supplies would last a good while. They had also secured two women to cook for him. They brought them to him still very much human. They cowered in terror before Zadykiel. 
     Looking at the two women with little interest he said, “You will cook for me. If you do as I say and cook well you will live. If you fail to cook well or follow my instructions to the letter you will be converted to my minions where you will have no will other than that which I permit. Is that understood?” 

     Cowering in fear, the tearful maidens agreed to do as they were told. Zadykiel turned to his vampire minions and said, “So long as these two follow my will they are sacrosanct. Do nottouch them without my expressed permission. Do so and you shall surely perish. If you catch them breaking my commands then you will apprehend them and bring them before me unharmed. I, and I alone, will be their judge.” 

     The two women began to think that Zadykiel was going to be their savior. Their false hopes were dashed when another of the death mages brought a third woman before him. “This woman is the one we selected for your other purpose,” the death mage said. 
     Looking at the woman he said, “She will do. Convert her.” The death mage grabbed the terrified woman’s hair and yanked her head back exposing her neck. He bit her then and the two women watched in horror, adding their screams to those of the victim as she was slowly converted. 
     “She will be your task master. She will insure that your service to me is properly performed. Anger me and she will be punished. No doubt she will resent that and seek a way to avenge herself upon you.” 

     The women screamed then in terror. Zadykiel left them there and retired to his bed to sleep. The women’s panicked screaming went on until they were hoarse. Their screams were a lullaby for a very vile man. 


 

                                                              Chapter 28.

 

     The gods met in the same location as before. This time the mood was better, for the companions had been freed of their enchantment and the darkseed of Ogrimar had been recovered.

     Ogrimar said, “I have hidden the darkseed in a place no mortal will ever reach. It is now safe from Zadykiel forever.”

     “The Harbinger mentioned two more tests,” Artherk said. “Since we are forbidden to interfere in any way and Brimstone is now free, we may have a problem.”

     “Oh?” asked Damia in some surprise.

    “Brimstone must not use the stone of light. That must be prevented lest I inadvertently break the Harbinger’s rule and interfere.”

     “I don’t quite follow you, Artherk,” Damia responded, a puzzled expression on her face.

     “I do!” shouted Ogrimar in anger. The stone of light is not just some magical gem, is it? It is your darkstone and you cleverly concealed that fact from us.”

     Artherk replied, “It was safe with Brimstone and he is my son. The protection he derived from it is only a father’s right.”

     “He could have used the power of the darkstone to conquer my followers!” an outraged Ogrimar shouted in fury.

     “Father, you know Brimstone would never do that,” Damia responded, her own anger and frustration barely held in check.

     “The problem at hand is to insure that he doesn’t use it at all against Zadykiel in the coming conflict. And Ogrimar it is your follower Zadykiel who is causing the real problems and not Brimstone,” Shinobi pointed out.

     “My follower?” Ogrimar stated in some surprise. “Shinobi, that man is not my follower. He gave lip service to it for a while to gain access to some things that he needed, but he has ever been a rogue. The power he seeks is not to exalt his god but himself. I kicked him out of my followers a year ago, when he began to scheme of ways to enhance his own power and prestige over mine.”

     “Well, to the matter at hand,” Damia suggested, “I can tell Brimstone I need the necklace and get him to give it to me and then return it to you, Artherk.”

     A deep male voice said, “You will do no such thing.” Turning about Damia saw the Harbinger standing a short distance from the four gods. “Artherk, you will see to it that the stone of light does not automatically react to preserve and protect the companions. It answers to your will, therefore you can do this, but do not warn your son of its nature during the testing. Brimstone has never used the darkstone of Artherk in a manner to affect the balance other than to stabilize it. You gods will not interfere in the continuing judgment of humanity. To insure that I will tell you this, and consider it fair warning. The very moment that any one of you four takes an active hand in this judgment, your followers will be forfeit.”

     Looking each of the four gods in the eyes he continued, “This is not a threat. This is the way that it will be, for I have not forgotten how the god Gluriurl interfered in the judgment of the elves.” Looking directly at Ogrimar he continued, “Your hands weren’t clean in that issue, as I recall.” This was a not so subtle reminder that Ogrimar and Gluriurl had conspired to slay Artherk.

     Looking at Damia and centering his attention on her he continued, “Brimstone is your husband. You no doubt love him and will be tempted to give him a warning, or perhaps arrange it so that a third party gains knowledge of the true nature of the stone of light and that person shall then warn Brimstone of it's true nature. Well Damia, Goddess of Neutrality, hear my words, and understand them well. You had best live up to your title in this instance, for if you interfere in this matter Brimstone’s life is mine, to do with as I please.”

     Damia was stunned. She opened her mouth to reply but Shinobi spoke first saying, “Think before you speak daughter.”

     Damia blinked and stood perfectly still for a moment. When she spoke it was with a calm voice that belied the turmoil within. She asked, “Can a wife not even see her husband? Where is the balance in that?”

     “A wife will love her husband and wish to see him, but a true wife will not throw her husband’s life away as if it were an old gown no longer fitting her fancy. Brimstone has worked hard and fought mightily to stabilize Althea. It would be a shame to see him lost to Althea, struck down because his petulant wife lacked the discipline to keep her mouth shut, and revealed things to him that interfere with humanity’s judgment.”

     “If you wish to see your husband, by all means do so, but separate the goddess Damia from the loving wife Damia. Better you do not see the man at all if you cannot do this simple thing. Better for Brimstone. Better for Althea. Better for the balance.”

     “Those are harsh words that you say to Damia,” Shinobi countered risking the wrath of the Harbinger.

     “Harsh?” Shaking his head the Harbinger said, “Because Damia and Brimstone have played significant roles in maintaining the balance I am doing something I have never before done. I am warning an individual about the dire risks of a specific action before they commit that action. I do this good deed and you call it harsh? So be it then. I am, by your limited comprehension, harsh.”

     “When will the next test of the companions begin?” asked Artherk in the silence that followed the Harbinger’s reply to Shinobi.

     “It began the day they were transformed into the enchanted grove,” he replied and disappeared.

     “That same day Zadykiel arrived at the foot of the mountain where he went seeking the dragon minions,” Ogrimar observed.

     “Do the dragons know that he has disturbed their dead? They will be furious,” Shinobi observed.

     “They know. They view it as a desecration of their honored dead and are meeting to decide what to do about it,” Artherk reported.

    “Will they intercede to deal with the reanimated dragons? I have not seen that in the thread of possibilities,” Damia asked.

     Shaking his head Artherk replied, “I do not expect them to do so. They honor their dead, but they are few in number now and fear the loss of the living to avenge the dead. And there is still their oath not to slay another dragon. Just as they do not attack Olin Haad, they will not attack the reanimated dragons. But they may well assist the companions in other ways.”

     Then Artherk’s expression turned sad and he said, “I do know that two of the companions will soon die, for I have seen that in the threads. Nothing can prevent that.”

     He revealed the names of the two companions to the other gods. Ogrimar became very agitated then, for one of the companions doomed to perish was a favored follower of his. “You cannot resurrect your follower in this case,” warned Artherk.

     Then Ogrimar smiled and replied, “No, I cannot resurrect him, but there is something else that I can do. I can claim his body at the moment of his death and cause him to be reborn as another man who will contain the essence of the original.”

     Damia blinked and began to smile. “Why Father, how absolutely brilliant. Since the original man will have perished, the Harbinger cannot complain about you claiming the body of a devout follower, though he may well require that the new man remain apart from the rest of the judgment. Still, that is a plan that I might have concocted myself.”

     Ogrimar smiled at his daughter and replied, “Perhaps, my daughter, you get that sort of thinking from me, eh? And you, Shinobi? Will you do the same for your follower?”

     Shaking her head Shinobi replied, “My new convert is on his own in that regard, by his own request.”

     The gods nodded their understanding. Often, followers declared to their gods that they wished to be permitted to die without the possibility of resurrection when their time came. They understood that to some it was a matter of not wanting to interfere with the destiny of their lives. It was an intensely personal issue and the gods had long ago decided to leave man’s fate in their own hands regarding the issue. They would resurrect any follower if they could, unless that follower stipulated otherwise.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 29.

 

     Brimstone sat at a large table in the common room of Goodlund's largest inn. The huge meal the companions were eating was a delightful change of diet for them all. The Goodlund inn specialized in several local dishes that none of the companions had ever eaten. One such dish that many of the company found quite enjoyable was a huge pie filled with a creamy sauce, mixed vegetables, and small pieces of poultry and pork. These pies were served in large baking pans and were the greatest hit of the feast. The serving girls would carry them to the table and set them in the center then break open the top crust with a large serving spoon.

     The steam which emerged from those pies was aromatic and served to whet the appetite of even the daintiest eaters of the company. So well received were those pies that Brimstone requested the serving staff to keep a close watch on the pies and to replace them as they were consumed until it became obvious that the company was reaching the end of their appetite for the dish.

     The company of companions was so large that, even using the largest table in the inn, they could not all fit around it, so the staff had rearranged the tables to create an island of tables in the center of the common room.

     Fawnn sat at the largest table and several times she filled a dish and sat it upon the floor beside her chair. She would then speak for a few moments with her new wolf friend cautioning him that it was very hot and should cool. The wolf always seemed to understand and would lie down, resting his head upon his front pawns and watch the bowl with wolfish patience. He soon learned that the absence of steam from the dish did not necessarily mean that the food was cool enough to eat, because the top layer cooled more rapidly than the center. When he finished his first bowl he had turned to Fawnn and butted her leg gently with his head to get her attention. Fawnn had looked down to see what he wanted and he had looked pointedly at the empty bowl. This interaction between the two caused Jedi to howl with laughter. Fawnn had smiled and apologized to the wolf for her inattention to his needs and promptly filled his bowl again.

     Getting the wolf admitted to the inn had been difficult. The proprietors had been understandably reluctant to permit what they considered a wild animal into their establishment. But Fawnn had guaranteed his conduct and settled the matter quite easily when she paid double for the room she would share with her husband and the wolf that night. She had even supplied the bowl the wolf would eat from, which settled the last of the complaints of the innkeeper.

     In all taverns known to mankind there always seems to be someone who cannot hold their brew and seeks to cause problems for other patrons with their bullying ways. The Goodlund inn was no exception to this seemingly universal rule of tavern patronage.

     Hrist had gone to her room to get a scroll from her pack so that she could give it to Skan who had need of the magic scroll. She was returning to her seat at the table when she accidentally bumped into a man and caused him to spill a portion of his ale. She immediately apologized and offered to buy him another but he had sullenly refused to even speak to her. Shrugging her shoulders at the man’s rude demeanor, Hrist began to turn so that she could return to her seat at the table, but the man grabbed her hair at the back of her head and slammed her face into the tabletop, dazing her momentarily.

     Outraged companions immediately leapt to their feet but Skan, who was closest to them, was first to confront the man. “He’s mine,” she stated in a calm voice belying the raging violence she was about to unleash on the unsuspecting bully.

     With a sneer on his face the bully aimed a slap at Skan’s face as she took a step toward him. That intended blow never struck. She caught the offending hand in her own and with brutal force she twisted the wrist backward, almost breaking the man’s wrist. With her other hand she slapped him hard across the face, blooding his nose. “You will apologize to my friend now,” Skan said in a deceptively mild tone of voice into the stunned silence that followed the sharp retort of her blow to the man’s face.

     “The wench had it coming!” the bully replied savagely.

     “Wrong answer,” Skan replied and slammed her fist into the man’s abdomen causing him to retch. “You will now apologize to my friend for your rude behavior, and for calling her a wench.”

     With a sneer on his face the man lunged at Skan with both hands extended. He was convinced that if he could just grab her he would be able to throttle her and remove that placid smile from her face permanently.

     Skan stepped inside his outstretched hands and punched him in the mouth with a solid right fist, rocking his head back on his shoulders and sending him crashing backwards into a table.

     The man jumped to his feet and began to dart toward Skan, who prepared herself to meet his clumsy charge, but he never reached her. Hrist had by now gotten to her feet. Her magic was unreliable, so she had improvised by picking up one of the long handled iron pie pans from the table. She swung the pan with precision, at the last moment adjusting her aim from his face to his chest, for fear that she might kill him if she struck him in the face. The pan struck the man in the center of his chest and literally rang like a bell for a moment from the force of the impact. The bully fell to the floor of the tavern retching and wheezing.

     “Not bad!” hooted Jedi appreciatively. “Well struck, Hrist!”

     Smiling Hrist returned the pan to her table as the tavern owner’s men gathered the bully up and dragged him out of the establishment. The tavern owner apologized profusely for the disturbance. The companion’s party had already paid in a few hours more than he normally made in the tavern in two weeks. He was eager to have them stay as long as they wished.

     He did warn them that the man had several rowdy friends who might seek to take issue with what had transpired, but he promised to have his men keep a watch for them and try to intervene. Lord Malachi made the man feel much better when he said, “If they come to seek trouble with us let them past your men unmolested. We can take care of ourselves and there is no need for your men to be exposed to danger on our account.” Looking at the strong party before him the tavern owner smiled, thus reassured, and walked away.

     Brimstone looked at Jedi, Malachi, and Skan and then looked toward the door of the tavern. They got the point. The three of them had been appointed watch duty while they were assembled here for the reunion. The three of them shifted their chairs slightly for better views of the entrance to the tavern.

     Damia appeared beside Brimstone just as the three guards had completed their seating adjustments. Brimstone smiled warmly and stood to greet his wife. He noticed that her hug seemed intense and that she seemed reluctant to break the embrace.

     Damia gave her husband a lingering hug and then turned to the assembled companions. She greeted them all with warmth and smiles, yet for a fleeting moment when her eyes met his, Shalmain thought he detected a sadness reflected in those beautiful windows to her soul. She thanked them all for the warm greeting and then said, “Now I would like to hear about the recent adventures you have all had.”

     Brimstone assisted Damia, seating her next to him. He suggested that she try the odd pie that was a specialty of the tavern. Humoring her husband Damia sampled the food and found it quite tasty.

     As Damia nibbled on the strange food dish, Brimstone asked Fawnn to begin the tale of their adventure. The companions marveled at the descriptions of the storm and the way that the trio had managed to survive the harsh rigors of their journey through the deep southern woodlands of Shafferland. Fawnn discretely omitted the references to Tarn’s moroseness and the reasons for that behavior. From time to time Ziona and Tarn added comments to the descriptions of their adventures, and by the time the tale was completed many of the companions had learned much that might aide them should they ever find themselves in similar circumstances. The wolf found himself regarded as a hero by the companions for his part in the tale. Veksar beamed at his wife in pride as she related the testing of the trees and her answers.

     Then it was Mystyka’s turn to begin relating the adventures of her trio as they had sought out the darkseed of Ogrimar. She seemed fine during most of that telling of the tale, but when she got to the portion that related to her contact with the darkseed she seemed troubled and refused to give details concerning that contact. She feigned lack of memory regarding that contact. To her surprise Lord Malachi gave her an assist when he said, “It is small wonder that she cannot remember what transpired during that ordeal. One need only regard her hair to see that it must indeed have been traumatic. I respect her for the achievement.” Then giving her a slight grin he said, “It certainly didn’t mellow out her acid tongue.”

     Tarn laughed then as Mystyka made a rude gesture at Lord Malachi. Many of the companions joined him in that laughter and indeed Malachi himself laughed and said, “It is good to see you still have your spirit after what you went through.” He then mentioned her taunting him at the trapped window and encouraging him to risk his hand in testing the trap. Brimstone guffawed at that and thanked him for not taxing his strength immediately upon his transformation back into his true form.

     The companions listened in rapt interest as Mystyka went on to describe the battle with the giant ant at the bridge. The magic users among them were particularly interested in her description of the failures of her spells. This led to Fawnn relating the experiments that she had conducted during the course of her journey as well, for she had omitted that in her telling of the tale, referencing it only by stating that spells were now unreliable. Damia confirmed that this was because of the presence of the Harbinger.

     A few times, as the companions were relating the adventures, BlkTygga and Shalmain both noted that Damia was looking at them with an expression of sadness on her face. Both made up their minds to seek her out privately and ask her about those sad eyed expressions. Both would forget the matter a moment later when she removed the memory of the incidents from their minds.

     Next the talk among the companions shifted to the Harbinger and they speculated on what the further tests of the Harbinger might involve. Damia shocked them all when she was asked and replied, “The Gods have all been warned not to become involved in the Harbinger’s tests of humanity.” She then explained a bit about the Harbinger, his power and his purpose in testing humanity. She admitted knowing some things that she could not relate to them and explained that she must let events unfold without her interference lest her followers all be lost. This was sobering news to the companions.

     Damia then stood and extended her hand to her husband. “Beloved, let us retire, for the hour is late. Tonight I will stay here with you, but I must leave early, for events will begin to unfold with the coming of a new day.” Turning to the companions she wished them all a pleasant night’s sleep and together with Brimstone headed to their room for the night.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 30.

    

     The next morning the companions awoke to the sounds of a city in bedlam. Bells were ringing in the city and even in their rooms the companions could hear voices shouting in the streets below. Curious as to what was creating such a commotion in the heretofore quiet town they quickly dressed and hurried down the stairs to the massive common room. 

     They found Brimstone there listening to the animated chatter of several patrons of the tavern gathered around a man dressed in work garb of a farmer. The man appeared to be on the verge of physical collapse. His eyes held a haunted expression as if he had seen something too terrible for a man to witness. They entered the conversation at the point where he was describing an attack upon his village.

     “They flew out of the night sky on great sweeping wings and dropped huge stones upon the village,” the man exclaimed, his eyes opened wide as if he were seeing the attack that he was describing and not the faces of the people in the tavern. “Most of the people of the village were killed. Many tried to flee their homes to escape the attacking flying beasts but there was no safety in the darkness. Seeking safety they found an even crueler death waiting in the darkness.”

     He went on to describe the vampires that several people had encountered as they fled the attack on their village. His brother had lost a wife to those vampires. She had fled into the darkness and shrieked. When they had found her she was dead. His brother had remained in the village to bury his wife but the farmer had come to Goodlund to seek out the aid of the garrison of soldiers in the city. Once there he had heard about the companions being in town and had come to deliver a message to Brimstone.

     This had surprised Brimstone who had replied, “I am Brimstone.”

     Nodding his head in understanding the farmer replied, “I learned at the garrison that you were here in the tavern and I came to deliver the message. I am to tell you this. ‘Zadykiel sends his love.’”

     “That’s all?” asked BlkTygga.

     “That’s enough,” said Brimstone. He continued, “He wants us to know that he is here and he is raising another force with which to do battle.”

   

                                                                    ***

    

     An hour later, as the companions were preparing to leave the tavern to seek out information, a group of ten soldiers entered the tavern seeking Brimstone. The leader of the small contingent of soldiers was a guard captain who immediately seemed to recognize Brimstone for he strode directly to him. Without preamble he said, “Brimstone I am the captain of the city guard. You and your companions are ordered to return to the city of Cape Hope at once where you will meet with the King of Shafferland. He will want to know everything there is to know about this menace to our land. Apparently you know something of it since, as I hear it, you were sent a message by the man responsible.”

     Brimstone nodded his head and replied, “Of course we will go at once. I’ll do anything that I can to help your people. We have battled this man before on Sic Dalar and so we know much about the way he thinks and makes war upon those around him.” As Brimstone had been replying, the captain of the guard was shaking his head. This caused Brimstone to frown in confusion.

     The captain said, “I can not permit all of your party to go on the trip to Cape Hope. I can only spare a ten man escort. We are a small garrison and I have already sent most of the men to the village that was attacked last night.”

     “Then you have a problem,” Lord Malachi spoke up softly. “For if you think we will let you just walk away with Brimstone alone you don’t know the first thing about the companions.”

     Frowning in consternation the officer said, “Surely you don’t expect me to send ten men to escort your party. You would outnumber them three to one.”

     Brimstone settled the issue immediately by opening a portal to Cape Hope. He explained, “What you say makes sense sir. But we travel together so I will settle the issue. This portal will transport us immediately to the city of Cape Hope.” Before the officer could protest he stepped through the portal.

     Brimstone arrived in Cape Hope near the Amphitheatre where he had once fought the giant ant with his two friends Lord Malachi and Jedi. A moment later the ten soldiers of the garrison stepped through followed quickly by the companions. Once the companions stopped coming through the portal Brimstone did a mental tally that was done to ensure that every member of the party was accounted for. This was something he did after each use of the portals to ensure that he did not close down a portal while someone was in it. The results of that would be catastrophic to the person in transit. This time to his discomfort he noted that all were not present and accounted for.

     “Nessarose, Tersha, BlkTygga, and Shalmain are missing,” Brimstone stated softly. Turning to the other companions he asked, “Did anyone see them just before we left?”

     “I saw them standing in line behind us,” replied Fawnn.

     “Yes they were at the end of the line. I heard Shalmain and BlkTygga joking about making a bet on where we would end up in the city,” added Anpu.

     At that moment the portal closed of its own volition. “Hey! Shouldn’t we go back for them?” asked Ziona.

     “I didn’t close it Ziona,” Brimstone replied and then he added, “It closed all by itself.”

     “Oh, that is bad,” Veksar noted. “I do hope that they weren’t in transit when it closed.”

     “They weren’t. They are still alive. I can detect them, but I cannot get a lock on them to teleport to them for some strange reason. This tells me that they are no longer in Goodlund for I can detect the captain of the guard’s presence quite easily.” Then looking at the companions bleakly he said, “The portal shifted them to another location. That’s all that this can mean. That location is protected by magic wards which prevent me from detecting their true location.”

     The sergeant of the guards cleared his throat to get the attention of the companions and said, “We should report to the king now. There will be time to seek your friends after that. Many innocent lives could be lost if we do not do our duty promptly.”

     Brimstone frowned in consternation and said, “There is nothing that we can do for the missing party members at the moment. We have no idea where they are, and I cannot make mental contact with any of them. Perhaps Versha can reach her daughter. Torlag communication works differently than ours. Ziona please contact Versha and ask her to seek out her daughter’s mind. Meanwhile we will report to the king. For now the missing are on their own until we find a way to locate them. At least I know that they are still alive.” Sadly shaking his head Brimstone added, “It appears that the portal magic is also being affected by the presence of the Harbinger upon Althea. They are no longer reliable.” Turning to the soldiers he said, “I had intended to open a portal for you to return to your garrison but in light of this development….”

     The sergeant finished the thought when he quipped, “Thank you but I think that we will simply walk. No doubt the king will send reinforcements for the garrison and we can accompany them.”

 

 

                                                              Chapter 31.

 

     Nessarose, Tersha, BlkTygga, and Shalmain found themselves in near total darkness inside a cave. Tersha could see well enough and Nessa could see to a lesser degree due to her experiences in Werewolf cave. But Shalmain and BlkTygga couldn’t see anything at first. Tersha and Nessa assured the two men that they were safe and inside a cave. Moments later the two men had managed to equip light source items and carefully began to study their surroundings.

     Nessarose took a moment to assist Tersha in equipping her battle armor, just as a precaution. While she was doing so, BlkTygga found a chest in the room and opened it. The chest contained a map and some few large spiders. It was the same chest which Zadykiel had previously opened. The map had been replaced by the magic of the chest. The companions didn’t know it, but they were retracing the steps that Zadykiel and his minions had taken just a few days before in this cave system.

     Shalmain, looking over BlkTygga’s shoulder, examined the map with interest. “It appears to show the way out of the cave. We need to locate the stairs and climb them to the exit,” he said without much concern evident in his voice. The cave seemed to be empty and for a man accustomed to roaming the werewolf and gargoyle caves alone this one seemed a lark.

     Nessarose spoke up then saying, “I can’t contact anyone outside the cave. Tersha would you try?”

     “I already have Nessa. I cannot reach anyone either. Something is blocking the normal mental contact that we can maintain. I suspect that it is this cave itself. We should try to reach the exit. Once free of the cave perhaps we will be able to contact our friends.”

     “That sounds good to me,” BlkTygga replied. Shalmain nodded with a faint trace of a bored smile and together the four companions moved to the only visible exit from the chamber.

     They moved through the short passage to the next chamber. They all noticed the dark shape lying on the floor of the chamber at roughly the same time. “Looks like a body,” Shalmain noted as they paused to stare at the dark shape lying on the floor of the next chamber.

     “I’ll check it out,” BlkTygga volunteered as he headed for the crumpled form lying there.

     “Be careful. We have no idea what dangers might lie in wait here,” Nessarose warned.

     A moment later BlkTygga reached the crumpled form and said, “It looks to me as if this poor guy slipped and fell off the stairs. He seems all twisted and broken up.”

     He knelt then for a closer look just as Tersha shouted a warning, “Be careful. He smells of the undead!”

     The moment that she completed her warning the huddled shape on the floor moved. It shot two hands up and, grasping BlkTygga’s face pulled the man’s body closer to it. The vampire also drew his own shattered body closer to the hapless mage. A moment later he ripped the throat from his surprised victim and eagerly drank his blood.

     Shalmain attempted to launch a spell at the vampire but the spell refused to function. Nessarose stepped behind the vampire and slid her sword between BlkTygga and the vampire. With her free hand she grasped the back side of the sword and guided the blade to the vampire’s throat. With a savage jerk she pulled the sword blade through the vampire’s neck and severed its head from its body. Blood spurted from the trunk of the vampire’s body and from its severed head as it continued to feed on the doomed mage BlkTygga. A few seconds passed and the vampire’s head finally fell away from the mangled throat of BlkTygga. His body slumped to the ground barely breathing.

     Shalmain kicked the vampire’s head away from them while Nessarose and Tersha hovered near BlkTygga. “Tersha can you help him?” asked Nessarose almost hopelessly.

     Tersha examined the wound critically and tried. Her regurgitated healing bile steamed and bubbled as it hit the ruined throat, but the man’s throat was ruined beyond repair of any but the gods. He tried to say something but of course with his throat ruined no intelligible words emerged. But Ogrimar heard BlkTygga when he requested his assistance.

     A moment later BlkTygga died despite the efforts of the companions to save him. Nessarose knelt and wept. Tersha joined her in that eerie keening that is the torlag’s expression of their grief. He was a companion and he was now dead. Nothing that they could do would change that.

     Shalmain wiped tears from his own eyes and gently laid a piece of cloth over the face of BlkTygga. “We have to leave here now Nessa. It is possible that we might get out of here in time to contact Brimstone for a resurrection by Lord Fatman. But we have to hurry. You know the time limits on that.”

     “Yes of course you are right Shalmain,” Nessa said as she wiped her tears. Without another word the trio headed at once to the stairs and began the arduous climb in the faint hope of getting help for BlkTygga before it was too late.

     Minutes ticked by slowly as the companions raced up and around the spiral staircase. Thirteen minutes after they began their sprint, Ogrimar appeared in the chamber. He stared sadly at the body of his follower and then spoke quietly as if to the air itself. He said, “I am here to claim the body of my follower that I might transform him into another man.”

     “He must remain apart from the rest of the judgment process,” responded the disembodied voice of the Harbinger.

     “It shall be even as you say,” replied Ogrimar formally.

     The God of evil then bent to his follower and touched his forehead. “BlkTygga, this body will no longer serve you. I have heard your prayer and you will be granted a new body. Yet you will retain memories of this other life. Arise now Death-Angel. Your deity awaits.”

    A moment later a new man arose, naked save a loincloth and his magnificent black seraph wings.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 32.

 

     Brimstone and the companions were led to the castle of the King of Shafferland. The chamberlain of the castle met them first and told them that the king was expecting them and would see them in a few minutes. He was working on another problem and would require a few more minutes to complete the process of dealing with that before he could see them.

     The chamberlain also intervened when the soldiers asked the companions to surrender all of their weapons prior to seeing the king. “His majesty has instructed that the companions be treated as honored guests and not be striped of their weapons.” Bowing the soldier had relented to the will of his king. The chamberlain promised to return for them as soon as the king was ready to receive them, then left to attend to his many duties.

     After a wait of some twenty minutes the chamberlain returned for the companions. They followed him through the castle to the throne room where the king awaited them. “Greetings companions. I have looked forward to this visit ever since learning that you now walk within our kingdom.”

     “Greetings your majesty,” replied Brimstone who then bowed respectfully. The other companions bowed or curtseyed depending upon their gender.

     The king smiled warmly as he returned the bow. A moment later that smile vanished as he immediately got down to the business at hand. “It has reached my ears that there was an attack last night upon a remote village in our kingdom and that you may be able to shed some light on the man responsible.”

     Frowning sourly Brimstone replied, “If it is truly Zadykiel I’m afraid we know only too well what he is capable of doing. He is a murderous lout who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.”

     “And what are those goals?” asked the king.

     “Here on Shafferland I do not yet know, but his actions are aimed at two things your majesty. The first is the total destruction of our group known by most of Althea as the companions. The second is raising chaotic evil to supremacy on all of Althea.”

     “What would be the purpose of the attack upon the remote village?”

     Brimstone thought about that for a moment and then replied. “To answer that question at this point would be to speculate and interject my opinion only. I don’t know enough yet to give good solid advice on the issue.”

     “Then please speculate and tell me what you think would motivate him to do this thing which he has done to innocent villagers,” responded the king.

     Frowning, Brimstone did as he was bid and replied, “I think it was a practice run for the winged monsters that he is said to have used in the attack. I also think that it is quite possible that he had some of his minions convert some of the victims, and that they will rise from their graves to slay others, thus creating chaos in the countryside.”

     Alarmed the king said, “Convert them into what?”

     “Vampires, your majesty,” Brimstone explained. He then proceeded to tell the king of the remote village on Sic Dalar that had been attacked by Zadykiel and his minions and referenced the conversion of the village inhabitants into vampires.

     “I see. Thank you,” said the king who immediately turned to the commander of the army and said, “Issue orders to your men traveling to the affected village. Burn all of the bodies of those slain in the raid.”

     “Your majesty they will have been buried already,” the commander explained and then he added, “If we dig them up and burn them the villagers will be furious. They will view it as a desecration of their dead.”

     Nodding his head in understanding the king said, “You are of course correct. So order the village evacuated. If any resist that evacuation order tell them that we have reason to believe that there will be another attack on the village tonight and that the villagers would be much safer in Goodlund. When they are out of sight of the village have any new graves opened and burn the bodies. Make sure that the graves are filled in and warn the men to keep their mouths shut about the incident.”

     Bowing to his monarch the commander turned to his second in command and issued the appropriate orders. The second in command walked out of the room to carry out his orders. He personally contacted the commander of the expedition headed for the village and relayed the king’s message.

     The king continued the interview with the companions for nearly an hour, questioning them intensely about the man Zadykiel and what his probable actions would be in the coming days. Lord Malachi startled many present when he asked the king, “Are the giant ants here intelligent? I ask because Zadykiel has a past history filled with seeking to make monster allies.”

     The King appeared startled by this revelation and admitted, “We don’t really know the answer to that question. Some have argued that they are at least semi-intelligent while others have insisted that they are not. No expedition that went to study them ever returned. They are formidable fighters and quite deadly in numbers.”

     “From what we have seen they are quite deadly alone,” Lord Fatman interjected.

     “I would recommend that your patrols be vigilant and report any unusual activity where the ants are concerned. And begin making contingency plans for the defense of your cities and villages should he find a way to use them against you in large numbers,” Brimstone suggested.

     The commander of the army agreed saying, “If he has used monsters previously, we would be ill advised to ignore that past history.”

     “Very well then, note Brimstone’s recommendations and follow them,” the monarch commanded.

     “Now, if our business is concluded, your majesty, we need to go and search for some of our friends who are missing,” Brimstone interjected, thus voicing the growing impatience among the companions at the delay.

     “Yes of course Brimstone. We thank you for your service to our kingdom. Feel free to give the commander a full description of those party members who are missing and he can have our patrols watch for them as well.”

     “Thank you, your majesty,” Brimstone replied.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 33.

 

     Zadykiel and his minions flew over the north western section of Shafferland, seeking the home territory of the giant ants who dwelled on the isle. He took his dragon high into the sky and observed as his minions flew just above the canopy of the forest below. Ahead in the distance, a huge mountain rose into the sky above that canopy. His dragon made mental contact with him and reported that it could see ants moving near the summit of that mountain.

     Zadykiel immediately ordered his minions to bring their dragons up to join him and they flew toward the mountain. As they drew closer Zadykiel saw that the mountain was actually an extinct volcano. The crater in the top center of the mountain literally swarmed with ants. He saw multiple tunnel entrances all around the crater. Some seemed barely large enough for an ant to navigate, but there was one that seemed huge by comparison to the rest. Zadykiel estimated that his entire flight of dragons could enter that tunnel in one pass if they went inside in a stacked formation three or four wide.

     Zadykiel smiled in anticipation. He had no intention of risking a crowded airspace in that unknown tunnel. For all he knew it could taper down to ant size almost instantly. Instead, he ordered one of his death mages to enter the tunnel and seek out the queen ant if he could locate her. The rest of the flight would circle the mountain and await his return.

     The death mage ordered his dragon to enter the tunnel at a safe speed just in case the tunnel came to an abrupt dead end or narrowed to a point where they could not proceed. He warned the dragon to leave plenty of wing room to turn about and escape. The reanimated dragon reminded the death mage that he had been exploring such caves for ages before the young vampire had even been born and was quite aware of the needs for precaution. This surprised the death mage as the dragons almost never mentioned their previous lives.

     Zadykiel watched fascinated as the dragon entered the massive tunnel. The ants within the crater went berserk with apparent anger and rushed inside the tunnel in pursuit of the dragon which had invaded their colony. Zadykiel waited a moment and then ordered one of his lesser minions to land his dragon near the mouth of that tunnel. He warned him to be prepared to fly away instantly if an ant emerged.

     The selected team flew to a landing near the mouth of the massive tunnel. Zadykiel noted the dust rising in the backwash of the wings as the dragon landed. Almost immediately a dozen or so ants burst from the mouth of the tunnel and charged the dragon and its rider. The dragon immediately launched itself into the air. For a harrowing moment Zadykiel observed the ants snapping their mandibles at the tips of the dragon’s wings as they made their down strokes but the dragon had a few feet to spare.

     Inside the tunnel the death mage saw an incredible sight. He observed thousands of the giant ants milling about on the floor of the tunnel. He also saw many side tunnels and ants moving to and fro among those tunnels. He penetrated deep into the mountain as the tunnel descended almost vertically for hundreds of yards before opening into a huge cavern that at some remote time in the past must have been formed by an extremely large gas pocket.

     Try as he might the death mage could make no sense of the bustling activity in the cavern below him. Finally shrugging he asked the dragon to try to locate the queen ant. Immediately the dragon moved to a darkened area along the floor of the chamber. There they found the queen. It took only moments for the death mage to discover that if the queen was intelligent she steadfastly refused to demonstrate it by responding to him. He then reverted to Zadykiel’s plan and as instructed he ordered the dragon to seize the ant and fly from the cave with her. This was difficult to accomplish because the ant was approximately half the size of the dragon itself. She was fully two times the size of the average ants in the nest. The other ants around the queen complicated the maneuver as they frantically sought to surround her and keep themselves between the queen and the invaders of the colony. Yet finally the dragon was able to seize the queen and lift her struggling body from the ground.

     The death mage then flew his dragon carefully from the cavern chamber and minutes later emerged from the darkness of the tunnel into the daylight sky over Shafferland.

     “Well done,” Zadykiel said when he saw the prize that had been captured by the death mage. He laughed as he saw hundreds of ants boiling from the tunnels all around the inner rim of the crater. “I think they want her back.”

     The death mage grinned and replied, “So it would seem.”

     “Is your dragon in distress? Can he carry the weight of her for an extended period of time?” asked Zadykiel who was much more concerned about the ability of the dragon to perform the mission he had in mind than he was about his personal comfort.

     “It is not difficult now that she has stopped struggling. She must know that if she falls from this height it will kill her. She is now quite docile. I can carry her for hours in this manner,” replied the dragon.

     Nodding his head in satisfaction Zadykiel said, “Good. Then we follow the plan. We will take her near the city of Cape Hope and see if we can convince the citizens of the city to capitulate lest we unleash our reluctant allies upon their city by dropping their queen into the center of Cape Hope. If all goes well I will command the armies of Shafferland within a matter of days.”

     “Keep the pace slow enough to keep the queen in sight of the advance party of ants. I am going to take a trip with my dragon to check on something. I’ll meet you later in the day,” Zadykiel ordered and then altered his dragon’s course as he flew away from the main flight of reanimated dragons.

 

 

 

                                                              Chapter 34.

 

     Nessarose, Tersha, and Shalmain paused in their mad flight up the spiral staircase. They were exhausted from the exertion and the two humans were drenched in sweat. For Tersha it was even worse. Torlags were not biologically designed for climbing steps which had been designed for humans. Naturally they could do so but it was a strain on their bodies.

     The three companions collapsed and waited patiently for their ragged breathing and pounding hearts to return to normal. Minutes passed as they recovered. Finally, when he could breathe more normally, Shalmain removed a cloth from his pocket and handed it to Nessa. She took it gratefully and wiped the sweat and grime from her face.

     “Well we tried our best but I’m afraid it is now too late for us to locate the companions in time for a resurrection to work for BlkTygga,” Shalmain stated sadly.

     Nessarose hung her head in despair then, remaining silent for long moments. When she did speak it was in a soft tone of voice as she said, “You are right of course, but we should still hurry to get out of here.”

     “We will, but no more mad dashing along,” Shalmain said and nodded his head at the still distressed torlag.

     Nessa moved closer to her friend, alarmed at the obvious distress the torlag seemed to be enduring as her body shook violently with the spasms of muscle cramps. Nessarose massaged the muscles until they began to relax. Shalmain poured some water into a bowl and set it near the torlag. “Tersha you must drink or the muscles will not return to normal function. You are dehydrated. Drink slowly or you will begin to cramp again.” Then looking at Nessa he said, “That goes for you too friend.” Then leading by example he took a small sip from his water bottle. He waited a few moments and took another.

     They rested there for a few more moments and then began to climb the spiral staircases again but this time at a much more reasonable pace. They lost all track of time as they continued to endure the rigors of the climb as stoically as possible.

     Finally they emerged at the top of the stairs and found that it ended at a chamber with no apparent exit. “There has to be a way out,” Shalmain protested. “The map clearly indicates that this is the exit.”

     Tersha spoke up saying, “There is a chest in the corner.”

     Shalmain turned and walked to the chest. He opened it, frowned, and reached inside pulling forth a rolled up scroll. He unrolled the scroll and proceeded to read the contents to the others.

 

Greetings Companions,

     We apologize for having snatched you away from your friends and diverting you here with our magic, but it was a necessary evil. The mage Zadykiel has desecrated our honored dead by reanimating eleven of our brothers lost to us during the Battle of Emanations. We resent this misuse of our dead and have decided to interact with you in an effort to undo the great wrong that he has done.

     To that end, the spells needed to open the door of this chamber and the door to the chamber of entombment have been changed from the ones that Zadykiel used to rob the graves of our brethren. This will ensure that he will be unable to do this again in the future. You will find the new spells at the bottom of this scroll. Just recite them when you are ready to proceed.

     Inside the burial chamber, in the north wall, there is a spot where a portion of the wall is an illusion. Find that spot and walk through the wall. Follow the corridor there to another small chamber. Within that chamber you will find items critical to freeing our enslaved brethren from Zadykiel’s control. This is all that we can do to exact revenge upon Zadykiel so long as he controls the remains of our honored brethren. We swore an oath a millennium ago never to slay another dragon. Free our brethren and you free us to act against Zadykiel and his minions who have defiled our dead. 

     We thank you for your service to our kind.

 

Sincerely,

The Council of Eight

 

     Shalmain looked up from the scroll with an amused expression on his face. “There are several spell incantations at the bottom, just as they promised in the letter.”

     “So it was the dragons who diverted us here,” stated Nessarose.

     “So it would seem my sister,” replied Tersha.

     “Well we do need to stop Zadykiel before he can slaughter more innocent lives, but frankly I don’t care for the way that the dragons did this. If they had approached Brimstone and done this in the correct manner then BlkTygga might still be alive.”

     “The ways of the dragons are not our ways. But it is also possible that it had to be done now at this particular moment in time,” stated Nessarose.

     “Why would that be the case?” demanded Shalmain who didn’t like Nessarose defending the dragon’s actions.

     Shrugging Nessarose smiled and said, “I don’t have the answers Shalmain. Let’s go find the answers together shall we? Perhaps it will become clear once we find the items that we are supposed to find.”

     Grunting in acknowledgement Shalmain strode to the wall and concentrated on the incantations he would have to recite. Moments later the first incantation was complete and he saw a stone embedded in the wall begin to glow. He touched that stone with his left palm and recited the second incantation. As he finished the last word the wall began to tremble beneath his fingers. Moments later the wall slid aside, permitting them to exit the cave system.

     They found themselves on an open stretch of ground beside a small trail that threaded through the boulders of the mountain top and disappeared around another large boulder. They followed that trail to an apparently solid wall of rock. Shalmain uttered the two incantations which would open this door and soon they stood within the burial chamber itself.

     Ten minutes later they had located the spot in the northern wall that was an illusion. Moments after that they were inside the small round chamber filled with six chests. The three companions gasped in shock as one by one the items yielded by the chests were revealed.

     “We need the other companions here. There is no way we can carry all of this stuff ourselves,” Nessarose said stating the obvious, for each chest had revealed not one item but many. The combined items from the six chests would tax the strength of ten men to carry. Three would find it quite impossible.

    “You are right of course,” Shalmain agreed. “I’ll go outside into the open air and try to summon Brimstone so that he can bring help.”

     Nessarose nodded as she continued to examine the many items there in the chamber before them.

     Shalmain laughed at the young lady’s absorbed fascination with the items and walked back through the short corridor, through the wall and back through the burial chamber to the fresh air outside.

     He had taken only three steps beyond the entrance to the cave when a shadow fell over him. Looking up into the sky he saw a skeletal dragon with great leathery wings hovering over him. Astride that dragon sat Zadykiel who opened his mouth to shout in anger and launched an attack with his amazingly strong meteor spell.

     Shalmain was in desperate trouble and he knew it. He hadn’t even bothered to spell up before exiting the cave. Since spells were now hopelessly unreliable he seldom bothered with the ordinary precautions that he would under more normal circumstances have taken. So it was that Shalmain had time for only one defensive spell to be cast before the flames of Zadykiel’s meteor struck him. He cast the spell mana shield in the hopes that it would enable him to survive the initial blast of the attack spell. Unfortunately that spell only cast at about half its normal potency. So it was that he nearly died in the very first hit. He frantically sent a mental message to Brimstone asking him to lock onto his location, for he was under attack there by Zadykiel. He reported that Nessarose and Tersha were nearby inside a cave.

     A moment after that message was sent Zadykiel landed and confronted Shalmain from astride his dragon. “What are you doing here little man?” he demanded. “And where are your friends? You companions seldom work alone.”

     “This companion does, you clumsy oaf,” responded Shalmain through singed lips. “I am alone, as you can see, little man,” he continued, returning Zadykiel's taunt as he sent another message to Brimstone in answer to his query. “Your portals are safe. I cannot explain now, you must hurry,” he had sent.

     “Clumsy am I?” Zadykiel asked with eyes narrowed in anger. At that precise moment a portal appeared beside Shalmain. “Noooo!” shrieked Zadykiel who raised his hands to launch another attack against his nearly dead victim.

     Brimstone emerged from the portal just as Zadykiel struck Shalmain with the full force of his meteor spell. Shalmain entangled the dragon, seeking to foul his wings so that Zadykiel could not escape. Even if it cost him his life he intended to delay Zadykiel until Brimstone could kill him.

     A third time Zadykiel struck Shalmain with the full force of his meteor spell. This time Brimstone counterattacked with his own fire spell but it lacked any real power. He drew his sword and charged the arch villain who was frantically screaming for the dragon to fly.

     Finally free of Shalmain’s entanglement spells the dragon rose into the air just ahead of Brimstone’s sword by mere inches. Zadykiel laughed as Brimstone tried to cast another fire spell which refused to cast at all. That laughter ended abruptly as he ducked his head to dodge a flight of three arrows aimed at his face by several of the companion archers who had emerged from the portal behind Brimstone.

     The dragon darted over the edge of the mountain and dropped like a rock for several hundred feet, taking Zadykiel safely out of reach of his enemies. It opened its wings and slowed its descent and sailed away on the late afternoon air currents toward the city of Cape Hope.

     Brimstone heard cries of sorrow behind him and turned to see what was happening. Nessarose knelt on the ground beside Shalmain’s body which was now burned almost beyond recognition. His hair was singed away and his robes a smoldering ruin. His voice croaked somewhat as he spoke to Nessarose and Tersha beside her saying, “I did not betray you my friends. I told him that I was alone.”

     “You always were the brave one my friend,” Nessa’s voice was filled with emotion, for she was sniffing back tears as she spoke.

     Looking at Brimstone through milky white eyes almost blinded by the intense heat of the attack Shalmain repeated what he had said to Nessarose and Tersha. “I did not betray them Brimstone. Shalmain does not betray his friends.” It seemed very important to Shalmain that they understand him. They did. His final words were, “Please tell Damia that I tried to be a good companion and live up to the reputation of the companions.”

 

     *In her realm Damia heard Shalmain’s words and her disembodied voice replied.*  “You have done well Shalmain. No companion before you or since has done better.”

 

     “Aye this is true,” replied Brimstone with the sentiment echoed by all of the companions assembled on that desolate mountain peak. Shalmain smiled then. Grotesquely, this caused his lips to split open from the burns, but he had given up the spirit and was now beyond pain.

     Beside his body, Nessarose wept bitterly, for they had endured many hardships and dangers together. He was a close friend. He had been as a brother to her. Beside Nessa, her friend Tersha also grieved, keening the death song of the torlags to honor a departed friend. She sent the image of Shalmain's death to her mother who in turn broadcast it to the torlag nation. Soon the entire torlag nation mourned the loss of Shalmain, for he had endured much to aide them during the wars with the werewolves, and to the torlags Shalmain would ever be remembered as a friend and a hero.

     Shinobi appeared beside them then followed by Damia who had once promised to attend Shalmain’s funeral if he died on a mission. As she looked at his ravaged corpse she recalled how joyful he had been when she had promised that she would attend his service. Damia would not have missed his funeral even if the Harbinger himself forbid it.

     “Can you resurrect him?” Nessa asked hopefully.

     Shinobi sadly shook her head and said, “It was Shalmain’s wish that when he died he be permitted to die in peace and not be resurrected. I must honor his wish.” Holding her hands over the body she said, “But I will not bury him thus ravaged.” In a twinkling of an eye his body appeared renewed and restored to its former appearance. Though he was still dead, the body was no longer ravaged in death. Turning to the men among the companions Shinobi requested, “Will you please take Shalmain inside the cave?”

     Several of the men gathered around. Nessarose took off her cloak and spread it beside the body and the men gently took hold and transferred the corpse to the cloak. They then lifted the body with several men on each side and walked him inside the cave where a marble crypt supplied by Shinobi waited.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 35.

 

     Nessarose had reported the loss of BlkTygga as well but Damia had explained that Ogrimar had seen to him. 

     Shinobi and Damia departed immediately after the internment of Shalmain.

     Nessarose and Tersha briefed the companions on the letter which Shalmain had found in the chest from the Council of Eight. “That explains what happened with my portal then,” Brimstone said in relief. They then led the companions to the secret chamber and the items which lay waiting.

     Immediately upon entering the chamber Lord Fatman noted an odd radiance to the items. He knelt to examine them and began to smile. Turning to the companions he said, “I cannot tell you what these items do, but I can tell you that all are strong in magic against the undead.”

     There were quivers, swords, staves for the mages, some white robes that were also for mages, some shields and a single crown studded with rubies. For the most part it was obvious what item the Ccompanions should select. Yet when it came to the crown none could equip it. Finally Brimstone tried the crown and to his surprise he could indeed wear it. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, there was one item for each of the assembled companions.

     The mages who specialized in intelligence spells got a staff. Those who specialized in wisdom spells got a white robe. The archers got quivers and the warriors got shields or swords. The paladin Lord Fatman was the only person who could equip both sword and shield.

     Nessarose sealed the caves by reciting the incantations from memory since the scroll had burned in the attack on Shalmain. Luckily she managed to seal them both. They wouldn’t need to open the cavern when the time came to move Shalmain’s body. Shinobi would teleport it crypt and all to the new location as soon as she had spoken to Ciaran and notified him of his brother’s death. It had come as something of a surprise to the companions to learn that Shalmain had a brother. The matter had never come up in their discussions with him. Shinobi had warned Brimstone that Cairan would most likely contact him wishing to join the companions to exact a vengeance for the loss of his brother.

     Brimstone now had to make a decision He was fairly sure that Zadykiel would have left some rather nasty surprises for the population during his raid on the village the previous night. Yet Zadykiel had flown off in the direction of the city of Cape Hope. He pondered the problem for a few moments and decided to return to the city of Cape Hope. He wanted to follow up on that matter and would just have to trust the soldiers to follow the King’s orders in dealing with the potential trouble at and in the vicinity of the village.

     Brimstone opened a portal to Cape Hope and said, “We have what we came for so let’s head back to Cape Hope to see if Zadykiel has an attack planned for that city tonight.”

 

                                                                    ***

    

       The companions arrived to a scene of chaos and panic in the city of Cape Hope. Word had spread among the people of the city that an army of thousands of ants was rapidly approaching the city. Brimstone and the others hurried to the castle to try to see the king and learn what they could do to assist in the defense of the city. They were immediately ushered into the presence of the king.

     “Welcome back to the castle, my friends,” The king greeted them without the usual formal introductions. Looking directly at Lord Malachi he said, “I owe you a keg of the finest ale in the city.”

    “Oh?” queried Lord Malachi in some surprise.

     Nodding his head absently the king said, “You were right about the ants. This Zadykiel fellow is threatening to set the ants loose upon the city if we do not capitulate and name him Commander of all the armies of Shafferland.”

     “Can he do it?” asked Lord Malachi. “I mean is there any proof that he is controlling them and that they are indeed on the march here?”

     Frowning in consternation the king said, “Yes, unfortunately there is proof. A patrol was cut off by the advance of the ants. They tried to retreat to the river but the ants caught up with them before they could reach it. There were no survivors. They did have time to report to the Commander.”

     “How many were lost?” Brimstone asked.

     “There were fifty men in that patrol,” the Commander of the army stated. His expression was sad but there was also a look of grim determination in his eyes. “They were led by my second in command. You met him this morning.”

     “I’m sorry sir. He seemed like a good man,” Brimstone stated simply.

     Straightening his back the Commander thanked Brimstone and then asked the king for permission to go and see his wife briefly. He promised to return as soon as possible. “Take your time my friend. We have at least five hours before the vanguard of the ants can reach the city. Bring your wife to the castle so that she can keep my wife company during the coming hours as we await the battle to come,” the king replied.

     The Commander nodded his head in understanding, “Thank you, Your highness,” he said simply and then he bowed to his king, after which he quickly departed.

     When the Commander had quietly closed the door behind him, removing him from the view of the strangers, they all heard what sounded like a stifled sob. The king sadly shook his head and said, “He is a good man and an excellent Commander. He is grieving but he will return after seeing his wife.”

     “He grieves for the men lost. I can understand that,” Brimstone replied.

     “The second in command that you met today was the Commander’s only son. He was being groomed to become Commander himself one day. He was communicating with his son until the end. The man stayed and fought a rear guard action with five volunteers, attempting to buy his men the time to get to the river and cross it. It was a futile gesture. The ants overran them as if they weren’t even there and caught the rest within minutes.”

     “He was a brave man,” replied Lord Fatman. Like most paladins he could easily see himself doing the exact same thing in that circumstance.

     “I assume that you intend to refuse to surrender the army to Zadykiel,” Brimstone stated softly.

     “I don’t think it would make any difference if we did surrender, Brimstone. Zadykiel has stolen the queen and is bringing her here with those flying monsters of his. Even if he tries to lead them away, I don’t think they would turn back at this point. No, I think that we have no choice but to fight them.”

     “The walls of the city will not stop them?”   

     “The walls will barely slow them down,” the king replied.

     “Are you willing to evacuate the city's population to Goodlund?” asked Brimstone.

     “There isn’t time. The population would be overrun by the ants before they reached the first bridge,” the King replied.

     Brimstone opened a portal to Goodlund. “Step through, Your majesty. Then return here by stepping through the portal at the other end.”

     “I thought the portals were no longer reliable,” the king said hesitantly.

     Brimstone rapidly explained what had happened with the portal before. The king must have trusted him because he stepped through the portal, only to return a moment later. “By the gods this could just work!” the king stated in excitement.

     “I suggest that you send messengers throughout the city telling the people to take some food and clothing to the amphitheatre. That’s a good place to set up several portals to accommodate the population and send them to Goodlund. It is large enough for the crowd that is sure to form and the location is well known by all of the citizens.”

     “Good points all,” the king said nodding his head in agreement.

     “I further suggest that you consider evacuating the army as well.”

     “And abandon the city to Zadykiel?”

     “Not exactly, Your Majesty.” Brimstone pulled out a map of Shafferland and laid it out on the table near the king. He pointed to the first bridge out from Cape Hope and said, “Zadykiel will follow you to Goodlund. He has no choice if he wants your army. Besides, if he tries to take the city, the ants also catch him. By evacuating your army you will be left with several strong defensive positions to fight from as he advances. There is the first bridge, the second bridge and the narrow spots between the mountains where the ants will be limited in how many can crowd through the gorges to force their attacks. They are good, solid, defensible positions with the natural barriers of the rivers and the mountains to contain the enemy.”

     The King nodded and smiled. “I see that your reputation as a commander is well deserved Brimstone.”

 

 

                                                              Chapter 36.

 

     In the Amphitheatre, ten portals stood waiting for the citizens of Cape Hope to enter them and travel instantly to Goodlund. The king had sent his chamberlain and several hundred soldiers in advance an hour earlier to alert the city officials to prepare as best they could for an influx of refugees. The chamberlain was to carry stern warnings that any merchant seeking to raise their prices to take advantage of the people’s desperation would be considered as volunteers to join the army on the front lines and face the ants.

     As promised the Commander had returned promptly with his wife. With tear stained eyes the woman now worked beside the queen and a group of scribes recording the names of all citizens who stepped through the portals. The Commander had patrols rapidly searching the city to bring in any reluctant citizens who might be either too confused or too frightened by all the strange events transpiring to leave their homes. Despite all efforts to prevent it they were all well aware that some citizens would be left behind because they stubbornly refused to leave. Some would be thieves hoping to ransack the city with the population gone. Others would just be too set in their ways to withdraw in the face of the danger.

     Meanwhile the companions were not standing idle. Brimstone had asked them to query the armory master as to the bows, quivers, and weapons of the army and learned that they were well equipped in many items, with the exception of quivers for their archers. The arrows they possessed were good against humans and most forms of life on Shafferland but lacked killing power for the tenacious ants whose tough exoskeletons were difficult to penetrate. Brimstone summoned hundreds of Quivers of Flame to more appropriately equip the archers, since by all accounts the ants were weak against fire attacks. He bitterly regretted that his spells seemed gone during this period of the return of the Harbinger. At least all magically imbued items seemed to work properly. It was the magic which had to be cast by mages that seemed the most affected by his presence.

     It had been difficult to accomplish and there would be hard feelings and resentment among some of the citizens of Cape Hope, for in the press of the emergency there had been times when the soldiers had to be less than gentle in herding the citizens to the portals, but the evacuation was complete one full hour before the ants were due to arrive. Empty of all citizens that is save those few stubborn souls who were hiding to prevent the soldiers from forcing them to leave the city. Unfortunately nothing could be done for them. The Commander then called in all of his patrols instructing them to report to the Amphitheatre for transportation to their assigned duty stations.

     The Commander had looked over Brimstone’s plan and smiled. He liked it. As a professional soldier he saw many advantages to it and immediately gave it his blessings. So it was that the bulk of his army entered portals that transported them to the south side of the first bridge. The army of Shafferland was relatively small but they were well trained and equipped. Numbering only five thousand there was no way that they could have hoped to withstand a direct attack on the city, for they would have been spread out in a terribly thin line of defenders around the walls. One thousand men of the army were archers and the rest were warriors. The quivers of flames would make the archers much more effective but they would be battling an enemy that would not retreat in the face of terrible losses as might be expected of a rational foe. Therefore the plan was to hold the bridge as long as possible and then escape to the south side of the second bridge where they should have hours of respite to rest before the ants arrived there. This would be a battle of attrition with the army slaying as many of the ants as they could at the two bridges before falling back to the third strong point which was the narrow gorge area just before the road turned west for Goodlund.

     The king had expressed a major concern to Brimstone about the plan. That concern was that the ants would discover the massive croplands of southern Shafferland. If the ants ever set up a colony there, then there was a great possibility that the people of Shafferland would face starvation. That was why the army was as large as it was on the otherwise peaceful island kingdom. To control the ants and keep them north of the second bridge at all costs.

     Brimstone had nodded gravely and said, “I hope that it doesn’t come to it, but it may become necessary to fire the northern crops. I suggest that you have the farmers get busy plowing firebreaks to keep such fires from devastating the entire region.”

     The king blinked at Brimstone and said, “They won’t like that. They won’t like that one bit.”

     “They would prefer an army of ants overrunning them?”

     Smiling weakly the king replied, “Oh I understand, but I don’t think they will. They have never seen what a group of the ants can do.”

     “That can be arranged,” Brimstone replied laconically and pointed at Tersha. Brimstone then told him that he could send Tersha south to the villages with some of the companions as escorts to warn the villagers of the need to establish firebreaks.

     “And they would see this in the same manner that we all saw the battle at the city with the sea monsters that came ashore to attack the city?”

     “Yes your majesty it would be the same, though I lack the ability to transmit that vision in the manner that my wife Damia did at that event. I can only transmit it to those that I can physically see.”

     A slow smile spread across the face of the king. “That would do it quite nicely. I’ve always found that if you require something unpleasant of the people it is best to make that an action that they themselves choose to take.”

     “Yes, it does simplify matters doesn’t it?” Brimstone stated with a matching smile. He then turned serious. “Your majesty, it is time for you and your family to be sent to safety.”

     “Past time,” the Commander of the Army said scowling. “And you are needed in Goodlund. It seems the good mayor of the city is being difficult about the evacuation. He seems to think that this is an opportunity for him to line his pockets and those of his friends with the gold of our desperate citizens.”

     The king’s eyes narrowed dangerously and he said, “Send one hundred men with me if you can spare them. If not loan me a sword. I’ll see to that idiot myself.”

     Laughing the Commander said, “Three hundred are waiting to accompany you, sire.”

 

 

                                                              Chapter 37.                                                         

 

     The companions arrived at the first bridge to find the Commander of the army of Shafferland organizing defenses. Much to his surprise Brimstone saw that the army was hastily constructing a line of catapults on either side of the bridge. The catapults were already nearly half completed. He approached the Commander and said, “I think this is a remarkably good idea. I had no idea that this could be done so rapidly.”

     Smiling at Brimstone he replied, “On Shafferland, with the ant problem that we have, we learned long ago that a good catapult can make the difference between survival and death to the patrol who encounters a significant number of the creatures. We had our best minds look at the problem and devise simple plans to shorten the building process using primarily the materials at hand. Every man in the army goes through the training and can assist in the building process.” Looking at the catapults being rushed to completion with pride he continued, “These will be ready in an hour and serve well. They won’t be good for more than a few dozen shots though. We lack the time needed to really build them that stable.”

     Turning and pointing to the southwest he went on, “We have two crews working now to construct other catapults at the second bridge and at the final fighting area where the road goes through the mountains. Those will be much sturdier because they will have longer to properly build them.”

     “Well done, sir,” Brimstone said with a smile. “I suppose that’s what all that rope your men were carrying was for.”

     “Yes rope is the hardest thing to try to produce out here in the woodlands. The vines available here serve in an emergency but are not strong enough.” Then with a wicked grin he asked, “Did you see all the clay pots my men were bringing along?”

     Brimstone assumed that he meant the many two gallon pots that he had seen men struggling to take with them as they rushed through the portals. “I did yes,” he replied.

     Our potters designed them for us, meeting our needs for a container sturdy enough to contain the oil within, yet fragile enough to break upon a moderate impact.”

     His smile broadening Brimstone said, “Your catapults will launch them at the ants. I assume with flaming bundles attached.”

     “Yes they fear fire and it will slow their advance. The only problem is we have a lot of failures. The flaming bundles sometimes go out or they serve to cushion the jars and they do not break.” Shrugging his shoulders he said, “The oil is difficult for us to make. It is not plentiful and we dare not waste much in experimentation for the possibility has always been there that we would need it desperately to defend the cities.”

     “Brimstone smiled and pointed to the archers. If they fail, the archers can always fire them with their flaming arrows. Indeed I suggest that you have several carried across the bridge and located in the path of the ants. The archers can fire them at will.”

     Brimstone excused himself as the Commander turned to his new second in Command and passed along the order to have several clay pots set up well within arrow range on the other side of the river.

     Brimstone approached the companions and addressed the mages. “Take a few moments to study the situation here. Then put your heads together and come up with a working plan for the defense. Bear in mind the limitations of our magic at the moment.”

     “Where will we be fighting during this conflict?” asked Namid.

     “I want you to have a full view of the fighting area so that you can assist as efficiently as possible.” Turning and pointing to the mountain that crowded close to the river behind and slightly to their west he continued, “Lord Malachi would you please take a look at that mountain? See if there is sufficient space up there for the mages and some archers. I’d like to see the archers with a clear field of fire too.”

     “I already see a way up,” Malachi said with a grin.

     “Take Jedi, Ziona, and Namid with you. Namid, when you get to the top see if you can target that grey rock protruding from the ground near the big tree,” he finished as he pointed at the rock he was referencing. “If this works out and we find a spot big enough, I’ll ask the Commander about putting all of the archers up there, so see if there’s a big place, preferably with a sheer wall of rock beneath it in case the ants get across and try to attack the position.”

     The four companions grinned and headed off to attempt to locate a suitable spot from which a large group could wage war on the attacking ants.

     Brimstone took advantage of the intervening time to discuss strategy with the companions. He pointed out that they should remember to use the items gifted them by the dragons should they see Zadykiel and his minions, but to use conventional weapons when attacking the ants. “We don’t even know if the special weapons would hurt the ants because they are not undead,” he finished.

     “Right, and the items definitely hold power against the undead, but as Brimstone says, I do not know what they will do to the ants,” Lord Fatman agreed. “I do know from experience that if you try to use them and they are not effective against the ants you won’t have time to change weapons. The ants are incredibly fast. And they are deadly opponents.”

     Brimstone was about to engage the mages in serious discussion on the spells they would need to use in battle when he received a mental message from Ciaran, who was the brother of Shalmain. Excusing himself from their company he went to a secluded spot so that he could concentrate on Ciaran without the distractions of the bustling activity near the riverbank. He honored Ciaran’s request to be brought to the isle and in moments the two stood face to face for the first time.

     Ciaran was a mage who had opted to wear Dragonscale armor and an ancient celestial plate chest piece. He was also carrying the beautiful coral shield regarded by some as one of the most beautiful shields ever crafted. This was due in part to the rainbow appearance that the shield took on when viewed from certain angles as the light played along its surface.

     Ciaran didn’t waste any time. As soon as he appeared he said, “I want to avenge my brother’s death.”

     Nodding his head in understanding Brimstone said, “We all share the desire to see Shalmain’s killer brought to justice. I brought you here because you said that you wanted to take your brother’s place among the companions. Were you sincere when you said that?”

     Drawing himself up with a quiet dignity he responded, “Ciaran doesn’t lie Brimstone. I said that I wanted to take my brother's place and I will do so.”

     “You are agreeing to take on the missions that he would have gladly accepted if he still lived?”

     “Yes that is my desire. I want to finish the job that he started.”

     “Then welcome to the companions Ciaran. You will leave on your first mission within the hour,” Brimstone said with a smile. He then went on to briefly outline the mission. Ciaran was to accompany and help protect Tersha and Nessarose as they headed south into the farmlands to instruct the villages of farmers to create firebreaks in their lands to protect their crops should the need arise to fire them. They were to carry a warning that the arch villain Zadykiel was on the march with thousands of ants and that the army was trying to stop them. Thus warned, the people should be prepared to flee their homes should the need arise.

     As he spoke, Brimstone noted the hardening in Ciaran’s eyes and the set of his mouth. He knew that the mage didn’t want to take on that mission. He wanted to stay here and confront his brother’s killer. But Brimstone could see the outcome of that meeting at this point in the young mage’s development. Ciaran would join his brother in death. Sometimes seeing the threads of destiny was disturbing. For Brimstone this was one of those times. His own eyes grew hard as he stared at the mage. “I can tell from the expression on your face that you don’t like the idea of going on this mission.”

     “No I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. I didn’t come here to escort ladies. I came here to kill Zadykiel.”

     “Then I will send you back at once. Sorry for the misunderstanding and no harm done,” Brimstone stated flatly.

     “Don’t do that. Just send another to escort the ladies. I’ll stay here and fight,” Ciaran replied stubbornly.

     Sighing Brimstone asked, “Who would you have me send to face the dangers that you shirk? Shall we go join the others so that you can select the man that you may be sending to die in your stead?”

     Ciaran blanched at that. “Is it a dangerous mission then? It sounds simple and safe enough to me.”

     “Zadykiel is flying now. He can easily fly right over us and head into the croplands to wreak havoc while we are tied up in battle with the ants here.”

     Staring hard at Ciaran he continued, “I’m sorry for the loss of your brother. He was a brave man and often faced danger alone in the fight against this chaotic evil. But I simply don’t have time for this. Be the brave man that your brother was and go on the mission that he would not shirk or return to your home. The choice is yours.”

     “Don’t compare me to my brother. I am not him.”

     “Yes, I see that,” Brimstone replied.

     “I’m not certain I like your attitude, Brimstone.”

     “I am certain that I don’t care for yours. Now please decide,” Brimstone replied sadly. Under different circumstances he would have handled this meeting much differently. Unfortunately the reality of the situation was that there wasn’t time to handle it any other way. The emerging crisis dictated that events be expedited. People could pay for any delays with their very lives. So Brimstone had to play the role of the hard commander of the companions. This was a role that he didn’t like and almost never assumed.

    “I’ll go on the mission. I didn’t realize that it would be dangerous. Of course I’ll go. But Brimstone, don’t compare me to Shalmain. I don’t like that.”

     Nodding his head Brimstone said, “It won’t happen again. Now let’s go and I’ll introduce you to your two companions for this mission. Oh, and one last thing. Nessarose is the leader of the party. She has vast experience at this sort of thing, as does Tersha. You will listen to everything they say and do as they say. If you give them any trouble they will contact me and I’ll replace you on the spot.”

     Ciaran drew himself up with dignity and said, “Shinobi and Damia told me that Shalmain died protecting them. I would not dishonor his memory by treating them disrespectfully.”

     Nodding his head Brimstone replied, “That he did. Even under attack and needing help he refused to call on them for he knew that Zadykiel might slay them as well. He even denied that anyone else was with him.” Coughing to cover the emotion in his voice Brimstone looked away from Ciaran’s eyes then and noted out of the corner of his eye as the mage quickly wiped his eyes.

     “Sorry that there wasn’t time for a better first meeting Ciaran. I do wish that I could have had the time to handle this differently. But time is critical at the moment. Now let’s go.”

     “Yes Brimstone. I want to meet my new companions.”

 

 

                                                              Chapter 38.  

  

     Thirty minutes later Brimstone, Tersha, Nessarose, and Ciaran stood upon the road several miles north and east of the bridge between the defenders and the approaching colony of giant ants. Ciaran, seeing them for the first time said, “Gods those things are huge.”

     “And there are thousands of them,” Brimstone replied unnecessarily for that was readily apparent. Their vantage point on the road was a small hilltop. The approaching colony was still a mile away in the lowlands below the hill from which they observed.

     Between the companions and the ants the eleven reanimated dragons flew. One held the captive queen ant. Brimstone raised his hands and tried to use his pillar of fire spell on the Dragon who held the captive queen ant. It flashed briefly and lanced out at the approaching dragons. Unfortunately another dragon flew between Brimstone and the dragon which he was targeting. His spell struck that dragon instead of the intended target and incinerated it along with its rider and then his spell failed. Still it was enough to cause the rest of the flight to scatter to present a lesser target lest he fire the spell again. He tried but the spell failed to cast again.

     Zadykiel climbed high into the sky on his dragon, cursing Brimstone and the day that he was born. Already frustrated because Brimstone had apparently evacuated the city of Cape Hope, and he had been forced to turn the ants toward the road to Goodlund, Zadykiel was in a foul mood. His death mages followed him but maintained a huge gap as he had instructed. The lesser vampires were ordered to stay lower but spread out. He was taking no chances and wanted Brimstone to have easier targets than his most valuable assets. Chief among those assets was himself.

     “Seen enough Tersha?” Brimstone asked with a note of satisfaction in his voice.

     “Yes I believe I have seen enough,” the torlag responded.

     Brimstone then opened a portal that exited onto the vast farmlands of southern Shafferland. He closed the portal behind him and stood before the trio for a moment. “I wish you luck. Closing his eyes in concentration he held out his hand palm up. A moment later a scroll appeared in that hand. He unrolled it and glanced at it, then handed it to Nessarose. Looking at it she saw that it was a map that detailed the villages in the farmlands south. Trails were clearly marked, as were obstacles such as rivers and large streams. “Good luck you three. Be swift and call on me if you get into serious trouble. I’ll teleport you to me.”

     Glancing at Nessa quickly he said, “You remember everything I told you.”

     “I won’t forget Brimstone,” Nessarose said in embarrassment for he had told her in front of the rest that for this mission she would be appointed leader. He had also told her that if Ciaran didn’t work out to let him know and he’d replace the man with another.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 39.

 

      Back at the first bridge, time was running out. Lord Malachi and the team of companions sent to find a suitable battle position atop the mountain had returned to the bridge area and were already organizing to take the rest of the archers and mages to the summit. Malachi reported when Brimstone appeared, “There is a flat stretch of ground three-quarters of the way up the mountain. It’s large enough to accommodate several hundred men. We found a relatively easy way up and we can have everyone up there in an hour. The only problem that I see is that there will be no retreating. There is a flat stretch up there that will accommodate many archers and mages, but once the ants get across the river they will be cut off from any retreat.”

     “So I’ll have to teleport to them and open a portal.”

     Nodding his head Lord Malachi said, “Yes, you will. I also recommend that you fight from there as well. If you are distracted down here or should fall in battle, hundreds will be trapped up there at the mercy of the ants.”

     Brimstone had planned to lead the companion’s warriors at the bridge but he had to admit that Lord Malachi’s suggestion held merit. With his spells now unreliable he would be relegated to more or less another sword in the coming battle. “Alright Malachi. I’ll fight with the group up there. You and the warriors be careful down here. Try to hold them for a few minutes if you can, to give our archers and mages time to kill as many as possible, but withdraw the moment it becomes apparent that you cannot hold them. I’ll open a portal to the next area for the group up there then teleport to the rear of the army here and open more for the main body of the army to escape.”

     The Commander of the army had joined them during the discussion. He asked, “Won’t the ants be able to just step inside the portals too?” He was fearful that the ants might be able to use the portals and step inside the perimeter of the next battle zone.

     Shaking his head with a smile Brimstone laughed and said, “I learned early on to set portals no monster can use. They will be limited to the species I set them to admit. Nothing else could use one. Of course, Zadykiel could use one and it is possible that his reanimates could as well.”

     “I wish he would,” said Malachi with his hand on the pommel of his sword. Grinning, the Commander said, “As do I.”

     “I doubt you have need to worry on that score. Zadykiel has a remarkable ability to preserve his health. I don’t think he’d step inside one.”

 

                                                                    ***

    

          Zadykiel was frustrated. He had flown ahead with one of his death mages and flying very high in the sky they had spotted the army waiting to do battle. In vain they had sought an alternate land route around the waiting army but to no avail. They had seen the army before the men and women who would fight from the mountain had assumed their positions, and he had remarked that the only thing in their favor would be that the defenders had overlooked that strong position. He had planned to use the boulders there to his advantage by having his dragons seize them and drop them on the army below, creating havoc and chaos in the camp just before the ants arrived.

     It was a good plan and it might have worked, but the moment he drew near the mountain with his flight of dragons, he had seen that the situation had changed in the hour since he had last seen the mountain. Now the spot he wanted to use was fully occupied by mages and archers. Some few mage spells flew their way, but they were woefully underpowered at best. Then one of the mages began to cast entanglement and fouled the wings of one of his dragons.

     The dragon and his hapless rider dropped like a stone to the ground at the base of the mountain. A group of warriors swarmed over the dragon and rider. Among that group of swordsmen were Lord Malachi, Jedi, MetalHead, and the paladin Lord Fatman. Their swords were those from the chests in Dragon Cave. Within moments of their attack, the dragon was still. Jedi had found the ring on one of the toes and managed to sever that toe from the body of the dragon before it could reanimate.

     During the battle with the dragon, the rider had cut himself free of his mount and leapt into the fray against the soldiers near him. With his incredibly swift reflexes he had managed to slay three of the Shafferland soldiers before he encountered Lord Fatman. The paladin had then fought the vampire, warning the soldiers near to stay out of its reach. Moments later it was over, and Jedi struck the ring bearing hand from the body before it could reanimate again. He pried the ring from the cold dead hand and secured it in a pouch until he could give it to Brimstone for disposal.

     The paladin said a prayer for the dead vampire.

     Hearing this one of the soldiers said, “You pray for that thing?”

     Turning his head to face the man the paladin replied, “Whatever he is now he began as a man like you and I. He was a victim of Zadykiel and his death mages. It is they who have made him what you saw and fought. He had no choice in the matter. It could just as easily have been you lying there.”

     Grunting the soldier turned and walked away not satisfied with the paladin’s answer. “He doesn’t understand,” Lord Malachi intoned. Then he added, “I’m not sure I would either if I hadn’t seen that village in Sic Dalar and what they did there.”

 

                                                                    ***

     

     Zadykiel was furious. He had lost another dragon and his rider to the companions. He ordered his flight of dragons to follow him and flew around to the opposite side of the mountains. Once there he had each dragon locate a boulder which they could drop on the army waiting below. Then, to ensure surprise, he had the dragon carrying the queen ant fly back around and distract the enemy. He warned him to stay out of arrow range. The moment that this dragon had the defender’s attention, Zadykiel took his flight low and straight over the mountaintop. And so it was that the army was concentrating on the single dragon they could see when the remaining eight crested the summit of the mountain. The only sign that anything was amiss occurred when one of the Shafferland archers noted the shadow of wings playing along the ground at his feet. A moment later the boulders were released upon the unprepared army. It was a disaster for the defenders. A score or more were crushed by the boulders or knocked from the mountain, where they fell to their deaths. Dozens more were wounded by being slammed around when the boulders grazed them in passing.

     A moment later, Zadykiel led his dragons around the mountain where he planned to get another load of boulders for a second attack run at the army positioned atop the mountain. He was laughing and congratulating his minions on the success of their attack as they disappeared from sight around the curve of the mountain.

     Brimstone hastily organized the companion’s archers. He had them turn to face the summit of the mountain in a thin line. Behind them he had another line of Shafferland archers formed. The companions were armed with the strange quivers they had recovered from the Dragon Cave. The Shafferland archers were armed with quivers of flame. The more experienced archers among the companions turned to the Shafferland archers and whispered words of encouragement and cautioned them to lead the dragons. They’d noted that the archers tended to forget that, hence their arrows missed the target. The wars with the gargoyles had served well to train the companions in the art of shooting down flying targets.

     The mages also formed lines and this time they would concentrate solely on the spell turn undead. They'd tried their various main attack spells previously only to discover that the new magical robes and staves did nothing to help them in battle against the dragons. XconX had recommended they try turn undead and so they gathered and prepared to try that spell.

     Brimstone reminded everyone to be prepared to leap aside if the dragons targeted them and then the line settled in to wait. They didn’t have to wait long, for moments later the first dragon crested the mountain top and burst into view. Dozens of arrows lanced skyward joined by the spells of the mages. Some arrows were nearly invisible. The flaming arrows however were not, and the sky seemed literally ablaze for a moment. The rider of that dragon was hit by two arrows from the strange new quivers and at least one if not more of the flaming arrows. The dragon was also hit by several arrows as well as dozens of hits from the mages spells and it tumbled to the ground on the floor of the valley below.

     There was a momentary jubilant shout from the line of archers and then the rest of the dragons burst into view, releasing their cargos of boulders the moment that they did so. There was time for one volley of arrows and then the archers were all scrambling for their lives as the boulders hit the ground before them. The impact alone knocked several off their feet. Most managed to get to their feet and scramble out of harms way. Yane jerked one archer to his feet and shoved him aside and managed to leap aside just in time to avoid being swept from the mountain by one of the boulders. Three archers of the Shafferland army were not so lucky and were swept from the mountain by the rolling boulders. They fell to their deaths on the flatland below.

     The second volley of arrows flew at the dragons as they struggled to regain control of their flight. Dropping the boulders and the air currents around the mountain served to complicate the dynamics of their flight. For a moment only they seemed awkward and vulnerable. In that moment Ziona fired an arrow that lodged in the wing joint of one of the dragons. The arrow caused the wing to stop functioning and the dragon spiraled out of control colliding with another. The second dragon sought to correct its flight but the mages, seeing it vulnerable, entangled it repeatedly to prevent it from recovering and the two dragons fell to the floor of the valley below, where they joined the other two who had previously fallen.

     The warriors in the valley below were hooting with glee. It was raining dragons and they were having a field day attacking the stunned beasts.

     Lord Malachi grinned as Jedi took the hand of another vampire, warning him to at least kill the monster before celebrating.

     Lord Fatman decapitated the vampire and turned to the dragon who was staring at him with red glowing eyes. “Strike well, paladin of Shinobi. I am weary and would return to my rest.” Saluting the dragon, Lord Fatman stepped forward and struck the head from the body with a mighty swing of his sword.

     “Look Out!” shouted Jedi, who ran full tilt at Lord Fatman and knocked him to the ground. Lord Fatman had time to glance up and see two more dragons dropping toward him before Jedi slammed into him, knocking them both off their feet. He heard a scream of agony and then hands were helping him to his feet.

     Jedi lay on the ground writhing in agony. A bone from one of the dragons had penetrated his armor pinning his thigh to the ground. Malachi rushed to his side shouting for him to lie still. He then squatted beside Jedi and grasping the shard of bone in both hands, locked his grip on it and pulled up as he forced his legs to straighten. The bone resisted for only a moment and then slid easily out of the trapped warrior’s leg leaving a gapping wound which bled profusely.

     Lord Fatman and Lord Malachi grabbed the warrior under his arms lifting him and then Caval was there beside them. Using his superior minotaur strength he scooped up Jedi as easily as one might scoop up an infant and ran away from the mountainside with the companion. Lord Fatman followed and used his paladin skills to the best of his ability to heal the warrior who had been injured saving him. He did manage to save Jedi’s life with his skills, but the special healing powers that required Shinobi’s direct intervention were not to be had in this campaign. Jedi would have to be healed in other ways. Luckily for him the bone fragment had missed his thigh bone.

     Zadykiel cursed and cursed. He was furious. Of his original eleven dragons five had been slain. He ordered his dragons to make one last attack. This time, after getting their boulders, he had the flight circle wide, climbing ever higher into the sky. The five dragons finally attained a height that he felt sure no archer would be able to match and only then did he permit his attack run to commence.

     Brimstone frowned in consternation as he saw the new tactic being employed by Zadykiel and his minions. Without hope of any real chance of success he raised his hands in the direction of the approaching dragons. “Now I guess I’ll see what this crown can do,” he thought as he released his pillar of fire spell. To his surprise it cast perfectly and the dragon he was targeting lost the lower half of its body as the spell incinerated it.

     The dragon and its doomed rider fell to the ground in an uncontrolled dive. Its ring having been vaporized in the attack, the dragon was dead before it hit the ground. The rider however was unharmed by the spell and screamed all the way to the ground. The impact killed him but moments later he reanimated again, though several broken bones made it impossible for him to rise up from the ground. He was finished off by several warriors who hacked him to pieces.

     Brimstone smiled grimly and raised his hands to fire another spell but Zadykiel had ordered the dragons to release their boulders in mass and dive for the safety of the mountain. They disappeared from sight before Brimstone could target another dragon.

     Still, he was pleased. They had managed to slay six of the eleven dragons. Yes, they had suffered terrible losses as well. But each dragon slain was an immensely powerful minion of Zadykiel’s which would be removed from the his arsenal. He fervently hoped that the arch villain would make another pass. Now that he knew his spell was working, he was fairly sure he could eliminate the remainder of his minions in a single pass.

     Apparently Zadykiel was also aware of this, for he did not return with his minions. Instead, Zadykiel had the dragon carrying the queen ant to hover near ground level just past the army. He landed beside that dragon and removed a dagger from its sheath. Reaching over he stabbed the queen ant. It was a small wound but it had its desired affect. The ant emitted a pheromone that would cause her colony to sense that she was in distress. Zadykiel’s awareness of pheromones and the ability of ants to use them was a residual memory from his period of possession by the god Dalghard. One that he never thought to put to use until he had concocted his plan to use the ants. The ant began to struggle violently with the dragon holding her captive. That dragon had been hovering with her just short of an actual landing lest he lose control of the monster.

     Zadykiel then took his dragon up into the sky and ordered the vampire to fly the queen to a position near the colony so that they might be agitated by her distress. The vampire was further instructed to fly near ground level as close to the bridge as he dared and then fly very high, bypass the army and drop to near ground level once more.

     Zadykiel had a plan. That plan involved goading the ants into all out war with the inhabitants of Shafferland. He had given up on the army being turned over to him. Now his plan had shifted to one of conquering Shafferland even if it meant the utter annihilation of the army of Shafferland. He would then build a new army from the surviving population and reign with the threat of another ant attack on any resistance.

     He ordered his minions to escort the one carrying the queen in case that dragon needed help. He also told them that once they were past the second bridge they should lay a pheromone trail to the city of Goodlund and then fly her high into the sky and return with her to their lair. He was going to fly on to the lair ahead of them to eat and rest.

     There was a small tomblike cavern in their little secret valley that could be reached only by air which would be perfect to contain the ant. The floor and walls were entirely composed of rock and there would be no digging out. The entrance was an oblong hole in the surface of the mountain located on a flat stretch of rock near the summit. Only a flying creature could enter or exit that cavern, for the walls were very nearly rounded. At the apex of that circular shape was the entrance. The ant could climb walls but it couldn’t walk upside down. It would remain there until he freed it, if he ever did so. He had stocked the cavern with several pigs to keep her from starving for the time being. He had been on one of those hunting trips when he had spotted Shalmain on the mountain.

 

 

 

                                                              Chapter 40.

 

     Nessarose, Ciaran, and Tersha had just left the third village on the list of villages to visit. The images that Tersha was showing the villagers was enough to persuade them to do as requested and make firebreaks just in case fires would have to be used to burn the northern croplands.

     Behind them they could see the smoke of many small controlled fires that the villagers were using to ensure that any fires raging at them from the north would run out of fuel before reaching their lands.

     As he flew toward his secret lair, Zadykiel saw the smoke of several of those fires and flew to investigate it on a hunch that it might pertain to him. He flew past the first two fires without notice by the busy villagers struggling to maintain control of their fires. The people of the third village did see the dragon when he flew near them to see what was going on. A few of their huntsmen armed with bows let fly arrows but Zadykiel was well out of range of those arrows.

     He may have been out of range but the huntsmen infuriated Zadykiel when they shot at him with their bows. Zadykiel raised his hands and shouted. “You like fire, well so do I. Here enjoy some of mine!” He fired his meteor spell at the huntsmen. Luckily for them the spell chose that moment to malfunction for Zadykiel and when it hit them the only thing it did was singe their clothing a bit. Still, this angered the men and they taunted Zadykiel in an effort to lure him into coming closer where they could hit them with their arrows. It almost worked. Zadykiel did indeed order his dragon to dive at the men but the dragon refused saying, “You gave me orders to disregard your commands in the event that I was aware that you could be seriously harmed if I complied. If I dive at the archers one or more are bound to hit you. See how well spaced they are?”

     Zadykiel was a bit calmer by then and he examined the situation again. “Yes I see it now. There is no way a lone dragon could force them all to flee or dodge. Several would indeed have clear shots at us.” He was glad now that he had possessed the wisdom to give the dragon that command. His own foresight had saved him from a potentially deadly situation.

     Shouting down to the men of the village he promised to return another day to play with them, then turned his dragon once more for the secret lair he had established for his minions. Still, he wondered just why they were firing their own lands in this odd manner.

     Nessarose, Ciaran, and Tersha remained in the partial concealment of the cornfield and watched as Zadykiel flew further away. His back was to them now as he flew north and west of their position. They’d seen him coming and darted into the crop to escape his attention. “That was the man who killed my brother?” whispered Ciaran while he was still within spell range.

     “I couldn’t tell from this distance. Not for certain at least, but I think it was him,” replied Nessarose.

     “It was him,” Tersha replied. “His foul odor is upon the air.”

     Ciaran leapt to his feet and attempted to target Zadykiel with an attack spell. He was immediately knocked off his feet by Tersha who stood over him hissing a warning. “Stop this foolishness, Ciaran.”

     “Get off me. I will kill him while I have the chance.”

     “How will you do this thing? Your spells are hopelessly unreliable now. Nessarose might accomplish it with her bow but he is out of range. All that you would do is attract his attention to us.”

     “Are you cowards then? Is this why my brother died? Did he die because you refused to aide him when he needed your help?”

     Nessarose spoke quietly then. “Let him up and step away my sister. Do not interfere.” Tersha gave Nessa a startled look and then stepped away from Ciaran. Nessarose offered Ciaran a hand and helped him to his feet. The moment that he was on his feet she asked, “Are you ready?”

     “Ready for what?” he asked.

     Meeting his eyes with her own, Nessarose spoke to the Torlag then and said, “Show him Tersha. Show him the memories you have of Shalmain.”

     “All?” queried the torlag.

     “All,” Nessa replied firmly.

     “Should I show him the memories full strength or tone them down?”

     “I know about the torlag form of communication,” Ciaran spoke up. “Full strength if you please.”

     Nessarose reached out a hand to touch his hand and replied, “Ciaran that might not be such a good idea.”

     Meeting her gaze with his own he showed his resolve when he said something similar to what Damia had once said to a Gryphon Knight Commander. “If he can endure it can I not look upon those memories? It seems to me that to do less is to dishonor his memory.”

     Removing her hand Nessa smiled and said, “Well said my friend. Tersha show him full strength emotions and all. If it becomes too much for him I will warn you to tone it down.”

     “You don’t have the right to make that decision,” he replied.

     “Actually, she does. She is leader and she will also have to endure the visions.” Looking around she continued, “Zadykiel is gone now. I will begin.”

     The memories flooded in then as the visions unfolded. Ciaran became lost in the memories as he saw and felt the emotions of the moment in various scenes with Shalmain that Tersha had witnessed. 

     He saw Shalmain working with Nessa and Tersha to persuade villagers to leave their homes to escape the army of Zadykiel which was marching toward the western base on Sic Dalar. He saw Shalmain sending his two companions ahead with a group of refugee women and children while he stopped to confront a group of villagers who were intent upon forcing those women and children to return. He saw Nessarose’s reluctance to leave him to face that danger alone, and he saw Shalmain’s response to that as he pointed out what would happen to the refugees if they failed. He saw Shalmain battling vampires, gargoyles, and werewolves by the score.

     He saw Shalmain standing atop an escarpment firing his attack spells at the warriors and archers of Dalghard’s army at their fortress with tear stained eyes. He felt his brothers heartbreak at that great slaughter and heard him yell, “Withdraw damn you!” as he continued to slay the enemy who refused to take shelter or surrender.

     Then he saw Shalmain unraveling the secrets of Dragon Cave and the frantic flight up the stairs as they raced ever upward in a vain effort to get outside the cave in time to call on Brimstone to get help for the fallen BlkTygga. He saw Shalmain’s compassion as he advised Nessa that it was now too late to save the doomed BlkTygga and that they had to slow down for Tersha’s sake.

     Then he saw Shalmain lying burned almost beyond recognition as Nessarose knelt beside him weeping. He heard Shalmain tell her that he had not betrayed them. He had not revealed to Zadykiel that they were with him. He heard his brother’s last words as he addressed Brimstone saying, “Please tell Damia that I tried to be a good companion and live up to reputation of the companions.” and he heard Brimstone's reply and that of the rest of the companions. He heard Damia’s reply as well and he heard the grief of Nessa and Tersha when his brother died.

     Tears flowed down his face as he saw the Goddess Shinobi make his brother’s body whole. His heart ached as he saw the reverence with which the companions gently placed Shalmain’s corpse upon Nessa’s cloak and carry his body inside the burial chamber of the Dragons, where he became the first man ever to be entombed in that cave among dragon kind.

     Then the vision paused and there was a moment of darkness followed by the scene of a huge cavern. Inside that cavern, many torlags gathered to grieve for the loss of the hero Shalmain. As part of the grieving of the torlags, it was their tradition to speak of the deeds of the dead. He saw many torlags step forward and recount how Shalmain had saved them by going alone into Werewolf Cave and securing potions of cure lycanthropy. Without those potions their lives would have been forfeit, because they had been bitten by werewolves during the war. He also saw images presented by Versha, the leader of the Torlag Nation. In those images he saw the torlags express their gratitude to Shalmain when they accepted his gifts of the potions. He saw them embrace him as a friend and felt his brother’s reciprocation and gratitude at that gesture.

     The images that he saw detailed a brother’s life that he had not understood. It was painful. Extremely painful. Yet at the same time he wouldn’t have missed a moment of it for anything in the world. He bowed his head and said, “Thank you. I understand now.”

     “Good,” Nessa said, wiping tears from her face. “Because if you ever say that we abandoned Shalmain again I think I just may beat you to within an inch of your life.”

     Ciaran smiled and accepted the rebuke good naturedly. “If I am ever that stupid again please do so. I hate making a fool of myself.”

 

 

                                                              Chapter 41.

 

     It was quiet at the bridge. The air seemed heavy and oppressive to the army awaiting the ants who had just came within their field of vision. Brimstone was concerned about the disappearance of the dragons and what they might be up to, He had hoped that they would remain engaged in the battle here and was praying that they would not attack the defensive works under construction at the second bridge.

     He needn’t have worried on that score. Zadykiel was a good strategist in some way but in others he was woefully lacking. It had not occurred to him to try to attack the defenses under construction at the second bridge while the bulk of the army was tied up with the ants. Had he done so, Brimstone would have been forced to split the companions into two groups to assist in dealing with both threats. Or perhaps he had considered it but discarded the idea because of the dreadful losses that his dragon minions had endured that day. Brimstone would never know the truth of that either way. It really didn’t matter. He was just happy that it wasn’t necessary. The Commander had sent messages to the city and to the men at the second bridge to send him word if they were under attack and he would shift elements of his command to deal with those threats.

     Now the army waited as the ants advanced. Curiously the lead ants had halted and were milling about waving their antenna as if searching for something. They were indeed searching for something. That something was the pheromone trail of their queen. The wind shifted a bit and blew now at the backs of the army waiting patiently for the ants to advance. Moments later the lead ants seemed to detect something for they suddenly halted their agitated movements and stood with their heads lifted high into the air. Their antenna outstretched and frozen into position they stood immobile for a full two minutes. Then as if on cue the ants surged forward and scrambled for the bridge.

     Brimstone was stunned by their burst of speed. He ordered the archers to fire the pots of oil just after the first ant crossed that position. He was hoping to catch several ants among the pots before they were fired in order to use them to full advantage. Timing was critical. If they waited too long they ran the risk of being unable to fire them at all because the ant’s intervening bodies would obscure them.

     The moment he gave the order, hundreds of flaming arrows lanced out and struck the clay pots, shattering the pots and igniting the oil within. The burning oil spread rapidly until the advancing ants faced a wall of flame which forced them to halt. The ants behind them seemed oblivious to that danger at first and pressed on. In some cases they literally pushed those in front of them into the wall of flames where they quickly succumbed to the fire. Those ants caught within the burning oil when the pots were fired also perished quickly.

     Brimstone raised his hands, confident that his spell casting ability had returned. He attempted to use his pillar of fire spell, only to see it once more blink and stop immediately upon being cast. Apparently the crown would aid him in fighting the undead but not the living.

     The Commander wasn’t so hampered. He ordered all catapults to fire. Within moments he had fires raging all over the front line of the ants and back into the main body of the colony in several places. Then the ants seemed to make a collective decision. They all began to charge forward. The front ranks died almost immediately as they were consumed in the flames. The second ranks pushed a bit further through the wall of fire before they expired. As they advanced they had climbed over the corpses of their dead colony members.

     Brimstone noted that as the ants advanced and died their corpses were smothering the flames. They were dying by the score, but the line was advancing. The Commander noted it too. He ordered the catapults to maintain a steady barrage at the line near the bridge. By setting new fires, he hoped to discourage the ants and make them break off their attack. But the ants were now being driven by an ancient instinct to locate their queen’s pheromone trail. They would not break off the attack. Despite hundreds of losses they continued to advance and smother out the flames almost as quickly as they could be ignited.

     The archers added their own devastating attacks to the barrage raking the ants from the front to a point at the furthest extent of their range. Yet still the ants advanced, relentlessly walking over their own dead as if they weren’t even there.

     The mages tried all their spells and occasionally got them to cast for a moment but they always failed. The one dependable spell at their command seemed to be entanglement. Brimstone managed to get some of his lesser fire spells to work. He managed fireball for several moments and killed ants by the score with it. His fireball was easily more powerful than the most powerful fire spells of the other mages because of his birthright as a demi-god. He was the most powerful fire mage ever to cast a spell. Yet even his spells failed due to the presence of the Harbinger upon Althea.

     Ten minutes into the battle, the ants reached the bridge and began to attempt to cross it. The archers and mages did their best to stop them there with their ranged attacks, but the ants ignored the danger and rushed on. Compounding that problem, the ants were doing something that Brimstone didn’t understand. They were charging into the river on both sides of the bridge and locking their mandibles onto the wooden sides of the bridge deck and any available support structure. Even if they drowned in the process their mandibles remained locked in place and soon they created what was tantamount to bridge extensions that the other ants could use to cross the water. Twenty minutes into the battle, the ants had made it three quarters of the way across the bridge, and try as they might they could not hold them or stop them from proceeding.

     Brimstone contacted the Commander of the Shafferland army at that point and suggested he open the portals for the army to retreat then. They had killed uncounted ants, but simply could not hold this position. Letting the army engage them in melee combat at this point would be horrible. The losses would be staggering. He suggested that the combatants on the ground level evacuate now and let the mountain based element rake the ants the entire time they passed before that element withdrew.

     The Commander agreed and Brimstone opened six portals for the army to use for the evacuation. There were grumbles of complaint from some of the warriors who wanted to stay and fight the ants but the Commander enforced strict discipline and soon an orderly evacuation began. The rear elements went first and rank by rank the rest followed until finally only the warriors and the paladin of the companions remained. Brimstone signaled them to join in the retreat and reluctantly they did so even as the first of the ants stepped off the bridge and scuttled after them. Lord Malachi and Lord Fatman assisted Jedi to the portal and released him so that he could step through it under his own power then they stepped through it themselves. They were the last two warriors to evacuate.

     Brimstone closed the portals located there and teleported himself back to the mountaintop battle position. Once there he opened two portals for those fighting there to use when the time came to evacuate. He went to his former battle position where he could observe the ants.

     The ants crossed the bridge and streamed rapidly up the road. The constant twanging of bows filled the air as hundreds of arrows lanced into the bodies of the ants on the road below. Many ants broke off the road and headed for the mountain. They began to climb up the wall of the mountain in a myriad of locations seeming to traverse the steep grade of the walls as easily as a man might walk upon level ground. Brimstone ordered the mages to deal with those ants as the archers continued to wreck havoc among the tens of thousands of ants passing below.

     Soon it became evident that the mages attempting to halt the progress of the ants climbing the mountain with their diminished spells would need assistance from elements of the archers.

     Brimstone then ordered the archers among the companions to assist the mages, leaving the Shafferland archers to slaughter as many of those marching past as they possibly could. Yane, Ziona, and Dark Arrows worked with the four groups of mages attempting to stop the advance of the ants. Ziona had just joined her friends Fawnn and Veksar when Veksar’s meteor spell cast two times before failing. It was enough to slay the ant it hit and cause it to fall into others crowding up behind it. This caused a chain reaction that, in turn, knocked another seven or eight back down to the base of the mountain. Most died upon impact but some few did not immediately die but lay there thrashing about, releasing a pheromone that told the other ants that they were wounded. This caused more or the ants streaming past to turn and advance toward the mountain and begin to climb the walls. Soon the wall of the mountain was covered by a living mass of ants.

     Still the archers of the Shafferland army attacked and killed the ants in the main column. Brimstone cursed his lack of foresight. He should have had the men and women gathered atop the mountain pile rocks at the outer edge of their perch. Then they could have used those stones to roll down onto the attacking ants. He made a mental note to remember that for the next engagement even as he noted that the ants were now well over halfway to the top of the mountain despite the best efforts of the mages and archers.

     Kwenchi Kao was fighting beside Chaotika and Elrik KinSlayer. Chaotika had recently joined the companions. She was one of a handful who had joined them the previous night when word had spread over all of Althea that Zadykiel was once more plaguing the people of an island. Brimstone had teleported the volunteers to Shafferland. The three mages combined spells dislodged a full score of ants which fell to their deaths.

     Dracconis, Cyris, and Hrist fought near Brimstone. They tried their spells but soon gave up on their main attack spells which almost never cast in favor of entanglement. Occasionally an ant would become so entangled that it fell from the mountainside but for the most part they managed only to delay their advance.

     Mystyka and Namid fought with Lady Ru and Lady Sparks to stem the flow of a particularly large group of ants making their way up the same trail that the defenders had used to climb the mountain. That trail was a winding path and there were times when the ants were not within their sight. This made it much more difficult for the mages to keep the ants at bay because they were relatively close to them when they really had a chance to target them. Anpu and Dark Arrows fought beside these mages who needed more help because the ants could get so close to them before they could be attacked and when they managed to kill some they did not fall and dislodge others. They simply collapsed where they died and the other ants walked over their bodies.

     And still the army of Shafferland archers maintained their barrage of arrows onto the main column of the ant colony marching past the mountain. Then, as if on cue, the ants climbing the mountain ceased their attempts to get at the defenders. They turned and headed back down the mountain.

     An hour had passed as the defenders fought from their perch. They had managed to slay thousands of the ants yet the ants had finally streamed past them undeterred by their losses. Brimstone ordered the exhausted defenders to enter the portals. He made sure that no one was left behind and then he closed the portals and teleported himself to the second bridge.

     The newly arrived combatants found a hot meal waiting for them and sat down upon the ground gratefully to eat. They were at first besieged by questions from many of the army who wanted to know how the battle had gone, but the Commander stepped forward and demanded that the exhausted group be permitted to rest and eat before making their reports. Brimstone thanked the Commander on behalf of the exhausted archers and mages and privately informed the Commander that they had slain thousands of the ants. He estimated maybe as many as ten thousand had perished at that bridge and on the road. Yet he had managed to get a good estimate of their numbers during the battle. He shocked the Commander when he said, “I’m fairly sure my number will hold to be pretty accurate. By my estimates there are over two hundred thousand ants still on the march.”

 

 

                                                              Chapter 42.

 

     “By the Gods Brimstone!” the Commander exclaimed. “We have to find some way to hold them longer at the next bridge.”

     “I know. We learned a lot during that attack. There are things that we can do to make this effort much more effective.” He paused and glanced at the smaller mountain near the western side of the road.

     Seeing his gaze and guessing what he was thinking the Commander grinned and said, “Lord Malachi, Skan and Lord Fatman already left to seek out a trail to the top and see if there is a place suitable…” he left the rest unfinished. He didn’t need to explain. Brimstone knew what he meant.

     Brimstone said, “What we really need is about a thousand more archers and a dozen catapults up on that mountain to continue mass killing the ants long after those at ground level have to be abandoned.”

     The Commander said, “Getting the materials up there would be the issue. But perhaps you can open a portal at ground level for the men to use to get there with the materials?”

     “We have several hours to prepare. Could your men be ready?”

     “Yes but the supply of the oil is getting low. We have to reserve a lot for the final defense of the city,” the Commander interjected.

     “Then we'll use rocks found up there for the projectiles,” Brimstone began, and then he began to laugh for he had finally had a calm moment to reflect on that problem and realized he had a perfect solution. “Have a pot of that oil brought to us if you please Commander.”

     The Commander signaled his second in command to come closer and issued the order. Five minutes later Brimstone held the container in his hands and concentrated on it. ”Where do you want them?” he asked.

     “Where do I want what?” the Commander asked in confusion.

     “The one thousand pots of oil I am about to summon.”

     “You can do that?” asked the Commander wide eyed. Then he pointed to a large clear area near the riverbank and said, “There is a likely spot I guess.”

     A moment later several pots appeared. They were identical to the one that Brimstone held in his hands. They even had the small chip in the sealed lids that marred the surface of the original. “Have one tested please,” Brimstone said. “No sense making more until we know they are good.”

    The second in command hurried to have one pot isolated from the rest and had it set up a full fifty yards from the others. He then had one of the archers fire at the pot with a flaming arrow. The resultant fire was enough to let them all know that the summoned pots of oil would perform well. Smiling Brimstone instructed the men to stay out of the designated area and he summoned one thousand more of the oil filled clay pots. The Commander was quite happy with this development and ordered the men to disperse a great many of the pots to the catapults.

     Lord Malachi had returned with Skan and Lord Fatman while Brimstone was summoning the clay pots. They reported that there was indeed an area near the top quite suitable. There was a semi flat area near the summit of the mountain however that area would be extremely difficult to reach. It required a vertical climb of one hundred feet to reach that area. “I made that climb and saw the spot but in the interests of time we immediately returned as soon as I could climb back down,” Lord Malachi said in conclusion.

     “Then I’ll set portals for the mountain element of the army to use. Good work friends. Now get some rest and eat. We have several hours before the ants can get here.”

     Lord Malachi said, “I have been thinking about a way for the warriors to become a more effective fighting force in the coming battle and I think I have a solution.”

     “Oh? Well, please feel free to make suggestions,” Brimstone replied.

     “Can you summon a sword with fire spell affects?”

     “Yes and no,” Brimstone replied, then he went on to explain, “I can summon duplicates of such a sword but I cannot create one that doesn’t already exist if that is what you mean.”

     “Didn’t you have a crate of your own private weapons brought by ship to Harvest Moon about a year ago?” Lord Malachi asked. “And wasn’t there a sword with a fire spell in that crate?”

     Brimstone began laughing then. He had forgotten all about that crate in the intervening time. “Yes I did Malachi. It’s not a really strong weapon. The fire spell doesn’t cast every hit either.”

     Shrugging Malachi said, “But when it does kick in it would do serious damage to the ants. It would produce much more damage than the swords that we have now.”

 

                                                                    ***

 

     Brimstone teleported himself to his house in the city of Harvest Moon on the island of Sic Dalar. The house was dark so he lit a lantern to use as he walked through the house heading for the chest he had stored long ago. A moment later he heard voices crying in alarm outside the house. Thinking that someone might be in need of help he hurried to the door and flung it open. Outside the door stood a contingent of Gryphon Knight guards.

     "Ahh it is you Brimstone. We were passing by and saw a light moving in your house. We thought that you were away on a trip to the newly discovered isle west of Sic Dalar so we came to apprehend the intruder in your home."

     Smiling Brimstone replied, "My thanks gentlemen but it is only me. I returned to my home on a quick errand and then I must return to Shafferland immediately." Frowning slightly he added, "By the way how is it that you are aware of Shafferland and our presence there?"   

     "Our Commander has told us of it, sir. He told us when he asked for volunteers to join the fight against Zadykiel in Shafferland."

     Brimstone was now more confused than ever. "Volunteers?" he asked.

     "Aye, sir, and you have plenty waiting to go. I'm sure the commander would be better suited to discuss the matter with you."

     Brimstone asked the men to wait a moment as he recovered the sword he had come to retrieve. He then joined the men, and together they went to see the Commander of the Gryphon Knights. Eric Glenfield greeted Brimstone warmly, offering food and drink if he had the need. But Brimstone was on a strict time limit and said as much. The ants would be approaching the next bridge within a few hours at best and he explained that he had little time to spare.

     The Commander said, "Then I'll make this brief. Versha contacted me and told me what had happened to Shalmain and subsequently what was happening on Shafferland. She has a rather large contingent of torlags ready and waiting for a portal to take them to the fight. We talked it over and we think that unless Zadykiel is stopped there he will raise an army and return to our isle. Therefore, it is in our interest to fight him there. Volunteers have been sought and found. She has one thousand torlags ready to go, and the Gryphon Knights will send one thousand archers and two thousand swordsmen."   

     Brimstone was stunned by these revelations. He said, "I thank you for the offer. The people of that isle are facing grave danger. But can you go? Your Knights are, after all equipped with shields and swords of Damia's crafting. The Gods have been warned not to interfere. The Harbinger might well consider the presence of those items an issue of a God meddling in the judgment process."

     "True, and we did ask Damia. She in turn asked the Harbinger. He told her not to interfere in our decision. We think that means that we can go, but should leave the weapons and shields here on Sic Dalar. Still, we are Gryphon Knights. It is not the swords and shields that make us Gryphons. It is what resides within our hearts that makes us a Gryphon Knight."

     "As to the torlags, well they have seen the ants and think they will be easier to defeat than the Bre. Versha sent me the mental image she received of the ants from her daughter Tersha. I agree. They look easier than the Bre."

     "In some ways they are. In other ways they are harder. They don't come in waves with a break in between. And they don't retreat into the sea with the coming of day. In fact they don't retreat at all,” Brimstone said in a serious tone of voice.

     "We are ready whenever you are. My aides went to organize the volunteers who have been standing by waiting. They are gathering in the courtyard."

     And so it was that Brimstone appeared on the isle of Shafferland moments after a full two dozen portals opened near the river. He stepped from one of the portal and waved at the startled Commander. "I'm back,” he said. "And I am bringing help."

     As if on cue, men and torlags began to stream from the portals on the run in order to stay out of each others way. Three separate groups formed up on the field near the portal. Human warriors comprised the largest faction. Then there were the torlags and last but not least the archers.

     Brimstone raised the sword in his hands and concentrated on it. Within moments duplicates of that sword began to appear on the ground before him. Soon there were hundreds and then there were thousands and finally there were several thousand. In his mind he heard his lovely wife Damia laughing and she said, "Husband, it is easier to set the number in thy mind that you wish to make and then make all with thy will in one step."

     Smiling Brimstone replied, "It is easiest when you do it for me, love."

     "That is not possible this time, my heart, but you need the practice anyway." She wished him well and requested he watch over her Knights as best he could and then her presence in his mind was gone.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 43.

 

     The battle area near the second bridge was a beehive of activity as the two Gryphon Knight officers made their way toward Brimstone, several companions, the Commander of the Shafferland army and their own Commander, Eric Glenfield. There was a general meeting of the different elements of the allied armies in progress and a messenger had been sent to ask them to report to this meeting immediately.

     The two officers were Marc Trumaine, commander of the warrior element of the Gryphon Knights and Aspen Longleaf, commander of the archers. Both men were superb officers. Marc was a gifted tactician, and when it came to doing the most with a group of archers few men could compare with Aspen.

     A table summoned by Brimstone had been set up for the meeting. The two officers were greeted warmly and asked to report. Aspen spoke first saying, “I went to the mountain site through the portal and looked the situation over carefully. While I was there I took the opportunity to sketch out a few details for recommendations.” He placed a sheet of parchment on the table. Brimstone took the sketch and looked it over, and then using his three dimensional map making skills he projected the image above the table. This startled several of the men who had never witnessed this talent and they marveled at the image.

     Aspen drew an arrow from his quiver and used it to point at the image to make his points. He said, “Brimstone I’d suggest we shift the archers to these two positions for the battle,” he said pointing at the two elevated stretches of ground that bracketed Lord Malachi’s selected position with one to the left and the other to the right of that stretch of ground. The area was crescent shaped with the archers situated along the outer arms of the left and right sides of the crescent while the warriors held the center.

     “That will leave a lot of empty space in the most level area that Lord Malachi selected,” Brimstone replied.

     Nodding his head Aspen said, “Yes it would but the warriors will need that space and the archers can still attack the ants and be in a better position to support the warriors when needed since they’d be fighting from higher ground.”

     “The warriors?”

     “Yes the warriors,” Aspen said with a laconic smile. He then nodded his head in Marc’s direction and continued. “Marc went to the site with me. He has some ideas as well.”

     Marc laid his own sheet of parchment on the table. Once more Brimstone took that parchment and examined it closely. A moment later the first three dimensional map was replaced by another. This map was exquisitely detailed and depicted archer elements in the two suggested places with several more catapults located on the now freed up area.

     Lord Malachi voiced his appreciation at the art skills of Marc, causing him to smile. “But why are so many jars staged beside the edge of the mountain. Shouldn’t they all be staged near the catapults?”

     Don’t think of the mountain as a mountain Lord Malachi. Think of it as a fortress. I staged the pots there because I want the warriors up there to toss them down the mountainside as the ants try to take our fortress. I want to give them the warmest possible reception,” he finished with a smile.

     Lord Malachi matched that grin with one of his own and pointed at two designated archer positions then said, “And from those two positions the archers should be able to ignite the oil.” 

     “They are naturally formed bastions quite well suited for our little temporary fortress, yes,” replied Marc.

     “Why is it you never made Commander in Dalghard’s army?” Brimstone inquired curiously. “You obviously had the talent.”

     “I was commander of the fortress defenses. But the upper command structure of the army was rife with corruption. The fastest way to gaining those ranks was through the use of the slaughter of usually defenseless people to attain it. Dalghard wanted leaders who would not hesitate to obey his commands of slaughter. I expressed disdain for that practice early in my career as an officer." With a shrug, he continued, "It got me demoted for a while but the sheer incompetence of my replacement guaranteed my return to rank eventually.”

     “All that aside, there is a problem. The amount of oil available will leave precious little for use in defending the wall of our fortress. Most will be needed at the catapults and to be honest, using it at the wall will require an enormous amount if we are to have any hope of success,” Marc concluded by saying, “Just give us what you can spare and we will gather rocks to roll down upon the enemy if we have to.”

     The Commander of the Shafferland army chuckled and said, “I don’t think oil quantity will be an issue.”

     The map blurred and another took its place. This time it was a bird’s eye view of the selected area. On the ground below hundreds of men were busy assembling several catapults. Such was the detail and clarity of the map that you could actually see men moving to and fro as they went about their work. Brimstone spoke in a normal tone of voice but from the reactions of the men and women on the mountain it was obvious that they heard him when he said, “Please step well away from the edge of the cliff. I have to place some items there and I don’t wish to crush anyone beneath tons of pots.” Immediately the men and women present moved well away from the edge of the cliff.

     Turning to Marc he asked, “How many do you want and in what disposition?”

     Gesturing at the map Marc traced an imaginary line near the edge of the cliff. “Line them up there if you please. Remember to leave a few gaps for the men to assume their positions.”

     A moment later Brimstone summoned another thousand of the pots and staged them in the designated area. “It’s a shame that you cannot summon catapults as well,” said Eric Glenfield.

     “I’m afraid that is beyond my skill level, Sir Eric.” Then grinning impishly Brimstone intoned, “I’m just a simple man really. Such fantastic feats as that are well beyond my level of talent.”

     Eric guffawed at that saying, “For such a simple man, you come up with some pretty amazing feats.”

     “Do we have time to see a map of the next battle area?” asked Marc. “I’d really love to see one, since I am totally unfamiliar with the area.”

     Brimstone concentrated for a moment and another map appeared. This time they saw the road leading into a gap between the ends of two mountain chains. It was readily apparent to all present that this area would be extremely difficult to defend. For one thing there was no available single position large enough for a massed group of defenders on the mountains. Brimstone did caution those gathered about him that he was still relatively new at using the maps and it was possible that such a large spot might exist, but he doubted it. From his experience in working with the maps, he was accurate enough to be considered dependable, though he still preferred a visual inspection of the sites, which explained why he had sent Lord Malachi to the last two sites to personally inspect them.

     Another thing that would make it difficult was that the ants would have almost twice the space to spread out and attack due to the geography of the area. Compounding that was the forest which grew in close proximity with no natural barrier such as a river between it and the defenders that would channel them into a narrower thus more time consuming crossing.

     Versha, who was also present at the meeting, spoke up for the first time when she said, “We can help there. We can dig a channel from the small lake near the southern mountain chain to the northern mountain chain thus filling it with water when we break through to the lake.”

     “That would be an enormous undertaking. It would need to be thirty feet wide at the very least and at least as deep,” Marc guessed.

      “Yes but we need only dig it twenty-five feet wide. The water rushing in will erode it considerably. Just how much we won’t know until we arrive and begin the work. Even if it cannot stop them in their advance it would at the very least hinder that advance considerably. By digging at the narrowest point we can do it if we have a day to work on it. In point of fact, we could actually let the ants begin to enter the trench before we break through to the water if you prefer.”

     “I’m afraid there won’t be that much time available so cut it ten feet wide to begin with and hope there will be time for it to be widened,” Brimstone declared.

     “A ten foot stream won’t stop them but it will slow them considerably. Marc concluded, then he added, “But I have another idea regarding the trench. Why bother taking it to the water when we can use fire as the element to attack them. Let them enter the trench then mass attack the trench line with the flaming oil. They would have to get out of the trenches before they could attack us and we’d kill untold numbers of them at the trench as they tried to get past it. And once this is all over, all the people of the isle need to do to restore their land would be to fill in the trench.”

    “That would be preferable to having to maintain another bridge,” said the Commander of the Shafferland army with a grin. Then he added, “Thank you all for understanding that the two existing bridges need to be spared. Dalghard himself spanned those rivers for us with the bridges. I doubt that we could replace them.”

     Marc smiled and said, “Having seen the speed of the current at this river I can understand the reluctance to lose the bridge.” Turning to Tersha he asked, “What do you think of the alternate plan for the trench? By forsaking water you can save a lot of digging by digging it here instead of there.” As he spoke he pointed out two spots on the map. The one near water was twice as long as the other.

     “That is a very good suggestion Marc,” Versha reflected. “We do not consider fire as a fighting element because of our eyes. It would cripple us as much as our enemies, but we don’t have to be present and our new battle armor shields us from that harmful affect of fire on our vision.”

     “Agreed then. I’ll open a portal immediately,” Brimstone said with a smile.

     “I have one final question if you please,” Marc interjected. “How long do we have before the ants arrive here?”

     “I estimate another three hours,” Brimstone replied. “So the longer we can hold them here the better, when it comes to the defenses at the last strong point. From here it should only take them three to four hours to arrive at the trench.”

 

 

                                                              Chapter 44.

 

     Zadykiel paced the floor of the cavern as he waited for the cooking women to bring his meal. When they did so they were terrified as usual but this time they managed to deliver his food without dropping it. He noted absently that they both had welts upon their faces. He assumed that the vampire woman who was their warden had punished them in retaliation for her punishment when they had dropped the last meal. Smiling at the women he said, “Much better. This time you managed to get it to me without dropping it. Now taste each dish.”

     Shrugging one of the women went to do as he commanded. She tasted the cooked meat and vegetables but when she went to taste the soup the other woman slapped the spoon from her hand at the last moment. Her face was deathly pale as she faced Zadykiel terrified at what his reaction might be.

     “That was a brave thing to do,” he stated, his voice deceptively calm. “It was also a very stupid thing to do,” he finished. Then looking into the shadows behind the terrified women he said, “Take her to the lesser vampires. Tell them that for this night she is their plaything. Warn them not to harm her permanently. I am not yet that tired of her service as a cook. If she is killed, the vampire responsible will be slain. And do not break her bones or feed upon her for I need her healthy enough to provide her service as my cook.”

     Moaning softly the girl began to sob and plead for mercy. The other woman cried and held her friend’s hand even as the death mage strode forth and seized the hapless woman who had contrived to poison her tormentor.

     Cocking his head at an odd angle Zadykiel said, “Your reaction confuses me. Am I not being quite generous and lenient in my punishment? You just tried to kill me yet I am not having you slain. You are merely being punished and taught not to make attempts on my life. Now silence woman, lest I forget my generosity and have you slain outright.”

     The woman got very still then. She stood erect with her head held high. When she spoke her voice held a note of resignation as she calmly said, “My mistake was in not tasting the food myself. I would not have hesitated to eat the soup but I could not let her eat the soup.”

     Zadykiel laughed then and said, “Oh my, you are the brave one aren’t you? Well let us see how long it takes that bravery to flee this night. I warrant I’ll hear your shrieks of terror within moments.” Turning to his death mage he said, “Take her now.”

     Trying to maintain her dignity the woman followed the death mage without resistance as he led her from the cavern to another nearby cavern.

     Turning to the other woman he said, “Continue with the next dish.”

     The woman dutifully sampled the meat pie and some corn but when she went to taste the apple pie that she had prepared, the spoon halted at her lips. Her nerve failed and she returned the spoon to the pan that held the pie with the dish untested.

     “You too? Oh my. What has gotten into the pair of you? Very well then, join your friend and share the punishment. The same goes for this one. No permanent or debilitating damage. Beyond that I do not care what is done to them.”

     Behind the woman the other death mage stepped forward and grasped her arms. “Nooooooooo!” shrieked the woman in terror.

     Sitting down at the rock slab which served as a table Zadykiel tossed the pie and the soup away and began to eat ravenously. All of the other dishes had been tasted. He rushed the meal because he was tired and wanted to sleep. Soon he heard one of the women began to shriek and scream in terror. A few moments later another voice joined the first in their expression of terror and torment. Ten minutes later he curled up in a darkened corner of the cavern where he perversely slept the sleep of the innocent as the screams of two tormented women echoed through the night.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 45.

    

     Tersha stood attentively listening. Nessa noted her posture and inquired, “What do you hear my sister?”

     “I hear women screaming Nessa. They are screaming as if they are terrified,” Tersha responded.

     Getting up from his bedroll Ciaran listened intently to the still night air. But try as he might he could hear nothing. “Can you tell where it is coming from?” he asked the torlag.

     “It is coming from the other side of that mountain,” she said indicating the mountain near them. They had spent the day warning the last of the villages in the region about the need to prepare to meet the threat of possible fires if the northern croplands were burned. The coming of night had left them south of Zadykiel’s lair. They had opted to leave the croplands and climb up into the mountains to sleep under the cover of the forest there.

     Nessarose said, “I think I’ll report this to Brimstone.” A moment later she did just that and he immediately teleported to their location.

     He greeted them warmly then listened attentively as Tersha described what she was hearing. A moment later disappeared. He reappeared inside the cavern where the two women were being tormented by the lesser vampires. It took him only a moment to make out the scene of horror that met his eyes and then he went on the attack. He waded into the group of vampires with his sword, slashing and hacking into their bodies. Several darted for the cavern entrance in an attempt to escape. That was a mistake, for once clear of the two captive women they had been tormenting, Brimstone unleashed a lethal fire spell at that group. They were instantly incinerated thanks to the power of the crown enhancing his spell against the undead. Two remained and attempted to confront him. He methodically took on both and succeeded in slaying them in moments by decapitating them. He then burned the bodies to prevent their reanimation and opened a portal to evacuate the two terrified women. He was forced to call on help because the women had to be carried from the chamber and he didn’t dare leave one here while he took the other to safety. So it was that he called on Ciaran and the other two companions to come to him and assist in the liberation of the two captives. They stepped into the portal he provided and immediately went to help the two women.

     Quietly Brimstone told the companions to take the women through the portal to the main camp of the army and send back help. Moments later they returned with several other people. Lord Malachi, Lord Fatman, and Caval were there as well Anpu. Together the group moved to the entrance of the cavern and looked out into the bowl shaped area that was the secluded little valley which served as Zadykiel’s new lair.

 

                                                                    ***

 

     In Zadykiel’s cavern one of the death mages woke him. “There are intruders in the lair,” the death mage said the moment that Zadykiel’s eyes opened.

     “Have the lesser minions kill them,” Zadykiel snapped impatiently and he closed his eyes with every intention of returning to his interrupted sleep.

     “The lesser minions are all dead,” replied the death mage. That response was enough to wake Zadykiel. “One of the intruders is Brimstone,” the death mage continued.

     Zadykiel leapt immediately to his feet. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” he asked in irritation. The death mage opened his mouth to respond but Zadykiel snapped, “Never mind that now. Let’s get to the dragons and get out of here before he locates us.”

     Stepping cautiously out into the night air, Zadykiel, followed by the two death mages, bolted for the dragon’s cavern. They had just made it inside that cavern when Brimstone and the companions stepped outside the minion’s cavern into the night air. They were halfway to the chamber where they thought that the dragons might be located when the first dragon exploded from the mouth of the cavern in a flurry of beating wings. That dragon was followed closely by the remaining flight of the dragons.

     Brimstone and the two archers Anpu and Nessarose attacked the flight of dragons. Brimstone’s fire spell struck the first two dragons and the two archers accounted for the last dragon in the flight. All three of the dragons so attacked perished.

     The remaining two dragons disappeared over the edge of the mountains as their wings beat desperately for the comparative safety of the night outside the bowl shaped valley.

     Zadykiel cursed. Once again Zadykiel’s incredible luck and knack for self preservation had saved him. He had reasoned that it would be assumed that he would ride the lead dragon so he had deliberately ordered one of the death mages to fly the lead dragon and he was third in line in the flight of dragons. Zadykiel fervently hoped that Brimstone would not stay and thoroughly search the valley, for then he would discover the queen ant.

     Indeed, Brimstone was just about to order that search of the area that would have uncovered the queen ant when he received the message that the ants were now within view of the second bridge.

     He immediately opened a portal and the companions darted through it to immerge into the main camp of the army.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 46.

         

     Brimstone spent his first few minutes back in the camp insuring that all of the portals that needed to be established were up and functioning properly. At the last moment he mass summoned a huge row of the pots of oil, twenty yards past the bridge. The ants were still a quarter mile away but they were rapidly closing on the bridge.

     At Marc’s suggestion the ground element of the army had been moved back to permit the ants access to this side of the river. It was Marc’s hope that they could force the majority of the ants to attack the mountain position where the defenders held the advantages. He reasoned that defeating the ants with a ground campaign was next to impossible until they had some means of significantly lowering their numbers.

     As the ants approached the massive line of clay pots filled with oil, Brimstone had the archers fire them. This massive wall of flames stymied the ants. So great was the conflagration that the ants couldn’t get to the fire even in their suicide charges to attempt to smother the flames with their bodies. They died before they could reach the flames as their bodies literally boiled inside their tough exoskeletons. As the flames began to diminish slightly, the ants behind the dead ants began to push the bodies forward. They were using them as shields against the terrible heat of the fire.

     Seeing this development, the archers opened fire on the ants, as did the catapults. The archers were still out of effective targeting range and most of their arrows bounced off the tough exoskeletons of the ants. The catapults were much more effective slaying the ants by the score as the flames spread with each hit of the oil filled clay pots.

     Brimstone wished that he could just summon the pots among the ants but the ability to summon items wasn’t without its own set of rules governing how it worked. At least for him this was the case. He could not simply summon deadly attack items directly amongst or against his enemies. If he tried that the items wouldn’t appear at all. This was a safeguard to prevent a god from summoning errors which could take life.

     Still he could summon another line of the pots just ahead of the ants and he did so. Even as that line of pots began to burn he summoned another line right beside that one and it too was fired. This caused the ants to begin to falter and draw back. The intense heat from the flames caused the dead bodies of the ants to smolder and shrivel. He then summoned another line of the pots, this time between those already burning and the ants. The heat was so intense that as soon as this row of pots appeared pressure began to build up within them and they exploded moments after they had been summoned. The resultant conflagration showered dozens upon dozens of ants with the highly flammable oil and the fire spread rapidly.

     For the better part of an hour the war continued with this stalemate in the action. The ants couldn’t get past Brimstone but he couldn’t drive them away either. During that hour Marc had hundreds of stakes driven into the ground on an angle. Brimstone fought between the bridge and this mini forest of stakes as they were being laid out. The stakes were to serve as a sort of barrier between the ground element of the army and the ants. An open trail was left for the ants to surge around but that path led them to the mountain and well within bow range of the archers. At least that was the hope of the forces waiting to put their bows to full use.

     Finally Brimstone grew exhausted. Summoning items was draining work and so was opening portals. He had been doing both all day. To use a comparison, summoning items and opening portals requires something of the gods that is akin to but not exactly mana. It is a poor comparison at best but one to which most can relate. Being a demi-god, Brimstone’s supply of that something is lower than a full deity’s supply. Brimstone was running low and a point came when he could no longer summon the vast quantities needed to keep the ants at bay. He teleported himself to the battle position that he would use for the duration of the fighting. It would be a while before he could regenerate what he had lost and be able to mass summon on the scale that he had used the past hour of fighting.

     Someone handed him food and drink when he arrived and he sat down gratefully to rest a moment and eat to regain his strength.

     “That was an outstanding performance Brimstone. Now rest and leave the fighting to us for a while,” Aspen Longleaf said with a smile and then hurried away to give last moment words of encouragement to the archers.

     Fifteen minutes later the fires had finally died enough so that the ants could dare to advance again. “Here they come!” someone shouted. Brimstone leapt to his feet to observe as the ants pushed their dead before them until they were effectively smothering out the flames.

     Brimstone noted then that the catapults had all ceased firing at the ants and were conserving their ammunition, waiting for better shots when the ants would be packed near the bridge shoulder to shoulder.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 47.

 

     Staring into her scrying bowl, Ishy saw the battle at the second bridge and how it was going. Earlier she had also witnessed as Brimstone and the companions had discovered Zadykiel’s lair, and the events that unfolded after that discovery had been made.

     Turning from the scrying bowl she addressed the assembled druids in the sacred glen. “What we have feared has come to pass. Zadykiel has been routed from his lair and will most likely move south to seek another. The possibility is quite strong that he will indeed come to the glen. If he does so, you all know what is to be done. You have prepared for this moment since you were very young. Stand firm and remember your teachings. Good luck to you all.”

 

                                                                    ***

 

     The ants surged across the bridge unimpeded as the catapult crews paused to let them cross. There was one final row of the oil filled pots that Brimstone had summoned earlier waiting just in front of the rows of sharpened stakes driven into the ground. In mass, the archers fired at those pots, igniting the oil within as they shattered and the ants faced yet another wall of flame. This time they were trapped between the river and the wall of flame and still they were pressed from the rear by other ants attempting to make the crossing. Some few were driven into the wall of flame and the spikes beyond. That caused the remaining ants to proceed in the only direction open to them. As if on cue the ants turned and raced toward the mountain. Moments later they were well within range of the archers atop the mountain. The archers opened fire with a deadly barrage of arrows.

     The catapults on the ground and those on the mountaintop began to fire once more. This time the crews worked at a much faster pace. The ground crews targeted just across the river at the packed groups of ants waiting to cross the bridge. The mountain based crews fired at the rear of the advancing ants and worked their way back toward the mountains with each crew firing at pre determined areas. The ants were in a death trap and they were dying by the hundreds. Yet still they came toward the mountain. Each ant that died was replaced by another.

     At a command from Marc, soldiers near the edge of the cliff began to pour oil down the cliff face and then toss the empty pots over the edge. They would shatter and fragment upon impact making the footing for the ants a bit trickier at the base of the cliff. When the first of the ants reached the cliff, more than a few had their heads banged multiple times by descending empty pots, causing them to stagger and reel under the impacts. Soon the cliff facing was saturated thoroughly with oil in several areas. As it became saturated the cliff facing took on a darker glossy appearance and the archers waiting at both sides of the crescent were offered excellent targeting references by this change in appearance. They had been reminded to fire toward the bottom of the oil spots since fire travels up. This reminder would increase the efficiency of their attacks.

     Soon the flames holding the ants at bay near the main body of the army died to the point that some of the ants began to try to make their way through the stakes to get at the men on the ground. Try as they might to get past the stakes uninjured many were impaled upon them and thrashed about. Dozens died thus impaled but their death aided the other ants for in their death throes many of the stakes were broken off and soon the ants created a wedge of cleared area. The ground crews began to fire into those cleared areas as the ants surged in. Brimstone marveled at the accuracy of the crews as they managed to hit the ants packed into the cleared areas but leave the still undisturbed stakes near them undamaged.

     Once more the ants turned to the path of least resistance and were turned toward the mountain. Another wave joined that first press of ants still charging the mountain. By now the remnants of that first wave had actually reached the base of the mountain. The archers nocked their arrows but waited. Their orders were to wait until the ants were halfway up the mountainside before firing at them and setting fire to the side of the mountain. The leaders wanted to establish a death trap on the mountainside for the ants.

     The soldiers at the cliff face continued to pour the oil and drop the empty pots on the ants at the bottom. Some were actually having a good time of it and more than one wagered that he could hit an ant with his pot and won his wager.

     Brimstone had regained some of his summoning ability. He managed to summon two more sets of the clay pots filled with oil before he lost the ability again. He had done all that he could do in the way of summoning for a while, but the ground crew and the crew atop the mountain had sufficient pots to fight for hours if need be. That time gained would give the busy torlags more time to improve their trench.

    

                                                                    ***

 

     Zadykiel had a problem. He had two dragons left at his service and three minions waiting for a ride outside of Goodlund. He went with his death mage to pick them up. When he arrived there he learned from them that they had learned what those strange fires he had seen meant. Three companions had gone among the villagers telling them that the northern croplands may have to be fired if the ants broke free of the last containment area. He learned where that area was and that several traps were being prepared there.

     Zadykiel desperately wished that he had known these things before the dragons had been lost. If he had been aware of it then, his options would have been much more appealing. As it was now, there was very little that he could do about it.

     He ordered the three lesser vampires to mount the dragons as best they could and they took off on a leisurely flight to the south. He would have to abandon the queen ant, but she had served her purpose. There was no way that he would risk returning for her. It was far too likely that Brimstone had located the queen ant or left behind some companions to await his return. The mages were now almost ineffectual in combating him but those archers and warriors were a different matter and even the mages seemed overly powerful against his undead minions.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 48.

 

     The ants were now halfway up the mountainside. It was an impressive sight that mesmerized some of the archers as they stood with arrows drawn to full draw. Aspen Longleaf took one last look at the ants tightly packed on the mountainside. It was a living wall. The surface of the mountainside was almost completely obscured by the packed ants. Releasing his breath slowly he fired his arrow at a spot of glossy darkness he had spotted a moment before between two ants located near the base of the mountainside. The flaming arrow lanced out with the incredible precision of the champion archer and struck that small target. A moment later the resultant fire began to spread even as hundreds of flaming arrows were released by both groups of archers.

     Flames raced up the saturated cliffside shriveling and killing ants by the hundreds. Great cheers went up from the archers and then they settled down to the business of targeting ants down on the floor of the valley below them.

     The soldiers at the top of the cliff had to dodge back away from the edge of the cliff as a wave of superheated air blasted up past their position. A few moments later that heat receded and once more they returned to their work. This time they tied rags to the jars and lit them at the small fires that dotted the cliff edge for that purpose. They then dropped these pots onto the ants attempting to make their way up to the defenders. It was a great slaughter as thousands of ants perished. They also cast the pots as far away from themselves as they could. So it wasn’t only the ants on the wall and those near the base under the attack of the warriors. Those several yards away from the base also suffered terrible losses. Yet still they kept attacking, driven on by instinct to seek out their queen.

     For hours the defenders managed to contain the ants and force them to come toward their makeshift fortress. The archers and mages lost all track of time and their kills as they steadily attacked and killed the ants. The few hundred stakes served well to keep the ants from progressing down the road and kept them bottled up in the kill zone of the army for hours. The attack from the archers was devastating to the ants. They were now well within range of the arrows of the archers. So great was the press of the ants that for a while it seemed impossible to miss an ant with a shot.

     Eight hours into the battle at that bridge the ants finally succeeded in breaking through the last of the stakes and a path was opened for them through the stakes to the road beyond. The only obstacle in their path was the warriors of Shafferland, supplemented by the Gryphon Knights and the companions.

     The warriors in the front rank held sharpened stakes perched at a forty-five degree angle toward the oncoming ants who swept into their battle line on the run. Hundreds more ants perished in that initial charge but the knights were forced to retreat within moments as the ants began to methodically kill the defenders despite their losses.

     The commanders, seeing the slaughter of their men, conferred and opted for an orderly retreat to the portals, and the land based warriors withdrew from the engagement. To attempt to battle so many ants in melee combat was insane. There was simply no way to stop them utilizing conventional ground forces. Their numbers were still much too great for that.

     The land forces evacuated to the next area, which they now referred to as the trench position. But the mountain elements were far from finished with the battle. The archers and mages were all cold, tired, and hungry but they continued to rake the sides of the ants as they swept past in a steady flow for another hour. When it was all over Brimstone stood with the other Commanders and surveyed the scene of carnage below.

     By the best estimates they had managed to kill perhaps half of the ants. Marc’s plan, coupled with Brimstone’s summoning ability, had made this battle a complete victory for the allied forces. That is not to diminish any of the participants. From the archers and catapult crews, to the soldiers manning the cliff face defenses, and the soldiers who faced the charge of the ants below on the road it had been a team effort and a team victory.

     Yet there were no cheers and no one felt like celebrating. There on the road below lay better than three hundred good men who had given their all to bring about this victory.

     No. No one cheered.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 49.

 

     Brimstone and the other commanders walked to the trench to examine it. The torlags had done a splendid job. They had managed to dig a trench fifteen feet deep and fifteen feet wide. The torlags had piled the loose dirt up on the human side of the trench where it would serve as a breastwork for the allies. Even now soldiers were thrusting sharpened stakes into this breastwork that was ten feet tall and ten feet across at the top. This time they thrust them in with the points facing down so that ants attempting to climb the breastwork would become impaled upon it. They had learned at the second bridge just how effective this could be against the ants. It was still too soft for a great breastwork but other soldiers had been ordered to tamp it down as best they could and they were rushing to do just that.

     Seeing the humans standing there a torlag approached them. It was Versha, the leader of the torlag nation. She said, “It is ready. First we got it ten feet wide and ten feet deep as we had discussed. Yet you held them so long at the other place that my torlags grew bored and started digging again.” She was proud of her people’s accomplishment and justifiably so.”

     Marc knelt down to face the torlag and said, “If you were a human I’d kiss you. A splendid job my friend.”

     Versha good naturedly replied, “If you were a torlag I’d let you.” Then she grew serious and said, “My people are a bit distressed. They are very thirsty and there is no water nearby. I was reluctant to let them go in search of water. The soldiers shared what they could spare but there was little for even them.”

     The Commander of the Shafferland army spoke up then asking, “Didn’t the supplies come in from the city of Goodlund? They should have arrived hours ago.”

     Brimstone said, “First things first.” He summoned several water troughs filled with water. The grateful torlags went to these troughs and drank their fill. “I’m sorry Versha. We’ll see what the problem is in a moment. Is there anything else that you need? You have food aplenty?”

     “Our hunters have done well here. Water was the only need that we could not take care of at this location. We thank you for the water. If you please, the nice humans who shared theirs with us thirst as well.”

     “Yes of course,” Brimstone stated calmly.

     The commanders then returned to the main camp some two hundred yards down the road toward Goodlund. There the Commander of the Shafferland army sought out his officer in charge of securing supplies. He asked him what had happened to the supplies due to be delivered from Goodlund and was told that the mayor had sent a reply stating that the city had need of its resources if they were to be besieged by the monsters.

     “And what has the king to say in all this?” the commander demanded.

     “I was told that the king was indisposed.”

     “Where are the men that I sent to guard the king? How is it you make no mention of them?”

     “I was told that they were out on a mission in the farmlands, commander. But if you ask me there is something odd going on.”

     “I have no time for a lengthy discussion. Please come to the point,” the commander requested, not impolitely. He wasn’t the sort of man to browbeat his subordinates. He was just short on time at the moment.

     “I think that mayor is planning on the king’s disappearance. I think he means to declare himself king when this is all over.”

     “What! Why do you believe these things?” the commander asked.

     Shrugging the officer said, “There are rumors in the city that the king and his guards were set upon and seized as the king slept last night. It is rumored that most of the guards were also sleeping, as his majesty wanted to accompany the supplies here today.”

     The commander began to curse.

     “Where would the mayor be?” asked Brimstone.

     “He has a huge house in the city. Almost a castle mind you.”

     Brimstone concentrated a moment and a map of Goodlund appeared in the air before him. “Show me where the house is,” Brimstone intoned darkly.

     The Commander of the Shafferland army pointed to a very large house in the north western section of town. “That is it, Brimstone.”

     “Do you wish to go to the city to recover the king?” he asked the Commander.

     Shouting orders, the Commander soon had five hundred men ready to go on a rescue mission. Brimstone said, “I’ll open the portal for you. I’ll leave it open if you aren’t worried about pursuit when you return here. That should make getting your supplies here much easier. I’d go with you but I need to return to Zadykiel’s former lair to search it while we have time. It is possible that the queen ant is there.”

     “We can handle the mayor easily enough. He has at best a few hundred men. If I need to, I can send for reinforcements here through the portal. But I am curious. Do you think that you can locate the queen and set her free to solve this crisis?”

     “Truthfully, I don’t know. But I’ll take Tersha with me. She may be able to communicate with the ant if we cannot,” Brimstone replied. He opened a portal then and cautioned, “You might want to set a few guards here just in case some of the Mayor’s men decide to come through and make trouble.”

     “I’ll take care of it Brimstone and thank you for the assistance,” the Commander replied and then began to bark out orders. Moments later a large group of soldiers stood ready to guard the portal when Brimstone opened it. He did so and the Commander led the small army through the portal on the run.

     Versha approached Brimstone and said, “Tersha has shown me what happened at the other place of the dragons. I think I know where the queen would be. I can show you, with your permission.”

     “Yes of course, Versha,” Brimstone replied. Immediately he saw the image of the area that had been Zadykiel’s lair on Shafferland. The image shifted then to an oblong hole in the surface of the rock floor.

     Brimstone heard Versha say, “Tersha saw the hole and thought she detected a strange odor of a beast.” Brimstone vaguely detected a strange odor then as Versha tried to show him what she meant. “But it doesn’t smell like the other ants. I explained to Tersha that this is because the queen is egg heavy and in distress. She needs to return to her nest to lay her eggs. It is the same smell as the normal sized ant queen in distress. It is just much more intense because of the difference in size. Tersha has never encountered the scent. I have.”

     Smiling Brimstone asked, “Do you think that Tersha can speak to the queen and offer to return her to her nest if she stops her ants?”

     “No Brimstone. Tersha cannot speak their language. Alas, my cub has yet to learn that skill. I can communicate some simple things to her. I think that I can communicate your offer if you wish.”

     “Thank you. I would like to try at least,” Brimstone replied.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 50.

 

     Brimstone opened a portal to the lair and stepped through it quickly. He was followed by Versha, Tersha, Nessarose, Anpu, Dark Arrows, Ziona, Yane and Aspen Longleaf. He wanted the archer's with him in case they had to kill the queen ant. But in truth, he was hoping for a peaceful solution to the problem.

     They arrived a few yards away from the oblong hole in the ground and approached it warily. At the gapping mouth of the cavern Brimstone knelt and cautiously peered over the edge. Far below he could see the queen ant standing motionless on the floor below the entrance.

     Versha stared over the edge of the hole for a moment and then said, “She greets us and asks if we are here to slay her.”

     “Please tell her that we are here to discuss peace with her.”

     Versha did so and replied, “She says she is listening.”

     “Tell her that her colony is marching toward the human settlements and that there have been many battles already. Many of her ants have been destroyed.”

     “She asks what you consider many.”

     “Half or more of the colony has died attacking the humans that defend their lands. If they continue more are sure to die. Perhaps all.”

     A moment later Versha said, “She weeps for her children.”

     “Tell her we will free her from captivity and take her with us if she promises not to attack us when she is free, and further promises to lead her people to their lands, leaving the humans in peace in the future.”

     Versha said, “She asks why you would believe her? You are not of her kind. How would you know her word is good?”

     “I would believe her because she did not start this. A man named Zadykiel started this. He is our enemy and we will punish him. Already we have slain many of his minions.”

     “She said that she believes you for she has seen with her own eyes the battles in which you killed her enemies, yet you say that you have slain her people as well.”

     “By the thousands yes,” agreed Brimstone. “And by thousands more if I must. They will not be permitted to go any further than the trench. There they will all die if she refuses to lead them back to their lands.”

     “She says that she has seen you kill the dragons and the men who rode them, yet she has not seen you slay her people. She wonders if what you say is true.”

     “Tersha, show your mother what happened at the bridge as I stood facing the ants. Just that portion if you please. It is getting late. Soon the ants will arrive at the trench.”

     Tersha complied with Brimstone’s request and Versha’s eyes widened. “Are you sure you wish me to show her Brimstone? This might make her react differently than you desire.”

     Nodding his head Brimstone said, “There is no time for subtlety. This decision must be made soon.”

     Versha paused for long moments and Brimstone saw the queen’s antenna twitch and rustle in agitation. Versha had also shown him the vision that she was sending to the queen. He saw himself standing alone at the bridge summoning row upon row of oil fill clay pots which were ignited by the defenders. He saw ants dying in the hundreds.

     Abruptly the vision stopped. “She asked me to cease the vision,” the torlag explained. “She is weeping again and asks for a moment to regain her composure.”

     “Of course,” Brimstone said striving for patience. He was terribly concerned now. Something was wrong. The ants should not be close to the trench yet, but he had a terrible sense of dread that somehow they were.

     A moment later Versha said, “She said that she accepts your terms. She will lead her people away from the humans unless she dies during the trip, for she is egg heavy and very weak.”

     “Tell her that I will, of course, assist her in the trip home, if she will wait at the trench with us to tell her colony to break off the fighting and return home.”

     “She asks if you mean the shiny rings that you use, for she knows that her people cannot use those. Some have tried and nothing happened.”

     “That is because those portals were set for other species. I can as easily set one for hers.”

     “You would do this thing? And in a moment she would be back in her colony?”

     “Yes. If she calls off her warriors I will do this thing for her and the remnants of the colony.”

     “She says let us go to the trenches. Too many of her children have died. She would save the rest if she can, but if you lie, may the curse of all the gods be upon your soul.”

     “Tell her I am a happy man for my soul is safe. I do not lie.”

     Versha looked at Brimstone then and replied, “She says that was a very good answer to her curse.”

 

   

                                                              Chapter 51.

 

     Brimstone smiled and opened a portal for them to return to the trenches. When he did so, he saw the ants were indeed nearing the trenches. Soldiers manned the breastwork and the clay pots were being broken in the bottom of the trench by the score.

     Brimstone teleported the queen ant to a position directly in the path of the approaching ants. They stopped immediately when she appeared. For long moments nothing happened and then one of the ants surged past the queen. Immediately, three ants followed. They caught the first ant and attacked it. Within moments they had slain it and returned to the queen. Brimstone looked to Versha and Versha said, “She wanted revenge for the slaughter of their colony. Many do. But the queen will be obeyed now.”

     Brimstone asked Versha to show him where the ants wanted to go. A moment later images flooded his mind. At first it was confusing, as if seen through the eyes of an ant’s compound eye. Then Versha adjusted the vision to compensate for the difference and the vision cleared. He saw the mountain home of the colony clearly and then he saw the lair. He opened a portal at that point and several of the ants streamed through it. A few moments later they returned. “They are reporting that the shinny ring does lead home. She is going. No, wait.”

     Brimstone looked then at the queen ant to see what was amiss. “She says not to expect her thanks. You have slain too many of her children for her to thank you. Yet you have been honest about everything that you have said. She warns you then. Let no man come near the colony, upon pain of death. They will stay away from the human settlements, but the area around the colony is theirs. She is giving me a unit of measurement that I do not understand. Oh! She said she means half the distance to the sea city. From there to the colony is theirs. Let no man venture there. She will keep her colony north of that line. She warns that men have taken her children in the past to put in their games. Some have escaped to recount this to her. She explains that this is why her children have attacked small parties of humans in the past. She promises no attacks on man, if man stops the attacks and the taking of her children.”

     The king had stepped beside Brimstone during all of this. He spoke then as he stared at the queen. “Please tell her that from this day forward it will be against the law of our kingdom to trap her people. Had we known that they were intelligent, the practice would have been banned ages ago.”

     “She says if you were intelligent the practice would never have begun in the first place,” Versha stated. Then she said, “She is leaving now.”

     And leave she did. First three ants darted through the portal and then the queen went through at a slower pace. Soon a steady stream of the ants was marching into the portal. There was a collective sigh of relief as the likelihood of another battle ended with the departing queen.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 52.

 

     On the neutral isle where the gods had been meeting since the arrival of the Harbinger the four gods met yet again. Damia was all smiles as she said, “Humanity has passed the second test of the Harbinger. They have defended the population of Shafferland against the ants and when it became possible to do so, they were merciful and freed the queen to stop the fighting. This required both good and evil working together to accomplish the goal. I would say that they did well.”

     “Would you say that, Damia, Goddess of Neutrality?” asked a deep pitched voice behind Damia.

     She turned and faced the Harbinger with a determined tilt to her chin. “Aye, sir, I would say they did well.”

     “I agree Damia, they did indeed do well. But let us not forget that the faction of Neutrality played a very significant role in the passing of that test.”

     Damia stood proudly with a slight cant to her head as she looked at the Harbinger. She replied, “Yes, some of my followers helped.”

     “Rather a significant number of them,” he reminded.

     “This is true, but what difference does that make? Your charge to humanity was to maintain the balance. By becoming Neutral, my followers work to preserve the balance as you directed, and have helped to pass the test.”

     “That is true. There is nothing wrong with that at all. Indeed, there would have been nothing wrong with your Gryphon Knights carrying the swords and shields that you crafted for the Order.”

     Damia’s face turned red then and she blurted out, “But you forbade them to carry them!”

     “Did I? No, that is not what I said. I said that you would not interfere in their decision. Since the items are standard issue to the Gryphons and were not created for that specific emergency there would have been no issue. Your advising them would have been an issue.”

     “You wanted them to exercise free choice?” she inquired.

     “That is always what I have said, is it not?”

     Artherk spoke then asking, “And what of the third test?”

     “It has begun already. Many will be involved, but ultimately it will come down to two individuals. There will be a choice to be made. If the correct choice is made then humanity will pass the tests. If the wrong choice is made humanity will fail it.”

     “When will this test conclude?” asked Shinobi.

     The Harbinger paused so long that the gods began to think that he would not answer that question. Finally he said, “I expect it to be over this time tomorrow.”

     “So soon?” asked Ogrimar.

     “Soon? Ogrimar, this final test of humanity began one thousand years ago and has progressed with infinite slowness for every participant.”

     Damia boldly asked the foremost question in her mind when she asked, “Will it come down to a confrontation between the companions and Zadykiel?”

     “That and more,” replied the Harbinger as he began to fade from view. “Do not interfere, Damia, Goddess of Neutrality. I find that I admire your followers and would be loath to punish them for your indiscretion.”

 

 

                                                              Chapter 53.

    

      Brimstone sighed and closed the portal after the last of the ants had gone through it. He felt tired. Unusually tired. The past few days had been a strain on everyone and being exhausted at this point shouldn’t surprise the combatants, but Brimstone was accustomed to the stone of light keeping him refreshed at times like this. For some reason the gem wasn’t doing that now. He made a mental note to speak to the gem later to see if something was wrong. Right now, other pressing matters demanded his attention.

     Turning to the king he asked, “Is everything alright in Goodlund now? I understand there were some issues there with the mayor.”

     An angry expression crossed the king’s face then and he replied, “It seems that the mayor had tentative plans to offer an alliance with this Zadykiel in exchange for the opportunity to rule under him. Once the men under his control found out about this they rebelled when you opened the portal for the army to come through. He had only a few loyal supporters. The rest were just following orders during the confusion. He had lied to the men and claimed that my soldiers with me were traitors to the crown and his own henchmen hooded and gagged me when they took me captive so that the mayor’s men wouldn’t realize that they were seizing their king.”

     “Where is he now? Do you need assistance in dealing with him?”

     “He is in Goodlund,” the Commander of the Shafferland army said. A slow smile spread across his face but that smile never reached his eyes as he continued. “He’s just hanging around by the city gate. His body is a message to all who would seek to ally themselves with Zadykiel against the good people of Shafferland.”

     “And the henchmen?” Brimstone asked.

     “Hanging around with the mayor,” replied the commander with a fierce look in his eyes. “I’ll not tolerate a traitorous soldier in the army.

     They talked and planned for a few minutes then. It was agreed that Brimstone would open portals for a large segment of the army to return to the city of Cape Hope, where they would search the city to ensure that no mobs of ants awaited the citizens there. The rest would fill in the trench at this location and then begin the march to Goodlund, where they would help in maintaining order during the transition as another mayor was selected to oversee the city.

     The torlags would be returning to Sic Dalar, as would the Gryphon Knights. Eric reported that the dead knights from the battle at the bridge were already entombed on Sic Dalar and that his men wanted to pay their respects properly to their fallen warriors. Both the king and the commander of the Shafferland army thanked the torlags and the Gryphon Knights for their assistance during the crisis. Promises were made that should the Gryphons or torlags ever need help, Shafferland would do what it could to assist them in return.

     On a side note, the commander of the Shafferland army told Marc Trumaine and Aspen Longleaf that if either of them ever wanted to move to Shafferland they could have command positions with the army there. He praised them both for their leadership abilities and told Marc that he had one of the most gifted military minds he had ever encountered. Aspen said it best when he replied, “We were lost for years in the wrong cause. Then one day we were given the opportunity by the Gryphon Knights to right many wrongs and return to a nobler path. It isn’t often a man gets a second chance in life. The Gryphon Knights gave us that second chance.” Looking at Eric he continued, “Eric gave us that second chance and so did Damia. I thank you for the offer. But I am a Gryphon now and will be a Gryphon until the day I die. When I die my body will be recovered and entered into a crypt in the Gryphon Hall of Heroes. It is a comfort to me to know these things.”

     Eric Glenfield, the Commander of the Gryphon Knights and first Knight of that Order smiled in contentment at the words of his commander of the archers.

     The king asked Brimstone if he could show him this Hall of Heroes that Aspen had just referenced and Brimstone turned to face the king. Lifting his hands before him palm up he concentrated a moment and a huge scene appeared before the monarch. It was the Hall of Heroes as seen from the outside and several hundred feet away. There was a long line of citizens standing in line and slowly entering the magnificent marble hall.

     The king noticed as every Gryphon Knight present knelt on one knee to honor their dead. That had become a tradition among the knights now. The moment their eyes fell upon the hall they knelt in respect, and then they would stand and go about their business. Young boys in the city often did the same as they sought to emulate the Knights who were heroic figures to them.

     As the Monarch watched the scene unfolding before him, the mausoleum grew closer as if he were actually walking toward it. By now every soul present in the camp was riveted to the scene in fascination. Soon the picture shifted and it depicted the interior of the mausoleum. Here too, a quiet and respectful crowd of mourning citizens walked down the rows of crypts. Beside each crypt set a vase of flowers. Beside each crypt stood a Gryphon Knight at attention, his shield held in front of his body.

     “Ahh, Damia’s spirit is with the knights in the Hall,” Eric commented, then seeing the confusion on the king’s face he explained, “Note the Gryphons on the shields.” The monarch then noted the soft golden glow of the Gryphons and nodded his understanding.

     For a moment more the scene was revealed and then Brimstone said, “May they all Rest in Peace.” Many joined him in that sentiment. Brimstone closed his hands and the scene vanished.

     “It is easy to see why the knights are so loyal to their Order,” The monarch said.

     “Indeed it is. I meant no offence by my offer,” the commander stated.

     “None was taken I assure you,” Aspen said with a lopsided grin. “It’s always good to be appreciated.”

    

                                                                    ***

 

      Half an hour later Brimstone opened several portals. The torlags went back to their homeland and the Gryphon Knights returned to their city, Harvest Moon.

     At the last moment, the commander consulted with the King and it was decided that for now they would leave the trench and span it with a bridge. It was an excellent defensive concept and the next time that it was needed it would be available for their use. They had the capability to build and maintain a bridge here fairly easily since there would be solid ground beneath it and it would only require minimal work to keep the trench free of debris which might cause it to become less effective in battle. Indeed when the army had the time they could even dig the trench deeper making it an even more formidable defensive position. Later a simple drawbridge was set up and maintained there. Of course, this required the presence of soldiers on a permanent basis, so a small, permanent camp was also established.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 54.

    

     Zadykiel entered the glen on foot. He had to walk as his dragon refused to fly over it despite his control over the lich. The reanimated dragon cited his standing orders not to do anything he told it to do that could cause him harm. “To fly over the glen is death. None do so with impunity unless they are the birds and insects of the land,” the dragon had explained.

     “What is it that you fear?” he had asked.

     Curiously the dragon responded, “Fear? I fear nothing. I am dead and beyond physical danger. The worst thing that can happen is a return to my disturbed rest and that does not cause me fear.”

     “Then what is it that I should fear?” Zadykiel asked in an attempt to pin the dragon down to a straight answer.

     “Brimstone and the companions, the army of the king of Shafferland, the hunger of yon minion…” the dragon began.

     In exasperation Zadykiel snapped, “I mean what is it in the glen that I should fear. I don’t need the entire litany of things in Althea that should cause me to be careful.” All the same, he sent a mental message to his last remaining death mage to kill the aforementioned vampire and take his ring, for he was a threat to Zadykiel.

     The dragon noted the death of the vampire when the death mage killed it by the simple expedient means of grabbing the ring arm and literally pulling the hand from the body and then quickly doing the same thing with the doomed vampire's head, despite his resistance. He answered, “Fear the guardians, for they are amazingly powerful in magic. Their magic is not affected by the presence of the Harbinger. Fear the Tree of Wisdom and the Tree of Balance, for they posses the means to slay you. Fear the Harbinger, for it is possible that he will arrive if you enter the glen. Fear the glen itself, for it is said that in the glen, even the land can harm an intruder.”

      Zadykiel thought the problem over carefully and reached the decision to walk into the glen. He had recognized the glen when they had approached it in flight. He knew from his residual memories of Dalghard that this was a very important place. There was great power here and the master of the glen could well control Althea by harnessing that power. “Very well, let us walk inside the glen, then,” Zadykiel said to the dragon.

     The dragon, whose head had been lowered to confer with Zadykiel, then raised his head until his neck was fully extended. There was a note of happiness in his voice when he replied, “If that is your command.”

     “It is indeed,” the villain replied.

     “Then let us walk before you so that we might in some measure offer you a bit more protection,” the dragon suggested.

     Thinking that this was the best minion he’d ever had, Zadykiel readily agreed, and the two dragons strode forth into the glen. As they walked, they began to speak in unison saying, “Guardians of the glen we greet you. Know that our will is not our own.”

     Ahead of the dragons, near a tree, a small patch of ivy began to swirl and rise from the ground. The dragons halted and stood watching as a beautiful young woman appeared inside the ivy. The ivy contracted around the young woman, forming a living gown that literally rose from the earth to cover the woman. She was beautiful with features that appeared both elven and human. When she spoke, her voice was melodic as she said, “Greetings to thee noble ones. It is sad to see what hast become of thee in recent times. Thou hast mine respect, so I warn ye fair. Leave this glen now before it is too late.”

     Zadykiel’s favored mount replied candidly, “If our will were our own, never would we have entered, for we know well the cost of entering the glen uninvited. Alas, we cannot leave, for our will is not our own, but that of another, respected lady.”

     “Enough of this foolishness,” said Zadykiel striding forward. “I am here seeking the power that resides here. I claim it in the name of chaotic evil.”

     The woman’s smile never wavered when she answered, “It is one thing to make such a claim and another to see that claim bear fruit. All too often such claims have died upon the vine, shriveled like an inferior fruit starved for nourishment. What event within your life has so deprived you as to make you this twisted and shriveled, Zadykiel of Stoneheim?”

     This infuriated Zadykiel. Raising his hands to cast a spell at the woman, he was shocked when the two dragons interposed their bodies between his body and that of the woman. “Hold, Zadykiel,” commanded the lead dragon. “Strike not at a guardian of the glen, for you will unleash powers in this glen that you cannot even comprehend.”

     His temper rising Zadykiel retorted, “I’ve had enough mouth from you this day dragon. Remember that your continued existence depends upon your usefulness to me.”

     “Free me from your service then, you sniveling little man. Far better dead and forgotten than even true life and servitude to you, and what do you offer? Not even true life but a mockery of life.”

     “Fine then. You reject my gift of life to you, then you are free!” Zadykiel snarled in anger. Too late, he realized his error as he saw the dragons both raise their heads and trumpet in joy. Then their bones fell apart and they returned to their long slumber which he had interrupted.

     “An act of kindness. I see that you are not totally devoted to evil.” Waving her hands the druidess worked a magic that removed the bones of the dragons from the glen. “There. I, too, can be kind. I have returned them to their resting places. Your property is on the ground.”

     Looking down at the ground where the dragons had been, Zadykiel saw two globs of gold where the rings should have been. “You destroyed my rings!” he accused fiercely.

     “Nay, it was not I who destroyed your property. The moment you freed your minions the rings were destroyed,” the woman replied, her beatific smile never wavering, her voice irritatingly calm and steady. That she showed not the slightest sign of fear only served to infuriate Zadykiel even more. He was accustomed to the feeling of power he got as he terrorized his captives and he considered the druidess his captive.

     “Take her,” he instructed the lesser vampires. They strode forward and reached to seize her. For her part the druidess did not move to avoid them or offer even the slightest resistance. Nor did she flinch as their ghastly hands reached for her. But the moment the two vampires touched her, a searing fire enveloped them and burned them both to ashes.

     For the first time the smile left the woman’s face as she said, “Leave now and you can still exit the glen in peace. This is your only warning. This is the only opportunity you will be given to choose this wise course of action.”

     Cursing, Zadykiel hurled the spell meteor at the woman, who disappeared before the spell could hit her. The dress of ivy collapsed back to the ground, rearranging itself to its natural appearance.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 55.

 

     The wolf began to howl, startling everyone in the camp as he howled and howled. Fawnn was startled. Something was wrong and she knew it. The wolf had never before behaved in this manner. Getting to her feet she went to the wolf and spoke to him. “Sir Wolf, what so distresses you?” she asked. Then, thinking her question silly because there was no way he could answer, she searched for a means to locate the source of his distress.

     Tersha solved that problem when she came running up beside Nessarose. “He is very upset and wishes to return to the glen,” she explained almost immediately. She continued, “Something is wrong there. A man has entered the glen and attacked the druids there.”

     “Is it Zadykiel?” Brimstone asked?

     “He doesn’t know. He only knows that Ishy is in danger and he must return to his friend,” Tersha said. Then she transmitted the wolf’s sense of urgency to the assembled companions. The sense that they needed to go to the glen immediately almost overwhelmed them, and then it was toned down by Tersha. “That is what he is thinking and wishes to tell you Fawnn.”

     Brimstone opened a portal and the wolf immediately leapt through it. As quick as they were to follow him, the wolf was out of sight when they stepped from the portal on a hilltop overlooking the glen. It was the same hilltop that Fawnn, Ziona, and Tarn had once stood upon and gazed down into the glen for the first time. Several of the companions moved as if to go down into the glen but Brimstone’s voice rang out as he shouted, “Hold all!

     The startled companions turned to see what was wrong and he said, “We can’t go charging off into the glen without knowing what is going on right now.” Gesturing at some of the companions he said, “None of us have all of our gear, but some have none at all. Return to the camp for your gear and then we will all go to see Ishy and do what we can to assist.”

     The companions realized that he was right. In the base camp there had been no need to wear their packs, so they had slipped them off for comfort. Fawnn, Ziona, and Tarn knew from experience how critical having the right gear could be in southern Shafferland with its wicked weather. They returned to their camp and quickly gathered their gear and returned to the portal.

     When they were all present and ready, Brimstone led the way as they stepped once more onto the hilltop near the glen. This time Tarn led the way and immediately the companions began the long walk down into the glen. Brimstone had tried to make a portal actually open in the glen, but it had opened here instead. Something had redirected his portal. He assumed it was the magic that protected the glen. He knew better than to keep attempting to penetrate that shielding magic, so they had to walk the rest of the way into the glen.

    

                                                                    ***

 

     Zadykiel made his way through the glen. Somewhere behind him he heard the howl of a wolf. He stopped with his death mage and listened intently for a moment but the howl was not repeated. After a few moments, the two resumed their advance into the glen.

     As he went deeper into the glen, hidden memories began to surface. They were not his memories for he had never before set foot in the glen. They were the memories of Dalghard. They were residual memories from the time of possession by that god. It was as if Dalghard had held a contingency plan for what he should do if ever he happened to get inside the glen in his avatar's body.

     Zadykiel stopped once more and tried his best to center his mind on those memories. Closing his eyes to concentrate he set aside all of his personal concerns and cleared his mind of all save those residual memories. It helped. He remembered that the druid guardians of the glen were immensely powerful spell casters whose magic was unlike that of the rest of Althea. He remembered their strengths and their weaknesses. He remembered what they guarded in the glen, but most importantly, he remembered how to make his magic work inside the glen.

     Smiling, Zadykiel opened his eyes and headed out once more. This time, as he advanced into the glen, he had a specific purpose in mind. He had to find the Tree of Wisdom and the Tree of Balance, for a tea blended from their leaves would enhance his spell casting ability. His spells would be much more potent. They would also be much more reliable and cast as normally as if the Harbinger were not present on Althea.

     Laughing as he walked, he thought of what he would do when he drank the tea and was then strong enough in his magic to control the glen.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 56.

 

     Ishy stood in the Stonehenge in a secluded area deep within the glen. Around her stood a small group of the druidic guardians who had dedicated their lives to the protection of the glen and the secrets which it contained. In the center of that Stonehenge stood the most powerful thing on all of Althea. It was a small fountain that contained mystical water with unique properties.

     The original druids were the elves who had sought out the Harbinger during the first coming and volunteered their assistance. They had been brought to Shafferland to the glen and told to learn its secrets and then to protect them. After many years of searching the druids still had not found all of the secrets contained within the glen. They had found the Tree of Wisdom and the Tree of Balance but they had not yet found the mystical stream. Then one day, three hundred and twenty years into the establishment of the guardians of the glen, they had found the secret of the stream. They found it quite by accident when one of the druids, thirsty from his labors, had stopped and drank from the stream. As he drank the water he had been thinking that if he only had longer legs, his search could progress much more efficiently. Moments after drinking the water from the stream his body was transformed and he grew two feet in height.

     When the other elven druids of that time had seen him, they had marveled at what had happened. He returned with them to the stream and concentrated on the thought that he wanted to return to his former physical form as he drank a handful of the water. His return to his normal form proved to all of the druids that it was indeed the water that was working these marvelous transformations.

     The druids, being wise, set the Stonehenge around the stream and met in long meetings for days and days, discussing the potentials of this discovery. It was decided that the stream was far too dangerous for the rest of Althea to be made aware of its existence. Such changes to the physical form as making a man taller seem harmless enough, yet they had to consider what else this stream was capable of doing. Subsequent testing of the waters proved the stream was capable of many things that the average man would never consider. One druid, a lady of peace and tranquility, tested the water by thinking of herself as the world’s most formidable warrior. The moment she changed she became just that, but her mental attitudes altered as well. Gone was the peaceful and tranquil druidess. In her place was a deadly warrior woman intent upon proving her strength at arms. She moved to attack her fellow guardians. Working together they managed to subdue her without physically harming her. Then, using their mental abilities, they were able to bring forth the desire in the warrior maiden’s heart to return to her true form. After that incident, in which several of the guardians narrowly escaped death, it was decided that they should stop experimenting with the water.

     They did use it from time to time but only for some well known and proven uses. Only those forms which had been tested many times by many guardians in the past were permitted and the person using it was very carefully examined by the guardians for character flaws that would disqualify them from using the water. Ultra powerful forms such as the most powerful anything were forbidden for obvious reasons.

     Later, when the elves failed the judgment of the Harbinger and the dwarven guardians replaced the elven guardians, they revealed all of the secrets of the glen to their dwarven replacements. The dwarven guardians built the fountain to contain the waters where they emerged from the ground inside the Stonehenge.

     Later, when the dwarven race failed the judgment of the Harbinger, the dwarven guardians of the glen instructed their human replacements, just as the elven race had once taught them the secrets of the glen.

     And so it was that Ishy stood before that fountain in the Stonehenge, waiting to see if Zadykiel made it that far. As she stood there waiting, surrounded by the other guardians, a familiar shape trotted up and eyed her solemnly. “Welcome home old friend,” Ishy said to the wolf.

     The wolf yipped at her in reply and then walked to the fountain as the druids parted to let him pass. Slowly and deliberately, as the druidic guardians concentrated and helped him to reinforce the proper thought patterns he needed, he bent his head to the base of the fountain and drank for a moment and then he stepped away from it.

     A moment later, where the wolf had stood, a male guardian now stood in a black robe with the hood pulled up. After the near disaster with the warrior maiden experiment, it had been decided that one druidic guardian per generation would be permitted to use the stream to enhance their abilities in safeguarding the glen. But that one volunteer would be trained in the strict mental discipline needed to use the power properly. That training took years.

     It was considered a great sacrifice on the part of the guardian to give up their true form for one to enhance the security of the glen, therefore the volunteer was always highly respected by the other guardians. So it was that they all bowed in respect to this man who had spent years in the form of the wolf, guarding the lands near the glen and the approaches to it when they knew that strangers were on the way.

     He bowed in return and said, “The man Zadykiel approaches with his minion. He has already gotten the leaves and brewed the tea. He must have had assistance from Dalghard when that god possessed him, else he could never have gotten the leaves.”

     Nodding her head Ishy said, “He did and he will soon be here. Yet the companions are also nearby. It is time for us to prepare ourselves mentally for that which is to come.” Turning to face the other guardians she said, “For a thousand years our order has been charged with the sacred duty to guard this glen, lest one of absolute good or absolute evil take possession of the secret powers here. Our instructions are very clear. If champions of the chosen race get to the most sacred spot, this fountain, before the one who tests the race arrives then we must yield our position so that the champions can face the one who tests. Zadykiel is the one to test humanity. Champions are near. We may act only if the champions do not arrive before the one to test.”

     Staring at them all she warned, “If we violate our oath then humanity forfeits the judgment and will suffer the Harbinger’s punishment as a result. You are all aware of this so, no matter how you feel about it, we must not involve ourselves if the champions arrive first. Remember, we are also being judged.”

     The guardians all bowed in acceptance of the ruling. All understood. All had been preparing for this day since their early childhood and knew the consequences of interference in the judgment of humanity.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 57.

    

     The companions were having no luck at all when it came to finding Zadykiel. The best they had been able to do was to locate signs of the wolf’s recent passage, and they opted to follow that, in hope that the wolf might be heading for Zadykiel and be able to locate him with his wolf senses, where they could not do so with their own.

     Stepping past a wall of shrubs they rounded a corner and saw a Stonehenge a short distance before them. Inside the Stonehenge stood a group of people whom Brimstone did not know. Stepping forward he addressed them and said, “Greetings. My name is Brimstone and my friends are the companions. We followed our friend the Wolf here. He alerted us that Zadykiel is on his way here.”

     “Greetings Brimstone,” Ishy said with a faint smile. Turning to Fawnn, Ziona, and Tarn she smiled again and greeted them all by name.

     “Greetings Fawnn, Tarn my brother, and Ziona,” the black robed druid said as he stepped forward to greet the three companions. “I thank you for the kindnesses shown while I was in the other form,” he finished with a laconic smile.

     “Other form?” Fawnn asked confused.

     “Another time Fawnn. Now we must leave, for he approaches,” replied the black robed man. Without a word the guardians disappeared before the eyes of the companions.

     Moments later Zadykiel and his death mage strode forward and joined the companions in the inner circle of the Stonehenge. “So we meet again,” he said with a sneer.

     “For the last time, I think,” Brimstone said, and stepped toward Zadykiel. As he did so, the arch mage cast his meteor spell incredibly swiftly at the packed companions. Most were nearly killed in the first three seconds of the attack, for they were unspelled. Brimstone alone suffered minimal harm and even he took some damage in the attack.

     “By the gods he is stronger!” one of the companions stated. “How is it his spells work while ours do not?” asked another in the brief lull in the attack.

     Zadykiel darted around behind the fountain and scooped up a handful of water. He drank it immediately with his mind concentrating on becoming the most powerful fire mage ever to live. Outwardly nothing changed. But his magic intensified to a terribly deadly degree.

     While his master was getting to the fountain the death mage maintained an attack upon the companions who spread out and advanced upon him. The warriors quickly reached the death mage who had seemingly been abandoned by Zadykiel and cut him down. Predictably, Jedi took his hand and the ring which had reanimated him. Zadykiel saw him go down, but he had served his purpose. Now Zadykiel was stronger than any other mage who ever lived, and that included Brimstone.

     Whirling to face his enemies, Zadykiel was about to unleash his firestorm, which was strong enough to slay the entire party in two casts, when he was confronted by Lady Ru. She held a dagger in her hand and stabbed at him with it. Thrusting his arm between the dagger and his face he blocked her attack with his forearm. Her dagger sliced through his robe and into the flesh beneath it. If he had retaliated with a spell at that point, he would have slain them all. But such was the outrage Zadykiel felt at the affront of being cut by a mere woman that he reacted instinctively and slapped her hard across the face instead of casting an attack spell.

     For Ru it was as if time stood still. She thrust her dagger at Zadykiel hoping to distract him for the few precious moments the companions needed to rally and defeat him, and felt some measure of satisfaction when she felt her blade strike his body. And then she saw his hand draw back to slap her. For some reason the thought of what was coming terrified her beyond all reasonable fear of a single blow. And then his hand struck her left cheek wrenching her head around toward her right shoulder as it did so. It was a cruel blow, and one of his rings split her cheek open, causing it to begin to bleed.

     The moment she felt his hand touch her face, Lady Ru felt a terrible sensation of hunger rise within her. That hunger would not be denied. She would avenge herself upon her tormentor. She released that hunger and it reached out to embrace Zadykiel. He screamed in agony and stumbled back away from her, but the damage had been done. The hunger had leached most of the life from Zadykiel and he appeared not unlike the undead whom he had forced to serve his will for months.

     As he staggered back he was shot by multiple arrows from several companion archers, yet he fired his meteor spell at them as he clung to life, severely wounding several. The warriors then closed with him. Lord Malachi forced him to dodge to the right when his sword stroke narrowly missed his face. Brimstone saw that Ru was falling and he darted toward her to pick her up but he was intercepted by Lord Fatman. The paladin grabbed Brimstone’s hand at the last moment and yanked him away from Lady Ru. “Let no one touch her!” the paladin yelled at the top of his lungs, and then assumed a position standing near her, his shield raised to batter away any who came near Lady Ru.

     Drained of most of his life force and wounded multiple times, Zadykiel was too weak to win. He had lost this battle and he knew it. Yet he was determined to win. He slipped the ring upon his finger as he battled for his life with the companions. A smirk crossed his ghastly visage. “You don’t know it, but I have won!” He shouted irrationally. The premature aging having sunk his mind into senility, he failed to realize that Jedi had every intention of recovering that ring which he had just slipped on his finger. By now, even the newest of the companions knew what such a ring meant.

     Zadykiel was struck from several different directions then. An arrow streaked past MetalHead’s sword arm and penetrated Zadykiel’s throat at the same time that several sword thrusts penetrated his upper body.

     As the companions withdrew their swords Zadykiel fell to the ground and died. A moment later his body disappeared before their very eyes.

     Jedi summed it up quite well it for the entire party when he exclaimed, “Damn! He got away again. And this time I swear he was dead!”

 

 

                                                              Chapter 58.

 

     The companions stood gathered around Lady Ru who was trembling and whimpering. When the hunger had surged within her it had shocked her to the core. Lord Fatman had been very wise to interrupt Brimstone before he could touch her, for at that particular moment she might well have lost her mind if someone had touched her.

     The companions looked at one another, at a loss as to how they should proceed. A moment later the need to make that decision was taken out of their hands when the druid guardians reappeared within the Stonehenge.

     Ishy stepped forward and cast a spell. It was a minor spell that calmed the nerves of the recipient and made them tranquil. “She is at peace for the moment but this will not solve the problem.”

     “What exactly has happened to her?” asked the paladin, Lord Fatman, in concern.

     “Lady Ru has developed a unique talent, apparently spontaneously. There have been other cases of such spontaneous talents within the world. These events usually coincide with an arrival of the Harbinger. It is possible that he has something to do with the talent. It is also possible that it is simply random, and that it is a coincidence that the Harbinger has been present when such talents are revealed.”

     “You mean others have had her ability before?” asked Brimstone.

     “No, not that particular ability, but there have been other abilities. One fellow could speak to animals and make them allies. He was elven and that occurred during the second coming. During the third coming, a dwarven lady spontaneously exhibited the ability to make stones grow in size to many times their natural size when she touched them and whispered to them.”

     “Ahh, I see,” said Brimstone. Making a guess he continued, “And these talents assisted in some point during the testing?”

     “Yes. Or so our oral history has taught us,” replied the black robed guardian.

     “Can you help her?” Brimstone asked.

     Looking down at Lady Ru, the druidess Ishy said, “I believe that we can. It is possible that we can set her mind to return her physical body to the same condition it was in prior to the arrival of the Harbinger. That would be prior to her development of this ability.” Glancing around at the companions gathered within the circle of the Stonehenge, she requested that the companions all step outside it and remain as quiet as possible, for what they were about to do required intense concentration.

     Once outside the Stonehenge, the companions saw the druids form a circle around Lady Ru and join hands. Closing their eyes, they seemed lost in concentration for several minutes and then Lady Ru sat up and got to her feet. Walking very carefully, almost as if she were sleepwalking, Lady Ru walked to the fountain. Bending to the basin there she scooped up a single palm full of water and brought it to her lips. She drank the water and stepped away from the fountain.

     A moment passed and then another. Then Lady Ru shook her head as might one who has just realized that they were drifting off to sleep. “Oh my. I think I fell asleep for a moment,” she said.

     “Nah. Zadykiel knocked you silly,” Jedi lied to help cover what had happened to Ru.

     Frowning Lady Ru said, “Oh yeah, now I remember. I think I cut him good.”

     “Oh you got him, believe me. Why, you took years off his life,” Jedi babbled before Lord Malachi stamped on his instep to shut him up. “Ouch! Leave off, you clumsy oaf and walk on your own feet,” he snapped in irritation.

     “You are all welcome to return with me to my home for a meal, if you are hungry,” Ishy stated.

     “I think I’d like that,” Fawnn said. “We still have the mysterious stranger who seems to know us to talk about,” she said with her eyes twinkling, for she was beginning to put the mystery together and thought that she knew who the stranger was, or had been, when they had all first met.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 59.

 

     A final time the gods met on the neutral isle where they had previously met to discuss the return of the Harbinger and the testing and judgment of mankind. Ogrimar spoke first when they had all assembled. He said, “Well, they have passed the third test, but have they passed the judgment of the Harbinger?”

     “I think they passed,” Damia replied. They should have. They did everything with the limits placed on them and still managed to pass the tests.”

     “It doesn’t matter what we think,” Shinobi pointed out. “It’s what the Harbinger says that matters.”

     Artherk withheld his opinion. As Shinobi had just pointed out, it was what the Harbinger thought that ultimately mattered. Their opinions were insignificant to him. They would know soon. He always came to speak to them before departing, and he always passed judgment shortly after the testing concluded.

 

                                                              ***

 

     The dark cloaked figure stood inside the Hall of Heroes in the city of Harvest Moon on the island of Sic Dalar. He watched closely as the groups of citizens passed by him on their way to pay their respects to the recently entombed Gryphon Knights killed in a fight to save innocents, good and evil alike, from the ravages of chaotic evil. They had died fighting for people they didn’t even know, in a land that was strange and unfamiliar to them. Yet, they had died fighting for them all the same.

     As the dark cloaked figure stood there, no one saw him. At the moment, he did not want to be seen, thus no one on Althea could see him. He was contemplating the judgment of humanity. He had stood unseen observing other things of late. He had heard Tarn’s story in a cave during a blizzard and realized that mankind held promise. He had seen Mystyka resist the Darkseed of Ogrimar and what that had cost her. He had visited the torlag’s when they had mourned for the fallen Shalmain. That another species could respect mankind and so honor Shalmain had not been irrelevant to him. He had seen the companions work to rally the Shafferland army and help to save the population of Cape Hope from certain death as the ants marched on their city. When his presence took away the magics of their magic users or rendered it impossibly unstable and undependable, he had observed carefully to see if they would crumble in despair. Instead, they had rallied their forces and combined their strengths to overcome the overwhelming odds against them.

     He had been present at the trench when Brimstone had negotiated a cease of hostilities between the ants and mankind on Shafferland. He was pleased that mankind had the good sense to seek a better end to the problem than the extermination of the race of ants.

     He had remained undetected by even the druidic guardians in the Stonehenge inside the glen when the companions had faced their final test. That was something the three races being judged had shared in common. Each had evolved a member of their race to face the final test of the Harbinger.

     The Gryphon Knights impressed the Harbinger. The Order could be a very stabilizing influence over all of Althea one day if they survived long enough. Their willingness to work with other species to ensure their mutual survival was a remarkable trait. The elves had been lacking in that trait. A proud people, it never occurred to them to enlist the aid of the other races. It had occurred to the dwarves, who had a willingness to work with humanity. The dwarves had almost made it, but had failed in the end when they attacked him.

     The Harbinger sighed and made his decision. No doubt Damia would be extremely vocal about it, but his decision was final and no power in the universe could alter that decision now.

     The dark cloaked figure raised a hand and a flower appeared in his cupped palm. He took the flower and laid it upon the crypt of one of the fallen knights, and then he departed from the Hall of Heroes and went to see the gods waiting on their isle.

     He arrived unseen on the isle of the gods and listened as Damia speculated that humanity had passed the judgment. He heard Shinobi’s opinion on the matter too. A few moments later he spoke to the gods, and as he did so he permitted them to see him. He said, “I have reached my decision in the matter of the judgment of humanity.”

     The Gods stood transfixed and awaited the Harbinger’s judgment, not daring to move a muscle for fear that they might agitate him at this critical time.

     “For now, humanity has passed my judgment. They have maintained the balance as best they can through some trying times.”

     “For now?” Damia asked. “Does this mean they have to go through all of this again one day?”

     “That is possible, yes, Damia,” the Harbinger replied. He went on to say, “As you know, the elves and the dwarves both passed their tests as well. It was only after those tests that their races failed the judgment, for though they had individuals representing their races who could pass the tests, the race as a whole could never have done so. The same may be true for humanity. That remains to be seen. But as of now, humanity has a greater percentage of their race who could pass such a test. As a race they show great promise. Yet I am not quite satisfied. I will revisit humanity in one thousand years to make my final decision regarding the judgment of their race.”

     Damia’s face turned a pinkish red as she struggled to control herself and finally she burst out, “That hardly seems fair. They took on every test and passed, despite the restrictions placed upon them limiting their ability to cope with the tests.”

     Looking the Goddess in the eyes the Harbinger responded, “Should I then praise the man who deigns to feed his children?”

     “No, of course not. They have the responsibility to see to the needs of their children.”

     “As do the companions and the Gryphon Knights. They have reached a point in their development where they understand the balance and, therefore, have a responsibility to help preserve it.”

     “That is not a good comparison,” Damia protested.

     “I know.”

     “Then why use it?” she asked arching a brow.

     “Because that shade of reddish pink becomes you,” the Harbinger said. Then, breaking the tiniest of smiles, he disappeared from Althea, his time there at an end.

     Ogrimar bawled out laughter as Damia stood there red faced. “I’m sorry daughter, but I’ve just never seen anyone do that to you before. It struck me as humorous.”

     Turning to her father she arched a brow and placed her hands on her hips. She opened her mouth to address him and he disappeared. Turning to her mother Damia began to laugh. "Poor Daddy. He never has learned to tell when I am faking a fit.”

     “I heard that,” Ogrimar’s disembodied voice said.

     A gamin grin and a wink at Shinobi was her only response this time.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 60.

 

     Zadykiel awoke and looked around him. He was groggy at first and couldn’t remember what had happened to him. He didn’t know where he was. It was an underground cavern, of that he was certain. There were moans and groans in the background near him.

     Zadykiel heard a hiss coming from behind him. Turning around he saw a sight that caused him to be very afraid. The creature he saw stood seven feet tall with horns that curved back behind his head. He had the upper body of a man but the trunk of that upper body merged into the form of a giant snake from the waist down and was about twenty feet in length. He appeared a grayish green in the light of the many torches that were mounted to the walls of the chamber. As Zadykiel stared incredulously the demon said, “Welcome to my world, little man.”

     Noooooooo!” Zadykiel screamed.

     “Oh but yes, my friend. You see, when the owner of the ring dies, all of his reanimates become my property. Sadly, you left me only one and that was your pitiful self. But I am not totally displeased with you. The blood of Dalghard that I obtained from you helped me defeat several enemies. Therefore I will not end your existence now. You have earned the right to serve me as my slave for an eternity. We have plots to hatch against my enemies. I understand that you have some talent for that.”

     The screaming in the demon's realm did not help Zadykiel sleep that first night, for they were his screams as he scrambled for crumbs at his master’s table as the lesser minions bit and clawed at him. They did, however, cause the demon to grow sleepy early.

 

                                                                    ***

 

                                                       Thus ends Book Six.

 

 

 

Brimstone Book 7.


 

ã  Copyright 2006 - 2007, by Ricky Sides and Kathy Young

 

 

Brimstone

And the Companions of Althea

Book Seven.

 

 

Synopsis

 

     Two companions are accused of robbing four innocent travelers. Another group of people claiming to be companions attack the patrons of several taverns upon three separate isles in one night. Someone is impersonating the true companions in an all out effort to discredit them and make their lives miserable.

     On Sic Dalar in the city of Harvest Moon a massive group of the Gryphon Knights are poisoned in one night. The trail of evidence leads to and implicates Marc Trumaine and Aspen Longleaf, the two commanders who had once served in Dalghard’s army. Factions of the Gryphon Knights who were recruited from the remnants of Dalghard’s army, fearing that the two popular commanders are about to be executed, move in mass to free them. Can the Gryphon Knights maintain their cohesion as an effective fighting force or will they disintegrate into their component factions?

     The goddess Damia and the companions led by Brimstone must investigate these mysteries and they must also face the Bre incursions that are soon to befall every major human city on the islands of Arakas, Raven’s Dust, and Stoneheim. At the height of all this, the three companions Fawnn, Ziona, and Mystyka are spirited away by mysterious strangers who mean to put them on trial for crimes against their people. If convicted of these crimes they will be executed. The companions are informed by Damia that if they attempt a rescue then they will trigger an all out war which will lead to the death of thousands on both sides in the conflict.

     Little by little the companions and the gods of Althea learn what is really transpiring. The Cult of Corrupters has hatched a plot to resurrect Gluriurl. If this comes to pass then the followers of both good and evil will soon be doomed to annihilation at the hands of the vengeful god Gluriurl.

 

 

Prologue.

    

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

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

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

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

     The Goddess Damia took matters in hand as she assisted her husband in an all out effort to gain an understanding of what they were going to be up against in the coming war of the gods. Deeply disturbed by what he learned when Damia took him back in time to observe the first war with Dalghard, Brimstone committed himself to finding a means to stop the demented god before he could annihilate all of the gods and their followers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     On the island of Ethia, Pig Killa uncovered a plot to resurrect Dalghard. All that was needed was a thimble of Brimstone’s blood. Pig Killa was killed by the agents of a priest of Dalghard. The companions traveled to Ethia where they foiled the plot to resurrect the insane god Dalghard.

     The Gargoyles of Sic Dalar were discovered and the companions had to deal with that problem for their queen was the sister of the gargoyle queen which Ziona, Fawnn and Mystyka had slain on Stoneheim and she wanted the three companion women dead. The companions carry the fight to the gargoyles but Brimstone was buried alive deep within the subterranean lair of the gargoyles. The stone of life saved him from certain death but could not remove him from the danger of being buried alive. The companions braved the lair of the gargoyles and rescued Brimstone.

     Tarn and his lieutenant were sold into slavery aboard a ship captained by an inhumanly cruel man after they lost a battle with Zadykiel the archmage. The companions board the Gryphon and pursue the ship while Tarn struggled to survive his captivity. When Tarn was finally freed from his captivity he settled matters with the captain who had so vilely mistreated many a man and made them slaves on the high seas of Althea.

     The arch mage Zadykiel consolidated his power and boldly moved to form an alliance with the last remaining army of Dalghard in western Sic Dalar. As he moved west to seek the commander of this army he had every intention of laying waste to the fifteen villages that he passed along the way. If he succeeded in his plans he would gain an army thousands strong and a fortress that nothing less than a huge army could hope to defeat. The captive children from the villages were to be indoctrinated to serve him in the coming years as fanatical warriors and the women would be forced to breed more and more of those fanatics.

     Three companions stopped the arch mage from the systematic slaughter of thousands of innocent men and the enslavement of the bodies and minds of the women and children.

     The rest of the companions had an equally daunting task. They took on the largest fortress ever to stand on Althea and freed the minotaur slaves despite the fact that there were twelve thousand of Dalghard’s loyal soldiers standing ready and willing to fight anyone who opposed them.

     The Gryphon Knights moved to protect the decent people of Sic Dalar despite the fact that the enemy had them outnumbered five to one and they did this without the magical aid of their deity for Damia had learned that if she used her godly powers during the conflict those powers would then be stripped from her and given to Zadykiel by the rules of the Accords of the Gods.

     Brimstone and the companions met with men of Shafferland, a here-to-fore unknown island. They traveled to the island of Shafferland where they set out to explore the island. As they were traveling from the port city of Cape Hope to the western city of Goodlund a fiery orb streaked across the sky and slammed into the ground near them, injuring several of their party. A strange man in a dark cloak walks from the smoke and stops before them. Lady Ru offends the man and the majority of the companions were transformed into trees on the spot for Lady Ru had offended the Harbinger who had returned to Althea to judge humanity.

     The Harbinger spares six of their number from this punishment and splits them into two parties. Each party has a seemingly impossible quest to accomplish, but if they succeeded, the Harbinger promised he would restore the companions.

     Zadykiel also ventured to Shafferland. Utilizing the residual memories of Dalghard from his time of possession by that insane god he decided to visit an ancient burial site of the dragons where he would attempt to gain the strongest minions ever to come under his influence.

     The companions faced their biggest challenges to date as they struggled to perform the quests set for them by the Harbinger. Little did they realize that much more was at stake than their party of adventurers, for the companions were being tested by the Harbinger. If they passed the tests, then humanity would likely pass the judgment of the Harbinger, but if they faltered then mankind would go the way of the dwarves and the elves before them.

     Complicating all of that was Zadykiel who managed to enlist the involuntary support of a race of giant ants who lived on Shafferland. Soon two hundred thousand of those giants begin to march toward the cities of mankind on Shafferland.

     Working together with the Shafferland army, an army of torlags, and three thousand of Damia’s Gryphon Knights, Brimstone and the companions managed to slay half the ants. They rescued the ant queen and a peace treaty was forged.

     Zadykiel was confronted by the companions within the sacred glen in southern Shafferland. But he had already drank the sacred water which transformed him into the most powerful fire mage ever to walk Althea. However before he could strike the companions down Lady Ru unleashed the hunger on the archmage and as a result of that development the companions, utilizing their teamwork, were able to kill him.

 

 

 

 

 

                                                              Chapter 1.
 
     Sliding through the dew shrouded grass near the edge of the forest the shadowy figure paused in the moonlight and listened attentively for a moment. Glancing back at the grass in his wake he frowned as he saw the clearly visible trail left by his passage through the wet grass. 
     Content that there was nothing near him, he resumed his stealthy approach to the prearranged meeting spot. This time he moved parallel to the forest, staying within the shadow of the trees to his right. In this manner his passage through the wet grass would remain undetected by anyone who might have located his trail in the open ground leading to the forest. There had been no way to avoid leaving that telltale trail. When you move through dew soaked grass you disturb the water accumulated on it and create a darker trail which can easily be detected in the moonlight by the experienced hunter or adventurer. 
     Soon he reached the point where he needed to enter the forest and he paused. As he had approached this spot he had slowed his advance and exercised great stealth. Now he reached out, all his senses attuned to the night. For three minutes he carefully examined the area, seeking the guard whom he knew should be present. He located the guard’s position when the breeze shifted from the north to the northwest. He located the guard with his sense of smell. The breeze brought him the faint yet unmistakable smell of wood smoke. Smiling to himself he realized that the guard must have stood downwind of a campfire recently. 
     Sliding into the woods without a sound to mark his passage he headed obliquely in the direction of the guard. As he progressed the smell of wood smoke became stronger. Moving a bit closer he spotted a dark cloaked figure standing near a tree. He was about to give the recognition signal to the guard when he heard a faint creaking sound. It was the sound a bow makes when being drawn to full draw and it was coming from behind him. 
     Smiling, he immediately gave the recognition signal and relaxed as he heard the sound of the tension on the bow being slowly relaxed. A shadowy figure stepped into view and quietly greeted him. He congratulated the guard on a job well done and told him to maintain his vigilance, then asked if the others had arrived. 
     The guard informed him that they had indeed and they were awaiting him at the appointed location. As the guard replied, the shadowy figure took a moment to examine the decoy that had momentarily fooled him. The guard had placed his smoke scented cloak upon a small sapling. It would never fool anyone who closely examined it for more than mere moments, but he had just proven that mere moments were all he needed to prepare to slay any intruder. 
     Ten minutes later the shadowy figure stood within the small clearing facing the group of men and women who had assembled there. They were all leaders of the cult cells within their home areas. Speaking quietly and calmly he informed them that the time to attempt to resurrect Gluriurl was almost at hand. He then enunciated the problems that he saw developing. Problems which were, or would be, a real and serious threat to the success of their mission. 
     Seeing the doubt in some of the faces of his leaders, he continued to address them and laid out meticulous plans for dealing with these problems. By the time the meeting ended an hour later, every leader had been reassured that they could indeed defeat the companions and their allies if they but maintained their veil of secrecy, and followed the directions of the leader of the Cult of Corrupters. 
     For the sake of their goal to resurrect Gluriurl, the group known as the companions must be destroyed. As their leader had assured them, there was more than one way to destroy any group. Direct attacks by the cult upon the companions would be costly in terms of the lives of the cult members. Therefore they would use other means at their disposal to accomplish their goals.

 

 

                                                              Chapter 2.
 
     The next day Koko and Ber Realmers walked with soft footsteps along the trail leading to the Skraug caves. Ber’s eyes constantly roamed the land searching for any source of danger to their small party. In his hand he carried a bow of great power made from the famed lancewood. 
     Beside them walked Chaotika and Noughtinhill whom they had encountered along the way. They had decided to walk the rest of the way together to see the Skraug vender of potions and manastones. As they stepped through the cave entrance, they were beset by many men wearing black masks who quickly pressed sharp blades to their throats and demanded all of their gold. Resistance at that point was out of the question and the four adventurers soon found themselves bereft of their gold. 
     As the masked thieves were backing out of the cave, one of them said, “It was just as easy as you said it would be, Malachi.”

     “Jedi you fool, shut up!” retorted the apparent leader of the party as the thieves fled the cave, the four angry adventurers in hot pursuit. 
     Ber Realmers stopped briefly and fired an arrow at one of the fleeing men, striking him in the leg. The man fell, but he was grabbed by two of his cohorts who tossed him through a portal one of the men had opened. A moment later the thieves were all gone. Ber Realmers, followed by the others, raced toward the portal. They knew they had seconds only before it disappeared. Just as Ber was about to lunge through the portal it disappeared, leaving a very frustrated and angry archer in its wake. 
     Koko said, “Well, at least we know who two of the men were. They called each other by the names Malachi and Jedi.” 

     Frowning in consternation Noughtinhill replied, “Those two are warriors of the companions. They are almost always to be found on some dangerous mission with Brimstone. They are also said to be quite wealthy in their own rights. Why would either of them turn to thievery?” 

     “Perhaps that is where they acquired their riches,” Chaotika, still angry over the loss of her gold retorted. 
     The small group of adventurers returned to Stonecrest at that point and went to see the Sheriff there. They reported the robbery and the two names that they had heard mentioned. “Is that so?” asked the Sheriff, who immediately checked a sheet of parchment and noted that the two men were staying at the tavern in the city, having just arrived, supposedly, from an adventure on a new island that the companions had discovered.
 

 

                                                              Chapter 3. 
 
     The Sheriff led the way to the tavern where he intended to question the two men about the robbery. When he arrived, he heard from the tavern keeper that they were both supposedly asleep in their rooms. “There, you see, it cannot have been them,” the Sheriff stated with assurance to the four victims of the robbery. 
     Noughtinhill questioned the tavern owner asking, “Have you been here the entire time, and is there another way out that they could have used that wouldn’t have been observed?” 

     “I have been here the whole time except for two trips to get some supplies out of the back room. Yes, there is a back door that leads out of the tavern. While I was in the back room they could have left through that door,” replied the bartender. 
     Looking at the Sheriff pointedly, Ber Realmers said, “Under the circumstances, maybe we should check their rooms.” 

     The Sheriff nodded his head and said, “Alright let’s go see about this.” Leading the way, he mounted the stairs and made his way to the hall. Just outside the room where Jedi was staying they stopped in surprise. There, lying on the floor was a strip of black cloth. The Sheriff bent to retrieve it and examined it closely. “It’s still damp in the center as if from the breath of a man.”

     “That’s one of the masks we saw alright,” Chaotika whispered. 
     A moment later the door to the room was snatched open from the inside and Jedi stood there, sword in hand. “What is going on out here?” he demanded. 
     The startled Sheriff said, “Put down the sword, Jedi. You are coming with me. You are accused of robbing these people and I have to investigate the matter.” 

     “Huh!?!” he replied in confusion. Then he grew angry and said, “I’m not going anywhere but back to bed. I didn’t rob anyone. I’ve been here asleep in my room the past few hours.” 

     The door to the next room wrenched open then and out strode Lord Malachi. Taking in the scene at a glance he said, “Jedi put the sword away.” 

     “They are saying that we robbed them, Malachi!” Jedi said as he sheathed his sword sheepishly. 
     “That’s ridiculous!” Lord Malachi said indignantly. He was more than a little offended by the suggestion that they would rob anyone. 
     Holding up the strip of black cloth the Sheriff asked, “Can you explain this?” 

     “A scrap of cloth? No, I’ve never seen it,” Lord Malachi replied. 
     “The men who committed the robbery wore black masks to conceal their faces. This mask was found outside Jedi’s door.” 

     A look of concern passed fleetingly across Lord Malachi’s face, but he rallied to his friend’s defense and replied, “Jedi wouldn’t rob anyone. He doesn’t need to. He has plenty of gold.” 

     “I’ll have to search your rooms, at the very least,” replied the Sheriff, with a stern expression on his face. 
     Smiling pleasantly Lord Malachi replied, “By all means, Sheriff. Feel free to do so.” He stepped aside and gestured for the Sheriff to enter his room. A quick inspection of the room found no trace of any gold other than that which was already upon Lord Malachi’s person. 
     Looking at that gold quizzically the Sheriff asked, “Been to the bank of late?”

     “Yesterday. I made a withdrawal and have the records to prove it. The gold here is what remained from that withdrawal after I paid my bill here at the tavern.” 

     Noting the open window the Sheriff walked over to it and peered out. His body tensed as his gaze turned downward toward the ground directly below the window. Turning to Lord Malachi he said, “I’m afraid that you and your friend will have to come with me.”

     Looking at Ber Realmers the Sheriff motioned him over and pointed outside the window and straight down. “Please go get those pouches.” 

     Ber looked outside the window and quickly turned to Lord Malachi in excitement. “Tossed them outside the window did ya? Well, the good Sheriff was too clever for you, now wasn’t he?” he stated. 
     “The pouches, sir,” the Sheriff reiterated. 
     “Yes, of course,” Ber responded, and left on the run. 
     “Malachi, what is going on?” Jedi quietly asked his friend. Lord Malachi was surprised to see a hurt look on Jedi’s face and he realized that Jedi was beginning to question in his own mind whether or not his friend was innocent. 
     “Apparently someone went to great lengths to make it appear that we robbed these people,” Lord Malachi said with a quiet dignity. 
     “We didn’t do it!” Jedi stated with confidence, ashamed that, ever so briefly, he had doubted his friend. 
     A moment later Ber returned with the four pouches in hand. Noughtinhill pointed to his and said, “That’s my pouch. I’ve had it for years.” 

     One by one the others took possession of their pouches and examined the contents. Finally satisfied that all of their gold was inside the pouches, they turned to the Sheriff expectantly. 
     “Did you see any tracks on the ground near the pouches, Ber?” asked the Sheriff. 
     “No, not a sign of any tracks, Sheriff,” he replied. 
     “The pouches were heavy. Dropped from such a height they must surely have made an impression in the ground where they fell,” the Sheriff declared. 
    “Aye, they did at that,” Ber Realmers confirmed. 
     Lord Malachi sent a message to Brimstone then, explaining quickly what had transpired. A moment later Brimstone arrived and asked the Sheriff what was going on. 
     The Sheriff began to explain the situation but was interrupted by Koko who said, “Malachi and Jedi are innocent.” in a calm tone of voice. 
     “What!?!” exclaimed Ber Realmers. “Koko, you have seen the evidence against them, and you heard them in the cave, just as we all did!”

     “Nay, my friend, I heard someone use their names, but the voices were different.” 

     “They were muffled by the cloth!” Ber insisted adamantly. The evidence was clear to him and he couldn’t understand Koko’s reluctance to accept it. 
     “Jedi, put on the mask,” the Sheriff said as he tossed the cloth to the companion.

     Jedi was reluctant and looked to Brimstone to see what he thought of it. “It would be best to do it friend. I know that you are innocent, but not all here know that.” 

     Frowning in consternation, Jedi wrapped the mask around his face, but it wouldn’t reach in the back to tie. “Well, look at that!” Noughtinhill exclaimed. “Apparently the man who wore that had a smaller head than Jedi.” 

     “It could have been cut since it was last worn,” Ber stated, but he, too, looked doubtful for the first time. 
     “Jedi, this is what the man called Jedi said. Please note the inflection and repeat it after me,” Koko said, and then she mimicked the line the thief had used in the cave.

     “It was just as easy as you said it would be, Malachi.” As she said this, she closed her eyes and prepared to listen to Jedi. Jedi faithfully repeated the line, striving for the same inflection and tone of excitement that Koko had mimicked. She opened her eyes and said, “That is not the same voice I heard in the cave.” 

     Turning to Malachi she asked, “Sir, would you mind?” 

     Feeling much better with this turn of events, Lord Malachi reached for the mask. It did reach around his head with enough left to tie, but just barely. 
     Koko closed her eyes and voiced the line that the leader of the thieves had used, “Jedi you fool, shut up!” she said, then continued, “If you please sir, mind the inflection.” 

     Dutifully, Lord Malachi repeated the phrase, matching her inflection and the cadence of the line. Koko had listened once more, eyes closed to aid her concentration on the voice. When Lord Malachi had finished, she opened her eyes and said, “That is not the voice I heard in the cave.” 

     By now the other three victims agreed that it had not been the two companions in the cave whom they had heard. Ber looked at both men sheepishly and apologized. “I’m sorry that I thought it was you. The evidence and the names used in the cave fooled me.” 

     “No apology is necessary, Ber. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to make us look guilty,” Lord Malachi said as he looked at Brimstone in confusion. 
     “How did the gold get below the window and leave a depression in the ground as if it were dropped from this room?” the Sheriff asked. He was still not completely satisfied. 
     “Perhaps the roof?” Brimstone suggested. 
     “I’ll get a ladder then, and see if there is sign of anyone having been on the roof,” the Sheriff stated. 
     Brimstone teleported the Sheriff to the roof and leaned out the window. He heard the Sheriff exclaiming from the rooftop, “Next time give me a warning first, Brimstone!” 

     “Sorry, Sheriff!” Brimstone shouted back and turned to those inside the room with a warm smile. Jedi snickered at the humor of the situation and Malachi flashed a quick grin at him. 
     A moment later the Sheriff shouted, “Bring me back, Brimstone.” When he appeared a moment later, he held a broken tile in his hand. “It was near the edge, directly above this window.” Examining the tile, they could see that the clay tile had broken under the pressure of a heavy weight upon it. 
     “That settles it as far as I’m concerned,” the Sheriff said to the people in the room. Someone went to great lengths to make it appear that you two robbed these people. I cannot say why they would do such a thing, yet obviously they did.” 

     “Apparently someone wanted to ruin our reputations and get us thrown in jail,” Jedi stated in anger. 
     “What bothers me is that there were so many involved,” Brimstone stated. Turning to the victims of the robbery he added, “You say there were seven or eight men who robbed you. That is a lot of people going to a great deal of trouble to discredit my two friends. It makes me wonder why they would do such a thing.”
 

 

                                                              Chapter 4.  


     In Lighthaven tavern the patrons were just settling down for a night of food and ale when the door to the tavern was thrust open. A dozen men and women walked in and demanded a table near the door. The table was already taken by other patrons and the serving girl said that there was nothing she could do about it. 
     “Don’t you know who we are?” demanded a woman in marvelous armor. “We are the companions. I am Skan, this is Hrist, and there is Mystyka, Ziona, and Fawnn. The men with us are John, Tarn, Veksar, MetalHead, Dracconis, Anpu Sandstorm, and Elrik." Arrogantly she continued, "We claim this table as our due! The people of Lighthaven owe us at least that gesture of respect for all we have done for Arakas.”  

     The distressed serving girl looked at the people before her. They all wore armor or robes. Curiously, all wore helms that obscured their faces. “I am sorry Skan, but these men were here first. Please, there is another table which will accommodate your party there by the…” 
     The serving girl never got to finish her sentence. Skan’s gauntleted fist slashed out, striking her in the left temple. She toppled to the floor unconscious. Several men in the tavern leapt to their feet in outrage. The serving girl was a sweet lass and quite popular with the regulars in the tavern. A fight broke out immediately, but the companions quickly got the best of the patrons who were dressed in their everyday clothing and not wearing armor. They savagely beat many of the patrons senseless. When the fight was over, Skan spoke once more, a sneer in her voice as she said, “The next time we come to this city treat us with the respect we deserve. We are the companions! You owe us that respect. Remember that in the future.”  

     That said, the group of companions filed out of the tavern and disappeared into the night.
 
                                                                    ***
 
     The same scene was repeated in Windhowl and Silversky taverns that same night. The spokesperson always claimed to be Skan, and she always struck the serving girl, initiating the tavern fights. 
     The next day, word spread like mad on the islands of Arakas and Raven’s Dust that the companions seemed to be changing and no longer seemed to be the guardians of Justice they had once been. Instead, they seemed to have become arrogant and cruel. 
     It all came to a head when Mystyka and Tarn entered the city of Lighthaven. They had gone there with the intentions of bestowing a few gifts upon those less fortunate than themselves. They were surprised at the open hostility directed at them, and Tarn bristled when insults began to be hurled their way. Moments later someone threw a stone at Mystyka’s face. Tarn intercepted that stone with his shield and a fight ensued as several men attempted to pummel Tarn and Mystyka.

     Moments later Skan arrived in answer to Mystyka’s general call for assistance to any of the companions who might be nearby. Naturally Skan wadded through the crowd and joined her friends as they struggled to break free of the growing crowd.

     A moment later Ziona, John, and Nessarose appeared, accompanied by Tersha. Suddenly Brimstone appeared beside the companions. He took one look at the riot ensuing and raised his hands to the sky. “Hold!” he shouted, his voice greatly amplified.

     Stunned by the shear volume of the command, all fighting abruptly ceased. Brimstone glared at the crowd and demanded, “Why are you attacking my friends?” 

     “Seems fair enough to me, considering what they did in town last night!” replied a voice from the back of the crowd.&nb